The “anthro-pocene” era … redefining “humanity”

ShardSmallI took this photo of “The Shard” amidst a storm a couple of months ago from the rooftop of the Tate Modern in London.  It struck me that for anyone who discounts the impact of humans on the environment this was a startling demonstration … even the clouds parted for a man-made tower.

But as much as we consider the human impact on the environment, another major issue, at least for me, is the human impact on each other, and that of the “things” we create – our technologies and systems and processes, our “machines” – on us.

As I ponder my own impact on the world (in its broadest sense) and consider the renovations to my house, my commercial investments (impact or otherwise) and my non-profit activities, I have been struggling to find the right words to describe what I do and where I want to put my focus.  Regardless of where I search I am increasingly drawn back to the word “philanthropy” because of its fundamental intent.

In its traditional form “philanthropy” means “love of humanity” (philanthropos tropos) and tends to be understood as the caring, nourishing, developing and enhancing of “what it is to be human”.

Human endeavours seem to fall into roughly three categories:

  • “private initiatives, for public good, focusing on quality of life”;
  • “business” activities, which are essentially “private initiatives for private good, focusing on material prosperity”; and
  • “government” or “public initiatives for public good, focusing on law and order”.

In a previous blog I wrote about Socrates’ philanthropy as his “desire to promote the welfare of others” by wandering around talking to the people of Athens and “examining” them as he examines himself.  His goal wasto help individual men and women to become better morallyin order to live “better” lives and serve their communities.

But “man” is just a part of a much bigger, and more complex ecosystem, which is growing increasingly complex as new “intelligences” are added.  To be concerned with the welfare of “man” we must, by definition, focus on that broader system and more effectively understand both how it works, and how it is changing who, and what, we are, and potentially might become.

The whole conversation about man and our environment is an emotional, at times confusing and complex one.  In a recent RSA lecture “Knocking the Corners off the Square Mile” Peter Wynne Rees, Professor of Places and City Planning, outlines some of the challenges of building in historic sites, and of bringing the old and new together.  This same conversation is happening in the technology world, and the concept of “heterotopia” comes to mind.

“Utopia is a place where everything is good;  dystopia is a place where everything is bad;  heterotopia is where things are different — that is, a collection whose members have few or no intelligible connections with one another.” (Walter Russell)

This year I have travelled to a number of places where I have felt there were “no intelligible connections”.  In cities like Seoul, Osaka and even parts of New York, I often felt that the concept of “human scale” was non-existent, and, as I walked around, I overwhelmed and even disempowered by the grandeur and sheer scale of the buildings.  I was left with no doubt that, as an individual, I really just didn’t matter.  As a contrast when I travel and live in cities such as London, Paris, Sydney and Melbourne, I do feel that I can makes sense of, and be a part of, something which is essentially “human”, and of which I feel both an empathy and a sense of belonging.  I particularly feel this in a city like Canberra which is low-rise and integrated with nature.

As we progress further into the so-called “Anthropocene Era” I believe that exploring and redefining the relationship between “man” and “everything else” is the most profound and demanding question that we face.  And, this is not just about the physical “built environment” but it is as much about the emerging “virtual environment”, and the very essence of human behaviours and how we utilise resources in the digital space as well.

Having spent much of 2014 having numerous and varied conversations around the notion of “social enterprise” and “giving”, I feel that the whole concept of “philanthropy” is undergoing a profound redefinition, and that each and every culture needs to define and articulate what this word means to them.  There is no point in comparing Australians to the Americans or the English or the Chinese – each culture has different histories, different systems of governance, taxation and commerce, and different perspectives on humanity which have evolved over time, and each has a different notion of how “humans” fit within the broader scheme of things.

This links to people, government and digital technologies.  In Australia we whinge and complain that our systems are not as efficient as places like Singapore or, in many ways, China, because they seem to be cumbersome and we have to work hard to initiate processes and activities.  We resisted the Australia Card and each of our States has its own election cycles, laws and identities, and we often feel that there is a disorganised “anarchy” happening around us, which is actually symptomatic of our tendency to rebel and push back.  And, all too often, Australians will resist through sheer apathy (the danger of this of course is that we can also be incredibly ignorant and just let things slide because we couldn’t be bothered or we feel that we have little influence).

But perhaps that is a key part of our charm, and something we should value and even nurture.  Perhaps, when it comes to the “machine” and our determination to remain “human” it is precisely this which will buy us time and give us the opportunity to think, just as the European Union is doing with many aspects of digital technologies.

In a recent interview Wesley Enoch talked about the Queensland Theatre Company’s recent production of “Black Diggers” and the rise of “meritocracy” within Australian society.  Enoch describes the rise of egalitarian values amongst “Aussie Battlers” whose “quiet strength” was evident during World War One, where black and white Australian soldiers fought side by side as equals.  These same values are inherent in our society today, even though many of us feel that they are struggling to be heard as we are swamped by the media-frenzy on terrorism and the “fortress Australia” attitude that our current crop of politicians seem determined to resurrect.

As Enoch concludes:

“We live in the legacy of those who have gone before us … we are the inheritors of this incredible lineage.”

This is not just the case for our indigenous Australians, but for all of us who call this land our home, whether our families came here two hundred or two years ago.

I was asked what it is that defines people in Australia, and as I thought about it I came up with the words that people have come here to “seek a better life”. 

That “better life” includes our attitudes towards each other, our “philanthropy”, and is something that is uniquely ours.  We should build upon our “incredible lineage”, whilst simultaneously absorbing new ideas that are appropriate, but remaining vigilant about things with which we are uncomfortable or even suspiscious.  We should fight back through our inefficiencies and apathies precisely because these are often driven by a niggling suspiscion that we are uncertain of what lies ahead.  We don’t need to rush, in fact, if ever there was a need to slow down (on many levels) this is it.

In an age where people are increasingly being integrated into the “machines” of our technologies – the “Social Machines” – perhaps it is not a bad thing that Australians would prefer to go to the beach, and that our cumbersome systems of government are at times over-burdened by committees that slow things down and encourage introspection and “paralysis by analysis”.  As I wrote in a previous blog it is most important that people, and not machines, determine who we are – how we are governed, how we relate to each other and how we relate to the world around us – and the more conversations I am having about this at the minute the more important I feel it is.

I do believe that we are on the cusp of making some major decisions about the future of human existence – whether it be what skills and capabilities we develop and potentially lose; what rights we, versus “artificial intelligences”, might or might not have; what determines being “alive” versus being “dead”; or whether or not the “Singularity” is something that will advance and assist humanity or signal its demise.

At the heart of this is education, based on literacy and understanding, and having “human time” to think.

Posted in Anthropology, Governance, Philanthropy, Philosophy, Social Machine | Comments Off

Solomon Lecture 2014


Almost immediately upon my return to Australia I travelled to Brisbane to record and deliver the 2014 Solomon Lecture, “Government in the Age of the ‘Social Machine’”.

Being asked to deliver the Solomon Lecture is a huge compliment, and I would like to thank Queensland Information Commissioner Rachael Rangihaeata, Acting First Assistant Information Commissioner Steve Haigh and their very capable team, who were a delight, and a privilege, to work with.

The process of developing and delivering this lecture has been a fabulous exercise in terms of thinking about, and exploring, my own ideas around the “Right to Information”, and the timing was perfect in that I was able to draw upon the many and various conversations and experiences that I had over the past few months, both in Australia and overseas.

As the concept of the “Social Machine” continues to evolve, so do our thoughts and perspectives around information, in all its forms, together with the accompanying realities of how to approach and deal with other “rights”, such as privacy and risk.

Personally, I believe that Governments everywhere have a significant leadership role to play in representing the human societies which they serve by forcing us to ask the questions which need to be considered as we shape the information world of the twentieth century. And these questions need to be asked on “human terms”, not those which are reactive to the challenges thrown at us by machine technologies.

I have no problem with slowing things down, with some of the clumsy outcomes that legislation may lead to, as long as we take the time to consciously choose what sort of future we want, rather than being led blindly and naively by “technological determinism”.

Fundamental to this “leadership” is the requirement that they (as in Governments) must educate themselves as well as the people and communities which they serve.

For those who are interested I have posted the lecture and accompanying notes here, and ANZSOG have written a blog post which can be found here.

Posted in ANZSOG, Government, Information | Comments Off

Meaning and money (or is that money and meaning?) at SOCAP14


I have just returned to Australia from my international wanderings, and, in particular, hot on the heels of having attended SOCAP14.

SOCAP14 is the 11th conference hosted by SOCAP which aims to “accelerate the new global market at the intersection of money and meaning” through “having productive conversations between investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and industry to establish business standards in social impact.”

The conference is held at Fort Mason, San Francisco, an old fortified military base established by the Spanish in 1776 and claimed by the US Army upon California’s entry to the Union in 1850.  The site was used to defend against potential Confederate attack in 1863, and, following the Civil War, served as the military headquarters for the US Army on the West Coast, as well as the port of embarkation for military supplies and personnel from 1909 to 1962.  The Center itself was established as a Non-Profit organisation in 1977 and is now home to many Arts organisations as well as a venue for major non-profit events.

So, it is a fitting place to host SOCAP with views over the Bay and the Golden Gate bridge on both foggy mornings and gloriously sunny afternoons.

SOCAP aims to bring together individuals from around the world (I found mainly from the US) who want to”free up private capital for social use” (so said Judith Rodin, President of the Rockerfeller Foundation).  The theme of 2014 was very much “Impact investment” but there were also sessions on “resilience investing”, digital currencies, internal leadership, how to work with “Millennials”, and on human centered design.

When I got to SOCAP I was asked some of the questions captured in the image below, and I was the first (and only!) participant to link Australia and “Wildcard” in terms of my aspirations in attending the conference.  As always, I was looking for the “zaggers“, those who were doing things a bit differently, and looking for new ideas and insights, and I vaguely hoped that I would have some “left of field” conversation along the way.


In this regard, whilst I met some really interesting people who were doing some quite inspirational things, I was a little disappointed, and I did hear a few comments about the unbelievable wealth that was being bandied about, as well as the slew of projects which seemed to be well intentioned, but perhaps a little paternalistic in their outcomes (i.e. rich people from first world countries telling poor people from poor countries what to do).  There was one session on “Disruptive Giving” which described a number of projects which were certainly “different”, but I’m not sure that they were necessarily “disruptive”, even though they were achieving some good outcomes.

The only session that came close to fitting my bill was that on “The Nature of Investing” where Katherine Collins described how looking to “natural systems” such as “biomimicry”.  She very simply asked “have we forgotten how to engage with the world around us” and quoted Einstein who once said

“Look deep into nature and you’ll understand everything better”

This certainly resonated as I wandered around Fort Mason and it brought together some of the thoughts that I have had as I’ve been travelling around the US.  As an Australian chap I spoke to, who has lived in the US for the past decade, commented “The US has the best of worlds, and the worst of worlds, where 5% of the wealthiest individuals are incredibly generous and the remaining 95% couldn’t care less”.  Wealth does certainly seem to dominate, but that “wealth” is more than just money, it is resources, space, energy, inventiveness, and an almost overwhelming “can-do” attitude that can be almost exhausting.

I have been reading “My Promised Land” by Israeli author Ari Shavit and I came across the following phrase:

“When imperialism, capitalism, science and technology combine nothing can stand in their way”.

As I travelled around the US I couldn’t help feeling that the US really is a manifestation of “human energy let loose”, relatively unfettered by government regulation and rules, and set free upon a fertile land with a demand for freedom and an abundance of resources.
Most people in the US have, like many other nations, come from somewhere else, either running away from persecution and tyranny, or running towards promise and opportunity.  This has led to a political and economic dominance that has shaped much of the Twentieth Century, but, it could be that things are about to change as this recent article demonstrates.


There is no doubt that the world is becoming more fragmented, with areas of strife increasing in most of the major hot spots (as I write this Australia has been placed on “high” terror alert) but as I wandered around SOCAP and had so many conversations with people who all wanted to “do good” and improve life on the planet, I just couldn’t help wondering why we, as a self-professed “intelligent” species, just can’t seem to move beyond the “tyranny of the ‘or’“, where one “tribe” has to dominate another, towards the “power of the ‘and’” (to quote Jim Collins).  So much energy is being put into so many projects which could all be made that much more successful if people were more collaborative, less competitive, and were guided by tolerance and respect.  Personally I would like to hope that both China and the US lead in the twenty-first century, bringing forth an amazing combination of their cultural talents and unsurpassed capabilities.

As I thought about this I thought about the decline of the British Empire, also described in the above graph.  As someone from a British Dominion I have always found that “Britishness” is something that pervades at a very deep level, without the need to dominate or control.

Whilst the Brits certainly weren’t model conquerors they have managed to maintain a “deep certainty of Identity” as “with a continuous way of life and a civilized manner in which it conducts it’s affairs.” (Shavit again)

The thing I love about the Americans is their deep generosity combined with their heartfelt desire to “do good” and their courage to “just do it”.  I had a number of conversations about this at SOCAP and it made me reflect on how Australians approach innovation and social enterprise.  I would like to think that our most powerful characteristic is the ability to bring together our “Britishness”, which still pervades in our systems of governance, and our fairly laid-back attitudes, with the youth and vigour of being a young country with some of America’s energy.

We will never dominate, nor do we really aspire to (except in sport), but what we can do is bring together a sense of humour and a bit of an Antipodean laid-back “she’ll be right mate” perspective to bear on problems that are best mulled over with a glass of wine watching the sunset at the beach.  This is what I would like to do in both my work with Web Science and with the Intersticia Foundation.

It’s good to be home, but it’s also good to be connected to the rest of the World, and to appreciate one’s place in it.

Posted in Creativity, Innovation, Leadership, Philanthropy | Comments Off