WWLFRD? An Richardsonian approach toward sustainable development

We close out our short series on Lewis Fry Richardson, on the 131st anniversary of his birth.


WWJD? What would Jesus do? Most of us are familiar with this acronym. Many people wear it on one of those yellow plastic bracelets so popular nowadays. To the wearers it serves as a reminder: Love. Heal. Comfort. Encourage. Do good. Love some more.[1] [In light of recent news stories, it seems like the thought and the bracelets might prove a bit more enduring than “Live Strong.”]

What was one of the other things Jesus did? He brought together twelve ragtag guys, coached ‘em up, and sent them into the world to see what would happen. The result? Billions of followers over two thousand years.

One of them was Lewis Fry Richardson. Quaker, pacifist. Against war, but seeing even in war an opportunity to serve others. Devoted to science, not as an end in itself, but also as another means to benefit society. By every account a model husband. And father. Unable to have children of his own, but adopting two.

If he were alive today, what might Mr. Richardson see as a way to benefit society? To bring his science to bear to help humanity? Not in a small way, but a big one?


Here’s a candidate.

The man and the community who gave us numerical weather prediction might figure he had even more to offer: a step-by-step approach to the great-threefold challenge facing humanity in the early 21st century: (1) garnering the food, water, energy, and other resources necessary to meet the needs of our seven-billion-plus population; (2) protecting the environment, habitats, ecosystems, and biodiversity along the way, so that we don’t compromise our resource acquisition in future years; and in the meantime, (3) building our worldwide community-by-community resilience to natural hazards and other environmental threats.

He’d simply expand the 1922 vision he laid out in Weather Prediction by Numerical Process:

“After so much hard reasoning, may one play with a fantasy? Imagine a large hall like a theatre, except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the stage. The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. The ceiling represents the north polar regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle and the Antarctic in the pit.

A myriad computers[2] are at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits, but each computer attends only to one equation or part of an equation. The work of each region is coordinated by an official of higher rank. Numerous little “night signs” display the instantaneous values so that neighbouring computers can read them. Each number is thus displayed in three adjacent zones so as to maintain communication to the North and South on the map.

From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre; he is surrounded by several assistants and messengers. One of his duties is to maintain a uniform speed of progress in all parts of the globe. In this respect he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines. But instead of waving a baton he turns a beam of rosy light upon any region that is running ahead of the rest, and a beam of blue light upon those who are behindhand.

Four senior clerks in the central pulpit are collecting the future weather as fast as it is being computed, and despatching it by pneumatic carrier to a quiet room. There it will be coded and telephoned to the radio transmitting station. Messengers carry piles of used computing forms down to a storehouse in the cellar.

In a neighbouring building there is a research department, where they invent improvements. But there is much experimenting on a small scale before any change is made in the complex routine of the computing theatre. In a basement an enthusiast is observing eddies in the liquid lining of a huge spinning bowl, but so far the arithmetic proves the better way. In another building are all the usual financial, correspondence and administrative offices. Outside are playing fields, houses, mountains and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely.” (Richardson 1922).

To be more specific…at each of the myriad locations in his magnificent hall, Richardson might advise us to replace the computations of those Navier-Stokes equations describing conservation of momentum, energy, and mass with decisions and actions relating to the three-fold task of resource-acquisition, environmental protection, and building community resilience at each of those same locations. Since we lack mathematical formulae for such decisions, he’d suggest that we envision instead substituting policies for making the decisions needed. Make the decisions everywhere, time step by time step. Evaluate and improve; then repeat for the next time step.

Before laughing this off, consider a few points.

First, it should be clear that we can’t hope, at least initially, to “approximate” the human dilemma in the same robust way that the finite–difference equations approximate the physical evolution of the atmosphere’s wind speed. We don’t have equations for the former…and we certainly don’t have policies that actually work. Quite the opposite. But we could hope to build an approach that would “learn from experience” – and learn rapidly.

All we’d need is a discipline of evaluating the success of the policies and actions taken locally at each time step, not just with the decisions and actions of the neighboring locations, but a fairly broad sample worldwide. [For such an evaluation we’d need metrics, but these don’t need to be perfect, at least initially.] Then add a discipline of learning from experience…tweaking the policies, locally, everywhere, after each time step in response not only to what was learned locally but what was learned at all those other locations elsewhere, in an effort to improve the skill for the next time step. Thousands, perhaps millions of experiments and adaptations following every time step.

Second, in the world of 2012 we don’t need to have all these determinations made in any single physical structure. It’s possible (and preferable) to distribute this work, keeping it close to the action worldwide, yet at the same time linking the decision-making processes through IT. The numbers of people involved are necessarily far larger than the several thousand that Richardson envisioned for his weather prediction. So the single-building approach would be impractical anyway. The internet and social networking would make the whole exercise feasible in a way it wasn’t during Richardson’s day.

Maybe that seems a bit far-fetched. But that brings us to the next point.

Third, the reality is that something akin to the desired process is already underway…locally, nationally, and worldwide. These decisions are being made and actions are being taken daily, weekly, and monthly, at thousands of locations worldwide, even as we speak. They’re just not being made not by a monolithic, single group, but rather by a wonderfully diverse amalgam of governments at all levels, private-sector groups, and coalitions of government, private enterprise and academia that defy any easy description. Thus the decision making process lacks the seductive appeal of the orderliness of Richardson’s scheme. It also lacks that master, that orchestra conductor, directing events and actions from the center of the room. But these are in reality probably improvements on Richardson’s scheme. They permit, if accompanied by conscious evaluation, greater potential for adaptability and innovation than Richardson’s vision would ever provide. And they avoid the threat of despotism implicit in that central control. As anthills and other social communities show, it’s possible to develop quite efficient societies without a leader. And please don’t confuse the queen bee or ant with leadership. These special creatures occupy a unique niche in each context, and their welfare is assiduously maintained by their host colonies, but they are not exercising leadership in any human sense.

In fact, it is precisely because something akin to this process is underway that the human race and our host planet might well reach the end of the 21st century in better condition than we entered it. All we have to do, is get more intentional and serious about evaluation and innovation, not just of science and technology but policy.

To repeat, what’s primarily lacking is a conscious awareness of the larger enterprise, and a corresponding adaptive learning, an ability to profit from the experience of each time step, measure the quality of the decisions made and the actions taken, and an ability to do better next time. An intent and a plan to learn from experience, keep score, and improve.

Oh, and there are a few aspects to our present circumstance that we don’t need. Self-interest. Greed. Hate. Bigotry. Lying. Jealousy. Corruption… [You get the idea; you can add your own extensive list here.] Together, these pose our greatest risk.

We need to shed those. To be a little more like Richardson. Or maybe that Jesus fella.

[1] Oh…and when the occasion calls for it, take on/die for the sins of the world. Rise from the dead.

[2] Note that “computer” is used here in its original sense, referring to people who made calculations, not machines.

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4 Responses to WWLFRD? An Richardsonian approach toward sustainable development

  1. Richard Berler (Heatwave) says:

    Thanks for shining a light on Lewis Fry Richardson. A beam of rosy light would certainly be shining on Richardson from the pulpit in that great hall!

  2. John Knox says:

    Richardson is my scientific hero, and I’ve done a fair amount of reading about him and of his works, as well as some writing about him in my textbook and in a recent short biographical sketch co-authored with David Schultz. LFR’s broad international vision would definitely lead him to identify global problems as those most worthy of study today. He would not shy away from quantification of the squishy social science and policy areas, however–as he did throughout his career, he would find ways to quantify and simulate them. I’d see him blending observation and simulation, sweating the details with very careful study of the observations *before* moving on to simulation. (The gulf between climate observationalists and climate modelers was certainly noticeable to me when I was a post-doc at a climate modeling center. The modelers were generally all physicists or astrophysicists by training and orientation, not climate observationalists such as my wife Pam.)

    In my opinion, a modern-day Lewis Fry Richardson would be: 1) teaching a large number of courses, as Richardson did throughout his academic career; 2) performing interdisciplinary research that is not “hot” and “sexy” at the time; and 3) adamantly refusing to take funding from or otherwise cooperate with agencies associated in any way with a war effort. He/she would also 4) take time off from his/her professional positions to do humanitarian efforts. How many of today’s academic scientists live up to any one of these WWLFRD criteria, let alone all four?

    • William H. Hooke says:

      🙂 thanks, John, for this thoughtful comment. As with everything else you do in life, you even choose your heroes well. And characterize them insightfully for the rest of us.

      Is the sketch you and Dave co-authored available on line? Can readers access it? Where?

      Continuing best wishes.

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