IMAGINING (MODELLING) THE FUTURE
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Philip Sutton
Director, Policy and Strategy
Green Innovations Inc.
Tel & fax: +61 3 9486 4799
Philip.Sutton@green-innovations.asn.au
5 March 2003
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by Philip Sutton.

The speed and scale of change required to achieve ecological sustainability is an order of magnitude greater than people tend to imagine. Change like this cannot be achieved in a timely fashion purely through the aggregation of a myriad incremental changes. Micro changes will need to be accompanied by a great many big leap changes. One of the major sources of these changes will be whole-system design, an area that has historically been massively underdeveloped because so many people and organisations find it hard to deal with complexity.

To maintain public support for leapfrog changes, it will be necessary to produce win- win outcomes where major environmental improvements come at an affordable cost and without the need to sacrifice the satisfaction of other human needs. Traditionally economists have said that it is not possible to maximise several needs at once. Certainly it is true that as you try to maximise an increasing number of objectives, the proportion of any fixed set of options that meets the multiple criteria will fall. But in reality the chance of finding a suitable win-win solution can be kept high by significantly improving our knowledge of the world and society and then vastly increasing the number of options that are generated and tested. To be affordable most of this option generation and testing has to be done in the mind or in the computer because it is prohibitively expensive to create huge numbers of real prototypes.

So leapfrog change requires people to be able to imagine society and technology as it has never been, that is, to be able to think 'out of the box'. Whole-system design requires people to have the ability to conceptualise and use complex models depicting how things are now and how they might be. And the creation of win-win solutions requires 'design profligacy' that is only possible when whole system design skills are ubiquitous and computer-aided-design can be applied widely. The further development of artificial intelligence capabilities (including artificial general intelligence) will assist this process.  

So for all these reasons sophisticated simulation modelling capacity will have to be widespread throughout society. 

A powerful way to spread modelling skills throughout society and to generate awareness of how the economy might be transformed into an ecological sustainable state would be to create and extensively disseminate a modelling 'game' that was like a combined version of the popular simulation games: SimCity and SimEarth. To maximise the potential for learning, the game should allow advanced users to modify the rules and knowledge-bases that drive the model and to create new simulated technologies and public policies. If very large numbers of people could play the game together on-line, as is being done with the game Ultima Online, where 60,000 people have logged on at once, then the opportunities for learning how to handle the real complexity of social and technical change would be magnified many fold. This complexity is to be tapped deliberately in a new on-line game, Asheron's call, being developed by Microsoft. (Herz, 1998) A sustainability game as is envisaged here could provide a medium for complex networking in society between business and the community and could become a major vehicle for mobilising to proliferate sustainability-promoting firms.

An interesting simulation resource can be found at:

http://www.worldgame.org/

Herz, J. (1998). "Subtleties of governing a virtual world", New York Times. 26 Feb 98.
Email: joystick@interport.net (J.C. Herz)


Author:  Philip Sutton
First posted:  April 1998
Content modified:  5 March 2003
Feedback & Enquiries:   Philip.Sutton@green-innovations.asn.au


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