Category Archives: Sustainability

Systems Thinking Predicts Economic Collapse in 21st Century

According to some researchers, it’s the end of the world as we know it – sometime this century, in fact. Economists and policy researchers have actually envisioned it coming for about three centuries, though.

The most recent tap on this subject came on March 7, 2009, when journalist and Hot, Flat, and Crowded author Thomas L. Friedman published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, entitled “Is the Inflection Near?” He describes how the economic, financial and political systems that we have established in the world – particularly in the west – are inherently unsustainable, and that in order to achieve a truly green world, our fundamental systems for living life must shift:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

djiasm1

What would you think if I told you that this was actually not a new idea, and that the notions Friedman presents were determined by a simulation done over thirty-five years ago? Furthermore, what if I let you in on the fact that people have been thinking about this conundrum since the late 1700’s? It may sound outlandish, but in this case, truth is stranger than fiction.

The simulation that I refer to was done in 1972, with a model called World3 which was coded in the object-oriented Modelica environment. It’s the subject of the Club of Rome commissioned study called “The Limits to Growth” (full text is here). Although the model has received criticism for some of its assumptions, a redaction in 2002 upheld many of the outcomes of the model. In 2009, Dr. Dennis L. Meadows (who directed this research) was awarded the 25th Japan Prize from The Science and Technology Foundation of Japan. Recall that the Japanese were the ones who initially recognized Dr. W. Edwards Deming for his contributions to revitalizing the economy – decades before the Americans embraced Deming’s teachings – and spawned the quality revolution in U.S. business in the late 1970’s and 1980’s that has embossed the landscape of how we do business today. From the Japan Prize announcement:

Dr. Dennis L. Meadows served as Research Director for the project on “The Limits to Growth,” for the Club of Rome in 1972. Employing a system simulation model called “World3,” his report demonstrated that if certain limiting factors of the earth’s physical capacity – such as resources, the environment, and land – are not recognized, mankind will soon find itself in a dangerous situation. The conflict between the limited capacity of the earth and the expansion of the population accompanied by economic growth could lead to general societal collapse. The report said that to avert this outcome, it is necessary that the goals of zero population growth and zero expansion in use of materials be attained as soon as possible. The report had an enormous impact on a world that had continued to grow both economically and in population since World War II.

We also have a rich literature dating back centuries that has studied the relationships between population, environment and technology. In the 1700’s, English economist Thomas Robert Malthus studied these relationships in terms of the projected effects of uncontrolled population growth. “Before Malthus, populations were considered to be an asset. After Malthus, the concept of land acquisition to support “future large populations” became a motivating factor for war.” (citation) The 20th century Boserupian Theory of Ester Boserup, in contrast, suggests that advances in technology will drive the capacity of the world to support population. Researchers like Steinmann & Komlos (1988) have simulated the interplay between both paradigms over time and suggest that there is a cyclical dominance. (I note that references to Malthus and Boserup, let alone Meadows’ World3 model, are rarely on the lips of policymakers.)

In my opinion, it is not climate change we should be worried about per se, but the social, economic and global political system that drives human interactions with each other and with the environment. Climate change may be a symptom, but it is just a tracer for the attitudes of unbounded material growth that are contributing to the effects (if you want to learn about climate change and policy, Prometheus is a good place to start – my point is not to argue the merits of “is it” or “isn’t it” happening because others including Pielke, Jr. do that very well). Regarding climate change, we need to decode what the data is trying to tell us about how we’ve structured our large-scale systems of interaction with one another – rather than merely trying to control our personal “carbon footprints” or recycle more (though these may be important ingredients in the solution).

There is nothing new under the sun. Only today, the forces of production, consumption and population have metamorphosed into a crisis of sustainability – a “perfect storm” to test our ability to live and work in the limit case.


Steinmann, Gunter & Komlos, John (1988). Population growth and economic development in the very long run: a simulation model of three revolutions. Mathematical Social Sciences, Vol. 16, No. 1, Aug 1988. 49-63 pp. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The ITEA Criteria for Software Process & Performance Improvement

(I originally wrote this article for the ASQ Software Division Newsletter compiled in the first quarter of 2009. I’m reproducing it here because I’ve found the ITEA criteria to be remarkably useful for all kinds of planning since I was introduced to it last year.)

frangipani-flowersFor software professionals, particularly those of us who manage product development or development teams, it is important to track progress towards our goals and to justify the results of our efforts. We have to write effective project charters for software development just to get things moving, evaluate improvement alternatives before making an investment of time and effort in a process change, and ultimately validate the effectiveness of what we have implemented.

This past fall, I had the opportunity to serve as a preliminary round judge for the ASQ International Team Excellence Award (ITEA). My subgroup of judges met at the Bank of America training facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, where we split up into teams to evaluate almost 20 project portfolios. A handful of other events just like ours were held at the same time across the country, giving many people the opportunity to train and serve as judges. Before we evaluated the portfolios, we were all trained on how to use and understand the ITEA criteria, a 37-point system for assessing how well a project had established and managed to its own internal quality system. The ITEA criteria can be applied to any development project or process improvement initiative in the same way that the Baldrige criteria might be applied to an organization‘s strategic efforts. For software, this might include improving the internal processes of a software development team, using software improvements and automation to streamline a production or service process, and improving the performance or quality of a software product. (For example, I can envision the ITEA criteria being used to evaluate the benefits of parallelizing all or part of a software system to achieve a tenfold or hundredfold performance improvement.)

You can review these criteria on the web at http://wcqi.asq.org/2008/pdf/criteria-detail.pdf yourself. There are five main categories in the ITEA criteria: project selection and purpose, the current situation (prior to improvement), solution development (and evaluation of alternatives), project implementation and results, and team management and project presentation. An important distinction is in the use of the words Identify/Indicate, Describe and Explain within the criteria. To identify or indicate means that you have enumerated the results of brainstorming or analysis, which can often be achieved using a simple list of bullet points. To describe means that you have explained what you mean by each of these points. To explain means that you have fully discussed not only the subject addressed by one of the 37 points, but also your rationale for whatever decisions were made. Sustainability of the improvements that a project makes is also a major component of the ITEA criteria. Once your project is complete, how will you ensure that the benefits you provided are continued? How can you make sure that a new process you developed will actually be followed? Do you have the resources and capabilities to maintain the new state of the system and/or process?

The ITEA criteria can serve as a useful checklist to make sure you‘ve covered all of the bases for your software development or process improvement project. I encourage you to review the criteria and see how they can be useful to your work.

Google Measures Energy to Conserve Energy

Why measure? Because measurement compels behavior. I’ve written about this previously in my article on the Trash Guy, but now Google is taking note:

”Studies show that being able to see your energy usage makes it easier to reduce it.”

This is the driver for their new Google PowerMeter project, which envisions a future where access to energy informatics is through your desktop. The project, an initiative of Google.org (the philanthropic research arm of Google), provides this as their pitch:

London to Brighton Veteran Car Run“How much does it cost to leave your TV on all day? What about turning your air conditioning 1 degree cooler? Which uses more power every month — your fridge or your dishwasher? Is your household more or less energy efficient than similar homes in your neighborhood? … At Google we’re committed to helping enable a future where access to personal energy information helps everyone make smarter energy choices. To get started, we’re working on a tool called Google PowerMeter which will show consumers their electricity consumption in near real-time in a secure iGoogle Gadget. We think PowerMeter will offer more useful and actionable feedback than complicated monthly paper bills that provide little detail on consumption or how to save energy.”

I like it. I’ve always wanted to have a simple way to monitor my home energy usage that doesn’t require me to buy an expensive device like the Black & Decker EM100B Energy Saver Series Power Monitor– that probably doesn’t give me the granularity of information I’m looking for anyway.

Software Hell is a Crowded Place

fireI’ve been thinking a lot about management fads lately, and ran into this 2005 article by Nick Carr, titled “Does Not Compute”. Here’s the part that caught my eye:

“A look at the private sector reveals that software debacles are routine. And the more ambitious the project, the higher the odds of disappointment. It may not be much consolation to taxpayers, but the F.B.I. has a lot of company. Software hell is a very crowded place.”

Carr continues by describing two examples of failed projects: a massive systems integration effort at Ford Motor Company, and a overzealous business intelligence initiative embarked upon by McDonald’s. Both projects were cancelled when the price tags got too big: $200M for Ford, $170M for McDonald’s. The catch is that failure is good, because when we fail we at least know one solution path that’s not workable – we just need to 1) understand that it doesn’t have to be expensive, and 2) have more courage to allow ourselves and our colleagues to fail without getting depressed or thinking our coworkers are idiots. This is often expressed as “fail early, fail often“. (But note that the assumption is that you persist, and as a result of the learning experience, ultimately meet your goals.)

Without an effective team culture, rational managers, healthy relationships with stakeholders, and capable programmers dedicated to continually improving their skills, all roads can lead to software hell. The process of getting there – which is hellish in and of itself – is the famed death march. This is where a software-related project, doomed to fail, sucks up more time, people, resources, and emotional energy at an ever increasing rate until the eventual cataclysm.

Carr also cites The Standish Report, which in 1994, asserted that only 16% of projects were completed on time, and budget, and meeting specifications. By 2003 the percentage had grown to 34% in a new survey. Other projects that were still completed ran, on average, 50 percent over budget. (And this is for the survey respondents who were actually telling the truth. I know a few people who wouldn’t admit that their project was quite so grossly over budget.)

One way to solve this problem is by focusing on sufficiency and continuous learning, starting the blueprint for a system based on these questions:

  • What features represent the bare minimum we need to run this system?
  • What are the really critical success factors?
  • What do we know about our specifications now? What do we not know?
  • What do we know about ourselves now? What do we want to learn more about?

Software development is a learning process. It’s a process of learning about the problem we need to solve, the problem domain, and ourselves – our interests and capabilities. It’s a process of recognizing what parts of building the solution we’re really good at, and what parts we’re not so good at. Let’s start small, and grow bigger as we form stronger relationships with the systems that we are developing. Having a $170M appetite sure didn’t get McDonald’s anywhere, at least in this case.

What is Socio-Technical Design?

10-node-plotTom Erickson, in his introduction to one of the sections in the forthcoming Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems, explains socio-technical design well:

Socio-technical design is not just about designing things, it is about designing things that participate in complex systems that have both social and technical aspects. Furthermore, these systems and the activities they support are distributed across time and space. One consequence of this is that the systems that are the sites for which we are designing are in constant flux. And even if we were to ignore the flux, the distributed nature of the systems means that they surface in different contexts, and are used by different people for different (and sometimes conflicting) purposes.”

Socio-technical design is, understandably, related to sociotechnology. There is much work to be done to develop the processes and techniques that will be required to manage quality and continuous improvement in the context of socio-technical design!

What is Sociotechnology?

atomicTechnology is the “sum of ways in which social groups construct the material objects of their civilizations.” The things that we use – the “design artifacts” of the processes used to build them – are socially constructed to the same extent that they are technically constructed. The convergence of technological and social insights in the creation, construction and use of artifacts is sociotechnology.

For example, we typically build a bridge when there’s some expectation that people need to get from Point A to Point B, and there’s something they need to bypass along the way (e.g. a river, a canyon, another road). Failure to consider the social factors as well as the technical factors could lead to a “bridge to nowhere” – and we all know at least one person who’s had a problem with those. Non-technical factors pertaining to the environment in which an idea is created and implemented are crucial.

According to Bunge (1998), sociotechnology is the process of applying insights from the social sciences to design policies and programs. More specifically, this is how Gingras & Niosi (1990) explain Bunge’s perspective:

bunge

Ten years ago we were talking about the convergence of customer touch points: phone, fax, web, cell phones, email and regular mail. With handhelds and mobile devices becoming more and more ubiquitous, and services like Facebook becoming more integrated into our daily lives, the next convergence is between people and the technologies we use. The boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred, and the impact of this convergence on business must be explored. Reviewing research by pioneers like Tom Erickson is a good place to start. We are all becoming sociotechnical.

(Note: Sociotechnology is an important part of socio-technical design.)


Bunge, M. (1985). Philosophy of science and technology. Vol. 7 of Treatise on basic philosophy, Dordrecht: Holland.
Bunge, M. (1998), Social Science under debate. A Philosophical Approach. Toronto University Press: Toronto.
Gingras, Y. & Niosi, J. (1990). Technology and society: a view from sociology, in Georg Dorn and Paul Weintgartner (eds.) Studies on Mario Bunge’s Treatise, Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Amsterdam and Atlanta, 421-430. Retrieved from http://www.archipel.uqam.ca/506/01/On_Bunge.PDF
Nieto, C. C., Neotropica, F., & Durbin, P. T. (1995). Sustainable development and philosophies of technology. Society for Philosophy and Technology, Vol. 1, Fall 1995. Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v1n1n2/nieto.html – (Note: I added this one simply because I really like it, and it’s related to the discussion on sociotechnology.)

A New American Competitiveness, Fueled by Relative Innovation

capitol1Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. The solution offered by the American Competitiveness Initiative focuses on absolute innovation, but does not consider relative innovation. Catalyzing relative innovation still requires a capital investment, but will focus less on the basic R&D issues and more on the issue of appropriate technology, even within the host country.

My Proposed Two-Pronged Approach to a New American Competitiveness takes these factors into consideration, and recommends two things we should do as a country:

1: Provide Practical Innovation Education to Everyone – We must educate EVERYONE on what innovation really is – the act of making ideas and inventions useful and relevant to people and social groups. Innovation is always relative, not not always absolute. Innovation is about creative problem solving that improves efficiency or productivity, expands capabilities, or enhances quality of life. We can all innovate in our local communities, even if we don’t come up with the complex or high-tech ideas ourselves! The key question is: How can we make individuals’ lives better? Innovation is not a mysterious practice reserved for scientists, engineers, or people with creative ideas. We can all be innovators.

2: Implement a National Quality Agenda – This idea, originally raised by ASQ President Robert Saco in the October 2008 issue of Quality Progress, embraces a “systems thinking” approach to resolving key social and sustainability issues at the national and international levels. How do we look at long-term issues through the lens of “systems thinking”? How do we transform our government’s budgeting process to accurately enact strategic themes and priorities, and promote real collaboration and cooperation that is not confounded by fictitious budget partitioning? How do we embrace innovation to make things better for all people? Saco introduces it this way:

What is to be done? Mr. President, in brief, we need a National Quality Agenda to broaden our thinking in terms of systemic and long-term issues and solutions. You cannot afford to ignore longer-term stealth issues like healthcare, energy, infrastructure and education. Ignored, these matters will ensure the accelerated decline of the nation. Government must not do everything, and with a looming federal deficit of $500 billion, it simply can’t do everything.

Yet, by promoting initial conditions that frame an appropriate long-term agenda and nurture an environment of possibility and collaboration, the stage is set for real progress in the months and years to come.

New is not always better. Innovation, however, always seeks to make things better! (In case this seems like a paradox to you, the missing link is invention – inventions are always new, but they don’t necessarily need to be useful to many people to retain their novelty.) Sometimes, just looking at how to change our perspectives, simplify our existing structures, and take a quality-driven approach, we can uncover new ways to innovate. Are you ready to take the leap?

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