Change may be the only constant and, beyond wet babies, few of us welcome it. Foresight is about looking ahead to what change(s) might be coming to help us prepare, but that doesn’t help much if we don’t know where we are right now.
Last night I had a wonderful conversation with some foresighting peers, all fellow alumni from the Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes program at OCADU. We were coming together to talk about what we, as ones with training in the foresight theories, methods and tools that help people consider possible futures, can do to help and heal the world in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the social collisions that have come with it.
Trump’s election was an example of where the foresight community — like pretty much every other scholarly field — failed. Few, if any, saw it coming. No matter your slant on the media coverage, 18 months ago no one was talking about the Trump presidency in serious terms – hardly even Donald Trump, himself.
Even after securing the Republican nomination his candidacy was seen as taking on the impossible. Now, it’s the unpossible.
Today we have someone going on a campaign-style crusade against his opponents after he’s won the election. It’s as if the presidential outcome was never decided. No one saw that coming, either.
Or…you get the picture. There are a lot of things that have been missed by very smart people with powerful tools, theories and resources and it’s happening a lot.
This is less about bad foresight as much as it is a lack of insight into the present day and the present moment and the human beings who inhabit it. It might be time to bring psychology into foresight and that begins with understanding how people live their lives day-to-day and what they think, feel, pay attention to, and gravitate to (and away from).
Putting difference in context
To see the unpossible we need to start going deeper into the heart of human life.
While many laud the accomplishments of the maverick, the inspired trailblazer, or the wonders of diversity, the truth is that we are wired more tightly to sameness than difference. (Like it or not). Difference and change are two things we humans don’t have innate attraction to at a macro level, yet it is the hallmark feature of the cosmopolitan, modern (and certainly Western) world. Complexity is about diversity, change, instability, and non-linearity — the very things we humans have trouble with and yet we keep making systems that are ever-more complex making for a paradox of epic proportions.
Take the Syrian refugee crisis as an example of difference in-the-world. Canada is taking in over 35,000 refugees and has a commitment to maintain a slightly reduced level of refugees (from all over the world) for the foreseeable future. This pales in comparison to what other countries such as Lebanon or Turkey have taken in, but shames its larger neighbour to the south.
These new citizens bring new ideas, energy, culture to a country that has more than enough space, plenty of relative wealth and a population who are willing and able to help. Syrians (like so many refugees) have experienced horrors and more human suffering than anyone should have to endure.
While these new Canadians are contributors, they also require resources to help them settle. For many, it will be some time before they integrate into Canadian life enough that they no longer require government or charitable assistance. In the meantime, this group is hungry to work, to study and to create a life for themselves in their adopted home. The problem comes when there are others already here who also want to work, study and create a life for themselves and can’t do it to the levels they want and who might see the scarce resources being further reduced by these newcomers.
If I am a Canadian without work, how happy should I be that we are committing to providing 35,000+ people who are also looking for work with a place in my country? If I’m waiting for healthcare treatment, how is this going to affect me? How might I feel when I see that these newcomers get food, shelter, community support, job training and programs aimed at supporting them to integrate when I don’t believe I can get anything like that and I’ve been here my whole life? When has the Prime Minister ever come to welcome me to anything? If I was a refugee from another place just a year or two earlier, why didn’t I get this treatment when I arrived?
These aren’t just Canadian questions. They are being asked in Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, England, Jordan, Sweden and anywhere there is a perception of scarcity of resources (which is pretty much everywhere).
This is but one example. The humanitarian impulse that many people feel when looking to help those in need is why Canada and so many nations around the world have stepped up and taken in these Syrian ‘strangers’ as their new friends, neighbours and family with open arms. It’s heartwarming and represents some of the better angels of our nature. Yet, this doesn’t make the concerns that someone who is already settled here any less legitimate. This is that part of the equation that is easy to miss or dismiss when we see resistance to change or opposition to these kind of initiatives.
The psychology of difference
For those who identify as a progressive or liberal, opposition to change, diversity and global integration is often labeled as ‘small-minded’ at the least, racist at the worst. Certainly there are elements of that which can reside within what might be considered ‘conservative’ movements, yet it’s unfair to use these labels to describe an entire worldview. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently commented on the pull between globalist and nationalist thinking, pointing to the way worldviews about change and stability help us understand the rise of Donald Trump and other radical candidates. His analysis an application of moral psychology provides what may be the most powerful explanation of why we are seeing the ‘unpossible’ become possible.
As a caricature for illustration, liberals are biased to see positives in change while conservatives are biased toward promotion of stability. When change is constant and stability is comforting, this dichotomy is not easily resolved, if at all.
Psychology can help us in other ways when looking to the present and future of our world. One is to consider the cognitive biases that we hold when we bring a worldview that sees change and stability, globalism and nationalism, unity and diversity in everyday life.
One bias or mode of thought is attribution theory— taking one thing and ascribing qualities from it to another. In the case of a Trumpist United States that positions difference — Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, other countries’ trade policies — as a threat we can find examples of how this thinking plays out. It might be easy to look at what is the most obvious — people who are new, dress differently, speak differently, believe different things, and look different — as the culprit. After all, when things were good — when “America was Great” — these people weren’t here and this situation didn’t exist. Simple cause and effect, right?
Of course, we know that the ‘good old days’ were rarely ever as good as we make them out to be. This is because of a collection of other cognitive phenomena.
Hindsight bias is a way of confirming present feelings and thoughts based on seeing the past through a distorted lens that allows us to say things like “I knew it all along”. Nostalgia is a form of hindsight and allows people to reflect back on positive feelings and experiences in life, but also to connect to simplicity, which is why we remember simple, but strong feelings (love, fear, conviviality) but lose the details of just what was said or the specifics of an encounter. It’s the feelings that matter most.
A quote attributed to Toni Morrison is particularly apt here:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Finally, confirmation bias takes these thoughts and reformulates them into the present, which is a way of saying that we fit our memories and thoughts from the past to fit our current belief system.
Understanding time and change
Change is always relative. The parable of the frog in the boiling pot is a good one to illustrate this. We might not perceive the water getting too hot until it’s too late because change is so persistent, yet gradual. The distresses we find in modern life are the ones that often promote loneliness, disconnection and separation from the natural world. These are all things – communion, connection, engagement with nature — that promote wellbeing and comfort.
Difference can be a source of inspiration, new ideas and innovation, but it can also be a source of distress because of this perceived separation from the stable. When I’ve had traditions, practices and a way of living that has provided comfort for me my whole life and, in a time when I need comfort more than ever, am having trouble seeing those things that once brought me comfort in everyday life, how am I going to feel about difference? To what might I attribute this difference, this change to? The answer sometimes comes in the form of racism, sexism, sexual discrimination, and ethnic nationalism.
Trump and others are capitalizing on the fog that comes with memory and our self-selection and editing of history in our minds. What we long for are those feelings associated from earlier times and those feelings are connected to the simplicity of the practice (as we construct it in our memory). When you recall your day to a friend or loved one you summarize: that’s how memory works for you. You don’t speak of the day in terms of how your brain actually functions moment-to-moment with the gamut of feelings, thoughts, memories you have at any one time because you’d sound like a lunatic with all the chatter, contradiction and stream-of-consciousness going on. That’s your memory at work in bringing clarity to the chaos of a waking moment.
The distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction with all of this change is reasonable and legitimate. The manifestation of those feelings into hatred is not. Add in our bias toward in-groups — however we personally define it — and the reaction that we are seeing isn’t surprising at all. We are forward-oriented beings, we see things moving ahead and when social or economic situations force us backward by having less — friends, social engagements, money, buying power, security, stability — we don’t handle it lightly.
Time plays many tricks with our mind whether we view it as being in abundance, scarcity or even relate to it at all in the moment.
Light on our shadow
Add in another feature that we often overlook: our darker, shadow side. Jung spoke about the importance of the shadow and using it to understand the light. We all have a shadow, that darker side of our nature that emerges in times of stress or when we least expect it.
The human shadow is that part of the self that revels — even momentarily — on revenge**. How often have we, in fleeting moments (or even longer), wished ill-will on someone else? That person that cuts us off on the way to work; the clueless person who stops at the top of the escalator in a busy shopping plaza; your cousin who always takes more than his share at family dinners; queue jumpers; the telemarketer who interrupts your quiet night at home to sell you something; the sports fan who cheers for your team’s rival and revels in your team’s defeat; the person that votes for the candidate who’s not yours.
Why are revenge movies so appealing to so many? The Revenant wouldn’t be much of a story (although a glorious testament to the Alberta mountain landscape, which is well worth seeing on its own) if we didn’t, at some level, relate to the characters’ desire for revenge. It feels good. And it makes many of us recoil in horror and deny it when we consider it as part of us.
I experience this all the time and I’m not proud of that. I’ve not met a person yet who hasn’t confessed (when pressed) that they feel the same way. It’s part of being a human being.
Seeing the unpossible is about seeing ourselves as humans, not just fellow citizens who we think ought to mirror our own personal ideals. Humans get scared of change, they are overwhelmed with information, have few tools at their disposal and even less time and energy to apply those tools, and they are willing to seek comfort in anything that holds the promise of making life simpler.
If the present and future will be shaped by humans, then we need to add our humanity, including the ugly parts of it, into the mix. Consider that when you make your predictions, generate your models and envision the world ahead and also ask yourself whether you’re comfortable getting a little darker in your outlook on life right now.
Only by seeing us as humans can we imagine what seems unpossible as possible.
** A fun way to soften the harshness of thoughts of revenge on others is provided by the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.
‘Post-truth’ was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. No fitting word reflects the strangeness of 2016 with the exception of unpossible, a word I made up and in a post-truth world might as well be as legitimate as many of the arguments being made about the most important things of the day, which is why we need to rethink how and what we pay attention to.
When I was a little kid I was absolutely fascinated by ships in bottles (and still am). To me this was the embodiment of the impossible made possible. I’ve been shown how its done, read about it and still can’t really believe it despite seeing many ships in bottles over my lifetime. Gothic boxwood prayer beads are in the same category: they are both of the world and otherworldly at the same time. Brilliant stuff.
These are creations of human ingenuity, craft, patience and beauty.
What we have started to see in the social world are acts that are equally implausible to comprehend, yet lack all of these qualities but share one feature: creativity.
It may be time to examine what creativity means and what its impacts are because what might have been harmless chatter is now becoming big business and its transforming our world in ways we never could imagine and ways we might not really want.
In short: we are creating the unpossible.
Truthiness of fiction
Writing in Salon, Erin Keane reminds us that it was ten years ago that the concept of ‘truthiness’ was first floated out by Stephen Colbert and went on to become the 2006 Word of the Year by Mirriam-Webster. Keane reflects on the genesis of the word and how it articulated how a feeling of something being true could override the availability of evidence to support its existence without necessarily creating an entirely new reality.
With truthiness, though, we still recognized that truth exists, just that it could be overridden and bent to serve our own emotional purposes.
In a truthy world the absence of clear evidence didn’t mean that something didn’t exist if our feelings suggested that it might. Hence, we had an assault of Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction based on a feeling that someone like Saddam Hussein would want to deploy them if he had them (which might have been true, but he didn’t have them and there was no evidence to suggest he did so it wasn’t true).
Now, those logical or hypothetical — if unproven — suppositions matter less. We’ve taken out ‘facts’ from the middle of the equation separating truth from fantasy.
In the US election, ‘fake news’ sites outperformed ‘not-fake news’ sites. In other words: those peddling fictions about the world drew more attention than those who sought to share what actually happened in the world. Except, what also actually happened was that people were reading, maybe believing, but certainly sharing and endorsing these made up stories, which were once referred to by names such as ‘lies’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘slander’. Now, it’s called reporting in a post-truth environment.
When the head of a news organization that promotes people who believe there ought to be a cap on women and girls in science and attacks citizen movements focused on social justice like Black Lives Matter is promoted to the role of chief strategist for the White House to serve as a representative of the people in strategy, that is post-truth at work. **
The Tardigrade is perhaps the most remarkable animal on the planet. They can survive in temperatures close to absolute zero and over 150 degrees centigrade. If resilience had a mascot, it would be the tardigrade (pictured below — with credit to Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden).
While the effect of an election on policies and practices from healthcare, environmental protection, human rights, and safety and security may be wide-reaching and last beyond the term of office for most politicians the response can’t simply be to ‘toughen up’ and accept what’s being done, even if it is done under the banner of electoral legitimacy. Resilience is not about just absorbing shocks, but also about adapting to prevent the shocks from coming, to lessen their intensity, and also about systems change wherever possible.
The tardigrade is an expert on resiliency. It is as if it decided that, rather than plan for the best-case scenario, it figured out what the worst case would be and developed itself for that context first. Even if the tardigrade doesn’t encounter absolute zero temperatures that much in the world, it is ready for it.
Resiliency in social systems requires the same thinking.
In the US election and Brexit vote we saw politicians, pollsters and the media all get it wrong: they didn’t assess the mood and mindset of voters accurately. More importantly, voters may not have voted for what they are getting, but against what they got. In that case, what they ‘got'(i.e., had) was a sense of falling behind, perceived unfairness, absence of connection between their social world and the one talked about on TV or in government, and isolation from the economy, society and a world they thought they knew and were promised — something that built up over decades.
The voters wanted something different than what they had, but they may not have understood what they might get from this difference.
Foresight, in hindsight
Strategic foresight is a discipline that combines creative thinking, data, and planning together. It’s a burgeoning field of practice-based inquiry that offers an opportunity to explore various hypotheses about possible futures. We cannot reliably predict the future, particularly in complex systems, however it is possible to anticipate events based on trends, forecasts and signals that emerge from the data we have about the past and present when applied to the planning for the future.
Strategic foresight is a relatively young discipline, yet it holds much promise in aiding our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and guide our actions to prevent problems and amplify those factors that can generate solutions. The result are ‘evidence-informed imaginations’ like the one that my colleague Peg Lahn and I did on the future of the neighbourhood in a growing city like Toronto, Canada. Ahead of legislation curbing the way high-rise building were built, we anticipated massive problems for Toronto’s high-rise condominiums based on the data we gathered and scenarios we developed. Falling glass was largely an ‘isolated’ incident 5 years ago and soon became a massive problem across the city and will continue to plague these buildings that will likely need to be completely ‘re-skinned’ in less than 20 years due to their reliance on poor design choices based on the city’s climate.
Our work bucked the trend toward optimism in condo development toward evidence-informed pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather what’s key is creating the kind of storyline that fits evidence, emotion and provides a narrative for what might happen. In doing so, a strategic plan can develop the kind of performance measures and monitoring and evaluation plans that help detect whether a particular scenario is starting to play out in the world. If so, it’s possible to correct things before they get problematic.
Strategic foresight combined with resiliency and systems thinking can be a way to envision the impossible as possible to prevent what becomes unpossible.
Consider what systems you’re working in and ask yourself if you’re seeing all (or many of) the pertinent possibilities and how they might play out. This is where fiction can be an asset, not a symptom, related to a larger issue. If you want some initial foresight into the current state of affairs in Western politics — from Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK, Hofer in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the United States, Kellie Leitch in Canada — dive into Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic “It Can’t Happen Here” .
The unpossible can only happen if we collectively create it.
** I struggled with the notion of even linking to this content, but also feel that I’m contributing to an echo chamber if those views aren’t seen and experienced, even if it’s just a small dose.
If we are to address truths — hard ones, complicated ones, ugly ones — we need to speak with truth and not pretend these voices aren’t there or comment on them if we are unwilling to expose ourselves to some of it in its original form and not solely filtered through other perspectives. One of the issues we face is that too often we (humans) speak about groups we know nothing about from any source that came from that perspective.
It is poetic irony on many levels that weeks after Leonard Cohen releases his album about the threat of death that he passes on, mere days after we saw the least poetic, most crass election campaign end in the United States with an equally dramatic outcome. This points to art, but also to the science of complexity and how we choose to approach this problem of understanding– and whether we do at all — will determine whether we choose to have things darker or not.
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Canadian-born and citizen-of-the-world poet, literary author, and songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away last night and the words above were part of his final musical contribution to the world. It is fitting that those words were penned at time not only when Cohen was ill and dying, but also as we’ve witnessed the flames of social progress, inclusion, and diversity fall ill.
Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, a fact that for many is not only unpalatable, but deeply troubling for what it represents. A Trump presidency and the social ills that have been linked to his campaign are just the latest sign that we are well into a strange, fear-ful, period of history within Western democracies. His was not a win for ideas, policy, but personality and as a vector for many other things that simply cannot be boiled down exclusively to racism, sexism, celebrity, or education — although all of those things played some part. It was about the complexity of it all and the ability for simplicity to serve as a (false) antidote.
No matter what side of the political spectrum you sit, it’s hard to envision someone less suited to the job of President of a diverse, powerful nation like the United States than Donald Trump using any standard measure of leadership, personality, experience, personal integrity or record of public conduct. Yet, he’s in and his election provides another signal that we are living in complex times and, like with Brexit, the polls got it very wrong.
We are seeing global trade shrink at a time when globalization is thought to be at its highest. We are witnessing high-profile acts of hatred, discrimination and abuse at at time when we have more means to be socially connected across contexts than ever before. We are lonely when the world and connection is at our fingertips. It is a time of paradox and when we have so many means to cast light on the world, we seem to find new ways to kill the flame.
It is for this reason that those who deal with complexity and seek positive social change in the world need to take action lest things get darker.
Complexity just got real
The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are two examples that should serve to wake-up anyone who seeks greater accounting of complexity in the making of social decisions.
This is not about voting for a Republican President or for citizens wanting greater control of Britain, it’s about understanding the premise of which those decisions were based on. The amount of cognitive dissonance required to assume that Donald Trump has the qualities befitting a leader of a country like the United States is truly astounding. And just like Brexit, the theories and models proposed post-event by the same people who predicted the opposite outcome pre-event will be just words, backed with too little understanding of complexity or why things actually happened.
Those who understand complexity know that these simplistic explanations are likely to be problematic. But that doesn’t make us better people, but it does mean we have certain responsibilities.
Complexity rhetoric vs science
For those who rely on complexity science as a means of understanding these kinds of events its now time to start matching the science to our rhetoric so we can back up the talk. In crude, but truth-speaking pop culture parlance: “This shit just got real“.
As complexity and systems thinking has gained attention in social science and policy studies we are seeing much more attention to the idea of complexity. Yet, the level of rhetoric on social complexity has overwhelmed any instances of evidence of how complexity actually is manifest, emergent, harnessed, or accounted for in practical means.
This isn’t to say that the tenets of complexity for understanding social systems aren’t true, but rather we don’t know that it’s true for sure and to what extent in what situations. I write this as a true-believer, but also as one who believes in science. Science is about challenging our beliefs and only if we cannot refute our theories through our best efforts can claim something is true. Thus, if we can’t show consistently how the principles of complexity are employed to make useful choices and inform the documentation of some of the outcomes related to our actions based on those choices, we are simply making fables not flourishing organizations, communities and societies.
Showing our work
Without something more than rhetoric to back our claims up we become no better than a politician claiming to make America great again because we’ve got great ideas and will be the greatest president ever because we have great ideas.
This is not about reverting to positivist science to understand the entire world, but about responsible practice in evaluation and research that allows us to document what we do and explore the consequences in context. Powered by complexity theory and the appropriate methods, we can do this. Yet, too often I hear reference to complexity theories in presentations, discussions and papers without any reference to how its been used in real terms (and not just extracted from some other realm of science like bee colonies, natural ecosystems and simulation models) to influence something of value beyond serving as an organizing framework.
Like little kids in math class: we need to show our work.
How did complexity manifest in practice in this case? What methods were used to systematically document the process? How does this fit / challenge the theories we know? These are questions that are what responsible scientists and evaluators ask of their subjects and its time to do this with complexity, regularly and often. No longer can we give it the relatively unchallenged ride it’s been given since first being introduced as a viable contributor to social theory about 20 years ago.
The reasons have to do with what happens when we stop trying to understand complex systems.
Evaluators and social sciences’ new moral imperative
As the US election was unfolding I became aware of some prescient, wise words that were uttered by former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking at a town hall prior to the last election. His words were chilling to anyone paying attention to the world today. In the quote and interview (see link) he says on the matter of government and democracy:
What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible.
His words are not just about the United States or even politics alone. The further we get from understanding how our social, economic, political and environmental systems work the more we all become vulnerable to the kind of simplistic thinking that leads us to someone that embodies H.L. Mencken’s mis-paraphrased words*:
There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong
It is our duty as scientists and evaluators to show the world the work of the programs, policies and initiatives that are aimed at changing systems — no matter what that system is. We need to be better at telling the story of programs using data and communicating what we learn to the world. It’s our role to show the work of others and to let others see our work in the process. By doing so we can make a contribution to helping address what Justice Souter meant about people not knowing who is responsible.
And like Mencken’s message, our answer won’t be one that is all that neat, but we if we approach our work with the wisdom and knowledge of how systems work we can avoid Mencken’s trap and avoid presenting the complex as simple, but we will go further and illustrate what complexity means.
It is our moral duty to do this. For if not us, who?
People do understand complexity. Anyone with a child or garden knows that there is no ‘standard practice’ that applies to all kids or any years’ crop of vegetables all the time in all cases. It’s evident all around us. We have the tools, theories and models to help illuminate this in the world and a duty to test them and make this visible to help shed that light on how our increasingly complex world works. Without that we are at risk of demagogues and the darker forces of our nature taking hold.
We have the means for people to see light through the work of those who build programs, policies and communities to illuminate our world. In doing so we not only create the candles as Leonard Cohen speaks of, but the curiosity and love that keeps that flame burning. We can’t kill the flame.
And we could use some love right now.
Thanks Leonard for sharing your gifts with us. I hope your art inspires us to reflect on what world you left to better create a world we move to.
*Mencken’s original quote was: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Alas, this doesn’t make as pithy, Powerpoint worthy comment. Despite the incorrectness of the paraphrased quote attributed to Mencken, it’s fair to say that in many organizations we see this as a true statement nonetheless.
Image Credit: Shutterstock, used under licence.
The series on paradox continues as the matter of politics, democracy and the power of the people get puts under the spotlight as we consider what it means to empower, express power and re-claim power in this post-liberal, globalized, information age and how we can do better, by design.
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time – Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill’s often paraphrased quote was uttered in the British House of Commons at a time when Britain (and Europe) was literally and figuratively rebuilding itself after horrible continental war that killed millions of people and left an echo that is still firmly felt today. The European Union and its various associated trade and cooperation agreements were, in part, a designed solution aimed at bringing the continent closer together as a means of preventing the kinds of conflicts that had ravaged Europe for centuries. And yet the European Union is just one of many examples of a situation where enhanced cooperation through democracy is creating some of the conflicts it was meant to solve.
Democracy has different forms, but ultimately is about individuals having the freedom and means to choose their own path on collective matters. It sounds fair and reasonable, but as Churchill knew too well: it has a lot of problems associated with it and they are ignored at our peril
On matters of complexity, these problems become all the more clear.
Complexity by referendum
Earlier this month we saw what many thought would be the end to the 50-year war between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government as a peace agreement was made and put before the people for a vote, where it was defeated to the surprise of the world. How could this happen? many asked after so much effort when into the agreement — something that many thought would never become reality. The answers can be found looking deeper into the rationale why people who consistently and uniformly wanted peace also demand fairness and justice and for many that wasn’t seen in the agreement. Add in real-world issues of weather, logistics, voter turnout and you have something that may have partly earned Colombia’s president a Nobel Peace Prize disintegrate before the world’s eyes.
Referenda are blunt instruments used to shape complex social phenomena. On matters of identity politics we’ve seen relatively narrow defeats of proposed separatist/independence referenda in Quebec (Canada) in the mid-1990’s and in Scotland (United Kingdom) in 2014 . This year, we saw another separation-focused referendum put before the Scots and the rest of the United Kingdom and it was narrowly voted for, hence ‘Brexit‘.
No matter what your perspective on any of these initiatives, there were substantial costs and benefits to be weighed for each decision and those were all bundled under either “for” or “against”, which is part of the problem. We have a very complex set of issues treated using a tool that is both inappropriately simple and rational when neither of those conditions are (solely) present in the problem itself.
Complexity tools: the heart and the brain
In the United States presidential race, Donald Trump is showing that facts, truth, ethics, morals or integrity don’t matter as much as many think when it comes to who should lead the nation. That he is even the Republican candidate for president in itself should be shocking to anyone, no matter what your political leaning is, when you consider the vast litany of things he says (and has said) and does (and has done). Yet, this man who recently admitted to statements caught on tape that confessed to assaulting women, still has support among 38 per cent of decided voters two days after the video of that confession was released — a number that is just four points lower than Hillary Clinton, his opponent.
Do Americans not care about all these things? Do they love Trump so much that they are simply blind to his flaws, perhaps thinking he’s just misunderstood? Are they stupid? The answer is: (mostly), no. So why? Canadian newsmagazine Macleans ran a cover story on Americans who had thrown their support behind Donald Trump and found surprisingly nuanced thinking underlying their choice architecture on the matter. But what struck me was this reported felt sense that something was wrong, had been that way for a long time, and that Donald Trump brought an entirely new way to approach an old problem
What often comes through in these accounts is a feeling that something isn’t right and a resonance for a person or group that is reflecting something that comes closer to mirroring that feeling. We respond strongly to mirroring as a form of social persuasion and relating to one another. Human behaviour is this complex weave of social, cognitive, biological and inter- and intra-personal influences and too often we focus our energy on just the cognitive (rational) parts of this relating when it comes to change-making. The thinking is that if we just convince people of things using the best evidence, we’ll win the day.
You see this with Trump. “Surely this is will sink his campaign” or “he’s done, now” and phrases of that kind have been uttered now for 18 months and he’s still here with nearly 2/5 of the polled population behind him.
What Trump is doing is bringing to light a manifestation of that felt-sense of injustice that people are experiencing and they see a shock to the system as a remedy for changing that system.
Systems change: shock and awe vs slow and steady
As a recent cover story in the Economist in a defence of globalization pointed out “Since the 184os advocates of free trade have known that, though the great majority benefit, some lose out. Too little has been done to help these people“. Trade deals are a mix of both shock and awe and slow and steady, which make them very tricky things to evaluate. The shock comes with the rapid change in policy from one day to the next, the slowness comes with the impact on the system as certain industries fade, others emerge and yet others adapt. Whether one agrees with any particular deal or not, it’s undeniable some benefit more than others and what hurts is when people feel they lose, unfairly.
This is a matter of justice. This feeling of justice is what these referenda — and elections, which in the case of the United States’ political system is ultimately a referendum on the candidate for President — are all about.
justice |ˈjəstəs| , noun
1 just behaviour or treatment: a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people.
• the quality of being fair and reasonable: the justice of his case.
On social matters, justice isn’t black and white. Social issues are multilayered, contextual, and dynamic and referenda treat this complexity more as static. It’s why change in complex systems is better done through a slower, less dramatic, but persistent set of actions connected together than through a dramatic shock. In the case of Brexit, Colombia and the US election the issues that people are complaining about are large, persistent ones and those aren’t easily rationalized, but they are felt. This is the emergence of slow change, and its powerful and is often disguised as a shock. The two are siblings and live together when it comes to complexity and paradox.
Even on matters of crime and punishment, there is a real disconnect between the logic of a a sentence or decision and the experience of those around them. Those who commit a crime and their victims may have their lives completely transformed because of one moment of poor decision making that isn’t greatly changed after ‘justice is served’. There is still that cauldron of emotions — regret, anger, loss, confusion, resentment — that can linger well past the term of sentence or the financial compensation, if any is received. Yet, justice is often viewed as a decision, a single event, meted out through rational argument, application of law and rules, deference to evidence.
This isn’t how people experience it.
Getting out of our head
This need to feel and not just think about the issues one of the reasons an approach like sociodrama, used by change leaders like John Wenger, can be a useful tool as it allows not only for thinking about an issue, but feeling it and doing so within a social context. Another approach is the dialogic design method that my colleague Peter Jones has been undertaking through his design practice and DwD events in Toronto. Bodystorming is another approach that makes design feel more real and less ‘in the head’ and more ‘in the body’.
Designers at their best know this connection between heart and head and body well. The bodymind is a guide. Legendary Finnish product designer Alvar Alto designed a three-legged stool that by most rational accounts is one of the worst ideas ever for a piece of furniture, yet it’s style and utility was embraced and is still made today more than 80 years after it was created. Alto’s approach was rooted in how people saw themselves, their lives, their environments and that philosophy was what contributed to the design even if there are many other ways of doing a stool that are more stable and functional. He got his designs out of his head and into the world he was designing for.
If we are to expect to do anything about our democracy our designs have to be better at allowing us to communicate, decide, and influence the world around us that ensures the heart and head are heard and justice not just served, but lived. In doing so, we may still find ourselves wanting to make similar choices about staying or leaving or on certain other policies, but we might be better at asking the right questions at the start and also avoiding decisions that risk putting someone like the man pictured above into positions of global power.
Our series on paradox continues today by taking a look at the curious case of failure and how it’s popularity as a means to success represents more than just a paradox, but a series of contradictions that might just thwart the very innovation it seeks to support by embracing it.
Failure is everywhere. Today I noticed a major research university share a post on LinkedIn celebrating failure in the workplace. This follows a recent conversation with a colleague who was thrilled that she’d received funding to study failure, having secured peer-reviewed funding to do it. If it hadn’t done so before, failure has finally jumped the shark. With all due respect to my colleague, the university and everyone who’s embraced failure, it’s use in common discourse has now reached a level where it was never intended to go and has perhaps done more to mask real solutions to problems than solve them.
The more we celebrate failure, the more likely we are to get it.
I’ve written about the failure fetishism that is sweeping over the world of business, innovation and now education. You know failure and innovation has reached its peak when scholars are getting peer-reviewed funding to study it. This in itself represents a paradox on many levels when you consider that research is intended to support innovation, yet the very process that funders typically use to support funding innovative ideas is based on the evidence of how those ideas have been used before as judged by peer review. Thus, you need to show that an innovative idea is worthy by means of evidence to support the research to generate the evidence of the innovative idea.
If you are doing peer review appropriately one could argue that you should never approve projects that are highly innovative as there simply isn’t evidence to support it. Given that the university and science have the goal of advancing new knowledge it’s hard to imagine a more perfect example of paradox.
Anxiety & failure
It’s interesting to review that post from 2011 — 5 years ago — in that much of the material seems as relevant and fresh today as it was back then. Citing a column in HBR by Daniel Isenberg, I highlighted a passage that resonated with me and what I was seeing in the discourse and use of failure in scholarship and innovation development:
Well-intentioned though they may be, these attempts to celebrate failure are misguided. Fear should not be confused with anxiety—and celebrating failure seems aimed at reducing anxiety.
Anxiety is defined as an extreme un-ease and a discomfort and stress about a situation, scenario or circumstance. While the rates of clinical anxiety and mood disorders appear to be quiet prevalent at over 11% of the adult population in Canada, the general mood of the public as expressed in the media, social media, and coffee pub conversations suggests this might be the tip of an iceberg of yet indeterminable size. Some have branded this the Age of Anxiety, drawing on the mid-19th century poem (pdf) of the same name by W.H. Auden (suggesting our worry about worry isn’t new).
However, as digital marketing strategist and author Mitch Joel writes, digital technologies lend themselves to their own anxiety among citizens, business owners, marketers and communications professionals alike. As Joel and many others have advocated: we might need to unplug to better connect.
IBM has conducted its global C-Suite studies for years and has found that terms like collaboration, partnership, and social all emerged from the interviews and surveys across the world as priorities for business moving forward. All of these involve non-specific measures of success. Unlike profit (which is still a top-line item, even if not always spoken), the metrics of success in any of those areas are not clear and success is poorly defined. Ambiguity in the measures of your success and the uncertainty surrounding pathways to success is a recipe for anxiety.
If you don’t know what your criteria for success is, or what is expected of you, the ability to fail is low. But what often happens is that we see metrics almost arbitrarily introduced to program evaluations and research because we are using what worked before in one context into a new context. All of a sudden we have inappropriate measures and metrics meeting uncertainty meeting anxiety and all of a sudden failure becomes a big deal. Of course people are failing, but that doesn’t necessarily help the bigger picture.
The innovation problem
Innovation is something that can be enabled, but often not well-managed and the distinction is important. The former is more organic, complex and unpredictable while the latter notion implies a degree of control. The less control we have, the more anxiety we are likely to feel. But innovation is not just some word that’s sexy, it’s also about critically adapting to new conditions and new circumstances.
This Thursday in London, my friend and colleague John Wenger is leading a workshop on how to deal with Brexit for those feeling confused, upset, angry, or isolated because of the decision made by referendum this year. Through the use of sociodrama, dialogue and discussion, John helps people connect with their feelings and thoughts in novel settings and contexts to help them to ground what they don’t know in what they do. That is innovation lived out in real-time. This workshop’s not technological, it might not be easily commercialized, nor will it ‘scale’ enough to secure massive investments of venture capital, but it is a process that is at its heart about innovation: new thinking realized in practice through design to produce value.
If those participants go off and have more compassionate conversations with each other, their neighbours and with themselves as a result of this we will truly see social innovation.
Participants in processes like this are designing their life, their way of thinking and relating to each other that is new, even if the process, memories and material might be quite old and established. The confusion about the need for innovation to somehow be this (high) technological or world-reaching ‘thing’ is what limits our sense of what’s really possible and produces considerable failure. Failure would be a failure to learn and attend to what is happening, not a failure to experience hurt, shame, joy, confusion, or community.
Yet, if one were to adopt the rhetoric of failure in this case we might actually produce the very kind of failure that we, ironically are trying to avoid. Anchoring our metrics and focus on what constitutes ‘failure‘ — which is a concept that is rooted to some definition of success — leads us away from the complicated, tricky questions about what it means to innovate and adapt. It also draws us away from looking at problems of systems to problems of individuals.
Failed systems, not failed individuals
When individuals fail at not reaching an inappropriate target, it’s not a problem of them as individuals, but the system itself. Celebrating that failure might reduce some of the stigma associated with this ‘failure’, but it doesn’t address a larger set of problems.
While it may be that our interventions are aimed at individuals, it is the problem of the system in which individuals, groups and organizations are rooted that contribute to a great deal of the issues we individuals face. It’s why innovation requires platforms to be successful at a larger scale because they create new systems and ecosystems for innovations to anchor to other changes, which strengthens their power for change. If we were to look solely at individuals, divorced from context and the community/socitey in which they arise, concepts like Brexit cannot make any sense no matter how you look at them (whether voting for or against it).
Platforms and ecosystems do not fail as much as they succeed, but they do support the necessary change far more that idolizing the fact that we’ve not succeeded in achieving the wrong thing, which is more and more what failure is all about.
To borrow the phrase from design thinking: We may fail fast, but will not succeed sooner or ever if we continue to fail at the wrong thing.
In this mini-series we look at the phenomenon of paradox and some of the prominent ones in our social world. Today we look at human disconnection in the face of mass-urbanization, globalization, social media and information technology and why so many feel so isolated in a world pushing ever-more interconnection.
It is possible to have a wristwatch that is connected to a phone which also connects to your online social network platforms, a heart rate monitor, earphones and maybe even the appliances in your home. We do not lack for connections, but we do often lack connectedness.
As it turns out, connectedness matters. Laboratory and clinical research on addiction (summary), has suggested that it is as much a problem of social connection as biochemistry. Those who are socially isolated experience a higher degree of, and experience with, addiction. Loneliness, in psychological terms, refers to the absence of connection and communication with others and both negative affect and cognition resulting from this. Loneliness is not just a social issue, it gets under the skin (pdf) with research pointing to pathways for harmful biochemical changes among those who are lonely.
Still, how is it that we are in an age of increasing global urbanization (pdf) whereby more people are living closer to each other, exposed to more people than ever before, and yet there is a parallel increase in loneliness? How can it be that we have more tools — ones that are mobile, instantaneous, and easy to use — that can share rich media with nearly everyone we know at nearly any time of day and still find ourselves isolated?
This paradox is all by design — whether intended or not.
Disconnecting the social graph: Facebook
Facebook is a classic example of how to design isolation into a tool aimed at promoting connection. Once a college tool for meeting and connecting friends, it now serves as a news media source, community organizing tool, general communication platform, organizational home page, text message system and photography album. It’s ever-changing, sophisticated algorithm ensures that every login to Facebook is different, aside from the current format of seeing top post followed immediately by an ad, the next top posts, more advertising, and so on. When you need to find something explicit, it’s very hard and that’s by design. The more connections you have, the harder it is to find material and maintain those connections without having to sift through material that, ironically, disconnects you from the purpose of your visit.
This all helps keep you on the site and coming back.
But this very aspect of having to come back frequently, to see different things each time, and to have to root through social and marketing ephemera to get to something that feels social is what isolates us. Yet, the intermittent reinforcement that comes when you log in and find just what you want the moment you open the screen is based on a crude, but powerful set of psycho-biological principles that anchor behaviour to the pleasurable feel of dopamine that rushes through the brain when you get that social media high. Add in everyday stress and the cortisol it releases and oxytocin hormone rush that come when we connect and you’ve got the perfect ghost-in-the-machine scenario to keep you locked on to this tool that offers you the hope of connection.
Now Facebook is aiming to integrate it into its other properties like Instagram and WhatsApp presumably to integrate this experience and your data along with it. This has the added benefit of Facebook of doing what other marketers already do and that is follow me everywhere I go on the Internet and reminding of me of more things to buy, consume and connect to, which will only add (paradoxically) to my sense of disconnection. Other social media platforms do this differently, but nearly all of them offer a variant of the same sort of stimuli aimed at keeping you posting pictures, exchanging messages, and sharing content.
A powerful post by my friend, colleague and fellow designer, Medina Eve, wrote a deeply personal, provocative piece on living with ADD as an adult and the lost generation of souls who share her circumstances. Her brave, detailed story chronicles how she, like many young women in particular, have struggled with focus due to ADD and reaping the benefits that come with it, despite being an incredibly productive, intelligent, engaged person. Her story provides a first-person account of a social epidemic and paradox on how the ability to connect to so much means there is little ability to connect deeply to many of the things that matter and the incredible isolation that this engenders.
When the world offers too much to pay attention to (or filter through), we get too little in return.
ADD is at its core is an addiction to stimuli. It is the bodymind getting overwhelmed with the amount of stimulation we have around us which reduces our ability to filter, ignore and reject stimulation of various sorts coming at us. If you have any doubts about how much stimuli we are exposed to practice a mindful meditation where you aim to simply pay attention to what’s around you and what’s in your head. It can be remarkable that everyone doesn’t have it.
This is also a problem I’ve certainly battled and continue to battle with limited success and I am certainly not alone. This addition to the stimulation around us, particularly through socially-connected media and our explicit and ambient technologies that facilitate it all, is not only making us less connected, it’s also making us less human. And this is also by design.
Stimulation by Design
A look at the image below provides an illustration of how we design for stimulation. Imagine the holiday season and the Covent Garden Market in central London. All around there is music, food, bustling crowds doing holiday shopping and business, shopkeepers and buskers selling everything from entertainment to handbags to Lebanese street food, and the air filled with the scents of perfume, various cuisines from around the world, and an air of cedar from the holiday wreaths. All of this is lit up and decorated as the crowds jam through the stalls, eateries and cafes to take it all in. This is what Covent Garden wants and it is why people come from all over the world to take it all in. If there were no people, less ‘stuff’ and less activity it wouldn’t be attractive, which is why not all of London’s markets look like this.
But thankfully for us all, we can’t take Covent Garden with us. We have the option to disengage from it in a way we don’t with social technology.
What you will also see among this bustle are families walking together, friends gathering over a drink, and individuals roaming through the market, maybe even stopping to take a picture or two. For those who are enjoying this space, I suspect they are doing so because it’s special. While London is a very crowded, colourful city, it’s not this crowded or colourful all the time (although that is changing, too).
But what happens when the energy of the crowd and the space turn against us? Most of teh time, human beings adapt. I am sure if you were to bring someone from even 100 years ago they might break down at the experience of all this stimulation, because they aren’t used to it. Many of us are, or are we?
Social disconnection and its sequalae may be pointing to the paradox present in our question to create more stimulation and feedback opportunities by loosening our ability to connect to the very things that are at the heart of much of this stimulation: pleasure and the connection to our own humanity.
Giving up the Internet: A case study
Comedian Louis C.K. has a funny, poignant reflection on what we lose in this stimulated world during a guest spot on the Conan O’Brien show.
Kids don’t build empathy through interactions and building the ability to be yourself, with yourself; the kind of experiences you can only have without technology. What a powerful thought.
Louis C.K. was so concerned about what technology was doing not only to his kids, but himself that he ‘quit the Internet’ altogether as you can see in the segment below.
What Louis C.K did was design the conditions in which he used (or didn’t use) technology. His aim was to create, improve, and remedy the experiences he had with his children and found a way to do it. Aside from some tech support from his daughters he did this all alone. The reward was increased connection to his family, however what we don’t know was what cost there was in disconnecting. Maybe that cost was worth the doing.
Invisible problems, invisible solutions?
The point here is that design is often best when it’s invisible. It’s what makes the stimulation economy so insidious because it’s reach is everywhere, yet is often not noticed, thus making it a very successful design. The challenge, if we wish to channel the stimulation and influence what we have in our lives and to increase the connectedness in which this paradox of connecting tools present, is to design equally invisible solutions.
That is the focus of what is to come in this series along with a deeper exploration of connectedness and its shadow, loneliness.
Covent Garden at Christmas by the author
There is a point at which information ceases to increase knowledge and understand and begins to undermine it, creating a paradox. When information on nearly anything is more abundant than ever the choices we make about how to engage it become more important than ever.
The Information Age has been described as the period where industrial production was replaced by knowledge production as the key driver of social and economic benefit for society. Underpinning the thinking behind the information age (and the digital revolution that accompanies it) is that having more information, more access to it and improved tools to use it to solve problems will improve life for everyone. Presented with a choice to have access to more information or less people will almost always choose more.
More information leads to more options, which equals more choice and more choice is about freedom and that is seen as an inherent social good derived from the capitalist system, which further leads to better choices, more freedom and greater happiness overall. At least, this is what we’ve been led to believe and Barry Schwartz explains this quite eloquently in the opening of talk embedded later in this post.
This is the theory of change that underpins information theory as its played out in modern capitalist societies. It’s also the source of many of our modern paradoxes and problems.
Systems of influence: The case of the ePatient
I’ve stopped going to health-related hackathons and design jams altogether for the simple reason that one can almost always guarantee that one third or more of the solutions generated will be some form of app or information-focused tool. These well-meaning, creative tools are part of a consumer health movement that is all about putting information in the hands of patients with the idea that putting information in the hands of patients is the key to empowerment and better health outcomes, except they rarely lead to this promised land.
Few are better at explaining — and indeed living — this reality than Dave deBronkart or ‘e-Patient Dave’ who has been a tireless advocate for better information tools, access and engagement on health for patients. His Ted Talk captures the spirit of the movement nicely.
With all due respect to the positive sentiments around what the ePatient movement is about, it is based on a series of assumptions about health systems, patients and health itself in ways that don’t always hold. For certain patients, certain conditions, and certain contexts having more information delivered in the right format is indeed empowering and may be life saving as deBronkart’s story illustrates. But what’s often missing from these stories of success are the many layers of assumptions and conditions that underpin information-driven healthcare.
A few years ago I interviewed a patient who spoke about his experience with health care decision-making and information technology and his response was that having more information didn’t make his life much better, rather it made it even more complicated because with more access to more information he had more responsibility related to that information.
“I don’t know what to do with it all and there’s an assumption that once I know (this health information) I am in a position to do something. I don’t have the foggiest idea what to do, that’s why I am going to see (the health professionals) because that is what their job is for. They are the ones who are supposed to know what is to be done. It’s their world, not mine.”
This case is less about deferral to authority, but about resources (e.g., knowledge, skill, time, networks, etc..) and expectations around what comes with those resources. When you are unwell the last thing you want is to be told you have even more work to do.
The assumptions around personal health information and decision-making are that people have:
1) access to the data in the first place, 2) time, 3) information gathering tools, 4) knowledge synthesis tools, 5) skill and knowledge of how to sift, sort, synthesize and sense-make all the information obtained (because it may be in different formats, incomplete, or require conversions), 6) access to the people and other knowledge and skills required to appropriately sense-make the data, 7) the resources to act on whatever conclusions are drawn from that process, 8) a system that is able to respond to the actions that are needed and taken (and in a timely manner), 9) the personal willpower, energy, and resolve to persist through the various challenges and pushback from the system to resist the actions taken, 10) social support (because this is virtually impossible to do without any support at all) and 11) the motivation and interest in doing all of this in the first place.
Dave deBronkart and his peers are advocating for patient engagement on a broader level and that includes creating spaces for patients to have the choice as to what kind of information they use or not. This also means having choice to NOT have information. It’s not about technology pushing, but having a choice about what to access, when and how. That’s noble and often helpful to those who are used to not having much say in what happens, but that, too has problems of its own.
The paradox of choice
Barry Schwartz’s work (pdf) doing and synthesizing research on consumer decision-making puts truth to this lie that more choice is better. Choice options add value only to a certain point after which they degrade value and even subvert it altogether. The problem is that choice options are often ‘all or nothing’ and may be addictive if left unconstrained as we’ll see below.
Schwartz addresses the matter of decision-making in healthcare in the above video and points to the shifting of responsibility away from experts to everyone. Perhaps it is not surprising that we are seeing an incredible backlash against expert-driven knowledge and science in a way that we’ve not seen in over a hundred years. This is at a time when the public has access to more scientific data — the same data that scientists and other experts have — through open data and open access scientific publications to validate the claims by experts.
As discussed in a previous post, another feature of this wealth of information is that we are now living in what some call a post-truth political climate where almost anything goes. Speaking on the matter of science and climate change former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested that, when compared to Dr Bill Nye (the Science Guy and a rocket scientist — yes, a real rocket scientist ), she is as much of a scientist as he is.
Why have science when you can have opinion?
Distracted driving on the information superhighway
Recent data from Canada shows that year-over-year growth in smartphone use at 24% to over two thirds of the population with 85% reporting some form of mobile phone ownership. One of the key features of modern smartphones is the ‘always on’ nature of their tools and alert systems allowing you to bring maps, address books, a digital library, video and audio telephony, and the entire Internet in your pocket.
The distractions that come from the tools meant to deliver information are becoming crippling to some to the point of distancing us from our humanity itself. The title of a beautiful, sad piece in New York Magazine by Andrew Sullivan put this into perspective: I used to be a human being. (We will come back to this in a future post.)
But even if one still feels human using information technology, its a different experience of humanity than it once was. Behaviour change writer and coach Tony Schwartz (I’m not sure if he’s related to Barry), writing in the New York Times magazine, noted how his use of information technology was affecting his ability to, ironically, glean information from something simple as a book.
One evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.
He goes on to explain what is being exchanged for the books he had aspired to read:
Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”
We can laugh at the last bit because most of us have been online and lured by something we thought was impossible or ridiculous and had to inquire about. Link bait is not new or particularly clever, but it works. It works for a variety of reasons, but largely because we need to inhabit the same space to work as well as to play. The problem comes when these worlds cross-over into one another.
For example, I recently was shopping for a safe (no, it’s not to store my non-existent millions, but rather protect hard drives and enhance data security) and wanted to return to a story I’d read in the Guardian for a different blog post. As I returned to pull the URL for this I found the page looking like this:
All of a sudden I am confronted with shopping choices amidst a quest for a URL.
Information wealth: A Faustian bargain to knowledge poverty?
“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
Tony Shwartz’s comments above and below point to what we know about how information works in our brain. We can try and resist, but the evolutionary reasons we pay attention to things and the biological limitations we have to processing it all are most likely to trump any efforts to resist it without substantial shifts to our practices.
Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.
I wish I had the answers to what these are. Schwartz, has proposed a digital vacation. As beneficial as it was for him, he was also willing to admit that it’s not a perfect strategy and that he still spends too much time online, too distracted. But, its better.
Comedian Louis C.K. has taken to ‘quitting the internet’ altogether and, in a touching moment of reflection (as he often does with wit), notes how it has improved the relationship with his daughters.
It’s these relational aspects of the new information technology and how it impacts our world that concern me the most and creates the most troubling paradox: the tools that are designed to bring us together might just be making it harder to be together and pushing us apart from each other and ourselves. This is what I will look at in the next piece in this series on paradox.
Image credit: Information by Heath Brandon used under Creative Commons License and by author
If there was a word we could use to define the current times, paradox would certainly have to be a leading candidate. Can we learn to love this seemingly maddening force or are we doomed to accept this emergent complexity? This first in a series looks at some of the paradoxes of the day, what they might mean for our society and how we might live with them.
a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory: a potentially serious conflict between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity known as the information paradox.
• a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true: in a paradox, he has discovered that stepping back from his job has increased the rewards he gleans from it.
• a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities: the mingling of deciduous trees with elements of desert flora forms a fascinating ecological paradox.
If you think we’re living in strange times you’re not alone. Technology and its influence on our social world has produced things, ideas, encounters that only a few years ago would seem utterly preposterous if not impossible. Self-driving cars, drone delivery, digital social networks and video telephony, as remarkable as they are, have been somewhat pre-saged by science fiction and in a Jetsons-esque manner seem somewhat plausible to those who’s imaginations are sufficiently rich or their attenuation to popular culture sufficiently robust.
What I am talking about are the less dramatic or technologically sophisticated , but powerful shifts that have come from new products and services that are moving from the occasional ‘once-in-a-blue-moon’ kind of occurrence to something common and regular. This is producing paradoxes in droves, which is presenting conundrums for social scientists, policy makers and citizens alike.
Pokemon Go and the case of the walking dead-or-alive(?)
The above photo was taken July 11th in Toronto, Canada. I was walking upon a square when I noticed nearly everyone — dozens of people (with more coming every minute) congregating at the square to look at their phone. Unbeknownst to me at the time, five days earlier a game called Pokemon Go was released in Japan and the United States (a game that would not be released in Canada for another six days so these individuals were all using a version they’d obtained through some kind of digital work-around). These people were all chasing Pokemon characters who happened to “be” in that square.
The Pokemon Go craze had just ignited and the phenomena wouldn’t hit the mainstream news for another day or two so I was left wondering what was going on and thinking how sad it was that one of the nicest days of summer to date was being spent by so many standing looking at their phone. I took some pictures, made some inquiries and was left amazed, confused and slightly depressed all at the same time.
To call Pokemon Go a game seems misleading. So does calling it a community, a phenomenon, a technological marvel, a marketing coup, a social convener, a public health risk, a public health benefit or a waste of time. It’s something completely new and it brings with it a number of puzzling, odd and paradoxical qualities as noted in the piece below from The Pipe Dream Meme.
As one man reports: “I’m not the most physically fit person, obviously, but I have walked more since this game has come out than I have in my entire life” He goes on to talk about how he knows more about his city than ever did before thanks to Pokemon Go, a video game that involves a person being focused on their screen, not the actual city around them even though what is on the screen is based on the physical city (and country and cemeteries and…) that is the foil for the hundreds of Pokemon characters to live through a handset.
Whether you consider the thousands of people walking around your city staring at their handset the walking dead (as disconnected from the world) or the living (as engaging with the world, differently) is a matter of perspective.
Paradox thy name is Pokemon.
Extensions of humanity to what?
Marshall McLuhan wrote (PDF) that the medium is the message and that the tools and technologies embedded in that media initially extend our humanity then culturally envelopes humanity by making us an extension of it. A simple look at capitalism and the use of money as a means of negotiating our sense lives illustrates this as McLuhan points out.
“Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon approval or disapproval of those living in the society.”
McLuhan cites the work of Carl Jung to support his thesis by drawing on a quote that illustrate the insidiousness of system of paradoxes and what they can have on a society:
Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence (Contributions to Analytical Psychology, London, 1928).
Thus by enslaving others we ourselves become enslaved.
Perhaps no better example of this paradox is in the way we’ve created tools to learn, exchange information and automate activity — making our work much more efficient — and finding ourselves either overworked or out of a job entirely. We’ve created a capitalist consumption system that relishes in efficiency in order to provide us with more of what we want and need to survive, thrive and be happy and we seem to put ourselves out of work; create stressed over-work for many of those who have jobs; destroy the planet (which is the only place to live), disconnect us from society and ourselves; and in a manner that contributes to mental health disorders along the way.
Things ought to be amazing — and in many ways they are — but the horrors created along with this are as notable and significant not only for our life today, but the future of the planet. This is the paradox of plenty.
Creating stupidity through knowledge
The problems we’ve created from consumption would be manageable if it was simply an issue of lack of knowledge. Solving knowledge-based problems is pretty straightforward: you find the right information, package it appropriately to the right audience, and ensure you deliver that message at the right time and place. This is the basis behind the knowledge transfer model and second generation of knowledge-to-action theories. Ask any marketer and they’ll tell you that while there’s no one way to do this and it does take work and experimentation, the mechanics are pretty straightforward.
Yet, knowledge (and truth, which is linked to this knowledge), is losing its power to sway people in the information society, which is based largely on the production / consumption / use of knowledge. As we have more access to more knowledge about something we are often less informed and more likely to discount the very thing we are using to make decisions. Paradoxical, isn’t it?
The ascendency of Donald Trump from real estate developer/reality TV show host/beauty pageant promoter to Republican candidate for the President of the United States is as good of an example as you’ll ever find. Irrespective of whatever policy positions you might hold, it’s impossible to deny that his track record of outright lies is beyond the pale. Or maybe it’s not impossible and that’s the problem.
Clay Johnson wrote about this phenomenon and drew parallels between our obesogenic culture and that of information consumption. He was inspired by an encounter with a protester in the early days of what would become the ‘Obamacare’ movement who had a sign saying “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” and recalls the circumstance in his book The Information Diet:
I spoke to this protestor about his sign. He seemed rather well educated — sure, he was angry, but he was not dumb, just concerned about the amount of money being spent by the current administration…This man did not suffer from a lack of information. Yet he had failed to consider the irony of holding a sign above his head asking government to keep its hands off a government-run program. To him, it made perfect sense.
So what’s to be done? Anything? That’s what I’ll explore in the next post.
Posted on September 7, 2016
This year I took a summer holiday — something I’ve not done in years — and was reminded what literally stepping away from your everyday life and journeying to other spaces and places does for the mind, the heart and the soul. As kids (and adults) all over head back to school and tell their stories about their summer break, here is some of what I took away from my trip to the Netherlands and England.
This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically called “back to school” time as students return to their classrooms or start a new educational journey altogether. For young and old this new beginning signals a change of state and a great opening to experience, new knowledge and new people.
Among the first things students in grade school do upon their return is share what they did on their summer vacation. This year I am not returning to school, but I did have a summer vacation and in the spirit of ‘back-to-school’ I wanted to share what I learned.
My journey to the Netherlands and England allowed me to partake in sightseeing, walking for hours through some of Europe’s most beautiful towns and cities, taking in the art and history of two incredible regions, getting inspired, learning from other cultures, taking (and making) a rest, and also figuring out how to become a better football goalkeeper (more on that some other time). However, like any trip it is often about the people not just the places that make the difference and that is what I wish to focus on here.
The importance of beauty
Amsterdam is a beautiful city and so it was fitting that I spent one of my first days in that great European capital having lunch with author, consultant and designer, Steven de Groot talking about — among other things — beauty in organizations. Steven wrote what I believe is the most interesting doctoral theses I’ve ever read (PDF) on the role of beauty in organizations and has been developing new thinking on organizational aesthetics ever since. What makes Steven’s work so interesting is that he has taken a collection of ideas that are straightforward and simple on their own and brought them together to reveal something that is (paradoxically) incredibly obvious and yet completely unnoticed in most organizations.
Truth, beauty, goodness — these are things that we are attracted to, yet rarely identify as fundamental qualities of a high performing organization. Steven inspires people to rethink this through his writing and consulting.
I was speaking to a bartender at the local pub near my hotel about Steven’s work the evening before he and I met and the bartender went through the same stages as I did upon first encounter with the topic of organizational aesthetics: puzzlement, uncertainty, curiosity, wonder, confusion and then the big “a-ha!” where he realized how much sense it all makes (and asking why is this the first time contemplating all of this?). Why should we not value beauty in our work and workplaces and spaces? After all, we do it in almost every other facet of life and yet rarely do we consciously consider the role that aesthetics play in our organizational creations even if it is an enormous driver of behaviour and contributor to our wellbeing and quality of life.
Steven and I spoke of the challenges and opportunities inherent in inspiring people to think like a designer, wrestle with change in organizations, and overcome the (largely) self-imposed constraints to possibility that groups place on their perspectives about what is possible. We also spoke of the Dutch approach to constraints and how they’ve managed to work with a series of physical and social ones to create a society that largely supports innovative design in cities and organizations. The big challenge in drawing lessons from the Dutch (or anyone) is dealing with scale and determining how best to take ideas from one context further into others and what the implications are for transporting designs in one space to another. Beauty however exists everywhere in its own space and time, which is why it offers so much to designers working in different contexts: it’s inherently a local and global phenomenon simultaneously.
We make selections of friends, partners, places to live, products and services all based on some connection to beauty — even if that definition of beauty is different between each of us. Human beings have their own sense of beauty and are attracted to things we find beautiful so why would we not collectively nurture those qualities in the work processes, outcomes and environments we spend time in by design? We can design beauty into our work and Steven’s research and practice have pointed to ways in which people build appreciation for beauty, nurture it, and design it into the environments they inhabit everyday to enhance wellbeing, creativity and productivity. This is powerful stuff.
The power to change
Power is no more evident than in the process of change-making and I have found few more thoughtful on this topic than John Wenger. John is a London-based (via New Zealand) Scot who is a psychotherapist, organizational change consultant, community animator and writer. John seeks to find, build and nurture what Meg Wheatley calls “islands of sanity” in a complex and chaotic world through his therapy, community and consulting work. In that vein he and I met at the Victoria & Albert museum for a coffee and a stroll through some of the collections as an island of cool on a hot summer’s day.
This was just the start our our journey as we soon found ourselves zipping over to the Tate Modern and then for a long walk through the Borough Market and along the Thames talking all the way about the role of capitalism, community, individual behaviour, organizational design and social connection in shaping the world we work in. In the frenetic chaos of London’s core during the height of tourist season John and I created our own island of sanity (and inspiration) through our walk and time together.
At the heart of our art visit was a trip to the Tate Modern to see a collection of works by Mark Rothko, the Seagram Murals immortalized in John Logan’s stage play Red. These works embody the kind of complexity that anyone working with human systems knows, but rarely can communicate so eloquently: the (appearing simple) works take vastly different shapes depending on where you sit in relation to them. Rothko’s pieces, like the one pictured above, look one way in a photograph, another from across the room, and something else when closer. Lighting matters, too as I suspect they would look considerably different in different gallery spaces. Rothko knew this and that was part of his genius. Each of these perspectives provides a new layer of information, wonder and reveals new patterns within what appears to be a simplistic frame of four lines connected into a box.
John understands that the same qualities that make Rothko’s work so mesmerizing is what also makes human relationships so important. It’s easy to make a judgement from afar, but it is only through getting closer, stepping away, turning things on their head that we begin to see things differently and, with it, open up possibilities. In the calamitous wake of Brexit John is leading workshops to help people make sense of what it means for Britain (and themselves) and is encouraging healing through use of reflective dialogue and sociodrama. He sees the rift created when, no matter what your position on Brexit might be, you see one half of your country holding a counter position to your own on a matter of great importance. How do we live together, see the differences, embrace the opportunities that come from difference and bridge the gap between what we see, what we know and what we do?
It is fitting that our day of conversation, food, and walking would be filled with art because that artistry and the attention to the way we co-create reality through art is what John brings to the world. It was a reminder of the power of relationships to bring out our best and reveal new pathways to those islands of sanity that we might miss if we simply approach the world head-on in a cognitive-rational manner and take the world as its presented to us by media, social norms and our past interpretations of history. Art is a gift embraced with others.
Conserving the planet, humbly
Alas, there are times when history cannot be avoided as a means of understanding our future and ecological sustainability is one of those issues. Right now, humanity is much like the twins above peering at us in Brick Lane: some of we call ‘art’ is a little noxious for the planet.
Andrew Knight and I along with a small group of conservation biologists, systems thinkers and evaluators are part of the Silwood Group: a ‘praxis’ tank (as opposed to a think tank) that seeks to bring new thinking about conservation and ecological systems together with concrete action to advance our protection of the planet. It sounds like heady stuff, but like an inversion of Rothko’s paintings there are areas of simplicity within the complexity presented by these issues that Andrew and I sought to work on over two days spent at Imperial College, where Dr. Knight is a Senior Lecturer.
Aside from some light-hearted discussion on the comic genius of the Flight of the Conchords or the maddening systems of administration within universities, our time together dealt with the ways in which we, as a transdisciplinary blend of scholars, practitioners and ‘pracademics’ from across the world and from different sectors who are the Silwood Group, could make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time with our limited resources — a typical conservation problem if ever there was one!
This is really a contemplative problem that combines many of the aspects of what Steven de Groot and I spoke of in Amsterdam and the conversations I had with John Wenger strolling along the Thames.
It is about creating / designing spaces and products that allow people to engage with complexity and the volume of issues that are entangled within conservation and to do so through by anchoring the work to beauty and to relationships. One avenue is through education (*and by education, we were thinking about real praxis-led learning and not just packaged toolkits, lesson plans and classrooms with rows and PowerPoint) because it is through curiosity, exchange, exposure to new thinking and the opportunity to try things out that we build the kind of relationships to people, organizations and ideas that allow them to stick.
Two days was not enough to flesh this idea out much further, but needless to say that there will certainly be much reflecting upon my summer vacation in the months to come in ways that I am only now, getting back to everyday life in Canada, appreciating had such an impact on my thinking. More, much more is to come.
Thanks Steven, John and Andrew for providing such inspiration, insight, camaraderie and intellectual and social companionship on my journey this summer. I am looking forward to building on that with you in the days and months to come and, like a Rothko painting, finding new meanings and layers to the work every time I encounter it.
Photo credits: Author.
Mark Rothko’s work at the Tate is staggering in what it elicits when seen in person. Go see it. For more information click here.
Zabou’s street art can be found here, but like all art it’s better to engage with it up close if you can find it and Brick Lane in London is as good as anywhere to see some beautiful street art.
If you are in the UK (or even if you aren’t, I suppose) and interested in John Wenger’s post-Brexit workshop entitled Who Shall Survive Brexit on October 6th you can register for it here.
Posted on July 13, 2016
Doing new things to create social value means going into the great unknown, yet our fear of being lost need not prevent us from innovating, wisely and sustainably. Instead of being lost alone, we can be lost together.
I’ve heard it all so many times before
It’s all a dream to me now
A dream to me now
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together
– Blue Rodeo (Lost Together)
Humans have real problems with uncertainty. Risk mitigation is an enormous field of work within business, government and politics and permeates decision making in our organizations. It’s partly this reason that our politicians too often speak so cryptically to the point of basically uttering nonsense – because they want to avoid the risk of saying something that will hurt them. The alternative perhaps is to spout so much untruth that it no longer matters what you say, because others will create messages about you.
Thankfully, we are still — and hopefully into the future — in a world where most of what organizations do is considered and evaluated with some care to the truth. ‘Truth’ or facts are much easier to deal with in those systems where we can generate the kind of evidence that enable us to make clear decisions based on replicable, verifiable and defensible research. Ordered systems where there is a cause-and-effect relationship that is (usually) clear, consistent and observable are those where we can design interventions to mitigate risk with confidence.
There are four approaches to risk mitigation.
- Risk Acceptance involves awareness of what risks are present within the system and establishing strategy and an organizational culture where the nature, type and potential consequences of risks are (largely) known, accepted and lived with.
- Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
- Risk Limitation seeks to curtail and mitigate the effects of risk where possible and often involves contingency planning and balancing activities with higher levels of uncertainty with areas of greater confidence and certainty.
- Risk Transference involves finding ways to offload risk to a third party. An example can be found in many partnerships between organizations of different sizes or types where one is able to absorb certain risks while others cannot for various reasons and the activities allow for one partner to take lead on an activity that isn’t feasible for another to do so.
Within social innovation — those activities involving public engagement, new thinking and social benefit — there are few opportunities for #2, plenty for #1 and #3 and a growing number for #4.
Risk is a core part of innovation. To innovate requires risking time, energy, focus and other resources toward the attempt at something new to produce a valued alternative to the status quo. For many human service organizations and funders, these resources are so thinly spread and small in abundance that the idea of considering risk seems like a risk itself. Yet, the real problem comes in assuming that one can choose whether or not to engage risk. Unless you’re operating in a closed system that has relatively few changing elements to it, you’re exposed to risk by virtue of being in the system. To draw on one of my favourite quotes from the author Guiseppe di Lampedusa:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
So even keeping things away from risk involves risk because if the world around you is changing the system changes with it and so, too does your position in it. If this makes you feel lost, you’re not alone. Many organizations (individuals, too) are struggling with figuring out where they fit in the world. If you want evidence of this consider the growing calls for skilled knowledge workers at the same time we are seeing a crisis among those with a PhD — those with the most knowledge (of certain sorts) — in the job market.
Community of flashlights
There is a parable of the drunkard who loses his keys on his way home at night and searches for them under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because it’s easier to see that spurred something called the Streetlight Effect. It’s about the tendency to draw on what we know and what we have at our disposal to frame problems and seek to solve them, even if they are the wrong tools — a form of observation bias in psychology. Streetlights are anchored, stable means of illuminating a street within a certain range – a risk zone, perhaps — but remain incomplete solutions.
Flashlights on the other hands have the same limitations (a beam of light), are less powerful, but are adaptive. You can port a flashlight or torch and aim it to where you want the light to shine. They are not as powerful as a streetlight in terms of luminosity, but are far more nimble. However, if you bring more than one flashlight together, all of a sudden the power of the light is extended. This is the principle behind many of the commercial LED systems that are in use. Small numbers of lights brought together, each using low energy, but collectively providing a powerful, adaptive lighting system
This same principle can apply to organizations seeking to make change. Like an LED flashlight, they need a housing to hold and focus the lights. This can be in the form of a backbone organization such as those advocated in collective impact strategies. It can also be a set of principles or simple rules that provide a set of guides for organizations operating independently to follow, which will stimulate a consistent pattern of activity when applied, allowing similar, focused action on the same target at a distance.
This latter approach differs from collective impact, which is a top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously and is a good means of focusing on larger, macro issues such as poverty reduction, climate change and city-building. It is an approach that holds potential for working within these larger issues on smaller, more dynamic ones such as neighbourhood building, conservation actions within a specific region, and workplace health promotion. In both cases the light analogy can hold and they need not be done exclusive of one another.
Let there be light
A flashlight initiative requires a lot of things coming together. It can be led by individuals making connections between others, brokering relationships and building community. It requires a vision that others can buy into and an understanding of the system (it’s level of complexity, structure and history). This understanding is what serves as the foundation for the determination of the ‘rules’ of the system, those touch points, attractors, leverage points and areas of push and pull that engage energy within a system (stay tuned to a future post for more detailed examples).
Much of the open-source movement is based on this model. This is about creating that housing for ideas to build and form freely, but with constraints. It’s a model that can work when collective impact is at a scale too large for an organization (or individual) to adequately envision contribution, but an alternative to going alone or relying only on the streetlight to find your way.
You might be lost, but with a flashlight you’ll be lost together and may just find your way.
Image credits: Author (Cameron Norman)