A recently released video and in-depth report document Collective Invention’s partnership with the Vallejo Charter School.
In most ways, the Roman Empire was a boon to everyone involved. Once-warring tribes were brought to a place of peace. These tribes could suddenly trade local goods, exchange ideas, and invest in shared infrastructure. The only drawback to the Pax Romana was Rome. Rome sucked resources that it burned on extravagant gestures, often designed to distract. It served as an information bottleneck, forcing bad decisions onto people with the local knowledge to make better ones. Worst of all, Rome became a single point of failure that eventually brought the entire system crashing down.
Today, these wealthy, ill-informed single points of failure are still causing disasters on a regular basis. Our small tribes accept them as a necessary evil because in a deeply interconnected and interdependent world we need our Pax. But that may be changing. For the first time in human history, advances in social technology are letting small tribes build an empire together without elevating a Rome. (“Social technology” refers to systems of organizing like democracy, not social media tools like twitter.) These emerging technologies and their practitioners will be featured in an upcoming Polycentrism Track at the Social Capital Markets Conference. (more…)
From Erika, Fiona, Arnold, Clark, Cheryl and Alexa
“It’s very exciting”, he says, “I’m figuring out how the system works and figuring out what stories I want to tell.” He looks forward to creating video-style infographics and using his perspective as a designer to inform Collective Invention’s work.
“It’s easy to say that you’re going out and saving the entire world. We need to be thinking about making concrete changes at the level of the individual.”
One might reasonably be skeptical that executives from 30 of the world’s largest corporations, mostly strangers to one another, would be willing to suspend disbelief and assume the identity of a person living in the year 2050. First online, then in global teleconferences followed by a face-to-face work session.
I was, to be honest, a little skeptical myself.
But that is exactly what happened when we facilitated a recent experience for the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) in order to understand the values and behaviors that will shape consumers of the future. To set the stage, we created an online world rich in detail (drawn from our own primary research and WBCSD’s extensive resources) about how people who care about sustainability will eat, play, learn, work, entertain themselves, communicate and get from place to place in the year 2050.
Because the project’s participants are part of a global consortium of companies who share a commitment to environmental sustainability, those members in our event were executives responsible either for marketing or for the sustainability agenda per se in their organizations. They were highly motivated to understand the lifestyles of the sustainable consumer 10, 20, 30 and 40 years in the future. To make this happen as viscerally as possible, we created an online platform that let them walk in the shoes of 60 fictional consumers, interacting with others along the way, before bringing the group together in a face-to-face collaboration in the UK.
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At another level, I’m not surprised at all that people jumped in so earnestly. Clients of all kinds have proven quite willing to engage in imaginative processes as long as they see a substantive link to their “real” strategic work. The precept that transformative experiences lead to transformative ideas is born out of a series of experiences over the last 15 years, beginning with the design of the Museum of Unintended Consequences for Global Business Network (GBN) in which we took 150 business leaders through an audio tour of ideas and products that have led to unanticipated outcomes, including plate glass, the birth control pill, and, finally, the telescope. In the last gallery each visitor found himself alone, enrobed by a twinkling night sky, listening to Galileo talk about what his contraption had taught him about the cosmos. The final act was for each person to answer (on a 3×5 card) this question: “how did you come to be sitting here today?”
I have kept those cards for over a decade because the responses we received were extraordinary. They wove together lives and careers, events planned and unplanned, epiphanies that could only have resulted from being asked this question at this moment after this particular experience. And they showed me that whatever professional personas we adopt, we are all looking for ways to make meaning out of the actions we take, the experiences we have, and the ways in which we wield our power in the world. As one CEO said in a different context: “what people don’t understand is that, if you want me to take risks that affect thousands of people, I have to be moved first. It’s not just an intellectual decision.”
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After a week of working online with the WBCSD participants, we met them all in Weybridge, Surrey, the UK, for a day and a half. In that setting we focused on exactly the kinds of things that CEO was talking about: the motivators, influencers and behaviors that will affect decisions in the future, moving people to make–we all hope–decisions that are both ethical and environmentally conscious. Our bet is that by sharing in this sort of experiential process, the companies involved will similarly be moved to risk building the products and services that will support the best intentions of consumers–now and several decades hence.
Our future depends on reinventing and re-energizing our social institutions and bonds. Progress relies on both new technologies and new social arrangements to liberate and direct human creativity, knowledge, and energy. At times, technologies have catalyzed social progress. Fire and cooking enabled more efficient nutrition, and freed up time for exploration. Roads and viaducts sped transportation and improved public health. Drawing, writing, and later the printing press enabled the accumulation and spread of knowledge, as well as abstract thought itself. The internet hyper-accelerated our global capacity to create and share information, commerce, and understanding. But social innovation has played an even greater role in spurring progress–including breakthrough technologies. Agriculture began in small groups, but its organized spread formed the basis for markets and money, and the creation of governmental, religious, and educational institutions. The erosion of monarchies and the rise of merchant classes sped trade in goods and ideas. The American constitution encoded and accelerated self government. Public health measures radically increased the average human life span, and universal education spurred rapid social and economic development.
In the past two decades, we’ve seen seen explosive growth in bio-, info-, and nano-technologies. But in many respects our social structures–in education, health, and government itself–have not kept pace. While the potential and need for social progress is now greater than ever, its record in recent years has lagged. Institutionalized structures and practices that reward waste and pollution have caused massive environmental destruction. The concentration and deregulation of financial power has led to worldwide economic crisis. Billions of children and adults who could contribute to future progress are malnourished and poorly educated. Fortunately, we believe that a new force for social innovation is being born, one that we call “collective invention.”
In a world in which most of our systems, from food to education to health to commerce, are either under significant pressure (buy any peanut butter lately?) or have broken down altogether (how’s your mortgage application coming along?) there is a lot of emphasis on getting to the “right solution”.
But while we may not know what all the solutions are, we’d submit that we collectively do know how to build the right solutions, and that the process knowledge is at least as important as the solutions themselves, because it’s replicable.
The partners at Collective Invention have worked together a long time, though our collaborations have taken different forms over the years. Arnold and I met as co-founders of The Idea Factory, now a Singapore-based company started here in San Francisco in 1997; it was here that we hosted Clark’s UC Berkeley design students and recruited Fiona to build our ethnographic research practice. Meanwhile, other longtime professional friendships, such as those with Jamais Cascio and Adam Kahane, grew out of our all having had the good fortune to work at Global Business Network (GBN) in the mid 1990’s.
The fact that we have collaborated in widely varied settings over time has helped us collectively to reflect on our work, and as part of Collective Invention’s mission we’d like to share some of our working hypotheses about the practices and principles that support innovation in the social sectors. I invite you to add your own thinking to the mix, and meet others with similar preoccupations, by getting involved in the practices and principles group on the Innovation for the Common Good discussion forum.
First of all, we define collective invention as diverse problem-solvers engaging productively together to generate breakthrough solutions. It’s what the X-Prize seeks to incent through offering prizes: “radical breakthroughs to benefit humanity.” And it’s what we seek to do with reliable processes for collaborative innovation. That’s a powerful combination: it will take both funding and technical support to blast open the problems we face and build new solutions together.
Clark, in his earlier blog post, has begun to lay out some parameters for design thinking. Our experience tells us that there are additional principles that provide the underpinning for collective invention in the social sectors:
Innovation for the common good demands focused cooperation between policy-makers, funders, researchers, leaders, and facilitators. The sheer scale of social problems, and the potential for doing harm through ill-conceived projects, requires the influence of policy-makers, the human-centered focus of qualitative research, the energy of venture funding, the topview of enlightened leadership and the process know-how of program facilitation. None of these factors on its own will catalyze real breakthroughs in healthcare, education or sustainable development, but together we can remake the landscape.
Confident leadership creates the conditions in which risk and error actually result in better solutions. Risk, error and deviation from the norm are pre-conditions for innovation, and leadership must advocate for them. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, says “especially in the scientific community, people are stuck in how they approach problems. The day before something is a breakthrough it was a crazy idea. If it wasn’t crazy yesterday, it isn’t a breakthrough today. And breakthrough ideas can sometimes be embarrassing if they don’t immediately lead to results.” Perhaps even more around pressing social problems than in the private sector, where innovation practices have been cultivated, leadership must model tolerance for and yes, even advocate for risk, error and deviation from the norm.
Good process generates a productive rhythm between collective intelligence and individual creativity. While experience is the only path to mastery here, there are ways to know when a team needs to be hived off or opened up; when an individual problem-solver needs to work independently and when s/he is ready for new perspectives; when and how to crowdsource and when and how to make meaning from the resulting data. Maybe this is, in part, what Daniel Pink means when he talks about symphony as a skill for this conceptual age.
Innovative teams are cognitively diverse. While it is easier to point to and to accomplish other forms of diversity—geographic, religious, gender, ethnic—when we are building breakthrough solutions what we most care about is cognitive diversity: differing mental models and problem-solving habits. A hypothesis: collective invention requires the ability to identify these differences, recruit participants accordingly, and to provide teams the tools to exploit cognitive diversity.
Mindful organizations, groups and teams are sensitive to their environments. A creative group is mindful of detail and adaptive to changes in the world around them. Collective mindfulness is about the ability to scan for signs of change and monitor particular signals at the same time.
The opportunity of our age is to use both silicon-based and social technologies to illuminate new possibilities. We have the technical know-how to surface and share data from virtually any source. Combined with process knowledge born out of design and organizational development, this gives us the capacity to invent, explore and rework solutions at a scale and speed never before possible. This opens up the potential for new forms of collaboration between technologists, designers and laypeople with shared investments in social innovation.