Reflecting on my practice – a difficult transition 

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Our modern society was born of energetic abundance. This is not something we can rely on long-term, not even to the end of our lives. On the one side is climate risk. On the other, even if the climate was stable, we are running out of fossil energy, with no clear prospect of replacing it all with renewables. Not to mention the exhaustion of other natural resources.

We will, at some stage, come to a new regime. We can continue on our course, wait for the crash and hope for the best. Or we can focus our efforts on smooth landing.

If we want to achieve the latter, time is of the essence. We need to work decisively and fast towards a new stable state that is less wasteful. The less fossil energy remains, the more carbon is in the air, the more the climate changes, the more people will suffer and die.  

Our challenge, then, is to negotiate a radical transition as safely as we can. In this, we face three major difficulties.

First, we need a new ‘we’ to take form. The change needed exceeds the mandate of any company, state, or even region of the world. It requires most of humanity – if not all of us – to coordinate our activities. As we come together, we will meet and we must confront the wounds of the past, of colonialism, war and ingrained inequalities, and overcome the mistrust and resentment that is their legacy. We can do so in conscious collaboration, in a constitutional act of global peace-making and reconciliation. Or we can do so by force and cunning, through mass surveillance, physical threat, mind-numbing and propaganda.

Second, technology will play a role in whatever new system we create, and in negotiating the transition. But that role is ambivalent. We can make more efficient machines, to capture energy from renewable sources, store it, and transform it to our benefit. We can use digital technology – Blockchain, Internet, Artificial Intelligence – to think, exchange and communicate more effectively, and to better coordinate our actions and those of our machines. Yet because technology can do so much, we are at risk of leaning on its promise, meanwhile neglecting the human software, and overshooting our window of opportunity. And, we’re at risk that a handful of people will control and optimise technology for their short-term gains, rather than creating a desirable new balance and negotiating the transition for an emerging global ‘we’. 

Third, and most worryingly: we don’t know who to trust. The task ahead has no precedent, and we face it because our elders have failed us. The people in power today, or in the recent past, have a proven track record of radical failure. They did not shift the course of society nearly fast enough or sharply enough. People who never held power have no proven track record of achieving anything. As we look around for prophets and leaders, or struggle to get things done without them, we are at serious risk of falling prey to madness – and give up on the task through sheer overwhelm. 

On polarisation

One on one confrontations have a certain appeal. It’s grand final day, and a 50/50 chance of either team winning. Who do you back? Us vs Them, and a sense of clarity.

We like to polarise – as does our media. Yet I tend to prefer triangles. They’re more stable, more fun, and allow for a bit of play.

Often, polarisation is a matter of framing. We choose to see the world as polarised, based on the categories we use. Recently, two maps I saw circulating on social media captured this very clearly.

The first was looking at the now-usual US vs China narrative, and how the latter is threatening to take over the world from the former. A scary shift from the blue world to the red world.

Yet a second one painted a different picture. I saw it on my friend Ray Taylor’s feed – Ray is and effective altruist, working with Allfed on global food solutions for catastrophic scenarios, and generally a good source of insights. So, the map he shared was this. (The source is unknown, but Google searches have yielded somewhat similar maps)

Here, the polarized world order is replaced with a three-kingdom narrative: US, China, EU. Fair, yet the result of a deliberate choice. The story now is very distinct. Not a global take-over in a game of economic go, but a shifting balance between three poles in a multilateral world order.

I like this map, because it reminds me of the role and values of Europe, as a beacon of global peace. In visual terms, it shows how the EU can serve as a global balance, and counter the war of superpowers – if we recognise its existence, as a coalition of states. The map tells a story of hope. It serves as a precious reminder that polarised situations are so because of the categories we use – hence, we may defuse them by inserting a third term.

Together, those two maps also serve as a reminder that images fascinate. There is a self-evidence to maps and graphs, pressing pause on critical thought. Yet just because a map or graph tells a compelling story, does not mean that story is true, or the only one. And because there is such strength to images, the best way to defuse them is make others. In other words – cultural work, artistic work, aesthetic work, is a critical part of peace making.

On root causes

Most of my work has to do with wicked problems. As the name indicates, like evil itself, those never disappear altogether, but can only ever be contained, or at best eliminated locally. Technically, wicked problems involve a large number of factor, all interconnected, so that chains of cause and effect are difficult to track. Effective interventions are always difficult to find, never perfect, rarely straightforward.

Enter the pandemic. In 2017, I was working with the Global Challenges Foundation, preparing a short introduction to global catastrophic risk. Pandemics featured in the booklet, alongside nuclear winter and supervolcanoes. To people around me, this all sounded like sci-fi. No more today, as I was reflecting with Phil the other day.

Pandemics – as all other global catastrophic risks – are wicked problems on steroids. Factors include urban congestion, encroachment over wild areas, global interconnectedness, compromised immunity, poverty, misinformation, mistrust in institutions, you name it. Except when one strikes and unleashes, it doubles as a chaotic problem for local and national governments. Underlining the shortcomings of our governance systems.

Chaotic problems, unlike wicked ones, present themselves locally, and take the form of extreme urgency. Any reaction is typically better than none. There is no time for robust analysis and full understanding. Both types of problems often go hand in hand. Climate change is complex, the 2019 Australian bushfires were chaotic. Pandemics are complex, the 2021 Delta variant outbreak in Melbourne is chaotic.

The curfew brought a deep sense of rage, and killed my spirit for a while. As the first wave of emotion passed, I took time to reflect further, and realised, I feel profound frustration at yet another governance failure. We let a wicked problem run its course until it manifested as local chaos, then addressed it with appropriate anti-chaos measure – blanket authoritarian bans. I am frustrated by a reactive government that addresses symptoms instead of causes, and aims to pass off short-term compliance as civic virtue.

Yet the Victorian Premier, and the Chief Medical Officer, are following the terms of their mandate. Letting the local outbreak go wild, in the present state of affairs, will cause more harm than harsh measures. Imposing a curfew is in itself pointless, but easing enforcement and strengthening the signal will increase short-term compliance, and the chances that Victoria manages this one outbreak. Their mandate is Victorian welfare, and most likely, given the outbreak, the chosen course of action is optimal.

Except, this is a game where everyone loses in the end. Because the signals sent, and the structures put in place, are affecting our local capacity to tackle wicked problems in the long run. Financial resources are running low – and with greater immediate pressure when things open again, who will take the time to sit and analyse long-term wicked problems, let alone work on them. And right now, we’re all affected in some ways – brain fog and a spectrum of mental health issues – limiting our capacity to do the tough long-term work. So, here goes another month with limited progress, in Melbourne, on global wicked issues. Which, meanwhile, evolve and grow.

Worst, probably, following an official rhetoric that blames individuals for non-compliance, we’re collectively shifting the burden of causality, not on inadequate governance systems, but individual morality. Which will neither help us address future pandemics, nor climate change, nor geopolitical breakdowns, and the wave of suffering that is likely to follow.

And this is not a cause for rage, but sadness and fear.

Beyond Justice

The curfew broke my spirit.

Saturday late afternoon, I was with a friend in Princes Park. We sat down in the middle of an oval, and drank a bottle of wine. Sunday, I was out on the MCG grounds. I sat on a bench to meditate, then read a book, walking. It was sunny, people were out, in pairs or small groups, some with their masks off, smiling. I came back home and told Philip: ‘This time around, it feels like the lockdown is so much more humane. That’s good, that’s what we need.’

In 2020, I dreaded the police. I was a mess back then. I was leaving a Green Tech startup that turned out toxic, put the final touches on a PhD, co-wrote a book on governance innovation, and kept an eye on the charity that I founded. All difficult and complex projects, all for the greater good, each one a leap of faith.

Keeping my mental health stable was a stretch. To cope, I would often go for long walks, beyond the allocated two hours. I avoided crowded places, wore a mask, and stayed within my radius. But I broke the letter of the rules, and didn’t want a fine I could hardly afford. Police were not on my side.

Back in primary school, when the class went into chaos before recess, the teacher would sometimes look at us and say: ‘nobody will go out until you’re all silent.’ Silence took a while to settle. I always experienced this as injustice. I didn’t speak, or not much. Why punish everyone for the failings of a few? Every time, I felt my default allegiance shift, from the teacher to the rebels. In the face of authoritarian excess, resistance starts to look very much like virtue.

One sure way to gain short term control, as a government, is to set harsh rules, and enforce them loosely. The Chief Health Officer told it very clearly. In itself, the curfew serves no purpose. It sends a message. It’s the teacher shouting at the class, imposing order through the threat of punishment.

As an adult, I understand the urgency. I feel compassion for the Premier too. Imagine running a state through one of the world’s harshest lockdown, successfully bringing case numbers to zero, spending months in hospital with fractured ribs, facing another outbreak – and then watching videos of drinking crowds on the streets and large engagement parties? I would certainly start shouting.

So, the strong measures and strong language make sense. Sending a strong signal makes sense. Both in terms of their intended effect, and our leaders’ mental state. But it is not fair. And as happened when I was a child, I sense a shift of my allegiance towards the rebels. Power is a subtle balance. Stray too far from justice in the name of efficiency, and you risk losing public trust.

I love Melbourne and Melburnians. I love our sense of civic virtue. I built a charity to promote intercultural understanding, nurtured by the spirit of our city. I have made a deliberate choice to devote my professional life to the complex systemic problems of the 21st century – whether I get paid for it or not – again, nurtured by Melbourne. I am not alone. Many of us, inspired by a city that believes in collective thriving, go beyond the letter of the rules, to support each other, and create a better environment for all.

Civic participation is what makes Melbourne one of the world’s greatest places to live. Neither market nor government can fund or manage this adequately. It is too deep, and elusive. Besides, civic participation, social innovation, community care, all require some bending of the rules at the edges. If only because we have no market signals to guide us.

I have compassion for the Premier. I also have compassion for the rule benders – including myself. We’re tired, and well aware that there is much work to do. To preserve our own mental health and that of others. To support the small businesses we love, keep contact with the people we love, and stitch what is left of the civic fabric, so we can weave it back quickly. All this for its own sake, but also so we can tackle climate change, and refugee challenges, as the recent IPCC report and return of the Taliban reminded us.

Some probably stretch too far. Large engagement parties and pub crawls are probably too much. But are they born of pure selfishness, or a confused and somewhat misguided desire for civic rebirth? And do they really call for punitive language and harsher measures imposed on a tired population that tries its best, or compassion and gentle reminders?

People will often take on the roles you cast for them. Are we a city of mindless rule breakers, adamantly pursuing our own selfish interest? Or a global beacon of civic participation, trying as best we can – and sometimes failing – to find the right balance between our needs, individual and collective?

Right now, I feel like calling a strike on civic participation. ‘Is this how you wanna play it? OK, let’s all stick to the rules, and see what happens.’

That curfew broke my spirit. I hope it mends.

On reading Harry Potter

Over the course of lockdowns #5 and #6 – and that short nondescript period of time in-between – I ran out of gay fiction to read. To keep myself sane, I turned to that millennial classic, and finally read the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

For about a year, I have renewed my commitment to writing fiction. The exact project is still taking shape. It started as a climate change revenge tragedy, and evolved into rom-com. It has, however, prompted me to read genre, unashamedly. Since March, I have devoured gay literature. Much recommended in times of pandemic. It started on a high with Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and slowly went downhill from there. Before trying my luck with How to Bang a Billionnaire, I thought I would take a pause.

Harry Potter was referenced in almost all of the books in my gay rom-com pile. I missed that train at the time – but it struck me that I could not really understand my own generation without reading Harry. And that it could even make for a good time. Well it did. And it prompted a few reflections. I have not engaged with the fan-fiction, or any critical reading, so I’m sharing impressions here in a loose manner, somewhat unsure how much of this will be somewhat original, or totally self-evident. If the latter, I hope at least it will show the ongoing relevance of the book.

From about the end of volume two, I started telling my partner: ‘I think Harry Potter is about climate change.’ Of course, I’m biased – it’s a key preoccupation, and the latest IPCC report is not helping. But bear with me here. Isn’t Voldemort all about unrestricted appetite for power, and contempt for all life-forms he perceives as below him? And isn’t that the precise ideology that has led us to climate change? A sort of coal-based dark magic, that will not recoil at destruction and pain, let alone consequences, to get its way?

Then come the Horcruxes. Claim immortality by tying parts of your soul to precious material objects, and lose your human shape in the bargain. Isn’t that exactly what Western boomers have been doing, trading their conscience for jobs in the system, to buy SUV’s and house extensions with the cash? A vain attempt at immortality.

I recognised a lot of my own feelings in Harry’s experience – I’m only two years older, after all – particularly the lack of elder support, and a sense of betrayal from those in power. Ministers are not to be trusted. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘I’m sure Scott Morrison was imperiused by Gina Rinehart and the coal barons.’ That’s what Dark Money‘s all about, right?

The book does encourage a healthy mistrust of power. Our politicians would rather force youth into silence than acknowledge their own limitations, past errors, or present fear. Large parts of the population side with them. Those who don’t are soon disposed of, or drained of their souls by the media dementors.

The final heroic triumph of youth, however, gave me some hope. Go Greta, go the climate kids! Maybe you can defeat evil. Painting youth triumphant is part of the young adult trope, certainly. What I enjoyed in Harry though is how this youth is trained, not purely naive. Knowledge is part of the package – enter Hermione, saint patron of nerds – and knowledge is something you learn at school.

Hogwarts is a the core of the series. It is a school where people actually learn things, and what they learn is useful in the world. It is what all my friends working in education and edtech are looking to build. A place where you develop the skills to change the world for the better, build deep companionship and a sense of identity. Note how, as part of the package, Harry Potter values teachers. McGonaggal is fierce. Even Snape knows how to turn a good potion. None of that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ bullshit here.

Beyond this clear respect for knowledge, I enjoyed and celebrate the book’s radical technophilia. There’s no wizard without a wand. And good magic is not purely about the mind. It involves matter – knowing plants, spells, and the structures of the real. It involves objects, and learning how to use them appropriately. To defeat the Voldemort’s of today, and their armies of doom – vampiric boomers and Fox News dementors – the path is not to retreat into the forbidden forest, and embrace centaurian arrogance. It’s about building tools, learning to use them, and take over from evil through better magic.

Three forms of failure

Failure always involves an error of judgement. I took the wrong course of action. I made inaccurate predictions. I missed an important factor. I estimated that something would work out, and it didn’t.

Yet failure can take three distinct forms, that I have rarely seen distinguished explicitly. Let’s call them Failure #1, Failure #2, and Failure #3

Failure #1. I knew precisely what I wanted to do, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, but it wasn’t executed properly. I failed to do the thing altogether, or I made a fatal mistake, or I was too slack on quality. Nobody came to the party, because I forgot to send my invitations, or I put in the wrong title on my emails and it all went to spam, or I wrote such poor text that people chose not to come.

Failure #2. I knew precisely what my goal was, I had a clear model for what needed to be done, and I executed everything well. Still, things didn’t work out, because the plan was off. I made wrong assumptions about the world, or omitted a major factor. I sent my invitations on time, but nobody came, because it was the World Cup Final that evening, or people simply won’t leave their house for a ‘strategic storytelling’ night. 

There is a measure of overlap between those two types of failure. The boundaries between execution quality and relevance of the model are often blurry. Was my invitation badly written, or was it not pitched appropriately? Should I blame myself for ‘poor execution’, or consider it a clear case of bad judgement, that I overestimated my capacity to get things done. Lack of self-awareness is common, dangerous, and a lame excuse. 

Failure #3 is different. Here, there’s a proposed course of action, execution works out, and things went according to plan. Except, the goal was hazy somewhat, and so, after the deed is done, the praise doesn’t ring right: what you achieved is not exactly what you set out to do. With this comes confusion and frustration. People came to the party, they would come again, some enjoyed themselves. But that elusive magic you were hoping for, that thing-whatever-it-was, it never happened.  

I believe this to be the bitterest type of failure, and the least acknowledged. It is particularly common when we try to build something bold, radical and new. We need people to work with us, but the goal is somewhat unclear, or goes against common wisdom, so we simplify it, we make it more generic, in order to bring them on-board. In the course of things, as other people join the team, that intuitive goal gets lost. The loudest impose their views. The dumbest flatten our nuances. The most narrow-minded stifle our ambition. The most narcissistic hijack our project to satisfy their ends. Whether malice, negligence – or good intentions gone to seed – this happens all the time.

Failure 1 and Failure 2 can yield precious nuggets of wisdom, and knowledge about the world. Those are the failures we can learn and grow from. Not so Failure 3, or at least not so directly. At best, it offers a chance to take perspective, figure out where the path actually led, or what the north star was. Then, maybe we can nail the goal properly this time, so we can try again, and eventually get there, or at least meet failure #1 or #2, and learn something specific, and precious.  

On failing and losing

Things go wrong when you try new stuff. I’ve been reflecting on that a lot lately. It’s made me aware of a conceptual distinction I hadn’t really ticked on before.

We make a serious category mistake when we use the verbs ‘lose’ and ‘fail’ indifferently.

Loss marks a dissipation of substance. What I had, I no longer have. Maybe someone else does? Or it might have simply disappeared. All things solid vanish into thin air.

Failure is a return to the original chaos. It’s a stumble, and a fall to the earth. I resolved on a course of action, but the result was not what I projected. Gravity triumphs over shape.

‘I lost’ implies scarcity. There was only so much substance around. Through my negligence, weakness, or hesitation, I let someone else grab it all. Now, there is no longer anything for me. I must wait for another opportunity.

‘I failed’ implies abundance. I chose one course of action among infinite options. I am not satisfied with the results. I stopped, and am now back to a state of maximal density. I must wait for momentum to get out of stasis.

Those words define two versions of the blank slate. Loss offers open space to dance around freely. Failure offers fertile clay to play with and mould. Loss is about ownership. I get my substance from the outside. I am what I have. Fail is about action. I get my substance from the inside. I am what I do.

The parallel stops here, however. The nouns present an interesting contrast. If I lose, I’m a loser: someone incapable of holding to substance. I only become a failure by failing someone else – including my own past self. I’m a failure when I am no longer part of anybody’s course of action. Everyone has given up on me, even myself, and I remain stuck.

Stating ‘I failed’, therefore, is a way to regain agency. It shifts my relationship to failure. By merely saying it, I am no longer a failure – only my project, my actions, my past self are. With this distance, momentum returns, and the possibility to try a different course. ‘I failed’ is a celebration of life.

‘It failed’ is a gift to the world. This is what science and experiments are all about: see not what worked, but what failed. I only know that ‘y’ is a better path than ‘x’ by comparison. Those who never failed have nothing to teach.   

How, then, do we create environments, where people are encourage to say ‘I failed’? And by doing so, regain dignity and agency? Why are we so reluctant to fail?

Maybe we’re afraid of the real and its chaotic possibilities. Pure shapelessness is the stuff of horror. Or maybe we’re afraid of our peers. For with cultures that celebrate failure comes the risk of a supporter, peer or colleague stating of my project – it failed – and regain their sense of agency by making me their failure, and pushing me back into chaos.

On monolinguals

Learning new languages played a critical role in my education. I like to say that I learned how to think through classical philology, translating Greek texts into French, and reflecting on the distance between those two languages. But it all really started seriously in middle school. Back then, I was playing adventure games, and learning English was the way to explore this passion, and gamer identity. They were text-heavy games – anyone remembers King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, or Leisure Suit Larry? – and none of those were translated. English was also a major subject at school, and I was well-aware that mastery would impact my academic success, and future social positioning.  

Not long ago, I posted the following on Facebook: “Facetious but real question to my multicultural friends (and others): are there any (good) program or resources out there to help multilingual migrants (or minorities) help build empathy with monolingual people? As in – what is it like to live with only one language in your brain? How does it affect your vision of the world? What are the associated blindspots? This is for a potential project I’m ideating on. I’m not looking for a rant on how monlinguals are the worst, but rather, ways to genuinely empathise with what it’s like to * not * have multiple languages, which I believe is deeply inconceivable to many multilinguals.” (The project, incidentally, is a new turn in the Marco Polo Project story, supported by a City of Melbourne grant, under the codename ‘migrants to citizen’. Keep posted for more.)

My post attracted interest, and it seems there is no model to build said empathy. One friend though (thanks Armelle du Roscoat!) raised the following question: ‘aren’t multilinguals able to remember how they used to think before they have multiple languages in their head ? What that opened up in them?’ This triggered a new insight. Sure, I can sort of remember what it’s like to be monolingual, but I was a child back then. Learning foreign languages was so central to my education that, at some level, it is inconceivable for me to be an educated adult, who speaks and understands only one language.

Which means, when I think of, or speak with, monolinguals, I have three ways of relating to them. The first is, those are uneducated people. Which is fine, unless they’re in professions and positions that call for education – teacher, lawyer, doctor, manager, or any role of responsibility. Then I cringe. The second is more disturbing. I came to realise that I tend to think of monolinguals as radically immature, some sort of monstrous child-like narcissist, trapped in an adult body. Here, there is an odd mixture of repulsion and fascination. But the third mode offers a way out. My multilingual identity, the capacity to shift across languages and cultures, emerged from puberty onwards. I became able to decode various social cues, and adopt my performance, in a form of ‘language-fluidity’. Maybe, monolinguals are just like extremely cis-gender people, who wouldn’t dream of performing beyond received gender-norms – or fall into the worst stereotypes when they try. Sure, it’s a limited take on the world, but I have learned to relate to cisgender types, and I’m on that spectrum myself – so, monolinguals may not be continents away.  

PS: if you know any good resource to build empathy with monolinguals, or would like to work on one, please reach out!

What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

Rethinking the study day model

How can we do academic conferences better?

Over the course of my PhD, I became deeply disappointed with conferences and study days. Those were always presented in the marketing as an opportunity to share and question ideas with peers. Yet the design was hardly conducive to that goal. It was either plenaries or parallel sessions, with a clear division of roles: speakers, listeners. Presenters had one single slot of about 40 minutes in the conference to share their research or ideas. They were invited to leave time for questions, but everybody went overtime, limiting interations to 10 minutes at best. Which typically consisted of a ‘question that is actually a remark suggesting an alternative reference’, clarification on a minor point of detail, and a theoretical challenge with hardly any time to reflect. How is that an opportunity to share ideas with peers?

I noted similar contradictions with the ‘milestone presentations’ I was invited to do, as part of Monash University’s PhD program. Here again, in theory, it was an opportunity to receive feedback – but in fact, seemed to serve mainly the purpose of confirming my academic capacity. I had to share documents in advance, give twenty minutes of presentation, then get feedback from faculty members, and give a short response. Document had to be formatted to standards: how misaligned with research as an emergent process. Practically, it meant a lot of time spent formally perfecting early stage prototypes. Nor was the presentation a proper dialogue, but professorial expert feedback. Again, not a great mode of interaction, especially for an extravert like me.

It’s unlikely that any of this can change: habits run deep. I soon gave up attempts to bring what I had learned in innovation and entrepreneurial circles to a university setting – the final drop was one memorably dysfunctional conversation with a mid-level administrator. Yet, in the margins of a conference, I remember discussing an alternative model, as a provocation, with a friendly peer.

I’m a bit of a design nerd, so, on that evening, I jotted down notes for this conference model. It has remained at the back of a drawer, in draft form, for years. I thought I might take it out, give it shape and share it. Much of it is inspired by the wonderful Liberating Structures model of Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. The timings are slightly tight, with long pauses. This means, it’s possible to extend the length of activities and ‘eat into’ pauses a little. Pauses are also intended for introverts to relax.

I’d love to try it out one day, but not on my own. So, if anyone would like to pick it up? Please, I’d love to talk.  

Day 1: Fast prototyping

Prior to the conference, participants have been invited to prepare a presentation on either their whole research, or part of their research. They have been warned that the purpose of the day is to exchange ideas, tackle challenges, and review their presentation – so to prepare something that could be changed.

9:00 – 9:30: Coffee & tea

Sequence 1: introduction (9:30 – 10:30)

Goal: set the mood and principles for the day. Break the ice. People feel a sense of connection with other participants. People reflect on ‘what brought them here’ and set goals for themselves.

Five finger ice-breaker (9:30-9:55)

Participants are invited to lift their five fingers in turn, and form pairs based on ‘who has a finger that looks a little like yours’. Each round, they reflect and discuss a different question. 3’ / round.

Questions:

  • What is the latest paper you read?  
  • What’s an author or thinker you keep returning to and why?
  • What’s an idea, or theory that you’re trying to destroy?
  • What would you like to achieve with your research? What’s the big vision?
  • As a researcher, what’s a thing you’re really good at?

General introduction (9h55-10h00)

  • Principles of the day – this is a conference optimized for deep exchange of ideas
  • Over the course of two days, you will present the same paper three times, in different formats, gathering feedback as you go.

Impromptu networking (10h00 – 10h30)

 Impromptu networkingis a way to quickly bring a group to focus on questions that matter to them.  

  • People are invited to form pairs, and answer the following question in turn: ‘What challenge are you hoping to overcome in this conference?’
  • Three rounds, followed by a general debrief. Participants are invited to share insights, maintaining confidentiality (e.g. share ideas or challenges, but not who articulated them).   

Coffee and Tea: 10h30-11h00

Sequence #2: Testing your pitch

Fast-pitching (11h00 – 11h45)

This section is inspired by the ‘Helping heuristics’ liberating structure.  

Participants form groups of 3, and rotate between three roles: speaker, listener, observer. 9 minutes / round

  • Round 1: Pitch your paper. The listener listens silently. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 2: Pitch your paper. The listener can ask clarifying questions. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 3: Pitch your paper. The listener can challenge or make suggestions  (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)

Debrief – what happened

  • Observers: How did the pitches evolve? What else did you notice?
  • Listeners: How did it feel to ‘listen differently’? Did you have time to ask any question?
  • Speakers: How did it feel to have listeners’ attention? Did you modify the pitch?
  • All: What else did you notice?

Review your pitch (11h45 – 12h15)

Participants are given 30 minutes to review presentations, based on the morning’s experience.

Lunch: 12h15 – 1h00

Note, over lunch, participants can choose to socialize, or work on their presentations. Colour-coded stickers may be provided to indicate if participants want to ‘chat’ or ‘be quiet’.

Sequence #3: first presentation (1h00 – 2h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, candidates present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, listeners share questions and comments for 10 minutes. Listeners can interact with each other. Candidates cannot respond.

Sequence #4: silent reflection (2h15 – 3h15)

Alone, candidates reflect on what they heard and review their presentation accordingly.

Sequence #5: second presentation (3h15 – 5h00)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Sequence #6: Closure (5h00-5h15)

Participants are invited to digest the day and review their presentation for the next day.

Note – it would be possible to hold this as a one-day conference, and close with a ‘what, so what, now what’ activity (detailed at the end of Day 2)  

Day 2

Coffee and tea (9h00 – 9h30)

Sequence #1: Fast pitching (9h30 – 10h15)

Participants are invited to form pairs, and do short presentation of their papers, in five successive rounds, with a different focus each round. Strictly 3’ for each person each round.

  • Round 1: focus on why the research matters
  • Round 2: focus on the methodology
  • Round 3: focus on the references
  • Round 4: focus on the data you used
  • Round 5: focus on what’s original about the research  

General debrief:

  • How was it? What did you learn? Did your thinking evolve?  

Sequence #2: Third breakout room presentation (10h15 – 12h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Between each round, participants are invited to take a short 5’ break.

Sequence #3: work lunch (12h15 – 1h30)

Participants finalise their presentation over a light lunch.

Sequence #4: plenary (1h30 – 4h30)

Participants are split in groups of 8 presenters. An external audience may be invited to attend. They present a final, reviewed version of their paper, with strictly 20’/presenter, and no time for question.

A short 10 ‘ pause is given after the first four presenters.

Depending on attendance, the length of this section may vary, and groups of different sizes can be organised.  

Closure: (4h30 – 5h15)

Participants are invited to reflect on the process, and what can be applied from it, following the What, so what, now what liberating structure.

Participants are invited to discuss the following questions in turn. For each question, participants start with 1 minute to think about the question alone, then discuss in groups of 3-5 (depending on total numbers), for 6 minutes.  

  • What happened? What did you notice? What stood out or was new?
  • So what? Why is a process like the one we went through important? What can be learned from it?
  • Now what? After going through this process, what will you do differently?

Participants are then invited to share key insights and actions with the group.

The conference ends with a ritual round circle, where participants are invited to share their experience in one word.