I have been quiet of late.
Life and work challenges? Perhaps.
The weight of my worries about our world? Maybe.
The noise of it all and me being unable to find a clarion call through it? Likely.
But a commitment to writing my second book, and an unexpectedly inspired trip to Kauaʻi in the summer, started this writer’s stalled flywheel turning.
This post is the launch of a conversation that will lead – all things going to plan – to a book I am calling, The Human Race. I begin this long journey – without the safety and wrap of a freshman author’s naivete.
The title has an obvious double meaning. The fate of our Race as human beings, “Homo Sapiens,” and the genuine Race facing the future of our planet with Indifference, Inequality, and Ignorance being our primary challengers.
While linked to my first book, Tip of the Spear, it is a humble reflection on some of the narrowness in Tip’s central thesis. Oh, to be sure, I am proud of what was written and the conversations that flowed from its provocations. However, these past four years since its writing required a response. In the wake of the pandemic, there is unease in our communities and with our neighbours. Our worlds have been uprooted. Individuals, families, organizations, and nation-states are challenged and changing. Hope and leadership are hidden and grey in the mists of anger, fear, and anxiety. Glasses, once half-filled, are draining.
The book will be my attempt to give voice to these concerns and to light navigation beacons for those whom many now call the exhausted middle.
Tip told us that exponential, combinational technologies are magic but dangerous. However, over these past four years, I have recognized that laying the blame squarely on technology alone has proven insufficient. In the book, I talked about the tensions between the fantastic products of human imagination and ingenuity – Innovation of Things – and the essence of human compassion embodied in the institutions of our lives – Innovation of Ways.
Turns out ‘Ways‘ are the hard part, and we are indeed at a crossroads.
This post introduces us to The Human Race’s spine: The Axioms of Ways.
In 2016 my colleague Brad Zumwalt came across an extraordinary book: The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley. This somewhat obscure 2012 work, was a counterintuitive, complex-systems theory of how innovation ecosystems are formed. It turned out to be a transformational treatise for many of us in our local innovation ecosystem. Over the subsequent few years, we engaged with the authors and their strategy team to learn and teach others about “the Ways of the Rainforest.” It was a foundational effort for our community.
Its magic – at least to me – was found in two of its core constructs.
First, a startlingly simple gem that “trust” was an essential driver of innovation and formed the building block of an explicit social contract. While I understood Trust as a concept, it had become crystal clear that the implicit rules of how we needed to behave had become unfocused, extractive, and unsure. The book taught us that when complex systems change, the people living and driving the change need to explicitly understand the rules of the road – what has worked and what hasn’t. Clearly, the rules were changing, but no one bothered to tell us, or we were simply too busy with our own crap to care.
This idea of the social contract is central to the second gem of the book called The Axioms of The Rainforest. These were 14 foundational statements that formed the backbone of its thesis, including the role of the social contract. The axioms were often philosophical and challenging, stemming from the field of biological living systems. They framed expressive, rich metaphors to discuss the complexity of human beings making change in the presence of innovation, technology, and new ideas.
They were a necessary spark to guide our efforts in creating a Rainforest in our home ecosystem.
They also provide me with an unexpected way forward.
My writing void and my self-censure of, “Did the world need one more book about the impending doom of a planet and a species out of control?” was buttressed by a profound period of angst, research, and reflection. There was a deep set of beliefs and ideas flowing through me as I observed a world under stress. I felt the deepness and divisiveness of the climate change discussions. I observed the headwinds experienced by the authors of new models of regenerative economics that sought to right the inequality ship of greed-capitalism. I listened to indigenous elders pushing back on a colonial model, and, most urgently, I understood that the world needed new and inspired leadership.
I also recognized the seriousness of the point we are at in human history.
The Axiom of Ways took shape as a way for me to get unstuck and create a framework for the change and action I called for in Tip of the Spear. They became my why and purpose. They flowed out of me in my two weeks alone in Hawaii, and I knew they would form the backbone of the book.
The emergent platform formed by these thoughts has given me a new way to understand the world in which I live, have lived, will live, and most emphatically, the world in which my children will live.
I asked myself, “Could it be a framework for thinking about and acting on big, bold, and often intangible, wicked problems in a way that brings them down to the ground? Could they be ladders to the day-to-day, helping us get to the level where we can say, “Ok, I get your point; what can I do about this, and how can I change mine or others’ mindsets about the urgency, complexity and possibility of the race we are in?”
I believe so, and I am keen to share and now get feedback from the game-changing thought leaders I am blessed to call friends and colleagues.
Introducing The Axioms of Ways: A Framework for Addressing Wicked Problems.
Axiom 1: Other Ways of Knowing.
The solutions to what ail us and for shaping a world of possibility will be found at the intersection of ancient knowledge and the learnings of our technological, post-industrial world. The “tyranny of the ‘OR’ is replaced by the ‘power of AND.’ We know that the most dynamic and expressive places in any living system are found at the intersection of ecosystems: Where the river meets the ocean, the forest abuts the mountains. In our complex and extractive world, our indigenous partners can be co-creators of a future that will see the power of rapid technological advances married to the context of a deep connection to the living system of the planet, of place, and the connectedness of all things.
Other ways of knowing also address the harsh reality that our developed world’s view – the perch from which this white, privileged author speaks – is irrelevant to 75% of the world’s population. If they cared, most would look upon these axioms with a mixture of WTF and “Yes, but where’s my next meal coming from?”
The counter to this is that while the words and principles may be ignored and ignorable, the extractive developed world’s actions are forever altering the planet’s resources and climate systems.
And that CANNOT be ignored.
Axiom 2: Abundance
Human history is filled with reductionism that flies in the face of living systems of extraordinary bounty and human consciousness that can think, dream, and explore without boundaries. With an abundance mindset, we provide hope. With scarcity, we constrain human ambition and feed inequality that has the perverse effect of reducing the Innovation of Ways to a narrow constraint of the greed of the few.
The abundance view of our complex world creates the conditions for safety as we begin to learn that sharing – everything from knowledge, solutions and wealth in all of its tangible and intangible forms – is not a zero sum game nor definitive. More begets more.
This is a significant mindset shift and one for which we must more urgently prepare. Abundance has already come to communications, connectivity, and information. We have not understood nor adapted well to the new realities in this most profound and fundamental of human activities. Imagine what happens next when our collective brilliance shapes abundance thinking in education, energy, and mobility.
Axiom 3: A New Social Contract
In a time of profound change, social contracts of human and organizational culture and behaviour need to be explicit. The Rainforest reminds us of this.
Today, many of our community and governance relationships are broken. We see it in the angst and anger of our political systems and our anemic empathic, and compassionate responses to our fellow person. We have the tools of the gods, but we need to remember how to listen, trust and communicate with others and – importantly – listen intently to our planet’s language and extend the social contract beyond our human boundaries. We must express the new ways of human governance, relationships, and collaboration anew.
Axiom 4: Regeneration
While sustainability is an essential milestone on the journey to reclaiming balance in our world, the more appropriate paradigm for this point in our species relationship with the planet, is regeneration. Sustainability speaks to “adding no additional harm”, regenerative systems are founded on “humans doing things as nature.” Our indigenous sisters and brothers have long understood that living systems must be more than maintained; they must be nourished.
As Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl notes,
“A regenerative human impact on Earth is not only possible but has been the norm for most of our species’ deep history. Oral traditions of indigenous cultures that pre-date agricultural or fossil fuel-based societies describe how human beings used to nurture abundance and diversity while actively regenerating the health of local and regional ecosystems.”
Most importantly, the vocabulary of regeneration needs to be infused into the very language and principles of the economic systems of our world that are extractively defined by a relentless focus on growth and the zero-sum game.
Axiom 5: You Can’t Protect What You Don’t Understand
Innovation of Things is the force that has driven our extraordinary expansion of combinational and exponential technological advancement. By any measure, we have invented amazing ‘things’ and, with it, altered our relationship with the planet, our prosperity, and our potential.
But the “hardware” of technology is shaped by continuous, exponential downward cost forces. It is always commoditizing. Instead, the real, lasting value is understanding our world and the stories we create that stem from these ‘things.’ As indigenous Hawaiian leader Nainoa Thompson and others have said,
“We can’t protect what we don’t understand, and we can’t understand if we don’t care, and we can’t do it alone.”
The power of technology is in the data it generates and helps us understand. Yet we are at a crossroads with this data, aren’t we? By blindly participating in the ‘free’ technology of our emergent and viral social systems, we have become the ‘product’ – data supplier – of a globally connected, extractive technology oligopoly. We must take heed as we launch more powerful artificial/augmented intelligence systems against these unfathomably large data stores (speaking of Abundance!).
The power of stories is the oldest human spark. If we are going to protect our ‘Rainforest,’ we need to understand it, and we have the ability and ‘things’ to do just that if that’s what we decide in our social contract to do.
And that leads to the final, urgent, and timely Axiom that connects all of this.
Axiom 6: The Genesis Problem: Truth and Trust
The genesis accelerant of all human systems of innovation is trust. The hairs on the back of my neck go up when I realize how degraded our systems of trust have become. This is the ultimate slippery slope.
“Human Downgrading,” as coined by Center for Humane Technology‘s Tristan Harris, has started at the very moment we need the collective brilliance of the human species. We have built the tools of the Gods, yet we allowed them to be used to attack truth and science and amplify fear. Many have written about this. But it bears repeating: We have all the tools and information to solve the world’s current problems. But the attention ‘infrastructure’ of the human brain is being hacked and downgraded to a point where we can’t even agree on the facts before us. The dopamine drivers of the social media oligopolies are rewiring what it means to be human and what it means to be a compassionate, critical thinking and evolving human.
And we are about to layer over top of this hacked brain, systems of unimaginable capabilities. Using the first five axioms, we need to solve this challenge first. The rest are irrelevant if what is true is fissured into nothingness.
So. There you have the opening salvo. I look forward to the upcoming conversations about the Axioms of Ways and how we can use these principles to shape the future of learning, collective understanding, and the incredible opportunities before us.
As you think about the fantastic Race we are in, use these Axioms to frame how you might respond, what context you can provide, and where to start shaping your response.
I will be leaning in with some urgency in my role as Chief Catalyst at SAIT here in Calgary with an extraordinarily dedicated group of transformational Catalysts leading our team and throughout the organization.
But– more urgently – I will be actively socializing the Axioms of Ways as we learn to win the race against our competitors, Indifference, Inequality, and Ignorance.
It feels good to jump in. Talk soon, and stay tuned for more of The Human Race.