Category Archives: Ideas

What Are Leaders Really For?

A week ago I had an interesting discussion with Jon Norberg, a professor in Systems Ecology here at Stockholm University, about leadership.  Jon is working on, among other things, an agent based model about how leaders influence opinion change in social networks. He’s been inspired by one of the iconic examples of transformation in resilience science: the case of the governance system of Kristianstads Vattenrike in Southern Sweden.

I have to confess that I’ve been skeptic when it comes to leadership. My feeling is that the literature give too much importance to key individuals, the product of history tends to fall in the actions of few key individuals that acted in the right moment bridging organization or spreading initiatives. I don’t find it surprisingly given the fact that most of us grow up watching Captain America and Superman. What a good times.  Anyway, the literature on complex adaptive systems have addressed the same issue from another perspective: swarm dynamics – how emergent patterns rise from local interactions between agents. In a swarm, any individual could be an agent of change. All it has to do is following the rules and send the right signals in the right moment to scale up the movement of the swarm or the flock and avoid predators or mountains. On this perspective, leaders are not superheros, but rather individual with agency (the power to produce change locally) that act accordingly with the signals of its own context and the network structure. In that sense, Hitler or Gandhi were not driving the change, rather they were part of it, they were rather driven by the bubbling of the social activity of their time. Jon told me that both versions belong to different schools of thought in sociology, which names I can’t recall at this moment.

Today, Duncan Watts, on of the authors on my to read list, wrote something similar that illustrate the issue of leadership inspired on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is his blogpost from Harvard Business Review, I copied all so you don’t miss the details (source: What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts – Harvard Business Review.)

The Occupy Wall Street movement has both perplexed and frustrated observers and analysts by its persistent refusal to nominate an identifiable leadership who can in turn articulate a coherent agenda. What is the point, these critics wonder, of a movement that can’t figure out where it’s trying to go, and how can it get there without anyone to lead it?

It’s a reasonable question, but it says at least as much about what we want from our social movements as it does about the way movements actually succeed.

Typically, the way we think of social change is some variant of the “great man” theory of history: that remarkable events are driven by correspondingly remarkable individuals whose vision and leadership inspire and coordinate the actions of the many. Sometimes these individuals occupy traditional roles of leadership, like presidents, CEOs, or generals, while at other times they emerge from the rank and file; but regardless of where they come from, their presence is necessary for real social change to begin. As Margaret Meade is supposed to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but over 100 years ago in his early classic of social psychology, “The Crowd,” the French social critic Gustave LeBon, argued that the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect. According to LeBon, it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change. Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.

Even before LeBon, no less an observer of history than Tolstoy presented an even more jaundiced view of the great man theory. In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favor of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.

Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.

Yet when it comes to the social equivalent of the forest fire, we do in effect insist that there must have been something special about the spark that started it. Because our experience tells us that leadership matters in small groups such as Army platoons or start-up companies, we assume that it matters in the same way for the very largest groups as well. Thus when we witness some successful movement or organization, it seems obvious to us that whoever the leader is, his or her particular combination of personality, vision, and leadership style must have supplied the critical X factor, where the larger and more successful the movement, the more important the leader will appear.

By refusing to name a leader, Occupy Wall Street presents a challenge to this view. With no one figure to credit or blame, with no face to put on a sprawling inchoate movement, and with no hierarchy of power, we simply don’t know how to process what “it” is, and therefore how to think about it. And because this absence of a familiar personality-centric narrative makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to reject the whole thing as somehow not real. Or instead, we insist that in order to be taken seriously, the movement must first change to reflect what we expect from serious organizations — namely a charismatic leader to whom we can attribute everything.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, we will probably get our wish, for two reasons. First, if OWS grows large enough to deliver any lasting social change, some hierarchy will become necessary in order to coordinate its increasingly diverse activities; and a hierarchy by nature requires a leader. And second, precisely because the outside world wants a leader — to negotiate with, to hold responsible, and ultimately to lionize — the temptation to be that person will eventually prove irresistible.

Leaders, in other words, are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening — just as Tolstoy suspected. For better and worse, telling stories is how we make sense of the world, and it’s hard to tell a story without focal actors around which to center the action. But as we witness a succession of popular movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, we can at least pause to appreciate the real story, which is the remarkable phenomenon of a great many ordinary individuals coming together to change the world.

As a final thought, I don’t think leaders actually drive social change, at least when it comes to opinion formation and value change that has driven transformations in governance systems of  Kristianstads or the establishment of Australia’s Great Coral Reef Park cases. The “transformations” were rather driven by a self-organization of the system itself, it was ready for change. Leaders played a role on the course of action that history take, on the developing of the facts. But as the forest fire example proposed by Watts, it is more the change in slow variables rather than the spark what dominate the dynamics of fire. A more relevant question is then, what are the slow variables that underly regime shifts in society?

Resilience and Euro – diversity

On MacroEconomic Resilience ex-banker Ashwin Parameswaran draws upon Holling’s pathology of natural resource management and the work of Hyman Minsky (a connection I’ve mentioned previously and Ashwin has explored extensively – see here and here) to write about The Resilience Stability Tradeoff: Drawing Analogies between River Flood Management and Macroeconomic Management.

Ashwin Parameswaran insightfully writes:

In complex adaptive systems, stability does not equate to resilience. In fact, stability tends to breed loss of resilience and fragility or as Minsky put it, “stability is destabilising”. Although Minsky’s work has been somewhat neglected in economics, the principle of the resilience-stability tradeoff is common knowledge in ecology, especially since Buzz Holling’s pioneering work on the subject. If stability leads to fragility, then it follows that stabilisation too leads to increased system fragility. As Holling and Meffe put it in another landmark paper on the subject titled ‘Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management’, “when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.” Often, the goal of increased stability is synonymous with a goal of increased efficiency but “the goal of producing a maximum sustained yield may result in a more stable system of reduced resilience”.

The entire long arc of post-WW2 macroeconomic policy in the developed world can be described as a flawed exercise in macroeconomic stabilisation. But there is no better example of this principle than the Euro currency project as the below graph (from Pictet via FT Alphaville) illustrates.

Instead of a moderately volatile mix of different currencies and interest rates, we now have a mostly stable currency union prone to the occasional risk of systemic collapse. If this was all there is to it, then it is not clear that the Euro is such a bad idea. After all, simply shifting the volatility out to the tails is not by itself a bad outcome. But the resilience-stability tradeoff is more than just a simple transformation in distribution. Economic agents adapt to a prolonged period of stability in such a manner that the system cannot “withstand even modest adverse shocks”. “Normal” disturbances that were easily absorbed prior to the period of stabilisation are now sufficient to cause a catastrophic transition. Izabella Kaminska laments the fact that sovereign spreads for many Eurozone countries (vs 10Y Bunds) now exceed pre-Euro levels. But the real problem isn’t so much that spreads have blown out but that they have blown out after a prolonged period of stability.

Richard Wilkinson gives a TED talk on impact of inequality

Richard Wilkinson, well known British public health researcher and co-author of the recent influential book on economic inequality the Spirit Level (which has been previously mentioned on Resilience Science) gives a TED talk about his research on the social impact of inequality.

More on his research and his advocacy of social change is on the Equality Trust‘s website.

Zizek interviewed by Al Jazeera on world protests and Occupy Wall Street

In his quite amazing, nerve-racking style, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek spins out a critique in an interview by Al Jazeera, a critique that homes in on the historical crisis of ‘our’ time, which we should read as a crisis of our economic system called capitalism. In commenting on what protesters across the world during this revolutionary and insurgent year of 2011, have been able to construct, he states:

The system has lost its self-evidence, its automatic legitimacy. And now the field is open. This is a very important achievement.

Click link to start video: Zizek interviewed by Al Jazeera about Occupy Wall Street

He contends, for instance, that what we might be experiencing, is a time when Western-led capitalism, which for a century has been able to combine exploitation with liberal democracy, is overtaken – or shown less effective – than a form of capitalism with, what he refers to has “Asian values”, a Chinese-Singaporean authoritarian capitalism. The liberalist argument, that capitalism will always sow the seeds of  democracy, under which we can all live reasonably well, as it did for instance in Spain (after Franco), in Chile (after Pinochet), and in many other countries in the world, might not longer hold true, Zizek means. It could be that the kind of capitalist model that is forged through China, outcompetes a western-liberal mode of capitalism. Zizek also laments the tragedy of Europe, which seems like a true tragedy, if the only alternatives Europe can construct for themselves is either a “Brussel bureaucratic model” that gives more of the same, or a nationalist anti-immigrant stance on the rise in European countries.

However, the most interesting part of the interview is when the Al Jazeera interviewer pushes the often sceptic Zizek to look for glimmers of hope in the protests we have been witnessing during 2011 (16m50s into the clip):

INTERVIEWER: “You are lamenting that the Left does not have a global remedy or approach to deal with a lot of these problems. Where would you see the glimmers of some kind of change?”
ZIZEK: “I think that what is already happening now is reason for modest optimism. Don’t expect miracles in the sense that all of a sudden there will be a magical solution. The beginning is simply that people should become aware that the difficulties we are confronting are not just the difficulties caused by bad greedy guys in an otherwise good system, but that we have to ask certain questions about the system as such. And this awareness is raising, this is what all the protests here [at the Occupy Wall Street] are about.  And I think that at this stage what is again important is not so much to offer fast solutions, but to break this, I call it ironically, ‘Fukuyama taboo’. [...] I mean, Fukuyama is not an idiot. In a way we all were until now Fukuyamaists. Even radical leftists were not thinking about what can replace capitalism… they were demanding more social justice, more rights for women within the system. The time has come to raise this more fundamental question. The system has lost its self-evidence, its automatic legitimacy. And now the field is open. This is a very important achievement.”

[There is another interview by Al Jazeera where Zizek further elaborates his views and outlook on for instance Climate Change, read more about it here: "The 'decaffinated' other": Zizek again at Al Jazeera on climate change, tolerance, and the post-political.]

This blogpost has been posted before at my blog In Rhizomia:

SFU Convocation Address – Global Resilience Requires Novelty

[On Oct 7th, 2011 Buzz Holling was awarded a Honorary Doctorate of Science at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada. Below is his convocation address - editor]

Sixty years ago I was where you graduates are now, but graduating from the University of Toronto. By the time I got my PhD a few years later, I was well launched on a goal to understand population processes. It was the unknown that beckoned me and simple curiosity that motivated me.

The goal was to develop suites of models and experiments that could yield explanations and understanding that were simultaneously precise, realistic, holistic and general. For that time, just before computers became available, that was viewed as being unnecessarily complex. After all, one distinguished ecologist asked me, if you are interested in the time a ball takes rolling downhill, why worry about anything more than the height of the hill and its slope? General laws of physics will provide the answer.

But I was stubbornly curious about the path down the hill, the bumps and valleys that the ball might encounter and the momentary pauses as the ball encountered, or even, over several runs, created a shallow valley. That led to really delightful experimental studies of predators and prey leading to generalized models and sudden discoveries from them. The beasts used in the experiments depended on the question of the moment – Preying Mantis, deer mice, shrews, then birds, fish and stalking lions. The early computers and languages like Fortran suddenly provided the language that could use the experimental and field results. Models plus reality combined to yield broadened, generalized understanding of a small number of classes of predation.

That is when I discovered multi-stable states – population systems were not driven only by attraction to a single equilibrium state but, instead, there were several equilibrium states that determined their existence. And the goal for understanding and managing living resources and their physical world, was not sustainability but simple persistence. I learned, for example, that we could have detected and averted a collapse of cod populations off Newfoundland, avoiding the social and economic upheaval that in fact occurred. Or, we could have anticipated and avoided a western sub-continental outbreak of bark beetles that are now destroying stands of lodge pole pine throughout British Columbia and Alberta. Both of these examples were dominantly caused by the slow consequence of earlier development and exploitation, by the ingenious, but myopic foraging of fishers and harvesters, and by decades long fire protection policies.

Those slowly and invisibly led to reduced resilience, poising the systems on the edge of an instability state which began to unravel in a stutter of local spatial collapses and outbreaks, each stutter hidden by fast and innovative fishers and tree harvesters, until the whole system followed the stutters and collapsed at all scales.

That has forced a new paradigm that led to theories of resilience, to adaptive complex systems, to integration across scales from fast and small to very slow and big– from the needles of trees over months, to the boreal forest over millennia, That new resilience paradigm led to management of resources that was adaptive, where the unknown was large, alternatives could be proposed and monitoring was essential.

That is all part of complex adaptive system theory. It reflects humanity’s partial knowledge, fast inventions for dealing with surprises, and persistent learning.

It applies to the present turbulence in the world now. Slow economic processes have led us to the big surprises now appearing on a global scale. Financial collapse, debts threatening nations, European deep instability, and climate change.

Since the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed, corporations began to focus on fast economic variables and on globalization. That led to an emphasis on expanding efficiency but also to the emergence of slowly increasing debt, and hidden forces caused by diversified, subdivided and fragmented investments. No one knew where they were, or what they cost. That eventually triggered a collapse that exposed the reality that slow, invisible changes had decreased the resilience of the world economy. Globalization spread the collapse. What was presumed to be efficient began to be realized as being myopic.

At this turbulent time of crises, you and I have a real purpose. We need to help minimize and slow the spread of the collapses in the face of resistance from lobbies and from accumulated wealth. Banks and investment firms need regulation and a richer paradigm, but that need is opposed by the entrenched powers of corporations and banks that are caught in a rigidity trap. Nations of the European Union, and the Euro, need an integrated, multi-scalar inter-relationship, but one that now encounters the loss of resilience that comes in part from the inability to devalue a single nation’s currency and little control on debt inflamed growth. Carbon dioxide emissions need to be inhibited, but that encounters the opposition from the fossil fuel corporations- particularly oil.

Our aboriginal cultures and small communities here on the west coast are discovering and protecting treasured histories and traditions of local cultures. They now need to also add and create novel new ways to see and act beyond their traditional scales at the mouths of rivers and to connect to others across scales. Does fear stop them? Could their traditional theory (and myths) combine with adaptive resilience theory (and myths) as an emerging synthesis?

The answer is to keep trying, keep talking, keep communicating, but recognize it is a frustratingly slow process. Understand the traps- poverty traps like Haiti, rigidity traps like Fascism, lock-in traps of mega agriculture, and gilded traps from external subsidies.

And here is a program specifically for you. Encourage and support experiments, a multiplicity of experiments that search for and deepen new paradigms. Be entrepreneurs, alone and cooperatively together. And make the experiments global and cross scale. The internet and its novel ways of helping people to interact lets us reach or create groups of participants independent of where they live, ones from multiple patches and multiple time senses.

Many experiments will fail, but make them safe in their failure. Look for rare synergisms between a few successes. When enough people and experiences have accumulated, then protest publicly, non-violently and simultaneously against the defenders of the old paradigm that created the crash, the flip.

Make it our Big Arab Spring.

Links: Melting glaciers, floods, and species responses to climate change

1) BBC News – Rivers of ice: Vanishing glaciers.- David Breashears retraced the steps of early photographic pioneers such as Major E O Wheeler, George Mallory and Vittorio Sella – to try to re-take their views of breathtaking glacial vistas.

2) Thai water management experts are blaming human activity.for turning an unusually heavy monsoon season into a disaster. NYTimes writes:

The main factors, they say, are deforestation, overbuilding in catchment areas, the damming and diversion of natural waterways, urban sprawl, and the filling-in of canals, combined with bad planning. Warnings to the authorities, they say, have been in vain

3) Chen et al’s conducted a metanalysis of published species response to ongoing climate change and found 2-3X faster movement than previous studies.  Their paper in Science – Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming (DOI: 10.1126/science.1206432) estimated median rates of species movement were 11m gain in elevation/ decade and poleward movement of 17 km/ decade. They conclude:

average rates of latitudinal distribution change match those expected on the basis of average temperature change, but that variation is so great within taxonomic groups that more detailed physiological, ecological and environmental data are required to provide specific prognoses for individual species.

Climate Stablization Wedges – an update, responses and critiques

A well know proposed strategy for reducing carbon emissions was the 2004 “wedges” paper in by ecologist Stephen Pacala and engineer Robert Socolow (Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1100103). For more on wedges see Carbon Mitigation Initiative website at Princeton.

Robert Socolow has recently published an update on the wedges paper, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which discusses the failures of their proposal, he reaffirms the wedges approach and argues that they should have presented their work differently – specifically:

…advocates for prompt action, of whom I am one, also bear responsibility for the poor quality of the discussion and the lack of momentum. Over the past seven years, I wish we had been more forthcoming with three messages: We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every “solution” carries risk. I don’t know for sure that such candor would have produced a less polarized public discourse. But I bet it would have. Our audiences would have been reassured that we and they are on the same team — that we are not holding anything back and have the same hopes and fears.

and he proposes that:

To motivate prompt action today, seven years later, our wedges paper needs supplements: insights from psychology and history about how unwelcome news is received, probing reports about the limitations of current climate science, and sober assessments of unsafe braking.

There are responses onThe Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website and Climate Central that include the Nicholas Stern and others.

Andrew Revkin on DotEarth has an number of US and energy oriented comments from earth system scientist Ken Caldeira, my former colleague at McGill economist Chris Green and others as well as response from Socolow.

Rob Hopkins from Transition Town movement presents a view from local sustainability action.  He worries that the wedges approach can actually make our current situaiton worse – in Giving Robert Socolow a Wedgie (so to speak). He argues that systemic strategies that improve local resilience could be much more successful by addressing multiple issues that focusing on energy and CO2.

Socolow argues that part of the blame for the fact that the world hasn’t adopted the wedges approach can be laid at the door of the environmental movement, for being so upbeat and chipper about the impacts and not acknowledging that there will be ‘pain’ alongside the ‘gain’ (as it were).  …  I think it is far more likely that most of Pacala and Socolow’s wedges are, ultimately, unfeasible due to their own energy intensity and cost in a contracting global economy.

Socolow and Pacala’s wedges were conceived and proposed solely as responses to climate change.  Yet, of course, climate change is not the only challenge we face.  As the World Economic Forum’s recently-released analysis of the risks facing the world over the next 10 years identified, extreme energy price volatility and the fiscal crisis sit alongside climate change, closely followed by economic disparity, collectively leading the field in terms of risks we need to be building resilience to as a matter of urgency

Resilience of Totnes

‘Town’ series on BBC2 examines the role of towns in the UK.

The last show in the series looks at the resilience of Totnes, the founding site of rapidly growing Transition Towns movement, which is represented locally by Transition Town Totnes.

The show focuses on the town, rather than the transition movement, but its focus on the resilience and deep history of Totnes is quite interesting. I especially found interesting how the town is connected to the utopian experiments of the nearby Dartington Hall, which is now home to the sustainability focused Schumacher College. The entire show is available on youtube.

The BBC describes the episode as:

A Saxon river town in South Devon, Totnes is one of the UK’s oldest towns. It has seen tough times through its long history, but adversity has taught it to innovate. Geographer and adventurer Nicholas Crane visits the home of one of the greatest social experiments of the 20th century, and uncovers the test bed for an ambitious new idea that aims to change our urban life forever.

Analysis of impact of recent global crises on development

In the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK, writes What impact have the global crises had on development thinking? He summarizes some of the findings from an effort at IDS to assess how the financial, fuel, and food crisis of the past several years have shifted the assumptions underlying development.

Economic growth can be a force for good, but it does not have to be

When many of us were taught economics, growth was sometimes seen as sufficient for development and always necessary. [Our study] concluded that some kinds of growth are necessary, others irrelevant, and some harmful. Growth should be treated like technology: with the right governance, it can advance human wellbeing. The growth we want is economic development that is potent in reducing poverty, uses natural resources sustainably and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases. Too much research on growth is focused on how we get it, rather than how we get the type we need. We get the growth we want by focusing on: creating the right initial conditions (such as low inequality); reducing entry barriers for new, small businesses; setting key prices at appropriate levels (as with carbon production); and adopting stronger transparency mechanisms to allow society to pressurise corporations.

Views on growth are surprisingly homogenous. This is probably because only one type of economics (neoclassical) is taught the world over. But monocultures, nature has taught us, are particularly vulnerable to events.

Wellbeing and resilience are not panaceas, but neither are they fads

The crisis impact work indicated that while material goods were very important to the human condition, so too were the relationships and the psychological dimensions of human existence. Wellbeing brings these dimensions together in an explicit way. The emerging concern with resilience of systems is perhaps a good thing to come out of the bad news of the crises. Given the new global uncertainties (climate, the emerging powers, and resource scarcities deriving from current lifestyles) we think these concepts of wellbeing and resilience are here to stay. But if used lazily to provide politically correct gloss to issues of measurement of progress and interdependence, they will become devalued.

Unfortunately the full study only seems to be available as a book.

New resilience theory related book Phase Transitions

Ricard Solé, the well known complex systems scientist, has a new book Phase Transitions (here’s Table of Contents). It sounds interesting especially since Solé’s work frequently includes ecological and evolutionary dynamics.  The book looks very similar it is to Marten Scheffer‘s Critical Transitions in Nature and Society – so it will be interesting to see how they differ in approach and content.

The book is the third in Princeton University Press’s Primers in Complex Systems series.  Since phase transitions, critical transitions, and regime shifts are all extremely similar and all relate to resilience I’ll certainly check the book out.

The publisher describes the book:

Phase transitions–changes between different states of organization in a complex system–have long helped to explain physics concepts, such as why water freezes into a solid or boils to become a gas. How might phase transitions shed light on important problems in biological and ecological complex systems? Exploring the origins and implications of sudden changes in nature and society, Phase Transitions examines different dynamical behaviors in a broad range of complex systems. Using a compelling set of examples, from gene networks and ant colonies to human language and the degradation of diverse ecosystems, the book illustrates the power of simple models to reveal how phase transitions occur.

Introductory chapters provide the critical concepts and the simplest mathematical techniques required to study phase transitions. In a series of example-driven chapters, Ricard Solé shows how such concepts and techniques can be applied to the analysis and prediction of complex system behavior, including the origins of life, viral replication, epidemics, language evolution, and the emergence and breakdown of societies.

Written at an undergraduate mathematical level, this book provides the essential theoretical tools and foundations required to develop basic models to explain collective phase transitions for a wide variety of ecosystems.