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Sketching the Unthinkable

Posted By Administration, Thursday, July 26, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Monica Porteanu has written her sixth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she explores the evolving nature of scenarios. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

In private and public administration, preparing for the future by “thinking the unthinkable” was first introduced by the RAND Corporation in the early 1960s. With time, sketching the unthinkable has become a common futuristic practice. Its results are summarized in stories about tomorrow, or scenarios.

And yet, scenarios are as old as humanity. Ancient civilizations imagined them in oracles or magic while building scenarios for the military (e.g., Sun Tzu’s Art of War), describing both present traditions and future visions, especially during uncertain times. Scenarios are fundamental in military, policy, and business, being developed using a mix of disciplines such as mathematics, economics, anthropology, and story-telling.

Futurists Bishop and Kahane remind us about the three critical types of scenarios: (1) predictive, i.e., forecasts and what-ifs, asking “what will happen?”; (2) explorative, i.e., external and strategic, asking “what can happen?”; and (3) normative, e.g., preserving and transforming, asking “what should happen?”.

The most known and used scenarios seem to fall into the first category. They are mostly based on statistics and assume they are bulletproof, based on scientists’ never-ending proof of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” Nevertheless, when applied without checking the underlying nature of the relationships amongst the model’s variables, predictions provide a false sense of security about futures. Time series are particularly prone to mistakes, as they might carry over underlying presumptions from past and present into futures, challenging the statistical condition for independence when extrapolating from one value to the next.

All three types of scenarios tell stories about possible futures, paving the path for envisioning adaptive strategies, but only normative scenarios expand the futures paradigm from predicting or thinking to practical actions that have the potential to shape the future.

The normative scenarios seem to be the least used. They initiated out of challenges brought on by significant shifts, such as a political regime change. In recent years, disciplines that promote open creativity, collaboration, and innovation have increasingly embraced normative scenarios.

Design-led disciplines such as design thinking, strategic design, or research through design bring to scenario development effective new methods such as visualization, aesthetics, ethnography, or experience design. They have taken the telling of a story to showing, feeling, and experiencing it. Such immersion creates that magical circle of trust around scenarios that gives leaders the confidence to embark on a hero’s journey to act now and create “what should happen.”

Nonetheless, design, futurism, and scientific methods for scenario development can further benefit from learning about each other.

For example, design’s approach falls somewhere in between a binary selection (e.g., optimistic/pessimistic) and a high-medium-low style (e.g., most to least likely) which, most of the times, leads either to an optimistic-only path or, as the game theory demonstrates, to a sensible middle of the road but mediocre outcome. Futurism, on the other side, advocates for multiple, alternative futures that might have unpleasant or unexpected outcomes. At the same time, scientists look for theories that can provide evidence for the stories foresight scenarios aim to portray.

Could experiencing scenarios and the quest for hard facts be ever reconciled? Where might scenarios go from here? Would the futurists of 20018 still develop foresight scenarios? What would their toolset be?

In more immediate futures, data and ways to consume them are increasingly making their way into scenario development. Data have become essential in providing evidence of emerging blips that could turn into disruptors. Although digital and visual storytelling based on these data has progressed, the human brain, functioning in a 3-dimensional environment, still has difficulty making sense of large amounts of data presented on 2-dimensional screens.

These days it seems possible to narrow the gap between the 2-sided digital and the 3-dimensional physical worlds through augmented reality. This new technology enhances humans’ ability to make sense of data by juxtaposing digital information onto the real world. Furthermore, as humans process information through their five senses, the visualization side of augmented reality could be paired up with sound, touch, scent, and even taste to portray the envisioned images of the future.

It is up to us now to test whether scenarios born out of signals, sifted through the growing universe of data, and felt through augmented reality experiences, can be more potent than existing scenario consumption methods. Can these envisioned stories generate action, agency, and resilience for building preferred futures?


© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  scenarios 

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Economics lessons from wild nature

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s sixth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores some economics lessons to be learned from nature. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

If we try to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to economic systems, would we conclude that capitalism “better suits to the environment” (better suits us) than communism? After all, most of the ex-communist countries shifted to capitalism and the majority of the few remaining are now transitioning to free market economies. Have we naturally selected the better way? Apparently, only a half of us would agree. According to a recent online survey of twenty thousand people in 28 countries run by the research company Ipsos, half of respondents around the globe think that now, in the XXI century, “socialist ideals are of great value for societal progress”.

What exactly are these ideals? Here are some stats:
•9 in 10 believe that education should be free and that free healthcare is a human right
•7 in 10 think that everyone should have the right to an unconditional basic income (UBI).
•Interestingly, about the same number (7 in 10) also agree that it is right for people who are talented to earn more than those who are less gifted, and that free-market competition brings out the best in people.
It seems that although the benefits of free markets in fostering progress are valued when it comes to the essential aspects of life – health, welfare, education – many of us are craving for a more egalitarian system; the one alleviating the polarizing inequality that capitalism has created.

With so many innovations fostering humanity’s progress being inspired by nature, we are curious: what examples of democratic distribution of resources exist in the wild world? One study particularly attracted our attention. A Belgian-French group of scientists studied self-organised collective decision-making by animals when it comes to choosing between alternative resources.

They ran an experiment where 50 cockroaches (Blattella germanica) were presented with three shelters, each with a capacity to hold 40 individuals. For cockroaches, who prefer dark to light, such a shelter is a resource, and they quickly filled them in. But instead of doing this in a chaotic manner, the cockroaches split into two equal groups of 25 occupying two shelters and leaving the third one empty. While in a scenario with larger shelters – each big enough for the whole group – only one of the shelters got occupied. The researchers were astonished by how cockroaches maximise the benefit of limited resources, trading off being together and access to shelter resources and finding a balance between collaboration and competition. “Without elaborate communication, global information, and explicit comparison of available opportunities, […] the collective decision emerges from the interactions between equal individuals, initially possessing little information about their environment. It is remarkable, then, that these rules should produce a collective pattern that maximizes individual fitness.”

Economic democracy observed in behaviour of cockroaches presents some of the features where capitalism and representative democracy did not quite succeed: egalitarian distribution of resource and decision-making benefiting all (or at least the majority of) individuals. It might seem too simplistic to directly compare the economic problems faced by Blattella germanica and those of Homo sapiens. But if we think of some emerging movements – collaborative mobile democracy, participatory budgeting, commons-based economic governance – are they not technologically empowered forms of truly collective decision-making, replicating those observed in nature? With new technologies making us more interconnected, we now have a unique opportunity to access the knowledge and opinions of all interested citizens and reshape the way we, as a society, take decisions and distribute value.

Following nature’s principle of evolution, only a better system, distributive by design and maximising the fitness of more individuals, will be able to replace capitalism by making it obsolete. Mother nature offers us many lessons, and the lesson of balancing collaboration and competition has been one of the hardest to comprehend. It requires both individual engagement and strong leadership ability to connect knowledge and talents from the community and to facilitate the best ideas evolving in something new.

As American sociologist Erik Olin Wright suggests, we cannot smash or escape capitalism, but we can tame or erode it. By slowly introducing new elements, inspired by nature and enabled by technology, we might start shifting the focus from maximising financial value and growth to real value creation and more equality. And then who knows… maybe one day this will make capitalism in its classical form obsolete.

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  governance 

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What sparks could ignite the next great-power conflagration?

Posted By Administration, Sunday, July 15, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his seventh installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks about what might ignite the next great-power conflagration. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

America’s great-power rivals are increasingly pursuing strategic ends through nonmilitary means, betting that competition short of conflict will advance their interests without risking nuclear annihilation. Yet they are also gearing up to project military force abroad, and defend themselves should the United States intervene to defend its interests and allies. This raises the very real possibility that Russian or Chinese adventurism—and miscalculations over American willingness or ability to respond militarily—could inadvertently trigger the next great-power war. Unfortunately, growing doubts about longstanding U.S. commitments to its allies and international norms are making this tragic outcome far more likely.

Russia has reemerged in the past decade as a formidable military power, capable of defeating neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine while seizing the initiative farther afield in Syria. Its theater ballistic missiles and sophisticated air and coastal defense systems dominate the Black Sea and Baltic regions, posing a worrying threat to America’s NATO allies. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has vastly improved its offensive capabilities in recent years, projecting naval power far beyond its littoral areas while holding its renegade offshore province, Taiwan, at ever-greater risk.

These developments have substantially increased the likelihood of American forces coming into conflict with their great-power counterparts. For example, not long after Russian mercenaries launched an ill-fated attack on a U.S. outpost in Syria earlier this year, the United States and Russia nearly come to blows over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Just a month later, China deployed a nuclear-capable bomber to the disputed Paracel Islands, then dispatched warships to challenge the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation in the region. As such brinkmanship becomes more common, the likelihood of a serious—and potentially escalatory—military confrontation will only grow.

This problem is particularly acute wherever the United States maintains alliances within its rivals’ historical spheres of influence. In Europe, Moscow could quickly defeat the meager NATO forces forward-deployed to the Baltic States—former Soviet republics sandwiched between mainland Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave—while making it exceedingly difficult for the United States and its allies to retake this territory without triggering nuclear war. Meanwhile in Asia, Beijing has set a mid-century deadline for national reunification, with the People’s Liberation Army reportedly planning to accomplish this goal as early as 2020. The PLA is already poised to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses with little warning, and disrupt U.S. carrier and airbase operations as far away as Okinawa and Guam through a combination of kinetic, cyber, and electronic warfare. In both cases, America’s near-peer adversaries are positioned to seize the initiative in their own backyards while severely complicating Washington’s ability to come to the aid of its allies.

All of this presupposes, of course, that the United States remains fully committed to its far-flung network of alliances, which have been a cornerstone of its foreign policy success since World War II. The 2016 election of a U.S. commander-in-chief who repeatedly questions the value of NATO and other foreign entanglements, however, has fundamentally challenged assumptions of American resolve. President Trump’s pronouncements naturally undermine confidence in U.S. security guarantees, and this growing uncertainty may eventually embolden Russia or China to call America’s bluff. The ramifications of such a gamble would be catastrophic: if the U.S. military responds as promised, it would plunge the world into the next great-power war; if it does not, the international system that has underpinned global peace and prosperity for the better part of a century would come to an ignominious end. Either way, the future is shaping up to be a much different place than the “Pax Americana” of yesteryear.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  NATO  politics  war 

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Ugh, Scenarios? That’s Not Very Innovative…

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his eighth article written for the program. In it, he explores scenarios. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

Previously we have challenged what is truly innovation (depending on how you parse the definition, maybe nothing!), and the challenges of systems wide innovation. We can now introduce 4 possible scenarios (among many, many others) to begin to conceptualize what the future of innovation looks like:

1. Baseline. The baseline scenario has organizations, governments, and economies continuing to muddle through. Some continue to sub optimize and exist, others innovate to various degrees, others are shape shifters, able to leap from one new industry to another, evolving as they go along. Over time, we become more fluent in the efficiency and quality of innovation activities, using such measurements as research quotients (RQ), developed by Anne Marie Knott, that measure innovation inputs and outputs to gauge success. Innovation as disruption is still seen as the gold standard, though large, mature firms still struggle with whether to embrace or suppress these disruptions. Innovation is still largely situated.

2. Systems-Bound Mutual Self-Interest: A greater understanding of systems, and systems literacy, coupled with virtual and software based platforms and physical innovative cross-disciplinary spaces point to less sub optimization and unproductive situated innovation. Instead, organizations will bond together in mutual self-interest (perhaps making some a bit uneasy as self-organization looks a lot like vertical integration and monopolization). Definitions of competition and anti-trust will be rewritten and new measurements of social good will come to eclipse GDP as the primary measurement of innovation and economic health.

3. Double-Down on Sub-Optimization and Quick Profit. The insatiable thirst for quarterly profits points to a future of sub optimization that shows no signs of disappearing. In an effort to stimulate the real economy, governments implement varying policies of charging demurrage on the financial market, charging fees or taxing capital that isn’t being used in “productive” ways. This will increase available capital for reinvestment. However, instead of increasing innovation and productivity, it could simply “feed the beast” of sub optimization. Especially when coupled with the relentless focus on quarterly returns, on “maximizing value”. In a world where capital must be reinvested in the firm, the resultant behavior could involve a great deal of tire spinning, or more precisely, short-term cycles of excessive value extraction meant to replicate share buy-back schemes and large dividend payouts. This, coupled with rapid rise and fall “fad” industries, make for rapid boom-bust cycles globally. Think of it as shifting the burden on overdrive.

4. The Rapid S-Curve Economy. Organizations become increasingly amorphous, shape shifters that are constantly seeking out new emergent industries, colonizing them rapidly, then moving on once the industry matures. And the maturity of the industries is also rapid. Organizations become almost nomadic. With either large or scarce reserves of capital for innovation and expansion, organizations move to rapidly create and capitalize on opportunities; one or two players prove successful and monopolize the space; the rest move on to find greener pastures.

What to do? The answer may be in the form of government policy. Governments are still the primary investor in risky innovative endeavours. When will investment programs and structures be put in place to invest in systems wide innovation? Even if it is still sub optimized within the nation-state?

Perhaps this is all just an elaborate way of saying that innovation is messy, often fails, and even when successful we can’t be sure of what positive and negative externalities it will cause. Ultimately, sub optimization is inherently a product of innovation. By correcting one problem we create others. Not all problems are created equal, of course, and we would prefer to have certain problems over others – for example, all the side-effects associated with medications we choose are an unfortunate but necessary trade off. We are both selfish in the sense that we view progress from our own situated perspective, and we are utilitarian in the sense that we generally hope that any negative outcomes of innovation will be less than the derived benefit.

We are left with a future where the nature and impact, not to mention the consistency and payback, of innovation, creating results by doing new things, is unclear. Will we move towards increased sub optimization or will we create and adopt the social technologies we need to generate deep structural results?


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  innovation  system 

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Superposition and Frosting a Cake

Posted By Administration, Monday, July 2, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his seventh article written for the program. In it, he compares superposition to innovation. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

We previously challenged what is truly innovative versus sub optimization in some shape or form. We can now delve deeper into assumptions about innovation today. If we start with standpoint theory and situated knowledge, we can drill down a little deeper to reach the concept of situated imagination. Situated imagination contends that knowledge is dependent upon our location: physically, economically, and socially, among other situating coordinates. Thus, imagination is an amalgamation, an alchemy of self and collective conditions, which influences not only meaning but the concept of the “not-yet real”, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre.

In order to “do different things” we must be able to “think differently”. Therefore, moving beyond sub optimization first requires an acknowledgement of what we could call “Situated Innovation”. Situational innovation, the phenomenon of innovation being inherently connected to a particular observer or group of observers, is perhaps the most significant hidden cost in the global economy. Exercises in empathy can help to re-situate the observer, but typically this is done in a manner that is inherently sub optimizing.

While our discussion has largely revolved around the issue of space (across silos, organizations, and countries), time is another dimension in which we sub optimize. The most obvious example of this is shifting the burden of climate change onto future generations. But the issue also manifests in, for example, inter-generational organizational issues. Consider the sub optimization of the past. While not as obvious as the impact on the future, consider the many cost-benefits and projects built around past projections of the future, now the present. By sub optimizing within the present, we underutilize the past, which can have ripple effects into the future. Decisions are forgotten, goals are lost and abandoned. For every idea that survives, countless others falter at some point. A Darwinian perspective on ideas and past innovations is nothing more than permission to hold a bias towards old ideas.

Finally, beyond the space and time, is matter. Agential realism, and spacetimemattering, a theory developed by Karen Barad, provides another perspective on matter and meaning in innovation activities. Agential realism, at its core, is about the inherent entanglement of all things. Any act of observation creates the “agential cut” in which we include some things, and exclude a number of other possibilities. This temporary “cut” allows us to view a chunk of a thing, matter, in isolation, in order to gain a greater understanding of the thing we wish to observe. Hence, our observations of the world are inherently performative. Here, too, we see the challenge of innovation and the limits to our innovative capacities. Observationally, we must isolate an object as either a thing or process. By doing this, we ignore its connected (here, entangled) state of being.

Think of it like this: You are making a cake. Typically, you would wait until it cooled and then frost the whole cake. However, once this particular cake has cooled, you can no longer observe the cake as a whole. You see a piece of the cake and cut out that piece, cover it in frosting, and return the piece to the cake. Then you go about trying to find other pieces of the cake. Unable to see the whole cake at once, you are left with cutting, frosting, returning. In all likelihood, you will only frost a small portion of the cake. Even if you somehow manage to cut off and frost every piece of the cake, it will look more than a little strange! Later that evening, most guests at the party, blessed with the ability to observe the whole cake at once, will agree this is a far from optimum cake. Rather, the cake looks like it was made by Frankenstein.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  innovation  realism 

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Redesigning Society for Prosperity

Posted By Administration, Sunday, July 1, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Riveong has written his fourth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the evolving concept of prosperity. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

We are at a critical juncture in our understanding of prosperity. We no longer have an unshaken belief that prosperity is based on economic development or industrialization. The United Nations’ Strategic Development Goals (SGD) have helped reassess the belief that prosperity is mainly an economic goal. These goals have expanded our definition of prosperity towards a holistic improvement of well-being, such as in health, education, nutrition, et cetera.

As we begin to free ourselves from a GDP-focused view of prosperity, we are gaining greater freedom to design society for a more holistic approach to prosperity. To explore these new possibilities, we should revisit indigenous views towards social values, commerce, community, and governance. Indeed, we can draw from a few readily available examples.

In the Andean region of South America, Ecuador and Bolivia have reimagined their social contracts by integrating the concept of Buen Vivir into their constitutions. Buen Vivir (“good living”) is the Spanish phrase for a worldview shared among Andean peoples. While it has no single definition, Buen Vivir emphasizes collective well-being that is in harmony with nature and also culturally sensitive. This concept was integrated into the Ecuadorian constitution in 2008 and later in Bolivia in 2009.

Both countries have interpreted Buen Vivir in different ways. The Ecuadorian constitution guarantees a healthy and an economically balanced way of living. This includes granting nature legal rights that can be enforced through the court system. In contrast, the Bolivian constitution views Buen Vivir through the lens of social justice and political-economic redistribution. The harmony of Buen Vivir is achieved through limiting land ownership size and elevating the political power of village and indigenous communities.

Indigenous concepts not only offer more holistic visions for social contracts but also alternative ways of thinking about work and capitalism. The Igbo people of Nigeria have created a system of apprenticeship that focuses on entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. It’s more than an education system; it’s a unique venture capital system. In the Igbo tradition, children, usually after primary school, are sent to work for an owner of a trade or shop for 5 to 10 years. At the end of the apprenticeship, owners are obliged to help the apprentices set-up their own businesses (called a “settlement”). This apprenticeship model offers a different way to think about business, economics, and education. The Igbo tradition ensures inter-generational equity through enabling entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency.

While we can find many sources of inspiration from the Global South, we need to understand how they can work, be re-interpreted, and scaled in different societies and contexts. The different Ecuadorian and Bolivian approaches to Buen Vivir is one example of the challenges of interpretation. In the case of the Igbo apprenticeship, we need to imagine what a regulated, digitalized, and scaled-up version of this apprenticeship could look like. Now that we have greater freedom to rethink society, these are the exciting new challenges we must focus on.


© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  development  economics  prosperity 

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Welcome to Earth, the Sub-Optimized Planet

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his sixth article written for the program. In it, he explores the potential of sub-optimized ecosystems. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

What role can – or will – innovation play in the future of the real economy? To begin, let’s start with the simplest definition of innovation. Innovation is “creating results by doing new things.” The “doing new things” part is fairly self-explanatory on the surface. It is the process of doing something in a way in which it was not previously done. Although, often, we may have done something, then stopped doing it, then started doing it again either aware or unaware of having done it in the past. But the “creating results” piece of the definition is less clear. What, precisely, is a result? A positive outcome? And, if so, a positive outcome for whom? We can say that, today, an innovative result is one in which we either save money, make money, or provide some sort of social or environmental good. But are those the results we should be aiming for? Do we care, or even understand, how these results impact and influence other components of the global system? And, for our purposes here, how will our definition of “results” evolve in the future? The point here is not to focus on types of results reporting, such as triple bottom line or happiness index-type measurements. The purpose here is on the deeper structural challenges to “real” innovation.

There is no question that what we might call “innovation-offset” occurs across a system or multiple subsystems. How often does an innovation in one area generate an offsetting process inefficiency or product redundancy in another? Put another way, if you innovate in one area, to the detriment of another area, are you really innovating at all? And how would you even know?

Two common terms used to describe this phenomenon are sub-optimization and shifting the burden. Sub-optimization commonly refers to silo-type thinking within an organization. This leads to non-value added activities, redundancy, or diminished returns. Shifting the burden, on the other hand, is a term generally meant to describe a tendency to focus on resolving surface-level, symptomatic issues, pushing costs and negative externalities onto others.

What we might call “sub-optimization ecosystems” are now a vital part of the real economy, not only the maintenance of them, but the perpetual attempts to circumnavigate them. By focusing on the self-interest of the firm at the expense of the larger system, we are inherently sub-optimizing. We ostensibly innovate within a department, across a division, across a firm, across an industry, across multiple industries, then across whole economies. There is no escape.

Our attention has been focused on what we can call the migratory patterns of money. How its shapes and structures tend to manifest. And here, we see a profitable innovation ecosystem, where activity and expenditure is its own reward. But wait, isn’t innovation inherently messy? An iterative process of trial and error. “Fail fast to succeed sooner”?

Consider what percentage of global GDP is dedicated to activities that solve problems by creating new problems elsewhere. Cycles of pointless zero-sum innovation. At a time of complexity, instead of adopting the tools of social innovation and systems change, we have doubled down on the mercurial dark arts of sub-optimization, masked as real innovation.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  innovation 

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Why aren’t nukes ever enough?

Posted By Administration, Monday, June 18, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his sixth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks an important question about nukes and their effectiveness as a deterrent. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

For all their destructive potential, nuclear weapons ushered in an unprecedented era of global stability after 1945, deterring the great powers from the kinds of internecine conflicts that risk their mutual destruction. But this period hasn’t been entirely peaceful, either, as states and non-state actors have sporadically waged more limited wars the old-fashioned way—that is, utilizing “conventional” weapons—whenever they calculate the odds of nuclear escalation are low. Consequently, powers great and small have continued to arm themselves with military capabilities of ever-increasing speed and lethality, determined to gain a decisive advantage on some future battlefield—an unfortunate function of survival in our anarchic international system.

For much of the Cold War, the United States made little effort to match the Soviet Union’s massive conventional-warfare superiority in Europe, calculating that its nuclear arsenal would be enough to offset any Soviet military advantage. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the Pentagon embarked on a new offset strategy incorporating technological breakthroughs in precision-guided munitions, radar-evading stealth technology aircraft, and space-based communications and navigation. Rather than rely on the traditional American way of war—attrition and annihilation—this revolution in military affairs allowed relatively small numbers of highly nimble American and allied forces to defeat numerically superior adversaries, as dramatically demonstrated during such operations as Desert Storm (1991) and Iraqi Freedom (2003), while sharply reducing civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Some scholars attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union in part to its failed efforts to keep up with the West in this expensive, high-tech arms race—and for decades afterward the United States had no peers in terms of conventional military capabilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to American global hegemony: while Washington diverted resources away from cutting-edge investments after 9/11, Moscow and Beijing slowly but surely began closing the capability gap through a combination of indigenous know-how, industrial espionage, and lessons learned from U.S. military operations. In recent years, Russia and China have developed increasingly effective air defense systems to blunt America’s signature warfighting advantage, and deployed sophisticated missile systems on a variety of platforms to complicate U.S. ground and maritime operations near their territory. Such anti-access, area-denial measures complement their markedly improved power-projection capabilities now on display in Syria and the South China Sea, respectively.

Not to be outdone, the U.S. Department of Defense recently embarked on a third offset strategy to harness innovations in artificial intelligence, automation, additive manufacturing, and other fields. While traditional weapons acquisition processes have become increasingly unaffordable—with more and more money spent procuring fewer and fewer high-end aircraft, ships, and armored vehicles—this latest approach hopes to reduce costs by disaggregating marquee platforms into more specialized networked systems leveraging off-the-shelf commercial technology. Of course, this same technology is accessible to America’s rivals as well, suggesting U.S. forces will soon need to develop new defenses against the very drone swarms and other “futuristic” weaponry they are currently developing, in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

Unfortunately, such military modernization has the potential to make great-power conflict more likely, their credible nuclear deterrents notwithstanding. Both Russia and China perceive America’s superior conventional capabilities—coupled with its expanding anti-ballistic missile networks in Europe and Asia—as destabilizing, since they could facilitate preemptive U.S. attacks targeting their nuclear arsenals. Meanwhile, each country is developing its own expeditionary forces capable of quickly seizing nearby territory, then (theoretically) holding out against an anticipated U.S.-led conventional counterattack—which may embolden them to resolve a greater variety of regional disputes militarily, especially where they judge the United States unwilling to intervene at the risk of nuclear war.

This combination of mutual distrust and localized military parity is increasing the likelihood of strategic miscalculation, and undermining the logic of nuclear deterrence that has constrained great-power competition for nearly three-quarters of a century. While it remains unlikely that the United States, Russia, or China will launch large-scale attacks on each other in the coming decades, they could very well become embroiled in regional conflicts that devolve into direct military confrontation among the great powers—conflicts with the potential for a much wider global conflagration.

© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  attack  politics  war 

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Do we need new levers to close infrastructure investment gaps?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Bonin‘s fourth post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns infrastructure investment gaps. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Forecasts suggest that infrastructure investment gaps are here to stay, especially when it comes to transportation and electricity. How can we close these gaps by 2050? The World Economic Forum distinguishes three major levers: (a) reduce demand, (b) build new infrastructures and (c) optimize existing infrastructures. There may be two additional important levers on our way to 2050 that stem from the growing connectedness of people and intelligent things paired with self-executing contracts (i.e. smart contracts). The first lever is novel pricing models for infrastructure usage or, more exactly an “intelligent user charges principle”. The second lever relates to effective altruism movement, the idea of identifying areas where one additional Euro can create the most impact.

Today, we are used to all kinds of pricing structures to pay for products and services. Product purchase, freemium models, flat rates or pay per use are part of everyday life. There is a second class of pricing structures that benefit from the growing connectedness and powerful algorithms. These have just started to become a normal part of life. There is Uber’s surge pricing that is based on market demand levels. Contingency pricing, which is common in the manufacturing or energy sectors, conditions the amount to be paid on the performance of the contractor. Any Mac user who tries to book a flight should be familiar with differential pricing, pricing based on the type of customer. So why shouldn’t we pay a dynamically adapted price for each time we “consume” infrastructures? Think of paying a certain amount of money per kilometer travelled? We could be reimbursed for travelling during off-peak hours or pay extra to have priority during peak hours. Depending on how the fuel economy of our car ranks compared to the median fuel economy or whether we share a ride or not, we would pay a dynamic price per kilometer travelled. And who has not yet dreamed about punishing the SatNav for inefficient routing? There could even be subsidies to foster the adoption of new environmentally friendly technologies. What about subsidies for vehicles that pro-actively improve the air quality in cities or discounts for socially disadvantaged families? The possibilities are endless and so are the synergies. If we track the kilometers we travel, we could also identify the roads that are working at a particularly high level of capacity utilization and allocate maintenance and expansion investments accordingly. This is similar to effective altruism, which tries to identify areas where a certain amount of money can generate the largest societal impact.

This may sound like Sci-Fi, but if we take all the buzz around the Internet of Things, distributed ledgers like Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence seriously, why shouldn’t the intelligent charge principle and effective altruism be feasible? Yes, there are various obstacles. For instance, we would need to quantify and balance a tremendous number of aspects. There are ethical questions like how should eligibility for discounts be calculated? Is it OK to favour densely populated areas and how can we make sure that infrastructures with low capacity usage are not side-lined? All these are questions and trade-offs that we need to find answers to in any case amid budget constraints. I believe that both, user charge principle and effective altruism driven infrastructure planning can help to find fairer answers and pose the right questions.

Another argument for why we need to consider both levers is, that on our way to a more sustainable world, certain trends undermine the ability of our existing infrastructure funding mechanisms to function properly. Firstly, we will need a lot of resources to roll out an intelligent transport and energy infrastructure. Secondly, E-mobility and mobility services with lower vehicle ownership have a negative impact on today’s infrastructure funding mechanisms. While E-mobility and more efficient transport systems reduce externalities and perhaps even infrastructure demand, they also reduce revenues from fuel taxes. The impact of E-mobility is even more far-reaching as this new paradigm will increase the investment needs for our energy grids. With lower private car ownership due to mobility as a service paradigm, countries with historically high motorization rates will see their tax revenues from car registration dwindle. In order to secure a steady monetary stream for infrastructure maintenance and expansion, we need to establish a policy that links taxes to the actual usage of infrastructures. These examples also raise another question: with all that change in terms of way of living and technology until 2050, do we overestimate future infrastructure demand or does Jevons paradox hold true? I will try to address this question in the next post.


© Daniel Bonin 2018

Tags:  economics  infrastructure  technology 

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Literacy for the Year 20018

Posted By Administration, Monday, June 4, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Monica Porteanu has written her fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she explores the evolving meaning of the word literacy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

At its origin, the term “literacy” meant “the ability to read and write.” Although it was first recorded in the 19th century, coinciding with the beginning of the industrial era, specialists have studied its evolution starting from much earlier times. One of the ways they have tracked literacy was through signatures on marriage certificates. When discussing literacy and the industrial revolution, economic historians such as E.G. West, note that “the evidence on literacy and schooling is interdependent.” His study suggests that “literacy specialists usually describe figures of schooling as ‘indirect evidence’ of literacy. Schooling specialists, meanwhile, regard literacy as ‘indirect evidence’ of schooling.”

With the transition from the Industrial to the knowledge era, the term has evolved to convey the message of “competence or knowledge in a specific area.” For example, in addition to reading and writing, organizations such as OECD discuss numeracy and financial literacy. Futurists advocate for future literacy. Others address health or science literacy, with reading and writing is now considered fundamental literacies.

What does it mean for the era we are in? Arguably, we are still attempting to understand what that is. The knowledge era seemed to have been first identified by Peter Drucker, in 1959, when he introduced the concept of the knowledge worker. Today, the term seems more relevant as ever. Some suggest that 2018 belongs to the era of the humans or the Anthropocene, while the World Economic Forum points to the fourth industrial revolution. Eras, nevertheless, seem to be better defined after the fact. Literacies, however, seem to prepare us for what’s to come. Asking what these literacies are, regardless of how we choose to name an era, seems timely. Today’s literacy types include technological and informational competencies, which have been essential for a while now. Such a trend appears to continue, but for how long could it last? With the current aims of developing systems that are highly usable by humans, will there continue to be a need for deep technological literacy?

What might the literacies for tomorrow look like? Would they still be interdependent with schooling, as noted for the industrial era? How could one prepare for a future when the current rate of change is high already?

While possible but unknown tomorrows unfold in our imagination, they still have two things in common: (1) they are uncertain; and (2) preparing for them is ambiguous. At the same time, most of us have difficulties dealing with ambiguity. In fact, social psychologist Geert Hofstede has identified “uncertainty avoidance” as one of the six dimensions of culture. His study across about 100 nations, reveals that globally, the human comfort with ambiguity sits, on average, at about 36%. The other 64% of the time, humans seem to prefer to control the future. The higher such preference is, the more rigid the codes of beliefs, behaviour, and intolerance are.

But how could one control the future? At best, we can prepare. Getting ready for next year seems attainable with current competencies. Bracing for five years from now would include a multitude of assumptions, and potentially competency changes. How about ten years out? Or fifty? The longer the time horizon, the more we seem to joke about and care less how far ahead we talk about. At the same time, such a view would encourage us to switch our thinking beyond what we know today.

In this context, let’s say, the year is 20018, eighteen thousand years ahead of now. What literacies would prepare us for 20018? By that time, we could be back to an agrarian era, or become Martians, or non-existent altogether. Who knows? Breathing might become the literacy of those times. What would prepare us for such eras, seems to be our ability to deal with the ambiguity awaiting us. Shouldn’t we think about ambiguity as critical literacy? How might such literacy be developed?

Some might argue that ambiguity develops during critical thinking or resilience practice or training events. The same event though still sets the expectations for a determined outcome by the end of it, such as earning a grade, job, or advancement. Others might point to life events or religion as good teachers of ambiguity.

Overall, the current schooling system cannot train us to be at ease in ambiguous environments. So do most of existing societal dimensions, including economics, politics, and governance. Isn’t it the time to address that?

© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  economics  education  politics 

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