Earlier this year I made a visit to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley to check out the archives of urban planner and futurist R L Meier. His personal note to himself, An Inventory of Interests, caught my attention for a) its candor in reflecting on his own intellectual investment, and b) its emphasis on exploiting those interests at incremental effort if useful and relevant. There’s optimism embedded within the note as well, hinting that a body of interests points to a “path of discovery” that may have been found, with more truths to be revealed in the future through “investigative freedom.” (You can see an excerpt from his version below.)
I was so inspired, I decided to write and share my own Inventory of Interests. Here it is for 2021.
Before I dig in though, I want to start with some framing. I’ve been an observer for as long as I can remember. I suspect it comes from growing up in a multicultural family, one side with a language I couldn’t speak. Whenever we left the US to visit family in Hong Kong, I watched instead. I noticed. I wondered. And later, I asked questions. I was curious about what I saw around me, and how the “truth” differed from the stories I crafted in my head.
That observation continued two decades later, when I found myself back in Asia— now in Lijiang, a town in China’s Yunnan province. This time I was an observer with a mission. With my background in environmental engineering, paired with nomadic jaunts in anthropology and architectural history, I was there to study the impact of the Naxi people’s culture on their infrastructure, and vice versa.
That experience changed me; it transformed how I thought about infrastructure. The Naxi traditionally view water and people as brother and sister. Their water canals and practices for using infrastructure reflected this culture. Later, when I moved to Beijing, I worked as a consultant on sustainable buildings. Here too was another introduction to infrastructure, but of a different type. This was infrastructure that “moved fast and broke things.” The speed was incredible.
Back in the US, and another decade later, I’ve continued to work in the building sector. This time, I’ve moved from the upstream of building design to the downstream of startup product management, deploying technology in existing buildings for better occupant experience, indoor air quality, and carbon impact. My observer tendencies just as strong, I’ve seen how fragmentation in the sector slows things down. This acknowledgement dovetailed with a related yet distinct exposure to complexity science, stemming from the early cyberneticians who found lessons in feedback and variety within the simple thermostat, a symbol for control over the built environment.
I share this background because it deeply influences my personal Inventory of Interests today. I hope it also explains why I share the sentiment with R L Meier that:
My own specialism is a kind of scientific generalism. The problems that continue to intrigue me are human organizational problems leading to greater control over the physical and social environment, particularly those which are neglected because they fall between the recognized disciplines.
While my body of interests may seem discombobulated to others, they all seem aligned to me. Perhaps that’s the path of discovery? For 2022 though, it’s about narrowing in on the right ones to focus on, and determining the environment best suited to them.
1. INFRASTRUCTURE & MAINTENANCE
Infrastructure has long been an interest of mine, as shared above. Infrastructure allows all other efforts to be more effective, more worthwhile. Maintenance enters the picture, then, as a requirement for the future. (Note: my definition of maintenance does not mean status quo, but rather the capacity to evolve.) For infrastructure to remain relevant and useful, it must also be able to adapt to new needs.
A. New Advances for Climate & Public Health
I’m fascinated by the development, deployment, and scaling of technologies in the built environment, for climate health (e.g. embodied, operational, end-of-life emissions) and public health (e.g. indoor air quality). Buildings contribute 40% of our global carbon dioxide emissions, and we spend 90% of our time indoors. There is plenty of room for improvement.
- My current consulting efforts, working with organizations to commercialize climate tech for buildings
- Research and conversations on embodied emissions, via the Indus project
- At home side projects, like managing Bedroom CO2 during wildfires and air pollution (blog post)
- The current push we’re seeing in climate tech
B. Incentives in the Building Industry
One of the things that I think holds back the building industry-- also known as Architecture, Engineering, Construction, Operations, or AECO-- is the prevalence of misaligned incentives. I believe this contributes to slowdowns in construction, poor maintenance, and lack of innovation in the field. I’m excited for new ways to rethink the incentives of the building industry, and I’m curious to see how new tools and ways of thinking could accelerate that change.
- How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
- Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson
- My own work from the past: What can a Building Technologist do about Climate Change? (blog post) and The Kind of Problem a Building Is (blog post)
2. COMPLEXITY & ORGANIZATIONAL DECISION MAKING
The study of complex systems originally caught my attention for its focus on feedback, control, and communication, as well as its tie to cyberphysical systems. That attention expanded into implications for organizational coordination, problem solving, and decision making as well. In 2021 I was lucky enough to even participate in a month-long course through the Santa Fe Institute, with daily lectures on complex systems science by current researchers. I suspect this interest is one that will percolate my everywhere and everything, rather than allowing itself to be reduced to a single project or exercise.
A. The Architecture of Complexity
Polymath Herbert Simon believed that nearly decomposable systems influenced hierarchical order… hierarchy described not in terms of power, but in terms of subsystems nested within subsystems. To Simon, this was the most stable form of organization. I take this lesson wherever I go, and hope that I may successfully teach it to others as well.
Also influenced by Herbert Simon* are three concepts that continue to capture my attention: 1) The theory is the program, 2) The importance of selective trial and error, and 3) The distinction between process and state descriptions (which is also related to the concept of process knowledge popularized by Dan Wang).
- Musings on the organization of teams, such as Working Backwards: Separable, Single Threaded Teams (blog post)
- I even hosted my first InterIntellect salon on the topic: "Herb Simon and Your Life as Nearly Decomposable Systems" (salon summary)
- The Architecture of Complexity by Herbert Simon
- Science and Complexity by Warren Weaver
- Scale by Geoffrey West
*Herbert Simon credits R L Meier for being a good thought partner in developing his concept of hierarchical systems. R L Meier must have been good at inspiring others– if you recall, he inspired this post!
B. The Eusocial Nature of Honeybees
When my partner first posed the idea of getting honeybees in 2020, I had no idea I would learn so much from them! The complexity lessons from honeybees are incredible, from how the hive ventilates its space, to how they communicate with one another, to how they decide on a new home, to how they coordinate as a superorganism. I can’t say I’m very comfortable taking care of the bees, but I sure benefit from having them!
- Learning lessons from honeybees, such as Notes on the Eusocial Nature of Bees (blog post) and From Comfort to Constraint (blog post)
- Interviewing my partner on his hobby as a beekeeper (video)
- Our backyard hive
C. Lessons from Cybernetics
I believe that the early study of cybernetics, concerned with ideas of control and feedback, requisite variety, and the relationship between information theory & thermodynamics-- not to mention the multidisciplinary backgrounds of the early participants-- still holds a wealth of information we haven’t tapped into yet. What did the early cyberneticians discuss, that was not possible then but could be possible now?
- Reviewing my bookshelf IRL :)
3. THE EXPERIENCE OF SPACE & PLACE
I think there’s so much we still don’t know about how we experience space and place. Optimistically, this means there is plenty to experiment with! From our homes to our work environments to our learning environments, how can we craft spaces and social environments that nourish our activities at hand?
A. Co-living & Co-working
Experiments in creating community, both in how and where we live, and how and where we work, became even more important starting in 2020. I feel lucky to have been able to experiment in manners of co-living and co-working since then, and I look forward to hear of other such experiments and experiences from similar small groups.
- Co-living with Friends, Part 1: Co-buying (blog post)
- Hosting recurring co-working sessions with friends
- Space & Place by Yifu Tuan
- The Hidden Dimension by Ed Hall
- An old post of mine from 2019, New ways of distributed work: By the senses (blog post)
B. Physical <> Digital Experiences
As we continue to engage in a more distributed way (with increasing remote work, more pervasive comfort with Zoom, etc), as virtual reality gets better, and as sensors and cyberphysical devices get cheaper-- I’m excited for the new interactive physical / digital experiences this will bring. However, while the idea held my attention and interest for much of this past year, I can’t say that I did much about it in 2021. Let’s see what 2022 will bring.
C. Adaptable Spaces
I continue to be curious about WHY readily adaptable spaces seem to lead to much more promising innovation. I wonder how I can structure the spaces around me to hold this characteristic. However, beyond being very intentional this year about what kind of spaces suit my best type of work, I did little direct study on adaptable spaces this year.
- The historic Building 20 at MIT
4. CONVERSATION & STORYTELLING
Good conversation has long been important to me, but this year I turned more focus to storytelling. Why? Because I see good storytelling as a critical yet still missing component of our innovation in climate, public, and collaborative health. As part of that realization, I also finally acknowledged just how ignorant about (and frankly bad at) storytelling I am, myself! Time to work on that practice.
A key component to storytelling is the experiencing vs. remembering self, an idea coined by Daniel Kahneman. Often, we tell stories to ourselves in remembering self mode-- through the memories that gloss over details and make a picture seem more complete than it ever really was in the moment. But this style doesn’t often lead to good storytelling; the best stories highlight the nuance in the interstitial moments of non-knowingness, the true elements of our experiencing selves. I am excited to explore more here.
A. Speculative Fiction
In the same way that science fiction describes worlds only possible with scientific progress, how might we paint new types of worlds only possible with other types of progress… like industrial innovations, policy changes, or new modes of collaboration? I now think there’s more to speculative fiction than I ever gave it credit for.
- Exploring next steps to influence a new type of speculative fiction: industrial fiction
- Trying my hand at fiction writing, focusing on the cement industry: Part 1 | The Lobby (short story). What did I learn from this? I need to get better at character development!
B. Intentional Conversation
We’re starting to see a recognition of how much we learn from conversation, whether from our own conversations or listening in on the conversations of others. The growth in informal podcasts, apps like Clubhouse, or features like Twitter Spaces all support this type of learning. How do we have better conversations? And how do we catalog what we learn from them, usefully and effectively?
- I continue to benefit from reaching out to online "strangers" and asking just to chat. Zoom works great, but even better if there’s a real walk involved
- Wise words from an old friend: ask about the deltas :)
Some Remaining Thoughts
While it isn't an interest per se, one of the lessons I finally internalized in 2021 was the power of small groups. It's difficult to do stuff on your own! The accountability of a small team, the ability to diversify superpowers, and the inspiration that compounds as a group is unparalleled. Now, I'm not sure if one needs to expressly work in teams on all of one's projects, but finding teams to serve as soft infrastructure is a critical foothold.
Now with this body of interests laid out before me, the next step is to uncover which paths of discovery to further investigate in the next year. Stay tuned for 2022’s inventory.
An Inventory of Interests
By R L Meier, 1955
A scientist after a dozen years of varied research activities will find that he has developed some special interests. A few might be quite broad, while others can be highly specific, accessible to only a few other persons in the world. Such interests reflect in part the thousands of hours of reading, study, and critical discussions he has undertaken in those fields. This is a kind of intellectual investment that will not be readily discarded - unless it becomes apparent that it is no longer useful and relevant. The body of interests also indicates a path of discovery which has been found and promises a lively time in the future if it can be followed for a while longer. In addition, the books and articles which have been published, the papers which have been read and the lectures given, make the investigator a natural repository for the related new information as it is generated. This can be maintained at very little cost to himself, whereas information gathering to develop a new interest takes much time and effort. It is worth while considering the established interests occasionally in order to determine what kind of environment is most suited to them.
I find from what follows that the next steps require investigative freedom more than anything else but freedom is not the sole need. My own specialism is a kind of scientific generalism. The problems that continue to intrigue me are human organizational problems leading to greater control over the physical and social environment, particularly those which are neglected because they fall between the recognized disciplines. Fruitful work on such problems requires repeated stimuli from leaders in a wide variety of disciplines and some contact with the world of applied science. If teams can be created which aim at the solutions of some of these problems, I would become a very willing and active participant. The institutions within which such work can be done are limited in number because access to a comprehensive research library is necessary. There are perhaps a dozen universities and an equal number of research organizations in which these studies can move it all rapidly.
There is more to be done in the following up of these interests than can be accomplished in a lifetime. That is not a bad situation to be in, because it enables one to be somewhat opportunistic. One chooses the direction which promises at the time to be most worth while. The other interests can be sustained by spare time activities. New interests will no doubt be added, particularly if they integrate well with the existing set, but not because those described below are likely to become stale.