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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Achieving the cognitive edge?


Ahead of his presentation at TAI Cymru this week, Prof David Snowden, chief scientific officer at Cognitive Edge, writes that wide scale engagement of all actors in the housing sector on a near real time basis offers a real prospect of making a major difference in the nature and impact of service in the housing sector to society as a whole.

Small things can have big effects; rumours build with little reference to the facts and minor incidents in the wrong context can escalate into major issues. It was always like this, but in a world where social media removes any barriers to connectivity the effects can be devastating.

Small things also matter to people more; a simple act of kindness, facilitating what would otherwise be a bureaucratic nightmare, breaking the odd rule to demonstrate empathy, can also have a much larger impact than people imagine. 

In all cases fast feedback loops and the ability to sense the significance of something apparently minor which may quickly magnify out of control are vital. Known as weak signal detection, the ability to discover things early enough to make a difference is one of the positive effects of modern technology. Within the foresight and scenario planning communities, we are moving from trying to forecast the future to triggering human attention to the apparently insignificant in a swamp of data.

In my presentation I will be looking at the ways we can use citizen journalism and citizen engagement to create human sensor networks able to provide data in a timely manner and also to create peer to peer knowledge flow of ideas and solutions that normally get lost in structured feedback. The approach is based on understanding the day to day narratives of people's lives and the impact of those stories on our and their actions. Critically, we also need to know how those people interpret their stories - we need to see their perspective, not ours or that of a researcher or algorithm. If we can create such networks we can carry out real time decision support and mass consultation.

The approach has already been used in the ONS Measuring the Mountain Project which was recently subject to a formal report and ministerial statement within Wales. This used self integrated narrative to measure the impact of social services on the people of Wales. Critically in this approach advocacy is hard baked into the capture. Wales has been the centre for development of these techniques - the use of trans-generational pairing in the Valley’s project for example. For those seeking an evidence base for social change and purpose, the ability to combine the objectivity of statistics with the persuasive power of people’s own stories is key.

The basis for much of this work lies in the natural sciences and anthropology. Complexity science is sometimes known as the science of inherent uncertainty and the Cynefin framework is now established internationally as a means of understanding and acting under such conditions. Recognising the cognitive bias as a part and parcel of what we are is also critical. To take one example from a 2013 paper:

  • 24 radiologists were asked to perform a familiar lung nodule detection task.
  • A picture of a gorilla, 48 times larger than the average nodule, was inserted in the last case.
  • 83 per cent of radiologists did not see the gorilla.
  • Eye-tracking showed that the majority of the those who missed the gorilla looked directly at it

This is called inattentional blindness and it's good and bad news. On the downside we do not see what we do not expect to see; on the upside think how many opportunities for real sustainable change we are missing every day. 

Wide scale engagement of all actors in the housing sector on a near real time basis offers a real prospect of making a major difference in the nature and impact of service in the housing sector to society as a whole.

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