Conversation with my Safecast co-founders, Sean Bonner and Pieter Frank about Whiplash and citizen science. Safecast is an international, volunteer-centered organization devoted to open citizen science for the environment. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck eastern Japan on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, accurate and trustworthy radiation information was publicly unavailable. Safecast was formed in response, and quickly began monitoring, collecting, and openly sharing information on environmental radiation and other pollutants, growing quickly in size, scope, and geographical reach. Our mission is to provide citizens worldwide with the tools they need to inform themselves by gathering and sharing accurate environmental data in an open and participatory fashion.
A few days ago, I did a Facebook Live Q&A about our book with my co-author Jeff Howe and our fabulous researcher who helped us with the book, Chia Evers. We talked about what it was like to work on the book together and answered some questions including what we learned that was the most surprising.
It was a fun conversation. Here's a YouTube video of it.
Last week, I was invited to join a kind of alternative conference running alongside COP22 in Marrakech. Unlike COP22, which was governments and NGOs in green rooms and blue rooms negotiating policy and agreements, the meeting I attended was a "Do-Fest," a collection of action-oriented people gathering to figure out what we can do without waiting for permission or incentives.
With galleys of Whiplash and a refurbished violin in hand, I headed off to the meeting to give a presentation in the first session, looking at climate change through the lens of The Principles and some of the new work around design and science that we are doing at the Media Lab.
Here's a video of my talk:
Here's what I said.
One of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo is a place called Okame. It is a tempura place in Tsukiji. The famous film director, Akira Kurosawa, is rumored to have frequented the place, among many other well-known Tokyo celebrities. It is a small house-like building with two guest rooms, each with a tempura fryer and a counter for guests. The chef and the son of the chef who was running the place when I first started eating there goes between the two rooms frying tempura for the guests. The place is run by the family and to this day, I don't think they have any outside help. I once asked the chef why he didn't open another branch since it was so popular. In response, he asked me why he would ever want to do that. He is happy, he doesn't have to manage outside help, he gets to spend time with his favorite clients and everything is just right. I realized after asking the question that I was interjecting the values of the community in which I live -- the industrial culture of "growth is good."
Another favorite restaurant of mine in Japan is a sushi place which I can't tell you too much about, because they prohibit their customers from promoting the restaurant. In fact, the restaurant always says "closed" and they are really selective with their customers. The father of the current chef used to run a very famous and popular sushi bar in Ginza, but he became unhappy with the glitzy customers and also hated having to pay high rent -- money that didn't go towards better ingredients -- so he moved the restaurant to a secluded neighborhood and they have been running the place in a rather secretive way ever since. I've been going there since I was a teenager. Every time I go, we talk about this fish or that fish that is no longer available. Some of my favorite fish that I used to get second helpings of are now rare. The last time I went, I had a particular type of Japanese char, and the chef told me it was likely to be the last time I would ever eat it. I thought about how, in my lifetime, almost all of the fish that I've eaten here may become unavailable and what we currently know as sushi could disappear. I realized that the values that caused me to ask the chef at Okame whether he was going to open another branch were the same values that might end up closing down my favorite sushi bar.
I work with a monk named Tenzin. He doesn't have a home. He owns nearly nothing. When we were hiring him to work at the Media Lab, he asked for no salary. MIT said that he couldn't "work" without being paid. He asked for a dollar. MIT insisted that they had to pay minimum wage. To Tenzin, more than enough is too much. He is also one of happiest people that I know. His happiness comes from intrinsic motivators and not from a love of growth and external measurements.
I'm an investor in a company called Kickstarter. I'm sure most of you have heard of it. A few years ago, Kickstarter announced that instead of taking the company public they are going to convert into a public benefit corporation and buy out any investors who didn't like the idea of them growing organically. I kept my stock, get dividends, and really love that they seem to be doing well and growing in a healthy measured way.
In nature, many things grow. Growth in itself isn't bad. It's very useful for evolution. On the other hand, most ecosystems have feedback loops that harness growth to create competition and keep themselves in check. Unchecked growth is like cancer.
Most people in modern society have a belief that growth is inevitable, that's it's good, and that it's the solution to all of our problems -- even those caused by growth, like poverty. We believe more is better, and the richer and more influential you are, the happier you will be. We are defining the culture and setting an example for our children and the rest of the world. I think we need to think about what actually makes us the happiest. Is it our influence, or our families, or a walk along the beach that is more important? Does having twice as many family members make us twice as happy? I believe that one of the drivers of many of our problems, including the degradation of the environment, is our love of growth.
Donella Meadows describes this pattern in the essay "Leverage Points." Donella worked with Jay Forrester at MIT on system dynamics. In the '70s, she created a model for the Club of Rome that showed major global problems involved complex systems that were all connected. These models were based on models of interconnected systems where the basic system looks something like this:
The state of the system, or the "stock," is like the amount of money in an account, or the amount of water in a lake, or even the amount of trust in the government. You could imagine the stock as a bathtub and the water in the tub. The inflows are the water flowing from the faucet. The outflows are water flowing out of the drain. By closing the drain and turning on the faucet, you can get the water to increase in the tub. The "goal" is to get the right amount of water into the tub. You can watch the water level and see the discrepancy and control the inflow by turning on the water, or if you end up with too much water after you enter the tub, you could open the drain and lower the water level.
Now imagine that you want to control the temperature. You would add hot water. Now imagine that the boiler is far away, in the basement, and there is a delay after you turn the knob. Now imagine the system that gets the water to your apartment and the system of energy behind the boiler. You can quickly see how the system gets complex and how everything is interconnected. You can also imagine that a tiny tub with a firehose-like faucet is harder to control than a large tub with an appropriate faucet.
This is a very good way to imagine how systems work.
Most of what we design involves some part of some complex system. Modern design is usually focused on the customer and the customer experience. For example, many of the "Uber for food" services like Doordash are a great experience for the customer. You have an app, you click on a restaurant, order food and before you know it, it's at your door. But what about the driver, the cook in the restaurant... what's the experience like for them? How much do the app developers care about their experience?
In the article "Why I Quit Ordering From Uber-for-Food Start-Ups" in the Atlantic Robin Sloan argues that the cooking/food service Josephine is better because it designs for the chefs as well. Josephine matches people who would like to cook food in their homes with people in the neighborhood who would like to eat that food. In a way, this service is designed for both the consumer and the producer and tries to promote a healthier neighborhood. It's looking at more of the system, not just the subject of the consumption. However, the system is even more complex than Josephine recognizes. It not only includes all of the humans in the neighborhood, but also the supply chain, the waste chain, and many other things that could be designed for as well.
We recently launched the Journal of Design and Science as a collaboration between the Media Lab and MIT Press to try to bring design to science and science to design to create a new kind of design for complex system self-adaptive systems and to bring this design to science.
In the journal's first article, "Design as Participation," Kevin Slavin uses the quote "you're not stuck in traffic, you are traffic." Josephine was probably designed by people who understood home cooking aficionados and were closer to the system. But ultimately, if you really want to understand the system, you have to be part of the system. The design of healthy complex system requires the designers to be both the system and humble participants in the system.
At MIT, professors Neri Oxman and Meejin Kim teach a class call Design Across Scales. In this class, they describe systems at every scale from the microbial, human, architectural, urban, global, astronomical. All of these system are connected. Whereas most scientists and designers are focused on a single scale and a single systems, they can and must understand how their work connects to and affects all systems at all scales and take responsibility for their interventions into these systems.
In "Age of Entanglement," Neri Oxman describes the Krebs Cycle of Creativity. This shows science taking the perception of nature and converting it into knowledge. Engineering takes this knowledge and converts it into utility. Design takes this utility and converts it into meaning, behavior, and societal value. Art takes it and converts it into social perception. And although it's too rare, this should be in the input into science as well. Our view is that science, engineering, design, and art need to work seamlessly together in order for our creativity to be well expressed.
Donella Meadows describes not just how systems worked, like the bathtub model above, but how you can intervene in these systems. By adjusting flows, feedback, goals, rules, how things are connected, etc., you can modify and influence the system.
Donella Meadows describes 12 ways to intervene in a system and lists them in reverse order of effectiveness.
PLACES TO INTERVENE IN A SYSTEM
(in increasing order of effectiveness)
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system -- its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters -- arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.
I find this list very compelling and useful. Also, it's important to see that the 4th intervention -- the power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure in a complex adaptive system -- requires creativity, which is fueled in nature by biodiversity, in society by science, and in technology by research.
The problem is that what we tend to do when we are trying to deal with climate change is fiddle in the least effective intervention layer -- fiddling with subsidies, taxes, etc. This describes a lot of what happens at COP.
One great example of how these layers relate is the history of the board game Monopoly. Everyone knows the traditional Parker Brothers game of Monopoly. What many people don't know is that Monopoly is based on a 1902 game called The Landlord's Game patented in 1904 by Elizabeth Magie. This was a game based on the economic principles of Georgism, which advocates a single tax on unimproved land, and was designed to show how rents enrich property owners and destroy tenants. The designer hoped that when kids played the game, they would learn about the unfairness of the capitalist system. The Parker Brothers version of the game didn't substantially change the rules. It just changed the goal. Instead of the goal being to learn about the unfairness of capitalism, it was to become the capitalist and to bankrupt all of your friends. The key here is that nothing in Donella's list from 12-4 changed. Only the goal changed. As we think about how to "fix" the climate problem, by understanding that maybe somehow the goal -- to grow and eliminate the competition -- could change, maybe we don't need to change so many of the other layers. On the other hand, it might also show that even if we change a lot of the parameters and even the rules, unless we change the goal, we won't change much.
Goals and behavior are hard to change. We often believe that if we just labeled food better, or if we could just make a convincing argument that our behavior would negatively impact the health of the planet, people would behave differently. While that might convince some people, for many people it's not an information problem. The Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas serves Triple Bypass Burgers and Coronary Dogs. The waitresses are "nurses" dressed in white lab coats and you eat for free if you weigh over 350 pounds. It's popular and you often have to wait in line to get in. Several people have had heart attacks while eating there. In some case, it's clearly not an information problem -- it's a culture, story, style problem.
In 2008, Canadian health workers in Cambodia were trying to solve a health problem caused by a lack of iron in the diet of the people there. They tried handing out supplements and educating people, but none of that worked. Then they heard a local story about a fish that was "good luck." They designed a fish made out of iron that people could put in their pots when they cooked their food. This "lucky iron fish" was a huge success and had a significant positive health outcome.
Health workers are not the only people who try to modify behavior through cultural intervention. During the Cold War, the CIA used modern art as a "weapon" to combat communism. Communism was still popular among many intellectuals and artists when the CIA was founded in 1947. In order to combat this mindset, they promoted modern art, which symbolized creativity and freedom that Russian art, stuck in its communist ideology, couldn't compete with.
Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish politician who opposed the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England said, "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws."
I believe that the best way to tackle the problem of climate change is through culture. Huge behavior change followed the leadership of musical transformation, such as the Beatles, the hippie movement, and later punk rock movement. I believe that transforming our culture so that having more than enough feels somewhat disgusting and art and culture reflect the diverse and complex systems in which we live will do more than any fiddling around.
Violins are beautiful, the product of hundreds of years of cultural evolution. We cherish violins. However, kids these days aren't as moved by violins as they are by DJs, remixes, and electronic music. We need to stop fiddling around and change the music.
(In Marrakech, at this point, I smashed a violin on stage.)
Thanks to Kevin Slavin for turning me on to Donella Meadows, the Heart Attack Grill, the Lucky Iron Fish, and the CIA and modern art story.
Thanks to Seth Godin for the idea of smashing the violin, and to Ryuichi Sakamoto for pointing out that Nam June Paik and he both smashed violins and that I was part of a proud lineage of violin smashers.
Lastly, thanks to Drew for procuring the used violin on short notice.
I visited Kuwait November 20 and 21 to accept an award from the Emir of the State of Kuwait on behalf of MIT. The award was for "the extraordinary role of the Media Lab in creativity and innovation of science and technology." Last year, Bill Gates won the award.
This is the inscription on the award: "H.H. Sheikh Salem Al-Ali Al-Sabah Informatics Award has named Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -USA- the recipient of the Informatics Badge of Honor for the extraordinary role of the Media Lab in creativity and innovation of science and technology during its 16th annual awarding ceremony under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah Emir of the State of Kuwait and the humanitarian leader."
The hosts were amazingly gracious and I really enjoyed meeting everyone. Thank you so much for the honor as well as for the hospitality and the engaging conversations. Very excited to visit again.