The Covid Corridor has provided me with the opportunity to take stock, slow down and focus on some key learning areas that I believe are critical to help inform what the post-Covid world might look like. I will write about this in a later post, but one of the more formal educational programmes I did in 2020 was the Tavistock Institute Dynamics @ Board Level Certificate.
What follows is the assignment I submitted to complete this course.
We are responsible because we can respond to challenges to our reasons. We act for reasons that we consciously represent to ourselves. And this is what gives us the power and the obligation to think ahead, to anticipate, to see the consequences of our action. It is because we can share our wisdom that we have a special responsibility (Daniel Dennett 2021).
We are essentially marching naked into this digital century without the Charters or Rights, the legal frameworks, the regulatory paradigms, the institutional forms and the kind of leadership that we need to make the digital future compatible with democracy. (Shoshana Zuboff 2021)
On 11th March, 2020 Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, declared Covid-19 a Pandemic.
Over the past 12 months not only has this Pandemic touched every continent and nation but it has ushered in a step change in the way that humans individually and collectively have adopted, utilised and integrated digital information technologies into their everyday lives.
As we entered this interstice I determined that one of the most useful and productive things that I could do was to experience as many online Group Relations events as possible in order to learn from the breadth of experiences of how people were beginning to embrace a 21st Century digitally mediated existence.
This existence, which from the outset reminded me of E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops (Foster 1909), began decades, if not centuries, ago.
A revolution doesn’t happen when a society adopts new tools, it happens when a society adopts new behaviours. (Shirky 2008)
The new behaviours we learn as we interact and engage with each other as groups, teams and systems mediated through digital communication technologies will both shape and inform how humanity embraces and faces the challenges of the 21st Century and the post-Covid world.
This paper seeks to consider my experience as a member of the Tavistock Institute’s 2020 Board Dynamics cohort, the first to be held fully online, and operating between continents, time-zones, cultures and mindsets during the most intense period of the Covid 19 Pandemic. As for us all this was just one group within the greater global system and, as such, the value is in extrapolating the learnings from this experience to more fully examine it and how it informed other interactions and engagements.
The Shift to Digital
When I first applied to participate in the Board Dynamics course the expectation was that it would be conducted as a hybrid with the first two modules held online, and the second two face to face. Those who more fully understand the nature of Pandemics would have realised from the outset the naïveté of such an expectation, but around the world the hope for a return to ‘some sort of normality’ by the Northern Hemisphere Summer was an important coping mechanism.
My interest in the course stemmed from both a curiosity about the direct application of Group Relations processes and academic research to the functioning of Boards as mechanisms of Governance, together with a desire to explore how this would operate in an online medium.
The Affordances of Digital Technologies
We have become digital on the last few years as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means (Doc Seals).
Life online is very different to life IRL (in real life). I have spent the past thirty years exploring this difference seeking to more fully understand how we humans interact with each other, and how the technologies interact with us. The core of my work may be termed Web Science – the Theory and Practice of Social Machines (SOCIAM), which is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how we are changing the Web, and the Web is changing us.
The World Wide Web was invented by physics researcher Tim Berners-Lee (see CERN) to try to solve the problem of information sharing between scientists, universities and institutes around the World. It was envisaged as an academic project, but, as so often happens,
we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run (Roy Amara).
All technologies and artefacts have what are called affordances, a word originally invented by psychologist J. J. Gibson to describe the actionable properties between the world and an actor (Gibson 1977). Donald J. Norman (Norman 1988, Norman 2018) expands upon this to state that affordances
- provide strong clues to the operations of things
- signal the perceived and actual properties of the thing
- are properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used
- when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed
I first became aware of the importance of affordances as they relate to digital media when I read the work of Shoshana Zuboff (Zuboff 1988, Zuboff and Maxmin 2001). At the time I was working in the graphic arts, the first major industries to be disrupted by digitisation and digitalisation due to the development of desktop publishing and digital printing, undertaking research into the emerging Web and its impact on the workplace.
Zuboff’s work in this space is seminal and the table below clearly articulates some of the different characteristics of information in physical (analogue) and virtual (digital) form.
Table 1 – The Characteristics of Digital Technologies (adapted from Zuboff and Maxmin, 2002)
The more people started using the Web the more it developed an ecosystem of its own driven by the twin aspects of (1) negligible transaction costs (Coase 1937, Malone et al 1987) which enabled the freemium model of electronic commerce (see Zuboff 2019) and (2) the network effect (Castells 2000). By December 2019 just on 50% of the global population were connected to the Internet; by December 2020, largely due to the Covid Pandemic, this had increased to 62.4%.
I have heard it said that giving people an internet connection is like giving them a car to drive, without any instructions on the road rules or basic mechanics. That is pretty much the situation we currently face in terms of people’s understanding of the digital landscape largely due to the rapid digitisation of information and digitalisation of business processes and organisational systems and the paucity of digital literacy and digital fluency.
Digital literacy describes being how to use digital tools; Digital Fluency describes being able to understand why they should be used (Hopkins 2019).
We have evolved to operate in the physical / analogue environment and our senses enable us to interpret and function there and we have developed these through trusting these senses and the data we receive through them.
When it comes to the virtual / digital worlds we are only just beginning but as we increasingly interact online we are venturing into new environments where we cannot necessarily predict or trust the outcomes.
Figure 1: Rowland-Campbell – Literacy Model of Information Technologies
Technology, Transparency and Trust
When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details. (US Secretary of State George Shultz quoted in Bhalla et al, 2021)
Trust is essential to human relationships and at the core these are usually messy, inefficient and take time and brain power to develop and maintain (Machin 2019). Maintaining key relationships is at the core of our learning (Fonagy 2015) and a key element of this is what Rachel Botsman calls trust friction.
Here emerges one of the most important digital affordances. The designs built into most of our digital technologies, driven by the values and imperatives of the designers, are to remove friction, to make our lives easier and to more seamlessly integrate these technologies calmly into our lives (Weiser 1986 – 1989). One of the reasons why digital devices have become so ubiquitous is precisely due to this affordance built into the user-interface design.
Many young people don’t realise that everything you see on the computer screen is a construct that was invented by someone. (Ted Nelson)
This is a perfect example of Schein’s model of organisational culture (Schein 1994) where the values and assumptions of the technologists manifest in the artifacts.
Figure 2: Schein’s model of Organisational Culture, (Schein 1992)
Through the Looking Glass
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
The Knight looked surprised at the question. ‘What does it matter where my body happens to be?” he said. “My mind goes on working all the same.’ (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1871)
When it comes to how we experience these new digitally mediated screen interactions we need to continuously remind ourselves that we are engaging in a space between presence and absence, being somewhere that is both on and off where our bodies and minds can often be disconnected.
Interacting online and interacting IRL differ in a number of important ways:
- Notions of Time – the online world synchronises time, we are all in the same temporal space even though we may be living in different geographies with different time zones, and therefore different body clocks. Our notions of time seem to have changed during this period of the pandemic – in some ways speeding up, in others slowing down – and different for each and every person.
- Notions of Space – in group settings we are no longer in the same physical environment, but inhabiting different physical spaces (for us) which present to others through the same sized screen window. One result of this is what we are now calling Zoom Fatigue (Bailensen 2020). The information we currently receive through online channels is heavily dependent on aural and visual information but the somatic, which connects us to our physical presence, can feel disconnected until we experience the aches and pains of too little movement and the tiredness in our eyes (Microsoft is working on an interesting solution to this).
Figure 3: Rowland-Campbell – Information Channels as we interact online
- Management of Boundaries – in the physical world we have the opportunity and time to change our mental states as we transition through physical space and time, to clear our thoughts from previous encounters and prepare and focus on what it is to come. In the virtual world unless we consciously create this interstice between one meeting and another the transition is through a few clicks of a button taking a matter of seconds. In the digital space we are either on or off, it is very difficult to be anywhere in between which means that how we show up, how we are present (or absent), how we view ourselves, and how we leave can be very abrupt. In addition the boundaries are porous and it is difficult to seal out the outside world which continually intrudes.
There is one other element which sits between presence and absence (Scharmer 2007), that of transparency.
- The digital world gives us the ability to easily record, edit, broadcast and replay our online interactions. This leads to far greater levels of potential transparency but can also create a persistent unease in the knowledge that we are continuously on show, on the camera and the stage. Goffman’s Front Stage and Back Stage can merge giving little respite in between (Goffman 1959, Sternheimer 2020).
Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes and expectations; between materiality and functionality of technologies; between the intentions and perceptions of designers (Nagy & Neff 2015).
All of these affordances have been designed into the systems we use which become a part of our experience and how we experience others.
Group Dynamics Online
Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self (Castells 2000).
Eric Miller states that Freud’s great insight was to shift the focus from the individual to the interaction between patient and analyst, the notions of Transference and Countertransference which Bion then shifted to that of the group and the processes of socialisation. (Miller 1998).
What we think of ourselves is born in what we were thought about, we scrutinise the minds of others and we try to find ourselves within, to guess at our own feelings and thoughts (Fonagy 2015).
So how do we see each other as we show up on the screen? How do we feel in these spaces and how does this impact our emotional responses?
The work of Solms (Solms 2021), Damasio and others suggests that our emotions stem from our feelings.
Our choices are grounded in a value system. Feelings provide the value system which enables choice in unpredicted, novel situations (Solms 2021).
Given the lack of somatic information, which is often the primary source for our feelings, how is this impacting our engagements in the virtual space? One way to consider this is how we react to the physical presence of others versus how we sense them online through their windows; another is how the back-channels (i.e., the chat function) can be used for side conversations, which is similar to passing notes in the back row. Both of these elicit feelings and therefore emotions. Finally, when there may be uncomfortable feelings in the virtual space instead of having to sit with them in a physical space where the ability to leave takes some time, in the virtual space once every participant has the option to turn off their camera and sit behind it, or completely leave the room.
There are entities where the behaviour of the whole cannot be derived from its individual elements nor from the way these elements fit together; rather the opposite is true: the properties of any of the parts are determined by the intrinsic structural laws of the whole. (Wertheimer 1924)
Every element of this impacts the virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candour (Sonnenfeld 2002) which is at the heart of how governance and corporate responsibility needs to operate.
The Modern Board
The concept of a corporate board
is a reflection of widespread political practices and ideas in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages which reflect both social norms and cultural values as they pertained to business governance, political and cultural ideas, together with assumptions about wealth-maximizing efficiencies (Gevurtz 2004).
For those of us who live in Western cultures these ideas constitute what is normal, but it is necessary to put these ideas in context.
The work of Henrich (Henrich 2010, Henrich 2020) shows that the Western mindset has emerged from the geo-political history of Western Europe (see also Marshall 2016 and Goldin 2020).
Henrich classifies Western people as being
hyper-individualistic and hyper-mobile, whereas just about everyone else in the world was, and still is, enmeshed in family and more likely to stay put (Henrich 2020).
We Westerners are WEIRD – Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich and Democratic (see also Stasavage 2020). Henrich argues that this is one of the reasons that Capitalism emerged in the West driven by the rise of the individual (see Morris 1972, Nashef 2018, Curtis 2002 BBC).
The Discovery of the Individual is an eccentricity among cultures (Morris 1972).
This WEIRD mindset has created a positive environment for humans to flourish (Harari 2015, Pinker 2018, Roser 2021) but is also based on the assumption that humans need to be controlled, for our own good (Bregman 2020).
The limits and boundaries of Agency Theory (Simon 1957) are determined by its model of man. (Davis et al 1997, Keay 2017)
If we consider governance, particularly as it is beginning to manifest online, from a more naturalistic and biological perspective (Bandura 2017) then the concept of the Social Machine as a symbiotic human-machine ecosystem becomes much more useful (Neff 2021). This leads to a broader perspective where it is assumed that humans are driven by larger collectivist, pro-organisational goals (Argyris 1973, McGregor 1980, Maslow 1970) which is precisely what the online environment was designed to achieve from the outset (Levine et al 1999, Kelly 2010).
Changing Global Mindsets
The link between communication and character is complex, but unbreakable. We cannot transform all our media of communication and expect to remain unchanged as people. A revolution in the media must mean a revolution in the psyche (Toffler 1980).
Former InfoSys Founder, CEO and Chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan (Gopalakrishnan 2021) believes that the 21st Century will change as a result of the impact of information technologies.
- Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives;
- The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population;
- There will be a global shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.
As we continue to reach out globally we are creating societies online and
each society chooses which thoughts and feelings shall be permitted to arrive and which must be kept hidden (Eric Fromm as quoted by Susan Long, March 2021).
An Antipodean Perspective
Our people have been entrusted by the Creator Spirit with the care of the land and the associated ceremonies. In most parts of Australia, they are unable to care for their land and ensure its continued fruitfulness because it has been taken over by the immigrants. The spiritual line of succession, from the time of creation through countless generations, has now been broken. And deep inside, our people live with guilt and hopelessness (Archie et al 2007).
Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are (Turkle 2011).
I was born and grew up in a sunburnt country riven by guilt and sadness. This duality underpins everything about Australia (and many other colonialised cultures) and as we move in to the 21st Century our greatest global challenge is to move away from the dominance of the WEIRD, and largely industrialised, thinking and embrace the power of more organic Dreamtime mindsets (such as those which harness Social Dreaming, Lawrence 2000) in order to better govern our social systems.
This is especially important as we become more embedded in the Technosphere which has become all too obvious as we all move our lives online. As I have reflected on my own online experiences in groups there is one word that repeatedly comes to mind, and that is the word stewardship.
Stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours (Davis 1997).
Stewardship addresses the illusion of being able to manage and control up front (Long 2021) by being more inclusive, taking a longer-term view and understanding the symbiosis of humans and the systems, both natural and technological, that we inhabit.
My own work is based on the philosophy of Servant Leadership (Greenleaf 2002, Spears 1998) combined with a practical application through the principles of Sustainability where we seek to create an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations. (Avery 2006, Avery & Bergsteiner 2010, Rowland-Campbell 2021)
As I sat in the various modules and groups of the Tavistock Board Dynamics course I felt very keenly the Tyranny of Distance (Blainey 1966) and the mythic structure of Bion’s Groups (Bion 1961, Shambaugh 1985) as they ebbed and flowed through each module.
I felt alienated by the dominance of WEIRD values, not only in the predominantly European makeup of the Group, but in the very design and interface of the technologies themselves.
We each played our part in this, but the success of these events was largely due to the stewardship of our consultants, who did not lead but sought to serve each of us by providing the space to reflect and learn.
Corporations and Industrial Capitalism have driven the development of humanity over the past few hundred years and the associated governance and management systems which have underpinned them must be seen as a part its success. But we are now questioning what success looks like? As our environmental systems react to what is now being talked of as the crime of Ecocide it is imperative that we evolve how we manage and govern ourselves harnessing the smart machines we have invented but more importantly drawing on all of the smart people.
We are now on the threshold of a global opportunity, one that can take advantage of being in the unfrozen state between the old world and the new (Lewin 1947) that is to come. As such
We have the opportunity now to not just do what we did yesterday. We have permission to change things. Everything is now up for grabs. (Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns 2021)
A part of that change is to adopt a more natural and Eastern philosophy towards our corporate systems as part of a global ecosystem embedded in the natural world and inclusive of all humanity because the challenges we face affect us all.
This is the Stewardship Challenge for the 21st Century which should be the main guiding premise.
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Curtis, Adam, BBC Television, (2002). The Century of the Self, originally broadcast on 29th April 2002. Full documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s. See also https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Curtis viewed 20th March, 2020
Dennett, D. (2021). The Great Free Will Debate. https://bigthink.com/videos/the-great-free-will-debate, viewed 20th March, 2021
Fonagy, P. (2015). What is Mentalisation? Interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHw2QumRPrQ, viewed 10th March, 2021.
Gopalakrishnan, K. (2021). Interview with the Author. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGENc3VYWro, held via Zoom as part of Brave Conversations Bangalore 2021, February 2021.
Long, Susan (2021), Unconscious – The Evolution of an Idea, https://www.nioda.org.au/the-unconscious-the-evolution-of-an-idea/, Zoom event held live 24th March, 2021
Pinker, Steven (2018). How the world is getting better, not worse. Interview with Paul Solman https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvEiiYfVXnk, PBS NewsHour
Solms, Mark (2021). The Source of Consciousness. The Royal Institution. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CmuYrnOVmfk viewed 7th March, 2021.
The Allegory of Plato’s Cave – a powerful lens with which to view our 21st Century Leaders
2020 has shown us that the challenges of the 21st Century are global ones which we all share. We must learn now how to balance the needs of the ‘me’ with the ‘we’ to collectively change things for the better.
It was just two weeks ago that I was swimming in my favourite pool in North Sydney looking up at the Restaurant above and thinking how incredibly lucky we in Australia have been in 2020, but also having niggling feeling that we are so out of sync with the rest of the world that that luck may well run out. We have had numerous outbreaks of the Covid 19 virus which have been fairly rapidly squashed and the state of Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, has had a pretty torrid time with the harshest lockdown in the world. But our lifestyle had begun to bounce back.
Until last week when we had a reality check with the discovery of two mystery Covid cases found in Avalon, a mere 5 km from where I live, which has now spread sending Governments around the country in to panic mode accompanied by a plethora of conspiracy theories. For those of us living in what is affectionately called the ‘insular Peninsula’ we joined the majority of people on the planet in a locked down Christmas and now New Year.
I don’t envy any of our leaders as they struggle to cope with the rapidly changing situation that the Pandemic presents, not wanting to over-react as the “Festive” season approaches, but as a result creating additional anxiety and frustration with a lack of clear messaging similar to the first few months of 2o2o when the old world disappeared and the new “Covid” normal began to appear.
For Australia and New Zealand much of the strategy has been to aim for “0” as the optimum Covid number, with the only weak links being returning overseas travellers, diplomats and cabin crew. We have been largely successful and our particular response reflects a blend of our Convict Colony roots combined with the Tyranny of Distance. We are good at locking people up down here. But “0” is the most dangerous number and is totally unsustainable.
Governments around the world are now firmly driving the agenda when it comes to responding to the Pandemic, with varying degrees of success. One way of viewing this is to consider our Governments as Social Machines, huge socio-technical systems that bring together the cultural, political and technical characteristics of polities as expressed through policies, rules and regulations.
Years ago we undertook a research project with the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the Web Science Institute on this very concept (see Government as a Social Machine) exploring the co-evolution of the policy and online communications spaces as Governments embraced digital media. Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Dr Kieron O’Hara have further developed this idea with their Four Internets describing how geopolitics is splintering the once integrated global online infrastructure determined by “Four ideologies … because they have been adopted by state-level actors with the resources to push their visions, fund the science behind them and, crucially, “sell” them to allies.” (Wendy Hall)
To me this is the contemporary demonstration of Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order connecting all political action as a manifestation of long cultural histories and value systems. Now, catapulted by the Pandemic, global Governments are beginning to embrace the next phase of how we govern ourselves with the combination of culture, the polity and technology – the ultimate Social Machine.
Not long ago the mantra in the public sphere was to ‘wind back’ our bloated, bureaucratic and big governments in order to embrace market forces and be more ‘customer focused’. I have always felt that calling citizens ‘customers’ was an insult, together with adopting many of the ideas of managerialism where the bottom line trumped actually serving the public. The pendulum has now swung back to where people are relying on and giving greater trust to their governments to guide us through the Covid-era, and these governments are working feverishly to learn how to utilise the tools of digital information systems to more effectively collect, harvest and analyse data in their fight against the disease. These twin propellers are, as Yuval Noah Harari states
fast-forwarding historical processes (and)… Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.
As Professor Dame Wendy Hall says we now desperately need to create a new social contract between citizens and our Government Social Machines, but, more than that, we need to reframe how we see our leaders and what leadership in the 21st Century needs to look like as we embrace these global problems.
Up until now the dominant thinking throughout Western societies has been based on “it’s all about Me”, beautifully articulated in the documentary the Century of the Self. This is a mindset that has caused us to exploit each other and our environment for short term gain. As we learn how intimately connected we are and how much we depend on that global connection we desperately need a new type of thinking based on our interdependence and this needs to be reflected in the stories we tell.
The power of truth in storytelling
What is most important is to understand that politics and leadership is all about storytelling and how those we choose to serve in positions of power see the world.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (see also) tells the story of people imprisoned in a cave watching shadows on a wall which they take to be their reality. One of their number manages to escape and ventures outside in to the sunshine of the outside and realises that there are different truths to true what is being presented in the Cave. The escapee returns to the cave but no one of those still trapped inside believes these weird stories about light and sunshine and the natural world. Plato talks about the role of philosophers and politicians as being those to manage to escape to consider alternative realities and dream of different futures, but all too often the philosophers are ridiculed whilst the politicians use the situation to their own advantage. The glaring example of this is the use of political spin and manipulation in how election campaigns are run, the Social Media Caves which now provide most people with their news and daily updates, all of which are being filtered by the algorithmic shadows driven by unfettered and unchecked capitalist objectives.
We humans are story telling animals and our very sense of self comes from the stories we are told and what others tell us. It may well be that the modern day equivalent of huddling around the camp fire is that we now huddle around our computer screens, especially now so many of our interactions are limited to being online.
It is the politicians and philosophers who tell the best stories who have the greatest impact, and now more than ever we need these stories to be about hope for the future.
In this interview with Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Yuval Noah Harari talks about the power of stories and the need for leaders to believe in the stories they tell. Throughout history these stories have been driven by religious beliefs, playing on deeply held concepts of good and evil which have ensured that those in power keep control of the unruly masses, a theory beautifully expanded upon by Rutger Bregman in his book Human Kind and Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell and further developed by Joseph Henrich in his description of the West and our WEIRD way of thinking.
The Covid Pandemic is not a story, it is all too real, but how each and every one of us responds to it is determined by the stories we hear, how we retell those stories, and how each one of us uses our ability to filter fact from the fiction, recognise our inbuilt biases towards the negative and forge a path towards something more positive and hopeful.
As never before our leaders from all walks of life don’t want to deliver bad news, but they need to deliver real news and deliver it responsibly in a way that validates the trust that has been given to them, not just by their own citizens, but by the global collective. Just like Climate Change the Virus doesn’t recognise state borders or festive holidays, and it will seep through even the best quarantine systems.
The rollercoaster of the Covid year has left us all with increased levels of anxiety and frustration as we continue on in to the unknown. For me whilst I am not religious I have found that recognising the difference between what I can and cannot control or change has been what has kept me going. and what I cannot has been a powerful lens with which to cope, articulated in the Serenity Prayer.
‘God’ grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
(The Serenity Prayer)
One of the things we can all control is which stories we listen to and which we don’t, and how we choose to interpret them. A true 21st Century Leader will recognise this and become a master at storytelling, not for personal gain or political expediency, but for engendering hope.
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:
- 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
- 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.
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  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 . 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 ?
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  is changing our relationship with such things as privacy  as well as with both ourselves and each other .
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  are increasingly pervading almost every aspect of human existence  and, in many ways, gettting to know us better than we know ourselves . 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  community who observe and seek to understand what is going on, or those in the commercial sector, who are driving the technological development . Those who are charged with setting policy boundaries and enforcing regulation (our governments) are like rabbits in the headlights struggling to keep up .
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  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 . 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 , let alone understand , particularly as they are now creating machines that are capable of building themselves . 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  around precisely these topics. Australian economist Nicholas Gruen presented his thoughts about what he sees as the disconnect between the arteries and capillaries  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  I challenged the sector  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 ) 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 . 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 . 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 . A new currency is emerging which is based on the world’s most valuable resource, data , 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  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 . 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  of entrepreneurship, leadership and innovation, and provides the legitimacy upon which trust is based . 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 . The more they try to garner greater insights through data and surveillance, the more they alienate the people they seek to reach .
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  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 .
In his books Sapiens  and Homo Deus  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 . 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  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  rests on these same issues because we are beginning to link wealth to meaning, rather than just productivity and ownership . Notions of good work  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 , 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 . 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 , 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 . Most people are flat out getting their heads around Transhumanism , let alone Posthumanism but things are changing very quickly.
As Futurist Gerd Leonhard says 
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 , 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 .
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 .
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 . 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  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.
 Philip E. Auerswald The Code Economy – http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/26720923-the-code-economy
 Key decisions around Human DNA editing – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/human-genome-editing-who-gets-to-decide/
 Some thoughts around Privacy on the Web – http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Passcode/2015/0216/Web-privacy-is-the-newest-luxury-item-in-era-of-pervasive-tracking)
 For a good over see Shoshana Zuboff’s Age of the Smart Machine – http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/books/in-the-age-of-the-smart-machine/
 See Web Science Trust www.webscience.org
 See http://www.afr.com/technology/silicon-valley-has-too-much-power-20170515-gw4w58?eid=Email:nnn-16OMN00050-ret_newsl-membereng:nnn-06%2F09%2F2016-MarketWrap5PM-dom-business-nnn-afr-u&et_cid=29077909&et_rid=1925792216&Channel=Email&EmailTypeCode=&LinkName=http%3a%2f%2fwww.afr.com%2ftechnology%2fsilicon-valley-has-too-much-power-20170515-gw4w58%3feid%3dEmail%3annn-16OMN00050-ret_newsl-membereng%3annn-06%252F09%252F2016-MarketWrap5PM-dom-business-nnn-afr-u&Email_name=MW5-05-15&Day_Sent=15052017 and https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/04/25/the-information-landscape-how-do-we-tackle-the-problems-caused-by-silicon-valley/?informz=1
 Companies and governments need to get on board with data – Australian Financial Review 21st May, 2017
 Is Philanthropy Future Ready? http://www.philanthropy.org.au/conference/2016/intro/
 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800914000615 and
 James Gleick wrote about this in The Information, https://www.theinformation.com/
 http://www.economist.com/node/21548493/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantified_Self
 One example is how Google is tracking not just advertising but shopping behaviours https://phys.org/news/2017-05-google-aims-online-ads-real-world.html
 http://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/recent-publications-and-interviews/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QwPHinDdOc
 I am indebted to Dr Simon Longstaff (http://www.ethics.org.au/about/our-people) 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 http://intersticia.org/evolution-of-the-digital-brand/)
 See Edelman Trust 2017 http://www.edelman.com/trust2017/
 See UK Report https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/532104/Public_trust_and_confidence_in_charities_2016.pdf)
 Anthony Painter, In Support of a Universal Basic Income, The RSA – https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2015/12/in-support-of-a-universal-basic-income–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model
 Jeremy Rifkin, A World Beyond Markets, The RSA – https://www.thersa.org/events/2014/04/a-world-beyond-markets
 Matthew Taylor, “Why we need to talk about Good Work”, The RSA. – https://medium.com/@thersa/why-we-need-to-talk-about-good-work-728d7d82877c
 Interview at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08nqc4j