Pattern #67


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Prudent Progress

Given our limited capacity to predict and control the future in complex systems, wise action involves taking our ambitions and planning with a grain of salt. So honestly consider possibilities — imaginatively first and then with cautious real-world tests, next-step thinking, development of resilience, attention to weak but significant signals, and ongoing conscientious review.

  • What are appropriate forms of – or alternatives to – planning when we’re dealing with complex adaptive systems that cannot be controlled or predicted?
  • What effective forms of low-risk, high-learning prototyping can we come up with?
  • How can we respond appropriately when we don’t know what’s going to happen next?
  • What should we be mindful of as we take initiatives into complex systems with uncertain futures?
  • What systems could be in place to foresee and head off any damage our innovations might cause?
  • What needs to change so important innovations don’t create more problems than they solve?
  • What is the proper role of innovation – especially technological innovation – in a wise, sustainable, regenerative society?
  • How do we ensure that the downsides of particular proposals and technologies are fairly and thoroughly considered along with the upsides?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

[The edited transcript of this pattern’s video will be posted shortly.]

Video Introduction (19 min)

Examples and Resources

A key example of monitoring appropriate innovation is the precautionary principle. It says that technology should not be applied in any broad or potentially risky way until it is proven benign. The precautionary principle is an extremely conservative one, very different from the progressive principle that says we are and always should be developing and advancing. Everything is up and up and up all the time which is our civilization’s bias at the moment. So the precautionary principle is understandably resisted by ambitious technologists. And it’s actually very hard to apply in a broadly collective way. If the U.S. adopted the precautionary principle, what about the Chinese, what about a terrorist network? How do you get the precautionary principle applied everywhere?

That question should not be seen as a rhetorical question. It should be seen as a real question that demands some creative answers: “Okay, how do we do this clearly necessary thing?”

Full Cost Accounting is another one of the patterns, very relevant here. Let’s not just look at the upsides of our developing technologies. We have this brilliant ability to make these tiny robots which can go around inside us and kill cancer cells. Okay, so if you can do that, you should be able to create tiny little robots that go around inside us and kill brain cells or heart cells. The wrong person having this technology would have very troubling capacities in their hands. So do we want to go there and look at the full cost accounting when it comes to any new technology? If we thought in terms of full cost accounting, I suspect we would more often apply the precautionary principle.

An existing protocol which is very much along these lines – albeit quite mildly, given the way it is usually applied – is environmental impact statements (EIS). Essentially an EIS asks “If you are going to do this new development project or create this new technology, what is the environmental impact of that going to be?” Unfortunately, it’s a corrupted system in practice. But the idea behind it is much in line with this particular pattern.