Archives for category: Fringe scanning / peripheral vision

What exactly is a serendipity architect? I get asked this a lot, and my answer is two-fold depending on how the question is being asked.

First the title is a litmus test for who I’d like to work with. If people look at me sceptically when they ask, then it’s a fairly safe bet that working with that person is going to be difficult (like the time one executive introduced me to an audience as a “self described serendipity architect.”).  On the other hand, the people that I like to work with smile when they mention the title, or are simply curious.

Secondly it describes a lot of what I do – keeping abreast of a lot of fast moving areas, discussing interesting developments with people that know these areas well, pulling insights from the mix and then working with leadership teams to understand how they can take advantage of the opportunity.  One of the comments I hear during the last phase of this process goes along the lines of “wasn’t it lucky that we…”   My response is that this isn’t luck.  It’s designed serendipity.

If you want a longer read about how serendipity happens in an online world, Wired magazine published an extract from the book “Smarter Than You Think.”  The last paragraph of the extract sums it up nicely:

The birth of Ushahidi is a perfect example of the power of public thinking and multiples. Okolloh could have simply wandered around wishing such a tool existed. Kobia could have wandered around wishing he could use his skills to help Kenya. But because Okolloh was thinking out loud, and because she had an audience of like-minded people, serendipity happened.

I  encourage to people to mix in areas that are outside their knowledge domain, and to keep an open mind when they do so.  The reason for this is because insights often happen not when you’re looking harder at a challenge, but when you take a step back and look around to see how others have approached analogous challenges.  The January 2014 issue of Wired has an article about a doctor seeking different ways of treating cancer, and it makes for an interesting read on it’s own.  However the part that got my attention was the following when he explained where he found new directions for his thinking:

The second moment occurred five years later, at the Aspen Ideas Festival. There Agus met the famed physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1969 for his work on the theory of elemental particles. Talking to Gell-Mann crystallized the ideas that Leaf’s article had set in motion. “My ‘Aha!’ moment came when he talked about the complex systems he confronted in physics and how he would go about trying to build models,” Agus wrote in The End of Illness. Physicists were able to build theoretical models of things they still didn’t completely understand and make discoveries using those models. Why hadn’t doctors approached medicine like this? he wondered.

It’s a great example of looking outside to go deeper inside.

A quick link to an article in The Economist on a topic that we’ve explored many times for different clients, starting back in 2007 for the Shell Technology Futures programme.

The factory of the future will focus on mass customisation—and may look more like those weavers’ cottages than Ford’s assembly line.

via Manufacturing: The third industrial revolution | The Economist.

This is a fascinating view of macro scale changes from a very unlikely source – an ex-senior official in the CIA Clandestine Service.  His comments echo some of my recent thinking about the potential impact when social movements meet social media, and the impact upon modern-day governance structures.  Here’s the view of Henry Crumpton (with my emphasis in bold):

The most important change on the global security and business stage is the empowerment of the individual and their ability to have inexpensive, exponential impact through technology and collaboration. This revolutionary development has led to an unprecedented shift in relationships, with a degree of asymmetric power never seen in the history of human conflict or commerce. There are micro actors with macro impact operating on a global landscape and they constantly challenge the status quo, and this trend is accelerating.

via A CIA veteran’s lessons for CEOs – Fortune Management.

Andrew Zolli, the organiser of the PopTech conference has just published a book about resilience.  Given I’m living in a city that was hit hard by a series of quakes last year the topic is very interesting to me.  It’s also interesting from the point of view of foresight, and outlines an approach that is a necessary response to a world increasingly characterised by complexity and volatility:

One of the things that we could see happening very clearly was–and this was the observation that led directly to the book–was that organizations of very different kinds were all converging to the same core observations,” he says. “That was that the sustainability framework, which was based on what you might call ‘risk mitigation,’ was coming to an end and that we were increasingly headed toward a world of ‘risk adaptation.’

via Resilience: Lessons On How To Bounce Back From Disaster | Co.Exist: World changing ideas and innovation.

A quick link to something that has been discernible for a a while, and something that was clearly identified when we ran Future Agenda two years ago.  However now the clever (and time rich) analysts at McKinsey has quantified it:

A thousand years ago, the economic centre of the world was in central Asia, just north of India and west of China, reflecting the high levels of wealth enjoyed in the Middle and Far East at that time, says the report, Urban world: Cities and the rise of the consuming class. At that time, Asia accounted for two-thirds of the world’s wealth.

By 1900, the centre had shifted to northern Europe, which had leapt far ahead of the rest of the world thanks to the Industrial Revolution. And by 1950, the centre had shifted to the North Atlantic, reflecting the economic rise of the United States.

But now that trend is reversing itself, and at a stunning speed. What took 1,000 years to travel west will have travelled all the way back east in a matter of a few decades.

According to the McKinsey report, the economic centre of gravity has been shifting east for the past decade at a rate of 140 km (87 miles) per year, and by 2025, it will have returned to a spot in central Asia just north of where it was in 1,000 A.D.

“It is not hyperbole to say we are observing the most significant shift in the earth’s economic centre of gravity in history,”

via World’s Economic Centre Of Gravity Shifting Back To Asia At Unbelievable Speed: McKinsey Institute.

It can be quite tricky to involve creative and non-linear thinkers in your organisational structure. Many people that fit in this category prefer to have wide-ranging remits that don’t fit the normal hierarchical structures.  Fresh research (indeed it’s work-in-progress) from HBS supports this and sums up it up in the context of distributed innovation:

Many creative problem-solvers will not or simply cannot work effectively under standard employment or supply contracts. That is why distributed innovation in a business ecosystem is such a desirable organizational form.

via Organization Design for Distributed Innovation — HBS Working Knowledge.

Another lovely example of how it’s the innovation that happens outside the core that’s usually the most interesting.  After all, cutting edge research in space propulsion is the domain of heavily funded Government labs right?

19-year-old Egyptian physics student Aisha Mustafa is someone we may see again in the media in the future because though young she’s patented a new type of propulsion system for spacecraft that makes use of an obscure, and only recently experimentally proven, quantum physics effect.

via Mustafa’s Space Drive: An Egyptian Student’s Quantum Physics Invention | Fast Company.

There’s something to watch here: a young, rich and glamourus woman spurns her roots and becomes a poster child for change.  She knows how to cross both the digital and real worlds for impact, and clearly understands the system she exists within.

The pampered “it girl” of Putin’s Russia, author of “Philosophy in the Boudoir” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” has restyled herself as a leader of the opposition. Last week, Ms. Sobchak hosted protest leaders on her new political talk show, which was canceled by Russia’s MTV after just one episode and is now broadcast on a Web site.

(via Kseniya Sobchak, Russia’s ‘It Girl,’ Dons Opposition Cloak – NYTimes.com.)

I’m increasingly interested in how social movements and social media will intersect, and the implications for power brokers (both government and non-government).  I think there’s something here in social movements getting digital smarts and becoming digital movements (think rapid scale, emergence ‘from nowhere” and clear actions). Watch this space…

A short snippet from an article in the Economist that links a new hobby of ‘tinkering’ with possible disruption.  This is something that we could easily see a few years back and identified as part of the Shell Technology Futures programme in 2007.  It’s fascinating to see it unfolding:

“The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit,” writes Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.

It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.

via Monitor: More than just digital quilting | The Economist.