Category Archives: Innovation

Generosity and conviviality in the age of algorithmic oppression: #Manchester #odmnoble

algorithms of oppressionThis was a superb event. A diverse audience of somewhere between 80 and 90 attended a truly excellent event on ‘algorithms of oppression’ yesterday in Manchester. The event, hosted by Open Data Manchester  with the support of The Federation and Manchester School of Art, was centred on a lecture and q and a with Dr Safiya Noble   of USC Annenberg. This blogpost is an attempt to appreciate the richness, breadth and generosity of her talk, and also provide links and ‘bookmarks’. It can’t be a blow-by-blow account, but the event WAS live streamed and the organisers hope to get it up on a video sharing platform soon enough. Comments on the blog welcome, especially if I have mangled something, their are tpyos and that sort of thing…  Stuff in [square brackets] is me editorialising/suggesting additional lines of enquiry/books – I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that Noble has arcane and weird taste in anecdotes.

The event began with generous amounts of alcohol, fruit (grapes! Nom nom. Apples! Nom nom nom) and nibbles, with time for people to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  Julian Tait of Open Data Manchester opened proceedings explaining that ODM, which has been going for about 8 years is a community-led organisation that tries to take a critical look at (open) data and what it might mean for democracy, participation, sustainability and all those Good Things.  (The tagline says it best – Supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond). They have a bunch of events coming up, including the brilliantly named ‘Joy Diversion’  (scroll to the bottom) and he then asked if anyone else had events. There was on – this Thursday, 10 May Meet Amazing Data Women, open to anyone who identifies as a women.

A representative of the host building, The Federation gave a short talk, mentioning that it’s a newish community led business with free desk space for tech  businesses that are trying to do useful things around sustainability.  They also have events coming up, including something on May 30 on technology and slavery, with Mary Mazzio, the director of the documentary ‘I am Jane Doe’, and the launch of a report about images and disinformation/misinformation and the recent UK and French elections on June 5.

Then it was on to the main event. Professor Farida Vis, from Manchester School of Art, introduced the speaker Dr Safiya Noble.   She is (not yet) well-known to British audiences I suspect, but if tonight is anything to go by a) she should be and b) she will be. FT  readers may have read the article about her typing in ‘black girls’ to google while looking for things to take her niece to in New York and the results being, well, NSFW [that’s ‘not safe for work’, for any of reader who isn’t quite as down wiv da yoof as the 47 year old middle-class blogger who has to be told off by his wife for quoting The Wire as if it gives him urban(e) cred. Truedat.]

Noble works on the ways in which information technology, while seeming ‘neutral’ [the best trick the devil ever played…] actually perpetuates (intensifies) pre-existing prejudices. She’s been working on this for years and she knows a hell of a lot, but wears it lightly.  Noble has an engaging and charismatic stage presence. She clearly knows her stuff, knows why it matters and is keen to communicate it, but also to engage with questions and critiques.  She began with an anecdote about her new book.  When she first got the contract with NYU Press  her editor there (whom she praised – Noble is generous at giving ‘shout outs’ to colleagues) said that there was no way the word algorithm could be in the title – “nobody except you nerds knows what an algorithm is.”  Well, now, with bots crawling all over our minds like spiders hatching from an egg sac in a wound, everyone knows differently.  Noble said that even her father-in-law is saying “what’s up with those algorithms?” Noble then pointed out that while her research – and her talk – would be about the USA, what she is studying [warning about] is happening globally, at different speeds in different ways.

This of course is part of a broader ‘techlash’ – a backlash against the utopian promises and hype [see Gartner Hype Cycles for more on this].  As a Wired article Noble referenced put it “2017 was the year we fell out of love with algorithms.”

The next thing that happened was a recurring theme: Noble enthusiastically cited the work of another academic (in this case Wendy Chun, and her 2006 book “Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fibre Optics“.  Two things here – firstly this is a super-helpful habit, sharing your overview of an issue and its back history. Secondly , she wasn’t citing other scholars merely to say their work was incomplete and she had the missing pieces of the puzzle. This wasn’t an alpha (male) academic exercise in the swinging of, er, citations, of the type that those of us privileged to live in the ivory tower so often encounter.

[Btw- strangely many of the authors working on digital oppressions  are African-American or BME. Very odd that that African Americans might have the most acute and penetrating perceptions about the ways that power works. It’s almost as if they have been on the pointy end of oppression for centuries. But anyway…]

She also mentioned Ann Everett, but I can’t read my scrawl to get the context.  [Ah, the irony – google helps out-  In Digital Diaspora; A Race for Cyberspace – “Deftly interweaving history, culture, and critical theory, Anna Everett traces the rise of black participation in cyberspace, particularly during the early years of the Internet”.  Noble had by this point already reminded us just how revolutionary and useful Google was when it arrived in 2000, making it actually possible to find stuff…]

Anyway, Noble’s thesis, in her book – omfg I haven’t linked to her book yet-  is that black bodies are ‘data disposable’ , upon which technology is practiced and perfected  [And for those of you who think ‘conspiracy theory’/chip on shoulder, why don’t you check out the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male  [the clue is in the name] and how the pill was tested on Puerto Ricans. To back this up she introduced Vilna Bashi Treitler and a book called The Ethnicity Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, which says that there is a ‘core binary spectrum’ (white and non-white), with immigrants striving to become white (think the Irish and Italians)  [the same thing happened in Australia, – whiteness is such a freaking fiction].

Noble mentioned a backlash against talking about race since the 1990s, with the rise of so-called ‘colour-blind ideology’, a favoured phrase of venture capitalists looking to fund projects. It has the odd effect of rendering white and Asian men invisible [so ‘normal’ as to be unseeable]

Two more academics working on this got a shout out – Michael Brown [can’t find – perhaps a reference to Ferguson victim?] and Helen A. Neville.

In the one moment that, for me, was questionable Noble pointed out that the rise of ‘computer knows best’ ideology grew in the 1960s at the same time as Civil Rights legislation was being passed and participation in decision-making became at least thinkable for minorities [that said, the use of technology to deskill and suppress workers power is indisputable – see David Noble Forces of Production  I just think this was a slightly long bow to draw…]

What we are seeing now is analogous to ‘redlining’ (where banks refused loans to entire categories of people – a practice now outlawed).  Profiles of individuals are being built on a mass level – what does it mean to have a data profile about you that you can’t intervene on?  For Noble, AI is going to be a massive Human Rights issue in the 21st century, and it is one we don’t have the legal/political frameworks for yet.

More fellow academics and thinkers then got a shout out

[Noble says that this list is just ‘scratching the surface’, and that we need to mainstream the discussion of tech ethics)

Noble told an amusing story about having been on twitter for so long that she actually has the @safiya handle but can’t use it because it gets flooded with mis-tagging  (the same thing happens to a guy called @johnlewis, who has great fun with people’s mis-tagging while looking for the store).

Searching questions
Moving on to the question of how trusted search engines are, Noble pointed to a 2012  Pew Centre study which showed that most Americans are satisfied with search engines, most use Google (thus, Noble says, that’s what she studies!, and most use it often.  Search engines are therefore seen as a ‘trusted public good’, the people’s portal.  The cost of this is that we’ve lost the art of/respect for content curated by an expert.

Noble then shared the experience by which she might be known to a general UK audience – she googled ‘black girls’ (having been told by a colleague not to do it from a university computer.  And sure enough, it was pages and pages of porn.  Noble wrote an article on this for Bitch magazine, published in Spring 2012. By autumn Google had suppressed the porn in the search results [a pattern that would continue  – individual problems dealt with on an ad hoc reactive basis]

Noble then asked if anyone had heard of a UK band called Black Girls, which still appears in the searches. One of the 90ish present had, leading Noble to observethe band was better at search engine optimisation than it was at music distribution…

Next up Noble gave a shout out to an online collection of Jim Crow memorabilia at, before going on to recount how, in 2015,  DeRay Mckesson  (with leverage acquired from having been followed by Beyonce) showed that when you googled the ‘n-word’house Google Maps took you to the White House.

Again, Google’s response was to talk about ‘glitches’ (in otherwise perfect systems.

Another example – the following year chap called Kabir Ali was livestreamed by his friends googling ‘three black teenages’ and ‘three white teenagers’.  The former gave mugshots, the latter healthy non-threatening sportsballing folks

[This stuff matters. Somewhere (Malcolm Gladwell?) there’s an anecdote about someone regularly doing the Implicit Association Test, which furtles out the links you make ‘unintentionally’ and not being able to figure out why his results were improving –then realised he was watching the Olympics, where black athletes were doing well/being praised]

Anyway, the following day, it was tweaked.

Next up – googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work” came up with lots of black women, while “”professional hairstyles for work” came up with white women with pony tails.

See also Jessica Davis and Oscar Gandy 1999 Racial identity and media orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, (3), pp.367-397.

[I mentioned this to the brilliant Sarah Irving and she mentioned the ‘if anyone needs to know that orientalism is still a thing, google ‘sheikh’ – still loads of images of kidnappy/rapey men on camels and their insatiable appetites for white flesh]

So beyond being offensive and demoralising, what are the broader political implications, if any?  Noble pointed to a 2013 study that showed that the types of results which came up on the first page when someone googled a candidate could influence who people would vote for, and that search engines need to be regulated. [I haven’t got this totally]  This is the article I think – Viability, Information Seeking and Vote Choice.  (Of course, googlebombing is nowt new – see what Dan Savage did to Senator Santorum, way back in the day).

Skip forward- after the 2016 Presidential Election, if you googled ‘final election result’ in the US you got taken to a lying site, that said Trump won not only the Electoral College vote, but ALSO the popular vote.

Further links

Neoliberal co-optation

So, the response has been predictable, and probably effective.  Google has come up with ‘Black Girls Code’ – in this narrative the main problem is not structural racism but that 5 year old black girls haven’t been getting involved enough… Noble cited Heather Hiles as noting that less than one per cent of venture capital goes into projects led by black women.

Noble then moved on to the deeper question of who makes the tech, and what damage is done in the making  of it (the subject of her next work – following the production and value chains).  All these techs are “resting precariously on extraction in the Global South” with enormous amounts of hidden labour [and ecosystem devastation] “in I-phone 12 or whatever we’re going to be on in a week” – all part of the (story of) infinite linear progress of technology [ah, the hedonic treadmill, donchajustlove it]

This sense of technology as our (submissive because female) friend is there in the new personal digital assistants such as Microsoft’s Ms Dewey, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.  Noble mentioned that a few weeks ago she was talking with robotics professors at Stanford who had not thought through the implications of children learning to bark commands at women’s voices…

[There’s a great Onion story “Congress Demands to Know How Facebook Got people to Give Up their Civil Liberties without a Fight” in which they quiz Mark Zuckerberg on how he convinced people to let bugs/spies into their houses in a way the FBI could only dream of. ]

Other problems include so-called “predictive policing” and embodied software (Robocop Lives!!) Simone Browne and racialized policing.  A concrete (in every sense) example – in Champagne Illinois there are [were?], in the poor neighbourhoods, virtually no sidewalks.  So, what do kids do? They walk in the street. And what do the cops do? Write them up for jaywalking.  As the Violent Femmes once sang ‘this will go down on your permanent record’….   [A neat example of how, as per critical realism, we have to think about material constraints, not just ideologies and ‘rules’ – see Sorrell, 2018:  “Explaining sociotechnical transitions: A critical realist perspective]

Final example – even videos of atrocities (Eric Garner dying, saying ‘I can’t breath’) attract advertising revenues because, well – lots of people watch them.  [We monetise our own catastrophes, whether we like it or not…]

What is to be done?

This was the last, and by far the briefest, section of Noble’s talk. She had five suggestions

  • Build repositories and platforms that belong to the public. (Noble noted that the convergence of states and multinational companies made it hard to imagine platforms that were not based on advertising revenues)
  • Resist colorblind/racist/sexist technology development (sex dolls got a mention)
  • Decrease technology over-development and e-waste
  • More info and research visualisation for the public
  • Never give up


Noble closed by observing that the prediction is that by 2030 1% of the population will own 2/3rds of the world’s wealth. There will be intensified datafication, more devices, with more promises of seamless and frictionless liberty.  But we can’t eat the digital. We can’t make an iPhone sandwich….


Question and Answer

There was time for some questions.  What was interesting here – besides the info itself – was that Noble gave quick and detailed answers, without waffle or using the Q and A as a chance for a thinly-veiled continuation of her lecture (we’ve all seen that happen, right?)

Please do NOT take anything I’ve ascribed to Noble as gospel. I may have got stuff wrong. I don’t do shorthand.  Check the recording!

Question 1: Is Capitalism an algorithm of oppression?

Noble: Yes, of course… goes on to point to the racialized element of this.  2008 financial crisis as the biggest wipe out of black wealth since the Reconstruction [e.g. here and here]

Cites Cathy O’Neil Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

Question 2 Audre Lorde said that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.  Does this mean that we should be encouraging people to ‘disconnect.?

Noble:  No. It’s cute to tell people to delete facebook, but we need collective solutions, not individual ones. If I stop paying my rent, I’m not taking down capitalism.We need to strengthen our position in the situation we are in.  For example “fair sourcing”, and design where nobody dies [a challenge she put to comp sci students who had to take her class recently.  We need a more powerful public response.  We used to have 80% unionisation after world war two.  Need that back.  That’s not easy.  In retrospect everyone was at the 1963 March on Washington, but  of course it was no more than 10 percent making the change at the time. We need to find that 10% again

[And keep them for the long haul.  Best book on the Civil Rights Struggle I ever read was ‘And We are Not Saved’ by Debbie Louis. Extraordinary.]

[I asked that question.  What I MEANT to say was ‘in your opinion, are there inherent properties within the technology that mean it will never be effective as a weapon of liberation. If so, what then?’ but I bollocksed it up.  I am sure there is a broader lesson in this – perhaps something about about letting smarter-than-me black women speak for themselves and staying out of the way, but I can’t quite see what it is….]

Question 3:  (from a biracial woman).  Was searching for home insurance with a white friend. They have same financial profile, and asked for two quotes on the same house.  Guess who was quoted the cheaper premium…

[At which point TV Smith’s ‘It’s expensive being poor’ sprang to mind.]

Noble:  That’s what we call code data discrimination, which we can’t see.  We have to have public policy on this.  And most discrimination laws are about proving intent – we should be looking at outputs and impacts.  There is this very powerful ‘tech is neutral’ idea which we have to contest.

Noble then gave the example of a (black?) guy who was the son of a financial planner, and a financial planner himself i.e. ‘responsible adult’ had his Amex card declined. Eventually, after multiple calls it emerged he’d once bought something in a Walmart in the Wrong Part of Town and the algorithm had ‘decided’ he was credit risk.

Question 4: to what extent are Silicon Valley executives oblivious to the problem?

Noble: They’re largely underprepared. If you’re designing tech for society and you don’t know anything about society, you’re underprepared.  The kind of people who end up in Silicon Valley mostly went to the top five universities and will have been able to transfer out of their humanities components early. For some the last humanities course they took will have been high school English.  But even if by some miracle they’d taken ethnic/women’s studies, that wouldn’t necessarily help, since they are coding/designing within a set of institutions/beliefs/paradigms [my paraphrase/word salad].

And there is defensiveness/hostility in some companies about all of this.

Question 5:  How much of this is unconscious bias?

Noble: I don’t like that phrase. UB let’s everyone off the hook.  Get’s us back into intent questions, where we need to look at outputs and impacts, and then use public policy, HR policies, hiring etc.

What kind of world do we want? One were people can’t afford to eat?  How do we do things differently.

Question 6: Thanks for opening my eyes about search engine bias: beyond moderation of search engines, what?

Noble: we must separate advertising content from knowledge. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, fine, but if, as Dylan Roof (the 19 year old who murdered 9 black churchgoers in Virginia), well, he was doing ‘sense-making’ on Travyon Martin (murdered by George Zimmerman) and was led to lots of white supremacist sites.  There’s a chapter in the book on this.

We need to demarcate better, and realise that google should not be a ‘trusted public good’.


Further reading [my suggestions’


What I would have done differently

I have been to (and blogged) about some truly appalling events.  This, mercifully was not one of them.  Huzzah! Still, it’s usually possible to offer unsolicited advice. So here goes:

One of the (largely) false promises of social media is that it will decrease our sense of loneliness/anomie. When we organise “meatspace” events, we should take actions that reduce that loneliness. I would have had people turn to someone they don’t know at the outset and introduce themselves for a couple of minutes. Who are they? Why did they come? What are they hoping to get.  No wider feedback, just that. (It works- see here).

I would have challenged Noble to talk slightly less about the problems (though it was incredibly eye opening) and at greater length about the ‘solutions’ and how they might be implemented, and by who.

During Q and A mostly men’s hands (about 4 to 2, when actual gender balance in room was roughly 55/45 male to female).  (Fwiw, I think meetings are institutionally sexist). Have people turn to the person next to them to compare notes, and get help honing their question. Then ask for a show of hands and pick male and female hands-  or on other metrics- an obvious one in this case would be race)
Upcoming events

Sat May 19 Joy Diversion

“Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.”



Canute in reverse: Macron’s climate summit

Today thousands of the great and the good will gather in Paris for the latest in a long line of climate summits. Initiated in July by French President Emmanuel Macron, it falls on the two year anniversary of the Paris Agreement.  With three goals –  “Take tangible and collective action, innovate, support one another”  – it is part of his efforts to maintain France’s status as the pace-setter on climate change, in ever-growing contrast to the Trump administration’s enthusiastic environmental vandalism.  Trump was explicitly not invited, in fact.

The event is the latest in a much longer line of climate summits which try to focus attention and generate momentum. However, while most previous summits have been involved mitigation policies, motherhood statements and unmemorable memos about more meetings, this one may be different..

Summits going on

While ‘summits to solve problems’ are time-honoured, and can lead to new organisations (the 1975 Rambouillet talks to discuss economic problems led to the formation of the G7) political gatherings on climate change date back to the early 1980s.

Climate scientists and switched on politicians (including a young Al Gore) attempted to sustain momentum that had been building under Carter and was fading under the new Reagan administration.

Eight years later, George HW Bush promised on the 1988 Presidential campaign trail to use the White house effect against the greenhouse effect’ and to hold an international conference within a year of taking office. However’ once in office he dragged his feet.” When the event finally happened in April 1990 it emerged that the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Cimate Change, Bert Bolin, had not been invited.

The climate summits have come thicker and faster since then, either through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) , alongside it (eg. The UK effort at the UN security council,) or in a spoiler role – the efforts of George Bush Jnr and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, both who refused to enact the Kyoto Protocol to create an ‘Asia Pacific Forum on Clean Development and Climate.

The motives of the summit-callers vary. It might be to highlight intent and bask in a contrast (as Macron is doing here). It might be to regain lost ground – in 2007 Kevin Rudd, who would soon become Australian Prime Minister after ‘the first climate change election’, called a National Climate Summit to wrest back the climate agenda, after John Howard u-turned on his climate policy intransigence and asked a senior public servant, Peter Shergold, to investigate an emissions trading scheme.

(Malcolm Turnbull, now Prime Minister and then the new environment minister, dismissed it; “I’m afraid to say that the people who are going, however well intentioned, are being used by Kevin Rudd as props to promote himself.”)

Turning the tide

canuteSo far so normal. The climate debate has always been about managing the politics; political summits have always been about the signalling of virtue and/or holding back the tide as best as possible. This one though, has Macron as Canute commanding the tide to come in.

There are two interrelated reasons why this is one to watch. Firstly, the unity of the fossil fuel industry is splintering. The coal industry fear after the Paris conference that hey would “be hated like slave traders” is coming true, despite Trump’s ‘coal is back’ efforts. The Bonn climate conference saw the announce of a ‘Powering Past Coal Alliance”. Michael Bloomberg is funding a global ‘beyond coal’ effort. Coal is being thrown under the bus.

Secondly, and perhaps not unrelated, is the technological and economic developments which see “clean energy approaching a tipping point.”  The price of solar panels collapsing, new interest in concentrated solar thermal and great enthusiasm (the upswing of the hype cycle ) around energy storage. Investors are shifting to renewables, and doubtless there will be more announcements of new renewables being made. The summit will be not so much virtue signalling as venture (capital) signalling.

There will be trouble ahead

The danger then is not that Macron’s summit will extend a policy stalemate, but that it will entrench the notion – pushed aggressively and slickly by Shell – of gas as a ‘transition’ fuel (it is not) and reinforce the comforting belief that the techno-cavalry with arrive to save us.

To meet the Paris Agreement’s commitment of keeping global warming to less than two degrees (let alone the probably impossible 1.5), we are going to have to accelerate not just the growth of renewables, but also understand that incumbents will fight in clever determined and diverse ways to defend their interests. For those geeks who have pay-wall privileges, here is new academic work on overcoming policy resistance,

For those who continue to need to believe that we can get out of this mess, the real danger is no longer intransigence, but that summits like this will be used to reinforce a business as usual with a green lick of paint.

Lobbying, lies, prostitution, disruption #climate – extraordinary truth-telling

The problem with studying the rich (well, one of many) is that access is hard.  So you end up relying on leaks and whisteblowers. Both can be deeply problematic.  But every so often the curtain DOES get pulled back.  With Australia and climate change two great examples are

a) the leaking of the minutes of the 2004 meeting where then Prime Minister begged big fossil fuel companies to help him kill off the pesky renewable energy target which was working too well

b) the PhD of Guy Pearse, who had talked to fellow lobbyists. They explained how they had captured and ‘reverse engineered’ Australian energy policy.


Now there is another, short and sharp example.  In an article called “Can we be honest about the damage we are all doing?” a chap called Andrew Craig-Bennett dishes it out to the shipping industry’s various trade associations, which have tried to shoot down a recent expose of their activities.

“if you are not influencing the [International Maritime Organisation] and others, there is no point in paying you,and we can all save a few bucks. What we want you to do is to influence the IMO is a less brain dead way.” 

(Later he writes “we can feel nothing but contempt and disgust at the prostitutes employed by our racket to try to put one over on the general public.”)

Craig-Bennet then says he recalls  an incident from more than three decades ago

“I saw a carefully drafted, science-based, regulation, which would have improved safety and been simple to enforce, turned into a pile of scientifically unsound but ‘commercially helpful’ garbage by, in that case, the Australian mining industry, who were pretending to be the Australian government.”

He goes on to extol the virtues of disruptive technologies (“the available means of ship propulsion without emissions are nuclear, solar and wind.”)

It is a fascinating article, that concludes (so, you know, spoiler alert, obvs)

“We all know this change is coming. We can lead it, get rich and be on the side of the angels or we can share the fate of the other rust belt industries. Simple.”




What may Jay say? The alternative @JayWeatherill speech for #Openstate

The following document fell through a wormhole from an alternative universe, landing as a smoldering set of singed papers, with a comedy thump, on my desk. It purports to be an account of the speech given by South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill at the launch of the “2017 Open State Program.”

Standing at the podium with his confident bantamweight poise, it is Jay, the Man himself. He flicks through his prepared speech in a manner not unlike the late Senator Bulworth in the documentary of the same name.
He can be heard muttering to himself (“South Australia based on ideas, check. Wakefield, check; token olive branch to Liberals by mentioning Playford, check; red meat to the True Believers by invoking Don, check; me and my mate Elon, check; Federal policy vacuum, check”). He looks up, seemingly surprised that everyone is there.

He casually tosses the speech aside.
“Yeah, look, you know why we’re here, or else you wouldn’t be here. We’re launching another “Open State” festival. Various events in (at this he does that annoying air quote thing) “pop up” venues, where men with pony tails and pot bellies swap the buzzwords. Collaboration and innovation and other soothing blandishments that help the neoliberal state cope with its legitimation crisis.

“You’ll come along, catch up with some people you haven’t seen in years, hear half-digested ideas that you can trot out at your dinner party. Feel like you’ve got your finger on the pulse, that Adelaide isn’t the backwater people who fled to Sydney, Melbourne and LA keep telling you it is.

“The adjective “future” thrown in for sex appeal and then followed some random nouns – what are they again? (He looks at his notes) – “Hmm.. Human/Planet/Cities/Food./Enterprise/Democracy. – yeah, that about covers it.”

He looks around, seeking familiar and friendly faces, and finds them. “Most of you were at this last year, along with other people from Norwood and Prospect, Toorak and Dulwich. 25 thousand of you at 60 events.

“But look, life is short and we’re all going to be dead a long time. So I want to take a few minutes to talk about a different kind of innovation. Because you all already know about technological innovation. You all know about the enormous battery up north. Course you do. But in case someone’s been living on Mars, waiting for my mate Elon to show up (nervous sycophantic laughter can be heard), then my government is spending 2.6 million of your bucks to explain our energy plan. The one we can point to if the lights and aircon go out this summer, ahead of next March’s election, and pin the blame on my friend Josh.

“But let’s put that kind of innovation aside. What I think we need – what I am introducing to day – is some relatively small but potentially hugely significant – social innovations. For way too long we’ve been using the standard chalk and talk/sage on the stage methods. Last year’s Open State suffered from that. So many of them were glorified TED talks, the audience as nothing more than egofodder for the speakers and organisers, bums on seats, brains in jars at home. Instead of a 2 to 1 ratio of talk and Q and A, sometimes we ended up with nothing but talk.

At this the audience seems divided; some looking relieved at the outbreak of emotional intelligence and plain-speaking, others alarmed by it.

“It’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? We have this situation where we say we’re trying to create links between participants and get different things happening, but to do that we seem stuck on using methods that haven’t changed since at least the birth of the university in Italy a thousand years ago, before the invention of the printing press. A lecturer and acolytes. It’s all top-down info dumping followed by a Q and A which is actually a P and A – preening and asshatery.

“You might almost say that it’s the equivalent of using centralised coal-fired power stations to keep the lights on and the carbon emissions low and being surprised when it goes wrong..

“So today, I announce that my government is going to set an example and blaze a trail on the socialinnovation. And it won’t even cost 2.6 million to be advertised.

“Every Open State event is going to have four innovations. One is to keep greenhouse gases in front of our minds, and the three others are to break down the power of the speaker and the power of the confident.

Jay is onto the front foot now, getting that bouncy energy thing that he does so well, a family dog that realises playtime is about to begin.

First up, in addition to the welcome to country, we’re going to do an acknowledgement of Greenhouse gases. The MC will say something like

“We acknowledge that this meeting is taking place in an economy that has grown massively over the last two hundred years in large part from the burning of coal, gas and oil. We acknowledge that the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing the planet to warm, and that other species and the poorest humans are suffering first, but that we will all suffer in the future. We acknowledge that as people who have benefited from previous burning, and as people who continue to burn fossil fuels above and beyond the global average, we have a primary responsibility to work to minimise carbon dioxide emissions in fair and sustainable ways, and to help the poorest among us adapt to the inevitable changes that climate change will bring.”

“I picked this one up while scanning an obscure activist website, which is my hobby when I’m not attending the book launches. Why are we doing this? Because it’s easy to get blinded by boosterism for the latest gadget, and forget the painful scale of the challenges we face.

Second thing, after the usual pleasantries, the welcome to country and that greenhouse gas thing, everyone’s going to be settling into passivity, willingly or otherwise. So here’s a disruptive innovation. : we’re going to have two minutes while everyone turns to someone they don’t know – beside them or behind them – and just introduces themselves.
Why? Because we’re trying to thicken the web of knowledge and friendship, reduce loneliness and help people use these Open State events as real networking opportunities. This two minute thing will give people more permission to have better wider connections during the longer breaks.

Third thing – we’re going to keep all the speakers to their promised time. We’re also going to empower our MCs to keep the speakers, no matter how prestigious, strictly to their allotted time. We know that this can be tricky, if it’s a young female or star-struck bureaucrat and a high status old male. Rather than add pressure on them, and see them fail a lot, we are going to ‘crowd source it, as the young people say. It’s called the ‘clap clinic’.
The MC will introduce the speaker and then say something like
‘I’ll give the speaker a one minute warning. Then, when their time is up, I will start applauding and I’d like you to all join in. Let’s practice now, giving the speaker the clap they so richly deserve.’


This will mean there is proper time in every session for an actual Q and A.

“Fourthly and finally, we are going to do something about the Q and As, which tend to be dominated by old white men with a lot to say, with others pushed to the margins. Here is what we are going to do. As at the outset, we’re going to have a further two minutes for people to talk to each other.
We’ve trained our facilitators to say something like.
Let’s all turn to someone nearby you – ideally someone you don’t know. Introduce yourself and exchange impressions of the speech. If you have a question you are wondering whether to ask, find out if the other person thinks it’s a good ‘un. With their help, refine it, hone it and – please – for everyone’s sake, make it shorter. Women especially, your questions are just as good and welcome as men’s. You have two minutes…_

“The MC will then be able to draw from a wider range of ages, genders, skin tones than is currently the case.

“Look, people are banging on about the “entrepreneurial state.” They’ve been banging on about the enabling state  – though to be honest that was Mark Latham’s schtick, and we all know how that turned out.

“South Australia is already leading on battery storage and energy production. And now the CST thing. Well,  today is that South Australia starts leading on how to hold gatherings that get beyond the usual stultifying egofests to create genuine connections.

“So, let’s start now. Instead of you guys sticking up your hands and me asking the safest and most sycophantic person I can see, let’s have you talk among yourselves for a minute, to hone the most awkward questions you can.”

A minute passes. Jay looks around the room. He points to an oldish white male. Chris Kenny (for it is he) “Premier, one question…”


[The second “Open State” festival of innovation, collaboration, ideas and enterprise will be held in Adelaide from 28 September – 8 October.]

“Entrench warfare” or “why I don’t bother with one-off trainings” #smugosphere #inertia

A few years ago I organised a one-off training session on research for activists. It went well and had … no discernible impact on how anyone did anything.  So it goes.  I reflected on this – and other training I have been part of as a punter. And I came to the conclusion that unless you are part of a group that values the new skill/knowledge, then whatever shiny new training you have been on will simply not become embedded, and you and your group will stick to what you know.  This is not a particularly startling observation.  But now at least I have a citation I can back it up with when I am whining about the smugosphere

It’s from a bloody brilliant paper –

Perkmann, M. and Spcier, A. 2008. How are management fashions institutionalized? The role of institutional work. Human Relations, Vol. 61 (6), pp.811-844.

This bit

Zeitz et al. (1999) distinguish between the transitory adoption of a practice and its enduring ‘entrenchment’. Entrenchment is defined as the institutionalization of a practice to the extent that it is unlikely to be abandoned. They argue that while the mere adoption of a practice indicates the exposure to a fashion, entrenchment is required to induce a lasting change of practice. They identify five ‘pillars’ by which a fashionable concept can become entrenched: models (spurring imitation), culture (promoting identification), education (again spurring imitation), regulative/coercive influences (exerting power) and technical-rational influences (providing recipes for improving performance). Assuming that such entrenchment can occur at different levels of analysis, from individual, organizational, interorganizational to the societal level, they propose a set of ‘indicators’ that can be used for empirically assessing as to whether a practice has become entrenched: formalization, compatibility (with other practices), depth, systematic coherence (with other concepts and strategies) and the existence of ‘webs of interdependencies’ (Zeitz et al., 1999).
(Perkmann and Spicer, 2008: 814/5)

And that citation is this – Zeitz, G., Mittal, V. & McAulay, B. Distinguishing adoption and entrenchment of management practices: A framework for analysis. Organization Studies, 1999, 20(5), 741–76.

So,  a while back there was talk of me doing a training or two with a group. But since only one person in that group knew me/valued the training, and he wasn’t going to be sticking around, (he and I) decided it was at best a waste of time, energy and morale for all concerned, and at worst actively harmful (destroys the credibility of innovation, turns it into a ritualistic set-up-to-fail thing).

Doomed, I tell you, all doomed.  So what.

(Wind) Power to the People – Denmark, Tvind and bricolage

So, two years ago I read this

Hendry, C. and Harborne, P. 2011. Changing the view of wind power development: More than “bricolage.” Research Policy 40,, pp. 778-789.

and wrote this about it –

This was mentioned in a reading group/symposium yesterday by one of my supervisors. It’s a response/elaboration to a paper by Garud and Karnoe comparing the Danish and US wind energy industries and how they came about. Hendry and Harbone heartlessly puncture the lovely romantic notions that Tinkerers Matter throughout the process (they did, but once you get to a certain point, there’s no substitute for “science” and deep pockets.) Reminds me a bit of Manuel de Landa in “War in the Age of Intelligent Machines,” where he makes the point that there are tactics, but strategy will overcome them, and there is strategy, but in the end, logistics – being able to feed, clothe, arm and replace members of your army at a more efficient rate than your enemy – is what matters.

Well, the Danish wind industry is the gift that keeps on giving, if you are interested (like me) in niches that become regimes and ‘bottom-up’ pressure that actually, you know, ‘works’.

The latest I have found is this paper, which is brilliant.

Hoffman, J. 2013. Theorizing power in transition studies: the role of creativity and novel practices in structural change. Policy Science, Vol. 46, pp.257-275.

Just brilliant [full disclosure – for two years of my life (minus a year here and there) I lived in the shadow of the Tvind windmill. True story.].

Here are a couple of empirical chunks.  Far more interesting (well, as interesting) is the theoretical contribution, around ‘carrier waves’ and also the shortcomings of a multi-level framework,and the assumptions that innovations just, you know, happen.  –

Because the MLP assumes the presence of a ‘novel practice’, it hides from view how actors draw upon regimes and incorporate exogenous trends in shaping and defining what the [page break] ‘novelty’ is about and how it relates to the regime.
(Hoffman, 2013: 262-3)

But that’s for another time.

I shall distinguish between two key episodes of interaction between wind energy experiments and outside groups, both within and outside the energy sector. Although both very crucial for further development, the two episodes differed in terms of entrepreneurial activities, strategies, and the outcomes. In the first episode (1950s), entrepreneur Johannes Juul put up wind energy experiments in collaboration with power company SEAS. Even though the later popular 200-kW Gedser turbine resulted from these experiments, the energy sector’s support for wind energy waned and wind energy production in the 1960s was literally left to fall into disrepair. Danish wind energy experienced a second coming, however, when parts of the Danish democracy movement in the 1960s and 1970s adopted wind energy as a form of decentralized energy production. In this episode, wind energy became primarily an affair of the democracy movement, with little involvement of traditional energy companies. In contrast to the collaborative relationship between Juul and incumbent actors, wind energy actors in the democracy movement moved into an antagonistic relationship with incumbents; wind energy actors in the democracy movement openly contested incumbent practices and presented themselves as a decentralized and democratic alternative. In its decentralized form, wind energy production grew to substantial proportions resulting in a relatively strong industry that obtained a market share of half the world market for wind turbines.
(Hoffman, 2013: 259)


How do these insights help us make sense of the dynamic interplay between actions at the level of novel practices and power? Let us now draw on the case of Denmark to answer this question. The rising prices of import fuels in the 1950s formed a structural power that discredited incumbent practices and raised expectations about novel practices. Among others, the entrepreneur Juul proposed wind energy as a complement to the use of imported fuels, which regime players appreciated as a way to tackle the increasing costs of imported fuels. In collaboration with the power supplier SEAS and a Wind Energy Committee (Vindkraftudvalget) from the ministry of trade, Juul could draw on sufficient technical and financial resources to start experiments. This relational power resulted in the later widely used 200-kW Gedser wind turbine. At least for a while, rising prices for import fuels formed a carrier wave for novel energy practice. However, just when wind turbines were ready for upscaling, nuclear energy became a serious alternative and regime players’ expectations for wind energy practices were lowered. As a result, all wind energy projects were cut short and resources were withdrawn. Wind energy practices were left to ‘hobbyists’, bereft of relational power.
(Hoffman, 2013: 261)