Online conversation as foresight
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Spot the Future is a project to figure out what is happening at the edge of change in Armenia, Egypt and Georgia. It is a collaboration between UNDP-CIS Innovation Unit and Edgeryders. In this presentation I explain why we do it, how we do it, and some early results.
Transcript of Online conversation as foresight
- V O I C E S F R O M T H E E D G E S P O T T H E F U T U R E : O N L I N E C O N V E R S A T I O N A S F O R E S I G H T A L B E R T O C O T T I C A , E D G E RY D E R S Hello all, its great to be here, thank you so much for having me.
- Let me start by apologising for my informal style of dressing today. I am on a motorcycling trip, which coincidentally was going through Istanbul. I decided to adjust the trip so that I could come in person instead of having a colleague do a Skype presentation, but I have limited baggage space and had to compromise on apparel.
- F O R E S I G H T I N S T F H O W I T H E L P S D E V E L O P M E N T H O W W E D I D I T E A R LY R E S U LT S I am here to tell you about a project called Spot The Future. This is a collaboration between UNDP-CIS and a social enterprise called Edgeryders, trying out a new methodology in three sample countries: Armenia, Egypt, and Georgia. We are very new, in fact this is our first project as a company. We are deeply grateful that you guys gave us the opportunity to do this. It is turning out to be quite a journey, we are learning much from it. You guys are the first to hear about it, the project is not even finished yet. I am going to talk about:
- F O C U S O N N O V E LT Y So what is foresight in the context of STF? First, it focuses on novelty. Notice that prediction does not: it focuses on variation, which is a sort of tame cousin of novelty. The price of oil next year is going to be something between 10 and 100 dollars per barrel. It is not conceptually impossible that it costs -10, or a million dollar, or, is measured in elephant tusks per barrel, or declared taboo for religious reasons, but sensibly prediction people stay within a well-defined problem space and dont look in directions outside it. We, on the other hand, do nothing but look in weird directions.
- C H A N G E S TA R T S AT T H E E D G E S P O T T H E F U T U R E Photo: Alastair Montgomery Secondly, STF-style foresight assumes that novelty comes from the edge. In the center of things, the current paradigm holds: thats definitional of the center. It is at the edge, far from the stabilising influence of the current institutions, that change starts. Thats the place to look for novel things: and if you do look, you will see many. Most of them will go extinct, but occasionally one becomes important and turns the tables.
- N E W P E O P L E , N E W W O R L D S Photo: Medhin Paolos Thirdly, to understand novelty it is not enough to look at artefacts (like, say, a new technology, or some infrastructure). Complexity scientists like to say innovation happens in agent-artefact space: typically, change requires some inanimate objects (artefacts) and a group of humans that attribute to it a specific meaning, and decide how to interact with those objects (agents). For example, the invention of the personal computer required Giorgio Perottos team at Olivetti to look at the mainframe computers in 1962 and say: hey, this could be a domestic appliance. In STF, we look precisely for emerging new patterns of behaviour of agents that inhabit the edge of society: hackers, activists, change makers and other restless souls.
- N O W C A S T I N G So, what kind of foresight are we looking at here? It is a bit like weather forecasting. We look at things that are already happening as they happen, and scan them for potential significance. A cold front is forming, so it might rain. The tracer variable the equivalent of atmospheric pressure in STF is action. If people talk about some change, this is not so interesting. If people are using their limited time, money and energy to enact change, we sit up and listen. So, we never ask people what would you like to happen?. We have found this leads to whining and wishful thinking. Instead, we ask them what are you actually doing? We gather experiential data, and use them to generate propositions like: Young people in country X are experimenting a lot with crypto currencies. There is a dissatisfaction with central control of money that is strong enough for them to try to route around it. The technology is quite advanced, and the community around it approaches critical mass. This does not tell you what will happen, but it does tell you what direction change might be coming from. We dont forecast we nowcast. Much easier.
- D E V E L O P M E N T A S S U R F I N G Photo: Mandolin This turns out to be actionable information for development practitioners. Development is not about seeing the future: it is about changing it, and that comes with a heavy luggage of deep questions and ethical choices. The technique used in STF singles out potential novelty, in such a way that each one of them comes with its own tribe, with its champions. If you like some of the changes they are trying to bring about; if these changes further your development goals, you can just give them a bit of help: more access to to power, more credibility, more resources even, and then see where the system goes as a result. This is the nexus: this is why UNDP is doing STF at all. The who question is by far the most important. Who are the change makers? What do they want? Can we help the country by helping them? You can think of it as a portfolio, and allocate investments across it. Notice that this paints a highly non-invasive picture of what development is. Instead of big government top-down intervention, with a benevolent maximiser deploying vast resources to move the system to some new configuration by brute force, the idea of a development agency behind STF is that of a selective enabler. There is already a social dynamics behind these changes; there are already local people who are building it. Strategy means deciding who to help, not dreaming up a development path from the outside. Development is like surfing, not like bulldozing: the surfer needs to be strong and smart, and she definitely makes plenty of decisions about where to go: but she can never, ever, go against the wave, or make her own. She has to surf the waves she finds.
- T R AV E R S I N G T H E S O C I A L G R A P H Ok, so this is why we do STF the way we do. But how do we do it? How do we get in touch with these mythical changemakers? How do we gain their trust and get them to collaborate with us? How do we process and aggregate the data into conclusions? We use the Internet. Social networks not in the sense of social networking services like Facebook, but in the sense of networks that connect people interacting with one another have a mathematical property called small world. It says that you can get from any node in the network to any other node through a small number of hops. You want to learn about, say, the tactical urbanism movement in Egypt? Chances are, you are at 4 hops or less from that crowd. That is, you have a cousin who studied with someone that was at a conference with one of the tactical urbanists. You are interested in squatters in Spain? Same thing. The green tech scene in Nigeria? Same again.
- C O M M U N I T Y A S C O L L AT E R A L Photo: Sam Muirhead How to take advantage of that? Here a characteristic of Edgeryders comes into play. Edgeryders is a company built on top of an online community, itself a spinoff of a Council of Europe project of 2012 its quite an interesting story, I have no time to go into it, but do talk to me after the presentation if you want to know about it. What matters here is that we have over 2000 registered members in the community, mostly from Europe, and they tend to be people from the edge; open source hackers, crypto people, civil rights activists, open data geeks, squatters etc. There are some really radical life choices out there. So, what we do when we get interested in a problem, we basically put up a sign saying come to us for an interesting and honest conversation about problem X. People in the community help us by stepping in, and therefore signalling that we are actually asking interesting questions with integrity. They are recognised by their peers, who then are more likely to step in and join the conversation. For almost any interesting problem we can find a handful of people in our community who are respected voices in that space.
- So, in order to kickstart a conversation on something, we open a discussion about it on the online platform that serves as a meeting place for Edgeryders, and we share its most interesting bits on mainstream social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Some people who are not on Edgeryders see it, just by chance because of retweets and reshares. Some of them are interested enough to jump in, join Edgeryders and write their own contributions. The interesting ones are then reshared again onto social networks, and on it goes. With edgy, credible people in the community this can reach into quite exoteric problem spaces, and lead to interesting insights. But there is a price to pay.
- T H E T E L E G R A P H M O D E L What if people are not online? Never fear. The global graph reaches out to people not online too. It works more or less the way the telegraph network used to work in the second half of the 19th century. You could telegraph anyone in a country running a telegraph service, but that did not mean everybody had a telegraph unit in their living room. The telegraph network was really a mixed technology network: the telegraph signal proper connected post offices, and the last mile was done by horse, or bicycle. Same now: if you can engage some of the online folks you can then ask them to talk to people offline and then report back, maybe by doing interviews.
- E V E RY O N E C A N L E A R N You can be inclusive AND demand much from participants by assuming participants are as smart as you, and often smarter, and can learn. We like to offer human help. It is a powerful token of esteem and sends the right message. Also, often early adopters volunteer to welcome and help out later cohorts of participants.
- D I V E R S I T Y, D I V E R S I T Y, D I V E R S I T Y You have the incentive to do that, because diversity is the engine of this kind of conversation. We are all outliers, there is no outlier. Quality does not grow with numbers, it grows with diversity (which of course correlates with numbers). So you do all this, and you get a great community that far outsmarts you, whoever you are. But there is a price to pay.
- Photo: marsmet481 Essentially, foresight in STF is propelled by people who are not on our payroll, and will only participate if the exercise is interesting for them. They also typically hate the notion of being harvested in an exploitative way. This means we need to work very hard to maintain high standards of rigour and integrity. It also mean we, as a foresight company, are unable to tell you what you want to hear. We can only report what the community thinks to be true. If we try to cheat, the conversation will die and the whole exercise will fail.
- Photo: Medhin Paolos Photo: Medhin Paolos So, this is how we connect experiences from people at the edge of change. The next question is: how do we piece them together into a coherent ensemble? We use ethnography. This is made cheap and relatively easy by the fact that the Edgeryders conversation happens on our platform: all material is already in written form, and sits in a dataset where everything is licensed under open licenses. We deploy researchers to go through the written material and perform an operation ethnographers call coding. It means associating quotations to concepts that are relevant to the analysis. In this screenshot, for example, you see codes depicted as triangles. Places are in purple (Tbilisi), topics are in orange, challenges in blue, actions in red etc. Researchers highlight a piece of text, then select the appropriate code. They can then study the coded material, for example asking the software to visualize all of the occurrences of Tbilisi to see what people in this conversation are saying of Tbilisi. We are making a small but powerful innovation here: unlike with any software that we know of, we do the coding directly on the Edgeryders platform. This is only the first iteration, but it means that the coded text is embedded in the whole Edgeryders dataset: we can take a computation-intensive approach to qualitative research, because the platform knows who wrote this piece of text, when, in which context etc. So I can ask it not just for all occurrence of Tbilisi, but also for occurrences of Tbilisi by the same person, even if they occur elsewhere, or for occurrences of other places in the same discussion group. Researchers can build sophisticated queries in the pursuit of their hunches.
- We also augment ethnographic (qualitative) data analysis with quantitative data. For example, we do network analysis of the Edgeryders conversation. This is useful because we can weigh what people say with measures of graph centrality that the literature on social networks associates to authoritativeness, like eigenvector centrality. If somebody with high eigenvector centrality defends an opinion, we try to take it a bit more seriously it means this person has been validated before by her pattern of interaction with others in the community. This screenshot is live data: we have a script updating the network analysis every day.
- E M E R G I N G G R O U P S O F S P E C I A L I S T S Heres another example, currently being prototype. I have no time to explain what we do here in detail, but the idea is we can identify specialised conversations and look for the keywords they use in those conversation. The highlighted part shows the keywords that came up in the specialist conversation on the left about education. The main ones are education, learning no surprise here and open. Open is surprising, at least to me in this case, you want to investigate the matter further, perhaps ask the specialists to zoom into it. So you go back and forth from dialog to algorithmic analysis and viceversa.
- T R U S T T H E P E O P L E Everything we do at Edgeryders is based on collective intelligence. The idea is that the crowd has wisdom, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts etc. This implies that you should trust the people. For this to work, it is essential that you treat citizens as experts, and you accept that expertise and creativity are widespread. This is easier said than done, because it means you have to let go of the narrative that says people are offline, they are suspicious, ignorant or selfish, and that implies taking a deep breath and turning control of what happens over to them. I am not going to debate human nature here: we believe what we believe. But if you dont trust your people, Edgeryders-style exercises will be a total waste of everybodys time. This is because of self-selection: if your exercise is perceived as patronising or vanilla, your participants will be subdued and vanilla, and no one will learn anything of value. Your job is to ask relevant questions, tackle them with integrity and throw the door wide open. People that show up are the right people for you. Not because they are representative of anything, but because they care and are willing to do the heavy lifting. Our job is to design and manage the insertion process so that it is smooth and initial misunderstandings, which are inevitable, dont backfire on you.
- R E S U LT S ? So this is what we do. Great, but does it work? We believe it does. Spot The Future is not finished yet, but we do have some early results.
- N E W A L L I E S STF happened in three sample countries: Armenia, Egypt, Georgia. At the start of the project, none of the Edgeryders core team had ever been in any of these countries or spoke their languages, with the exception of Edgeryders CEO Nadia El-Imam speaking Arabic. In the space of a few weeks, we had been able to dig out some interesting people, projects and organisations in the social innovation space that country offices had not been aware of before. Examples include the open data crew at Jumpstart in Georgia; the tactical urbanism scene in Egypt; and individual innovators with projects like Jozour (manufacturing wood from palm midriffs) and the Oasis Game (facilitation for people who want to start cooperatives). The exception to this seems to have been Armenia, where we have been less successful. As we speak we are trying a different method to spot interesting people in Armenia, lets see how it goes.
- T H E L I T E R A L LY W I K I C I T Y ? The people in this picture are from a neighbourhood in Cairo, Egypt, called Al Mutamidia. This is 2011: as the security apparatus is busy taking a beating in Tahrir Square, they are out building four illegal access ramps to the ring road in Cairo. The ring road is 20 meters above ground level: to gain access to this critical infrastructure, the local community forked out all the funding, the engineering and the workforce, at a total cost estimated at a million Egyptian pounds (though they are built to government specifications, thats about 25% of what it would have cost the government to do the same work). Then they called out for the chief of police to inaugurate it. Egypt has a movement that calls itself tactical urbanism and pull this sort of trick!
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- There as been a significant meeting of minds, an exchange between the mostly Western European original Edgeryders community and the newcomers. In this graph you see a network of the Edgeryders conversation. Dots, or nodes, represent people and edges connecting them represent comments. Two people are connected when they comment each other. The STF discussions are marked in orange. As you can see, most of the STF conversation is concentrated on the left, but there are several STF interactions coming from elsewhere in the graph. These would be non-Armenian, Egyptian or Georgian Edgeryders stepping in. Viceversa, some people that came in through STF got involved in non-STF conversations.
- C O L L A B O R AT I N G O N C O L L A B O R AT I N G There is a clear cross-country thread: everybody seems to perceive the need for more collaborations and better information spread across the three STF countries. Efforts in fostering collaboration seem to have high returns. Following the physical workshops, we have seen a wave of collaboration and scheming, certainly in-country (Georgians have been holding bi-weekly meetings ever since our one workshop in the country; Egyptians who met through STF are reporting visiting each other and scheming together), but also with some spillover for example there is a lively Armenian-Egyptian conversation about carpooling. It will be interesting to see if more cross-country collaboration spawns at the Futurespotters conference in Tbilisi next week.
- C O N N E C T I N G T H R E A D S There are surprisingly many trends that connect the three countries and, one suspects, many countries across the world. Gender equality, public urban spaces, infrastructure, transportation, education, waste and pollution, unemployment, poverty, personal life improvement, various aspects of personal freedom and human rights - these are issues that concern active change makers from these three countries.
- A T H I R S T F O R A C T I O N Foresight done the Edgeryders way seems to be biased towards action. People are happy to talk about what they do, and that their experiences are used as datapoints for foresight. But, in return for their involvement, they ask for action opportunities. A fairly concrete project about open source software is being discussed in Georgia, with the involvement of edgeryders from Egypt, Sweden and the UK. We are considering baking a commitment to action in future foresight exercises.
- G A Z B I A S O R O U R , U N D P E G Y P T Don't lose interest, don't lose trust in yourself and others, and don't wait. And yes, we are learning. UNDP staff seems to value this way of connecting with people, less institutional though it is. Your colleague Gazbia Sorour wrote a beautiful post after our only Egyptian workshop, and it was clear, and even moving for me personally, how empowered and inspired she was.
- S E E Y O U ? In less than two weeks we will make the last-but-one step in STF, that involves a small conference in Tbilisi. People from the new, STF-extended Edgeryders community will attend, as well as UNDP staff. You are all very warmly invited, so we can make progress together.