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Why a good story goes a lot further than the truth

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Nichola Cooper is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is her second article written for the program. In it, she explores the importance of telling a good story and displaying the right character to engender trust.

Ronald Reagan was renowned for his stories. Arguably more so than his gaining control of rampant inflation and boosting the military, both legacies of the Carter era.

His first story to the American public as 40th President of the United States was of Martin Treptow, a barber, killed in 1918 on the western front carrying a message between battalions. Why did Reagan use his inaugural address to deliver this story? On Treptow’s body was a diary in which he had written, “America must win this war. I will work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure”. Reagan used this story to reassure Americans they had what it took to survive the problems of the hour. When the New York Times reported the following day that Reagan had made several substantial errors of fact, did Americans care? No. Americans loved Reagan’s stories, they made them feel confident, they made them feel clever in choosing such a charismatic leader. In running against Reagan in 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in his acceptance address as a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party spoke passionately about telling voters the truth: “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did”. Mondale insisted voters wanted a politician who told the truth. It was a terrible political decision. He lost to Reagan in a landslide victory of 49 states. Mondale carried only his home state of Minnesota and Washington DC.

Why does this story matter? 2017 was the year of trust. We had ourselves in a knot about “fake news”. It subsequently became the agenda of all customer-facing organisations to improve their perceived trustworthiness. Crashing trust levels – 2017-2018 representing the largest slide in US trust levels ever recorded, incidentally – means we can no longer discern the difference between what is true and what is not. While we certainly possess the ability to get at the truth, our brain is not biased in favour of the truth; it is biased in favour of efficiency. Despite the techlash in response to technology firms’ concentrations of power, sinister manipulation of algorithms and the absence of a regulator – reasons suggested for fake news creation – it is the multitude of cognitive biases and heuristics that mean we source and assimilate confirmatory information. We preference simplicity over complexity. In so doing, we believe as true that which is untrue.

As long as humans are biologically hardwired for survival and efficiency, cat videos and crypto-kitties are here to stay. Sadly, for this trust researcher, so too are our declining trust levels. Simplicity protects us from a complex future we are unprepared for. As Richard Nixon headed into the election of 1972 he told his story of restoring America by easing tensions with China, Russia, and Vietnam and cracking down on war protestors. The voters ignored Watergate, explaining away incongruent facts with their mind’s own narrative – a much more efficient process than building a new story.



© Nichola Cooper 2018

Tags:  politics  society  technology 

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Can We Live In a World of City-States?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

David Roselle is one of our Emerging Fellows. He and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. His first article an important question about the increasing importance of city-states.

In 2015, the UN proposed the Urban Development Goals – a list of seventeen ideas for global collaboration that strive towards planetary health by 2030. The UDGs include eradicating poverty and hunger, promoting gender equality, and developing affordable, clean energy, as representing our most pressing challenges in the 21st century. To achieve the UDGs, the UN must rely on governments and the private sector to execute them. While these goals are aspirational, we must ask: are our current government institutions designed appropriately to deliver legitimate solutions to these complex problems?

The purpose of the proposed question is to investigate the efficacy of our existing geopolitical institutions for the 21st century. Are they structured to handle the world’s most challenging issues? Could a model dating back to antiquity – the city-state – plausibly be a more innovative governing structure for the future to respond to such lofty goals? While we need to avoid apologetics for the city-state government model, the city-state model could be used as a way to consider a new geopolitical landscape within an alternative future. It is a provocative future which could evolve beyond the competition of superpowers for global dominance, allowing new values to emerge.

This question is timely. Ostensibly, we are amidst a major era of transformation in which everything is being challenged — from our currencies to our cars, to the sanctity of our democracies. Yet, the government institutions themselves appear to be overlooked.

While there are valid reasons for concern, there are tools to make a difference. Design, for example, is one cognitive tool of many that has the potential to change organizations fundamentally. What if governments integrated human-centered design methods into the DNA of their institutions? What new opportunities would that afford society? In order to attempt such an overhaul, we first need to be able to name the social invention we are seeking to transform: the nation-state.

The nation-state is a relatively recent political construction that began after the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century. The nation-state bounded people together through customs, language, and religion, forming a powerful bond of allegiance to the state and land. This model was then exported to the world through colonialism and reinforced through colonial powers.

Today, the world looks much different. Nations are diverse, multilingual, and secular. The same customs that bonded citizens together before hold less meaning. Consequently, this sparks tension between ethnic groups as some struggle to cope with the change — illustrated through the wave of nationalism sweeping the West. This change brings into question what it means to be a citizen of a country. Within the course of a century, the world gained six billion people with two billion more expected in thirty years. The UDGs serve as a focal point to handle intensified pressure from exponential population growth. Can the nation-state adapt to these technological and social challenges or will a new model need to be innovated? It is a challenging question, but the urgency and importance of these questions are such that we cannot afford to ignore them.



© David Roselle 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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Society, the economy, and the planet

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Polina Silakova is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article discusses the intersection of societal norms, economic conditions, and the environment.

In the lead-up to the festive season, streets are dressed up in chic decorations, stores experiment with creative stands with sweets and gifts, and wherever we are, we can hardly escape from commercials, kindly offering to help us choose presents for our nearest and dearest. The hustle in the media and in the shops became an inseparable part of this special time and we can hardly imagine it to be otherwise. End of the year’s shopping boom is good for us and good for businesses, right?

At the same time, a different announcement nearly got lost in this busy media clutter. A world meteorological organisation reported 2016 results which show the record increase in global carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere (403.3 ppm for those who like figures) – a rate not seen for millions of years. The increase is largely attributed to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels. Those fuels keep our homes warm (or cool), make (most of) our cars move, enable the production of all the things that we need (and the ones that we don’t really need), and help me write this post by powering my laptop with electricity.

Until now the price of most of these goods and services did not include full environmental costs and we only start considering this now, possibly too late and too slow. The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is the first attempt to address the issue at a big scale. With Syria recently having signed up the accord, all the countries in the world agreed to act collaboratively to limit the negative impact of human activities. The United States has become the only one leaving, as announced by Donald Trump earlier in 2017. Trump’s reasoning is that the terms of the agreement are bad for America’s economy (which is, by the way, the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon). In other words, if the United States commits to the accord, they will not be able to produce as much stuff as they do now, as profitably as currently.

The reason for Trump’s decision is in the short-term thinking and capitalistic values behind it. But he is not alone in prioritising the more tangible short-term outcomes over the more blurred future on the horizon. Generally, as recent research by the University of California suggests, human brains are “not wired for the future”. However, as with everything, there are exceptions and in another part of the world, we find a different story.

While Trump is trying to protect the production of new goods, Sweden introduced a 50% reduction in tax on repairing goods. This is the government’s attempt to rationalise new economic behaviour for people to revive their possessions, instead of buying new stuff; to create the new norms, as opposed to what developed countries are accustomed to. The initiative aims to cut carbon emissions from production, reduce waste and more generally, promote sustainable consumption. In other words, Sweden gives its citizens an additional, financial reason to take care of the planet. Sustainable values of responsible citizens are supported both by making this behaviour normal in society and by providing monetary rewards. And Swedes don’t seem to expect any negative economic outcomes from the new law.

The difference between the responses of these two countries to the wicked problems we face is in how much weight does the future have in the decisions we take today? The Brundtland Report in 1987 gave rise to the most influential definition of sustainable development. It states: “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The difference between the Swedish and the American response is exactly in defining the needs of the present and in understanding the impact of today on the generations of the future.

While the governments of different countries may choose different actions in regard to these two components of sustainability, we are curious about whether we will see a more American or a more Swedish response from consumers in the future? We are not inviting you to re-gift your last year’s present or to carry a Christmas tree home on a bicycle. The problem is much more complex than that and the solution involves all three parties: government, businesses and consumers.

What role will we choose to play? What is the relationship between our values, societal norms, economic conditions and our buying behaviour? When will we start including full environmental costs in the price of the goods and services and when will we be ready to pay for it? Will it direct our choices between alternative goods? Or not?



© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  society 

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