A Summary of Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and some thoughts…

I recently read Daniel Goleman’s “Ecological Intelligence. How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy can Change Everything.”. I’ve been interested in the idea of transparency or what Goleman calls “radical transparency” that mobiles connected to databases on health, social and ecological effects of products can bring to how we think about consumers and markets. As readers of this blog are aware, I’m not very enthusiastic about the use of the word consumer and find it overly burdened with cliches and short on analytical insight on actually existing subjectivities in the marketplace. I find Andrew Barry’s work that provides insights into the development of “technological citizenship” or Adriana Petryna’s work on “biocitizenship” quite relevant to many things going on in the sustainability movement despite what the market researchers say. Goleman’s book does not delve into the politics of sustainability but he has some insights into how the platforms that foster radical transparency may work in the near future.

Pointing to the complexities of doing Life Cycle Assessments of products and the challenge of dealing with multiple framings of these assessments, Goleman, is interested in how we can get the right level of information to consumers at the right time so that consumption behaviors change and produce outcomes. Industrial ecologists who work in the area of LCA such as Dara O’Rourke, the founder of GoodGuide.com, are leading the charge in this arena through the creation of platforms that are capable of collecting the most important data and then finding ways to lower the costs of information access. Goleman quotes Nobel economist George Stigler who pointed out that information has a price and that is the “cost” of searching for it. When you’re looking at the impact of a product on the environment, the social costs of global supply chains or sorting through the health data on every component of a consumer product these costs remain extremely high, unless you have a Good Guide to do this work for you. GoodGuide.com currently has information on over 70,000 products that comes from hundreds of databases with over 80 million bits of information. Good Guide now has an iPhone ap that enables consumers to retrieve ratings of products as well as make lists based on the filters-social, ecological and/or health-that they prefer. They’re looking to the next generation of the service that will rely more heavily on sensors (RFID) and automatically alerts the shopper to the status of a product or an alternative route that analyzes one’s credit card purchases. While platforms and approaches may vary, the point is that new forms of transparency are making their way into the marketplace so that citizen-consumers will find it increasingly easy to consume through whatever normative filters they chose.

Some of the other chapters focus on the work of neuroeconomics and the experience of shopping, factors that Goleman claims need to be considered beyond just the provision of information or addressing information asymmetries for ecological outcomes to arise out of services such as GoodGuide.com. These platforms are proliferating with cosmetic examples such as Skin Deep and the Hannaford supermarket chain’s Guiding Stars nutritional guide (or see Adam Drewnowski’s Nutrient Rich system).

One of the key insights about the success of these platforms speaks to the criticism I have of the use of the word consumer. O’Rourke and others see the scaling up of these platforms as likely to work through engagement with small communities of activists and people passionate about a cause. He interviews Harvard’s Archon Fung who points out that the first and second generation transparency efforts were largely regulated approaches, or top-down. Third generation, as seen in Good Guide, are driven by vigilant, active consumers, or citizens as I would have it. This need not be an adversarial, hostile relationship either. Progressive companies can engage with these citizens and innovate through engagement with feedback. I would add that many of the current clean tech/green business innovations are precisely this form of innovation–through an engagement with activist and critical discourses that were once adversarial in nature but companies adopting a more constructivist/open approach who actually embraced permeable boundaries of the firm stand a better chance of innovating.

Goleman argues that while we see many examples of consumers exhibiting purely price sensitive shopping patterns that this will begin to change as these transparency platforms continue to grow and this will have profound effects on industries dependent on industrial chemicals. The chemical industry has a very different perspective on toxicity than consumers, particularly consumers demanding more access to data on the environment and their health, ie. biocitizens. And it is getting easier to find other biocitizens sharing your values and to amplify one’s voice. One of the key disruptors in development is Earthster, a B2B, free, open-source, web-based program that enables businesses to obtain a snapshot of their LCA-supply chains. This enables businesses to benchmark themselves against industry averages. Here information becomes power for purchasers who can use this data as leverage with suppliers. The public sector can use this data to combine efforts to exert more power in the marketplace. In essence, you have a data commons for LCA that becomes the market maker! There will be tremendous opportunities for companies able to take advantage of this information and drive disruptive innovation.

I’ll close with an idea. What would this look like in the health space, one that is notorious for information asymmetries and irrational pricing. What if we brought together the right mix of collaborators to develop the radical transparency platform for healthcare and work with employers tired of paying more and getting less in return? Not one purely focused on hospital reveiews and rates but one that focused on performance around prevention or who keeps people healthy? Who would benefit and who would lose? The beneficiaries of the current dysfunction would have much to fear….Now, listen to the hisses of the policy wonks who can tell us again, why it wouldn’t work…..


Resilience: some critical questions

Last week I met with a former colleague, Andrea Saveri, who has been thinking a lot about the literature on “resilience” that has been gaining a great deal of traction in the current economic environment. She has an interesting blog post here on it and we’re thinking about how we can use the concept with some ideas from social media and the literature on cooperation and social networks to re-think the Healthy Cities movement. Jamais Cascio has also been writing about this in Fast Company.

After reading Jamais’ piece I found there are some major holes in the work that we need to address to make this more useful for public health. Some of the most interesting conceptual work applicable for public health practitioners is actually coming out of the STEPS Centre (IDS, University of Sussex) and they have an excellent paper from a workshop they which focused on some of the gaps in the current literature. Below I’ll provide an overview of some of the top level critiques/issues they raise.

First a little background. Their focus is on how the resilience literature could be appropriated for discussions in international development framed by concerns for social justice, equity and poverty. Therefore the first question is resilience of what, for whom? Systems need to be disaggregated if we’re going to move from abstract discussions of complex systems to embodied knowledges and systems. The discussion also needs to be informed by the different framings of risk—from risk (that can be quantified) to uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance (where neither outcomes nor probabilities are known). This opens up the possibility to talk about the politics of resilience and risk and how organizations/polities can occlude or marginalize particular framings of risk (eg. those who warned of the risks of derivatives for years prior to the collapse were frequently marginalized and ridiculed by the financial sector and business editors). Therefore strategies of resilience and sustainability are often about opening up the debates to new framings of risks.

Some of the respondents to the resilience discussion raised issues of the need to respond to threats that are raised first and foremost, but rather than just responding it is a question of the appropriate response in terms of timing, intensity and resources as Christo Fabricus would have it. Furthermore, the resilience literature comes out of the discipline of ecology, adaption from economics, and in political science/social sciences we have concerns over justice and democracy. These are normative positions that should be brought into the resilience discussion. For example, the World Bank privileges optimality, stability and control whereas many grassroots organizations would privilege equity, social justice, etc.

STS scholar Wieber Bijker notes that the resilience concept comes more directly from engineering and assumes rational actors and a foregrounding of technology in the discussion. He emphasizes that what he is looking at is the vulnerability of “technological cultures”–society and technology as co-produced (the central framework of most STS theoretical discussions). Bryan Turner (sociologist) criticizes the resilience literature for always privileging the biophysical over the social and we see this through the use of “adaptive cycles”, “collapse”, “renewal”, etc. An alternative would look at social, political and economic structures and how they shape access and control to resources and viewing the environment as both a setting and product of human action. Others raised similar issues and throught that the discussion needs to show greater attention to voice, reflexive governance and the politics of framing sustainability goals.

The framing issue was of central importance and always returning to whose resilience is at stake. Social scientists are extremely wary of the deployment of the term “system” for its inherently conservative meanings–preserving the system that may have produced the risks, inequities in the first place. Sheila Jasanoff asks which bonds in systems are worth preserving? She wonders how the resilience discourse can be framed to enable not just survival but rather normative dimensions of life from ethics to politics and justice or self-organizing and self-regulating systems in the context of larger, global systems of governance of sustainability regimes.

The workshop ended with some recommendations on future possible directions. These included the need to analyze networks and relationships in the systems at hand as well as attention to the alternative framings, narratives and imaginations that different actors may have about socio-ecological-technological processes. Re-surfacing normative concerns of various actors speaking about vulnerability, sustainability and resilence. This is part of understanding how power and politics are at the heart of the question of resilience and sustainability.

Rethinking Innovation Systems in Africa -CODIST Presentation

In late April I participated in the UN Economic Commission for Africa conference on Science, Technology and the Knowledge Economy in Africa conference. I gave a short talk for one of the plenary sessions that was ostensibly focused on innovation systems for African Science and Technology. An overview of the conference and some of the background papers as well as policy recommendations from the event are here. My talk was structured around the failure of some current models that were adopted from Western systems as Lydia Brito from Mozambique pointed out here. These are legacy systems largely based on linear Schumpeterian models that leave many gaps between each successive stage and result in few innovations making it into the market.

The presentation is below but here is the general flow. I began with the insight from Helga Nowotny’s work “Insatiable Curiosity” that begins with an insight taken from sign language. In American sign language the sign for the future points forward, in African (South) Sign Language the sign is the opposite. There is an important conceptual insight here for how to think about the future and innovation. The African sign tells us that what lies in front of us is the past, because only IT is already known. The future lies where we cannot see it. Therefore the future is not just about the new because we recognize the new in terms of the past (the known). This points out a tension that we often see when thinking about science, technology, innovation and the future. There are those who only see dark futures abundant with risk, and those who see techno-utopian futures. Fear of the future can suppress curiosity. Innovation is often a way of talking about a future that promises something new, it tries to tame the tensions. “Culture” is the issue that is often raised by those whose fear of loss of control of the future is jeopardized by innovation. This does not mean that every reference to culture is necessarily conservative, but rather we need to be aware of the politics of culture and who speaks for whom. Africans are not a monolith. We saw this during the week when I was doing a workshop on Science 2.0 and some of the francophone African scientists objected to web 2.0 tools. “These are tools created by Americans to exchange photos and are of little relevance to African science”, was the claim. This was echoed by one French observer, “We must be aware of the downside” of web 2.0 technologies (these went unstated, it was more a performative intervention). Of course, but what is really going on here? First, something was lost in translation but more than that. The thought of democratizing science does not sit well with every scientist, African or otherwise. This is a movement that has been going on for half a century and anytime you try to level the playing field through technologies or otherwise some people will lose. Science used to be the thing politicians called on to settle political disputes. Now, science is often part of the political debate and there are many who want to see science as above society. Those who think science is, as our Frenchman wanted to believe, a “rigid, rigorous discipline”–read, outside of politics–understand little about the way actually existing science works. There is an entire discipline of the history of science and science and technology studies that has demonstrated very convincingly that this worldview is, how should I say this, quaint.

Nevertheless, Dr. Brito was quite correct in thinking that Africans need to rethink their innovation strategies and systems and find something that works in Africa and make it their own. The work from Peter Singer and Abdullah Daar (here) offers one alternative to the linear systems that Brito finds lacking. But we first need to rethink the “knowledge economy” meme to make these types of platforms actually work and to optimize outcomes. Often we face the legacy of broken knowledge architectures that treat knowledge as static. The colonial archive is rather typical of this. The tendency for institutions to ascribe to the “death by white paper” thing is another example. How can we make these documents become social knowledge (that is, contextualized and translated into constructive practices) and reflective of the realities that African scientists, technologists, policy-makers and end-users face? We can begin by recognizing that knowledge has a social life and this is illustrated quite well in the work of Steven Jackson and Geoffrey Bowker (here). Their work points to how we can move from legacy knowledge systems to ones that are more dynamic, collaborative and mapped to local contexts. While we need to take into account the barriers for African scientists we should not just build systems around the lowest common denominator of African technological connectivity. There are robust networks of people, artifacts and institutions as well as embodied indigenous knowledges linked to practices, they argue, that are not really about the knowledge storage or database paradigm. It will be important to develop creative strategies to move knowledge across sectors in these new innovation systems that we might want to create.

As the search for new innovation systems for Africa proceeds it would be useful to not fall in the trap of just saying anything non-Western is appropriate. Just take a look at the many examples of hybrid innovation all around us. From some of the creative uses of mobiles to the Liberian analog blogger to African musicians who wire up found objects to create brilliant compositions such as can be found with the Kinshasan band Konono No. 1., we see these hybrid practices all over the informal sector that constitutes the majority of African economic transactions. We might want to learn from these practices in how we rethink the ethos of innovation in science and technology development. While not science and technology examples per se, they do offer insights into a different mindset.

Another point is that we tend to look at Africa in terms of what it lacks or, to use the Paolo Freire approach, in terms of the deficit model. What this does is open up opportunities to impose models on what is seen as a vacuum rather than a resource rich environment. It reminds me of a meeting at Grameen Bank when I was a Fulbright Scholar there nearly 20 years ago when Muhammad Yunus mentioned that Grameen Bank was built upon the genius of the poor women who were his clients. He recognized that it took incredible ingenuity to survive in the contexts in which the bottom 10% of Bangladeshi society lived. How could Grameen build on this embodied knowledge? Grameen is built around what people already know and have and works to strengthen their assets as an aggregator. This reminded me of the Sudanese social theorist AbdouMaliq Simone’s notion of “people as infrastructure”. As Prahalad says, this is the innovation sandbox (albeit slightly different point but I’m hybridizing concepts myself here). Let’s find the pieces of things going on around the world that might be recombined with the assets and approaches already found in some African science and technology networks and experiment.

My presentation built upon these observations and brought these into a conversation with current thinking around open science, science 2.0 and open innovation. Some of the most important work that can bridge these issues come from Ikka Tuomi’s work on “Networks of Innovation” who focuses on ‘social innovation’, or how knowledge changes the way people do things. I like to use the term social innovation over the way that ‘innovation’ is thrown around to include pharmaceutical “me-too” products, for example, that may earn profits but do not actually produce noticeable health outcomes beyond pre-existing drug entities. In fact, I find these counter-innovations in that the impact on the health financing (non)system may be negative. So what I’m trying to do is bring together social networking, open science, social innovation, anti-deficit models and convergence platforms to conceptualize new innovation practices.

There is quite a bit of work being done on open protocols and open lab notebooks, science social networks, open innovation platforms and science commons so how can “we” appropriate these tools and practices to fix some of the innovation systems that are problematic at the moment and build on these tools given the assets Africans currently have? I honestly believe that a form of recombinant innovation that takes new and old or things that haven’t worked in the past but mobilized within new institutional structures and eco-systems of entrepreneurs, NGOs, distribution systems, etc. can go a long way in remedying the problem. Build the African wikipedia of failures as an innovation commons–we can learn as much from why things didn’t work as why they did work and change the attitude towards failure in a constructive way. Science blogs and IP trusts can be used to share knowledge faster and create new connections across the continent provided we create the networking tools to connect African scientists, technologists, business expertise and policy-makers to build enabling environments.

UN ECA has the ASKIA platform to enhance access to open access journals. This is an important first step but not an end in itself. There is a tremendous opportunity to develop creative business models downstream from an African science commons (think IBM’s strategy when they supported Apache when they realized hardware was not the future). There were other insights in our session from other speakers about developing new indices and measures of innovation for the African context. As the presentations become available I’ll try to post a few and comment in the near future. Below is my presentation:

Alain Mabanckou’s “Broken Glass”

The Financial Times has a brief piece on Mabanckou’s latest novel:
Congolese author Alain Mabanckou’s second novel to be published in English is written as a torrid stream of consciousness. Its narrator, Broken Glass, is a 64-year-old alcoholic who spends his days in a bar called Credit Gone West in Brazzaville.

The bar’s owner has asked him to write the story of the establishment. The novel purports to be his notebook. Written without a single full stop, it is a fantastical portrait of the hangout’s outlandish customers. They include a printer rendered insane by his wife’s infidelity with his son, an ageing prostitute who challenges men to peeing competitions and a conman who makes money out of fake shamanistic rituals.
Mabanckou, who teaches French literature at the University of California in Los Angeles, packs in an array of literary references. The result is a dizzying combination of erudition, bawdy humour and linguistic effervescence.

ASKIA 2.0: African Science meets Open Innovation

Later this month I’ll be presenting at the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s CODIST (Committee on Development Information Science and Technology) Session on “Scientific Development, Innovation and the Knowledge Economy”. My presentation will address the role of social networks and innovation in science and technology in Africa. Some of the challenges that African scientists face are legacies of colonial era knowledge systems that have emphasized networks between single countries and European/North American donors where much of the knowledge of Africa is archived, that is, outside of Africa. There are also linear innovation systems that create bottlenecks in moving promising scientific advances and technologies from the lab to the market where they may have significant social, economic, environmental benefits. Abdallah Daar and Peter Singer have argued for “convergence platforms” (pdf) to address the problem of linear innovation systems. Furthermore, there are now quite a few insights from failed ICT programs out there that we think the time is ripe to mobilize open innovation platforms and concepts into the African science networks to try to address these problems. The challenge is not just about technological connectivity and creating platforms wired to the lowest common denominator of African connectivity, but rather building platforms on existing infrastructures (where we need to think about “people as infrastructure” too) that are organized around the values of sharing, co-creating, for dynamic, collaborative science and technology systems across the continent. I’ll be taking a look at the multitude of existing science 2.0/open science platforms that have largely arisen in Northern contexts in recent years and strategizing with African colleague on how we can build a Science Commons with Africa using some interesting social networking technologies/mobiles and existing science networks that UN ECA and others have been growing for years. In essence, this is social innovation in the sciences and we think a lot can be done by framing the problem in these terms and deliberately working to move knowledge out of silos and bring together African scientists, technologists, citizen scientists, policy-makers, funders and entrepreneurs with the tools of user-led innovation, open innovation and what I’m calling “recombinant innovation” (ie. juxtaposing disciplines, old/new technologies and social practices) and re-valorizing cooperation in science. What would a Nobel Prize in Science for Africa look like? It wouldn’t be given to an individual, but rather for the most innovative network of practitioners whether scientists, citizen scientists, entrepreneurs and savy funders who brought the right elements in line to make a difference in the lives of millions of Africans, poor and better-off. We’re working on a platform (ASKIA 2.0) that can be the catalyst (the definition of a catalyst is one that sparks off a reaction but doesn’t get consumed in the process) for these types of things to happen more frequently and to scale them up where possible. We’ve already put together a proposal and are looking for funding to launch so if you have any suggestions please contact me here. Below I’ve linked to the draft of the presentation. I’ll be blogging more about the details of how we’re working to rethink innovation systems in the weeks to come.

Canadian-Somali Rapper K’Naan

With a hat tip to Africa is a Country who introduced me to the Somali rapper K’Naan who lives in Canada. Once again we find an interesting melange ranging from reggae (Bob Marley influence), rap and poetry. His aunt is Magool, one of the most famous singers in Somali who performed for one of the largest concerns in Somali history. As with many refugees to North America, he spent some time as a cab driver in NYC. Believe it or not, he taught himselve English basically through rap (listen to the interview below):

check out his music below:

Music post of the week: Kora Jazz Trio

Just noticed this post on Maneno which inspired me to post some of the Kora Jazz Trio’s work here. They’re a group from West Africa (Senegal and Guinea) who fuse West African percussion and the Kora (string instrument constructed from a large gourd) with the improvisational aspects of jazz, or as Christian Pegand describes them, “a dialogue between the griot and the bluenote”.