Podcast Review: Ecosystemic Organizations and the Future of Work — with Stowe Boyd

In this latest podcast from Boundaryless Conversations podcast, hosts Simone Cicero and Stina Heikkila interview Stowe Boyd, Founder, Work Futures. Stowe writes extensively on the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future in his Work Futures Medium publication.

The conversation touched on a number of important topics related to the future of organizing, including regulation of platforms, organization structures of the future, ecosystem governance and transcending user experience for more meaningful outcomes.

Here is a summary of the conversation followed by my thoughts.

On Regulatory vs. Revolutionary governance of ubiquitous services

The conversation started out discussing how to ensure fairness in ubiquitous and societally important services that originate in the private sector. Stowe mentioned how government has played this role historically in regulating such things as railroads and communications interoperability, but has yet to address the power of platforms like Google Search. Simone pointed out that more revolutionary alternatives like those being developed in the decentralization space, are also emerging and seem better positioned to react to the kinds of crises we are seeing now in the world (e.g. — pandemics and climate change).

In a way, I believe that both alternatives are forms of regulation. One is regulated by a traditional form of government while the other is regulated by a technology protocol as proxy for the community. Holochain and blockchain/DLT are just new forms of governance that are more open, accessible, transparent and less susceptible to corruption. But I think this is really a question of adoption. Commons alternatives to ubiquitous private sector services will have to compete for consumer adoption on the basis of lower order needs like convenience and price because there just aren’t likely to be enough people intrinsically motivated to adopt them because they are inclusive. Most people just won’t ever be that interested in unenclosable carriers. So, if we want to create more open, inclusive and fair operating systems, you can’t sell them because of those characteristics. You have to sell them because they’re convenient and easy to adopt.

Simone then asked how innovation would be incented if platforms become utilities. Stowe mentioned that many platform strategies today are designed intentionally to spur innovation on and around them and described Rent The Runway, a platform for women’s clothing rental, as an example. In the Rent The Runway model, design firms are changing the way they interact in the market because they now have access to more data about consumption than they’ve had in the past. The model is also indirectly sustainable because there is less waste in an access vs. ownership model and when coupled with transparent global usage data, could also affect consumer buying decisions.

The question of innovation incentives in a commons model is a good one. Capitalism is unrivaled in its ability to incentivize innovation. I think there are some promising approaches to innovation in the commons space. In particular, the concept of contributory accounting and embedding individual IP rights in nested assets held in common.

On going beyond convenience and user experience

Simone then asked, that given the shift toward data-driven and access oriented platform models that drive consumer convenience, is there hope for going beyond smarter, more convenient consumption? Stowe mentioned Haier Group and its pioneering micro-enterprise model to which Simone clarified that he thought that, while clearly ground-breaking, the Haier model was still “operating mostly within the framework of modernity, capitalism and UX, user experience.” Stowe responded that Haier had built elements of fairness into its model to ensure trust and collaboration inside and outside of Haier. Simone then reiterated his interest in what’s beyond the narrative of user experience. Stowe and Simone both discussed examples of pseudo capitalistic, commons-oriented ventures that involved developing local communities and neighborhoods where there were clear societal benefits driven out of less extractive approaches to capitalism.

I’ve spoken briefly with Simone about what’s beyond user experience and I’ll offer a further reflection. In my work on the relationship between technology and human values, what’s become clear to me is that in a hyper-connected world, we are going to organize around life experiences. The concept of “user” (of technology) or “customer” (of product/service) become meaningless when the world has no boundaries. There are just people enabling each other to thrive. And thriving manifests itself in our daily life experiences through a hierarchical set of increasingly complex needs and values that have been well-defined in developmental psychology. Is a life experience useful, affordable and convenient? If so, does it support my local community? Does it exploit my privacy? Can I access it rather than buy it? Can I share it? Is it inclusive and fair? Has it been created humanely? Can I trust those who created it? Do the experience creators share my values? Does the experience harm the environment? Is it reusable/recyclable? Does it exceed global regenerative thresholds for our resource commons? Embedding the answers to this increasingly complex set of questions into life experiences is what’s beyond user or customer experience, in my opinion.

Another important question that goes with what’s beyond user experience is who cares? That’s the harder question because most people don’t care and you can’t appeal to people’s higher selves if they don’t exist or they can’t yet access them. For that reason, you almost have to sell convenience from a trojan horse. You have to give people affordable, convenient experiences that are also sustainable and regenerative.

I want to digress briefly into why I think the trojan horse approach is important. The second tier values systems in Spiral Dynamics repeat the pattern of the individually focused first tier systems, but in a cooperative, coexistent way. So, yellow, the first system in the second tier is a cooperative version of the 1st tier beige survival vMeme. That means yellow is about our collective survival, which makes perfect sense given the escalating existential crises we are currently facing. Turquoise, the next system in the second tier is a cooperative version of the 1st tier purple tribal vMeme. That means turquoise is about creating a global collective tribe/village. That brings us the next second tier vMeme, coral, of which very little has been observed or written. If the pattern continues, it will be a cooperative version of the 1st tier red vMeme, one of the most brutally violent and aggressive vMemes in history. For context, Adolf Hitler is the poster child of the red vMeme. How could coral possibly be a cooperative, coexistent expression of red? Enter trojan horse. As yellow and turquoise thinkers architect and mobilize cooperative solutions, time may run out on us. That’s why we’ll need highly aggressive, action-oriented coral people that take no prisoners to ensure new regenerative operating systems emerge and stick. And when those new operating systems stick, we will be on to the next second tier vMeme, (perhaps azure?) which will be a cooperative expression of 1st tier blue vMeme. What was blue about? Creating operating systems and order. The very operating systems that are largely responsible for our current crises.

Second tier value systems are cooperative versions of their first tier predecessors.

On new forms of organization and governance

Given a wave of new distributed, commitment-driven and landscape-oriented models, Simone asked Stowe about the kinds of organizational models and governance approaches he envisioned emerging. Stowe talked about the team of teams model where leaders act as servants and gardeners to create an environment for others to succeed. He stressed the need a a different set of psychological characteristics in our leaders in order to be able to make this transition.” Beyond changes in education, that Stina mentioned were necessary, he also added that societal norms have to shift. He closed by quoting Carl Jung’s “In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order” and expressed hope that there is an opportunity for some kind of new order out of the chaos, post-corona. Simone closed by agreeing it’s gonna be a messy transition, full of paradoxes with many different seemingly conflicting patterns coexisting.

Indeed, the human experience is a messy one and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments expressed in this podcast.

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