Thought Leaders Thinking: Rebecca D. Costa

Rebecca Costa

Six months since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, relevant empirically proven information is scare, while general complexity is high—and rising. According to the lauded American sociobiologist and futurist Rebecca D. Costa, these are conditions that may be outpacing our ability to manage them.

Ms. Costa is an Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Award recipient, and author of The Watchman’s Rattle, one of the 2010s most critically acclaimed books. As an expert in “fast adaptation”, she counts luminaries such as Ray Kurzweil as her colleagues in helping humanity make best use of technology.

Rebecca D. Costa - Leaders Thinking
American sociobiologist and futurist, Rebecca Costa

Ms. Costa discussed with INTREPID the possibility that the pandemic is a triggering event for the “fourth step” in human evolution. This “fourth step” involves training our brains to be better able to manage the complex world we find ourselves in.

“We’re not quite there, but we’re getting close. One of the symptoms of complexity reaching an apex and making the society vulnerable to a triggering event [that unravels societies very quickly] is that there is mass confusion between facts and unproven beliefs. [In this context], leaders begin to forge public policy based on unproven beliefs. And eventually public policy becomes irrational.”

An example of this “irrational” public policy in the wake of COVID-19 is responding to unemployment by investing into infrastructure.

“[Government is investing into] more bridges, more public transportation, more highways…that the people who are working from home for good are not going to use. So, while I don’t think COVID-19 is quite [a triggering event], I think we’re approaching a time where we are now being driven by unproven beliefs, rather than facts, owing to the levels of complexity that that the human brain is just simply not designed to be able to understand.”

Government is investing in frastructure in response to unemployment
Government is investing in frastructure in response to unemployment

“The nature of the evolution of civilizations is we never get simpler. Look at financial markets: you start out with barter; you wind up with credit default swaps that even experts can’t explain.

It gets more and more and more complex and more and more difficult for humans to manage or even understand. That is the nature of progress.”

According to Ms. Costa, we must leverage technology in order to manage this complexity, of which COVID-19 is just the latest major accelerant.

“When it comes to actual data, I trust machines much more than I trust humans. E. O. Wilson put it best. He said we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.

We’re biased in so many unconscious ways that machines are not. And we’re at the point right now where the data sets are so massive. We create in roughly every 12 months as much data as we created from the dawn of humankind to the year 2015. So, there’s just no way we can keep up with all of that.”

Ms. Costa posits that the predictive power of technologies like AI give human beings “a power, unlike anything humanity has ever had, to see consequences…We’re fast approaching a time where all of this data is allowing us to make really precise predictions and then head off negative consequences before they occur.” This capability, she says, is especially crucial as humanity confronts complex problems such as climate change.

“So, when people ask me, well, what will the role of humans be if decisions are being made and data is being analyzed that the human brain hasn’t evolved to be able to comprehend? [I say it will] be to be the stewards of ethics, morality, compassion, the things we will never be able to teach machines.”

What Do You Value?

What do you Value

With the COVID pandemic, an impassable gulf opened up between the world we knew and an overwhelming new reality. Responding adequately to this profound experience of discontinuity, of being severed from what came before, means asking a simple question.

What do you value?

In other words, what are the core principles that guide your behaviour, your hopes and dreams, your political actions, your efforts to learn and grow? Now that your habitual way of being is disrupted, what is your true north?

In situations where our knowledge and experiences no longer apply to our circumstances, we have to look deeper for direction. After all, values are immutable, non-negotiable. It may be that they are the only forces on this planet that are relatively invulnerable to disruption. Hence, they provide stability and direction when all other guidelines are thrown into a state of disarray.

What Do You Value
Values provide stability & direction when other guidelines are thrown into disarray

Whether we want to or not, we are all currently engaged in a world-building project. It’s a grand experiment with life and death consequences. Severed from the old, we have no choice but to construct the new. In this COVID Economy, we are making the choices that will determine unspeakably important outcomes. Those outcomes include whether the planet will remain viable for human habitation. Whether future generations will be shackled by unmanageable debt. Whether opportunities to generate value will be equitably distributed.

Since the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher, we must examine most fundamental substrates of our motivation. We must identify what generates our enthusiasm for crafting a new world out of the fragments of what came before.

As a strategist working with the think tank New Commons in the mid-aughts, I grew quite familiar with the enthusiasm specific to “development experts.” Tasked with starting up projects in struggling communities on the American East Coast, they understandably loved talking about what they knew. Infrastructure. Local food. Urban design.

I’d always ask them a question: “What do you value?” It was almost always a difficult question to answer.

I’d say, “If all this money is put into good roads, will that satisfy you? Do you love roads?”

They’d say, “No, I just want this community to improve.”


“For my family!”


“Because I love them.”

No matter what the issue was, it always came down to love. It was at the heart of all that we did, or tried to do.

So, will our reorientation into this COVID Economy be guided by anything other than love? Should it? As you make your contribution to this new world, what is fueling you?

Celebrating Success: The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Builds Agility Through Communication

surgeons in covid

When John Biviano reflects on the last six months under COVID-19, he is amazed by the way “the College profession has united, particularly regarding decision-making and communication.” Mr. Biviano is CEO of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS). Therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that the College Fellows he and his colleagues work with have been engaged in matters of life and death significance.

Agility Through Communication
Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) in Melbourne, Victoria

Mr. Biviano explains, “When the pandemic started, we had to ensure sufficient surgical capacity in hospitals. To do that, we worked closely with government at all levels, remained in touch with health departments, and provided the right advice to protect everyone’s health. Our President, Dr Tony Sparnon, developed a close working relationship with the various Chief Medical Officers and other key health experts.”

One critically important decision RACS made was to recommend reduction of elective surgeries. They were also one of the first colleges to voluntarily shut down and take all interactions online. In March 2020, they pulled off the feat of transitioning over 200 staff to working from home within two weeks. Mr. Biviano says that “within three to four weeks, it all became quite normal.”

RACS surgeons, “eager to do their part”, produced evidence-based reviews on triaging patients, a matter of utmost importance under COVID-19. Mr. Biviano says that these reviews would have normally taken months to produce, but RACS’ research unit completed them in weeks.

As a whole, RACS is responsible for training surgeons and maintaining surgical standards in Australia and New Zealand. But Mr. Biviano notes that it is an umbrella organization for specialty societies such as Neurosurgery and Cardiothoracic Surgery. As such, the work of coordinating communications and decision-making between all of these bodies is complex. However, Mr. Biviano was “amazed by the ability of our staff and the surgeons who work with the college to adjust to things like Zoom.”

In addition to the willingness of team members to adjust, Mr. Biviano credits RACS’ extraordinary agility to the organization’s communication-focused approach.

“As a staff, we had a habit of holding 9am Zoom meetings to stay on top of the situation,” he explains. “We also provided daily communication to members. And we created a COVID hub website that collected guidelines our members were producing.”

Mr. Biviano is careful to note that RACS adjusts its communications frequency according to conditions. “For a while our management team met daily, but that’s gone down to twice weekly now. I was sending daily emails to staff; now they go out fortnightly. You don’t want to swamp people.

“Communication is how we equip people to be more agile. We support staff and members to make changes and when they see the benefits, it cements those changes. As difficult as it’s been, COVID-19 has enabled us to push change a little further.”