Saturday, August 22, 2015

Greg Fisher — Global Incoherence

I was recently asked to take part in a roundtable co-organised by Nik Gowing and CIMA (the Chartered Institute for Management Accountants). The roundtable was designed to feed in to the Churchill 2015 conference in November, and was on the subject of ‘thinking the unthinkable’ with regard to global leadership. The premise, which I agree with, is that the world is changing rapidly, such that those in positions of authority who are meant to lead us through such problems are being overwhelmed by multiple wicked problems.

These wicked problems include: climate change; ISIS; the Arab Spring (which I see as a generally good thing); the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing global recession; and rising tensions between the West and Russia.
I thought I would share my thoughts, some of which I shared at the roundtable, on this (hugely complicated) subject via a blog article.
Ultimately, I see these wicked problems arising from a tension between two broad points: the world looks more like a closed system that is now hitting capacity constraints; and we are employing a ‘simple systems’ mind-set to what are complex system problems.
The World as a Single, Closed System
The first point is that the world is now behaving more like a single, closed system than at any point in human history. It isn’t actually a closed system because it is open to the sun’s energy but, if I were to put it bluntly, there is no longer any ‘outside’ from which we can import solutions and export problems. At the same time, feedback effects have become more pronounced, and the earth’s capacity constraints have begun to be tested by the simultaneous growth of the human population and its average per capita consumption.
These features appear to have arisen from the stunning advances in transportation technology over the past hundred years or so and, more recently, by the advancement of information and communication technology. All of this has cultivated a much more integrated, interacting world.
Prior to this, for several hundred years, the world was organised, both in a real and a legal sense, in to nation states, which operated – broadly speaking – like small open systems. In such a world, you can generally ignore the impact you have on the wider host system. You can also export some types of problem (sending convicts to other shores, for example) and import solutions to other types of problem (invading resource-rich countries, importing slaves etc.).
And, generally speaking, the more powerful countries were more able to seek solutions from their outside than the less powerful, and they could do this without any expectation of a significant detrimental response / feedback. Hence, empires were built.
We have moved away from this world for the reasons cited above: transportation technology, ICT, and increases in population and per capita consumption. Of course, the resulting wicked problems are not only important at the global level for national politicians and diplomats: they are also challenging the senior executives of organisations of varying sizes and types. The environment for many directors has changed, and continues to change, rapidly.
The ‘Simple Systems’ Mind-Set
The second point is that the dominant way of thinking in the world is reductionist, linear and static. Reductionism is the idea that we can break a whole system in to parts to understand it; linearity is the notion that cause is proportional to effect (i.e. small causes create small effects and vice versa); and by static I mean that dynamical effects are either ignored or under-emphasised.
In my opinion, this ‘simple systems’ thinking is demonstrated most clearly in orthodox Western economics. But economics is not merely an exemplar here, it is also important because it has widespread effects on corporations and governments all over the world. It frames decision making concerned with trillions of dollars of resources.
Now, an important point to note here is that the simple systems mind-set is a reasonable approximation for decision-making in the old world of multiple small open systems. Indeed, the relationship between the two is brought in to focus if we make the inverse point: we can imagine this simpler mind-set emerging in this old world as a reasonable approximation of how it works. Our pattern-recognition capabilities are, after all, concerned with reasonably approximate hypotheses.

In my opinion, and this is the core point of this article, the global wicked problems listed above have arisen because we are living in a world for which the simple systems mind-set is no longer a sufficient approximation. Among other things, the world in which we now live has no outsides, it is prone to cascading effects (like global financial crises) and acute feedback effects.
Global Incoherence
Greg Fisher


Random said...
This is important stuff. CIPS is being delayed and scaled down. Promote to post please.

Ryan Harris said...

It isn't a closed system. It isn't an open system. It is an infinite system.
It is similar to a closed system when the last continent is industrialized. There is no where else to grow, expand or exploit. But it isn't true, space is infinite and it is where people are preparing to go.

Closed minded people say that we must solved all the problems on earth through cooperation and coordination before we allow people to move into space. That we simply need good rules to limit reproduction and better social rules. But it is self defeating because the better conditions you make on Earth for people, the more people will reproduce until they destroy competing life (and other humans) and utilize all the resources. Waiting too long is destructive to all life, earth itself and the environment. People that can pollute and harm competitors gain advantage.

The open minded people say that we must study space and learn what is out there before we proceed but that we live in a plentiful world of abundance... and all that. But that too is flawed because the universe is infinite and learning will never end and the resources on the planet are already stretched and we are pressuring thousands of species to extinction so it is not really abundant.

The only rational course of action is to not only allow people to leave and move onto the infinite space but to subsidize it.

We can't make humans cooperate perfectly, reproduce less, not cheat, not consume resources. We are an aggressive life form that is designed to adapt and reproduce and kill off competitors. That is our nature, it is what we are supposed to do, what our bodies and minds are designed to do. We may put complex rules in place to make it appear "fair" but there is nothing wrong with people trying to live.

Random said...

"That is our nature, it is what we are supposed to do, what our bodies and minds are designed to do. We may put complex rules in place to make it appear "fair" but there is nothing wrong with people trying to live. "
There is no way of changing human nature. But many cultures have a more collectivist way.
There have been great strides for "fair" in the UK the NHS still exists.
If people "want to live" that is fine it is when they harm others that is wrong. Society has Rules. Most people don't have a problem with that.

David said...

We live in a enclosed space within an infinte system.

My view has shifted from viewing the nation-state as a monolithic entity with power distributed between domestic political parties.

Instead I see families/corporations/oligarchs using international financial networks to hold power in multiple states. Their base of power fluidly shifts as local politics and power relationships change.

No families/corporations/oligarchs prosecuted in the U.S.? Resources shift to the U.S.

War is mostly avoided. Enviornmental degradation continues until it destroys sufficient power to shift politics.

Roger Erickson said...

Yet another expert who accidentally re-opens his high school or biology-101 textbook.

Ho hum. Wake me up when 10% of the human population catches on to the obvious.

Our task is NOT to rehash what various disciplines have known for hundreds of years. Our task is to coordinate fundamentals across all disciplines, so that Policy Staff know the rudiments of what electorates know.

Ignacio said...

Ryan, I don't see space exploration and exploitation coming at a fast enough pace. It has slowed down significantly.

Even if we are are set to stay on Earth for a good while (and we certainly won't have the capacity to colonize other worlds by the end of this century and export huge chunks of our oversized population) we need to learn to exploit the 'infinite' (for all practical purposes) energy the Sun gives us and outsource most heavy industrial and extraction duties to outer space (mining and manufacturing colonies).

But with the current short-sighted leadership this is not happening, and the 'solution' will be to cull the population while keeping some people at the top. And ofc, the (nation-)state will be used for this, so we don't truly live in a "one closed system" at all (the article pov), this reeks of 'end of history' western triumphalism crap. We will be played by oligarchies but oligarchies will play against each other too as it has always happened.

Ryan Harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan Harris said...

I think it is accelerating, Ignacio. We can't launch fuel from earth so they are putting fueling stations into low earth orbit with matter and energy from space. Once that happens, people can move large, large masses through space. For now, we are mostly limited to robotic craft with small payloads.

Governments are helping the private sector defray some of the costs of setting up refueling stations.

And many more that I don't know of along with many ambitious though largely academic and military government programs

Ignacio said...

Yeah but if you compare to the 50's-80's (when there was a military and ideological drive behind it) investment overall has dramatically slowed down and the rate of rbeakthroguths and progress too.

Instead of sending people to move bits faster in Wall St. a lot of surplus physics and maths phd's could be absorbed by huge space programs to promote colonization. Progress hasn't stopped, but hasn't accelerated, IMO it has slowed down compared to big advances over 3 decades ago.

Buzzwords, start ups and prototyping are one thing, but they have to be translated into working technology,a process which can take decades all things considered. The rate of progress has slowed down form this perspective, but at the same time is true that the challenges are bigger.