strategic design & innovation

Cybernetic Thinking for Sustainable and Preferable Futures

culture & capability design insight digital & 4IR technologies strategy

How do we shape the future safely, sustainably, responsibly?

With the arrival of every new technology, the heralded possibilities for societal advancement are usually tempered by questions of how they might negatively impact our ways of living and working. Generating diverse perspectives and developing frameworks to navigate these questions in today’s complex world is the focus of the field of cybernetics.

The term cybernetics was coined in 1947 by Norbert Weiner, an MIT Professor, who defined it as the scientific study of control and communications between animals and machines. More simply, cybernetics looks at the intended and unintended consequences of technology for people and the planet. In the aftermath of World War Two (WW2), a series of conferences in New York convened academics across disciplines to consider: how might new computational technologies change people’s lives?

Military investment into new technologies during WW2 unleashed a wave of innovation, not least the capability to harness the process of nuclear fission to devasting effect in the form of the atomic bomb. The underlying concern of Weiner and the early cyberneticists was that, as we invented, commercialized, or operationalized new technologies, we needed to have a better set of tools to structure our thinking to anticipate their systemic impact.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an umbrella term for a spectrum of capability endowed by a number of different technologies to both physical machines and soft systems. Now widely recognised as the next “general-purpose” technology, similar to electricity or the internet, AI was a nascent field in at the time, and neural networks were an early focus of cybernetics. Now that we have the computational power, cloud and communications technologies to unleash AI at scale, building capability in the trans-disciplinary, integrative, collective, systems thinking of cybernetics is becoming a key requirement for leaders of organisations across the board.

sarah leslie consulting cybernetic thinking for preferable sustainable futures

If you’ve previously engaged in the exploration of socio-technical systems, and are thinking cybernetics sounds somewhat similar, you’d be right. The crucial difference is that cybernetics places an explicit emphasis on the environmental impact of technologies, along with the human impacts, making it a truly holistic approach with which to tackle today’s increasingly interconnected ‘wicked problems', and ‘poly-crises’.

Unfortunately, many of our systems have been designed around accountability rather than human need let alone environmental impact. So how can we influence and steer our systems towards our preferred futures?

To understand any system, you first need to understand it’s components, which can be considered within five categories - agents, agendas, data, infrastructure and processes. Importantly, much as we have argued before for the need to shift from ‘human centred’ thinking to ‘ecosystem centred' thinking, we need to consider agency in terms beyond that of the will of humans and their organisations. Anything that acts to produce a particular result has agency. A tree or a river that diverts the course of a new road or placement of a new structure is exhibiting agency.

Interrogating the relationships between system elements is both key to preventing unintended harms and key to unlocking new opportunities to create value and impact. Change the relationships and you change the system. And much as Einstein reportedly advocated that, given an hour, he would spend fifty-five minutes thinking about the problem, and five minutes thinking about the solution, it is incumbent on leaders and entrepreneurs to invest the time to interrogate the potential impacts of new technologies before unleashing them.

No organisation would want to be in the position of the Australian Government, attempting to defend the debacle resulting from the application of flawed algorithmic logic of new technology left to run unsupervised. We no longer have the right to say that we “couldn’t anticipate” the outcomes of letting new technologies loose when we have so much experience to learn from.

To build positive futures, you need to tell positive stories. With the right design tools and frameworks focused on ecosystems not just humans, and with strong design leadership, your team can imagine preferable futures in which new technologies such as AI deliver positive outcomes for humans and the environment.

To learn more, get in contact.

{This post was not authored by ChatGPT}

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