Volcanoes, typhoons, what I’ve been up to in Singapore this month

A brief post to wrap my head around where I’ve come to at the end of the year. Particularly, what was I doing in Singapore?

Volcanoes!

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Right. So. Boho’s Best Festival Ever is an explanation of some core principles from systems thinking, but it really emerged out of the practice of ‘participatory co-modelling‘, which is a kind of practice in which scientists construct systems models of social-ecological systems (typically ones that are under some stress or threat) and use those models as a platform to bring together a group of people from that system for conversations and hard discussions.

How that looks, in practice, is often the scientist as a facilitator with a whole bunch of maps, graphs, tables, and a computer model running in the background, and the participants making decisions, choosing how to assign resources, and debating different aspects of the system. Typically, it’s a group of people with very different opinions about how the system works, and what needs to happen, and the discussion that’s being facilitated is about reaching some kind of compromise.

malinga-scenario-workshop-south-africaA Stockholm Resilience workshop in Malinga, South Africa.

There’s an art to it, because often you’re dealing with people who don’t even agree on how the system works, let alone the right way to go about managing it. So the scientists sit between being game-masters in a roleplaying game, experts with regard to data and maps, and facilitators for difficult and sometimes heated conversations.

Part of that involves running scenarios – speculative narratives about events that could impact the system, in which the participants have to decide how they’ll respond to it.

When we built Best Festival Ever, we deliberately made the scenario in question – a flood impacting a music festival – as gentle and forgiving as possible. It’s a nice way to keep it light, and to avoid having to blame the participants for causing death and mayhem through their choices. That said, we always knew that we were developing this tool – a mix of interactive theatre, boardgame and systems model – to apply to more high-stakes situations.

pacific_typhoon_tracks_1980-2005-copyA map of typhoon paths hitting south-east Asia, 1950-1985, thx Wikipedia

Maybe the most high-stakes setting possible is the one we’re looking at for a collaboration with the Earth Observatory Singapore, a research institution based at Nanyang Technological University. EOS looks at natural disasters in the south-east Asian region: earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, volcanoes, floods, and various consequences of climate change. EOS has invited us to collaborate with them to build a new game, looking at the situation of responding to a natural disaster crisis – volcanic unrest or an approaching typhoon.

So the new game, whatever it looks like, will simulate the period from the first warnings of the disaster, to the event itself (or the non-event – sometimes these things don’t unfold in the way you expect, or at all) and put participants in the role of responding to the crisis – as local government, the media, emergency services, or members of the community itself.

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The game will be presented first for the general public, but there is the possibility to bring it to high schools, or even the Singapore military. (The Singapore army does a lot of responding to disasters around the ASEAN region, but because they’re typically brought in after a crisis has occurred, they have less literacy in the lead-up situation.)

Our EOS partner Jamie McCaughey has zeroed in on volcanoes and typhoons as the natural disasters we’ll focus on, because they’re the disasters that have a meaningful lead time that allow you to make decisions about evacuations and so on. With earthquakes and tsunamis, the time from warning to the event is typically measured in seconds to minutes – with typhoons it’s usually 2-4 days, and with volcanoes it’s anywhere from 60 minutes to six months.

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The key trade-off in this system is that as time goes on, uncertainty reduces, but so do your options. By the time you’re absolutely certain of the situation, you no longer have any ability to act on that knowledge. So there’s a choice to be made about when to act on varying levels of confidence.

So I spent three weeks doing the first stage of R&D for the project, working on behalf of Boho, learning about volcanoes and constructing a rough model of the natural disaster system. This systems model will get thoroughly revisited, chewed up and rebuilt from scratch when we get back to Singapore, but it’s a start, and a way to talk a little bit about the framework where the game will sit.

This is my rough illustration of that system. I’m not going to unpack it in detail here – it’s way too speculative and early draft-esque for that – but in my early consideration, the game lives somewhere in those spots marked in red.

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It’s a pretty exciting collaboration to be embarking on – it’s one of those situations where we can see the tool we’ve developed with Best Festival Ever – and Boho’s practice more generally – being applied in a really granular, concrete setting, with a clear and important social value.

It’s also just been fascinating, spending three weeks sitting in the EOS office on NTU campus, spending all day reading about volcanoes. My main takeaway is: I don’t know how any of us are alive, at all.

The things I made this month in Singapore

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While I’ve been in Singapore this last three weeks I’ve been mostly doing work with the Earth Observatory, getting my head around the wonderful world of volcanoes and typhoons. (The planet is a monster and it wants us all dead, all the time.) But also, I’ve been keeping pretty quiet, staying on campus, not venturing out too much, and that’s been sorta necessary, post-Sweden, post-England.

One thing I wanted to do with this time was to spend a bit of time reflecting on recent projects, and a little more doing some planning and scheming on stuff for 2017. This year’s been a huge burst of output – things like Kill Climate Deniers, which was brewing for a while, started landing in the world. And Best Festival Ever has continued to roll out, with corporate seasons, theatrical seasons, and of course, building Democratic Nature in Sweden.

2017 I think will be a year of some new developments, of putting things together, of shaping some new ideas into project format. I don’t know quite yet what that means, but I want to do something with 44 Sex Acts In One Week, and I’m keen to make something around the idea of the Human-Earth System, maybe using my dad’s work as a lens in.

Apart from sketching those ideas into some kind of rough shape, I’ve been working on a couple of tiny creative things to keep me alive. Firstly and most exciting, the Finnigan and Brother 2016 Christmas single, Christmeth.

Christmas is the time to really put something out into the world, creatively, who cares if it’s not perfect or if it doesn’t have the sharpest production values? Chris’ music here is great, and my lyrics are the usual mess of ideas stolen from one song, pacing stolen from another, specific lines and phrases from 3-4 different ones, and the end result, god only knows what that sounds like. But, more like this!

Also, I managed to mentally / emotionally wipe myself out the first weekend I arrived. Maybe just the hangover from two hectic months in the UK and Sweden, going from that to being completely alone and isolated. I hit a bit of a wall. And so, best/only thing I know how to do, I tried to write about it and record that, down by Saiboo Bridge on the Singapore River.

Lastly! A piece I recorded a while ago, only now putting it up online – my fan-made video for Ira Gamerman’s iconic tune Am I Gonna Be A Filipino Soapstar, footage recorded by Alon Segarra of me, auditioning for a Filipino soap opera at the ABS-CBN Studios in Quezen City.

I didn’t get the part. I didn’t look enough like a ’40 year old man of power’. Next time, ABS, next time.

The Jigsaw Puzzle Game & Wicked Problem Theory: my London wrap-up

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Alright, so, right now I’m in Sweden, in residence at the Earth Observatory Singapore at Nanyang Technological University. Learning about volcanoes and typhoons, R&D for a possible future Boho project here. But more about that soon.

I wanted to write something briefly following the three weeks I just spent in London. Nathan did a great blog post about the trip from his perspective, which captured a bit of the why and what we were doing there, but I feel like I want to set a bit of it down myself – and reflect on an interesting moment.

I was there to drill down into work with Coney and Forum for the Future, with a view to what projects / collaborations might be possible in 2017. I wrote a little bit for Coney about it – but basically, I’m looking at what kinds of work I might be able to do for and with those organisations, alongside Boho and as a solo artist.

To make that happen, I spent a lot of November manically bouncing from Old Street to Aldgate, doing meetings, making pitches, writing funding proposals, fleshing out timelines and budgets, and generally trying to capture the vague possibilities for next year into a clearer shape.

cxqcnh2w8aadic0pic c/o Theatre Deli, who hosted one of the scratches – super lovely cats

Alongside that, I also presented several scratch showings of the solo version of Kill Climate Deniers (alongside Nathan’s new solo work How I Saved The Western Black Rhino), as a kind of test for the work in front of a UK audience. Super interesting stuff – what worked, what didn’t work, what made intellectual sense but didn’t emotionally resonate…

But. What I wanted to write about was actually an event that we (Nathan and Rachel and I) presented alongside Forum for the Future. Forum have a series of ‘Living Change’ events for their network, and they asked us to showcase a series of systems games for their November iteration, entitled ‘Gaming The System’.

We broke out a few pieces, including the Umbrella Game from Best Festival Ever, and trialled a version of Volleyball Farm, our common-pool resource game from way back in 2012. (It didn’t quite work, but it nearly did, and Nathan did a pretty great job of rescuing it after it became clear that more than seven players fundamentally broke the game structure.) And lastly, we tested out a new activity featuring jigsaw puzzles that we borrowed from Anne-Marie Grisogono.

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Anne-Marie is one of Boho’s scientist crushes (yes, we have scientist crushes – if we had one, Boho HQ would be plastered with posters of our favourite complexity scientists, we’re that kind of company). Anne-Marie is a physicist and complexity scientist – she worked for many years for the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), and she’s now a Visiting Fellow at the National Security College at the ANU. She’s one of the most extraordinary thinkers we’ve had the opportunity to work with, and her background in translating the insights of complexity science to real-world high-stakes contexts is pretty incredible.

The exercise, which Anne-Marie uses as an introduction to Wicked Problem theory, is simple: we invited our participants to complete a simple jigsaw puzzle. That’s all. The puzzle we had was of a tiger in a jungle. When they finished, we then invited them to reflect on the strategies they used – how did they solve the puzzle? What techniques, what approaches did they apply? Some of the answers were:

  • Started by looking for the edge pieces
  • Grouped pieces by colour
  • Worked from the outside in
  • Found the distinct ‘tiger-y’ pieces that definitely belonged to the tiger on the box

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Then we discussed why it was that those strategies worked. What was it is about the jigsaw puzzle that made it tractable, made it amenable to those approaches? Some of the answers here included:

  • We knew what the final goal looked like – we had the picture on the box
  • Every piece is part of the solution
  • You know when you’ve got something right (the pieces fit together)
  • The pieces don’t change
  • The puzzle exists in only two dimensions
  • We all know the rules of the game
  • Every step contributes to the solution – there are essentially no backwards steps
  • There’s only one way for it all to fit together

And so on. Finally, we compared this to real-world problems. Anne-Marie’s point here is that when we’re talking about the complex problems we face in the world (wealth inequality, climate change, epidemics, you name it) none of these conditions hold true.

This is the point that Anne-Marie introduces the idea of ‘wicked problems’, as some of these global challenges have been described. The social scientists who formulated wicked problem theory in 1973 laid out a few characteristics of wicked problems:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

The key point here is that we frequently go about trying to solve these complex, fiendishly difficult real-world problems as if they were jigsaw puzzles.

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It’s an interesting demo, and as Anna Birney from Forum put it, one of those cases where the best way to make a point is to use an analogy that is actually the exact opposite.

But in the event of actually rolling it out, we had an unexpected result. Mel Trievnor, hunting us down puzzles from op shops, wasn’t able to lay her hands on a 50 piece puzzle – instead, she dug us up a 500 piece puzzle. The result was that instead of a deliberately easy task (complete this puzzle in five minutes), the participants were given an impossible task.

I got each of the three groups to tackle it in phases – do as much as you can, leave the remainder for the next group. And in three rounds, they actually got a surprising amount of the picture completed.

The rest of the activity worked more or less as planned – but there was an interesting frisson in giving people a basically impossible task, and then seeing how far they managed to get. Participants are at first dismayed, and then kinda shrug, roll up their sleeves, and go for it. It’s an interesting vibe, and there may be something more to it.

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The interesting learning moment for me came in the debrief. Anna got the participants to reflect on what they’d taken from the event. One woman commented, ‘The jigsaw activity gave me hope, working in shifts as we were, because it reminded me that when we’re faced with massive problems like climate change, we don’t need to solve the whole thing – we can’t – but we can work on our bit, and the people that come after us can pick up where we left off.’

I thought that was a really nice reflection, and an encouraging and thoughtful takeaway from the activity.

Then another woman spoke up and said, ‘No, you’ve completely misunderstood. The whole point was that with complex problems, you can’t just pick up where the last generation left off – the whole problem has changed, the pieces have changed, the picture’s changed, the goals have changed, the rules have changed. We’re not working towards a single multi-generation solution, we’re working in a massive, complex, ever-evolving system that completely flips the rules on us all the time, but which we can never stop doing our best in because we can’t afford to just let it run off the rails.’

As soon as she said it, I realised she was right, and while bleak, it was probably a better diagnosis of the situation. And I then had to reflect on the fact that even facilitating the exercise, delivering the moral, I managed to kinda miss the point of it.

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(the lesson is, missing the lesson: what’s the lesson in that?)