Is Everything Connected to Everything

For many years, my research related to design, operations, and maintenance of national security and space systems.  Over the past two decades, I have added healthcare delivery, higher education, urban systems, as well as energy and transportation.  These complex ecosystems interact in myriad ways.  In particular, they interact in terms of claims on societal resources.

Is it more important that people are healthy or educated?  Is green energy a higher priority than transportation?  Is national security an element of competitiveness?  It seems like there are tradeoffs everywhere.  Is that the case and, if so, how do we address them?  It seems to me that we do not want to tradeoff someone’s heart surgery versus refueling an F-35.  There needs to be a more principled approach to this.

I have found this approach to be useful.  For the sake of argument, let’s limit the discussion to national security (S), healthcare delivery (H), higher education (E), and energy and climate (C).  We are interested in formulating an investment portfolio that maximizes society utility U (S, H, E, C).  How might this be done?  Here is how we might proceed.

W start by asking the S, H, E, and C constituencies what they could deliver for budgets equal to 80%, 100%, 120%, and 140% of their current budgets.  Given that they are seeking to maximize their budgets, each would argue for how they could increase U(S), U(H), U(E), and U(C).  That is exactly what we want them to do.  Once they make their arguments, how do we decide?

We need to decompose U (S, H, E, C) into U [U(S), U(H), U(E), U(C)].  Then, we need to consider interactions.  Are we better off if people are healthy and educated, or if they are nationally secure or energy secure?  There are many possibilities here and much debate is warranted.

What is the appropriate form of U (S, H, E, C)?  A simply weighted linear formulation presents the problem of allocating all the resources to the investment that will receive the greatest increase of utility, although the nature of diminishing returns will limit this extreme.  A functional form that includes cross terms, e.g., U(X) times U(Y), will limit this extreme, but requires assessing weights in a much more complicated fashion.

Another approach is to employ a weighted linear formulation but pursue a range of scenarios that systematically vary the weights.  What is the best outcome for S, H, E, and C?  Once we understand these distinct possibilities, how can we creatively decrease the distances among the outcomes?  My experiences have been that once everyone understands different views, many creative proposals emerge.

The key is to get each stakeholder group to understand the perspectives of the other stakeholder groups.  Usually, everyone realizes that compromises are necessary to moving forward.  Everything is connected to everything, but this need not deter us from making incremental progress that everyone values.  We are not in a “zero-sum” game where there are only winners and losers.  We can all take turns helping each other out.

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