The other “i” word … ingenuity

The other “i” word … ingenuity

Not long ago I was walking over the entrance to Narrabeen Lakes and I saw this fellow swimming against the tide.  I had been talking to my friend about getting an endless pool and all of a sudden here was nature’s version.

As we now face the gravest human challenge in our lifetimes I have been thinking about the words we use to describe how humans solve problems, and what sort of skills, capabilities, mindsets and values we need to focus on to ensure that it is the humans that continue to play a productive role in society, rather than be reduced to either slaves or consumers within the Social Machine.

I have found myself reacting to the current buzzword of innovation and the fact that every man and his cat is seeking to innovate.  We have Innovation Labs, Innovation Agendae, Innovation Grants, Innovation Officers, Innovation programmes – you name it, it’s there madly innovating and gobbling up peoples time, mindsets and resources.

But what are we really talking about?

Innovation can be defined as a new idea, device or method, something that is both original and more effective that what was there before.

The second “i” word we often think about is Invention which is a unique or novel device, method, composition or process.  It is different because it achieves a completely unique function or result may be a radical breakthrough.

Invention and innovation are different, and should not be confused (see Wired article). 

The third “i” word that is often cited is Imagination.

Imagination is about the faculty of imagining, the creative ability to form images, ideas, and sensations in the mind from input of the senses, such as seeing or hearing.

Imagination is perhaps the key “i” word that has led to much of what we now have in the twentieth century, because it has fueled the Science Fiction that is rapidly becoming Science Fact.

All of these rests on three fundamental things – information, insight and intuition.  Whilst our technological assistants are becoming increasingly good at the first, at the minute it is only us humans that seem to have the upper hand in the latter two.

I love Wikipedia‘s definition of insight

Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect within a specific context.

The term insight is best understood at being something much more than just a piece of information.  It is more about

  • understanding the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively (called noesis in Greek)
  • an introspection
  • the power of acute observation and deduction, discernment, and perception, called intellection or noesis
  • an dentification of relationships and behaviors within a model, context, or scenario (this links to AI of course)
  • and, when it manifests itself suddenly it is called an epiphany.

Insights are crucial to how we read the world around us, and are often based on our sense of intuition, our ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning, proof or evidence, or  without understanding how the knowledge was acquired.

All of these “i” words are important, however there is another, which, in my mind at least, is equally, if not more, important than innovation.

This word is ingenuity.

Ingenuity is the quality of being clever, original, and inventive, often in the process of applying ideas to solve problems or meet challenges. Ingenuity (Ingenium) is the root Latin word for engineering. For example, the process of figuring out how to cross a mountain stream using a fallen log, building an airplane model from a sheet of paper, or starting a new company in a foreign culture all involve the exercising of ingenuity. Human ingenuity has led to various technological developments through applied science, and can also be seen in the development of new social organizations, institutions, and relationships. Ingenuity involves the most complex human thought processes, bringing together our thinking and acting both individually and collectively to take advantage of opportunities and/or overcome problems.

What I saw when I looked at the swimmer in the Narrabeen Lakes was ingenuity – a human being who had observed the natural world, thought about how to harness and utilise the power of nature, and created his own personal endless pool.

Ingenuity is all around us, but it is not celebrated or articulated nearly as much as it should be.  Ingenuity is at the heart of man and nature, man and machine, and will be what propels us to the next phase.

Ingenuity is what I believe countries like Australia are good at, taking something and bending it, breaking it, doing new things with it, and then coming up with a novel way of using it.

We can’t all be innovative all the time.  Despite the rhetoric and the hype we can’t all start new innovative companies that will one day either turn in to mega-corporations or be gobbled up by one.  But we can be ingenius about how we utilise the many technological wonders around us and harness them for our own purposes, rather than sleep-walk in to a future when we are mere consumerist cogs in the wheel.

As we hurtle towards a world where our inventions are increasingly beginning to redefine everything around us it is imperative that we identify what it is to be uniquely human, and fight to keep it as a priority.

In the world of work Shoshana Zuboff was one of the first to explore this in the Age of the Smart Machine and now there are plenty of calls for us to more fully understand what humans do best.  In many ways we are superb pattern recognition machines but anything that can be articulated as a pattern can most likely be written as an algorithm (assuming the availability of the data to inform it).  Kevin Kelly argued in 2012 that robots will actually be better at many of the jobs that we currently do stating that

The real revolution erupts when everyone has personal workbots, the descendants of Baxter, at their beck and call.

Zuboff predicted this in The Support Economy, a text I still highly recommend that everyone should read, and it is this combination of man and machine, the Social Machine, which is now heralding the next wave.

This is also what the group at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society are doing in their work around data principles (see https://digitalimpact.io/digital-data/four-principles/).

What that looks like is something that only Science Fiction has thus far predicted, but is coming more quickly that most people realise, and has profound social, economic and political implications.

This is where we need to harness and utilise all of our “i” talents! 

As Douglas Rushkoff said at a recent talk I went to in London

When I was young I spent my time educating all of the analogues about digital, now I spend my time educating the digitals about analogue!

As we embrace and imbibe more and more of our technologies both around us and within us we need to celebrate and protect what it is to be human, and to understand what that is.

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?