Interconnectedness and the Collective Brain

by | Nov 27, 2011

The other day I was reading James Gleick’s book, “The Information,” a good read for anyone in our business, when I came upon the following passage: “It is not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain, it is not even the distribution of knowledge, it is the interconnectedness.”

One of the greatest intellectual and practical challenges embedded in the idea of sustainable development is that the systems upon which we depend are not actually separate, even though we treat them that way. The economic systems we’ve created to manage the distribution of wealth and opportunity, the environmental systems that make life on earth possible, and the myriad social experiments we’ve put in play to try and mitigate the destructive impulses of our species are all interconnected. This suggests that we should understand the connections better so we don’t inadvertently screw things up temporarily or permanently.

If you were to read my column with any regularity you would soon learn that I do love a good metaphor. I am now going to share with you my favorite metaphor for understanding sustainable development: we live in a “Whack-a-Mole® world.”

This engaging and satisfying arcade game presents an assortment of lively faux moles that randomly pop their heads out of holes in front of a player armed with a rubber mallet. For reasons best explained by evolutionary psychologists, we are naturally inclined to apply the mallet to the head of the faux mole with force, driving it back into its particular hole. But no sooner have we satisfactorily dispatched the first mole than a new critter pops up from another hole, galvanizing us to ever more strenuous efforts with our mallet until our time is up.

As we go about doing things in the world, either solving problems or seizing opportunities—whacking down our particular moles—we seldom pay attention to consequences that pop up somewhere else or some time later.  We do this as individuals, neighborhoods, communities and nations. This is a problem, because for the idea of sustainable development to work, we must not only pay attention to what might pop up, but also take some responsibility for it.  We can’t keep shifting consequences to some other place or some other time.

If the problems are interconnected, then surely the solution requires the same approach. For those of us working to solve today’s problems, and mitigate those of tomorrow, we cannot expect to find a comprehensive solution from an individual perspective. As professionals engaged in sustainable development we are each a node in the collective brain. We have a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience within ourselves based upon our education and our work. We are getting better at distributing that knowledge through teamwork and knowledge networks. But the idea of interconnectedness demands more. In prosaic terms, we must understand how “this” relates to “that” and how that relationship can help us leverage improvements across systems at the same time we are focusing on improvements within systems. It is this interconnected capacity that will allow us to solve the truly complex problems that society and our clients face.

Gary Lawrence is Chief Sustainability Officer & Vice President of AECOM Technology Corp.

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