social systems Category
There is a point at which information ceases to increase knowledge and understand and begins to undermine it, creating a paradox. When information on nearly anything is more abundant than ever the choices we make about how to engage it become more important than ever.
The Information Age has been described as the period where industrial production was replaced by knowledge production as the key driver of social and economic benefit for society. Underpinning the thinking behind the information age (and the digital revolution that accompanies it) is that having more information, more access to it and improved tools to use it to solve problems will improve life for everyone. Presented with a choice to have access to more information or less people will almost always choose more.
More information leads to more options, which equals more choice and more choice is about freedom and that is seen as an inherent social good derived from the capitalist system, which further leads to better choices, more freedom and greater happiness overall. At least, this is what we’ve been led to believe and Barry Schwartz explains this quite eloquently in the opening of talk embedded later in this post.
This is the theory of change that underpins information theory as its played out in modern capitalist societies. It’s also the source of many of our modern paradoxes and problems.
Systems of influence: The case of the ePatient
I’ve stopped going to health-related hackathons and design jams altogether for the simple reason that one can almost always guarantee that one third or more of the solutions generated will be some form of app or information-focused tool. These well-meaning, creative tools are part of a consumer health movement that is all about putting information in the hands of patients with the idea that putting information in the hands of patients is the key to empowerment and better health outcomes, except they rarely lead to this promised land.
Few are better at explaining — and indeed living — this reality than Dave deBronkart or ‘e-Patient Dave’ who has been a tireless advocate for better information tools, access and engagement on health for patients. His Ted Talk captures the spirit of the movement nicely.
With all due respect to the positive sentiments around what the ePatient movement is about, it is based on a series of assumptions about health systems, patients and health itself in ways that don’t always hold. For certain patients, certain conditions, and certain contexts having more information delivered in the right format is indeed empowering and may be life saving as deBronkart’s story illustrates. But what’s often missing from these stories of success are the many layers of assumptions and conditions that underpin information-driven healthcare.
A few years ago I interviewed a patient who spoke about his experience with health care decision-making and information technology and his response was that having more information didn’t make his life much better, rather it made it even more complicated because with more access to more information he had more responsibility related to that information.
“I don’t know what to do with it all and there’s an assumption that once I know (this health information) I am in a position to do something. I don’t have the foggiest idea what to do, that’s why I am going to see (the health professionals) because that is what their job is for. They are the ones who are supposed to know what is to be done. It’s their world, not mine.”
This case is less about deferral to authority, but about resources (e.g., knowledge, skill, time, networks, etc..) and expectations around what comes with those resources. When you are unwell the last thing you want is to be told you have even more work to do.
The assumptions around personal health information and decision-making are that people have:
1) access to the data in the first place, 2) time, 3) information gathering tools, 4) knowledge synthesis tools, 5) skill and knowledge of how to sift, sort, synthesize and sense-make all the information obtained (because it may be in different formats, incomplete, or require conversions), 6) access to the people and other knowledge and skills required to appropriately sense-make the data, 7) the resources to act on whatever conclusions are drawn from that process, 8) a system that is able to respond to the actions that are needed and taken (and in a timely manner), 9) the personal willpower, energy, and resolve to persist through the various challenges and pushback from the system to resist the actions taken, 10) social support (because this is virtually impossible to do without any support at all) and 11) the motivation and interest in doing all of this in the first place.
Dave deBronkart and his peers are advocating for patient engagement on a broader level and that includes creating spaces for patients to have the choice as to what kind of information they use or not. This also means having choice to NOT have information. It’s not about technology pushing, but having a choice about what to access, when and how. That’s noble and often helpful to those who are used to not having much say in what happens, but that, too has problems of its own.
The paradox of choice
Barry Schwartz’s work (pdf) doing and synthesizing research on consumer decision-making puts truth to this lie that more choice is better. Choice options add value only to a certain point after which they degrade value and even subvert it altogether. The problem is that choice options are often ‘all or nothing’ and may be addictive if left unconstrained as we’ll see below.
Schwartz addresses the matter of decision-making in healthcare in the above video and points to the shifting of responsibility away from experts to everyone. Perhaps it is not surprising that we are seeing an incredible backlash against expert-driven knowledge and science in a way that we’ve not seen in over a hundred years. This is at a time when the public has access to more scientific data — the same data that scientists and other experts have — through open data and open access scientific publications to validate the claims by experts.
As discussed in a previous post, another feature of this wealth of information is that we are now living in what some call a post-truth political climate where almost anything goes. Speaking on the matter of science and climate change former Alaska Governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested that, when compared to Dr Bill Nye (the Science Guy and a rocket scientist — yes, a real rocket scientist ), she is as much of a scientist as he is.
Why have science when you can have opinion?
Distracted driving on the information superhighway
Recent data from Canada shows that year-over-year growth in smartphone use at 24% to over two thirds of the population with 85% reporting some form of mobile phone ownership. One of the key features of modern smartphones is the ‘always on’ nature of their tools and alert systems allowing you to bring maps, address books, a digital library, video and audio telephony, and the entire Internet in your pocket.
The distractions that come from the tools meant to deliver information are becoming crippling to some to the point of distancing us from our humanity itself. The title of a beautiful, sad piece in New York Magazine by Andrew Sullivan put this into perspective: I used to be a human being. (We will come back to this in a future post.)
But even if one still feels human using information technology, its a different experience of humanity than it once was. Behaviour change writer and coach Tony Schwartz (I’m not sure if he’s related to Barry), writing in the New York Times magazine, noted how his use of information technology was affecting his ability to, ironically, glean information from something simple as a book.
One evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn’t marshal the necessary focus.
He goes on to explain what is being exchanged for the books he had aspired to read:
Instead of reading them, I was spending too many hours online, checking the traffic numbers for my company’s website, shopping for more colorful socks on Gilt and Rue La La, even though I had more than I needed, and even guiltily clicking through pictures with irresistible headlines such as “Awkward Child Stars Who Grew Up to Be Attractive.”
We can laugh at the last bit because most of us have been online and lured by something we thought was impossible or ridiculous and had to inquire about. Link bait is not new or particularly clever, but it works. It works for a variety of reasons, but largely because we need to inhabit the same space to work as well as to play. The problem comes when these worlds cross-over into one another.
For example, I recently was shopping for a safe (no, it’s not to store my non-existent millions, but rather protect hard drives and enhance data security) and wanted to return to a story I’d read in the Guardian for a different blog post. As I returned to pull the URL for this I found the page looking like this:
All of a sudden I am confronted with shopping choices amidst a quest for a URL.
Information wealth: A Faustian bargain to knowledge poverty?
“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”
Tony Shwartz’s comments above and below point to what we know about how information works in our brain. We can try and resist, but the evolutionary reasons we pay attention to things and the biological limitations we have to processing it all are most likely to trump any efforts to resist it without substantial shifts to our practices.
Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.
I wish I had the answers to what these are. Schwartz, has proposed a digital vacation. As beneficial as it was for him, he was also willing to admit that it’s not a perfect strategy and that he still spends too much time online, too distracted. But, its better.
Comedian Louis C.K. has taken to ‘quitting the internet’ altogether and, in a touching moment of reflection (as he often does with wit), notes how it has improved the relationship with his daughters.
It’s these relational aspects of the new information technology and how it impacts our world that concern me the most and creates the most troubling paradox: the tools that are designed to bring us together might just be making it harder to be together and pushing us apart from each other and ourselves. This is what I will look at in the next piece in this series on paradox.
Image credit: Information by Heath Brandon used under Creative Commons License and by author
If there was a word we could use to define the current times, paradox would certainly have to be a leading candidate. Can we learn to love this seemingly maddening force or are we doomed to accept this emergent complexity? This first in a series looks at some of the paradoxes of the day, what they might mean for our society and how we might live with them.
a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory: a potentially serious conflict between quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity known as the information paradox.
• a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true: in a paradox, he has discovered that stepping back from his job has increased the rewards he gleans from it.
• a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities: the mingling of deciduous trees with elements of desert flora forms a fascinating ecological paradox.
If you think we’re living in strange times you’re not alone. Technology and its influence on our social world has produced things, ideas, encounters that only a few years ago would seem utterly preposterous if not impossible. Self-driving cars, drone delivery, digital social networks and video telephony, as remarkable as they are, have been somewhat pre-saged by science fiction and in a Jetsons-esque manner seem somewhat plausible to those who’s imaginations are sufficiently rich or their attenuation to popular culture sufficiently robust.
What I am talking about are the less dramatic or technologically sophisticated , but powerful shifts that have come from new products and services that are moving from the occasional ‘once-in-a-blue-moon’ kind of occurrence to something common and regular. This is producing paradoxes in droves, which is presenting conundrums for social scientists, policy makers and citizens alike.
Pokemon Go and the case of the walking dead-or-alive(?)
The above photo was taken July 11th in Toronto, Canada. I was walking upon a square when I noticed nearly everyone — dozens of people (with more coming every minute) congregating at the square to look at their phone. Unbeknownst to me at the time, five days earlier a game called Pokemon Go was released in Japan and the United States (a game that would not be released in Canada for another six days so these individuals were all using a version they’d obtained through some kind of digital work-around). These people were all chasing Pokemon characters who happened to “be” in that square.
The Pokemon Go craze had just ignited and the phenomena wouldn’t hit the mainstream news for another day or two so I was left wondering what was going on and thinking how sad it was that one of the nicest days of summer to date was being spent by so many standing looking at their phone. I took some pictures, made some inquiries and was left amazed, confused and slightly depressed all at the same time.
To call Pokemon Go a game seems misleading. So does calling it a community, a phenomenon, a technological marvel, a marketing coup, a social convener, a public health risk, a public health benefit or a waste of time. It’s something completely new and it brings with it a number of puzzling, odd and paradoxical qualities as noted in the piece below from The Pipe Dream Meme.
As one man reports: “I’m not the most physically fit person, obviously, but I have walked more since this game has come out than I have in my entire life” He goes on to talk about how he knows more about his city than ever did before thanks to Pokemon Go, a video game that involves a person being focused on their screen, not the actual city around them even though what is on the screen is based on the physical city (and country and cemeteries and…) that is the foil for the hundreds of Pokemon characters to live through a handset.
Whether you consider the thousands of people walking around your city staring at their handset the walking dead (as disconnected from the world) or the living (as engaging with the world, differently) is a matter of perspective.
Paradox thy name is Pokemon.
Extensions of humanity to what?
Marshall McLuhan wrote (PDF) that the medium is the message and that the tools and technologies embedded in that media initially extend our humanity then culturally envelopes humanity by making us an extension of it. A simple look at capitalism and the use of money as a means of negotiating our sense lives illustrates this as McLuhan points out.
“Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon approval or disapproval of those living in the society.”
McLuhan cites the work of Carl Jung to support his thesis by drawing on a quote that illustrate the insidiousness of system of paradoxes and what they can have on a society:
Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence (Contributions to Analytical Psychology, London, 1928).
Thus by enslaving others we ourselves become enslaved.
Perhaps no better example of this paradox is in the way we’ve created tools to learn, exchange information and automate activity — making our work much more efficient — and finding ourselves either overworked or out of a job entirely. We’ve created a capitalist consumption system that relishes in efficiency in order to provide us with more of what we want and need to survive, thrive and be happy and we seem to put ourselves out of work; create stressed over-work for many of those who have jobs; destroy the planet (which is the only place to live), disconnect us from society and ourselves; and in a manner that contributes to mental health disorders along the way.
Things ought to be amazing — and in many ways they are — but the horrors created along with this are as notable and significant not only for our life today, but the future of the planet. This is the paradox of plenty.
Creating stupidity through knowledge
The problems we’ve created from consumption would be manageable if it was simply an issue of lack of knowledge. Solving knowledge-based problems is pretty straightforward: you find the right information, package it appropriately to the right audience, and ensure you deliver that message at the right time and place. This is the basis behind the knowledge transfer model and second generation of knowledge-to-action theories. Ask any marketer and they’ll tell you that while there’s no one way to do this and it does take work and experimentation, the mechanics are pretty straightforward.
Yet, knowledge (and truth, which is linked to this knowledge), is losing its power to sway people in the information society, which is based largely on the production / consumption / use of knowledge. As we have more access to more knowledge about something we are often less informed and more likely to discount the very thing we are using to make decisions. Paradoxical, isn’t it?
The ascendency of Donald Trump from real estate developer/reality TV show host/beauty pageant promoter to Republican candidate for the President of the United States is as good of an example as you’ll ever find. Irrespective of whatever policy positions you might hold, it’s impossible to deny that his track record of outright lies is beyond the pale. Or maybe it’s not impossible and that’s the problem.
Clay Johnson wrote about this phenomenon and drew parallels between our obesogenic culture and that of information consumption. He was inspired by an encounter with a protester in the early days of what would become the ‘Obamacare’ movement who had a sign saying “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” and recalls the circumstance in his book The Information Diet:
I spoke to this protestor about his sign. He seemed rather well educated — sure, he was angry, but he was not dumb, just concerned about the amount of money being spent by the current administration…This man did not suffer from a lack of information. Yet he had failed to consider the irony of holding a sign above his head asking government to keep its hands off a government-run program. To him, it made perfect sense.
So what’s to be done? Anything? That’s what I’ll explore in the next post.
This year I took a summer holiday — something I’ve not done in years — and was reminded what literally stepping away from your everyday life and journeying to other spaces and places does for the mind, the heart and the soul. As kids (and adults) all over head back to school and tell their stories about their summer break, here is some of what I took away from my trip to the Netherlands and England.
This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically called “back to school” time as students return to their classrooms or start a new educational journey altogether. For young and old this new beginning signals a change of state and a great opening to experience, new knowledge and new people.
Among the first things students in grade school do upon their return is share what they did on their summer vacation. This year I am not returning to school, but I did have a summer vacation and in the spirit of ‘back-to-school’ I wanted to share what I learned.
My journey to the Netherlands and England allowed me to partake in sightseeing, walking for hours through some of Europe’s most beautiful towns and cities, taking in the art and history of two incredible regions, getting inspired, learning from other cultures, taking (and making) a rest, and also figuring out how to become a better football goalkeeper (more on that some other time). However, like any trip it is often about the people not just the places that make the difference and that is what I wish to focus on here.
The importance of beauty
Amsterdam is a beautiful city and so it was fitting that I spent one of my first days in that great European capital having lunch with author, consultant and designer, Steven de Groot talking about — among other things — beauty in organizations. Steven wrote what I believe is the most interesting doctoral theses I’ve ever read (PDF) on the role of beauty in organizations and has been developing new thinking on organizational aesthetics ever since. What makes Steven’s work so interesting is that he has taken a collection of ideas that are straightforward and simple on their own and brought them together to reveal something that is (paradoxically) incredibly obvious and yet completely unnoticed in most organizations.
Truth, beauty, goodness — these are things that we are attracted to, yet rarely identify as fundamental qualities of a high performing organization. Steven inspires people to rethink this through his writing and consulting.
I was speaking to a bartender at the local pub near my hotel about Steven’s work the evening before he and I met and the bartender went through the same stages as I did upon first encounter with the topic of organizational aesthetics: puzzlement, uncertainty, curiosity, wonder, confusion and then the big “a-ha!” where he realized how much sense it all makes (and asking why is this the first time contemplating all of this?). Why should we not value beauty in our work and workplaces and spaces? After all, we do it in almost every other facet of life and yet rarely do we consciously consider the role that aesthetics play in our organizational creations even if it is an enormous driver of behaviour and contributor to our wellbeing and quality of life.
Steven and I spoke of the challenges and opportunities inherent in inspiring people to think like a designer, wrestle with change in organizations, and overcome the (largely) self-imposed constraints to possibility that groups place on their perspectives about what is possible. We also spoke of the Dutch approach to constraints and how they’ve managed to work with a series of physical and social ones to create a society that largely supports innovative design in cities and organizations. The big challenge in drawing lessons from the Dutch (or anyone) is dealing with scale and determining how best to take ideas from one context further into others and what the implications are for transporting designs in one space to another. Beauty however exists everywhere in its own space and time, which is why it offers so much to designers working in different contexts: it’s inherently a local and global phenomenon simultaneously.
We make selections of friends, partners, places to live, products and services all based on some connection to beauty — even if that definition of beauty is different between each of us. Human beings have their own sense of beauty and are attracted to things we find beautiful so why would we not collectively nurture those qualities in the work processes, outcomes and environments we spend time in by design? We can design beauty into our work and Steven’s research and practice have pointed to ways in which people build appreciation for beauty, nurture it, and design it into the environments they inhabit everyday to enhance wellbeing, creativity and productivity. This is powerful stuff.
The power to change
Power is no more evident than in the process of change-making and I have found few more thoughtful on this topic than John Wenger. John is a London-based (via New Zealand) Scot who is a psychotherapist, organizational change consultant, community animator and writer. John seeks to find, build and nurture what Meg Wheatley calls “islands of sanity” in a complex and chaotic world through his therapy, community and consulting work. In that vein he and I met at the Victoria & Albert museum for a coffee and a stroll through some of the collections as an island of cool on a hot summer’s day.
This was just the start our our journey as we soon found ourselves zipping over to the Tate Modern and then for a long walk through the Borough Market and along the Thames talking all the way about the role of capitalism, community, individual behaviour, organizational design and social connection in shaping the world we work in. In the frenetic chaos of London’s core during the height of tourist season John and I created our own island of sanity (and inspiration) through our walk and time together.
At the heart of our art visit was a trip to the Tate Modern to see a collection of works by Mark Rothko, the Seagram Murals immortalized in John Logan’s stage play Red. These works embody the kind of complexity that anyone working with human systems knows, but rarely can communicate so eloquently: the (appearing simple) works take vastly different shapes depending on where you sit in relation to them. Rothko’s pieces, like the one pictured above, look one way in a photograph, another from across the room, and something else when closer. Lighting matters, too as I suspect they would look considerably different in different gallery spaces. Rothko knew this and that was part of his genius. Each of these perspectives provides a new layer of information, wonder and reveals new patterns within what appears to be a simplistic frame of four lines connected into a box.
John understands that the same qualities that make Rothko’s work so mesmerizing is what also makes human relationships so important. It’s easy to make a judgement from afar, but it is only through getting closer, stepping away, turning things on their head that we begin to see things differently and, with it, open up possibilities. In the calamitous wake of Brexit John is leading workshops to help people make sense of what it means for Britain (and themselves) and is encouraging healing through use of reflective dialogue and sociodrama. He sees the rift created when, no matter what your position on Brexit might be, you see one half of your country holding a counter position to your own on a matter of great importance. How do we live together, see the differences, embrace the opportunities that come from difference and bridge the gap between what we see, what we know and what we do?
It is fitting that our day of conversation, food, and walking would be filled with art because that artistry and the attention to the way we co-create reality through art is what John brings to the world. It was a reminder of the power of relationships to bring out our best and reveal new pathways to those islands of sanity that we might miss if we simply approach the world head-on in a cognitive-rational manner and take the world as its presented to us by media, social norms and our past interpretations of history. Art is a gift embraced with others.
Conserving the planet, humbly
Alas, there are times when history cannot be avoided as a means of understanding our future and ecological sustainability is one of those issues. Right now, humanity is much like the twins above peering at us in Brick Lane: some of we call ‘art’ is a little noxious for the planet.
Andrew Knight and I along with a small group of conservation biologists, systems thinkers and evaluators are part of the Silwood Group: a ‘praxis’ tank (as opposed to a think tank) that seeks to bring new thinking about conservation and ecological systems together with concrete action to advance our protection of the planet. It sounds like heady stuff, but like an inversion of Rothko’s paintings there are areas of simplicity within the complexity presented by these issues that Andrew and I sought to work on over two days spent at Imperial College, where Dr. Knight is a Senior Lecturer.
Aside from some light-hearted discussion on the comic genius of the Flight of the Conchords or the maddening systems of administration within universities, our time together dealt with the ways in which we, as a transdisciplinary blend of scholars, practitioners and ‘pracademics’ from across the world and from different sectors who are the Silwood Group, could make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time with our limited resources — a typical conservation problem if ever there was one!
This is really a contemplative problem that combines many of the aspects of what Steven de Groot and I spoke of in Amsterdam and the conversations I had with John Wenger strolling along the Thames.
It is about creating / designing spaces and products that allow people to engage with complexity and the volume of issues that are entangled within conservation and to do so through by anchoring the work to beauty and to relationships. One avenue is through education (*and by education, we were thinking about real praxis-led learning and not just packaged toolkits, lesson plans and classrooms with rows and PowerPoint) because it is through curiosity, exchange, exposure to new thinking and the opportunity to try things out that we build the kind of relationships to people, organizations and ideas that allow them to stick.
Two days was not enough to flesh this idea out much further, but needless to say that there will certainly be much reflecting upon my summer vacation in the months to come in ways that I am only now, getting back to everyday life in Canada, appreciating had such an impact on my thinking. More, much more is to come.
Thanks Steven, John and Andrew for providing such inspiration, insight, camaraderie and intellectual and social companionship on my journey this summer. I am looking forward to building on that with you in the days and months to come and, like a Rothko painting, finding new meanings and layers to the work every time I encounter it.
Photo credits: Author.
Mark Rothko’s work at the Tate is staggering in what it elicits when seen in person. Go see it. For more information click here.
Zabou’s street art can be found here, but like all art it’s better to engage with it up close if you can find it and Brick Lane in London is as good as anywhere to see some beautiful street art.
If you are in the UK (or even if you aren’t, I suppose) and interested in John Wenger’s post-Brexit workshop entitled Who Shall Survive Brexit on October 6th you can register for it here.
Doing new things to create social value means going into the great unknown, yet our fear of being lost need not prevent us from innovating, wisely and sustainably. Instead of being lost alone, we can be lost together.
I’ve heard it all so many times before
It’s all a dream to me now
A dream to me now
And if we’re lost
Then we are lost together
– Blue Rodeo (Lost Together)
Humans have real problems with uncertainty. Risk mitigation is an enormous field of work within business, government and politics and permeates decision making in our organizations. It’s partly this reason that our politicians too often speak so cryptically to the point of basically uttering nonsense – because they want to avoid the risk of saying something that will hurt them. The alternative perhaps is to spout so much untruth that it no longer matters what you say, because others will create messages about you.
Thankfully, we are still — and hopefully into the future — in a world where most of what organizations do is considered and evaluated with some care to the truth. ‘Truth’ or facts are much easier to deal with in those systems where we can generate the kind of evidence that enable us to make clear decisions based on replicable, verifiable and defensible research. Ordered systems where there is a cause-and-effect relationship that is (usually) clear, consistent and observable are those where we can design interventions to mitigate risk with confidence.
There are four approaches to risk mitigation.
- Risk Acceptance involves awareness of what risks are present within the system and establishing strategy and an organizational culture where the nature, type and potential consequences of risks are (largely) known, accepted and lived with.
- Risk Avoidance takes the opposite approach and seeks to steer operations away from activities where risk is limited.
- Risk Limitation seeks to curtail and mitigate the effects of risk where possible and often involves contingency planning and balancing activities with higher levels of uncertainty with areas of greater confidence and certainty.
- Risk Transference involves finding ways to offload risk to a third party. An example can be found in many partnerships between organizations of different sizes or types where one is able to absorb certain risks while others cannot for various reasons and the activities allow for one partner to take lead on an activity that isn’t feasible for another to do so.
Within social innovation — those activities involving public engagement, new thinking and social benefit — there are few opportunities for #2, plenty for #1 and #3 and a growing number for #4.
Risk is a core part of innovation. To innovate requires risking time, energy, focus and other resources toward the attempt at something new to produce a valued alternative to the status quo. For many human service organizations and funders, these resources are so thinly spread and small in abundance that the idea of considering risk seems like a risk itself. Yet, the real problem comes in assuming that one can choose whether or not to engage risk. Unless you’re operating in a closed system that has relatively few changing elements to it, you’re exposed to risk by virtue of being in the system. To draw on one of my favourite quotes from the author Guiseppe di Lampedusa:
If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
So even keeping things away from risk involves risk because if the world around you is changing the system changes with it and so, too does your position in it. If this makes you feel lost, you’re not alone. Many organizations (individuals, too) are struggling with figuring out where they fit in the world. If you want evidence of this consider the growing calls for skilled knowledge workers at the same time we are seeing a crisis among those with a PhD — those with the most knowledge (of certain sorts) — in the job market.
Community of flashlights
There is a parable of the drunkard who loses his keys on his way home at night and searches for them under the streetlight not because that’s where he lost them, but because it’s easier to see that spurred something called the Streetlight Effect. It’s about the tendency to draw on what we know and what we have at our disposal to frame problems and seek to solve them, even if they are the wrong tools — a form of observation bias in psychology. Streetlights are anchored, stable means of illuminating a street within a certain range – a risk zone, perhaps — but remain incomplete solutions.
Flashlights on the other hands have the same limitations (a beam of light), are less powerful, but are adaptive. You can port a flashlight or torch and aim it to where you want the light to shine. They are not as powerful as a streetlight in terms of luminosity, but are far more nimble. However, if you bring more than one flashlight together, all of a sudden the power of the light is extended. This is the principle behind many of the commercial LED systems that are in use. Small numbers of lights brought together, each using low energy, but collectively providing a powerful, adaptive lighting system
This same principle can apply to organizations seeking to make change. Like an LED flashlight, they need a housing to hold and focus the lights. This can be in the form of a backbone organization such as those advocated in collective impact strategies. It can also be a set of principles or simple rules that provide a set of guides for organizations operating independently to follow, which will stimulate a consistent pattern of activity when applied, allowing similar, focused action on the same target at a distance.
This latter approach differs from collective impact, which is a top-down and bottom-up approach simultaneously and is a good means of focusing on larger, macro issues such as poverty reduction, climate change and city-building. It is an approach that holds potential for working within these larger issues on smaller, more dynamic ones such as neighbourhood building, conservation actions within a specific region, and workplace health promotion. In both cases the light analogy can hold and they need not be done exclusive of one another.
Let there be light
A flashlight initiative requires a lot of things coming together. It can be led by individuals making connections between others, brokering relationships and building community. It requires a vision that others can buy into and an understanding of the system (it’s level of complexity, structure and history). This understanding is what serves as the foundation for the determination of the ‘rules’ of the system, those touch points, attractors, leverage points and areas of push and pull that engage energy within a system (stay tuned to a future post for more detailed examples).
Much of the open-source movement is based on this model. This is about creating that housing for ideas to build and form freely, but with constraints. It’s a model that can work when collective impact is at a scale too large for an organization (or individual) to adequately envision contribution, but an alternative to going alone or relying only on the streetlight to find your way.
You might be lost, but with a flashlight you’ll be lost together and may just find your way.
Image credits: Author (Cameron Norman)
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.
- We’ve witnessed a mass shooting of gay revellers in an Orlando nightclub.
- Yesterday we saw law enforcement officers struck down in an ambush during a peaceful protest spurred on by two other terrible incidents where law enforcement officers in the United States were on the other end of the gun, killing unarmed black men on two separate days.
- Massive losses of life were further incurred at Istanbul’s airport and Baghdad with bombs set off, leaving hundreds of lives lost or permanently scarred.
- Britain voted to leave the European Union, cleaving that country into two in terms of opinion and further damaging relations between citizens of Scotland, Ireland and England. This has caused turmoil all through Europe and markets everywhere.
- In Toronto, our annual Pride parade was paused/disrupted by a Black Lives Matter protest group that held a 30-minute sit-in that was ended only after a list of demands were agreed to (and then dismissed) prompting a heated debate among groups from many stripes about the appropriateness of the action and its rationale and — sadly and perhaps predictably — racial hate messages.
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.
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.
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.
Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a nod to the future and the past and both perspectives illustrate how citizens everywhere are struggling with how to best make their world – and to what extent that’s possible. These are design choices with systems implications that will be felt far beyond those who are making such decisions.
We only understand systems from a perspective, because where you sit within a system determines the relevance of properties that are of that system. These properties look different (or may be wholly imperceptible) depending on the vantage point taken within that system. This is what makes understanding and working with systems so challenging.
This morning the world woke up to find that the British people voted to leave the European Union. For the Brits this was a choice about where they wanted to place a boundary around certain systems (political, economic, geographic) and how they perceived having control over what took place within, around (and indeed the very nature of) those boundaries. Boundaries and constraints are principally what defines a system as that is what shapes what happens inside that system. For Britain it was a choice to redefine those boundaries tighter with a hope that it will bring greater good to that nation.
Boundary critique in complex systems
There is a guide for systems thinking that says if you’re trying to understand a system and find yourself lost you’ve probably bounded your systems too loosely and if you’re finding yourself constantly seeking explanations for what happens in a system that occur outside those boundaries than you’ve bound it too tightly.
The choice of millions of Britons about their own country, their boundaries, has influenced the world as stock markets shake up, currencies are devalued and entire economies rattled — not just now, but potentially for a period to come. Oil prices have fallen sharply in the wake of the decision, which will impact every part of the economy and further delay any shift away from carbon-based fuel options. The European Union and the entire world is feeling the effect from 51% of Britons who voted (of about 17M citizens) deciding they would be better off outside the EU than within it. Consider how a small number of people can have such an enormous impact — a perfect illustration of complexity in action.
And as England seeks to re-draw its boundary, already there is discussion of another Scottish independence vote in the wake of this, which may re-draw the boundary further. These votes are intentional acts and perhaps the most straightforward expressions of intention and self-determination within a democracy, but their impact and outcomes on citizens and the world around them are far from straightforward making such direct-democracy far more problematic than those in support of such votes make out. This is not to say that such votes are necessarily good or bad, but they are certainly not simple.
Co-design and its problems
The Brexit vote invites memory of a quote from one of Britain’s famous leaders who famously quipped that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Democracy creates the opportunity for co-design of our political systems, policy choices and boundaries. By having an opportunity to voice an opinion and engage in the act of voting we citizens have a role to play in co-designing what we want from our country. The downside is that we are engaging in this exercise from where we sit in the system, thus the design I want might not be the same as someone else in my country, nor may we see the same information the same way or even consider the same information relevant.
It’s for this reason that we’re seeing strange things in politics these days. The volume of information available to us and the complexity of the layered contexts in which that information applies makes a simple decision like a vote for or against something far more challenging. Complexity is created by volatility, lack of certainty, an absence of predictability and dynamism. Co-design introduces all of this and, on a national scale, amplifies the impact of that complexity.
This is a massive challenge for everyone, but in particular those who come from the design and systems science realms. For design, co-design has been touted as a desired, if not idealized, principle for guiding the making of everything from learning experiences to services to products to policies. In systems thinking and related sciences, too often the focus is less on what is created, but how it impacts things — offering more description and analytical insight than guidance on what ought to be developed and how. Bringing these two worlds together — systemic design — may have never been more important.
Systemic design, boredom and critical making
Roseanne Somerson, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, recently wrote about the importance of boredom in spurring creativity in design. In it she speaks of the term ‘critical making’ instead of using design thinking. I love that term. It does a better job of reflecting the thinking-in-action praxis that is really at the heart of good design. In this article she refers to the insights and bursts of creativity that come from her students when she allows them — rather, forces them — to be bored.
What boredom can do is prompt a form of mindfulness, an emptying of the thoughts allowing the opportunity to escape the rush of stimulation that we get from the world and permit new insights to come in. It is a way of temporarily freeing oneself from the path dependence that is created by an entrained thought pattern that seeks out certain stimulation (which is why we tend to re-think the same thing over and again). This is an enormously useful approach for supporting organizations and individuals operating in complex systems to see things differently and not to get swept up in the power of a prevailing current without being fully aware that such a current exists and evaluating whether that is useful or not useful.
Creating the space to be mindful and to understand better ones place in their system as well as the potential consequences of change within that system is one of the key contributions that systemic design can offer. It is about engaging in social critical making and perhaps, it may be away out of the trap of creating simple binaries of stay versus leave or yes vs no. Surely no Britons thought that membership in the EU was all bad or good, but to divide the choice to be in or out might have been a case of taking a simple approach to a complex problem and now we will see how a simple choice has complex reverberations throughout the system now and into the future. Time will tell whether these — and the resulting choices of other nations and regions — will bring us closer together, further apart, or something else entirely.
Would we invest in something if we had little hard data to suggest what we could expect to gain from that investment? This is often the case with social programs, yet its a domain that has resisted the kind of data-driven approaches to investment that we’ve seen in other sectors and one theory is that we can approach change in the same way we code the genome, but: is that a good idea?
Jason Saul is a maverick in social impact work and dresses the part: he’s wearing a suit. That’s not typically the uniform of those working in the social sector railing against the system, but that’s one of the many things that gets people talking about what he and his colleagues at Mission Measurement are trying to do. That mission is clear: bring the same detailed analysis of the factors involved in contributing to real impact from the known evidence that we would do to nearly any other area of investment.
The way to achieving this mission is to take the thinking behind the Music Genome Project, the algorithms that power the music service Pandora, and apply it to social impact. This is a big task and done by coding the known literature on social impact from across the vast spectrum of research from different disciplines, methods, theories and modeling techniques. A short video from Mission Measurement on this approach nicely outlines the thinking behind this way of looking at evaluation, measurement, and social impact.
Saul presented his vision for measurement and evaluation to a rapt audience in Toronto at the MaRS Discovery District on April 11th as part of their Global Leaders series en route to the Skoll World Forum ; this is a synopsis of what came from that presentation and it’s implications for social impact measurement.
(Re) Producing change
Saul began his presentation by pointing to an uncomfortable truth in social impact: We spread money around with good intention and little insight into actual change. He claims (no reference provided) that 2000 studies are published per day on behaviour change, yet there remains an absence of common metrics and measures within evaluation to detect change. One of the reasons is that social scientists, program leaders, and community advocates resist standardization making the claim that context matters too much to allow aggregation.
Saul isn’t denying that there is truth to the importance of context, but argues that it’s often used as an unreasonable barrier to leading evaluations with evidence. To this end, he’s right. For example, the data from psychology alone shows a poor track record of reproducibility, and thus offers much less to social change initiatives than is needed. As a professional evaluator and social scientist, I’m not often keen to being told how to do what I do, (but sometimes I benefit from it). That can be a barrier, but also it points to a problem: if the data shows how poorly it is replicated, then is following it a good idea in the first place?
Are we doing things righter than we think or wronger than we know?
To this end, Saul is advocating a meta-evaluative perspective: linking together the studies from across the field by breaking down its components into something akin to a genome. By looking at the combination of components (the thinking goes) like we do in genetics we can start to see certain expressions of particular behaviour and related outcomes. If we knew these things in advance, we could potentially invest our energy and funds into programs that were much more likely to succeed. We also could rapidly scale and replicate programs that are successful by understanding the features that contribute to their fundamental design for change.
The epigenetic nature of change
Genetics is a complex thing. Even on matters where there is reasonably strong data connecting certain genetic traits to biological expression, there are few examples of genes as ‘destiny’as they are too often portrayed. In other words, it almost always depends on a number of things. In recent years the concept of epigenetics has risen in prominence to provide explanations of how genes get expressed and it has as much to do with what environmental conditions are present as it is the gene combinations themselves . McGill scientist Moshe Szyf and his colleagues pioneered research into how genes are suppressed, expressed and transformed through engagement with the natural world and thus helped create the field of epigenetics. Where we once thought genes were prescriptions for certain outcomes, we now know that it’s not that simple.
By approaching change as a genome, there is a risk that the metaphor can lead to false conclusions about the complexity of change. This is not to dismiss the valid arguments being made around poor data standardization, sharing, and research replication, but it calls into question how far the genome model can go with respect to social programs without breaking down. For evaluators looking at social impact, the opportunity is that we can systematically look at the factors that consistently produce change if we have appropriate comparisons. (That is a big if.)
Saul outlined many of the challenges that beset evaluation of social impact research including the ‘file-drawer effect’ and related publication bias, differences in measurement tools, and lack of (documented) fidelity of programs. Speaking on the matter in response to Saul’s presentation, Cathy Taylor from the Ontario Non-Profit Network, raised the challenge that comes when much of what is known about a program is not documented, but embodied in program staff and shared through exchanges. The matter of tacit knowledge and practice-based evidence is one that bedevils efforts to compare programs and many social programs are rich in context — people, places, things, interactions — that remain un-captured in any systematic way and it is that kind of data capture that is needed if we wish to understand the epigenetic nature of change.
Unlike Moshe Szyf and his fellow scientists working in labs, we can’t isolate, observe and track everything our participants do in the world in the service of – or support to – their programs, because they aren’t rats in a cage.
Systems thinking about change
One of the other criticisms of the model that Saul and his colleagues have developed is that it is rather reductionist in its expression. While there is ample consideration of contextual factors in his presentation of the model, the social impact genome is fundamentally based on reductionist approaches to understanding change. A reductionist approach to explaining social change has been derided by many working in social innovation and environmental science as outdated and inappropriate for understanding how change happens in complex social systems.
What is needed is synthesis and adaptation and a meta-model process, not a singular one.
Saul’s approach is not in opposition to this, but it does get a little foggy how the recombination of parts into wholes gets realized. This is where the practical implications of using the genome model start to break down. However, this isn’t a reason to give up on it, but an invitation to ask more questions and to start testing the model out more fulsomely. It’s also a call for systems scientists to get involved, just like they did with the human genome project, which has given us great understanding of what influences our genes have and stressed the importance of the environment and how we create or design healthy systems for humans and the living world.
At present, the genomic approach to change is largely theoretical backed with ongoing development and experiments but little outcome data. There is great promise that bigger and better data, better coding, and a systemic approach to looking at social investment will lead to better outcomes, but there is little actual data on whether this approach works, for whom, and under what conditions. That is to come. In the meantime, we are left with questions and opportunities.
Among the most salient of the opportunities is to use this to inspire greater questions about the comparability and coordination of data. Evaluations as ‘one-off’ bespoke products are not efficient…unless they are the only thing that we have available. Wise, responsible evaluators know when to borrow or adapt from others and when to create something unique. Regardless of what design and tools we use however, this calls for evaluators to share what they learn and for programs to build the evaluative thinking and reflective capacity within their organizations.
The future of evaluation is going to include this kind of thinking and modeling. Evaluators, social change leaders, grant makers and the public alike ignore this at their peril, which includes losing opportunities to make evaluation and social impact development more accountable, more dynamic and impactful.
About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and assists organizations and networks in supporting learning and innovation in human services through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking. He is based in Toronto, Canada.
Do you care about donuts? I did, once. I’m not so sure anymore.
I used to love donuts, was passionate about donuts and spent the better part of my early career looking at the power of social media to transform our understanding of and engagement with donuts. Just this week, I had a paper published that I co-authored with colleagues looked at Twitter is being used to engage audiences on donuts, er vaping and it’s potential public health implications. I’m still into donuts, but the question is whether donuts are still serving the purpose they once did. It’s left me asking….
Is it still time to make the donuts?
Twitter turned 10 this past month. When it was founded the idea of communicating short 140 character chunks of content to the world by default (unlike Facebook, where you could restrict you posts to your ‘friends’ only by default), the idea seemed absurd, particularly to me. Why would anyone want to use something that was the equivalent of a Facebook status update without anything else? (Keep in mind that link shorteners were not yet in wide use, the embedded pictures and lists that we have now were either not invented or highly cumbersome).
However, social media is a ‘participation sport’ as I like to say and by engaging with it I soon realized Twitter’s enormous potential. For the first time I could find people who had the same quirky collection of interests as I did (e.g, systems science, design, innovation, Star Wars, coffee, evaluation, soccer, politics, stationary and fine writing instruments – and not necessarily in that order, but in that combination) and find answers to questions I didn’t think to ask from people I didn’t know existed.
It was a wonder and I learned more about the cutting edge of research there than I ever did using traditional databases, conferences or books much to the shock, horror and disbelief of my professional colleagues. I’ve often been considered an early adopter and this was no exception. I did research, consultation and training in this area and expanded my repertoire to Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and pretty much everything I could including some platforms that no longer exist.
I developed relationships with people I’d never (and still have never) met from around the world who’s camaraderie and collegiality I valued as much or more than those people I’d known for years in the flesh. It was heady times.
But like with donuts, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And also like donuts, where I once loved them and enjoyed them regularly consuming them now starts to not sit so well and that’s maybe for the better.
I’m left questioning whether it’s still time to make the donuts.
The river I stand in
This river I step in is not the river I stand in – Heraclitus
Like with donuts the experience of social media — the context of its use — has changed. As I age, eat better, exercise more wisely and am more mindful of how I feel and what I do, donuts lost appeal. They probably taste the same, but the experience has changed and not because the donuts are different, but my dietary and lifestyle context is.
The same is true for social media.
I have never been a techno advocate or pessimist, rather I’ve been a pragmatist. Social media does things that traditional media does not. It helps individuals and organizations communicate and, depending on how its used, engage an audience interactively in ways that ‘old media’ like billboards, radio, TV and pamphlets do not. But we still have the old media, we just recognize that it’s good at particular things and not others.
But the river, the moving and transforming media landscape, is much faster, bigger and bolder than it was before. Take the birthday girl or boy, Twitter, it’s grown to be a ubiquitous tool for journalists, celebrities and scholars, but saw a small decline in its overall use after a year of flatlined growth.
(Twitter monthly users via Tech Crunch)
As for Facebook, it’s faring OK. While it still has growth, I’ve struggled to find anyone who speaks in glowing terms about their experience with the service, particularly anyone who wishes to change their privacy settings or wishes to stem the flow of ads. Over at Instagram, my feed has seen the rise of ‘brands’ following me. No longer is it the names of real people (even if its a nickname) it’s usually some variant of ‘getmorefollowers’ or brands or something like that. This is all as I see more ads and less life.
Information overload and filter failure
Speaking to an audience in 2008, author and media scholar Clay Shirky spoke to the problem of ‘information overload’ which was a term being applied to the exponential rise in exposure people had to information thanks to the Internet and World Wide Web. At the time, his argument was that it was less about overload of information, than a failure of our filter systems to make sense of what was most useful.
But that was 2008. That was before the mobile Internet really took off. That was when Twitter was 2 and Facebook just a couple years later. In the third quarter of 2008, Facebook had around 100,000 users and now its got a population of more 1.6B users. The river has got bigger and more full. That might be nice if you’re into white water rafting or building large hydro-electric dams, but it might be less enjoyable if you’re into fly fishing. I can’t imagine A River Runs Through It with a water feature that’s akin to Niagara Falls.
This all brings up a dilemma: what to do? As one who has studied and advised organizations on how to develop and implement social media strategies I would be a hypocrite to suggest we abandon them. Engaging with an audience is better than not doing so. Humanizing communications – which is something social media can do far better than speaking ‘at’ people — is better than not. Being timely and relevant is also better than not. Yet, the degree to which social media can answer these problems is masked by the volume of content out there and the manner in which people interact with content.
Walking through any major urban area, take public transit, or watching people in line for pretty much anything will find a substantial portion of humans looking at their devices. Even couples or friends at restaurants are left to concoct games to get people paying attention to each other, not their devices. We are living in the attentional economy and what is increasingly valuable is focus, not necessarily more information and that requires filtration systems that are not overwhelmed by the volume of content.
Emotional pollution and the antisocial media
I recently wrote about how ‘the stream’ of social media has changed the way that social activism and organizing is done. While social media was once and invaluable tool for organizing and communicating ideas, its become a far more muddled set of resources in recent years. To be sure, movements like Black Lives Matter and others that promote more democratic, active social engagement on issues of justice and human dignity are fuelled and supported by social media. This is a fantastic thing for certain issues, but the question might be left: for how long?
Not so long ago, my Facebook feed was filled with the kind of flotsam, jetsam and substance of everyday life. This was about pictures of children or vacations, an update on someone’s new job or their health, or perhaps a witty observation on human life, but the substance of the content was the poster, the person. Now, it is increasingly about other people and ‘things’ . It’s about injustices to others and the prejudices that come with that, it’s about politics (regardless of how informed people are), it’s about solidarity with some groups (at the willful ignorance of others) and about rallying people to some cause or another.
While none of these are problematic — and actually quite healthy in some measure — they are almost all I see. On Twitter, people are sharing other things, but rarely their own thoughts. On Facebook, it’s about sharing what others have written and the posters emotional reaction to it.
Increasingly, it’s about social validation. Believe my idea. “Like” this post if you’re really my friend. Share if you’re with me and not with them. And so on.
What I am left with, increasingly, is a lost sense of who the ‘me’ and the ‘them’ are in my social media stream. What it feels is that I am increasingly wading into a stream of emotional pollution rather than human interaction. And when my filters are full, this gets harder to do and I’m not sure I want to be less sensitized to the world, but I also don’t want my interactions with others to be solely about reacting to their rage at the world or some referendum on their worldview. It seems that social media is becoming anti-social media.
In complex systems we might see this is as a series of weak, but growing stronger, signals of something else. Whether that’s collective outrage at the injustices of the world, the need for greater support, or the growing evidence that social media use can be correlated with a sense of loneliness, I’m not sure.
But something is going on and I’m now beginning to wonder about all those donuts we’ve created.
About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and works at assisting organizations and networks in creative learning through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking.