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Three weeks into my Quarter Gap Year, everything about Julia Hobsbawn’s new book appeals to me: The Simplicity Principle: Six steps towards clarity in a complex world.

It’s the book for our times and Julia walks us through the data; we pick up our smartphones 80 times per day or roughly every 12 minutes, we are on the internet six hours per day or one-third of our waking time, and being ‘on’ 24/7 is the norm at work. All this when we know the human brain cannot hold more than about seven things at any given time and research shows that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain attention and focus after being distracted.

It’s not surprising that over 15 million working days were lost to stress in the UK last year, stress costs $300 billion annually to the US, and – sadly – the WHO reports one death from suicide every 40 seconds. Our lives are too complicated for us to keep up with ourselves, let alone the Joneses. [For more on these refs, read the book!].

Having spent the last five years relocating from the UK to the US, standing up a new nonprofit and building it to the point of it having a solid year’s worth of running costs in the bank (handy during a global pandemic), I know all too well the picture being painted here: always on, constantly multi-tasking, dozens of plates spinning, pressure to succeed, and no social support structure. The ends are hugely rewarding, but the means to get there have taken a toll.

Lucky for me, I’m in a position to take a break, step back and reassess my priorities. So while it’s most definitely the book for our times – it’s also come at just the right moment for me.

Julia outlines six sides of a hexagon which together encapsulate the six sides of simplicity: clarity, individuality, reset, knowledge, networks and time. Each has six ideas within it, which come with six fixes or takeaways and calls to action.

I can’t say the narrative structure of the book worked for me – bees, hexagons, nature – but that doesn’t detract from the central idea and the practical suggestions about how to incorporate the simplicity principle into your own life.

Here are the key things I’ll be building into my life:

Clarity:

  • Minimize the number of decisions you have to make and make them swiftly
  • Take a technology break at a regular time each week
  • Say no much more than you say yes
  • Declutter and have a designated place for everything

Individuality:

  • Distinguish between your online and offline identities
  • Pay attention to place – where you live, work and your journey between the two are critical to have you live and work

Reset:

  • Make sleep a big priority
  • Find ways to switch off, whether through meditation or more active ways that take you out of your day to day
  • Seek out a change of scene regularly
  • Spend time in nature
  • Make time for fun in your life

Knowledge:

  • Always bring what you know already to new situations – it’s your wisdom
  • Focus on your soft skills
  • Use a Knowledge Dashboard to streamline the information you receive
  • Don’t have too many things to focus on at once

Networks:

  • Make time for face-to-face
  • Organize how you communicate with someone according to the quality of the relationship
  • Approach networking as a relational activity, not a transactional one
  • Create social capital by being part of communities
  • Create small intimate gatherings and generally avoid large conferences
  • Identify your ‘social six’ – the people who really matter to you

Time:

  • Don’t do deadlines unless you’ve set them yourself
  • Keep control of your calendar and be intentional about how you spend your time
  • Organize your day in the way that makes most sense for you and your body clock
  • Don’t bother with offices unless you have to

I’d recommend this book to anyone asking themselves why life seems relentless, whether it could be different, and how to get started. It’s a great read, much more accessible than your typical ‘self-help’ book, and offers a practical roadmap for how to make change happen.

Here’s a piece I’ve got on HuffPo this morning, setting out 5 messages for Ed Miliband on foreign policy. It draws on a chapter I wrote for a new Fabian Society collection, One Nation in the World, that was launched on Monday in Parliament. The wonderful Kirsty McNeill has written a response to the collection.

5 Messages for Ed Miliband on Foreign Policy

When Prime Minister Miliband walks into Downing Street on 8 May 2015, he will inherit a foreign and security policy machine that needs fixing. The country can’t afford to support its ambitions for world leadership; new alliances are needed with the private sector; investment is needed in systems capacity – especially technological and linguistic – and the Labour Prime Minister will need to rebuild the trust of a public rocked by Snowden’s revelations about how the machinery of foreign and security policy really works.

Here are five messages for Prime Minister Miliband and his foreign policy team.

Labour needs a streamlined foreign policy

Austerity Britain can no longer afford to support its grand ambitions; the Foreign Office (FCO) budget is set to half as a proportion of departmental spending and the Ministry of Defence is facing cuts larger than any other department. Given these constraints, it makes sense to do less but better, focusing on a much smaller number of strategic priorities. The FCO should think in terms of campaigning rather than diplomacy, taking on a small number of touchstone foreign policy campaigning issues with a clear objective, measureable aims, a roadmap for success, smart communications strategy, and high-level leadership. The Foreign Secretary’s campaign to end sexual violence against women in conflict areas is a great example of this approach in practice, and will have ripple effects to broader work on gender, conflict and development.

Labour needs to rethink multilateralism

Let’s be honest; our international institutions do not work. And while reform efforts continue, a Labour government needs a new way of getting things done. It should look to convene small action-oriented networks of countries looking for solutions around specific problems. The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, created in 2009, is an example of what these flexible can-do networks can achieve – the results have been staggering.

Labour should also prioritise investment in regional bodies to deliver local solutions because these efforts tend to be more effective, build resilience and are sustainable. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has turned a lost cause into a beacon of hope – this is the kind of thing we need in Mali instead of French boots on the ground. Three-quarters of Al Qaeda leaders are now in Africa.

Labour needs to bring the private sector into foreign policy making

Discussions within foreign policy tend to read like a cartographical roll call of who’s hot and who’s not. But power is not just shifting from West to East; it is seeping away from government, meaning that foreign policy solutions are found in boardrooms rather than embassies. For example, while Cathy Ashton deserves credit for mediating a landmark nuclear agreement with Iran, for years the EU failed to enforce its own sanctions. 18 months before this agreement was reached, a tiny NGO – United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) – successfully lobbied SWIFT to discontinue its services to EU-sanctioned Iranian financial institutions, including Iran’s Central Bank. What brought Iran to the table? Careful diplomacy or economic isolation achieved by a tiny but focused and determined advocacy group? Similarly, Google’s new uProxy product that allows ordinary citizens to allow campaigners under repressive regimes to use their internet connections as safe, anonymous proxy servers, could have a much larger impact on political reform in countries like Iran and China than careful, steady diplomacy.

Labour needs to put technology at the centre of its foreign policy making

Foreign policy can draw on a multitude of new technology tools to make it more effective – but it doesn’t. It could use large-scale sentiment analysis of social media big data to gauge the mood on the street. It could use social media platforms as a route to direct communication and engagement with foreign publics. And it could even crowd source policy making by enabling citizens to analyse data, as exemplified by the work of Brown Moses, who managed to join the dots quicker and more effectively on weapons in Syria than diplomats and analysts within government with access to highly classified information.

Labour needs to win back public trust in foreign policy

Perhaps the most important foreign policy ally for the next Labour government will be the British public. What Iraq started, Snowden finished, reinforcing the feeling that things aren’t working, that the ‘system’ has as much interest in self-preservation as public duty, and that elected politicians are not up to the job of reform. Labour should launch a public national enquiry into the impact of new technologies, the Internet and social media on foreign and security policy, addressing the full range of ethical challenges, governance issues, access to information, and opportunities for improving effectiveness and impact. It should be led by someone independent of the establishment who will not shy away from holding the foreign policy community to account.

The previous Labour government’s approach to foreign policy was the source of considerable public mistrust and dissatisfaction of the party. The scale of the challenge means that foreign policy is something that the next Labour government ignores at its peril.

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