Of piracy and overfishing; a case study in unintended consequences

April 14, 2009

Photo from <a href=The real roots of Somalian piracy lie in failed governance and overfishing.

He notes that thousands of Somalis used to make their living as fishermen.  But after two decades of state failure and no regulatory bodies, foreign fisherman illegally take nearly $300 million in fish per year from Somalia’s waters.

As a result fishermen became increasingly desperate, turning first to vigilante patrol boats to help self-police their own waters from illegal fishing and dumping.  They would storm a boat and demand “taxation” or payment for their illegal fishing or dumping.  This proved so successful, that while the economic situation at home grew even worse, many turned to piracy in order to survive and take in more lucrative catches.  War is Boring suggests that pirates have cut the Somalian tuna trade in half.  

In a 45 minute New York Times interview with a Somali pirate, they reveal their true motivation:

He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

This is a fascinating portrait of a complex system of unintended consequences.  

Failed state -> unregulated waters -> illegal fishing and dumping -> violent vigilantes self-policing -> realisation of increased profit potential -> piracy.  

The importance of words for seeing the future, or, you need to think “stick” before being able to use a stick

March 31, 2009
Photo credit: Bianca Dijck, Flickr  



Photo credit: Bianca Dijck, Flickr

Jake Dunagan, a Director at the Institute for the Future writes about how language characterizes our ability to see the world around us and, critically, envision outcomes in the future.

In “Look Forward, and Carry a Big Stick“, he observes that Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky compared the differing cognitive mechanisms that apes and humans use to perceive and interact with the world around them. “Both apes and humans can use a stick as a tool, but, Vygotsky argues, an ape must actually see the stick before he can think “stick.” A sufficiently developed and linguistically enabled human, however, must think “stick” in order to actually see the stick.”

In a recent post, “Resilient, durable or agile?  A metaphor for future aid organisations“, Chris Watkins suggested that thinking about the meaning of the words we use to define our future was “just semantics” and somehow therefore less relevant to humanitarian aid.  Vygostky’s findings suggest that not only are “semantics” important for understanding the world around us, but that in fact they are essential, especially when thinking about the future.

This has radical implications for how we envision, and strategize, about the future.  Dunagan writes,

In terms of the way humans envision the future, humans are much closer to the ape in our thinking – our possibilities tend to be more confined to what we can already see (or have seen) than what we can freely imagine. To deal with the enormous global challenges we face and to create a more responsible and just society, we must learn to become more human in our relationship to the future.

What does this mean?  According to recent findings, Dunagan points out, our brains see the future in terms of the past and present. “Therefore,” he writes, “we must construct our media, our objects, and our built environment as an aide de futuribles to our brain’s capacity to imagine possible futures.”

If the future is a stick we have to see in order to think, then those concerned with creating better futures should start making their favorite sticks and start whacking others in the shins with them!”  

This is exactly what we were trying to do with our post on resiliency versus agility, a theme we will continue to explore in future posts.

Mobility VIP cards; a creative and effective tool for rapid scenario generation

March 27, 2009


The Art Center College of Design have created an intermixable deck of cards designed to jump start the scenario creation stage of futures workshops.

Jamais Cascio brings our attention to another extremely interesting and relevant development for those involved in futures work, scenario planning, or strategic design at any level.  Called the mVIP cards, the deck loosely follows the “STEEP” framework for identifying various elements of change in the future.  

The best part about the deck is that they are presented as an online Flash application for anyone to explore.  Check out the Flash site here.

We played around a bit and created a future with the following components:

  • All electric utilities
  • Rapid learning networks
  • Ubiquitous bugginess
  • Carbon rations
  • Fertile soil is gold
  • Asia invades Australia
  • Genetically modified crop failures

While perhaps random generation of futures, I-Ching style, isn’t the best strategic orientation strategy, the deck does a very fun and effective job of mixing and matching different developments to open the mind to new possibilities.  Very useful and effective.

Beddington: World faces perfect storm in 2030

March 25, 2009

In a statement which has already gotten much press elsewhere, the UK’s chief scientist Prof. John Beddington suggests we face a “perfect storm”of crisis drivers by 2030.

The Guardian reports, 

A “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government’s chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

“We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame,” Beddington told the Guardian.

“If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,” he added.

It is music to our ears to hear such well placed politicians and scientists reflecting the realities of tomorrow’s complex, interlinked and massively vulnerable world.


Researchers link drought and urbanization to “perfect storm”

March 11, 2009

Researchers in a NASA-funded study have found that a rare mix of interacting conditions were responsible for a recent unprecedented urban tornado in Downtown Atlanta, Georgia, USA. 

One of the main agendas of the Humanitarian Futures Programme is to help organisations prepare for complex, interconnected crises unlike they have ever experienced before.  We call these synchronous, sequential and simultaneous failures, defined below:

  • Synchronous failures – major systems failures, eg, energy collapse, affecting infrastructure and basic survival mechanisms in transnational contexts.
  • Sequential crises – series of crises “feeding off” each other, like falling dominoes cascading into each other and magnifying their effects.
  • Simultaneous crises – major crises occurring at the same time, stretching existing resources and abilities to cope.

The downtown tornado in Atlanta (CNN coverage here) is an excellent example of how such crises can occur.  Researchers studying how and why this rare tornado occurred write,

“The Atlanta tornado, though forecasted well, caught us by surprise because it evolved rapidly under very peculiar conditions during a drought and over a downtown area,” said Dev Niyogi, an assistant professor of regional climatology at Purdue and lead author of the modeling study.

The press release can be found here.

Taleb on “exponential complexity”, “hidden risks” and their consequences

December 18, 2008

Taleb is talking about finance, but the same kinds of drivers are at work in the humanitarian system. The consequence?

In this clip from the Charlie Rose Show, “Black Swan” author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains how our lack of awareness of exponential complexity hid the hidden risks within our financial system, leading to unexpected collapse.

We had an accumulation of hidden risks in the system, coupled with an increase in complexity. Never in the history of the world have we had a situation with so much complexity, coupled with so much ignorance… The world is much more complex and interconnected than we know, and the people who are supposed to know, don’t know.