Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.
Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”
Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90′s and low 100′s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.
But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.
It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).
Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).
Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.
From present delays to future/tense
The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.
Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.
It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.
Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)
The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.
Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.
We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.
Science fact as science fiction
The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.
We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.
Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.
It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.
To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.
The future is ours to write.
For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.
Harvard Business Review is running a multi-part series looking for answers to the question: Can Technology Re-invent education? While there are lots of answers, perhaps more importantly is considering whether that is the right question in the first place.
Technology captures our collective attention like few other social and technical artefacts. Whether it is robots, flying cars, jet packs, cold fusion, or sub-orbital rockets, we love our technology and expect that it will solve all kinds of social problems. Except, most often, these predictions of utopia are far off the mark.
Computers were supposed to make our lives easier, yet I don’t know many colleagues that find their lives easier — rather the opposite has come true: we live much more complicated lives, which are impacting our hearts and our health (even for public health professionals). Our faster computers do allow us to do more with less energy, yet somehow we manage to fill the time saved with more work (PDF), leading to an overall increase in work rather than a decrease.
So it is not a surprise that Harvard Business Review is asking the question about whether technology will reinvent education. If we could just use education the “right way” and to its fullest potential, imagine what we could do? Imagine how much time we could save? What kind of productivity gains we could achieve? It would be amazing.
It would be amazing, because it is unlikely that we are going to see much in the way of improved learning because of technology. We might be better at gathering information, distributing it, sharing it, and reaching people in new ways, but I am skeptical that we’ll see any real “reinvention” of education through technology. Do things different? Absolutely. Better? That’s not the right question.
To be fair, the author of the lead post in the Advanced Leadership Initiative for HBR, Robin Willner, doesn’t believe in a techo-utopia and, remarking on the success of Watson the computer against human Jeopardy champions, states:
It’s time to think systemically about the long standing barriers to school improvement and education reform.
Technology alone is never the answer — that’s the main lesson from Watson’s Jeopardy win. Technology supporting innovative teachers and school leaders will be the solution for our students.
Yet, the title of the series belies at least some faint hope that the problem of learning and educating can be solved with technology. If we just implemented the right tools we could solve the problem. Willner is writing on the issue of school improvement, not education and it is an important distinction.
As I’ve discussed before, the current model for schools do little to support learning relative to the apprenticeship-style models that they replaced. Most of this is due to a conflation between information provision and education. Computers and technology are excellent at providing information, and even displaying it in ways that enable learners to interact with it. Technology does not provide great opportunities to take content into social contexts where we apply lessons with real people or physical artefacts that are not machines. The complexities of the encounters — having conversations for example — are not easily mimicked by computers and thus, provide only weak substitutes. In short: technology is not about eduction, just better information delivery.
Simulations, one of the areas where technology offers much promise for learning, are often designed for particular purposes, thus enhancing specific skills, but less about general ones. But this is only one narrow use of technology for education, although certainly promising.
But all of this gets us away from the question itself, which focuses on technology’s ability to reinvent education. Education is a human endeavour and a social one at that. Technology may aid in our strategy development, implementation of certain tactics for teaching, but it will not provide the grist for improving the social component of learning. Just as Facebook friends are (mostly) extensions of the friendships we create in everyday life without technology, so is learning. Technology is an aid, not the purpose and thus, focusing on the aids as the means for reinvention sidesteps whether we’re educating effectively in the first place and risks us doing what Russell Ackoff calls doing the wrongs righter. Without questioning the very system in which that technology is deployed, we will continue to do just that and this is where asking new, bigger questions comes into play.
Are we creating the type of innovators that suit the digital economy? That respond to any opportunity, not just the ones that we plan for? There’s a lot of thinking out there that suggests we’re not.
I recently read an article on considerations around how to train for innovation in the December 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review. When most people speak of innovation, it seems as if they do with an idea that there are some key steps or tricks to being an innovator and that is about it. But what Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Andrew Corbett, and Ron Pierantozzi argue is that there are three types of innovators that all have three stages that build on each other depending on where they are in their career. This is an important and interesting idea and a shift from the traditional mindset.
The authors state:
Companies must first understand that breakthrough innovation consists of three phases:
Discovery: Creating or identifying high-impact market opportunities.
Incubation: Experimenting with technology and business concepts to design a viable model for a new business.
Acceleration: Developing a business until it can stand on its own.
To address this, they suggest training people to match these distinct stages and phases:
Each phase lends itself to distinct career paths, as well. The bench scientist, for instance, may eventually want to be involved in policy discussions about emerging technologies and how they may influence the company’s future. The incubator may want to pursue a technical path – managing larger, longer-term projects – or to manage a portfolio of emerging businesses. And the accelerating manager may want to stay with the business as it grows, take on a leadership role.
Rather than develop those paths, however, many firms assume that an individual will be promoted along with a project as it grows from discovery through to acceleration. In reality, individuals with that breadth of skill sets are extremely rare. In other words, companies have essentially been setting their innovators up to fail.
Johnston said the country’s university system must shoulder part of the blame for the lag in Canada’s technological mindset. The schools haven’t done enough to train students to work smarter, he said, which means that few Canadian companies succeed based on innovation. Of Canada’s biggest companies, most are banks, while only BlackBerry maker Research In Motion — also based in Waterloo — has succeeded internationally, mainly because it has focused on innovation.
Perhaps the problem is that we use the term innovation so loosely that graduates fail to recognize where innovations are or how to move them along. Or, as Colarelli O’Connor and colleagues point out, they are trained for the wrong set of skills for the right kind of innovation stage.