Seek diversity to solve complexity


Katrin Prager at Nature: “As a social scientist, I know that one person cannot solve a societal problem on their own — and even a group of very intelligent people will struggle to do it. But we can boost our chances of success if we ensure not only that the team members are intelligent, but also that the team itself is highly diverse.

By ‘diverse’ I mean demographic diversity encompassing things such as race, gender identity, class, ethnicity, career stage and age, and cognitive diversity, including differences in thoughts, insights, disciplines, perspectives, frames of reference and thinking styles. And the team needs to be purposely diverse instead of arbitrarily diverse.

In my work I focus on complex world problems, such as how to sustainably manage our natural resources and landscapes, and I’ve found that it helps to deliberately assemble diverse teams. This effort requires me to be aware of the different ways in which people can be diverse, and to reflect on my own preferences and biases. Sometimes the teams might not be as diverse as I’d like. But I’ve found that making the effort not only to encourage diversity, but also to foster better understanding between team members reaps dividends….(more)”

Be Skeptical of Thought Leaders


Book Review by Evan Selinger: “Corporations regularly advertise their commitment to “ethics.” They often profess to behave better than the law requires and sometimes may even claim to make the world a better place. Google, for example, trumpets its commitment to “responsibly” developing artificial intelligence and swears it follows lofty AI principles that include being “socially beneficial” and “accountable to people,” and that “avoid creating or reinforcing unfair bias.”

Google’s recent treatment of Timnit Gebru, the former co-leader of its ethical AI team, tells another story. After Gebru went through an antagonistic internal review process for a co-authored paper that explores social and environmental risks and expressed concern over justice issues within Google, the company didn’t congratulate her for a job well done. Instead, she and vocally supportive colleague Margaret Mitchell (the other co-leader) were “forced out.” Google’s behavior “perhaps irreversibly damaged” the company’s reputation. It was hard not to conclude that corporate values misalign with the public good.

Even as tech companies continue to display hypocrisy, there might still be good reasons to have high hopes for their behavior in the future. Suppose corporations can do better than ethics washingvirtue signaling, and making incremental improvements that don’t challenge aggressive plans for financial growth. If so, society desperately needs to know what it takes to bring about dramatic change. On paper, Susan Liautaud is the right person to turn to for help. She has impressive academic credentials (a PhD in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and a JD from Columbia University Law School), founded and manages an ethics consulting firm with an international reach, and teaches ethics courses at Stanford University.

In The Power of Ethics: How to Make Good Choices in a Complicated World, Liautaud pursues a laudable goal: democratize the essential practical steps for making responsible decisions in a confusing and complex world. While the book is pleasantly accessible, it has glaring faults. With so much high-quality critical journalistic coverage of technologies and tech companies, we should expect more from long-form analysis.

Although ethics is more widely associated with dour finger-waving than aspirational world-building, Liautaud mostly crafts an upbeat and hopeful narrative, albeit not so cheerful that she denies the obvious pervasiveness of shortsighted mistakes and blatant misconduct. The problem is that she insists ethical values and technological development pair nicely. Big Tech might be exerting increasing control over our lives, exhibiting an oversized influence on public welfare through incursions into politics, education, social communication, space travel, national defense, policing, and currency — but this doesn’t in the least quell her enthusiasm, which remains elevated enough throughout her book to affirm the power of the people. Hyperbolically, she declares, “No matter where you stand […] you have the opportunity to prevent the monopolization of ethics by rogue actors, corporate giants, and even well-intentioned scientists and innovators.”…(More)“.

Help us identify how data can make food healthier for us and the environment


The GovLab: “To make food production, distribution, and consumption healthier for people, animals, and the environment, we need to redesign today’s food systems. Data and data science can help us develop sustainable solutions — but only if we manage to define those questions that matter.

Globally, we are witnessing the damage that unsustainable farming practices have caused on the environment. At the same time, climate change is making our food systems more fragile, while the global population continues to rapidly increase. To feed everyone, we need to become more sustainable in our approach to producing, consuming, and disposing of food.

Policymakers and stakeholders need to work together to reimagine food systems and collectively make them more resilient, healthy, and inclusive.

Data will be integral to understanding where failures and vulnerabilities exist and what methods are needed to rectify them. Yet, the insights generated from data are only as good as the questions they seek to answer. To become smarter about current and future food systems using data, we need to ask the right questions first.

That’s where The 100 Questions Initiative comes in. It starts from the premise that to leverage data in a responsible and effective manner, data initiatives should be driven by demand, not supply. Working with a global cohort of experts, The 100 Questions seeks to map the most pressing and potentially impactful questions that data and data science can answer.

Today the Barilla Foundation, the Center for European Policy Studies, and The Governance Lab at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, are announcing the launch of the Food Systems Sustainability domain of The 100 Questions. We seek to identify the 10 most important questions that need to be answered to make food systems more sustainable…(More)”.

We Need to Reimagine the Modern Think Tank


Article by Emma Vadehra: “We are in the midst of a great realignment in policymaking. After an era-defining pandemic, which itself served as backdrop to a generations-in-the-making reckoning on racial injustice, the era of policy incrementalism is giving way to broad, grassroots demands for structural change. But elected officials are not the only ones who need to evolve. As the broader policy ecosystem adjusts to a post-2020 world, think tanks that aim to provide the intellectual backbone to policy movements—through research, data analysis, and evidence-based recommendation—need to change their approach as well.

Think tanks may be slower to adapt because of long-standing biases around what qualifies someone to be a policy “expert.” Traditionally, think tanks assess qualifications based on educational attainment and advanced degrees, which has often meant prioritizing academic credentials over lived or professional experience on the ground. These hiring preferences alone leave many people out of the debates that shape their lives: if think tanks expect a master’s degree for mid-level and senior research and policy positions, their pool of candidates will be limited to the 4 percent of Latinos and 7 percent of Black people with those degrees (lower than the rates among white people (10.5 percent) or Asian/Pacific Islanders (17 percent)). And in specific fields like Economics, from which many think tanks draw their experts, just 0.5 percent of doctoral degrees go to Black women each year.

Think tanks alone cannot change the larger cultural and societal forces that have historically limited access to certain fields. But they can change their own practices: namely, they can change how they assess expertise and who they recruit and cultivate as policy experts. In doing so, they can push the broader policy sector—including government and philanthropic donors—to do the same. Because while the next generation marches in the streets and runs for office, the public policy sector is not doing enough to diversify and support who develops, researches, enacts, and implements policy. And excluding impacted communities from the decision-making table makes our democracy less inclusive, responsive, and effective.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I at The Century Foundation, a 100-year-old think tank that has weathered many paradigm shifts in policymaking, launched an organization, Next100, to experiment with a new model for think tanks. Our mission was simple: policy by those with the most at stake, for those with the most at stake. We believed that proximity to the communities that policy looks to serve will make policy stronger, and we put muscle and resources behind the theory that those with lived experience are as much policy experts as anyone with a PhD from an Ivy League university. The pandemic and heightened calls for racial justice in the last year have only strengthened our belief in the need to thoughtfully democratize policy development. While it’s common understanding now that COVID-19 has surfaced and exacerbated profound historical inequities, not enough has been done to question why those inequities exist, or why they run so deep. How we make policy—and who makes it—is a big reason why….(More)”

Diverse Sources Database


About: “The Diverse Sources Database is NPR’s resource for journalists who believe in the value of diversity and share our goal to make public radio look and sound like America.

Originally called Source of the Week, the database launched in 2013 as a way help journalists at NPR and member stations expand the racial/ethnic diversity of the experts they tap for stories…(More)”.

How spooks are turning to superforecasting in the Cosmic Bazaar


The Economist: “Every morning for the past year, a group of British civil servants, diplomats, police officers and spies have woken up, logged onto a slick website and offered their best guess as to whether China will invade Taiwan by a particular date. Or whether Arctic sea ice will retrench by a certain amount. Or how far covid-19 infection rates will fall. These imponderables are part of Cosmic Bazaar, a forecasting tournament created by the British government to improve its intelligence analysis.

Since the website was launched in April 2020, more than 10,000 forecasts have been made by 1,300 forecasters, from 41 government departments and several allied countries. The site has around 200 regular forecasters, who must use only publicly available information to tackle the 30-40 questions that are live at any time. Cosmic Bazaar represents the gamification of intelligence. Users are ranked by a single, brutally simple measure: the accuracy of their predictions.

Forecasting tournaments like Cosmic Bazaar draw on a handful of basic ideas. One of them, as seen in this case, is the “wisdom of crowds”, a concept first illustrated by Francis Galton, a statistician, in 1907. Galton observed that in a contest to estimate the weight of an ox at a county fair, the median guess of nearly 800 people was accurate within 1% of the true figure.

Crowdsourcing, as this idea is now called, has been augmented by more recent research into whether and how people make good judgments. Experiments by Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania, and others, show that experts’ predictions are often no better than chance. Yet some people, dubbed “superforecasters”, often do make accurate predictions, largely because of the way they form judgments—such as having a commitment to revising predictions in light of new data, and being aware of typical human biases. Dr Tetlock’s ideas received publicity last year when Dominic Cummings, then an adviser to Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, endorsed his book and hired a controversial superforecaster to work at Mr Johnson’s office in Downing Street….(More)”.

Lawmakers’ use of scientific evidence can be improved


Paper by D. Max Crowley et al: “This study is an experimental trial that demonstrates the potential for formal outreach strategies to change congressional use of research. Our results show that collaboration between policy and research communities can change policymakers’ value of science and result in legislation that appears to be more inclusive of research evidence. The findings of this study also demonstrated changes in researchers’ knowledge and motivation to engage with policymakers as well as their actual policy engagement behavior. Together, the observed changes in both policymakers and researchers randomized to receive an intervention for supporting legislative use of research evidence (i.e., the Research-to-Policy Collaboration model) provides support for the underlying theories around the social nature of research translation and evidence use….(More)”.

2030 Compass CoLab


About: “2030 Compass CoLab invites a group of experts, using an online platform, to contribute their perspectives on potential interactions between the goals in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

By combining the insight of participants who posses broad and diverse knowledge, we hope to develop a richer understanding of how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may be complementary or conflicting.

Compass 2030 CoLab is part of a larger project, The Agenda 2030 Compass Methodology and toolbox for strategic decision making, funded by Vinnova, Sweden’s government agency for innovation.

Other elements of the larger project include:

  • Deliberations by a panel of experts who will convene in a series of live meetings to undertake in-depth analysis on interactions between the goals. 
  • Quanitative analysis of SDG indicators time series data, which will examine historical correlations between progress on the SDGs.
  • Development of a knowledge repository, residing in a new software tool under development as part of the project. This tool will be made available as a resource to guide the decisions of corporate executives, policy makers, and leaders of NGOs.

The overall project was inspired by the work of researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute, described in Towards systemic and contextual priority setting for implementing the 2030 Agenda, a 2018 paper in Sustainability Science by Nina Weitz, Henrik Carlsen, Måns Nilsson, and Kristian Skånberg….(More)”.

The War on Professionalism


Jonathan Rauch in National Affairs: “…As a child, I asked my father, a lawyer, what the word “professional” meant. He replied, “it means you do something for a living.” He contrasted it with the term “amateur,” meaning someone who works for pleasure.

My father’s definition has merit. I recall it whenever I tell interns that, to me, professionalism means performing a job to the highest standards, even when I don’t feel like doing it at all. One might think of the doctor who shows up for emergency surgery on Christmas Eve, the journalist who takes care to verify every fact mentioned in a report, or the concert pianist who gives the audience the best he is capable of night after night, even on nights when he would much rather be doing anything else.

That concept of professionalism is a good starting point, but we can dig deeper by drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin. In his book A Time to Build, Levin explores the role and meaning of institutions. Institutions, he says, are — or, when they function well, should be — forms, training and shaping people to work together toward a larger goal. The military is a classic example, as are churches and schools. These “structures of social life” provide the durable arrangements that frame our perceptions, mold our character, and delineate our social existence.

When institutions do not or cannot perform those shaping functions, they collapse into something more like platforms — stages upon which individuals perform in order to build audiences and self-advertise. He locates the collapse of trust in institutions — and the resulting public sense of anomie and disconnectedness — in the conversion of many institutions from places where people are formed to places where people perform. Thus a self-promoting real-estate magnate can become a self-promoting reality-TV host and then a self-promoting presidential candidate, hopping from one stage to the next, all while putting on pretty much the same show.

As institutions have drifted away from shaping us and toward displaying us, they have lost both efficacy and legitimacy. And we, in turn, have naturally lost confidence in them. Moreover, Levin argues, institutions have been taken for granted for so long, and yet are neglected so generally, that we have lost even the vocabulary for talking about what they are supposed to be doing. We don’t realize what we are missing, although we acutely feel the void.

Something very much like that has happened with professionalism. A combination of institutional absence, lazy thinking, and populist politics has collapsed the idea of professionalism down to the much flatter notion of elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

That distinction gestures toward a fuller definition of professionalism, one that implies commitment to personal standards, social norms, and expert knowledge in furtherance of a mission or an institution. That is, professionalism defines a right way of doing things — a notion of best practices — that is grounded in dedication to a mission or an institution rather than personal advancement or partisan loyalty. As Levin says, professionalism “tends to yield a strong internal ethos among practitioners. In uncertain situations, a professional asks himself, ‘What should I do here, given my professional responsibilities?’ And his profession will generally have an answer to that question.”

As Levin notices, institutionalism and professionalism are cousins. Both institutions and professions organize individuals to accomplish missions, they seek to inculcate norms and guide behavior, they assemble and transmit knowledge and best practices across generations, they cultivate reputational capital over long spans of time, and they draw and enforce boundaries between insiders and outsiders….(More)”

Conducting City Diplomacy: A Survey of International Engagement in 47 Cities


Paper by Anna Kosovac, Kris Hartley, Michele Acuto, and Darcy Gunning: “The impact of global challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic manifests most acutely in urban settings, rendering cities essential players on the global stage.

In the 2018 report Toward City Diplomacy, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs presented findings from a survey of 27 cities on the capacity of local governments around the world to network internationally—and the perceived barriers to that engagement. The report found that cities “need to invest in resources, expertise, and capacity to manage their relationships and responsibilities to conduct city diplomacy effectively.”

In our new survey of 47 cities, we find that advice to still ring true. City officials broadly recognize the importance of engaging internationally but lack the necessary formal diplomacy training and resources for conducting that engagement to maximum effect. Nevertheless, cities maintain a strong commitment to global agendas, and international frameworks are increasingly influential in municipal affairs. For example, more than half of survey respondents said they track their city’s performance against the metrics of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Furthermore, we found that cities and their leaders are confident in their capacity to tackle global challenges. For instance, the majority of survey respondents said that city governments have greater potential for impact on climate change mitigation than their national government counterparts do, especially when acting collaboratively through city networks and multilateral urban programs.

The individual stories of five cities whose officials participated in the study offer lessons for a variety of challenges and approaches to city diplomacy. Based on the survey results, we discuss the three primary obstacles cities must overcome in order to strengthen the role of city diplomacy globally: inadequate funding and resources for international engagement, insufficient training in city diplomacy, and the failure of national and multilateral bodies to fully recognize and formalize city engagement in diplomacy.

We conclude with a framework for ensuring that city-diplomacy efforts are systematic and institutionalized rather than reliant on the personalities and connections of powerful city leaders. This capacity-building strategy can help cities leverage international coordination, information sharing, and intersectoral collaboration to address the complex and interconnected problems that will characterize the 21st century….(More)”.