Analogue leadership in a digital world

Developing Emerging Leaders for the 21st Century?

Developing Emerging Leaders for the 21st Century?

The assembly line at Ford’s Highland Park Plant, 1914 (Source)

Seven principles and an open invitation (Part One of Three)

By Intersticia Advisor Ibrahim El Badawi

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be the guest of an online “meet and greet” session with the Intersticia’s community, shortly after joining this global community as an Advisor.

The closed Zoom meetup was in the form of an informal conversation hosted brilliantly by Jacquie Crock, whose questions covered various topics, from innovation and digital transformation to Sufism and many rich topics in between, as you can imagine. This diversity (and randomness!) was probably due to the Ask Me Anything (AMA) nature of the conversation, my career journey, and geography. I zoomed in from Sydney, Australia, but I was born in Sudan, which means diversity is a natural fate I couldn’t escape. Rather, a privilege I had to learn to appreciate. Sudan is where Asia meets Africa, Arabian Bedouins meet African Dinkas, where the Blue Nile and the White Niles merge, and where the great Nile emerges. This horizontal mix might be the platform that enabled my vertical career journey. At one point, I was a computer scientist coding in Assembly, and just yesterday I moderated a global virtual lab on public policy with public sector officials from Sydney to New York to Marrakech.

In line with my role and Intersticia’s mission to develop and support emerging leaders for the Twenty First Century, a subtle theme of the conversation was to share my thoughts and lessons that could be a source of inspiration for young fellows who represent the heart of Intersticia’s community.

The energy I felt in the virtual room made me reflect on the conversation we had, and encouraged me to share my thoughts in a structured open way with you, young aspiring leaders, whether you’re part of Instersticia’s community or not, and anyone passionate about the same mission.

Perhaps you agree with me that the ongoing pandemic and its cumulative burden on our societies, in addition to the recent footage from Kabul and the White House, make it timely to talk about the leadership crisis that our world is experiencing.

In this article and in two more to follow, I share with you seven principles that I consider essential for young aspiring leaders to consider while navigating their path in the 21st century and preparing to lead others. Needless to say, I am not sharing these principles as an inclusive list, nor am I talking to you in any way from a superior position. Rather, these are lessons I have learned through my ups and downs in the past phases of my professional and personal journey.

And because I am learning and growing myself, I will dedicate the third article to invite you to a conversation around the meaning of leadership in the 21st century.

Here are my three first principles for leading a life in the twenty-first century.

Principle #1: Remember that almost everything in your life was decided by someone

There is a good chance that you are reading these words at the moment while you are in lockdown in your place, or carrying your mask and worrying about staying 1.5 meters away from the people around you! Right?

Why?

Simply because someone has decided that this is how you should work, study and live your life in this pandemic.

As it turns out, many of us actually enjoy this and prefer to continue living this way even when the pandemic is over. According to a Harvard study that surveyed around 1,500 professionals working remotely over the past year, 81% either don’t want to fully return to the office or would prefer a type of “hybrid” schedule going forward.

This landslide vote is not a surprise given the enormous economic, social, environmental and other benefits of remote work, as most of us have experienced in the last year.

But this should make us wonder: if remote work is so awesome, why had we spent the decades before the pandemic commuting to the office or school every day?

Again, the answer is the same: mainly because someone had decided it for us.

Everything in life follows suit. Aside from gravity and other natural facts, everything you can see around you is probably the result of someone’s imagination, vision and action.

You can look around you right now. Notice the knob of your room door, the car across the street and the digital device on which you are reading this article. This principle transcends physical objects to laws, regulations, traditions and ideas that govern your society.

It is a simple fact of the system in which we live, but significant enough to make you rethink your life outlook.

I realised this vividly for the first time when I watched this short video of Steve Jobs, and I watch it  every now and then to remind myself of this principle:

Principle #2: This system has missed some major updates

Steve Jobs, however, did not point out another important reality about the design of our world, at least not in this video. Many parts of the system in which we live today were originally designed in the 20th century or earlier.

Since then, the world has been through many changes, and the system has had to be regularly updated to accommodate these changes. But the system has missed many of these updates, and some of them are major ones!

This is a flaw in the system.

Depending on what changes have been missed and where you live in the world, this flaw could manifest itself in different ways. However, some changes are universal, including the invention of the Internet (and the Web) and now COVID.

As I said earlier, it was a non-negotiable fact of life until a year ago that we had to commute daily to work or study.  We can trace the roots of this belief back to the early pioneers of the industrial age, including Henry Ford, who decided that the assembly line of the Model T required workers (all men of course!) to be present in the same location at the same time to do the job.

In the 1990s, Jeff Bezos and others challenged this, and since then we have been using the Internet to order pizza, book vacations, and play video games, but we continued to travel to work and study.

It took us a global pandemic, and someone telling us in 2020: Hey! Actually, you can (and must!) now use the same internet to do work from home. Duh!

You can spot missed updates right now, where you are sitting. Try out this exercise: take a look around the physical world around you. Yup, literally the room or space you are in. Whilst you are at that, think of the larger world you live in – the assumptions, beliefs, laws and ideas you, your family, your business, your community or small society operate according to.

Can you spot something that makes no sense and negatively affects your life and the life of the people around you? Or at least bothers you? It can be small or big, from something in your room you can fix immediately, to a problem in the world that goes beyond your ability to do anything about it.

My current long list includes the books stacked on the floor of my bedroom in the new place I moved to recently, the arbitrary borders between countries in the Middle East and Africa, the tradition in some societies that you can only hire or marry someone if they are from certain tribes, and the belief and formal foriegn policy in other societies that they can win the hearts and minds of other people by bombing them.

Also, I do not like the fact that every time I check-in to my local supermarket using the COVID app from the NSW Government  I need to manually check out, and I forget to do so most of the time! Why doesn’t the app do that automatically once I leave the shop by detecting the change in my location?

Most likely you already have such a list!

Principle #3: You can and should challenge this outdated system

This list serves as your starting point. A potential space where you can practice leadership by redesigning this part of the system and improving life for yourself and the people (and other creatures) around you.

I encourage you to examine it through the lens of the previous principle.

There is a good chance that the observations in your list exist because the system was designed sometime ago on the basis of certain assumptions or needs. These assumptions are no longer valid, but the system has not yet been updated.

How is it possible that a car company founded in 2003 outside Detroit is now the world’s most valuable car company? Here is one answer from Elon Musk’s biography:

“Anyone who tries to build a car company in the United States is quickly reminded that the last successful start-up in the industry was Chrysler, founded in 1925.”

You can train yourself to have such a questioning radar active all the time, but this exercise can be more significant when you are about to make strategic choices in your life.

In 2013, I decided to change my corporate life and start my entrepreneurial adventure, and I had one key design parameter for this new life: to leverage the internet and liberate myself from the location factor. While enjoying the fun GoDaddy part, a disappointing reality struck me from the system: I had to legally rent a physical office to get my business license.

For more than seven years, I have been paying the monthly rent for an office in Dubai that I rarely use. But you know what? I do not think of this as a rent. This is the cost of no longer being location bound. This is the price I pay for challenging a system that was originally designed by Henry Ford for his Model T.

While challenging an outdated system, be prepared for paying a price.

In my next post I will share with you the remaining principles starting with Principle #4: Avoid the “next big thing” trap.

Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 2021

Digital Gymnasia Series 2 – 2021

Last week I held the first of our second series of Digital Gymnasia with Alumni and Members of Goodenough College.

In 2017 Experion created it’s Your Data Self ads which, as the ad says, is what companies see when they’re deciding how to interact with individuals.  One of my goals in these Gymnasia is to introduce particpants to their data selves and to demystify the digital realm so that they can more confidently navigate and negotiate their online lives.

In our first Digital Gymnasia series we made the most of the World going in to lockdown as we all experimented with living online.  The more workshops I did the more I realised that there is a deep seated need for events such as these which both allow people to talk (and later think) whilst simultaneously giving them some practical tools to take away.

The feedback from those who have attended has been largely positive with many telling me they are using what they have learned in their private as well as their professional lives.  But, as with all these things, there are some who have felt that I may be rather negative or cynical in how I frame my view of technologies and the world of tech generally.

This has given me pause for thought and so I am taking this opportunity to articulate my own ideas a bit further in order to provide additional context for future events and, perhaps, encourage some braver conversations.

I have always been interested in the interstice between technology, culture and society and aware that we, as a species, are at the beginning of a major technological revolution, something way beyond “industrial” and something we don’t even have the words to adequately describe as yet.

I bought my first Apple Macintosh when I was a student living in Goodenough College in 1985; I logged on to the early World Wide Web through the first version of the Netscape browser via Australia’s first public Internet Service Provider Pegasus Networks in 1993; I co-created my first Web Consulting company “New Media Connections” in 1995, and I helped to lead a major initiative in Australia called Print21 which sought to understand the impact of digital media on what was then the world’s largest manufacturing industry and the first to be digitised thanks to desktop publishing.

As a result of this I was recruited by Fuji Xerox Australia to help them envisage the future and there I spent almost a decade immersed in the work of the global Xerox Innovation Network researching and exploring the impact of the evolving World Wide Web on how we as social human animals interact and communicate online.  This led to a focus on what was then called the Semantic Web, a set of standards which has helped lay many of the foundations for what we now call ‘Artificial Intelligence’.  It also let me personally to begin working with many of the people who actually built the Internet and Web over the last six decades and who formed Web Science to ensure that it both survives but most of all continues to benefit humanity.

Every technological device we invent (including our laws and language) has our values and human biases built in to it, and manifests how we as human animals see the world.  The affordances of all technologies are a manifestation of how we have crafted the world around us to meet a need and afford us a mechanism to do things – doors are for opening; cups are for holding liquids; chairs are for sitting on.  This is one reason why I teach the history of digital information technologies – they have not suddenly leapt out of the ether, they have emerged as the result of centuries of thought and use to solve particular problems:  Babbage invented his Difference Engine to automate long, tedious astronomical calculations; the Internet was invented to help fortify the US Defence Department during the Cold War; Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web to help researchers share documents; the PageRank algorithm was developed as a new type of search engine.

Each of these has changed the way we operate and go about our daily lives, and each exemplifies the fact that all human inventions have longer term unforeseen consequences.

The Internet and the Web were given to Humanity by their inventors with few, if any, restrictions on how they were used.  As with all things that are perceived as free  if there is a situation where individual users have open access to a resource unhampered by shared social structures or formal rules that govern access and use, they will act independently according to their own self-interest and, contrary to the common good of all users, cause depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action (the Tragedy of the Commons).  With the Internet and the Web both have created vast wealth for a small group, whilst also enabling access to knowledge and information on an unprecedented scale for anyone connected, but the social and psychological costs of this is something we are only just beginning to understand.

In a recent speech at International Privacy Day Apple CEO Tim Cook states that

Too many are still asking the question “How much can we get away with?” when they need to be asking “What are the consequences?” …  A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.

It is these consequences that Shoshana Zuboff focuses on in her most recent work. At an event in 2019 I asked her if she had seen this surveillance internet coming when she wrote The Support Economy in 2000.  She answered that yes she had, but she hoped it wouldn’t happen.  This is similar to Tim Berners-Lee’s response to hearing that there was pornography on the Web – “Just don’t look at it!”

Three things have combined to create the online environment within which we now live.

  1. The first is the generosity and näivety of the early digital inventors who were enamoured by the technology largely ignoring the science of human behaviour
  2. the second is the pure greed which was allowed to run amok and untethered in the wild digital frontiers largely due to the fact that the early technologies emerged within the West Coast of the United States with it’s free market approach to regulation and dare-devil attitude to innovation and novelty
  3. the third is the almost complete lack of understanding of the affordances of digital information by government regulators, policy makers and politicians which meant that they missed the early opportunities to reign in monopolistic and anti-competitive behaviour.

These have now played themselves out but the public and our governments are beginning to step up and demand that there is a new phase in how these systems operate –   the Australian and now Canadian governments are beginning to challenge the current ad-based publishing dominance of the large tech platforms, and hopefully new business models for online commerce will emerge.

The key question is

“Which philosophy do you want to pursue? Do you want a business that serves your customers? Or one that takes advantage of customers to serve your business?  (Justin Bariso)

As my dear friend Professor Dame Wendy Hall states if it wasn’t for the Internet and the Web we would not have been able to remain connected during the Pandemic and it remains the most powerful innovation of all time.  Precisely because of this

we … need to be prepared for the internet that we know to evolve unpredictably, and work to ensure that it remains beneficial for humankind.

For me, as a full time philanthropist, Wendy’s words resonate deeply.  When we created our family Charity Intersticia we chose to focus on working to support individuals as 21st Century leaders with a focus on helping to build digital fluency.  To complement this we hold our Brave Conversations which are open to all, we partner with Goodenough College to hold our Digital Gymnasia, and we partner with Tech for Better organisations (such as Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks) who teach coding skills to those who seek to harness them for social good.

I am often asked why I do what I do and what I hope to achieve.

My main objective is to get people to think, to wake them up from the somnambulist state they are in as they go about their daily lives largely unaware of the systems which underpin each and every interaction.  As Melvin Kranzberg states

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral

We are our technologies and they are us.

There is much to be hopeful for in this new era, and the Covid corridor is speeding up technological progress by forcing us all to become more digitally fluent and savvy.  It is empowering governments to be less passive and reactive in how they approach technology (which has both a positive and negative side of course) which means that the balance of power between governments and the tech companies is changing.

It is purely speculative to try to predict what will happen in the next month, let alone the next decade! but it is prudent to give people some tools to at least begin to imagine some of the possibilities.  If the early tech inventors had studied more psychology, philosophy and history perhaps they might have had a clearer picture of what might happen themselves.  This is why Web Science is so important – precisely because it does seek to bring together as many perspectives as possible.

As with so many inventions Web Science was inspired by Science Fiction, in particular Isaac Azimov’s Foundation series and the dream of Hari Seldon to build Psychohistory.  This is  why I stress to all who come to our workshops that reading Science Fiction is probably the most important way to begin to imagine the future.

This second series of Digital Gymnasia seeks to instill a confidence in the imagination and an ability to more robustly address and explore some of the thornier issues which are emerging.

I have crafted this second series to build on the first (which we are in the process of recording) and to work from the individual to the group and community.  At present we have four to be delivered over the next couple of month:

  1. Your Digital Brand – Who are you online?
  2. Demystifying AI – What are we collectively building in the online world?
  3. Facilitating Meetings Online – How are we taking our work online?
  4. Digital Governance – How are we holding each other to account Online?

Some events will be more content heavy (such as Demystifying AI and Digital Governance) but I hope to bring practical exercises in to them all.  As with every event I work with who is in the room at the time, the questions that arise, and largely let the group determine both the pace and how much we cover in the time allotted.  This is a tricky balance and is a collaborative effort where we all learn from each other.

The most important measure of success is not that everyone agrees with or likes what is presented … it is that they are stimulated to think about their data self slightly differently and with a bit more agency and confidence.

For more information on these events please either contact me or Melissa Morley at Goodenough College.

Intersticia’s 2020 Year in Review

Intersticia’s 2020 Year in Review

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.  (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin)

“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression that is claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse

2020 has certainly been interesting.

As we have all been hunkered down in our respective homes around the world locked up in various level of Covid tier we have connected as never before, created new ways of supporting our Fellows and others with whom we work, and truly begun to embrace the world of digital media that has been at the core of our beliefs about what is needed for 21st Century Leadership.

Intersticia exists to develop and promote digital fluency and develop smarter humans in terms of how we proactively create, manage, harness and utilise digital technologies.

We do this primarily through the following activities:

  • We identify, support, nurture and encourage individuals through our Scholarships and Fellowships
  • We work with like-minded partner organisations to support entrepreneurship and innovation
  • We hold public events with a specific aim of promoting conversations and building skills in digital literacy and leadership

In the 2019 – 2020 year we built on the foundations that were laid in our first couple of years of existence and, powered by the opportunities afforded by the Pandemic, we have been busier than ever.  At the end of 2019 I felt that we were completing the work of our first Horizon, developing our Fellowship; clarifying who we are, what we do and how we do it, and creating our partnerships.

As we embark upon 2021 our second Horizon is becoming clearer.

Identify, support, nurture and encourage individuals through our Scholarships and Fellowships

From the outset Intersticia has sought to identify and support emerging leaders who are a little different, are prepared to take risks, are generous of spirit and have a deeply ingrained need to make the world a better place.  I am often asked how we find our Fellows and those we choose to support.

The first filter is through our values which are those of authenticity, integrity, persistence, courage and grace.  We look for these in how people approach us, how they present themselves, how they interact with the world and the sorts of things they value in life.  These are what drive those of our current Fellowship and manifest in how they demonstrate their individual leadership.

The second is our belief that Intersticia is a community.  We are not a leadership development or training organisation, nor are we a Charity that ‘sets and forgets’.  Our intention is to recruit and embrace individuals who will contribute to and expand the work that we do both individually and collectively, and as a group collaborate to bring about positive change.

The third is the filter of need.  There are many who apply for our support who come with worthy ideas that many other organisations will see merit in, and we often encourage them to find those organisations.  As a small organisation our interest is in those people who often fall through the cracks, who often straddle multiple disciplines and who don’t fit neatly in to one category or another.  These people provide the hidden connections which we see of great value.

We now have 21 people we have supported through Scholarships and Bursaries and of these 19 have been made Fellows (see https://intersticia.org/fellows/).

However, bringing people in to our Fellowship is just the beginning, and one thing that our work thus far has demonstrated is that it is not broadening our reach which is important, but deepening our connection and strengthening our impact.  Of those we support some choose to continue being a part of, and contributing to, our community, others choose not to, which is their choice.

For those who stay with us there are four main areas that we have begun to focus on:

  1. helping our Fellows develop their own Authenticity as emerging 21st Century Leaders
  2. creating our Fellowship as a Community that shares experiences and learning
  3. supporting our Fellows to find their Voice in the stories they tell and work that they do
  4. harvesting these factors to build a collective Resilience in their work and individual lives

This year we have not been able to come together as a group physically but we held our 2020 Retreat online and appended this with Small Group sessions which continue in to 2021.

We have embarked upon a series of Intersticia Brave Conversations interviews with each of our Fellows produced online and available throughout the community.  As a complement to this we have begun working with our Fellow Jess Chambers in her professional capacity as a Voice Coach to give all within our community additional skills in how they present themselves publicly.

Finally we have expanded our group of Advisors with the contribution of key individuals who are willing to help and support our Fellowship group.  These people have been incredibly generous with their time, energy and enthusiasm – without them we couldn’t do all that we do.

Work with like-minded partner organisations to support entrepreneurship and innovation

We also could not do the work that we do without leveraging the partnerships that we have, in particular Goodenough College, the Web Science Trust, Founders and Coders (FAC) and Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG).  It is through these organisations that we have been able to find new opportunities and innovative projects.

Our support of the Founders Programme began our formal partnership with both FAC and GSG and has resulted in three cohorts of Founders from both London and Palestine, and our first cohort of Founders (Joe Friel, Simon Dupree and Ramy Shufara) has created the first spin out in Yalla, “a Web Design and Development agency which helps non-profits and impact-driven businesses drive positive social change in the tech sphere”.

In 2021 we aim to take this to the next level through the development of a pilot Apprenticeship Programme with Yalla employing two Gaza Code Academy Graduates.

Hold public events with a specific aim of promoting conversations and building skills in digital literacy and leadership

From the outset Intersticia has sought to operate within the interstice between society, culture and technology, the space of the Social Machine.

Our flagship activity is our Brave Conversations events which seek to educate the general public about the Social Machine and act as an Outreach activity for academic research of Web Science.  We have now held events around the world, and, with the opportunity afforded by Covid in 2020, online.

Our plan for 2021 is to build on these foundations to further expand the footprint encouraging a greater partnership with the Web Science Trust and its network of Web Science Labs, beginning with our second event hosted by IIIT Bangalore in February 2021.  We will also be an integral part of the 2021 Web Science Conference to be held online in June 2021 and intend to integrate content from the Web Science Untangling the Web podcasts in to our activities.

All of our events are listed below and on the Brave Conversations website.

2020 Brave Conversations Kav Mashve
2020 Brave Conversations Arabic/English
2020 Brave Conversations Southampton Online
2020 Brave Conversations Gaza
2020 Brave Conversations Bangalore
2019 Brave Conversations London
2019 Brave Conversations Boston
2019 Brave Conversations Melbourne
2018 Brave Conversations Kingston
2018 Brave Conversations London
2018 Brave Conversations at the World Government Summit Dubai
2017 Brave Conversations Canberra
2011 Metalounge

Digital Gymnasia Series

In a ‘normal’ year we would usually hold a series of workshops at Goodenough College to promote digital literacy and digital skills to current students of the College.  Given the restrictions on travel we have instead now developed our Digital Gymnasia Series which has been delivered throughout 2020 to students and Alumni of the College around the world. In 2020 we developed and delivered eight workshops which attracted between 20 – 30 attendees each time.  In 2021 we will be delivering an additional four Gymnasia to the Goodenough community in 2021 on the topics of Building Digital Brands, Demystifying AI, Facilitating Online and Digital Governance.  All of these are now being recorded to be made available online to the general public, especially the Boards of Charities and Not-for Profit organisations.

Conclusion

2020 has taught us the value of our networks and connections, whether they be IRL (in real life) or via the virtual medium.  What I have found is that whilst I have been ‘grounded’ in my physical space here up on Pittwater and have connected more frequently with my local neighbours and community, I have been much more active with a broader range of people around the World and my Global community.  I have spoken to my family and friends more often, I have held more meetings and I have been more productive than I have ever been.  Through this I believe we have been given the opportunity to deepen our relationships this year, particularly with our Fellows and Advisors, who have all brought their personal experiences and challenges of negotiating and navigating through 2020 and shared without hesitation.

We have been given the opportunity to slow down and consolidate rather than madly race around looking for new adventures and shiny new distractions, and for that I am extremely grateful.

So what comes next?  We have talked about our planned 2021 Retreat in Devon and following that we plan to take our Fellows to walk through the Sinai Desert led by our Advisor Louise Sibley.  These face to face activities where we don’t have to rely on words but can commune as a group of humans physically together are now more important than ever.  As are our ongoing Brave Conversations events where we ask our Fellows to share their thoughts about the work they are doing and perhaps the theme for 2021 may be “Brave Conversations Unplugging” as the World gradually unfreezes from it’s Pandemic state (thanks to Sam Crock for that idea).

More on that to come!

Brave Conversations in the AnthroPause

Brave Conversations in the AnthroPause

In May last year I wrote about how Brave Conversations was increasing its global reach as we ventured to London England, Kingston Jamaica, Melbourne Australia, Boston USA, and a second event in London in 2019.  In 2020 we began to extend that reach working in countries where English is not the first language with our first event in Gaza Palestine in partnership with the Gaza Sky Geeks Code Academy and then in Bangalore India in partnership with the Web Science Lab at IIIT Bangalore.

From there our plan was to go to Haifa Israel in June 2020 for an event in partnership with Kav Mashve’s Coding Bootcamp before returning to work with GSG in Gaza.  Then it was back to the UK for the annual Web Science Conference hosted by the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton.

But, as with everything during the AnthroPause, Covid19 stepped in and the world for all of us has changed.

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.  (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin)

Up until now our events have largely been held in the real world because we felt that this was where most people lived their everyday lives and felt most comfortable.  We have always wanted our focus to be on the human-to-human interactions unmediated by screens, time lags, internet outages or clumsy buttons understanding that as humans we predominantly live in the physical world impacted by socio-cultural and political environments.

This has meant that when we were in Boston President Trump had just issued his first Veto striking down a Senate resolution to end his national emergency declaration to build a border wall; in London 2019 we were embedded by the vicissitudes of BrExit; in Gaza 2020 we were influenced by Trump’s Deal of the Century and Israel’s impending Annexation of the West Bank and Jordan Valley; and in Bangalore 2020 we were acutely aware of the emotional impact of the Mohdi Government’s Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and recent internet shutdown in August 2019.

In each case we examined the Social Machine from the relative safety of the physical space of being in a room where the affordances of that space enabled us to do what we humans have always done, fully participate in face to face group conversations harnessing the skills we have evolved over the millennia.

Now has come the digital moment and with it the opportunity to take Brave Conversations Southampton fully online delivered via the InterWeb.

We have become digital … as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means.  (Doc Searls at WebSci20)

I have always felt that when working with groups it is best to be out in front leading whilst simultaneously coaxing and shepherding those who need to move at a slower pace, and this has been one of the strengths of Brave Conversations where groups of people can learn together through sharing knowledge, experiences and ideas.  But it is fair to say that we have only just scratched the surface of fully embracing what it means to be digital because of that relative safety.

The focus of the 2020 Web Science Conference was Making the Web Human Centric asking the question can the Web be reimagined for the public good?  When we think about it the Internet, the World Wide Web and the complementary technologies around them have been with us since the mid 20th Century but our mindset has still been largely industrial as evidenced by the World Economic Forum’s focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.  I have long maintained that we have been moving in to something new, something that we have not had the words to describe and which we are now beginning to fully embrace.  Time and history will give a name to this phase in human history but the reality is that we are living in a liminal space, a threshold of humanity’s next phase mediated by data and information as a currency in itself, measurable, tradable and overtly linked to power and control.

So Brave Conversations Southampton 2020 Online brought together the focus of a human centric Web with the opportunity to include people from all around the planet who had attended previous events, thus making it our first truly global event. We determined that there were two key themes which we felt impacted every one of us, regardless of where we sat, what time of the day it was or how much we knew about Web Science.

The first was our relationship with the platforms that now mediate our everyday interactions, in particular the online meeting spaces such as Zoom, and this generated some interesting reactions.  It is worth noting that had this pandemic struck a mere decade ago Zoom didn’t exist, and our digital infrastructure may not have as easily accommodated the sudden move to home working, schooling, online yoga classes and digital Bingo!  As time goes on and the novelty of living life online wears off we are beginning to appreciate the benefits but also the limitations of these media and hopefully what needs to be improved both in the technologies themselves and how we use them.

The second issue we considered was that of the relationship between citizens and their governments, and in particular how people felt about the use of Covid Apps and the data being collected in the name of public health safety and security.  We analysed a Case Study based around the notion of Antibodies as a Currency (linking to the idea of Immunity Passports) which we hoped would engender some thoughtful discussions.  What became blindingly obvious was that whilst a Case like this six months ago may have generated some controversial opinions, in the Covid space now things like this are already in place and rapidly being deployed by many governments around the World, more quickly than we can figure out what to do with them.  Few have proven to be particularly effective but that doesn’t mean that the experiments aren’t happening.

Emergencies … fast-forward historical processes …  Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.  (Yuval Noah Harari)

What was so interesting to observe during this first online event was how for most people their main curiosity was about how others had been experiencing the Pandemic, how they had coped and were making sense of what is going on.  This generated some rich conversations which sadly we were unable to fully explore due to the shortness of time and the limitations of Zoom.  However they have now inspired us to think about how to better provide the space at future events.

It has also inspired us to open up our minds to explore how we can better harness the potential of this digital moment and create innovative experiences which reach people in new and different ways.  The first of these are our Digital Gymnasia (see next post) and the second is our first dual-language Brave Conversations which will be held in English and Arabic in August for young Arab speakers around the world.

These are exciting times and ones where the world is being reinvented in every way.  We cannot go back and a new normal will emerge, one that I am confident will bring us forward on our journey of progress to a better world.

Catastrophes bring out the best in people.  I know of now other sociological finding that’s backed by solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored.  (Rutger Bregman, Human Kind)