Analogue leadership in a digital world

The Age of the Smart Social Machine

The Age of the Smart Social Machine

Title adapted from Shoshana Zuboff’s ground-breaking 1988 book

Last week I attended a Group Relations Conference in India.  These events are always intense (this one even more so!) but they provide a unique opportunity to consider oneself with a human social system.

One of the things that occurred to me as we were exploring the role of the unconscious as it was playing out in the here and now (all psychobabble terms but in fact hugely important) was that there are multiple unconsciouses which operate as we live our dual analogue-digital lives. Carl Jung described what he called the collective unconscious which complements and influences all of our conscious thinking and actions as we participate within the human system.  I believe that there is now in addition a digital unconscious which is emerging in the digital realm as the result of our digital interactions within the Social Machine and an even more powerful machine unconscious which is evolving in the artificial intelligences we are building.  I drew the image below to try to illustrate my conjecture to the group – needless to say most didn’t understand.

In What Technology Wants co-founder of Wired Magazine and co-Chair of the Long Now Foundation Kevin Kelly talks about The Technium:  A Living System of Technology which encompasses the entire system around technology – culture, art, social institutions, through to “the extended human”.  In his latest blog post Kelly states that

For a while I’ve been intensely exploring generative AI systems, creating both text and visual images almost daily, and I am increasingly struck by their similarity to dreams. The AIs seem to produce dream images and dream stories and dream answers. The technical term is “hallucinations” but I think they are close to dreams. I’ve come to suspect that this similarity between dreams and generative AI is not superficial, poetic, or coincidental. My unexpected hunch is that we’ll discover that the mechanism that generates dreams in our own heads will be the same (or very similar) to the ones that current neural net AI’s use to generate text and images.

 

The foundational mode of the intelligence is therefore dreaming.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not necessarily agreeing with Kevin Kelly here nor am I buying in to the hype about machines hallucinating.  What I am pointing out is that the machines are analyzing human data using human crafted algorithms and therefore there is something of our unconscious that is embedded in their emanations which is now being made explicit and visible.  We can only refer to concepts and ideas in human terms (hence we anthroporphosize) and to describe what the machines are doing is almost like taking us in to our own unconscious (this is where the concept of Azimov’s Psychohistory comes in to play).

One way of accessing the collective human unconscious is through Social Dreaming, the practice of sharing, associating to and working with dreams in a matrix in order to identify social trends and social dynamics. As our machines are coming together and bringing our data with them it may well be that what we are seeing is a manifestation of the collective human unconscious expressed through the output of the machines – which may seem like hallucinations – but how can we know given the opaque nature of how they operate?  And, if they have begun to go down that path then they are already moving beyond our realm of understanding.

The real challenge will come when they become able to acknowledge and recognise this unconscious as something different from a probabalistic algorithm, or are embodied, as the work of people like Rodney Brooks and so much of our Science Fiction (Humans, Blade Runner, Ex Machina) has shown us,

So what does this mean for us as humans?

Up until the recent advances brought about by the large language models such as ChatGPT talking with the average person about the advancing machine intelligence was like describing an elephant.  Every person sees things that directly relate only to them just like the story of the Blind Man and the Elephant.

This relates as much to technologists as to everyone else as I’ve witnessed countless times. The most obvious to me was when

I heard a very notable “father” of the digital world speak at a conference and when asked what he would recommend about how to address the rise of pornography on the Web he responded  “well just don’t look at it!” 

Many of the people I’ve met who have built the machinery of the digital world are extremely naïve, building the tools because they can, not asking whether they should. When Geoffrey Hinton resigned from Google last week he commented

I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,

As with all kids in the candy shop scenarios if you give a scientist a problem and lots of funding they will develop new tools and techniques regardless of the potential consequences. Hinton and others like him saw only part of the Elephant without considering it as a whole animal let alone part of a herd.

Which brings in the question of ethics.  Whilst some of the big companies have created Ethics Advisory Boards the reality is that much of the development work in the field of AI is now happening in the open source space where there is no supervision or oversight.  These people still want to move fast and break things and the very nature of Ethics is designed to slow things down by asking difficult and challenging questions.

Governments and regulation are also designed to slow things down because politics and policy operates on human time which is analogue, messy and the very opposite of an efficient machine.  Humans need time to process, and our relationships are based on what people like Anna Machin and Rachel Botsman call Trust Friction – the stickiness and the glue that underpins how human systems operate.

The whole point of human relationships is that they are not efficient, because they take time and brain power to develop and maintain. Trust needs friction.  (Anna Machin)

Human systems are analogue and analogue takes time.  In the analogue world:

  • You can’t fire off a letter you need to write and post it
  • you can do an online transfer you need to go to the bank
  • you can’t immediately alter a design you need to redraw it
  • you can’t just be friends with everyone you need to build trust through shared experiences which takes time.

Machines don’t want friction – it slows them down, makes things break and ruins their power to work ratio – i.e. “productivity”.  The ultimate idea of this is the Paperclip Problem where smart machines instructed to make paper clips will consume all the resources in the universe (including us) to just make paper-clips.

With the advent of ChatGPT and it’s brethren the removal of friction within our human-machine interactions has now gone to the next level and smart AI is now being embedded in to pretty much all of our digital processes – just think of how many conversations your have and hear which involved technology of some sort.

So now I’d like to bring in a new analogy, the frog in the pot of soup as the temperature is gradually turned up.

Our human need to process and understand means that we as humanity have been sitting in the digital soup for at least half a century but in the first half of 2023 suddenly it is feeling a little uncomfortably warm.

As the soup heats up there are some who are going to want to jump out of the soup – there are some who going to boil and there are those who will adapt.

The questions now seem to me to be who each of these will be and what will happen in each case.

Let’s consider some options:

Firstly, those who want to leave.  It may be too late but, as with the Luddites in the Industrial Revolution, there is much wisdom in what they have to say and perhaps an alternate reality has much to offer as it always has throughout the ages.  There is something of this in Hari Seldon’s concept of building a Foundation on the furthest planet in order to separate itself from the chaos of the main system – an opportunity to isolate, slow down, reboot and recreate.

Secondly, those who are trapped. Sadly there is always a high cost to any radical change and many will find the “new world” frightening and overwhelming. Just one example is the rate of teenage girl suicide already.  Along with many others I have spent the past three decades of my life working to understand the transition that is upon us and help people prepare for the change with minimal effect.  Some have heeded the lessons, most have sat and enjoyed the warmer water oblivious to the dangers. I’m not sure anything can help these people any more as I think the rate of change is going to be too fast.

I think both of these groups will struggle and push back through both fear and anger and the manifestation of this could be dangerous.

Finally, there will be those who adapt, survive and thrive.

With all the noise about the technology and how fast it’s progressing or whether it should be paused or stopped the real point is what are the humans going to do about it?  Therefore it is the third group I am most interested in and I believe that it is being led by the younger generation but needs to be supported and mentored by the 21st Elders who have memories of the analogue world and the value of its friction and temporal nature.

Some fear the AI Apocalypse and that non-Western (WEIRD) cultures may gain a technological advantage.  This is problematic on so many levels particularly given that it is the minority-population WEIRD West that has created the culture of growth and the technologies themselves.  Some alternative thinking might be precisely what is needed now and some less privileged cultures may, in fact, be better prepared for what is to come.

The history of automation is that we humans have invented machines to take away the dirty, dangerous and dull jobs … now we are taking away a whole host of others.  These technologies can be used to solve the very challenging problems which confront us in the 21st Century and the sooner we learn to work constructively and creatively with the machines the sooner we will harness the power that is before us for good.

The more I feel people heading in one direction as a herd the more I want to go the other way and explore what is happening there – this is where the adaptive survivors will be.

 

21st Century Digital Enlightenment

21st Century Digital Enlightenment

Only an enlightened society can be aware.  (Aristotle)

In July of last year I had a call with Professor George Metakides, with whom I serve on the Web Science Trust Board.

I first discovered Web Science when Armin Haller, who was a founding member of our Meta-Brave Conversations community, suggested I check them out which I did by attending the 2012 Summer School in Leiden.  There I met the inimitable Professor Dame Wendy Hall and, thanks to Wendy, I have been involved with the Web Science community ever since.

I started exploring the Web as a socio-technical system in the early 2000s through the development of the Printing Industries’ Action Agenda, Print21, which sought to understand the impact of digital information on the skillbase and supply chain of what was then the world’s third largest manufacturing industry.  This led to my work with Fuji Xerox Australia and the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) which included:

Throughout all of this my colleagues and I constantly struggled to explain to people what digital technologies really were; how they, and the broader digital ecosystem, were evolving, and what sort of world might emerge as ‘smart machines’ become a reality.  It was frustrating that time and time again people told us how important the work we were doing was, but no one was prepared to support its further development or champion it beyond narrow academic circles.  This was what inspired us to create Brave Conversations but it also led others to create similar organisations, one of which is the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF).

DEF was co-founded by George Metakides and others of like mind in 2012 working within the European Union who sought to understand

how current and future digital technology can best be used to express our identities in the digital world, taking into account the core values we cherish, we can support the rights of the individual in society” (see DEF Mission).

I attended my first DEF event in 2015 where I was most impressed by the calibre of the people, the core premise and DEF’s aspirations with its broad reach in to education, research, policy, and the commercial sector.

The conversations and debates around digital interaction technologies have come a long way since 2015, and there is now a rising public awareness and interest, which means that people may be ready to listen (maybe!)

During our conversation George and I discussed the synergies between DEF and Brave Conversations which, of course, sent me down a few rabbit holes.

The first was to consider the two words digital and enlightenment.

The word digital seems fairly straightforward coming from:

  • having digits (fingers and thumbs of which humans usually have 10) and using these to express discrete numbers (0 to 9) as values of a physical quantity;
  • something being binary – either on or off (1 or 0).

The word digital is, however, becoming more complicated as we digitise information and digitalise societies.  Something that is complicated is where components can be separated out and dealt with in a systematic and logical way based on a set of static rules or algorithms, which largely describes expert systems which make predictions or classifications based on input data (IBM 2020), i.e ‘artificial intelligence’.

The word enlightenment is far more nuanced and complex because it is culturally contextual and there are no rules, algorithms, or natural laws to define it.

One definition is of the

European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition.  It was heavily influenced by 17th-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent figures included Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.  (Wikipedia)

Enlightenment thinking included a range of ideas centred on the value of human happiness, the pursuit of knowledge obtained by means of reason and the evidence of the senses, and ideals such as natural law, liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.

At the time such ideas were dangerously radical because European thinkers were just beginning to throw off the yoke of Church authority and create the mindset of the Scientific Revolution which stressed the reliance on common sense and the power of direct observation over the unquestioning acceptance of traditional (often religious) explanations and ways of understanding the natural world.  As a corollary to this European colonisation revealed the richness of other cultures and how they thought about things – consider the Islamic Golden Age and the value of the Meso-American and Indigenous cultures, something it appears we are only just beginning to rediscover (see The Dawn of Everything).

Perhaps the biggest challenge for us as WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic) thinkers now is to realise that whilst we have been largely responsible for inventing and building the technologies which have become embedded in the lives of humans around the globe, the majority of those who interacting online are neither Western nor European (see this video and Our World in Data statistics).

Thus the combination of the words digital and enlightenment becomes even more complex!

If we take just two additional perspectives of the word enlightenment:

  • for Buddhists and Hindus enlightenment may be translated as either the Japanese word satori (derived from the verb satoru, “to know”) usually referring to an experience of insight into the true nature of reality; or the Sanskrit and Pali word Bodhi meaning “awakening”, but there is also reference to the middle way of living a balanced life.
  • For the Aboriginal Australians (and probably for many indigenous cultures) there may be no word as the concept would be embedded in the land and landscape as crafted in the Songlines (see this article and consider The Memory Code).

The theme which consistently emerges is that of knowledge, understanding and illumination, the concept of and the challenge of illuminating the path created by those who have insights from the path combined with some foresight as to what is to come.

I think it’s fair to say that this is what the European Enlightenment thinkers were doing as they sought to understand changing mindsets and revolutionary technology.  It is also at the core of what humanity needs now as we move on from the Industrial Age and fully embrace the Age of Information ( Nouriel Roubini).

Scientific method, hell! No wonder the Galaxy was going to pot! (The Foundation Series)

Whenever we run a Brave Conversations we always stress the need for participants to engage with Science Fiction, and especially Isaac Azimov’s Foundation Series  telling the story of Hari Seldon and his hopes that Psychohistory would prevent the horrors of a predictable future.  He fails not because of the complications of the data and information, but because of the complex unpredictability of life and living systems.

Humanity’s desire to divine the future is as old as humanity itself – we have consulted the Delphic Oracle, Runes, Fortune Tellers and Time Machines, and now we are worshipping our nascent artificial machines as we see them as portents of the future or ways to increase productivity and maximise profits.  These machines and systems are merely reflections of ourselves and are limited by our own frames of reference, our language, our value systems and our perspectives of the world.

This is the true challenge of 21st Century Digital Enlightenment – to bring to light our own biases and blind spots, to become more inclusive in our conversations and to embrace the diversity of humanity as we build tools to serve all of humanity and the broader planet.

The purpose of my conversation with George was that he asked if I would be prepared to join the Board of the Digital Enlightenment Forum and help it navigate this next phase of its mission, which is something I wholeheartedly and enthusiastically accepted.

Thank you George and all the DEF Board for this opportunity to serve.

Keep the Humans on the Track!

Keep the Humans on the Track!

I took this photo in Tanzania in 2019 as the vehicles descended on a group of lions.

This morning I read this article which described the aggressive tourism that is increasingly occurring around the world and its impact on wildlife and the environment.

What really resonated was the feeling I’ve had over the last week as I’ve wandered around the walking tracks of the Three Capes in South Eastern Tasmania, expensively curated with kilometers of duck-boarding, hand rails, safety signs and idyllic viewpoints of the need to keep the humans out of the wild and on the tracks.

I last bushwalked in Tasmania forty years ago, in the days where tracks were tracks, huts were huts and the Franklin Dam Blockade was in full swing around Australia as a whole.  I trekked around Tassie with friends, one of whom knew most of the Greenies manning the blockade and who hailed her as we approached on our tourist boat on the river.  As a contrast our other friends were those who were working as engineers in the mines and sternly warned us to be very careful about everything we said, particularly when drinking in the Queenstown pub!  And we had to take the No Dams stickers off our backpacks.

Memories of those days of the freedom to travel and the freedom to protest were brought back when I watched Franklin the movie which I thought gave an excellent overview of the key political issues of the time which saw the birth of the Green movement in Australia and clearly portrayed both the history and how the various players in the game behaved.  The Franklin River was saved, a national consciousness about environmentalism was awoken and Tasmania’s place as a wilderness destination was cemented in our consciousness.

The uniqueness of Tasmania is not just in its natural environment but also in it’s creative scene, the most obvious of which is the Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, where, since 2011, gambling millionaire David Walsh has created his dream museum of quite literally whatever he wants.  I first visited MONA shortly after it opened and this time, a decade on, as I wandered around I had a very strong feeling that I was in something akin to West World, and that every step I took, every swipe i made on the MONA App I made, and every cursive glance I took at a piece of ‘art’ would be captured and analysed by Walsh and his curators to tweak my behaviour and that of others as co-exhibits in the museum. It was a delicious – if slightly unsettling – paradox of who / what was observing who / what for whose enjoyment?

This feeling mirrored the one I had walking along the duck-boarding of the Three Capes despite the fact that at MONA I was in a man-made museum.

I spoke to some friends in Tassie about these experiences realising that this is happening everywhere around the world.  The reality is that in the age of the Anthropocene it is we homo sapiens that have become parasitic in our behaviours greedily consuming not only things but experiences as we seek to entertain ourselves and reconnect somehow with the natural environment.  Therefor, in order to protect that natural environment, which often includes the lands of first nations’ peoples who lived in balance with it for millennia, it is imperative that modern humans be herded, guided and quarantined, allowed to ‘look but don’t touch, but always at a safe distance.  I felt this very keenly as I wandered along the duck-boarding, read all the warning signs and was gently chastened by our guides as I stepped too close to the edge of the cliff.  I felt a long way from Rousseau’s State of Nature regardless of how free I think I am.

Saving me from myself and saving nature from me.

As a corollary to this is the state we’re all in at the moment, certainly in Western societies, where the serendipity seems to be disappearing in our lives.  No longer is it as easy to just rock up to a restaurant and have a meal, or decide to visit a museum or go on an adventure.  Just like the curated wilderness we now need to download the app, pre-book our tables and guarantee with a credit card, and pre-state our food allergies or preferences.  Again we are being herded and shepherded in to a predetermined experience where some of the surprise and adventure is actually removed in order to give us something that we can trust, that we can know we’re being taken care of and can participate safely from a distance.

My 21 year old self would not quite know what to think about all of this (let alone my parents and grandparents!), but it is all predictable and people have been describing this emerging world for a long time … the Club of Rome, The Matrix and E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops.  We humans are very good at denying the need to change, but also incredibly successful at adapting to it and the next few decades are going to present our species with a greater rate of change than anything in our recorded history.  We will see more pandemics, more extreme weather events, more forced migration, more inequality, more autocrats, different conflicts, and more technological change than our intellectual systems will able to cope with.  We will see more stress, more anxiety and more apathy, combined with many feeling a sense of loss and enormous amounts of grieving.

But we will also seen unprecedented opportunities to truly change the way humanity lives on the planet (hopefully to benefit not just us but other species we share it with) and a profound redefinition of what humanity actually is.

As we at Intersticia begin our second decade there is much to ponder about who we are, what we do, and how we can constructively contribute to the skills and capabilities of 21st Century Stewardship for the sake of those we serve not for ourselves.  We need to ensure that we can stay above the maelstrom and not fall in to the trap of the Red Queen Effect but work to more fully understand the systemic changes from the perspective of the interstice where everything is possible and there is no benefit of falling in to the default of good / bad; right / wrong but realise the advantage of seeing things holistically and systemically and understanding humans as part of the broader Gaia system rather than a parasitic virus that needs to be taken out of it.

2023 is going to be a very interesting year.

(Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871)

Intersticia’s Decade in Review

Intersticia’s Decade in Review

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.

2013:

2014

  • 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.

2015:

2016:

2017:

  • 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.

2018:

  • 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.

2019:

2020:

  • 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.

2021:

  • 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.

2022:

  • 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).

 

 

Valé Elizabeth Regina II

Valé Elizabeth Regina II

Ritual is important, and there is no discounting (some) people’s need for it now. The snaking queue, all five miles of it, speaks of our most inchoate impulses, almost-instincts that in the faithless 21st century have fewer and fewer outlets.  (Rachel Cooke, The Guardian)

Elizabeth’s sleight of hand was to renew the monarchy quietly (The Economist)

In a culture that extracts the divine feminine from its practices …. a powerful Queen has been an expression of that femininity, female power that goes beyond femininity.

If you have a figure that represents our shared connection with one another and with God and that figure dies at a time when we are confused and fractured as a culture, when we are fearful and doubtful, when people are analysing power and identity then certain questions eventually have to be asked … about power, everyday life, varying cultures.  Is it even possible to have a nature like Great Britain or the United States? (Russell Brand)

I began writing this post on the day before the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II whilst being glued to the BBC livestream of the Lying in State.  I began watching this incredible event as soon as it started on the day after the Queen’s death no matter where I was – in a café on top of Verbier, in various airport lounges, at the Solstrand Hotel, even out at a restaurant for dinner.

Unless you were hiding under a rock somewhere you could not help but be touched by this once in a lifetime event, and something that no one will ever see again.

The Queen’s death represents so many things for so many people – colonialisation / decolonialisation; monarchy / republic; pomp and circumstance; connection with something timeless and stable – something that we have always known, particularly with Elizabeth II.  For most of us in Commonwealth countries we have never known another Head of State.  For many of us this was a connection with our parents, with a time in the 20th Century which represented something ephemeral and for something which is now lost forever.

As a child living in London I was obsessed by Action Man figures but in particular the dress uniforms of the British military. I used to beg my parents to take me to Hamleys where bit by bit I added to my collection and I knew each and every regiment intimately.  The Funeral brought all of this to real life as I watched every one of these regiments pay their respects there was something deeply moving about an entire culture across generations coming together to pay tribute to one human being who has had such a significant impact on humanity.

As a part of my own process I walked The Queue (the BBC Queue Tracker was just fascinating to watch) which was literally miles long and consisted of thousands of people queueing along the Thames enduring anywhere between 12 – 24 hours of standing, moving and huddling in London’s cooler Autumn temperatures. Some 250,000 people joined in this ritual the culmination of which was to file in to the ancient Westminster Hall for a fleeting glimpse of the coffin and accompanying catafalque party.  Westminster Hall itself is the oldest building on the Parliamentary Estate erected by William II in 1097 and the site of State Trials (King Charles I, Thomas More and Guy Fawkes), Coronation Banquets  and the Lying in State of Sir Winston Churchill and Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.  From military veterans in wheelchairs struggling to stand up and salute; a small boy with a Grenadier Guards t-shirt; whole families with young children who were bleary-eyed and a bit bemused by it all having camped out all night; uniforms of every military unit, every volunteer organisation and every religious denomination; those who really didn’t quite know what to do when their turn came around to walk past, and those who just came and stood silently.  All who came to say farewell and pay their respects not to a monarch but to a woman who selflessly gave her life to her country without ever faltering.

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.  (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

In these days where most political leaders feel they can lie and break promises for a young woman to make this speech on her 21st birthday and spend an entire lifetime living up to it is something very special.

What I experienced throughout the entire ten days of official mourning with it’s various ceremonies and parades was Britain at its best. People standing quietly paying their respects; the ruthless organisation, exquisite precision, and humbling machinery of the funeral procession.  The emotionally charged music and choreographed movements which were not just done in unison but each and every participant did so in a deeply personal way.

During the funeral service itself I was struck by how moving it was, but also that it is rare to witness a moment where quite literally a huge chunk of humanity stopped for just a moment in order to say thank you and farewell to someone who is truly worthy of being called a saint, someone who truly dedicated their lives to their beliefs in their God and their dutty to a higher cause.  I believe Elizabeth II was just such a person and deserved every ounce of the grief and gratitude that she was given and my only hope is that future generations remember her as a role model of great courage and grace.

People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.  (Archbishop of Canterbury in his Sermon at the Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II)

A Nordic Brave Conversation

A Nordic Brave Conversation

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.

 

February 2024
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