I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the design and management of society’s core infrastructure systems (which I define broadly to include things like healthcare, education, housing and “money”) in an era marked by several important trends (for reasons suggested below, I refer to this as the “digital anthropocene”):
- substantial (and currently destructive) impacts of human activities on natural systems, a planetary phase referred to as the Anthropocene;
- continued and arguably mounting evidence that the status-quo dynamics within our dominant political and economic systems are aggravating rather than reducing inequalities in wealth and related factors;
- the dramatic expansion in scope, content and functionality of digitally-mediated connectivity among humans and “things” via ever-more-capable information and communication technology (ICT).
To flesh this out a bit, here are some examples of developments reflective of these trends (some of which I’ve already written about here):
- Signs of accelerating and increasingly difficult-to-reverse impacts of climate change.
- Conflicting visions of a future “smart” energy grid, with advocates of distributed solar power on one side, and investor owned utilities and their traditional business & regulatory models and centralized carbon-intensive generation preferences on the other; and this conflict’s implications for our society’s ability to effectively mitigate climate change risks.
- The direct dollar and indirect social cost (e.g., pollution, climate change, traffic delays) of maintaining public roads and powering gasoline-powered vehicles, and the pace and direction of shifts toward alternatives such as public transportation, electric vehicles, ride/vehicle-sharing, and ICT-enabled intelligent transportation systems, driverless cars and “virtual” travel.
- Expanding deployments of gigabit-capable fiber optic networks by municipalities, rural cooperatives and private companies, including Google and, in parts of their service areas, incumbent ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.
- The expansion of available spectrum, business models and technology improvements in the unlicensed wireless sector.
- The intensifying drought facing growing sections of the country (most notably California, which has long been the source of much of our nation’s food supply), and unresolved questions about how our local, state, regional and national institutions will address this new and possibly prolonged state of water scarcity.
- The heavy carbon and water-usage footprint of our industrialized food supply system, which delivers food with an arguably unhealthy mix of low nutritional value and high reliance on often-untested chemical additives;
- The insertion of electronic health records (EHR) and other ICT into a notably expensive and, in key respects, dysfunctional healthcare system whose clinical practices and research are heavily (and, in my view, excessively) influenced by large drug companies, while an increasing percentage of citizens look to “alternative” healthcare practices that remain largely outside the scope of funded research programs and existing insurance mechanisms;
- An ongoing and acrimonious struggle to control the future of educational reform that often pits privately-funded initiatives against teachers, even as the range of demonstrably effective solutions—including ICT-intensive ones—expands and cries out for cooperative research, planning and management of truly effective reform;
- The 2008 housing crisis that triggered a global financial crisis and has yet to be fully resolved, with record levels of first-time buyers priced out of the market as prices reach or exceed peak-bubble levels in many markets, while the Fed prepares to begin a steady process of increasing rates, a move that could hurt not only the housing market but also the economies of emerging markets;
- The 2008 shock to the global financial system, which many economists believe remains quite vulnerable, and its relationship to ICT-enabled developments such as: 1) crowdfunding-type mechanisms, which provide alternatives to traditional financing channels and; 2) the expansion of “parallel currencies” (e.g., cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and new generations of all-digital community currencies) that can provide at least partial substitutes for national and transnational (e.g., the Euro) currencies;
- The many and arguably expanding points of failure in our system of political democracy (e.g., the share of campaign funding now supplied by a tiny group of super-rich individuals and corporations, the sorry state of candidate debates), and the development of ICT-based tools and platforms attempting to help address them.
To be a bit more specific and “local”, here are some examples of what’s happening on these fronts in the greater Lansing area, Southeast Michigan and the state of Michigan as a whole:
- In Detroit, the launch of: 1) Dan Gilbert-backed RocketFiber in the city’s downtown business center, with plans to expand beyond that and; 2) several low-cost open-source unlicensed neighborhood wireless networks anchored in strong bottom-up community involvement.
- In Lansing, the presence of multiple competitive fiber-based ISPs: SpartanNet, which focuses mainly on multiple dwelling units and is affiliated with a property management company, and LightSpeed, which has begun introducing gigabit service on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis in both Lansing and E. Lansing.
- The widespread deployment of current-generation “smart meters” by Michigan’s two large investor owned utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the wisdom of which is being questioned by both experts and citizens groups.
- The launch of a major strategic planning process (see top of pg. 7) by the Lansing Board of Water and Light, Michigan’s largest municipal utility and its leader in solar energy deployments while, at the same time, the city is considering a possible sale of BWL (presumably to either Consumers or DTE), a move that would require 60% support among Lansing voters.
- The sorry state of Michigan’s roads, and the failure of multiple measures (via legislation and referendum) to raise the necessary funds to address this problem.
- The water shutoffs for non-paying low-income households in Detroit, and water contamination problems in Flint, and the use of a crowdfunding platform to help ease Detroit’s water shutoff problems.
- The development of an increasingly robust ecosystem for growing and distributing healthy foods in low-income areas of Detroit, which have long been relegated to “food desert” status, and the use of ICT to support this evolving ecosystem.
- Efforts at MSU (see here and here, both led by our colleague Shelia Cotten) and U of M to study and facilitate the effective use of ICT to support disease prevention and treatment, and to include more holistic and prevention- oriented approaches into clinical practice and training programs.
- Antagonistic relationships between teachers and administrators in Michigan’s school systems, reflecting the same failure we are seeing at the national level to work together to adopt models that effectively leverage the power of ICT to truly benefit students.
- A massive housing blight problem in Detroit that has spurred responses such as the Motor City Mapping project, which employs ICT-powered citizen input to create accurate GIS databases of the city’s housing stock that are accessible and subject to revision by citizens.
- The recent launch in Ann Arbor of the the rCredits community currency, making it the second (and largest) city in the nation to embrace this all-digital currency system, which is designed to support an evolution of ICT-enabled and democratically-managed political economies and social investment mechanisms, starting at the local community level and building out from there.
Though these itemized lists might give one the impression that these issues and trends are distinct from one other, my view is that they are dynamically linked in important and multifaceted ways worthy of creative yet careful multidisciplinary study.
I see this very broad arena of ICT-supported evolutionary change—which I refer to as “Evolving Human Systems”—driven in large part by a sense of urgency associated with the first two trends listed at the top of this post (human impacts on natural systems and growing inequality), and given historically unique potency by the third (the rapidly evolving capabilities and role of ICT).
In future blog posts I hope to write more on this Evolving Human Systems topic, in both broad terms and also focusing on some of its key components and their interrelationships, as well as the work of some of its leading thinkers and innovators. While the focus of these posts will be mainly on “evolving systems,” it’s worth noting that the term, as I use it, also refers to “evolving humans,” a process I view as a synergistic and arguably essential companion to the evolution of the systems we humans develop and utilize.