Graham Plaster

culture + diplomacy + ethics + smart power + technology + humanities + entrepreneurship + philosophy

Opened vs. Closed Systems

There is a lot of controversy right now about how best to facilitate transgender access to public restrooms. While I am not interested in talking about that particular political issue here, it serves as a provocative starting point for a more general discussion about open (transparent) systems versus closed (private) systems.

In all things technological, political, and social we are having to make decisions on how to balance privacy versus security, and anonymity versus accountability.  The underlying assumptions about human nature and culture are important as we attempt to make wise decisions for the future.

In this podcast by a16z, Alec Ross (author of the new book The Industries of the Future), who worked on the first Obama presidential campaign and was the advisor on innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, discusses his views on the industries and cities of the future.  He argues that the principal political binary of the past century was the political ‘left versus right’. But in the 21st century the binary has shifted — the battleground now is ‘open versus closed’. Those states and societies that embrace economic, political, and cultural openness will have a better shot at competing in the software and technology-driven future.

I think there is a lot of truth to what he is asserting but we need to understand that an open system still has inherent protocols governing it (and in fact these might be more fundamentally restrictive than the closed system).

Essentially, freedom isn’t entirely or even mostly free.  A system built of legos is still bound by the essential properties of what makes legos legos, even if you can build whatever you want with it.  A government that claims to foster freedom os speech, freedom of religion, etc., is still bound by an invisible consensus that these freedoms are an important part of the protocol behind the free system – and this freedom comes at a cost.

Open systems, whether we’re talking about your component stereo system (remember those? – maybe not) or your public decency laws,  only work if the correct technological, cultural, or political protocols in place.  In the case of the stereo system, the components from differing companies should work together if they are machined to be compatible.  In the case of public decency laws, a diverse public will abide by common laws if they collectively deem to be in line with some underlying cultural expectation.  There must be some common ground.  In other words, even if the culture is diverse, the various members of the culture are still machined in a way that makes them compatible enough.  Otherwise, people expatriate from the system.

The first principles or underlying protocols that facilitate the most diverse collection of parts are, in one sense, superior to principles and protocols that only work with homogeneous or single-brand parts.  That is not to say, however, that the overall effect of the closed system isn’t better.  Apple makes a great phone, even though iOS is a relatively closed system (and most likely because it is a closed system). There are often claims made that certain homogeneous nations have superior political or cultural systems, but it could easily be argued that homogeneity simply makes them more efficient with the system they have.

You could say that the massive complexity of maintaining open systems makes them inherently weak.  The American Constitution, with its vision for plurality, establishes an intentionally weak system via checks and balances.  But you could also say that protocols which successfully sustain a heterogeneous system must necessarily be stronger than those that only work in an homogeneous system.

Diversity places greater demands on your first principles, and if those principles are well imagined, diversity makes the system more powerful.  If those principles are poorly imagined, diversity can be a contributing factor for political, technological and cultural polarization.

Forgive me for speaking so interchangeably about people and things.  Society is not a machine per se.  But with the convergence of human networks and social networking technologies, there are some interesting lessons to be learned about strengths and weaknesses of opened and closed systems.

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The Innovation Spectrum

When people use the word “innovation” they tend to lump together both ends of what I see as a spectrum.  As a result, they don’t know how to describe the kind of innovation they want, or how to find it.

The “innovation spectrum” I am describing goes from zero to n, where zero is considered innovation ex nihilo – innovation from nothing (theoretically) and n is innovation based on anything that has been created before.

“0 to 1” innovation, as Peter Thiel likes to call it, also known as moonshot innovation or blue sky innovation, is about creating things that are brand new. This type of innovation is often done before a particular market demand or government demand signal is specified. Therefore it is considered higher risk and potentially higher reward. innovation, or in some cases you could think of it as the “lean startup” model, is about creating solutions to existing market problems. This type of innovation is often done after or while a particular market demand or government demand signal is specified. It is done with immediate product-market fit in mind as part of the design build process.  Therefore it is sometimes considered lower risk. either ends of this spectrum we can observe some cultural phenomena that help us know how to find and source that particular type of innovation.

On the left side one finds people who come up with ideas without immediate application or market demand.  On the right, you find people for whom immediate application and market demand are the muse for creation.  On the left, motivations can be more related to curiosity and wonder. On the right, motivations can be rooted in solving an immediate problem for an immediate return on investment.  On the left you might find some people who are content with doing research for its own sake.  On the right, you might find some people who quickly dismiss ideas that don’t have an immediate practical application.It is important to note that both sides of the spectrum include innovative people, although motivations and tolerance for risk may look different.  Where are you on the line?  What types of people do you hang out with?  Where do you go to find innovation of either type?provide you comments via LinkedIn

What is Innovation … for Systems?

Excerpted with permission from

“Being a Systems Innovator”

David Bray (Chapter Editor), Benn Konsynski, Joycelyn Streator, Goizueta Business School, 1300 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322

Innovation is the process of “making improvements by introducing something new” to a system. To be noteworthy, an innovation must be substantially different, not an insignificant change or adjustment. It is worth noting that innovation is more a verb than a noun in our context. Innovation is similar to the word evolution, which derives from the Latin root for staying “in motion.” Systems innovations often include an expectation of forward motion and improvement. To be worthwhile, innovations must be worth the cost of replacement, substitution, or upgrades of the existing order.

The term innovation may refer to both radical and incremental changes to products, processes, or services. The often unspoken goal of innovation is to solve a problem. Innovation is an important topic in the study of economics, business, technology, sociology, and engineering. Since innovations are a major driver of the economy, the factors that lead to innovation are also critical to government policymakers.
In an organizational context, innovations link to performance and growth through
improvements in efficiency, productivity, quality, competitive positioning, market share, etc. All organizations can innovate, including for example hospitals, universities, and local governments.

Rather than construct a narrow definition of innovation, it is useful to think of innovation as including, but not limited by, a few key dimensions. Successful innovations include these dimensions.

The first dimension is that of innovation form. Innovations manifest in many ways, but generally are either tangible or intangible. Tangible innovations result in new goods, services, or systems that you can physically touch. Examples include the introduction of new products or a style of architecture.

Intangible innovations include the creation of new services, processes, modes of operating, or thinking. Intangible innovations might introduce greater efficiency into an existing process or create an entirely new way of doing something. For example, an innovation could reduce the time required to manufacture a car. This intangible innovation might translate into greater profits for a car manufacturer.

The second dimension is that of innovation degree. Innovation degree compares a particular innovation to that of the status quo. In 1980, a researcher named John Hage introduced the concept of “radical” versus “incremental” innovation. An incremental innovation introduces an idea, process, or technological device that provides a slight improvement or causes minor change in a normal routine.

Sometimes the impact of incremental innovation may require only minor adjustments in the behavior, processes, or equipment associated with a system. A manufacturing facility upgrading to a new version of software that provides additional features to enhance existing operations is an example of an incremental innovation.

Conversely, radical innovations introduce an idea, process, or technological device that dramatically alters a current system. For example, if a manufacturing firm acquired a new technology that allowed the firm to completely redefine and streamline its production processes, then this new technology represents a radical innovation. Often radical innovations involve not only new technologies and processes, but also necessitate the creation of entirely new patterns of behaviors.


The paper is available in its entirety for free download here


Speeches about public speaking…

… might all seem like pyramid schemes to you, but are, if done well, the proper entry points into the process of content creation.  Content creation, if I may say so, is a rather bland descriptor.  Really, what we are talking about is story telling – telling human stories about human things.  How do humans achieve success?  How do humans achieve happiness?  How do humans achieve security?  How have they done it in the past and how will they do it in the future? Any product or service being offered to a human must be marketed according to how it fits into the human story.  Human story telling requires both art and science, depending on a certain amount of discipline, but also on talent and the muse.

The great demand for stories (i.e. Netflix binges) or products with stories attached (i.e. infomercials), seems fairly constant if not increasing.  This creates a constant demand for content creators who understand how to tell a good human story.

Art is the language of the soul


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Disruption and its Discontents re:Government

Derek Khanna explained the “Innovator’s Dilemma” in his article covering the clash between tech startup, Outbox, and the US Postal Service. In it Khanna added to Harvard Professor, Clay Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” by clarifying why government agencies in particular struggle to benefit from the private sector model:

“Christensen’s findings were that if a large successful company refuses to innovate and is satisfied with its steady return, it will often be displaced by these underdogs, and therefore the mantra for a dynamic market must be “innovate or die.” Entrepreneurs across the country know how important ‘disruption’ is to offering consumers innovative and useful products and services…. [however],the market forces that lead to innovation and growth in the free market are completely missing in DC bureaucracy.”

So this begs the question, if market forces alone will not make government bureaucracy innovative, is it still possible to recruit and retain leaders in government (and around government) who embrace private sector innovation as a necessary tool for the public sector mission? Are the right kinds of innovation too disruptive to be welcome?

In the US Intelligence Community there have been countless initiatives to embrace innovation especially following the 911 Commission Report, as with the appointment of LTG Mike Flynn to the position of DIA Director. LTG Flynn had placed his career on the line when he penned his CNAS report, Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan. But instead of ruining his career, it branded him as a disruptive leader. Many of the ideas articulated in that report did in fact lead to system wide reform and garnered Flynn popularity as the kind of leader that could propel DIA towards a new vision. From 2012 to 2014 he implemented a number of changes that would, in his words, “flip the organization on its head” and ultimately lead to his early retirement. He retires on August 7th.

For my part I have seen many leaders in and around government attempt to embrace innovation via public-private partnerships. ISC and FINND are just two great examples. Lately, any government or military trade-show seems to have the word “innovation” plastered on every booth. However, the word “disruptive” is still a lot less common inside the beltway with mil-gov types. It carries with it a connotation of upsetting the apple cart, as perhaps it should. Disruption is embraced in tech and entrepreneurship, so we should anticipate a trend towards using the term around here just about the time it goes out of vogue in Silicon Valley.

The government chases innovation, which in turn chases disruption, which in turn nips at the heels of the government. It is a bit of a vicious cycle. When leaders encourage the cycle either by welcoming disruptive thinkers into the government decision making process or by opening various innovation gateways, a lot of good things can happen, but nothing comes easily.


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Brokering Connectedness | Content vs. Community

Every website, every web community, and many organizations essentially rest on two pillars:content & community

Many blogs and sites fail because they neglect the value of either the content or the community. The two must work hand in hand. Many social sites organize content around the community and many traditional sites organize community around the content, but this is a spectrum. A great content site attracts a relevant community. A great community site generates relevant organic content. Depending on the nature of the community, there is sometimes a great demand for leadership. For instance, if the content revolves around something controversial like politics, there is much more need for moderation and protocols so things won’t spiral out of control (as internet discussion often do). If your community is mostly interested in cat videos, there is less to fight about. It takes some top level awareness of the group trends to set appropriate protocols and moderation standards.
I love this quote from the 9/11 Commission Report. It really hits the nail on the head:


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Echo Chambers & Civil Discourse

Memes and viral content in social media can have an echo chamber effect. This effect can be amplified by both moral and amoral factors. I put them in the following categories:

  • Ow – things that hurt to watch
  • Ew – things that are disgusting
  • Aaw – things that are sweet
  • Wow – things that are amazing
  • Hot – things that are erotic
  • Huh – things that confuse
  • LOL – things that make us laugh

In essence, each of these factors ties into some visceral human reaction, usually using an image or video as its vehicle. This is because, as they say, a picture says 1000 words, and visual formats pack a lot of information. These factors can be used for good and for evil, in campaigns that motivate positive change and movements that unravel civil society.

These factors can also be used strategically to market ideas or maneuver information in the public sphere, as propaganda, political spin-doctoring, psychological operations or simple brand management. Because the internet has traditionally supported a certain level of anonymity and because human nature can be corrupt if left unchecked, it takes a certain amount of leadership to leverage these echo chamber factors for good. As I have said in many of my lectures, virtual worlds require virtuous leaders, just like our own. We can cultivate civil discourse online if we understand human nature, set moderation standards and actively uphold a respectful tone.


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