Scanning to stop being ‘Ubered’

Over the last couple of years, and connected to the work on Sensing City, I’ve been advising Infratil on technology advances that could disrupt their business or provide opportunity.  This was referenced in the annual meeting where the Chair, Mark Tume said

…the challenge was to stop their investments from energy to the retirement sector getting “Uber-ed” or being able to “Uber” some else, in a reference to the Uber taxi service. Infratil would not be able to recognise the next Uber, Tume said and it was “incredibly difficult” to pick winners in new technology.

But Infratil’s board and management had to be open to the risks and how to react.  “So we don’t act like possums in the headlights” he said.

For example, Infratil had seen the rapid rise of solar power in Australia and the potential for new battery technology which would change the power sector landscape.

“The one I’m scared of is the one that blind-sides you”

Many organisations are increasingly susceptible to being blindsided, but only a few – like Infratil – have the foresight to seek to understand the risks and opportunities.


Full article here.

Key insights from Singapore Foresight Week 2013

In 2011 the Prime Ministers office in Singapore sponsored a week of foresight conversations.  This year saw the next iteration and I was invited back to the conversation.  Once again there were about twenty of us from around the world that were invited, and the diversity of the conversation was only trumped by the quality.  My notes are in mind-map form, and therefore I’m going to post some images from the event along with some insights and summation.

Firstly – the pictures:

Future of Growth

Graphical recording from the fourth day of the week on the future of growth.

Future of Governance

Graphical recording from the fourth day of the week on the future of governance.

Dave Snowden presenting his framework for foresight and complexity.

Dave Snowden presenting his framework for foresight and complexity.

Insights (in no order)

  • It’s strategically important to have a good imagination and an adaptable mind.
  • Most decision makers want simple answers, and ask the wrong questions.  They want an answer, but in complex environments there may not be a simple answer.
  • there is book called “Future Babble” that looked at previous predictions of the future, and found that the most inaccurate predictions were the ones that were most convinced of their accuracy.
  • the real lack of skills in the world is the lack of generalists
  • The waiting time to purchase a new industrial robot is 4-6 months.
  • People are hard wired to take more notice of failure than success – from an evolutionary point of view it’s more important
  • More insights are on my Twitter feed


To try to summarise the week is to fall into the trap of thinking conversation is a linear process.  The discussions were so varied it’s almost impossible to bring it together, however the most important points for me related to foresight, policy and governance:

The world is becoming increasingly complex, and as a result leaders need to be adept at understanding that decision making can not always be causal.  In order to make good decisions you need firstly to understand the environment you’re working in and Dave Snowden provides guidance here with his framework:

Dave Snowdens Cynefin (kin-are-fin) Framework

If you find yourself on the left hand side of the framework then you need to understand complexity theory, and acknowledge that there may be no right answer.  That’s not easy for decision makers raised to believe that they need to make fast decisions based on minimal information.

I’ll close with a wonderful analogy that was provided in a conversation about the work of Karl Popper: you can begin to understand complexity through the lens of clouds vs clocks.  You can take apart a clock to understand it, but to understand clouds you need to look at many different variables. Clouds cannot be taken apart.

Thinking about the future in Singapore

In October last year the Singapore Government held it’s first ‘Foresight Week.’  I was invited to both the International Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning Symposium, but, more interestingly, also the Foresight Conference.   I make this observation about the latter event because it was organised by a team in the Prime Minister’s Office called the Centre for Strategic Futures (CSF). While the Risk Symposium was attended by a couple of hundred people from around the world, the Foresight Conference was held over three days and had an invite-only audience of about thirty.

Included in this thirty were the likes of Paul Saffo, Peter Schwartz, Jeremy BenthamNeal Stephenson, Dave Snowden and Ian Goldin. The mix of people, backgrounds and theories in the room was extraordinary, and here’s my long overdue notes from the session (note that it was Chatham House Rules so no specific attributions are made).

The richness of the sessions made for one hell of a mind map, and looking at it now I’m only going to pull out the highlights that caught my attention:

  • naturally there was lots of discussion about China: is it too big to govern, how do people participate in China, what will social technology do to the society etc.  One of the more interesting points was that China has never been conquered, and it’s not out of the question to consider a war between China and the USA.  Chinese entrepreneurs also came under examination: apparently 14% of startups in Silicon Valley are “Chinese Chinese” (as opposed to American Chinese. Indian startups are around 17%.
  • The USA is distracted at the moment with economic difficulties and foreign wars.  China is not distracted by either.
  • There is the potential for a new model of international relations based on continual “co-operation – conflict – competition.”  All three of these could happen at the same time but in different arenas.
  • Russia apparently has the highest number if university educated 25 year-olds in the world.
  • We are moving to a ‘G0’ world (as opposed to G8) where no single country or group of countries has power.  More interestingly a group called the ‘I8’ – US billionaires who are big philanthropists – have a combined spend that is equivalent to the entire US Foreign Aid programme.

However the overriding theme through the three days was complexity and how it impacts the world today.  The world today is not the world of 50 years ago, however the governance structures that create order in the world today were created when the world was much more stable.  What do governments of the future look like in a world that screams complexity at every turn?

I don’t know the answer to that but would like to finish my notes with two quotes that resonated with me over the week in Singapore:

“Religions are like operating systems for societies”


“Risk is the price you pay for opportunity.”

Sustaining Innovation – book on pre-release

It’s been a busy year on the publishing front.  Firstly there was Really Bad Workshops (and how to avoid them) which I self published mid-year, and now there’s Sustaining Innovation.

It’s a collection of insights from various innovation initiatives around the world.  I wrote a chapter on the Shell GameChanger Technology Futures programme, and co-authored it with my colleagues Tim Jones and Leo Roodart, the recently retired head of GameChanger.

It’s on pre-order here: Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World (Innovation, Technology, and Knowledge Management)

UPDATE: You can now read the chapter online here.

Foresight/innovation at scale – Magnetic South

Over the weekend I was interviewed on Radio New Zealand about a initiative to forecast the future of Christchurch (my home town that has been devastated by a series of earthquakes since Sept 2010). It was called Magnetic South and was a version of the Foresight Engine developed by the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto.

It’s a way of scaling public engagement so that ideas can not only be submitted, but can also be built upon in a transparent manner.  The software also adds a game layer which turns the initiative from something potentially dry, into something that becomes compelling and addictive.

Magnetic South went extremely well, with over 8000 ideas submitted, built upon and improved by collaboration from the time the game commenced.

You can see the threads of the game here, where some very sharp visualisation enables the tracking of individual ideas as the are commented on and built upon.

Although I was the one that was interviewed, kudos needs to go to Richard Gordon, CEO of Landcare Research who backed the game, Bob Frame who drove it (and who took some conversations we had a couple of years ago to places that I didn’t expect) and Stephanie Pride who got very little sleep for the 5 weeks prior to the game, and during the game itself.

(However my interview did cause a hiccup in the process, when Radio NZ listeners took the chance to logon in such numbers that the server in Silicon Vally crashed the game prematurely.)

You can hear the full interview here.

Future Agenda book released (video of key findings)

Over the last 18 months I’ve been working with Tim Jones and a few other key individuals on the Future Agenda programme. It’s the world’s largest foresight programme (with over fifty workshops around the world) and possibly the first open source programme.

It picks up from the work we did for Shell in 2007 on the GameChanger Technology Futures programme.

The book pulls together the key findings from the programe and has just been released. Tim was on CNBC last week discussing some of the trends as we look out to 2020:

Healthcare is not complex.

I’ve been working a lot in the health system over the last three years, breaking paradigms and introducing new approaches to delivering sustainable health care in the next ten years. Many people in the system believe it’s a complex system, but I had a fascinating conversation today with someone who totally disagreed with this. When headhunted to be a CEO at one of Australasia’s biggest hospitals he had no health experience but had managed complex multinational corporations with thousands of employees and tens of thousands of products. He said that without a doubt these organisations were complex. Health, on the other hand was not. His exact words were worth repeating:

“Health systems are not complex, they’re disorganised. Healthcare is the only trillion dollar sector that is run like a cottage industry.”

The more I get to work with people in the health system the more I’m inclined to agree with him.