30 April 2012

Our Future Ruins

Yesterday as I wandered through the British Museum, marveling at the scale of the creations from civilizations past, I was struck by a couple of things.

One, while art is considered aesthetic rather than functional, it is still "functional" millenia later; by contrast, modern technology is considered functional rather than aesthetic but rarely functions even a decade later.

These Assyrian statues once stood at the gate of the city, designed to awe and impress, a function they still serve today.

Two, it made me wonder what future ruins we would offer future generations, future civilizations. And perhaps I'm biased because I just happened to be in Las Vegas last weekend, but I had to wonder if Vegas didn't contain the ruins that were equivalent to the reconstructed temples and palaces we find and replicate today. Garish, beautiful, grand scale, and outlandish proportions seem to better describe the casinos and hotels in Vegas than our modern churches or government buildings.

It doesn't take too much of a stretch to imagine future generations nodding sagely over explanations of the "money palaces" constructed by our civilization. "They worshipped money and constructed these elaborate temples where they would sacrifice money in the hopes of receiving blessing, 'getting lucky' they called it. The point of these palaces was to awe and impress people with the power of wealth and induce them to take chances to gain it."

29 April 2012

The Mindless Gap

"There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."
- Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister

Riding the underground subway here in London, one is continually instructed to "mind the gap," a caution about the gap between the train and the platform as one enters and exits the train. 

This, it seems to me, is a useful injunction that describes the importance of awareness even on a social level. British PM David Cameron is pushing to lower the taxes on the rich at the same time that he raises them on the less affluent. And yet a persistent gap is getting wider. 

This week, the UK reported that the economy shrunk in the first quarter of 2012. It is officially a double-dip recession and the British continue to struggle out of the worst recession in decades.  In today's Sunday Times, we learn that in spite of this, last year the rich gained wealth, becoming the wealthiest they've ever become. 

One of the reasons that people prefer cities is for the anonymity. In a small town, your neighbors notice if you come in late or wear eyeliner but in a city you're much more liberated to do as you please. The good - and the bad - is that you feel less obligated to worry about your neighbors. 

I wonder if this urbanization of the mind - this freedom from worry about others - isn't making it easier for the rich to be conspicuous about their wealth in ways that show little regard for the poor around them. Not only can they make record money as the people across town struggle, they can petition for lower taxes and a cut in services at the same town. 

A society of individuals is still a society, whether the individuals within it care to call it that or not. But maybe its easier to ignore the gap if we don't think that we're all in this together. 

In Which This Blogger Rather Obviously Uses the Subway as a Metaphor for the Subconscious

People don't ride the subway to watch the scenery. They are trying to get somewhere. We'd find it odd if someone got onto the subway to ride somewhere but never got off the car but instead just rode back to their original location.

I suppose, though, that we do this with our beliefs and attitudes. We have a particular way of being that we depart from when we're angry or our blood sugar is low or we're in a panic about something but then we drift back to who we are, largely unchanged and still ourselves. We consider new perspectives but return to our own. It seems very difficult to actually get off the train and move to a new location.

27 April 2012

Reviewing Charles Murray's Coming Apart

Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, highlights a dramatic and important divergence between America’s elites and working class during the last 50 years. Regardless of your political orientation, the issues he raises deserve serious attention.

Murray dares to discuss and question culture. Corporations are quite intentional about culture and aware that different cultures lend themselves to different outcomes; the culture that favors tradition is not good with innovation, for instance, and one key to progress in a time of disruption is a change in culture. 

Ethnic groups and nationalities, by contrast, are more likely to defend their culture than question it. That Murray deserves praise for questioning how the working class culture has changed; the reader should be skeptical that his solution for the problems this raises is the classical conservative solution: return to the past. 

Murray explores the problems of the working class through a variety of statistics but concludes with an argument about happiness. Murray claims that happiness has its origins in some combination of these four:
  • -          Family
  • -          Industriousness
  • -          Religiosity
  • -          Community

For him, the American experiment rests on a trust in the importance of these four elements of life.
By the measures he uses, the support of the working class for these four has dropped precipitously since 1960,  and the result is a corresponding drop in happiness and prosperity.

Murray provides an abundance of statistics to make his point, demonstrating the link to happiness.
If you are married you are twice as likely to describe yourself as “very happy” as someone divorced and 4X as likely as someone who never married (to illustrate the importance of family). In turn, he reports statistics on industriousness, religiosity, and community. If you like your job, you are 2X as likely to be very happy with life as someone only moderately happy with their work (and 4X as likely as someone dissatisfied with their job). If you attend a religious service more than weekly you are 2X as likely report yourself very happy as someone who never attends. And, finally, high levels of engagement in the community (volunteering and voting, for instance) makes you 50% more likely to say you’re very happy.

Once he's argued that these four matter for happiness, he uses statistics to demonstrate how working class support for these elements of culture has eroded. For instance, the working class are less likely to marry. (One of the most dramatic illustrations of the deterioration of the traditional family is the drop in likelihood that a working class child will be living with both biological parents from about 95% in 1960 to about a third in 2010.) The stats are similar for measures of industriousness, social engagement or trust in others, and religiosity. It is because working class culture has so dramatically changed, Murray concludes, that they've become more beset with problems of poverty and unhappiness; today only 15% of the working class claim to be "very happy," a drop by more than half in the last half century.

His book deserves to be read and these issues should be addressed by anyone interested in policy. For me, his argument leaves some very important points unaddressed. 

1.       I question the implied direction of causality, finding it hard to believe that better church attendance and marriage rates would have saved the working poor from economic woes in this age of globalization. Culture may not have saved them. 

2.      Murray argues that the European model, a culture that does not emphasize these four elements, would fail to work for us Americans. Curiously, he doesn't address the fact that the happiest nations in the world are actually in Europe (specifically, north Europe). 

3.       Also, the policy implications of his arguments are not clear. End divorce? End welfare and unemployment? Seems like returning to an earlier culture would be like unscrambling an egg.

       Murray doesn’t suggest new models for new times. History suggests that family structure is malleable. The large, extended family is harder to maintain when the number of children have dropped and those children are likely to be specialists whose work takes them across the country. Support – whether in child rearing, retirement, or times of hardship - that depends on extended family living closely seems simply untenable now. Small families are more vulnerable, endowed with less of a safety net. The obvious solution to this new problem comes from the state and while it is true that this brings with it a host of problems, it is not obvious that there is any practical alternative to this path. 

       Finally,  Murray’s analysis of happiness also seems to ignores studies that show happiness to be the  product of flow and meaning. Getting lost in an activity makes us happy; knowing that the activity has meaning, has consequence, gives depth and substance to our happiness. We’re living in a time of great change and it is no wonder that the old routes to happiness have become difficult. The question is not whether in a time of transition people will become less happy and have more difficulty finding flow or meaning. That’s been true throughout history. The bigger question is how we teach flow or happiness in ways that are not dependent on what might be transitory social constructs or social situations. If 40% of people are now living alone, perhaps it isn’t practical to suggest that happiness will be elusive until they band together in extended families again.  It’s hard to believe that people weren’t happy before the American experiment began or won’t be happy once it evolves into whatever comes next.  That question – how to be happy in new circumstances and new realities – seems to me the more interesting and practical question than Murray’s question of how we get our old culture back. 

26 April 2012

What They Don't Teach You in Business School

Anyone who reads my blog with any regularity knows that I think social invention is as important as technological invention. It's true that the modern world grew out of technological inventions like the steam engine and computer but it is at least as dependent on social inventions like the nation-state and corporation. Today the most common acts of social invention fall under the heading of entrepreneurship.

But of course communities don't raise their children to be disrespectful of institutions. It is, of course, just the opposite. Children are taught to sit still in church, get good grades, salute the flag, all in preparation for being a good employee. We teach them that success and happiness result from following the rules, not rebelling against them.

Yet those institutions we so admire were "invented" by people who did anything but follow the rule. Jesus managed to offend church and state. Had they failed, the story of our founding fathers would today be told as that of a band of rebels, terrorists perhaps.

Social invention is dicey. For it to work, you must bring along people. You can't really rebel against society so much as its institutions. And it requires a different sort of consciousness, a different way of making sense of the world. Jesus taught that the law of God represented spiritual, rather than tribal or ethnic truths. Our founding fathers saw in Enlightenment philosophy the potential for progress through capitalism and democracy. It's not enough to invent institutions without reinventing your thinking.

While regular readers know that I believe systems thinking is the new thinking that can inform the invention of new institutions for our time, I do think that changes in thinking are not simply prescribed or easily undertaken.

So what don't they teach you in business school? Everyone loves the results that Steve Jobs got as a leader. My guess is that no CEO is more often mentioned in business schools. While business professors everywhere are telling their students to emulate Steve Jobs, I would bet that not one of them is telling her students to take inspiration from Steve Job's admission that LSD was one of the "two or three most important things I have done in my life."

25 April 2012

Playing Cat and Mouse for Romance

I walked the Vegas Strip this last weekend watching people. I was coming up behind a small group of females on the sidewalk and just about then a small group of rowdy guys were walking towards us. One of the guys, looking at them, clutched his chest and said something. His friend announced to the women, "He said that now that he's seen you he's in heaven." And that was the end of the flirtation, the guys not following up, and the women not responding.

As I passed them it occurred to me that this was a game of cat and mouse, playing at flirtation in practice for when it will matter. The guys would likely agree. They probably wouldn't realize, though, that they were the mice.

24 April 2012

Systems Thinking Produces the Modern Computer

It might be time to revisit the original impetus for the computer and make that - like the computer - personal.

William Shockley headed the team at Bell Labs that invented the transistor. This electronic on-off switch became the basis for the computer chip and after Shockley left Bell Labs and started his own company, he hired a couple of guys (Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce) who went on to found Intel.

But the transistor was not invented to become the foundation for the modern computer. Instead, it was invented to replace the problematic mechanical switches in the telecommunications system.

Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bells Labs and  the Great Age of American Innovation, reports that it was actually one of the pioneers of systems thinking who alerted the folks at Bell Labs that their new invention had applications in computing.

Jay Forrester was working on computing simulations at MIT and when he heard about the transistor, wrote to the scientists at Bell Labs asking for samples. He told them that he thought that this could be used in computing, apparently getting them to see the serious potential of this.

Forrester went on to pioneer system dynamics and to apply it to business and urban planning.

Computers were initially seen as a tool for countries, then institutions, and then finally individuals. The personal computer has been hugely disruptive.

Curiously, the initial impetus for applying the transistor to computing has yet to move beyond institutions. That is, simulations and the modeling of system dynamics has yet to be adopted by groups much smaller than Shell Oil. We now have the computing power to do this. Maybe it is time to make systems thinking a part of the school curriculum - and give students ways of seeing the world that are as sophisticated as their computers.

What if Silicon Valley Went Virtual?

Silicon Valley's first tech boom produced the Internet, the worldwide web that connects the globe.
So what if Silicon Valley's next tech boom weren't contained to Silicon Valley? What if Silicon Valley's next tech boom were actually a global tech boom?

18 April 2012

Cannonballs, Guided Missiles and Fractured Education

One of the biggest problems with the educational system is perhaps the most invisible and it stems from a view of the world that fractures the world into pieces. Students can sail through the educational system for sixteen years before they get any real world feedback because we believe that work and learning should be separate.

Alex Lightman has been sharing a few variations on a message I've tried to give my kids on the importance of not just finding or creating something you are good at or that pays well but rather, something that does all that and more. This Venn diagram neatly depicts the importance of getting all three elements in a job rather than just settling for one or two.

One problem with education is that kids are largely secluded from the world of work and they don't get much feedback on what they might be good at or even what pays well. (Pay is not just a paycheck. Other factors come into play, such as hours, stress, co-workers, etc.) 

Cannonballs shoot into space and the initial trajectory determines where they land. By contrast, guided missiles can adjust mid-flight based on new information. Guided missiles are much more accurate. 

Students who don't get the chance of work experiences that at least simulate the real world in which they'll live for decades experience education like a cannonball. We all know someone who has majored in something, concluding 16+ years of education with a 6 month job that quickly clarified for them that they couldn't spend their life missing one or two of the above keys. 

One of the biggest changes I would make to K-12 education is to break down the walls between school and work so that every student experienced work in some form from about age 10 on. Perhaps 10% of their time starting at that age would be engaged in tasks that could only be described as work. (And on a related note, if I were king even 55 year old "workers" would still be required to spend about 10% of their time in the classroom, trying to make sense of the world and further develop their understanding and job skills.)

I would bet that almost no one gets to the "#win" region of the above Venn on the first try. That is, no cannonball is going to neatly land within that small target. Instead, students need a chance to continually adjust their goals, their learning, their skills, their passions as they iterate their way towards the "#win." That is, cannonballs won't hit this target but guided missiles might. 

The notion that we should fracture work and learning is a legacy of an old, analytic model that breaks the world into pieces in order to understand it. It's time to look at - and experience - life as a system that brings seemingly disparate parts back together. And education can be one area that leads the way. 

15 April 2012

Startup U

It's time to create a new kind of university, one that invests some portion of the money students now spend on tuition into their own startups instead.

The first universities were in the papal states (Bologna), and in the kingdoms of France (Paris) and England (Oxford) all formed within decades of 1100. One big impetus for these universities was the rise of the state and the laws taught and debated in the early universities were part of the process of creating credible governments and inventing the nation-state.

Centuries later, Germany and the US pioneered the modern university, a place where professors were expected to create new knowledge through research and not simply teach existing knowledge. One big impetus for these universities was the invention of the modern corporation in the last half of the 19th century and the drive to both institutionalize research and development and create knowledge workers for the emerging information economy.

Universities were created and transformed as the West went through big transformations. Sometimes it is enough to change the wine and other time you need new bottles. It is not always enough just to change what is taught. In times of great change we have to change our very notion of what is meant by an education.

There is evidence that we've moved out of the information economy defined by a limit of knowledge workers into an entrepreneurial economy defined by a limit of entrepreneurship. (I go into various - and sweeping - implications of this in my book, The Fourth Economy: Inventing Western Civilization.) Think about what it would mean to transform education once again, this time to create a university in which students are expected to have completed their education once they have been a part of a new venture.

Students at the University of California (with campuses in places like Berkeley, LA, Santa Cruz and San Diego) now pay about $13,200 per year for tuition. Every 75 students represents a million dollars. Imagine if that money funded a combination of education and actual startups at a new kind of university.

The focus of Startup U would be on entrepreneurship. Not just strictly business related entrepreneurship, but more broadly as social invention that included creating even public sector goods like, well, Startup U.

Students would receive an education that included emphasis on topics like social evolution, change, advertising and psychology, technology and invention, project management, marketing and finance, equity events and cash flow. All of this would be on-going and revolve around projects that were attempts to create a new company or non-governmental organization or non-profit or governmental agency. (It might be beyond the scope of the university to advocate creating actual governments or religions.) Imagine each pod of 75 students - with their $1 million every year - voting on how to fund educational opportunities, focus group research, business plan generation, product prototypes, advertising, facility rentals, supplies, etc.

From their many experiments in social invention it would seem inevitable that at least two things would occur. One, at least a few of these ventures would become viable new businesses or organizations. (Within the UC system, there would be over 500 pods of 75 students, each with $1 million to spend on creating something. That's a lot of potential for creative disruption. ) Two, students would leave with a better understanding of what it meant to create and sustain a business, be more likely to contribute better to existing organizations and / or become entrepreneurs later in life. It's hard to imagine that a Startup U would not drive higher levels of entrepreneurship, just as the modern universities drove higher numbers of knowledge workers.

The catch-22 of the modern world is that while governments have the goal of creating jobs, they can't sustainably do that. (That is, if governments keep hiring without other growth in the economy, eventually the cost of the government becomes too much for the community. Government jobs have to stay roughly proportional with the private-sector jobs that generate the tax revenue to pay their costs.) Meanwhile, companies can create jobs but that is not their goal. (Entrepreneurs start a business to create industries, provide a new product or service, or old ones at a better price and to make money. Creating jobs is incidental to these goals.) To restate: governments have the goal of creating jobs but not the ability and companies have the ability to create jobs but not the goal.

Only communities have both the goal and the ability to create jobs. One way to move in that direction is by changing the education that is expected of young people starting careers. About the time that we perfected the turntable, along came the CD. Now, about the time that we've perfected the creation of knowledge workers through university education, employees prepared for an an information economy, we find ourselves in an entrepreneurial economy. Students with degrees can't find jobs: perhaps we should instead help them to create them.This sort of change is not about making the old kinds of universities better; it is about creating a new kind of university.

14 April 2012

Big Fires from Little Sparks, or what a vegetable cart has to do with Arab Spring

The size of the match is no predictor of the size of the fire it will start.

In his book The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton tells a story about the catalyst for Arab Spring that I had not heard, a reminder that individuals make a difference and even the destiny of something as big and complex as a nation-state can be changed by something as unpredictable as one person's sense of justice.

"In December 2010, the local police chose to confiscate the vegetable cart of a 26-year-old Tunisian named Mohammed Bouazizi, which meant he could no longer support his family of eight. He went to the city's local headquarters to complain to officials who refused to see him. Soon after, Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest. The people of Tunisia took up Bouazizi's cause, and in less than a month, they ousted Tunisia's government. A few weeks later, Egypt was in revolt against its leadership, aided in no small part by an Egyptian Google marketing executive, Wael Ghonim. And Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was thrown out. And thus a region-wide Middle East rebellion was born. This all started when a policewoman chose to confiscate Mohammed Bouazizi's vegetable cart and hence his job."

13 April 2012

The Republican Party's Credit Rating

For more than a decade we've been cutting taxes and while it is not clear that it has done much to create jobs, it has clearly helped to create debt. Tax revenue is now below 15% of GDP, the lowest it has been in the last half century. (The average during that time has been about 18.5% of GDP.)

So why does Romney continue to advocate more tax cuts? Before I answer that, let me make a brief digression.

Santorum outraged liberals and made many Republicans nervous with his social conservatism. Voters heard him promise to ban abortions for rape victims, ban gay marriage, and even ban contraceptives (whether they heard him accurately is a separate matter). Yet he made the primaries a real contest, suggesting that he represents a good percentage of Republicans.

Meanwhile, here in San Diego, two of the four most plausible candidates for mayor are Republican. Both are gay and at least one took advantage of California law to marry her partner. (She says that it was harder for her to come out to her parents as a Republican than to come out to them as gay.)

Republicans are not all social conservatives but they do all rally around the cry to lower taxes. Which brings me back to Romney.

In an overlooked moment of the campaign, Romney came out for a tax hike of about 3 to 4 percentage points of GDP. That is, he said, "I would support a balanced budget amendment that might set taxes and spending at about 18 to 19 percent of GDP." Remember that taxes are now less than 15% of GDP and you can see in this a fairly significant tax hike. (Admittedly, one that would be accompanied by a fairly hefty spending cut.) In theory, Romney realizes the need to raise taxes as well as cut spending in order to arrive at a balanced budget. So why would he never make this explicit?

Agreement on tax cuts may be all that Republicans have in common. As soon as a candidate walks away from this, he walks into a world of division where Republicans in gay marriages argue with fundamentalists who think that tolerance of gays and contraceptives have ruined this country. That's a waste land where majorities are lost. So, no matter how little sense it makes fiscally, no matter how much it drives up deficits, Republicans will never stop cutting taxes. It is the glue that holds them together.  The problem with this is that what puts the least strain on the Republican Party puts the most strain on America's fiscal health, raising the question of whose credit rating will be the first to be irreparably harmed: the US government's or the Republican Party's.

09 April 2012

Sacrifice Skips a Generation

This winter, thousands of new records were set for heat and temps in the US were up 6 degrees. 6. That's a lot.

Our national debt is growing faster than ever and is forecast to continue growing even once the economy recovers.

The baby boomers are now our leaders. 

What have those three to do with each other? Well, deficit reduction requires sacrifice (we get less in terms of programs and pay more in terms of taxes in order to lower the deficit). Addressing climate change requires sacrifice (it would mean paying more for gas, finding ways to conserve, etc.). And baby boomers are the leaders who blithely ignore these issues.

It might just be that among all their firsts, the baby boomers will be the first generation to feel no need to sacrifice.

Theirs are religions of love, not sacrifice, feasts not fasts. Theirs are policies with free prescription drugs and tax cuts. They've pioneered free love and rampant obesity. When they went to war in the Middle East their idea of civic duty was to "go shopping." Not only were they the first generation to get their parents to pay for their higher education, but they jacked up tuition for their own kids so that these same baby boomers might be the last generation to get (mostly) free education.

I wonder if any one of their leaders would ever dare to mention sacrifice or if they would be heard if they did.

06 April 2012

2012 Jobs Report and Obama's Future

Last month the American economy created 120,000 jobs.

Here's one way to compare 120,000 jobs gained vs. 258,000 jobs gained (the average of January and February).

So far, job creation under Obama has been negative. The economy has lost 740,000 jobs during his administration.

That number will turn positive with the jobs report in early July if the economy gains jobs at the rate it did in January and February. By contrast, it won't turn positive until the jobs report in early November if the economy gains jobs at the rate it did last month.

Of course, the economy "under Obama's administration" lost 2.2 million during his first three months in office. It's hard to imagine any sane person blaming his policies for the job losses in those first few months (or even, really, in his first year). Nonetheless, in a culture in which a tweet passes for news, it is hard to imagine even a sane rebuttal making much headway against the simple fact that job gains in Obama's first term are zero.

It might be that the election turns on something as simple as whether job gains between now and the election come at the rate they did in the first two months or at the rate they did last month.

Finally, here are two ways to compare Obama's job creation numbers with administrations back to Nixon.

In this first table, it simply compares job creation totals during their administration and then by month (highest, lowest, average), starting with the month after they were sworn in up to March of their fourth year.
Here you can see that only GW Bush had a worse time of it up to this point in his presidency. Still, as his supporters pointed out, it wasn't fair to burden him with the recession in inherited after the dot com bubble burst and, of course, Obama's supporters say a similar thing about holding him accountable for a global financial bust that was underway even before he was elected.

So, the next table shows the same number but excludes the first year for each administration, assuming that their policies had no impact in the first year but did in the second. Again, the totals are for the whole period while the low, high, and average values are for months. 

Discounting the numbers in the first year, we see that Obama fares much better. HW Bush now has the worst record, followed by GW Bush, Nixon, and then Reagan. Obama's total is third, behind Clinton and Carter.

But this raises another point. GW Bush got re-elected even with a terrible rate of job creation whereas Carter lost re-election even with great numbers. It might just be that job creation matters less than conventional wisdom would have us believe.

Happy Easter Weekend!

04 April 2012

Predictions Provocative

Yesterday watching the baseball game, I was trying to predict what each batter would do. My son was as well, but his predictions were far more accurate.

I would say, "Okay, this guy is going to tie the game in one swing." My son would counter with, "No. He's going to fly out."

Needless to say, my son's predictions were better. But they were also less interesting. Even the great ballplayers get out 70% of the time.

In the social world, if you want accuracy, you should predict no change, a continuation of the status quo. Any given day, the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of tomorrow being like today. You'll wake to the same weather, the same aches and pains, the same habits, the same news. But of course if that were always true, life would fade into all static, no stations, a buzz of monotony. What defines life - what is really interesting - is what is novel and, thus, improbable.

For this reason alone, it seems to me, predictions that force you to consider the world differently are worth more than predictions that prove accurate. The idea should be to provoke a new possibility, not confirm an old fact. The best predictions are the ones that change the odds rather than just report them.

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.