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Unreal

My buzzword sensor detected a new expression: New Reality. If I understand correctly it’s supposed to be an umbrella term for our projections about the future. Quoting Janina Kugel‘s newspaper articlewe have to define a new reality… to keep up with rapid change. I don’t know if a new term is necessary, but I fully agree. And I am not the only one who made the observation that some of the political decisions that were made to restart the German economy are unfair, especially for woman who have to carry the main burden of child care on top of their jobs.

According to Janina Kugel organisations require leaders who are empathic, determined and have the ability to get things done. Let’s look a bit closer what this means for the leadership role. To get things done you certainly need a combination of theoretical knowledge and practical experience. Depending on your profession to become a leader several years of studies and training on the job are needed. The second point is a no-brainer. You won’t reach the top of the pyramid without determinationEmpathy, the third leadership trait, is of a different stamp. It can’t be studied at universities. Antonio Damasio wrote about it: Because we can depict our own body states, we can more easily simulate the body states of others. Put simply, you can better reproduce the emotions of a boy falling and scraping his knee if you fell and scraped your own knees before. And the same true for all other emotions: fear, rage, happiness, surprise, you name it. Children learn them by playing. Look at the knees of a six year old growing up in a natural environment and you know what I mean.

 

One thing Janina Kugel didn’t mention in her article, perhaps because it’s evident. Even the most skilled, determined and talented leaders fail without the backing of mentors. Social mobility is limited within organisations as well as within society. It has been shown that social mobility is lower in more unequal countries. A straightforward conclusion is that current cancellation of school classes in Germany will be disasterous for our economy due to future shortage of skilled workers. I am therefore quite happy that our government supports the #wirfürschule initiative with the objective to devlop a new learning culture. And I am proud that two of my colleagues have been nominated for the jury. First day of school for my son will be in September, so they have to speed up.

Social distancing fosters a lack of empathy. To put it simply: too much data, too little human relationships. The world is full of sensors and displays, the number growing. But only a small fraction of technical appliances actually improve people’s lives. Quite the contrary, I think that with an increasing choice of digitally enabled usages humans are becoming less efficient and less skilled at once. Apparently the digital transformation opens a gap between the human mind and its sensory organs. This gap increases with every layer of software, network protocol and polyester coating. Today’s version of our digitally transformed world could be paraphrased Disconnected Living.

I don’t see value in people ordering groceries while being driven around by autonomous taxis. I can’t see the benefit in using an app for switching off lights. Convenience? Saving time? Nah! Granted, a remote control makes me independent of space, but do I really need these capabilities? As an animate being I exist in space and time. When I turn on the lights I do it in the context of my presence in space. As a physical being I am context aware. It’s a straightforward action to use my hands, legs and other senses. My hands can find a light switch in complete darkness since my body has learned where to locate it. It is more complicated though to switch off the alarm of my iPhone in the morning. As I am getting older I can hardly read it’s display without wearing my glasses.

In the analogue space humans and their tools build a continuum. Riding a bicycle, holding an axe, feeling it’s warmth and resistance I know that this tool is a an extension of my body. Only a layer of skin separates my nerves from the levers and switches I use to control analogue gear. The technical challenge of the toolmaker is to bridge the gap beween human mind and senses. It is first and foremost a design challenge. I love smelling changing seasons during my daily rides to my son’s kindergarten. The value comes through the beauty and the sensual experience of the present moment. Joy is a value, even if it is sometimes neglected in our product specifications.

In Disconnected Living human users spend too much time with products and services designed like physical objects with digital tail fins. Instead of using our language to articulate feelings we swipe right with our thumb to indicate that we like another human being. I twist my forefingers to punch numbers on a tiny keypad. I scroll through the columns of a huge spreadsheet just because a designer declared that this view is suitable for summing up a bill. Dear lord hand me a pencil and a piece of paper! Some apps have been designed to catch and bind our attention, as the underlying business models rely on intermixing page impressions with so called sponsored content (aka. spam). Are humans nothing but potential leads in digital commerce scenarios? The growing alienation won’t be stopped by high end-gadgets packaged in retro design. Nor will fixed gear bicyles and craft beer make the world honest and simple again.

I brought forward aesthetic and ergonomic arguments for the gap between humans and their tools. The fact that designers sacrificed semantic information contained in command line interfaces to pseudo-simple graphical user interfaces might be a possible reason for the inefficiency of todays digital tools. There is an excellent interview with Igor Jablokov, which has a lot to do with language understanding. Humans need to leverage AI to compress knowlege to an amount they can process, because there is just too much knowledge out there. According to Igor one of the positive effects of the AI Transformation is that access to insights will be democratized due to natural language processing. Multimodal user interfaces are going to unite human senses in order to maximise comprehension. AI will provide us with insight just in time, when we need it. Igor predicts that human understanding will not be limited to other humans anymore: There’s so much more to the natural world… so much we don’t understand.. our minds will be blown to be citizens of the world.. seeing the world with other senses.. understanding wind from a trees perspective. Wow! Imagine we could understand trees, plants and animals. I bet we would cry.

 

Igor’s vision for AI is to offer empathy to humanity, because we will be able to see the world through other people eyes. I am a bit sceptical about this part of his vision, because I think that AI is far from being able to close what I would call the empathy gap. As Damasio said, empathy is connected to body states. We already spend a lot of time in front of the screen. But wearing headsets and VR goggles won’t bring us closer to the physical space, which I still consider as the core medium for transmitting emotions. Nor will the access to ubiquitous sensors and ambient intelligence make humans empathic. I claim that empathy can only be learned in physical space. Children need to learn from each other what it means to be shy, aggressive, respectful.

Social distancing, home office and Zoom meetings make it worse. Therefore it’s so essential that schools will be reopened even if the pandemic isn’t defeated. If our kids don’t get a chance to learn and practice empathy they won’t be able to design a future that makes the world run better and improve people’s lives. For creative people the lockdown situation is a dilemma, because they rely on first-hand experience about feelings and emotions of their customers, end-users and employees. I buy into the story that data gained from customer experience surveys contain useful insights, but statistics can’t replace body states (Damasio) invoked by having a real experience.

Thanks to the easing of the lockdown in Munich I could finally meet with one of my lunch buddies at Wiener Platz, an excellent food market in my neighbourhood. We had regular virtual coffees over the last weeks, but we agreed that nothing can replace a real encounter. Searching for the soul of our company I wouldn’t check out Jam pages, social networks or Zoom meetings. I would rather see if I could meet one of my colleagues in the wild. I would look for the serendipidy that comes with meeting real people. I feel that what I call soul or the social fabric of a company matters. It’s what holds us together as a group of people, as a team, as a company. A common vision, such as the Intelligent Enterprise can help to promote our social fabric. A shared feeling, such as a team spirit is even more efficient.

After all, developing and communicating a compelling vision for the future, and living up to it, is a challenge for every company – especially in times of transformation. Gerhad Matzig wrote in my newspaper that current electric cars are lacking vision more than ever. In my opinion what they are definitely lacking is emotion. Looking at new electric cars for sale in Germany I can hardly feel anything. There is a simple thing I would recommend German car managers to do: stroke, smell, hear, drive your prototype. When it sends a chill down your spine you know you are on the right track.

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