Wicked Problems and ends to limitless [x]

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2011

That Steelweaver post on Reality As A Failed State I mentioned a few days back really did the rounds. So I’m going to link to Karl Schroeder at Charlie Stross’s blog once again, and without any sense of shame – he’s been quiet for ages, but he’s spooling out a year’s worth of good shizzle over the space of a few weeks at the moment, and I think he’s a voice worth paying attention to.

Here he is talking about the “metaproblems” that Steelweaver mentioned, which have not only been known and named (as “wicked problems” for some time, but are already a subject of intense study… which is a good thing, too.

It is not the case that wicked problems are simply problems that have been incompletely analyzed; there really is no ‘right’ formulation and no ‘right’ answer. These are problems that cannot be engineered. The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way, if only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/denialists didn’t keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren’t aware that there are wicked problems, they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand ‘the real situation.’ But they’re not going to do that, and granted that they won’t, the solutions you work on have to incorporate their points-of-view as well as your own, or they’re non-starters. This, of course, is mind-bogglingly difficult.

Our most important problems are wicked problems. Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn’t use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult–but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope.

Here are a few wicked problems I think are exemplary. I touched on one of them yesterday, in fact, namely the roboticisation curve in manufacturing; far from liberating the toiling masses in some utopian fusion of Marx and capitalism, it might well increase the polarisation and widen the gap between the poor masses and the super-rich elites, a process that Global Dashboard‘s Alex Evans refers to as “jobless growth”::

In some developed economies (and especially the US), research suggests that job opportunities are increasingly being polarised into high and low skill jobs, while middle class jobs are disappearing due to “automation of routine work and, to a smaller extent, the international integration of labour markets through trade and, more recently, offshoring”. Meanwhile, data also show that while more women are entering the global labour force, the ‘gender gap’ on income and quality of work is widening between women and men. These trends raise a number of critical uncertainties for employment and development to 2020.

If automation of routine work genuinely is a more significant factor in developed economy job polarization than international trade or offshoring, then the implication is that developing economies may increasingly also fall prey to job polarisation as new technologies emerge and become competitive with human labour between now and 2020. Chinese manufacturing and Indian service industry jobs could increasingly be replaced by technology, for example, and find their existing rates of inequality exacerbated still  further.

And here’s a serendipitous look at the economics of a world where replicators and 3d printing become cheap enough to be ubiquitous [via SlashDot]:

Prices for 3D printers are tumbling. Even simple systems often cost tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago. Now, 3D printers for hobbyists can be had for a fraction of that: MakerBot Industries offers a fully assembled Thing-O-Matic printer for just $2,500, and kits for building RepRap printers have sold for $500. The devices could be on track for mass-production as home appliances within just a few years.

So, will we all soon be living like Arabian Nights sultans with a 3D printing genie ready to grant our every wish? Could economies as we know them even survive in such a world, where the theoretically infinite supply of any good should drive its value toward zero?

The precise limitations of replicator technology will determine where scarcity and foundations for value will remain. 3D printers need processed materials as inputs. Those materials and all the labor required to mine, grow, synthesize or process them into existence will still be needed, along with the transportation costs to bring them to the printers. The energy to run a replicator might be another limiting factor, as would be time (would you spend three days replicating a toaster if you could have one delivered to your home in an hour)? Replicators will also need inputs to tell them how to make specific objects, so the programming and design efforts will still have value.

[…]

Perhaps the most important limitation on the replicator economy may competition from good old mass production. Custom-tailored suits may be objectively better than off-the-rack outfits, but people find that the latter are usually the more sensible, affordable purchase. Mass production—especially by factories adopting nimble 3D-printing technologies—can still provide marvelous economies of scale. So even when it is theoretically possible for anyone to fabricate anything, people might still choose to restrict their replicating to certain goods—and to continue making their tea with a store-bought teabag.

The unspoken underpinning of that last paragraph (as hinted by my bolding) is the important bit: the economies of scale of fabbing will see more and more human labour replaced by machines – machines that don’t need holidays, or even sleep; machines that don’t get tired and make a higher percentage of dud iterations as a result; machines that, before too long, will be able to make other machines as required. The attraction of such a system to Big Capital (and small capital, too) is pretty obvious.

And all in the name of chasing perpetual infinite growth, a central assumption of most modern economic thought (or at least the stuff I’ve encountered so far) that relies on a lot of other assumptions… like, say, the assumption that we’ll always be able to either produce more energy, or use the amount we have available more efficiently [via MetaFilter]:

It seems clear that we could, in principle, rely on efficiency alone to allow continued economic growth even given a no-growth raw energy future (as is inevitable). The idea is simple. Each year, efficiency improvements allow us to drive further, light more homes, manufacture more goods than the year before—all on a fixed energy income. Fortunately, market forces favor greater efficiency, so that we have enjoyed the fruits of a constant drum-beat toward higher efficiency over time. To the extent that we could continue this trick forever, we could maintain economic growth indefinitely, and all the institutions that are built around it: investment, loans, banks, etc.

But how many times can we pull a rabbit out of the efficiency hat? Barring perpetual motion machines (fantasy) and heat pumps (real; discussed below), we must always settle for an efficiency less than 100%. This puts a bound on how much gain we might expect to accomplish. For instance, if some device starts out at 50% efficiency, there is no way to squeeze more than a factor of two out of its performance.

[…]

Given that two-thirds of our energy resource is burned in heat engines, and that these cannot improve much more than a factor of two, more significant gains elsewhere are diminished in value. For instance, replacing the 10% of our energy budget spent on direct heat (e.g., in furnaces and hot water heaters) with heat pumps operating at their maximum theoretical efficiency effectively replaces a 10% expenditure with a 1% expenditure. A factor of ten sounds like a fantastic improvement, but the overall efficiency improvement in society is only 9%. Likewise with light bulb replacement: large gains in a small sector. We should still pursue these efficiency improvements with vigor, but we should not expect this gift to provide a form of unlimited growth.

On balance, the most we might expect to achieve is a factor of two net efficiency increase before theoretical limits and engineering realities clamp down. At the present 1% overall rate, this means we might expect to run out of gain this century.  Some might quibble about whether the factor of two is too pessimistic, and might prefer a factor of 3 or even 4 efficiency gain.  Such modifications may change the timescale of saturation, but not the ultimate result.

So it ain’t just Moore’s Law that could be running into a brick wall real soon. A whole lot of caltrops on the highway to the future, then… and we’re still arguing about how to bolt more governers and feedback loops onto fundamentally broken polticoeconomic systems. Wicked problems, indeed. It’s hard not to feel bleak as we look into the eye of this abyss, but Schroeder suggests there’s a way out:

Here’s my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society–or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.

What we need, in other words, is a Facebook for collaborative decision-making: an app built to compensate for the most egregious cognitive biases and behaviours that derail us when we get together to think in groups. Decision-support, stakeholder analysis, bias filtering, collaborative scratch-pads and, most importantly, mechanisms to extract commitments to action from those that use these tools. I have zero interest in yet another open-source copy of a commercial application, and zero interest in yet another Tetris game for Android. But a Wikipedia’s worth of work on this stuff could transform the world.

Digital direct democracy, in other words, with mechanisms built in to ameliorate the broken bits of our psychology. Oh, sure, you can scoff and say it’ll never work, but even a flimsy-looking boat starts looking like it’s worth a shot when the tired old paddle-steamer starts doing its Titanic impersonation in the middle of the swamp. What Schroeder (and many others) are suggesting is eminently possible; all we lack is the political will to build it.

And it’s increasingly plain that we’re not going to find that will in the bickering halls of the incumbent system; it’s only interested in maintaining its own existence for as long as possible, and damn the consequences.

Which is why we need to turn our backs on that system and build its replacement ourselves.


Solar sintering, Super 8

Paul Raven @ 28-06-2011

Interesting: take the two things deserts have an abundance of – bright sunlight and sand – and use it to make stuff. Solar powered 3D-printing, basically. [via m1k3y]

Now, this is an art/design project, so more of a spur-for-thought than a realistic business proposition – I wouldn’t wanna have to maintain all the bearings and drives on that machine in a sandy environment, for a start – but the underlying point is sound: materials and energy are abundant. We just need to think of new ways to source and use them.

Speaking of 3D printing, though, there’s definitely a whole new flotilla of work coming down the pike for hungry IP lawyers. Via BoingBoing, we find Paramount Pictures sending a C&D notice to some guy who knocked up a rendering file for a gimcrack from the movie Super 8; apparently some other outfit will shortly be selling “official” versions of the box, but I’d be willing to bet the idea never occurred to Paramount until they’d seen this dude had taken the time to do it himself. But just how similar would the reproduction have to be to be considered a breach of copyright, anyway? I rather suspect that line will get drawn by whoever can afford to take it to court for longer than the other.

This isn’t the time for another debate on the validity of IP law – I think most of you know my stance on that already – but it’s always a good time to point out that this stuff is going to get harder to police and/or enforce at a geometric rate, assuming fabbing and rendering technologies continue to cheapen and mature as they are at present. We’re slowly approaching the Napster moment for physical objects, and I remain to be convinced that anyone in line to be steamrollered by the rise of ubiquitous reproduction of 3D objects has any plan in place beyond “sue ’em until they go away”… which is their choice to make, of course, but it’s not a strategy that seems to have worked very well so far.


Itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny 3D-printed beach bikini: herald of the fashion singularity?

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2011

N12 3D-printed bikini from Shapeways3D printing just isn’t going away… which has interesting implications, given that the economy’s still deep in the tank and manufacturing is becoming a race-to-the-bottom industry in terms of labour cost. “But you can’t print anything useful and everyday with ’em, Paul! Who needs another tchotchke of their World Of Warcraft avatar, anyway?” Well, sure, we’ve probably all got more bits of purposeless plasticky crap than we need, but the technology is maturing fast, as demonstrated by Shapeways announcing the N12 3D-printed bikini from fashion house Continuum.

Obvious caveats up front: one look at Continuum’s Shapeways store-page will show you prices that aren’t going to undercut high-street retail’s sweatshop textile prices any time soon – the halter straps alone are around €20 each!

And – call me cynical if you like – the N12 strikes me as being far more about raising the public profile of Shapeways, Continuum and 3D printing in general than it is about selling bikinis; it’s a powerful media vehicle, and not just for the novelty/titillatory value that the tabloid editors will seize on (or that those who still find the need for even the most vestigial excuse to print a picture of a skinny model in very little clothing will seize upon, at least).

The fabric and design of the N12 are both “native” to the technology used to create them; you couldn’t just buy the fabric and stitch the clothes together from it manually, as the announcement page explains. This is about revolutionary design potential, a hint at the possibilities ahead as the technology matures and the costs come down.

There are cultural considerations to think about, too. The rise of “fast fashion” houses based on the hypercheap and quickly-changed sweatshop designs reflects a cultural desire for fashion as another medium through which the individual consumer can create and communicate their personal identity quickly and cheaply, as discussed in this excellent essay at N+1:

As the fast in fast fashion implies, the companies’ comparative advantage lies in speed, not brand recognition, garment durability, or reputable design. They have changed fashion from a garment making to an information business, optimizing their supply chains to implement design tweaks on the fly. Zara “can design, produce, and deliver a new garment and put it on display in its stores worldwide in a mere 15 days,”2 and this flow of information is by far the most significant thing the company produces, far more important than any piped pinafore, velveteen blazer or any of its other 40,000 yearly items. The company’s system of constant information monitoring allows it to quickly spot and sate trends and at the same time largely avoid overproduction boondoggles and the need for heavy discounting.

Unlike earlier generations of mass-market retailers, like the Gap’s family of brands (which includes, in ascending order of class cachet, Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic), companies like Zara and Forever 21 make no effort to stratify their offerings into class-signifying labels. They also don’t adopt branding strategies to affiliate with particular luxe or ironic lifestyles, à la Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie & Fitch. Instead they flatter consumers in a different way, immersing them in potential trends on a near weekly basis and trusting them to assemble styles in their own images. Clothes reach stores with practically unspoiled semiotic potential, and consumers are invited to be expressive rather than imitative with the goods, to participate more directly in fashion. We become the meaning makers, enchanting ordinary cardigans and anoraks with a symbolic significance that has only a tenuous relationship to the material item. We work in lieu of advertisers to reconfigure trends and remix signifiers, generating new and valuable meanings for goods. The more new clothes come in, the more creative we can be.

The problem with fast fashion, as already alluded to, is that it depends on highly exploitative labour. This will remain the case until (or, if you’re more of a pessimist, if) fabbing technologies reach a point where they can compete on both unit price and the rapidity of concept-to-product process. At that point, the resistance in the positive feedback loop between consumer and designer becomes almost negligible; everyone becomes a designer/remixer, and the textile factories go out of business almost overnight. Now scale that level of disruption out into all the other industries where 3D printing and fabbing could replace human workers once price parity is reached… that’s something of a singularity, in that it’s a hypothetical point on the future timeline that’s very hard to imagine our way beyond.

In the near-term, I expect 3D printed clothing will remain a catwalk and network-culture novelty for a while, worn more for what it represents than what it looks like, and bought as an expression of futurity in opposition to the still-dominant cultural mode of retroism, as well as a badge of affluence. But as the technorati set grow in their influence as celebrities in their own right, and as the notion of a new form of authenticity (uniqueness through truly bespoke design rather than through unattainable vintage rarity) takes hold, that may change quickly.


US and China to have manufacturing costs parity by 2015?

Paul Raven @ 09-05-2011

I’m going to offer this with a large pinch of salt, given that it’s a press release from a consulting firm, but the boldness of the claim is pretty impressive [via NextBigFuture]:

Within the next five years, the United States is expected to experience a manufacturing renaissance as the wage gap with China shrinks and certain U.S. states become some of the cheapest locations for manufacturing in the developed world, according to a new analysis by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

[…]

After adjustments are made to account for American workers’ relatively higher productivity, wage rates in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Tianjin are expected to be about only 30 percent cheaper than rates in low-cost U.S. states. And since wage rates account for 20 to 30 percent of a product’s total cost, manufacturing in China will be only 10 to 15 percent cheaper than in the U.S.—even before inventory and shipping costs are considered. After those costs are factored in, the total cost advantage will drop to single digits or be erased entirely, Sirkin said.

Products that require less labor and are churned out in modest volumes, such as household appliances and construction equipment, are most likely to shift to U.S. production. Goods that are labor-intensive and produced in high volumes, such as textiles, apparel, and TVs, will likely continue to be made overseas.

Talk about a mixed bag of news. The prospect of working-class jobs returning to American shores must be something of a relief, but implicit in that return is the socioeconomic status of those “certain U.S. states” (and I think we can all guess which ones) as equivalent with China, the great economic enemy and exemplar of all things unAmerican. And it puts the lie to the notion of the unity of the US, too; sure, the top 1% of the country is rolling in money, but the bottom layer of the population pyramid is competing with China for the chance to make tchotchkes. Kinda puts the whole “USA! USA!” chanting from last week into perspective, doesn’t it? If this is a victory condition, I’d hate to be losing the game. (Note use of sarcasm as a way to blunt the pain; things over here on Airstrip One are looking grimmer by the day, too.)

Also implicit in the consultant’s outlook there is that the methodology of manufacture will remain essentially the same. Four years doesn’t look like a long time, but things move fast these days, and the 3D printing and fabbing industry is edging closer and closer to the point where it becomes a big grenade in the labour punchbowl. Still, I guess someone’s gonna have to make the 3d printers… up until the point where they can reliably self-replicate, anyway. (Shorter version: economics of mass production looking pretty screwed in the long term with respect to job creation. Profitability looking much better, but the 0.01% of the population who’ll benefit from it don’t need me to tell them that, I expect.)


Architectural fabrication: printing buildings

Paul Raven @ 08-04-2011

Via Alex “Robot Overlords” Knapp, here’s a Technology Review piece about architect and MIT Media Lab boffin Neri Oxman, who’s picking up the architectural-scale 3D printing ball – still currently in its crude early phases, but eminently plausible – and running with it. The possibilities offered by bespoke design speak seductively to these geologically troubled times:

The work is at an early stage, but the new approach to construction and design suggests many new possibilities. A load-bearing wall could be printed in elaborate patterns that correspond to the stresses it will experience from the load it supports from wind or earthquakes, for instance.

The pattern could also account for the need to allow light into a building. Some areas would have strong, dense concrete, but in areas of low stress, the concrete could be extremely porous and light, serving only as a barrier to the elements while saving material and reducing the weight of the structure. In these non-load bearing areas, it could also be possible to print concrete that’s so porous that light can penetrate, or to mix the concrete gradually with transparent materials. Such designs could save energy by increasing the amount of daylight inside a building and reducing the need for artificial lighting. Eventually, it may be possible to print efficient insulation and ventilation at the same time. The structure can be complex, since it costs no more to print elaborate patterns than simple ones.

Just a proof-of-concept at this point, admittedly, but given how quickly 3D printing at a smaller scale has moved from theoretical future-thing to affordable DIY technohobby, the way we design and build our buildings – at least in the affluent parts of the world which can afford to consider aesthetics and disaster-proofing, rather than focussing on the simple need to construct a shelter quickly and cheaply – could change pretty rapidly. Which means that the Walkabout 3D Mobile augmented reality app is the precursor of a tool that will be essential to privileged NIMBYistas everywhere… after all, everyone loves progress, right up until the point that it interferes with their line of sight or property values. (NIMBYism is inherently a legacy of Gothic Hi-Tech; Favela Chic accepts intrusions and makes the best it can of them.)


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