June 10, 2020

Humanity and AI:
Notes from the Field

Note: a version of this reflection appeared in AI + 1, a publication of the Rockefeller Foundation.  ~ There is no word in English for the vertiginous mix of fascination, yearning, and anxiety that mark contemporary discussions of AI. Every position is taken: Entrepreneurs wax breathlessly about its promise. Economists ponder its potential for economic […]

November 6, 2018

Ending The Tyranny
of the Average

This blog is returning from hiatus, with a new, occasional series on thinking about complex problems. At a recent convening of leaders in public health, Dr. David Fleming, of PATH, shared what has become a common observation regarding the relationship between spending and outcomes on US healthcare: namely, that the US spends far more than […]

April 23, 2016

Seeing the Whole

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ―W.B. Yeats Human perception is a fickle, paradoxical instrument. Our visual sense, while more acute than that of many species, is hardly the keenest in the animal kingdom. An eagle, for instance, has eyesight so sharp it can spot small […]

March 13, 2016

Patterns of Resilience and Collapse

In 1901, the writer and Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck published “The Life of the Bee”, which popularized the idea that humanity owes our continued survival to the dutiful pollinator. “It is … estimated that more than a hundred thousand varieties of plants would disappear if the bees did not visit them,” Maeterlinck noted, “and possibly […]

February 14, 2015

Introjis: Emoticons for Introverts

Continuing the recent theme of bringing emotional richness to social media, FastCo.Exist has details of Introjis, emoticons designed for introverts by designer Rebecca Evie Lynch. Introjis allow introverted users to express a natural and healthy affinity for solitude or quietude, and wordlessly express the occasional distress or fatigue that comes from being in the crowd […]

February 10, 2015

Darwin’s Stickers

For the past year, I have been working closely with Jad Abumrad and the team at RadioLab on a fascinating story about Facebook, entitled “The Trust Engineers“. The story centers on the work of Arturo Bejar, who is one of the technical leaders at the company, and a team of engineers, product developers and external […]

February 9, 2015

When Cleantech meets Cryptocurrency

During periods of relative calm, objective observation of the world is hard enough; foresight, even harder. During times of great change, clarity can be impossible. Yet occasionally an encounter will reveal, sometimes just for a moment, the usually invisible systems and activities that comprise the global order – the “emergent now” that pulses just out […]

June 13, 2014

Norwegian Slow

On a trip to Oslo this spring, I was introduced to a fascinating, genuinely countercultural phenomenon: “Slow TV“, in which mundane events, some lasting days, are broadcast in their entirety, unedited and in real-time. Slow TV got its start in Norway in 2009, when the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK televised a six-and-a-half-hour train ride from Oslo […]

March 9, 2014

Taking the Pulse of the Planet

If you could take a picture of the whole world every day, what could you see? It’s a simple question, with a fantastical, almost childlike premise. Now, a remarkable startup, Planet Labs, is working to answer it. The brainchild of three visionary ex-NASA scientists and technologists (Will Marshall, Robbie Schingler, and Chris Boshuizen), PlanetLabs is […]

February 13, 2014

Cooking, Nursing and Making

Like millions of people across the world, I’m an enthusiastic amateur cook. I pore over cookbooks and recipes for fun, constantly scanning for opportunities to learn, experiment and build new skills.  In service to these experiments, I regularly handle potentially dangerous materials (like uncooked meat) and equally dangerous technologies (like sharpened knives and open flames), […]

November 2, 2013

Anchor Me Here

Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath provoked many marvelous storytelling projects. Few capture the emotional core of the experience better than Anchor Me Here, a beautiful, five-minute short film by Laura Egan that serves as an homage to the residents of the Rockaways: Shot with a special high-speed, high-fidelity camera, Anchor Me Here captures community resilience, wordlessly […]

October 28, 2013

The Verbs of Resilience

In the course of conversation with leaders, practitioners and critics, I sometimes encounter a set of questions about resilience thinking that unfold along the following lines: Resilience (of the right things) seems self-evidently valuable, but is it more than a buzzword? If so, how do we put it into practice? What exactly do we do […]

September 16, 2013

Poetry in the Cloud

The artist Doris Mitsch is best known for her gorgeous, super-high-resolution scanner-based images of natural subjects like flora, birds nests and sea creatures. These are not photographs in the traditional sense, but an alternative way of capturing images, as both the scanner lens and light move over the object to produce a composite with luminous, […]

August 26, 2013

The Qualified Self

My colleague Robyn Brentano at the Garrison Institute recently shared a Buddhist parable with me, which is retold in the book Eight Steps to Happiness by the renowned teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso: In Tibet there was once a famous Dharma practitioner called Geshe Ben Gungyal, who neither recited prayers nor meditated in the traditional posture. His […]

August 9, 2013

The Birth of a Meme

Google’s N-gram viewer allows you to watch the prevalence of certain words or phrases among the vast library of books that the company has been digitizing. As such, it’s a powerful tool for seeing patterns in our culture – so much so that it’s become a basic tool in the new field of culturomics, the […]

July 22, 2013

Urgent Biophilia, Kairotic Time, and Sacred Space

One of the pleasures of my work is having regular contact with a community of thinkers whose collective interests wend (albeit in a eclectic way) through various tributaries of the contemporary arts and sciences. When different constituents in this network start pointing to the same thing, it’s a pretty reliable proxy for its significance, or […]

April 23, 2013

Ordinary Magic,
No Less Magical

Here is one of the most powerful graphs I’ve been exposed to in some time: It’s from a remarkable case study, first published in 1989, by the developmental child psychologist (and one of my intellectual heroes) Ann Masten and her colleague Mary J. O’Connor. The diagram tells part of the developmental story of Sara (not her […]

February 15, 2013

Five Climate Actions Obama Can Take Without Congress

During Wednesday’s State of the Union speech, President Obama reaffirmed climate action as one of the central planks his second term agenda, saying “I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t […]

December 11, 2012

The Emerging (Arctic)
World Order

This summer, while America was suffering through a mega-drought that plunged half the country into a state of emergency, and India was experiencing the largest blackout in history, a group of Chinese scientists were undertaking a remarkable voyage. Aboard the world’s largest icebreaker, the Xue Long, (or ‘Snow Dragon’) they charted a course through what […]

November 11, 2012

To Jeddah, And the Launch Of The i2 Institute

Later this week, I’ll be traveling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a very special event – the official launch of the i2 Institute, a new organization dedicated to building an ecosystem of entrepreneurship and social innovation for scientists, technologists and engineers in the Middle East and beyond. I2 is the brainchild of my friend and […]

November 3, 2012

Goodbye Sustainability,
Hello Resilience.

An edited version of this essay appears today as an Op-Ed in the New York Times: For decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: the idea that with the right mix […]

September 26, 2012

Resilience and Simplification

This essay appears today on the website of the Harvard Business Review: This July, aviation officials released their final report on one of the most puzzling and grim episodes in French aviation history: the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The plane had mysteriously plummeted from an altitude of thirty-five thousand […]

July 12, 2012

Learning from SARS

On November 16, 2002, physicians at the First People’s Hospital, in the Shunde district of Foshan City, in the southern province of Guandong, China, reported an unusual case of severe pneumonia. A few days previously, a local farmer had been admitted the hospital complaining of a high fever and a dry cough, and had died […]

June 24, 2012

Why Iceland

After many months of planning, PopTech has arrived in Iceland. One of the most common questions I get is why we’re here, so let me offer a few thoughts. Iceland is a truly remarkable place, both geographically and culturally. To begin with, it’s a physically gorgeous country, filled with waterfalls, glaciers, shimmering northern lights and […]

June 8, 2012

Remembering and Forgetting

One thing I learned when working on Resilience with Ann Marie is that writing a nonfiction book is about much more than researching and engagingly presenting a body of ideas. It’s also about inviting a set of questions, themes and not-quite-complete lines of thought into your head, and letting them occupy it long after the writing is […]