Category: Post-scarcity Society


There have been a couple of very interesting articles recently about the relationship between sustainability and resilience. The term sustainability suggests that we are trying to keep the system at a certain level. It flags the existence of an optimal operating point for the (earth) system that we need to moderate/change our behaviour to meet.

the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.”

Sustainability also has connotations of efficiency – the ‘best’ way to do something using the least amount of resources. Continue reading

Because life is so often incomprehensible, books one can’t quite understand can seem truer and deeper than those one can.

Alain de Botton

Executive summaries over reports – 140 characters over email – texts and facebook posts over letters, these are all examples of the shortening of attention and time spent engaged with one idea. The modern working person does not have the time to spend thinking about an issue or problem for more than a few minutes. Their attention is spread across multiple mediums – computer, phone, face to face – they are busy all the time. In fact, a check of progress is to ask someone – are you busy? A positive response is good, a negative is met with raised eyebrows as if the absence of busyness somehow implies wrongness or failure.

This obsession with being busy, having interesting status updates and quick witted ripostes on social media is counterpoised with rising complexity and the need for leaders to engage with the deeper levels of problems rather than the surface presentation. Many of us skim along the top of things – linking together ideas at a surface level, regardless of their past usage or lineage. It is rare to come across someone who takes the time to think through an issue, we are rewarded for our ability to react quickly and make decisions on the run. When these decisions turn out to be less than optimal, we make more to fill the gap or try to re-direct the ship. We certainly don’t spend time looking at our assumptions, understanding history and identifying the deeper dynamics at work.

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I have been thinking about the individual and the collective over the past few days. The individual is in the ascendant at the moment in many Western countries, and becoming more so in some collectivist cultures. The political discourse in Australia and the US, in particular, focuses on the rights of the individual and the responsibilities we have to bootstrap ourselves in the world. Mitt Romney is quoted saying he can’t and won’t help those who refuse to help themselves, here is Oz, Tony Abbott runs a similar line. The ideas of ‘entitlement‘, ‘making it’, ‘doing for themselves’ etc are pervasive. There is a similar discourse in the everyday world, kids being encouraged to beat the bully, adults exhorted to work hard to build individual emotional maturity and the accepted expectation that we control our reality through our choices as consumers via the market.

The rewards society bestows are on those who have maximized their personal position. Taking one for the team is not rewarded. A ability to work through ego to achieve a personal goal is much more valued than the ability to engage and motivate a group to act. Now part of the problem is our measurement systems as to a large extent in organisations, and increasingly in society, what gets measured gets done and it is very difficult to evaluate the individual’s input in a group. Our reward systems of pay and promotion are reliant on us being able to evaluate an individual’s performance, so we look for leadership rather than evaluating followership.
What if this is the wrong way to go? A thought piece by John Crowley suggests that the future is more likely to be the complete opposite of the present rather than a continuation of it. What if we need to be developing more collective ways of being in the world? Much of the emerging work around wicked problems is group based, there is a recognition in many areas that we will need to work together in the face of descent scenarios, but what if we are actually training ourselves out of the core skills and attributes we will need? For many of us, the requirement to subsume our ego needs to those of a group is extremely difficult. We all want to be individual and stand out from the crowd, but a leader without followers is just someone out for a walk. In all groups, someone has to come last, not everyone can lead and there is always a number of roles that have to be fulfilled in order for successful group achievement, most of which involve following at one time or another. So if our systems, personal preferences and accepted behaviors counter this requirement, where are we left? I think part of our future challenge will be to learn to work effectively in all types of groups, organizations and communities. It will be those people who do not seek to lead who will be followed.

The archetype of the strong, decisive leader who has all the answers is not useful in the face of wicked problems, instead we will be searching for a leader who is comfortable with not knowing, able to work with people and follow when required. Greenleaf’s servant leader idea is along these lines, as is Sarkar’s Sadvipra. This goes further than being able to put up with people whilst working in a team, or just engaging in community when you feel like it, this is fully authentic person to person relationship and that it hard work. The requirements for the role will be an ability to overcome ego, to be present to the moment, knowing your moral stance and being curious and interested in others. How we learn to work together and give to each other without expecting payment is shaping up to be a challenge for the future.

One of the first books I bought on the ‘the future’ outside of texts I was reading for the Masters of Strategic Foresight was Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart. I bought a copy in 2003 while at a World Future Society conference in San Francisco, it is printed on a material made from plastic resins and fibres. It claimed to be waterproof, which I tested, and recyclable, which I haven’t as yet. The material is soft and pleasant to the touch. They describe the material as a ‘technical nutrient’, “a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles.” (p5) I still remember how excited I was by both the book’s message and the embodiment of the message by the artefact itself. The idea of cradle to cradle manufacturing, where the waste products of one process becomes the feedstock for another, is still a very seductive idea to me. That this should be key requirement of all design is also one which has been slow to catch on, but is starting to appear. Europe requires that the recycling of packaging and products be considered during the design process. The idea of upcycling is starting to gain traction, as is the closing of systems in restaurants and the like.

Cradle to Cradle

 

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Envisioning the City of the Future | Blog | design mind. This work caught my eye as it is an interesting view of the future of cities. Cities have become a big focus for sustainable development, social innovation and projections around the future due to the tipping point that was reached in 2008. As, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s human population (3.3 billion people) were living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost 5 billion. “Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth.” http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2007/english/introduction.html

The New Cities Summit in Paris, the inaugural annual conference of the New Cities Foundation, came at the right time (May 2012). It brought together thought leaders in technology, infrastructure, architecture, energy, transport, national and local government, the media, academia, and the non-profit sector from all regions of the world. Seven hundred high-level urban thinkers and city shapers met to discuss the “first truly urban century.”

The report on the frog website and the ebooklet that can be found here indicated the types of discussion which were had for the duration of the conference.

The lives of the people living in those cities can be improved – and the impact of this growth on the environment reduced – by the use of “smart” technologies that can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of urban systems. Given that cities are, and always have been, about the clustering of people, digital innovations are now undoubtedly accelerating human interactions in urban environments and readying citizens for contributing to inclusive growth. By unlocking technology, infrastructure and public data, cities can open up new value chains that spawn innovative applications and information products that make possible sustainable modes of city living and working.

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Victoria was inundated with water yet again, which is devastating for those who are in the thick of it and may have consequences for the State as a whole.

Traralgon flood (The Age 06/06/12)

The government has assured Victorians there is no threat to power supplies after floodwaters began spilling into  the Yallourn open-cut coal mine, forcing the adjoining power station to operate on a reduced capacity.

The Yallourn mine has suffered ”significant leakage” since the nearby Morwell River burst its banks, affecting a conveyor system used to transport coal to the Yallourn Power Station, which supplies 22 per cent of the state’s electricity supply and eight per cent of the national electricity market. Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/environment/weather/floodwaters-pour-into-coal-mine-but-power-supplies-safe-minister-20120606-1zv5e.html#ixzz1wyzcuC5v

There are infrastructure shocks in all countries at all times. Some countries are better prepared than others, usually because they have patchy service delivery at the best of times, others (usually Western countries) come to a complete standstill. We were living in the UK during the 2000 driver’s strike in which they blockaded fuel depots and the populace panicked and bought fuel which in turn meant there was none to be had about three days into the strike. This affected food availability as people started to panic buy and it seemed to take a long time for the Government to control the situation or enact a rationing regime. Coming from Australia which had regular odds and evens days for fuel buying when I was growing up, this seemed ridiculous. We had gone on a driving holiday from York to Cornwall and so were holed up in the very south of the country which was not a bad place to be. This experience probably sensitised me to the potential for infrastructure disruption, as I had experienced problems with gas when a Victorian plant had exploded the year before which resulted in me having to take cold showers when 6 months pregnant in the middle of a Melbourne winter with no heating. Now for those of you who deal with infrastructure issues on a daily basis, these are small issues but as the French heatwave deaths in 2003 demonstrated, many people are not prepared for climatic extremes.

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The image below this post comes from the latest IMF working paper (May 2012) looking at the “The Future of Oil: Geology versus Technology” (opens pdf) which attempts to take both the models of oil availability – that proposed by geologists and that by technologists and work out what the likely price implications are going to be to 2020. An internal working paper that “does not presume that there is a constraint on how much oil can be taken out of the ground. It prefers to believe that extraction rates will depend on the price that will be able to be charged for the final product”, it makes the wonderfully understated point that “the future may not be easy”. I continue to be amazed at the number of people I meet, sitting in leadership positions, who are unaware of this issue. I have heard from colleagues of engagements in the past couple of years with groups of senior decision-makers who have refused to discuss the issue as they believe it to be a fringe problem.

World Oil Price IMF 2012 (in 2011 dollars)

This is in fact a core strategic issue for all businesses, community service providers and governments, especially if what the paper finds holds true. In the introduction, the authors state that they will:

Discuss and reconcile two diametrically opposed views concerning the future of world oil production and prices. The geological view expects that physical constraints will dominate the future evolution of oil output and prices. It is supported by the fact that world oil production has plateaued since 2005 despite historically high prices, and that spare capacity has been near historic lows. The technological view of oil expects that higher oil prices must eventually have a decisive effect on oil output, by encouraging technological solutions. It is supported by the fact that high prices have, since 2003, led to upward revisions in production forecasts based on a purely geological view. We present a nonlinear econometric model of the world oil market that encompasses both views. The model performs far better than existing empirical models in forecasting oil prices and oil output out of sample. Its point forecast is for a near doubling of the real price of oil over the coming decade. The error bands are wide, and reflect sharply differing judgments on ultimately recoverable reserves, and on future price elasticities of oil demand and supply.

The paper is technical and, I am assuming rigourous, it is clear from my reading of it that they were struggling to model to large range of unknowns on the process that they had set themselves. They state that there are wide bands of error in the model as the future is unknown, “there is substantial uncertainty about these future trends that are rooted in our fundamental lack of knowledge, based on current data, about ultimately recoverable oil reserves, and about long-run price elasticities of oil demand and supply”. The model forecasts a “near doubling of real oil prices over the coming decade”, with a global average growth rate of between 3-5%. Given that the Chinese, Indian and Brazilian account for 25% of global GDP and their growth rates are forecast to be at least 5% over this period, it suggests many countries will stagnate or go backwards.

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Yesterday, I saw a link to the trailer for the new J.J Abrams TV series which is apparently slated for a Fall 2012 showing in the US. The publicity blurb below explains its premise.

Our entire way of life depends on electricity. So what would happen if it just stopped working? Well, one day, like a switch turned off, the world is suddenly thrust back into the dark ages. Planes fall from the sky, hospitals shut down, and communication is impossible. And without any modern technology, who can tell us why?

Now, 15 years later, life is back to what it once was long before the industrial revolution: families living in quiet cul-de-sacs, and when the sun goes down, the lanterns and candles are lit. Life is slower and sweeter. Or is it?

On the fringes of small farming communities, danger lurks. And a young woman’s life is dramatically changed when a local militia arrives and kills her father, who mysteriously – and unbeknownst to her – had something to do with the blackout. This brutal encounter sets her and two unlikely companions off on a daring coming-of-age journey to find answers about the past in the hopes of reclaiming the future.

From director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2”) and the fertile imaginations of J.J. Abrams and Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”), comes a surprising “what if” action-adventure series, where an unlikely hero will lead the world out of the dark. Literally.  (http://www.nbc.com/revolution/about/)

Putting to one side the plausibility, or not, of all electrical power suddenly evaporating, the depiction of how society might look 15 years after such an event is interesting from a foresight point of view. When I watched the trailer, I was immediately struck by the similarities with the work of James Howard Kunstler in his book ‘World Made by Hand‘ which is mentioned in a previous post.  The rise of warlords, and the move back to an agrarian way of life, alongside the dilapidation of the built environment are all features of his novel. Rather than the  overnight removal of electricity, Kunstler alludes to a gradual decay of infrastructure and services as the price of keeping everything going rises off the back of peak resources. In his world, there is community which is strong and interconnected but this is in an area of the US which is difficult to access. Urban areas and those rural areas close to large cities are less secure and many millions of people have died.

Revolution seems to take us back to a world which is similar to that described by Kunstler, with the urban areas reminiscent of the wild west in America shown in TV series such as Deadwood (but this time with ninja-like fight scenes). It will be interesting to watch the series with a foresight eye, to identify what the assumptions about the present have been and how these play out into the future. What I would like to see are some depictions of how we might move to a positive future in the face of such challenges, is it really our fate to be thrust into a violent world of oppression and fear?

Have a look at the trailer below and see what you think.

Amongst those people who are alert to the ‘perfect storm’ of climate change coupled with peak oil frustration is building as political debates seem to discuss everything else except this, the UN Copenhagen fiasco portends further international talk fests that accomplish little and the tiny steps attempted towards reform (“we might put a price on carbon”) are quickly tossed out of the balloon when some group complains. To many people actual progress is proceeding at a pre-global warming glacial pace. To those people the need to move to a low carbon or even carbon free energy future is critical if we are to prevent runaway global warming. Yet around them they see almost nothing is changing. In Australia we are digging the black and brown coal up as fast as we can and either sending it off to China or burning it to meet or urban energy needs to run our plasma televisions,  and air conditioners. Any entrepreneur who proposes a wind turbine farm is certainly going to be opposed by group objecting to the ruination of the landscape, the danger to wildlife or the impact on property prices. Meanwhile state governments invest in freeways rather than public transport and the proliferation of low cost airlines and the growth in per capita air miles is seen as an unproblematic ‘good’.

It is opportune that Vaclav Smil’s latest offering, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, has just landed. Smil is required, if uncomfortable reading, for anyone who professes a concern in matters to do with energy transition. In his previous writings Smil has outlined in forensic detail all aspects of our current energy system. In his previous books Smil has destroyed the optimistic claims proffered by alternative energy proponents that we can maintain our current economic and social systems by just changing from carbon-based systems to something else. The numbers just do not add up. So is Smil also impatient for change? No he is not.

In this book Smil outlines how the energy transformation that we must make, and we will make it, is a generational exercise. The history of energy system transformations show us that anything up to four generations would be needed to accomplish the bulk of the economic, political, scientific and social unwinding and rewinding that will have to take place. When we change how we get our energy, and especially if the energy that is coming gives a lower energy return on its investment then everything must change –  by everything he means how we live, work, feed ourselves, educate our children, form communities, relate to other people, form our geopolitical relationships, fight our wars, entertain ourselves and create art. Everything.

Smil’s latest warning is that people are underestimating the extent of change and overestimating how quickly the changes can occur. When things move slowly, as Smil says they must, then people will get frustrated, will toss out their political leaders because they are not ‘doing anything’, and then toss out the ones after that because they are no better. What will follow is decline in institutional respect, suspicion that others are ‘free riding’ on the backs of others who are trying to do the ‘right things’ and commercial enterprises will flee from investing in the necessary innovations.

Into this unpleasant scenario I inject myself and all the other like-minded souls who are concerned about the future. What should we do, given Smil’s prediction? I suggest we need to practice patience and purpose.

If Smil is right, and I think he is pretty close, then I think preaching and practicing patience is a good first step. We need to realise that we are unlikely to see the desired transition in our lifetimes. Rather than blame others for failing to do more we should adopt the philosophy of the people who built the great cathedrals and their like. Begin a monumental building process that will be completed and enjoyed by those who come after us. Ours is not the key generation, not the group who will save the world. It merely is the generation that realises that a lot needs to be done and so starting work is far more important that thinking about the end. Adopting and living to that purpose might be the best thing we can do.

Patience and purpose together. The necessary changes will be made quickest when someone starts, so we are the ones who can start now. We need the patience to realise that our individual actions will be largely invisible, like the actions of the person who lays one stone in a wall are largely invisible when the wall is completed.  We need the purpose to stay at the task while others are not doing likewise. Someone needs to start, I think it needs to be us.

Having lost my bag on a recent trip to Japan, it became obvious to me how much I rely on my ability to plan and then the opportunity to put that plan into place. I had packed clothes that I felt would be appropriate for the various activities and then found myself with nothing. Clothes could be purchased but with the difference in size between the average Japanese woman and me it was going to be a stretch. I found this quite discombobulating and reflected on my attachment to being comfortable with my stuff.

When things don’t go as planned is always a great time to reflect on what is important and what has ‘charge’ in a particular situation. I am not clothing conscious but I do like to feel comfortable, this wasn’t about that. This was ‘my stuff’ that had gone missing. I have been through a period of simplification and had shed a number of my possessions, so I have been contemplating the idea of letting go.  This reaction appeared to be about travelling and taking stuff with me to feel more at home in a strange place. My adult equivalent of a baby blanket. So what happens when it is not available?

For the past few days I have done without a high level ability to communicate, read signs and generally make myself understood. Life is reduced to the basics and that is enough. I think this feeling of enoughness is an interesting idea. Is it possible to be ‘full’ without being encumbered? I visited a Buddhist shrine in Nagoya and there was enough and no more. The tea ceremony, the design of the teahouse, the gardens designed for contemplation were all enough with nothing extra that wasn’t absolutely required. There was extreme beauty in this, a carving out of space for contemplation, which is seen as a luxury now in western society. So the luxury is in time, space and peace not in the trappings. When my stuff arrived, there was a requirement for me to ‘spend’ time unpacking, ironing and deciding what to wear. Previous to this I had not needed to use my time in such a way and could reflect, read, and rest unencumbered. This is the tension – what do we need to sustain us? Things or time?

I think that balancing these two requirements will become more and more important in the future as the cost of living increases, but we know we need to ‘buy’ more time to reflect and act in order to support ourselves and make wise decisions as the complexity around us increases.