The next frontier of IT-enabled systems thinking

The next frontier of IT-enabled systems thinking

Binary stream image by watchara via Shutterstock.

[Editor's note: If you're interested in this topic or want to learn more, check out the program for our upcoming VERGE Boston event on May 13-14.]

The next frontier of IT will focus on wicked problems embedded in emergent business systems. One of the most notable yet overlooked areas is the intersection of business, communities, biodiversity and ecosystem services, upon which all rely.

Some examples of the players in this space include Microsoft Research's Madingley Model, the European Space Agency's remote sensing of ecosystems and Stanford University's Natural Capital Project and ecosystem services model, according to a recent BSR report.

For IT developers and B2B IT customers alike, the question is: Are you assessing business opportunities from either building out or pilot testing these new ecosystem services IT systems in the coming months and years?

In many ways this emerging, beta version-filled IT domain is a response to the growing recognition that we live in an era of wicked problems that are difficult to solve with no easy solutions. Climate change is a prime example of a wicked problem, as is the challenge of identifying the course ahead for multinational companies in an era of climate change. Both issues are characterized by better or worse options, no clear test of proposed solutions and with the potential that problems and solutions may be manifestations of other problems.

For companies, the wickedness of many of today's looming natural resource-related business problems is due to how embedded the challenges are within emergent systems, both financial and ecological. Both systems are self-organizing and the structure, patterns and properties are continually changing.

A simpler example of an emergent system would be the game of chess. The rules are set, but it is very hard to predict the next move within a particular game at a specific moment because players operate in a dynamic and interacting state of play. Each move is emerging in the moment.

How is a company to identify, plan for and avoid significant risks, as well as realize opportunities, within emergent systems that appear to be mired in wicked problems? Enter the new application domain of IT and multi-stakeholder engagement around biodiversity and ecosystem services.

IT models are being created and need to be pilot tested within robust multi-stakeholder processes. These test applications would enable all players to literally visualize -- and thus "see" -- systems dynamics, many of which are misunderstood, along with potential tradeoffs associated with specific decisions. Should a building be sited in this or that part of a particular watershed or in a different area entirely? What are the trade-offs, in terms of standard business measures, long-term ecological function, retention of natural capital and other ecological barriers, including soil carbon sequestration, water filtration capacity, soil erosion and sedimentation of in-stream habitat?

IT has the potential to lay bare what we do and do not know within these linked systems to enable us to make decisions that are more likely to optimize according to the most parameters, or at least more likely to be clear about what we agree upon and what we disagree about.

For businesses facing increasing water and other natural resource-related scarcities around the world, IT that is purpose-built for addressing wicked problems holds the potential to expose both internal decision-makers and external stakeholders to the many parameters in the system that are being optimized. IT is also likely to show a reality in which trade-offs are the common currency. What trade-offs are acceptable and which are not? To whom, when and how? Only IT applied within a multi-stakeholder dialogue can deliver on making these issues clear and visual. In the process, IT may also clarify and ideally de-risk pathways forward.

Companies presently "engage" with key stakeholders in the communities in which they operate and have supply chains. This information is taken under advisement, while companies factor in numerous other parameters of concern to identify a pathway forward. This black box thinking has come under criticism, though, as is evident by the growing demand from NGOs, academics and citizens for more disclosure on environmental and social impacts, as well as corporate dependencies on nature. It is no longer acceptable for multinational companies to be unaware of significant impacts and dependencies in their operations or supply chains.

This desire for disclosure is evident in the "share what you pay" efforts within the mining industry, as well as the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), Water Disclosure Project and Forest Disclosure Project, among other initiatives. It is clear also from the growing demand for sustainability reports and the Global Reporting Initiative's (GRI) effort to systematize information and guide corporate decision-makers on key variables. But what does one do with all of that information?

IT applications for the wicked problems and emergent systems of biodiversity and ecosystem services offer a new way to link it all together and engage with stakeholders in different ways. Transitioning IT models around ecosystem services from beta to future versions will require more pilot testing. For companies, the payback could be a new tool for engaging stakeholders and a new process with which to identify potential burning platforms before they ignite. Water scarcity, extreme weather events and large-scale crop failures increasingly will set the issues aflame in the coming years.

Binary stream image by watchara via Shutterstock.