Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 3: Chemist and Conductor

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here and you can read the second part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the final part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about interdisciplinary thinking, new forms of leadership, and the next steps Paul will be taking as CEO.

What does it mean for Renew to get through this big transition, to negotiate the actual pivot point, especially when, as you said, your prior success was built on hackers and homeowners, and now you need to think about engaging tenants, landlords, a wider community?

It’s really hard! That’s a really live question for us right now, in this highly febrile moment of post-pandemic and looming recession. There are all these binary oppositions: the homeowner-hacker versus a different community in the future; a small, scrappy, financially precarious member organization versus some kind of super-slick consulting lobby group. Fast urgent change versus slow sustained change. And there are a multitude of other axes besides! For me it’s about a kind of dialectic: How does the value come from the tension between the two poles of each issue?

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Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 2: Bureaucratic Radicalism

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat. (You can read the first part here).

Renew evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, and today it advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. In the second part of our conversation, Paul and I spoke about systemic change, revolution and reform, and encouraging the choice to live sustainably.

Parliament House, Canberra, by Wikimedia user JJ Harrison – CC BY-SA 3.0

You’ve written on “bureaucratic radicalism“, which seems to speak to this issue of what happens when the green hackers of the 80s find themselves represented on federal committees and contributing to the building code.

Bureaucratic radicalism was my attempt to think through how you systematize good practice, and using existing power structures in order to do that. My first thought is to consider what we need to learn from First Nations peoples, from communities where environmental sustainability and good practice is part of what you learn from childhood.

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Interview with Paul Bowers, Part 1: What do you do when the revolution is over?

Late in November 2020, I caught up with Paul Bowers, CEO of the Australian sustainability organisation Renew, for a brief chat.

Renew, which evolved from the Alternative Technology Association of Australia, advocates for sustainable living in homes and communities across the nation. Paul, following a storied career in the Australian museums & galleries sector, joined Renew as CEO in March.

In our conversation, we talked about Paul’s journey across sectors, the nature of creativity, the challenges of a sustainability organisation’s evolving mission, and the opportunities which await.

Matt:

You joined Renew in March. What’s it like taking up a CEO role in the midst of a crisis like this?

Paul:

For me, the idea of being in charge of an organization while not being in lockdown feels strange! Because I knew nothing else, it became normal so quickly.  On the third or fourth day of my role, I had to shut the office and put in place rules and procedures for working from home.

We’ve been doing that for seven months, over two lockdowns. We’re only just starting to go back to the office now.

It’s much easier to apply the technical and functional requirements of management and leadership at a distance. What’s hard is putting the emotional aspect back in, especially when that’s a relationship of one to many. I’m very happy and open when it comes to one-to-one emotional relationships, but having to hold that relationship to an entire community – and on an unfamiliar medium too – was hard.

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“We’re Not Going To Go Back to Normal!” Insights from the #GovAfterShock Podcast

Alex Roberts, Deputy Director of the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation, has written an article about the interview series I worked on for the Observatory’s Government After Shock event in November 2020.

Over 33 episodes, we spoke with a range of professionals working within or alongside public sector institutions around the world, to get their perspective on the crises of 2020 and the futures which might await.

You can hear the complete Government After Shock podcast on Soundcloud, Spotify, or Google Podcasts – and read more of Alex’s overview at the Observatory for Public Sector Innovation’s website.

You can also hear Alex and I discussing the project on the eve of Government After Shock in the podcast’s final instalment below.

Was there ever really one normal? Discussion with Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald

Today’s blog features a discussion between two colleagues, Murray Cook and Brendan Fitzgerald.

Murray helps organisations and leaders in the use of scenario planning to explore the future and its impacts upon current strategy.  He works on understanding disruption, detecting early signals of the emerging future, and developing responses to the changing environment.  Alongside his consulting work, Murray also works in executive education, most recently at Saïd Business School, and has previously led large, complex transformation programmes.

Brendan, director of 641 DI, works to build capacity for the library, government, and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and New Zealand. Formerly Manager of Digital Inclusion at Infoxchange, his focus is digital & social inclusion, its ability to reduce social isolation and loneliness in community. Working with clients across Australia and New Zealand including Hitnet, Grow Hope Foundation, State Library of New South Wales, LIANZA, City of Newcastle Libraries, and the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, 641 DI delivers research and project evaluation services, digital inclusion planning and practice, as well as strategic consultation.

Last month, Murray & Brendan got together for a wide ranging discussion covering foresight, localism, their experiences in different sectors on opposite sides of the world, and even the nature of change itself.

Murray: 

Some topics we might discuss: How things are changing, how change itself has changed, and how we might use scenarios to attend to things we haven’t looked at before. There are never any facts in the future – but that’s more apparent than ever now, isn’t it?

Brendan:

I think it’s also important to look back; to consider those things in the past that you bring with you into the present – or leave behind. One of the things I know we’ve both been pondering: was there actually a “normal” in the first place?

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7 magic words to challenge the wisdom of systems: getting your head around Claudio Ciborra’s Labyrinths of Information

The late Claudio Ciborra (1951-2005) was an information systems researcher, organizational theorist, and Chair in Risk Management at the London School of Economics. Energetic, pioneering, unafraid to take a contrarian position, his work remains thought-provoking for readers today – even though he wrote on information, communication technologies, and organizational theory for a pre-smartphone age.

The Labyrinths of Information, published three years before Ciborra’s death, is a slim but densely written volume which sets out to “challenge the wisdom of systems”. It puts the complex and ambiguous realities of human existence and interaction at the heart of research into information systems and business processes.

Among other questions, Ciborra asks: Why are systems ambiguous? Why do they not give us more time to do things? Is there strategic value in tinkering even in high-tech settings? Are age-old practices valuable for dealing with new technologies? What is the role of moods and emotional concerns in influencing how we think and act?

As he reminds us, “the very definition of information systems as a set of technical […] and human resources devoted to the management of information in organizations spells out the composite nature of the field.” Humanity is always woven into the fabric of information systems.

Ciborra challenges our tendency to describe how information technology is used in terms of rationality and formal method. Academics, management consultants, journalists and other commentators tend to frame what is happening in business in terms of established concepts, neat little pigeonholes for the messy business of the world.

They tend to share basic assumptions: “there is a complex problem to be solved or a task to be executed; a corresponding strategy is deployed to achieve the goals and solve the problem; and a new structure is put in place to implement the solution.”

“To be sure,” Ciborra goes on to say, “decision makers would admit that day-to-day management is run in a more organic, ad-hoc fashion, and that textbooks and journal articles seldom seem to capture the intertwining of market events and managerial responses.”

Often rationalizations are brought in after the fact, and the “gap between what theoretical, ex post explanations and models can deliver and the actual garbage-can style of managerial choice is considered to be a fact of life by practitioners, and an unavoidable result of the limitations of any modelling approach[.]”

Yet Ciborra wants to move away from this approach, attending precisely to what he calls “the hidden or dark side of information systems […] focussing on the obvious, the workaday, and the very well known to any practitioner in the field.” He’s not excited by the latest management buzzwords or theories, and he’s disdainful of their “hospitality on PowerPoint slides by consultants and practitioners.”

Ciborra seeks improvisations, hacks, awkward real-life experiences, and the hard work involved in taking care of complex systems. He probes at the blank space papered over in presentations by phrases such as “You know no organizational model will fully capture the actual flow of events”, “The strategy was well laid out, but then, as you know, life is interesting because it is full of surprises”, and, simply: “You know what I mean.”

He builds his collection of essays around seven words, deliberately chosen for their unfamiliarity to English speakers – words that are meant to stop us in our tracks, shake us out of routine thinking, and apprehend the world of organizations and information systems anew.

No précis can fully do Ciborra’s rich, complex little book justice. But I can take you through a tour of those seven magic words to get you started. Magic for beginners, if you like.

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OECD Government After Shock Podcast – Final Episode

The OECD’s Alex Roberts, Deputy Head of the Observatory for Public Sector Innovation, joined me for the final episode of the Government After Shock podcast series.

Over thirty episodes this year, Alex and I have been speaking with public sector professionals, policymakers, stakeholders, and their allies about the crises of 2020 and the response of government bodies around the world.

In our last instalment, I took the opportunity to ask Alex what he’d learned from these conversations, and how the events of 2020 – and their associated learnings – have affected OPSI itself.

It’s impossible to pick out favourite episodes from the series – every guest offered unique and powerful insights – but I do want to highlight two conversations which were particularly provocative for me as a host and listener.

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An empathy for the future: Interview with Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard, Danish Design Centre

Today I’m joined by Sara Gry Striegler and Oskar Stokholm Østergaard of the Danish Design Centre to talk about their work developing design approaches which allow people, communities, companies, and organisations to better understand the futures which may await them.

Sara is Programme Director at the Centre, leading their Future Welfare work, and Oskar is Project Manager for a range of ventures including the new Living Futures scenario toolkit.

Matt: The Design Centre has had an evolving role and remit since it was founded in 1978. What’s it been like, coming to the point where the Centre is using design as a futures-oriented tool?

Oskar: We’re currently in the process of finalising our own new strategy, with a focus on being mission-oriented and finding ways to not only create growth through design practices, methods, and mindsets, but also help in solving systemic issues at a wider level. We are becoming more systems-oriented in that sense, and the futures work helps us to tackle those big issues, pulling back from a narrow focus on using design to solve particular issues in isolation, one at a time. 

Futures thinking flips that focus on its head; we try to take in the broader lines first, and then consider where we want to go – or where we want to avoid going! – in the future.

Image courtesy of Danish Design Centre
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The IMAJINE Project: Scenario Discussions on the Conversation & Ireland’s Moncrieff Show

Last week, I guested on Sean Moncrieff’s show, broadcast by Ireland’s Newstalk Radio, talking about the IMAJINE project’s scenarios for the future of European regional inequality.

What will the difference between the haves and have-nots of the EU look like a generation from now? IMAJINE’s scenarios present four different, plausible, provocative answers to that question.

You can hear our quarter-hour discussion in its own standalone episode of the Moncrieff podcast, at the Newstalk website, on Spotify, or Apple Podcasts.

NUI Galway’s Marie Mahon and I have also written a short article on the initial IMAJINE scenario sketches, which is up at The Conversation: you can check out “Climate-protected citadels, virtual worlds only for the privileged: is this the future of inequality?” there.

Learning from Acknowledgments of Country

“I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land that we’re on, and paying my respects to elders past, present, and emerging.”

That’s the form of words as I say them now; the current evolution. I learned to say them on the lands of the Turrbal and Jagera people in what is now Brisbane, and the lands of the Jarowair and Giabal people in what is now Toowoomba. “Custodians” has recently replaced “owners”, at the suggestion of Chris Lee; “emerging” replaced “future” a while back, although I’m not sure entirely why, I just noticed that some people I respected used that word rather than the other.

The saying, as a whole, is an Acknowledgement of Country; a form of recognition and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their relationship to the land which is often spoken at the beginning of a gathering in Australia. These days, I say it when hosting online meetings and workshops on Zoom or other platforms. Although I’m currently in London, and might be speaking with people anywhere in the world, I usually choose the Australian form of words if I’m working in a multinational space, because Australia was where I first became aware of the need to acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ custodianship of the land, and of a formalised protocol which could guide us in doing so.

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