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.