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.


The New Zombie

Zombie stare

They are among us and hungry for brains

Zombies are attacking us; not for brains, but for attention. The consequences of this is that they are everywhere and sucking the intelligence out of human systems. 

Forget orange, zombie is the new black.

Zombies are hot. TV shows, books and films about zombies are more popular than ever, and this time of year the public’s attention to the undead is at its nadir. The CDC in the United States even got into the act by using zombies as a health promotion vehicle to support emergency preparedness. From zombie walks to art shows, the staggering brain-eating, brain-less are everywhere.

Yet, there is a new breed being formed that doesn’t eat brains and has them, but may not be using them well and they are all around us everywhere.

They walk among us

Look around and what do you see? People online, on the phone, texting and walking and driving, being everywhere except where they are. Examples of people walking into fountains or falling into a sinkhole while on the phone are often seen as comi-tragic, yet they belie a remarkably powerful trend towards disengagement from the world around them. Charlene deGuzman and Miles Crawford‘s beautiful and disheartening short film I Forgot My Phone plays this for further comic and sad effect as they portray a day in the life of someone paying attention to those not paying attention to anything away from their screen. The film highlights the modern paradox of being more connected than ever, yet overwhelmingly alone.

Emerging research is showing remarkable spikes in risks associated with mobile phone use and injury and mortality. We might laugh at people falling into holes or bumping into things, but only when it hurts the ego and not the body. This is serious stuff. Keep in mind that we don’t see non-reported injuries (e.g., someone bruising their head) and the many near misses between person and object — including cars, which have their own epidemic of problems with texting and attention.

Indeed, zombies embody paradox: a brainless being that is undead seeks brains to stay unalive. Whether they are alive or dead depends on where you stand and that is what makes them a complex character despite their surface-level simplicity.

Brains…need…more…(use of science) brains….

Zombie Science

Zombie Science?

While it might be easy to point to those on phones, zombie behaviour occurs elsewhere in places where the effects are far less comic and just as dangerous. The latest issue of The Economist features a cover story on the problems science is having with it credibility and quality control. Some of this is due to what I would call zombie-like behaviour: mindless attention in a manner that restricts awareness and appreciation of one’s immediate context and the larger system to which that behaviour occurs.

The recent expose by science journalist John Bohannon published in the journal Science exposes zombie-like thinking in how open-access science journals accept and reject papers. Bohannon’s inquiry was prompted by questions about the way fees were charged for open access journals (which is how they can remain open to the public) and the peer review require to advance publication. Presumably, an article has to pass review from peer professional scientists before it is accepted and then the fee is paid. No acceptance, no fee (except for perhaps a small application processing charge).

As profiled in an interview with the CBC radio show The Current

Bohannon wanted to find out whether fee-charging open access journals were actually keeping their promise to do peer review — a process in which scientists with some knowledge of a paper’s topic volunteer to check it for scientific flaws…

…In the end, what he concluded was that “a huge proportion” of the journals were not ensuring their papers were peer reviewed.

Even in cases where peer review happened, it didn’t always function correctly. For example, the Ottawa-based International Journal of Herbs and Medicinal Plants clearly sent the paper out to be reviewed by real scientists, who pointed out some flaws, Bohannon recalled. Even so, when Bohannon submitted a revised version of the paper without correcting any of the flaws, it was accepted.

Bohannon’s approach and findings are not without some problems of their own, but they don’t much change the conclusion that there are deep problems within the scientific enterprise.

Much of what Bohannon found can be attributed to greed, but a great deal of it is due to bad scientific practice. As a consultant who is also a publishing researcher and ‘recovering’ academic I know the enormous amount of energy that goes into publishing an academic article in a scholarly journal. As one who is sent between 4 to 5 manuscripts to review from legitimate journals per month I know the demands that are placed on reviews. We also publish far too much for the system to handle. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher EducationMark Bauerlein and colleagues look closely at the ‘avalanche’ of publishing and shed light on many reasons why the problems that the Economist and Science occur (Note: I’d strongly encourage you to read through the comments as it is as instructive as the article itself).

They are everywhere

To add to the examples of zombie culture I need only look to my own daily life outside of science and  mobile phones. Just the other day I witnessed the following example at a community meeting that was organized in part to discuss the expenditure of funds to make a better living area for people in a building:

Presenter: “…and I am pleased to conclude that the new furniture for the outdoor spaces is going to be made by a company that created the same products at [place] out of recycled materials. We will expect to have the new furniture here in 6 to 8 weeks. Any questions?”

First question: “I love the work you’ve done. Can you tell me when the furniture will be here?”

Sadly, I have many other stories that show that many people are not paying attention. They are sitting through workshops and not picking up basic concepts (even after having asked for it and having been given it multiple times over), asking for materials that were already shared on multiple occasions, suggesting ideas that were already discussed and agreed upon over because that person didn’t engage in the discussion and so on. This happens not because people are stupid, but because they are disengaged.

A simple search through statistics compilations finds enormous material on what kind of inputs we expose ourselves to and its impact on attention. There is more coming at us in quantity and context and that is undoubtedly influencing quality of processing and engagement. I can speak of this personally and through observation. The amount of times I find people not hearing what is said, processing it effectively, or even remembering something said is staggering.

It’s not surprising. We are alerted everywhere: a text message, a phone call, a Facebook message, an email, an app alert, someone coming by the office, external noise outside, and visual noise everywhere. The explicit and ambient signals we are exposed to in a day is staggering. Clay Shirky suggests it’s not that we have too much information, it’s that our filters are failing. I think it’s now both and one reinforces the other.

Coming back…a look at systems

While individuals are distracted, they are products of distracted systems. To look at one part of the science zombie situation, professors are now asked to publish more than ever, get grants from a dwindling pool, teach more students than ever and in more crowded conditions and with greater social needs, and to find ways to make their research more accessible to different audiences while engaging more with the communities of interest affected by that research. All of this takes time. Add to that the probability that the professor her/himself has to raise their own salary and that the only way to do this is to be very successful at the above-mentioned tasks and you get someone who is stressed and overtaxed.

Mindfulness-based approaches do not change any of that, but they can help strengthen the filter. By being more individually mindful, but more importantly create mindful organizations. Building resilient tribes of social innovators and the leadership communities to steward them is another. Granting ourselves the time to reflect, sensemake and listen to the systems we work in is also key. By listening better, we are better able to design systems that are innovative, responsive and humane by building them to human scale.

All well and good you might say, but how? That’s what’s to come in some future posts as we look at designing better systems and making them more attractive so people stay engaged.

Stay tuned….and watch out for zombies.

Photo credit: Zombie Walk 2012 SP by Gianluca Ramalho Misiti used under Creative Commons License

Kindness Confusion in Collaboration and Co-creation

Hidden Love?

Hidden Love?

An emerging look at evolutionary behaviour is suggesting that we are better suited for survival by working together than in competition. This cooperation imperative has been called “survival of the kindness” which risks lumping affective social generosity and goodwill with effectiveness and desirability and, in doing so, risks the entire enterprise of collaboration-based efforts. 

A recent article in Mindfulness Magazine* profiled work of behavioural scientists who’ve looked at the evolutionary patterns of humans throughout the ages and see convincing evidence that the ‘survival of the fittest’ metaphorical explanation for human development is misleading at best or even outwardly wrong altogether. We are socially better off working together than competing.

What I found disconcerting was the term Survival of the Kindest which has been used multiple times in Mindful in its early issues.  As attractive as this idea is, it a lens. In the photo above love is visible if you look for it. Indeed the lens is literally focusing on what the photographer wants you to see – love. That we see love through the trees (and in our work) is notable, but it doesn’t mean that collaboration and co-operation is necessarily a loving act. In the case of the picture, it draws our attention past the man sleeping on the street with his cardboard donation placemat lying beside him.

And that might be the problem. Framing co-work as necessarily imbued with a set of qualities like kindness or love may mean we miss seeing the forest, the trees or the people sleeping beneath them.

Why might this idea of linking the two together so emphatically be problematic? After all, who doesn’t want a little more love in their life?

Cruelty of kindness

There are many utilitarian reasons to cooperate, co-create and work with others, which has a lot to do with the kind of problems we face. Collaboration requires co-labour — working together. For complex (sometimes wicked) problems that is usually necessary. For complicated problems (or very large ones like healthcare [PDF] ) that is also usually required. But for simple problems and small ones — of which we encounter in abundance every day and are often embedded within larger, complex ones — working alone might be sufficient and efficient.

Working together requires a set of skills that are often assumed, but not rarely paired up. Working together requires different motivational structures, leadership and coordination efforts than working independently. These are not better or worse, just different.

Coupling kindness with the ‘co’s’ of working together — cooperation, collaboration and co-creation — takes a human experience of generosity and imposes it on our work situations**. Certain contemplative traditions emphasize the role in kindness, generosity and love in all things and that embracing kindness in our daily lives we are enabling greater equanimity with our world around us. But to equate one with the other is to betray another saying from the Buddhist tradition:

Do not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself

Thus, do not confuse bringing kindness to co-work with cooperation, collaboration or co-creation itself.

Another issue is the ‘est‘ part of the term survival of the kindest. By placing kindness on some form of evaluative gradient where one is either more or less kind we impose a very specific set of cultural parameters around our work. Who is the kindest in the bunch? Assuming we had some tool to measure kindness (which I don’t know exists) are we really comfortable rating and ranking people’s ability to be kind in their work? Should we reward the kindest of the bunch? What does it mean if we are not the kindest?

You can see where this might go.

Working smarter is kind

Min Basadur and his colleagues have been studying work preferences for over 20 years doing research on how people work together. His Basadur profile (below) is based on rigorous psychometric tested data and allows teams to see what kind of preferences their members have for certain types of work. These are preferences only, not value or competence judgements and amenable to change over time. It can be a tool to validate the way we like to work and help us guide how we work with others as well as potentially identify what parts of the problem finding, framing and solving process so important to design and complexity that we might be best suited for.

For example, some are more amenable to generating ideas, while others are more comfortable organizing them or putting together plans of action that are useful to those who are ready to act. While everyone draws on each quadrant in their life, there are spaces where they feel more at home and what the Basadur profile does is help us identify those so we can use our talents well and provide guidance on areas we might wish to develop. I’ve used the Basadur profile with my own work, my academic learning and with clients to helpful effect in spotting problems. Like anything that can ‘type’ people it needs to be used with care and like the Buddhist quote above, it is important to remember that this is pointing to something (work preference) as opposed to being those things.

The Basadur Profile

The Basadur Profile

Just as the Basadur profile shows preferences for certain type of work there are also aptitudes for certain kinds of work that leverage these preferences, for leadership, and for social engagement. Some are better working in groups and some just prefer it.

Collaboration and it’s co-siblings are frequently touted as desirable, positive qualities, yet like many forms of work it is the context in which they are used that matters as much as whether they are used. Certain problems — as mentioned above — are more likely to need co-work to address, but not all. Perhaps more importantly, not all facets of problem solving require co-labour; some may simply require coordination.

The personality of creative work

Co-work makes many assumptions about people’s work preferences and capabilities that are often untested. It also places certain implicit value judgements on personality type. In her popular TED talk and book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain speaks to the often hidden, but large segment of our population of people who draw energy from contemplation, solitary work, or reduced social engagement rather than other people.  As she points out, there are myths and prejudices placed on those who don’t want the attention or are quiet rather than boisterous in this age of social broadcasting. That has enormous potential implications for our work and quietly excludes those who don’t fit the profile of the innovator, the leader, the ideator or whatever archetype we hold in our cultural minds.

Just as the knee-jerk reaction of many in the social innovation community to bringing things to scale, so too is our push to collaborate and co-create everything all the time. And like scaling, there are well-intentioned motives behind this push. Working together brings in many voices to the problem and appears not to exclude people, however if those people we bring in are not as comfortable (indeed, dislike or feel uncomfortable with) working closely together or not skilled at doing so (it is a skill regardless of your personality) we are creating a new set of inequities in the process of trying to fix others.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t work together; indeed, many of the problems we face demand it. Rather, it’s worth being creative and reflective about what that means in practice and explore ways to work together closely and also apart in a coordinated manner.

How do we honestly, genuinely, and appropriately engage the voices we need and recognize their work styles, personalities, and preferences in a manner that supports the best co-creative aspects rather than imposing a work-together-at-all-cost approach that can sometimes come through in our rhetoric? How can we foster kindness in what we do organically rather than impose it as a value on our work and recognize that co-work is simply working together, not good or bad or kind or unkind?

In being clear about our intentions and how we create the conditions for us to all meaningfully contribute to social transformation efforts in our own way will be more effective in the long run. By allowing all parts of the system — the big and boisterous, the collaborative, the quiet, the solitary — to come together in ways that fit how we actually work and how we like to work we are much more likely to bring about the innovation and systems change we seek.

* link is to supporting ‘extra’s’ not the original article, which is available only through subscription.

**  By work I am referring to any activity that requires some effort to accomplish and not necessarily paid employment

Photo: Cameron Norman

Link: Basadur profile

Disrupted Time: Review of Present Shock

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff

Most simply, ‘present shock’ is the human response to living in a world that’s always on real time and simultaneous. You know, in some ways it’s the impact of living in a digital environment, and in other ways it’s just really what happens when you stop leaning so forward to the millennium and you finally arrive there.

The above quote is from journalist and author Douglas Rushkoff speaking to NPR in March 2013 about his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. It has been some time since I read a book that shocked me as much as this one did (pun intended). It’s not how Rushkoff points out how much attentional energy we spend on Tweets, texts, posts and digital beeps from our devices that shocked me.

Nor is it about the enormous energy that is spent in the media and in its social media wake poring over the salacious news item of the moment.

It wasn’t how he pointed out the near absence of historical context being places around the news of the day represented in media or policy discussions made in public reflecting a sense of perpetual crisis among our politicians and business leaders.

I also wasn’t surprised to read about the movement towards technological determinism, the singularity and the way some have abdicated their responsibility for shaping the world they live in today for a believe in a future that is already on course to a particular apocalyptic outcome.

The compression of time and its representation — from kairos to chronos – and how it changes the way we see our world (something I’ve discussed before) is also not new or shocking to me.

And it certainly isn’t about the way systems thinking, complexity, emergence and seeing the world as fractals is taking hold.

These are all areas I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about, writing on, and studying.

What shocked me was the way this was all woven together and punctuated with a self-reflected note to the reader on the final pages of the text. It brought home the message of living in the present to the detriment of the past and inspiring some cautious thinking about how to create a future in a way no one else has done. Rushkoff is a journalist and thus is a trained storyteller and observer of the world around him and this book provides evidence of how well he does his job.

Sensemaking is a systems-level means of looking at feedback in light of history and possible futures and few books are best suited to Rushkoff’s masterpiece Present Shock.

Reflecting the future

Let me begin with the end. In the final pages of the book, Rushkoff reflects on his decision to write Present Shock and the challenges that it posed to him. He writes:

In the years it has take me to write this book — and the year after that to get it through the publishing process — I could have written dozens of articles, hundreds of blog posts, and thousands of Tweets, reaching more people about more things in less time and with less effort. Here I am writing opera when the people are listening to singles.

This is the crux of the book. Indeed, here I am writing a review that Rushkoff already foresees pre-empting readers’ interests in the book:

I began to think more of the culture to which I was attempting to contribute through this work. A book? Really? How anachronistic! Most of my audience — the ones who agree with the sentiments I am expressing here — will not be getting this far into the text, I assure you. They will be reading excerpts on, interviews on, or — if I’m lucky — the review in the New York Times. The will get the gist of the argument and move on. (italics in original)

Rushkoff the soothsayer has proven correct. You can read about the book on BoingBoing, Shareable and reviews from the New York Times.  Many bits have been utilized in reviewing Present Shock for what it says and I am hoping to add to that by reflecting on what the words in that book might mean, not just what it says.

For the record: I loved the book and suggest anyone interested in better understanding our present world, the media landscape within it, and how to appreciate the discussion of complexity in social life pick it up and read it to the point of seeing Rushkoff’s words above.


What Present Shock presents is a multidimensional view of how we view, live and manipulate time. It is about being in the present moment, but not in the way that is necessarily mindful. Indeed, mindfulness and contemplative inquiry is about being cognizant of the past, yet focused on present awareness of the here and now. Rushkoff writes of a present condition (the shock) almost devoid of history in its expression, one that amplifies everything in the present with little semblance of a narrative that connects the macroscopic patterns and rhythms of history.

Instead of a flow of narrative,our present shock offers a pieced-together set of truths that reflect the most convenient form of reality available to us. Whereas a system is often greater than the sum of its parts, present shock puts us back into a system that is all about parts and coherence created based on what is most present in the moment. Hence, we have conspiracy theories rapidly proliferating based on piecemeal information constructed through a lens of immediacy. We have exaggerated responses of shock, horror, delight and disgust at nearly everything from political decisions, celebrity fashions to cat videos.

Immediacy also provides a balm to complexity. It is easier for some to consider things like 9/11 as staged events rather than accept a more complex narrative that combines intelligence failings, misinterpretations, technical failures, noise, strategy and random chance. Many find comfort in believing in a nefarious governmental plot to harm its own citizens than to accept a more complicated, less controllable reality of individuals and groups acting unpredictably. Present shock keeps our focus on the ‘facts’ as presented to us in whatever biased, incomplete, ahistorical context and suggests the meaning of them rather than encourage us to step back and make sense of it ourselves.

Present shock also stuns our sensemaking capacities by creating attractors of immediacy amplified by social media. When you’re on Twitter and suddenly the feed gets overwhelmed by content around a particular event or phenomenon (e.g., Boston Marathon bombings) it is easy to see it as an incredibly powerful event. As callous as it might seem at first, the bombings had little impact outside of Boston. That’s how most of these events happen. As the world watches the events in Egypt unfold right now, the immediate impact on most of the world’s population is nil, yet there is a sense of urgency created among those around the globe who neither are from there, have friends or family there, or are economically or socially impacted by those events.

Now, we are drawn into every event as if it is life or death overwhelming our sense of what is really important to us — which will be different depending on who you are or where you are. Yet, present shock activities treat all of this as the same. We are all Bostonians now. We’re all Egyptians now. And when we are everything, we are nothing.

Last week the news was about Blackberry and its possible break-up, which seems urgent until one realizes that possibility has been discussed for years. Rushkoff points to how events are amplified through media to create a sense of urgency. It is ultra-important and not at all important.

Narrative collapse

The book begins with the collapse of narrative and how we’ve created ongoing storylines in work, games and media to keep us in the present moment. Even video games that once had clear goals, objectives and endpoints are being changed to accommodate to an ever-adapting co-construction of a present moment that simply continues onward until people leave the game for the next new title. This was made evident by commentary on fashions and how the dress of many 40 year olds is not that different from their 20 year old selves. Gone are the social markers of age and time that clothing once had and along with it are jobs, roles and responsibilities that are also no longer consistent with age. We are creating an ever-present world of presentism where people don’t age, but nor do they have a future or past.

None of this is presented as judgement as if there is some ‘appropriate’ way to dress, rather as a means of flagging that we are quickly blurring the lines between what is and is not appropriate by taking away the lines altogether. What does that mean for society?

The danger of this present shock is that it keeps us blinded to the impact of our present moment and ignorant of the past. By de-historicizing ourselves, we lose the knowledge gained from experience, but also fail to use that knowledge to enhance understanding of pattern shifts towards the future. It’s this thinking that gets us buying ever more consumer green goods to save the planet someday, but not today. But what happens to tomorrow when we only pay attention to today?

Mindful sensemaking

Many think that mindfulness is about the present only, but it actually acknowledges that we are products of our past. Psychodynamic theory looks at how past narratives shape present systems as does mindfulness. Contemplative inquiry and mindfulness allows us to attune ourselves to our present situation, acknowledge what potential past narratives brought us to the present moment, and see things more clearly so we can shape the future through present action. It is not just the present devoid of context, nor is it wishful dreaming about an as-yet created world.

Rushkoff’s book wakes us up to how we’ve managed to conflate a mindful present with presentism. The book is not a rant against technology or attack on media or techno-futurists rather it is a call to be aware — perhaps mindful — of what this means for us personally and socially and to remind us that we still have control. We are not technological zombies, but we could be if we are not careful.

It is that reason that I was so taken by the end of Rushkoff’s book.

In the final pages, Rushkoff reflects on his writing he notes how much harder it is to pay attention, to stay focused and to create a work of depth in an era where that is against the norm and possibly against the market. Yet, as he points out this book could not be written as a series of Tweets and less a series of articles lest we miss the bigger narrative he wants us to pay attention to. This is systems thinking about reading and if we are to get into these kinds of complex, important issues we need to be willing to read books or take the time to listen, share, watch, study, reflect, contemplate and write about these issues in the depth that they need.

As Einstein is reported to have said about simplicity:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

Rushkoff makes this complex argument as simple as possible and the book is thankfully not simpler.

The Job Market Metric In Education


Post-secondary and continuing education is continuing to be rationalized in ways that are transforming the very foundation of the enterprise. Funding is a major driver of change in this field: how much is available, when it flows, where it comes from, what is funded, and who gets the funding are questions on the minds of those running the academy.

At the centre of the focus of this funding issue is the job market. Training qualified professionals for the job market in various forms has been one of the roles a university has played for more than a century. Now that role has become central.

Let’s consider what that means and what it could do in shaping the various possible futures of the university. This second in a series looking at the post-secondary and continuing education focuses on the metrics of jobs.

“What are all these people going do?”

The employability of graduates is now the holy grail of education industry statistics. Earlier this year I was sitting on the stage at an academic convocation with a senior colleague staring out at a sea of soon-to-be-graduates when he leaned over and asked the question quoted above. Staring at a sea of masters and doctoral graduates numbered in the hundreds and knowing that this ceremony was held twice per year, the question stuck and remains without an answer.

Maybe there were enough jobs for that cohort, but this process gets repeated twice each year at universities around the world and each year that I’ve been a professor those numbers (of graduates) seem to go up. Some of our programs in the health sciences are admitting three times the number of students than they were just ten years ago. There is much demand for education (as judged by departmental applications), but are there jobs demanding this kind of education in its current form?

Yes, the Baby Boom is moving into an age of retirement and increasing needs for health services, but do we need to graduate 80+ Physical or Occupational Therapists to meet this need this year? Do we need a few dozen more epidemiologists or health promotion specialists to add to the pool? How about psychologists or social workers: how many of those do we need? The answer from my colleagues in these fields is: We don’t know.

Chasing the Wind

Jobs are a red herring. It’s one thing to have a job, but is it the job that you trained for? (And is having that job even a reasonable goal?) Being employed is not the same as building a career. What if you were trained perfectly for a job that no longer existed? Imagine a Blacksmith in the 20th century or a Bloodletter. These questions are not asked, nor is much asked about quality of education relative to the pressures of recruitment, cost-cutting and educational rationalization. Most of us don’t know what quality education is in real terms because we are measuring it (if we are measuring anything at all besides jobs) by standards set for the jobs of the past, not the future (or even the present?).

“Skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” – Wayne Gretzky

Jobs are living things and very few in 2013 will resemble what they did even 10 years ago. The citizens of the developing world are entering this rapidly changing job market ready for change (See also McKinsey Global Institute report on future of work in advanced economies) because they don’t have the old ways to rely on. They are primed for change and if professional education is to meet the needs of a changing world, it needs to change too. It means getting serious about learning.

If education is rationalizing itself to focus more on jobs, then it also needs to get serious about clarifying what jobs mean, defining what ‘success’ looks like for a graduate, and whether those jobs are designed for where the proverbial puck is now or for where it is going.

Disruptive Learning / Disturbed Education

“The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” ― Heraclitus

I’ve pointed out that learners have an uneasy relationship with learning principally because it means disrupting things. This is a topic I’ll  be covering in greater depth in a future post, but if one considers how our social, economic, and environmental systems are changing it is not unreasonable to call this the age of disruption .

Change in complex systems is often logarithmic, not linear. It may be massively punctuated like a Lévy Flight or it could be closer to a random walk. In environments with a change coefficient that is large the level of attention must be more fine-grained than 5-year reviews. It requires developmental evaluation methods and learning organizations, not just conventional approaches to generating and assessing feedback. It requires mindful attention and contemplative inquiry to guide a regular reflective practice if one is to pay attention to the subtleties in change that could have enormous impact.

For example, if journalists and news media waited every five years to assess the state of their profession, they would have missed out on Twitter and come late to blogging, two of their (now) powerful sources of competition and tools of the trade. Some have waited, which is why they are no longer around. Metrics for journalism education today might consider the amount of exposure and proficiency in social media use, digital photography, use of handheld tools for communication, and real-time reporting skills. Metrics of the past might focus on newspapers and radio broadcasting. Which mindset, skillset and toolset would you rather be trained in today?

Questions for educators, learners (and evaluators):

Whether health sciences, journalism, human services or any field, what might some questions be that can help determine the role of job training in professional education? Here are five starters:

1. What is the state of your profession right now and are you training people for existing in this state? Are you preparing people for the next evolution?

2. Where is your field of practice going? What are the possible futures for your profession in the next 5, 10, and 20 years? Will it still exist? Are you a blacksmith looking for more horses in the automobile age or Steve Jobs waiting to attract people to a new graphical user interface?

3. Is your mindset, skillset or toolset in need of re-consideration? Does it still do the job you’ve hired it to do?

4. What do people need that your skills can help with? What unfilled needs and expectations are there in the world that your mindset, skillset and toolset could solve?

5. What would happen if your field of practice disappeared? How else could you apply what you know to making the contribution you wish to make and earn a living? What other skills, tools and ways of thinking would you need to adapt?

Design thinking can greatly help shape the way that one conceives of a problem, works through possible options, and develops prototypes to address the needs of the present and the future. Foresight methods help lay additional context for design and systems thinking by providing ways to anticipate possible futures for any given field. Lastly, knowing what the state of things are now and how they got to where they are now can help determine the path dependencies that education may have fallen into.

We can’t change what we don’t see and better foresight, hindsight and present sight is critical to better ensuring that education outcomes are not imagined, but based on something that can actually improve learning.

The Mindful Socially Innovative Organization

Mindful Eye on the Organization

In complex systems there is a lot to pay attention to. Mindfulness and contemplative inquiry built into the organization can be a way to deal with complexity and help detect the weak signals that will make it thrive and be resilient in the face of challenges.

Most human-centred social ventures spend much of their time in the domain of complexity. What makes these complex is not the human part, but the social. As we interact with our myriad beliefs, attitudes, bases of knowledge, and perceptions we lay the foundation for complexity and the emergent properties than come from it. It’s why we are interesting as a species and why social organizing is such a challenge, particularly when we encourage free-flowing ideas and self-determination. Because of this complexity, we get exposed to a lot of information that gets poorly filtered or synthesized or missed altogether. Yet, it is in this flotsam and jetsam of information that keys to future problems and potential ‘solutions’ to present issues might lie. This is the power of weak signals. But how to we pay attention to these? And what does it matter?

The Strength of Weak Signals

A human social organization, which could mean a firm, a network, or a community — any collection of people that is organized by itself or other means — most likely generates complexity, sometimes often and sometimes occasionally. If we consider the Cynefin Framework, the domain of complexity is where emergent, novel practice is the dominant means of acting. In order to practice effectively within this space, one probes the environment, engages in sensemaking based on that information, and then responds appropriately. Viewed from another perspective, this could easily be used to describe mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is both a psychological state and activity and a psychospiritual practice. I am using this in the psychological sense, even if one could apply the psychospiritual lens at the same time if they wished. Bishop and colleagues (2004) proposed a two-component definition of mindfulness:

The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance (p.232)

Weak signals are activities that when observed across conditions reveal patterns that provide beneficial (useful) coherence that has meaningful potential impact on events of significance, yet yield little useful information when observed in discrete events. In other words, these are little things that get spotted in different settings, contexts and times that when linked together produce a pattern that could have meaningful consequences in different futures. By themselves, such signals are relatively benign, but together they reveal something potentially larger.

One reason weak signals get missed is the premature labelling of information as ‘good’ and the constrained definition of what is ‘useful’ based on the current context. Mindfulness practice allows you to transcend the values and judgements imposed on data or information presented in front of you to see it more objectively.

Mindfulness involves quieting the mind and focusing on the present moment, not the past or the possible implications for the future, just the here and now. It is not ahistorical, however. Our past experience, knowledge and wisdom all come to bear on the mindful experience, yet they do not guide that experience.

Experience provides a frame of reference to consider new information, not judge it or apply value to it. It is what allows you to see patterns and derive meaning and sense from what is out there.

Building Mindful Organizations

A review of the research and scholarship on mindfulness finds a nearly exclusive focus on the individual. While there is much literature on the means of using mindfulness and contemplative inquiry as means of being active in the world, this is done largely through mechanisms of individuals coming together as groups, rather than the organizations they form as the focus of analysis.

There is an exception. Social psychologists Weick and Sutcliffe (2007, summarized here and here – PDF) wrote about resiliency in the face of uncertainty using a mindfulness lens to understand how organizations make better sense of what they do and experience in their operations. In their manuscript, Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness (PDF), they lay down a theory for the mindful organization and how it increases the reliability of sensemaking processes when applied to complex informational environments.

They describe the conditions that precipitate mindfulness in organizations this way (p.38):

A state of mindfulness appears to be created by at least five processes that we have induced from accounts of effective practice in HROs (High Reliability Organizations) and from accident investigations:
1. Preoccupation with failure
2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations
3. Sensitivity to operations
4. Commitment to resilience
5. Underspecification of structures

It is notable that the aim here is not to reduce complexity (or impose simplicity), nor is it to focus on ‘positivity’, rather it is focused on events that help contribute to moving in particular direction. In that regard, this is not neutral, but it is not active either. It enables organizations to see patterns, focus on structures and information that encourages resilience to change, and contemplates what that information means (sensemaking) in context. Doing so provides useful information for decision making and taking action, but doesn’t frame information in those terms a priori.

Seeing Beyond Events

At issue is the development of consciousness of what is going on within your organization moment-to-moment, rather than punctuated by events. Events are the emergent properties of underlying patterns of activity. When we spend time attending to events without understanding the conditions that led to those events, we are doing the equivalent of changing the dressing on a wound in the absence of preventing or understanding its cause.

A mindful organization, like the image of the Buddha above, can emphasize the eye, but not at the expense of the rest of the picture. It is attuned to both simultaneously, noting events (e.g., like the square highlighted eye above), but that it is only through the underlying pattern beneath it that the highlighted context makes sense (the rest of the pictured squares). Yet, the only way the organization can learn that the yellow square is different or to ascertain its meaningful significance is through a sense of the whole, not just the part and that is social.

The Curious Organization

Mindfulness and its wider-focused counterpart Contemplative Inquiry both have a root in attending to the present moment, but also in curiosity about the things that is brought to the mind’s attention. It’s not just about seeing, but inquiring. What makes it distinct is that it does not impose judgement on what is perceived not seeking to change it while in that state of mindful awareness. This judgement and imposition of value on to what is going on is where organizations can get trapped.

In complex systems, the meaning of information may change rapidly and is likely uncertainty. The wisdom of experience, shared among others contemplating the same information without judgement, allows for a sensemaking process to unfold that does not impose limitations, yet also keeps a focus on what is going on moment-to-moment. Gathering this data, moment-to-moment, is what developmental evaluation with its emphasis on real-time data collection seeks to do and can serve as a valuable tool for organizing data to allow for a mindful contemplative inquiry into it that will illuminate weak signals.

Creating an organizational culture where open sharing, questioning, experimentation, and attention to the adjacent possibles that come from the data and experiences from operations is the foundation for a mindful organization. This means slowing down, valuing non-doing instead of the constant push to action, cultivating contemplative inquiry and reflection, while also being clear about the directions that matter. Thus, strategy in this case is not divorced from mindfulness, rather it gently frames a directionality of effort. In doing so, it creates possibilities for innovation, attention to quality, and a mechanism for building resiliency within organizations and those working with them and within them.

In creating these mindful systems we move closer to making sense of complexity and better prepare ourselves for social innovation.

Image Saddha by gnosis1211 from Deviant Art used under Creative Commons Licence

Mindful Navigation of Complexity and Social Media

Meditation 1
Social media is probably THE word of 2012. Facebook goes public, Twitter takes off, and YouTube and LinkedIn are hitting their stride. Add mobile data to the equation and the prospects for a truly interconnected web (no pun intended) of humanity in real time is becoming close enough to imagine being real. The singularity indeed may be near and social media is helping lead the way to a new global brain.

Evolving our thinking and the role of social learning

We are at another inflection point in social cognition. We have evolved our thinking from units associated with families, to tribes, to institutions and more recently to networks. With each step, the complexity of the communications increases. Consider the Facebook status update and the myriad sets of relationships that are wrapped up in the audience for that post and the intricacies associated with deciding who should see that post or who should have access to it. (For the record, Google + is immensely more easy to navigate with its Circles, yet it still hasn’t quite caught on).

With every additional layer of connections so too does the complexity associated with those connections. It is no wonder that people are feeling overwhelmed, confused and disturbed by social media, and yet it is pulling us into a new (media) world order that is seemingly inevitable.

Let me unpack these ideas. Firstly, the move towards social media is as much a way forward, but also a return to the past when ‘news’ was transmitted socially. It is also a means of navigating complexity. When the abundance of information available to us is as great as it is, humans need ways to efficiently filter information for effective sense-making. To this end, recommendations from our peers and social learning is an efficient way to side-step this. We use a form of distributed cognition to mitigate the risk and assist in our decision making and use others as a proxy for thinking about problems. It’s not that we’re stupid or lazy, we’re being efficient.

Filter failure and the problem of information volume

Clay Shirky has arguedwe are not living with information overload, but filter failure. This is true and not true, because we are exposed to more potentially meaningful bits of information than ever before, not just more information. While Shirky is correct that we have had more information than we could possibly consume at any one time for generations, the increase and ease of access to this information through electronic media and the personal relevance of this information makes our current circumstances different.

We now have tailored news services/apps like and Zite that help filter information, but they also add to the number of sources that one regular checks to get news. I use Twitter as a primary news source, but as my list of followers increases along with those I follow, the number of engagements I have through that media increase every week. Add email, Facebook, Google +, my LinkedIn groups and connections and the RSS feeds I subscribe to and its amazing I am able to do anything with any of the information I get.

That is part of the problem. Contemplative inquiry and mindfulness is a potential solution.

Mindful escapes

This past week’s Opinionator column in the NY Times was on the busy trap that we find ourselves in. This was published the same week as The Atlantic published a piece on women’s challenge of ‘doing it all’ that I commented on in my last post. Both articles point to a trend toward expectations of having to do too much and not finding the time to squeeze it all in. Mitch Joel from Twist Image refers to this as the age of digital anxiety and points to some resources like that are designed to help people take themselves away from the fray, even for just a few minutes.

Another resource designed to help work with this complexity is Buddhify, a website and app designed to bring mindfulness into the everyday life of people on the go. I use this regularly and really enjoy it.

Yet, these are all ways to deal with the output of information and the complexity it produces in our lives (along with the attendant stress and time-pressure). What we are not doing is mindfully attending to this complexity as a whole, asking what it serves. Just as we humans created this social media landscape, so too can we re-create it. We are at a point in the evolution of our media ecology that Marshall McLuhan notes was at a point of serving us and is shifting to having us serve it, unless we engage in mindful (re)design of our system.

Before moving in this direction, we first must as a simple, but important design question: what was social media hired to do for us? 

If we are to mindfully design our social media ecology and do it in a manner that promotes empathy and connection, rather than overwhelms us; engenders learning and insight over simple content absorption; and promotes creativity and innovation rather than just talks about it, we need to answer the question more intently and act accordingly.

Applying complexity questions and mindfulness to social media use

From a complexity perspective we can note a few things as we engage in contemplative inquiry on social media. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are the boundaries of my (social) media ecological system?
  2. What are the attractors that organize my activity (what do I pay attention to voluntarily or involuntarily)?
  3. What new insights and patterns of behaviour emerge from these interactions?
  4. How have those new insights and behaviour patterns influenced what I do?
  5. How have the products of those changes been fed back into that media ecology (what have I taken away?, what have I given back?)
  6. What have I hired social media to do for me?
  7. Is this serving me and my interests (which include that of any social units — family, firm, community, network) ?

Contemplate that as you engage in social media use and you may find surprises. I’d love to hear about what those are.

Empathy: The Ultimate Design + Systems Challenge

Empathy Empathy is a central feature of good human-centred design, yet is often practiced narrowly. Visualization with systems thinking and mindfulness are three additional features that can transform empathy from a simple tool to a vehicle for transformation by connecting us less to absolute problems and more to relative ones.

In today’s Globe and Mail newspaper online, the oft controversial columnist Margaret Wente offered an op-ed piece called I have ‘white people’s problems,’ and you probably do too. The column refers to an article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter looking at how women today still struggle to be successful at work, family and personal life simultaneously. Both Wente and Slaughter take pains to point out that they lead privilidged lives, yet that privilige does not shield them from experiencing social problems in a way that is both unique to their situation and widely shared by women across the social spectrum.

A read of the comments for both articles shows how much of a hot-button issue this is for people (Wente’s article had more than 700 comments within hours of being uploaded) and includes much discussion of the racist/non-racist/classist over and undertones to the content and topic. It might be tempting to rush in and judge these two articles for dwelling on the pains of a privileged few in light of problems of poverty, food insecurity, safety, sexual and gender-based violence, and absence of healthcare experienced by the greater number of people on this earth.

Yet, if we look at the issues as they are with less judgement we can see the reaction to these articles less as a battle of ideas, but an unconscious attack on empathy. There is this perverse pleasure for some in pointing out the arrogance, ignorance, or neglectfulness in others, but such criticism (sometimes falsely veiled as critique or critical thinking) often fails to deeply connect to empathy beyond the pale.  How then do we promote empathy in such conditions?

Perspective Taking: It’s (Relative) Promise and Perils

As Micheal Marmot and others have shown consistently with evidence is that relative inequities, inequalities and health disparities are as significant or more so than absolute ones. Whatever challenges you face they are exacerbated by how you see yourself in relative position to those who deem closest to you. Saying: “it could be worse” works when you see your peers as worse off than you or your equal, but it doesn’t work as well when you’re surrounded by people you perceive to be in better shape. Thus, we have an issue that is both absolute and relative based on real and perceptive differences working simultaneously. In the case of Wente and Slaughter’s articles, most of us (the 95-99% not represented in these perspectives) see them to be in better shape and that has consequences for us and them.

 Peter Coleman and faculty at the International Project on Conflict and Complexity have looked at how relative position and empathy fit together in the context of peace-building and mediation and have found that there are spaces where taking into account the lives of others can increase conflict, not dampen it. Of the many examples cited in their work (including Coleman’s recent book) is a decade-long initiative to build bridges between anti-abortion and pro-life advocates in the Boston area and how efforts to build empathy between these two foes often served to antagonize and create bigger gaps in position rather than closing them. These problems, often seen as intractable, represent about 5% of all the ones we face, but their effect is enormous.

Recent studies in social psychology have confirmed that bridge building requires more than just seeing the other side, it requires being heard (PDF – Bruneau & Saxe (2012), Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). A study by Kraus and colleagues (PDF) found that social distance can have an impact on the way that people empathize and the conclusions that they draw when trying to place themselves in the position of others.

Your Grief is Not the Same as My Grief

The above heading comes from a statement uttered in a group counselling context and has forever stuck in my head. It recognizes that we all experience things in a unique way, yet it was uttered in a spirit that suggests we can still come to share that experience in a manner that can build solidarity and connection.

This points to the ultimate design challenge: creating greater connection through empathy without widening social distance.

One might think this would be easier given that empathy is one of the principle tools of design, yet my experience suggests that designers  might be more apt to identify this as important and have strategies to get to it, there is still much to be done. But as we all design for ourselves and some of us for others, imagining another’s perspective requires understanding both that another perspective exists and where in relation that perspective sits to your own. It is here that we need more than an empathic lens or a design lens, but a systems lens as well.

Visualization: Placing Empathy

Systems thinking provides cognitive tools for understanding entire domains and the relationships within it. Systems mapping takes these ideas and makes them visual by providing an architecture for that understanding. Visualization provides the means to connect these two worlds by providing a design sensibility with a systems perspective. The figure below illustrates this position.

Mapping the positions held or visualizing them allows an idea to be represented in a manner that invites dialogue and open comparison. Rather than keeping one’s perspective locked within their own mind, a visual representation allows both the individual and those who they seek (or we seek) to build empathy with the tools to better frame the position each holds relative to one another. Doing so goes beyond imagining what it would be like to walk in anothers’ shoes and actually sees it and allows us to test assumptions.

From here, a contemplative approach to inquiry based on mindfulness can allow people to sit — literally or figuratively — with this data and envision the positions in new ways. Contemplating the meaning of what a particular perspective holds can enable a perspective taking that goes beyond seeing this head on and perhaps sees it from above, below, behind or inside and gets us away from our forward orientation bias.

By redefining the space in which the problem exists by literally creating that space on the page or screen we can better see beyond our current position to imagine how things previously deemed impossible might exist. Returning to the original example, this means seeing that one can hold much privilege and social advantage and experience the world in a manner that feels as violated, limiting and stressful as someone of lesser absolute means. It can also facilitate the reverse perspective. In doing so, this type of visualizing + empathy + contemplative inquiry has the means to take away much of the judgement and see things as they are without reducing or amplifying problems beyond their current context.

In doing so, perhaps we can better see us all as interconnected members of a system with pains and hurts and joys and skills rather than devote more energy that is necessary to judging others and less on making lives better for everyone.

The Forward Orientation Problem With Complexity

The human body is oriented towards forward motion and so too are our institutions, yet while this helps us move linearly and efficiently from place to place, it may obscure opportunities and challenges that come from other directions such as those posed by complexity. Thinking about and re-orienting our perceptions of who we are and where we are going might be the key to understanding and dealing with complexity now and in the future.

When heading out into the turbulent waters that face us we humans tend to look straight ahead and press forward. Our entire physical being and that of all mammals is aimed at facing forward. We look forward, walk forward and this often means thinking forward.

Doing this predisposes us to seeing problems ahead of us or behind us, but is less useful when what challenges us is positioned elsewhere. For this reason, fish and birds, with their eyes on the side of their head, are able to adapt to challenges from nearly any direction quickly. It also allows them to fly/swim in flocks/swarms/schools and operate with high degrees of coordination on a large scale.

These are skills that are useful for handling the social problems that are complex in nature and require mass action to address. But, we don’t have eyes on the side of our head and we tend to look forward or backward to orient ourselves and our activities.

One way this expresses itself in our perceptions of time. Thor Muller, writing in Psychology Today online, highlighted how our perceptions of time influence the way we handle appointments and punctuality with modern technology.  Citing the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall (although mistakenly referring to Manhattan Project contributor Edward Teller), Muller points to the differences in perceived time across cultures and the way that plays out in our treatment of time and technology used to “manage” it and the complexity of everyday life. Monochronistic and polychronistic time orientations matter to whether you see time as a linear, quantifiable phenomenon or a more non-linear, contextual one. One allows you to “bank” time while the other perception deals more with the present moment, less dependent on forward-backward thinking.

Western society and the technologies developed within it are oriented primarily towards dealing with a monochronistic form of time. This works well when patterns, problems and situations have a linear, ordered set of circumstances to them. The cause-and-effect world of normal science fits within this worldview.

Complexity is non-linear and not easily defined in cause-and-effect terms and conditions. Two-dimensional space doesn’t capture complexity the way it can for linear situations. It also means thinking solely in forward and back terms is problematic.

An example of where this comes to conflict is in program planning and evaluation. Traditional evaluation methods and metrics are set up for looking at programs that are planned to start and end with impacts developed and detected in between. This implies a certain level of consistency in the conditions in which that program operates. This control and measure aspect of evaluation is part of the hallmark features of scientific inquiry.

For programs operating in environments of great change and flux, this is a faulty proposition. We cannot hold constant the environment for starters. Secondly, feedback gained from learning about the program as it proceeds is critical to ensuring adaptation and promoting resilience in the face of changing conditions. In these cases, failure to act and adapt on the go may result in a program failing catastrophically.

This is where developmental evaluation comes in. Developmental evaluation works with these conditions to generate data in a manner that programs can make sense of and use to facilitate strategic adaptation rather than simply reacting to changes. As the name suggests, it promotes development rather than improvement.Developmental design is the incorporation of this feedback into an ongoing program development and design process.

Both developmental design and evaluation require ways of seeing the world beyond forward/backward. This seeing comes from understanding where one’s position is in the first place and that requires methods of centring that take us into the world of polychronistic time. One example of a strategy that suits this approach is mindfulness programming. Mindfulness-based programs have shown remarkable efficacy in healing and health interventions aimed at stress reduction across conditions. Mindfulness techniques ranging from meditation to contemplative inquiry (video) brings focus to the present moment away from an orientation towards linear trajectories of time, thought and attention.

Some forms of martial arts promote attentive awareness to the present moment by training practitioners in strategies that are focused on simple rules of engagement, rather than just learning techniques for defence.

These approaches combine inward reflection — reflective practice — with an openness to the data that comes in around them without imposing an order on it a priori. The orientation is to the data and the lessons that come from it rather than its directionality or imposing values on what the data might mean at the start. It means slowing down, contemplating things, and acting on reflection not reacting based on protocol. This is a fundamental shift for many of our activities, but may be the most necessary thing we can focus on if we are to have any hope of understanding, dealing with, and adapting to complexity.

All the methods and tools at our disposal will not help if we cannot change our mindset and orientation — even in the temporary — to this reality when looking at complexity in our work. One of complexity’s biggest challenges right now is that it is seductive in accounting for the massive, dynamic sets of conditions we face every day, yet it lacks methods beyond evaluation to do things with it. The irony of mindfulness and contemplative approaches is that they are less about acting differently and more about seeing things in new ways, yet it is that orientation that is the key to making real change from talking about change. It is the design doing that comes with design thinking and the systems change from systems thinking.

Contemplating Better Public Health: Perspective is Everything

Design No Smoking

Cigarette smoking remains among the most significant and pernicious global public health challenges. On World No Tobacco Day it’s time to consider re-designing our approach to public health and tobacco control in the hopes of meeting this challenge and others like it more effectively.

Today is World No Tobacco Day and offers us an opportunity to take a pause and think about the ways in which we approach tobacco control as an example for public health.

Marketing funnyman Rory Sutherland,  and smoker, makes a terrific observation about smoking and its power to promote quiet contemplation in one of his recent TED talks (which is well worth watching for many reasons, only some related to tobacco use):

“Ever since they banned smoking in the UK in public places I’ve never enjoyed a drinks party ever again. The reason… is when you go to a drinks party and you hold up a glass of red wine and you stand up and talk endlessly to people sometimes you don’t actually want to spend the whole time talking. It’s really, really tiring. Sometimes you just want to stand their silently, alone with your thoughts. Sometimes you just want to stand in the corner and stare out of the window.

Now the problem is now that you can’t smoke, if you stand there and stare out of the window on your own you’re an antisocial, friendless idiot.

If you stand there and stare out of the window on your own with a cigarette, you’re a fucking philosopher.”

In this  tongue-in-cheek presentation, Sutherland inadvertently hits on a powerful reason to smoke, but not for the reason you might first imagine. It is less about social perspective, but internal perspectives of the self and the opportunity to better acquaint oneself with them.

Sutherland speaks to the perception of others in this talk, but I am more interested in what this act of contemplation — the ‘fucking philosopher’ aspect of smoking for some and why public health sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to tobacco control, but could get it right with mental health with the right design.

Over the past year I’ve made a concerted effort to better understand the motivations and habits of cigarette smokers from the perspective of a designer, not a public health researcher. In doing so I have sought to pay greater attention — as Rory Sutherland does — to the actual experience of smoking. And what I have noticed is the powerful contemplative effect it has on many smokers.

By no means is this a by product of cigarettes, and I certainly cannot endorse their use on health grounds, but one positive by-product of the act of smoking is greater attention to the self in the moment. Sutherland speaks to how a cigarette gives him the license to take time out of a busy party and contemplate, reflect, and gain some perspective that might seem odd or “antisocial” without the prop created by a cigarette.

Strange that we seem unable to develop the same habits and social acceptance of everyday contemplative acts in public, yet fully recognize this as legitmate with smokers even if we question the device used to precipitate the “time out”.

Smokers take breaks throughout the day to engage their cigarettes. Even in cold weather, they will go outside and sit or stand for 10 minutes just to indulge their habit, compulsion or pleasure, sometimes in small groups. This act of smoking provides a sense of community (with other smokers), contemplative space, and a pause from the everyday rush of life. Indeed, as they engage in activities that threaten their physical health they also engage in an activity that is very healthy for their mental well-being.

This is potentially another area that requires further investigation both from a positive standpoint (designing healthy space for contemplative inquiry or reflection) and looking at negative impacts of our well-intentioned efforts to curb tobacco use. While the loss of potential smoking peers has been examined, I could not find any research that examines the loss of contemplative time and its impact on smokers who quit. Doing so firstly acknowledges that cigarette use has benefits, which is problematic for many in public health. It also means getting into a zone of complexity whereby we need to consider how something that is so demonstrably toxic to the human body and others around the smoker can have potentially positive effects in other ways.

From a design perspective, how might we apply the lessons from cigarette use to mental health promotion? How might we design programs, spaces, places, and social conventions that promote the quiet contemplative acts that smokers gain from taking that cigarette break and offer potentially great value to tobacco users without creating harmful effects for others? How can we promote the quitting of smoking without the loss of the contemplative benefits that come with the act of lighting up?

Engaging design, complexity and imagining the systems that influence them both might yield considerable insight into how we manage other public health problems and how we might better promote mental health in the protection of physical well-being.

Photo No Smoking Poster 1 by Sempliok used under Creative Commons License from Deviant Art.

%d bloggers like this: