Posted on August 29, 2009
This was a remarkable week for me for many reasons, most of which had to do with getting a new slant on reality or a new view of some of the systems that I am a part of and those that I am not.
I had the pleasure to spend four days in Bogota, Colombia meeting with the amazing folk at CINTEL and presenting at the 4th Encuentro de Invsestigacion Innovation e Ingernieria on Techno-wellbeing. I had the privilige to share the work that the Youth Voices Research Group is doing on health promotion with youth and our integrated eHealth model for community engagement including our Food4Health and Public Health Gambling Projects.
The first morning of meetings I was writing at my computer and then got up to look out the window of my hotel at the bustling morning rush hour of Bogota. As I was admiring the dogs playing in the park, the roar of the motorcycles and the beauty of the tree-lined boulevards outside my window I felt my back go into massive spasm. It hurt so much that I could hardly move. Realizing that I could not stand at the window in pain forever I fought through the ‘lightning bolts’ and managed to get to my bag where I had Advil tablets to manage the pain. But even at the best of times, it hurt – a lot. Over the past week the pain has subsided considerably, although I am still not 100% and probably won’t be for a few more days. But the pain isn’t the story here as much as the revelation it brought to me about the role that accessibility plays within the systems we engage in. Even simple things like stairs became a real pain (literally!) to take. Where I normally bound up the stairs two at a time, I found myself gingerly lifting one leg at a time up each step.
On my first day back home I had to shuffle on my way to the office. In process of shuffling, I realized how I had ‘become’ one of ‘those people’ who walk so slowly that I often get frustrated at in my effort to go somewhere quickly. My back should get better soon, but what hopefully remains is the lessons that this brought (including the one about taking better care of myself to prevent this from happening). As a systems thinker, I see these lessons or affirmations as including:
1. Diversity of perspective is critical. Just in one morning shuffle to the university I realized massive design flaws in the city I live in that favour the able-bodied. For example, some of these street lights can’t be adequately navigated in time if you can’t walk at a normal pace. Another big flaw is the heavy weight of the front doors of my building. I damn near pulled my back out again just opening the doors, which are exceptionally heavy.
2. Accessibility has many forms. Public health leaders are getting better at recognizing the social barriers to health engagement created by issues of race, social class, sex and gender, and geography. But one thing that can easily get lost is physical accessibility via disability. In eHealth for example, we often create elaborate websites that have tiny fonts that people with limited eyesight can’t see. Ever try reading a Blackberry or iPhone for long periods of time? It’s only for the good-sighted. Or we make assumptions that people can sit at computer and type (like I am now) and don’t have bad backs (like I did).
3. The mundane is where the action is. In systems we are often attracted to events, because that’s where the action appears to be. Yet, the mundane activities of a system is where most activities happen. For example, tying your shoes is something that happens every day and is never paid attention to until you break your shoelace or (in my case) hurt your back. In order to prepare for systems change, we need to anticipate how change might occur within the everyday actions in the system.
4. The edge of chaos always shifts. Creative systems tend to function at the edge of chaos, yet this edge has a dynamic position. My personal creative edge took a major directional change this week when my back went out. I continued to creatively navigate through my world, but instead of imagining new possibilities that hadn’t been created before, I found my creative edge focused on trying to get close to my former level of equilibrium on day-to-day activities like walking, shoe tying, and just getting dressed.
As I move into a new Fall term and am about to teach a new course on systems science these lessons are particularly apt. While I don’t think I’ll get my students to throw their back out, I will have them imagine how their current assumptions about a system can radically change with a very simple shift in vantage point, making the invisible visible.
Posted on August 25, 2009
Every time I sit down at my computer I find myself in awe at the power in my hands. I was listening to a podcast on a plane yesterday (just think of that: listening to a radio show, downloaded via the Internet for free to listen whenever I want, on a device that fits in my pocket, and lets me tune in at 34,000 feet over the Caribbean Sea). The podcast was on the Great Library 2.0: Google’s efforts to digitize nearly every book in the world and make it searchable. I find all of this amazing, and unlike some I am happy with how amazing things are in terms of technology.
Yet as Marshall McLuhan so astutely noted, technology first serves as an appendage that serves and then as a master.
Looking at the score between appendage and master I’d say we’re about tied when it comes to how technology affects health. And that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Consider the concept of time poverty. Take the United States, arguably one of the most technologically sophisticated societies, yet also among the most time poor. One poll looking at U.S. vacation time suggests that only 14% of Americans will get a vacation of two weeks or longer this year. That is despite having all of the tools to reduce work time, maximize efficiency, and engage in leisure activities in a way that was once unfathomable. Yet, time poverty is certainly something that I live with despite having the ability to do far more in less time thanks to technology. The problem is the ‘far more’ part of that statement.
When I look at my life and that of others working with eHealth (or academia — or just about every knowledge-based profession), the same storyline come up: too much communication and not enough time to process or participate in it fully. I don’t know of a colleague who doesn’t feel that their email is difficult to manage. I appreciate being able to communicate with colleagues easily (McLuhan’s extension argument), but when I get back from a couple days offline to find hundreds of email, dozens of phone calls, tweets, blog updates, Blackberry messages, and Skype calls waiting for me, I feel very time poor indeed. So ironically, these tools that enable me to do so much so fast contribute vastly to time poverty and stress.
This can’t continue for long – -can it? So far, there is no sign of it stopping with 3G communications and the mobile web. But there are things we can do to change ourselves relative to the technology and avoid becoming the slave to its master. I recently read John Freeman’s Manifesto for Slow Communication and think he might be on to something. He writes:
“In the past two decades, we have witnessed one of the greatest breakdowns of the barrier between our work and per sonal lives since the notion of leisure time emerged in Victorian Britain as a result of the Industrial Age. It has put us under great physical and mental strain, altering our brain chemistry and daily needs. It has isolated us from the people with whom we live, siphoning us away from real-world places where we gather. It has encouraged flotillas of unnecessary jabbering, making it difficult to tell signal from noise. It has made it more difficult to read slowly and enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.”
This fits with a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two psychologists who looked at multitasking and cognitive performance and,” in every test, students who spent less time simultaneously reading e-mail, surfing the web, talking on the phone and watching TV performed best.”
Is the ‘e’ part of eHealth becoming a source of illness rather than wellbeing? As Freeman states:
“This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, work place meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”
The system in which we utilize these tools best determines their ultimate impact on health and wellbeing. I use all types of media to learn about them and their potential and find it fascinating. But we have no users guide to healthful communicating and frankly, things are happening so quickly I question whether we can even come up with a good one that is timely and relevant. But the question about how eHealth communications and the speed and volume at which this takes place is one that warrants serious attention for us as researchers, teachers, health professionals and citizens. Otherwise, eHealth risks becoming a 21st century version of bloodletting.
For those of us in the eHealth area and working in Ontario, these are dark days. While the opportunities for electronic tools can make a substantial different to patient care, health promotion, and health innovation are greater than ever, the events surrounding eHealth Ontario, it’s former CEO, its governance, and its outputs have made eHealth a bad word in many circles. When a term that could stand for innovation, quality, accessibility and efficiency is equated with $25K speeches and Choco Bites, we’ve got problems.
But as Andre Picard wrote in the Globe and Mail, it wasn’t about the Choco Bites. The eHealth ‘boondoggle’ is about most everything, but what it was supposed to do. It became about the technology and not about designing a system to support the health and wellbeing of the public and the delivery of care by professionals. But when it became about the technology, we relied on well-worn and inefficient means of building it because people thought it was too important and too big not to trust to the ‘experts’. The problem is, the experts in this system are designing things to make money as their first priority, not health. The result? Large, inefficient systems that are technology first and people second, meaning they don’t do the job.
It is understandable that people might feel a little overwhelmed trying to imagine how a computer system could connect all the myriad paper records together to provide timely, accurate and secure information to physicians and care providers all across a large province like Ontario. It may be this very feeling that has inspired the decisions to pursue such outlandishly expensive electronic solutions that, to date, appear to have little value for dollar.
We’ve seen this before. The Canadian Firearms Registry was one example. So have been the examples of various database programs to support child welfare programs and track paroled sexual offenders. More often than not, these become big expenses with outcomes that are less than stellar.
Building databases is complicated, but it isn’t rocket science. Maybe it should be.
In the Shadow of the Moon is a remarkable documentary that looks at the race to the moon as told by the only men who had ever stepped foot on it. What stood out for me in that film was how, with some inspiration, determination, and resources, the U.S. was able to mobilize its talent to go from rockets that blew up on the launch pad to sending men to the moon multiple times to win the Space Race. This was a feat of innovation that was staggering. 40 years later, the Ansari X-Prize was awarded to the first team “to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s surface, twice within two weeks.” It set off a new phase in commercial space flight. Just as Charles Lindberg won the Orteig Prize, which initiated transcontinental air flight, the X-Prize has initiated a new industry. Yet, at the end of all that, we remember the people and the amazing things they did much more than the technologies they used to get there.
Maybe we need the X-Prize for eHealth. What if we enabled the power of collective thinking, self-organization, and the motivation that comes from winning a prestigious prize? What new ideas would we come up? How much money would we save? The X-Prize was $10M and kick-started a $300M nascent market for commercial space travel. eHealth Ontario has spent more that $650M and achieved little.
Bring on the rocket scientists, our health system apparently needs them.
I’m writing this from a Starbucks. With free wireless Internet, decent cafe Americanos and fast breakfast foods that are both reasonably healthy, tasty and not too expensive, its one of the few chains I look for when I’m in need of a place to sit down when a comparable locally-flavoured establishment isn’t available. As someone who both works long (and often early) hours and travels a lot, places that offer decent food and drink and productivity space are valued above almost anything. When you don’t have time to shop for healthy foods for home and have to eat out it can take a real toll on your health.
I bring with me a travel tumbler, reusable bags and even portable chopsticks to eat with. I buy local and responsibly whenever possible, and when eating at home I aim to buy items with little packaging and, what packaging there is gets recycled with the food waste organics separated and composted in biodegradable bags. When I took the David Suzuki Foundation challenge I got high marks. All is well– right? No. And that’s why climate change and protecting our environment is truly a grand challenge that requires a systems approach. Grand challenge problems refer to exceptionally difficult tasks that stretch the limits of any one group to be able to address them. They are the complex problems that have no single source or simple solution.
No matter what I’ve done to address climate change and help the environment, I am only making a small difference. I’ve been reminded by that because of one product: The Starbucks Vivanno.
This morning my wife and I had a Starbucks Vivanno — a fruit smoothie that is reasonably healthy and pretty decent food option if you’re pressed for time and want some low-fat protein — which is no easy task at the best of time, particularly if you don’t eat meat. If you’ve watched people make these things, they are messy and they are designed for a disposable cup – one that is outside of the regular size cups that a person brings around with them, making it difficult to use the reuasble cup option. This leaves us with a lot of options: 1) Take the disposable cup and make more waste, 2) find a very large cup and bring that around, adding bulk to your bag, 3) don’t drink smoothies at all and either not eat or eat something unhealthy.
Thinking about this a little further, one realizes how tied up layers upon layers of issues are in this drink.
> Why aren’t there other food choices available? (this speaks to the market, to innovation, to location — an easy thing to overlook when you live in downtown Toronto)
>Why am I so busy that I can’t make a decent healthy meal at home? (issues: work demands; social expectations; lack of funding for university research requiring me to work long hours; the expectations of my employer, employees, students and colleagues — requiring me to work long hours; my personality; availability of healthy foods in local grocery stores; ability to cook something I want to eat and meets my nutritional needs)
>Why can’t stores serve drinks in reusables? (issues: cost, breakage, theft, no proper recycling options, people’s busy schedules and need to ‘take away’, no exchange program for containers)
>Why can’t we just get better travel mugs? (issues: our bags are already making us look like sherpas with laptops, pens, books, workout gear, batteries and so forth; they cost a lot for a good one — or you buy a cheap one and add more waste when it breaks, market, etcc.)
These are just four questions with lots of issues — there are many more that you can probably think of. I write this from downtown Toronto, Canada. There are more than 20 other Starbucks locations within a 30 minute walk from my current location and dozens of other coffee shops, pastry places and food outlets to choose from. In some ways, this is really a luxurious problem to have. What about places where you have to drive to get somewhere? What about rural communities where one or two shops is all you have? Yes, the cultural standards will change in each place, but the more I look at this the easier it is to see how I can become the David Suzuki poster boy and still make only a dent on the environment without considering these myriad other issues that influence how a simple product (a cup) becomes a complex issue.
Posted on August 8, 2009
Food is one of my great passions. It’s nice to have one that just happens to overlap with a basic need for survival and is a topic that is perhaps the single most powerful lever for social change in the world. We all have to eat and when we can’t eat, or consume enough, or eat food that’s appropriate to our culture or taste sensibilities our quality of life suffers greatly. Since devoting more of my energies to food systems as part of research I’ve found myself reading a LOT about food: where and how it is grown, it’s environmental footprint, and it’s health effects on individuals and the world around us. Needless to say, there is a lot to read. There are those that look at what to eat like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma & Marion Nestle’s What to Eat. Both authors have penned books on the politics of food as well such as Nestle’s Food Politics and Pollan’s In Defence of Food. Add to that the books on the food system as a whole such as Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved and Paul Roberts The End of Food and you’ve got a lot on your bookshelf.
Most of this reading does not paint our current Western food system in such good light.
Then there are books like the 100 mile diet by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver chronicle the real challenges of living life of local eating. I liked them both because they didn’t paint an unrealistic picture of what is involved in growing and eating in a manner that reflects (in places like Canada and the United States at least) a largely bygone era of food production.
I have found these books useful, interesting and (mostly) enjoyable to read. My consciousness around what I eat and my role in the food has expanded greatly since diving into this issue. I grew up in Southern Alberta and spent a lot of time in the country growing up, including visiting farms. It is a (literally) dirty business for hard-working people and a vocation that few non-farmers truly understand. It is for that reason that the themes of the books above can easily skate over perspectives that don’t gel well with with their central thesis (namely, that our current food system is unsustainable, perhaps inhumane, and not helpful to people — including farmers). And while I agree with all three of these statements, putting on my systems thinking cap and viewing the problem from that perspective has me cautious in wholeheartedly recommending that we abandon our current system. It is this critical perspective that drew me to an essay by farmer Blake Hurst that tries to put these recommendation into the perspective of the farmer and modern agrifood. Although the article is in the right-wing, business-first journal of the American Enterprise Institute I found it quite balanced and congruent with the conversations I’ve had with farmers over the past few years as I’ve become much more professionally engaged with the agrifood sector.
What I found interesting in Hurst’s article was how it burst a lot of the myths around farming that have been set up by many advocates of organic, small-scale farming that use the books I mentioned at the beginning as their defence. Hurst writes:
“I’m dozing, as I often do on airplanes, but the guy behind me has been broadcasting nonstop for nearly three hours. I finally admit defeat and start some serious eavesdropping. He’s talking about food, damning farming, particularly livestock farming, compensating for his lack of knowledge with volume. I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food…But now we have to listen to self-appointed experts on airplanes frightening their seatmates about the profession I have practiced for more than 30 years. I’d had enough. I turned around and politely told the lecturer that he ought not believe everything he reads. He quieted and asked me what kind of farming I do. I told him, and when he asked if I used organic farming, I said no, and left it at that. I didn’t answer with the first thought that came to mind, which is simply this: I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand.”
It is here that I saw congruence and the levers for systems change: “unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand“. Indeed, if systems change is to come it must come from the bottom as much as the top, but do so in a manner that acknowledges the realities that Hurst outlines. I once spent almost two hours talking with Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon about their book on the 100 mile diet. I’ve also met Marion Nestle and spoken to her about these challenges. Both parties were passionate advocates, but neither were zealots or ideologues. Yet, ideological rants are what is coming out loud and clear from those who are against conventional farming. This was loud and clear when the U.K. Food Standards Agency published their study showing that organics were no more nutrient rich as conventionally grown food (see my earlier post). The news and the web are full of criticisms of it, driven (presumably) by an ideology that simply see the report as an attack, rather than a reflection of science.
Diversity of perspective is an essential ingredient for healthy systems change. Hurst’s article motivated me to write this because I think he has a valuable thing to say. While many might favour organics and small scale farming for the reasons I’ve cited earlier, the truth is that there are some things that conventional farmers do now that isn’t incongruent with this perspective and that perhaps ideology should be put into the backseat. As Peter Senge and others have outlined, we need to have all groups at the table to develop our systems change strategy and this won’t happen through attacking the others, only through listening. Maybe through being present with others, listening to their perspective, and developing a strategy based less on ideology and more on collaboration will be successful in getting the healthy food system we want.
Posted on August 3, 2009
Another interesting note of argument to the growing chorus of voices on the organics and health issue coming from New Scientist magazine writer Jim Giles. In his article the quote I like most is this one: “It’s not about whether organic food is good or a sham,” says Jules Pretty, an agricultural scientist at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK. “That’s the wrong question. We should be asking how we can make all of agriculture more sustainable.”
Asking the right question is an important thing to stop and consider. So often the debates in science go off into different directions without stopping to ask whether the science is answering the right (or the most important) question. This makes me think back to the presidential address by Pat O’Neill at the Canadian Psychological Association’s annual meeting a few years ago. Pat is a community psychologist and someone who’s work I’ve long admired. For those not familiar with the field, community psychology was formed largely out of the frustration of psychologists working in clinical settings who were trying to ‘treat’ psychological problems at an individual level when the problems were less about the individual, but much more about the environment that they live in. This is what we often refer to as the social determinants of health (and wellbeing). For community psychologists, asking whether or not a person had the resources to cope with the problems was the wrong (or less productive) question to ask. Why were these problems there in the first place? What was their causes? And how could psychological knowledge contribute to alleviating those problems and changing the systems that sustain them?
Anyway, what Pat argued in his presidential address is for some re-consideration of the questions that psychologists ask. He argued (quite well) that much of the knowledge we have is constrained by the questions we’ve asked. One of the reasons we don’t have the data to address the big problems is that we haven’t asked the questions (in research terms) that address these problems.
Asking whether organics is equivalent to conventional food is a worthy question from a scientific standpoint and from a nutritional science perspective. But whether that is the question that we ought to base our food choices and food policy on is quite another.