Toward a scientific understanding and treatment of problems

“Toward a scientific understanding and treatment of problems” is the title of the talk I gave last Wednesday through Skype, to the international workshop  Information Technology and Journalism at IUC Dubrovnik.

By ‘problems’, I said at the start, I mean above all the large characteristic contemporary issues such as the climate change; but also other problems, even personal ones, because all problems I can think of can be understood and treated in the manner I will be pointing at.

Parallel to reading this brief summary, you may want to explore this talk’s Prezi.

The opening view of the lecture Prezi

The opening view of the talk’s Prezi

In the talk I developed a parallel between scientific medicine and understanding and handling of problems in general. “When we see red spots appearing all over our skin”, I said, “we don’t try to get rid of them by rubbing them  off or painting them over; we base our understanding and treatment on the underlying anatomy and physiology.”

The talk explored our social-systemic ‘anatomy and physiology’  by telling vignettes and drawing conclusions, which I will here briefly summarize.

Our societal ‘cardio-vascular system’ (finance and governance) was examined first. Its role is to bring (financial) nutrients to ‘cells and organs’ (people and institutions), and thereby livelihood. A quick look at David McCandless’ Billion Dollar-o-Gram reveals that the amounts wasted by this system through losses within the system (the 2008 financial crisis) and through misinvestment (Iraq and Afganistan wars)  are so large, that the amounts needed for handling other issues, such as lifting one billion people out of extreme poverty or saving the Amazon, are tiny in comparison. The conclusion (voiced already by Bycky Fuller a half-century ago, and by John Stuart Mill a century and a half ago) is clear: We have all the resources we need to solve our problems; our key problem is their distribution.

Is the very principle of operation of our financial system (creating money as debt) a cause of non-sustainability?

A similar inspection of our societal ‘brain, nervous system and sensory organs’ (academic research, media and government), which should initiate a remedial action, reveals that they cannot: The press tends to keep us focused on symptoms and palliative measures; the systemic causes and remedies—when they are known to the researchers—tend to remain within a narrow academic circle.

Is the very structure of our societal nervous system preventing it from fulfilling its role?

The condition of other societal systems is similar and illustrated in some detail in the Prezi. I skimmed over the details;  what has been  shown will suffice to draw conclusions.

The key point or 'gestalt'

The key point or ‘gestalt’

The main conclusion is expressed by another  visual etaphor: We see ourselves as parts in grossly misconstructed societal mechanisms. We give them our daily work and our best intentions; and we trust that they will turn our work into socially useful effects. But even a brief look into their structure allows us to see why  those effects fall dramatically short of reasonable expectation. And sometimes they turn out to be outright harmful!

“It is time for systemic innovation”— it is time to broaden our scope and shift the focus of our attention, from improving its nuts and bolts and our own performance in it, to recreating the machinery itself, and even its principles of operation. Our situation calls for innovating at the level of entire socio-technical systems, by adapting those systems to the functions they need to serve in larger systems.

By innovating on the level of the societal systems and organs, we can not only enable them—and us—to solve our problems; we can also open up vast opportunities for progress, and for thriving on all sides.

I offered three alternative ways to formulate this conclusion:

  • Bela Banathy’s quotation (from Designing Social Systems in a Changing World):

    I have become increasingly convinced that [people] cannot give direction to their lives, they cannot forge their destiny, they cannot take charge of their future—unless they also develop competence to take part directly and authentically in the design of the systems in which they live and work, and reclaim their right to do so. This is what true empowerment is about.

  • Another metaphor—a river flooding our basements with increasing frequency representing a personal problem—can be treated in one of the following two ways: (1) Everyone trying to empty the water from his own basement by carrying buckets, and possibly by purchasing devices such as electrical pumps (conventional innovation); or (2) everyone teaming up and regulating the river flow (systemic innovation).
  • A photo of an exuberant celebration of an electoral victory, expressing my wish or vision: The motto “It’s the systems, stupid!” (a paraphrase or generalization of Bill Clinton’s 1992 winning election slogan) signals that our conventional symbolic approach to politics and issues has been seen through and replaced by the systemic approach; that the focus of our political action has shifted to systems, where ‘a difference that makes a difference’ can be made.

(If you are familiar with polyscopy, you will recognize here the ‘the informaiton i’ ideogram.) Like a powerful lamp or a lighthouse, the gestalt I’ve just sketched for you (represented by the ‘i’) reveals a vast and most fertile creative frontier.

An attractive action space is pointed at by the 'lighthouse'

An attractive action space is pointed at by the ‘lighthouse’

“Think of the ‘i’ in the above picture as a stylized lighthouse, showing a way to a harbor.” I said. “The terrain around it is a most wonderful action and building site.”

On the left, under the title ‘Theory’, I am showing a tiny but telling selection from a vast range of possibilities. A handful of books and authors point out that we have reached the point in our culture’s evolution where we are ready to understand our societal systems and institutions not as our shared doxa or reality,  but as embodying and distributing power, and as a natural and necessary object of focus to our creative abilities, and for new kinds of political action.

On the right the title is ‘praxis’, and under it I am illustrating a spectrum of projects that can be undertaken, by talking about the ones I myself am currently involved in. Knowledge Federation develops an academic practice, and evolves suitable societal ‘organs’ and ‘systems’, whose goal is to enable us to function as a coherently organized, properly interconnected and continuously self-organizing ‘collective mind’. The Game-Changing Game and The Club of Zagreb enable systemic innovation and real-life systemic change.

Two concrete systemic prototypes, chosen to suit the audience, are outlined in this lecture’s Prezi in some detail.

The first is the Barcelona 2011 Good Journalism Prototype (developed at the Knowledge Federation Workshop Barcelona 2011) where:

  • a prototype of a public informing that may suit our contemporary society and its challenges is created—and continuously recreated—by a suitably developed transdiscipline
  • public informing joins everyone (jounalists, public, researchers, politicians…) into a coherently functioning and well-interconnected collective mind
  • public informing illuminates at systemic causes of perceived problems, and points at suitable systemic action

Since I discussed the BCN2011 Good Journalism Prototype at this workshop last year, this time I chose to focus on the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity (TNC) Prototype, where a technical academic article—with high potential general impact—is

  • made accessible in terms of visual metaphors
  • turned into a multimedia document, with explanatory interviews with the autor, and with links between the technical material and corresponding high-level explanatory models
  • turned into a collection of general ideas, made available online, to be linked with other related ideas, and commented on
  • transformed—together with related works and comments—into general, high-level insights or gestalts, which point at suitable action
  • made known (with related gestalts) to communities that may need them
  • made available (with related gestalts and suitable media material) to journalists for publication

The event where I gave this talk—the Information Technology and Journalism Workshop—is relevant: Professor Nenad Prelog, who organizes this workshop series, is the leading creative force in academic journalism in Croatia. A systems thinker, well networked internationally, Nenad has ‘edemocracy’ as his email address, which points at a broader scope of his interests. Professor Prelog is part of the germinating ZIG Project, where the BCN2011 Good Journalism Prototype is being implemented in practice; this year he has joined us at the opening of The Club of Zagreb, and at the Knowledge Federation Workshop “Knowledge Media for a Living Society” in Dubrovnik.

Since the beginning of this year I have been having daily Skype meetings with Sam Hahn (co-founder and leader of Program for the Future) and David Price (co-founder and leader of DebateGraph and of Global Sensemaking). We are developing the Community of Impact. Imagine it as a lighthouse and a construction site around it. We will soon be inviting people and communities to join us.

We are developing a co-creative space where people can express systemic insights, and corresponding ideas for improvement or solution, no longer only in speech and writing, but also by co-evolving or bootstrapping suitable systems, and by implementing them, strategically, in everyday practice.

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