How to use the Community Power Compass

The recap

You’ve likely read the first post, introducing the context for this tool, the Community Power Compass, and how it pulls three key freedoms and controls from The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber & David Wengrow. The post then, is the practical session; how might you use each of these segments to consider the sort of community you’re looking at, joining, leaving or forming.

Community Power Compass v1.0, June 2022

1. Freedom to Disobey

When you’re part of a community, how easy is it for you to dissent, disagree, argue a case in a way in which it is properly heard? And afterwards, what you feel is the right thing to do anyway?

Graeber & Wengrow refer to this as ‘the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands‘, where no central authority has the power to make people comply with their will. Instead, you have to try and persuade people.

“This is different from the abstract or legal concept of freedom of speech: you may well be able to talk as much as you like, but if nobody’s listening then it’s not really a social freedom”

David Wengrow,
Real Review, Spring 2022

The emphasis is on examining how rich, diverse debate can be a very valuable part of the decision-making process for societies. If you raise a different perspective from the common one presented, you would hope not to be dismissed out of hand, ignored or ostracised. Instead, your perspective adds to a collective understanding.

The conversation to understand different views makes for a more powerful community. The conversation is more dialogic than dialectic – something I touched on in The Dialogic Brand work back in 2013 or so, examining where brands could evolve from being centralised and one-dimensional into being a decentralised total of many ideas.

It makes me intrigued by the rhetoric in the communities around Web3 and Crypto. If an arbitrary command is from a distributed source of power, can you still ignore it? For instance, HODL has evolved to being a communal rallying call for everyone with a given investment in a cryptocurrency (originally Bitcoin) to not sell. No matter what. Not easy today (Wednesday 15th June, as I write), and not even possible for all. And yet, I think, fairly easy to disobey… who will ever know?

The Freedom to Disobey becomes important (and complex) in realms where there are different, new ways of encoding agreement. If you don’t have that freedom, you can be increasingly part of something you’re no longer comfortable with.

Starter Questions: When I speak, am I being heard? How many different voices and viewpoints are properly recognised? What formal or informal processes are there around conversations? Where do we discuss and debate? How do we decide? How do we change our minds?


2. Freedom of Movement

Do you remember the first time you left Facebook? I actually managed to leave Facebook the month after starting Smithery, but I’ve been particularly unsuccessful in leaving other services (notably Twitter). But the lock-in of the Web 2.0 business model has always been plain to see, and keenly felt for all.

In exchange for the free service, we’ll take your data, activity, connections and graph, and make money that way. It’s meant that Web 2.0 companies have spent a lot of their time, money and energy on keeping people locked in to their services, buying others that threaten them, and generally closing down connectivity between services. It may have been your data once upon a time, but it’s locked up in a system you can’t see.

The next generation of social networks, then, are seemingly driven in part by a desire to undo this Faustian pact. This is manifesting in different ways, of course. Early examples in this Bloomberg article from last month talk of building new social networks that are decentralised and run by their members.

When you dig into it, the detail around the how is scant (for the moment). But the intention is there; imagine your social profile was yours, to move between sites and services, encounters and interactions, as you wished.

As with all Web3 things, it’s really good to ask ‘but why does that need to be on a blockchain‘ at all times. It raises interesting (and challenging) questions across social, moral and technological boundaries. Emerging initiatives like Jack Dorsey’s Web5 (more here & here) are asking those questions in different ways, and protecting more of the freedoms that Graeber & Wengrow might recognise (e.g. that initiative is open-source).

The direction feels in keeping with the idea of the Freedom to Move. Not just to ability to leave your home and surroundings, but to be able to join another just as easily. It allows people and communities to grow and evolve over time, not be trapped in a specific location because of the needs of the powerful at the centre.

Starter Questions: What constitutes my presence here? How do I sign up? What do I sign away? What do I bring or create? How much is already mine? Of that stuff, what can I leave with? Where can I go afterwards? Does this space work like other spaces?


3. Freedom to Reorganise

The third of the freedoms is really interesting; “the freedom to imagine, then practically enact, different forms of social existence” as Wengrow referred to it in a recent interview in the Real Review.

It’s also the case that the third freedom is dependent somewhat on the first two; you should have the ability to leave (en masse as an ultimate threat, of course) if you’re prevented from being able to firstly reimagine the community you’re in, and then enact that new idea to change the balance of power.

In The Dawn of Everything, the freedom to reorganise social relations covered in a wide variety of examples, from rotating leaderships to seasonal power shifts and so on. The context of the environments play a large part in how people best decide to organise themselves in certain circumstances. the ability to change how the systems works, together, allows that to happen.

There’s a fair case that this is what a good number of people in the Web3 space would say they are trying to do; reimagine the way the internet works, and ‘corrects the mistakes’ of previous generations.

The stated goals behind a lot of projects are to reimagine and enact different ways of… well everything from land ownership to brewing.

It seems a lot of DAOs (“member-owned communities without centralized leadership”) start off with a broad, expansive purpose, open debate and exploration of ideas in an online space (e.g. a Discord server). But then the end goal is to get to a state where there is action enacted by code, determined by voting using governance tokens, shares or other mechanic. (There’s a good HBR piece on some of the ins and outs of what DAOs can and can’t do).

I tend to struggle with this concept a bit. There’s a trade-off between to ability to discuss and debate together, and then enshrining decisions in code so that the entity keeps doing that thing unless enough people vote for it to stop.

Sure, it’s efficient, and doesn’t require as much organisation as traditional communities. But what happens if enough people don’t turn up to vote? Or a small cadre of people make sure they vote in an organised fashion? Or the DAO converts all the matter in the universe into paperclips when left to its own devices?

Starter Questions: Who decided how this works? Were they always involved? Are their intentions consistent? How’s it going so far?Are we getting what we signed up for? What would make it better? Can we redesign and remake it? What happens if we do?


4. Control by Influence

In Graeber & Wengrow’s work, they define this as “control through individual charisma“, and describe it as usually the most ephemeral of social controls. After the sovereignty of a state is set up (control through violence), and the bureaucracy (control through information) means it is embedded in the everyday existence of all citizens, to door is open for this personal charisma; in short, the democratic process which asks ‘who should we trust with this apparatus?’.

Here though, I’m making a direct link from that ‘personal charisma’ to a more prevalent word used in today’s online communities; Influence. Of course, being ‘an influencer’ was riding high for a while as a very desirable career path for kids, but more recent stories of influencer burnout may temper that a little. More broadly though, I wonder if there are different types of influence we can look at here.

Firstly, influence through expertise; the people creating a new way of doing things (obvious example: Vitalik Buterin), who are arguably afford sovereign status in the worlds they inhabit; they are allowed to break the rules they set, as they transform the system around them striving for new goals. I think there are likely to be identifiable pioneers in all emergent communities like this: who do these ideas start with? Then there’s influence through money; those who’re accelerating new communities through funding in exchange for equity, tokens, and so on. Hello there, VC land. Then (finally for now) there’s influence through celebrity….

If you listened to Matt Damon, you’d have lost 63%

What better way to bring the masses flocking than bringing in the movie, sports and music stars to front your idea?

This celebrity angle in particular raises a good set of questions that I think can be used for the whole ‘control of influence’ area. It is just as legitimate to ask ‘what does this person know?’ of Michael Owen as it is a VC investor or a crypto-engineer.

Starter Questions: Who is using their influence here? How much do they know? What interests do they have? What’s their track record? Are they an active part of this community? What’s their vision for this community? How realistic is it?


5. Control of Information

The Dawn of Everything has a wide range of examples of civilisations where, at some point or another, the control of sophisticated ways of tabulating and storing information becomes a major force in their development. They run from high priests and their arcane, complex rituals which are vital to this year’s crop, through the scribes and artists encoding information for future records, to the tax-collectors seeking the tribute owed from surrounding lords. Control through bureaucratic means is very much conditional about who knows what, when, and where.

We know something about this you don’t. “What do you mean, you don’t know ‘Go Johnny Go Go Go Go’..?

Perhaps the aforementioned Discord server culture surrounding Web3 is a great modern example of what we might consider control through information. If you want to learn more, you must join the server in the first place; read threads and follow previous discussions, start to get a feel for the main folk involved. Information can be controlled through access to spaces, channels, DMs, and so on.

Then you need to acclimatise to certain forms and phrases in the language which (similar to academic work) are used to display knowledge in a space, rather than to aid simplicity for the receiver. Information can be controlled through obfuscation, though, and you need to understand what you don’t understand, and why that might be.

And information is controlled by being part of the right crowd. If you to get a detailed sense of how (VCs in particular) are advancing their interests through insider knowledge, I’d recommend reading The Pivot to Web3 Is Going to Get People Hurt in Vice recently.

But simply speaking, if you know an event (e.g. a particular NFT drop) is happening before everyone else, you’re in a pretty good place.

Unless, of course, you do it in a way that gets you an insider trading charge for your trouble.

(NB Given the nature of blockchains, which mean any financial trades are visible forever, and that it appears nearly impossible to delete all your past messages and presence from a Discord server, it might mean there’s a *lot* of potential evidence lying around for prosecutors to pick through some point in the future…)

At heart of this control, you have to recognise that information can serve as the fuel for the belonging people feel when part of a community. By being a part of the collective, and accessing that information, you feel your participation is valuable to you, and valued by others.

But it has to be true for the whole community if it is real, and so the follow questions might help you decide that.

Starter Questions: Are we all party to the same information? Who knows what, and when? Is there an advantage in getting information early? Is there a cost for people being late to the party? Can we reduce any asymmetries of information?


6. Control of System

Finally, I’ve taken Graeber & Wengrow’s Domination through Control of Violence, which refers most of all sovereignty, the power to set the laws of the land (and in certain cases to be above them), and directed it into specific sense of who controls the system.

The two share, at their heart, some notion of property; what here is mine? What are my claims to access and control of what is mine, within a given territory, and what are my legal rights to keep others away from it? And if we all agree on this common understanding, who polices legal understanding for the whole community that this is mine, and I can do whatever is necessary to get you off it?

Some of this manifests itself in strange ways. There’s a strange strain of libertarianism underpinning a lot of the space, it would seem, where the same communities who’re keen to make a clean break from centralised state control when it comes to money, would quote like the help of the law in getting back their stolen NFTs.

But ignoring that ‘state within state’ angle for now, just understanding more about the ‘rules’ as set out and policed within a community becomes importantly whenever you’re joining one.

I touched before on the nature of DAOs, and that central idea of writing into code the way the organisation will work for all its members. The phrase ‘code is law‘ is attributed to Lawrence Lessig’s late-nineties work, and this Forbes piece from John Quinn draws out some key lessons for today. The main thrust for me is this:

“…other than in the simplest of contracts, code cannot necessarily account for every eventuality. Drawdowns on letters of credit, for example, which are supposed to be automatic on presentation, are occasionally enjoined for nonperformance, fraud or on other grounds. It is impossible to anticipate, let alone reduce to code, all scenarios that might unfold. Contracts would have to be hundreds or thousands of pages long to address the nuances of every possible scenario.”John Quinn, Forbes

Using code to govern organisations internally seems wrought with similar problems; even in the simplest communities, with the most straightforward of aims, how would you enshrine a bit of code that ‘addresses every possible scenario‘?

It feels like, as people wrestle with this very tricky problem, online communities reply on good ol’ fashioned carbon-based bipedal regulators to manage the system. And so having sets of questions to ask about who holds these powers, and what they might use them for, becomes more vital.

An example from this week; crypto-lender Celsius froze withdrawals and transfers in order to “stabilise liquidity“. There’s a metaphorical big red switch they can throw to shut people out of their accounts. And yet… in the statement below, they claim they’re doing this in the interests of ‘their community’.

“I’m sorry, we’ve decided to stop your access to your things, but for your own good”

Now yes, this is more like a bank run than it is anything else, despite the use of the C word (and perhaps ‘investors’ or ‘customers’ is what they really mean). But it gives us a sense of what to look for; who has their hands on the metaphorical big red buttons, and what does it allow them to do?

Starter Questions: Who has admin rights? What do those rights enable them to do? What is the code of conduct? Who wrote it? When was it last updated? What happens if people break it? Who would people appeal to? What legal rights do I have?


What’s next then?

Well, this project started as a scrappy blog post over a week ago, but it’s much better for it. I’m going to test the tool when it comes to looking at various types of community over the summer, and perhaps think of three additional lenses to put over the top, if I was an individual or an organisation:

At what point is this not a community I’d want to be part of?

At what point is this not a community I’d want to create?

At what point is this not really a community at all?

I hope others out there might find some use for it too. If you use it for anything, let me know how you get on, either discreetly or publicly.

Introducing the Community Power Compass

The prologue

This started as a quick blog post a week ago, simply collecting together some field notes and some emergent ideas on how to cast a critical view across the Web3 space. Through the process of writing it up, it has has evolved into a potentially useful thing which I’ve called the Community Power Compass for now.

It’s a tool for thinking about particular communities by considering different power dynamics, informed by Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity which I’ve been reading lately.

Rather than just deciding that all communities of a type are the same, maybe tools like this can give people a better nuanced approach when thinking about whether to join new communities, leave ones they are part of, or just observe them from the outside.

What makes communities very different underneath, even if they appear very similar on the surface? And how might having a more nuanced way of describing these differences help people and organisations join, find or create better communities?

This first post below is the context; what’s the background I’ve been working through.

The second post, here, is the practical one – if you’ve read the below and just want to get straight to that again.


May you live in interesting times

This started as an exploration I first mentioned on Twitter a while back. I was thinking about different ways of expressing what this ‘next generation’ of the web might be by looking at what people imply they want, not just what a certain kind of technology can provide. MTPW > MPTW, etc etc.

To set out my current position; I am yet to be convinced that the monotonous ‘put X on a blockchain‘ refrain of Web3™ is a good idea, but then neither am I convinced that this simplification captures the detail of what every community in the space is proposing.

There are of course plenty of sources you can read or watch on the the dangers and delusions of the space. You could easily spend your days becoming a full-time prophet of doom, and their are more and more folk out there. Indeed, part of the (subsequently useful) delay in publishing this blog post has been the endless source of new articles and examples which appear on a delay basis. Oh, and the latest cryptocurrency crash.

Disclosure time: I have never owned any cryptocurrency, bought tokens to be part of a DAO, or anything similar. Yet I’ve been fascinated by it all for a long time, since watching Dave Birch’s talk at Playful back in 2014.

The TV business is uglier than most things.  It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason

Hunter S. Thompson, San Francisco Examiner, 1985

Why? Firstly, the Web3 space seems inexorably, willingly, deliberately linked with blockchains and cryptocurrencies. It is the ‘financialisation of everything‘, and suddenly all relationships are seen through an economic lens.

Given that’s what I studied back at university – and I would argue continues to furnish me with tools and methods for thinking with – the draw of this space is compelling.

Often though, the stories of Web3 always seems to me be the economic equivalent of someone explaining that gravity works sideways rather than downwards.

That may be because it’s so fundamentally revolutionary that it changes the way everyone thinks about everything for ever. But equally, it may be because everything is not what it seems at all, and what my gut is telling me on a lot of occasions is right. Either which way, I enjoy the challenge of having to think differently about it.

Secondly, it increasingly appears that there are a lot of people are getting caught up in the excitement who can’t afford to be; things I’ve heard anecdotally, being in forums where it’s brought up, reading coverage online, and so on.

The space feels highly predatory as a result, reminiscent of the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote on the TV business. I don’t enjoy watching bad actors take good people for a ride, or complacent actors leading others up the garden path. I clearly do like mixing metaphors, however.

As always though, the people are the interesting bit. There’s lots to learn here about how people feel, what they think, and what they do, whether as individuals or as part of communities.


Generations of the Web

‘Community’ is (once again) the concept du jour for thinking about generations of the web. I wrote a thesis on communities way back when, of course, when the promise of building open, accessible, interoperable communities online still seemed a genuine possibility. Layer the communities onto the economic aspects, and you therefore have catnip for me.

Why are people willing to (once again) entertain a community-based generation of the web? When they look at the web works today, what is letting them down? Where do they see the potential of fixing it this time around? What will stop the same thing happening again? What are they prepared to do about it?

(NB I am assuming that there are more interesting things beyond ‘get-rich-quick‘ or ‘we’re all going to make it‘ going on, because I do try to be optimistic about people generally.)

In reading and researching, it clearly appears there are things that people want which are deeper than financial gain. Nods to the distribution of power, notions of ownership, the dynamics of healthy online communities, and so on.

Much of it is then wrapped up in the philosophy of ‘decentralisation‘, as a rejecting of the centralisation of Web 2.0. “Decentralise, and all will be well.

I sketched out the below set of quadrants (going back to the Cross-Quadrant Working Group work for inspiration), thinking about centralisation of generations of the web. What do generations of the web present as to the world, and what are they actually?

For many, ‘Web 1’ would have felt centralised, accessed through The Information Superhighway for example (note the definitive article), via whoever your first internet service provider was. Yet in reality, it was decentralised in the delivery, these services simply curating links to pages and resources built and curated by a wide variety of different people and organisations.

Then ‘Web 2.0’ appears, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, BeBo, and all the other also-rans. They offer broader access for people to create and share things on the web, but at the cost of… well personal data just for starters (“You Are The Product” etc). From a Read only web, to a Read/Write web… as long as you used the in-house facilities, as it were.

As well as presenting as a centralised world, it really is centralised, and all the power lies at the centre. You can understand why people want to rebel.


Web3 or Web Free?

Now, there’s a notion inside Web3 that declares instead of just Read/Write, this version of the web should be Read/Write/Own. All of your contributions to any platform should be (in some way) owned by you, and even offer you a return (e.g. rewards, a share of revenue, etc). And you can take all of your valuable assets with you from place-to-place, and therefore power is redistributed amongst a broader community of use.

To me though (and I’ll explain more below), it feels like this becomes a way to present an environment as being decentralised, whilst actually what it is doing is making the centralisation more opaque.

Originally I started thinking of this quadrant as The Whaling Grounds, where actors who have a disproportionate interest in a particular thing can make sweeping decisions under the surface of a notionally decentralised world.

Currently, I wonder tying the Web3 world to blockchain and crypto is what fundamentally centralises it, rather than decentralises it. Maybe there’s also a system in the middle, it’s just a matter of trying to find one in which the Whales can’t hide their actions.

Meanwhile, other things which appear more like decentralisation are appearing here and there. For example, there’s the Fediverse, “an ensemble of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging, blogging, or websites) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other.” You run your own version of a platform, host a server, yet still have it connect to others which are operating off the same open principles. You could almost argue it’s an alternative reality Web 2.0 – what we could have had – and there’s some efforts to get there from here.

There are also other aspects of merging trends – no-code platforms and services might be a good example – where there’s more of a direction towards Read/Write/Publish than Read/Write/Own. How do you give people ownership of their own platforms rather than their own content? And make sure that these platforms work together?

From this perspective, you can see how decentralisation has to come hand-in-hand with interoperability. This is the hardest thing to achieve for Web3, as it fights against the financial imperatives of things like VC money fuelling current growth.

As a result, I started wondering about how you might tell whether a community which presents itself as decentralised is actually decentralised. And then, as you do, started a book on ancient civilisations, and some things started falling into place.


The Dawn of… Something

David Graeber & David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is over five hundred pages of anthropology meets archaeology. It explores how a lot of experts over the years have taken for granted that there can only be one natural progression for humans in terms of society, governance and so on. Yet the evidence, as you might expect, points to there being many different systems and social relations tried over time across the world.

Whilst the book is dense and full of lengthy examples, it also contains some basic principles which are really useful to apply in other places you might be thinking about groups of people. Like, for instance, online communities.

First of all, there are the Freedoms which people value, and help them create robust societies; the Freedom to Move Away, the Freedom to Disobey, and the Freedom to Reimagine Society.

Then there are the three elementary forms of Domination which those in positions of power will call on to keep that power; Domination through Control of Violence, Domination through Control of Information, and Domination through Personal Charisma.

These are about two sides of power; freedom and control. Given the underlying philosophies of decentralisation and interoperability within the Web3 space, they feel useful ways to understand some of the complex human dynamics at play.

As an initial experiment, I wrote out a brief passage under each broad area, and started playing with titles a bit to make them more relevant to my uses. Then I started to hone a set of questions under each title to use as an ongoing interrogation device when orientating around new communities, initiatives and more. That’s all below.

Then, having mulled it over a bit more, I turned it into a fleshed out tool, thinking about how those freedoms and controls might play off against each other. It’s not perfect yet, but seems potentially useful.

In Part 2 here, I’ll dig into each segment, and describe how I hope to use it.

Community Power Compass v1.0, June 2022

Assemblage Space for Service Blueprints

Yesterday I gave a talk on how some of the futures thinking from TENETS, specifically the Assemblage Space tool, might help teams move from current state to future state blueprints for Service Design. It was the talk I’d written yesterday’s Visual Fields post for.

It was hosted by the fantastic SDN Dallas Team (thanks guys), and the good news is that they recorded the whole shebang, including the Q&A at the end.

So grab a flask of coffee and dive in.

In addition, I’ve made the Miro board I used public access, so you can follow along there whilst listening to augment the experience. I’d be interested to hear from you if you do that, just to understand if it helps in communicating the ideas.

Finally, some folks asked about the FUTREP and How To Future cards at the end (and the forthcoming dice) – as always, the physical thinking tools side of things are over at artefactshop.com

Visual Fields

I’m giving an online talk shortly. In an hour and half from now, to be precise.

As always, as I get closer to a talk the more ideas come to light, as the particles of information collide with each other, shedding new light on things. Sometimes, when giving talks to a room of folk, you might manage to get something in, a new slide, or a just a quick aside. You don’t want to break the linear narrative.

In these interesting times however, I’ve been experimenting with using a Miro board instead of a slide deck, and exploring ideas and thinking as more of a wander with wonders; offering some paths to turn down, some places to stop and look at, or some directions that male it clear that this path is not for today.

A wander, with some wonders.

It means that I’ve managed to get one of those wonders in talk, but I’ve taken to here to quickly write about it first to see what I actually I think about it.

It’s about the similarities and differences between the disciplines of innovation, design and futures.

(The talk itself is on the subject of futures, to a service design network audience, so finding connections between these areas seemed important)

It’s a topic I’ve been wondering about for a while, perhaps more from a craft perspective than any other. Why do these disciplines often feel so blurry at the edges, and fall into each other (for better or worse)?

There’s definitely something about the tools and materials, and the way practitioners collect, connect and create from external information in order to achieve their goals.

The central idea which is reflected through the TENETS project I’ve been working on (Information is light, not liquid) helps support this.

Think of individual pieces of information as pixels or particles which come together to form an image, but can be reordered into a large number of alternatives views too. The information you collect, the way you recombine and order, and finally the way you show the results, is something that exists in different ways in innovation, design and futures work.

I was trying to find a suitable label, and perhaps metaphor, for those three disciplines. I’ve settled on Visual Fields.

Innovation, Design, Futures: Visual Fields

That first image, with the overlapping areas, was by Harry Moss Traquair in 1938. It shows you different spatial arrays which can be seen by the eye when it is fixed in one position. What you can see clearly in front of you, and what’s still ‘visible’ but perhaps unknown as it sits to the edge. It feels fitting to think of the messy overlaps between three disciplines.

Then I was talking this through with Scott Smith earlier, and he mentioned spiders eyes. So I went looking online again, and found this…

Spiders usually have eight eyes: two very large front eyes to get a clear, colour image and judge distance, and extra side eyes to detect when something is moving.”

Again, a nice juxtaposition for different disciplines; sometimes you’re very focussed on the thing in front of you, sometimes you want to get a sense of what’s moving in the wider environment around you.

Finally, the camera array on a modern smartphone comes with a range of different lens and sensors; here represented by Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro, with it’s telephoto, wide, ultra wide lenses and LIDAR scanner.

Rather than having one sensor to force all reality through, a sensing array of different disciplines should act as a complementary set of capabilities.

These three Visual Fields (and there are more, perhaps) represent ways of seeing the world, collecting the information from it, processing it, and creating the stimulus for certain actions.

What needs further thought in this encapsulation is what happens when you try and cross the inputs of one discipline into the outputs of another.

That’s for another day though, when I’m not half and hour away from giving a talk. Wish me luck.

Introduction to Assemblage Space

I wanted to expand on a new idea I’ve been working on, Assemblage Space. I was invited by Steve Simmance to give a short talk as part of a Future of Work Forum he was setting up for some clients. They were looking to take part in a conversation with other likeminded leaders about the Future of Work given all that’s been happening in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a short, punchy, useful intervention it seemed, so I’ve recorded an audio track for it, and uploaded it below.

A short talk about futures from Smithery on Vimeo.

Most pertinently for me, the talk was delivered on the last Friday of July, which is typically when the Innovation and Future Thinking course I now lead at IED in Barcelona finishes. And the last day is presentation day, when the students in their groups come back and show what they’ve been working on – presentations, prototypes, experiences and the like – which point to a type of future they foresee in Barcelona.

The course was originally set up by Scott Smith of Changeist, of course – he led it, I came to teach on it for a couple of days, then we swapped over four years ago. We’re both missing spending time in Barcelona this year, with the students, our friends who come in to teach on the course (Christina Bifano, Natalie Kane, and Elisabet Roselló all joined us last year), and the brilliant staff at IED.

Somewhat tellingly, Scott and I seem to be trying to replicate some of the experience by making Spanish foods through this summer too, and sharing pictures as we go, as if it’s some niche, alternative universe Instagram…

Short PSA: If you want one book to read this Autumn, it’s Scott’s How To Future, which expands on everything which went into setting up the course in the first place and a whole lot more.

Anyway, what I’ve been doing in the absence of the course is reimagining some of the tools, methods and approaches we’ve used over the last five years.

With a title as broad as ‘Innovation and Future Thinking‘, the course covers a fair bit of ground, and the balance each day across the two weeks is to give students something to learn and take away, but also practice in applying it a practical sense. Each year, there are always thing that get dropped out in favour of other tools, or included because of the context of the class.

At first I was doing this with a mind to having an alternative ‘online’ version to offer in replacement of being there; how to teach in shifting pockets of time with global audiences and small groups, recording the presentation parts, breaking up into small tutorials throughout the day, making sure there were clear threads running through everything so that people could follow along from wherever they were.

Whilst the possibility of running an online version quickly faded (so much of the course, and our research material, is about bringing a wide selection of people together who often have little in common apart from the city itself), my own work continued.

It expanded into a full revision of basically everything in the Smithery kit-bag, with a permeating theme running through everything – the talk I did earlier this year, The Blacksmith Makes Their Own Tools, really helped me see that all of the work I’ve done in the last twenty years is around information as illumination, and suddenly a lots of things came together in a way they hadn’t before.

I’ll no doubt be talking about this a lot in the months to come as it evolves, but in short each section is an idea to hold onto, either in isolation or combination with some/all of the others, and is comprised of an essay and a model to help Identify & Illuminate, or Focus & Frame.

I just want to touch briefly on the last one, Assemblage Space.

It has it roots in the adaptation we made for the course of The Futures Cone, best explained here by Dr Joseph Voros (its most famous exponent).

Over the years, working with both students and clients in practical ways with the Futures Cone, two things have become apparent to me.

The first is that the boundaries should look as impermanent and uncertain as possible. People can and will get fixated about getting ‘the answer right’, and fitting their groups of signals, or whole scenarios, in a certain place.

Is this a Plausible Future?

The more solid the cone becomes, the more rarefied, the less useful it is.

You should fight against the trend of making lovely, designed versions of the Futures Cone with gradients, different coloured cones and so on; though they are perhaps logical in the act of making a nice presentation, they are not helpful for you in the practical application for the method.

Hence the point in the talk at the top; there is no cone. It is a container that help sets an enquiry off at the beginning, that sets some rules for participants about how they might start thinking of the research they do and the ideas they pull in, but you should work hard to make the cone disappear through the process.

The second thing that’s become apparent is that it’s useful to identify ‘other spaces’ to sort information in, rather than just the forward looking boundaries of the cone itself.

Assemblage space, or A-Space, is my way of making people think about the research and ideas they gather in a wider way. Assemblage Space is no more real than the Futures Cone, it’s just a device to help tease out information and connect it in different ways.

Assemblage is a term I’m pulling in from the philosophical definition“Assemblage theory provides a bottom-up framework for analyzing social complexity by emphasizing fluidity, exchangeability, and multiple functionalities through entities and their connectivity.” – without trying to get pulled too far into that particular rabbit hole.

There are six spaces on the map; I’ll talk about the four Over/Under spaces another day, but for now the point about going backwards to look forwards is what I want to concentrate on.

As people begin to populate the cone with information, we need to recognise that they have not made this stuff up. Even if the idea they pull in is seemingly from their own head, not based on research at all, the world around them, and their experience so far, has led them to that point.

So the key question becomes – “where does that come from?”

Reflecting the areas of the Futures Cone (Probable, Plausible etc etc), I found it helpful to think about the lived experience of the past, and what evidence we have.

Firstly, there’s tangible things, the things we can point to in the world. A bus stop, or a can of tuna.

Then there are intangible things; we know they exist, and they are part of our lives, and we can prove it by chasing down the visible aspects if we tried. A corporation, a press release, or a Pikachu in Pokemon Go.

Then there are things which are remembered collectively by people, but no longer exist. A long-defunct tram system in a city, or (the infamous) white dog poo.

Finally, there are things we’ve forgotten; sometimes they are waiting to be rediscovered, oftentimes not, and can only be summoned by inference.

These four things (Tangible/Intangible/Remembered/Forgotten) seem so far to be a useful way to start unpicking the “where did that come from?” question, and naturally help people focus even the most flippant futuristic notion in some vestiges of evidence from the past. It helps test the assemblages you bring together by grounding them in evidence.

Thinking back to last week, from the Future of Work perspective it helps you think about not just a continuation of the near-past, but makes you examine further ideas which may have been lost to time with different technologies.

One of the topics that came up in the forum was trust, and how leaders need to trust people working at home more to get on and do their jobs.

Thinking back to a pre-email work life though, how were people trusted then? When leaders didn’t have the chance to have an electronic record of conversations, decisions and actions? Where did trust live in companies, and what can we learn from that for now?

To finish then, this is a partial view of the practice, of course, but I hope a useful one in that it makes an abstract thing more practical. Practicality has been a theme running through the course at IED since the beginning.

Indeed, one year, at the final presentation, I decided it would be a good idea to draw parallels to the Susanna Clarke book Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, about the emergence in 19th century England of two ‘practical magicians’, much to the initial scoffing and disdain of the ‘theoretical magicians’, groups of learned men who would gather in taverns to discuss magic but not ever actually do any.

It was, to be honest, a little lost on the audience at the time (the strange Scottish man is saying strange things again…), but perhaps the point is more pertinent now; in these strange times, we need more practical futuring.

Towards Leastmodernism; Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer

I was at my second International Futures Form (IFF) breakfast this morning. On Zoom, naturally*.

One of the conversation threads in our breakout group was about clutter. We’re spending much more time in our homes, and so undoubtedly eyes and activity will turn to the things we’ve accumulated over the months and years. What to keep, what goes.

Another person drew a lucid picture of great tension point; we’re being told that the economy must restart again, which is basically a veil for increased consumption.

Hence the cunning wheeze of extending Sunday shopping hours, which feels like a doomed trick from the eighties economic playbook. If you really think people aren’t confident in spending because the shops aren’t open long enough on Sundays, I have some miraculous hair oil I want to talk to you about.

It made me remember an idea, a word, a loose concept I’ve had floating around since I talked at dConstruct in 2015.

The theme that year was about Designing the Future, and whilst I was uncomfortable in claiming or assuming that it was our future to design (which still remains my view), as part of the metadesign stance I talked about, a word popped into my head the day before the conference… it often happens the night before, as you’re sweating over the slides.

Leastmodernism.

I don’t have a crunchy description of exactly what it is. I referred to it again in a talk called The Oliver Twist at the RCA, but it’s an idea that every so often creeps up on me then I wonder what exactly to do with it, or how to articulate it.

Leastmodernism is about trying to harness a similar energy around solving societal problems that existed round modernism (for all its flaws), in a way that focuses efforts on what we are not doing, rather than what we are. It happens in pockets perhaps, and certainly can find allied concepts in parts of things like the Green New Deal.

How do you starting building an economic model around it, though? There’s something about drawing the connections between the thing, the creator, the customers, the money and the brand. We can take a stance that money is just a construct, as are brands. These two constructs float around the actual thing ‘made’ in the middle. Then a lot of the connections circumvent the actual thing in the middle:

Which perhaps opens up an opportunity to think about what you might do to replace that thing. Is it possible that money can flow from customers to creators, building a shared sense of what the brand means as a connection between people, but without the impact (or better still, negative impact) in the middle?

This might be the year to start thinking and articulating this more, but for the time being, the proxy I’m using is Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer.

Mr Prosser, of course, is the man from the council in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who is trying to knock down Arthur’s house. Arthur is lying in front of the bulldozer, preventing it from doing so.

Then Ford Prefect, in order to whisk Arthur away, comes up with a cunning ruse… well, you might as well just read it for yourself:

(Except taken from NPR)

Ford looked across to Mr. Prosser, and suddenly a wicked thought struck him.
“He wants to knock your house down?”
“Yes, he wants to build . . .”
“And he can’t because you’re lying in front of his bull-dozer?”
“Yes, and . . .”

“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” said Ford. “Excuse me!” he shouted.
Mr. Prosser (who was arguing with a spokesman for the bulldozer drivers about whether or not Arthur Dent con- stituted a mental health hazard, and how much they should get paid if he did) looked around. He was surprised and slightly alarmed to see that Arthur had company.
“Yes? Hello?” he called. “Has Mr. Dent come to his senses yet?”
“Can we for the moment,” called Ford, “assume that he hasn’t?”
“Well?” sighed Mr. Prosser.
“And can we also assume,” said Ford, “that he’s going to be staying here all day?”
“So?”
“So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?”
“Could be, could be . . .”
“Well, if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?”
“What?”
“You don’t,” said Ford patiently, “actually need him here.”
Mr. Prosser thought about this.
“Well, no, not as such . . .” he said, “not exactly need . . .”

Prosser was worried. He thought that one of them wasn’t making a lot of sense.
Ford said, “So if you would just like to take it as read that he’s actually here, then he and I could slip off down to the pub for half an hour. How does that sound?”

Mr. Prosser thought it sounded perfectly potty.
“That sounds perfectly reasonable . . .” he said in a re- assuring tone of voice, wondering who he was trying to reassure.
“And if you want to pop off for a quick one yourself later on,” said Ford, “we can always cover for you in re- turn.”
“Thank you very much,” said Mr. Prosser, who no longer knew how to play this at all, “thank you very much, yes, that’s very kind . . .” He frowned, then smiled, then tried to do both at once, failed, grasped hold of his fur hat and rolled it fitfully round the top of his head. He could only assume that he had just won.
..

Now, the obvious problem in drawing this parallel is whilst Mr Prosser doesn’t knock Arthur’s house down immediately, he does eventually.

Therein lies the trick. How do you hold back Mr Prosser’s Bulldozer indefinitely?


*Yes, the breakfast is a welcome space to connect, it’s not a room though. Off the back of another participant describing the rooms in her house, I realised how much I miss walking into rooms. Rooms that I don’t know, know barely, or know well. Subconsciously scanning, sitting down or leaving.

I’m looking forward to walking into other rooms again.