About nature

I write and teach about leadership for sustainable development in the Anthropocene and how to influence change in the cross sector space where government, business, and civil society collaborate. I’ve researched and published on social science topics that support environmental management, but in last decade or so realized that I can have a greater impact by helping professionals enhance their impact and influence, i.e., leadership. I argue that, here on the cusp of the Anthropocene, sustaining development depends more on mobilizing people to meet current challenges than it depends on better science and technology. Towards that end, I’ve helped colleagues develop and deliver an “executive” graduate degree for working sustainability professionals who can meet only once a month in our National Capital Campus and, more recently, teaching leadership and collaboration skills to global change science PhD students at our Blacksburg Campus. I have started a new research program studying content and pedagogy needed for that purpose. Also, I lead or co-lead graduate study abroad programs. Also, I am President of the Board of a nonprofit, Climate Solutions University, whose mission is to help communities adapt to climate change, work across jurisdictional boundaries, and protect vulnerable citizens and the natural resources on which they depend.

De-Schooling using Networks

I read Illich long ago, as part of my interest in professional practice and professional knowledge:  he is pretty hard on them, which I liked UNTIL he attacked my profession: education, which he does in Learning Webs.

Illich asks us not to teach in classrooms or hierarchically organized institutions such as higher education, where I work, but to de-school society, to encourage students (learners) to roam around solving problems and asking questions of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker  and basically learn by doing, to close off the streets of new york and allow students to roam and learn.

“I intend to show that the inverse of school is possible: that we can depend on self-motivated learning instead of employing teachers to bribe or compel the student to find the time and the will to learn; that we can provide the learner with new links to the world instead of continuing to funnel all educational programs through the teacher.”(4)

He critiques the myth of the expert: “Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends on knowing that secret; that secrets can be known only in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets.” (17)

I like this rant because it reminds me of a discussion we had in seminar a few weeks back about knowledge curating.  We as educators curate knowledge, lay it out for students to find and navigate to and through.  But I argued, then, that was not enough, and Illich, I think, agrees.  In addition to curating, education makes no sense, has no power, unless we have problems to solve.  We need to We need educators to define problem and pedagogy to help student explore/use/learn from the materials we curate.

The network, the web, is critical.  Someone who wants to learn needs both information and the critical insights from somebody else–education takes a village, or lacking that, a network. Information is stored in things and in persons connected by the network, but the network does more than find information, it helps ask questions, review thinking, brainstorm and review.  It provides access to peers in the learning journey.

“A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known” (16)


Knowledge Networks

I’m hoping you might help me identify some productive ways to navigate the vast intellectual space of knowledge management that seems colonized by everyone from information scientists to network-actor mappers to higher education pedagogists.

Here is the short story:  My work in DC with the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability is exposing me to intentional transnational knowledge networks managed by loosely formed communities of practice that steward knowledge about sustainable development practices on diverse topics ranging from water and infrastructure to climate adaption and food systems.

The transnational actors come from all sectors: Corporate, Civil, Faith, and Government.  They have linkages that extend from the global (conferences, contracts, partnerships,…) to the local (companies, markets, and shovel ready projects).  The goal of the transnational knowledge networks is to find and distribute best management practices to where they might be of use, to learn lessons from applications, and to circulate those lessons back through the network.  The goal is to make the world a better place, to build capacity, to help us respond to the emerging challenges of 2050.

The knowledge networks structure knowledge practices, structure questions that can be asked, and just like railroads structured where businesses and people located 100 years ago, the knowledge networks create and structure opportunity today.  Said differently, knowledge networks are the infrastructure of problem solving.

Knowledge networks probably also have positive feedback loops.  They certainly affect the answers we get to the questions we ask, so they eventually shape the questions we ask, because we want to ask questions to which answers can be provided, otherwise why bother. Ultimately this positive feedback structures what we know and how we think.

  • The computer is “an engine not a camera”
  • “Computers represent the world and thereafter create it”

What should I be reading?  Who should I talk to?

How We Think Affects What We Think

Verbal and pictorial cultures are different than written cultures.  The world looks differently when learned and told through verbal stories than when learned and told through writing.  Literacy and Gutenberg changed us in ways that led to modernity.  The re-emergence of visual communication—TV, pictures, movies, video-games—is changing us in ways we have yet to fully understand.

All these ways of knowing our world will likely be different than webby, hyper-linked digital cultures currently evolving because of computers.

The flexibility of digital media allows new ways of knowing, perhaps better mimicking how the brain best functions, perhaps opening new dimensions of intelligence.

Whether web-think is better than book-think remains an open question.  The test will come from problem-solving.  Will web-think help us solve problems dominating today’s world?

Linear, literary thinking gave us modernity—the scientific control of unpredictable nature and freedom from want—capitalism, law, democracy, and material success.  Today’s challenges seem different, not resolved through command and control but perhaps by collaboration.

Webs are interconnected.  Perhaps we can learn to think that way.

In Search of Meaningful Conversation

“For most of recorded history, the interactions of humans with their media have been primarily nonconversational and passive in the sense that marks on paper, paint on walls, even ‘motion’ pictures and television, do not change in response to the viewer’s wishes…once [something is] put down on paper [it] remains static and requires the reader to expand its possibilities” (Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg. 1977. Personal Dynamic Media, Computer 10(3): 31-41.)

I am old enough to remember interacting with information that way—nonconversationally.

It was different.

The learning process was more methodical and required more time, therefore it was less available to people without advanced training in scholarship methods and plenty of time—i.e., only to a privileged few academics.  That learning method also was riskier: following the wrong path could lead to worthless information and so much wasted time that the project would have to be abandoned.  Therefore I relied on well established rules of thumb to guide my interactions with information—rely on established “experts,” focus mostly on peer-reviewed science outlets, use established citation indices, stay well within disciplinary and professional boundaries, etc.  These were gates and they had gatekeepers.

Now I have a conversation with a knowledge network.  I google, surf, and hyperlink my way through countless pages and types of information, many open simultaneously, informing one another—it is more than a conversation, it is more like a party!  And most everyone is invited: there are few gatekeepers.

And here is where my doubt creeps in.

I have wasted too many hours having inane cocktail party conversations with airheads.  The topics go nowhere; there is no depth, no there there.  Those people quickly become uninteresting, motivating me to search for another conversation partner, another link to surf. (They, no doubt, find me a bore and are delighted I move on.)

Some times the chattiest people I’ve encountered have the least to say.  Chit chat, small talk, weather, sports, and popular culture may build important emotional connections and sense of community—critical and valuable, I do not deny—but they do not help me ask better questions or find better answers to the pressing issues of our day.

I am blogging, here, about the age-old distinction between information and wisdom, which is further complicated in our day by the fusing of information and entertainment.  The web is full of the latter.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the web. I don’t want to go back. I just want us to go forward, towards more effective knowledge networks that help humanity ask and answer meaningful questions.  Can we get there?  Or are we in danger, as Postman warned, of amusing ourselves to death?

PS: On the day this blog was written, the venerable but nonconversational print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica ended its 244 year history.

Knowlege is Power, But Not Powerful Enough

Knowledge can be powerful, so power flows through knowledge networks.  That is why I’m impressed by Theodor H. Nelson’s 1974 Computer Lib / Dream Machines.   He is prescient about the power of digital knowledge networks to store and share information.

However, two bigger challenges seem much more important than storage and access of knowledge.  One challenge is helping people ask good questions.  I can access all the information in the world and still have a lousy answer because I asked the wrong question.  The other big challenge is giving people tools to evaluate the knowledge they access.  Even if I ask a good question, I can come to a lousy answer if I can’t differentiate wheat from chaff.

The purposes of the user of knowledge matters, a lot.  Knowledge networks must be tailored to help ask questions and evaluate information pertinent to specific purposes and problems.

The Urban Infrastructure Initiative by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development is an example (that happens to interest me).  It is illustrative of work by transnational NGOs promoting communities of practice that distribute and nurture best management practices used by practitioners on-the-ground, especially in countries with emerging and developing economies that are quickly implementing, innovating, and testing solutions.

I want to understand and empower these types of knowledge networks.  I worry that Nelson’s critique of academic disciplines, below, might have implications for knowledge networks because they, too, might stifle needed innovation and boundary spanning

“Like political boundaries, curriculum boundaries arise from noticeable features of a continuum and become progressively more fortified. As behind political borders, social unification occurs within them, so that wholly dissimilar practitioners who share a name come to think they do the same thing. And because they talk mainly to each other, they forget how near is the other side of the border.”

A story is the responsibility of the traveler

I went away and missed our last seminar. Now I’m back.  Life at home continued without me.  My flight, with layovers, started at New Delhi’s wonderful new airport and ends in Virginia with my wife waiting near baggage claim.  I am so happy to see her!  I’d toured India with her 25 years ago; this was the first trip back either of us had made.  The intensity of India is unmatched, and, while there, I was constantly reminded of her.

She was as happy to see me as I was to see her.  On our drive home she updated me about this and that, decisions were explained, events recounted.  I struggled to find a way to share my experience.  As we neared the interstate exit for home she mentioned we could attend our daughter’s soccer game—it was the playoffs.  Exhausted but willing—you know the feeling—I agreed that we should indeed attend.  Friends and other parents greeted me, and recognized my travel-weary look.  They asked polite questions about the trip.  But how can I explain what I felt?  Their paths had continued, mine ended and began somewhere else.

Gary Snyder charges the traveler with the responsibly of telling a story to bring home lessons learned while traveling.  But I struggle.  The impressions are more profound than my ability to write.  I was overwhelmed—but in a good way—I hope you know that feeling too.  India is full of contrasts: wealth/poverty, sickness/health, opportunity/hopelessness, beauty/filth, intensity/serenity, tears/joy…. Here are three illustrations:

  • I was interviewing waste pickers living and working in Mumbai’s largest waste dump, the poorest of the poor doing the lowest of the low.  A few hours later I was checking into a hotel more luxurious and with far better service than the upscale hotel where I stay when I teach in Washington DC.
  • Packed into a motor rickshaw dodging cars, busses, motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycles and ox carts—hundreds of people in the space 4 or 5 cars would occupy in the US, all moving, honking, living, breathing, and yearning. Thirty minutes later I’m sitting on the balcony of a swanky restaurant with menu and atmosphere emphasizing local foods and organic cuisine, rivaling anything at home.  We were the only westerners; the clientele is the burgeoning Indian middle class.
  • Reading the morning paper and witnessing at every turn the nearly impossible task of a willing but overloaded democratic government struggling to meet the infrastructure needs of one of the fastest growing and most rapidly urbanizing countries in the world.  Sitting in the offices of NGOs with proven commitment, capacity, and experience assisting everything from planning and management of public transportation systems, rural water systems, and food safety to toxin testing programs.

Sharp contrasts can either disorient or bring clarity.  Do you know that feeling?  How can I tell a meaningful story about it?  I’ll write a few blogs and try.

Action not Access

It is too easy to get distracted by cyberspace.  And I don’t mean distracted in the sense of multitasking or being too distracted by emails, tweets, and RSS alerts to follow a single thought through to its conclusion—although this type of distraction is a problem.  No, I’m worried that we are so distracted by the ease of finding relevant information that we neglect the process of making normative decisions that translate into meaningful political action.

Information technology greatly reduces transaction costs of finding, developing, and synthesizing information.  It is wonderful in that regard.  Prior to the digital revolution, most of my time as a scholar was spent finding information.  Now it is just a few clicks away, and I can spend my time interpreting that information.

My complaint—the purpose of this rant—is that cyber technologies do not yet help society make better decisions; in fact, they may cause us to make worse decisions.  In other words, my complaint is that cyberspace is designed to help us find information, so that is what we do.  There is no comparable tool to help us make good decisions with the information we find.  The result? We have lots of good information and lousy decisions or worse, no decisions at all.

Meaningful actions and good decisions require acquiring good information, judging it, making a decision, implementing an action, monitoring the results of that action, re-evaluating the decision based on what we learn, and making a new decision to steer towards a more acceptable solution.  Repeat. Forever.  This process is called adaptive management.  Sadly, the cyber tools currently seem stuck in the first phase: collecting good information.  So that is what we do.

Cybernetics offers scant hope.  It emphasizes communication and control—the interaction between information and humans.  In simple systems, such as flying a plane or protecting a country from ballistic missile attacks, cybernetics provide feedback that helps the operator adapt and correct behaviors to make better decisions.  But these cybernetic systems are mechanical, not political.  The big decisions of the 21st century are political, yet we are distracted trying to solve mechanical problems.

As a result—and here is the real danger—we define all problems as mechanical.  Flying a plane or erecting a “star wars” defense shield are trivial, mechanical problems.  We should be worried about where we want the plane to go or how to negotiate a diplomatic strategy for peace.

Vannevar Bush Got it Partly Right

The information revolution IS limited in its impact on culture, economy, and human potential by lousy access to and organization of seemingly endless piles of information. Digital technologies, the web, hyerlinks, and search engines are partial solutions.  And, I think he is correct that more sophisticated thought-trails—tools to help us see how we got to the conclusions we reached—might help us make another quantum leap forward in our understanding of the world.  But I fear, writing in 1945, he was seduced by modernity and the hope that all problems could be reduced to complex systems and solved by rationale men.

In reading “As We May Think” (admittedly my only encounter with Bush’s thinking) I was confronted with the idealized model of a rational man, the universe’s ultimate decision maker, hindered only by lack of the right information.  But that is not who we are.  We are very imperfect decision makers.  Motivated much more by emotion than facts.  We decide what is right and THEN go looking for data to support it—a phenomena known as a confirmation bias.  Check out the recent Doonesbury

We are not wired to make rational decisions.  We are wired to manage our impressions.  We are natural hypocrites.  We care less about facts than how we appear in the eyes of others.

So, yes, we need tools that provide more information.  But what we need more are tools that help us evaluate information.

Perhaps the web-networked world might help.  We have institutions to learn from.  Science, for example, is powerful because of peer-review.  Scientists cannot make a claim, no matter how much they believe it, without a sincere effort by others to understand and refute it.  But science is lousy at helping us decide among values, negotiating power struggles,  deliberative democracy, and constructing sustainability–the real challenges of our day.

My hope from the digital revolution is that it will help us better use information.  That will require collaboration.  That will require coming together about values and purpose and power and faith and all the other things that matter.

Unfortunately the world wide web currently does a better job of dividing rather than uniting us.