Book Review

REFRAME, How to solve the World's Trickiest Problems.

By Lis Kirkby*

Eric Knight, REFRAME, How to solve the World's Trickiest Problems. Black Inc. Publishing. Victoria, 2012, pb, pp. 234. rrp. $29.95

The author of Reframe, Eric Knight, was born in 1983. His father is Australian, his mother, a social worker, came from China. He graduated from Sydney University in 2007, was awarded a Rhodes scholarship, and has been an economics consultant to the OECD, the UN and the World Bank. This is his first book.

Knight bases his book on the premise that the world is examined through a magnifying glass, and the magnifying glass is pointed at shiny objects. In order to solve the problems we face, he believes we need to change our focus, to alter our focus as we would a camera, and adjust the focus to fit the object. It sounds simple, but his examples reveal how difficult it is in practice. He suggests that that we look at the Global Financial Crisis, the Arab Spring, climate change and terrorism through the lens of our camera as only then will we have a true picture.

His examples are diverse, in 'The Valley of Death', he writes of the failure of solar power in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. The city planners had been convinced that solar panels would provide sufficient energy to ensure that Masdar would be the world's first carbon neutral city. But they hadn't taken into account the fact that dust storms would cover the panels in layers of dust, thus blocking out the sun. In the desert, solar energy was not possible. Neither was wind power, and geothermal energy failed as the underground reservoirs weren't hot enough the drive turbines. The water purification technologies that worked in cooler climates failed also, as the membranes and filters were damaged by the high salinity of the water.

Knight also describes the failure of a project in China to turn sugar cane into butanol, the chemical needed to make paint. The plant was established, the sugar cane was planted, but then it was discovered that the variety of sugar cane that had been tested to ensure it carried the needed enzyme was not suitable for the climate where the plantations had been sited. The right variety of cane could be obtained elsewhere, but the cost to transport the cane would make the project uneconomic.

These are just two examples of Silicon Valley projects that encountered technical difficulties when attempts were made to convert successful laboratory experiments into practical enterprises. But Knight isn't only interested in technology. He also contrasts the approach taken in fighting the Communist Emergency in Malaya in the 1950s with the approach taken in the 1960s by the Americans in Vietnam. Knight quotes Richard Clutterbuck, (later a Major General), recalling the 'bright new brigade commanders who would arrive from England nostalgic for World War Two, or fresh from large scale manoeuvres in Germany'. Their training had equipped them to win battles by weight of force and they lacked any prior understanding of the social and political implications of the Emergency.

I was particularly interested in this chapter of his book because I worked in Malaya during the Emergency, I knew Richard Clutterbuck, and as I was a writer and broadcaster for Radio Malaya, the programs and propaganda that were broadcast were authorised by Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Templer, who broke the military mould. On his watch, the Communist insurgency would be won by winning the hearts and minds of the people of Malaya. But as Knight points out, the Americans did not learn from the lesson of Malaya when they went into Vietnam. General Westmoreland was determined to 'search and destroy',as he used the magnifying glass and not the camera. It was not until the Gulf War that General Colin Powell attempted to change the mindset of the United States military through the Powell doctrine. But it was General David Petraeus who organised 'a complete rewrite of the army's field manual of counterinsurgency operations' in 2006.

The chapter "How to spot a guerrilla" is one of the most fascinating in Knight's book. It also discusses the work of the Australian, David Kilcullen, who as a political anthropologist in Indonesia in the 1990s came to the conclusion that there were two types of terrorists, and the 'implacable radicals' were only 2 per cent of the enemy. David Kilcullen believed that the answer to terrorism lay in finding and dismantling 'global social networks'. Although his views were supported by other Americans, in particular by Mark Sageman who wrote 'Understanding Terror Networks' in 2004, overt military action has left Iraq in chaos, and led to the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is the range of Knight's research, and the opinions of the people he has interviewed that make his book so fascinating. Also his belief that 'the great quirk of history was that small answers were the best way of solving big problems'; to illustrate his point, he gives these examples. The first is the story of technology promoted by Shi Zhgengrong, a solar engineer who gained his PhD in Australia in the 1990s, soon after graduation he was working for Pacific Solar in Sydney, and struggling to cut production costs. In 2000, he was invited back to China to establish his company there, if he accepted he would be given cheap land, skilled labour and a US$6 million equity investment. Once there, he was able to replace robots used in Europe and the United States with Chinese labour, their task was to layer silicon on solar panels. They proved to be more adept at the job than the robots and much cheaper, as a result by 2003, Shi was generating electricity at $2,80 a watt with a twenty five per cent profit margin.

A story of innovation comes from New York where Paul Sperduto started his Moon River Chattel in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. As a property developer, demolishing old buildings, he had been appalled at the destruction of many beautiful things. So he set up a business to sell many of the heritage itemshe found.. When it became fashionable to have such items in your home, the business became prosperous. Sperduto didn't stop with upgrading his premises, he worked with his neighbours to revitalise the run-down area of Williamsburg. Sperduto had found a way of changing a small area of his world for the better.

Knight's book is thought-provoking. Whether or not you will agree with his conclusions is immaterial; he makes you think outside the square. You can draw your own conclusions, decide whether you want to be a hedgehog or a fox , ( title of chapter eight of the book); but the conclusions that Knight has drawn deserve detailed consideration. If Australia is to be a player in the Asian century, we will have to forget the magnifying glass and use a camera with a multiple lens.

* (Lis Kirkby is a former actor and broadcaster. She represented the Australian Democrats in the Legislative Council of NSW from 1981 to 1998. Her doctoral thesis on middle-class attitudes towards the unemployed during the 1930s Depression in Australia is presently under examination)

Published 22 November 2012

worksite home