social systems Category

The Design Paradox of Democracy


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.

Photo credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore. Thanks for offering your images to the world, Gage.

Fail Fast, Succeed Sooner(?)



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.

Photo credit: Fail by Denise Krebs used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing your art Denise!



The Disconnected Human


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.

Stimuli addiction

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.


The Holiday Crowd at Covent Garden

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.

Photo credits: Disconnect by Randy Heinitz used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing your work Randy.

Covent Garden at Christmas by the author

When More is Less: The Information Paradox


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



Our Paradoxical Age


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. 

paradox |ˈperəˌdäks|


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.

Three Lessons From Summer Vacation

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


Jordaan District, Amsterdam, NL

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


Red on Maroon by Mark Rothko (Tate Modern, London, UK)

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


Twins of Brick Lane by Zabou, Brick Lane, Spitalfields, London, UK

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.


Lost together

Lost and found

A post certainty world

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.

Risky options

There are four approaches to risk mitigation.

  1. 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.
  2. Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
  3. 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.
  4. 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)

The healing power of curiosity



It has been a heavy few weeks in the world. In times like this we often raise our voice to speak when perhaps we ought to listen more, for it is in listening and asking questions that we may be better positioned not only to understand what’s happening around us, but resist having these events control us and risk repeating unhealthy patterns.  

It’s hard not to get discouraged with all of the things that are going on; these are heavy days filled with conflict, tension and confusion.

These are dynamic, difficult times. It’s easy to get discouraged, but it’s also easy to get lulled into a pattern of thinking and behaviour that could serve to later perpetuate some of the very problems that these issues partly arise from: dealing with difference.


A curious thing…

A funny thing happens with certainty: you stop asking questions.

I don’t question how to tie my shoes: I simply know how to do it. I’m not curious about whether there are better ways to do it, more enjoyable or more efficient strategies or ones that will leave my shoes better tied. I’m Ok with that. But what happens when my certainty extends to things with more dimensions to it like what to eat for dinner, places to live, potential career paths, friendship or partner choices, or attitudes toward social groups or political situations? The consequences of excluding other perspectives and options are more substantial.

It reminds me of a scene in the first Men in Black film when the character played by Will Smith is confronted with a truth that he is living among aliens from other planets. Tommy Lee Jones’ character explains how it is that people resist the idea of accepting other possibilities because of what they ‘know’.

When we judge something or assert knowledge, we dampen or even shut down our curiosity. Particularly with complex systems, there are tremendous advantages (and need) to see them from different perspectives by asking questions and being curious.

Curiosity is what protects us from developing a locked in mindset focused on singular solutions and opens up possibilities.

Seeing the situation from others’ points of view may not shift your beliefs about that issue, but can make you better able to deal with it.

Contemplating alternative paths to love

Contemplative inquiry is one manner of doing this. Contemplative inquiry allows for seeing past events and anchoring those signals to the present and future desires. It is a very old way of doing things with more modern sensibilities. Arthur Zajonc, a professor of physics and former president of the Mind and Life Institute, has written about contemplative inquiry in a book with the same name. The approach is rooted in traditional mindfulness practices and brings, in many ways, the same focus and discipline that you would to science. Scientists ask questions and always seek to disprove their ideas for it is only then that they can make a confident assertion of something being ‘fact’ or evidence.

Contemplative inquiry is about advancing understanding to produce love. Adam Kahane of Reos Partners has written about the tensions between power and love, saying that it is in that quest for love and understanding of power that much of social change takes place. These are times where power and love are colliding and opening ourselves to being curious about perspectives that are different from us, hold alternative currency, or are simply alien to our way of life will help ensure that we don’t allow things like violence and aggressive conflict to consume us, lest we become the very thing we struggle against.

The Beatles sang “all you need is love”, but love on its own is blind. Curiosity with love is what help you to see.


Photo credits: Protest by Jennifer C., Black Lives Matter by Bille Grace Ward, and Curiosity by Jason Armstrong all used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thank you all for sharing your work.


Culture and heritage: Social systems in four dimensions


International sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics provide intriguing examples of the complexity and situated-nature of culture and heritage as people from all walks of life reveal, (re) create, adopt and adapt to some form of unique and shared identity, even if temporarily. This situated-ness is what illustrates one of the most substantial challenges for organizations and governments alike as they wrestle with complexity in their mission.

This past week my home country (Canada) celebrated its 149th birthday as a nation on what we call Canada Day. Three days later, our neighbours (the United States) celebrated their birthday on a holiday known jointly as the 4th of July and Independence Day. The latter title is something that former UKIP leader and advocate for the Brexit Leave campaign, Nigel Farage, proclaimed the UK should adopt in light of the UK’s narrow vote to secede from Europe.

Countries and nations are strange beasts. They are both real and fictitious imaginations of human beings to organize people, places and (sometimes) things in ways that are both useful at times and harmful at others. John Lennon implored us to imagine there were no countries and that there would be “nothing to kill or die for” as a result. A look at the environmental and conservation challenges facing our planet has inspired people like Michael Quinn Patton to begin looking Blue Marble Evaluation as a means of encouraging us to go beyond the boundaries imposed by the nation state to look more deeply at tackling challenges facing our planet that transnational and have no consideration for our created borders.

It could be argued that, aside from borders (which can be arbitrarily drawn, although the effects of such drawing is far from arbitrary), what defines a nation is culture and heritage. All one has to do is witness how the world changes when major international sporting events take place and how individuals who may have a citizenship or residency in one country suddenly transform into someone from another by donning a jersey, raising a flag or chanting a cheer.

And to complicate matters, this is often done without leaving one identity behind, but putting on another as well or even creating a hybrid. This is what makes culture — national, organizational or community — so interesting and also so challenging to deal with. It is what keeps governments on their toes and organizations on their heels.

History, geography, time

At present the European football championships (the Euros) are concluding in France and as a fan of ‘the beautiful game’ I find myself confronting these challenges of culture and heritage head-on when I consider supporting a team. To begin, my family is Canadian through many generations. My mothers’ parents arrived from Germany and Romania when they were very young at the start of the 20th century. My fathers’ family has roots in England and Norway (via the United States) that go back into the 18th and 19th centuries. If I was to pick a side based on family connection to a nation, who’s colours should I wear?

One way to determine that might be time away. In that case, should I pick Germany and Romania because they are more recent in my family past, or Norway or England? But then, there is that bit about family having come from Europe through the United States, so should I be rooting for the USA (assuming they were involved in the Euros for a moment)?

Further complicating this was that the Germany my grandfather was born into in the early 1900’s was barely 30 years, as it had been pulled together in 1871 from many independently run ‘micro-states’ which formed from an earlier dissolution of more than 500 states nearly 70 years before. About that same time Romania had become unified, separated from the Ottoman Empire and then reformed as a Kingdom all within the last 50 years of the 1800’s. It was another ‘new’ country too.

While the administrative configuration of these countries was new, the cultures and heritage of those who were in or out or back in the country had been long shared. All one needs to do is consider the enormous social, economic, religious and geographic complexities unleashed by  treaties like the one at Versailles in 1918 which substantially altered the global post-colonial landscape that had been established by European powers, or those that led to the “creation” of Iraq and in 1948 “created” the state of Israel. In the latter examples, there are cultures thousands of years old who were well-established long before ever being declared a country.

The point is that what we call a country is a perfect example of a systems thinking maxim that points to the importance of understanding a system from where one sits within it. In the case of looking to defining a country, we need to look at many things (vantage points in a system) and that includes time, history. It means we need to consider 4 dimensions of spacetime to really understand complex conditions like countries, nations, identities and cultures.

The elsewhere home

I know someone who is a die-hard Irish even if it was her great, great grandparents that came to Canada. She might be more Irish than others I know who were born in Ireland and have only been here for a few years and are now permanent residents. So, who of the two lays a better claim to “being Irish”?

These arguments are not just philosophical, but illustrative of the challenges we face in creating community and identity in the modern world. For those intending to change that world — on whatever matter — these issues of identity are important. People come together for many reasons and a sense of shared culture and heritage are two of the most powerful, yet also nebulous markers. Culture might be expressed through food, rituals, practices of faith, symbols (e.g, badges, jerseys, flags, slogans and cheers) and fashion.

And despite the protestations of many who might disagree, there is no such thing as a pure culture; it’s always remixed, repurposed and re-imagined. Consider the Icelandic football team that performed better than anyone imagined and progressed to the quarter finals of this years’ Euros. Their fans have developed a Viking war chant as part of their repertoire of cheers (seen below) . And while the Vikings were certainly part of the heritage of Iceland, it’s the cultural identity that Iceland’s citizens gravitate to because of that shared (and constructed) heritage, even if the Vikings never played football.

And to see how quickly cultural practices spread, consider this same ‘viking’ chant was performed brilliantly with supporters from my hometown football (in Toronto, Canada) just days after the video above was shot (see below). There are no vikings in Canada — even though they were our first visitors from Europe.

Indeed, this cultural ‘home’ is almost always elsewhere as well as ‘here’.

4-D sports and other models

If we are to be effective at making positive contributions to influencing social systems, we can learn a lot from sport and the way it serves to facilitate and amplify culture — positively and negatively. From the chants and cheers to the banners, scarves, jerseys, hats and costumes that people wear to games and as signs of support or affiliation provide us with ready-made labs to help us understand how culture and heritage are manifested.

Stories are told, a shared narrative emerges about a club or country related to a sport, and icons are created. These become myths, but also sources for inspiration and, if not carefully considered, sources for social exclusion and violence. We can create the same conditions in our communities and organizations to different degrees if we pay attention. At the same time, we can learn how identities can be shared and mixed. To come back to my story of support, I actually was interested in three teams in this tournament for different reasons. England, partly because of history, but more because my favourite club team was well-represented on them, I have many friends from there, and have been to the UK many times and really like it there. Italy, not because I have any familial connection to them, but because I like the country and my best friend and I share that love and found ourselves over the years watching the games together and that shared cheer just added to the strong bond we have.

Lastly, and (for particularly for the current state of the tournament), Germany.

Some might say that I can’t support multiple countries. Some might suggest that the logic behind any of these choices is flawed. But that’s the thing with culture, heritage and the way we bring these together. We create the logic that justifies why we are or are not part of a group. We attach the meaning to the flag, the colours, the music the tastes — what social theorist Pierre Bourdieu critiqued as markers of distinction (PDF).

So with that, come on Germany — go win the Euros! (And if not, you’re just a socially, temporally and culturally constructed entity that provides me with a sense of affiliation to certain members of my family, fond memories of eating German-inspired food and speaking German to my Grandmother, a respect for the way that you play the sport and the approach you take to developing players, and a connection to thousands of strangers worldwide who will, for the moment, dress like me and cheer when I do. And that is as good of a reason to support them — or any country — as any).

May we all find ways to create this in the various ‘teams’ (communities, organizations, countries) we find ourselves sharing.


Photo credits: Germany vs Poland 0-0 by George Groutas used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks for sharing George; hope you had fun at the Euros!

Ethics and Systemic Change


Systems change is a goal for many social advocates — whether aimed at politics, climate change, social norms or beyond — because often it’s only through changes to the interrelationships and boundaries that contain a system can lasting shifts be noticed. With great potential and power comes a responsibility to ensure that change yields more benefits than drawbacks and that’s not as simple to determine as we might desire. 

In the week after the historic Brexit vote we’ve seen massive destabilization in the United Kingdom, Europe and markets worldwide as the British populace seeks to understand what happened and what happens next for them. In the wake of the vote we’ve seen the sitting Prime Minister David Cameron, and Remain vote advocate, announce he will be stepping down and two of the most prominent leaders of the Leave campaign — Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage — announce they would not be seeking to lead or be heavily involved in what comes next.

The resignations by Mr Cameron, who’s decision to hold the referendum in the first place, and Mr’s Johnson and Farage, who led the winning side, stung many on both sides. The argument is that they were largely responsible for what has been described as a mess and yet have opted not to take responsibility for implementing what they created. It is something of a Mary Shelley novel.

Great Britain (and Europe) will be forever changed by Brexit and it will remain to be seen what balance of positives and negatives will come from it. While even dark decisions can yield positive outcomes (that silver lining we often look for in the clouds) there is a responsibility that must come from our actions and design choices to ensuring they minimize harms.

Ethics and Systemic design (thinking)

For a field that is literally shaping the world, design discourse is remarkably devoid of conversations on ethics. Only recently did the first book appear that took ethics in design research as its topic. Yet that is design research, the amount of work on design ethics — how we choose responsibly about what to create along with how to create it (and what role, if any, designers choose to take once something has been sent into the world) is painfully thin. While there’s been a growing movement towards sustainability and environmental responsibility in product design, there’s not as much on social system design.

One area where we are seeing these discussions starting is in the area of systemic design. Systemic design is, as its name suggests, a systems-focused, design-oriented approach to changing human systems. Systemic design is not just about changing social conditions in an ameliorative approach to change, but shaping the very conditions in which those conditions arise. In many ways is it the design manifestation of community psychology. Systemic designers seek to transform the world. However, much like the (mostly) men who led the Brexit Leave campaign, there is a need to have one’s intentions clear and ensure that what is designed is responsible and responsive and that’s not what we’ve seen in that case.

This might be because motivation for change is often very blunt — perhaps based on fear or dissatisfaction — that might not have a specific focus. This is the challenge for systemic design. Systems thinking is a powerful vehicle in systemic design, however its often a tool to determine where to intervene and what could transpire if certain actions are taken once chosen, but not as good as determining what actions are best suited. This is where design thinking comes in and together the two approaches inform systemic design.

Peter Jones, a systemic designer and professor at OCADU (and colleague of mine), has written on this and draws on his experience with healthcare and the Occupy Movement as part of his work in advancing systemic design research. In his paper on systemic design principles (PDF), Jones points to the limits that design thinking approach — that solution generation aspect of systemic design — can present:

Design thinking has been influenced by rapid prototyping culture. When virtual trials and failures are cheap, multiple prototypes are less expensive than in-depth analysis and research. However, this design thinking bias leads to a short-term bias that rewards immediate responses to prototypes.

Jones adds that this approach is suitable for certain products (and arguably, system types), but that this approach can fail to address systemic problems if not critically applied:

For industrial products, those bias’ risks are minimal. However, for complex social systems a prototyping mindset evaluates component subsystems (at best) selected by a saliency bias. This bottom-up approach fails to acquire a system-level understanding and even erodes a holistic view. New system relationships are formed through iterative trials and informal sample evaluations, but current relationships are not necessarily discovered, leading to significant gaps in systemic understanding.

From design thinking to conscious creation

Systemic design, if not carefully done, can end up creating these gaps as we saw with the ‘grassroots’ movements in both the Leave and Remain campaigns in the Brexit debate.

A powerful, simple technique to determining causes and consequences of current behaviour is to ask the question ‘why’ as many times as possible. Five ‘whys’ asked on any issue will likely lead to a revelation about fundamental drivers behind a particular activity. Systemic design seeks to address change at this level as much as possible by creating, with intention and purpose (i.e., by design), structures that support and shift behaviour and thinking to transform the situation and context that can lead to a more profound and sustained change.

A corollary to this approach to understanding root causes might be the five whats? What might happen if we do X? What might happen after that takes place? And then what? And so on. This is similar to The Future,Backwards technique that Cognitive Edge has developed based on research into foresight, strategic planning and systems thinking. Just because we can change something doesn’t mean we should and wise design informed by systems thinking, strategic foresight and ethics can help us understand what ought to be done rather than simply highlight what can be done.

To that last point, a fair criticism of design is that it too often focuses on possibility without responsibility. Even on social issues we see design jams, hackathons, and ideation sessions that produce more ‘stuff’ (too often an ‘app’, as if the only solution to the worlds’ problems originate from a handheld electronic device) that is cool, sexy and disruptive without paying attention to what kind of disruption comes with that ‘solution’. A recent story on CBC Radio on the future of farming considered this as it explored how robotics are shaping how food is being produced. One of the comments made was that the ‘savings’ that often is incurred by having robots do more work is the kind of ‘lock in’ that it produces as farmers now get committed to buying, maintaining and upgrading technology for the long-term.

Conscious creation and technology adoption is something that groups like the Quakers and Amish have mastered and might be worth more of a look by more people — particularly designers. For design — and particularly systemic design — the ethics of what we make, maintain and adopt affects not only us, but all of those around us. For that reason, we need to build in ethics to our design work, by design.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about systemic design consider attending the 2016 Systemic Design conference (RSD5) in Toronto, Canada October 13-15. Registration is open until the spots are filled.

Photo credit: Sea Ice Patterns by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks NASA — as always, you rock (and space and sea and space and….)🙂

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