Tag Archives: Jamais Cascio

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints

Following up on my comments on William Gibson‘s discuss of his science fiction where I wrote that “Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints”

Futurist, scenario planner, and co-founder of WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio writes on his weblog Open the Future about Living in a Scenario:

There’s something of a rule-of-thumb among professional futurey-types: scenario elements that sound plausible are almost certainly wrong, while scenario elements that sound utterly implausible are very likely on-target. That’s generally true, although it applies more to the disruptive aspects of a scenario than to the everyday aspects. (That said, a scenario that said “most people in the West continue to live quiet lives, using their barely-sufficient income to pay for disposable commodity goods and overly-processed food,” while both plausible and very likely on-target for the next decade or three, is more depressing than illuminating.) Good scenario disruption points should be things that, in the here-and-now, would make you say “oh, crap” if you heard them in the news.

Oh, crap.

Nanotechnology researchers in Mexico, France, Spain, and Chile have been targeted by a terror group calling itself “Individuals Tending Towards Savagery,” and claiming to be inspired by the Unabomber.

Unabomber-copycat terror cell hits nanotech researchers in the developing world and Europe — I’m not sure anything could sound more like a headline from a scenario exercise.

Resilience economics: a scenario

Jamais Cascio presents Resilience Econmics as a scenario of an economy in 2030. He also presents two alternatives – Just in Time Socialism and Robonomics in his column in the business magazine Fast Company.  Jamais writes:

Resilience Economics

United States: Resilience Economics employs a mix of regulations and norms (i.e., non-regulated but expected behavior) to shift standard business processes away from a focus on efficiency towards a focus on flexibility.

Resilience Economics (RE) emerged out of the realization that Neoliberal Globalized Corporate Capitalism made money hand-over-fist when everything was working right, but was like a rapidly-spinning top–seemingly stable, but if it hit too rough a patch, it went wildly out of control. The RE world, conversely, is less-lucrative during growth periods, but weathers downturns so well that most folks don’t even notice when “recessions” hit.

Proponents of NGCC dismissed RE as unable to compete with the 20th century way of making money, and that appeared to be correct up until the Great Retreat of 2017 hit, the downturn that made the 2008-2010 recession pale in comparison. Ironically, most folks figure that it was because we didn’t fix the problems in the first real 21st century recession, just offered bailouts and slaps on the wrist, that we got hit by the Great Retreat a decade later.

Three key characteristics of Resilience Economics shape the way we live:

  • Polyculture markets means that no one economic (or financial) institution ever gets “too big to fail,” or so big that it distorts markets the way WalMart used to. This was probably the most politically controversial set of rule changes, but the least visible for most everyday people.
  • Transactional Transparency upset some politicians and executives, too, but really worked to smooth out markets. All along, economists said that capitalism depends on transparent markets, where buyers and sellers know all the relevant details, but that was always the one aspect of capitalism that most “capitalists” ignored.
  • Collaborative Flexibility, aka the “Lego Economy.” The result of the previous two characteristics, really. Lots of small companies, individual entrepreneurs, even part-time workers able to come together as necessary for big projects.

Is it perfect? No. It’s noticeably less efficient than the 20th century model, and a lot of older folks say that they don’t feel as “rich” as they did a few decades ago, but it’s hard to say how much of that is from RE, and how much is just that we’re all trying to deal with adapting to a global environmental crisis.

Resilience: the Next Big Thing in Foreign Policy

Jamais Cascio, who is really writing a lot on resilience these days, writes in Foreign Policy magazine The Next Big Thing: Resilience.  He provides a good summary introduction to resilience, using definitions very similar to those we use in the Resilience Alliance.

Sustainability is a seemingly laudable goal it tells us we need to live within our means, whether economic, ecological, or political but it’s insufficient for uncertain times. How can we live within our means when those very means can change, swiftly and unexpectedly, beneath us? We need a new paradigm. As we look ahead, we need to strive for an environment, and a civilization, able to handle unexpected changes without threatening to collapse. Such a world would be more than simply sustainable; it would be regenerative and diverse, relying on the capacity not only to absorb shocks like the popped housing bubble or rising sea levels, but to evolve with them. In a word, it would be resilient.

Resilience … accepts that change is inevitable and in many cases out of our hands, focusing instead on the need to be able to withstand the unexpected. Greed, accident, or malice may have harmful results, but, barring something truly apocalyptic, a resilient system can absorb such results without its overall health being threatened.

Like sustainability, resilience encompasses both strategy and design, guiding how choices are made and how systems are created. Stripped to its essence, it comes down to avoiding being trapped or trapping oneself on a losing path. Principles of resilience include:

  • Diversity: Not relying on a single kind of solution means not suffering from a single point of failure.
  • Redundancy: Backup, backup, backup. Never leave yourself with just one path of escape or rescue.
  • Decentralization: Centralized systems look strong, but when they fail, they fail catastrophically.
  • Collaboration: We’re all in this together. Take advantage of collaborative technologies, especially those offering shared communication and information.
  • Transparency: Don’t hide your systems transparency makes it easier to figure out where a problem may lie. Share your plans and preparations, and listen when people point out flaws.
  • Fail gracefully: Failure happens, so make sure that a failure state won’t make things worse than they are already.
  • Flexibility: Be ready to change your plans when they’re not working the way you expected; don’t count on things remaining stable.
  • Foresight: You can’t predict the future, but you can hear its footsteps approaching. Think and prepare.

Ultimately, resilience emphasizes increasing our ability to withstand crises. Sustainability is a brittle state: Unforeseen changes (natural or otherwise) can easily cause its collapse. Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.

Jamais Cascio on Resilience in Fast Company

Futurist Jamais Cascio seems to be thinking a lot about resilience.  He presents a good discussion of resilience in an article in the business magazine Fast Company Resilience in the Face of Crisis: Why the Future will be Flexible

What would a more resilient world look like? There’s no universal 
”resilience theory” just yet, but some of the principles employed by ecologists and designers thinking about 
resilient systems give us a hint.

Two factors stand out as core assumptions of a resilience approach: 
the future is inherently uncertain, so the system needs to be as 
flexible as possible; and failures happen, so the system needs to be 
able to identify failures early and not make things worse as a result. 
These may seem like common-sense notions, but today’s global systems 
work best when everything’s running smoothly and predictably. 
Resilient systems are optimized for rough roads with sudden turns.

Resilient flexibility means avoiding situations where components of a 
system are “too big to fail”–that is, where the failure of a single 
part can bring the whole thing crashing down. The alternative comes 
from the combination of diversity (lots of different parts), 
collaboration (able to work together), and decentralization (organized 
from the bottom-up). The result is a system that can more effectively 
respond to rapid changes in conditions, and including the unexpected 
loss of components.

A good comparison of the two models can be seen in the contrast 
between the current electricity grid (centralized, with limited diversity) 
and the “smart grid” model being debated (decentralized and highly 
diverse). Today’s power grid is brittle, and the combination of a few 
local failures can make large sections collapse; a smart grid has a 
wide variety of inputs, from wind farms to home solar to biofuel 
generators, and its network is designed to handle the churn of local 
power sources turning on and shutting off.

The recognition that failure happens is the other intrinsic part of a 
resilience approach. Mistakes, malice, pure coincidence–there’s no 
way to rule out all possible ways in which a given system can stumble. 
The goal, therefore, should be to make failures easy to spot through 
widespread adoption of transparency through a “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” embrace of 
openness, and to give the system enough redundancy and slack that it’s 
possible to absorb the failures that get through. If you know that you 
can’t rule out failure, you need to be able to “fail gracefully,” in 
the language of design.

The difference between brittle failure and graceful failure can be 
seen vividly in how different coastal areas deal with ocean surges (whether from 
storms or tsunamis). Levees, seawalls, and other “hard barriers” can 
be completely effective unless breached–but once breached, can (and 
often will) fail catastrophically. Regions relying on abundant coastal 
wetlands, mangrove forests, and similar “soft barriers,” conversely, 
are likely to see a bit of flooding, but the mass of the ocean surge 
will be absorbed and dissipated by the environment.

You don’t have to be trying to come up with a new global economic 
model to appreciate resilience. Increasingly, the concept is taking 
root in organizations of all types as a strategic guideline, and becoming part of the language of design 
for everything from software to cities. In some circles, it’s starting to replace 
”sustainability” as an environmental driver.

One reason why the idea of resilience resonates with those of us 
engaged in foresight work is that, as troubling as it may be to 
contemplate, the current massive economic downturn is likely to be 
neither the only nor the biggest crisis we face over the next few 
decades. The need to shift quickly away from fossil fuels (for both 
environmental and supply reasons) may be as big a shock as today’s 
”econalypse,” and could easily be compounded by accelerating problems 
caused by global warming. Demographic issues–aging populations, 
migrants and refugees, and changing regional ethnic make-ups–loom 
large around the world, notably in China. Pandemics, resource 
collapse, even radically disruptive technologies all have the 
potential to cause global shake-ups on the scale of what we see 
today… and we may see all of these, and more, over the next 20 to 30 

It’s going to be a bumpy ride–we should be ready.

Scenario: Resilience Economics

Futurist Jamais Cascio presents a scenario set twenty years in the future where the world post-capitalism is based on resilience economics. He writes from the point of view of someone living in that future on his blog Open the Future:

The trigger was a phrase we’d all become sick of: “Too Big to Fail.” The phrase had moved quickly from sarcasm to cliché, but ended up as the pole star for what to avoid. Any economy that enabled the creation of institutions that were too big to fail — that is, whose failure would threaten to collapse the system — could never be thought of as resilient. And, as the early 21st century rolled along, resilience is what mattered, in our environment, in our societies, and increasingly in our economics.

Traditional capitalism was, arguably, driven by the desire to increase wealth, even at the expense of other values. Traditional socialism, conversely, theoretically wanted to increase equality, even if that meant less wealth. But both 19th/20th century economic models had insufficient focus on increasing resilience, and would often actively undermine it. The economic rules we started to assemble in the early 2010s seek to change that.

Resilience economics continues to uphold the elements of previous economic models that offer continued value: freedom and openness from capitalism at its best; equality and a safety net from socialism’s intent. But it’s not just another form of “mixed economy” or “social democracy.” The focus is on something entirely new: decentralized diversity as a way of managing the unexpected.

Decentralized diversity (what we sometimes call the “polyculture” model) means setting the rules so that no one institution or approach to solving a problem/meeting a need ever becomes overwhelmingly dominant. This comes at a cost to efficiency, but efficiency only works when there are no bumps in the road. Redundancy works out better in times of chaos and uncertainty — backups and alternatives and slack in the system able to counter momentary failures.

It generates less wealth than traditional capitalism would, at least when it was working well, but is far less prone to wild swings, and has an inherent safety net (what designers call “graceful failure”) to cushion downturns.

Completely transactional transparency also helps, giving us a better chance to avoid surprises and to spot problems before they get too big. The open-source folks called this the “many eyes” effect, and they were definitely on to something. It’s much harder to game the system when everyone can see what you’re doing.

Flexibility and collaboration have long been recognized as fundamental to resilient systems, and that’s certainly true here. One headline on a news site referred to it as the “LEGO economy,” and that was pretty spot-on. Lots of little pieces able to combine and recombine; not everything fits together perfectly, but surprising combinations often have the most creative result.

Lastly, the resilience economy has adopted a much more active approach to looking ahead. Not predicting, not even planning — no “five year plans” here. It’s usually referred to as “scanning,” and the focus is less on visions of the future than on early identification of emerging uncertainties. Resilience economists are today’s foresight specialists.

What does this all look like for everyday people? For most of us, it’s actually not far off from how we lived a generation ago. We still shop for goods, although the brands are more numerous and there are far fewer “big players” — and those that emerge tend not to last long. People still go to work, although more and more of us engage in micro-production of goods and intellectual content. And people still lose their jobs and suffer personal economic problems… but, again, there’s far less risk of economic catastrophe, and some societies are even starting to experiment with a “guaranteed basic income” system.

Is it perfect? By no means. We’re still finding ways in which resilience economics isn’t working out as well as past approaches, and situations where a polyculture model doesn’t provide the kinds of results that the old oligarchic/monopoly capitalist model could. But those of us who remember the dark days of the econopalypse know where non-resilient models can lead, and would rather fix what we’ve made than go back to the past.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t as complete a picture as we’d like, but the core idea — that resilience becomes the driver of new economics — strikes me as very plausible. It’s a pretty technologically conservative scenario; no AI-managed “just-in-time socialism” here, nor any nano-cornucopian visions. But it’s very much the kind of model we could create in the aftermath of a disastrous economic crisis, in a world where the importance of resilience is becoming increasingly evident.

Notes on desiging social-ecological systems

Pruned on the rehabilitation of degraded landscapes presents Pedreres de s’Hostal:

Pedreres de s’Hostal is a disused stone quarry on the island of Minorca, Spain. In 1994, the quarry saw its last stonecutters, and since then, the non-profit organization Líthica has been hard at work transforming this industrial landscape into a post-industrial heritage park.

Conservation Magazine’s Journal Watch reports on a recent paper Willis, S.G. et al. 2009. Assisted colonization in a changing climate: a test-study using two U.K. butterflies. Conservation Letters DOI:  10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00043.x, which describes a successful assisted colonization:

Based on climate models and a survey of suitable habitats, scientists introduced 500 to 600 individuals of two butterfly species to new sites in England, miles away from what were, in 1999 and 2000, the northern limits of their natural ranges. After monitoring for six years, they found that both introduced populations grew and expanded their turf from the point of release, similarly to newly colonized natural areas.

The butterflies’ success outside of their usual limits suggests that their naturally shifting distributions had been lagging behind the pace of climate warming, the researchers conclude. The results also bode well for the careful use of this sometimes controversial technique for other species threatened by climate change. After all, wildlife can only run so fast and for those species moving up mountains to escape the heat, there’s only so far they can go.

MacArthur Foundation granting $2 million to help ecosystems and human communities adapt to the effects of climate change. On Gristmill:

the IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund — will use it to establish a new Ecosystems and Livelihoods Adaptation Network. Details on the network are still being hashed out, but it’s intended to be a resource for promoting best practices to conservation groups, governments, and others. It will aid projects such as creating protected corridors to help mountain-dwelling animals migrate to higher elevations and restoring natural barriers on coastlines, such as mangrove forests.

On Gristmill, futurist Jamais Cascio posts his recent reflections on geo-engineering in response to the detailed comparison between different geoengineering strategies a writes Geoengineering is risky but likely inevitable, so we better start thinking it through:

If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

If we don’t want to see geoengineering deployed, we have to get our carbon emissions down as rapidly and as widely as possible. If we don’t — if our best efforts aren’t enough against decades of carbon growth and temperature inertia — we will see efforts to do something, anything, to avoid global catastrophe.

On Worldchanging Alex Steffen argues that Geoengineering Megaprojects are Bad Planetary Management:

Many of us oppose geoengineering megaprojects, not because we are afraid of science or technology (indeed, most bright green environmentalists believe you can’t win this fight without much more science and technology), but because these kinds of megaprojects are bad planetary management.

It’s bad planetary management to take big chances with a high probability of “epic fail” outcomes (like emptying the sea of life through ocean acidification). It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time — unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history — we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.

Jamais and Alex debate their points a bit in the WorldChanging comments.

Legacy Futures: how past concepts of the future constrain current thinking

Futurist Jamais Cascio writes on his site Open the Future about how past thinking about the future constraints current thinking.  I saw this first hand when I was working on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment scenarios.

Jamais writes:

… we all have this kind of cognitive “legacy code” in our thinking about the future, not just science fiction writers, and it comes from more than just pop-culture media. We get legacy futures in business from old strategies and plans, legacy futures in politics from old budgets and forecasts, and legacy futures in environmentalism from earlier bits of analysis. Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them.

… Just like legacy code makes life difficult for programmers, legacy futures can make life difficult or futures thinkers. Not only do we have to describe a plausibly surreal future that fits with current thinking, we have to figure out how to deal with the leftover visions of the future that still colonize our minds. …

We can see it in both visions of a sustainable future reminiscent of 1970s commune life, and visions of a viable future that don’t include dealing with massive environmental disruption.

All of these were once legitimate scenarios for what tomorrow might hold — not predictions, but challenges to how we think and plan. For a variety of reasons, their legitimacy has faded, but their hold on many of us remains.

This leaves us with two big questions:

  • How do we deal with legacy futures without discouraging people from thinking about the future at all?
  • What scenarios considered legitimate today will be the legacy futures of tomorrow?