Personal Blog of Joe Brewer

Archive for the ‘Complex Systems’ Category

Revealing the Cultural Patterns of Social Movements

In Complex Systems, Cultural Evolution, Economic Patterns on May 1, 2014 at 7:02 am

Every wondered what the patterns of a social movement look like?  Check this out.  I created a graph for the number of Google keyword searches for the phrases Anonymous (the hacker group), Occupy Wall Street, and NSA to see how they change in time.  Each one has a different structure — which reveals important things about how ideas spread in society to produce cultural change.

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 7.45.00 AM

Note how Anonymous (the red line) has a series of increasing peaks, each representing a new media event where they gained more exposure.  Each new event brought them more prominence and notoriety.  This is the process of becoming a recognizable and persistent part of the cultural zeitgeist.  Contrast this with the large single peak of Occupy Wall Street, which is the classic shape for a viral media event.  Occupy arose quickly, spread far and wide, then dissipated and largely went away.

This is different from the seeking of information about the NSA (National Security Agency), which was mostly non-existent until the release of classified documents by Edward Snowden.  This event is structured as a plateau with descending peaks to reveal how it rose to prominence and remained in the spot light as new batches of files were periodically released to the public.

All three events have different time signatures that reveal something important about how they (1) came into being; (2) influenced public awareness; and (3) left their mark (or not) on society.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

Toward A Design Science of Cultural Change

In Complex Systems, Cultural Evolution, Global Integration, Social Change on April 24, 2014 at 8:39 am

Civilizations are complex systems that evolve and change through time.  For thousands of years they have risen and collapsed, grown in sophistication, battled and merged, and — in the 20th Century — forged together the first truly global incarnation of a human society.

Now, in the 21st Century, we have before us the difficult task of learning how to guide our civilization using intentional design. Continue reading “Toward A Design Science of Cultural Change” »

Will the Surveillance Meme Keep Us From Global Democracy?

In Complex Systems, Cultural Evolution, Design Science, Human Behavior on July 9, 2013 at 10:18 am

Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile phones and digital infrastructure, it is now possible to achieve direct democracy at the global scale.  We are already seeing inklings of its emergence in the rise of Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and more recent activities in Egypt, Brazil, and Turkey.  Yet there is a cultural force at play that may keep us from breaking away from centralized political power — the surveillance meme and its capacity to evoke fear and paranoia about open data systems.

The rise of global democracy is at risk of being thwarted by a toxic meme! Continue reading “Will the Surveillance Meme Keep Us From Global Democracy?” »

Why All Technology Arises Through Cultural Evolution

In Complex Systems, Cultural Evolution, Design Science on March 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm

There sure seems to be a lot of confusion — even among technologists — about what technology actually is.  I recently had the experience of hearing an investor who funds clean tech startups say that he is “focusing on creating technology, not researching culture” as a way to dismiss the role that cultural evolution might play in getting ideas to market.  This was especially surprising considering that all technology arises from culture, each with its own unique history of blended concepts, domains of knowledge, standard practices, sociological models, mythic narratives, and demonstrated solutions.

Continue reading “Why All Technology Arises Through Cultural Evolution” »

Toward a Rigorous Science of Cultural Evolution

In Complex Systems, Cultural Evolution, Global Integration, Human Behavior on March 15, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Addressing global challenges in the 21st Century will require a fundamental rethinking of what it means to be human.  We can no longer embrace the false doctrine of human separateness from the natural world.  And nowhere is this more powerful than the intersections between biological and cultural evolution. Continue reading “Toward a Rigorous Science of Cultural Evolution” »

Seeing the Complexity of Planetary Change

In Complex Systems, Design Science, Global Integration on February 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm

One of the great challenges looming over the climate debate is the sheer complexity of planetary change.  As our education systems continually fail to instill robust critical thinking skills in the populace — and a vast PR system confuses and obfuscates to stall significant action — we are left with a confused population of lost souls whose ideological filters do more to shape attitudes and beliefs than the basic observations about what is unfolding all around us. Continue reading “Seeing the Complexity of Planetary Change” »

Applying Complexity Science to Social Systems

In Complex Systems, Design Science, Human Behavior on February 5, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Many people reach out to me because they want to learn about the science of complexity.  They ask what it is, how it works, and — most importantly — how they can apply it to global challenges confronting humanity. In those conversations I share what I have learned as a complexity researcher who specializes in the evolution of human systems.  Realizing how useful this is for them, I thought I’d share some of it with all of you here. Continue reading “Applying Complexity Science to Social Systems” »

What Happens When We Shock A System?

In Complex Systems, Global Integration, Social Change on December 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Have you ever noticed that some things in the world like to be disrupted?  Rogue militant groups set out to garner counter-attacks that distract their opponents while draining their resources.  Viruses encourage multi-cellular organisms to activate their immune systems in attempts to wipe them out.  Teenagers seek the disdain – and occasional wrath – of authority figures in their lives.

These seemingly counter intuitive behaviors are the centerpiece of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.  They are the “teachable moments” that enable us to truly understand the driving dynamics of systems that undergo shock.  Indeed, there are entire categories of systems that benefit from disruption.

Continue reading “What Happens When We Shock A System?” »

Want to Solve the Climate Crisis? Study Meme Science!

In Complex Systems, Semantics and Perception, Social Change on November 20, 2012 at 8:11 am

This article is co-authored by Joe Brewer and Lazlo Karafiath

It’s almost the end of 2012 and a leadership vacuum continues to plague the nations of the world on our single biggest global threat.  Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.

The urgency of this problem is clear when we think about the wave of wildfires, floods, and droughts that spread across the world this year and “freak” storms like Hurricane Sandy that wreaked havoc on New England earlier this month.  Even the skeptics among us are increasingly nervous about offshore oil rigs going up on flames and pouring millions of barrels of precious crude into the open waters of the world’s oceans.

Continue reading “Want to Solve the Climate Crisis? Study Meme Science!” »

Towards a Resilient Global Economy

In Complex Systems, Economic Patterns, Global Integration on October 15, 2012 at 4:27 pm

If I had to pick a single word to describe the global economy today, it would be fragile.  Policy makers and business leaders have actively built a system that destroys the environment in order to produce profits in the short term — by distributing goods and services across a global supply chain that is designed to minimize costs and maximize financial returns — while relying on structures that are profoundly susceptible to disruption. Continue reading “Towards a Resilient Global Economy” »

An Integrated Approach to Global Change

In Complex Systems, Design Science, Global Integration, Human Behavior on June 10, 2012 at 11:35 am

Years ago, I took the road less traveled and set out to build an integrated approach to global change.  I realized early on that the only way to address global climate change was to focus jointly on the complexities of the human condition and the coupled dynamics of Earth Systems.  It was a telling observation that no academic institutions were equipped to support the broad transdisciplinary approach I sought to take, which is why I remain outside the university setting in pursuit of this goal to this day.

I am pleased to share that after 15 years of formal academic training and independent study, a clear set of guidelines has appeared that brings this ambitious goal within reach.  A rigorous design science for building the pathway to sustainability is now available for use. Continue reading “An Integrated Approach to Global Change” »

Design Better Systems by Questioning Your Theory of Change

In Complex Systems, Design Science, Human Behavior, Social Change on May 14, 2012 at 3:41 pm

A major consideration in the design of large-scale systems is that humans have to interact with them.  Want to create a massive transportation system for your city?  People need to take the bus or feel safe jumping on their bikes.  Seeking to build a regional food system?  Someone’s got to grow the food and deliver it.  Someone else has to pick it up and prepare it for dinner.  Every time a “grand vision” is put in play for changing the world, there is an implicit assumption that people will participate in the alteration or replacement of an existing system.

So how DO people interact with changing systems?  That’s a question that has frustrated many a system designer.  Engineers in the IT world know only too well how difficult it is to build software that people can use (or, just as important, that customers prefer over someone else’s software).  Transportation policy experts have been baffled by the ways people choose to get around despite the design choices that went into the blueprints for that rapid bus system or congestion traffic lane.  And political activists have been bewildered by the voting behaviors of so many otherwise intelligent people who behave so strangely when election season comes around. Continue reading “Design Better Systems by Questioning Your Theory of Change” »

The Best Reading List You’ll Ever Find for Cognitive Science and Social Change

In Complex Systems, Global Integration, Human Behavior, Social Change, Video Blog on May 11, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Interested in learning cognitive science to solve global problems?  Here’s the best reading list you’ll find to help you do it!  Since writing articles like Want to Change the World? Study Cognitive Science! and Five Things to Make Large-Scale Behavior Change, and recording videos to explain The Great Blind Spot for Sustainability and Where Rational Choice Theory Comes From, I’ve received a lot of requests from people who want to learn more about cognitive and behavioral science.

So in the spirit of open innovation, I’m sharing my reading list.  Check out this video to learn about more than 50 books you can pick up and start reading any time you want to.  They have greatly expanded my understanding of human nature, morality, and the mind so that I can help design transition tools for global civilization.

This intellectual journey brought me to the point last year where I announced that I want to create a new field of research in Human-Centered Design for Global Change.  You can learn more about it by following these links:

Please let me know if I can be helpful to you in your quest for more knowledge.  It’s been incredibly fulfilling to unlock so many secrets about humanity and the dynamic universe we are a part of.  Enjoy!


Want the Power of a God? Become an Accountant!

In Complex Systems, Human Behavior, Semantics and Perception, Social Change on March 29, 2012 at 12:01 am

Have you ever wanted the god-like power to create entire worlds?  Wondered what it feels like to destroy a universe with the flick of your hand?  Then become an accountant.  That’s right, you heard me.  The Great Creators (and Destroyers) of reality are the people who define what is worthy of measurement.

Consider this:

Current wisdom says that the amount of global economic activity is the total of Gross Domestic Production (GDP) for all countries in the world.  This number tells us how much value is created each year through productive activity.  And yet none of this activity would be possible if children were not born, raised by devoted parents, and educated by society.  The most essential “productive” activity performed by humans is parenting. And what is the net economic value of parenting?  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  It doesn’t exist as far as economists are concerned.

And how do we know this?  Because it doesn’t appear on the accounting books!  Being a mother has no economic value — at least not according to the accounting schemes used by macro economics today.  This sweeping power to make massive value-creation disappear is wielded by accountants every single day. Continue reading “Want the Power of a God? Become an Accountant!” »

Towards A Globally-Focused Earth Simulation Center

In Complex Systems, Global Integration on February 15, 2012 at 4:05 pm

In the last few months, I have been honored to work with the International Centre for Earth Simulation (ICES) in Geneva, Switzerland, which has the ambitious goal of creating a new set of capabilities for simulating and visualizing the dynamic Earth in a fully integrated manner.  My primary responsibility so far has been to assist in the creation of an overview document that conveys the scope and vision for this inspiring effort.  And now I am excited to announce that it is available to the public.  Click the image to download it as a PDF.

(Note: It’s a large 9 MB file!)

The ICES Foundation was founded by Bob Bishop, with whom I worked closely to co-create this important piece of work.  Feel free to inquire with me directly about our progress in bringing ICES closer to reality.  This is absolutely the most ambitious endeavor I’ve ever been a part of.  It is appropriately at a global scale grand enough to match the level of highly complex challenges we must all face together in the coming decades.

In Solidarity,

Joe Brewer
Innovation Strategist

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Complex Issues

In Complex Systems, Global Integration, Human Behavior, Social Change on February 9, 2012 at 9:18 am

I was recently interviewed by Bhavani Prakash at Eco Walk the Talk about cognitive policy, large-scale behavior change, deep history, and the transition to sustainability.  We explored the importance of cross-disciplinary thinking for addressing global challenges.

Here’s an excerpt:

So what we’re seeing now with these global social movements, is an acceleration of change that goes back at least 3 decades. In a global sense, we can see the rise of the environmental movement, which started about a hundred years ago and catapulted in the 1960s with Rachel Carson, and what’s called the modern environmental movement. We’ve seen the beginning of the collapse of the empire with post colonialism, from the independence of India, the rise of nation states, and social democracies. Going back 70 or 80 years, fairly quick and big changes have been happening. Now it’s much faster still.

Let’s take ‘Occupy Wall Street’ – it has been incredibly successful, in a short period of time. It has been only with us for a few months and it has already changed the way that people talk about the economy and social issues all around the world. Now maybe Occupy Wall Street won’t lead to the changes that we need, but the scale of impact would have been very difficult to predict. Imagine you were sitting and watching the world in the beginning of August 2011, you probably wouldn’t have anticipated that something like Occupy Wall Street would have come into being and have such an effect in the last few months.

That is an indicator of how quickly change is coming and the fact that change is coming quickly tells us that we are in the middle of one of those phased transitions. Change is happening very quickly because the entire system is reorienting itself. I think there’ll be a much bigger, deeper change in the next few years.

Read the entire interview here.

Want to Build Sustainable Communities? Study Living Systems!

In Complex Systems, Global Integration on January 31, 2012 at 4:37 pm

At the heart of the ecological crisis is an unhealthy relationship between humanity and the natural world.  Western philosophical traditions, in particular, are wrought with a history of unbreachable chasms — between mind and body, truth and fact, life and death, etc.  We have lived out a troubled existence with metaphors of competition, battles, and outright war on the natural systems we depend on for our survival.

Human settlements now leave a massive footprint on the water supplies, forests, mineral deposits, and food stocks offered forth by the planet we live on.  We are severely out of balance.  This begs the question How will humanity survive and thrive indefinitely into the future?  To answer this question, which cuts to the very core of human struggle on earth in the 21st Century, we must consider the design criteria that enabled life to spring forth in our cosmological past.  Only when we understand the governing dynamics of life can we thoughtfully and strategically design community structures that generate and support urban landscapes and social processes that promote a thriving existence. Continue reading “Want to Build Sustainable Communities? Study Living Systems!” »

Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior & Self-Organized Criticality

In Complex Systems, Social Change, Wisdom of Crowds on October 15, 2011 at 3:46 am

If you’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street protests these last few weeks, you may be surprised by how quickly it spread from a small group of disgruntled youth in New York to a planetary mobilization that is now active in more than 100 cities — all in a few short weeks.  This is an unprecedented ripple of change in local conversations, media coverage, global consciousness, and international solidarity.

My friend and fellow observer of global patterns, Timothy Rayner, describes the Occupy protests as a “swarm movement”, suggesting that we may be in the midsts of an unprecedented pattern of self-organization that wasn’t possible before the internet.  I am inclined to agree with his core thesis and want to suggest that we are observing what complexity researchers call self-organized criticality, defined in the following way: Continue reading “Occupy Wall Street, Swarm Behavior & Self-Organized Criticality” »

Understanding Phase Transitions for Social Change

In Complex Systems, Economic Patterns, Global Integration, Social Change on September 8, 2011 at 4:12 pm

The great challenges of the 21st Century are systemic in nature.  From ecological decline to cybersecurity in a digital age, the patterns of change we must grapple with are profoundly complex.  Change agents will need to understand how change unfolds in complex systems in order to promote political and economic stability during these turbulent times.

I recently hosted a call with several futures strategists about the nature of phase transitions in social systems.  We met to talk about what is known about phase transitions in physical systems and the lessons they can teach us for promoting cultural shifts in society. Continue reading “Understanding Phase Transitions for Social Change” »