Three Key Takeaways from the Annual Santa Fe Institute Symposium

by Billy Edwards, March 1, 2017
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Three Key Takeaways from the Annual Santa Fe Institute Symposium

The Santa Fe Institute (SFI), a leading cross-disciplinary institute for the study of complex, adaptive systems, held its annual symposium this past weekend. This year’s theme was The Evolution of Legal and Regulatory Operating Systems. We asked Dialog CEO and design4emergence (D4E) Publisher Mark Thompson for his three overarching takeaways from the weekend. Here is what he said:

TAKEAWAY #1: “We are witnessing the rise of networks as an explanatory framework alongside the rise of networks as technology.”

Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, who has been called the “leading intellectual of the information age,” made this statement as he discussed his current focus: the explanatory nature of networks. To me, this related to something we talk a lot about at our network design magazine design4emergence: The fact that thinking and seeing and acting in networks is a major new source of clarity and advantage.

This is one of the reasons we keep seeing companies with high network intelligence (or “NQ “) punching above their weight. Our work with clients like Fallbrook Technologies, who is transforming transmission systems around the world, is a great example. Even though they are largely transforming “metal bending,” by thinking in network terms, they have multiplied the capital deployed in building their technology ecosystem many times over through the strength of the partners in their network.

TAKEAWAY #2: Psychology is strategy and purpose is power

Author and entrepreneur John Chisolm shared his wonderful new book on entrepreneurship in which he explains why his dot.com era online startup survived the crash and 9/11 when so many others didn’t. In Unleash Your Inner Company, John explains that passion and purpose can create the fundamental positive feedback loop that powers your company.

Passion without purpose is passing fancy, and perseverance without passion is drudgery. The two together create true flow; sometimes one feeds the other and vice versa. Perseverance feeds passion as practicing makes us more proficient and thus more passionate. And other times, passion feeds perseverance in a virtuous circle. As a network designer, I most appreciated John’s advice to “create, ride, and refine positive feedback loops” in your business.

For entrepreneurs, psychology is strategy because the virtuous circle at the heart of a startup is driven by the founder’s innermost drives. But it turns out passion is increasingly adaptive in large companies, as Deloitte’s John Hegel has proven. Over lunch, John (co-chair at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge) and I discussed what he calls the “Big Shift.”

The Big Shift is similar to what Dialog calls the “Great Acceleration.”  Hegel says that a consequence of increasing speed is that everyone must now be purpose-driven to survive. Whereas for most of the last century merely showing up for a paycheck was sufficient, it simply just doesn’t cut it anymore. His research into what kind of passion pays off in business points to an ideal corporate athlete Hegel calls the Explorer.

The Passionate Explorer is defined by:

  • A long-term commitment to making a difference in a domain
  • A questioning disposition and a relentless embrace of challenge
  • A connecting disposition – research shows that what Hegel calls passionate explorers are twice as connected as other workers

Taken together, the views of the two Johns align closely with what we call a Consilient or Integrative Leadership model, emphasizing integration of head and heart, and emotional intelligence (EQ) as much as IQ. We believe this is increasingly important to competing in what Fortune’s Geoff Colvin has called the human economy of the 21st Century.

TAKEAWAY #3: The urgent need for speed and wisdom in our collective dialog

As author and former SFI president Geoffrey West shared many times, cities are the source of human innovation. But they’re also responsible for a large share of global problems. Cities don’t suffer from sigmoidal S-curves like companies and species, but rather take off asymptotically toward infinity. That growth is driven by networks. The challenge with this type of growth is avoiding collapse, requiring cities to innovate faster and faster.

Now that we have reached the “back half of the chessboard,” as the Benkler-moderated panel shared, we have reached the point where “the designer is becoming the designed.”  Five technologies — biotech, nanotech, AI, ICT, and Big Data — are transforming us at the societal and biological levels. As SFI’s Brian Arthur has said, “Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we should.”  And yet just as we need to be more deliberative, our technology is pulling us forward faster.

These are all reasons it is now more critical than ever to become conscious network designers in our personal and professional lives. That we raise our network quotient, our ability to think, see, and act in networks. But that is not enough. If specialization and exchange have created our world, it will take Renaissance men and women to keep it whole. An intelligent response calls for NQ, EQ, and IQ — all helping drive a cross-domain dialog at a scale which we have never seen.

One of the enormous challenges with this, as an SFI fellow said this weekend, is that “…to get a message to rise above the bubble of communication today requires we augment with emotion like anger and indignation. That is why our civil discourse is now so uncivil.”  And if one is to pursue crowd-sourcing of legislation like Iceland or Liquid Democracy offer, it is critical to have people who have not already been “captured by a narrative like the Fox News set.”

Integral or Consilient perspectives are key. William Glenney, IV, deputy director of the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Services Group, described how his organization not only sources* but also integrates diverse perspectives.

William’s group focuses on “wicked problems,” one’s for which there is no ready solution and instead one must build capabilities for solving the problem.  To do this, Glenney’s group seeks to blend diverse perspectives.  How do they know when they have achieved a synthesized view?  Glenney says they know they have achieved a synthesized point of view when they have accounted for all significant viewpoints

As we like to say, as Google has made the world searchable, the key to advantage is having excellent questions and frameworks through which to view the answers.

A footnote and postscript thought on Austin, where we work and live:

*The Strategic Services Group follows a programmatic, formal process that seeks perspectives across diverse domains and they’ve sent their experts to Austin, Texas for the last six or seven years. This made me wonder: How much more innovative has our hometown become in the last seven years? Geoffrey West would say, “Tell me the size of a city and I can tell you the number of patents filed.” Is Austin punching above its weight? I have always thought of the city as a leading innovator at least since Malcolm Gladwell said Austin is the place by which ideas make their way from West cost to East.

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