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.

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UKCP09 launches today

June 18, 2009

After several months of delay and some behind the scenes controversy, UK Climate Projections 2009 (UKCP09) launches today, June 18th, 2009.

From the press release:

The UK Climate Projections (UKCP09) are being launched on Thursday 18 June. UKCP09 provides the latest information on how continued emissions of greenhouse gases may change the UK’s climate over 21st century. The information provided by UKCP09 will be valuable to anyone with responsibility for forward planning in the public, private and voluntary sectors. UKCP09 comprises a package of information including, publications, key findings, user support and customisable output. This is primarily available on-line. Please note that the sites will not go live until the Secretary of State has finished his announcement to the House, sometime around 12.30.

* For access to the main technical information about UKCP09, and the full range of information and support, go to http://ukclimateprojections.defra.gov.uk.
* A gentler introduction is available at http://ukcp09.defra.gov.uk.

UKCP09 is accompanied by a training programme – Projections in Practice (PiP) – and more information can be found at www.ukcip.org.uk/training.

What is so interesting about these projections is the background controversy and delay.  They will be some of the world’s most advanced downscaled climate projection available, but the project has been delayed due to methodological criticism and claims of over promising.

The critique, coming mostly from climate modellers and chaos mathematicians, suggests that some of the claims are too ambitious and that the levels of uncertainty are too high to produce such granular predictions.

From a past issue of New Scientist, cited here:

At the Cambridge meeting Lenny Smith, a statistician at the London School of Economics, warned about the “naïve realism” of current climate modelling. “Our models are being over-interpreted and misinterpreted,” he said. “They are getting better; I don’t want to trash them per se. But as we change our predictions, how do we maintain the credibility of the science?” Over-interpretation of models is already leading to poor financial decision-making, Smith says. “We need to drop the pretence that they are nearly perfect.”

He singled out for criticism the British government’s UK Climate Impacts Programme and Met Office. He accused both of making detailed climate projections for regions of the UK when global climate models disagree strongly about how climate change will affect the British Isles.

Smith is co-author, with Dave Stainforth of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Oxford, of a paper published this week on confidence and uncertainty in climate predictions (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society ADOI: 10.1098/rsta.2007.2074*). It is one of several papers on the shortfalls of current climate models.

Some authors say modellers should drop single predictions and instead offer probabilities of different climate futures. But Smith and Stainforth say this approach could be “misleading to the users of climate science in wider society”. Borrowing a phrase from former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Smith told his Cambridge audience that there were “too many unknown unknowns” for such probabilities to be useful.

Policy-makers, he said, “think we know much more than we actually know. We need to be more open about our uncertainties.” Meanwhile, the tipping points loom.

From issue 2617 of New Scientist magazine, 16 August 2007, page 13

There is no doubt that such projections will be welcomed by the scientific and policy communities.  One hopes that an adequate understanding of the uncertainties involved will also be appreciated.


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.


Scientists: stop criticising each other on how you communicate with the masses

April 27, 2009

A leading expert on the public understanding of science argues that scientists should stop criticising each other’s attempts to communicate science to the masses.

From the BBC:

Kathy Sykes, professor of sciences and society at the University of Bristol, has argued that experts are always attacking each other either for “dumbing down” or being elitist. She discusses her comments with Ben Goldacre, who writes a science column for the Guardian.


Of piracy and overfishing; a case study in unintended consequences

April 14, 2009

Photo from <a href=The real roots of Somalian piracy lie in failed governance and overfishing.

He notes that thousands of Somalis used to make their living as fishermen.  But after two decades of state failure and no regulatory bodies, foreign fisherman illegally take nearly $300 million in fish per year from Somalia’s waters.

As a result fishermen became increasingly desperate, turning first to vigilante patrol boats to help self-police their own waters from illegal fishing and dumping.  They would storm a boat and demand “taxation” or payment for their illegal fishing or dumping.  This proved so successful, that while the economic situation at home grew even worse, many turned to piracy in order to survive and take in more lucrative catches.  War is Boring suggests that pirates have cut the Somalian tuna trade in half.  

In a 45 minute New York Times interview with a Somali pirate, they reveal their true motivation:

He said that so far, in the eyes of the world, the pirates had been misunderstood. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

This is a fascinating portrait of a complex system of unintended consequences.  

Failed state -> unregulated waters -> illegal fishing and dumping -> violent vigilantes self-policing -> realisation of increased profit potential -> piracy.  


Lets stop using the term “self fulfilling climate prophecy”

April 14, 2009

The Guardian’s James Randerson suggests that “climate scientists have actually been toning down their message lest the worst-case scenario becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

A recent Guardian poll of climate scientists found that;

Just 7% of the 261 experts surveyed (200 of whom were researchers in climate science or related fields) said they thought governments would succeed in restricting global warming to 2C. Nearly two-fifths thought this target was impossible and 46% thought a 3 to 4C rise by the end of the century was most likely.

He then echoes a common refrain floating around these kinds of discussions; “Don’t give up, it’s not hopeless, otherwise this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy!”

I humbly suggest that we stop using the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” in connection with any kind of climate change action.

Why?  Climate change has nothing to do with what we believe in, at least not now. Climate change is the result of deep, old, and slow moving structural properties of our global social and economic system.  No one is in charge of the climate, nor of global society.  Climate change is thus an emergent effect of our complex system.

As an emergent effect, it is in some real way the sum of all our individual actions. Of course what we believe in now influences our actions.  And this, by implication, influences the course of the future.  So belief is an important part of the climate risk communication srtategy.  

But it is silly to think that acknowledging how bad it is and how bad it might get will cause some sort of society-wide suicide impulse.  No one is going to lie down in the face of their own destruction.  The louder and more severe we communicate the reality of the situation, the more likely we are to realise what kind of a situation we are in and, hopefully, start to motivate the change it before hand.

The “self-fulfilling prophecy” notion distracts from the real political issues of risk communication and strategy formation in the face of dangerous climate change.


Planning for future climate change crises workshop

March 13, 2009

HFP recently hosted a successful “Planning for Future Climate Change Crises” event, bringing together leading UK scientists, policy makers, and aid organisations.

These are particularly relevant given the recent posts on climate change severity and the importance of policy dialogue.  Please feel free to download and distribute.  PDF’s and PPT’s from this event can be found here:

http://www.humanitarianfutures.org/mainsite/events/view_events.php?page_ID=24

Key excerpts:

  • We should do what military strategists and the engineering and insurance communities have done for years – estimate an acceptable level of risk and plan accordingly.”
  • Remove uncertainty by using worst-case scenarios. If the worst doesn’t occur then that’s good; if it does, then we’re prepared = win win!”  – Mike Edwards, CAFOD
  • “It is important to consider how climate forecasts relate to aid organisation’s planning time scales.  Do 20 year forecasts matter if your planning cycle is on a 3 year window?”  – Dr. Andy Morse, University of Liverpool
  • We need aid organisations to tell us what kind of forecasts they need if we are to be able to provide it to them.”  – Dr. Richard Jones, The Met Office
  • “90% of climate change adaptation strategies can be implemented without the need for climate forecasts.  These are low regret, easy win options that benefit people now.” – Dr. Ron Wilby,  Loughborough University