Saturday, April 18, 2015

Our Little Election in Alberta

This Alberta election matters. It matters because we have an opportunity to press the “reset” button on what kind of Government we want, what kind of public services we want and what strategy we want to collectively pursue for the common good.

Some are getting excited by polls. I am not. I have been around for some time – indeed, I am so old my blood type has been discontinued and I have to put a deposit on a boiled egg in the cafĂ©. Here’s why I am not excited. While there is both a sense of disaffection with the longest serving democratic government on the planet (Singapore is not a social democracy – I was just there) and a sense that there may be a realistic alternative, the polls don’t tell us who will turn out.

Voter turn-out is very low in Alberta – less than 55% of eligible voters bothered to show up the last time around. The last time we passed the 60% number (and then just by 0.2%) was in 1993. For some elections – 2004 and 2008 – we haven’t been able to get much more than 40%. My best guess is that the lower the turnout, the more likely the PC’s are to retain power. The higher the turnout, the more likely there will be an upset.

It is also early. Polling is on May 5th (just two days before the UK election, which is a wildcard election – a coalition looks likely and the Conservatives and Labour need allies to secure government). May 5th is seventeen days away. A week is a long time in politics. Two weeks is a lifetime. Seventeen days is almost a millennium. Wildrose Premier Jim Prentice will turn off the charm and get aggressive, Rachel Notley will come under considerable pressure to explain how she will “balance the budget” (as if anyone has to) and the real Wildrose Leader (you know, Johnny Come Lately) will get wilder and less rosier. No one really cares what the Liberals say or do. The Alberta Party – which seems like a party with common sense practical ideas and thought through action plans – still has trouble being heard, though its use of social media is smart.

Alberta does not have a Monster Raving Looney Party, which Britain once had. They had interesting policies like “let’s get rid of the environment – it’s far too big and difficult to keep clean!” or “all Government accountants should ride power generating bicycles to produce energy everyday while doing their work!”. Well, I don’t think Alberta has such a party but reading the PC and Wild Rose manifesto’s and statements, I am not too sure.

My point here is simple. It is all about getting the vote out. Whether you support a party or not, we all need to get everyone in our network voting.

Indeed, I am keen on voting. As a former election agent for the Labour Party in the UK (Cardiff North, 1974) we had a simple statement: “vote early and vote often!!”. Good idea.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The State of Universities in the State

There is a quiet but important scandal brewing in our universities. The symptoms of this scandal burst out occasionally. Most recently at Western (Ontario) the symptom is the $1million a year compensation package paid to its President. In Alberta the symptom is Ministerial statements about the purpose of universities and the need to “rationalize” programming to reduce duplication and to focus more on programs that produce economic benefits. In Britain it is the uncontrolled growth of highly paid neo-liberal administrators who sees to “economitize everything”, leading Warwick University to “outsource” to a third party the bulk of its undergraduate teaching. Similar developments are occurring in New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands. Our universities are in trouble.

Lets go back a step and ask the simple question, pondered by Cardinal Newman in the 1850’s but more recently by Stefan Collini: what are universities for? What is their purpose?

They exist, according to most who study higher education, as places for the pursuit of understanding, knowledge and meaning. In science, following Karl Popper, we used to refer to the pursuit of “truth”, but we now recognize that truth is elusive and only occasionally evident – more often, we are seeking to understand and explain within the limits of current knowledge and tools. This is the work of universities, whether in relation to neuroplasticity or Shakespeare, Keats or biomedical ethics.

Universities are not there to produce “skilled labour” for business. They are not there to “produce” outcomes which match the social and political agenda of the transient Government of the day. They have a longer-term social purpose: to be a hub for intellectual curiosity, evidence based reasoning and sense-making. They are the last place we should expect to see political correctness - they "invented" deviance as a field of practice.

Now we look at what is happening. As Governments systematically reduce their financial investments in universities and place the burden firmly on the capital markets to fund student debt-loads, Governments are increasingly under pressure from business  to produce outcomes and firms and their associations are demanding more from the universities in terms of meeting the expectation of these markets. Capitalism determines content, process and practice,

In the neo-liberal view of the universities they are seen as “knowledge factories” where “innovation” is born and the opportunity for commercialization begins; universities are engines of diversification and the new economy. They are also seen as  “skills factories” which produce the next generation of skilled and intelligent labour, which is why (despite evidence showing that this is a mistake, as Fareed Zakaria points out in his new book In Defense of Liberal Education) the STEM subjects receive so much attention and research investments – “these are the skills we need”. This despite the growing demand from business for critical thinkers, creative and imaginative team players with knowledge and experience of design and systems thinking. Mark Zucerberg, founder of Facebook, was not a STEM student - he was deeply interested in Greek and was pursuing a psychology major when he dropped out.

So as to manage these factories, faculty are sacrificed to the gods of managerialism. The growth of administration in universities over the last twenty years is remarkable, as is the widespread adoption of targets and performance management for teaching, research and grant raising. These non-profit organizations are increasingly mimicking for-profit organizations and seeking to outdo them in their focus on the bottom line. Britain is perhaps the worst case. Professors are hired to boost the citations count for the research funding reviews and, once the reviews are completed, these Professors are dismissed as surplus to requirements (Thatcher abolished tenure years ago). "Brand" is the thing, not brains.

Our Governments don't understand universities – seeing them as part of the economic system, rather than as a harbour of safety for demanding thinkers and scientists in a growingly complex society. Rather than encouraging the pursuit of understanding and evidence based reasoning, universities are being urged to be politically correct and largely silent on major social issues like inequality, poverty, non-sense government policy and social issues. In the new culture of intolerance of dissent, many Professors are being required to sign “gag” orders which insist that they are silent on issues such as climate change, bioethics, biodiversity, First Nations rights or other matters which challenge “government think”. Indeed, many contracts of employment for those hired to teach or undertake research in UK, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands now contain clauses which demand such compliance. In Canada, faculty members who hold views contrary to those of the majority have often been silenced.

Janet Tully and I wrote a book in 2013 about the future of universities and colleges which made clear that “the future isn’t what it used to be” (it was called RethinkingPost Secondary Education).  Their modus operandi is changing and they must change with the times. We get that. What we did not advocate was a change in the core purpose of the university and the abandonment of principles.

So what can we do? First, we can follow Stanford’s view that tuition should be free for any student whose parents income is less than $125,000. Chile, Finland and Scotland all have tuition free institutions and other Scandanavian countries are considering a similar move. Meantime, tuition is increasing in Canada and Britain (it is now £9,000 a year $17,000 Can in the UK). We may also want to restrict the proportion of overseas students within a Faculty to 15% so as to ensure the availability of places – in some Canadian faculties this figure is closer to 30-40%.

Second, we should see public universities as publicly owned (not Government owned and managed) assets which the community should help shape – let the Governance of these institutions be independent completely of Government and let them be elected by the community, not appointed by Government.

Third, we should fund research in all disciplines, not just those which are seen to be “sexy” for business. Understanding music is as important to society as nanotechnology; drama is as important as dermatology, Nietzche as neuroscience.  We might want to restrict the investment by business in “closed”, proprietary research and increase the amount of research which is “open” and transparent – less focus on patents and confidentiality and more focus on public good.

Fourth, we should reduce the number of regulatory controls and reporting requirements and increase the autonomy of these institutions. This should lead to a reduction in the number of administrators and should enable us to focus more on the core mission: teaching, research and serving the needs of the community. Our University Presidents and Vice Chancellors should be champions of thought and creativity, not slaves to compliant correctness and the virtues of spreadsheets.

Fifth, we should ask universities to develop their own future focused plans which don't seek to “second guess” what they have to do to attract funds. Give block grants committed to over a medium term and then ask the universities how they can create a future which builds a university which meets the needs of scholarship and the community.

Finally, we should encourage transparency, openness, dissent and critical voices. No one is above scrutiny and review by independent scholars – the recent “transformative Alberta budget” (sic), for example, would have been taken to pieces by the economics department in which I studied as a student by now and this would have been widely reported and shared with no fear of recrimination or reprisals. That this does not happen (with the lone voice of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta) shows that “something is rotten in the state” of these institutions.

We are losing the focus and character of our institutions in the name of compliance, correctness and cash. We need them back. We need them now more than ever. It is time for students, staff and others in society to get behind those who dissent from the current neo-liberal view of our universities and start a movement dedicated to returning the public good role of universities to the public.

The developments at Western provide one lit fuse.  Warwick's decision to outsource significant amounts of its teaching must be another. Can we light some more?

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Alberta School Boards Tell Parents Truth, While Our Government Obfuscates..

Alberta’s four largest school boards – Edmonton Public and Catholic and their counterparts in Calgary – wrote to all parents last week and laid bare the reality of the claims of the Wildrose Prentice Government to be “protecting front line services” and the quality of education. They are doing no such thing.

With detailed information, the four Boards laid how just how much the Progressive Conservatives have cut per student funding since 2013 – while at the same time, the work of schools has become more complex. These four Boards have the responsibility of managing some of the most complex and growingly large classes in the OECD. In particular, the growth of English language learners, First Nations, Metis and Inuit students and students with special needs as a proportion of the student population has been dramatic. Indeed, these students account for one third of the student body.

Then, the crowning achievement so far of the Wildrose Prentice Government is to build schools without providing for teachers to staff them. This genius idea, akin to building swimming pools without water to fill them or forests without trees, means that the 47 new schools which these Boards will start to be responsible for as they come on stream will each represent a further dilution of resources for the system as a whole. Think about it – staffing growth reduces available resources for all unless additional resources are made available. This government has in fact significantly reduced funding to support the work of teaching.

All this could be avoided by a sensible, equitable approach to taxation and to education. Indeed, if equity was a policy driver, then the kind of double-speak and empty policies being pursued by this Government would look very different (see why here and look at my video here).

The Minister argues that Boards face dramatic choices – they need to rethink how they provide education. This is what Boards actually do all the time and they were in the process of doing so in partnership with their teachers and the Government of Alberta until the latter changed course and went “off planet”.

Alberta has one of the few truly great education systems in the English speaking world. We earned our position the hard way – through serious-minded sense-making by teachers, Principals, trustees and Government working together. All of this work is based on trust. This trust is broken by the actions of this Government and the trust becomes more difficult to restore given the non-sense rhetoric the Government is now using.

Well done the Metro Board chairs for calling-out the double-speak of our Government. Shame of you Government for creating the situation in which they had to.

Take a look at 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Social Enterprise, Corporate Sustainability and the New Capitalism

Companies are changing. They are recognizing more and more that the future requires them to develop a different business model – one that focuses on multiple bottom lines, not just profit. Companies which relentlessly focus on profit at the expense of their customers, employers, the environment, communities in which they work and the impact their actions have on other organizations will increasingly find themselves subject to challenge, regulation and change. The game of business is changing.

Just take manufacturing. In the next 25-50 years we need to quadruple the output of manufacturing systems so as to meet the needs of the worlds growing middle class. Whether it is cars, technology, health care products, food or clothes – more will be needed. But at the same time, minerals, water and other raw materials needed for manufacture will be under pressure. As one manufacturer of cars has said, we need to produce four times more cars with 70% less steel, 50% less water and 60% less plastic.

The idea of an enterprise which has a social conscience and acts accordingly – the social enterprise  – is not new. Sir Titus Salt, founding what was then one of the largest woolen mills in the world just outside Bradford (West Yorkshire), built a model village to house his workers, provided free education for all of their children before education was compulsory, funded churches, sports teams and made sure that the water used in his mill was recycled. This was in the 19th century – the mill was built in 1853 and Sir Titus Salt died in 1876. 

We now think of this in terms of the sustainable corporation – corporations, like Marks and Spenser (a major UK retailer) – which seek to become the companies among the world’s most sustainable corporations (see here and here for the Marks and Spenser commitment).

They are being helped by organizations like the Dame Ellen McArthur Foundation and their thinking, research and support for what they refer to as the “circular economy”. Universities are also helping – through places like the Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing at the University of Kentucky  or the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies at the University of Bath and their work on Closed Loop Emotionally Valuable E-waste Recovery. But the key is a shift in business practice.

At the heart of these shifts are these new approaches to business:

  •           Business process redesign – as with all corporations, most innovation comes from rethinking core business processes in systematic ways with targets for improvements set by benchmarking. The CPA report makes clear that this is what most companies are focused on.
  •           The development of new materials which will significantly reduce environmental impact and costs – the invention of graphene is an example. See a summary of the potential of this specific material here.
  •           The development of new manufacturing processes – robotics has changed the face of certain manufacturing and supply chain processes, as you will have seen on the tour of the BMW plant at Cowley. 3D printing will also be a significant component of new manufacturing systems. 3D printing is already having in impact in ways not imagined just a few years ago, for example in the manufacture of custom prosthetics (see here).
  •           Local manufacture – shifting from mass manufacturing to on-demand and local manufacturing. One example of this is Local Motors and the idea of the microfactory. Local Motors is the first company in the world to print a car using 3D printing.
  •           Systematic use of lean manufacturing – it is still the case that many manufacturing operations are not as efficient or lean as they could be, especially in emerging economies. The systematic practice of lean manufacturing can make a significant difference to costs, supply chain management and environmental impact.
  •          Using carbon budgets – The Government of the UK uses a carbon budget to assess progress on emissions management and climate change mitigation. Firms generally support this and are encouraging the UK government to “stay the course” (see here, for example).  Companies see such targets as set in these budgets as creating a level playing field for emissions management and the shift to a low carbon economy.
  •           Recycling - The Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is an almost 6,000 square metre (64,000 square feet) recycling plant at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. Capable of processing 40,000 tonnes per year, the MRF is one of the most advanced plants in North America for recycling mixed materials. It  is an example of innovative recycling. Another is the reuse of water in oil sands production in Alberta – a strong focus for Water Smart Alberta .
  •           Reshoring – returning manufacturing to being nearer to the customer base, thus significantly lowering transport costs, can have a significant impact on the quality of goods, supply chains and environmental impact. Look at a report from Ernst & Young on what reshoring could mean for manufacturing in the UK here.
  •           Upskilling – A highly skilled workforce who are engaged in the continuous redesign of manufacturing processes presents a major opportunity for improving productivity and performance. The Managing Director of Siemens UK takes this view – see here.

Corporations think of their work in terms of sustaining the work over the long-haul by thinking through the social, environmental and personal impacts of their work – they are genuine, social enterprises with a commitment to profit, reinvestment and sustainable living. They are led by a new generation of imagineers.

Key to all this work is learning. Learning not just how, but “so what” – understanding the world in terms of systems, consequences, impacts and risk. Rather than behaving like mindless bankers seeking to maximize profit at all costs, irrespective of the damage such a relentless pursuit of capital does to communities, people and the environment, these leaders are renaissance pathfinders – committed to a new future. They engage in future focused learning, leading across their supply chains and communities and managing within so as to create powerful new kind of social enterprise that will transform how we think of work, business, community and opportunity. Its no longer business as usual, but its unusual business.

Lets develop a conversation about what this opportunity to rethink capitalism looks like. Lets commit to an expedition of imagining a different future for the corporate social enterprise.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wicked and Tame Versions of Climate Change

Most complex problems are “wicked” problems. That is, the etiology of these problems is complex, not simple, involving multiple and layered interactions between different causal factors. For example, poverty is a wicked problem – there are a range of causal factors and layers of issues associated with why poverty exists and why it manifests itself in the way that it does. The solution to poverty is also complex – just giving people a living wage helps, but doesn't deal with all aspects of poverty.

Climate change is a wicked problem. We are unsure of all aspects of cause, the interaction between causal factors and what constitutes an impact of climate change versus natural variability.  For example, the role of water vapour, clouds, sun, CO2 and other factors are not fully understood and we have no really robust model of climate which has true predictive power.

Many like to think that problems like poverty, hunger, climate change are not wicked but “tame” problems which we fully understand and which have known causes and effects. Indeed, the whole narrative that “C02 is the primary cause of contemporary climate change” is a convenient, tame narrative since it enables solutions to be proposed which are (in theory at least) “do-able”. The inconvenient truth is that we do not fully understand climate change dynamics and that we are unsure of what causes what when it comes to impacts. We are pretty sure, for example, that extreme weather events are not due to climate change (at least according to the peer reviewed evidence and the IPCC).

The idea of “tame” problems depends on a very strange notion of “consensus science” and the marketing of the idea that “the scientific community is aligned”. In the case of climate science it is abundantly clear that this is not the case. No amount of name calling and labeling can disguise the fact that senior figures in the appropriate disciplines do not subscribe to the tame view of climate change. It is also clear that there has been process corruptions in the way in which science is both gathered and presented, especially by the media.

This is the topic discussed on what I regard to be by far the best blog to read about climate change – that managed by Judith Curry and known as Climate, etc. Judith is a climatologist, a scientist in search for truth, is not funded by fossil fuels and is a genuine scientist of the Popper school (with a deep understanding of the social construction of evidence and scientific practice). But her search is for truth and understanding, not influence and funding. She is a Professor at Georgia Tech.  She is also passionate about not just evidence, but the philosophy of science.

I strongly recommend you spend time exploring Judith’s mindful and insightful blog.