Disrupt yourself

Whilst researching an article for my other blog recently I came across this quote from Bob Metcalfe , the founder of 3Com and co-inventor of  Ethernet:

“Be prepared to learn how the growth of exponential and disruptive technologies will impact your industry, your company, your career and your life.”

As Metcalfe points out a disruptive technology not only impacts companies or entire industries it eventually (inevitably) impacts ones career and therefore life as well. This article from the Harvard Business Review talks about the importance of disrupting yourself occasionally to stay “fresh” and keep yourself relevant to the marketplace. After all, by 2030, most of the jobs we do today will no longer be recognisable according to this report when we will have such jobs as ‘Knowledge Brokers’, ‘Longevity Providers’ and ‘In-House Simplicity Experts’.

For many of us, especially if you have been in the same career all of your life, this can be a frightening idea which takes you way out of your comfort zone. However, like it or not, the world is changing. Of course, this has always been the case, it’s just that right now it’s changing faster than ever and knowing how to ride each wave of change is becoming increasingly harder.

Part of the versatilist zeitgeist we are advocating in this blog is that you are responsible for your own experience. If you don’t go and seek out new experiences occasionally, no matter how scary they may seem, rather than riding the next wave you may find yourself drowning beneath it. So go ahead, disrupt yourself.

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Versatilist Communities

It seems that we are living in more and more chaotic times.  The weather is unprecedentedly unpredictable, the banking systems seem to be failing and Europe is in an economic crisis as capitalism and the western economic model struggles to support its citizens to have a fulfilling and rich life that it promises.

Is it time to rethink? Are we becoming over dependent on technology to run our lives, and unwittingly using technology to rigidly embed economic and trade models into our society that require human interaction to remain adaptable and flexible?

As a practicing Agilist, a working practice that focuses on people, connections and individual deep specialism, in the software industry and outside, it strikes me that we are in danger of losing the deep specialism that is required for versatilist creativity.  As we become more and more connected through technology are we loosing the ability to think and behave in a deeply specialist way?

What do I mean? As I write this blog I am sitting on a train travelling from Birmingham to London; my first thought being to launch my browser and surf the internet for inspiration – it so easy!  But I became aware that, even though broadband connectivity is a few clicks away, I would be denying myself the opportunity for some deeper thought before connecting; inspiration, I realise, comes from the inside.

Our manifesto says that Versatilists:

Are deep specialists and broadly connected.

Both depth and connection are import – in the 80s and 90s specialism was the dominate model and skill, but if we are not careful, connection will be the dominate skill in the first part of the millennium, but without depth, and we may end up in an equally dire situation!

So, although we have said the versatilism is about individuals, I wonder if it is more than that, I wonder if it is about communities, and building versatilist communities.  Communities where the sum behaviours are versatilist, even if the individuals in the community don’t exhibit all of the versatilist characteristics, the community as a whole behaves in a versatilist way – the community is more than the sum of the individuals within.

And there are communities that operate like this already in society. One of my family members was recently acutely ill and had a short stay in hospital – on leaving the hospital I was in awe of the social structures and roles that were in place that maintained specialism and connection – a versatilist community!

In each area (a specialising community) there was interaction between the consultant, registrar, specialist, generalist and homecare nurses.  There are layers of specialist medicine, each layer itself a versatilist community.  This community of people maintained deep specialism through the consultant role, whilst maintaining a connection in the community: the patient, the hospital and pharmacy, through the nursing role.  Together, with well-defined social structures and role the hospital environment, or culture, creates versatilist communities – embracing both the deep knowledge and broad connection to deliver outstanding healthcare.

What had the most impact on me, and the reason I want to share this blog with you, was the realisation the Versatilism is not just about technology or individuals, it is also about a community.

A community that embraces the values of deep knowledge and broad connection will display the characteristics of versatilism as a whole.


Versatilist cities

My IBM colleague,  Dr. Rick Robinson, blogs here as The Urban Technologist where he writes about emergent technology and smarter cities. This particular post from Rick called Digital Platforms for Smarter City Market-Making discusses how encouraging organic growth of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in cities not only helps with the economic revival of some of our run down inner city areas but also means those SMEs are less likely to up roots and move to another area when better tax or other incentives are on offer. As Rick says:

“By building clusters of companies providing related products and services with strong input/output linkages, cities can create economies that are more deeply rooted in their locality.”

Examples include Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter which has a cluster of designers, manufacturers and retailers who also work with Birmingham City University’s School of Jewellery and Horology. Linkages with local colleges and universities is another way of reinforcing the locality of SME’s. Of course, just because we classify an enterprise as being ‘small to medium’ or ‘local’ does not mean that, because of the internet, it cannot have a global reach. These days even small, ‘mom and pop’ business can be both local as well as global.

Another example of generating organic growth is the so called Silicon Roundabout area of Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street in London which now counts some 3,200 firms and over 48,000 jobs. See here for a Demos report on this called A Tale of Tech City.

Clearly generating growth in our cities, as a way of improving both the economy as well as the general livelihoods of its citizens, should be considered a good thing, especially if that growth can be in new business areas which helps to replace our dying manufacturing industries and reduce our dependency on the somewhat ‘toxic’ financial services industry. However it turns out that encouraging this kind of clustering of people also has a positive feedback effect which means that groups of people together achieve more than just the sum of all the individuals.

Hong Kong Skyline (c) Peter Cripps

In 2007 the British theoretical physicist Geoffrey West and colleagues published a paper called Growth, innovation, scaling, and the pace of life in cities. The paper described the results of an analysis of a huge amount of urban data from cities around the world. Data included everything from the number of coffee shops in urban areas, personal income, number of murders and even the walking speed of pedestrians. West and his team analysed all of this data and discovered that the rhythm of cities could be described by a few simple equations – the equivalent of Newtons laws of motion for cities if you like.  These laws can be taken and used to predict the behavior of our cities. One of the equations that West and his team discovered was around the measurement of socioeconomic variables such as number of patents, per-capita income etc. It turns out that any variable that can be measured in cities scales to an exponent of 1.15. In other words moving to a city of 1 million inhabitants results, on average, 15% more patents, 15% more income etc than a person living in a city of five hundred thousand. This phenomena is referred to as “superlinear scaling” – as cities get bigger, everything starts to accelerate. This applies to any city, anywhere in the world from Manhattan, to London to Hong Kong to Sydney.

Whilst these equations explain what happens when cities grow, in terms of these socioeconomic factors, they do not explain why. In his book Imagine – How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehry talks about the concept of urban friction, that is the necessary and inevitable human interactions that take place in crowded spaces. Whilst some of these interactions may be unpleasant (bumping into the more undesirable elements of society) most are hopefully not and lead to not only more fulfilling lives but the exchange and development of ideas. Lehrer characterises urban planning as “finding a way to minimise people’s distress while maximising their interactions”.

It seems from this then, that if you want to be in a place where ideas and creativity are continuously being generated the place should be a large metropolis  rather than a quiet country cottage with views out over fields and pastures (though see this post for a counter-argument). Cities, with their eclectic mix of industry, culture, art, architecture and nationalities exhibit many of the versatilist characteristics we discuss in this blog and are probably the place to live and work if you want to be able to absorb, refine and adapt new ideas.