What we can learn from ancient cultures about sustainable project organizing
Last week I was fortunate to visit Anchor Wat, the remainders of the old Khmer Empire. About thousand years ago, it stretched from the tip of the Indochinese Peninsula northward to modern Yunnan province, China, and from Vietnam westward to Myanmar. The region of Anchor Wat and Anchor Thom was home of more than a million people. Satellite imaging has revealed that Angkor, during its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world. How could those people be successful during more than 600 years of the empire´s existance?
The empire was founded upon extensive networks of agricultural rice farming communities with a distinct settlement hierarchy. Small villages were clustered around the regional centres, which in turn sent their goods to large cities like Angkor in return for other goods, such as pottery and foreign trade items from China. Angkor is located in the Lower Mekong Basin which is subject to an annual cycle of monsoons causing alternation between a wet rainy season (summer monsoon) and a strongly marked dry season. The heavy rainfall during the summer monsoon causes the Mekong River and its tributaries to rise and flood low-lying areas. Snow melt in Southwestern China and Tibet flowing down the Mekong contribute to the flood volume. The Tonle Sap River, a tributary of the Mekong, reverses flow because of the back water effects from the large flows in the Delta of the Mekong and causes the water levels in the Great Lake (Tonle Sap) to rise. The king and his officials (“managers”) were in charge of irrigation management and water distribution, which consisted of an intricate series of hydraulics infrastructure, such as canals, moats, and massive reservoirs called barays. It´s an artificial body of water which is a common element of the architectural style of the Khmer Empire of Southeast Asia. The largest are the East Baray and West Baray in the Angkor area, each rectangular in shape, oriented east-west and measuring roughly five by one and a half miles. With the Barays collecting water during the rainy season the empire was able to harvest rice several times during the year. The Barays provided water for the rice plantations nearby and helped the empire grow; extensive irrigation projects provided rice surpluses supporting a large population and feed the people. This is a great example for organizational capabilities being the foundation of a society and its well-being.
This reminded me of the “Tiwanaku Empire” in western Bolivia near Lake Titicaca. The empire was one of the most significant Andean civilizations. Its influence extended into present-day Peru and Chile and started from around AD 550. Capital of the empire was the monumental city of Tiwanaku, located at the centre of the state’s core area in the southern Lake Titicaca Basin. It was founded on large-scale agricultural production on raised fields that probably supported the urban population of the capital. The economy was based on exploiting resources of the lake Titicaca, herding of llamas and alpacas and organized farming in the elaborated field systems, with remainders still to be seen nowadays. Llama meat was consumed and potatoes, quinoa, beans and maize grown. Storage of food was important in the uncertain high altitude climate, so people organized for freeze-dried potatoes and sun-dried meat.
Like the Khmer, the Tiwanaku developed a distinctive farming technique known as “flooded-raised field” agriculture. Such fields were used widely in regional agriculture, together with irrigated fields, pasture, terraced fields and artificial ponds, which covered up to 130 square km. Artificially raised planting mounds were separated by shallow canals filled with water. The canals supply moisture for growing crops, but they also absorb heat from solar radiation during the day. This heat is gradually emitted during the bitterly cold nights and provided thermal insulation against the endemic frost in the region. Traces of similar landscape management have been found in the Amazonian flood plains of the Moxos. The end for the Tiwanaku Empire is dated to be around AD 1150. One explanation is that a severe drought rendered the raised-field systems ineffective, food surplus dropped, and with it, elite power, ending up in a collapse of the empire.
Nowadays, our society suffers from over-population and thus difficulties to provide food, water and sustainable living conditions for all people on earth. Climate change, political, economic and societal turbulences are worsening the situation. Technologies might help, but the real solution night be better (project) organizing. Building on mutually beneficial collaboration across all barriers (e.g. national as well as cultural borders), sustainability could be achieved using all lessons learned during mankind. Project management needs to be levered by applying sustainable principles (see the series on this blog with seven parts of “Sustainability and Project Management – Perspectives, Challenges and Threats”) to (project) organizing. A great opportunity to learn more about ancient cultures and “Integrating sustainability into project management” will be during the 31st IPMA World Congress in Merida / Mexico, between September 30 and October 2, 2019.