Systems Thinking The World & Ourselves

This semester I had the privilege to take a course co-taught by MIT Professor John Sterman, the widely recognized world leader of Systems Dynamics (SD). Up until February I had no idea what SD was. During my time at LMU I took a graduate course on Systems Thinking (ST) and how to map our minds around some subproblem of large sociotechnical systems, but not really how to “map” the problem and its main drivers in a comprehensive interconnected web. This formal mapping of feedback loops and cause/effect chains that constitute a given problem is what really gives ST an edge, and what the field of SD is all about.

SD actually takes the maps and diagrams even further by simulating the varying stocks and flows of a system through time, using SD-specific software and whatever past cause/effect data is available. Calculus brings these maps to life, and allows prediction of trends into the future… but only as accurately the map or model represents the actual system or problem. This simple fact is what I find so humbling about SD: that in the process of trying to comprehensively understand a problem, we expose our ignorance, and  realize that our models can only go so far with reasonable precision. One comes to the realization that our mental models will always be deficient, and that the world and society’s interaction within it is far more complex than we realize.

In one of the first classes of the course, Professor Sterman showed us a SD model of the world system essentially, which connected natural resource accumulation/degradation to human society’s use/disposal of it. Renewable and nonrenewable resource use fed into society’s use of them, which contributed to society’s growing population and overall economic growth, which also tied into the various ways technology and policy shape the dynamics of  interaction between the human and natural worlds. It was incredible, and the final conclusion was that no matter how much clean technology and efficiency we develop, or how many innovative environmental policies we come up with, society’s ecological footprint will still remain above 1 Earth and hence be unsustainable since society will still consume more and be driven to drive a false measure of success (GDP) continually upwards.

It was after seeing this model, which originally stemmed from the work done by Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows in Limits to Growth, that I immediately recognized the value in SD and its particular way of ST. Tradeoffs, policy resistance, delays, and counterintuitive causality are what really lie at the heart of all major complex problems and systems. We may have linear engineering designs of buildings, vehicles, the grid, electricity generation, water treatment/distribution, farms, mineral/resource extraction, and other life-sustaining technologies, but their interface with non-perfect economic markets, awry political governance, and ever-changing consumer preferences gives rise to extremely nonlinear effects. SD is the best tool I have seen to date to attempt to wrap our minds around this complexity, and dig deep into the heart of these complex systems to find the roots of major problems.

Hopefully we can get back to a 1 Earth footprint by 2050 with a combination of clean technology dominance, absolute decoupling of economic growth from non-renewable energy use and material throughput, and a growing yet stabilized population of people that are happier with less yet fulfilled more. This is the real beauty of SD: the realization that solving problems like climate change and poverty cannot be done by any one individual actor or institution, but only through collaboration of every individual and institutional player. Everyone plays an important role as both an individual and as a team player of whatever larger business, NGO, university,  government agency, community, or social group they may be part of. SD is a great way to come this realization, and I am very glad and grateful to have learned it first from the worldwide renowned leader of the field, Professor John Sterman, who is also an amazing role model that walks the walk and is a source of inspiration for all of us who’ve been lucky enough to take his courses. We need more sustainability leaders to ST the world and ourselves differently, and SD is one of the best tools to do that.

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Buckets of Ignorance

Classes this semester have really made me put into context the extent of my own knowledge and the extent of society’s knowledge in general. Everyday I’ve been learning something new and profound (I think), and the trend has become obvious. I go in with enthusiasm and open ears, and leave with some sort of revelation, every time. I guess it really hasn’t been until now that I’ve realized the fact, because now when I go to class I’m already expecting some new and profound golden nugget of information. It is a self-propetuating cycle sustained by my chase for golden nuggets of information, and it has grown large enough to not help but notice and laugh at.

Reflecting on this cycle, what I’ve made of it is the fact that the extent of my knowledge is a little bigger today than it was yesterday, and will be a little bigger tomorrow than it is today. It is like a bucket of water: everyday we consciously or unconsciously put more water in the bucket when we go to school, work, and different social settings (save bars, which are probably drains rather than faucets), and increase the total amount of water in our buckets. While remembering that water does trickle out when we don’t use it and forget about it, essentially it is a constantly changing “stock” of resource that fluctuates everyday. Correspondingly, it begs the question “how much water is in my bucket relative to its source? what source? and what is the total sum of all the sources available in society?” That leads to questioning the extent of society’s knowledge, the source bucket filling every individual’s bucket, and to what extent it too is limited in comparison to universal knowledge, or God’s water bucket. And how much has society’s water bucket drained over time as we’ve lost knowledge from the ancients through text and artifact destruction, city burning, land bombing, and untold secrets remaining forever lost in ancient peoples’ personal accounts?

Maybe it’s a useful analogy, maybe it isn’t, but the point is we really know little, both on an individual and societal level. If we are constantly expanding our knowledge everyday, it comes to show that we really are ignorant, no matter how much we boast to know. Some people know more than others, yes, and some businesses and governments know more than others, of course, but it is all on a relative basis. In the end we are comparing our personal and societal knowledge to the total stock of knowledge that is “out there,” regardless of awareness of it yet or not, and that is what I find so humbling (given that the total stock of the universal or God’s water bucket is like an ocean in comparison to our hand-pales). That’s why where we put our personal and societal time and effort matters a great deal since there is only so much knowledge to be had in a lifetime, in a generation. Picking and choosing wisely before committing time and effort is critical: we need to clearly define what we want and why we want it to be effective in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, or whatever we are after on a personal, organizational, and societal level. Doing so will end a lot of mindless running around in circles and give us much more purpose and clarity in our lives, even if all we want to do is more fully appreciate and utilize the water we already have in our buckets. This knowing what we don’t know is essential to keeping our minds and hearts open and dedicated to the people and places they ought to be, and leave us constantly in awe of this mysterious world we inhabit.

2015 – Acceleration

2014 was all about transition. It started in the streets of San Clemente del Tuyu, Argentina and finished in the streets of downtown Boise, Idaho. Everything in between was a whirlwind of change, with the main change being the transition from undergraduate at LMU in Los Angeles to graduate student at MIT in Boston (although finally upgrading to a smartphone could easily rival this change). From West to East with a stop in Idaho to enjoy summer camping in the wilderness, and to fume at the once in a four year chance Argentina had to win the world cup, 2014 became my year of transition.

Now my feelings and intuition about 2015 are very different. I’ve come to love where I’m at MIT, in Boston, in New England. It all has a special euro-american charm to it that I’ve never experienced before, as well as quite the broad national and international melting pot of intellectuals. This diverse and sophisticated ecosystem is a perfect pad for me to start a new venture, and as time goes on I feel less and less like a stranger and more and more as someone that belongs there. With this strong foundation and launch pad, I see 2015 as the year of acceleration where I finally break out of the gates and begin to make headway in the big projects that will shape my post-MIT future. Namely TurnUp and Optibit.

Settling down from the year of transition also brings opportunity to accelerate on the personal side. One big opportunity of which is the chance to share a place my new TPP buds. I’m definitely looking forward to all the trimmings that come with that. New partnerships and friendships are also always on the horizon. We’ll see what happens but I know the world is fueled by either fear, survival, greed, or love, and I prefer to operate primarily by the last than by the first three… And finally the last personal opportunity, and probably the biggest of all, is the chance God gives us all to accelerate our connection with Him, at anytime. A lot of strange but positive circumstances and changes are happening where I’m seeing and realizing more than ever before. I can’t help but notice and feel God’s presence growing in my life, so I want 2015 to be a year where I capitalize on that opportunity and accelerate that growing connection to new levels of awareness.

2015 will be another special year no doubt, and I can’t forget how special it is that my abuelos are finally returning to the U.S. after two decades! I’m really looking forward to seeing them and appreciating all the other little treasures, and challenges, the new year will bring. Happy New Year!

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Energy Ventures

Just finished what may be one of the best classes I’ll take while at MIT. It all started with an email in summertime to apply. I don’t know how or why I got accepted because everybody else in the class had 3-4+ years of experience on me and ridiculous resumes, but somehow I got in. The first day of class everybody stood up one by one and gave a 30-second pitch on themselves and by the time it got to me I was almost ready to fall over like a plank and say “ok the joke’s over!” But no, it was for real, and I’m glad I through myself in the fire.

We heard a wide range of MIT technologies to try to commercialize, but the one that caught my attention the most was an optical interconnect technology that can dramatically increase throughput and decrease energy use in input output processing. I don’t have a background in electrical or computer engineering, but when I heard the pitch for the technology, I knew it was good. The project ended up attracting the most interest from the class, and the course instructors decided to make its group a special exemption by allowing six on the team. I ended up landing on the project with luck and rolled with it.

I was on an all-star team with super talent and experience in venture capital, oil and gas, materials science, energy demand response, government, transportation, and technology-based entrepreneurship. They were rock stars, and their high level of work really pushed me to do my best throughout the semester. I ended up using my diplomatic nature to be our customer/sales specialist, which was nice since I found a nice niche where I could offer valuable help to the team while utilizing my strengths.

In the class we followed the 24 steps of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship” according to the director of the MIT Martin Trust Center, Bill Aulet, who wrote the book and was one of the three class instructors as well. The 2nd step of the book is to pick a “beachhead” market to focus on, and we settled on High Frequency Trading out of all the most noble markets to focus on first. The thing was that the technology offered a perfect punchline to these guys, lower latencies and more throughput, and the industry had low bureaucracy and a lot of money to spend on the newest technologies. As such, I had many interesting conversations with HFT firms across the country and learned a ton about the industry in only a few months time. I even talked to a few CTOs and CEOs, which was a whole new experience for me.

The information I gathered turned out to be extremely helpful for the team. I found out how these guys make purchasing decisions, who makes purchasing decisions, how often they purchase new technology, where they find new technology, how much technology they have across their colocations, how much they spend on new technology annually, and where they see the field regulatory-wise down the road. It was all super valuable information for us to create a product they would value and purchase in a streamlined fashion. I really learned a lot from the conversations, and have a much better understanding of the HFT business, but what was really valuable was just doing it and earning the respect of my team.

The end of the semester came full circle when we presented our final pitch and business plan. I did the execution portion and nailed it. One of my teammates that I regard the most actually gave me a shoutout at the end of our presentation to the class, and that moment  was enough to justify the whole course. The feeling of finishing strong and earning the respect and admiration of my team was incredible, and thinking back to the first day of class when I was about ready to fall over, I would have never of imagined what I would accomplish a few months later. The class became a story of self-realization and growth, and it really was a beautiful little journey.

Of course, with an all-star team of six doing many, many hours of work outside the class on the project, we ended up producing an attractive business plan around this photonics technology. All three course instructors encouraged us to keep pushing forward with it since it had major potential. Unfortunately most of the team won’t continue with it since they have other obligations and aspirations, so it will finish as an academic exercise for them, but the team CEO and I are sticking with it. Why not? This is a whole different field than TurnUp with the potential to solve big energy problems for data centers, which is where we eventually want to make “actual” impact after we get traction/money from HFT. We’ll see what happens but this is why I came to MIT, for opportunities and experiences just like this, and I couldn’t be more happy with what I’m doing and the connections I’m making while at this incredible place.

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Hacking Urban Food

Went to another hackathon this weekend, but this time around the experience was  different. I didn’t pitch and didn’t come with any expectations but to network, and that’s exactly what I did. The beauty of this hackathon was its focus on the growing urban food revolution, and its attendance by mostly non-university people and students. It was staged in downtown Boston and I was one of the few students there actually. The change in perspective was very nice and I ended up really enjoying the experience.

I joined a team of three locally based developers and we decided to solve the problem of how to manage multiple urban farming operations by simplifying loads of valuable information into one elegant mobile application. The idea came from a professional who had exactly that problem: managing multiple urban farming installations across hundreds of clients like elementary schools, corporate clients like Whole Foods, and everyday residential clients, and doing it all with a fixed automotive fleet. The developers on the team built the app and I owned my role as content expert and entrepreneur. I got to put my urban farming knowledge and entrepreneurship training to the test, and guide our solution to something meaningful while also putting together our pitch. We had 3 minutes of presentation time and 2 minutes of Q&A, so I kept the pitch short, simple, and extra sweet. We signed up to pitch first so we could raise the bar on the competition. Our core idea was good but not as strong as some other ideas, so we had to nail the pitch to have a chance at placing. Luckily I rose to the occasion and gave a solid pitch, and my teammate did excellent with the demo. It was a success. We ended up tying for 2nd and won some neat prizes. The pitch and demo did the magic, and it was a great feeling.

But the best part of the hackathon was not tying for 2nd, however. The best part of it was meeting brilliant working professionals in Boston and New England at large. I came with my hands already full with TurnUp and our project in Energy Ventures, so I wasn’t expecting to launch a 3rd startup. I came to meet a new group of passionate people that care about healthy local food and environmental protection, just like I do, and it was fantastic. I got to view the urban farming system in Boston from the perspective of a concerned citizen, and do something about it in the company of a brilliant team. It was great, and it was Boston at its best. How many more hackathons I’ll do in the future will probably be limited, but I’m very glad I got my ticket for this event. I leave with a greater understanding of the state of urban agriculture in Boston and the U.S., exposure to the urban farming community in Boston, and nest of all, the newfound respect and regard of a brand new community. Couldn’t have asked for a better urban food hackathon.

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Hacking Arts

Attended my first Hackathon ever this weekend and WOW what an experience! It started Friday evening when I went over to the Microsoft New England R&D Center for the kickoff. The event was on the 11th floor facing the Charles River, and the view of Boston from there was absolutely amazing. I started mingling and throwing around an idea a friend gave me to get some feedback, and it was incredible how the different inputs I got transformed the idea into something really neat. Then Ryan Leslie took the stage and I got to hear him for the first time. I couldn’t believe the guy graduate from Harvard at 19! His music was awesome, and his Swiss Francs song was bomb. After the performance we did an ideation session and made some paper art shapes to spur creativity and then the craziness started. Anybody with an idea was invited to give a 1 minute pitch to the group. Of course I went up and pitched the idea. There were a lot of other good ideas being thrown around too, it was impressive. After the pitches ended one of the event volunteers grabbed me and said “Hey come here, you’ve got to see this!” He brought me to one of his other event volunteer buddies and low and behold his buddy had already mocked up my idea on his computer! “I stopped paying attention to the other pitches after you gave yours,” he told me. At that point I thought my leg was getting pulled, but no, I realized he believed in the idea so much that he was more than ready to commit: he was ready to start putting it together! I brought over a South African gamer I was talking to earlier and with that I formed a team.

Saturday morning events continued with panels in Music, Film, Virtual Reality, Gaming, Fashion, and Design. My team went to the Music panel to get ideas for our app. Ryan Leslie was also on the panel. We got some valuable nuggets of info from the panel discussion and then talked to Ryan Leslie afterward. “Get in touch when you’ve got this built guys,” he said. That definitely excited us! What better for a music startup to have the contact info and support of a Grammy nominated artist! Afterwards we attended one more panel in Virtual Reality and then we got to work. We took over a couple white boards on the 3rd floor of the Media Lab and started defining the idea. Definition, definition, definition. It is one thing to think of an idea and it is another thing to bring it to reality. It takes time. We went through the flow of our app and fleshed out the details of every page. We also spent some time brainstorming names, which was a nice release when we ran down a number of rabbit holes in the complexity of our app. This process took us all the way into the night where once we finally had the idea nailed out, we started mocking it up and putting together the pitch.

Sunday morning we slowly rolled back into the Media Lab and continued to refine our presentation. A few teams were still working but otherwise it was relatively quiet. It was also an absolutely gorgeous day outside. Bright yellow sunshine and a fresh temperature made the Boston skyline and the Charles River twinkle with gold. I love those type of days. Our group was assigned a mentor at 1 pm to give us feedback on our idea and pitch. Luckily we got the best possible mentor we could get (thanks in part to some smart comments I submitted on our team form): a former CEO of a music platform that sold for millions. It was perfect. When he showed up we gave him our pitch and showed him our demo and solicited his comments. He liked the idea and said that we were addressing a problem that has not successfully been solved, even though many have tried. On the flip side he said that our idea was ambitious, and was competing against too many big players in the discovery space. He said that we had to differentiate ourselves in a unique way if we were to attract investors and have a chance at surviving. We took his comments to heart even though it seemed he didn’t fully understand that we were focusing on the user experience rather than monetization strategies. We modified our pitch, practiced, and went to the top of the Media Lab for the final presentations.

4 minute presentations with 2 minutes of Q&A by the judges, who were all somehow in the entrepreneurship business. The only judge of our interest was a VC who specializes in early stage startups. We knew that if we could convince him we would win, regardless if we won the competition or not. We were 14th in line out of 15 presentations, so we were happy that we at least got placed at an end rather than the middle. We waited and waited anxiously. I had some TPP buddies show up to see our presentation, and finally we were queued and then called up on stage. I gave the opening and two of my teammates delivered the rest. When we finished the pitch, we were delighted to have questions on monetization since we prepared a whole backup slide for it, and see the VC squeeze in a question before Q&A was up. We stepped down, went back to our chairs, and immediately had some people from the crowd give us their business cards since they were connected to local musicians in Boston and NYC. It was an awesome feeling. My TPP buddies also said we were the best presentation and idea they saw, so of course we were on a high. We waited through a theatrical performance while the judges deliberated on their final verdicts, and then finally heard the announcements around 6 pm.

We didn’t win the competition. It was cool though. We all knew that many successful startups don’t win the school competitions. They use their passion and perseverance to push them to heights that winners usually don’t achieve because of indulgence. We all enjoyed the process and were convinced that our idea was worth pursuing. We also talked to the VC afterward and were delighted to know he was interested. We’ll see where our conversations with him lead to. Before we departed we did a team cheer and already scheduled our first meeting to begin prototyping the concept. Our startup TurnUp was born, and we all left excited to take it as far as we can go. What a crazy weekend! I walked in Friday evening with a rough idea and left Sunday evening with a fully committed team, local musician contacts, and an interested VC. Even if the startup doesn’t work, I couldn’t have asked for a better Hacking Arts experience! This is why I came to MIT.

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Getting Started…in Boston

There is something special about the process of getting started. Whether for a new  project, a new job, or a new journey in life, the sense of adventure and high hopes is always something that thrills us. Everything is fresh and ready for discovery, and possibilities seem endless. Your enthusiasm makes you wonder where the wind will take you a year, two years, even five years from now when you will look back and wonder with the same sort of awe where you started at the beginning. Your accomplishments become a thing of memory as you can only take your lessons learned to chart out your new path.

And by far the best part about getting started is that you have no routines established! Routines inevitably make everything dull, slow, and stagnant. They make a bang become a whimper, and slowly eat away at your abilities of open-mindedness and sharpened thought. Maybe the reason the world seems so full of energy during these times of getting started is exactly because of this reason. When you aren’t on your toes, you are flat-footed, and any trainer will tell you that flat-footedness will negatively affect your ability to react quick and compete at the highest levels.

I’m getting started at MIT, in graduate school, in Boston. I know it will be a challenging and fun experience, and I will do my best to make the most of it. I couldn’t have asked for a better time, place, or occasion to get started.

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