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Marina Gorbis: Designing With Social Currency

--Bela Shah, on Aug 23, 2013

No one can really predict the future (although certain services would like you to believe otherwise!).  But we can collectively come together through our diverse experiences and knowledge bases to think about how our future might shape up and the role we can play to make a difference.  On the Global Forest Call, Marina Gorbis shared scintillating ideas and insights about designing for a future that places social capital at the center.  Marina is the Executive Director of the Institute for the Future, a think tank based out of Palo Alto that helps organizations and individuals create the future they want.

Janis: What is a "futurist" and how did you come to work in this field?

Marina: I define a futurist as somebody who is dedicated to systematically thinking about the future. We are not in the business of predicting the future. For a while we avoided using the term “futurist” because there’s so many connotations with predicting the future. Just as with historians, there time frame is the past, our time frame is the future, anywhere up to 10, 15, 20 years out.

"The purpose is to help people think about possibilities of the future and ask provocative questions about the future and expand their horizon to consider those possibilities in order to help them make better decisions today." 
In some ways, we consider ourselves to be a voice for the future and ultimately we want to help people shape a more desirable future.

Like most of my colleagues, I wasn’t trained as a futurist.  Most of us come from some other discipline and mine happened to be economic development. I don’t think of what we do as a science but as an art form.  It's similar to an artist with brushes and techniques that get better with time. We apply these techniques to our collective and diverse knowledge sets in order to create a better future.

Janis: How is it that the Institute for the Future chooses the initiatives that you focus on?

Marina: We’re a nonprofit so we’re self-supportive and have freedom to choose which topics we’re going to work on. We ask, “What are the things that we’re passionate about and that are important for us to focus on?” We call them “urgent futures”; if we don’t think about them today, we will have big consequences. For example, we recently partnered with Food Tank to host a virtual exchange series that explored the future of food governance.

Janis: How does the Institute develop the work of expanding social capital? It's tapping into lot of different people and networks to help with this, correct?

Marina: About 7 years ago when I became the Executive Director, we went through a deep process of thinking of ourselves as a network organization and from there, a lot of different concepts developed about leadership, about our principles, and about engaging with our external world.

"One thing we decided to focus on is developing platforms to engage people in thinking about the future with us. It seems that only a few privileged voices are being heard about the future, from ivory towers, pundits, academia, etc. We wanted to turn it around and ask, “How do we engage and inspire diverse voices in thinking about the future?"

We developed a platform called the “foresight engine” where we post deliberately provocative scenarios about the future and then have an intense two days where people contribute their visions about what happens if, for example, scenario X comes true? How would we change this scenario? At the Institute we release these foresight engines every few months. They’re almost like a game.  

For example, one of the questions we put out there was about connected citizens.  The question was "What if, together, we could imagine hundreds of civic innovations to improve our communities between 2013 and 2023?" "We also believe in turning scarcity into abundance and we asked, “What do we have in abundance that’s under utilized?”

We realized that we have this space in Palo Alto so we decided to develop these co-working days where we open up our space and we invite anyone that signs up to co-work with us for a day. You just have to sign up with our Facebook or Twitter page to stay connected and learn about the next one. We get really interesting people that come in and all kinds of conversations take place and we receive tremendous gifts in exchange. At some point we realized that it’s not really “co-working” day, it’s something else, but it’s really fascinating what transpires.

We also make all of our work public so we’ve turned ourselves inside-out. All of our toolkits are out there for other people to use.  We have brought students in to think about the future and they comment that they have never thought about it in that way before. 

I just ran into a student who finished college and he said,
"You know it was so overwhelming for me the first time I came to the Institute but then when I went to college, I realized that’s what it’s all about. I was made to think about these issues and play a role in my future.”

We also created this program called “Fellows for Good”. We brought 6 fellows to the Institute who are practical visionaries. They have a vision but are doing something with their vision and we’re supporting them for the summer to work on projects that they’ll take to the outside world.  People are attracted to the Institute because a lot of innovators are doing something and feel alone in their work and feel that what they’re doing is “weird” or on the fringe and for us, we’re interested in that. They find a home and a larger framework in which to place what they’re doing.

  Janis: One of your reports is the “Engagement Economy: The Future of Massively Scaled Participation and Collaboration” and I want to quote from your website: “In the economy of engagement, it is less and less important to compete for attention, and more and more important to compete for things like brain cycles and interactive bandwidth. Crowd-dependent projects must capture the mental energy and the active effort it takes to make individual contributions to a larger whole. Virtual world builders, social media developers, and other funware creators have the potential to offer essential design strategies and economic theory for otherwise serious initiatives.”

What does this mean for the future of how we will work?

Marina: This came out 4 or 5 years ago, when the whole fascination with “gamification” first started. Game designers figured out how to get people’s attention and how to hold that attention through different mechanics such as puzzles, quests, and other methods that inspire awe and fascination and meaning and purpose.

We asked, “Can we use the same sort of mechanics to inspire people to do great things in the world? What if we just remade education as a game and created that same sense of awe and fascination and meaning?”

Janis: It sounds as though you are trying to engage people in a sense of wonder?

Marina: Yes, and we underutilize those words. Most of our institutions work based on extrinsic rewards. For example, educational institutions reward based on testing, grades, GPA, scores, etc. Yet people do the most meaningful things without getting paid for the intrinsic value they receive. I saw a report that found that “every year of schooling decreases engagement with learning.”

Is that stunning that this is the kind of system that we’ve created? We’re at that point where we’re questioning a lot of our design assumptions about the institutions we’ve created, the systems we’ve created and this is an incredible moment to start thinking about redesign, including our currencies and all kinds of other things that we’ve taken for granted. They were designed for a different kind of world.

Janis: You have a book, “The Nature of the Future”, which describes how networks of individuals and not very big organizations will soon solve a host of problems by reinventing segments of society such as education and banking. That’s a lot of change, can you tell us more about the book itself and can you give concrete examples of how that might be manifesting now?

Marina: The most concrete example is Wikipedia. It’s a platform that engages thousands and most of the people that contribute are not getting paid. I think the staff is only about 100 employees. If you compare that to Encyclopedia Britannica, it took millions of dollars to produce and not a lot of people were engaged in the process and now that model has been disrupted.

The same sort of disruption is occurring across the board, whether you take education or publishing or the health industry. All of these areas are being transformed, all the values and resources are flowing from large organizations into another kind of arrangement, much more similar to Wikipedia, where you create a platform and anyone can contribute to it. Collectively we’re creating something that is disrupting the old models of creating value.

Janis: As you were writing your book, are there are any surprises that you wanted to share with us from it?

Marina: I did a lot of interviews with people that are leaders in different domains, whether it’s journalism or science or health. I learned a lot from those interviews and it made me really think deeply about the purpose of my book.

"I didn’t want to write a business book. Instead, I wanted to write a book for people, one that individuals could read and then be able to think about themselves and their own future and their role in this world. I also wanted to give a sense of hope and optimism about the future, although I do look into potential downsides and dark scenarios. But I give them a sense that they have a role to play in shaping this future."

Janis: This vision has major implications for the future? What does it mean for the average Joe? Will there be people in economically challenged areas who will be left behind if they’re not connected in the way other people are. As you say technology develops the way we communicate, will that technology be driven down into those more impoverished areas. How do we get everybody into the boat as the tide rises?

Marina: The interesting thing about this book is that I discuss how in this kind of environment, there’s so many ways that people can participate. As you guys know in Service Space there is a room and role for everybody. We’ve been doing these various hack-a-thons and science hack days where people come together for a weekend and they choose which project they work on. Nobody tells them what to do, there is no management, nothing is assigned and they develop these amazing projects in 48 hours and people come with different levels of expertise. Some are scientists and some people just bring food but they get engaged in the effort and learn from other people in the group. There is room for everyone in this setting and the kinds of things you use in your volunteer activities or in your home, such as connecting and contributing, those are the kinds of skills that are valued in this environment. It’s about being able to contribute in some way to this larger effort.

Interestingly enough, I start the book by talking about my mother.
"I grew up in Ukraine and my mom was a physician and poorly paid but she managed to create this middle class or normal environment for us. She was a widow without a lot of money but our house was always open and people came in and out and she treated and diagnosed them without any money and so there was this incredible social capital that she was creating in the process that gave her access to a lot of other things. She wasn’t doing it in any utilitarian kind of way, that was just a part of who she was but the result was that she created a lot of good will and this incredibly normal existence for us growing up. We had access to a lot of physical goods that otherwise wouldn’t have been there."

“In many ways we’ve substituted all of these social interactions and social connections with money because that’s what happens in a developed economy, right? You don’t need to rely on your neighbor to get things, you hire a driver, you hire a therapist, etc. And the more income you have, the less you need to rely on these social connections and social ties. We need to be learning from these other places where people don’t have that kind monetary wealth because we lost that ability to connect with and support each other in this way.”

Janis: What you’re describing reminds me so much of what I learned from my grandparents who grew up in the Great Depression. There was always this sense of being innovative and sharing whatever they had and whatever they created. My grandmother was not a physician but she was setting bones, people would share what they had in their garden, etc. It’s almost as if we’re coming full circle and realizing that we’ve lost our humanity in the process of becoming financially wealthy. How do we get everybody into this community again? How do we see people as all essential for our mutual wellbeing?

Marina: I’m really encouraged when I see projects like “free space” here in San Francisco. I think that someone gave the founders a building for just one dollar per month and everyone was invited to come and clean the space together. There have been art exhibits there and a homeless person came in and started a learning shelter for other homeless people. The interesting thing about living in monetary abundance is that the next generation always has a reaction to that so I think more and more people are looking for something other than monetary abundance.

"If you look at the rates of depression and use of various kinds of pharmaceuticals and stress levels in our society, you think, “Yeah we’ve created a certain kind of abundance but are we better off?” I think there is a whole generation of people that are questioning this premise and are looking for a different kind of meaning. The big question for me is, “Are we seeing a temporary excitement and shift or is this a larger and more lasting transformation?”

Janis: Earlier you talked about a process that you called disorientation or disruption that happens when some organizations careen into changes and aren’t sure how to handle it. I was wondering if that happens on the flip side where you have this altruistic vision and an organization is going down that path but then something happens to create disorientation for that vision. Do you think that might be what happens when organizations get too big or when egos start to get in the way?

Marina: I think that happens every time you grow. It was a neurological study about power that showed how people in power have decreases in empathy. But there are ways you can change that.

"I don’t have an office, I sit surrounded by everybody, and I have the smallest desk. I don’t need to have meetings and debrief because I’m in constant conversations with people and anybody can just come by and I hear what’s going on all the time."

I think it’s harder as you grow larger. It’s not impossible but you need to be mindful of the kind of structures you create for rotating leadership, for transparency, for encouraging participation and collaborative decision-making."

Janis: Possibly more than any of us, you’re seeing where the disruptions are, where the challenges lie. When you go home at night, are you able to keep your balance in the middle of the night? How does your work affect you personally?

Marina: Doing the kind of work we do is really stressful because there are a lot of potentially dark scenarios out there and some of these technologies are having a pretty negative impact on our lives.

"My balance comes from the people I meet. Almost everyday I come across people who do just amazing things and they give me that sense of magic and awe and inspiration. The communities that I’m a part of are pretty incredible and ultimately they give me hope and balance everyday. I’m relying on the social network that I’m seeking to create. I wish I could bring this sense of awe and excitement to so many more kids."

Bill: Are there two or three major mind shifts that you think people need to make?

Marina: We do a lot of ethnographic work with kids and teens and when you talk to teenagers, they see themselves automatically as a part of a larger whole. When I have a question or when they have one, they can immediately go online to look for an answer because they see themselves as a part of a larger world. I think that’s an interesting mental shift in how we think about our identity and who we are. No technology comes without downsides but that identity shift, to see your mind being extended across all these networks and seeing the whole world as part of where you can post a question, where you can get help and look up stuff, that’s a big mind shift that I think is pretty positive.

Janis: In your estimation, what are some of the successes or positive trajectories that have come out of your client relationships? Are you aware of any far reaching effects?

Marina: We’re part of an entire ecology of organizations that are shifting their conversation and approach. In education, we just had a group of 13 university presidents where we’re trying to change their mind about what learning is and what meaningful learning is. On the one hand you try to change existing institutions, which is hard, and on the other hand, we want to empower the other side of the equation, people that are on the fringes and that want to see the system changing.

We’ve been sponsoring a lot of science hac days and this is where the Institute is important. For example, there is this "quantifiedself" movement, which are people who do a lot measurements of their health behaviors and use all kinds of tools to accomplish this. They are reshaping the healthcare system because they’re becoming the experts on their health and their bodies by aggregating data and doing analytics on that data.

The first meet-up of that group happened at the Institute and it was literally with ten people asking questions like, “What are you measuring?” “How are you measuring it?” And now it’s a global movement, there are thousands of people, and we couldn’t accommodate them anymore when they had their meeting a year later!

We try to provide similar support for citizen scientists and so many other groups. The Institute is a kind of a platform for different people to start and pursue their ideas.

Indeed. I have a feeling many of our readers and members will be participating in your next co-work session, collectively creating a new system around social capital.