Tag: social networks

complexityeducation & learningpsychologysystems thinking

Complex problems and social learning

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Adaptation, evolution, innovation, and growth all require that we gain new knowledge and apply it to our circumstances, or learn. While much focus in education is on how individuals attend, process and integrate information to create knowledge, it is the social part of learning that may best determine whether we simply add information to our brains or truly learn. 

Organizations are scrambling to convert what they do and what they are exposed to into tangible value. In other words: learn. A 2016 report from the Association for Talent Development (ATD) found that “organizations spent an average of $1,252 per employee on training and development initiatives in 2015”, which works out to an average cost per learning hour of $82 based on an average of 33 hours spent in training programs per year. Learning and innovation are expensive.

The massive marketplace for seminars, keynote addresses, TED talks, conferences, and workshops points to a deep pool of opportunities for exposure to content, yet when we look past these events to where and how such learning is converted into changes at the organizational level we see far fewer examples.

Instead of building more educational offerings like seminars, webinars, retreats, and courses, what might happen if they devoted resources to creating cultures for learning to take place? Consider how often you may have been sent off to some learning event, perhaps taken in some workshops or seen an engaging keynote speaker, been momentarily inspired and then returned home to find that yourself no better off in the long run. The reason is that you have no system — time, resources, organizational support, social opportunities in which to discuss and process the new information — and thus, turn a potential learning opportunity into neural ephemera.

Or consider how you may have read an article on something interesting, relevant and important to what you do, only to find that you have no avenue to apply or explore it further. Where do the ideas go? Do they get logged in your head with all the other content that you’re exposed to every day from various sources, lost?

Technical vs. Social

My colleague and friend John Wenger recently wrote about what we need to learn, stating that our quest for technical knowledge to serve as learning might be missing a bigger point: what we need at this moment. Wenger suggests shifting our focus from mere knowledge to capability and states:

What is the #1 capability we should be learning?  Answer: the one (or ones) that WE most need; right now in our lives, taking account of what we already know and know how to do and our current situations in life.

Wenger argues that, while technical knowledge is necessary to improve our work, it’s our personal capabilities that require attention to be sufficient for learning to take hold. These capabilities are always contingent as we humans exist in situated lives and thus our learning must further be applied to what we, in our situation, require. It’s not about what the best practice is in the abstract, but what is best for us, now, at this moment. The usual ‘stuff’ we are exposed to is decontextualized and presented to us without that sense of what our situation is.

The usual ‘stuff’ we are exposed to under the guise of learning is so often decontextualized and presented to us without that sense of how, whether, or why it matters to us in our present situation.

To illustrate, I teach a course on program evaluation for public health students. No matter how many examples, references, anecdotes, or colourful illustrations I provide them, most of my students struggle to integrate what they are exposed to into anything substantive from a practical standpoint. At least, not at first. Without the ability to apply what they are learning, expose the method to the realities of a client, colleague, or context’s situation, they are left abstracting from the classroom to a hypothetical situation.

But, as Mike Tyson said so truthfully and brutally: “Every fighter has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

In a reflection on that quote years later, Tyson elaborated saying:

“Everybody has a plan until they get hit. Then, like a rat, they stop in fear and freeze.”

Tyson’s quote applies to much more than boxing and complements Wenger’s assertions around learning for capability. If you develop a plan knowing that it will fail the moment you get hit (and you know you’re going to get hit), then you learn for the capability to adapt. You build on another quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said:

“I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

Better social, better learning

Plans don’t exist in a vacuum, which is why they don’t always turn out. While sometimes a failed plan is due to poor planning, it is more likely due to complexity when dealing with human systems. Complexity requires learning strategies that are different than those typically employed in so many educational settings: social connection.

When information is technical, it may be simple or complicated, but it has a degree of linearity to it where one can connect different pieces together through logic and persistence to arrive a particular set of knowledge outcomes. Thus, didactic classroom learning or many online course modules that require reading, viewing or listening to a lesson work well to this effect. However, human systems require attention to changing conditions that are created largely in social situations. Thus, learning itself requires some form of ‘social’ to fully integrate information and to know what information is worth attending to in the first place. This is the kind of capabilities that Wenger was talking about.

My capabilities within my context may look very much like that of my colleagues, but the kind of relationships I have with others, the experiences I bring and the way I scaffold what I’ve learned in the past with what I require in the present is going to be completely different. The better organizations can create the social contexts for people to explore this, learn together, verify what they learn and apply it the more likely they can reap far greater benefits from the investment of time and money they spend on education.

Design for learning, not just education

We need a means to support learning and support the intentional integration of what we learn into what we do: it fails in bad systems.

It also means getting serious about learning, meaning we need to invest in it from a social, leadership and financial standpoint. Most importantly, we need to emotionally invest in it. Emotional investment is the kind of attractor that motivates people to act. It’s why we often attend to the small, yet insignificant, ‘goals’ of every day like responding to email or attending meetings at the expense of larger, substantial, yet long-term goals.

As an organization, you need to set yourself up to support learning. This means creating and encouraging social connections, time to dialogue and explore ideas, the organizational space to integrate, share and test out lessons learned from things like conferences or workshops (even if they may not be as useful as first thought), and to structurally build moments of reflection and attention to ongoing data to serve as developmental lessons and feedback.

If learning is meant to take place at retreats, conferences or discrete events, you’re not learning for human systems. By designing systems that foster real learning focused on the needs and capabilities of those in that system, you’re more likely to reap the true benefit of education and grow accordingly. That is an enormous return on investment.

Learning requires a plan and one that recognizes you’re going to get punched in the mouth (and do just fine).

Can this be done for real? Yes, it can. For more information on how to create a true learning culture in your organization and what kind of data and strategy can support that, contact Cense and they’ll show you what’s possible. 

Image credit: Social by JD Hancock used under Creative Commons license.

complexityjournalismscience & technologysocial media

The more we get together

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As we forge ever-greater connections online to each other and the world of ideas the thinking was that we would be far better off, more tolerant, educated and wise and yet there is much evidence to suggest this isn’t the case. What does it mean to come together and how can we do this that brings us closer rather than driving us further apart? 

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be – lyric from popular song for children

Like many, I’ve grown up thinking this very thing and, for the most part, my experience has shown this to be true. However upon reflection, I’m realizing that most of this experience is related to two things that could reveal a potential flaw in my thinking: 1) I’m thinking of face-to-face encounters with others more than any other type and also 2) most of the relationships I’ve formed without aid of or post use-of the Internet.

Face-to-face interactions of any real quality are limited in nature. We only have so many hours in a day and, unless your job is extremely social or you live in a highly communal household complex, we’re unlikely to have much interaction with more than a few dozen people per day that extends beyond “hello” or something like that. This was explored in greater detail by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who determined that our social networks are usually capped at 100 – 250 individuals. Dunbar’s number (the commonly held mean number of people in these networks) is commonly considered to be 150.

Why does this matter? When we engage others online, the type of interactions and the number of ideas we engage can be far larger, or at least is certainly different in how those relationships are managed. We see comments on discussion boards, social media posts, videos and pictures shared online, and are exposed to media messages of all types and through myriad news (official, professional and otherwise) sources. Ethan Zuckerman, who I’ve written about before, has written extensively about the paradox of having such incredible access to diversity in the world and yet we often find ourselves increasingly insular in our communication patterns, choosing like-minded opinions over alternative ones.

Looking ahead by looking back at Marshall McLuhan

Journalist Nicholas Carr, who’s written extensively on the social context of technology, recently posted an interview with Marshall McLuhan from 1977 speaking on his views about where media was going and his idea of “the global village”. His piece, the global village of violence, was enlightening to say the least. In it, Carr points to the violence we are committing in this global village and how it doesn’t square with what many thought were the logical outcomes of us connecting — and does so by pointing back to McLuhan’s own thoughts.

McLuhan’s work is often a complicated mess, partly because there is a large, diverse and scattered academic culture developed around his work and thus, often the original points he raised can get lost in what came afterwards. The cautions he had around hyper-connection through media are one of those things. McLuhan didn’t consider the global village to be an inherently good thing, indeed he spoke about how technology at first serves and then partly controls us as it becomes normalized part of everyday life — the extension becomes a part of us.

As is often the case with McLuhan, looking back on what he said, when he said it and what it might mean for the present day is instructive for helping us do, just as his seminal work sought to help us do, understand media and society. Citing McLuhan, Nicholas Carr remarked that:

Instantaneous, universal communication is at least as likely to breed nationalism, xenophobia, and cultism as it is to breed harmony and fellow-feeling, McLuhan argues. As media dissolve individual identity, people rush to join “little groups” as a way to reestablish a sense of themselves, and they’ll go to extremes to defend their group identity, sometimes twisting the medium to their ends

Electronic media, physical realities

These ‘little groups’ are not always so little and they certainly aren’t weak. As we are seeing with Donald Trump‘s ability to rally a small, but not insignificant population in the United States to join him despite his litany of abusive, sexist, inflammatory, racist, discriminatory and outwardly false statements has been constantly underestimated. Last week’s horrible mass shooting in Orlando brought a confluence of groups into the spotlight ranging from anti-Muslim, both anti-gay and gay rights, pro-gun, along with Republican and Democratic supporters of different issues within this matter, each arguing with intensity and too often speaking past each other. Later this week we saw British MP Jo Cox murdered by someone who saw her as a traitor to Britain, presumably on account of her position on the pending ‘Brexit’ vote (although we don’t yet know the motivation of the killer).

 

There are many reasons for these events and only some that we will truly know, but each matter points to an inability to live with, understand and tolerate others’ viewpoints and extreme reactions to them. The vitriol of debate on matters in the public sphere is being blamed for some of these reactions, galvanizing some to do horrible things. Could it be that our diversity, the abundance of interactions we have and the opportunities to engage or disengage selectively

If this hypothesis holds, what then? Should we start walling off ourselves? No. But nor should we expect to bring everyone together to share the tent and expect it to go well without very deliberate, persistent, cultivation and management of relationships, collectively. Much like a gardener does with her garden, there’s a need to keep certain things growing, certain things mixing, certain things out and others in and these elements might be different depending on the time of year, season, and plants being tended to. Just as there is no ‘one garden’ style that fits everywhere, there is no one way to do ‘culture’, but some key principles and a commitment to ongoing attention and care that feed healthy cultures (that include diversity).

As odd as this may sound, perhaps we need to consider doing the kind of civic development work that can yield healthy communities online as well as off. We certainly need better research to help us understand what it means to engage in different spaces, what types of diversity work well and under what conditions, and to help us determine what those ‘simple rules’ might be for bring us closer together so, like the childrens song above, we can be happier rather than what we’ve been becoming.

Complexity isn’t going away and is only increasing and unless we are actively involved in cultivating and nurturing those emergent properties that are positive and healthy and doing it by design, and viewing our overlapping cultures as complex adaptive systems (and creating the policies and programs that fit those systems), we put ourselves at greater risk for letting those things emerge that drive us further apart than bring us together.

 

Photo credit: Connections by deargdoom57 used under Creative Commons License via Flickr. Thanks deargdoom57 for sharing your work!

 

behaviour changepsychologysocial mediasocial systems

My troubled relationship with social media

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Do you care about donuts? I did, once. I’m not so sure anymore.

I used to love donuts, was passionate about donuts and spent the better part of my early career looking at the power of social media to transform our understanding of and engagement with donuts. Just this week, I had a paper published that I co-authored with colleagues looked at Twitter is being used to engage audiences on donuts, er vaping and it’s potential public health implications. I’m still into donuts, but the question is whether donuts are still serving the purpose they once did. It’s left me asking….

Is it still time to make the donuts?

Twitter turned 10 this past month. When it was founded the idea of communicating short 140 character chunks of content to the world by default (unlike Facebook, where you could restrict you posts to your ‘friends’ only by default), the idea seemed absurd, particularly to me. Why would anyone want to use something that was the equivalent of a Facebook status update without anything else? (Keep in mind that link shorteners were not yet in wide use, the embedded pictures and lists that we have now were either not invented or highly cumbersome).

However, social media is a ‘participation sport’ as I like to say and by engaging with it I soon realized Twitter’s enormous potential. For the first time I could find people who had the same quirky collection of interests as I did (e.g, systems science, design, innovation, Star Wars, coffee, evaluation, soccer, politics, stationary and fine writing instruments – and not necessarily in that order, but in that combination) and find answers to questions I didn’t think to ask from people I didn’t know existed.

It was a wonder and I learned more about the cutting edge of research there than I ever did using traditional databases, conferences or books much to the shock, horror and disbelief of my professional colleagues. I’ve often been considered an early adopter and this was no exception. I did research, consultation and training in this area and expanded my repertoire to Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn and pretty much everything I could including some platforms that no longer exist.

I developed relationships with people I’d never (and still have never) met from around the world who’s camaraderie and collegiality I valued as much or more than those people I’d known for years in the flesh. It was heady times.

But like with donuts, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And also like donuts, where I once loved them and enjoyed them regularly consuming them now starts to not sit so well and that’s maybe for the better.

I’m left questioning whether it’s still time to make the donuts.

The river I stand in

This river I step in is not the river I stand in – Heraclitus

Like with donuts the experience of social media — the context of its use — has changed. As I age, eat better, exercise more wisely and am more mindful of how I feel and what I do, donuts lost appeal. They probably taste the same, but the experience has changed and not because the donuts are different, but my dietary and lifestyle context is.

The same is true for social media.

I have never been a techno advocate or pessimist, rather I’ve been a pragmatist. Social media does things that traditional media does not. It helps individuals and organizations communicate and, depending on how its used, engage an audience interactively in ways that ‘old media’ like billboards, radio, TV and pamphlets do not. But we still have the old media, we just recognize that it’s good at particular things and not others.

But the river, the moving and transforming media landscape, is much faster, bigger and bolder than it was before. Take the birthday girl or boy, Twitter, it’s grown to be a ubiquitous tool for journalists, celebrities and scholars, but saw a small decline in its overall use after a year of flatlined growth.

TwitterMonthlyActive 2016-04-01 13.50.14(Twitter monthly users via Tech Crunch)

As for Facebook, it’s faring OK. While it still has growth, I’ve struggled to find anyone who speaks in glowing terms about their experience with the service, particularly anyone who wishes to change their privacy settings or wishes to stem the flow of ads. Over at Instagram, my feed has seen the rise of ‘brands’ following me. No longer is it the names of real people (even if its a nickname) it’s usually some variant of ‘getmorefollowers’ or brands or something like that. This is all as I see more ads and less life.

Information overload and filter failure

Speaking to an audience in 2008, author and media scholar Clay Shirky spoke to the problem of ‘information overload’ which was a term being applied to the exponential rise in exposure people had to information thanks to the Internet and World Wide Web. At the time, his argument was that it was less about overload of information, than a failure of our filter systems to make sense of what was most useful. 

But that was 2008. That was before the mobile Internet really took off. That was when Twitter was 2 and Facebook just a couple years later. In the third quarter of 2008, Facebook had around 100,000 users and now its got a population of more 1.6B users. The river has got bigger and more full. That might be nice if you’re into white water rafting or building large hydro-electric dams, but it might be less enjoyable if you’re into fly fishing. I can’t imagine A River Runs Through It with a water feature that’s akin to Niagara Falls.

As journalist Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out in many different fora, the Internet is changing the way we think.  Indeed, ‘smarter technologies’ are changing the way we live.

This all brings up a dilemma: what to do? As one who has studied and advised organizations on how to develop and implement social media strategies I would be a hypocrite to suggest we abandon them. Engaging with an audience is better than not doing so. Humanizing communications – which is something social media can do far better than speaking ‘at’ people — is better than not. Being timely and relevant is also better than not. Yet, the degree to which social media can answer these problems is masked by the volume of content out there and the manner in which people interact with content.

Walking through any major urban area, take public transit, or watching people in line for pretty much anything will find a substantial portion of humans looking at their devices. Even couples or friends at restaurants are left to concoct games to get people paying attention to each other, not their devices. We are living in the attentional economy and what is increasingly valuable is focus, not necessarily more information and that requires filtration systems that are not overwhelmed by the volume of content.

Emotional pollution and the antisocial media

I recently wrote about how ‘the stream’ of social media has changed the way that social activism and organizing is done. While social media was once and invaluable tool for organizing and communicating ideas, its become a far more muddled set of resources in recent years. To be sure, movements like Black Lives Matter and others that promote more democratic, active social engagement on issues of justice and human dignity are fuelled and supported by social media. This is a fantastic thing for certain issues, but the question might be left: for how long?

Not so long ago, my Facebook feed was filled with the kind of flotsam, jetsam and substance of everyday life. This was about pictures of children or vacations, an update on someone’s new job or their health, or perhaps a witty observation on human life, but the substance of the content was the poster, the person. Now, it is increasingly about other people and ‘things’ . It’s about injustices to others and the prejudices that come with that, it’s about politics (regardless of how informed people are), it’s about solidarity with some groups (at the willful ignorance of others) and about rallying people to some cause or another.

While none of these are problematic — and actually quite healthy in some measure — they are almost all I see. On Twitter, people are sharing other things, but rarely their own thoughts. On Facebook, it’s about sharing what others have written and the posters emotional reaction to it.

Increasingly, it’s about social validation. Believe my idea. “Like” this post if you’re really my friend. Share if you’re with me and not with them. And so on.

What I am left with, increasingly, is a lost sense of who the ‘me’ and the ‘them’ are in my social media stream. What it feels is that I am increasingly wading into a stream of emotional pollution rather than human interaction. And when my filters are full, this gets harder to do and I’m not sure I want to be less sensitized to the world, but I also don’t want my interactions with others to be solely about reacting to their rage at the world or some referendum on their worldview. It seems that social media is becoming anti-social media.

In complex systems we might see this is as a series of weak, but growing stronger, signals of something else. Whether that’s collective outrage at the injustices of the world, the need for greater support, or the growing evidence that social media use can be correlated with a sense of loneliness, I’m not sure.

But something is going on and I’m now beginning to wonder about all those donuts we’ve created.

Photo credit: Chris Lott Social Media Explained (with Donuts) used under Creative Commons License via Flickr

About the author: Cameron Norman is the Principal of Cense Research + Design and works at assisting organizations and networks in creative learning through design, program evaluation, behavioural science and system thinking.

 

food systemsjournalismpublic healthsocial mediasystems science

Frogs, Pots, Blogs and Social Media

Frog_and_saucepan

Our information landscape has been compared with our diets providing an ample opportunity to compare what we ‘consume’ with how we prepare food and perhaps draw on the analogy of the frog and the boiling point of water. Are we slowly killing our ability to produce independent thought through vehicles like blogs as we draw our gaze to and focus on the social media stream?

Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan was one of the few who opposed the state-imposed media messaging about what was (and has been) happening in Iran. For that, he was jailed. Writing in the Guardian news service, Darakshan, once referred to as Iran’s ‘Blogfather’, discusses how blogging enabled him to be this voice and how he’s become increasingly concerned with how that option is getting slowly silenced not necessarily by governments but by social media.

Darakhshan’s perspective on social media is made all the more interesting because of his role as a prominent blogger before his arrest and the 6-year prison term that disrupted that role, offering something of a time-travel experiment in social media that he illustrates with a story from the Qur’an (known as the tale of the Seven Sleepers).

Upon his return online, Darakhshan noticed that the patchwork quilt of perspectives that were present in the blogosphere was being replaced by ‘The Stream’ that social media provides.

This stream is no longer about a diversity of perspectives, but rather something custom-tailored to meet our preferences, desires, and the needs of corporations seeking to sell advertising, products and services that align with their perception of what we want or require. This stream also allows us to shield ourselves from perspectives that might clash with our own. Groups like ISIS, he suggests, are enabled and emboldened by this kind of information vacuum:

Minority views are radicalised when they can’t be heard or engaged with. That’s how Isis is recruiting and growing. The stream suppresses other types of unconventional ideas too, with its reliance on our habits.

The Stream & our information diet

What’s interesting about The Stream is that it is about bits and bites (or bytes) and not about meals. Yet, if we consider the analogy of information and food a little further we might find ourselves hard-pressed to recall the snacks we had, but (hopefully) can recall many memorable meals. Snacking isn’t bad, but it’s not memorable and too much of it isn’t particularly healthy unless it’s of very high-quality food. With no offence to my ‘friends’ and ‘follows’ on social media, but most of what they produce is highly refined, saccharine-laden comfort food in their posts and retweets, with a few tasty morsels interspersed between rants, cat videos, selfies, and kid pictures. To be fair, my ‘offerings’ aren’t much better when I look across many of my recent Tweets and posts as I am no more than a box of sugar-topped Shreddies to others’ Frosted Flakes. (Note to self when composing New Years Resolutions, even if they are likely to fail, that I need to add less sugar to my stream).

Yet, we are living an age of information abundance and, like food abundance (and the calories that come with it), we are prone to getting obese and lethargic from too much of it. This was the argument that political communicator Clay Johnston makes in his book The Information Diet. Obesity in its various forms makes us slower, less attuned, more disengaged and often far less mindful (and critical) of what we take in whether it’s food or information. And like obesity, the problem is not just one of personal choice and willpower, it’s also about obesogenic systems that include: workplaces, restaurants, communities, markets and policies. This requires systems thinking and ensuring that we are making good personal choices and supporting healthy, critical information systems to support those choices.

The Stream is actually antithetical to that in many regards as Darakhshan points out. The Stream is about passing content through something else, like Facebook, that may or may not choose to pass it on to someone at any given time and place. I’ve noticed this firsthand over the holiday season by finding “Getting ready for Christmas” messages in my Facebook feed on Boxing Day and beyond.

The problem with The Stream is that everything is the same, by design, as Darakhshan notes in an earlier post on his concerns with his new post-imprisonment Web.

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

An information food web

Diversity of perspective and content is critical for healthy decision-making in complex systems. Our great problems, the wicked ones from terrorism to chronic disease to mass migration to climate change, will not be solved in The Stream. Yet, if we push too much toward creating content in social networks that are no longer controlled by users (even if the content is produced by users) and designed to facilitate new thinking, not just same thinking, our collective capacity for addressing complex problems is diminished.

Wicked problems will not be solved by Big Data alone. We cannot expect to simply mine our streams looking for tags and expect to find the diversity of perspective or new idea that will change the game. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, we need to rewire our feeds consciously to reflect the cosmopolitan nature of our problems and world, not just accept that we’ll choose diversity when our information systems are designed to minimize them.

Much like a food web, consideration of our information ecosystems in systems terms can be useful in helping us understand the role of blogging and other forms of journalism and expression in nurturing not only differences of opinion, but supporting the democratic foundation in which the Web was originally based. Systems thinking about what we consume as well as produce might be a reason to consider blogging as well as adding to your social media stream and why more ‘traditional’ media like newspapers and related news sites have a role.

Otherwise, we may just be the frog in the boiling pot who isn’t aware that it’s about to be cooked until it’s too late.

Postscript

It is interesting that Darakhshan’s piece caught my attention the day after WordPress delivered my ‘Year in Blogging’ review to my inbox. It pointed out that there were just 4 posts on Censemaking in 2015. This is down from more than 90 per year in past calendar years. Clearly, I’ve been drawn into the stream with my content sharing and perhaps it’s time to swim back against the current. This blog was partly a response. Stay tuned for more and thanks for reading.

Image: Frog & Saucepan used under Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Foundation.

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).

complexitydesign thinkingemergenceinnovation

Wet and Dry Design for Social Innovation

Wet and Dry Social Innovation Design – Like Nature

Social innovation is often about engaging complicated systems like technology (dry) with complex systems like humans (wet). The implementation and evaluation approaches we take must match wet with dry and knowing when we are dealing with each. 

Seth Godin recently wrote on thriving in a wet environment, which he compares code and human interaction spaces:

If you’ve ever fixed any kind of machinery, you know that a device that’s exposed to the elements is incredibly difficult to maintain. A washing machine or the underside of a car gets grungy, fast.

On the other hand, the dryest, cleanest environment of all is the digital one. Code stays code. If it works today, it’s probably going to work tomorrow.

The wettest, weirdest environment is human interaction. Whatever we build gets misunderstood, corroded and chronic, and it happens quickly and in unpredictable ways. That’s one reason why the web is so fascinating–it’s a collision between the analytic world of code and wet world of people.

Much of social innovation is becoming like this: a collision between the wet world of people and the dry world of technology. It is hard not to be impressed at the technological capabilities we have at our disposal and how they can be put to use to serve humankind. Mobile handsets, low-cost portable computing tablets, social network platforms like Facebook or LinkedIn, or digital common spaces created by tools like Reddit and Twitter all provide incredible means to connect people and ideas together. Stop and think about what we have at our disposal and it is truly mindblowing, particularly when you think how much that’s changed in just 5 years, 10 years or 20 years.

Yet, the enormity of the scale of these tools and their ubiquity can mask their significance and not always for good. Take Facebook, which just launched its IPO and is the current champion of social networks with over 900 million users. It’s easy to forget that Facebook didn’t even exist 8 years ago and now almost one in 7 citizens on this earth have an account with its service.

This could be a tremendous opportunity for social innovation. Yet, it also speaks to the issue of Seth Godin’s wet and dry analogies for design.

Tom Chatfield, a tech writer from the UK, recently blogged about rethinking our social networks. He points to Dunbar’s number, a well-researched figure that estimates the limits to meaningful human relationships to be between 100 and 230. The drive to scale technologies (the dry) to ever-expanding and increasing numbers is problematic if the limits to my ability to meaningfully connect with the networks they create (the wet) are relatively fixed or difficult to change.

He writes:

It’s dangerously easy simply to gawp and grimace at the sheer scale of the networks connecting us. The numbers are staggering, and offer a powerful index of how much and how fast our world is changing. But we mustn’t overlook the great lesson to be drawn from work like Dunbar’s: the weight of a special few will always outweigh the many, no matter how great the “many” becomes.

Some have argued that Dunbar’s number is a fallacy in the social media world, choosing to rely more heavily on sociologist Mark Granovetter’s work often summed up as the argument for The Strength of Weak Ties . His early research (see link [pdf] for original paper) focused not on the strong ties between people who were close, but the ‘friends of friends’ effects on transmission of information, which is the space where many innovations and novelty comes from in a network.

This confuses the potential innovation and the human capability to connect across large, diverse networks (a technical, ‘dry’ issue) with the quality of the interaction (a relational, ‘wet’ one). Both exist and both will exist, but there is a difference between learning something new and taking it to scale.

Novelty of information and new ideas comes from the intersection created by cognitive diversity in the design process. This is why designers seek to bring people with different perspectives together to explore concepts and generate ‘wild ideas’ as part of an ideation phase. Lots of information can be very useful in this situation and allow designers (social and otherwise) to see things they might miss if they stuck with a narrow band of perspectives. Yet, bringing these ideas to focus, refining them and transforming them into a social innovation that matters to people is far more relational than we give credit for.

Facebook might be great at linking us to ‘friends’ we’ve lost track of, but in applying a model where all of these friends are treated more or less equally, along with all of the information streamed at us through the main feed, our ‘wet’ interactions are made to feel ‘dry’. Drawing the motivation to scale ideas and engage in the efforts needed to make real change happen from such an approach is unlikely.

A recent post from FastCoExist, part of the Fast Company network of sites, by Ashoka changemakers Alexa Kay and Jon Camfield pointed to the barriers and facilitators for making change happen. Among their principal barriers is the need to connect deeper, rather than broader with each other:

How do we learn to be change makers? Much of the art of change making involves soft skills that we absorb from others that model or demonstrate change making behaviors. This means that learning opportunities are limited by one-to-one interactions and by exposure to other change makers. Compared to traditional fields like entrepreneurship, where there are plentiful resources for training, the practice of change making is still far from being widespread.

One of their principles for change reflects the complexity of social change by encouraging and supporting self-organized networks:

Often leaders or institutions promote dependency with a community. But successful change making communities depend on reducing dependence on one anointed leader. Flat networks and peer-based accountability structures are necessary if a community is to sustain change beyond one individual. The need for change communities and networks to be self-regulating is vital for their sustainability.

This is where walled gardens like Facebook are likely to fall down, just as many custom Ning-based communities have fallen into disuse. Create systems that are too bounded (dry) and we risk sucking the moisture from the human elements (the wet) that make real social innovation happen. Our challenge is finding the right balance between the controlled, stable environments that these new technologies afford and the self-organized, emergent and innovative environments needed to implement and scale our initiatives more effectively.

Wet Leaf By Faustas L, via Wikimedia Commons used under Creative Commons License