A surprisingly simple way to tell if you’ve engaged your audience

What’s a remarkably simple and instant sign you can use to tell whether you -- as a founder, manager, teacher, parent or any type of speaker -- have completely engaged your audience after you have finished your business with them? That too, without asking for feedback.

As a startup founder and engineering manager, I had to hold meetings and give presentations on numerous occasions. Almost always, right after the end of a meeting or a presentation, I was curious as to whether I had been able to engage my audience. Whether I had been able to move them with the company’s mission, a policy, various projects, etc. I always wondered whether I had ignited a spark. But I couldn’t find the answer without asking for feedback or using other signs as a guide, e.g., number and quality of questions.

Similarly, as a parent, when I am telling my child a story or trying to persuade him with an idea or concept, sometimes I wonder in the end whether I’ve influenced or moved him with my spiel.

I recently came across a fascinating interview and delightfully captivating TED talk by the brilliant music conductor Benjamin Zander that speak to my quandary. Zander shares a surprisingly simple and terrific insight. He says if you have genuinely engaged your audience, then you will find a lot of “shining eyes” at the end. If you see shining eyes, it means you did it. You created value for them. You moved them and lit a spark, which they might then pass on to others.

I find that insight fascinating.

So next time you want to determine if you really created value for, and were able to engage, your audience, then look for a lot of shining eyes. If they are not there, then, as Zander puts it, ask yourself “who am I being when the eyes of my audience are not shining?”

Responding to a potential job offer in an interview

A few days back I saw a LinkedIn post written by an entrepreneur that had garnered more than three thousand “likes.”. The gist of the post was that a fresh graduate, in an interview, should never say “I will think about it” in answer to “Would you accept an offer if we give you one?” Because saying “I will think about it”, according to the entrepreneur, will get you rejected. He recalls an interview in which his boss at a top investment bank told him to reject a candidate for saying “Let me think through this.”

According to the author, you should always enthusiastically respond to such a potential offer. Here is what he recommends saying: “Tell them they are the one, it is your lifelong dream to work there.”

I fell from my chair reading this.

I respectfully but wholeheartedly disagree with this advice. Having conducted hundreds of interviews over more than a decade, I would never give such advice to a young graduate. Important decisions -- a new job can affect you emotionally, financially and socially -- require some time for the decision-maker to reflect upon different available choices. Taking reasonable time to exercise good judgment and think through alternatives is a sign of prudence. Prudence is a virtue that should always be admired.  


Would you not like to work with a colleague who usually takes some time to exercise good judgment, who does his research and compares alternatives to mitigate risk before making crucial decisions? Therefore, in my view, prudence should be admired, and a candidate should never be rejected for showing it.

Joining a company is a life-altering decision, and if someone is not taking time to think about it, then that is a red flag. If someone does not exercise good judgment while facing an important decision, do you not think this instead is what should worry you as a manager? Can you rely entirely on a colleague who makes important decisions in a rush?

Enthusiasm and exuberance alone do not take one very far when faced with critical issues. For example, if you are a salesman for a company facing a financial crunch, you cannot land large number of paying customers with the following sales pitch: “It is my lifelong dream that you start using our product.” It will take a lot more than that.

So yes, I want my colleague to be excited about the company, but I also want him to think through important things. I would never disqualify a candidate on the basis of his saying “I am excited about this, but let me think it through. Is it okay if I get back to you in a day or two?” I would respect the sentiment behind that statement.

If you are not hired for showing prudence, trust me, count your blessings, because you are better off somewhere where an act of prudence is tolerated.

(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

So you want to start a startup?

Startups are in vogue, at least in my town (Lahore).

At a recent social gathering I met a young college graduate. After the brief introduction, he asked for some advice about how to start his own company in light of my entrepreneurial experience. Although I commended him for being ambitious, the young guy’s belief that startups are easy surprised me. He was convinced that launching a startup couldn’t be harder than a normal job.

One thing I can say with a lot of certainty, after having run a company for approximately ten years, is that launching a startup is not easy. It was a lot tougher than anything else I had ever done professionally. For one, if you are running a company not only do you have to worry about putting food on your plate, but those of several others as well. So all I can tell you is that a startup consumes your life to an unimaginable extent.

Let me paint a scenario to show the wide range of work-related problems an entrepreneur may face at any given time. At one point I was engaged in finding a solution to a non-trivial engineering problem which had become a bottleneck for our most valued customer; at the same time, at the back of my mind, I had to think about depleting reserves in the bank, generating more leads, building a new website, moving to a new office, and assessing the underperformance of a senior employee.

You have to face and resolve a lot of uncertainty when you are running a small company. Not only do you have to resolve uncertainty about things you are good at, but you must also resolve things that fall outside your circle of competence. You have to learn a lot in order to take care of issues related to engineering, marketing, and human resources, because as the founder of a startup you cannot initially afford to have dedicated departments that can take care of these issues on their own. I have personally experienced that if you have an engineering background you will have your work cut out for you when it comes to marketing and managing human resources.

By all this, I do not mean that to be a founder you have to be half superman and half ironman. Rather, my point is just that you have to deal with many different headaches in starting up a company, and you are expected to make good-quality decisions fast.

So I tried to clear up his misconception that startups are easy to begin. One has to devote a lot of thinking, focus and energies in order to form a sustainable company. To emphasize this, I shared with the young fellow an interesting story I heard eons ago.

A man once travelled a great distance to seek advice from Socrates. The man met him and asked how he could become most knowledgeable.

Socrates took him on a walk along the beach. Once they both drew closer to the water, Socrates quickly grabbed him by his neck and plunged his head under the water. After a brief while the man felt breathless and started using all of his force to get out of the uncomfortable situation. Realising that the man badly needed to breathe, Socrates released his grip. The man quickly lifted his head up to gasp as much air as he could.

Just when he had taken a couple of breaths, Socrates forcefully pushed his head under the water again. The man was completely appalled at the philosopher's behaviour, as he never thought his innocuous question would receive such a painful response. In his mind, he was scolding himself for travelling all that distance, while his struggles continued.

Again, when the man had almost choked, Socrates released his grip. The man quickly lifted his head and inhaled the badly needed air. His suffering was not over yet. After a couple of breaths Socrates forced his head under the water yet again. Although he was applying all his force to rid himself of the master’s grip, his body started suffocating due to shortness of breath. The man was the epitome of misery. Eventually, Socrates released him a final time and helped him revive.

Once the man had regained complete consciousness, Socrates responded to his original question by saying: “You will get what you want if you need it as badly as you needed air to breathe when I held your head underwater.” The man had learned his lesson and walked into the sunset.

For me, this story is powerful. When the man’s head was underwater his only desire was to get air. At that moment, nothing else was more critical. His brain was occupied predominantly with only one thought, i.e., how do I get some air? Since it is our thoughts that drive our actions, the story is a forceful reminder of how important the complete engagement of the mind is in working toward a single purpose.

Engaging one’s mind in pursuing a myriad of unrelated thoughts can lead one astray. The idea that varied thoughts can result in success is a contradictio in adjecto. An abundance of wide-ranging thoughts can result in unrelated actions and the eventual outcome could be distorted like a music composition performed by an uncoordinated choir. Even in my startup, we chased too many things at one point and ended up getting none of them.

Since varied thoughts distract, entrepreneurs should try to do their startups full-time and focus on doing a few things really well. The young guy I met insisted that he would want to start his company while in graduate school, whereas I was of the view that this would lead him nowhere. Although a few people have bootstrapped their startups part-time, for most it is folly to think that significant progress can be made by doing a startup part-time. If you or your partner plan on working part-time, then the odds of success are against you. Most successful examples involve those who did it full-time.

Therefore, if you want to create a startup, more power to you, but please remember the road is full of obstacles that one can only overcome through complete mental engagement, focus and sheer hard work. Without these things you may still end up with a company but it will be akin to a meteor, shining for a brief moment and invisible to most.

(Photo by Emilio Garcia on Unsplash)

2019 New Year’s Resolutions

(Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash)

A new year brings new hopes. New hopes sprout into new resolutions. Here are some of mine.

Foremost of my New Year’s Resolutions is to publish more on my blog and LinkedIn. The idea is to share thoughts, meet new people and most importantly learn from others. I am hoping that this public commitment will force me to write and publish more.

I also plan on learning a new programming language and operating system. As for the programming language, I am leaning towards exploring Rust. I would also like to revisit the programming language Scheme, which I learned a few years back and used for fun, small projects. As for the operating system, I have been meaning to try Arch Linux.

Moreover, since I love reading and I plan on reading some quality books. Not those that topped the 2018 or 2017 charts. But those that have stood the test of time. Those that Nassim Taleb identifies in his discussion of the Lindy Effect. For example, more of Rumi, John Locke, Peter Drucker, Adam Smith, and the like. I also plan on reading more fiction since I find it sufficiently lacking in my repertoire. Maybe more Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf or Gabriel García Márquez this year.

I have played squash this past year year; I think I will go for something less strenuous in 2019. Possibly more walking in nature.

Lastly, last year my entrepreneurial venture breathed its last after having seen some modest success for 8 years. The best and indeed priceless thing about this failure is the lessons and experiences that I have accumulated. In this new year I plan on at least thinking of something new on the entrepreneurial front as well.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions?

I wish you and your family a great year ahead! I hope it brings you success, health, and joy.

Turning Thoughts Off and Nature On

Sometimes, to wind down, I go to a park nearby for a walk. Last month, I observed an interesting phenomenon.

While walking, I kept worrying about a problem related to work. It had been occupying my mind ever since I left my desk. At a certain point, I stopped thinking about it. I realized as soon as I stopped thinking, I could now proactively engage my senses with my beautiful surroundings. I could hear birds chirping, kids playing and running in circles, people breathing, talking and laughing. I could enjoy the fragrance of flowers, and petrichor. I could see nature and people around me. I could also derive pleasure from touching trees and beautiful flowers.

Then at a certain point, another problem entered my brain. Again, when I stopped thinking about it, I noticed beautiful nature; hope, energy, and excitement in the park. It was like a game. Turn on the worrying thoughts, everything around you is foreign. Turn those thoughts off, nature, hope, energy and excitement await.

With uneasy thoughts running, the experience of engaging and enjoying nature in a park is incomplete, since you cannot engage all of your senses (as senses become subservient to thoughts in the mind). To create a valuable experience and get greater inspiration from nature, all senses should be engaged. Doing this creates the whole experience  -- for one, we cannot enjoy a great meal with eyes closed and nose blocked. Moreover, if the experience of engaging all senses wasn’t important, watching a video of a park on a computer would be equally satisfying and inspiring. To engage all senses, to let nature inspire us, we should occasionally turn off our thoughts.

It is true that completely turning off those thoughts in a natural setting would not help.  Sometimes lovely scenery can help improve our thought processes and give us a unique perspective on a problem we’re facing. But it is also important to let those thoughts rest for a while in order to appreciate nature or just rest our minds.

How do I turn these thoughts off? Well, it is hard for me to point out a general solution, since this is more of a casual observation, but the following is what I have been trying so far. First, I try to make a conscious effort to live in the present moment. The present is all I have and I try to embrace it while in nature instead of dwelling on the past or future, since I cannot control either.

Also, one has to have a belief that the outcome of valuing the present moment is most rewarding. Another thing that appears to be working for me is to allocate a certain area within a park to do this. So while in this area, my goal is to focus only on nature. Beyond that area, I can think of other things, but within it I try to resist thinking about other stuff.

This has been helping so far. It is peaceful, and refreshing, to just absorb and enjoy everything around me with my thoughts off, something I cherish even after I get back to my desk. I carry that same hope and excitement, as they can be contagious. So while out in nature, the lesson for me is to deliberately turn off agonizing thoughts. I will carry on the experiment and may update it in a future post.


Our statesmen in Pakistan

I am not an expert on public policy or governance. Nor am I the epitome of virtue. However, the recent scuffle between two parliamentarians (and similar instances in the recent past) have made me think.  As someone who has his, and his descendants’, futures married to that of this country, this was painful. This use of force shows how our leaders deal with dissent. It really baffles me how those who cannot govern their tempers in the highest public political forum, knowing that events in this forum are captured permanently by the mass media, can expect to be able to govern cities, ministries, provinces or our country (which is already at a crossroads). Such behavior evoked certain thoughts.

Ask yourself, would you want people who use their arms and tongues freely in an arbitrary direction, to be a guardian of our children and be responsible for their upbringing? I don’t think any parent would want people exhibiting such behavior to guide their children, given the kind of negative influence they may have on them.

Let’s assume you own a business or manage a certain department. Would you give such people responsibility to run your business or your department? Running the affairs of a business involves situations in which your temper is tested almost on a daily basis. Would such behavior make a business profitable? Would it not affect the performance and morale of employees? How would this behavior impact a business when it’s already in trouble?

Moreover, would you like to learn an art or a sensitive craft from someone with a similar temper? Would you like to get yourself treated by a doctor, for a life threatening disease, who is trained by someone with such a temper? Similarly, would you like to be treated by a doctor with such a temper? I think the answer is “no”.

Ask yourself, would you really want someone with such a temper to be a mediator in a large and important dispute? Do you think he would be able to judiciously solve matters related to life, death and general social welfare? Would you confidently think that such a mediator would be able to impart justice to society at large?

Furthermore, can such a person truly offer his services to provide reasoned resistance against tyranny? Isn’t it doubtful that people would actually oblige his calls at the hour of need for an honest and just cause? The need for leaders who can act and unite us against tyranny has never been greater.

I believe, therefore, that if a person of such temperament cannot be very confidently assigned such jobs, we cannot confidently assign him the sensitive and arduous job of running a state, which involves dealing with all such affairs.

It is doubtful that  such people can craft policies and make regulations needed to turn around a troubled country. Dissent and discourse are inevitable in matters of monumental scale. Incisive insights are usually a result of discourse and dissent conducted with civility. When tongues, arms and legs move freely and forcefully to take each other down, it makes one wonder if our policies and regulations are well thought out.

Is it because of inherent patronage and clientelism that people with good morals and virtue don’t because part of the political machine? Political entrepreneurs take advantage of misplaced incentives; they who know how to exploit this political machine, by doling out favors and economic resources in exchange for votes, are given priority by those in power. The fact that political parties’ leadership doesn’t strongly condemn this behavior of their colleagues reinforces the importance of such political entrepreneurs.

This political machine is also an indication of how our politicians have been successful in making policies that have kept the majority poor and uneducated. According to American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, having a poor and uneducated majority enables patronage and clientelism. The most acute problem with patronage and clientelism is that both politicians and citizens sacrifice their long-term well-being for short-term gains. That is likely the reason that the majority of our population still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, fair justice, quality health care and proper education.

This opinion was published in The News on 21st of March, 2017.

Is National Action Plan (NAP) a plan?

ANDREW Grove, one of the founders of Intel, is considered the pioneer of the semiconductor industry and of modern management practices. In one of his books, High Output Management, he talks about “management by objectives” (MBO), a method of creating meaningful plans that disciplines thinking, focuses efforts and gives direction to those involved in their implementation.

This method had earlier been popularised by the founder of modern management, Peter Drucker, but Grove brought it to an even wider audience. Reportedly, Google, DuPont and Intel all use this method. MBO can be used to create and analyse the effectiveness of a plan, whether by a company, sports team, individual or country.

Our government came up with the National Action Plan (NAP) some time ago. It tries to address the important issues this country faces. The purpose of this article is not to analyse the plan from a political or public-policy standpoint but, rather, to evaluate it in the light of MBO.

Any meaningful plan needs to list not only its objectives, but also the milestones (or key results) that must be pursued along the way in order to achieve those objectives. According to Grove, MBO helps answer two questions: first, where does one want to go, ie the objective and; second, how to measure whether one is getting closer to one’s destination, ie milestones or key results. NAP, however, refers only to objectives and has no mention of key results that will help measure progress. For example, the objectives listed in NAP include revamping and reforming the criminal justice system but it does not state which milestones or key results need to be achieved in order to be able to do this.

The aforementioned objective also gives no indication of the duration in which this task is to be completed. Plans need to be time-bound. Grove gives a good example: “I want to go to the airport to catch a plane in an hour. This is my objective. I know that I must drive through towns A, B and C on my way there. My key results become reaching A, B and C in 10, 20 and 30 minutes respectively. If I have been driving for 20 minutes and haven’t yet made town A, I know I am lost.” Key results need to be time-limited so that they can be effectively tracked.

Neither does NAP give direction to those in the government’s machinery responsible for the execution of its objectives. It is important that objectives are further broken down across the government’s chain of command, down to the individual level, so that the relevant people in the national and provincial echelons know what their responsibilities are.

If objectives are clearly defined at all levels we then clearly see, as Grove notes, a “nesting hierarchy of objectives, so [that] if a subordinate’s objectives are met the supervisor’s will be as well”. Without this nesting hierarchy, everyone is unsure of their roles in the grand scheme of things and this may result in inaction and a lack of meaningful progress towards their goals. Even a partial implementation of the nesting hierarchy, in which most of the available resources are ineffectively and incompletely utilised, will fail to yield fruitful results.

NAP also contains no measures of success. Key results need to be measurable so that there is no ambiguity upon completion. If the objective of a waste management authority is to reduce waste in Karachi, for example, then one of its key results could be to increase the waste collection coverage by 10pc in south Karachi by May 2017. Similarly, merely stating the intention of revamping the criminal justice system is not enough — we ought to know what we are aiming for and how much of an improvement we expect.

Any plan or objective must have a mechanism for review, how frequ­ently one is conducted and by whom. There also must be in place a process whereby objec­tives and key results are periodically refined. While some degree of failure is reasonable, it is important to make correc­tions to a plan upon subsequent evaluations.

A plan is susceptible to vagueness and failure without specific objectives, key results, time limits, clear direction, measures of success and concrete criteria for monitoring. Good plans require a lot of thinking, something that, unfortunately, cannot be outsourced. Good plans also foster good communication, which in turn can expedite implementation and give a sense of purpose.

Of course, thorough planning is a daunting task, and it’s understandable that making progress on large national plans takes time, consensus and much coordination. With determination and seriousness of purpose, however, this can be achieved. The need has never been greater to make progress towards big and audacious national goals such as better education, expanded healthcare and increased national security.

This opinion was published in the Dawn on November 9th, 2016. 

Delusional Development in Pakistan

Delays in the completion of mega-projects have become the norm in our country. Hydropower projects and construction of highways, sewage treatment plants and airports, for example, are being delayed, and delays cost money. Islamabad airport has seen a cost overrun of Rs 19.39 billion; the cost of the sewage treatment plant in Karachi jumped nearly five times. Delays and cost overruns in development projects are a concern for a debt-ridden developing country such as ours, because they lead to inefficient allocation of resources and the waste of scarce capital.

According to research conducted by Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, cognitive biases, poor planning, political pressure, strategic misrepresentation and the lack of outside expertise best explain delays and cost overruns. These factors lead also to the building of inferior projects. The dream of pro-people development is shattered while our impoverished country has to bear these burdens.

Various studies have suggested that decision-makers (e.g. politicians) fall prey to cognitive biases, and have a tendency to exaggerate their talents. Overconfidence affects us all. In a 1981 study, Ola Svenson found that 93% of American drivers rated themselves as better than the average driver. According to Flyvbjerg, politicians are not immune to this over-optimism bias, or to the illusion of having control. They believe that things that go well are their own achievements, while things that don’t go well are others’ failures. They think they are in control and ignore the rare and worst-case scenarios. When project promoters become excited about a project, they focus solely on success scenarios and rarely talk about the associated risks. Sadly, we don’t have policies in place that take such biases into account. The Treasury of the UK instituted policies to ensure that funding is available only for projects that factor in cognitive biases. We need to take similar measures.

Poor planning and inaccurate cost-benefit forecasts also cause delays and cost overruns. Properly-planned projects depend on rational and thorough cost-benefit analyses (CBA), and the foundation of a good CBA is conservative and thoroughly-vetted forecasts. A CBA can easily be tainted due to improperly analyzed-forecasts, making unfit projects look good on paper. Incorrect forecasts project unrealistic revenue and erroneous payback estimates, as assumptions are never questioned. Sadly, the issue of incorrect forecasts isn’t currently part of the discussion in our planning and development process. We should discourage and even penalize incorrect forecasts, as their repercussions are so damaging for our developing country. Further, forecasts should be subject to public scrutiny, peer reviews, and citizen juries.

Political pressure to develop and finish projects within the political term and strategic misrepresentation further cause delays and cost overruns. Planners, who create forecasts, work for powerful politicians and bureaucrats, a group among which the cost of raising dissent is high. Planners actually find incentives for positively accentuating their forecasts, since, due to political pressure (as well as a lack of independent analysis and the ex post facto evaluation of projects), exaggerated forecasts are never questioned. This creates a culture in which tainted forecasts are considered fine. Eventually, we end up with piles of projects with incorrect estimates.

Additionally, Flyvbjerg notes the phenomenon of strategic misrepresentation, which best explains cost overruns. He cites studies in which planners admitted that they had to “cook” their estimates to make projects look good on paper so that they could secure funding. Due to political pressure, as well as to scarce funding, competition is stiff, so project promoters pressure forecasters to underestimate costs and overestimate benefits. More transparency in the planning process can help ease political pressure and prevent strategic misrepresentation.

The problems of cost overruns and delays are also aggravated by the lack of outside view. Getting objective outside feedback, keeping experiences and expectations in check and learning from the outcomes of similar projects in past are part of an approach termed outside view. For an outside view, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has recommended a method called “reference class forecasting”. It is used by governments in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and elsewhere, and has been proven to curb cognitive biases and help reduce delays and cost overruns. As Kahneman notes, an outside view becomes even more important when a project has never been attempted before (like an urban rail project), because that’s when cognitive biases are greatest.  

I went through both the Manual for Development Projects and the Handbook of Planning Commission (both are published by the Planning Commission) and didn’t find any mention of “reference class forecasting”, or any method that deals with cognitive biases or the other problems in our planning and development process. This needs to change and it cannot happen without strong political determination and backing as rightly pointed out by Dr. Khalid Ikram in a podcast with Dr. Nadeem Haque (both are Planning Commission veterans and noted economists). We need to modernize our planning process to protect future public funding and to thwart the paradigm of delusional pro-people development.

This opinion was published in the The News on 31st October, 2016.

The rise of post-truth

The internet bridges distances and has the potential to significantly improve our lives in many ways. Recently, however, the prevalence of a dangerous phenomenon called ‘post-truth’ – in which appeals to emotion shape public opinion more than objective facts – and the rise of ‘fake news’, particularly on social media, have raised various concerns. It is intriguing to see what might be causing them. 

The first possible cause is the absence of editorial scrutiny by social networks. Lots of people use these networks as their primary news source and the absence of editorial oversight is a major issue that fuels fake news. This is not an easy problem to solve. For one, how many editors would be required to help fix a product used by billions? What if the fake story has already reached thousands of users (including well-connected ones) before editorial scrutiny begins? How would editors undo the damage done? Regardless of these issues, editorial scrutiny and oversight are sorely needed. 

Another issue enabling post-truth is the low barriers to entry for starting a news business on social media. All you need is content on Facebook and a website with advertisements to generate revenue. For example, during the recent US election season, some people running politically-themed Facebook pages were basically just marketeers operating from their basements with low capital investment and without any formal training in ethical journalism. These marketeers post clever ‘linkbait’ headlines to entice users to click on them. The absence of ethical standards and motivation for profit make it possible to manufacture controversy. 

The aggressive collection of data and its manipulation in a cost-effective and precise manner by users and marketers on social networks further contribute to the rise of post-truth. Powerful computational algorithms make it possible to infer and predict a wide range of information about individuals using this collected data. Research studies conducted in 2013 by an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at  Stanford Graduate School of Business, Michal Kosinski, revealed that just by using Facebook “likes”, it is possible to accurately predict personal attributes such as “ethnicity, religious views, political views, personality and mood, age and even gender”. Once these predictions are in place, it is easy to target the profiled users with tailored, potentially fake, news. 

It’s also interesting to note that polarisation can make people voice extreme opinions online while totally ignoring facts. Cass Sunstein of Harvard University has shown that there is a great likelihood of acute polarisation on the internet due to the high degree of anonymity. We see this on social networks everyday – intensely polarised groups read and share news stories that appeal to emotion as opposed to relying on logic and fact-checking. This polarisation is further aggravated by algorithmic biases. For example, Facebook’s news feed algorithm shows us only what we want to see, exposing us to a narrow spectrum of opinion (tailored to our liking), exacerbating polarisation. 

The effects of social influence and information cascades further propel post-truth. Social influence theory suggests we do what we do by imitating what others do. For example, research suggests that to increase tax compliance, people should be informed about the high levels of voluntary tax compliance by others. Information cascades occur when we rely on information spread by others while ignoring our own personal knowledge. People often re-share a news story without fact-checking – to the exclusion of their own personal feelings and knowledge about the news item – when they see more (credible) people among them sharing it. 

So what do we do? One, social networks, like Facebook, should not deviate from their original mission – which is to connect people, not promote false information (and even hatred) among them. 

Social networks should also slightly raise the barrier to entry for upcoming businesses by adding more checks and balances. 

Furthermore, these networks must tweak their opaque algorithms so that they don’t just keep feeding one type of news to readers. Sunstein suggests that exposure to opposing views is important for groups to depolarise. 

Social networks need at least some human editors to check for the validity of both page content and its sources. In Pakistan, we see lots of Facebook pages with the names “Hate [insert politician name here]”. Compared to other communication media, the most ad-hominem attacks per paragraph appear on these pages. They don’t serve any useful purpose and need to be taken down. 

We should understand how much information we, as users, are feeding social networks and how much power this gives them to predict our personality traits, future views and actions. 

Lastly, we should realise that the internet is a medium where polarisation, social influence and information cascades are at play. We should always fact-check news (since others might rely on us) and try to expose ourselves to a wide range of opposing views, knowing that some social media companies are suppressing that exposure.

This opinion was published in The News on January 09, 2017.

Fairy tale of a city, changing cities in Pakistan

Imagination is a powerful tool. Imagine you live in a metropolitan city plagued by violence, corruption and all the malice imaginable. Now imagine for a moment, that the local government has called on the community to band together and create a consensus on how to fix the city and transform it into a modern and an innovative metropolis. See yourself sitting in a room, surrounded by local politicians, everyone discussing future government projects to cater to the neighbourhood’s needs. Feel that sense of ownership when both parties walk out of that room having signed agreements detailing the roles and responsibilities of both parties.

What if the chief minister, in ensuring full disclosure and transparency, broadcasts the agreements and meetings to the entire city? Imagine the public participating in the budgeting process where the local communities decide the allocation of the portion of the city budget. Also imagine that the government opens up library parks, libraries with ample green space around them for public use, in the city’s slums that offers education to low-income individuals. Envision the underprivileged youth’s exposure to book clubs, theatre groups and other healthy activities. Visualise the government emphasising public education, building schools and libraries in poor cities.

What if the city dedicates space for local and foreign companies to set up their offices? Envision an international cooperation agency that creates international ties to increase the flow of capital, products, services and knowledge. Imagine the city provides funding, space and mentorship to small and medium companies to help create businesses, proposals, financial plans and marketing strategies. Envision a large state-owned company being run by the municipal government that contributes 30 per cent of its revenue to the city. The company funds huge projects such as botanical gardens, planetarium, children’s interactive museums, libraries, large urban parks and even a 16,000 hectare park right outside the city. Not only that, but the company even funds 3,000 students annually and also has a fund to spur innovation and new businesses.

Now, this may sound like a fairy tale but it is the true story of Medellin, Columbia. The city was heralded as the “Innovative city of the year” by both Citibank and The Wall Street Journal. The local government changed Medellin from a drug capital into a modern and innovative city. The lessons learned from this city’s success story can be applied to any city in Pakistan, given that we have the determination and resolve to see the changes through. Some important goals guided and prioritised Medellin’s development projects. Those were as follows: a) indicators of human development and quality of life will guide public investment, focusing on first serving the ones in most need; b) public space and infrastructure must become the framework where education and culture are cultivated in places of encounter and coexistence; c) urban projects must simultaneously integrate physical, cultural and social components, improving not only places but also the life and interactions of people in the communities; d) the integrated metropolitan transport system must be used as the organising axis of mobility and projects in the city. All projects must be directly linked to the main transport system; e) the decision to make Medellín an educated city, with education and culture as priorities that guide programmes and projects.

All these were not mere words eloquently crafted by an expensive speech-writer to win an election, but goals that are meaningful. Their usefulness was proven by the mayor of Medellin, and our policymakers can make use of these ideas. Meaningful infrastructure development is good, but haphazard infrastructure development is not. It is said that if we plan cities for cars, traffic and noise, we will get more cars, traffic and noise. However, if cities are planned for healthy people and places, we will get more healthy people and places. Moreover, local governments rarely take local opinion or input before making decisions, which weakens the sense of ownership and pride that locals may feel about the decisions made by those in charge.

There is this powerful idea of the ‘Power of 10’ — the number can vary. But the idea is, basically, that if we can do 10 things to attract people to one place (such as a place to sit and play, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience and people to meet), then we may have designed a good place. We can then further it by creating 10 such places. We can then create 10 such places in 10 other neighbourhoods. This will snowball into a massive project that will drastically improve the life of every citizen.

As a nation, and as individuals, we need to take a step back and evaluate our current developments. Are they truly what we need to improve the lives of everyone involved? Or does the answer to that question lie in the fairy tale of Medellin?   

This opinion was published in the Express Tribune on May 01, 2016.