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Social entrepreneurs: Heroes on the edge

Posted By Administration, Friday, September 7, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s seventh post in our Emerging Fellows program continues to explore social entrepreneurs. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Social entrepreneurship is winning more and more hearts and minds. It is showing a potential to disrupt traditional business models. For now, it is still quite niche and will need to come a long way to be seriously considered as an evolution of capitalism. The time required for the sector to mature and the broader ecosystem to introduce mechanisms for collaboration is one reason. Yet the main cause is probably that it is just bloody hard to be a social entrepreneur.

Not only do you face all the issues that most start-ups are too familiar with – unstable cash flow, scalability, securing high product quality with limited resources – there is also an additional level of complexity: delivering on the promise to give back to the community. To make things harder, it is not enough just to be doing good – you are expected to demonstrate that your approach is working. With social impact in the heart of the business proposition, it is essential to be radically transparent about profit and how it gets distributed. For a social enterprise, earning customers’ trust is more critical than almost for anyone else: no customer wants to find out that the dollars they spent to support a social cause have sponsored someone’s luxurious vacation. And trust takes time.

On top of the challenges of these early days when social entrepreneurship is toddling its way into the big economic system, we would argue that some of the obstacles are created by the entrepreneurs themselves. The very disconformity which drives social entrepreneurs to start their own business in the first place might be doing them a disservice at a later stage. Surveys suggest that after the paramount motivation to make the difference, the key motives driving these startuppers are the need for acknowledgment and heroism. Combined with a strong attachment to a specific social issue, this might make collaboration with other entrepreneurs more difficult. Opportunities to make more impact with joint forces are being missed. This leads to the high fragmentation of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem which slows down the development of the sector.

Previously, we touched on the lessons that business can adopt from nature. Is there a recipe from the wild world which would help social entrepreneurs? Potentially, yes – the phenomenon called the edge effect. In ecology, the edge effect happens at the boundary where two ecosystems, such as forest and savannah, meet. This is the place where the most forms of life are born. By drawing on the distinct features of the two different habitats, edge effect creates the environment for unprecedented biodiversity. A lot has been said about the importance of diversity for innovation, and social innovation is not different.

Stepping out of the zone where you have full control, letting the certainty go and trusting emergence might not be easy. This is the time and space when one might get uncomfortable with the ambiguity of how the future might unfold. This space is called liminal space – the threshold where the solutions from the past are not effective anymore and the new solutions are only shaping. Despite the discomfort, with a little luck and trust this space might uncover completely new answers to an old problem – it can show the way to innovation.

To part with one’s personal ambitions in order to amplify social impact might be hard. But if we truly want to make a sustainable change, we need to move from ego- to eco-system, as Otto Scharmer puts it. We live in the time when we need not heroes but leaders. Leaders, who sense how to jump on an opportunity, able to think in systems, connect the dots and connect with people, drawing on the collective talent.

In the age of connected devices, the ability to collaborate and to come up with creative solutions is one of the key traits differentiating us from machines; it needs to be cherished. We need to shift from problem-solution matching to the recognition that many of today’s issues don’t have a known solution. Trusting a collective co-creation process can get us closer to finding what works. By going beyond the edge for more collaboration, social entrepreneurs could accelerate social innovations. This could help the whole sector more quickly to become a more serious alternative to traditional business.

Finding yourself at the edge might feel uncomfortable, but what if a step forward would give us wings?


© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  entrepreneurship  society 

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Social entrepreneurship: Can a storm in a coffee cup change the world?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, August 7, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Craig Perry has written his eighth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks whether there would be any profit in a great-power conflagration. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

In 1999, American journalist Thomas Friedman penned his notorious “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention,” positing that no countries with McDonald’s restaurants had ever fought a war against each other. Critics quickly noted that the presence of this ubiquitous American fast-food chain hadn’t stopped the U.S. invasion of Panama a decade earlier, nor would it preclude NATO from bombing Serbia (1999), the Kargil War between India and Pakistan (1999), Israel’s second Lebanon war (2006), or Russian incursions into Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014-present). But even if Friedman’s pop theory is bunk, it echoes an established maxim of international relations: globalization makes countries so economically interdependent, they can’t afford to wage war very intensely for very long.

English journalist Norman Angell popularized this argument nearly a century earlier, dismissing the supposed economic benefits of war as “the great illusion.” The commercial systems of Europe and America had become so complicated, Angell wrote in 1909, that it is impossible for one nation “to enrich itself by subjugating, or imposing its will by force on another.” The world was then experiencing a remarkable era of globalization, with freely flowing capital and labor producing unprecedented prosperity, and the European powers had few incentives to risk this arrangement through war.

Nevertheless, the continent soon plunged headlong into conflict—followed by an even more cataclysmic sequel a generation later—and it would be several more decades before international trade and finance fully returned to pre-World War I levels. Although Angell went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his idealistic views, it wasn’t until 1950 that Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister who championed the European Coal and Steel Community, offered a practical vision to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” The free movement of goods, services, capital, and people within what is now known as the European Union has indeed facilitated peace among its members ever since.

Of course, neither the EU nor its constituent states are counted among the world’s great powers nowadays, while those that are—the United States, China, and Russia—haven’t achieved anything close to this level of economic interdependence. Although the sheer volume of Chinese wealth invested in the U.S. economy, which is itself highly vulnerable to disruption by Beijing, ought to be sufficient to deter military conflict, there are worrying signs that this mutually profitable arrangement is breaking down. Washington has recently abandoned its longstanding support for globalization in favor of trade wars with its closest allies and fiercest competitors, while the Middle Kingdom’s commitment to build a world-class military by 2050 suggests its foreign policy ambitions will soon catch up with its global economic dominance. Russia, for its part, is far less integrated into the world economy, while its oil and gas customers can’t easily switch to other suppliers in the event of conflict, reducing Moscow’s incentives to curb its aggressive behavior.

As much as it may militate against great-power conflict, globalization can also disrupt the international order in ways that actually increase the odds of war. This paradox played out before WWI, when industrialization created enormous wealth whose uneven distribution simultaneously reordered societies and upset prevailing balances of power. Rising industrial giants like Germany aggressively pursued greater international influence, while rulers in Vienna and Istanbul struggled to keep their polyglot empires intact, and entrenched elites everywhere stoked nationalism to distract an increasingly restive proletariat. By upending traditional social and political arrangements, this previous period of globalization unleashed centrifugal forces that ultimately tore apart the old order.

A century later, globalization has again created winners and losers, both within and between nations. In the United States and Europe, populist politicians increasingly scapegoat immigrants and minorities, bankers and trading partners, and the very institutions that for generations heralded democratic progress and economic prosperity. China, which has profited handsomely within this established world order, now plays the part of spoiler seeking a larger slice of the geopolitical pie, while Russia’s leaders do what they can to exacerbate anti-establishment tendencies for their own short-term benefit.

Globalization has indeed made much of the world so economically interdependent that it renders war objectively unprofitable—yet it has also sown the seeds of potential future conflicts. Whether the great illusion of war will again deceive political leaders in the 21st century depends in large part on how effectively national governments and international institutions resolve the inherent contradictions of modern capitalism, and continue to leverage the more peaceful logic of mutual economic benefit.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  economics  entrepreneurship  politics 

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Can We Reimagine Rural Areas as Equal to Cities?

Posted By Administration, Friday, July 27, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Riveong has written his fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the continued fluctuations between rural and urban areas. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

While the megacities of the Global South continue to grow, the UN projects that over 3.1 billion people will live in rural areas of Asia and Africa in 2050. Rural areas have generally been synonymous with limited economic and educational opportunities, along with generally less infrastructure and connectivity with the broader world. While there are governments, organizations, and programs to assist rural areas, what is needed is not just assistance but also rethinking what it means to be rural.

How can we rethink rural areas as not “left behind” areas to be fixed, but as an equal to urban areas? Rural areas can play to their strengths and be rethought of as places of resilience, connection, and integration.

Rural areas are traditionally idealized as places of self-reliance and resilience. They grow their own food, dig their own wells, and build their own houses. However, it is no longer enough for a community to be self-sustaining. The idea of self-reliant rural communities must be reinvented for contemporary needs (like social justice, education, health, connectivity) and to meet modern challenges of globalization and climate change.

Countries must seek to balance the current divide between the rural areas and the urban centers that traditionally extract labor and resources from them. Towns and villages must be made again as beacons of self-reliance and resiliency in agriculture, education, health, and infrastructure. Technologies, such as in decentralized manufacturing to MOOCs, along with cultural shifts towards artisanal over mass-produced goods, provide opportunities for reimagining the meaning of self-reliant and resilient provinces.

Villages can also be places of connection as a space to reconnect urban people with traditional cultures and ecological experiences. Driven by the Chinese’s government push for rural revitalization, Chinese architects have been reimagining villages as places of education, specifically helping urban peoples connect with nature, with the food system, and ancient traditional cultures.

The Chinese architects have sought to make pastoral life as a source of pride, tied to locality and tradition. Organic farming to cultural centers has been set-up in places like the Lin’An Village Bamboo Ecofarm and the Bishan Project. These projects have varying degrees of success, but new experiments are still being put forward for rural revitalization.

Technology, such as augmented reality to autonomous vehicles, provide us with the tools to rethink how cities and rural areas can integrate. Virtual Reality could help bring the world’s universities, engineers, and doctors into classrooms, workshops, and clinics in rural areas. Provincial artisans and farmers could more easily sell to urban centers using autonomous drones. In China, companies like JD.com are using drones to help bring rural goods to urban markets directly.

Agricultural and AV technologies may radically alter the borders between rural areas and urban centers. VR-enabled telecommuting and AVs would allow people living in rural areas to better connect to urban centers. It could encourage people from urban centers to move to connected, rural communities. At the same time, the introduction of vertical farming and community gardens in urban centers are expanding elements of rural life into urban centers.

The three potential visions of rural areas – resilience, connection, and integration – would bring both positive and negative changes to villages. The last two, connection and integration, would transform rural life and culture by inviting urban culture into their communities. Yet, if they are to go beyond neglect and depopulation, villages must seek new definitions and new visions.


© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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Sketching the Unthinkable

Posted By Administration, Thursday, July 26, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Monica Porteanu has written her sixth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she explores the evolving nature of scenarios. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

In private and public administration, preparing for the future by “thinking the unthinkable” was first introduced by the RAND Corporation in the early 1960s. With time, sketching the unthinkable has become a common futuristic practice. Its results are summarized in stories about tomorrow, or scenarios.

And yet, scenarios are as old as humanity. Ancient civilizations imagined them in oracles or magic while building scenarios for the military (e.g., Sun Tzu’s Art of War), describing both present traditions and future visions, especially during uncertain times. Scenarios are fundamental in military, policy, and business, being developed using a mix of disciplines such as mathematics, economics, anthropology, and story-telling.

Futurists Bishop and Kahane remind us about the three critical types of scenarios: (1) predictive, i.e., forecasts and what-ifs, asking “what will happen?”; (2) explorative, i.e., external and strategic, asking “what can happen?”; and (3) normative, e.g., preserving and transforming, asking “what should happen?”.

The most known and used scenarios seem to fall into the first category. They are mostly based on statistics and assume they are bulletproof, based on scientists’ never-ending proof of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” Nevertheless, when applied without checking the underlying nature of the relationships amongst the model’s variables, predictions provide a false sense of security about futures. Time series are particularly prone to mistakes, as they might carry over underlying presumptions from past and present into futures, challenging the statistical condition for independence when extrapolating from one value to the next.

All three types of scenarios tell stories about possible futures, paving the path for envisioning adaptive strategies, but only normative scenarios expand the futures paradigm from predicting or thinking to practical actions that have the potential to shape the future.

The normative scenarios seem to be the least used. They initiated out of challenges brought on by significant shifts, such as a political regime change. In recent years, disciplines that promote open creativity, collaboration, and innovation have increasingly embraced normative scenarios.

Design-led disciplines such as design thinking, strategic design, or research through design bring to scenario development effective new methods such as visualization, aesthetics, ethnography, or experience design. They have taken the telling of a story to showing, feeling, and experiencing it. Such immersion creates that magical circle of trust around scenarios that gives leaders the confidence to embark on a hero’s journey to act now and create “what should happen.”

Nonetheless, design, futurism, and scientific methods for scenario development can further benefit from learning about each other.

For example, design’s approach falls somewhere in between a binary selection (e.g., optimistic/pessimistic) and a high-medium-low style (e.g., most to least likely) which, most of the times, leads either to an optimistic-only path or, as the game theory demonstrates, to a sensible middle of the road but mediocre outcome. Futurism, on the other side, advocates for multiple, alternative futures that might have unpleasant or unexpected outcomes. At the same time, scientists look for theories that can provide evidence for the stories foresight scenarios aim to portray.

Could experiencing scenarios and the quest for hard facts be ever reconciled? Where might scenarios go from here? Would the futurists of 20018 still develop foresight scenarios? What would their toolset be?

In more immediate futures, data and ways to consume them are increasingly making their way into scenario development. Data have become essential in providing evidence of emerging blips that could turn into disruptors. Although digital and visual storytelling based on these data has progressed, the human brain, functioning in a 3-dimensional environment, still has difficulty making sense of large amounts of data presented on 2-dimensional screens.

These days it seems possible to narrow the gap between the 2-sided digital and the 3-dimensional physical worlds through augmented reality. This new technology enhances humans’ ability to make sense of data by juxtaposing digital information onto the real world. Furthermore, as humans process information through their five senses, the visualization side of augmented reality could be paired up with sound, touch, scent, and even taste to portray the envisioned images of the future.

It is up to us now to test whether scenarios born out of signals, sifted through the growing universe of data, and felt through augmented reality experiences, can be more potent than existing scenario consumption methods. Can these envisioned stories generate action, agency, and resilience for building preferred futures?


© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  scenarios 

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Economics lessons from wild nature

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s sixth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores some economics lessons to be learned from nature. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

If we try to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to economic systems, would we conclude that capitalism “better suits to the environment” (better suits us) than communism? After all, most of the ex-communist countries shifted to capitalism and the majority of the few remaining are now transitioning to free market economies. Have we naturally selected the better way? Apparently, only a half of us would agree. According to a recent online survey of twenty thousand people in 28 countries run by the research company Ipsos, half of respondents around the globe think that now, in the XXI century, “socialist ideals are of great value for societal progress”.

What exactly are these ideals? Here are some stats:
•9 in 10 believe that education should be free and that free healthcare is a human right
•7 in 10 think that everyone should have the right to an unconditional basic income (UBI).
•Interestingly, about the same number (7 in 10) also agree that it is right for people who are talented to earn more than those who are less gifted, and that free-market competition brings out the best in people.
It seems that although the benefits of free markets in fostering progress are valued when it comes to the essential aspects of life – health, welfare, education – many of us are craving for a more egalitarian system; the one alleviating the polarizing inequality that capitalism has created.

With so many innovations fostering humanity’s progress being inspired by nature, we are curious: what examples of democratic distribution of resources exist in the wild world? One study particularly attracted our attention. A Belgian-French group of scientists studied self-organised collective decision-making by animals when it comes to choosing between alternative resources.

They ran an experiment where 50 cockroaches (Blattella germanica) were presented with three shelters, each with a capacity to hold 40 individuals. For cockroaches, who prefer dark to light, such a shelter is a resource, and they quickly filled them in. But instead of doing this in a chaotic manner, the cockroaches split into two equal groups of 25 occupying two shelters and leaving the third one empty. While in a scenario with larger shelters – each big enough for the whole group – only one of the shelters got occupied. The researchers were astonished by how cockroaches maximise the benefit of limited resources, trading off being together and access to shelter resources and finding a balance between collaboration and competition. “Without elaborate communication, global information, and explicit comparison of available opportunities, […] the collective decision emerges from the interactions between equal individuals, initially possessing little information about their environment. It is remarkable, then, that these rules should produce a collective pattern that maximizes individual fitness.”

Economic democracy observed in behaviour of cockroaches presents some of the features where capitalism and representative democracy did not quite succeed: egalitarian distribution of resource and decision-making benefiting all (or at least the majority of) individuals. It might seem too simplistic to directly compare the economic problems faced by Blattella germanica and those of Homo sapiens. But if we think of some emerging movements – collaborative mobile democracy, participatory budgeting, commons-based economic governance – are they not technologically empowered forms of truly collective decision-making, replicating those observed in nature? With new technologies making us more interconnected, we now have a unique opportunity to access the knowledge and opinions of all interested citizens and reshape the way we, as a society, take decisions and distribute value.

Following nature’s principle of evolution, only a better system, distributive by design and maximising the fitness of more individuals, will be able to replace capitalism by making it obsolete. Mother nature offers us many lessons, and the lesson of balancing collaboration and competition has been one of the hardest to comprehend. It requires both individual engagement and strong leadership ability to connect knowledge and talents from the community and to facilitate the best ideas evolving in something new.

As American sociologist Erik Olin Wright suggests, we cannot smash or escape capitalism, but we can tame or erode it. By slowly introducing new elements, inspired by nature and enabled by technology, we might start shifting the focus from maximising financial value and growth to real value creation and more equality. And then who knows… maybe one day this will make capitalism in its classical form obsolete.

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  capitalism  economics  governance 

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What sparks could ignite the next great-power conflagration?

Posted By Administration, Sunday, July 15, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Craig Perry has written his seventh installment in our Emerging Fellows program. His entire series explores the potential for another Great-power War. This piece asks about what might ignite the next great-power conflagration. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

America’s great-power rivals are increasingly pursuing strategic ends through nonmilitary means, betting that competition short of conflict will advance their interests without risking nuclear annihilation. Yet they are also gearing up to project military force abroad, and defend themselves should the United States intervene to defend its interests and allies. This raises the very real possibility that Russian or Chinese adventurism—and miscalculations over American willingness or ability to respond militarily—could inadvertently trigger the next great-power war. Unfortunately, growing doubts about longstanding U.S. commitments to its allies and international norms are making this tragic outcome far more likely.

Russia has reemerged in the past decade as a formidable military power, capable of defeating neighboring states such as Georgia and Ukraine while seizing the initiative farther afield in Syria. Its theater ballistic missiles and sophisticated air and coastal defense systems dominate the Black Sea and Baltic regions, posing a worrying threat to America’s NATO allies. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has vastly improved its offensive capabilities in recent years, projecting naval power far beyond its littoral areas while holding its renegade offshore province, Taiwan, at ever-greater risk.

These developments have substantially increased the likelihood of American forces coming into conflict with their great-power counterparts. For example, not long after Russian mercenaries launched an ill-fated attack on a U.S. outpost in Syria earlier this year, the United States and Russia nearly come to blows over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Just a month later, China deployed a nuclear-capable bomber to the disputed Paracel Islands, then dispatched warships to challenge the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation in the region. As such brinkmanship becomes more common, the likelihood of a serious—and potentially escalatory—military confrontation will only grow.

This problem is particularly acute wherever the United States maintains alliances within its rivals’ historical spheres of influence. In Europe, Moscow could quickly defeat the meager NATO forces forward-deployed to the Baltic States—former Soviet republics sandwiched between mainland Russia and its Kaliningrad exclave—while making it exceedingly difficult for the United States and its allies to retake this territory without triggering nuclear war. Meanwhile in Asia, Beijing has set a mid-century deadline for national reunification, with the People’s Liberation Army reportedly planning to accomplish this goal as early as 2020. The PLA is already poised to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses with little warning, and disrupt U.S. carrier and airbase operations as far away as Okinawa and Guam through a combination of kinetic, cyber, and electronic warfare. In both cases, America’s near-peer adversaries are positioned to seize the initiative in their own backyards while severely complicating Washington’s ability to come to the aid of its allies.

All of this presupposes, of course, that the United States remains fully committed to its far-flung network of alliances, which have been a cornerstone of its foreign policy success since World War II. The 2016 election of a U.S. commander-in-chief who repeatedly questions the value of NATO and other foreign entanglements, however, has fundamentally challenged assumptions of American resolve. President Trump’s pronouncements naturally undermine confidence in U.S. security guarantees, and this growing uncertainty may eventually embolden Russia or China to call America’s bluff. The ramifications of such a gamble would be catastrophic: if the U.S. military responds as promised, it would plunge the world into the next great-power war; if it does not, the international system that has underpinned global peace and prosperity for the better part of a century would come to an ignominious end. Either way, the future is shaping up to be a much different place than the “Pax Americana” of yesteryear.


© Craig Perry 2018

Tags:  NATO  politics  war 

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Ugh, Scenarios? That’s Not Very Innovative…

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his eighth article written for the program. In it, he explores scenarios. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

Previously we have challenged what is truly innovation (depending on how you parse the definition, maybe nothing!), and the challenges of systems wide innovation. We can now introduce 4 possible scenarios (among many, many others) to begin to conceptualize what the future of innovation looks like:

1. Baseline. The baseline scenario has organizations, governments, and economies continuing to muddle through. Some continue to sub optimize and exist, others innovate to various degrees, others are shape shifters, able to leap from one new industry to another, evolving as they go along. Over time, we become more fluent in the efficiency and quality of innovation activities, using such measurements as research quotients (RQ), developed by Anne Marie Knott, that measure innovation inputs and outputs to gauge success. Innovation as disruption is still seen as the gold standard, though large, mature firms still struggle with whether to embrace or suppress these disruptions. Innovation is still largely situated.

2. Systems-Bound Mutual Self-Interest: A greater understanding of systems, and systems literacy, coupled with virtual and software based platforms and physical innovative cross-disciplinary spaces point to less sub optimization and unproductive situated innovation. Instead, organizations will bond together in mutual self-interest (perhaps making some a bit uneasy as self-organization looks a lot like vertical integration and monopolization). Definitions of competition and anti-trust will be rewritten and new measurements of social good will come to eclipse GDP as the primary measurement of innovation and economic health.

3. Double-Down on Sub-Optimization and Quick Profit. The insatiable thirst for quarterly profits points to a future of sub optimization that shows no signs of disappearing. In an effort to stimulate the real economy, governments implement varying policies of charging demurrage on the financial market, charging fees or taxing capital that isn’t being used in “productive” ways. This will increase available capital for reinvestment. However, instead of increasing innovation and productivity, it could simply “feed the beast” of sub optimization. Especially when coupled with the relentless focus on quarterly returns, on “maximizing value”. In a world where capital must be reinvested in the firm, the resultant behavior could involve a great deal of tire spinning, or more precisely, short-term cycles of excessive value extraction meant to replicate share buy-back schemes and large dividend payouts. This, coupled with rapid rise and fall “fad” industries, make for rapid boom-bust cycles globally. Think of it as shifting the burden on overdrive.

4. The Rapid S-Curve Economy. Organizations become increasingly amorphous, shape shifters that are constantly seeking out new emergent industries, colonizing them rapidly, then moving on once the industry matures. And the maturity of the industries is also rapid. Organizations become almost nomadic. With either large or scarce reserves of capital for innovation and expansion, organizations move to rapidly create and capitalize on opportunities; one or two players prove successful and monopolize the space; the rest move on to find greener pastures.

What to do? The answer may be in the form of government policy. Governments are still the primary investor in risky innovative endeavours. When will investment programs and structures be put in place to invest in systems wide innovation? Even if it is still sub optimized within the nation-state?

Perhaps this is all just an elaborate way of saying that innovation is messy, often fails, and even when successful we can’t be sure of what positive and negative externalities it will cause. Ultimately, sub optimization is inherently a product of innovation. By correcting one problem we create others. Not all problems are created equal, of course, and we would prefer to have certain problems over others – for example, all the side-effects associated with medications we choose are an unfortunate but necessary trade off. We are both selfish in the sense that we view progress from our own situated perspective, and we are utilitarian in the sense that we generally hope that any negative outcomes of innovation will be less than the derived benefit.

We are left with a future where the nature and impact, not to mention the consistency and payback, of innovation, creating results by doing new things, is unclear. Will we move towards increased sub optimization or will we create and adopt the social technologies we need to generate deep structural results?


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  innovation  system 

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Superposition and Frosting a Cake

Posted By Administration, Monday, July 2, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his seventh article written for the program. In it, he compares superposition to innovation. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

We previously challenged what is truly innovative versus sub optimization in some shape or form. We can now delve deeper into assumptions about innovation today. If we start with standpoint theory and situated knowledge, we can drill down a little deeper to reach the concept of situated imagination. Situated imagination contends that knowledge is dependent upon our location: physically, economically, and socially, among other situating coordinates. Thus, imagination is an amalgamation, an alchemy of self and collective conditions, which influences not only meaning but the concept of the “not-yet real”, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre.

In order to “do different things” we must be able to “think differently”. Therefore, moving beyond sub optimization first requires an acknowledgement of what we could call “Situated Innovation”. Situational innovation, the phenomenon of innovation being inherently connected to a particular observer or group of observers, is perhaps the most significant hidden cost in the global economy. Exercises in empathy can help to re-situate the observer, but typically this is done in a manner that is inherently sub optimizing.

While our discussion has largely revolved around the issue of space (across silos, organizations, and countries), time is another dimension in which we sub optimize. The most obvious example of this is shifting the burden of climate change onto future generations. But the issue also manifests in, for example, inter-generational organizational issues. Consider the sub optimization of the past. While not as obvious as the impact on the future, consider the many cost-benefits and projects built around past projections of the future, now the present. By sub optimizing within the present, we underutilize the past, which can have ripple effects into the future. Decisions are forgotten, goals are lost and abandoned. For every idea that survives, countless others falter at some point. A Darwinian perspective on ideas and past innovations is nothing more than permission to hold a bias towards old ideas.

Finally, beyond the space and time, is matter. Agential realism, and spacetimemattering, a theory developed by Karen Barad, provides another perspective on matter and meaning in innovation activities. Agential realism, at its core, is about the inherent entanglement of all things. Any act of observation creates the “agential cut” in which we include some things, and exclude a number of other possibilities. This temporary “cut” allows us to view a chunk of a thing, matter, in isolation, in order to gain a greater understanding of the thing we wish to observe. Hence, our observations of the world are inherently performative. Here, too, we see the challenge of innovation and the limits to our innovative capacities. Observationally, we must isolate an object as either a thing or process. By doing this, we ignore its connected (here, entangled) state of being.

Think of it like this: You are making a cake. Typically, you would wait until it cooled and then frost the whole cake. However, once this particular cake has cooled, you can no longer observe the cake as a whole. You see a piece of the cake and cut out that piece, cover it in frosting, and return the piece to the cake. Then you go about trying to find other pieces of the cake. Unable to see the whole cake at once, you are left with cutting, frosting, returning. In all likelihood, you will only frost a small portion of the cake. Even if you somehow manage to cut off and frost every piece of the cake, it will look more than a little strange! Later that evening, most guests at the party, blessed with the ability to observe the whole cake at once, will agree this is a far from optimum cake. Rather, the cake looks like it was made by Frankenstein.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  innovation  realism 

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Redesigning Society for Prosperity

Posted By Administration, Sunday, July 1, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Riveong has written his fourth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the evolving concept of prosperity. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

We are at a critical juncture in our understanding of prosperity. We no longer have an unshaken belief that prosperity is based on economic development or industrialization. The United Nations’ Strategic Development Goals (SGD) have helped reassess the belief that prosperity is mainly an economic goal. These goals have expanded our definition of prosperity towards a holistic improvement of well-being, such as in health, education, nutrition, et cetera.

As we begin to free ourselves from a GDP-focused view of prosperity, we are gaining greater freedom to design society for a more holistic approach to prosperity. To explore these new possibilities, we should revisit indigenous views towards social values, commerce, community, and governance. Indeed, we can draw from a few readily available examples.

In the Andean region of South America, Ecuador and Bolivia have reimagined their social contracts by integrating the concept of Buen Vivir into their constitutions. Buen Vivir (“good living”) is the Spanish phrase for a worldview shared among Andean peoples. While it has no single definition, Buen Vivir emphasizes collective well-being that is in harmony with nature and also culturally sensitive. This concept was integrated into the Ecuadorian constitution in 2008 and later in Bolivia in 2009.

Both countries have interpreted Buen Vivir in different ways. The Ecuadorian constitution guarantees a healthy and an economically balanced way of living. This includes granting nature legal rights that can be enforced through the court system. In contrast, the Bolivian constitution views Buen Vivir through the lens of social justice and political-economic redistribution. The harmony of Buen Vivir is achieved through limiting land ownership size and elevating the political power of village and indigenous communities.

Indigenous concepts not only offer more holistic visions for social contracts but also alternative ways of thinking about work and capitalism. The Igbo people of Nigeria have created a system of apprenticeship that focuses on entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency. It’s more than an education system; it’s a unique venture capital system. In the Igbo tradition, children, usually after primary school, are sent to work for an owner of a trade or shop for 5 to 10 years. At the end of the apprenticeship, owners are obliged to help the apprentices set-up their own businesses (called a “settlement”). This apprenticeship model offers a different way to think about business, economics, and education. The Igbo tradition ensures inter-generational equity through enabling entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency.

While we can find many sources of inspiration from the Global South, we need to understand how they can work, be re-interpreted, and scaled in different societies and contexts. The different Ecuadorian and Bolivian approaches to Buen Vivir is one example of the challenges of interpretation. In the case of the Igbo apprenticeship, we need to imagine what a regulated, digitalized, and scaled-up version of this apprenticeship could look like. Now that we have greater freedom to rethink society, these are the exciting new challenges we must focus on.


© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  development  economics  prosperity 

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Welcome to Earth, the Sub-Optimized Planet

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his sixth article written for the program. In it, he explores the potential of sub-optimized ecosystems. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

What role can – or will – innovation play in the future of the real economy? To begin, let’s start with the simplest definition of innovation. Innovation is “creating results by doing new things.” The “doing new things” part is fairly self-explanatory on the surface. It is the process of doing something in a way in which it was not previously done. Although, often, we may have done something, then stopped doing it, then started doing it again either aware or unaware of having done it in the past. But the “creating results” piece of the definition is less clear. What, precisely, is a result? A positive outcome? And, if so, a positive outcome for whom? We can say that, today, an innovative result is one in which we either save money, make money, or provide some sort of social or environmental good. But are those the results we should be aiming for? Do we care, or even understand, how these results impact and influence other components of the global system? And, for our purposes here, how will our definition of “results” evolve in the future? The point here is not to focus on types of results reporting, such as triple bottom line or happiness index-type measurements. The purpose here is on the deeper structural challenges to “real” innovation.

There is no question that what we might call “innovation-offset” occurs across a system or multiple subsystems. How often does an innovation in one area generate an offsetting process inefficiency or product redundancy in another? Put another way, if you innovate in one area, to the detriment of another area, are you really innovating at all? And how would you even know?

Two common terms used to describe this phenomenon are sub-optimization and shifting the burden. Sub-optimization commonly refers to silo-type thinking within an organization. This leads to non-value added activities, redundancy, or diminished returns. Shifting the burden, on the other hand, is a term generally meant to describe a tendency to focus on resolving surface-level, symptomatic issues, pushing costs and negative externalities onto others.

What we might call “sub-optimization ecosystems” are now a vital part of the real economy, not only the maintenance of them, but the perpetual attempts to circumnavigate them. By focusing on the self-interest of the firm at the expense of the larger system, we are inherently sub-optimizing. We ostensibly innovate within a department, across a division, across a firm, across an industry, across multiple industries, then across whole economies. There is no escape.

Our attention has been focused on what we can call the migratory patterns of money. How its shapes and structures tend to manifest. And here, we see a profitable innovation ecosystem, where activity and expenditure is its own reward. But wait, isn’t innovation inherently messy? An iterative process of trial and error. “Fail fast to succeed sooner”?

Consider what percentage of global GDP is dedicated to activities that solve problems by creating new problems elsewhere. Cycles of pointless zero-sum innovation. At a time of complexity, instead of adopting the tools of social innovation and systems change, we have doubled down on the mercurial dark arts of sub-optimization, masked as real innovation.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  innovation 

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