Art created by wombo.art using the words “systems thinking futures foresight”

Systems thinking, Futures and Foresighting with Web 3.0 startups — propelling Thinkrs forward

Earlier this year, Chamira Gamage (CEO of Thinkrs)and the wider Thinkrs team were introduced to Lorenn Ruster, former strategy consultant and, at the time, recent graduate of Master of Applied Cybernetics at 3A Institute at the Australian National University. Thinkrs were at a point of pondering big and profound questions about the potential impact of their products and services. Lorenn was curious to understand the potential value of systems thinking, futures and forecasting tools as ways for startups to think through their broader impact on society. Together, they decided to embark on an experiment. This blog post compiles reflections from Chamira and Lorenn on the work done and the relationships built through testing and trialling together throughout April-July 2021.

By Chamira Gamage & Lorenn Ruster

Part 1: How the relationship started

Chamira: Our startup Thinkrs is an online detector of media bias & misinformation in the news. I was intrigued by the concept of systems thinking and thought it was potentially really interesting for us.

Screen shot of a demonstration of Thinkrs’ initial product — a chrome extension which helps you understand bias in your news

Thanks to a serendipitous and timely introduction from a friend, I was introduced to Lorenn Ruster, who, after 10 years in industry, had just finished a Masters and was considering her next steps. Gelling on our values and shared impact, I found out that she held a depth of knowledge and understanding around systems thinking and had spent much of her career developing and implementing these concepts around the world, from working in a solar energy company in Uganda to consulting across government, corporates and Indigenous organisations. We thought building a relationship with Lorenn could assist us in working out how to integrate systems thinking into Thinkrs.

Lorenn: A question I’ve been carrying for a while is how to make systems thinking relevant to entrepreneurs. When I was exposed to futures and foresight techniques as part of the ANU Master of Applied Cybernetics program and through one of my Masters’ friends who delved deeply into Institute of the Future methods, I thought — yes! Could this be it?

Concurrently, I was introduced to Thinkrs earlier this year. They were curious and open to what systems thinking may bring for them. And it was great timing as they deeply considered the future of their organisation and its growth and development. I thought this would be a great opportunity to test a hypothesis: that futures and foresight techniques would provide a palatable ‘way in’ for entrepreneurs to start thinking in systems.

Part 2: What is systems thinking? And why focus on futures and forecasting in order to think in systems?

Lorenn: Systems thinking has a lot of different definitions. I prefer to lean into definitions of systems practice (not just systems thinking) — a way to make sense of complex environments and, in doing so, uncover dynamics or leverage points where you could intervene for the greatest potential impact. If you’re interested in understanding more about Systems Practice, check out the Acumen Academy free course on Systems Practice and follow Luke Craven Pig on the Tracks newsletter.

I hypothesised that systems thinking can be difficult to lean into, but futures and forecasting may offer a palatable way in for entrepreneurs. There were a couple of reasons I thought this could be the case:

  • Futures and foresight seem ‘edgy’, ‘innovative’ and thereby aligned with how entrepreneurs might see themselves — creating new things for a world that may not yet exist.
  • Entrepreneurs are trading in the future all the time: they are constantly trying to convince future customers and funders that the future they see is worth taking a chance on. They try to anticipate what will happen in the future and how their product/service will fulfil a need. They create future narratives for themselves, their employees, customers, and funders. Futures and foresight take this already existing muscle and amplify it to a whole new level —by considering probable, plausible, possible and preferable futures over longer timeframes (see futures cone below).

My starting point was this: through the process of undertaking futures and foresight activities, entrepreneurs can see the impact of what they’re doing in a much wider context, make new connections and begin to see things as interconnected wholes.

The futures cone by Voros. Image credit: Ironing drone by Max Cougar Oswald & Nihir on the Noun Project via Creative Commons

Chamira: I was fascinated by the thoroughness of thinking in systems, how it brought order in complexity, and how it could help us be more diligent in our development processes. We are well aware of the impacts that a “growth at all costs” mentality can have. We take our responsibility as entrepreneurs seriously to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes of the past. We want to avoid creating algorithms that ultimately manipulate users under the guise of enhancing engagement.

Initially, I thought systems thinking would help us design our chat rooms feature. At the time, we were grappling with interactions in the chatroom and the knock-on effect of being a social network. But in fact, the benefits of thinking in systems have been far more wide-reaching.

This is the way I think about systems thinking now: it’s about bringing the past, present and future together, considering the macro and micro trends and positioning yourself and your startup at the right inflection point to see the potential of your impact on people from all walks of society. Undertaking the futures and forecasting activities was stimulating and free-flowing. I found it to be a different way of thinking, and I observed that it took our team some time to fire up the engine as we did the activities. Once we got going as a team, we were off and running.

Below are some joint reflections on what we did together.

Part 3: What we did together

What we did first: Connecting Past Present and Future

The first task was identifying what has led to the problem space where Thinkrs is playing.

Thinkrs can be found at the intersection of news media, social networks, technology & Web 3.0, content consumption and critical thinking. To look back, we traced the history of the spoken word, to the printing press, to online news and now user-generated content. From there, we considered social media, the connection of billions of people online and the consumption of content, news and all information today. Finally, we thought about how this space impacts each and every one of us, our communities and even governments.

Thinkrs’ purpose is to support individuals as they consume content through gamified critical thinking. Specifically, to help people navigate an abundance of information online and make the impacts and biases of agenda-driven institutions visible. Thinking about how we are positioned in the misinformation age and then increasing year-on-year mistrust in media, helped us see our mission and purpose in an extended and more expansive context.

A work in progress brainstorming board capturing major moments that have influenced information consumption today

What we did second: Identifying signals and drivers and building forecasts

A future that extrapolates existing media and information consumption trends leads to further lack of trust, state- and organisation-sponsored misinformation, algorithms designed for more and more screen time, and at times mindless consumption. But what if we configured existing drivers and signals in different combinations?

One of our activities was to do just that. We picked combinations of drivers and signals and crafted forecasts around them. Drivers are longer-term trends that are unlikely to change anytime soon, such as an ageing population. Whereas signals are potentially more fleeting snippets of information (usually, things we were sharing in an ad-hoc nature on our slack channel), such as the rise of art NFTs (though I now strongly believe they will be a driver).

Armed with a collection of signals and drivers, we combined them in novel ways to create forecasts of potential futures.

“The Internet Weaponises Our Minds”: An example of one of the Thinkrs’ forecasts, combining specific signals and drivers

What we did third: Forecasting impacts on potential users

Next, we thought about how these forecasts would impact potential users of Thinkrs in 10 years, the year 2031. To expand our minds, we deliberately considered a diverse user base: Claudia, a 35-year-old IT Developer from Brazil; Dwambale, a 17-year-old high school student from Kampala in Uganda; and Omar, a 70-year-old retired teacher from Boston. Travelling 10 years into the future, we grounded our mindsets in the world they would be living in, aligned to the forecasts we had crafted. We valued considering different potential users, how the futures we had identified would impact their day-to-day lives and the role that Thinkrs plays in their futures. Forecasting for 10 years in the future was crucial to opening new perspectives; in the process, we found user groups to double down on and build for to achieve the future we want to see.

What we do now: Retaining futures and foresight practices in everyday operations

Of course, doing some facilitated activities over a few months is helpful but may not make a long term difference to how we operate. We spent some time discussing what we might do differently to embed some of what we had experienced into our operations.

A couple of practices have stuck since. Firstly, we are currently having a contrarian ‘black hat’ role in our team, intentionally challenging us as we build products. Secondly, we began to organise and label all of the links we were sharing in our ever-growing slack channels. Recognising that these are actually ‘signals’ has helped us more intentionally curate what we’re seeing. Our next steps include reviewing these signals at various points in time and refreshing our forecasting periodically, aligned with our strategic planning processes.

Conclusions

Chamira: As an organisation, we are very clear that we do not want to purely seek information to validate our own assumptions, and we certainly do not wish to generate confirmation bias. The exercises we did and the practices that emerged are helping us to avoid drinking our own Kool-Aid. This is particularly important to us and our integrity as an organisation — we’re in the business of assisting others in identifying bias, so we need to be great at it too!

Some of our team reflected that they found this process helpful in other aspects of life, seeing all the complex systems operating around us and where we sit in the ecosystem, whether it be financial, social, political or spiritual.

Lorenn: I found that futures and foresight are indeed appealing practices for budding entrepreneurs to think in systems. I felt the boundaries widen regarding who Thinkrs could be for as the interconnectedness of our world bubbled to the surface. I heard the cogs of the Thinkrs team’s brains stretched and used in new ways through the activities and discussions. There was a willingness to adopt practical experiments to embed manageable future and foresight practices into everyday operations.

Through our work together, we felt our conversations move from discussing Thinkrs as a “neutral platform” to “what type of world do we want to contribute to making?”. Wow!

Lorenn Ruster is a social-justice driven professional and systems change consultant. Currently, Lorenn is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University’s School of Cybernetics, a Responsible Tech Collaborator at Centre for Public Impact and an Explorer with venture capital firm Airtree. Previously, Lorenn was a Director at PwC’s Indigenous Consulting and a Director of Marketing & Innovation at a Ugandan Solar Energy Company whilst a Global Fellow with Impact Investor, Acumen. She also co-founded a social enterprise leveraging sensor technology for community-led landmine detection whilst a part of Singularity University’s Global Solutions Program. She is interested in the intersection of technology, cross-sector collaboration, impact & dignity.

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Lorenn Ruster

Lorenn Ruster

Exploring #dignity centred #design #tech #AI #leadership | PhD Candidate ANU School of Cybernetics | Acumen Fellow | PIC, SingularityU, CEMS MIM alum|Views =own