Amplification and Impact

Transformations are easier to understand retrospectively, not in real time. New technologies are about to upend that, forever.

It is often difficult to fully appreciate transformation in the middle of it. Most of us might have been ‘wowed’ by the Internet when it came out, but it’s only looking back that we realized how much our lives have changed because of it. One of the reasons is that communication technologies allow us to ask different questions of the world in different ways with a different time-scale.

These tools – mobile handsets, social media platforms, websites & apps — mostly allowed us to do what we could before they arrived, only quicker, cheaper, and sometimes collaboratively.

The result was that we could use many of the same models for understanding them — evaluating them in practice and researching their impact — that we did before. For example, consider that we’ve relied largely on the same theories of change, research methods, and tools for post-Internet programs as we did with pre-Internet programs.

That is about to change as we move into a world of 5G networked technologies. As we begin to see large-scale roll-outs 5G networks across the globe its worth considering what these technologies mean for our understanding of change and transformation. This is not merely a technological issue; it’s one of understanding transformation in real-time.

The implications for anyone seeking to facilitate change or understand its impact are many.

Effects, Amplified

At its core, 5G is an iteration on existing tools and technologies: it’s still about connecting bits. Yet, it’s a mistake to attribute a linear pattern of change to this new technology. 5G represents exponential changes in the way we can generate, interact with, and share data in real time. This introduces what I call exponential complications to our models and our understanding of complexity.

What happens when everything connected online is amplified? When we can search, share, and voice our thinking exponentially faster than before? One outcome is that the distance between cause and effect becomes harder to measure in both speed and impact.

Amplification is something we’ve been poor at understanding and certainly not evaluating. The social, political, and economic effects of amplification are ones that obey different laws than standard linear models and they require new ways of design and evaluation to understand.

Consider the effect of a single ad campaign created by the fitness company Peloton who saw a nearly $1 billion drop in it’s valuation in a day attributed to Internet-fueled outrage, confusion, and critique of a single holiday video. The video in question has actually been on YouTube since mid-November and only recently sparked this surge of activity.

There is nothing particularly original in the content of this video to warrant the reaction above all else that is out there, but somehow this ‘caught fire’ and the effects are remarkable. What we don’t know (yet, at least) is whether this is an ‘outrage-of-the-moment‘ or whether it will have lasting effects on Peloton. Further, one might want to consider the effects of this on marketers, consumers, the company (and it’s staff), maybe the actors in the video, too going forward. (Consider the effects of ‘Trivago Guy‘ on public opinion and the complexity of one person on a brand).

Maybe you don’t care much about a fitness bike company, but the same thing can happen with a public health scare, a fundraising campaign, an advocacy movement, or a product launch. It can happen in public or within a company. As speed of communications increase, the ability to take action based on feedback (data) faster can outstrip our ability to make sense of what might happen.

Knowing what might happen, what the cascade of and spread of effects might be, and developing approaches to capture the data and facilitate learning from this becomes more important in an age of amplification.

Evaluation, Strategic Foresight & Sensemaking

Strategic Foresight is about seeing trends and patterns in different contexts and envisioning what it means for your industry, community, or organization. Evaluation is about looking at what’s happening now. Sensemaking is about understanding what it all means in the context of our present and future. 5G sits at the intersection of these three.

An amplified environment influences the amount, pace, and implication of change actions (when networked). To understand these effects we need models of evaluation that are better suited to real-time data collection, pattern identification, and sensemaking. Further, we need to able to translate this all into strategic designs for our programs, policies, and services.

Employing a variation on Developmental evaluation and developmental design are two approaches to this problem. These can’t work without developing a culture of evaluation and system of learning. No longer will this be an ideal, it will be imperative. Strategic foresight — the use of data and imagination to envision possible futures — is another approach that cannot sit on the sideline. The shifts prompted by 5G networks and other technologies like AI (which amplifies it all even more) requires we see more of what might come so we’ll know what to look at when that change arrives.

We need to believe before we can see.

It will mean creating greater dialogue between service design, program evaluation, and technology developers. As real-time, pervasive data gathering and decision-making (whether by humans or AI) takes shape, an interface between those will be needed to be able to act. Peloton is working in real-time to adapt (or wait this out), but it literally can’t afford to do nothing unless that is done by design. Businesses, public health professionals, and social enterprises can’t afford to do nothing.

Note: I don’t have all the answers or the insight on what will happen next (no one does – don’t be fooled), but I do have the tools, methods, skills, and approaches that can help get closer. If you’re interested in learning more or need this thinking for your organization, contact me at Cense.

Photo by Alex Kuk on Unsplash

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