A letter from the Schinkelstraats. 29 October 2018.
I’ve chosen to relocate to the Netherlands, after working and running my business from London for many years, followed by time working in Silicon Valley early this year.
I find the Netherlands — and Amsterdam specifically — to be a good place to support the design of a sustainable society, during this most complex and uncertain of eras.
The confidence to handle uncertainty comes from understanding deep-rooted connection to things that matter most, while daring to meet new and other perspectives. There’s also a need for friction between perspectives, to drive learning, as we develop the ability to challenge, listen to and respect each other. The role that the culture of a specific place has is important in shaping how people and groups relate, question and produce. Rather like Sweden, where I’ve been doing much work in recent years, the Netherlands is a great place to explore and help people appreciate how strong and distinctive cultures foster strong design principles.
Today’s society connects humans and nature all over the world. This global dynamic requires that we think about the planet as a whole when dealing with global challenges. But when we talk about global, it is important to appreciate that everything local contributes to global dynamics and connections. All humans are rooted locally and contribute to the global relationship we have with the planet. Likewise, nothing we consider global can exist without affecting the local.
For many, it is helpful to understand and express our own roots through studying and helping others appreciate theirs, and that definitely applies to me. As Yuval Harari says in this excellent recent BBC Radio 4 interview, the only way to handle governments and companies seeking to know you through artificial intelligence and data, is to seek to know yourself much better. I‘ve seen technology hype bubbles over time, and I’m going to call that we’re in the mother of tech hype bubbles right now. The premise that our entire society will be dominated by artificial intelligence ignores the fact that human intelligence, when globally interconnected and rooted locally, is an extraordinary force, and it doesn’t stay still. I think we’ve all been hoodwinked into believing that a certain spectrum of software minds get to decide how everything happens. But look how they have been unable to handle the exponential scaling of their social software in recent years. The geeks may inherit the earth, but they’ll have to hire lots of social scientists and PR people to clean up the mess.
The world is full of talent that can function (or indeed has learned to function) on much broader spectrums, and those of us who are not on the same spectrum as the Mark Zuckerbergs are not going to roll over and accept a world built on metrics and likes and follower counts, and other forms of scoring and rating. I’m definitely on some kind of spectrum that likes patterns and structures — I used to be a plane spotter (still am, actually). But after almost fifty years of understanding how to apply my unique mechanism of thinking in balanced situations, I am not going to accept a future dominated by a narrow and aggressively imposed set of structures and prescribed mindsets around what is ‘social’ and what is ‘reality’, that have no appreciation or respect for the qualities of my own mind and the distinctive ways that it works and has been evolving. If there was a word for the equivalent of being racist that was about not respecting different minds and their mechanism of thinking, it would apply.
The world is too binary right now, and it’s not on. The world is full of texture and character, and most of it cannot be understood through rating and data with the subtlety and depth that humans can. Any artist will agree. And so will pretty much everyone else, if you encourage them to think about it long enough. The projected future we’re all being served right now really is nonsense. Of course computing and data will play a big role in the 21st century, just like bureaucratic, technical and information systems have in every other — but there are plenty of other things that will too.
The Netherlands is a place where structures are intuitive. Anyone who deeply appreciates design can feel the difference here, in a myriad of ways. It is a place where there is an acknowledgement of the need to trust and invest in engineers, for example, to shape and continually rethink the built environment. From that perspective, it is a very resilient place and the scale and quality of built infrastructure is hugely impressive. This is of course because if the country isn’t properly maintained, it will be under water. Yet the Netherlands’ geography of everyday life is very special and it creates a balance to counter the mathematical and bean-counter minds — while it is actually mostly man-made, much of it is at a human scale where people physically engage with their environment and indoor and outdoor spaces in a very natural way. Children play outdoors, and ride on their parents bikes without helmets. This is no accident — it has been conceived that way.
The role of bicycles and a landscape formed by canals are I think pivotal — they change the way people relate to a place, its air, its geography and each other. The contemporary Netherlands also has distinct approaches to culture, art and dissent. From this combination of perspectives, and a few others, the country is decades ahead of many others. There is also a sense of decentralisation, of common ownership, rights and participation, built on a central set of core values that maintain these conditions. And there is an acceptance that taxation and a mercantile mindset are necessary in order to finance this balance.
I can hear friends here arguing with me right away — and we can talk all day about its troubles — not least the availability and affordability of housing, and its gang and drug crime. As a place the Netherlands is just as cynical as anywhere else in 2018. But my aim here is to stress the role of its design principles — the qualities that shape the good stuff. Because in my experience what is often missing in any culture is a self-awareness of these qualities outside of a blithe nationalism, and an ability to express and channel them in ways that are confident yet relaxed. Doing so can help people feel more rooted and positive — it can inspire people from elsewhere, seeking answers to their own issues, and help deal with the myriad of local and global problems at play too. It takes us beyond divisive nationalism, into an appreciation of the roots of places and cultures, and how they contribute and weave together into the global dynamic. The only logical response to populist nationalism is a new dynamic beyond the globalisation that has taken us to where we are now. A new way to express and harness the principles that matter to people everywhere that can be converted into economic and social confidence — built on the qualities we have in common and the differences that make the difference.
This is very important at a time when so many of the principles I describe above are under threat on a global basis from amplified and angry forces, powered by poorly designed ‘global’ software (running I might add on well designed open source code), who cannot form a balanced and sustainable vision for a future society. They instead seek binary, divisive solutions to problems that in fact require new structures and a calm and respectful appreciation of complexity, texture and character. We have to handle rapid and transformational change with more care. We need to create safe spaces to build up trust to meet the unknown and spaces where we can apply long-term thinking.
Intention — build a new generation of management activity
A lot of people say I’m really creative. But actually, on my own it’s not so true — I get a bit anxious and a bit abstract. I need some anchor points, some things to mix together, some people to play and learn with, things and people to believe in. My creative energy flows through my ability to see and draw out talent and connections and steer dialogue and communication in ways that make ideas feel possible — in a way that speaks to people.
My intention moving forward is to improve the quality of communication and dialogue going on in the next phase of development of organisations in technology, science, engineering, education, media, finance and culture, building on the awareness I describe here. To contribute to how they apply themselves to sustainable design.
I think there is a need to develop a new generation of management activity that drives dialogue at a more cultural level — businesses need to let their staff express themselves and build a cultural dynamic of responsibility for their organisations, with strong principles related to the societal impact of products and services, and the incentive systems that underpin them.
This will cover the ‘circular economy’ impacts in terms of inputs and outputs of resources, the climate and the wider environment. It will cover the principles companies and governments uphold related to individual and community data and privacy. And it will cover the effects that poorly designed social software systems have on distorting people’s understanding, including the psychological damage caused by firms that prey on human attention and addiction patterns. These are the pivotal issues facing organisations in the 2020 to 2030 period, in my view.
Last year I developed a convening process with my collaborator Anna Emmelin and a small team in Sweden, called the Stockholm Act, and a related creative attribution network called the Stamp60. Our aim was to help people make sense of the UN’s global goals for Sustainable Development, the “SDGs”. It was backed by the Swedish International Development Agency and the city of Stockholm, and was intended to help Swedes make sense of their own goals toward 2030.
We realised that such a change requires a proper relationship between the disciplines of art, science, politics and business. Nothing else will do. Only through a strong understanding of core design principles and cultural qualities rooted in the things that matter most — including the local and its relationship to the global — can organisations create and manage the systems and approaches that will underpin our future. We need a sustainable, less angry, less divisive society. One that will be built on human intelligence, far more than anyone selling one built on artificial intelligence can yet conceive.
I hope to be a source of light, insight and energy in the times to come.
Please get in touch if you want to talk more. Myself and the team we assemble over time are here to help you bring out qualities and confidence in talent, in the teams and organisations you’re helping to lead.
Amsterdam, 29 October 2018.
30.10 Tried better to try and explain the aspect of imposed mindsets. Both my dad and Alvaro said I’m not autistic. So I decided to phrase that whole section better. It wasn’t quite the right word anyway.
31.10 Updated to reference information systems, too.