Imagine you lived in a community with houses lit only by sky lights made of magnifying glass. The problem is, this design leads to fires as the light focused on objects causes them to spontaneously combust. If you lived in such a place, you’d likely be so busy fighting fires that you’d have little time or inclination to understand the design flaw, much less fix it.
Our society has reached a similar point. Our mental models – our view of the world – are such that many of our problems are actually structured into our society. We live in a fractured world that has been fractured by a fractured world view. Our society is based on the belief that if only each individual were to do what is best for self, society will automatically improve. Perhaps the most famous quote of Adam Smith’s is “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
In our fractured world view, we believe that if only schools focused more on excelling in education, society would improve. If only businesses focused more on profits, society would thrive. If only politicians focused more on legislation, society would be better. And so on.
But in fact, we’re all humans being human, as much as our institutions want us to pretend to be students or employees or citizens. As the systems thinker Russell Ackoff points out, to focus on play or work or learning in isolation is never as effective as allowing play, work, and learning to blend and interact. To improve a school’s education separate from some idea of how one would improve society as a whole is a meaningless exercise that ultimately leads to nonsense like a concentration on standardized tests. To focus on profits without focusing on improving lives leads to the oddly perverse process of claiming success even while destroying one’s habitat.
The basis for today's dominant world view traces back to Descarte's rules for thinking - a notion that the world is best understood by breaking it into pieces. If the individual pursues his own self-interest, or the organization pursues its own interest, the world will be made better. That mental model helped our ancestors to invent the modern world. That mental model has also been rendered obsolete by its own success.
What has happened in a world of 6 billion people, 200 nations, and 2 million corporations is that we've run out of room to engage in such a philosophy, to use such a mental model. It is as if we've prospered with moves that work only with considerable independence and elbow room, conditions that have faded.
One simple fact of economic development is this: the more advanced the economy the more interdependent. You can live independent of others, but your lifestyle will be like that of Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away - simple, crude, and fragile. As we enjoy more affluence, we increasingly depend on the ideas and technology, the work and products of others. Rarely is a product so simple that it can be made by a single person; more often what we consume is the product of corporations, of teams of people.
And yet our underlying philosophy is still geared towards an atomistic viewpoint, a construct that assumes the ability to work, live, and act in isolation. It is as though our all our models assume a vacuum and yet we live in wind tunnels. Many of our social problems have less to do with reality and our ability to address problems in reality than with how out of sorts are our social constructs, based as they are on mental models that are no longer effective approximations of reality. Global warming, for instance, is not techologically impossible or even terribly difficult to solve. It is a problem that traces back to the failure of social constructs as much as failure of technology - there are not even institutions responsible for this problem. The world we've invented includes few social constructs designed to deal with highly interdependent global realities.
Our reality is massively interdependent and full of emergent phenomenon - phenomenon that comes out of the interaction between two elements and not from the focus on any one element. Until we adapt a mental model to accord with this - and begin to design society in response to this reality - we'll continue to create our own most pressing problems.