Small questions, big impacts

Sensemaking / Small questions, big impacts

At our annual event for members in Asia-Pacific, we asked where small signals of change can lead

By Anna Simpson / 28 Mar 2016

What would the food industry look like with zero labour? How could a factory worker’s mobile phone give her power over a company’s license to operate? What if we were publicly connected to the litter we drop

Small questions can be the start of transformative journeys. A vegetable factory opening next year in Japan will be run entirely by robots. A mobile platform is going straight to workers to expose supply chain issues. DNA phenotyping has been used to create digital images of people who litter in Hong Kong. Asking where these signals of change might lead can help us imagine new worlds of possibility.     

Upon arrival at Forum for the Future’s annual Asia-Pacific Network event at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum, guests found cards and videos asking questions like these. Our aim was to take attendees on a journey - to understand how small signals can build to systems-level change: the sort that doesn’t just transform how single businesses and organisations operate, but that transforms the whole landscape of operation for their sector. 

Ambitious? Yes! However, this ambition is what united our guests and speakers. Among the crowd were people specialising in rooftop paint that reflects the sun’s rays to cool buildings, apps for traceability in the seafood industry, innovation in cities, sustainable cotton, future skills and education. Each of them looking beyond traditional industry boundaries to find new ways to address the challenges of the future. For instance, the tissue manufacturer Kimberly Clark is not just working to mainstream sustainable forestry, but also to improve sanitation.

The calling is clear, said our CEO, Sally Uren: “Incremental change won’t keep global warming to under 1.5C: we need to see the big picture, and come together with bold visions and an appetite for collaboration.” Years ago as a PhD student in Malaysian Borneo, Sally witnessed the impact of small signals first-hand when she studied nitrogen in the soil. She realised how a tiny chemical is key to the health of forests - and from there has an impact on the global climate, as well as the resilience of our food system.  


Likewise, Dr Mazlan Othman from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia described how signals from space have changed our understanding of the universe. Studying supernova tells us galaxies are moving at much faster speeds than we anticipated, helping us understand more about how the universe is expanding. Little changes in the sun’s surface can demand immediate action: “The sun isn’t a peaceful place”, she said. “Ripples there can mean we need to shut down our satellites to protect them from damage.” 

Sometimes the answer to a big question is to think small, said Matthew Robinson from Advisian. If you want to tackle a change as tricky as access to affordable energy in Myanmar - which only 30% of the population currently enjoy - then a nationwide grid costing USD 40 billion may not be the quickest and most cost-efficient answer. Rather, he says, focus on the energy needs of one village, one house: how many solar panels? What storage capacity? How can it be monitored? These small questions have implications for people living there, and cut across many issues such as nutrition, lung health, vision, education and economic empowerment, as polluting kerosene stoves are replaced with clean cooking, evening light becomes available for work and digital connections expand reach, knowledge and opportunities. 

Yet another example of a small change that could transform an industry is a digital platform that connects consumers to fisheries, including video links that show the exact catch. Peter Woon of EcoHub Global, told us that 12-28% of the world’s total fish supply is illegal, unregulated and unreported: how much of this is driven by piracy and slavery? One in 10 people in the world work in fisheries and aquaculture, and 84% of them are in Asia. Transparency in the industry is a route to economic empowerment and safety, and also to the health of marine ecosystems. 

But how do you spot these small changes that can lead to huge transformation? How do you understand a problem well enough to address it in an effective way? These were questions asked by our Deputy Chief Executive, Stephanie Draper. She described how she used to play with spirographs as an eight-year-old: “You could put a biro into a bit of plastic and this pattern emerged…” - which inspired her to become very curious about patterns and what they can tell us. One example that still inspires her is John Snow’s ‘ghost map’ of cholera incidents in London. He plotted where they occurred and recognised that their incidence was connected to where the water pumps were, demonstrating that it was a waterborne disease (not air-borne as previously thought) - making a sewage system the (right) diagnosis and prescription for the issue. 

Spotting patterns and mapping is a way to see connections between small incidents and big systems. It’s part of our work at Forum for the Future, seeing the potential to build new collaborations and to scale innovations in complex systems. For example, we’ve mapped the protein system as part of The Protein Challenge 2040 project, and identified three key areas to act - beginning with increasing the proportion of plant-based protein in our diets. 

Asia-Pacific is a key region for change. As our Asia-Pacific Director Ariel Muller pointed out, it is where emissions are growing most rapidly, and also a region that feels the impacts of climate change (pollution, sea level rise) heavily. Forum works with the likes of Cathay Pacific and Sime Darby, identifying ways to lead their sectors towards sustainability, and is building consortia of collaborators to scale distributed energy, reduce food loss, and empower makers to shape their future.

Ariel closed with a final question, about something very small indeed: do you know what a trimtab is? It’s the tiny piece on the rudder that can change the direction of the boat. “Call me Trimtab”, the inventor and systems thinker Buckminster Fuller once said. Can we call you Trimtab?

Were you there? Share your reflections with #SignalsOfChange.

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