-- / --
This is a provisional working checklist of possible courses of action in response to the challenges of the future. It refers primarily to other documents on this site where the arguments are elaborated. The concern here, with respect to the future, might perhaps best be framed by two well-known quotes:
Albert Einstein: To repeat the same thing over and over again, and yet to expect a different result, this is a form of insanity.
George Santayana: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it
The preoccupation here is not with mega-projects and initiatives, many of which are on the table, but with the possibility of enabling other modes of framing the challenges and the possibilities for actions with multiplier effects. The strategic emphasis is on low cost experiments with a self-reflexive, self-critical bias -- learning from what has not worked and benefitting from modes of thinking that may have been ignored.
The challenges of humanity call for skills and attitudes more closely analogous to those of the extremes of mountaineering exploits -- perhaps to be compared with climbing the North Face of the Eiger (Eigerwand). These contrast with any conventional assumptions of normality and business as usual. The latter tend to imply, as a caricature, that all is required is to be suitably outfitted, comfortably seated and appropriately animated -- at a safe distance from those risks, but with an enhanced view of them in the expectation of some fatal happening (armed with a cocktail of stimulants should such not eventuate) (Norms in the Global Struggle against Extremism, 2005). Within such a metaphor, the question is what are the "holds" required to navigate the hazards inhibiting identification of viable strategic responses? The brief sections of this document are intended as indications of such "holds".
The range of papers cited here is clustered to emphasize the futures perspective of the title. A more general clustering of Research Themes and Papers is also provided on this site. A previous exercise for the Global Governance Group (Governing Civilization through Civilizing Governance: global challenge for a turbulent future, 2008) also cited a range of these papers, clustered in terms of the strategic responses from a governance perspective under the following headings:
|Preamble: meta-themes ("about" responding to the challenge)|
|Contemporary "myths" governing the relationships of governance and civil society?||Integrative schematic: Resolutique and Problematique -- with Imaginatique and Irresolutique|
|Civilizing governance vs Governance of civilization?||Circular configuration of Thinking/Doing categories|
|Potential response conventionally presented : "Thinking" and "Doing"||Elaborating a richer "global identique"|
|Challenge of governance: metaphorical impoverishment?||Interdependence of governance / civil society initiatives|
|Cognitive challenges of governance||Detailed articulation of tabular presentation of Thinking/Doing|
|A necessarily questionable "open source" articulation?|
The futures perspective, which frames the following clustering (and the writer's background), had also been articulated in a more narrative form in the following:
The intention here is not to suggest that what follows should be read sequentially, but rather to use the headings as indicative of some topics that might be of greater interest. The above-mentioned clustering from a governance perspective makes use of a range of tables and diagrams to highlight interrelationships between the issues and strategic possibilities.
The widespread concern that there is a need to focus on solutions rather than problems (or the concrete rather than the abstract) can be usefully seen as a fundamental metaphor for the challenge to be addressed. The case for a solution focus, notably with the call to "be positive" (and a focus on a single challenge currently framed as the "most important facing humanity") can also be understood:
The argument articulating this mindset, and the means of transcending, was ori9ginally provided in the methodological commentaries of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential which interrelated problems and strategic initiatives. More recent arguments are given in:
The primary mode of negotiation and strategic development over past decades has been determined by the need for agreement, reconciliation and conflict resolution -- namely the elimination or minimization of disagreement in a commitment to harmonization and normalization. This has not prevented the continuing emergence of disagreement and its disruptive consequences for intiatives dependent for their stability and viability on its absence.
Given the possibility that universal agreement on any issue may not be forthcoming (or desirable), and that any degree of compromise may not be adequate to the challenge, there is a strong case for investigating the possible integrity of structures based on some form of "disagreement". Given that the importance of "harmony" is stressed in pursuing any strategy, it is appropriate to note that no effort is ever invested in learning from the discipline that has traditionally provided the most insight into harmony and has notably explored many ways to creatively reconcile "concord" and "discord".
There have been a multitude of creative projects over decades, from global to local, which do not appear to have been responding sufficiently, or sufficiently rapidly, to the complex of existing and emergent problems. Whilst a rocket may appear to be well-designed, may indeed climb gracefully into the sky in an arc as planned, but unless it reaches escape velocity it can only fall and cause damage (as with military rockets). There is therefore a case for exploring whether the "project logic", by which they are characterized as professional, effectively inhibits recognition of opportunities that have not been adequately explored. The specific question is whether there are other modes of knowing and organization which may be more appropriate to the challenges or to those who are called upon to respond to them.
Arguments and possibilities in this respect are articulated in:
The elaboration of strategies consistent with sets of values considered fundamental is curiously dependent on the use of particular structural metaphors, notably "pillars" (as with the EU), "poles" (as in bipolar or multiipolar), and "stakes" (as in "stakeholders") Emphasis is then placed on "sides", as in "opposing sides". Given the rich panoply of architectursal and structural possibilities, there is a case for exploring new ways of configuring structural elments, notably to ensure more robust structures of greater integrity -- better able to incorporate different strategic orientations.
Arguments and possibilities are articulated in:
There are many exciting academic explorations of complexity and chaos which are in principle of significance to engaging effectively with the complexity of an increasingly chaotic society. Seemingly very little of this insight has been rendered relevant to these challenges -- with the ironic exception of the Gaussian copula (Recipe for Disaster: the formula that killed Wall Street, Wired, 23 February 2009). Especially. relevant is the challenge of recognizing the dynamics of game-playing processes which destabilize so many conventionally organized strategic initiatives that assume, or ignore, the absence of such complexity..
There is widespread recognition of the increasing complexity of the challenges. Curiously the strategic challenge of navigating the emerging environment is almost universally defined in terms of visual metaphors ("vision", "foresight", "prevision", "envisage", "focus", etc). No consideration is given to the constraints this may impose and the potential relevance of non-visual metaphors (sound, smell, taste, feel, etc). This is potentially vital in a world where other modes are acquiring considerable importance, or may be vital to constituencies it is hoped to engage. Of particular interest is the possibility that such considerations may offer more integrative approaches to an otherwise fragmented social strategic context:
These possibilities are explored in:
It is extraordinary, in a world of that extols the merits of innovation, that collective declarations of intent have attracted no thought as to whether their structure is appropriate to engagement with the complexity and dynamics of the challenges. Some as with the Lisbon Reform Treaty are of several hundred pages in length and are inherently unmemorable. They are an incitement to boredom and apathy -- as the level of interest in them indicates. It is readily forgotten the kinds of biases built into preferences for information presentation by different cultures, with the dominant western cultures focused primarily on texts compatible with the legal backgrounds of their leadership, as recently noted (Selection bias in politics: there was a lawyer, an engineer and a politician... The Economist, 16 April 2009). A striking contrast is offered by the election of Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa -- notably, according to many, because he dances. An unusual western contrast is offered by the German Research Institute for Applied Knowledge Processing (FAW), under the direction of Franz Josef Radermacher, who reinforced an articulation of the challenge of responding to complex social problems by the use of a set of 12 songs in The Globalization Saga: Balance or Destruction, 2004 -- as the CD accompaniment to a book (Balance or Destruction: ecosocial market economy as the key to global sustainable development, 2004).
The question that merits exploration is the organization of key strategic insights to enhance their memorability, coherence, vital systemic feedback loops between their elements, as well their capacity to engage in the epic challenges to which they claim to respond.
The global strategic challenge is increasingly framed in terms of the vital need to focus on a handful of critical problems framed -- unquestionably -- as the greatest threat to the future of humanity. This simplistic framing is necessarily encouraged by several factors noted above, including binary logic and the bias in favour of single factor explanations, information overload, etc. Global policy lurches spastically from crisis to crisis (terrorism, climate change, financial collapse, unemployment, food shortages, etc) effectively ignoring the systemic interrelationship of the issues, except as a means of justifying incapacity to act effectively on any one of them. This suggests the need for more fruitful systemic insights, especially if there is the possibility that the focus on any one crisis may in effect be inadvertently (or deliberately) concealing the need to focus on a more fundamental emergent crisis -- a focus on surrogates with an exaggerated emphasis on their critical nature and a lack of systemic perspective. There is a need to reframe and work creatively with disagreement, ignorance, negativity, uncertainty, and complexity -- possibly through paradoxical and negative strategies.
A fundamental question is whether the organization of knowledge is adequate to the cognitive challenge of responding to complexity and the turbulent future expected. A particular issue is the nature of the integration of the knowledge and whether it enables integrative approaches that are amenable to comprehension and widespread communication. Any adequate integration potentially also needs to take account of the variety of modes of knowing which may be vital to its credibili8ty in different cultural contexts.
In the light of the arguments of Susantha Goonatilake (Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge, 1999) regarding the potential strategic advantages associated with the mindsets and metaphors of other cultures -- and especially with the rapid rise to prominence of the Chinese and Indian cultures -- a strong case can be made for exploring the complementary implications of those modes of understanding for governance of the future. It is however also extraordinary that so little effort is made to use innovations in knowledge management techniques to organize, and render accessible, what is held to be the wisdom of all cultures (even their essence) however it is succinctly expressed through aphorisms, etc.
Whether it be issues of overpopulation, human rights, or ethics, it is clear that the different religions will continue to impact on the governance of society, notably through violent conflict as a result of their unresolved theological differences. It is appropriate to recognize that "faith" may take somewhat comparable forms, as illustrated by the "belief" system of science -- or the curious assumption that citizens should continue to have "faith" in their governments following the financial crisis of 2008. In principle all such beliefs highlight the importance of modes of insight that transcend the mundane.
It is a characteristic of social change initiatives that they involve extensive speeches, dialogues and texts, in a "linear" mode, with very little effort to identify and hold the points and arguments made in any coherent context -- such that subsequent interventions can build precisely on the configuration of what has gone before, or challenge it appropriately. In a sense, ensuring the apparent orginality, novelty and positive assessment of any new initiative is dependent on ignoring what has gone before or deprecating its relevance and the learnings it may offer. Basicsally, whether within a gathering, or between gatherings, there is very little effort at insight capture.
Possibilities in this respect are currently a focus of the Global Sensemaking network, but the arguments and indicatiuons of potentials have been variously made in the following:
Why are conferences so ineffectual and without consequences and yet so positive about their achievements ***
Much is made of the fundamental importance of "democratic" processes and consultation. Almost no attention is given to the increasingly problematic process of ensuring viable communication of concern, interest or intent from the electorate to decision-makers -- although concerns are repeatedly expressed about the apathy of voters. There is a strong case for simulating the quantitative challenges of such communication between (hundreds of) millions of voters and several hundred decision-makers -- in a situation in which the latter are subject to ever-increasing information overload. Given such constraints, any such simulation could usefully also take account of the publicized efforts to consult multitudes and invite feedback from them -- when such is the difficulty of processing such feedback that any claims to effective consultation lend themselves to accusations of "misleading the public" and even to "fraudulent trading practices".
Consideration of these challenges and opportunities for circumventing them are articulated in:
In addition to the insights emerging from dialogues, it is extraordinary how little effort is made to gather and interrelate the insights regarding solutions to the challenges faced by humanity. It is characteristic that the primary model for such a possibility should now be open directory projects such as Wikipedia, developed independently -- without any capacity to acknowledge their significance by fragmented mainstream governmental or academic institutions. A precursor in this respect is the online Global Strategies and Solutions Project which profiled some 32,000 strategic options advocated or initiated by international constituencies -- as well as indicarting the network of some 263,000 relationships between those strategies (complementing similar databases on the problems they addressed and the organizations involved).
There is clearly a case for developing an open directory "Wiki-Solutions" facility to enable proposals from any source to be held, improved, criticized and interrelated without engaging in premature closure and exclusion of such ideas on the basis of particular academic, ideological or political biases. The irony of the currently impoverished official strategic response is that it is from that mindset that judgrements are authoritatively made to preclude ensuring the visibility of options that might constitute viable alternatives, whether in isolation or in combination.
There may always have been efforts to explore alternative approaches to employment and community organization. There have been many experiments in intentional community. But despite current government interest in sustainable community, there has been no effort to recognize such social experiments as meriting investigation as options in their own right -- to whatever degree they succeeded or failed. Indeed it has been found convenient to associate all such experiments with questionable belief systems that are readily condemned as cultist and associated, at least potentially, with suicidal disasters -- as though disaster and risk were not potentially associated with the best of modern technology. At a time of considerable unemployment, it is curious that "jobs" have effectively been commodified within a framework that is unable to deliver them in sufficient quantity, suggesting the need for rethinking the very notion of "employment".
Nothing need be said about the explosion of the web and its possibilities -- except that official strategic responses to such potential have tended to suffer a lag of 10-15 years. Policy-makers tend to learn of such facilities, if they do, from their younger children. There is a strong case for using these possibilities to simulate a wide range of strategic alternatives, beyond the officially deprecated experiments for the Club of Rome in 1972 (Graham Turner, A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality, CSIRO 2007). Of particular significance is a degree of psychological shift in centre of gravity into virtual worlds -- reflecting the economics of dematerialization -- with an unusual emphasis on the dynamics of play. Yet to be developed is a form of game-playing which enables the emergence of new and subtler styles of psycho-social organization and strategy.
As noted above with respect to insight capture, it is extraordinary the lack of formal monitoring of major strategic initiatives, including the (summit) gatherings in which they are formulated. It is difficult to locate formal assessments of the dynamics and outcome of events like the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), or its follow-up the Rio+10 Earth Summit (Johannesburg, 2002). The same may be said of many gatherings and initiatives, the meetings of the G7/8 Group, the regular conferences of the UN (or its Special Agencies), or the annual World Economic Forum and the annual World Social Forum. This is also the case with potentially more ambitious gatherings such as the Parliament of the World's Religions or the World Wisdom Alliance. Evaluations tend to be merely anecdotal and unofficial, thus inhibiting learning and improvement. Future events are then based on the absence of critical feedback -- necessarily framed as "negative" at a time of perceived need to "draw a line" and "move on" by ignoring the past and its potential learnings.
There is therefore a strong case for formal monitoring of potentially insightful events, notably those interrelating a diversity of perspectives articulated by people who may well have a long track record of participation in such events and problematic exposure to each other.
Conference of the Birds, or Mount Analogue
The preoccupation above is primarily with enabling the emergence of better questions rather than in seeking closure -- necessarily premature -- on better answers. It is not the capacity to engender answers that is in question but their adequacy to the emerging challenges. There is also a concern that the nature of the preoccupation with answers -- effectively engendering an "answer economy" -- is precluding more critical thinking on the systemic challenges of increasing complexity. This is best characterized in well-known phrases such as that of Myron Tribus "There is a simple answer to every question and it is usually wrong" or that variously attributed to Will Rogers and H L Mencken 'There is a simple solution to every problem - and it is always wrong". This has been variously paraphrased, for example: "For every human problem there is a solution that is quick, simple, inexpensive -- and wrong".
The challenge implied by questions has been variously explored, notably in relation to the complexity sciences:
A question framework highlights challenges for the future such as:
Stafford Beer. Beyond Dispute: the invention of team syntegrity. Wiley, 1994
Karen A. Cerulo. Never Saw It Coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst. University of Chicago Press, 2006
Jared M. Diamond. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin, 2005
Susantha Goonatilake. Toward a Global Science: mining civilizational knowledge. Indiana University Press, 1999
Charles Handy. The Age of Unreason. Harvard Business School Press, 1990
Thomas Homer-Dixon. The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization. Island Press, 2006
Donald N. Michael. On Learning to Plan - And Planning to Learn. Miles River Press, 1997
Paul Ormerod. Why Most Things Fail: evolution, extinction and economics. Wiley; 2005 [extracts].
Joshua Cooper Ramo. The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It. Little, Brown and Company, 2009
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Random House, 2007 [contents]
John Ralston Saul. The Unconscious Civilization. Free Press, 1995
For further updates on this site, subscribe here