“The future is not given,” wrote, Russian Nobel Laureate, Ilya Prigogine, ”especially in this time of globalization and the network revolution, behavior at the individual level will be the key factor in shaping the evolution of the entire human species. Just as one particle can alter macroscopic organization in nature, so the role of individuals is more important now than ever in society.”
Prigogine wrote that thirty years ago. Yet the network revolution has escalated to new dimensions in recent times due to living in a period of unprecedented change affected by global mega trends; an ageing population, shifts in global economic power, large-scale urbanisation, diminishing natural resources and climate change. Our interconnectivity and increasingly interdependent lives are shaping the evolution of not just our entire human species, but the planet and beyond for future generations.
In this short interview with Roland Harwood, founder of Liminal – a new agency that is for people, organisations and communities on the edge – suggests that to navigate this uncertainty, we must start by navigating the complexity of the connected world. Roland is renowned as a compulsive connector, and he had over 500 meetings in under 6 months since exiting as co-founder of 100%Open Innovation Agency where he was growing its success to ‘help the suits collaborate with the sneakers’.
Researcher Katherine Simpson finds out about how his leap into a liminal space has allowed him to reconsider new ways to help others embrace being on the edge. We discuss Mozart, the endless distraction of addictive technology, and his optimism for humanity, so that we can reshape the world with endless possibilities for a better, more consciously networked future.
KS – Your latest business adventure We Are Liminal, what made you look from this temporary threshold or lens?
RH – Partly because it makes sense to me personally in terms of where I am in my life and work. Having been very focussed on building and growing my previous company for the last decade I’m now in a much more exploratory phase, and open to opportunities that emerge without trying too hard to force something. However, liminality also seems relevant and important to so many aspects of our society, economy and politics right now too. I believe we are going through an extended period of transition from the utopian optimism of the impact of the web to the current backlash towards rather dark and dystopian futures. I think we are on the edge of multiple possible futures and one of the positives I take from the political turbulence of the last few years is that many more people are becoming much more politically engaged and active than I can recall in my lifetime which long term is a good thing, if we can find a way to navigate our way around or through our current polarisation.
KS – How does embracing being in transition help reshape the way we look at concerns?
RH – It leaves lots of room for curiosity and creativity. Everything is a work in progress and most people and organisations (in western cultures at least) are very process focussed but that takes us out of the moment, which is where all of the magic and connection really happens. I’m more interested in exploring open ended curiosity rather than trying to manufacture innovation for its own sake.
KS – How can we appreciate and recognise just how intertwined and interconnected our lives really are?
RH – We can’t really but we can capture glimpses of it. The birthday paradox is a good example of how we underestimate our connectivity (it takes just 23 people for it to be likely that 2 of them share a birthday which is highly counterintuitive for most people). People like James Burke with his pioneering series Connections back in the 1970’s, and his work on the Knowledge Web since then shows all kinds of delightful and surprising connections e.g. Mozart indirectly helped to invent the helicopter! The best technique is just to really pay attention and notice – meditation and mindfulness can be really helpful for this. For me, going for a long run helps me free up my body and mind to make surprising connections.
KS – Can you talk a bit about how connectivity is reshaping change and innovation?
RH – More than ever we are literally one conversation from anything and everything. This presents huge opportunities for innovation in every organisation and on every day. However this is also a huge responsibility and quite overwhelming. We are largely being distracted to death by the brilliantly designed but horribly addictive technology that we are all utterly dependent upon. Developing habits to allow time for meaningful connection and contemplation are essential and nobody else can really do that for us. The risk is that competition can come from left field very quickly and obliterate something you have previously taken for granted.
KS – What are the future skills are needed for the innovation manager of the future?
RH – They need to be facilitators and connectors of people and ideas. We all need to develop better peripheral vision and nurture our instincts for when to twist and when to stick. And when we make a mistake, which should be happening a lot (otherwise you are not innovating) then having the resilience to go again and also having the confidence to learn and apply the lessons learned is crucial.
KS – What shape does the future look like in 2050? Dystopian or utopian – or something else?
RH – In reality it’s almost certainly neither but somewhere in the middle. In spite of everything I have tremendous faith and optimism for humanity even though some days that’s easier than others. But it’s in our hands. We are not passive bystanders – we are active creators of the future. So the sooner we realise that and start to work together to create the futures we want and need, the better. I hope that in our own way Liminal can help harness the people, the capabilities, and the spaces and places to make this a reality.
If you want to connect with Roland and Liminal network, visit https://www.weareliminal.