Notes from Piers, no 170 - Woolly thinking?

Notes from Piers, no 170 - Woolly thinking?

Monday, 2 October 2017

Ever agreed to something and then realised, just a little too late, that you shouldn’t have got involved?

A few weeks ago I was asked by my (former) good friend Andrew Walker if I would participate in a social experiment at the EIP Water Conference in Porto. Andrew was the compere for the 2 day event, which is always good value, especially for people interested in new water-related innovations. I was intrigued by the invite so happily agreed. After all, I thought, Andrew hasn’t ever steered me wrong in the past. I also took comfort from the fact that Frederico Fernandes, President of Aguas do Porto and Associate Professor Uta Wehn from the Delft Institute were also involved. Frederico is the boss of the local water company. Uta is a wonderfully respected individual, working on innovative forms of ICT-based governance.

The experiment was being organised by Maria Freitas, from the Portuguese National Laboratory for Civil Engineering. As we stepped onto the stage it was clear that neither Uta nor Frederico were any more informed than I as to what was about to transpire. Maria explained that she was going to undertake an experiment to showcase innovative thinking. Balls of wool were handed out to members of the audience and they were told to hold onto one end of the wool and to throw the ball as far as they could. It took a couple of minutes for the audience to embrace their inner child but once a few keen individuals got the idea it soon caught on. 5 minutes of chaos ensued as 25 brightly coloured balls of wool flew around the room in gay abandon.

Uta, Frederico and I sat on the stage wondering what our role was. it was only when a ball of wool smacked into my shiny bald head and ricocheted off in a new direction that I realised how exposed we were. (You will note from the attached photo that my chair for some unknown reason seemed to be a foot lower than the others. I sense this was all part of Andrew’s campaign to ridicule me).

Once the balls were fully unwound and the room resembled a web made from rainbows by spiders high on acid Maria called everyone to order. Having utterly disrupted the staid, professional air in the room, she now wanted everyone to work together to unravel the wool and recreate the balls. The look of shock and awe on the face of the audience was a wonder to behold. After the initial astonishment at the scale of the task had sunk in, some people stepped forward and started pitching ideas for how this could be achieved. Others worked together in little teams to unravel their own local bit of crochet. Some sat stony faced refusing to engage (see the lady in the bottom right hand corner of the attached photo).

It soon became apparent that the role Uta, Frederico and I were to play was to try and interpret the mayhem and draw some conclusions. It was, of course, a lovely metaphor for how good innovation works. I babbled inconclusively about how good innovation first needs a problem to solve and then it takes a team, working together, to unravel the mess. Not everyone joins in, but those that do usually get a sense of satisfaction.

Uta took it a step further, referring to the work that she has done as part of Ground Truth 2.0 (see, she commented that the exercise had shown how for good innovation to work the interactions between the parties need to be ‘honest’. Everyone needs to understand the conditions and the scope of the problem, only then they can mobilise around it. Too often, she said, we have solutions which are looking for problems to solve. Once you have the problem (‘I am covered in wool and need to be unknotted’) you can design a solution, which is often much more local in nature than one might immediately assume. She also noted, with a wry smile, that it was clear from where we sat on the podium that most of the people who threw the balls were male, whereas most of those who stepped forward to sort out the resulting mess were female. She is a clever lady that Uta.

Looking back, maybe I can forgive Andrew for walking me into this. I learnt something new.