How Effective Are Different Climate Interventions?

My friend, Mariah Howard, shared this CNN.com climate change solutions quiz today. It’s based on data from Paul Hawken’s excellent climate nonprofit, Project Drawdown. I took the quiz, and it nicely confirmed what I suspected: Other than the consequences of a mostly plant-based diet, I had very little clue about the actual impacts of most proposed climate interventions.

I’d like to see more exercises and visualizations that accomplish this for all sorts of problems. Skilled systems thinker don’t think in terms of binaries. They ask questions like, “How much?”, and, “In exchange of what?” Knowing that driving a Prius lowers my carbon footprint isn’t useful if what I actually care about is getting overall atmospheric carbon below 350 parts per million. (We’re currently at 412 and growing.) What matters is how much it lowers my carbon footprint.

That said, there were a few things I didn’t like about the quiz. First, the scoring system doesn’t make sense. (I scored 34.4 percent overall.) You’re asked to rank a set of interventions based on carbon impact. As my friend, Travis Kriplean, pointed out, if your three interventions are ranked 1-2-3, and you rank them 1-3-2, you’re penalized the same as if you ranked them 3-2-1, which is a more egregious error.

Furthermore, the rankings alone don’t tell the whole story. If intervention 1 will remove 10 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere, intervention 2 will remove 2, and intervention 3 will remove 1, then mixing up 2 and 3 wouldn’t be egregious, whereas not ranking 1 first would be a huge miss.

Second, CNN.com tries to show which interventions can be implemented by individuals versus industries and public policy. For example, eating a plant-based diet is labeled as something that individuals can do, whereas investing in high-speed trains is something that requires policymakers. I don’t find this to be a helpful distinction. Sure, I could switch to a more plant-based diet, but policymakers could also end meat subsidies, which would raise the price of meat and consequently lower a lot of people’s meat consumption. On the flip side, the quiz labels more walkable cities as a public policy intervention, but it could just as well as have made it an individual intervention where a whole lot of people simply walked more.

This problem is exacerbated by the quiz attempting to make the impact more tangible by showing the equivalent number of gas guzzling cars taken off the road by each intervention. This is an admirable goal, but it makes no sense in the context of this particular exercise. For example, it claims that “driving an electric car” — an individual intervention — would be similar to taking 75.7 million cars off the road. No, actually, if I drive an electric car, that would be similar to taking one gas-guzzling car off the road. If you read Project Drawdown’s analysis, they make projections based on EV’s taking up 16 percent of total passenger miles by 2050. The details here matter.

All that said, the quiz caught my interest enough for me to go down a little bit of a research rabbit hole, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while but have never gotten around to doing. I also learned some surprising things. I’d encourage others to give it a try.

For more on these drawdown strategies, Travis recommends watching Chad Frischmann’s TED Talk:

Doug Engelbart, Human Systems, Tribes, and Collective Wisdom

Sunday, December 9 was the 50th anniversary of Doug Engelbart’s The Mother of All Demos. There was a symposium in his honor at The Computer History Museum and much media and Twitter activity throughout.

Among the many things said and written that caught my eye that weekend was a Twitter exchange between Greg Lloyd and Mark Szpakowski. Greg tweeted a quote from this Los Angeles Review of Books article:

“At the very heart of Engelbart’s vision was a recognition of the fact that it is ultimately humans who have to evolve, who have to change, not technology.”

Mark responded:

And yet 99% of the Engelbart tribe work has been on the techie Tool System. http://www.dougengelbart.org/firsts/human-system.html … used to say “coming soon”; now it has disappeared. Time to join up with recent progress on Social Technologies for Complex Adaptive Anticipatory Human Systems?

I agree with Mark, with one caveat: It depends on how you define the “Engelbart tribe.” Let’s explore this caveat first.

Tribes and Movements

There are many folks specializing in process design (what Doug would have categorized as “Human Systems”) who consider Doug a mentor or, at worst, an inspiration. I’m one of them, although I didn’t start (exclusively) from this place when I started working with him in 2000.

Three others in this group have been direct mentors to me: Jeff Conklin, who spent a good amount of time with Doug, and Gail and Matt Taylor, who didn’t, but who knew of him and his work. David Sibbet, the graphic facilitation pioneer, came across Doug’s work in 1972 and worked some with Geoff Ball, who was on Doug’s SRI team doing research on facilitating groups with a shared display. Those four people alone make for an impressive, accomplished, world-changing group.

There are also many, many more folks doing important work in human systems who aren’t familiar with Doug’s work at all or who don’t identify with him for whatever reason. Doug himself thought that lots of what was happening in both open source software development communities and in the Agile Movement were highly relevant, although he had nothing to do with either. At the Symposium celebrating Doug, Christina Engelbart, Doug’s daughter and the keeper of his intellectual legacy, connected the Lean movement to her dad’s work and invited Brant Cooper, the author of The Lean Entrepreneur, to speak.

An effective movement is an inclusive one. What matters more: Seeing Doug’s vision through, or establishing tribal boundaries? If the former, then it’s important to acknowledge and embrace the work of those who may not have the same heroes or conceptual frames of reference.

I don’t think many of us who loved Doug and were inspired by his vision have been very good at this, and unfortunately, our tribalism has extended to technologists too. After the Symposium, I had drinks with my friend, James Cham, who is a long-time fan of Doug’s, but who wasn’t lucky enough to spend much time with him. James told me that Dylan Field (co-founder of Figma Design) was inspired by Doug and that he had hosted his own celebration of the Demo that same Sunday that 300 people attended. Amjad Masad (founder of Repl.it, a tool that Doug would have loved) gave a thoughtful toast about Doug’s work there.

I didn’t know either Dylan or Amjad, and I certainly didn’t know that they tracked Doug’s work and were inspired it. I’m fairly certain that the organizers of the official celebration didn’t either. That’s pretty remarkable, given how small of a place Silicon Valley is. Now that we know, I hope we can start making some fruitful connections.

Capabilities and Collective Wisdom

The movement of folks committed to Doug’s larger vision is much larger than the “official” tribe to which Mark referred in his tweet. But even if we take into account this larger group, I think Mark’s criticism still holds.

Doug sought to make the world collectively smarter. He believed the path to achieving this would be a co-evolutionary process involving both tool and human systems. In other words, new tools would give us new capabilities, assuming we learned how to master them. Those new capabilities would inspire us to create even better tools. Rinse, and repeat.

As my friend, Travis Kriplean, pointed out to me this morning, we can already test this hypothesis. Technology has already evolved exponentially. Have our collective capabilities — or even more importantly, our collective wisdom — evolved with it?

Let’s narrow the question. Our ability to capture, store, and share information has improved by leaps and bounds since Doug’s Demo in 1968. Has our collective memory increased as a result of that?

If you were pinning me down, I would guess, “no.” The mere existence of those tools don’t guarantee that we remember more. Furthermore, the tools have a nasty side effect of overwhelm. But, these tools certainly create the potential for us to remember more — we just have to figure out how.

Right now, my eight- and 14-year old nephews have access to this blog, where they can read many of my innermost thoughts, including stories I wrote about them when they were younger. Right now, they can explore my Flickr, Instagram, and YouTube accounts without even having to ask for permission. If they asked for permission, I would probably let them go through my Google Maps Timeline, which is automatically harvested from my cell phone’s location data and which contains a comprehensive journal of my every day travels over the past few years. They already have access to lots of information about me, including my efforts to distill little bits and pieces of my experience. Most of this is purely the result of technology, with a little bit coming from my occasional discipline of sharing thoughts here and there.

But does any of this help them become wiser? If not, is it because our technology has not evolved enough, or is it because our human practices have not evolved with the technology?

The best example I know of a human system that evolved with the technology are wikis in general and Wikipedia in particular. Not enough people realize that wikis and Wikipedias aren’t just tools. They are a wonderful marriage of human and tool systems that created fundamentally new collective capabilities, exactly the type of thing that Doug envisioned. They are also 20-year old examples. I think this speaks very much to Mark’s critique.

A Day In A Networked Life

I live a networked life, but there was something about yesterday that made me fully appreciate how lucky I am and how amazing this world is. Here’s yesterday’s rundown:

6am — Up early. Long day of work ahead of me.

7:30amAsaf Bartov (currently in Israel, soon to be in San Francisco) and Moushira Elamrawy, newly hired global community reps at the Wikimedia Foundation, are holding IRC office hours. Decide to listen in. Happy to see several old friends from around the world there. It’s just text scrolling on the screen, but it almost feels like we’re in the same room together. Moushira lives in Egypt, which was serendipitous, because while we chat, something cool happens there. Again, networks.

8:30am — A colleague of mine in North Carolina passes along an unusual request from a colleague of hers in Belgium. She wants to use a YouTube video of a Korean rap song for a workshop, and she wants to make sure the lyrics aren’t offensive. I’m amused, but my Korean isn’t good enough to help her. I ping a friend from Korea on Facebook, whom I met at a conference here in San Francisco last summer.

9am — Take a peek on Twitter, and see my friend, Nancy White (based in Seattle), asking for stories about social media in public health education. I don’t know any off the top of my head, and I could easily have retweeted Nancy’s request and left it at that. But I immediately think of two friends on Twitter who could help — Steve Downs (based in NYC) and Susannah Fox (based in D.C.) — and I decide to introduce the three of them instead, in public and over Twitter. Total time spent on this: About a minute.

I had met Steve in person almost a year ago. I discovered Susannah accidentally through an article that evoked a blog post here. I still haven’t met her in person, but I’ve enjoyed all of our interactions since. Steve and Susannah immediately get to work, retweeting the request to specific people and supplying a stream of great stories to Nancy. I check in a few hours later, and I’m blown away by the response.

9:30am — Plotting a surprise for a dear friend. Can’t share the details here in case said friend reads this blog post. I’m in the early stages of scheming, and after talking to a few people, I decide to set up a Facebook group. A few hours later, 30 people are on the group and work is happening. Many of those folks are friends I haven’t seen or talked to in a long time.

Throughout the day — Lots of work, and I need to focus. I have calls for four different projects. On three of them, we use Google Docs for collective, real-time synthesis. How were we ever productive before real-time, collaborative editing?!

I end up working until 7pm, then settle in for the evening. I disconnect, cook dinner, chat with a friend, do some reading, then go to bed early.

This morning — I wake up before 6am, refreshed. My friend from Korea has responded. Not only does she verify that the lyrics are indeed not offensive, but she sends me a transcription of the entire song! I thank her, and forward the news to my friend in North Carolina.

Later in the morning, I ponder all that happened in the past 24 hours, and I sit to write this blog post. As I write, Travis Kriplean IMs me from Seattle. He pings me about some great news, and we end up having a great, thought-provoking conversation about tools for engagement. My mind is racing again, and now I have to go read one of Travis’s papers.

Israel, Egypt, Belgium, Korea, and all throughout the U.S.: Over a 24-hour period, I interacted with friends and colleagues from all over the world, including one in Egypt while incredible things are happening there.

I spent about 20 of those minutes on my computer in my office here in San Francisco connecting people to others, creating online spaces, and walking away. Amazing stuff magically happened.

While all this was happening, I focused and worked productively, again from the comfort of my home office, using tools that have only recently become widely available.

What an amazing, wonderful world we live in, where possibility is reality.