Navigating Through Complexity
What will your legacy be? What can your children be proud of? What stories will they tell their own children, your grandchildren, in 10, 20, 30 years from now? What lessons, values, and opportunities will they inherit?
What habitat will they inherit?
You, reading this, are likely a reflective human being beautifully composed of emotions, feelings, experiences, ideas, preferences, dreams and hopes, living in a world where technology is developing exponentially. Innovation is happening at a rapid pace and defining the way we live. What are these developments imposing onto our existence?
Are we still in the driving seat or are we just tagging along?
How will this impact our understanding of society, social cohesion, how democracy works, how our economic systems will develop? How far will capitalism, for instance, scale when its driving motor is shareholder value and industrial efficiency?
Does technology have to go this route — or can we change the narrative?
In history books, we may well be featured as the generation that screwed up. That left a mess to be fixed. Or will our future generations benefit from responsible decisions and decisive action taken by us today?
In a recent conversation with Futur/io Faculty member Pascal Morgan, CEO of think.speak.transform., these were some of the questions we touched on.
Pascal is a technology pioneer, creative thinker and passionate speaker, cross-industry digital transformation advisor. He looks back at a 28-years+ career in IT, Technology, Media, and Innovation as an Executive and strategist for Fortune 500 companies and industry leaders. He’s part of the Futur/io Faculty and Moonshot Thinking Masterclass, where he gives an insightful lecture on navigating through the complexities of innovation.
We enjoyed jumping from topic to topic, exploring a multitude of technologies and perspectives, as Pascal nicely puts it, “all roads lead to Rome — it’s all tied together.” At the end of the day, it’s all about people.
“It’s about how we can bring technologies, the UN SDGs, and our societal macro trends together to have an intelligent and holistic debate on how to move forward. Then understand how to sustainably execute on that. And while there are trans-national institutions such as the UN, that should have the resources and the mandate to do so, there’s still an extremely high level of inertia in the system, and in us as individuals.“Pascal Morgan, CEO think. speak.transform
We, humans, are overwhelmed by the speed of transformation. Pascal chuckled saying that he himself realizes it every year when the new Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies comes out:
“I’m like, oh my God, there are another 10, 20 technologies I need to understand, from new developments in nanotechnology, neural chips, and smart dust to quantum computing to whatever!”
It’s the natural course of evolution — of action, of constantly adapting, learning, and improving.
“But the speed of technological transformation is seemingly outpacing our capabilities to adapt. The evolution of the human species over several hundreds of thousands if not a few million years, is being dwarfed by the lifetime experience of our grandparents: the mind-boggling disruption of transportation from horse-drawn carriages to the Apollo 11 bringing the first humans to the moon. And now today, we are talking about virtual reality, cyborg technologies, and possibly living in a quantum simulation — while we are still struggling with the same emotional and biological challenges as our stone-age ancestors”.
Time’s up. We’re optimizing a system that has the potential to squeeze humans out of the equation. Leaving humans behind, we’re even teaching systems to autonomously optimize themselves. But if we decide to keep people at the center of things we need to embrace our responsibility to manage complexity and exponential developments.
So, how do you develop a compass that helps you navigate through change?
It’s our human nature to continuously improve our way of living. How do we do so without losing touch with what makes us human? How do we embrace rapid technological evolution and still uphold the values that form and are the basis of our very identities?
As a father of 4, with 3 of them still at home in school and kindergarten, Pascal, like all parents, wants the best environment for his children.
“It’s now less about them having a successful job, scripted careers, linear lives, like in 1950’s picture-perfect storybooks. I would like them to inherit an environment that is worth living in. I want them to have access to technologies that can support and improve their health, their well being, physically and mentally. At the same time, I want them to have access to a garden, to what we call “nature”, to real friends as opposed to only digital friends. I want them to live in an environment where they can strive and live to be the best they can be.”
How did we learn language? Beyond copying our parents and immediate environment, firing up the neurological processes to slowly and profoundly build the language center in our brains. What enforced the learning process, back in the day, was learning by repetitive writing. Letter by letter. Sentence by sentence. A laboriously physical process, slowly ingraining language into our bodies and our identities. By repeating, memorizing, mimicking. Nowadays, children no longer need to learn things by heart. They learn how to google.
What does that mean for our kids? How will that impact their cognitive abilities, their personalities? How has our society changed — will their future jobs require “googlers” or “writers”, people who can recite poems, play an instrument, or proficient navigators through fields of data, managing artificial intelligence enhanced systems?
Yes, it’s true. Leaders of today need the ability to make sound decisions. Is it more of generalists that we need, as opposed to training experts in siloed knowledge domain?
“And for that, you need ‘core’ competencies. Not meaning: I know how to weld. I know how to program. It means; I know where to find the resources to solve a given problem, that I understand in its complexity.”Pascal Morgan
We need chaos pilots. A term phrased in Denmark in the late nineties, as a business school in Aarhus embraced systems thinking and creative processes as a foundation to foster core capabilities to see, understand, create, and act upon opportunities.
A clear sense of who you are, what your values are, what your purpose is, and what you would like to give to the world.
We also need to understand how to leverage our core values, our cultural references, and ideologies that make us human — empathy, emotional bonding, cultural inclusion, and the ability to hope.
When Pascal’s father passed, he wrote a poem that he shared with his larger family community in memory of his legacy.
“It was very liberating, an emotional and personal process to use poetic expression, to get a feeling of myself as a human, a complex being with multiple layers, to tune into these intricately challenging inner spaces.”
And we, as complex beings, need the resources and skills to navigate through the complex challenges of our times.
Our society is in a process of transformation. On all levels. Technological advances, change, innovation, globalization — all are speeding up this process. While the majority of the discourse around innovation revolves around optimization and expansion, how do we ensure people remain central in the conversation? That we use technology to create real value for humanity?
How can we discuss AI less under the umbrella of optimizing systems, and more in terms of creating value?
Pascal gave an example of a project in Florida courts, now also used in other jurisdictions across the US, where AI was being tested to evaluate the risk of delinquents falling back into criminal lives — and hence, having an impact on the punitive ruling of their current offense. Those ratings, however, were not taking the criminal records on a factual basis but were factoring in racial attributes, ultimately enforcing racial bias that was already woven into the initial data.
The system would give out extremely critical ratings for people arrested with minor issues, and lightweight ratings for people with massive criminal records on things like assault — differentiating by skin color. Black individuals received systemically negative ratings even if their criminal records were so simple that in some countries, they would only result in smaller monetary fines. Cases like these now flow into the larger debate of what systemic bias really means.
Through technological advancement, things become more obvious. With more data, things become more visible.
“Of course, there are benefits to having, for example, one’s health data at any given time. Or to discover health issues better than any human doctor can, like Google’s retinal scan project or PathAI’s cancer diagnosis tools.”
He smiled and raised his hand;
“I’d be one of the first to try it out…I would want to have my health data transparent and available at any given time”.
The ID2020 project is definitely worth looking into for those curious about the topic.
“If I had that data wallet available, and I could then give certain doctors access to certain levels of data, and I’d retain full control of it, that would be fantastic. And if I could have that implanted into my skin, so the moment I had an accident and became an ICU case someone could scan that chip, read the data, and know exactly what to do, that would be a game-changer and possibly a lifesaver.”
But, as he also points out, there are always two sides to a story.
“I love gadgets, and my enthusiasm to try out new technologies, even on myself, does not mean I’m not critical when viewing these technologies through the lens of social responsibility: What happens if citizens all of a sudden become completely readable? What happens when you become a number? Can I really compress your identity, your feelings, and your sense of privacy into an ID with some number of bytes? What happens if a government had access to your data? What would happen if jurisdiction or the executive branch is being governed by parliament? Or if we don’t have free press anymore? Or if corporations or health insurance companies had indiscriminate access to the data? Do we want to have that deployed throughout society? What does it mean when everything is turned into bits and bytes and that data is being pumped into a system run by an algorithm that says “OPTIMIZE!”.”
We recently touched on designer babies in one of our workshops. As a result of natural evolution, CRISPR is based on a group of DNA sequences found in the genomes of certain organisms such as bacteria. A genetic repair and optimization program that bacteria and archaea have developed to incorporate snippets of virus DNA into their own DNA, to protect themselves from subsequent infections.
Or as Pascal put it;“We’ve basically discovered what nature is already doing: a relatively precise gene-editing tool”
And while this could be an amazing tool to combat some of our most dire genetic diseases, it opens up another larger debate on how far we want to go. If it is in our all interest to cure, where does illness end, and where does comfort begin?
“Where do you draw the line? Genetic disposition of over 90% chance of breast cancer? 50% chance of leukemia? 30% chance of arthritis? 10% chance of dementia? An x% chance of certain allergies? An x% chance of hair loss? Then it’s no longer a question of statistical probability or severity. It’s — what you define as ill. Disposition for albinism? For red hair? Brown eyes?”
It’s a slippery slope that could lead to ‘self-optimization’ quicker than we can imagine.
How do we ensure that the decisions we make improve our existence in a genuine way without optimizing till we no longer recognize ourselves? Advancing and evolving, without losing the pure sentience that underlines our very being?
What role do the ‘good old values’ of our past, of caring for our gardens and cooking for our neighbors, play in our future?
How can we combine those values with what’s happening with big data?
One example comes from a start-up get together Pascal visited in Berlin a few years back. A young man was pitching a platform service that would pull all the data from IoT sensors in farming to facilitate largefleets of autonomous tractors and harvesters to optimize their yield.
Intrigued by the idea yet skeptical about the execution, he had a chat with the young man, pointing out how valuable it would be to provide IoT infrastructure platforms not to industrial-scale clients but to smaller, decentralized farmers.
“…not for the ‘John Deere’ army of harvesters, but for the independent farmers that are trying to optimize the little fields that they have. They are already struggling as agriculture is becoming increasingly industrialized. Why not use it for vertical farming or urban farming. Decentralized farming ecosystems. We need to think in a different system of providing value — one that’s more sustainable for us all, by supporting small business and urban environments, as opposed to maximizing these huge monocultures where people are ultimately losing jobs, the quality of nature is declining, and you’re only creating value for a small set of invested industrial shareholders.”
This particular young man, a bright mind, like many, was driven by the ‘unicorn pressure’ of finding big investors that look at scalability and x-factors first. Optimizing for a few shareholders rather than developing a system that’s more sustainable for the larger, universal body of stakeholders.
“Stakeholders means everyone’s involved.” He explained. “Everyone that’s being impacted — the economical, the ecological, and the social system surrounded by this. We are talking about sustainable ecosystems in general, even beyond ecological. I see in 20 to 30 years, if businesses are not anchored in at least one of the 17 United Nations SDGs, sustainable development goals, they’re not going to be relevant for society.”
If companies want to remain relevant, they need to appeal to a body of consumers who want to know what they are doing to increase their quality of living. They need to attract young talents, most of which won’t be aspiring for careers that don’t pay into at least one of these goals. They need to prove that they are self-sustaining and value-creating.
Yes, we need to keep pace with what we’re doing, but are asking the right questions?
There’s a paradoxical disconnect in the way a lot of innovation works. Invented to create value, evolved to take away from it, as he explained;
“The intent of innovation is mostly to create something new, relevant, and at best purposeful — while in the course of adapting and integrating we often lose values as we don’t foresee the implications and consequences.”
We ended the conversation reflecting on the virtuality of our conversation itself. A zoom call. Via video, we’re already losing so much information — no touch, no smell. Human communication contains a myriad of different channels, chemicals, reactions, and intangible triggers. But here we are, communicating to visually digital representations of one another. Validating, sensemaking, and calibrating, as we do in physical interactions, only based on what we see on a screen.
Take it a step further, what happens when we project ourselves into virtual communities? Creating social media profiles, sharing digitally constructed representations of our lives. Of our identities. Avatars communicating with other avatars. The validations of perfect, streamlined identities. From one Instagram account to another.
Another scoring system. Is digitalization just another optimization algorithm?
He elaborated by posing the questions: “What does it do to me? Is it strengthening me, is it weakening me, is it helping me grow or not? What happens to us personally while validating digital representations of experiences, versus real social interactions? What’s the difference between digital interaction and physically hugging my 8-year-old son? And while doing so, telling him what a cool kid he is and how much I love him? When was the last time I read a fictional book, or a poem for the sake of enjoyment? Or wrote a letter by hand? That’s the gap we need to open up.”
He then closed with a simple but powerful statement:
“That’s where my actual conversation just begins. When we talk about true interaction and nourishing people, how can technology help move us forward? That’s where my journey begins.”Pascal Morgan
As humans, as a society, we may not have all the answers. What’s most important is that we continue asking the right questions.
I highly recommend you take part in the Moonshot Thinking Masterclass if you’d like to dive deeper into Moonshot Thinking with Pascal and the rest of the Futur/io Faculty.
Hopefully, this article gave you some inspiration for your own journey through innovation, your own reflections on the complexity of humanity as part of a transforming system, and your ability to navigate through a rapidly changing world.