Innovation is an obsession in our current society. We are enamored with technological innovations, we celebrate innovators. We want to be them. And yet when you look closely at the various crises and risks around the world, it becomes clear that the human propensity for innovation is again and again repeatedly at the heart of our collective crises. Innovation in broad terms is responsible for the decline of critical ecosystems, the production of an unsafe climate, and an unprecedented level of risk that human beings face today. Nuclear weapons, which the US used against Japan to bring it to its knees and end the war, led to the Pandora’s box of weapons proliferation. Now US foreign policy is obsessed with the problem, involving North Korea, Iran, and the detente with Russia. The use of fossil fuels and the combustion engine, brought us among other things motorized vehicles, of course transformed our ability to travel. At the same time it is fundamentally complicit to air pollution in cities and carbon emissions, and of course automobile traffic!
Do not get me wrong I am actually a technological optimist! But my optimism does not come from thinking about the next great product, the next innovation. It comes from thinking about how as human beings we can change our consciousness, culture, worldview, our orientation towards how we interact with the world. So at the heart of innovation is a fundamental contradiction that as human beings we are being fundamentally confronted with today. Innovation and our capacity to transform the world around us is fundamental to our prosperity, our capacity to communicate with each other, indeed now it has become fundamental to the transformation of human knowledge. And at the same time it is brought an unprecedented scale of crises, risk and unintended consequences.
The solution is not to disown innovation, pretend that the 20th century didn’t happen. The solution as well is not to deny that innovation has a shadow – that it has contradictions. The solution is to engage with this contradiction actively and inquire into its transformation, the possibility of an integration, of a transcendent position that can hold the complexity of the contradictions we experience today. For thinking about our future, our shadow is our friend.
This is what I hope to develop in this talk. To do this we need a method like Causal Layered Analysis to help us go down the rabbit hole from symptoms to systems to epistemology and to core metaphors that help us understand our human predicament. So let’s begin.
The most basic symptoms that we see today are what most concerns us. A recent report highlighted the decline in insect numbers around the world. We see the collapse of bee colonies in many parts of the world. There is now a Great Pacific Garbage Patch that swirls around in the ocean, with the plastic slowly breaking down and filtering into every ocean-based ecosystem. And most reports on climate change are now saying that 1.5° to 2° warming is a conservative estimate, and when we look at the actual implications of 2° to 3° warming they are profound and disturbing. There are otherwise sane people talking about civilizational collapse. But, if we look at a deeper level, however, we begin to see that these are all symptoms of a system that ‘intentionally’ produces this as an outcome.
For example economies today are interlinked in a grand drama of industry, innovation and competition. This industrial innovation system is supported by every major player that is part of it. In the US this is largely funneled through the defense industries, which act as a subsidy for commercial applications. In Japan they have the ministry of industry trade and innovation. The EU has its own system. The field of foresight actually got its start supporting the industrial innovation system. I’ve call this the STIF model. Science technology and innovation foresight. Through futures research, research institutes identify the growth industries, technologies and opportunities, which helps governments to prioritize research areas, then the money funnels through. The system has been working for well over 70 years, at least since the 1950s. As R&D gets funded, the prototypes move into commercial application, driving industrial transformation. This has basically been the formula for the dramatic technological revolution that we have experienced over the last 70 years.
And yet, as the sociologist Ulrich Beck argued, the same system has produced risk at a grand scale – he defined this as the “global risk society”. Rather than some kind of fluky happenstance production of risk – his argument is that it is actually a systematic production of risk. And if we look at the complicity of this system in our most pressing challenges today, this becomes very clear. Today we see new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and machine learning, which herald an age of robots-as-servants. But it also has brought us into the potential death spiral of autonomous military robotics. We have systematically designed our global economic system to produce risk.
This of course was coupled with the growth mindset coming out of the 1940s and 50s. As a bulwark against communism, the West adopted Keynesian economics, with its emphasis on economic growth. Of course this economic growth was to be built on the back of this technological revolution, productivity gains and more jobs. And so we not just designed a global economic system to produce risk, but also to produce an unsustainable trajectory of economic growth, given the carrying capacity of our ecological systems. Current estimates show we are well beyond 1.5 planets of carrying capacity. A recent report shows that our capacity for resource extraction far outstrips the earth’s long term carrying capacity. We now have an “earth overshoot day” dedicated to highlighting this. We now use one Earth’s worth of resources in 7 months. The other 5 months are “deficit” or “loan” months – it will need to be paid back. And can I just add that eco-futurists and ecological economists like Hazel Henderson, Herman Daly and Donella Meadows have been talking about this since the 1970s! For 50 years!
Then there is capitalism. Now I am not going to argue here that markets and competition are not needed. I believe markets and competition are fundamentally needed. When I choose a cell phone provider I want to have some choice, and I want one group to be competing against another to provide me with the best service. When I want to go down the street and buy some bread, I don’t want to be limited to one business, whether private, public or otherwise. I want some choice where I buy my bread. I’m gonna buy my bread from the people that are friendliest to me and whose bread is the best and the tastiest. So we’re not talking here about markets and competition. But I am no Milton Friedman.
In simple terms capitalism is a system of accumulating value – by shareholder to accumulate value. This hasn’t changed much in about 400 years of history. The Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company, for example practiced this through a variety of methods. They were backed by their shareholders, their investors and they were tasked with bringing back / accumulating more value. The problem is having been removed from the source of where that value was coming from, terrible things can happen – the company takes land, kills, even enslaved people. We know this from the history of mercantile colonialism.
But the core capitalist logic has not changed much. So when you look at an operation like Facebook, we say okay Facebook is different. It’s connecting all these people, it’s making all kinds of things possible. But capitalism creates social externalities. In the process of accumulating value for shareholders, the company creates a problem somewhere else. So for example now we see a lawsuit against Facebook by content moderators, who are arguing that they experience severe psychological trauma for having to moderate disturbing Facebook content for hours on end – they have posttraumatic stress disorder. It’s like that scene out of the Mexican sci-fi film the Sleep Dealer. Technology has replaced human labor but it hasn’t replaced human exploitation.
And this is not to mention the way in which Facebook has driven social polarization. To be fair it’s not just Facebook but it’s a whole suite of social media platforms. But research that has come out recently essentially argues that the way in which content gets contained within filter bubbles, and the algorithms that govern the content that we see produces a web of self-referentiality – people are more and more exposed to the same or similar ideas reinforcing their thinking, indeed making their thinking more entrenched and extreme. And it’s not in their interest to give you content that’s going to contradict your worldview. Why would they? They just want you to spend more time in front of the screen so they can sell you more advertisements. If you get confused, experience cognitive dissonance and then have to work this out, that is not more advertisements for them. So we have Trump and we have Bolsonaro… and other countries where, the social externality of capitalist driven social media is social polarization. If you ask me this is a very high price to pay. So at a deeper level we have innovation and technology embedded in political economy.
But I want to take us one step deeper and explore something else. And this is that there’s been a fundamental disconnect in the way that innovation and technology have played out in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with respect to our understanding of ecological systems. It is a remarkable fact that in the West the systems literature only really emerged in the late 60s and 70s. Somehow in the madness of progress and modernity something profound was lost. There were presumptions about the distinction between man and nature. “Nature” is out there somewhere – “man” is here. I use the word MAN deliberately this distinction emerged in a patriarchal era.
The fundamental premise here is that human beings are at the center of the world context. We can shape the nature to the will of the human. We can pour pesticides and fertilizers onto soils with abandon. We can divert water systems any way we want. We can operate as masters and controllers. Its humanity with a God complex! But in fact this worldview has fundamental blind spots. This is the same worldview that empowers a company like Monsanto to super-sell Glyphosate to farmers as a way to kill weeds. The only problem is, the glyphosate also kills farmers. So in the US today there is a case in the upper courts where farmers are suing Monsanto for the effects of glyphosate. And it’s been implicated in colony collapse disorder. And what do farmers and bees have in common? Besides being very busy? They are both living systems. Glyphosate is both one of the key contenders as the culprit of colony collapse disorder, it is also a key contenders for a cause of cancer in humans.
Myth and Metaphor
This then brings me to the core premise of this talk – a fundamentally unprovable hypothesis, but to me it makes sense. I believe that hardwired into the human psyche is a technological bias. From our origins it was technology that became the success formula for our species. If wanted to defend ourself from lion, before technology we had our bare hands.
Some anthropologists argue that the physiological transformation of hominids was driven by the invention of cooking. By being able to cook raw food we were able to eat food quicker and digest faster – we were able to consume more calories. They argue that the evidence shows that the invention of cooking coincides with a rapid expansion in the size of the human brain, essentially that the capacity to absorb more nutrients through cooking was reflected physiologically. This might explain why cooking shows are so popular.
And this brings me to the wonderful image and metaphor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey. When the proto-human throws the bone into the air, it flies up and spins and becomes a space station. And we are projected hundreds of thousands of years into the future, to the year 2001 – (which for us has passed but those in the 1960s it was the future). The significance of this image cannot be understated. For me it is nothing less than the affirmation of who we are as technological beings. Humans don’t do technology – we are technology. But as we saw with the tragic unfolding in 2001 a Space Odyssey, the film itself, technology and innovation can have some unintended consequences. The artificial intelligence that ran the ship – Hal 9000 – went a little crazy.
And so embedded in our dreamscape of who we are is also a nightmare. I believe films speak from the collective unconscious. It’s an idea from philosopher Susanne Langer. And I believe what the collective unconscious is saying is that at a certain level of awareness we know here is a fundamental contradiction, and this unease, this terror, expresses this feeling in our relationship to technology – indeed who we are as technological beings. Humanity’s disowned self is speaking to us through the medium of collective dreams and nightmares – film. And this gets reiterated in film after film after film. We see this in films like Terminator, in Ex Machina, in so many films.
So now this is a very good place to come back to the core idea for the talk – that we have a problem with innovation. But that there are some solutions. And so I want to provide a few design principles that we might think about in terms of solving the problem of innovation – in the way that it “defutures” to use Tony Fry’s terminology – in its current manifestation, and how it might “refuture” in its next manifestation.
So innovation that refutures – that gives us a future rather than taking it away – this is anticipatory innovation. It is not the next cool gadget for the future. Because as I discussed the cool gadget of the future, whether it’s an iPhone or a plastic bottle or artificial intelligence or whatever, it is an expression of humanity’s ingenuity but also its shadow, it is contradiction embodied.
But innovations that that come from an an awareness of this contraction and which “refuture”, this is anticipatory innovation. It is not really a new idea. People like Bucky Fuller, Lewis Mumford, Ivan Illich, Hazel Henderson, many others articulated similar and profound sentiments decades ago.
So drawing from this conversation there are four design strategies for anticipatory innovation here:
- Piecemeal amelioration of symptoms
- Cosmo localization
- Understanding the web of life
- Owning our shadow as technological beings
At the most basic level, at the level of symptoms, we need lots of projects and lots of new technologies. Let’s clean up the great Pacific Garbage Patch. We need renewable technologies, we need low carbon technologies. We need to sequester carbon as quickly as possible.
But at the level of political economy we have to do something completely different. Instead of designing and producing something in two different parts of the world, meant to compete with each other, proprietary and un-shareable, producing as many problems in the long-term as it solves, we need to mutualise the production of value for mutual sustainment. This is Cosmo localization (also known as “Design Global Manufacture Local“), a political economic vision shared by a number of people around the world.
The basic idea is that we are in the era of planetary challenges that have local manifestations. To solve local problems we need to enlist a globally distributed community which can pool knowledge, expertise and resources. In biological terms this is called “stigmergy” – whereby as a global community we build on each others work toward shared goals and outcomes. Thus a “planetary stigmergy” is the mutualization of value, designs, knowledge and strategy at a globally coordinated level. Cosmo-localism entails developing such planetary contributory systems, meaning that for any one problem or challenge, local or distributed, people contribute to the problem solving from everywhere.
Michel Bauwens argues that “cosmo-localization is a new paradigm for the production and distribution of value that combines the universal sharing of knowledge (cosmo), but the ‘subsidiarity’ of production as close as possible to the place of need (‘local’), essentially through distributed local manufacturing and voluntary mutualization. The general idea is not to impede technological progress though intellectual property, in an era of climate change where we cannot afford the 20-year lag in innovation due to patents; and to radically diminish the physical cost of transport through local production. Cosmo-localization is based on the belief that the mutualization of provisioning systems can radically diminish the human footprint on natural resources, which need to be preserved for future generations and all beings of the planet.”
Cosmo-localization describes the process of bringing together our globally distributed knowledge and design commons with the high-to-low tech capacity for localized production. It is based on the ethical premise, drawing from cosmopolitanism, that people and communities should be universally empowered with the heritage of human ingenuity that allow them/us to more effectively create livelihoods and solve problems in their local environments, and that, reciprocally, local production and innovation should support the wellbeing of our planetary commons.
Likewise, Vasilis Kostakis and Andreas Roos argue “what is light (knowledge, design) becomes global, while what is heavy (machinery) is local, and ideally shared. Design global, manufacture local (DGML) demonstrates how a technology project can leverage the digital commons to engage the global community in its development, celebrating new forms of cooperation. Unlike large-scale industrial manufacturing, the DGML model emphasizes application that is small-scale, decentralized, resilient, and locally controlled.”
And thus Cosmo-localization is a conscious twining of a consequentialist cosmopolitan ethics with technology. It takes the view that technology is not value neutral, but rather proscribed by discourse, culture and worldview. The same cultural milieu that gave us “disruptive innovation” is one that is premised on individualism, disrupt or be disrupted, and lacks a concern for the social implications and applications for technology – and reflects an unconscious stance toward technology, as something “out there” rather than as an integral part of what human beings are.
This twining of a planetary ethics, with the emerging potential of open source design and the new localized production technologies being born augurs a transformation. A new universal human rights and ethics applies to the right to the human legacy of designs – a global design commons; This global design commons needs to be directed toward the production of goods and services within planetary boundaries; And thus a planetary contributory system emerges where people coordinate in solving shared problems. Problem solving is localized while simultaneously being supported by a global web of solidarity.
Understanding the Web of Life
At another level, though, we need to innovate with a clear understanding that we are embedded in the web of life. We are not masters of it, we are not controllers of it. In fact we emerged from it. In our DNA and in our physiology is the legacy of 4 billion years of evolution. So we need to innovate with a clear understanding of ecological principles. These principles can’t be covered here in great depth because it’s actually quite complex – there are many context and there’s a lot going on. There is permaculture, Panarchy, Regenerative agriculture, biomimicry, and a whole number of strategies and frameworks that can help us innovate using principles for ecological resilience.
For starters we need to understand that our fundamental life-support system is this complex living system which is our planet. This is the fundamental unit. At a bioregional scale we need to really understand the complex and nuanced interactions between species. At the level of the human body we need to see ourselves as living systems. Whatever we put into the environment will become us – whether it’s pollution or pesticides or radioactivity. And at the microlevel we need to understand the complex dynamics that provide the foundations for resilience – the health of soils, microbiological dynamics and what it means to have healthy gut bacteria flowing through our body. We are part of the web of life.
Already there’s plenty of projects that take ecological principles into account. The literature around the circular economy is inspired by how the web of life works – nothing is wasted, every output is an input for another process. And much of this also can be found in premodern systems of production. In Edo period Japan there were a very well developed systems of what we would call today a circular economy to deal with human waste in urban environments that was then used in rural farming, and how they had a complex artisanal system of repairing broken items. So today we also have the right to repair movement.
And in Mexico City, there is the precolonial legacy of Tenochtitlan. A city that, at the time of the conquest, had a larger population than any European city, and sustained itself through a complex system of what we would now call aquaponics. I don’t want to over-romantisize the Aztecs, but the main idea is that we can learn a lot from history – many of the “new” ways forward are embedded in the past.
At the most fundamental level we are grappling with who we are as technological beings. Really until we fully accept the shadow of our technological self, we will continue to produce crisis after crisis, externality after externality. So the last key idea is the idea of the commons. I have defined the commons as that which we mutually depend on for our survival and wellbeing, such that we are implied into new systems of collaborative governance of these commons. And when we look at what this is, there is a lot there – we depend on:
- Healthy soils
- A safe climate
- Honest media
- Good systems of governance
- The list goes on…
So when we think about our technological shadow, well indeed, we can also see that this is part of the commons. We need to innovate in a way that creates a future rather than takes it away – we need anticipatory innovation. We need to make sure innovation creates less risk and not more. And so, anticipatory innovation as a practice is part of our commons.
And indubitably, when we realise that we are mutually implicated in something that we mutually depend on for our survival and wellbeing, well, that then is our call to action, that we need to engage in the governance of this, the management of this, that we become active shapers of it, rather than victims of inaction. This is “commons governance”, which has a rich literature, and as David Bollier and Silke Helfrich argue, means we become “commoners” and practice “commoning”. In practical terms this means applying the precautionary principle more actively, as a partnership and political contract between citizens, the state and commercial sectors.
If we bring on board these design principles, we can create innovations that refuture, rather than defuture. We can practice an anticipatory innovation that can make our world a healthier and safer place for all of us.
I use a technique called the anticipatory experimentation method, that helps to challenge “used futures”, create new ones, to bring the preferred future into the present through experiments that can scale for impact. It’s a methodology for anticipatory innovation.
The great futurist Hazel Henderson talked about our entire planetary existence is one great laboratory of learning. The challenges we face collectively are like a planetary classroom. We are being asked to learn something fundamental about ourselves, about how we behave in the world, about a new level of thinking.
We can take the crises we face as a signifier of many different things, how terrible the human species is, how difficult the challenges is …. There are some lazy ways of thinking that lead to fatalism.
I prefer to take our current dilemma as a way to frame humanity’s evolutionary leap. We need to ask “what is this planetary era asking us to learn collectively today?”
If we can use Henderson’s metaphor, then the lesson plan for humanity becomes pretty clear.