Richard Hames on the need for new ways of thinking complexity and change

Excerpted from Richard Hames:

The dilemmas facing humanity have become so complex they can only be resolved by comprehending the situation from a higher level of collective consciousness. Once that new state of awareness has been reached, however, we will be able to choose a profoundly different evolutionary path to that recently pursued with such self-interest and short-sighted enthusiasm.

Disruptions to the way planet Earth works, particularly those induced by the ingrained habits of seven billion people all aspiring to similar levels of affluence, can no longer be ignored. At some stage myths must give way to truths if disaster is to be averted.

As Paul Gilding points out so eloquently in his recent book The Great Disruption there is plenty to be positive about. But only if we think differently and more deeply about the human condition and rise above those beliefs and practices that have become an impediment to genuine progress.

Three priorities have surfaced from the fog of scientific evidence, propaganda (and sheer mischief) surrounding issues like climate change. First, policies aimed at putting a stop to unsustainable activities must be scaled up. Second, smart technologies must be applied to the underlying causes of our problems rather than to their symptoms. Third, we must reframe our thinking to embody entirely new possibilities for reimagining what we do (that is both socially desirable and economically feasible) and how we do it.

These priorities are as relevant for business as they are for governments and civil society. The time has long since passed when business could simply mind its own business. Indeed many of the institutions and practices conceived within the 19th century model of industrial economism, a model that initially brought such affluence to so many, appear now to be steering us down a path to ruin. I am aware that it is impossible to prove such a thesis. But nor do I intend waiting until I have evidence I am correct.

There are many alternatives available to us, ranging from cleaner, adaptive industries and smarter, benign practices to fewer toxic raw materials and biomimicry as a model for organizing and innovating. Most of these alternatives are preferable to what currently exists. However we need to let go of old prejudices and fears that the future will inevitably be worse than the past if such new options are to be implemented quickly. This is the prime lesson informing Gilding’s thesis.

All of which is easier said than done of course. Tackling any one of these imperatives would be difficult enough. Finding ways to adopt all three presents a formidable challenge, not least because the customary ways for administering human affairs have shifted responsibilities to others. Deliberately reframing our thinking to escape the gravitational pull of the past will demand an expansive emancipation of mind, liberation from obsolete ideologies and dogma, and a collective, progressive and audacious awakening to higher levels of consciousness concerning our shared purpose.

Changing behavioural patterns is relatively easy. We do it all the time. Government policies, corporate marketing and public relations campaigns all effectively play on our desires or fears in order to manipulate how we behave. But whereas most present-day marketing efforts are commercially orientated, using psychology to escalate consumerism – even where prosperity without economic growth would be a more sane goal in today’s circumstances – we are failing to use those same mechanisms to endorse the reduction, re-use and recycling of our most precious resources. Clearly much has still to be done even in that regard. But changing our underlying beliefs is far more difficult.

Ultimately though, permanent behavioural change will stem from the structural redesign of our most life-critical systems – particularly those in which human beings interface with nature and with each other. It is often forgotten that all systems are perfectly designed to get the results they get. That is why natural systems remain so resilient.

The problem is that none of our social systems have been designed to consciously evolve. We are, quite literally, trapped in the past. That is precisely why our thinking has to change. In effect we must become architects of our own evolution rather than pawns in a game we assume to be controlled by others.

The inevitable transition to cleaner, low-carbon sources of energy (like solar and hydrogen for example) together with the use of smarter, more efficient, distributed networks that reduce the amount of energy we use, will eventually enable the complete eradication of toxic fuels. At the same time the industries spawned from this transition will generate untold wealth. Designing a sustainable and secure food system capable of providing nourishment for seven billion people or more is also desirable – and readily achievable. Re-engineering the fundamentals of the global economy to eradicate waste, promote equity and protect the resources we all share is also realistic.

But there is a catch. Before the trapeze artist leaps into space he must step off the platform on which he is standing. Systemic reinventions of this nature requires a strategic, emotional and “transcendent” commitment to the new story in addition to an appreciation of systemic design that is rare, so devoid of integral intelligence has our conditioning become.

In terms of systemic design and renewal there are two crucial keys to success. Both rely on our capacity and willingness to reframe our notions about what really matters, to boldly step into new ways of knowing and being, and to openly engage with others in that metamorphosis.

The first key is the ability to imagine and communicate an alternative social “meme” (together with compelling narratives) that supersedes more utilitarian goals – at least encompassing happiness, love and compassion in healthier balance with material wealth and well-being. This key unlocks hope and restores fairness. The second key is the ability to elude the curse of knowledge that traps us in an industrial past and allows us to make significantly different choices about the future. This key unlocks a sense of new possibilities and restores trust.

Unfettering an economy based on value exchange in the context of abundance (rather than one of compounding debt in a framework of financial scarcity, for example) could emancipate new forms of enterprise employing many more people than today’s sunset industries. Using renewable sources of energy to establish industrial ecologies that transform and adapt to a warming planet is far wiser than defending the past in an attempt to protect that which could destroy us. [Industry lobbyists take note!] Likewise, accessing peer-to-peer digital media to invite the collective expression of policies and even constitutions (instead of putting our faith in the increasingly detached whims of a few elected representatives) might provide a platform for a far more democratic and empathic society. And so on…

Such strategic choices become possible because of the most fundamental shift in human history: the emergence of a mode of inventiveness (comprising intelligence, foresight and wisdom) that allows new ways of being, thinking and doing to be envisaged and, through cooperation and invention, to be attained.”

1 Comment Richard Hames on the need for new ways of thinking complexity and change

  1. Avatarhappyseaurchin

    Well put. A good summary of what is needed.

    Although I am all for being inventive and creative, I suspect a good source of wisdom is already out there in other cultures, and I am sure Richard would agree with a combination of unlearning our own institutional forms and learning new ones to us, though perhaps old to other cultures.

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