“Imagination is its own form of courage.” -Francis Underwood, House of Cards
We’re huge House of Cards fans in this household. But by huge fan, I mean we’re lazy tv watchers and we’re just about to finish season 3.
There’s been a lot of synergy going around lately. I recently got back from the ESRI UC in San Diego (AMAZING!) Out of all the workshops, vendors, talks and various other offerings, the most productive part of that (for me) were the following two things:
- On a whim, stopping and talking to our ESRI rep in the hall.
- The plenary speakers.
In House of Cards, Season 3, there’s an episode that’s driven by the tempo of Monks creating a mandala. Like all other elements of the show, nothing is done just for the sake of doing it. The metaphor is an obvious one – build something beautiful up, but nothing lasts forever. We must celebrate change, time, death and rebirth. All these things are inherently tied to each other.
The last plenary speaker at ESRI UC was Dr. Geoffrey West. He’s a theoretical physicist who’s passionate about life and death and he takes a multi-disciplinary approach to his work and has begun to apply what he’s learned to the life of cities and businesses, and consequently – their death. He compares the biological principles of life and death to our social structures and the parallelisms are striking.
He discusses “the fatal flaw” – the point of singularity. Something is built – slowly at first, and then rapidly and exponentially as time progresses (even as time speeds up – or causing time to speed up?) At some point the progression is unsustainable and the system that’s been built collapses under its own pressure. That’s the fatal flaw and the singularity. To avoid this, an innovation is necessary to “buy more time” – but because time is speeding up (or this is causing time to speed up?) the time between each necessary innovation gets shorter and shorter… the inescapable fatal flaw. The inescapable singularity of death. The beautiful mandala.
Can we innovate so profoundly that it saves us (it/whatever we build) entirely?
Depending on your mood and/or libation of choice, pondering this can lead you down some interesting rabbit holes of nihilism. If you’re eternally optimistic or have quit worrying about such things, then perhaps you’ll just enjoy the journey (I do!)
What do we really have?
Actually, moreover, what the hell does this all have to do with Geographic Information Systems? Why was this dude the plenary speaker at the ESRI UC? What are dinner parties like at Jack Dangermond’s house? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.
If you’re paying any attention at all – which most of us aren’t – then you’ve probably figured out that the whole hippy adage “everything is connected” is actually true and that maybe patchouli doesn’t stink so bad after all. Geoffrey West was the plenary speaker because he has started to illustrate this mathematically (meta-connectedness?), and when we illustrate it mathematically, we can begin to program it… and GIS does exactly that.
Philosophically, this is much deeper, but in my day-to-day, it relates to my work. I work for a parks system and our parks system has gone through a lot of innovation lately. Wether you feel it SHOULD be this way or not, doesn’t necessarily inform the reality that it IS this way; we have leveraged the experience of being at a park to generate revenue to take care of the parks. It used to be that parks were supposed to be some altruistic thing, but parks have mostly been viewed by the history of politics as a money-sink. I don’t like it, and I don’t agree with that view, but it is reality. To survive, innovation was necessary.
I feel like we’re at an empasse again, though. Now this second innovation is coming much sooner than the first – something Dr. West discusses and illustrates. We can go on with this newfound innovation that’s proven so successful until it goes stale and we’re stuck again – or we can look at new innovations and shift the paradigm again. Enter: GIS.
What’s all of our data doing for us? Are we slaves to editing and managing? Moving files around in folders? Spell-checking names? Cleaning up unnecessary characters? Building related tables? For what? Managing data is like letting your 30 year old live in your basement rent-free. Yet every company spends a ton of money of managing data, and very little on analysis of data. That’s insane!
Make it work for its worth. These datasets are connected and they can tell us amazing things if we layer them and ask them questions we don’t even know to ask. We can see what innovation has taken place and probably discover consequences that we can leverage for new innovations. In some circles, folks call this business intelligence, but it goes well beyond that – especially when it comes to parks, conservation and the environment.
At the ESRI UC map gallery opening, I was weaving my way through the crowds when I spotted our ESRI rep. I’ve been in meetings with him before, but I’m low man on the totem pole so I’ve never spoken up. I decided to walk on by and not say anything and then – I decided that would be a huge mistake and I turned around. I interrupted his conversation (sorry not sorry!) and we started to talk. Basically I had one question: Why aren’t we doing more [where I work]? His answer was he didn’t know and he has the same question. Of course, this prompted further discussion and we decided to set up a meeting the next day to talk about this a little more “officially.”
I’ll just say – it was the most productive hour I had at the ESRI UC. We were both excited and passionate. The level of IMAGINATION is endless – you can dream up anything and the building blocks for a solution exist. Basically, I wanted to take the smart cities concept and scale it to a park or park system. Make our data work for us and make communication between systems and people seamless. EFFICIENCY. A foreign concept in government – arguably, a direct contradiction of Democracy (“Mussolini made the trains run on time.”)
It wasn’t the first time it’s been discussed. Just the first time we stuck a name on it and had a clear idea. However, it was the first time I had been given a clear idea of what infrastructure we already had, instead of being despondent thinking that we lacked the infrastructure completely!
All that to say – I feel it’s the next step. The next innovation to escape a singularity. The destruction of one mandala and the building of another. Nowe we must attempt to bring it out of theory and into practice… Currently pouring all my energy into that.