Science Fiction and Empiricism: On Imagining and Measuring a Better Future

Greenberg AnastasiaBy Anastasia Greenberg

Hanging unassumingly on a wall in the hallway that divides the Research Department from several other departments at One Earth Future Foundation (OEF) is a framed version of OEF’s Institutional Logic Framework: a manifesto followed by a sort of “ten commandments” listing the organization’s core values. This mundane framed text is sandwiched between walls that are adorned with large colourful emotionally provoking photographs taken across several countries in sub-Saharan Africa – quite the juxtaposition. While OEF staff seem to pay little attention to this moral code passed down to them by the Board of Directors; the upper management, on the other hand, seem to taut these phrases in an almost cult-like fashion at every staff meeting. One of these “commandments” – my personal favourite – is: “we are relentlessly empirical”. OEF clearly has a penchant for hard data and quantitative research methodology, which is why I was surprised to walk into a development talk one day at the office led by a PhD graduate who has decided to venture outside the academic lines by pursuing science fiction.

The project that was being presented, led by Dr. Andrew Merrie, is called Radical Ocean Futures. Using a method called “science fiction prototyping”, Merrie wrote a compilation of four science fiction stories to depict four different future scenarios for the world’s oceans, integrating some predictions loosely based on scientific research on ocean health. Two of the scenarios were dystopian. In one, ocean life has died off and humanity with it, leaving behind a sole surviving fisherman. In the other, a complete industrialization of the oceans has taken place. The last two scenarios are more utopian: humanity survives sea level rise by living in underwater cities, and the most favorable scenario is that in which humanity succeeds at a sustainable ocean future, featuring robots responsible for cleaning and upkeep of ocean health. What’s more, is that Merrie also commissioned a high-profile concept artist, Simon Stålenhag, to create incredible digital artworks to represent each sci-fi scenario.

While I found all of this engaging and entertaining from an artistic point of view, what really struck me was the audience that Merrie was able to target outside of sci-fi nerds. News outlets picked up the story immediately. Most impressively, Merrie was recently invited to present this work at the United Nations Ocean Conference, with Stålenhag’s artwork displayed throughout the event. Academics from the environmental sciences have been warning us about the grave realities of climate change effects on the oceans for decades, but apparently science fiction and art were the channels that could get policymakers to tune in.

This got me thinking about the word “impact”: what does it mean and how do we measure it? In a world that is increasingly data-driven, OEF is feeling that thirst for empiricism. While the Radical Oceans project is only loosely based on actual empirical information, OEF was drawn by the perceived “impact” that it was having on their stakeholders of interest. OEF has been undergoing some major changes to their organizational structure and mandate, and a major part of this change will be to solidify a way to measure the organization’s social impact.

Coming from an academic background, the word “impact” and its measurement has always meant something very specific to me. A scientist’s “impact” is measured by a very precise formula that takes into account the number of publications that one has and the number of citations that each of those publications has accumulated. This essentially measures how influential one’s work has been on the scientific community, but not necessarily beyond those academic boarders.

My connotation of the word “impact” has really started to evolve. OEF is a multifaceted NGO that aims not only to have others cite its research and policy reports but to actively facilitate peaceful conflict resolution in fragile states. Impact in this realm is really hard to measure. However, OEF is also “relentlessly empirical” and it is difficult to pride themselves in this regard without any tangible measure of their impact on peace.

Peace is not only difficult to measure, but even to define. At staff meetings, conversations constantly revolve around concepts of “negative” versus “positive” peace and which of these OEF should concern themselves with. Negative peace is the absence of violence and war. This is relatively simple to measure, the so called “body bag count” will do. The Global Peace Index (GPI) is a sophisticated attempt by the Institute for Economics and Peace to measure such negative peace. The GPI gives a peacefulness score for every country based on several factors including: numbers of internal and international violent conflicts that a country is involved in, levels of violent crime, political instability, as well as military expenditure. The GPI is updated on an annual basis so that progress over time can be assessed. Of course, even measuring such negative peace statistics accurately, as the GPI tries to do, is just the first step in figuring out whether a small organization like OEF has any causal role in the measured progress towards peace.

Positive peace on the other hand, deals with structural violence, issues such as: poverty, discrimination, inequality and other social injustices. Negative peace is reactive, while positive peace is proactive. While even measures of negative peace can be highly contentious, positive peace is substantially more difficult to define and measure. Nevertheless, the Positive Peace Index tries to do just that by considering the effectiveness of government institutions, levels of corruption, freedom of information, and so forth.

Although such complex information is aggregated into numbers, the data tells a rich story much like those sci-fi scenarios. These data come with their own artistic depictions, albeit less awe-inspiring. The picture below shows that the PPI has been improving on average across countries for the past decade, with about three quarters of all countries showing an improvement in positive peace. These data seem to point towards the possibility of a more utopian future scenario. Quantifying peace in such a manner has always been politically controversial, especially when dealing with governments of countries who score low on these “Western” standards of peace. This is a legitimate criticism given how many facets of life an index such as the PPI will inevitably omit.

Given that peace is such an elusive concept, is it futile to attempt to measure it and the social impact of NGOs like OEF? As Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace, has said: “If you don’t measure peace, how can you understand it?“. Thinking back to science fiction prototyping in the context of the future of peacebuilding, I can imagine a dystopian scenario in which we have given up hope on measuring peace and the world has spiraled into perpetual violent conflict. On the utopian end of the spectrum, a meaningful way of measuring social impact and peace has become a reality. In this future, we can even diagnose early signs of political conflict and initiate the right preventive measures – a “positive peace” approach. To get to this utopia, we need an empirical and critical approach that challenges the meaning of impact, peace, and a deep understanding of the data that shed light on these issues. And maybe a little art can help too.

 

Research, Policy, Advocacy and the Messy World of International Affairs: My Adventures in Colorado

Greenberg AnastasiaBy Anastasia Greenberg

Having just finished first-year law school exams at the end of April, I had about seven days to visit family and friends in Toronto that I hadn’t seen in ages, take care of a massive pile of errands that are naturally set aside to cultivate and grow during exam periods, pay attention to my husband who has been neglected during the past months; leaving me with just about a few hours to pack my bags and move to Colorado for the summer. I barely had any chance to process what had taken place in the last eight months of law school, and I really started to feel disengaged and confused about why I was studying law to begin with.

I arrived in Colorado on a Friday and had two days to settle into my apartment before starting work on Monday. I showed up that morning at the One Earth Future Foundation (OEF), not really knowing what to expect. I was warmly greeted upon my arrival and immediately rushed into a room where I was shown an emotional video about what OEF does, what its mission is, how it operates and so forth. All this was followed by a heavy stack of mundane paperwork to fill out: important steps before embarking on solving world peace. In the video (and in the mundane paperwork) phrases such as: “peace through governance” and “stakeholder engagement” were frequently used, but did not really make much sense until I started communicating with my co-workers and putting the pieces together of how this very interesting and unusual organization was functioning.

OEF is essentially an international “Think” and “Do” Tank. The organization is a non-profit and views its role as providing high quality research and intelligence on issues of inter- and intra-state violent conflict, while engaging various “stakeholders” such as government and non-government actors to implement policy action. There are several departments within OEF that each focus on different issues such as departments working on the role of women in peace and security, issues related to ocean piracy, micro-financing in so-called “fragile” states, as well as the largest department: the research department, which is my home for the summer. OEF is a bit unusual in comparison with many other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in its choice to use rigorous empirical methodology within its research mandate and in its choice of adopting a “neutral” approach to advocacy. In a sense, they would like the research to speak for itself and prefer to stay away from “cherry-picking” information that fits advocacy goals.

On the other hand, OEF has very broad mission statement objectives such as “a world without war in 100 years”. This is clearly a value laden statement (yes, it’s idealistic) but an overarching one, lacking specificity. In this way, I feel that their approach does have a clear advocacy angle, while also being broad enough to allow for issue-specific adaptability, within this broader framework, that is ultimately informed by their research. The whole idea that a world without war is possible is supported by famous psychologist Steven Pinker who is, interestingly enough, an adviser to the organization.

OEF produces all kinds of different work including academic publications, policy reports, documentary films, op-ed articles, as well as on-the-ground work through their partners and staff members that are located in various countries of interest where programs are directly implemented. Many staff members are themselves either from, or have lived for years in, the countries that they focus on. From what I have seen so far, while their approach is rigorous, it is also rich in quality and multifaceted.

So what have I been working on?

Having come into the organization with a research background behind me prior to starting law school, my supervisor (who is the director of the Research Department) decided to allow me to define my own project that touches on my interests in human psychology. I have been working with a large dataset collected from thousands of people across 60 different countries that asked people questions related to all sorts of beliefs and personal values. Broadly speaking, I am interested in which types of reported beliefs are associated with people’s tendency to justify violence against others, including support for war, as well as how country-level socio-economic and political factors may interact with personal-level beliefs. For example, how do country-level factors such as GDP, income inequality, homicide rates, and years of civil war modulate the relationship between various beliefs and violence justification at the individual level?

Another project that I am assisting with is the creation of a Maritime Security Index. The idea is to take in massive amounts of data from many different sources and try to build an intuitive index that will help identify which countries are doing a poor job and which countries are doing a good job at ensuring security on their coasts and in their waters. This includes measures related to human trafficking by water, illegal fishing, environmental violations, piracy, drug trafficking, and so on. I have been having a lot of fun “geeking out” over index methodology with some PhD scientists on the team. While this highly mathematical approach may seem (and most definitely is) far removed from the qualitative reality of people who are suffering as a result of violence at sea, it is really important that we get the numbers right. In delving into some of the index methodology of various indices created by other NGOs, there are instances where the creation of these indices is questionable at best. For example, one such organization (which shall remain unnamed) decided on the “weighting” of various sub-indices based on how many hits came up on a Google search of the topic. OEF’s index will be used to single out countries that are under-performing in relation to some of their international agreements, and therefore, the nerds do have an important role to play here.

What other cool things have been going on at OEF?

I have also been learning about other really interesting initiatives at OEF. The research team has an ongoing project whereby they try to predict the onsets of coups d’état in different countries. OEF also recently co-hosted an event on “Peace Through Technology” which discussed ways in which technological innovations could be leveraged to promote peace-building. The Oceans Beyond Piracy team is also heavily involved in hostage rescue operations in Somalia. One of my favourite ongoing projects that I learned about from my next-door office cubicle mate Roberta Spivak is an event-series that she has been working on as the Editor-in-Chief of the Global Governance Journal. Every year, the editorial team of the journal select an article and host an event at one of the United Nations headquarters during which the author of the article gets to presents their research to a group of UN Ambassadors. These Global Governance Discussion Series are meant to stimulate conversations between researchers and policy makers.

Do I have a life?

Outside of work, I have been trying to take full advantage of the gorgeous Colorado landscapes. Just two weeks after my arrival in early May, we saw an unexpected massive snowstorm. While I was not at all prepared, I decided to make the most of it and went snowboarding at a resort west of Denver called Arapahoe Basin. Since then, the weather has been very warm and lovely which gave me lots of opportunities to explore hiking trails not far from Boulder. I’ve also enjoyed a lively Art Walk event in Denver with art galleries opening their doors to passersby until late into the night. On top of it all, OEF also held a cultural experience event for us non-American interns at a Rockies baseball game. I am not a huge fan of baseball, but it was pretty great having a day off and a chance to get to know my colleagues in their “natural” American habitat.

What’s next?

While I am still not exactly sure where my career is going to take me next, so far, this summer internship experience has been a really refreshing and eye-opening adventure. I can now appreciate the true value of an interdisciplinary team working on complex interdisciplinary issues. OEF has staff members with backgrounds all the way from PhDs in Psychology and Political Science, to lawyers, to former NATO guys, to artists such as an in-house filmmaker. Tackling complex issues requires expertise and skills across a range of disciplines, and ultimately, I see myself working in such a dynamic environment in the future.

 

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