Thursday, 3 September 2009

6 words to save the planet

I was struck by this somewhat poetic picture of a melting ice cap while flicking through this morning’s papers:

It caused me to reflect upon the Richard Dimbleby Lecture given my Prince Charles back in July. In this lecture, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I believe the first question Charles posed was ultimately the most critical. ‘Given what we know in our heart of hearts, just what is it that drives us on to exacerbate the problems?’

It is a question which is often answered in terms of our tendency to make decisions which prioritise short term goals over long term goals. In an economic sense, Avner Offer or George Ainslie might describe this as a kind of ‘economic myopia’. Would you take £100 today or £200 tomorrow? What about £100 today or £200 in 5 years?

Or as the medical profession tends to put it, it is not the one more for the road which does for us in the end, rather it is the accumulation of many one more for the roads over the years.

The need to balance the short and the long term decision is a natural part of the tension faced by every business and government.

But there is another root cause which needs to be considered too. That is, we seem to lack the language to effectively communicate with each other about the things that affect us all.

As Charles eloquently pointed out in his lecture, ‘it turns out that the internal facing mechanistic view of the world which has brought us global connectivity is the very thing that now prevents us from understanding the external environment and the nature of this connectedness itself.’

Or put another way, the specialised language we use in each of our professions, businesses, industries and communities reinforces each of our individual world views and makes it even harder to collaborate on the global view.

If my language is that of politics, I turn to policy and legislation to solve the problems I see. If my primary language is that of economics, my problems, and solutions, are described through engineering the financial system. If my language is that of business, I address threats and opportunities through cost savings and new value generation. For the scientist, I use theory, experiment and proof. One of the most striking pictures I have found to illustrate the language and focus of many different, colliding professions is this one from the Web Science Research Initiative:

How can we create bridges of understanding between the necessary languages of the domain specialists?

However we do it, build these bridges we must. Solving shared problems requires a way to express the outcome affecting aspects of the changes in a way that many different professionals, communities and cultures can contribute to and then adopt.

It will of course come as now surprise to regular readers of this blog that we have found 6 words which can really help cross-discipline communication on the outcome affecting aspects of our shared problems. I hope we can encourage their adoption and that of other systems leadership techniques with people across disciplines working to solve the biggest problem of them all.


  1. Prince Charles asked what 'drives us to exacerbate our problems?' It seems a fair question to which there are doubtless several good answers. And I don't doubt that short-termism and communuications failures between professionals play their parts.

    However, we ought to look at what the evidence tells us about the incidence and causes of our problems. Consider the following problems: loss of social capital, mental illness, drug abuse, premature death, murder, obesity, educational under-achievment, teenage pregnancy and gang violence. A substantial list (and roughly what David Cameron seems to mean by 'broken britain' I suppose).

    It's a diverse list but they have one factor in common - amongst developed countries they are all positively correlated with income inequality. The greater the inequality the greater the problems. It's all documented in The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Picket where the authors argue, using psychological and sociological arguments and evidence, that inequality CAUSES the problems. In some cases it's clearly the single biggest cause.

    And, by the way, the bad effects of inequality don't only affect the poor but apply right across the society; though they do affect the poor most.

    So people exacerbate their problems because the societies they live in send them certain messages about their prospects and options.

    Most of our supposed attempts to address these problems fail because government and policy analysts ignore the influence of inequality. Since the evidence is clear they doubtless do this for political reasons which they prefer to conceal.

    Let me draw a modest conclusion: Without honesty about the real causes of our problems and the reasons for our policies we can never solve our major problems. Political differences are inevitable, even necessary, but let's not hide from the facts.

    Bharack Obama said it better, of course.

  2. You said: "Most of our supposed attempts to address these problems fail because government and policy analysts ignore the influence of inequality". I'm inclined to agree, but isn't inequality a fact of life? Indeed, I think one could argue that it is a natural phenomenon proven by physics and hence, though one might try to even out its impact to some extent, there's really no point in fighting it: isn't it all about the survival of the fittest?