An Overdue Update

It’s been a long while since I last updated this blog and major changes have occurred in the meantime. Once again, I sailed across the oceans and made a cross-country (cross-hemisphere in fact) move in July 2016 to undertake a new and exciting role as Professor of Sustainable Design at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. This opportunity came up at the right time as the project I was working on in Melbourne was approaching an end so while I was evaluating my options for my next career move. I started my job at Aalto on August 1st and in the past eight months I’ve been busy moving, settling, networking and learning. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the faculty in Aalto Department of Design which is ranked as 13th best design school in the world this year.

In the meantime an article I started to work on when I was in Melbourne, together with lead author Fabrizio Ceschin (UK Brunel University), got published in Design Studies. In this article we discuss how the field of design for sustainability evolved over the years from a focus on individual artefacts to systems. This article received very positive attention, yielded a book chapter in an upcoming book from Routledge and Fabrizio and I have been quite humbled as it became the third most downloaded article of the journal in a very short period of time following being published.

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Currently I am running a two-week intensive course on design for system innovations and transitions at TongJi University in Shanghai as part of Aalto-TongJi collaboration in education. Reflections on this experience will follow shortly.

More Value to P2P than Uber and AirBnB: The Neglected Commons

Recently, Grattan Institute here in Melbourne published a report on peer-to-peer (P2P) economy arguing it could save Australians $500 million on taxi bills, help them use underutilized assets and generate income and increase employment and income for people on the fringe of the job market. The report argued that governments should adopt policies to facilitate growth of these businesses while also regulating for downsides. It is a worthwhile report to read.

What I’d like to raise as an issue is not the content of this report but the scope. First, the report has left out discussing benefits of a large portion of P2P economy that is commons-based and framed “the” P2P economy as businesses who own proprietary online platforms that allow people to “sell” their services (let it be provision of a ride or a clean bed or use of a product for a few hours) to others. The businesses thus enable “micro-businesses” –which is great- but without necessarily empowering those micro-businesses by enabling them to contribute into the development of the platforms, co-designing of the business model the “mother” corporation operates under or by providing a fair share of the value generated although the overall value in these systems are generated by those micro-businesses.

Grattan Institute’s report is unfortunately not the only publication that overlooks the commons-based P2P economy; this is a common attitude in media and research institutes alike. This could potentially be attributed to the high lobbying power that is held in the hands of “sharing economy corporates”. For example, I remember attending a “policy pitch” event at the Grattan Institute in February 2015 on “regulating the peer-to-peer economy”. This event featured David Plouffe, Uber’s Senior VC of Policy and Strategy at the time, who is in fact a political strategist and was the campaign manager of Barack Obama in 2008. He flew all the way to Australia to legitimize Uber which was facing a for amount of rage from the taxi sector as happens in every city Uber “disrupts”. Since then, us Uber users in Melbourne receive offers from Uber to cuddle kittens in our offices for 15 minutes delivered by Uber drivers etc; we’re used to Uber “making our day” through advertising campaigns all targeting the correct demographics and therefore cannot say no when we receive messages that go like “Sign a petition so that Uber is not banned in your city”.

The neglected part of the P2P economy needs more attention though; first technically it has been around much longer than the uberised versions and can easily be traced back to early days of open software movement. Second, there is a lot of under-appreciated value in commons-based P2P economy. To understand this a bit more, particularly in the context of sustainability transitions and resilience in cities, we in VP2040 project undertook some exploratory research that also involved an expert consultation and prepared a summary report of our findings.

I strongly recommend a full read; it’s an interesting report with references to lead thinkers in this area and features the best examples of peer-to-peer commons economy. But for those who prefer protein drinks over real meals because they’re too busy to indulge in life, here’re the key messages:

There are three value models competing for dominance in the digital economy: traditional proprietary capitalism, peer-to-peer exchange and peer-to-peer commons models. The latter two were relevant to our investigation.

In a peer-to-peer commons economy there is an effective creation AND sharing of a resource by peers. A peer-to-peer exchange model is about creating and financially benefiting from platforms that connect peers to trade, sell, or rent excess idle resources. The difference between the two value models is a lack of consideration and contribution into the commons in the implementations based on the latter model.

The direct socio-environmental impacts of the two peer-to-peer value models are similar. The main differences are indirect and structural and stem from the different implications of the two value models in business model development, product and service design and structure of wage-labour relationships. See table below.

Summary of indirect and structural socio-environmental impacts of the two value models

 

Peer-to-peer exchange model

 

does not address overconsumption or deal with consumerism at a cultural level

 

the dematerialisation effect observed by some is not because there is less material throughput in the economic system, it is because there is an additional, very resource efficient economic sector based on cognitive labour

does not raise environmental awareness as argued by some but only reinforces the existing awareness (at best)

 

planned obsolescence is an inevitable part of business models which are for-profit

 

the users are not contributors to the platforms which creates a wage-labour dependency

Peer-to-peer commons model

 

assists with re-establishing the relationships between workers, products, users and means of production through localisation and direct participation (except in cases in which low-cost raw materials come from somewhere else)

 

encourages diffusion of local knowledge, therefore incentivises designs that suit best to the context

 

encourages higher resource efficiency (planned obsolescence and other means of creating artificial scarcity is contradictory to the logic of a commons based economy)

 

circulation of commons does not necessitate an increase in scale as the value is created by a reciprocal relation between benefit and nurture. Nevertheless, the peer-to-peer commons value model is agnostic about growth which might be a barrier for sustainability because any digital commons necessitate natural commons

A digital economy in which a set of companies own or control important city data poses a danger for cities as it creates the risk of ‘data feudalism’ as well as incentives for business models that undermine sustainability and resilience. There are also unresolved ethical questions about ownership and use rights of data generated by citizens through the use of proprietary or non-proprietary peer-to-peer platforms.

There are different options for how digital technologies can be deployed in cities depending on which technologies and business models are implemented. However, it is uncertain which options will yield to highest sustainability and resilience outcomes.

Based on the expert consultation and our research findings and reflections, we proposed the following policy recommendations under four main categories:

  1. Developing and Implementing Citizen-centric and Democratic Governance Models
  • Understanding and leveraging institutional, organisational and cultural enablers for creating sharing cities
  • Developing and implementing models of governance for the physical and digital urban commons
  • Facilitating and widening the scope of public debate on urban data and peer-to-peer alternatives
  • Facilitating participatory decision-making and budgeting
  1. Managing and Leveraging Urban Data
  • Supporting the development of a digital open design commons and open information platforms
  • Establishing and supporting experimentation with data and technologies in cities
  1. Developing and Supporting New Models of Business and Securing Finance
  • Educating, empowering and collaborating with digital entrepreneurs to direct innovation efforts and resources towards decarbonisation projects
  • Identifying and developing financial enablers of the digital economy that will assist in radical decarbonisation
  1. Maintaining Socio-economic Resilience
  • Leveraging the expected changes in distribution and number of jobs across sectors by creating employment opportunities that will help shift to a decarbonised economy

 

 

Some Reflections and Questions on Participation, Representation and Politics in Societal Visioning

Humans have been interested in the future since pre-historic times and tried to know, understand and control what is going to happen with the aims of surviving, acquiring and/or sustaining power, making strategic decisions and so on. There are three main phases in human inquiry into the future: the pre-scientific phase, the (quantitative) forecasting phase and the alternative futures thinking phase (List, 2005). There are three types of reactions to future: passivity, adaptation and voluntarism (Godet, 1983). Current thinking is representative of voluntarism which is about creating one’s future. This type of reaction marks the start of the alternative futures movement in the field of futures studies in the mid-twentieth century. Alternative futures thinking is based on the idea that there is no single possible future but multiple possibilities and creation of a desired future is embedded in present choices and decisions (Slaughter, 2005). Therefore, alternative futures thinking is about understanding the possible, probable and plausible futures and selecting preferable one(s) to act upon and to create (Bell, 2005).

Inayatullah (2008) talks about three fundamental forces helping us to understand and work with the future: Pull of the future, push of the present and weight of history. To “work with” and understand these forces, there’re numerous methods of futures inquiry one of which being visioning. Visions or visioning is used to understand and “create” the pull of the future. Among the futures inquiry methods, the least analytical and most intuitive and creative one is perhaps visioning. Bezold (2005) defines visions as “futures for the heart”. I understand visions to be anchors marking future possibility areas which are desirable and plausible. Desirability and plausibility are two qualities commonly accepted to be fundamental for visions. Fine. But three immediate contextual questions arise from this position: Desirable by who? Plausible in what time frame? Plausible according to which technological, scientific, socio-cultural and political assumptions?

These immediate questions bring to surface the question of representativeness of the visions. Donella Meadows, to make an important point, puts forward the idea of Hitler being a visionary in her address at 1994 meeting of the International Society for Ecological Economics in San José, Costa Rica. She adds though “but his vision was not the vision of the Jews or gypsies”. A vision might be inspiring for the “masses” at its time but history judges visions with a different set of values, again, depending on the context through which that historical outlook is formed. Compare Hitler’s Propaganda with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream”; both imagining being exposed to them at their respective days of conception and then in present time. Which one still resonates? Why? I am not making any assumptions here; I understand that either may resonate with individuals of human society but both cannot at the same time. Politics and values are among the primary “informants” of visions and they should not be swept under the carpet. How can we make them explicit, thus allow reflection?

The question of representativeness is the other side of the coin of “participation”. Thanks to the remarkably individualist yet highly community-conscious, egalitarian and collaboratory culture they have, Swedes gifted the world with the idea and practice of “participatory design”, initially as a way to overcome problems associated with interface design of early software. The early successes of these participatory designers found resonance in several disciplines of design, industrial design being a very early adopter. Scale and ability of prototyping played a role in this early adoption as well as the immediately verifiable “business case” of developing products with prospective users. It’s not easy to design larger scale artefacts such as buildings as a whole due to costs associated with prototyping nevertheless it is possible to emulate experiences associated with particular spaces. Similarly participatory design techniques are being used by urban design studios and some enlightened local councils. But how can one design the future of a large complex system through participatory approaches? Participatory visioning seems like a potential answer as hundreds of projects across the world, especially in Europe popped up in the past couple of years using participatory visioning for city futures. Not all of these projects are transparent about the processes used or the extent of representation of stakeholders. Then one question branches out to be on the qualities of participation. How can we possibly represent every stakeholder in a visioning exercise? Is this necessary at all? Politics all over again…

My general and anecdotal observation is that majority of people are not able to or do not want to think in terms of the future beyond time and spatial frames that they think to be binding their own experience. There might be several reasons for this including lack of systemic understanding, particularities of the values/ethical framework one is subscribed to, educational level and intellectual depth etc. Some personal stories are relevant here as examples. In 2014, right before the visioning workshop we held in Melbourne, I went to a hairdresser close to my office to get a quick trim. The hairdresser was a chatty woman in early 20s. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea: I was either going to have small talk with this woman or read the women’s magazines that were thrown in front of me. It was obvious that unless I demonstrated active disengagement by having my attention on something else, she wouldn’t left me alone in quiet observation. I chose the small talk option; she was full of questions, initially tailored for twenty year olds, but nevertheless one finally came which made me feel I was in control of the conversation: “What do you do?”. So I told her that I’m a researcher at Melbourne University and she asked what my research was about. To cut it short and sweet I told her that it was about the future of Melbourne and asked her what she thinks how Melbourne should be like in 2040. She found the question amusing, incomprehensible at first I think, then started “mmmm”ing as an indication of thinking. Finally she said: “Well, I don’t know, I like nightclubbing but all clubs in the city close by midnight. I think I’d like the nightclubs to be open longer”. I was caught defenseless, couldn’t say a word and she changed the subject to the boyfriend she recently broke up with. She was not even able to reflect on the fact that maybe she wouldn’t be into nightclubbing anymore in 2040 and would need and/or prefer other experiences and services. She also wasn’t able to imagine she might not have been living in the CBD in 2040. What does this example tell about the appropriate politics of representation and participation in visioning futures of large complex systems?

A friend of mine, previously climate change researcher currently process engineer for a large consultancy for mining sector, is struggling with his career direction as it doesn’t reflect his values about responsibility to society, nurturing nature, etc. He is one of the more technically and scientifically knowledgeable people about climate change and its implications among all my friends. Nevertheless, he cannot take the easy step of quitting his job and doing something that doesn’t undermine his integrity. Several strategic questioning sessions revealed parts of a complicated picture: in my understanding, he is fearful of not being able to provide for/protect his family (which he actually doesn’t have but obviously hoping to have) during potential times of crisis unless he earns good chunks of money now to invest in property with land to grow food etc. So, although he is able to envision a desirable life for himself and beyond his immediate self and hypothetical future family with an understanding of future risks, his visions about the society and about his nuclear family do not overlap: he struggles thinking systemically. I am still assisting him exploring his assumptions about future possibilities and if his current strategy is the one which will really “pay” during times of crisis. Walking him through different “vantage points” across the large complex system that is “society”, I have been able to help him “picture” desirable visions at different system levels; i.e. society, community, immediate family. It is clear for him that these are interconnected, nevertheless, alignment of his visions at different levels is yet to emerge. He first needs to overcome “fear” and learn to “trust” the wider system because if we cannot envision from a place of mutual trust, regardless of how representative and participatory our current processes of visioning are, at the time of futures unfolding, we will focus on individual security and safety at the expense of safety and security of other members of our immediate community and of wider society. So, unless we facilitate a “group dynamic” that is collaboratory, that enables emergence and endurance of mutual trust among members of society, representativeness and participatory nature of visioning processes at the time of visioning will not necessarily bring out an outcome that is representative and inclusive in the future.

For a (societal) vision to be an effective anchor it needs to meet at least two of the following three conditions, first being a prerequisite:

  1. A vision needs to be plausible-I don’t think this needs explaining although “plausibility” may find different and still valid interpretations in people with different expertise background. Nevertheless, I cannot help but issue a warning which stems from my annoyance with mainstream, loud, advertorial business literature, both academic and practitioner, arguing “visions should be achievable”. In my opinion, if, at the time of visioning you believe you can achieve the vision, you’re not visioning hard enough. If you think you could achieve the vision, then you’ve met the plausibility criterion;
  2. Appealing for the masses (means the vision is timely, widely accepted, so a movement starts, grows and takes over the mainstream), or;
  3. Somehow holds strong political and/or economic “voice” resonating with the “elite” or “yet to be elite” (so, if the masses are “blind” to your vision, you can pretty much “hack” the mainstream through the two most socially relevant mechanisms).

In this conditions list, the second can be generally attributed to evolutionary changes in socio-political systems whereas the third implies revolutionary patterns. Preempting either confusion or objection about my use of terms here, I’ll define them. By evolutionary I mean slower processes of change where those who did not either want or foresee the particular change happening can accept it and adapt to it. By revolutionary I mean faster processes of change where a new model either replaces an old model and become autonomous (which might or might not be followed by evolutionary change for a complete transformation) or a new model takes over an old model by force. Of course these are “ideal” types and especially in transformation of large systems like cities a proportional combination is likely to be observed. In either case though, the context within which change happens is also a determinant of if the vision will be achieved (as the “original” visionary/ies envisioned it) or not.

As usual, these are current meanderings of my mind and my mind would appreciate to be challenged.

References cited in this post:

Bell, W. (2005). An Overview of Futures Studies. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge base of futures studies (Professional ed.). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International. In CD.

Bezold, C. (2005). The Visioning Method. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge Base of Futures Studies CD-ROM Professional Edition (Vol. 2 Part 2). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International.

Inayatullah, S. (2008). Six pillars: Futures thinking for transforming. Foresight, 10(1), 4-21.

Godet, Michel. 1983. Reducing the blunders in forecasting. Futures 15 (3) 181-192.

List, D. (2005). Scenario Network Mapping. Unpublished Ph.D., University of South Australia, Adelaide.

Slaughter, R. (2005). Futures Concepts. In R. Slaughter, S. Inayatullah & J. Ramos (Eds.), Knowledge base of futures studies (Professional ed.). Indooroopilly, Queensland: Foresight International. In CD.

Starting…

Starting a blog about system innovation for sustainability has been on my agenda since I finally finished my PhD in December 2010. But life has taken over and I got busy with lecturing and carrying on with research. The motivation to finally start this blog has come from Forum for the Future (a UK-bsed charitable organisation which works with business and government to create a sustainable future) launching its new strategy a couple of days ago. This is a sign that finally system innovation is becoming a topic of agenda for those other than us academics. This means that there’ll be more talk and walk about it, that finally politicians, company reps and even our neighbours will hear about it, and that there’ll be some exciting action and discussion among self-organising sustainability-enthusiast communities towards taking part in achieveing system innovation. Well, maybe not that fast… But I see FFF’s new strategy as a big step towards a higher-level understanding of what sustainability is, and how it can be achieved by the society. My aim to start the blog is to share my (past and hopefully future) learnings and insights about system innovation with those interested and to learn from them hoping that this blog will enable enlarging my network which is currently limited to the academics working in this area. My interest in system innovation, as much as being driven by my academic research agenda, also stems from a deep and very human desire to influence change towards co-creating a sustainable and desirable future. So, yay!