The emerging generation is one of hope, awakened and will reboot the way we live – regenerate society as you gain voice, implicitly awakened choices (Professor Lisa Miller).
Yesterday our UK Trustee Louise Sibley and I attended the World Premier of “Lost Histories“, a show based on the family history of Biripi and Gamillaroi musician Troy Russell, created for Musica Viva Australia’s In-Schools Program. Troy, together with Leila Hamilton and Susie Bishop entertained a small group of families from all walks of Australian life as they visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales to celebrate the opening of it’s new Library and Archive as part of the Gallery’s opening of its’ major new development.
This project came about due to Zoë Cobden-Jewitt, now one of our Intersticia Advisors, with whom we started working on our very first Australian project with the Bell Shakespeare Company when they created their Writers’ Fellowship in 2015.
As I sat and listened to Troy, Leila and Susie explore the memory-box holding these Lost History stories I began to think about the stories within Intersticia that we have all created over the past decade. It was at the end of 2012 after Sam, Lock and I had been to the UK in the Summer with my Aunt Joan Doughton (whom our Doughton Scholarship is in memory of) that I first began seriously exploring the concept of creating a family Foundation through which to undertake our philanthropic activities, and the Intersticia Foundation Australia became a reality on 23rd July 2023. Intersticia UK became a Registered Charity on 7th January 2019.
The idea of being able to support younger people as they journey through life began when I was a student at Goodenough College in 1985, but this was further stimulated by a conversation I had with John O’Neil, founder of The Good Life, in 2016. The Good Life evolved from the Aspen Institute, which was created to enable business leaders to take time out to discuss philosophy, ethics and literature as a key part of their own leadership journey. In 2006 two Aspen teachers – John O’Neil (ex AT&T) and Pete Thigpen (ex Levi Strauss) realised that the lessons of Aspen needed to be brought to the tech-leaders and community of Silicon Valley, and so they created Good Life.
When I visited John in Sausalito in 2016 we talked about how important it was for elders with resources to enable and empower emerging stewards and he challenged me to create a Fellowship – a group of people of like mind that I could support in the work that they do to make the world a better place. This is what has guided our thinking throughout the past decade and has informed the people we have chosen and the organisations we work with.
Here is an overview of our major activities in that time.
- We began working with the Web Science Trust and in partnership with them developed Brave Conversations in March 2017.
- We supported our second Rowland Scholar, Hamish Laing.
- We created our first Leadership Scholarship with Negar Tayyar as the first recipient.
- We created Brave Conversations held at the Australian National University in Canberra. From this has evolved into Future Worlds Challenge.
- We continued our partnership with Bell Shakespeare supporting Teresa Jakovich in their Education Programme.
- We supported our fifth Rowland Scholar, Osheen Arora.
- Bel Campbell worked as Intersticia’s Creative Director co-creating Brave Conversations and the development of Future Worlds Challenge and became our third Leadership Fellow.
- We held our first Intersticia Fellowship Retreat at Goodenough College which ten Fellows, both Australian and UK Boards, which was facilitated by Sam Crock and John Urbano.
- We began working with Founders and Coders and Gaza Sky Geeks to create the Founders Programme which supported eight FAC Graduates and fifteen GSG Graduates to work on Tech for Better projects. Our first Founder Fellows being Joe Friel.
- We supported our sixth Rowland Scholar, Timothy Wong.
- We welcomed Nick Byrne as our second Leadership Fellow.
- The Covid 19 Pandemic hit the world severely curtailing travel and all social activities.
- As part of our adaptation forced by the Covid19 Pandemic we created our Digital Gymnasia Series of workshops, initially run through Goodenough College aimed at their Alumni and Student communities, but run out more broadly in 2021.
- The Digital Gymnasia material was integrated in to the Founders and Coders Social Machine curriculum with the help of FAC Graduate Hannah Stewart.
- We held our second Intersticia Fellowship Retreat online with 17 (seventeen) Fellows and 4 (four) advisors (Sam Crock, Marianne Darre, John Urbano, Louise Sibley and Dan Sofer).
- We supported our eighth Rowland Scholar, Sean McDiarmid.
- We supported our third Doughton Scholar, Marco Valerio.
- Louise Sibley replaced Alison Irvine as a Trustee of Intersticia UK.
- We welcomed Marianne Darre and Philip Hayton as Intersticia Advisors.
- Jacquie Crock began working with Intersticia as our first Intern.
- Doughton Fellow Berivan Esen became a Trustee of Intersticia UK.
- For the first time we funded two concurrent Goodenough Scholars, Farahana Cajuste and Sergio Mutis.
- We continued our work with Yalla through creating the Yalla Apprenticeship Programme which supported two GSG Graduates to work full time with Yalla for six months. One is now a full time employee of Yalla.
- We held our first hybrid Intersticia Fellowship Retreat with 8 (eight) UK Fellows and Advisors attending in person at Schumacher College, Devon, and 15 (fifteen) Fellows and Advisors attending via Zoom.
- We began working with Abeer Abu Ghaith, Founder of MENA Alliances.
- Leadership Fellow Nick Byrne joined the Intersticia Foundation Board.
- We supported Gaza’s first Rock Band Osprey V with some funding towards sound and recording equipment.
- We delivered our first Brave Conversations to the Solstrand Leadership Programme, Norway.
- We supported our second Newspeak Scholar, Ardavan Afshar.
- We began supporting the development of a First Nations’ Ensemble through the Musica Viva Australia “In Schools Programme” resulting in “Lost Histories”created by Troy Russell.
- We supported the development of a new theatrical performance “Darkness” with Five Eliza Street, Newtown, Sydney to be premiered in January 2023.
- We supported our eleventh Rowland Scholar, Yujui Li.
- Abeer Abu Ghaith became a Leadership Fellow.
- We welcomed Hannah Stewart as Founder Fellow.
- We welcomed Zöe Cobden-Jewitt as an Intersticia Advisor.
Reflecting on the last ten years it seems fitting that we close the decade by once again working with Zöe on a project in Australia whilst also exploring new initiatives globally as we have always done.
From the beginning our aspirations for Intersticia were always global. Ten years on we have now achieved this working with a range of organisations and supporting a Fellowship of individuals from all walks of life who are all contributing to the crafting of the story of Intersticia.
I would like to thank each and every person who has been a part of this.
An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being (Bertrand Russell).
In November 2021 we finally realised our Future Worlds Challenge with the assistance of the MIT App Inventor Research team and a group of wonderful young people from around the globe.
In September 2022 we had the opportunity to further develop this thanks to the invitation of the Government of Sharjah to integrate both Future Worlds Challenge and Brave Conversations in to the 2022 International Government Communications Forum. The opportunity was created by Ibrahim El Badawi who has been supporting Leanne Fry and me with Brave Conversations since our first event in 2017 and has helped craft and present numerous Brave Conversations events for an Arabic speaking audience over the past few years.
From the outset both Leanne and I realised that Sharjah was going to be something a bit different. The events were to be integrated into a major conference within a completely different cultural context and, to be honest, we had no idea who was going to turn up or when! Uppermost in our minds was the need to be mindful of cultural values and English proficiency, let alone a familiarity with technology beyond just retail use. And, we had to keep our energy up for four full days with the two events overlapping on the third day. As a bonus we were thrilled that Professor Dame Wendy Hall agreed to join us in Sharjah to help us anchor our events within the broader context of the conference and also to link it to the very important work that she is doing around digital governance and Artificial Intelligence.
From the moment we arrived in to a very hot and humid Dubai we were greeted with superb Emiratee hospitality thanks to Ohood Al Aboodi and her team of the IGCC. In addition we had our own private tour guide with Ibrahim driving us around in his red Mustang. This gave us some valuable insights in to the Emirate particularly with a visit to University City and the very impressive House of Wisdom, one of the most beautiful learning centres in the world. To give some context Sharjah is the third largest city in the UAE and capital of the Emirate of Sharjah. It seeks to position itself as the centre for Islamic culture and knowledge within the UAE and the IGCC Forum is an event which focuses on government communication as central to this.
What became clear to us was that the IGCC Forum provided a perfect opportunity to explore some of the themes of Brave Conversations within this Arabic cultural context and specifically to engage with young people through Future Worlds Challenge. In this we were ably supported by some delightful young Emirate interpreters and facilitatators, but most of al the MIT App Inventor team of Claire Tan, Maura Kelleher and Nghi Nguyen who quite literally worked their tails off with us reorganising the programme and having to innovate on the fly when it came to teaching the code.
We arrived to the venue on Monday 26th September for Day One not really knowing what to expect. Gradually the room filled and over the four days we were joined by students from the local university, groups of school children aged between 15 to 17, a contingent from the UAE Military, and a number of Directors of Government Communications from the Government of Sharjah. Apart from the fact that we were never quite sure when people would arrive or how many of them there would be, everyone was fully engaged and enthusiastically threw themselves in to both the coding tasks, the Challenge and the conversations.
Both Brave Conversations and Future Worlds Challenge are designed to get participants to use their imagination and creative thinking and one way we seek to stimulate this is to highlight the importance of Science Fiction. When the Chinese wanted to find out why the West was so far ahead with their development of technology they discovered it was that the West has a deep history of Science Fiction. When we posed this question to our Arabic audience it was curious that there was so little Arabic work of this genre despite some encouraging early shoots (Larissa Sanour’s work in particular). This is one thing we encouraged our young audience to explore more particularly as it opens the mind to possibilities, the core of which is at the heart of Future Worlds Challenge.
The Challenge built on the work we had done in 2021 and asked one simple question – How do you build a Future World ten years hence (i.e. 2032) that you would actually want to live in that can sustain human life on this planet?
There are three aspects to the world that you propose based on:
- How do we think? What do we need to change about our values and expectations?
- How do we live? How do we live sustainably within the planetary ecosystem?
- What technologies can support this? Technology needs to serve not lead.
We divided the participants into seven groups of mixed ages and genders and each one chose to focus on one aspect of designing a better Future World. Each was given time to work on their presentations and then give a five minute presentation with five minutes of questions.
How did we judge these Future Worlds? We asked three judges – volunteers Prashathi Reddy and our facilitator Hussein plus Claire Tan, to consider the worlds based on these criteria:
- Does your world make sense?
- Is it realistic?
- How would Conversational AI support your World?
- Do you believe in it?
Following on from this first round three ‘winners’ were chosen who then presented to the IGCC Judges Panel at the end of the day and this lead to a final ‘winning team’ announced at the Closing Ceremony Dinner of the Forum.
The teams were:
- Ahlam – Your Sleeping Matters
- Bioare – Sustainability for Life
- Fast Move – Accessibility for Blind People
- FWPW – Future Without Plastic Waste
- HRPI – Healthcare, Renewable, Printing and Inequality
- MOCAP – Project Charity Becomes Human
- Sooma – Zakat Calculator
To be honest there was no winning team.
Despite the nerves and hours of waiting around each and every person who was with us worked hard, contributed ideas and energy and helped make the event a success, and it is a huge complement to them that we were able to push the boundaries of Future Worlds Challenge and develop the programme into something that is now fully formed and a complement to Brave Conversations, which at Sharjah, was merely the supporting act!
The most precious thing for us was in being able to give these young people insights in to the dual analogue-digital worlds that are emerging and in this we were truly blessed to have the inimitable Dame Wendy Hall. Wendy, as always, gave selflessly to our groups and they gained insights from her more intimate session with us that she then further expanded in the main conference.
There is so much talk at the minute about the Metaverse and Wendy explored some of the challenges of these metaverses (which is much more correct). She very cleverly explained the issues of privacy by focusing on digital clothes shopping and what we will be exposing as we shop online. Wendy always has this gift for bringing crucial messages home – within a largely male audience it was the women who were the most wide-eyed and concerned.
This was really brought home during our final session of Brave Conversations when I looked at one of the main stands in the exhibition hall where one company was encouraging people to ‘get scanned and create your digital twin’. How much did people think about this before they eagerly participated and what questions should they have been asking?
As is happening in so many aspects of our lives we have absolutely no protection from companies such as this who are encouraging us to give our data with no respect for privacy or accountability back to us. This is exactly the same as companies such as Ancestry.com taking peoples’ DNA which strikes me as not just fraudulent but downright exploitative.
As Mark Zuckerberg is finding out there is a risk to rushing in to these new frontiers and gradually governments are beginning to wake up to their naivety of the past two decades and finally grapple with these issues. Too slowly of course, but they are beginning. This is the message that I would have like to see at Sharjah and hopefully some of the attendees listened.
As all societies keenly embrace the world of digital and see it is as the key to the future it is events such as these where we can bring savvy young people together with the not so savvy elders to really question the future world that are crucial to having some semblance of control and we are hugely grateful to the Government of Sharjah for providing one such opportunity.
Our thanks to Ibrahim El Badawi for creating this opportunity, and especially to Ohood Al Aboodi for all the hard work she did in getting us to Sharjah and making us feel so welcome.
The Solstrand programme contributes to the development of Norwegian businesses and the public sector by providing participants with a better understanding of organisational structure and greater insight into leadership processes.
Since 1953, Nordic leaders have come to The Solstrand programme to learn from and with one another supported by leaders and key actors in Norwegian society and international research who contribute their knowledge and experience.
There are two core aspects of the work that we do through Intersticia.
The first is our focus on Group Relations and the dynamics of human interactions in groups which underpin all aspects of leadership and stewardship.
The second is our focus on integrating digital literacy and digital fluency in the work that we do with our Fellows, with partner organisations and through all of our events, especially Brave Conversations.
This year saw me able to bring these together with two Brave Conversations events in September, the first of which was as a part of the 2022 Solstrand Leadership Programme.
I first learned about Solstrand when I met three Solstrand coaches at the 2018 Tavistock Institute Leicester Conference and subsequent to this two of my Leicester colleagues, Marianne Darre and Philip Hayton, have become members of the Intersticia community as Advisors.
In January 2020 I was invited to Solstrand and was privileged to observe this programme over two days through sitting in on one of the Small Groups, participating in the larger group and then witnessing the Artistic Programme held at the Oseana Art and Cultural Centre in Os.
The Solstrand Hotel began it’s life in 1896 built by Norway’s first Prime Minister Christian Michelsen. Michelsen wanted it to be a place where the tradesmen of Bergen (Norway’s second largest city) could gather strength for their big mission in the city.
Since then leaders from all walks of life have visited Solstrand and in post-WWII Europe it became a beacon of hope for the ravaged Norway with the first Solstrand Programme held at the hotel in 1952 as a partnership between the NFF (Norwegian School of Economics) and the AFF (Norway’s largest Leadership and Organisational Development Consultancy). From the outset the founders of Solstrand wanted to draw on the very latest and most innovative thinking in leadership development and the foundations of the programme are built on this philosophy and the crucial aspects of group relations which manifest in the Tavistock institute’s Leicester Conference.
Every year since 1953 some 48 participants from virtually all sectors of the Norwegian economy, of varying ages and stages in their careers come to Solstrand to participate in a 7 week programme split across two and one week blocks over a year and a half to learn about themselves, the groups they participate in and the organisational system as a whole. They are supported by highly trained coaches and a wide range of guest lectures and talks from speakers and thought leaders around the world.
When I first learned about Solstrand my immediate reaction was “no wonder Norway is doing so well!”. It is, in my opinion, the most effective and successful leadership development programme in the world and has provided an inspiration for how we are developing Intersticia, albeit on a much smaller scale. When I think of how it works it resonates deeply with the values that we at Intersticia espouse and integrate in what we do – those of authenticity, integrity, persistence, courage and grace. What I realised when I discovered Solstrand was that, quite simply,
our vision is for Intersticia to become a mini-global Solstrand, one person at a time.
This year I was hugely privileged to be invited to present a Brave Conversations to the incoming 2022 Solstrand cohort, the first fully face to face one since the start of the Covid pandemic and the first to be held totally within the context of the onging Russia-Ukraine War – the first major conflict in Europe since WWII. The week I attended was also the first week of mourning for the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
I always find going to Solstrand a transformative experience, not only because of the sheer beauty of the hotel sitting quietly on the Hardangerfjord, but in the energy of the work being done within the Solstrand programme itself. This time my experience was that of feeling the deep historical and cultural connections between Britain and Norway not just due to the Viking heritage (Lindesfarne and all that) but as two nations which both have Constitutional Monarchies, are both crucial to the defence of the values of Western Europe, are both blessed with energy independence (Norway now Europe’s main energy provider) but both are prepared to be brave in how they approach things and push the boundaries. There is something wonderfully familar about Norway that I have felt since I first visited (perhaps my own Viking roots) but there is also the courage that is displayed within the Solstrand Programme and it’s own ambitions to facilitate brave conversations.
From the outset of this event the group was responsive, curious and willing to embrace the challenge of asking difficult questions and seeking non-conventional answers. In their groups it was fascinating to observe how they responded to the Case Study based on The Nexus Trilogy which sought to highlight issues such as transhumanism, the ethics of AI and the emerging hive mind of connected humanity. As always it was the context of both the programme and the times which resulted in the most interesting conversations and, hopefully, the most effective learning.
I learned a huge amount about myself and the work we do from the experience and hope that the conversations started at Solstrand will continue to resonate for the participants in both their personal and professional lives and empower them to use their Solstrand learnings as much online as in their real-world interactions. As the metaverses evolve we are going to desperately need people who can be brave and not just follow others – we need those who will see beyond what is immediately apparent and have the courage to seek new paths. This is what Solstrand seeks to achieve.
I would like to thank Hans Morten Skivik, Marianne Darre and Gisken Holst for their very kind invitation and their always open and welcoming hospitality at Soltrand. I would also like to thank the Solstrand programme for the opportunity to introduce ideas around the Social Machine and Digital Enlightenment and to challenge them to leverage these brave conversations beyond Norway.
Peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity, in the comparison and conciliation of differences. (Mikhail Gorbachev)
Today the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, died.
When I lived in London in the 1980s it was Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were reshaping the Western World and the European continent. Today it is Gorbachev’s successor Vladimir Putin who, through waging the first European conflict since WWII between Ukraine and Russia, is seeking to return to the glory days of Empire whilst dividing Europe as a continent once more.
In the 1990s I recall my nephew asking me why all the baddies in spy movies were Russian – he couldn’t understand this East-West dynamic. The world did seem to be a safer, calmer, saner and more united place until 9/11 in 2001.
As I watched the early days of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war unfold I kept on thinking about human history and how we seem to take two steps forward, then one step back. As Stephen Pinker argues the world (for humans) does seem to be getting better. There are more of us; fewer of us (percentage wise) live in poverty; more of us are educated; we are living longer better lives, and we have a command of technological solutions to do things that our ancestors would only dream of in the realm of magicians.
Of course the planet and other species might disagree, but perhaps we are being too quick to judge.
I watched a critique of the Russian versus US Army recruiting advertisements with the commentator ridiculing the US use of a young, female, gay graduate from (see this and this). We also know that Putin felt that the time was right to strike due to the perceived weakness of the West as it became increasingly focused on issues such as gay-rights and transgender identity.
Time has revealed several things:
- You don’t need to be a butch, buff Rambo to successful operate a high tech weapon and be a very effective fighter
- Putin underestimated the West in it’s use of smart technologies, social media and propaganda tools, and it’s determination to stand up for its values
- History does rhyme and move in cycles, but it does not repeat.
The more I have been thinking about this the more it strikes me that, just like Spiral Dynamics, humans may be evolving beyond the historical stereotypes and constraints that have so long dominated our thinking. We have always had strong men driven by greed, power and their own sense of personal destiny. We have always had armies and mercenaries prepared to fight for whomever pays the highest price. We have always had familial, tribal, and then nationalistic identities which have filtered any sense of empathetic thinking in terms of ‘others’.
If we study our history we have also had Empires and Societies which have failed through their own self-focus – think of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. If we look through the prism of artistic expression we see societies go through stages of development from early formation (archaic) to consolidation (classical) to a period of decline (Hellenistic). Whilst this may be very simplistic perhaps it also offers something to interrogate when it comes to looking historically at why societies collapsed and then thinking about what is happening with the West now.
The stock standard reasons that historians and economists give for Societal Collapse focus on economic decline, rise of competition, resource depletion, inequality, political corruption (see Andrews and Diamond as well as this list). But, perhaps there is something else going on at the minute that is beyond the bounds of human history, something that is over the event horizon that we are just beginning to intuit.
Perhaps what we are seeing is not a sign of weakness. Perhaps, in fact it is a sign of true strength and a major evolution in our thinking.
An event horizon is a boundary beyond which an observer cannot see or comprehend.
If I go back to the rant I watched about military recruitment the thought that continually kept occurring to me is that in times of stress and conflict it our base behaviours linked to our limbic and reptilian brains flooded with testosterone which drives us to pick up a gun and shoot someone or something. This has been our default and is evident in our entertainment (think gladiators to Marvel movies) and our definition of ‘heroes’.
However, the real heroes are those who don’t hit out, do not give in to those impulses, but who stop and allow our higher brains to determine our actions. This, for me, is the real power of turning the other cheek.
Instead of lashing out at and condemning that which we don’t understand the real challenge is to comprehend what it must be like to have been born in a body that feels alien and disconnected, to live a life which feels like a lie, to be physically or intellectually misaligned with many of the demands of everyday life, and to feel either trapped or disempowered by the society within which we live.
Many people feel like this all their lives but in the 21st Century our Western societies, driven by the Christian values upon which our societies are built I believe that we in the West are slowly taking on the challenges that are inherent within the diverse nature of humanity and seeking to embrace the fringes of our selves.
Perhaps this is what has happened throughout history and previous societies may have also got to this point but were unable to advance their thinking and being precisely because the invading hordes were at the gate and they had to divert their mental attention away from this really complex thinking towards the base requirements of survival. Perhaps now, after one of the longest periods of historical peace, and unprecedented technological development, we have enough momentum to finally be able to release the shackles of our past and move towards building a world for all of the human family.
Understanding the collapse of societies and Empires is a complex issue and no one really has the definitive answer. But perhaps instead of collapse there is a human drive towards something beyond anything we can truly comprehend and understand. Smart technologies are undermining the advantages of physical strength within human competition. We are working to defeat ageing and decay; we are working to unravel the mystery of the creation of life and begin to think about a human existence beyond sex and gender. So perhaps also we are beginning to be able to imagine a world beyond that which human history has bequeathed us. If we don’t then the emerging intelligences we are creating certainly will, although underpinned by the values we build in to them.
I believe, unlike Putin, that the West is not descending in to decadence, decay and depravity but is, in fact, slowly evolving to become both more empathetic towards those who don’t fit within the “norm” (whatever that is) and to appreciate that all humans have something to contribute towards the world we are all building. This is the real work of building human societies and takes both bravery and courage.
It is a slow and fragile process which may be derailed at any minute. Whilst things are improving we can often feel distressed that the speed is too slow, that there are too many forces working against us, and that we are powerless to effect any change.
The Ukraine War is just one example of this. Putin expected the war to be over quickly due to his underestimation of the 21st human values inherent in Ukraine and the West but collectively people have risen up to defend their rights to live freely and at peace. Putin may succeed in his goals and he is playing the long game but so is everyone else.
My instinct is telling me that we as 21st Century humans are in a place that humanity has never been before. For better or worse we are more globally connected; we have split second information and news cycles; we have an unprecedented insight and understanding of the physical, chemical and biological worlds; and, ever since we sent humans in to space, we have a view of ourselves living on one planet which we can now actually see. We are also beginning to think beyond the binary nature of male/female; us/them and see things holistically … but only just beginning.
As Carl Sagan demonstrates in Pale Blue Dot
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space)
For Intersticia and the work we do to help develop 21st Century Stewards I can think of no better guideline nor philosophy.
Regardless of how we approach this horizon or what we find when get there the preciousness of humanity is what phil-anthropos is all about and drives how we serve those within our community and from there the human family itself.
Of course we may not get there this time. We may self-destruct and go backwards as many previous societies have done due to our own fears and self-destructive instincts. But eventually I believe that we will.
The Allegory of Plato’s Cave – a powerful lens with which to view our 21st Century Leaders
2020 has shown us that the challenges of the 21st Century are global ones which we all share. We must learn now how to balance the needs of the ‘me’ with the ‘we’ to collectively change things for the better.
It was just two weeks ago that I was swimming in my favourite pool in North Sydney looking up at the Restaurant above and thinking how incredibly lucky we in Australia have been in 2020, but also having niggling feeling that we are so out of sync with the rest of the world that that luck may well run out. We have had numerous outbreaks of the Covid 19 virus which have been fairly rapidly squashed and the state of Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, has had a pretty torrid time with the harshest lockdown in the world. But our lifestyle had begun to bounce back.
Until last week when we had a reality check with the discovery of two mystery Covid cases found in Avalon, a mere 5 km from where I live, which has now spread sending Governments around the country in to panic mode accompanied by a plethora of conspiracy theories. For those of us living in what is affectionately called the ‘insular Peninsula’ we joined the majority of people on the planet in a locked down Christmas and now New Year.
I don’t envy any of our leaders as they struggle to cope with the rapidly changing situation that the Pandemic presents, not wanting to over-react as the “Festive” season approaches, but as a result creating additional anxiety and frustration with a lack of clear messaging similar to the first few months of 2o2o when the old world disappeared and the new “Covid” normal began to appear.
For Australia and New Zealand much of the strategy has been to aim for “0” as the optimum Covid number, with the only weak links being returning overseas travellers, diplomats and cabin crew. We have been largely successful and our particular response reflects a blend of our Convict Colony roots combined with the Tyranny of Distance. We are good at locking people up down here. But “0” is the most dangerous number and is totally unsustainable.
Governments around the world are now firmly driving the agenda when it comes to responding to the Pandemic, with varying degrees of success. One way of viewing this is to consider our Governments as Social Machines, huge socio-technical systems that bring together the cultural, political and technical characteristics of polities as expressed through policies, rules and regulations.
Years ago we undertook a research project with the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the Web Science Institute on this very concept (see Government as a Social Machine) exploring the co-evolution of the policy and online communications spaces as Governments embraced digital media. Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Dr Kieron O’Hara have further developed this idea with their Four Internets describing how geopolitics is splintering the once integrated global online infrastructure determined by “Four ideologies … because they have been adopted by state-level actors with the resources to push their visions, fund the science behind them and, crucially, “sell” them to allies.” (Wendy Hall)
To me this is the contemporary demonstration of Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order connecting all political action as a manifestation of long cultural histories and value systems. Now, catapulted by the Pandemic, global Governments are beginning to embrace the next phase of how we govern ourselves with the combination of culture, the polity and technology – the ultimate Social Machine.
Not long ago the mantra in the public sphere was to ‘wind back’ our bloated, bureaucratic and big governments in order to embrace market forces and be more ‘customer focused’. I have always felt that calling citizens ‘customers’ was an insult, together with adopting many of the ideas of managerialism where the bottom line trumped actually serving the public. The pendulum has now swung back to where people are relying on and giving greater trust to their governments to guide us through the Covid-era, and these governments are working feverishly to learn how to utilise the tools of digital information systems to more effectively collect, harvest and analyse data in their fight against the disease. These twin propellers are, as Yuval Noah Harari states
fast-forwarding historical processes (and)… Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.
As Professor Dame Wendy Hall says we now desperately need to create a new social contract between citizens and our Government Social Machines, but, more than that, we need to reframe how we see our leaders and what leadership in the 21st Century needs to look like as we embrace these global problems.
Up until now the dominant thinking throughout Western societies has been based on “it’s all about Me”, beautifully articulated in the documentary the Century of the Self. This is a mindset that has caused us to exploit each other and our environment for short term gain. As we learn how intimately connected we are and how much we depend on that global connection we desperately need a new type of thinking based on our interdependence and this needs to be reflected in the stories we tell.
The power of truth in storytelling
What is most important is to understand that politics and leadership is all about storytelling and how those we choose to serve in positions of power see the world.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (see also) tells the story of people imprisoned in a cave watching shadows on a wall which they take to be their reality. One of their number manages to escape and ventures outside in to the sunshine of the outside and realises that there are different truths to true what is being presented in the Cave. The escapee returns to the cave but no one of those still trapped inside believes these weird stories about light and sunshine and the natural world. Plato talks about the role of philosophers and politicians as being those to manage to escape to consider alternative realities and dream of different futures, but all too often the philosophers are ridiculed whilst the politicians use the situation to their own advantage. The glaring example of this is the use of political spin and manipulation in how election campaigns are run, the Social Media Caves which now provide most people with their news and daily updates, all of which are being filtered by the algorithmic shadows driven by unfettered and unchecked capitalist objectives.
We humans are story telling animals and our very sense of self comes from the stories we are told and what others tell us. It may well be that the modern day equivalent of huddling around the camp fire is that we now huddle around our computer screens, especially now so many of our interactions are limited to being online.
It is the politicians and philosophers who tell the best stories who have the greatest impact, and now more than ever we need these stories to be about hope for the future.
In this interview with Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Yuval Noah Harari talks about the power of stories and the need for leaders to believe in the stories they tell. Throughout history these stories have been driven by religious beliefs, playing on deeply held concepts of good and evil which have ensured that those in power keep control of the unruly masses, a theory beautifully expanded upon by Rutger Bregman in his book Human Kind and Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell and further developed by Joseph Henrich in his description of the West and our WEIRD way of thinking.
The Covid Pandemic is not a story, it is all too real, but how each and every one of us responds to it is determined by the stories we hear, how we retell those stories, and how each one of us uses our ability to filter fact from the fiction, recognise our inbuilt biases towards the negative and forge a path towards something more positive and hopeful.
As never before our leaders from all walks of life don’t want to deliver bad news, but they need to deliver real news and deliver it responsibly in a way that validates the trust that has been given to them, not just by their own citizens, but by the global collective. Just like Climate Change the Virus doesn’t recognise state borders or festive holidays, and it will seep through even the best quarantine systems.
The rollercoaster of the Covid year has left us all with increased levels of anxiety and frustration as we continue on in to the unknown. For me whilst I am not religious I have found that recognising the difference between what I can and cannot control or change has been what has kept me going. and what I cannot has been a powerful lens with which to cope, articulated in the Serenity Prayer.
‘God’ grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
(The Serenity Prayer)
One of the things we can all control is which stories we listen to and which we don’t, and how we choose to interpret them. A true 21st Century Leader will recognise this and become a master at storytelling, not for personal gain or political expediency, but for engendering hope.
Emergencies fast-forward historical processes. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments. (Yuval Noah Harari)
For the past few years I have been delivering Digital Skills workshops to interested students at Goodenough College, but the travel restrictions of Covid 2020 means that I’m stuck in Australia and so, like everyone, we’ve had to come up with new solutions and ways to engage.
The flip side is that Covid has brought about ‘the digital moment’ and we are all now participating in probably the largest global experiment as we harness digital media to remain connected, to craft new ways of staying in business, and to keep the wheels of industry turning.
With this in mind Goodenough College Dean Alan McCormack, Alumni Director Hannah du Gray and I decided that it was the perfect time to reach out beyond the current student body to all of our Goodenough community around the world and offer them the opportunity to more consciously think about the digital tools that they work with, and begin to develop some real digital muscle in order to more safely and securely navigate and negotiate our lives online.
Thus was born our Digital Gymnasia, a series of workshops where the emphasis is on education, play, and skill building through conversation and coaching and where we can explore some of the questions and issues which arise in a safe and non-judgemental space.
The Ancient Greek Gymnasia were places for physical activity but also places for intellectual pursuits and philosophical discussion. The word gymnos comes from the Greek unclothed which implies not just nudity but also a vulnerability and a need to exercise in order to attain skills to better prepare for the world around. The Romans continued the idea of the gymnasia with their Baths and we still use the term for both exercise facilities but also schools.
As I thought of what to name the series of digital literacy workshops that have emerged over the past few months the idea of the gymnasia seemed most appropriate. What we need at this time is not something to cure an illness or seek treatment but a space within which to play and test the equipment around us in order to build our confidence, capacity and capability in using it to live better and more fulfilling lives. In short we need to exercise our digital muscles in order to both safely use the equipment and, even better, successfully compete in the digital games that now surround us.
We have become digital in the last few years (especially with our phones) as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means. (Doc Searls)
The tools of the Digital era have been gradually evolving but pre-Covid the legacy and stickyness of Industrial Age thinking has persisted – just consider the World Economic Forum’s idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. I would contend that whilst we still live in an ‘industrialised economy’ ever since the birth of the Internet and the Web we have been moving towards a Network Economy.
The Pandemic has provided both the need and the curiosity for many to explore the digital realm in new and unexpected ways. Up until now we have largely been retro-fitting the way we do things in the physical space in to the online environment – insisting on having conferences and events from 9 am t0 6 pm and not taking account of the affordances of the digital medium and how that impacts our emotional and mental needs or reactions. This is still happening but gradually we are becoming more confident and creative and what has surprised and delighted me is how creative people are becoming at working with the online tools – the democratisation of the digital space is enabling and embodying new creative solutions and expressions.
One example of this is Ruby Wax’s Frazzled Café which provides peer support meetings online. Ruby started her in person meetings at Marks and Spencer cafes but Covid has forced them to go online. When I asked her what she will do then some sort of ‘normality’ returns Ruby told me in no uncertain terms that the online Frazzleds will continue because they are so powerful and can reach so many people.
Ruby, and many like her have found the confidence to go online, to a space that they may not have felt comfortable operating in, but bit by bit they are experimenting and developing their digital muscle.
But as with all new exercises and fancy gym equipment it is often best to start off with an instructor, and that is what we are seeking to do with our Digital Gymnasia.
The format of Digital Gymnasia
Our first Digital Gymnasium focuses on the topic Digital 101, a session designed to explore how the socio-technical systems around us have evolved in order to understand where they are now in 2020 and imagine where they might be going. We focus on a brief history of information technologies coupled with some hands on exercises to determine peoples’ levels of digital literacy and awareness.
The second Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Digital Agora where we explore the world of online community spaces and how they are enabling us to remain connected despite the global lockdowns and quarantines. We begin by considering the affordances of digital interaction technologies and what benefits they provide as well as their limitations and consequences.
The third Digital Gymnasium focuses on Your Digital Brand and how we each craft our presence online. This session is built upon the work I have done over the past 2o years (and resulted in my PhD research, see here and here) which at the core considers how our lives online produce our ‘brand’. Our aim here is to really think about how we are perceived by others online.
The fourth and fifth Digital Gymnasia focus on Protecting Yourself Online and provides an overview of tools and techniques to better deal with online safely and security. Our aim is to get people actively engaged with their online security and more fully begin to understand the idea of digital identity.
The sixth Digital Gymnasium focuses on The Politics of Digital Technologies with an overview of how governments around the world are utilising digital surveillance technologies and systems in the name of Public Health. At the core of this is the concept of Trust which is multi-layered and an expression of our cultural norms and expectations. It is also a clear example of the lack of digital literacy and awareness in the Pubic Sphere.
The seventh Digital Gymnasium focuses on Seeing the World through Data – how data drives everything around us and why this is important. Data has been described as the new oil of the digital economy, but there is a lot more to it than that. In order to build digital muscle we need to understand what digital is made up of (think of how we monitor our diet through exercise) and data is the source. This workshop seeks to demystify the idea of data, information and knowledge to more effectively work with it as our digital systems evolve.
Our final Digital Gymnasium focuses on what being Born Digital means – how digital businesses differ from traditional bricks and mortar ones, but also how they are changing and what this means for the future of work, education, health care and many other aspects of our everyday lives.
These workshops are an opportunity for me and my colleague Leanne Fry (with whom much of this material has been developed and who has lived through the digital transformation of the past two decades with me) to reflect on the work we’ve done and to offer what we’ve learned to others in a way that we hope is useful, empowering and entertaining.
We would love you to join us.
If you are interested please just contact me.