23 August 2006

From Pragmatism to Systems Thinking

Knowledge workers are pragmatists. They are problem-solvers less interested in ideology or general laws than the solution to a specific problem in a specific context. One of the reasons that the factors that lead to global warming seem to have their own, unstoppable momentum is that our experts are pragmatists. They are focused, heads down, on the problems of getting elected, designing new software or hardware, increasing sales, or any of a thousand other problems that confront them. Yet there comes a time when it is no longer pragmatic to be pragmatic, when our leaders and experts have to take a systems perspective.

Moving into the information age from the industrial age took, among other things, a shift in dominant philosophy from Enlightenment philosophy to Pragmatism, from general laws to specific solutions. It is time for another philosophical shift: from pragmatism to systems thinking. Systems thinking comes in a variety of guises and under a number of labels: ecological thinking, systems dynamics, self-adaptive complexity, holistic, etc. It encompasses thought that borders on the mystical (e.g., the Gaia Hypothesis) to thinking that approaches mathematical opacity (e.g., Chaos Theory). But what it does is emphasize the relationships between events and entities, the domino effect of changes, the ecosystem more than the species, the context or environment more than the process.

Knowledge workers can solve the problem of global warming. The problem is not untenable and is not beyond the minds of our leading experts. But solving it will require a solution that spills across boundaries – from politics to science and technology, from international agreements to habits and social norms. This solution will require the widespread adaptation of a new way of thinking.

No comments: