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On the Helena Membership

by Henry Elkus

In its most simple and reduced form, the Helena Membership is a means to enact projects. It is a group of exceptional people. Those people represent different types of assets. Those assets are utilized to create and source potential projects, vet those potential projects, select the most appropriate of them to take on, and then execute those projects in the most effective and efficient manner possible.

For those looking for the bare-bones description of our model, that’s it. But it doesn’t answer “why.” For those interested further in what we are building and why we have chosen to create our seemingly unique structure to do it, I’ve written this essay.

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The United Nations Security Council: a global example of a "social institution"

What Are Social Institutions?

As soon as society became large and connected enough to recognize the existence of shared problems, society created “institutions” to address those problems. In one form or another, we’ve relied on these institutions — groups of people constituted towards a (claimed) shared goal of social improvement — for thousands of years; governments, churches, universities, militaries, juntos, orders, societies, corporations, public charities, philanthropic foundations, think-tanks, agencies, task-forces, non-governmental organizations, inter-governmental organizations, supranational unions, and the like.

These institutions have had varying levels of efficacy. As old as the human endeavor of attempting to solve collective problems is the human pastime of criticizing the bodies we create to do so. And criticize them we should.

A bust of Emperor Didius Julianus (137-193 AD), who purchased the Roman Throne from the Praetorian Guard after they assassinated his predecessor

General Augusto Pinochet shortly after overthrowing the democratically elected Chilean government in the 1973 coup

Social institutions, maleficent or benevolent in intent, have had their share of catastrophic failures. Our beloved governmental institutions of democracy have been besieged again and again, by lawful use of their own rules, to carry out unfathomable atrocities of world war and genocide; take your pick of examples from the Greeks and Romans to the 20th Century Germans and Chileans. Titanic public financial institutions, advertised as being for the benefit of public good, have been instead hijacked for privatized gain for millennia, from the Praetorian Guard’s 2nd Century sale of the Roman throne to Malaysia’s 21st century 1MDB scandal.

Yet social institutions have also had their successes, however underreported. As historian Will Durant noted: “We think there is more violence in the world than before, but in truth there are only more newspapers.” We have the United Nations, for all of its flaws, to thank for the global eradication of smallpox, and for the impressively executed Montreal Protocol. And philanthropies provided the risk capital to catalyze the global decline or eradication of once major diseases like malaria and polio.

In truth, though, the majority of the large, impactful actions taken by public institutions can’t be morally adjudicated in a binary. It is hard to place the incredibly complex decisions of these bodies solely into buckets labeled “good” or “bad.” The decision to form the UN Security Council was made primarily to prevent a future World War. Judging by that core dimension, it has so far succeeded. But the jury is out as to whether it will continue on that path. In the philanthropic space, some foundations that have enacted positive outcomes have been fairly criticized for operating in a manner that relies on ill-gotten-gains originating from businesses that have harmed society.

Stratospheric ozone layer concentration before and after the Montreal Protocol, which effectively diminished the global use of chemicals like Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs)

This is unsurprising. Some social institutions have led to bad outcomes, some have led to good outcomes, and most have led to a complex mixture of both. But what has remained constant throughout modern history has been the obvious importance these organizations have, irrespective of their moral footprint. It is not a question of whether the world should have social institutions; they will exist in one form or another, good or evil, because they are a fundamental by-product of the social nature of the human race.

Looking to the future, then, it is incumbent on our next generation to build and contribute to institutions that fall on the “good” side of the spectrum. To do this, we must both learn from past examples while factoring in the radically new conditions of the 21st century. I firmly believe that spending one’s life thinking deeply about how social institutions should be structured, designing them with the best intentions, then proving their model in the real world is a worthwhile enterprise. It’s why we are doing what we are doing.

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Helena: A New Entrant

Helena is an endeavor to construct an institution as best equipped as possible to address societal problems of our present and future times. It is, of course, a new and humble entrant into today’s ecosystem of many such organizations. And, looking through the hazy vantage point of history, it is just the next tyro of a long, flawed, successive human tradition.

Our goal is simple. Produce and execute individual projects, one by one, that address meaningful societal problems. Over time, construct an enduring social institution with the power to continue producing and executing these projects — and leave the world a little bit better in its wake.

We have a long list of disadvantages. Unlike other great social institutions, say the Gates Foundation, we don’t have a central figure (that would be me) with billions of dollars of wealth to endow operations. We don’t have a formal constituency. We don’t have illustrious prior careers running G20 countries, Fortune 500 companies, or international NGOs to inform future decisions. Certainly those credentials and assets would be nice. Instead, we are college dropouts in our early 20’s.

Yet it has become clear that many of these disadvantages are, in reality, unique advantages. We are forced to rely upon a decentralized and stable model of revenue that scales beyond a single source, and incentivizes operational success as a mode of survival over all else. We are encouraged to declare our own ignorance at the onset, and so we devise strategies from a wealth of outside knowledge rather than via our own narrow vantage points. We have an unprecedented age of technological connectivity as our theater of operations. And we have the history of thousands of years of social institutions to stand on the shoulders of as we construct our own.

A portion of the Helena membership

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And so we begin. Helena, in order to effectively execute projects that effectively address societal problems, needs to first understand the world and its set of current and future problems, trends, and affairs with some degree of accuracy. It needs to attract a set of world-class ideas for potential projects. It needs to have the ability to dispassionately conduct criticism and diligence on the feasibility of such ideas to understand whether they could be successfully implemented in reality.

Ideation amongst Helena members during the beginning stages of the "Factory in the Sky" project

Once those projects are selected, it needs to find talented leadership to faithfully operate them. It needs the capital to fund the projects (often enormously expensive efforts). It needs the ability to showcase those projects to the world to raise awareness, change behaviors, and work with the public. It needs the subject-matter expertise to take on projects in whatever domain is necessary to get the job done. Were Helena to be forced to turn down projects that are objectively the most effective route to solve a problem, but happen to require specialized knowledge, assets, or leadership that we do not have, Helena would be less effective.

Anyone seeking to achieve the above needs to start from somewhere. We start with people. People represent ideas and expertise. They represent monetary, intellectual and social power. They represent different lived experiences, values, and ideologies. And they possess and will continue to develop the technologies and code the machines that will surpass humans in many other essential domains.

What if we could harness the collective intelligence, asset bases, and colliding viewpoints of some of the most effective leaders in society? What if, instead of directing our own narrow set of ideas onto this body of people, we instead created a symbiotic relationship with them to come up with the best possible outcomes, in the form of tangible projects?

That body of people is the Helena Membership. Our idea was simple and not new. Let’s intelligently construct a group of people, directly associated with Helena, who represent and are willing to leverage the different assets necessary for all aspects of identifying and addressing societal problems. Since each member would need to represent a set of core personality attributes and abilities that allow them to effectively contribute to solving global problems, the pool of potential members would be quite small.

If we did this correctly over time, the membership would collectively cover as many of the capabilities needed to understand and take action on a wide set of global trends and issues. There would be no hierarchy in the status of members and no difference in how we value financial capital versus intellectual capital or social capital. There would be no monetization of the membership; the members would be treated as peers rather than clients or tools. The structure would be built and incentivized to align interests to the execution of projects that produce social good, creating as few negative externalities as possible.

An early sketch depicting Benjamin Franklin's "Junto" club, a form of membership intending to bring together constituent minds covering multiple different capabilities

User nodes making up the internet, however chaotic and often disorganized, function as a case study of collective intelligence

The membership would, therefore, be a form of collective intelligence. Helena would be flexible, able to act in groups when groups best serve the desired outcome, but also able to intentionally break into silos when silos were most efficient, “parallel processing” multiple projects at a time. Members would clash and disagree with one another (and us) vigorously, but those collisions would serve as a needed method of strengthening the overall system, yielding the emergent quality of superior project outcomes rather than inaction or stagnation.

All things considered, the Helena membership is simple and highly minimalist.  It is complex only in how it differs from so many other organizational models. It is the task of unlearning many of the major flawed assumptions that pervade past and present social institutions where we face complications, and where our own (numerous) mistakes have and will continue to derive. In what follows, I defend this framework. I dive into an explanation of the design strategy behind many of the major components of the membership. My intention is not to prove that our model is better. It is instead to share notes. My hope is that the iterative process we have undergone to construct the beginnings of our own social institution can in some way contribute to the larger school of thought.

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Churchill and Lincoln, two of the most cited individual leaders for proponents of the "great man" theory of history

The Group vs. The Individual

Why Helena has a membership at all and why that membership is decentralized with no hierarchy

One of the classic, ancient disputes of history is that concerning the “Great Man” theory. On one side, the argument goes that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” — that a string of individuals, the Lincolns, Caesars, Churchills, Gandhis, and Alexanders made such an important imprint that their existence was the decisive factor driving the direction of history. There are few pursuits as unfashionable today as being a serious proponent of the Great Man theory, and probably for good reason. Beyond its almost comic levels of sexism and revisionism, the theory faces formidable refutation.

Yet oddly, many still love building social institutions around it. With notable exceptions, there is a clear bias towards the assumption that a single great leader, providing top-down vision and instruction to their staff, clergy, troops, or team should be the prevailing mode of enacting societal change. It shouldn’t be. It’s been the hero-worship based model of governance that has led to thousands of years of marginalization and neglect (at best) of those who don’t fit a leader’s interests.

Max Boot's "Invisible Armies" and Gen. Stanley Mcchrystal's "Team of Teams" are two helpful books for those with interest in studying military decentralization and insurgency

An over-reliance on top-down hierarchical military leadership led to the coordination failures and lack of agility that plagued late 20th and early 21st-century American leadership against exponentially weaker and underfunded opposition who mastered insurgency and decentralization. Less than 60 firms represented in the 1955 Fortune 500 remain there today, a trend I would argue is in part due to a lack of willingness of legacy businesses to relinquish a centralized mode of operations.

Contemporary philanthropy is perhaps the worst offender among social institutions biased towards the “Great Man” theory. Some who hold great wealth seek not to utilize it in a quantitative and measured pursuit to enact the greatest social change, but rather towards causes to which they emotionally subscribe. So long as they are honest about it, this is probably harmless.

But some philanthropists set out with a bolder thesis; they profess to optimize net societal impact through the creation of a robust and dispassionate institution of social good. Often with the right intent, those institutions then in turn rely predominantly on the wisdom of their founder for their operations. It is not a surprise, then, when the institution proves ineffective in a domain in which the founder has utterly no expertise. Or when it plunges into an ill-fated project not after considered due diligence, but because of the mistaken belief that the founder’s skill in accumulating wealth by selling sugar water will in turn translate to success in nuclear de-proliferation. Rewarded by the press and buttressed by the founder’s echo-chamber of salaried yes-men, the cycle then persists.

To be clear, the world of “doing good” does have outlier cases of philanthropists who have expertly constructed and operated social institutions to prolific effect. I’d like to think we’ve found some of those philanthropists; Ray Chambers and John Arnold are notable examples. It’s no mistake that both of these leaders operate highly decentralized and partnership-based institutions that constantly challenge their assumptions. Yet as a share of the whole, cases like this are found few and far between. In this sense, the “impact” world deserves its present stereotype of ineffectiveness.

Whether or not the leaders we are inspired by are agents of their own fate or just puppets of determinism, the former is just better for our sanity.

And now an admission; I am still somewhat a partisan of the “great [leader]” theory. I do think there are cases in which great individuals, aided by or in opposition to the winds of momentum, inertia, and luck, have been deciding factors in shaping history, and I think they will continue to be. There is a recent trend of academic study to support this notion; MIT and Northwestern University researchers, Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken, respectively, find in two robust studies that leaders “can play crucial roles in shaping the growth of nations” from their sample between 1875 and 2005. Although it’s clear that the overwhelming tides of change come from decentralized groups working with some degree of cohesion, dismissing the roles of great individuals entirely is dangerous. We are plagued with far too many “social good networks” devoid of leadership, infected with infighting, less powerful than the sum of their component parts, and producing little more than gatherings or conference discussions as an end product.

A possible depiction from the Enuma Elish, a second millennium BC Babylonian poem some consider the first recorded example of written myth

Giuseppe Cades' 1792 depiction of Alexander the Great famously refusing water from his troops in the Gedrosian desert

I also gladly fall victim to the romantic notion that the individual has the power to change the world for the better. Ever since Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth of the champion Marduk harnessing the forces of chaos to create mankind, humanity has fallen victim as well. I think this addiction is, in net terms, healthy. The fundamental optimism that comes with this story of human triumph is a powerful stimulant that pushes great entrepreneurs, activists, and leaders to embark against insurmountable odds towards social mobility, because others have done so before. Alexander the Great was inseparable from his copy of the Iliad, sleeping with it and a dagger under his pillow every night; he needed the story of Achilles for motivation. Whether or not the leaders we are inspired by are agents of their own fate or just puppets of determinism, the former is just better for our sanity. We therefore shouldn’t reject the notion of the great individual leader so completely that we design our organizations in rejection of them.

Here is the kicker: we can have the best of both worlds. Organizations can be based upon a decentralized model devoid of a single source of wisdom and operational assets, while also reaping the benefits of strong leadership when it arises advantageously. It just takes intelligent, minimalist design. Helena’s attempt at working toward this idea is as follows.

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Choosing To Create A Membership

The most basic component was our choice to create a membership in the first place, rather than relying on just one leader. This was less a shrewd rejection of hierarchical bureaucracy and the “Great Man” theory, than it was the fact that we had no such leader available. I could not serve as that person; I had no ability to provide the assets (monetary, social, political, or intellectual) necessary to address any societal problem myself. Nor was there anyone else available to play that role.

What followed was the creation of a membership. We decided that the membership would consist of a group of multiple people, and that each would have equal footing. There would be no “board” or “committee” that some members sit on with extra powers, as most social institutions have. There would be no promotion system that a member could climb if they did something helpful for Helena. The membership would be constant and organic, growing piecemeal, with no “time limits” that arbitrarily ended one’s tenure. A decentralized and equal body, it would (in theory) reward dispassionate deliberation and incentivize external action rather than infighting, because there would be little that could be achieved by competitiveness or “winning” an argument.

There would also be no ceiling to what a member could do within Helena. If a member felt it necessary to be prolifically active — suggesting significant projects, leading them, aiding in the diligence process for other projects and providing significant assets to them, and meeting constantly with other members at a breakneck pace, all to great positive effect to the world — they could do so with no friction.

Computers are able to process information both collectively and in parallel format. Human groups, at their most agile, emulate this ability, albeit often less efficiently.

If a member worked better in a self-imposed silo in order to develop an idea, but then required the collective minds of multiple members to battle-test it and ultimately implement it, the membership would facilitate this seamlessly. As philosopher Rachel Bespaloff brilliantly wrote: “Great common thoughts are disclosed to man only when he is alone: they are the revelation made by solitude in the thick of collective action.” What would matter instead would be that the ideas and work of the members were objective, dispassionate, and the best logical course of action to take. So long as those tests were passed, Helena would impose no bureaucratic barriers to slow them.

This would allow for both a group-based model of operation while also affording equal opportunity for individual members to lead. Whether a given project was achieved predominantly through the actions of one member, whether it was achieved through the actions of a consortium, or whether it was achieved through some mixture of the two, would be purely a matter of what the most efficient route was for the project to be executed. We would set no arbitrary rules, like binding each project to a “governing board” of “x” members, an invariable incubation period of “x” months, a funding minimum of “x” dollars, or some other elaborate organizational contraption. How could we possibly be so intelligent as to know, in advance, a universal structure for how to address societal problems? There is no “standard model” for Helena, but there is a “standard maxim” — the best idea wins. We simply formatted the Helena membership to incentivize all involved to make the best idea win.

In the short time Helena has operated, we’ve seen the fruits of this approach. In Helena’s first major project — our effort to further develop technologies capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (among much else) — we needed to, amongst much else, employ an economic and scientific advisory council to vet and choose the most compelling prospective models, convince governmental leaders to buy the resulting technology, and find and route capital and press attention to the most viable solutions. In Helena’s second project, it so happened that we needed to conduct heavy due diligence on the technical vulnerabilities of the North American electrical grid, write comprehensive legislation to protect its most critical elements, and find a way to pass the legislation — in partnership with the intelligence and military communities — and at the state, federal, and presidential levels. For every task, the most applicable Helena members were the ones that made it happen, and they did so by choice. We didn’t require them to engage in the projects, and there was no organizational bylaw or rule dictating that they do. They were simply passionate about fighting climate change or passionate about protecting our critical infrastructure, so they were motivated and incentivized to help get the job done. And they did. Those that weren’t just didn’t work on the two projects, finding value in other projects and in meeting with other members.

In each Helena project, there has been a wide span of member involvement. In some cases, members have assumed the role of the heroic individual leader, working on the project full time with Herculean effort. In some cases, members have aided in the funding of a project without dedicating time operationally to it. In one case, a member already working significantly on one project called us to give strategic advice about another, just because she found it interesting; that advice led us to a fundamental shift in our approach. We had no way of knowing beforehand which member would be most effective for which project. It just didn’t matter. We had the confidence in our system design that the answer would reveal itself organically.

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A visualization of the Lorenz Attractor

Membership Variance

Why Helena’s membership represents a diversity of seemingly unconnected “fields,” and what set of qualities are sought in a Helena member

Fields don’t exist. They are social constructions that at times effectively aid in the organization of society, academia, the workforce, and other domains. But that doesn’t make them “real.” They are sometimes helpful proxies to simplify the explanation of what someone, or some organization, “does.” But again, that doesn’t make them real.

What is real are the myriad negative repercussions that come from an over-reliance on delineated fields. More so than ever before, the 21st century demands that we overcome our addiction to simplification, segmentation, and silos; and that we treat the term “interdisciplinary” with its due respect rather than the customary eye-rolling.

Of the many legendary cases of bureaucracy slowing interdisciplinary thinking, my favorite is the story of chaos theory, or “nonlinear science.” Chaos theory, as many now know, is one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in contemporary history; in the words of the 1991 Kyoto Prize committee, it brought about one “of the most dramatic changes in mankind’s view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton.” You would therefore think that its discovery sent an immediate shockwave through the scientific community. It didn’t. And that was in large part because chaos theory couldn’t be fit into a single field.

Edward Lorenz

Inability to predict weather in the medium and long term has always frustrated planners. Economist Kenneth Arrow tells a numerous story of a stubborn army general who exclaimed: "I am aware that the forecasts are no good. However, I need them for planning purposes!"

It was a meteorologist who first discovered the underlying concepts that led to chaos theory. Edward Lorenz, at the time an M.I.T. meteorology researcher, began to notice that the prediction system he was using to simulate future weather patterns would be highly sensitive to tiny input metrics. An extremely small change in variables like temperature and wind speed in the present, for example, would yield enormous differences in medium and long term future weather outcomes. At the time, those small changes in variables, usually so minute that they ran into the 6th or 7th decimal place, were simply rounded to the nearest 3rd decimal place, because it was assumed that it would make no practical difference. This breakthrough finding, now known as “Lorenz Attractors”, became the basis of the 1962 paper Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow, which itself became the starting point of chaos theory. We now popularly refer to chaos theory with a similar quip that references this finding: that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly could, for example, directly lead to a superstorm on the opposite corner of the world: hence, the “Butterfly Effect.”

“to call the study of chaos ‘nonlinear science’ was like calling zoology ‘the study of non-elephant animals.’

Lorenz did not have an easy time sharing this finding with the scientific community, or even getting many to initially believe him. As author James Gleick outlines in his stellar book, Chaos, Lorenz first shared his findings inside of his M.I.T. department. Fellow M.I.T. professor and colleague Willem Malkus originally laughed off Lorenz’ finding as an aberration. Later, after being proven profoundly wrong, Malkus looked back on his mistake.

“Of course, we completely missed the point. [Lorenz] wasn’t thinking in terms of our physics at all. He was thinking in terms of some sort of generalized or abstracted model which exhibited behavior that he intuitively felt was characteristic of some aspects of the external world. He couldn’t quite say that to us, though. It’s only after the fact that we perceived that he must have held those views.”

Unpacking the comedy of errors Malkus and colleagues committed is a bit depressing. Lorenz was thinking in terms of a “generalized model” characteristic of the “external world” because that is his job as a scientist. To begin one’s hypothesis by thinking “in terms of our physics” — some institutionalized and siloed, abstract model — rather than by aiming to represent the reality of the outside world, irrespective of what model one uses, is precisely the error. Further, and crucially, it is the base intention behind the concept of the university model, predicated on the Latin universus, or “whole,” to investigate the objective answer to a given question rather than to prioritize satisfying an existing school of thought. The fact that Lorenz “couldn’t quite say” to his colleagues that he felt this way only shows the presence of institutionalized social pressure exacerbating the problem.  

Stanislaw Ulam

A further layer of difficulty Lorenz faced was the classification of the academic field of “linear science” itself. Because of the solidified orthodoxy and infrastructure behind the study of linear science in the university system, challenging that system was an uphill battle. Instead of integrating Lorenz’s ideas horizontally into the existing community as a welcome contribution to all scientific domains, academia did what it does best, creating a new silo, or “field,” to stick non-linear science into, far away from everything else. This was, of course, not the appropriate move. As mathematician Stanislaw Ulan described it: “to call the study of chaos ‘nonlinear science’ was like calling zoology ‘the study of non-elephant animals.’

Yet another issue resulting from the institutionalization of fields is that of ego reinforcement. Imagine you are a tenured professor who has defined his career from theories that deeply rely on linear systems. You have spent decades climbing the hierarchy of seniority in your department by continually publishing highly-cited papers that assume linear systems. You have won awards for your work, you are invited to the right dinners and social events due to it, and that success has come to define your own self-worth and contribution to the scientific canon. You then meet Edward Lorenz, a bright-eyed meteorologist with a new theory of nonlinearity which could challenge some of the very assumptions you have based your career upon. In your gut, you realize his theories are correct. But to admit that requires you to go deeply against the grain. Pondering this dilemma, the physicist Joseph Ford found no one better than Tolstoy to quote:

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to other, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

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Chaos theory is not nearly the only expression of the problem of field designation. We see it, no joke intended, across many fields. Siloed away in the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, using only unclassified, publicly available material, researcher Rex Hudson identified “new breeds of increasingly dangerous religious terrorists” as the main enemy facing the United States homeland, years before 9/11. Testifying to Congress on September 10th, 2001, FBI officials told public officials that the most imminent terrorism threat to the United States was from animal-rights activists. We all wish that the investigative and intelligence community would have better shared insights between their “field” of study and that of academic research of the Library of Congress.

In diplomacy, there is also a rich history of reliance on a narrow set of domain expertise to solve broad, interdisciplinary problems. At the close of WW1, President Woodrow Wilson was tasked with laying the groundwork for lasting post-war global strategy to maintain geopolitical order. To do it, he created the “The Inquiry,” a body of 126 academics, nearly all (white) men in the fields of political science, law, geology, economics, and diplomatic history.

Members of the underwhelming "Inquiry" group in 1919

As author John Gaddis writes in his On Grand Strategy, The Inquiry crucially underperformed in one predictable area: it provided mostly theory rather than practical courses of action. Suggesting laughably broad principles such as conducting diplomacy “always frankly and in public view,” reducing arms “to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety,” and giving “equal weight” to the “populations concerned” in colonial disputes, the 126 academics gave, shockingly, academic advice. Gaddis quotes a French diplomat present at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, where The Inquiry’s materials were presented, who criticized the strategy as a “pursuit of theories which had little relation to the emergencies of the hour.”

Imagine if an interdisciplinary group of leaders, with foresight on the challenges of successfully implementing behavior change and messaging across ideological and political belief systems, were present then to help. Imagine if that group was also equally capable of addressing a host of other global issues due to the agility enabled by interdisciplinary design. That is the social institution we aspire to build with Helena.

A NASA-created heat map of the world in 2100, given current climate trends

Today’s global challenges are plagued by the same problem. A particularly painful case study is that of climate change, where I would argue that a well-intentioned over-reliance on academics as spokespeople has backfired. In an exhaustive compilation of scientific literature over last 20 years, it has been found that there exists a 97% consensus among scientists not only that climate change is real, but that it is human-caused.

As Michael E. Mann noted in his 2017 Congressional Testimony, there are some theories of gravity that do not enjoy a 97% consensus among scientists. Sitting in a climate scientist’s shoes, it would be logical to assume that the public would respond with grave concern to near-unanimous certainty on the human effect on Earth’s changing climate. The reality was not so kind. Climate skeptics, some with duplicitous intent, and some simply gullible, instead attacked the figure itself through alternative interpretation: Why is it not 100%? If scientists can’t fully agree on climate change, why should we believe it? Some politicians seized upon this misleading narrative with marked success. To most, news of the unprecedented scientific census was simply drowned out by competing political misinformation. A 2018 Gallup poll found that the number of Republicans and Independents who believed the scientific consensus dropped in the year prior to 35% and 70%, respectively. The same poll showed that 42% of Republicans and 65% of Independents were aware of the consensus.

Some view it as the fault of the scientific community that the public has not been sufficiently convinced of their near-unanimous findings on climate change and what it means to reach a 97% consensus. That would be akin to telling an airline pilot that her job is not complete until she both safely lands the plane and teaches everyone onboard to land it too. Messaging is not their job. The scientific discipline is rightfully one of dispassion and lack of emotion. Public relations, politics, and behavior change requires the opposite skill.

Interstellar is just one example of a surge of Hollywood movies convincingly and accurately depicting a future Earth ravaged by climate change

Those who possess separate tools should have been present from the start. As we now see more effective messaging on climate change from the likes of political comedians like John Oliver, popular for-profit fiction movies, and the intelligent integration of economic and for-profit incentives to solve climate change in the political sphere, we are finally beginning to see the fruits of interdisciplinary thinking in addressing the problem. But those brilliant thinkers and operators outside of academia were sorely missed back when concern around climate change was far more siloed. As Nathaniel Rich writes in his brilliant essay Losing Earth, between 1979 and 1989 a brave group of scientists became maddeningly close to addressing climate change with significant policy implementation. The story unfolds like a Greek tragedy; the scientists narrowly missed the mark, falling just short of signing comprehensive treaties that could have solved the climate crisis.

Imagine if an interdisciplinary group of leaders, with foresight on the challenges of successfully implementing behavior change and messaging across ideological and political belief systems, were present then to help. Imagine if that group was also equally capable of addressing a host of other global issues due to the agility enabled by interdisciplinary design. That is the social institution we aspire to build with Helena.

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The Helena Membership Model

Here is how we’ve acted on this idea. The Helena membership is primarily constructed horizontally, and secondarily constructed vertically.

In a primarily vertical design, before beginning, one first makes the judgement that they will seek to solve problems in field ‘x’. They then make the logical assumption that they should recruit as members those they or society deem to be leaders in field ‘x’ in consultation with the new members they have no recruited, the organization might also identify which other fields directly intersect with field ‘x,’ and recruit leaders representing those fields. Some stop there, and begin operations.

Some go a bit further, integrating a secondary design feature to their membership. They next identify a set of horizontal assets and skillsets that they predict will help them in their operations. Those could be, but aren’t limited to, the monetary capital they will need to fund their work, the social reach to promote their work, a network of relationships they will need to become influential in service of implementing their work, and highly intelligent strategists to help them think through critical organizational decisions. They then identify leaders who have those assets and skillsets, irrespective of whether those leaders at first glance represent field ‘x,’ and recruit them into their membership. This vertical model has worked brilliantly in the past, and it may very well continue to work for some in the future. But in our case, it was not at all a fit.

The design of Helena’s model began with a declaration of our own ignorance, rather than a pre-emptive decision that we would focus on solving problems in a certain field. This was partially because we had no world-class expertise in any field. It was also partially because we felt we had no competitive ability to, alone, intelligently diligence the world’s state of affairs, then predict from that analysis that a field or set of fields were best placed for our organizational focus. I’m personally quite glad of this early recognition of our own incompetence, especially as I continue to meet those who have shuttered or pivoted organizations after realizing their valiant early assumptions didn’t correspond with the realities of their future capabilities.

We first began with the educated guess that many societal problems created by humans were thus created by tools and behaviors controlled or exhibited by humans. It would follow that some of those human-caused societal problems could be solved by utilizing those same tools and attributes. Climate change can be in part attributed to an excess of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases emitted into the atmosphere due to many years of human decisions through the utilization of political structures, technologies, businesses and other human-made systems. It would follow that addressing elements of climate change could then be enacted by utilizing political structures, technologies, businesses, and other human-made systems to extract those gases from the atmosphere, reduce their current and future emissions into the atmosphere, and incentivize current generations to take separate courses of action to prevent the problem from reestablishing.

JFK at his American University commencement address, 1963

A NASA graph charting historical atmospheric carbon levels as they trend towards the dreaded potential "point of no return"

We also assumed that some problems can scale in severity to such a point that they cannot not be solved by utilizing human-centric tools alone. If we aren’t vigilant, climate change could unfortunately become a posterboy example. The United Nations warns that the compounding effects of greenhouse gas emissions after decades of inaction will lead to a “point of no return” after which likely no human policy, business, or technological change could bring us back to normal. In this sense, John F. Kennedy’s proclamation that “our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man” was probably too optimistic.

Let’s try not to make proving him wrong a habit. Happily, many societal problems have not yet progressed to this advanced stage, or by nature most likely won’t. Gerrymandering, for example, is clearly human-caused and human solvable. Hope remains.

And so we placed Helena’s design emphasis on primarily representing those horizontal human qualities. We would first identify the tools humans use to enact change. Then we would find and recruit the people we felt most represented those tools. Of course, no handbook besides logic exists for this task; there is clearly no agreed-upon set of horizontal qualities that make up human nature, but simple observation of history and the present world around you makes for an imperfect first step.

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Core Elements of the Helena Membership

Four human “tools,” four horizontal human “qualities” and four horizontal human “behaviors” emerged as the initial horizontal elements to represent in the membership. Naturally, as we have grown, we have realized that these initial elements are far from comprehensive. Naïveté, though, works wonders for getting started.

The human tools were politics, capital, behavior change and technology (in no order of importance). There is no rocket-science explanation needed. Backed by the weight of a government, decisions made in the political realm are a major channel for creating change globally. Thus, it would be important to recruit as members those who understand politics and have had success implementing change through its systems. Money also matters. Capital pays for things; it can be utilized to fund solutions to problems and the teams necessary to operate those solutions. Thus, it would be important to recruit members who understand capital and how to efficiently deploy it. Sometimes, though, no matter how much capital and legislative ability one has, a problem in the world can’t be solved without people changing their minds. For that, it would be important to recruit as members those with large social platforms and a willingness to use those platforms for a moral purpose. Finally, technology. Among so much else, technology is the master accelerant; it can implement a change in the world faster, cheaper, and more efficiently. It would be important for us to represent those who are playing a role in building, understanding, and utilizing powerful technologies that lead to changes in society. These four tools are crude approximations of the ways in which humans “operate.” They are also highly overlapping; most members in Helena represent more than one, and some represent all.

Yet finding people who represent these four human “tools” is not nearly enough. Having the power to implement an idea says nothing about the strength of the idea itself. There also exist some very bad people who hold the tools of political power, capital, behavior change and technology. Thus, there are more essential layers of horizontal attributes to look for.

Raphael's "The School of Athens": Yet another reminder of the persistent human struggle to define and settle upon ethical frameworks

The next set of those attributes were the four human “qualities” of moral vision, lived experience, artistic expression, and intelligence. Someone with moral vision has committed themselves to a conscious pursuit of utilizing power for a just end. It is no prerequisite that they settle exactly upon what their “end” is; humanity itself has been in collective disagreement over that question for more than 4,000 years. But one becomes directionless without having made an honest commitment to filter their decisions through a moral gauze.

Lived experience is the essential data of social context. No book can transfer the experiential knowledge of life from someone else’s vantage point, and no amount of data intake (that we know of) can allow for one to inherit someone else’s experience of a certain event.

Leonardo Da Vinci's "Studies of the Fetus in the Womb"

Maya Angelou

Lived experience can’t supplant logic; it’s the union of both that proves optimal. Einstein, in his Ideas and Opinions, says it best: “Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.”

Artistic expression is, among so much else, an ability to understand and communicate the underlying basis of nature and emotion. It has often been the forms of art, not brute force, that catalyze significant change and disruption; take your pick from Da Vinci’s Studies of the Fetus in the Womb, Picasso’s Guernica, Angelou’s poetic activism, Douglass’ oration, The Rite of Sping’s shocking opening night, thousands of years of religious iconography, the unkillable ideas of Charlie Hebdo, and seemingly infinite more. Some go as far as to state that art is the act of looking at the world ”sub specie aeternitatis,” or from a universal, eternal perspective. In his Tractatus, Wittgenstein goes so far as to strike down the distance between art and moral philosophy in his statement that “ethics and aesthetics are one.” Clearly, leaving out representation of artistic expression would prove a mistake.

Picasso's Guernica

The Vertical

Even with the membership well represented with the horizontal tools of politics, capital, behavior change, and technology, and even if those tools were modulated by the horizontal qualities of moral vision, lived experience, artistic expression, and intelligence, something significant is still missing: behavior. If the members don’t agree on how to conduct themselves when working collectively to develop a solution and implement it, no superhuman abilities matter. Just ask the Beatles. Or Destiny’s Child (that one was probably for the best).

The four horizontal behaviors are first principle thinking, dispassionate analysis, willingness to collaborate, and process agnosticism. A first principle thinker seeks to find the most basic and fundamental premise that their argument is built upon, and makes sure that that premise, and all that is layered upon it, is sound. Without employing this underlying philosophy, one runs the almost certain risk of being deeply misguided in their actions. Utilizing first principle thinking still doesn’t mean you will be “right.”

“We humans do not need to be perfect, we just need to be flawed in offsetting ways.” Philip Tetlock

Even the great Descartes, a major proponent of reasoning from first principles who wielded systematic doubt until he was left with “indubitable truths,” famously didn’t get some of his indubitable truths right. But it does mean your process is logical. Dispassionate analysis is the art of separating emotion from decision making when it can be corrupted by it. This is a deceptively challenging task, and one that often does not win friends. Those unwilling, when it is most advantageous, to work in teams and share information are better described as ineffective than merely selfish. And the same holds for those who care more about sticking to a given plan compared to sticking stubbornly to the end mission that plan services.

These three core elements — tools, qualities, and behaviors — made up the primary strategy for constructing the Helena membership. A beginning group of exceptional people was found that exhibited most or all of these traits. As we continue to slowly grow Helena’s membership piecemeal, our goal is to never stray from these elements. Unsurprisingly, we’ve also added to them as we’ve learned from failures. We do have less of a concern over whether each member holds every one of the elements above. There are some that are non-negotiable, like moral vision. But it’s obviously not a prerequisite that every member is a world-class artist. The goal is simply that the membership balances out. If ultimately successful, we hope to have stolen well from Philip Tetlock, who said “we humans do not need to be perfect, we just need to be flawed in offsetting ways.”

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With the membership now exhibiting these horizontal qualities, it has its foundation. But it isn’t nearly constructed. A major task still remains: understanding which vertical qualities, or “fields,” the membership must represent and act upon. But we have an advantage now. Instead of having to make this extraordinarily important step at the onset, it can now be made by tapping into a powerful base of knowledge.

The membership, at this point populated by a group of exceptional people who hold tools in politics, capital, behavior change, and technology, with qualities of moral vision, lived experience, artistic expression, and intelligence, while exhibiting the behaviors of first principle thinking, dispassionate analysis, collaborative will and process agnosticism, is developed enough to be consulted. This is an essential new development; it finally moves the core burden of knowledge.

Previously, a weak set of only a few people (us creating and running Helena) could consult only our own brains to make decisions regarding Helena’s strategy. Shaping that strategy is a daunting task, requiring judgments on which global problems to focus on and why, and how to construct projects around those problems. Yet now, we can utilize the membership, a body optimized across the characteristics needed to better answer those questions, as an alternate computing system to our own individual brains. We can now garner essential advice from a source far more powerful and diverse than ourselves.

In this sense, the membership is a rudimentary “collective intelligence.” It is comprised of individual nodes that, when combined, yield an emergent output exceeding the sum of its parts. Now, when tasked with making decisions regarding what to focus on, as well as when making decisions about how to add further capabilities (members) to itself, the membership can employ its own collective thinking power, which is far more competent than that of any one founder or executive.

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The best way to explain this strategy is through one of contemporary society’s most pressing challenges: how artificial intelligence engineers are grappling with the problem of ethics. Philosopher Nick Bostrom, in his seminal book Superintelligence, defines “collective intelligence” as a system of constituent intellects, or more simply a well-operated group of humans working together towards a united end. Being that this collective intelligence is made up of human minds, and being that human minds are not comparable in some types of processing abilities to that of their synthetic counterparts, Bostrom rightfully discounts the possibility that a human collective intelligence will achieve the “superintelligent” state. (In fact, of possible systems that could achieve superintelligence, collective intelligence ranks near the bottom.)

So what will be the entity that becomes “superintelligent?” Most likely, Bostrom and others predict, that entity will be some form of a machine. Initially, that machine will be programmed by humans. As it develops toward superintelligence, the machine will transition to programming itself, and thus making decisions autonomously.

Thus, one of the most ominous challenges that face developers of artificial intelligence is that of normativity. Humans don’t have a standard, agreed upon model of ethics. A middling record, to say it charitably, exists in humanity’s historic ability to act ethically toward one another. We also don’t understand much of the operations of our own brain that lead to our own ethical choices. So how are we going to program ethics into a machine? How can we make sure that the ethics we initially program into this machine lead it to help humanity rather than harm it once the machine becomes a superintelligent agent?

An ethical problem artificial intelligence engineers face today: how should autonomous vehicles make critical decisions in potentially deadly crashes?

Bostrom writes of multiple potential solutions to this problem. One of his most famous is what he coins “indirect normativity” — in short, asking the AI. Instead of trusting ourselves, with thousands of years of our own flawed ethical precedent, to come up with the moral goals that the AI should pursue, we would utilize the AI’s superior intelligence to answer that question for us.  In Bostrom’s words, instead of ordering the system to achieve a direct, human-made outcome, we would order the system to “achieve that which we would have wished the AI to achieve if we had thought about the matter long and hard.” The promise of indirect normativity, Bostrom writes, “lies in the fact that it could let us offload much of the difficult cognitive work required to carry out a direct specification of an appropriate final goal.”

Indirect normativity is absolutely not the consensus solution for this problem in artificial intelligence, nor did Bostrom intend it to be. It’s just a contender. But for the problem that Helena faces, a far more rudimentary one involving human collective intelligence, it is an obvious solution. 

In our case, we are building a social institution made up of a small membership of exceptional but flawed humans, and we wish to find the optimal areas for that institution to focus on in service of solving societal problems. What if we utilize a far more analog, far weaker application of indirect normativity? Is it not far superior to treat the membership as a collective intelligence, then ask it what to focus on? Plus, unlike that of artificial superintelligence, our choice isn’t a binary. Success in our model means combining the best insights of the larger membership group with the best insights that we, and the outside world, can come up with.

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An early (and quite ineffective) form of human indirect normativity: asking the Oracle of Delphi

And so we applied principles of indirect normativity, albeit in significantly more elementary fashion, as our next step in constructing the membership. Conducting an audit of the existing members recruited from the prior “horizontal” focus, we took stock of which “fields” already happened to be represented.

Two parallel processes were then initiated. The first was a deep consultation with the members, asking them which trends, problems, and domains they would suggest focusing on during the next 50 years. These conversations make up a continuous process, which we call “Helena Meetings,” taking place around the world and throughout the year. In some cases meetings happen individually, between ourselves and a single Helena member. In most cases, the members meet each other in small combinations, usually just two or three at a time. And in some cases we bring larger numbers of the membership together, of course constrained by logistics and cost. We are obsessive about this process, writing down every insight from every communication we set up in service of better understanding which areas of knowledge we continue to lack, which “fields” we still don’t represent in the membership, and which potential projects we should consider taking on.

The second is our internal process of attempting to become as educated as possible about the world, and to make our own strategic considerations as individuals. Even though the strategic abilities that can be ascertained from reading, conversational knowledge accumulation, and the gaining of experience from project operations pales in comparison to the collective intelligence of the membership, it is still invaluable. More importantly, it is essential for myself and our team in our pursuit to best lead the organization as it grows larger and more complex.

The best insights from the first process of indirect normativity, supplemented by the insights of the individualistic internal process, yields the strategy we employ to construct the “vertical” elements of the Helena membership. So far, (as of early 2019) this process has led us to the educated guesses that certain “fields” are worth including more heavily in Helena’s membership than they were previously. They include artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, the future of clean energy technology, climate policy, criminal justice, misinformation, blindspots of America’s governance system, democratic elections, complexity science, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure, healthcare systems, natural resources, rare earth metals, rapid prototyping. We only know two things for sure; one — this list is not nearly correct or complete, and two — it will constantly iterate.

Our model is not nearly perfect. In fact, it can’t be, because it is built from, run by, and structured to interact with, an imperfect medium — humans. But our process does represent the result of trying to formulate a more intelligent system of membership to support projects to address societal problems. The thinker Sam Harris wrote that “we need systems wiser than we are.” Hopefully our imperfect system, iterating and iterating as it continues to grow, proves able to honor that idea.

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Helena will certainly in the future seek to harness, in partnership with that of the human intellect, the forces of artificial intelligence. But we must crawl before we walk. Further, if we do our job correctly, some of the “human” Helena members will be those who develop and implement artificial intelligence that exceeds our own, and we will have a chance to utilize it to noble ends. But that is the frontier of another essay I am as yet wholly unqualified to write.

LAYERS