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Trusting the government with your dog

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Simulation Technology for Ecosystem Wellness through Antifragile Resource Deployment (STEWARD) blog series - part 5 of 7 (part 1)

In the previous post in this series (as in the Introduction to my book Supercommunities), I discuss how nationhood is really "a deal that is as old as history — tax for rights." This deal is based on a form of trust. You pay tax to a government, trusting that in return it will provide certain protections. If it doesn't ... well then, you may decide to re-locate.


I apply similar thinking about trust when deciding how to vote in an election. The quality of a manifesto is irrelevant if you don't trust elected officials to keep their promises. So, I imagine what would happen if the officials on offer were to look after my dog for a day. Would they take it for a walk first thing, give it something to eat, then let it sleep under their desk while they worked? Or leave the front door open while giving a morning brief to reporters and forget to check where it was for the rest of the day?


A simple thought experiment like this might help with voting decisions, but for the government of a nation to work cohesively towards antifragility in troubled times, we need a richer model for coordination between citizen and government. For one thing, interactions must be digitally enabled, a means for which is set out in my blog series on the Internet of Communities. For another, the devil is in the details, so we need more than trust. To go beyond belief and into execution, across the various levels between individual and state, we need a model of collaboration that stakeholders in the nation's communities can adopt in order to work together efficiently and effectively. This model needs to allow for the creation of hyper-productive teams that include government bodies along with community stakeholders of all kinds, some of whom may be located outside the nation's physical borders.


My own research, now focused on a socio-economic and socio-political model for antifragile communities, started with collaboration. Despite being grounded in formal theory, a simple, practical approach based on principles such as the 5Cs of Human Interaction Management (Commit, Communicate, Contribute, Calculate, Change) and the 4 types of conversation (Context, Possibility, Disclosure, Action) turns out to be transformative - for example, when applied by cities, towns and rural communities seeking to tackle the effects of austerity. There is real opportunity here for government to become an enabler.


For example, government can take the lead in providing routes for large organisations such as councils, hospitals, and universities to procure services from smaller ones. An example step in this direction is the UK government's Digital Marketplace, which allows government bodies to find resources for digital projects:

  • An individual specialist, such as a developer or user researcher

  • A team to provide an outcome, such as a booking system or accessibility audit

  • User research participants, such as people from a specific user group to test your service

  • A user research studio, such as a room to conduct research sessions

  • Cloud hosting, software and support, such as content delivery networks or accounting software

  • Physical datacentre space, such as access to mission-critical datacentres

More general-purpose frameworks, applicable to areas other than technology, could be devised. Frameworks also need to go further than enabling off-the-shelf purchases of resources. What if government was to support and encourage the development of supplier communities that work in co-opetition to enable system-wide capability, resilience, and flexibility? Such a holistic approach would allow communities to prioritise local economic growth without being restricted by it. It would also force a change in the contracting game, from being constricted by risk-averse legalities to being empowered by emergent possibilities.


The ability to respond quickly and effectively to external events is a key enabler for antifragility, but the precise opposite of current public sector procurement practices. UK government bodies, for example, currently evaluate all new projects or investments according to the Green Book. This manual aims to ensure that all public expenditure optimises the social / public value produced. The underpinning "Five Case Model" is thorough, well thought out, and hopelessly inappropriate as an engine of societal change.


Suppliers who are forced to enumerate all eventualities in advance and mitigate associated risks will inevitably hedge their bets and provide solutions that close doors rather than leaving them open. The sea changes in technology of the last twenty years arose because Silicon Valley investors saw the opportunity in taking a different approach. Believe in individuals enough to invest in a half-formed search engine or insanely ambitious marketplace, and eventually you might get a Google or Amazon - along, of course, with many failures. But the value of the successes is so enormous that it outweighs the investments you end up writing off.


And fewer products are written off than one might suspect. Technologies often end up with unexpected uses that turn out to be of historical importance. Bubble wrap started out as wallpaper. William Perkin aimed to synthesize quinine to help protect people from malaria but ended up creating the world's first synthetic organic dye. Similar serendipity can easily occur for services. The classic example is a local Post Office or village shop, which increase wellness by reducing isolation among vulnerable people. Local services struggle to cover their costs, but remove expensive pressure from healthcare, police, and emergency services.


However, evidence for the overall benefits to society of local services is hard to come by, and one would struggle to justify investment in a community shop using the Five Case Model. We need new investment models based on trust and collaboration rather than on risk avoidance. We also need government to think more openly about how it stimulates innovation.


Innovate UK, for example, helps companies apply for an innovation loan. But how do the companies come into being in the first place? The innovations we need to address 21st century crises such as inequality and climate change require cross-disciplinary engagement between academics, for which the current research landscape needs reshaping at root and branch. Such a revolution would be an effort that offers opportunity but no guarantee of success - although we can raise its chances of success by looking out of the laboratory window.

The tubercles on the humpback whale flipper - image by Whit Welles (own work, CC BY 3.0)


All across the natural world are examples of evolved organisms and behaviour from which humans can learn. Dogs can detect coronavirus more effectively than any technology. Birds can teach us about quantum metrology. Whales may have long-range sonar more effective than any submarine. Can the Ampullae of Lorenzini in a shark help us defend against cyber- or EMP-attack? A century after the invention of the modern aeroplane, we are learning how to improve wing design by looking at the flippers of a Hammerhead shark or Humpback whale.


Perhaps we should be protecting the natural world rather than wiping it out. But that isn't enough on its own. To develop sustainable ways of working for the world as a whole, we need step changes in how we generate power, get about, house ourselves, stay warm, produce food, and do pretty much everything else. These new ways of living will only provide the required antifragility if applied as part of cohesive socio-economic models - and since one size does not fit all, these models must be locally specific.


This is a massive challenge. Such models cover all areas of life, so require coordinated research that spans multiple disciplines - followed, if we are to avoid gambling away our future, by testing of the models via a Supercommunities game. We need Simulation Technology for Ecosystem Wellness through Antifragile Resource Deployment - not just to win the second cold war for the benefit of everyone on the planet, but to reframe the purpose of government for the 21st century.


Rather than continuing to mortgage our future by adhering to outdated macro-economic principles, the enlightened 21st century nation has to provide its citizens' STEWARD.


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