Tagged: information

How I think about topics and issues

In conversations with friends, I’ve had the chance to reflect about how I look through readings. This is an attempt to articulate what happens when I’m browsing for articles and books, both physically and digitally.

What usually happens is that I start off with a bit of grand theorizing – find the people who try to construct universal frameworks. These are only the beginnings and they are often discarded and/or refined as I encounter new facts and frameworks. After a while, I realise that I’m looking a lot at academics and specialised journalists who have spent a long time looking at a specific area. This is also that I try to avoid op-eds and authors of books who tend to only aggregate newspaper material.

Tapping into academics and specialised journalists helps me to construct detailed concepts about how a specific issue develops and its sub-issues. For example, if I was doing work on poverty, I would be looking at grand theories about how poverty happens – cultural framings, economic framings, cognitive framings and so on. Within each of these framings I would go into detail, all the time asking if the framings are appropriate. For example, with culture, I would ask, how do people talk about culture in useful ways? With economic, perhaps its an issue of skills and economic structure. With cognition, it could be the way people decide spending and investment decisions. And then go into greater detail into the linkages between say, economics and culture.

After exploring the silos, I’ve found it helpful to read works on how the different silos are related. I like the works by Vaclav Smil as he explores the interactions between energy, food production, consumption and natural processes. Sometimes they horizontal linkages become silos in themselves – such as system dynamics and complexity, both of which are vast disciplines in themselves. So with the poverty example, I would be interested in how cultural framings interfere with economics and/or with cognition, and how various countries have addressed poverty in various ways.

After a while, it’s possible to develop a meta-sense when looking at articles into: (1) things directly relevant to interests; (2) things that add to current interests; and (3) things that I never knew about. (1) and (2) overlap, and its a function of what am I interested in at the current moment, and also about rebalancing areas that I am more familiar with and what I’m not as familiar with.

I try to look for fact-heavy books with subtle arguments. They tend to be historical and supplemented by primary research – which as a result, becomes the domain of academic researchers, or very senior journalists who have spent a lot of time in an area.

I guess what drives me is that I’m trying to understand the world and constructing frames to guide my understanding.

So far, what I’ve described is pretty generic – I’m thinking this is the general process of what most people go through in many things, ranging from workplace implicit knowledge to how fan-fiction is generated.

To further categorize the knowledge acquired, another labels can be helpful. I’ve found Aristotle’s 4 causes to be useful labels: efficient, material, formal and final causes of things. In short, they describe the process, the materials/technology, the medium in which the happen and the purpose for why they occur, respectively.

I’ve found the Snowden’s Cynefin useful – in describing the epistemology of events/processes – whether the process are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic – terms to describe the relationship between cause and effects and the degrees to which they are known. Kahane’s notions of complexity are also useful – whether things are socially (involving diverse beliefs), generative (awkwardly, the expectedness of outcomes), and dynamic (again, relationship between cause and effects) – as I understand the terms. I hope to explore their notions and other notions of complexity in greater detail in a future blog post. 

There are some limitations in my current understanding. I don’t have clear notions about aesthetics, spaces, tactility and perceptions. My design/aesthetic senses are not as developed, and its something I ought to get more experiences at.

Thanks for reading, and hope you find this helpful. 🙂

What are Organisations for?

What are organisations for? Why is it that my blog posts have concerned itself with looking at organisation and change within the organisation? The reason is seemingly simple – that if changes do not appear in a subset of an organisation, then change in a larger setting is not as possible. Another answer because organisations are the vehicles of human effort, and thus, of initiated change. Even when our desire is to change communities, an organised effort is required on the part of the initiator(s).


I’ve been looking at organisations and why they are important starting places to think about change. In the previous post, I have identified the information-based stumbling blocks that get in the way of how information flows across the organisation. By identifying these stumbling blocks, sites of change also become clear.


The discussion of these information stumbling blocks are clearest within the organisation. When applied across society, the presence of these issues become obscured by rhetoric and vested interests. Yet the issues often remain the same – they are still about who has access to the information (or resources), and whether incentives are aligned between agents and principals. One argument justifying the existence of incentives and punishment is that they are important for signally to agents to align their motivations with those of the principals. Coercion by force becomes the chief means for compliance.


Organisations are also important starting points because they are also the final parties responsible for enacting and maintaining the different set of configurations. Going back again to the discussion on systems, indicators and assumptions need to be aligned. Advancing another step, systems are maintained by the consistency of assumptions, indicators and actions. Only when these three align can systems function in the configuration desired. When enacting change, all three must be aligned.


With this train of thought, the enactment of change cannot be done in isolation. No social movement or goal can be achieved through selfish action. Any change that happens has to insert itself into the larger system, and interact with the other components in it. Any emerging movement has to find partners in the political, public, non-profit and private sectors. There is no shortcut to change. To genuinely change the assumptions of society is a deep task. To paraphrase a quote from Adam Kahane’s Solving Tough Problems – you can’t be part of the solution if you are not part of the problem.


Movements today cannot rely solely on the intensity of their voice or the persistence of their protests. Change needs to come about through broad movements that direct their efforts towards points of leverage, and set up new indicators that expressed the desired assumptions. Have systems that allow for people to be aligned to these new indicators. Maybe the resulting system is not too different from the present. Maybe they are radically different from the present. We have little idea about the direction and shape of change.


By this point, one could suggest that the burdens for those who are creating change is too much. I have in a way, broken down the various ways in which changemaking needs to be done. I have suggested:


1. Identify present assumptions;

2. Identify indicators expressing the assumptions;

3. Identify the relationships between indicators and assumptions;

4. Identify the information flows within organisations;

5. Identify the information flows between organisations;

6. Identify the points of leverage;

7. Create new assumptions, indicators and the relationships between them;

8. Change happens as the system transits from one configuration to the new configuration of indicators and assumptions.


These things don’t quite happen linearly, but outcome for Step 8 is where most could agree. Steps 1-7 can be done in any order – start wherever is appropriate, and work out the rest along the way. The sheer amount of work required is the reason why change starts with a smaller team first that can embody the changes desired.

On Indicators

In the previous post, I mentioned three modes of knowledge that undergird our way of thinking. They are:

1. Certainty is possible;
2. Rewards are zero-sum;
3. Rational thought is the only acceptable mode of thinking.

I also posited that “indicators” are central to the modes of knowledge above. This post elaborates this claim, and points to other things in this map of change-making and leadership in society.

I want to first point out to examples in societies. We wonder why why is it that passion doesn’t take flight here; or that excellence doesn’t take flight here – often don’t see past the immediate reason of a lack of creativity and the indicators. A better question to ask is, if the current incentive structure in our system is really suitable for student-based initiative, or is it meant for the purposes of supplying people for an advanced economy. That to me, is a far better way of asking the question of education than to do direct rebuttals on the state of education.

Wherever you look, indicators are everywhere. Indicators help to simplify the world. All the understanding of the student is distilled into a single factor; a country’s economic performance, for all its messiness and complexity, becomes drilled down to one figure; a company operations and worth, similarly. Indicators simplify the world with all its messiness into a few numbers. Indicators solve the problem of computation and the cost of information. In interaction with the three modes of knowledge from before, indicators contribute to decisions that are concrete, specific and actionable. And here’s the problem: not every problem out there is amenable to a numerical interpretation; and the reality is that a single figure, or even a few figures, will not be able to describe the nuances of the situation.

We often get tired of the existing set of indicators. The easy answer to that is to say that “the system has to change”, or “the indicators have to change”, and we often fail to think about why the indicators existed in the first place. Grades are after all, easier to evaluate than the concept of understanding. For indicators to change, the modes of thinking behind the indicators have to change too.

There’s still another aspect to indicators and information, which is about the organization of information – we are still not entirely sure what the best ways are to represent reality with all its messiness. This is one reason why we have distributed information systems – the economy with its system of prices of goods and services is actually one such way. Companies rise and fall and rise again when they get the price information right or wrong. Overall, everyone benefits – or so the hope goes.

As a result of this dependence on indicators, the indicator tail can wag the system dog. And besides, it’s not always about the raw form of the indicators that exist, and always about how those indicators get played out. Indicators are about accountability and trust – and it’s also when indicators become more important than the matter at hand that we should worry.

As a summary to this post, I want to point out that when viewed through the lens of indicators, one also have to look at organizations as cognition systems. Indicators are used in organizations as a way to manage information flows and where decisions are needed. Indicators are also the ways through which mindsets and assumptions get played out – it’s often the indicators that reveal how a person thinks – much like how our behaviours can demonstrate the things we value. In the same way, the models of thinking of an organisation’s leadership gets demonstrated in the indicators and the behaviours of the organisation.

So far, I’ve talked about knowledge modes and indicators. I’m still some distance away from the thoughts about change-making and leadership that served as the original motivations for this series of posts. I hope to get to that soon enough.

Technology and Information

We are all concerned about technology and innovation. We want to get a sense of how things will develop and to hope that we can anticipate the developments to come. The offerings by Kevin Kelly and W. Brian Arthur aim to help people get a sense of how technology develops. Kelly would know – he is the founding editor for Wired magazine. From him, the sense is that technology is fast becoming a branch of life by itself. There is first the observation that technology is developing in the trajectory of life; that as it is possible to think about the speciation of life into many diverse niches, so technology continues to specialise into smaller and smaller niches, becoming more ubiquitous. W. Brian Arthur describes the process of technological development – how new technology has to come from old technology; solutions to existing problems become the bases for new solutions. There isn’t a straightforward process as to how innovation comes about – old parts can become re-adapted for entirely new purposes unforeseen. The interesting details are in the individual processes where this has happened.

The two titles are related in how they talk about ideas. Gleick writes about the history of information and how information came to be understood. Gleick goes through the usual pantheon of heroes in information science – Shannon, Watson and Crick (the discovery of DNA and how it compresses the information needed for life), Vannevar Bush, von Neumann, up to the study of networks and the typology of information. Johnson writes about the history of innovation. Johnson notes how innovation comes from networked environments without any clear market incentive. There are numerous case studies of the discovery of the serendipitous discovery of the microwave background radiation and the conceptualisation of GPS.

Taking all 4 together, what do we get? There is unlikely to be a straightforward way to predict or foretell the future of technology/innovation. There is only the possibility of creating the conditions for innovation. Technological development is non-linear, and here the hope is that non-linear trajectories are precisely what one would hope for for the unexpected technological solutions to present issues.

gargh! google blogspot has failed me!

For some strange reason, google blogspot failed to display the text box for blogging. So at least for the forseeable future, I’ll be using wordpress for the time being.

Anyhow… I’ll just briefly touch on the issues that I’ve presented a bit on the blogspot page.

But first, I want to talk about a run that I had. It was, I think a run of faith. It was a run where I prayed to God, for myself, and rededicated my life. I am constantly remembered that we are living in His grace, and everything that I have comes solely from him. And that includes the talents, the gifts, even the desires. My response then, is to ask Him about how His work can be done through me.

The other thing that I want to talk about is this developing part of my life in urban planning, social identity, social memory, design, architecture and SG in general. Been floating around circles of planners, architects, and designers, all connected together in this conversation about moving SG into this ‘next phase’ of development. Its not that there are a lot of ideas, its that the same few ideas keep popping up: gardening-food security-community engagement, thinking of cycling of resources and materials, design for community spaces… all these concepts aren’t really new.

Then I was talking to this veteran architects who belonged to this group of architects who were quite activist. I’m blown away by the fact that HDB void decks had to be pushed for as a space for social interactions! And countless other things.

So yeap. The design of places and spaces for social interactions seem to be ignored by both sociologists, human geographers and architects, and it seems that the three disciplines, though interconnected, are still very much disparate in the way they do things.

And of course, there is still that entire part of my life that seems to be withering. It’s about information! Social Information Systems (SIS)! There is a tremendous amount of highly contextual, specific social information in the social spaces where information is exchanged. A Facebook for the neighbourhood, so to speak.

I’m also thinking of an ‘Urban Information System’, something like GIS, or eventhe SIS I mentioned back there… But what would it be, really? It would document the interactions of people with one another – who they said something to, and why, and what happened after that… but that has serious, serious privacy issues. Still, I think about Kevin Kelly’s ‘Internet of Things’ and how…

ok. stop fluffing now.