Kicking cans: job descriptions versus culture

A few days ago I watched a schoolboy kicking a can down the road. He kicked it a couple of times and then miskicked, sending the can flying into the road, where it landed at the feet of an off-duty city cleaning worker, still in his orange uniform. These guys are fantastic: they put in the hard yards of sweeping the streets, cleaning out ratty drains and fetid canals doing a whole load of other stuff to keep Jakarta clean. This guy – in his uniform – trapped the can with his foot, bent down, picked it up, and looked at the kids with a grin that said “Don’t worry guys, I’ve got this.” Then he leaned back and tossed the can stylishly over his shoulder and straight into the… flowerbed.

This is a man who spends several hours a day sweating to keep Jakarta clean. He works in the dirt and grime, puts up with rats, cockroaches, heat and traffic fumes to clean the city up and to keep it clean. He’s part of the Orange Army transforming Jakarta – but he throws a piece of rubbish that lands at his feet into the flowerbed instead of the bin. Why?

Because that’s his culture. It’s what he saw his parents do, it what his neighbours do, and despite the best efforts of the school curriculum to teach another way, it’s probably what his kids do.

Job descriptions alone won’t solve this problem: you can hire all the street-sweepers you want, but you’ll never have clean streets until a large majority of people put their rubbish in the bin rather than throwing it on the ground. In other words, until keeping the city clean becomes the culture: “people like us, do things like this.”

Changing the culture is harder work than giving some people the job of cleaning up everyone else’s mess. Harder and slower, but in the long run more effective, cheaper and more sustainable. Changing the complex system of culture takes conversations, campaigns, and curriculum changes. It takes leadership: politicians, celebrities and parents who care enough to do what they say. And it does need street sweepers – people can’t see that the streets are dirty until they’ve seen clean ones.

Job descriptions are necessary, but they’re never sufficient.

*See also: Singapore, tree planting and the new normal

Machine. Ecosystem. (5) – Duncan Green on systems thinking and development

A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity; because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse or apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – ‘if A, then B’ – with profound consequences in terms of failures, frustration, and missed opportunities [when the plan is thrown out by unexpected consequences within the plan, or by things that were never in it]. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.’

Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear, ‘simple’ system. All I need to do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working…

Baking a cake is also a fairly accurate metaphor for the approach of many governments, aid agencies, and activist organisations. They decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.

The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging in a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it?

Deng Xiaoping said, “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one.”

Duncan Green – How Change Happens (amazon)


Honest love is born from the struggle / it’s lived in the valley as much as the hill

Mark Stone

I saw a young man driving a supercar in Vancouver – he was too young, I thought, to have earned it – and I thought “poor guy.”

In giving him the world on the plate, I realised, his parents had rendered his life weightless: too light winning makes the prize light. His wealth had robbed him of something priceless.

This raises all sorts of questions about the good starts, leg-ups and help we give to others.* Looking back, how much struggle would you have chosen? How much would have been good for you?

*Education and training, community development and parenting are the first three areas that spring to mind.

Debt to society

If you want to talk about our debt to society – the question of what we owe the other people who share our culture, and share the planet with us – it’s helpful to start with this: without other people, you’d be dead. Even if you’d somehow managed to be born on your own, without other people you’d never have made it.

But ‘debt to society’ is the wrong way to frame it. It helps to think less about giving-up-what-is-rightfully-ours because of what we owe (though we do), or because we feel guilty or obliged (though perhaps we should), or because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t (though there might be good reason for this).

What do we want?

Let’s talk instead about contributing towards what we want, and the benefits we might expect to enjoy if we lived in a kinder, more generous society. A society – just for example – in which as many people as possible get a leg-up when they’re just starting out (by being born, or starting school, or starting their careers), and the hand-up that makes all the difference when they’re down. We know that these things don’t just make it better for other people’s kids, but for our kids.* A better society is better for all of us: no-one wants unhealthy, poorly educated, tormented neighbours. (And no-one wants selfish neighbours either).

We all do want human flourishing, and most of us want it for everyone. We don’t even disagree that much about what it looks like, just about how to achieve it** and sustain it. And most people want to contribute towards achieving it.


If we focus on “better”, if we say the words and describe it, it becomes much easier for people who usually disagree with us to say, “Actually, I want that too – but I think we’ll get it by doing this...” And it becomes easier for us to agree to try one way, then the other – or to find a different, better way.

And focusing on contribution towards building something better is a great story. We can feel good about what we’re giving, a part of what we’re building, and hopeful about what we’re moving towards.

*And at the end of the day, they’re all our kids.
**Perhaps particularly about whether a
flourishing life is something that can be given.

Riches: second best coffee press

I broke the glass on our cafetiere / coffee press this morning.

You’re rich when you react to the breaking of the glass by saying, “Never mind – we’ll get some new glass.”

You’re really rich when you can add, “And in the meantime, we’ll use our second-best best coffee press.”

We live near the top of a vast, thousands-of-years-in-the-making pyramid of social and economic development that makes possible not simply the glass, steel, plastic and design knowledge required for the minutiae of our daily lives but the sheer abundance of these which allows us to use things that were once so scarce and precious for something as trivial as a coffee pot.

Tim Harford: slow-motion multitasking

I love Tim Harford‘s stuff, and I’m surprised he hasn’t featured here before.

50 Things that Made the Modern Economy is a delightful romp through economic history from cuneiform to mobile money transfers by way of clocks and the Haber-Bosch process. For a more detailed review try this one by a chap called Ian Mann, who finishes off by describing it as ‘an intellectual smorgasbord’. He’s right… and it’s free on the podcasting app of your choice.

It’s a long time since I read The Undercover Economist, and I mainly remember the discussion of the positioning of coffee shops in the great opening chapter, and a story about a library with a leaky roof towards the end (?) where it tailed off…

I was going to recommend Messy, but it turns out that the book I was thinking was actually Adapt, which was, as I recall, quite good. One of these books contains a good riff on how a large pile of papers on your desk is actually quite a good filing system – as long as you put the last piece of paper you touched on top.

Intellectual CrossFit

T.H. is rather prolific, but I came here to recommend a recent TED talk, A Powerful Way to Unleash your Natural Creativity, in which he casts multitasking not as the villain but as the unlikely hero of creativity, intellectual enrichment, and general greatness… as long as it’s multitasking of the slow-motion variety, which he describes as intellectual CrossFit. I can only assume he’s read Hinterland and my posts on networks and hybrids.

One type of rich…

… is when you have multiple solutions to everyday problems comfortably within your grasp.

The journey to “What will my family eat?” from “Will my family eat?” is the journey from poverty to prosperity.

The additional step – to “What would each member of my family most like to eat?” is a transition to a world of abundance unimaginable to most people in most places for most of history.

Same goes for clothes to wear and places to sleep.

And yet…

We find ourselves stressed and unable to decide; we find ourselves feeling poor and resentful.

It’s mostly to do with what we notice.

Iqbal Quadir: connectivity is productivity

Another way of looking at networks from Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameen Phone and entrepreneur against poverty:

One day in 1993 [while working at an investment bank] I was working with three or four people and our computer network was connected, and we were more productive, we didn’t have to exchange floppy disks … and we could update each other more frequently. But one time it [the network ] broke down … and while I was waiting for someone to come and fix it, and during that time I remembered a time in 1971, in Bangladesh [where I grew up]…

… One time my other asked me to get some medicine for a younger sibling, some ten kilometers away, so I walked all morning to get there, and when I got there the medicine man wasn’t there, so I walked all afternoon back.

So I remembered this unproductive day when I was having another one in New York, and suddenly I put these two unproductive days side-by-side and I realised that connectivity is productivity. It’s true for a modern office, and also for any place – for an undeveloped village. Because I could have got more done if I could tell [that the medicine man wasn’t there], I was just a kid, but perhaps a productive person would have done something, if I was a fisherman I could have fished that day, instead of wasting the day just connecting with somebody. …

Today Bangladesh has 150 million people. If you waste one day per month you’ll see millions of man-months wasted in not having some kind of connectivity.

… *** …

Adam Smith said specialisation leads productivity. But how would you specialise? If I’m a fisherman and farmer, Kevin is a fisherman and farmer, how am I going to suddenly become a fisherman and Kevin become a farmer? Not until we can connect with each other. Because we must first be able to depend on each other, to be able to rely on his goods and exchange with my goods. And in order to rely on each other, we must connect with each other. So if we are neighbours, of course we can depend on each other because we connect regularly. But then, the economy is very small – just based on small neighbourhoods.

So if you must expand your economy and specialise more, you must connect in some other way – through a highway, through a river, or perhaps, through a telephone wire.

But the key point is that you must be able to connect first in order to depend on each other, and then be able to specialise and advance the economy in general.

Iqbal Quadir at the Long Now Foundation

*** At this point – about 26 minutes into the talk – Quadir tells more of the story of the founding of Grameen phone, and his analysis that underpinned his business model. In summary, he used research produced by the International Telecommunications Union suggesting that the value of adding nodes to a network is higher for countries with lower GDP – he suggests a 25x return on investment on a new phone over ten years (in terms of contribution to GDP), even before accounting for the effect of Moore’s law, which multiplies this several times over .

The haves and the have-laters

Kevin Kelly’s take on how technological development plays into the future of poverty and inequality – and why he’s not worried about unequal access to tech:

Inequality won’t be eradicated in fifty years. So I tend to think of the structure of these things as the haves and the have-laters. The haves basically pay for technology when it’s really crummy and early and expensive, so they overpay for it. And that overpayment and use of it brings down the cost until it’s affordable by the have-laters. And then the have-laters get great technology for very cheap. That’s sort of what happened with cell phones. So you have all the early cell phone business guys who were paying [multiple] thousands of dollars for this brick that didn’t work very well, and because they were all overpaying for it, it enabled the cycles of innovation and commerce to generate cell phones that cost, say, $30. And everybody had one and they were really great. So the haves in some senses, like, say, of the early VR, will overpay for technology that doesn’t work very well, enabling the have-laters to get really great stuff that works fantastic. So in a certain sense the have-laters have the best deal, because they get cheap technology that works fantastic. But of course they get it later. And they may get it a decade later.

And I think fifty years from now, the have-laters, they’ll be living like the super-rich today in a certain sense. You’ll have not the whole lifestyle, but you’ll have all the kind of stuff that everybody on Earth will have access to—smartphones, and they’ll have access to the bandwidth that we have now, and they’ll have access to VR greatly exceeding what the rich have today. But of course there won’t be anything like what’s available to the rich.

So there’s a slow rise of all boats, but there definitely is going to be a gap, and the question people really want to know is, is that gap widening or not? I think technologically the gap is narrowing over time. In other words the difference in the technology that a billionaire can buy versus somebody in India in another fifty years will be even less; there won’t be as much of a difference in fifty years as there is today. So technologically I think the gap is going to decrease slowly. But there are social, cultural differences. The historical evidence is that on a global average—not America, not the West, but all the countries of the world on a global average—that differential is actually closing and has been for the last two-hundred years. Whether it will continue, that’s a question we don’t know. At least I don’t know whether the global average between the super rich and the super poor—or even the average rich and the average poor—whether that’s going to close. We’ll see. There is certainly a power imbalance in what the rich can do.

But I also have to make one other final observation, which is if you look at the lifestyles of billionaires, they’re not a thousand times richer in their lifestyle than millionaires—because a billionaire is a thousand times richer in dollars, right? So in that sense, there is some threshold beyond which more money doesn’t make any difference. They have more power and other kinds of stuff, but in terms of their lifestyle and the cars that they drive and the clothes that they wear, the standard of living—the standard of living of a billionaire is not a thousand times more than a millionaire. So there are limits to how different your living standards can be, just practical limits, and I think some of those limits continue to shrink over time.

Kevin Kelly talking about The Inevitableinterview at

Technology marches towards the poorest

I recently listened to a talk given by Iqbal Quadir, founder of Grameenphone, at the Long Now Foundation in 2008:

In the early nineties I had a budding investment career, that’s where I discovered a decentralising force – namely Moore’s law. Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, observed in the mid sixties that every eighteen months microchips, the brain of the computers, go down in price by fifty percent. That means every thee years, namely twice the time of eighteen months, every three years prices fall by 75% to one quarter. Which means every six years it becomes one-sixteenth. And every twelve years, it becomes 1/256th. And you add another three years, let’s say every fifteen years, it becomes about 1/1000 to one.

So microchips are actually marching towards poor people.

And it’s also potentially a decentralising force, but I didn’t know how to make use of computers in a country where there’s a lot of illiteracy and so therefore people couldn’t quite use computers even if they’re becoming cheaper … perhaps they could be utilised, but I didn’t know how to use them because computers are mostly made for literate people

Iqbal Quadir at the Long Now Foundation

The march towards the poorest

In the decade since Quadir gave this talk, we’ve seen this happen – and in the development of new interfaces (and particularly smartphones) we’ve seen computers marching towards the less-educated too. This is good news.

Overall, we’ve seen this happen with basics like clean water and sanitation and clothing, with education and information, and with healthcare and entertainment. More on this tomorrow.

The question that occurred to me as I listened to this talk, though, was “what’s marching away from the poorest?”

My guesses are… land and space? An unspoilt natural environment? Community?

Or are these moving away from all of us? Would love your thoughts – I’ll update this post with links and references below.