Gloss

gloss

 

“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”
― Banksy

 

A couple of years ago I had a very nice conversation in Melbourne with Richard Slaughter, one of the giants of futures studies. We talked about foresight, Melbourne street art, post-conventional leadership and many other things. He advised me/us to do two things;

  1. Create infrastructure which builds social foresight.
  2. Identify and highlight absurdities, which need to be challenged.

The first is something I try to do in my main two projects at the moment, Superherospaces and Enkel.

The second is something I haven’t paid much attention to since I talked to Richard. Of course I identify and highlight absurdities here in my blog, but I don’t actively work to do it. Perhaps that’s the role of this blog….?

Richard especially mentioned one such absurdity, which seemed to be of great concern to him; the glossy magazines which come with our major newspapers on Saturdays and Sundays. The weekend lifestyle magazines, full of ads which aim to perpetuate the unsustainable lifestyle of the developed world: The clean, airbrushed perfect lifestyle, which doesn’t exist.

Today, we in the developed world understand this. We know that these images are as true as Santa Claus. We have learnt that this glossy life only exists in Vanity Fair articles and George Clooney films. We know that it has nothing to do with reality and that gloss doesn’t equal happiness, but rather Sertraline, divorce and addiction.

But the issue is that we’ve made the developing world believe that gloss means happiness. We have inspired China, Brazil, India and other countries, which are slowly pulling themselves out of poverty to head into gloss. This is why we see the Chinese line up outside the Louis Vuitton and Prada shops in London, NYC, Paris and Tokyo.

They want to become glossy.

***

A form of societal changemaking which fascinates me now, is the concept of  ‘systems acupuncture’. This approach involves to identify and intervene through systemic pressure points or critical spots in society. Instead of massive incremental change, or radical violent change, this rather builds on small, smart actions, directed towards sensitive areas.

One of these so-called “societal acupoints” is advertising, which the people behind non-profit organisation Adbusters realised years ago. They are probably the advocates and activists sticking the sharpest acupuncture needles into the advertising industry today.

But there are others.

  • The blog Zen Habits recently suggested that “the biggest obstacle to a wonderfully minimalist life is advertising”.
  • Lei Cidade Limpa is a 2006 law in the city Sao Paolo, which  prohibits advertising such as that of outdoor posters.
  • Commercial Alert is a non-profit that opposes advertising to children and the commercialization of culture, education, and government.

The challenge for these organisations and lawmakers is that we humans love gloss. We love George Clooney, Vanity Fair articles, beautiful people, old Bugattis, Rolex watches and Riva boats.

But that doesn’t mean we need them on our breakfast table on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

I don’t think we in the developed world need advertising any longer. We’re past that.

In fact no one in the world needs advertising I guess.

So let’s think about how we can change things to pay people who work in the ad industry to make art and comedy instead.

I’m sure Banksy and Richard Slaughter would like that.

Dare to be Delusional: Beyond Social Entrepreneurship pt. 1

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Entrepreneurial Development

I’ve been thinking and researching a lot about the development of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs over the past three years. Some elements seem to always be there when an entrepreneur is described;

  • Creative destruction
  • Restlessness and curiosity
  • Listening to people but not believing them
  • A touch of delusion
  • Building structures based on resources, to which the entrepreneur does not yet have access

The list goes on and there are thousands of blog posts on this. But which elements are not always there? Which elements are added as the entrepreneur matures or evolves?

For instance, Richard Branson started out selling Christmas trees, student magazines and records, and continued to build an airline, train and mobile phone businesses. In the late 90’s he started discussions with Peter Gabriel and Nelson Mandela how to tackle global problems. Now his focus seems to be on space travel and other “big picture” projects. Bill Gates started out in computing and software, and has now turned to AIDS vaccines, polio eradication, financial services for the poor and tackling other massive global problems.

Why did these mega-entrepreneurs shift their focus towards global problems and disadvantaged people? Was it only because the problems the dealt with in their other businesses weren’t challenging enough? Or is there something more to the development of an entrepreneur?

Moral Development

Laurence Kohlberg was an American psychologist famous (to some) for his theory of stages of moral development. Perhaps his theory can be applied to Branson, Gates and other entrepreneurs who have shifted focus towards tackling global issues rather than selling more products and services? (Sure, both these mega-entrepreneurs still sell a lot of stuff, but it seems like their passions lie elsewhere now.)

Kohlberg_stages_-_large

The essence in Kohlberg’s work is that we care about a larger group as we develop. An individual can develop from egocentric (focused on me) to socio-centric (focused on my culture, society or group) to worldcentric (focused on all humans no matter sex, race, creed etc) and onwards to higher, more all-encompassing levels.

  • A pre-conventional entrepreneur (stage 1-2 in the figure) would care only about themselves;
  • a conventional entrepreneur about their own culture (stages 3-4);
  • a post-conventional entrepreneur would consider all human cultures (stages 5-6) and
  • a post-post-conventional entrepreneur would care about all sentient beings (beyond the figure).

At which stages would a traditional entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur work?

Cognitive Development

Another thing that seemed to happen to Gates and Branson is this:  In order to be able to help these larger groups of people they increasingly cared about, they needed to understand how larger systems work. When they started out as young entrepreneurs, they needed to understand a computer, a small start-up, a town in one country, but while developing as entrepreneurs and in their global travels they learnt more about other cultures and ways of doing things. Their cognition (thinking) developed to include larger parts of the world with increased complexity, and today they “get” cultures, social systems, politics and technologies across the whole planet. Their cognitive level has shifted – just like their moral level.

The million dollar question here is of course this: How does an entrepreneur develop to be able to operate across many moral and cognitive levels without building a global business empire like Branson and Gates?

Well, that would be one of the main questions I think should be explored in a school for systems entrepreneurs.

 Schools for systems entrepreneurs

When I read Bridgette Engeler Newbury’s post “When marketing sucks, the future suffers”  a while ago I was taken by a recommendation at the end: “Dream bigger than ever”. “Marketing has always relied on big, inspiring ideas. Daring and brave, innovative and far-reaching. Ways not just to make sales but to transform lives (and the marketplace).”

Over the past year I have started to get increasingly frustrated with social entrepreneurship – a concept of change and way of life, which I earlier believed had real transformational qualities. Perhaps my issue with most social entrepreneurship is the small-scale of it. There are fantastic social enterprises such as Grameen and Kiva, but most of them are small-scale initiatives in local communities. These are important and must continue, but I think that local issues need local and global solutions. Most ideas in social enterprise are modelled on normal business without transformative or international impact. The ideas are too petty.

Meanwhile, right now in Silicon Valley a huge part of our common future is created by the next generation of Bransons and Gateses;  Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg & company. Tech billionaires, whose thinking, morals and worldviews have massive impact on us all and our planet. These guys think big for many reasons. And I believe that most social entrepreneurs must think as big as they do to create real change today.

Social enterprise (as most enterprise) is needs-based. So, one of the early questions a start-up gets from investors or advisors is “what is the customer need you target?” or something similar. The problem in this question (and the answers it leads to) is that this need often reflects a problem symptom and not its underlying systemic factors. Most entrepreneurs tackle symptoms rather than underlying problems.

But as a wise man said; we cannot use the same thinking to solve our problems as we used when we created them. Social entrepreneurship mostly uses such old ways of thinking with polarities like rich/poor, profit/non-profit, sustainable/unsustainable, developed countries/non-developed countries etc. I believe we need more entrepreneurs who think beyond these dichotomies.

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We need bigger thinking.

We need systemic solutions.

We need global and local solutions.

We need networked solutions.

We need more systems thinking entrepreneurs.

We need more deluded social entrepreneurs.

We need to train people to think about crazy, unreasonable and preposterous solutions to our challenges.

We need schools for systems entrepreneurs.

The mission of the Singularity University is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges. That’s an excellent ‘big’ mission, and we need more of those in our educational institutions.

Still, we need to remember the entrepreneurial development pieces mentioned above; the cognitive and moral dimensions.

If I would run a school for systems entrepreneurs I would therefore steal the Singularity University’s mission but add a couple of things. Perhaps this one:

To develop, inspire and empower networked entrepreneurs to apply exponential technologies across systems of wise innovation clusters to address grand challenges.

Is that deluded enough for you?

Communicating Complexity

Complex things are hard to communicate. But it’s nevertheless important to do it. Here are some of my reflections on how to communicate futures thinking or foresight – the rather complex field I’m working in.

You might find some advice on how to communicate the complexities of your field. The post appeared first at the APF Emerging Fellows website.

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Communicating Foresight

One of the ongoing discussions in the futurist community is about how to communicate foresight. Recently a whole issue in Journal of Futures Studies was dedicated to this, and over the last year some excellent posts by my fellow emerging APF fellows have been written on this.

This is the last post in a series on my reflections about communicating foresight. In the first I wrote about how mixed metaphors can be used to illustrate the increased complexity in our organisations and lives. In the second I rapidly prototyped a website for a new imagined start-up; Futurizers: A Guerrilla Network that Injects the Future in Organizations.

I don’t know how well I communicated foresight in these two posts (in its first month the Futurizers website had 114 hits – so not exactly a revolutionary impact…), but they gave me some new insights which lead me to think further on a good article by Richard Rowe (2005).

The challenge of the upside-down pyramid 

Rowe uses Slaughter’s framework for layered futures.  He illustrates the amount of contact with the general public each type of futures work has. As you see in the figure, the second pyramid is turned upside-down, i.e. the more “deep” and important futures work is, the less contact with the general public it has.   

Image by author based on Rowe (2005)

Rowe writes: “The problem is that highest level, being pop, is the level that has the most interaction with the general population. It is also the level that the futures practitioners tend to disown because it tends to be shallow, misleading, shortsighted and marketing driven. The deeper you descend into the layers of foresight studies, the less contact there is with the general public and the fewer messages of depth and richness filter into the broader population.”

I’ve noticed recently that futurists increasingly post in open forums like Facebook and Google+. In doing this it’s tempting to fall for the Facebook “like” hysteria, i.e. aim to attract more “likes” for that which we communicate. But how do we make sure that we don’t slip up towards the pop futures and litany layer when doing this? Sure, we can use “litany hooks” to attract attention for our posts, but we must communicate deeper layers too if we want to do our job properly.

A service to our readers

Some bloggers write how many minutes it takes to read a blog as a service to their busy readers. I thought about a similar service for my blog regarding the difficulty of my posts, for example some sort of colour coding to indicate how theory-heavy or deep my posts are. Then my parents and non-futurist friends wouldn’t have to bother with some posts – such as the networked spiral dynamics post I posted recently (maybe the title itself scared them off).

Would a colour-coding system be handy to make it clearer for everyone or does this go against the idea of engaging the general public deeply?

For a colour coding structure from easy to hard, I thought about using Inayatullah’s (1998) Causal Layered Analysis (CLA), and the same colour scheme ski resorts use to show the various difficulties of downhill runs.


Image by author based on Inayatullah (1998)

Here, the articles would be coded from green litany (sensational posts based on recent issues) to more challenging posts exploring underlying systemic causes (blue – systems). Further down to thoughts and reflections containing worldviews (red – here you lose most readers!) and lastly even deeper to the black myths and metaphor layer, where (surprise!) you can actually attract your readers back.

So even if this deepest level is seemingly the most difficult one to understand, the communicating power here is very strong.

And this is what I find so beautiful in the CLA; the deepest, most unattainable layer is paradoxically also the most universal. Myths, metaphors and archetypal patterns and stories are understood by, and give opportunity to identification across worldviews and cultures. This is the planetary layer. I’m no expert on CLA, but I think this is what Inayatullah aims to do. To safely bring people down to the deepest layer, where we momentarily can feel and play with the essence of ourselves again. Past the litany, systems and worldviews and back to the original human myth and its evolution.

In reflection on my futures-heavy Facebook posts, I consider that some of the most thoughtful responses I’ve had are not from futurists or academics. They are from old school friends, people I’ve met when travelling or at the pub. Amazing, everyday people you meet in life. This makes me think that perhaps the general public is ready for deep futures past the litany of self-driving cars and drones? So, while the analysis of CLA is worthwhile, perhaps colour coding is counter productive. If the general public are ready to access the myths and metaphors of the black layer they should not be deterred by any colour coding advice – that would serve only to underestimate my readers.

Perhaps the challenge of Rowe’s upside-down pyramid can actually be tackled with some simple tricks, such as story telling, metaphor and images?

The Hourglass

I imagine the process of deepening foresight communication as grains of sand running through an hourglass. The gravity originating from the myth / metaphor level pulls down the grain of sand towards the depths.


Image by author based on Inayatullah (1998)

The litany layer contains thousands of grains of sand, quite happily sitting there comfortably, without noticing that they are being pulled down towards the vortex by the gravity from the depths. Superficial, simplistic chitchat and diversions act at this layer to make grains here unaware of the evolutionary forces bringing them deeper. Perhaps someone is pumping in helium in this section of the hourglass to make the grains stay longer? 

But the grains are eventually drawn deeper down the vortex to the systems level, which is complex, faster and more turbulent. Here, grains can bump into each other fight a lot. The bottleneck between the systems and worldviews layers is blocking much progress – not many grains can pass through. But once a grain of sand falls through the narrow gap into the worldviews and values level, the mind opens again, and there’s more space. This expanded section contains many grains of sand but they don’t know where to go. However, they sink deeper and deeper as more grains of sand land. And here, they become part of the deep, bottomless foundation that is humanity and all life.


Photo by author. Painting by Rothko (1958)

 

***

I spent some time in the Rothko room at London’s Tate Modern on Sunday morning. Being there made me realise that great artists communicate across all levels from the litany to the deep unconscious levels simultaneously. In the calming room, a group of drawing teenagers, a retired old lady and family with a pram were all absorbed in the massive Seagram Murals.

Who knows what these people thought and felt – what layer or depth they experienced?

I only know what I thought and felt about:

What can we learn from great artists to better communicate foresight?

 

References

Inayatullah, S 1998, ‘Causal layered analysis: poststructuralism as method’, Futures, vol. 30, no. 8, pp. 815-29.

Ramos, J 2012, ‘ Special Edition on the Communication of Foresight’, Journal of Futures Studies, September, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 91-98.

Rothko, M 1958, The Seagram Murals, Tate Modern Gallery, London. 

Rowe, R 2005, ‘Sticky foresight: finding the future’s tipping point’, in Slaughter, RA (ed), The knowledge base of futures studies, 5 vols, CD-ROM, Professional edn, Foresight International, Brisbane.

Slaughter, RA 2004, Futures beyond dystopia: creating social foresight, Routledge, London.