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Three Lessons From Summer Vacation

This year I took a summer holiday — something I’ve not done in years — and was reminded what literally stepping away from your everyday life and journeying to other spaces and places does for the mind, the heart and the soul. As kids (and adults) all over head back to school and tell their stories about their summer break, here is some of what I took away from my trip to the Netherlands and England. 

This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is typically called “back to school” time as students return to their classrooms or start a new educational journey altogether. For young and old this new beginning signals a change of state and a great opening to experience, new knowledge and new people.

Among the first things students in grade school do upon their return is share what they did on their summer vacation. This year I am not returning to school, but I did have a summer vacation and in the spirit of ‘back-to-school’ I wanted to share what I learned.

My journey to the Netherlands and England allowed me to partake in sightseeing, walking for hours through some of Europe’s most beautiful towns and cities, taking in the art and history of two incredible regions, getting inspired, learning from other cultures, taking (and making) a rest, and also figuring out how to become a better football goalkeeper (more on that some other time). However, like any trip it is often about the people not just the places that make the difference and that is what I wish to focus on here.

The importance of beauty

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Jordaan District, Amsterdam, NL

Amsterdam is a beautiful city and so it was fitting that I spent one of my first days in that great European capital having lunch with author, consultant and designer, Steven de Groot talking about — among other things — beauty in organizations. Steven wrote what I believe is the most interesting doctoral theses I’ve ever read (PDF) on the role of beauty in organizations and has been developing new thinking on organizational aesthetics ever since. What makes Steven’s work so interesting is that he has taken a collection of ideas that are straightforward and simple on their own and brought them together to reveal something that is (paradoxically) incredibly obvious and yet completely unnoticed in most organizations.

Truth, beauty, goodness — these are things that we are attracted to, yet rarely identify as fundamental qualities of a high performing organization. Steven inspires people to rethink this through his writing and consulting.

I was speaking to a bartender at the local pub near my hotel about Steven’s work the evening before he and I met and the bartender went through the same stages as I did upon first encounter with the topic of organizational aesthetics: puzzlement, uncertainty, curiosity, wonder, confusion and then the big “a-ha!” where he realized how much sense it all makes (and asking why is this the first time contemplating all of this?). Why should we not value beauty in our work and workplaces and spaces? After all, we do it in almost every other facet of life and yet rarely do we consciously consider the role that aesthetics play in our organizational creations even if it is an enormous driver of behaviour and contributor to our wellbeing and quality of life.

Steven and I spoke of the challenges and opportunities inherent in inspiring people to think like a designer, wrestle with change in organizations, and overcome the (largely) self-imposed constraints to possibility that groups place on their perspectives about what is possible. We also spoke of the Dutch approach to constraints and how they’ve managed to work with a series of physical and social ones to create a society that largely supports innovative design in cities and organizations. The big challenge in drawing lessons from the Dutch (or anyone) is dealing with scale and determining how best to take ideas from one context further into others and what the implications are for transporting designs in one space to another. Beauty however exists everywhere in its own space and time, which is why it offers so much to designers working in different contexts: it’s inherently a local and global phenomenon simultaneously.

We make selections of friends, partners, places to live, products and services all based on some connection to beauty — even if that definition of beauty is different between each of us. Human beings have their own sense of beauty and are attracted to things we find beautiful so why would we not collectively nurture those qualities in the work processes, outcomes and environments we spend time in by design? We can design beauty into our work and Steven’s research and practice have pointed to ways in which people build appreciation for beauty, nurture it, and design it into the environments they inhabit everyday to enhance wellbeing, creativity and productivity. This is powerful stuff.

The power to change

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

Power is no more evident than in the process of change-making and I have found few more thoughtful on this topic than John Wenger. John is a London-based (via New Zealand) Scot who is a psychotherapist, organizational change consultant, community animator and writer. John seeks to find, build and nurture what Meg Wheatley calls “islands of sanity” in a complex and chaotic world through his therapy, community and consulting work. In that vein he and I met at the Victoria & Albert museum for a coffee and a stroll through some of the collections as an island of cool on a hot summer’s day.

This was just the start our our journey as we soon found ourselves zipping over to the Tate Modern and then for a long walk through the Borough Market and along the Thames talking all the way about the role of capitalism, community, individual behaviour, organizational design and social connection in shaping the world we work in. In the frenetic chaos of London’s core during the height of tourist season John and I created our own island of sanity (and inspiration) through our walk and time together.

At the heart of our art visit was a trip to the Tate Modern to see a collection of works by Mark Rothko, the Seagram Murals immortalized in John Logan’s stage play Red. These works embody the kind of complexity that anyone working with human systems knows, but rarely can communicate so eloquently: the (appearing simple) works take vastly different shapes depending on where you sit in relation to them. Rothko’s pieces, like the one pictured above, look one way in a photograph, another from across the room, and something else when closer. Lighting matters, too as I suspect they would look considerably different in different gallery spaces. Rothko knew this and that was part of his genius. Each of these perspectives provides a new layer of information, wonder and reveals new patterns within what appears to be a simplistic frame of four lines connected into a box.

John understands that the same qualities that make Rothko’s work so mesmerizing is what also makes human relationships so important. It’s easy to make a judgement from afar, but it is only through getting closer, stepping away, turning things on their head that we begin to see things differently and, with it, open up possibilities. In the calamitous wake of Brexit John is leading workshops to help people make sense of what it means for Britain (and themselves) and is encouraging healing through use of reflective dialogue and sociodrama. He sees the rift created when, no matter what your position on Brexit might be, you see one half of your country holding a counter position to your own on a matter of great importance. How do we live together, see the differences, embrace the opportunities that come from difference and bridge the gap between what we see, what we know and what we do?

It is fitting that our day of conversation, food, and walking would be filled with art because that artistry and the attention to the way we co-create reality through art is what John brings to the world. It was a reminder of the power of  relationships to bring out our best and reveal new pathways to those islands of sanity that we might miss if we simply approach the world head-on in a cognitive-rational manner and take the world as its presented to us by media, social norms and our past interpretations of history. Art is a gift embraced with others.

Conserving the planet, humbly

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

Alas, there are times when history cannot be avoided as a means of understanding our future and ecological sustainability is one of those issues. Right now, humanity is much like the twins above peering at us in Brick Lane: some of we call ‘art’ is a little noxious for the planet.

Andrew Knight and I along with a small group of conservation biologists, systems thinkers and evaluators are part of the Silwood Group: a ‘praxis’ tank (as opposed to a think tank) that seeks to bring new thinking about conservation and ecological systems together with concrete action to advance our protection of the planet. It sounds like heady stuff, but like an inversion of Rothko’s paintings there are areas of simplicity within the complexity presented by these issues that Andrew and I sought to work on over two days spent at Imperial College, where Dr. Knight is a Senior Lecturer.

Aside from some light-hearted discussion on the comic genius of the Flight of the Conchords or the maddening systems of administration within universities, our time together dealt with the ways in which we, as a transdisciplinary blend of scholars, practitioners and ‘pracademics’ from across the world and from different sectors who are the Silwood Group, could make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time with our limited resources — a typical conservation problem if ever there was one!

This is really a contemplative problem that combines many of the aspects of what Steven de Groot and I spoke of in Amsterdam and the conversations I had with John Wenger strolling along the Thames.

It is about creating / designing spaces and products that allow people to engage with complexity and the volume of issues that are entangled within conservation and to do so through by anchoring the work to beauty and to relationships. One avenue is through education (*and by education, we were thinking about real praxis-led learning and not just packaged toolkits, lesson plans and classrooms with rows and PowerPoint) because it is through curiosity, exchange, exposure to new thinking and the opportunity to try things out that we build the kind of relationships to people, organizations and ideas that allow them to stick.

Two days was not enough to flesh this idea out much further, but needless to say that there will certainly be much reflecting upon my summer vacation in the months to come in ways that I am only now, getting back to everyday life in Canada, appreciating had such an impact on my thinking. More, much more is to come.

Thanks Steven, John and Andrew for providing such inspiration, insight, camaraderie and intellectual and social companionship on my journey this summer. I am looking forward to building on that with you in the days and months to come and, like a Rothko painting, finding new meanings and layers to the work every time I encounter it.

Photo credits: Author.

Notes:

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.

 

A Flood of Complexity

Flooded Expressway

Flooded Expressway

Yesterday Toronto was hit with a massive rainstorm that dumped more than 120mm of rain on parts of the city within the span of five hours knocking out power to more than 300,000 people, stranding thousands more, and even prompting a rescue of hundreds trapped on a commuter train out of the city by the police marine unit. Yes, a train rescued by officials in boats.

For those commuting in cars they were almost like boats as the video above demonstrates.

To put this into perspective, when Hurricane Hazel hit the city in 1954 – a storm that killed 80 people and left thousands more homeless — it dropped just over 100mm of rain in 12 hours. This is the second time in a little more than a year that a massive surge of rain has flooded widespread parts of this city, the fourth largest in North America, in the Great Lakes Region of the continent.

Less than three weeks ago Calgary’s downtown was submerged by unprecedented flooding caused by combinations of high-levels of melting snow, a full water table, and more-than-usual spring precipitation. The Southern Alberta (and ironically named) town of High River is still largely under water. This part of Canada is grassland and largely dry, home to cattle ranches and some light agriculture. It is not a flood plain and this is not a normal occurrence, at least not at this level.

Earlier this year we witnessed Hurricane Sandy overwhelm New York City and the east coast of the United States and Canada.

New York City Flooding

New York City Flooding

Climate change is shifting weather patterns and making these extreme storms, floods, and other events more likely. It also will expand the consequences of these storms like rats moving to higher ground in cities like New York and Toronto. What are the health implications of this?

Transit plans are changing and the impact on insurance rates (if insurance will be offered at all) may be enormous. In Calgary, there is speculation that it could take a decade to fully recover from what happened.

Entire cities might even disappear altogether. Reporting in the latest Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff Goodell explores the very likely scenario that the city of Miami will disappear within the next century and be virtually unliveable within decades. Using a bit of foresight scenario development, Goodell begins the article with a hypothetical description of Hurricane Milo in 2030 that provides a chilling possibility based on the current threat assessment.

All of these scenarios point to increasing complexity in not just weather patterns, but the human systems that work to respond to and prepare for such weather systems. Speaking on CBC’s Metro Morning radio program, Peter Halsall from the Canadian Urban Institute points to the need for us to see things as interconnected — basically as systems – if we are to develop the appropriate policy response to deal with the treatment and prevention of excess damage caused by the kind of storm we had in Toronto last night.

Without linking issues like infrastructure, weather, housing and social policy together there is little sense that people will act to prevent problems before they occur or address the problems that form in ways that account for their complex nature and structure.

Seeing systems is critical. Acting through foresight methods, system dynamic models, and complexity-oriented scenario planning exercises are ways to prepare for the uncertainties that come with floods like we’ve seen or other storm-related phenomena. This means more than planning for the things you can see, but those things you can barely conceive of. Using creativity-based scenario plans allows us to envision futures that might seem outlandish at the extreme, but pulled back a little can yield insight when real extreme events occur.

Using foresight methods and complexity allows us to design for emergence (PDF), rather than design systems for what is expected and usually happens, because those days might be fewer and farther between. Using systems approaches to planning and responding allows us to take account for the interconnections between things, simultaneously allotting cognitive energy to contemplate flooded transit lines, insurance payouts, rat infestations, and backed-up sewers as a system and not independent events. While not easy and certainly complex, this kind of approach allows us to treat problems as systems and not falsely act on parts while ignoring the whole.

The usual is likely to be unusual in an age of complexity and it is becoming time to embrace that lest we literally and figuratively drown in the flood of changes to come.

Photos: @FirstNewsGTA ,  National Geographic Photoblog

Complexity and the Senseless Marketing of the Future

Logarithmic spiral

Futurists take what we know now and project into the future ideas about things will be like years from today using the models that have worked consistently up to now. Those models applied to human systems are changing quickly making marketing the future based on them senseless and potentially dangerous.

Earlier this past week a post on FastCoExist caught my attention and brought to mind why I have such an uneasy relationship with futurists and futures as a field. The post, 8 Ways the World Will Change in 2052, is look at the next 40 years written by Jorgen Randers, a professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School and written with all the confident swagger that typifies futurists making statements about what is to come. After all, it’s hard to draw an audience (and the benefits that comes with that) when you don’t have a confident answer on your subject matter — even if that answer is wrong. In this latest post in the series on marketing complexity I look at futurists and their predictions and what it could mean for making sense of the threats and opportunities we will face in the years to come.

The Mathematical Problem of Futures and Complexity

The FastCoExist article paints a picture of a world that looks a lot like the one we have today, just with some shifts in economic and social structures. It suggests that much will remain the same even though a few key things will change, but our general relations will remain constant. It is that consistency that raises my concerns about futurist thinking (not all, to be sure) and its use of the data today to make predictions tomorrow. There is an assumption of linearity that weaves its way through the narratives spun by futurists that do not fit with how complex systems behave, nor does it account for the network effects created by interconnected systems.

Where I live now (Toronto), we have seen an almost uninterrupted heat wave for more than three weeks and that is forecast to continue for the week to come. This is the hottest year in recorded history (video), and as this short news clip shows the implications are many. At our current level of focus the implications may seem slight: changing growing conditions for gardens, better cottage swimming weather, brown lawns etc.. But at another scale and perspective, the interconnections between these things will start to reveal themselves if the pattern continues.

It is here where I see futurists getting it wrong as their predicts rest on largely linear trajectories of change and scientific knowledge that uses linear models to create predictions. The mistake is taking linear phenomenon and grafting that knowledge on to complex cases, while another mistake is taking science that works for static things and applying it to dynamic objects.

Complexity often produces change curves that follow a Pareto distribution, which is a way of accounting for things like ‘tipping points’, and is rarely linear in its effects for long periods of time. As the news report mentions, Toronto has an average temperature of 3.5 degrees higher than normal in a single year. It could be an aberration, but when we see record-breaking temperatures for years on end that looks like a pattern forming.

Climate change is not just about things getting warmer, cooler, wetter or dryer. From a human standpoint, how we adapt to these changes is what counts and in a networked world is that adaptations happen simultaneously and in a dynamic, interconnected manner. That means that many things change at the same time and that the relationship between dynamic objects means that the overall quantity and rate of change in the system is likely to be logarithmic (exponential) not additive.

Reframing change models: the language of complex systems.

If we are to create models that are more useful to us, we need to develop them with complexity in mind, think in systems and act as designers. To do this requires a change in the thinking models we use and the ways we communicate these models to the wider world. Yet, it isn’t as alien as it seems; we do it all the time with ourselves in explaining our social lives.

  • A child goes from being peaceful and quiet to a tantrum in a matter of seconds.
  • A calm, composed individual bursts into tears at a seemingly random event.
  • A polite, warm conversation quickly turns cold at the slightest mention of a particular phenomenon

In many of these cases the ’cause’ might not be obvious. An example I use with my students is this:

Imagine a couple in their bedroom and one partner sees a wayward sock that has been left on floor and gets intensely angry at the other partner upon discovery of the sock. Why? Is is that the sock on the floor is so problematic that it reduces an otherwise peaceful environment into a space of conflict? Is the sock really that bad? Or is the sock a catalyst for something else? Does it represent something (or many things) that are embodied in the sock being left carelessly on the floor? Does the sock serve as a vessel for accumulated grievances and stressors only loosely related to its position on the floor?

This example of the sock illustrates how a Pareto distribution of social tensions in a relationship could be expressed. It points to how the most ‘obvious’ linear answer might not always be the case even if initial appearance suggest a relationship.

Explaining the reasons for problems opens a door to solving them. But we can do more.

The power of weak signals

The way to interject into a complex system is not to pay attention to everything all of the time, but to small things that show patterns. Eric Berlow has a remarkable 3 minute TED talk that illustrates how signals can be extracted from networks to reveal simplicity in complexity. A 2008 paper in the journal Physical Review shows the ways in which weak signals can be detected by reducing the overall volume of information or nodes in a network.

But what to pay attention to? This is where mindful evaluation and attention comes in. Mindfulness is not just a way to connect to one’s inner life, but also the outer world around us. A mindful approach to monitoring and evaluation means watching what happens around us and positioning tools, metrics and data gathering processes to give us the necessary feedback on our systems around us. To take the example of the couple’s conflict over the sock, paying attention within the relationship to minor conflicts, areas of tention, and moments of release earlier could have diffused energy enough to mean the sock was just a sock.

In social systems, this means paying attention to areas of intersection where natural tensions occur due to difference. These differences could be perspective, attitude, knowledge, beliefs or capabilities. These points of intersection are often where novelty emerges and innovation takes place, but they are also where deeper problems can begin. Constant, evolving and dynamic methods of data collection that recognizes change in non-linear and linear forms is more likely to enable the sorts of weak signal detection that can help us see the future more clearly.

That can help us make sense of future possibilities, rather than make empty predictions that guide what we do now at the expense of paying attention to what might come (and what is really happening).

The Lies Told By Innovation

You Can Build It, They Will Come, But Can it Last?

Being innovative requires a sense of the system that innovation takes place and the design sensibilities to make change last. Are we letting innovation lie to us?

I’ve been on the road much of the past three weeks and one stop I was very glad to make was to my hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

The city is nestled in the Alberta foothills with a view of the Rocky Mountains and an hour’s drive from some of the most beautiful prairie, mountain, and river-filled countryside you’ll find. The city I grew up in has been widely known as an innovator, particularly on issues of the environment. It’s light-rail transit system is powered by wind-generated electricity. Everywhere, there were examples of innovative technologies and conversations about innovation in the news and visible as one drives through the city. Calgary’s vigorous culture of outdoor activity, the natural beauty of the Bow Valley combined with a historical connection to land for food and lifestyle has made it hard to ignore the role of the natural environment in everyday life.

And yet, driving through this city — one that has nearly tripled in size since I was born there — it is hard to not see the innovation forest and trees disconnect. Yes, there are waste diversion programs and hybrid cars and more transit, but the city continues to grow (literally) well beyond its traditional borders into territory that was once farmland with barely an eyeshot of the city. I’ve always known Calgary as a physically large urban centre, but the rampant push towards making more suburbs seems at odds with the desire for a liveable, environmentally responsible city.

Calgary is not alone. As I fly to my home in Toronto, the same conversations are taking place and there, like out West, there is the belief that innovation will save the day. As fuel prices spike as they have over the past few days (and reasonably can’t be expected to lower much anytime soon), I find it hard to imagine how innovation is going to reduce costs and impact for people in the short term.

Whether it is on the issue of the environment, improved knowledge translation in health, or better social design for services, innovation can be seen as the answer. If we just come up with the best idea, the thinking goes, we will be able to solve anything. We are creative people, we can do it.

I actually think this is the lie we tell ourselves to avoid going where real innovation is needed and that is: personal and social change. Without a systems approach and a design for those systems, we will continue to ride our horse (to pick up a Calgary stereotype) in the wrong direction. More clever ways to reduce the impact of our lives on the environment doesn’t change that we’ve created systems that pollute and damage the environment in the first place by design.

Creating sophisticated knowledge translation systems aimed at getting the “right information to the right person as the right time” sounds sexy, but doesn’t work unless there is a system designed to support people in accessing that information when they need it and having the time and space to process that information to make meaning of it. Otherwise, we are just shovelling bits at people and making ourselves feel better because we developed something that, on the surface, looks good, but in reality doesn’t address the bigger picture.

If the forest and trees are part of the natural environment, then we need to consider them both at the same time — literally and metaphorically — in the systems we work in and do so with intent (design) otherwise we will continue to perpetuate the lies that innovation allows us to tell ourselves so well.

*** Photo Calgary Dusk Skyline by fung.leo used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

Amazing Stuff: December 14th Edition

It’s final paper and exam time at the university so that means one thing: procrastination.

Procrastination also yields a lot of unusual thinking so with a nod to the serious and the silly, I’ve managed to whittle down the many amazing things sent my way to just five:

1. 1000 Awesome Things. Rather than be amazing, this blog captures awesome. Although not so much the amazing like mind-blowing or novel, what this blog does is remind us of the little, everyday kind of things that happen in life that make us smile, pause, or even contemplate enough to go “wow, that’s awesome”. AWESOME!

2. The Art of the Idea: 8 ways to Light a Lightbulb Above Your Head. Fast Company’s Sheryl Sulistiawan presents a visual pictorial based on John Hunt’s insights collected in his new book. It is a creative, artistic way to imagine new ways to visualize the creative process. It’s a lot different than the usual pictogram and got me thinking.

3. Yes, Bottled Water Really is That Bad. Another gem from Fast Company and their infographics: A look at just how awful bottled water is for the world. Where I live (Canada) we have more clean, fresh water than almost anyone in the world yet we fill our buildings with bottled water when its cheaper, healthier, and sometimes tastier to drink it from the tap.

4. The New York Times Magazine 9th Annual Year in Ideas issue. I look forward to this every issue every year for a highlight of the most innovative — and sometimes also ridiculous — inventions, social trends, and novel solutions to problems big and small. I’m  quite intrigued by the growing interest in zombie attack science.

5. World Food Programme’s Fight Hunger campaign. When you think of innovators and integrated thinking, the UN isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But the UN’s WFP has shown that it can out-campaign even the slickest corporation with its multi-channel social media campaign using Facebook, Twitter, crowd-funding and micro-donations to stimulate awareness and solicit donations to affect a problem that is big and getting bigger everyday. A great ‘101’ on the program is available in this CNN International profile.

Amazing Stuff: November 6th Edition

A year ago something that truly is amazing happened: Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. This week there were some far less amazing things that I found — but some amazing stuff no less.

1. Wired Science published some of the newly released photos of islands from space. It is a stunning collection of visual images of our planet from thousands of metres into space. They provide a remarkable perspective on our world.

2. Are you better off owning a dog or a Toyota Land Cruiser in terms of the planet’s health? According to a New Scientist article published this week (and commented on in Fast Company) owning a pet might be worse for the environment than a gas guzzling SUV. True? It’s not clear, but it does provoke some interesting discussion on what really influences carbon emissions and the health of our world.

3. Visualization of data is one of the ways in which we can make complex information accessible to more people. A newly published TED talk by JoAnn Kuchera-Morin provides a stunning representation of some of the ways in which visualization tools can aid our understanding of our planet and our brain.

4. The New York Times has a new innovation portfolio site. For those interested in new ideas and design, this is a must-visit on the tour through the Internet.

5. Amazing or not, H1N1 is causing a lot of distress around the world. This week, Fast Company (their second mention this week!) reviewed some of the ways in which people can get on top of tracking and preventing the disease using iPhone apps. Mobile public health has never been so interesting.

Amazing Stuff: Halloween Edition

Happy Halloween everyone,

Halloween is a rather important day. It’s not only the day that dentists fear, but also the end to my favourite month and the end of the busiest period in the academic calendar when the last of the mid-terms have been graded (round one, anyway) and most grants are in (for now). Tomorrow, retailers will be rushing out the Christmas stuff in North America (at least those that didn’t have it out after Labour Day in September). But as these dates come and go, the amazing stuff continues to find its way into my inbox, Twitter feed, Facebook page, web browser and Google Reader feed. Here’s the neatest and most interesting things I discovered this past week:

1. How to Organize A Children’s Party (or how complexity science can help your work). Interested in complexity science, but don’t really know what it is or how you’d use it in everyday life? This very brief and entertaining video from Dave Snowdon (@snowded) at Cognitive Edge consultancy  explains the difference between ordered, chaotic and complex systems and how they might look from the perspective of organizing a party for 11-year old boys.

2. What Does Meaningful Mean? is an infographic developed by Frog Design to show how to design products and services that actually have meaning to people, not just tell people that they are meaningful. A good reminder to all of us who design things — which is most of us.

3. Brian Solis. OK, so this is not an amazing ‘thing’, but rather a website where Brian Solis, a marketer and PR consultant, hosts his blog and details his ideas and products for public consumption. There are a LOT of new media pundits out there (I won’t name names, but chances are you’ve heard of them) who are being raved about and followed by thousands who have very little to say when you actually listen closely. Brian isn’t one of them. Tour his site and you’ll see some interesting thoughts and insights on how social media can be used effectively by everyone to communicate, and not in some ‘jingo-istic’ manner, but in real terms.

4. Green Porno. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my colleague Andrea Yip (@andie86) who told me about this entertaining, informative and very odd set of short videos hosted by Isabella Rossellini that combines nuveau performance art, sketch comedy, sex, environmental education and awareness into a funny and uniquely effective medium for communicating about the serious issue of climate change and environmental stewardship.

5. And lastly, Healthmap, is a health and geographic information aggregator that maps infectious disease outbreaks across the globe. Become your own Centre for Disease Control at home and watch where the hotspots are for the flu and other illnesses in your neighbourhood or around the world.

The Launch of Amazing Stuff

Today I am launching a new feature on my blog: Amazing Stuff. It is a way for me to share the neat ideas, hot innovations, challenging ideas and random bits of ‘stuff’ that I find quite compelling, inspiring or just fun that somehow touches on the myriad issues related to making ‘CENSE’ of the world around me. Yes, you can always follow my Delicious social bookmarks, or what I Stumbleupon, but I’m not always good at social bookmarking great ideas, particularly after a busy day away from my desk when I’m staring at 200 updates on my Google Reader feed.

My choice of the term amazing is inspired by comedian Louis C.K. from his appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show a few months back. Watching this, I think you’ll agree that we are living in amazing times and this is a sample of the amazing things I’ve found over the past week:

1. The Design Thinkers Reading List. This is a summary of the must-have books and documents for those interested in design thinking (like systems thinking, only for how we shape the human activities and environments we live in).

2. How to Turn Urban Spaces Into Food Spaces. Taking unused land and using it more efficiently to help feed the poor and create a more sustainable food system for urban centres.

3. How Our Moral Roots Damage Our Thinking. A blog post and interview at TED with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who discusses how the U.S. Healthcare debate is being shaped by forces that are not likely to lead that country into a good place.

4. Interview with Paul Hawken on Our Environmental Future. Environmental economist and leader Paul Hawken discusses his views on the future of the planet and the reason he still has some hope.

5. The Dark Side of Political Discourse on the Internet. Tim Bevins from Wikinomics shows us what happens when democracy meets the unbridled opportunity of having everyone speak their mind and its not pretty.

The limits to individual action

I’m writing this from a Starbucks. With free wireless Internet, decent cafe Americanos and fast breakfast foods that are both reasonably healthy, tasty and not too expensive, its one of the few chains I look for when I’m in need of a place to sit down when a comparable locally-flavoured establishment isn’t available. As someone who both works long (and often early) hours and travels a lot, places that offer decent food and drink and productivity space are valued above almost anything.  When you don’t have time to shop for healthy foods for home and have to eat out it can take a real toll on your health.

I bring with me a travel tumbler, reusable bags and even portable chopsticks to eat with. I buy local and responsibly whenever possible, and when eating at home I aim to buy items with little packaging and, what packaging there is gets recycled with the food waste organics separated and composted in biodegradable bags. When I took the David Suzuki Foundation challenge I got high marks. All is well– right? No. And that’s why climate change and protecting our environment is truly a grand challenge that requires a systems approach. Grand challenge problems refer to exceptionally difficult tasks that stretch the limits of any one group to be able to address them. They are the complex problems that have no single source or simple solution.

No matter what I’ve done to address climate change and help the environment, I am only making a small difference. I’ve been reminded by that because of one product: The Starbucks Vivanno.

This morning my wife and I had a Starbucks Vivanno — a fruit smoothie that is reasonably healthy and pretty decent food option if you’re pressed for time and want some low-fat protein — which is no easy task at the best of time, particularly if you don’t eat meat. If you’ve watched people make these things, they are messy and they are designed for a disposable cup – one that is outside of the regular size cups that a person brings around with them, making it difficult to use the reuasble cup option. This leaves us with a lot of options: 1) Take the disposable cup and make more waste, 2) find a very large cup and bring that around, adding bulk to your bag, 3) don’t drink smoothies at all and either not eat or eat something unhealthy.

Thinking about this a little further, one realizes how tied up layers upon layers of issues are in this drink.

> Why aren’t there other food choices available? (this speaks to the market, to innovation, to location — an easy thing to overlook when you live in downtown Toronto)

>Why am I so busy that I can’t make a decent healthy meal at home? (issues: work demands; social expectations; lack of funding for university research requiring me to work long hours; the expectations of my employer, employees, students and colleagues — requiring me to work long hours; my personality; availability of healthy foods in local grocery stores; ability to cook something I want to eat and meets my nutritional needs)

>Why can’t stores serve drinks in reusables? (issues: cost, breakage, theft, no proper recycling options, people’s busy schedules and need to ‘take away’, no exchange program for containers)

>Why can’t we just get better travel mugs? (issues: our bags are already making us look like sherpas with laptops, pens, books, workout gear, batteries and so forth; they cost a lot for a good one — or you buy a cheap one and add more waste when it breaks, market, etcc.)

These are just four questions with lots of issues — there are many more that you can probably think of. I write this from downtown Toronto, Canada. There are more than 20 other Starbucks locations within a 30 minute walk from my current location and dozens of other coffee shops, pastry places and food outlets to choose from. In some ways, this is really a luxurious problem to have. What about places where you have to drive to get somewhere? What about rural communities where one or two shops is all you have? Yes, the cultural standards will change in each place, but the more I look at this the easier it is to see how I can become the David Suzuki poster boy and still make only a dent on the environment without considering these myriad other issues that influence how a simple product (a cup) becomes a complex issue.

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