TedXKrakow – my script for talk on “New Lens” plus Libyan Revolution

[holding glass / water bottle]

In 1660, a ‘crazy’ Dutch scientist called Anton van Leeuwenhoek started writing scientific papers about how he saw small things moving about in water. The man was clearly mad. Because if you look at a glass of water with the naked eye, even if you really squint, you can’t see anything move.

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the founders of the Royal Society in London. This group of eminent scientists had one of their first road trips to visit this crazy Dutchman in his laboratory in Delft and discovered that this man had invented…

The microscope

The small things had always been there. We human beings lacked the eyes… the lens with which to see them with.

I have spent several years now working on the human microscope, a way of looking at the world, our human system in a completely new way. I apply this to businesses, working mostly with science and technology companies helping them create go-to-market and growth strategies.

And I also apply them to another activity, a quite different one. How to change the world. For better. And specifically in 2011, how to bring down dictators.




I used to be just a technology entrepreneur, CEO of a software company. My life changed, though, in 2007. I found out that the World Economic Forum (the Davos people) had nominated me as a Technology Pioneer

Going to the Davos event was a lifetime ambition. And to be there as an award winner was an amazing result. But I stopped to think. I didn’t really want to go to Davos and just be the CEO of a successful software company. I was even a little bit bored of myself. So, I decided to think about doing something bigger.

I had realized earlier that I could get whatever I wanted. Davos was then just the latest example. Would you like to get whatever you want?

It’s easy. First, work out what it is what you want. Then, give yourself an internal timeframe (which is not really important, but it does make the list). And the third and final thing? Tell as many people as possible.

1:00 —- 2:10 mins


It’s this third piece that is the key. It illustrates one of the strange and wonderful secrets that we see using the human microscope. That’s because it shows how spooky the world really is.

To demonstrate… if there are 30 people in a room, what is the percentage likelihood that two or more people share a birthday? Day and month.

Most of you will think it is a low number, a very low number like 5%. How many think higher? 25%? 50%? More than 50%? Not a lot. And yet, the answer is… 71%.

This is a math problem. I will explain how the answer works. My birthday is 3 March. Someone else may be 25 Jan. We now have two people matching against 28. Then 3 against 27. In our heads we are egotistical. We think about the odds of matching our own birthday. It’s the wrong math. This is an additive math – the numbers go up.

And this is a property of abundant systems, part of the human microscope that I’ve been developing. When we leave the notion of scarcity, the whole world is different.

1:10 – 3:20 mins


So back to getting what you want. I remembered that, as a young child, I wanted to change the world for better. Ideally without anyone knowing that it was me. I figured that would be a suitably hard end goal, and worst case… I get only half-way there and its still good.

Now, I am a practical person, a pragmatist, a strategist. I am not an idealist. So, this meant I needed to have a plan. Figure the thing out. And so I went online and ordered some books, lots of books.

Now, at this point you might be thinking ‘The Secret’ or some esoteric Eastern philosophies. I am a pragmatist with a background in social sciences, so I got out a different set of reading.

Complex systems. Emergence. Heuristics. Network Science. Behavioral Science. Collective Intelligence. Contagion. Abundance. The foundations for a new science – the Science of Spread. And it is this that gives us the Human Microscope.

1:00 mins – 4:20 mins

I only have time to go through the basics now. There is a much more extensive set of rules and frameworks, and how to combine these sciences. For now though, I will just pick out some highlights.

Complex Systems. The simple version. A complex system – say a human system – is made up of two or more ‘people’, with a state memory (you know where you just were), who are interacting (giving off signals, picking up signals). When that happens, we get a complex system – a dynamic, non-linear, adaptive system. Anything ‘could’ happen.

Now what is interesting is that patterns still emerge. They emerge quickly, without instruction. A theater is a good example. Right now no one is sleeping on the floor, there is no pile of bodies in the middle of the room. And yet, no one here was given an instruction manual on how to use this auditorium.

The reason is Heuristics – simple rules of thumb. Like ‘Keep doing what you are doing until there is a compelling reason to change’. Or ‘Follow your Peers’. To handle our complex system, all ‘elements’ in a complex system operate with simple rules. And its these rules that lead to emergence.

1:10 mins – 5:20 mins

Networks are a critical component to spread – and the human microscope. As humans, we want to connect with people we have an affinity with. These associations often form into networks. Social networks are just one example.

Network Thinking give us a new way of looking at complex systems, providing a layer on top of a system. And some of the tactics that we can derive from Network Thinking can be used as cunning methods for change… such as ‘Tap into Pre-Existing Networks’, that we’ll see in action later.

Behavioral science is another important element, especially as we are primarily concerned with understanding humans and human systems. There is a huge body of new work on how ‘predictably irrational’ we human beings are, and this comes in handy for change programs too.

And then there is Contagion. How does one thing lead to another, at massive scale. Why do some ‘sparks’ of newness lead nowhere, and others rise up, like the Arab Spring or the UK riots?

What I realized is that by combining these sciences together, these lenses on the world, I could use them to develop a deeper, and more realistic understanding of how the world worked. And then to use that to predict what could happen next. And then, the ultimate goal, to work out how to design programs that would achieve the right end goal to actual make change for better.

1:30 mins – 6:50 mins


Now the practical application. Let’s talk about a ‘Secret Life’ use of the techniques rather than a corporate story. We’ll go now to Davos, in January 2008.

In 2008 Robert Mutgabe amazingly lost an election that was widely believed to have been stolen. Now, a few weeks before that, I met a guy at Davos, a young politician from the opposition in Zimbabwe – he’s now the Deputy Prime Minister. We’d met on a shuttle bus ride and he shared his problem: how can you win in a corrupt election? With the constraints that you have no money, only five weeks, and you cannot tell anyone.

I am a strategist. I design strategies. So we sat for 45 minutes designing a plan – a ‘world-first’ plan: together we invented crowdsourced election monitoring. We managed to tap into a network, a pre-existing network, of 1,000 people who had camera phones – in Zimbabwe, in 2008. To get them to stand outside the polling stations and take pictures of the final results, posted on the front door of those stations.

These 1,000 photos were sent to a web site in South Africa, where ten people turned the photos into a giant spreadsheet.

And, after just a few hours, after counting millions of votes (with evidence), a press release went out to agencies around the world, showing that the opposition was ahead by 66%, with 36% of all possible votes counted. And Mutgabe’s party could not longer win the election.

That was our plan, invented in less than an hour at Davos. That was what was executed. And it pretty much worked. Leveraging the power of the masses, the power of networks, and simple social technology to change the outcome of an election. To give the people of Zimbabwe a fair voice.

1:40 mins – 8:30 mins

Well, maybe that was a one-off. A once in a lifetime chance. And, in any case, it is rare that you get any sort of linearity in a complex system. A might be followed by B, but in the real world it is tricky to make the correlation.

But, in my mine, if you can do it once, you can do it again. And again.

So, in February 2011 I had another chance to apply the techniques of spread and the human microscope for changing the world – ‘secret life’ style.

On 25 February 2011, I got a phone call from ‘Stephanie’, a single mother with two children living in Paris. She had got involved with Libyan activists on the internet, and was applying her social marketing skills to trying to help them do ‘whatever was needed’. No prior experience: she told me that before this, she used to manage Prada stores in Paris.

Anyway, together we spent almost a year working on helping the Libyan people, during the war, and immediately afterwards – the ‘front-end’ and the ‘back-end’ of revolution.

With a group of Libyan doctors, we co-founded a charity called Global Relief Libya. Our simple rule – our heuristic rule – was to ‘Help Others’. So most of the activity, from two total novices, was on humanitarian relief. The first two aid boats into Misrata, while it was a full-on war zone, did not come in from the United Nations or the Red Cross, but citizen organized. The first international journalist into Misrata was a friend of mine from Berlin (and his wife was upset that I got her husband into a war zone!).

1:20 – 9:50 mins


Together we got involved in more than thirty ‘big things’ during the revolution – all on our own initiative, without being paid, and without speaking Arabic or ever having visited Libya (I did afterwards in Dec).

One of the highest impact projects we did made headline news around the world in May 2011.

Here was the challenge. The Libyan rebels had run out of cash. They had raided the central bank in Benghazi. They had sold all the oil kept in storage. And without money, they could not pay wages, buy food or buy oil. It would have been game-over for the revolution.

According to the press, the Libyan finance guys had tried to get a loan from the Italians – significant investors in Libya, and also the place where a lot of Libyan state money was held. But, of course, the Italian bankers said ‘no’.

Stephanie and I had a chat – I was just getting off a bus in Berlin, she was with her kids in Paris on a Macbook. We would help the Libyans negotiate a multi-million Euro loan – without telling them.

To design the program, we realized we needed to put pressure on a small number of people to change their minds – the bankers in Italy. To do that we would use two basic rules: the power of public opinion and transparency.

For transparency, we needed information. So, within a couple of days, through ‘sources’, we got hold of a 19-page Powerpoint document. The Sept 2010 Management Accounts for the Libyan Investment Authority, prepared by KPMG. Detailing $52 billion worth of assets. Every account. Stock. Bond. Trade. Everything.

The next step? Tap into pre-existing networks. One of my friends through the World Economic Forum ran an NGO in London called Global Witness – transparency for the oil and gas sector. Rather than me sharing the document, or taking it straight to the press, we could leverage their campaigning skills, and help the NGO at the same time.

Sure enough, within five days, the news goes out to the global press. The full presentation gets published on the Internet. Every financial newspaper covered the story – including all the papers in Italy (apart from the sports papers!)

And, one week later, the press reported that the Italians had given a multi-million Euro loan to the Libyan rebels.

3 mins – 12:50 mins

We do live in a world that is non-linear. But sometimes you get the timing right, and the logical series of actions work out. And you can actually design programs that do have an impact in the right way and at the right time.

The human microscope.

The science of spread.

I believe that this science of spread, this new lens on the world of systems, and particularly human systems, can have great benefit to both society and to business.

These tools give us a better opportunity to understand what is going on.

They give us new capabilities to be able to predict what might happen next.

And, most interestingly of all, these tools give us the ability to design better solutions to fixing world problems.

Thank you.

0:45 mins – 13:45 mins // 14:20 mins

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