I’m fascinated with the idea of Stem Cells and everything they represent. Not only in the realm of the scientific, nor merely the new horizons of medicine they promise. Stem cells are the perfect metaphor for my particular brand of futurism. They encapsulate everything that propels me irrationally forward through a life that I might otherwise choose to perceive as nihilistically meaningless. Stem cells are pure potential. The key to unlocking the secrets of time. To me they represent the promise of a rebellious syntropic universe fighting against the dying light of entropy.
I should be clear that I’m not just talking about biological Stem Cells here. I’m talking about a more general set of patterns that can be found across scales of reality. I’m talking about people, startups, cities, and planets.
I’m talking about patterns of renewal that build upon the scaffolding of history.
The Roots of Inspiration
Let’s take this from the top. New ideas can lead to bursts of creativity that define us. Over the past decade, few ideas have captured my imagination as much as that of STEM (Space, Time, Energy, Matter) compression. John Smart explains this concept in a blog post titled “The Race to Inner Space“:
As Carl Sagan famously argued in the Cosmic Calendar metaphor of Big History, life on Earth has been engaged in a continual acceleration of structural and functional complexity emergence since its birth 3.8 billion years ago. At the same time, each newly emergent complex system, from stars to cities, from prokaryotes to computers, uses vastly smaller quantities universal space, time, energy, and matter or STEM, per novel information production, computation, or physical transformation, than the system that came before it. We may call this phenomenon STEM efficiency and density increase, or STEM compression, and we can see and measure it in spatial, temporal, energetic, and material terms. Over time, the leading edge systems use ever less of the resources of “Outer Space” to generate ever more novelty, intelligence, and capability in “Inner Space”, an exciting and apparently universal process. If this astonishing trend continues, our and other universal civilizations may eventually reach black hole level computational efficiency and density and transcend our universe, a topic I’ve speculated on in the Transcension hypothesis.
While the Transcension Hypothesis and the Technological Singularity are fun to think about, I’m less interested in arguing about where STEM compression might be taking us and more interested in exploring the how. This conceptual framework gives us a trajectory we can explore use to identify key opportunities for growth.
It’s striking how STEM compression seems to manifest by breaking through thresholds of emergent complexity. The big bang, single celled organisms, multicellular organisms, people, cities, mobile apps… there’s always a threshold of life (for lack of a better term) during which the same ol’ stuff keeps happening for a relatively long period of time.. until the dam breaks and a whole new order of complexity emerges on top of everything that came before. A new scale of reality is born. A new zoom level to explore and navigate.
Present at every scale are these ‘patterns of renewal’ I mentioned earlier.
I’m not entirely sure if these patterns are full contributors in or mere byproducts of passing through these thresholds (perhaps a bit of both), but I believe it’s when these patterns are formalized and aligned across multiple scales of life that threshold breakthroughs can occur.
Patterns of Renewal
If we identify the automata that make up these patterns of renewal perhaps we can replicate them across different scales of life and align them.
An example of what I mean: What can we learn about ecosystems that support biological Stem Cells that might inform how we construct ecosystems that support Startup businesses?
And then, what happens when we align our biological ecosystems with our business ecosystems? What happens when we merge information technology with our biological processes? Align the health of our internal organs with knowledgeable communities of practice?
Btw, this is already beginning to happen. Nike+ was just the beginning. When you combine cheap biosensor hardware, mobile web apps, cloud computing and medical practices focused on personalized medicine, a radical new vision for healthcare begins to emerge.
The political dialogue around healthcare reform doesn’t yet take the fact into account the fact that we’re well on our way toward becoming fully integrated iCyborgs over the next few years and decades. Maybe it should?
Back to Startups! They’re hard! They take a long time! Sure, the cost of bootstrapping a web startup has dropped to mere thousands of dollars from the millions that typified the original dotcom boom, but building infrastructure to start a new business still takes a lot of time and effort! Where are we at in the maturity of our Startup ecosystems, and where will the next breakthroughs come from that speed up our collective ability to innovate, profit and build a better world?
As Startups are where the majority of economic growth comes from, we should see them as a source for hope. In fact, I see Startups as the diametric opposition to Terrorist cells. I intend to develop this idea further in future posts. So much of the discussion regarding national and global security is purely reactionary. This is extremely counterproductive and I have a feeling that Startup ecosystems could and should form the backbone of proactive global security strategy.
Cities! Of everything I learned during my time working with John Smart, perhaps the most valuable has been this phrase: “Density is Destiny.” Cities exemplify STEM compression like nothing else! The speed at which things happen in a city with strong rapid transit and high population density is astonishing. Between Atlanta (my home city) and Boston (my current city) it’s like night and day! As humans, we tend to clump together, and we’ve already passed the half-way mark in terms of populations clumping in and around cities worldwide.
The discussion regarding global sustainability is tightly linked to that of local resilience, so it’s clear that developing strong Startup ecosystems is key pattern of renewal at multiple subscales.
Renewal of the Spirit
At the core of all this is the exploration is the human spirit and the drive toward creative expression. We’re hardwired for it. We like to explore our limitations and break through our boundaries. We fall in love and make things. Sometimes these labors of love take the form of art, business, technological doohickies, and other times, children.
I saw a meme the other day which struck me. It went something like: “Food is healthcare, Medicine is lifecare.” This made me think about the Native American (or at least Lakota?) notion of ‘true medicine’: continual growth and renewal in harmony with nature. It makes me think of the Japanese principle of ‘Kaizen‘ and the Zen Buddhist principle of ‘Beginner’s Mind‘. These are all things that have inspired me and remind me what I find to be important.
We live in exciting times of unprecedented opportunity, but taking full advantage of them requires a mindset shift. And then another. And another..
I suppose in a sense, I’m not writing about renewal of the human spirit in a general sense as much as I’m writing about my own. It’s important to shed old skins, and over the past few months I’ve gotten stuck trying to wear some old ones instead of moving onto the new. Oftentimes, it takes a return to basics to make this happen. That’s what this post is for me.. a personal but public reminder of what’s important to me and what drives my curiosity and everything else that I do.
I’ve spent the past decade learning a great many things while working with a number of inspiring people. I’ve been driven by the question of how to make the world a better place, and this past decade has primarily been an exploration of this question. I didn’t fully expect to, but I ended up finding answers to my questions! Then I froze for a bit. :)
Now, before I’m able to move on to applying what I’ve learned in my short (nearly) 28 years, I know I need to synthesize much of it in writing and share it. So, that’s what I’m up to.
So, here’s to the spirit of renewal! For the foreseeable future (the next few weeks/months) I’ll be defining myself as a writer and exploring these ideas in more detail. And who knows what after that?