more notes on generativity; and how it relates to design

This week I have the honour of attending and presenting an award at the ceremony of the 60th Australian Good Design Awards. So I have been thinking about design. In particular, how does one apply design principles to our lives?

We criticise developers who rape and pillage spaces around us, ignoring good design in pursuit of a dollar. But my suspicion is that property developers do not appreciate and reject good design, they are simply motivated by something else. Is it not also true of our living? Perhaps it is not that we appreciate the patterns of living that facilitate a good life – and reject them, maybe it is that we have never been given a realistic alternative than the dominant narrative of self serving consumerism; and the drive for power and influence or whatever shapes our discretionary choices and relational patterns.  Developers may trash our cities and towns, but all around us we’re trashing our families and communities by repeating bad patterns of living.

I completed Notes on Generativity a couple of years ago, and while I was happy to crystallise my thinking, my learning continues. The thoughts in this note have been stimulated from reading Christopher Alexander’s A Timeless Way of Building, the companion volume to A Pattern Language from which I have learned so much. If Pattern Language is the expression, A Timeless way of Building is the thinking. It has genuinely stirred my being.

Alexander describes, illustrates, explores, explains a so-called ‘quality that cannot be named’. Sometimes a town, a building, a room, a space has a particular kind of quality for which there is no accurate or precise English word. One might say it is ‘alive’ or ‘whole’ or ‘comfortable’ or ‘free’ or ‘exact’ or ‘eternal’ even … but none of these describe completely what one feels and experiences when in the space. The same can be said for a life. What is that quality? Successful, satisfied, happy? Content, peaceful or purposeful? Or what about the intelligences; emotional, spiritual? As with architecture and design, it is similarly very difficult for a single word to describe that ‘quality’ that characterises some people. In The Freedom Paradox, Clive Hamilton talks about so called ‘avatars of virtue’ … that’s kind of what I’m shooting for. But unlike some ideological or religious gurus, I’m searching for something that is a bit more ordinary and ‘everyday’.

A town or a building can be ‘designed’, but it would be a mistake to think that design is a blueprint; a set of static principles. Rather there are patterns that if understood and facilitated can give rise to ‘that quality’. It only emerges as people engage with the space; it is the way people behave in and with a space that gives it that quality that cannot be named. Think of a well design cafe; it ‘works’ only as people engage with and within.

The way to grow a flower is not to ‘build it’ with tweezers and cells, but to plant the seed in favourable conditions and cultivate the environment. Design is the same. By creating something in a particular way, based on well understood patterns, we invite the possibility of ‘that quality that cannot be named’. Good design should never be an end in itself. Of course at one level beauty is indeed an end. Aesthetic is its own reward. But most designers would admit that unless there is a social (or environmental or other) impact that emerges from the use of the product or service, then they fall short of their aspiration as designers. A beautiful chair is not just for a ‘theoretic sitting’ but a real ‘sit’, one that enhances that moment of living.

This is why I call my manifesto Notes on Generative Living. I became a student of my own life, observing the patterns that, when harmonised, gave that sense of quality of life that is extraordinarily elusive to name. I concluded that for me, there were actually three identifiable patterns that stood out. It is not a set of behaviours or activities. It is not a set of commitments even. It is a set of patterns that, if integrated into routines, generate in my life, that ‘quality that cannot be named’.

They are pleasure, betterness and meaning.

Just like design, they are not part of a blueprint that guarantee anything.

Alexander has identified 253 individual design patterns; an extraordinary achievement in observation and wisdom. There will be many many more ‘life patterns’ beyond the three I have written about. For other people in different contexts with different orientations and experiences of life, there will be others that are more appropriate to be applied to best facilitate that quality of life I describe as ‘generative’. Many years ago I defined something as generative if it is:

  1. Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements.
  2. The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively.
  3. Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future.

In the years since then, having digested Alexander’s work, I am more inclined to nuance the language a little. Something is generative if:

  1. Based on an established pattern, observed in diverse contexts, which facilitates a high probability of, rather than guarantees a positive outcome.
  2. Experience of it evolves in a creative, dynamic way from considered behaviour.
  3. It facilitates outcomes that are regenerative, reproductive; offering life to the future.

 

antifragility and generativity and why they matter (at least to me)

This is pretty dense with cross references which I want to link for future reference.

back at CityPoint … a familiar view

It’s mid-April in the city. The warm days keep intruding on Autumn but sitting outdoors at a cafe at 9pm in windless, high 20s, taking in the night rhythms of the west end is good fun …
The paradox of having multiple projects on is that I read more … something about needing to feed my brain in order to keep the output energised and fresh.
Anyway, earlier this evening I was grateful to finish reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I read it knowing I’d find it both good and bad. The good bit is that I enjoy engaging people who operate with unfamiliar mental models.  He is super smart, eccentric even, and I love delving into the minds of radically intelligent thinkers. I do however find myself disagreeing with where he ends up on some topics. But I chose to read him intentionally. I chose to suspend judgement and listen, really listen. Too often we consume intelligence that we already broadly agree with, and so we create in our minds a growing illusion that people who disagree with us must be stupid or wilfully selfish or evil even. So while I disagree with where he ends up sometimes, I certainly do have a greater appreciation for why he and others have such a distain for political correctness. (Jonathon Haidt’s work argues compellingly that we must do this more. see his first TED talk here.)
But my main reason for digesting Peterson was because I had set myself to go deeper into the parallel universe that is Nassim Taleb’s view of the world. And like Taleb, Peterson is concerned with understanding how to live well in the context of chaos. I knew I’d find more of Taleb that was aligned with what I already believed, so wanted to read Peterson as a counter.
I first heard of Taleb’s work via Issue 1 of The Alpine Review. Like a very few other other big ideas I’ve come across, I sensed there was something in this that would be important for me. As I read the other day, mental models are the new alphabet, so I’m thirsty for new ways to see and therefore make sense of this crazy world. Taleb and Peterson certainly both offer different ways of seeing the world.
Taleb has spent his career trying to understand uncertainty and randomness. Both he and Peterson hold the view that chaos and randomness are not bad per se, and are not to be, indeed cannot be avoided. Further, it turns out that most of the really significants things that happen in our lives can be traced to random events. 
But many of the systems which define modern life are fragile. Random and unpredicted events can cripple whole sets of infrastructure. One apparently isolated occurrence has ripple effects across nations and the world. (Just think about the impact of volcanic ash or the 9/11 terrorist attacks on air travel. Or think about how the apparently untouchable Facebook could be out of business in a relatively short period of time when trust is broken.)
Most people, when asked, say that the opposite of fragile is robust (or similar). But Taleb argues this is not the case. If a package is marked fragile, it means that its contents will break if subjected to trauma. The opposite would be if the items got stronger if/when subjected to trauma. So Taleb is in search of those things that are improved by randomness, uncertainty and even trauma. Things that are antifragile. His argument is that we can glimpse the future by taking notice of those things which have antifragile attributes. Or the corollary; we know that if something is fragile, its time of dominance or prominence at least will be limited. 
 I recognised in this reasoning something of what I was grappling for in my manifesto. The idea of generativity comes on the back of this. It’s also a bit akin to Peterson’s idea behind the 12 Rules for Life – what is the smallest number of essential things a person needs to know in order to live well? My thesis is that three drivers (pleasure, betterness and meaning), on two foundations (home and community) and four disciplines offer a generative life – a life that feeds itself with ‘the quality that cannot be named’ (from a masterful chapter in Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. Alexander goes through multiple alternative (English) words that capture elements of that quality that is recognisable in a room or building but for which we don’t have an adequate word. If I was in conversation with him, I’d offer ‘generative’.)
I have recently had an email exchange with Paul Hawken, whose Natural Capitalism gave me great hope when I read it more than a decade ago. For many years now people have been lamenting that the term ‘sustainability’ has lost its meaning as it gets co-opted ubiquitously. But like many others, I have struggled to think of an alternative. Until now.
Paul’s upcoming book will be called Regeneration. It comes from the same thinking as Taleb’s antifragile. We can’t get to a solution to todays problems by using the same thinking that got us where we are. ‘Robust’ is about risk mitigation against fragility – but that’s not enough. Sustainability is about risk mitigation against depleting natural resources – but that is not enough. We need radical new thinking to change the game.
Taleb says, how do we build systems that actually thrive on uncertainty and randomness? Hawken says it’s not about sustainability, it’s about creating a society that engages the natural environment in a way that actually regenerates it. I am interested in the ingredients that facilitate better living when we encounter the normal terrain of contemporary society; those disciplines and mental models that provide generativity amidst normal chaos. 
A bit to think about …

media intelligence

propaganda

noun: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view

Let’s play word association: “North Korea” – what are you thinking? If you are like me, you are replaying the images Western media feeds us. “Those poor North Koreans being feed all those lies about the world and their place in it!”

I used to think propaganda was what the bad guys did during war. But these days propaganda is ubiquitous. I don’t get angry easily, but I find anger swelling more frequently when I realise how (i) I have been feed falsehoods as absolute truth and (ii) when I see opinion pieces being presented as news and current affairs on the front pages of news papers and websites. The reason I get angry is that I grew up trusting the media, and it takes a lot of unlearning to be skeptical.

There are some easy targets. The concentration of media ownership scares me a lot. I physically shudder when I think people’s view of the world is shaped by commercial news and current affairs and what they read on their Facebook feed. But there are less obvious ones too. I also get angry when I realise how my own education has been full of propaganda. I think particularly of what we were taught about First Nations people and culture; that they were unsophisticated savages. I feel physically sick at the lie yet know how hard it is to unlearn prejudices.

Make no mistake, complete objectivity is impossible. But if it was up to me, teaching media intelligence must become central to education. We could do worse than watch Utopia, Mediawatch and re-runs of Frontline.

The business of professional journalism is being dismantled at an alarming rate. How will we keep abreast of current affairs of no interest to commercially driven media? How will we know we are hearing a balanced account? Who will we trust to shape our worldview?

I have only recently become aware of The Conversation. A pairing of academia and journalism is a promising idea, getting behind the headline and a single angle on a story. For example, you would think from our mainstream news that the Rohingyas evacuation from Myanmar was all about religious intolerance (apparently not), or you might wonder what we can and can’t say about the extent to which hurricanes Harvey and Irma were related to climate change.

Before I first went to PNG I visited my GP to get some advice about health risks. He said, “Just assume everything is covered in faeces and you’ll be OK.” To stay intelligent these days, let’s just assume every piece of media we consume is propaganda and we’ll be OK.

 

 

Inclusive Growth In Australia: Social Policy as Economic Investment

Our work at donkey wheel is focussed on developing an ecosystem for social innovation. I read this recently. Learned about contemporary research and thinking examining how economic policies designed to help poor and/or marginalised people work, and the extent to which they are effective. The book is academic and not politically partisan, but I came out feeling discouraged at the apparent lack of political will to base polices on an evidence base of what works and what doesn’t. The jury is not out anymore, the so-called Washington Consensus, the thesis that the benefits of economic growth trickle down to benefit everyone has been disproved. There is a better way, involving investment in social infrastructure rather than welfare payment from consolidated revenue … but as with so many areas, political ideology prevents us from examining the evidence and acting accordingly.

Inclusive Growth explores a new synthesis of social and economic policy for Australia. It is based on the ‘Inclusive Growth’ roundtable hosted by the University of Melbourne – Brotherhood of St Laurence partnership in October 2011. The hosts brought together leading thinkers from key institutions including the Workplace Research Centre University of Sydney (WRC), the Social Policy Research Centre (UNSW), the Grattan Institute, the Business Council of Australia, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who have all been engaged with this policy challenge. Inclusion and growth can indeed be compatible. Numerous leaders of the economics profession have been calling for some time for the reinvigoration of the radical reform ethos of the late twentieth century. This book shares that sense of imperative, but not the ethos that saw welfare as harmful to growth. The authors detail the way in which the benefits of growth were skewed to the rich. To enjoy legitimacy, any new Australian economic reform agenda must have a stronger role for social policy and redistribution. This book investigates what an inclusive growth strategy might look like in Australia in five parts: the national and international policy context; the question ‘has growth been good for the poor?’; meeting the productivity challenge; social infrastructure and productivity; and labor market flexibility and social security.

About the Author

Paul Smyth is a professor of Social Policy at the University of Melbourne, and General Manager of the Research and Policy Centre at the Brotherhood of St. Laurence, Fitzroy, Australia. This joint position involves leading research and the development of policy around partnership solutions to Australia’s social problems. His work combines policy development and research at the BSL with teaching and research at the University’s Centre for Public Policy. John Buchanan is a professor and Director of the Workplace Research Centre (WRC) in the Sydney Business School. In recent years, John’s research interests have focused on changes associated with the demise of the classical wage earner model of employment. He is especially interested in new approaches to integrating industrial relations and social and economic policies to achieve simultaneous improvements in productivity and fairness.

Three pre-conditions for developing a new strategy

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In two weeks I will walk into the offices of an unfamiliar organisation to talk about their desire and need for a new strategy. For reasons known only by my subconscious, I woke up early this morning thinking about the conversation. Or more precisely, I was going through in my mind the requisite conditions that would make the effort worthwhile. And that’s before we even talk about the implementation of said strategy.

So, here are three conditions, without which it is not worth the effort embarking on developing a strategy. If any one of these is missing, don’t waste the time, effort or money.

1. Cohesion in the leadership group

Developing a strategy without leadership cohesion is like pouring water into a colander and expecting it to fill up. The leadership group, (the Executive Team, the Board or whoever is owning the work) is the container in which the research, debate and decision-making will happen. If the group is not aligned and operating with a foundation of trust, the best efforts to develop, let alone implement a strategy will achieve lip service agreement at best and white-anting at worst.

If the strategy development process is designed and facilitated well, it will help with building cohesion, but the foundations of trust must at least provide a basis on which to work together with good will. Functional unity at a minimum.

2. The CEO and effective visionary (if they are not the same) must be fully engaged in the process.

Strategy, if it is to have any traction in affecting the way the organisation operates must be owned by those who are steering, either by positional authority or relational influence. And the only way for genuine buy-in to be achieved is intimate engagement in the nitty gritty of the process.

A strategy cannot be ‘sold’ to a CEO as a package, so if they are not willing or able to commit significant time and energy to the process, do something else but don’t formulate a new strategy.

3. It’s about the strategy not the artefact.

Oh dear. How much do we love process and outputs, especially in large organisations! Unfortunately, it is too easy and too common for the process to end up being all about a good document rather than a good strategy.

At one level this is excusable, because strategy is useless if not communicated. But a strategy exists independently of any attempt to document it. For the sake of absolute clarity, articulating it in words or diagrams is crucial, but they are only a representation of the strategy, they are not the strategy.

The best indication of strategic clarity is that everyone in the organisation, when prompted, will give the same answer when asked about the strategy. Slight variations that account for language preference are good, but the substance will be consistent and succinct.

If the starting point is a template, beware. Be-very-ware.

So where do you start then? I often ask what has prompted the need for a new strategy. The most common answer is, ‘our old one is due to expire.’ Great, but that’s a pretty low bar.

Why do you need a strategy? What are the business issues you need to solve? What questions needs to be answered in order to solve those issues? Articulating these questions is the key starting point for strategy development. In most cases they will be tricky questions and the pursuit of answers will be interesting, even compelling for most people in the organisation. If not, you might not want to bother with an elaborate engagement process. Unless of course you are happy and motivated to oversee an administrative process that ticks the boxes and gives you something at the end to sit on the coffee table in reception.

Yawn.