In another context, this entry might be seen as “hijacking” the normal GROUPER blog. However, this is a very compatible issue, based on an activity that I have been asked to lead as a member of the Executive Council of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES). This activity is an experimental initiative called “Scout the Future”. So, why do we want to go on a scouting expedition? HFES is a fairly small professional society, with about 5000 members. However, our impact expands throughout the range of home and work environments, including everything from safety improvements in transportation, products, devices, and workplaces, to enhancing our understanding of perception, cognition, biomechanics and decisions in the full range of home, play, and work throughout the lifecycle. That’s a lot. How do we get our voice out, and communicate with the larger world in a proactive way?
Over the past few years, this has been an important and critical concern (“existential” in the sense of our self definition and worry about the future of the HFES itself), especially as we consider the evolution of the discipline to a world of younger professionals who are working in industry contexts of apps and services and products (rather than primarily academics working with government grants and large-scale system developments). How do we adapt ourselves to such an environment? Well, this question came up during a strategic planning exercise just before the 2013 HFES Annual Meeting in San Diego. Frequently, a response to such questions is to set up a task force of very senior people who are charged to figure out the future of the organization and what to do with it. (In fact, that is what HFES has done.) However, there is other research and industry perspectives that suggests that such approaches are not great at identifying or tracking new and disruptive technologies or social trends. Also, examples such as the Lockheed Skunk Works suggest that taking a group of people outside of formal organizational structures may be an effective way of enabling radical innovations. So, I suggested the concept of a scouting expedition…
What if we did something else?
My “something else” is based on an imagined scouting expedition, not unlike the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore and map the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase Territory and understand the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. As an exploration into the unknown, what and who and how much did Lewis and Clark want? Lots of provisions, of course—weapons, sample containers, pencils and paper, items for trade, salt for preserving food… and expertise. The right amount of a diverse set of experts, who could work well together. Not five people: too much material to carry, and too hard for all the expertise required to be available in such a small group. Not five hundred: that’s a bureaucratic organization, with poor lines of communication and unclear distributions of responsibilities. The Corps of Discovery, as the group was described, was about three dozen folks, and they were chosen well. Given the risks and dangers of scouting an unknown expanse with the limited capabilities of the first decade of the 19th Century, the Corps returned intact, with unparalleled growth in understanding of the continent of North America.
Now, when we talk about addressing Global Grand Challenges, or increasing the relevance of human factors in the cyber age, there is a similar expanse of unknown facing us. However, unlike the charge to map the physical wilderness of a continent, this challenge is one of mapping a philosophical territory known as the future. It’s said that humans are bad at making predictions, especially about the future. In fact, I think that’s one of the most significant mistakes we can make, to try to predict specific outcomes. We tend to overestimate technology trends, and underestimate or misread social change. We don’t recognize the impact of “black swans”. We try too hard to guess right in the details, and we get some major factors wrong in the grand picture. No one in the Corps of Discovery woke up one morning and said, “the area on the other side of that river looks like a good place for wheat farming. Let’s tell someone to build a city there… call it Rapid City”. There was no task force to determine the creation of a National Lab, or the potato lobby, or blue football fields, in that place we’ll designate as Idaho. You map the territory, create a good set of observations about how different it might be from expectations, and draw good pictures and tell good stories. (“No, really. We waited all day for the herd of bison to finish going by. You couldn’t see the ground, or hear anything else. You may want to pay attention to that.”)
On that train of graphite and glitter,
Undersea by rail!
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris:
By ’76 we’ll be A-OK….
Just machines that make great decisions,
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision.
We’ll be clean when that work is done:
Eternally free, yes, and eternally young.
From “What a Beautiful World / IGY”, by Don Fagen (putting actual predictions from 1957-58 to music)
What happened to those wonderful predictions? No undersea rail: drastically harder than expected. The only aircraft that could do the trip at that speed ceased operations over cost per seat and environmental concerns. No automated decision making. Would we have been better off with it, even if it were possible? People aren’t purely rational, and thus how would a rational machine handle a missile crisis? Revolutions in Africa and Asia? How would such a machine distinguish between Idi Amin and Nelson Mandela, or between a Shah and an Ayatollah?
I don’t want to make those mistakes. But I do want to do something better in terms of exploration and scouting, with those who are better in touch with the future… because they are helping to create it. (Yes, another quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” by Alan Kay, who gave us the computer mouse.)
Those of you who have spent time with me know that I like to “scan and connect”. The more I find to scan and connect, the better I do. But this isn’t just for me. It’s about creating a network of ideas and elements and people who move the edge of what’s possible in discussing the society. I posted in the first entry of the GROUPER Blog why the lab wouldn’t be tweeting anytime soon. The timing, activity level, and distribution were wrong. But now, there is an HFES Social Networking expert to help us, and a HFES LinkedIn community of discussions. So, let’s try it. I now have a Twitter account: @BSC_HFES_Scout.