Brexit – Sailing into a Storm with No-one at the Wheel

July 8, 2016

I’ve read quite a bit over the past few days over this Brexit result. Trying to get my head around what has happened. Nearly all of my expatriate UK and European colleagues here in Dubai are wandering around with shell-shocked faces – and that was even before Iceland beat England in Euro 2016.

So here are some of the musings from an Australian looking on with no skin in the game:

  1. Does the Brexit vote mean exit? It’s always hard for politicians to refuse to heed the will of the people. But there have been all sorts of false claims made up to the polling date about NHS funding and whether the vote will stop immigration or deport people. Yet most politicians actually don’t want to leave and think it is not a good choice. What will they decide to do?
  2. It’s an unconvincing majority that voted to leave (about 52%) with a majority in Scotland and Northern Ireland wishing to remain. Scotland have since been quite firm in their resolve as pro-Europe to the extent that they would leave the UK. It’s Scottish referendum all over again. Over the last 30 years or so, polls have moved with regards to whether a majority wishes to stay in or out of Europe. A decision to leave would be one of the most important decisions made by the UK. Do the majority of the UK population wish to disunite the UK, cause all sorts of problems economically to as we are seeing with the depreciation of the pound, as well as flow on effects in Europe and the world, and make a long-term decision to that effect? Is the break-up of the UK a price worth paying for the prize of sovereignty?
  3. Legally, it seems that any move to leave the EU needs to be done by an act of Parliament. Will the politicians stand by their own conviction in what is best for the UK (to remain) and to bypass the view of the majority of the people?
  4. Europe, quite rightly, don’t want to negotiate until the UK are 100% sure that they wish to exit. As far as they are concerned, all that’s happened is a non-binding advisory referendum calling to leave. It seems fair enough that Europe should call the bluff of the UK and make sure that they are serious about exiting before entering into negotiations. That’s what the two year period is for after Article 50 is invoked anyway.
  5. Much of the write-up has been about the differences in voting habits of different segments of the population. England and Wales to leave; Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain. Young people overwhelmingly remain, older people leave. London remain, manufacturing heartland to leave, more educated to remain while less educated to leave, elites remain while those marginalized voted to leave. What seems to have happened is a mix of nationalist and anti-immigration fervour along with a backlash against neoliberal globalization and its accompanying austerity measures that fuelled the Leave vote.
  6. There’s no doubt that there was an underlying racism behind the vote, partly encouraged through the campaign run by the Murdoch press. It’s akin to the views of the Trump popular movement in the US, of pandering to the latent fears of the other borne by the local population.
  7. The failure of the leaders of the Leave movement, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, has been described as like rats leaving the sinking ship. They did it with no plan, as clueless about the post-Brexit future as Blair was for a post-invasion Iraq.
  8. Despite the efforts of the remain camp to note that a Leave vote would have severe economic and political consequences, there were retorts of “I think this country have had enough of experts”. Obviously, the expert opinions were not recognized, somewhat like how views of climate change experts are not heeded.
  9. One of the key findings from this whole episode is the poor judgement exercised by David Cameron. He foolishly made a short term decision which has had long-term consequences and did not conceive of the potential for the Leave vote to be successful. An interesting article from a psychotherapist has pointed the finger towards political leaders that attended British boarding schools as it leaves them ill-prepared for adult relationships and perpetuates a culture of elitism, bullying and misogyny. These people tend to lack emotional intelligence, focusing on survival rather than empathy with the result of poor political judgements.
  10. There’s further complications with Brexit in relation to free movement of people across the UK / European borders. Many people are claiming that you can’t have access to the European market unless you have movement of people across borders. Free trade equals free movement of people. What happens then with the Irish / Northern Ireland border? This was a key outcome of the peace negotiations with the IRA to have free movement of people across the border. Another reason for northern Ireland to secede from the UK?


So what’s next?

The Brexit Referendum became a contest between technicians in favour of the status quo and populists promising a return of a Little England narrative. But now that the populists won the popular vote, which Brexit is going to be considered?

It could be argued that it is better in the long term for the UK to exit Europe: the common currency is a disaster, immigrants are taking advantage of UK’s welfare state, the EU does not appear to be democratic. There is a potential for the UK to exit and negotiate more advantageous trade policies with other countries independently. It’s actually an opportunity as George Monbiot has outlined, an opportunity to counter some of the less satisfactory regulations and excesses of the EU and create a better environment that is more environmentally sustainable and innovative.

I tell people that this is still very early days. Either of two potential scenarios; a negotiated Brexit that will be protracted and messy or a political exit from Brexit with either MPs refusing to follow the popular will and/or another vote on a more detailed Brexit plan that fails to get a majority.


Future of Trade

November 10, 2015

Earlier today I was one of 40 or so participants at the Future Agenda Future of Trade workshop in Dubai.  It is nearing the end of this open foresight project. Our organization had earlier in the year hosted a Future of Education workshop and it was really good to be able to participate in another one.

I really like the process for the workshop. Went something like this:

  1. Everyone introduce themselves and state one topic that you think will be incredible for the future of trade over the next 10 years. These are captured on post it notes on the wall by a facilitator.
  2. Next is to introduce a series of slides that have been gleaned from previous documents and workshops. Basically, they are a series of insights that prompt discussion. These slides also are in card format for each table and the deck of 60 cards is sorted into high/medium/low priority by 5 separate groups.
  3. While the teams have a refreshment break, the high priority sets are collected and noted on the slides how many times they were selected by the teams. These slides are then sorted from higher priority (5 ticks) to lowest priority (no ticks). That’s then shared with the group as a whole.
  4. Next look at what’s missing. What are the items that might have come up in the initial introductions or in the groups that are missing from the slides. These are discussed in groups and fed back to the whole group. They are noted on post it notes on the wall.
  5. Each person then gets a set of three heart shaped post it notes. While the previous discussions focused on global trends, now each person could place one of their items on three topics that they felt had the most regional/local importance.
  6. Finally as a closing, people were asked if their views changed as a result of participating in the session. This gave time for some reflection.

This process was relatively short (total about 3 hours), it kept things moving, everyone got to have their say, and global as well as local implications were covered. Participants enjoyed the conversations in groups as they were able to examine the future outside of their normal transactional activities.

Some of the key issues that surfaced included the rise of digital printing, regional rather than global free trade agreements, cyber security risks, trade in services, availability of finance, the rise of mega cities, and issues around China and Africa.

Finally, a closing comment for public servants: regulators are the only lawful monopoly the world still allows!

Progressive Anti-Americans

August 15, 2009

Lots of various cultural studies have examined the role of the media in forming and informing the social customs of the time. This has evident links with politics and elected leaders attempting to influence debate towards the principles behind their policies. Yet too often this is portrayed in black and white terms, left and right, liberal and labor, democrat and republican, rural and urban, free market versus anti-globalisation.  The world is far more complex than simple dualities.

Which brings me to a look at a recent John Pilger article on anti-americanism.

What is most extraordinary about the United States today is the rejection and defiance, in so many attitudes, of the all-pervasive historical and contemporary propaganda of the “invisible government”. Credible polls have long confirmed that more than two-thirds of Americans hold progressive views. A majority want the government to care for those who cannot care for themselves. They would pay higher taxes to guarantee health care for everyone. They want complete nuclear disarmament; 72 per cent want the US to end its colonial wars; and so on. They are informed, subversive, even “anti-American”.

This links with the earlier work of Paul Ray on cultural creatives and progressives in US society; the “moral majority” who are often portrayed as conservative traditionalists but more often than not are informed social progressives. The people who are:

feminist, ecological, anti-globalization, pro-civil-rights, pro-peace, pro-health-care, pro-education, pro-natural/organic and even pro-spiritual movements that together make up the New Progressives.

From a political point of view, who is representing these people? And do they care sufficiently to make concrete changes in their world, to transform their views from personal beliefs to a social movement?

This article from The National has a different take, questioning whether the rise of disaffection in right-wing traditional areas of the US as a result of the GFC, declining standards of living, globalisation concerns with a loss of manufacturing jobs in the heartland, long-running wars and the election of Obama to the US presidency, could lead to a rebirth of nativist sentiment fuelled by shock-jocks and the tabloid press.

From this uncertainty, one thing is certain though.  The future will be decided by how these cultural forces play out rather than by external technological drivers.  Will there be a sufficient groundswell of public support for progressive points of view embracing social responsibility, ecological sustainability and a love of foreign cultures to overcome traditionalist perspectives that promote fear of the unknown?  Whose spin will win?

Three Illusions and More on Strategic Thinking

February 4, 2009

Some really nice posts (here, here and here) from a guest blogger spot over at the Cognitive Edge site by The Strategic Mind, The Journey to Leadership through Strategic Thinking which outlines seven core disciplines (‘Know Your Own Story’, ‘Think Small’, ‘Go Slowly’, ‘Serve Others’, ‘Reflect’, ‘Be Simple’, ‘Dream’)’ to improve our ability to think strategically.  I really like these and they resonate with me deeply.  Know your own story is required to excel in job interviews!  Think small, go slowly and serve others target working with people rather than trying to change everything and everyone all at once.  Reflect is necessary to ensure that you have integrity and remain true while Be Simple helps you aim for the key leverage points that will have maximum impact.  And finally dream is critical to envisage your desirable future.

I also like his three illusions although the first and third on the illusion of independence and the illusion of control can be combined.  The illusion of size is especially important – that bigger is not always best.

I’m also quite taken with the clarity of his four core elements of strategic thinking, that of challenging deeper assumptions and beliefs, seeing the whole picture rather than just the parts, determining patterns within the whole, and acknowledging our intuition. This could easily be four core elements of strategic foresight as well!

Keep it coming, Bob. And this is another book to add to my ever growing list of books to read!

Russia and Gas Supply

January 17, 2009

One of the issues that is often discussed with other fellow strategic foresight practitioners is the future of resource wars.  As Peak Oil emerges, demand for fossil fuels and energy prices increase so too does the political pressure to guarantee supplies for a nation’s population.  This is more critical in the countries surrounding Russia that are reliant on it for supply of gas, particularly for heating during winter.

Geopolitical tensions are re-surfacing with Ukraine which has recently sided more closely with the West and wishes to engage more with the EU.  Current economic difficulties caused by the GFHF (Global Financial Hissy Fit – thanks Kim) are creating slowdowns across the Ukraine economy, increasing this tension.

The recent gas wars are multi-layered across international, national, political and economic segments.  Internationally, Europe has had their gas supplies from Russia reduced as about 80% of Russian supplies pass through Ukraine.  Russia wishes to increase its price of gas to Ukraine (which is currently heavily subsidised) and seek recompense from Ukraine for past debts for gas supplies.  In the meantime, Ukraine siphons off some of the gas for Europe for its own purposes ( which it does not pay for).  While there are some other supply routes to Western Europe through Belarus, these are not as large as those through Ukraine.  And the ante gets upped from this regional geopolitical standoff with Ukraine when it seeks to enlist Western Europe and the US in its dealings with Russia, while Russia in comparison is not seeking to elevate the issues.  The Ukraine is very important politically for Russia as a beach-head against Europe and for access to Russian bases on the Caspian Sea and wishes to keep the problem local and not internationalised.

Compounding all of this further is the location of new growth markets for Russian gas – and they do not lie in Europe but east towards Japan and China.  Why bother with providing gas to Europe when there are exciting possibilities to the East?  And so Russia is building new gas supply lines to China and potentially to India if and when Afghanistan becomes stable.

Perhaps this is a foretaste of what is to come.  Regional conflicts escalating into international confrontations with the initial cause associated with energy supplies (or water).  And perhaps also a weak signal of further tensions between new powers (Russia, India, China) as compared with those of yesteryear (Western Europe and the US).  In particular, it could mean that relationships transform so that enemies of the past are economic allies of the future.

The Bursting of the Irish Miracle

January 5, 2009

A few years back, I took my family over to Ireland for my brother-in-law’s wedding. He has recently moved back to Australia with his wife and kids and judging by this article in the New York Times, he sold up his property in Dublin in the nick of time. The luck of the Irish perhaps!

While working in the information economy policy area, we looked at the Irish miracle and admired their stunning economic recovery, blessed with EU funds and a young population.  People flocked there, reversing the historical Irish emigration around the globe.  It was a hub for IT services with generous taxation concessions and a well-educated local population.  The Guiness was pretty good too I heard!

But it appears now that the bubble has well and truly burst.  Unemployment is approaching 10% and housing prices have fallen by nearly 50%. Like the UK, many expats are heading home as the economy shrinks and jobs disappear.  Part of the issue it appears is the rapid increase in housing’s share of the economy (from 5% to 14%) as demand for housing increased.  The voices that asked the government to try and dampen demand were not heeded as the good times rolled.  Unlike the US situation where banks faltered with their lax lending practices to individuals, Ireland’s banks faltered through their lending to property developers.

I keep wondering if these financial problems will occur to this extent in Australia.  We have seemed to be spared the major banking errors through our better regulatory practices.  We do not have a large number of expats who will go home if the going gets tough (Australia is their home now). We are more of a lag economy so the effects of the US economy will take time to filter through the Chinese economy and then to our economy so we may not have seen the worst of it here as yet.  However, we do have particular areas that will be more affected by others, where house prices have increased disproportionately and where people may be less inclined to live in a future of high fuel costs (today’s low reduced petrol prices will not continue for long) and changing economy – more on that in a blog post for another day.

The End of the (Rest of the) World is Nigh!

October 11, 2008

Following on from my last negative article on the mess of our financial system, I thought I would continue the theme with the mess of our broader society!

Being a strategic foresight practitioner, one of the main reasons for our role is to help others understand their environmental context and create viable forward views for their future. But what if the future view is not viable? If in looking forward, all we can see is imminent collapse due to an inability to change in sufficient time.

This article by Richard Hames, When Empires Decay, is one of the more cogent dytopian outlooks I have read for some time, and one that I think I agree with in my emotional state of trepidation, uncertainty and alarm. Has our society reached the stage where, no matter what we do, there will be some form of collapse? Have we squandered the riches above and beneath the soil to fuel our desire for conquest and ever-increasing economic growth? Do we have the ability to turn the ship around or are we so close to the edge now that all we can do is wait, watch and berate ourselves for our mindless stupidity as a species?
Richard outlines the essence of the problem in this cruel paradox:

The system we must destroy in order to create a more sustainable and abundant society is the very thing we need in order to achieve that goal! This is a paradox that is insufficiently understood. But it helps explain why current attempts to change the world are simply making matters far worse.

He further outlines that his pessimism is based on the whole system change we need requires a fundamental change in cognition and the way we use knowledge.

Above all else it is to do with our thinking: particularly the frames and assumptions we use (both intentionally and inadvertently) to sense and make sense of reality. It is about the countless meanings we then construct and how we rationalize conflicting hypotheses. It is to do with how we seek out, comprehend and integrate new insights. And it is about how we explain and communicate our convictions to those who may have startlingly different versions of reality. That is where the real changes have to occur. And we’re not even at the starting line!

He concludes by stating that since the political processes are controlled by the corporate elites, and that the systemic response required to individuals is at odds with these corporate organisations, that change will not occur until it is too late.

Witness what has happened recently with the financial meltdown as a leading indicator. Although some people had predicted that there were problems with the network of debt instruments, the system was not able to address its now-realised false assumption that that the broader you spread the risk and the more people you have participating in the risk, the lower the risk.

When will we be in a position to realise that the assumptions on which our society is based are false? Assumptions like continued economic growth is good, that it is economically OK to pollute the environment, that there is always lots more oil in the ground waiting to be discovered, that worldwide population growth is manageable, and that climate change can be controlled through reducing emissions in western countries over a protracted timeframe.

Richard’s article states that there is little hope for change before it is too late. He does not answer the unasked question of what should we do? I am reading a book at the moment called “Flirting with Disaster” which makes the case that accidents are invariably a result of failures of basic design rather than implementation or human error. And these design failures arise from our inability to conduct the serious systems thinking to identify the interrelationships between cause and effect over time.

And so the answer to what to do is to start designing the next system, one that will build on the positives of the previous system but deal with its various “unintended” consequences.