July 21, 2020

Some key human inconveniences

by: Leigh Baker

This blog is a work-in-progress, sparked by ongoing conversations with serious, concerned, committed citizens who want REAL climate action.

Again and again some key "everybody knows" assumptions come up - assumptions that (from my point of view) are as limiting as "the earth is the centre of the universe".

I see the world from the factory floor and the warehouse - not from the supermarket aisle. My view is the result of 30 years of problem solving in the world of industry.

An environmental perspective from the factory floor

While I was studying my first degree I had a summer job in a metalware factory - as a production line worker - making refrigerator shelves and electric hotplate elements.

A few years later I ended up back in manufacturing - as an analyst programmer for a pharmaceutical company making headache tablets and acne creams. Next move to a software house working with companies making everything from icecream to power tools.

What do you see differently inside the supply chain?

You have a very different view of the world from the average consumer AND the average politician - especially when your job is to analyse systems.

First, you see the massive amounts of resources used to design, produce, ship, store and deliver the products and services we use every day.

Then you see the massive amounts of "waste" happening throughout the system - human effort, materials waste, energy waste.

And you see the massive disconnects and tensions between the human system elements, including conflicting goals between:

  • Production and sales
  • Engineering and safety
  • Inventory and accounting

And you also get to see the massive energy that human systems expend to maintain their status quo.

(Try putting a computer on the desk of an inventory clerk who's spent 30 years using paper systems, or getting an accountant to write off the value of 10-year-old spare parts for a de-comissioned printing press.)

What I saw was:

  1. The massive social and environmental impact of that intricate, complex set of global material and energy flows called "the supply chain".
  2. The massive challenge of delivering business innovation inside human systems biologically wired to preserve and protect the status quo.
    (The human race is seriously weird.)

So when you get hooked on "this environment thing" you don't think like a "normal"environmentalist.

How do I think differently from traditional environmentalist?

Firstly, when you realise that the antiquated, 1-way supply chain that delivers our products and services actually delivers 99% resource waste, you stop believing that "the thing we need is for consumers to use less" or that "the thing we need is for governments to make better policy".

Whether it's 5 tonnes of mis-printed confectionery wrappers dumped to landfill at a packaging factory or the massive heat shimmer coming off the production line at a tomato cannery, you see the overwhelming reality of resource consumption.

When you understand the real creative thinking and problem solving power of the engineers that design and build the products and services you use every day, you stop believing that "the thing we need is government policy change".

When you look at the amazing ability of human entrepreneurs of the last three centuries to build everything from affordable motor cars, open source 3D printing to crowd-funded community energy coops, you stop believing "the solutions we need have to come from the top down".

Our innovation delivery challenge is inconveniently human

If would be nice if humans were a rational, sensible, pragmatic species. It would be nice if we were in control of our thinking and our actions.

But we evolved as tribal hunter gatherers who succeeded by ganging together to share resources. Our focus was on surviving for the short term future, keeping the group together to enable that survival and conserving the scarce resources we managed to accumulate.

As we've come to understand ourselves better in recent decades, neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists, philosophers and even marketers have started to catalogue how our perceptions and behaviours have limited our results.

Inconveniences I have known...

These are some of the ongoing human inconveniences I'm exploring. They're the ones that seem to blind good people to greater levels of opportunity and influence.

If you'd like to add to them, let me know.

There's a whole other knowledge revolution happening

After years of watching the creative ways that the human systems around me resisted (and sometimes accepted) innovation, I started studying it.

What I found was a growing knowledge base that rivals the "hard" technology revolution we see around us - the one that is re-inventing products, services and systems that we use every day.

Now we can access another powerful revolution - a revolution in understanding and working with human systems to deliver a whole new level of adaptation.

This revolution can give "citizen innovators" better tools for delivering substantive innovation DESPITE the self-conserving tendencies of the human systems we call "business" and "the economy".

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