02 April 2012

Systems Thinking to Transform Communities

Last week I interviewed candidates vying for positions ranging from city council to the US House of Representatives. Candidates of every ideology seem to want a creative community able to generate jobs and knowledge.

Three communities in history offer us insights into how creative communities emerge: 15th century Florence, 18th century Britain, and 20th century America.

15th Century Florence
The Renaissance was the light at the end of the Dark Ages. When Constantinople fell, its scholars brought their libraries of Greek and Roman books to Florence. The old thoughts and art of the classical age were revealed and stimulated new thoughts. Soon, Brunelleschi’s architecture, Michelangelo’s art, and da Vinci’s inventions rivaled the creations of any Greeks and Romans. It was a time of rebirth, a Renaissance, and as a result Florence was – for a couple of centuries – probably  the most prosperous and creative community in the world. The Renaissance shifted attention from the supernatural to the natural, from the next world to this one and within decades new continents were discovered and the Protestant Revolution had begun.

18th Century Britain
Britain was the Industrial Revolution’s first host, the place where incomes clearly rose for the first time since Homer and the Greeks.

Renaissance thinkers saw the world as it is (“We orbit the sun!”) but it took Enlightenment thinkers to explain why (“Gravity!”). John Locke did for government what his friend Isaac Newton had done for physics: defined laws that govern behavior. Within a century, the will of the people was dictating markets and politics alike, giving birth to capitalism and democracy. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson adapted Locke’s words to write the Declaration of Independence and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. The Enlightenment moved the West away from a reliance on monarchs to machines.

20th Century US
An even faster – if perhaps more subtle – revolution transformed the US in the 20th century.

Business leaders and politicians rarely claim to be Renaissance men or Enlightenment thinkers. Instead, they claim to be pragmatic, seemingly unaware that they are describing a philosophy rather than reality.

Enlightenment thinkers hoped for universal truths. Pragmatists, by contrast, just saw ideas as tools, which worked in some situations but not others. You don’t throw out a fork because it doesn’t work for soup, you simply get a spoon. Pragmatists wanted specific solutions to specific problems, focused more on creating a best-selling app or winning argument before the court rather than something like “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” William James talked about the “cash value” of an idea. And from pragmatism we get our modern world of specialists, each with knowledge so specific, dense, and esoteric that other experts know little about it.

This resulted in an explosion of knowledge and knowledge workers. Corporations hired knowledge workers as quickly as universities could create them. R&D in places like Harvard and Stanford or Edison’s lab and Bell Labs regularly generated new knowledge and products.

All this change didn’t just create textbooks. From 1900 to 2000, incomes rose about 10X and life expectancy by three decades. (It’s worth remembering that this great progress was in spite of two world wars and the Great Depression.)

Those past examples might only be interesting rather than relevant if it were not for the fact that we have emerging a new way of thinking that could transform a community as much as the Renaissance, Enlightenment or Pragmatism.

Systems Thinking
Deep thinkers from dozens of specialties have come to see the world and its important parts as systems.

Systems are more defined by the interactions of parts than their parts. As systems thinking pioneer Russell Ackoff said, “Your brain doesn’t think. You do. This is easy to demonstrate. We can just pull your brain out and place it on the table. You’ll quickly notice that it is incapable of thinking.”

Our world is defined by systems and yet we continue to look at the world pragmatically, as if the problems can be neatly contained within a simple discipline and the environment is irrelevant. But maybe leaders in government, business, schools, and non-profits really are doing their best and the problems that ensure have less to do with these “parts” of society (or institutions) than their interactions. These interactions are rarely owned or addressed in a world full of pragmatists who are all focused, heads down, on the challenges within their own institution. But perhaps it’s no longer pragmatic to be pragmatic.

 We think that problems in school are not the product of problems in the home, or that problems at home are not the product of problems in the economy (economic problems that may have an origin in schools that fail to prepare their students for new realities, just to complete this particular loop).  If the solutions to business problems lay outside of corporations or the solutions to educational problems lay outside of schools we’d never see them in our current approach.

The first step in a modern Renaissance might just be popularizing what we do know about systems, changing the conversation wherever students, products, or laws are created. The next step might be to build on that knowledge and begin to shape our communities in accord with their true dynamics.

Curiously, the cost for this change is simply a willingness to change how we think. Every community still has budget enough for that. 

1 comment:

Geordie Keitt said...

Alas, in our sad world, the determining factor on whether something will get done is the short-term financial interest of the controlling parties. I think most corporations like the current system just fine and aren't interested in monkeying around with the basic underpinnings of society that place them at the top of the heap.