System Dynamics Conf. – III – Day 1

By | July 29, 2009

The day begun with a keynote by Dennis Meadows on his ‘Limits to Growth’ work. I came away the following ideas:

  • There’s a distinction between global problems and universal problems. Global problems affect everyone and cannot be solved without cooperation from everyone, whereas universal problems affect everyone but can be solved by local groups. Some issues mash up global and universal issues. For example, climate change a global problem, but its effects effects are universal problems; that is, we can’t stop climate change without global collaboration but we can deal with rising sea levels on a local level. Obviously, universal problems are simpler to deal with.
  • There’s another distinction between preventive and adaptive policy. Preventive policy seeks to address potential future problems, while adaptive policy seeks to mitigate current problems. Adaptive policies are easier to gain support for because they address problems whose effects are immediate.\
  • A disproportionately large amount of the innovation going on with respect to limits to growth is happening at the local and metropolitan levels. Why is this? There seems to be a lot of possible reasons, here’s a few off the top of my head: local government has control over much physical infrastructure that can be adapted, smaller groups are able to reach consensus more easily over desirable projects, less variation in the political views of people in local groups as compared to national groups. This would make an interesting problem for someone. What do you think?
  • Malthus was right, just a bit early. If we’re serious about reducing the human impact on the planet, we need to be serious about reducing or even slightly reversing population growth. Even if in the longer term we think we can adapt ourselves and our practices to increase the Earth’s carrying capacity, it’s still arguably the case that reduced population growth would help support higher living standards across the world.
  • Sustainable doesn’t mean cheap. In some cases, durable, well-made, luxury goods are more sustainable than cheap disposable goods. Compare a expensive pen that can be refilled and that is well cared for with a simple throwaway, disposable pen.
  • Drawing from the previous example, sustainability pertains strongly to behaviour, not just technology. Arguably, we can improve the sustainability of our lifestyles more through behavioural changes (though not just recycling!) than through technical changes.

Next up was the morning’s parallel session. I was a little distracted as I was presenting my paper “Exploring the dynamics of Music Piracy”, so I didn’t take notes on any of the other papers during this session. There was one in particular I wanted to see, but regretfully couldn’t: “Economic Origins of the Mafia and Patronage System in Sicily“.

For lunch we tried out a local burger chain. It was .. interesting.

Unfortunately, of the papers I saw in the afternoon, three out of five really didn’t grab me. Another, “Model-based exploration of strategies for fostering adoption of improved seed in West Africa“, was quite interesting, but my laptop was out of battery so I didn’t get good notes. Worth a look if you’re into intellectual property, biotech, or developing nations.

The last paper, “Developing Causal Map Codebooks to Analyze Policy Recommendations“, by Michael Deegan was particularly interesting. It sought to analyze the structure of policy recommendations in order to understand why recommendations are very rarely followed (at least in the domain and context of flood plain management by the US Army Corps of Engineers). Here’s what I took away:

  • There’s a variety of reasons why  recommendations might not be taken up. They may be complex and difficult to understand by non-expert policy-makers; they may be too massive and intricate; there may incorporate significant uncertainty; they may be impossible or impractical to implement in an accountable manner; or their implications might not be clear. On top of these chiefly bureaucratic reasons, there are the normal political considerations of ideology, budget, time, political capital, emotional appeal, and special interests.
  • The core idea was that by drawing causal maps of a recommendation, including all of the causal relationships and arguments that drive it, it can be made much more accessible both to policy makers and the public, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be taken up. The basic idea, then, is that arguments can be teased out of prose and into graphical diagrams, helping to reveal the complexities, fallacies and implications that would otherwise be hidden. I’ve toyed with this in the past to the point of half writing a proposal based on it, and so I made sure I had a good chat with the author afterwards. I’m particularly interested in the idea of an intelligent parsing agent that is able to extract arguments from text and graphically represent them. In doing this, their structure would become computationally manipulable, enabling tools that correct, interpret, or integrate arguments. I should probably finish writing this idea up at some point.

The day ended with a reception at the Albuquerque Museum. There were the normal speeches, then a marvellously enthusiastic musical group consisting almost entirely of marimba players. They were both inspiring and amusing to watch, what with the furiously pounding on a giant bass marimba and the general leaping about. Photos later.