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.