A Comment on Alberta’s Unique Opportunity to Shape Its Energy Future, Part 1

–In the first part of this essay (below), I attempt to build the case that Alberta has entered a difficult but fertile period of uncertainty. In Part 2 (which I’ll publish someday) I will discuss the unique opportunity that this uncertainty presents.–


In complexity theory, “criticalization” is a point in the trajectory of an economy, industry, organization or other complex system at which its future becomes uncertain. Two or more outcomes seem completely plausible, and it is impossible to predict what the system will do or what state it will evolve into. As the authors of “Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership” write:

Criticalization is perhaps the most difficult time in the life of any organization as a whole or in part, since it is all about the effect of internally or externally generated shocks that disrupt the inner workings of the company. This disruption can show itself in a growing recognition that current operating models are not efficient and small fixes are not enough to deal with the scope and pace of change. Criticalization often signals a time of conflict and differences of opinion, a period of cognitive dissonance and information overload. Critical periods, however, offer unique opportunities for transforming an organization.

In other words, either slowly or suddenly, but in increasing numbers, players in the system begin to doubt what had previously been the most fundamental assumptions about how to operate and create value within that system. They come to believe that results they could once count on producing by taking certain actions are no longer guaranteed. The authors list a number of signs that a critical period has begun. Compare some of them with Alberta’s energy industry and the current political and economic state of the province:

  • An increasing sense that what we had been doing is no longer working or appropriate.
  • Well crafted plans for entrepreneurial expansion are not working out; targets are pushed off from one quarter to the next; expectations are continuously reframed, and the pace of internal change increases rapidly.
  • Performance declines due to shifting markets and changing environments–the organization’s traditional reliance on specialized activities or offerings is no longer effective.
  • Concern that all of the small changes will never add up to what is needed, that something big is necessary.
  • Competing interpretations and passionate disagreements about the meaning of external events for the organization, including which events are relevant to the organization and what should be done to address them.

Most oilpatchers would be unprepared to imagine that Alberta could become the Blockbuster Video of the energy sector any time remotely soon. And there are important reasons why this is the case. As Vaclav Smil puts it:

For years, even decades, we have been on the verge of mass deployment of (take your pick) fast breeder reactors, of coal-fired electricity generating plants that capture and sequester all of their CO2, of fuel cell-powered cars running on hydrogen, if not a complete hydrogen economy. We’ve been promised electric cars that will not only cost nothing to run but will also power houses while sitting in garages; or microorganisms genetically engineered to ooze gasoline.

The reality of energy transitions is very different. Too many modern observers have become misled by the example of electronics, in which advances have followed Moore’s law — the now 50-year-old prediction that the number of components on a microchip will double every 18 months. This has allowed exceptionally rapid progress. But the fundamental physical realities that determine progress of energy systems do not behave that way: they are improving steadily, but far more slowly. Moore’s law implies an exponential growth rate of 46 percent a year. The analogues in energy are not even close: Since 1900, the efficiency of electricity generation in large power plants has been rising by less than 2 percent a year, advances in lighting have boosted its efficiency by less than 3 percent a year, and the energy cost of steel, our civilization’s most essential metal, has been falling by less than 2 percent a year.

Albertans, in general, count on this. They deal in facts, fundamentals and ranges of plausibility. They are conscious that killing off a chain of video stores is an adventure of a different category than killing off the underlying mechanism of the global economy. And they hold little patience for wildcard system-transforming scenarios which don’t take seriously the astronomical magnitude of our current energy system, the monumental infrastructure project its displacement entails, or as Smil points out, the physical limits of the technology which it is hoped will form the basis of that displacement.

Yet that point about technology is controversial. While energy historically has evolved slowly in comparison to the tech sector, it is undeniable that the rate of change in the space is accelerating rapidly. Tech advocates point to this and insist that it is not clear for how long the constaints we currently take as givens will continue to exist. What is clear is that both the energy and high technology sectors (each unavoidably woven into the future) are colliding like never before. We might have to wait until the dust settles before we can truly understand the impact of this momentous junction.

Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2015 (EIA)
Global Electric Vehicle Stock. Source: International Energy Agency, “Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2015”

At the same time, the Canadian oil industry seems to be in an unabating battle to alleviate its ethical-existential predicament. Oil barons dogmatize about the appropriateness of phrases like “social license to operate” and, if not that, then what a measure of public goodwill (or lack thereof) towards the petroleum industry ought to be called. Never mind the actual dollars being deployed to convince neutral bystanders that “the oilsands” is the original, more accurate name, to be preferred over “the tarsands”.

Meanwhile the hope is that the lower mainland’s underground resistance won’t arrive at Alberta’s door with flaming pitchforks the moment a new pipe spans the eastern border of British Columbia. Or rather, that even though there will be pitchforks and protests and pictures of pillaging posted on pinterest, all of this will not ultimately be enough to thwart industry’s ability to pump its product to potential purchasers across the pacific.

Eight years ago when I began my journey into oil, the idea that Keystone would not have already been built by 2015, or that Gateway would still be tied up in legal and regulatory challenges was probably not on the radar screen of most industry executives. Yet weak signals and minor fluctuations pointing in that direction were already noticeable. And today it is the reality Alberta confronts.

Of course oil is (historically) a long game, and many of the players who understand the time scale are not that fussed about delays. But with calls to #keepitintheground mounting, the divestment movement increasingly taken seriously as a thing and supply competition from shale oil, natural gas and other newly accessible fuel sources creeping up during this ostensibly indefinite waiting period, one is left to wonder if a window of opportunity is not about to close on certain assets.

It is not unreasonable to think that Alberta has indeed entered a criticalization in which the future is fuzzy. That there are any number of spaces (attractors) in which the province and its economy may find itself.

After all, the people of Alberta have just elected their first NDP government. What conclusion could possibly be reached, other than that all bets are off?😉

What’s are design’s highest possible contributions? (Especially to sustainability initiatives).

Correlating Design Maturity Alongside Action Logics
Are there higher stages in the design maturity continuum?

The first time I encountered the Design Maturity Continuum (“DMC”) was at the HOW Design Conference in Austin, TX in 2008. Walking into that conference, I knew very little about how to think like a designer. It’s amazing what a few days spent soaking in an environment saturated with new ideas can do to alter your perspective, and even influence what you are capable of. It did that for me. One of the presentations that stuck was “Design Thinking: How Procter and Gamble is using it to meet consumer needs and solve wicked problems.” In that presentation, the DMC (created by Jess McMullin – who I just discovered happens to live in nearby Edmonton!) was referenced. (See photos below). Perhaps because I had been thinking in developmentalist terms since univeristy, the idea that design thinking capabilities progress through different stages of maturity immediately resonated with me and I’ve been sharing Jess’s continuum ever since, both to establish a common framework for working with others and to challenge them to expand their conceptions of what design is and how it adds value. In the DMC, each progressive stage of maturity brings more complexity, range, and capacity with it. The potential impact of design is therefor much greater at the more mature end of the continuum. In each progressive stage, the capacities of the previous stage are retained, but how the designer uses those capacities is reorganized in relationship to the new, emergent capacities.

Design Thinking Presentation at HOW Design Conference 2008
4938_115263735836_8311066_n First Slide: “Design Thinking: How P&G is using it to meet consumer needs and solve wicked problems.” The title suggests a late Achiever (Problem Solving) or early Individualist (Framing) design thinking perspective. Second Slide: Design Maturity Continuum.

At the same time, I have always wondered if any stages of maturity beyond “framing” could be identified, and how those stages might look in action. Barrett C. Brown’s research describing how leaders with late stage action logics design and implement sustainability initiatives not only suggests that there are several advanced stages of design capability that extend beyond “framing”, but also provides preliminary characterizations of those stages. Working with Developmental Action Logics, Brown conducted a first-of-its-kind investigation in which a cohort of leaders who were assessed as possessing a very advanced “Action Logic” (or meaning-making capacity) were studied in order to better understand how they design. Brown wanted to figure out what they know, see and do that others do not, and the impact on how they design sustainability initiatives. In what ways are they able to think, plan, act, express, imagine and feel that others are not? It occurred to me that it’s easy to see some obvious connections between the DMC and Developmental Action Logics. And when you incorporate Barrett C. Brown’s findings, you can see (at least diretionally) how the Design Maturity Continuum extends. The next thing I did was go to Google to see if anyone else had thought of this, and it turns out that Austin Govella had already attempted to correlate Action Logics with Design Thinking Maturity in 2006. That being said, I believe his model, which you can see here is miscorrelated. It also does not account for higher stages of Design Maturity, so I felt that it would be useful to propose a new synthesis. I did borrow from Govella’s model by incorporating the concept of “Innovation Trailmarker” and speculating on trailmarkers that might be associated with more mature stages (though I cannot claim to understand those stages well enough to know if I’ve gotten it right). You can review my proposed synthesis here (also inserted at the top of this post). I hope you enjoy it and welcome any comments you have!

All Asanas Create Shadow

In January, yoga classes become overcrowded as every kind of mutant and beast rises from the darkest sofa to shine forth into a new era of hope and ambition. The one next to me is hairy, overweight and proudly displays a pair of Calvins underneath basketball shorts worn gangster style. His breath is simultaneously laboured and shallow. He grunts with every pose.

I try not to judge him.

I try, simply, to maintain my equanimity.

This becomes the most ironic and absurd of struggles when – clearly – he sees no reason to take the beginners modification of “Utthita Hasta Padangustasana.” No, that would make him look clumsy and inept. Instead, he reaches confidently for his big toe with his right hand (somehow managing to grab it), and then swings his foot out – violently – mere inches from my face, parking it there with another grunt.

Disgusted, I cringe and watch the deluge of sweat pelt down from his hairy foot onto my yoga towel. Now I’m just trying not to throw up. I want to punch him in the face. Om.

By the time we are lying on our backs and working our abs I am having a mild panic attack from the cognitive dissonance of being filled with rage and disgust while striving to achieve enlightenment. Here I am, seeking mastery of higher states of consciousness. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but I have this image of myself being extraordinarily present, radiating energy and drawing people into a deeper life simply through the look in my eyes.

It occurs to me that I have a lot of work to do.

Surely one who is a master of these things would have no issue being wedged in next to the hairy grunter. Surely it would roll off of his back like water off a duck. Or sweat.

“What has gotten me so activated here?” I ask myself. “What am I resisting or trying not to see? What is the real fear – yet undisclosed – beneath this disgust and desire to bolt?”

“OH FUCK ME!!!”, he yelps during eagle sit-ups, snapping me out of my stream of consciousness. Did he seriously just say that? In. Yoga.

I realize I am not even doing sit-ups anymore. My body is weak. I am tired.

Wow. I am so full of anger and rage and disgust that I can not find the energy to do sit-ups. (I can barely even move, in fact). Fascinating.

“Where are you, oh Shadow, where are you? What is holding me back? What can’t I see? What is the clue in my anger at the hairy grunter?” I try to follow it.

“What is it about myself that I can’t be with, and have projected on to him? Do I want people to hate me and be disgusted at me? Do I think they already are? Am I angry at myself?” These questions flicker in my mind.

Flanagan, Libertarianism and Sidewalks

I took an “introduction to Political Science” class with Tom Flanagan in my first year at university. To his credit, he introduced a couple of frameworks for thinking about the world I hadn’t yet discovered, but then again I hadn’t discovered a lot back then. For example, at that point in my academic journey, I wasn’t as hip to complexity science and the idea of emergent properties as I now am. I remember Flanagan explaining that the most efficient way of getting around or getting something done usually isn’t to legislate it. Usually systems of people interacting with one another, markets, for example, tend to figure out the most efficient ways of doing things. He pointed to the uniquely curved sidewalks around campus (which had been constructed based on the actual foot traffic of students, rather than arbitrary ideas about how best to connect one building to another).
This idea about sidewalks was a manifestation of his underlying libertarian stance towards just about everything: that people ought to be left to their own devices in every situation. That the only instance in which legislation would be required would be to ensure that one human being doesn’t directly harm another.
Well, so far as complexity goes, Flanagan missed the point. The relationship between lower-order interactions and the higher order patterns to which those interactions give rise certainly has policy implications, even moral implications yet I doubt that they can be summarized in Flanagan’s impersonal teleology of self-organizing foot paths.
In any event, he is in the news for his recent remarks at the University of Lethbridge (starting at about 1:20):
Now first off, I just really need to say this. Flanagan’s lectures were some of the most boring I’ve ever had the misfortune of enduring. Each one of his classes was a slow and agonizing death. That, however, should not count against him.
Second, I don’t think he’s being intentionally or consciously hateful. I just think that his particular form of libertarianism is a product of operating on a Cartesian perspective, having no way to relate to human beings other than as objects  – objects with feelings at best. You could call it a lazy way of thinking.
It’s just lazy, impersonal, Cartesian libertarianism, tainted not by outright hostility, but in the most insidious of ways by a  lack of responsibility towards other human beings. A shallowness, even, about what it means to be a human being.
My two cents.