Systems Science Meets Planet Earth


I am at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, speaking mainly about the societal impact robot technologies are likely to have in our near future, and I am happy to report there is intense interest in these topics. Will robotics empower human communities, or will our machines become the masters of our fate? Business interests, science fiction, singularity and human rights all pervade every tech conversation I have witnessed here — it is a welcome change to see this bubble to the surface.

But I’m writing this blog about an even more pressing topic — planetary change. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has an outstanding demonstration, through interactive graphics, of how we can categorize the health of our planet along nine axes, from atmospheric loading and ocean change through biodiversity, identifying tipping points and boundaries that quantify just where we are along a continuum from healthful to Emergency Room to irreversibility. Their website is well worth your visit, and best of all their decadal effort is nailing the science of characterizing and measuring global boundaries as complex systems, in collaboration with scientists round the world. Science just published their latest full report, and I highly recommend giving this article a read: “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet.” It is no longer behind a paywall, just a free registration roadblock; you can access the figures without even registering here.

Their approach is refreshing because it frames our decisions and our planet’s future trajectory in terms of a real system, with feedback loops that we can directly impact with our local and global decisions. We have only a few years to effect the kind of policy changes that will keep us in a safe operating margin; one of the authors expressed his concern that we don’t even have time to change the public’s mindset. And yet I believe it is a shift at the ground level — if we can become truly mindful at the global scale — that has the best possible chance of catalyzing the high-level changes we must see. Thanks to global social media, that groundswell of change can touch us more more quickly than ever before; so it’s time for technology to help us deeply rethink our relationship to the planet.
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