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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 18 October 2013

Rotman's Commits Sociology

Design.  Nudge.  Patterns.  Behaviour.

The only thing missing, I'd argue, is maps.

Of course, if you want to convert the way people behave, someone has to set the standard.

Therein lies the rub - policy makers can nudge all they want, but if you truly want to convert the way people behave, you've got to lead by example.

Paradox Lost: Canada's Catch 22

So let me get this straight - healthcare costs are provincial, but a key solution to the problem requires a national focus on R&D/innovation.

Canada's finances are sound, but the finances of Canada's provinces aren't.  But the provinces are in Canada.  This is like saying that the boss is wealthy but the employees, man, they have to pull up their socks and start hitting their quotas.

What happens if every province defaults on their debt?  Does the Canadian government have no responsibility for that?

There are four levels of government, but one tax payer - we're all familiar with that notion.  If any community or province in Canada is in an unsustainable position, how can it be argued that Canada is just fine, thank you very much?

This is the kind of turn-the-other-way logic an Objectivist approach to federalism will get you, folks.

Is Canada Settling?

The other day, I cam across a fantastic tool called The Little Black Book of Scams - a fraud awareness booklet designed in a user-friendly way, released by the Canadian government.  Fantastic idea, I thought - for all the feds' talk about being "tough on crime" there isn't much being done on prevention.  That they would take the trouble to innovate something new and proactive rather than preventative was a good sign.

Then I opened the cover.

"The Little Black Book of Scams was originally developed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission", wrote Melanie Aitken, Canada's Commissioner of Competition. 

It's hardly the first time the Canadian Government has borrowed from Australia.  In fact, we are constantly borrowing innovations from other jurisdictions; we've turned it into an art.  While countries like the US and Australia are pursuing new, risky, potentially amazing ideas, Canada is about incrementalism at best and at worst, stagnation.  "This too shall pass" has become our rallying cry in the face of diversity, be it economic or social tensions.  Government focuses on walling off troubles lapping at our shores rather than harnessing troubled waters to spin the wheels of inspiration.

Why should it be otherwise?  For much of our history, it's been true.  Canada hasn't seen real conflict on our home soil for generations.  We've had a grand total of one political assassination in our nation's history.  The FLQ crisis was a tame affair compared to, say, Northern Ireland.  As a nation we are blessed with abundant natural resources which less-blessed nations needs to build the things they innovate; if the approach ain't broken, why should we fix it? 

Peace, order and good government is our rationale - there's no need to be innovative, thank you very much - the boat's sailing just fine the way it is so please don't rock it.  Government and in general, the Private Sector have made an art out of justifying the status quo in the name of fiscal prudence.  

I have see this same theme play out from all sectors; structural change gets discussed in academic terms at conference with a demand for bold ideas and vision-oriented leadership but when people return to their boardrooms, the focus changes to "Do we really need to change" and "What proven models out there can we crib from so as not to assume any risk ourselves?"

Everyone talks about grabbing the low-hanging fruit; nobody talks about personally reaching higher.

The problem is, the folks in charge are deluding themselves, falling victim to their own scams.  The system we have is floundering; the boat has already sprung leaks.  Natural resource extraction isn't proving to be the panacea it was promised to be and what we do have is proving to have consequences beyond what was advertized.  

For all our talk of weathering economic storms, more and more Canadians are falling behind and becoming disengaged.  Instead of innovating new solutions, Canadian companies are instead focused on cutting corners, chipping away at whatever competitive advantage they had.

Faced with this reality, we have politicians boastfully presenting plans to lower our standard of living to make Canada more cost-competitive, with value-add being ignored entirely.  The general theme is that we don't need to adapt to a changed modern reality - if we can just step back in time and recreate what we had a half-century ago, everything will be fine.

I don't think so, Tim - you can never go back to before.  The times have changed and to stay competitive, to perhaps even lead the way, Canada must start thinking differently.  We must start acting creatively.

The good news is, this is already happening - just not where we expect it to.  While government tinkers at the margins of policy and far too many Private Sector players are  mired in their comfort zone, there are innovative, proactive firms doing things differently.  Their practices might not have long track records, but so far they seem to be doing pretty well.  The reason for this unprecedented success is hardly a surprise - these firms have done their homework and are using the latest understanding of what motivates cognitive labour (both productivity and innovation) developed in other fields to their advantage, creating new opportunities in the process.

Instead of employing the success-oriented, blinders-on focus that is supposed to be the determinant for success, they are embracing failure as learning opportunities and looking laterally for inspiration.

Therein lies the great irony - we have this expectation that money and power are the great motivators for success.  In a way, this is true - the most competitive people will generally rise to the top, often on the backs of others.  That doesn't mean they're creative, just forceful.  But competition isn't about creation - that's a different process requiring different incentives.  Some of the most creative people don't do sales well, as the emphasis on selling what they have would detract from their ability to push their ideas even further.

The people government is trying to motivate in the Private Sector (and the Private Sector is trying to motivate in government) are social laggards when it comes to innovation - they're too comfortable to be bothered.  Therefore, all the tax breaks, speeches and advocacy are being pointed in the wrong direction and in the wrong manner.

The most innovative people in this country (and there are a lot of them) aren't all about money and power; profit has become a means, not an end.  The truly revolutionary ideas on how to design things differently (everything from our education model to the way we design public spaces) are working with the people who don't have lots of money to pay for their services.

It's not that Canada as a whole has settled, only that our Established Class, the ones with the lion's share of the resources have.  It's why they're content to support tough-on-crime measures and tax breaks, because they're reactive against someone else rather than involving proactive action on their part.  The social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, seek out the marginalized communities in our midst and in working with them are innovating the structural solutions we so desperately need.

Canada is a rich country blessed with everything we need to succeed; financial resources and business acumen at the highest levels of society and a diverse, innovative group of social entrepreneurs working at the grassroots level.

The elite don't need to innovate themselves, nor must they continue to rely on imported ideas; truly, that's the approach that failed civilizations have employed throughout history.  All that is required is for someone to bridge the gap between the different elements of society so that there is a healthy exchange of funds at the top for ideas generated at ground-level.

This catalyst can come in the form of the burning platform effect, or it can be caused by someone putting a stone in the soup; one way or another, though, it will happen.

   - Business Quarterly 37 (4); 1972

Thursday 17 October 2013


View image on Twitter

There are two stories that are emerging out of Elsipogtog First Nation today - one, as the RCMP tells it, is of dedicated law enforcement officers doing their duty when all hope of a peaceful resolution failed.

View image on Twitter
In this version, forty people who happen to be First Nations were arrested for criminal activity in defiance of the law the RCMP is charged with upholding.  These folk threw Molotov cocktails and set expensive police cars on fire - clearly bad behaviour that needed to be punished.

That's one version.

In the other version, the people of Elsipogtog First Nation tried to stop the abuse of the land we all share and put a halt to fracking - a practise that is being questioned and resisted all over the place in much the same was as windmills are in Ontario.

These people looked ahead and saw their children's future at risk, so they used every peaceful means at their disposal; after years of failed efforts, these means eventually came to include a blockade.  There aren't many other tools in the hands of those who don't have the resources of an SWN Resources Canada.

View image on Twitter
While the people of Elsipogtog First Nation spent years seeking justice, it took SWN days to get an injunction put in place.

Which is where the RCMP raid came in.  It's no wonder they failed to get their peaceful resolution - it's hard to talk peace when you come to the party with dogs, snipers, tear gas, hoses, rubber bullets, pepper spray and the like.  In fact, being so armed almost makes it look like you were spoiling for a fight.

Were the RCMP involved in deliberations before then?  I don't know.  This story came to my attention through social media; I followed via Twitter with rapt attention as the situation continued to escalate.  I wasn't on the ground; I can't verify with accuracy any of the accounts I've read, or that thousands of others have read around the globe.  

What I do know is that the version presented by people representing themselves and those representing national/SWN Resources' interests aren't the same.  In the absence of fact and when those with power suggest they did nothing wrong, I'm like most people - I tend to root for the underdog.

That's what I fear the people in charge aren't cluing in to; the Rob Ford mayoralty, the Tea Party, Occupy and Idle No More are all symptoms of the same illness - the people don't trust that those in power have their best interests at heart.  They're not even sure their leaders have any sense of where they're leading the people to.

The RCMP, the frackers, the federal and provincial governments can try to spin this any way they want; they can bring out their most confident sound-bite deliverers and talk boldly about law and order.  It won't make a difference.  When you have multiple sources suggesting that the police set their own car on fire and are believed by many, bluster (whether justified or no) merely fans the flames of discontent. 

Year after year, scandal after scandal, protest movement after protest movement, those flames keep leaping higher.

The tipping point has been reached - the only way to keep from toppling over is to stop charging forward and take a step back.

I hope the RCMP realize this isn't about their brand or saving face; I hope the Federal government doesn't double-down on their tough-on-crime, weak-on-respect-for-First-Nations approach.  I hope David Alward realizes that, when he speaks about respecting the law and punishment for misdeeds, he is carrying the torch for the whole country's political class - including those who have blatantly abused the law and gotten away with it.

At the same time, I hope that the average citizens who will line up on either side of the fence, largely for reasons nothing to do with fracking, pause to think about what they really hope to accomplish.

Someone has to be the adult in the room.  If it isn't going to be them, let it be us.

- Chief Gabriel Atwin, Kingsclear First Nation

A Pattern Emerging

I connect dots.  It's a function of who I am.

Here are some dots I'm connecting today.

Child prodigy Jake Barnett suggests we stop "learning" using traditional models.  When you explore the world with your own curiosity, you learn new things, discover new approaches and develop new solutions.

In other words, you innovate.

Gary Slutkin, solver of epidemics, did precisely that.  He stepped out of his usual environment (disease-torn communities) and went home to the US.  He started to look at one of the pressing issues there - gun violence - through his infectious disease lens and realized something; violence spreads exactly the same way disease does.

By moving beyond the old models of disease treatment (which was essentially isolating the infectious so as to prevent them from spreading their illness - exactly what we do with criminals and prisons) Slutkin has created a new way of looking at violence that's working.

At the same time, Dr. Carl Hart is revisting the basic assumptions we have about addiction.  He's suggesting that context matters; by judging the people in absence of context, we're never going to solve the structural problem.

Both of these gents are finding very emotional resistance within the community to their new approaches - what do you mean, there aren't evil people?  What do you mean, violence is a disease that can be cured?  Bullfeathers that social context impact health and personal choices.  That's nonsense, they say.  We're rational, objective creatures regardless of where we find ourselves or what we begin with.  We're simply good or evil, weak or strong, and that's all there is to it.  

Meanwhile, we have political leaders all over the place who don't know where they are headed.  Their objective is to stay in power or gain power, not to lead.  Instead of looking at the whole map of their constituencies, they're targeting supportive or potentially supportive blocks and designing policy and communications to stoke emotional fires and get those folk engaged.

They're using yesterday's tools to try and evoke yesterday's social model, and it's not working.  New perspective, they are being told by people they aren't listening to, is required.

Not many people are into connecting dots.  They don't have time to wrap their heads around the interconnected complexity of maps.  They're all about critical paths, functional fixedness and sticking with what they feel is proven to work.  

But it isn't working.

It's time for change - for us, and for them.  

The Cognitive Dissonance of the Political Right, Continued

Two stories catching my eye today.  They come from usual suspects, engaging in typical ways.

Harper has perpetually been at war with the media - he doesn't trust them and has wagered the general public, but his base in particular don't trust them either.  As such, he uses the media like a can of gasoline, pouring fire on the anger of his base for political/financial gain.  This approach theoretically also helps deaden the constant reportage of the CPC's constant scandals.

It works, but at a cost - his base is getting angrier, mistrusting any source that isn't Party-sanctioned. 

Not a good trend to set in a democratic society.

And number two:

Of course he wants to go there - it's where he's been going pretty much every day of his mayoralty.  It hasn't hurt him thus far.

The fact is, he's playing by the rules of political engagement:

- Don't answer questions you don't want to - just say what you want people to hear and say it confidently.  Or, bait-and-switch by pointing out the faults of someone else.  If all else fails, say nothing (or in his case, "anything else?)

- People aren't interested in complex facts; they want soundbites and emotion.  Give it to them and they'll ignore all else.

- Play the HOAG card; people don't want leadership these days, they want validation.  

Of course the approach of both Harper and Ford show a complete disdain for our political process and near-contempt of the people as a whole.  They're basically saying they don't expect their base to do their homework and are equally expecting everyone else to be too inept to mount a successful counter-defence (or offence).

Will it work?  Probably not - I think they're deluding themselves.  By pandering to their base and vilifying their chosen opponents, both men have created echo chambers that have starved them of ideas and grassroots realities.  

That's not leadership - but it is what we asked for.

The Conscious Revolution: Innovating Canada's Future

Harper is putting all of Canada's economic eggs in one basket, primarily because that's his comfort zone.  He doesn't know how to think outside the box/silo.

At the same time, his Ontario provincial counterpart, Tim Hudak, is talking about bringing back the kinds of jobs that have removed themselves to places like Bangladesh where the labour is cheap, regulations are lax and responsibility is purely theoretical. 

How does Hudak plan to achieve this feat?  Through a race to the bottom, of course; by turning back the progressive calendar to a day pre-unions and pre-regulation so that we can compete on an even keel with tanneries anywhere in the world.

Which is the sort of world Rob Ford, the conservative Mayor of Toronto, already thinks he lives in.  Due process is a thing for wimps and committers of sociology - tough bosses don't waste their time with the facts; they get mad, dammit!

And getting angrier, we are.  The Conservative base is getting mad at whoever it is they're directed to be mad at - elitists, urbanites, unionized workers, artists, the unemployed, people with mental illness, foreign workers - in other words, the usual suspects.  Everyone else is getting mad, too - at the establishment, which is as the Tories want, but at the leaders that have hypocritically stoked the fires as well.

Harper's Throne Speech lacked narrative, lacked vision - instead, it laid out an agenda of further fiddling while Rome's kindling begins to smoke.  Hudak wants to model Ontario after the worst climates of labour abuse using anger as a way to justify the unjustifiable.

We've seen it all before; the conditions are being laid for significant social change.

It's not all grey skies though.  While the old foundation crumbles, a new one is being laid.

For all their faults, the Ontario Liberals are looking to empower youth, harness new ideas and upgrade the system.  Reporters hungry for policy ideas to polish up for consumption by their drifting readers may decry this approach as indicative the Liberals have no ideas, but they're missing the point.  The average Joe on the street doesn't want to pick agendas like they'd choose brands of shoes - they want to have a say in designing the product.  The Liberals, consciously or not, are harnessing that public yearning to be a contributing part of our social fabric and designing the process to achieve that objective.

That's not to say the OLP isn't tempted to take the odd quick, populist hit - it's politics, after all - but at least they're trying.

The same holds true for the City of Toronto itself, which has undertaken a neighbourhood consultation process that represents the best of community engagement; open, adaptive and optimistic.  Again, people are desperate to believe their public institutions respect them and are listening; this is a good first step.

The Federal Liberals have set the right tone - honest, open, visionary, though they are a little light on substance so far.  Like their provincial counterparts, they're not ignorant to the conditions of politics and are riding a fine line between doing things differently but still playing a competitive game.  We'll have to see what they come up with, but the approach they're taking bodes well.

But we don't need to depend on the system to tell us what comes next; the Private Sector and the as-yet-unlabeled Social Enterprise sector are paving the way already

Out there, amongst the internship scandals and foreign worker abuse stories are silver linings of engagement being done right - and producing superior results.  Companies like Optimus SBR are revolutionizing work spaces and as a consequence, achieving higher standards of employee and company performance.  Firms like Environics are empowering employees, making them feel like equitable members of a team rather than means of labour.  Social engagement and education initiatives ranging from Why Should I Care to Samara are opening the door of our political silos for the every-day end user.  

Instead of trying to claw back the economic engines of yesterday, the best employers and entrepreneurs are creating new opportunities, new products and services that feed emerging market demand.  They're also growing new markets in the process.

The real leaders out there have clued in to a simple truth - it's not individual wealth that motivates innovation; the promise of riches encourages people to do more of the same, not to think differently.  For that, people need trust, respect, challenge and participation.  They need a vision to aspire towards and implementation they can feel part of.

It's a bit like medicine; new tools create new opportunities for understanding which, in turn, lead to better practices.  New is always a hard sell, though - especially to people who make a habit of standing against, not leading towards.

You can't hold back the rising tide, though - the strongest walls will crumble before the most powerful wave.  We can walk backwards into the future, angrily; or we can turn around and face it head-on and hopeful with our eyes-open.

As always, the choice is ours.  Will we make it consciously?

Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Forecast for Ontario is Social Innovation

The Blind Leading the Blind

Truth Vs. The Political Position

Or confabulating, as it were.

Of course, politics-as-usual is all about the half-truth thing; in the biz, it's called "spin."  Spin isn't about lying, technically - it's about presenting elements of the truth in a way that is A) favourable to one's side or one's objectives or B) unfavourable to one's opponents or one's opponent's position.  

Those who play the game have a hard time seeing it as anything but a game, a struggle between your side and the other side - it's a Plato's Cave kind of thing, I think.  

In this great game, the people aren't constituents whose trust is to be earned, but blocs of influence to be manipulated.  The non-partisan, the mushy middle, stand in for the Third World, less players than pieces to be jockeyed over by the Powers.  In a survival-of-the-fittest contest, the big picture doesn't matter - only winning does.

When your sole focus is the win (and by extension, engineering the field of combat with the goal of fostering perpetual winning conditions) and you make your living telling half-truths, you forget what the whole truth looks like.  

Which is why in politics, instead of statements of fact, you have "positions."  

That kind of thing.  It creates a vicious circle of halves that don't fit together to present a whole.  

Those doing the spinning can't see this, as everything not in their immediate field of view becomes blurred.  Again, the Big Picture doesn't matter - only one's position does.

It's why we don't trust politicians, nor the people who inform their choices; we know they're not telling us the whole story.  In fact, we're not even sure they know the whole story.  Would you trust someone you knew was withholding or ignoring important information to pick up your kids from school or to keep your extra front door key?  I'm thinking not.

Here's the great, tragic irony; we may not trust politicians to look at the Big Picture, nor even trust them to recognize it - but they don't trust us, either.  Why should they?  We're just as selfish as they are.  

They are our representatives, after all.  

The politicians are actually doing exactly what they're supposed to - representing the narrow bandwidths on which they are elected.  Part of the democratic contract implies responsibility on the part of the citizen to proactively become informed themselves; we're supposed to review the whole suite of positions and, from an informed, rational perspective, determine the whole picture for ourselves.

We are choosing not to.  We want what we want, regardless of context, regardless of consequence - that's our position.

Pick your contentious issue:

Subways?  How many average citizens are actively looking at the big picture - what does a system that works equitably for everyone look like?  How many are cherry-picking political soundbites to validate their own positions?

Bike lanes?  Who out there is proactively looking for shared solutions, vs. lining up into competitive camps in some fictitious zero-sum game?

Back to those gas plants; Oakville is one of the wealthiest, most powerful communities in Canada.  Their massive pay cheques buy massive homes, pay for lavish golf courses and enough free time to play on them; those cheques are also available to pay for well-organized advocacy campaigns and to punish Political Parties who don't heed their NIMBYist positions.

But Ontario does have increased energy needs.  That energy capacity has to come from somewhere, meaning generating plants, and those plants have to be located somewhere.  The residents of Oakville could have spend their prodigious dollars on a consumption reduction campaign, setting the example themselves and perhaps targeting corporate entities to invest in energy efficiencies.  But that wasn't their position, was it?

Politicians know what their job is - to win enough public support (not all of it) to gain power.  Money plays a big part in that.  If they have to fight off well-organized and well-financed campaigns against them if they do what is right for all Ontario, not part of Ontario, they lose.  Which is why every Party found it in their hearts to commit to moving the gas plants.  The Liberals were in power, and bungled the job - just look at the 407 mess to see how the PCs would have fared.

Now, all sides are telling us half-truths, but then we were only ever prepared to listen to half-truths in the first place.

Downtown Toronto has a massive gridlock problem; the infrastructure in place simply isn't designed to handle the capacity it's facing.  As a result, you have line-ups backing into suburbs of cars trying to get on the Allen at rush hour; impatient people are tailgating through intersections, blocking traffic and exacerbating the problem.

There's no either/or solution to this problem, but getting some kind of capacity relief is essential.  If more "Downtown People" rode bikes to work, there would be less downtown bodies on subways or in cars, reducing the pressure.  A relief line would ease congestion for everyone commuting into the downtown core.  Employers showing a bit of flexibility on at-desk hours, or even empowering more employees to work from home would equally add to the solution.  

Subways for everyone would be great - so would a million dollars in everyone's pocket.  That's not realistic, so we have to live and build within our means.

But that requires change and accommodation, and nobody wants to give up their position.  Rob Ford, populist that he is, intentionally avoids looking at context and consequence and instead, applies pressure to get what he wants - just as Oakville did.

Like a dopamine surge, this quick hit might make people feel good in the short term, but it does nothing to further their long-term interests.  In fact, it will only cause everyone pain.

Sometimes, the truth hurts.  We don't want to hear it - we might vilify the messenger, in fact - but it has to be told.  It takes guts to tell the whole truth to an unwilling audience; guts, and a willingness to sacrifice one's own standing for the greater good.  Whatever his reasoning, Paul Ainslie has decided to walk this path.

He's not the first.  In fact, he's but the latest in a slowly emerging trend of people willing to speak truth to power, even when they are in positions of power themselves.  

It began with Kai Nagata.  By quitting his job as a reporter of half-truths, he blazed a trail for others to follow.  It continued through the ranks of Goldman Sachs and through the halls of Davos as people began to see the structural dissonance of living the lie that each man for himself can work.

The idea that we've been living in a dream world of siloed positions is catching on; businesses, politicians, even planners are beginning to recognize that we are all lying to ourselves through omission; the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  Altruism isn't enabling the weak, it's planning ahead; for the whole to function, its functions must be coordinated.

Society's simply gotten too big, too dense and too complex for fiefdoms to work anymore.  If we can't find it in ourselves to look at the big picture, together, we will all burn as our silo walls crumble down around us.

If that's not the truth, what is?