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So what are you going to do about it?

18 August 2008
So what are you going to do about it?

By Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group.

I've just come across Brad Allenby's article on the balancing act that goes on when we try to take action on climate change. In the case he describes, the motivation for local activism would have been undermined with a solution that took into account the interconnectedness of climate change solutions. In a battle to preserve old growth forests in the US, Brad says:

"I suggested a joint NGO/corporate effort to reduce demand for paper by substituting electrons for paper use -- e-billing, electronic communications between firms and their shareholders, electronic contracting, and the like -- because paper is a global commodity, and only reductions in demand -- rather than shifting production to less regulated and perhaps even more fragile forests -- were likely to achieve sustainable environmental progress. The activists involved rejected this for a number of reasons: it was self-serving (true, since I worked for a large telecommunications firm), it was irrelevant to their goals, and it distracted from the real, local issue."

So what next? How we move from awareness to action - from problem to social change - is the question that innovation literature is lately is seeking to answer. But the what often happens is that we continue to do things the way we did them yesterday instead of the way we may do things tomorrow.

To accept our responsibilities -- indeed, to even recognize them -- we need far more sophisticated ways of perceiving, understanding, and interacting with emergent properties of complex regional and global systems in real time. The radical contingency and complexity of our world undercuts our existing cognitive mechanisms, such as ideology, because the rigidity inherent in such mechanisms becomes increasingly dysfunctional when flexibility in institutional and personal cognition is required. Facing the anthropogenic Earth, we realize we need, among other things, to rethink cognition.

So when people ask, "What do we do now? You've written the SMART 2020 report, but how do we take action next?" the answer is that we need to monitor in order to measure and act. When I see a new tool for supply chain management or for energy efficiency, I ask myself if this is letting us do what we already do better, or if it is contributing to the longer term goal: real time management of global systems.

That may not help solve the issue of how to motivate local activists today. But visibility of the connections between our day to day decisions and their global impact should eventually become a tool for better action.

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