Reflecting on my practice – a difficult transition 

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Our modern society was born of energetic abundance. This is not something we can rely on long-term, not even to the end of our lives. On the one side is climate risk. On the other, even if the climate was stable, we are running out of fossil energy, with no clear prospect of replacing it all with renewables. Not to mention the exhaustion of other natural resources.

We will, at some stage, come to a new regime. We can continue on our course, wait for the crash and hope for the best. Or we can focus our efforts on smooth landing.

If we want to achieve the latter, time is of the essence. We need to work decisively and fast towards a new stable state that is less wasteful. The less fossil energy remains, the more carbon is in the air, the more the climate changes, the more people will suffer and die.  

Our challenge, then, is to negotiate a radical transition as safely as we can. In this, we face three major difficulties.

First, we need a new ‘we’ to take form. The change needed exceeds the mandate of any company, state, or even region of the world. It requires most of humanity – if not all of us – to coordinate our activities. As we come together, we will meet and we must confront the wounds of the past, of colonialism, war and ingrained inequalities, and overcome the mistrust and resentment that is their legacy. We can do so in conscious collaboration, in a constitutional act of global peace-making and reconciliation. Or we can do so by force and cunning, through mass surveillance, physical threat, mind-numbing and propaganda.

Second, technology will play a role in whatever new system we create, and in negotiating the transition. But that role is ambivalent. We can make more efficient machines, to capture energy from renewable sources, store it, and transform it to our benefit. We can use digital technology – Blockchain, Internet, Artificial Intelligence – to think, exchange and communicate more effectively, and to better coordinate our actions and those of our machines. Yet because technology can do so much, we are at risk of leaning on its promise, meanwhile neglecting the human software, and overshooting our window of opportunity. And, we’re at risk that a handful of people will control and optimise technology for their short-term gains, rather than creating a desirable new balance and negotiating the transition for an emerging global ‘we’. 

Third, and most worryingly: we don’t know who to trust. The task ahead has no precedent, and we face it because our elders have failed us. The people in power today, or in the recent past, have a proven track record of radical failure. They did not shift the course of society nearly fast enough or sharply enough. People who never held power have no proven track record of achieving anything. As we look around for prophets and leaders, or struggle to get things done without them, we are at serious risk of falling prey to madness – and give up on the task through sheer overwhelm. 

On root causes

Most of my work has to do with wicked problems. As the name indicates, like evil itself, those never disappear altogether, but can only ever be contained, or at best eliminated locally. Technically, wicked problems involve a large number of factor, all interconnected, so that chains of cause and effect are difficult to track. Effective interventions are always difficult to find, never perfect, rarely straightforward.

Enter the pandemic. In 2017, I was working with the Global Challenges Foundation, preparing a short introduction to global catastrophic risk. Pandemics featured in the booklet, alongside nuclear winter and supervolcanoes. To people around me, this all sounded like sci-fi. No more today, as I was reflecting with Phil the other day.

Pandemics – as all other global catastrophic risks – are wicked problems on steroids. Factors include urban congestion, encroachment over wild areas, global interconnectedness, compromised immunity, poverty, misinformation, mistrust in institutions, you name it. Except when one strikes and unleashes, it doubles as a chaotic problem for local and national governments. Underlining the shortcomings of our governance systems.

Chaotic problems, unlike wicked ones, present themselves locally, and take the form of extreme urgency. Any reaction is typically better than none. There is no time for robust analysis and full understanding. Both types of problems often go hand in hand. Climate change is complex, the 2019 Australian bushfires were chaotic. Pandemics are complex, the 2021 Delta variant outbreak in Melbourne is chaotic.

The curfew brought a deep sense of rage, and killed my spirit for a while. As the first wave of emotion passed, I took time to reflect further, and realised, I feel profound frustration at yet another governance failure. We let a wicked problem run its course until it manifested as local chaos, then addressed it with appropriate anti-chaos measure – blanket authoritarian bans. I am frustrated by a reactive government that addresses symptoms instead of causes, and aims to pass off short-term compliance as civic virtue.

Yet the Victorian Premier, and the Chief Medical Officer, are following the terms of their mandate. Letting the local outbreak go wild, in the present state of affairs, will cause more harm than harsh measures. Imposing a curfew is in itself pointless, but easing enforcement and strengthening the signal will increase short-term compliance, and the chances that Victoria manages this one outbreak. Their mandate is Victorian welfare, and most likely, given the outbreak, the chosen course of action is optimal.

Except, this is a game where everyone loses in the end. Because the signals sent, and the structures put in place, are affecting our local capacity to tackle wicked problems in the long run. Financial resources are running low – and with greater immediate pressure when things open again, who will take the time to sit and analyse long-term wicked problems, let alone work on them. And right now, we’re all affected in some ways – brain fog and a spectrum of mental health issues – limiting our capacity to do the tough long-term work. So, here goes another month with limited progress, in Melbourne, on global wicked issues. Which, meanwhile, evolve and grow.

Worst, probably, following an official rhetoric that blames individuals for non-compliance, we’re collectively shifting the burden of causality, not on inadequate governance systems, but individual morality. Which will neither help us address future pandemics, nor climate change, nor geopolitical breakdowns, and the wave of suffering that is likely to follow.

And this is not a cause for rage, but sadness and fear.

Beyond Justice

The curfew broke my spirit.

Saturday late afternoon, I was with a friend in Princes Park. We sat down in the middle of an oval, and drank a bottle of wine. Sunday, I was out on the MCG grounds. I sat on a bench to meditate, then read a book, walking. It was sunny, people were out, in pairs or small groups, some with their masks off, smiling. I came back home and told Philip: ‘This time around, it feels like the lockdown is so much more humane. That’s good, that’s what we need.’

In 2020, I dreaded the police. I was a mess back then. I was leaving a Green Tech startup that turned out toxic, put the final touches on a PhD, co-wrote a book on governance innovation, and kept an eye on the charity that I founded. All difficult and complex projects, all for the greater good, each one a leap of faith.

Keeping my mental health stable was a stretch. To cope, I would often go for long walks, beyond the allocated two hours. I avoided crowded places, wore a mask, and stayed within my radius. But I broke the letter of the rules, and didn’t want a fine I could hardly afford. Police were not on my side.

Back in primary school, when the class went into chaos before recess, the teacher would sometimes look at us and say: ‘nobody will go out until you’re all silent.’ Silence took a while to settle. I always experienced this as injustice. I didn’t speak, or not much. Why punish everyone for the failings of a few? Every time, I felt my default allegiance shift, from the teacher to the rebels. In the face of authoritarian excess, resistance starts to look very much like virtue.

One sure way to gain short term control, as a government, is to set harsh rules, and enforce them loosely. The Chief Health Officer told it very clearly. In itself, the curfew serves no purpose. It sends a message. It’s the teacher shouting at the class, imposing order through the threat of punishment.

As an adult, I understand the urgency. I feel compassion for the Premier too. Imagine running a state through one of the world’s harshest lockdown, successfully bringing case numbers to zero, spending months in hospital with fractured ribs, facing another outbreak – and then watching videos of drinking crowds on the streets and large engagement parties? I would certainly start shouting.

So, the strong measures and strong language make sense. Sending a strong signal makes sense. Both in terms of their intended effect, and our leaders’ mental state. But it is not fair. And as happened when I was a child, I sense a shift of my allegiance towards the rebels. Power is a subtle balance. Stray too far from justice in the name of efficiency, and you risk losing public trust.

I love Melbourne and Melburnians. I love our sense of civic virtue. I built a charity to promote intercultural understanding, nurtured by the spirit of our city. I have made a deliberate choice to devote my professional life to the complex systemic problems of the 21st century – whether I get paid for it or not – again, nurtured by Melbourne. I am not alone. Many of us, inspired by a city that believes in collective thriving, go beyond the letter of the rules, to support each other, and create a better environment for all.

Civic participation is what makes Melbourne one of the world’s greatest places to live. Neither market nor government can fund or manage this adequately. It is too deep, and elusive. Besides, civic participation, social innovation, community care, all require some bending of the rules at the edges. If only because we have no market signals to guide us.

I have compassion for the Premier. I also have compassion for the rule benders – including myself. We’re tired, and well aware that there is much work to do. To preserve our own mental health and that of others. To support the small businesses we love, keep contact with the people we love, and stitch what is left of the civic fabric, so we can weave it back quickly. All this for its own sake, but also so we can tackle climate change, and refugee challenges, as the recent IPCC report and return of the Taliban reminded us.

Some probably stretch too far. Large engagement parties and pub crawls are probably too much. But are they born of pure selfishness, or a confused and somewhat misguided desire for civic rebirth? And do they really call for punitive language and harsher measures imposed on a tired population that tries its best, or compassion and gentle reminders?

People will often take on the roles you cast for them. Are we a city of mindless rule breakers, adamantly pursuing our own selfish interest? Or a global beacon of civic participation, trying as best we can – and sometimes failing – to find the right balance between our needs, individual and collective?

Right now, I feel like calling a strike on civic participation. ‘Is this how you wanna play it? OK, let’s all stick to the rules, and see what happens.’

That curfew broke my spirit. I hope it mends.

On non-profits

‘So, if you run a non-profit, does it mean you can’t run activities to generate revenue,’ someone with a business background asked me. And here I was, explaining how non-profit status has nothing to do with income generation, but how you share the spoils. No return on capital, but talent can be rewarded. You cannot offer dividends. You can pay salaries, even bonuses. You can develop commercial activities.

I’ve run a non-profit for the last five years, and developed a keen interest in the philosophical underpinnings of company structures. Accounting, or the art of categorizing assets. Governance, or the art of collective decision-making. Incentive systems, or the art of eliciting and sustaining activities that benefit the group.

As I learnt more, I realised how ignorant I was – indeed most of us are – about companies, how they run, what they are. How imprecise our use of words. Income, profit, revenue, benefit, trade, hover together in a golden cloud, while charities and nonprofits merge in mysterious shade. And by effect of sheer confusion, the non-profit sector itself may begin to question: if there is no profit, how can there be value?