I spent last week out in Gisborne at the Transit of Venus conference, where the local community made us most welcome and we spent our days talking about how to turn NZ into the kind of smart, knowledge-intensive nation. Both the debate about innovation and the debate about sustainable farming had a strong parallel, in that everyone recognises that we need new thinking and that new thinking is all about ecosystems. Or at least, that’s the buzzword everyone is waving around. I don’t think we’ve quite worked through what that means, so I stood up and made a comment aimed at digging more deeply into what an ecosystem approach might mean.
Here’s what I said (or rather the notes I spoke from and tidied up afterwards):
“We’ve been talking about the need for deep structural change in NZ innovation, in our economy, and our society. Deep changes are changes in thinking and changes in metaphor. We need new metaphors for thinking about post-normal science, post-normal innovation, post-normal economies,post-normal societies. Let’s face it, we’re facing post-normal everything.
We’ve had the linear model of science: put some researchers in a box, an idea appears, it is taken through a rigid development pipeline, capital is added in fixed stages, and the goal is profitable growth. This is a finite system, with fixed boundaries. It is normal. But this is the Twenty-First Century and we know it doesn’t work like that any more.
We’ve had the same model for farming, of factories for commodities. Control the inputs, optimise for one factor – maximised production, intensify. It is short-timescale thinking and looks great if all you care about is GDP. It is normal. But this is the Twenty-First Century and we know it doesn’t work like that any more.
This is the Twenty-First Century and we need to do better. We need new metaphors, paradigms, models. We’ve spend the day hearing about ecosystems, whether natural or of technological innovation. When we say “ecosystem”:
• we recognise the complexity of systems, where we cannot know or control all the interactions between parts of the system;
• we recognise we have to work with a range of outside forces, whether those are weather and pests or the whims of overseas markets or investors;
• we recognise that is hard to draw sharp boundaries around what is or isn’t in the system;
• we have to optimise for a range of co-benefits, not a single goal; and
• we have to think short- and long-term, about what we leave for the next generation.
Whether we are innovative farmers and land managers caring for biodiversity and gaining higher prices for doing so or we are innovators in high-tech manufacturing, partnering with researchers and customers across cultures and nations, then we are trying to work with ecosystems.
It’s all very post-normal.
So what metaphors do we have to help us think about how to work with ecosystems? The best I can think of is to stop thinking factories and start thinking gardens, and to think of ourselves as gardeners.
We all know what we want from a garden. We want to grow our fruit and veg; we want to hear the tui and kaka flying overhead; we want a safe space for our kids to grow up, run around, fall over, skin their knees, and get up again; and at the end of the day we want to sit down with a glass of wine and be proud of what we have created.
So I suggest to the innovators and science system managers, you should sit down with the ecologists, the farmers, the conservation managers, and think deeply about what an ecosystem model means for innovation, and what a gardeners approach would be for working with this system.”
And you can watch my comment, complete with wavy hands and shiny head, on Youtube.