This is the first post in a six-post series on impact by ACS Associate Will Nielsen.

Spoiler Alert: The impacts of much of our actions are unknown. New approaches will be needed to recognize and improve our understanding of causality and the full scope of impacts.

Throw a stone into the stream and the ripples that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836

We Know So Little

As Ralph nicely said, every action we take creates ripples, ripples that flow outwards, impacting and changing all aspects of their environment in some way.

But we know very little about the full impacts of our actions—our actions as individuals, as businesses, or as a society. The economic, financial, social, environmental, emotional, and psychological impacts (for starters) are all only partially understood, if at all. We are continually improving our understanding through research and experiences, but the pace must change.

If we want to make well-informed decisions—across policy, business, investments, and health—we will need methods of analyses that draw on and combine all of the aforementioned forms of impact in order to create a more complete image of change. This includes taking into account the interconnected flows of externalities and the side effects accrued (maybe unwillingly) by third parties, both positive and negative. This is important because the recognition of one positive effect does not mean there are not many negative effects we do not currently see.

Above all, for a full conception of impact, we’ll need to strengthen our grasp on causality: finding the cause(s) for each effect. However outlandish that goal may be. Recognizing causality and impact will allow for increased recognition of potential future risks, boosting our well-being and of those around us.

And so, where should we start to tackle this possibly hopeless, how-can-we-ever-hope-to-understand-everything, mission? The beginning is as good a place as any, and it starts here.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Tarek Haffar, Josh Donlan and Drew Tulchin for their very constructive feedback on this blog series.