Category Archives: innovation

10 things I learnt at Oxford Energy Day on ‘Growing Economies’

Last week I was at the annual Oxford Energy Day, which focused on Energy in Growing Economies. Here are ten things I learnt (any errors are mine!).

  1. ’Growing economies’: new name for ‘emerging economies’
  2. Bilions lack access to affordable energy, and that hurts their lives
  3. Decarbonised, Decentralised and Digitalised will make for Democratised energy systems – which we’re not ready for.
  4. Energy is not just electricity, and best to focus on final energy use, not primary production
  5. China assumes it will decouple economic growth from environmental impact
  6. India: a new emphasis on markets and clean energy
  7. Africa: big projects face challenges; distributed more viable; charcoal as quick win
  8. Energy access: from a development problem of basic services to an untapped market opportunity of commercial users
  9. Reaching the ‘under-serviced’ will be highly context specific, and that’s a two-way challenge.
  10. What to do: systemic view crafted for local action, aware of incumbency power.

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Rough cut: Qs for pro-sustainability industrial strategy and innovation policy

Earlier today I gave a short talk and Q&A on ‘Pro-sustainability industrial strategy and innovation policy’ at Transformations 2017, a leading academic conference on the transition to a sustainable future.

Now, I wish I could share all my thinking to date. But it’s just too rough to share. So, here is the top level thinking: the questions I think any decision-making should ask themselves when they are formulating an industrial strategy or innovation policy for a sustainable world.


The idea is a decision-maker in any organisation (government, city, big business, foundation and so on) in any context can ask themselves these question to provide a bespoke approach to industrial strategy / innovation for a sustainable world that fits with their situation.

Basically, answering these questions will help you come up with your way of driving the economic component of the profound changes we need for a just and sustainable world. Well, that’s the idea.

Looking at Industrial Strategy and Innovation Policy has become a vechile for me to organise all my experiences and insights on economic transformation into one place. This explains why my more detailed version is too rough to share at the moment: there’s lots of are tools and other supports underneath each question! But this gives you a flavour, and the people who saw me speak at the conference now have the questions (as promised).

One thing that came up in the conference is about how linear this looks, while we know that transformation is not. Well, this is a deliberate design choice. This summary gives a clean and clear 4-step process to make it easy for a person to use. The tools for answering the questions bring in more complexity (using, for instance Embracing Complexity and Three Horizons) and other thinking. It is designed to be used in a linear way, at first, in order to open up the deeper transformations.

Here are the questions laid out:

A. Understanding the pre-conditions
1. What is your purpose and what are your beliefs on how an economy changes?
2. What is the political context you are operating in?
3. What approach and principles for formulating and implementing fits with your situation?

B. Understanding the context, global and specific
4. What does ‘a sustainable world’ mean here?
5. What are global trends do you need to consider?
6. What is your starting situation, and existing vision?
7. How can you use the formulation itself to make the policy successful (including obtaining long-term mandate)?

C. Formulating policies/strategies in priority areas
8. MISSIONS: which innovation missions should you set, and how will you run each?
9. HORIZONTALS: how will you craft the cross-cutting conditions that stimulate the appropriate investment and innovation?
10. VERTICALS: what direction(s) are viable for each major sector, and how support appropriately?
11. GEOGRAPHIES: How enhance specific clusters and enable resilience everywhere?

D. Implementing
12. How implement each part of the strategy with the required guiding principles (e.g. accountability)?
13. How can you keep adjusting to and replenishing the political mandate?
14. How can you evaluate, using that for improving and accountability?

Over the coming weeks I’ll be pulling this into a toolkit and testing it. Also, I’ll be explaining more about where each part comes from in depth. In the meantime, watch this for more detail.

The full slides I used are here (only 4 slides – more detail soon I promise!).

If you have any thoughts, comments (positive or negative) do put them below or get in touch.



Video: Industrial Strategy for a Sustainable World (April 2017)

Back in April I did a two hour session for London Futurists, a group for people who are interested in the future and maybe want to help shape it.  David Wood, the smartphone entrepreneur who runs the group, asked me to run a session.

For me it was a chance to try out my latest thoughts on industrial strategy for a sustainable world. I speak for about an hour, and then there’s another hour of questions.

In a nutshell, the talk gives a wireframe which I believe you can use to organise all of the economic elements of the transition to a sustainable world. You can look at the slides here.

Doubtless the talk is wrong about lots of stuff – my aim was to be wrong in useful ways!

I’ve had lots of feedback from the people at the talk, and others to whom I’ve given (shorter) versions. I’d love your thoughts too. Please comment below or get in touch in the normal way.

It’s clearly a work-in-progress but so far people have been finding it useful, especially to see how their work is a contribution to the wider change.

Even so, I know it is far from the finished article. I’ve had thoughts since on where to improve and where to pivot. These will have to wait for another post! In the meantime, enjoy the talk and thank you again to David Wood for giving me the chance.


Help please! Pro-sustainability industrial strategy

The world needs to shift to a sustainable footing, and I think industrial strategy is one of the levers to pull. I need your help to run a series of events, publish a paper and make some recommendations to the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. What are the key design questions in formualting an industrial strategy for a sustainable society? What are the current best answers, in practice and in theory? Who knows about them, and how to engage them? What am I missing?

Below I give:
A. Background on why I’m looking at this topic
B. What I am doing
C. A draft framework to populate
D. How you can help

A. Background
A year ago, as I started my sabbatical, I started thinking about what a pro-sustainability innovation strategy would look like. It struck me then that it was a relatively unexplored lever for the shift to a sustainable footing. The reason was obvious: we’d spent decades convincing ourselves that businesses do innovation, and the best role for government was to get out of the way. A friend, James Shaw, asked me to pull something together for the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. He is co-leader and wants to have an economic policy which brings included an innovation policy for sustainability.

I did a bunch of reading, had first thoughts on diagnosis, direction and design of an industrial strategy. As I went further, I realised that writing an innovation policy means working through lots of other stuff: what sort of society are you trying to generate, how do you think the world works and so how do you try to shift it. My sabbatical went down into these, taking time from the specifics of industrial strategy. I went back to Forum, and my time and headspace was taken up.

But now I’ve left Forum and have the time and headspace to come back to it. In the meantime a rather surprising thing happened: the UK voted to leave the EU, and a new Prime Minister created a new department which has ‘industrial strategy’ in the title.

Whatever direction the UK government’s industrial strategy goes, the fact they will have one is a signal of change – one which I want to amplify. For one thing I need to fulfil my promise to James. For another, working through what makes a pro-sustainability industrial strategy will force me to connect my head-in-the-clouds ideas to feet-on-the-ground substance. There’s a chance to contribute to real change happening around the world.

But what do I mean by pro-sustainability industrial strategy? Well, its easy to get in a tangle, with this OECD publication spending 4 pages comparing and contrasting. For now, I’m going to tweak the one they get to in two ways. First, I’m not just thinking of governments, but also cities, companies, civil society organisations and more. Second, I’m making the sustainability component explicit. So, here’s my working definition:

Any type of intervention or policy that attempts to improve the business environment or to alter the structure of economic activity toward sectors, technologies or tasks that are expected to offer better prospects for economic growth or societal welfare than would occur in the absence of such intervention which contributes to putting the world on a sustainable footing.

B. What I’m doing
Obviously, I’m a generalist and there are many people who have been thinking and acting in this area for a while. The part I can play is bringing lots of great stuff together, and making it useable for James and others (without having to get paid – I’m a free resource on this!). I’m doing this as an Associate Fellow of the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) in Cambridge – which means I can access that network of academics and policy people.

What I’m planning to do:

  1. Have a draft framework of overarching design questions for formulating a pro-sustainability industrial  strategy and innovation policy. (DONE – see section C. below).
  2. Test and populate that framework (now-April):
    • Interviews with key thinkers and practitioners
    • Desk research
    • Events where people can give their answers to ‘What are the key design questions in formulating a pro-sustainability industrial strategy?’. CSaP has already agreed to run some for their practitioner network in London. I’m exploring having other events with other bodies to reach out to different stakeholders.
    • If I get time, figure out the technology, and if there is demand, I will try to have an electronic way people can populate the framework, wiki-like.
  3. Apply the resulting populated framework to diferent contexts, at least New Zealand but I hope others too (April-May).
  4.  Publish a paper for CSaP on the key design questions in formulating a pro-sustainability industrial strategy (May).
  5. Provide recommendations to James on New Zealand (May).

Simples! Well, not quite. I’d love your help  on who to interview, what to read, whether the framework is robust, what should populate it and who else might want to run an event populating or applying the framework (more specific requests in section D. below).

Also, more fundamentally, there are a bunch of leap-of-faith hypotheses (an idea taken from Eric Ries’ Lean Start Up – review forthcoming):

  • Governments have realized they need an industrial strategy.
  • They are willing to tilt that industrial strategy to sustainable outcomes.
  • There are forms of industrial strategy and innovation policy which can deliver on sustainability goals.
  • There is existing best practice and best thinking to draw together.
  • The people with that best practice or thinking are willing and able to share those with others.
  • It is possible to come up with New Zealand recommendations in London.
  • It is possible to write a generic tool which allows people to locate themselves in their ecosystem, and so come up with context-specific recommendations. And that a framework of ‘key design questions’ can fulfil that need.
  • Looking further ahead, to diffusion, there is a next wave of adoptees, in New Zealand or elsewhere, who would be willing to apply a framework.
  • There are institutions, places and events where the next wave of adoptees  come together to share latest best practice.
  • It is possible to bring the findings to these places.
  • I have the competence, connections and time to bring this all together.

As per Lean Start-up, I will be testing these hypothese as I go. I’ll also have regular ‘Perserve or Pivot?’ moments, to give myself licence to do better things, not just do things better.

C. A draft framework to populate
Below is my first stab at the overarching framework that needs to be populated. I’m seeing it as big questions (e.g. what does sustainability mean in this context?) underneath which there will be a number of sub questions (e.g. which of the Sustainable Development Goals are most applicable?).

Screenshot 2017-01-11 11.50.32.png

D. How you can help
As I say, I see myself as a generalist pulling things together. If it’s already been done – wonderful! I can get on with something else! Please point me in that direction. If it hasn’t been done, then I need help on content and process.


  • For you, what are the key design questions in formualting an industrial strategy for a sustainable society?
  • What are the current best answers, in practice and in theory?
  • How can I improve the framework to populate?


  • Who should I interview?
  • What should I read?
  • Who else might want to run an event populating or applying the framework?
  • How can I test and improve my leap-of-hypotheses?
  • How might I need tp pivot, to do better things not just do things better?

If you thoughts on these, or anything else, just stick them in the comments or contact me via twitter, email or other channels.

Thank you in advance!

We should all embrace ‘Embracing Complexity’

Occasionally you come across a book which says all that you wanted to, only better, and with more proof and analysis than you could hope to assemble yourself. Well, Embracing Complexity is that book for me. It brilliantly describes the technical background to complexity, then argues forcefully that we should adopt a complexity worldview. In this review I’ll summarise the writers’ key points, and pull out some implications of what I currently think of as a modern masterpiece.




Twenty years ago I was studying to be a physicist. I soon realised I didn’t have the deep maths to do anything valuable in the field, and so I moved on. Back then I had read about complexity. James Gleick’s book on Chaos had popularised many elements. Once I joined Forum I and a few colleague tried to bring complexity thinking into our work, but without great success. We knew we wanted to get beyond a mechanical approach to change but it wasn’t clear what complexity was, especially when compared to systems thinking, nor how to put the principles into action.

Enter Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence by Jean G. Boulton, Peter M. Allen, Cliff Bowman. As it happens, I know one of the authors, Jean, and was at the book launch back in September 2015. But when I read the book it really resonated with my past reading and current experiences of trying to create profound change. The effectively has a series of big claims, and then applies those claims to the domains of management, strategy, economics and, politics.

Let’s start with the big claims. The first, and the foundation stone for the rest of their thesis, is that we can treat complexity as a worldview, one which “sees the world as essentially interconnected, and rich with forms and patterns that have been shaped by history and context…[it] reminds us of the limits of certainty, it emphasises that things are in a constant process of ‘becoming’ and that there is potential for startlingly new futures where what emerges can be unexpected and astonishing”.

The primary contrast, of course, is with the mechanistic worldview we have inherited from Newton, that the world is just a clock that will predictably tick round. The other contrast is with a worldview inherited from a later physics, that of thermodynamics. Thermodynamics says the best way to understand a liquid or a gas is by treating the very large number of molecules as independent agents. Predicting an individual agent is hard, but the sheer statistics of their bouncing off each other like billiards balls, mean you can predict how the gas or liquid will move towards equilibrium. (In this sense, thermodynamics is Newton plus statistics, and is a subset of mechanistic worldview.) Beinhocker shows in The Origin of Wealth it is thermodynamics that inspired the orthodox economics that we know.

What do the authors mean by a complexity worldview? In a nutshell, they are saying the world is:

  • Systemic: the world cannot be understood through taking apart he bits and understanding them separately. Factors work together synergistically, that is, the whole is different from the sum of the parts. We live as part of patterns of relationships.
  • Path-dependent: history matters and the sequence of events is a key factor in giving shape to the future.
  • Sensitive to context: one size does not fit all, and the way change happens and the way the future emerges is dependent on the detail and particular events and patterns of relationships and particular features in the local situation. By generalising, we risk throwing out the very information that sheds light on why things happen and what might happen next.
  • Emergent, uncertain, but not random: although the future does not follow smoothly from the past, neither is what happens random. The world is neither chaotic not predictable but somewhere in between.
  • Episodic: things are becoming, developing, and changing but change happens in fits and starts. The intriguing thing about the world is that on the surface patterns of relationships and structures can seem almost stable for long periods of time, although micro-changes may be going on under the surface. And then radical change can happen suddenly and new patterns of relationships can self-organise and some completely new features that could not have been predicted may emerge.”


Individually and collectively, these aspects are strongly at odds with the mechanistic worldview, where the whole is the sum of the parts, where there is no past contained in a situation, just the current dynamics, where the same starting point should merely wind forward again and again. The authors claim that their complexity worldview is many ancients had already intuited and what Darwin recovered when he wrote about evolution. Their main descriptions of complexity rely more on ecology than on physics, perhaps because the maths is just too hard to translate into English.

Here is their central tenet of complexity theory:

“it is in the detail and variation, coupled with interconnection, that provide the fuel for innovation, evolution, change, and learning.”

Any proposed worldview has to do a few things. First, how is it different and bette, than others? As well as the contrast to the mechanistic worldview, the authors contrast with systems thinking:

“systems thinking deals with stable patterns and history deals with the particularity of events, conditions and individuals – but complexity thinking marries the two and provides us with a sophisticated and unique theory of change.”

Which leads to the key weakness of systems thinking: “simple systems analysis are helpful in describing stability, they tells little about change – what may cause it, and what may emerge as a result”.

The other thing a worldview must do – especially one that claims to ‘include and transcend’ the previous ones – is explain how the others can give useful explanations. If the mechanistic worldview is built from the wrong foundations, why hasn’t it simply fallen over? Why can it be useful? Here is their answer:

“When things are very stable over a long time, the macro-characteristics of complex systems tend towards behaviour that looks machine-like and predictable”


Why does this matter for sustainability? Well, if you take the mechanistic worldview then we can solve the sustainability question one issue at a time. You don’t need to look for a deep layering of causes behind, say, climate change. And the way to solve problems is simple. You just reduce your emissions and move on to the next problem. Any attempt at change which has a list of things to do, in order, that can be written in advance and then never changed is subscribing to this worldview (though they may not know it). In a mechanistic worldview holistic is so much horseshit.

But people know intuitively that “sustainability is a property of a web of relationships means that in order to understand it properly we need to shift our focus to the whole, and learn to how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections, patterns and context” (Boulton et al quoting Evitts, S., Seale, B., Skybrook, D. (2010)). Developing an Interconnected Worldview: A. Guiding Process for Learning). That cannot be done within a mechanistic worldview. It needs something more.

What Boulton et al is that something more, the worldview through which we can address the sustainability crisis of our times.


The complexity worldview gives us two new lenses onto change.

First, it allows us to understand change as a cycle of an ecology. Let’s imagine there is an absence of order. From this period of chaos there is self-organisation, patterns of relationships between the different parts that emerge and sustain. These parts and their relationships start to co-evolve, that is changes in one induce in and are the response to changes in another. Over time the web of web of relationships becomes mutually sustaining. This is a period of self-regulation where incremental differences lead to incremental changes. Without further external shocks this moves to lock-in, as the  relationships become tighter, more rigid, more efficient. But they are so finely tuned that a shock from outside the immediate system leads to collapse. And we start again.

This cycle is familiar to anyone in an organisation as it starts, finds its niche, grows, standardises, becomes more rigid and then struggles to change until too late. The move to self-regulation is ‘needed’ for efficiency but contains the seeds of the organisation’s failure. My point of view on why there are so many business books on leadership and change is because lots of people find themselves in charge in that ‘self-regulation’ or lock-in phase. They are trying to do something about it, but it is hard, because the organisation is defined now by the self-sustaining, self-reinforcing relationships – by what made it successful until now. It’s why we shouldn’t expect the current incumbents to be the source of fundamental change.

Embracing Complexity says that the lock-in is not inevitable, it happens when the framing context is stable, and so no push to keep self-organising. The suggestion is to keep in changing more than the context might otherwise need you to, so you don’t become fixed. There’s an interesting parallel here with Taleb’s notion of AntiFragile, where things get better when stressed. His point of view is that change and shocks are inevitable, and so better to design situations to benefit from that, rather than merely recover (his take on resilience). Needless to say, any senior manager will tell you how much attention and sheer willpower is required to avoid useful ways of getting things done from becoming standardised routines of thought and deed.

The authors are keen to address one pervasive mis-understanding: self-organising “does not necessarily imply that the situation [is] just left to itself”. Self-organisation occurs when there are top-down intentions, as well as bottom-up activity. As such, enabling self-organisation is not just a case of senior managers or government getting out of the way.

Second there is describing change. This is a bit technical, but very much worth it. There are some definitions that we need:

  • “State space – a representation of the information in a situation or system through looking at the set of its constituent dimensions or variables rather than representing it in time and space. Contains a map of attractor basins and areas where there are less definite features.”
  • “Attractor basins (or attractors) – Stable configurations of interacting variables which show what combinations of factors mutually reinforce each other.”

These two terms help us unpack three types of change (examples are mine, which means they might be wrong): within attractor basins, between existing ones and evolution of new ones.

  1. “Unfolding change” staying in the same attractor basin. Through the 90s Tescos simply beat Sainsburys in being an out-of town supermarket, with a mix of brands, a mix of price points and a great variety of choice.
  2. “Self-organisation – in to a new attractor basin. giving different configuration of relationships but no new dimensions.” Lidl and Aldi have a different formula compared to the existing grocers: low cost, all own-brand, less variety.
  3. “Evolution (or emergence) – the process of variation, self-organisation and selection that leads to emergence of new qualities and types.” On-line retailing is a massive disturbance, adding new factors to include in what makes you successful (i.e. new dimensions in state space), which means that new configurations of mutually reinforcing factors (i.e. new attractor basins) are there to find. These new attractor basins will also affect the supply chains and the customers, who will all co-evolve as the basins do.

Another way in to this (again, my example) would be Brian Eno. In the early 70s he started treating the studio as a musical instrument, not just a passive way of recording other instruments. This change the number of dimensions in the state space: different sounds were available, as were different compositional structures and very different results. I’m listening to one of those results as I type, Music for Airports. This is widely credited with forming a new genre – ambient. In the terms above, in the new, enlarged state space there are new configurations that work – new attractor basins. He found one of those with this album, and then others followed, further developing (i.e. self-organising) the genre.


What are the implications?

The authors have a list of principles for how project mangers should behave, given this worldview. But I think it could apply to anyone:

  • Aspire
    • Take a wide, systemic view of emerging trends
    • Articulate long-term goals and intentions and use these to prioritise actions, and determine which opportunities to seize
    • Judge whether to persist when there is little evidence of change
  • Anticipate
    • Think a few steps ahead during implementation. What might be the consequences of actions…or events in the wider context?
    • Thank through where critical junctures / possible tipping points might occur
    • Scan for changes in the context
  • Adapt
    • Adapt to unexpected events and unintended outcomes as they happen
    • Seize opportunities, making choices in line with the long-term goals
    • Plan activities and projects but review progress regularly, take note of changing circumstances and modify if necessary
  • Customise
    • Take account of contextual and historical factors in developing plans and programmes. Do not expect there to be a universally applicable best approach
    • Experiement – plito approaches, learn from what works.


When it comes to organisational strategy, the fundamental insight is to remain ambidextrous: “An organisation needs both to be effective in competing in today’s market with today’s economic and social and political conditions, but also to have the ability to make judgements about the future in order to be able to adapt to any changes as well as to, in some cases, catalyse change.”

But attending to both today and tomorrow is tough. Their conclusion is the importance of constantly testing how dynamic your contest tis. If it is stable, then you can bias toward effectiveness (mostly today, and a little of considering tomorrow). If it is fluctuating, then develop a core competence of entrepreneurialism, anticipating future trends and tastes. If unstable then build for emergence.

For all these, it is crucial to keep experimenting, seizing opportunities, learning and adapting to circumstances — it’s just a question of degree.

The implications for economics get the most hefty treatment from the authors. Neoclassical thinking is attacked for requiring an equilibrium which will never come, for seeing futures as independent of the past, of relying on a super-rational decision-maker (Homo Economics) that is a dangerous fiction, and for separating economics from society, and growth from development.

They stress two things that come from ecology. First, that in nature there is both competition and collaboration:

“Ecological competition is a common feature of the bio-economic relax, but so also is inter-dependency, cooperation, symbiosis and division of labour. Moreover, competition is not the fundamental ‘organising principle’ in the economy of nature, as many theorists have asserted. The touchstone is the problem of earning a living an reproducing – adaptation – and both competition and cooperation are subsidiary phenomena. The are contingent ‘survival strategies’.”

Second, that evolution is “about the survival of the fittest ecology rather than the survival of the fittest individual. The evolutionary process becomes ‘variation—self-organisation—selection’, rather than ‘variation—selection’.”

This has big implication for innovation. We should not look to individual companies for innovation. Instead, innovations come from the competition between, and collaboration within, whole ecosystems of organisations. These innovations are driven by the factors pushing on an ecosystem, whether that is competition from another or an incentive from a customer or a regulation from government or more. Innovation is not manna from heaven, or the result of one lone genius. I’ll be returning to this when I write about Grubb’s Planetary Economics, and when thinking about a pro-sustainability innovation policy.

It also has big implications for competition policy. “One thing Smith seems to have concluded is that this process [of self-organising] works best when the players in the system are of similar size, where there is equal power and diversity of choice, and potential for interconnectivity.” When that is not the case, then we move into a situation where the big can use their dominance to get bigger. If business leaders are told that the purpose of private enterprise is to make profit, then they will use their dominance to remove risk, “to simplify their markets and make suppliers and supply chains and even consumers act in the way that suit them. Indeed, an unregulated market…tends to allow ‘lock-in’ – the big get bigger, and the dominant more dominant.such dominance can ‘win’ in the short-term or even in the medium-term, such organisations are less able to adapt to changing circumstances. They be more efficient but they are less resilient”.

Hence the need for all those books on change, leadership and innovation. Hence, also the case for an active government: “Regulation is needed to counter the tendency for the big to get bigger, the powerful to get more powerful, the risks taken to get more risky, and economic forces to win over concerns for equality and sustainability.”


What does all this mean for growing the political economy we need for a sustainable future?

There’s a lot to unpack and explore. Some things that come to mind now, and doubtless will develop and change:

  • I’ll try to use ‘state space’ to describe the possible ways of we organise ourselves in society – the interplay of economics, law, politics and more that set the operating context for individuals and organisations, and are expressions of dominant beliefs in society (that is, the political economies).
  • The complexity worldview provides a theoretical basis to my experience and intuition that the mechanistic worldview is part of the problem, and needs to be replaced with something that allows for humans acting as part of nature, not separate.
  • We need to organise ourselves for evolution, to create a variety of ecologies that can self-organise, then select on the basis of ‘fit’ and then develop further. It all points to the  importance of learning from experiences, plus using and developing what is there already. We need to accept there is no single, perfect answer but there are always unintended consequences.
  • That will require removing the existing lock-in – which crowds-out the evolution in the short-term but makes the chance of collapse higher in the medium-term.
  • Part of the existing lock-in is an inner dynamic of ‘big get bigger’ (what in system archetypes is called Success to the successful). The implication is a need for all players to have relatively similar power, rather than a small number who win big.
  • One of the dimensions in state space for us to play with is the type of actor that is important in a political economy. Political economy has traditionally considered actors of nation-states and individuals 9then, depending on your flavour, perhaps class). My thinking has been that we’re seeing the emergence of a different sort of political economy, made up of collaborations between non-state actors. Don Tapscott calls these Global Solution Networks, and claims these are new multi-stakeholder models for global cooperation, problem solving and governance. In the language of Embracing Complexity these are ecologies that are evolving, and which then frame the behaviour and incentives for businesses, other organisations and people.  They may be the vehicle to promoting well-intentioned send-organisation, and fulfil the author’s call-to-arms: “We have a responsibility for ‘seeding the system with good ingredients’, for shaping intention, for surfacing values, and for spotting where the powerful are ‘winning’ at the expense of the less powerful — and by so doing locking-in resources and locking-out competition”.
  • We’ll have to address the profit motive. I’ve had a belief up until now that what matters is outcomes, not motives. So, if someone made the pro-sustainability investment for commercial reasons or ethical reasons, what matters is they made the investment. Embracing Complexity says that’s not good enough. Jean in particular (in conversation with me) has said that the end can never justify the means as it is the means that are added to the system and we may never reach the end. Putting that into practice means, I think, accepting the starting motive someone has as inevitable, but trying to change that motive – and the beliefs underlying it – over time.


I’m sure that list will be longer by the time I finish my sabbatical! There are also two ironies I’m aware of. The first is one core message of Embracing Complexity is to avoid universal claims, while using a complexity as a worldview is to have a universal claim. The other is that the authors warn “we should not assume that the patterns that emerge at a one scale will necessarily be repeated at a larger scale”. Just because science can ‘prove’ the natural world is best understood through complexity, doesn’t mean that automatically it is the best way to understand the human world.

The authors do address this head on in one chapter, and draw the conclusion that although humans are not molecules, the extra features we bring (like intention) can be brought into a complexity worldview. Of course, when considering beliefs it is impossible to stand back and make an objective appraisal. What are you now standing on, from which you compare mechanistic vs complexity worldview? There complexity one has a couple of things in its favour. One is that it can explain why the mechanistic worldview works where it works, and also why it doesn’t in other circumstances. The other is that a ’experiment-and-learn’ approach at complexity worldview’ core means it is not fixed, but constantly being tested and refined. Therefore, it contains within it an inner dynamic to adapt with experience, not passively stay the same.

As such, I want to experiment with it for now. Over the coming weeks I’ll be applying it directly to questions of bending the curve on climate change, a pro-sustainability innovation policy, an enabling narrative for business, the digital revolution – and how we can grow the political economy we need for a sustainable future. It’s going to be fun!

Talk: How digital innovation will have a profound and disruptive effect on society and our environment

This is the text of the talk I gave at Forum for the Future regular energy drinks. My brief was to describe how digital innovation will have a profound and destructive effect on society and our environment in 10 minutes. It’s one part of my sabbatical effort to understand how we can surf the digital revolution. Here goes.

Let’s start with the bold claim. If we are on track for sustainable future in 10 years time it will be because we have figured out how to surf the digital revolution.

Behind this bold claim is the idea that digital technologies are a general-purpose technology. To quote McAffee and Brynjolfsson, they will do for mental power walk the steam engine did from muscle power. We can expect the impacts to be as profound. And the Industrial Revolution had some consequences! We moved from farms to factories, stagecoaches to locomotives, local time to timetables, villagers knowing each other to towns and cities of strangers. All this illustrates how social change and technological revolutions go hand in.

But it is still difficult to grasp what that means for us now. So, let’s imagine again my life in say 2020.

I wake early and my phone has registered disturbed sleep. It tells my yoga app and my health insurer. Over breakfast I reward my son who has had a good end of term report with Amazon’s points. He wants to spend them on the force re-re-awakens.

Citymapper tells me that my commute is disrupted so I don’t work in a local cafe. I paid in ‘Brocks’, the local currency in Brockley South East London that I earned from my solar surplus into the local electricity grid. I commute in on the Elizabeth line what used to be called crossrail.

My first meeting is assessing the work that has come back from researchers. We put a request out to our crowd, and people have sent back their findings. They get paid a little bit for effort but more if we like the insight and decide to use it. Just before lunch my phone tells me an old friend is now by and we have and impromptu get-together.

In the background lots of things happening that I don’t need to take any part in. My home concierge is turning devices on off to get the cheapest energy. Someone borrows our lawnmower and pays in ‘Brocks’. My digital assistant is dealing with my emails; I only see the ones that I’ve taught it I really need to see.

In the evening there are leaving drinks for some back-office staff. I taken either home driven by an unhappy former black cabbie.

All this illustrates a couple of points:

– My life will rely on digital
– People will be paid based on how well they work with robots (to quote Kevin Kelly)
– Individuals with more exposed and, paradoxically, have more power
– It will support an exhilarating energy revolution, Through local small groups and smart buildings
– There will be alternative models: the access economy; the sharing economy; the circular economy; the gig economy; the local economy.
– Life will be faster more automated and more bespoke

There are two great hopes of digital revolution:

– The productivity gains will mean we can meet all material needs.
– Because we can meet nonmaterial means in nonmaterial ways, we will need less stuff to have more fun and we can come back within planetary boundaries

But alongside those hopes come some big fears:

– How will people have worthwhile work?
– How will people get value from data about themselves?
– How will we address the ‘winner-takes-all’ dynamic that is driven faster by the ’network effect’ of digital technologies?
– What will be the institutions in a digitally-enabled world that are worthy of our trust?
– How will we evolve our selves to always-connected, ever-accelerating lives?

More fears can be devised and there is much we cannot know. We can know is the digital will have a profound effect on society and our environment – and so on our lives. Because networks are at it’s heart, digital technologies hold out the promise of us organising like a living system (which I think is crucial to a sustainable future – see here). If we can do that then we could have a society where people can choose how they live within planetary boundaries.

Getting this to happen will be tough. It will require us to come up with new institutions new regulations new values in fact a whole new political. But we must.

Because if we are on track for sustainable future in 10 years time it will be because we haven’t figured out how to surf the digital revolution.

Talk for Bath MBA students: the sustainable business landscape

Here’s a talk I gave to some University of Bath MBA students on Friday 22 March 2013.

Key points:

  • Sustainability issues are affecting your business
    • Doing nothing presents real risks
    • Acting now opens exciting opportunities
  • Leading businesses are acting on 2 fronts:
    • Shaping the context for a brighter future
    • Innovating to win on that path

I illustrate this with some recent work:

  • Developing strategy at AkzoNobel (I blogged about that here)
  • Innovating with Sony
  • Embedding change with O2
  • Shaping the system with Nike