From the busyness of innovation to the creation of value


The failure rates of highly leveraged – investor powered – start-ups is greater than 90%, and less than 50% of all new businesses survive past the five-year mark. The extremely poor survival rate of leveraged start-ups highlights the main motivation for the popular “fail fast” mantra. The vast majority of so-called “investors” are impatient, laser focused on monetisation, and rely on social proof of their decisions rather than on a deeper level of understanding of economic value creation and the future role of human cultural evolution.

Obsession with social status has been a core characteristic of all civilisations to date. The three ingredients that power the fractal boom and bust life cycle of civilisation are:

  1. cities (large aggregations of interacting people),
  2. written language (symbolic systems that facilitate the preservation and propagation of cultural rituals across space and time), and
  3. money (an abstract metric for what a culture perceives as valuable).

All three ingredients of civilisation are highly problematic:

To date cities are groups of people that rely on energy and resources from the outside in order to survive and thrive. By definition cities are unsustainable infrastructures that source their inputs from agriculture, mining, and energy production beyond the city boundary. In order for cities to become sustainable all their sources of inputs must become sustainable. This implies closed loop zero-waste value cycles between a city and its surrounding sources of food, resources,  and energy.

The linear languages we use have severe weaknesses that trip us up on a regular basis:

When we’re trying to communicate it in simple language… we’re essentially lying about the nature of the world

Global metrics related to environmental destruction, loss of biodiversity, and climate change highlight the extent to which our cities have become unsustainable and the extent to which the metric of money is much too simplistic for measuring economic progress – or any change that legitimately deserves the label of innovation. Money is a very crude metric of social proof, and nothing more. Money works reasonably well at a local level as long as people are concerned about living healthy lives within their local mutual support network, and are not preoccupied with abstract social games and delusions.

Unfortunately, a closer analysis of human civilisations to date throughout all of human history uncovers that the ingredients of civilisation predictably lead to social delusions and to unsustainable extraction of resources. This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that written language and money are inadequate tools for guiding civilisation onto a sustainable path. The global magnitude of unsustainable metrics of resource use and waste production confronts humanity with a major choice:

  1. Either hide behind our social delusions via the continued use of inadequate metrics and languages to continue with the busyness of monetisation as usual;
  2. or find the courage to confront the externalities of civilisation head on,
    • by assessing human collective behaviour via metrics from the physical and living world around us,
    • and by shifting the use of pervasive digital technology from perpetuating simplistic delusions to developing powerful new visual languages for sharing and validating knowledge and for improving our mutual level of understanding.

Shallow innovation, material consumption, and the spectacle of social games are not making human societies any happier. Busyness as usual is decreasing the prospects of  a healthy and enjoyable living environment for future generations of humans and other larger living creatures.

The addictive nature of money and related social delusions have severely distorted perceptions of risk, courage, and value throughout human history. The distortions clearly visible in the cultures of the “developed” world:

  1. Continuing belief in a stupefyingly simplistic metric of money as a universal tool for assessing value
  2. Replacement of independent critical thought and understanding our purpose in life with a mindless pursuit of perpetual busyness
  3. The pathologicalisation of  refusal or inability to submit to busyness, via discrimination against neurodivergent behaviour, and the via invention of various  psychological “disorders”
  4. The normalisation of narcissistic behaviours
  5. A false perception of financial investors as courageous risk takers
  6. Celebration of start-up “ventures” with a 90% failure rate
  7. The persistence of Edward W. Deming’s deadly diseases of management
  8. Continuing belief in social hierarchies as an inevitable aspect of human nature, and as an essential tool for coordinating economic activity
  9. An anthropocentric definition of intelligence and related flawed reasoning, to justify human exceptionalism, and to discount the value of biological diversity
  10. A naive perception of most human technologies as elements of progress, enabled by human exceptionalism

Reframing the collapse of civilisation into a reinvention of value creation

It is only once we fully appreciate the extent to which our culture is distorting our perceptions of potential value that we can begin to embark on a path into a less depressing future. In order to succeed we must reinvent the foundations of civilisation. If cities, written language, and money are inadequate, then we have to critically reexamine and carefully reinvent:

  1. How we organise our living spaces and related flows of resources and energy
  2. The tools of human collaboration
  3. The metrics that we use to assess progress

Reinventing human collaboration

This is perhaps the most difficult challenge, as it assumes that we are ready to acknowledge and deconstruct our cultural delusions. Where do we start?

Scientific evidence tells us that typical human nature is collaborative and not competitive, and that only around 1% of the population suffer from an innate psychopathic lack of empathy. We can relearn how to best deal with psychopathic tendencies from pre-historic hunter gatherer societies which did not have cities, written language and money. The following avenues deserve attention:

  • Replacement of  incentives for gaining individual social status with incentives for collaboration and mutual support. In this context we have the opportunity to realign collaboration with our cognitive limits, and to refocus collaboration on small social groups of around 100 individuals.
  • Making use of digital user interfaces to develop intuitive and less ambiguous non-linear visual languages, to share knowledge, and to nurture shared understanding.
  • Making use of zero marginal cost ubiquitous communications tools, to remix physical and virtual communities, and to maximise the supports available to neurodivergent individuals.

semantic lensTo perform this transformation requires a semantic lens to reason and make sense of the world and the natural environment from a human perspective. Such a modelling language for purpose and value systems can be constructed from five simple ingredients that influence our motivations and human cultural evolution:

  1. nature (our context) :
    container of our lives;
    source of food and primary sensory experiences
  2. artefacts (our tools and creative output in the physical realm) :
    building blocks of our material world;
    source of secondary sensory experiences
  3. symbols (our tools and creative output in the abstract realm) :
    building blocks of our languages and thoughts;
    source of perceptive filters
  4. societies (our subconscious (re)production of movements, artefacts and symbols) :
    building blocks of our behavioural patterns for interacting with the world and with other humans;
    source of social rules and norms
  5. critical perspectives (our conscious observation of all human behaviour) :
    building blocks of critical and divergent thoughts ;
    source of adaptive behaviour

The semantic  lens encourages us to surface and critically examine implicit and unconscious assumptions about our lives.

Reinventing the measures of economic progress

Once we look beyond the simplistic and culturally biased lens of money, we can focus on domain specific metrics from the physical and living biological world to quantify various forms of waste and inequality in terms of access to food, knowledge, resources, and energy.

logistic lensHuman value creation (flows of food, knowledge, resources, waste, and energy and related metrics) within a given culture can be understood and visualised via a logistic lens consisting of five simple categories:

  1. energy and food production : collect / grow, store, release / eat
  2. engineering : design, make, reuse, recycle, automate
  3. transportation : move, communicate
  4. maintenance : maintain system quality attributes
  5. culture : play, learn

The logistic lens in conjunction with the semantic lens provide us with a language for reasoning about economic progress, positive and negative externalities, and about possibly desirable future states.

system lensWhen the core concepts of the semantic and logistic lenses are not only used in the abstract, but are instantiated and visualised in conjunction with a system lens to reflect the concrete interactions between individuals and the concrete concerns of specific communities, the resulting dialogue is grounded in observations and data from physical and living systems, and is not obfuscated by fungible monetary metrics.

A simple rule of thumb for evaluating new products and ventures: Any innovation that does not create significant positive externalities in the logistic lens is destined to fail. A simplistic monetisation use case is no longer good enough.

Reinventing our living spaces and logistics

The advent of ubiquitous global communication and increasingly advanced levels of automation of industrial production provides the substrate for re-imagining our living spaces and daily activities.

Cities and their surroundings may be re-conceived as sustainable living ecosystems, and the thrust of human inventiveness may shift away from new gadgets and digital slot machines to new forms of reducing, reusing, and recycling waste, and to phasing out our reliance on brittle and unsustainable sources of food, resources, and energy.

The coordinated effort that is needed to address climate change and environmental destruction in a timely matter is only possible on a new foundation for human civilisation. Established institutions are losing relevance and are starting to give way to emergent structures that operate in ways that can not be understood via the outdated  illusion of economic “growth”. Earlier today Paul B. Harzog reiterated Buckminster Fuller’s message in the following  words:

Let us come together to build the future we want, and let the dying infrastructure around us decay organically. It is its own obsolescence.

Join our efforts on 3 June in Auckland and Melbourne

The upcoming CIIC unconference in June 2017 is an opportunity to work on the reinvention of human collaboration. A whole number of people have already made significant progress in this direction. Join us in Auckland or in Melbourne!

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