Online conversation as foresight
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Spot the Future is a project to figure out what is happening at the edge of change in Armenia, Egypt and Georgia. It is a collaboration between UNDP-CIS Innovation Unit and Edgeryders. In this presentation I explain why we do it, how we do it, and some early results.
Transcript of Online conversation as foresight
- V O I C E S F R O M T H E E D G E S P O T T H E F U T U R E : O N L I N E C O N V E R S A T I O N A S F O R E S I G H T A L B E R T O C O T T I C A , E D G E RY D E R S Hello all, its great to be here, thank you so much for having me.
- Let me start by apologising for my informal style of dressing today. I am on a motorcycling trip, which coincidentally was going through Istanbul. I decided to adjust the trip so that I could come in person instead of having a colleague do a Skype presentation, but I have limited baggage space and had to compromise on apparel.
- F O R E S I G H T I N S T F H O W I T H E L P S D E V E L O P M E N T H O W W E D I D I T E A R LY R E S U LT S I am here to tell you about a project called Spot The Future. This is a collaboration between UNDP-CIS and a social enterprise called Edgeryders, trying out a new methodology in three sample countries: Armenia, Egypt, and Georgia. We are very new, in fact this is our first project as a company. We are deeply grateful that you guys gave us the opportunity to do this. It is turning out to be quite a journey, we are learning much from it. You guys are the first to hear about it, the project is not even finished yet. I am going to talk about:
- F O C U S O N N O V E LT Y So what is foresight in the context of STF? First, it focuses on novelty. Notice that prediction does not: it focuses on variation, which is a sort of tame cousin of novelty. The price of oil next year is going to be something between 10 and 100 dollars per barrel. It is not conceptually impossible that it costs -10, or a million dollar, or, is measured in elephant tusks per barrel, or declared taboo for religious reasons, but sensibly prediction people stay within a well-defined problem space and dont look in directions outside it. We, on the other hand, do nothing but look in weird directions.
- C H A N G E S TA R T S AT T H E E D G E S P O T T H E F U T U R E Photo: Alastair Montgomery Secondly, STF-style foresight assumes that novelty comes from the edge. In the center of things, the current paradigm holds: thats definitional of the center. It is at the edge, far from the stabilising influence of the current institutions, that change starts. Thats the place to look for novel things: and if you do look, you will see many. Most of them will go extinct, but occasionally one becomes important and turns the tables.
- N E W P E O P L E , N E W W O R L D S Photo: Medhin Paolos Thirdly, to understand novelty it is not enough to look at artefacts (like, say, a new technology, or some infrastructure). Complexity scientists like to say innovation happens in agent-artefact space: typically, change requires some inanimate objects (artefacts) and a group of humans that attribute to it a specific meaning, and decide how to interact with those objects (agents). For example, the invention of the personal computer required Giorgio Perottos team at Olivetti to look at the mainframe computers in 1962 and say: hey, this could be a domestic appliance. In STF, we look precisely for emerging new patterns of behaviour of agents that inhabit the edge of society: hackers, activists, change makers and other restless souls.
- N O W C A S T I N G So, what kind of foresight are we looking at here? It is a bit like weather forecasting. We look at things that are already happening as they happen, and scan them for potential significance. A cold front is forming, so it might rain. The tracer variable the equivalent of atmospheric pressure in STF is action. If people talk about some change, this is not so interesting. If people are using their limited time, money and energy to enact change, we sit up and listen. So, we never ask people what would you like to happen?. We have found this leads to whining and wishful thinking. Instead, we ask them what are you actually doing? We gather experiential data, and use them to generate propositions like: Young people in country X are experimenting a lot with crypto currencies. There is a dissatisfaction with central control of money that is strong enough for them to try to route around it. The technology is quite advanced, and the community around it approaches critical mass. This does not tell you what will happen, but it does tell you what direction change might be coming from. We dont forecast we nowcast. Much easier.
- D E V E L O P M E N T A S S U R F I N G Photo: Mandolin This turns out to be actionable information for development practitioners. Development is not about seeing the future: it is about changing it, and that comes with a heavy luggage of deep questions and ethical choices. The technique used in STF singles out potential novelty, in such a way that each one of them comes with its own tribe, with its champions. If you like some of the changes they are trying to bring about; if these changes further your development goals, you can just give them a bit of help: more access to to power, more credibility, more resources even, and then see where the system goes as a result. This is the nexus: this is why UNDP is doing STF at all. The who question is by far the most important. Who are the change makers? What do they want? Can we help the country by helping them? You can think of it as a portfolio, and allocate investments across it. Notice that this paints a highly non-invasive picture of what development is. Instead of big government top-down intervention, with a benevolent maximiser deploying vast resources to move the system to some new configuration by brute force, the idea of a development agency behind STF is that of a selective enabler. There is already a social dynamics behind these changes; there are already local people who are building it. Strategy means deciding who to help, not dreaming up a development path from the outside. Development is like surfing, not like bulldozing: the surfer needs to be strong and smart, and she definitely makes plenty of decisions about where to go: but she can never, ever, go against the wave, or make her own. She has to surf the waves she finds.
- T R AV E R S I N G T H E S O C I A L G R A P H Ok, so this is why we do STF the way we do. But how do we do it? How do we get in touch with these mythical changemakers? How do we gain their trust and get them to collaborate with us? How do we process and aggregate the data into conclusions? We use the Internet. Social networks not in the sense of social networking services like Facebook, but in the sense of networks that connect people interacting with one another have a mathematical property called small world. It says that you can get from any node in the network to any other node through a small number of hops. You want to learn about, say, the tactical urbanism movement in Egypt? Chances are, you are at 4 hops or less from that crowd. That is, you have a cousin who studied with someone that was at a conference with one of the tactical urbanists. You are interested in squatters in Spain? Same thing. The green tech scene in Nigeria? Same again.
- C O M M U N I T Y A S C O L L AT E R A L Photo: Sam Muirhead How to take advantage of that? Here a characteristic of Edgeryders comes into play. Edgeryders is a company built on top of an online community, itself a spinoff of a Council of Europe project of 2012 its quite an interesting story, I have no time to go into it, but do talk to me after the presentation if you want to know about it. What matters here is that we have over 2000 registered members in the community, mostly from Europe, and they tend to be people from the edge; open source hackers, crypto people, civil rights activists, open data geeks, squatters etc. There are some really radical life choices out there. So, what we do when we get interested in a problem, we basically put up a sign saying come to us for an interesting and honest conversation about problem X. People in the community help us by stepping in, and therefore signalling that we are actually asking interesting questions with integrity. They are recognised by their peers, who then are more likely to step in and join the conversation. For almost any interesting problem we can find a handful of people in our community who are respected voices in that space.
- So, in order to kickstart a conversation on something, we open a discussion about it on the online platform that serves as a meeting place for Edgeryders, and we share its most interesting bits on mainstream social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Some people who are not on Edgeryders see it, just by chance because of retweets and reshares. Some of them are interested enough to jump in, join Edgeryders and write their own contributions. The interesting ones are then reshared again onto social networks, and on it goes. With edgy, credible people in the community this can reach into quite exoteric problem spaces, and lead to interesting insights. But there is a price to pay.
- T H E T E L E G R A P H M O D E L What if people are not online? Never fear. The global graph reaches out to people not online too. It works more or less the way the telegraph network used to work in the second half of the 19th century. You could telegraph anyone in a country running a telegraph service, but tha