Five links: tech for good; 10k happy startups; iterating org design; brain cell microchip

  1. Inspiration: Forget cats and TIE fighters, there’s tons of tech for good at SXSW too
  2. Mission: Help us launch 10,000 happy startups
  3. Org design: The Organization Lab (o-Lab): How might we create the next iteration of our organizations?
  4. Future: This Amazing Computer Chip Is Made of Live Brain Cells
  5. Book (free chapters): Why does this always happen to me?

Organisational democracy is a stepping stone, not the final answer

Since I first became a fan of organisational democracy, I’ve often wondered what’s next. Will we will find an even better model for how humans can work together? The best answer I have found so far lies in a theory called Spiral Dynamics.

Spiral Dynamics explains how our values and worldview as humans have become increasingly complex – like an unravelling spiral – as life conditions for us have also become more complex. The journey has taken us through survivalismtribalism, superstition and magicego-centrism, feudalism and heroismpurposefulness and authoritarianismstrategic, industrial and materialismhumanism and egalitarianism. Phew, that’s a lot of isms.

Here’s a good slideshare which explains the model, and I also recommend this 43-page ebook on the subject. If you’re brave, you can read the Spiral Dynamics book. It’s awesome but awfully written and took me forever to get through.

What particularly interests me about Spiral Dynamics is that it puts the changes we see happening in the world into the broader context of the ongoing evolution of human consciousness. In developed nations today there is a gradual shift away from the currently dominant industrial, materialistic, individualistic worldview towards a more egalitarian, socially-minded perspective. This is being driven by our life conditions stretching the limits of an industrial perspective:

  • natural resources are finite and so the global economy cannot grow infinitely, especially as developing economies try to enter the consumer party
  • a growing gap between the richest and poorest causing social problems that affect everyone
  • climate change caused by industrialism which has to stop in order to prevent major catastrophe
  • material gain only makes us happier up to a point and there’s more to life than working really hard and acquiring more ‘stuff.’

But the move to a more humanistic perspective where organisational democracy fits in is not the final solution. It’s actually just a stepping stone towards further, more complex levels of consciousness.

What comes next is an integral worldview where we understand all of the levels of consciousness that we have already developed and maximise their positive potential whilst repairing and avoiding the problems that they can cause. It’s a mindset that embraces and understands complexity and lives life to the full.

There are movements emerging that embrace this post-democratic mindset like Conscious Capitalism and Integral Capitalism. This stuff is new and nobody has completely cracked the formula yet, but that’s actually the point. There is no final solution. As life becomes more complex on our planet, our consciousness will continue to evolve new levels of complexity with it, bringing ideas which can greatly enrich life and solve the dizzying problems we face.

The state we’re in and the call for a new economy

I’m at the Imagine 2012 conference on cooperative economics in Quebec City. Here are some thoughts after the first full day. It’s a pretty frightening picture, folks. But there is hope.

The industrial age economy, and indeed the neoclassical model of economics underpinning it has reached the end of its useful life. Whilst it helped lift many millions out of poverty, we are now seeing greater inequality between rich and poor countries and even between rich and poor people within countries. A model of business based on maximising shareholder value in a world where only a tiny proportion of people are shareholders will only cause rising inequality. This is not just bad news for the poor. In unequal societies, the rich suffer from many more social problems than in more equal ones.

GDP growth brings about improvements to wellbeing, but only up to a point before tailing off and in many cases declining (for example, increasing obesity and mental illness in the United States.) Research by Manfred Max Neef suggests that this tailing off happened around the 1970’s or 80’s for most developed nations.

The economy is a sub-system of planet earth – an inherently closed, finite system, therefore the economy cannot keep growing indefinitely within it. This can be easily explained to young children. Yet this inconvenient truth is ignored by all large political parties who argue about whether growth needs investment or austerity, and we still have an economy based on ever-increasing, unsustainable consumption. There are about 1.8 hectares of workable land to support each human being on the planet. In rich countries like the US, the use is in excess of 4 hectares and growing. Not to mention the hundreds of millions of people in the newly developing middle classes in India, China, Brazil and others who are now joining the consumer party.

The key message is that we have to move away from a fixation on growth (getting bigger at any cost) and towards development – becoming happier, healthier, wiser, safer and with better relationships.

This is not a call for left-wing politics. Far from it. Socialism and industrial age capitalism have both failed. Capitalism, for all of its fundamental shortcomings is the best way humans have come up with to organise ourselves to produce the things we need. But we need a very different capitalism.

The cooperative movement – businesses based on ownership of members (be that customers, employees or other stakeholders in the community) offer an alternative to maximising shareholder value. Instead, they use capitalism to maximise social outcomes – in other words, the things that really matter to humans and the planet now and for future generations. This is the concept of development rather than growth in action.

This view of capitalism is remarkably well established. Cooperatives world-wide have 1BN members and the largest three manage assets in excess of 1.6TN (and guess what, they have been extremely resilient through the recent economic turmoil because they did not engage in the insane activities like shareholder-owned banks.) It’s extremely worrying that despite the size of the cooperative movement and the promise it holds in playing a part in a development rather than growth based new economy, there is no representation of the cooperative movement on the B20 – the business forum that advises the G20. Business as usual, the old model is there in abundance.

We have an economy and consumption that cannot grow indefinitely. We are close to irreversible climate change together with huge natural resource depletion and energy shortages. We have to act now to protect the planet for future generations, and we need to start by creating a new economy, and fast before it is too late.

The end of countries

World Passport

It’s right up there on the list of questions NEVER to ask at a dinner party: ‘Where do you stand on immigration?’ If you have two guests with opposing views on this then the night is pretty much guaranteed to be ruined for everyone. But hey, this is a blog, so let’s dive in…

I’ve been travelling for the last year or so and crossed various borders around the world. Fortunately I’ve never had to bribe anyone, although I have had an Ecuadorian anti-narcoticos guard try on my sunglasses and ask me if he looked cool.

It’s always felt so strange to cross a border with someone from a different country and reflect on the different rules that apply, depending on the ‘nationality’ stated in the little book we all have to carry. In Latin America, citizens of the US seem to get the worst deal, having to pay visa fees on entry to most countries whereas I, as a Brit, get my passport stamped for free. I met a Chinese guy who told me that there are many countries he would be refused entry into, and if you have ever visited Israel – no matter where you’re from – then there are certain other middle eastern countries who won’t allow you entry.

Nationality seems so real when you’re in your home country, but completely arbitrary when you’re travelling. It’s all down to what flavour of passport you’re holding – something you have little or no choice about. There seems to me to be something inhumane about treating people differently depending on where they are from.

Borders, visas, immigration rules and even the basic notion of a ‘country’ is a result of centuries of wars, revolutions and treaties. International borders with their immigration guards seem so real and fixed, but a border is just an imaginary line on the shfting rock of a tectonic plate, on a plant spinning round the sun which happens to be inhabited by intelligent creatures descended from apes. There’s nothing natural about a country or border.

Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder is taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. A building that is agreed to be territory of Ecuador, thousands of miles away. There are police outside it ready to arrest him if he leaves but protocol dictates that they will not simply walk in and retrieve this wanted man.

When I was in Ecuador myself, I met a guy who had renounced his US citizenship, and just set off on a big trip to explore the planet. As a human being walking the earth he didn’t feel that he should have to have a particular ‘nationality’ based on where he happened to be born. He didn’t want to immigrate to another country either. He saw himself as a free man.

I asked him how he was able to travel without citizenship, and he explained to me that against his will he was forced to have a US passport in order to be able to leave the country. That’s right, in the land of the free you are not free to leave unless you sign up as a citizen, even if you have no desire to return.

As far as he was concerned, his US passport was a necessary evil to get him out of the country and to move around a world where the dogma of nationality is so fixed. But then he showed me what he considered to be his real passport. Issued by the ‘World Government of Citizens‘ it was a passport not attached to any particular country yet had the familar feel of a standard travel document.

I thought that this International passport was a cute idea but I wondered how, in reality, you could ever expect it to be accepted at a border. He was ready for this question and pulled out a copy of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948. Most nations in the world have signed up to this declaration (notably, not the US), and article 13 states:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

In theory, any country signed up to the Declaration of Human Rights has to let you in, and apparently after leaving his home country on his US passport, he had managed to enter Ecuador using the international document. It seems others have had successes travelling on the World Passport too. Perhaps the notion of a country and nationality is more fluid than we are all led believe.

So where does this leave us on immigration policy? Usually the debate centres around short-term pressures like the affect on the labour markets and welfare if immigration is loosened, or the affect on genuine asylum seekers and human rights if it goes the other way.

What I always feel is missing from the debate is the long-term goal for the planet. What kind of world are we trying to create? My view is that where we need to head is a world where any human being, no matter where they were born, is free to travel, work and live wherever they like without the old concept of nationality restricting us, because it means that all humans would be treated equally no matter where they were born.

I’m not suggesting that this can happen overnight. There would be chaos if borders around the globe were suddenly opened. There are enormous challenges to overcome, like managing natural resources and figuring out how public services and law are managed in a world without borders. But if you look at Europe as an example of a continent at war 70 years ago, to the peaceful cooperation we see today, in spite of the current economic problems. It might take 50, 100 or more years to achieve a completely open world, but I believe that this is the ultimate goal we should be working towards. We need political parties to commit to this vision, and then form short-term policy that paves the way towards it.

A simple and powerful idea that everyone needs to know

Laboratory section, Japan Baptist Hospital, Kyoto, 1955

WARNING: Daft piece of terminology coming up, but don’t be put off! It’s called The pessimistic meta-induction from the history of science  from Kathryn Schulz‘ essay of the same title. I read it in a book called ‘This Will Make You Smarter‘ (I thought I could do with the help, OK?)

Here’s what it means in plain English:

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child rearing, education: No matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a pessimistic meta-induction from the history of everything.

It’s powerful and incredibly obvious when you think about it. We find it easy to look at the past and shake our heads at how wrong we used to be about taking other humans as slaves, drilling holes in the skull to cure disease, tulip bubbles, and burning people as witches. The list is endless and we wish that we knew then what we know now in order that we might have avoided the awful consequences of our naivety.

So why do senior leaders in politics and business have such strong courage of their convictions, as if they believe we’ve finally reached the apex of human understanding where we have nailed what’s right and what’s true? They act as though there’s no possibility of their ideas being completely disproved – not just being wrong, but held to be massively damaging by future generations.

If the world understood this concept it would be incredible humbling and perhaps frightening as we face up to how pathetic we will look through the lens of history. But the world would also be filled with more possibility and hope. Things can be so much better than they are today. Perhaps leaders would become more open to ideas which seem radical today, but which may become mainstream in the future. At the very least, just asking the question ‘What will seem laughable tomorrow about what we are doing today?’ would be extremely powerful.

Umair Haque talks about this same concept in The New Capitalist Manifesto. Today our economic system is mostly based to a large extent on the ideas of two men. Adam Smith believed that in the pursuit of profit, an ‘invisible hand’ would deliver positive benefits for society through the provision of useful goods and services. John Maynard Keynes believed that it was the sole duty of a company to pursue profit, and that markets will self-regulate and end up with the best outcomes. However the financial collapse of 2008, and other mega-trends like impending climate crisis are thoroughly proving these theories insufficient and harmful.

Is this really the best we can do? Do we expect to have the same economic systems in place in 100, 200 or 300 years time? Surely things will look almost unrecognisable that far into the future, and our current ways will seem hopelessly naive and flawed. But we don’t see our leaders facing up to this, and the challenge of discovering what better systems will come next.

The first step is to recognise that the way things are today is going to be proved to be almost entirely wrong. Then with this shift in attitude we can move away from fixed ideology and dogma and become open to what the future might look like, including both small and radical ideas. If we do this then we stand a much better chance of avoiding catastrophe and reaching a better future, faster.

Obituary from the future: Public Companies. 1602 – 20XX


After a long struggle with their terminal condition, the last public companies finally passed away when the New York stock exchange – the last of its kind in the world – closed for the final time yesterday.

PLCs enjoyed an exciting life, becoming hugely more than their parents ever expected. Mr Adam Smith, a close friend of the family and a huge influence on the PLCs throughout their lives had high hopes for what the PLCs would achieve for the world. Through their relentless pursuit of profit for their owners, he saw a world made better through innovative products and services delivered to the masses.

Well the PLCs certainly delivered that and more to boot, with consumer products fulfilling every need and want imaginable. Some were clever enough to make money out of money itself without actually delivering any value at all. Those PLCs were from the Banks family. Many people were able to earn a living working for the PLCs and a few people (not the masses working for them of course) got very rich. Fantastic.

But after a happy childhood there was trouble ahead for the PLCs . They got fat. Not just the fat kids in the class, but fatter than the whole school. In fact fatter than many countries! That’s pretty fat, but that was OK because everyone was still working very hard and a lot of money was flying around, especially to the PLC’s owners on the stock markets.

The first big sign of trouble for PLCs came from those troublesome Banks adolescents. It turned out that what they had been trading was actually just hot air. Well really it was worth less than hot air because at least you can use hot air to dry your hands after washing them in the bathroom. The fat kids fell over and landed hard. Fortunately, there were some countries who were still fatter than the PLCs (other less fat countries were unfortunately squashed when they fell – oh well.)

The fat countries did the sensible thing and fed the fat kids enormous piles of sweeties to keep them really fat and get them happily up on their podgy feet again. After all they were so fat and took up so much space they if they didn’t get up then nobody in the fat countries would be able to move at all. But even with all of the free sweeties that the normal people in the fat countries paid for them to eat, they didn’t really change at all. But for a while everything looked like it was going to be OK again.

At the same time, the other PLCs were also feeling the first signs of trouble. They gradually started to realise that their masters were a group of owners who care purely about how much profit they made, and preferably QUICKLY. This was supposed to be a good thing because it kept the PLCs on their podgy toes. The owners could sell them to new masters or throw out their management if they didn’t stay fat enough. But in worrying so much about pleasing their owners, they didn’t focus on the people who mattered the most – all of those little people who actually did the work and created 100% of the value! It regrettably seems so obvious now that they’ve passed away but yes, in every PLC the employees were less important than the shareholders! And that was bad news for customers too (where 100% of their income comes from) because customers only get served the best when the employees are fully engaged.

What’s more, the focus purely on financial results turned out to not always be so good for humanity, societies and the planet. Life for many people got worse and the environment was being destroyed. They had a little go at countering this with ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ which meant it was OK for a bank to invest several billion in a company making landmines because it allowed its employees a day off a year to paint a fence outside an orphanage for landmine victims.

The PLCs struggled on into their adult lives, but there were other leaner, fitter competitors around. These weren’t even new kids on the block, they were grown-ups too and had been around for just as long as the PLCs, but their day had finally come. These companies didn’t have to worry about shareholders pressuring them for short-term returns at the expense of the employees, because the employees WERE the shareholders. Imagine that – inmates running the asylum! And it turned out that these companies were more innovative, faster and provided better service to their customers. There was something very powerful about a business being owned by the people who actually did the work. And because the companies now existed for the benefit of people (not pension funds, hedge funds and city traders) they actually care a lot about creating value for, and not destroying societies and the environment.

One of these competitors, a guy called John from the Lewis family in England was already the most successful retailer in the UK. He was free from the pressures of the stock market and could attract and keep the best people who then delivered the best service to customers because they were owners of the business and cared the most.

These employee-owned competitors grew in number, size and power as the PLCs faltered in their later years. The best people flocked to them and they were able to think and plan long-term unlike their short-term sweetie-addicted old classmates.

Many of the smarter PLCs allowed the sensible thing to happen – they came out of the stock markets and were bought by the employees who paid for them out of future profits which were now higher because they performed better, and weren’t going to be bled out of the company to shareholders who contributed nothing.

A few tried to hang on for a bit too long and found that they just couldn’t innovate and deliver to customers as well as their more nimble employee-owned competitors. These final few were ultimately consigned to the history books when the last stock markets shut down yesterday.

I apologise because it’s wrong to speak ill of the dead, but the world is a better place now that the PLCs are gone. We now have businesses where people serve people for the benefit of everyone. And people have a conscious so now societies and the environment are better off too through their more thoughtful actions.

The slow and painful death of the PLCs surprised the pure capitalists who thought that the markets would take care of everything. In fact they actually did – the free market allowed these better competitors to make the PLCs irrelevant. And the socialists were both right and wrong too. It turned out that business wasn’t so bad after all, but they were right that things work best when the people own and control the means of production.