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The Traits of an Agile Nation

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Dr Rashina Hoda, senior lecturer in software engineering in the Electrical, Computer and Software Engineering department at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, gave a TEDx talk titled Agile Nation: New Zealand's response to terrorism in which she reflected on the country's response to the terror attacks of 15 March 2019 and how that response portrayed the traits of agility at the national level, and how this could be an example for the rest of the world in adopting humanistic policies and becoming agile societies in order to tackle global challenges.

She started by explaining the background to agile development as an approach that provides guidelines for coming to a better solution faster. She related the 20+ year history of agile development in software and how the ideas are expanding beyond software development into broader business areas.

She then recalled the mosque shooting that occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019 in which 51 people were killed. She said that the government and society response was an example of the values of agility at a truly national scale. She explained her own perspective as a Kiwi, Indian, Muslim woman and how she felt in the aftermath of the event and how the response from people arround her and in society at large was overwhelmingly supportive and caring.

She reflected on the VUCA nature of the world and how businesses have applied agile thinking to responding to the VUCA nature of the business ecosystem, arguing that this was the first time that New Zealand society had truly experienced the true impact of many global trends.

She described the elements of VUCA as:

  • Volatile messages and violent weapons
  • Uncertain and unethical technologies
  • Complex and fake news
  • Ambiguous laws and protocols

Her own research into teams and organisations adopting agile approaches has shown that in order to gain the benefits of the approach and to thrive in the VUCA business world, businesses need to bring agile attitudes and thinking from the top-down and from the bottom-up simultaneously. She then reflected on what that means for a society as a whole and explained how the New Zealand government and people exhibited agility in the responses to the events of March 15.

She presented her view of the manifesto for agile development restated for an agile society.

The four values for an agile society:

  • People & interactions over protocols and rules
  • Community collaboration over closed decision making
  • Policies and actions over speeches and promises
  • Responding to change over following the status quo

She gave moving examples of how at the individual, community and government level, New Zealanders exhibited these values in action.

She explained how New Zealand society and government exemplified the characteristics of agile organisations (self organising and cross functional with empowering leaders) and agile leadership (human-centric and inclusive) in response to the attacks - an exemplar agile nation in the face of one of our darkest days. 

She ended with a call for action - for everyone in the world to apply agile values at the personal and systemic level in order to become agile nations and societies.

When tribes and leadership respond swiftly and with conviction we can see change. People around the world can self-organise around the biggest challenges facing our planet today:

  • Terrorism and hate-crimes against all communities
  • Climate change
  • Poverty
  • Inequality 

InfoQ spoke to Dr Hoda and asked her if there are any specific lessons that the software industry should take from the shooting and its aftermath: 

Using agile values to deliver better software faster is great. But the need of the hour is to embed core human values into the software we design and in how we can use it.  Agile to me is all about people. Software designed by and for people should ultimately benefit society and it should not be easy to misuse it to harm people. Much like the medical profession, the software engineering profession needs to have a strict code of ethics and a clear focus on human values across the full spectrum of its core activities. Educational institutions have a large role to play in this, as do multinational software firms.

The spread of hate speach and radicalism using software tools is one of the factors in the discussions around ethics in software engineering, as evidenced by some recent InfoQ articles:

  • The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct which talks about the obligation on computing professionals to contribute to human wellbeing and avoid harm. 
  • There is discussion about the need for the power granted to software professionals  to be grounded on an ethical code of conduct.  
  • Large players in the AI space are actively starting to tackle some of the real harm that has been done through fake news through initiatives such as the Deepfake Detection Challenge

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