Friday, April 28, 2006

Change is like your favourite café closing down.

Imagine that every day of your student and working life you went to the same cafe on the way to work. The coffee is great and over time you get to know the people that work there and make friends and acquaintances with the others patrons. One day without explanation you find it closed forever. An accompanying friend assures you that the coffee in the café down the road is just as good, the décor better and it is even closer to where you work. Somehow though, this
doesn't remove the feelings of sadness and loss. It is also likely that on your first visit to the new place you will be more critical, more judgemental and less accepting than is really rational. These feelings often flow on through the rest of the day. For the rest of the week you look wistfully at the little café where you felt 'at home'. Over time though, the feelings fade and new behaviour takes its place.

Most change is like the closing of the café.
I spent a few days recently with a small leadership team talking about the strategic options facing them and their organisation. They have a proud history and some amazing successes to their credit. But much of that is now in the past. Sales are falling and their major customer seems to almost hold them in contempt. The industry they once served has splintered and most of it is now in China in a low cost / no frills paradigm. Their shareholders are becoming increasingly insistent that they move into new areas of service or they will take the investment elsewhere. If all of this is true staying where they are is a very risky idea indeed.

All of this is known and accepted by the leadership team but still they find it difficult to change. Why? Because over time we build up patterns in our brains about how things should be. These patterns are like friends. They, like us with our the café, have become very comfortable with them. As they plan their future they look at the future options with a very critical eye. Despite knowing the risks of staying where they are, they spend more time than they should staying
with what is familiar. Change creates feelings of sadness.

The reality is that they have to move on knowing that probably the future will be more about a lot of coffee in a lot of different cafes and that nothing in the future is likely to replace the original. They and their strategy need to replace the organisational equivalent of loss of the café with a shrewd judgement of good coffee. If that kind of refocusing occurs then constant change
will be as a good thing. Constant change after is what what keeps us young and vibrant. What itshould mean is that, over time, there will be many great coffees and new and interesting experiences with both old and new friends.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Future milestones

I heard a recent news broadcast where "births, marriage and death" were described as the most significant milestones in our lives. I wondered if this was really true anymore - at least in the so called 'developed' socieites. We have after all through birth control reduced the number and frequency of births and for many it's only a short interlude in worklife as babies are consigned to child care. Marriage has become a series of events with less and less ceremony attached to each successive one. And as for death, well except where it is unexpected, life extension is pushing it further and further out and the dying process is being handled in an increasingly pain free way. Some think that as humans and machines merge 'death' may be avoided all together.

So if we are freed from these biologically determined milestones what will we use to mark the passage of time. While there seems to be some evidence that major discontinuities like war, tsunami or a September 11 have filled some of this void, could it be that in creating a world of endless choice we are destroying our chances of finding meaning? How will our society organise itself when we have five or more generations alive and well at the same time?

Perhaps one of the most interesting trends of the 21st century will be a renewed search for meaning in a post biology world?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Different futures and political philosophy

On Friday I was giving a key note speech at an Innovation luncheon on The Future of Science: Can Queensland keep up? As part of it I talked about the kinds of challenges that we all face and an advocacy of how science can help us move from a thoughtless and careless world to a more thoughtful one. As soon as I'd finished the question came: " Do you support capitalism?" What was left unsaid, but clearly implied, was that the creation of different futures was somehow socialist and therefore contrary to the prevailing world view. It is so easy to dismiss challenges if you can label them as failed or dangerous.

My reply was as follows. "Socialism as it was practised in the 20th century, and capitalism as it is practised now, are both inadequate and incomplete as a dominant logic to address the challenges that confront us. I'm not sure if what we need is a new philosophy but surely we need better mechanisms to understand how to balance private and public good and smarter ways to balance financial and resource capital with the capital demands of nature, society and people. We also need to understand how to measure what's important like well being and happiness instead of assuming that an increase in GDP is all that matters. Furthermore. it seems that a few of our public and private leaders have already figured this out and are creating strategies accordingly." Could it be that the idea of political philosophy is an idea that has reached its use by date and that what we need now are new frameworks for policy creation and community discussion?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Towards a world of thoughtful design

We seem to have reached the limits of a world which enjoyed the carefree use of resources, like oil, and an economic growth model which endlessly has driven down cost. At first this depressed me. Now I'm becoming excited as I've seen more clearly the downsides of the poorly designed world most of us live in. It's not hard to think about a future that is better than the one we have now.

Let's take fossil fuel use first.
It doesn't matter if you are a peak oil theorist [someone who believes that half the oil in the world has been used up] or a technological optimist, the likely future is one where we will design our travel with much more care than we do now. Costs will force us to. As we do, it's quite possible that we might design a way of living that has less stress in it with less time spent in traffic jams and more time spent in and around those communites that we have created for our desired lifestyles.

Which brings us to the cost thing.
Most of us have a very narrow definition of cost. We think of value only through the price we paid at the check out counter. We forget we pay through community taxes for disposal and ignore the adverse envirnmental impacts that might have been part of the manufacturing process. But one way or another, sooner or later, we all pay. It's just not calculated in the original purchase price. Few of us stop to think about the effects of many large scale enterprises focused solely on low cost. The reality is that they, probably unconsciously, have driven down the living standards in the communities in which they operate. Firstly to survive they must outsource to the lowest cost of manufacture - and for most places that is offshore. In the process they make local manufacture uncompetitive. Secondly they have a formula which keeps wages low which in turn reduces the spending power in communities. We can't really blame the businesses we can only blame ourselves as we seek more and more 'bargains'

So what does this all mean?
It means that we need to have different kinds of discussions [and given our trashy media that's difficult] and we need to spend just a little time thinking about what kind of future we really want to create. For me it is a future that's gentle on the environment, and me as I get older, that encourages us all to enjoy discovery and change, allows people to get on with their own lives in their own way and which helps all of us to remember that there is more to life than work. That I think is what the navigation option is all about.