The Cluster Phenomenon
Just a short one this week about an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years in outdoor ed programs has been that of clustering. What I mean by this is the group dynamic of needing to be close together when in large open spaces. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s interesting to watch how this can change over a longer-term program as students become more comfortable with their surroundings and the natural environment. For students from cities, most of the groups with which I’ve worked, big open spaces tend to be uncomfortable. When it comes to hiking, canoeing and camping, no matter how much space you have, the students tend to need to be very close together, even if they’re not friends.
I started to notice this across a number of canoeing expeditions where we were paddling on quite wide lakes. Whilst you never want a canoe group to be too far away from boats to boat, quite often students will paddle right on top of each other, rather than giving everyone else room to move. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents at the campsite. No matter how large and unoccupied the camp ground, the students tend to cluster together with tents almost on top of each other and rather than use free time to socialise with friends, they often cluster into one large group.
This is definitely a very primitive comfort zone issue and the fact that students feel safer in large groups when out in the wilderness. From a management point of view, this is great, as it’s easier to keep track of where everyone is. Just look for the massive group and listen for the noise. However, the problem with this is that as a group they can miss so much about the environment around them. They can miss the opportunity to switch off and just enjoy the peace and quiet of the unique landscapes and environments they will most likely never see again.
As I mentioned however, for longer programs, this distance seems to increase. Students feel more comfortable in the environment in which they’re in and as this comfort increases, they don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. They also develop an attitude that it is quite safe and this adds to the de-clustering effect. It’s interesting to watch this transition too as it creates greater moments for reflection and relaxation and opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world. Students can focus also on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
I know what you’re thinking! This is going to be about a trip to Disneyland. Well, in a word, no! Although I have been to Magic Mountain in Disneyland, this is about an environmentally sensitive power station in Wales that’s built inside a mountain.
Before going to Llandberis, I’d never been to Wales, let alone heard of Electric Mountain. The drive there in my tiny rental car was challenging to say the least as that morning it had started to snow in the English Midlands and continued throughout the day. Although no stranger to driving in the snow, it’s usually been in a 4WD or with chains on. Driving the smallest, cheapest front wheel drive rental I could find through an unfamiliar landscape and foreign country is an experience not to be missed, especially in England, where nobody seems to be used to driving in the snow and the entire road system seems to shut down at the first hint of a snowflake.
Consequently, the four and a half hour drive, turned into a seven hour white knuckle ride and at one point it was snowing so hard I could barely see out the window. It was a great relief to finally reach the hotel without having skidded on ice or become lost in the Welsh Highlands.
Waking up the next day, it was amazing to see the snow-capped countryside through which I’d unknowingly driven in the dark. There were mountains, a lake and a wonderful town filled with slate roofed houses. Nearby, I was told there was a hydro electric power station called Electric Mountain. Whilst the landscape was scarred from centuries of slate mining, there was no power station to be seen. Deciding to go on a tour of the mysterious (and somewhat invisible) power station, there was nothing more than an information building to suggest it existed. However, once the introductory video started, it began to come clear, the entire power station was built into the mountain, not on the top, nor on the side. An enormous cavern was dug out and the entire station was built inside the mountain.
Similar to other hydro electric stations I’ve seen, this is one which works by releasing water from an upper holding dam to produce electricity in peak times of demand and then pumps the water back up during off peak times. Not a sustainable form of energy, but a really clever one. Add to this the fact that they can bring the power station generators online in twelve seconds, rather than hours for a standard plant, then you have one amazing feat of engineering.
Apart from the insanely brilliant idea of hiding the power station in the mountain, the other environmental sensitive aspects of the design include venting the water uphill to slow its speed, before it enters the lake. This ensures that there’s no visible output of water, as well as protecting the integrity of the lake and the fish that live inside. They also built a tunnel for the fish to go through so they can leave the dammed lake and head back upstream to spawn.
Inside the mountain itself, the enormous cavern houses the power generators into which the water rushes, to spin the turbines at 500rpm and produce electricity. The ability to rapidly switch on or off means continuity of power supply across the UK.
From an educational point of view, this is a wonderful day trip if you’re in Wales. It’s an opportunity for students to see how innovation, industry and environmental concerns can all be effectively managed without a detrimental effect. With a power crisis looming in Australia, it might be worth building a couple of these and a nuclear plant for good measure to provide clean and reliable sources of energy.
Removing Social Anchors
For thousands of years, society has had social anchors for young people when they're growing up, developing and transitioning into adulthood. However, with the digital dislocation that’s occurred, many of these social anchors have been hacked away and have left our youth floating aimlessly in the infinite digital world. The process of self-discovery has suddenly changed into something quite different.
Often, youth would have parents, mentors or peers with whom they’d have a whole range of different experiences. From this, they would learn and experience the world from within supportive smaller community groups. They would learn about expectations within the social group and within society and through a process which is often seen as an important transitional coming-of-age, children were brought into the adult world reasonably well equipped to face the challenges that life can bring, but also prepared for all the subsequent opportunities and responsibilities that come with adult life.
However, for many cultures, this process has been completely scuttled by the digital age. Consequently, children are not finding mentors from within communities. Instead they’re trying to find out how they fit into the world through sites such as Google. The problem is that Google is not exactly the best place to find out reasonable answers when in search of complex emotional questions such as, Who am I? If searching for your place in the world has come to this, you are most likely to find some random spiritual nonsense websites or links to a cool Jackie Chan movie in which he has amnesia and spends the entire movie running around, yelling ‘Who am I?’ at people. Unless you want your life evolving as a Jackie Chan movie in which amnesia is the main theme, perhaps a more traditional approach is needed. There are certainly better ways of developing a sense of identity and a sense of self, than asking the soulless digital world what it thinks.
One thing that we should be asking ourselves is, who has created the digital age? Has it been people with huge amounts of life experience? Has it been created by people that you would trust with your kids? If you actually looked at some of the real back stories of the people who developed and built the major infrastructure and the major platforms on the internet, you’d be horrified at the lack of moral sense and the total lack of understanding of anything outside of greed and profit. Two great books which explore the horrific and idiot world of tech companies are Disrupted and Chaos Monkeys. These provide just a glimpse inside a world driven by immature, greedy profiteers. Is that from where you want your children to get their moral compass?
It's a sad reflection on society when some of the most influential things are run by people whom you wouldn't let near your children. Yet everyday, they’re being invited into homes, workplaces and school without a second thought. It's like allowing the Pied Piper free reign and access to an entire generation of kids and we all know how that turned out the first time around!
Unfortunately, digital devices have become a fantastic means of babysitting and are justified by people who pretend that, ‘It’s digital learning.’ It’s not. It’s just lazy parenting, the consequences of which are now starting to be felt, with an over-reliance on devices and an underwhelming sense of place and self worth in many children and teenagers. Congratulations modern parenting tactics! You’ve kept them entertained whilst you’ve been sipping your latte, but at what cost?
Ok! I might be being a little harsh here, however, it is a danger if over-relied upon. What are some of the core social anchors of which we need to be aware and we need to re-secure to ensure that we’re bringing up kids in the most positive and proactive way? Family first! It’s important to have a strong, loving family unit, in which both parents communicate well with each other, set expectations and provide love and boundaries for children. Next, they need a wider set of older role models, mentors, who may well be outside the direct family structure, but as the children develop into teenagers, these older mentors become very important in the transition of the teenage boy or girl into young adulthood. These connections are some of the most challenging to find these days, as this is one of the anchors that’s been torn apart by technology and modern society. However, be it through school, sports or a workplace, teenagers need this older type of role model to help them transition from being a child and acting like a child to being an adult and taking on the responsibilities of an adult.
Another important social anchor is that of one-on-one time spent with either mum or dad, away from the rest of the family and disconnected from the digital world. Getting away and hiking together, or riding bikes, or some sort of special one-on-one time is really important to have without the phone or the digital device adding noise. It’s times like this that can help build important bonds and give opportunities for relationship building and building trust that can lead to important, honest and open discussion about any issues that might be being faced by their son or daughter at that time. If parents are providing time, space and opportunities for this to happen, then this is a good way of reinforcing a vitally important social anchor of the family. However, if they’re too busy and leaving these questions to be answered by the frat boys who have built social media, then they’re going to be spending a lot more time later on in life trying to undo this damage.
Technology has significantly impacted on many traditional social anchors for children and young adults in their learning, development and transition into adulthood. Many of these anchors have been torn away to the point that they’ve left many young people lost in a noisy, soulless digital world searching for meaning that isn’t really to be found there. However, despite this sudden impact of technology, being aware of this fact and the potential damage it can have on the development of children and teenagers, parents and teachers can do something about it and through paying more attention to the changing emotional needs of children as they grow and supporting them through time spent together, along with other adult mentors, can have a massive impact on their self esteem and their ability to come of age and thrive in a fluid and ever-changing world.
How To Innovate...Or Not
Recently, I was at a council meeting where they invited members of the community in for a brainstorming session. I liked the sound of it and there was free food, so I decided I had to go along. There were around 30 people there, with a mix of people from Council, business owners, local professionals, and other community members.
The task for everyone was to come up with innovative ideas for creating a modern connected city. Sounds simple, right? As with many other brainstorming sessions, the tables were covered with butchers’ paper and we had permanent markers to jot down notes. A presentation was given by Council as to what they were already innovating with in terms of local services. Whilst this was quite interesting, unfortunately, it seemed to skew the way everyone was thinking about innovation and so instead of people truly throwing out radical and innovative ideas, it merely appeared that they were replicating ideas, or just adding to the ones that Council had already said they were doing.
Whilst there’s usually an advantage to frontloading situations and getting people into the right mind-set, unfortunately in this case, it didn't seem to work and many of the ideas that were being thrown up, were not innovative. They were just pointless and some quite ludicrous.
I found myself sitting there feeling quite disempowered, as I frustratingly had no innovative ideas of my own. So why was that? Why was nothing coming to me? I've created and developed a number of innovative products, from the ‘Reducer Flush,’ that limited the amount of water that’s used each time you flush your toilet, as well as software for the livestock industry that provides up-to-the-minute pricing data for farmers, to medical and incident management software for teachers when they're out on excursions. If anyone at that table should have been coming up with ideas, I felt it should have been me…Or should it?
Despite my frustration, and feeling totally and utterly out of my depth, all I needed to do was realise that for me, sitting around a table and brainstorming with other people was never ever going to work. Why’s that you ask? If all it took to be innovative was to sit around a table and talk, then the world would be running short of problems to solve. The number of times I sat around a table at work in this manner, should mean that we have the most amazingly productive and cohesive workplace on earth. Unfortunately, it's not in time spent sitting around the table as that usually results in plenty of stupid ideas and a total lack of productivity.
Innovation is therefore a really tricky thing to understand. I recently read a number of books on early stage start-ups in the US. Many of these start-ups don't actually do anything. All they seem to have done is put a ‘high-performing’ team of people together and try to get them innovate, then at the same time try to delude VCs into giving them money to perpetuate their fantasy long enough in the hope of striking something useful. Think of it being like the gold rush days, where everyone was trying to get a piece of the action and instead of digging for gold in hills that actually might have gold in them, you just dig anywhere you can find a piece of dirt. Taking this approach just means you will get very good at moving mounds of dirt.
So how do we actually innovate? For me, every time I've had a good idea, it's been whilst skiing, paddling or running. It's not until I'm in a creative space that works for me, that I can be creative. Despite many people telling you if you put enough creative people together they will create something amazing, this is not always the case. The opposite can be true as well if you put a lot of creative people together, there is every chance they just go to fight. Can you imagine Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh in the same room? Would they work together to create the world's greatest masterpiece that would eclipse all of their individual works? Or would they simply argue and end up throwing paint at each other?
There is so much money in innovation and technology has been a great enabler. Consequently, people are desperate to somehow be part of it and try to invent ways for people to innovate. However, this often fails to recognise how individual and obscure the art of innovation is. Many innovations fail because they're not developed to solve a real-world problem. The truly successful innovations however, when looked at retrospectively seem so obvious. They usually are, because they fix a problem that previously caused great pain or annoyance.
So how do you come up with a simple and obvious solution that people will talk about retrospectively and say how ingenious it is? Firstly, what's your greatest frustration? Secondly, how can you improve or change something to reduce this frustration or fix the problem? Thirdly, when you come up with all sorts of ideas to solve your big frustration, test out the theory to see if it’s also other people’s frustration and check whether your solution would work. Fourthly, take action and do something about it.
With any innovation, it's often the last step that is forgotten. Many people have great ideas every day. However, very few of them have the time, energy and persistence to take the action necessary to turn these innovative ideas into workable solutions that make a difference to people's lives.
Next time you’re at work and you're forced to sit at a table and solve all the world's problems at once, think about where your most creative space is and instead of sitting around the table go to that creative place so you can innovate in a natural and effective way. If you approach innovation in this way, you won't be left at the table feeling disempowered. You can come back to the table with something truly amazing.