13th March 2011 | Draft

Embodiment of Change: Comprehension, Traction and Impact?

Discovering enabling questions for the future

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Prepared in response to the Urgent Appeal to Change the Mindset (March 2011)
launched by the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives

Identifying meta-challenges: checklists and documents
Case studies: sources of potential insights and learnings


This is an effort to summarize reflections on the capacity to engage with increasingly apparent inadequacy in the response to evident problems -- whether systemic or associated with particular crises. These inadequacies are exemplified by the recent response of the "international community" to the Gulf of Mexico oil leak (2010), to the Haiti earthquake and flooding (2010), and to the Libyan uprising (2011).

More generally the need for such reflection is indicated by the insights of the following:

As included in an early summary (Acknowledgement of the universe of problems, 1976), the accumulating urgency was indicated long ago:

  • While the difficulties and dangers of problems tend to increase at a geometric rate, the knowledge and manpower qualified to deal with those problems tend to increase at an arithmetical rate. (Yehezkel Dror. Prolegomenon to policy sciences, AAAS symposium, Boston, 1969)

  • Social institutions face growing difficulties as a result of an ever increasing complexity which arises directly and indirectly from the development and assimilation of technology. Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines (Bellagio Declaration on Planning. In: Erich Jantsch (Ed) Perspectives on Planning. Paris, OECD, 1969).

  • What finally makes all of our crises still more dangerous is that they are now coming on top of each other. Most administrations...are not prepared to deal with...multiple crises, a crisis of crises all at one time...Every problem may escalate because those involved no longer have time to think straight. (John Platt. What we must do. Science, 28 November 1969, pp. 1115-1121).

The challenge has been well described by John Ralston Saul (Voltaire's Bastards: the dictatorship of reason in the West, 1992; The Unconscious Civilization, 1995), but most succinctly as a form of Le Chatelier's Principle by Stafford Beer (The Cybernetic Cytoblast: management itself, 1969) in the following terms:

Reformers, critics of institutions, consultants in innovation, people in sort who "want to get something done", often fail to see this point. They cannot understand why their strictures, advice or demands do not result in effective change. They expect either to achieve a measure of success in their own terms or to be flung off the premises. But an ultrastable system (like a social institution)... has no need to react in either of these ways. It specialises in equilibrial readjustment which is to the observer a secret form of change requiring no actual alteration in the macro-systemic characteristics that he is trying to do something about (Chairman's Address to the International Cybernetics Congress, September 1969)

A conventional response to any such call for new thinking is to consider that such a framing exemplifies "negativity". The dangers of simplisitic "positive thinking" have however been variously summarized (Being Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge of positive vs negative, 2005; Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering, 2008). Most notable is the argument of Barbara Ehrenreich (Smile Or Die: how positive thinking fooled America and the world, 2010). The question is how to enable appropriate "critical thinking" (Web resources: Critical thinking vs. Specious arguments, 2001).

A previous effort to summarize and order these considerations, in the light of the following documents, appeared as Governing Civilization through Civilizing Governance: global challenge for a turbulent future (2008) -- a contribution on the occasion of the 3rd Annual Conference organized by the Global Governance Group of the New School of Athens (NSOA): Theme: Making Global Governance Work: Lessons from the Past. Solutions for the Future (Athens, 2008). That summary had been preceded by Enabling Creative Response to Extraordinary Crises (2001) and was followed by Enabling Strategies for Viable Futures (2009).

The current Urgent Appeal to Change the Mindset (March 2011) would appear to be a consequence of the International Forum for Climate Justice (Cancun, 2010). This was the subject of earlier comment (From Changing the Strategic Game to Changing the Strategic Frame: missing cognitive possibility in changing the system not the planet, 2010).


Perhaps the most fundamental question is why so many well-intentioned initiatives can only be said to have been less than successful in terms of the challenges experienced now as well as those to be anticipated (if only in that their nature cannot necessarily be foreseen). There is a need to learn from the seeming inadequacy of the collective learning process, as suggested by Donald Michael (Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn, 1997). What might be required by such collective "meta-learning" -- especially in a group context in which so many acclaimed approaches to dialogue facilitation have proven problematic in their own right?

A particular concern is the appropriateness of assumptions made about "change" and how "traction" is to be achieved -- especially when there is a tendency to use conventional marketing and military metaphors in the quest for widespread "impact" and "visibility" as being the criterion of success. What undermines the capacity of a self-selected group to elucidate and deliver meaning appreciable by others? From what does the indifference of others derive? Why do they variously engage with other preoccupations?

The relatively new term "psychic numbing" is used to describe the tendency of people (potentially as voters) to feel less urgent compassion and contribute less, when the suffering is shown to be more systemic and more pervasive, especially when described as affecting larger numbers of people. The observer experiences a sense of powerlessness and helplessness -- a sense that nothing in the world will change that particularly broad, complex situation (Paul Slovic, "If I look at the mass I will never act": Psychic numbing and genocide, Judgment and Decision Making, 2007; J. E. Roberston, 'Psychic Numbing': Why does mass suffering induce mass indifference?, 15 August 2010). This is consistent with the distinction between problem assessment and assessment of remedial capacity (Remedial Capacity Indicators Versus Performance Indicators, 1981).

Several factors are implicit in the questions raised by the documents listed below:

The challenge has been well framed by Albert Einstein:

The significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking
we were at when we created them.

To repeat the same thing over and over again,
and yet to expect a different result, this is a form of insanity.

Identifying meta-challenges: checklists and documents

Any effort to elaborate such "meta-challenges" -- as below -- is of course subject to many of these constraints. The items are listed primarily to indicate the nature of the issues, merely by scanning the document titles -- irrespective of whether any particular issues are considered to merit further exploration.

Checklists variously framed: These highlight the nature of questions which are typically avoided in considering future possibilities:

Denial and question avoidance: These offer various approaches to the nature of denial:

Misplaced optimism regarding governance and systemic negligence: These explore assumptions regarding misplaced confidence in existing methods:

Neglected issues in dialogue, facilitation and game-playing: These highlight assumptions regarding expectations from dialogue as currently framed

Possibilities of anticipating and reframing disagreement: Differences of opinion typically emerge and tend to undermine the coherence of global initiatives.

Neglected conventional cognitive traps: These highlight inadequately explored cognitive issues undermining framing of strategies

Unexamined implications of the requisite complexity of "new thinking" in response to strategic obsolescence:

Unquestioned assumptions regarding forms of presentation of conclusions: These highlight issues relating to the uptake of proposals or indifference to them

Humouristic and poetic summaries: These endeavour to highlight the current tragedy by unconventional means

Case studies: sources of potential insights and learnings

These offer a reminder that little effort is made to learn from ambitious collective initiatives of the past -- on which documentation is variously available


David Bornstein. How to Change the World: social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas. Oxford University Press, 2007

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

Barbara Ehrenreich:

  • Bright-sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. Metropolitan Books, 2009
  • Smile Or Die: how positive thinking fooled America and the world. Granta Books, 2010 [summary]

Charles Handy:

  • The Age of Unreason: new thinking for a new world. Random House, 1989
  • The Empty Raincoat: making sense of the future. Random House, 1995

Douglas Hofstadter. I Am a Strange Loop. Basic Books, 2007 [text]

Johan Galtung:

  • Goals and Processes of Development: An Integrated View [text]
  • Global Processes and the World in the 1980s: Prolegomenon I for a GPID World Model [text]
  • Towards a GPID World Model: Some Basic Considerations [text]
  • The GPID(L) World Model: Some Basic Aspects [text]

Thomas Homer-Dixon. The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization. Island Press, 2006

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Philosophy In The Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Basic Books, 1999

Donald N. Michael. Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn. Miles River Press, 1997

Mike Moore. A World Without Walls: freedom, development, free trade and global governance. Cambridge University Press, 2003

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. Bloomsbury Press, 2010

Paul Ormerod. Why Most Things Fail: evolution, extinction and economics. Wiley, 2005 [extracts].

Geoffrey Allen Pigman. The World Economic Forum: a multi-stakeholder approach to global governance. Routledge, 2007

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

Steven M. Rosen:

  • Topologies of the Flesh: a multidimensional exploration of the lifeworld. Ohio University Press, 2006 [excerpts]
  • Dimensions of Apeiron: a topological phenomenology of space, time, and individuation. Value Inquiry Book Series of Editions Rodopi, 2004 [excerpts]

David J. Rothkopf. Superclass: the global power elite and the world they are making. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

John Ralston Saul. The Unconscious Civilization. Free Press, 1995

Jai Sen and Peter Waterman (Eds.). World Social Forum: Challenging Empires. Black Rose Books, 2007 [summary]

Paul Slovic. Psychic numbing and genocide. Judgment and Decision Making, 2, 2, April 2007, pp. 79-95 ("If I look at the mass I will never act") [text]

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Random House, 2007 [contents]

Geoffrey Vickers. Freedom in a Rocking Boat: changing values in an unstable society. 1972

Peter Waterman. World Social Forum: the secret of fire. 2003 [text]

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