More on AHA! The Discovery & Learning Centre

aha4The Idea: A day in the life (c. 2006) of AHA! The Discovery & Learning Centre, which I proposed on these pages last week.

I‘d like to thank everyone who commented on my AHA! proposal. I appreciate your candour that the concept is not sufficiently differentiated from other facilities and programs designed to encourage innovation, collaboration and learning. I especially thank reader Dave Davison for his great encouragement and the time he spent with me today hashing this out.

I thought it would be useful to tell a few (hypothetical) stories about how AHA! would be used and what it would do, to articulate its unique attributes better.

So imagine we have been up and running a while — here are some of the successes I  envision we will have:



J is the CEO of one of the world’s largest banks, and he was attracted to AHA! by the diversity, the intellectual and creative power of AHA!’s ‘members’, which now include Nobel scientists, Pulitzer authors, corporate kingpins and former state presidents. That ‘people power’ was in turn attracted by AHA!’s reciprocality model: You help me on my project, and bring your unique experience and insight to it, and I’ll stay around after the project to help you on yours. The price tag is a sliding scale based on the size and profitability of the entity or institution being helped: Basically, you pay what you can afford, and, astonishingly, it is the importance of the issues and the opportunity to rub shoulders with those with different yet considerable skills and resources that draws crowds voluntarily to AHA! events regardless of remuneration. It is the human passion to make a difference, to do something remarkable and memorable that draws such huge creative energy to AHA! ‘events’. That, and the reputation of AHA! for accomplishing amazing objectives that many thought impossible, and the simple elegance of The Invitation to an AHA! event, now a coveted and even resume-able possession.

J’s bank is dealing with a dilemma: Competition for the giant corporate accounts is so fierce that it is barely profitable. Customers are so angry with credit card and mortgage rates and the plethora of ‘service charges’ that regulators are starting to take notice and legislators are proposing laws to ease the burden. The only area for growth and profitability are therefore the small-to-medium enterprises and individuals that big banks like J’s have avoided for years on the basis that they’re too risky and too small to make money from: More trouble than they’re worth. AHA! is hosting a Rediscovering the Small Customer session that will have some brilliant innovators, unorthodox thinkers and actual customers seeking the formula that will allow J’s bank to increase small-customer satisfaction and profitability simultaneously. J is on the Board of Directors of an international insurance company that has accomplished exactly this dual improvement thanks to an earlier AHA! session. The session is being held in AHA!’s playful and stimulating San Francisco Discovery & Learning Center, which has inspiring displays, recorded speeches and stories of great human achievements, such as the eradication of smallpox, the moon landing, the abolition of slavery, and the unraveling of the human genome, and where some of California’s and the world’s greatest thinkers and doers often hang out. It will use the 13-component AHA! Discovery Session Framework (illustrated above) supported by a suite of 20 (Open Source co-developed) enabling technologies and through both physical and virtual Open Space invitations and ‘crowd’-canvassing tools will gather ideas, viewpoints and information from over 5,000 people, synchronized as gracefully as a dance. As quickly as groups of participants are surfacing ideas and opportunities, other participants and AHA! staffers are doing market and technical research, still others are developing rapid prototypes of the ideas that have passed market and technical research hurdles, and yet more are showing these prototypes to potential customers and gathering The Wisdom of Crowds.

The following week, many of the participants, stunned at how quickly and successfully the Discovery sessions qualified and brought new ideas to market, would volunteer to repeat their roles and apply the same process to a small entrepreneurial consumer electronics company’s struggle to develop human-powered communications technologies for areas with no reliable electricity supply. Their hourly ‘rate’ for this project was 80% less than the rate for the bank, but there were no dropouts — and several of the participants immediately went to work for the fledgling entrepreneur, convinced it would be a winner.

K is one of the first to complete AHA!’s Natural Enterprise program. She was surprised to learn that this program has no instructors — the course materials are all on-line pre-readings, and instead of ‘lectures’, students participate in facilitated tours and Q&A sessions at the premises (in person or by videoconference) of entrepreneurs (all of them AHA! ‘members’) who are exemplary in one of the twelve aspects of entrepreneurship. Students therefore get twelve different, first-hand perspectives of entrepreneurial greatness. The entrepreneurs jointly assess the ‘students’ business plans, and their collective assessment is the ‘mid-term’ grade for the course. There is no final grade — the program is designed to get each student’s business successfully up in running by the time of its completion. For K, that is more valuable than any grade. And in the process, K discovered she needed some additional skills in story-telling, also available as part of AHA!’s curriculum*. Like the Natural Enterprise program, Story-Telling & Narrative has no classrooms, no lectures and no examination: Students study the basics of great narrative online at their own pace, listen to the world’s best story-tellers relate and dissect their stories, and watch and practice telling stories to others, ‘scoring’ each other on a reciprocal basis. Her business was launched thanks in part to an outright grant from J’s bank, in return for which J is participating in the bank’s Rediscovering the Small Customer session.

Another participant in the bank’s session is M, a Harvard economics professor and former World Bank executive who has dropped out to try to grapple with the vicious cycle of poverty, disease, poor sanitation, large families, lack of education and environmental destruction in many African countries. In return, J is participating in the Discovery Sessions for the AHA! Cycle of Poverty project, donating many hours free of charge, and twisting the arms of others to donate time to the project as well. Cycle of Poverty, like Natural Enterprise, does not use any of AHA!’s impressive session facilities, using instead many ‘virtual’ locations around the world, and using virtual reality technology to ‘project’ all of the participants into Tekel, a small village in Cameroun, where they will be ‘virtually’ welcomed and hosted by a Camerounian family, given a virtual ‘tour’ of the village and invited to spend one entire virtual day in Tekel at their nearest IMAX theatre. IMAX is a delighted AHA! customer and filmed the ‘day in the life’ in the village in IMAX-3D and agreed to immerse Cycle of Poverty participants in it free of charge.

The immersion works: The context that the participants get from their deep understanding of why life is the way it is in Tekel inspires a flurry of extraordinary ideas on programs and inexpensive leap-frog technologies that offer the promise of breaking the cycle. J proposes that communication around the project be centered around the entrepreneurial human-powered communication tools (notably cell phones and portable DVD players) that were just developed in the AHA! session described above. Tekel serves as the real-world laboratory for testing the ideas, and participants can watch live over the Internet as programs and technologies are launched. The video record serves as a model that can be used to replicate successes across the continent.

Everything learned at AHA!, except for proprietary sessions like J’s bank’s for which premium prices were paid, is archived and made available online. In addition, AHA! research staffers continuously scan and synthesize knowledge about global needs, trends and opportunities, and make this knowledge available free online, where it can be tapped not only on other AHA! projects but by anyone, subject to Creative Commons licenses, so that it contributes to making the products of knowledge free to everyone. And the ‘members’ also take what they have learned and discovered and use it to power other new ventures and projects, to broaden and deepen relationships, and to accelerate the flow of knowledge, innovation and ingenuity around the globe.

*The AHA! Learning Session Curriculum:
Environmental Scanning
The Accelerated Discovery and Accelerated Learning Processes
Insight Portfolios and Idea Markets
Cultural Anthropology
Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry
The Four Practices
Creative Thinking, Imagining and Visioning
Critical Thinking, Systems Thinking and the Thinking Hats
Effective Collaboration
Attention Skills: Listening, Observation
Entrepreneurship / Natural Enterprise Skills
Tapping the Wisdom of Crowds
Building Communities & Networks
Story-Telling & Narrative
Self-Organizing in a Complex, Chaotic World
Effective Research and Analysis
Project Facilitation and Improvisation
Getting Things Done: Personal Productivity Improvement
Understanding Gaia: Natural Design and Learning from Nature
Rapid Prototyping

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One Response to More on AHA! The Discovery & Learning Centre

  1. dave davison says:

    By George!! I think you’ve got it!! especially the part about the creative commons archive — this stuff is getting exciting. Now, following the request of Graham Douglas, I think it is time for the “herding of the catalysts” and as previously offered, I will be glad to help you in your role as head herder.

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