Redesigning the System

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This essay was originally published in the Broken Nature exhibition catalog.

The ten warmest years on record have all occurred in the last twenty years, and the four warmest years on record have all occurred since 2014.It’s natural to think about natural things when we read about climate change. Most of us grasp that a change in the environment impacts the oceans and ice caps and polar bears. This is where we intuitively draw the outer limit of climate change’s effect.

But the story of our changing climate doesn’t end with climate itself. Two of the worst droughts in the Americas have occurred in the past ten years.The drought in the US Midwest in 2010 depressed corn yields, causing food prices to rise globally, and surges in food prices strongly correlate with political instability.Indeed, in Tunisia that year, we witnessed the uprising that initiated the historic Arab Spring. Since 2008, climate-related or extreme weather events have made an average of 22.5 million people each year flee their lands, livelihoods, and homes in places like Darfur, Bangladesh, Puerto Rico, Gambia, Yemen, and El Salvador.4 These mass migrations have sparked and exacerbated conflicts. Rising sea levels, meanwhile, are leading wealthy real estate investors, previously drawn to beachfront property, to seek higher-elevation neighborhoods. In the first documented example of “climate gentrification,” low-income residents in Miami are  being displaced from the same neighborhoods they were perversely confined to under Jim Crow laws.5 Far from seemingly innocuous ice caps, we must in fact link climate change to mass migration, conflict, food prices, political instability, and gentrification.

Time dependence of FAO Food Price Index from January 2004 to May 2011. Light green vertical lines correspond to beginning dates of “food riots” and protests associated with the major recent unrest in North Africa and the Middle East. The overall death toll is reported in parentheses. The bolded vertical line indicates the date, December 13, 2010, on which researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute submitted a report to the US government warning of the link between food prices (Y axis), social unrest, and political instability. Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,” New England Complex Systems Institute, July 19, 2011.

This is the world we live in. This is complexity—an impossibly large network of interacting components, without central control, whose emergent behavior is much more elaborate than the sum of the behaviors of its individual parts. Complexity abounds. In the past decade, we experienced the previously unthinkable consequences of an interconnected global financial system. We now understand the sustainability of life on Earth in terms of a system of interacting planetary boundaries.6 We can now link tolerance for individual rights with economic growth, and the legalization of marijuana with a decline in opioid prescriptions.7 In each of these cases, we can trace further links out to reaches of matter and society that once seemed distant and disconnected. Indeed, we now recognize that many, if not most, of the systems on our planet—cities, markets, bodies, environments—are complex. And they themselves interact to form the even grander complex system that is our planet. We are either at, or nearly at, the point where every world problem, from refugees to terrorism, food security, and water scarcity, is intractable in isolation. It is a complexity tipping point of sorts, affecting every government, business, and person. Stephen Hawking proclaimed the twenty-first century “the century of complexity.”

Racing to avert monsoon catastrophe in a Rohingya camp, Bangladesh, February 20, 2018. © UNHCR/Roger Arnold

While complexity is certainly not a new phenomenon, various forces—some natural, some human-made—are resulting in greater interactions between the world’s systems. These include climate change, globalization, population growth, and the spread of information technology. For the foreseeable future, these macro forces will increase, and it stands to reason that complexity will, too. But as we’ve experienced time and again in recent years, we are not yet organized to understand, let alone manage or improve, the world as a system of systems.9 Reorganizing and rebuilding the world for the age of complexity must be the mission of our time. And this mission has to be viewed in the context of another major force acting on society: the rise in fragmentation. Observing the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I in front of an audience that included Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, France’s President Emmanuel Macron recently warned against the “old demons [of nationalism] coming back to wreak chaos and death.”10 Our world is moving perilously away from multilateralism and toward our respective corners—an almost surreal rise in nationalism against a backdrop of increasingly global and interconnected challenges. “Climate change,” proclaimed former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “carries no passport and knows no national borders.”11 

The existential challenge of humankind today is that the systems that make up the planet are becoming more complex, while the systems that organize and govern the planet are becoming more fragmented. Confronting this challenge will take nothing less than a reframing of the world. But we’ve done it before. One afternoon in February 1966, Stewart Brand was gazing at the skyline from a roof in San Francisco when it occurred to him that an image of the entire planet, seen at once, could shift civilization from acting as if the Earth was flat to something spherical and extremely finite (as Buckminster Fuller argued). Brand realized that a color photograph would help make that happen: “There it would be for all to see, the earth complete, tiny, adrift, and no one would ever perceive things the same way.”12 Soon, pins emblazoned with the question, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” were distributed at college campuses across the United States. And in 1968, Apollo 8’s astronauts returned from space with Earthrise, the first photograph of the whole Earth. The image reframed everything. Brand recounted, “For the first time, humanity saw itself from outside.”13  Earth Day, and the global environmental movement it represents, was inaugurated two years later, alongside the landmark Clean Air Act.

Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. © NASA

 

First session of the United Nations Security Council, Church House, London, January 17, 1946. Photo: Marcel Bolomey.

Humans designed the Bretton Woods system, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the Sustainable Development Goals. When we recognized the need to galvanize the world around our shared fragility, shared value of human dignity, shared rejection of isolationism and nationalism, the world responded and the planet was improved. Thus, we can and we shall reorganize and rebuild the world for the age of complexity. Design is pivotal to the solution in at least two key ways. First, to galvanize the shared appreciation for complexity that the world now needs. And second, to introduce systems thinking into the interventions we now bring forward to fix the planet. This includes what we create and the order in which it is introduced (it’s useful to have roads to deliver drugs, for example). Designers are uniquely equipped to be the central node linking scientists, technologists, policy makers, humanists, and citizens in the pursuit of awareness and solutions.

This may be simpler than we think. Just as it has been argued that we were all scientists as children, and so scientific thinking should come naturally once we address the societal forces opposing science,14 so does the cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson argue that systems thinking has historical underpinnings: “You don’t have to know a lot of technical terminology to be a systems thinker,” she observes. “If you look at belief systems and religions going way back  in history, around the world, very often what you realize is that people have intuitively understood systems and used metaphors to think about them.”15

Together with designers, scientists, and technologists, the biologist and writer Edward O. Wilson recently introduced a public campaign to preserve half the landmass of the world for biodiversity. The approach is rooted in systems thinking. To determine what land would be most ideal for preserving biodiversity, Wilson et al. modeled the richness of the species that were already in place in those environments, the rarity of those species, the state of conservation in those parts of the world, as well as the political and economic pressures to use that land.16 In the coming years, we should do more to encourage, fund, and celebrate this sort of thinking. And we must educate designers, scientists, and inventors to use the lens of design systems to improve the world. Finally, we need to remember that complexity is not something we conquer. This isn’t a quest with a clear villain or end goal. It’s an enlightenment regarding the way the world actually is—and a grand opportunity to rebuild it as it ought to be.

1 Rebecca Lindsey and LuAnn Dahlman, “Climate Change: Global Temperature,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Climate.gov, August 1, 2018, https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climatechange-global-temperature.
2 Chuck Hagel, “Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas” speech, delivered October 13, 2014, Arequipa, Peru, reprinted at https://dod.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/605617/.
3 Ronald Trostle, “Why Another Food Commodity Price Strike?,”United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, September 1, 2011, https://www.ers.usda.gov/amberwaves/2011/september/commodity-price-spike/; Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand, and Yaneer Bar-Yam, “The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East,” New England Complex Systems Institute, August 10, 2011, reprinted at https://arxiv.org/pdf/1108.2455.pdf.
4 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Global Estimates 2015: People Displaced by Disasters,” July 2015, http://www.internal-displacement.org/sites/default/files/publications/documents/20150713-global-estimates-2015-en-v1.pdf.
5 Erica Bolstad, “High Ground Is Becoming Hot Property as Sea Level Rises,” Scientific American, May 1, 2017, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/high-ground-is-becoming-hotproperty-as-sea-level-rises/.
6 Johan Rockstr.m et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operation Space for Humanity,” Ecology and Society 14, no. 2 (2009): http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/.
7 Damian J. Ruck, Alexander Bentley, and Daniel J. Lawson, “Religious Change Preceded Economic Change in the 20th Century,” Science Advances 4, no. 7 (2018): http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/7/eaar8680; Kevin P. Hill and Andrew J. Saxon, “The Role of Cannabis Legalization in the Opioid Crisis,” JAMA Internal Medicine 178, no. 5 (2018): https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2676997.
8 Glennda Chui, “‘Unified Theory’ Is Getting Closer, Hawking Predicts,” San Jose Mercury News, January 23, 2000, Sec. A. A few sentences here and in the following paragraphs are taken from Adam Bly, “Why I’m Starting a New AI Company,”LinkedIn, December 5, 2017, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-im-starting-new-ai company-adam-bly/.
9 World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Complex Systems, “Perspectives on a Hyperconnected World,” January 2013, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GAC_PerspectivesHyperconnectedWorld_ExecutiveSummary_2013.pdf.
10 David Nakamura, Seung Min Kim, and James McAuley, “Macron Denounces Nationalism as a ‘Betrayal of Patriotism’ in Rebuke to Trump at WWI Remembrance,” Washington Post, November 11, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/to-mark-end-of-worldwar-i-frances-macron-denounces-nationalism-as-abetrayal-of-patriotism/2018/11/11/aab65aa4-e1ec-11e8-ba30-a7ded04d8fac_story.html.
11 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, “‘Climate Change Knows No National Borders,’ UN Chief Says,” UN.org, November 4, 2015, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2015/11/climate changeknows-no-national-borders-un-chief-says/.
12 Sue Thomas, Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 99.
13 Ibid., 100.
14 See Adam Bly, Science Is Culture (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), xii.
15 Edge, “How to Be a Systems Thinker: A Conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson,” April 17, 2018, https://www.edge.org/conversation/mary_catherine_bateson-how-to-be-asystems-thinker.
16 See the Half-Earth Project website, https://www.halfearthproject.org/.

Adam Bly
Adam Bly recently led data at Spotify. He previously founded the data analytics company Seed Scientific, which was acquired by Spotify in 2015. He was a Visiting Senior Fellow in Science, Technology & Society at Harvard Kennedy School and has lectured at Harvard, MIT, Peking University, NASA, MoMA, and the World Economic Forum. He founded the popular science magazine, Seed (2001-2010), and is the editor of Science is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science & Society (HarperCollins). Adam was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and is the recipient of the Golden Jubilee Medal from Queen Elizabeth II. Based in New York City, he is currently building a new purpose-driven AI startup.

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