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Mapping the future

July 2022 update.

The research project that I started in March this year is focused on whether we can use mapping to improve our investments in the future. Investment choices are questions we face all the time. Should we be investing in AI or maybe security? Given “European politicians duped into deepfake video calls with mayor of Kyiv” [1] then could security be our priority or maybe both are? Unfortunately, industry typically has a poor history of future investments with most large scale transformation efforts more likely to fail than not. In many cases, success can be put down to blind luck.

To examine these issues, we started recruiting 208 volunteers from different industries and different roles into 12 research groups. These groups act as a sensor network to change and each group meets for an hour every two weeks to focus on a specific industry sector. The use of different sectors is because we have no reason to suspect that investment should be the same i.e. the banking sector is not the same as farming. The groups themselves consist of people with a diversity of experience hence the agricultural group varies from farmers to hydroponics, from Gov policy to technology vendors and from Europe to South America.

In order to discuss the future, we needed to create a common language within the groups through which we could highlight changes and challenge assumptions. This is where mapping [2] comes into play but not everyone is familiar with the technique. Hence the first session for each group was a generalised introduction to each other, the research and the concept of mapping. But concept without practice is just noise and our first problem was where to practice, where should we start to look?

To resolve this, we used miro boards and a system of voting where attendees would raise topics to be discussed and those topics chosen would be mapped. Each session would produce or refine a map which was then collected in github [3]. To aid in this process we used an online mapping tool [4] and asked attendees to use the time between meetings to collect any relevant articles on the industry into a slack channel.

For example, the Agriculture research group raised themes of misconceptions in farming, the carbon economy, digital twins, the role of diet, the use of new crops, the purpose of farming, application of regenerative farming, food waste, traceability and food security. Of these topics — regenerative farming, food waste, traceability and food security were chosen.

The first maps that were produced were always unrefined. However, each subsequent meeting was used to challenge and to create a “better” map. For reference the current agricultural map covering food traceability and security is provided below (see Fig 1)

Figure 1 — Draft map covering food traceability and food security

Starting from the top, Government needs a society to govern and a society needs people. Those people need health which means food products that meet a minimal standard. Government however needs more than society, it needs legitimacy to govern which implies some concept of sovereignty to be legitimate over. We normally think of these in terms of territory but other areas of sovereignty include the political, economic, technological and cultural landscapes. There is a special class of sovereignty known as critical national infrastucture for which food security is one element. Though it would be trivial to show all of this on the map, for brevity the link from government to food security is shown and the rest is assumed knowledge and detailed in other maps.

Now, food security implies the food we have is both healthy and there is some form of substitution i.e. we’re not dependent upon a single crop. Substitution also requires education (i.e. there’s more than meat and two veg), some form of just in case planning and hence a diversity in seed available to farms i.e. we’re not just growing a monoculture. Of course, seeds are only one aspect of what farms need. Other needs include land and forms of energy from solar to labour to the use of synthetic fertilisers. This particular area of the map was extended significantly when we explored regenerative farming and the issues of social structure. The map also has a connection to awareness and whilst we understand where land is, apparently we don’t understand the supply chain that goes into farming.

In all the maps produced by the different groups from defence to finance, the “landscape” of supply chains was raised consistently and it appears that our understanding of supply chains is relatively poor across the board. This has real world consequences. It was a poor understanding of supply chains around fertilizers that has brought Sri Lanka to the brink of collapse[5]. In transportation there has been significant issues regarding AdBlue (a diesel additive) based on Urea due to China’s restriction of supply and later the conflict[6].

Most of the public discussion has concentrated on industrialising farming (from robots to AI to genetically modified organisms to IoT and predictive crop modelling with digital twins), of new entrants into farming (from organic to vertical farms to artificial meats) and of the importance of regenerative farming (recovering soil structure). The mapping exercise however focused the minds of the group on the importance of the supply chain (see figure 2). Something which was barely mentioned a few months back had become the overwhelming priority.

Figure 2 — examing investment across the map.

There are some good counter examples out there e.g. Amazon’s increasing investment and focus on supply chains, location and mapping [7] to the graphing of the entire Hungarian economy through VAT transaction data to find bottlenecks within the supply chain [8]. And bottlenecks they found with 100 companies underpinning 75% of the entire GDP of the country.

Figure 2 is one of several maps we have developed in the area of agriculture which is one of twelve industries that we’re exploring. Once we have a good enough understanding of the contexts then we will look into where we should be investing (where the groups considers the focus should be is highlighted as a percentage on the map). In this case, the map is pointing us towards an immediate need in the deep understanding of supply chains using open data, block chains, LEO satellites, DNA tracing and basic graphing techniques. Those favourite fields of futurologists from robotics, UAVs, IoT, 5G and crop modelling with AI and digital twins are left to another time.

Once the groups have settled, the investment choices will need to be tested against general public opinion and expert opinion in order for us to determine whether maps are exposing a difference. Across all the groups, with a diverse crowd of people — the signs are encouraging — as the group evolves its thinking on the space. However, time will tell us whose thinking was more correct. Maps might enable us to see a different path but it doesn’t mean it’s a good one.

Sometimes blind luck is all you need.


 by the author.



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