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You are here: Home > Citizen Audit > Crises and the Monnet Method: looking forward beyond interim adversities EU

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Published on 2022-03-17 23:00:00 | words: 3254

Today is St Patrick, and on purpose decided to share this article now, also if, actually, as you will read below, was planned for March 11th.

But I wanted to wait for a couple of events.

So, few sections for a short article:
_a technological, connected world
_compounding crises
_balancing interests
_charting the way ahead

A technological, connected world

Yesterday was March 16th, so while writing this article I was obviously thinking about today- if I were still in Brussels, I am quite confident that this would have been an Irish night....

...so, I just went for a couple of pints of Guinness in two different pubs where I do not routinely go- though, no Irish stew, tonight, just chicken.

But, in reality, yesterday evening I was watching a Japanese docudrama that decided to watch a while ago, and waited until March 11th, and then preferred to wait March 16th, the anniversary of the closing of the (first phase) of a crisis.

I am obviously referring to Fukushima, a nuclear disaster generated by natural events.

I never worked in the nuclear power industry- albeit I still remember (I was in the Army and still a part-time university student in Information Technology in Turin) the Chernobyl disaster.

At the time, we did underestimate the impacts, up to the point that, in my office in the Army barracks, as a joke a fake letter was sent to one of the clerks with the assignment...

...to collect grass samples in the tree-lines alleys in our barracks.

Seems a joke, but it really was not: I remember that somebody at the university told me that, has he had studied as "perito nucleare", and had been asked to write a software to collect data.

As I was a little bit deep into PASCAL, a structured programming language, somebody had suggested him to talk with me, but I will not say what our discussion focused on, or how evolved.

Yes, I had a nickname related to my expertise in that language- all self-developed, and based on my prior interest in studying the structure of human languages after seeing a BNF of FORTRAN, i.e. a kind of "tree description" of what "legal phrases" in that language should look like, something that also made me acquainted with some of the non-political material from Noam Chomsky, long before I read some of his books on other subjects.

Probably, that was my first "hint of a project" to support decision making on something I knew little about (I enjoyed at the time reading about the history of XX century physics, and for a while kept following all the "particles" evolution- up to focusing on that my high school final exam), eliciting information from somebody who knew better, and discussing what, so far, I had seen only in politics and, indirectly, culture: thinking about the audience.

Anyway, as I had already worked first as a grunt then something more on organizing events and other activities, and as a pre-elementary school kid remember discussions that right now would describe in terms of supply chain, taxation, and cashflow management (my parents had a small business producing e.g. gadgets for insurance companies), I had quite an understanding of what most teenagers lack- that in most human activities there is a "lifecycle", and constraints based on matching aims and means (call it "capacity planning").

You can obviously understand why I was re-thinking about Fukushima and Chernobyl: in neither case what was "local" and "temporary" stayed either for long- up to the point that in both cases specialists from other countries (and also resources) were involved.

In Europe, during the Cold War, we were used to localized wars- but localized outside Europe, and, moreover, where the impacts on us could at worse generally be in terms of displacement of people or reduced access to natural resources (Syria was an example of both, also if it happened long after the end of the Cold War).

What is different now?

Well, the title of this section says it all about our world:
_technological: do you really believe that our industrialized societies could survive without technologies that we take for granted?
_connected: do you really believe that a 100% "reshoring", building the social equivalent of "Middle Age castles in the desert", is possible?

Compounding crises

So, what happens in Ukraine does not stay in Ukraine: we saw it in the 1980s, we risk seeing it again soon.

Piling up on two years of COVID19, that already forced a rethinking of concepts that since the end of WWII we were used to work with.

We were already rethinking to the meaning of "supply chain", adding a level of transparency that we were not used to, as we at last accepted that we are living in a kind of real-life application of the "butterfly effect".

Our societies are too complex not to be considered systemically, also if in our democracies we prefer to share soundbites that make everything look simpler than it is.

Easier to sell than the truth- in Italy, this became actually part of the source of our current conundrum.

Which is not just the size of the national debt, but also the mindset that our "sprinkler money" approach (that I lambasted often in the last decade, since I was made to return to work and live full-time in Italy) created.

But oversimplification and overspecialization in our modern societies go hand-in-hand.

Overspecialization apparently increased efficiency, but often reduced our ability to adapt, as the narrower your focus, the less the ability to pick up signals outside your narrow focus before they become so blatant that, probably, you shift focusing on fixing, not preventing- and adapting becomes second fiddle to surviving.

Because the more specialist you are, the easier that you will actually reinforce your specialization by surrounding yourself with those that share your inclination (or even obsession), up to the point where whatever "signal" were to be presented to you, would be promptly discarded if does not fit your "knowledge patterns".

In Europe, but also elsewhere, the COVID19 crisis actually enabled to follow that European integration practice called The Monnet Method, to partially overcome both issues.

After WWII, each crisis resulted in a jump forward in European integration.

The times of the Korean War (when the initial "jumps" happened are not our times, and both Russia and Ukraine were more integrated with us in Europe than we assumed.

I think that it would be sad if really the solution were to be an encore of the pre-WWI solution for Belgium: neutral, with interested parties nearby as "umpires" of its serenity.

Also because neither Turkey nor Russia are really that far apart, and both, seen from outside, have a vested interested in the area- since at least few centuries.

Adding to them in this role UK and USA does not really make it any more appealing- as would mean that all the critical junctures to bring a significant chunk of our energy imports (at least until 2025, if I heard correctly the "when" Europe should be able to have diversified away from Russian resources) would be under control of countries that are not really part of Europe (yes, UK is physically part of it, but, frankly, it is too early to say how Brexit will evolve).

It is also true that the various initiatives for recovery and resilience after COVID19 actually are pushing most that was already on the table before, but was not politically sustainable to "push" for.

If you were to look at just a sample of the national proposals for a recovery and resilience (improvement) plan, beside the shared percentage thresholds on "going green" and "going digital", we are not really talking about "greenfield" (i.e. from scratch) projects as part of a new initiative.

I will now shift just to Italy, but applies also to other EU national recovery and resilience plans.

It is actually more a case of "brownfield", with the COVID19-related demands supposedly being the prime motivation, but looking here and there as icing on already existing (even stale) cakes.

Energy independence was actually part of the funding by the European Union of previous initiatives involving the Southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea (notably before the 2011 war in Libya), including almost a decade old Trans-European Networks for Energy / Linking the energy infrastructure of EU countries.

The same applies for initiatives to increase self-sufficiency e.g. in electronic components manufacturing (now embedded in anything from cars to any home appliance), or the renewed interest into developing European Union defence capabilities.

Balancing interests

If you read at least some of the material I posted online on the Italian PNRR or NextGenerationEU, you know what I think.

Finding in a short while initiatives worth of those funds was bound to result in revamping old projects and dreambooks.

No surprise, there- or somebody did really think that a country routinely unable to spend the "ordinary" amounts allocated, would be able as if by magic find new ways to allocate such large amounts in such a short span of time?

But, of course, for initiatives formally supposed to focus on increasing resilience, i.e. preparing for a more sustainable future, the key weakness is that, also if resurrecting old dreambooks, just a little slice of the funds was actually shifted toward the future.

We shifted from a world were (XIX century) even in developed, industrial countries, most people did spend most of their time working to survive, to what some described as "affluence", and frankly could considered "diffused affluence".

As I reminded to some while talking, those born in this century have actually, at least in some countries, the potential to see having their own 100th birthday as almost ordinary- provided that we can build a sustainable future.

Living under the threat of war allows to shift considerations about what is to be considered "normal", and adds a level of latitude in political (and social) decision-making that is beyond what would be considered acceptable under ordinary conditions.

In a sad way, it might also be said that, actually, having this war at the end of the COVID19 crisis was an "escape pod" for President Putin from the inability to compete in more ordinary ways due to the massive resources injected by other economies to their own version of "recovery and resilience".

Today, while searching to read more details about the proposed draft treaty between Russia and Ukraine (as if the previous one actually worked), I found an article by President Putin (or supposedly so, I hope) that was long, rambling, and long before the current was started, presented the "case" for a unification of Russia and Ukraine.

But, unfortunately, for an history buff, sounded a lot as if it were echoing somebody else's writings that resulted in the Anschluss and Sudetenland- and you know what happened in the 1930s (as well as the famous "peace for our time") by Neville Chamberlain.

Carving a regional strategic role might be seen also as a way to avoid just shifting under the "economic area" of China, as the "escape" right now e.g. from SWIFT is something that actually reduces the freedom of movement of Russia.

If, then, that strategic role is to be split with others that either belong to the region but are trying to build up their own regional role (President Erdogan sometimes is sounding as if it were aiming to rebuild the Ottoman Empire), or are trying to retain a traditional role as "part of the scenario" (UK and USA) while keeping both inside and outside, it could actually turn into a regional counterbalance to a gridlocked UN Security Council.

But this is geopolitical science-fiction as I shared once in a while online when I was living in Brussels (somebody maybe remembers when I wrote about Chimerica and other combinations of shared interests), and as I shared few days ago on Facebook reminding, courtesy of news echoing some of its pages, an old book called "Total War 2006" (from the late 1990s).

Back to the current reality, we have to consider at least few elements:
_war is a temporary element, also if its side-effects last much longer than the conflict itself
_COVID19 apparently will require reconsidering our welfare state, as could imply chronic diseases
_digital and green transformation are not "socially neutral"- as in any major transition
_on top of that, we are already dealing with the impacts of climate change on the sustainability of our socio-economic model.

Charting the way ahead

As remembered just this Monday by Frank Elderson Full disclosure: coming to grips with an inconvenient truth, echoing the famous speech by former Vice-President Al Gore, there are plenty of minutiae that are needed to monitor the conversion from speeches into reality of that mantra of "sustainability".

And the climate crisis is here to stay (and get worse), unless we do something about it.

He was talking at the "14th European Bank Institute Policy Webinar on the ECB's supervisory approach on climate-related and environmental risks", and therefore obviously his focus was on convergence of a specific industry.

But the concept of "transparency" that he outlined is what you can find if you look at equally "technical" documents, position papers, discussion drafts, etc across many industries, e.g. the IFRS proposals about Sustainability Reporting.

There is a concept that is embedded in "Fridays for Future" but is not expressed into action: beside protest, there is a need to monitor, what some called "citizen data science", but should be coupled with a practice of the commons.

The idea is that we are all in the same boat- unfortunately, at least in Italy, it is easier to get and parade around an eco-friendly water canteen, than do small everyday gestures that show that you really care about the commons, and not that special rules apply just to you.

So, any citizen, including students that are learning maths and statistics at school, can apply those skills and share the results with others.

As you probably know, when the NextGenerationEU and then PNRR were announced, started immediately sharing documentation to summarize, outline, link.

My focus was in collecting signals expressed from society and how those ended up being co-opted by decision-makers, and what was going to be the "oversight" model.

As I used to do in my cultural/organizational change and decision-support systems activities: it is not just about the data, it is about data that are relevant now, and "sustainable" later.

For the former, you can read for free a small book I published few years back (about "relevant data").

For the latter, few words of explanation are in order.

It is easy to bring in some consultants or experts, but, in my view, a data-centric approach is "sustainable" only if you retain in your ecosystem (i.e. either as employees or those "organically" linked with your organization, such as suppliers, partners, etc) the capabilities needed to keep whatever those consultants delivered alive.

There is always a political element within those choices- hence, do not expect really full transparency or full, draconian reporting, also after all the KPIs, missions, components, etc have been considered.

Actually, as I remembered to a friend recently, the initiative about restructuring government where Al Gore had a pivotal role three decades ago, Reinventing the Government, included already the concept that now is so popular about missions, components, KPIs, etc.

That initiative had another element: delivered also tools, e.g. a software that required to fill-in information to enable to first identify which areas made sense to focus on, then chart progress (TurboBPR).

It was pre-Internet, specifically pre-WWW, and therefore the software produced a nice Word report.

I used it for some activities, but mainly as an outline drafting tool for new initiatives, or to cross-check some scenarios.

Nowadays, on the quantitative side, there are plenty of opportunities, including free, to share, analyze, disseminate analyses, discuss reports, etc (guilty as charged: I shared files and other material online - see here).

And specifically on NextGenerationEU, or even just the Italian PNRR, there are various websites tracking the quantitive element.

Such as: X amount to be allocated by date Y, what is the current status?

So, no point in replicating what others are doing (albeit, for personal interest and to share some material to support future articles, will keep sharing files once in a while).

Instead, it is even more critical now to do something else: instead of just protesting, use your own expertise (whatever it is) to contribute to the debate- maybe just even by fact-checking reports by using online resources available, or joining other efforts to do the "grunt work" (cleaning data, or collecting and structuring in a specific way material, etc).

Why? Because way too many of those flashy online monitoring sites have their own vested agenda that is no less political than those from individual governments or supranational organizations: nothing more poisonous for political discourse during a crisis than biased data.

And, in Italy, we are quite used to biased information- since centuries (actually, even longer: I remember once in a while a book that contained the fake news spinned around for political reasons... in Ancient Rome, as they too had their own kind of elections).

Instead, building a sustainable future implies escaping from that oversimplification and overspecialization traps I hinted at above.

And that requires something more than goodwill and awareness built by flash-mobbing around, even in the glorified form of workshops or conventions that deliver then hundred of pages of proceeds.

Yes, the "Monnet Method" again- which also means: it is a time when the ordinary balance of powers is tossed into the air, and forces are joined to obtain capabilities that exceed the sum of the parts.

Stay tuned!