Creating the Future

Painter 4

Illustration: Graphite crayon and pencil by Black Elephant Blog author

My new class on “Climate Change and Security”–which I am co-teaching this Spring at a local university–has proceeded with supersonic speed due primarily to the students in it.  In one week’s time, they have demonstrated impressive capacities for agile thinking and reframing new concepts.  This is a good thing as, whatever your optics on the world, surely it’s clear that seizing and shaping the future(s) we face requires all kinds of agility today.  Our course alone requires us to move across disciplines as diverse as geology, biodiversity, land management policies, and international law.  (Due to the diversity of knowledge required for this topic–a diversity exceeding most people’s cognitive capacity–we always are on the lookout for guest speakers!)

At the outset, our class covers the science of environmental changes right down to the molecular level, and then–in a way that could be dizzying to some–moves rapidly into broad subjects related to concepts of national, global, and human security.   We zoom in close on a careful consideration of the chemistry and geophysical interaction of the biosphere and then, often in the same class session, zoom right out into the worlds created by man. Together we examine the evolution of international security studies and quickly weave in newer work on global risks, resilience, and broader notions of security.   This year, the World Economic Forum’s report, Global Risks 2014, is featured early in the reading assignments.

Looking at the larger context of global risks helps us see  right from the get-go that environmental security issues have much in common with–and are interconnected to–other global risks and challenges. Having people from around the world in the class always makes for richer discussions!  The discussions this past week have stuck in my mind, so perhaps jotting down a few notes here will make some ideas easily recoverable for later projects, links, posts, and so forth…

While this blog left off with a post last week on the notion of serial innovators (and their innate capacities for valuing the “whole”, including the whole team, the whole organization, etc.), the discussions in our brand-new class last week were a powerful reminder of the importance of cooperative (and iterative, “nonlinear”) sense-making abilities across disciplinary, national, and even generational boundaries.  Serial collaboration skills are coming into vogue, involving the abilities to rapidly form teams and networks able to leverage geographically dispersed expertise, technologies, and data. There is simply too much to know, or wonder about, for one individual, organization or even a single nation! In so many ways, our responses, organizationally, may need to mimic the nature of the challenges:  interdependent, diverse, flexible, and combining a bifocal capacity for short-term and long-term sensibilities.  “Progressive” lenses, that’s what we need! 🙂

So far the class has discussed how “security,” the concept, means different things to different people, primarily due to diverse contexts and values.  We had a presentation from one student based on the assigned readings, which highlighted that concepts of security are linked to given values, such as job security, cyber security, and national security.  The bottom line, as he saw it, is that the definition of security relies entirely on the environment in which it is presented.  Students’ short papers also emphasized, based on assigned readings, that prevailing views of security are out of step with emerging realities.  One suggested that a main challenge today is “our inability to change our way of thinking and reform institutions at a pace fast enough to deal with reality.”

Students have identified that a strictly state-centric perspective in security discourse can be a limiting factor, in the context of environmental security issues, and needs to change.  The concept of human security, already 20 years in the making, may offer a way to “shift to people and societies in discussions and discourses on security,” wrote one student.  This shift will be crucial to designing appropriate responses to the emerging challenges related to climate change.  In many ways, dealing with environmental security challenges requires “a longer-term, more complicated, and integrated response,” said a student.

Up to now, security studies have emphasized external threats to states and so, as some of the experts whose work we are consulting in the class, such as Simon Dalby of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Ontario, Canada, the very concept of security sometimes may be a detriment to providing it.  One student pointed out that security generally implies protection of the status quo and against change.

The students are grappling with the conflicting conclusions of the IPCC assessment reports regarding the link between climate change and security.  They also are reading about the fact that climate change threatens to “exacerbate existing socio-economic inequalities on an international scale” as, according to one student’s paper, “the poorest populations are simultaneously the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to climate-induced impacts.”

Among the remarks made in the discussion were that effective responses require international cooperation, not rivalry. Participants in the class wondered whether this “security” challenge is like other global threats, such as the Ebola crisis, where required responses involve more than the military.  In addition, the discussion surfaced issues of risk assessment and perception, communication strategies, and public engagement.  Clearly it is going to be a busy semester! I am glad I just have one class! 🙂


The Hummingbird Effect

Hummingbird reduced

Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Moving through the literature on how innovation occurs both in human society and nature,  it wasn’t long before I encountered another creature of surprise: the hummingbird!  If you’ve read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), you’ll have a good idea of how he got to now in his latest book, How We Got to Now (2014) where he introduces the “hummingbird effect.” In the earlier work, he focused on identifying the most fertile conditions for innovative thinking. In his view, traversing across disciplines the way he does in his work does not just give us new metaphors: “It gives us new facts.”

It is best to look at the previous book in order to place the newer book in a helpful context for purposes of this blog.  In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson identified a “series of shared properties and patterns” that recur in unusually innovative environments. His ambitious aim in this earlier book was to present the common attributes of innovative systems, whether they involve natural systems, like coral reefs,or the sociology of urban life, or the intellectual evolution of a particular scientist.

In Johnson’s view–the “long zoom” view–unusually innovative (or “generative”) environments “display similar patterns of creativity at multiple scales simultaneously.”  He proposes that by moving across these scales we can gain insights we would not if we stay within the boundaries of a single domain. Johnson emphasizes that, whatever our goals, “we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” Science “long ago realized,” according to Johnson, “that we can understand something better by studying its behavior in different contexts.” The different contexts he explored included ones he called: “the adjacent possible,” “liquid networks,” the “slow hunch,” “error,” and “serendipity,” among others. This earlier book is an excellent conceptual reference, in my view, for those keen to generate more hospitable conditions for creativity and innovation wherever they work. (Perhaps a future blog post will delve into it more.)

The newer book, How We Got to Now, investigates what Johnson calls the “strange chains of influence” that make up the “hummingbird effect.” The hummingbird effect refers to the phenomenon of innovations in one field triggering innovations in another domain altogether. He notes hummingbirds themselves evolved in such a way that they can hover alongside a flower, something few other birds could manage, according to Johnson. These unusual flight mechanics emerged from “coevolutionary interactions” between flowering plants and insects that led to the production of nectar that could only be tapped by birds with a capacity to hover–or, the hummingbird.

(Johnson distinguishes the “hummingbird effect” from the better-known “butterfly effect,” the latter of which also will be addressed in our zoological taxonomy of surprise in coming blog posts.)

In subsequent chapters, Johnson considers how the hummingbird effect influenced externalities and unintended effects in other fields after an innovation in one field took root. Sometimes breakthroughs open up new possibilities that are recognized only much later. Sometimes innovations lead to tools that influence us “metaphorically,” he writes, citing the connection between the clock and the “mechanistic view of early physics.” A main point is that, when we set out to do something, there can be many unintended, even invisible, ripple effects.


Image: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

It can take generations, centuries, and even millenia to see those ripple effects, as underscored by Johnson’s long zoom look at the “history of glass” early in the book.He traces the evolution of the discovery of layers of what we’ve come to know as glass on a vast stretch of the Libyan desert to the use of glass as an ornamentation, for windows, for magnifiers and reading glasses, beautiful transparent Murano glass vases, highly sensitive microscopes and telescopes and even fiber-optic cables. Less tangible but no less significant were the transformative possibilities brought forth by the advent of the mirror, changing the way artists managed perspectives in their paintings and how people everywhere literally saw themselves.

In our more interconnected world today, most important innovations “arrive in clusters of simultaneous discovery,” he writes. All around the world people will work on the same problem and approach it with the “same fundamental assumptions.”

As for individuals who appear to make conceptual leaps that propel them far beyond present-day boundaries, Johnson suggests that some of their genius stems from the fact that they “worked at the margins of their official fields, or at the intersection point between very different disciplines”–disciplines as varied as stenography, printing and anatomical studies of the human ear (influencing the development of a predecessor to the phonograph).

Johnson maintains that explorations of such interconnecting influences, even if prone to be speculative in hindsight, can be helpful for dealing with modern challenges:

“Learning from patterns of innovation that shaped society in the past can only help us navigate the future more successfully, even if our explanations of that past are not falsifiable in quite the way that a scientific theory is.”

Great stuff indeed! And we will come back to it in future posts, I’m sure.