The Next Decade of Digital Technology

This Friday I am running a workshop entitled “Looking Ahead to the next Decade: Responding to a Range of Future Scenarios in Digital Communication and Coordination”. In preparation I have been trying to do some looking ahead myself, seeking inspiration for some meaningful insights into what I can contribute. In desperation I have turn to my recollection of the past to see if there are any lessons there.
My first encounter with digital technology was a brief mention of transistors at the end of an electronics course in my physics undergraduate program in the early 1960s. In contrast to the analogue valve technologies that could moderate and amplify electrical signals, transistor-based logical circuits were just switches that were either on or off (o or 1). I was not very impressed!
Since that time solid state devices have revolutionised our lives with spectacular breakthroughs each decade. In the 1960s financial institutions began to process customer accounts faster and more reliably on computers. By the 1970’s most large organisations had mainframes that could be programmed in 3rd generation languages through dumb but human-readable terminals. In the 1980s we had the first local networks of computers and other devices supporting corporate emails, printers and client server systems. More significantly, this was the decade of personal computers with end-user applications such as word processors and spreadsheets. The 90s heralded the birth of the Internet, a network of networks that hosted the pervasive but static World-Wide Web. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee the basic components of the Internet were not patented or copyrighted but a free gift to all. In the 2000’s the web became dynamic with direct access by end users to everyone else on the planet: micro businesses had access to global markets; social media emerged; Internet devices went mobile; functionality expanded and converged.
Looking back there were many past predictions that were way off the mark. At a conference in the 1980s IBM confidently predicted that voice and language recognition software was sufficiently developed that it was ready to support audio as the dominant way people would interact with computers. Nokia was so sure that text would not be used on its mobile phones in favour of the richer media of audio and video that they made SMS a very cheap option that was rapidly taken up.
What has been obvious with respect to the technology have been ongoing trends to greater processing power on smaller, lower cost, more reliable devices with greater capability. I do notice however that screens on mobile phones are now increasing in size with the convergence of more functionality onto these devices. I suspect that these trends will continue but are not the most exciting ones to predict with more of the same.
One of the challenges of mobile devices are their need for energy and reliance batteries that must be charged regularly. So one of my bolder future prediction concern innovations in energy sources for mobile devices. I remember in the days before digital watches we used to have to wind them up. Then we had ones where our arm movement would provide the energy for winderless watches. Maybe some form of biological energy source such as body heat or movement could power small mobile devices.
Another challenge for digital devices that also requires innovative solutions are their need for traces of rare metals that are difficult to recycle and becoming scarce. This may require their radical redesign. There are also conflicting requirements for access and openness balanced against protection of identity and security that require socio-technical innovation.
Moving further into the social sphere I suspect that the greatest changes over the next decade will come in the social end of the social-technical spectrum as societies and nations grapple with the dialectic contrasts of openness and freedom against security and control; work against play; wealth versus wellbeing; corporate versus community. The Web has become a global platform for mobilising change, resistance to traditional authority in the hands of the few, democratisation of knowledge and action; and advocacy for great equality through sustainably development. I imagine a future where these issues are contested through debate on the Web and promoted through collective activity of global movements organised via social media.

Revelling in Complexity

It is common in our Western culture to want to solve problems with logic and reason. We like being in control, understanding cause and effect, and knowing all the facts before we make decisions. However, there are many wicked problems about these days, take for example issues associated with climate change, and these cannot be dealt with in this way.

We are facing an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable future and, while this may be quite daunting it is not something we should fear.  Rather we should rejoice in the exciting prospects that complexity offers. Our stuffy bureaucratic institutions no longer offer the best way to organise what we do. Modern organisations need to be less rigid and more innovative, creative, flexible and adaptable. But to do this they need to appreciate the complexity of wicked problems and adopt approaches that are appropriate for complexity.

Wicked problem are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements or because there are too many interdependent components in the system. In this case the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. The trajectory of a wicked problem depends heavily on its context and small events may trigger spectacular consequences. Compare the recent public protests in London, with those in Cairo, with those in Damascus and in Libya.

Complexity Theory can help us deal with wicked problems. It is concerned with the behaviour over time and space of complex systems. It recognises the effective unknowability of the future and acknowledges that essential systems elements are lost by attempting to simplify them.

Closely associated with complexity is the concept of emergence. When all flights in Europe were grounded by ash from the Icelandic Volcano the airlines were effectively hamstrung. Yet all sorts of alternative ways of moving people around emerged through the self-organising efforts of local entrepreneurs. Positive emergent outcomes can be encouraged through the application of attractors and boundaries as articulated by Dave Snowden when he describes the Complex Domain of his Cynefin sensemaking framework  He uses the example of a party of early teens which will be quite successful if they are left to their own devices with some attractors (food, music etc) and some obvious restrictions (boundaries).  Try to impose too much structure would require a lot of effort and be a definite killjoy.  For more on emergence see Wikipedia .

In order to get desirable emergent outcomes I find carrots more valuable than sticks. Using attractors instead of rules and regulations or command and control is more pleasant and more cost effective. It is reminiscent of the Productivity Paradox: getting more out of people by demanding less. Attractors are often already at work in complex situations but may be hidden.  People talk about the attraction of the water cooler in providing an opportunity for people to chat informally and promote knowledge exchange. We need to be careful not to remove these hidden “strange attractors”.

Diversity of views and capability can also be of great value when working on wicked problems. The The Law of Requisite Variety applied to social systems refers to the advantages of having an organisational capability which matches the level of complexity and diversity of the context in which it operates.  For example if your customers are young people, have young people on staff.

I tend to view many wicked problems as a dialectic synthesis of a thesis (one side of the story) and its antithesis ( the other side). The synthesis resolves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common or divergent truths while allowing both truths to stand.  A simple example of a dialectic relationship is that between the right to life and the right to choose.  One thesis, or view, is in practice the antithesis of the other but both have validity despite the protestation of those who hold strong views on either side. 

So, how do we deal with wicked problems that have inherent complex and contradictory aspects?  My advice is that we need more than just good information or knowledge to support our decisions and actions. Wisdom and courage are critical to recognising that a problem or situation is complex, then to be comfortable with that before deciding what to do. The uniqueness of the context should be recognised and you should not blindly apply something that worked elsewhere. Don’t expect simple, complete or even any, solutions that please everyone. Avoid setting concrete measurable targets. Bring together people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Be creative in applying suitable attractors and boundaries. Then reward responses that move the situation in a positive direction. As a last resort get advice from parents who have survived the teenage years of their children.

Some suitable tools and techniques for dealing with problems include:

ž Storytelling  – to get richer and deeper view

ž  Playing games –to encourage exploration, cooperation without criticism

ž  Holding “world cafes” – for conversations among large groups

ž  Using social media – for sharing knowledge and experience anywhere anytime

and take advantage of the emotional intelligence of people:

ž  Apply common sense – the collapse of Lehman Bros was ascribed to  “a  colossal failure of common sense”,

ž  Use imagination – the failure of US Intelligence agencies to foresee 9/11 was put down to “a lack of imagination”

Finally, heed the message of Dave Gray (X-plane) When you make the complicated simple, you make it better, but when you make the complex simple, you make it wrong.