Learning from children: strategy, tactics and games in times of rapid change

July 20, 2009

baby_teo2

Are there lessons in how children learn that might help us adults, and the organisations we run, learn from turbulent environments and make better decisions in times of change?

Watching my 9 month old child grow up, I was struck by how inventive and experimental his learning style can be.  Like all children, his life is a constant stream of novelty and change.  He has very little control, has no sense of why or how things work, yet learns quicker and more effectively than most adults and at a rate which makes organisations look positively glacial.  He also seems to enjoy it much more than most adults I know as well.

A colleague recommended reading the classic book “How Children Learn”, by John Holt.  That book is reviewed here, here and here.  I have transcribed relevant excerpts below, and interpret them in the context of organisational learning and strategic change management.

When children attack a new problem, they begin to play, almost at random.  This generates a tremendous amount of sensory data. A scientist might say that, along with his useful data, the child has collected an enormous quantity of random, useless data.  The trained scientist wants to cut all irrelevant data out of his experiment.  He is asking nature a question, he wants to cut down the noise, the static, the random information, to a minimum, so he can hear the answer.  But a child doesn’t work that way.  He is used to getting answers out of the noise.  He has, after all, grown up in a strange world where everything is noise, where can only understand and make sense of a tiny part of his experiences.  His way of attaching a problem is to produce the maximum amount of data possible, to do as many things as he can, [in as many] ways as possible.  then, as he goes along, he begins to notice regularities and patterns.  He begins to ask questions – that is, to make deliberate experiments.  But it is vital to note that until he has a great deal of data, he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.

This is a marvellous phrase, “he has no idea what questions to ask, or what questions there are to be asked.”  How many of us have felt this way, when honestly considering the complexities we face in our daily lives?

The young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage in situations… where there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask.  He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise.  Above all, he is much less likely than an adult to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them.

Reading Holt contains excellent lessons for decision-makers faced with complex, changing landscapes.  They must first understand what kinds of problems they are facing and what kinds of questions must be asked.

This can only be done through experimentation.  But not the kind of experimentation taught to us in the science lab.  The kind of experimentation that doesn’t need to be taught, that is, through play.

But not just any kind of play.  Play doesn’t work if it isn’t fun.  Play minus fun equals labour, which doesn’t have the same learning benefits.

The spirit behind [children’s games] should be a spirit of joy, foolishness, exuberance, like the spirit behind all good games, include the game of trying to find out how the work works, which we call education.

Only through play, then – through random, iterative, and fundamentally joyful experimentation – can we begin to understand how and why the world is changing.  And only through play can we generate the notions and motivations necessary to interact successfully with it.

Surprising insights from an author who specialises in, well, children’s games.  Perhaps management strategy need not be as serious and we like to think.

UPDATE – See my similar post on “Rules for Emergent Experimentation“, which reaches similar conclusions and proposes guidelines for play in the context of organisational learning.


IFTF 10 year forecast: Environment, the Blue Economy

May 19, 2009

enviro

We continue our series reviewing key themes from The Institute for the Future’s latest 10 year forecast.  In this post, Environment: The Blue Economy

The next theme we will be reviewing from the IFTF’s new 10 year forecast is that of Environment.

This is one of the more interesting themes to emerge from their 10 year forecast.  On the environment, the IFTF writes,

The oceans become the focal point of economic development and environmental debate, as we struggle with collapsing fisheries, a search for new energy sources, and large-scale interventions in global climate climate change.

Detailed sub-themes from this concept include:

  • New coastal zone materials: the rush to solve problems of rising sea levels and coastal climate events drive the development of new materials – many based on materials and life forms that occur naturally in coastal areas.
  • Deep, deep ocean drilling: in the search for new sources of fossil fuel, engineers go much deeper into the ocean floor – with uncertain results.
  • Renewable ocean energy: new technologies for hydrokinetic (or wave) energy and ocean thermal energy conversion get on the fast track to development as a means of reducing carbon emissions.
  • Collapse of fisheries: climate change and over fishing threaten the viability of global fisheries, and drive new certification practices for sustainable fishing.
  • Coastal ecosystem services: urbanisation, industrialisation, and climate converge in coastal zones, where measurement of ecosystem services will play an increasingly important role in everything from development and insurance to disaster management.
  • Ocean dead zones: large low oxygen zones appear to be recurring with regular cycles now of the West Coast of the United States, which scientists attribute to climate change.
  • Methane scares: rising temperatures may contribute to rapid release of methane – a far more destructive greenhouse gas than CO2 – trapped in permafrost and the ocean depths.
  • Geo-engineering climate change: as the ocean’s capacity to regulate climate change declines, extreme geo-engineering measures – from ocean fertilisation to very large scale thermal pumps, enter the debate.
  • Golden age of oceanography: ocean crises, plus low-cost, sensor-based data, genetic mapping of ocean species and the growth of amateur and NGO ocean scientists accelerate the evolution of ocean science.

This theme points us towards the often ignored, often undervalued, yet completely essential aspect of human life; the ocean.  We find the discussion of how ongoing political and technological dilemmas on land translate into policy, debate, and action on the seas to be fascinating; not least of which because the geo-political dynamics become much more exciting, and, well, fluid (sorry the pun).

I was surprised not to see piracy on the list as well, however.  No mass migration of urban populations as coastal cities become uninsurable or uninhabitable.  But a fantastic mix of issues to consider, reminiscent of a recent HFP scenario on water pollution, urban growth, and state conflict in the ECOWAS, by HFP consultant Noah Raford.

As always, thanks to The Institute for the Future for these inspiring themes from their latest 10 year forecast.

Next in the seriesTechnology: Pervasive Eco-Monitoring.


The Gupta Option 2019 – Superstruct field report from the DCAR of the future

May 18, 2009
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Vinay Gupta just forwarded us this lovely report from the future of the DCAR, produced as part of the brilliant Superstruct online futuring game (curated by the Institute for the Future, by the way, whose latest 10 year forecast we have been profiling here).

This is a wonderful piece of future theatre, synthesizing issues of electronic democracy, internally displaced peoples, state failure, and global pandemics.  Scenario planning exercises should all be this fun.

Thanks Vinay!


Politics, Open Source Warfare: IFTF 10 year forecast

May 9, 2009

politics

We continue our series reviewing key themes from The Institute for the Future’s latest 10 year forecast.  In this post, Politics: Open Source Warfare

The next theme we will be reviewing from the IFTF’s new 10 year forecast is that of Politics.

“Open source warfare leverages the tools and principles of social network technology to wage a new kind of warfare – sometimes called Fourth Generation warfare.”

The IFTF writes,

New model armies are changing the face of war and peace.  Non-institutional, non-state supported, these armies use network strategies to rapidly prototype their tools and tactics.  They learn from one another around the globe, raise their money and sell services in the market place, and focus on system disruption and meme warfare.  They are the face of the clash between traditional hieararchical institutions and a emerging network society, a clash that will spread across other domains.  In the coming decades they may catalyse resilience – or they may lead to political, social and economic auto-immune disorders worldwide.

Detailed sub-themes from this concept include:

  • New model armies: a new set of superempowered military actors – human and non-human, privately funded and thought state affiliation – exert influence beyond their size.
  • Meme warfare: using information and media to disrupt the so-called “soft infrastructure” in a battle for hearts and minds.
  • Open-source intelligence: a new discipline of intelligence focuses on open tools, resources and processes – including public media, Internet histories, and even public participants – to discern patterns of strategic importance.
  • Platforms for resilience: open-source intelligence, open-source simulations and models, and other cooperative tools help shift the focus of strategy from achieve stability to building a capacity to respond and adapt quickly.

One of HFP’s core research premise is that non-traditional actors will play an increasingly important role in both creating, and solving, new crises in the future.  Our work draws many of these themes together in specific humanitarian preparatory contexts, so it is thus quite rewarding to see similar streams of thought originating elsewhere.  This is a thread which we will continue to eagerly track.

Next in the series, Environment, The Blue Economy.


IFTF 10 year forecast: Civil Society, New Commons

May 5, 2009

newcommons

We continue our series reviewing key themes from The Institute for the Future’s latest 10 year forecast.  In this post, Civil Society: New Commons

The next theme we will be reviewing from the IFTF’s new 10 year forecast is that of culture.  The IFTF writes,

Even as our natural commons seem on the verge of collapse, a host of new commons offer an alternative look at capitalism: a new set of principles for organizing resources to meet the needs of human society in the 21st century.  Geographically agnostic, digitally supported, new commons are emerging as institutional forms that may well provide the resilience necessary for adapting our rapidly changing ecologies.

The IFTF goes on.  “New commons are shared resources that are managed from the bottom up to create new platforms for generating wealth and value – in the spaces between private and public, social and economic, digital and physical.”

Detailed topics include:

  • Identity commons: identity commons provide the tools for individuals to manage their online identities as a publicly accessible but privately maintained resource – freeing personal virtual identities from private Web sites.
  • Learning commons: learning commons generate sustainable resources, such as open-source curricula, open academic journals, and open databases – in response to failing public and private institutions.
  • Money commons: money commons pool financial resources using peer-to-peer strategies as alternative to traditional, more constrained financial instruments.
  • Infrastructure commons: peer-to-peer structures combine with new and old technologies to provide infrastructures that are communally shared and collectively managed.
  • Urban commons: urban commons layer information, media, and networks on the built environment to create new collectively maintained urban civic and cultural spaces.
  • Policy commons: policy commons leverage tools for electronic democracy as well as open-source social solutions platforms to provide richer policy discussions – and options.
  • Food commons: locally supported food production systems focus on biodiversity and genetic variability as a means of fostering sustainable food webs.
  • Biocommons: shared repositories of bio-information, from open pharmacy platforms to genetic genealogy and ethnobotanical databases, provide alternatives to patenting and privatisation of basic forms of life.
  • Health commons: health commons leverage the collective value of health and health care – from health and wellness “mobs” to bottom-up databases of treatment outcomes – to reinvigorate the global health infrastructure.

The Forecasts also includes two examples; Children’s Health Commons and Open Health.  The latter is quite interesting.

Open health is a paradigm shift in the global health economy, drawing on open innovation platforms, new health commons, and new forms of cross-institutional cooperation to create new health strategies and better outcomes at less expense.

From an HFP perspective the latter is particularly interesting.  Concepts such as the “Food commons” and “Infrastructure commons” seem somewhat rosy-eyed and overly optimistic.  Then we reflect on the very real and very “commons”, open sourced nature of projects such as the Appropedia, an open-source wiki for sustainable and appropriate technologies in development.  Appropedia is bottom-up, open sourced, and indeed a smashing example of “Infrastructure commons”.

Might other nascent examples of concepts in this theme already be found amongst us?  Might this not be so rosy-eyed after all?

Next in the series, Politics: Open Source Warfare.


IFTF 10 year forecast: New Diasporas

April 26, 2009

demographics

Demographics: New Diasporas.  The first in our series of posts reviewing themes from The Institute for the Future’s latest 10 year forecast.

Diasporas are dispersed populations that share a common place (or experience) or origin, and this will be a decade of diasporas.  We have a hypothesis: these diasporas are the real emerging economies.  If you want to understand the future of value creation, don’t spend your time with maps of the geopolitical world.  Look at diasporas.  Look especially at the new diasporas: virtual and media diasporas, activist diasporas, corporate diasporas, internal diasporas, climate change diasporas and bio metric diasporas.  These are the emerging ecologies of production and economic value, of human meaning.

The forecast defines each of these new diasporas in more detail below.  Quoting from the Forecast summary:

  1. Climate change diasporas: climate change displaces communities and creates new identities linked to the causes and impacts of global warming – from climate events like Hurricane Katrina to permanent flooding of whole countries, such as a Bangladesh.
  2. Internal diasporas: rural-to-urban migration, especially in China and Inda, leverage mobile communications to redefine geographic and social identities.
  3. Biometric diasporas: the ability to track, imagine and express biological markers – from genetic geneaologies to genetic IDs – catalyses new identities and communities.
  4. Media diasporas:  In social media like Last.FM, media “taste trails” become identity markers that define persistent communities.
  5. Virtual diasporas: persistent online identities migrate from platform to platform – virtual worlds to online migrant registers – leveraging personal histories and relationships.
  6. Corporate diasporas: corporations serve as destinations among which groups of initiated workers circulate – creating geographies such as Philawarepragacago, or simply very high-performance alumni networks that can rapidly form and reform around the globe.
  7. Activist diasporas: technological support for bottom-up, transborder civic engagement creates new kinds of activism – including NGO diasporas and remote campaigning.

The Forecast then suggests two possible implications of these new communities.  The first is “emerging economy tourists”, those hailing form emerging economies like India, China and Brazil, visiting more diverse destinations in both the global North and South.  The second is “diffusion of global economic leadership”, where leadership amongst these various diasporas is scattered around the globe more widely and found in more unexpected niches than before.

Stay tuned for the next instalment from The Institute for the Future’s intriguing new 10 year forecast – Financial Innovation: Islamic Influences


Special series on the Institute for the Future’s new 10 year forecast

April 24, 2009

The Institute for the Future is one of the oldest and best futures think tanks around.  They recently published their “10 year forecast“, which integrates a variety of key trends and drivers into a beautiful framework.

From the executive summary:

As we look out from 2008 over the next decade, we see a planet in which the ecologies of life are dissolving before our eyes.  Their constituents are disappearing, or migrating, reconstituting themselves anew.  We see this process mimicked in our own social and institutional systems, as the familiar forms in our landscape also begin to dissolve – to be replaced by something that may be hard to recognize if we look for well-known structure and recognizable boundaries.  This year’s forecasts point us beyond these shifting structures to what may be the emerging life forms.

The forecast touches on a variety of important themes and trends.  Among the themes are:

  1. New Diasporas
  2. Financial Innovation
  3. New Commons
  4. Open-Source Warfare
  5. Food Webs
  6. The Blue Economy
  7. Innovation: Enabled!
  8. Pervasive Eco-Monitoring
  9. Neuro-Futures

    Heady, powerful, and innovative stuff with profound consequences for humanity in general, and humanitarianism in particular.  

    We will be excerpting a trend per day for the following few days here on the HFP blog, giving time for adequate digestion of each one.  We hope you enjoy this series of posts and, as always, look forward to your comments on and off the blog.


    A review of ARUP’s “Drivers of Change”

    April 19, 2009

    We’ve been a long time follower of the engineering and design firm ARUP (HFP consultant Noah Raford has worked with them on several past projects via his other life as an urban planner).  

    They also have a scenario planning division, lead by Chris Luebkeman, who put out a beautifully made “Drivers of Change” report on a semi-regular basis (also found on their dedicated scenario planning / strategy website, here.)   

    TreeHugger has just posted a very nice review of the latest round of these reports, found here.  The review is pretty light (excerpt below), but it is nice to see this kind of foresight and scenario planning work getting more mainstream coverage.

    Although the trends explored in Drivers of Change are, for the most part, pretty scary, there is also good news (although not in the “Climate Change” section, which is not recommended for the faint of heart). For example, accelerated urbanization might actually produce new solutions to some of the problems mentioned in the book, as cities, especially very diverse cities, are functioning more and more as platforms for exchanging ideas – churning out prosperity and culture like never before. The book links the growth of urban diversity and multiculturalism to city dwellers’ prospects for innovation and even happiness.

    Another, more in depth look at the overview from this research can be found at DesignIntelligence, written by Luebkeman himself.  His bullet points are:

    1. The world is shrinking
    2. Populations are expanding
    3. Nationalism is on the wane
    4. Potential for scarcity
    5. Increasing ecological footprints
    6. Massive urbanisation
    7. Asia on the rise
    8. Increasing R&D is a hopeful trend
    9. Organisations need to integrate and be prepared for the convergence of these trends

    These will be familiar themes for any HFP partners, but again, very nice to see them getting more mainstream coverage.


    The importance of words for seeing the future, or, you need to think “stick” before being able to use a stick

    March 31, 2009
    Photo credit: Bianca Dijck, Flickr  

     

     

    Photo credit: Bianca Dijck, Flickr

    Jake Dunagan, a Director at the Institute for the Future writes about how language characterizes our ability to see the world around us and, critically, envision outcomes in the future.

    In “Look Forward, and Carry a Big Stick“, he observes that Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky compared the differing cognitive mechanisms that apes and humans use to perceive and interact with the world around them. “Both apes and humans can use a stick as a tool, but, Vygotsky argues, an ape must actually see the stick before he can think “stick.” A sufficiently developed and linguistically enabled human, however, must think “stick” in order to actually see the stick.”

    In a recent post, “Resilient, durable or agile?  A metaphor for future aid organisations“, Chris Watkins suggested that thinking about the meaning of the words we use to define our future was “just semantics” and somehow therefore less relevant to humanitarian aid.  Vygostky’s findings suggest that not only are “semantics” important for understanding the world around us, but that in fact they are essential, especially when thinking about the future.

    This has radical implications for how we envision, and strategize, about the future.  Dunagan writes,

    In terms of the way humans envision the future, humans are much closer to the ape in our thinking – our possibilities tend to be more confined to what we can already see (or have seen) than what we can freely imagine. To deal with the enormous global challenges we face and to create a more responsible and just society, we must learn to become more human in our relationship to the future.

    What does this mean?  According to recent findings, Dunagan points out, our brains see the future in terms of the past and present. “Therefore,” he writes, “we must construct our media, our objects, and our built environment as an aide de futuribles to our brain’s capacity to imagine possible futures.”

    If the future is a stick we have to see in order to think, then those concerned with creating better futures should start making their favorite sticks and start whacking others in the shins with them!”  

    This is exactly what we were trying to do with our post on resiliency versus agility, a theme we will continue to explore in future posts.


    Kim Stanley Robinson on valuing the future to avoid catastrophic collapse

    March 31, 2009

    future

    “Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.”

    Author Kim Stanley Robinson argues here that capitalism is a “multi-generational Ponzi scheme” that is ruining the planet and has to change if human civilization is to survive.  

    Taking a futures perspective, Robinson writes, “the main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future.”  On the longer scale, resources (including carbon) are underpriced, causing us to charge less for them than what they cost (an argument presented well by Buckminster Fuller, who calculated the true cost of oil based on the time of production at over a billion dollars per barrel).  “When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor,” he writes, “it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.”

    …the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

    You could say we are that moment now. 

    Robinson argues that instead of trying to produce a “pyramid of wealth”, we should aim for a more broad-based economy of productivity that reduces inequality and accurately prices the cost of materials based on their unavailability to future generations.

    Believe in science.”

    Robinson’s first recommendation for change include actually believing, and valuing, what our scientists are telling us.  

    “We need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness…  Science is telling us that if we keep living the way we do, we will trigger an unstoppable and irreversible climate change that may de-ice the planet and acidify the oceans, causing mass extinction.

    His main point is that the we are talking about the end of the world here.  There can be nothing more serious.

    “It took tens of millions of years for Earth to recover from previous mass extinctions,” he argues, and despite our technological power and ever increasing intelligence, we are rapidly approaching the point where human society could be destroyed by climate change.  We need to start acting like it.

    Seeing in a new way

    Robinson’s point is well presented.  He concludes with a firmly futures-oriented question.  “Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future.”  This is the core message of scenario planning and futures work.  You can’t see the future because you don’t want to see it; your beliefs and morals prohibit you from seeing what you don’t want to see, leaving your surprised and disturbed when things don’t go the way you expect.

    Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial…  We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

    Well said KSR.  The future is in our hands, but only if we look beyond what we want to see, acknowledge that we are creating our own grave, and that in order to survive we must change the system; belief systems, social systems, economic systems, and organisational systems.  Otherwise we are well and truly doomed.

    Full article here.