The old models don't work

Politics, Systems thinking

I’m cracking into a great book called “The Age of the Unthinkable”. It seems that the longer I wait before writing the book I want to write, the more other people are likely to do it in my place.

The fundamental points in this one are thoughts I’ve been thinking since I was about 14. So much of the way the world works seems to be built on models which don’t reflect reality. Sure, they mostly work, and provide us with reasonable way of getting things done, but it’s pretty easy with only a few moments thought to find systemic weaknesses, and to ponder why we’re not finding better solutions.

From the introduction:

Unfortunately, whether they are running corporations or foreign ministries or central banks, some of the best minds of our era are still in thrall to an older way of seeing and thinking. They are making repeated misjudgments about the world. In a way, it’s hard to blame them. Mostly they grew up at a time when the global order could largely be understood in simpler terms, when only nations really mattered, when you could think there was a predictable relationship between what you wanted and what you got. They came of age as part of a tradition that believed all international crises had beginnings and, if managed well, ends. They share as background a view in which the spread of capitalism is good and inevitable, in which democracy and technology produce an increase in general stability. […] These ideas fail both tests of good science: they neither predict nor explain our world. But too many of our leaders are incapable of confronting this disconnect. They lack the language, creativity, and revolutionary spirit our moment demands. In many cases, they have been badly corrupted by power, position, and prestige. We’ve left our future, in other words, largely in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present.

The sum of their misconceptions has now produced a tragic paradox: policies designed to make us safer instead make the world more perilous. History’s grandest war against terrorism, for instance, not only fails to eliminate terrorism, it creates more dangerous terrorists. Attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons instead encourage countries to accelerate their quest for an atom bomb. Global capitalism, intended to boost the quality of life of people around the world, claws the gap between rich and poor ever wider. Decisions taken to stem a financial crisis appear, in the end, to guarantee its arrival. Environmental techniques engineered to protect species lead to their extinction. Middle East peace plans produce less peace. We stare now at a long list of similar looking-glass problems, challenges in which our best intentions and their terrible results exist in a horrific mirror-image dance. The integrity of our leaders, our ability to trust that they understand what we are confronting — or, for that matter, that they are telling us the truth about it — is leaching away. Why should we believe what they say about the war on terror, the safety of our food, the global financial crisis, or any of a dozen essential issues when, over and over, their policies endanger us?

Little in the current discussion of our shared problems suggests the radical rethinking our world requires. There is now hope and even the first hints of substantial changes in policy, but the basic architecture of ideas and theories necessary to back up such difficult work remains profoundly underdeveloped. No debate about terrorism, global warming, destructive weapons, economic chaos, or other threats can make sense without a grand strategy, though this is the thing most obviously missing today. Instead, the most likely course for our future is the most dangerous: minor adjustments to current policies, incremental changes to institutions that are already collapsing, and an inevitable and frustrating expansion of failure. And this will happen fast. Among the things our leaders seem to be missing is a comprehension of the staggering speed at which these change epidemics occur: one bank fails, then fifty; one country develops an atom bomb, a dozen try to follow; one computer or one child comes down with a virus, and the speed of its spread is incomprehensible. The immensity of the challenges we now face, the disturbing failures that likely lie ahead, and our inability to deal with problems effectively with old ways of thinking will assuredly lead us to question many fundamental values of our society. It will put even the nature of our government and our democracy into the debate. These discussions are important and legitimate. But they should occur only on a basis of security and confidence. Today we have neither, and that fundamental uneasiness could lead to some awful betrayals. It would be nice if we lived in a time when technology or capitalism or democracy was erasing unpredictability, when shifts could be carefully mapped and planned for using logic that originated centuries ago. This is the world that many politicians or foreign and financial policy experts have been trying to peddle to us.

It bears very little resemblance, really, to the future we do face.

Source: The Age of the Unthinkable

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

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