Tag: narrative

complexityevaluationjournalismpsychologystrategic foresight

Unpossible

Yinka's Ship

‘Post-truth’ was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. No fitting word reflects the strangeness of 2016 with the exception of unpossible, a word I made up and in a post-truth world might as well be as legitimate as many of the arguments being made about the most important things of the day, which is why we need to rethink how and what we pay attention to. 

When I was a little kid I was absolutely fascinated by ships in bottles (and still am). To me this was the embodiment of the impossible made possible. I’ve been shown how its done, read about it and still can’t really believe it despite seeing many ships in bottles over my lifetime. Gothic boxwood prayer beads are in the same category: they are both of the world and otherworldly at the same time. Brilliant stuff.

These are creations of human ingenuity, craft, patience and beauty.

What we have started to see in the social world are acts that are equally implausible to comprehend, yet lack all of these qualities but share one feature: creativity.

It may be time to examine what creativity means and what its impacts are because what might have been harmless chatter is now becoming big business and its transforming our world in ways we never could imagine and ways we might not really want.

In short: we are creating the unpossible.

Truthiness of fiction

Writing in Salon, Erin Keane reminds us that it was ten years ago that the concept of ‘truthiness’ was first floated out by Stephen Colbert and went on to become the 2006 Word of the Year by Mirriam-Webster. Keane reflects on the genesis of the word and how it articulated how a feeling of something being true could override the availability of evidence to support its existence without necessarily creating an entirely new reality.

With truthiness, though, we still recognized that truth exists, just that it could be overridden and bent to serve our own emotional purposes.

In a truthy world the absence of clear evidence didn’t mean that something didn’t exist if our feelings suggested that it might. Hence, we had an assault of Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction based on a feeling that someone like Saddam Hussein would want to deploy them if he had them (which might have been true, but he didn’t have them and there was no evidence to suggest he did so it wasn’t true).

Now, those logical or hypothetical — if unproven — suppositions matter less. We’ve taken out ‘facts’ from the middle of the equation separating truth from fantasy.

In the US election, ‘fake news’ sites outperformed ‘not-fake news’ sites. In other words: those peddling fictions about the world drew more attention than those who sought to share what actually happened in the world. Except, what also actually happened was that people were reading, maybe believing, but certainly sharing and endorsing these made up stories, which were once referred to by names such as ‘lies’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘slander’. Now, it’s called reporting in a post-truth environment.

When the head of a news organization that promotes people who believe there ought to be a cap on women and girls in science and attacks citizen movements focused on social justice like Black Lives Matter is promoted to the role of chief strategist for the White House to serve as a representative of the people in strategy, that is post-truth at work. **

Tardigrade amnesia

The Tardigrade is perhaps the most remarkable animal on the planet. They can survive in temperatures close to absolute zero and over 150 degrees centigrade. If resilience had a mascot, it would be the tardigrade (pictured below — with credit to Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden).

waterbear

While the effect of an election on policies and practices from healthcare, environmental protection, human rights, and safety and security may be wide-reaching and last beyond the term of office for most politicians the response can’t simply be to ‘toughen up’ and accept what’s being done, even if it is done under the banner of electoral legitimacy. Resilience is not about just absorbing shocks, but also about adapting to prevent the shocks from coming, to lessen their intensity, and also about systems change wherever possible.

The tardigrade is an expert on resiliency. It is as if it decided that, rather than plan for the best-case scenario, it figured out what the worst case would be and developed itself for that context first. Even if the tardigrade doesn’t encounter absolute zero temperatures that much in the world, it is ready for it.

Resiliency in social systems requires the same thinking.

In the US election and Brexit vote we saw politicians, pollsters and the media all get it wrong: they didn’t assess the mood and mindset of voters accurately. More importantly, voters may not have voted for what they are getting, but against what they got. In that case, what they ‘got'(i.e., had) was a sense of falling behind, perceived unfairness, absence of connection between their social world and the one talked about on TV or in government, and isolation from the economy, society and a world they thought they knew and were promised — something that built up over decades.

The voters wanted something different than what they had, but they may not have understood what they might get from this difference.

Foresight, in hindsight

Strategic foresight is a discipline that combines creative thinking, data, and planning together. It’s a burgeoning field of practice-based inquiry that offers an opportunity to explore various hypotheses about possible futures. We cannot reliably predict the future, particularly in complex systems, however it is possible to anticipate events based on trends, forecasts and signals that emerge from the data we have about the past and present when applied to the planning for the future.

Strategic foresight is a relatively young discipline, yet it holds much promise in aiding our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and guide our actions to prevent problems and amplify those factors that can generate solutions. The result are ‘evidence-informed imaginations’ like the one that my colleague Peg Lahn and I did on the future of the neighbourhood in a growing city like Toronto, Canada. Ahead of legislation curbing the way high-rise building were built, we anticipated massive problems for Toronto’s high-rise condominiums based on the data we gathered and scenarios we developed. Falling glass was largely an ‘isolated’ incident 5 years ago and soon became a massive problem across the city and will continue to plague these buildings that will likely need to be completely ‘re-skinned’ in less than 20 years due to their reliance on poor design choices based on the city’s climate.

Our work bucked the trend toward optimism in condo development toward evidence-informed pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather what’s key is creating the kind of storyline that fits evidence, emotion and provides a narrative for what might happen. In doing so, a strategic plan can develop the kind of performance measures and monitoring and evaluation plans that help detect whether a particular scenario is starting to play out in the world. If so, it’s possible to correct things before they get problematic.

Strategic foresight combined with resiliency and systems thinking can be a way to envision the impossible as possible to prevent what becomes unpossible.

Consider what systems you’re working in and ask yourself if you’re seeing all (or many of) the pertinent possibilities and how they might play out. This is where fiction can be an asset, not a symptom, related to a larger issue. If you want some initial foresight into the current state of affairs in Western politics — from Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK,  Hofer in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the United States, Kellie Leitch in Canada — dive into Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic “It Can’t Happen Here” .

It can.

The unpossible can only happen if we collectively create it.

Image credit: Yinka’s ship by Garry Knight used under Creative Commons License. Garry’s work is amazing and worth checking out. Thanks for sharing your art with the world!

** I struggled with the notion of even linking to this content, but also feel that I’m contributing to an echo chamber if those views aren’t seen and experienced, even if it’s just a small dose.

If we are to address truths — hard ones, complicated ones, ugly ones — we need to speak with truth and not pretend these voices aren’t there or comment on them if we are unwilling to expose ourselves to some of it in its original form and not solely filtered through other perspectives. One of the issues we face is that too often we (humans) speak about groups we know nothing about from any source that came from that perspective.

complexitydesign thinkingeducation & learningsystems thinking

Integrative Thinking And Empathy in Systems

Seeing What You're Reaching For And With

Seeing What You’re Reaching For And With

Award-winning Canadian author and University of Toronto professor David Gilmour came under social/media fire for comments made about his stance of only including male, middle-aged writers in his list of readings for his undergraduate English courses because that is the experience he resonates with most. Drawing on what you know is both wise and foolish when looking at it from the perspective of systems change and by looking within and beyond our own boundaries we can see how. 

Richard Katz knows what it is like to be an outsider and see the world from deep within and far from outside a culture. Katz, a former professor and elder with the First Nations University of Canada and Harvard-trained anthropologist, was one of the first non-native individuals to be welcomed into the lives of the Kalahari Ju|’hoansi peoples of central Africa. The Ju|’hoansi are known to Westerners as ‘the Bushmen‘ and were the ‘stars’ of the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. His journey and decades-long experience with these peoples are chronicled in two remarkable books on healing and culture.

Dr Katz worked closely with my undergraduate advisor and mentor, Dr. Mary Hampton, a remarkable community psychologist and her husband (and elder) Dr. Eber Hampton, and would occasionally come to meet and speak with us eager students and the healing communities in Regina, where I studied. In life, but particularly in working with affairs of the heart and soul (which is the stuff of healing and community), Katz would say:

Talk only of what you know

I didn’t fully understand the meaning of this when I heard it until much later in life. As one interested in the science as well as the art of healing I struggled to understand how we couldn’t speak of things unknown if we were seeking discovery — which is about making the unknown, known. Over time I came to ‘know’ more about what Katz meant:  that our perspective is one of many in a system and it is one, that if contemplated and welcomed with an open mind and heart, is valid and true while also being apart and unique. While we hold a stance those around you have their own perspective and stance that is both the same and different and in this lies the heart of healing.

Katz was trying to warn students and other researchers against the idea that we can just go into some place and ‘know it’ without being in it and that even in immersing ourselves in the worlds of others we are still but a traveller, just as they are in ours. He also suggested that we can’t know other systems without knowing our own (my words, not his).

It is the paradox that we can connect on a fundamental human level and still hold an independent, personal account. Being at one and apart at the same time. This is a hallmark feature of a complex system. It is also what makes integrative thinking and empathy so critical in such systems.

Knowing me, knowing you

This brings us back to professor Gilmour. Speaking to the online culture magazine Hazlitt, David Gilmour said that he doesn’t teach books written by women, just men. This has caused a predictable uproar in the social/ media (see Storify link below).

In an interview with the Toronto Star, Gilmour tried to clarify his comments:

“My only point is that I tend to teach people whose lives are close to my own,” said Gilmour, who has taught at the university for seven years. “I’m an old guy and I understand about old guys.”

On the surface, Gilmour is doing just what Dick Katz implored us all to do: speak of what you know. Gilmour knows ‘old guys’ (who are White and straight) and not women or other ‘groups’. He is being authentic and true to his experience.

What Gilmour is missing on this topic is the empathy that is so important in working with complexity. Teaching English to undergraduates might not be an obvious example of systems thinking and complexity, but it can be. As Gilmour points out, English is about a point of view, which is another way to say its about where you stand. The writing of the ‘old guys’ Gilmour includes in his courses are able telling a narrative from a point of view. That makes for good literature.

Yet, it is the reader’s ability to adopt, interpret, experience and critique the point of view of a story character that makes a literary work compelling. That is in large part about empathy. Great writers make empathy easy. By being empathic, we see a setting or context — a system — that might be unfamiliar to us in ways that seem familiar by bringing us momentarily into the world of the other. This familiarity allows us to draw on the experience we have in other settings and contexts and apply them to the new one.

To the degree this has harmony and congruence with the narrative being told is the measure of fit between data from one context to another.

This is what we do in systems work. For Gilmour, the complexity in his system comes not from his perspective, but that of his students. They are women, maybe GLBT, most certainly from other age and cultural groups and geographic contexts. Gilmour is asking his students to empathize with his ‘old guy’ narrative while forgetting that he can empathize with the narrative of someone who is Asian, queer, or speaks Catalan in drawing narratives that can be welcomed into the classroom without it being the perspective he’s most familiar with. Indeed, it is when we extend ourselves beyond the most familiar narratives to finding something resonant in other narratives that we learn, discover and innovate.

Integrative (Design) Thinking

Integrative thinking is a concept that Roger Martin, also from the University of Toronto, has made popular and integrated into the teaching at the Rotman School of Business. (Indeed, Rotman’s marketing material brands itself as providing “a new way to think”). This style of thinking, which Martin has written about extensively through his research on CEO decision making, has been closely linked with design thinking, which is also tied closely to thinking about systems. It is about holding different ideas together at the same time and building models of reality through the exploration of these opposable thoughts.

It is a vehicle for empathy to flow through connecting feelings and observations with thoughts and prototyping actions. This is ultimately what we do when we design for engagement in complex systems. We aim to place ourselves in the system we seek to influence, learn where we are in relation to the boundaries we see, set those boundaries (maintaining flexibility throughout) and then build mechanisms to get feedback and probe the culture we are a part of — organizationally, individually and so on — to enable us to take some action. This continues in an iterative manner throughout our engagement with the system.

Integrative thinking combined with empathy allows us to engage human systems we don’t fully know in a meaningful way that recognizes our limits — speaking to Katz’s point about ‘talking about what we know’ — while opening up possibilities for communion on issues of shared concern.

This means that we can know others, but also that we can only know them as ourselves. It also means that the systems change we seek in our social world is both an intensely personal journey and one that shares our common humanity, regardless of whether we are looking at shifting an organization, a community or a global culture.

Perhaps by taking a bigger view, professor Gilmour might find the same passion in literature that is from a different perspective and ultimately find how its also very much the same.

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.

behaviour changecomplexitymarketingsystems thinking

Marketing Metaphors of Meaning in Complexity

Karl Heyden Eine interessante Geschichte

Metaphors and storytelling are ways to navigate through complex, inter-related ideas in a way that brings coherence and delight to them in narrative form. Stories are not just for children, but a serious tool for bringing complexity to life, making it accessible and usable to a world that can benefit from learning more about it.

Have you ever found yourself curled up in bed with a book that you can’t put down or found yourself up much later than you’d planned because of a TV program or movie you got caught up in? Ever have the same experience with a piece of academic writing? How about a technical report? I’ll bet the answer is yes to the former examples more than the latter (if there is a yes at all to the second two). Books — mostly, but not always, fiction books — magazine and newspaper, articles, poems and even blog posts thrive on a narrative that takes you a journey even if you don’t know the destination. That narrative, if its engaging, has consistency, a tone, a flow and a ‘texture’ that makes it enriching. It is perhaps the reason why so much scholarly writing is so dull: the texture is rather dry and lacks appeal.

Not all scientific articles require such appeal. Indeed, the standardized methods of reporting experiments can be very useful in interpreting results and deriving meaning from complicated interactions. Yet, this application of the standard model of writing from science to other areas is perhaps taking scholarly work to places it didn’t need to go. Or perhaps it is preventing us from going places we need to go.

In terms of complexity, one of those places it needs to go is into widespread discourse on public policy, health promotion, and social program planning. Storytelling and metaphors are one vehicle.

Making metaphors and embodied cognition

A recent Scientific American blog post by explored the role of metaphors in some depth, bringing attention to some of the early work of psycholinguist pioneers George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky in looking at the role of embodied cognition, a concept where a metaphor actually gets integrated into the body (literally or figuratively). In the column Samuel McNerny looks at the history of the idea and the use of metaphor, drawing on interviews, literature and recent research.

As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.

Metaphors like “warming up” are therefore representations of real phenomena that become figurative in certain scenarios. McNerny adds:

The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:

• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward whilethinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead

• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft

• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.

• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity

The challenge for complexity in social life is coming up with the right metaphor and finding one that is embodied within the systems we seek to influence.

Telling systems stories

One of the best examples of the use of storytelling and metaphors to explain complexity comes from Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge with his humourous, insightful look at order and the art of organizing a children’s party.

What Snowden does is anchor something new (complexity) in a familiar frame of reference (a children’s party). While this is not something that directly translates to how we operate social organizations such as “warming up” does to explain relations between people, it offers something close.

Anchoring the novel in the familiar. Childhood is the one universal we adults all share. Travel the globe and watch children interact and you’ll see patterns repeated everywhere. Emotion is another universal: joy, fear, anger, contentment, curiosity, and such are all platforms that can be used to create and share stories about our world. For those of us working in communities, we need to understand what universals exist in those realms. This means paying deep attention to the systems we are a part of.

In short: systems thinkers may need to be participant observers to the systems they wish to influence and learn about the big and small things that drive them.

As systems are large, complicated and complex, it is unreasonable and perhaps impossible to know everything necessary to successfully navigate through it and maneuver the leverage points necessary to create responsible, sustained systems change. To do so, we need to enlist others and that means getting complexity into the minds of many operating in the system and not just a few ‘systems thinkers’.

We need to get better at telling stories and marketing metaphors of meaning.

Learning storytelling from marketers

Marketing is largely about identity and stories about identity. Marketers want to influence what you do (choose, use, purchase, etc..) and how you experience what you do when you do it. To do this, they know the importance of design and the stories to accompany that design. Design, when done well, is partly about creating empathy with those who are to benefit from the products of design and the best products out there are ones that apply empathy and guide behaviour at the same time. Steve Jobs and his design team led by Jonathan Ive were (are) famous for doing this at Apple.

In an earlier post I mentioned the work of Rory Sutherland and his discussion of tobacco use as an illustration of the ways in which failing to empathize with a product user’s life can change the impact of policies and programs aimed to improve it. The case (made in the video below) is that there are some real, tangible benefits to smoking that get ignored when we aim to snuff it out (bad pun intended). For public health to enhance its effectiveness, we need to pay attention to these benefits and find ways for people to derive them in healthier contexts.

But listen to what Sutherland says not only here, but in another of his TED talks he points to ways in which small changes can have enormous consequences if done in a systems-forward manner (my term, not his).

What Sutherland does is not just provide good ideas, but tells good stories. Like Dave Snowden, he captures our interest and makes us want to think about concepts like behavioural economics and marketing just as Snowden inspires thinking about the differences between order and chaos.

Not all of us can be great storytellers or funnymen (and women), but we need to take this seriously if we wish to use complexity and systems thinking to advance change in our world purposefully, because massive change is happening whether we want it or not. The key is whether we will be telling stories in the future of how we helped shepherd change that helped us be more resilient and thrive or let these forces shape us in ways that caused unnecessary problems. It is, as Bruce Mau said, not about the world of design, but the design of the world.

complexitysystems thinking

Marketing the Narrative of Complexity

Sunset 2007-1Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.

Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90’s and low 100’s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.

But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.

Blog interrupted

It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power  due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).

Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).

Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.

From present delays to future/tense

The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.

Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.

It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.

Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)

The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.

Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.

We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.

Science fact as science fiction

The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.

We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.

Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.

It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.

To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.

The future is ours to write.

For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.