Posts Tagged ‘The Age of the Unthinkable’

Michael Wells
by Michael Wells
Mon Jun 22nd 2009 at 2:36pm UTC

Social Support

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

I’ve been thinking about social support networks lately and so pieces in recent books have stood out. Humans are social animals who are able to organize ourselves or act individually, but the family and small group networking connections are still more important than generally acknowledged. The implications for a creative economy is that how companies and cities are organized can be as important as what they do or make in their success.

These examples are mostly medical, partly because that’s where a lot of research goes on, but the implications for society are universal.

  • The first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers talks about the town of Roseto, PA which was founded by Italians from Roseto, Italy in the 1890s. Doctors noticed that the residents were unusually healthy. But investigations showed little difference in diet, personal habits, the natural environment, etc. What they did find was that the social and friendship networks were unusually strong. This mutual support resulted in less heart disease and other maladies.
  • This reminded me of Dr. Dean Ornish’s work with treating heart disease with diet, exercise, meditation, yoga, and social/family support. When his success in not only stopping but reversing heart disease was reported, the medical establishment said, “Yes, we know that if our patients shifted to a low-fat diet, exercised, and reduced stress it would reduce heart attacks. But people won’t follow our orders so we just schedule bypasses.” The difference was the social and family involvement, which got people to change their behaviors.
  • In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramos tells about AIDS patients in Tugela Ferry, South Africa who had extraordinary levels of medication compliance because rather than doctors just saying “take these pills” they explained the science and involved family members. People stuck to the regimen despite the extreme side effects, while groups who were just told to follow doctors orders would stop medication when they felt better.
  • A growing evidence-based practice in residential drug treatment is the “Therapeutic Community,” where peers are involved in each others’ recovery. It has better results than just staff-led treatment.
  • Then this article in the Portland Tribune tells about a program to have severely mentally ill people work real jobs rather than “sheltered workshops.” The job stress that was assumed to be too much for them to handle turns out to actually help them get better.

From quality circles to army platoons to extended families, people working together are healthier, more productive and more creative. How can this knowledge be used to build the creative economy?

Michael Wells
by Michael Wells
Fri Jun 19th 2009 at 9:29pm UTC

The Uncertainty Principle

Friday, June 19th, 2009

I’ve just read a fascinating book, The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Ramo is a managing director at Kissinger Associates, focusing on China. He’s a former foreign editor for Time magazine.

The Age of the Unthinkable talks about how uncertainty and interconnection is increasing in every aspect of our lives and in world politics. From the interplay of energy use and the environment to finance and mortgages, to diseases spread by travelers, to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, the world is becoming unmanageable using old models.

Complex decentralized systems are not unmanageable. Think of the Internet or healthy ecosystems or financial markets (OK, there was mismanagement at some levels. But the system worked, trading can go on even with the overload of a crisis). The thing is, they’re not manageable by straight-line thinking and top-down control.

As you might guess from his background, Ramos talks a lot about international relations. He says the old institutions set up after WWII – from the UN, to the way the State Department is organized, to how foreign aid is distributed – are not only incapable of dealing with today’s uncertainly but are actually counterproductive. One reason is they’re all designed to confront perceived problems head-on, which often has the result of making them worse – think nuclear proliferation, the war on terror, the financial crisis.

To oversimplify, Ramos says we need to do a couple of things.

1. Build resilient systems at every level.

  • To deal with bioterrorism or new virus strains, we could try to plan for every eventuality, develop and stockpile vaccines, etc. But a more effective plan would be to build a strong healthcare system, with an efficient and effective public health component, and be ready to react to whatever happens.
  • On the financial crisis, he talks about America’s low savings rate as a reason why the meltdown is so hard on individual families. If people had adequate rainy day funds we’d be better able to ride out the inevitable ¬†downturns.

2. Design for uncertainly by using the model of our immune system.

  • Be ready to react to crisis and opportunity with flexible systems. He talks about involving people at every level of an organization, or of a society, in decision making. Great case studies from Hizb’allah to a company in Brazil’s 1980’s financial meltdown to AIDS care in Africa.

This seems to me to overlap with the transition to a creative economy and Richard’s mantra that every person is creative and we need to make all work creative.

(Interesting David Brooks piece about Iran in today’s NY Times along the same lines.)