Each Christmas we provide the Prime Minister with some great holiday reading, sending him a selection of books that we have found particularly insightful over the course of the year. Our selection this year includes:
A Quarter Century in the Natural Sciences by Dr Warren Weaver (from The Rockefeller Foundation Annual Report 1958)
I came across this 1958 article in Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961); she references the article in relation to her ideas about how cities function. Written by Dr Warren Weaver (former Director for the Natural Sciences of The Rockefeller Foundation and former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), the article outlines the history of scientific thought. Although it was written 55 years ago, it definitely makes for fascinating and worthwhile reading. He discusses complexity in terms of a continuum: Problems of Simplicity, Problems of Organised Complexity and Problems of Disorganised Complexity ( see in particular pp. 7-15). Naturally the most challenging area of the continuum is the middle section – organised complexity, where problems ‘involve dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole’. For example: ‘To what extent is it safe to depend on the free interplay of such economic forces as supply and demand ? Or to what extent must we employ systems of economic control to prevent the wide swings from prosperity to depression?… By the early thirties it was clear that science had generally effective tools and techniques for dealing with problems of simplicity, and problems of disorganised complexity … But was the time ripe for stimulating advances in the more complex, more difficult, and in many ways more critical areas … [w]as the time ripe for an accelerated and deeper attack upon the life sciences?’
This brief yet erudite discussion is a reminder that our inability to analyse organised complexity is both extremely challenging and critically important – we might know the types of events that are likely to occur in the future, but we know little about the order of events and how they might connect and interrelate. Importantly, although Weaver began his paper with a historical overview of the natural sciences, he closes this first section by questioning whether it is time to focus our research capability on the life sciences, improving our quality of life. This is the value of Nassim Taleb’s 2012 book, while Weaver identifies the problem Taleb suggests the solution – a type of mindset is necessary in order to benefit from complexity – antifragility.
Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012)
In this book Taleb is concerned with trying to understand how individuals, organisations, and even countries can best position themselves in a world where the only certainty is uncertainty. In order to achieve this, Taleb posits the concept of antifragility, defined by the idea that while ‘the resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better’. In his opinion, some things are fragile and respond poorly to shocks, whilst others are antifragile, benefiting from shocks and thriving on volatility. This book has had a huge impact here at the Institute this year, and is the inspiration behind the AntifragileNZ Workshop we have planned for 2014.
Walking with a Fragile Heart: Short stories and poems by young refugees in New Zealand, Pauline Francis (eds) (2013)
Over the year two Institute staff have been involved in supporting refugees on their arrival to New Zealand. This has not only made me aware of how fortunate New Zealanders are, and what are our responsibilities to global citizens. The fact that 60 million children globally receiving no education ( see our think piece 18) and 12 million people are stateless worldwide (UNHCR), means we have a lot of work to do. A recent publication published by Refugee Trauma Recovery is insightful. This book is a collection of short stories and poems written by former refugees who have come to New Zealand from Afghanistan, Burma, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Of particular note are the three contributions made by Abbas Nazari, a participant at the Institute’s (and New Zealand Treasury’s) 2013 LivingStandardsNZ workshop. The following quote from his short story Dreams of my Father provides an eloquent summary of an experience that is all too familiar for too many people; ‘People move because of the wear and tear of anxiety. That feeling that their hard work will yield nothing. What they build in one year might be broken down in a day. The gnawing feeling that the future is locked up. That they might do alright but their children will not. That prosperity and happiness is only achievable elsewhere. There is only danger and missed opportunities where they are. People simply want the chance to develop Silk Roads of their own, and they will journey the earth to have that opportunity.’ This reinforced to me why a country’s constitution is such an important platform upon which to build, nurture and support society – our citizenship is embedded in our constitution. Next year we will be looking forward to reading the Government’s response to the Nov 2013 Constitutional Advisory Panels report – see our July 2013 submission here.
Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Chris Anderson (2012)
I have always enjoyed Chris Anderson’s writing and his latest book is no exception. This book from the former editor of Wired magazine explores the idea of the ‘new maker economy’ and it is an excellent read for all those interested in the future of business, globalisation and employment. Essentially, Anderson believes that the opportunities afforded by new technologies will redefine how economic growth is achieved in the future, which he believes will be increasingly about being small and global, artisanal and innovative, high-tech and low-cost and creating the sorts of products that the world wants but doesn’t yet know it wants. Another key idea is that innovation, rather than labour costs, will decide the future centres of manufacturing and that ‘the spread and sophistication of automation will increasingly level the playing field between East and West … the maker-movement tilts the balance toward the cultures with the best innovation model [read talent], not the cheapest labour.‘ Although I find the word innovation the most misused term in recent years (what you cannot define you cannot measure, and if you cannot measure it you cannot know whether your policies are making more or less innovation), I believe Anderson suggests a way New Zealand could become more antifragile. If you swap the term innovation and use the term invention (as meaning new ways of doing things), you can then move the discussion from invention to those that do the inventing – talent. I believe countries that move from a job-based economy to a talent-based economy are more likely to succeed in the long term. Talent demands a discussion about value, whereas jobs demands a discussion about the number rather than the quality of jobs. 2014 will be a key year to make this transition, while the economy is on the up it is an excellent time to create a solid foundation for New Zealand’s long-term sustainability.
Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain (2013)
Throughout the year I have become increasingly aware of the amount of noise that we all have to live with and as a result how difficult it is to recognise a new thought or idea. I read Cain’s book early in 2013 and keep going back to it. This book explores the crucial role introverts have to play in society but how often we fail to take advantage of their particular skills, their ability to observe, synthesis and reflect. Cain examines how we have moved from a ‘culture of character’ to a ‘culture of personality’ during the 20th century, and the negative implications for citizens, companies and countries. In particular, this book provides valuable insight into how creating a workplace that caters to all personality types can optimise employee productivity and contentment. This thinking aligns with our focus on talent, in particular how to get the most value from talent is not simply about making space for introverts but creating a culture where extroverts look to introverts to share their thoughts and ideas.
This year the Institute launched the TalentNZ initiative with the launch of the TalentNZ Journal. The Journal is based on Sir Paul Callaghan’s vision of New Zealand as ‘a place where talent wants to live’, featuring interviews with 30 Kiwis who answer seven questions on how to create a talent-based economy, four mayor’s answer three questions on how to create a talent-based city, Sam Morgan shares his observations on talent and much more. As a result of these interviews and essays, it becomes clearly apparent that to make a talent-based economy requires a four-pronged approach, countries should work hard to: (1) Grow Talent, (2) Attract Talent, (3) Retain Talent and (4) Connect Talent – each requiring different strategies. The first requires a review of our education system (a centralised public policy approach linking skills to careers) , the second demands a review of how New Zealand attracts talent (immigration policy), the third asks how businesses could improve retention of talent (human resources) and the fourth looks more closely at how to connect talent with in a city and between cities (a council approach). In 2014 the Institute will work with others to engage in the first and the fourth with a ‘Grow Talent’ edition of the Journal in mid-2014 and a tour of city councils in March 2014. Connect with the TalentNZ initiative at talentnz.org. We also hope to partner with other organisations that wish to work on the second and third strategies to attract and retain talent. The Journal can be purchased at our online store for $15.00 (incl GST).
Special thanks to the team at Unity Books for helping us with this years list.
From all of us at the Institute, we would like to wish you a very merry Christmas and a safe and happy new year!
Wendy, Hannah, Ryan, Renata, Grace, Kirstie, Patrick, Sarah and the rest of the team at the Institute.