Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 2021

Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 2021

Last week I held the first of our second series of Digital Gymnasia with Alumni and Members of Goodenough College.

In 2017 Experion created it’s Your Data Self ads which, as the ad says, is what companies see when they’re deciding how to interact with individuals.  One of my goals in these Gymnasia is to introduce particpants to their data selves and to demystify the digital realm so that they can more confidently navigate and negotiate their online lives.

In our first Digital Gymnasia series we made the most of the World going in to lockdown as we all experimented with living online.  The more workshops I did the more I realised that there is a deep seated need for events such as these which both allow people to talk (and later think) whilst simultaneously giving them some practical tools to take away.

The feedback from those who have attended has been largely positive with many telling me they are using what they have learned in their private as well as their professional lives.  But, as with all these things, there are some who have felt that I may be rather negative or cynical in how I frame my view of technologies and the world of tech generally.

This has given me pause for thought and so I am taking this opportunity to articulate my own ideas a bit further in order to provide additional context for future events and, perhaps, encourage some braver conversations.

I have always been interested in the interstice between technology, culture and society and aware that we, as a species, are at the beginning of a major technological revolution, something way beyond “industrial” and something we don’t even have the words to adequately describe as yet.

I bought my first Apple Macintosh when I was a student living in Goodenough College in 1985; I logged on to the early World Wide Web through the first version of the Netscape browser via Australia’s first public Internet Service Provider Pegasus Networks in 1993; I co-created my first Web Consulting company “New Media Connections” in 1995, and I helped to lead a major initiative in Australia called Print21 which sought to understand the impact of digital media on what was then the world’s largest manufacturing industry and the first to be digitised thanks to desktop publishing.

As a result of this I was recruited by Fuji Xerox Australia to help them envisage the future and there I spent almost a decade immersed in the work of the global Xerox Innovation Network researching and exploring the impact of the evolving World Wide Web on how we as social human animals interact and communicate online.  This led to a focus on what was then called the Semantic Web, a set of standards which has helped lay many of the foundations for what we now call ‘Artificial Intelligence’.  It also let me personally to begin working with many of the people who actually built the Internet and Web over the last six decades and who formed Web Science to ensure that it both survives but most of all continues to benefit humanity.

Every technological device we invent (including our laws and language) has our values and human biases built in to it, and manifests how we as human animals see the world.  The affordances of all technologies are a manifestation of how we have crafted the world around us to meet a need and afford us a mechanism to do things – doors are for opening; cups are for holding liquids; chairs are for sitting on.  This is one reason why I teach the history of digital information technologies – they have not suddenly leapt out of the ether, they have emerged as the result of centuries of thought and use to solve particular problems:  Babbage invented his Difference Engine to automate long, tedious astronomical calculations; the Internet was invented to help fortify the US Defence Department during the Cold War; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help researchers share documents; the PageRank algorithm was developed as a new type of search engine.

Each of these has changed the way we operate and go about our daily lives, and each exemplifies the fact that all human inventions have longer term unforeseen consequences.

The Internet and the Web were given to Humanity by their inventors with few, if any, restrictions on how they were used.  As with all things that are perceived as free  if there is a situation where individual users have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, they will act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action (the Tragedy of the Commons).  With the Internet and the Web both have created vast wealth for a small group, whilst also enabling access to knowledge and information on an unprecedented scale for anyone connected, but the social and psychological costs of this is something we are only just beginning to understand.

In a recent speech at International Privacy Day Apple CEO Tim Cook states that

Too many are still asking the question “How much can we get away with?” when they need to be asking “What are the consequences?” …  A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.

It is these consequences that Shoshana Zuboff focuses on in her most recent work. At an event in 2019 I asked her if she had seen this surveillance internet coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2000.  She answered that yes she had, but she hoped it wouldn’t happen.  This is similar to Tim Berners-Lee’s response to hearing that there was pornography on the Web – “Just don’t look at it!”

Three things have combined to create the online environment within which we now live.

  1. The first is the generosity and näivety of the early digital inventors who were enamoured by the technology largely ignoring the science of human behaviour
  2. the second is the pure greed which was allowed to run amok and untethered in the wild digital frontiers largely due to the fact that the early technologies emerged within the West Coast of the United States with it’s free market approach to regulation and dare-devil attitude to innovation and novelty
  3. the third is the almost complete lack of understanding of the affordances of digital information by government regulators, policy makers and politicians which meant that they missed the early opportunities to reign in monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour.

These have now played themselves out but the public and our governments are beginning to step up and demand that there is a new phase in how these systems operate –   the Australian and now Canadian governments are beginning to challenge the current ad-based publishing dominance of the large tech platforms, and hopefully new business models for online commerce will emerge.

The key question is

“Which philosophy do you want to pursue? Do you want a business that serves your customers? Or one that takes advantage of customers to serve your business?  (Justin Bariso)

As my dear friend Professor Dame Wendy Hall states if it wasn’t for the Internet and the Web we would not have been able to remain connected during the Pandemic and it remains the most powerful innovation of all time.  Precisely because of this

we … need to be prepared for the internet that we know to evolve unpredictably, and work to ensure that it remains beneficial for humankind.

For me, as a full time philanthropist, Wendy’s words resonate deeply.  When we created our family Charity Intersticia we chose to focus on working to support individuals as 21st Century leaders with a focus on helping to build digital fluency.  To complement this we hold our Brave Conversations which are open to all, we partner with Goodenough College to hold our Digital Gymnasia, and we partner with Tech for Better organisations (such as Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks) who teach coding skills to those who seek to harness them for social good.

I am often asked why I do what I do and what I hope to achieve.

My main objective is to get people to think, to wake them up from the somnambulist state they are in as they go about their daily lives largely unaware of the systems which underpin each and every interaction.  As Melvin Kranzberg states

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral

We are our technologies and they are us.

There is much to be hopeful for in this new era, and the Covid corridor is speeding up technological progress by forcing us all to become more digitally fluent and savvy.  It is empowering governments to be less passive and reactive in how they approach technology (which has both a positive and negative side of course) which means that the balance of power between governments and the tech companies is changing.

It is purely speculative to try to predict what will happen in the next month, let alone the next decade! but it is prudent to give people some tools to at least begin to imagine some of the possibilities.  If the early tech inventors had studied more psychology, philosophy and history perhaps they might have had a clearer picture of what might happen themselves.  This is why Web Science is so important – precisely because it does seek to bring together as many perspectives as possible.

As with so many inventions Web Science was inspired by Science Fiction, in particular Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series and the dream of Hari Seldon to build Psychohistory.  This is  why I stress to all who come to our workshops that reading Science Fiction is probably the most important way to begin to imagine the future.

This second series of Digital Gymnasia seeks to instill a confidence in the imagination and an ability to more robustly address and explore some of the thornier issues which are emerging.

I have crafted this second series to build on the first (which we are in the process of recording) and to work from the individual to the group and community.  At present we have four to be delivered over the next couple of month:

  1. Your Digital Brand – Who are you online?
  2. Demystifying AI – What are we collectively building in the online world?
  3. Facilitating Meetings Online – How are we taking our work online?
  4. Digital Governance – How are we holding each other to account Online?

Some events will be more content heavy (such as Demystifying AI and Digital Governance) but I hope to bring practical exercises in to them all.  As with every event I work with who is in the room at the time, the questions that arise, and largely let the group determine both the pace and how much we cover in the time allotted.  This is a tricky balance and is a collaborative effort where we all learn from each other.

The most important measure of success is not that everyone agrees with or likes what is presented … it is that they are stimulated to think about their data self slightly differently and with a bit more agency and confidence.

For more information on these events please either contact me or Melissa Morley at Goodenough College.

View of an Intern

View of an Intern

From our Intern Jacquie Crock

For as long I can remember I have never truly understood what Intersticia is.  I knew that Mum had a friend called Anni, and they would travel around the world and do interesting things.  But I never knew they had a purpose, a common goal and motive that lead them to what Intersticia is today.  As one of the newest members of the Intersticia community, joining in the historic year of 2020, my questions were finally answered.

The first thing I realised was that Intersticia is not a workplace, rather a community of like-minded individuals working together for the future.

Some of my first work was with the new “Brave Conversation” podcasts, a brilliant idea to better know each member of the Intersticia community.  As a kid, still in school, hearing about people literally studying Martian matter, and working in innovative fields from sustainable energy to aid in humanitarian crises to tech and the arts, I found it quite overwhelming to be part of such an incredible group.  However, it only took me a short while to understand that there is not a single member of this community that would ever put themselves on a pedestal.  Of the people I have met this year, each have been incredibly articulate and genuinely kind people, and overwhelmingly intelligent all the same!

Another aspect of Intersticia that, rather excited me, was the mechanisms deployed to ensure sustainable work practices.

As soon as I joined my first Zoom meeting I was refreshed to experience people working through future based concepts, ideas that will benefit the international community, not only for themselves but for generations to come.  Relating to this idea, I immediately noticed how generous the Intersticia community is.  This year has forced us to live online, and although it has had its disadvantages, meeting via zoom and communicating online has lead me to meet so many incredible people.

I am completing my final years in high school and was asked to present a twenty minute presentation on the Gaza Strip, in a brief conversation I mentioned this to Anni, and within hours I was put in touch with an incredibly generous woman who not only took the time to email me and send me articles, but who gave me an hour out of her day to meet with me.  This was one of my first experiences with the generosity this community contains and certainly won’t be my last.

After meeting with a collection of people in 2020, I was grateful to learn that even in times of crisis people can still practice things that they value. This image above depicts Palestinians in Gaza practicing music (Pre-Covid). Those in Gaza are resilient and spirited, and that even though they face some of the most prominent challenges of this century, that they are still able to celebrate life.

Unlike friends of mine, who spend hours stacking shelves or working in shops, the time I spend working is educational and truly beneficial for my future. I have had the opportunity to listen in on workshops and meetings and have learnt so much.  The social depth that humanity is facing with the rise of technology and globalisation is unlike any other time.  Hearing about what these new advancements mean and how to face them has been inspirational and hopeful, knowing about these concepts now has prepared me for the future, however difficult and inconspicuous it will be.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be Intersticia’s newest Intern and look forward to meeting more of you in the future!

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.

Leadership for the 21st Century

Leadership for the 21st Century

When everyone agrees on where the future is headed – especially when that destination is so far from our current reality – that’s not a sign of inevitability; it’s a sign that people have stopped thinking.  A good time, perhaps, to hike out to some awkward, sideways headland where we can look things over from a contrary angle.  (Lee Simons, Wired)

Last week I was hugely privileged to attend the Harvard Kennedy School to participate in their Leadership for the 21st Century programme, Chaos, Conflict and Courage.

I have long wanted to attend a Kennedy School course, particularly as ANZSOG (with whom I taught and researched for a number of years) follows the Harvard pedagogy, with the intimate format, case-based analysis, and working groups.  The course was facilitated by Dr Tim O’Brien, himself a Harvard Alumni, who very ably crafted a safe learning space within which the 77 of us were able to both get to know each other as individuals, as well as to understand ourselves a little better.

The course builds on the Adaptive Leadership model developed by Professor Ronald Heifetz which articulates the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges, and from there describes a set of strategies, tools and tactics to address each.  It also incorporates numerous elements of the Tavistock Institute’s Group Relations to enable individuals to understand their respective roles within the a broader organisational system, both in smaller teams and the plenary.

Four external presenters were brought in, each with their own unique perspectives drawn from the world of experience:  Farayi Chipungu described her consulting experience with McKinsey; Dr Donna Hicks shared her work based on leading with dignity; Shannon McAuliffe told the story of her work with Roca Inc, and Hugh O’Doherty took us on a journey through the work he has done in peace negotiations globally.

I went to Harvard to soak up the experience of attending one of the world’s leading academic institutions, but also to learn as much as I could from every source that presented itself – the facilitators and presenters, my fellow classmates (one of who was Negar Tayyar, our first Intersticia Leadership Scholar), and of course, myself.

There was much I found extremely familiar about the course – how it was taught, the framing of exercises, the use of cases, and the exploration of individual as well as broader human issues.  What made the Harvard experience special were two things:  firstly, the calibre of highly intelligent, self-motivated and senior people from all walks of life and virtually every continent around the world; and, secondly the very safe container that Tim O’Brien created and held for us all to work in over the course of the five days.

As we explored the concept of Adaptive Leadership people gradually disconnected from their daily work roles and began to more reflectively explore themselves as leaders – they began to move from the dance to the balcony – one of my favourite coaching phrases!  With this came the ability to unpack and more fully understand both the context and any personal stuck issues.

Each person had their own Aha! moment last week, some more profound than others, but regardless of how far along the personal learning journey each of us were, there were salient lessons for everyone as a 21C Leader.

Most people were from the public sector, but there were a number from the Third Sector, which, as I have written in numerous posts, I believe to crucial in championing the human in the world at the moment.  Regardless, everyone was struggling with the complexity of the world around them, and the need for adaptability, agility and improvisation.  This is where Adaptive Leadership comes in to its own, and where the skills taught at courses like this will be invaluable to all leaders.

However, as with so much of any education in the leadership space, and particularly for senior people, there was only a passing mention of technology (including data and digital) in its own right, let alone the socio-technical challenges which underpin so much of what is happening in the digital age.

As I found at ANZSOG this seems to stem from two things:

  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.

This is not a criticism, in fact it is a challenge, but one that needs to be addressed immediately.

Whilst we are focusing on giving the next generation the skills for tomorrow it is just as, if not more important, to help the leaders of today who are too often focusing on industrial age problems, often missing, or neglecting, the techtonic shifts that are happening underneath them.  All industries, businesses and enterprises are changing, but we don’t necessarily know what that change will mean, and the more we take time out to sit in some awkward sideways headland and reflect and think, the better equipped we will be to meet what is coming at us.

This is the core of our Web Science challenge and why Web Science, in itself, is crucially important, but also unique.  It is precisely because in Web Science we understand that

the Web is changing the World, and the World is changing the Web – we live in the age of the Social Machine where there are no boundaries between humans and our technologies.

As Marshall McLuhan said, way before the days of the ubiquitous internet and the Web,

We become what we behold.  We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.

Our tools and technologies are extensions of who and what we are, but most importantly

as the boundaries between our physical and digital existence increasingly blur, the need to understand, analyse and address the socio-technical challenges will be at the heart of the work of all leaders.

Therefore I believe that the first step for every 21C Leader – regardless of age or stage – is to much more proactively take it upon themselves to study the technologies which are now all around us, to understand where they have come from, and begin to articulate, or at least, explore, where they might be taking us.  I had hoped that Harvard might be a little more advanced in this, but sadly not.  They are not on their own however.

The second step for every 21C Leader follows on from what I wrote about in my last blog, and that is to figure out how to lead in new and different ways.  Much of this is about standing aside and allowing the Web Generation to take the lead, whilst mentoring, coaching and moderating with the benefit of wisdom and experience, and maintaining the authority that is so important.  In this they need to hold the space within which the important work needs to happen.

This is where I believe that Adaptive Leadership is ideally suited precisely because

  • it sees leadership as a practice not a position
  • it recognises that ongoing nature of the challenge of leading, not the problem
  • it differentiates between leadership and authority
  • it stresses the need to observe and interpret before any intervention
  • it recognises the fluidity and ongoing evolution of the systems within which it exists
  • it connects with purpose.

It also links to Robert Greenleaf’s ideas around moral authority and Servant Leadership.

Moral authority is another way to define servant leadership because it represents a reciprocal choice between leader and follower.  If the leader is principle centered, he or she will develop moral authority.  If the follower is principle centered, he or she will follow the leader.  In this sense, both leaders and followers are followers.  Why?  They follow truth. They follow natural law.  They follow principles.  They follow a common, agreed-upon vision.  They share values.  They grow to trust one another.

The Leadership for the 21C programme went a long way towards articulating how this moral authority can flow from the Adaptive Leadership framework, and the course was of great value in many other ways.

However,

I would like to challenge the Harvard Kennedy School to itself take the lead and by stepping in to their own authority recognise and integrate the Social Machine into all of their leadership courses, particularly this one.

In a world where we are continually being forced to assert our human values whilst we are bombarded by our screens the most important thing that any leader can do is to protect them with all of the moral authority they can muster, for all of our sakes.

Being brave

Being brave

Last week in an article in the Financial Review renown businessman David Gonski talked about the commoditisation of the professions.

Let’s be professional and fight artificial intelligence. (David Gonski)

Gonski is right on a number of fronts, but very wrong on others. He is totally right in that the humans in the workplace need to be human, and deliver ideas with humanity. However, he is wrong about fighting artificial intelligence.

It is too late.

AI may well be the best chance humanity has got to survive. It may be our only hope.

We have extended both our minds and bodies with technology since we walked from the savannah. Our latest invention, artificial intelligence, is set to revolutionise many of the socio-technical systems we rely on every day, and in all likelihood we underestimate the impact that it is already having, and the speed with which it is progressing. It is not the AGI (artificial general intelligence or Strong AI) that is disrupting our world, it is the many and various Weak or narrow AI that is good at doing specific things, and upon which we increasingly rely and daily feed as the Social Machine.

It is the humans that are changing how the world works, not the machines.

This is one reason why we are having our Brave Conversations conference in Canberra in April.

We do need to talk, we need to talk openly and honestly, and we need to talk now.

Why? Because …

AI and robots, like Climate Change, aren’t waiting for us humans to get our heads around the world that is changing, they are marching ahead regardless.

Let’s get a sense of what is going on.

Intelligence has always underpinned human progress and driven our curiosity and ingenuity, and it has been as much a force for good as for evil. With the assistance of our clever intelligence systems – computers and the data we are feeding them – these are just a few of the things that are becoming real in the twenty first century:

All of this is happening because we have developed information systems which enable us to work with data, information and knowledge in new and more powerful ways.

Whilst these things are not yet a part of everyday life they are coming.

As William Gibson said

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. (The Economist, December 4, 2003)

That distribution is what is going to determine the future of humanity, because it is going to be those with access to the smartest and most powerful technologies who have the power. We are already seeing that with Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.

I am listening to many of these conversations as I travel around the world, and it is time that we Australians actively engaged in it, bravely, with courage, and a little bit of daring. We need to consider what we can bring to the table that is different, that is uniquely ours, and not something that we are trying to emulate from elsewhere.

What do we do differently? Here is a short list to start off with:

  1. we have the tyranny of distance – our distance from the Northern Hemisphere, the US and Europe means that we often watch what is going on via our screens, rather than experience it directly. This both mediates our response but also gives us the opportunity to be less reactive and more objective;
  2. this distance also means that we are often little more than a sales channel for the multinationals who do very little research here, but we are a great test market;
  3. we can be innovative, but I believe that most of all we are fast followers – we see how others have done things and we quickly embrace new ideas, adopt new technologies, and then we play with them, alter and amend them, and apply them to new problems;
  4. we are a young country which is also an island – as a white nation we have never been invaded, however we have built this by invading the lands of others. This gives us a juxtaposition of security versus insecurity,;
  5. we have amongst us the original custodians of this land, who have, over the last 60,000 years. accumulated wisdom, knowledge and experience about the natural world and the place of humanity in it;
  6. we have a resilient and robust economy, which seems to be able to weather global crises;
  7. we have a stable system of government (despite the instability in our politics, and an appalling lack of leadership) built upon the foundations of the Westminster system which itself has endured for centuries;
  8. we have a strident multi-culturalism and a determination to embrace and accept ideas, cultures and creeds of all kinds;
  9. we have a young mindset which sits on a very old, ancient and fragile land;
  10. we inhabit the fringes of our continent, clinging to the edges and are often at the mercy of nature at her harshest with fire, floods and storms. Through this we have a respect for nature which I think other places are gradually losing.

These are the things that I believe we can contribute to the global conversation because they impact on each and every one of us in our day to day lives.

People have asked me what the outcomes of our Brave Conversations will be.

To be honest, I have no idea. But, nor should I. That is not my role. My role is to get the right people in the room together and then let them toss ideas around in a safe and respectful manner, to explore connections and gain insights that they might not otherwise do.

But there are a number of themes that will emerge:

  1. what is the role of government in the digital age? At present governments around the world are struggling just to keep up, let along provide a framework within which the Social Machine is developing. This is what Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt saw when they went to Gordon Brown and created Web Science.
  2. what is the economic value of a human as capitalism declines and democracy is in question?
  3. what is the importance of Web Science, which, as a multi-disciplinary field bringing together the Social and the Machine together, is needed, now more than ever. Whether it is Asimov’s PsychoHistory or something else, the Web has changed the world, and the world has changed the Web. The world and the Web are symbiotic. Web Science considers all actors – human and technical, individuals, governments and enterprise – it is humanity in motion.

I asked Professor Susan Halford about the importance of Web Science and she responded thus:

Finding ourselves in this position raises questions that are both profoundly important and difficult to answer.

  • How do we ensure that the Web benefits everyone?
  • And what are the business and governance models that would underpin this?
  • How do we deal with conflicts of interest, for example between openness and intellectual property, the right to anonymity and policing cybercrime, data based business models and ownership of our own data?
  • Artificial intelligence and human accountability?
  • As the Web continues evolve in networks of social, technical, legal, political and economic relations we find that none of the existing areas of academic research are able to fully address the profound questions that are raised.
  • Whilst computer scientists understand the technologies, psychologists how they impact on human thinking, lawyers understand the legal challenges that arise and sociologists the ways that family life, communities and social identities are changing, any one discipline can only provide a partial answer.

Web Science was established for this reason: to ask the difficult questions, and establish the interdisciplinary capacity to answer them fully.

In these times of rapid change we need leaders who do bring the human skills as Gonski has said, but more importantly, we need leaders who are watching the horizon, who understand the implications of these powerful technologies and appreciate both the risks and the benefits, who can anticipate some of the potential consequences, and who are open to explore humans and society in new ways.

Our technologies are redefining who and what we are. There is no stopping that and, thanks to AI and all that it enables, the humans who walk this planet in 100 years will be very different from those of us who are here now. We have a responsibility to at least try to comprehend what is going on, and to proactively make choices that will benefit future generations, not stick our fingers in the dyke and hope that it will just go away.

Some may doubt that all of this is happening, and many may want to put their heads in the sand. But, as with Pascal’s Wager, it would be foolish to not at least make provision, just in case.

Come join us and make your own adventure (to quote Pia Waugh).

Come and be brave!