Desiree Driesenaar
Jul 31 · 7 min read
Image from a presentation of Arie Voorburg, specialised in complex city issues

Artificial Intelligence (AI), much has been written about it. And it does change our society and our economy. Definitely. But what place does it have if we want to transition towards a new, regenerative, purpose economy? An economy in which real people matter? In which we will respect the boundaries of our planet? In my 25+ years working in business management, often for hightech companies, I developed my views on technology. Although only since 2013, when I discovered Blue Economy and systems thinking, my views got a purpose. In this article I will take you on my journey, trying to find some answers about AI.

Web of life

In the past centuries we have simplified our web of life to make it fit within our rational brains. We love oneliners for a reason. In communication we use framing to make just one point at a time and make it stick. However, life is not simple, it is a complex system of connections, decision moments and feedback loops. Therefore, we need to transition from linear thinking to systems thinking. But how? Vera Bon, the Dutch singer songwriter with whom I gave a performance about systems thinking in the Netherlands, exclaimed: “Aaargh, how can I handle that?” when she saw the picture displayed at the top of this article. And still, this is the reality! Unseen to the naked eye, but true! Everything is connected by unseen laws of (quantum) physics and if you remove the carrot or add something else, the scene with the rabbit will change. So how can artificial intelligence help us in understanding our real world? What are the success factors and pittfalls?

Cities on the move

Let’s start with the way Dutch scientist Arie Voorburg uses AI in his Urban System Scan projects. I think no one will deny that cities are complex beings. In cities there are many problems, many connections, many feedback loops. But in most cities they are not recognised and definitely not taken into account when finding solutions for problems. Therefore most solutions end up being a partial solution that creates problems elsewhere. With the Urban System Scan, collective intelligence is used to find appropriate solutions for the whole. Groups of diverse, knowledgeable people start with a qualitative analysis on paper. They map dominant problems and potentials. Causation chains are drawn. By hand. The system appears. In the next step objective facts are being connected to the problems and potentials; the quantitative analysis is added. Gaps will show their faces, we will see where interventions are needed. In the end, solutions from e.g. smart technology, biodesign and social interventions are matched to the problems in such a way that they provide real progress on all fronts. AI is used to create a virtual twin city based on the systems map. In the twin city you can turn buttons and see what changes when you do your interventions here or there. What a great tool for city governments if they would just have the guts to look beyond the obvious!

Optimisation of the whole

Artificial intelligence is used within the Urban System Scan to get to the core of the complex city system and show the web. The result is optimisation of the whole instead of maximisation of parts. So what’s the most important success factor of unleashing this collective intelligence? I can tell you: it is not AI. The enormous amount of data can be compared to an iceberg. It is up to us, human beings, to define which crucial data will be in the 10 percent of the iceberg that appears above the water. What are the relevant crossroads? What are the relevant feedback loops? In short, the qualitative model is key and drawn by hand on paper. It’s the best way to involve the hands and hearts of the people present during the process. And how can AI find the right solutions for people and planet without involving a heart? (credit: NOAA public domain)

Practical example within Urban System Scan

One example out of Arie’s practice surprised and touched me and I want to share it with you. Arie was working on a project in Rotterdam, finding answers for the dominant problem that children from poor families received different (less intellectual, perceived lower) secondary school advice than average. How come? And what to do about it, so that more children from poor families will be able to fulfill their potential? With Arie’s Urban System Scan methodology of 7 tables collecting knowledge, the collective intelligence was unleashed. And what came out as the dominant problem and potential? Nothing to do with schools or parent education as you might have expected. The dominant problem is the stress factor of pregnant women in the last 6 weeks of their pregnancy. It is the period when the brains of the children are being formed and you can imagine that fear, anger, uncertainty, money problems, bad housing environments, etc. all contribute to extreme stress in a woman expecting a baby. This stress influences the development of the baby’s brain. The example shows that systems thinking will identify unexpected underlying problems and will also guide us towards unexpected answers and solutions. By the way: Arie’s methodology can be used for all kinds of complexity issues, not only social ones as highlighted in this example.

System dynamics

The Blue Economy also uses computer software to design the synergy business models that I also write about. System dynamics is an approach to understanding the non-linear behaviour of complex systems over time using stocks, flows, internal feedback loops, table functions and time delays. And system dynamics can be supported by several different makes of computer software. My friend Ina Matijevic from Kroatia, who is a wizard with these systems, told me from her experience the same thing Arie told me. The qualitative model comes first. The mountain of figures might be clouding your judgement if you don’t make a qualitative design first. You just cannot see the forest for the trees.

Intrinsic wisdom

And then there’s the final question. When reading more of my articles, you know by now that I advocate going from linear to systemic thinking in order to design a new, regenerative, purposeful economy. So do we need AI to get to the core of systemic design? Let’s answer a few different questions first. Will it give us insight in complex systems? Yes. Will we be able to process the unleashed collective intelligence? Yes. But there is a pittfall as well. The insights AI will give us can be used against humanity as well. So we need ethics. We need awareness. We need people not only with good intentions but also with the intrinsic wisdom to take the right decisions for the whole planet, including human beings.

Shed our masks

Here Arie inspired me again. In July 2019 he posted a text from Khalil Gibran: “You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen, the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives. I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, ‘Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves.’ Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me. And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, ‘He is a madman.’ I looked up to behold him. And for the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, ‘Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks.” Arie added his own words: “An aspiration to contribute to the fight for ecological and social justice is what originally drew me to research the Anthropocene as Earth’s most recent geologic time period. A period being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. AND THIS IS NOT SOMETHING I AM READY TO TURN MY BACK ON.”

Systemic solutions

Inspiring to read from a man working with AI to find solutions for our antropocene world transitioning to a new, restorative paradigm. Let’s all shed our masks, lose our veils and do what needs to be done. Let’s uncover the dominant problems of all kinds of issues that make our societies ill and implement the right kind of solutions. Systemic solutions that optimise our whole system instead of solving just a part of it, creating new problems elsewhere in the system.

Thinking with your heart

So I really hope that all people busy with AI and economic models think with their hearts first before even turning on their computers. Purpose is not made by data. Purpose is not made by computers. Purpose is made by people with ethics, with compassion for other people and for the planet as a whole. I do hope many artificial intelligence wizards will be inspired by the opportunity of doing useful stuff with their talents. And I also hope that all these hearts together will find the way towards an economy that provides abundance for all.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Desiree Driesenaar

Written by

We’re part of nature, let’s live our lives to full potential! Thinking in systems. Building regenerative, inclusive cultures, so people and planet will thrive!

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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