Engineering the recovery: business as usual or paradigm shift
08 March 2016
Author: Hans van der Loo will speak at this year’s Engineers Ireland Conference on ‘Paradigm Shift for an Exponential Era’
The economic crisis of 2008 is still reverberating. The resulting unemployment, growing inequity and the more recent refugee problem have resulted in a social crisis as well. Together with the ongoing ecological stresses as also highlighted by the COP21 meeting in Paris, these are challenging times. All three pillars of our civilisation contain cracks.
Engineering any recovery requires three elements. First, a proper understanding of the current situation, in order to avoid treating symptoms rather than causes. Second, one needs an idea of where to go to. The pathway between these two is the recovery path to be engineered.
US mathematician Albert Bartlett is known for having said that the greatest weakness of mankind is its inability to understand the exponential function. This is particularly relevant now, as we have entered an exponential era, which experts call the Antropocene. They chose as an era marker, the first atomic bomb explosion three weeks ahead of the first deployment over cities in August 1945.
It has taken mankind about 200,000 years or 2,000 centuries to get to a total global population of one billion by 1840. We entered the 20th century with about 1.3 billion inhabitants and left it with 6.3 billion. Meaning in a single century we added five billion people – or 10,000 centuries worth of previous population growth.
Looking at various developmental curves (demographics, economic development, acidification of oceans, greenhouse gas loading of the atmosphere, etc) the real exponential developments started in the 1970s/80s and have been rising at ever steeper rates.
The good thing is that technological innovations have been growing at similar exponential rates
The good thing is that technological innovations have been growing at similar exponential rates. One example is both the size, capability and number of mobile phones. Where AT&T asked McKinsey in the 1980s how big the mobile phone market would be in 2000, they predicted 900,000 units. Indeed these were sold in the first three days of 2000. However, many innovations that were engineered in R&D centres around the world, have not been rolled out at scale, for several reasons. Vested interest, lacking regulatory framework, that typically lag behind technological developments, but the largest barriers have been people.
It is not a matter of the possible solutions lagging behind the rising challenges. It is “us”, the structures and processes created by us and our lack of systemic thinking ability, that limits the societal absorption capacity for timely change. In other words our ‘cope-ability’ to deal with the evolving challenge that will determine the course of our future history.
Today we are educating our young for roles that do not yet exist, in order to solve problems we are not yet even aware of. Only few seem to be aware of the exponential reality and most seem to think we can tackle 21st century challenges with 20th century education.
The often heard expression ‘Anything can happen in the future’ is simply not true. While not fixed, our destiny follows quite a predictable trajectory, determined essentially by structural drivers such as demographic, economic and technological developments. The extent to which ‘We can shape the future’ – which is a true statement – depends on how well leaders (in politics, industry, universities) are able to succeed in communicating and educating society to build sufficient support to do the right things. And then to do them right.
When the road bends, smart drivers steer the curve. Can we engineer a recovery? Or will we hit the railings – whatever these consist of? Aren’t there a few clearly non-regretful choices we can make now? Think! Systemically!http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2016/03/08/engineering-the-recovery-business-as-usual-or-paradigm-shift/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/aaanews.pnghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/aaanews-300x252.pngNewsconference,energy