Last Thursday I spoke at the Viennese Talks on Resilience & Networks hosted by FAS.research, the Austrian Ministry of Science & Research, The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, and the Federation of Austrian Industries. This was the second Design 4 Resilience (D4R) event, though with a heavy science focus this time including a keynote from famed ecologist Buzz Holling, one of the conceptual founders of resilience science and ecological economics. 

Before I share my impressions of the conference, it might help to explain the relevance of the event to Shareable. Holling's work along with that of Herman Daly (steady state economics), Elinor Ostrom (governance of commons), Yochai Benkler (the economics of peer production) and others provide the intellectual foundation for an new more stable, equitable, and environmentally responsible economic system. It seems to me that these ideas are coalescing just when an alternative to the "growth at any cost" thinking of developed nations is needed. The purpose of D4R is to help bring these ideas into the mainstream.

Below I share some ideas that stood out for me. This is definitely not a complete account. The overall context of the conference is that we now live in different times. Change is fast, unpredictable, and dramatic. The probability of major disruptions or even collapses has increased. We need new ways to manage our resources to thrive and avoid collapse. The day was an exploration of ideas and modeling techniques to help leaders manage for resilience. 

Harald Katzmair:

  • The most important point Harald made is that the United States and Germany no longer have room in their national budgets for experiments to build a better future. This is the equivalent of a company spending no money on research and development. This strongly suggests that change has to come from elsewhere. See Harald's talk below, which does an excellent job of setting the context for all the presentations.

Buzz Holling:

  • Buzz gave the advice to work on things that you're passionate about that you have some control over rather than sink energy into change strategies that depend on large-scale structures to respond. Rigidities at the higher scales are to be expected near the end of the growth phase in the adaptive cycle, which he believes we're approaching if not already there.
  • If breakdown is severe enough, there's more chance that something new will emerge. In the second roll of the dice, individual processes dominate but then unexpected combinations between individual processes can emerge.
  • Links between scales of organization are necessary for a system to adapt to changing circumstances effectively
  • During transitions, the innovations to support are those that cross scales.
  • The Internet is a key laboratory for social experiments of all kinds including cross-scale ones.

Sergio Ulgiati:

  • A major theme of his talk is that technological fixes can not be relied upon for a transition to a low energy regime. He underscored that radical structural change is necessary. Actually, this was a theme that linked many of the talks.
  • He criticized the thinking behind many clean technology innovations, which often do not account for the energy, resources, and waste sinks required for innovations to work. 
  • He pointed out the folly of decoupling monetary systems from ecological basis of our wealth 
  • The true ecological cost of a product is often not reflected in its price
  • That renewable energy sources offer a false hope of being able to continue our civilization as we've know it. It can't possibly supply an equivalent amount of energy as fossil fuels.
  • He mentioned an exhaustive and sobering report by the International Forum on Globalization on why the collapse of industrial agriculture is inevitable

Bernard Lietaer:

  • The monopoly on currency by the Federal Reserve creates an inherently unstable banking and money system
  • There have been 96 bank and 176 monetary crises in the last 25 years
  • He believes the cause of the current economic crisis is structural, so the solution must be structural
  • He advocates for state sponsored complementary currencies for exchange at the local level and national currencies for international trade and exchanges between banks
  • He believes that complementary currencies will only work if taxes can be paid with them

Brian Fath:

  • Complex systems are maintained by energy 
  • Systems require a source of energy and a sink for waste, this is the basic input / output model
  • You shouldn't build too much complexity based on non-renewable energy sources, that's a setup for collapse
  • Brian belongs to a fairly small community of scientists that models energy flows through ecosystems, a technique which I believe is one intellecutal building block of an new economic system that takes into account flows in nature
  • Check out his presentation to see how energy circulation in systems can be modeled

Neal Gorenflo

  • My talk focused on sharing and self-organization as a strategy to build a resilient, equitable, and environmentally responsible society. 
  • I argued that an economy based on access rather than ownership could set the stage for a stable, high employment service economy when combined with other innovations like shorter work weeks
  • And that governments, business, and civil society should create policies and platforms that enable citizens to self-organize
  • I gave many examples of how people are already creating this new world where citizens are empowered to provide for each other
  • And argued that simply getting behind promising new innovations might be the best change strategy 

Harald's opening speech:

Ladies and Gentleman, dear Colleagues and Friends, dear Prof. Holling

I am really pleased to welcome you here in Vienna to our first Viennese talks on Resilience Research and Networks. It’s really awesome to have this diverse and excellent crowd of researchers and practitioners in one and the same room and I am really excited about what’s in front of us today.

The idea of this gathering emerged exactly 2 years ago. It was in late May 2008 when I was invited to give a talk at IIASA on Social Network Analysis and how we at FAS research apply science to help clients with real world problems. That’s how I met Brian Fath, the co- organizer of our event today. At this time I started reading literature on thermodynamics and networks and it was Brian who recommended reading H.T. Odum, Buzz Holling, and Robert Ulanowicz.

After 10 years of working in the field of applied social network analysis for a sociologist like me reading the Ecologist's view on Networks was an eye opening experience. I shared my reading experiences with my dear friend Wolfgang Neurath, a historian and philosopher – now responsible for the promotion of research in Austria – with whom I share a 20 years long ongoing fundamental conversation on philosophy, sociology, politics and history of science.

It was immediately clear for Wolfgang and me that we should do something to promote and work on those great and unique ideas Ecologists have developed over the last 80 years to explain the driving principles and forces behind energy and material flows in ecosystems. There was a lot we could learn from them to better understand our own research on social networks. Since Brian Fath also was interested in social network theory it was a sort of natural to join forces.

At the same time my friend Neal Gorenflo from San Francisco / California and publisher of an online magazine called started to initiate an open space movement called D4R, design for resilience, to bring the ideas and findings of resilience research from science into the cultural mainstream.

So a lot of things came together and finally we talked with Roland Sommer from the Federation of Austrian Industries who joined the team of organizers and is our host here today. Roland’s commitment proves the openness, curiosity and eagerness of the Federation of Austrian Industries to learn and explore new views which I guess makes them the actual leading think tank of this country.

Dear Colleagues and friends, we all know that our world and our societies are facing multiple challenges. A lot of really bad stuff is coming together: Instable financial markets, near zero growth rates in Western Economies, undeniable global warming, skyrocketing public deficits. The super massive oil spill in front of the coast line of Louisiana is a metaphor for a paradigm coming to an end. Even the most expensive PR campaigns of British Petrol can’t hide and cover the helplessness of almighty BP engineers to cope with the complex, nonlinear problems 1500 meters below the ocean surface.

This accident should tell a clear story to everyone who has hoped that there is a simple technological fix to the problems we are facing – since technology itself adds massively to the increasing complexity and unpredictability of our world. It seems that we truly have entered late K-Phase to use a concept from Buzz Hollings iconic infinity loop model characterizing the final stage of an adaptive cycle before creative destruction renews the system and set´s free new opportunity: Diminishing returns of complexity, increasing rigidities, increasing competition and selective pressure in all parts of society.

The most obvious document of late K is the analysis of the fiscal rigidities politics is facing. Recently Senior Researcher Wolfgang Streek from the Max Planck Institute published a working paper in which he analyses the rigidities of public spending starting from 1970 until today. In 1970 in the US and Germany about 30% of all tax money was spent in mandatory, ear marked areas like defense, agriculture, social security, healthcare etc. The rest were discretionary expenditures, investments into new areas, institutions, opportunities initiated by politics and government. But since 1970 the discretionary expenditure curve continuously went down. In 2009 it was the unbelievable number of 100% of tax money the US government spent in mandatory, already ear marked areas. The same happened in Germany. Today every single Dollar or Euro is already committed at the beginning of a fiscal year, the money is already spent – even before you pay your tax. The action range, the kinetic energy for new initiatives in politics seems to equal zero The only way to finance new initiatives is by borrowing it from the future through new debts and increasing deficits.

This is a really dramatic and frustrating account about the social and political rigidities we are facing. There is the real danger that we are entering a new area of severe struggles over the allocation of public wealth, with the risk of a culture of ugly zero-sum mentality combined with the unpleasant experience of being trapped within a frantic stagnation. A lot of micro-angst is building up, the short cycles of business and technology increase the distrust, undermine social capital, the way how we deal with each other in daily life. We are about to lose the most important capital that connects us: a shared shadow of the future, a shared vision and a story of what we want to become together as a society. Based on the findings of game theory it is exactly the length of our common shadow of the future that determines the probability if we behave fair and cooperative or act reckless and selfish. What can we do in a phase like that?

There is no other way than innovating and experimenting and preparing for the new We have to create and secure zones with freedom to think and the freedom to reframe our world in order to discover new opportunities, and seek new development paths. I believe that the framework of resilience and the network thinking are very powerful starting points to do so. Personally I don’t know anything better than that. Resilience thinking teaches us about the dynamics and cycles of living systems, about growth and death, creation, innovation and creative destruction, about the up and downs of systems being alive, including our economy and our society. It helps us to understand the structural features of successful organisms, organizations, companies, societies to go through those cycles of creative disruptions and opportunity. Resilience is about the capacity and inventory we have to respond to novelty, crisis and stress. If we understand those principles, we might come up with better strategies to manage our economy, our global and local affairs. Network theory provides a strict language to describe those dynamics.

Dear Colleagues, we have invited a diverse crowd of great speakers, with very different professional backgrounds and experiences. Our line up here is not business as usual. This is not an academic conference. This is an experiment. Like Eric Cantona, the French soccer genius from Manchester United, says in the recent movie by Ken Loach: We have to learn to surprise ourselves again. That´s what we want to do today. Let’s surprise each other with new ideas and thoughts. The day will be a success if it helps to open up some new windows, to increase the ontic openness of our rigid worlds; Let us bring in some fresh air and increase our own inventory to respond to questions and challenges ahead.

We don’t have to compete here over status, funding or career opportunities. We are diverse enough and economically independent enough to listen to each other, to contribute and share and to use the input of the talks to inspire and reframe our own work. So let’s use this rare opportunity to learn in a friendly and secure environment Let’s feed our curiosity and passion in finding, building and scaling something new. Each of us is called to become a pioneer again; there is no alternative to that. A new world is waiting to get created and discovered, because the old world, many of our old models, they simply don’t work anymore.

Before I hand over now I want to thank my whole wonderful team at FAS research for helping me with this event. And thank you Wolfgang, Brian and Roland for working together, thanks Neal for the inspiration. I am very, very pleased to hand over now to Wolfgang Neurath from the Austrian Ministry of Science and Research, that generously funded this event!

Thank you everybody for being with us, I wish all of us a truly exciting and inspiring day.

Neal Gorenflo


Neal Gorenflo | |

Neal Gorenflo is the executive director and co-founder of Shareable, an award-winning news, action, connection hub for the sharing transformation. An epiphany in 2004 inspired Neal to leave the

Things I share: Time with friends and family, stories, laughs, books, ideas, nature, resources, passions, my network.