Monday, February 27, 2012

How Do We Find Tomorrow's Energy Solutions?

Last Tuesday, Disruptive Thinkers of San Diego hosted a forum on the "Future of Energy."   We tried a different format than our usual roundtable discussion -- this was partly because the size of our group has grown, but also to draw out more interesting discussion. 

What's Next When (If?) Oil Peaks?
Tech entrepreneur Dave Porreca gave the introductory remarks, and laid out the intellectual challenges to defining effective energy policy.  His most provocative remarks came when he asked the crowd "How many of you think that nuclear energy can be safe -- without any possibility of meltdown or negative side-effects?"  One person out of thirty raised his hand.  He was the only one who got the answer right.

It was the investigation of forth-generation nuclear that piqued our interest -- along with revelations about Tata's Air Car and the use of biofuels derived from algae.  To be sure, some of these technologies are still in the nascent stages, and may prove to be unworkable.  But it was refreshing to hear a different story than Big Oil vs. Green Tech that the media and politicians seem to be wedded to.

In fact, the night was remarkable in that not once did politics come up -- and this in a room full of people spanning the political spectrum.  The discussions were focused on moving forward, and embracing the best solutions, regardless of who proposed them.

Earlier in the week, our board members contacted the campaign of San Diego Mayoral Candidate Nathan Fletcher, and his staff was interested to hear some of our solutions to local energy issues.  Nathan's desired motto for a future San Diego is the "World's Most Innovative City."  It speaks volumes that he is willing to listen to entrepreneurs to make this a reality.  This defined our discussion for the evening. 

So much for Green Solutions in CA...
Before we were able to come up with solutions, however, we first had to define the problems facing the implementation of disruptive energy solutions.  And while all three groups had the task of discussing local energy policy, the randomly assigned groups tackled the problem from very different perspectives. 

In figuring out the questions to ask, we also discovered that many of us had no idea where our energy comes from.  Is it nuclear?  Wind?  Indigenous to California?  Imported from other states? We also had no idea how effective much vaunted alternative sources really are.  These questions seemed glaring, even among "highly" educated and involved professionals.  

In the end, here are some of the questions we contemplated: 
  1. Gas prices are likely to continue to rise. In the event of another conflict in Central Asia or the Middle East, prices could go well above $5/gallon. What is the breaking point for a city like San Diego? When do consumers/citizens have no choice but to fundamentally change behavior and how does that play out without chaos in public policy?  What incentive systems could be used to alter behavioral patterns?
  2. Over the course of the past decade, the ebb and flow of gas prices has brought the “alternative energy” conversation to the forefront.  Rare, however, are substantial solutions.  What is required for fundamental social change? 
  3. There are areas of our lives where energy consumption is readily displayed. Yet for the average citizen, they are usually not aware of how much energy they are consuming on a daily basis at home. Is there an application or technology that could simply make consumers aware?
  4. What is the role of Governmental policy?  Can it ever be useful?  More importantly, why does the government have such a bad track record in determining appropriate solutions (ethanol, Solyndra, etc)?
  5. How do we encourage established business interests, after buying up revolutionary innovations that threaten their markets, to grow them instead of shelving them?  
  6. How can we educate the public about where their power comes from, and ways to "Get off the grid?"
To be sure, these questions have been asked many times.  Yet, the institutional answers seem insufficient to the challenges at hand. 

The next post will delve into the answers to these questions, and what Disruptive Thinkers believes is the way forward. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Developing a Disruptive Mindset

The rebel secretly quite wants the world and the system to remain as it is.  Its permanence, after all, is the guarantee of his continuing ability to "rebel."  The revolutionary, in contrast, really wishes to overthrow and replace existing conditions.
-Christopher Hitchens, via Jean-Paul Sarte

Before you can be Disruptive, you must embrace a Disruptive mindset.  This is one of those things that takes concerted effort and time.  It also is not a widespread trait in general society.   Yet even the most iconoclast of us can think in this manner if we truly want to.

My own journey began senior year of college.  Before this, I was your standard strait-laced Midwestern kid.  I grew up with a conservative, established religion. I never rebelled against my parents.  I always did what I was told.  I supported the establishment and felt uncomfortable around "rebels" and unorthodox thinkers.  I never smoked anything, didn't drink until I was 21.  These things served me well.  But I was missing something fundamental about the world.

Two things started this Disruptive transformation in 2003: I met a girl who showed me new opportunities, and met a mentor who introduced me to the habit of challenging established orthodoxy.  In the former case, fundamental questions I had never considered reared their head.  In the latter, I was exposed to leaders that shaped our world, but only because they willingly challenged the incumbent powers -- often at great professional risk -- and because they believed they were right.  One person with a right opinion outvotes a majority.

Nine years later, Disruptive Thinkers was born over a beer as a buddy and I complained about the outdated military pension model.  I'm the last person any of my high school peers would have expected to be a Disruptive personality.  Yet now, it's pretty much all I think about.

Here's what I've learned along the way:

1.  Never Stop Questioning Core Beliefs.

Simply stated, and to once again quote Hitchens: "In order to be a 'radical,' one must be open to the possibility that one's own core assumptions are misconceived."  This is the most important element about being Disruptive.

This does not mean that your assumptions are in fact misconceived, only an acknowledgement that they may be.  In doing so, you can begin the process of learning, and potentially discovering something revolutionary.  You may find you need to alter your outlook as new facts emerge.  You may also find your beliefs are true -- and more strongly held.  In either case, as Frank Herbert notes, "Knowing is a barrier that prevents learning."

Those who knew monarchies were Divine couldn't fathom democracy.  The French along the Maginot Line who knew the Germans would resort to trench warfare just prior to World War II never imagined Blitzkreig.  Americans who knew that housing prices would never fall failed to learn from past bubbles.  Those who know that blind allegiance to a Party will give them success miss the joy and opportunities of being a free thinker. 

Learning opens us up to people and philosophies we had never considered before.  It leads us to question why anti-immigration and pro-life policies must be inextricably linked, or why being pro-union means a person must also be against voter-ID laws.

To learn best, however, we must embrace the next element as well:

2.  Be Extremely Well Read -- Especially of Those You Disagree With

If you are a conservative, Paul Krugman should be on your daily reading list.  If a liberal, Charles Krauthammer.  If you are a Christian, you should read Brian Greene on Cosmology.  If an aethiest, Lewis' Mere Christianity.  If a Socialist, Milton Friedman's Free to Choose.  If a Capitalist, The Communist Manifesto.

The crazy thing about this is that there will be moments, if you are truly objective, when you find yourself nodding in agreement with the opposition.  I am a professing Christian, yet Hitchen's diatribe against religion in "Letters to a Young Contrarian" hit home.  This is where we grow in our beliefs, and even adapt them to new understandings of the world.  It also allows us to defend them more adeptly when they come under attack.

The more we read, and the more diverse the opinions, the better we become at discerning logical arguments from specious ones.  Furthermore, if you want to really be Disruptive, read about subjects well beyond your expertise.  Communications majors should probably learn a bit about physics.  Engineers about behavioral psychology.  You'll soon pick up patterns and cross-over applications you never imagined  You may even find yourself questioning assumptions you never thought possible. 

3.  Never Miss an Opportunity to Travel Outside Your Home Country

When I was first assigned to the West Coast, I was devastated for a number of reasons -- not least of which was that my deployments would be to Asia and not Europe.  But after seeing Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Guam, Dubai, Bahrain, Thailand and Malaysia, I was hooked.

Sure, there are differences in cultures and religious traditions.  But many things remain the same.  Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Hindu, all people want what's best for their kids.  They walk them to the park, gather for family picnics, want good schooling and opportunity.  Men everywhere like fighter planes.

You also gain a greater appreciation for the deficiencies, but even more so, the advantages of your home country.  You see your culture from the perspective of others, and can evaluate it more objectively -- pinpointing the elements you want to improve upon, those that deserve bolstering.

4.  Make Friends with People You Wouldn't Normally Associate With

I was once manning a static display at an airshow in Bahrain.  A man approached, wearing the uniform of an Iranian Air Force officer. We struck up a conversation, and in the course of a few minutes, discovered we had much in common.  This was an "enemy." Yet, somehow we got along and learned from each other.  Surprising things happen when you reach out.

One of the core tenants of the Disruptive Thinkers group in San Diego is that it is strictly non-partisan.  Politics is not allowed to be mentioned.  This facilitates friendships between people with good ideas regardless of political affiliation.  Some of our most brilliant members are diametrically opposed to my core beliefs, but their ideas make sense.  It shouldnt matter who gets the credit for a good idea.  Simply implement it, be gracious, and work to improve on concepts cooperatively.   

5.  Recognize That Change is the Only Constant

Daniel Ford notes that "the fundamental, unavoidable and all-pervasive presence of uncertainty is a starting point" for understanding the world.  I've learned over the past few years that adaptability in the face of uncertainty is one of the most valuable skills anybody can possess.

I used to have a grand plan.  No longer.  Too many opportunities pop up that require considering possibilities outside the way "things are supposed to be."  Do I have goals and aspirations?  Of course.  But to limit possible outcomes because in the past I had a desire to be one thing instead of another is absurd.  Some say luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  You have to be ready to jump on board, whether you think you are ready or not.  

6.  Take Risks -- Ask for Forgiveness Rather than Permission

Here's the thing about risk:  the word implies there is a possibility of failure.  And most humans hate failure.  But in my experience, risk leads to more success.  It exposes you to more types of people, more opportunity, and an increasing appetite for further risk.  You can test your assumptions, change them, even strengthen them.  It takes iron to sharpen iron -- and a mindset of calculated risk sharpens our ability to effect change.   

Taking risks slowly acclimates your body to reacting calmly in stressful situations.  Landing a jet on a pitching deck at night with no visibility makes virtually everything else in life seem like a cake-walk -- even combat.  Take that leap, fight the urge to run and hide, and everything else becomes easier.  When you've faced down your greatest fears, it's a lot easier to speak up at a board meeting when your boss is about to make a horrendous decision.

7.  Encourage and Learn From Failure

We live in a very risk averse, no-defect culture.  But our greatest lessons are learned when we fail.  When we fail, it means we probably took a risk -- did something outside our comfort zone.  Yet even in that failure, we grow.  We reassess, recalibrate, try a different method.  We learn perseverance, and sometimes, as with the discovery of something like penicillin, accidentally save the world in the midst of failure.

Thinking Disruptively is not a process that takes place over night.  These habits need to be ingrained daily, over the course of months and even years.  But one day you wake up, and are able to call shenanigans on those in power.  You find yourself going from a mere rebel to an actual revolutionary, with the tools necessary to effect real and lasting change. Most of all, you discover things about yourself you never thought possible, and get addicted to the discovery of the unknown.  

Being Disruptive has costs.  You may lose friends.  You may upend an institution.  You may find yourself an outcast.  But at the very heart of this mindset is being true to one's own self.  Fight for what you believe in and never stop learning.  Push the envelope, experience new adventures and see what happens.  It will probably pleasantly surprise you. . 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love in the Information Age

And think not you can
Direct the course of love,
For love,
If it finds you worthy,
Directs your course.

-Khalil Gibran

Our world is changing; the velocity of ideas is accelerating.  It's hard to keep up with all the innovations sometimes. Yet, occasionally, the oldest technologies are the most potent.

Last week, I wrote a true letter for the first time in ages.  It's one of those arts that is quickly dying,  particularly missives to the objects of our affection.  In an age of instant communication, it doesnt seem very efficient to put pen to paper and trust an antiquated mail system to deliver a message.  But there is something timeless about the act.

Churchill the Charmer
When my sister and brother-in-law were first married, Nick was deployed to Iraq for nearly 18 months.  And while they had email and occasionally a connection good enough for Skype, they still composed handwritten notes to each other.  Upon returning home, the Army managed to lose the trunk that held those heartfelt letters from home - it was nothing short of devastating for them.  Losing a batch of emails just isnt the same.

There is something ethereal about pouring your soul onto paper.  The ink blots, crossed out words, smashed in additions; all part of a revelation that is more than mere turns of phrase.  It takes an act of concentration not common to our easily distracted modern minds.  Once inked, a phrase cannot merely be deleted and re-written.  Determined diligence must be employed.  It is almost a sacred act these days to devote time to such an effort.  (For those of you men who could use some tips, The Art of Manliness has some very useful guidance...)

I think a lot of us, when getting the mail, somewhere deep inside, still harbor some small bit of hope for a letter in chickenscratch addressed just to them.  The anticipation of walking from the mailbox inside, wondering what it holds.  The act of tearing the top off, reaching inside, and feeling stationary between the forefinger and thumb, then scanning those initial loops of cursive. Simply sublime.

Prospero, the Economist blog on books, art and culture, has a marvelous piece on the power of the pen.  It being Valentines Day, the review is on a book of historical love letters, but the sentiments conveyed are unalterable across time and culture.  Heartbreak, unending distance, passionate discourse between intertwined souls, all elements that bind the human experience together.

Letters of Note, predictably, features a missive between Anne Lindberg and her husband Charles.  

But to get to that stage of being committed enough to actually send a letter, you've first got to find the right person.  In ages past, friends, parents, and priests took care of this.  Today's age relies increasingly upon the Wild West of internet dating.

Both The Modern Matchmakers and The Dubious Science of Online Dating explore this phenomena.  Unsurprisingly, the marketing claims of the major sites falls short.    The study both articles reference basically confirm a lot of what we already know, and amplify some of the more interesting elements of behavioral economics.

The most interesting element is in the area of choice.  It makes sense to assume that a wider pool means better options, thus better results.  But as the Economist notes:
The difficulty of choosing from abundance seems to apply to choice of people, too. Dr Finkel could find no study which addressed the question directly, in the context of internet dating. But speed-dating once again provided an answer. Here, he found studies which showed that when faced with abundant choice, people pay less attention to characteristics that require thinking and conversation to evaluate (occupational status and level of education, for example) and more to matters physical. Choice, in other words, dulls the critical faculties.
Anybody who has spent time on places like, eHarmony or OkCupid knows that the first thing that goes out the window is actually reading the profile.  Looks matter when you've got 376 profiles that meet your search criteria.  And while Malcolm Gladwell may still claim that the instant "blink" of an initial decision is best, in the online dating world, it hardly seems sufficient.  

Despite unsubstantiated claims of success, going through dating sites is a fascinating psychological look into human sexuality -- or at least what people think they want and apparently look for.  Again, though, the data for knowing what we want is not good:  In studies on speed dating, "people's stated preferences at the beginning of the process do not well match the characteristics of the individuals they actually like."

Each of the sites seems to have their own demographic.  And while much of this is anecdotal from discussions with friends, I think the stereotypes are accurate.  Match is for the hookup crowd.  eHarmony is for the marriage minded folks. OkCupid, while the most fascinating of them all, is for the anything-goes clique.  And I mean eh-ne-thing. 

Wait, People Lie About Things on Dating Profiles?
That said, OkCupid has incredibly insightful relationship metrics on their blog, OkTrends.  It's certainly not for the prudish to read, but at least its honest.  They've basically culled all the data from the myriad of questions their patrons have answered, and come up with eye opening stats.  This is what happens when nerds like me think about dating.  I spent more time reading through that thing than I did actually looking through potential matches during my online dating days.  Its the perfect social experiment.  No doubt its what Facebook is doing with everything we post, but they don't share it.

So, while we try to plan everything out, and fit love into our brilliant ten year plan, even the internet age doesn't make things any easier.  Especially if you're an educated woman trying to find an equally matched man.   As with everything in life, a willingness to be adaptable and open to unexpected situations creates the most opportunities. Even if that involves ending up in a place you never expected.  It's also best if you know how to communicate in elegant prose on that old standby, the printed letter.  

Sometimes one person is worth the upending of our entire world.  It's just a matter of figuring out who.  That will never be quantified by algorithms or academic studies. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Military Procurement Is Not A Jobs Program

For those of you unfamiliar with National Journal, and I'm assuming many of you are not unless you reside in the Beltway, it is the ultimate publicly available insiders guide to what's occuring in Congress.  It's also one of the most disgusting and blatant examples of everything that is wrong with the military-industrial-congressional complex.

A friend of mine worked for them a few years back, and would send me their magazines.  While I appreciated all the "Insider" polls and what things were on the mind of lobbyists and elected officials, the first thing I noticed were the number of ads from established defense firms.  Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, BAE, you name it, they all had full page spreads hawking their programs and "national security solutions." 

I recently came across the National Security Insiders Poll, and was disgusted to see not one, but FOUR ads for the Joint Strike Fighter, built by Lockheed Martin.  They are all the same, and dominate the page.  Brilliant placement, considering that those who would read that article are probably the same influencing those who vote in Congress.  Interestingly, the main focus of the ads is not combat effectiveness, but the number of jobs it "supports."  Here are the highlights:
-127,000 American Jobs
-1300 Suppliers in 47 States
-Security and Jobs for Decades to Come
In Lockheed's defense, a focus on jobs is a lot more likely to garner the attention of an embattled Congressperson than the theoretical threat of a rising China.  Unsurprisingly, defense firms tailor these ads the way they do because they work.  Highlighting the fact that 47 different states have a stake in the JSF's ultimate fate means that nearly every elected official has skin in the game.  In a recession, this is not lost on our enlightened Representatives.  It would be interesting to have National Journal publish an ad from Operators highlighting the JSF's deficiencies.    

I can guarantee that there is probably no good business reason to have so many sub-contractors spread throughout the country.  This only makes sense if your firm derives over 80 percent of its revenue from government contracts.  In Lockheed's case, this is the case.  It pays to have Congresspeople with constituents employed by their firm.  After all, Congress authorizes most of Lockheed's annual allowance -- to the tune of $38.4 billion in 2009.   

This comes on the heels of a report, published by National Journal itself, that backers of the Joint Strike Fighter receive much more cash from contractors involved in the project than those that don't support it.  This is common in our democracy, and isn't necessarily indicative of corruption. After all, firms should be able to support who they will.  But it does show how money to incumbents preserves the status quo and make it extremely difficult for innovative firms and solutions to break into the game.  These contributions do, however, raise eyebrows when a top DoD buyer accuses the F-35 program of "acquisition malpractice."

I'm beating up on the F-35 mostly because its the biggest and most visible of our current acquisition projects.  It has been rife with delays and cost-over runs, as I've detailed before.  But this is not a new phenomena in defense procurement.  The B-1 bomber was notorious as a program built in many Congressional districts throughout the country, making it difficult to ax when its tactical usefulness was questioned.  It's not hard to figure out which Congresspeople and Senators are front and center in support of a particular weapons system.  Republican or Democrat, if its built in their district, they'll be the first to support its perpetual and unquestioned continuation.

For the past ten years, Defense has gotten a blank check to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  While much of this was necessary to combat our enemies abroad, not having any constraints also inhibits discipline.  This is especially true when creating budgets.  The Silver Lining to a projected Defense drawdown, as outlined by Arthur Herman, is that "maybe the Pentagon will have to clean up its weapons procurement mess."

These Mickey Mouse acquisition games that harm the warfighter go on all the time.  The US military has been trying to buy a new Air Force aerial refueling aircraft for the past ten years.  And every time the government makes a decision one way or another, the losing party sues.  The Senator from either Washington (where Boeing builds their airframes) or South Carolina (where Airbus would have assembled theirs) raises a huge stink, claims national security is in peril and demands a new look at the decision.

Meanwhile, aviators over Afghanistan are tanking off of 1960s technology from planes much older than they are.  At this point "Buy American" is manufactured political BS.  Nearly every product is built in a variety of overseas locations, regardless of where the parent company locates their headquarters.  In the past ten years, we could have built and put into service these new platforms -- either one.  Instead, warfighters suffer while politicians wrestle for pork.

This shell game has most recently played out after the Air Force bought Brazilian made Super Tucano close air support aircraft for the fledgling Afghan army.  In what should have been an easy procurement choice, American-held Beechcraft has complained that their US-built competing platform was given short shrift.  The planes are virtually identical in their capabilities.  Choose one.  Move on.  Get it to the battlefield. 

Defense firms and their Congressional surrogates will not go softly into the night.  With potentially hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, the established interests have great incentive to push for their cherished projects.  And the new tack they will take will emphasize American employment, especially amidst our soft economic recovery.

Our electorate should not be duped into accepting this state of affairs.  Defense procurement is for one purpose only: to equip our men and women in uniform with the best possible kit, regardless of political considerations.  If a piece of technology is truly desired and tactically significant, it will stand on its own merits.  There will be no need to build it in 47 states when it could be more efficiently built in far fewer.  If it provides American jobs as an ancillary benefit, great.  But that should not be the primary consideration. 

Additionally, our Congressional representatives must look towards the greater needs of the Union and not parochial, local interests when allocating defense dollars.  They only insult our servicemembers by extolling their virtues while only supporting programs that bring money and jobs to their districts, rather than those that truly make warfighters more lethal. 

The status quo will remain in place unless we hold our representatives accountable at the ballot box.  Defense procurement is not a jobs program.  It is, instead, a sacred requirement to purchase the best and necessary technology free from political influence. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Driving Developing World Solutions

Right now, there is no easy way to link social entrepreneurs to global communities in need.  Disruptive Thinker Shabnam Karimi has a way to do so.

With a Little Help From My Friends...
Ms Karimi is currently about to finish a Master's of Science in Global Leadership from the University of San Diego.  She has spent her life devoted to solving intractable problems worldwide, first as a public affairs officer for the UN and more recently as a Disaster Management Specialist for the Red Cross.  Combine this with an interest in business, and you begin to understand her passion for bringing these two disparate worlds together.

She calls her solution "Projectdoable."  I like to think of it as a cross between the XPrize and Kickstarter, only for social entrepreneurs.

The concept is simple enough, but profound in its implications.  A non-profit organization like the Red Cross identifies a problem, say the harmful health effects of kerosene lamps on children in the third world.  They create a short video about why the issue is important, and post it on Projectdoable's web portal.  An entrepreneur with inexpensive LED lamps sees his product as offering a unique solution.  He informs Projectdoable of his idea, and the coordinators within the Project make the necessary introductions.

Illuminating the Future
The Red Cross supplies 250,000 lamps in one year, and local health conditions improve.  A for-profit company finds a new, previously untapped market.  They project that sales could top 20 million in a few years.  Everybody benefits.

One of the unique elements about this Project is that it fills the space between the goals of a non-profit and pure for-profit entity.  Whereas for- profit organizations have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize profit, and non-profits have a duty to maximize social welfare, "For Benefit" firms fall somewhere in between.

As Forbes reports in "The Rise of The Charitable For-Profit Entity:"
In order to incorporate as a benefit corporation, the corporation must have the dual purpose to create general public benefit by creating value for its’ stakeholders – such as the community, local and global environment, employees, suppliers and customers- and create a profit for shareholders. For example, if the charter of a benefit corporation makes clear that it is organized to build affordable housing, officers and directors are therefore held accountable to achieve both this objective and a profit.  Legally this means, the benefit corporations can be shielded from lawsuits by shareholders who argue the corporation has diluted their stock by putting general social value over profit.
Those of us in the San Diego chapter of Disruptive Thinkers had the opportunity to hear Ms. Karimi present her vision firsthand last night.  She is preparing for a funding competition the University of San Diego Peace & Commerce Center is holding to promote budding problem solvers.  It was the first in our Disruptive Leader's Forum series, as we seek to not just discuss pervasive public policy problems, but also drive solutions for them.

In her own words, she describes Projectdoable in these terms:
Access and communication are two key challenges stifling social entrepreneurs in responding to society's most pervasive needs.  Social entrepreneurs have the resources and aspirations to respond to these needs.  Currently, however, business is limited in its ability to interact directly with individuals and communities in need.

Projectdoable will serve as a web-based portal connecting social entrepreneurs directly to individuals who are intimately connected to the challenges of their community.  This directory of of unmet social needs will simplify and package the data for entrepreneurs who are then encouraged to come up with innovative, affordable market solutions.  The end result is an accessible service that facilitates creative ideas, benefiting both communities and business owners.
Innovators and activists can now work hand in hand to solve societal issues with direct input from the people who best understand their communities. 

Do Something.
After an eight minute presentation, we offered  our feedback on both the business model and presentation style.  We peppered her with hard questions: The web developer in the room recommended the best way to deliver content.  Two successful young entrepreneurs in the for-profit world sharpened her end goal and delivery methods.  Frequent public speakers give their tips on capturing an audience.  Young innovators interested in Disruptive solutions helping one another, merely because they're intrigued.  Hopefully a model to build upon.

Will this idea take off?  Who knows.  Entrepreneurs always know the odds against success.  That said, all it takes is one enthusiastic and innovative person to change the world.  Judging from Ms. Karimi's knowledge and passion, she's a young woman to watch out for in the field of promoting For Benefit solutions.   

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Decoding Anti-Establishmentarianism

When we look at Disruptive Thinking and changing the status quo, one big question jumps out: Is it better to do so within existing institutions, or advocate for change from outside those structures?

My Disruptive Thinkers co-founder and I have been wrestling with this issue since we started hashing out our concept last August.  There is so much that's seems unworkable within current power structures, yet the solution eludes those who would bring about change.  Most of what follows is his, with a few added thoughts of my own as occasional amplification:

[The solution] is there, I know it. It’s not just that video: “Why I Love Jesus but Hate Religion”--it’s the Arab Spring, the 99% movement, the Tea Party, even the angst that you and three others expressed at the Naval Institute Junior Officer Panel.
You Know Things are Bad When...
In short, people have a sense that institutions today aren’t working.  They aren't necessarily in agreement about what is wrong, yet see pervasive rot.  I think what’s given them that sense is access to information: an ability to better understand one’s own environment in the context of other people’s environments. And, as you note, people today can more easily express those sentiments in public forums without necessarily having a plan for improvement or real change. That is, of course, all due to technology and social media.

While I could not agree more with what Brooks argues, especially as it relates to having an education that spans the ideological spectrum, I think his conclusion falls short. He fails to address WHY there is so much rebellion against institutions and more importantly, where those multitudes might find an outlet for their frustrations.  His solutions very much remain within the confines of the ‘establishment.'  He would prefer that people in reform movements think not for themselves, but instead join grounded, intellectual movements that have been around for decades or centuries.
As you allude to, the Founding Fathers had to break with the establishment to get what they wanted: While they were among an intellectual elite of their time, not one man, by himself, had a complete grasp of political philosophy, law, etc. to originate the movement. As with any change, it developed slowly over time as a group of individuals became disillusioned with an institution and banded together to figure out a solution. In their case, that solution came over the course of more than a decade, countless intellectual debates and armed rebellion.  The solution they enacted was fundamentally different from anything else the world had ever encountered.U
Up to this point in history, institutions have typically been the drivers of organizational coordination, ideas, and change. Today however, because of technology, trends are now driving institutions. The future is only getting ‘exponentially faster’ as per [Ray] Kurzweil’s arguments.

The problem is that institutions are rooted in history and tradition (as Brooks notes) and completely ill-equipped to handle the rapid acceleration of innovation. That video of a guy rapping about Jesus, posted on You Tube and shared (which is an indicator of positive reaction) by nearly 20 million people is a prime example. Even 10 years ago, to relay a message that globally challenged the nature of religion to 20 million Christians or potential Christians would have been almost impossible.
It’s far easier for people to attach themselves to ideas today. Accordingly, individuals who don’t have a comprehensive grasp of intellectual tradition can still very easily access ideas and movements. I don’t think this makes their movements or counter-culture irrelevant, it just makes it much harder to formally organize and understand. And that brings us back to square one, where we’re still trying to understand what all of this anti-institution stuff means.
I am increasingly of the mindset that the 21st century requires some sort of ‘Tectonic Event’ to allow our institutions to align with our ideas. I don’t mean to be an apocalyptic thinker, but something major—good or bad—will have to force this change because in politics and government, our current structures are failing and falling behind faster each year. As crazy as John Robb seems sometimes, he’s onto something with his resilient community ideas. In a post ‘tectonic event’ world, it may very well be small self-sustained communities that leverage global technology and ideas for local prosperity.
There you have it.  This will be an ongoing topic of conversation.  I'd be interested to hear what insights our readers have into this puzzle.  And how they themselves have effected change, both within and without established institutions.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

As many of you have discovered recently, I've been in a Disruptive Mood over the past few months.  Challenging old political allegiances, being critical of establishments I'm a part of, looking for unorthodox solutions to intractable problems.  There's a vague sense that something Needs To Be Done! But what exactly that is can't be wholly envisioned.

David Brooks brilliantly addresses this paradox in How to Fight the Man.  It got me thinking about what exactly it is I'm trying to accomplish with this blog and our Disruptive Thinkers group.  The fact of the matter is that it's easy to throw stones, but much harder to build up a structure with those stones.  Heaven knows I've got a lot of criticisms, but far too few solutions. 

Running Where?
The board members of Disruptive Thinkers have been grappling with this for a while now.  There is a palpable sense of excitement during our monthly seminars, but one of the things were having difficulty capturing is the "action" side of the equation.  It's one thing to get smart people in the same room, but quite another to see direct results from the same.

The thing about establishments is that they exist for a reason. Sometimes that reason may have come and past, but there are groups that gain great benefit from the status quo.  The stability of the known also plays into resistance to reform.  And in many instances, those looking to disrupt that stable system operate from within it because it provides a platform to do so.

Brooks talks about two things that young people face in reconciling their desire for change with the realities that entails:  Perhaps our generation lacks the "oppositional mentality necessary for revolt."  Brooks himself contends that "[v]ery few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview."

As much as we might complain about the status quo being insufficient or inefficient, our society makes it very easy to make those complaints.  There is almost no cost in doing so.  Sure, some fear repercussions for speaking their minds in America, but the worst that happens is that you lose a job -- maybe.  Or potentially get "blacklisted" from some promotion opportunity.  But we aren't imprisoned, hurt or even killed for our opposition.  Indeed, a savvy keeper of the establishment pays lip service and lavishes praise on Disruptive Thinkers while doing nothing of any substance to assuage their concerns.  We said our piece, got our 15 minutes, and forget we ever complained because we got the gold star for "unique thinking."  Never mind the remaining incumbent power. 

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death
With this in mind, I reflect on how momentous our own Revolution was 235 years ago.  The "oppositional mentality for revolt" was alive and well in our Founding Fathers.  On the negative side, slaveholders in the South had it when they precipitated the Civil War.  Civil Rights advocates used it to great effect during the 1960s.  Those in Poland and Czechslovakia in the latter days of the Soviet Union possessed it as well.

Maybe the Innovation Generation has been so coddled that we do think merely bringing up an issue means we've done our part to "change the world" as we go back to our lattes and Facebook stalking.  Or perhaps literal revolt has been replaced with the more passive forming of non-profits and think tanks that we can claim entrepreneural ownership over without truly risking our hides.

I'm just as guilty as the next person of thinking I've done a great work by posting an indignant Facebook status update, and believe real change will come of it.  Clever turns of a phrase may gain praise, but they hardly count as effecting change. 

Where's My Participation Ribbon, Gramps?
This in turn plays right into the formation of Brooks' "comprehensive and rigorous worldview."  What do we believe?  Why do we believe it?  How many of us could stand before an inquisitive audience and truly defend those things we believe to be true with both passion and hard evidence?  And if we cannot do so, how can we expect to exert any influence on the world around us?

The men and women we hold in esteem all had a driving sense of purpose, a defining ideology that shaped their actions.  From this they saw society's ills, drew the logical conclusions from their worldview, and stopped at nothing to implement their ideas.

Rebels who win always become the Establishment eventually.  They would do well to recognize this when they first set out.  This is the very theme Brooks ends with:
If I could offer advice to a young rebel, it would be to rummage the past for a body of thought that helps you understand and address the shortcomings you see. Give yourself a label...Effective rebellion isn’t just expressing your personal feelings. It means replacing one set of authorities and institutions with a better set of authorities and institutions. Authorities and institutions don’t repress the passions of the heart, the way some young people now suppose. They give them focus and a means to turn passion into change.
Disruption within a wider context is a helpful thing to be mindful of.  Destroying the foundation without a plan for a better one is folly.  I shall be more diligent in this.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Junior Officers Take on the Establishment

Last Thursday, I had the chance, along with three other of my fellow military junior officers, to take part in a panel sponsored by the US Naval Institute and AFCEA.  It was in conjunction with the annual WEST 2012 Conference held at the San Diego Convention Center.

All of the members of the panel, including the moderator, Mr. Dan Moore, are members of Disruptive Thinkers.  Yes, it's not just a blog.  Disruptive Thinkers is a think tank we've started to bring military officers together with successful entrepreneurs in the hope that we can bring the best practices from each into our respective worlds.  Things like this panel are what our group is endeavoring to accomplish: Firm guidance from the innovation generation towards established interests that don't always know how (or want) to move forward.

The video is a bit long (1 hour, 7 minutes), but should give you an idea of the things on the minds of those fighting our nation's wars from the front lines.  The main themes? Place more trust in capable subordinate officers, and allow for a culture of innovation.  The last post on this site showed how the SEALs have done so very well.  We need every branch to emulate it.