1. Anyone for Plastics?
Older movie goers will recall The Graduate, and the moment when a young Dustin Hoffman is advised by an older businessman that his future would be assured if he invested in . . . ‘plastics’! That was the future in 1967, but in 2018 the environmental damage plastic can do came under intense scrutiny.
David Attenborough, naturalist and broadcaster, would be a shoo-in for world president, if there were such a post. Universally admired for many ground-breaking series like Planet Earth, it took his compelling study of the oceans in Blue Planet II to make him an ambassador for removing toxic plastic waste from our seas. So many fish he filmed had unbiodegraded plastic in their guts.
This year has been a tipping point for fighting the curse of plastic waste, not just through Attenborough’s conscription to the cause, but because science is starting to tackle the problem. In a botched experiment, young scientists accidentally discovered this year a bacteria, that . . . wait for it . . . eats plastic!
The old story that it takes hundreds of years for the material to degrade may have to be rewritten: these microbes can start to break down certain plastics in a matter of days. Specifically they work on polyethylene terephthalide (PET), one of the world’s most common plastics used for drink bottles, food packaging and even in clothing.
I was also fascinated by the smart idea of a young Dutch engineer, now being put into practice in Europe’s North Sea. Boyan Slat had the notion, aged 18, to place dragnets at places in the ocean where tides would naturally sweep the waste into the strategically placed nets. Instead of going hunting for the debris in vast seas, it would come to you.
Simple? Well, there are problems such as the ability to catch the micro fragments of plastics.
What I’m just as interested in, as a student of how people manage innovation, is the kickback he’s had from the mainstream scientific community. In a televised debate between Slat and two established scientists, the elders were gloomy about his prospects of success. Their main argument seemed to be that this wasn’t the right way to go about things at all; instead we needed to focus on not allowing the waste to get in the sea in the first place. They were in full-on, ‘yes, but’ mode.
It’s a classic case of where either/or thinking is damaging to a new potential solution. Of course we have to stop the way we allow toxic substances being dumped into our seas, but what about the tons and tons of harmful stuff that is already there, turning up in the stomachs of sea life around the planet?
Clearly a healthy dose of both/and thinking is required, and I wish Boyan Slat and all like him great success in their noble cause.
In both these examples, plastic-eating enzymes and cleverly placed dragnets, I’m heartened to see they were discovered by the young. It gives me hope for the future of the planet, and makes me wonder why more mainstream science hasn’t got onto the problem sooner. As physicist Max Planck remarked many years ago, ‘science advances one funeral at a time!’ Perhaps the old thinking, rather than literally the old scientists, has to die before new ways are found.
In a 21st Century remake of The Graduate, what would the older man now be whispering into Dustin’s ear? ‘Sustainability?’ Maybe . . .
I’m now taking my first, teetering steps as an urban eco-warrior by insisting on paper straws with my milkshake. Has Peak Plastic come and gone? We will find out in the coming years.
2. Book of the Year
Factfulness by Hans Rosling (Sceptre).
Why should you read this?
Because it will challenge your mindset about what’s really going on in the world, as well as educate, entertain and inspire you.
This sounds like a tall claim when you understand that Rosling is a prominent Swedish Professor of Statistics.
But don’t be put off – this is a compelling and timely contribution to his life’s work of encouraging people to look at the evidence, rather than just going with their unconscious prejudices. Sadly he passed away recently, but this book continues his mission.
He opens with a questionnaire about trends in the world, from poverty to education to population demographics. He has given this test to thousands of thought leaders, including expert economists, industrialists and politicians at places like Davos, only to conclude that in the multiple choice questions – like ‘what percentage of the planet’s population now lives in extreme poverty?’- their answers are worse than you’d get from a chimpanzee choosing completely randomly!
I won’t tell you the thrust of his questions as it might spoil your own moment of revelation. I’ve used some of these questions as a mind-opener at business conferences; most people get it wrong, as they are answering based on outdated ‘personal data.’ AKA, an old mindset. Essential reading for everyone from students to CEOs.
RIP Hans Rosling. Your zeal to make us look at the evidence comes to life in these pages.
3. Big (and little) Data
“Data, data everywhere, and not a spot to think.”
(With apologies to Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)
Yes, Big Data continues to swamp us, though we should be happy that the GDPR legislation this year is meant to put us more in control of how our precious stuff is used by faceless organisations. Data that is dubbed the ‘oil’ of the digital age.
GDPR is a well-intentioned but probably ineffective attempt to catch a cat that’s already long out of the bag. The few times I have actually read a site’s data policy, it seems that they can carry on doing most of the things they always did with your information, simply because you have clicked and therefore ‘opted in.’
The Tech predictions I read say this problem will be solved by ‘personal data platforms’ that inform us about the value of our data. Taking ownership of our personal information sounds like a very good thing, but I’m losing the will to live just thinking about it.
Yawn! A wonderful line from a Leonard Cohen song goes, ‘They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom’. Is this the zenith of human evolution, where we have all become ‘digital citizens?’ More like an unpaid army of cyber-clerks, constantly filling in mandatory boxes, liking and disliking.
Don’t get me wrong; Big Data can, and is already, greatly helping the fields of medicine, scientific discovery, commerce, manufacturing, weather predictions, and much, much more. For an accessible account of the subject I suggest you read Big Data (John Murray) by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukler. I sometimes work with Viktor, and he’s a brilliant and witty communicator.
Do we trust large organisations to keep our data safe? Not wise to do so, as the recent hacking of over 300 million members’ accounts at Marriott Starwood (including possibly the decryption tools needed to access sensitive financial information) makes clear. Nearly the same number was also hacked this year at British Airways. And so it goes on . . .
So be wary, and don’t let the boredom get you down. Human beings rely on relatively Small Data to make decisions, so if something on a site doesn’t feel right, be careful what you share. Having said that, we live in a world where anybody can know everything about anyone - with the right digital tools, and an inbuilt resistance to ennui.
I can’t remember who observed what a tragedy it is that many of the world’s brightest young minds are working on how to ensure you click in the right place on a website, to maximise profits. They are right.
4. Creative Writing Habits
Is it just me, or do there seem to be more courses than ever on ‘How to Write Your First Novel’? Even how to sell and ‘make it go viral’, as if you were releasing an airborne disease on an unsuspecting population.
I went to a morning seminar on this topic one Saturday. It was good, but on trying out some of the tips I had a blinding glimpse of the obvious:
The secret to writing is to . . . er . . . write! Preferably every day, simply putting your thoughts – so brilliant when they popped into your head! – on to a page. It’s a different skill from speaking, which is one reason we mistakenly think, how hard can it be? Like any skill, it needs practice and practice, perhaps even that fabled 10,000 hours mark, which is required for mastery in anything.
Just write. And with as little judgement and self-censorship as you can manage. Simply cover the pages.
Then the real skill is in rewriting, often many times. Here’s where you can let your critical (though not your negative) self back in. Rewriting is the essence of good writing, but you need to have something to rewrite.
Having said that, it can be fascinating to look into the creative habits of others, even while knowing it’s merely a delicious distraction from getting down to it yourself!
Take for example the successful fantasy novelist Phillip Pullman, who lives in my home town of Oxford. He’s the author of the Northern Lights trilogy, one book of which was made into a Hollywood movie, The Amber Spyglass.
Whenever he’s finished his stint of writing for the day, he takes a blank piece of paper and writes the first line of what he’s going to work on next. You can use this simple idea: It will help you to hit the ground running when you continue, and the seed of the idea is working in your imagination even while you’re supposedly switched off from the task. It also helps with the horror of facing the blank page!
Then there’s global bestseller, Haruki Murukami. If you haven’t read any, you might start with IQ84 or Kafka on the Shore. He has a strange and beguiling imagination, but his prolific output comes from strong discipline. Here’s his writing day:
• Rise at 4am
• Write for 6 hours
• Go for 10km run, or swim
• Return and continue.
Wow! I’m exhausted just reading this. Murukami is nearly 70.
So - do I follow my own advice? Not always. But at least I know what’s required. Just write . . .
5. Why You Can’t Out-rant Trump
One summer evening in Berlin, where I was working for a business school, I had a delightful dinner with two brilliant professors. We talked for hours about life, our families, friends and enemies, and business education.
The next morning I wrote to say thank you, not just because we’d had such a stimulating conversation; the highlight of the evening was that we hadn’t mentioned Brexit or Trump even once, surely a record for a long conversation in the Western World this year. Especially as one of us came from England and another lives in the USA.
If your household recreation is Trump-bashing, think again. Read this thoughtful article by journalist Simon Jenkins, entitled We Now Know it’s Folly To Rage Against Trump. (Just search for his name, or go to The Guardian online.) Jenkins has a wonderful gift for cutting through the usual noise of impassioned debate to deliver a wise and sane response. He quotes Trump on the media attacks bombarding him daily: “It’s very good for me politically.”
He also argues against what I call an overdose of binary thinking: “While the right traditionally thinks the left is wrong, the left thinks the right is immoral.”
Calling out purely divisive thinking on Brexit or Trump, he argues that those against both have abandoned reason for moral damnation. But it won’t work. As he puts it, “Trump will never be out-ranted!”
A clarion call for better listening and more reason, not less. There are other, more constructive conversations to be had around our dinner table . . .
For my own contribution to this discussion, try my piece entitled A World Divided - Is Digital to Blame? https://www.nigelbarlow.com/~A-World-Divided
6. Is Disruption Overrated?
The term ‘disruption’ is ubiquitous this year, in industry, education, technology (of course!) and, more surprisingly, even the public sector.
I’m keenly interested in this as it’s a topic I’ve been asked to speak about with increasing frequency. Disruption is frequently used interchangeably with words like ‘innovation’ and ‘transformation’, but to my mind they are clearly not the same thing. Here’s my working definition of disruption and innovation.
Disruption. When I’m stuck for the true meaning of an expression, my fall back strategy is to consult a dictionary. But a normal one won’t do – try a dictionary of word origins instead.
Here I find that the root of the word is a Latin verb, rumpere, which means literally to ‘destroy, burst or break’. In this sense, have the most quoted examples of so-called disruption, Uber and AirBnb, really destroyed the world’s existing taxi and hotel businesses? They’ve certainly made a dent in them, demonstrating that a new business model or platform can be as successful as innovating a new technological gizmo. But have they destroyed, broken or burst their more traditional competitors? Or merely given them a healthy kick in the pants to make them get their act together?
My take is that disruption is the outcome of a new commercial or technical approach, not the process itself. Very few ‘disruptors’ set out with the conscious aim of destroying an industry – rather they are obsessed with creating something that’s better or different from what’s already on offer, hoping that consumers or customers will flock to it.
Disruption is the outcome, while innovation is the process . . .
Innovation. The clue to the true meaning of innovation is in the word’s central syllables: ‘nova.’
Innovation, at least in its purest sense, is doing something differently, which may or may not mean better.
Some of you will know the psychometric instrument I use in my work with teams, the KAI. K is for the originator, Dr Michael Kirton, while the A and the I stand for Adaptor/Innovator theory, which is the theoretical underpinning for the tool. Kirton has worked on this concept for over 30 years, and it’s still a mystery to me why it’s not better known. (My experience is that it’s more practically useful than many other tests I see on the market.)
Kirton attempts to reclaim the word ‘innovation’ from its current muddle and misunderstanding. He proposes that there are two types of creativity – and everyone can be located with a preferred style on a well-researched scale – which he calls adaption and innovation. The key characteristics of someone with a strong preference for adaptive problem-solving are that they prefer to work in a systematic way, enjoy detailed work, prefer clear and unambiguous goals, calculated risk-taking and primarily focus on making what already exists better.
In contrast, a strong preference for a more innovative problem-solving style goes with a desire to shake things up, an impatience with the pace of transformation, a need to rock the boat, and a greater interest in starting new things rather than finishing off the old. Innovators also tend to be rule-breakers, and not natural team players (though they will usually deny this!)
So what? Well, it’s a very useful lens to view the changing business and technological landscape. Most of what is loosely called ‘innovation’ is not really new!
Take the automotive industry. How many breakthrough innovations have there been on what’s basically still a self-propelled box on wheels, say in the last hundred years? Maybe half a dozen, and they have been small revolutions, although mostly not on the scale that electric and autonomous cars promise to be.
On the other hand, how many creative adaptions – constant improvements, kaizen and all that - have there been? Many thousands, which is why your car now (usually) starts in the morning. It’s clear we need both types of creativity in equal measure; but let’s understand the difference, and not overhype merely the more dramatic innovator style.
When I’m working with a client on innovation I often give them a health warning at the outset: are you serious about this? Because it’s going to be messy, wasteful and risky, with no guarantee of success. And are you sure your more ‘adaptive’ organisation, with all its systems, procedures and controls, can really handle it?
I’ve always felt this is a more honest way to present the case – if the answer is a strong ‘yes’, then let’s go for it, but with eyes wide open.
Ginni Rometty is CEO of IBM, a fact that’s a disruption in itself. She advocates,
“Always disrupt yourself!”
Is she right? Is Apple going to seriously disrupt its flagship product, the iPhone, or Microsoft do the same with Windows?
A more practical take on her advice is that organisations should adopt a new value to add to their existing list – ‘healthy paranoia.’ The new battle cry is ‘disrupt before you are disrupted.’ But you’ll only head this fate off if you start to innovate with more urgency.
7. Best YouTube Videos
Why not try these two.
Firstly, Work In Estonia. This is fun and refreshing. Estonia, a Baltic state with only 1.2 million citizens is making a splash by doing almost everything on-line, even voting from home. More impressively, it’s the first government to offer its many government services to foreigners – and you can even open a company there online. It takes about 16 minutes (the video says Estonians are impatient people, so this fits).
President Obama remarked at a press conference that “I should have called the Estonians when setting up our healthcare website.”
The 3-minute video is narrated by a lively Australian pilot – or that’s what he’s posing as! - who appears to work for Estonian Airlines. It enhances the message, strangely, reinforcing this tiny nation’s desire to be inclusive.
Next, Millennial International – Sponsor a Millennial Today. A great spoof of a fund-raiser, where the needy recipients are Millennials who have been educated, but only with an arts degree. Therefore need your help because they have, as the deadpan commentator intones, ‘no discernible skills’.
The money is desperately needed for life essentials like:
Spin Cycle Membership
Beard wax, and
Credit Card Debt.
I’m sure you get the idea. Hopefully this generation will reply to mine with an even wittier story. (Tip – if you watch this with Millennials, expect them to have a complete sense of humour failure.)
No cat videos on this list . . . Sorry! But if you really feel cheated, one of the best comedy routines you are likely to see on YouTube is John Moloney talking at the Glasgow Comedy Festival Preview about . . . his stressed cat. Sheer brilliance, and a short master class in timing.
One of the great things about my peripatetic life is having a few hours to explore a foreign city, whether it’s Madrid, Paris, Parma, or Berlin. This year I had the idea that you could ‘read’ a city by the signs, advertisements and graffiti, provided you were curious enough to notice.
A two-hour stroll around Amsterdam this summer gave me the following . . .
On top of large, Italianate arches were carved, Roman-fashion, the words: HOMO SAPIENS NON URINAT IN VENTUM.
Why was it therez? Doesn’t matter. It’s part of the charm of Amsterdam that it’s such an improbable city. Then, on a coffee bar window, a suggested daily philosophy:
All under a large sign:
But first - coffee!
The hippy side of the city also surfaced – in a chic shopping street, all the stores had a rainbow flag waving, emblazoned with the words:
LOVE is LOVE.
And on the side of Home Works, large black painted graffiti telling you to:
RELAX – THE UNIVERSE IS EXPANDING.
Well, that’s all right then. It’s quirky and direct, for me two great characteristics of the Dutch. On the way back to my hotel I passed a men’s clothing shop with these words on the door:
‘We are not your father’s tailor.’
Next time I’ll go in and ask them what they mean, exactly. The Dutch can be very exact people, so I’m sure I’ll get a clear answer.
Would this amateur snooping also reveal the hidden messages of a city like Los Angeles? I tried the street in Venice that is hipster central for cool (and expensive) clothes, accessories and restaurants. It’s called Abbot Kinney, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Within minutes I’d passed a shake and coffee truck displaying the following sign:
We hope you
To be present
To Flow with
I paused for my love infused interaction, and ordered a cappuccino. Grande, not strong, almond milk and hold the chocolate topping. It was quite good.
Then, outside a clothes store:
“Always be yourself, unless you can be a unicorn, then be a unicorn.”
Well, thanks for clearing that up for me! But I think I knew what they were getting at more clearly than the sign outside a store selling tight designer jeans:
PANTS BASED DIET.
Baffled, I went for lunch at a trendy outlet called:
THE BUTCHER’S DAUGHTER.
It’s owned by a woman apparently having a feud with her father - it’s fully vegetarian.
Of course it’s not just the signs, but also what people say. Buying cinema tickets at an LA theatre, I asked the agent if he’d seen the film himself. (It was A Star is Born, since you asked.)
“Yes, I have. And I lurved it with every fibre of my being.”
I’ve been longing to utter that phrase - with conviction - ever since. In English he was saying, ‘it’s ok.’ But I loved his enthusiasm.
Soon I’ll be off to other cities to extend my research - any of your examples happily received. My new hobby certainly keeps me observant and curious, and sometimes laughing.
9. Why Technology Isn’t Just Machines
How many times a day do you use, read or hear the word ‘technology’? I’ve asked the question to many audiences, often in the world’s leading technology companies. Followed up by ‘Do You have any idea what the word means?’ Yes, I’m back to my nerdy self and my constant bedside companion, a dictionary of word origins.
The answer? Techne, as far as there is a direct translation from the Greek, means ‘art, craft, skill or ingenuity’. Logos, of course, is the word, or knowledge or wisdom.
For me this puts a whole different spin on how we could be thinking about technology and its impact on our lives. While certainly machines will increasingly tackle the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks in our lives, and this is to be encouraged, they will also take away large chunks of work now being done by white collar professions, such as accountants, lawyers, and even doctors.
But we also need to realise that as cosmologist and AI expert Max Tegmark says, we are in a ‘wisdom race’ to keep our brains abreast of all this outer change. Moore’s law – the doubling of computer power nearly every two years – is sailing on, but what about more for our minds to cope with it all?
My work is to make at least a small positive contribution to this wisdom race.
10. Great Events of the Year
I’m not talking about the World Cup or that Royal wedding here – rather, unusual conferences or meetings. This is a very personal take; I’ve only been to the first of these, thought the others are interesting to read about.
I greatly enjoyed the Festival Of Disruption at the Ace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles this October. It’s founded and curated by film director David Lynch – creator of Twin Peaks and many quirky and ground-breaking Hollywood movies.
I have to declare an interest here; I am a trustee of the charity The David Lynch Foundation in the UK. We work to teach stress-busting meditation tools to the world’s most at-risk populations: the homeless, PTSD sufferers, children in deprived schools, addicts, abused women, and victims of war.
David says he owes a great deal of his success as a filmmaker to his daily practice of Transcendental Meditation. That’s why earlier this century he created a foundation that teaches this technique to disadvantaged people to help them reclaim control in their lives, as well as alleviating the stress they are experiencing.
It works. For some of the research and moving testimonials, go to davidlynchfoundation.org.uk. Do watch some of the brief videos; I’d be surprised if you are not greatly moved.
The Festival was a fund-and awareness-raiser attended by hundreds. It featured an eclectic range of speakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Grace Jones, Prof Norman Rosenthal and of course David himself. What struck me meeting David again is what a polymath he is: constantly busy with making not just films and TV series, but also mounting major exhibitions of his painting and photography, redesigning Bang & Olufsen speakers, making music albums, and even producing his own brand of coffee. I’m hoping we’ll bring something similar to this event to
the UK soon.
Another event I always enjoy reading about is the Ig-nobel Awards, celebrating whatever’s trivial or apparently nonsensical in recent scientific research. It’s put on by the publication The Annals Of Improbable Research. The organisers claim they are not ridiculing science, rather making people laugh – and then think.
This year the medicine prize was won by Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger for their work using roller coaster rides to hasten the passage of kidney stones.
I also enjoyed the Nutrition award, which concluded that the caloric intake from a human cannibalism diet is significantly lower than from most traditional meat diets. Good to know!
The oddest winner was in the Economics category. Researchers investigated whether it’s effective to use voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses.
Just an occasion for ridicule? No. The organisers are serious about how this makes people think. The research may seem strange at first sight, but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of scientific merit. For example, the 2006 Ig-nobel prize for physics was awarded to French researchers who studied why dry spaghetti tends to break into more than two pieces when it’s bent. Follow-on research has shown some useful applications in understanding how cracks form and spread, say in human bones or bridge spans.
The aspect of the ceremony which I’m tempted to reproduce at a business innovation event is that speakers have only one minute to express their idea, followed by a shorter seven-word summary. The timing is monitored by a nine-year-old girl, Miss Sweety Poo, who ruthlessly stops speaker over-runs by crying out loudly, ‘Please stop – I’m bored!’ A recipe for cutting Death By Powerpoint? Worth thinking about.
Finally, the Boring Conference took place this year in London. I wasn’t able to attend, but I very much enjoyed reading the conference summary. The organisers describe it as an event that celebrates the mundane, the boring, the obvious, and the over-looked. They say,
‘Interesting people talking about boring things.’
Previous topics have included sneezing, toast, IBM tills, the sounds made by vending machines, bar codes, and the features of Yamaha PSR-175 Portatune Keyboard.
Again, there is a serious side to this: when you are curious enough to look deeply into something apparently pointless it can become truly fascinating. Curiosity is often a precursor to creativity, a topic I speak about in my own work.
So, anyone want to go to next year’s event? I’m charmed by the website announcement:
‘Doors will open around 10.30 a.m. and things will start to get boring at 11 a.m.’
11. Made Me Laugh
This is definitely an acquired taste. Half-Man, Half-Biscuit is probably the UK’s best satirical band. Previous ‘hits’ include All I Want For Christmas Is A Dukla Prague Away Kit and Tending The Wrong Grave For 23 Years. Their lead singer, Nigel (no relation) Blackwell barely sings, instead bellowing out surreal words while backed by tight, post-punk musicians. What made me laugh is the title of their 2018 album, No-one Cares About Your Creative Hub, So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut.
This sets the strange tone for my favourite number on the album, Man Of Constant Sorrow (With A Garage In Constant Use). Try it out if you want a break from Brexit, Trump, data, technology, and all that. Witty social commentary with a large dose of the ridiculous.