D is for lots of things … but most of all Devolution


Douglas Adams, that doyen of so much wisdom, once said

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

In my last post I had a bit of a rant about some “I” words, and in this one I’m going to focus on the “d’s”.

The first two of course are data and digital.

There are a plethora of definitions of both, but my interest is in articulating the almost visceral reaction I am now having to the way everything in the digital and data space is being talked about and approached.

I recently attended the launch of New Philanthropy Capital’s Innovations in Measurement report and, as I sat and listened, I realised that the whole data space is becoming decidedly Red Ocean.  Every woman and her cat are now talking digital and data, every organisation is seeking to be digitally transformed and scurrying to do more with data.  There is a feeding frenzy going on, and as I heard the comments and questions it was startlingly obvious that most people haven’t the first clue about what data really is, let alone that which is being generated, managed and hoovered up in digital form.  Nor do they really have any idea about what digital transformation really is, beyond digitising the industrial age processes that persist in most of our organisational systems.  People talk about getting to know customers better, delivering better services, increasing productivity and reducing waste, all of which has been talked about incessantly whenever anyone mentions innovation and digital in the same sentence.  The more I heard this the more my data privacy and digital human rights alarm bells went off, even though eventually the e (ethics) word did surface.  The other thing that came up right towards the end was the tail wagging dog scenario – organisations rushing to deliver more and more data to somehow prove that what they are doing is evidence-based and can thereby satisfy the accountability requirements of funders, with scant regard for what that data actually means or its provenance.

All of this led me to really think about the relationship that exists between data and evidence and from there to policy, governance and the inadequate skillbase of many making key decisions.

I had the perfect opportunity to float this to an audience when I spoke at the UK Launch of Give Directly at the RSA.   This question was initially posed as a thought provoker but it revealed that whilst some in the audience had obviously given it a great deal of thought, most demonstrated that they have little or no understanding of the complexity of the digital data world, the challenges of data utilisation, let alone the practical, ethical, legal or affordance issues which relate to algorithms and user-interface design.  (As a side note this is what the Semantic Web was all about, and which we tried to promote at our Meta conferences.  It is also striking demonstrated by the lack of preparedness by senior leaders for cyber attack and hacking).

Give Directly is seeking to streamline the giving process between donor and recipient, as well as to promote transparency and trust through the concepts of Effective Altruism.  They are currently piloting the World’s largest Basic Income experiment and anyone who goes on their website can see the effort to which they’ve gone to be as open and honest as possible in their attempts to link data with evidence in terms of demonstrating outcomes.

Their operating model is clearly explained and in many ways they are an excellent example of how data-smart individuals are disrupting what my co-presenter Owen Barder called the Missionaries of the 21st Century – those trusted individuals who act as information intermediaries giving modern day aid.

Give Directly are in fact developing a Web Observatory on the giving space and through their efforts highlighting the need to more keenly appreciate the challenges in determining the difference between Evidence-based-Policy versus Policy-based-Evidence.

The word Disruption is being bandied about everywhere.  Quite simply it may be defined as

  1. To throw into confusion or disorder
  2.  To interrupt or impede the progress of
  3. To break apart or alter so as to prevent normal or expected functioning

Disruption describes a major shift in the way of doing things and a willingness to explore something new.  This is what these young entrepreneurs and Effective Altruists are working towards, regardless of any inadequacies in their model or naivety in their approaches.  What they bring is an unfettered enthusiasm to change things, to disregard established norms and to push back at the traditional ways things have been done.

But what everyone in the tech for good sector needs to bear uppermost in mind, regardless of their intent is, as Maciej Ceglowski explains

There is a tendency in computer-land to seek technical solutions to political problems.  In my opinion, the focus on the blockchain (and related ideas) falls into that misguided category.  The idea that we should look to algorithms and technology to reclaim our freedoms is fundamentally undemocratic.  It presupposes a technical elite who would fix the Internet for everyone else.  While I can see how this appeals to romantic ideas of hacking the system, I see it as a dangerous trend at worst, and a distraction at best.

This is where the older wiser heads can help and where their true value lies.

For everyone the faster the rate of change around us becomes (as this recent Pew survey has found) the harder it is to stand back, disconnect and gain any sensible perspective on what is actually going on.  But standing back and disconnecting is now more important than ever. because, as one very tech-savvy friend of mine commented when it comes to technology, there are three kinds of people:

  • those who are slowly beavering away building the world which is emerging step by step;
  • those who have a vested interest in talking about it and hyping it up because they either sell tech stuff, or consult around it; and
  • everyday people who don’t know what it real and what is not, nor do they have the skills and expertise to tell the difference.

In other words there is the reality, the spin and the naivety.  And most people have very little idea of which is which.

Which brings me to my next D word, Demographics.

I grew up in Australia as a part of the 1980’s D-Generation which brought together Australia’s irreverence and off-beat humour and the silliness of the socio-political world we saw around us which was in the dying days of the Cold War.  It is my generation who are now occupying much of the C-suite and Boards of companies around the world, but we are the generation that sits between the analogue and digital worlds, we remember the days of carbon copying and landline phones, and disappearing on holiday with no tether of any kind back home.

Now we are living in a world that most of us only thought would only exist in Science Fiction but it was those who unleashed their imaginations to create Science Fact that built the foundations upon which everything digital sits today.

In talking with my Millennial children it is clear that they think very differently to me about many issues, just as I thought differently to my parents.  When it comes to how this is playing itself out in the corridors of power there are some interesting points to consider.

In a paper I wrote for New Philanthropy Capital’s Flipping the Narrative I stated that

We must preserve what we value today in order to provide future generations with as many options and choices as possible.

What does this mean?  Thomas Kuhn wrote of paradigm shifts which happen when people see things anew, and we are going through a major one now.  This is not just about digital natives and digital immigrants, but the Web Generation, those who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s with the Web at their fingertips and many of whom now are in middle management positions with a very different approach to technology than their senior managers.  For those who are digital technologists – those who actually build digital things – the whole approach to technology design, strategy, outcome measurement, and ongoing development is completely at odds with those who are analogue technologists and built many of the legacy systems which still run most of our infrastructure.  But things are changing rapidly and the mindset to build for digital is light years away from the mindset to build analogue.  And yet is the Analogues who are still largely calling the shots.

The Harvard Business Review recently wrote of the need for different types of thinkers around the Board Table identifying the following:

  1. Digital thinker – someone who has had little direct interaction with digital as an operator but conceptually understands the digital environment.  They have been a board director or adviser in a digital business but are not a digital native.
  2. Digital disruptor – someone who has been deeply embedded in digital and has technical experience, but less general management breadth.
  3. Digital leader – someone who has had substantial experience running a traditional business but has had less hands-on digital experience even though they might have managed through disruptive change.
  4. Digital transformer – someone who has led or participated in a transformation of a traditional business to become more data oriented, and these people are usually less senior but more digitally astute.

I may not totally agree with their categories but what is clear from much research is that those in categories 2 and 4 are grossly under-represented in helping organisations prepare for the changes that are ravaging modern economic processes, and in the Charity Sector they are even less influential.

When it comes to these differing mindsets the big difference is that

Digital is about being, not doing.

This means a whole new approach to the way one sees the world, seeing the world as data, not just information, and both understanding and appreciating that our digital devices already understand what we are doing, now they are learning about how we are being.

In her Cranlana Talk the Open Data Institute’s Ellen Broad talks about how

Data gives AI life, Data drives decisions.  Training AI on historic data, even that which exists today, can freeze our society in its current setting, or even turn it back.

As our machines become ever smarter so it is us who must make the informed choices about what we teach them, how we teach them and what we expect of them.  This is the decision that we now need to consciously make.

If you want to change organisations then you need to change the fundamentals – people, mindsets and approaches. 

A wonderful example is that of the Great Fire of London.  After the fire very little of the old city remained and the new one that emerged whilst still having the same footprint was built for a far more modern world.  This is something which Aric Dromi highlights in this interview talking about the developing Smart Cities around the planet, and predicting that they will most likely develop in places with minimal legacy infrastructure not only physically but in the spirit of the people who seek out new processes and ways of being.

And so what does this mean?

I believe very firmly that the future is in the hands of the those who are both on the margins – in places like India, China, Singapore and even Africa – and the young -those under 35 – 40 years of age who are only just entering the corridors of power in a real way.  They understand the world that is emerging much better than their elders to, and whilst they do need the benefit of wise counsel and hardened experience they need to be given the freedom and encouragement to take on the challenges head on, not be subsumed or shouted down because of their perceived lack of experience and seniority.

It is we elders who have the lack of digital experience because we come from a world that is rapidly disappearing and increasingly becoming irrelevant.  History will always inform the present particularly when it comes to human behaviour, but we are now writing new history because most of the people who created the current world are no longer alive, and those who will create tomorrow haven’t been born yet.

And this leads me to my last D word, Devolution.

Devolution in a legal sense means to “to be transferred from one owner to (another), especially by inheritance”.

When I think about this it gives me great hope, and is one of the drivers that is underpinning our Future Worlds Challenge which we launched tonight in Sydney.

I believe that it is the up and coming generations who must be given the power and authority to proactively create the world that is emerging, especially because the world we live in now is very largely the result of the decisions made by our forebears who are pretty much all dead!  What we are aiming to do with our programme is to help our young people identify what tools and the mindsets they need to grasp the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century so that they can proactively prepare for and purposefully create options for a better and more sustainable human civilisation.

We need to encourage them, as we do those who have created initiatives such as Give Directly, but not walk away and leave them to it, more we need to proactively work with them to bring the wisdom of age and experience together with the enthusiasm and anarchy of you.

As Elders I believe that the best thing we can do is just get out of their way and to give them our faith, trust, support and confidence to create the world anew.