Pivoting ‘the book’ from individuals to systems

In 2016 I started writing a book, “Choose Your Own Adventure“, which I wanted to be a call to action for individuals to consider their role in the broader system and how they individually can make choices to make things better. As I progressed the writing of that book I realised the futility of changing individual behaviours and perspectives without an eye to the systems and structures within which we live. It is relatively easy to focus on oneself, but “no man is an island” and quite simply, I don’t want to facilitate people turning themselves into more beautiful cogs in a dysfunctional machine so I’m pivoting the focus of the book (and reusing the relevant material) and am now planning to finish the book by mid 2018.

I have recently realised four paradoxes which have instilled in me a sense of urgency to reimagine the world as we know it. I believe we are at a fork in the road where we will either reinforce legacy systems based on outdated paradigms with shiny new things, or choose to forge a new path using the new tools and opportunities at our disposal, hopefully one that is genuinely better for everyone. To do the latter, we need to critically assess the systems and structures we built and actively choose what we want to keep, what we should discard, what sort of society we want in the future and what we need to get there.

I think it is too easily forgotten that we invented all this and can therefore reinvent it if we so choose. But to not make a choice is to choose the status quo.

This is not to say I think everything needs to change. Nothing is so simplistic or misleading as a zero sum argument. Rather, the intent of this book is to challenge you to think critically about the systems you work within, whether they enable or disable the things you think are important, and most importantly, to challenge you to imagine what sort of world you want to see. Not just for you, but for your family, community and the broader society. I challenge you all to make 2018 a year of formative creativity in reimagining the world we live in and how we get there.

The paradoxes in brief, are as follows:

  • That though power is more distributed than ever, most people are still struggling to survive.
    It has been apparent to me for some time that there is a growing substantial shift in power from traditional gatekeepers to ordinary people through the proliferation of rights based philosophies and widespread access to technology and information. But the systemic (and artificial) limitations on most people’s time and resources means most people simply cannot participate fully in improving their own lives let alone in contributing substantially to the community and world in which they live. If we consider the impact of business and organisational models built on scarcity, centricity and secrecy, we quickly see that normal people are locked out of a variety of resources, tools and knowledge with which they could better their lives. Why do we take publicly funded education, research and journalism and lock them behind paywalls and then blame people for not having the skills, knowledge or facts at their disposal? Why do we teach children to be compliant consumers rather than empowered makers? Why do we put the greatest cognitive load on our most vulnerable through social welfare systems that then beget reliance? Why do we not put value on personal confidence in the same way we value business confidence, when personal confidence indicates the capacity for individuals to contribute to their community? Why do we still assume value to equate quantity rather than quality, like the number of hours worked rather than what was done in those hours? If a substantial challenge of the 21st century is having enough time and cognitive load to spare, why don’t we have strategies to free up more time for more people, perhaps by working less hours for more return? Finally, what do we need to do systemically to empower more people to move beyond survival and into being able to thrive.
  • Substantial paradigm shifts have happened but are not being integrated into people’s thinking and processes.
    The realisation here is that even if people are motivated to understand something fundamentally new to their worldview, it doesn’t necessarily translate into how they behave. It is easier to improve something than change it. Easier to provide symptomatic relief than to cure the disease. Interestingly I often see people confuse iteration for transformation, or symptomatic relief with addressing causal factors, so perhaps there is also a need for critical and systems thinking as part of the general curriculum. This is important because symptomatic relief, whilst sometimes necessary to alleviate suffering, is an effort in chasing one’s tail and can often perpetrate the problem. For instance, where providing foreign aid without mitigating displacement of local farmer’s efforts can create national dependence on further aid. Efforts to address causal factors is necessary to truly address a problem. Even if addressing the causal problem is outside your influence, then you should at least ensure your symptomatic relief efforts are not built to propagate the problem. One of the other problems we face, particularly in government, is that the systems involved are largely products of centuries old thinking. If we consider some of the paradigm shifts of our times, we have moved from scarcity to surplus, centralised to distributed, from closed to openness, analog to digital and normative to formative. And yet, people still assume old paradigms in creating new policies, programs and business models. For example how many times have you heard someone talk about innovative public engagement (tapping into a distributed network of expertise) by consulting through a website (maintaining central decision making control using a centrally controlled tool)? Or “innovation” being measured (and rewarded) through patents or copyright, both scarcity based constructs developed centuries ago? “Open government” is often developed by small insular teams through habitually closed processes without any self awareness of the irony of the approach. And new policy and legislation is developed in analog formats without any substantial input from those tasked with implementation or consideration with how best to consume the operating rules of government in the systems of society. Consider also the number of times we see existing systems assumed to be correct by merit of existing, without any critical analysis. For instance, a compliance model that has no measurable impact. At what point and by what mechanisms can we weigh up the merits of the old and the new when we are continually building upon a precedent based system of decision making? If 3D printing helped provide a surplus economy by which we could help solve hunger and poverty, why wouldn’t that be weighed up against the benefits of traditional scarcity based business models?
  • That we are surrounded by new things every day and yet there is a serious lack of vision for the future
    One of the first things I try to do in any organisation is understand the vision, the strategy and what success should look like. In this way I can either figure out how to best contribute meaningfully to the overarching goal, and in some cases help grow or develop the vision and strategy to be a little more ambitious. I like to measure progress and understand the baseline from which I’m trying to improve but I also like to know what I’m aiming for. So, what could an optimistic future look like for society? For us? For you? How do you want to use the new means at our disposal to make life better for your community? Do we dare imagine a future where everyone has what they need to thrive, where we could unlock the creative and intellectual potential of our entire society, a 21st century Renaissance, rather than the vast proportion of our collective cognitive capacity going into just getting food on the table and the kids to school. Only once you can imagine where you want to be can we have a constructive discussion where we want to be collectively, and only then can we talk constructively the systems and structures we need to support such futures. Until then, we are all just tweaking the settings of a machine built by our ancestors. I have been surprised to find in government a lot of strategies without vision, a lot of KPIs without measures of success, and in many cases a disconnect between what a person is doing and the vision or goals of the organisation or program they are in. We talk “innovation” a lot, but often in the back of people’s minds they are often imagining a better website or app, which isn’t much of a transformation. We are surrounded by dystopic visions of the distant future, and yet most government vision statements only go so far as articulating something “better” that what we have now, with “strategies” often focused on shopping lists of disconnected tactics 3-5 years into the future. The New Zealand Department of Conservation provides an inspiring contrast with a 50 year vision they work towards, from which they develop their shorter term stretch goals and strategies on a rolling basis and have an ongoing measurable approach.
  • That government is an important part of a stable society and yet is being increasingly undermined, both intentionally and unintentionally.
    The realisation here has been in first realising how important government (and democracy) is in providing a safe, stable, accountable, predictable and prosperous society whilst simultaneously observing first hand the undermining and degradation of the role of government both intentionally and unintentionally, from the outside and inside. I have chosen to work in the private sector, non-profit community sector, political sector and now public sector, specifically because I wanted to understand the “system” in which I live and how it all fits together. I believe that “government” – both the political and public sectors – has a critical part to play in designing, leading and implementing a better future. The reason I believe this, is because government is one of the few mechanisms that is accountable to the people, in democratic countries at any rate. Perhaps not as much as we like and it has been slow to adapt to modern practices, tools and expectations, but governments are one of the most powerful and influential tools at our disposal and we can better use them as such. However, I posit that an internal, largely unintentional and ongoing degradation of the public sectors is underway in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and other “western democracies”, spurred initially by an ideological shift from ‘serving the public good’ to acting more like a business in the “New Public Management” policy shift of the 1980s. This was useful double speak for replacing public service values with business values and practices which ignores the fact that governments often do what is not naturally delivered by the marketplace and should not be only doing what is profitable. The political appointment of heads of departments has also resulted over time in replacing frank, fearless and evidence based leadership with politically palatable compromises throughout the senior executive layer of the public sector, which also drives necessarily secretive behaviour, else the contradictions be apparent to the ordinary person. I see the results of these internal forms of degradations almost every day. From workshops where people under budget constraints seriously consider outsourcing all government services to the private sector, to long suffering experts in the public sector unable to sway leadership with facts until expensive consultants are brought in to ask their opinion and sell the insights back to the department where it is finally taken seriously (because “industry” said it), through to serious issues where significant failures happen with blame outsourced along with the risk, design and implementation, with the details hidden behind “commercial in confidence” arrangements. The impact on the effectiveness of the public sector is obvious, but the human cost is also substantial, with public servants directly undermined, intimidated, ignored and a growing sense of hopelessness and disillusionment. There is also an intentional degradation of democracy by external (but occasionally internal) agents who benefit from the weakening and limiting of government. This is more overt in some countries than others. A tension between the regulator and those regulated is a perfectly natural thing however, as the public sector grows weaker the corporate interests gain the upper hand. I have seen many people in government take a vendor or lobbyist word as gold without critical analysis of the motivations or implications, largely again due to the word of a public servant being inherently assumed to be less important than that of anyone in the private sector (or indeed anyone in the Minister’s office). This imbalance needs to be addressed if the public sector is to play an effective role. Greater accountability and transparency can help but currently there is a lack of common agreement on the broader role of government in society, both the political and public sectors. So the entire institution and the stability it can provide is under threat of death by a billion papercuts. Efforts to evolve government and democracy have largely been limited to iterations on the status quo: better consultation, better voting, better access to information, better services. But a rethink is required and the internal systemic degradations need to be addressed.

If you think the world is perfectly fine as is, then you are probably quite lucky or privileged. Congratulations. It is easy to not see the cracks in the system when your life is going smoothly, but I invite you to consider the cracks that I have found herein, to test your assumptions daily and to leave your counter examples in the comments below.

For my part, I am optimistic about the future. I believe the proliferation of a human rights based ideology, participatory democracy and access to modern technologies all act to distribute power to the people, so we have the capacity more so than ever to collectively design and create a better future for us all.

Let’s build the machine we need to thrive both individually and collectively, and not just be beautiful cogs in a broken machine.

Further reading:

Posted in Choose Your Own Adventure, gov20, Government, society5, Tech | 6 Comments

Chapter 1.2: Many hands make light work, for a while

This is part of a book I am working on, hopefully due for completion by mid 2018. The original purpose of the book is to explore where we are at, where we are going, and how we can get there, in the broadest possible sense. Your comments, feedback and constructive criticism are welcome! The final text of the book will be freely available under a Creative Commons By Attribution license. A book version will be sent to nominated world leaders, to hopefully encourage the necessary questioning of the status quo and smarter decisions into the future. Additional elements like references, graphs, images and other materials will be available in the final digital and book versions and draft content will be published weekly. Please subscribe to the blog posts by the RSS category and/or join the mailing list for updates.

Back to the book overview or table of contents for the full picture. Please note the pivot from focusing just on individuals to focusing on the systems we live in and the paradoxes therein.

“Differentiation of labour and interdependence of society is reliant on consistent and predictable authorities to thrive” — Durkheim

Many hands makes light work is an old adage both familiar and comforting. One feels that if things get our of hand we can just throw more resources at the problem and it will suffice. However we have made it harder on ourselves in three distinct ways:

  • by not always recognising the importance of interdependence and the need to ensure the stability and prosperity of our community as a necessary precondition to the success of the individuals therein;
  • by increasingly making it harder for people to gain knowledge, skills and adaptability to ensure those “many hands” are able to respond to the work required and not trapped into social servitude; and
  • by often failing to recognise whether we need a linear or exponential response in whatever we are doing, feeling secure in the busy-ness of many hands.

Specialisation is when a person delves deep on a particular topic or skill. Over many millennia we have got to the point where we have developed extreme specialisation, supported through interdependence and stability, which gave us the ability to rapidly and increasingly evolve what we do and how we live. This resulted in increasingly complex social systems and structures bringing us to a point today where the pace of change has arguably outpaced our imagination. We see many people around the world clinging to traditions and romantic notions of the past whilst we hurtle at an accelerating pace into the future. Many hands have certainly made light work, but new challenges have emerged as a result and it is more critical than ever that we reimagine our world and develop our resilience and adaptability to change, because change is the only constant moving forward.

One human can survive on their own for a while. A tribe can divide up the labour quite effectively and survive over generations, creating time for culture and play. But when we established cities and states around 6000 years ago, we started a level of unprecedented division of labour and specialisation beyond mere survival. When the majority of your time, energy and resources go into simply surviving, you are largely subject to forces outside your control and unable to justify spending time on other things. But when survival is taken care of (broadly speaking) it creates time for specialisation and perfecting your craft, as well as for leisure, sport, art, philosophy and other key areas of development in society.

The era of cities itself was born on the back of an agricultural technology revolution that made food production far more efficient, creating surplus (which drove a need for record keeping and greater proliferation of written language) and prosperity, with a dramatic growth in specialisation of jobs. With greater specialisation came greater interdependence as it becomes in everyone’s best interests to play their part predictably. A simple example is a farmer needing her farming equipment to be reliable to make food, and the mechanic needs food production to be reliable for sustenance. Both rely on each other not just as customers, but to be successful and sustainable over time. Greater specialisation led to greater surplus as specialists continued to fine tune their crafts for ever greater outcomes. Over time, an increasing number of people were not simply living day to day, but were able to plan ahead and learn how to deal with major disruptions to their existence. Hunters and gatherers are completely subject to the conditions they live in, with an impact on mortality, leisure activities largely fashioned around survival, small community size and the need to move around. With surplus came spare time and the ability to take greater control over one’s existence and build a type of systemic resilience to change.

So interdependence gave us greater stability, as a natural result of enlightened self interest writ large where ones own success is clearly aligned with the success of the community where one lives. However, where interdependence in smaller communities breeds a kind of mutual understanding and appreciation, we have arguably lost this reciprocity and connectedness in larger cities today, ironically where interdependence is strongest. When you can’t understand intuitively the role that others play in your wellbeing, then you don’t naturally appreciate them, and disconnected self interest creates a cost to the community. When community cohesion starts to decline, eventually individuals also decline, except the small percentage who can either move communities or who benefit, intentionally or not, on the back of others misfortune.

When you have no visibility of food production beyond the supermarket then it becomes easier to just buy the cheapest milk, eggs or bread, even if the cheapest product is unsustainable or undermining more sustainably produced goods. When you have such a specialised job that you can’t connect what you do to any greater meaning, purpose or value, then it also becomes hard to feel valuable to society, or valued by others. We see this increasingly in highly specialised organisations like large companies, public sector agencies and cities, where the individual feels the dual pressure of being anything and nothing all at once.

Modern society has made it somewhat less intuitive to value others who contribute to your survival because survival is taken for granted for many, and competing in ones own specialisation has been extended to competing in everything without appreciation of the interdependence required for one to prosper. Competition is seen to be the opposite of cooperation, whereas a healthy sustainable society is both cooperative and competitive. One can cooperate on common goals and compete on divergent goals, thus making best use of time and resources where interests align. Cooperative models seem to continually emerge in spite of economic models that assume simplistic punishment and incentive based behaviours. We see various forms of “commons” where people pool their resources in anything from community gardens and ’share economies’ to software development and science, because cooperation is part of who we are and what makes us such a successful species.

Increasing specialisation also created greater surplus and wealth, generating increasingly divergent and insular social classes with different levels of power and people becoming less connected to each other and with wealth overwhelmingly going to the few. This pressure between the benefits and issues of highly structured societies and which groups benefit has ebbed and flowed throughout our history but, generally speaking, when the benefits to the majority outweigh the issues for that majority, then you have stability. With stability a lot can be overlooked, including at times gross abuses for a minority or the disempowered. However, if the balances tips too far the other way, then you get revolutions, secessions, political movements and myriad counter movements. Unfortunately many counter movements limit themselves to replacing people rather than the structures that created the issues however, several of these counter movements established some critical ideas that underpin modern society.

Before we explore the rise of individualism through independence and suffrage movements (chapter 1.3), it is worth briefly touching upon the fact that specialisation and interdependence, which are critical for modern societies, both rely upon the ability for people to share, to learn, and to ensure that the increasingly diverse skills are able to evolve as the society evolves. Many hands only make light work when they know what they are doing. Historically the leaps in technology, techniques and specialisation have been shared for others to build upon and continue to improve as we see in writings, trade, oral traditions and rituals throughout history. Gatekeepers naturally emerged to control access to or interpretations of knowledge through priests, academics, the ruling class or business class. Where gatekeepers grew too oppressive, communities would subdivide to rebalance the power differential, such a various Protestant groups, union movements and the more recent Open Source movements. In any case, access wasn’t just about power of gatekeepers. The costs of publishing and distribution grew as societies grew, creating a call from the business class for “intellectual property” controls as financial mechanisms to offset these costs. The argument ran that because of the huge costs of production, business people needed to be incentivised to publish and distribute knowledge, though arguably we have always done so as a matter of survival and growth.

With the Internet suddenly came the possibility for massively distributed and free access to knowledge, where the cost of publishing, distribution and even the capability development required to understand and apply such knowledge was suddenly negligible. We created a universal, free and instant way to share knowledge, creating the opportunity for a compounding effect on our historic capacity for cumulative learning. This is worth taking a moment to consider. The technology simultaneously created an opportunity for compounding our cumulative learning whilst rendered the reasons for IP protections negligible (lowered costs of production and distribution) and yet we have seen a dramatic increase in knowledge protectionism. Isn’t it to our collective benefit to have a well educated community that can continue our trajectory of diversification and specialisation for the benefit of everyone? Anyone can get access to myriad forms of consumer entertainment but our most valuable knowledge assets are fiercely protected against general and free access, dampening our ability to learn and evolve. The increasing gap between the haves and have nots is surely symptomatic of the broader increasing gap between the empowered and disempowered, the makers and the consumers, those with knowledge and those without. Consumers are shaped by the tools and goods they have access to, and limited by their wealth and status. But makers can create the tools and goods they need, and can redefine wealth and status with a more active and able hand in shaping their own lives.

As a result of our specialisation, our interdependence and our cooperative/competitive systems, we have created greater complexity in society over time, usually accompanied with the ability to respond to greater complexity. The problem is that a lot of our solutions to change have been linear responses to an exponential problem space. the assumption that more hands will continue to make light work often ignores the need for sharing skills and knowledge, and certainly ignores where a genuinely transformative response is required. A small fire might be managed with buckets, but at some point of growth, adding more buckets becomes insufficient and new methods are required. Necessity breeds innovation and yet when did you last see real innovation that didn’t boil down to simply more or larger buckets? Iteration is rarely a form of transformation, so it is important to always clearly understand the type of problem you are dealing with and whether the planned response needs to be linear or exponential. If the former, more buckets is probably fine. If the latter, every bucket is just a distraction from developing the necessary response.

Next chapter I’ll examine how the independence movements created the philosophical pre-condition for democracy, the Internet and the dramatic paradigm shifts to follow.

Posted in Choose Your Own Adventure, education, gov20, society5, Tech | 1 Comment

My Canadian adventure exploring FWD50

I recently went to Ottawa for the FWD50 conference run by Rebecca and Alistair Croll. It was my first time in Canada, and it combined a number of my favourite things. I was at an incredible conference with a visionary and enthusiastic crowd, made up of government (international, Federal, Provincial and Municipal), technologists, civil society, industry, academia, and the calibre of discussions and planning for greatness was inspiring.

There was a number of people I have known for years but never met in meatspace, and equally there were a lot of new faces doing amazing things. I got to spend time with the excellent people at the Treasury Board of Canadian Secretariat, including the Canadian Digital Service and the Office of the CIO, and by wonderful coincidence I got to see (briefly) the folk from the Open Government Partnership who happened to be in town. Finally I got to visit the gorgeous Canadian Parliament, see their extraordinary library, and wander past some Parliamentary activity which always helps me feel more connected to (and therefore empowered to contribute to) democracy in action.

Thank you to Alistair Croll who invited me to keynote this excellent event and who, with Rebecca Croll, managed to create a truly excellent event with a diverse range of ideas and voices exploring where we could or should go as a society in future. I hope it is a catalyst for great things to come in Canada and beyond.

For those in Canada who are interested in the work in New Zealand, I strongly encourage you to tune into the D5 event in February which will have some of our best initiatives on display, and to tune in to our new Minister for Broadband, Digital and Open Government (such an incredible combination in a single portfolio), Minister Clare Curran and you can tune in to our “Service Innovation” work at our blog or by subscribing to our mailing list. I also encourage you to read this inspiring “People’s Agenda” by a civil society organisation in NZ which codesigned a vision for the future type of society desired in New Zealand.


  • One of the great delights of this trip was seeing a number of people in person for the first time who I know from the early “Gov 2.0″ days (10 years ago!). It was particularly great to see Thom Kearney from Canada’s TBS and his team, Alex Howard (@digiphile) who is now a thought leader at the Sunlight Foundation, and Olivia Neal (@livneal) from the UK CTO office/GDS, Joe Powell from OGP, as well as a few friends from Linux and Open Source (Matt and Danielle amongst others).
  • The speech by Canadian Minister of the Treasury Board Secretariat (which is responsible for digital government) the Hon Scott Brison, was quite interesting and I had the chance to briefly chat to him and his advisor at the speakers drinks afterwards about the challenges of changing government.
  • Meeting with Canadian public servants from a variety of departments including the transport department, innovation and science, as well as the Treasury Board Secretariat and of course the newly formed Canadian Digital Service.
  • Meeting people from a range of sub-national governments including the excellent folk from Peel, Hillary Hartley from Ontario, and hearing about the quite inspiring work to transform organisational structures, digital and other services, adoption of micro service based infrastructure, the use of “labs” for experimentation.
  • It was fun meeting some CIO/CTOs from Canada, Estonia, UK and other jurisdictions, and sharing ideas about where to from here. I was particularly impressed with Alex Benay (Canadian CIO) who is doing great things, and with Siim Sikkut (Estonian CIO) who was taking the digitisation of Estonia into a new stage of being a broader enabler for Estonians and for the world. I shared with them some of my personal lessons learned around digital iteration vs transformation, including from the DTO in Australia (which has changed substantially, including a name change since I was there). Some notes of my lessons learned are at http://pipka.org/2017/04/03/iteration-or-transformation-in-government-paint-jobs-and-engines/.
  • My final highlight was how well my keynote and other talks were taken. People were really inspired to think big picture and I hope it was useful in driving some of those conversations about where we want to collectively go and how we can better collaborate across geopolitical lines.

Below are some photos from the trip, and some observations from specific events/meetings.

My FWD50 Keynote – the Tipping Point

I was invited to give a keynote at FWD50 about the tipping point we have gone through and how we, as a species, need to embrace the major paradigm shifts that have already happened, and decide what sort of future we want and work towards that. I also suggested some predictions about the future and examined the potential roles of governments (and public sectors specifically) in the 21st century. The slides are at https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1coe4Sl0vVA-gBHQsByrh2awZLa0Nsm6gYEqHn9ppezA/edit?usp=sharing and the full speech is on my personal blog at http://pipka.org/2017/11/08/fwd50-keynote-the-tipping-point.

I also gave a similar keynote speech at the NerHui conference in New Zealand the week after which was recorded for those who want to see or hear the content at https://2017.nethui.nz/friday-livestream

The Canadian Digital Service

Was only set up about a year ago and has a focus on building great services for users, with service design and user needs at the heart of their work. They have some excellent people with diverse skills and we spoke about what is needed to do “digital government” and what that even means, and the parallels and interdependencies between open government and digital government. They spoke about an early piece of work they did before getting set up to do a national consultation about the needs of Canadians (https://digital.canada.ca/beginning-the-conversation/) which had some interesting insights. They were very focused on open source, standards, building better ways to collaborate across government(s), and building useful things. They also spoke about their initial work around capability assessment and development across the public sector. I spoke about my experience in Australia and New Zealand, but also in working and talking to teams around the world. I gave an informal outline about the work of our Service Innovation and Service Integration team in DIA, which was helpful to get some feedback and peer review, and they were very supportive and positive. It was an excellent discussion, thank you all!

CivicTech meetup

I was invited to talk to the CivicTech group meetup in Ottawa (https://www.meetup.com/YOW_CT/events/243891738/) about the roles of government and citizens into the future. I gave a quick version of the keynote I gave at linux.conf.au 2017 (pipka.org/2017/02/18/choose-your-own-adventure-keynote/), which explores paradigm shifts and the roles of civic hackers and activists in helping forge the future whilst also considering what we should (and shouldn’t) take into the future with us. It included my amusing change.log of the history of humans and threw down the gauntlet for civic hackers to lead the way, be the light :)

CDS Halloween Mixer

The Canadian Digital Service does a “mixer” social event every 6 weeks, and this one landed on Halloween, which was also my first ever Halloween celebration  I had a traditional “beavertail” which was a flat cinnamon doughnut with lemon, amazing! Was fun to hang out but of course I had to retire early from jet lag.

Workshop with Alistair

The first day of FWD50 I helped Alistair Croll with a day long workshop exploring the future. We thought we’d have a small interactive group and ended up getting 300, so it was a great mind meld across different ideas, sectors, technologies, challenges and opportunities. I gave a talk on culture change in government, largely influenced by a talk a few years ago called “Collaborative innovation in the public service: Game of Thrones style” (http://pipka.org/2015/01/04/collaborative-innovation-in-the-public-service-game-of-thrones-style/). People responded well and it created a lot of discussions about the cultural challenges and barriers in government.


Finally, just a quick shout out and thanks to Alistair for inviting me to such an amazing conference, to Rebecca for getting me organised, to Danielle and Matthew for your companionship and support, to everyone for making me feel so welcome, and to the following folk who inspired, amazed and colluded with me  In chronological order of meeting: Sean Boots, Stéphane Tourangeau, Ryan Androsoff, Mike Williamson, Lena Trudeau, Alex Benay (Canadian Gov CIO), Thom Kearney and all the TBS folk, Siim Sikkut from Estonia, James Steward from UK, and all the other folk I met at FWD50, in between feeling so extremely unwell!

Thank you Canada, I had a magnificent time and am feeling inspired!

Posted in Choose Your Own Adventure, FOSS, gov20, Government, linux.conf.au, society5, Tech | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

FWD50 Keynote: The Tipping Point

I was invited to an incredible and inaugural conference in Canada called FWD50 which was looking at the next 50 days, months and years for society. It had a digital government flavour to it but had participants and content from various international, national and sub-national governments, civil society, academia, industry and advocacy groups. The diversity of voices in the room was good and the organisers committed to greater diversity next year. I gave my keynote as an independent expert and my goal was to get people thinking bigger than websites and mobile apps, to dream about the sort of future we want as a society (as a species!) and work towards that. As part of my talk I also explored what the big paradigm shifts have happened (note the past tense) and potential roles for government (particularly the public sector) in a hyper connected, distributed network of powerful individuals. My slides are available here (simple though they are). It wasn’t recorded but I did an audio recording and transcribed. I was unwell and had lost my voice so this is probably better anyway :)

The tipping point and where do we go from here

I’ve been thinking a lot over many years about change and the difference between iteration and transformation, about systems, about what is going on in the big picture, because what I’m seeing around the world is a lot of people iterating away from pain but not actually iterating towards a future. Looking for ways to solve the current problem but not rethinking or reframing in the current context. I want to talk to you about the tipping point.

We invented all of this. This is worth taking a moment to think. We invented every system, every government, every means of production, we organised ourselves into structures and companies, all the things we know, we invented. By understanding we invented we can embrace the notice we aren’t stuck with it. A lot of people start from the normative perspective that it is how it is and how do we improve it slightly but we don’t have to be constrained to assumption because *we* invented it. We can take a formative approach.

The reason this is important is because the world has fundamentally changed. The world has started from a lot of assumptions. This (slide) is a map of the world as it was known at the time, and it was known for a long time to be flat. And at some point it became known that the world was not flat and people had to change their perspective. If we don’t challenge those assumptions that underpin our systems, we run the significant risk of recreating the past with shiny new things. If we take whatever the shiny thing is today, like blockchain or social media 10 years ago, and take that shiny thing to do what we have always done, then how are we progressing? We are just “lifting and shifting” as they like to say, which as a technologist is almost the worst thing I can hear.

Actually understanding the assumptions that underpin what we do, understanding the goal that we have and what we are trying to achieve, and actually having to make sure that we intentionally choose to move forward with the assumptions that we want to take into the future is important because a lot of the biases and assumptions that underpin the systems that we have today were forged centuries or even millennia ago. A long time before the significant paradigm shifts we have seen.

So I’m going to talk a little bit about how things have changed. It’s not that the tipping point is happening. The tipping point has already happened. We have seen paradigm shifts with legacy systems of power and control. Individuals are more individually powerful than ever in the history of our species. If you think way back in hunter and gatherer times, everyone was individually pretty powerful then, but it didn’t scale. When we moved to cities we actually started to highly specialise and become interdependent and individually less powerful because we made these systems of control that were necessary to manage the surplus of resource, necessary to manage information. But what’s happened now through the independence movements creating a culture of everyone being individually powerful through individual worthy of rights, and then more recently with the internet becoming a distributor, enabler and catalyst of that, we are now seeing power massively distributed.

Think about it. Any individual around the world that can get online, admittedly that’s only two thirds of us but it’s growing every day, and everyone has the power to publish, to create, to share, to collaborate, to collude, to monitor. It’s not just the state monitoring the people but the people monitoring the state and people monitoring other people. There is the power to enforce your own perspective. And it doesn’t actually matter whether you think it’s a good or bad thing, it is the reality. It’s the shift. And if we don’t learn to embrace, understand and participate in it,particularly in government, then we actually make ourselves less relevant. Because one of the main things about this distribution of power, that the internet has taught us fundamentally as part of our culture that we have all started to adopt, is that you can route around damage. The internet was set up to be able to route around damage where damage was physical or technical. We started to internalise that socially and if you, in government, are seen to be damage, then people route around you. This is why we have to learn to work as a node in a network, not just a king in a castle, because kings don’t last anymore.

So which way is forward. The priority now needs to be deciding what sort of future do we want. Not what sort of past do we want to escape. The 21st century sees many communities emerging. They are hyper connected, transnational, multicultural, heavily interdependent, heavily specialised, rapidly changing and disconnected from their geopolitical roots. Some people see that as a reason to move away from having geopolitically formed states. Personally I believe there will always be a role for a geographic state because I need a way to scale a quality of life for my family along with my fellow citizens and neighbours. But what does that mean in an international sense. Are my rights as a human being being realised in a transnational sense. There are some really interesting questions about the needs of users beyond the individual services that we deliver, particularly when you look in a transnational way.

So a lot of these assumptions have become like a rusty anchor that kept us in place in high tide, but are drawing us to a dangerous reef as to water lowers. We need to figure out how to float on the water without rusty anchors to adapt to the tides of change.

There are a lot of pressures that are driving these changes of course. We are all feeling those pressures, those of us that are working in government. There’s the pressure of changing expectations, of history, from politics and the power shift. The pressure of the role of government in the 21st century. Pressure is a wonderful thing as it can be a catalyst of change, so we shouldn’t shy away from pressure, but recognising that we’re under pressure is important.

So let’s explore some of those power shifts and then what role could government play moving forward.

Paradigm #1: central to distributed.

This is about that shift in power, the independence movements and the internet. It is something people talk about but don’t necessarily apply to their work. Governments will talk about wanting to take a more distributed approach but followup with setting up “my” website expecting everyone to join or do something. How about everyone come to “my” office or create “my” own lab. Distributed, when you start to really internalise what that means, if different. I was lucky as I forged a lot of my assumptions and habits of working when I was involved in the Open Source community, and the Open Source community has a lot of lessons for rest of society because it is on the bleeding edge of a lot of these paradigm shifts. So working in a distributed way is to assume that you are not at the centre, to assume that you’re not needed. To assume that if you make yourself useful that people will rely on you, but also to assume that you rely on others and to build what you do in a way that strengthens the whole system. I like to talk about it as “Gov as a Platform”, sometimes that is confusing to people so let’s talk about it as “Gov as an enabler”. It’s not just government as a central command and controller anymore because the moment you create a choke point, people route around it. How do we become a government as an enabler of good things, and how can we use other mechanisms to create the controls in society. Rather than try to protect people from themselves, why not enable people to protect themselves. There are so many natural motivations in the community, in industry, in the broader sector that we serve, that we can tap into but traditionally we haven’t. Because traditionally we saw ourselves as the enforcer, as the one to many choke point. So working in a distributed way is not just about talking the talk, it’s about integrated it into the way we think.

Some other aspects of this include localised to globalised, keeping in mind that large multinational companies have become quite good at jurisdiction shopping for improvements of profits, which you can’t say is either a good or bad thing, it’s just a natural thing and how they’re naturally motivated. But citizens are increasingly starting to jurisdiction shop too. So I would suggest a role for government in the 21st century would be to create the best possible quality of life for people, because then you’ll attract the best from around the world.

The second part of central to distributed is simple to complex. I have this curve (on the slide) which shows green as complexity and red as government’s response to user needs. The green climbs exponentially whilst the red is pretty linear, with small increases or decreases over time, but not an exponential response by any means. Individual needs are no longer heavily localised. They are subject to local, national, transnational complexities with every extra complexity compounded, not linear. So the increasing complexities in people’s lives, and the obligations, taxation, services and entitlements, everything is going up. So there is a delta forming between what government can directly do, and what people need. So again I contend that the opportunity here particularly for the public sector is to actually be an enabler for all those service intermediaries – the for profit, non profit, civic tech – to help them help themselves, help them help their customers, by merit of making government a platform upon which they can build. We’ve had a habit and a history of creating public infrastructure, particularly in Australia, in New Zealand, in Canada, we’re been very good at building public infrastructure. Why have we not focused on digital infrastructure? Why do we see digital infrastructure as something that has to be cost recovered to be sustainable when we don’t have to do cost recovery for every thing public road. I think that looking at the cost benefits and value creation of digital public infrastructure needs to be looks at in the same way, and we need to start investing in digital public infrastructure.

Paradigm #2: analog to digital.

Or slow to very fast. I like to joke that we use lawyers as modems. If you think about regulation and policy, we write it, it is translated by a lawyer or drafter into regulation or policy, it is then translated by a lawyer or drafter or anyone into operational systems, business systems, helpdesk systems or other systems in society. Why wouldn’t we make our regulation as code? The intent of our regulation and our legislative regimes available to be directly consumed (by the systems) so that we can actually speed up, automate, improve consistency of application through the system, and have a feedback loop to understand whether policy changes are having the intended policy effect.

There are so many great things we can do when we start thinking about digital as something new, not just digitising an analog process. Innovation too long was interpreted as a digitisation of a process, basic process improvements. But real digitisation should a a transformation where you are changing the thing to better achieve the purpose or intent.

Paradigm #3: scarcity to surplus.

I think this is critical. We have a lot of assumptions in our systems that assume scarcity. Why do we still have so many of our systems assume scarcity when surplus is the opportunity. Between 3D printing and nanotech, we could be deconstructing and reconstructing new materials to print into goods and food and yet a large inhibitor of 3D printing progress is copyright. So the question I have for you is do we care more about an 18h century business model or do we care about solving the problems of our society. We need to make these choices. If we have moved to an era of surplus but we are getting increasing inequality, perhaps the systems of distribution are problematic? Perhaps in assuming scarcity we are protecting scarcity for the few at the cost of the many.

Paradigm #4: normative to formative

“Please comply”. For the last hundred years in particular we have perfected the art of broadcasting images of normal into our houses, particularly with radio and television. We have the concept of set a standard or rule and if you don’t follow we’ll punish you, so a lot of culture is about compliance in society. Compliance is important for stability, but blind compliance can create millstones. A formative paradigm is about not saying how it is but in exploring where you want to go. In the public service we are particularly good at compliance culture but I suggest that if we got more people thinking formatively, not just change for changes sake, but bringing people together on their genuinely shared purpose of serving the public, then we might be able to take a more formative approach to doing the work we do for the betterment of society rather than ticking the box because it is the process we have to follow. Formative takes us away from being consumers and towards being makers. As an example, the most basic form of normative human behaviour is in how we see and conform to being human. You are either normal, or you are not, based on some externally projected vision of normal. But the internet has shown us that no one is normal. So embracing that it is through our difference we are more powerful and able to adapt is an important part of our story and culture moving forward. If we are confident to be formative, we can always trying to create a better world whilst applying a critical eye to compliance so we don’t comply for compliance sake.

Exploring optimistic futures

Now on the back of these paradigm shifts, I’d like to briefly about the future. I spoke about the opportunity through surplus with 3D printing and nanotech to address poverty and hunger. What about the opportunities of rockets for domestic travel? It takes half an hour to get into space, an hour to traverse the world and half an hour down which means domestic retail transport by rocket is being developed right now which means I could go from New Zealand to Canada to work for the day and be home for tea. That shift is going to be enormous in so many ways and it could drive real changes in how we see work and internationalism. How many people remember Total Recall? The right hand picture is a self driving car from a movie in the 90s and is becoming normal now. Interesting fact, some of the car designs will tint the windows when they go through intersections because the passengers are deeply uncomfortable with the speed and closeness of self driving cars which can miss each other very narrowly compared to human driving. Obviously there are opportunities around AI, bots and automation but I think where it gets interesting when we think about opportunities of the future of work. We are still working on industrial assumptions that the number of hours that we have is a scarcity paradigm and I have to sell the number of hours that I work, 40, 50, 60 hours. Why wouldn’t we work 20 hours a week at a higher rate to meet our basic needs? Why wouldn’t we have 1 or 2 days a week where we could contribute to our civic duties, or art, or education. Perhaps we could jump start an inclusive renaissance, and I don’t mean cat pictures. People can’t thrive if they’re struggling to survive and yet we keep putting pressure on people just to survive. Again, we are from countries with quite strong safety nets but even those safety nets put huge pressure, paperwork and bureaucracy on our most vulnerable just to meet their basic needs. Often the process of getting access to the services and entitlements is so hard and traumatic that they can’t, so how do we close that gap so all our citizens can move from survival to thriving.

The last picture is a bit cheeky. A science fiction author William Gibson wrote Johnny Pneumonic and has a character in that book called Jones, a cyborg dolphin to sniff our underwater mines in warfare. Very dark, but the interesting concept there is in how Jones was received after the war: “he was more than a dolphin, but from another dolphin’s point of view he might have seemed like something less.” What does it mean to be human? If I lose a leg, right now it is assumed I need to replace that leg to be somehow “whole”. What if I want 4 legs. The human brain is able to adapt to new input. I knew a woman who got a small sphere filled with mercury and a free floating magnet in her finger, and the magnet spins according to frequency and she found over a short period of time she was able to detect changes in frequency. Why is that cool and interesting? Because the brain can adapt to foreign, non evolved input. I think that is mind blowing. We have the opportunity to augment our selves not to just conform to normal or be slightly better, faster humans. But we can actually change what it means to be human altogether. I think this will be one of the next big social challenges for society but because we are naturally so attracted to “shiny”, I think that discomfort will pass within a couple of generations. One prediction is that the normal Olympics has become boring and that we will move into a transhuman olympics where we take the leash off and explore the 100m sprint with rockets, or judo with cyborgs. Where the interest goes, the sponsorship goes, and more professional athletes compete. And what’s going to happen if your child says they want to be a professional transhuman olympian and that they will add wings or remove their legs for their professional career, to add them (or not) later? That’s a bit scary for many but at the same time, it’s very interesting. And it’s ok to be uncomfortable, it’s ok to look at change, be uncomfortable and ask yourself “why am I uncomfortable?” rather than just pushing back on discomfort. It’s critical more than ever, particularly in the public service that we get away from this dualistic good or bad, in or out, yours or mine and start embracing the grey.

The role of government?

So what’s the role of government in all this, in the future. Again these are just some thoughts, a conversation starter.

I think one of our roles is to ensure that individuals have the ability to thrive. Now I acknowledge I’m very privileged to have come from a social libertarian country that believe this, where people broadly believe they want their taxes to go to the betterment of society and not all countries have that assumption. But if we accept the idea that people can’t thrive if they can’t survive, then our baseline quality of life if you assume an individual starts from nothing with no privilege, benefits or family, provided by the state, needs to be good enough for the person to be able to thrive. Otherwise we get a basic structural problem. Part of that is becoming master buildings again, and to go to the Rawl’s example from Alistair before, we need empathy in what we do in government. The amount of times we build systems without empathy and they go terribly wrong because we didn’t think about what it would be like to be on the other side of that service, policy or idea. User centred design is just a systematisation of empathy, which is fantastic, but bringing empathy into everything we do is very important.

Leadership is a very important role for government. I think part of our role is to represent the best interests of society. I very strongly feel that we have a natural role to serve the public in the public sector, as distinct from the political sector (though citizens see us as the same thing). The role of a strong, independent public sector is more important than ever in a post facts “fake news” world because it is one of the only actors on the stage that is naturally motivated, naturally systemically motivated, to serve the best interests of the public. That’s why open government is so important and that’s why digital and open government initiatives align directly.

Because open with digital doesn’t scale, and digital without open doesn’t last.

Stability, predictability and balance. It is certainly a role of government to create confidence in our communities, confidence creates thriving. It is one thing to address Maslov’s pyramid of needs but if you don’t feel confident, if you don’t feel safe, then you still end up behaving in strange and unpredictable ways. So this is part of what is needed for communities to thrive. This relates to regulation and there is a theory that regulation is bad because it is hard. I would suggest that regulation is important for the stability and predictability in society but we have to change the way we deliver it. Regulation as code gets the balance right because you can have the settings and levers in the economy but also the ability for it to be automated, consumable, consistent, monitored and innovative. I imagine a future where I have a personal AI which I can trust because of quantum cryptography and because it is tethered in purpose to my best interests. I don’t have to rely on whether my interests happen to align with the purpose of a department, company or non-profit to get the services I need because my personal bot can figure out what I need and give me the options for me to make decisions about my life. It could deal with the Government AI to figure out the rules, my taxation, obligations, services and entitlements. Where is the website in all that? I ask this because the web was a 1990s paradigm, and we need more people to realise and plan around the idea that the future of service delivery is in building the backend of what we do – the business rules, transactions, data, content, models – in a modular consumable so we can shift channels or modes of delivery whether it is a person, digital service or AI to AI interaction.

Another role of government is in driving the skills we need for the 21st century. Coding is critical not because everyone needs to code (maybe they will) but more than that coding teaches you an assumption, an instinct, that technology is something that can be used by you, not something you are intrinsically bound to. Minecraft is the saviour of a generation because all those kids are growing up believing they can shape the world around them, not have to be shaped by the world around them. This harks back to the normative/formative shift. But we also need to teach critical thinking, teach self awareness, bias awareness, maker skills, community awareness. It has been delightful to move to New Zealand where they have a culture that has an assumed community awareness.

We need of course to have a strong focus on participatory democracy, where government isn’t just doing something to you but we are all building the future we need together. This is how we create a multi-processor world rather than a single processor government. This is how we scale and develop a better society but we need to move beyond “consultation” and into actual co-design with governments working collaboratively across the sectors and with civil society to shape the world.

I’ll finish on this note, government as an enabler, a platform upon which society can build. We need to build a way of working that assumes we are a node in the network, that assumes we have to work collaboratively, that assumes that people are naturally motivated to make good decisions for their life and how can government enable and support people.

So embrace the tipping point, don’t just react. What future do you want, what society do you want to move towards? I guess I’ve got to a point in my life where I see everything as a system and if I can’t connect the dots between what I’m doing and the purpose then I try to not do that thing. The first public service job I had I got in and automated a large proportion of the work within a couple of weeks and then asked for data.gov.au, and they gave it to me because I was motivated to make it better.

So I challenge you to be thinking about this every day, to consider your own assumptions and biases, to consider whether you are being normative or formative, to evaluate whether you are being iterative or transformative, to evaluate whether you are moving away from something or towards something. And to always keep in mind where you want to be, how you are contributing to a better society and to actively leave behind those legacy ideas that simply don’t serve us anymore.

Posted in Choose Your Own Adventure, gov20, Government, Tech | 2 Comments

RegTech – a primer for the uninitiated

Whilst working at AUSTRAC I wrote a brief about RegTech which was quite helpful. I was given permission to blog the generically useful parts of it for general consumption :) Thanks Leanne!

Overview – This brief is the most important thing you will read in planning transformation! Government can’t regulate in the way we have traditionally done. Traditional approaches are too small, too slow and too ineffective. We need to explore new ways to regulate and achieve the goal of a stronger financial sector resistance to abuse that leverages data, automation, machine learning, technology and collaboration. We are here to help!

The key here is to put technology at the heart of the business strategy, rather than as simply an implementation mechanism. By embracing technology thinking, which means getting geeks into the strategy and policy rooms, we can build the foundation of a modern, responsive, agile, proactive and interactive regulator that can properly scale.

The automation of compliance with RegTech has the potential to overcome individual foibles and human error in a way that provides the quantum leap in culture and compliance that our regulators, customers, policy makers and the community are increasingly demanding… The Holy Grail is when we start to actually write regulation and legislation in code. Imagine the productivity gains and compliance savings of instantaneous certified compliance… We are now in one of the most exciting phases in the development of FinTech since the inception of e-banking.Treasurer Morrison, FinTech Australia Summit, Nov 2016

On the back of the FinTech boom, there is a growth in companies focused on “RegTech” solutions and services to merge technology and regulation/compliance needs for a more 21st century approach to the problem space. It is seen as a logical next step to the FinTech boom, given the high costs and complexity of regulation in the financial sector, but the implications for the broader regulatory sector are significant. The term only started being widely used in 2015. Other governments have started exploring this space, with the UK Government investing significantly.

Core themes of RegTech can be summarised as: data; automation; security; disruption; and enabling collaboration. There is also an overall drive towards everything being closer to real-time, with new data or information informing models, responses and risk in an ongoing self-adjusting fashion.

  • Data driven regulation – better monitoring, better use of available big and small data holdings to inform modelling and analysis (rather than always asking a human to give new information), assessment on the fly, shared data and modelling, trends and forecasting, data analytics for forward looking projections rather than just retrospective analysis, data driven risk and adaptive modelling, programmatic delivery of regulations (regulation as a platform).
  • Automation – reporting, compliance, risk modelling of transactions to determine what should be reported as “suspicious”, system to system registration and escalation, use of machine learning and AI, a more blended approach to work combining humans and machines.
  • Security – biometrics, customer checks, new approaches to KYC, digital identification and assurance, sharing of identity information for greater validation and integrity checking.
  • Disruptive technologies – blockchain, cloud, machine learning, APIs, cryptography, augmented reality and crypto-currencies just to start!
  • Enabling collaboration – for-profit regulation activities, regulation/compliance services and products built on the back of government rules/systems/data, access to distributed ledgers, distributed risk models and shared data/systems, broader private sector innovation on the back of regulator open data and systems.

Some useful references for the more curious:

Posted in gov20, Government, Tech | Leave a comment

Iteration or Transformation in government: paint jobs and engines

I was recently at an event talking about all things technology with a fascinating group of people. It was a reminder to me that digital transformation has become largely confused with digital iteration, and we need to reset the narrative around this space if we are to realise the real opportunities and benefits of technology moving forward. I gave a speech recently about major paradigm shifts that have brought us to where we are and I encourage everyone to consider and explore these paradigm shifts as important context for this blog post and their own work, but this blog post will focus specifically on a couple of examples of actual transformative change worth exploring.

The TL;DR is simply that you need to be careful to not mistake iteration for transformation. Iteration is an improvement on the status quo. Transformation is a new model of working that is, hopefully, fundamentally better than the status quo. As a rule of thumb, if what you are doing is simply better, faster or cheaper, that it is probably just iterative. There are many examples from innovation and digital transformation agendas which are just improvements on the status quo, but two examples of actual transformation of government I think are worth exploring are Gov-as-an-API and mutually beneficial partnerships to address shared challenges.


Firstly, why am I even interested in “digital transformation”? Well, I’ve worked on open data in the Australian Federal Government since 2012 and very early on we recognised that open data was just a step towards the idea of “Gov as a Platform” as articulated by Tim O’Reilly nearly 10 years ago. Basically, he spoke about the potential to transform government into Government as a Platform, similar (for those unfamiliar with the “as a platform” idea) to Google Maps, or the Apple/Google app stores. Basically government could provide the data, content, transaction services and even business rules (regulation, common patterns such as means testing, building codes, etc) in a consumable, componentised and modular fashion to support a diverse ecosystem of service delivery, analysis and products by myriad agents, including private and public sector, but also citizens themselves.

Seems obvious right? I mean the private sector (the tech sector in any case) have been taking this approach for a decade.

What I have found in government is a lot of interest in “digital” where it is usually simply digitising an existing process, product or service. The understanding of consumable, modular architecture as a strategic approach to achieve greater flexibility and agility within an organisation, whilst enabling a broader ecosystem to build on top, is simply not understood by many. Certainly there are pockets that understand this, especially at the practitioner level, but agencies are naturally motivated to simply delivery what they need in isolation from a whole of government view. It was wonderful to recently see New Zealand picking up a whole of government approach in this vein but many governments are still focused on simple digitisation rather than transformation.

Why is this a problem? Well, to put it simply, government can’t scale the way it has traditionally worked to meet the needs and challenges of an increasingly changing world. Unless governments can transform to be more responsive, adaptive, collaborative and scalable, then they will become less relevant to the communities they serve and less effective in implementing government policy. Governments need to learn to adapt to the paradigm shifts from centrist to distributed models, from scarcity to surplus resources, from analogue to digital models, from command and control to collaborative relationships, and from closed to open practices.

Gov as an API

On of the greatest impacts of the DTO and the UK Government Digital Service has been to spur a race to the top around user centred design and agile across governments. However, these methods whilst necessary, are not sufficient for digital transformation, because you too easily see services created that are rapidly developed and better for citizens, but still based on bespoke siloed stacks of technology and content that aren’t reconsumable. Why does this matter? Because there are loads of components needed for multiple services, but siloed service technology stacks lead to duplication, a lack of agility in iterating and improving the user experience on an ongoing basis, a lack of programmatic access to those components which would enable system to system automation, and a complete lack of the “platform” upon which an ecosystem could be built.

When I was at the interim DTO in 2016, we fundamentally realised that no single agency would ever be naturally motivated, funded or mandated to deliver services on behalf of someone else. So rather than assuming a model wherein an agency is expected to do just that, we started considering new models. New systems wherein agencies could achieve what they needed (and were mandated and funded) to do, but where the broader ecosystem could provide multi-channel services delivery where there is no wrong door for citizens to do what they need. One channel might be the magical “life events” lens, another might be third parties, or State and Territory Governments, or citizen mashups. These agents and sectors have ongoing relationships with their users allowing them to exponentially spread and maintain user-centred design in way that government by itself can not afford to do, now or into the future.

This vision was itself was just a reflection of the Amazon, Google Maps, the Apple “apps store” and other platform models so prevalent in the private sector as described above. But governments everywhere have largely interpreted the “Gov as a Platform” idea as simply common or shared platforms. Whilst common platforms can provide savings and efficiencies, it has not enabled the system transformation needed to get true digital transformation across government.

So what does this mean practically? There are certainly pockets of people doing or experimenting in this space. Here are some of my thoughts to date based on work I’ve done in Australia (at the interim DTO) and in New Zealand (with the Department of Internal Affairs).

Firstly you can largely identify four categories of things involved in any government service:

  • Content – obvious, but taking into account the domain specific content of agencies as well as the kind of custodian or contextual content usually managed by points of aggregation or service delivery
  • Data – any type of list, source of intelligence or statistics, search queries such as ABN lookups
  • Transaction services – anything a person or business interacts with such as registration, payments, claims, reporting, etc. Obviously requires strict security frameworks
  • Business rules – the regulation, legislation, code, policy logic or even reusable patterns such as means testing which are usually hard coded into projects as required. Imagine an authoritative public API with the business logic of government available for consumption by everyone. A good example of pioneering work in this space is the Regulation as a Platform work by Data61.

These categories of components can all be made programmatically available for the delivery of your individual initiative and for broader reuse either publicly (for data, content and business rules) or securely (for transaction services). But you also need some core capabilities that are consumable for any form of digital service, below are a few to consider:

  • Identity and authentication, arguably also taking into account user consent based systems which may be provided from outside of government
  • Service analytics across digital and non digital channels to baseline the user experience and journey with govt and identify what works through evidence. This could also fuel a basic personalisation service.
  • A government web platform to pull together the government “sedan” service
  • Services register – a consumable register of government services (human services) to draw from across the board.

Imagine if we tool a conditional approach to matters, where you don’t need to provide documentation to prove your age (birth certificate, licence, passport), all of which give too much information, but rather can provide a verifiable claim that yes I am over the required age. This would both dramatically reduce the work for gov, and improve the privacy of people. See the verifiable claims work by W3C for more info on this concept, but it could be a huge transformation for how gov and privacy operates.

The three key advantages to taking this approach are:

  1. Agency agility – In splitting the front end from a consumable backend, agencies gain the ability to more rapidly iterate the customer experience of the service, taking into account changing user needs and new user platforms (mobile is just the start – augmented reality and embedded computing are just around the corner). When the back end and front end of a service are part of the one monolithic stack, it is simply too expensive and complicated to make many changes to the service.
  2. Ecosystem enablement – As identified above, a key game changer with the model is the ability for others to consume the services to support and multi-channel of services, analysis and products delivered by the broader community of government, industry and community players.
  3. Automation – the final and least sexy, though most interesting from a service improvement perspective, is automation. If your data, content, transaction systems and rules are programmatically available, suddenly you create the opportunity for the steps of a life event to be automated, where user consent is granted. The user consent part is really important, just to be clear! So rather than having 17 beautiful but distinct user services that a person has to individually complete, a user could be asked at any one of those entry points whether they’d like the other 16 steps to be automatically completed on their behalf. Perhaps the best way government can serve citizens in many cases is to get out of the way :)

Meaningful and mutually beneficial collaboration

Collaboration has become something of a buzzword in government often resulting in meetings, MOUs, principle statements or joint media releases. Occasionally there are genuine joint initiatives but there are still a lot of opportunities to explore new models of collaboration that achieve better outcomes.

Before we talk about how to collaborate, we need to address the elephant in the room: natural motivation. Government often sees consultation as something nice to have, collaboration as a nice way of getting others to contribute to something, and co-design as something to strive across the business units in your agency. If we consider the idea that government simply cannot meet the challenges or opportunities of the 21st century in isolation, if we acknowledge that government cannot scale at the same pace of the changing domains we serve, then we need to explore new models of collaboration where we actively partner with others for mutual benefit. To do this we need to identify areas for which others are naturally motivated to collaborate.

Firstly, let’s acknowledge there will always be work to do for which there are no naturally motivated partners. Why would anyone else want, at their own cost, to help you set up your mobility strategy, or implement an email server, or provide telephony services? The fact is that a reasonable amount of what any organisation does would be seen as BAU, as commodity, and thus only able to be delivered through internal capacity or contractual relationships with suppliers. So initiatives that try to improve government procurement practices can iteratively improve these customer-supplier arrangements but they don’t lend themselves to meaningful or significant collaboration.

OK, so what sort of things could be done differently? This is where you need to look critically at the purpose of your agency including the highest level goals, and identify who the natural potential allies in those goals could be. You can then approach your natural allies, identify where there are shared interests, challenges or opportunities, and collectively work together to co-design, co-invest, co-deliver and co-resource a better outcome for all involved. Individual allies could use their own resources or contractors for their contribution to the work, but the relationship is one of partnership, the effort and expertise is shared, and the outcomes are more powerful and effective than any one entity would have delivered on their own. In short, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

I will use the exciting and groundbreaking work of my current employer as a real example to demonstrate the point.

AUSTRAC is the Australian Government financial intelligence agency with some regulatory responsibilities. The purpose of the agency is threefold: 1) to detect and disrupt abuse of the financial system; 2) to strengthen the financial system against abuse; and 3) to contribute to the growth of the Australian economy. So who are natural allies in these goals… banks, law enforcement and fraud focused agencies, consumer protection organisations, regulatory organisations, fintech and regtech startups, international organisations, other governments, even individual citizens! So to tap into this ecosystem of potential allies, AUSTRAC has launched a new initiative called the “Fintel Alliance” which includes, at its heart, new models of collaborating on shared goals. There are joint intelligence operations on major investigations like the Panama Papers, joint industry initiatives to explore shared challenges and then develop prototypes and references implementations, active co-design of the new regulatory framework with industry, and international collaborations to strengthen the global financial system against abuse. The model is still in early days, but already AUSTRAC has shown that a small agency can punch well above it’s weight by working with others in new and innovative ways.

Other early DTO lessons

I’ll finish with a few lessons from the DTO. I worked at the DTO for the first 8 months (Jan – Sept 2015) when it was being set up. It was a crazy time with people from over 30 agencies thrust together to create a new vision for government services whilst simultaneously learning to speak each other’s language and think in a whole of government(s) way. We found a lot of interesting things, not least of all just how pervasive the siloed thinking of government ran. For example, internal analysis at the DTO of user research from across government agencies showed that user research tended to be through the narrow lens of an agency’s view of “it’s customers” and the services delivered by that agency. It was clear the user needs beyond the domain of the agency was seen as out of scope, or, at best, treated as a hand off point.

We started writing about a new draft vision whilst at the DTO which fundamentally was based on the idea of an evidence based, consumable approach to designing and delivering government services, built on reusable components that could be mashed up for a multi-channel ecosystem of service delivery. We tested this with users, agencies and industry with great feedback. Some of our early thinking is below, now a year and a half old, but worth referring back to:

One significant benefit of the DTO and GDS was the cycling of public servants through the agency to experience new ways of working and thinking, and applying an all of government lens across their work. This cultural transformation was then maintained in Australia, at least in part, when those individuals returned to their home agencies. A great lesson for others in this space.

A couple of other lessons learned from the DTO are below:

  • Agencies want to change. They are under pressure from citizens, governments and under budget constraints and know they need better ways to do things.
  • A sandbox is important. Agencies need somewhere to experiment, play with new tools, ideas and methods, draw on different expertise and perspectives, build prototypes and try new ideas. This is ideally best used before major projects are undertaken as a way to quickly test ideas before going to market. It also helps improve expectations of what is possible and what things should cost.
  • Everyone has an agenda, every agency will drive their own agenda with whatever the language of the day and agendas will continue to diverge from each other whilst there is not common vision.
  • Evidence is important! And there isn’t generally enough AoG evidence available. Creating an evidence base was a critical part of identifying what works and what doesn’t.
  • Agile is a very specific and useful methodology, but often gets interpreted as something loose, fast, and unreliable. Education about proper agile methods is important.
  • An AoG strategy for transformation is critical. If transformation is seen as a side project, it will never be integrated into BAU.
  • Internal brilliance needs tapping. Too often govt brings in consultants and ignores internal ideas, skills and enthusiasm. There needs to be a combination of public engagement and internal engagement to get the best outcomes.

I want to just finish by acknowledging and thanking the “interim DTO” team and early leadership for their amazing work, vision and collective efforts in establishing the DTO and imagining a better future for service delivery and for government more broadly. It was an incredible time with incredible people, and your work continues to live on and be validated by service delivery initiatives in Australia and across the world. Particular kudos to team I worked directly with, innovative and awesome public servants all! Sharyn Clarkson, Sean Minney, Mark Muir, Vanessa Roarty, Monique Kenningham, Nigel O’Keefe, Mark McKenzie, Chris Gough, Deb Blackburn, Lisa Howdin, Simon Fisher, Andrew Carter, Fran Ballard and Fiona Payne :) Also to our contractors at the time Ruth Ellison, Donna Spencer and of course, the incredible and awesome Alex Sadleir.

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Service Innovation in New Zealand – the new digital transformation

Over the past fortnight I have had the pleasure and privilege of working closely with the Service Innovation team in the New Zealand Government to contribute to their next steps in achieving proper service integration. It was an incredible two weeks as part of an informal exchange between our agencies to share expertise and insights. I am very thankful for the opportunity to work with the team and to contribute in some small way to their visionary, ambitious and world leading agenda. I also recommend everyone watch closely the work of Service Innovation team, and contact them if you are interested in giving feedback on the model.

I spent a couple of weeks in New Zealand looking at their “Service Innovation” agenda, which is, I can confidently say, one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen for genuine digital transformation. The Kiwis have in place already a strong and technically sound vision for service integration, a bunch of useful guidance (including one of the best gov produced API guides I’ve ever seen!) and a commitment to delivering integrated services as a key part of their agenda and programme along with brilliant skills and visionaries across government.

I believe New Zealand will be the one to watch over the coming year and, with a little luck, they could redefine the baseline for what everyone should be aspiring to. They could be the first government to properly demonstrate Gov as a Platform, not just better digital government, which is quite exciting! Systemic change and transformation generally happens once a generation if you are lucky, so do keep an eye on the Kiwis. They are set to  leave us all behind!

There is more internal documentation which I encourage the team to publish, like the Federated Services Model Reference Architecture and other gems.

In a couple of weeks, on the back of a raft of ongoing work, we analysed why it is with such great guidance available, why would siloed approaches still be happening? We found that the natural motivations of agencies would always drive an implementation that was designed to meet the specific agency needs rather than the system needs across government. That was unsurprising but the new insight was the service delivery teams themselves, who wanted to do the best possible implementations but with little time and resource, and high expectations, couldn’t take the time needed to find, read, interpret, translate into practice and verify implementation of the guidance. Which is quite fair! So we looked at models of reducing the barriers for those teams to do things better by providing reusable infrastructure and reference implementations, and either changing or tweaking the motivations of agencies themselves.

This is an ongoing piece of work, but fundamentally we looked at the idea that if we made the best technical path also the easiest path for service delivery teams to follow, then there would be a reasonable chance of a consumable systems approach to delivering these services. If support and skills was available with tools, code, dev environments, reference implementations, lab environments and other useful tools for designing and delivering government services faster, better and cheaper, then service delivery teams and agencies both would have a natural motivation to take that approach. Basically, we surmised that vision and guidance probably needed to be supplemented by implementation to make it real, moving from policy to application.

It is great to see other jurisdictions like New Zealand starting to experiment and implement the consumable mashable government model! I want to say a huge thank you to the New Zealand Government for sharing their ideas, but mostly for now picking up and being in such a great position to show everyone what Gov as a Platform and Gov as an API should look like. I wish you luck and hope to be a part of your success, even just in a small way!

Rock on.

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Choose your own adventure – keynote

This is a blog version of the keynote I gave at linux.conf.au 2017. Many thanks to everyone who gave such warm feedback, and I hope it helps spur people to think about systemic change and building the future. The speech can be watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6IqGuxCKa8.

I genuinely believe we are at a tipping point right now. A very important tipping point where we have at our disposal all the philosophical and technical means to invent whatever world we want, but we’re at risk of reinventing the past with shiny new things. This talk is about trying to make active choices about how we want to live in future and what tools we keep or discard to get there. Passive choices are still a choice, they are choosing the status quo. We spend a lot of our time tinkering around the edges of life as it is, providing symptomatic relief for problems we find, but we need to take a broader systems based view and understand what systemic change we can make to properly address those problems.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years using a cooperative competitive social structure that helped us work together to flourish in every habitat, rapidly and increasingly evolve an learn, and establish culture, language, trade and travel. We were constantly building on what came before and we built our tools as we went.

In recent millennia we invented systems of complex differentiated and interdependent skills, leading to increasingly rapid advancements in how we live and organise ourselves physically, politically, economically and socially, especially as we started building huge cities. Lots of people meant a lot of time to specialise, and with more of our basic needs taken care of, we had more time for philosophy and dreaming.

Great progress created great surplus, creating great power, which we generally centralised in our great cities under rulers that weren’t always so great. Of course, great power also created great inequalities so sometimes we burned down those great cities, just to level the playing field. We often took a symptomatic relief approach to bad leaders by replacing them, without fundamentally changing the system.

But in recent centuries we developed the novel idea that all people have inalienable rights and can be individually powerful. This paved the way for a massive culture shift and distribution of power combined with heightened expectations of individuals in playing a role in their own destiny, leading us to the world as we know it today. Inalienable rights paved the way for people thinking differently about their place in the world, the control they had over their lives and how much control they were happy to cede to others. This makes us, individually, the most powerful we have ever beed, which changes the game moving forward.

You see, the internet was both a product and an amplifier of this philosophical transition, and of course it lies at the heart of our community. Technology has, in large part, only sped up the cooperative competitive models of adapting, evolving and flourishing we have always had. But the idea that anyone has a right to life and liberty started a decentralisation of power and introduced the need for legitimate governance based on the consent of citizens (thank you Locke).

Citizens have the powers of publishing, communications, monitoring, property, even enforcement. So in recent decades we have shifted fundamentally from kings in castles to nodes in a network, from scarcity to surplus or reuse models, from closed to open systems, and the rate of human progress only continues to grow towards an asymptoic climb we can’t even imagine.

To help capture this, I thought I’d make a handy change.log on human progress to date.

# Notable changes to homo sapiens – change.log
## [2.1.0] – 1990s CE “technology revolution & internet”
### Changed
– New comms protocol to distribute “rights”. Printing press patch unexpectedly useful for distributing resources. Moved from basic multi-core to clusters of independent processors with exponential growth in power distribution.

## [2.0.0] – 1789 CE “independence movements”
### Added
– Implemented new user permissions called “rights”, early prototype of multi-core processing with distributed power & comms.

## [1.2.0] – 1760 CE “industrial revolution”
### Changed
– Agricultural libraries replaced by industrial libraries, still single core but heaps faster.

## [1.1.1] – 1440 CE “gutenberg”
### Patched
– Printing press a minor patch for more efficient instructions distribution, wonder if it’d be more broadly useful?

## [1.1.0] – 2,000 BCE “cities era”
### Changed
– Switched rural for urban operating environment. Access to more resources but still on single core.

## [1.0.0] – 8,000 BCE “agricultural revolution”
### Added
– New agricultural libraries, likely will create surplus and population explosion. Heaps less resource intensive.

## [0.1.0] – 250,000 BCE “homo sapiens”
### Added
– Created fork from homo erectus, wasn’t confident in project direction though they may still submit contributions…

(For more information about human evolution, see https://www.bighistoryproject.com)

The point to this rapid and highly oversimplified historical introduction is threefold: 1) we are more powerful than ever before, 2) the rate of change is only increasing, and 3) we made all this up, and we can make it up again. It is important to recognise that we made all of this up. Intellectually we all understand this but it matters because we often assume things are how they are, and then limit ourselves to working within the constraints of the status quo. But what we invented, we can change, if we choose.

We can choose our own adventure, or we let others choose on our behalf. And if we unthinkingly implement the thinking, assumptions and outdated paradigms of the past, then we are choosing to reimplement the past.

Although we are more individually and collectively powerful than ever before, how often do you hear “but that’s just how we’ve always done it”, “but that’s not traditional”, or “change is too hard”. We are demonstrably and historically utter masters at change, but life has become so big, so fast, and so interrelated that change has become scary for many people, so you see them satisfied by either ignoring change or making iterative improvements to the status quo. But we can do better. We must do better.

I believe we are at a significant tipping point in history. The world and the very foundations our society were built on have changed, but we are still largely stuck in the past in how we think and plan for the future. If we don’t make some active decisions about how we live, think and act, then we will find ourselves subconsciously reinforcing the status quo at every turn and not in a position to genuinely create a better future for all.

So what could we do?

  • Solve poverty and hunger: distributed property through nanotechnology and 3D printing, universal education and income.
  • Work 2 days a week, automate the rest: work, see “Why the Future is Workless” by Tim Dunlop
  • Embrace and extend our selves: Transhumanism, para olympics, “He was more than a dolphin, but from another dolphin’s point of view he might have seemed like something less.” — William Gibson, from Johnny Mnemonic. Why are we so conservative about what it means to be human? About our picture of self? Why do we get caught up on what is “natural” when almost nothing we do is natural.
  • Overcome the tyranny of distance: rockets for international travel, interstellar travel, the opportunity to have new systems of organising ourselves
  • Global citizens: Build a mighty global nation where everyone can flourish and have their rights represented beyond the narrow geopolitical nature of states: peer to peer economy, international rights, transparent gov, digital democracy, overcome state boundaries,
  • ?? What else ?? I’m just scratching the surface!

So how can we build a better world? Luckily, the human species has geeks. Geeks, all of us, are special because we are the pioneers of the modern age and we get to build the operating system for all our fellow humans. So it is our job to ensure what we do makes the world a better place.

rOml is going to talk more about future options for open source in the Friday keynote, but I want to explore how we can individually and collectively build for the future, not for the past.

I would suggest, given our role as creators, it is incumbent on us to both ensure we build a great future world that supports all the freedoms we believe in. It means we need to be individually aware of our unconscious bias, what beliefs and assumptions we hold, who benefits from our work, whether diversity is reflected in our life and work, what impact we have on society, what we care about and the future we wish to see.

Collectively we need to be more aware of whether we are contributing to future or past models, whether belief systems are helping or hindering progress, how we treat others and what from the past we want to keep versus what we want to get rid of.

Right now we have a lot going on. On the one hand, we have a lot of opportunities to improve things and the tools and knowledge at our disposal to do so. On the other hand we have locked up so much of our knowledge and tools, traditional institutions are struggling to maintain their authority and control, citizens are understandably frustrated and increasingly taking matters into their own hands, we have greater inequality than ever before, an obsession with work at the cost of living, and we are expected to sacrifice our humanity at the alter of economics

Questions to ask yourself:

Who are/aren’t you building for?
What is the default position in society?
What does being human mean to you?
What do we value in society?
What assumptions and unconscious bias do you have?
How are you helping non-geeks help themselves?
What future do you want to see?

What should be the rights, responsibilities and roles of
citizens, governments, companies, academia?

Finally,we must also help our fellow humans shift from being consumers to creators. We are all only as free as the tools we use, and though geeks will always be able to route around damage, be that technical or social, many of our fellow humans do not have the same freedoms we do.

Fundamental paradigm shifts we need to consider in building the future.

Scarcity → Surplus
Closed → Open
Centralised → Distributed
Analogue → Digital
Belief → Rationalism
Win/lose → Cooperative competitive
Nationalism → Transnationalism
Normative humans → Formative humans

Open source is the best possible modern expression of cooperative competitiveness that also integrates our philosophical shift towards human rights and powerful citizens, so I know it will continue to thrive and win when pitted against closed models, broadly speaking.

But in inventing the future, we need to be so very careful that we don’t simply rebuild the past with new shiny tools. We need to keep one eye always on the future we want to build, on how what we are doing contributes to that future, and to ensuring we have enough self awareness and commitment to ensuring we don’t accidentally embed in our efforts the outdated and oftentimes repressive habits of the past.

To paraphrase Gandhi, build the change you want to see. And build it today.

Thank you, and I hope you will join me in forging a better future.

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Retiring from GovHack

It is with a little sadness, but a lot of pride that I announce my retirement from GovHack, at least retirement from the organising team :) It has been an incredible journey with a lot of amazing people along the way and I will continue to be it’s biggest fan and support. I look forward to actually competing in future GovHacks and just joining in the community a little more than is possible when you are running around organising things! I think GovHack has grown up and started to walk, so as any responsible parent, I want to give it space to grow and evolve with the incredible people at the helm, and the new people getting involved.

Just quickly, it might be worth reflecting on the history. The first “GovHack” event was a wonderfully run hackathon by John Allsopp and Web Directions as part of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce program in 2009. It was small with about 40 or so people, but extremely influential and groundbreaking in bringing government and community together in Australia, and I want to thank John for his work on this. You rock! I should also acknowledge the Gov 2.0 Taskforce for funding the initiative, Senator at the time Kate Lundy for participating and giving it some political imprimatur, and early public servants who took a risk to explore new models of openness and collaboration such as Aus Gov CTO John Sheridan. A lot of things came together to create an environment in which community and government could work together better.

Over the subsequent couple of years there were heaps of “apps” competitions run by government and industry. On the one hand it was great to see experimentation however, unfortunately, several events did silly things like suing developers for copyright infringement, including NDAs for participation, or setting actual work for development rather than experimentation (which arguably amounts to just getting free labour). I could see the tech community, my people, starting to disengage and become entirely and understandably cynical of engaging with government. This would be a disastrous outcome because government need geeks. The instincts, skills and energy of the tech community can help reinvent the future of government so I wanted to right this wrong.

In 2012 I pulled together a small group of awesome people. Some from that first GovHack event, some from BarCamp, some I just knew and we asked John if we could use the name (thank you again John!) and launched a voluntary, community run, annual and fun hackathon, by hackers for hackers (and if you are concerned by that term, please check out what a hacker is). We knew if we did something awesome, it would build the community up, encourage governments to open data, show off our awesome technical community, and provide a way to explore tricky problems in new and interesting ways. But we had to make is an awesome event for people to participate in.

It worked.

It has been wonderful to see GovHack grow from such humble origins to the behemoth it is today, whilst also staying true to the original purpose, and true to the community it serves. In 2016 (for which I was on maternity leave) there were over 3000 participants in 40 locations across two countries with active participation by Federal, State/Territory and Local Governments. There are always growing pains, but the integrity of the event and commitment to community continues to be a huge part of the success of the event.

In 2015 I stepped back from the lead role onto the general committee, and Geoff Mason did a brilliant job as Head Cat Herder! In 2016 I was on maternity leave and watched from a distance as the team and event continued to evolve and grow under the leadership of Richard Tubb. I feel now that it has its own momentum, strong leadership, an amazing community of volunteers and participation and can continue to blossom. This is a huge credit to all the people involved, to the dedicated national organisers over the years, to the local organisers across Australia and New Zealand, and of course, to all the community who have grown around it.

A few days ago, a woman came up to me at linux.conf.au and told me about how she had come to Australia not knowing anyone, and gone to GovHack after seeing it advertised at her university, and she made all her friends and relationships there and is so extremely happy. It made me teary, but also was a timely reminder. Our community is amazing. And initiatives like GovHack can be great enablers for our community, for new people to meet, build new communities, and be supported to rock. So we need to always remember that the projects are only as important as how much they help our community.

I continue to be one of GovHack’s biggest fans. I look forward to competing this year and seeing where current and future leadership takes the event and they have my full support and confidence. I will be looking for my next community startup after I finish writing my book (hopefully due mid year :)).

If you love GovHack and want to help, please volunteer for 2017, consider joining the leadership, or just come along for fun. If you don’t know what GovHack is, I’ll see you there!

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How we got here, Chapter 1: Clever Monkeys

This is part of a book I am working on, hopefully due for completion by early 2017. The purpose of the book is to explore where we are at, where we are going, and how we can get there, in the broadest possible sense.  It is in “stream of consciousness” phase so your comments, feedback and constructive criticism are welcome! The final text of the book will be freely available under a Creative Commons By Attribution license. A book version will be sent to nominated world leaders, to hopefully encourage the necessary questioning of the status quo and smarter decisions into the future. Additional elements like references, graphs, images and other materials will be available in the final digital and book versions and draft content will be published weekly. Please subscribe to the blog posts by RSS and/or join the mailing list for updates.

Back to the book overview or table of contents for the full picture.

If we look back at our earliest roots, humans have some pretty special characteristics that define and drive us, even today, and have made us arguably the most successful species in the world. We have populated every continent, developed complex social structures and specialisation of labour, shaped the environment around us, even traveled to the moon. The rate of human change, progress and indeed, evolution, is only getting faster over time. Though there are certainly issues around the sustainability of how we currently live, we have also come to an age of greater self awareness as a species of our impact, capabilities and responsibilities and can develop new ways to live more sustainably.

By understanding the basic but persistent characteristics of our collective psyche, we can better understand what will drive our decisions and trends of our future.The core human characteristics that collectively differentiate us from other animals are language and symbology, collaboration and specialisation, cumulative learning, curiosity and our thirst for fun.

Language and symbology has given us the ability to both communicate and record ideas, but also to`explore and express abstract concepts. Because we are a highly social and collaborative animal, we also have the ability to share the workload and specialise, such that individuals can become highly skilled at a subset of the skills needed for the group survival and prosperity. This in turn makes us more interdependent on the rest of the group, as highly specialised individuals are necessarily without all the skills needed to prosper. This is no less the case today than it was in ancient hunter and gather communities, though the necessary interdependence of individuals is often forgotten amidst  modern ideologies of liberalism and individual rights. The individual needs the collective to share the load of survival in order to have the comfort, time and space to thrive, otherwise that individual little time to think or develop skills beyond the next meal or shelter. As such, the good of the collective is necessary for the good of the individual. One of the interesting things about our social structures, work specialisation and necessary interdependence is that it fosters some element of stability and predictability in life, which we also are taught to pursue. Stability and predictability have historically made it easier to survive and thrive however, this was easier when the rate of change was slower. In any case, stability and predictability when combined with basic needs being met also creates opportunity for growth and advancement.

The characteristics that most significantly contributed to the rise and rise of homo sapiens is our capacity for cumulative learning and cooperative competition. Individuals inherit knowledge, and then build upon that foundation to develop new knowledge, continually passing exchange, enhancing and improving. As very early humans started to travel and trade, knowledge was increasingly exchanged between different groups creating an increased rate of development. The introduction of modern and instantaneous global communications pushed that capacity even further with cumulative learning – and the progress of invention and ideas – becoming faster than ever, with more people than ever able to contribute to and derive from a collective knowledge commons. The fact that the Internet also harbours unprecedented amounts of entertainment with which individuals could simply spend their life creating nothing of substance does not take away from the fact that same individual, if motivated, could educate themselves on almost anything to contribute to making a better world. With so many people so immediately and easily connected around the world, we also have new means of cooperating and competing. Even when our basic needs are met, we still have an inherent instinct to work with others to improve things. Often cooperation and competition are presented as zero sum game principles however, historically, it is by both cooperating and competing that we have flourished. Cooperating on the common, and competing on the distinct. Both are built into everyday life, from sharing cookies with schoolmates at an athletics competition, to sharing workspaces of competing startups in business incubators. In an era of surplus, many of us aren’t competing for resources at the cost of others, but rather are competing with ideas, beliefs and a changing perspectives of success. All competition naturally builds on the back of cooperation as the best of the best will stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before. Similarly, all cooperation is built on a little competition as the people involved in any venture will try harder with their peers watching, and will strive to be the best they can.

Finally, our natural curiosity and fun seeking natures continually compel us to explore the world around us and improve our lives. Curiosity is certainly not unique to humans however, our constant thirst for knowledge, for ever more shiny distractions and entertainment, for invention and fun, can help in predicting how we may behave in future. Once something, anything, becomes uninteresting or onerous, people tend to look elsewhere. Whatever people find interesting (or can be convinced to be interested in) becomes the basis for new markets, entertainment, memes, finances, invention and development. We like to play. In every form of human society throughout time we have made time to have fun, even when our basic needs aren’t met. We have made play such an important part of our lives that we have created entire areas of specialisation that appear to serve no purpose apart from pleasure, though often contain the ingredients for developing skills, building social cohesion and sharing knowledge. Play is a critical part of human development and life, and we tend to work hard to improve our lives specifically to make space and time for fun.

Although we have developed many complicated systems for how we survive and thrive, we are in fact fairly predictable in our basic desires and motivations. We crave shiny things, new knowledge, social acceptance and control over our lives. We aim to make our lives easier so we can have more time to play. We arm ourselves with the tools required to satisfy our desires (whether innate or influenced) and can build on the efforts and knowledge of those who have come before to constantly innovate and improve, working cooperatively and competitively with others around us. We try to avoid what we aren’t naturally motivated to do, and we like to explore and enjoy the world around us, seeking ever new and exciting experiences. Regardless of how complicated a system we build, these traits have endured and apply to us at both a macro and micro level. For instance, an organisation or body of people is no more likely to do something not in its best interest as an individual, and are just as likely to react badly to existential threats. This should shape how we design and deliver public policy, laws, services, regulation and other broad programs but we often build new systems without taking a pragmatically empathetic view to those affected.

These basic characteristics have brought us here and continue to underpin our lives, so they can tell us something about the fundamental trajectory of human development over time and into the future. They also demonstrate clearly the opportunity to thrive when basic needs are met.

Further reading:

  • The “Big History” website is amazing and well referenced.
  • References to include research papers on psychology, rate of evolution, anthropological and historical references to growth and changes in human society including emergence of highly interdependent specialisation, research on human motivations and thrive vs survive reactions.

Back to the book overview or table of contents for the full picture.

Posted in Choose Your Own Adventure | 4 Comments