Tag Archive: innovation

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

One of my favourite parts of foresight work is the opportunity to work with wicked problems. When a client calls wanting to engage with an issue for which there are no easy answers, my heart soars. The level of difficulty in these assignments is high but the engagements (thus far) have been very positive. Foresight is useful when it comes to engaging with complex problems as it gives you space to consider what ‘better’ actually means in the context of the challenge at hand.

Having spent the best part of a day in the past week engaged in a conversation about a wicked problem, I had cause to reflect on why I enjoy it so much. Part of the attraction is the intellectual challenge, as the navigation of the complexity pushes us to think more broadly and deeply about the issue and the potential actions that could be undertaken. I think the other part of the attraction for me is that there really is no right answer.

To clarify what a wicked problem is the APSC provides a series of characteristics:

  • wicked problems are difficult to clearly define
  • wicked problems have many interdependencies and are often multi-causal
  • attempts to address wicked problems often lead to unforeseen consequences
  • wicked problems are often not stable
  • wicked problems usually have no clear solution
  • wicked problems are socially complex
  • wicked problems hardly ever sit conveniently within the responsibility of any one organisation
  • some wicked problems are characterised by chronic policy failure.

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One of the first books I bought on the ‘the future’ outside of texts I was reading for the Masters of Strategic Foresight was Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart. I bought a copy in 2003 while at a World Future Society conference in San Francisco, it is printed on a material made from plastic resins and fibres. It claimed to be waterproof, which I tested, and recyclable, which I haven’t as yet. The material is soft and pleasant to the touch. They describe the material as a ‘technical nutrient’, “a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles.” (p5) I still remember how excited I was by both the book’s message and the embodiment of the message by the artefact itself. The idea of cradle to cradle manufacturing, where the waste products of one process becomes the feedstock for another, is still a very seductive idea to me. That this should be key requirement of all design is also one which has been slow to catch on, but is starting to appear. Europe requires that the recycling of packaging and products be considered during the design process. The idea of upcycling is starting to gain traction, as is the closing of systems in restaurants and the like.

Cradle to Cradle


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Images – House for all seasons China

This story from Gizmag caught my eye for a number of reasons. Architect John Lin, who is a professor at the University of Hong Kong, has won an award from the Architectural Review in 2012 for his house which has been built in Shaanxi Province with philanthropic funding. It is designed to assist the continued urbanisation of China’s people as over half (51.27% or 680 million) of China’s population now live in cities, which is the first time in that country’s history.(Telegraph). Having seen a documentary recently on the White Horse village and their 4 year transformation from rural subsistence farming to urban dwellers, one of the reflections for me was the shape of everyday life and how our housing choices determine it.

The people of White Horse village were not 100% behind the change that was thrust upon them by central planning authorities. Their way of life changed dramatically, and while most agreed with the direction that China is heading, they were unhappy with the impact on their everyday lives. The traditional rural way of life where there were multi-age households and the elderly are part of everyday life changed when people moved into multi-storey apartments. The day-to-day engagement with their neighbours was gone and may of them struggled to cope.

The other reflection was that whilst the opportunity to make a living increased enormously, so did the costs of living. There were no more market gardens or vegetable plots for self-sufficiency. All the food they once grew had to be bought at the supermarket. This is the same situation in many large Western cities, with people unable to grow their own food, they are forced to buy it. The counter-trend in the West is the growing popularity of rooftop and balcony gardens for food.   Continue reading

One of the issues I alluded to in the previous post was our tenancy to bifurcate the future into positive and negative stereotypes – utopia or dystopia. This topic has come up a couple of times in the past week, so I thought a follow up post might be appropriate. The model I want to use to start this discussion was developed by Andrew Curry and Anthony Hodgson and you can find in the Journal of Futures Studies which places all of its material on the web free of charge.

The format of their model that I use in my work is below. The standpoint is today, and you can see from the chart that I start five years or so into the past, the first horizon is the world we know today, overtime it recedes and the seeds of the second and third horizons can be seen if you look. In the work we do, the third horizon is the future we are trying to create, the emerging signals of which exist today. It won’t be a straight line extrapolation from one to the other, instead there is what is known by the technical term of ‘the messy bit’ between us in the present and the future we are wanting to create. It is the messiness of the second horizon that derails many in their thinking about the future. We want the clean break from the past and to step into a future that is desired. Our ability to make straight line linkages between events in hindsight fools us into thinking this is possible when looking out to the future. My contention is that we currently need to develop compelling images of 3rd horizon futures and that it is the role of the leader to navigate the messy bit from today to tomorrow. Continue reading

via Ecouterre.com

There are some interesting ideas in this latest list of fashion meets environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, the commodification of nature continues… 10 Eco-Fashion Garments Inspired by Nature and Biomimicry | Ecouterre.

Stefanie has found scraps of wood which she has made into couture pieces of clothing, Suzanne is using couple of bathtubs, some yeast, a pinch of bacteria, and several cups of sweetened green tea to make her fabric which is then dyed by beetroot. Donna is using a nanotechnology-based, structurally colored fiber that mimics the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings that does not require dyeing (see image).

When you have a look through the fashion on the website above it is an interesting  project to question the assumptions and thinking behind many of these ideas by moving them into to a world of restricted resources to generate questions such as these:

Which could continue to survive under cradle to cradle manufacturing requirements?

Which looked to ‘waste’ to find a source of material?

Which are high-tech and therefore require the full functioning of a technological society to support it?

Which can be used to support people when they are deprived?

Which will require low wages and third world manufacturing to be commercially viable?

All of these questions can be legitimately asked in relation to innovative strategies and new products in any industry, but more often than not are ignored. When these questions are answered, there will be products and services supported that are acceptable to the moral stance of the organisation/entrepreneur. People may still not like the outcome, but at least the bigger questions have been dealt with. It is the unconscious choices we are trying to make conscious.

In addition, the sustainability of innovation is a key issue when looking at the future. What are the assumptions about the techno-economic base that the large-scale commercialisation of any of these ideas rely upon? If we are into making things for the long-term, these issues will be at the forefront of our minds, if we want to make a quick buck, then we can afford to ignore them because, at the moment, externalities are not priced into our market.

When I am working with clients to determine a course of action, I like to ask the ‘three questions’:

Who benefits?

Who does not?

And the kicker – just because we can, does that mean we should?

The moral dimension of innovation is often swept under the carpet when shiny new technologies beckon.

In a future where we may have less rather than more, who decides what resources are used for?

A BENDIGO business is prompting community discussion about the ever-growing demand for human services.  Care Beyond Measure is preparing for the worst – the day when demand out-numbers funding and workforce – and wants everyone to start thinking about the future. The in-home care provider is busy training a workforce of personal carers but is also taking the time to plan a community forum to be held in August. Care Beyond Measure senior manager Kevin Pittman paints a bleak view of the future and has prepared a presentation to highlight the “train wreck” that is edging closer and closer.  “There is a situation developing in our community that we need to start thinking about,” Mr Pittman said. “We really needed to start thinking about it 10 years ago but hey, any time is better than none.

“We need to start thinking about how we’re going to prepare for this situation.” Mr Pittman described the “situation” as a trifecta – staggering increases in demand, shortages of government funding and a shrinking workforce. “Who the heck is planning how to face a situation where we have much more demand, much more complex demand, much less money and much fewer staff all at the same time?” he asked. Bendigo Advertiser, 28 May 2012 

This is an interesting story – the aged care system in Australia has been under pressure for some time. There is 2011 report by the Productivity Commission that led to the current 2012 Government response, Living Longer Living Better, which is akin to moving the deck chairs around the Titanic. Their effort to switcheroo funding without biting the bullet of real reform means that most of the promised funding increases were moved to the end of the 5 year period (2016-17). Given the current (un) popularity of the Government, they are unlikely to be in power when these increases fall due. The Productivity Commission Report suggested opening up a very regulated industry to competition and moving the costs of aged care onto the consumer. This makes economic sense in the face of shrinking Government revenue and growing numbers of ageing Australians needing care over the next 20 years. It makes no political sense when the people facing the loss of their nest eggs all vote.

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3D printing via Wired ‘Found – Artifacts from the future’ Dec 2006

One of the scanning hits I am currently on the look out for is the rise of 3D printing. This has been an emerging technology which is well along the adoption curve now, you can get a latte with your printing in Tokyo. The first real image I used of this possible future was in Wired’s Found series in 2006 and is reproduced here. I used this image in my Masters classes and also with clients to ask people about how disruptive they thought this technology could be. This particular technology is one which generates many interesting conversations about urban infrastructure, manufacturing policy and consumption based industries. The world looks quite different when I am choosing the product, buying the raw materials and printing on demand. Already, I can design my own doll via Makies which means I could manage my children’s access to commodified images of women, and I could design a copy my own body to keep them company when I am not around.

There are already 3D printing vending machines in a University in Virginia and plans to build a room full of plastic furniture (thanks to Emerging Futures). What is interesting to me is how this emerging technology intersects with the values shift to collaborative consumption, the movement from ownership to stewardship. FujiFilm is gauging the reaction to the idea of introducing 3D printing kiosks for personalized gifts.

“What we’re suggesting is that utilizing existing infrastructure, instead of just limiting it to photo gifting products, what if we are able to have a number of predetermined models and provide customers with a personalized 3D gift shop,” says Mostyn.

Could the rise of closed loop manufacturing aligned to 3D printing seed new industries in recycling, garbage mining and regional warehousing of raw materials?  Given the link between fossil fuel use and climate change, this is a shift we have to become much better at making do with what we already have access to.

These trends also intersect the internet of things along the way making the rise of internet enabled, home manufactured recycled goods a very interesting industry sector. What do urban areas look like when stuff isn’t being moved around? What do transport systems look like? How is economic confidence measured if we aren’t out buying all the time? What will people do with their need for retail therapy? Under these conditions what has value in terms of work and skills? What will we buy when we have choice over how it looks, how it fits and the materials it is made from?

Are you considering the future impacts of these issues in your planning? How do you have conversations about these things in your executive team?

Postscript Aug 2012

I have come across a couple of additional 3D printing applications which shows how broad the range of applications might be once this technology takes off. Prof Lee Cronin is developing technology that eventually could allow people to print pharmaceuticals at home. This brings to mind copyright, abuse, quality and control issues for authorities, not to mention a huge swipe at the war on drugs – what if anyone can print their own illicit drugs? For the end user, this might make a number of expensive drugs within reach. How about a world where drugs are matched to your needs and a printing instruction is sent out to your home printer – all of a sudden there is no need for large scale manufacturing and logistics. I imagine pharmacies might still exist for that personal touch.

In the shorter term, his team is looking at ways in which relatively simple drugs – ibuprofen is the example they are using – might be successfully produced in their 3D printer or portable “chemputer”. If that principle can be established, then the possibilities suddenly seem endless. “Imagine your printer like a refrigerator that is full of all the ingredients you might require to make any dish in Jamie Oliver’s new book,” Cronin says. “Jamie has made all those recipes in his own kitchen and validated them. If you apply that idea to making drugs, you have all your ingredients and you follow a recipe that a drug company gives you. They will have validated that recipe in their lab. And when you have downloaded it and enabled the printer to read the software it will work. The value is in the recipe, not in the manufacture. It is an app, essentially.”

At the other end of the spectrum, how about a machine that prints out a burrito for you? Reminds me a bit of the pie maker craze that I was swept up into about 15 years ago!

Burritob0t is the creation of Marko Manriquez, a designer who studied atNYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Before you get your hopes up too high (like I did), the machines doesn’t actually produce the tortillas. Rather, it does what all 3D printers do: It adds layer upon layer of material onto a base (the tortilla). Instead of liquid plastic, the Burritob0t squirts out melted cheese, beans, salsa, guacamole and sour cream, in amounts set by the user on iPhone or iPad app.

Here are some 3D printed shoes – only $900 a pair!

From time to time we find ourselves speaking to the next generation of leaders about leading for the future. And not surprisingly we speak about, and place a premium, on the quality of people’s thinking. We extol to people that “the level of thinking that creates a problem is rarely about to solve it” (with apologies to Albert Einstein or whoever is supposed to have said that). Without fail when you listen to and analyse the way that these proto-leaders are thinking, you hear and see how they are trying mightily to transcend the narrowness of previous modes of thought.

One mode of ‘prior’ thinking that gets a thorough caning is the thinking underlying most of our institutions. Like the famous Monty Python sketch about “what have the Romans done for us?”

Institutional thinking is seen as outmoded, slow, narrow, restrictive and totally unsuited to our modern times and thoroughly modern challenges. So naturally our problems require thinking that is un-institutional. This all seems perfectly obvious so where exactly is the problem?

The problem is that large scale change requires institutional steps to change the laws, rules, boundaries, agreements in order for those changes to become widely adopted. Without institutions then change is always just a matter of individual personal choice. Garret Hardin showed in his archetype, ‘the tragedy of the commons’, that well thought out individual action can maximise the personal and bring down the collective very well. At some stage rules are going to have to be established and enforced that compel the bulk of people to conform to a set of agreed social agreements. And along with these social agreements we will also need a whole bunch of people to enforce and possibly even punish people who will not conform. Climate change is one such change that is only going to managed at a planetary level when a planet full of individuals begin to cede their individualism to the rights of institutions.

Yet the post-modern way, the post-conventional way, is to see the institutional as always being shallow and prior to their way of seeing the world. So as a person’s perspective grows then the institutional is left behind, not for them, not for their leadership. Who, therefore, is left to do institutional leadership? Who would want to be a plodder, to do the long and hard yards that are necessary to get laws changed, to fight for new rules? Who would want to sacrifice their efforts to support an institution, somewhere were their individual efforts are subsumed into the collective? In our world in the thrall of change, innovation, and creativity then those who push knowledge forward are seen as the leaders; the creators. Someone nameless and faceless has to follow behind and institutionalise the best of those innovations otherwise they never really change the world. Ideas don’t change the world; they need to be institutionalised to do that. The idea of women voting didn’t change the world; the fight to get women the vote did that. The concern about the environment did not change the world; the new rules around environment protection did that. And as soon as something is institutionalised it is out of date, now part of the problem not part of the solution. Who wants to be that?

The funny thing about knowledge is that it is always provisional. An idea is only as current as it is, until a better idea comes along. Thus we see the ceaseless growth of knowledge as progress. Institutions are different. Find the error in an idea and we get a new, better idea. Find the flaw in an institution then we get a weakened institution, we don’t automatically get a better one. Diminish the institutions of politics, of education, of commerce and you get a weaker, less effective institution because it is less respected, less authoritative. Someone else has to come along afterwards and build the new institution, do the hard yards, make all the new deals, create the new agreements.

So when we talk to the new leaders about the future, those who grasp the need for new ideas, we ask them are you prepared to build the new institutions that we need? Because if you don’t who will? Someone has to. But it will take time, maybe more than your lifetime to do. And if you do commit yourself to building the new institutions then you know that there is someone who was like you who now sees you as part of the past, too slow, too reactive, the problem and not the solution.

What kind of leader will you be? What kind of leader does the future need you to be?

It always amazes me where inspiration strikes. Innovation comes from having the time to think and I make sure I have thinking time on a weekly basis – usually when walking the family dog. On my walk yesterday, I was looking at the profusion of lilly pilly trees planted on nature strips in front of the houses on my street. I have looked at these trees, and the mess they make at this time of year when the fruit drops off them, for 12 years and only yesterday was I looking at them as a source of food. Lilly pilly is bush tucker, a native tree with a small purple fruit with quite a tart taste, good for eating off the tree as a snack but also good for utilising in jam. It struck me that the idea of foraging for food amongst the ornamental trees and the blending of the old and new (bush tucker with jam making techniques) was a great metaphor for the type of thinking needed in organisations today.

I think that we should develop the ability to look at the everyday occurrences and assumptions within our organisations in new ways. Reviewing what is useful and re-casting that which we take for granted. Only through the conscious use of perspectives and the ability to shift from ours to another’s, do we have any hope of becoming nimble enough to try and deal with the ‘black swans’ or future unknowables that will arise for our organisations.

I think the practice of blending the old with the new has merit as well. When you spend as much time as I do working with organisations around future direction setting, you quickly learn that there is absolutely no point in thinking that the future is a place where the past no longer exists. On the contrary, if you have not taken the time to review and decide what will be taken from the past into the future, there is a good chance that the future will either be the same as today or that you will have undermined what is possible in the future by not putting down what is not needed from the past. Often the hardest question for organisations to answer about the future is ‘what are you going to leave behind?’

The leaving behind process is not easy, even when it is acknowledged that what is being left is no longer useful. For many organisations, and the people in them, doing what we have always done is a comfort. It is a tried and true approach to chaos and complexity that will leave us with a feeling of control and influence. That fact that we may be deluding ourselves is not often reflected upon!

The process of looking at the old and seeing something new should not entail recrimination or the feeling that one ‘should’ have seen differently beforehand. Sometimes seeing takes time and space, or it may be a new context shifts your perception of those things around you that were taken for granted. This ability to move the way you see the world is one worth celebrating.

Lilly pilly jam may be an acquired taste, but the process of engaging with an old fruit in new ways is a path to utilising resources we have around us that we may take for granted. What can you see in your organisation that could be used differently or leveraged in another direction? Where is your lily pilly jam?

As I sat through another remarkable week where more national governments throw almost unimaginably sized lumps of money at so called ‘crises’ (e.g. 10 May 2010 -European Central Banks create a 962 billion Euros to fix the ‘sovereign debt’ problem), I began to wonder what is it that is going on at the level of Present Need that these remarkable examples of Pathway Thinking are being employed?

One way we can stop ourselves falling into our traditional patterns of thought and hence missing emerging opportunities (and risks) is to not always start out by trying to work out what the ‘problem’ is. Once we think we understand a problem then we often simultaneously create the pathways where we will find the solutions. Instead we can look at the pathways that people are employing in order to find the problem they are seeing; using a medical metaphor instead of diagnosing from symptoms (Present Need) and then choosing the best treatment (Pathways Thinking) we could  look at treatments chosen to establish the probably diagnosis reached and to then think about that.

So back to my ruminations. Clearly it is a widely accepted pathway of thinking that the value of sovereign debt securities should not be allowed to go down in value. Likewise it is also clearly accepted that the value of bank stocks, housing prices, (name your asset here) should also not go down and so the accepted pathway of thought is to find ways to make them go back up again.

Why? Surely lots of things go down … don’t they? Or is down thought bad and is up thought good? Maybe we are happier with up and down makes us sad? I started to think about this some more and tried to look for examples of pathways that chose actions to promote down as good or at least not bad. And my results? Well there are lots of examples of down in the physical world – gravity is a good example – no point choosing pathways that want to fight gravity is there? (Note: Ignore flight and skyscrapers here). And friction which makes speed reduce – there is no point trying to find pathways towards increasing speed is there? (Note: ignore the boys on Top Gear here). I mean friction is not a problem is it? And heat which goes one way – well a pathway to make thermonuclear dynamics go the other way is about as silly as well – printing money out of nothing to replace the value of something that has gone down in value isn’t it (note: ignore quantitative easing here).  No, it’s quite clear that the physical world is full of down and that is perfectly natural (sic) thing and down isn’t thought bad there or doesn’t make us unhappy – does it?

Next I looked in the natural world, of living matter and down is everywhere there too. True things in the natural world do go up but then they tend to come back down again and then the pattern repeats. Organic matter tends to increase in complexity for a while (goes up) and then eventually it breaks down, decays, dies and returns to its simple organic form again only to rinse and repeat. And that process isn’t one that we feel necessary to choose pathways of thought to prevent is it? We are not bothered by down in the natural world are we (note: ignore Botox and Extropians here)? I quickly moved on.

Finally I got to our manufactured world, the world that we create from our dreams, plans and actions. Surely down is an accepted part of that world isn’t it? History teaches us that empires rise and fall so we down is clearly accepted as a normal part of cultural processes – isn’t it? And economic systems go up and down and so we don’t only choose pathways that promote up and refuse to admit down – do we (note: don’t go there)? My observation of technology was that it does seem to like up a lot (e.g. Moores Law) and whenever something went down (size) then it lets something else go up faster (e.g. enjoyment, functionality).

And then I remembered what Lewis Mumford wrote back in 1970 in his magisterial book “The Myth of the Machine”. His view was that our view of the world and our part in it were based upon some unchallenged beliefs.

“There is only one efficient speed: faster; only one attractive destination: farther away; only one desirable size: bigger; only one rational quantitative goal: bigger.” (p170)

There it was, as reiterated by the magisterial music combo Yazz – the Only way is Up.

If our Present Need is suggesting down then we must choose pathways that get us going back up again.  Now 982 Billion Euros made sense as a Pathway choice. Yazz must be on the playlist all the world’s politicians.