Book Reviews: How to Fix the World

Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling
The Social Labs Revolution by Zaid Hassan

Here are a couple of books about forceful, radical work to fix the world by super earnest people who are walking the walk. It is interesting to read them together, to see the play of light and interference patterns where they agree and contrast with each other.

The world is full of big problems, some perennial, and some new. In many cases, existing institutions and practices are not only failing, they are implicated in the disaster. Furthermore, most problems are big and interconnected, and generally not a matter of “mere money”, or any such silver bullet.

Still, we must do what we can. But what can we do? And how?

Each of these books offers insights, along with suggestions of different paths that one might take. Both men feel an intense pressure to act, and act now. “If not now, when? If not me, who?” as Ebeling says. But there are differences in what they want to do and how, which makes it fascinating to read them side-by-side.

Ebeling highlights the fact that, however big and complex the problem, at base there are individual humans. When someone needs help, and we can help, then we must. Help one, and give away the solution to help others, is his approach.

Hassan wants to help people by fixing systems, which usually means people working together to fix their own lives. Chip away at the underlying problem, help lots of people, and create conditions to make bigger fixes.

Ebeling is, by vocation, a “storyteller”, so he uses this skill to attract attention to specific problems, to gather support, and to recruit remarkable people to work hard and immediately. “[T]hats how change happens: through a clear and simple, relatable story.” (p. 164) Definitely the “Hollywood” method.

By contrast, Hassan is a systematic thinker and theoretician, and he seeks to build platforms for multiple, sustained efforts to change things at a global scale. A chapter title, “Steps Toward a Theory of Systemic Action” gives the flavor of what he is trying to do.

One thing they seem to differ on is whether the prime goal should be to “fix one thing fast” (Ebeling), or “fix the right things for a long time” (Hassan). Both of these are good ways. Clearly, helping one person without fixing the broken system is limited. But fixing something in the long run doesn’t necessarily help anyone in the short run.

Tellingly, both men like to think in terms of experiments and prototypes, and neither has much patience for complex planning processes. Ebeling likes the hacker vibe of “just do it”, while Hassan is more scientific, expending great effort to learn and feedback results into new experiments. Ebeling uses “agile methods” because he is impatient to get the job done, Hassan uses “agile methods”, too, because planning doesn’t work—but he also takes trouble to justify this move by reference to Aristotle and Heidegger among other other philosophers.

I have to say that Ebeling’s “commit, then figure it out” is not the best idea for everyone or every problem. He gets away with it because he is well connected to wealthy people, so he can make it rain. But some problems will kill you, or innocent bystanders, so it isn’t always good to “just do it”.

Hassan’s social labs as platforms is an interesting idea, especially if you want to intervene on the scale of lifetimes. He has a strong emphasis on innovation by the stakeholders themselves, not by some do-gooders on the Internet. But, as he so clearly tells, this is difficult, tedious, and risky.

Everything depends on getting the right people in the right place, pulling the right levers, and being willing to adapt to conditions. Ebeling’s enterprise is all about motivating people to step up and tackle problems, Hassan’s is about helping people work together over time, to tackle their own problems.

I like both approaches, though I’d say this isn’t an either-or proposition. Of course, we must act out of personal passion. And we must strive to make changes that matter in the long run.

I lean towards the “work together” approach, which is really our only choice. But I am proud to be a card carrying Maker and volunteer, too.


 Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling

Mick Ebeling is a “story teller”, who fell backwards into the Maker movement. Self described “adrenaline addict”, Ebeling is not cut out for actual engineering (which is usually about risk mitigation), but he is totally simpatico with the Maker ethos: “Commit: Then Figure It Out”.

His Not Impossible Labs creates simple, open source gadgets to help people for whom help has been “impossible”. “What makes them amazing are the stories that surround the devices. It is the story that makes an invention compelling.” (p. 75)

Ebeling’s story is about several cool hacks, starting with ‘EyeWriter’, enabling a paralyzed artist to paint again. Very cool stuff, though perhaps not as technically ground breaking as he thinks. The crux of the story is not that any of this was ever “impossible” technically, it is that no one organized to put together solutions that have small user populations and will not make a profit.

Much of the rest of the book is a story about his trip to Africa to help one specific boy he heard about, to 3D print prosthetics for him—in a war zone, way off the grid. This is a remarkable adventure (for Ebeling), though it is not so much “impossible” as it is “ill advised”, not to say “insane”.

One ofhe best part of the book is Ebeling’s formula for success, “The Three Rules of How”.

  1. Singularity of focus – passionate focus on a personal goal, tackle a “small” problem that matters to you
  2. Give it away – liberation from cost benefit calculations, wiadom of the crowd, and just plain joyful
  3. Beautiful, limitless naivete – ‘nuff said

But why would you do this? Boiling down the story, it’s pretty simple. You do it because it’s part of who you are, and who you want to be. You see something wrong, you want to fix it, you need to fix it. “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

Nothing could be simpler.

Now, there is a lot in this book that I just don’t agree with. “Fake it til you make it” isn’t really honest, and can really hurt other people. His expensive, difficult, and dangerous trip to Africa made him feel good but helped only one kid for a short time. He did nothing to stop the war or suffering of the millions.

I guess I’m saying I don’t really like the “Hollywood” style.

Still, you won’t regret reading about his work and his story.


 

The Social Labs Revolution by Zaid Hassan

But solving problems one person at a time, one problem set at a time isn’t really enough, is it? To tackle complex problems, making a simple solution and them open sourcing it is not really a solution.

Hassan applies the same “let’s do it” spirit, though in the form “let’s do it together”. This is a really important difference. He calls this, “Social Labs”.

From his experience he gives a really nice bit of practical wisdom, in the form of three rules:

  1. Make what works stronger
  2. Let go of what doesn’t work
  3. Discover what you don’t have (p.95)

Hassan is generally no fan of “planning”, for many reasons, starting with the belief that it doesn’t work. He’s all about goal-oriented experimentation, in which you can’t really say for sure what the schedule is, or what the “inputs” and “outputs” will be.

The paradigmatic “social lab” is the Sustainable Food Lab, which has worked for years on various aspects of food supplies. Hassan says that this is a “platform” that lives a long time, and starts many innovations. Some end, some fail, and some continue and succeed.

But Hassan also describes a messy, unsuccessful episode, the Bahvisha Lab. This initiative met many kinds of friction, and did not achieve a great deal—though it did generate lessons, as he discusses in detail.

Chapter 6 is something I didn’t expect in this book, or anywhere, for that matter. He meanders from Aristotle through Heidegger and systems theory, thinking hard about the nature of “practical wisdom” and change. Eventually, he establishes the result he seeks, which is that the future is unknowable, all innovation is a black swan, and therefore planning is useless. Ergo: scrum!

Really! This is the first time I’ve seen Agile Software Development justified by Heidegger. But , why not? The essence of “scrum” is the notion that action is what counts, and the future is unknowable beyond a day or two. So why not dress it up with arguments about phenomenology?! Cool!

Chapter 7 does some serious theorizing, defining three requirements for “systemic action”:

  1. Constitute a diverse team (see also [3]), he advocates “open convening”
  2. Design an iterative process
  3. Actively create systemic spaces

This section has a couple of memorable images. The best one is a thought experiment,

“The task is to get a group of people who are standing in a valley to climb a mountain. You’re free to use whatever means necessary in order to achieve this task, and the assumption is that people will stay on top of the mountain after they’ve been moved. What would you do?” (p. 117)

He proceeds to go through the absurdities of many conventional approaches, and concludes that “[t]he most sustainable solution is, of course, that people decide for themselves to get to the top of the mountain, collaborate with each other, and get there using their own locomotion—to walk up.” (p. 119)

(By the way, I’d love to do a collection of original stories (or songs) by various authors, each telling how to get to the mountain top.)

Chapter 8 has “Seven How-Tos”, which are quite useful for a lot of purposes. I found myself thinking about these how-tos while doing routine emails, many of which are aimed at various kinds of “collaboration”.

  1. Clarify intentions (Duh!)
  2. Broadcast an invitation
  3. Work your networks
  4. Recruit willing people
  5. Set direction
  6. Design in stacks
  7. Find cadence

The conclusion finally rejects “planning” altogether, and argues for simple strategic goals. He gives three broad strategies: stabilization, mitigation, and adaptation.

It’s probably obvious by now that I lean toward Hassan’s approach, which certainly makes this old Bolshi’s heart go pit-a-pat. Let’s go big, go long, and go together. It’s really the only choice we have.


 

  1. Ebeling, Mick, Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done, New York, Atria Books, 2015.
  2. Hassan, Zaid, The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach To Solving Our Most Complex Challenges, San Francisco, Berret-Kohler Publichsers, 2014.
  3. Page, Scott E., The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.

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