Tag Archives: wicked problems

“Hotpants vs Knockout Mouse” feat. Quad Bumlines (Sustainability Remix)

Imagine that planet Earth were a corporation with shareholders, how would investors be feeling? What would go in the annual report? It all comes down to exactly what it is the shareholders are interested in. One would usually assume that the corporation is interested in revenue, profit, capital gains of one sort or another; return on investment. So how is Earth Corp doing? Well it depends what you measure.

Could global human population represent “profit”?

Shows how dramatically human population has grown in last 200 years

Human Population

If global human population is the measure of success, then Earth Corp is doing pretty darn well.

But what else could we measure, that could be analogous to profit? Let’s be a little less abstract about how this corporation is measuring its success, and say that Earth Corp is measured by the Gross World Product, how much all of the economies in the world are worth. In that case you get something a bit like this:

Graph showing gross world product over last 80 years

Gross World Product

Also, not bad at all. The time frames on the two graphs are completely different, so don’t make a direct comparison, but the point is they’re both going up steeply. Population and economic output are growing.

In fact, there are very few measures that don’t fit with this trend of the graph goes up dramatically during the time of modernity.

 Try out global temperatures, you get the same pattern:

Global Temperature

Global Temperature

I’m sure most people are aware that if you overlay carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere with this graph, they are very well correlated.

But maybe Earth Corp has some understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility, so the board are ensuring that they’re trying to move their activities to be in accord with the concepts included in the triple bottom line (TBL). TBL is akin to “full cost accounting”, and the idea is to incorporate several factors into a single measure of success, specifically economic, societal, and environmental factors. In fact the graphs above, could conceivably relate to the triple bottom line. So how do we interpret those graphs in relation to the TBL. Well… I guess the rise in economy means more wealth, which is good. The rise in population means that society must be working on some level, and maybe that health is improving, so that’s good too. And from where I sit, the increase in global temperatures, and correlation to CO2 output, is probably a bad thing.

So so far I’ve just pointed out some obvious facts. What I’m interested in is making sustainability tangible. How can we become more sustainable? Looking at each of those graphs, the one big question that occurs to me is how long can that go on like that?

Stuart Walker, speaking to me and a my cohort at Lancaster University, introduced me to the triple, and then quadruple bottom line only very recently (so admittedly, it’s something I’m still getting my own head around). The extra element added to the trio to arrive at the quadruple, is a spiritual element (also known as the personal element). I was surprised how much of an accord this had with me: I’m an atheist. However I do think there’s a place for spiritual understanding in the world (anyone who has a tension with being a spiritual atheist should probably consider exactly what spiritual means, or how it is meant) and actually where this idea of the triple or quad bottom line is concerned, it is essential in order to give the other factors some sort of context.

Another of the revelations that Stuart imbued was related to how the economic factor plays out in these models. In it’s pure form, the TBL is just an spectrum for measurement, that includes several factors. Great. However if you look at how it is implemented, used, how the world actually works.. then 9 out of 10 times the economic factor is an “end not a means” (quoting Stuart). The big point here is to view the triad of society, environment, and personal as the ends, and the economic factor as the means. Value beyond money, I suppose. I mean, who cares how much money you have, if there is no society or environment for you to personally enjoy it in. It is a fantastic idea, but sadly at the moment seems a bit Utopian.

Stuart concludes his lecture series with;

A more holistic approach…. From a knowledge economy based on what we can do, to a wisdom economy based on what we should do..

Stuart tentatively lays the foundations for some answers to the big questions like “is it possible to live in the world in a sustainable way?” (and similar) but purposefully doesn’t begin to address them directly. And who can blame him; our unsustainable way of living, isn’t something you can solve with a discrete solution, it is a wicked problem, and the unsustainable traits of modernity are so deeply ingrained it seems almost impossible to imagine a world where we’ve moved forward.

It’s one thing to talk about possible innovations that might help, but for now I’ll avoid that (I’ve got some ideas.. but they can wait for a future blog). What I want to talk about is the nature of innovation. How does innovation relate to risk? How do established norms relate to innovations? What strategic position is best to adopt when faced with a wicked problem? (in particular this wicked problem)

In order to answer this there are a few points I want to join together: the un-understood behavior of Kingfish, a reference to innovative heated hot-pants (the counterpoint to which is the maverick personality responsible for “knockout mice” and gene therapy), mentioning the complexity involved in figuring out the carbon footprint of the BBC… and then using those four points to ask, what is it those calling for innovation actually want?

First, the Kingfish. I only know about the Kingfish because I watched a recent episode of Africa on the BBC, presented by David Attenborough. The interesting thing about the Kingfish is that, despite being solitary hunting animals, they swim upstream once a year, in a large group, and then spontaneously begin circling round and round in the water. The Kingfish don’t spawn there, they don’t mate there, they don’t die they, and they aren’t from there. There’s no explanation for the behavior. Attenborough called them pilgrims. If these fish were people, deciding to go there, then you might say they had a cognitive bias, which in the words of Paul Ralph is a “systematic deviation from normal judgement”. Something that you do, because it’s the way its always been done.

Kingfish circling (screen grab from BBC's Africa)

Kingfish circling (screen grab from BBC’s Africa)\

Second, the “hot” pants. The pants in question are designed to keep cyclists’ muscles warm in the time between the warm-up finishing, and the race starting. The pants were part of the “marginal gains” programme that the British cycling team developed in the years preceding the Olympics. Matt Parker, head of the programme, realised that the pants would give the Brits a tiny advantage. There were no end of these tiny advances, each a little innovation in its own right. Another marginal gain was the practice of applying alcohol to the wheel rims (reducing dirt, and friction). None of these advances will redefine cycling though, in fact in sporting events this kind of practice either becomes standard (i.e. everybody does it) or gets banned. So in some way, it is a temporary gain.

My third point centres around Mario Capecchi’s “knockout mice”. Capecchi won a nobel prize for his work on the mice. I can’t confess to fully understand the process, but the context here is how and where he got the funding to do the work. When Capecchi said what he wanted to do, those funding the project told him they respected his work, and his talents, didn’t trust that his research would work – it was just so far out. So radical. Nobody believed he could do it. They did want to invest in the man though, so they said sure you can have the money, but please just do something boring, something sensible, something that is ‘doable’, something that will definitely work. Capecchi said fine, took the money, and did the mouse research anyway. He totally ignored the wishes of the funding body. The knockout mouse, as it happens, is the foundation for all gene therapy. It is invaluable work. And the body that funded the work were, retrospectively, grateful for Capecchi’s decision to ignore them! A maverick person was required in order to stimulate radical innovation, which in turn, may well see radical change in society as the cutting edge work founded in the knockout mouse begins to filter through to practical applications.

My fourth point is about bundles and complexity, in this case characterised  by how the BBC are trying to quantify their sustainability credentials. If you consume television media, have you ever considered what it’s environmental impact is? Have you ever wondered what the “best” way to consume content is? I have, but only so far as whether I listen to the sound through my hi-fi system, or use the TV speakers. If you’re the BBC and you’re trying to figure it out, it gets rather more complex. How many people watch via the digital terrestrial network)? How many watch online? Out of either group who records the programme, and who is actually watching it? How many people are sat in front of the TV? How big is the screen it’s connected to? This is all before you start to think about the resources that go into actually making the programme to start with.. For the BBC to figure out a method, which in turn will figure out a value, for a specific viewing of a specific programme. That’s tricky. For information, there is some relationship between distribution method (IP via iPlayer vs radio via digital terrestrial network) and number of viewers. If there is a single viewer, it would be most efficient to only distribute via IP. However if there are, for example, 10,000,000 viewers 90% of which are watching via radio, then those watching via IP will be consuming far more energy than those watching via radio. Probably… it’s complicated! The BBC have employed Janet West to look at these issues.

So how are these things related? Well, firstly they’re all to do with the BBC (the British Cycling/Capecchi examples came from Tim Harford’s new podcast).. but that’s more to do with chance than anything. Harford was making the point that although the marginal gains programme meant that the British cycling team was far more successful than any other in the Olympic velodrome, that fundamentally the marginal gains are quite boring. Boring, but easy to get funding for. Easy to convince people it’s the right thing. In fact the English Rugby Football has poached the man behind the marginal gains for their own needs. In a sense you might say this sort of innovation is fine on its own, but it won’t bring about a paradigm shift. On the other hand, the sort of “radical” innovation that Mario Copecchi brought about with his knockout mice is much riskier. Radical innovation will (yes, definitely, will) completely fail a lot of the time, but.. when it works, you get major advances. Marginal gains vs major advances… who is the winner? Well…

We need to stop being Kingfish. We can’t just continue doing things in the way characterised by modernity, congested with cognitive biases that are predicated on the fact that ‘this is the way its always been done’. We need to shake things up and get radical. At the same time however we need to be accepting of that fact that marginal gains do bring about advances. Understand that risky research will arrive at massively significant outcomes (but maybe only 1% of the time), less risky research will arrive a marginal improvement, but quite frequently. We need to spread our bets.

Lastly. What is it we’re trying to achieve? It is fine to be aware of our (complete lack of) sustainable living, but are you prepared to act? Are you happy to go through your life, along with the masses, living out marginal gains that will ultimately have negligible effect? (recycling your waste, doing a car share, using toilet paper from renewable sources) Or are you driven to radically innovate, shout your cause (whatever side of the argument you’re on) from the rooftops, and take a chance on being the fly in unsustainability’s ointment? What would you be willing to change, to live sustainably?

I don’t think it’s an easy one to answer.