Analogue leadership in a digital world

Were we “brave” @braveconvos #braveconversations ?

Were we “brave” @braveconvos #braveconversations ?

(Image source Pintrest)

Fortune favours the prepared mind. (Louis Pasteur)

They say it also favours the brave.

I have never been what I consider a risk-taker, nor considered myself particularly brave.  But I do know that when my spider-sense tells me something I should listen.

This is what has guided me in all that I do, and was no less present in the early conversations that I had when we were planning Brave Conversations.

What is it to be brave?  I think it is different for each and every one of us, and from the outset when Simon Longstaff and I discussed doing this event together, our objective was:  to take some risks, to set few boundaries (other than those which engender trust and respect), and to encourage as much debate and discussion as we could.  There were many prepared minds in the room before we even began, but there were equally a good number who were eager to learn, who were ready to listen, and who came away a good deal more prepared than they were when they arrived.

Bravery as often defined involves two key elements – fear and courage.  I feel that both were demonstrated and exhibited at Brave Conversations, in various degrees and in many guises.  This cartoon above was tweeted on Day One, and perhaps part of being brave is to raise your head from the day to day, and look around to see what is on the horizon and face what the future is presenting you – to take the time and have the courage to face your fears.

It is not just about doing things more effectively or efficiently, about being more productive or profitable, or doing things better.  It is about consciously deciding how the technologies we are inventing and imbibing and assimilating are impacting on our day to day lives, and asking not just the what and how, but also the why and the should. 

At Brave Conversations we tried to do something different, not to have a conventional conference where everyone hid behind their professional personae, delivered papers and were generally spoken at.  For some, who have attended numerous Hackathons and Unconferences, what we did may not have been that unconventional, but for many who are used to the traditional conference format where people confer about a particular topic, we did provide some challenges.  Our objective was quite simply to generate one big conversation, unfettered by convention or agendae, where everyone in the room was involved in whatever way they felt comfortable and began to take off their masks as a diverse a group of people coming together just as people.  In order to do this we first had to create a safe space within which individuals could engage in real human to human conversations, and ask any question or seek any clarification, no matter how dumb or naive that might seem.

We set ourselves the challenge of

encouraging debate, critical thinking, creative design and social awareness in order to push the boundaries in terms of thinking about the World and the Web and our focus is on helping to develop “smart humans” for the digital age.

We hoped to create a space where, as Martin Stewart-Weeks describes in his follow-up paper,

Conversations are exchanges.  And the point of an exchange is to create something – in this case, insights, ideas and knowledge – that was not there before the conversation started.

So, how did we go and what did we achieve?

The feedback we have received has been very personal, and our hope that Brave Conversations would be a very personal experience has been supported by this.  For some, the conversations were those with which they are already familiar and they were a little disappointed at the lack of integration and the persistence of silos; for others there was a lot of personal bravery in revealing both a level of technological ignorance as well as naivety about the Web and its origins.  For everyone the time constraints meant that it was difficult to delve deeply into key issues; but for many there was an overwhelm of information.

From my observations as the facilitator – and thus having to sit on the outside for most of the time – it seemed that a lot of people were taken out of their comfort zones, particularly on Day One which was relatively unstructured, and relied on the energy of the group to create momentum.  Pia Waugh’s first session Choose your own adventure please, articulated some of the challenges of data as the currency of the digital age, and Nicholas Gruen’s session Arteries and Capillaries gave a counterpoise by challenging the current structures through which society is governed, speaking to ideas he has articulated in a recent essay in Mandarin.  These two presentations set the scene for the afternoon when people chose one of these four themes

  • Democracy & politics
  • Privacy & individual liberty
  • New economics
  • Technology leadership & ethics

The task was, within a limited timeframe, to scratch the surface in terms of identifying key changes aligned to the potential impacts on individuals, organisations and communities, and identify what actions could, and should, be considered to benefit the humans, and the machines.  This was always a big ask, and the solution wasn’t our goal – it was the process we were seeking.

As a part of this process Martin, in his summary of Day One, asked everyone to identify their greatest concern through a question, which was then collated and exhibited the next morning.  (We will be collating all of the photos, material and feedback and publishing on the Brave Conversations website).

The challenge of any two-day format is that there is never really enough time, but by the end of Day One many of the boundaries had begun to break down and there was an engaging energy in the room when we all convened over drinks at the National Press Club, courtesy of our wonderful host Tim Shaw.

On Tuesday we began the more formal part of the event with a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony preformed by Auntie Agnes Shea and her nephew Robert, his son Peter, and Peter’s daughter Lexie – the first time that all four generations had worked together.  The sun shone, the courtyard of University House enveloped us all, and the magic of these ancient ceremonies energised and grounded the conversations which ensued. I personally believe that these ceremonies anchor any congregation of people as they gather, but only when done in an authentic way and given both the reverence and gravitas that they command.  We were witness to something very special, and I felt that through this there was a certain openness, honesty and willingness to collaborate that emerged within the group as a whole, anchored to the land, to the physical environment sheltered by the trees nestled within the ANU, and overseen by our collective ancestors from Australia and beyond.

The energy that second morning was palpable, so much so that we changed the format in order to accommodate what we felt was required from the group in its desire to both engage and converse.  The first panel’s focus on The World – with and without the Web brought many of the threads of Day One together, and the Debate A machine-driven world is a better world brought out both humour and seriousness as some of the identified thorny issues.  In response to this we integrated the third panel into the round-table conversations themselves in order to promote speaking with rather than speaking at.

The post-lunch session is usually a hard slog at any event, but I have to say that Simon Longstaff’s Good Life session was one of the most magical special I have ever witnessed.  Simon determined to utilise the fishbowl facilitation process sitting the panel around the table with two empty chairs for anyone else to join.  This format, which harnessed the collective trust in the room and underpinned by probing questions, challenging linkages and open dialogue, created a calm, honest and egalitarian space within which no permission was needed order to speak.  Testimony to this was the fact that three of our younger participants (all under 20) felt confident enough to move to the table.  I felt that there was a degree of bravery in the observations shared, and that some of the core issues – such as fear and love, death and mortality, power and inequality, nudging towards Transhumanism  – were tabled.  I know that not everyone felt this, but I certainly did.

In the final session we sought to somehow wrap up the two days, but with the caveat that Brave Conversations was never meant to be a one size fits all, nor a one off, nor a simple solution.  It wasn’t about giving me, or anyone else a to-do list, or set of ideas to pursue.  The outcomes of Brave Conversations were meant to be personal, something that each and every person in the room – and the vast majority of the initial 87 participants were still with us at 5 pm on Tuesday afternoon – could, and should, take and do with it as they pleased.

Brave Conversations was a catalyst and, as Pia Waugh has so rightly said:

The only meaningful outcome from all of this is what you will do different today. 

  • What  sort of future do you want?  How can you build that into your everyday life? 
  • What changes do you need to make in your thinking, actions, career and personal life to make that future a reality? 
  • How will you ensure you continue to have brave conversations into the future?

So, what are the outcomes at this early stage?

Firstly, there have been a number of media interviews:

  1. Tim Shaw interviewed our Year 12 Tuggeranong College student Matthew Torrens on Canberra 2cc
  2. Katina Michael spoke on Talking Tech
  3. ABC Lateline’s Jeremy Fernandez interviewed Wendy Hall
  4. Katina Michael was interviewed by Wendy Harmer on ABC Radio 702

We have been contacted by journalist Margot O’Neill, who was unable to get to the conference, who may be interested in pursuing some of the ideas which came up via a series of programmes.

For my own part the Intersticia Foundation and the Ethics Centre have now taken our first initiative by supporting Angie Abdilla to attend the 2017 United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which coincides with the Tenth Anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Angie’s mission is to take the conversations she has been having here to the UN Forum with a view to working with us and begin developing the Ethical Framework for a new UN mechanism and Private Sector Tech protocols for human and tech rights.  This is no mean feat, and if anyone can do it, Angie can.  We will see what has transpired when she returns, but the conversations that we all had in Canberra have helped identify and begin to describe ways in which we can collaborate to address some of the huge issues which face humanity as the result of information being created, managed, archived and distributed in digital form.

Wendy, Tris and I have been talking about holding a Brave Conversations in both London and Washington partnering with the Web Science Trust and others.  If we use Canberra as a pilot then there is much to learn from what we did, but we have also created something that others can understand, and initiated a group of people who are keen and supportive to join the wave of conversations happening globally.

Martin Stewart-Weeks has written up his own reflections (which can be found here and report) and in them has presented Web Science with a leadership challenge, which I for one, am prepared to step up to.

“Web Science” is a label for a conversation – research, debate, exploration – about the web (and technology more broadly), society, people and nature to get the best out of each, to improve their interaction and to lift the prospects of their combined impact on opportunity, inclusion and sustainability.

For Brave Conversations to have made a difference is it up to each and every one of us to take the conversations that we had and make a conscious choice about the world we want to create.  I believe that those of us who have been either watching, or proactively creating, the Social Machine and all that it encompasses, have a duty to determine what A Good Life is, and to actively work towards ensuring that humanity as a whole is given the opportunity to have it.  As the age of digital disruption gains momentum – and people like Jack Ma believe we still have a long way to go – it is those of us engaged in these conversations who need to take the lead, support the next generation, and go out to our various communities to teach, explain and provide hope.

I would like to thank each and every person who played a part in Brave Conversations:

  • The Intersticia Foundation  Board who supported the event, and
  • The Ethics Centre with whom we partnered
  • The Web Science Trust and the Web Science Institute for enabling Susan Halford, Ramine Tinati and the Southampton PhD students to visit Australia
  • The AIIA for their support as well as the ODI in Queensland and others who helped promote
  • The fabulous team of Marti Pattinson, Leanne Fry, Lisa Baldwin and Terry Hanisch as the Web Science Australia Board
  • Martin Stewart-Weeks for his fabulous reporting, and Peter Thompson for stepping to facilitate when I needed him
  • My niece Bel Campbell and her friends for recording, filming, photographing and their overall enthusiasm!
  • Nicholas Gruen, Pia Waugh, Nick Byrne, Chris Monk who all had creative input from the outset and then totally delivered during the event
  • All of our Brave Conversations speakers and panelists, regardless of what role they played
  • Sue at University House who, as she did in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, helped make our event happen on the ground!
  • and each and every person who gave up their precious time to be with us.

Thank you and I challenge every single one of you to turn these conversations into actions, each in your own way.

April 2017