Innovating in a connected world.
ROLAND HARWOOD DISCUSSES THE AMAZING POSSIBILITIES OF AN INTERNET-ENABLED AGE OF ALMOST LIMITLESS CONNECTIVITY - AND OUR BLINDNESS TO IT AND THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR A SHARED FUTURE THAT WILL COME FROM IT.
Are you on the edge of your seat, in eager anticipation of what the future holds? Or in dismay and fearful of what lies ahead? Either way, you are not alone.
Most of us live and work in a state of transition between different projects, places, relationships or ideologies. Nothing stays the same for long. While it is hard to predict what might happen, or how to respond, we are just a step away from many possible futures. Being on the edge is unsettling and stressful. But here is also where the biggest opportunities for innovation lie. We just need to learn to embrace the unknown.
“The periphery is where the future reveals itself.” J.G. Ballard
We fail to recognise how intertwined and interconnected our lives really are. We are blind to the networks that surround us. Yet the future increasingly reveals itself on the edges and boundaries of our networked world. So we need to open our eyes to the hidden connections around us. For instance it takes just 23 people to be in a room for it to be likely that two of them share a birthday. This paradox is easily proven and yet it remains highly counter-intuitive for most people. We don’t realise that the the number of pairs of people grows very rapidly as each new person enters the room (Metcalfe’s Law). Rather we tend to think linearly from our own perspective rather than noticing the much larger number of pairs that are possible, even in small groups of people.
With just 30 people there are 435 different pairings, and an incredible 4060 possible trios. This level of connectivity is much higher than most people expect or realise. This is important to recognise because every single one of these combinations could result in a useful exchange of information, or could lead to a new idea or partnership, if only we are alert to the possibilities.
There are many other examples of remarkable connectivity that remain largely unknown and invisible. For instance the historian of science James Burke, has spent much of his life exploring what he calls the knowledge web. To give just two intriguing examples he has discovered how Mozart is directly connected to the invention of the helicopter, and how medieval Arabic optics contributed to the creation of the best selling film and musical ‘My Fair Lady’.
These types of surprising connections are literally everywhere. Yet our network blindness can result in missing things that could otherwise be interesting or important. We walk right past friends of friends every single day but seldom realise it. And when we happen to discover such a connection, it is often dismissed as merely a random event.
The extent of this connectivity is starting to become both more noticeable and exponentially greater, thanks to the internet and world wide web. As with previous revolutions, the cultural shift that a new technology triggers usually takes time before it becomes embedded and really changes society at large. We appear to have reached this moment with the digital revolution, where network effects are becoming very powerful. As a result our mindset and behaviours are beginning to shift towards proactively connecting people and sharing ideas.
Connecting The Dots
“We tolerate complexity by failing to recognise it.” Steven Sloman and Philip Fernback
The networked world has created many brilliant and unexpected benefits. As Steven Pinker argued recently in his book Enlightenment Now, our lives are now better, happier, healthier, safer and wealthier than ever in all of recorded human history by virtually every metric. With new technologies emerging like machine learning, genome engineering and blockchain, there is considerable potential to generate new breakthroughs in virtually all domains that could positively transform many aspects of our lives.
One consequence of this remarkable rate of progress is the fact that many organisations are realising that the solution to almost any problem they are facing is already out there, if only we know where or how to look. I believe that the innovation challenge of our age is no longer just to be great inventors and highly creative, as in previous eras. Rather, we need to become better detectives and careful curators of networks if we want to remain relevant and globally competitive. At the same time, we also need to face up to a new set of significant challenges that the networked world presents. For instance: the financial crash of 2008 demonstrated that when failure occurs somewhere within a network, it can create a domino effect with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for the financial system around the world. In addition, platforms like Facebook are currently being used or abused to reshape democratic discourse and influence the outcome of elections in many countries all over the world, which has taken many by surprise. Lastly a lack of coordinated action has lead the United Nations to conclude that we have just 12 years to tackle climate change. All of these types of challenges affect the wellbeing of almost everybody on the planet and so cannot be tackled by any single country or institution; rather these challenges all urgently require large- scale international collaboration.
Such vast complexity is almost impossible to untangle. This unpredictability, sometimes known as chaos theory, is best exemplified by the butterfly effect where famously a tornado can be created by a butterfly flapping its wings weeks earlier and thousands of miles away. This type of behaviour is starting to become more common and then generates a wide array of unintended consequences in all aspects of our economy and society, that we must learn to better anticipate, manage and respond to.
So as we approach the edges of our old certainties and ways of working, we have begun to notice that the only constant is perpetual change. These shifting sands beneath our feet can easily lead to us getting stuck on the boundary between possible futures, wondering whether to go left or right; whether to twist or stick; whether to leap into the unknown, or whether to stay right where we are.
Alternatively if we learn to develop our peripheral vision then we will begin to notice more of this complexity and connectivity all around us. In doing so we might just recognise that the uncertainty and disorder can actually make us stronger, so that our biggest opportunities will start to arise from where we least expect.
Beyond The Brink
“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Will Rogers.
Increased complexity has already pushed many individuals, teams, organisations, and countries, beyond the brink of the stability and security they once knew.
For example many people are changing the way they work to be much more flexible and autonomous, albeit not always by choice. The gig economy is the fastest growing group in the European labour market, and also makes up over a third of the workforce in the US and this proportion is predicted to rise considerably in the next few years, with a similar shift occurring in many other countries around the world. This trend can be both liberating and fulfilling in many ways for people’s work lives, but the lack of security has been a contributing factor to the rapid rise in mental health issues in recent years. This can lead to more vulnerable people being easily exploited.
As many more people are working more independently, the building of temporary teams is also much more common. This is already the prevalent way of working in some industries. For instance, most people working on a film - from the producer, director, actors, and production crew - are independent and only come together for a relatively short period of time to complete a project, after which the team then disbands. This form of collaboration is now being increasingly rolled out in other industries as well, in particular in other creative industries such as design, advertising and marketing, as it minimises overheads and enables the best people to collaborate rather than just those who happen to be available. However with flexibility can also come fragility. It is important not to underestimate the hard work and careful facilitation required for this kind of collaboration to take place effectively.
Another facet of our networked era is the fact that the average age of the largest companies is now under 20 years, down from 60 years in the 1950s, due to multiple disruptive forces and amplified by new technologies. This trend is forcing organisations, large and small, to be much more agile in responding to the opportunities and threats all around them. As a result, successful investors such as Josh Wolfe from Lux Capital are looking for the next generation of cutting-edge companies which he also claims will almost certainly be found “at the edge”.
Lastly many countries are rethinking just how connected they have become. For instance the British people voted to leave the European Union despite the majority of their trade being with their nearest neighbours. In the United States, trade agreements have been cancelled and international cooperation is declining. In contrast, China could soon be the world’s largest economy, in part through choosing to strengthen its global ties through investments such as the belt and road initiative.
So at every level of our economy, environment and society, we are currently experiencing a realigning, rebalancing and rewiring of our place in the world and how it all fits together. We can all benefit from developing greater resilience as individuals. Together we also need to nurture superior collaboration skills within teams, and to build more agile organisations and institutions, to empower more participatory communities on local, national and global scales. None of these things are easy, not least because they cannot be done in isolation. So our collective challenge now is to start to tell better stories that encourage people to see what we can really achieve together, and how we might get there.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Yogi Berra
So here we are at the limits of what we know; on the edge of what is possible; on the boundaries of the organisations and communities we are a part of. The most important question that really matters is: what can and should we do next?
We really only have two options if we are faced with such an uncertain future. Either we become paralysed and do nothing. Or we can confront our fears; listen to our instincts, and simply try doing something.
This may sound obvious, but it is not. There are always many reasons to avoid making decisions that we know would be good for us. Whether it’s about drinking too much on a Friday night, or staying in a job or a relationship that we know isn’t working, or disengaging with local and national politics, it’s too easy to simply hope that things will change for the better on their own. But deep down we know that they won’t and there will never be enough information to make a perfect decision. Tomorrow never comes, so if we choose to wait another day then the cumulative effect over time will inevitably be a downward spiral.
Alternatively, trying something new is always risky and requires bravery. This experimental urge, is the spark from which all innovation arises. So we have to choose to jump in and see what happens in the knowledge that we will make mistakes along the way. But the biggest mistake of all would be to do nothing. In the words of the Farrelly Brothers “Life is like going the wrong way on a moving walkway. Stand still and you go backwards. Walk and you stay put. Gotta hustle to get ahead.”
Taking a calculated leap into the unknown can help us to avoid the seductive power of analysis paralysis, and to see beyond our networked blindness and linear thinking. Only by pushing ourselves and those around us one step further, will we start to notice more clearly the connections that exist all around us. In doing so we inevitably begin to collaborate much more. Complexity creates interdependency and so we find ourselves needing each other more than ever.
By doing so we will naturally engage more fully with the many opportunities that previously have passed us by. This in turn could also start to contribute more fully to the ecosystems of which we are a part; both with online groups who have shared interests, and with local and national communities based more upon shared culture as well as shared geography. More people, sharing more resources in new ways is the history of civilisation. This must now also become our shared future if we are to be able to navigate uncertainty and to survive and thrive in this connected world.
Roland Harwood is a compulsive connector, Founder of Liminal and trustee of the Participatory Cities Foundation. Prior to that he grew 100%Open into a multi award-winning open innovation agency that worked with the likes of LEGO, Ford, and UBS in 25+ countries. Graduating with a PhD in Physics, he is also a visiting lecturer, a startup mentor, a failed astronaut, a composer for Sony, and a proud dad of three children.