Connecting dots
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Connecting dots

Connecting business, technology and peace

A conversation with Margarita Quihuis

For all the mildly negative reviews that pop up regarding Clubhouse, I can point to very positive shared experiences in the sustainability space where I’ve met some outstanding individuals. One of those is Margarita Quihuis, whose involvement with PeaceX Ventures and the Peace Innovation Lab made her a must-interview for this series.

A behavior designer, social entrepreneur and mentor capitalist, Margarita Quihuis’s career has focused on innovation, technology incubation, access to capital and entrepreneurship. Her accomplishments include being the first director of Astia, the first tech incubator for women where her portfolio companies raised $67 million in venture funding, venture capitalist, Reuters Fellow at Stanford, and Director of RI Labs for Ricoh Innovations.

Margarita and I spoke about the methodology she is developing to connect business, technology and peace.

Frederic Guarino: Your Stanford-based Peace Innovation Lab & Institute works to connect business, technology, and peace, how did you and your colleagues come to this conclusion ?

Margarita Quihuis: My co-founder Mark Nelson and I both come out of business.

My background is in venture capital, entrepreneurship and social impact startups. Mark was an investment banker who did relief work in Ethiopia during the famine back in the 80s, where he lost his religion.

He saw first hand the distortion of humanitarian aid: philanthropic money comes into an area to provide aid and that money is re-appropriated by the government to wage civil war on its people. The famine in Ethiopia was not a natural disaster, it was man made.

Foreign aid money was used to oppress people, and you realize you’re actually a minor actor unintentionally supporting this larger harm.

That was Mark’s first insight: the downside, the dark side of humanitarian aid.

When he was an investment banker he saw the disproportion of capital allocation where CSR and philanthropic efforts are a rounding error to correct the problem that’s being created in the first place. We found that there’s no leverage in these small amounts of money, because you’re working downstream from the problem and what you really need to do is go upstream.

To make change through capital, you need to know where the largest sources of capital are, who controls those sources, and how the capital is being used.

Instead of treating the consequences of harm, a systems approach would involve engaging these corporations so that harm can be reduced or eliminated at the point of design. That’s where the biggest leverage is.

Stanford is an engine of entrepreneurship and innovation. The culture is like no other. The university has a track record of discovering new markets, disrupting old markets, and creating new economies.

The Peace Innovation Lab was incubated out of BJ Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab within the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute where our research interest examines how mediating technologies are disrupting and shaping human behavior at scale.

Examples of mediating technologies are technologies that enhance or regulate a person’s behavior with one self or with another person. Examples of mediating technologies include wearable devices like a fitness tracker, smartphones, and social media.

We’ve all personally experienced the use of mediating technologies in our daily lives. Often it is benevolent as these tools help us to reach personal goals and aspirations. We’ve also observed bad actors can leverage social technologies to create large-scale harm like fake news, cyberbullying and polarization.

Technology thoughtlessly designed can trigger behavior that we did not imagine.

We know that technology can shape behavior at scale and there’s certainly benefit, but there’s also been a lot of unintended consequences.

The raw components for conflict, the fact that we are different from each other and we don’t agree, can be transformed into the raw material for innovation.

The topic of peace has traditionally been the domain of politicians and diplomats, not the domain of innovators and engineers. In the mid 2000s we were asked by BJ Fogg to investigate how mediating technologies might enhance peace in the world. The first thing we did was to redefine peace so it was amenable to engineering. Peace needed to be something that could be observable, repeatable and measurable — a series of behaviors.

More precisely, we think of peace as a continuum of a specific set of pro-social behaviors: awareness, attention, communication, coordination, cooperation and collaboration. If you’re really good at collaboration, you can get to innovation.

The most powerful and effective innovation, according to the Center for Design Research at Stanford and others, indicates that innovation comes from the most diverse teams.

The more diverse the team, the better the ideas you’ll get, since you’ll have a divergence of thinking, which de-risks your project. You’ll get more different ideas, and it’s the collision of those ideas that sparks creativity.

If you have a monoculture, the ideas are very boring and if you come to consensus quickly you don’t have that communication friction that can spur you to pursue more ideas.

When it comes to organizational behavior, the trick is to determine how much difference can be tolerated and still facilitate effective communication and collaboration. That’s a skill you can develop.

Our differences and our disagreements are the sources of conflict. Those differences can be transformed into the sources of innovation.

When we’re looking at peace, we’re looking at how you turn the differences into the raw material for innovation and creativity and how we can design technology to facilitate that collaboration and coordination. We want to look for ways to reduce friction, so that we can generate great ideas and learn how to work together.

Most of the existential problems that we face will rely on people from different fields and walks of life coming together to find solutions. Coordination and cooperation across difference boundaries are crucial for mitigating climate change.

You need to provide the financial and legal incentives to reduce friction, so that you can work together

You certainly see this in other domains. I’m fascinated by music as there’s so much innovation and repurposing of IP. Rap, with its sampling of other artists’ work, is a good example. You take an old base hook from some 70s song, you pull a track from David Bowie, you pull a lyric from Elton John and add overlay some new rap and you’re going to create something new out of it.

It’s because the music is so different from one another that it is incredibly clever and creative when combined. It is seemingly unintuitive to put together these two very different music genres, yet when you do, something new happens.

There was conflict in the music industry when this started as it raised fights around IP and royalties. There was a technology innovation to allow for this explosion in remixing, but there was also a legal innovation: a royalty schedule was created, and the originator was acknowledged as a co-writer of the derivative song. These twin innovations made it easier and created the incentives for musicians that were very different from each other, to create value with each other.

Musicians with older catalogues whose music had not been listened to for a long time found that unexpected collaborations could produce new streams of income. It’s not just the intention that counts when you want to do something together, you need to have the underlying legal and financial instruments to make it happen.

The financial and legal incentives reduce friction so that you can work together and create financial value for each other.

Frederic Guarino: So you’ve come to my second question: your Peace X Ventures where you want to build SG centric companies that are day one, sustainable, inclusive, diverse and ethical.

What are, in addition to what we just talked about, the core elements of the methodology because you’re no longer retooling, you’re actually building.

Margarita Quihuis: We call it Peace X Inside and it’s a multilayered framework with business culture at its core. We start with designing the culture of the company, so that it embodies diversity, inclusion. ethical business practices and business models.

The formation of the founding team, early employees and board members is key. It is very difficult to create a diverse and inclusive organization after the fact. Like hires like. When I was at Astia, I tracked my incubated companies’ founder and employee diversity and inclusiveness. Those companies that started out diverse, continued to be diverse.

Board governance and board diversity is often overlooked at inception as well.

Ideally, the board and the core team should represent the world you want to serve.

The next step is mindfully designing the everyday communications and collaboration behaviors of the organization. What mediating technologies augment people’s ability to truly hear each other? What technologies add friction and create silos in the organization?

Tiny behavioral experiments around meeting design, user manuals, reverse engineering desired outcomes all contribute to creating a culture where people can thrive. We apply an experimental mindset and are continually trying out new methods to engage people where they are.

This is also around personal development and it is human interaction design in the true sense, designing human interactions.

You can have rituals in terms of how you can communicate in Slack, rituals in terms of how you get consensus. Working with my students over the last 18 months, especially when Black Lives Matter hit, everyone asked for a more diverse work culture, I said to them: “fantastic let’s design it: what do you want it to be, what does it look like to you, starting on Monday, what are we doing differently?”

When I asked for input from people on Zoom, no one spoke up. They didn’t seem to have an idea of what new behaviors we should adopt, and despite their desire to contribute more, they were reluctant to speak up.

It’s not enough to aspire to have a more inclusive and engaged work culture. It is also about self development and human interaction design in the truest sense, designing human interactions between individuals.

So we started over. We started by explicitly outlining who we are through a user manual. All of our employees write their own user manual, explaining their personality profile, preferred communication methods, their pet peeves, what motivates them at work. Our adoption of a user manual negated the tacit assumption that everyone thought and operated in the same way. It moved us away from inventing stories in our head of why people behaved the way they did to them telling us what makes them tick. A user manual may seem really simple, but the process of drafting one makes you think about how you want to interact with people and what will work for you is harder than you think. This is a chance to establish your boundaries and create a guide for other people to follow.

Based on the user manuals, we changed the way we interacted with our team members. Some were introverts and preferred to think carefully about their reply before being called on in a meeting. Others were very comfortable speaking up. Most preferred text. Few liked phone calls.

As we move beyond culture, we start examining our innovation processes to include opportunities to ask probing questions around sustainability, inclusion, diversity and ethics. We incorporate “how might we…? Type questions in the ideation and brainstorming process. How might we reduce the carbon footprint? How might we make this technology more inclusive? How might we gather data to support the impact we intend to have? Is there an opportunity to address a UN Sustainable Development Goal?

Data collection is a part of all new technologies. We ask questions on the ethics of data collection and surveillance. We want to think twice about collecting more data than necessary to deliver the service. Mira Lane at Microsoft has developed some powerful harms modeling frameworks that they use to examine a comprehensive list of potential harms such as emotional, psychological, economic, reputational damage through the misuse of data or the technology. We want our students to consider these issues early on and innovate by subtraction, if necessary to remove or weaken certain features if the potential damage outweighs the benefit. This type of risk management thinking is unusual in software product development.

At the same time, we want to collect enough data to determine that the service works as intended, discover novel new uses of the technology and moderate any emerging negative side effects of the technology. This responsible design approach costs upfront but can avoid expensive downstream scenarios.

As our venture studio evolves, we will have a common DNA, metrics, and measurement that all of our companies and products will share, which will incorporate environmental, social, and governance principles into our operations and products. In parallel, we will have a consulting component to share practices that can be adopted by any organization to become ESG compliant.

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