A few years ago I attended a presentation by someone from my network who had just returned from one of the programs at the Singularity University. I hadn’t heard of the Singularity University at that time, but listening to Russell discuss his experiences peaked my interest, and since then I have taken time to develop a deeper understanding of the concept of singularity and the wider body of work, research, activity and more that is done through organisations such as the SU.
I am by no means an expert. I haven’t been fortunate enough (yet) to attend a course at the SU. However, I have read a lot and remain deeply interested in the paradigm of singularity. At its heart, the mission of the SU is very closely aligned with the vision we hold at Wazoku. The challenges that the SU seeks to tackle are the biggest macro challenges that face the world today and tomorrow. At Wazoku, we are typically working on a slightly different scale, but the ethos of the two organisations is nonetheless similar.
At Wazoku we believe in the aspirational goal of EveryDay innovation: an organisational culture where innovation is embedded in the DNA and is a part of everyone’s role, in every department, every day.
At Singularity University: We believe our world has the people, technology, and resources to solve any problem, even humanity’s most urgent, persistent challenges.
As a catalyst for global change, we help others leverage rapidly accelerating technologies—including artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics, and digital biology—in innovative ways to unlock solutions that can positively impact billions of lives.
We empower a global community with the mindset, skillset, and network to create an abundant future. Join us on a transformative journey from inspiration to impact, and discover what being exponential means to you.
My main point here is that not only do I find this whole subject interesting, but it is also something very much aligned in thinking and ambition to the company I founded.
For those not familiar with the concept of singularity, here is the metaphor that Russell used when he first introduced me to the concept.. I suspect this is something that is shared with those who attend programs at SU as I have seen this analogy in several other places since.
Imagine a magic pipette. It is magic because any drop of water that comes out of it will double in size every minute. So the first minute there is a single drop, the second minute the drop doubles in size, the third minute it’s the size of four drops, the fourth minute eight drops and so on… This is an example of exponential growth.
Now, imagine a normal sized football stadium. In this stadium you are sitting on the seat at the very top of the stadium, with the best overview of the whole stadium. To make things more interesting, imagine the stadium is completely water-tight and that you cannot move from your seat.
At 12pm a drop of water is released from the magic pipette and is dropped right in the middle of the field, on the centre spot. Here’s the question: Remembering that this drop grows exponentially by doubling in size every minute, how much time do you have to free yourself from the seat and leave the stadium before the water reaches your seat at the very top? Think about it for a moment. Is it hours, days, weeks, months?
I will give you the answer, but I want to hold you in suspense for a while, so we will return to it later! When we do get to the answer, there are two really interesting component parts. The first being the answer itself and the second being the number of minutes between just the pitch being covered and the stadium being filled. How long do you think there is between just the surface of the grass being covered in water and the whole stadium being full of water?
So, how long did you guess for part one, for the whole stadium to be full of water and you needing to swim?
The answer is 49 minutes. Did you get close? By 12:49 you are under water.
And what about the second part of the question. If anything this is the more relevant and interesting bit. What time is it when just the grass is covered?
Answer: 12:45. It takes 45 mins for the drop of water to grow and cover the pitch surface area. Four minutes later the whole stadium is filled and those sat 240 seconds earlier in the relative safety and comfort of those top row seats are all under water.
This is a great metaphor for exponential change and one that has really stuck with me over time and as I have explored the singularity topic further.
So what does this have to do with avoiding icebergs? I recently attended a conference in Stockholm on Corporate Intrapreneurship where one of my team were chairing a panel discussion. Each speaker was asked to introduce themselves through an interesting fact, and one speaker (who I won’t name as this may not be public knowledge) told us all that his grandparent’s, fleeing Russia in 1912, travelled by train through Europe en route to a new life in the US. However, delays caused them to miss their boat from Southampton in the UK. That boat? The Titanic! They missed the boat and therefore survived.
My imagination took over slightly and these early thoughts take some shape in this thought piece. Innovation practitioners are well versed (typically) in the concept of innovation horizons. I, and others on this site, have covered this topic in some depth in other articles on this site (e.g. Innovation: Its not about more ideas, its about the right ideas at the right time!), so I wont dwell on that further here. Imagine the innovation horizons within the context of a big ship like the Titanic. As we all know, these huge ships do not turn on a dime, but instead are only able to make small adjustments to their course over huge distances. The parallels to large, multi-national organisations can start to be drawn. It is imperative in avoiding the iceberg to consider a change of course far in advance of seeing the iceberg in front of you. To put it another way, you can’t evacuate the stadium at 12:45 as the doors are at level 1 and you aren’t even moving for the exits until 12:46 or possibly later.
As organisations we need to move our minds out of the purely linear mindset we have been programmed for a lifetime to adopt. We need to understand and accept that change is exponential, and that within that exponential change the last four minutes are probably the time our linear mind is going to notice it and by then it is TOO LATE!!
And so to avoid the iceberg we need to be thinking differently. We need to be innovating our path incrementally to avoid the iceberg ahead. We need to be enhancing the customer experience so that they never sense any potential danger from that iceberg and we may, sometimes, need to totally tear up the rule book and find a whole new way from A to B. What is your iceberg and what steps are you taking to avoid it? After all we can’t all be lucky enough to simply miss the boat entirely!!