Episode #47  Adapting Business:transforming our systems, careers -and the landscape of business with Mike Raven of AQai

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How do we shift the narratives of business so that it becomes part of the solution, not the core of the problem? Mike Raven of AQAI explores the ways business can adapt – and become part of a genuinely regenerative future.

Mike Raven is a Radical collaborator, rapid researcher, speaker, facilitator and entrepreneur. He’s a holistic business graduate and practitioner. He’s a qualified Naturopath, who has studied at Schumacher College and been a UN Global Goals Ambassador. He’s co-Founder of LEAPS – which accelerates Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals using design-style sprints.

And most recently, he’s co-Founder of AQai, whose mission is to improve humanity’s adaptability at speed and scale, to help ensure no one gets left behind, in the fastest period of change we, or any human, has ever experienced in this, and the next decade.

Above all, he is a Husband, Son, Brother, Friend, former digital nomad and passionate Futurist.

In Conversation

Manda: As always with these podcasts, I hit the record button early on so we can test the sound levels and as a way of testing that I asked Mike about a book that was on the table behind him. His recording space is one of the most beautifully curated I have ever seen and the book looked really interesting. It was called ‘The Squiggly Career’ by Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis. I will put a link in the show notes. I asked about that and as is so often the case, his reply was so coherent, so grounded, so thoughtful and so part of what I wanted to talk about that we took that as our beginning. So the start is a little bit ragged, but it’s definitely worth it. And with that in mind, people of the podcast, please welcome Mike Raven of AQai.  Tell me a bit more about tours of duty, I just want to check the sound file.

Mike: Yes, this idea is a military analogy. I don’t like that analogy, but a tour of duty could be a couple of weeks, a couple of months, or a couple of years. As long as that tour, that section of your career and your life links to a duty that’s inherently linked to your heart space and to your why, to your kind of Ikigai of why you’re here and what you can do for the world and for other people. We don’t have to stick to this linear path that we’ve been told of a certain type of education, the step ladder of jobs and the idea that the time spent somewhere equals progression. 

So this was quite some time ago that Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, was really talking about this, perhaps 2006 or 2008. I think this year with coronavirus has really sparked that opportunity for people. There’s now an opportunity to think, what is my duty? What is my higher purpose and what tools might that involve? What little pockets of time and application contribute towards those different tours of duty? Some of that can be spontaneous, some of it might be serendipitous, some of it might be completely, intentionally planned. This book ‘The Squiggly Career’ perhaps describes it in a more fun, dancey sort of way, that it’s a squiggly career rather than this sense of ‘tours of duty, come on, we’re all soldiers, soldiers of purpose’.

Manda: Yes, which has that sort of ‘OK, now I’m just going to have to yomp up a hill again’ feeling to it. Whereas ‘Squiggly Career’ feels more creative, bouncy, fun and engaging our joy child, doing things because we enjoy doing them, not because it’s our duty.

Mike: Exactly what it should be.

Manda: So we have started the podcast, this is great. Welcome, Mike Raven. That is exactly why I wanted to talk to you now. With Accidental Gods we have spent a lot of time exploring neurophysiology, economics, spirituality and many of the ways that we can begin to curate our own lives. The area that we have never explored on this podcast, is the area of business.   It wasn’t until I really started listening to AQai, your podcast with Ross Thornley, which is definitely one that people should be listening to, that I began to think about it. I work from home, I was a vet and then a novelist. I’ve never been part of a business in that way. Even when I was a vet it was at the vet school, it was not a business, it never made any money.

So, business is the area it seems to me. Economics is defined by the ways that we create value and the way we create value is business. It seems to me that you and AQai are surfing the cutting edge of what business is these days.  Let’s take a step back and find out how Mike Raven got to be one of the co-founders of AQai. So let’s have a quick dance through the wonder of your life.

Mike: I was very lucky, I believe, as a child to spend my time growing up in Dartmoor down in Devon, it’s beautiful and finding comfort in nature amongst trees, grasslands, woodlands. But at the same time, I saw a deconstruction in front of me of the family unit, certainly in latter childhood years. And at 14, I decided that as soon as I was allowed to, I would go as far away as possible.

Manda: I think it’s worth saying that you grew up in Totnes, as you told me once before that you and a friend made this pact together that you were going to get away and I thought, ‘oh my God, what hellhole did you grow up in?’ And it was Totnes! But isn’t that interesting? It was the place you grew up in so you had to get away from it.

Mike: Yeah, I think it could have been anywhere. It’s a really interesting point. I don’t think it was about the surroundings of nature. It was about the society that was forming perhaps. I’m a nonconformist at heart and at soul and so the idea of following a particular path felt really uneasy. So it took me to Australia at 18 with some travelling and life lessons.  I also remember, for example, being told that I couldn’t study both drama and music at the same time, I had to choose. I thought that was bizarre, which was another reason to get away. And actually, when I came back from Australia, I had some choices around study and I quickly shifted from the idea of studying business and sociology to studying theatre and media and economics. I think economics and business are very different things. And maybe we’ll go into that a little bit later.  I did follow the herd to university, though, and I fell out of love with with that quite quickly, and that institution. My early career was focussed on the psychology of marketing, which since the 60s is very much the idea of giving people what they think they want.

Manda: Or even generating the desire before you even give it to them.

Mike: Absolutely, and this fake idea of freedom and what that means. Actually, it’s just all distraction. Looking back, it was important for me to experience that. I worked with big companies like Microsoft and Cisco and LG and these monoliths. I understood that their goal was to sell more stuff that isn’t required to more and more people.  So I left that when I turned 30 to about a decade ago and went on a real journey of discovery, which took me all around the world. It only took me maybe 30 minutes to make this decision and it was my first journey into the spirit realm, really. It happened out of the blue in a horrible Travelodge hotel whilst doing some work and lying there on the bed. That’s perhaps another story…

Manda: I think you should tell us.

Mike: Ok, well the the colours and the journey and the feeling that was reverberating around my body, it just really felt profound and something that I had to explore and I knew there was no way to explore that in my current life as it was set up.

Manda: Had you explored anything of this nature before in your travels?

Mike: Absolutely not, it was really strange. And I went into my business to my boss, as we call them, the next morning and said, “I’m leaving”.  I then met a Shaman in Honduras on my travels, who spends a month fasting in the jungle, which was just mind blowing for me. I met a Naturopath in Costa Rica, who actually offered me a volcanic retreat, saying “this is yours if you want to run it”.

Manda: What is a volcanic retreat?

Mike: Well, it’s just a retreat at the base of a volcano.

Manda: OK, but he offered it to you not as an experience, but as a as a thing to run?

Mike: Yes, and this was all quite a lot for me to take in this short space of time. I ended up in Vietnam and there was a wonderful Vietnamese lady who was a medicine woman working with plants.  All of this just created such a shift in me and I wanted to return to England, I saw it as home still. I set about training to become a Naturopath. I did that and it took me to me about a year and a half. I also needed to fund my life in some way, shape or form. I decided that it was about the people and specifically the person that I spend my working time with whilst I was training and doing other things.

So I was very lucky to meet somebody who has been a mentor, but also an equal and a really good friend, Ross, who’s my co-founder at AQai.  And I just wanted to be able to support my own health and wellbeing transformation. Wellbeing really showed up as something deeply important to me in my heart space. And I wanted to be able to help others, even if it was just one person that I that I loved or had never met. I think as soon as you start to go on a journey of understanding epigenetics, you suddenly realise you don’t need any pharmaceutical drugs whatsoever to either prevent disease or to heal yourself.

Manda: So tell us a little bit about that. Can we take a side step into epigenetics? Just give us the the elevator speech.

Mike: Well, at a molecular level, we’re all molecules and they’re spaced out, they’re not joined together. There’s electricity running through us that connects all of that. The things that we’re doing with a lot of our lives, that are actually being promoted through the way that perhaps society, organisations or institutions and business promote and market things to us, just promote the disconnection of those fibres. Manda, you talk about “what fires together, wires together” in both the physical and metaphysical sense, as well as the spiritual sense. That’s really what epigenetics is. If you’re not giving the body and the mind the ability to fire together, then you would have lost already, before you’ve even started. So really that’s my sense of it, that if you can understand epigenetics even at a base level, which should be taught in our education system, and there are countless other things that should should be taught and a lot that are taught that absolutely should not be…

Manda: So we have another podcast one day on the nature of education.

Mike: Absolutely. I think it was a it was a discovery journey and that’s what life is. I found teachers and mentors and really discovered the power of books at this time. I read a book called ‘Conversations with God’, which had a quite profound impact on me.  All of this took me towards towards the global goals, the Sustainable Development Goals from the UN, which started to connect the dots for me of business, economics and what the planet needs. It was, “hey, there’s a to do list and who knows about this to do list and what are we doing about it?”

Manda: OK. And you’d met Ross. Were you working with or for Ross at this point?

Mike: Yes, certainly working with Ross. It was his company that we started building up together to discover the opportunity to work inside the UN system and these Sustainable Development Goals.

Manda: So can you tell us a little bit about what the Sustainable Development Goals are for people who are not familiar with the concept.

Mike: Sure. So it started with the Millennial Development Goals actually back in the year 2000 and all of the UN states, a lot of countries coming together to agree these, which really were the profound challenges that our planet faced. There was a blueprint and a plan to address those. There was some progress and it was important to have that collective agreement. But they didn’t work, they weren’t solved. Otherwise we wouldn’t be facing the challenges we’re facing today. They evolved into the Sustainable Development Goals and launched in 2015.

Manda: At Schumacher there were a lot of people who were very anti the SDGs saying sustainable and development are not compatible words. But you obviously thought that they were worthwhile and attainable.

Mike: I wasn’t sure they were attainable. But I thought at the very least it was a blueprint and a signpost for some of the larger organisations that I knew of and had relationships with to be able to have the confidence to go to them and say, “Have you seen these? What do you think? And what are you doing?” Some of them were saying, “We’ve seen them. We don’t believe they’re fit for purpose and we’re doing something else.” Others were saying, “Yes we have and we’re deeply involved and we’ve signed up.”

But whether that’s signing up vs. actively taking part are two very different things.  It helped us focus our own mindsets inside the organisation that we were focussed on and running to look at how are these resources that these companies have being directed in the right areas for the planet? Because if they’re going to truly be for the planet and for society, which is what I inherently believe businesses are for, then they needed some help. Until the Chief Sustainability Officers become a core part of the C-Suite and until Chief Inspiration Officers and perhaps this idea of a Chief Future Officer become a really important part of the C-suite of having the ear of the CEO, then I think we’re going to stay in trouble from a business perspective.

Manda: Yes, I think Rob Hopkins has the idea of a Chief Imagination Officer, that there should be these.

Mike: Wonderful, yes.

Manda: And yet, I have met people who were the Sustainability Officers for quite big companies, often met them at Schumacher, and their despair always was that basically they were there and they could have spent their entire office week counting the paperclips and nobody would have cared or noticed because they were window dressing.

Mike: Absolutely, it was a box ticking exercise.

Manda: Yes, “we have one of these, therefore, we’re good people.” So we’re leaping ahead a bit, but let’s follow this thread, because you said that you believed that business was for society and for the planet. And yet clearly there are businesses that are wholly destructive. I look at fracking or the tar sands in Athabasca or any of the fossil fuel industries and perhaps I’m being judgemental but I find it quite hard to see. There are businesses which are neither for society nor the planet, but are wholly for the enrichment of those who run them. So what we read in the Financial Times is not full of stories about how these businesses are regenerative and working for society and the planet, it’s full of how much profit they’re making. How, in your view, do we bring the weight of what business is, the narrative of what business is, around to exactly what you’re saying?

Mike: That’s a great question and a huge one, and I think it starts with mindset. It starts at a quite an individual level. I think understanding and not expecting other businesses, other organisations, other institutions, other people to be the change you want to see in the world, but to start with yourself. I think there’s an opportunity to shift from this model of a world and business of extraction, like you said, what can you take from the planet and what can you take from people, to one of creation. If we can create business models around creation, and that involves, like you said, imagination, it involves creativity and adaptability, then that will shift us from a world of scarcity and the idea that something is going to run out to a world of plentitude and abundance.

I think right now we’re still stuck in a really archaic business model. I think we are focussed on competition rather than collaboration. I think there’s new economic models that are already starting to prove true. If you look at transition towns, if you look at doughnut economics, there are some models already that have been really well thought through and that have been experimented with, with great success. And we’re going to have to break some things.

Manda: “Move fast and break things”. Is that not one of the big ethos changes of the modern world? I think that’s Dominic Cummings.

Mike: Dominic Cummings, yes, interesting chap. He’d be an interesting person to speak to. But I think we are in relatively, actually quite unstable times.

Manda: Probably more unstable than our species has ever known.

Mike: I think I’d agree. And I think if we look back, we’ll discover that when this has happened in the past, not to this level, whether it’s an organisation, whether it’s a whole civilisation, they tend to try and double down on what they’ve already known. And in Rome, for example, this is exactly what happened. They were absolutely at the precipice of civilisation and suddenly very unstable times happened upon them and I think they saw themselves reaching the limit and what happens then? Well, the civilisation all the way down to the individual seeks comfort and stability and certainty, rather than having the ability to embrace uncertainty and to intentionally look for discomfort. Because it’s in discomfort where we find growth, where we find imagination and where we find creativity. But when we’re needing really strong decision makers, really progressive decision making, we need to be able to adapt. But right now we seem to be increasingly inflexible and resistant to change.

Manda: At a political level, but while I’m listening to AQai podcast, I’m hearing business leaders who are right up there speaking from the same sheet as this, who understand resilience and adaptability. Clearly that’s because that’s what you’re about and therefore you’re picking these people. But it’s so heartening to hear people for whom profit is still a motive, because they have to survive and they have shareholders, but where the value of the people who work for them counts and the value they can bring to the world also counts. And my feeling, having listened to that, is that politicians at this moment, given the ways that we elect them, are by definition the people who follow. They are always going to be sheep, but they will follow where the money goes because they are also very venal sheep. Sorry, I know I’m being horribly judgemental, but they do. And therefore, if big businesses can lead the way, then the rest will follow. Am I right or am I being overly optimistic?

Mike: I think you’re right. I think there’s a real opportunity for that to play out. I think some of the decisions about the who, the who are making the decisions is really important and whether then we can create more flat business models and operational models.

Manda: Can you tell us what a flat business model is?

Mike: Yes, there are different examples such as sociocracy and holacracy. So where you flatten the pyramid and you have perhaps small pockets or nodes of teams and groups within organisations that have the power to make decisions that in most organisations is down to the C-suite or just to the CEO. It’s been proven, there are a few examples of organisations, such as Precision Nutrition, which is one that runs on holacracy. They’ve seen phenomenal growth, are able to reach far more people to embrace individualised nutrition and have done that with a completely flat holacratic operation system. And what does that do for the individuals? The trust that’s put in them, the empowerment, it creates conversation and connectedness. Whereas just like the education system, the business models that we’ve got to run businesses right now are all about really the industrialised world…

Manda: And the hierarchical model that we inherited from the Romans.

Mike: Absolutely. We’re still trying to double down on stuff that doesn’t work.

Manda: Yeah, and hasn’t worked for 2000 years. Exactly what you said, the Roman Empire collapsed because it didn’t work but we have spent the last 2000 years trying to replicate it and make it work. And at some point, you think someone somewhere would wake up and go, “you know, doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.” But you guys have, so before we go all the way down that line, I would like to take a step back and look at you and Ross getting together and forming AQai and what it is and what it does, because I think it is an example of everything that you’re saying, as I understand it.

Mike: Yes. So we originally set up a consultancy called Leaps, and it was designed to run these very fast, intense design sprints. Some people might recognise the term design sprints.

Manda: But most people probably won’t, so can you unpick that a little?

Mike: Sure. So it would take somewhere between three and five days to shock a group of people, usually leaders inside an organisation into a different mindset. A different way of thinking with intentional, very tactical workshop style initiatives that will get them thinking in a different way about challenges that either that business is facing or that the planet is facing. And we would use the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals for this. So in that we’re starting, albeit subtly, to shift some of the leaders in these organisations’ thinking towards how do we give more to the planet rather than extract more.

Manda: Did they know what they were signing up for when you when you brought these in? Did they know that that was part of the agenda?

Mike: Sometimes, but often not. It was very intentional from us. We were working with large organisations from Unilever to to Reuters. We would see change very, very quickly and different ways of thinking about problems and very, very different solutions that often embraced new technology, often embraced doing good for the planet and for society. When we went to revisit these groups some weeks later, we found that more often than not, they would have gone back to their old habits. It’s very hard to hold on to a new habit and a new mindset. It takes discomfort, and we know human beings don’t like discomfort.

Manda: You also need an environment where everyone is supporting you and your new habit. And what we know from everything about relationship and small groups, large groups, is that everybody likes you to behave like you used to behave, because then you are predictable.

Mike: Absolutely. It’s that safety of certainty, again. Predictable equals certain and uncertain equals discomfort. So we started to realise that there was something that was causing this immune system response to say, “go back to how you used to do things”. And we heard this term AQ, this idea of the Adaptability Quotient and started, through lots and lots of conversations and some deep research, to recognise that perhaps this was one of the keys to sustainable change, to heading towards intentional change and embracing that idea and also the ability to take on uncertainty and to take on discomfort because you have the confidence in your ability to adapt.  So we started to work with some research partners and started to see that actually there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that we’re on the right path here to something important. But if we were going to address adaptability and the human condition of adaptability, as well as hopefully, following that, the organisational and institutional diagnosis of adaptability, then to improve something we needed to measure it.

We did some searching and couldn’t find a model of AQ. So it became clear that that was our that was our mission and we decided to create the model.   This was discomfort for us because we hadn’t done anything like this before. We were entering a world of uncertainty through, first of all, how do we how do we fund a business? What are the different ways to do that? How do we create collaboration and support? How do we build the foundations of something from non-academics? We’re certainly non-academics ourselves. How do we forge partnerships with academia and science and forge that with our understanding of business and our contacts in business to create a model that can start to recognise adaptability in a person, in a team and in an organisational unit? Because then our hypothesis was that we would be able to improve it, that it wasn’t static, that it wasn’t just something that you are. Because we have these psychometric tests and assessments, thousands of them that tell you “you are this person and you will not change”.

Manda: And that’s one way to guarantee that change is never going to happen.

Mike: Absolutely.

Manda: Give someone a box that they’re in.

Mike: A really dangerous thing to do.

Manda: From a medical field, through business, through everything, if you give someone a label, they will conform to the label.

Mike: Yes, absolutely. So that was an 18-month mission. We found some funding, found some wonderful people to support our mission and our dream. And that enabled us to partner with some academics, professors, universities and some businesses to create the model, test the model and give us the confidence to take it to the world. And we we did that in quite a unique way. We put our own ideas of innovation to this.   What we had been doing for some years prior to this was intentionally investing our time and some of our own resources as much as we could in understanding what’s coming.

This meant we would be able to go to these design sprints that we were running before with the knowledge of what technologies are coming that we could leverage and also that you need to be aware of because it’s going to disrupt your organisation and your market even if you don’t believe it will. If you were Nokia and you believe that the iPhone was just a joke, which is exactly what Nokia did, they thought this is going to go away very, very quickly and they went from an almost 50% market share to 5% percent very quickly, which maybe is a good thing because there’s there’s more of the market to share. But we were able to look at what technology is coming and what can we leverage within AQai and the clue is in the name.

So we started to think about how can we not only deliver an assessment and measurement of somebody’s AQ in a unique way, but a deeper and more truthful way.   But then how can we leverage technology to quickly and at scale improve adaptability? Because we haven’t got the luxury of time. There’s been huge transitions in the past, whether it’s the industrial revolution or the technological revolution, where that’s happened over quite some time. But in this information age it’s happening so, so quickly. We are going to see potentially a couple of hundred years of technological progress in about ten years.

Manda: And it will continue to accelerate. Provided we don’t burn the planet up it’s not going to stop.

Mike: It’s not, no. Like you said, unless somebody unleashes something, whether it’s nuclear or whether it’s molecular based and pandemic based.

Manda: Or we just hit the tipping points that Jem Bendell talks about where… Anyway, we don’t need to go there but provided there are still humans, we’re in the singularity and the rate of change is accelerating faster than it has ever done.

Mike: And quite a beautiful segue there is attending Singularity University that actually triggered this idea of AQ. There was a talk there and it was already in conversation. That is a place, if anyone doesn’t know, close to Silicon Valley, so it’s in a place where technology seems to happen and thrive. It’s a place where businesses, leaders and anyone really can go to understand the emergence of exponential technology and its potential future uses and perhaps future challenges that they’ll bring forward to us. It’s a very interesting place.

Manda: And you came out of it with the AI part of AQai as your business. And  that AI part, where is it going? And how can we how can we shape it for a regenerative future?

Mike: That’s a great question. I think AI is such a huge, huge box to open. It can go in lots of directions from the idea that actually AI will be the world’s biggest, newest and fastest growing religion, that AIs will sit on boards or sit on leadership councils of institutions and countries, and perhaps that’s a good thing. You’ve got some very intelligent people, whether it was Stephen Hawking or Sam Harris…

Manda: Yes, Sam Harris’ TED Talk on AI made a great impact on me. It’s quite hard to see a way around his contention that, in military terms, the advantage that military AI would give to the side that develops it first pretty much guarantees that the other side would have to wipe them out before they got there, which is a very scary thought.

Mike: It is a scary thought, and it’s something we should really be aware of. But there’s also, I think, an opportunity as we could help every citizen to make decisions using AI. Whether it’s at the level of an AI telling you in real time, making you aware of your unconscious bias, whether it’s making you aware of your cognitive dissonance, or allowing you to make decisions by playing out scenarios very quickly. So in the democratic system, showing you if this bill or this law happens, this is exactly how it will impact you, your world and the world of other people. In a very transparent, open world, I think we’d be able to apply those AI learnings to our own communities, to our own families and to our business decisions.  So there is a there is an opportunity, I think, for for democracy to be elevated with AI. But this requires such a new way of thinking about our governance of AI and that’s what’s not happening. The biggest community population on this planet is Facebook and we think that we can govern Facebook. The U.K. tried and said, “we summon you to court and we’re going to ask you questions and make you feel uncomfortable.” But nothing happens, a small slap on the wrist, which is just completely insignificant for that company.

Manda: And they turn up in front of the Senate and laugh at them fundamentally.

Mike: Absolutely. And this is the problem that we’re facing unless something is done at a very high level of understanding that we need. The funny thing is we might need an AI to actually govern the algorithm. So a third party algorithm at a world government or collaborative level that can govern the algorithms of these organisations.

Manda: But they’d have to agree to that happening or it would have to be imposed on them, which would be an interesting democratic move. Then how would you guarantee that the AI was a progressive AI? Because I imagine that there are people who would not want the AI to be what we would define as regenerative and having the flourishing of society and the planet as its baseline motivations. There will be other people who would like to construct a world governance AI with other baseline motivations, I imagine. I can feel a novel coming on, but in real life, that’s hard.

Mike: It’s very hard, I think maybe it goes back to when the individuals have access and control over their own data. So when we control the data and have access to every single bill or law in the land that exists and the the opportunity to see how that impacts our own lives, we don’t need an industrial political architecture that we have today to govern those things. Because in a democratic system, we’ll be able to make those informed choices ourselves.

Manda: It would also change the nature of the legacy media, because at the moment our choices are very often a reflection of what we’re told in the newspapers and on the primary, here, terrestrial channels. If we had access to our own actual fact-based information, then we would be able to reassess and they would become redundant overnight or have to become a lot more flexible, their AQ would have to rise exponentially.

Mike: They would, we’d have to see quite a big jump, not only in AQ, but in emotional intelligence and in our imagination. So how are we measuring and improving and rereleasing our imaginations? Because democracy might be able to serve that role in choosing the outcomes that we want and the principles that we want to be upheld. Then we just leave the AI to work out how best to achieve them.

Manda: But then we would also need or we could have a very different baseline for the whole of society. So I’m thinking on my feet here and this may not work, but I’m remembering the conversation that we broadcast a couple of weeks ago with Eva and Justin. They had spent lockdown interviewing 100 people from as broad a range of opinions as they could in Scotland with a view to that feeding into a people’s assembly, with a view to the people’s assembly feeding into a citizens’ assembly, with a view to the citizens’ assembly feeding into a constitutional convention, with a view to that completely restructuring the governance of Scotland ahead of independence.   I need obviously to hook you up with Eva and Justin. I’m thinking that that gives a very broad democratic basis to something that AI could then run the models very quickly of the various things at each of those levels, the people, the citizens and the constitutional convention models could be run, which would put into the conversation a whole new layer of imagination.  

And then we’re moving to so what is humanity for? Because at the moment we’re for earning enough money to pay the mortgage, a lot of people, or to pay the rent if you’re not well enough off or weren’t in the right generation to own property. But if we can shift that to life is about flourishing, what does flourishing mean? Then the profit motive might change, because I heard you back at the beginning, you said economics and business are different and they definitely are. But while we’re in the competitive model where he or she who earns the most stuff, manages to accrue to themselves the most value, is at the top of a hierarchical tree and therefore has power over the people below, then economics and extractive, competitive, profit-based business are intimately linked.

But if we can create a governance system and a life system that is predicated otherwise then the need for that intimate linkage breaks apart and businesses can be for entirely other things. Jason Hickel’s whole degrowth concept of “yes, if you want to make a profit, that’s great, but your entire profit goes into local charities that you can define” and you’re there to create wellbeing and flourishing within your own community, that’s the point of your business. Then you stop trying to sell widgets to people who didn’t want widgets in the first place, which is where you started, and you start creating things that enhance the lives of people and are built on regenerative models. Is that where we’re headed?

Mike: Yes, I think we can be. The idea of profit first has been so ingrained, even in current teachings, at an educational level of business and economics. That needs to change from profit first, probably to purpose first. And it’s defining that purpose, which should be about imagination and should be exciting. And I think that starts at a young age. We need trusted consultants, who are going into organisations now, who are absolutely purpose first and who have access to not only the C-Suite in these hierarchical hierarchical organisations, but also to who they report to, which is the shareholders.

Manda: Or often it’s the market. Because I don’t think it is the shareholders, it’s this imaginary thing called “the market” that’s going to destroy them or build them up and is often built on algorithms. Sorry.

Mike: It’s true, yes. And the market goes back to people seeking comfort and putting comfort before discomfort. I think it’s really interesting how we’ll invest so much as individuals in our own comfort and in our pleasures, compared to the investment that goes into our discomfort and reframing ourselves. Perhaps this goes into the idea of what freedom is. For me, freedom isn’t about choice and variety. I think I learnt this in my own journey of, “oh, I could go anywhere, I could live in any country” and I went on this journey with a company called Remote Years.

Manda: Yes, I did want to ask about that, it sounded amazing.

Mike: I mean, it was it was amazing in lots of ways. Also I don’t think the business model is the best for the environment.

Manda: You’d better tell the listeners what it was because I heard about it on AQai podcast. But give us a quick review.

Mike: Very simply, if you have if you have the opportunity, which a lot of us do now because of COVID to work remotely, then this company said we will take 50 or 60 complete strangers and we’ll put them in a group and we will curate a year’s worth of travel for you. So we’ll take you to a different city in a different country every month for 12 months. And we’ll set you up in an apartment with a co-working office, often co-living with a team in that city who can try, in as much as possible in a space of 30 days, to embed you into the local ecosystem society to live the way locals do.

Manda: And just when you’re getting used to it, we’re going to move you somewhere else.

Mike: Just when you find it, and that’s what I found. It was an incredible journey of adaptability, of adjusting to completely different languages, systems, localities, people, cultures, which was wonderful experience.

Manda: Water and air and food – just from a naturopathic point of view, your entire gut biome must have been absolutely turned over once every thirty days.

Mike: It was and it was difficult to rebalance but I was glad I had that training. It helped my own AQ, but we could have done with longer in each in each city. But I think that the the whole journey was was a really interesting one, not only for what does work look like in the future, what is work and travel. But for me, I didn’t know I had this complete freedom of where I could live and actually it was a fake freedom. It was completely fake. Until I made a commitment to actually scale that down and a commitment to a place to say this is home, suddenly that was freedom.  A lot of people think they don’t want to commit to a partner, to a relationship because there’s so much choice. There’s so many people, there’s 8 billion people. But actually that’s, again, a fake freedom. We think that’s going to help us seek pleasure and get lots of comfort and experiences in our lives but committing to somebody is the ultimate freedom of relationship. And the reason I say this is because I think freedom of commitment needs to be prioritised over a sort of fake freedom of variety. When we think about that in our business models, just like in the sixties where it was actually Sigmund Freud’s nephew who completely changed marketing in the world.

Manda: Yeah, who brought all of his uncle’s concepts into it, “and now we can make you want a green toothbrush”…

Mike: Exactly. So we need some really very good intentioned, genius marketing shifts to market the discomfort to us. Because I do hope that we we can create a world where the ability to reason is held in really high regard.

Manda: But this is reasoning on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, heart-mind reasoning, as well as head-mind reasoning.

Mike: Yes, a hundred percent. And it’s the convergence of our feeling mind and our our thinking mind together that’s accepted. And if that’s reflected in our hearts, if that’s reflected then in society and if that’s reflected in business, that is massive. Because then I think we’ll demand something better of ourselves before demanding something better of someone else or another organisation or a government. It’s kind of what we weave into our own operating system in AQai to say, “we must demand something better of ourselves, we have to make really good decisions about the work that we’re doing”. And it’s really challenging because, for example, to do the things we want to do to impact society at a profound level, we we need to be creating resources in the organisation to invest in that research and in doing that.

So that requires us to make a profit or in another system to find constant investment flow in. What do investors want? A lot of investors will say something like they are mission led, they are about societal change, they’ve created their wealth and then want to put it to good use. But it’s hard wired for a lot of investors that actually, like you said, it’s profit first. But we’re trying to be very intentional about the investors that we partner with. But it’s this cycle, going back to the original point about profit and is profit a dirty word? Can it be a clean, positive word? If it’s used like you said within a community, when it’s used as fuel for good, it can be really good.

Manda: If money is considered as a lubricant and what it’s lubricating is social interaction and social exploration. At this moment we are inventing money out of nothing. I think this is one of the things that Schumacher College taught me is that there is no longer any link between dollars or Bitcoin or anything else and actual material, anything. The money flowing through the stock market every day is ridiculous numbers more than the GDP of the entire planet. It’s an imaginary number. And if it’s an imaginary number, then we can do with it what our imaginations choose we do with it. And how it flows is up to us to decide, and we’re all locked in as if money is a physical object with laws like gravity, and it isn’t, it’s an idea. And I think the biggest thing that we could do, our generation, is change the idea of what money is for and how it arises. And we need not to have the people whose whose entire lives are built up with a very structured “money is in short supply and we are doling it out to those who who are worthy”, which is what our politicians are doing. They’re making it out of nothing.

Mike: Yes, and I think maybe this is perhaps a little bit of a tangent, but on this idea of tokenising, tokenising value and exchanging it, things like blockchain and cryptocurrency are actually really interesting concepts that I believe will become hugely mainstream. Having the potential to take away an intermediary, the banks etc., in what we have right now, which is an industrialised organising system.

Manda: Yes, I did a term paper about blockchain at Schumacher. I think, first of all there’s huge, huge potential and second, the great big banks, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan would not have entire absolute sub companies devoted to developing their own blockchain if it were not really, really important to them. I’m aware we’re heading towards the end of our time and I think blockchain is so exciting, but we’d need to expand for people for whom it’s not even an idea.   But as we run to the end, would you like to tell us a little bit about your AI concept, the Aida concept, and how that might have a role in bridging governance, business and humanity?

Mike: Sure. So going back to an earlier comment I made around doing this at speed and scale, brought us to a certain type of AI, which is in particular digital twinning. So for anyone not au fait with that term, then I’ll give you a real example. Deepak Chopra, who a lot of us will know is a coach and mentor and seen as quite a leader in the field of meditation and mindfulness. To work with Deepak is quite expensive if you wanted him to be your coach, to improve something, to shift your mindset, to be able to learn how to meditate, to unlock and evolve consciousness. But if you wanted to do that with a huge number of people, rather than Deepak Chopra working with, let’s say, one hundred individuals and seeing them once or twice a year, what if he could work with 10 million and see them every day? What change would that have on the mindset and the acceleration of that learning in that process?

So he has partnered with the AI foundation to create a digital twin. They take every single bit of writing, response, video that’s being recorded, book that’s being written by Deepak and all these interactions. And the AI will analyse all of these and create a multitude of algorithms. There will then be a process of perhaps recreating a visual representation that is as close to reality as possible. We have some wonderful companies and technologies that are able to do that really effectively so that it’s hard to actually know if you’re talking to a real person or a digital version.

Manda: Have they genuinely cracked the Turing test now, do you think?

Mike: I don’t think yet, but I don’t think it’s far off.

Manda: OK, and for people who are not familiar, this was the famous Alan Turing, who set a concept way back in the Second World War I think, that at some point it would be possible for a human being to interact with someone on the other side of a screen and not know if they were interacting with a human being or a computer.

Mike: We are close. Deepak has this now, there’s a digital twin of himself and those 10 million people can can have conversations with the digital Deepak.

Manda: And at a fraction of the cost of the real Deepak, and still be making orders of magnitude more money than he was before.

Mike: If that were a desire, but it could also completely demonetise it.  Because it not only democratises it, but it demonetises it. And they’ll get about 80% to 90% of the same responses, advice, intuition, etc., that they would have got from the real human.

Manda: And they can do it in real time.

Mike: Absolute real time. So in our model of adaptability there are 15 core dimensions of adaptability, from resilience to hope to grit, to your mindset, your motivation. I won’t go into all those details, but we are forming partnerships with experts in those dimensions. So take unlearning as one of them, our ability to forget, to intentionally let go of a certain way of thinking about something or doing something. Barry O’Reilly wrote a book, for example, on unlearning. If we can replicate these individuals and their experience, their knowledge and their application of their speciality into a combined AI being, who we call Aida at the moment, and give Aida her own personality that is flexible and adaptable in itself to understand the learning style.

So Manda, we could understand your learning style and there are technologies that do that by assessing that with you. So you might be very auditory, for example, and that would become quite apparent through some simple tests. We could look deeper into you as an individual so we can really personalise that coaching journey. We can personalise the the learning pathway that we design and that you go on as an individual to improve your AQ through Aida and we can make that accessible if we want to hopefully hundreds of millions of people.

Manda: The entire planet, basically. Anyone with a signal and a phone.

Mike: Yes, anywhere in the world. And you can pick this model up and you don’t just have to apply it to adaptability. You could take creativity as a theme and a skill and use the same technology and layering for creativity. Then start to reimagine lifelong learning and education through this lens, which isn’t designed to replace human to human and group activities, and I think they are so, so important. We know they are so important. But there’s also this to work in tandem, which could accelerate a lot of the learnings and the mindsets, because that’s what we need to do. It’s the mindsets. We must build adaptability into the infrastructure of our mindsets.

If we can do that, then that’s a really different way of looking at the world. And we know we’ve got to build in adaptability into every facet of society for us to be able to go and seek the change that we want or to just to adapt to stuff like this year, like COVID, to be able to adapt and find the best way through, to be able to survive through hardship and discomfort, to be able to thrive on the other side.

Manda: That is so beautiful. We’re going to have to draw to a close. As we’re closing, when do you think Aida will be something that people can connect with? When will she be out in the world?

Mike: Realistically, I think it’s going to be about two years. I think we’re still seeking investment and partners and collaborations to make that happen, which is the way it will happen, through radical collaboration.

Manda: So OK, anybody out there who knows the people with the money, you know where it needs to go. Mike, thank you so much. This has been revelatory. I can feel several other podcasts. I remember in the years when I was thinking of doing a PhD, everybody said that each PhD should spawn at least half a dozen more or it wasn’t worth doing. And I think good podcasts each spawn half a dozen more and I can think of several that I would like to do some point. But in the meantime, I hope this has inspired everybody listening as much as it has inspired me. I feel hopeful for the first time in quite a while. So thank you very much.

Mike: No, thank you. It’s been a wonderful journey in conversation. And if I can just say, this feeling of being hopeful, as much as it’s really beautiful, I think there’s there’s a real danger behind hope. It’s a really interesting area in adaptability. Don’t hope for better, just be better, don’t hope for more compassion, just be more compassionate, be more resilient. Sometimes just the awareness of these things can be enough of a start, enough of a catalyst.

Manda: OK, I’m hearing that, yes. There’s a very lovely book called ‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times’ by Paul Behrens, who I will talk to in a month or so, and he quotes somebody whose name I can’t remember saying ‘optimism is a bloke leaning back on his chair with his feet on the desk, hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.’ And I rather like that too, it’s an active process and it’s not a passive concept that everything is going to be fine, at all. But it’s a “we can get out there and we can make the world a better place”.

Mike: I love that.

Manda: So thank you.

Mike: Thank you.

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