Last week we submitted the draft for our coming book on the data-driven company. Big data, small data and most in between. Out August on Gyldendal Business

Follow our series of sneak peeks into the books claim om the /KL7 blog.

A lot of things have happened (hence the silence).

  • /KL7 is growing and maturing. Very exiting projects underway, new people hired, and new offices. Please drop by!
  • The Danish Quantified Self network is still growing and exiting projects and products surface each week. Next meeting January 29′th at 5
  • We are involved in the Open Data movement and have started exploring democratic projects and business concepts i /KL7
  • Simon and I have signed a deal with Gyldendal Business on an introduction to strategic deployment of data. The web is flowing with big data, quantified self, data visualization, and other data related hype but the reality in the companies we meet quite different. We have decided to write the book to share our interests and experience with data based strategy and hopefully help the market mature. The book is released in August

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I’ve noticed several examples of evolutionary thinking recently. Some of them explicitly so and others simply taking basic evolutionary premisses for granted. And funnily enough the paradigm seems to blend in with core ideas from my other passion namely cognitive theory (that indirectly let me to biomimetics back then). Let’s take a look at the 10 most interesting examples I’ve stumbled across lately.

  1.  McKinsey affiliate Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth. Evolution, Complexity and the radical Remaking of Economics A hardcore evolutionary argument on how creating value in general depends on complex thinking, dynamics and adaptivity rather than traditional static dynamic models.
  2. Yahoo’s chief scientist, former Columbia professor in sociology and PhD i network theory Duncan Watts’ latest book Everything is Obvious: Once you Know the Answer claims that long-term strategic thinking have to be replaced by an iterative data-driven approach. Common sense is not just sometimes off but ALWAYS wrong when it come to fairly complex matters and several steps of causality.
  3. The economist Tim Harford have just made a similar argument although more explicitly darwinistic in Adapt: Why succes always starts with failure. We need to be ‘always in beta’, to conduct ‘disciplined pluralism’ (variation + selection) and delegate power to the frontline.
  4. Gary Hamel, perhaps the most influential managerial theorist right now claims in What Matters now – rather radically – that management is broke and we are better of with informed decision making in the front line. Why? Well, because of the dynamics and complexity of the modern world.
  5. Then we have the whole Nudge-trend. Thaler and Sunstein argues that we need to compensate for our insufficient cognitive capacities by designing the decisional context to ‘nudge’ us in the ‘rational’ direction without undermining liberty (or changing the incentives – too much).
  6. Like Watts, Thaler and Sunstein is building on psychologist Daniel Kahnemans thinking that gave him the nobel prize in economy in 2002 and created the field behavioral economy. The basic argument is that our cognitive system was developed for and most constructive when dealing with well known and ‘simple’ decisions. We simply deploy our fast, spontaneous, associative faculties much more than we think – even when dealing with quite complex and important decisions. Kahneman’s latest book Thinking fast and Slow is a must read for everybody who new that Freud, Nietzsche and later embodied cognitive science was right about the hierarchy between rationality and emotional thinking.
  7. Something that even McKinsey is now warning top management and boards about by arguing for ‘behavioral strategy‘. Their version of depotenzising management is even mentioning future ‘automated’ (read AI) decision processes to compensate for our lack of cognitive ability when faced with complexity. Quite extraordinary.
  8. And practitioners such as designers have simply just started to deploy evolutionary thinking. Tim Brown of IDEO is now also proposing some sort of ‘Darwinism‘ as a design approach.
  9. Browns counterpart in Frog Design, Rob Girling, is arguing that ‘designing for preferable outcomes’ (what we call behavioral engineering i /KL7) is the prime concern of 21′st design. Again the reason being our new knowledge on how challenged we are cognitively in a complex world stemming from cognitive science and behavioral economy.
  10. Lastly, the implicit theoretical foundation of A/B testing that e.g. Wired Magazine just covered is evolutionary to its bone. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon and even the Obama campaign does nothing without systematically testing variations and selecting the best performing variants whether is the color, wording, placement, size or shape of the button.
  • Bonus track: Harvard Business Review, September 2011: Embracing complexity Featuring i.e. an investment strategist using complex adaptive systems theory as model for his work.

What do think is going on? Has evolutionary thinking fallen pray to fashion, is it a sign of basic triviality with or has the time simply come for me to write that ultimate book on biomimetics as the panacea for all challenges in this world?

We have come a long way since the launch of Bigmother in 2004. Started as a celebration of surveillance technology as a protest to the Bigbrother notion dominant as an automated response to every idea based upon tracking and monitoring. Today surveillance is not even considered problemeatic and the pathos of my early posts seem strange now. Most TV formats are based on some kind of surveillance (Bigbrother), assessment (X-Factor) or ‘documentation’ quality (docu-soaps), social media are filled with behavioral documentation (checking in, bought this, did that) and now apps for tracking sleep, health and fitness are exploding. Furthermore, monitoring might simply be the new philosophical paradigm for personal identity. A somewhat positivist turn following years of spirituality, mindfulness, and meditation. Wired made the argument in 2009 under the heading Know Thyself and saturday the Danish Newspaper Berlingske followed with an article headlined: I measure, therefore I am (in Danish).

Illustration: Nicolas Feltons famous visualizations of his personal life, published in his annual Feltron reports

Again all this just confirms ancient knowledge, that human self understanding is a perpetual interaction with the present technological possibilities. And I will continue to follow humans dance with surveillance technology and data. As an entrepreneur I can only welcome the tendency as our little company /KL7 makes a living by making data meaningful and monitoring a competitive advantage for organizations.
More on self-tracking

Quantified self 

Discover Magazine on self-tracking

New York Times on self-tracking

Frog design predicts that biomimicry (the same design approach I called biomimetics in my 2004 dissertation) will finally have its breakthrough in 2012:

In 2012, we’ll see increasing numbers of scientists, technologists, architects, corporations, and even governments looking to biomimicry—designing objects and systems based on or inspired by patterns in nature—as an efficient innovation strategy. Why? Often, nature can provide examples of energy-saving, environmentally-friendly solutions to a variety of technological challenges. These solutions have also been “tested” via billions of years of informal R&D—by animals, plants, insects, and other participants in the natural world who have come up with ways of harvesting water from fog, for example, or possess sleek forms that are more aerodynamic than traditional man-made ones. While bio-mimicry has been an emerging field for some time, in 2012 influential thinkers will begin to apply biomimetic principles on a larger scale, including the planning of new cities and the updating of urban infrastructures. In addition, experts will also begin exploring the pitfalls of biomimicry and will also share best practices, as more case studies are available. Frog Design

Well, I would surely hope so. I don’t know what ‘influential thinkers’ they are referring to but it sure sounds exiting. But unfortunately I have seen the same predictions for 2011, 2010 and probably before that. And when I investigated the state of biomimetic thinking in the summer 2010 (with the vague intention of turning my research into a more popular management book) I found that not much had happened since I left the research field in 2004. Examples are still primarily ‘structural’ – e.g. mimicking a butterfly’s wing or the lotus leaf’s repellant surface – not the vastly more interesting processual capacities of complex adaptive systems: intelligence, adaptivity, immune effects and self-healing, energy conservatism, cyclic resource circuits etc. This 2010 example from IBM is a little more interessting:

IBM Biomimicry Challenge from Smart Design on Vimeo

But I will definitely not abandon the subject and sooner or later I will write that general introduction to biomimetic innovation strategies.

 

Sometimes things moves in mysterious and complex ways. I recently blogged about my effort to improve the donor situation in Denmark. Today everybody seem to agree that we need to have a national cord blood strategy to remedy the last percentages of e.g. hematologic patients (like me) where a donor is not available. A few month ago when I made a stakeholder survey I couldn’t force anybody to point to stem cells from cord blood as our univocal strategy. But that seem to have changed. Let’s see if the politicians sustain the new support.

 

Whatever made the ball suddenly roll I’m just happy that the momentum seems to build up. I will not however let the matter rest before more concrete political action has been taken.

 

The Danish Cancer Society documented my treatment during 2011 and the result is now public. Spend 15 mins and get a little insight in my 2011 (in Danish).

I hope that 2012 will be more about creating value, defining new territories, developing ideas, helping others and eating a little less medicine.

Merry Christmas and a very happy new year to all of you!

A lot of people are still occupied with privacy allthough the most Orwells’que of all, Mr. Mark Zuckerberg, has called off privacy as a social norm. Actually I expect the privacy movement to grow stronger as a more hip opposition, underground phenomena given the mainstream victory of tracking and monitoring I have discussed on this blog.

As a sort of example of that counter movement one of more ingenious DIY’ers have created a display only viewable with polarized glasses? Funny and clever!

httpv://youtu.be/MgN4r1YufcI

To celebrate Marius‘ heroic work to raise Bigmother from the web-ashes (after a Chinese hack-attack) and to test if it actually works allow me to cross post from a recent post from /KL7. A little reflection on the ethics of behavioral engineering.

Even if you – at least for the sake of the argument – admit us the practical value of monitoring to obtain knowledge and thus give up on well-exercised arguments for the inbreachable privacy rights of people, there is still a question of ‘elitist’ ethics: “What allows you or your client” you might ask, “to decide what people ‘ought’ to do in your so called behavioral engineering approach?” That is, you might admit us the right to act ‘bigbrother’ to gain knowledge but not a normative ‘bigmother’ to achieve a certain behavior. That is a perfectly legitimate question. Let us deal with it once and for all.

In their book Nudge – Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness Thaler and Sunstein discuss this issue and argue at length for the legitimacy of ‘paternalism’. As long as it is liberitarian paternalisme leaving agents with a free choice. This basically means lowering the cost (mentally, cognitively, resource-wise) of making the ‘right’ choice not coercively forcing anyone. The basic argument is that humans – as opposed to the theoretical construct homo economicus – quite frequently make bad choices for a number of reasons. As such, humans needs little ‘nudges’ to make the right choices faced with complexity and insufficient information.

But what is our reason in /KL7? They are very different in origin but univocal in consequence: Humans simply need help to make the right choices in a lot of contexts as we tend to act against our own long term interests. The last couple of hundred years of thinking has been one long dethronement of human rationality. Let us have a look at some of the reasons for questioning mans ‘rationality’:

Philosophical: Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx seriously questioned the merits of our explicit motives. Nietzsche was probably most brutal to our self-understanding when he claimed that all rationality is covered up irrationality: The true boss running the show is our hidden drives.

Cognitive: Cognitive science has amply demonstrated how bodily emotions and basically animal drives stands for a majority of actions and decisions.

Neurological: According to neurology rationality – or the frontal lobes in this terminology – can at best ‘orchestrate’ the symphony of impulses rather than originate or control them.

Biological: From biology we know how we are e.g. prone to eat as much sugar and fat as we can come across since such energy-rich nutritions are rare in nature. But we all know how cheap and available sugar and fat are in our modern world without our spontaneous reaction adapting.

Sociological: Humans are embedded in a social and cultural context often blurring the motivation and thus ‘rationality’ of personal choice.

Economical: Homo economicus, the notion of the perfectly rational, optimizing agent suffers badly in the famous ‘ultimatum game’ experiment. Emotions and our sense of fairness simply trumps rationality when it comes to accept an haphazardly uneven distribution of means: You rather have nothing than only $10 out of $100 if your partner takes the other $90.

Branding: We know that some of the most adored brands in this world act as filters of complexity by making a lot of choices on behalf of the customers. Apple, BMW, Google anyone? In design it is called minimalism, in branding identity and in everyday lingo we call it focus. Most people love brands preciselt for the choices they make on their behalf. This is more about emotional coupling than rationality. Add to this religion as an existential coupling that is also about narrowing the window of available actions and interpretations.

Rational impotence: We have worked long enough with health, traffic, smoking etc. campaigns to know that ‘what I ought to’ is totally decoupled from ‘what I will actually do’. If you conducted a multiple choice test with smokers, alcoholics or obese they would probably have most facts relating to their vice right. But sine this ‘rational’ knowledge is decoupled from emotionally based motivation changed behavior remains a fatamorgana.

Self-inspection: Last but not least; we know ourselves and our rational shortcomings too well. It is only too human. And just like you adjust for physical dysfunctions we think it is perfectly empathetic and ethic to help people behave constructively. As long as it’s not against their or others own long term interests (as deemed by themselves).

And what about the opposite: No intended or unintended influence? How about design, management, didactics or a message that does not willingly or unwillingly stimulate a certain behavior? Quite unthinkable right? You would not deny parents the right to enforce a specific kind of behavior on their offspring either (in general that is. There are extreme examples challenging our norms). So yes, KL7′s business model is to stimulate behavior that would not have arisen spontaneously in the same context. But we always make sure to make choices as transparent as possible by making the stimulation explicit or peoples behavior available to themselves through feedback and only support behavior that the agent herself would otherwise sanction or even cherish. As such we are proud of making peoples life a little better and apply our abilities to support consumerism, pushing around even more communication or add to the visual pollution of the world.

I actually never thought that the ideas presented on this blog would be my everyday work; bread and butter. Was I a visionary or is is just that tracking and monitoring has become the new black and a passing fad?

Well, just today in /KL7 I:
- am conducting a campaign with cameras monitoring a lot of drivers to learn more about their behavior to improve road safety. And the drivers? They love the idea. So much for the bigbrother cliché (as I predicted the demise of when I started bigmother.dk).
- I’ve had meeting with a potential client (public organization) on how to apply monitoring to gather social data to identify and data mine the roots and patterns of entrepreneurial ‘civic-mindedness’ in Denmark. The new critical capital for saving our welfare system bottom up.
- I’ve discussed using social tracking in companies to map social capital and improve workflows and productivity with a potential partner company.

Interesting times. Technology is no longer evil and alienating. Monitoring is OK for learning and as CareWare. The most requested consultants are the ones understanding technology, complexity, monitoring design and deployment. And strategies to remedy cognitive biases and common sense through data-based decisions, persuasive design (Nudging) and plain cognitive theory are hot management literature (Duncan Watts, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and even McKinsey Consultants). And oh, Harvard Business Review’s latest issue is dedicated to complexity and how to view business as a complex adaptive system (what you could call biomimetic management theory). We can call ourselves ‘social engineers’ in /KL7 without evoking dreadful associations. Perhaps all the years spend at university wasn’t wasted after all…Stay tuned as I explore the phenomenon of Bigmother’s renewed relevance.

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