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Societal Platforms: A Cambrian Approach to Sustainable Development

Nature has been the bed of evolution at an incredible scale, for over billions of years. This complex process of change and diversification​ ​of​ ​living​ things,​ and​ the leap​ from single cells to​ multi-cellular organisms​ is a story of inspiration​ ​and​ reflection. As we​ look deeper​ into nature’s​ ways​ of​ dealing​ with​ dynamic​ changes,​ ​we​ uncover​ the layers​ ​of ​collaboration​ within​ and​ outside​ the​ ecosystem – continuous​ ​loops​ of feedback, interdependencies,​ co-creation,​ distribution​ of​ value,​ and order within​ chaos. The​​ more​ we​ explore, examine​ and connect with​ nature’s​ way,​ the​ more we find inspiration to resolving the changing and the challenging​ ​nature​ of societal​ problems. Nature​ ​also​ unravels​ the​ importance​ of​ leveraging the existing​ infrastructure and​ not dissolving​ ​it;​ the need​ to​ build​ partnerships with the​ ecosystem​ to restore agency and provide​ choice,​ rather​ than​ to​ gain control;​ to​ collaborate and​ not compete. The​ more we​ grapple with the​ challenge of​ scaling to​ serve​ a billion, the​ more​ we realize​ that nature’s​ behaviors and​ patterns can​ inspire approaches​ for​ societal transformation.

Understanding​ ​Biological​ ​Evolution

There​ ​are​ ​mainly​ ​three​ ​theories​ that​ ​discuss​ the​ ​evolution​ of​ ​life​ ​on​ ​Earth. These​ ​theories​ ​are:​ Phyletic​ Gradualism, Punctuated​ ​Equilibrium​ ​and​ ​Cambrian Radiation.

Phyletic​ ​Gradualism​​ is​ ​a ​model​ ​of​ ​evolution​ ​which​ ​theorizes​ ​that​ ​most​ ​speciation​ ​is slow,​ uniform​ ​and​ ​gradual. When evolution occurs​ ​in​ ​this​ ​mode,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​usually​ ​by​ ​the steady​ ​transformation​ ​of​ ​a ​whole​ ​species​ ​into​ ​a ​new​ ​one​ ​(through a process called anagenesis).​ ​In​ this view,​ no clear line of​ demarcation​ exists​ between​ an​ ancestral species​ and​ a descendant species, unless​ ​splitting​ occurs.

Punctuated Equilibrium is based on the idea that we cannot see changes in a species, so there must be very long periods of no changes of species.​ ​That​ is the equilibrium​ part of​ this theory. However,​ we​ ​know that​ species​ do​ change,​ so​ there​ must be​​ a period​ where those changes​ occur.​ Punctuated Equilibrium​ asserts that these​ changes​ occur​ ​over a relatively​ short​ amount of time,​ “punctuating” the​ long​ periods of​ equilibrium.

A​ ​contrasting​ theory to Phyletic Gradualism​ and​ Punctuated​ Equilibrium​ is​ the​ theory of Cambrian Radiation. The Cambrian Radiation​ refers​ to an​ explosion in​ a relatively short period​ (around​ 540 million years ago)​ in which​ many​ complex life forms appeared on the planet.​ This​ explosion is said​ to​ represent​ the​ most important evolutionary event in the​ history​ of​ life on​ Earth.

The​ ​explosion​ ​was​ ​caused​ ​due​ ​to​ ​the​ ​sudden​ ​increase​ ​in​ a previously​ scarce resource, oxygen, which​ ​crossed​ the ecological threshold​ for diversification. This​ led​ to animals metabolizing​ in the​ presence of​ oxygen,​ and​ releasing more​ energy than previously anaerobic​ pathways.​ Prior​ to​ the​ Cambrian​ Explosion,​ most​ organisms​ were​ simple, composed​ of​ individual cells occasionally organized​ into colonies. Over​ ​the​ following 70​ to 80​ million years, the​ rate of diversification accelerated​ by​ an order ​of​ magnitude​ ​and​ the diversity of life​ began​ to​ resemble that​ of​ today.​ It​ shows​ the sudden​ coming​ into existence of​ practically​ ​ all known​ animal​ phyla.

A​ Cambrian​ Approach​ to​ Societal​ Development

The​ Cambrian​ Radiation​ led to the eruption of​ animal​ life,​ diversifying​ into​ a kaleidoscope of​ living forms. The radiation led​ to the transformation of​ a microbe to an organism – delegating​ the labor of​ life including​ movement,​ consumption and digestion, and developing new ways​ for cells​ to​ communicate and​ share resources. Drawing inspiration from Cambrian Radiation​ for large-scale​ societal​ transformation, three key enabling​ ​factors​ ​or big forces​ that came​ together to energize open societal development​ networks are:

Resources:​ From being scarce​ to becoming abundant

​​One of the primary triggers for the explosion of complex multi-cellular life​ in the Cambrian period​ was the​ increase​ in​ the oxygen​ levels. Prior to​ this,​ atmospheric oxygen levels were too​ low​ to diffuse easily​ into​ organisms​ with​ multiple​ layers​ of​ cells, limiting the size of all life​ forms. Thus,​ a​ scarce​ resource such​ as​ oxygen​ ​becoming​ abundant led​ to​ a critical,​ ​defining​ evolutionary​ event ​in​ the​ history​ of life on​ earth. Akin​ to​ oxygen, expertise, skills,​ knowledge,​ information and data​ are scarce resources in​ the context of​ ​societal​ challenges. Scarce resources such as easy​ and​ affordable​ access​ to​ technology​ that is relevant to​ re-imagining learning​ ​opportunities​ for students, information that​ is​ critical to​ re-invent the​ modes​ of​ lending to the poor,​ expertise​ ​and​ data​ for​ understanding the nutrition levels of expecting mothers. Making scarce​ resources easily available could​ have​ a​ similar, compelling impact​ while addressing societal​ challenges.

Context:​ From​ uniform​ environment​ to diverse​ habitats

The​ Cambrian​ Explosion is​ particularly​ remarkable​ because it led​ to​ the development​ of radical new ​habitats​​ and interactions.​ Before the​ explosion,​ the environment was uniform,​ limiting​ the scope for​ ​innovation​ and collaboration.​ The​ explosion​ changed​ the biosphere​ forever​ with​ the increased​ variations​ ​in​ ​organisms​ that​ ​led​ ​to​ a variety​ of​ new marine and land environments &​ habitats. Some organisms​ lived ​on or in the​ sea floor,​ some​ actively​ swam​ in​ the​ water​ while​ some​ even forayed​ into land. Bringing​ in​ diversity​ and plurality​ of​ thinking,​ this​ approach​ can​ have​ a similar,​ thriving impact​ on​ ​the​ ​pursuit of​ resolving​ societal​ challenges.​ Evolving​ from​ a limited​ scope impact​ project​ that​ runs in​ silos​ to​ facilitating​ co-creation​ and​ democratization​ of solutions can​ be​ persuasive.

Infrastructure:​ From​ difficult​ territory​ to conducive atmosphere

Cambrian Explosion ignited an​​ evolutionary​ burst​ and​ transformed​ the​ existing​ hostile territory​ to​ a conducive​ atmosphere​ that​ nurtured​ the​​ development​​ and​ emergence​ of various​ life​ forms.​ Clubbed​ with​ the​ formation​ of​​ the​ Ozone​ layer,​ the​ atmosphere opened​ up​ new​ ecological​ niches​ and created​ an​ environment​ that​ is stable​ and favorable​ for​ survival.​ One​ that​ was instrumental​ in​ the​ evolution​ of larger​ and​ complex animals. Creating​ a safe,​ shared​ space for​ experimentation,​ innovation​ and collaboration​ that allows​ for democratized​ engagement​ of​ actors of​ the​ ​society​ is​ indispensable for sustainable development.​ ​With​ the​ philosophy​ of​ co-creation, openness​ and​ public​ good deeply​ embedded​ ​in​ the​ ​environment,​ we​ will​ inherit​ the​ features​ of​ ​a ​conducive environment​ that​ will​ foster​ inclusive impact.

Inducing​ Cambrian​ Radiation to​ Societal Platform

Inspired​ by Cambrian Radiation,​ conceptualization​ of​ a new and​ an​ innovative​ way of solving societal ​challenges emerges.​ A fresh approach​ that​ leverages the energy​ and aligns​ the intent of​ all​ actors​ of​ the ​society,​ while​ also​ leveraging the capabilities of digital technologies​ led​ to​ a platform-based​ thinking​ to​ resolve social problems,​ Societal Platform.

This article is written by Devina Srivastava. Devina was a researcher at Societal Platforms team at EkStep Foundation.