FastCo – swarming robotics and autonomous systems


From a new article of mine over at Fast Company – Inside The Near-Future World Where All Our Data And Machines Are In Constant Communication

This near-future is already unfolding—and it’s enabled by the convergence of a suite of technologies that have become cheap enough and powerful enough to work their way into the hardware of our lives. High-speed LTE wireless networks are nearly ubiquitous in most developed regions, connecting smart objects to each other and to remote services. These networks, combined with GPS and beacons, enable precise telemetry—the sharing of location, trajectories, and waypoints across transportation networks. Sensors have become much more sophisticated, miniaturized, and affordable, enabling devices at the edges of networks to scan and capture reality with tremendous fidelity. They pair with powerful computation riding the seemingly endless arc of Moore’s Law to crunch volumes of real-time data and turn it into analytics, predictive models, and algorithmic corrections.

This is how the brains of the Industrial Internet are forming, leveraging data from networks and sensors to model the world, evaluate contexts, predict outcomes, and respond and adapt to feedback. Now, these young capabilities are beginning to animate vehicles and ships, aircraft and robots. And, as we’ll see, they’re starting to socialize and collaborate.

That Echo you hear is the sound of Amazon’s servers calling your name

Amazon’s Echo device is the future. When computation and connectivity is so cheap and small and abundant it can be poured into anything. When convenience is aggressively enabled by networks and algorithms. When we routinely socialize with machines and artificial intelligences… It’s an odd menagerie to let into the human party. An always-on omnipresence with frames of privacy and intimacy violated by this commercial surveillance. Or worse: by state agents peering through hidden backdoors.

Is this a generational thing? Are digital natives and millennials more comfortable allowing machine intelligence into their private lives? Does a person who grew up with a distributed virtuality of friends and followers naturally expect those networks to be present throughout their lives? Are kids these days more comfortable with the bargain that trades privacy for convenience, data for insight?

When the typical signifiers of digital interaction – software, opt-in interfaces, the need to turn the thing “on” – recede and become invisible, the relationship with computation and connectivity becomes part of the fabric of reality – which is to say, it becomes forgotten.

Are we who cry foul at the intrusion of such tools destined to be outmoded by those more at ease with a distributed sense of selfhood, a comfort and reliance upon an outboarded cognitive toolset, an acceptance of transparency and visibility?

If there is to be a global mind, it’s inherently at odds with individuality, inasmuch as it anchors us more directly into the collective by unbundling our functions as network operations. How much of “you” do you owe to Google? How much of your experience is validated by your Facebook Friends or Instagram Likes? This isn’t entirely new – we’ve been calculating with external tools and sharing stories for ages. But there’s a creeping sense that comes with scale when our behaviors start to mimic the algorithms rather than the algorithms serving us.

We train Google’s AI with our searching. We shorten communications for Twitter. We capture the world and feed it to Facebook’s analytics. We yield to the algorithmic narrowing of recommended ideology because if you like X, you will also probably like x+1. We can also help you avoid y.

Amazon’s Echo takes a place in our home, like the bands on our wrists, a trojan horse for servers to learn more, for our convenience and amazement and a desire to curate the future by inviting it in, good hosts to the unfolding calculus of computation.

The Echo you hear is the reflection of our lives in data, across networks, with Friends and Followers, into the hands of marketers and product managers, the chartings of researchers and anthropologists, the power struggles of states and militias. But maybe it’s just the growing din of the future collapsing into the present, the world we inhabit and the challenges to some of us of becoming more connected than we perhaps want, more cognitively unbundled and dependent, somehow more empowered and less individual, tuned and entrained by things less human and more capable as the very concrete of our lives wakes and begins to gaze at us from across the wires.

Treading water in the stream


I haven’t posted much here in a while and, honestly, I don’t know if I have an audience anymore. You gotta feed the beast or it’ll just go gorge elsewhere at the unlimited trough of spankulation that is the Internet. It’s easier to tweet, and now there’s Ello which hasn’t yet found its center of gravity or true genus locii to root down a thriving community. But it’s refreshing to post more than 140 char without the expectation of serious long-form journeys. And I don’t use Facebook so Ello at least offers some potential to have an intellectual cohort that won’t rat-hole into that heady blend of extremism and uncritical non-thinking that seems to be coded directly into the DNA of Disgracebook. So consider this post my sort of Fakebook personal rant…

But then, I’m not sure I have a lot to say these days. Partly, I do so much of this sort of thing at work where the audience is internal. The content is fairly narrow but still insightful. Not the broad random walks through techno-behaviorology that I’m inclined to pursue here. Partly, on another axis, the Twitters and the constant streams of the technoverse and geopolity have got me a bit swirly, like the inertia of information is too great to adequately slow down and process into some sort of theory. The fascination with the stream is at the expense of any fascination with the particulars of life, like it’s all moving too fast and I’m being entrained to be little more than a relay node in the network. Click, retweet, copy-past, post. A servant to the memes, like apes collared to silicon just to grind out more 1’s and 0’s.

So much of the stream seams meaningless – fleeting glimpses, spikes of outrage, stories about things and events that will be wiped from the collective memory within a week. And maybe that’s the point, to bring all the mundane details to light, to share the bits with each other, to fully become the eyes of the world, in witness of it all. But then, if I really think about it, it’s appalling how many resources, how much energy, how much labor born on the backs of the impoverished, how much of this all goes to keeping the platters spinning and the switches switching and the rare earth’s rare-earthing, across global data centers sucking down megawatts to make sure we archive every random bleating of the global mind. To a post-psychedelic techno-futurist like myself, it’s a bit confusing to feel at odds with the marvel of it all.

I can’t remember the source but this phrase about digital transformation really stuck with me: that it’s emulsifying entire industries. Which underlines that there’s very real import to the network spankulation, that we have some obligation to roll the dung ball of modernity around and around beneath the Sun, to check it for deformations that might drive truly dangerous emulsifications. We can snicker at the death of old industries but what about the demise of comfort or wellness or nutrition or the oft-anticipated end of the state… Are we really ready for this degree of transformation? So I’m left with a crutch of faith that the stream is, on balance, a positive tool to keep us all engaged with the Great Work of unfolding the possible with some integrity, without destroying more than we create. That the relentless bleating of sheep is what keeps the shepherds attentive and considerate, and that the global mind helps us better evolve the animal within towards something more tenable than base self-preservation, something much holier than religion, something much more wise than science.

It’s a lot to put on a stream, I know, but maybe having a degree of faith is what keeps us swimming, lest we give in to the rushing depths and fall like stones, inert and silent.

The Edifice of Aescelopes – a short story

Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset

It was a dull gray afternoon when he began to see the algorithm. He was listlessly surfing his go-to etailer, looking for a book he’d seemingly forgotten. After some reckoning the title returned – Nature and the 30 precepts of Aescelopes. Then, with a swipe and a click he added the book to his digital shopping cart. The page refreshed and returned a recommendation.

“People who bought Nature and the 30 Precepts of Aescelopes also purchased Aescelopes’ 30 Precepts of Nature.”

Hmm. Makes sense. He’d been fascinated with the esoteric Greek rationalist, known for his early work identifying the simple patterns underlying natural phenomena. So with another swipe and a click, that one too jumped into the checkout bin.

A couple days later the package arrived, brown and dusty with the weight of travel, the box dented and slightly abused. Upon tearing it open he removed the two ponderous tomes, gave each a quick flip, and then added them with a thud to what was now becoming a bit of an edifice of books on the subject. Scanning the towering strata he noted the titles:

Nature and the 30 Precepts of Aescelopes
Aescelopes’ 30 Precepts of Nature
30 Precepts of Nature, by Aescelopes
The Natural World and the Precepts of Aescelopes
Aescelopes and the Greek Precepts of Nature
30 Greek Precepts of Aescelopes
Aescelopes’ 30 Greek Precepts

And finally, Aescelopes and the Greek Fascination with the Natural World.

He shifted in his chair with a familiar creaking, letting has hands fall to the gray fabric of the arms. Gazing at the librarian stack he felt a tickle somewhere in the back of his mind, like a fleeting shadow vaguely intent on revealing itself, but not yet – maybe later, after lunch. With considerable excitement he had purchased each of the texts in the now-teetering stack, adding more clues to the mystery of this forgotten Greek, hoping to link those simpler insights with the confusing modern world – a place he’d always struggled to comprehend.

But now the books seemed stale and redundant. Each new chapter previously approached with great alacrity now seemed obvious as he gazed back down the hall of his readings, this brood of wandering octuplets encamped upon his gray tabletop. Each was, in it’s own right, different – the words, the sentences, the chapter headings – but from this new perspective he realized they were all saying pretty much exactly the same thing.

Rising abruptly from the chair, a dull frustration stirring behind his eyes, tensing his musculature and pushing up the hairs on his arm just slightly, he walked to the kitchen. A drink perhaps. Yes. He tugged the gray cabinet nob, pulling open the gray enameled doors to reveal row after row of gray ceramic cups. Mindlessly, he grabbed the nearest, set it down on the gray marble counter-top and reached for the bottle of Bourbon. In the depths of him something was stirring – unseen fishes momentarily scared off by a deeper flux in the fundaments. His hands shook slightly as the golden bourbon poured from the bottle. A distant memory flashed by, something bright, waving to his heart before leaving again – leaving him alone on a vast dull plain. He stretched his recollection, almost painfully, to try and catch the glimmering light. A laugh, the scent of grass, a soft brush against his skin… Now just dull gray fishes swimming in circles somewhere below.

His fingers fumbled and the bourbon crashed into the cup, shattering both into a kaleidoscope of glass and gray shards and honeyed liquor. A sudden searing pain shot from his hand as blood began its crimson advance down his wrist, penetrating the woven fabric of his shirt sleeve.

He abandoned the kitchen catastrophe and dashed into the bathroom, plunging his aching hand under the cold faucet, cursing himself as the blood ran in dilute swirls down the drain. He grabbed clumsily at a hand towel, pressing it into his palm to stem the flow. Eyes closed, breath rising and falling. And gray fish turning slowly in a deep sea.

He opened his eyes with a sudden start. The towels were also gray. When did he order those? The bathmat was gray, except for a few red stains of blood. Did he buy this to match the towels? The wallpaper was gray paisley on a lighter-gray background. It must have been like that when he moved in. He returned to his bloody sleeve, the stains. Wrapping his hand in gray bandage, he checked the shirt. The same gray linen as the towels. Why? He ran to the dresser, pulled open the top drawer, full of gray socks. He wrenched the other drawers out, striking the gray cement floor with a wooden crash, spilling the silent clothes to broadcast his wardrobe of static to a dead audience. He stood broken for a moment that stretched out in every direction and, at the same time, none. He couldn’t remember what his apartment had looked like before but he knew, from somewhere distant, that it wasn’t like this. It couldn’t have been. He would never have moved into such a monotony of dullness, such a bland gray canvas. Would he? No. It was a submission, an abdication to some common denominator forcing itself upon him.

And yet, he couldn’t remember it any differently. In spite of, or perhaps because of its uniformity, it was on some level comforting. Predictable and safe. Non-threatening. Had he been ordering and arranging this all along? He could still see enough to know it had been a process of becoming, rather than a fixed state that was always there. Something he had, in a way, been corralled into, or conditioned to believe.

He stared out the window. It was a dull gray afternoon and he could see the algorithm. He couldn’t remember it any differently.

Back to the kitchen, the only life a splattered trail of blood red and a sprawling puddle of brown bourbon. A laugh, the scent of grass, a brush of flesh. A fleeting shadow below the surface, circling. He confronted the Edifice of Aescelopes and pulled one of the tomes from the pile, careful not to topple the wavering tower. In a fit of bibliomancy, straining at forgotten gods with a sudden fervent of religion, he opened the text randomly and began to read:

As Aescelopes notes in his Precepts, the mechanisms of nature are afforded the greatest efficiency and scale by merit of their frugality. The observable diversity and complexity of nature arises from a very simple set of rules that are fed recursively into themselves. But rather than yielding conformity, the mechanisms allow for the interdiction of the chaotic element in order to better explore the space of possibility. In this manner, nature wields simplicity to explore complexity.

However, in some cases, Aescelopes surmised, the chaotic element becomes excluded, leaving only simple rules looping without end, reinforcing the common denominator into a metastatic condition.

A procedural narrowing in allegiance to social cliques, convenience, and an easy purchase, designed to reinforce similarities, to lead us to more of the things we liked. They had spread across the network, watching from the edges and making adjustments to correct some invisible ledger. Their cool competency was painted across his monotone flat. On this dull gray afternoon he could see the algorithm as more than just a convenience, or even a tool to corral consumers into the spectacle. It was competing with the very rules of nature, fire-walling the chaos to contain the safety of order, painting the world gray because that’s what they did on the last clock cycle, that’s what the consumer wanted, that’s what makes the supply chain more efficient. From down here with the gray fishes, circling and circling, the light above the surface had grown dim.

He stared out the window into the dull gray afternoon. He could see the algorithm.

The gray bandage wrapping his hand was now stained with a darker gray. The blood and bourbon had dried into a fine ash. He couldn’t remember it any differently. His thoughts began to smooth out into the mercurial nothing of a Winter gloaming. The buildings across from his were so faded they barely composed against the sky. Gray people in gray houses eating gray food, staring blankly with opaque eyes at the dull gray afternoon. He couldn’t remember it any differently. A laugh, a scent, blood and shattered glass like ash on a gray floor. He stood for a moment that stretched out in every direction. An eternal gray now.

Gray people in gray houses swimming forever with gray fishes.

He stared out the window.

He couldn’t remember it any differently.

The State and its detractors – plutocrats, insurgents, and algorithms

Two important (IMHO) reads from the past week…

Evgeny Morozov, who tends to really grate on me with his overly-generalized, ad hominen attacks, reminds us of his brilliance in spite of himself in this Guardian article: The rise of data and the death of politics

Such [algorithmic] systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify [Tim] O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

Nils Gilman has honed his study of the ongoing deconstruction of the state by the engines of plutocracy and deviant globalization into a masterful treatise, The Twin Insurgency

During the 1990s, it became a fashionable form of irony to declare that, in the new post-Marxist era, the state (the dirigiste state, at least) was destined to wither away. In truth, something more subtle was going on: the double collapse of social modernist state’s capacity and legitimacy was giving birth not to the post-historical utopia of a universal consensus in favor of liberal democratic capitalism, but rather to a two-headed monster in the form of plutocratic secession and deviant globalization. Instead of projects of collective emancipation, what both plutocratic and criminal insurgents desire is for the social modernist state to remain intact except insofar as it impinges on them. Neither criminal nor plutocratic insurgents are revolutionaries in the classic modernist sense of political actors who seek to take over the state.

…What both insurgencies represent is the replacement of the liberal ideal of uniform authority and rights within national spaces by a kaleidoscopic array of de facto and even de jure microsovereignties. Rather than a single national space in which power is exercised and all residents enjoy rights in a consistent and homogeneous way, the cartography of the dual insurgency consists of diverse enclaves of heterogeneous political authority and of non-standardized social-service provisioning arrangements.

Returning to Morozov, again with the casual simplification and lazy stereotyping but, nevertheless, an important kernel:

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened.

The “what” is cybernetic, the “how” is human. Interests below and above the game will always circumvent the algorithmic measurement, control, and containment that the rest of us are corralled into.

Gilman concludes:

The ultimate losers in all of this, of course, are the middle classes—the people who “play by the rules” by going to school and getting traditional middle-class jobs whose chief virtue is stability. These sorts of people, who lack the ruthlessness to act as criminal insurgents or the resources to act as plutocratic insurgents, can only watch as institutions built over the course of the 20th century to ensure a high quality of life for a broad majority of citizens are progressively eroded.

In a sense, both speak to a progressive fragmentation of the social and economic order as the system becomes too complex and unwieldy to effectively manage. Morozov would likely see this as a failure of will, an abdication of agency. Gilman might regard it as both a cause and effect of the dismantling of statehood. Only algorithms can tangle such huge volumes of information spooling off the maelstrom. And only humans can ensure that our institutions survive and prosper enough to keep the common good at the center.

Algorithms are smart but they’re nowhere near intelligent

artificial intelligence
Image from iRobot.

Watson is basically a text search algorithm connected to a database just like Google search. It doesn’t understand what it’s reading. In fact, “read” is the wrong word. It’s not reading anything because it’s not comprehending anything. Watson is finding text without having a clue as to what the text means. In that sense, there’s no intelligence there. It’s clever, it’s impressive, but it’s absolutely vacuous.

A recent comment from Douglas Hofstadter regarding the current state of AI.

We don’t yet understand how brains work, so we can’t build one.

Jaron Lanier

Of course, it may be that our anthropomorphic maps for sentience and intelligence will prevent us from spotting a different kind of networked machine intelligence…

Adaptive, composable pools of compute – Gigaom Structure

Gigaom Structure

[My top-level notes from the”>Gigaom Structure conference…]

The big picture – affordable and easy
The Structure conference focused on the evolving territory of cloud infrastructure, highlighting some fundamental shifts in the industry. First, the enterprise has been challenged to overcome the cost, deployment, and management overhead of adoption. However, many emerging businesses are serving this need by making it easier to deploy and run these services. Now pretty much all enterprises understand the value of moving into either a private on-premise or public multi-tenant cloud (and there was much discussion about when to co-lo and when to go public). Adoption is further enabled by the price war between Amazon, Microsoft, and soon Google that has driven public cloud services to become more affordable.

… agile & elastic
The second big shift is in making networks more flexible, elastic, and agile. Services are now more easily deployed across abstraction layers like virtual machines, or modularized into containers. Both VMware and Docker had a strong presence at Structure and most talks had some refrain about the relative merits of one versus the other. Network hardware is softening or virtualizing altogether into SDN and NFV solutions. It’s much easier and cheaper to update software than it is to update hardware. In parallel, more machine intelligence is displacing both hardware and human IT resources, enabling efforts in self-optimizing networks (SON). All of this makes for networks that are sensing and responding to constantly changing conditions.

…composable pools of compute
Third, compute power has become a distributed commodity that is dis-aggregated, addressable, and composable from anywhere on the network. Hypervisors and containers become the means for addressing compute pools, with services stretched across these hardware-agnostic abstraction layers. Notably, there was much talk about how the Internet of Things will force a reconfiguration of networks as billions of devices come on line, some of which require very low latency for their control loops. Pushing compute out to the edges where it’s needed for industrial IoT will spare the core from being overburdened by compute requests.

The Big Picture is starting to show a world awash in pools of computation and heterogeneous networks that are becoming more intelligent and adaptive.

Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The new billion dollar dynamics of the digital landscape

unicornsIn my day job I help companies navigate the roiling seas of change kicked up by digital transformation. My team at Orange Silicon Valley has just released a large report looking at billion-dollar valuations in tech, the strategic opportunities in pursuing adjacencies as an adaptive posture, and a forecast of tech sectors and macro trends unfolding in the next 6 years or so. I was the lead researcher and writer on this one – I’m especially fond of the sector overviews and macro forecast.

Here’s the press release from my parent company, Orange.

A new report from Orange Silicon Valley called Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The New Billion Dollar Dynamics of the Digital Landscape shows that tech ‘Unicorns’ are becoming more than just billion-dollar start-up superstars or fodder for talk of bubbles. They are the new engines of disruption reshaping the competitive landscape.

And here’s the report – a map for business to navigate rapid change and align with the fundamentals: Unicorns, Startups, and Giants: The new billion dollar dynamics of the digital landscape

Domo Arigato Restaurant Roboto – My travelogue

I think it was the disco panda, charging into a clutch of alien invaders, while riding an enormous shaggy cow. That’s when my brain melted like butter, no longer able to sustain the thermodynamic struggle against the frying pan. A frying pan dusted with rainbow LED’s, wearing bedazzled hot pants, and painted by a hundred neon lasers. Like a sun-blasted Japanese spaghetti western refracted through Tron and Blade Runner.

That’s not to undersell the scantily clad cavewomen, riding a giant spider, or the disco Cylon on roller-skates, or even the mermaid riding the great white shark eating an alien invader. Each in their own glorious way, and all together with so much more, rendered complete the steady, inescapable liquefaction of my mind tank. This is the neutron star of Japanisms buried below the light canyons of Shinjuku. This is Robot Restaurant.

Read the rest at Boing Boing.

Cybernetic jurisdictions and the Things of Internets

TV_EYE She got a TV eye on me…

Walled gardens are jurisdictions that exercise control over behaviors. Facebook determines what constitutes acceptable speech. Apple determines what applications are fit for public consumption. Google determines who has access to your data exhaust. When we each accept their TOS, we effectively opt-in to their legal system, yielding to further arbitrage whenever their lawyers or marketing teams or data scientists change the writ again. Most of us don’t even read the fine print. And yet, as long as we’re within the garden, we’re bound by the laws.

The Internet of Things is much more than just a buzzword and it’s instructive to consider what it means for these digital jurisdictions. The walled gardens are pushing into physicality, where they’ll likely further encircle us with their control structures [and I’m trying to use the term “control” in the cybernetic sense but it’s hard not to see the political angle as well]. Platform owners will be able to govern not just in digital gardens but across the physical world. Wearables, embedded systems, and the emerging realm of machine perception/learning empower these gardens to grow across the landscape – watching, mediating, and correcting.

It’s not to say we’re headed for ruin (I’m too much of an optimist) but it raises important considerations when the devices we carry are registering us on innumerable invisible networks through which we pass, and those networks are analyzing us and provisioning our relationships to the digital and physical world and the many stakeholders focused on our behaviors. It’s not hard to imagine how geofencing becomes actual fencing, for example, revoking access based on whatever data transactions are happening between us and the many voices in the cloud. Soon enough, context and prediction will rise as the next wave of cybernetics, granting greater agency to the algorithms deputized on our behalf.

We typically want our applications to be smarter and to better assist us but these things take on very different characteristics when they begin to interpenetrate with the physical, beyond our direct reach. When they’re matched to machine vision and learning systems and robotics and actuators, and when they invite platform owners and stakeholders to encode laws and Terms of Service into the built environment, when they’re always-on in the background of our lives, watching – these are no longer applications that we invoke. They’re the fabric in which we live.

Of course, it will still be a battle of jurisdictions, of subsets and super-sets, of laws and contracts. And there will probably be algorithms whose sole task is to arbitrate between them all. But it’s an odd thought to imagine how the platform wars might engage with us and our market share when their gardens are growing in our cities.

The Business of Time

“There will be a different kind of bigness to deal with, a complexity that is dispersed geographically, temporally, and organizationally. This calls for an organizational model of loose affiliation rather than tight control, with the hierarchy determined not so much by rank as by time and size: the higher levels are those that are concerned with longer periods of time over greater parts of the organization.” – Kevin Kelly

What would it look like to design organizations more explicitly around time frames rather than traditional command hierarchies? In practice, this occurs but it’s often a consequence of necessity rather than a coordinated way of structuring operations. Milestones, release dates, quarterly earnings, etc drive operations across many scales of the organization and yet the functional groups that work to meet these milestones are often not deliberately arranged to function optimally at these time frames. Program management is often left trying to enforce the schedule across multiple stakeholders moving at different rates. The nuance is that by making time the explicit top-level organizer, all functional groups are then evaluated and organized around their respective clock rate rather than how they fit in the reporting structure. An added benefit is that mid- to long-term planning becomes more explicit at the executive tier when the c-suite is required to continuously think in terms of strategy, longevity, and vision.

When functional groups are distributed and loosely-coupled, and when more autonomy is pushed out across the organization, the C-suite has more space to think in broader time frames. It’s like a set of differential gears where the smallest are spinning fastest but are coupled all the way up to the largest and slowest.

A rough sketch of how to explicitly structure the business of time:
1. The role of leadership works through the longest horizon, aligning strategy with vision from 6 months to ten years.
2. Upper management orients across release cycles over months.
3. Execution layers work in rapid iteration cycles on the order of weeks.
4. Customer support, branding, and marketing have the shortest timeframe, embedded in hourly cycles.

Notably, mechanisms for learning and evaluation must be institutionalized across all these scales. It’s critical that the organization be engaged in continuous feedback from the environment. Digital infrastructures that readily support feedback systems, fluid communication, knowledge repositories, and identity platforms are critical to the modern organization. Furthermore, with hierarchy made less explicit, information is less likely to be distorted as it moves up the chain of command. The result is an organization with nimble execution, continuous learning and adaptation built into the structure, and a leadership focus oriented towards the larger cycles of time rather than being distracted by the churn of turbulence in the present.

Coherency in Contradiction

Coherency in Contradiction is the main research project I’ve been working on as a Research Fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge as part of the 2013 Shift Index. It’s just been published at Deloitte University Press. The paper looks at a selection of seeming contradictions faced by people and organizations, and then re-frames them as mutual opportunities rather than mutually exclusive choices. The deeper agenda I have with this work is to push leaders to look past the binary, black & white world we are programmed to create and move to a more holistic, relativistic perspective. The second agenda is to educate people about complex adaptive systems in a way that’s meaningful to the average executive. These two agendas come together in one of the closing statements: “In a messy, complex world, it’s not just possible to walk within paradoxes—it’s necessary.”

This effort is not about yielding to the chaos and trusting that everything will work out. But in order to better anticipate and shape their direction, we should become more adept at understanding the rapidly changing ecosystems that increasingly drive markets. More systematic use of complexity modeling tools and scenario planning will help reveal patterns and identify where new opportunities are likely to emerge. Instead of trying to suppress randomness, we should cultivate environments that increase the potential for serendipity so that we can build new ecosystems and discover new ideas and practices. In certain cases, we may even be able to shape how broad arenas evolve, materially altering the probability of certain outcomes, rather than simply waiting to react to events as they occur. Shaping, however, is very different from controlling and requires a deep understanding of the forces that drive the evolution of complex systems.

Ultimately, a leading response to growing complexity might be to abandon certain management techniques of the past. Through embracing the flow within complexity, it is possible to develop simple rules for greater performance, innovation, and—importantly—adaption and alignment with the defining structures of nature.

What I’ve Been Up To

Just an update on my recent work… My writings here have been sparse at best lately but it’s mainly because I’m doing so much research and consulting elsewhere. Some of it is now available online so here’s the overview:

My 6-month fellowship at the Deloitte Center for the Edge has been fantastic. It’s been a great opportunity to hone my research, dive into some meaty topics, and work to refine my communication skills so that I can make some pretty complex stuff meaningful to a broader audience. It’s also been a tremendous opportunity to work directly with John Hagel and John Seely Brown – two verifiable wizards, each in their own right.

The fellowship is wrapping up at the end of December so I’m starting to whip up my next gig. Give me a shout if you’ve got any interesting collaborations…
Continue reading


Ourselves in the Othernets

So dig: in about 20 years we went from knowing rather little about the world beyond what we directly experienced and what we gleaned through books and pictures and the occasional documentary or foreign movie, to having immediate on-demand insight into any facet of the globe you could imagine.

And many you couldn’t imagine.The sheer amount of visibility into humanity is simply astonishing. And it’s this informational shift, this too-much-bloody-perspective that is really amplifying the change and disruption and anxiety through which we grapple with the unfolding narrative of our species.

You see, humans are still basically tribal animals. We like what we know and we fear what we do not. Geography, bloodlines, race, and class are among the sociocultural elements that bind us when we share them and separate us from those who fall onto a different end of the spectrum. We cast the differences and the things we do not understand into the Other. The Other becomes the boogeyman, the shadow, the unknown that is presumed to be a threat (because it’s safest to first assume that things are threats and then let information persuade us otherwise).

This innate fear of the Other makes it easier to wage economics and wars on those folks over the mountain or beyond the sea. You can much more easily demonize or dehumanize people who have no discernible face, casting them into the Other without further regard. They’re different from us. They don’t like the things we do or worship the same gods. It’s our right as better, more civilized beings to have their oil/water/food/women/etc. In general, this made it easier to get down to business without the impediment of worrying about our impact on the savages. [Insert any relevant aside about colonialism or how the prosperity of the West has been built on the backs of cheap resources and labor in the Third World.]

And then the steady march of trade made it incrementally easier and easier to see bits of the Other. Radio emerged, then the telephone and television. But even those were mostly local or regional. Globalization reinforced shipping lanes and supply chains and people started engaging the overseas Other to figure out how Toyota managed to bust the asses of US automakers or how the Chinese could subsidize western luxury with cheaper manufacturing. And meanwhile, creeping along the copper lines, the internet was starting to form. Continue reading

My new music: Godspeed by Harry Selassie

My new track – the first in an e.p. to be released over several weeks. Hip hop space dub.

Future Thinking – Co.Exist

I have a new article up on FastCo.Exist provocatively titled “Future thinking isn’t about the future, it’s about the present”. Of course, it’s about both but editors do like to grab attention with extreme-sounding headlines.

An excerpt:

For millennia, we’ve grappled with “things” pretty well but systems are really different. Systems are complex interactions of interdependent parts that give rise to emergent and often-unexpected (“non-deterministic”) behaviors. If you’ve ever kept an aquarium, you have a sense for the delicate equilibrium necessary to a healthy aquatic system. Add a new fish or trim too much of the macroalgae and you can suddenly veer into an ecosystem crash. Small changes can have large results, so you have to be very deliberate in how you manage the tank.

Cities of the Future, Built By Drones, Bacteria, & 3D Printers

I have a new article up on Fast Company about programatic matter, synthetic biology, robotic swarming, and the future possibilities of architecture.

As complex ecosystems, cities are confronting tremendous pressures to seek optimum efficiency with minimal impact in a resource-constrained world. While architecture, urban planning, and sustainability attempt to address the massive resource requirements and outflow of cities, there are signs that a deeper current of biology is working its way into the urban framework.