Tag: foresight

public healthstrategic foresight

Futuring the Past

Flat Earth to Measles: Did We See That Coming?
In the first month of 2019 the United States saw more measles cases than it did in all of 2010. This disease of the past was once on its way to extinction (or deep hibernation) is now a current public health threat, which prompts us to think: how can our futuring better consider what we came from not just what it might lead to?

Measles was something that my parents worried about for me and my brothers more than forty years ago. Measles is one of those diseases that causes enormous problems that are both obvious and also difficult to see until they manifest themselves down the road. Encephalitis and diarrhea are two possible short-term effects, while a compromised immune system down the road is some of the longer-term effects. It’s a horrible condition, one of the most infectious diseases we know of, and also one that was once considered to be ‘eliminated’ from the United States,Canada and most of the Americas (which means existing in such small numbers as not worthy of large-scale monitoring).

In the first month of 2019 there have been more measles cases tracked than all of 2010. The causes of this are many, but largely attributable to a change in vaccination rates among the public. The fewer people who get vaccinated, the more likely the disease will find a way to take hold in the population — first of those who aren’t protected, but over time this will include some of those who are because of the ‘herd protection’ nature of how vaccination works.

Did We See That Coming?

Measles hasn’t featured prominently in any of the foresight models of the health system that I’ve seen over the course of my career. Then again, twenty-five years ago, it would have been unlikely that any foresight model of urban planning would have emphasized scooters or bicycles — old technologies — over the automobile as modes of transportation likely to shape our cities. Yet, here we are.

Today, those interested in the future of transportation are focused on autonomous cars, yet there is some speculation that the car — or at least the one we know now — will disappear altogether. Manufacturers like Ford — the company that invented the mass-market automobile — have already decided they will abandon most of their automobile production in the next few years.

The hottest TV show (or rather, streamed media production) among those under the age of 20? Friends (circa 1994).

Are you seeing a trend here?

What we are seeing is a resurgence of the past in pockets all throughout our society. The implications of this are many for those who develop or rely on futurist-oriented models to shape their work.

One might argue that a good model of the future always assumes this and therefore it isn’t a flaw of the model, but rather that, as William Gibson was quoted as suggesting: the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. The Three Horizon Framework popularized by McKinsey has this assumption built into it from the beginning. But it’s not just the model that might be problematic, but the thinking behind it.

Self-Fulfilling Futures

Foresight is useful for a number of things, but I would argue very little of that benefit is what many futurists claim. The arguments for investing in foresight is that, by thinking about what the future could bring we can better prepare ourselves for that reality in our organizations. This might mean identifying different product lines, keeping an eye out for trends that match our predictions, improving our innovation systems and “the impact of decision-making“.

Why is the case? The answer — as I’ve been told by foresight and futurist colleagues — is that by seeing what is coming we can prepare for it, much like a weather forecast allows us to dress appropriately for the day to account for the possibility of rain or snow.

The critique I have with this line of thinking is that: do we ever go back and see where our models fit and didn’t fit? Are foresight models open to evaluation? I would argue: no. There is no systematic evaluation of foresight initiatives. This is not to suggest that evaluation needs to concern itself with whether a model gets everything right — that the future turns out just as we anticipated — but whether it was actually useful.

Did we make a better decision because we saw a possible future? Did we restructure our organization to achieve something that would have been impossible had we not had the strategic foresight to guide us? These are the claims and yet we do not have evidence to support it. Such little evaluation of these models has left us open to clinging to myths and also to an absence of critical reflection on what use these models have (and also a wasted opportunity to consider what use they could have).

Yes, the case of Royal Dutch Shell and its ability to envision problems with the global oil supply chain in the late 1960’s and early 70’s through adopting a foresight approach gave them a step up on their competitors. But how many other cases of this nature are there? Where is the evidence that this approach does what it’s proponents claim it does? With foresight being adopted across industries we should have many examples of its impact, but we do not.

Layering Influence and Impact

Let’s bring it back to public health. There is enormous evidence to point to the role of tobacco use and lifetime prevalence of a litany of health problems like cancer and cardiovascular disease, yet there are still millions who use tobacco daily. Lack of retirement savings is a clear pathway to significant problems for health, wellbeing, and lifestyle down the road. The effects of human behaviour on the environment and our health have been known for decades (or millennia, depending on your perspective) to the point where we are now referring to this stage of planetary evolution as the Anthropocene (the age where humans influence the planet).

We can see things coming in various degrees of focus and yet the influence on our behaviour is not certain. Indeed, the anticipation of future consequences is only one element of a large array of factors that influence our behaviour. Psychologists, the group that studies and support the evidence for behaviour change, have shown that we are actually pretty bad at predicting what will happen, how we will react to something, and what will influence change.

Many of these factors are systemic — that is tied to the systems we are a part of. This is our team, family, organization, community, and society, and time — the various spheres outlined in Bronfenbrenner’s Social-Ecological Model. This model outlines the various ‘rings’ or spheres that influence us, including time (which encompasses them all). It’s this last ring that we often forget. This model can be useful because it showcases layers of impact and influence, including from our past.

Decision Making in the Past

By anchoring ourselves to the future and not considering our past, our models for prediction, forecasting, and foresighting are limited. We are equally limited when we use the same form of thinking (about the future) to make our models about the past. In this case, I think of Andrew Yang who recently spoke to the Freakonomics podcast and pointed out how our economic thinking is rooted in past models that we would never accept today. He’s wrong — sort of. We do accept this and it is alive and well in many of our ways of thinking about the future.

In speaking about how we’ve been through economic patterns of disruption, he points out that we are using an old fact pattern to inform what we do now as if the economy — which we invented just a few hundred years ago — has these immutable laws.


The fantasists — and they are so lazy and it makes me so angry, because people who are otherwise educated literally wave their hands and are like, “Industrial Revolution, 120 years ago. Been through it before,” and, man, if someone came into your office and pitched you an investment in a company based on a fact pattern from 120 years ago, you’d freakin’ throw them out of your office so fast.

Andrew Yang, speaking on Freakonomics

Foresight would benefit from the same kind of critical examination of itself as Yang does with the economy and our ways of thinking about it. That critical examination includes using real evidence to make decisions where we have it and where we don’t have it – we establish it.

Maybe then, we might anticipate that measles are not gone. Let’s keep our eye out on polio, too. And as for a flat earth? Don’t sail too far into the sunset as you might fall off if we don’t factor that into our models of the future.

Image Credit: “Flat Earth | Conspiracy Theory VOL.1” by Daniel Beintner is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0

businessinnovationpsychologyscience & technologysocial systems

The logic of a $1000 iPhone

TimePhone.jpg

Today Apple is expected to release a new series of iPhone handsets with the base price for one set at more than $1000. While many commentators are focusing on the price, the bigger issue is less about what these new handsets cost, but what value they’ll hold. 

The idea that a handset — once called a phone — that is the size of a piece of bread could cost upward of $1000 seems mind-boggling to anyone who grew up with a conventional telephone. The new handsets coming to market have more computing power built into them than was required for the entire Apollo space missions and dwarf even the most powerful personal computers from just a few years ago. And to think that this computing power all fits into your pocket or purse.

The iPhone pictured above was ‘state of the art’ when it was purchased a few years ago and has now been retired to make way for the latest (until today) version required not because the handset broke, but because it could no longer handle the demands placed on it from the software that powered it and the storage space required to house it all. This was never an issue when people used a conventional telephone because it always worked and it did just one thing really well: allowed people to talk to each other at a distance.

Changing form, transforming functions

The iPhone is as much about technology as it is a vector of change in social life that is a product of and contributor to new ways of interacting. The iPhone (and its handset competitors) did not create the habits of text messaging, photo sharing, tagging, social chat, augmented reality, but it also wasn’t just responding to humans desire to communicate, either. Adam Alter’s recent book Irresistible outlines how technology has been a contributor to behaviours that we would now call addictive. This includes a persistent ‘need’ to look at one’s phone while doing other things, constant social media checking, and an inability to be fully present in many social situations without touching their handset.

Alter presents the evidence from a variety of studies and clinical reports that shows how tools like the iPhone and the many apps that run on it are engineered to encourage the kind of addictive behaviour we see permeating through society. Everything from the design of the interface, to the type of information an app offers a user (and when it provides it), to the architecture of social tools that encourage a type of reliance and engagement that draws people back to their phone, all create the conditions for a device that no longer sits as a mere tool, but has the potential to play a central role in many aspects of life.

These roles may be considered good or bad for social welfare, but in labelling such behaviours or outcomes in this way we risk losing the bigger picture of what is happening in our praise or condemnation. Dismissing something as ‘bad’ can mean we ignore social trends and the deeper meaning behind why people do things. By labelling things as ‘good’ we risk missing the harm that our tools and technology are doing and how they can be mitigated or prevented outright.

PhoneLookingCrowd.jpg

Changing functions, transforming forms

Since the iPhone was first launched, it’s moved from being a phone with a built in calendar and music player to something that now can power a business, serve as a home theatre system, and function as a tour guide. As apps and software evolve to accommodate mobile technology, the ‘clunkiness’ of doing many things on the go like accounting, take high-quality photos, or manage data files has been removed. Now, laptops seem bulky and even tablets, which have evolved in their power and performance to mimic desktops, are feeling big.

The handset is now serving as the tether to each other and creates a connected world. Who wants to lug cables and peripherals with them to and from the office when you can do much of the work in your hand? It is now possible to run a business without a computer. It’s still awkward, but it’s genuinely possible. Financial tools like Freshbooks or Quickbooks allow entrepreneurs to do their books from anywhere and tools like Shopify can transform a blog into a full-fledged e-commerce site.

Tools like Apple Pay have turned your phone into a wallet. Paying with your handset is now a viable option in an increasing number of places.

This wasn’t practical before and now it is. With today’s release from Apple, new tools like 3-D imaging, greatly-improved augmented reality support and enhanced image capture will all be added to the users’ toolkit.

Combine all of this with the social functions of text, chat, and media sharing and the handset has now transformed from a device to a social connector, business driver and entertainment device. There is little that can be done digitally that can’t be done on a handset.

Why does this matter?

It’s easy to get wrapped up in all of this as technological hype, but to do so is to miss some important trends. We may have concern over the addictive behaviours these tools engender, the changes in social decorum the phone instigates, and the fact that it becomes harder to escape the social world when the handset is also serving as your navigation tool, emergency response system, and as an e-reader. But these demands to have everything in your pocket and not strapped to your back, sitting on your desk (and your kitchen table) and scattered all over different tools and devices comes from a desire for simplicity and convenience.

In the midst of the discussion about whether these tools are good or bad, we often forget to ask what they are useful for and not useful for. Socially, they are useful for maintaining connections, but they have shown to be not so useful for building lasting, human connections at depth. They are useful for providing us with near-time and real-time data, but not as useful at allowing us to focus on the present moment. These handsets free us from our desk, but also keep us ‘tied’ to our work.

At the same time, losing your handset has enormous social, economic and (potentially) security consequences. It’s no longer about missing your music or not being able to text someone, when most of one’s communications, business, and social navigation functions are routed through a singular device the implications for losing that device becomes enormous.

Useful and not useful/good and bad

By asking how a technology is useful and not useful we can escape the dichotomy of good and bad, which gets us to miss the bigger picture of the trends we see. Our technologies are principally useful for connecting people to each other (even if it might be highly superficial), enabling quick action on simple tasks (e.g., shopping, making a reservation), finding simple information (e.g., Google search), and navigating unknown territory with known features (e.g., navigation systems). This is based on a desire for connection a need for data and information, and alleviating fear.

Those underlying qualities are what makes the iPhone and other devices worth paying attention to. What other means have we to enhance connection, provide information and help people to be secure? Asking these questions is one way in which we shape the future and provide either an alternative to technologies like the iPhone or better amplify these tools’ offerings. The choice is ours.

There may be other ways we can address these issues, but thus far haven’t found any that are as compelling. Until we do, a $1000 for a piece of technology that does this might be a bargain.

Seeing trends and developing a strategy to meet them is what foresight is all about. To learn more about how better data and strategy through foresight can help you contact Cense

Image credits: Author

 

environmentsystems sciencesystems thinking

Systems thinking and the simple plan

Building Castles in the Sky

Building Castles in the Sky, But Not Wheels on the Ground

 

Planning is something that is done all the time, but the shape in which these plans unfold is often complex in hidden ways. Without the same resources to evaluate those plans (and make different ones should they change) many organizations are left with great expectations that don’t match the reality of what they do (and can do). 

In my neighbourhood in Toronto there are no fewer than 10 building projects underway that involve development of a high-rise apartment/university residence/condominium on it of more than 20 stories in a 5 block radius from my home. Most are expected to be about 40 stories in height.

As a resident and citizen I was thinking one day: How does one even engage with this? I could attend a building planning meeting, but that would be looking at a single development on a single site, not a neighbourhood. There is a patchwork of plans for neighbourhoods, but they are guidelines, not embedded in specific codes. I was (and am) stuck with how to have a conversation of influence that might help shape decisions about how this was all going to unfold.

At the risk of being pegged as a NIMBY, let me state that I am fully able to accept that downtown living in a fast-growing, large urban centre means that empty lots or parking pads are a target for development and buildings will go up. I get to live here and so should others so I can’t complain about a development here and there. But when we are talking about development of that magnitude so quickly it gets quickly problematic for things like sidewalks, transit, parking, traffic, and even things like getting a seat at my favourite cafe that are all going to change in a matter of months, not years. There’s no evolution here, just revolution.

Adding a few hundred people to the neighbourhood in a year is one thing. Adding many thousand in that same time is something quite different. The problem is that city planning is done on a block-by-block basis when we live in an interconnected space. An example of this is transit. Anyone who takes a bus, streetcar or subway knows that the likelihood of getting a seat depends greatly on when you travel and where you get on. Your experience will radically change when you’re at the beginning of the line or near the end of it. Residents of one neighbourhood in Toronto were so tired of never being able to get on packed streetcars because they were in the middle of the line they crowdfunded a private bus service, which was ultimately shut down a few months later.

Planning for scale: bounding systems using foresight

On a piece-by-piece basis, planning impact is easier to assess. Buildings go through proposals for the lots — a boundary — and have to meet specific codes, which act as constraints on a system. Yet, next to these boundaries are boundaries for other systems; other lots and developments. They, too are given the same treatment and usually that produces a plan perfectly suited to that individual development, but something that might falter when matched with what’s next to it. Building plans are approved and weighed largely on their merits independent of the context and certainly not as a collective set of proposals. Why? Because there are different stakeholders with separate needs, timelines, investments and desires.

One of the keys is to have a vision for what the city will look like as a system.  Does your city have one? I’m not talking about something esoteric like “Be the greatest city in the world”, but generating some evidence-supported form of vision for what the city will look like in 5, 10, 25 years. This requires foresight, a structured, methodical means of drawing evidence-informed speculations about the future that combines design, data, and some imagination. In fact, my colleague Peg Lahn and I did this for the city of Toronto and what we envisioned the future ‘neighbourscapes’ of the city might look like using foresight methods.  We forecast out to 2030, drawing on trends and drivers of social activities and looking at current patterns of migration, development, policy and political activity.

That report focused on the city itself and its neighbourhoods in general, but didn’t look at specific neighbourhoods. Yet, strategic foresight can help create a bounded set of conditions where one can start to imagine the potential impact of decisions in advance and develop scenarios to amplify or mitigate against certain challenges or uncertainties. Foresight allows for better assessment of the landscape of knowns and unknowns within a complex system.

From cities to organizations

The same principles to civic planning through foresight can be applied to organizations. If you are assessing operations and plans for programs independent of one another and not as a whole, yet are operating an organization as a system with all its interdependencies, then without strategic foresight plans may just arbitrary statements of intent. Consider the “5-year plan“. Why is it five years? What is special about 5 years that makes us do that? How about four years? Ten? 18?

As former US President and general Dwight D. Einsenhower once said:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

The planning process, no matter what the time scale, works best when it allows for engagement of ideas about what the future might look like, how to create it, and how to tell when you’ve been successful. This is part of what developmental evaluation does when blended with strategic foresight and design. This creates conversations about what future we want, what we see coming and how we might get to shape it. The plan itself is secondary, but the planning — informed by data and design — is what is the most powerful part of the process.

To draw on another US President, Abraham Lincoln:

The best way to predict your future is to create it.

By focusing on the here and now, independent of what is to come and might be, organizations risk designing perfectly suited programs, policies and strategies that are ideal for the current context, but jeopardize the larger system that is the organization itself.

Do you have a plan? Do you know where you’re going? Can you envision where things are going to be? How will you know when you get there or when to change course?

Resources

For resources on these topics check out the Censemaking library tab on this blog, which has a lot of references to tools and products that can help advance your thinking on strategic foresight, evaluation, design and systems thinking. For those interested in how developmental evaluation can contribute to program development, check out Michael Quinn Patton’s lastest book (with Kate McKegg and Nan Wehipeihana) on Developmental Evaluation Exemplars.

Lastly, if you need strategic help in this work, contact Cense Research + Design as this is what they (we) do.

 

 

 

 

 

innovationpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

Reading Innovation and the New Economy

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Economic changes are transforming business and work itself in ways that are having consequences well beyond supply chains and jobs, but the way employment spurs learning. A look at a recent change at a Toronto bookstore hints at a future that suggests we may want to think about what kind of economy we want not just the one we have. 

I recently learned that the Chapters bookstore occupying the former Runnymede Theatre in Toronto will be shuttering as its lease is taken over by a major drug store chain.

The bookstore, pictured above and below, is among the most beautiful you will find anywhere. It is also a meeting place for parents (mostly moms) and children, offering one of the few spaces for young families to gather in the neighbourhood.

The loss of Chapters has caused an uproar in the community, ironically just as it did when it came into the once abandoned heritage building. Reporting on the story in the Toronto Star, business reporter Francine Kopun highlights some of the losses that are expected to the community:

“It’s a real loss for the neighbourhood,” said Jill Zelmanovits, 41, a mother of two children, ages seven and four.

“I would say my children have been there every week their whole lives.”

She said staff at the store greet her by name and it is a gathering place for new moms with kids in tow.

The story goes on to add:  “Schools and community groups hold fundraiser events in the space, said Ward 13 Councillor Sarah Doucette (Parkdale-High Park). Her office was inundated with calls from residents after the news broke. “We had an uproar like this when Chapters went in,” she said.”

The change from a theatre to a bookstore was disruptive just as the next change will be as Shoppers Drug Mart moves in. However, it is worth considering from the perspective of social systems and economies what this change will mean beyond the shift in products and services being offered at the home of the Runnymede Theatre.

Systems thinking change

Stroller Parking

Will the new drug store have stroller parking?

While we see retail change all the time, this particular move was more emblematic of a larger systems trend that is worth noting. If one is to look at the origin of the Runnymede Theatre and what it did, one starts to see some aspects of an economic shift that might be worth paying attention to.

When the theatre started as a vaudeville stage, the skill-sets required to run and grow the theatre were complex and portable. One needed to know about storytelling, performance, marketing, hospitality, logistics, and how to maintain a connection to the community to create the kind of shows that people wanted to pay for. These are skills that could easily be transferred into other contexts beyond the theatre, which made it an ideal place for engendering talent that could have transferrable benefit beyond one context. And as researchers like Keith Sawyer have noted, the benefits of theatre on creativity and group collaboration are significant.

The bookstore is a step down from that. The roles are fewer, the jobs are simpler, but at least the product is something that inspires learning and there are still benefits for the customers beyond products (much like the inspiration that theatre-goers received). Bookstore staff are best when they read and share what they read with their customers; it makes them better salespeople and stock clerks. The inclusion of a children’s space with related programming for moms and kids adds a community benefit as well as requiring and providing additional skills to the bookstore staff. These might not be as comprehensive as those gained from theatre, but as a system the bookstore still confers benefits beyond just selling books.

The next stage of the theatre is set for a drug store. If we take out the pharmacy (which is a minor part of the modern drug store’s revenue stream and purpose)  the remaining aspects of a drug store require little skill to operate. Stocking shelves, directing people to products, and ringing through purchases (if the self-checkout option isn’t available) requires little knowledge or skill and confers little benefit beyond pay. Fewer jobs are full-time and fewer skills are needed so the pay is likely lower for each staff member as one would expect from this. None of this is intended to dismiss the workers themselves or drug stores, but it’s difficult to imagine many supplemental benefits beyond raw product and pay garnered by having a drug store in the building; no group collaboration skills, no meeting place for families, no knowledge of current affairs, no storylines.

Designing economies

The story of the Runnymede Theatre is not about picking on the drug store, nor is it about being nostalgic for days gone by. It is about considering what kind of employment, community experiences, skills, and outcomes we get when we change our economy. As citizens and consumers we grow what we sow. Being mindful of what kind of things we ‘plant’ and the kind of experiences we pay for, demand, seek and design in our enterprises matters at a system level. Some might say that the market changed and that the theatre and its lease-holders are simply responding to that market, which is partly true. There is no one group that can or should be responsible for governing such shifts, but they are worth paying attention to. If we don’t, no one will.

No better place to pay attention to is Seattle, Washington and the home of Amazon. As the annual consumerist sprint that starts at Thanksgiving in the United States began, viewers of the news program 60 Minutes were treated to a look at Amazon’s prototype plan for drone-powered package delivery. Once again, we were seeing Amazon do what it has done time and again: innovate the business of retail.  Two weeks later, Canada Post announced that it was going to phase out home delivery in urban centres. (Soon, all mail will go to post office stations in centralized locations much like in rural communities).

Amazon is seeking to revolutionize the way products are shopped for, ordered and delivered from books to groceries and more. In an interview earlier in 2013 with Fast Company, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos outlined a bold plan for transforming the way products are ordered, promising the possibility of same day, even 2-hour delivery on anything a person needs. This is innovation at its clearest, yet are we innovating the systems that wrap around these new technologies and processes?

If drones are delivering our books, robots picking them from shelves, and computer programs taking the order in the first place, who is working? Yes, some computer programmers will be employed, but the world isn’t full of or needs billions of programs or apps. What does the future of work look like? What are our choices in this? What kind of systems do we want and are we prepared to shape them?

Greg Van Alstyne and Bob Logan defined design as “creation for reproduction” in a paper published in Artifact in 2007 (an earlier version is available here). Bezos and Amazon are designing the economy by creating tools, processes and ideas that are emergent and potentially self-replicating if spread. They are not the only ones with a say in the matter and every time we buy something, look at something and engage with a product or service we are voting with our wallet, consciousness and attention for what we want.

It is worth considering how we design for the emergence of an economy we want, not just what is delivered at the drug store or by drone.

complexityemergencejournalismsystems thinking

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 BoingBoing.net, interviews on Shareable.net, 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.

Timecodes

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.

design thinkingeducation & learningevaluationinnovation

The Job Market Metric In Education

UniversityDoors

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.

complexitysystems sciencesystems thinking

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).