image by Peter Newman

David speaking.

This week I was lucky enough to attend a CSIRO workshop on Modelling Planetary Boundaries. For three days I got to sit in the room with a swathe of 12 very smart people, listening and learning as they moved toward crafting a new science paper.

As well as being fascinating in and of itself, this kind of workshop provides a really valuable perspective on the work Boho is currently doing, and for that reason I thought it might be worth trying to unpack a couple of the broader ideas that lay behind it. I’m afraid I won’t do any justice to the depth of concepts the group explored, but hopefully I can illustrate some of the general principles, if for no other reason than to indicate why I found it so valuable.

Unpacking the title of the workshop ‘Modelling Planetary Boundaries’ is illustrative in itself. To put it in rough terms, it’s about conceptualising the earth as one linked system – a holistic view of the whole planet and all the processes within it. That includes everything, from the atmosphere to the oceans to the cities to the economy to culture to education to the behaviour of families.

A model, in a scientific sense, is some kind of representation of a system that helps you understand it. There are many different kinds of models: some of them are physical, some are software, some are pen and paper and some exist entirely in our head.

The kind of model you use depends on what you’re interested in. At the more complex end, detailed software models such as global climate models (GCMs) calculate huge volumes of data in order to generate predictions of weather patterns under different future trajectories. At the simpler end, conceptual pen and paper flowchart models help us visualise the links and connections between different parts of the system, and help to bring incredibly complex phenomena into the realm of what we can understand.

This workshop was about creating a conceptual model at the simpler end of the scale, but something that could in future be added to and enriched with quantified data. What these scientists were seeking to create was a model of the human-earth system that they could use to better understand the dynamics of the earth, and where we’re heading as a species and a planet.

One of the things distinguishing this particular workshop, and the model these scientists were seeking to make, was the focus on social dynamics. There are lots of conceptual models that describe the behaviour of the earth from a biophysical perspective – ie. as a functioning system without human involvement. The idea is, you put together a model of how the earth works without humans, and then you add humans to the model as external drivers, or you borrow the models of human behaviour created by economics.

This approach is useful up to a point, but for many (most) people, one of the important questions is not, ‘How does the earth behave without human involvement?’ but, ‘How does the whole earth work?’

One idea which has been gaining significant traction in recent years is the idea that we have recently moved into a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This is a period in the earth’s history in which humankind has become one of the most significant drivers of the planetary systems. For decades, if not centuries, humans have been altering the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, changing the biosphere by driving species extinct and transporting new species around the planet, altering the activity of river systems and changing land use, all at a global scale.

In hundreds of million of years’ time, when humanity’s existence has been reduced to a thin smear of rock in the geological record, future species or alien visitors will still be able to detect our presence through the spike of radioactive minerals resulting from humanity’s nuclear weapons tests.

(This has been a preoccupation of Boho’s for a while now, to the extent that we called our 2010 show True Logic of the Future a ‘Parable for the Anthropocene’.)

Given that the choices and actions of human beings now has such significant consequences for the behaviour of the planet, it is more and more important that a model of the earth system include human social processes, not as an add-on but as a fundamental part of the system. This workshop sought to capture some of these social processes: What humans want, need and aspire to, and how they go about satisfying those desires.

The challenge was to put all these elements – the biophysical and the social – in one model. One of the jumping-off points for the workshop was this conceptual model, put together by my dad.

There needs to be a reason to create a model such as this; a question you want answered or an issue you’re grappling with. That helps to focus your attention, prioritise what’s important and clarify what’s relevant and what’s not. In this instance, the goal was articulated by Doug Cocks, CSIRO Research Fellow in Human Ecology (and collaborator on Boho’s Food for the Great Hungers) as ‘Quality Survival’ for humankind.

Given that the world population is predicted to peak at around 9 or 10 billion in the next few decades, Quality Survival means, roughly, ‘the removal of hunger and poverty and their attendant ills as expressed for instance in the Millenium Development Goals. These aspirations imply a significant increase in food production and wealth creation, all of which we hope to accommodate without crippling the ability of the planet to support future generations.’

Achieving Quality Survival means, in the language of the model, staying within the ‘safe operating space for humanity’.

The idea of a safe operating space, expressed in this way, draws a lot from the idea of Planetary Boundaries, first introduced in 2009.

The Planetary Boundaries paper identifies nine different boundaries which, if crossed, run the risk of tipping the planet into a different state – one that we cannot be sure will be amenable to human existence. It might be possible to transgress one or two of these boundaries temporarily, but crossing any of them means incurring serious risks.

The original Planetary Boundaries research focused on biophysical dimensions – ozone depletion, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss and so on. The workshop this week looked at identifying potential boundaries in the social dimensions as well – wealth inequality as one possible example.

Finally, the workshop reached the question of trade-offs: In order to stay within these boundaries (both social and biophysical), what trade-offs will we have to make? How can we measure and assess those trade-offs against one another, and who decides between them?

As an off-the-cuff example: What if, in order to save billions of people from starving to death, most of the Amazon rainforest and African savannahs were turned into farmland? Would saving the elephants (along with all the other biodiversity loss) and preventing those huge sinks of carbon from being released into the atmosphere be worth the death of billions?

Whether we like it or not, these kinds of trade-offs are already occurring, as the cumulative outcomes of many small-scale decisions made unconsciously (or more or less unconsciously) by people unaware of the larger picture. By bringing some of these trade-offs into focus, the workshop aims to help us better choose between difficult options, or to help us seek for alternatives when the only available options are bad ones.

I’d never seen the inside of a science workshop like this, and watching how a group of scientists collaborate (at least in this one instance) to produce something new was incredibly informative. There are a lot of similarities to the creative process, though it was unlike any devising workshop I’ve ever been part of. Still, it hit home watching these scientists work how much of that job requires inspiration, creativity and innovation, alongside all the knowledge, technique and technical discipline I took for granted.

This sort of conceptual modelling process took me very much out of my depth, but it’s this kind of work that Boho is drawing on with the Best Festival Ever project.

Rather than create a global model which includes everything in the human-earth system, Best Festival Ever presents a conceptual model of a much smaller system – a music festival. And instead of a model which is used to predict or to guide policy, the Best Festival Ever model is intended largely as a demonstration of some of the key principles and techniques used in modelling.

Best Festival Ever presents a participatory hands-on model in which players get to construct and manage their own complex adaptive system, using tools from boardgaming as the levers and inputs. The behaviour of the music festival explores the concepts of feedback loops, tipping points, phase transitions, interconnectivity and resilience.

Best Festival Ever is the first of a series of new interactive performances based around systems models. We’re now looking for new partners with whom we can collaborate to build participatory models of specific systems – from cities to ecosystems to companies to institutions. If you’re interested in working with Boho to develop a new playable model, please drop us a line.

The first iteration of Best Festival Ever will be presented at the London Science Museum from 10 – 21 November 2014.

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