Digital Gymnasia Series 2020

Digital Gymnasia Series 2020

Emergencies fast-forward historical processes.  Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. (Yuval Noah Harari)

For the past few years I have been delivering Digital Skills workshops to interested students at Goodenough College, but the travel restrictions of Covid 2020 means that I’m stuck in Australia and so, like everyone, we’ve had to come up with new solutions and ways to engage.

The flip side is that Covid has brought about ‘the digital moment’ and we are all now participating in probably the largest global experiment as we harness digital media to remain connected, to craft new ways of staying in business, and to keep the wheels of industry turning.

With this in mind Goodenough College Dean Alan McCormack, Alumni Director Hannah du Gray and I decided that it was the perfect time to reach out beyond the  current student body to all of our Goodenough community around the world and offer them the opportunity to more consciously think about the digital tools that they work with, and begin to develop some real digital muscle in order to more safely and securely navigate and negotiate our lives online.

Thus was born our Digital Gymnasia, a series of workshops where the emphasis is on education, play, and skill building through conversation and coaching and where we can explore some of the questions and issues which arise in a safe and non-judgemental space.

The Ancient Greek Gymnasia were places for physical activity but also places for intellectual pursuits and philosophical discussion.  The word gymnos comes from the Greek unclothed which implies not just nudity but also a vulnerability and a need to exercise in order to attain skills to better prepare for the world around.  The Romans continued the idea of the gymnasia with their Baths and we still use the term for both exercise facilities but also schools.

As I thought of what to name the series of digital literacy workshops that have emerged over the past few months the idea of the gymnasia seemed most appropriate.  What we need at this time is not something to cure an illness or seek treatment but a space within which to play and test the equipment around us in order to build our confidence, capacity and capability in using it to live better and more fulfilling lives.  In short we need to exercise our digital muscles in order to both safely use the equipment and, even better, successfully compete in the digital games that now surround us.

We have become digital in the last few years (especially with our phones) as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means. (Doc Searls)

The tools of the Digital era have been gradually evolving but pre-Covid the legacy and stickyness of Industrial Age thinking has persisted – just consider the World Economic Forum’s idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution.  I would contend that whilst we still live in an ‘industrialised economy’ ever since the birth of the Internet and the Web we have been moving towards a Network Economy.

The Pandemic has provided both the need and the curiosity for many to explore the digital realm in new and unexpected ways. Up until now we have largely been retro-fitting the way we do things in the physical space in to the online environment – insisting on having conferences and events from 9 am t0 6 pm and not taking account of the affordances of the digital medium and how that impacts our emotional and mental needs or reactions.  This is still happening but gradually we are becoming more confident and creative and what has surprised and delighted me is how creative people are becoming at working with the online tools – the democratisation of the digital space is enabling and embodying new creative solutions and expressions.

One example of this is Ruby Wax’s Frazzled Café which provides peer support meetings online.  Ruby started her in person meetings at Marks and Spencer cafes but Covid has forced them to go online.  When I asked her what she will do then some sort of ‘normality’ returns Ruby told me in no uncertain terms that the online Frazzleds will continue because they are so powerful and can reach so many people.

Ruby, and many like her have found the confidence to go online, to a space that they may not have felt comfortable operating in, but bit by bit they are experimenting and developing their digital muscle.

But as with all new exercises and fancy gym equipment it is often best to start off with an instructor, and that is what we are seeking to do with our Digital Gymnasia.

The format of Digital Gymnasia

Our first Digital Gymnasium focuses on the topic Digital 101, a session designed to explore how the socio-technical systems around us have evolved in order to understand where they are now in 2020 and imagine where they might be going.  We focus on a brief history of information technologies coupled with some hands on exercises to determine peoples’ levels of digital literacy and awareness.

The second Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Digital Agora where we explore the world of online community spaces and how they are enabling us to remain connected despite the global lockdowns and quarantines.  We begin by considering the affordances of digital interaction technologies and what benefits they provide as well as their limitations and consequences.

The third Digital Gymnasium focuses on Your Digital Brand and how we each craft our presence online.  This session is built upon the work I have done over the past 2o years (and resulted in my PhD research, see here and here) which at the core considers how our lives online produce our ‘brand’.  Our aim here is to really think about how we are perceived by others online.

The fourth and fifth Digital Gymnasia focus on Protecting Yourself Online and provides  an overview of tools and techniques to better deal with online safely and security.  Our aim is to get people actively engaged with their online security and more fully begin to understand the idea of digital identity.

The sixth Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Politics of Digital Technologies with an overview of how governments around the world are utilising digital surveillance technologies and systems in the name of Public Health. At the core of this is the concept of Trust which is multi-layered and an expression of our cultural norms and expectations.  It is also a clear example of the lack of digital literacy and awareness in the Pubic Sphere.

The seventh Digital Gymnasium focuses on Seeing the World through Data – how data drives everything around us and why this is important.  Data has been described as the new oil of the digital economy, but there is a lot more to it than that.  In order to build digital muscle we need to understand what digital is made up of (think of how we monitor our diet through exercise) and data is the source.  This workshop seeks to demystify the idea of data, information and knowledge to more effectively work with it as our digital systems evolve.

Our final Digital Gymnasium focuses on what being Born Digital means – how digital businesses differ from traditional bricks and mortar ones, but also how they are changing and what this means for the future of work, education, health care and many other aspects of our everyday lives.

These workshops are an opportunity for me and my colleague Leanne Fry (with whom much of this material has been developed and who has lived through the digital transformation of the past two decades with me) to reflect on the work we’ve done and to offer what we’ve learned to others in a way that we hope is useful, empowering and entertaining.

We would love you to join us.

If you are interested please just contact me.

Brave Conversations goes Global even more in 2019

Brave Conversations goes Global even more in 2019

In July last year, before we had Intersticia UK properly set up, I wrote this post.

We are about to take Brave Conversations to the next level with events in Melbourne, Boston and London.

If we know that alternative futures are possible then we can start thinking about better ones.  (Cory Doctorow, What should we do about democracy?)

In my last post I referred to Psychohistory, Isaac Azimov’s fictional science which combines history, sociology and the mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behaviour of very large groups of people – in other words to explore alternative future.

It has been said that the World Wide Web is a portent of precisely such a thing which is why those who invented it created the interdisciplinary field of Web Science.

“Research tries to anticipate time. If you’re reading the Economist it’s interesting facts.”  (Luciano Floridi)

Since its public release in to human society the Web has evolved from being a small academically orientated Read Only (push information out) information community to a global publishing Read-Write infrastructure upon which almost 50% of humans interact with each other facilitated by the largest companies of the modern era.

The Web is changing the World, and the World is changing the Web 

(see 10th anniversary video).

Not only do we communicate via the Web but increasingly it is becoming an environment where we actually live (Luciano Floridi) and as with all social ecosystems our ability to co-habit as a bunch of evolved apes is dependent on the rules and norms which govern how we act and treat each other.

“Civilization is but a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen.” (Bill Moyers)

In previous eras the relative rates of technical and societal change have been roughly equivalent.  In the digital age this is not the case, which is why we created Brave Conversations in 2017.

Brave Conversations

Brave Conversations is the first non-academic but publicly focused Web Science event to provide people from all walks of life – industry, government, academia, and the community sectors – with the opportunity to sit back, reflect and respectfully explore the socio-technical issues beginning to arise as a result of digital information technologies.  It carries on from MetaLounge, our first attempts from 2008 – 2011 to create these types of event, and has now had four iterations around the world;  2017 in Canberra; Dubai as part of the 2018 World Government Summit; London 2018 in partnership with SoapBox Islington, and Kingston, Jamaica in July 2018 hosted by the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission.

At each event I have been humbled and privileged to help facilitate and encourage people to be truly brave in addressing issues which have been both confronting and uncomfortable, but most importantly to feel that at the end of each session they have left slightly more educate and enabled, but most of all empowered, to more proactively navigate and negotiate their digital lives.

Throughout we have continually been asked “what is a ‘brave’ conversation“?

As we were designing the programme it struck us that the most valuable thing we could contribute to the global dialogue would be to intentionally confront people with ideas, concepts and suggestions that they may intuitively be aware of but were unable to explore, understand or articulate in a public space.

Our Canberra event taught us the importance of actively listening to, and integrating the voice of young people.  It also demonstrated the benefit of having a diversity of voices in the room, sometimes creating discomfort and tension when language was a barrier, by which I mean those comfortable with technical language and those not.  This is why we chose to partner with SoapBox Islington and a huge thanks to James Dellow, Nick Crivello and all the team there for their wonderful hospitality and terrific group of young people who joined us.  Thank you also to Tris Lumley, Lydia Hascott and Jo Wolfe for their incredible support and amazing organisational skills in supporting Leanne Fry, Bel Campbell and me throughout.

Brave Conversations London in partnership with SoapBox Islington

“Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are.”  (Sherry Turkle)

As we were framing Brave Conversations London we reflected on the 2018 Data breach scandals and the calls for ethics to be more proactively integrated in to the development of digital technologies.  But which ‘ethics’?  Ethics, from my understanding, is relative and is based on how you see the world, what matters and how things fit together.  As we explored this we determined that what was more important was to help people focus on and articulate their values as a foundation piece in order to have brave conversations, particularly as the group was quite diverse having a good mix of sexes, around a third under the age of 35, together with a number in their 70s, and one family of three generations.

In understanding the difference I found this to be a very useful overview:

  1. Values are the basic beliefs that an individual thinks to be true. Every individual has a set of values through which he looks at all things and also at the world.
  2. Ethics are guidelines or rules that are set for a society or an organization rather than for an individual.
  3. Values can be said to be the guiding principles in one’s life. ‘Value’ can be defined as a bridge by which an individual makes a decision regarding good and bad, right or wrong, and most important or less important.
  4. Ethics can be defined as set of rules formulated by a country or a company or some institutions. Ethics is mainly based on the moral values.

We crafted our values framework based on both an interpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs combined with Moore and Khagran’s Strategic Triangle for Creating Public Value.  Not only did we frame our questions around the questions of ‘what Can we do‘ (logos, the technology) and ‘what Should we do‘ (ethos, culture) but we also highlighted the need to ask ‘what May we do‘ (pathos, authority).

In addition we created a very simple, but quite informative, algorithm to poll the group about their feelings towards technology asking four questions to elicit their confidence that five potential technology innovations would improve their lives.

This graphic shows the results - a score of -0.18, in other words they were not confident at all.

Whilst the exercise was both crude and we did not have a lot of time to explain it in detail, it was indicative in terms of the general feeling in the room over the two days and the flavour of the discussions that were held.

What we learned in London then informed how we framed the conversations for Jamaica.

Brave Conversations Kingston in partnership with the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission

“We need to ensure that future citizens have the human capacity to operate in the digital world.” (Dr Andrew Wheatley, MP, Jamaica)

I met Cordel Green at the Harvard Kennedy School and our mutual interest in digital literacy and the need to empower people in the digital world resulted in his very kind invitation to travel to Kingston to hold Brave Conversations.

Not only was I welcomed with open arms but I was almost overwhelmed by the hospitality I was given and a huge thanks to Cordel, Karlene Salmon, Don Dobson and all at Broadcom for giving me such a privileged insight in to Jamaica.  Thank you also to Kemal Brown and his wonderful team who recorded it all.

Broadcom is the communications regulator in Jamaica, but not only is it doing that it is taking the lead in educating the Jamaican community about the world of information and both their rights and responsibilities in it.  We kicked off with an interview on Smile Jamaica, the opening of the Jamaican Teachers’ Federation Conference, and a radio interview, all of which gave me some initial insights in to this wonderful country.

Many of the conversations I heard in Jamaica were similar to those I hear elsewhere, but with their own unique twist.  Jamaica’s history, geography, climate and demographics have created an island paradise from which individuals have always shone on the world stage and of course writers such as Ian Fleming have been at their creative best.

Jamaica’s most pressing challenge is its crime rate.  According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018 the most problematic factors for doing business in the country are Crime and Theft, Taxes and Corruption.  But this links to so many other factors, and what resonated deeply for me was the determination to help young people develop the resources and resilience through both education and opportunity to help change this and determine a different future.  This was coupled by the high level of religious affiliation which was proudly displayed and acknowledged.

When I was crafting Brave Conversations Jamaica I wondered what impact this would have particularly as one of the key thinkers we reference is Yuval Noah Harari, whose Homo Deus and interviews directly challenge traditional religions comparing them to the “playing of virtual reality games in order to give humans meaning and purpose”.

It proved to be a core part of the conversations, and an opportunity to push both boundaries and ideas.

Fear and love

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” (Nelson Mandela)

We chose the word brave because any discussion around technology forces us as human beings to confront our deepest beliefs, aspirations and above all fears – how we see and make sense of the world and above all the things we are afraid of losing – from the basics of safety and security, to the intimacy of love.

At each of our Brave Conversations a mini-community evolved within which there was a degree of discomfort, people did have to explore and listen to different, and often challenging, viewpoints, but there began to emanate both a sense of trust and the preparedness to be brave.

“The real existential risk is a loss of the ability to make sense of the world around us:  what is worth doing, and what the likely effects of things will be.” (Daniel Schmachtenberger)

Having now run Brave Conversations in numerous countries, and with other invitations in the pipeline, we are keen to do whatever we can to help people better understand and appreciate the new digital space within which they are living.

What I have learned is that if we can provide the framework, the information and safe space for people to take a risk, present themselves as truly curious and smart humans, they will be brave and they willingly embrace the opportunity.

The real question of course is that armed with the insights of research, coupled with the power and communication afforded by our technologies, and with Humanity’s future at stake, can we afford not to be brave?

Leading in the Age of Cognition

Leading in the Age of Cognition

“Knowledge is power. To scrutinize others while avoiding scrutiny oneself is one of the most important forms of power.” (Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information)

Recently I joined Tris Lumley and Baillie Aaron at New Philanthropy Capital’s Ignites Conference to talk about data. What was pleasing was that we had a room full of people genuinely interested in having a mature and robust conversation about data and it’s context, and that throughout the conference digital and technology pervaded. As Fran Perrin commented these issues which digital technologies raise are now becoming mainstream, and finally people are beginning to focus less on the technology and more on the skills, knowledge and resources that people need in order to work within the digital space.

I believe that we have now moved past the ‘digital’ age and we are entering the Age of Cognition, the age where everyone and everything, is rapidly being connected in to a Global Societal Mind, the ultimate Social Machine, where data is coming from all sources, not just digital.  In December of this year a group of luminaries within the Internet/Web Worlds is coming together to celebrate the point in time where 50% of humanity is now online.  As with all technologies there is a Faustian Bargain – whilst connectivity brings access to information, resources, communities and networks, underpinned by a disconnection to geography and place, it also brings forth challenges to individual privacy and liberty as the price to pay for security.  The original vision of those who built the internet and the Web was to bring global connectivity to all humanity, but the consequences are only just beginning to be understood.

Amidst all of this progress the focus on the Machine is paramount, but what of the humans in this machine, and particularly those who lack the personal power and resources to push back and create some personal boundaries?  To me this is this is why the Charity Sector and the practice of Philanthropy is so very important.

In May of this year I spoke at the Quilter Cheviot Charity Seminar (see my interview https://vimeo.com/276237074) and there were four key points that I made concerning our Sector:

  1. we need to recognise and appreciate how important we are, and the power that we have to represent the human in the digital age
  2. we need to be beneficiary, not funder, driven – we need to focus on the human needs of those we seek to help
  3. we need to lead the regulation rather than let the regulation lead us, precisely because we are beneficiary driven, and
  4. we need to embrace the emerging world of data as a positive challenge, not something to be afraid of, but rather something to harness but also to understand.

Phil-anthropy quite literally means “love” of “Man” and is traditionally interpreted as meaning the desire to promote the well-being of others through the giving of alms, or money to good causes.

As I see it the cause of humanity is the most important we currently have, in both the short and long term, and the three key challenges facing our very existence – which include Climate Change, Nuclear War and the rise of Artificial Intelligence – are those which should be just as important as the more immediate ones relating to everyday life.

Throughout history technology has been harnessed to address societal challenges, and in the 2000’s it was digital media that began to determine societal systems and processes.  It changed business models, it changed expectations and provided hope for a better way to govern our societies.  Many felt that by making information more open and accessible the power imbalance between the government and the governed would be redressed (see the Power of Information Report) and many governments professed to embrace the principles of the Open Data movement which sought to provide Transparency, Participation and Collaboration as a path to more open and accountable government. (For more on this see https://www.finance.gov.au/blog/2010/07/16/declaration-open-government/, https://opengovdata.org/ 8 Principles and https://www.opengovpartnership.org/open-government-declaration).

The promise of open data resulted in whole bureaucratic processes changing in the rush to publish public data, but sadly much of it was published in a way that was relatively useless (see the 2016 Open Data Report) where there developed a focus on the collection of data for its own sake, “just in case”, because one day, as our technologies become smarter and more powerful, the data collected would potentially be useful.

Underpinning all of this was the thinking that

What gets measured gets managed. (Peter Drucker)

If we could only gather all the data, measure everything that we can, and then apply smart algorithms and increasing processing and storage power, we could more effectively understand the world around us and solve the problems we face.

But do we all want to be managed?  Where do we draw the line between privacy and security, between freedom and control, between dignity and insignificance, or perhaps irrelevance?

If Philanthropy has any role to play in the Age of Cognition it is, in my opinion, to fight to maintain the rights of human beings to retain their dignity, to recognise their value, and to maintain their sovereignty.

The more I have thought about this over the past couple of months the more the word Sovereignty keeps resonating in my mind.

Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. 

Historically we have thought of the word in terms of nation states or kingdoms, but as the individual becomes both more empowered and more measured it is the dynamic between the individual (in the libertarian sense) and the individual as a cog in the wheel of the Social Machine that for me is the central issue which will determine the lives of each and every one of us.

So, as we increasingly become more and more an integral part of the Social Machine how do we slow things down and take the time to think about how we design our systems – of government, society and community – to ensure both human dignity, but also human sovereignty?

In a very early Web 2.0 Conference Professor Genevieve Bell asked

What if we designed for data the way we design for people?

This question is the most important of our age, and as Bailley talked about her work in prisons, and the rising awareness of the value of personal data, the need for everyone – but particularly those working in the Charity Sector – to understand that link between data and these fundamental human values is crucial.

At a Royal Institution event I heard Professor Gina Neff make no bones about the fact that Artificial Intelligence is becoming social infrastructure.  The values baked in to the algorithms and operating systems that underpin our societies will determine how authority is given, taken and utilised in the digitally mediated world.

It will determine who we are, how we live and how we treat each other.

We cannot sit idly by and allow corporations and governments to determine these values, it is our sector, with our focus on our fellow human beings, that must take the lead and put true phil-anthropy first.

In my next post I will explore in more detail some ideas for precisely how the Philanthropic sector can take on this leadership.

Who frames the future?

Who frames the future?

Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.  (Peter Drucker)

Professor Dame Wendy Hall often recalls the early discussions around the formation of Web Science and Tim Berners-Lee’s suggestion that it be called PsychoHistory.

For anyone who hasn’t read Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series PsychoHistory is a fictional science which combines the social sciences together with mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behaviour of very large groups of people.

In 2006 this was a pretty revolutionary idea, but now in 2017, with all of the emerging revelations about how Facebook and the other Tech Titans have been harvesting and exploiting peoples’ data, the idea doesn’t seem so far fetched.

The Web is now the largest information construct ever developed in human history, and it is evolving at a rapid pace, being fed by increasing data sources, fueled by increasingly powerful computing machinery, and sculpted by increasingly intelligent artificial machines which communicate with and learn from each other.

The current awakening of the regulators and general populace to the fact that people like Mark Zuckerberg have amassed unprecedented wealth built upon the naivety of the “dumb fucks who submitted their data” is just one manifestation of the bigger issues at stake globally.

I see these as being

  • the power imbalance in the relationship between the technology creators and the users of their systems,

and

  • the fact that these technology creators lack the leadership skills to manage what they have created and the social context around it.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Doc Searls rightly states that

On the Net, we don’t need to be slaves, cattle or blood bags. We can be human. In legal terms, we can operate as first parties rather than second ones. In other words, the sites of the world can click “agree” to our terms, rather than the other way around.

There are very few Tech Leaders who appreciate the enormous responsibility that they have been given – either consciously or unconsciously – by those who have invested data in their products and platforms.  Steve Jobs did and he was a relatively lonely voice in stressing the importance of making sure people knew what is happening with their data as being something of the highest priority.

Privacy means people know what they are signing up for in plain English.  Ask them, ask them every time.  Make them tell you to stop asking them.  (Steve Jobs)

In all walks of life there are leaders and followers and I believe that never have we need Servant Leadership as much as we do now.

To quote Robert Greenleaf

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions … The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is:  Do those served grow as persons?  Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?  And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society?  Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

As people invest more and more of themselves – their personal data, their thoughts, hopes and dreams – in creating their digital selves, so those who frame the technical systems must think about serving rather than leading.

Leadership has been at the core of the work that Intersticia has been doing since its inception, and as we are crafting our forthcoming London Brave Conversations and our first Intersticia Fellowship Retreat in June, central to our thinking is the simple question

What does an individual really need to learn and develop to be an effective 21st Century leader?

Leadership for the 21st Century

 

Many people are talking about the parlous state of leadership around the world at the minute in every sector and Edelman’s research shows that we live in a world of seemingly stagnant distrust.

For many years I worked with colleagues Peter Thompson and Leanne Fry to try to promote digital literacy amongst emerging leaders through programmes held by the Australian and New Zealand School of Government.  Unfortunately, like so many things that I have done in life, we were too far ahead of the market, and whilst many people working in the public sector were becoming aware of the value of what we had to offer unfortunately ANZSOG was unable to truly step up and lead rather than focus on its own short term commercial imperatives.

In my search for who really is stepping up I took myself to the Harvard Kennedy School to participate in their Leadership for the 21st Century programme which is largely based on the work of Ronald Heifetz and the practice of Adaptive Leadership.

Heifetz states that a part of the work of leadership is to ask hard questions and knock people out of their comfort zones.  Then they manage the resulting distress.

Adaptive Leadership has some powerful elements for the management of change, but what I observed was that

  1. there seems to be a tendency to regard technology issues as separate from the human and social issues, or at least secondary in some way; and
  2. many academics who teach leadership (and indeed most of the social-sciences) are ill equipped to address the socio-technical issues because they do not themselves understand them, at least this has been my experience up to date.

I see this not only at Harvard, but in many of the leadership courses taught around the world.

However, there is a glimmer of hope which I found when I went back to Harvard this February to participate in the first iteration of Professor David Eaves new programme Digital Transformation for Government.

David poses the challenge upfront:

Digital technologies matter because our society, our economy, and our organizations have—for better and worse—become digitized. If policy makers and public servants can’t understand what this means, how it alters the production of public goods, or its impact on management, regulation, the economy, and policy, we are in trouble.

From this he has crafted a course which addressed many of the fundamentals underpinning digital transformation including privacy, identity, cybersecurity, cryptocurrencies and the management of change.

What wasn’t explored though was the big elephant in the room

How is digital reshaping and sculpting the balance of power and influence between the different sectors of human societies of the 21st Century – Government, Business, Third Sector – and what does this mean for current, emerging and future leaders?

In the research I’ve been doing and through talking to people in leadership roles it seems to me that

  1.  Most leaders are overwhelmed by the day to day demands of their roles and are highly reactive in much of what they do, giving them little time to focus on things like core values;
  2. In many parts of the world, and Australia in particular, there is a distinct lack of robust conversation and respectful debate around the really challenging and confronting issues.

Not only does the Facebook example demonstrate this but so do the current banking and financial scandals in Australia.

Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are.  (Sherry Turkle)

Our values are at the core of what it is to be human, and a recent Harvard paper highlights precisely the point I made during the Harvard course.

At some point in our history, probably with the advent of language, leadership acumen transitioned from physical to cognitive skills, putting a premium on intelligence and expertise at the expense of force and strength. By the same token, one would expect the current AI revolution to commoditize and automate the data-driven aspect of leadership, delegating the soft elements of leadership to humans. Consistently, our research suggests that, in an AI age characterized by intense disruption and rapid, ambiguous change, we need to rethink the essence of effective leadership. Certain qualities, such as deep domain expertise, decisiveness, authority, and short-term task focus, are losing their cachet, while others, such as humility, adaptability, vision, and constant engagement, are likely to play a key role in more-agile types of leadership.

But I don’t actually think this is enough.

Leaders need more than soft skills.  They need to much more fully understand the power of the technologies around them and harness them for our collective benefit rather than trusting their technical advisors to do the work for them.

One place to look for the essential skills is history, which is also what Azimov sought to do.  There are many great leaders – albeit mostly male – about whom much has been written and recorded, but I am going to end this piece by reflecting on my own observations of one of the great Islamic leaders, Saladin.

From my reading of Saladin’s life through the eyes of Tariq Ali there were a few very special qualities that the great leader had which are as relevant and important today as they were then.  These include humility, temperance, modesty, integrity, loyalty, authenticity and empathy.  One other thing that really stood out for me was that Saladin was an experienced, knowledgeable and confident in handling horses, which were the primary technology of his day.  He knew how to handle them, to breed them and to care for them and when he rode them they became an extension of himself.

Reading this I thought about the direction in which our technologies are taking us, and with the image of Saladin mounted on his horse in mind I realised that this is precisely what we are doing now.

As our machines are becoming more extensions of ourselves we must learn how to handle them, how to care for them, their pedigree and provenance, and to predict their behaviours.

This is what Steve Jobs understood (although I would not clarify him as being a Servant Leader) and is evident in how he designed the products that Apple produced.  And this is also why the world is all the poorer for not having him around to help guide through the current complexities as our machines become more and more powerful.  As we are gathering more and more data about the world around us – and ourselves – we are becoming increasingly reliant on our machines to help us make sense of it, and to make decisions on our behalf.

  • We are becoming slaves to our technologies because we can’t go back.  We are the soul embodiment of humanity.  (Dr Brian Herman, Endovascular Neurosurgeon)
  • Machines are taking bigger and bigger bites out of our skillset and so we have to run faster and faster to stay ahead (Sean Gourley, Primer)
  • Technology is like a God itself. We can’t impact it, we can’t stop it, we feel powerless. (Jonathan Nolan, Writer/Director). Taken from Chris Paine’s documentary Do you trust this computer?
Two key leaders in Computer Science understood this and state this far more eloquently than I can.

The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome. (Vannevar Bush, As We May Think).

Man’s population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity. Augmenting man’s intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable 1a2 approach and some plausible benefits. (Douglas Engelbart, Augmenting Human Intellect)

 

We spend a lot of time and energy stressing the need for our leaders to understand people.

When it comes to framing the future if they don’t understand what shapes it then they are devolving their responsibility to a narrow group of technical experts rather than representing the broader constituency of all humanity.

Leaders must also understand the machines.

Also published on Medium