Exponential Technologies and Social-Ecological Design


Teaching about exponential technology and social-ecological design in resilient systems at Stockholm Resilience Center ( The Stockholm Resilience Centre is making super useful contributions to humanity and to the planet. They’ve pioneered the nuanced and data-driven concept of “Planetary Boundaries”—the thresholds beyond which we cannot predict the behavior of our planet or our ability to live on it successfully. (The Centre’s Executive Director, Johan Rockstrom delivers a succinct TED talk on the concept here.) Or, for a brief paragraph about each of the 9 boundaries, see here. This concept and others pioneered at the Centre are helping to frame some of the decade’s most urgent debates around climate stewardship.

SRC is staffed primarily with scientists and researchers, but it is working actively to create positive impacts and to foster innovation. Maja Brisvall, who I first met during the Graduate Studies Program of Singularity University, was inspired by the potential impact of exponential technologies to create a similar initiative at SRC called LEAD. In close collaboration with SU mainstay, Kathryn Myronuk, and with contributions from SU's core impact faculty, this program will be culminating in December 2014. While LEAD offers the popular mix of entrepreneurial skills, exponential technologies and social impact, it also incorporates SRC’s priorities by requiring participants to focus their innovations on ecological systems or biodiversity. To the best of my knowledge, this is currently the only program focused on this potent overlap.

While applying exponential technologies to problems in health care or education is a fairly straightforward (and popular) undertaking, far fewer people have taken a serious look at how these technologies can be brought to the service of earth systems and into an area typically looked after by foresters and farmers. We’re watching this intersection very closely at CODE and doing our best to help it develop. If you are working on a technologically advanced initiative to strengthen existing earth systems, get in touch and let’s chat.

Our contributions to the LEAD program hinged on identifying four different industrial age assumptions that limit our vision and impact when thinking about innovations within our social and ecological systems. These are:

  1. Technological innovations should be for the individual and scaled on a 1:1 basis.
  2. Technological innovations should be delivered from the top down.
  3. We should develop our innovations on the assumption that we will continue to centralize and urbanize, discounting other trends and trajectories.
  4. Programs and initiatives should be designed to last and grow indefinitely.

Stay tuned for more detailed thinking around these points.

Also, in case it isn’t obvious, if we don’t work together on bolstering our existing ecosystems and biodiversity, we’ll soon find ourselves treading the dangerous and objectionable path towards Geo-engineering, an exponential technology that we want to keep in the box.

Near and Medium Term Unemployment Stresses

Unemployment because of technology and the future stresses of economic recession ( trends for youth employment look worrying. We already have 1 billion working age young people classified as unemployed or underemployed. We know that 48% of all working people are in vulnerable employment and recent research suggests that nearly half of the careers that exist today are threatened by robots and automation. This situation is not a modern parallel to what we saw at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when the Luddites were making a name for themselves. Data-driven analysis and a close look at the global economy make it clear that income earning opportunities are disappearing faster than they are being created. Watch this if you need convincing:

The end of jobs could turn out to be a wonderful thing. Many of us find labor tedious and limiting. Many people dream of spending their time however they see fit. But we cannot transition magically from an earnings-based economy to an abundance or gift-based economy.

Huge portions of society are vulnerable now. Large numbers of people are joining their ranks every year. (Check out Guy Standing’s thought-provoking books about the “precariat” to understand these trends better.) For them, difficulty finding work means difficulty providing for their basic needs and perhaps the needs of their family.

With optimism about the medium term future, Code focuses on the immediate and urgent need to build self-sufficiency in vulnerable communities. When we cannot identify job opportunities for certain populations, we can still take a look at their expenses and spending habits and systematically eliminate their dependence on food, water and energy that they do not produce and control.