If the blind spot of today‘s economic, social, and environmental management can be reduced to one single word, it is consciousness. Highly specialized actors in different domains focus on optimizing their respective fields of interest, neglecting interdependencies, and not comprising reality as a whole but rather as many independent realities. Bridging the gap between different disciplines through cross-sectoral coöperation and collaboration is one of today’s most important scientific, political, economic, and social tasks: Solving global challenges — start with accepting complexity.
In the field of technology, there is a long history of connecting sectors and players through the setting of technological hardware and software standards, and through the development of application interfaces (APIs) that provide a set of functions and procedures to allow access to the computer program features or data. Due to the complexity and the high degree of specialization of many software programs, APIs allow for modularization of value chains: several different actors can add their pieces of code to a final whole representing a fully-functional program. In that way, complex applications are provided by a collaboration of several domain specialists, each contributing the best solution in the respective industry. An API model like this we need for other areas of life, as well as for life, itself. Life is too complex for being understood and manageable individually in separate, siloed areas, life must be seen and managed as a whole, and by collaborative efforts.
Connected Through API
First, the different areas of life have to be connected through APIs. Then, they have to be synchronized in order to create a functioning system. Global challenges, such as climate crisis, seem to be unsolvable when looked at from individual domains: experts of the field of ecology blame corporations for their environmental impact. Company bosses blame prohibitive environmental regulations for a worsening business climate. Employees blame their employers for laying them off because of weak performance. The retail industry blames consumers for a low propensity to consume. A vicious economic cycle has been created, with fingerpointing as the means of choice for most actors, as if it were possible to find a single culprit, being responsible for the mess.
Using all kinds of technologies, humans have created a system too complex to be manageable by a central entity. No single government, organization, or even a group of people can oversee and control the complete system. And no single individual aspect of human behavior is solely responsible for undesired outcomes, such as wars, climate crisis, or poverty. However, many people like to ask for simple solutions for complex problems. And, as soon as someone starts offering this kind of solution, people are relieved, support, and reinforce this simplified solution. Typically, politicians of the far ends of the political spectrum feel encouraged to serve these needs for easy solutions and strong men who take responsibility and act in a straightforward way. Simple contexts, simple messages, simple recipes, good outcomes — that could be the political program of shrewd radical politicians who have a good feeling of worried about citizens‘ needs.
Solving Global Challenges — Start With Accepting Complexity
Of course, it is not. As described above, we live in a highly complex, decentralized, and distributed world. Who has worked in a decentralized team, or has experience with distributed systems, knows how differently these are to be managed. While most individual organizations feature centralized structures and can be managed in a top-down manner — at least, theoretically — distributed systems need a different form of management and control. In distributed systems, individual participants act on their own behalf and maximize their individual profit. To create a well-functioning distributed system, all participants must be incentivized in a way that serves both, their own and the system‘s needs, at the same time. In other words, participants’ individual behaviors have to be aligned with the purpose and the goal of the system. If a soccer player personally benefits form scoring goals by rising in the list of top scorers, and he coincidentally ensures his team‘s victory, this alignment of interests provides a good basis for the system‘s stability. Creating governance models and incentive schemes for distributed systems are one of the hardest tasks in the field of technology, but emerges as becoming the toughest challenge for our planet.
But, before we can start discussing governance models we must define our system with all its relevant participants I’ll give it a try in the next post.