Termites, robots and social machines

– how can they help us break down the sustainability challenge?

I stumbled across a – for me – new term a couple of weeks ago: social machines. Many of you might know this term, and I quickly discovered that even though the words were new to me, I had been using social machines for years – and loved it. One of my favorite social machines is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that I use as a first stop for whichever new topic I need to dig into. Of course I also used Wikipedia to find out what a social machine is:

“A social machine is an environment comprising humans and technology interacting and producing outputs or action which would not be possible without both parties present.”

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt of University of Southampton and Chairman of the Open Data Institute however gives an explanation that carries a bit – actually a lot – more perspective.

“Rather than drawing a line … to separate the human and digital parts (as computer science has traditionally done), we can now draw a line around them and treat each such compound as a ‘social machine’ — a machine in which the two aspects are seamlessly interwoven” . (Actually you can watch the lecture here instead, it´s a lot better).

Now, I could go off on a skeptical limb and talk a lot about how the whole web can be seen as a social machine, and how – in a broader perspective – we could probably characterize any group of humans since we tamed fire as a social machine, since our societies and even our bodies are shaped by technology however crude.

I won´t because there is beauty and perspective in Sir Shadbolt’s thoughts on how the interaction between more people and more data can create a fifth computing paradigm that gives us a greater chance to tackle some of the great challenges we are facing, not least in creating a more sustainable society.

The beauty lies in the idea that when we accept the strengths and shortcomings of both computers and human minds and put them to work together, we can create something a lot bigger than the sum of the parts. Wikipedia, the web, human civilization are proof of that.

The perspective – for me at least – is that it potentially points to a way around the greatest roadblock to creating action for a more sustainable world: it’s just too damn hard to know exactly what to do – so we do little.

I’ve been to more conferences than I care to think of where we’ve fretted about the complexity of the sustainability challenges ahead and unfortunately left it at that. We have often tried to lay out the “blueprints”, the “roadmaps”, the “action plans” for a transition to a more sustainable economy but the complexity of the challenges often makes our blueprint obsolete even before it is finished.

Could we perhaps – inspired by social machines – turn down on the planning a bit and instead focus on creating an environment where the sustainable solutions and ideas can connect and grow organically into a greater whole?

We have seen a lot of interest in sustainable solutions in the last few years (our sister program Sustainia is doing a tremendous job in that arena with the third Sustainia100 catalogue due to be released in a couple of weeks), but we still need to be better at connecting the dots: matching solutions with investors, paving the way through regulation for substantial changes to our energy system, turning a circular flow of materials into the norm, not the exception.

Termites and robots

My fascination with the social machines was definitely inspired by what I had read a few days before in an advance copy of the journal Science. The top story was how very simple robots could learn to build complex structures without a blueprint to follow. Actually only a very limited amount of instructions telling them how to react to “local cues”, such as the presence of other robots in specific places, the number of bricks in a row etc. was needed.

The researchers responsible for the robots experiment had studied how termites – not very brainy individually and definitely not able to read a blueprint – could construct highly complex mounds when working together. When building, they also let local cues guide their actions as they have no idea of the overall layout of the mound. In spite of this their combined efforts create structures with the exact right temperature and humidity, a layout of specialized room for the queen, larvae and cultivating fungus.

Social machines, the termites and the robots that mimic them all point to the same conclusion: great things can happen with no master plan. I want to stress that I don´t think that Wikipedia, the web nor a fifth computing paradigm will save the world. But the way termites and social machines create a meaningful whole out of scattered input suggests the promising possibility that we might not have to consciously design or engineer the transition to a more sustainable future. Given the right conditions, transition might emerge rather than being driven by a grand scheme.

If you have busied yourself with technological history, you might point out that this is actually the way great transitions in technology and society have always come about (e.g. here). The rise of steam engines, cars and telecommunication was not caused by a great plan. But global warming, resource scarcity and a nitrogen cycle out of kilter (amongst other things) have made it clear to us that we need to change the way we run societies in a more sustainable direction. For the first time we need to create a great transition in society and technology ourselves.

So far we have mostly gone about it in traditional way: “let’s analyze the problem and then make a plan”. The analysis part is going quite well (though the insights are getting grimmer with each new IPCC report). But the planning part is not doing so well. The complexity of the interlinked challenges swarm us, leaving us paralyzed.

What if we learned from the termites, the robot experiments and the social machines, and instead of trying to design and engineer a transition to a sustainable economy, we concentrated on providing the local cues that can make the different elements work together in a meaningful way?
What might localized cues for a sustainability transition be? I am not sure at all, but I can offer a few ideas, and please return the favor and share your thoughts:

  • Values and principles – we know that setting a standard and sticking to it can give strategic direction to an organization. UN Global Compact’s principles might be a good starting point for this.
  • Acknowledging the boundaries of human activity on the planet. Actions that push us closer to – or further over – a boundary should be avoided. Actions that take us deeper into our safe zone should be encouraged.
  • Inspiring long term visions – to create a meaningful narrative for stakeholders to engage with.
  • Strong midterm goals – to guide the next steps. The coming Sustainable Development Goals from the UN system will hopefully fill in this space.
  • And finally I want to throw in a focus on the Opportunities in the transition to sustainability – to inspire the action we need for the transition to take off.

The last point is what we aim to develop with the Global Opportunity Report and the Global Opportunity Network. When the first of the annual reports is launched in January 2015 we will point to fifteen great opportunities defined as areas of investment that have a proven sustainability record and – which is probably the most important part – we will rate how attractive they are to the relevant stakeholders.

We do this from a firm conviction that creating real change in a complex situation is not just about finding the solutions that perform best in a spreadsheet. It is just as much about finding the opportunities that make most sense to the relevant stakeholders. Wikipedia´s strength was never that they had the best business plan, but that they provided a platform for engagement that makes sense to a lot of people to engage in. And thank you to them for doing so.

Text by: Morten Jastrup, Project Director, Global Opportunity Network

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and is not to be associated with the Global Opportunity Network or the partner organisations or individual members of the network.

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