Report from Massive Change Global Visionaries Symposium

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Just returned from the Massive Change Global Visionaries Symposium in Chicago. As a co-creator of the Massive Change exhibition I wanted to see it in the first US showing. Another aim was to study the public event and possibly seek out some of the speakers for a symposium I'm co-organizing with colleagues at the Beal Institute. The event was eye opening and highly enjoyable.

Overall my favorite speakers were Stewart Brand, futurist and author of the Whole Earth Catalog, The Clock of the Long Now, and How Buildings Learn; Gunter Pauli, founder and director of Zero Emissions Research Initiative of the United Nations University in Tokyo (Zeri.org), founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales, and Mary Czerwinski, cognitive psychologist and principal researcher at Microsoft. Brand and Pauli were certainly the most dynamic.

Other speakers were Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor of The New Republic and author of The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse; Dayna Baumeister, cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild; Hazel Henderson, futurist, evolutionary economist, and syndicated columnist; John Todd, biologist and ecological designer, and Reginald Modlin, Director of Environmental Affairs for Daimler Chrysler.

Stewart Brand presented first and he was superb. Soft-spoken and persuasive, he is a master inter-disciplinarian and unromantic humanist. His presentation was the only one with visuals, very polished with dense information demographics, many photos, sound clips, transitions, etc. Not as typographically sophisticated as Al Gore's show but equally dense. Brand focused on the city, its pivotal place in the pantheon of human creativity, its long history and the dynamic economic and demographic forces transforming it worldwide, in every continent and across all income strata. Overall he gave a picture of optimism about the creativity and resourcefulness of human communities to solve problems.

Gunter Pauli, based in Tokyo, described some of his initiatives in designing radically green urban / industrial communities at very large scales. Much of his work is in the developing world, e.g. Gaviotas in Colombia. These communities can leapfrog past current toxic practices and install new infrastructure that uses closed-loop, "waste=food" principles to achieve high employment, zero emissions, ample food production, etc.

Here's a helpful third party commentary [http://www.planeta.com/planeta/02/0209gaviotas.html]:

Pauli, in some ways a younger version of [Paolo] Lugari, has some spot-on things to say. He is most definitely on The Right Track. Kind of a permaculturist-social-justice-guy with a penchant to use fairy tales to illustrate his points....
...ZERI's focus is on taking things that are considered "waste" and finding new uses for them.
...The trick to "zero emissions" is to use the "waste" of one of the five kingdoms as food for another.

In person Pauli is outspoken and imaginative, frequently alluding to his work with children and seeming to celebrate these same qualities in them -- they don't filter their ideas of what's possible. Not an easy personality, but much better than that. Pauli was on stage with Reginald Modlin, Director of Environmental Affairs for Daimler Chrysler, who was cagey, dry, and sycophantic. No surprises and few big ideas from the global manufacturing giant.

Next were Dayna Baumeister and John Todd. One very interesting moment of that talk arose through a question afterward by Stewart Brand regarding GMO's -- actually he scooped me as I was going to ask the same question. Brand pointed out that certain bacteria swap genetic material all the time, and that many scientists who understand biology thoroughly, including stellar minds like E.O. Wilson, are less disturbed by GMO than others who are not trained in biology. Todd gave a thoughtful answer that GMOs are a distraction in that he's more interested in the symphony of ecological relationships, rather than the admittedly interesting soloists or featured organisms.

Jimmy Wales and Mary Czerwinski offered slightly differing views on emerging digital media. Most telling comment in that session came from Wales who imagined that the open, volunteer-driven model of wikipedia would be a temporary architecture that would soon have to be replaced by a more restricted and conventional model. To his surprise, the need to install controls on the model never materialized. In fact he continually has to explain to the media that the organization's controls are less restrictive than they imagine. Simple rules, like requiring individuals to be members for four days before they can edit, have effectively dampened most of the troll-like behaviour in the system.

In the last session Hazel Henderson held court and Gregg Easterbrook held his own. Henderson captivated the audience with ideas such as unmeasured value creation within the "love economy," and the need for broader alternatives to the money-based economic indices, like triple bottom line and the Calvert Henderson index. Both speakers dealt with notions of wealth and politics, and the overall picture was one in which material prosperity has shown steady increases in recent decades. The passing of Milton Freidman was noted and some audience members noted that we've never really tried pure market economics because of massive subsidies for entire industries, including oil and gas.