Interview with Stephen Johnston: The Power of Collective Intelligence and Collaborative Action.

Interview with Stephen Johnston: The Power of Collective Intelligence and Collaborative Action.

By co-founding the global Aging 2.0 network of innovators and orchestrating the digital platform The Collective, Stephen Johnston became a well-known influencer of aging innovation.

His global consultancy, Fordcastle, has led him to a vision for healthy aging inspired by the Japanese concept of a ‘Pin Koro Society’, in which everyone lives long, purposeful lives until the very end - something which can only be achieved by a unique partnership of technology, governance and individual action.

Stephen was one of Shapeable’s first clients - one of the first people to recognize the power of collaborative problem-solving and the usefulness of our platform in creating a space for everyone to share their ideas, solutions and insights.

Together we have worked with clients as diverse and interesting as Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, Pivotal Ventures, Orange County Strategic Plan for Aging, Sompo, Medline, Capita, and Nomura Research Institute - among many others.


Image: Voiceprint graphic as per B21C?

Creating Systems Change

In 2012 I established Aging 2.0 as a global network for innovation in aging. At the time, I didn't really know that what I was doing was called “systems change”.

I was inspired by Tim O'Reilly’s Web2.0 Conferences, and went to my first one in 2004. Tim galvanised innovation and energy to define Web 2.0 - and that saw the rapid uptake and democratisation of the web. The transformation was from technical siloed approaches, to holistic, integrated systems. From business-first to user-centric. From national to global. I used the frame they used with Web 2.0 for the 2.0 transformation of aging.

Over time, I became the centre of a growing global network and was bombarded with connection requests, and different stakeholders wanting to meet other stakeholders. I started searching for a technology tool or platform to help bring multiple sides together. I got interested in other organisations who were in the business of systems change. This led me to the World Economic Forum, and Scott giving a presentation about knowledge systems, data visualisation, and graph databases.

Image: Aging2.0 Event

Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence is the only way in which we’ll be able to tackle the challenges of global aging. The challenge is too big for any one individual, organization or country to tackle alone.

In order to improve the system, we need to tie together individual experiences of older adults and their caregivers. What are the challenges they face? That's been one of the biggest pain points we've identified for older adult caregivers, 'What are other people going through? What innovative solutions have they come up with?" There's a real hunger for learning support and for building a knowledge base.

What happens is that somebody becomes a caregiver in five minutes. It takes nine months to have a baby, but it takes five minutes to realise that you are now a caregiver, and that’s a massive learning curve. People get up to speed, become aged-care pros - and then that information goes into the ether when their loved one dies. One of the big challenges is: how can you capture that? How can you allow other people to learn without going through the whole learning curve from the bottom?

That's been my journey for the last 10 years - trying to build global insights. We started that process with local chapter events where people would share their perspectives, share their best startup ideas, and get input from multiple sectors.

We built a framework around the content so that it could be mission-driven. So rather than a traditional business model of organisational silos or country silos, we'd dive into a bold position of improving caregiving by closing the care gap, improving dementia care, or updating financial wellness, or end-of-life, daily living, mobility and movement - big themes that we were able to gather different stakeholders towards a common goal. By the time we started with Shapeable, we'd already built a framework around eight grand challenges, so the infrastructure was in place.

Image: Grand Challenges

The result was, if I had a cognitive impairment innovation, or a startup, or some great insights from research in Colombia, or something that happened in Japan - it would be clear where it fitted. A critical piece of magic was the taxonomy. How do you speak the same language as somebody working on something in the United States versus someone in Australia - when they don't even know they're working on the same topic? If there is an open framework that is mutually agreed by all these different players that this is the topic - if they know 'this is the aspect of dementia that's relevant,' then it's so much easier to share perspectives and have information laid to rest immediately.

The Collective

The Collective was built as a grassroots, ground-up marketplace for ideas. Businesses could see the value of that and were motivated. But government ‘will’ has been missing from the conversation. There hasn't been a lot of overlap between the hard targets of innovation, technology-forward, big ideas versus the public programmes and government policy.

There’s a lot of government investment in aging, and any number of lobbyists and public policy groups whose job is to put forward their members' interests. Half the budget, half of the dollars in aging, are spent by the government, federal and state - but the spending is divorced from the cutting edge of innovation. There are some impressive parts of the US government doing excellent work, but there’s still a lack of good public-private collaboration - it’s normally one or the other. We need some common frameworks to connect these worlds.

Image: The Collective

“Half the budget, half of the dollars in aging, are spent by the government, federal and state - but the spending is divorced from the cutting edge of innovation.”

Collaborative Action

Thinking about aging and brain health, in particular, has captured my attention.

There are several ways in which we can think differently about brain health and dementia. For example, one of the projects I'm working on is Brain Healthy Melbourne. Looking at what brain health and brain skills are necessary to compete and succeed in today's knowledge economy. And while recognising that dementia care is important, the impact of brain health and brain skills actually creates an economic asset that politicians should be more aware of. They are potentially losing out as they build their cities that are fostering isolation and depression and lacking integration between the generations.

But there are challenges in that, business models today aren't designed to implement things collaboratively. They are mostly designed for one vendor, a contract to deliver a product or service - like different business models and other types of reward mechanisms, funding outcomes and impact metrics of various interventions. 'Bundle interventions', is one area of interest we’re looking at, for example.

There are a lot of novel funding ideas out there, and the Melinda Gates' article in the FT is a good demonstration of that. She's talking about a new kind of collaborative network-building model where individual philanthropists and funders team up around missions. Clearly, dementia and cognitive health is a huge, expensive topic, and no one organisation, however well-funded, will solve it, especially as we haven't really got a treatment or drug on the horizon yet.

The most effective types of interventions require multiple collaborative solutions and collaborative funding. This idea of a network of donors coming together to support a network of solutions is an interesting, relevant and timely approach for something that is bigger than any one individual or organisation. Scott describes it nicely as a shift from collective intelligence to collaborative impact.

Image: Double-diamond from our reports together?

I think the more interesting area is starting to build multi-stakeholder groups, which include government, for-profit and indeed nonprofit, and research - groups that are all interested in identifying the most promising models and the way that we think about it are influenced by conversations over the years with this mission-driven approach.

Economic rewards for problem-solving

There's growing recognition of the massive societal challenges we're facing. It's being driven by climate change - you just have to look at the WEF's Global Risks Report to see the number of cataclysmic risks we're facing. And it's only going to get more critical. People understand the need to be collaborative in how we approach things, but this is difficult to do in the current economic system. So while collaborative efforts are effectively the right model, they're only going to be superficial if you don't transform the economy into one that also rewards the right things. Currently, our entire economic infrastructure and systems reward GDP growth and profits. That needs to change to an economic system which rewards problem-solving.

Image: Voiceprint graphic as per B21C?

To read more about Stephen Johnston and his work in aging innovation, head over to Fordcastle or follow him on LinkedIn.