Ecosystem, Tech

This is a Test

I recently had a meeting with a senior British Diplomat who had the unenviable task of explaining the latest twist in the Brexit saga to a group of Calgary business leaders active in the UK.

I think I got it. It’s crazy stuff. The end of Democracy? Probably not.  But certainly, a kick in the pants of the institutions that have held many of us together for 150 years or so.

Then it hit me. And of course, ­me being me – I had to blurt it out in our round table discussion – all without much of a critical thinking filter. But it turned out to be right on.

My ah-hah? 

This is all just a test.

Let me explain. As those of you who know from my writing in the book Tip of the Spear: Our Species and Technology at a Crossroads I believe that we are a true intersection brought about by exponential change meeting linear systems of capacity and reaction.

What if this seemingly existential threat to the EU – and potential similar threat to the US democracy and other nationalistic slides – are a test of our global communications capacity for answering the REALLY hard challenges that are coming.

I argued to the assembled group that Brexit, US Nationalism and the like are incredibly challenging and complex issues, but they pale in comparison to what’s at stake when we start talking about the genies of technology that are being let out of the bottle at an exponential pace.

This newly built global collaborate mechanism called the Internet and Social Media is shining a spotlight on the incredible fractiousness that exists in our tribes that make up our collective species. Social media is like shining a bright flashlight on all of the human condition at the same time. The worst and loudest of the species come crawling out. 

But what if this messy, shouting, and fractious time is a test? A test of our planet learning how to talk. Learning how to collaborate. Learning how to disagree without creating war and conflict. Like the proverbial newly born baby fawn taking its first uncertain, wobbly but – as nature is cruel – life-essential steps.

But in any test, we learn. If you believe that we can and will get better, then I would much rather have us begin the hard work NOW at getting this stuff fixed – using a combination of freedom and regulation that calls on all of us to understand that we must figure it out.

Because if you think Brexit is hard, think of the conversation we need to start having along these lines:

  • The Future and Ethics of Artificial Intelligence
  • The Future and direction of Capitalism and systemic economic inequality
  • Climate Change mass migration
  • The Future of work and income in a world of displacement and automation
  • The Future of education and skills for a set of unknown / unkowns
  • Democracy 2.0

If the test case is the bitter divides of Brexit and Democratic election, I’ll take it.  Because my glass half full side says that we are going to figure out a better way to talk. Our better nature will pave a better road and take best advantage of this tool of the Gods. 

And when we do, we can collect the brilliance found in majority of the species and not the extreme ends of the spectrum to guide and lead us to answer the true existential challenges of our lifetime.

To my poor British diplomat who had to witness a Gibson penny-drop moment, my apologies.  But it may have put the Brexit challenge in perspective of the critical conversations that really need to start happening.

Let’s pass this test, shall we?

Ecosystem, Strategy, Tech

Public / Private Sector: Let’s Talk!

I had the true pleasure of speaking this week at the “Policy Matters” conference in Edmonton. Held every two years for leaders in the Government of Alberta, it brings together all of the policymakers under a central theme to think, learn, collaborate and network. This year’s theme was on Disruption and Policy Innovation. As the closing Keynote speaker, I used the opportunity to share some themes from my book Tip of the Spear. I connected the things that are important and of concern to me about the future with the initiatives and vision of public policy leadership.

But about three-quarters of the way through my prepared talk, I went off script. I decided to take a risk; “Play some Jazz” as I like to say.

Now, this is always fun when you are Miles Davis or Malcolm Gladwell, and it always sounds cool in theory. It is, however, always a risky move in front of 1,200 people! But I think I got it out ok and I wanted to push out the idea further in writing to be sure I hadn’t lost my mind.

Here’s what I said – in real time.

I said that I think it’s time that my colleagues and partners in the private sector/ innovation world stop beating up the folks in the bureaucracy of government.

I did.

Now wait! Before you jump on me and ‘troll’ the well-worn arguments of the big, bad, slow and inefficient government, I did this by coming up with the first two lines of what I think might be a new “shared” public/private sector Social Contract:

Public/Private Social Contract

  • The private sector needs to explicitly recognize that in the world of “Tip of the Spear” issues, our public sector is on the absolute front line of supporting, regulating and understanding issues.  Disruption is coming at them hard, wrapped in the virtually impossible calculus of technology speed, complexity and unknowns. These coming changes – as I argue in the book – are multiple existential crises that will blow us up or just as likely make the world a much, much better place. Public policy makers CANNOT do this alone. They need our help and they need for us to stop yelling at them.
  • In return, the public sector leadership at all levels HAS to commit to fixing the machine. They need to create “Innovation of Ways” that match the intensity, velocity, collaboration and ruthlessness of the private sector entrepreneurial/innovation ecosystem. They need to match our “Innovation of Things” machine that cranks out new technologies that help us do stuff faster, better and cheaper. This “Innovation of Ways” approach needs to learn how to incubates and accelerate policy in a world of “Lean”, MVP, risk and execution.

Now I get that nuclear reactor safety is not an “MVP/Lean” kinda’ thing. But so much of what is coming at us needs a policy response that is rapid, flexible, iterative and based on principles of design thinking – and most doesn’t look anything like nuclear safety. And I also understand that the public sector does reach out to experts in the private sector all the time. But too often it is in the form of “Thanks for the input, we’ll take it from here…”. That simply doesn’t work anymore. In the software engineering terms, that is a bad version of the waterfall method of development in a very Agile world. We need to be better.

Because of this, I called out to the assembled at the conference that we collectively need work smarter and better together. And quickly. The Rainforest Movement is teaching us that collective Trust is the precursor to innovation acceleration and velocity. Let’s start with a new social contract. Let’s start by stopping the yelling and starting to commit to fixing the policy machine.

What are your thoughts, my private and public sector friends? Can we build a new commitment – regardless of our political stripes – work together to “10x” the way we teach, regulate, inform and keep safe our businesses, families and communities?

Let’s create the PolicyX Challenge that encourages and rewards game-changing policy.

In the end, if we don’t, we will continue the blame game that has plagued public/private sector interaction for a generation. The Tip of the Spear calls out that exponential changes caused by new technology are “shots across the bow of our indifference”. Instead, let’s fix this.

Who’s in?

Ecosystem, New Work, Tech

Trust & The New Social Contract

Compassion is the radicalism of our time, – the Dalai Lama

As we look into the deep challenges of the day including inequalities of wealth and opportunity distribution caused by technology, and the disappearance of trust with all institutions –  we can be easily overwhelmed. These are really big problems. More alarming is that we are shortly bringing 3 – 4 billion new humans into this messy online, connected universe for the first time.

In thinking about this, two thoughts occur to me – on opposite sides of the spectrum.

The first comes from the excellent writings of Yuval Noah Harari in his book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”.  As the author looks into the fundamental questions of our current time and the future of humanity, he digs deeply into the very essence of what makes the human species so successful on this planet.

He notes,

Over … 20,00 years human-kind moved from hunting mammoth with stone-tipped spears to exploring the solar system with spaceships not thanks to the evolution of more dextrous hands or bigger brains…Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter or more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp but because Home Sapiens is the only species on Earth capable of co-operating flexible in large numbers…

History provides ample evidence of the crucial importance of large-scale co-operation.

Other writers have said as much.  While honey bees and massive, multi-million ant colonies all appear to co-operate in large numbers, Harari argues that they do so “inflexibly” – according to some ancient hard-wired evolutionary constructs.

Humans are unique because of their ability to flexibly connect. Our wiring up of the planet is – with this logic – precisely predictable.  If our own human evolutionary path enabled us to dominate the planet thus far, the Internet was entirely obvious.  Our “exploration” of the planet – while arguably for exploitation and power – was really just about communication and collaboration.

The first question then is, “Do we need to worry about it?  Will our new collective infrastructure simply evolve or does it need guidance and direction?”

I care about this because if the answer is to allow the human species to evolve “naturally”, my worry is that we are on a trajectory that will see our advancing technologies, inequalities causing further global divides. In other words, we might blow ourselves up before we can “evolve” enough.  That topic is the focus of my recently released book “Tip of the Spear: Our Species and Technology at a Crossroads” Here:

The second observation – and preoccupying my current work – is at the opposite end of communication scale: One to one.

We have spent the better part of the past two years studying and implementing a new innovation culture in our part of the world based on a book called the Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley.  The Rainforest spends a significant amount of time on the nature of Culture and Trust.  Extensive research from global innovation ecosystems told the original authors that individuals in an innovation ecosystem act in ways that traditional economists looking at complex economic systems failed to adequately pick up. They discovered that the “actors” in an innovation ecosystem do not behave in typical ways.  Most economic models think about individuals as behaving rationally to maximize individual return on investment.  Whereas the successful Innovation Rainforest is populated by individuals who frequently exhibit activities and behaviours that maximize return on involvement. A new type of “ROI”

As the authors note,

“Almost anyone in a Rainforest who has started a company has witnessed this New ROI firsthand.  It is the successful entrepreneur who provides you with an hour of free advice. It is the advisor who drafts up a three-page strategic plan for you, completely on his own initiative and with no expectations. It is the engineer who starts working on your software project without knowing what her actual pay is going to be.”

This behaviour is a critical aspect of what makes innovation ecosystems thrive and is a huge clue as to how we need to reshape our one-on-one behaviors in this new world. One of the most important tools the authors discuss is the concept of the Social Contract.  Again from the book,

Whereas social contracts in our ordinary lives are implied and invisible, we seek to make Social Contracts for the Rainforest manifest and visible. These contracts are physical documents that attempt to manifest the Rules of the Rainforest, as applied to local circumstances. They are like written constitutions for innovation ecosystems: they provide maps for people to navigate the informal rules of their new communities. As in cognitive behavioral therapy, Social Contracts work by making people more self-aware and conscious of their choices for action.

In Alberta, we created our own version of the Social Contract and it read as follows:

Social Contract

Why does this matter? Simply stated, because it fundamentally changes behaviours of individualsOne-on-one – the sum of which makes up our complex world.

If you read the Social Contract carefully you will see an explicit set of behaviours that CATEGORICALLY is in opposition to the zero-sum game of hardcore, winner-take-all, market-only capitalism.

But most importantly, it makes explicit a set of commitments to which signatories are bound.  It is as though we are able to create a constitution for each of us on how we wish to behave and the behaviour of all actors in the ecosystem.

Coming back to Harari, if we are collectively successful as a species because we have found the secret sauce of flexible collaboration, my experience in Alberta has given me a clue as to the new operating guide for this connected planet system.  Clearly, we need to create a culture of innovation if we are going to survive, but it begins with the culture of trust.

If I imagined a New Social Contract guiding, for example, the challenges of our new social media globally connected system, how might that look? Imagine if we could wipe the slate clean.  What if our exponential technologies could help us implement a global social contract that made explicit what we are trying to accomplish? What if this started not as a global collective but as a simple agreement between two people agreeing on how to behave.  How to act. Simple human behaviours, coded and amplified. What would this new social contract look like? Try this:

  • Converse online as though your reader was looking you directly in the eye.
  • Use language and words that begin with respect in mind
  • Say two positives before you say one negative
  • If you don’t understand the issue, don’t comment. Two ears, one mouth.
  • Ruthlessly create, curate and promote sources of truth
  • Learn to identify what truth is.
  • Truth is truth; Facts are Facts; Opinions are just that. But if they are not respectfully articulated call that out.
  • Well-reasoned, fact-based, alternative world views are a new gold standard and the true currency of trust.

Now, I know many of you are saying how can you engineer this change globally and aren’t there simply too many negative people in the world who overwhelm this?

Perhaps, but imagine if our newest technologies and intelligence could help encode the social network “social contract” into existing (or new) applications, or develop new user interfaces that help us to encourage debate, discourse, disagreement within the constructs of individual social contracts.

Don and Alex Tapscott noted in their May 2016 book, “The Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World”, the promise of the Blockchain is well beyond finance. It is about creating irrevocable, mobile, global trust in anything of value. What happens if that “value” was a social contract between two people or among millions?

Hey Facebook, here’s a thought: The promise of a new digitally consumable social contract might, for example, change the very nature of signing up new friends. The acceptance of a friend becomes the acceptance of an explicit Social Contract between two people, a group of people etc. Instead of some complex and opaque “terms of use agreement” with Facebook, perhaps they should create a simple, human understandable, digitally accessible social contract that simply asks two ‘friends’ if they wish to adhere to it.  Think of what that might do to organizational trust?

Surely our new tools of Blockchain ledgers, machine learning, language processing, artificial intelligence, neural networks, user interfaces etc could be put to use to build such a system? My optimistic side says I am sure it is being built as we enter this challenging world of 2018 at the dawn of a low-trust, Post-Fact world.

Stay tuned. Live Trust.

Get the book at (and tell your friends!)

Ecosystem, Tech

Hey America…

… just wanted to let you in on a conversation I had this morning. It was with a very successful, Cambridge University educated Asian gentleman whom I will call Shahal. We met virtually through a mutual friend. Prior to Skyping with him, I did – as is par for the course in my world – the customary digital due diligence. He certainly passed the “sniff” test and perhaps he did the same with me and we arranged a call.

It was pretty evident on the call that not only did he pass the “sniff” test he was in the top-tier of venture creation, acceleration, capital and was an articulate and successful businessman from one of the largest cities in the developing world but in reality a citizen of and participant in the world’s innovation community.

He was calling to see if Canada generally and Calgary specifically was a place he wanted to create his newest venture and accelerator. He was involved at the leading-edge of enterprise software, Internet of things and host of other innovations and technologies which we discussed at length. He knew his stuff.

In short, he and his firm would be an economic development agency’s dream. In fact, our excellent and forward-looking Economic Development agency, Calgary Economic Development, was leading the initiative and had passed him to me because he wanted a ‘feet on the street’ view of the entrepreneurial, technology and business landscapes. He wanted to kick the tires a bit.

Our conversation blew my mind.

The net of it was that when the inevitable time came to discuss the “issues” south of the border he made his position abundantly clear. He said, “if we were having this conversation a year ago, it would have been a short one. I would have made the decision to move either to the Valley, New York, Boston, or London.  Canada – with respect – would barely have made my radar”.

Today the game was completely different. His globally mobile workforce and capital sought only one thing: A place of tolerance and respect for new people and new ideas.

The US was no longer that place in his mind, his partner’s mind, his wife’s mind and more importantly his teenage children’s minds. His children, he said, always dreamed of the US as the “end game” for success. Like the proverbial dream of many Indian and Asian children in decades’ past, the US stood for the best of what we could be.

In a blunt and shockingly rapid manner, that dream is gone for the smartest and most mobile capital and workforces in the world.

So, America my friend and neighbour, your policies of intolerance, division and nationalism will begin to hit you hard and fast. The world – especially the massive and rapidly growing nations of Asia and Africa – will not spend its new-found economic chips at your table.

They are beginning their new game at the birth of an innovation epoch that will transform the world. And while you are the current holder of the majority of global economic cards, you will soon find that there are fewer and fewer players at your table.

I reminded Shahal that our winters were cold, that our energy-centric economy was struggling to diversify, our taxation is high and our regulation is not to be sneezed at. But our social contract was formed on diversity, pay-it-forward, community building thinking and we will lead the way in shaping how a global workforce will collaborate to change the world.

It was a good call, America.

As I clicked off the Skype call, my thoughts turned to how many more ‘Shahals’ were out there in this world – and more importantly – who were they calling.

America, you are starting to be un-friended.  Just saying.

Ecosystem, New Work, Tech

The Future is a Roundabout

The Future Roundabout by kevin dooley, on Flickr

I have always loved roundabouts – traffic circles – or whatever name you give to those delightful road configurations that move traffic in most parts of the world except North America. I could never figure out why I liked them so much until I starting writing my book about the new intersections of science, technology, culture and the world in general.

Intersections are exciting for me because as someone once said, “… the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet … roads, shorelines, weather fronts, international borders …”

Love it!

But the roundabout is a different kind of intersection, isn’t it?  It is fluid, it is highly evolved and most importantly it requires a skill level that lifts the driver beyond the ordinary.  We must pay attention as the interactions of the drivers are entirely mutually dependent.  It ONLY works if the rules are obeyed and people pay attention.  It is efficient and sometimes {often} messy.

It is collaborative.   A traffic LIGHT is not.  A stop sign is not. Simple binary rules – go or stop.


But a roundabout!!  Anticipate, weave, integrate, go, left check, right check, exit. Always some uncertainty about the outcome.  And the best is the first time in a complex urban roundabout (think London or Paris). Even better when driving on the opposite side of the road.

My first roundabout was in Adelaide, Australia after spending 4 hours in the Barossa wine country with a manual shift, driving on the opposite of the car and road.  It was awesome!!  That I am alive today –  we will leave that for another day.

As we think of the future where incredible intersections of all forms of human knowledge will begin to solve the really hard problems, I am thinking that it will look and feel much more like roundabouts than the traditional two-line affair.

I am paying attention!



Ecosystem, New Work

Alberta’s Start-up Tech Ecosystem: Why not here?

It occurred to me as I watched another western Canadian technology firm head down to spend 42 hours in the valley ecosystem, that there is an unfortunate analogy with the Canadian Oil and Gas industry.  Instead of bitumen, unprocessed heavy crude and natural gas, we are speaking of intellectual property, human capital and innovation moving south.  And instead of moving to the Gulf refineries, we are “shipping the crude” to that other refinery – Silicon Valley.

Let’s build the technology equivalent of upgraders and refineries right here.  There is no reason that we need to go south in a world as connected as ours. We are sending our talent, intellectual property, unfinished opportunities, highly skilled jobs, diversification opportunities and tax dollars south by doing so.

Locally, I look to the A100 (and the AEC backed Accelerate Fund) and its ecosystem; StartUp Calgary and its university allegiances.  In the east we have the superb iNovia team, OMERS and the Canadian Council of Innovators; I look to local companies like Benevity (Global sales and US funded but staying put) headed by the indefatigable Brian deLottinville as excellent examples of a Canada first approach.

Our small economic size means the need for connectivity, efficiency and speed.  We have that in spades.  Its time for thoughtful government macro policy, broad based entrepreneurial mentoring and capital maturity to think beyond – to modernize an old Canadian chestnut,  “hewers of wood, drawers of water and writers of code”.

Time to put the shovel in the ground.

Game On!

Ecosystem, New Work

Collective Brilliance: A New Leadership Paradigm

If you have read Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Steve Jobs you will know that one of the central themes of the book – whether intended or not – is the nature of business leadership.   The book’s detailed chronicles of the “corporate misogyny” of Mr Jobs juxtaposed against the failures and ultimate global success of Apple & Pixar makes for compelling reading and raises a fundamental question about leadership:  “To make extraordinary things happen, does a leader have to be an A–hole?”

Or put less colloquially: “Are great strides only achievable through huge and often ‘extra-human’ sacrifice?”

The stories of Mark Zukerberg of Facebook are legendary.  Similarly, at Microsoft, a meeting with Bill Gates would often end with the line. “Are you just ignorant or stupid?”

Is that what leadership has become in technology companies?   You either are a God or you suck;  Your product succeeds quickly or it fails fast.  Binary.  Black.  White?  While in extremely rare cases these leadership approaches can generate huge wins, they are also hugely divisive and create enormous costs to employees and society.  They are also horrible models to emulate for the average technology start-up and their leaders.

The real truth is that leading a modern technology company is a far more complex calculus.