September update

It is spring here in Pretoria. Many of the plants and trees in our garden and our neighborhood are growing new leaves. We are all waiting for the first spring rains to wash the dust and pollens from the air.

In my work, there are also new green shoots that I want to share with my readers and my friends.

  • I have been appointed as a Professor of Practice with the DST/NRF/Newton Fund Trilateral Research Chair in Transformative Innovation, the 4th Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Development hosted by the University of Johannesburg. I am grateful to Prof Erika Kraemer-Mbula and her team for making me part of their team, even if I am only a part-time member of faculty. My role in the research chair is to make the abstract and often-academic literature more accessable to practitioners and post-graduate students here in Africa, while bringing my practical experience into the academic discourse. I will also be able to further pursue my research into the role and performance of innovation intermedaries and meso organisations with the research chair. I have already participated in several calls with post-graduate students and some of the other members of faculty.
  • As many of my regular blog readers would know, I have been contracted since 2018 to do research and policy advisory work on the topic of technological disruption with the not-for-profit research organisation called TIPS (Trade and Industry Policy Strategies). We are now using the insigths gained from our research to develop analytical and process instruments, and are already applying these frameworks in the South African plastics, metals, automotive and leather and footwear industries. It is rewarding to see how these ideas can be used in practice to gain a better understanding of how business people and supporting organisations innovate, learn about new technological possibilities and develop new capabilities.
  • My first year of serving on one of the WEFs Global Future Council for the New Agenda for Economic Growth and Recovery have come to an end, and my term was extended for another year. During the regular meetings with my fellow council members I have realised how local insights into businesses, supporting organisations and the dynamics in locations can contribute to a global perspective on economic change and collective action.

The singing of the birds outside urge me to also want to celebrate the arrival of the new season. Of course these green shoots had its origins in previous seasons, and I am thankful for this continuity that goes on even when I don’t pay attention to it often enough. I want to express my gratitude to God for the ongoing provision that we receive as a family, despite the destruction caused by the pandemic and the responses of governments to it. I am constantly reflecting on how I can be more effective in blessing others out of the abundance that we receive as a family and as a business. I know that writing blog posts and developing short text modules is one small way of encouraging others, and I want to commit again to thinking-out-loud with my friends and collaborators.

In the days to come I will share some reflections about innovation systems, competence building, learning and some of the other topics I have been working on in the last few months.

The photo at the top of this message was taken by Caitlin Cunningham in our garden just before sunset earlier this week.

Untangling digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation

I was recently invited by the Reconomy Programme and the Helvetas working group on Market Systems Development to address practitioners working on economic development in the Balkan region. I was specifically asked to untangle the concepts of digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation in the context of international development cooperation.

The remainder of this post are the notes that I prepared for this call.

We are increasingly using the words digitisation and digitalisation to refer to certain kinds of economic development and changes to how work is done. These words are often used incorrectly as synonyms to refer to the increased use of software and other electronic gadgetry in everyday life. Every now and then the term digital transformation is also used.

Even though these words sound and look very similar, they are different concepts that are all somehow related. Let me try to explain what these three concepts are about.

Digitisation is the process of converting analogue information into digital information. An example of digitisation is when you convert your old vinyl records to MP3 format, or when you scan your old, printed photos so that you can store them in digital format on your computer. 

Digitisation has slowly crept into our lives over the past several decades. It started with measuring changes in natural phenomena, for instance measuring speed, distance, temperature, vibration, time or altitude. Analog information was simply converted into data points represented by blinking warning lights, alarm bells and bright red digits. Slowly the focus shifted to using digital instructions to control mechanical objects. Consider how vehicle dashboards and instrument panels of aircraft have changed over the past thirty years. 

The digitising process often combines mechanical and electrical/electronic systems, in other words, it combines different knowledge and technology domains into an integrated solution.  As more diverse knowledge domains were integrated, so the reliance on processors and logical operations increased. Initially coding was limited to logic programming of chips, but over time the complexity of coding has increased as the cost and size of chips came down, while the processing power increased. 

Digitalisation is different from digitisation. It describes the use of digital technologies and digitised data to change how we get things done. For instance, emails have replaced (most) physical post, and social media is increasingly replacing phone calls. We buy and rent music from an audio library service instead of buying music CDs.

Our attention shifts from using a digital device, or manipulating digital data. Often different people can use the same digital content for different purposes. For instance, various engineering teams can simultaneously design separate components of an integrated system, such as a car or an aircraft. A the same time another team could be using software to test the performance of digital designs to ensure that they meet performance specifications before they are approved for manufacturing, while another team is working on new materials.

Digitalisation is not only about using physical technologies, data files, software and expertise. It describes the creation of new social arrangements where different people, experts or organisations can cooperate in new ways by sharing digital information. The interoperability of data between different physical technologies and social technologies is what connects digital systems and blurs the lines between traditional industries. Digitalisation makes new arrangements possible that are very difficult or expensive to accomplish in conventional ways. An everyday example of digitalisation is how a photo captured on your smartphone can be synchronised to your computer, posted to your friends via social media and combined with the photos of other people in a digital album stored on a server in another country. 

Digital transformation goes further than simply gadgets, software, geeks and data. It describes an evolutionary process where the social relations between individuals, groups, organisations and social institutions are transformed over time because of the exploitation of new capabilities afforded by digital technologies. The emphasis shifts from the application of digital technology or the exchange of data to creating new ways for people to interact and cooperate towards shared goals. Over time new norms and social institutions evolve that supersede conventional paradigms.

In digital transformation, the traditional boundaries between different knowledge or technology domains shift or disappear. Existing scientific knowledge is creatively combined with new technological capabilities that are reinforced by the emergence of new social institutions like norms or new organisations. 


Transformations are essential because conventional paradigms, politics and socioeconomic arrangements are interlocked and re-inforcing a robust construct that only permits incremental changes. This conventional interlocking system makes it hard for radically new ideas and arrangements to get any traction; it often takes an almost fanatic effort to get something new to start in domains where tradition, institutions and older norms have become fossilised.

Transformations often originate in niches that are off to one side where the established leaders and ideas don’t mind (too much). In these niches, an idea or a movement slowly gains momentum as it creates new routines, norms, where new arrangements or combinations can be tried and where confidence can be built.

Social media has made it possible for different niche champions to be connected internationally, even if they feel oddly disconnected from their local realities. In these (global) communities, ideas are exchanged, courage is strengthened and collaborations developed.

As I mentioned before, digital transformation is about far more than making changes to the system by adding digital front-ends, digital services or a search box. A collegue working in public sector reform told me that once communities understand that they can hold public officials and political representatives accountable, the whole initiative got a life of its own. What started off as a way to improve transparency and accountability through digitalisation, ended up being about democracy, governance, public service quality and managing public resources better. Of course, it is also much easier to design and improve public services and impact when communities are keen to be involved.

This explains why a digital transformation in a system is not only about the “digital” or the “system”, but how these interact within a broader socioeconomic context. We have to figure out which higher-order questions to ask.

Can you imagine what it would take to digitally transform a system in your economy? For instance, what would it take to digitally transform an education system in a country? Which combinations of norms, knowledge domains, governance, institutions and technologies would have to be tried to enable such a transformation? It is not possible to design this kind of system upfront. And it is not merely an IT problem. It requires many innovations in different areas such as regulations, processes, systems, organisations, subjects, management and delivery. For digital transformation some solutions would be digital, several would be political, and most would certainly be contested by those already in power.


The phenomena of digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation are fuelled by faster processing, smaller components enabled by new materials, improved energy consumption and reliable and fast connectivity. 

However, digitalisation requires more than advances in hardware and coding; it also requires the integration of different systems and a re-imagination of what is possible with data. It asks of us to combine scientific knowledge with an understanding of how people can work together in new ways. Digitalisation pulls our vision to create new ways of doing things, it asks of us to let go of trying to optimise what we already have in place.

Digital transformation goes even further that digitalisation, as it requires that conventional arrangements, institutions and norms be challenged by entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and change makers who want to use digital technologies to challenge existing dominant paradigms that are no longer effective.


It would be a mistake to think of digitalisation and digital transformation too narrowly from the perspective of ICT, software development or known digital solutions. Of course, it goes without saying that computer programmers, coders and ICT start-ups are still important. Yet digitalisation more often draws on a fundamental understanding of the underlying natural sciences used in a society and how these existing systems could be re-imagined in combination with digital technologies. It requires the ability to integrate systems that are now separate to achieve a specific goal. It asks us to set aside the ambition to incrementally improve different systems and re-think solutions and challenges in a more integrated and holistic way. 

Development projects can support digitalisation by helping developing countries to figure out where conventional processes and social arrangements are too cumbersome or completely lacking to encourage economic growth and investment. Development organisations should remember that the focus of digitalisation is not only on digital skills, technologies and imported solutions, but on how these are combined with other knowledge and scientific domains. Lastly, for digital transformation to occur, diverse stakeholders must work together to re-imagine new ways of doing things in areas where conventional solutions are no longer effective. This requires facilitation and a technology-neutral facilitator that can encourage local stakeholders to experiment with new solutions that combine existing knowledge in new combinations with digital technologies. 

Both digitalisation and digital transformation take much longer to accomplish than a typical development project, and both often need to be nurtured despite resistance from the established interest groups affected by the emergence of a different paradigm. It may be necessary to assist the stakeholders to develop action plans that show results both in the short as well as the long term, otherwise some stakeholders might run out of energy before sufficient gains have been made. 

Lastly, transformations are evolutionary processes. It is not possible to design the ideal end-state and then develop a plan of how to get there. The path from the present to the future is not straight or easy to plan. At best we may be able to figure out a few steps or concurrent processes.

Transformations often start with dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to cause a variation of the current trajectory. Or it can sometimes be sparked by a crazy idea starting with “what if we tried this instead?” Often the initiators of transformations are quite naïve about what it would take to see the transformations through. We must therefore step up beside them and help them to build their case for change, to encourage them when they face resistance or when experiments don’t work, and to help them balance the short-term and the longer-term priorities. 

Further reading.

I have benefitted immensely from the publications by Frank Geels and Johan Schot, to name two authors. Searching for deep transitions, socio-technical change or multi-level change will also yield great results.

If there is sufficient interest I can also write a follow-up article about some of the literature that I have found most relevant.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Some thoughts on re-thinking your workspace

Originally posted on 23 April 2021, updated on 3 May 2021

Several of my friends and clients are wondering what their workspace arrangements may look like in the future. The lockdowns and disruptions over the past year have rapidly accelerated the use of digital technologies to enable remote work, to improve coordination within and between organisational functions, document sharing and connectivity. Some key experts and managers of some companies are now reluctant to resume work in the office.

Just thinking out loud, I would like to share some of the points that we often have to grapple with about the future of work and workspace. These thoughts are still taking shape, but I would like to share them with you as they may be similar to the points that you are discussing with your teams right now.

  1. We should think of it as working remotely rather than working from home. Working remotely has now been piloted at scale. Some love it and have vowed never to return to a boring corporate office. Others loathe it and cannot wait to get back to the corporate office. What leaders must consider is that not everybody will be willing to come back to the office.
  2. The future of the workspace is a hybrid between working in an office and working remotely. Corporate offices are now seen as so 2019. Leaders should engage with their teams to figure out what works best in a shared infrastructure and what works best remotely.
  3. It is not necessary for people to travel to work for a desk, internet connection and coffee. Leaders must re-think the affordability provided by working remotely and the advantages of working in a shared space. I know of organisations that can now redesign functional workspaces that meet the different requirements of individuals and teams. People want comfortable lounge areas for reading and writing, comfortable tables and chairs for collaboration, cubicles for making calls and deep-thinking work. 
  4. There is still a role for a corporate or a shared workspace. Not everybody can afford to create and maintain a working environment at home or in a setting elsewhere. Not everyone can perform their functions remotely. Some people simply get lonely and need to connect with other human beings. Others need the kind of equipment and technology that can only be provided and make sense in a shared environment. But there are other soft issues that must also be considered. Innovation culture is shaped by how different people interact and work together. Innovation is hampered by working only with people you like on projects where everybody agrees on what must be done next. Innovation thrives when you bump into somebody from another discipline or department. 
    Maybe Taylorism (defined by Merriam-Webster as a factory management system developed in the late 19th century to increase efficiency by evaluating every step in a manufacturing process and breaking down production into specialised repetitive tasks) and efficiency have shaped the design of office spaces for too long. Why not create innovative spaces that invite deep concentration (like a lounge or a library), or smaller cubicles for undisturbed work? Or flexible desks that can be re-arranged with good coffee nearby?
  5. While you are busy rethinking the arrangement of your organisation, why not consider placing teams or experts at your clients, or bringing your suppliers or clients into your workspace? The increased use of digital technologies during the past year has led to the discovery of how it is possible for teams from different organisations to work together in completely new ways. I recently listened to an interview with a CEO who explained that their organisation had not only embraced remote work but had also decided to switch to asynchronous meetings! This means that a meeting is recorded, and people who could not participate during the event could still contribute or even challenge what was said afterwards. The use of channels in applications like Slack and MS Teams makes this very easy if used properly
  6. There are also downsides to working remotely. Just because you use MS Teams does not mean your people feel that they are in a team, or that they are trusted or equipped to do their work. People are zoomed up! At least there were physical constraints that limited the number of people who could participate in a meeting back in the ”old days”. Now with digital communication tools, meetings are being held more frequently with more people participating. A friend told me that she spends her evenings working because her days are filled with Zoom meetings.
  7. Lastly, working remotely is not for everybody. Here in South Africa, creating and maintaining a remote workspace is also often determined by your race, your age, where you live, and who lives with you. Where you live determines internet speed, the reliability of the electricity supply and also how long and safely you commute to an office. We live in a leafy green suburb which is a fantastic environment to work in. But a colleague whom I work with lives in a small apartment with two other professionals sharing the same space and internet bandwidth. While some individuals enjoy working at their own pace, others need to be supervised. For younger employees the socialisation process of working with older and also very differently skilled people is critical.

I would love to hear from you about what you have been grappling with, or what you are debating to do right now. 

  • Have you redesigned your workspace, or renegotiated how certain processes work? 
  • Have you made up your mind whether you are going back to the “office”, or do you prefer working remotely? 
  • Has somebody on your team decided to not come back and to work remotely, or even worse, to resign because they prefer to work remotely?
  • Which tasks would you prefer to perform remotely and which in a physical office space?

If you would rather not reply on this blog post, you can send me an email.

Here are some interesting resources by others:

In interview #100, Shane Parish interviews the co-founder of WordPress Matt Mullenweg. Head over to for more information 

In episode #784 of the HBR IdeaCast, Anne-Laure Fayard talks about her HBR article “Designing the hybrid office”

A special thank you to Natasha Walker and Sonja Blignaut for the conversations and the encouragement that made this blog post possible.

Image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

Thinking about places we live AND work in

We have just completed twelve months of lockdowns in South Africa. As many of my international friends would know, our initial lockdowns were quite harsh. No going beyond our property, no alcohol sales and no travel.

Thankfully it got a little “easier” or less-draconian somewhere along the line. A constant stream of memes and jokes about making beer from pineapples, or re-arranging a bathroom into a makeshift office made it all a little more bearable and maybe even a little funny!

During this year our family often reflected on our privileges. We have a house that is big enough for our family of four to work from without being in each other’s way too much. We have a good internet connection, a beautiful garden to relax in, and enough computers and devices for our children to access school from. We are very blessed indeed.

But we are acutely aware that our arrangements are an exception to the rule here in South Africa. People either cannot stay at home or cannot work from home either.

Most of my fellow-South Africans are living in really harsh circumstances. Millions of people were forced to lock down in dense settlements, informal housing or small apartments. Many still live in informal settlements (which means no public services) without electricity, running water or a toilet inside their property.

Furthermore, many South Africans do not have the education or job opportunities to work from home, nor do they have digital connectivity. They have to travel beyond their neighborhoods to find or do work.

While some of my friends are complaining about working from home, I also hear of organizations that will most likely never go back to being fully “on-site”. Maybe workplace rental prices will go down, enabling new businesses to move in. But maybe more people will choose to work from home. Or choose not to work in an office but to work from a shared working space, a coffee shop or a park bench.

I see many parking lots are vacant, shops have closed down and many office buildings are underutilized. If the pressure to create larger concentration workplaces is going to be lower in the future, can we not rather invest more in making more residential areas “liveable” or maybe even “home-workable”?

I know that I could do more intensive work over the last year because my home office, home, and the surrounding area encourage this. I cannot help but wonder how you all feel about your arrangements?

I am wondering, how has your relationship with your home and your office changed over the last year? What is your wish for the area that you live and work in?

Technological change is everybody’s business

For the last three years, I have spent a considerable part of my research and advisory efforts on understanding technological change. Although my description of what I am doing has changed a little over time, I am often asked whether I am not working only with geeks and techno-enthusiasts. Some have expressed genuine concern that a focus on technological change is a privilege or even a nice-to-have that is far removed from the everyday issues of deindustrialization, under-development, overcoming inequality, and addressing unemployment.

Working on the topic of technological change is not only about gadgets, code, and advanced technologies. A lot of disruption is created by older technologies that are available off-the-shelf that simply can no longer be ignored. Newer technologies don’t only disrupt businesses and industries, they also disrupt social arrangements, institutions, organizations, and also places. Organizations, whether public (e.g. a University programme) or private (a small company) typically change incrementally, while technologies often change exponentially. Organizations often change incrementally based on what is clearly articulated by markets using past data, while technologies appear to change exponentially based on perceived possibilities and potentials. The bottleneck is that organizations typically change based on agreement and consensus, while new technologies emerge because of distributed and often uncoordinated efforts and innovations. When you design your programmes mainly on what customers/users want, you are extremely vulnerable to sudden shifts when a new market or technology or capability emerges “suddenly”. You have to also design what you offer and how you are organized on what is possible (within certain resource constraints). Many leaders of institutions in developing countries are paralyzed.

As a close observer of how industries, places and institutions change it has been breathtaking to witness the effects of the socio-technological change on workplaces and in cooperative networks. I am participating in research efforts, business networks and other collaborations using communication technologies that enables really deep collaboration, sense making and joint development. Yet, I still frequently encounter workplaces where only the bosses use email, where all the communications is top down, and where collaboration or coordination is done by instruction and not by trust, mutual recognition or by other creative means. This latter category are the workplaces for whom socio-technical change is the biggest threat, but also where many jobs are created. We cannot just shrug and let these companies die, because so many families depend on them for a livelihood. Even if these lagging workplaces invest in all the right equipment, software, and systems, their cultures will not be able to make use of these new technologies. That is because many new technologies are far more social than what is apparent when you read the specifications. I have clients that use outdated hardware and systems, but because they are organized so smartly internally and connected so closely with their clients they can outperform peers that have more capital, equipment, and expertise.

In the introduction of his 1974 book The Economics of Industrial Innovation, Christopher Freeman wrote:

“In the world of computers and space travel, it is unnecessary to belabour the importance of technological innovation. Whether like the sociologist, Marcuse, or the novelist, Simone de Beauvoir, we see technology primarily as a means of human enslavement and destruction, or whether, like Adam Smith, we see it primarily as a liberating Promethean force, we are all involved in its advance.
However much we might wish to, we cannot escape its impact on our daily lives, nor the moral, social and economic dilemmas with which it confronts us. We may curse it or bless it, but we cannot ignore it.”

The gaps are widening between those that can draw on the affordances provided by newer technological arrangements, versus those that are not able to do so. In many cases, it is the decisions (or indecisions) of leaders, managers, policymakers, and entrepreneurs that determine how the rest of us are confronted and affected by newer technologies. One of the unforeseen consequences of the COVID19 pandemic lockdowns has been that it forced a distributed effort by families, individuals, and workplaces to improve how they communicate, collaborate, and operate.

Perhaps all the focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution has distracted us from the huge challenges facing most workplaces, leaders, policymakers, workers, and the unemployed.

The distraction is caused by the appeal of talking confidently about technicalities and future possibilities/threats, while the disruption is created by the micro shifts that are made every day by people that are able to draw on new ideas, that can create new combinations and that can figure out new arrangements. We all know about the effects of compound interest. In innovation, we have the same effect of “compound learning”. Frequently made small changes, innovations reflection accumulates over time to create a huge gap between those that can adapt and integrate new technologies and those that can not expend the resources on trying new ways of doing things.

I am keen to continue exploring how public organizations, social entrepreneurs, policymakers and other developmental organizations can lower the energy gradients for the rest of society to try new ideas, prototype new arrangements and to choose more just upgrading pathways. I want to play a role in creating future-oriented institutions that are not only relevant to the sectors they serve, but that are resilient and innovative in themselves. They must add value to the technological and innovative capability of the societies they are in. When public organizations, NGOs or other meso organizations innovate and embrace new technologies, the effects can spread wide. I have witnessed on many occasions how an innovative meso programme can have a catalyzing effect on a whole region or industry. Often their impact on the broader society outlives the programme itself.

I’ve had a great time reading up, experimenting and developing ideas with a few close collaborators. However, it dawned on me that I should not be developing my ideas in the same way as many of the organizations that I am trying to help. If I want to equip and encourage others, then I must in a more iterative and inclusive way. I have to encourage others to try, adapt, integrate and build on the ideas that I have shared. Ultimately, the decision-makers should co-develop these with me and my collaborators.

So I want to publicly commit to working more with other facilitators, change agents, and leaders to develop decision support frameworks, methods, and technologies that can be used by leaders to make better and more just decisions about technological change, innovation, and closing the gaps. If technological change is everybody’s business, especially those that are leading organizations, then we must make their jobs a little easier. This is especially important given all the noise, distraction, and jargon that leaders have to navigate to make decisions about technological change.

Drop me an email or send me a comment if you want to collaborate with me. This will most likely involve a Slack workspace and working with a very diverse group of people. I have not yet decided how to do this, but I hope that some of my readers will be willing to figure this out with me.

The affordances provided by institutions

In October 2020 I participated in a week-long exploratory retreat hosted by Cognitive Edge. Actually, there were two different events in the same month and I experienced them as one event where we explored amazing concepts around complexity, sense making, aesthetics, knowledge management and so on. During one of the many breakout groups of these events, I was confronted by the concept of affordances. I was introduced to the concept by Greg Spencer and I was immediately intrigued by it. Since then I have been thinking a lot about my work in innovation systems, institutional change, and the adaption of various meso organizations from this new angle.

Greg explained that an “affordance” is what the environment offers the individual. If I recall correctly we were talking about resilience at the time and Greg wondered how organizations provided affordances to their people that enabled individuals and collectives to be more resilient in the face of unexpted challenges. Although I have heard this word used in user-interface design contexts, I have never thought of it as being useful to think about what institutions, organizations, or other resources made available to users. I have in the past simply thought of the concept of functions, as in a technology transfer organization performs a certain set of functions in an economy that is taken up by users.

The word affordance was first coined by James Gibson in a book in 1966 (read more on Wikipedia). In 1979 Gibson refined his defintion to:

“The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment”

J. J. Gibson (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), Boston.

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines an affordance as:

“the quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used”

“affordance,” Dictionary, Accessed 1/11/2021.

Gibson was thinking of ecology and how an environment provides support or resources to an animal. At the same time, the animal must possess the capability to perceive the affordances and to use it. From a human perspective, it means that things must be designed in a way that makes certain actions possible. Imagine how a door handle invites you to reach out and open the door, or how the presence of a button on a reception counter invites you to press it, or how stepping stones in a garden invite you to explore around a blind corner. However, not all the characteristics of an affordance need to be explicitly designed. Many of the affordances that make some organisations more resilient than others appear to be in what is allowed or accepted or maybe even forgiven in the arrangements in the organisation, in other words in the culture and the relationships between different people. It implies that some affordances in organisations emerge out of the interactions and the relationships between people, and I guess the same is true for communities and locations (or even societies).

For humans to draw on affordances, they must have an idea of what actions are possible or desired. They must feel empowered and capable of using, exploiting or drawing on a resource. The verb “afford” is useful to consider the energy and commitment required by a user to exploit an affordance. If the energy costs are too high, most people would not bother. This is a problem in societal change because those with more resources can often afford to invest in finding out more or exploring new ideas at the edge of common knowledge. Therefore, it is about the presence of the affordance AND the energy cost combined with the required capability (the pre-requisites) of a user to engage with the affordance.

Architects, urban planners, and many other professions already think of affordances and how people use spaces, pathways, and everyday objects. In software development, the consistency of menus, icons, and screen layouts all make affordances easier to access while reducing the effort to figure things out all the time. For instance, to improve the quality of life in many cities, urban planners are turning roads into pedestrian zones. This then changes the affordances provided by public spaces. I recently saw an interview on the National Geographic Channel (about airports) where a person explained how they design icons for signage in the Frankfurt airport that must cater for diverse travellers, languages and understanding of symbols. It struck me that the signage in the airport itself offers an affordance, but it also directs people to affordances that they might need.

When it comes to how societies create and then adapt a range of institutions that shapes market incentives and behaviours, the problem is with abstraction. There is often a low-equilibrium relation between the affordance provided and whether using the qualities of the affordance can be afforded by a typical user. Let me provide some examples of challenges in this dynamic between the availability of affordances and the ability of a user to afford drawing on it:

  • The service offering or capability of a certain organisation is not entirely an object, partly because services, advice and information flows are largely tacit.
  • It is also hard to fully understand the value of the service beforehand. Sometimes, the value of a service only becomes apparent during or it was used. Think of heart surgery, asking for technical advice from an expert, or paying for tax advice.
  • Often, knowledge-intensive services require active participation by the user – the user must be able to share relevant context-specific information with an expert while absorbing information from the expert that must be integrated back into a specific context. It is not the same as sitting in an opera and experiencing a great audiovisual experience.
  • To use knowledge-intensive services you need a certain level of knowledge intensity. The barriers to using many public affordances may be quite high, and we do not often enough consider these pre-requisites. This may also be true for many more elemental services. Today, many services offered by the public service here in South Africa assumes that users or citizens can read and write.
  • A further problem is that there is so much emphasis on the capacity and responsiveness of the providers of affordances provided by public organisations (the supply-side) while the challenges and obstacles to fully participate (or absorb) costs faced by users are out of focus.
  • With increased global mobility of knowledge and knowledge workers, if a certain environment in a country or a place is not good at providing the affordances needed in the society, some of the more mobile members might access these affordances from other places. Globally this is happening in science, technology, innovation and technology development. Increasingly it is happening in education. The challenge is that in many countries only the elite or highly mobile can afford to search for affordances beyond their borders or location. This will increase inequality, but it might also undermine the just development of the potential of places and people.
  • Lastly, there is also the challenge of time. For me to access an affordance today might be shaped by my schooling (a long time ago), the role models I had as a child, and so on. It means that we have to pay attention to the justice or injustices that may be perpetuated by certain affordances and their relations with preceding affordances that are only weakly connected. I am thinking of how some low-paid workers must spend hours a day travelling to work on unsafe public transport. Their affordances are fewer, but to access even those affordances (like a regular job) might also cost them proportionally in relation to the transport costs of a more affluent family.

I wanted to share these ideas with you because I found the idea of affordances to be refreshing. I am glad I signed up for these events to make new friends like Davina Burgess and Greg Spencer. In particular, they helped me draw back the curtains on this concept that felt so profound to me. The idea of affordances helped me to start thinking beyond the technicalities of supply, demand and persistent failures for these gaps to be closed. It also highlighted the importance of paying more attention to the capability of “users” that are trying to innovate, solve problems and the resources that they could afford to invest in drawing on affordances in their environments.

Looking back at August 2020

This is a short article to reflect on some of my learning over the month of August. I put the timer on 30 minutes to practice writing faster.

In the first week of the month, I made time to read up on socio-technical change and transitions. I was trying to figure out how “big transformations”, “technological disruptions”, socio-technical change and several other permutations fit together. For me, the scholar who brought all of this together in the most succinct way is Professor Frank Geels. You can find his Google Scholar page here. The diagram that he co-developed with Professor Johan Schot has gone through several iterations, and I think it has for now settled in the form shared below. Now that I mention Johan Schot, his work on transformative change and deep transitions and how it relates to innovation systems and systems of innovation are also very important. You can find his papers on his personal website.

In the 2nd week of August, I participated as a panellist in the Knowledge Management South Africa conference (called an e-Imbizo. Imbizo means a gathering in isiZulu, and it is usually called by a leader). As the event spanned several days it made sense for me to dive deep into knowledge management for the week. I had three highlights that stood out for me that week.

The first was the opportunity to again go through Harold Jarche’s Personal Knowledge Management course that I wrote about here. Central to Harolds teaching is the idea of living in perpetual beta.

The second was re-discovering a paper by Matthew Jelavic titled “Socio-technical knowledge management and epistemological paradigms” (Researchgate link). What I liked about this paper is the description of the functionalist versus the integrative socio-technical knowledge management. As I am interested in how knowledge flows and is shaped between organisations in a distributed way, this paper really resonated with me. It was a presentation by Brenda van Wyk from the Independent Institute of Education that led me back to the paper by Jelavic. Brenda showed how their university created a knowledge management strategy based on the work by Jelavic that included functional KM as well as integrative elements.

The third highlight was to follow a lead from Harold Jarche to look into the amazing work by Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. We were discussing how new technological disruptions could be detected in a distributed way, and Harold suggested that I look into the Tetrad concept developed by McLuhan (it is also known as the Tetrad of Media Effects). I am still trying to wrap my head around the Tetrad and I will write about it once I have read through all the material. Below is a template for a Tetrad.

To develop the Tetrad, ask the following four questions of the technology you have in mind:

  1. What does the medium/technology enhance?
  2. What does the medium/technology make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium/technology retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium/technology reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

In the original formulation, McLuhan used “media”, but it appears that the substitution of media with technology works. But more about this in a future post. My thoughts are still too messy right now.

In the last two weeks of August, I shifted my attention to the topic of disruption. I wrote a series of five blog posts on disruption here:

Post 1: What does it mean to be disrupted?

Post 2: Defining disruption

Post 3: Who is being disrupted, by whom?

Post 4: Technological disruption over time

Post 5: Social technological disruption: The disruption that hits hardest

I have received an offer from Marcus Jenal and Zenebe Uraguchi to edit and integrate these five posts into one working paper or a coherent article.

During and after the disruption series I received many requests from readers asking me “now what?“, or “how do we become better at tracking potentially disruptive technologies and trends?“. Well, I am delighted so many asked about that, as that is the topic for September.

In September I will also revisit Local Economic Development and how local stakeholders can become better at system innovation and tracking innovations that have the potential to disrupt the location. I will also finish the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem benchmarking instrument for a client, and I will publish a concept note to establish an observatory to track technological change for another client.

If you are a subscriber to this blog, then you will receive a copy of the integrated working paper on disruption when it is ready. If you are not already subscribed, then fill in the line below to stay connected.

Thank you for the many comments, shares and likes. Your support encourages me to keep on digging, exploring and connecting ideas that make development and innovation more valuable.

Social technological disruption: The disruption that hits hardest

This is the 5th post in this series on disruption. This post was updated on the 15th of September 2020.

It is a common mistake to think that the contest is only about technology in the form of hardware, software, services or processes. These are the most visible features of new technologies that can more easily be compared, measured and integrated into existing operations. In these visible forms, technologies can be procured off-the-shelf (or from a website or an app store) and can be adapted in an existing operation. The nature of the disruption for the technology adopter then mainly concerns the inconvenience of changing routines, systems and arrangements. Technology and operational managers often spend months planning, preparing and carefully integrating these kinds of change into their operations to try and mitigate the effects of the disruptions.

In many organisations in the public and the private sector, operational managers focus on ensuring that their system designs and processes are able to resist all kinds of interference and disruption, as these introduce potential variations, risk and uncertainty into their finely tuned operations. This is true for a factory, and it is also true for a hospital or a government department or a post office. Any process that is striving to attain a certain level of efficiency must be protected against unnecessary changes. Change means costs. The downside of striving for efficiency is a loss of flexibility. 

In more modern production and organisational systems, the topic of flexible configuration and agile process design has enabled many newer products, services and processes and their supporting systems to allow for more flexibility. However, many older or more conventional products, services, processes and systems are vulnerable to being overly rigid (meaning resistant to change) as they are often more sensitive to minimum scale and efficiency thresholds.

The most difficult disruption to cope with is at the level of business and organisational models. This is where a new technology market requires a complete or significant rethink of the business strategy, organisation, operations and leadership frameworks. Many new business models that have emerged in the last twenty years have overcome previous market and technology limitations, meaning that even an inefficient provider using newer technology may have an advantage over an older organisation using their older technology efficiently. 

New business models that leverage new digital technologies often make for a potent competitive advantage once a leader can break free from the pack. These new entrants are often free from many of the constraints and limitations that older, more established firms face. They are also closer to the edge or just on the other side of the current regulations and controls that restrain many more established competitors.

These innovations in business models often draw on new social technologies. Social technologies could change the internal or external arrangements of the organisation. Internally, social innovations can be about how workplaces are organised, how decisions are made, how people from different business units relate within an organisation, how communication takes place and so on. However, in my experience, when organisations are arranged innovatively on the inside, this is often mirrored in their relationships with external partners, suppliers and clients. 

In many spheres of society, these new social technologies are challenging older paradigms. For the companies, regulators, government departments and communities that have become intertwined with existing social arrangements, changing the business or organisational models is very hard if not impossible. It is often simpler to start something new because the old arrangements are so deeply entrenched. Think for instance about the shift from coal mining to renewable energy and its effect not only on the mining companies but the communities, the financial markets, the downstream buyers of coal, the suppliers of equipment and technology and the specialised public and private institutions that have emerged around the coal industry. Do not forget about the labour unions, local charities, churches and other social partners. The new energy market will eventually take over from this older market with its more established social arrangements, but the players and institutions will look different, will be funded differently, will use more modern regulatory frameworks, and will most likely also be located in a different place using different skills and very different social arrangements. This disruption is not going to look pretty, and local stakeholders all have good incentives to dig in their heels to resist the disruption for as long as possible. 

If a society cannot foster the emergence of new institutions and social innovations for new configurations to be developed in the local market, then the local system becomes even more vulnerable to international disruptors in the longer term. The implication is that if the government cannot enable new competition to incumbent arrangements in the shorter to medium term, then in the longer term the intensity of the disruption caused by new social technologies may be more severe. Many governments resist promoting new business and technologies because of the entrenched positions of business, labour and civil lobby groups. Yet even while agreeing that promoting new technologies to disrupt or challenge existing arrangements is a good policy, it may be very hard to implement.

The reason why new technologies are hard to implement is because of the many simultaneous investments and changes that may be required; in other words, the coordination failures that may make a new market and all its dependent institutions and networks harder to establish. This is one reason why so many developing countries are being reduced to being users of new technologies: because it is so hard to create the densely interrelated market systems that enable new technology adaptation and development. New markets often leverage older market institutions and norms, so it is not as easy as simply allowing a new market to be established. A whole web of other supporting arrangements is needed.

Ultimately it is not about the use of new technology. The biggest challenge lies in the business model and network arrangements that are needed to make a new technology market viable. This is where the most serious disruptions occur, namely when one country’s social institutions and social arrangements are displaced by those from another country. An example is where high-tech companies embedded in one country’s market system disrupts another country with weaker or inferior market and organisational arrangements. Local funding markets, tech entrepreneurs, regulators and policy makers will constantly be on the defensive and will be caught between those that want to completely resist the uptake of the technology and those that want to adopt the new technology.

Now we turn to the question of why these new social arrangements often originate in the USA and Canada, and why Europe and Africa are often on the back foot. A closer look reveals that many of the new social arrangements actually originate from only a handful of cities and locations, and to simply paint the whole of the USA as a hotspot for new business model innovations is perhaps a bit optimistic. Somehow, to develop new business models requires a tremendous amount of trust between individuals and the hierarchies that they form part of. Yes, even a flat hierarchy still has rules, and in fact, it depends on a certain singularity of mind of what the organisation is trying to achieve. In societies where much importance is attached to degrees, years of work experience, social hierarchy, and professional pedigree, social innovations are much harder to achieve. Not impossible, just harder. The same applies to societies where people need to be directed, where only a few have the vision while the rest just grind away at what they are told to do. 

Here in South Africa, with our low trust, it is tough to manage or lead a team, even if it is a team of professionals. Almost all our efforts at innovating in South Africa are focused on building systems and procedures that must make up for what we cannot draw on from the broader environment. Managers are constantly checking up on subordinates. The ecosystem around most organisations has a trust deficit, so any team or organisation must make up for what is lacking on the outside through structures and functions on the inside. This shows in our economic data. In almost any market here in South Africa, there are only a handful of companies (public or private) that have managed to achieve a scale or a semblance of stability. They are often like self-contained islands. Their supply chains often don’t look like chains, they look rather like pipes that extend from the bigger buyer. I suppose this is social innovation in its own right, but it does not help us to navigate a future where a small and even unheard of competitor from abroad can come in and very quickly establish a new market because of its combination of social and technical innovations.

I am often asked how ready we are for technological disruption. Mastering a new product, service or gadget may seem easy enough. But I shudder to think of the rigidity and readiness of many of the companies and public organisations that I know of. They have been successful at defending themselves against many external threats, but have often not embraced many social innovations that are now already widespread elsewhere. I think that social innovations and new social technologies are potentially the biggest disruptors. 

Is it different in your context?

How are the organisations that you work with experimenting with or tracking new social technologies? 

What social technologies are you tracking because you think that these have the potential to create completely new business models or market arrangements?

Technological disruption over time

This is the fourth post in this series about disruption. This post was updated on 15 September 2020.

I have previously written about technological change cycles where I explored how the nature of innovation changes over time. This time I would like to explore disruption more from the perspective of the challenge to a business model as well as the broader sociological impact of disruption. 

Time is another dimension that must be considered if we are to understand disruption. In the short term, new technologies often disrupt incumbents (firmly entrenched existing players) who are dominant in a particular technology market segment. New technologies force existing companies in the market to rethink their products, services, operations and networks. They may decide to resist change, or adapt or retreat to market segments where their scale and operations are still competitive. 

In the shorter term, the most significant disruptions are at the level of functions and applications (or products and processes), and the disruptions are often felt by competitors who identify with a particular market or technological paradigm. The new technology may allow a better or different way for a function to be performed, and as a result a new need may be created. All competitors must scramble to get newly-introduced competing solutions integrated into their current offerings.

In the medium term, technological change may disrupt consumers and global technology markets, as new products and services might make existing alternatives incompatible or redundant. As the uptake of a newer technology increases, it may become more visible to other (unrelated) markets and user types. The result is that a technology that was developed for a particular niche market may be taken up or adapted to new markets. Technology providers benefit from more scale, and their attention often shifts from developing the products/services to improving their processes and systems. Users benefit from better-developed products/services and support, increasing compatibility and the establishment of standards, etc.

In the longer term, technological change disrupts investments in fixed infrastructure and social institutions such as universities, economic regions, job markets, regulators and industries. Some jobs, industries, key infrastructure or technologies may become redundant. From a spatial perspective, the way municipal boundaries or functional economic regions are drawn may be challenged, and regional infrastructure may suddenly become redundant or expensive to maintain.

In the longer term, technological change disrupts investments in fixed infrastructure, social institutions like universities, economic regions, job markets, regulators and industries. Some jobs, industries, key infrastructure or technologies may become redundant. From a spatial perspective, the way municipal boundaries or functional economic regions are drawn may be challenged, and regional infrastructure may suddenly become redundant or expensive to maintain.

As new technology becomes more prevalent and as it reaches a more mature phase, its influence may spread to other more indirect markets in a slow, ever-expanding series of mini-disruptions. This is where convergence and spill-overs become a risk to those who are ignorant or complacent, as technological developments in unrelated economic activities may spill over into a deeply rooted and rigid technology marketplace. It may take a long time for this kind of disruption to slowly build up, but once it arrives, the changes are sudden and often catastrophic to the economic actors who are affected. 

The challenge is then not the new technology per se, but the organisational and social innovations that have been refined in the new technology market place. Many improvements at the product or business process levels can be copied (or perhaps licensed). However, new business models with different forms of financing, novel arrangements with suppliers, new partnership structures or with creative business logic are very hard to copy. It is especially hard to respond to business model innovations when an organisation is already set in its ways (or is successful). This is the real disruption, and it is not only the private sector that is vulnerable to this – The public sector and even the NGO sector can be disrupted by business model innovations.

In the course of my career I have worked with many leaders of companies and public organisations or technologists who have been caught off guard by technological change. They all describe the same pattern.

They were once globally competitive and could benchmark their operations, technologies and efficiencies against global peers. Then some competitors started choosing alternative technologies that were emerging at the time. Some competitors fell behind, while others appeared to have a small advantage. However, they were increasingly losing competitive bids for contracts. Some competitors were able to clinch contracts at prices and volumes that were just out of reach. By working hard, and staying close to their customers, they could make up for some of the disadvantages. They could justify their current path and decisions based on sunk costs and their reputation. They improved some processes and changed some arrangements, but were aware that other important priorities were not receiving attention. The status quo could be maintained for many years. Then suddenly, almost overnight, the performance gap was too big. The new technology was taken up by some local competitors, or one or two customers started insisting on the use of the new technology or higher performance standards. No amount of blood, sweat and tears could secure a deal. At this moment, they were disrupted. They had been left behind. They could not meet the criteria, the volumes or the market prices. It was not just a question of ordering a new production line, as the new technology required different systems, different suppliers, different volumes and different skills throughout their organisations. Key staff left. Funders no longer extended credit so easily. 

They were suddenly behind on all fronts. It started happening slowly, and then it happened suddenly. Their financiers, government officials and industry bodies all claimed they had been overtaken overnight. But this sudden disruption took many years. 

In hindsight, they could see where they had made the wrong decisions. Often it was not a big decision that caused them to fall behind, but rather the cumulative effect of many decisions building up over time.

In hindsight, they could see where they had made the wrong decisions. Often it was not a big decision that caused them to fall behind, but rather the cumulative effect of many decisions building up over time.

Some of these (disrupted) companies are still operating today, but they are now just a shadow of the successful companies that they once were. They still have some loyal customers who use their services, but they are no longer the leading suppliers or the default choice in their industries. One of these companies that I know well used to manufacture precision metal parts for the automotive sector to very high tolerances, and now they manufacture coarse grinding balls used to crush rock in the mining industry. Another company used to make trains, another used to make buses, and another used to design and build aircraft. They have all been disrupted over a period of more than ten years. It started happening slowly, and then it happened fast.

I also know of regions that have been disrupted. The town where I grew up also went through this (see my angry rant in a post about this town from some years ago).

Change in my home town also happened slowly. First, the biggest company in town moved some headquarters functions to a nearby city. They had problems attracting certain kinds of staff and supporting service providers to the small town where I lived. More functions followed a year or two later. Local government was not focused much on reversing this outflow of talent, investment and expertise. Next, certain equipment maintenance functions were moved elsewhere to consolidate operations in another city. Spouses and families moved in pursuit of jobs, and the local brain drain was gathering momentum. At some point, the existence of the local railway station and the small airfield could no longer be justified. Non-related industries such as agriculture suffered. As more and more functions moved from the town, more and more shops, restaurants and smaller companies closed down. It felt like the whole town had changed in just a few years. What started as a technological disruption in one sector quickly affected many others. 

In many of the examples that I have shared in this post, technological disruption started elsewhere through the technology choices of other organisations and companies. Without anybody noticing, the seeds of disruption had been sown. The effects would only be felt some years down the line, and then it was simply too late to start scrambling around to try and reverse what had happened.

Who is being disrupted, and by whom?

This is the third post in this short series on disruption. This post was updated on 15 September 2020.

In simple terms, technological disruption implies at least two actor groups: those that are being disrupted, and those that are doing the disruption. However, to assist societies, institutions, governments and businesses to be better able to adjust to, mitigate or even lead technological disruption this simple description is not useful.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler

Albert Einstein

Closer scrutiny of any technological disruption reveals many more actor groups that are both directly and indirectly involved in technological disruption. The more you dig, the messier the picture becomes. There are four groups that quickly spring to mind: you will probably be able to think of more if you focus on a technological disruption about which you have more detail.

  1. On the technology supply side, there are many concurrent contests where promoters and early adopters of new technologies are trying to gain a foothold in technology markets by achieving a viable scale. If an existing technology market is too firmly established (or protected), then an alternative technology market may emerge. Over time, this new technology market may disrupt the incumbent technology market, leading to further disruptions in many other related markets downstream. However, Clayton Christensen made us aware that in many cases incumbents are able to quickly learn from new disrupters, and they are often able to use their scale and operations to adapt quickly to their operations, and so beating the new challengers. It is only in rare instances that a new technology disrupter manages to unseat an incumbent, but there are many celebrated examples where this has happened.
  2. On the demand side, there are those who are disrupted when their suppliers, clients, employers or regulators select one technology over another. Markets and actors are disrupted by other markets and actors that they are dependent on. Users of technologies may have to master new skills to continue performing certain functions. To replace an older technology with newer technology may also involve investing in and mastering a whole range of other technologies. Occasionally an incumbent could even be disrupted by its own technology development. Remember the story of Kodak and the development of digital camera technology? Another more recent example is Apple’s iPad technology that disrupted its own computer technologies, but at least Apple has since adapted and even thrived. There are many examples out there with happy and sad endings.
  3. Occasionally, an incumbent could even be disrupted by its own technology development. Remember the story of Kodak and the development of digital camera technology? Another more recent example is Apple and the iPad technology that disrupted its own computer technologies, but at least they have since adapted and even thrived. There are many examples out there with happy and sad endings…
  4. Wherever markets are forming, changing and disappearing, a range of market-enabling and market-supporting institutions are affected. These institutions could be in either the public or the private sector, or in some hybrid form. An institution could be in the form of a combination of formal rules and informal norms as well as regulations, or it could be in the form of organisations. Whenever a new technology market emerges, it challenges the incumbent market and supporting institutional arrangements. Think of how the formal hospitality market is challenged by the emergence of homestay holidays and the ease with which a property owner can now rent out a property online. This has consequences for existing providers of hospitality, for regulators, for local authorities, other property owners affected by these transactions, and also for buyers of the new hospitality services. The implication is that the speed with which a country can create, adjust and adapt its market-supporting institutions will have a direct bearing on the pace and the effect of how disruptive the new technology may be, and how equal and fair the uptake of the new technology will be. It is very hard to add new market regulations and rules after technology has already become widely adopted.

When considering disruption, it is useful to think a bit further than the disrupted and the disruptor. We have to consider the networks that these two groups form part of, but we must also think of the social institutions and market-supporting organisations that enable these technology markets to exist in the first place.

Society bears the costs of late disruption

Attempting to mitigate the risks of any possible disruption may be a nuisance for many businesses that are just trying to cope. However, when many companies or whole industries do not adequately consider potential disruptions, the costs of disruption spread from the shareholders to the broader society. It is therefore important that policy makers, government departments, local governments, industry-representative organisations and labour representatives should also take into consideration technological change and the interdependence between different systems. 

In markets where competition is too low, or where the markets are dominated by just a few thought leaders, incumbents may be able to avoid being disrupted in the shorter to the medium-term through their defensive innovation strategies. However, in the longer term, these champions may become more vulnerable to technological disruption. This means that all the other systems are at risk whose success is highly dependent on the success of the leading firms.

It is a bit difficult for policy makers and industry bodies to imagine how disruption can be managed. It may even be necessary for countries and regions to intentionally disrupt their own industries and local social arrangements, as I heard they do in Singapore. I was told that the logic of purposefully introducing disruptions is that having more frequent small disruptions is better than losing big battles against global competitors already operating at scale.

The old Zollverein Coking Plant World Heritage Site in Germany is one of my favourite places to visit to witness how technological change can challenge a region. Click here to see more photos of industrial heritage in Germany

Over my 25 years of working experience, I have worked with disruptions in many different forms and contexts. To me, disruption is not an abstract term. Sometimes it is about being optimistic, trying to introduce a change. Other times it was about pain, trying to find a way out of a mess. I have worked with governments and industry bodies that were trying to find ways to resist disruption, or that were desperate to figure out how to catch up after being left behind. I supported innovative teams to use the logic of disruption to explore how they could break into or gain a foothold in an established market. I have experienced the desperation of stakeholders in regions where key industries have been disrupted, where those that have remained behind are struggling to reignite a depressed economy. I have also worked with technology extension programmes that were trying to introduce (disrupt) new technologies into existing markets. These experiences all exposed me to different practical challenges of disruption, being disrupted, disrupting others and trying to resist disruption. I am sharing these experiences because disruption is a very different experience based on who you are and what you are trying to achieve. 

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