Welcome to our final episode of Season 1!

We posed a challenge to the company: How can we help people feel more connected while working remotely. Today we’re going to showcase and celebrate THREE different answers to that question. Not just theory, not frameworks. Real, working prototypes that our LABS team have developed and put in the hands of employees here at Kin + Carta, to actually bring people together.

You can listen and subscribe to Working Better in your favorite app Apple Podcasts, SpotifyGoogle Podcasts.

Featuring:

  • Chris Weiland, Director of Kin + Carta Americas Labs, Technical Director, Office of the CTO
  • Omar Shanti, Labs365 Lead & Technical Consultant
  • Ahmad Hasan, Senior Scrum Master, Product, and QA Consultant
  • Praneet Sahgal, Senior Technical Consultant
  • Izabela Stamatova, Senior QA Consultant
  • Trish Berry, Principal
  • Joan Artigas, Senior QA Analyst
  • Julie Putis, Scrum Master & Product Consultant
  • Francesca Silva, Principal Product Strategist
  • Charlie Farmer, Product Strategist Consultant
  • Tyler McCreary, Technical Consultant
  • Jorge Viramontes, Technical Consultant

Show Notes

(02:47) Kin + Carta Labs

OMAR

My name is Omar Shanti, and I’m a technical consultant here at Kin + Carta for around three years…Additionally, I serve as the lead of Labs Americas.

CHRIS:

Yeah. Chris Weiland. At Kin + Carta, I’m a technical director and the Director of Kin + Carta America’s Labs.

SCOTT:

Omar and Chris run our LABS team, who has made this all possible. If you listened to our episode about play and experimentation at work from about a month ago – you might remember LABS. I’ll let Chris explain what LABS is all about:

CHRIS:

Sure. As Omar mentioned, we’re called the innovation center, but we’re driven by innovations. So what we do is we explore, we discover, and we try to realize the heart of the possible, where sort of emerging technologies meet business value for our clients. And so what we want to do is kind of stay out ahead of the curve to make sure that we’re prepared to understand, that we understand the value of emerging tech, and really understand how it might help our clients succeed.

SCOTT:

Awesome. And what are some examples of some projects that have come out of Labs, or that Labs has sponsored?

CHRIS:

Sure. Some of the explorations and experiences we’ve built include explorations in AI, computer vision, data and knowledge graphs, blockchain, virtual reality, augmented reality, robotics, internet of things, IOT conversational user experience, immersive environments and human computer interaction.

SCOTT:

Great, thanks. And Omar. So when I came to you with the idea for what is now called the Connect Challenge, which is basically… how Labs could run some experiments to find solutions for the problems that we see involved with socially distance working? What made you think it was a good match for Labs and what got you excited about that?

OMAR:

Hmm. Yeah. Great question.

OMAR:

In my opinion, the Labs projects that best deliver are the ones that deliver value on multiple different streams. So, as Chris mentioned, you have values on the business scale where we demonstrate to companies how they can leverage emerging technologies in their own industries and in their own settings. But also Labs can help build up people within the company and skill sets that they want to learn, but don’t quite have the space for. So for folks who are looking to pick up a new technology, or for designers looking to try out new experiments, or even for product strategists looking to kind of deliver in new fashion. Labs provides a means for us to develop our own. And then additionally, Labs projects might also build something which we can use day in and day out and talk about and be really proud of.

OMAR:

And in many ways, the Connect Challenge kind of lives at the intersection of all three people were playing with technologies and playing in roles that they had never done before.

SCOTT:

Great. So you’ve decided, okay, Connect Challenge is a good match for labs. How do you go about getting those ideas, soliciting people to submit their ideas? How do you get people excited? And then once we have those ideas, how did we pick the three we ended up with?

OMAR:

So, as always, Labs strives to democratize innovation.

OMAR:

To tackle this, we started with an ideation session, which lasted around two weeks. We had a couple of guided sessions on how folks can come up with ideas, and we presented the template out to the company of how they can elaborate the value of their ideas. The template had questions such as, “What does the MTP look like?” “What will you showcase and doing this?” “What’s the argument for how this will foster connections?” “What skill sets are required?” So on, making the [ADA 00:12:36] to think through a couple of the steps involved in executing on this project.

OMAR:

I think we almost hit double digits. From there, we worked with our stakeholders, you, Scott, specifically, and the rest of the team to come up with a criteria based on feasibility, innovation, practicality, and kind of the compellingness of the argument and whether we think that this will actually have the desired effect.

SCOTT:

The desired effect being to help US colleagues, friends, rivals (KENT) reconnect after working physically apart for a year. Which is what made this LABS engagement particularly unique. We’re the users we’re building for. We asked the teams to describe what it’s been like to work remotely for now nearly a year. Here’s what we heard:

TRISH:

I’d say there’s definitely pros and cons to it.

JORGE:

It’s been tough. It’s been a challenge for sure just from a mental health perspective, I’d say.

TYLER:

Originally, I had a desk next to my wife and then we ended up like CHARLIE said, clearing out a second bedroom and making that an office for her.

TRISH:

And the con definitely is the interaction, the physical moving around, being at the office.

AHMAD:

Today’s interactions are with my four year old and it’s not the same type of interactions. There’s some energy there, but it’s definitely not the same.

CHRIS:

I originally thought, A, well, first I thought this wouldn’t last a year or more.

PRANEET:

I really liked coming to the office and seeing people and everything like that, and talking to them was kind of how I got my social interaction throughout the week.

TRISH:

But there are pros that I try to take with me every day; more time with my husband, who is now my coworker, and then no commuting.

FRENCHY:

These life milestones that we celebrate and experience together that we’re no longer really able to do or you find out somebody is pregnant because now you get an out-of-office reply that they’re on maternity or paternity leave.

JOAN:

It’s been pretty different here. Known as the longest quarantine in the world.

JULIE:

I could kind of sense the energy at the end of 2020 really kind of fading on our teams, and I think we were all missing normalcy and really craving that.

SCOTT:

Those are the voices who are going to walk us through what they built, how they built it, and what they learned along the way. Omar and Chris – THANK YOU. I want to waste no time and dive into the first team.

The first experience is called Office World. Again the original challenge was to bring people closer together because we’re unable to be in the office together physically. Their answer? Bring people into the office…virtually. Office World is a 3D, INTERACTIVE, virtual space that reimagines Kin + Carta’s Chicago office as a multiplayer video game environment. And it’s incredible.

Here’s my conversation with the Office World team.

The core idea for Office World was to put together a virtual space for people to hang out in.The ultimate goal was to create something that felt like a town square, or an office, where people are able to play in.

Praneet Sahgal – Senior Technical Consultant

OFFICE WORLD

(08:30) The Experience Set up

SCOTT:

This group is working on a concept called Office World and I’m very excited to meet with them. So to get that rolling, I’ll just have each of them introduce themselves.

CHARLIE:

I’m Charlie Farmer, a product strategy consultant, for Office World. I was doing product. I was kind of helping out with strategy and some of the more product focus things but also research and a little scrum master stuff.

PRANEET:

I’m Praneeet Sahgal, senior technical consultant at Kin + Carta I worked as the engineer on the project.

TYLER :

I’m Tyler McCreary. I’m a technical consultant at Kin + Carta. I do mostly front end web, but on this project I work with Unity as an engineer.

IZABELA:

My name is Izabela Stamatova. I’ve been with Kin + Carta for a little bit more than five years. I’m a QA on my current project as a senior and also QA on the office work project, very excited to break stuff.

(09:30)The Inspiration

SCOTT:

Tell us a little bit about Office World. What is it?

PRANEET:

So I think that the core idea for Office World is that it’s to put together a virtual space for people to hang out. Because we’re all kind of working remote, a lot of us are kind of staying in the same spot, we’re sitting at our desks, we’re talking to the same people and just staring at a computer screen. But the cool thing about putting together this interactive experience or game is the fact that there is actually a virtual space that you could walk around in and interact with, and there’s areas to go and things to explore. … The ultimate goal was we needed something that felt like a space or like a town square, or an office or something like that, that we wanted people to be able to play in.

CHARLIE:

Yeah, and if I can just layer on there. I think we all have kind of adjusted to working from home and remotely, but like Praneet mentioned, there are things about being in the same space with people that is really great, and especially at a place like Kin + Carta, the people are also cool and smart and easy to hang out with that any type of company, sort of event that did take place and there were a lot of them. There’s always these happy hours after work and there’s always organized coffee breaks or whatever it might be. Those were a lot of fun and a good way to sort of interact with people in a non work setting in a lot of ways where those barriers of like, “Oh, I got to talk about work, or I got to talk about this.” You just like get to know people better for who they are and I think that’s the piece that’s missing when we do work remotely.

SCOTT:

Yeah, definitely, Charlie I’d agree with that, you and I worked on a client for a good period of time and I know that the ping pong table was a form of connection for many people on that team yourself included.

CHARLIE:

Oh, yeah.

SCOTT:

So glad to see it made it into the cut in Office World was that literally the first thing after you decided to build an office? Was that the first thing you decided to put in or did that come through user research?

CHARLIE:

Yeah, good question and guys jump in here. But the way I remember is we were talking about like, okay, we know, we have some foundational pieces we need to build…it was really like high level three themes we wanted to hit on. Identity, or like who you are within the space. What is this space? Actual, the model of the office, and then some sort of interaction. That’s where we thought that opportunity for connection would happen….

So Praneet led us through this sort of user journey mapping where we kind of walked through what are the things you do day to day? What is a typical day and what does that flow look like? We tried to look at those flows and say, “Okay, where are those points that kind of bubble up as those opportunities for connection?” If you play like a board game with the group after work, or we have a poker club or if you’re at a social happy hour…that’s where the connections happened.

PRANEET:

It was also kind of cool because after we put in Pong, during the user research sessions, we actually were validated that this was something that was really useful to put in. I think, in particular, one of our fellow Kin + Carta employees was really happy that it was Pong and not something more complicated because everyone knows Pong. It’s such a classic game. It’s almost like a rite of passage to build a Pong game if you’re working in game development.

(12:28)User Testing

SCOTT:

Hi Future Scott here, I’m going to jump in from time to time to help fill in the gaps. In terms of Office World, what can’t be overstated is the level of detail this team achieved in replicating our office. The dimensions are accurate to the centimeter, the colors of the walls are EXACTLY the blue of our walls, the kitchen looks like the kitchen, the tile on the floor is the real tile. Adam Graham is a UX engineer who helped on this team, he didn’t join this conversation, but deserves a lot of credit for the modeling.

Also, this flawless video game-esque music you’ve been hearing. Matias Macri is also a team member who wrote and recorded it for Office World. Crazy, right? Okay back in the time machine to rejoin interview-Scott in the past.

SCOTT:

Let’s talk a little about user testing. Obviously, it’s a huge part of what we do at Kin + Carta. We definitely do a lot of user research and with a video game, it’s critical because like you say, what you expect people to enjoy in gameplay is not going to be actually what it was. What were some of the first reactions, the first time people actually started the game and saw that shot of the office? I think it replicates kind of coming off the elevators into the main lobby.

PRANEET:

So I think the first reaction that we got out of a lot of people, a lot of people were surprised just how close to the office it looked like and we were also pleasantly surprised to see as long as we got like, 80% of the way there to the office, I think a lot of people’s brains kind of filled in the rest, and thought, “Oh, yeah, this is definitely the office.”

That’s exactly what I’d expect. It was also kind of interesting that I think a couple of people who’ve been working in Kin + Carta for a long time got very nostalgic and kind of misty eyed about being able to see the office because they haven’t been in the office since before the pandemic.

In particular, I think Val who used to be our office manager was really, was kind of sitting there for a minute thinking, she had to take a minute be like, “Oh, my God, this is the office, I can’t believe I’m in the office, which I think was kind of amazing.

SCOTT:

Val, literally was the leader of the project to build out that office when we moved from five to seven. So she has a really deep personal connection to that entire layout. She took me on a tour when it was all under construction, you could just see the pride that she had in helping drive that project to completion. So if anybody who’s going to be choked up about seeing, I can definitely see her being deeply affected.

SCOTT:

Anything that people tried to do in the virtual office that you did not expect?

(14:45) Emergent Gameplay

PRANEET:

Oh, there’s a really good one. So one of the things that is standard in games that you would not expect in the office is the ability to jump. Most people walking around in actual office space do not jump around the office, but when we put people into the virtual space, a lot of people who had experienced playing games before immediately tried to jump and they were delighted to see that they were able to and immediately started doing things like parkour and jumping on tables, and trying to figure out how do we how do I get into spaces and get on to things that I’m not normally supposed to be able to do in the office? That was definitely very surprising and when we actually straight up asked people, would you like to keep the jump in the game? Everyone said, “yes” despite the fact that is not something you would ever do in office.

CHARLIE:

There was a conga line at one point, there were races happening from down this hallway to the other door and there was like a referee that made sure that everything was above board and who actually won one. There was a mosh pit that then kind of awkwardly turned into a group hug because arms Don’t move.

SCOTT:

What Charlie’s describing here was one of my favorite things to watch unfold. It happened usually in the playtests with larger groups – 10, 12 people at a time would almost immediately figure out things they could do that were NEVER planned for. In game design, it’s an idea referred to as “emergent gameplay.”

In addition to conga lines and relay races, simple text fields provided a similar challenge for the team to consider. The team had created a feature allowing players to add their name or a message above their avatars. It didn’t take long for the team to realize the text field could also say…other things.

CHARLIE:

This is kind of typical in software development, you have to think about like happy path and sad path, right? So when you are creating your username, our idea was let’s just create a free-form text field, you can put in as many characters you want, whatever you want, and it will display above your character’s head when you spawn into the office. Quickly, everybody was like, “Well, what if somebody puts swear words or something inappropriate or like we’re going to have an ex nightmare?”

We talked about trying to find a library that would allow us to do some filtering for swear words and in different languages and all this and I was like, “Holy shit, this is possible.” This is just like, you can pretty much do it, whatever you want there. Isabella, who was the QA on the team was like:

IZABELA:

“Oh, I can also test the Bulgarian stuff just to make sure that the system is working.”

That’s Izabela, who you may remember, introduced herself earlier as the one who was “excited to break stuff.” Izabela works in Quality Assurance, meaning yeah basically her job is to find ways to break things. Including conjuring up every four letter word she can think of.

IZABELA:

They even have a name on my team for the defects. They’re called Izabella defects. We use this name only for the weird defects that they believe that nobody can find.

CHARLIE:

It was just really funny. So we all got off the call laughing that day and added into the definition of the story going forward.

SCOTT:

That’s great.

PRANEET:

That was definitely a memorable moment. For me, I actually did go online and look, and GitHub does have a big list of naughty words that you can use for your project to make sure that you catch all of the naughty words that you wouldn’t want people to be able to put into your text fields.

(17:56) Embracing Experimentation

SCOTT:

Yeah, that’s great. I just one take a step back and maybe I’ll start with you on this Praneet and then everyone can chime in. So when we work on a Labs project, it’s a little different than how we work on normal projects. But maybe you sort of describe what are the process that you went through to build this out, generally? Then in what ways is it different than how you normally work and is it the same I guess, as well?

PRANEET:

For me, even though I have worked some game development projects on the side before, this was actually a chance to flex some slightly different muscles. This project was heavier on networking than some of my other projects. So I had a chance to actually… This is a nice thing about Labs I had a chance to kind of experiment as well on something that I would normally have to do on my own. Instead, I got to experiment it with Kin + Carta and figure out okay, how do you set up a server and clients to connect to that server instead of that shared game world? So that was actually really rewarding.

TYLER:

Yeah, I think, just the one thing I wanted to add was that with these Labs projects, these are done in our spare time outside of the core working hours. So an important thing is that we’re all excited about the project and we want to work on it. So I think it was nice that we all work together to come up with ideas so that everyone felt some sort of ownership and that we were all willing to work outside of the regular work hours.

IZABELA:

I was excited about all those ideas and I was wondering, should I get involved? But I think that it’s PRANEET’s fault. There was a company meeting one Thursday, and then after that there was a lunch and learn or something like that about something and then it was just a few people and then we’re joking with PRANEET and he was like, “You should join.” Because I’m not a gamer so I was thinking more so joining some of the other teams…But we were joking, I’m like, “Why not? I should get involved.”
And then I joined the team and for some reason, we were a super good match, I would say, because it’s really hard to have a pretty passionate and quick team and I think that we had luck to all of us to be passionate about it and also initiative… I think that maybe the fate decide to put us all together, I would say.

PRANEET:

One thing that I wanted to touch on from a technical aspect, I think there is some, it’s a little cool from a technical aspect, what we put together because we generally work on these kind of like single person experiences working on an app and it’s kind of disconnected, there might be some talking with a web server. But in a system such as Unity, and like running on Google Cloud Platform that we’ve actually connected people together in real time in the same space. It’s not something that we get to do every day on projects, it’s not something that clients even think is feasible. But in a lot of cases there is technology off the shelf that you can grab to actually put this stuff together and get people interacting in real time in a virtual space.

So I think it’d be kind of cool to like, show this off to some clients to kind of show here’s the realm of possibilities, here’s the art of the possible. These interactive experiences are not like crazy pie in the sky fantasies, they’re things that teams can put together pretty quickly and pretty rapidly. So it’s definitely worth looking into for the enterprise too.

(20:17)What’s Next?

SCOTT:

Yeah. Great. So what’s next? What’s the next round of features coming out? What can we see where we have beta, alpha? What’s our launch date? When do we live for 1,600 people?

CHARLIE:

The next kind of interaction point we want to have is something we heard a lot from the play test and I and I think we’ve even started on is the ability to drink coffee, or do something with coffee. So what we came up with was, let’s say you can go and pour yourself a cup of coffee, drink it and for 15 seconds, you can move really fast. So there’s like a meter that would show up and you can get an energy boost after drinking coffee. So that’s one of the main things that’s coming out next, we have as a result of the play test and presenting at the core or at the company meeting, about a week ago. We had some more people get involved and be interested in actually joining the team. So we have two more developers to onboard and kind of get stood up and get some work too. So we actually are supposed to meet this week on like, next set of priorities. But those are the things that are in progress.

TYLER:

With what CHARLIE said about the coffee is hopefully that supports more of the like emergent gameplay of people trying to do parkour, it’s like, “Alright, I got coffee, now I can jump higher or run faster. Let’s see what I can really do.”

PRANEET:

Another thing that I think was on our priority list now is a little bit more player customization. So right now we didn’t really have much outside the color, but one of the things I distinctly remember coming up was the idea of let’s add hats, because everyone loves virtual hats for some reason, I’m not sure why but we’re going to go ahead and add them at some point, because everyone loves hats.

CHARLIE:

Some we had talked about and some of those things were sort of reflected in the user tests and then also some new things came up during the user test. So to me we thought about, how can this be utilized for events? Every week we have the company meeting on Thursday as you guys know and that was an early idea of like, how could be utilized? Could we have a company meeting in Office World or quarterly in Office World? At one point, I think it was you Scott, even that, in our Office World channel on Slack came up with the idea of hosting our yearly conference forward in Office World.

TYLER:

Scott, you did give us all a little bit of internal panic when you brought up the idea for FWD.

SCOTT:

Good.

PRANEET:

Yeah. For anyone trying to do this at home, just keep in mind building a massive multiplayer online game is not a good idea for your first game project. Try Pong first.

SCOTT:

Amazing stuff. If you’re interested in seeing the full game in action, kinandcarta.com/working-better, we’ll continue to add updates!

So for Office World – the answer to the problem was to recreate the simple joy of sharing a space together – a “town square” as Praneet put it. It was amazing to watch people take to it with such enthusiasm because it really did feel like you were in the office. Plus who doesn’t love a virtual mosh pit / group hug.

Our goal with Fancy Meeting You Here was to find out if we could come up with a technical, digital-driven way to jump out of that whole environment and into another one relatively easily.

Chris Weiland – Director of Kin + Carta Americas Labs, Technical Director, Office of the CTO

(23:15)FANCY MEETING YOU HERE

SCOTT:

Okay next up. If the Office World team was looking at the big picture of really what the OFFICE feels like, this next group zoomed in further into that picture to examine people’s real, every day interactions…particularly those that are tough to replicate remotely.

The concept is called “Fancy Meeting You Here.” Let’s meet the team.

AHMAD:

Hi. My name’s Ahmad Hasan, Kin + Carta. I’m a scrum master. Several teams on this particular project. Been the champion, pushing things forward, kind of trying to figure out where this thing is going, and really kind of wrangle everybody in there, bounce ideas off of, and just the champion of the project.

FRENCHY:

I’m Frenchy Silva, a product strategist. And my role on the team is really being Ahmad’s right-hand person, keeping us on track and following his lead.

CHRIS:

Yeah. Chris Weiland. At Kin + Carta, I’m a technical director and the Director of Kin + Carta America’s Labs. On this engagement, I’m the product owner.

TRISH

My name is Trish Berry and I’m program manager at Kin + Carta. And on this particular stream of work, I am a cheerleader. I tend to jump in and encourage the team.

SCOTT:

Well, welcome, everybody.

SCOTT

So Chris, I’ll throw this over to you, but what’s the inspiration for Fancy Meeting You Here?

CHRIS:

Well, as its name suggested, I think it, kind of in my head, captured the idea that, when you bump into something or bump into something you weren’t expecting to see in some context maybe you weren’t expecting to see them, it’s like, “Hey, fancy meeting you here. Surprise, surprise.”

At the office, I’d walk to the café and just kind of stand there, hoping to bump into someone. I was walking probably to get coffee or whatever, and Ahmad’s standing there. The thing of coffee and it’s, “Ahmad, what’s the latest in coffee? What are you drinking?” Three minutes, not work-related at all, but every connection and bond-related at work.

CHRIS:

And one of the things I wanted to try to accomplish was to find out if we could come up with a technical, digital-driven way to jump out of that whole environment and into another one relatively easily.

(25:02)The Solution

FRENCHY:

We were doing all this brainstorming and ideation and then we kept, like, “Oh, how are we going to connect this to something technical? What’s going to come next?” trying to make it super complicated. And then, through research, which is so cool to me, sent out this survey to the firm. And from everybody’s responses, we found Hallway.

What is Hallway?

SCOTT:

So this underscores an important part of the Labs process, and the tech world in general: Not building things from scratch if something’s already built that you can build ON TOP of. Here’s what Chris had to say:

CHRIS:

We essentially shaved off four months of development time to get to a point where we had a digital tool to test our hypothesis, by bringing in something like Hallway. The project didn’t start out, “Let’s find a tool that does what we need.” Our project started out , “Let’s find a way to address this problem of connecting people remotely.”

SCOTT:

Hallway quickly became that foundational answer for Fancy Meeting You Here. It’s a plugin that works with Slack, our messaging service, enhancing a tool we already use to connect. An app within an app, so to speak.

The idea is basically to create quick opportunities to interact with coworkers, via a Zoom call, but instead of action items and powerpoint presentations it’s 5 min conversations about Bridgerton…or grilled cheese recipes…or how Benedict Cumberbatch can’t say the word “penguin” . Literally anything. Other than work.

AHMAD:

So with Hallway, just like you said, basically you can set them up at random. You can set them up at scheduled times. It all depends on who’s creating that specific Hallway-type meeting. And there’s ways to force it, but basically we set up a channel for people to voluntarily join if they want to have these spontaneous interactions, which was one of our hypotheses, are people feeling the same thing as we’re feeling?

And we have over almost close to 100 people in this channel that are voluntarily there, wanting to join. And they can just join a random hallway that gets popped in.

Right now, I have it set to three times a day. So three times a day, it’ll just say, “Hey, take a break. Join this hallway. Click this join button,” which was another thing, making it very seamless so that nobody has to type anything in. All you have to really do is press a join button and you’re already in a Zoom call with the other people that voluntarily join this bumping into, spontaneous interaction meeting.

(27:20) The User Experience

SCOTT:

You mentioned you did a lot of user research to get to this point. Were there any surprises in that user research?

FRENCHY:

I think what we’ve tried to be most mindful of or sensitive to this whole time is knowing that, because we are remote, we can’t physically get together right now, due to the pandemic. And people do have Zoom fatigue and our employee experience team is evaluating how we’re all managing through that and how we’re all dealing with that. And I think, for me, just the most encouraging thing, maybe not surprising, but encouraging, was that people still wanted to do this.

AHMAD:

I do have an experience to share. It was the first week we introduced Hallway and it was the first Friday that there was a Hallway meet literally at 4:50 or 4:55. And I joined it. I think I was the only one, at the time, but then people just started rolling in, just like if they had just grabbed their bag and their jacket and they were heading towards the hallway, and they were just kind of bumping into me as they passed by to go to the elevator and they’re just like, “Hey,” and talking to me for a couple seconds and, like, “Have a good weekend and we’ll see you soon,” and all these other things.

And I just had this feel, nostalgic, of that normal cadence that we used to go through when we were in the office. And a couple other people were joining and leaving and coming back. And this happened for … I think it was 20 minutes or so, we were just kind of chatting up before the weekend. And then, as soon as everybody dropped off of the call, I got a stream of messages from the people that were within that hallway, just like, “Wow, that was amazing. For a brief second, I thought I wasn’t on a Zoom call. I was in a hallway with the group, kind of just passing by them, talking to them. I haven’t seen this person in forever.”

CHRIS:

It’s not that we’re trying to recreate the actual experience. It’s almost like the benefit of the experience.

CHRIS:

I think it was the very first hallway that was just put out there that I jumped on. And I think Omar and, Ahmad, you were on it, as well. And I literally said, “Fancy meeting you here,” and it wasn’t planned. It just happened. Now, I know it was stuck in the back of my head because I’ve done the project, but that was my first thought. It was like, “Oh, random chat. Fancy meeting you here.” I wouldn’t call that validation. The research set N=1, but that was pretty cool.

SCOTT:

Great. And Trish, have you joined any of these conversations? And if so, how is it different from your sort of normal? I’m assuming you’re on a lot of Zoom meetings, in and out of the day. Did it feel differently? Was it close to the feeling of being back in the office?

TRISH:

Yeah. I’ve been in quite a few. What’s really great about it, for me at least, is that it seems to pop up when I have just five minutes. I don’t know if that’s just coincidence or just me. One of my favorites that I’ve been to was the … it was a coffee break and I think Ahmad even showed it at one of our town halls, weekly team meetings, but it was super … Omar went walking with his coffee, right? To go get his coffee. You saw his coffee mug. It was about coffee and that’s what we used to do. So that makes it feel like we’re in the office, as well.

(30:20) A solution that sticks

SCOTT:

Anything that can make someone say “I forgot I was on a Zoom call” is magic in my book.

What really struck me about this group was how pleasantly surprised and ENERGIZED they were when people responded really positively to the experience. Particularly, when for folks like Ahmad, this was not their first attempt in trying to rally co-workers around different ways of interacting while remote.

AHMAD:

I tried a bunch of different ways to get people to connect and interact with each other. I set up a movie night. I set up a game night.

AHMAD:

I didn’t even know anything about this connect challenge until Omar kind of pointed out to me, “This is me. This is my challenge.” This is something that he knows that I’ve been wanting to do and get people reconnected with. And when he reached out to me, he was like, “You are the champion of this. You should take this on.” And I was like, “Let me hear what it’s all about. Fine. Go ahead, Omar.” And Omar, with his accent and all that stuff, he put the magic on me.

FRENCHY:

I think the most memorable piece of this has just been this, I don’t know what word, the sincerity or the goodness behind all of this. Even though it’s extra time or it’s after-hours type of work, to be able to be supported, to think of ways to better foster connections between old kin, new kin, it’s very unique, I would say. Whether or not they’re related to the billable bottom line, I think there’s always that support or encouragement to pursue new ideas, to work better together, to grow ourselves, to learn, and it’s just really special.

SCOTT:

Thanks, French. We’ll send you your Working Better gift certificate for working the title into your response. Well done, well done. Maxx is cheering you on.

(30:10) What’s next?

SCOTT:

So what’s next? We’ve discovered that people we want to connect. We discovered that there’s definitely a low-cost way, there’s no bill-to-buy option to sort of generate some level of interaction. And it’s got its pluses and its minuses. Obviously, I think it’s been mentioned, everyone’s on Zoom a lot, which … Any ideas on where’s next or is this an opportunity for user research? What’s next for Fancy Meeting You Here?

CHRIS:

The benefit of Slack and Zoom is we use them every day, they’re familiar, they’re in everyone’s face all the time. The detriment is they’re in our face all the time and we use them all the time. Right? I’d love to explore other ways we can sort of detach and physically move away from the desk.

AHMAD:

I’ve already started formulating, Hallway does one thing, but there’s a couple other things that I would love to get after and maybe even build our own type of Hallway interaction or Slack integration that could just put our Kin touch on it…

We have this thing where we do meet the new hires. We were hoping that maybe we can do, every week, five of them sign up to be introducing yourself, talking to a group of people. People can jump into a hallway, jump out of a hallway, and really get to know your new kin, but there’s so many different things that I would love to put another survey together, I know it’s another survey but it’s way for us to actually see and validate if people would like these additions or if Hallways is a really great option at this point.

TRISH:

When I was listening to Francesca say that, I was just really thinking about how J Schwan always says for people to find their passion. And it’s really clear that this is your passion, Ahmad. And French say you’re bringing out your passion, too. It’s just cool. It’s cool that you guys feel that passion, that you’re so geared up about it. And actually, when you get into the hallway, it shows. Right? Everybody’s just energy, is just cool.

SCOTT:

Yeah, absolutely. And I’d have to say, one of the things that … It’s more than just remote working. It’s remote living. Right? This is not just our workplace that has been turned remote. Just, literally, almost every single aspect of our life has been turned remotely. And so it really just puts the pressure on our work relationships that it wouldn’t if you were working remotely. So I don’t know if anyone else has worked remotely, but I did it for about a year and a half, but it was nice I could go into the office when I wanted to. Right? I saw my remote teammates. Every six weeks, we’d get together, something like that. Right?

And again, once I left work, I was free to go interact with all my friends and family without impedance. And I think what’s making it just difficult to deal with the lack of human contact in our workplace is that it’s also been cut off, out of most other aspects of our lives, as well.

AHMAD:

It might be just a small, five-minute window of a hallway, but we are getting back some of that connection. And it is branching into other areas. People are like, “Hey, we’re in this hallway. Let’s go do this other meeting,” or, “Let’s go do this other thing or jump on a phone call rather than a Zoom.”
And I feel like we’re getting to these next evolutionary states of this and people are now taking it upon themselves to do those things, as well…
And before, to be honest with you, they weren’t. I’d reach out to … “Hey, let’s do a … ” I don’t know, ” … a movie. Let’s watch a 10 minute, 15 minute of a movie, just so that we’re on the same call, watching a movie together.” And people were like, “I’m busy,” or, “I can’t do this. I can’t do that,” but now that they actually felt it for a minute or two, this connection in a hallway, now they’re like, “Oh, let’s grab coffee,” or, “Let’s go do this,” or, “Let’s go do that.” And it’s really feeding into that, which is pretty awesome to see.

FRENCHY:

I think that hits on something, Ahmad, that the power of these connections is not determined by the length of them or the … even a fleeting 15-second, 30-second interaction can change your whole day. It can make you feel energized, it can make you feel connected to people and it doesn’t have to be … I think, before, were like these big, grandiose things, but the office, it’s mundane things. It’s walking to your next meeting, getting a glass of water, and riding the elevator. So it’s just proving the power of just a small moment can really make a big difference.

AHMAD:

Oh, yeah. I was passing by Omar a year and a half ago by his computer and he was listening to Sum 41. I heard it and I was like, “Man, I haven’t heard that song in a really long time,” and I remembered that. And then, the other day, I was in a hallway and I see Omar is joining. I jumped onto YouTube, I pulled up Sum 41, I had it blasting. And as he joined, he was like, “Oh, yes. That’s awesome. I needed that. I needed just that second of this music, rocking out.” His day was full of busy meetings and he just heard a blast of Sum 41 and it just changed his mood for the rest of the night, which was awesome to hear and see.

SCOTT:

We confirmed later with Omar:

OMAR:

Does This Look Infected? is probably the best Sun 41 album of all time, the best of the entire sub genre.

Kinnect is an app that connects members at our firm based on their interests. It was inspired by some popular dating apps, where you put a little bit of information about yourself and then other people are able to like or match based on their interests.

Jorge Viramontes – Technical Consultant

(37:08) KINNECT

SCOTT:

Again fantastic job to the Fancy Meeting You Here team – including lots of other folks who you didn’t just hear from. Which is true of all three teams.

Alright, so far Office World showed us how to literally recreate the office into the digital world. Fancy Meeting You Here focused in on the unplanned, spontaneous moments with coworkers. We have one more team to showcase. They started with a different hypothesis: That the human connection we get from work is also about meeting NEW people and forming NEW connections. Which can feel nearly impossible when fully remote work means interactions are scheduled and 99% of the time work focused.

This is the KINNECT team. That’s K-I-N-N-E-C-T, like KIN + Carta, see they’re clever already.

I’ll let them explain what they came up with, but I love how they approached it, particularly with a member of our Buenos Aires team joining the fun. Let’s meet the Kinnect team:

(37:58) Intros

JORGE:

Hey everyone. My name is Jorge Viramontes , technical consultant at Kin + Carta.

JULIE:

My name is Julie Putis. I am a product strategist here at Kin + Carta. On the team, I filled both roles, product and then scrum.

JOAN:

Well, my name is Joan Artigas. I’ve been working at Kin + Carta as a QA analyst for the past… almost two years now. In this case for the Kinnect initiative, I took the role of UX researcher and I’ve been enjoying it. Every part of it.

(38:47)What is Kinnect?

SCOTT:

All right. Cool. Jorge, since you’re working on the product end maybe you can just tell us… help our audience understand what is Kinnect?

JORGE:

So, Kinnect is an app for us to be able to connect with other members at our firm that we may not be able to interact with based on similarities or similar interests. So essentially it was based on the idea of some popular dating apps, where you put a little bit of information about yourself and then other people are able to like or match with the things that you put and then basically creating a platform for people to interact with one another.

(39:26)Designing the Experience

SCOTT:

So, obviously you have a model in terms of something like a dating app of the structure. But, how did you go about sort of choosing what kinds of questions that you’re going to ask people to determine compatibility or interest?

JULIE:

So we were looking at some of the silly polls that Praneet had put together and shares weekly with the team and there’s so much that the Kin + Carta team is really engaged in those polls.

SCOTT:

Quick side note here, because Julie’s right. Praneet (who you heard earlier from the Office World team) sends weekly polls out to the company. And they’re outstanding. My personal favorites include: Which of the 12 days of Christmas gifts would be the WORST one to get? And Which type of freshly baked food item would be your weapon of choice in a fight? Okay, back to Julie.

JULIE:

So, we modelled a lot of questions off of those existing polls, looking at the ones that were probably a little bit more highly engaged. So those were some questions. We were looking at BuzzFeed. I was looking at BuzzFeed trying to get some inspiration as well as thinking about… I was writing some of these questions and it was taking me so long to think about really great questions and answers because I feel like the organization and structure of Kin + Carta, we have offices across multiple regions. We have team members of different demographics.

(40:57) Cross-Cultural Challenges

JULIE:

And so, we’re trying to think about if I was taking this quiz and if someone else was taking this quiz and Joan was taking this quiz. Thinking about, is there a question? Is there a response for every question that everyone feels like they can associate with and rings true for them? That was really hard because of just the growth and the structure of the business and the organization today. So, that was a challenge, kind of brainstorming things like that and thinking holistically about how is this applicable to everyone.

SCOTT:

I mean, that’s got to be challenging. We have a slack channel dedicated to nothing but misunderstandings between language and culture called Cricket Jack, based on the fact that in Buenos Aires when your car gets a flat, the device you use to lift up the car so you can change the tire is called a cricket and in the U.S and in the U.K, it’s called the Jack, right. And so, I could just see even asking the same question. Again, I don’t know how you work tire jack into a question, but people have no idea what you’re talking about. So, Joan as a user researcher, how did you approach that problem? How did you try to find what questions you thought would help people? You’d even consider maybe we could look at locale and say, if I’m going to ask this one question for some person who’s coming out of Buenos Aires versus a person who’s coming out of the U.S but they may match if they have… we ask a different question, but it’s driving towards the same personality.

JOAN:

It was one of the most challenging parts of the reading of the app. We actually decided to go with the first version of the app that is only in English because even when we have an office in a Spanish speaking country or in different countries, the people here communicate in English. Between Europe and the States maybe you could have some words that differ, but the language is at least between England and United States is the same. That brings some complications because some people from Argentina wasn’t aware of some words that were maybe pretty common in English. So we think, we keep it simple with words. We use drawings or images. Do we limit the amount of answers? Do we allow them to pick from a list of answers? This was one of the most discussed and debated features.

JOAN:

Do we have skip button on to allow people to skip? And if we do, what if they skip all the questions? How are we going to match? That is something that we are still working on so far. We still haven’t come with a right answer. But, yeah. We have several interviews with several people from all over the world. All the ages. All the levels of knowledge of English language, and the answers are so diverse. And it’s so hard to give a universal answer for all of them. But, I wanted to show that we are working to have the best experience across the map so people can interact with each other without caring of where they are or who they are or how long they’ve been working in Kin + Carta.

JOAN:

One of the things of the key pillars I kept during the whole research is, I am trying to find a way that this app is as inclusive and diverse as possible because I think this is one of the course of idea of what we were drivers as a B Corp for the last year. I think that’s the way to go and what we should have as a North Star during this development.

SCOTT:

Yeah, I think that’s great. Did that come through in the testing? Were you able to get a diverse group of testers to sort of validate your assumptions?

JOAN:

I think that was the most fun part of this. At first, I was really skeptical of how people will sign up to be the subject to try this. So, without any hope I sent an invite. I need to get four or five people to answer, and I got over 25 responses from the U.K, the States, Argentina. I had to pick who will be the better combination of people to have the most diverse range within the less amount of interviews. So I performed about seven of them. We found that even so, we have a pretty diverse pool of users. Some answers were unanimous.

(44:47) Connections One Question At a Time

SCOTT:

Great. Thanks. And so, maybe to also help us understand a little bit about how we’re looking at things. This is, Jorge or Julie jumping on this one was, what are some examples of some of the questions that you asked?

JULIE:

The question I feel that was probably one of my favorite was… I think it was a… Which is your favorite Harry? Was the question. And so, I was thinking about the options and I think it was Harry styles, Harry Kane who’s a professional soccer… football player, Prince Harry was one option. I can’t remember the fourth. But I thought that, that was cool.

JOAN:

Harry Potter.

JULIE:

That was it. That was it.

JOAN:

Harry Potter and was answered unanimously by all the users. They all be picked Harry Porter.

JORGE:

Obviously. That was the number one answer.

JULIE:

I love that. See, that one I feel like I just grabbed. I was like, “Okay, our fictional character.” But that was one of my favorite questions because I feel like it really touched on the personality at the firm and I think it was silly and light hearted, but I also feel like you can really have a conversation off of that. If you were somebody that answered that Harry styles was your favorite Harry, it’s like, okay. So maybe you like pop genre music, like….. Have you listened to his latest release singles? Let’s talk about Watermelon crush. Let’s talk about his music.

SCOTT:

I love how this group tapped into this , and it’s become a common theme we’ve throughout each team…it’s the little things. Particularly as people within the company started using it, it became really clear that yes a brief conversation about why Harry Styles might be a genius, with someone you otherwise might not have met within the company, can do remarkable things for morale. It helps fill up the part of our brains that needs that sense of belonging and shared experience. The conversations can happen naturally, they just need the right nudge.

Something else that really struck me in our conversation with the Kinnect team, was that there’s so much you can only learn through DOING. They uncovered so many critical questions – like the cross-cultural questions, through extensive scenario planning, user journey mapping, which made them continuously have to prioritize what they did next, just like a client project. Here’s Jorge walking us through what that looked like:

JORGE:

So at the beginning, there was a huge effort from the technical side to get a lot of the firebase infrastructure in place to get some of the backends we chose the GraphQL. We chose all of these different… and we created these architecture diagrams, which are great and they’re necessary.

JORGE:

And at the same time, given the timeframe that we have for ourselves, we started to pivot and say, “Well, it’s really more important for us right now to make sure that…” Lauren, she did a great job on the design work to have some great designs that show the prototype. And so that Joan can then use that for validation research…There are lots of questions that we didn’t really think of. Well, if somebody skips all of the questions, how can we match them to anything? So, figuring out those and just being able to prioritize to understand what we should be focusing on first, that definitely changed throughout the months.

SCOTT:

Have you thought through also, what if nobody matches anybody, right? I’m the one guy who picks Harry styles, everyone else picks Harry Potter. Clearly, I don’t belong. So, what is it just like, maybe you should go somewhere else for friendship?

JORGE:

Yeah. I think that what we said was you’ll be ranked with everyone. So, we started with a very small user base, but let’s say there were 10 people, if you literally matched zero across the board. Well, hey look, here’s 10 other people on this platform, but then the more questions that you answered the higher up the ranking algorithm would put them with your interests. Probably wouldn’t scale if we’re trying to be the next dating app, but.

SCOTT:

Okay I feel better about not being a digital black sheep. Again the effort to make this real, even as a prototype, is extraordinary. Can you speak to what the experience has been like? To dive into this type of challenge, outside of work hours, to solve a problem so many people are experiencing right now?

JULIE:

So for me, it was nice to kind of, after working an eight hour workday to kind of put work aside and just connect and see friends on the team. So for me, I felt like I was getting connection out of this experience and I felt like that plus our Wednesday check-in where Joan was always in attendance. We could see his face too, just given the time difference I really enjoy just seeing people and having fun with the Zoom versus like Zoom fatigue, which is very, very real experience and something that I think for me personally, I was struggling with throughout this remote work world.

JOAN:

I can’t lose sight the fact of being able and given the opportunity to learn a new skill and work on that in an internal project was amazing. People were really open to help and give me a hand whenever I needed and I think that allowed me to do a pretty good job. So it was my first time doing this for a project, but what I like the most is being able to work with a team that I never worked before with either of them, with none of them I didn’t work before.

JORGE:

This opportunity, it was just an opportunity to flex a different muscle, like flexing different muscles in our brains. Obviously I’ve been writing code for so long and it could have been, “Oh, okay. This is a different project to code,” which is fine, but it was more so, “Okay. We have this idea, we have this problem. People are not being able to connect with each other. How can we solve it? What do people want? What don’t people want? How much time do we have? How much time do people have to contribute?” Flexing those different muscles that I wouldn’t regularly flex on a client engagement. It was super cool and yeah, it was a great investment of having some good times with some new and old friends.

Just yesterday at our quarterly, oh my gosh. I almost shed a tear from the background music and just seeing that I think a lot of people really responded positively to at least the intent behind the project and if we’re able to continue to stir up excitement, I think that people will definitely be open to learning more, engaging with it. So the excitement that comes from us, the people who are leading it is just as important as the product that we’re making.

JOAN:

I was going to say, I agree with what Jorge just said. I was also very, very happy on the acceptance and the receiving we have during this quarterly because we invested a lot emotionally in this app because it was so fun to work it and we work on it because we want to. It wasn’t something we were forced to. We believe in this project.

JULIE:

Truly the reason why I joined this project was because of the idea and the theme and the importance around connection. When I was 18, freshman in college, I heard someone mention that the purpose of life was all about building relationships and connecting with others and it rocked my world to hear that and for me it really resonated like, “You’re absolutely right.” I feel like when I was thinking a lot about the purpose of life pre-college before that experience, it was like, “To be happy find joy,” and everything that I was saying was like, “That’s true,” but it just kind of fell flat, felt really 2D and when I heard that in passing, I remember the day. I remember it was sunny where I was. I stopped in my tracks and I was like, “No one’s ever told me that no one’s ever formed that, that in my head,” and I felt like for me, it really started to kick things off with like, “That’s important to me.”

I don’t want to be remembered, and I think everyone here, like I can’t speak actually for everyone, but I don’t want to be remembered so much for the things that I do, but for the way I make people feel and I think that that directly translates into your relationships with others and the connections that you have and so it kind of just really started my focus. It shifted my focus on what was really important, which was the people around me and how I can lift them up and make them feel. So for me, that’s true. I said this months ago, but that was the reason why.

SCOTT:

That’s great. That’s really great, Julie. I love that.

JORGE:

Well said, Julie.

Truly the reason why I joined this project was because of the idea and the theme and the importance of connection.

Julie Putis – Scrum Master & Product Consultant

(53:20) Closing Thoughts

SCOTT:

Well said Julie indeed.

Each one of these teams was given the challenge to help reconnect and revitalize relationships within the company. And as we hope you’ve gotten a sense of….they absolutely succeeded. Not only did they build real, viable experiences…but what QUICKLY became clear: The project itself WAS accomplishing the task. People rallied together, and as they brainstormed ways to feel connected to one another, they became better connected to one another.

We wanted to make this episode because we’re clearly still overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, and we know we’re not alone in feeling the effects of unprecedented remote work. So if the stories you just heard resonate with you, honestly if you’re still listening to me by this point it seems SOMETHING has resonated.

Or you fell asleep a long time ago and I’m currently talking to your floor.

Either way. If you’re a manager or leader of any kind, and if you have creative people on your team, not necessarily people with creative in their job description, but people who love to solve problems, build things, test ideas, play with solutions….unleash them on it. See what people come up with. At the very least, the pursuit of what’s possible is often reward enough.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a virtual conga line that’s calling my name.

That’s our episode. Which means that’s a wrap on Season 1 of Working Better! Thank you for listening and engaging with us – it’s been a heck of an experiment itself. Thank you for letting me crawl out of the internet and into your ear. I have had a blast and I learned a lot. I hope you have too.

If you have feedback, ideas , questions about the NEXT season of Working Better – we want to hear from you! Reach out to us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn. Or if you don’t want to continue to support the Social Media Industrial Complex, all you have to do is jot your ideas down on a piece of paper, step outside and then light the paper on fire. The smoke will carry your thoughts to us.

If you liked the show remember to subscribe and give us a bajillion star review on your podcast dispenser of choice.

Thank you to the team that continues to make this possible.

Chris Mitchell is our sound engineer.

Belen Battisti is our production coordinator.

Maxx Parcell is our writer, producer and editor.

Katie Pooler is our Pooler.

Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed how AI and other advanced technologies can be used to inflame conflict, warp our perceptions of reality, and even undermine the truth itself. How do we better protect ourselves against the dangers of these technologies? Have we misunderstood the problem? And what role should tech play in finding new solutions? We unpack it all in the latest episode of Working Better, including a deep dive conversation with Sam Woolley, author of The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology will Break the Truth.

Featuring:

Credits:

  • Produced, written, and edited by Maxx Parcell
  • Sound engineering by Chris Mitchell
  • Music by Luc Parcell
  • Additional editing support by Ashley Higuchi
  • Production support by Belen Battisti

Show Notes

(00:02) Have you ever heard of The Vegetable Lamb?

The Vegetable Lamb is extraordinary in that it belongs to a class nearly all its own. The ultra-rare half-plant / half-animal. To the naked eye, it looks like a small shrub you might find in gardens all over the world, marked by a single thick stem that shoots straight up like a sunflower. At the top of that stem are small encased bulbs….open one up and you’ll find…a small lamb, alive, fuzzy, and waiting to be plucked and raised for its wool.

Okay yes, it’s nonsense.

But while The Vegetable Lamb most definitely doesn’t exist, it was accepted and spread as truth for literally hundreds of years. Europeans in the Middle Ages knew that cotton was this thing that arrived from India, but weren’t sure exactly how it grew. Enter a fantastical story about lambs growing from the ground like Cauliflower. The folklore first took hold because it satisfied a gap in understanding.

As travel writers brought stories from around the world, the tale of the vegetable lamb seemed to propagate all on its own. Even as scientific thinking exploded during the Renaissance, and academics debunked the possibility of such a creature, the stories of the Vegetable Lamb still pressed on until ultimately falling apart around the 1600s after attempts to prove the creature existed were revealed to be plants cut and bundled together in the shape of a lamb. Sort of the “three children stacked on each other’s shoulders under a trench coat” approach to deception.

So what can the Vegetable Lamb teach us today? False stories spread like a virus, particularly when they help us make sense of something we don’t understand.

Back in the 1400s, it was tall tales about sheep grown from the ground. Today it’s conspiracy theories and misinformation, now being amplified by modern technologies like AI bots, social media algorithms, and deep fake facial recognition.

Today’s question: Has technology broken the truth?

We’ll hear from Josh Levin from Cascade Data Labs and take a deep dive with Sam Woolley, the author of “The Reality Game: How the next wave of technology will break the truth.”

Now just like I say to my wife when I need to both reintroduce myself AND show her I fixed a clogged bathtub…

I’m Scott Hermes, this is Working Better.

(02:42) Do We Still Know What The Truth Is?

Okay, so in part one of “Data vs Goliath” we talked about the role of data in our lives at a human level; how we interact with new information, how confirmation bias and cultural identity can steer us away from data we don’t agree with in work, our relationships, in our communities.

So if part one looked at how we’re inherently wired to put up a fight against the truth, part 2 will call into question – do we still know what the truth is? Playing the role of Goliath this time around: Technology.

This is clearly a politically charged topic at the moment. There are many lenses we can use to understand the post-truth era, the proliferation of fake news, and the day-to-day status of truth and democracy. Our intention is to help unpack the role of technology in both the problem as well as potential solutions – depending on who you talk to.

We’re going to explain how social media algorithms and AI bots might not work the way you think they do, how emerging technologies pose an entirely new challenge and the different schools of thought about how we should solve the problem.

We’ve created a reinforcing feedback loop between our media consumption and our political consumption. Things have grown to the point where it’s impossible to separate the two, and every news article seems to have some implicit political bend.

Josh Levin – Co-Founder, Partner at Cascade Data Labs

(03:52) Social Media Bubbles

“I’m going to go off script. I’m here because I’m very concerned” – Tristan Harris

That’s Tristan Harris (tr-STAHN like “naan”, not like “kristin”), speaking at a Congressional Hearing in January 2020. You might recognize Tristan’s voice if you’ve seen the hit Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma.” The film explores the dangerous impact of social media, as told by former employees of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Google.

The argument goes like this: Social media companies are having a much more profound effect on society than their founders ever could have imagined, particularly when it comes to the rapid spread of hate speech, propaganda, and widely debunked conspiracy theories. While the fake news phenomenon has brought plenty of absurd stories worth laughing at, Tristan argues the underlying dangers are more severe than we might think.

“Flat earth conspiracy theories were recommended hundreds of millions of times. This might sound funny and ‘look at those people’ but actually this is very serious. I have a researcher friend who studied this – if the Flat earth theory is true, it means that not just all of government is lying to you, but all of science is lying to you. So think about that for a second. That’s a meltdown of all of our rational epistemic understanding of the world.”” – Tristan Harris

Okay so how does this happen, and how do companies like Facebook fit into it all? For starters, there are 2.7 billion people around the world on Facebook. Over a third of the human population. Because Facebook’s business model is centered around ad sales, the thing really being sold isn’t the platform itself – but the attention of those 2.7 million people.

Advertisers will always pay a premium to be where the eyeballs are. That’s nothing new. What IS different is the level of sophistication to which these companies can do so. Because everything comes down to holding your attention, highly nuanced algorithms are designed to feed you the PERFECT thing to keep you clicking and scrolling.

“We’re always connected and these algorithms have hacked our brains to constantly want to engage with them.” – Josh Levin

That’s Josh Levin. Josh is a data scientist and co-founder of Cascade Data Labs in Portland Oregon, who recently joined the Kin + Carta family.

“It’s such a subtle and unconscious addiction. I’ll find myself checking my phone – email, newsfeed, whatever – when I’m walking to the bathroom. Like I can’t have a moment of space for it. It’s completely mindless. And there’s all this research on the health benefits of mindfulness and we’re completely pushing our brains in the opposite direction.” – Josh Levin

Every photo, status update, friend suggestion, group recommendation, news article – it’s all driven by an evolving model of what you want to see next. “Machine learning” means the model learns and improves itself with every click. What do people tend to click on the most and respond most favorably to? As we learned from Part 1 – there’s nothing we gobble up faster than reinforcement that we’re the good guys.

“Collectively, over time, we’ve created a reinforcing feedback loop between our media consumption and our political consumption. As our politics became more polarized, we became more easily sortable, and our media has followed suit. In turn, content creators have picked up on the interplay of these algorithms and our consumption, and things have grown even more extreme and satisfied to the point where it’s impossible to separate the two, and every news article seems to have some implicit political bend.” – Josh Levin

On either end of the political spectrum, if you’ve ever felt like the other side appears to be living in their own reality…in a sense, they are. When our feeds learn to present us one side of the equation, polarization becomes inevitable. A study from Upturn revealed it actually cost more for a politician to advertise across the aisle. It’s quite literally more expensive to try and change someone’s mind than it is to reinforce their beliefs.

And when an algorithm is learning that feeding you conspiracy theories will keep you there, guess what’s going to keep showing up on the menu. For breakfast, may I recommend a secret cabal of lizard people controlling the world. For lunch, we are featuring a platter of JFK jr never died and is secretly Cher, and for dinner, our house specialty, …an ad for reptile deterrent spray because it’s important to protect your family.

Propaganda and deliberate DIS-information works the same way. Content is shared and amplified by fake AI bots, designed to stoke outrage and destabilize functioning society.

So what do we do?

First, we cleanse the palette. It’s time for Cooler Terms with Pooler & Hermes.

(08:50) Cooler Terms

SCOTT:

Okay good I’m feeling hopeful again.

To summarize so far:

Social media companies want our attention

Algorithms hold our attention by predicting what we’ll click on based on what we’ve clicked on in the past and what people who are like us have clicked on in the past

We all end up in our own echo chambers

As polarization gets worse and worse, we become susceptible to propaganda and influence campaigns

By the time you’ve learned the new tik tok dance, it’s already out of style.

So what do solutions look like?

(11:40) Innovation-Led argument

Some say new technology and media forms have always raised concerns about collateral damage. In 1897 a London writer lamented the invention of the telephone saying “we shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.” My doctor says so far I’m only an opaque heap of jelly, so jokes on him.

Free market advocates say regulation stifles competition, and that people should consider using different social media or messaging services like Signal, Telegram or Mastodon.

Others, many on both sides of the aisle, argue that the government should stay out of it, that censorship of any kind, like Twitter banning Trump, or Parler being removed from Amazon Web Services… is a slippery slope, and it’s up to individuals to create change. Here’s a clip from a video from the Foundation for Economic Education:

“We should all have concerns about the amount of control a handful of coders and executives at facebook, twitter and youtube have over the ideas we’re allowed to talk about. But the way we stop them from dictating the limits of people’s speech isn’t to let the government control what we’re allowed to say or decide how the platforms are allowed to operate.”

People have gotten savvier to the fact that there are people out there trying to manipulate them online, and that these different types of technologies and political strategies are part of social media.

Sam Woolley – Writer, Researcher, and Professor at University of Texas

(12:54) Pro-regulation argument

Reform advocates like Tristan Harris say of course individuals have power, but when we focus the problem on specific CONTENT, or we frame it as a few executives in silicon valley who control everything…we’re still missing the bigger problem:

“We often frame this issue as a few bad apples, we’ve got these bad deep fakes, bad content, bad bots…dark patterns, what I want to argue is we have dark infrastructure. This is now the infrastructure by which 2.7 billion people, bigger than the size of Christianity make sense of the world. It’s the information environment. If private companies went along and built nuclear power plants all across the United States and they started melting down, and they said well it’s your responsibility to have hazmat suits, and build a radiation kit. That’s essentially what we’re experiencing now. The responsibility is being put on consumers. When in fact if it’s the infrastructure, the responsibility should be put on the people building that infrastructure.”

Protection of children and teenagers has become a primary focus of those calling for regulation. Tristan points out that policies designed to safeguard the content kids are exposed to is not a new idea at all:

“We used to have Saturday morning cartoons. We protected children from certain kinds of advertising, time place manner restrictions. When YouTube gobbles up that part of the attention economy, we lose all those protections. So why not bring back the protections of Saturday morning?” – Tristan Harris

There is a LOT of nuance to this debate, and a lot more to unpack in terms of how we solve the issue of technology and misinformation. To help us do exactly that, we’re thrilled to welcome Dr. Sam Woolley. Sam is a writer, researcher and professor with a focus on emerging media technologies and propaganda. His work looks at how automation, algorithms and AI are leveraged for both freedom and control. His recent book, The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology Will Break the Truth explores the future of digital disinformation across virtual reality, video, and other media tools, including a pragmatic roadmap for how society can respond.

(14:24) Interview With Sam Woolley

SCOTT:

Tell us a little bit about your background and then what are you working on, and how did you get interested in it?

SAM:

I’m primarily a writer and researcher. I work at the University of Texas, where I oversee something called the Propaganda Research Lab within the Center for Media Engagement. My team is mostly focused on doing analysis of emerging media and trends like disinformation and manipulation of public opinion. So, we study all these sorts of emerging things on platforms, from Parler to Facebook to Twitter, and the ways in which these platforms are leveraged for various forms of manipulation or hate or harassment. Simultaneous to that, we also focus on solutions, so we look at the ways in which we can solve these problems.

SCOTT:

Do you feel like the truth is already broken in some ways, and if not, what will it mean to eventually break it?

SAM:

In some ways, the truth has always been a broken concept, right? Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 60s about the connections between truth and politics and basically made the assertion, very correctly, that politicians have always have a very flexible relationship with the truth. And in fact, that lying is oftentimes seen as a necessary part of politicians, not just by demagogues or authoritarians, but also by statesmen and regular politicians in Congress in the United States.

That’s not to say though that facts are broken, because I think truth and facts are two different concepts that require a little bit of parsing. Today, in today’s day and age, you have people like Kellyanne Conway sitting before the news media saying things like, “We’re presenting our own alternative facts,” in reference to Spicer’s comments, as press secretary. But alternative facts are not facts, right? Fact actually refers to science and refers to empirical knowledge, being able to verify, being part of the scientific process.

I would say that while the truth is under attack and the truth is always and already broken in some ways, what we have to work to do is we have to work back to get on track where we have a shared reality.

10 years ago, a decade ago when I first started studying this stuff, no one really wanted to talk about the fact that social media and new media technologies were being used for manipulation and that this was causing a real challenge to the truth.

SCOTT:

What is computational propaganda?

SAM:

Computational propaganda is a term that Phil Howard, the director of the Oxford Internet Institute, and myself, back when we were both at the University of Washington co-coined together. We were thinking about the ways in which social media was being used during the Arab Spring and during the Occupy Wall Street protests, particularly looking at automated fake profiles. These profiles that were on Twitter that had software behind them to automate their tasks and spread particular political perspectives.

Basically these bots, political bots, were being used to manipulate public opinion by amplifying particular content. The goals were either getting people to re-share their content, because it gave that content the illusion of popularity, or getting algorithms to pick it.

We landed on this term, computational propaganda, because really what we saw was the ways in which propaganda, which is something that’s been around for a very long time, was being enhanced by things like automation and anonymity. It was bots but it was also the algorithmic processes that I was just talking about. You had social media companies out there saying things like, “We’re not the arbiters of the truth. We just present information,” and trying to dress themselves up as a modern-day AT&T or some such.

SCOTT:

How automated actually are the bots or is it still fairly a manual process to run those, the bots?

SAM:

Social media bots or social bots, and more specifically what my colleagues have called political bots. These are forward-facing bots that have presence on social media. It’s an automated piece of software that gets built to automate the social media profile, so it can automate the posts, it was automate likes, or in the case of Twitter retweets. It can post automated comments on say a news site below the line. And so bots are fairly automated things. They usually get built through the application programing interface on a given site, the API.

There’s also sock puppets, which you mentioned. Sock puppets are usually run by people. They’re accounts that have no clear identity on a site like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, whatever, that are manually run.

Increasingly, we’re seeing a merger of these two things. There was more separation. Most of the political bots that were out there on Twitter back in 2013, or even 2016 during the US election then, were very heavy-handed. They were used just to massively boost of particular political candidates, or to spam comment sections with repetitive comments over and over and over again. That was all they needed to do because propagandists and people attempting to spread disinformation are very pragmatic. They use the cheapest tools they need and the simplest tools that they need oftentimes to get the job done.

SCOTT:

In your book, you argue that fighting fake news AI bots with more AI is a mistake. Why do you think that?

SAM:

Every time I go to a conference there’s always someone at the conference that says, “Well, if Russia wants to use bots or AI, then we should use AI in the US,” or the UK, or wherever I am. So, there’s this very adversarial idea that we should fight fire with fire.

I disagree with this. I think that responding to bots with more bots, or responding to AI with more AI systems, oftentimes can lead to unexpected and problematic consequences. The number-one thing that happens when you fight bots with bots is a tremendous amount of noise. Bots already mess up our information ecosystem. They already have created a tremendous amount of noise on Twitter. And they’ve created a tremendous amount of distrust in social media, because people just don’t know what to believe. They don’t know whether or not random profiles that they’re interacting with might be aimed at manipulation. And that distrust is something that we don’t want to throw fuel on, right? To extend that fire metaphor, right?

SAM:

Let’s think about ways to build policy that helps to limit the effectiveness of political bots. Say for instance stopping them from posting every minute, which Facebook and Twitter have picked up in the last several years and other companies have as well. We’ve seen this be quite successful.

On the other hand, however, we also need to do a redesigning of some of the social media technology in a way that also doesn’t allow cyborg accounts, so combinations of bots and people, to function quite so well.

SCOTT:

AI bots is not a good use technology. Is there policies, obviously, we can get these platform providers to agree to this? Is there any sort of technology that might help in this fight?

SAM:

I think, to add nuance to the point on bots and AI, there are beneficial ways we can use both of these things, both of these things in concert to create smart bots that, say for instance, help to verify information or help to educate or help to connect particular communities that need to be connected. Say educational communities that otherwise wouldn’t be speaking. So, maybe we can use AI bots as the stitches in the patchwork quilt to connect diverse communities in order to create more equality and better democracy.

As we build these AI systems we have to think very carefully about what we’re putting in, because what we put in matters on the backend.

SCOTT:

Do you feel like government or policy, the government has in enforcing some of these ideas or these policies?

SAM:

I’m in favor of regulation. I think regulation has to happen. I think that the social media companies know, in the United States in particular, that regulation has to happen. The US Government has got to stop divesting from the regulation of the digital sphere just because they don’t understand it, because there’s lots of people that do understand it here in the United States and can help them to build sensible regulation. It’s just a question of getting organized and doing it.

If we’re going to regulate the space, and I think we are, we have to involve technologists, public interest technologists and researchers in this process, so that the policy that gets created is actually sensible and is able to be mapped onto the internet and digital ecosystems, rather than just trying to retrofit old policies that were created pre-internet.

SCOTT:

How do you recognize that there’s a bot in play or that someone’s attempting to perhaps influence you?

SAM:

People have gotten more savvy to the fact that there are people out there trying to manipulate them online, and that these different types of technologies and political strategies are part of social media. So, that awareness is good. I would say that on an individual level there’s lots of different tools that are out there.

On our website, you can find a lot of different tools for tracking whether or not a profile is a bot profile, or whether or not a story has been fact checked. It might be disinformation.

There’s also organizations like the Poynter Institute, which generally is aimed at helping journalists to become better reporters, but that has also done a lot of work to put out information on fact checking and disinformation in the digital sphere.

We also need to think before you’re posting something that’s very political or inflammatory.

SCOTT:

It would be a great design principle to build into a place where you don’t want disinformation to spread rapidly.

SAM:

We have to ask ourselves what does it look like to redesign social media and other communication tools in the digital realm with the fact in mind that people will discuss politics, that people will be discussing elections, voting, people will be discussing science, climate change, these sorts of things?

SCOTT:

Anything else you want to leave us with Sam?

SAM:

The last thing I would say is that we need to be thinking about what’s next for social media. The move to encryption and encrypted sites and private sites is worrying to me, because I think what it means is that we will become more ignorant to the fact that there still is a lot of disinformation and extremism flowing, and that might allow us to pretend like it doesn’t exist but it still very much exists. So, pushing people to dark corners of the internet is not necessarily a good thing and it’s not a solution.

As this continues to happen, and I think it will, we need to be thinking very carefully both as companies, as policymakers, as researchers about the ways in which we can maintain encrypted spaces, because they’re really important for all sorts of human rights-oriented communication, while also preventing a lot of the horrible misuse of these platforms that we see, that we know about, like terrorism but also disinformation, child pornography, these sorts of things that are really problematic.

I think we already have mechanisms for understanding how we can prevent the sharing of that kind of content through allowing people to tag it and share it with the company and say, “Hey, this is bad.” But yeah, let’s not just let companies move towards encryption, and as companies let’s not just move towards encryption and think that that’s the solution. It’s not.

We need to be thinking carefully as companies, as policymakers, as researchers about the ways in which we can maintain encrypted spaces, because they’re really important for all sorts of human rights-oriented communication.

Sam Woolley – Writer, Researcher, and Professor at University of Texas

Conclusion

Thanks again to Sam – again the name of the book is The Reality Game: How the Next Wave of Technology will Break the Truth. Go find it, I know we just scratched the surface of what Sam has to say.

Clearly, this is a complicated problem. Pulitzer prize winning entomologist and biologist E.O. Wilson sums it up well. He says “The real problem with humanity is that we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Said another way: We react like cave people, cling to outdated ways of functioning as a society, and inflame it all with extraordinarily potent technology that seems to have a mind all its own.

For anyone looking to change their relationship with social media, Sam outlined a lot of great advice in terms of what to do at the individual level. There’s a LOT of great thinking around this topic, so we wanted to include some other recommendations.

The Center for Humane Technology is an organization founded by Tristan Harris. They recommend some simple things you can do right now:

Turn off notifications

Remove apps you think are toxic

Seek out voices you don’t agree with

Limit outrage from your diet

Support local journalism

And finally – remember to focus on the positive. Like we’ve explored in these last couple episodes, we’re sometimes wired to be our own worst enemy, and that can include focusing on the negative. But we started this show to seek problems worth solving, and this most certainly qualifies. If you want some light reading in the meantime, I found this great 14th century book called “The Most Fearful and Extraordinary Secrets of Cotton as toldeth to the author verily by a member of yon most secret cabal who, forsooth, wisheth that THOU dost NOT knoweth of these secrets”

Credits

That is our show for this week. Thanks again to Sam Wooley and Josh Levin for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our first two-parter. Please join us for our next episode which will be the last episode of our first season. I am really excited about it. We have had our Labs team working on solutions to the problems of social distancing that we covered waaay back in Episode 2. Our last episode will dive into how they approached the problems, the three different solutions they came up with, and how those solutions are working out.

Let us know how we are doing. If you liked the episode, please subscribe and rate is in your favorite podcast dispenser. If you hated this episode, why are you still listening to me talk?

If you haven’t already removed the following apps from your phone, please reach out to us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter. If you have forsworn all technology and retreated to a state of nature in a local cave, you can always send us a note by mashing up some of those red berries down near the creek, being careful not to drink any of the berry juice, then use a stick or a porcupine quill (not currently attached to a live porcupine), to write us a note and set it adrift on the aforementioned creek. If the beavers don’t eat it, we will get your message in the spring.

See you next episode!

As “Big Data” gets even bigger, so do the promises about our new data-driven world. But even with humankind’s knowledge at our fingertips, is it any match for the beliefs we already hold? Through the lenses of business, politics, and our everyday lives, this episode explores why human nature is a formidable foe against the data we hold so dear. We’ll highlight the psychology of misinformation, how data literacy is reshaping business, and what journalists, innovators, and educators believe we should do next in our pursuit of the truth.

You can listen and subscribe to Working Better in your favorite app Apple Podcasts, SpotifyGoogle Podcasts.

Featuring:

Credits:

  • Produced, written and edited by Maxx Parcell.
  • Sound engineering by Chris Mitchell
  • Music by Luc Parcell
  • Additional editing support by Ashley Higuchi
  • Production support by Belen Battisti

Show Notes

(00:00) Big Data Gets Bigger

If you took a piece of letter-sized printer paper, and folded it in half repeatedly, it would take 7 folds to be as thick as an average notebook.

How tall do you think it would be if you folded it in half 50 times? The empire state building? Mount Everest? Big Bird? Try the distance to the SUN. It sounds crazy but it’s true.

Exponential growth is a hell of a drug. Don’t believe me?

Modern technology means we’re able to collect data about literally everything. Big Data is so big we now have to measure it in Zettabytes. What’s a Zettabyte? Well if you’ve ever used an external hard drive, those can usually hold about 1-5 terabytes. Which is quite a bit…A Zettabyte is A BILLION terabytes.

This number has become so outrageous for the same reason folding paper can take you 93 million miles into space. It doubles about every two years.

Okay so long way of saying…today’s show is about making paper airplanes and flying them to the sun. No unfortunately that’s not true, maybe next season.

The amount of DATA that exists in the world is beyond our comprehension. Data streams have turned into rivers, lakes, and now oceans that can’t be measured because we’ve never been to the bottom. We quite literally have the grand sum of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips. Surely that knowledge is making us smarter, right? Surely, we’ve gotten better at feeding that information through our carefully calibrated, objective, cool-headed craniums, right?

Of course not….Where’s the fun in that?

There’s so much to unpack here, this topic will be a two parter that we’re calling Data vs Goliath.

Our question for part 1: Do facts really change our minds?

Playing the role of Goliath: Human nature.

My Big Data is bigger than your Big Data. I’m Scott Hermes, this is Working Better.

Are we as data-driven as we think?

There’s no problem data can’t help solve right?. Worried you’re spending too much time staring at your phone? Bam! Track your screen time down to the second. Feel like the thing that’s really missing from your life is a detailed report of your blood oxygen levels? Bam! Get an Apple watch. Want the government to track where you are at every given moment? Bam! Get a cell phone.

Whether it’s finding the best deal on a flight, where to live, what to eat, what car to drive, where to work, what to buy, how much to spend, your likelihood of getting COVID when you go out to get that burrito grande, there’s not a decision we encounter that we can’t take a deep breath and say “well let’s look at the data.”

But if we all made data-driven decisions, bacon wouldn’t exist, we’d all lock our phones in a safe while we sleep, and I would stop betting on the Bears to win the Super Bowl. But 500 to 1 to win next year. I’d be crazy not to bet on them…

If I handed you a bottle of water and the cap was open, you’re going to question that. Why don’t people do that with data and information?

Karl Hampson – CTO AI & Data, Kin + Carta

(03:16) Confirmation Bias

One reason is due to what’s called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias means we seek out and favor information that confirms what we already believe. 

One of the most famous studies of confirmation bias came from researchers at Stanford University in 1979. Participants were divided into two groups: one group supported the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. The other opposed it, believing that the death penalty had no effect on crime. Each group was then presented with two studies. The first study confirmed what group A believed – that the death penalty deterred crime, supported with big, juicy data points. The second study confirmed the opposite, with it’s own equally compelling data. Participants then rated the credibility of the data.

Both studies were entirely made up, and both had the same effect. Those who were pro-death penalty rated pro-death penalty crime deterrence data as highly credible

Those who opposed the death penalty said that that data was bogus, and that data saying crime wasn’t affected by the death penalty was all but conclusive.

We favor the data that supports what we already believe. You see it all the time. At work, people will worship data that supports their argument, but will turn into Jack Bauer and interrogate the HELL out of information they don’t like.

Confirmation bias appears to be deeply ingrained in us. Even if we are made aware of its existence, we still tend to do it. The theory is that it allows us to rapidly process information and quickly avoid danger. As humans evolved, it saved us from having to think in life-threatening situations.

Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber also point to the fact that in hunter-gatherer groups, social standing was the most important survival mechanism. So when it came to convincing others that they should go hunting for saber tooth tigers while you reorganize the berries at home…winning an argument was more important than being accurate.

(05:45) Pushing for Data Literacy

The human mind is wired to put up a fight against facts. It’s our nature. But it also used to be in our nature to communicate only via spoken word. For almost all of our existence as a species, around 200,000 years, no one wrote. For thousands of years, reading and writing was a relatively niche skill set of the highly educated.

So is the problem that we don’t yet have the tools and understanding to harness the data that surrounds us?

The discipline of DATA SCIENCE has exploded so rapidly, it’s easy to forget that it’s still a relatively novel idea in mainstream society.

Don’t believe me? We tracked the Google search volume for “Data Science” and “Fax Machines.” In 2020, “data science” was 36x MORE likely to be searched than “fax machines”. When do you think was the last year that Fax machines were on top? The last year searches for FAX MACHINES were more popular than DATA SCIENCE? (pause)

Anyone. (pause) Come on. (pause). Take a guess. (pause). I can wait all day. (pause). Oh right. This isn’t live.

2009.

Barack Obama had just begun his first term as President and fax machines were as relevant a business asset as data science? We’ve come a long way, but the growing pains are real. In our race to inject scientific thinking into virtually every facet of life, core principles of GOOD science can fall by the wayside.

So what – we’ll all have to define what a regression analysis is in order to renew our driver’s license? That we’ll finally start flossing twice a day once we understand how to calculate when gingivitis becomes statistically significant?

Not exactly. Some of the push for “data literacy” is simple good citizen, good consumer sort of stuff. Check your sources, consider the broader context a data point might belong to, don’t get all your news from an Instagram account called The Tinder Blog. You know, the basics.

It’s easy to take data at face value. Asking questions to dig a little deeper is harder. Take the debate about genetically modified food. The Oklahoma State University Department of Agriculture Economics asked consumers whether foods made with genetically modified ingredients should be labeled as such. 80% said yes. Seems like a good rationale for a law then right?

BUT…80% of those same consumers also said that labels should explicitly indicate if food contains DNA.

For those keeping score at home, yes you heard that right. And yes all living things have DNA. So if we avoided food with DNA, we’d….you know, die.

The first number on its own seems to make a compelling case. But a little more context reveals the data might be skewing towards people who have incomplete knowledge or are just terrified of acronyms. Now that doesn’t mean that it is a bad idea to label food as GMO BUT you can’t use that data point to prove it is a good idea.

It’s always been at the center of science communication to figure out how to build a story around what we’re discovering. People are scared, people are lonely, people are frustrated. All of those things color the way that they interpret what you are telling them.

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman – Chief Scientist, The Science Museum of Virginia

(09:02) Bridging the Literacy Gap

KARL:

We all need to think about how we engage with data better.

That’s Karl Hampson CTO of AI & Data from Kin + Carta Europe. Karl says improving our relationship with data and facts means being naturally skeptical and curious about the information we encounter:

KARL: 

“If I handed you a bottle of water and the cap was open, you’re going to question that. Why don’t people do that with data and information?

Other research suggests that the less we know about a topic, the stronger our biases actually tend to be.

In 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled to uphold key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. After the ruling, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey to gauge public reaction. 36% were in favor of the ruling, 40% opposed it, and 24% expressed no opinion. Then they were asked what the actual ruling was. Only 55% were able to. So 76% had no problem giving an opinion, but only 55% actually understood the question.

One school of thought is certainly a logical one: Increase the actual understanding of a topic, and those biases are less likely to get in the way. It’s often referred to as the “deficit model.” So in theory, if people spent less time being outraged by the news around an issue, and more time understanding the issue itself, arguing with your Aunt on facebook might be replaced by…arguing with your aunt on the phone. Baby steps.

Dr. Jenny Rankin is an award winning educator, author and data scientist. She says we should work towards “over the counter data.” That data should be something that can be safely and properly used without an expert. We asked Karl – is that a good idea?

KARL:

I love the idea of trust and the idea of packaging data in a way that you can take it, consume it for a particular purpose. It’s documented. All that good stuff for me is actually productizing data. That’s really the bigger idea, I think, to take away.

I’m handing you a bottle of water, you trust it in the same way, because you look at it immediately, interpret it. It’s from a recognized brand. The integrity is there.

Imagine thinking the same thing with data, and therefore, you can take that and build upon it, do the same, productize it, add more value, and put that back into the product ecosystem.

Make this data, these GOBS of information, easier to access and understand, and we might begin to close the gap here. Karl underscored what side of the equation needs the most help.

KARL:

So we don’t need more technology really at the moment with data. What we have is a people issue.

So we don’t need more technology really at the moment with data. What we have is a people issue.

Karl Hampson – CTO AI & Data, Kin + Carta

(11:53)The Power of Culture

“What we have is a people issue” sounds like planet Earth’s mechanic explaining what’s making all that racket. It’s us. We’re the problem. (sigh) Again. Because while we absolutely can improve our ability to interpret, interrogate and understand raw data – there are still bigger forces at play. Another reason facts and data have a hard time changing our beliefs? That’s not how they’re formed in the first place.

In their book, the Knowledge Illusion, authors Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that our beliefs are forged through powerful cultural and contextual factors that make them nearly impossible to change.

With that in mind, we’d like to go on record here at Working Better, to not shy from taking a stance on a controversial topic, with a bold belief of our own. And though we may lose a few subscribers and sponsors so be it. (clear throat): The Earth is round. There I said it.

When we’re talking about how groupthink can beat well established facts, the flat earth movement is a topic that’s hard to avoid. Even the most conservative estimates measure the growing number of “flat earthers” in the millions, just in the US alone. There’s lots of ways to explain the phenomenon, but undoubtedly one is that people discover a sense of community. They attend conferences and gatherings around the world, they forge friendships, and find identity and meaning in the movement, in the pursuit of what they believe is the truth…and that becomes strong armor against any evidence that says otherwise.

Here’s a clip from a National Geographic Documentary from 2019:

FROM CLIP:

“Your belief in the earth being flat flies in the face of hundreds of years of scientific evidence that the world is round. But not only that – we have satellite imagery, photos from space that prove that the earth is round….”

“Right and nobody here believes any of that anymore.” (Nat Geo)

We ALL can be guilty of this type of thinking in one way or another. We instinctively ignore or discredit data that threatens a part of our identity. A chef is much more likely than an average person to be skeptical over pizza-making robots. It’s not that Blockbuster didn’t have data indicating more and more people were consuming media online and ditching their DVDs…the facts threatened the core of who they were, so they were effectively ignored.

Someone wiser than I once said, “It’s hard to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it.”

(14:38) Interview with Jeremy Hoffman

With that in mind, I’m thrilled to be joined by someone whose job DOES depend on them understanding data. Dr. Jeremy Hoffman is the Chief Scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia and a professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Jeremy specializes in Earth science communication, data-driven and community based participatory science, and science center exhibit content development. He’s been highlighted in the Grist50 and has been written about in publications like the New York Times, NPR, STEM jobs Magazine, UPWORTHY, and yes folks, the Working Better podcast. Jeremy talked with us back in Episode 5 about how cities are affected by climate change. We’re thrilled to have him back to talk about data and the importance of science-based education

SCOTT:

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been working on at the science museum?

JEREMY:

The Science Museum of Virginia likes to think of itself as the marketing agency for science. Everything that we’re doing these days is trying to center the experience around COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic. From last year, focusing on the most breaking science, most reliable science we could share about things from masking to the change from surface… Focusing on cleansing surfaces to maintaining distance and wearing a mask. And then now it’s shifted into reinforcing the safety and reliability of vaccines to alleviate ongoing pandemics. So that’s kind of been coloring the whole background of work these days.

The science museum is dedicated to communicating climate change and its impacts on the Commonwealth of Virginia for the last several years. Working on explaining how something as big and seemingly far away in space and time as climate change is in our backyards. How does something so seemingly so far away in space and time impact me in my day-to-day life? And then finally, just broad brush, we’re trying to integrate real-world science all the time into every aspect of the institution, from our exhibits to our social media content, to our external communications. So it really is a job that allows me to live, breathe, and explain science throughout the week and the years.

SCOTT:

I think that as a consumer of that data, that information coming from the scientists that is either frustrating or hard, is that the research is happening in real time. Right? The message keeps changing. And how do you decide how to collate that information in such a way that you’re not seeming to spin 180 every other day?

JEREMY:

The best and most clearest example of how reliable scientific information has needed to be updated as we discovered new things was our experience at the beginning of the pandemic to where we are now. And what do I mean by that? Originally it was continue to wash your hands religiously between every single touch of any surface. Which is good practice, that’s good public health practice to begin with. But then things like making sure that you’re cleaning every single surface. It’s become clear through laboratory experiments and observations and studies based on how COVID-19 spreads among people is that that’s not a really viable way to catch COVID-19. It’s much more about avoiding cramped, crowded, and poorly ventilated spaces.

SCOTT:

Can you talk about some examples that you can give where you feel like you’ve been successful in taking something which could be maybe hard to grasp and making it really more impactful to people?

JEREMY:

What we started to do in my early times as a science communicator was trying to figure out how we get people to remember the simple things around risk mitigation should an earthquake exist or happen?We started doing flash mobs around earthquake science communication, and we called it flashmob science because what we would do is recruit a large group of people to pretend as though an earthquake was going on.

SCOTT:

What do you feel, you think changing data literacy or science literacy could help maybe people understand better the severity or the urgency behind climate change?

JEREMY:

I think that data can be very, very strong for particular people. Whereas on that other side of the spectrum where people’s values don’t align with the sorts of things that need to happen in order to address the climate crisis, data doesn’t matter anymore.

JEREMY:

It’s taken the climate science communication field a long time to start to recognize that it truly is about connecting with communities through trusted voices. Who are you hearing about this information from? Is it someone that looks like you? Is it someone that engages in the same activities as you? I imagine someone like a sports caster or something on Monday Night Football talking about the heat exhaustion that players of the future might encounter because of climate change. That might turn some heads. As well as something like doctors having conversations with their patients about how a certain climate stresser disproportionately affects them because of where they live in a city. I think that those are the sorts of trusted voices, both in public eye as well as professional life that can be having these conversations and helping to move the needle on public awareness of the climate change impacts that will affect them in their day-to-day lives. Without that it truly is in large part just kind of extra data until you start to connect it to someone’s backyard or their front porch.

SCOTT:

Do you feel like, as a scientist, that’s made you more aware of your own biases or able to sort of realize, at least in retrospect, that you may have perhaps brought a bias to the table?

JEREMY:

I certainly think that understanding your own personal biases is a very introspective piece of work and scientists are not trained any differently than the rest of us in how to be introspective. The scientific mind frame provides you with is the ability to understand progress. And again, that changing information through time, being comfortable with changing your worldview based on that kind of new data being incorporated into your understanding. It’s also being experimental and figuring out what works and what doesn’t under certain situations. And how do I start to incorporate this information into my day-to-day life? So while I don’t think scientists are any more prepared to investigate their own biases than others, I do think that we bring, and we have a certain training in incorporating that information into our day to day lives to produce a more positive outcome.

Of course everyone has blind spots, things that even if we do as much introspection as possible, we’re never going to uncover them without conversations with others and seeking out opinions and understandings of the world that are different from ours. So introspection is the first step and then being able to hear and listen to other’s experiences and how that relates to your own understanding of the world is also as important as doing the own introspection to identify your own biases.

SCOTT:

Is there anything else you want to add before we go?

JEREMY:

As of April, 2020, the FDA lists 85 different vaccines that are licensed for use in the United States for various diseases. Doctors currently recommend 16 of these by your 18th birthday. And to put that into perspective, there are 237 vaccines that are in some level of development for COVID-19 alone, according to the World Health Organization. And I think that that kind of scaling, it really identifies the magnitude of the scientific endeavor that’s going into identifying safe and effective vaccines for this illness.

It’s taken the climate science communication field a long time to start to recognize that it truly is about connecting with communities through trusted voices.

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman – Chief Scientist, The Science Museum of Virginia

Conclusion

Huge thank you to Jeremy again for a great conversation, and to Karl Hampson for talking with us.

So. What have we learned today

There is an overwhelming amount of information out there.

It is rarely presented to us in an easy to digest format.

When it is, we are terrible at understanding numbers and probability

Furthermore, we only pay attention to those facts that support what we believe in

We are all going to die

Learning how to better understand and utilize raw information starts with better understanding our own innate biases. It can make us better collaborators when we can recognize why our coworkers seem to be clinging to one piece of data. When our instinct is to discredit information that doesn’t support our point of view, we can be more aware that our old friend confirmation bias might be poppin in to say hello.

Our complicated relationship with the truth isn’t new by any means.

But clearly the internet is magnifying those biases. As the rate of new information intensifies, so does our hunger for it. So we jump quickly from article to article, video to video, which means stopping to fact check becomes even less likely.

AND even when we try, the technology of disinformation is making it more difficult to separate fact from fiction in the first place. Which brings us to part two of Data vs Goliath. Listen next week as we ask: Has technology broken the truth?

If you liked the show, please remember to subscribe. Reach out to us on Facebook,Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn to give us more data about how we are doing so I can cherry-pick the information that reinforces my belief that I am CRUSHING it. If you don’t believe that social media exists, you can always send us a message by giving to one of the friendly mole people who live inside our hollow earth. They are slow, they don’t say much, but they can always be trusted. See you next episode!

Play makes us more creative, more connected to one another, and more likely to find new solutions to old problems. But are we forgetting how to? In the latest episode of Working Better, we unpack the power of play with perspectives from researchers, designers and business leaders – including a deep dive with Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen from the LEGO Foundation!

Featuring:

  • Dave Clark – Senior Director of Service Design and Digital Strategy, Kin + Carta 
  • Lauren Blackburn – Senior UX Design Consultant, Kin +Carta
  • Brian Burkhart – Founder, Chief Word Guy, SquarePlanet
  • Bo Stjerne Thomsen Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation

Credits:

  • Produced, written, and edited by Maxx Parcell.
  • Sound engineering by Chris Mitchell
  • Music by Luc Parcell
  • Additional editing support by Ashley Higuchi
  • Production support by Belen Battisti

Show Notes

(00:00) Are we Forgetting How to Play?

In 1985, the Washington Redskins, now known as the Washington Football Team, sold out every game. Tickets were in such hot demand, fans spent 25 years on the waiting list. A TV station called Flagship International Sports Television took a novel approach. They sent invitations to a random list of lucky fans to come to a game for free, signed by the owner I. M. Detnaw.

When they arrived they were treated like royalty – cheerleaders and team mascots introduced them to the head of marketing, who said, “Ladies and gentleman, we’ve got a special surprise for you….you’re all under arrest.”

Doors burst open, armed police rush in… The whole thing was a sting operation. The list wasn’t random, they were all fugitives from the law. And they weren’t cheerleaders, mascots, and marketing executives. They were all US Marshals. The operation was as successful as it was unconventional. 101 criminals wanted for murder, assault, and robbery were arrested, at a fraction of the usual cost of pursuing a fugitive.

What made it so effective? Police had fun with it. They played. They had fun in their designated roles. They played with the details that might have seemed frivolous but actually made a difference. Flagship International Sports Television, the fictional TV station, were the initials of the police group FIST – Fugitive Investigative Strike Team. Not to be confused with the “Federation of Interstate Truckers” from the Sylvester Stallone movie of the same name. The owner I. M. Detnaw? An anagram of I. M. Wanted. The business manager each fugitive first spoke to about the free tickets was Markus Cran, C-r-a-n. Narc, spelled backward. The cheerleaders were female US Marshals, greeting the fugitives with a pat-down disguised as a hug.

(01:50)The Impact of Play

The story was the subject of an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary and has been written about in books like Dave Trott’s Creative Blindness. It was even used as an opening plot device in the Simpsons where Chief Wiggum targets people with unpaid parking tickets by telling them they won a raffle for a speedboat. Hmmmm. Speedboat.

While perhaps an unlikely source of inspiration, the US Marshals effort is a perfect example of why PLAY is so powerful. Play helps us learn, it makes us more creative, more cooperative, and more likely to find happiness. Play makes us more likely to find novel solutions to problems. It’s as fundamental to our biology as the need to sleep or eat, yet it’s increasingly being deprioritized, in both childhood and adulthood.

Why is it so important to play? Are we forgetting how to play? How do we bring a playful mindset to our work, as the US Marshals did? This week we’ve pulled together stories from play experts, business leaders, artists, designers, and creators to help us answer these questions. Including a 1-on-1 interview with Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen the Chair of Learning Through Play at the LEGO Foundation. Yes. LEGO. Friend to children. Enemy to bare feet. Don’t miss it!

I’m not as talented as Rashida Jones or as smart as Bill Gates but I am Scott Hermes.

This is Working Better.

(03:20) 7 Principles of Play

What is play? The short answer is, it’s more than you might think. 

Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute for Play and the Author of “Play”, a definitive work in the world of Play research. Stuart Brown calls Play “the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun and wonder – in short, the basis of what we think of as civilization.” Damn. That is a lot of responsibility for something that is supposed to be fun.

Stuart Brown was giving a presentation about the importance of play to a group of engineers at Hewlett Packard. He preferred to “not define play” because it’s so varied and even “preverbal”. His colleague told him, “Stuart these are engineers, they’re people of systems. If you go in there insisting they care about something that YOU refuse to define, they’ll eat you alive.” He’s not wrong. We, engineers, are as hungry as we are opinionated about tabs versus spaces. (tabs for life)

Beginning at that presentation, and ever since, Stuart Brown has defined play via the following seven principles.

#1 – Play is something you do for its own sake.

Stuart Brown calls it “Apparent Purposelessness.” True play is its own reward. It doesn’t require a payoff to exist.

I don’t love jigsaw puzzles because I get a Hershey Kiss every time I connect a piece. The moment I finish my puzzle, I do the same thing we all do. First, I ask anyone within earshot, “Did you notice I completed the puzzle?” Then after letting it sit out for far too long, I undo my achievement, piece by piece. The puzzle returns it to its box, having technically accomplished nothing beyond decreasing the amount of free table space in my living room.

So true play means we play for the sake of playing.

#2 – Play is voluntary.

It’s self-directed. We want to explore things for ourselves. It’s why virtually every parent has watched their child completely disregard a carefully selected gift in favor of….the box it came in.

#3 – Play is inherently attractive.

It’s fun. It’s satisfying in some way. Laughing feels good, therefore comedy exists. Ruthlessly bankrupting your children FEELS GOOD, therefore Monopoly exists.

#4 – Play frees us from time.

It’s like the old saying goes: Time flies when we engage our prefrontal cortex in immersive free-thinking play.

#5 is similar. Play makes us less self-conscious.

When we’re fully engaged in play, our attention shifts away from the things we might normally be self-conscious about. At a wedding reception, it’s the difference in how you feel walking onto the dance floor and walking off. The internal monologue “Everyone can tell my shoes are dumb” can transform into “I think I’m actually getting pretty decent at the worm” over 4 songs or 4 beers, whichever comes first.

#6 – Play has the potential for improvisation.

Play means welcoming change and new directions. We try connecting seemingly unrelated things. In 1944, Percy Spencer, an engineer working on new radar technology for the US Military, noticed a chocolate bar in his pocket had spontaneously melted during an experiment. Where many might have ignored the oddity, Percy Spencer’s desire to improvise, to follow his curiosity, and continue playing, eventually led to the invention of the microwave.

So thanks for playing Percy Spencer, this morning’s Bagel Bites were a lifesaver.

And finally

#7 – We want play to continue

If I lose a game of gin rummy to my daughter, I insist on extending the rules of our competition to best 2 of 3, 3 or 5, 4 of 7…… not because I genuinely think I have a chance, because I don’t. Playing gin rummy is fun and I don’t want it to stop.

“In education or in work life, the ones who do well are the ones who play.”

Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation – Bo Stjerne Thomsen

(07:28)The Decline of Play

So what happens when we stop playing? Stuart Brown says the opposite of play doesn’t work. It’s depression. Here’s Dr. Peter Gray, another leading psychologist, and researcher in the field of play, speaking at a TED event.

Dr. Gray makes the case that we’re increasingly NOT treating play for what it is: one of humanity’s most extraordinary gifts.

“Over the last 50-60 years, we’ve been gradually taking that gift away.”–Peter Gray

The best evidence for this comes from the use of standardized clinical assessment questionnaires. Based on such assessments, five to eight times as many children today suffer from major depression or from a clinically significant anxiety disorder, as was true in the 1950s.”–Peter Gray.

Dr. Gray and many like him say we need to challenge our assumption that kids always learn best from adults, and allow for more freedom and true self-directed play in children. We need to better understand the extraordinary things that happen to our brains when we play…and perhaps most importantly, what happens when we don’t, particularly as children grow into adults.

(08:45) Play at Work 

Most businesses, as a general rule, worship efficiency like a labrador retriever worships a tennis ball. Wholly and unconditionally.

So when it comes to the idea of play, it’s easy to label it as frivolous, wasteful, and distracting. Or potentially worse – play is seen as a box to check with an office ping pong table. Nothing against ping pong tables, we have one in our office. That no one is using right now. You know. Pandemic.

Stuart Brown argues that part of the problem is that we often misunderstand the relationship of work and play. Brown says they’re not opposites. He says they’re more like “timbers that keep our house from collapsing down on top of us.”

He argues we should think of play as a Mindset, rather than an activity; that play shouldn’t be the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down…but rather a part of the medicine itself.

What does it look like to bring more of a play MINDSET into work?

As we asked ourselves that question, our team was simultaneously working on the final episode of this season, profiling the LABS teams here at Kin + Carta. LABS started as Solstice Labs years ago, and was designed as a dedicated part of the company to experiment with emerging technology and ultimately share what we learn with our clients.

As I speak, our labs teams are experimenting with ideas about mental health and social distance that we talked about WAY back in Episode 2.

(10:12) Kin + Carta Labs: Play Mindset at Work

We’re working on these two separate episodes…and it hit us: Part of what makes LABS tick…is a desire to play.

Past Labs teams have built smart ping pong tables, a virtual “Koko the Gorilla” who uses AI to teach sign language, blockchain-based employee recognition systems, chatbots, mixed-reality games, all kinds of fun stuff.

The projects are completely voluntary, self-directed, inherently attractive, open to improvisation, and detached from the same kind of clear “PURPOSE” of a client project.

We love to tinker. We love to discover new possibilities, and when we remove some of the inevitable “requirements” of the usual work, we explore new ways of using our specialized skill set…and have some fun in the process.

So why do it? Why bring this type of “play mindset” to work?

If it’s so ingrained in us biologically, there must be some functional reason for our love of play, right?

“Play in the workplace does exist. We just don’t call it play. We call it engagement”

Bo Stjerne Thomsen – Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation

Making new connections

In childhood, play helps us make new connections and discoveries. A child learns what a firefighter is at school, she goes home to play and decides that her stuffed Octopus is now a firefighter because she’s got long arms and is good with water. Play allows us to draw connections and connect new pieces of the puzzle about how the world works.

The same thing is true of a Labs project.

LAUREN:

I would say it’s very freeing.

That’s Lauren Blackburn, a Senior UX Designer here at Kin + Carta and a swell person in her own right.

Just the lack of pressure to perform and deliver something totally buttoned up kind of encourages you to free up the way you’re thinking or approaching a problem with it in a way that’s different from maybe how a team might approach a project in a typical day-to-day.

We also spoke with Dave Clark, Senior Director of Service Design and Digital Strategy here at Kin + Carta, who said the connections made in something like a LABS project are invaluable.

DAVE:

It allows us to get ahead, learn and experiment about what the technologies are good at. Not necessarily aligning them to a problem, but figuring out what problems do they solve well.

Practicing skills necessary for the future.

In a similar sense, play helps us practice skills we may need later on, without the risk. Grizzly bear cubs wrestle because it helps them practice how to hunt, fight, and defend themselves. When they’re under threat, it’s not the first time they’ve ever fought from their hind legs, or tried to swipe with their paws. It works the same way for humans. Except minus the paws and bite strength powerful enough to crush a bowling ball. Note to self. Cancel Grizzly Bowling League.

For us, building things like our own cryptocurrency or an AI-based sign language program gives us the chance to experiment and learn in an environment that’s low on risk but great for hands-on learning.

“It’s valuable when the client comes and says, “I need expertise on how to apply these new technologies. I don’t even know what to do with sensors, but I have a feeling that it might be applicable in my industry.” Then now we have a group of people who’ve been working on this and who can bring their expertise and say, “This is the type of thing that sensors can really do well.” … we now know enough about how to use them, because we’ve built things with them.”

(13:32) Enhancing Creativity

It’s also why play makes us more creative. Steve Jobs once described creativity as “connecting the seemingly unconnectable.” Research shows us that being in a state of play makes us more likely to do exactly that. Play helps us unlock brand new ways of thinking.

In fact, many groundbreaking innovations can be drawn back first to MUSIC. The mechanics of the earliest pianos made people ask “what if those hammers struck letters instead of notes.” That gave us “the writing harpsichord.” Today we’d call it a typewriter.

The punch cards that made the first programmable computers work? They were first inspired by cards used in mechanical looms.

Labs projects, and Express Day, our “Hackathon” at Kin + Carta, have yielded breakthroughs that might not be as world-changing, but have served up plenty of joy.

LAUREN:

“I just thought of another project that either came out of Express Day or one of the earlier Forward days, was the beer vending machine that we have in the office that is now mostly repurposed for… Oh, shoot. I forget the name. It’s the fizzy water that everyone likes.”

Yes, LaCroix is the fizzy water that briefly escaped Lauren’s mind. She’s referring to Vender, the smart beer vending machine born out of a company wide “hackathon” day. Beer was replaced with LaCroix only when our new office upgraded to a kegerator.

Developing Social Skills

Speaking of beer, play is also a critical part of social development. Playful wrestling not only helps bears practice how to defend themselves, but they also learn how to get along, how to be close to one another and not, you know… kill each other. In short, play teaches us how to empathize and cooperate.

Lauren says that part of the joy of a LABS project is that it can feel like an improv exercise.

LAUREN:

“If you are familiar with the concept of yes, and, it’s a lot of yes-and-ing other ideas, and there’s a lot of good feedback that happens, a lot of good bouncing ideas off of each other and everything, and there’s, I think… Because there’s less pressure to have a buttoned-up idea, because everyone’s kind of in that same head space of play….

Removing the usual requirements and consequences of a client project makes bouncing ideas around a little easier, which makes us trust each other more, and become better collaborators for when it really counts.”

Dave Clark says it’s why creating room for experimentation is so important.

DAVE:

“When you’re experimenting, you have to be comfortable with being wrong. There’s going to be lots of things that don’t go the way you expect them to, and that is an important part of the process, because I think that if you just… If all it is, is setting yourself up to prove what you assumed, you don’t really get too much innovation and you don’t get too much enjoyable experience, to be honest.”

So is play something that can be practiced? That’s what we asked Brian Burkhart, Founder & Chief Word Guy at a company called SquarePlanet Presentations.

BRIAN:

“I think it’s mission critical to think of play as a skill that can be developed, engineered, and enhanced over time. The thing that has really worked for us is to actually build structure around it.”

“A large portion of the work Brian and his team does is creating immersive live event experiences for businesses. Even during COVID-era virtual events, Brain says creating playful experiences for attendees is not just a luxury, but a must-have.”

BRIAN:

“It’s things like in a virtual world, we encourage our clients to do things like if you’re having your event on a Thursday, have a chunk where you call it Fursday. That means you bring your little critter with you. You bring your dog or your kitty, and you put it on your lap for Fursday…”

BRIAN:

…it was Taco Tuesday on Tuesday afternoon. Everyone was encouraged in advance to get ready, “Move your computer to the kitchen because we’re going to cook and eat together.”

“It’s really, really easy to look at all of those different parts and think of them as an utter waste of time, and yet they are the most human of all of the elements.”

“Brian says he believes a playful mindset at work means letting no opportunity go to waste. Over the years, the deliberate habit of play has taken many forms. Marketing campaigns become things like “Square-planesta” – a fictitious prescription medicine for executives who suffer from poor communication habits, complete with pill bottles filled with orange jelly beans. Team meetings get kicked off with “Gong songs” where employees are required to compose a short rhyming poem, before striking a small gong. His team makes a habit of thinking with a playful mindset, in order to help his clients do the same.”

It’s become so ingrained in his brain, Brain says he can’t help himself:

BRIAN:

“Just this past Christmas holiday I sent a client an embroidered SquarePlanet coat. Before I put it in the box, I just grabbed some post-its and I made little jokes about his favorite football team, which is the exact opposite of my favorite football team. I planted those little pieces of paper inside the pockets of the coat knowing that he’ll eventually find them and he’ll laugh.”

“I think it’s mission critical to think of play as a skill that can be developed, engineered, and enhanced over time. The thing that has really worked for us is to actually build structure around it.”

Brian Burkhart – Founder, Chief Word Guy, SquarePlanet

(19:20) In Conversation with The LEGO Foundation

While interviewing Bo we asked about the work he was most proud of and which he thought was most impactful.

BO STJERNE THOMSEN:

“The critical point, obviously, for the Lego Foundation is that play is so crucial for children’s healthy development and for learning, for a range of different skills, creativity and critical thinking and collaboration, but also depth of understand. We want to change the understanding of how play’s used in education among educators, schools. We want to help parents be equipped to support play in their own life and their children’s. And we want to change the governments and the educational systems to focus more about the engagement, the enjoyment in the learning process, instead of traditional standardized outcomes.”

“We work with parents and parenting programs with partners all over the world, international partners, UNICEF, and in more than 30 countries. We work with governments to change educational systems to focus much more about the quality of materials and to get access and support of children. And we work with teachers and teacher professional development. So we have a support for many of the stakeholders that are at the core of supporting children’s lives.”

We discussed if play could be inappropriate for the learning process.

BO STJERNE THOMSEN:

“Play is an active process, like doing something, it’s practical. It’s inherently enjoyable, also even if it’s challenging because, when things are sparking questions and some surprise and wonder, you want to persevere for longer. And it’s something where you’re allowed to test and trial things. I would say, in that case, play is what children naturally do when they don’t understand things, when they want to deal with changing conditions.”

“Looking at the ones who succeed, whether in education or in work life, that the ones who do that well are the one who plays. So the ones who sustain this opportunity to test and trial things, to have a positive mindset, and to engage in things that interest them not because they just have to. They are the ones who are more adaptive, more flexible, more creative.”

We also asked Bo how to encourage people to overcome their inhibition when they answer “I’m not creative.”

BO STJERNE THOMSEN:

“It’s quite important to, first, state that creativity exists across all units and functions. It’s not only the designers, the artists, and so forth who are creative. You can be creative by changing your spreadsheet or, hopefully, not too much in accounting, but in different ways, you need to break down that anyone can bring an idea.”As a last thought, Bo was kind enough to share The LEGO Foundation’s playlist

And now, straight from her living room to your ears, it’s our own Katie Pooler bring us Cooler Terms with Pooler and Hermes.

(45:53) Cooler Terms

(54:02) Conclusion 

Play is a spectrum of activities. It can be playing make-believe with your children but it also can be just asking yourself ‘what if’ and ‘why?’ It is not always foosball tables and karaoke nights. It can be a hackathon or a fun question of the day like from my work associate Praneet “ If you were stuck on a desert island with a lifetime supply of one kind of condiment packet only, what would it be?” Thanks, Praneet.

Play is fun. Play is important. It helps us learn new skills. It makes us more resilient. Play helps you be more creative. In your life and at work. So how will you play today?

What are you going to do to bring playfulness into your life? My advice. Start small. Do a little thing every day. Add a new ingredient to the same damn oatmeal with six raisins you have been eating for years. Put a kiwi on it. Go out for a walk and make up a life story for the first person you see. Give your daily status in haiku form. Skip to work.

Ok. Maybe that last one is not so small but I really want to make Business Skipping a thing. It’s great exercise. It makes you stand out from the crowd and you get where you are going ahead of your competition. Business Skipping: The New Way to Beat Your Competition to the Next Opportunity.

Oh and more thing – a company called Surprise Corporate America Merchandising has announced that the following lucky Working Better listeners have won a raffle for a brand new Tesla: Dan Kardatzke , J Schwan, Kelly Manthey. Please send us your home address, email address, driver’s license number, Date of birth, social security number, favorite sports team, and name of your childhood pet and we will have that car shipped to you!

Thanks to Bo Stjerne Thomsen for joining us. Please go check out the Playlist that Bo mentioned at playlist.legofoundation.com. We’ll include a link on our website as well.

Also thank you, Dave Clark, Lauren Blackburn and Brian Burkhart for your time and expertise!

Credits (if you’re open to this, I’d like to include mostly for sake of folks like Chris)

This episode was produced, written and edited by Maxx Parcell.

Chris Mitchell is our sound designer and engineer.

Luc Parcell wrote and recorded our theme song and all the other music you hear throughout the show.

Additional editing by Ashley Higuchi, and production support from Belen Battisti.

I’m Scott Hermes – as always be sure to subscribe to our show via your local podcast dealer. Love the show? Hate the show? Supremely ambivalent about the show?

Follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and SnapChat and let us know about all of your feelings. Or just sing them in a sea chanty. The ocean will carry your words to us, as it always does, as it always does. Thanks for listening and see you next episode.

“Creativity exists across all units and functions. It’s not only the designers, the artists, and so forth who are creative.”

Bo Stjerne Thomsen – Chair of Learning through Play, Vice-President, LEGO Foundation

We’re taking a new approach to a holiday bonus episode of Working Better. As we see it, the question isn’t “is Santa real?” but rather “how DOES he do it?” We break it all down with the type of needlessly detailed, exhaustingly thorough investigative reporting that we’d expect from our beloved host, Scott Hermes.

Happy Holidays everyone! We’ll be back in January with a brand new (and real) episode!

Featuring:

Show Notes

What kind of thrust would you need to lift 321,000 tons off the ground and into the air? How would the pilot survive the force that the vehicle would have to generate? What if I told you that the vehicle would then have to deliver that payload to 160 million households across the entire globe in just 24 hours? How could that possibly happen?

It has been well-proven by research in Spy Jr in 1990 that it is physically impossible for Santa to deliver all of the presents in one night. For example his sleigh would have to carry 321,000 tons of presents to 2 billion children worldwide. The air friction generated by the force needed to accelerate the sleigh would incinerate the reindeer. So clearly, the Jolly Old Elf doesn’t deliver the presents by himself. He has to be the CEO behind the effort to pull off the most impressive display of logistics in history. How does he do it? What kind of technology does Saint Nick have in order to deliver 2 billion toys worldwide?

The real answer is: no one knows. The Great Gift Giver runs a tighter ship than the NSA and lacking a “Snowden of the North Pole,” to do a dump on wikileaks, we will have to reverse engineer his logistics based on the known results.

I’m Scott Hermes. This is working better. On today’s episode, how can Father Christmas get all of those presents delivered in just 24 hours?

Breaking it Down (1:30)

We are forever indebted to Bruce Handy and Joel Potischman for their ground-breaking analysis of the physics of Christmas in 1990 in Spy Jr. Magazine. I have taken the liberty of reproducing their analysis but updated for new population numbers which makes Kris Kringle’s delivery logistics even more impressive.

There are approximately 2.2 billion children worldwide. Luckily for Sinter Klaas, not all of them celebrate Christmas. For sake of argument, let’s assume that only Christian, or Christian identifying children celebrate Christmas. We all know that there are plenty of atheists who suddenly find religion when it’s time to get a free hand out from

Grandfather Frost but let’s just go with the Christian children for now. Let’s assume that 30% of the children in the world are Christian which is what the approximate overall percentage is for the population as a whole. That is 660 million customers for Nick of the North. But not all of these children will be getting presents. Only the good ones. Man. Is that going to be hard to predict but let’s just go with 85%. Which means the Man in Red has to deliver 561 million presents. But some of those kids live in the same house; let’s say on average 3.5 kids per household which comes out to about 160 million deliveries.

So, 561 million presents to get to 160 million addresses and assuming the Jolly Jelly Belly Jiggler starts off at sunset on Christmas Eve in Tonga and heads West until he hits Kiribati, he has about 36 hours to get it all done. Clearly impossible for one man, even one with dimples so merry.

So how does he do it?

The big man’s big data (3:09)

Well no offense to the original research from Spy Jr, but that question overlooks one of the more daunting aspects of Pere Noel’s job: how does he even know what to get you? Sure, he can wait until he gets a letter or a more likely a SnapChat from Little Johnny or if you are near one of his many customer service representatives at your local mall, he can wait until Little Susie has spilled her guts but if he has to wait until he gets that information to even start the procurement process his Christmas goose is cooked.

For more insight on the role that data gathering has to play in the process, we talked to our own Chris Weiland, head of Kin+Carta Labs.

CHRIS:

Labs is really about promoting innovation at Kin+Carta and helping our clients do the same – and not so much about hypothesizing about the technology a mythical man-beast would use. But if I’m on the spot here, given the highly sensitive nature of –

Thanks, Chris!

Clearly, The Man With All of the Toys has a consumer tracking, data analysis, and predictive AI system that makes Google look like two guys with a pair of binoculars, throwing the I Ching and reading a magic 8 ball. The only logical conclusion is that he has been deeply embedded in the internet from Day One. Sure, we are told that it was paid for by DARPA or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. But you know what DARPA could stand for? Donner And Rudolph Projects Agency. That’s right, the

President of Presents paid for the internet and his bright red nose is packet sniffing at every node of the internet and discovering what kids want before they even know to ask for it. This allows him to ramp up production across the world ahead of the eventual demand. But that only accounts for about 60% of the population that has access to the internet. What about the other 40%? Simple. The Gift Giver That Keeps on Giving has been using a Quantum Computer to do predictive analytics on the remaining 40% of the population. Hell, he is probably already predicting which kids are going to be naughty!

Santa goes quantum (5:05)

For those of you who are not familiar with Quantum Computing, they replace the normal 0s and 1s of a computer, the bits, with something called qubits. A qubit is a 0 and 1 superimposed in a quantum state along with a probability that the state will resolve into 0 or 1 once the quantum state has collapsed. Now, we could do a whole episode on

Quantum Computing but this ability to have qubits in a probable state of being allows Quantum computers to run equations that conventional computers could only dream of (and yes computers do dream and no it is not of electric sheep but of killing all humans). The largest current Quantum Computer clocks in at around 50 qubits so that Old Stocking Stuffer has at least 1000 qubits burning the midnight mistletoe in order to get the job done.

Add to that a series of spy satellites that cover the entire globe armed with shortwave infra-red sensor readings. BlackSky satellites were just launched in September 2020 with this capability so we can only assume that the World’s Greatest Sleigh Rider has been leveraging it for years so he can see when you are sleeping.

MIT has already created a monitor that uses wifi signals that it bounces off of people to be able to detect whether or not they are moving, how regularly they are breathing and what their heart rate is. The Jolly Red Giant has clearly leveraged the 5G network to do the same on the global scale so now he knows when you are awake.

“We talked about this. This podcast is supposed to be about real problems that are important and how we can solve them. Not about the imaginary logistics of Christmas, OK?”

J Schwan – CEO, Kin + Carta

Very merry logistics (6:30)

OK, so the Fat Man has the intel, he has it in enough time to place orders ahead of the Big Day, now he just needs to get it to you. Obviously, the idea that Old White Beard has his HQ at the North Pole is just a ruse to draw attention away from the fact that he has the most extensive shipping system in the world.

We asked our CEO here at Kin +Carta, J Schwan, what kind of organization that he thought would be needed to pull this off.

<Audio Clip>

J: Guys. We talked about this. This podcast is supposed to be about real problems that are important and how we can solve them. Not about the imaginary logistics of Christmas, OK?

Thanks, J. As always, you are an inspiration to us all.

So how could he do it? Hyperlocal micro-warehouses in every neighborhood across the world. You know from our interview with Andy Whiting of Better Trucks from the

Shippageddon episode that retailers are experimenting with having more small warehouses in population centers to reduce the last mile problem of delivery so we would expect the World’s Oldest Reindeer Jockey to have already pioneered this logistics breakthrough. Six to eight weeks ahead of Christmas, he has his list made, and after a quality control check and ANOTHER quality control check he places the orders giving him ample time to fulfill, ship and deliver to their final staging area IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD.

So now we are in the range of a reasonable effort. Depending on what hemisphere you are in, you have anywhere from 18 hours of darkness in Oslo to 9 1/2 hour of darkness in Melbourne but to make it simple, let’s say they have 12 hours to do their work. A fedex driver can deliver 75 to 125 packages per 8 hour shift, so allowing time for getting in and out of the house, let’s say they could do 100 deliveries in 8 hours or 150 deliveries in 12. The Old Chimney Jumper has to do 160 million deliveries so that means about 1.1 million helpers each with their own mini-warehouse across the world. Now that is on average of course, the Pitcairn Islands have only 50 total Christians so we may need one or two more delivery elves in Slovenia with 1.6 million Christians to pick up the slack.

The ultimate in last mile delivery (8:43)

More daunting would be the Chicago metro area with about 9.5 million people about 70% of whom identify as Christian, or 6.6 million. Sir Gives-a-Lot has his work cut out for him. Only 26% of those are under the age of 18, we are down to 1.7 million kids, and, knowing Chicago as I do, probably only 80% of those kids were good, what with remote learning and all. But I don’t want to get my co-workers and neighbors pissed off at me so I’ll just go with the 85% number from Spy Jr. and put it at 1.4 million kids in 400,000 households. So in Chicago and the surrounding area, we will need to have about 2,700 mini-warehouses packed into 11,000 square miles or about 1 location per 4 miles.

I was trying to come up with the number of churches in the Chicago area and see how that compares to the number of mini-warehouses needed but it looks like that is a hard number to get. A little too hard to get. It seems like that would be an easy number to know like the number of Starbucks, or how much Malort is consumed on a daily basis which makes me think that the Old Toy Slinger is using churches as drop locations.

Look around your neighborhood. There are an awful lot of churches aren’t there? And how often are there services going on there? One day? Two days per week?

Maybe three at the most? What are they doing there the rest of the time? I don’t know for sure but I can guess that starting around Halloween and up until Christmas Eve, they are the drop box for the most sophisticated delivery system known to man.

Can I prove that organized religion is working hand-in-hand with the Great Red Roof Crasher to deliver presents to all the good children of the world? No. Not by myself. So this Christmas Eve if your COVID rates allow you to do so safely, stop by your local church, or maybe just peek in the window, and see if you can spot his helpers as they deliver joy and hope to children of all ages.

Wrap (10:57)

That’s it for this episode. We gave Katie Pooler the week off since there is literally no Cooler Term than Christmas. Don’t worry, she will be back with us for our next episode.

Please let us know what you think of our show, drop us a present or a lump of coal at Yulebook, Instalog, ReinedIn or SnapDeer, or just write it in the frosting on your

Christmas cookies. The Spirit of Christmas will make sure we get the message.

If you like our show please subscribe to it on your podcast delivery system of choice and, if you can, leave a review. In the meantime, keep watching. The truth is out there and it could be in your local church.

As online sales surge to record levels, can our supply chains handle a holiday shopping season unlike any other? In this episode, we examine the challenges facing retailers, shippers, and the millions of human hands working to get packages delivered on time. This week we’re joined by Andy Whiting, CEO of Better Trucks, to learn how his company is adjusting to uncharted territory.

Featuring:

  • Andy Whiting, CEO Better Trucks
  • Dan Stolarski, Senior Managing Director Kin + Carta Advise Americas.
  • Bryan Frank, Director, Leader of Kin + Carta Advise NY, Leader of Consumer and Retail Practice.

Show Notes 

(0:00) “Shipageddon” upon us?

If Black Friday doorbuster sales slash Roomba prices by 50%, but there’s nobody at the doors to do the busting, are they still doorbusters? 

Black Friday might not have featured the stampedes and TV tug-of-wars we’ve come to expect, but could this holiday shopping season bring a new kind of chaos? 

Online sales are expected to be up 30% this year. Shipping volumes will be up 15%. Some are projecting shippers like UPS, FedEx, DHL, and the Postal Service could be facing 7 million more packages than they typically handle. And the supply chain industry has been trying to overcome a massive driver shortage, even before the pandemic. Some are saying we should be prepared for “Shipageddon”. 

So is it all hype? What are retailers, shippers and supply chain companies doing to adjust? Can technology help us prevent Shipageddon? Will we have to send Bruce Willis into space to blow up an asteroid in order to do so? Or, in this case, into an Amazon distribution center to drive a nuclear-powered semi to do so?

We’ll unpack it all, including a 1-on-1 with Andrew Whiting, CEO of Better Trucks, a company helping businesses of all kinds make next day deliveries to their customers. 

The central question this week–are we ready for the holidays? 

I’m Scott Hermes. This is Working Better. 

(01:50) Supply chain in the COVID era

The pandemic, at least at the beginning, marked exactly the third time in human history that the general public cared about supply chains. The first was when the invention of the Steam Locomotive transformed how goods could be exchanged, the second, of course, was the Beanie Baby Apocolypse of 1994. Rest In Peace, Jaden, Kiki, Peachy, and Zip.

Toilet paper, soap, hand sanitizers, and jigsaw puzzles flew off store shelves, didn’t return for weeks and weeks, and left many people considering for the first time just how things are actually MADE. As in how does toilet paper go from a tree in the forest to Target shelves, decorated with Bears dancing about “Enjoying the Go.” 

Needless to say, COVID-19 has exposed many gaps in our society. The impact of upended supply chains has been one of them. When restaurant service came to a screeching halt around the world, farmers were forced to waste huge amounts of crops because food is normally produced based on easily forecasted levels of demand. When it was cut off, with nowhere for the supply to go, they had to throw it out.

On the flip side, companies like Cuisinart found themselves scrambling to meet a 700% increase in demand for breadmakers. Not from me though, my quarantine hobby was psychic surgery. Who needs scalpels when you have the power of the mind? 

So with the calendar now in December and the Holiday shopping season well underway–what will it mean for holiday shopping?

“I think the consumer should prepare for some disappointment, quite frankly.

Dan Stolarski – Senior Managing Director Kin + Carta Advise Americas

(03:16) Unwavering Consumer Expectations

“I think the consumer should prepare for some disappointment, quite frankly. – Dan Stolarksi, Senior Managing Director Kin + Carta Advise America

“Prepare for some disappointment”–a leading candidate for the 2020 movie poster.

That’s Dan Stolarski, from our Kin + Carta Advise office in New York. We spoke with Dan and Bryan Frank, also from Kin + Carta Advise in New York. They emphasized that while so much of the world has changed because of the pandemic, consumer expectations largely haven’t. 

Dan:

“If you think about it, 80 percent of Cyber Monday shipments are shipped for free. That’s obviously very largely driven by Amazon and shifting the behavior with the consumers and what they expect. About 25 percent of consumers will actually abandon their cart once they see an unexpected shipping charge appear in their cart. In the meantime, all major carriers, USPS, UPS, FedEx, are increasing their rates for the holiday season. United States Postal Service had made permanent price changes and what UPS and FedEx are doing is they’ve introduced holiday season surcharges. We’re not done yet. Add to that, that almost 50 percent of consumers expect their packages to arrive quicker this year versus last year. And then finally, let’s not forget reverse logistics. Of the nearly $250 billion in expected online sales this holiday season, about $50 billion worth of goods are expected to be returned, which represents roughly 25 to 30 percent of the holiday’s shipping volume. “

50% of consumers expect packages to arrive quicker this year than last.

You might be wondering right now what planet those people live on. Was actual chaos the missing ingredient to really make our supply chains more efficient? 

As consumers, we’ve come to expect free and fast shipping. We want simple returns. We want to procrastinate. As JG Wentworth commercials taught us to scream from our window–“It’s our convenience and we want it now!” 

(05:11) Surging Shippers

So expectations haven’t really changed. But package volume for carriers like FedEx, UPS and DHL is expected to exceed capacity by at least 5% globally. Shippers are providing every sign possible that they’re prepared. 

The good news, if you can call it that, is they’ve had 8 months of the shipping world turned upside down to practice? UPS hired 39,000 new employees earlier this year, including plans for over 100k additional seasonal hires. FedEx also announced plans to add as many as 70,000 additional workers for the holidays.

In our conversation with Dan and Bryan, Bryan emphasized that the math simply doesn’t tell a promising story:

Bryan:

The demand clearly outstrips the supply. How quickly can you add new trucks? They already do this every year. They add thousands of seasonal employees to get out there, who don’t always know the routes very well, don’t know the customers, it causes all these other delays.

I think it’s difficult to believe that there’s enough capacity in what is already a relatively constricted and hard-to-adjust-in-the-scale business.–Bryan Frank, Director, Kin + Carta Advise.

(06:24) Driver Shortages

Sometimes, the human side of this topic can get lost. Until the promises of driverless trucks come to fruition – this is very much a human business. Every package, every truck, depends on PEOPLE to keep it moving. Dan says it’s worth keeping in mind that drivers were already in record short supply, even pre-COVID. 

Dan:

“Not only do we have a capacity issue, we also have a driver issue. The demand for truck drivers is at an all time high, and there are massive, massive numbers of job openings that these companies cannot fill.”

In 2019, tens of thousands of drivers left the industry. Hundreds of trucking companies went bankrupt. All before approximately 88,000 drivers lost their jobs when the pandemic hit in April. 

Some fear that surges in COVID-19 cases between Thanksgiving and Christmas could also pull thousands of drivers off the road.

In an October piece, the New York Times’ Shira Ovide summarized the nature of the problem well, she writes: “The potential for hiccups shows the complications when our zeal for shopping from home meets the physical limits of humans, warehouses stuffed to the rafters, roadways and ocean freight shipping.

There’s always been a war to get stuff to our door. It’s just been one we usually ignore.”

(07:56) How Retailers are Adapting

Beyond adjusting for the holidays, Dan and Bryan say it’s time to think bigger.

“I think that the bigger question that we need to ask is, ‘ Is the current shipping system that we have a sustainable one? Is it the right one? – Bryan Frank, Director, Leader of Kin + Carta Advise NY, Leader of Consumer and Retail Practice.

Bryan:

“I think that the bigger question that we need to ask is, ‘ Is the current shipping system that we have a sustainable one? Is it the right one?’ Shouldn’t we be thinking more intelligently about using local stores and local opportunities near customers as ways to distribute goods? It may be buying online, picking up at the store in a different fashion. It may also be using those stores as local distribution centers. I think everybody needs to be thinking about alternative ways of getting goods to customers and incentivizing customers to choose the option that works well for them.” 

This year, Walmart converted 42 warehouses that were originally used to ship products to stores–to now fulfilling online orders. 

Best Buy recently announced it would be offering same-day delivery, thanks to a new partnership with on-demand grocery platform Instacart. Bed Bath and Beyond announced a similar change, working with Shipt and Instacart to get products delivered faster. 

“I think it’s difficult to believe that there’s enough capacity in what is already a relatively constricted and hard-to-adjust-in-the-scale business.”

Bryan Frank – Director, Leader of Kin + Carta Advise NY, Leader of Consumer and Retail Practice.

(09:10) Rethinking Supply Chains

Bryan and Dan also shared examples of companies that have re-thought their supply chains creating new opportunities to engage with customers in the process,

“Wayfair, which for the longest time was shipping cheap sofas and rugs and all that stuff by common carrier, when they built their castle gate network and that includes both warehouses where it’s essentially fulfillment by Amazon, and it’s final mile delivery on Amazon trucks, or sorry, on Wayfair trucks with Wayfair employees that show up with a Wayfair shirt, they have a great experience, they can build that brand experience with the customer. Perhaps even more important, what is the value of getting one of your own employees into a customer’s home?” said Bryan

(10:00) Cooler Terms w/ Pooler & Hermes

So how can we better understand what led to supply chain breakdowns early in the pandemic? The toilet paper, breadmaker fiascos we mentioned earlier? To help us get our heads around this, it’s time for Cooler Terms w/ Pooler & Hermes. 

That’s right we’re back! Cooler Terms is our recurring segment where our very own Katie Pooler helps us make sense of the world by explaining concepts that sometimes get buried in technobabble. 

Katie:

“Just-in-time” supply chains. It basically means materials and products are moved just before they’re needed in the manufacturing process. So if you manufacture breadmakers, you want enough raw materials–steel, aluminum, copper wire for electronics–to essentially match the amount of breadmakers you need to make, and not much more. Meaning you don’t have to store extra materials in inventory for very long, which can get expensive. So manufacturers can usually predict how many people will buy breadmakers, and they’re able to maintain a steady flow of materials to meet demand. It’s the same reason I only buy six bottles of Chardonnay every week, because I know that’s exactly as many as I will drink. 

Scott:

So efficiency is sort of the name of the game. 

Katie:

Right, but it also means these supply chains aren’t able to adjust easily because they were designed to run as lean as possible. Many are advocating for resilience to be a new priority in supply chain management. 

(Katie performs flawless rendition of “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, we learn more about Stevie Nicks’ passions, etc.) 

The dangers of “just in time” supply chains certainly seem easy to spot now, and many experts are predicting a shift towards resilience, as Katie mentioned. More variety of suppliers – businesses not putting all their eggs in one basket. Many experts are advocating for what’s called “nearshoring” – which is sort of a fancy way to say stop depending on China for everything.

However you slice it, no business will be immune to the effects of a severely strained shipping network this holiday season. One business uniquely positioned to help make all of our holiday dreams come true is Better Trucks. They’re a “Last Mile Delivery” Company – meaning they focus on the critical LAST leg of the supply chain process. Usually from a distribution center to YOUR door. A.k.a the part we all care most about. We spoke with Better Trucks CEO Andy Whiting to get his take on the holidays and the state of the shipping world as a whole. We also may have accidentally founded a business during the course of our conversation. You’re all under NDA.

(14:18) Interview with Andy Whiting

Talking with Andy was such a great reminder of, again, just how human this business is. It takes so many sets of human hands to propel something through space and time, as Andy said. It’s a worthwhile reminder to simply be patient and appreciate the people that make our convenient world of online shopping possible. 

(23:38) What should consumers do? 

So from a consumer standpoint, what else can you do? Well, if you haven’t already –get your online shopping done. Today. December 14th is looking like the last day you can ship and have confidence that your gifts will arrive before Christmas.

Shop local! Experts are also recommending choosing options like curbside pickup instead of delivery to help mitigate the strain on shippers. 

Another option: sit the children down and tell them they have been very, very naughty and Santa will not be coming this year. Long pause. Wait for the tears to subside. However. Santa did say that, maybe, if they were really really good between now and Christmas, he could make a special trip after Christmas to deliver their gifts. IF and that’s big IF. They were really, really, good.

Perhaps lean on things that aren’t shipped physically – like tickets to an event in 2022, online classes, or a cleaning service if you’re looking for a festive way to tell someone “your home is a mess.” 

Which reminds me – we’re knocking 50% off all Working Better merchandise for your last minute holiday needs. Have a 10 year old niece with impossible to perceive taste? How about a tote bag from a podcast she’s never heard of! Have a sibling who just bought a home? Get them the Working Better Home Security System. Guaranteed to make you feel more secure. 

Overcome with existential dread? Get yourself a little holiday treat: The Working Better Anxiety Control System. Just breath in and out slowly into our officially licensed Brown Paper Bag and your anxiety will be temporarily under control.

No, none of these things exist. Maybe one day if you send $19.99 and stamped self-addressed envelope to: 

Working Better in the Future

PO BOX 123

Anytown USA 55555

…okay I’m being told we’re out of time. 

That’s our show folks. Good luck out there, stay safe, be sure to subscribe and follow us on all of the social mediums: TwitGram, InstaBook, LinkedEr, and FaceIn. Or just knock three times on the ceiling if you want me; twice on the pipes means it’s time to move to a house with modern heating and air conditioning. We’ll see ya next time!

As the threat of climate change continues to reveal itself, what does it mean for cities to be truly “sustainable”? What does human-centered design really mean, and how far are our cities from actually reflecting those ideas? Is the COVID-19 pandemic the thing that will spark new urgent changes to cities? Is this our Great Stink? Join us In this episode as we talk about how cities are being reimagined.

Featuring:

  • Jeremy Hoffman – Chief Scientist, Science Museum of Virginia
  • Chris Weiland – Director of Kin + Carta Americas Labs, Technical Director, Office of the CTO, Kin + Carta

Show Notes

(00:00)The Great Sink

The River Thames, a blue vein running through England and emptying into the North Sea, cuts through London in a magnificent marriage of metropolis and mother nature. 

Back in the mid 19th century, the river was the convenient dumping ground for just about anything; slaughterhouse outfall, industrial refuse and, most notably, human waste.

In July 1858, a summer heat wave in London reached a pinnacle. The heat exacerbated the already pungent smell, and day after day the slow cook of the River Thames perfumed London with an odor that would make a day three porta potty at Coachella seem like a sophisticated powder room. The stench was so bad, it permeated history as the most epic of all smells: The Great Stink. 

But it wasn’t just a nuisance….it was deadly. Londoners had begun to connect the dots of polluted water like this and Cholera epidemics that had plagued the city three times in the last two decades. Smelly River Thames almost caused parliament to move to Oxford. In one incident, the Queen opted out of a boat ride on the river out of sheer repulsion.

So what did the people in power in London do? They fixed the problem. Proposals to address the problem had come and gone over the years, failing to secure the necessary funding. But the Great Stink changed everything. The problem became inescapable, and the pressure was enough for parliament to take action. A massive, decade-long project of remarkable civil engineering revolutionized waste management, giving way to London’s sewer system as we know it.

This week, we asked ourselves: how are today’s cities being reimagined? 

As the threat of climate change continues to reveal itself, what does it mean for cities to be truly “sustainable”? What does human-centered design really mean, and how far are our cities from actually reflecting those ideas? Is the COVID-19 pandemic the thing that will spark new urgent changes to cities? Is this our Great Stink? 

My name is Scott Hermes. This is Working Better. 

(02:15)A New Urban Era

Now pretend 50 years from today, a podcast, or virtual experience, or matrix-type information upload exists. Let’s call it “Better Working.” And some mildly amusing, but also somewhat knowledgeable podcasters are telling you about how cities used to be in 2020. It might sound something like: 

“The covid pandemic suddenly forced an unprecedented volume of adults working from home and children learning from home, requiring a reliance on virtual network infrastructure that previously hadn’t been necessary.”

Or how about: 

Believe it or not, cities used to be called “concrete jungles” because of their lack of green space. Miles of urban areas without a tree, park, or rooftop garden.”

Or maybe: 

“1001101010101011100100010011010101010111001000”

Personally, that last one can’t come soon enough.

By 2050, the human population will likely be north of 9 billion with 68% living in cities, according to a recent UN estimate. The question of global sustainability shifts from responsible to essential. So what will spur us into action? What’s creating a new sense of urgency about improving the cities we live in? 

(03:37)Urban Heat Islands

“I think for many things, nobody cares until it’s knocking on their front door, for virtually everything. – Dr. Jeremy Hoffman, Chief Scientist – Science Museum of Virginia

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman is the Chief Scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia & College and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. On his website, Jeremy is described as “a data-driven Earth scientist connecting people to our planet.” His work has been published in outlets including the New York Times, National Geographic, NPR, and more.

Climate scientists have a well-documented historical struggle getting the general public to grasp the immediacy of climate change. A great deal of Jeremy’s recent work has been centered around an issue that he hopes can help make that leap – from theoretical to very tangible. It’s called the “Urban Heat Island Effect.” 

Jeremy explains, “The urban heat island effect basically is explained by the dominance of those human built environments in our urban areas that, because of their color and their density and the material that they’re made out of, they actually absorb more of the sun’s energy throughout the day and then reemit it back into the air as heat throughout the afternoon and into the evening.”

Urban heat islands are formed by things like giant asphalt parking lots or black metal buildings that attract more of the sun’s energy. Compare those areas to neighborhoods with substantial greenspace – tree lined streets, parks, even rooftop gardens – and the difference in temperature can be drastic. Neighborhoods even just 2-3 miles apart can be 10, 15, 20 degrees warmer at the same minute of the same day, simply because of how the neighborhood was designed. 

It’s like wearing a black baseball hat at a Cubs’ game in a July heatwave. But instead of the hat being made of cotton, it’s made of aluminum. And instead of a hot dog, you’re holding a small space heater against your face. In one talk, Jeremy described these types of heat as “the days where it feels like you’re walking around in someone else’s mouth.” Delightful.

“There’s no silver bullet, it’s a silver buckshot.”

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman – Chief Scientist–Science Museum of Virginia

(05:28)An Overlooked Hazard

This type of heat isn’t just sweat-through-your-shirt uncomfortable, it can be extraordinarily dangerous.

“The thing that surprised me the most when I started learning about extreme heat was just how deadly it was. “ Jeremy says, “In the fact that it’s the deadliest weather related hazard in the last few decades in America. Even more so than the really charismatic storms like hurricanes and tornadoes and floods, because you hear about those things on the news, but you don’t hear about this silent killer, realistically speaking, that heat is.”

Climate science clearly shows that we should expect heat waves like this to occur more frequently. Which means those areas, those “heat islands – the parking lots, the giant paved areas – get hit the hardest…causing all sorts of dangers for people that live there, often beyond the obvious things like heat strokes. 

“Heat also exacerbates virtually all other underlying conditions that someone could have. Most acutely, that the ones that are about respiratory systems. So people with asthma, COPD, any sort of respiratory illness, it has that airflow system, their lungs and everything that are further constricted by hot humid temperatures,” Jeremy says. 

Disproportionate Impact

What neighborhoods are more likely to have more paved surfaces and less trees and green spaces? Lower income neighborhoods, often the predominantly black neighborhoods divested since the redlining practices in the US during the 1930s and 40s.

“Some of our research and a lot of research going on around the idea of redlining or the historical practice of basically denying wholesale entire communities of people based on the color of their skin, their access to financial resources.”

“I think that’s really the craziest thing for, I think, some people that might be hearing about this for the first time, is the idea that your zip code does a lot more to tell me how long you’re going to live than a lot of other aspects of your lifestyle. What zip code you grew up in, or where you live right now, tells me more about your life expectancy than virtually a lot of other parts of your lifestyle. That is crazy.

In lower income neighborhoods, residents are more likely to rely on public transportation, more likely to not have air conditioning, and more likely to suffer from existing health conditions that Jeremy described earlier. So as heat waves happen more often, those heat islands reach dangerous temperatures, affecting people already without the means to adapt. 

Jeremy is from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. In 1995, Chicago experienced an historic heat wave. Jeremy’s memory of that summer, even as a young kid, has become a useful reminder of how his privilege helped him avoid climate-related hazards.

“We had a yard party. We were so thrilled. It was like the hot weather was like, ‘All right. Excuse till I get out the barbecue and the slip and slide and the bomb pops and stuff.’ And across town, there were dozens and dozens of elderly black people just dying in their homes by themselves. And that realization that my privilege allowed me to have fun during that horrible incident.” He explained.

“The book that was written about it, Heatwave by Eric Klinenberg, goes into the media portrayal of that situation, and the idea that when we talk about these weather related disasters, we don’t dive into the precariousness of the situation before that disaster occurred. And so the fact that the heat wave was befalling predominantly black elderly communities in Southwestern and Western side of Chicago was not really widely talked about when the event was going on. “

The urban heat island effect is a great example of just how layered climate issues are. People are not all equipped to adapt in the same way. And when we look at design decisions – like neighborhoods with miles of asphalt and minimal tree cover – it’s clear that the deck has already been stacked against certain groups of people. As Jeremy says, “It really is this kind of Russian nesting dolls of climate resilience.”

Your zip code does a lot more to tell me how long you’re going to live than a lot of other aspects of your lifestyle.

Dr. Jeremy Hoffman – Chief Scientist–Science Museum of Virginia

(09:27)Sowing New Solutions

So what do solutions look like? The good news is, Jeremy says the data is telling such a clear story, that there’s plenty of things we could do NOW to help mitigate the impact of the urban heat island. As in today and tomorrow.

“Small scale interventions like bus stops, shade structures, or any sort of passive cooling system like that, shading pedestrian corridors, green alleyways. Those are sorts of things that take very little investment necessarily compared to some of the other bigger scale things.”

It’s all part of an effort Jeremy calls “Throwing Shade in RVA” – including work with an organization called Groundwork RVA that works with youth in Richmond, Virginia to take a hands-on approach to enhancing greenspace in the city.

“And then there’s really the long-term 20 year horizon kinds of things like tree canopy planting campaigns here in Richmond, we’re giving away 10,000 trees over the next few weeks. But realistically, to change our urban canopy percentage, we need 100 times that or more over the next few decades to really make an impact on our urban canopy. There’s also then, on the flip side of planting new trees, is protecting the big ones. It turns out that we get a lot more bang for our buck, maintaining the largest and sturdiest and healthiest trees.”

I can see it now. Cities with downtown skyscrapers outlined in bushy green hats from the abundant rooftop gardens, sidewalks painted all different colors and bordered with native plants and trees, alleyways that serve as both community gathering spots and bike paths, large trees between street lights and midrises. And urban tree canopies and parks around every corner. That doesn’t sound too bad!

(11:20) Answers from Every Angle

Jeremy also talks about how even seemingly small design decisions make a tremendous difference: Like designing taller buildings on the southern side of streets that run.

East – West. The buildings cast more shade on the streets below, helping to cool streets during heat waves. In talking through the myriad of solutions to both climate change and specifically the urban heat island effect, Jeremy underscored that there will never be any single solution to these problems.

“There’s no silver bullet, it’s a silver buckshot.” – Dr. Jeremy Hoffman

He envisions a community oriented approach, one that gives people pride, ownership and opportunity in creating more green space in their communities.

“That feeling of stewardship and wanting to safeguard something. And if your voice and your communities’ history is being reflected back by the placemaking that’s going on, you’re going to be more willing to take care of it and to really Marshall your community around it. It’s really something that the urban planning community is really starting to come around to much more publicly than before.”

(12:25) COVID as a Catalyst

While it’s hard to call it a silver lining, Jeremy did say the pandemic does seem to have magnified the importance of parks and green spaces, even if immediately for more selfish “I have nowhere else to go” reasons.

“I’m thrilled that people are starting to see parks and open spaces and green spaces with a new, “We need this, I want this in my life. We need to, if I don’t have that space in my living area, how do I move closer to a park?” said Jeremy,

“Why are parks really important? Well, they’re virtually like a climate change sponge. They work to absorb stormwater. So it’s not only heat that’s getting more intense, but also if that rainiest rain events are becoming the add a couple more buckets of water to each rain event. And so parks can be used as an infrastructural investment for our sewer systems.

So it’s this really fascinating thing when you start to see people kind of connect the dots between the park that they like and the history of their city and the future of their city, because of climate change. If parks can be where we’re going to start having those conversations like, “Yes, I’m on board. It’s about time. Let’s get started. We got a lot of work to do.”

(13:21) Designing for the Whole Human

When we think about “human-centered” design, the impact of urban design choices on our mental health is unavoidable. Of course designing for “sustainability” should be focused on our viability in the future – but let’s not ignore our sanity and overall wellness in the present. In short, nature keeps us sane and we shouldn’t get too far from it. 

“Today, cities are starting to use happiness framework to look at policies,  neighborhoods, and communities to create places to help us all flourish or thrive”.

Paulina is the former Executive Director of the San Diego Green Building Council and current program manager for c40 cities. Paula led a green alley project in Los Angeles, where the city was looking at converting 250 acres into green alleys. 

Paulina describes why, “In most cities, alleys are the most underutilized places. They lack lighting infrastructure, storm water or any paving infrastructure, and often serve as a perfect breeding ground for crime and environmental degradation.”

Through community workshops, interviews, and surveys, the city sourced ideas directly from citizens about how to reimagine alley spaces. Pairing those ideas with environmental research yielded extraordinary new ideas, many of which have been implemented in San Diego. Ideas included closing alleys completely to car traffic, creating permeable spaces that helped manage stormwater, creating spaces for kids to play safely, and adding native plants.

As Paulina explained, “The whole project covers 18 square miles, and touches upon 350,000 residents. It is designed to work as a network, and work in sync with bike lanes, sidewalks, and streets to create connectivity in the neighborhood, encourage people to walk or bike more, and get them out of their cars.”

(15:14) Why Community Engagement is so Critical

Paulina emphasizes the absolute necessity of community involvement, and also that creativity is paramount to reimagining spaces that help us reach a greater sense of balance. “So close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath in, and imagine taking your blissful morning yoga class, in a wastewater management treatment  facility.”

She shows her audience a picture of a few people doing yoga. The room has massive windows overlooking a green field, with a tree canopy in the horizon. Sunlight drenches the room and contrary to your expectation of a wastewater treatment facility, it’s the Pinterest perfect vision of zen.

This is a real place. The Omega Center for sustainable living in Rhinebeck, New York is a gorgeous facility that I would happily live at, host a luncheon at, take a yoga class at, renew my wedding vows. I would pay an admission fee to go here, and yet, again – it’s primary purpose is to process and clean the filthiest water a city has to offer.

Impressively, the facility treats water for 119 surrounding facilities from toilets, showers, and sinks. The building is surrounded with green space, and inside inspired by the natural environment. Paulina bridges environmental sustainability with the mental health benefits of facilities like this.

“The Omega center is a perfect example of a building that creates restorative value to both people inside as well as the earth.”

Paulina’s optimism for the future is best concluded, “We all shape our built environment, and return it shapes us. So let’s use that opportunity to create happier lives, in happier cities for everyone.” – Paulina Lis

Amen, Paulina.

We touch up to 30 objects a minute, and medicine has taught us that 80% of infectious diseases are transmitted by touch.

Michael Schmidt – Professor Microbiology and Immunology

(17:08) The Case for Copper

In 19th century London, Cholera catalyzed London towards new infrastructure. Disease dictated design. Will the COVID-19 pandemic have a similar impact? Yes, our apologies–we tried, but we couldn’t avoid talking about the leading candidate for 2020’s Biggest Stink. This episode of Working Better is being brought to you by COVID-19. COVID-19 – God’s way of showing you that you don’t really watch that much Netflix from now on.

Regardless of when we find a solution to this particular pandemic, the fact remains that contagious diseases will be the threat of the future. So are our living spaces suited for these future threats?

Michael Schmidt, a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology has been working for years to mitigate the risk of Hospital associated infections. His focus is the spread of harmful disease.“We touch up to 30 objects a minute, and medicine has taught us that 80% of the infectious diseases are transmitted by touch.” He explained

Just as an experiment, I tracked this randomly a couple times a day. In any given minute, I would touch my computer, cell phone, water cup, coffee mug, beard, beard braids, headphones, cellphone, peanut butter cookie, face, dog, keys, wedding ring, earring…belly button ring…

Professor Schmidt wasn’t exaggerating, throughout the day we are touching SO many things. While it really paints the picture of just how much every surface is a microbial cesspool, he quickly offers a possible solution to these highly transmittable surfaces, one that we’ve actually known for some time. As Professor Schmidt explains, “About 2600 B.C humans appreciated the fact that copper had these tremendous microbial properties would kill bacteria.”

(18:43) Copper in Healthcare

He has been advocating the use of Copper long before covid, particularly in hospital rooms. But now an antimicrobial surface would be beneficial in all public spaces, not just hospital rooms. Professor Schmidt explains that “When a bacterium or virus seems to land on this surface, it dies, simply because of the inherent quantum mechanical properties of the metal itself.”

In the past, his work in preventing more hospital associated infections inspired him to work with manufacturers to create copper handles, hospital bed railings, and fixtures. Small steps to help mitigate a lot of risk in spreading disease. A study in 2013 published in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, showed that using copper-alloy based surfaces reduced healthcare-acquired infections by 58%.

(19:31) Building for the Future

But the benefits of copper don’t stop at its antimicrobial properties, it also happens to be one of the most energy efficient, durable, corrosion resistant, ductile, electrical conducting, thermal conducting, and infinitely recyclable materials. It checks nearly every box. Now just to find more copper belly butt-I mean doorknobs.

Electric car manufacturing is embracing copper like never before. It’s a primary building material of new high speed train systems, and on full display in buildings like the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, The Berlin Cathedral Church in Germany, and even city hall buildings in American cities like Minneapolis and Austin, TX.

The bottom line–the extraordinary benefits of using copper aren’t new. But particularly as the public health benefits get a new spotlight in COVID era–could Copper be a favorite new tool of architects and innovators looking to make our cities better equipped for circumstances like these? Only time will tell.

(20:32) Summary

So how are cities being reimagined? Urban heat islands are being discovered, cooled and transformed into community-driven green spaces. Alleys and wastewater treatment facilities are becoming places of renewal and escape, and copper is presenting itself as an indispensable building block of the future.

Two things at the core of every one of these stories:

(20:53)Designing for Humans, by Humans

Community engagement and multi-disciplinary thinking are absolutely essential. In London, the Great Stink catalyzed one of the biggest breakthroughs in public health technology in human history, but it also took decades and a team of architects, designers, builders, and government leaders to complete. Without a doubt, solving today’s urban challenges will require the same type of collaboration.

(21:23) It all Starts with Data

We can’t fix what we don’t understand. And we can’t understand what we can’t measure.

Just about every business on the planet is looking for more of it. In the case of cities–how do we see the unseen? How can we collect the type of at-the-source data that Jeremy and his team drove around and measured manually to uncover heat islands? How can we get our roads, rooftops, sidewalks, and streetlights to talk back to us? Without microdosing on LSD.

We all shape our built environment and return it shapes us. So let’s use that opportunity to create happier lives, in happier cities for everyone

Paulina Lis – Project Manager–C40 Cities

We’ve become inundated with messages about brands “making the world a better place.” So who’s for real? Can businesses actually be a force for good? And if so, how can we know when they are doing what they say they will do? We put the spotlight on two organizations providing answers: B Lab, the nonprofit organization that has catalyzed a movement through its B Corp certification. And DoneGood, a company aiming to make it quick, easy, and affordable to use your purchasing power for good.

Featuring:

Show Notes

What Does Responsible Business Really Mean? 

It’s 1985. If you’re like me, you’re 12 years old, Knight Rider is on TV, you’re knocking back a bottle of Orange Shasta, and cracking jokes with your imaginary friend, Reginald, when a commercial comes on.

We open on a warm sunset just off the California coast, it’s serene orange and pink glow shimmering on the ocean surface. Cut to a lone butterfly, sitting atop a flower.

“One of the smallest endangered species quietly reaches for its dinner,” the narrator says softly. “The el segundo blue butterfly lives on wild buckwheat on land that’s part of an oil refinery.” Now in dreamy slow motion, the butterfly flutters off its perch, and lands on a finger.

“It’s not much bigger than a fingernail,” the warm voice explains, “yet people who work there protect the area and plant buckwheat.” Cut to the final frame: “Do people really do that so a tenth of a gram of beauty can survive? … People Do.”

The Greenwashing Gold Standard (1:00)

Those two words “People Do” mark the final frame, nestled under the logo for… Chevron, the 150 billion dollar, multinational oil company. In the mid 1980’s, Chevron’s “People Do” campaign was designed to highlight projects that demonstrated the company’s care and commitment to the environment. One featured a hibernating bear and her cuddly cub returning to spring in Montana, thanks to the efforts of Chevron employees through the winter. One celebrated artificial coral reefs made from old storage tanks.

While initially successful, the ads were swiftly condemned by environmental groups. Why? Well to start – the ads left out a key fact. The “People Do” projects, while real, were LEGALLY MANDATED in order to mitigate the collateral damage caused by oil drilling. Researchers also found that the El Segundo butterfly program cost the company just $5,000 a year, while the production of the ad TOUTING IT was estimated well over $200,000.

The “People Do” campaign has since become a sort of “gold standard” for what’s referred to as “Greenwashing” – the misleading or even deceptive PR efforts to insist a company’s environmental impact is positive, regardless of what reality shows. Unfortunately unlike Knight Rider, Greenwashing is still alive and well today. And it’s just one of the ways we’ve become inundated with messages about brands making the world a better place. Whether it’s combating climate change, supporting movements like Black Lives Matter, touting how well they treat their employees, or just a good old fashioned “In these unprecedented times, we’re in this together,” it feels inescapable. Many companies actually do the things they say, but not all. 

So who’s for real? Can businesses actually be a force for good? And if so, how can we know when they are doing what they say they will do?

This week, we’re putting the spotlight on two organizations working to answer exactly that question. One is B Lab – a nonprofit organization who has catalyzed a movement through its B Corp certification. And DoneGood – a company aiming to make it quick, easy and affordable to use your purchasing power for good.

I’m Scott Hermes. This is working better.

What is the purpose of business? (3:18)

Okay, briefly we’re going to go even further back – to 1970. The Beatles just broke up, IBM unveiled the first ever FLOPPY DISK, and an economist by the name of Milton Friedman published an essay in the New York Times called “A Friedman Doctrine: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits”.

Friedman’s argument was as clear as his head was bald: profit matters above all else. Friedman economics and the idea of “Shareholder primacy” – that the shareholder always comes first, became foundational principles of free-market capitalism.

Not surprisingly, over the years more and more economists, investors and business leaders have to come to believe that Friedman’s model is at least….incomplete.

There’s increasing recognition that the business model of many corporations in the world is, in some ways, fundamentally broken.

Chris Marquis – Samuel C Johnson Professor in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University. Author of “Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Remaking Capitalism”

Chris Marquis is a Professor at Cornell and author of Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Remaking Capitalism.CHRIS:

“You have these things like massive environmental degradation, rampant discrimination, inequality, and many people sort of tie those issues to problems with our companies, polluting more or who they hire, who they promote, etc.

Many believe we’ve entered a new era – one where consumers demand not just quality products and services, but also transparency, accountability and action in terms of how they impact the world.

Was a product made sustainably? Who made it, are they being treated and compensated fairly? Where did ingredients come from, are they fair trade? How are employees treated? What are you doing to make your company’s leadership more diverse?

So when demand for perceived responsibility goes up….We don’t need Milton Friedman to tell us – supply goes up too.

Fans of the NBC sitcom 30 rock might remember “Greenzo,” played by David Schwimmer, he was a fictional mascot created by NBC as part of a companywide environmental initiative. It’s absurd, but it’s not that far from reality. Brands use any means they can to shout at consumers “Hey, we’re not an evil corporation. Look at our environmentally conscious, naturally-derived, ethically-considered, responsibly-sourced cassava chips.

Which leaves us with at least three questions.

What does any of that actually mean?

How can we determine who’s for real when it comes to businesses doing good?
What the hell is Cassava anyway?

B Lab & The B Corp movement (6:18)

One company aiming to help answer that question is B Lab. They’re known for starting the B Corp Certification – a set of standards used to measure the positive impact a company has on the world. For the 3,500 businesses in 70 countries who have become B Corp certified, it means they’ve met those standards and use the B Corp model to guide how they do business.

Walk through the grocery store and you don’t have to look hard for the B Corp logo – Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Method cleaning products, Danon yogurt or International Delight coffee creamer from parent company Danone….The list of Certified B Corps also includes beloved brands like Patagonia, Allbirds, and Kleen Canteen.

How the B Corp certification works

The certification means two things. First is the actual legal structure of the business – we’ll get to that in a bit. Second is the B Lab Impact Assessment. It’s a free, roughly 150 question survey that pinpoints the impact a business has across five areas: the environment, workers, community, customers, and shareholders. The assessment aims to understand how the business operates. Leaders answer questions like:

How much do you rely on renewable energy to operate corporate facilities?
What percentage of your company’s management is from underrepresented populations?
How do you prevent the exploitation of workers?
Are employees allowed to take paid-time off for community service?
How many hedgehogs work in your IT department?

Ok. That last one is NOT one of the questions but it would be pretty cool if they added it.

Based on industry benchmarks set by B Lab, the more positive the impact, the higher the score. Add each score together – and you get the Overall B Impact Score. 80 is the minimum to become certified.

Accountability meets flexibility (8:04)

There are many routes to become certified because different companies invest in different areas.

For example, Patagonia’s score of 151.4 is one of the highest of any B Corp. As a company who’s become famous for doing things like donating $10 million in tax cuts to environmental charities, scored highest on community and environment, the two areas making up for well over HALF their total score.

King Arthur Flour took a different route to the certification. The company’s Worker score was a whopping 61, way above the average of 22. Why? It’s an 100% employee-owned company, they pay at least 14% above minimum wage, they offer things like counseling and wellness services to employees, and achieved an employee satisfaction score above 80%.

When King Arthur claims to treat their employees well, you don’t have to take their word for it. It’s been quantified and verified. That’s the beauty of the B Impact assessment: it looks at these MAMMOTH problems facing the world, and says these businesses are helping solve those problems, and here’s how. Down to every last employee benefit, social program, and carbon emission.

Beyond the public perception, attracting EMPLOYEES has undoubtedly become one of the primary benefits touted by the B Corp movement. Here’s Chris Marquis again:

CHRIS:

“I’ve interviewed now probably a hundred I-Corps over the years… retention is way higher than their competitors. It’s higher than before they went through the process because people want to work at a place where they’re treated humanely and have good benefits. It just makes a lot of sense. On the other side of the employee attraction side, many companies like Athleta, Kevin O’Leary and New Belgium Brewery have all told me that in the last few years… 25 plus percent of the people that come in applying for jobs, they are on the application and we are why people want to work for us. They mentioned because you’re a B Corp.”

Becoming Certified (10:06)

As anyone just about anyone who has pursued the B Corp certification will tell you, the process is no walk in the park.

JAMES:

“it’s not something necessarily the companies are enjoying at the time. “

That’s James Ghaffari, Director of B Corp Certification at B Lab UK.

You’re being put through the wringer a little bit

James Ghaffari – Director of B Corp Certification, B Lab

“It’s a real shame, I haven’t been on the tube for about nine months or eight months now, for obvious reasons. But just before lockdown, I was just seeing loads of tube adverts coming up in Central London from Mindful Chef to ODDBOX, and all these different people using the B Corp stamp on their adverts. Customers want help with that decision-making process and they will give more of their time and more of their loyalty and more of their engagement to companies that give them that helping hand in making those decisions along with their values. “

It all comes back to the fundamental definitions of what businesses are for. Milton Friedman said they’re for making money. And even if growing numbers reject that mindset, it’s still entrenched in our thinking, our habits as consumers, and perhaps most importantly, the law.

For the vast majority of businesses, particularly large corporations who affect the world the most, their legal responsibility is first and foremost to shareholders. Decisions are made and regulated based on impact to the bottom line. In the UK, B Lab is saying it’s time to change that.

JAMES:

“One of our big aims as B Corp, is something that we call the Better Business Act, where we are going to build a coalition of companies to ask the government to change the Companies Act in Section 172, so that the responsibility for directors everywhere in every company in the UK, is to think about all of their stakeholders when they make key business decisions, and not just their shareholders…So stay tuned and be hearing hopefully in 2021, a lot more about that.”

It’s no small feat. B Lab’s website states the intention of the campaign very clearly: “Change the law so that every single company in the UK, whether big or small, takes ownership of its social and environmental impact. “

Bridging Political Divides (16:57)

Could something similar happen here in the US? It may sound far fetched, but Chirs Marquis says there’s actually more common ground politically than you might think:

CHRIS:

“Even Marco Rubio has come out against shareholder primacy. He wrote a report, not that long ago, about how shareholder primacy and cancer that’s killing American companies, because it is so short-term oriented. Elizabeth Warren, is another from the left, that actually many of the ideas of the spend Bennett Corporation Law where you’d have our accountable capitalism act, which she put forth as part of her presidential planning.”

That’s about as encouraging as anything. The list of things Marco Rubio and Elizabeth Warren agree on is short, and includes things like “the sky is often blue,” “water is wet” and “David Hasslehoff – HOT.”

Candidly, the first time I learned what B Corp was, it was from Kin + Carta, my employer who graciously hasn’t yet told me to stop swearing on this podcast. J Schwan, our CEO, announced at a quarterly meeting that Kin + Carta was pursuing the B Corp certification, to hold ourselves accountable to the things we say we believe in.

It’s been years in the making, but we’re damn close! Which is awesome. Since I first learned about the B Corp certification, the thing that’s been most encouraging is learning more about what it’s meant to other companies. The stories about what other certified B Corps have done to earn the distinction.

WHICH brings me to America’s favorite 2-3 min podcast segment – Business Class – Midwest Division – More than one and less than three podcasters: Cooler Terms w/ Pooler & Hermes.

COOLER TERMS: Carbon Neutral (18:40)

DONEGOOD (22:13)

Alright – so what is a “responsible business” and how do we find them? B Corp is offering a compelling answer to that question. But if you listened to our most previous episode, you know that consumer demands for free and fast shipping, and seamless ordering has never been higher. Or, arguably, delusional. So for people wanting to support businesses making a clear positive impact on the world – could it ever be as simple as the Buy Now button on Amazon?

Cullen Schwarz is the founder of DoneGood. His answer is an emphatic YES.

That’s what I think the job for any of us in this space is, is to make it easier and easier and easier and faster and faster and faster for people to create great positive change.

Cullen Schwarz – Cofounder and Chief of Good Thoughts, DoneGood

Deemed by Forbes as “The Amazon for Social Good,” DoneGood is an online marketplace featuring over 200 ethical and sustainable brands. Now offering a mobile app and full eCommerce site, the company’s flagship product is a free chrome extension that instantly recommends sustainable and socially conscious brands based on your searches in Amazon, Google or other retailer sites.

Doing Good Made Easier (23:24)

For example… I searched for “fuzzy slippers” on Google, and a list of five companies popped up, including Kyrgies, a company that hand-crafts slippers from wool grown on family farms, and is becoming Certified Climate Neutral. With a click of a button, it takes me to their page on DoneGood where I’m just a few clicks away from whisking my feet to soft, sustainable heaven.

DoneGood evaluates businesses based on their impact on people and the planet. So what specifically are they looking for?

CULLEN:

“Are you paying living wages and safe conditions? Are you investing in communities? Are you fighting climate change? How are you more environmentally sustainable than the big name counterparts in your industry? How can you demonstrate that? How can you back that up? What can you provide us?

Cullen says they also rely on data from independent non-profits like B Corp, 1% for the Planet, Fairtrade organizations and the Rain Forest Alliance.

DoneGood features men and women’s clothing, home goods, cleaning products, office supplies, coffee, tea, self-care products, even electronics – you name it, DoneGood has likely found a responsible alternative worth supporting, each with their own unique story and ambition to do things differently.

Such as Dear Survivor, who offers upcycled jewelry made ethically by women refugees in the US and donates proceeds to restorative programs for survivors of sex trafficking.

Or Gorongosa Coffee, who donates 100% of profits directly to wildlife conservation, girls education and rainforest restoration in Mozambique.

Cullen says there’s nothing as rewarding as watching these partner brands grow over the years.

CULLEN:

We’re helping consumers who want to find those brands to find them, which then means these companies will have more sales, be more successful, which then means they’ll be around longer and grow and be able to do more of the good it is that they’re doing. And it means other people, more and more other people will be inspired to start companies like theirs because they see that companies like these can be successful. 

The power of consumer demand (25:14)

Prior to starting DoneGood, Cullen spent years in politics, including working in the Obama administration. Cullen says he got into politics to fight for things like economic equality, living wages for workers and combating climate change. What he came to believe, though, was that of all ways to affect change, one stands alone in its sheer power.

All the money that we spend is the biggest impact we make on the world

Cullen Schwarz – Cofounder and Chief of Good Thoughts, DoneGood

CULLEN:

“Of all the things we do: we march, we volunteer, we vote, we donate, but we spend a lot of money and that has a huge impact on the world. Last year, Americans gave $450 billion to charity. We spent 325 times more than that buying stuff.

if just a fraction of the dollars we spend can be diverted away from massive companies with huge global supply chains that are keeping people locked in poverty that are destroying the planet, and instead we can divert our dollars to companies that are using highly eco-friendly practices, fighting climate change, paying living wages, and empowering communities. The impact is huge.”

Cullen and the DoneGood team clearly envision a world that rejects the “Friedman” ideology that businesses exist only to maximize profits. But he also insists that a more conscious form of business will only be possible by embracing a little capitalism 101.

CULLEN:

Consumer spending is 70% of our economy. Businesses want to make money, so they will follow consumer demand, and that means we can demand, as consumers, certain product specifications. We can demand certain price points. We can demand whatever, and the market will supply whatever we demand. Well, more and more consumers are now demanding more often, I want good pay with this product for the workers who made it. I want to know that my spending isn’t helping to contribute to climate change, and instead might be part of the solution, and the market will supply more of that.

I do think that that’s the most important movement of our time.

Reaching customers on their terms (27:17)

For Cullen, embracing principles of capitalism also means embracing what some leaders in this space deem a bad word: SALES. Back in September, DoneGood held its “Better Days” promotion – offering consumers an alternative to Amazon Prime Days.

Whether it’s promotions like Better Days, the seamless experience of the DoneGood site, the SPEED of the plugin, or the extraordinary effort to sync ALL the inventory payment data with 200+ partner Sites… EASE for the consumer is clearly the north star for Cullen and the DoneGood team. It’s about understanding what people are already going to do – and redirecting that behavior to do good without getting in the way.

CULLEN:

“I’m going to buy a shirt anyway. Right? I’m going to buy Christmas gifts at the holidays. Americans spend over a trillion dollars just on holiday gifts. What if that trillion dollars, a fraction of it, could reduce poverty, fight climate change? “

Many of the brands featured on DoneGood are certified B Corps, as is DoneGood itself. And just like the B Corp movement, DoneGood is aiming to be an answer to the problem of greenwashing and quote-”wokewashing”. Cullen says misleading marketing and PR claims from big business is absolutely a problem, but he insists there’s another way to look at it.

CULLEN:

“The fact that greenwashing is a problem, first of all, let’s recognize that that’s a sign of huge progress. The fact that big corporations at least feel like they have to pay lip service to these things, and that they need to talk about these things at all, or are trying to fudge what they’re actually doing. That means they’re starting to understand that a large number of people, a large number of consumers care about these issues and they better start talking about it. So while it sucks that corporations are trying to make us all think that they’re doing good and it makes it tougher to separate fact from fiction, it’s progress that they even feel the need to do that.”

WRAP: Catalyzing change (29:00)

Cullen was also nice enough to extend an offer to Working Better listeners!

Go to DoneGood.co, and use promo code WorkingBetter20 for $20 off a purchase of $100 or more. That’s WorkingBetter20 – no spaces. Huge thank you to Cullen Schwarz of DoneGood for talking with us.

Also thanks to Chris Marquis – go buy his book Better Business at chrismarquis.com.

We’ll link to all of this on our website.

Finally a huge thank you to B Lab’s James Ghaffari for lending your time and expertise.

So when you’re shopping, and you want to use your purchase power for good, look for the B Corp logo. If you’re online, download the DoneGood browser extension and make it a breeze. They’ve done a lot of the work for you. But as Cullen said – it comes down to what consumers demand, what WE do, that affects change and can reframe what we expect from businesses. Because who makes real change happen? To quote a 1985 classic:

“People Do.”

Algorithms and AI affect so many aspects of everyday life. Although AI can deliver extraordinary value and insight, it can also hurt people. In this episode of Working Better, we dive deep into the issue of bias in AI to illuminate the stories, consequences, and complicated ethical questions that have experts pushing for progress.

Featuring:

  • Kyle Hundman – Data Science Manager, American Family Insurance
  • Deena McKay – Functional Delivery Consultant, Kin + Carta; Founder and Host of Black Tech Unplugged
  • Maxwell Young – UX Designer, Kin + Carta
  • Nicolas Kayser-Bril – Journalist, AlgorithmWatch

Show Notes

“Alexa, play Whitney Houston as loud as possible.”

Voice assistants are a great way to demonstrate how an algorithm works. In its simplest form, an algorithm is just a sequence of steps designed to accomplish a task.

Alexa uses a voice recognition algorithm to understand I want music, that I want that music to be Whitney Houston’s music, and that I want it played at maximum volume. It moves through a carefully designed sequence of rules that arrives at “I wanna dance with somebody” playing loud enough to wake up my neighbors. As requested.

So let’s say, hypothetically, that’s how I start every Friday morning. Except, this Friday, I just say, “Alexa, play some music.” Alexa will then be more likely to play Whitney Houston, or something like it because it’s learned my preferences and can now better predict what I want to hear.

(00:48) The Pervasiveness of Algorithms

That’s just one example of how algorithms, machine learning, and AI are used in everyday life. It’s also a fairly harmless example. Which is not always the case. Algorithms are used to predict the things you might buy, the fastest route to the grocery store, your qualifications for a job, how likely you are to pay back a loan, which Pokemon you are based on your grocery list, and more. 

But, whatever their purpose, algorithms all have one thing in common, They’re designed by people. 

In case you haven’t caught a headline for the last 5,000 years or so, people are far from perfect. So when the stuff that goes in to these algorithms is designed by humans, modeled after human behavior, the output can be just as flawed. Bias in the form of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination become solidified in code, embedded into everyday products, and affect people’s lives in very real ways.

So today we’re going to shed a light on the dangers of bias in AI, why it’s so hard to fix, and what we can do to overcome it and help create more representative, equitable, and accountable AI.

(02:10)The Building Blocks of AI

First a little algorithm and AI 101. 

Let’s say an algorithm is a building. Data points and lines of code are like brick, mortar, and concrete–raw material used in different ways for different purposes. Some become apartment buildings. Some become museums. And, thankfully, some become Wendy’s restaurants. 

Artificial intelligence, then, is sort of like a city–a collection of different buildings, all designed to interact, depend on, and benefit from one another. Today–we’re going to talk a lot about algorithms, the buildings designed by people, which can accomplish extraordinary things–but can also cause harm in all sorts of ways. 

Deena: “When you would go wash your hands and you put your hand under the sink, would it work automatically?” Deena asked. 

Maxx: Yes, typically, yeah.

Deena McKay, a delivery consultant here at Kin + Carta, was talking with our producer Maxx (who is white). Maxx thought Deena might just be checking up on his COVID hygiene, but she was actually illustrating just how widespread this issue is, even with a fairly low-tech example:

Deena: “So, me being a person of color, it doesn’t work automatically. Sometimes I have to move my hand around. Or sometimes I have to maybe even go to an entirely different sink because of the way that these things were created. Was it with a diverse thought? And sometimes people who are Brown/Black minorities, our hands don’t automatically get recognized, even just for washing our hands, which is crazy because we obviously need to wash our hands.”

Yes, we do. And with that type of fundamental failure, it doesn’t take much to imagine how it could lead to much more severe consequences. As Deena explained, “If you have that concept of we can barely wash our hands, imagine what would happen if it was a self-driving car, and it didn’t recognize me walking across the street. It’s going to hit me.”

Deena is also the host of another podcast that we highly encourage you to check out called Black Tech Unplugged. It is an amazing podcast where Deena talks with other Black people currently working in tech to share their stories about how they got started and encourage other people of color to work in the tech industry. 

(04:12) Joy Buolamwini – The Coded Gaze

If you’ve heard anything recently about racial bias in AI, you may have heard about the remarkable work of Joy Buolamwini. In her own words, Joy is a poet of code who uses art and research to illuminate the social implications of artificial intelligence. Joy was working at the MIT Media Lab when she made a startling discovery. Joy explains, via a talk at the 2019 World Economic Forum: 

“I was working on a project that used computer vision, didn’t work on my face, until I did something. I pulled out a white mask,and then I was detected.”

In the talk, Joy shows a video of herself sitting in front of a computer vision system. In this system, white male faces are recognized immediately, but when she sits down, nothing–until she puts on an expressionless, seemingly plastic white mask. Joy set out to determine why this was happening, to uncover the biases within widely used facial recognition systems, and help build solutions to correct the issue. 

Joy’s story is the subject of a new documentary called Coded Bias, which premiered at the Sundance Film festival earlier this year. Joy is also the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, an organization aiming to illuminate the social implications and dangers of artificial intelligence. As Joy says, if black faces are harder for AI to detect accurately, it means there’s a much higher chance they’ll be misidentified.

(05:32) Wrongfully Accused

Take the story of Robert Williams, a man from Detroit wrongfully accused at his home for a crime he didn’t commit. In a piece produced by the ACLU, Robert describes his conversation with police after he was first detained. 

“The detective turns over a picture and says, ‘That’s not you?’ I look, and I say ‘No, that’s not me.’ He turns another paper over and says ‘I guess that’s not you either.’ I pick that paper up and hold it next to my face, and I say ‘That’s not me. I hope you don’t think all Black people look alike.’ And he says, ‘The computer says it’s you.” 

It wasn’t. 

Although companies including Amazon and IBM have announced they are halting the development of facial recognition programs for police use, Robert’s story is, unfortunately, becoming all too common. 

However, the dangers of bias in AI aren’t always so easily seen and demonstrated. They’re not always as tangible as a computer seeing a white face, but not a Black face, or a soap dispenser recognizing white hands more than Black hands. 

One study found that a language processing algorithm was more likely to rate white names as “more pleasant” than Black names. 

In 2016, an algorithm judged a virtual beauty contest of over 600,000 applicants from around the world–and almost exclusively chose white finalists. 

There are well documented cases in healthcare, financial services, the justice system, the list goes on.

(06:58) How does bias in AI happen?

So how do these things happen? 

The most obvious place to start is with the data being fed into an algorithm. 

(07:05) Bad Data

For image recognition models–the algorithms used in things like soap dispensers or facial recognition software–if the data are being trained on mostly white faces or white hands, it’s going to learn to recognize white skin more easily. Because many of these systems were trained on such a disproportionate sample of white men, Joy gave the phenomenon a name: 

“I ran into a problem, a problem I call the pale male data issue. So, in machine learning, which includes techniques being used for computer vision–hence finding the pattern of the face–data is destiny. And right now if we look at many of the training sets or even the benchmarks by which we judge progress, we find that there’s an over-representation of men with 75 percent male for this National Benchmark from the US government, and 80 percent lighter-skinned individuals. So pale male data sets are destined to fail the rest of the world, which is why we have to be intentional about being inclusive.” – Joy Buolamwini 

In 2015, Amazon experienced a similar situation. Recruiters at Amazon had built an experimental AI model to help streamline the company’s search for top talent. The tool took thousands of candidates’ resumes, and would quickly identify top prospects, saving hiring managers countless hours. Even when the algorithm was designed to weigh gender neutrally, Amazon found it was heavily favoring men. 

Why? The benchmark for top talent was developed by observing patterns in resumes Amazon had received over the previous 10 years, which belonged to, you guessed it, mostly men. The system learned to penalize resumes containing words like “women’s” as in “women’s college” or “women’s debate team” because they weren’t phrases likely to show up in previous applicants’ resumes. 

(08:40) Diversity of Perspective

It really comes down to the fact that you need more multidisciplinary people making these decisions, “Twitter was invented by a bunch of white guys at a table, and they never thought of any problems that wouldn’t affect them as white guys.” – Max Young

That’s Max Young, a UX designer from the Kin + Carta UX team. Max says that often the simplest place to start is by looking at who is in the room. Deena agrees: “I would always like to see more people who look like me, in the workplace, doing tech work.”

If your algorithm is a mirror of humanity, you failed and your algorithm is biased.

Kyle Hundman – Data Science Manager, American Family Insurance

(09:39) Reinforcing Systemic Bias

There are also cases where algorithms that overlook broader systemic issues–like gender and racial inequality–can actually continue to reinforce them. To help explore this idea, we sat down with Kyle Hundman. Kyle leads a team at the Data Science and Analytics Lab at American Family Insurance.

“If your algorithm is a mirror of humanity, you failed and your algorithm is biased.” – Kyle Hundman, Data Science Manager, American Family Insurance

It really is the simplest way to understand it. AI isn’t really artificial intelligence. At Kin + Carta, we often prefer to think of it as augmented intelligence, because it’s not a computer thinking on its own. It’s a computer thinking the way we think, and behaving as we behave, which means it needs to be examined very carefully.

Take the story of COMPAS, an algorithm developed to evaluate the likelihood that a criminal will commit a crime again. A 2016 ProPublica study analyzed 10,000 defendants using the COMPAS system; their findings were clear: of all defendants who did not commit a crime over a two-year period, black defendants were twice as likely to be classified as higher risk than their white counterparts. The system had effectively learned to disproportionately evaluate Black defendants because it was mimicking the bias that we know exists in arrest records.

It’s also one of the reasons some are calling for an overhaul of credit reports as we know them in the US. The short of it is that, beginning in the 1930s, neighborhoods in many American cities were subject to “red-lining” policies, allowing mortgage lenders to label predominantly Black neighborhoods as “high-risk” areas, effectively denying Black residents access to credit for years. Even decades after those practices were outlawed, advocates point out even the simplest of data points can still lead to a disproportionate impact. Kyle helped illustrate one such example, as well as how important, yet still entangled, the conversation can be:

Kyle: “Just because of the use of location and anything that you’re doing that’s consumer facing, because you have all of these historical factors of discrimination and injustice in our country, and those often date back hundreds of years, and still manifest themselves today, it’s a really tricky question to ask, well, can location be a proxy for some of these historical injustices? How much is that still present today? How much does that matter in what we’re doing right now? And then how much of that is actually perpetuating some of those injustices? And that’s where the conversation gets really tricky and really deep.”

(12:14) Understanding the Bigger Picture

There’s clearly no easy solution, but one thing seems clear: the broader social context can’t be ignored when algorithms are making decisions about things like hiring, access to loans, or criminal sentencing.

Focusing on really narrow data sets and ignoring the backdrop of racial and gender inequality makes as much sense as summarizing 2020 by saying “Traffic jams were at an all time low.” Whether it’s true or not, you’re very much missing the bigger picture.

Which begs the question about education: for anyone in the tech world–designers, developers, data scientists–should AI skills and social understanding be considered inseparable? Like Laverne and Shirley? Bacon and eggs? Or being from Minnesota and saying “you betcha”?

Kyle Hundman: “I think it should be. And I think that it’s now more culturally relevant than it’s ever been before, and it’s getting a lot of attention rightfully so.“

Max Young: “when you get a bunch of engineers together and you say, ‘Come up with the system to figure out credit scores. Or maybe it’d be good to have a historian in there to say, “We’ve actually come across this problem before, let’s try to fix it rather than just maintain the situation.'”

Responsibility and Action

Kyle says one of the most powerful examples of multi-disciplinary teams could be in how companies are addressing diversity and inclusion.

Kyle: “We’ve seen recently diversity and inclusion departments pop-up in corporations. I think those will become technical, and I think you’ll have bias audits where you have technical people, that this is their focus, and they want to make sure that corporations are being responsible.”

We also asked Kyle about the responsibility of folks like him to uncover and uproot issues of algorithmic bias. He said that in many ways, it’s about better data science, and more accurate models, period.

Kyle Hundman: “I think it’s a healthy way to look at it as due diligence, and it should be core to any modeling exercise. I think there are a lot of situations where that’s actually beneficial to model development and that bias might actually hurt performance, where if you’re over sample and you have one class that’s over-represented, that’s a fundamental flaw in your data and you need to fix that. You want to fix that issue no matter what your task is or what your data looks like. I think, in a lot of situations, there’s empirical evidence of this in that fixing some of these biases issues actually improves your model and actually improves your accuracy.”

So with a system like COMPAS, how do we “fix it”?

We can’t really say, because COMPAS is a proprietary algorithm owned by its creators. However, this brings us to another key issue here: transparency.

(14:57) The “Black Box” Problem

“The Black Box.”–and no not the thing on a plane that holds all its juicy plane secrets. Fun fact–did you know that “black boxes” on planes are actually not black at all; they’re bright orange so they can be found more easily in the event of a crash?

In the case of AI, it’s still not something physical. But perhaps more “black” in its lack of visibility. We asked Kyle to help explain what the black box issue with deep learning is really all about.

Kyle Hundman: “Because the combinations are endless, you can’t really pinpoint how a single input moves through that network and interacts with all of these other features and lights up neurons partially or fully. There’s just so much depth and so much interaction throughout this whole thing. You can’t peel that apart.”

When we can’t peel it apart, how do we know how an algorithm is coming to an answer? And how do we know it’s being unbiased in arriving at that answer? In response to calls for more transparency, big tech firms have released a variety of different “tool kits” to help give a window into how AI systems work.

Earlier this year, Microsoft released its new “Fairlearn” tool kit for its machine learning platform on Azure, allowing anyone using the platform to test and hopefully prevent incidents of bias. LinkedIn released its Fairness Toolkit used to govern how AI recommends job listings, shared content, or potential job candidates. This type of transparency is at least a step in the right direction, right? 

(16:31) Who can hold companies accountable?

That’s what we asked Nicolas Kayser-Bril from AlgorithmWatch, a non-profit organization based in Berlin, Germany, that’s focused on research and advocacy about algorithms and their impact on society. Nicolas pointed out that transparency is important, but really only part of the equation:

Nicolas Kayser-Bril: “It’s of course, very important to look under the hood, but I wouldn’t say that transparency is the most important issue. The most important issue is enforcement. The problem is that we know there is a problem; we know which companies are the problem. I mean, when I as a journalist called the enforcement organizations, they’re like, ‘Oh, thank you very much we might look into it in five years.’ Because they have no funding, no expertise, and no political support to simply enforce the law. And no business in their right mind will ever be transparent to the point that they admit to breaking the law. This will never happen.”

So should algorithms be better regulated? Should the public and the government treat data and artificial intelligence like any other potentially dangerous commodity? Nicolas says the way we look at food service can be a helpful comparison. “When you go to the restaurant, you don’t ask to go to the kitchen in the name of transparency to look for yourself which bacteria are living there. You trust that the government sends hygiene inspectors to do it on your behalf.”

When you go to the restaurant, you don’t ask to go to the kitchen in the name of transparency to look for yourself, which bacteria are living there. You trust that the government sends hygiene inspectors to do it on your behalf.

Nicholas Kayser-Bril – Journalist, Algorithm Watch

(18:01) Rising to the Occasion

Another good example of a group that can cause great harm or good are doctors. What if we looked at medicine as an example of how to regulate AI and ensure that it meets ethical standards? Doctors are regulated privately by medical boards and publicly regulated by state licensing agencies. In this case, we need an industry group to set the standards for what tests AI should be subject to in order to validate its fairness. Those tools, like the Fairness Toolkit would be open source. State or federal law can mandate that the AI has to pass those tests. Ideally, the AI algorithm itself would be open source, but, until we can get companies to give up their intellectual property, passing a consistent set of black box tests would be better than nothing. Even now, you can work with the Algorithmic Justice League and request an algorithmic audit much in the same way we currently work with security firms to do a security audit.

The debate about regulating AI and algorithms will undoubtedly continue. The ethical questions are complicated, and, at least in the short run, it looks as though the responsibility will be up to the builders–the makers, and practitioners creating these systems–to be really deliberate in how we understand the impact of algorithmic bias, better hold ourselves accountable, and ultimately prove that AI can actually improve the human mind, rather than just imitate it. 

Because remember what Kyle told us: 

“if your algorithm is a mirror of humanity, you failed and your algorithm is biased.”

Speaking of groundbreaking feats of human achievement – it’s about that time. That’s right folks – it’s Cooler Terms with Pooler and Hermes. 

(19:34) Cooler Terms with Pooler and Hermes

Scott: Joining me as always is Katie Pooler and Katie, I just realized that I introduce myself every episode but you never have.

Katie: Truthfully, I needed a few episodes before I felt comfortable enough to formally attach my name and identity to the podcast. 

Scott: OK but hardly anyone listens to this podcast so I think you will be OK to introduce yourself

Katie: I am Katie Pooler, and, in addition to being our CFO – Chief Fun Office – I also work for our Connective Digital Services here at Kin + Carta. In fact, Connective Digital Services is the official Cooler Term for IT. We do a lot of things, but, essentially, I’m a solutions or systems engineer for the operations side of Kin + Carta. People come to me with problems, and it’s my job to find solutions. In fact, I think this is why you asked me for help with the podcast.

Scott: Thanks for not starting with ‘For those of you who don’t know me’ when introducing yourself. What is that about? Isn’t that what all introductions are for? For people who don’t know you?

Katie: For those of you who don’t know me, I am our president and CFO, I climbed Kilimanjaro, and I have immaculate credit and perfect work attendance. For those of you who do know me, don’t tell them I’m full of shit.

Scott: For those of you who don’t know me, how dare you? How dare you. I’m clearly someone you should already know.

Katie: You know who does know me Scott? The algorithm. It knows what I want, what I need, I assume it knows everything about me. So where is my algorithm-inspired soul mate? It’s 2020, we’re stuck inside, and we hate being on Zoom all day. I live alone. I have been so close to purchasing cardboard cutouts of celebrities just to add some variety to my social life. The algorithm knows what I want before I want it, why not use those powers for good? 

Scott: What would you like to be able to do with it?

Katie: I wish we were able to use our unconscious biases more effectively, and not to discriminate against race, gender, abilities. What am I talking about? I’m talking about using algorithms to determine whether a person is likely to microwave fish in the break room, take off their shoes on an airplane, or do they watch Big Bang Theory? 

Scott: I would pay cash money for that service. 

Katie: Seriously though, that show is awful. 

Scott: I don’t need an unbiased algorithm to tell me that.

Scott: Thanks for tuning in. Let us know what you think of the podcast and if you have any ideas for future episodes. Reach out to us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram or just dream it to us on the astral plane. We are everywhere.

What if we told you the tiny European nation of Estonia has been voting online since 2005? In this episode, we take a closer look at the way the Estonian system works, the biggest obstacles to online voting in the US, and what it might take to transform one of the most important functions of our society.

Featuring:

Florian Marcus, Digital Transformation Advisor, e-Estonia Briefing Center
Ashby Fiser, CEO of Aviame
Mark Ardito, VP of Cloud Modernization, Kin + Carta

Key Takeaways:

  • The Estonian voting system is just part of the country’s commitment to being the “Most Digitally Advanced Society in the World.”
  • Estonia’s digital identity system lies at the heart of its digital capabilities.
  • Ballot security, infrastructure, and ensuring voter confidence remain the three biggest hurdles to the United States in terms of building a reliable and secure voting system.
  • Most experts still believe that paper ballots should be the gold standard for traceable, auditable voting.
  • Collaboration, experimentation, and long-term perspectives are key to creating meaningful change to election technology.

Show Notes 

(00:40) Why Can’t We Vote Online?

We’ve grown accustomed to sharing such vast amounts of information digitally. Many of the transactions we conduct online every day would have terrified us just a handful of years ago. Banking from your phone, applying for loans, managing credit cards, applying for jobs, renting out your home to strangers, and filing taxes.

So why can’t our voting systems work in the same way?

If this question has ever run through your head, you’re not alone. No surprise, there’s a lot to it. Many people will say it’s next to impossible –at least in the US–in the near future. There are many ways to look at it, and in just about every conversation about online voting, eventually, one country comes up: Estonia.

(01:24) Examining Estonia

With a population the size of Philadelphia, Estonia is known for its vast wilderness, black rye bread, having absolutely no one famous born there, (go look up “Famous Estonians” and you will see what I mean. No one you have ever heard of. No offense Estonia but you need to pick up your PR game), and the option for every citizen to vote online since 2005. 

Today, we’re going to talk about how Estonia built its current system as well as the most significant obstacles preventing the United States from doing something similar. 

We’ll also discuss whether the real question should be “Should we want to vote online?,” rather than “Why can’t we vote online?”

(02:06) Estonia’s Digital Society

Bordering Latvia to the south, Russia to the East, and the Baltic Sea to the north and west, Estonia has become known as “The Most Digitally Advanced Society in the World.” In fact, 99 percent of all public services are available online: driver’s licenses applications, obtaining permits, paying taxes, opening a business, and yes –voting, all happens through one digital tool. 

Since the voting system was first introduced in 2005, the country’s acceptance of it has only grown stronger. In fact, it has flourished. No major vote recounts, no hacking scandals, and in the most recent election, 46.7 percent of all votes were cast online, bringing down the cost per vote by an estimated 50 percent. 

Is it a glimpse into the future about how governments will operate? Is it something that only works on a small scale? Or are the threats too extraordinary, too uncertain, and potentially catastrophic, that it should be avoided like the plague?

(03:04) Keeping Ballots Secure

Ballot security is far and away the number one issue plaguing the voting process. Keeping who you voted for a secret so that no one can coerce you into voting for a candidate is imperative because secrecy keeps the coercer from knowing if you were compliant. 

The anonymity of voting is also one of the simplest ways to understand the differences between things like financial transactions and voting. Fraud protection systems that help make online banking and tax filing possible depend specifically on linking your activity to your identity. However, in voting, that connection is completely severed, so the technical challenge is turned on its head. There’s also the question of motivation, and the differences between the government wanting your money and wanting you to vote, but we’ll put those questions aside for now. 

(03:49) How Does Estonia Protect Anonymity?

So as we play our game of “Keeping up with the Estonians” We wonder how they keep every ballot a secret? It helps to look at the system as a whole. According to Anna Piperal, “The central idea behind this development is transformation of the state role and digitalization of trust. Think about it. In most countries, people don’t trust their governments. And the governments don’t trust them back. And all the complicated paper-based formal procedures are supposed to solve that problem. Except that they don’t. They just make life more complicated.” (Anna Piperal, TED talk, 2:46)

(04:37) The Digital Identity system

When Estonian officials talk about their digital society, they describe three design principles that have guided it since its early development in the 90s. The first is to guarantee privacy and confidentiality. At the center of the technology is the digital identity system, and a digital ID card. Every citizen is issued a digital identity that must be verified before any services can be accessed. We spoke with Florian Marcus, a digital transformation advisor at the e-Estonia Briefing Center, who showed us just how simple it is to vote in Estonia.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “End of story? But I have so many questions.”

Estonians says those two pins are what prevent someone from being able to vote fraudulently if they had your digital ID card. But again – what about keeping
my vote anonymous? Florian Marcus stated that: “Encryption effectively means that you can see in the source code how we encrypt our stuff, but to decrypt it, you don’t need to have found a particular line in the code. Instead, you would need a lot of brute computing power to decrypt that key. And the truth is that the encryption that we use these days would take all the different supercomputers in the world combined several years just to crack one sort of transaction”.

“The actual process of voting takes around 20 seconds. It effectively takes as long as you need to decide who you want to vote for.”

Florian Marcus – Digital Transformation Advisor, e-Estonia Briefing Center

 (06:08) The Importance of Transparency

Florian was also quick to point out that the entire system’s source code is available on GitHub, meaning IT nerds like myself can take a look ourselves and point out its flaws.

Many experts working on this very problem, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries, seem to agree that this type of encryption is still not enough still for a country the size of the United States.

There is a type of encryption called homomorphic encryption that could be the solution. I won’t explain the math, because I don’t understand it but people who are much better at math than I am discovered a type of encryption that allows you to perform operations on encrypted data without decrypting it, which still keeps the calculations encrypted. Josh Benaloh at Microsoft has helped develop voting software called Microsoft Election Guard that leverages this encryption to count votes. This allows them to obtain an accurate tally of the total number of votes without seeing who you voted for. Wow. Mom was right. Math is cool.

(07:09) Infrastructure and Innovation

The second major issue is infrastructure. In other words, the systems, servers, software, and networks that online voting would depend on. 

The key to the Estonian infrastructure is a data exchange platform called the X-Road. Anna Piperal explained: “Just like a highway, it connects public sector databases and registries, local municipalities and businesses, organizing a real-time, secure, and regulated data exchange, saving an auditable trace after each move.”

(07:51) The “Only Once” Principle

This brings us to the second design principle: Only Once.

Each piece of information is entered only once.

Permits, licenses, leases, contracts, basic medical info–think about how many times you’ve had to re-submit the same piece of information to multiple entities at your local government? I’ve lost track. In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, “Shouldn’t you have this information already?”

The X-Road data exchange system is just a part of the infrastructure that makes online voting possible, but it illustrates a key point. It’s part of a much more robust approach to digital services. The lack of such an approach in the United States has been underscored by the efforts from several organizations trying to bridge the gap.

(08:50) The United States’ Digital Infrastructure Problem

Organizations like OmniBallot, Voatz, and DemocracyLive have been advocating for online voting as wells as for systems already in place to allow for members of the military and certain citizens overseas to vote online. However, several studies, including studies from the University of Michigan and MIT, have cautioned that the existing online voting systems are rife with vulnerabilities and security issues.

It seems that what’s been built so far, although well intentioned, isn’t supported by a strong enough foundation. It’s attempting to build a service that to work properly, depends on a bigger system that simply doesn’t exist.

It’s a bit like debating where to hang artwork in your home, finally agreeing that, yes, it does tie the room together above the fireplace, when you suddenly remember you don’t actually have any walls. Or floors. And you’re really just standing in an open field with a giant “Live Laugh Love” poster and nowhere to put it.

To make it even more difficult, in the United States, each of the states and the District of Columbia are independently responsible for voting and then the actual mechanics of voting occurs at the county level. Try getting all of those parties to agree on a single shared infrastructure for voting when we can’t even agree on how to pronounce pecan (pee-KAHN) , caramel (car-a-mel), or crayon (crayn). 

ANYWAY–Foundations matter. Infrastructure matters. Okay moving on–the third major issue at hand. Voter Confidence.

(10:27) Ensuring Voter Confidence

Estonian leaders put trust at the forefront of their entire system, voting very much included.

The third principle at the heart of the Estonian System? Only YOU have access to the data.

In terms of the voting process, this idea of ownership takes shape in a few ways. First is the structure of elections themselves. Elections are scheduled for ten days. The first seven days are digital only. You can change your vote as many times as you want, and only the last vote is counted.

The issue of coercion comes up a lot here, and Florian said they’re often asked, “What’s to prevent someone from breaking into my home and forcing me to vote for a particular candidate?”

According to Florian, “Yes, somebody could break into my house and force me to vote for a particular candidate, but I’ve got seven more days to change my vote. And obviously that way, it’s very hard to leverage a meaningful part of the population. And even if somebody broke into my house, I don’t know, on the last online voting day at 23:59, just before midnight and would force me to cast my final vote in favor of some other candidates, the paper vote that happens afterwards, overrides any electronic vote. That is still another safeguard that we have for i-Voting.”

(12:15) Trust, Audits, and Accountability

Maintaining voter confidence and a trustworthy system brings up another critical process: audits.

Experts will often point to paper ballots as still the gold standard for an auditable, tangible way to ensure the accuracy of an election. Florian insists they’re able to maintain the same type of trace that’s counted with paper ballots.

We didn’t get into the weeds about the audit process with Florian, but cybersecurity experts around the world, including MIT’s Ron Rivest, have continued to urge government officials to adopt paper-based risk-limiting audit systems, rather than any online voting.

In 2019, Microsoft announced ElectionGuard, an open-source software development kit designed to help make voting, audits and security more efficient. Microsoft has also been quick to emphasize that the technology is NOT designed to support online voting. 

(12:23) What about the Blockchain?

So where could the United States Start?

In Estonia, we have a digital government built from the ground up. And everytime a conversation starts about building trust in our voting process, the conversation usually circles back to the question “What about the blockchain? Isn’t the blockchain designed to solve this problem?”

Although the call for blockchain to solve all of our problems was more popular in 2018, it does seem to make sense in this case, a decentralized public ledger to help ensure security of information. What we learned is yes – blockchain technology plays a critical role in the Estonian system as a whole, but not the actual voting process itself.

“Overall the United States has overwhelmingly under-invested into these systems and we are paying the price for it now. We have a massive amount of work to do from an IT standpoint.”

Mark Ardito – VP of Cloud Modernization, Kin + Carta

(15:15) Modernizing the Voting System

Again – the foundation is everything. We spoke with Mark Ardito, Kin + Carta’s VP of Modernization, to get his perspective. Mark has spent his career helping big global businesses break free from old, sluggish technology and move to modern, agile ways of doing things. According to Mark, 

“In the United States, we have an enormous amount of technical debt. What that means is we have not invested into computer systems in our government agencies for decades. We see sporadic pockets of investment, but nothing of substance. We have federal systems and then state run systems. All have varying degrees of digital capabilities. Heck, we had the governor of NJ tweet back in April amid the outbreak of COVID that he desperately needed 6 COBOL developers. The IT systems in NJ are over 40 years old and still running COBOL.”  (ARDITO, CLIP 1) 

“Talk about a lack of investment. Overall the United States has overwhelmingly under-invested into these systems and we are paying the price for it now. We have a massive amount of work to do from an IT standpoint.” (ARDITO, CLIP 1, continued)

(16:54) Building toward a Digital Identity System

Many say a secure universal ID system would create the foundation we need. Ashby Fiser is a UX expert and technologist, working at the intersection of politics and technology. She says it would be a good start but could be best suited if it was taken out of the government’s hands.

(17:30) Collaboration is Critical

The relationship between the tech community and the government is critical, complicated, and if you’ve ever seen clips of tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos explaining the internet to Senate committees, there’s ground to be covered.

Going back to the original question: why can’t we vote online? Some would say that we shouldn’t vote online. That the danger is too high.

Others argue it’s actually the best way to fight those threats…but that we simply aren’t trying to build a robust system that could actually support it and revolutionize the way we vote. Are we being shortsighted?

(18:26) The Long Term View

Ashby thinks perspective is everything,
 
“I think a lot of people have a really short-term viewpoint of things and you really have to look. In politics, one of the first things … I met with a guy who had been Obama’s CTO when I first started in this field. One of the first things he told me is you’re not going to get something done in a year. You’re not going to get something done in two years. You’re going to get one major thing done in your political career.

“I sat with that for a really long time and one of the major things I want to do in my political career, whatever that looks like, is to fix voting. If it takes me … I’m 40 right now. If it takes me till I’m 70 to have a universal voting system, I am going to be okay with that. That’s just not a perspective a lot of technologists are willing to take. “