Sometimes, It Pays to Think
Bill Gates apparently took time out of his busy schedule to guest edit the December 2013 issue of Wired Magazine. In that issue is an article entitled, "This is the Man Bill Gates Thinks you Absolutely Should be Reading." The article opens with the quotation from Gates, “’There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.’”
Smil is prolific. He has published over 30 books, three of them just this year. Smil’s page on Amazon.com shows a wide variety of topics, including energy, environmental issues, food, and the economic impacts of manufacturing. As he explains his perspective in the Wired article,
I saw how the university life goes, both in Europe and then in the US. I was at Penn State, and I was just aghast, because everyone was what I call drillers of deeper wells. These academics sit at the bottom of a deep well and they look up and see a sliver of the sky. They know everything about that little sliver of sky and nothing else. I scan all my horizons (par. 4).
The article, while mostly presenting Smil and his work, offers an interesting insight into the thinking of his high profile endorser, Bill Gates. As one of the people running the largest philanthropic foundation in the world, Gates sees many issues, needs, and opportunities. He has chosen to focus on large-scale health problems such as malaria, but apparently understands (as evidenced by his interest in Smil) broader connections as well.
As problems have become larger and more connected, the recognition of their complexity has grown as well. The term “system” has become more common in media descriptions about global issues. It tends to be used, however, very generally and ambiguously. We know that there are large-scale problems, such as global climate change, but there are no clear solutions.
A major challenge is the problem noted by Smil, that most academic research is narrow and isolated. That problem is perpetuated in the ways that most research gets funded. Grants are given based on the expectation of producing specific outcomes. Grantors don’t simply want to fund thinking; they want to have tangible results which solve known problems.
An interesting, contrary example has come through the ongoing work of Ockie Bosch and Nam Nyugen, now at the University of Adelaide in Australia. (Saybrook students may remember that Professor Bosch presented information about his Evolutionary Learning Laboratories, through Sonoma State University in January 2012.) Bosch and Nyugen recently received a $100,000 Challenge Award from the Gates Foundation, “to identify labour-saving innovations in sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia using systems thinking.” As Professor Bosch described the award:
Here is a funding Foundation that decided they didn’t want to fund quick fixes, but actually fund a process through which it can be determined what these people really need, with the cultural, ethical, religious, etc. factors to be taken into account to ensure adoption of a piece of technology, or processes for labour-saving and improving the quality of their lives. Even more importantly, what these people may need to save labour could be the best answer for them (within the women in agriculture system). The larger question is how what they do might impact the wider agricultural system and even the country as a whole.
Basically, this is action research in action. It is the process of partnering with people to help create their own solutions. It may also be a step away from funding only narrow, pre-determined research towards funding larger ways of thinking about real-world problems, including the involvement of stakeholders.