Design Thinking, or Design Faking?

Design thinking is all over the place. Every large organization claims to use it in a way or another to spur innovation, and every place dedicated to hold seminars comes fully loaded with white boards and sticky notes. A quick glance at Google Trends shows how much searches for design thinking consulting help gain in popularity over time, while the whole “consulting” category is more and more losing its appeal to executives. Yet, despite a sustained keen interest, in most cases, design thinking fails to deliver up to its promise. But are we really focusing on the right approach?

design thinking google trends 2005 2016

Evolution of searches for “design thinking consulting” vs “consulting”

Of Principles and Methods

The core ambition of design thinking was to formalize the process of design, in order to give the capability to apply this principle to all kinds of problems, from product innovation to wicked societal problems. Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, and Tim Brown, CEO of the design company IDEO, have largely contributed to this formalization and helped in popularizing the approach. But this came at a major cost.

For business decision makers, typically non-designers, principles must translate into methodologies to become actionable. Thus, the design thinking principle, defined as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success” by Tim Brown, had been repackaged into the now famous “empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test-and-iterate” mantra to get past the corporate doors.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson beautifully nailed it: “If you learn only methods, you’ll be tied to your methods, but if you learn principles you can devise your own methods..” Grabbing the essence of a principle, experimenting in order to understand its implications, and putting it in practice can prove itself to be a difficult task, especially in the case of an emergent principle such as design thinking. This will quickly challenge many of your assumptions about how work gets done and of your mental models. On the other side, sliding from principles to methods will only get you as far as you already know you can go. In many cases, methods act as a prescription, as a how-to approach that will lead you to tweak the context and prune particularities to fit ready-made models.

By restricting design thinking to a method, however brilliant, conceived as a tool for non-designers, its evangelists have seeded the conditions for failure, as the Stanford d.school itself recognized.

An Approach Under Influence

No matter how useful the “empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test-and-iterate” methodology can be in encouraging and training individuals—who tend to act linearly—to think collaboratively and “out of the box,” this methodology oversimplifies the design process. As every experienced designer knows, this process is messy, made of numerous loops and back-and-forth reasoning. While leaving design to designers in pure proselyte mode may have severe drawbacks, such as what I have called the “guru designer” problem,  summarizing it into a methodology to bring it within everyone’s reach in a corporate environment exposes it to many biases.

The human mind is such that we tend to step back into our comfort zone whenever possible, even (maybe even more) when we are exhorted to do the contrary. In most organizational contexts, this means putting a heavy focus on linearization, simplification, and rationalization, affecting all activities and tasks. Let us consider how this influences every phase of design thinking as a methodology:

Empathize

In our more and more data-driven business world, it is easy to forget that figures don’t tell THE truth. They just tell A truth, the one you want them to tell. Empathy doesn’t grow from data, it comes from the story that lies behind. Building a story from the data you collect from your customers and users is like presenting a mirror to yourself.

To understand the context in which your customers lie, you must walk in their shoes, and fully grasp the job they are trying to get done. You must also be aware that their context is not yours; failing to keep this in mind will make you miss the broader dimensions of the problem you are trying to solve.

Define

Designers do not tackle new problems with a blank mind, they bring to the table their experience, their own beliefs and history of failures and successes. A great designer looks at the real world and makes connections others don’t see, often allowing him to shape an embryonic solution to trigger further inquiry even before the problem has been properly framed, what Bryan Lawson has described as “the primary generator” in his classical How Designers Think – The Design Process Demystified.

More than often, defining the problem is in fact a matter of abductive reasoning, a back-and-forth navigation between the definition of the problem and the set of conditions put up by the context, much more than a statement like “how could we make our product|service|organization more desirable|useful?”.

Ideate

Common beliefs would want ideation to be the easiest part in design. Recall some background (typically the problem to be solved), distribute some pens and sticky notes, and here you go. The problem is that, unless deliberately set up, this approach doesn’t bring you what you expect. Garbage in, garbage out. Ideas are your most valuable assets, and must be handled as so. They must be confronted with your definition of the problem, they have to be part of the solution, to clarify or to extend some aspect of the problem. Even more, the problem has to be challenged by what comes up during your ideation phase, refined by evidence or even totally rethought. In fact, empathizing, defining and ideating cannot be dissociated as you will need to push all these steps further together until you are able to draft a solution. In the design process, the solution is indissiocable from the problem.

Prototype

Where ideation is falsely considered as easy, building prototypes is often viewed as the most difficult phase by organizations, as soon as it doesn’t concern product innovation. The idea of prototyping a service, and even more a system (such as a team structure), beyond drawing a chart on a piece of paper is a daunting task for people who consider play or corporal expression incompatible with corporate etiquette. It doesn’t look serious enough for them.

Yet, embodying interactions through role playing, or feeling physical space with actual size mockups is the best way to learn about what “the real thing” could be and to avoid many mistakes. Being serious about what you are trying to create doesn’t imply being boring or blankly conventional during the process. After all, following a creative process implies … being creative.

 Test and Iterate

In organizational context, almost everything is considered as a project. As a consequence, even in the most agile environment, testing and iterating often translates into “let us build a v0, then we will move to v1, and prepare for v2.” When designing for services or for systems, this approach usually leads to selecting the most important features to build a Minimum Viable Product, then planning for further implementation in subsequent iterations.

Wait… Are you sure that your careful selected features are the ones your customers really care about? While designing, test and iterations mean loading your first version with as many of the features retained during the prototyping phase as you can, in order to learn as much as possible from the real thing. By limiting your initial value proposition, you may ruin all your efforts to understand what your customers and users really need and to provide an adequate answer.

Taking the Daring Path

As a methodology, design thinking isn’t, by far, a panacea to help organizations to transform themselves. Neither is the so-called digital transformation that we keep hearing about day after day. In fact, no methodology will ever be, as they have little more to offer than what organizations are already able to do. Adapting to the uncertain, volatile and complex world in which we now live, requires taking more daring roads, and to relinquish control to be able to experiment with new, maybe disturbing but rewarding, principles without faking.

05/20 update
Design involves bringing into play a complex process. As so, it implies doubt, faith, trial and error, and continuously challenging the assumptions you are building, at macro as well as at micro level. Unfortunately, this leaves very little place for certainties or for “absolute” solutions. By essence, complexity is fractal. More than a methodology, and to be of real help, the “empathize-define-ideate-prototype-test-and-iterate” design thinking metaphor must be understood and used as a kind of “meta-methodology”, as… nothing more than a prototype, requiring to be tested, tweaked or even completely re-invented according to the specific context that is yours.

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Organizations and the Asperger Syndrome

Entreprise Asperger

Our organizations are in bad shape, this is no more a secret. No day passes without this statement being discussed, dissected, both by its causes and its effects, nor without someone stigmatizing the hierarchical and bureaucratic practices of many—too many—businesses, and presenting them as toxic vestiges of the structures that flourished and reigned in an era marked by the Industrial Revolution.

Usually, these analysis end with another statement: our organizations are ill-adapted to our hyper-connected era, and, to survive, they evidently need to transform themselves, to reconnect with innovation dynamics and restore human values. To reach these goals, or at least move forward in the right direction, we don’t lack principles and methods. Very few of them, however, have proven their value beyond the few examples we hear from workshops to conferences. Among the main reasons for what we might call a confession of impotence, we can mention the fact that, indeed, every company is unique, and that one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed. We can also also name the fact that many of these methods are prescriptive, and that we can no more apply ready-made recipes to what must emerge organically than we can decree a culture change.

Yet, although these reasons are decisive in explaining how very little progress has been made in organizational transformation, there is a fundamental question we barely address: do we look at organizations under the right angle? Most of the time, it looks like we consider them as islands, insulated from the rest of the society.

Gary Hamel has recently published a paper called “Top-Down Solutions Like Holacracy Won’t Fix Bureaucracy,” in which he pleads for organizing internal hackathons to develop and test novel ideas inside companies in a bottom-up manner. His approach is virtuous, of course, and highlights prescriptive methods’ inefficiency. But can we even envision defeating bureaucracy?

Bureaucracy is surrounding us, in our institutions, in the governance of our states, of our communities, in the infrastructure of our banks… Bureaucracy constraints and influence all and every corner of our private life, from access to housing to access to work, to healthcare, to education… All of the mechanisms that regulate our society are deeply tainted by bureaucracy, and, in this context, trying to free organizations from its internal hindrances without acting at the whole societal level is similar to trying to empty a goldfish bowl on the sea bed.

Among all evils currently crippling organizations, it might be important to distinguish between those, like bureaucratic pandemia, affect all aspects of human interactions, and those that are specific. This isn’t an easy task, as dysfunctions in all of our institutions are becoming more and more apparent. However, this is the only way we will gain the capability to allow for the emergence of the evolutionary path toward more human-centric organizations, and to cure, in the midst of a sick society, even sicker organizations.

If we consider enterprise as an organism, it is striking to see how much its behavior is similar to that of an individual suffering from what we until recently called the Asperger syndrome.

  • Communication disorders
    How else could we consider the fact that, in organizations, employees are supposed to adopt a different behavior from the one they have in their personal life? How may we explain the lack of appeal to creativity, to intuition, to informal problem resolution that characterizes so many businesses, as those are some core characteristics of human beings, that we express and use in our daily life? The ever-larger trench between corporate communication and behavior and our natural modes of networked communication cannot be easily described as other than pathologic.
  • Socialization disorders
    This is a category under which we find most of the evils of which we accuse organizations, and whose symptoms are strikingly similar to those exhibited by Aspergers:

    • Resistance to change (should we further comment?)
    • Behavioral stiffness, lack of recourse to intuition (pervasiveness of hierarchies and processes)
    • Obsessional fixation on specific domains (excessive financialisation, hyper-specialization of roles)
    • Difficulty understanding social interaction (maladjustment to complexity)
    • Difficulty understanding expectations from the neighborhood (lack of understanding of customers’ expectations)

Of course, considering organizations under the harsh light of behavioral and social anomaly doesn’t bring any answer to the important question of how to change a mostly outdated management model, but it brings up new options we have to consider in our thinking about organizational diseases. As it is the case with any sever psychic disease, you don’t “cure” it, you usually can’t. You rather act both on the symptoms the patient exhibits, to reduce them, and on the relationships between the patient and its environment, to ease them.

Managerial hackathons, as Gary Hamel suggests, lean management, practical application of design thinking or of wirearchy’s principle at the edge, are some of the methods that can help in reducing organizations’ internal disorders. However, they don’t deal with the two other dimensions of the problem: taming the bonds between organizations and the society, and tackling the bigger, wider society-wide problems, such as bureaucracy, that do not pertain to organizations by themselves. The latter are wicked problems, far beyond our reach, and that will, alas, require more than a lifetime to be solved. But how is it that nobody actually thinks of fixing organizations (or at least easing their structural problems) by looking at them from the context they are part of?

Imagine a society in which companies do not play the central role anymore. Part of economical exchanges would be under the responsibility of local and/or decentralized communities. The relationships between work and income would be loosened, allowing individuals to pursue personal projects without being enfeoffed to any organization. Utopia? Not anymore; peer-to-peer and local economy is developing at blazing speed, and the rise of blockchain-based projects such as Ethereum is giving a anew meaning to decentralization; unconditional and universal basic income is on the drawing board of more and more states. The next step, in fact, will be to define a new role of organizations, to benefit from an efficiency built over more than a century, without bearing the hassle of dealing with their autistic personality. This, is our main challenge for the years to come.

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I, Idiot

I IdiotI am a literate internet user. As so, I am pretty connected, and cultivate my networks on a regular basis. This means, I share. I share bits of my life, such as pictures of what I had for dinner yesterday, or clippings of my daily life. I also share what I read, well, in fact I read less and less, so I share first, and will maybe read later. Sharing widgets have made this quite easy, with a single click, I am able to inform my followers about what interests me. Or, at least, about what I stumbled upon. I follow some brands too, just in case they have some kind of discount for me.

As told, I cultivate my networks, including the professional one. Regularly, I ask people to join my network on LinkedIn. The more, the better. And linking social accounts allows me to stay active and to share even more easily. Exposure is key here, as it helps growing my credibility.

I share, but am conscious about my privacy. I am using some ad blockers on my computer, and on my iPhone, as I don’t want to be tracked and be overloaded by unwanted advertising. I…

Oh, wait! From all of the above, I, and millions of people acting the same, should just be called perfect idiots.

Advertising and the Fallacy of Privacy

Privacy, of course, is a real concern. Yet, as broken as it is, the advertising model, whether driven by agencies or directly by organizations, is seeing its days counted. For long, big companies have learned how to show and sell us what they want. Lobbying, packaging, selling practices, are some of the elements from the physical world that condition what we buy and consume.

Furthermore, actors from the digital economy are gathering and mining data in ways that allow them to know things about us that we don’t even suspect. Many of the services we use already operate in a post-advertising world, gathering information about our most mundane habits, incrementally building knowledge about our offline behavior. Even worse, the rising Internet of Things raises more challenges than it gives answers. Your refrigerator knows what you eat, but will you really know who is in control of your grocery list?

The Lost Art of Conversation

Maybe more importantly, our over-sharing mania has obfuscated conversations. Dismissing the most elementary netiquette, we are now broadcasting our private life on every social channel, without caring if this is of any interest for someone. The standard connection-making message on LinkedIn is “I would like to add you to MY professional network,” there is no mention of yours. On this Internet of Me, there is no more room for genuine reciprocal interactions. As internet users, we more and more click to share, with an ever-shorter attention span. As customers and consumers, we want everything faster, cheaper. In a quasi-schizophrenic state, we are urging organizations to listen to us, while, as individuals, we are stifling the very conditions in which innovation and fruitful interactions can flourish.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, there was a time when we shaped the online world. But now, the internet is reshaping the world into an arena of brutal transactions and blind exposure. On enterprise side, the overall inflation of our ego isn’t without consequences. As business owners, we want to sell more, as the lowest possible cost. As shareholders, we want the fastest and highest return on investment. As managers and leaders, we want the most productive teams, the most efficient processes. These behaviors head us to a larger automatization of what we still call “interactions,” but are in fact becoming more and more algorithm-based triggers to action, which in turn lead to fewer jobs and less adaptiveness of business.

There is a thinner and thinner line between “I, Idiot,” and “I, robot.” The growing me-ification of the conversation space, both online and offline, means in fact that we are now relinquishing the responsibility of tackling complexity to machines. “Markets are conversations” was the first these of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Markets are spaces of negotiation, spaces where two-way flows of power and authority take place between involved stakeholders. But when conversations vanish, there is no need for balanced markets anymore. Algorithms will soon be able to decide what we need and want in our place, streamlining transactions along predictive processes. We will end up alone, powerless in the middle of a connected crowd.

A Critical Crossroad

This dystopian near future is not inevitable, but we are heading toward a critical crossroad. Paradoxically, at the same time as we are blindly diving into a downward spiral of high-tech egotism, we are asking organizations to loosen their structure and to listen to us. WE are the customers, but WE are the organizations. It is all of our responsibility to break this vicious circle, and to listen to the voices that plea for more caring relationships. In most cases, organizational blindness is nothing but the reflexion of our own inability to deal with complexity with an open mind. Do not let us subjugate ourselves to the present obsession to “deliver,” whether it be by sharing more, predicting more, or requesting more, but let us reconnect with our human nature, and get meaningful conversations going. The Internet of Me is a lethal decoy, let us build the Internet of Us.

Image By Shao19 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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The Company as a Platform? No Thanks

The company as a platformExpressions often have a deeper meaning than the words that form them. This is typically the case with those depicting the new conditions of work, turned upside down by the rise of networks and technology. The first expression was “Enterprise 2.0”, pointing to the most representative form of human production activity, the company. Then came “social business”, in which the organization was replaced by the activity. Today, “digital transformation” is trending, that completely ignores the subject of this transformation, allowing to refer to changing conditions without grounding them in their context. Pure coincidence? It is indeed much easier to deal with change without tackling much more uneasy questions regarding the nature and purpose of our organizations. Everything happens as if we were so deeply immersed and conditioned by our Judeo-Christian roots than the unescapable necessity of work as a foundational burden was taken for granted. Yet, the necessity to understand at a deeper level the nature and purpose of businesses has become critical in order to build the future.

The next logical step

The change from industrial structures toward platforms that we are witnessing has deep implications, way beyond requesting the evolution of managerial practices. To understand them, it is useful to get some background from the theory of organizations. From an economic point of view, one of our main understandings of the nature of commercial organizations is derived from a short essay written in 1937 by Ronald Coase and entitled The Nature of the Firm.

For Coase, entrepreneurs gathered individual workers under the aegis of large entities to minimize the costs associated with transactions. Firms, and their internal mechanisms, would then be much more cost-efficient than the supply and demand effects involved in free markets. Yet, as I have already written, this efficiency alone has vanished, as the pressure of technology now allows almost everyone to produce goods and services at almost no cost. Thus, the transition to companies as platforms, harnessing the capabilities of networked individuals to provide or even produce on-demand goods and services, giving birth to what we call the sharing economy, is the next logical step. But should we call it a step forward?

The revenge of the markets

Commoditized consumption and the raw effects of markets’ mechanisms have lowered the price of most of the goods and services we use in our day-to-day life. But what is true for individuals is not necessary the case for companies. An organization, for instance, would pay at least ten times more than I do the same internet fiber access I am enjoying. Booking a flight within the context of a corporate contract usually costs much more, rear setback set apart, than the ones I can find on my own. In these cases, the transaction costs associated with the exchange are much higher for a company than for an individual, because of the many added layers they include: taxes and costs required to maintain a bureaucratic structure, of course, but also, and more importantly, costs necessary to ensure the liability and the repeatability of the transaction.

For a buyer, most of the transactions involved in dealing with platforms do not take these costs into account, but rather provide minimal liability support over free markets. Would they want to ensure better repeatability, they would have to rely on heavier bureaucracy and enforce stricter procedures. From a purely transactional point of view, platforms only represent an artificial advantage over industrial firms, advantage that may disappear once stabilization and efficiency of the newly created markets take place.

Technology versus work

There is another way to look at the economic nature of organizations. The resource-based – or capability-based – view, instead of considering a general mechanism under which companies settle and grow, focuses on the way they organize themselves and operate in order to succeed over markets and over their competitors.

Building from it to better explain how firms evolve and respond to rapidly-changing environments, the knowledge-based theory consider knowledge as the most important capability of a company. For a platform company relying on a network of workers, relying on collective intelligence looks like a fabulous premise. But fact is that most of its actionable knowledge comes from ever more sophisticated algorithms, not from human wisdom. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk gets its power from cleverly computerized division of labor, the strength of BlaBlaCar comes more from the precision with which it links short rides from car sharers into long distance journeys. The list could go on forever. From a knowledge-based point of view, platforms companies represent a bright future for technology, not for workers.

Disposable business models

The theory of dynamic capabilities, exposed and developed by David Teece in the beginning of the nineties, proposes a larger view upon capabilities. In The Dynamic Capabilities of Firms: an Introduction, cowritten with Gary Pisano, he set the basis of his theory, writing that :

“We posit that the competitive advantage of firms stems from dynamic capabilities rooted in high performance routines operating inside the firm, embedded in the firm’s processes, and conditioned by its history. Because of imperfect factor markets, or more precisely the non-tradability of ‘soft’ assets like values, culture, and organizational experience, these capabilities generally cannot be bought; they must be built.”

For Teece, the reorganization of available resources, through reconfiguration of its assets, through learning and building high performance routines, are the core elements that characterize a company.

In the case of a platform company, most of the resources are externalized. Work is outsourced, and with it most of the capabilities allowing them to evolve. Without a supportive organizational framework, routines building and learning is left over to individuals, and cannot be capitalized at global level, unless people working from them form true, tightly coupled networks. Innovation thus can only occur at the core level, further limiting the ability of platforms to adapt to a new environment. Fact is that most of these companies build a competitive advantage from a very limited set of ideas and processes, within a fixed business model. Once this one is challenged and the company is unable to sustain it, it usually move on to another project. The whole “real economy” (the production of goods and services, without financial-only wealth accumulation), is becoming the playground for a startup mindset. Pivoting has replaced evolving, whatever the consequences for workers might be.

An history of exhaustion

The maybe only path on which the platform company can be seen as a step forward is in fact a negative one. The history of the firm with regards to its relationships with technology, which can be traced back to the invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay in 1733, follows its own radical logic: the exhaustion of resources. The race toward greater productivity, typical of the Industrial Revolution, has pushed companies to overexploitation of natural resources and fossil energy. The next step has been -and still is for many companies- about efficiency and cost cuttings, leading to exhaustion of internal resources and to the programmed agony of salaried status. The following figure shows pretty well the growing decorrelation between profits and the gross share of salaries.

wages

By encouraging the commodification of services otherwise freely exchanged in a social context, aren’t platform companies taking exhaustion one step further, eroding the tissue of our society itself?

A contractual node

Do not let us fool ourselves by the fact that the platform company use networks as their primary resources. Organizational theory seems to tell us that they represent a dead end, a local maximum, in the evolution of work, and are, under many aspects, a regression from the company of the Industrial Age. To try envisioning a brighter future, we definitely need to look for more sustainable structures. Here too, theory can provide some clues.

For this, let us get back at Coase, or rather at Oliver Williamson, who, building on Coase’s ground, developed the transaction costs view of the firm. For Williamson, the more specific knowledge transactions require, and the more uncertainty exists in their outcome, the more likely they are to take place inside organizations to minimize the costs involved. Central to his conception is that this optimisation is linked to two different layers of relationships between the actors involved. First, a lattice of contractual bonds, internally as well as externally between the buyer and the supplier. Then, as these contracts are considered as incomplete – they cannot cover any possible situation -, a layer of governance based on authority, allowing its beholder to make decisions in all cases not covered by the contracts.

In its will to control, the industrial firm has evolved toward bureaucratic behaviors, tightening hierarchies as structure of authority, and contributing in tailoring the law of contracts to their own interest, from expressions of the principle of good faith to formal straightjackets, as Grant Gilmore exposed in his classical The Death of the Contract. Platform companies follow a different path, dismissing the governance layer to rely on the markets to resolve what is left over by contracts.

Diving into the unknown

Is resorting to markets clearly a sustainable solution? I really don’t think so. The purpose, as well as the mechanics, of human transactions do not reduce themselves to market dynamics. The need for people to gather to reduce the costs involved with these exchanges is a constant, not only from an economic only point of view. Our challenge is, to be able to guide organizations of today, we have first to understand the shape of things to come, which includes organizational structures as well as the contractual framework that will glue these structures internally. As our personal and professional life melt into each other, and as the workplace more and more expands into the space of the city, we have also to understand who the actors of these new dynamics are, and what their responsibility toward each other is.

Sure, there is a deep digital transformation at work. and we need new organizational principles and frameworks to guide us through. And let us humbly recognize that we are diving into the unknown.

Image: Howard Pyle illustration of pirate walking the plank, from Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates. -public domain-

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The Future of Networks Depends on Technology. Or not.

powerless hamsterThe turn of the year is traditionally a period of intense prediction making, and I cannot go wrong today while predicting that the future will be networked. But which future? If we can expect technology to bring us faster, smaller, more connected and more clever tools, devices and algorithms, human psychology doesn’t follow such a straightforward path – I resisted writing “linear”, as the advances of technology rather seem to be power based, if not exponential. History is full of dead ends and periods of regression, and the structures of power and subordination that hold our society together are so deeply engrained into our minds that any cultural or social change is subject to strong resistance, or even to denial.

While evidences of the necessity to change a system that has fostered wealth inequality and deepened social and environmental degradation for more than a century are unveiled every day, most organizations stick with present inefficiency and bureaucracy. Even worse, technology is commonly used to leverage a faster and dumber business as usual. Some of last year’s heroes of an enlightened sharing economy reveal themselves as no better than sweatshops. Is that to say that we are doomed to live in a dystopian future? I don’t think so, but for our heavily hierarchical organizations, the shift toward resilient and wirearchic networks, able to adapt to complexity by enabling the creative and cognitive power of their workforce, won’t take place overnight, despite what many “social something” zealots might say. Information technology, of course, has a major and critical impact on our life, and is here to stay. But believing that collaborative solutions will transform the way businesses create and deliver value, by reshaping the way we work, is as meaningless than hoping that Facebook will change the course of the world. To ignite and sustain the conditions for purposeful networks to grow, we need more. And there is more. But is it the right path?

Stealth

Even if you didn’t see the movie, you might know Minority Report’s famous sequence, in which Tom Cruise is greeted in person by an animated billboard. What was pure science fiction in 1996 is today almost a reality. The tremendous computing power at the disposal of marketers allows them to segment and target consumers at the nearly individual level, and to build context-aware campaigns. Each of our digital footsteps is now tracked, analyzed, then translated behind our back into so-called “interest-based advertising”. We still have the possibility of opting out from some companies’ assaults, but for how long? And to which extent?

As very few organizations care about protecting their internet surfing with an external VPN, through their search history, Google knows what problems they are trying to solve, which prospects they are targeting, what they are buying, selling, when and to who. Today’s internet is the playground of data gatherers, and it is unlikely that, as enterprise networks need more and more to extend their reach beyond organizational boundaries to include customers, partners and suppliers, they extend in the “public” internet space.

In fact, the consumer world is already showing the way. As the web is following the same path as the printed media industry, once almost exclusively informative, then more and more cluttered with promotional and advertising content, people are beginning to protect themselves from marketers’ eyes. Ad blockers plugins and ad removal mobile apps are gaining mainstream traction. As privacy concerns grow, free public VPNs are multiplying, showing increasing trafic, not only from countries where internet access is censored, but also from many Occidental countries. Tor, originally developed and deployed for the US Navy, not only allows people to connect anonymously to the Web, but also extends privacy forward by providing support for hidden web services, invisible outside the Tor network. As inter-organizations networks appear, chances are high, and by large, for the benefits of security and integrity, they will be stealthy.

Health

Among other criteria, the performance of networks is linked to the reliability, the efficiency and speed at which information flows across their links and nodes. The quest for these capabilities was already at the heart of ARPANET, the ancestor of our internet. But while ARPANET’s original transmission protocol, NCP, which was later replaced by TCP/IP, focused on data distribution among links, it took a couple more decades before Napster introduced a truly decentralized way to distribute information. With the birth of peer-to-peer file sharing, appeared the possibility to build resilient digital networks.

One of the main weaknesses of many peer-to-peer networks has been the lack of security, which leaded to the creation of truly anonymous networks, using cryptography to ensure the validity of data exchanged. Other projects, such as Tribler, involve adding anonymity and true decentralization to popular peer-to-peer protocols. Yet, it is only with the development of the blockchain technology, the technology underlying Bitcoin, that truly decentralized networks reached usefulness beyond semi-legal file sharing. By eliminating the need for trusted authorities and regulators in applications like financial transactions or voting systems, blockchain technology may open the way for truly independent networks, freed from external bureaucracies and power. As the founders of Ethereum, one of the projects aimed at developing the technology for other uses, state it:

“This design would allow the DAO to grow organically as a decentralized community, allowing people to eventually delegate the task of filtering out who is a member to specialists, although unlike in the ‘current system’ specialists can easily pop in and out of existence over time as individual community members change their alignments.”

One thing at least is sure: healthy networks are, and operate, in a fully decentralized way.

Wealth

Here comes the tricky part. The wealth of networks – I am not talking about monetary possessions here. The economic dimension of blockchain-like architectures is a whole subject by itself, that I don’t feel qualified enough to tackle – lies in their ability to create value for themselves as a whole, as well as outside of themselves. The technology we see rising aren’t considering networks as a whole, but rather as a collection of individuals aiming at creating value for themselves. By itself, their purely transactional nature reduces the true nature of communities to a caricatural expression, even if some initiatives, like the one Reddit is initiating, aim at leveraging the effect of individual transactions for the benefit of the whole community.

Take trust, for example, which is one of the core intangible assets of communities. Today, trust is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem, in a world in which most of workers are disengaged, and characterized by hardcore individualism and irreducible hedonism. How do we foster fruitful relationships without trust? And how do we restore trust without leveraging genuine intimate relationships? Trust is built interaction after interaction, on the foam of shared expectations and realized premises. Reputation systems, that can be implemented with the latest developments in blockchain architecture, are a just a wee proxy for trust. In fact the blockchain is opening the way for trustless networks…

The wealth of networks isn’t the sum of the wealth of the individuals that compose them. We still need a way to create value for them as a whole from many perspectives, whether this be intellectual property, trust, or any what you could think of collective outcome. From distributed, we have at least to go to cumulative.

Limbo

Systems built on the blockchain architecture are, or can be, stealth, and truly distributed. Yet, they don’t, for now, leverage the possibility to build fruitful networks. On the opposite, they are allowing for the substitution of centralized institutions by faceless, anonymous closed markets. The risk is here, by adopting this range of technologies without challenging ourselves about the basic needs for efficiency in a network-based society, that will transform us into human hamsters, relentlessly spinning a flashy wheel. Banks, the symbols of top-down absolute power, have already understood the opportunity of using the blockchain to their own advantage. If we don’t care, we will soon end up in limbo, kept away from where the shift still has to occur, unable to reach the real tenants of power. Let us not be blinded by technology which may leads to the rise of powerless networks, and instead, let us build the future on what makes us human.

Image: “White face roborovski dwarf hamster” by Sy – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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