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RAHS, 33 hours without sleep & strangulation

March 21, 2007

Of all efforts I’ve seen, this is the one that seems to be the most carefully throughout and the most mathematically sophisticated…. Simulations can’t totally represent how the world works. This one has an an interesting way of acknowledging that and working with it

The above quote is from Jaron Lanier in respect of the Singapore Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning system (RAHS) . It has occupied the last two years of my life but we are approaching the end of the RAHS development. I presented our part of this innovative project this monday morning at IRAHS Symposium. NTU managed to assemble probably the most complete gathering of experts in the domain to review RAHS and talk more generally on the subject. Many old friends and now some news ones all in one place for two days. Over all the system uses the order/un-order distinction in the Cynefin framework.

Systems designed for order have been developed by The Arlington Institute, those for un-ordered environments by Cognitive Edge. DSTA have put the whole thing together and added much of their own. Our work has drawn on complexity theory and also understanding of human decision making drawn from the cognitive sciences. We have also, at some effort found a way to represent a total situation (terrorist environment, market, organisational culture etc etc) as a landscape allowing senior decision makers to go directly from a whole system abstract representation, to the raw, un-interpreted original data along with a whole set of other software including a new take on Wisdom of Crowds. In addition to the Lanier quote, the following statements reported in the press yesterday morning:

It has great promise because it is based on the best of multi-disciplinary thinking. It’s not just computer science, it’s not just statistical analysis, it tries to mimic the way people actually think

>Gregory Sherman from the Public Health Agency of Canada

I think it is a great initiative… As usual Singapore is punching above its weight. Singapore really is being a global leader here in helping to develop new forecasting methods.

>Paul Saffo, research fellow at the Institute for the Future

The standing ovation given to Peter Ho, Head of Civil Service here in Singapore, by the delegates at the end of the seminar was richly deserved. Few Civil Servants around the world would have had the curiosity, insight, vision and influence to bring together expertise from around the world to make RAHS possible, or to be prepared to think so radically about some of the major issues of the age. The above quotes support my oft stated view that Singapore is rapidly becoming an exemplar and experimental area for government in the network, or knowledge economy.

Inspiring and exhilarating as the event has been, the build up to it was exhausting. After the Joyous events of Saturday evening, hoarse of voice but exhilarated, I got to bed well after midnight, rose at 0500 on Sunday to pack and drive to Heathrow. The screen shots I needed for the presentation, thanks to a massive effort by Cynthia Kurtz, arrived that evening and I planned to prepare the presentation on the flight to Singapore. A couple of hours to complete, dinner, G&T, a bad film and then sleep was my cunning plan. That was optimistic to say the least. Part of the problem was that I was using an early version of our new Powerpoint template (you will see one image in the next post, radical web site redesign to follow soon) which meant things took longer than usual. The killer blow was when I realised the problem of having only thirty minutes to explain to a large and diverse audience complexity theory, fitness landscapes, strange attractors, cognitive bias and seven years of experiments and software development. I think it was Eliot who first said if I had more time I would have written a shorter letter; I realised the bitter truth of this as the in-flight map showed us crossing into India by which time I had planned to be fast asleep. I finally finished an hour before we landed at Changi Airport; 0740 local time, midnight forty GMT. There followed a taxi drive, a fast shower and then into a business suit before going on stage to speak after only one weak coffee. Incidentally, if I can ever find the idiot who made the tie a required item of male formal wear I will kill them, ideally by public strangulation as a form of poetic justice. I am happy to dance on their grave and cast curses on their ancestors even unto the seventh generation if they already parted this world. Tirade aside, a formal dinner that evening meant I had survived 33 sleepless hours before I finally collapsed into bed; which is my excuse for not blogging or picking up email until today. The good news is that the presentation went well, although I did overrun by about 15 minutes. The questions were also both interesting and challenging as were the subsequent discussions over the next two days.

One of the fascinating aspects of the whole project has been the way in with other government departments and commercial organizations around the world have taken up and used the software in early versions over the last two years. I have long said that there is no difference between a terrorist, a citizen, an employee or a customer. They all represent the problem of asymmetry. Symmetric powers, be they governments or companies know how to deal with each other, but the uncertainty (and the opportunity) comes from the countless decisions of those they seek to influence, utilise or detect. We will be arranging demonstrations of the software to the network once it is complete in a couple of months time.

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