An Introspective Look at Our Own Constitutive Infrastructure
As the researchers at BlockScience developed our formal understanding of organizational design, we tested our theories by applying our framework to the analysis of our own operations. In the essay below, we elaborate on our conceptualization of an organization’s “animating purpose” through an examination of our mission, our values, and the ways that they interact.
Why does BlockScience exist?
As our ongoing series of publications on “constitutive infrastructure” makes clear, every organization necessarily takes shape around a shared “animating purpose,” which provides the impetus for a set of individuals to form a group and coordinate collective action in pursuit of common aspirations. An organization’s animating purpose can thus be understood as its “mediating context,” insofar as it determines the particular way that the organization in question will orient itself toward — and in response to — its external environment. Put differently, any attempt to truly understand an organization ought to begin by asking a fundamental question: What is that organization trying to do?
At BlockScience, our animating purpose has two major components: our mission, and our values as an organization. Our mission is straightforward (although we will examine its elements in greater detail later in this essay):
The mission of BlockScience is to bridge the digital and physical worlds through innovative and sustainable engineering. We guide the development and governance of safe, ethical, and resilient socio-technical systems, leveraging emerging technologies to solve complex problems.
Our values are similarly direct (and amenable to further elaboration):
1. Ethical Design and Innovation
2. Diversity of Perspective
3. Integrity and Autonomy
4. Positive-Sum Impact
The animating purpose of BlockScience — or any organization — is to pursue our mission in ways that accord with our values as an organization.
Unpacking Our “Animating Purpose”
Specifying our animating purpose beyond this general form requires us to look more closely at its components, beginning with our mission. Upon closer examination, our mission statement has three primary elements: It frames the core challenge that our organization seeks to address, identifies the methodology we will apply in order to address it, and indicates how we define success — that is, the set of conditions that we feel must be met in order for us to deem a project successful.
Let us now consider each of these three elements in turn.
1. The Core Challenge
The essential problem that all of BlockScience’s work seeks to address is that technological progress creates a misalignment between bleeding-edge technology and technology that we understand well enough to produce predictable outcomes, because developing the capacity to understand new technologies well enough to apply them in sustainable, ethical, and contextually-appropriate ways inevitably lags behind the emergence of the technologies themselves. In the absence of updated traffic laws (or improved coordination algorithms), for example, the invention of flying cars would lead to new kinds of accidents, as vehicles crash into one another all across the sky.
Because it is impossible to discover the most practical and effective uses of a technology that does not yet actually exist, there will always be a gap between the bleeding edge of technological progress and the limits of our understanding. Moreover, the fact that technological progress never stops means that the size of this gap is perpetually threatening to grow — unless organizations like BlockScience diligently measure its dimensions in order to design bridges that span its length.
2. Our Methodology and Approach
In order to fully realize the potential of new technologies, human beings must develop new kinds of infrastructure for connecting the physical and digital worlds. Therefore, the methodology that BlockScience brings to bear in addressing this problem is rooted in the discipline of engineering. Engineering, as we understand it, involves more than simply designing and building infrastructure; engineers must also think about diverse stakeholder groups, the downstream implications of the things that they build, and ensure that the systems they design are both safe and sustainable. The engineering mindset leads us to take complex problems and break them down into “blocks,” which we analyze both separately and in relation to one another; we then reassemble these blocks into a solution architecture that is precisely fit to the context of the specific problem it has been designed to solve.
3. How We Define Success
Finally, the set of conditions that we feel must be met in order to deem a project successful reflects both of the prior two elements. In addition to being safe and sustainable, the solutions we provide must also be ethical and resilient — and in order to resolve the essential problem our organization seeks to address, they must also integrate emerging technologies into socio-technical assemblages that make the complex problems of today’s world easier, rather than harder, to solve.
Aligning Our Mission With Our Values
Our values as an organization provide us with a set of principles to guide our work and ensure that it accords with our overall mission.
We value ethical design and innovation to remind ourselves that we are scientists and engineers first, and it is our moral and ethical obligation to display intellectual integrity in our research and to design and maintain safe systems in our engineering work. As leaders in the industry, we embrace complexity and pursue purposeful knowledge. We believe that engineers play a meaningful role in stabilizing a sometimes-turbulent world, and recognize that any attempt to cut corners in our work is an abdication of this profound responsibility. Not all innovations are ethical, and we consider an unethical solution to be no solution at all.
We value diversity of perspective because truly addressing complex problems requires evaluating them from more than one angle at a time. Thus, our decentralized and remote team structure includes people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, experiences, and belief systems. This intentional structure ensures that the solutions we offer are as grounded as they are creative and that our team as a whole has visibility into each of its members’ blind spots.
We value integrity and autonomy because a decentralized and remote team structure such as ours relies on trust. We encourage and expect initiative, independent thought, and innovation from our team, and understand that our work only has value if our clients can trust every member of our team as deeply as we trust one another. We firmly believe that unless we hold ourselves to the highest standards, we have no right to ask others for their trust. We don’t take shortcuts unless their safety and reliability is assured, and believe that organizations that do fall short of their responsibilities — not only to their clients, but to society at large.
Finally, we value work that has a positive-sum impact because we prioritize the health and sustainability of the systems we create — and the well-being of the people within them — over monetary profit. As engineers committed to conscientiously designing the new kinds of public spaces that are coming to define our digital age, we take seriously our responsibility to build a better world, and understand that this responsibility requires us to identify and account for any externalities our work might lead to. We also prioritize open source and open science in our engagements, so that our work can be as broadly beneficial as possible. We consider a project successful only when our work improves the lives of others.
Building Bridges to the World of Tomorrow
In short, BlockScience exists because even the most complex problems require straightforward solutions — and only conscientious and careful engineering can produce the sort of hard-fought simplicity that transforms the unattainable into the possible.
New bridges between the physical and digital world are being built every day, but it is not enough to simply build such bridges. We must also make sure that they are built soundly, and will not collapse under our weight as they carry us across the divide between the world of today and the world of tomorrow.
Article by Michael Zargham and Ilan Ben-Meir, with edits and illustrations by Jeff Emmett.
BlockScience® is a complex systems engineering, R&D, and analytics firm. By integrating cutting-edge research, applied mathematics, and computational engineering, we analyze and design safe and resilient socio-technical systems. We provide engineering, design, and analytics services to a wide range of clients, including for-profit, non-profit, academic, and government organizations, and contribute to open-source research and software development.