Author Archives: Billy Edwards

Exploring Art as a Boundary-Driven Network

Boundaries are a funny thing, aren’t they? Boundaries exist in various realms of our everyday life. Whether it’s within relationships, hobbies, or careers, boundaries are necessary (just ask your cell membranes). With clear boundaries, you can save yourself and/or your company from getting burned by an unforgiving fire. When we define our personal boundaries in social situations, they help us understand our own preferences and value systems. Boundaries in business and finance help us feel safe and secure — like when we’re protecting our assets, managing our career path or finding competitive advantages. Organizational design is one area where designing boundaries has been used to encourage cooperation and innovation, foster large-scale cultural shifts, and develop self-responsible teams and employees. The idea of liberating structures, for example, was first introduced by William Torbert, a proponent of integral approaches to leadership. Torbert wanted to explore organizational structures that would guide people to develop the skills to guide themselves. Setting simple rules in a collaborative setting can make it easier for people who don’t know each other to create something emergent together. If boundaries in the home and corporate workplace are seen in this positive, life-altering light, why are they initially thought to be restrictiv... Read more
We humans have ants in our pants. We are road warriors, million-mile-flyers, web-surfers, because-it-was-there climbers. We come upon this tendency honestly. Our early ancestors sprung up and out of Africa 60,000 years ago, on a grand trek that involved land bridges and star navigation. The march continues to this day. Only now, on a grand scale, we really have nowhere left to go. No uncharted points on the map. No hospitable land to grab. Not many stones left unturned. Our billions have spread far and wide and down and up, scraping the sky and mining the deeps and paving even the wildest of paradises. We social innovators are not immune to the adventurer’s inclination. As “change-makers,” we strain against the start gate, our eyes trained on the finish line. Armed with sticky notes, we rapidly prototype our way from pain point to panacea, from shame to solvency.  
“We should not rush through the in-between places.”
  Of course our work is needed. I am no stranger to sticky notes. I work as a strategist, helping social innovators crystallize their organizational identities squarely in the solutions space. But I am coming to realize that the rush from problem to solution may be leaving something essential in its wake. My colleagues and I are stepping into, and learning to savor, the rich and marvelous state that exists between problem and solution. A less celebrated place, for certain, but a place well worth our attention if we ... Read more

Facing Modernity’s Shadow: The Compulsion to Act

Nature is the only system that has been stamped robust by time. Once we recognize businesses are living systems and not machines, as ecosystem designers of any stripe be it corporate leader or parent, we are faced with the most important question of all: When to intervene? We in the West tend to take a proactive stance. We have a bias to action. We take the initiative. We seek to control the situation. This has hidden costs. One is that we are all overstimulated — which manifests in high blood pressure and a myriad of stress-related illnesses. These are side effects of an overactive stance. But there are more direct costs, too. Iatrogenics is the medical term for harm from intervention or death by treatment. It is the third leading cause of death in America. Treatment kills more people every year in the United States than any single cancer. This would make health care a pretty slow-learning field, as they have had the Hippocratic oath (First Do No Harm) for 24 centuries. But health care at least recognizes the notion of harm from treatment. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out, politics and economics have no such term. In the inaugural issue of design4emergence, biologist Rolf Muertter asked, “Read more

The Science of Organization

How does the way information is organized in networks affect what we can achieve as human beings?   In this issue of d4e we ask, “Where are the old borders and boundaries of our countries, firms and financial systems reshaping? How are the lines of our communities and even our ideologies shifting? How does cooperation work?” Network science applies research from information theory, game theory, complexity theory and physics to understand all of these things, which boil down to how information organizes itself into networks to shape the world we live in. img_4829César A. Hidalgo, head of the Macro Connections group at MIT Media Lab and author of Why Information Grows, puts it a little more simply: No matter what the world is doing, it is organizing information. It’s this order we’re trying to understand when we want to build the systems we need to make our way in the world. d4e: Why is something like information theory so important in understanding how the world works? César Hidalgo: As a kid I wanted to study physics. I... Read more

Why Boundaries Matter

What can the health care crisis, Switzerland, and the US military teach us about network design?

Technology is redrawing our maps of our organizations, our communities, and even our nations along virtual terrain. In the age of large-scale networks, do boundaries really matter anymore? It’s an important question to ask if you are someone who makes executive decisions for your organization. And if you have any part in designing human networks, complexity science tells us that you should consider carefully how you design the boundaries of your networks to encourage or suppress connectivity. No, we aren’t talking about building any walls. We’re referring to the boundaries between networks, where interactions create unintended consequences. Today, many of the world’s vital systems are global ones. Modern transportation can put you halfway around the world in a day. Our food system is global, tightly linked, and specialized. Our communication systems allow us to collaborate across a global network, making innovation accelerate more rapidly than we’ve ever experienced. The scale of the teams we can build has increased. Even the networked applications we use to produce innovation (e.g., collaboration tools, online communities, big data, new currencies, new organizational designs) are experiencing an explosion of new forms. As hyperconnectivity becomes more of a reality everywhere, do we really understand its implication... Read more
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea..." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  Business journalism is saturated with the last half-century's collective wisdom on what makes a good leader. That's great, but sifting through it is sometimes like boiling the ocean. Often we're left wondering about scale: How much of that greatness is a direct result of the leader's style and decisions, and how much of it is about who and what activity surrounds the leader? Like trying to pin down what makes a good film, it's not so easy anymore to separate the auteur from the script, the actors, the editors, the crew...Why? Because most organizations today are complex networks of internal and external stakeholders. Like a great director, a great leader today is really a network orchestrator.  
“O Captain, My Captain”? or “a man of many notions”?
  I like boat metaphors. Traditionally, the leader of an organization is the one who’s supposed to steer the boat, which requires both a tactical mastery of the boat itself and a strategic (and in the best cases, intuitive) understanding of the waters and the wind. These days, though, it gets harder and harder to separate ourselves from the ocean and the others navigating its waters, because together we are mapping new lands at an astonishing pace. Look at what e... Read more

The Moral Economy of Tech

This is the text version of remarks given by the author on June 26, 2016, at a panel on the Moral Economy of Tech at the SASE conference in Berkeley to an audience of social scientists. The other panel participants were Kieran Healy, Stuart Russell and AnnaLee Saxenian. This piece originally appeared on the author’s blog, Idle Words. I am only a small minnow in the technology ocean, but since it is my natural habitat, I want to make an effort to describe it to you. As computer programmers, our formative intellectual experience is working with deterministic systems that have been designed by other human beings. These can be very complex, but the complexity is not the kind we find in the natural world. It is ultimately always tractable. Find the right abstractions, and the puzzle box opens before you. The feeling of competence, control, and delight in discovering a clever twist that solves a difficult problem is what makes being a computer programmer sometimes enjoyable.  
“The real world is a stubborn place. It is complex in ways that resist abstraction and modeling.”
  But as anyone who’s worked with tech people knows, this intellectual background can also lead to arrogance. People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior trainin... Read more

Okay Google, Directions to Plato’s Cave

I am standing in the dark, looking at the shadows on the walls of this ancient cave when my pocket buzzes — Facebook wants to notify me that I’ve been invited to a play tonight. Who am I? You might say I am Plato, except, like, I also have a smartphone. Editor Stacy Hale had a great conversation with Bryan A. Knowles about AI and giving meaning to language. Greek philosophy, among some silly things, asks the real questions, like: “What is the true nature of the universe?” This question might seem impossible to answer simply because it is impossibly vague, but in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, it is explained that we can never even look upon the face of Truth — our ability to know anything is intrinsically limited by our imprecise senses, psychological processes, and non-universal language. BK: Keep in mind that this train of thought is carried on the assumption that one true Truth exists, something that Relativity and the Uncertainty Principle and the Uniqueness Problem all contradict. Regardless, Plato’s Cave remarkably sums up much of modern scientific skepticism:  There are things we can never know, such as whether any given computer code will halt when executed; there are things we can never approximate, since all it takes is a single electron counted wrong and our weather predictions will quickly be way off; and, there are things we can never expect, such as ... Read more

Leadership in the Network Age

Leading in the Network Age: The first in a series on Economic Complexity and Network Quotient (NQ)   “It is more useful to notice what has already happened and gone unnoticed than it is to try and predict the future.” — Peter Drucker   Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. And none of us have the time to waste. In fact, we have less and less time to waste and certainly no one wants to be the fool. And yet we must lead, guide organizations and make decisions. In the network age, we don’t have the option of standing still. Business and life are accelerating. Organizations must adapt or die. Can I? Can my organization? Or am I a 'dead man walking'? The greatest tectonic shift for business in the last 30 years is the rise of the network-based economy. Most of us didn’t fully appreciate the shift as it happened around us and in our lives. For examples, look at the Blackberry vs. the iPhone. One was a piece of technology. One was an ecosystem of network innovation in which the creation of positive feedback loops among developers and consumers catalyzed an exponential explosion in growth and functionality. We increasingly see value being created in networks and ecosystems that extend far beyond traditional organizational and personal boundaries. Definitions of competition are morphing and blurring. We’re no longer competing against individual companies, we’re competing against ecosystems. Think Apple vs. Android.  And fir... Read more

Economic Complexity: New Light for the Dismal Science

There is new light for the dismal science. Economics as a social science is concerned with the foundational factors underlying the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And over the last century the application of economic analysis has spread and is seen across a diverse fields (business, finance, health care, government) and subjects (war, crime, education, law, politics, religion, social institutions, science, environment). Economics has become one of the most complex of fields to study and understand. But instead of growing more dismal, there is new light. Network scientists are providing old fields like economics with new ways to look at and understand these complex, networked systems. All too often, those furthest from the core discipline of a problem are most likely to provide an innovative solution. In the words of MIT scientist César Hidalgo, economics is a relatively ephemeral subject, resting on deep roots in a process that goes back to the foundations of energy and matter and information. And in viewing the economy in such primal terms, he concludes that the factors that drive resilience and innovation in nature’s networks or ecosystems — namely diversity — should likewise be predictive of an economy’s resilience, innovation, and ability to grow. Traditional economic measures fail to capture the kind of diversity that drives growth. Identifying factors of production such a... Read more
Why is success deceptive and what does that have to do with robot brains, and more important, our current paradigm of innovation? Because nobody innovates in a vacuum, we can look at innovation as a network phenomenon. Network activity can take things that seem distant or unrelated and prove they belong together. Like dropping out of college to tinker in a garage and later running a billion-dollar company. Or vacuum tubes and computation.  
“Nature has an evolutionary algorithm, and it depends on emergence.”
  This is precisely what Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman, artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and authors of the book Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, wanted to understand when they invented the Novelty Search algorithm. If robots can stumble upon the right answer more effectively than working a plan, maybe there’s a lesson in there for ambitious human beings. Nature has an evolutionary algorithm, and it depends on emergence. Nature is telling us that wild goose chases can be good or bad, depending on which scale you’re zoomed in on. It seeks novelty and will adapt and assimilate nearly everything in its path. Path dependence (time’s arrow), prevents us from mapping the great open search space that is the future. We only ge... Read more
The term ‘resilience’ is thrown around quite a lot lately. Whether it be in our personal or professional lives, we all know that being resilient is crucial to both survival and success. But what does resilience really mean? In network science, resilience is the ability of a system to withstand perturbations from its environment. In plain English, that basically means to roll with the punches. What does that look like at the firm level — for strategists, teams, and organizational leaders? What knowledge can we apply from network behaviors toward building more resilient, sustainable communities?  
"In nature, the systems most likely to survive are the ones that can adapt to diverse environmental circumstances. Often that means being able to change as demands from the environment become ever more complex."
  Dr. John Izzo is an employee engagement expert, the author of six books including Stepping Up, and a network science enthusiast who applies his knowledge of complex systems to helping organizations such as NASA, IBM, and Microsoft navigate complex challenges and transitions. According to Dr. Izzo, one of the best ways to understand resilience on an individual and community level is to look closely at nature. In nature, the systems most likely to survive are ... Read more
Editor’s Note: This is an original draft of an article that was first published in New Scientist entitled “One rule of life: Are we posted on the border of order?”.
It’s not the midges that were the problem, says Andrea Cavagna, but the kids. You’d think his efforts to record the movements of midge swarms in the public parks of Rome near sunset would be fraught with risks of being eaten alive by the little beasts — but these were a non-biting variety. Keeping away the children who gathered to watch what these folks were up to with their video cameras, generators and thickets of cabling was another matter. That, and the problem of finding a parking space in central Rome. It’s not easy, he realised, for a physicist to turn field biologist. The reason why Cavagna, based at Sapienza University in Rome, and his colleagues went midge-hunting sounds strange, perhaps even bizarre. The researchers wanted to know if midges behave like magnets. More specifically, if they act like magnets close to the point where heat flips them between a magnetic and non-magnetic state: a so-called critical phase transition.  
“It’s a delicate balance: you need stability, but also responsiveness.”
&nbs... Read more
A background in geology made one thing certain for Christine Lloyd: Nature isn’t made of straight lines. Neither are people, the prima materia of organizations. I often use water as a metaphor in systems work,” she says. “When I get stuck on an organizational problem, I always think back to ‘what would the flow of water do here?’” Those may sound like words uttered by a philosopher, but they’re grounded in science. The theoretical foundation of Chris’ work is complex adaptive systems, using whole systems thinking to help steer organizations and their leaders through periods of complex and unpredictable change. Chris’ work has taken her around the world and through diverse industries. She has served as a senior executive in blue chip organizations such as Shell, ICI, Nokia, Cancer Research UK and UNICEF. What wisdom can be gained from 20 years of applying systems science to massive organizational transformations? As our world becomes more complex, our organizations (like anything in nature) must also complexify in order to meet the demands of their environment. Drawing from her pioneering work with Nokia and UNICEF, Chris shared with d4e how she created innovative network structures to make change and innovation easier in a VUCA world — bef... Read more