To prosper sustainably is to make information flow and grow

Making knowledge about making prosperous ‘safe and just’ tourism systems

by Orla de Díez / @orladediez

“Information takes multiple forms. Broadly speaking, it is the embodiment of physical order, and that is what our economy produces – bicycles and buildings are all forms of [useful] information”, says Cesar Hidalgo, MIT complexity scientist[1], and author of “How Information Grows”[2]. Following years of research into the building blocks of economic complexity—measuring the diversity and ubiquity of country exports—Hidalgo and Ricardo Hausmann developed a new theory of how economies grow: their findings indicated that product complexity is predictive of future economic growth[3]. The complexity of a product is related to the extent of knowledge required to produce it[4]. Our prosperity depends on our ability and agility to learn, in and between teams and networks, to create and recombine useful information in ever more diverse and sophisticated ways—as did the large network of people who sourced and assembled more than 34 software and hardware components and other forms of information into one of the most profitable products in history: Apple’s iPhone[5].

Elsewhere at MIT, after several decades of attaching sensors to people in the workplace, Sandy Pentland (social data scientist) and his team determined that idea flow (the way that ideas and information flow between people) is a central predictor of productivity and innovation in teams and organisations[6]. Observable and measurable good idea flow comes from a continuous cycle of exploration (gathering new ideas through exposure to a wide variety of people and experiences) and quality engagement (how and how often people interact to filter and convert these new ideas into projects, action and objects [bicycles, buildings or the iPhone]). 

In synthesis, teams, organisations, networks and economies prosper because of how and how often information flows and grows[7]. Consequently, transforming the prevalent ‘sun and sand’ tourism model in Spain into a more economically and sustainably complex one, aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals[8], involves transforming the way people, within and beyond the tourism industry, source, spread and integrate ideas, information and knowhow.

Tourism is fundamentally a networked industry[9]. Destination prosperity and sustainability hinge on the density, nature, frequency and quality of relationships between and across an array of private and public organizations, and the knowledge embedded in the products and services that emerge from their interactions. The core product is the entire visitor experience. Most ‘sun and sand’ destinations produce a narrow range of simple products, inferring sparse networks and poor idea flow; in which case, lower levels of prosperity and equality[10] can be expected over time. The transition to thriving, sustainable tourism depends precisely on the creation of dense networks of, and healthy patterns of idea flow between people that know very different things—collectively learning how to produce, with minimal material, energy and carbon, evermore complex, diverse and profitable products that protect the environment, enhance both the well-being of the work-force, community at large and the experience for visitors, thus the value of the destination.

To this end, our “Making knowledge about making prosperous ‘safe and just’ tourism systems” study at TIDES Institute combines action research methods and integrative practices of systemic design to examine, measure and shape collective learning and idea flow for ecologically safe and socially just tourism market creation, in the “living laboratory” environment of Gran Canaria.

Collective learning can be understood as a dynamic and cumulative process that results in the production of knowledge. Learning emerges from the sharing, dissemination, diffusion and integration of individual knowledge, scientific, technical and experiential. Learning for safe and just tourism market creation arises from the experience of building products with the intended users, across occupations and specialisms. Success depends on whether participants change their behavior and interactions in ways that support the desired future safe and just states. The emerging discipline of systemic design, which integrates systems thinking and human-centred design methodologies, offers a framework for growing and reinforcing these behavioural changes[11]; thereby speeding up the interactions and exchange of information, knowhow and capital among people in a network to cultivate innovative projects and products. Through participatory action research we seek to understand and produce knowledge about these behavioural changes supported by systemic design, in reflective collaboration and learning-by-doing with civil society, industry, government and academic co-researchers and co-designers.

[1] O’Neill, Sean. “The human race is a computer.” New Scientist 227.3029 (2015): 26-27.

[2] Hidalgo, Cesar. Why information grows: The evolution of order, from atoms to economies. Basic Books, 2015.

[3] Hidalgo, César A., and Ricardo Hausmann. “The building blocks of economic complexity.” Proceedings of the national academy of sciences 106.26 (2009): 10570-10575

[4] “(…) complexity also factors in the infrastructure and institutions that facilitate the aggregation of knowledge, such as reliable transportation and communication systems, and a culture of trust that enables productive collaboration. Source: Hardesty, Larry. “Income inequality linked to export “complexity”” MIT NEWS, 2017

[5] In “Only iPhone”: y “What Parts Make Up an iPhone?”:

[6] Pentland, Alex. Social physics: How good ideas spread-the lessons from a new science. Penguin, 2014.

[7] A study shows that the Japanese were able to produce better cars faster than the competition in Europe and the US because their design and manufacturing teams shared information earlier in the process and more frequently. Source: Mabogunje, Ade, Neeraj Sonalkar, and Larry Leifer. “Design thinking: A new foundational science for engineering.” The International journal of engineering education 32.3 (2016): 1540-1556.

[8] As projected in the official General Guidelines of the Sustainable Tourism Strategy 2030 in Gobierno de España, Ministerio de Turismo, Comercio y Turismo, Secretaria de Estado de Turismo. Directrices Generales de la Estrategia de Turismo Sostenible de España 2030. Enero 2019.

[9] Scott, Noel, Rodolfo Baggio, and Chris Cooper. Network analysis and tourism: From theory to practice. Channel View Publications, 2008.

[10] A recent paper argues that “countries exporting complex products—as measured by the Economic Complexity Index—have lower levels of income inequality than countries exporting simpler products.” in Hartmann, Dominik, et al. “Linking economic complexity, institutions, and income inequality.” World Development 93 (2017): 75-93.

[11] “Systemic design can help us to bring diverse stakeholders towards a shared frame of reference for collective action.”