Analogue leadership in a digital world

A European Brave Conversation

A European Brave Conversation

Last week we held our 21st Brave Conversations event at Atelier 29 in Brussels and the first in partnership with the Digital Enlightenment Forum (DEF).

We began on a wet, cold Brussels morning but garnered a group of intelligent, engaged and curious individuals keen to converse with other humans in the room about our digital lives in 21st Century.

Since our last events in 2022 much seems to have shifted within the digital landscape, particularly with the release “in the wild” of ChatGPT and other generative AI and large language models.  It took ChatGPT just five days to gain 1 million users following its release in November 2022 and before long thousands of very noted people had signed the Future of Life Institute Open Letter to Pause Giant AI Experiments.

By the time we got to Brussels even the Smart Humans who had invented the tools themselves (such as people like scientist Geoffrey Hinton) were worried and struggling to keep up and the major tech companies were scrambling to maintain some sort of competitive edge by rushing to integrate the tools in to their mainstream offerings (for example Microsoft’s launch of Co-Pilot).

So what is this all about?  For anyone who has been watching the tech space the events of the past few months were entirely predictable, as was the human excitement / panic / reaction / confusion that followed.  We’ve been here before, although not necessarily with a suite of technologies with the impact to profoundly change human society as these ones.  Ever since the invention of writing people have warned about it’s dire consequences – Socrates of writing; Gessner of the printing press; Carr of Social Media.

In all the hype swirling around at the minute, and particularly that driven by the major tech companies, we need to remember that the success of humanity as a dominant species comes from our ability to to co-operate with each other, to transmit and build on the knowledge of our forebears, and to develop and utilise tools that have become increasingly sophisticated.

Human beings have a unique ability to cooperate in large, well-organized groups and employ a complex morality that relies on reputation and punishment.  (Fraans de Waal

The tools we are currently developing are merely the latest in a very long line which have helped us survive and thrive, and these tools too will become necessary in order to help us meet the challenges we currently face.

But as Roy Amara states

Technology is neither good nor bad, but nor is it neutral.

So what did all these mean for the conversations we had in Brussels on 12th May?

After the years of Covid one of the things we feel is most important with Brave Conversations is to get the humans in the room, and a number of people made a big effort to get to Brussels to be with us in person. This meant that there were human-to-human interactions, unmediated by any technology, and the ability for each person to explore their ideas within the physical confines of a human space.

We had a blend of participants which included the Board of the Digital Enlightenment Forum, academics, some people working in policy with the European Union, Students, and a couple of creatives.  A fabulous blend of minds and perspectives to craft interesting insights and a nuanced approach to how everyone was feeling about the current technology onslaught.  Some of the comments below give a flavour of the conversation but perhaps the most important was when one participant told me that she came along because she can’t find anywhere else to have these conversations in a safe space without judgement or a predetermined agenda.

This is what we seek to create in Brave Conversations and which our partnership with the Digital Enlightenment Forum promised to bring.

I would like to thank as always Leanne Fry for her continuing partnership, it was wonderful to work with Thanassis Tiropanis yet again and thanks to him for helping facilitate.  To the Board of DEF thank you for your support of the event and to the inimitable Myriam de Greef an enormous thanks because without Myriam no conversations would have been had!

 

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.

Brave Conversations Sharjah 2022

Brave Conversations Sharjah 2022

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:

  1. How do we think?  What do we need to change about our values and expectations?
  2. How do we live?  How do we live sustainably within the planetary ecosystem?
  3. 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:

  1. Ahlam – Your Sleeping Matters
  2. Bioare – Sustainability for Life
  3. Fast Move – Accessibility for Blind People
  4. FWPW – Future Without Plastic Waste
  5. HRPI – Healthcare, Renewable, Printing and Inequality
  6. MOCAP – Project Charity Becomes Human
  7. 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.

Media:

 

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.

 

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?

Brave Conversations Barcelona 2022

A few weeks ago we held our 17th Brave Conversations event, which was our fourth as a part of an ACM Web Science Conference, this time in Barcelona.

We had nine flesh and blood live ‘human beings’ who bravely joined us (Covid free!) on a hot Barcelona afternoon at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra together with some thirty-five who logged on via Mr Zoom from all around the World.

We were thrilled with the balance and at being able to have a real-life conversation with those in the room, whilst doing our best to accommodate those in the virtual space, despite numerous challenges with the technology which somewhat undermined the event, at least for me as a facilitator.

Note to self – if there isn’t a ‘tech guru’ in the venue don’t do hybrid!

The concept of having “Brave Conversations” began in 2008 with our first ‘meta’ events which brought together people from all walks of life to spend time considering the brave new worlds we are co-creating as we collaboratively build the Global Social Machine – humans and smart technology systems symbiotically working together.

Yes! We were doing “meta” way before anyone else was!!  Except the metadata people of course.

Since that time the conversations have changed – from being about the Semantic Web (which very few could really understand), to issues of identity and privacy, digital governance and the need for we humans to become ‘smarter’ as the machines continue to evolve.

We have worked in partnership with numerous organisations which have included the Web Science Trust and it’s network of Labs, Newspeak House, Founders and Coders, Gaza Sky Geeks, the Jamaican Broadcasting Commission, Philanthropy Australia and – quite frankly – anyone who could see the importance of having these conversations and would help provide us with a forum to do so.

The last two years has seen us predominantly operate online but 2022 brings the opportunity to re-engage in a new way, and to take the time to notice what has changed since we all buried ourselves inside to wait out the Pandemic.

There are a number of things that have stood out for me.

Firstly, it seems that the concept of personal privacy is no longer being taken quite so for granted and that it is no longer cool to be all over Instagram – for some (those with the skills and money to afford it) anonymity and privacy are making a comeback!

Secondly, companies such as Uber which have been arrogantly stamping all over governments and the public, are beginning to be revealed for the aggressive and unethical organisations they are.  Whilst they took the lead in disrupting complacent and tired transport systems they have themselves become the pariahs, and there are numerous very good alternatives if people will take the time to seek them out.

Thirdly, last month I was walking down Long Acre in Covent Garden and spotted these ads in the Ray Ban store (Ray Ban Stories).  We know that these technologies exist ever since Google Glass but the step change is that now Mr Ray Ban and Mr Facebook (I refused to call them Meta!) have come up with some very fashionable glasses which don’t look quite so clunky and which link to Mr Facebook’s technical back end.  The fact that these devices are allowed to be sold astonishes me given the lack of facial-recognition legislation and the growing awareness of the need to regulate it.

But this is only just the beginning.

If you listen to what is percolating in both the mainstream media and Popular Science stories you will notice an increasing number of articles about human longevity and Ageing as a Disease  In addition, people like Elon Musk are seeking to connect our brains to the virtual world, all of which is going to present far greater challenges than Mr Facebook’s Story Glasses.

With this in mind for this Brave Conversations we decided to take a step forward into the realm of biology and craft a Case Study inspired by Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy (I invited Mr Naam to join us but he didn’t favour me with a reply sadly).

Let’s start from the premise that

We are the last generation of Homo Sapiens as we know ourselves.  In the coming century we will learn to engineer bodies, brains and minds.  (Yuval Noah Harari)

So what does that actually mean? Here are some questions just to get you thinking:

  • What does it actually mean to be the last generation of Homo Sapiens?
  • What sorts of changes are on the horizon and what options are actually real?
  • What sort of humans do we actually want to become?  Who is to make those decisions?
  • What sorts of rules and regulations should be guiding these decisions?  What ethical frameworks should inform them?  Who should decide?
  • What sorts of conversations should we be having before we let this go any further?
  • Do we have any choice? Or it is too late already?

Life (itself) will become the clay of human creativity.  (Baroness Susan Greenfield)

Once you start thinking in these terms it becomes obvious that the conversations we’ve been having about smart systems, computer technologies and Artificial Intelligence are already outdated and framed by the old mindset of industrial age thinking.  The machines we are talking about now are biological systems and therefore we are now in the realm of the life sciences, human bio-engineering, health and medicine. Things need to take a different turn.

These are the conversations that we have now begun with our 2022 Brave Conversations and we will be exploring them further with every subsequent event.

As Alice says in Wonderland

I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then. (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

We are all different people and we are all now down the proverbial rabbit hole!

As always a huge thanks to Leanne Fry, Ibrahim El Badawi and Abeer Abu Ghaith for their wonderful collaboration on yet another successful event and here’s to seeing where our next ones go!

July 2024
M T W T F S S
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

-->