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Mission Control for Planet Earth - The Ultimate Terrestrial Project

By Kimberly Wiefling

An executive I worked for long ago once remarked that I tended to expand the scope of my projects to the point of obviously diminishing returns. Yeah, I must admit that I've secretly had my heart set on transforming all of Planet Earth for the better ever since 1995, when Barbara Fittipaldi asked me, "What's the purpose of your life?" First I wanted to fix everything that wasn't working at HP. Then I decided I'd eradicate the sick, twisted, dysfunctional workplaces of the Silicon Valley. Not long after that I set my sights on shifting the mindset of Japanese business leaders in order to transform the entire Japanese economy. Then about two years ago I got bit by the Buckminster Fuller bug, seeking to answer Bucky's provocative challenge: "Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

[My vision is] To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone. -- R. Buckminster Fuller

Can't We All Just Spontaneously Cooperate?

As a lifelong student and practitioner of project leadership, what intrigues me about this provocative vision is the part about spontaneous cooperation. Project managers are often in positions of influence without positional power or control over people critical to their project's success. We succeed by inspiring cooperation in our team to work toward a shared vision motivated by mutual self-interest. This springs directly from game theory, and I've been giving out copies of Robert Axelrod's classic book on this topic, The Evolution of Cooperation, for the past couple of years. I even wrote a column about it on ProjectConnections a while back. Axelrod's follow-on book, The Complexity of Cooperation, is even more intriguing to those who must coax instead of command. Inspiring spontaneous cooperation is my idea of a great way to lead a project!

The Power of Visual Communication

This leads me to the other critical aspect of Fuller's philosophy: his emphasis on the importance of visualizing -- using visual tools to explore possibilities and scenarios so groups of people can make smarter, fact-based decisions quicker. The low-cost version of this is a bunch of flip charts, sticky notes, and long rolls of paper displaying the plan and status in a "Project War Room." And, while I shudder at the use of the analogy to violent conflict, I've found that visual tools significantly improve a project team's ability to commit to and execute a shared plan, and achieve seemingly impossible results together. My friend Dr. Bob Horn, the father of visual communication and author of Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century, couldn't agree more.

War rooms are common all over the world. Apparently they're pretty handy. The United States of America's NORAD Command looks like this. And Russia has a pretty nice War Room too. But armed conflict isn't the only metaphor here. NASA, my favorite example of an organization doing the impossible, has a Payload Operations Center (PDF) -- their primary space station science command post. And you don't need to be boldly going where no one has gone before in order to need visualization facilities on a massive scale. Here's an example of a traffic management control center in Tokyo. Heck, even Proctor & Gamble has a "Global Room" that looks a lot like a war room! (I did once hear Tom Seibel say, "The only difference between war and business is that in war you only get killed once.")

And since I live in the Silicon Valley near the San Francisco Bay, I have to mention the Army Corps of Engineers Bay Model. Built in 1957, this working hydraulic scale-model of the enormous San Francisco Bay has been used to test the viability of various proposals in the complex and expansive SF Bay Area. Tourists now enjoy a peek at it during visits to Sausalito.

We have visualization facilities to provide mission control for traffic, wars, rockets, forest fires, emergencies, disasters, and even for selling soap! Shouldn't we have a Mission Control for Planet Earth?

We have visualization facilities to provide mission control for traffic, wars, rockets, forest fires, emergencies, disasters, and even for selling soap! Shouldn't we have a Mission Control for Planet Earth? After all, we are riding on Spaceship Earth; it just so happens that in our case we astronauts are on the outside of the ship instead of the inside.

Mission Control for Planet Earth

Enter the World Resource Simulation Center (SIMCenter): a powerful, immersive visualization facility that enables large groups of people to envision complex situations, visualize scenarios, and imagine possible futures together. SIMCenter was founded by Peter Meisen, the inspirational mind behind the Global Energy Network Institute (GENI). (GENI's 30-year quest has been to link up the renewable energy grids of our planet. Someone's always in sunshine, and the wind's always blowing somewhere, so why not share?)


The SIMCenter's mission is to visualize sustainable solutions to global and local problems so we can make more informed choices quicker. Peter and his team developed an immersive, collaborative problem-solving demonstration facility in San Diego that operated successfully for six years. This kind of visualization encourages groups to surface their assumptions and beliefs, and enables them to share their perspectives visually. It helps frame the problem so participants can see a broader perspective and understand the long-range consequences of decisions. People who use this tool make smarter decisions quicker -- decisions that enjoy the buy-in and support of the individuals who must implement them. This aligns very well with my Scrappy Project Management principles.

But the San Diego facility was just a low-resolution version of what Buckminster Fuller envisioned years ago when he created the World Game Simulation. Now we're replicating that success in the Silicon Valley, first with one-day pop-up demos August 14–17 in Palo Alto, and then with full-scale facilities in Silicon Valley and other major population centers globally. At the SIMCenter, our most important role is to pose the critical questions to the team working on any problem. Like Fuller, we want to enable people to grasp the reality of the challenges and disparity we're grappling with here on Spaceship Earth, and spontaneously cooperate to address those challenges effectively.

The Problem Is Not a Lack of Smart People

There is no scarcity of thoughtful, knowledgeable, committed people working to make the world a better place. But the number, complexity, and interdependence of issues and trends are often poorly understood when they are presented as separate issues. We know these issues are interrelated. In order to perceive the world accurately and create a world that works for 100% of humanity, we need to literally "see" these issues presented in a comprehensive manner. We need a place where key stakeholders can meet for an extended time, perform a comprehensive analysis of these issues, propose strategies, and rigorously test and verify the implications of their decisions. We need a neutral forum equipped with the latest technology, and the urgency to address the interrelated, interdependent, global issues of our times. The SIMCenter provides this facility, but we must provide the will to act.

Will humanity develop a Mission Control for Planet Earth? Yes. It's inevitable, because survival as a planet is much more exciting than traffic jams, war, and selling consumer products. Our prototypes on August 14, 15, 16, and 17 are just the beginning of a global network of interconnected SIMCenters that will enable humanity to make sensible, fact-based decisions that impact our shared future.

Envision the Future

If you doubt the power of visual communication, imagine a brochure inviting newlyweds to Paris for their honeymoon. What would you expect to see on the cover: Statistics about the population of Paris? Its population? The square kilometers that the City of Love covers? I doubt it. It's far more likely that you'd see a picture of the Eiffel Tower, and perhaps even a couple in a loving embrace.

I'd never try to explain what the Grand Canyon looks like without pictures. I'd never show someone a written description of my mother; I'd show them an image of her doing some of the kooky things that make me love her. And I sure wouldn't try to lead and manage an important project with only email. Words mumble, pictures shout. I hope you will join us for this visualization experience, and experiment with increased use of visual communication in your projects.

– Kimberly

Additional information on the August events:

We focus on the Big Trends -- the Global, National, and Local Drivers that affect us all. Each day is independent, unique, and will focus on a different issue.
Monday, August 14 The Global Challenges: The Energy-Water Nexus and Climate Change
Tuesday, August 15 Regional Challenge: SF Bay Area Regional Issues: Energy, Water, Transit
Wednesday, August 16 City of Palo Alto Challenge: Mobility: Financing Climate Neutral Cities
Thursday, August 17 The Global Solutions: You Solve the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Receptions: 6–8 pm each evening

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting, and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management, (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of the "Scrappy Guides." series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone. "Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet!

©Copyright 2001-2017 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

No matter how much I like 100% Humanity, its an undefined goal, subject to Interpretation. Religious biases come into play. The end goal should be more definitive, "Make the world work for 100% elimination of Poverty", Make the world work for 100% elimination of illiteracy.

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