Shawn in Wonderland

I have not posted anything for the last 3 months. I have been on an amazing adventure which is so similar to Alice in Wonderland that I might be asleep and still dreaming.

It started with a long-pursued opportunity to help a unit in the South African government prepare and think through the consequences of the “fourth industrial revolution” and the fuzzy collection of Industry 4.0 gadgetry that will soon overthrow our lives. By all popular accounts, this revolution will smack us hard, because the narrative in South Africa is that we are behind and falling further behind. The prophets blame all our usual reasons for this impending doom: our poor education system, our unskilled workforce, an unemployable youth, labour unions, capitalist greed, our government policies, inequality, high costs of everything, low public investment, corruption and the easter bunny. (OK, I made up the last one.)

Now don’t get me wrong. I know we are drifting sideways in many respects, maybe even regressing in some areas. For example, our economic complexity is in decline. Our technological capability is dropping. Many of our traditional sectors are uncompetitive. I have been working in the high-tech sectors and I know how hard it is to get to any kind of scale. Our institutions struggle to adapt, are underfunded, and our business people face high uncertainty, as much uncertainty as our public officials.

It is clear to me that the pace and convergence of change is increasing. The amount of information is increasing. We all are drowning in documents, reports, blog posts, emails, journals and correspondence. The demands both on specialists and generalists are increasing. So there is definitely something cooking.

But is it an industrial revolution?

Are revolutions not full of social unrest, upheaval of institutions, overthrowing of  government structures?

That is the big question that I started with. I must admit the empirical and academic evidence is thin on this topic. The only people excited are geeks and suppliers of gadgets. This really bothered me, so I tried to figure out what all the things are that I would have to understand to sense, monitor, track and possibly predict where technologies are changing, how these shifts could affect our institutional structures, industries and jobs.

So I went on the most amazing reading journey. Down the rabbit hole I went.

I started by exploring the literature on how technological change happens, how technology cycles unfold. I could get lost in little forests of papers, books and articles by many of my favorite scholars. I followed ideas down paths (to the 1980’s) and came back again to 2018. Actually, not much has changed since the early writings of Nelson, Pavitt, Lall, Freeman, Edquist, Perez and many others. I admire these scholars because they really grasped the principles at such a fundamental level that not even the arrival of the internet really nullified any of their theories. I then investigated technological evolution and was again inspired by the clear writing of Arthur, Hidalgo, Hausmann and Rodrik (on structural change and industrialisation).

Then I stood back and wondered about all the innovation, tinkering, risk taking and failing that had to happen to lead to the patterns that I found in the chapter on technology. Again, I went into a forest, this time looking at innovation, how it happened, did not happen and why. I was inspired by the work of Dosi, Fagerberg, Malerba, Dodgson, Teece, Utterback, Clark, Henderson and Christensen.

For a week I felt paralysed by these two forests. Are they really two different domains deserving separate chapters, or should they be integrated into one? In the past I have treated them as separate. So, I procrastinated and forged into one of my favorite topics, that of innovation systems and how they change.

It was always my intention to hold back on this walk into the innovation system forest, as I wanted to look at everything here with new eyes. I plunged into my favourite authors, Nelson, Dosi, Freeman, Fagerberg, Srholec, Lundvall, and some more Nelson, and many other authors I admire. I was again struck by the importance of building technological capability, increasing absorption capacity and the importance of social, technical and other meso organisations in all of this.

Towards the end of the innovation system week I ventured into the work of Johan Schot and Frank Geels, Andy Sterling and Ed Steinmuller (the SPRU network), and got lost in the world of socio-technical transformation. I could look at the literature on institutional change and discovered the work of Thelen. I spent a whole day just reading up on Carlota Perez, and the next day I went back to the earlier works of Christopher Freeman (which then lead me down the archives of the SPRU). Perez is one of the few scholars who even mention the word “revolution” and she argues that developing countries must embrace rapid technological change to achieve structural change.

I came out of this forest dazed, confused and inspired. All at the same time. I decided I had to integrate my innovation chapter into the technology chapter. It took me three days to integrate them. I also tried to integrate the socio-technical transformation section into innovation systems.

Then I went away on a weekend in the Bushveld in the Limpopo province in South Africa. Somewhere while breathing fresh air in the country-side I realised that technology and innovation had to be separated, largely because there is a tendency in South Africa to focus on linear innovation (science=>technology application => innovation). I recalled something that my late business partner and friend Jorg Meyer-Stamer repeatedly said.

“Technology is about action, about harnessing natural phenomena to achieve something. Innovation is about a difference, it is about doing something differently”.

For my client to measure and track technological change would not be too difficult. Measuring innovation will be much harder, as a lot of the innovation caused by the “revolution” are about changes in social technologies, organisational culture and strategy.

Four weeks into my study and I was left with one messy section. It involved reconciling my views on innovation systems with the socio-technical transformation and multiple pathways literature. It felt like I was stuck in mud. The common factor between these fields is the importance of adaptive meso institutions, tied with a balanced supply side and demand side interventions. Context matters in both these fields, far more than firm level technological use and innovation practices. What I like about the social technical transformation literature is their focus on developing “niches” based on unique contextual opportunities or challenges, and their recognition of how change unfolds and spills over in time. Too often innovation systems treats the system like a static network of publicly funded organisations.

So that is where I am now. My first draft literature study is complete. I’ve had so much fun during this journey. You would notice that I did not mention economic complexity much. The days that I somehow cannot account for was spent on that, but I really tried not to get sucked in too deep. In the end I decided not to include this in this study.

Stay tuned for a future update about what I discovered.

Industry 4.0, IoT, 3D printing and more. Why some technologies diffuse so quickly and others don’t

Revised on 2 March 2018.

I receive questions daily about the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, 3D printing and many other technologies and whether and how I think these technologies will disrupt manufacturing and education in particular and the world in general. These questions are not only from government officials, but also from businesspeople, friends and fellow geeks.

Let me briefly state that I don’t believe it is possible to spot a paradigm shift in the future or in the present. So I would be hesitant to predict whether or when all these big changes will happen. However, when we look back we can spot shifts. Technological change typically takes places slowly but surely, and then at a certain point there is a massive shift. The point I would like to make is that even the futurists have great problems predicting the direction of that sudden shift. We must also consider that technological paradigm shifts almost invariably do not work out the way they are predicted to do before they occur.

For the last few decades many major technological advancements have been heralded as game changers. The advances are often generalised as sweeping statements about large-scale change. However, in most cases, new advances take a long time penetrating our daily lives, if they ever get that far.

So let me rephrase the original question a little. Perhaps the question is more about figuring out which technologies are diffused quicker than others, and why. This is something that we can calculate to some degree using a short history and the current status quo of assessments of technologies that are being touted as near-term game changers.

Dissemination of technology or knowledge always consists of at least three elements. I will for now ignore the process of diffusion for the sake of brevity. There is a supply side, a demand side and some kind of institutional or social construct that enables and even multiplies the diffusion.

The supply side is often most optimistic about how their ideas are going to change the game. The demand side is often naive about how useful a new technology is in real terms. Many potential users simply wait and see. Then there are the institutional mechanisms that operate at local, national, regional and international levels. There are lots of tensions at this institutional level, because this is where a whole range of social technologies, formal and informal, have to emerge or change. Just think of how US-based software companies are constantly coming up against data privacy groups in Europe. I am sometimes grateful that the institutional level takes time to change. Changing institutions to enable knowledge dissemination often requires multiple knowledge domains, different management levels and social play-offs. Often changing institutional support to improve diffusion must also cater for integrating and synchronising many other simultaneous change processes that are not only technological. They could be about regulations, rights and creating new forms of organisation. Furthermore, physical technology does not always change things the way we expect. After all, innovation is a process of combination and recombination, both at the level of physical technologies and also at the level of social technologies.

There are typically a few constraints that frustrate the diffusion of new technologies broadly speaking. The first is the fixed costs of the technology itself. Fixed costs slow down supply (otherwise we would already have electric vehicle charging points throughout the country), and also slow down demand (I cannot afford a Tesla yet).

Suppliers like to think that their solutions will fix social mechanisms, but this is often the area where change is the slowest. Social technologies often take the longest time to evolve (for instance in developing standards and regulations for electric vehicles, charging points and recycling of batteries). By evolving, the technology itself often changes with respect to its use, meaning and value  – often beyond what the originators had in mind. Thus while individual users can quickly adopt a new technology or idea, formal institutions, regulations and supporting infrastructure often take longer to adapt to new ideas. This means that the supporting ecosystem that enables new ideas to be quickly diffused perhaps adds additional costs (perhaps massive infrastructure investment or learning is needed), or fails to reduce costs in the diffusion of ideas. This is where the second constraint comes in. It depends on how complex are the required social changes. I mentioned earlier that institutional diffusion must also integrate different complementary technologies. For instance, using a smartphone to make phone calls is easy (single technological paradigm). Using a smartphone to manage or monitor a part of a production line requires many complementary and concurrent capabilities and technologies. It may even require completely rethinking organisational structures, production lines and supplier networks. Simply put, if the new idea is very complicated to use (due to the many concurrent investments and capabilities that are needed), then the costs goes up in terms of education, regulation, infrastructure, coordination, specialisation, management and so on. Just think of what it would take for South Africa to adopt driverless electric vehicles …

Perhaps this also explains why individual companies (think hierarchies) tend to absorb technologies easier than societies or economic sectors. Inside a company management can overcome coordination failures much easier than within a sector or broader society. Meso institutions such as universities and technology transfer organisations are very important for overcoming these coordination costs, but they tend to change slower.

The complexity of technology and its demands on the meso organisation is important in my work. I help these organisations figure out how to navigate the complexity of new technology adaptation and diffusion. It requires an understanding of users, some understanding of technologies, but a lot of understanding of the process of change and organisation. I don’t think I would be able to do my work without my understanding of market failures, especially with regard to failures in the capturing, dissemination, absorption or valuing of knowledge.

There are lots of amazing technological ideas out there that have been tried, tested and measured and found to be effective. Many companies here in South Africa are already using these technologies. So supply and demand exists, and in many cases there are transactions. Yet many of our industries, enterprises, universities and policy makers don’t know how these technologies can save costs, improve efficiency or strengthen resilience. Nor do they know which ideas will stick or have the most impact. So there is a missing institutional capability that reduces the complexity of the technology. What is often missing are institutions that make the dissemination of new ideas easier and cheaper. It is often more the case that the users (and possibly suppliers) don’t know how much the full implementation or use of these ideas would cost, or what skills, complementarities or networks are needed to master new ideas. Many market-supporting social technologies (in the form of institutions and networks) are lacking. Somebody must reduce the search, evaluation and coordination costs. This is where the complexity lies. And neither do we want our institutions to try and implement every new technology – this is where social balance and a longer-term vision are required.

So now I can get back to trends such as the Internet of Things or digitisation of the manufacturing environment. Many manufacturers know about Computer Aided Design (CAD) simulation or even rapid prototyping. But how can we reduce their risk of trying 3D printing, or how can they add more sensors to their production facilities so that they can improve measurement and control? It is not just about the cost of using the technology once or twice. There are issues that are holding entrepreneurs back from simply rushing to an online store and hitting “buy now”. Where would they get the trained staff from? How would they train existing staff? How would they manage a new competency? What would it cost to certify or maintain? Where would they find new customers or suppliers, and what would it cost them to develop the complementary capability and optimally use the new technology? And most importantly, how do we reduce their risks of trying something in different combinations? These are the issues that a network of institutions must consider as they craft their technology extension and demonstration strategies.

For me there is a strong role for technology intermediaries to play in demonstrating, perhaps on a small scale, how new technologies can be integrated into existing workplaces. This means that technology intermediaries must be funded to host (and master) a wide range of complementary technologies, so that entrepreneurs can combine what they have in place with the capabilities of these technology intermediaries. Or that new entrepreneurs not burdened by sunk investments can use their agility to gain access to complementary technologies in order to create new markets. These institutions should not be measured by how many companies fully absorb new technologies (this could lead to perverse incentives), but perhaps by how many companies have tried, engaged with and been exposed to new ideas.

At the same time, policy makers should look at ways to introduce new technologies into developing countries beyond demonstration or technology extension. Some countries such as Germany or Singapore have also been purposefully supporting disruptive incumbent enterprises by supporting the uptake of new technologies. Sometimes you can demonstrate until you are blue in the face, but incumbents won’t change if they don’t have to, and small enterprises sometimes simply cannot build up the momentum to challenge the status quo.

I would like to end this blog by briefly summarising what I’ve been discussing. For me the question of how new technologies may affect our lives is too focused on the hardware  and the geeks who love it. Even though I admire the suppliers and developers of new technologies, and I really admire the sophisticated users who are constantly inducing the emergence of newer and greater technologies, I believe that the real change we need is in getting better at creating responsive institutions that lower the costs for suppliers and buyers to try new things. This is where we can overcome many of the costs that slow down the absorption or dissemination of new technologies.


Identifying firms to work with to induce upgrading of industries

This is a revised edition of a blog post I wrote back in 2011.

When working on the improvement of innovation systems in developing countries, we have to work with firms. These firms have several roles, and there are three units of analysis:

  1. The firm is an important unit of analysis of innovative practices (product, process, business model).
  2. The firm is also a unit of analysis in terms of cooperation and collaboration, thus its ability to cooperate with rivals is an important consideration when we design interventions.
  3. Working with the right firms also provides an important source of technology and knowledge spillovers. This is where the challenge comes in for development practitioners.

Generally, firms that are able to lead the way, or could be good role models, are difficult to involve in development programmes for a variety of reasons. I won’t discuss that right now. What is important to remember is that most firms not only absorb or use technology and knowledge, they are also the main sources of knowledge and technology. This is both from a supply perspective (equipment suppliers, technical or specialist sources of knowledge, etc.) and from a demand perspective (demanding customers, sophisticated demand). Whether firms are aware of their role as disseminators of knowledge of technology is another story!

I will rather focus on how to identify the firms that we can work with to improve innovation and competence in all three units of analysis discussed above. Remember, our objective is to find ways to improve the dynamic in innovation systems that will result in the modernisation and technological upgrading of industries and regions.

More than 25 years ago Bo Carlsson and Gunnar Eliasson described a concept called “economic competence”. At the time they defined economic competence as “the ability to identify, expand and exploit business opportunities” (Carlsson and Eliasson, 1991). This is a useful definition as we have to remember that we cannot innovate on behalf of a broader industry. Somehow we must work with those firms that are able to innovate, imitate, adapt and integrate new knowledge and ideas.

According to Carlsson and Eliasson, economic or business competence has four main components:

  1. Selective (strategic) capability: the ability to make innovative choices of markets, products, technologies and overall organisational structure; to engage in entrepreneurial activity; and especially to select key personnel and acquire key resources, including new competence. This aspect has been amply illustrated in recent years as many companies have struggled to define their corporate identities and strategies as distinct from their competitive strategies in each individual business unit (Porter, 1991).
  2. Organisational (integrative, coordinating) capability: the ability to organise the business units in such a way that there is greater value in the corporate entity as a whole than in the sum of the individual parts.
  3. Technical (functional) ability: this relates to the various functions within the firm, such as production, marketing, engineering, research and development, as well as product-specific capabilities. These are the areas of activity in which firms can compare themselves to their peers or leading competitors.
  4. Learning ability, or the shaping of a corporate culture which encourages continual change in response to changes in the environment.

Economic competence must be present in sufficient quantity and quality on the part of all relevant economic agents, users as well as suppliers, government agents, etc. in order for the technological system to function well. This is both true at a local or regional level, our a national or sectoral level.

If the buyers are not competent to demand or use new technology – or alternatively, if the suppliers are not able or willing to supply it – even a major technical breakthrough has no practical value or may even have negative value if competitors are quicker to take advantage of it.

I think that this business approach of choosing the entrepreneurs that we work with is very relevant to finding the people who can absorb new ideas and make them work in a developing country context. I would also go so far as to state that I do not believe that it is feasible to select “change agents” according to social criteria such as gender, age, etc. – but that we recognise that change within economic systems happens because of the economic competencies of the people who are recognised in the system (regardless of their demographic data). The reality is that you cannot be competent on behalf of other people!

I challenge you to review the firms that you are working with to see if they are economically competent!


Carlsson, B. and Eliasson, G. (1991). The nature and importance of economic competence. Working Paper No. 294, The Industrial Institute for Economic and Social Research (IUI).

Porter, M.E. (1991). “Towards a dynamic theory of strategy“, Strategic Management Journal, 12 (Winter Special Issue), pp. 95-117.

Announcing the Innovation Coach offer in South Africa

Over the last five months I created think space to ponder what it is that I want to do in the next five years. I pondered what my “why” is, what it is that drives me from bed in the mornings early, what it is that draws me into books, articles and podcasts.

I realised that my passion is innovation. Not the “design a new mousetrap” variety, but the kind of innovation that happens when leaders decide that they want to improve their environment.  This means product/service innovation, process/system innovation and also business model or strategic innovation.

Coaching has always been an essential part of what I did, but it mostly played a secondary role. I would be contracted to conduct some kind of capacity building or consulting work, and would spend a lot of time coaching individuals or whole teams. Now I want coaching to become more prominent, with my technical experience providing content and backup.

Towards the end of last year I decided to participate in an advanced coaching course to refine my skills. During this course I realised how much I yearned to help leaders transform their workplaces, their organisations and their communities.

I believe that anybody, any team, any organisation can be more innovative. When people can contribute and actively participate in innovation processes, they are more fulfilled and creative. Therefore they are also more productive and more valuable to the organisation and society. But teams that are not used to “thinking” together over diverse functions, levels or even systems needs help from a coach.

I also believe that central to innovation is a process of dialogue. It is ongoing and ever expanding over functions, boundaries and even organisations. This dialogue is not just about talking, it is about leveraging knowledge, challenging paradigms and exploring ideas, concepts and possibilities.

However, it is not easy to get started.

For this reason I created the Innovation Coach offer. Head over to for more information. I have developed an option for individual leaders, as well as an option for teams. There is also an option to coach inter-organisational change and innovation processes, like when organisations wants to improve their role in an innovation systems, clusters or communities.

For my regular followers, this blog will remain the place where I think out loud. Here I will express my thinking in half-baked and fully baked ideas.

The Innovation Coach website will have its own blog feed and email subscription options. For the moment you would have to subscribe to both if you want to stay abreast of my thinking on innovation, change and development.

My reasoning behind creating the Innovation Coach as a standalone offer is that I intend to position this offer to clients and organisations who do not identify with economic development. They are somewhere in a business, an university or a team. They need a coach who can guide them through a process of widening, rethinking or deepening their innovation, knowledge creation and organisational development offers.

You can help me by sharing the address of the site with your friends, with leaders in the systems where you are working in who you know can benefit from a coach.

Individual coaching
Team or inter organisation coaching


Leaders lead by asking better questions

Many of my friends are leaders. All my clients are. They are leaders because they naturally develop people around them. Not only because of a title. You can recognise a good leader by how many of their followers are also leaders. Leaders and their follower leaders co-develop their skills. So leaders help each other, up-and-down the hierarchy and side-by-side in a network. Leaders are not threatened by people in their structure becoming better and better at leading, they usually take pride in how others are rising up. This makes the whole organisation like a network, like a collective brain. Managers don’t always like this, they don’t like it when people lower in “rank” challenge them, asking more of them. They prefer the hierarchy, which is more like a spine and less like a brain. But this is not the place to go into the difference between leaders and managers, or brains and spines.

So this is my main point for today: Leaders ask better questions, so that their teams can search for better questions. They are on a perpetual search process for better formulations and for “higher” questions that stretches everybody to think wider, deeper and more creatively. The goal is not better answers, that belongs to the linear world where questions have specific answers that are either right or wrong. Leaders know that by formulating better questions they enable everybody around them to explore better in this complex world where there are many formulations of a question, each with many answers. Good questions lead to better questions. Leaders somehow understand this complexity, where there are multiple hypotheses that explains what we see or can measure. This means many questions, and many possible answers, and many more reformulations.

These better questions are not random, and they do not emerge out of an isolated mind. They emerge from the very networks and contexts that the leaders are immersed in. Leaders can sense the better articulation of questions, or the unsatisfactory answers from their teams. They can feel that people are not satisfied, and instead of ignoring the issue, they enable a process of reflection with others to lift out the issues that matter. Leaders can also sense when people have fallen back on routines to get things done, so often the questions leaders ask require people to stop, reflect and question. This is not always appreciated as it takes energy to step out of the groove and to engage with new questions.

Right now in South Africa we need more leaders to ask better questions. Better questions about the role of business in the society. Different questions about how to allocate resources between many competing ends. Tough questions about balancing the rights of particular groups and individuals with the well being of the society as a whole. When I look at they way questions are framed by political leaders they often pose ideologies as questions. The very nature of an ideology is that it provides answers, often irrespective of the context. While some of these questions are important, they are closed. They do not allow for much debate, exploring these questions are not really permitted. These kinds of questions do not help as they don’t only exclude beneficiaries, they also exclude the connections of minds. While leaders in the non-government sectors often scoff at political leaders, many business leaders themselves have an ideology about how a workplace should be organised, how they game should be played. They often forget their own bias. Much of my work is about helping these leaders reflect on their own theories.

Focus. Back to my main point. If you are a leader (which I believe you are) then step forward in your environment, and offer to pose the questions that are on people’s minds. Are people feeling hopeless? Then ask questions about what it would take to have hope again. Ask questions about creating alternatives, or for taking stock of what exists and what can be done with what you have.

You have to set down a framework where people know that even if it is uncomfortable, certain questions that are sensitive or uncomfortable should still be explored. If you are afraid that people will burn you on a pile of office furniture then express your question as a theory, and ask your people to help you verify or invalidate you theory. Articulating the difficult questions, those ones where we just don’t seem to have all the right words, this is what we do as leaders. And then we join our people and help search for answers and listen for signals that there are better ways to formulate our questions.

Oh, and this process does not have an end. This is what we do. We ask better questions. All the time.

South African Research units and funding scenarios

I have been holding back on this post for a while, because it touches on a very sensitive situation here in South Africa regarding the student protests about university fees (see #feesmustfall). In South Africa, many of our research and technology development units that are publicly funded are hosted by universities. These centres depend on students and particularly post graduate students to deliver services to industry. At the same time these centres depend on industry to commission research, prototypes and to also take up the graduates. With the massive shortage of funding in the education sector, many of these centres and their hosting universities are starved of funding.

In August, I was helping a leadership team think through their industry strategy. I realised that their strategy was dependent on two implicit assumptions. Firstly, that the student unrest about the fees would be contained and short lived, with government miraculously finding funding from somewhere to relieve the pressure in the system. Secondly, they assumed that the private sector would somehow remain keen to invest in R & D, problem solving and prototyping despite the political uncertainty and adverse business conditions that we have in South Africa at the moment.

I helped the team to develop a set of scenarios, and this is what this post is about. It was a spur of the moment idea at the end of a meeting.

A simple way to develop scenarios would be to take the two assumptions (we usually use uncertainties) and to construct a simple 2 x 2 matrix. I know a 2 x 2 matrix has many shortcomings, but this simple matrix was to allow a team to explore several topics they have been hesitant to consider collectively. This was about helping a group make sense so that they could develop some actions together. With the leadership team, we wrote an assumption about the stability at the university on the horizontal axis. On the left we have a stable political environment at the university, with some high uncertainty about how long the peace would last and how much public funding will be available. On the right hand side we wrote that the situation becomes both unstable and uncertain. This axis is all about the stability of the hosting university.

On the vertical axis we wrote at the top that business people remain optimistic and continues to draw on the facilities and the services of the research centres, while at the bottom we formulated the opposite.

This simple matrix gave us four quadrants which we numbered 1 to 4 clockwise.


The instruction to the team was to think of each of the quadrants in the extreme of the two assumptions of the quadrant if they both played out. I won’t repeat all that was said here, but will just briefly capture some ideas. In quadrant 1, the situation at the university was stable, while business people continued to draw on their resources. The group agreed that this was the preferred quadrant!

Then they consider quadrant two, where the university was in chaos, and industry had to find alternatives for their services, or they were stuck. Trust relations developed with industry over many years were harmed (again).

In the 3rd quadrant, industry is depressed or paralysed, while the university is unstable. Everybody loses. Good graduates can’t find work, good researchers and lecturers lose hope and possibly leave the system, while business slowly but surely falls behind because the instability is very local. Globally competitors are investing, expanding and growing because the world goes on.

In the 4th quadrant the industry is depressed, meaning that demand from industry is possibly suppressed. The stability at the university is uncertain, meaning little investment takes place. The university does not have the resources to build capability or offers that helps industry, while industry does not have the resources to expand their investment. The whole system just hangs there waiting for something to give.

Now I know that this little scenario exercise was done very fast (we spent an hour on this), and yes, I know it does not address the fundamental issues that the university and government (and politicians) have to sort out. But the leaders quickly realised that their whole strategy was based on a quadrant 1 scenario. In fact, the very academics that always complains about the short term focus of the private sector were now trapped in a short term survival mode themselves. No industry or society can increase its wealth, prospects or competitiveness by waiting, especially when global competitors are at the door, looking for opportunities! This quick exercise helped the team to realise they needed to expand their offerings to be ready for the very likely other quadrants. They also realised that they had to think of ways of adapting their strategy so that the small steps they could take with their existing resources would lay “platforms” or stepping stones for an as diverse as possible range of future alternatives. For instance, one of the technology centres decided to shift its focus from a product development to a process enhancement focus, because there was a strong interest from industry to find ways of improving operations, cutting costs and improving flexibility.

The scenario dialogue enabled several follow up meetings  where the team could draw in more people and together re-imagine their future alternatives. Everybody was relieved that they had some options, where before this meeting they felt trapped without many options.

What I tried to illustrate in this post is that a simple scenario exercise could be a great instrument to help a team realise that despite almost certain disruptions, they could still think in the short term and the longer term. They had some options, they could even create more. By anticipating the future they also felt more ready for the disruptions that we are all waiting for.

For me it was also important to see how this team realised that their clients (industry) also faced huge uncertainties, and that if the research centre could offer services that reduce risks and costs while at the same time creating alternatives for market and technological development. Somehow shifting the focus from their own survival (and fears) towards the needs of industry and graduates looking to complete their research helped them move forward. Thus I could help the team consider how they could ensure their clients continue to innovate, which in turn helped the leadership to better understand how they themselves then have to be innovative.

Innovation was instigated!




Categories and links updated

I set aside this morning to rework most of the categories on my blogsite at

You can find the categories on the bottom left-hand side of the site. The number in brackets show the number of posts under each category.

Now you can link to a topic on my site in the following way:

All posts about industrial policy:

All posts about innovation systems:

and so on.

I was surprised about how many articles I have posted under the Complexity and Evolutionary Thinking, as well as Process and Change Facilitation categories.

I can now easily create a dedicated topic for a theme, like I have done with “Globetrotting“.

If you have linked to my blog or any of my articles at its previous shawncunningham.wordpress address, then please remember recreate those links.

Thank you for following my blog. Any suggestions and comments are welcome.

Elon Musk on keeping on keeping on

As a promoter of innovation and good decision making, I am always hesitant of getting too attached to what the icons like Google, Tesla, GE and others are doing. People take ideas from these organisations while forgetting about the culture, the context and the past of these organisations. Trying to copy and paste things that work in a US firm into a South African one is simply not that straightforward.

A few months ago I received this URL about an interview with Elon Musk from a friend. I filed under “to do when I have nothing important to do”. My friend raved about this video because it showed that even superheroes like Musk can cry on camera. This did not convince me to make space (!!) for this video.

So this morning, while attending to some administrative things, I watched this youtube video of an interview with Musk. I liked it very much. He talks about the difficulties of promoting an idea that is not supported by people that he admired. Yes, he gets a bit moist, but that is certainly not the main reason to watch this clip. Watching the SpaceX rocket return safely to the landing pad was just breathtaking!

So here it is. Take a look.

For me, the moral of the story is this. Don’t think that the current thought leaders will always appreciate your genius, your progress or your ideas. Challenging the Status Quo is tough. Even with lots of money it takes time, probably much longer than we all think.

I hope that you can today also decide to push harder despite not always receiving the recognition and the admiration that you believe you deserve!

Futurists and local economic development

Futurists use a forward-looking philosophy to chart their organisations’ strategies. They are not so caught in the here and now. Rather they imagine and then mobilise people towards a future that does not yet exist. It means you can not yet plan for it, you first have to imagine it. Futurists are not caught up like most of us with trying to make what we have to work better, nor are the plugging gaps. They force us to think about completely new architectures of technology, social arrangements and capabilities.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are considered global futurists. Many of the near emergent technologies, like driver-less cars or advances in artificial intellegence were hard to imagine just a decade or two ago, now they seem to be around the corner. Yet, cities, business and governments are still planning with a short term cycle, mainly using what exists or what is lacking as guiding their decisions.

A lot of emphasis here in South Africa are placed on data, prioritising left behind areas and dealing with social integration. Every now and then I wonder if we are not simply getting better at preparing for the past? You know, that one that will never come back? What if the very industries that we have now will not be viable in just a few years? What if the cities and towns that emerged around old industries are no longer viable or sustainable?

This morning I read about New York hiring a futurist to help them imagine and plan for the future on a CNN site.

“In an unlikely move for a city, New York is also hiring a senior futurist to gather insights on possible cultural, economic and environmental changes ahead”

Wow, imagine we could do that here in South Africa? I know we have a long list of problems that require our immediate attention, but should we not set aside some time to also imagine the longer term future? That way, bureaucrats and technocrats can develop better models and designs that can be presented to politicians and citizens. More important, we can get more designers, engineers, scientists and business people mobilised to think about and design for a future that is imminent.

“New York’s latest efforts are designed to be proactive, rather than reactive”

From my perspective, most of our companies and local governments are not ready for what is coming. We are all caught with trying to cope with what is and what should have been done. Then our local political climate sucks a lot of energy from our economy, resulting in resource rich companies growing while all the rest is holding up their breaths, waiting for something to happen.

I know this sounds negative, but with the digital revolution in manufacturing, and the rapidly integration of fast numbers of enterprises into the networked knowledge economy, I see many of our industries falling behind. Not all companies, but many. I often ask my students to imagine the following:

  • What does the future of local economies, secondary cities and the currently unemployed in South Africa look like?
  • What are technologies that we can expect to have a profound change on our country in the medium to longer term? What does this demand from our institutions, policies and businessess?
  • Can we get more people involved in thinking about the long term future?
  • How do we shift from a low skills labour intensive economy towards a knowledge economy without leaving millions behind?
  • What do we have to equip our students and children with to empower them to shift with the times and prepare for this future?

We have so many priorities that we have to address at the same time. Perhaps while we are running on this treadmill we need to also think further into the future.

Just thinking out loud!

The photo at the top of this post was during a Local Economic Development study tour I led to Germany together with Frank Waeltring in 2009. The tour group was a diverse range of senior government officials and the objective was to learn about Germany’s experience with economic change, industrial change and cooperation between many different stakeholders in a decentralised way.


Exploring individual Social Technoliges that enables Systemic Change

My exploration of complexity thinking and how it enables leaders and collectives to make better decisions is taking me back to where I started. I started in organisational development and innovation. Then I shifted into larger economic systems like innovation systems, local economies, value chains or regions. For the last four years I have been working mainly on organisational development in meso organisations involved in technology development and innovation promotion. So I have come full circle, but I sense that I am now better able to synthesize and use my experience and ideas. Now I will focus on the role of individuals in changing economic systems.

Marcus Jenal and I wrote last year about Systemic Change. In our reading the wealth of literature on economic evolution we were were deeply impressed  by the work of Eric Beinhocker. In particular, the idea that economic development demands a co-evolution of:

  • Physical technologies – are methods and processes for transforming matter, energy and information from one state into another in pursuit of a goal or goals; they enable people to create products and services that are worth trading. A physical technology is not only the physical object itself, but both the design of the thing and the instructions and techniques to make and use it. The ability to learn how to use, make and adapt the physical objects is critical.
  • Social technologies – are methods, designs and arrangements for organising people in pursuit of a goal or goals; they smooth the way for cooperation and trading products and services. For example, the ability to organise people into hierarchies, such as companies or other organisations, which can allocate resources to specialised functions and which can learn is a social technology.
  • Business plans – are developed by enterprises and other organisations that are competing for resources, acceptance and buy-in in the economy. Business plans play the critical role of melding physical and social technologies together under a strategy and then operationally expressing the resulting design in the real world. From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of business plans is to discover what is profitable, efficient or even possible in a given economic context. You could call this an economic technology.

I realized last week that I have spent at least five years of my career immersed in each of these three co-evolutions, but with the others not completely forgotten. From a physical technology perspective, I have always been involved in promoting trans disciplinary research, promoting innovation systems and helping innovators become more effective. I have spent a number of years supporting entrepreneurship, developing supply chains and promoting value chains. From a social technology perspective I have been working on management education, business consulting, assisting with change processes and facilitating search and discovery process within and between organisations.

Now I am taking this to a next level. I will for the next few months focus intentionally on the role of individual leaders in the co-evolutionary process. The co-evolution is fractal. I started at the highest level, the level of open systems, innovation systems, local economies and industries. Then I shifted to meso organisations, development organisations and universities, where I often focused on teams and how they use their resources in a systemic way to improve the networks they form part of.

The focus on individuals will be formal this time, where in the past this was informal, almost a by-product of my process consulting and advisory work. To equip me for this role I had to refresh my organisational and coaching skills. I have also participated in an advanced coaching programme in order to facilitate this shift in focus. Lastly, to enable this process I have exited many contracts, or not renewed contracts as they came to a close. This will enable me to dive deep. I will focus my coaching praxis on leadership support, innovation support and institution building, but with the role of the starting point. This will require many new business practices, and many new clients. I will try my best to frequently reflect here on my learning.