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business models, strategies and technologies

(Planetary) problems don’t have to be ugly – or idiot-simple

Thinking simple doesn’t cut it when the future state of our planet is at stake. The amount of effort we put into describing environmental challenges doesn’t match their seriousness.

The kinds of problems barrelling down the turnpike towards our planet are seldom simple, black-and-white or mono-causal. They’re complex, inter-connected and are often treading new ground – this kind of man-made shit-storm has never occurred before in our planet’s history.

It seems a new level of explanation is needed – journalistic over-simplification and trivialisation are counter-productive in terms of understanding cause and effect, and for identifying paths to resource-effective action.

Problems don’t have to be ugly

Complexity is difficult to communicate – and there’s always the argument that people don’t have time/can’t be bothered to deal with such complexity, with their short media attention spans and amid the flow of their busy lives.

But attractive explorations and illustrations of complexity can motive people, businesses and organisations to get involved and to do something – becoming enticing and encouraging, and part of a larger narrative that motivates towards getting involved.

An example of an organisation on this path is Globaïa, a non-profit NGO that declares its dedication to promoting a science-based, transdisciplinary and unified understanding about the great socioecological issues of our time. Globaïa provides visually stunning images and intricately detailed illustrations of sometimes gobsmacking beauty, eloquent statements that encourage the effective communication of complexity. We know climate change will affect

Globaïa illustration example

every aspect of society, and that understanding is a major key to effective action, so this may well be a growth field for the near future. I know that in my own work I see companies consistently under-prioritise and under-budget illustrative tools that provide solid information, in favour of the more decorative eye-candy approach.

The power of conceptual illustration

Yes, there are traditional providers of such services, but they are hardly mainstream. And yes, there are traditional providers of high-quality material in this genre – think National Geographic, for example.

But effective conceptual illustration and data visualisation are about much more than graphical creativity and strong visuals, highlighting the power of the multiplicity in communicating complex, interdependent systems and data. It involves not just reflecting the data points, but also explaining their linkages and inter-dependencies, as well as fluidity and changes over time, and the implications for future development.

This “Climate Stripes” graphic by Prof Ed Hawkins at Reading University in the UK is part of a search for clearer ways to communicate issues associated with climate change – and help pave the way to solutions.
Check out some of the best data visualisations from the Kantar Information is Beautiful awards and the World Data Visualization Prize, for example. Actually, there’s a Pullitzer Prize category for explanatory reporting – see here) and even Pinterest is on board, once one realises that there are such categories.