Tools of the trade

Form follows function

“Form follows function” is a term I hear said with some regularity. What piqued my interest tonight was hearing it said in two very different settings. The first said in the context of construction (my day job); the second said in an introductory lecture as I begin studying neuroscience (my psychology MSc).

I will not dwell on this in detail other than to share a slide from those lectures. It introduces the main tools of trade in contemporary neuroscience. It offers a simple evaluation of relative merits of tools based on their temporal and spatial range. The underlying lesson being the importance of knowing what is being compromised and what is being complimented by methodology and tool choice.

Precisely what we all face in every project situation. And precisely what fails us when we consider the form in the absents of process we are intending to change.

Right tool, right question (source: UoN)

A literal reflection upon the cross-over of interests in projects of mind and management, but one we all struggle to contend with. Particularly when there is lacking clarity of what that intended process outcome truly is.

Environmental projects

How healthy is the planet? Let’s count the bison and beaver and see

A rule of thumb measure we can all be asking our governments to show progress towards. As we ask what planetary initiatives are really being attended to in our name.

Carly Vynne and co-authors have just published an open source research paper this week. It outlines work undertaken in mapping the world’s remaining intact large mammal landscapes (see also Osprey Insights projects here).

So what? You may ask

I see this as a potential measure we can all seek visibility of. Assessing both behaviours and trust in local, national, and international plans. A rule of thumb (heuristic) measure easy to see.

This Ecography published paper focuses on “intact large mammal assemblages“. Putting up a case for the health of an ecosystem being most easily assessed as a conservation success story by the presence of these specifically identified mammals. Relevant because:

Large mammal species are particularly sensitive to human activities through habitat alteration and direction exploitation.

Vynne et al (2022)

The worrying statistic offered is that only 15% of relevant terrestrial earth surface currently contains an intact large mammal assemblage. These tending to be areas of connected preserved status where “protected area networks” are actively retained. The largest examples being in Brazilian Amazon, southern Africa, Australia and the Himalayas. But every piece of land is measured in the 15%. The additional observation offered is evidence of concentric circle effect as one moves out from these large mammal assemblage areas – with an increasing lack of biodiversity as one moves out from these centres.

I am reminded of the 2021 Netflix movie presented by David Attenborough “Breaking Boundaries”. These are system of system level metrics. Ones that we can all see and understand. David Attenborough is presenting the long-term research of Professor Johan Rockström at research institutes in Sweden and Germany. Specifically the nine Planetary Boundaries model. It is presented these 9 key metrics of our planetary health. Of these nine, loss of biosphere integrity, is given the highest rating of uncertainty. Amounting to the highest immediate risk to the stability of our planetary home. The threshold we have past much more severe than that even of climate change.

With this most concerning of the 9 thresholds in mind, this latest paper is therefore presenting another simplification of measurement of our biggest immediate threat. We can all ask the same question. Can we preserve and restore enough habitat to retain our biodiversity? Measured by the presence of a few key mammals.

Here are the named mammals. Most of which we would not want to visit our gardens, but then neither do they necessarily want us visiting theirs. And therein sits the challenge we have to embrace.

…European bison Bison bonasus, Eurasian beaver Castor fiber, reindeer Rangifer tarandus, wolf Canis lupus and lynx Lynx lynx [35 ecoregions]….

wild horse Equus ferus and wolf in the Himalayan ecoregions [10 ecoregions could be improved by 89%].

In Africa, reintroductions of hippopotamus Hippotamus amphibius, cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, common tsessebe Damaliscus lunatus, African wild dog Lycaon pictus and lion Panthera leo [50 ecoregions by 108%]

North American brown bear Ursus arctos, American bison Bison bison, wolverine Gulo gulo and American black bear Ursus americanus … [22 ecoregions, 17% of the continent, 117% increase in area with intact mammal assemblages) after]

Vynne et al (2022)

In the UK we are already beginning these debates. The beaver has been introduced in experimental settings (rewilding Britain). This trial has immediately produced positive results. But also immediately exposed the very real implications to human displacements and limitations it ultimately starts to impose.

Project implications

These are the real issues of today. We have governments and international institutions promoting more environmentally sustainable ways to be. We have CoP26 campaigns and pledges associated with carbon and materials use. These are pressing issues to which we can review targets and cynically sneer from a psychologically safe distance. But perhaps we should instead be asking how every project our governments and corporations embark upon, impacts wider ecological goals.

But that is still abstract. To most people those are just numbers to manipulate, or impacts felt at remote institutional levels we can just bemoan. At this level of abstraction, we can carry on and blame them when it fails. When however the concern is more tangible, it becomes our concern if we want it to be. And we really should.

We each instigate projects. We can therefore each claim ownership and control. Simply by asking better questions of ourselves in every project we each undertake. Everyday projects of improvement to our houses, our families, and ourselves. How do these changes we intend, ultimately require unsustainable change to these bigger habitat level systems? The systems of systems sitting at the other end? Suddenly, we are all able to make a better choice. By asking more of the impacts of our more simple choice. What we wear. What we replace. What we upgrade. And what we eat.

The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services. These drivers are either steady, showing no evidence of declining over time, or are increasing in intensity. The current high rates of ecosystem damage and extinction can be slowed by efforts to protect the integrity of living systems (the biosphere), enhancing habitat, and improving connectivity between ecosystems while maintaining the high agricultural productivity that humanity needs.

Addressing biodiversity, Stockholm Resilience Centre

What habitat is changed to enable each choice we make? That’s a question we all know we should ask. With this simple explanation of intact large mammal assemblages, we perhaps already know the answers. We just do not want to know.

The complete paper by Carly Vynne of Osprey Insights et al can be found here. Dated 27th January 2022.

150 years old

Living longer – to do what?

Dr. David Sinclair is at the leading edge of understanding, and possibly not only slowing but reversing the ageing process. I leave several links to podcasts and science papers at the end of this blog. Maybe you watched my recent 3 minutes response to a question of future-skilling for project in 2030 {LinkedIn or here}. With Sinclair’s 2017 book Lifespan in hand, my own perspective was to challenge the relatively recent phenomena of retirement as a social norm. Whether a longer life, even as a possibility, should be the societal prompt to rethink the second half of life. To which the question of a contemporary up skill seems suddenly almost a necessity if a 40 year career suddenly becomes 60 years or more.

This is neither a science-fiction dystopia or utopia. This is science today. The science literature is deep, and widespread across top tier academia. Dr. Sinclair and his lab for example are at Harvard Medical School. He is pretty adamant that humans are already walking among us who will live to 150. Controversial, but mainstream in discourse. Some of the everyday practices that are promoted are as simple as fasting, low to no meat diets, exercise, and supplements that are already available on the high street. We are also promised something more is in the ether. For now however, simply living a lifestyle that the longest living communities on earth have followed for generations – with some 21st Century science – is all that is deemed necessary for now.

My lingering questions are already shifting toward societal implications. Imagining the impact of a whole workforce gifted time to retrain, re-educate, reset, rather than retire. Seeking to be self motivated in endeavour into a much deeper term in life. The value we could all add with more time. But is that really what we will be doing with such a gift? Or such a curse?

One thing it will do is recalibrate social consciousness. Maybe I’m too idealistic in my hope that this will be for the better. But few pensions could hope to last long – and trust funds may not get passed on quite so quick. What would therefore emerge? An even greater desire to accumulate more materials, consume more, do less on harder working cash. Or does a sense of purpose become more central to a longer time at the wheel?

Most projects have a forced time line. Derived from hidden agenda of something or someone we never get to see. Does time become more valued – as a tool not a constraint – if we have more of it available? Do asset management decisions become more long-term? Is asset life-cycle and whole asset life thinking finally to see the light of day? Now that we are potentially not only still alive but also still involved when it comes to the long-term impacts of short-term decisions? Imagine having to explain your decisions from 50 years ago and still be threatened with societal scorn for 50 years more. What would our politics look like if we were to start demanding accountability of the long-term goals? Demanded because we were still likely to be around to pay the toll. Do we cry foul more reverently when its our future at stake? What happens when our parents and our children are all grown up and actively working – 3 generations looking the same age? The saga holiday replaced by the 18 to 80 holiday. Do the wider imbalances in society and globally become more exaggerated or diluted as lifetimes of grudges never fade, or altruistic sentiments are given longer to take centre stage. Does the planet now have a say? Or does our political map end our play?

There is a psychology theory that states our decision options are directly related to our sense of mortality. It’s an interesting experiment you can all play at home. Introduce the idea of death into a conversation. The “Terror” of death psychologically directing a more colloquial point of view. In this context, is a more distant death a gateway to a more rational account of what we really cannot live without.

I’ve no interest in living that long. But I’m happy enough to plan to be working on. And well into the days that others have to assume it is them – not their children’s children – that must work these 21st Century realities out.

Below: David Sinclair website and podcast. Plus one paper that offers some of the science, dated 2014.

The Intersection Between Aging and Cardiovascular Disease. North, Brian J ; Sinclair, David A PHILADELPHIA: American Heart Association, Inc Circulation research, 2012-04-13, Vol.110 (8), p.1097-1108

In the shadows

Neuroscience or psychoanalysis

That seems to be the question at large for me this term. I have no idea where I’ll land between the two, or indeed if the two can be reconciled. But 21st Century neuroscience and early 20th Century ideas, earlier philosophical perspectives, all getting plenty of attention until May.

I’ve plenty of prior experience of the later. First hand experience of its validation as a recovery tool. And as a means to model much besides. But it’s the neuroscience that’s making the breakthroughs.

I hope to offer some insight to both as I progress. I anticipate project management could only stomach the science. But let’s see. There’s much that gets repressed in any project, that makes itself known from the shadows at the worst possible time.

Perspectival challenges await…

Three quotes that stood out for me

And in the morning her body was thrown upon the pile outside. My auntie. She was 21.

It’s not something you can imagine. Why should you? Don’t try. You don’t have to come with us. It’s what you do now that is important.

Don’t hate people. If you don’t like someone, so be it. But don’t hate people.

Holocaust Memorial Day. Hearing those first hand accounts on BBC2 tonight was heartbreaking. Recollecting their living nightmares so that we can know that history. Knowing what society is capable of.

Examination of learning

Did I miss the party?

My final examination from my first semester concluded today. I am delighted to be back with a little time to blog again. It’s perhaps also for the best that I remained silent through party-gate. Nearly two years into a lockdown to protect my wife from SARS-Covid-19 leaves little room to laugh at covert shenanigans and overt abuses of power.

My examination frenzy leaves me a little shell-shocked this evening. A gap left as revision and wider reading in huge volume is replaced by a realisation of just how much of slog that really was.

All worth it though. It’s a good stress in the short term which always leaves me feeling empowered with learning I can apply – having been given every chance to know what to know and why. My occasional LinkedIn engagement intentionally finding overlap between new learning and professional interest.

I now have a decent first layer of grounding in contemporary cognitive psychology. The current positions explaining pathways of information from the outside world to conscious or subconscious thought; the written and spoken mechanics we use; and the manners of recall that arise. I have a decent foundational understanding of the socialised psychology that is helping explain why and how we interact. Plus a statistical grounding on how experiment is analysed in psychology, neurology, and the sciences at large. I can therefore now read such academic papers with some semblance of what the analytics are attempting to convey.

Next is developmental psychology; neuroscience in more depth; and intermediate level statistics. Psychology is in transition. As is our understanding of the human condition. And I am getting a front row seat. A project of change, indeed.

To be continued…

Back on 25th Jan

It’s exam frenzy season here. Three subjects in three days, plus one more further exam the week after. Looking forward to regular posting on here again soon.