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?

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.


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.

Sleepers, Awake!

Sleepers, Awake!

(Quote from David Brin)

On 1st March Ariana Huffington posted an article entitled “The Great Awakening” which stated that

For most of the internet’s young life, the assumption of virtue was built in — it was largely taken for granted that the increased access to data and information, and the increased connection to everything and everybody could only be positive. … And in the political sphere, social media was unquestioned as a force for democracy. … But that idea — that more sophisticated technology necessarily means more social progress — came crashing down in 2017. … The realization wasn’t as abrupt of a wake-up call as it was in the political conversation, but the cultural shift is unmistakable.  The reality of what our technology is doing to us was so inescapable that acknowledging it became a virtual requirement for tech executives wanting to be taken seriously.

Finally, humanity is beginning to wake up to Kranzberg’s First Law that

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

Human bias, goals, objectives and values are built in to everything that we invent, create and utilise, and no technology has unforeseeable social consequences.

Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than in the current Facebook and Cambridge Analytica saga which has been gradually unf0lding over a number of  years.

Whilst there is currently a deluge of media about the issue of data and privacy, the truth is that this has been the inevitable outcome of many of the digital platforms upon which so much of the 21st Century commercial system relies, and, from a Web Science perspective, what we have predicted from the get go.

For anyone who has read their Azimov the Web is as close to Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory as we have currently got, but this is only just the beginning.

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

Many are writing and observing this, but my key interest is what does this mean for those who lead in the 21st Century?  And not just companies but governments, social enterprise, and the philanthropic sector.

The current situation for Facebook – and I would suggest many companies who have harnessed and exploited the data supplied by naive users – has largely been facilitated and enabled by the fact that those in leadership positions are very poor leaders.

Good leaders admit mistakes, apologize quickly, show up where they’re needed and show their belief in the company by keeping skin in the game.

As anyone who has heard my rants over the past decade know I have always hated Facebook and the only reason I ever created an account was to ‘lurk’ on my children, which has proven to be useful as a teaching tool for us all.  I have never posted, I have never followed and I have studiously avoided maintaining any correspondence on it, or other platforms such as LinkedIn, where, like Twitter, I maintain a professional and public profile.

Each and every business has a fundamental business model which emanates from the values of its founders.

As the Economist succinctly puts it

Facebook’s business relies on three elements: keeping users glued to their screens, collecting data about their behaviour and convincing advertisers to pay billions of dollars to reach them with targeted ads. The firm has an incentive to promote material that grabs attention and to sell ads to anyone. Its culture melds a ruthless pursuit of profit with a Panglossian and narcissistic belief in its own virtue. Mr Zuckerberg controls the firm’s voting rights. … The episode fits an established pattern of sloppiness towards privacy, tolerance of inaccuracy and reluctance to admit mistakes.

A key part of any leader’s role is in building trust and if Facebook is to survive this is what must be done, but this is just one instance of the crisis that is gradually engulfing all digital media companies who deal in data.

These companies are in many ways industrial age dinosaurs operating in a digitally mediated ecosystem.  They seek to create monopolies and some believe that they should be treated as public utilities and regulated in a similar way.  Certainly the European Union is upping the ante with this.

The challenge for everyone who relies on these platforms in the wake of data breaches etc is that merely shutting down your Facebook account won’t help – they own Instagram and WhatsApp, they are insideous in how they are now woven in to many business systems.

What I have understood from the outset is that these companies’ business models are based on treating their users as commodities, to be harvested, cajoled, taunted, and fed like cattle in a feedlot.  Their role is purely and simply to feed the Social Machine with little regard for the longer term effects of social ramifications.

Their values are all about what benefits Facebook, not about the people who use their services.  As a result the technological environment which has been created is so powerful that people are actually addicted to it, and people are going to find it hard to both do business and conduct their social lives until they find a suitable alternative and one that all of their friends are also using.

What people have done is less about just buying Facebook services, they have actually invested in Facebook through the data and trust they have put in it as a way to keep up with friends, family and or B2C, customers.

So, if we think about this from an investment point of view the relationship between the leadership and the investors is a useful lens with which to view how we treat them.

Some of the key questions for anyone using these platforms to ask themselves include

  • What is the business model of the platform?  What are they getting from me and what do they want me to do?
  • If I see myself as a prosumer – both a consumer and a producer – then what sort of relationship do I want with them?
  • If I look at other investments I have – both online and offline – how does this compare in terms of Return on Investment?

We cannot expect these companies to behave in any other way than they have because it is how they were created, but there are those out there that do have a Moral Compass and we should seek them out and then support them through our investments of data, trust and time.  The only problem then is that they succumb to greed and are hoovered up by the big guys … but again this comes down to the values of the founders and Board.

I was once advised that when it comes to investing in any organisation one should look at those in leadership positions – the senior management, the Board or Trustees – and what sort of people they are – their histories, what values they espouse, and what they stand for. 

This is where leadership comes in, and in my next post I am going to explore my current thinking about leading in the 21st Century and some of the ideas which we are now exploring through Intersticia.


Who represents the human in the digital age?

Who represents the human in the digital age?

A version of this was written for NPC’s “State of the Sector” report.

What do we mean by “digital”?

In his book The Code Economy [1] Philip E. Auerswald talks about the long history of humans developing code as a mechanism by which to create and regulate activities and markets. We have Codes of Practice, Ethical Codes, Building Codes, and Legal Codes, just to name a few. Each and every one of these is based on the data of human behaviour, and that data can now be collected, analysed, harvested and repurposed as never before through the application of intelligent machines which operate and are instructed by algorithms [2]. Anything that can be articulated as an algorithm – a self-contained sequence of actions to be performed – is now fertile ground for machine analysis, and increasingly machine activity.

So, what does this mean for us humans, who, are ourselves a conglomeration of DNA code [3]?

I have spent many years thinking about this. Not that long ago my friends and family tolerated my speculations with good humour, but a fair degree of skepticism. Now I run workshops for Boards and even my children are listening far more intently as people sense that the invasion of the Social Machine [4] is changing our relationship with such things as privacy [5] as well as with both ourselves and each other [6].

The Social Machine is the name given to the systems we have created which blur the lines between computational processes and human input, of which the World Wide Web is the largest and best known example. These smart machines [7] are increasingly pervading almost every aspect of human existence [8] and, in many ways, gettting to know us better than we know ourselves [9]. So who stands up for us humans and determines how society will harness and utilise the power of information technologies whilst ensuring that the human remains both relevant and important?

Thus far this has mainly been either those in academia, such as the Web Science [10] community who observe and seek to understand what is going on, or those in the commercial sector, who are driving the technological development [11]. Those who are charged with setting policy boundaries and enforcing regulation (our governments) are like rabbits in the headlights struggling to keep up [12].

I believe that there is a space in between which presents both the greatest need to promote the cause of humanity, and the greatest opportunity to challenge and call to account the current onslaught of technological progress and demand that it serves humanity rather than undermine it.

Philanthropy’s time has come!

Philanthropy can be defined as love of humanity (philanthropos tropos) expressed as the caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing of what it is to be human.

I have written [13] about Socrates’ concept of philanthropy and his desire to promote the welfare of others by wandering around talking to people, examining them as he examined himself. His goal was to help individual men and women understand themselves in order to live better lives and better serve their communities [14]. The more I have reflected on this the more I realise that the concept of philanthropy needs to be at the centre of everything if humanity is to both survive and thrive in the digitally driven world. Other players are seeking to speed things up, to rush towards a future that no one can predict [15], let alone understand [16], particularly as they are now creating machines that are capable of building themselves [17]. These technologies will be of enormous benefit to humanity if they are harnessed and utilised for good but someone has to stand up and demand that this is at the forefront of all technological design and creation, not an inconvenient afterthought.

In April of this year a group of people from all walks of life came together in Canberra, Australia, to have some Brave Conversations [18] around precisely these topics. Australian economist Nicholas Gruen presented his thoughts about what he sees as the disconnect between the arteries and capillaries [19] of government as a reflection of the more pervasive inequality within society. In essence what he highlighted was the inability of many of our existing systems to address the differing needs of human culture at different scales because the arteries (those dealing with policy) neither leverage nor understand what happens in the capillaries (service delivery at the coal face). As I listened to Nicholas I realised that this is precisely the space which those who have championed social change outside of the established systems of both business and government resulting in many of the great social reforms, have occupied. It is what philanthropy is all about.

Following last year’s Philanthropy Australia conference [20] I challenged the sector [21] to take the lead in occupying this middle ground. Instead of reacting to the social problems created by ecological strain and economic stratification (the two factors which have throughout history led to the collapse of all civilisations [22]) to stand up for the humans and proactively start to shape the value system which will determine how both government and business operates both now, and as the digital world evolves.

There are two ways that the sector can do this.

Firstly, by focusing on educating ourselves, and those with whom we work, about science and technology and the social impacts which are already emerging.

Secondly, by being ingenious about how we leverage our space in the interstice between the arteries and capillaries in order to create a legitimate, important and powerful role in championing the humans we serve.

Education as the hidden connections (Vaclav Havel)

The best place to start understanding the digital world is to begin to see the world, and all that it comprises, through the lens of data and information, now being rendered as a form of digital currency [23]. This links back to the earlier idea of Codes. Our activities, up until recently, were tacit and experiential, but now they are becoming increasingly explicit and quantified [24]. Where we go, whom we meet, what we say, what we do is all being registered, monitored and measured as long as we are connected to the digital infrastructure [25]. A new currency is emerging which is based on the world’s most valuable resource, data [26], and it is this currency that connects the arteries and capillaries, and reaches across all disciplines and fields of expertise. The kind of education that is required now is to be able to make connections [27] and to see the opportunities in the interstice.

The dominant players in this space thus far have been the large corporations and governments who have harnessed and exploited digital currencies for their own benefit, which Shoshana Zuboff describes as the Surveillance Economy [28]. But this data actually belongs to each and every human who generates it. As people begin to wake up to this we are gradually realising that this is what fuels the social currency [29] of entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation, and provides the legitimacy upon which trust is based [30]. Trust is an outcome of experiences and interactions, but governments and corporations have transactionalised their interactions with citizens and consumer through exploiting data and as a consequence have eroded the esteem with which they are held [31]. The more they try to garner greater insights through data and surveillance, the more they alienate the people they seek to reach [32].

If we are smart, as philanthropists, what we need to do is to understand the fundamentals of data as a currency and integrate this in to each and every interaction we have in order to create relationships with people which are based on the authenticity of purpose, supported by the data of proof. Yes, there have been some instances where the sector has not done as well as it could and betrayed that trust [33] but this only serves as a lesson as to how fragile the world of trust and legitimacy are, and how crucial it is that we define all that we do in terms of social outcomes and impact, however that is defined [34].

In his books Sapiens [35] and Homo Deus [36] Yuval Noah Harari describes the symbiotic relationship between humans and technology framed around the economic value of humans to society throughout history. His argument is that this has evolved from humans as hunter-gatherers, to farmers, soldiers, and, from the mid Twentieth Century, as consumers. Our role is currently to gobble up the fruits of industrialisation, pay our taxes and go from cradle to grave as cogs in the wheels of industry.

This is what the Luddites saw coming when they smashed the looms in the early 1800s [37]. Without necessarily seeing the world which would evolve they sensed the degradation of human-kind and they fought for social equality and fairness in the distribution of the benefits of science and technology to all. Their struggle is instructive [38] because they were amongst the first to experience technological displacement. Much of the current dialogue around the future of work and a Universal Basic Income [39] rests on these same issues because we are beginning to link wealth to meaning, rather than just productivity and ownership [40]. Notions of good work [41] are becoming important, as is the need to harness and leverage human creativity.

The power of ingenuity

Everyone these days wants to innovate and we have Innovation Labs popping up everywhere. My own personal opinion is that the real ideas don’t come from bean bags and refrigerators full of beer and mineral water, they come from the combination of necessity and invention, from ingenuity.

Ingenuity is about being clever, original, and inventive [42], and applying ideas to solve problems and meet challenges. Above all ingenuity includes a sense of imagination and play.

One of the ways we can become more ingenious is by imagining how the world around us could be, and nowhere is there more inspiration than in the world of Science Fiction.

Science fiction predicts the present, and inspires the future (Cory Doctorow)

Most of those who have invented the technologies around us have always been avid readers of Science fiction and we now live in a world that its writers have been dreaming up for centuries [43]. The technologies upon which we so increasingly rely have been sitting in the labs for decades, but what has happened is that they have coalesced and been let loose in the wilds of human society. It is not the technologies that determine what happens next, it is the humans, and, as far as Science Fiction is concerned I believe that we are approaching an event horizon [44], a point from which we can no longer see what lies beyond because we are reaching the limits of what we can imagine. This is what is being described as the Posthuman world [45]. Most people are flat out getting their heads around Transhumanism [46], let alone Posthumanism but things are changing very quickly.

As Futurist Gerd Leonhard says [47]

Never in human history has the present been so temporary.

Whatever the future holds for us is being determined right now, and this means that we need to ensure that we learn as much from the past as we can while we still remember it. Alexander Rose, Executive Director of the Long Now Foundation [48], believes that preserving the elements of what we value today is crucial in order to provide future generations with as many options and choices as possible [49].

A time for brave leadership

With all of this in mind the fundamental question facing each of us is what role do we want to play, and how do we steer our organisations through the disruptive times ahead, which people like Alibaba Founder Jack Ma believe are going to be very difficult [50].

I believe that the greatest contribution we can make is to focus firmly on the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries and become true Servant Leaders [51].  Those who are prepared to step up and lead the brave conversations that need to occur.

This requires taking a long hard look at how we run our lives, and ensuring that we take the time to step back and recalibrate, to focus on continuous, challenging and adaptive learning, and harness our imagination to become more ingenious.

As leaders we can not leave this to other people, it is the role that each and every one of us must take on ourselves, regardless of age, stage or position. Beyond any need for skills and capabilities what we need most is to put our humanity first and take on the philanthropic mantle.

Postscript – New Philanthropy Capital’s State of the Sector report [52] has highlighted that in terms of digital and data:

There is a limited understanding among charities of what digital and data can achieve. This is matched with an overconfidence about how advanced charities are in their use of digital. In a number of cases the more confident a leader was that their organisation was making the most of digital, the less well they seemed to understand the nature of digital and its benefits.


[1] Philip E. Auerswald The Code Economy


[3] Key decisions around Human DNA editing –


[5] Some thoughts around Privacy on the Web –


[7] For a good over see Shoshana Zuboff’s Age of the Smart Machine –



[10] See Web Science Trust

[11] See and

[12] Companies and governments need to get on board with data – Australian Financial Review 21st May, 2017








[20] Is Philanthropy Future Ready?


[22] and

[23] James Gleick wrote about this in The Information,

[24] and

[25] One example is how Google is tracking not just advertising but shopping behaviours



[28] and


[30] I am indebted to Dr Simon Longstaff ( for the articulation of the relationship between trust and legitimacy. I also explored this in my PhD research, more of which you can find out about at

[31] See Edelman Trust 2017


[33] See UK Report






[39] Anthony Painter, In Support of a Universal Basic Income, The RSA ––introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model

[40] Jeremy Rifkin, A World Beyond Markets, The RSA –

[41] Matthew Taylor, “Why we need to talk about Good Work”, The RSA. –








[49] Interview at




Were we “brave” @braveconvos #braveconversations ?

Were we “brave” @braveconvos #braveconversations ?

Fortune favours the prepared mind. (Louis Pasteur)

They say it also favours the brave.

I have never been what I consider a risk-taker, nor considered myself particularly brave.  But I do know that when my spider-sense tells me something I should listen.

This is what has guided me in all that I do, and was no less present in the early conversations that I had when we were planning Brave Conversations.

What is it to be brave?  I think it is different for each and every one of us, and from the outset when Simon Longstaff and I discussed doing this event together, our objective was:  to take some risks, to set few boundaries (other than those which engender trust and respect), and to encourage as much debate and discussion as we could.  There were many prepared minds in the room before we even began, but there were equally a good number who were eager to learn, who were ready to listen, and who came away a good deal more prepared than they were when they arrived.

Bravery as often defined involves two key elements – fear and courage.  I feel that both were demonstrated and exhibited at Brave Conversations, in various degrees and in many guises.  This cartoon above was tweeted on Day One, and perhaps part of being brave is to raise your head from the day to day, and look around to see what is on the horizon and face what the future is presenting you – to take the time and have the courage to face your fears.

It is not just about doing things more effectively or efficiently, about being more productive or profitable, or doing things better.  It is about consciously deciding how the technologies we are inventing and imbibing and assimilating are impacting on our day to day lives, and asking not just the what and how, but also the why and the should. 

At Brave Conversations we tried to do something different, not to have a conventional conference where everyone hid behind their professional personae, delivered papers and were generally spoken at.  For some, who have attended numerous Hackathons and Unconferences, what we did may not have been that unconventional, but for many who are used to the traditional conference format where people confer about a particular topic, we did provide some challenges.  Our objective was quite simply to generate one big conversation, unfettered by convention or agendae, where everyone in the room was involved in whatever way they felt comfortable and began to take off their masks as a diverse a group of people coming together just as people.  In order to do this we first had to create a safe space within which individuals could engage in real human to human conversations, and ask any question or seek any clarification, no matter how dumb or naive that might seem.

We set ourselves the challenge of

encouraging debate, critical thinking, creative design and social awareness in order to push the boundaries in terms of thinking about the World and the Web and our focus is on helping to develop “smart humans” for the digital age.

We hoped to create a space where, as Martin Stewart-Weeks describes in his follow-up paper,

Conversations are exchanges.  And the point of an exchange is to create something – in this case, insights, ideas and knowledge – that was not there before the conversation started.

So, how did we go and what did we achieve?

The feedback we have received has been very personal, and our hope that Brave Conversations would be a very personal experience has been supported by this.  For some, the conversations were those with which they are already familiar and they were a little disappointed at the lack of integration and the persistence of silos; for others there was a lot of personal bravery in revealing both a level of technological ignorance as well as naivety about the Web and its origins.  For everyone the time constraints meant that it was difficult to delve deeply into key issues; but for many there was an overwhelm of information.

From my observations as the facilitator – and thus having to sit on the outside for most of the time – it seemed that a lot of people were taken out of their comfort zones, particularly on Day One which was relatively unstructured, and relied on the energy of the group to create momentum.  Pia Waugh’s first session Choose your own adventure please, articulated some of the challenges of data as the currency of the digital age, and Nicholas Gruen’s session Arteries and Capillaries gave a counterpoise by challenging the current structures through which society is governed, speaking to ideas he has articulated in a recent essay in Mandarin.  These two presentations set the scene for the afternoon when people chose one of these four themes

  • Democracy & politics
  • Privacy & individual liberty
  • New economics
  • Technology leadership & ethics

The task was, within a limited timeframe, to scratch the surface in terms of identifying key changes aligned to the potential impacts on individuals, organisations and communities, and identify what actions could, and should, be considered to benefit the humans, and the machines.  This was always a big ask, and the solution wasn’t our goal – it was the process we were seeking.

As a part of this process Martin, in his summary of Day One, asked everyone to identify their greatest concern through a question, which was then collated and exhibited the next morning.  (We will be collating all of the photos, material and feedback and publishing on the Brave Conversations website).

The challenge of any two-day format is that there is never really enough time, but by the end of Day One many of the boundaries had begun to break down and there was an engaging energy in the room when we all convened over drinks at the National Press Club, courtesy of our wonderful host Tim Shaw.

On Tuesday we began the more formal part of the event with a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony preformed by Auntie Agnes Shea and her nephew Robert, his son Peter, and Peter’s daughter Lexie – the first time that all four generations had worked together.  The sun shone, the courtyard of University House enveloped us all, and the magic of these ancient ceremonies energised and grounded the conversations which ensued. I personally believe that these ceremonies anchor any congregation of people as they gather, but only when done in an authentic way and given both the reverence and gravitas that they command.  We were witness to something very special, and I felt that through this there was a certain openness, honesty and willingness to collaborate that emerged within the group as a whole, anchored to the land, to the physical environment sheltered by the trees nestled within the ANU, and overseen by our collective ancestors from Australia and beyond.

The energy that second morning was palpable, so much so that we changed the format in order to accommodate what we felt was required from the group in its desire to both engage and converse.  The first panel’s focus on The World – with and without the Web brought many of the threads of Day One together, and the Debate A machine-driven world is a better world brought out both humour and seriousness as some of the identified thorny issues.  In response to this we integrated the third panel into the round-table conversations themselves in order to promote speaking with rather than speaking at.

The post-lunch session is usually a hard slog at any event, but I have to say that Simon Longstaff’s Good Life session was one of the most magical special I have ever witnessed.  Simon determined to utilise the fishbowl facilitation process sitting the panel around the table with two empty chairs for anyone else to join.  This format, which harnessed the collective trust in the room and underpinned by probing questions, challenging linkages and open dialogue, created a calm, honest and egalitarian space within which no permission was needed order to speak.  Testimony to this was the fact that three of our younger participants (all under 20) felt confident enough to move to the table.  I felt that there was a degree of bravery in the observations shared, and that some of the core issues – such as fear and love, death and mortality, power and inequality, nudging towards Transhumanism  – were tabled.  I know that not everyone felt this, but I certainly did.

In the final session we sought to somehow wrap up the two days, but with the caveat that Brave Conversations was never meant to be a one size fits all, nor a one off, nor a simple solution.  It wasn’t about giving me, or anyone else a to-do list, or set of ideas to pursue.  The outcomes of Brave Conversations were meant to be personal, something that each and every person in the room – and the vast majority of the initial 87 participants were still with us at 5 pm on Tuesday afternoon – could, and should, take and do with it as they pleased.

Brave Conversations was a catalyst and, as Pia Waugh has so rightly said:

The only meaningful outcome from all of this is what you will do different today. 

  • What  sort of future do you want?  How can you build that into your everyday life? 
  • What changes do you need to make in your thinking, actions, career and personal life to make that future a reality? 
  • How will you ensure you continue to have brave conversations into the future?

So, what are the outcomes at this early stage?

Firstly, there have been a number of media interviews:

  1. Tim Shaw interviewed our Year 12 Tuggeranong College student Matthew Torrens on Canberra 2cc
  2. Katina Michael spoke on Talking Tech
  3. ABC Lateline’s Jeremy Fernandez interviewed Wendy Hall
  4. Katina Michael was interviewed by Wendy Harmer on ABC Radio 702

We have been contacted by journalist Margot O’Neill, who was unable to get to the conference, who may be interested in pursuing some of the ideas which came up via a series of programmes.

For my own part the Intersticia Foundation and the Ethics Centre have now taken our first initiative by supporting Angie Abdilla to attend the 2017 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which coincides with the Tenth Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Angie’s mission is to take the conversations she has been having here to the UN Forum with a view to working with us and begin developing the Ethical Framework for a new UN mechanism and Private Sector Tech protocols for human and tech rights.  This is no mean feat, and if anyone can do it, Angie can.  We will see what has transpired when she returns, but the conversations that we all had in Canberra have helped identify and begin to describe ways in which we can collaborate to address some of the huge issues which face humanity as the result of information being created, managed, archived and distributed in digital form.

Wendy, Tris and I have been talking about holding a Brave Conversations in both London and Washington partnering with the Web Science Trust and others.  If we use Canberra as a pilot then there is much to learn from what we did, but we have also created something that others can understand, and initiated a group of people who are keen and supportive to join the wave of conversations happening globally.

Martin Stewart-Weeks has written up his own reflections (which can be found here and report) and in them has presented Web Science with a leadership challenge, which I for one, am prepared to step up to.

“Web Science” is a label for a conversation – research, debate, exploration – about the web (and technology more broadly), society, people and nature to get the best out of each, to improve their interaction and to lift the prospects of their combined impact on opportunity, inclusion and sustainability.

For Brave Conversations to have made a difference is it up to each and every one of us to take the conversations that we had and make a conscious choice about the world we want to create.  I believe that those of us who have been either watching, or proactively creating, the Social Machine and all that it encompasses, have a duty to determine what A Good Life is, and to actively work towards ensuring that humanity as a whole is given the opportunity to have it.  As the age of digital disruption gains momentum – and people like Jack Ma believe we still have a long way to go – it is those of us engaged in these conversations who need to take the lead, support the next generation, and go out to our various communities to teach, explain and provide hope.

I would like to thank each and every person who played a part in Brave Conversations:

  • The Intersticia Foundation  Board who supported the event, and
  • The Ethics Centre with whom we partnered
  • The Web Science Trust and the Web Science Institute for enabling Susan Halford, Ramine Tinati and the Southampton PhD students to visit Australia
  • The AIIA for their support as well as the ODI in Queensland and others who helped promote
  • The fabulous team of Marti Pattinson, Leanne Fry, Lisa Baldwin and Terry Hanisch as the Web Science Australia Board
  • Martin Stewart-Weeks for his fabulous reporting, and Peter Thompson for stepping to facilitate when I needed him
  • My niece Bel Campbell and her friends for recording, filming, photographing and their overall enthusiasm!
  • Nicholas Gruen, Pia Waugh, Nick Byrne, Chris Monk who all had creative input from the outset and then totally delivered during the event
  • All of our Brave Conversations speakers and panelists, regardless of what role they played
  • Sue at University House who, as she did in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, helped make our event happen on the ground!
  • and each and every person who gave up their precious time to be with us.

Thank you and I challenge every single one of you to turn these conversations into actions, each in your own way.

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!