I have a new article up on FastCo.Exist provocatively titled “Future thinking isn’t about the future, it’s about the present”. Of course, it’s about both but editors do like to grab attention with extreme-sounding headlines.
For millennia, we’ve grappled with “things” pretty well but systems are really different. Systems are complex interactions of interdependent parts that give rise to emergent and often-unexpected (“non-deterministic”) behaviors. If you’ve ever kept an aquarium, you have a sense for the delicate equilibrium necessary to a healthy aquatic system. Add a new fish or trim too much of the macroalgae and you can suddenly veer into an ecosystem crash. Small changes can have large results, so you have to be very deliberate in how you manage the tank.
Many mature software companies are now in the awkward position of trying to migrate their heavyweight legacy solutions from the desktop into the uncertain domain of the cloud. Fortune 500’s are slow to adapt, preferring to leverage their cash-cow back catalog for as long as possible while gently testing the waters with lightweight solutions more aligned with marketing than their core execution layer. The results often paint the erstwhile-giants as out-of-touch and late to the game, delivering simple offerings that fail to successfully integrate with the evolving needs of their user base. The solution is not an easy one, requiring much greater commitment and risk than most CFO’s can stomach. But the cloud is not going away and the alternative to full adoption is to be resigned to a narrowing niche.
I recently gave a talk at ARE2012 about emerging interactions in the networked city. It’s a broad overview of ubicomp and how it is modulating our experience of ourselves, each other, and our environment. I’ll be writing a follow-up article with more info.
I’ve started a new job in an engineering group at a Fortune 500 company that’s delving into personal cloud deployment with multi-point device access. It’s pretty interesting tech moving into the same space as the Apple home media ecosystem but with a different angle on ownership. The idea is that you control your content & file management rather than trusting a 3rd party to hold it on some remote server. The implementation is pretty nice and the experience is good for such a young product line. While I don’t really have the job description I want, the organization is pretty loose and I’m following the “great employee guideline” of not being defined by my role. Of note, the commute adds 2 hours on top of an 8-hour day so it’s been a bit tricky to get used to the new schedule and the attendant physical overhead.
I’m also collaborating with the Hybrid Reality Institute run by Parag & Ayesha Khanna to contribute research and help grow client opportunities. This is a part-time volunteer gig at the moment but may dovetail with my consulting work at some point in the future. I’ve admired Parag’s efforts since reading his book, The Second World, and have been excitedly following his & Ayesha’s work growing HRI. I recently had the chance to chat with Parag for the first time and was very impressed with his friendliness and the incredibly dynamic life he & Ayesha lead. For my part, I’ll be looking at the broad & somewhat over-trod area of smart cities and urban development. It’s a cool challenge for me to map & articulate such complex systems; to integrate my interests in mobility, social structures, embedded systems, augmented reality, and CAD/BIM architecture; and to tease out hopefully novel approaches to understanding urban dynamics and bending development towards greater efficiency, equity, and sustainability.
On the side, I’ve got a new song I’ve just sent out for final mix & mastering. It’s a chunky hip hop beat with a big dubby flavor and some nice melodic elements. The whole track is built around this old recording of a “rasta elder” speaking on a radio station in, like, 1978. I’ve chopped it up and pulled out a couple of the most compelling bits. I love dub & reggae and have a fondness for rastafari culture in general so this song is really a realization of marinating in this stuff for some time. Particularly in the last 2 years I’ve been deep in the Dub Chamber trying to reverse engineer the dub reggae sound from a large archive of music produced by Studio One, Lee Perry, Trojan Records, King Tubby etc…. In the past few months it got mashed into my hip hop efforts with the result being this song, Man Crab. I’ll hopefully be publishing and promoting this track within the next month. More info as it proceeds but I’m working with a great engineer and can’t wait to hear the final result!
Finally, I’m talking with a German film maker who recently returned from Caracas, Venezuela. He approached me last year after finding my Sathorn Unique project and asked if I’d be interested in doing some soundtrack work for his documentary about La Torre de David, a 45-story abandoned skyscraper now home to literally thousands of squatters. He returned with a bunch of media to compile the documentary. I’ll be plundering the audio files for stuff to work into & inform the music. So, I may be carving out a very rarified niche as a producer who writes soundtracks for weird abandoned skyscrapers. :)
Anyway, I’ve got a lot of other stuff kicking around in the ol’ mind tank that will hopefully congeal into some coherent articles in the near future. In the mean time, thanks for reading!
A great talk on the shifting world by a distinguished and engaging speaker, Paddy Ashdown.
“I believe we are condemned, if you like, to live at just one of those moments in history when the gimbals upon which the established orders of power is beginning to change and the new look of the world, the new powers that exist in the world, are beginning to take form. These are nearly always highly turbulent times.”
[This paper was originally published for a government report on discontinuity & change management.]
We live in a time of large-scale, non-linear change driven by the twin engines of globalization and hyper-connectivity. Change is, of course, constant but we now have such extreme visibility into the farthest corners of the world that the amplitude of change appears much greater than ever before. Many of us are, for the first time, globally connected and wired to real-time data streams that carry information and emotion across the world instantaneously. When we look through this lens of hypermedia we are confronted by fast-moving, asymmetric complexity that seems to be slipping out of control. The landscape is moving more quickly than we are able to respond. This is deeply challenging to our sense of security.
As Americans, we face a highly multipolar world. We feel the decline of U.S. exceptionalism and the attendant existential crisis of this realization; the ongoing global financial malaise and the emerging debt crisis threatening to break apart the European Union; the rise of China as a dominant world power and the implicit criticism of democracy that comes from its economic success; and the evolution of Islam as an explicit criticism of western prosperity. We are realizing the massive power of finance & energy cartels while struggling with ultraviolent drug cartels. We feel the impacts of domestic unemployment amidst weekly reports of record corporate profits. Capital is moving away from mature western markets for the young labor pools of the developing world. Fund managers are betting more on decline than investing in growth. There is a growing sense that western governance is failing in its charter to effectively manage the prosperity & security of its citizenry, and that selfishness, partisanship, and corruption have undermined the political process.
In the United States there is arguably a crisis of confidence in governance. We face extreme partisanship among policy makers and their apparent inability to effectively govern on domestic issues. Congress has a 20% approval rating. 73% of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. On domestic issues, the popular narrative of U.S. governance is one of bickering, incompetence, and failure.
So if there is a crisis of confidence, is there an actual crisis in governance? Recently the debt Supercommittee failed to agree on a solution for the deficit. This past July, the largely-manufactured budgetary impasse shook confidence in U.S. governance contributing directly to the S&P downgrade of our hallowed AAA credit rating. To quote the S&P report, the downgrade “reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges”. Even closer to home, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently reviewed U.S. infrastructure with a grade of “D” stating that it would take $2.2 trillion over the next 5 years to bring our roads, bridges, railways, water and energy systems, and waste treatment capacity up to 1st world standards. These are the fundamental needs required to keep a country functional & efficient.
Looking at recent statistics, the U.S. Commerce Department charts wages & salaries at only 44% of GDP – the lowest since 1929. Corporate profits, on the other hand, now contribute 10% of GDP – the highest on record since that auspicious year, 1929. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates unemployment at 9% though real measures of unemployment that include the under-employed and those who have given up looking for work are estimated closer to 16%. Among young adults age 16-24, 50% are without work – the highest number on record since 1948. The majority of unemployed no longer receive state benefits. Tens of thousands of service members are returning to joblessness & homelessness. The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 46 million people are living in poverty – 15% of the nation. This number has been increasing annually for the past 3 years. These trends are undermining the legitimacy of the US government both at home and abroad, and contributing to the social unrest sensationally illustrated by the rise of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.
Typically, when we observe these statistical trends in other countries we see a growing segment of the populace more exposed to gang indoctrination, co-option by religious fundamentalism, and coercion by home-brewed militias. This unfortunate reality is not lost on policy makers, as telegraphed most recently by Congressional attempts to reconfigure the legislative landscape of the Homeland as a domestic battleground.
While national statistics are indeed worrisome, the situation at the local & regional level is more varied and offers some hope. There is a shift towards state’s rights as illustrated by the more libertarian aspects of the Tea Party and the GOP narrative against so-called big government, but also in many state legislatures on both sides of the aisle. While often ideologically driven, this shift towards state governance is a response to the limitations of central management across such a large and complex territory as the United States. Perhaps more interestingly, we see a shift to municipal power as urban populations swell and major cities take ownership of their roles as economic engines. Mayors are gathering more influence over state and federal policy, and are making more lucrative partnerships with global allies.
Yet, there are huge budgetary challenges for both states and municipalities, with states often pushing their own budgetary problems down to the county & city level. There is even talk of an emerging municipal debt bubble as cities issue more bond debt to cover their existing debt costs. The U.S. just witnessed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history when Jefferson County, Alabama, failed to cover its sewage bonds. This is the downward cycle of U.S. infrastructure & budgetary mis-management laid bare.
The picture of local and regional governance is a patchwork of attempts (successes and failures) to address the many challenges confronting us locally and handed down from state and federal institutions. As higher-order governors lose legitimacy, states & regions will work to sidestep their authority and to innovate around budgetary shortfalls and non-local obstacles. Progressive states agitate for marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage, conservative states assail big government and immigration, southwestern border states are dealing with the spill-over from Mexico’s narcowar, and many regions across the country are absorbing diverse and extreme climate impacts potentially driving food production, water supplies, and population movements. So while large, productive cities are generally seeing more cohesion there is a significant risk of increased balkanization across regions and states.
U.S. governance is clearly challenged on many domestic fronts. In operational terms, we’re falling short. Governing institutions are too big and too slow to respond to such accelerated change. If we’re failing to manage the present, how can we prepare for the future? There is too much complexity to effectively predict change and yet there’s too much institutional friction to adequately invest in broad resilience. This combination poses tremendous risks to domestic security. The snapshot of social unrest in America arises from two primary drivers: the fear of U.S. decline and the sense that Democracy is no longer working (represented by the Tea Party and OWS movements, respectively). Both are rooted in a lack of jobs, diminishing access to prosperity, and growing insecurity in the face of poorly managed discontinuities. When government fails to meet it’s charter, it loses legitimacy. When conventional channels for change are closed, the gap widens between governors and the governed.
For better and for worse, a lot of innovation happens in the gaps. There is innovation in governance itself, as in the Gov 2.0 & OpenGov initiatives to standardize operational data across organizations, to publicize the data, and to invite the public to work with the data and develop 3rp party applications. Deputizing the crowd to help with governance can offer tremendous opportunities for innovation, as exemplified by tools such as Oakland Crimespotting and the Everyblock platform. The citizenry is becoming more digital and addressable with direct polling, crowdsourcing, and experiments in electronic voting. Transparency initiatives, such as the Sunlight Foundation, build web platforms to track and reveal the influence of money in politics. The growth in mobile/social/location platforms empowers tremendous opportunities in civic innovation, as does the emergence of embedded instrumentation in the built environment. Tech collectives and hacker spaces, experiments in local and digital currencies, slow food and Buy Local movements, increased community volunteerism and more public-private partnerships – all of these examples build local resilience and enable communities to take care of themselves.
Many of these efforts follow open source models that enable fast innovation and iteration across diverse non-local nodes, avoiding hierarchies and direct leadership in favor of feedback loops and emergent self-governance. These models gained popularity with the open source software movement but have since expanded to include innovation in open hardware and fabrication, science and robotics, economics (there is an estimated $10 trillion informal economy growing in the gaps globally), and political movements. Open source templates have enabled new models of power such as Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous, many aspects of the Iraqi insurgency, and the dangerous ecosystem of adaptation and innovation found in the IED marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan. The ability to maintain such open source models of organization has been radically empowered by mobile telephony, SMS, and social media. The ability to globally broadcast, communicate and collaborate has enabled a new breed of citizen reporting pushed out through platforms like You Tube and Twitter. Rapid SMS communication across mobile devices enables fast stigmergic coordination that can mobilize people en masses with a moment’s notice. The Green Revolution in Tehran, the Arab Spring, and the periodic support calls sent out by OWS groups are all examples of how borderless, frictionless hyper-connectivity empowers a patchwork of active tribes, locally and virtually.
Gaps in governance empower innovators and competitors alike. Actors exploit the gaps and seek to influence or undermine governance in order to open more gaps. Super-empowered individuals like Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt work to influence conventional channels of policy-making while restructuring the regulatory landscape to better enable their businesses. Activist billionaires like Warren Buffet, George Soros, and Sir Richard Branson use their weight and influence to change world affairs, as do libertarians like Peter Thiel and anarcho-capitalists like the Koch brothers. Some super-empowered actors are feral and may not appear to be powerful yet manage to inflict exceptional discontinuities on their targets. Arms dealer, Victor Bout, has been a significant driver of unrest in Africa. The head of the Sinaloan cartel, Joaquin Guzman, has helped deconstruct Mexican governance into a lawless war zone. Henry Okah, the leader of MEND in Nigeria, used a small group of lo-tech saboteurs to target critical pipeline infrastructure reducing crude output by 50% and costing western oil interests billions in production revenue. Cartels and criminal networks operate on international scales moving billions of dollars to influence authorities and outwit enforcers. Tech-enabled sociopolitical collectives like Anonymous and Wikileaks deputize themselves as moral enforcers, exposing secret agendas and arbitrating punishment. These actors walk the same stage as multinational corporations and NGO’s that have no built-in allegiance to the United States or, in some cases, to democracy itself. All of these actors exert their will on the world by building influence and exploiting the gaps. All of them are empowered by hyper-connectivity and cheap computation to coordinate, collaborate, and influence at all scales.
This is an age of hypermedia and hyper-politics. There are almost 3 billion internet users, globally. There are over 5 billion mobile subscribers – this is 77% percent of humanity. Last year, in 2010, over 6.9 trillion text messages were sent & received. Humanity has global, instantaneous communication; immediate amplification of emotion, ideology, witnessing, discovery, innovation, and iteration. We are sharing what works and what doesn’t in all domains and endeavors. Everyone is being lifted by this rising technological tide. Small-scale power is amplifying exponentially through ubiquitous computation and mobile communication. Power is re-distributing across the globalized, hyper-connected landscape in such a way that a small, minimally-funded group can generate exponential disruptions. In a mediated world, we see a new war of narratives competing for mindshare across hypermedia, cultivating borderless affinities and ideologies, and offering a global voice to disenfranchised and exploited groups. Top-down governance, unable to extend control so far over such large-scale discontinuities, is yielding space to flattened hierarchies and self-governance. All institutions are being forced to evolve and adapt to this new landscape, as all efforts to suppress it will inevitably fail and only drive more turbulence.
Complexity is an expression of information, and hypermedia is a complexity feedback loop of revealing, sharing, and iterating. Hypermedia, in all it’s varied forms, is injecting unprecedented amounts of information into our awareness. This widening perception of complexity drives behavioral uncertainty as people and institutions feel increasingly overwhelmed and lost in the noise. The world wide web has driven massive discontinuities into almost every business model, organization, and political objective. Mobile telephony coupled to social networks has given voice to the real-time status of the majority of people on the planet. In this maelstrom of asymmetrical disruption, chaos appears to be the new norm though this will likely reveal itself to be the turmoil attending a broad shift towards a new order of stability.
Complex systems across many scales have moved into a late conservation phase and are beginning to release their organizational capacity. Legacy institutions have grown far too optimized and narrow to absorb the turbulence unleashed by globalization, ubicomp, and mobile telephony. Systems have destabilized in order to make the phase change into whatever next basin of stability awaits. Governance is necessarily challenged and states will inevitably give some degree of power & influence as capital flows out of the West; as more empowered actors take the global stage; as non-local relationships shift affiliation and allegiance; as borders are antiquated by the internet and the cell phone; and as over-extended unions fracture and balkanize. Centralized control structures are not adequate to manage such large scales of nested and inter-dependent complex adaptive systems. But fortunately, the same drivers that have introduced so much discontinuity and have challenged governance as we know it are helping construct the new forms of distributed, participatory governance. Hyper-connectivity, hyper-visibility, and hyper-empowerment are driving a global peer review of legacy institutions in a patchwork attempt to define Civilization 2.0. The process is turbulent and the future is cloudy but we’ll likely land on solid ground eventually.
I’ve just returned from a very interesting workshop in Washington, D.C. about fast-moving change, asymmetric threats to security, and finding signals within the wall of noise thrown up by big data. These are tremendous challenges to governance, policy makers, and the intelligence community. I’ll have more to say on these topics in later posts but for now, here’s a round-up of the most popular posts on URBEINGRECORDED in order of popularity:
Occupy Wall Street – New Maps for Shifting Terrain – On OWS, gaps in governance, empowered actors, and opportunities in the shifting sands…
Getting to Know Your Ghost in the Machine – On the convergence of ubiquitous computation (ubicomp), augmented reality, and network identity…
The Transhuman Gap – On the challenges facing the transhuman movement…
The Realities of Coal in the Second Industrial Revolution – On the energy demand and resource availability for the developing world…
Meshnets, Freedom Phones, and the People’s Revolution – On the Arab Spring, hyperconnectivity, and ad hoc wireless networks…
And a few that I really like:
Back-casting from 2043 – On possible futures, design fictions, and discontinuity…
On Human Networks & Living Biosystems – On the natural patterns driving technology & human systems…
Outliers & Complexity – On non-linearity, outliers, and the challenges of using the past to anticipate the future…
Thanks to all my readers for taking the time to think about my various rantings & pre-occupations. As always, your time, your participation, and your sharing is greatly appreciated!
Two risks are especially significant given their high degrees of impact and interconnectedness. Economic disparity and global governance failures both influence the evolution of many other global risks and inhibit our capacity to respond effectively to them.
In this way, the global risk context in 2011 is defined by a 21st century paradox: as the world grows together, it is also growing apart.
It is worth noting how inter-related these two megatrends are as wealth consolidation into an elite class enables them to further deconstruct global governance mechanisms. This has been a feedback loop for at least the past 40 years, if not longer, as western growth fueled the rise of non-state economic bodies & super-empowered individuals who then lobbied against regulatory measures that would aim to keep their rise in check and mitigate the risk of disparity. Elites consolidate more money & power, further driving disparity and eroding governance. What results is an interstitial vacuum where corporate intervention fails to see any profit motive and where state intervention lacks the funds or will to govern effectively.
In effect, the combination of super-empowered non-state actors, failures of state governance, and widespread economic disparity undermines the Rule of Law by releasing elites from accountability and driving the underclass deeper into criminality.
Within these megatrends they cite three important risk factors:
The “macroeconomic imbalances” nexus: A cluster of economic risks including macroeconomic imbalances and currency volatility, fiscal crises and asset price collapse arise from the tension between the increasing wealth and influence of emerging economies and high levels of debt in advanced economies.
The “illegal economy” nexus: This nexus examines a cluster of risks including state fragility, illicit trade, organized crime and corruption. A networked world, governance failures and economic disparity create opportunities for such illegal activities to flourish. In 2009, the value of illicit trade around the globe was estimated at US $1.3 trillion and growing. These risks, while creating huge costs for legitimate economic activities, also weaken states, threatening development opportunities, undermining the rule of law and keeping countries trapped in cycles of poverty and instability.
The “water-food-energy” nexus: A rapidly rising global population and growing prosperity are putting unsustainable pressures on resources. Demand for water, food and energy is expected to rise by 30-50% in the next two decades, while economic disparities incentivize short-term responses in production and consumption that undermine long-term sustainability.
These risk factors are certainly of concern but it’s worth looking at how they represent symptoms of an underlying current. Macroeconomic imbalances & illegal economies are two sides of the same coin, both indicating that the fundamental truths of economics are no longer applicable to the current global system. The territory has shifted but the map has yet to be effectively updated. The legacy code of macroeconomics is far too simplistic to contain the realities of the modern globalized marketplace.
Furthermore, undue faith in free markets has blinded the regulatory eye to the simple fact that markets have been thoroughly gamed by a small class of particularly savvy players. Markets are in no way free and it’s a fine trick of the big players to turn blame towards state regulation rather than admitting their own aggressive influence. The light being shown on Rupert Murdoch’s empire during the News of the World scandal is a prime example of this posturing. Murdoch has used his media empire to champion the free market mythology and to challenge state governance while shrewdly re-drawing the regulatory and tax laws to suit the needs of his own business.
Thus, the rise of the illegal economy is both a necessary alternative to a broken formal economy thoroughly gamed by elites, and a perverse imitation of the seemingly above-the-law attitudes of those very same elites who are in many ways idolized by the downtrodden.
Similarly, but perhaps more fundamentally, the water-food-energy nexus arises as a consequence of the growth models so canonical to historic economics. These models arose before there was a nuanced understanding of finite natural systems. Growth was eternal and all economic success has been measured against metrics of expansion. Extract more oil, mine more resources, build more cities, sell more gizmos, hire more people, expand into new markets. But again, the map was too simple to really reflect the territory. Resources are finite. The planetary system is ultimately closed and you can’t send waste away and import new resources (at least not yet or any time soon).
The common picture that emerges is that our models for how civilization interacts with the physical world, and the governors that have emerged over millenia to keep the global system in relative stability, are out-dated and losing relevancy. The system is moving into a phase change and will shed many legacy governors and force the maps to be re-drawn. This is, arguably, where we stand today amidst the obvious turmoil of our world – a world that is being completely revolutionized by globalization, ubiquitous computing, and asymptotic population growth.
Across this landscape arise five risks to watch:
Cyber-security issues ranging from the growing prevalence of cyber theft to the little-understood possibility of all-out cyber warfare
Demographic challenges adding to fiscal pressures in advanced economies and creating severe risks to social stability in emerging economies
Resource security issues causing extreme volatility and sustained increases over the long run in energy and commodity prices, if supply is no longer able to keep up with demand
Retrenchment from globalization through populist responses to economic disparities, if emerging economies do not take up a leadership role
Weapons of mass destruction, especially the possibility of renewed nuclear proliferation between states
These are the more pragmatic and addressable drivers forming the new governing mechanisms. They will draw towards them the coordinated efforts of many interests. Grappling with these emergent threats will build the structures necessary to contain them effectively. However, the traditional reliance on state governance to overcome these challenges looks increasingly unreliable, and it remains unclear whether corporate solutions will offer trustworthy substitutes. More likely, responsibility will fall on local efforts, distributed collectives, community governance, and investment and championship by benevolent economic elites. This perspective offers another view of the WEF2011 paradox, “as the world grows together, it is also growing apart”.
Of note, the solution space is much greater than in the past. The upside of population growth and the rise of the developing world is that the resource pool for creative innovation in the face of these risks is now larger than ever. Likewise, the tools for knowledge gathering and collaboration are readily available to most of the world and offer incredible power, capacity, and scalabilty. The phase change will continue to be full of turbulence but the sandbox for innovation is huge and the timeframes for iteration are tiny.
From another WEF article published after the Japanes tsunami crisis, titled Lessons for Living in a New World of Risk:
Thus a global network that shares best practices, promotes lessons learned in one part of the world for application in another, and assists its members both to better prepare before an event and better respond after can be of enormous value. By establishing direct channels of communication to government leaders, risk experts from some of the world’s leading companies, academic institutions, NGOs and other parts of society can provide valuable assistance in times of crisis.
Increasingly, we live in a world defined by flat networks. Folks like Clay Shirky, Ben Hammersley, and others have observed in great detail how the design patterns of the internet are challenging and changing the landscape of human civilization. So many of our institutions have been built as hierarchical pyramids designed to exert the maximum degree of control over their domains. These top-down management structures have come to define business, government, the military, medicine, education, the family, and knowledge itself. Leaders rise to the top as centralized governors dictating down the chain how things should be, while workers march in step towards execution of their appointed tasks. Such structures were modeled after the clockworks & steam engines of classical mechanics, designed to be precise, rigid, and durable, capable of lasting hundreds of years. These structures informed the defining metaphors of our entire industrialized society.
Computer architecture recapitulated the mechanical metaphor by designating a central processor that assigned & managed tasks bussed out to sub-processors and specialized functional components. In this way the computer became more of a powerful extension of the industrial age rather than a stake in the ground of a new paradigm. While the mechanical metaphor gradually evolved into the computational metaphor which has defined the last two decades, it wasn’t until computers began to follow the model of telecom and began connecting with each other across flat networks that the seed of a biological metaphor began to take hold.
Nature, it seems, does not create very many rigid, top-down control systems. Those are too stiff and inflexible for the dynamics of life. Rather, nature evolves vast horizontal networks that assemble into specialized functions within their environment. For example, the messiest, most distributed organizational structure known – the human brain – does not have a top-tier manager or CPU. There is no executive function within the brain or its mind, though we typically like to think there is. Instead, the brain is a vast & mostly flat hierarchy that is bundled into loosely vertical functional bodies. These functional bodies are themselves existing across a mostly flat horizontal network of interactions. The thalamus receives all inputs and routes them up to higher cortical processing and lower hindbrain autonomic structures, into the amygdala for emotional content and across the hippocampus for memory, then down throughout the body. The processing chain is massively parallel, interconnected, and marked by complex feedback pathways. Mind arises off of these processes in a very ad hoc manner, always shifting, always flexible, and always derived from a mass summation across the network.
Mycelial networks offer another example. When we see mushrooms scattered across a forest floor we’re not seeing individuals. Each mushroom growing from the soil is a fruiting body rising from the underground web-work of mycelia – the skeletal framework of the colony. Some mycelial colonies have been found to have areas extending over 2000 acres making them some of the largest superorganisms on the planet. The pattern suggests mushrooms as terminal nodes and mycelia as the network backbone.
In ecosystems, large predators constitute a form of top-down management but they themselves are part of the predator-prey relationship – a dynamic that must always seek relative equilibrium with the broader network in which it is embedded. Predators do not have a choice to over-consume prey or stockpile & re-sell it to others. Large ocean gyres also suggest a high degree of top-down control by seasonally establishing the engines of hemispheric weather. The North Pacific gyre becomes more active in the Winter of the northern hemisphere, driving the scale & frequency of storms hitting the pacific northwest of the United States. But the North Pacific gyre is an emergent structure that is itself built upon the properties of a nearly-infinite set of factors. It is not a regulatory structure or a governor by intent or design and there is no top-level group of components that determine its next move. It is a super-system derived from innumerable sub-systems.
Most importantly, all biological systems are guided not by top-down governors or control mechanisms but by feedback from the networks in which they are embedded. This is how nature regulates, preserves, and evolves itself towards greater adaptability. There is no fallible ruler driven to resource over-reach and myopic certainty. There is only the ongoing trial & error of embedded growth tempered by continuous communication between & within organisms.
As computers began to connect across the ARPANET, and with the dawning of the visual internet, the CPU evolved away from being specifically a central control system to become a node within a distributed network. This initial shift quickly challenged the established domains of publishing, content creation, intellectual property, and knowledge management while inviting the crowd into a shared virtual space of increasingly global identity & transaction. The advent of social networks established an organizational structure for connecting the human capital of virtuality, making it easier for like-minded people to connect & share & collaborate non-locally, subtly undermining the very notions of borders, statehood, family, and allegiance. Soon after, the mobile revolution has tipped everything on its side and bundled it into a portable device bringing instantaneous global communication & information access to most people on the planet.
The framework was laid for new forms of emergent, non-hierarchical, distributed collaboration & innovation, to both productive & destructive ends. Groups could now form and coordinate around affiliations, interest, and goals in ways that directly challenged the institutional structures monetizing our production & consumption and regulating our behaviors. It has become vastly easier for small organizations to take on multinational interests, whether in business & innovation or in power & politics. The conflicts we see across the world today are, in large part, a symptom of the younger generations leveraging flat network technologies to rise up against the older generations who long ago settled into their legacy hierarchical power structures. To paraphrase Ben Hammersley, the people who are running the world, who are entrusted with our future, are not able to understand the present. They lack the cognitive tools that are a basic part of the Generation C toolkit – the digital natives who grew up with a mobile in their hands and the internet at their fingertips, embedded in specialized networks that span borders and extend identity into the virtual.
The global disruptions that seem to characterize modernity constitute a civilizational correction driven by natural law. The DotCom bubble went through a correction, shedding excess value and pruning the garden of exuberant innovation to favor only the most fit. It was a good thing, if not painful. We witnessed the correction in the housing bubble and will likely see similar corrections in credit & commodities, as well as a painfully positive correction in energy, subsidized and under-valued for so long. The impacts of climate change are a correction imposed upon the legacy model of industrialization & growth by nature itself – the super-system in which all human endeavor is embedded and to which we are ultimately accountable.
The civilization correction is an emergent regulatory mechanism embedded within natural systems forcing our legacy human systems to progressively modify the unsustainable design patterns of our past. The mechanical metaphor & the computational metaphor are necessarily opening to include the biological metaphor. We can see this in every aspect of technology and it is equally emergent across human behavior & social systems. Nanosystems emulate biosystems. Computation & robotics are integrating with neurology & physiology. Individuals are finding agency & empowerment in leaderless multi-cellular collaborations. The built environment is becoming sensory-aware, communicating with itself through discrete feedback mechanisms. It can be argued that the emergence of the internet and of ubiquitous mobile communication & computation is an expression of our natural instincts to move into closer alignment with our environment; to follow the adaptive design patterns of nature in order to find a more sustainable & equitable posture for our species; a thermodynamic need to seek maximum efficiency in energy expenses. And to express a direct intervention programmed by nature itself to nudge the Anthropocene back towards equilibrium.
Such lofty ponderings aside, our world is undoubtedly approaching an inflection point. Everything appears to be upending and it’s all spread out in glorious detail for everyone to see. The feedback loop between humanity and it’s creations – the biological & cybernetic communication among individuals & groups & cultures & organisms & ecosystems – is tightening and getting more & more dense every day, feeding on itself and forcing exceptional degrees of novelty into becoming. It’s frightening & awesome and the Old Guard can barely see it happening right in front of their eyes. The shift may be apocalyptic, a sudden phase change, or an accelerated-but-managed transition… Probably it will be all of these things in differing degrees & locales. However it happens, the emerging paradigm is much more about networks, messaging, feedback, and biology rather than hierarchy, control, power, and mechanization. Nature is the super-system, the ultimate controller enforcing the laws of physics and prescribing the design templates for fitness & adaptation. If we are, as Kevin Kelley suggests, the sex organs of technology, then our technology is born from the natural imperatives coded deeply into our DNA.
[Justin Pickard notes: Biology PhD friend had issues w/ @chris23's latest (http://bit.ly/e0tJSS), citing hierarchies in social insect colonies, meercats & wolves... Furthermore, some biologists now consider social insect colonies to be superorganisms in their own right; akin to @cascio's ecology of mind?
Me: Yes! I considered diving into ants - lot's of research there. Interesting social structures emerge in higher critters/hives... I'd love to read a rebuttal/extension.]
In the lead up to it’s big annual event in Davos, the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network has published its Global Risks 2011 report. Here are some of the top-level highlights, taken verbatim from the report. I encourage people to read the entire report as each section is broken out into considerable detail including multiple scenarios. There’s also an overview at Business 21C.
“The world is in no position to face major new shocks.”
2 Cross-Cutting Risks:
1. Economic disparity: Wealth and income disparities, both within countries and between countries, threaten social and political stability as well as economic development.
2. Global governance failures: Weak or inadequate global institutions, agreements or networks, combined with competing national and political interests, impede attempts to cooperate on addressing global risks.
3 Important Risks in Focus:
1. The macroeconomic imbalances nexus: This cluster of three economic risks – global imbalances and currency volatility, fiscal crises and asset price collapse – is characterized by both internal imbalances (within countries) and external imbalances (between countries).
2. The illegal economy nexus: Illicit trade, organized crime and corruption are chronic risks that are perceived as highly likely to occur and of medium impact. As a highly interconnected nexus representing the illegal economy, however, experts see these risks as of central importance to the global risk landscape.
3. The water-food-energy nexus: Water security, food security and energy security are chronic impediments to economic growth and social stability. Food production requires water and energy; water extraction and distribution requires energy; and energy production requires water. Food prices are also highly sensitive to the cost of energy inputs through fertilizers, irrigation, transport and processing.
5 risks to watch:
1. Cyber-security: cyber theft, cyber espionage, cyber war, and cyber terrorism.
2. Demographic challenges: population “cluster bombs”, global graying and demographic dividends.
3. Resource security: extreme commodity price volatility and extreme energy price volatility.
4. Retrenchment from globalization: In many advanced economies strengthening political forces either directly or indirectly advocate retrenchment from globalization.
5. Weapons of mass destruction: the key WMD risk is felt by most experts to be that of nuclear proliferation, both among states and non-state actors, closely followed by the potential use of biological weapons.
3 ways for leaders to improve their response to complex and interdependent risks:
1. Proactively address the causes, rather than the symptoms, of global risk, identifying effective points of intervention in underlying structures and systems.
2. Devise coordinated response strategies to address the existence of difficult trade-offs and the threat of unintended consequences caused in part by increased interconnectedness.
3. Take a longer-term approach to assessment and response, particularly when seeking to manage global risks that emerge over decades rather than months or years.
There are some really fascinating innovations & opportunities arising at the convergence of embedded sensors, the built environment, 3D modeling, and augmented reality. Buildings, manufacturing chains, cities, and environments are increasingly communicating their run-time processes through embedded sensors & systems. The data streams pouring off these devices are driving rich visualizations in monitoring dash-boards that give operators & managers high-resolution insight into the state of these systems. Soon, these datastreams will be wired into 3D models – perhaps the very same CAD models that were originally developed to construct a building will live on as a real-time model of it’s living operations. Such models of buildings, civic infrastructure, and the environments in which they’re embedded will provide up-to-the-minute assessments of their operations, from at-a-glance macro overviews to incredibly detailed micro reports. Then model branches – mirrors – could be created to run simulations of future states, eg what happens to traffic if we allow 20% more development on the north end of town?
With augmented reality, the potential exists to bus selective overlays from the model & its datastreams out to augmented interfaces. In this way building/civic managers, code enforcers, first responders, environmental analysts, and many others will be able to see the run-time state of their city/building/ecosystem drawn across the real-world. For example, a broken water main downtown would immediately be reflected in the civic model, pinging the Water Dept. dashboards that then route to a field agent’s mobile who uses their AR head’s-up-display to visibly locate the exact location of the leak for repair, possibly pulling up street schematics and a guided 3D repair manual on-site.
This convergence of the instrumented world and it’s virtual representation, mediated by an augmented reality interface between the two, may yield unprecedented opportunities to model & optimize the very structures of civilization.
[Wow! Looks like Screampoint has a big head-start on this...]
[Autodesk is also working on developing tools for sensor-driven Building Information Modeling (BIM).]
I’ve been wanting to play around with video more so as a test project I taped myself talking about complexity for a few minutes. It’s very seat-of-the-pants and ad-hoc. I spent about 1.5 hours on this total which is a pretty amazing statement about the power of technology in the modern age. If I do more of these, I’d like to get them down to about 2 minutes each. This one clocks in at just past 4 minutes. As always, your feedback is welcomed & appreciated.
I’ve been working on diagramming complex systems in a way that is hopefully somewhat simplified and visually appealing. Below is my first pass at a working template, featuring the modern office building. I may or may not do more of these. Click on it for a slightly larger version.
My partner forwarded me a great article by the late Donella Meadows, titled Places to Intervene in a System. The whole article is recommended but this summary of hers if quite useful as a framework for evaluating and influencing complex systems. (See also John Robb’s idea of the systempunkt for the modern warfare version of this thinking.)
9 Places to Intervene in a System (in increasing order of effectiveness)
9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
8. Material stocks and flows.
7. Regulating negative feedback loops.
6. Driving positive feedback loops.
5. Information flows.
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints).
3. The power of self-organization.
2. The goals of the system.
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.
[This article has become the most popular item I've ever posted on this blog. Thanks so much to everyone who has read it and passed it along!]
When it’s busy like this the viz sometimes shifts like the color bleed you used to see on those old Sunday comics, way back in the day. Ubiquitous fiber pipes & wide-band wireless still can’t give enough bandwidth to the teeming multitudes downtown. The viz starts to lag, gets offset and even orphaned from the hard world it’s trying to be a part of. Hyperclear Ray Ban augments, lenses ground down by hand-sequenced rock algaes to such an impossibly smooth uniformity, run through with transparent circuity & bloodied rare-earth elements, scanning the world in multiple dimensions, pinging the cloud at 10GHz and pushing articulated data forms through massive OLED clusters just to show me where I can find an open null shield and the best possible cup of coffee this side of Ethiopia. Then the pipes clog and those ridiculously expensive glasses turn into cheap 3D specs from 2010 pretending to make 2D look like real life but instead here they’re doing the print offset thing, flattening my world into color shifts and mismatched registers.
Marks are flickering in & out, overlapping & losing their z-order. A public note on a park bench glows green – something about the local chemwash schedule – then loses integrity to one of my own annotations left there, like, a year ago. A poem I cranked out on a late night bender but it’s unreadable with all the other layers clashing. Even the filters get confused when the pipes clog. If you look around fast enough, marks start to trail & stutter in a wash of data echoes like when screens used to have refresh errors. Only now our eyes are the screens and the whole world gets caught in recursive copy loops.
The Ray Bans correct it pretty quickly, attenuating the rendered view and pushing up the hard view as the dominant layer. But for a moment it feels like you’re tripping. It used to be physically nauseating, a sudden vertigo brought on by that weird disconnect of self & place. Like so much of life these days, you spend a lot of time adapting to disconnects between layers. Between real and rendered. Between self & other, human & machine. Between expectations & outcomes.
The arc of glorious progress that opened the 21st century seemed to have found it’s apogee around 2006 or so and then came hurtling back towards Earth. And it wasn’t like earlier “corrections”. This one was big. It was a fundamental stock-taking of the entirety of the industrial age to date and things were suddenly, shockingly, terribly mis-matched from the realities of the world. Planetary-scale disconnects. The carrying capacity of economies, nations, ecosystems, and humanity itself came into clear & violent resolution by the 2020’s when everything started to radically shift under the twin engines of hyper-connectivity and ecological chaos. These two previously unexpected titans directly challenged and usurped the entire paradigm of the developed and developing worlds, setting us all into choppy and uncertain seas.
Sure, we still get to play with the crazy cool tech. Or at least some of us do. What the early cyberpunks showed us, and what the real systems geeks always knew, is that the world is not uniform or binary. It’s not utopia vs. dystopia, win vs. lose, us vs. them, iGlasses or collapse. It’s a complex, dynamic blend of an unfathomable number of inputs, governors, and feedback loops constantly, endlessly iterating across inconceivable scales to weave this crazy web of life. So we have climate refugees from Kansas getting tips from re-settled Ukrainians about resilience farming. We have insurgencies in North America and social collectives across South America. The biggest brands in the world are coming out of Seoul & Johannesburg while virtually-anonymous distributed collaboratives provide skills & services across the globe. And we have Macroviz design teams from Jakarta & Kerala directing fab teams in Bangkok to make Ray Bans to sell to anybody with enough will & credit to purchase. Globalization & it’s discontents has proven to offer a surprising amount of resilience. Heading into the Great Shift it looked like the developed world was headed for 3rd world-style poverty & collapse. But it hasn’t been quite that bad. More of a radical leveling of the entire global macro-economic playing field with the majority settling somewhere on the upper end of lower class. Some rose, many fell. It was… disturbing, to say the least. It simply didn’t fit the models. Everyone expected collapse or transcendence.
We humans want things to be as simple as possible. It’s just natural. Makes it easier to service the needs of biosurvival. But we’ve not created a simple world. Indeed, the world of our making looks about as orderly as the mess of 100 billion brain cells knotted up in our heads or the fragmented holographic complexes of memories & emotions, aspiration & fears, that clog it all up. We built living systems as complex as anything the planet could dish out. Not in the billions of years nature uses to refine and optimize but in a matter of a few millennia. We raced out of the gate, got on top of the resource game, took a look around, and realized the whole thing needed to be torn down and completely redesigned for the realities of the world. The outcomes no longer fit the expectations. In some strange fractal paradox, the maps got so accurate that the territory suddenly looked very different from what we thought.
The null shield was created as a black spot. A cone of silence for the information age. They’re like little international zones offering e-sylum in select coffee shops, parlors, dining establishments, and the finer brick-and-mortar lifestyle shops. And in conflict zones, narco-corridors, favelas, gang tenements, and the many other long-tail alleyways of the ad hoc shadow state. The null shield is a fully encrypted, anonymized, opt-in hotspot that deflects everything and anything the global service/intel/pr industry tries to throw at you or copy from you. What’s better is you don’t even show up as a black spot like the early implementations that would hide you but basically tell the world where you were hidden. You’re invisible and only connected to the exact channels you want.
These were originally created for civ lib types and the militarized criminal underclass as a counter-measure to the encroaching security state. But as traditional states universally weakened under the weight of bureaucracies and insurmountable budgets (and the growing power of cities and their Corp/NGO alignments), the state’s ability to surveil the citizenry declined. All the money they needed to keep paying IT staff, policy researchers, infrastructure operators, emergency responders, and the security apparatus – all that money was siphoned up by the cunning multinationals who used their financial wit & weight to undermine the states ability to regulate them. Now states – even relatively large ones like the U.S. government – are borrowing money from the multinationals just to stay afloat. The iron fist of surveillance & security has been mostly replaced by the annoying finger of marketing & advertising, always poking you in the eye wherever you go.
Keeping on top of the viz means keeping your filters up to date and fully functional. Bugs & viruses are still a problem, sure, but we’ve had near-50 years to develop a healthy immunity to most data infections. We still get the occasional viz jammer swapping all your english mark txt with kanji, and riders that sit in your stream just grabbing it all and bussing it to some server in Bucharest. But it’s the marketing vads and shell scanners that drive the new arms race of personal security. Used to be the FBI were the ones who would scan your browsing history to figure out if you’re an Islamic terrorist or right wing nut, then black-out the Burger Trough and grab you with a shock team right in the middle of your Friendly Meal. Even if they had the money to do it now, the Feds understand that the real threats are in the dark nets not the shopping malls. So the marketers have stepped in. They want your reading list so they can scan-and-spam you wherever you go, whenever, then sell the data to an ad agency. They want access to your viz to track your attention in real-time. They want to fold your every move into a demographic profile to help them pin-point their markets, anticipate trends, and catch you around every corner with ads for the Next Little Thing. And they use their access to rent cog cycles for whatever mechanical turk market research projects they have running in the background.
Google gave us the most complete map of the world. They gave us a repository of the greatest written works of our species. And a legacy of ubiquitous smart advertising that now approaches near-sentience in it’s human-like capacity to find you and push your buttons. In some ways the viz is just a cheap universal billboard. Who knew that all those billions of embedded chips covering the planet would be running subroutines pushing advertising and special interest blurbs to every corner of the globe? There are tales of foot travelers ranging deep into the ancient back-country forests of New Guinea, off-grid and viz-free, only to be confronted by flocks of parrots squawking out the latest tagline from some Bangalore soap opera. Seems the trees were instrumented with Google smart motes a few decades ago for a study in heavy metal bio-accumulation. Something about impedance shielding and sub-frequency fields affecting the parrots…
So while the people colonized the cloud so they could share themselves and embrace the world, the spammers, advert jocks, and marketing hacks pushed in just as quickly because wherever people are, wherever they gather and talk and measure themselves against each other & the world… in those places they can be watched and studied and readily persuaded to part with their hard-earned currency.
Or credits or karma points or whatever. Just like the rest of the big paradigms, value has shifted beyond anybody’s understanding. Gold and currency at least attempted to normalize value into some tangible form. But the markets got too big & complex and too deeply connected to the subtleties of human behavior and the cunning of human predators. While money, the thing, was a tangible piece of value, the marketplace of credit & derivatives undermined it’s solidity and abstracted value out into the cold frontiers of economics philosophers and automated high-frequency trading bots. So much of the money got sucked up into so few hands that the world was left to figure out just how the hell all those unemployed people were going to work again. Instead of signing up for indentured servitude on the big banking farms, folks got all DIY while value fled the cash & credit markets and transfigured into service exchanges, reputation currencies, local scrip, barter markets, shadow economies, and a seemingly endless cornucopia of adaptive strategies for trading your work & talent for goods & services.
Sure, there’s still stock markets, central banks, and big box corps but they operate in a world kind of like celebrities did in the 20th century, though more infamous than famous. They exist as the loa in a web of voodoo economics: you petition them for the trickle-down. Or just ignore them. They’re a special class that mostly sticks among their kind, sustaining a B2B layer that drives the e-teams & design shops, fab plants & supply chains to keep churning out those Ray Ban iGlasses. Lucky for them, materials science has seen a big acceleration since the 2010’s with considerable gains in miniaturization and efficiency so it’s a lot easier to be a multinational when much of your work is dematerialized and the stuff that is hard goods is mostly vat-grown or micro-assembled by bacterial hybrids. Once the massive inflationary spike of the Big Correction passed, it actually got a lot cheaper to do business.
Good news for the rest of us, too, as we were all very sorely in need of a serious local manufacturing capacity with a sustainable footprint and DIY extensibility. Really, this was the thing that moved so many people off the legacy economy. Powerful desktop CAD coupled to lo-intensity, high-fidelity 3d printers opened up hard goods innovation to millions. The mad rush of inventors and their collaborations brought solar conversion efficiency up to 85% within 3 years, allowing the majority of the world to secure their energy needs with minimal overhead. Even now, garage biotech shops in Sao Paulo are developing hybrid chloroplasts that can be vat-grown and painted on just about anything. This will pretty much eliminate the materials costs of hard solar and make just about anything into a photosynthetic energy generator, slurping up atmospheric carbon and exhaling oxygen in the process. Sometimes things align and register just right…
So here we are in 2043 and, like all of our history, so many things have changed and so many things have stayed the same. But this time it’s the really big things that have changed, and while all change is difficult we’re arguably much stronger and much more independent for it all. Sure, not everybody can afford these sweet Ray Bans. And the federated state bodies that kept us mostly safe and mostly employed are no longer the reliable parents they once were. We live in a complex world of great wealth and great disparity, as always, but security & social welfare is slowly rising with the tide of human technological adaptation. Things are generally much cheaper, lighter, and designed to reside & decay within ecosystems. Product becomes waste becomes food becomes new life. Our machines are more like natural creatures, seeking equilibrium and optimization, hybridized by the ceaseless blurring of organic & inorganic, by the innate animal disposition towards biomimicry, and by the insistence of the natural world to dictate the rules of human evolution, as always. After all, we are animals, deep down inside, compelled to work it out and adapt.
Time’s up on the null shield. Coffee is down. And the viz is doing it’s thing now that the evening rush has thinned. Out into the moody streets of the city core, the same streets trod for a thousand years here, viz or no. The same motivations, the same dreams. It always comes back to how our feet fall on the ground, how the food reaches our mouth, and how we share our lives with those we care for.
I’ve put together a research brief summarizing my recent work looking at 3 examples of emerging non-state power. These models indicate that many of the technologies enabling rapid, ad hoc global communication & collaboration are being adapted by criminal & ideological groups to grow international supply chains and build sophisticated financial networks. While there are certainly many non-state challenges in the current geopolitical landscape, in this brief I focus on the Mexican narcoinsurgency, the MEND resistance in Nigeria, and the nexus of illicit drugs & terrorism in northern Africa.
From the intro:
Cartels, militias, insurgencies, and terrorist groups leverage mobile communications & rapid collaboration to grow & manage globally-distributed ad hoc networks that overlap in complex international shadow economies.
Traditional state governance is being challenged by the ubiquity of personal technology and the rise of multinational corporate powers, ideological factions, insurgencies, militaries, militias, and criminal groups. Laboring under inefficient bureaucratic structures, over-reaching foreign policy, legislative deadlocks, corruption and co-opted representation, traditional states are less capable of governing in ways that support social welfare. As a result, communities, collectives, and distributed ad hoc organizations are being forced to innovate strategies for resilience & prosperity in ways that increasingly lie outside the conventional models.
These networks have become sophisticated enough to rival many corporations in capital & influence. Yet, unlike most corporations, they are wholly opaque & unaccountable, relying on illicit goods, drugs, and violence to grow their markets and remove obstacles to business.
This report highlights some of the more disruptive methods that not only seek to re-establish socio-economic influence and control in the face of great disparity, but also directly challenge state authority at levels formerly impossible for non-state actors.
Full PDF here (8 pgs).
Over at KedgeForward I’ve contributed a piece exploring my sense of what cities might look like in the coming years based on current trends and emerging constraints. The question posed by Kedge founder, Frank Spencer, is:
“In what ways will the concept and landscape of the city change over the next decade, and will this change bring about positive or negative impact in terms of global resilience, transformational development, and human evolution?”
My answer begins:
“All human systems and technologies are ultimately embedded within the larger natural ecosystem of the planet. As we’re now beginning to witness across all such domains, nature is applying more and more pressure on civilization to force it into better alignment with the principles of conservation and homeostasis critical to balanced living systems. As massive aggregations of society, technology, commerce, industry, resource consumption, and waste production, cities will feel tremendous impact from the corrections imposed by the natural world. Megacities in the developing world like Lagos, Jakarta, Delhi, and Mexico City already exhibit enormous stress due to rapid urbanization, rising populations, and the energetic consumption and waste production that attends their growth. With aging populations and over-burdened consumer economies, first world cities like London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo will find it more & more difficult to support their resource demands. Indeed, given projections for energy prices, food stocks, and clean water & sanitation, cities across the world are trending towards a lower common standard of living.
Continued at KedgeForward…
Last month I attended & participated in the Ten Year Forecast conference presented by the Institute For The Future. This event at Cavallo Point was the culmination of several months of research looking at the signals, trends, and possible futures of five global domains: the carbon economy, the water ecology, adaptive power, cities in transition, and molecular identity. I contributed research for the carbon economy & adaptive power, looking at carbon markets and the distribution of energy resources for the former and investigating insurgency, narcoterror, and the emerging shadow economy for the latter.
Over two days we presented very challenging content, both in scope & complexity, as well as tone. These are major foundational systems that intersect with every aspect of civilization. Most of the forecasts & scenarios were undercut with a tone of constraint and great challenge given the turbulent nature of these modern transitional times. In attendance were many high-level representatives from some of the largest corporate entities on the planet, as well as from NGO’s, government, and private research. The scenarios presented them with a near-future significantly constrained by resource shortages, rising costs of production, and the growing urgency of climate change. All of these constraints were very clearly articulated to highlight the need to reduce consumption, engineer positive behavioral change, and identify new measures of prosperity & wellness unhinged from growth & GDP.
I spoke directly with several VP’s, some responsible for guiding multi-billion dollar corporations, and all expressed a surprising awareness & understanding of the deeply challenging realities we face. I was met again & again with the sentiment that energy constraints will corral growth and compel companies to both modify their operations to reduce energy use and evolve their products and services to be more sustainable. Indeed, everyone acknowledged the impact of sustainability on their business, admitting that nature has now entered the boardroom. To be clear, some of these companies are the largest transporters on the planet – major keystone energy consumers. So when they start admitting that business-as-usual has to change, it’s hard not to feel the gravity of our times.
The first day was especially powerful. There was a distinct thickness to the large ballroom by the time Jane McGonigal was giving her after-dinner keynote on the Epic Win. We had thrown so much really overwhelming information at the attendees, all of which heralded significant changes that will likely impact all human systems in the next ten years. We painted pictures of a civilization that will either adapt quickly & effectively or spiral into a malaise of constraint, decline, & chaos. Yet the tone of the room and the comments & conversations that emerged were radically optimistic, embracing the dire news and ready to press on into the cold night for a better tomorrow.
Undeniably, we live in interesting times. Things seem increasingly out of control. Or at least, we now see so much of the world in such minute detail that our historic models of what order should look like are failing against the vast interconnected global systems laid bare before us. What we know for sure is that inevitable growth is a cancer and cannot be sustained. We know resources are finite and expensive and their industrial use is poisoning the planet. And we know that the planet itself is the ultimate Invisible Hand that will easily wipe us clean if we don’t acknowledge it’s centrality and honor the necessity of it’s health. Perhaps in more pragmatic terms these realizations are now reaching into the boardrooms and staff rooms of our global institutions. Economics, humanism, and ecology – the triple-bottom line – is making it’s way into the machines of commerce. And more and more people are looking for a meaningful future in their own triple-bottom-line of happiness, resilience, and legacy.
Or, The Risk of Extrapolating Linear Trends Against Non-Linear Systems.
A common habit in forecasting, particularly in energy futures & economic growth, is to take roughly linear trends and extend them over the next few decades. The notion is that there is inertia in what has already happened that will make the future look markedly similar, or at least there will likely be a more-or-less linear movement along an existing path. For example, many forecasts suggest that energy consumption will increase by 50% towards the year 2035. This is based on data over the past 30 years that is then extrapolated forward along expectations, so you get graphs that look like this one from the EIA’s 2009 Annual Energy Outlook Early Release Overview:
The graph shows mostly linear growth in energy consumption. The assumptions here are that, given previous growth rates, and given a rough set of expectations about future growth, energy consumption will steadily grow across all sectors. Yet you’ll notice a few bumps & dips for transportation & industrial in the later months of 2008 and early 2009. These suggest outlier events. Outliers are the unexpected events, the Black Swans that come out of nowhere and blow expectations out of the water. In this case, economic activity got a big boost by the inflated gains of the securities market, then took a dive after all the hidden risks came to the surface. The following graph from the same EIA report highlights the 2008 economic black swan:
Here we see the market prices for the primary energy sources. This graph really shows the instability churned up by the securities outlier. As the ultimate determinant of just about all economic activity (nothing happens without energy) we can see energy prices climbing at the same time demand was ramping up (compare to the last graph of consumption). Then heading into the crash energy prices plummet as fears mount, workforces are downsized, factories go dark, and productivity retracts in the face of economic doom. In spite of expectations the market collapse came as a surprise. Yet, forecasts still commit global energy consumption to a future of roughly 50% growth in demand (see those post-2010 consumption lines in the first graph?). In spite of obvious turbulence in past performance the forecasts assume typical, linear economic growth out to 2035.
While such linear approximations offer hope of anticipating and, hence, preparing for the future, to some degree they represent a logical fallacy of projecting linear trends onto complex, non-linear systems. Living systems like weather patterns, anthills, and global economics are approximately non-deterministic. That is, they’re so complex and have so many feedback mechanisms that they’re mostly unpredictable (weather predictions are still only more-or-less valid for about 5 days out). Much of this complexity arises from the turbulence generated by feedback loops and interconnections across every scale of the system. The power laws underlying dynamic systems take small values and iterate them over time into very large values. This is the mechanism underlying the oft-mentioned Butterfly Effect and one of the drivers for outlier events. Imagine a dust devil spinning up on an otherwise calm desert floor.
Nature seeks homeostasis – a dynamic equilibrium around a point of stability. The counterpoint to runaway feedback loops and suddenly emergent outliers are the damping effects of control elements. In climate, the tendency for hot & cold to equalize will usually mitigate a storm and return clear skies. The dust devil gives up it’s angular momentum to shifting pressure & temperature gradients. Looking at our current affairs we see that total economic collapse has (so far) been averted through aggressive attempts to dampen the turbulence by injecting massive amounts of state capital into the financial system. These interventions & market regulations are control structures put in place to govern for relative economic homeostasis. When they work and things are relatively quiet, they keep those trend projections nice & linear.
Linear projections help us continue to get things done based on fairly reliable expectations. But avoiding the next economic catastrophe requires a deep study of the many threads & amplifiers that drive black swan events. Outliers occupy the thin edge of statistical possibility yet almost always have tremendous consequences. They are, by nature, entropic & disruptive, shifting the territory and demanding new adaptations. To return to the global energy domain, what outliers might be slowly iterating to challenge the forecasts of 50% growth in demand? What catastrophic black swans might be lurking off the radar? What scientific breakthroughs and game-changing innovations might be weaving together towards a complete re-orientation of power requirements, transport, or industrial fuel?
The mobile phone is a great example of a high-impact outlier with a small physical footprint that achieved global ubiquity within 10 years, shredding the linear projections of numerous industries. The pace & breadth of it’s adoption suggests that interventionary technologies can rather quickly have major impacts, challenging heavily invested and entrenched businesses. Imagine an energy outlier with a similar device profile that enabled people to generate & store enough power to run a small home or drive an electric car 100 miles.
Studying a system for outliers and looking for the signals & trends that might lead to the next Black Swan, as well as examining the conditions that have led to previous outlier events, can inform forecasts that are much more attuned to resiliency and adaptation.
A core human competency is the capacity to model outcomes. This predictive ability has contributed to our successful growth as a species and provided the stage from which we extrude our technologies. We observe our world, log our experiences, and use this information to envision & plan our future possibilities. In the rush into tomorrow we’ve deputized machines to assist in our scenario modeling as our plans grow ever greater in scope.
Today we have tremendous amounts of data available about any system we wish to model. Drive platters are bulging into the terabytes just to store all of the information gathered by sensors, services, and empowered humans. Whether we study business networks, financial models, or natural systems, our awareness of their complexity has grown exponentially. Things are far wider and more interconnected than we could have imagined even 20 years ago.
All systems are sets of nodes with properties & variables that govern their behavior, coupled together by relational rules governing their interaction. The more complex a system, the more unique nodes and the more interconnections between nodes. Given the human constraint of being able to hold only 6 or 7 unique objects in mind at any given time it’s clear that we’re overwhelmed by even the relatively simple tasks of understanding, for example, a mid-size business structure enough to predict its future, especially when you consider the business system itself as a single node embedded in a much larger global socio-economic system. Imagine the difficulties climate modelers face trying to document global circulatory systems…
One emerging strategy for modeling complex systems looks to software and the floating-point wonders enabled by Moore’s Law. Computers are phenomenally capable of managing the inconceivable amounts of operations necessary to begin modeling dynamic systems. Yet, until very recently one needed to book time on a supercomputer cluster to run weather models or robust behavioral analysis. Even today’s bleeding hardware strains under the weight of such complexity. Research institutions have pursued natural systems modeling for some time and the business world has been paying attention. SAP now offers modeling capabilities with its business intelligence ERP solutions, enabling executives to run scenarios and envision possible outcomes of strategic decisions. Oracle recently acquired Hyperion, adding “performance management” to their suite of BI tools. You can bet these technologies will work their way into government & geopolitical protocols, as well as social & personal behavioral engineering as we increasingly track & model our lives.
Effectively, this pattern emulates the deeper shift from individual enterprise to collective collaborations. You can only model a complex system with another sufficiently complex system. However, even the most interesting algorithms are encumbered by the impositions of their logic: they can only be as creative as they were written. A second emerging strategy for modeling complex systems looks to deputize humans as processing nodes, crowdsourcing future possibilities across infinitely creative sets of minds. The Institute for the Future has taken this approach with its Signtific Lab and the Superstruct platform, leveraging the principles of gameplay to engage massive participation in envisioning scenarios.
The Superstruct games have drawn in thousands of players offering their thoughts & dreams of the future. Players become processing nodes for the chosen subject (eg. “when augmented reality is everywhere”, or “when personal satellites are as easy to deploy as websites”) iterating across large sets of potential outcomes. From these inputs, patterns emerge showing trends with greater frequency & momentum among the collective. Perhaps even more interesting – and where the Superstruct method is more flexible than computational modeling – are the outliers that emerge from players. Many of the most compelling signals of the future are those that completely break from current patterns. Indeed, one of the most fundamental prevailing shifts in the global paradigm is that change is accelerating in ways we cannot even imagine.
These two approaches both consider complex systems & scenario modeling from architectures that themselves are complex, object-oriented systems. The programmatic approach brings heavy-weight numeric bit-crunching to dynamic data streams, while the Superstructing approach offers wide-reaching creativity and human sensing. Augmenting one approach with the other will mark the next phase of predictive analysis necessary to safely navigate civilization through the future. Envisioning these scenarios and building compelling narratives around them will inevitably draw them into becoming.
Our lives are more & more complex and our enterprises & collaborations are commonly reaching global scales. The need to effectively model & predict is a fundamental human trait, reinforced in the face of escalating complexity in a hyper-connected, Read-Write world.