Saturday, July 11, 2009

Forgetting Covey

Stephen Covey in his famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People espoused what many of us know to be a key survival technique for both individuals and societies: we do best if we BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND. In fact organisations like the Lifeboat Foundation have taken this thinking to a whole new level by suggesting our brains work better if they have clear goals.

Imagine my surprise then, at the answers I heard, when I’ve asked over 100 CEO’s (from small to medium enterprises) what they think the end of the current economic downturn, circa 2015, looks like. Few, if any, despite the billions invested by governments everywhere, could easily define what the end of downturn might look like. Their answers have been varied and many. For the most part they have one consistent theme; whatever that future might be it is not a return to what we understood was life in 2007/8. That thinking I suggest has profound implications for policy makers and strategists everywhere. It suggests that those who purport to lead need to articulate a coherent view of what the future looks like “at the end of the downturn,” and a strategy to position to obtain the greatest benefit for whatever that view might be.

Not to do so is like driving a high speed car through Shanghai blind folded. Some of course might argue that that is what the taxi drivers of that fair city do anyway and the results speak for themselves.

Monday, June 29, 2009


A good friend Mark Fowler sent me a recent Wall Street Journal article (29June 2009) which talked about the climate change change . It detailed the views of a rising number of skeptics in the climate change debate while ignoring the recent concerns of the Copenhagen group of concerned scientists. This so called reasonable scepticism they argue provides a rationale for many conservatives to oppose governments finally trying to tackle the climate. The science they maintain just is not there and therefore its OK just to go on doing what we are doing. Although I personally believe that the debate on man made climate change is well over its the ‘do nothing’ argument that bothers me the most. However the reality is that if we exclude climate from the debate for a moment and look at the global issues – many of which are also carbon related- of water use, energy, air pollution, excess consumption, waste and the devastation of the commons most of humanity are using too many resources to produce too little value and creating a series of rather unhealthy global interdependencies.

All of this points to a humanity disconnected to its environment. Thus we must confront a deeper question; are we at a point where the the age of progress (using resources without thinking) is over if we are to maintain control over the key systems that support us? You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that energy on demand, clean air, easy access to fresh water, available food on a generationally equitable basis, strong biodiversity AND A CLIMATE WE CAN LIVE WITH are all part of what makes sense to survive beyond this century.

Controlling the use of carbon is I suggest an easy and first step in tackling this far deeper more systemic problem of being disconnected to the environment. Legislative signals which control its use – and by proxy how we use many resources- will not only slow down the rate of climate change already locked in but will stimulate a range of innovations that will push us into the post carbon era quickly. Thankfully everywhere we are seeing businesses and regions investing in new technologies and deploying better business models that will radically change the competitive landscape leaving those that fail to do so to replicate the history of ‘rust belt’ cities. But it is not sufficient to leave this to chance. I for one worry that the climate change sceptics are asking us to play a game where the stakes are at an all time high and the consequences of failure are potentially catastrophic. How we deal with these reckless card players will be the greatest challenge of the next decade and how they justify themselves to future generations will be interesting.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Summits and Base camps

Since the mid 90’s most cities and organisations have grown exponentially. Year in and year out last years summit of success became next years base camp for future conquest. As time went on we lost sight of the idea that there was anything in the world but the next peak. Sure from time to time we heard that someone had experienced a trough - a retreat from last years base camp - and we either pitied or punished those thus affected. However for the most part standing still, or going backwards, never entered our collective consciousness. What a rude awakening we have had.

Now we can clearly see that the drive for growth or ‘summit mania’ pushed many into a world of reckless, amoral and sometimes immoral folly. Why did we think the model of this summit being next years base camp could last when any kind of future extrapolation at a collective level clearly pushes us into impossible mathematical and physical equations? Thus its all the more surprising that we are still having conversations about how fast we can get back to a world where summit mania rules.

What if the rules for success need to change? What if our future will be forever one of summits and troughs that on balance leave us - at least in the material sense - standing still? Would we be any the less happy? What if this is the new normal? How would we reinvent our organisations and cities to cope with such a world?

Above all what if we discover that in a world of peaks and troughs, the troughs are the well spring of the innovations we so desperately need to ensure our crowded humanity can coexist with the planet it lives on? As we suffer through the transitions of the next little while would such a future really be so bad? After all where is there to go after Everest?

Monday, October 20, 2008

A failure in design; our sub prime world?

As we part sit, part wallow in the chaos of the current financial meltdown most of us can but wonder at how the trigger – bundling and spreading the risk of loans to people who had little or no hope of meeting the repayments – persuaded too many people to abandon common sense and prudence for what seems a remarkable stupidity combined in equal doses with greed and an ‘I want it now’ avarice. Perhaps it was the euphemism ‘sub prime’ that was to blame?

As the world grapples with the challenges of stability and a new normalcy there are a few important voices quietly but insistently pointing out that as bad as the crisis seems it will be almost inconsequential in a world that fails to act on climate change and other environmental system concerns. As with the current crisis it is all too easy to convince ourselves that the day of reckoning will never come; a sub prime world with sub prime cities increasingly hostile to human habitation. Might it be that in a decade or so from now our tardiness in reacting to the real but insidious problem of creating economies based on resource use, with few constraints, will be seen as a failure of stewardship far greater than that of those complicit in the sub prime crisis and its consequences? How will we account to future generations for this?

As we seize the opportunity to create a new economic order perhaps we should raise our horizons beyond the current valleys and troughs and design for a prime future rather than just a restoration of our old sub prime ways?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The discordant beat of the current drum.

My alarm that we are creating urban fabric on a global basis that by 2030 continues to increase – with few I think being interested in doing anything – even talking about it. Perhaps it’s only me that hears the discord of the beating drum of progress.

My recent quest has been to try and stand in the shoes of a Asian city administrator and ask myself what are the principles that would need that would help construct urban fabric that has radically reduced footprint while creating wonderful space and place for my communities. By what measure will I judge the rapacious engineering firms and developers all too eager to offer their latest solution.

Thus far my list looks as follows: (it can't be too long or no one will read it)

Building enveloped that are almost self sufficient - with leading edge and waste systems.
• City designs that make mass transit, bicycles and walking the logical choices.
• Symbiotic co-location of industries – the waste streams are inputs to the next.
• Centrally located integrated utilities.
• Ubiquitous broadband.
• High street designs with work/life /play close by and high densification.
• Forms which encourage urban food - including markets /farmers markets/large in city hydroponics/ bioskins on buildings and community supported agriculture.
• Sustainable and smart logistics systems.
• Clusters/ space and place that gives uniqueness and identity.
• An attitude that promotes cradle to cradle design and activity.

It also needs lots of soft design - such as the capacity to cope with change, design that can adapt and learn, and enough chaos that it softens the dead hand of planning and encourages both creativity and diversity.

"If a man (or woman) does not keep pace with his companions,
Perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer,
Let him (or her) step to the music they hear,
However measured or far away."

Henry David Thoreau 1849

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Four planets required.

Recent World Bank work in their Eco2 Cities project explains that between now and 2030 we will build as much urban space again as existed in 2001. The growth of course will be mostly in the developing and emerging world, and in its 2030 form will consume some 16% of the land mass. Regretably with current estimated footprints these cities will require a mere four planets to support them.My questions are as follows:
1. What might trigger our collective awareness of the future tsunami we are building?
2. What frameworks might help assist decison makers and planners to urgently reduce city footprints and the level of 'lock in' that comes when we just put up the same old infrastructure today and tomorrow?
3. Given that 76% of all economic activity takes place in cities, why isn't the alarm sounding in our more foresightful organizations?
4. Where are the repositories of smart ideas that can be easily adapted and imitated by the cities of the world - or does each of them have to reinvent the wheel themselves?
5. Finally what role do we who think about the future and its weak signals have in creating awareness of this critical future issue?

Oh and by the way, Hawkins, Lovins, et al. talked as long ago as the 90's about Factor 4 and Factor 10 as a core discipline for strategy. By my thinking Factor 4 would see our cities live within the limits of one planet with not much room for anything else, while Factor 10 would see them live within limits equal to their future land mass.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Just another brick in the wall.

"I have no teacher therefore I cannot learn," was the phrase that came to mind as I read a New York Times article [Monday 27 August 2007] which suggested that US schools were scrambling to fill their fall quotas as more and more baby boomer teachers retired. Imagine that these same schools were in India where governments have to find another five and a half million new places every year to cope with the demands of a population profile where half the nation is under twenty five! Of course despite their valiant efforts they do no such thing and some four million would be entrants are locked out of the system every year and of course in their ability to participate in the flat earth economy.

But who made it up that learning requires teachers, desks and places? Could it be that as a paradigm for delivering learning this notion has reached its use by date? Perhaps the emerging shortages are really the best thing that could happen as it will force schools to innovate in order to deliver to the demands of their students. Might we be on the cusp of a new age where learning centres are open all year, - which would be a much better return on the huge resource that they are - technology plays a central role in shaping pathways to learning and wise people are on call to act as mentors and guides when required. Is it now time for teachers to challenge the foundations of the current system and begin to devise new delivery mechanisms that will serve the learners of the future?