How Sustainable Growth Also Has Physical Limits

This interesting and well remarked Scientific American article ‘The Delusion of Infinite Economic Growth‘ reminds us that there are physical limits to growth, whatever more “sustainable” technologies are implemented. Any technology that scales find its physical limits.

Every stage of the life cycle of any manufactured product exacts environmental costs: habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and pollution (including carbon emissions) from extraction of raw materials, manufacturing / construction, through to disposal. Thus, it is the increasing global material footprint that is fundamentally the reason for the twin climate and ecological crises.”

While “Technological innovation and efficiency improvements are often cited as pathways to decouple growth in material use from economic growth. While technology undoubtedly has a crucial role to play in the transition to a sustainable world, it is constrained by fundamental physical principles and pragmatic economic considerations.”

In addition, economic growth is exponential and not linear: “unfortunately, the situation is even more dire. Economic growth is required to be exponential; that is, the size of the economy must double in a fixed period.” Thus, “the inescapable inference is that it is essentially impossible to decouple material use from economic growth.” As a result, more is required today than to develop ‘sustainable’ solutions: solutions to the future raw material crises also need to be investigated.

Even sustainable growth will find its limits – as the economy and technologies scale, they require increasingly raw material and space, often in an exponential manner. But the world is finite, therefore a change of paradigm may be required.


We Can’t Find Anybody Else In Space (and Why It Matters)

Although loosely related to the Fourth Revolution, I want to share the link to this very interesting summary of the issues around the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, also called the Fermi Paradox – ‘Where is Everybody?’.

Where is everybody?
Where is everybody?

The issue is the following: we know there are zillions of other planets that should be able to support life out there (the low estimate in the article is 1 billion in our galaxy alone); that our own Earth is quite old by space standards, hence our technology probably not so advanced, so… why do we not see any sign of other life?

There comes the concept of the “Great Filter” – i.e. there would be some stage of technological advancement where civilizations get wiped out; a filter that almost no planet and species manages to overcome. Would we be the chosen ones (we would have overcome the filter in the past), or is that Great Filter somewhere in the future? Would there be a stage of civilization development where it inevitably destroys itself?

The question is not so innocuous as it seems. As we create highly connected technology, the chances of unexpected disruptions that could quickly spread to the entire system do increase. Would there be any chances we’d create such a situation in the Collaborative Age?


Historical Perspective on the Development of Weak Ties

Following on our previous post on “How the Fourth Revolutions Enhances the Power of Weak Ties” I find interesting to observe the history of weak ties throughout the different periods we have identified in the Fourth Revolution book: the Hunter-Gatherer Age, the Agricultural Age and the Industrial Age.

In the Hunter-Gatherer Age, Weak Ties were inexistent

As clearly exposed by Jared Diamond in his latest book “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies“, in the Hunter-Gatherer Age, weak ties did not exist. You were part of the tribe or not. If you were not part of the tribe we had to fight you as a basis (before any attempt at discussion). This is still observed with tribes that had never any contact withe the outside.

In the Agricultural Age, with the advent of Writing, Empires and Cities, weak ties developed, mainly within the wider urban community. Still the extended family (the ‘blood’) and unions between families remained extremely important and essential, before considering any additional relationships.

In the Industrial Age, with the advent of printing and long distance communication of ideas, weak links became much more important. There are a number of instances where weak ties played important roles in particular in the community of scholars, who were exchanging correspondence and ideas all over Europe. It also extended to the skilled workforce and artisans. However, because of the technical limitations, long distance weak links were still difficult to maintain and communication infrequent.

Finally the Fourth Revolution and the Collaborative Age will allow us to fully leverage our weak ties to a much wider and dispersed community of people.

Ideas are breeding through chance encounters with other ideas. They breed through our weak links. With these weak links becoming easier, more global and prevalent, how can the Collaborative Age not be an Innovation Age?


How the Fourth Revolutions Enhances the Power of Weak Ties

The Fourth Revolution value creation is all about releasing the power of weak ties. In our social environment we have strong and weak ties, depending on how frequently and tightly we maintain our relation to other people.

strong-weak social ties representationApparently the statistics is that we maintain on average a dozen very close contacts, about 150 medium to strong ties, and about 500 to 1,500 weak ties. Identification of this structure of our social network is not new, for example this paper on ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’ in the American Journal of Sociology in 1973.

The paper is a bit lengthy but the conclusion is clear: “weak ties […] are seen indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their integration in communities; strong ties, breeding social cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation“.

Weak ties create opportunities. This is repeatedly demonstrated for example by people looking for new work as testified for example in this post “the power of loose ties“. Or by our common experience that often, opportunities come from people with whom we are only remotely connected.

The successful social networks that define the Fourth Revolution are all about making the usage of weak ties easier, quicker and more frequent. Think about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Their power lies not in the direct connections but in the “friends of our friends”.

The Collaborative Age is the Age where we leverage our weak ties.

More information? Link to a general discussion of Interpersonal ties and social networks structure on Wikipedia.


Why the Fourth Revolution is the Era of the Exponential, and How this Changes Everything

The Fourth Revolution is the era of the exponential – whereas the Industrial Age was the era of linearity. And that changes everything in the way we live our life:

Moore's Law 1971-2011
Moore’s Law 1971-2011 (from Wikipedia)

  • the complexity of the products we use every day increases exponentially. For example the Moore’s law states that microprocessors density on chips doubles every 2 years; and that’s the case for many other products we use every day without realizing it;
  • Successful companies and services grow exponentially, soon dwarfing existing players (the revenue of Apple was multiplied by 11 in 10 years… not to mention the even more exponential growth of the Facebooks of the world)
In the Industrial Age, things were more linear. It was easier to extrapolate the future from the past. Of course a factor is that things go faster today so that it is easier to watch exponential change in action. Yet the Moore’s law rate did not change in the past 40 years or so. Microprocessors’s density still double in the same number of years. So speed of change is not the discriminant. The fact that things grow visibly exponentially and have higher ceilings than before makes the Fourth Revolution different.


story of rice on chessboard
Are you sure you want to get to the end of the chessboard?

The problem is that we are not geared to feel intuitively the power of the exponential. It is very difficult to seize how fast it can grow. Do you remember the tale of the wise man that told the King who wanted to thank him: “only put a grain of rice on the first square of a chess board, then on the next square put two, then on the next square put four, then double for each square until the end of the chess board…” The King never realized that at the end of the 64 squares the quantity of rice needed would vastly exceed his available supply – and the world’s supply and even more!

This explains why so many people today have difficulty understanding what happens in the world. In their linear Industrial Age mindset, they can’t grab how the exponential is changing our lives faster and deeper than ever before.

Are you ready for a world full of exponential change?

Thanks to Mitch Joel and his post on “The Era of Exponential Marketing” – a specific area where most people also don’t realize we are in for exponential growth of product sales- for the inspiration.

The great picture of the rice on the checkboard is by Paul Starkey on Flickr



Publishing A Book is Not Any More a One-Way Broadcast

If you are a e-book reader you might have noticed that you can type in your notes and share your text highlights with other readers, the world… and the publisher.

Publishing a book is not any more a one-way broadcast. And the role of the distributors has increased dramatically. Since a decade, readers can easily speak their mind on all books on most e-bookshops (the distributors) – which in effect is a sort of crowdsourcing of opinions. I now look at who recommends the book and what the opinions of readers are before buying.

ebook interactive reading
Ebooks add a layer of interaction and can spread your notes and highlights

Now an other layer of feedback has been added with e-books. Distributors like Amazon or Barnes & Noble can also get feedback from the inside of the book when you read them. On most e-book reading devices you can take notes and highlight quotes – and share them with the wider community – and the publisher.

This paper in the Wall Steet Journal, “Your E-book is Reading You” explains that the distributors have only started analyzing that huge pile of data.

And because of this huge trove of data, and the insights that will be derived from what the readers like or don’t like, the power of the Publisher will vanish while the power of the Distributor will soar – and we can predict that soon Publishers will be taken over by Distributors, like Amazon is already doing.

Publishing books started the Industrial Revolution, the era of Broadcasting. Today, publishing books enters the Collaborative Age in full, allowing almost real-time interaction with the readers. And as with other industries, publishing will be put upside down by the Fourth Revolution.


How the Fourth Revolution brings us from the complicated to the complex

Complex is not the same as complicated. Industrial Age got us used to the complicated mindset. Collaborative Age is the the era of complexity. And here lies a fundamental difference overlooked and misunderstood by so many people.

This is the first of a series of 3 posts about complexity and how we can thrive through it.

watch gears: complicated but not complex!
Watch gears: complicated but not complex!

A watch is very complicated, as are numerous appliances we are using everyday. Yet, its outcome is highly predictable (it’s a watch after all!). We can rely on it to run precisely for days or months in a row. Each component fits nicely, mechanically in a single system. Each component does not have the choice of doing whatever it wants. It is driven by the system to perform reliable its single function.


While in a complex system is also an intricate buildup of many interrelated contributors, there is one main difference: each contributor has the choice, follows its own interest.

Afghanistan powerpoint: image of a complex system
Afghanistan: example of a complex, unpredictable system

Like the situation in Afghanistan, the outcome is difficult to predict, more difficult even to steer in the expected direction if we are one of the players.

Science added another category of complex systems: some purely mathematical systems that include retro-action and multiple iteration loops can have results that become unpredictable (chaotic systems), even if the initial mathematical formula was simple. It is the case of weather and other important systems around us (ref the famous analogy of the butterfly flying in Brazil that can create a storm in the US).

The Industrial Age viewed the world as complicated; it meant that there was supposed to be a way to understand how it worked and there after, predict where it was going. As such, predictability of your behavior and your results in the vast system of production was expected; in exchange there was some predictability in your career development, based on your formal education.

Alas the mechanistic view of the Industrial Age did not resist to reality. We now know that the world is undoubtedly complex. Totally interconnected. And as such, forever unpredictable. Forever impossible to divide in small parts, cogs, that would nicely fit together to create a perfect, predictable world.

Of course, the ever accelerating development of connectivity in the past decades has dramatically increase the complexity of today’s world. We are all now fully inter-dependent, part of a large complex system.

We know now that we are in a complex world, and that just being a cog following instructions is not a sustainable way to success. That major unexpected events are drawing the picture of the world much more powerfully than the succession of daily small changes. That an idea in remote Afghanistan can create a storm in New-York and change forever the lives of billions of people.

Let go of the mindset of the Industrial Age. The world is not complicated, it is just complex!

In the following weekly posts, we’ll examine some properties of complex systems, before finally discussing what we can really do today to thrive in a complex system. Check out next week the followup post on complexity!


Solutions to the national debt crisis 2/2: reviewing our tax base

Our current tax base will soon be obsolete. It needs to be replaced by taxation of our new collaborative capabilities.

During the Agricultural Age, tax was based on a share of the crops. When the Third Revolution came – which would eventually lead to the Industrial Revolution, a new value system was created that soon dwarfed Agricultural value: Industry. The governments which had relied since centuries on agricultural tax became weaker and weaker. They had to get money lent to them by the new ‘bourgeois’, who created value by trade or industry. The system became less and less stable as the traditional governing elite became relatively poorer and poorer, as industrial value increased orders of magnitude above agricultural value.

Today in developed countries, agriculture represents 2 to 3% of the GDP. Even if it was taxed entirely it would not represent much of the 30-50% which is swallowed by taxes and social security payments!

Today, we are again in the same situation. Our tax system is mostly based on Industrial Age value. A new value production system has been created with the Fourth Revolution that is expanding and that will eventually dwarf the Industrial Age value. The only way to get out of this conundrum is to change our tax base to effectively tax the Collaborative Age value! This is going to be difficult immediately because our accounting systems which date from the Industrial Age do not account for it.

The Agricultural Age example also reminds us that tax is not necessarily only money, it can also be in kind, including the time of people doing certain activities for the public good.

The solution is thus not to increase tax the Industrial Age way. It is to create new ways of deriving a share of the tremendous value created by collaboration for the public good. Because collaborative value is not linked to geography, countries will find it difficult to create such new taxes on their own. The solution needs to be internationally agreed.  But that is the only possible way forward to avoid our governments to become relatively poorer and poorer.

The challenge is huge but so important for the stability of our societies that it should be taken upfront. Do you have ideas on the matter?