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Embodiment of Change: Comprehension, Traction and Impact?

Discovering enabling questions for the future (Part #1)

Prepared in response to the Urgent Appeal to Change the Mindset (March 2011)
launched by the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives

Identifying meta-challenges: checklists and documents
Case studies: sources of potential insights and learnings

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This is an effort to summarize reflections on the capacity to engage with increasingly apparent inadequacy in the response to evident problems -- whether systemic or associated with particular crises. These inadequacies are exemplified by the recent response of the "international community" to the Gulf of Mexico oil leak (2010), to the Haiti earthquake and flooding (2010), and to the Libyan uprising (2011).

More generally the need for such reflection is indicated by the insights of the following:

As included in an early summary (Acknowledgement of the universe of problems, 1976), the accumulating urgency was indicated long ago:

  • While the difficulties and dangers of problems tend to increase at a geometric rate, the knowledge and manpower qualified to deal with those problems tend to increase at an arithmetical rate. (Yehezkel Dror. Prolegomenon to policy sciences, AAAS symposium, Boston, 1969)

  • Social institutions face growing difficulties as a result of an ever increasing complexity which arises directly and indirectly from the development and assimilation of technology. Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines (Bellagio Declaration on Planning. In: Erich Jantsch (Ed) Perspectives on Planning. Paris, OECD, 1969).

  • What finally makes all of our crises still more dangerous is that they are now coming on top of each other. Most administrations...are not prepared to deal with...multiple crises, a crisis of crises all at one time...Every problem may escalate because those involved no longer have time to think straight. (John Platt. What we must do. Science, 28 November 1969, pp. 1115-1121).

The challenge has been well described by John Ralston Saul (Voltaire's Bastards: the dictatorship of reason in the West, 1992; The Unconscious Civilization, 1995), but most succinctly as a form of Le Chatelier's Principle by Stafford Beer (The Cybernetic Cytoblast: management itself, 1969) in the following terms:

Reformers, critics of institutions, consultants in innovation, people in sort who "want to get something done", often fail to see this point. They cannot understand why their strictures, advice or demands do not result in effective change. They expect either to achieve a measure of success in their own terms or to be flung off the premises. But an ultrastable system (like a social institution)... has no need to react in either of these ways. It specialises in equilibrial readjustment which is to the observer a secret form of change requiring no actual alteration in the macro-systemic characteristics that he is trying to do something about (Chairman's Address to the International Cybernetics Congress, September 1969)

A conventional response to any such call for new thinking is to consider that such a framing exemplifies "negativity". The dangers of simplisitic "positive thinking" have however been variously summarized (Being Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge of positive vs negative, 2005; Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering, 2008). Most notable is the argument of Barbara Ehrenreich (Smile Or Die: how positive thinking fooled America and the world, 2010). The question is how to enable appropriate "critical thinking" (Web resources: Critical thinking vs. Specious arguments, 2001).

A previous effort to summarize and order these considerations, in the light of the following documents, appeared as Governing Civilization through Civilizing Governance: global challenge for a turbulent future (2008) -- a contribution on the occasion of the 3rd Annual Conference organized by the Global Governance Group of the New School of Athens (NSOA): Theme: Making Global Governance Work: Lessons from the Past. Solutions for the Future (Athens, 2008). That summary had been preceded by Enabling Creative Response to Extraordinary Crises (2001) and was followed by Enabling Strategies for Viable Futures (2009).

The current Urgent Appeal to Change the Mindset (March 2011) would appear to be a consequence of the International Forum for Climate Justice (Cancun, 2010). This was the subject of earlier comment (From Changing the Strategic Game to Changing the Strategic Frame: missing cognitive possibility in changing the system not the planet, 2010).

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