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The World Is Turning into a Pumpkin Patch

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

Adam Cowart has just published his eleventh post in our Emerging Fellows program, raising assumptions on the future of economy. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

To the best of my recollection, when I was young my family only went to the pumpkin patch once. Every year we would beg to go. Every year my father would say “no” and explain to us the minute difference between the cost of a store bought pumpkin, and the cost of going to the pumpkin patch. Plus transportation costs. Compound interest and so forth… Of course, he preferred a third option: no pumpkin at all.

But what, exactly, is the allure of a pumpkin patch? It’s usually raining, cold. Certainly, from an economic perspective, grabbing one at the grocery store is cheaper, more efficient, probably better for the environment. In “Emotionally Durable Design”, Jonathan Chapman turns to social psychologist Erich Fromm, invoking the consumption relationship between incorporation and possession in ritual acts of cannibalism. To consume another human being, or animal, is to acquire their strength or courage, or whatever power they possess that is deemed accessible to acquisition.

This insight points to the evolution of an ongoing trend: A psychological and consumer shift away from “having” into “being”, one in which we focus our economic energies on immersing ourselves in the experience, a cannibalistic form of possession.

“Authentic experiences” are a case in point. These experiences at their most pure are serendipitous, original, unmediated, and have a profound, lasting impact on individuals. Here, perhaps, is a clue as to the future of the real economy: where ecological and cultural resources are extracted experientially versus in a coordinated process meant to maximize efficiency.

Think of the global economy shifting to an unwieldy version of what we might call “The Pumpkin Patch Scenario”, the expansion of unmediated, or low-mediated, cultural exploitation. Foraging would be an example of this; much like those who set out “off the beaten path” to find spaces uncolonized by tourism. The “being” of the experience supersedes the “having” of the object. The economic transaction is dependent upon the experience of the pumpkin patch and not on the pumpkin itself.

Why might this shift be happening? Perhaps because of the over-commercialization and manipulation of emotion, the synthetic and scripted quality of our products and experiences. As design increasingly mediates our experiences we must wander further afield to escape into the unrefined. All of this will have dire consequences on the climate, as our consumption patterns become more emergent and esoteric.
 
While this turn from “having” to “being” is well underway, whether it manifests in a virtual “being” or a “real” being is yet to be determined. The most likely scenario is a mixing of the two, in which we chose to have a virtual and physical presence. An exaggerated version of today. One in which the more deeply we immerse ourselves in the synthetic, the more invasively we mine the authentic when we come up for air.

But a more radical shift could be under way. One in which citizens choose to primarily inhabit either the synthetic or the authentic. In the future, our economy could be divided along wholly new lines: instead of developed and developing economies, we could have those who inhabit the virtual economy, those who inhabit the physical economy, and those who cross between. What would an economy look like where consumers are located by their chosen, or imposed, economically situated “being-ness”, versus traditional socio-economic boundaries?


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  authentic experience  consumer  economics 

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Rebalancing Societal Governance

Posted By Administration, Sunday, October 28, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Monica Porteanu, a member of our Emerging Fellows program continues her nation-state discussion in her ninth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

The two fundamental concepts that society has organized itself into are nation and state. The success of this model was observed when the distance between nation and state was almost non-existent. Today, the nation and state seem to have distanced considerably. Although society’s organization model has shifted, its governance structure still follows the one intended for the stage when nation and state almost overlapped.

The nation-state governs society’s internal (e.g., law, tax) and external (e.g., defense) affairs through a governing entity structured based on three interacting systems: political, economic, and social. The three systems operate most successfully when they are in balance. The equilibrium between the societal economic and social systems is meant to be maintained by politics. Imagine this balance as a triangle with all three sides equal, with politics as its top vertex, and the economic and social dimensions as the other two vertices at the bottom. Imbalance arises when the three sides are not equal anymore. The situation arises created when one of the vertices overshadows the other two, or when two vertices grow apart. As an example, some might consider that the exacerbation of religion, during various time periods, elevated the importance and influence of the social system, at the expense of the economic and political ones.

Nowadays, it seems that politics’ capability to balance economy and society has dwindled again. This time, economic dominance prevails. The economic vertex has outgrown the politics and social ones. With this, the distance between the political and social system has increased. As such, the two aspects left behind by the overgrown economic system (i.e., political and social), often struggle. What has changed since the days when societal governance operated optimally on a foundation of its balanced political, economic, social systems?

Exponential advancement in technology enables the world to connect globally, share information and collaborate in ways not possible before, further transforming the political, economic, and social systems. Big data and social networks have created powerful feedback loops between information and political microtargeting, partisanship, and polarization. Ironically, such tactics have diminished ideological differentiation amongst political parties, while strengthening party unity in decision-making for those elected to serve in governing bodies. In the process, partisans are incentivized to participate in the voting process, while the rest are forgotten, increasing their disengagement in politics. The question is how could the use of big data and social networks be turned around to take us back to what democratic politics used to be?

Economic dominance and technology seem to have increased the level of collaboration amongst groups of nation-states and their citizens, enabling migration. Migrants participate right away in the economic and social system of their new country. They engage in the development of their new country through economic and social contributions, yet have little say in the democratic process. Obtaining the right to vote and participating in politics has a lengthy time lag, which excludes them from political engagement. As a result, societal governance tends to misrepresent their rights and responsibilities. The political-economic-social is, once more, unbalanced.

In the process, the nation-state has diminished its capacity to ensure the protection, development, and well-being of its citizens through edifices such as education, healthcare, or culture. Given the increasing distance between nation and state, and the imbalance observed in the political-economic-social governance, how might a society organize and govern itself such that its citizens feel empowered to harmonize civic rights and responsibilities with their values and aspirations?


© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  economics  society  state 

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The Make Belief Economy: The Performative Nature of Scarcity

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his ninth article written for the program. In it, he explores the performative nature of scarcity. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.
 
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “The essence of reality is scarcity. There isn’t enough love in the world, enough food, enough justice, enough time in life. To gain any sense of satisfaction in our life we must go in to heady conflict with the forces of scarcity.”

Our recent writing has explored the future of the real economy from a number of perspectives. We now turn to a key ingredient of the real economy, probably the most fundamental tenant of modern economics: scarcity. Or, put another way, supply and demand. Seen through this lens supply and demand can be reconfigured as the tension between the real and the unreal. Supply can be real or unreal. Ditto for demand. In the absence of perfect information we are left with an elaborate economic performance.
 
Performance studies, an interdisciplinary discipline that uses the frame of performance to view the world, classifies the blurring of the real and unreal, between reality and performance, as “Make belief”. Put another way, we create belief through performance. One example is the ways in which we “perform” stereotypical roles of ourselves. We come to embody ways of being that aren’t really our true selves, but a blending of who we really are with the make belief societal perceptions of who we ought to be.

In the post-scarcity world, forecasted sometime in the next 50 years, competitive advantage becomes a “make belief” process by which conventional rules of scarcity can still be applied. Where a “post-scarcity” economy would appear to be a desired future goal there is nothing to suggest that our penchant for performances of scarcity won’t simply prompt us to create ever evolving and elaborate domains of scarcity. As self-replication becomes ubiquitous, human desires could turn to that which defies self-replication. We want what everyone else has until we’ve got it – then we want something else. Where the bulk of business activities today focus on overcoming some form or another of scarcity (not enough cheap labour, not enough materials, etc.) in the future, there could be a far more concerted effort to stimulate scarcity. Scarcity = real, and real = profit. Simply being “real” will have its own market cache. In a post-scarcity economy, the performance of scarcity will become the de facto marketing campaign for any business.

Evidence of this shift is already well underway. Witness the plethora of food movements, most of which fit broadly under the category of “real food”. Organic, local, Non-GMO. In short, food that is typically scarcer and therefore more “real” than other, abundant foods.

There is a danger that the ongoing performance of scarcity beguiles us into seeing scarce goods as better than non-scarce goods. Our culture of consumption and rituals to colonize and monetize show few signs of faltering. If we want to move beyond the real economy, beyond scarcity, the technology we focus on will only get us halfway to our goal. Unfortunately, we still have to change our habits, how we act, and move into a new form of capitalist culture. It will still be an elaborate performance of make belief, but at least it will be sustainable and equitable.

© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  belief  economics  scarcity 

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Social Entrepreneurs – Fashion or Future?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s eighth 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.

Previously we have discussed the potential of social entrepreneurship to make a shift in social values and to address wicked problems through social innovation. What changes in public and private sectors are needed for social entrepreneurship to become future-proof in the capitalistic world?

Government is starting to play an enabling role in the development of the sector. Initiatives like social enterprise strategies, social procurement or social impact investment start to reshape institutional and cultural frameworks of the past. Procuring services from a social enterprise or from a traditional vendor might make no difference in terms of the services received. But it does make a difference for people from disadvantaged groups who get the job or for those from vulnerable groups who benefit from the redistributed profit. Yet, a significant maturity of legislation is still required to better define this sector and to help other players understand what a social enterprise is and what it is not.

Another legislative change needed is about the behaviour that gets incentivised. What if governments would support businesses which are driven not by the desire to maximise profit, but which put community first? This step might seem counterintuitive in the market economy, but it turns out that a government operating based on the principles of commons already exists.

Municipalists, such as Barcelona en Comú – a new movement, independent from political parties – challenge the current understanding of democracy by putting the common goals of city residents in the heart of their policy-making. Despite conservative politicians initially criticising them for being naive, lacking understanding where city money comes from and even tagging them “the democratic mistake”, en Comú proved they were fit to serve the community in just a couple of years.

By focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable population, they:
•do business only with hotels that agree to pay a living wage
•create new affordable housing, many of which were previously vacant bank-owned units
•looking at extending store opening hours to address economy of care – mostly female part of the population whose primary labor is caring for others
•and even launched a publicly held energy company.

According to the Mayor Ada Colau, they are “prioritising people and common objectives above any other vested interest and any other type of power”. This would not turn any enterprise in a social enterprise, but is it a good enough shake-up for businesses to realise that the rules of the game are changing?

And what about businesses? Here as well we see emerging partnerships between corporates and social entrepreneurs. IKEA, for example, employs local artisans in vulnerable communities around the world. Through limited edition collections handcrafted by women from these communities, the company attempts to tackle social challenges: alleviate poverty, empower women and integrate refugees into a new to them society. They call it “business for good, for everyone”. PR or an active social agenda? It does not matter. Remember Erick Jantsch’s theory of social change? Once this initial change in behaviour, introduced by innovators, becomes a norm, a change in social values will follow.

And the process has started already. Australia’s GoodCompany has announced its annual rating of Top 40 Best Workplaces to Give Back. Corporates compete to get on the list by providing pro bono work, sponsorship or volunteering. Is this a natural trajectory of evolution – from maximising shareholders value (and sometimes actively doing harm) to understanding that this approach is not sustainable? Can we reach the other side of the scale, where maximising the value for the community will be essential to remain competitive? While social entrepreneurs are learning from corporations how to do business, can corporations learn from social entrepreneurs how to make business good-for-all?


© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  entrepreneurship  society 

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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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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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