Monday, September 14, 2009

On scalability II

So help me, whenever I hear the word scalability, part of my brain flashes to the Facts of Life episode where Jo tries to open a pizza business. She is unable to maintain quality as the business heats up, and following some sage advice from Mrs. Garrett, downsizes to what she's familiar with.

What a lousy message to be sending. It doesn't occur to Jo or Mrs. Garrett to apply for a small business loan, take a semester off school to give the business room to grow, outsource distribution, write a cookbook, or disseminate the recipe for free online.

The lesson here I guess is never hire Mrs. Garrett as your innovation consultant. But how many real entrepreneurs miss their potential for incredible impact by accepting the status quo—"the facts of life"—as givens?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lazy thinking about the apocalypse

Warning: This blog post spoils in detail the Battlestar Galactica series finale and the unaired "Epitaph One" episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Both are excellent, and their craftsmanship is undone by advance knowledge of the plot. If you haven't seen them yet, skip this post.

It's a warm summer day in San Francisco -- the first of only a handful this year. We know that good weather in NYC influences the stock market; has anyone ever studied how San Francisco's history of atypical weather nurtures atypical thinking?

Surrounded by fog, I spent much of the calendar summer thinking moodily about collapse: social, ecological, economic. And we're finally living in an era where apocalyptic thinking -- part of the human and American character -- seems more justified than ever. The latest scientific evidence on climate change suggests that human civilization as we know it is on collision path with a brick wall.

The cure for apocalyptic thinking, though, as with any unproductive mindset, is to change our beliefs to match reality. The more we internalize the real data, say, of climate change, the more we can think "the unthinkable," the less we are compelled to fight for old and familiar systems that are clearly insufficient. We shift from focusing on what there is to lose to what there is to gain. I've taken to characterizing this difference as "at the end of day" vs. "at the end of the century" mindsets. If we are continually living at the end of the day, we are haunted by the risks and dangers of the futures we know we're avoiding.

Art has always been a good litmus test for what haunts a culture—what it chooses to avoid, its unfinished business. Popular art -- in the sense of mass art, and successful art -- makes our concerns, our collective dreamwork both visual and concrete. So I hold art to a high standard. And earlier this year, it irritated me that two otherwise compelling works of art came so close to making our unconscious fears and half-glimpsed truths concrete and discussable, only to shy away by blaming, of all things, technology.

The denouement of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series found the surviving characters touching down on our planet 150,000 years before the present day. After four years of running from a nuclear holocaust, this resolution, and with it shots of unspoiled, lush African plains, came as bittersweet wish fulfillment—its joy tempered by the death and breakdowns of major characters, and by the fact that this ache to go back, to do over, to inherit an undamaged world, is what we the viewers most want and cannot have.

A necessary and yet implausible plot point involves the BSG survivors deciding quickly en masse to give up technology. This was a momentary loss of grace and intelligence in an otherwise perfect episode. BSG from the beginning to the very end was fundamentally "about" religion, and like any great art, it refused to resolve its own central concerns. Deflecting attention and making technology the scapegoat was a moment of creative weakness. And moral weakness... Kevin Kelly and others have argued passionately and persuasively that technology is not the cause of human suffering; in the final analysis, it expands opportunity. It's ideas we should be worried about, and as an entertainment product, BSG is nothing if not a set of ideas, seductively packaged.

BSG drew a respectable viewing audience for four years, and it tapped the zeitgeist enough to say "it tapped the zeitgeist." Far less successful, artistically and commercially, is the Joss Whedon drama series Dollhouse. Like BSG, Dollhouse takes a provocative and uncomfortable topic—this time misogyny, not religion—and transplants it in a dystopian science fiction environment. Again, like BSG, Dollhouse attracts acclaim and ire in equal doses for its sophisticated take on a sensitive cultural issue. Yet presumably due to ongoing interference from Fox, the show is wildly uneven in tone and quality. Its unaired season 1 finale is its artistic high point, involving a leap forward ten years, to a barbaric post-apocalyptic world destroyed by widespread, hostile use of the Dollhouse's human programming technology. In the show's final moments, looking out on a wrecked LA cityscape, the main character blames "kids playing with matches—and they burned the house down."

Again, on a show about ideas, technology is the culprit.

Slate magazine ran a piece a few months ago called Choose Your Own Apocalypse—a bit of fun that exposes the dangerous laziness of our apocalyptic thinking. The truth is we see our facts through the filters of our ideas. When we individually and collectively can talk about our ideas, including our most treasured or dangerous ones, maybe we'll see that the apocalypse is avoidable if we have the willpower. Maybe the breakdown of old systems isn't such a bad thing.

Maybe we're standing in the midst or on the brink not of winter and decay, but warmth and abundance.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

On scalability

Scalability seems to be a number one concern for many businesses lately. As it should be—the lead executive of an impressive CSR program told me years ago, "Success is easy... we only care about scalable success."

However, before developing a scalability strategy, I advise clients to get very clear about what it is they are trying to scale. Is it:
  • Impact
  • A service
  • A technology platform
  • An organization / network / community / market / tribe

    The relevant best practices and gotchas in each case are very different.
  • Monday, August 24, 2009

    The Future of Learning keynote

    Earlier this month, I gave the keynote address at the conference Unleashing Knowledge and Innovation for the Next Generation of Learning, convened by the Knowledge Alliance/Center for Knowledge Use, the Stupski Foundation, and West Wind Education Policy.

    The talk was on The Future of Learning, and it covered the KnowledgeWorks Foundation's 2020 Forecast, prefaced by and mixed with some of my own thoughts about foresight, strategy, and innovation. It was an enjoyable experience for me, and I received many nice compliments afterwards.

    The audio file minus the last 60 seconds has been posted online, and the slides from the talk are below. If the video gets posted in the coming days, I'll add that as well.

    One note: after delivering this talk, I became a tentative, but strongly-persuaded convert to the Aquatic Ape hypothesis, so I'd tweak my statements about the human body and brain being designed for the African savanna accordingly. Thx Chris!

    Saturday, August 15, 2009

    The Urban Homestead

    I recently finished reading and can heartily recommend The Urban Homestead. The authors Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen have outdone themselves with tips on everything from raising rabbits to home canning to DIY solar.

    It's a thorough, plainspoken and playful guide, enlivened by he said/she said debates about some of the more advanced projects. (The authors are also partners, and share a house in Los Angeles.) The suggestions here clearly save money and build character, but they also might be vital "when the zombies come." On that note, given the length of the book and its subject matter, you might want to buy this one in hard copy instead of Kindle, so it's handy when you need it.

    I finished the The Urban Homestead full of hope, and with many new plans for home projects. And at least one mega-million-dollar idea: how about a movie version, with Chris Messina (the actor) and Amy Adams playing the two authors, quarreling and laughing over the challenges of mulching, fruit butter, compost toilets, and greywater wetlands.

    I'd see that movie.

    p.s. Check out Kelly and Erik's blog Homegrown Evolution.

    Wednesday, January 28, 2009

    TED Local

    I'm getting excited about next week's TED conference, which I'll be watching with friends and colleagues from the low-carbon comfort of my living room. I hope for some great conversation -- the program list, if you haven't seen it, is extraordinary.

    Wednesday, January 14, 2009

    Plenty folds

    Plenty magazine (both the print and web editions) joins the list of magazines that have gone under due to rapid shifts in the economy and media landscape. I applaud Plenty's good intentions, and it's sad that those involved in the venture are losing their jobs. But I also take Plenty's bow as a sign -- even a positive one -- of where we are in our national and species-level focus on the environment.

    While the short-term hype around green consumerism is fading, perhaps the long-term trend towards "bright green," long-term, systemic thinking and collective behavior is just getting going.

    Seventeen hearts in seventeen mouths

    Mark Hurst's Good Experience blog once again lives up to its name:

    "A Kindle trick that changes the reading experience"

    Tuesday, January 06, 2009

    Note to self

    Take responsibility.
    Honor intuitions.
    Respect everyone as an equal.
    Give yourself a break.
    Have patience.
    Take risks.
    Drop your guard.
    Focus on the goal.
    End what doesn't work.
    Preserve what does work.
    Create new things.


    If I had to choose a single slide to talk about the future of education, this might be it.

    Monday, January 05, 2009

    Four great books

    I read some good books last year, but these four were marvelous. All have expanded and clarified how I see the world and approach my work on a daily basis. Shared in the hopes that you might enjoy them as well:

    Nudge, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
    Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
    Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
    The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin