My 2022 reading: making sense of stuff

Over the last year I’ve been busy working, reading, thinking and talking but I haven’t blogged. Back in October 2021 I blogged on my reading and then synthesised the systems thinking themes, with a focus on systems change, economics, environment and hope. A lot of that thinking has stuck with me, and in many ways this year’s musings are built on those foundations. I’ve perhaps shifted from critiquing what’s wrong with the world to identifying how to change things. Finding purpose and joy in difficult times has been a theme of my reading this year. It has felt like an emergence from the pandemic, though I know it’s not over. I’ve found myself zooming in and out between the introspection of “the inside” and big systems thinking of “the outside” wider world.

I drafted this post at the new year and couldn’t decide whether to publish it. I then got distracted from finishing it by discovering BBC Sounds podcasts: Sideways by Matthew Syed and Think with Pinker. Lots of connections with my reading in those two series.

So, I have finally published my reflections. I wanted to synthesise and to share, in case its useful to anyone else, and to find kindred spirits!

Collage of books covered (see end of blog post for list)

Some of my reading was in economics. “How to Make the World Add Up” is about numeracy and mathematical thinking in the widest sense. (Also I have a signed copy from when I saw Tim Harford speak at a data conference!). Some overlaps with Kahneman et al in how people consistently miscalculate probability. I then found Harford’s podcast Understand: The Economy with Tim Harford which relates back to my previous economics reading of “The Value of Everything” by Marianna Mazzucato” and “23 Things they don’t tell you about Capitalism” by Ha-Joon Chang.

Paul Collier’s “The Future of Capitalism” was provocative and wide ranging. He advocates a “centrist” approach to tackling socio-economic challenges. I’m not sure I understand what centrism is because it seems to be relative to the “Overton window” of any given political culture. That window shifts, partly due to pulls from each end of the spectrum, and from social attitudinal shifts over time, so describing centrist policies as policies which aren’t at the ends of the spectrum seems a bit of a tautology. But I enjoyed the scope of this book and there were lots of thought provoking suggestions.

“Philosophers talk about the world, the point is to change it” (attributed to Karl Marx) sits in spirit behind many of the people featured in The Persuaders by Anand Giridharadas. Subtitled “at the front line for the hearts and minds of democracy” it features shapers and influencers trying to get past the polarised public discourse of the US. We should recognise that most people want to be right, and they want to be good. What we can do is appeal to that desire, and perhaps reframe the issue to help them see it differently (echoes of “Framers” here, see book list below). The Lightmakers Manifesto by Walrond, and Engaging Emergence by Holman both also explore how to operate with hope and integrity. In different ways they share some overlaps with Giridharadas. Both Walrond and Holman are activists and change leaders and both bring positivity and hope.

I’m really interested in decision science: “Thinking Fast and Slow” and “Quit” come from a school of thought which pulls together feelings, identity, perception, cognition and evaluation into an integrated model of why we do what we do and how to be more mindful about decisions. Cognitive biases tell us such a lot. Also recognising when something is not a decision, its just a response. As someone with a tendency to fret and double-guess myself, there’s also a lot to be said for activities that are so absorbing that there’s no space left for overthinking. Everything I read tells me to use journalling to process this daily emotional and cognitive churn so I’m trying that at the moment and finding it helpful to be more intentional about each day. It’s also helpful to understand what sort of thinking is required in any given situation: sometimes I should think less and just do, sometimes I should honour my desire to think through all the options. Knowing which is which might be key to navigating the world with a bit more grace. I’ve just discovered the concept of “response-ability” (near the end of this post) which also relates to this. Atomic Habits by James Clear offers a way of developing automatic behaviours but also challenging unhelpful behaviours, and his newsletter offers lots of short thoughts and suggested reading, very useful.

So much I read connects bodies and minds: breathing, positive neural loops, gut biome and depression, movement and mood. It seems to be the end of the “Cartesian Dualism”. There are some weird ideas out there about how mental states can influence material reality: I am deeply skeptical of “manifesting” (google it if you’re curious). However I do see that the way we perceive the world can alter how we think and therefore what we do. So how we operate can definitely influence what happens. Being open to opportunity and connection will enable us to recognise choices we might not otherwise have spotted. I think being more tuned into our bodies helps process the passing of time, the rhythms of nature and a practice of presence.

“Breath” by James Nestor feels like an important book on this theme so I’ll indulge in a precis of “the new science of a lost art”. Touching on religious practices, meditation, sports coaching, biochemistry, cold water immersion, this is a fascinating book. I bought myself some mouth tape for sleeping, I try to tune in to my breathing more regularly, and I think it makes a big difference. Also worth a watch: water, whisky, coffee breathing. Nestor emphasises that many of these breathing practices have been around in cultures around the world, and in some ways its only just being possible for western science to accommodate them and integrate them into the ways of thinking of thinking about the body. And it seems to be a similar story with neuroscience and “positive psychology”. It turns out that practices like gratitude, challenging self-talk, and imagination actually manifest in neural activity.

I’m curious if older systems of health and medicine avoided separating off the physical and mental aspects of wellbeing, and its just “western medicine” that went down the dead end of dualism. In Episode 20 of Sideways podcast they explore medieval medicine and it’s pointed out that an incantation while mixing a potion serves as both a recipe and a timing mechanism. That makes so much sense! I can be pretty skeptical of non western medicine but I need to open my mind to it. I’ve been having acupuncture for some hip and shoulder issues and it is working for me. I also note that many holistic therapies give the patient a lot more time and attention than a GP is able to. Our UK national health service is so overstretched that our front line practitioners can’t give integrated attention to patients, even if they want to. There is a lot that needs to change.

Susan Cain is famous for “Quiet” about introversion. Her latest book, “Bittersweet” explores why some of us are so drawn to melancholy. I share her love of Leonard Cohen and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and I really connected with the stories in this book about accepting the darkness alongside seeking the light. She offers a nuanced take on positive psychology. A very poignant book that draws on perspectives from science alongside spirituality.

“Four Thousand Weeks” is a wonderful book about how to live well in the time we have. An antidote to setting goals, having 5 year plans, burning the candle at both ends. It brings in the wisdom of thinkers through the ages and gives an anthropological and historical perspective to how we understand time. This is one of the first books I read in 2022 and I strongly recommend it.

Weirdly, I’ve been really drawn to Frauds/Scams. Maybe because its the opposite of integrity? This isn’t from my reading, more from tv and podcasts. Inventing Anna, the Fyre Festival, Bad Vegan, the Theranos story, the misuse of multi-level marketing, and the slightly different issues around charismatic leadership and coercion of Keith Raniere in The Vow. Also a conversation with a friend about some doorstep fish seller scammers! I’m not sure why I’m so drawn to these stories: whether its about the mindset of the fraudsters or the victims desire to believe in them. Speaking of controversy, I am watching Elon Musk’s current activities with horror. In the past I have defended him as someone reshaping the points of leverage in the system around solar, batteries, electric cars, tunnels and space travel. I am struggling to see how his Twitter adventures support that mission. Anyway, back to the fraudsters and scammers: I am partly interested in how investors are motivated to make these big bets. I guess I should add the Big Short as a fantastic illustration of how society allows for nonsensical business models to thrive. I have to mention here that a friend recommended the TV programme Traitors and that illustrated so much psychology! In-group/out-group behaviours, echoes of the Zimbardo prison experiment, how people deceive people, what makes someone likeable, body language and stress responses. Really enjoyed that.

It’s not all been reading! As well as enjoying time with family and friends I’ve done some things on my own to pursue my current interests. On the physical side, I’ve done some cool trips. In Sep 2021 I went hiking and wild camping on a trip with Gutsy Girls and it was really well organised so in July 2022 I went on another of their trips, this time paddleboarding on the River Wye. Fantastic adventures, highly recommended. I did safe open water swims with Do3. In the autumn I joined some Habitual Health sessions with Motus Training which provide support for integrated health, including sleep, movement, nutrition etc. I also completed a Conquerer Challenge of 104k “Road to Hana” from 3 months of jogs and walks. I’m on day 326 of Duolingo, learning Japanese. I sang Mozart’s Requiem in a church! I’ve been to the Stratford RSC on my own a few times. I went on a one day Linden Method workshop on anxiety management which uses the model of neuroplasticity to address unhelpful thought patterns: very helpful. So I’ve been quite busy working on my wellbeing and I feel great. I have also eaten a lot of carrot cakes in nice cafes.

This week I am back from an Ayuverdic yoga and meditation retreat in Herefordshire, the Plantation Villa UK. I am drawn to it as an integrative/holistic approach to body and mind. They have a library and I stumbled on a book called “Inner Engineering” by Isha Sadhguru. I read half of it over 48 hours and it seems to bring together so much of what I’ve been thinking about. Just bought the ebook so I can finish that now! He talks about responsibility as response-ability : the ability to respond to the world. Which feels like it connects to the decision science stuff I’ve been reading: recognising the thoughts and feelings generated by being in the world, accepting they aren’t all rational or accurate or useful, and taking response-ability for responding to them in the most effective ways. It sounds pretty woo-woo but actually the framing emerging from neuroscience is gluing back together the conscious and unconscious, the physical and mental into a more integrated model. That feels right to me.

And that pretty much sums up my 2022 non-fiction reading, with a bit of non-reading reflection thrown in. I suspect I’ll be listening to more podcasts this year now I’ve found a rich seam of series that appeal to me. As an aside: when I say I “read” a book: some of these were consumed as audiobooks, some as ebooks, some as paper books. A few of the audiobooks were mainly listened to while I walked and delivered leaflets, so I have a strange situational memory of associating particular ideas with particular streets in my neighbourhood!

If you read this to the end: thank you and I hope you enjoyed it. If you are interested in similar stuff, book recommendations are ALWAYS welcome 🙂

Books list

My 2022 Non-Fiction list

  • Quit by Annie Duke
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
  • The Persuaders by Anand Giridharadas
  • The Lightmarkers Manifesto by Karen Walrond
  • The Future of Capitalism by Paul Collier
  • Engaging Emergence by Peggy Holman
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • How to make the world add up by Tim Harford
  • Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
  • Bittersweet by Susan Cain
  • Quit by Annie Duke
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
  • Breath by James Nestor

Outside of this synthesis:

  • Africa is Not a Country by Dipo Faloyin – a great read! Made me angry, made me laugh, a fantastic thought-provoking book

Non-fiction I read in 2021 relevant to my 2022 reading

  • Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth
  • Humankind by Rutger Bregman
  • The Value of Everything by Marianna Mazzucato
  • Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino
  • How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric
  • Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright
  • Difficult Women by Helen Lewis
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez
  • Material Girls by Kathleen Stock
  • Framers by Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Francis de Vericourt
  • My synthesis of some of these is in a blog post from October 2021.

Accelerated adoption of digital consumer technologies

We all know that Covid has accelerated the adoption of digital services. I wrote some rambling posts back in September 2019 on themes around our digital lives: formats, privacy and presence. It all reads rather quaintly now. We’ve come a long way. I wanted to reflect on the most noticeable advances in consumer tech in the UK context.

I’m very aware of the “digital divide” between people who are able to benefit from these services and those who aren’t. I am mindful that some people aren’t enjoying the accelerated adoption of digital services as much as I am: some people lack devices or connectivity, some people find technology difficult to use, and some people prefer not to use it.

It’s interesting though to look beyond the UK context to other cultures and how they adopt these digital technologies. I’d argue that many of the developments below are the direction of travel, it’s just a question of time. Instead of saying we shouldn’t provide these services because some people can’t use them, we should support them through the transition.

So in no particular order, here are my highlighted digital technologies that have been accelerated over the past few years.

Contactless payment

Obviously, contactless payment infrastructure was in place well before 2020 but the use of card readers by smaller businesses has increased, and the contactless payment limit has been raised. On holiday in the Greek islands well over five years ago, and I noticed that even street stalls had card readers, and most of them were contactless. I prefer card payment to cash, and I prefer contactless to keypads, so all of this feels like progress to me.

Mobile phone contactless payment

As above, only even better. I regularly leave the house without a wallet now. It’s fascinating to read about how the mobile banking apps in some African countries are so ubiquitous and embedded now. There’s somehow a better psychological fit between handling money on a device like a phone, that I already value and care about, rather than on a small plastic card that I could easily lose and is only useful for that one thing.

Digital receipts

When I pay for something and a store asks if I’d like a digital receipt: I always say yes please. Does it mean they will send me marketing emails? Probably. But it also means that if I do need to find the receipt I can search my inbox rather than keep a disorganised pile of fading paper receipts.

Parking apps

Another cashless digital service. Instead of faffing about looking for cash, guessing how long you’ll need to park, touching buttons, getting frustrated at getting no change back … you can just find the carpark in Ringo or Pay by Phone and make a first guess at how long you need. If you end up needing longer, there’s no mad dash to find more change and running back to the car. You just extend the session from wherever you are. What’s not to like?!?

Use of QR codes

If you’ve ever done a lateral flow or PCR test you’ll know that those services rely heavily on QR codes. I confess that I couldn’t see the point of QR codes for years. I knew QR codes are big in China but I didn’t really see an appetite here: it just seemed gimmicky. I was wrong. Now I absolutely see the benefit of zapping a QR code with my phone to go to a menu on a website, go to an app in an app store, capture a unique code, check in to a venue, or organise a parcel return. So many uses: awesome. I wonder if the next iteration will be home-based printing of QR codes for managing perishable items like medicines and food, by connecting the item to a digital inventory. Domestic-scale stock control, with mini printers and user friendly apps.

Fingerprint authentication

I hate remembering passwords, so I love it when an app on a phone or laptop gives me the option of fingerprint recognition instead. I know that there are privacy concerns around the use of biometrics for authentication. I completely understand the ethical barriers to facial recognition when it doesn’t work as well for black skin. But personally I’m not sure what I wouldn’t want to use fingerprint recognition for. I’d be interested in reading perspectives on that.

Proximity pings

Hmmm. This is the only item on the list that I feel uncomfortable about. I downloaded the NHS app because I am a responsible citizen. I enabled the bluetooth function so that I would benefit from the proximity analysis technology. On my last working day of my job in July 2021, I was looking forward to a week of walks, art galleries and coffee shops. I had just waved my son off at the school gate when I got a ping on my phone. My mind raced back to the most likely point of contact … my leaving drinks, outdoors at a pub, with my closest colleagues. With heavy heart I warned them and dreaded the PCR results. None of them had been pinged, which meant the most likely point was now the taxi driver who’d taken me to the pub. I wasn’t angry: he and I had both been masked, windows down. But my phone didn’t know that. My PCR results were negative. But I feel so bad for him, and I’ll never know if he was ok. I admit it: I switched off the bluetooth function after that, something felt wrong about the over-reliance on a context-unaware technology that has such massive implications for people being pinged.

Home delivery tracking

I think this was going to grow anyway, but it’s been important for the growth of online stores that the home delivery infrastructure could scale to the challenge. Shout out to my friend “the Hermes Man” who has delivered many a welcome distraction through these long months. The ability to specify delivery instructions right up to the specified time window has eased the transition between lockdown and greater mobility during the day. There’s also a strange synergy with previous times in history when we didn’t all go out to the shops but the shops came to us. I imagine a modern day Jane Austen character would expect to see home delivery, catalogue shopping and letters of personalised recommendations from her favourite suppliers.

Parcel lockers

Have a parcel of clothes delivered, then try them on in my own home, fill in an online form and stick the returns label on, then pop to a parcel locker, scan the parcel QR code, deposit the parcel, get a digital tracking receipt. Clever. I suspect the next step will be more domestic use of lockers, with multiple delivery suppliers. How long before we have refrigerated lockers so that our groceries can be delivered and stored while we’re out? And before we just request some pickups from home rather than travelling to a locker?

Online menu/app for food delivery

I am a big fan of food delivery, I’m a big fan of food generally,. With things like Just Eat and Deliveroo, or a takeaway’s own apps, I hand my mobile phone around and people click exactly what they want. Choose from the menu, no need for me to read out my order on the phone, shouting against the background noise at the restaurant, no need to have to read out my card number and explain my address.

App ordering at the table

Some people complain about this, I love it. The benefits mentioned above. Plus in the olden days in a busy pub, as a short woman at a busy bar I would struggle to get served. I value the experience of a nice restaurant with paper menus and waiting staff too, but I think app ordering will still have a place.

Web-based video conferencing

It goes without saying that the uptake of web-based video-conferencing has grown massively. “Zoom” is the new “Hoover” as a brand name synonymous with a type of product. For many working people MS Teams is important too, but for social uses, it’s probably Zoom, WhatsApp, GoogleMeet and Facebook chat. These remote meeting platforms became used in new settings such as UK local councils, and the infamous Jackie Weaver meeting illustrates a real cultural moment in the adoption of these technologies outside of the workplace. In my own extended family we experienced virtual quizzes, family hangouts, video messages: it’s been really key to social ties.

Virtual Challenges

One of the themes of the pandemic was keeping active within the constraints of limited mobility and social distancing. I’d done virtual fitness challenges before, such as “runuary”, where you ran one mile a day through January. Life during Covid really gave value to these challenges and I have been so impressed by the global Conquerer Challenge community on Facebook. You choose a challenge, commit to it, and pay. You track your progress, and when you finish you have a medal posted to you.

Final Thoughts

I’m currently having a whole range of new digital experiences. I’m starting a job without any in-person contact, and I’m also exploring the emerging VR world of the Oculus Quest. Actually, I might write another post about my adventures with digitally-enabled exercise over the years. There’s a thread between some of the items above and an emerging infrastructure for a pay-to-ride electrical vehicle ecosystem, and I’m looking forward to watching that develop. The UK’s national health service has done an amazing job of modernising in challenging circumstances. I imagine some brave decisions were taken behind the scenes and I congratulate anyone working in digital healthcare to support their clinical and care colleagues. I’m also really interested in how digital technologies can help environmental sustainability, shortening supply chains, making better use of buildings, reducing waste, brokering reuse and enabling faster feedback loops. There is a shortage of digital specialists in the job market, making this is a really exciting time for people working with technology across the public and private sector. If current trends continue I see a bright future for people working in tech.

Please do share your own reflections with me!

Systems Thinking

In a previous blog post I described the sorts of reading I’ve been doing to get a wider perspective while I’m on a career break.

Confession. I’m still not sure if this thirst for learning is because not working is freeing up cognitive surplus to give me the headspace to follow my curiosity … or if it is part of my career break to rethink my purpose. Certainly I am vigilant to wherever “digital” gets mentioned, as a solution or a problem, as a symptom or a cause. I’m really trying not to see everything through the lens of my own life experience and professional knowledge, but I don’t always manage that.

Anyway, I have benefitted from lots of learning opportunities recently, including various free webinars, a fantastic 12 week School for Data Leaders (2022 course registration available now), an excellent Charity IT Leaders conference and currently an enlightening FutureLearn course on Systems Thinking for Sustainability. I should add I have also joined a gym and boxsetted Nine Perfect Strangers and The White Lotus, so it’s not all deep thought ;-).

But for what it’s worth, here’s some of the deep stuff …

Image: Books and Courses I have been working through

My FutureLearn course on Systems Thinking for Sustainability is exploring how we define sustainability so that we can make meaningful decisions about it. The course is from Except: Integrated Sustainability and I’m 70% through. I am reading everything they suggest and finding it fascinating: both the systems thinking and the sustainability examples. Here is a mindmap of some of the concepts that come up as I think this through with a particular emphasis on how organisations make change happen:

Mindmap of systems thinking around sustainability, Amber Thomas 2021

In all my reading and listening, Inclusivity and Diversity pop up in multiple guises, more of that below. And I have been unpacking the distinctions between digital, data and IT, and finding that they are each fuzzy definitions themselves. So these are the questions at the forefront of my mind:

The Socio-Economic Angle on Sustainability

How can humanity can continue to live on spaceship earth in the anthrocopene era? How do we address the social and economic dimensions that limit or enable changing our relationship to the planet? I understand that social justice is entangled with the changes we need to make for the climate emergency. Ideas like universal basic income and localised decision making are particularly resonant here.

The Importance of Inclusivity and Diversity

Diversity of voice, of participation, of the diversity of thought necessary for addressing climate change, inclusive growth as social justice as a necessary criteria for solutions to climate change. I’ve been reading about how looking at problems differently leads to different solutions. Only last week the investigation into the UK government’s handling of Covid named groupthink as a problem. When our decision-making process is aimed getting consensus, that can constrain thinking to those options that are more acceptable to the majority. But those options aren’t necessarily the best option. Supporting the outlier options might be where the real bravery comes in. Who decides if its time for bravery, amidst dissent, and how do they know if they’re right?

Where does “Digital” fit with all this?

Digital can be an enabler, a driver, a lens, a reflection, a description. It is not a noun, nor is it a destination. It is a vehicle, a means of travel. Digital can support a connected social fabric, but in that function it can amplify the bad as well as the good. Algorithms as artefacts of human framing, with all our weaknesses, as ways of utilising big data to spot patterns. Can you have digital without IT? Can you have IT without data, or data without digital? How are these domains interlinked, and what organisational designs nurture the right responsibilities in the right places? My readings are focussed mainly on the climate emergency but a common theme there is the way that technology can be a problem or a solution. Within that, digital technologies can connect people and ideas, broker money and resources, and process data to inform better decisions. So I am listening out for that intersect of tech-for-good and sustainability

Framing and Perspective

I am working through the audiobook of “Framers” and finding it very insightful. As I said in my blog post about getting a wider perspective, there’s a lot to do to find the right framing to identify what needs to be done:

* Models can help describe and navigate complexity but messiness is natural.

* In new and changing situations, groupthink should particularly be avoided.

* We need diversity of thought to tackle (the climate emergency), and we need to be willing to throw away beliefs about humanity that are not useful to us.

from A Wider Perspective

Metaphors of change

Sometimes the models we use to plan and implement change seem to treat organic human systems as construction projects or machines. Is there a hope that with the right project/development framework, success is guaranteed? That seems unlikely: so many change projects are more like captaining a ship across stormy seas, and if progress is made in the right direction, that is success. The change journey rarely feels how we thought it would feel. I’ve written about my change and transformation philosophy before. Whats interesting from my reading is how often I am seeing descriptions of complexity and change through metaphors of flow, fluidity, agriculture, organic messiness. I have often felt ill-at-ease with the sanitised language of organisational change management, as if all change just needs to be well planned and “managed through”. Messier and muddier models feel more truthful to me.

And on that note, a quick summary from Jesse’s Farm:

A Wider Perspective

Over the last six months or so, I have been trying to get a fresh perspective. I have been particularly enjoying non-fiction, and I feel like this is a good time to reflect on some emerging themes.

Without work conundrums churning in my brain, I feel like my mind is loosening up, unfurling. I have more cognitive surplus than I have had for decades. I feel I can let my mind wander. Those wanderings have led me around psychology, organisational psychology, business, economics, political economy, policy making, sociology, gender, biology, earth sciences and climate change, and also weaving between and across all these areas.

Really Interesting Books I Actually Finished …

  • Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth (actually, still gobbling this one up, and it’s what inspired me to write this post!)
  • Humankind by Rutger Bregman
  • The Value of Everything by Marianna Mazzucato
  • Rebel Talent by Francesca Gino
  • Kill it With Fire by Marianne Bellotti
  • How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric
  • Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright
  • Difficult Women by Helen Lewis
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez

My mind was also fed by books I didn’t finish, TED Talks, Medium articles and all sorts of twitter threads, and, of course, conversations with actual people. An eclectic mix of inputs, but with some compelling recurring themes that I keep spiralling back to.

Emerging Themes

Western cultures have held beliefs and principles that are not useful to us anymore.

Mind:body dualism is not a helpful way to understand our bodies, minds and feelings.

As we understand our brains and physical systems better, we see it is all connected, messy and complex.

Sex and gender shape us and the bias towards male as a default runs deep.

We frequently negotiate borders between personal and political, home and workplace, individual and collective.

There is invisible work, unpaid work, and emotional labour which glue societies together.

Economic growth should not be our key performance indicator.

Rational economic man is a fiction.

People are driven to altruism and collectivism as well as individualism.

The dynamic between collectivist and individualist responses is key to our current times.

Trickle-down economics is a myth but many people believe it.

The contribution of the state is often overlooked.

Brave policy-making can be pivotal: think smoking ban, recycling, pandemic controls.

Policy ideas often exist on the margins for decades until their time comes.

Timing and context are key to whether good ideas get traction.

Ideas that seem strange might be the most important ideas.

Important ideas might be open patents, universal basic income, soil carbon sequestration and rewilding.

Societies are messy complex systems.

Four year political cycles limits our ability to commit to big changes.

Organisations are also messy complex systems.

Money can be made by those who promise to tame the messiness.

Models can help describe and navigate complexity but messiness is natural.

We must always remember that “the map is not the territory”

Humans tend towards groupthink.

Groupthink makes us feel safe and cohesive: it has been necessary for our evolution.

Social media is particularly powerful for amplifing groupthink.

Groupthink can be our worst enemy.

Cultures can hold beliefs about the world that limit their effective response to the world.

In new and changing situations, groupthink should particularly be avoided.

Climate change is an existential thread.

Nature is a messy complex system.

Humanity has knocked the system out of balance.

Fixing the system has to be our priority.

We need diversity of thought to tackle it, and we need to be willing to throw away beliefs about humanity that are not useful to us.

Interested in more?

Here’s some accessible and engaging entry points …

The Doughnut by Kate Raworth see the animations! and her TED Talk “A healthy economy should be designed to thrive, not grow”.

Image taken from

TED interview about the Covid 19 Crisis with Marianna Mazzucato

And if you think some of these ideas sound a bit far-fetched and left field, watch this RSA Animation on The Power of Diverse Thinking by Matthew Syed.

Finally …

What shall I read next?

This is my shortlist …

  • Framers by Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Francis de Vericourt
  • Happy by Derren Brown
  • The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
  • Physical Intelligence by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton
  • Move! by Caroline Williams
  • Material Girls by Kathleen Stock
  • The Promise of Access by Daniel Greene
  • The Corona Crash by Grace Blakeley

… but what do YOU recommend?

New Vocabulary

Like many of us, in 2020 I found myself using words I’d used rarely or never before. Lockdown, quarantine, R rates, infection vectors. Like living in a disaster movie, we absorbed this bleak reality and all its new terminology.

random letters

2021 has bought new vocabulary into my life, and made me realise some of my confusions of the past. For our mutual amusement, here are some words that have come into my life …


Non-Scales Victory. Dieting talk for benefits other than lower weigh-in. Fitting size 14 jeans, not being out of breath on the stairs, not obsessing about pudding 🙂


I assumed this meant a long run. Ahem. Of course, it means Lands End to John O’Groats. Silly me. (And well done Helen V!)


This is what wetsuit owners call swimming costumes and trunks. “Swimming in skins” sounds so hardcore. And it is, in 14c water.

Bilateral Breathing

Another swimming term. This is alternating the side you breathe on during front crawl. Some swimmers even manage not to choke and run out of breath as they do it. I dream of that ability.


I thought this was pronounced “miseries”, with an extra “in”. I may even have thought it was a genre of dark TV. When I realised my mistake I was on my own and I still blushed. Yep.

That probably tells you more than you need to know about my year so far.

Would love to hear examples of your new vocabulary, the more embarrassing the better!

A New Chapter

After eight and a half years, it’s time for me to finish this chapter of my career and move on from the University of Warwick.

A New Chapter

I leave Warwick’s Academic Technology Service in good hands: Kerry Pinny, Jim Judges and Natasha Nakariakova, and their skilled colleagues. We’ve travelled far together, we’ve fought battles and climbed mountains, and most of all I hope we have supported Warwick’s brilliant academics in their use of technology.

There are so many people I’ll miss, I don’t even know where to start. So I will save my goodbyes for more private conversations.

I finish in July and am going to take a career break. I hope to take some time out with my family and enjoy some downtime before deciding my next steps. I haven’t picked up the pen to write the next chapter yet, I am open to ideas and not sure where it will take me!

Where we are with digital learning adoption

Blended and online learning is now a mainstream concept, after decades treated as a niche concern. There are so many voices in this space now, journalists, practitioners, researchers, policy makers. I can’t even try to summarise the many threads of discussion. So this post is just a collection of thoughts in the hope that saying it out loud will help me or maybe even someone else.

Digital Learning in bananagram letters

Digital poverty isn’t a thing

To learn online, people need access to a device, a stable internet connection and a quiet place to sit. People who live in crowded homes, or without decent broadband or without a good computer will have problems learning online. The Labour Party was laughed at in 2019 for advocating subsidised broadband for all. Now there’s a panic about “digital poverty”. Aditya Chakrabortty writes in the Guardian (22 Jan 2021) about the framing of digital poverty alongside period poverty, food poverty, child poverty. “It must instead be broken down into discrete categories, all the better to tuck into Whitehall documents or charity campaign strategies. In that fake neatness lies both great political hypocrisy and huge social danger”. See “The problem is poverty, however we label it“. Making the education sector own the barriers created by poverty, as with free school meals, creates a smokescreen for the underlying issue.  Some people don’t have enough money to meet the cost of living. The cost of living now includes being digitally connected and feeding your kids during the day. Wages or benefits  need to increase to cover that gap, or the government needs to legislate to cap some of the costs of living. I don’t know the answer but I am increasingly uneasy with all this talk of digital poverty. At Chakrabortty says, it is a “fake neatness”.

Traditional exams ain’t all that

I don’t understand the worries about teacher-assessed grades, or the weird nostalgia for rows of desks of scribbling students. Big bang assessment is not often the best way to assess a students knowledge and skills. Continuous assessment, mini feedback loops, assessment for learning not just of learning: these patterns are surely better. And writing on paper without the option to copy and paste text or add reference links: how is that authentic to any modern workplace? How far are our assessment designs based mainly on making it hard to cheat, at the expense of genuine evaluation of progress? In the Conversation in August 2020, Winstone and Baud persuasively describe the need to rethink assessment anyway: we should “cut down on exams for good“. 

We should have less big bang summative exams sat in big rooms with invigilators, there are plenty of alternatives. Online assessment systems can at least allow for typing, which is more authentic, and why not also speaking, and drawing? And in the scenarios where an unseen timed assessment is the only option and it has to be online: sometimes proctoring might be useful. It shouldn’t be the default. But it might have a place, sometimes.

The important thing is to design good, aligned, authentic assessments that genuinely assess the students knowledge and skills.

We need pragmatism about privacy

Now that everyone has woken up to the maxim that data is the new oil, and “if you’re not paying, you’re the product”, what does that mean for user data flowing through our learning tools?

Institutions definitely need to be clear with students about what is collected and what it is used for. The more upfront we can be about that, the better. Where the data is used for tracking engagement in learning I think that can be make explicit in the information about the module, and the design of the learning activities. Learning analytics doesn’t need to be sinister, it just needs to be above board.

Educational Technology is big business now

The scale of online learning activity means that platform providers need to be a decent size to have scalable reliable supported hosting. They need to be big players with 24/7 support and big technical teams to keep up with changes to web browsers and rolling app upgrades for smartphones.

To some suppliers, education is only one small sector and we don’t carry much weight with them but in return we get enterprise scale solutions. The more digital approaches are used in corporate training, customer service, communication and collaboration etc, the wider the market is.

The conversation should be having with them is about their business models: might institutions need different sorts of contractual relationships and pricing structures to avoid paying in data?

We need more precise shared language about digital learning design

We need some shared vocabulary around synchronous and asynchronous, solo and social, consumption, creation, collaboration.

Learners need to understand better what is expected of them and when. Educators need to describe that to them, and to coordinate with their colleagues to design and deliver these learning experiences.

I like to imagine that we could agree on terms to describe a sequence or combination of activities, together and alone, online and offline. It feels like that language is developing rapidly around online collaboration in the workplace: in online workshops using breakout rooms and tools like padlet, we’re all getting better at purposeful use. I expect to see those micro design patterns get given short names. As my colleague Robert O’Toole would say: more explicit pattern-naming benefits everyone.

In an optimistic mood I might even suggest that when we are better able to describe the purpose of each activity and each content input, we might be better able to share resources too. More interactive use of large on-campus teaching sessions for active and social learning comes out of a decoupling of content, delivery, interaction and feedback. The same approach increases the options for inclusive teaching, and also the possibility of using open educational resources. So many options arise from the same attention to design. By disaggregating and then reimagining teaching, a whole plethora of practices become possible.

The next wave is beginning

I said in a previous post that I am trying hard to see this acceleration of digital learning as a genuinely new wave. I really do think that, though perhaps our ways of talking about teaching now needs to distinguish more between what was, what is, and what should be. It’s only when we separate that out that we can talk sensibly about what tools and support are needed to allow space for growth. There are lessons to learn from the phase of emergency remote teaching but it is only when we have real choices again that we will see how far we have expanded the possibilities.

Turning 45

As I write this, Scotland has just announced a month-long lockdown and we’re awaiting a press conference about stronger restrictions in England. So mentioning that it’s my birthday tomorrow is the height of narcissism.

Hello. It’s my birthday tomorrow.

5 years ago I wrote about turning 40. Reading it back, it still rings true. 2020 has put big questions into sharp focus for many of us. My reflections right now are nothing mind-blowing but they are mine, and I wanted to share them here.

As an atheist it’s hard to apply the concept of gratitude: who or what am I supposed to be grateful to? But I do “count my blessings”. I know how lucky and privileged I am. I am warm and safe and well-fed. I love and am loved. I even have some satisfaction at the top of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”.

Amber’s version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

My attitude towards power and authority has changed this year. I am often critical of those in charge, of the country, of my employers, of councils and schools. If I’m honest I have tended to think I could do better. This year knocked that arrogance out of me. I am glad I am not in charge. I do not have the answers. I value honest leaders, who acknowledge complexity and don’t pretend everything will be ok. I have felt a burden of responsibility at work, but have held it collectively. In simpler times I might have wanted to stand at the front, but this year, I have understood how hard that can be. I learned this year that my appetite for power has limits.

It has been very weird to be an educational technologist this year. I have spent over two decades working on improvements to using technology in education. Between me and my husband we have worked at, or with, all the EdTech UK agencies. Devices, connectivity, software, platforms, content, practice, training … that’s my world. And this year my world was front page news: online learning is a Mainstream Thing now. Video conferencing has been in the foreground but hopefully other models will surface into the mainstream now. There is so much good practice knowledge ready to implement, to make really great blended learning that is more flexible, and more authentic assessment, and more social learning. So much knowledge in our generous communities of practice: just not enough time.

It’s hard not to feel a weird deja vu. I need to swallow down the “told you so”, re-engage with the battles that I thought I’d already fought a decade ago, and maybe … maybe … expect that I will be listened to! I need to say the things that I think are obvious because maybe they’re not obvious to everyone who hasn’t spent twenty years in the field. And the context has changed, massively! I should take the opportunity to think differently and enjoy having new collaborators and stakeholders interested in developing really great digital learning. I must resist the “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” cynicism that bubbles up, and instead see edtech in 2021 for what it is: a genuinely new wave.

Luckily, we are about to get an opportunity to reframe how we support digital learning. Me and my team are moving out of the IT group and into the Education Group. So I become Director of Academic Technology, reporting to the Academic Registrar. And we get to be the people in the teaching services who know about IT, rather than the people in the IT services who know about teaching. So I’m excited for that changed context.

So as I wait to start my refreshed role, and to mark my birthday, I feel strangely positive. Against everything that 2020 has thrown at us, I have emerged fairly unscathed and I have reasons to be positive. Crossing my fingers for this year and sending my love to those who are facing difficult times.

What are Rules Anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot about rules. We are currently operating under Covid restrictions, we’ve had the “rule of 6”, constraints on business operations, reporting and testing regulations. Everyone is talking about “the rules”. I’m also dieting at the moment, for the first time in my life!, and on a forum where everyone asks about the rules: what are we allowed? how many carbs can I have, is alcohol against the rules? And in my day job, I work on guidance and processes around how things should work in the use of technology in teaching: constraints and expectation-setting. Also I just finished watching the Queen’s Gambit which is all about chess which I can’t play but I admire. The Rules. There are rules everywhere.

But what are rules?

Guidance and Rules

There is a blurry line between rules and guidance and I guess it depends on the implicit contract between the rule-makers and the subjects.

  • In chess: you can’t really break the rules. Simple!
  • In a diet, following the guidance is described by many dieters as submitting to the rules. When people “break” the rules in a diet they often use moral terminology: sinning, being naughty, falling off the wagon.
  • In a workplace, people may or may not accept the authority of the rule-maker. In the university where I work I can think of many examples where people aren’t really accepting the authority of “the centre” to make the rules. We have a lot of guidance that could be rules if the culture allowed it.
  • In a pandemic, well … what we’re seeing right now is a mix of attitudes towards the guidance and the rules and it has a lot to do with attitudes towards government and “science”.


Some rules are enforceable, some are very hard to enforce.

The police can’t possibly have enforced sanctions on every breach of the rule of six: there aren’t enough police and it would be massively intrusive within people’s homes. But they needed the rule so that when they did need to intervene in the situation they had a rule to hook it on to.

In my workplace, there are many workarounds and exceptions to most things that we ask people to do or not do. A lot of what we to do to tighten control is try to introduce sanctions. Rarely do make it impossible to break rules.

We often talk about incentivising and disincentivising, and about nudge as a subtle incentive, and best practice. I picture it like this:

Impact: Individual vs Collective

One factor in how people respond to rules is their attitude towards the rule-makers. But I wonder if another factor in how people respond is their mindset. Rules are designed to control or influence the behaviours of individuals. But they are designed at the level of collective impact. They are designed around models of what happens if all- or most- people do something. Many rules are made in the knowledge that there will be exceptions. For some people, hunting out those exceptions seems to be a first instinct. In my workplace I’ve seen policy discussions where the proposed rule will work in 80% of cases (“the Pareto principle”) but everyone wants to discuss the 20% even when we’ve already established there will be exceptions. I am guilty of that myself. It is our culture to seek out “edge cases” and foreground those as reasons to delay on the rule-making.

Sadly, I have also seen way too many examples of people not being able to see the collective impact of following or breaking rules. If everyone parked in a Disabled Parking spot because they were “only popping in to a shop”, the system breaks down. If everyone jumped the queue there would be no queue. If no-one wore a mask because they were “uncomfortable”, there would be no barriers to transmission. The whole point of rules is to seek sustainable behaviours at the collective level. Rules are a collective endeavour.

Final Thought

I am not naturally trusting of authority. I don’t trust our current government, I reserve the right to challenge everything a government does. I don’t trust capitalism to make the rules, I don’t trust any religion to make the rules. I’ve never 100% trusted any employer, any organisation, or any person, come to think of it. But I think we need to pick our battles wisely: some rules can be followed without much negative personal impact (i.e wear a mask, for godsake), and some rules might seem overkill but maybe they are there for the collective good. Maybe they are there to manage demand patterns for example “flattening the curve” for the NHS capacity. There might be factors that come into play that we don’t understand. It’s probably complicated.

I’d quite like a simpler world some days, with rules that everyone understands and everyone sticks to. If anyone has any tips on learning chess, it’s suddenly seeming very enticing!

The Challenge of Hybrid

Update Oct 2020: I recommend reading this article about merging modalities by Valerie Irvine.

At my University, our Academic Technologies team, Academic Development Centre and temporarily formed Learning Design Consultancy Unit have been creating guidance and training to support a wide range of practices suddenly made essential because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I talked about some of them at the Jisc conference back in June.

The last few months I have been circling around the challenges of “hybrid” teaching and that’s the focus of this post. I am currently awaiting feedback from my colleagues on some guidance I’ve drafted but I thought I would also share my thoughts in the open. Comments very welcome.

The challenge is how to plan for, and deliver, taught sessions to a mixed cohort where some students are present in-person on campus and some are not. There are difficult choices my academic colleagues are having to make.

This isn’t course design from scratch, this is adjustments to existing approved modules, part of existing approved courses that students have already signed upto. The guidance pre Covid doesnt cater for the current scenario. Whatever the academic’s intentions and whatever the student’s preference, there is a chance that a proportion of any class will not be present in-person, due to delayed arrival on campus or quarantine. This is inevitable and somehow needs to be catered for.

We want to support these difficult design decisions with clear guidance but it’s hard to do that with confidence. Its made harder by a lack of agreed terminology in the education community and by some nuance between different technical set ups.

This QAA taxonomy is helpful but I disagree that hybrid and blended are interchangeable terms. To me, hybrid is a word specifically to describe a teaching session with an in-room audience and a remote audience. I don’t know why I think of that definition so strongly: clearly not everyone does. But we need a word for dual audience / dual mode / mixed mode teaching events. This would aid conversations between academics and their collaborators, and make for clearer design decisions.

There is a whole set of challenges to delivering a hybrid session in that sense. How meaningful is the participation for the remote audience? How does trying to accommodate remote audience particularly impact on the participation in the room? How much better is the student experience of a scheduled online synchronous option with limited participation, as compared to a recording watched after the event?

A related question around remote participation is the variety of options. What is the difference between using a livestream model with controlled participation options, or a passive broadcast without expectation of remote audience interaction? There is a spectrum within hybrid sessions between broadcast at one end and meaningful synchronous interaction at the other, particularly peer learning. If the student experience is at the broadcast end, it is worth considering whether  recording the session and releasing it afterwards would actually make for a better experience for both in-person participants and remote participants.

The next contentious word needing definition is hyflex. To me, hyflex is a characteristic of a course/module design where an individual student can switch between modes for different activities. They might switch day by day, or week by week. The key is they can choose whether to engage with online asynchronous, online synchronous, or in-person if that’s an option. A skilled teacher can design that. But not everyone has that level of skill (yet) AND it challenges of practices around student timetables and attendance monitoring. So I see hyflex as desirable but difficult to design. Once it’s designed though, I’d suggest that it’s easier to deliver an online asynch, online sync and in-person session than a hybrid taught session. It might take more time though and that’s a problem of logistics and workload.

So … in my mind:

Hyflex is a characteristic of a module/course, not a particular session.

Hybrid is a characteristic of a session.

A hybrid session might be a component of a hyflex module/course, but does not in itself make a course hyflex, because it’s only on component of the course.

A hybrid session is difficult to deliver without another staff member.

The best tool in the world can be used poorly if the session design isn’t clear.

The level of meaningful remote participation in a hybrid session will be determined by the skill of staff and availability of additional staff, mixed with the appropriate use of audience feedback methods and functionality. There is a threshold of meaningful participation, below which it might not add much value.

The ability to provide a hyflex course requires institutional capability around timetabling, attendance management, and quality assurance methods as well as real design skill by academics and their collaborators.