Ernst Friedrich Zwirner and Richard Voigtel had a difficult job to do. They were architects and they were designing a cathedral that was to become the tallest twin spire church in the world and Germany’s most visited tourist attraction. And they were doing it in the middle ages with no computer aided design, engineering standards or heavy machinery.
Cologne cathedral was started in 1248 under the watchful expertise of Ernst and Richard. It was finished 632 years later in 1880, on this very day in fact, the 14th August.
Imagine that. Imagine working on something that you knew you’d never see completed.
Doing difficult things, like building cathedrals or addressing the world’s most most wicked and complex problems, takes time. Those problems, climate change, poverty, inequality, etc., etc., etc., existed before us and they will continue to exist after we have gone. There are no quick fixes.
And part of the reason these problems persist is that we don’t know how to design perfect systems. We don’t know how to create systems that interact intentionally with other systems. Every system designed by humans can be gamed by other humans for their own advantage, or creates unintended consequences, or just doesn’t address the issue it was supposed to. We don’t fully grasp how interconnectedness at scale changes the way systems behave, it’s beyond our little brain’s capacity to deal with. We’re just not smart enough.
We see these system problems everywhere.
The turmoil in UK politics isn’t the result of particular party candidates, although it’s easy to blame individuals we don’t agree with, and it isn’t the result of a particular political party, although we’re pressured to take sides and demonise the other side. Instead, there is a bigger system problem with national governance that is designed on principles of opposition rather than cooperation to reach the best solution, and confers more power on individuals than they are equipped to handle.
The issues in emerging technologies aren’t the result of particular blockchain protocols, although it’s easy to blame crypto-currency crashes on a greedy minority misusing technology for selfish ends, and they aren’t the result of the existential risk Artificial Intelligence poses, although there is an important ongoing ethical debate. Instead, there is a bigger system problem with different things changing at different rates and very few mechanisms in place to coordinate between them.
Taking a long view on what is to be achieved doesn’t reduce the urgency for action, but it changes the expectation on the results. If Ernst and Richard had set out to build something that could be completed in their own lifetime they wouldn’t have created one of the most impressive cathedrals in the world. Greatness takes times.
So, can we create systems like cathedrals? Can we intentionally take a long view, not expecting a few years in political office or new technologies to produce fully-formed solutions? Can we intervene in systems in small sensing ways, aiming to learn what does and doesn’t work, rather than expecting the roll out of a new policy or technology to fix the issues?
For us too, we can make our contributions, however small, be aimed at long-lasting impact. We may tend to focus our efforts on the short term, on what work we can complete this week, what result we can see this year, but everything we do are part of something bigger. In an intricately interconnected world, nothing we do has no effect.
We can build things that are built to last, built to outlast us.