A discussion paper - 30th September 2017
Governance is usually defined as the means by which social rules, norms and actions are maintained. Instead, this essay defines it within a more ecological context as the means by which societies navigate their survival. Although mankind has increased global populations and reduced hunger and conflict to unprecedented levels, our activities have brought about a new era (i.e. the 'anthropocene') that could make the world ungovernable (Morton, 2016; Hamilton, 2017). The gap between rich and poor is widening, the Earth's biological carrying capacity is diminishing and the effects of climate change may prove to be catastrophic and irreversible. Merely aiming to become 'sustainable' (Brundtland, 1987) is no longer enough. We need 'co-sustainable' infrastructures (Wood, 2000) that enable us to become ecologically 'regenerative' (Wahl, 2016). However, it is unlikely that governments can implement such a paradigm change, on a 'top-down' basis, within the necessary timescale.
We envision a new world order that emerges on a 'bottom-up' basis. We believe this is possible, using some radical terms of reference that we developed through our metadesign research. From this perspective, instead of seeing assets as discrete 'things' that are extracted, quantified and priced, the world becomes an interplay of relations, differences, qualities and synergies. Using these criteria, assets multiply (rather than accrue on an additive basis) and the optimisation of scale becomes a critical issue. Ultimately, we envisage our findings informing more inclusive, post-industrial terms of reference that can be adopted by the more mainstream agencies within industry, education and politics.
In the short-term, we are planning to run a series of creative and exploratory workshops, which would focus on metadesigning a new shape for local governance. These workshops would bring together interdisciplinary teams of designers and non-designers to work collaboratively on ideating, synthesising, and prototyping visions and frameworks for new modes local governance. The outcomes of these workshops will be compiled in a short publication directed towards designers and local authorities.
Possible Medium-term Actions
We may need to augment existing P2P (Peer-to-Peer) technologies with methods that enable participants to share their more situated, somatic, and embodied forms of experience. We also aim to implement novel T2T (i.e. Team-to-Team) technologies as a basis for sharing.
Ultimately, we aim to seed a vibrant network of scale-defined, interdependent, self-governing communities. These would be invited to establish themselves according to relevant metadesign principles. For example, the communities would probably seek to recruit an optimum number of members (Dunbar, 1992) who offer the requisite diversity (Ashby, 1956) of working types (Belbin, 1996; Adzes, 2004), interests, ages and cognitive styles (Reynolds & Lewis, 2017; Page, 2008) . Activities might follow our sympoietic principles. The sharing of creative community activities (food growing, home building and/or maintenance and envisioning, for example) would help to establish durable co-dependencies. The notion of multi-perspective accountancy, for example, might lead to self-start community business model that works by combining many local 'micro-assets' to create a net synergy of synergies.
We believe that a politics of vision and 'designerly' imagination can work more effectively than the current, largely fiscal and bureaucratic approaches that rely heavily on quantification and choice. Our work in metadesign combines the benefits of co-designing with some novel management practices. It is the result of many years of research that challenges fundamental assumptions about the way things work. For example, we envision a world order in which diversity is acknowledged as a primary asset. Whereas the traditional notion of design is intrinsically future-oriented, metadesign seeks to bring its users to a celebration of their presence, i.e. the present moment.
Integrating Naming and Forming
In 1988, we created a uniquely entredonneurial BA(Hons) design programme that enabled practical designers to think beyond the fragmented commercial specialisms that have increasingly characterised the design profession since the 1880's. In 1995 we created the first MA 'Design Futures' programme that introduced non-linear forms of argumentation and writing. It helped them to re-imagine their professional practices within future scenarios that may be hard to predict from the prevailing belief system. This encouraged young designers into put environmental and ethical issues first. Our experience in augmenting 'design thinking' with techniques for 'languaging change' informed the launch (2002) of our international network (Writing-PAD), followed by, in 2007, a journal (The Journal of Writing in Creative Practice).
From 2005 to 2008 we received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) & Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding to run a 3-year project entitled ‘Benchmarking Synergy-levels within Metadesign’. This project set out to help designers to learn how to cultivate different types of synergy, not just products and services. This research has informed an emerging field of practice that enables designers to transcend, and/or, to reinvent, the traditional limitations of design. It is an advisory framework that is intended to be tailored and adapted for a range of local, specific purposes. We call it metadesign (N.B. not to be confused with the commercial branding and graphic design company of the same name).
|Paradigm changing||Anything less is unlikely to help us avoid ecological disaster|
|Ecomimetic||We need to learn from Nature's big systems|
|Comprehensive||We need a joined-up approach to food, shelter, clothing, mobility, etc..|
|Re-languaging||Because paradigms exist partly in the mind|
|Synergy-weaving||Combining existing resources can deliver greater abundance|
|Co-creative||No individual is smart enough to see the big picture|
|Entredonneurial||Top-down and bottom-up initiatives must work in synergy|
|Flat-structured||Fixed hierarchies tend to shield us from our responsibilities|
|Fractal-oriented||Because we all need to find our way in the whole system|
|Radically optimistic||Because negative thoughts make miracles seem less possible|
We have introduced, evaluated and developed our approach to metadesign in many universities universities (including Goldsmiths, University of London; Welsh University of Cardiff, Wales; Stanford University, USA; Nagoya University, Japan; University of Iceland, Linnaeus University, Sweden; Kunsthøgskolen i Oslo, Norway; King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thailand; Seoul National University, S. Korea; Kyung Hee University, S. Korea). We have also design and facilitated industry-based workshops on behalf of a range of organisations, including British Telecom UK, Swarovski (Austria), Evoasis USA (with EPR Architects), Arcola Theatre (London). We have also published our findings in more than 30 keynote talks (see our 2013 TEDx talk, Oslo), 20 book chapters and numerous academic papers. (see publications of Prof. John Wood, Prof. Phil Jones, and other metadesign publications
Writing as the Basis for Governance
In today's era of expanding connectivity it would relatively easy to devise more creative modes of democracy (c.f. Dewey, 1939; Jones, 1998). But this challenges the traditional fiscal and bureaucratic methods of governments and NGOs. These depend on naming and/or quantifying limits, via the choice of leaders, the setting of targets, penalties and taxes, or by the prescribing of keywords in laws and charters. Donella Meadows has described these methods as the 'least effective options available' for managing change (Meadows, 1995). This is because they are abstract and indirect. We envisage a scenario in which citizens would be asked to envision better possible futures, rather than choosing from a few, ready-made options. The current anxiety about digital systems being vulnerable to hostile interference, would apply less to imaginative descriptions, than to the binary decisions cast in a ballot box democracy.
From Choosing to Envisioning
'Design thinking' (Brown, 2009: 2010) works differently from fiscal and decision-making frameworks of most governments. Where money depends upon alphanumerical codes to prescribe boundaries, design uses visual forms in a way that may appear to play with, or defy, existing boundaries. Its agenda is also different from that of science. Whereas scientists are trained to seek evidence and to construct, refute, or defend 'truth-claims', designers are usually employed to 'make things work'. (Wood, 2000). For example, by intervening playfully, designers can sometimes create new 'affordances' (Norman, 1988) that encourage behavioural change. We believe that design methods could play a transformative role in new forms of governance (Burns, Cottam, Vanstone & Winhall, 2006). Nonetheless, designing may achieve similar outcomes (Bauman, 2006) if we simply see it as the ability to move from ‘given to preferred situations’ (Simon, 1969).
Back to the Future
It is only very recently, in evolutionary terms, that humans came to rely upon the 'wholesale' logic and long-term strategic thinking that is needed to manage vast empires. This may explain why humans are poor at grasping to grasp the complexity of large numbers. Our ancestors (Homo sapiens) separated from chimpanzees between 12 and 6 million years ago and attained their modern anatomical form, some 300,000 and 100,000 years ago, but it is only within the the last 10, or 20 thousand years, that certain key innovations (e.g. agriculture, writing, money, geometry) enabled emperors to mobilise large armies and to colonise distant territories (Graeber, 2011). We acquired our reasoning powers over at least two million of years of local, Earth-bound physical experiences - i.e. by lifting, dragging or hurling weighty objects and by shaping, cutting and weaving artefacts (Calvin, 1997).
The Fall from Grace
It is hard to find guidance on the way forward, as most historical and religious texts focus only on these last ten, or so, thousand years of our human evolutionary journey (Kramer, 2010). Reading them, we might conclude that 'successful' societies were those that built cities, planted a reduced number of crop species and improved their means of storing food (Ponting, 1991). Archaeology suggests that exchanging the precarious freedom of hunting and gathering with the monotonous dependability of mining and farming was a painful transition. Human skeletons excavated from Neolithic sites (around ten thousand years ago) indicate that the first grain-grinders were smaller, weaker, and less healthy than their predecessors (Armelagos & Cohen, 1984).
The Triumph of Economics over Ecology
In recent times, of course,technology has made life healthier for vast numbers of people. However, this has been at the cost of de-forestation, soil erosion and water contamination caused by today's intensive agriculture (Savory, 1983). In many regions, mechanisation has reduced the numbers of farmers to around 2% of the population. The shift of attention from tending crops to managing society's increasingly complex infrastructures is what may have led to the political assumption that the economy is, somehow, more important than the ecosystem. Unfortunately, since the 1970s, while the global economy has more than doubled in size, the biosphere has lost half of its vertebrate species and a major chunk of its biological carrying capacity (WWF. 2013; Rockström, 2015; Leakey & Lewin, 1996). For several decades, the Pentagon has warned that climate change poses a greater threat to mankind than terrorism, or nuclear war. Nonetheless, governments continue to subsidise the carbon fuel industries at two, or three, times the level that is afforded to the renewable energy sector (IEA, 2015). This reflects the lobbying power of industry who mobilise any influential climate change 'sceptics' in order to delay the inevitable shift to renewables.
Engines of Growth
How did this happen? Economists and bankers achieved an exalted status partly by making numerical predictions that proved correct (Rapley, 2017). This allowed them to invent mechanisms for distributing wealth without much human intervention. Adam Smith's sober reflections on the collective nature of wealth from individual work (Smith, 1776) started with a joke (Mandeville, 1704). Today, it is one of the main pillars of capitalism. The underlying assumption is that, by harnessing greed, we will eventually find that money will 'trickle down' to the needy. Although it is increasingly clear that more money trickles up than down (Bregman, 2017), politicians continue to call for ever higher levels of GDP. Some have challenged the logic behind 'economic growth', arguing that it oversimplifies the issues (Keen, 2017), does not do what it is claimed to do (Douthwaite, 1992) and has a serious negative impact on the living environment (Jackson, 2009). What is needed is innovation that encourages and facilitates local (ecological) regeneration. The institutionalisation of credit (e.g. in the 'futures' markets) was a useful way to encourage more transactions, even during times of pessimism, famine, or other scarcities.
The Hunger for the Future
Theories of economic growth may be relatively recent, but the idea of credit is not new. It works as a powerful anticipatory force because of the psychology of money. As Georg Simmel put it, “regardless of the amount, the liveliness of attached hopes gives money a glow” (Simmel, 1900). In effect, money is only numbers that we imagine in the context of our private desires - i.e. it has no intrinsic value, rather its quality "consists exclusively in its quantity", (Simmel, 1900). It behaves as the "purest example of the tool” (Simmel, 1900), allowing the spender to act remotely, i.e. to acquire and despatch without touching anything. This was achieved by integrating the financial and design sectors as part a belief system that exploits a sense of dissatisfaction with what we have. But this 'hunger for the future’ can also be attributed to deeper aspects of Western thought (Tarnas, 1991). Where Buddhism expressly identified desire as a cause of suffering, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all cultivated a profound belief in an exalted future state. It is unlikely that this was the origin of teleology, as the first known futures market probably comes from the Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) , which established a legal basis for delivering assets at a future date (Urch, 1929).
The Role of Design
It is not only money and the financial markets that are driven by anticipation and desire. Designing is also strongly dependent on the idea of an anticipated future. In practical terms, designers can significantly reduce the environmental damage caused by wasteful business models (Thackara, 2005). It can, also, offer novel, non-coercive methodologies to civil servants (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008; Kimbell, 2012). Unfortunately, these are exceptional examples. Within the current capitalist system, professional designers are routinely employed to make shopping more addictive (Forty, 1986). They have become mercenary specialists who support existing business models, whether or not these are ethical, or wise. If s/he is lucky, a designer may be asked to make environmental improvements to existing products, or services. Unfortunately, designing 'greener' products and services is no longer enough, as we need a more radical shift in behaviour. At present, however, designers are not asked to re-think the business models behind the products. Nor are they trained to re-invent the language that makes our daily lives seem 'normal'. Here, the design of product delivery systems is driven by a vision of limitless consumption, in which the customer can have anything s/he wants, at any time, anywhere (Gates, 1999).
Gambling on a Better Future
Cognitively speaking, the task of the designer is to imagine a future state, and to hold onto this vision long enough to see it culminate in a completed product. The teleological nature of ‘design’ is often attributed to Aristotle, who defined it as the ‘ultimate cause'. This is a strange idea, as it suggests that we live in the future, rather than in the present. In thinking about forms of governance that would encourage a more cooperative spirit we will use design as a benchmark of the human condition. From this perspective, humans now seem able to work tirelessly towards a better future, even though it is clear this could make the general situation worse (Hardin, 1968).
Learning From Indigenous Peoples
Where might we look for deep human insights that might inform a better system of governance? One important aspect of our task will be to learn from indigenous peoples, where possible. One aspect of our task will be to revise and/or re-invent the sense of time, in order to combine the best aspects of human capability. We might, for example, reflect upon 'ecological futures', 'cosmological futures' and the 'phenomenological now'.
An Organisational Agenda that is Non-Linear
We can describe much of our metadesign framework in four, interdependent parts:
- A = Organisational Consciousness - the capacity for awareness and the focus it brings
- B = Optimum scale - optimal size / number / proportions for self-management
- C = New vision - the ability to re-language coherent feasibilities
- D = Synergy - when (re)combining existing assets creates new ones
As our thinking is holistic and comprehensive, it is hard to represent it in a standard linear form. We will therefore introduce our agenda under four interconnected topic headings. By illustrating them in 3D form (see below), rather than a list, we indicate that they have no fixed hierarchical importance.
We will present it in 4-fold, non-hierarchical format (see above diagram).
- Local Consciousness: - Semir Zeki regards individual consciousness as consisting of many separate 'micro-consciousnesses' that coexist at different levels in the brain. This corresponds with Gazzaniga's and Libet's work in which they speak of 'confabulation' in the way that sub-agencies of the brain account for contradictory evidence appearing at the conscious level from different routes.
- Collective Consciousness: - Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) saw collective consciousness as the shared beliefs and moral attitudes that bring unity to social behaviour. Later on, (1959) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin popularised the idea of a ‘global consciousness’. Several thousand years before this, Anaxagoras spoke of a 'Universal Mind', which he imagined as tiny ‘seeds’ of reality that permeated everywhere.
- Network Consciousness: - Today's global digital network is one part of these much bigger ideas of 'consciousness'. Marvin Minsky claimed that some computer programmes are "more conscious than humans". However, although computers do make frequent 'inquiries' about their own state, this habit comes from (allopoietic) algorithms, not from a living (autopoietic) sense of curiosity.
- Organisational Consciousness: - In practical organisational terms, increasing the number of participants in a group, organisation, or community usually leads to the emergence of a hierarchy. This inevitably reduces the number and/or quality of face-to-face meetings. Another way to say this, is that governance became 'dumbed-down' when we scaled-up communities to a size that became alienating. Here, we use the term alienation as diametrically opposite to what we mean by consciousness.
- Embodied Consciousness: - For our purposes we regard all knowledge as tacit knowledge (Polanyi, 1969) in the sense that it emerges from mind and body working together. One aspect of this is the apparent split between 'fast thinking' and 'slow thinking' (Kahneman, 2011). This is also similar to differences between what Heidegger calls (Western/alphabetical?) 'thinking' and 'design thinking' described by Schon as 'reflection-in-action'.
In our view, the habit of scaling-up successful enterprises increasingly leads to hierarchy, bureaucracy, inequality and, sometimes, megalomania and despotism. Our approach offers two critical zones within which to manage, or to design for, optimum scale.
- Community size
The anthropologist, Robin Dunbar correlated primate brain size and average social group size, showing that humans can comfortably maintain stable relationships only with around 150 others. While tiny communities may be built on the enduring relations sustained by face-to-face collaboration between neighbours, the same quality of trust cannot be scale-up above a certain number of participants (Dunbar, 1992). This is a useful rule-of-thumb in devising a better system of governance, especially now that the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relations in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. The importance of diversity as an asset of a system's resilience (Ashby, 1956) is sometimes undervalued in a culture predicated on competition, debate and consensus, rather than seeing creative synergy as the outcome of difference. Ecological diversity is advantageous (Grilli, Barabás, Michalska-Smith & Allesina, 2017). Recent studies have shown that cognitive diversity within teams (Reynolds & Lewis, 2017; Page, 2008) is useful (c.f. Chamorro-Premuzic, 2017). Other work has shown that a requisite range of working styles and roles (e.g. Belbin, 1996; Adizes, 2004) is vital for the success of organisations.N.B. It would be crucially important to regulate the necessary variety (c.f. Ashby, 1956) of community members (e.g. skills, cognitive styles, interests, experiences (c.f. Adizes, ).
- Elements of Innovation
The genre of 'invention' was popularised after the 18th century, partly because it fed a public fascination for tales of genius - the cliche of the eccentric inventor who has 'lightbulb' moment and creates a 'silver bullet' or world-saving gadget. However, what Koestler called the 'act of creation' is always a hidden process of (re)combination. This means that the classical invention is the single outcome from the combination of two elements. Hypothetically, if one were to combine many elements, there would be a potential torrent of new inventions. But there are important cognitive limits to the number of relations humans can manage effectively. (see below)
For example, humans are poor at imagining more than 4 interdependent variables at the same time. Nelson Cowan, and others, suggest that our brains 'chunk' information in fours (Cowan, 2001). Note that, in the tetrahedron (below), each of the nodes is connected directly to each of the others.
Our simple relational innovation framework is designed to work within the range of competence of most human minds (i.e. 4).
This was shown in the mathematics of Leonhard Euler (1751) and Richard Buckminster Fuller (1975). They showed that a four-player system provides optimum synergy because of its auspicious ratio of agents and relations (see Wood, 2007:1).
If we are to replace the current choice-based systems of governance with a more vision-based alternative we need to understand what works at different levels. It is well known that wicked problems cannot be solved by applying the mindset that created them (c.f. Einstein, 1946). Envisioning becomes, in part, an issue of language, because innovation at the paradigmatic level calls for neologisms that are likely to seem surprising. Whereas top-down language is more declarative, remote and abstract, bottom-up language is more likely to be procedural, situated and specific. Alphabetical writing, accountancy and financial currency systems all evolved as top-down languages that would work, using interoperable standards that work across vast distances. Many languages are becoming extinct because empires are usually more interested in 'top-down' discourses that will work at the lowest common denominator (i.e. across different cultures and regions, each with its own local nuances and innuendo). However, when suitable innovations in language are found, this may cause misunderstandings, and a consequent lack of external support.
In the 6th century, Bhartrihari (450-510) argued that our ‘reality’ is structured by language. This implies that, by changing a ‘linguistic paradigm’ (c.f. de Saussure, 1916) we change what is ‘thinkable’ (Whorf, 1956).
By changing the metaphorical and syntactical structures of language (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980) we can re-attune ourselves to new 'realities'. This would be a way to change attitudes, relationships and habits of behaviour. In ecosystems, Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) showed how different organisms can establish effective working relations (i.e. 'structural coupling') despite their very different habits and protocols. He knew that each living creature experiences the world differently, because of differences in their sensory organs and nervous systems. This approach borrows from empirical philosophy, which assumes that our experience consists of sensory data from the ‘outside world’, and which arrives at the brain after mediation by the particular sensors and processors of the nervous system. He therefore coined the term ‘umwelt’ (von Uexküll, in Ingold, 2011, p. 64) to describe the subjective ‘reality’ of this experience. Structural coupling is managed through what Humberto Maturana calls 'languaging' (Maturana, 1978). This can be described as the reciprocal, meaning-making activity by which adjacent organisms first create, then settle on, a workable code of communication. It is important to emphasise that this process is part of each organism's survival repertoire.
People often describe synergy by referring to the sum: '2+2=5'. However, this is rather a vague idea. A better way to say this as that some combinations are more productive, or valuable, than their separate ingredients. In design terms, when we bring existing assets together, Nature gives us a new asset, free. The word 'synergy' derives from the Greek word 'synergos' (συνεργός), simply meaning "working together". Arguably, the dominant grammatical systems depict the world in terms of separate nouns, rather than focusing on the dynamic conjunctions that make things work (see Wood, 2017). Thus we think of evolution as a succession of design improvements, rather than as Nature's tendency to find new synergies (c.f. Corning, 1983).
Although synergies exist all around us, most are probably unnoticed. This is because they have not been named and because they are so numerous. Many confound us because they work across the boundaries of language. This makes them hard to describe in words. It means, in practical terms, that we may need to language them into our conscious minds (see Relanguaging the Creative). By developing a more combinatorial logic we can make the industrial and social worlds 'regenerative'. This is an important evolutionary principle. What we call 'reproduction' in biology is more properly known as 'recombination'. It is difficult to describe synergies is that most modern languages seem to value nouns (things), more than conjunctions and verbs (active relations). Perhaps this reflects our industrial history in which we focused mainly onto the mining, shaping and invention of individual hand-tools and gadgets for agriculture and mass production. By scaling up the industrial system, it seems 'natural' to quantify the world in units of currency, weights and distances, etc.
The paradigm of mining seems to have shaped the 'law of diminishing returns' for Enlightenment thinkers, such as Descartes. However, now we are in the age of the creative industries, the logic can be reversed by learning from Nature, which applies the 'Law of Increasing Returns'. As the economist, Paul Romer reminds us, "possibilities do not add up. They multiply." (Paul Romer). Our approach will, therefore, encourage the development of synergy-rich language system, in which evolution is depicted as the emergence of new synergies (c.f. Corning, 1983). It will enable communities to attain this by focusing their attention onto (creative) relations and synergies. Ultimately, by cultivating a 'diversities-of-diversities' society would be able to harvest an ultimate ‘synergy-of-synergies’ (Corning, 1983; Fuller, 1975). One way to re-think the need for high energy travel is by pointing to a lack of requisite diversity within one's home locality. If communities were to value many diversities, the need for expensive transportation could be minimised. The following list offers a rough and ready framework for making combinations that may lead to synergy opportunities within optimally-scaled, autonomous communities.
- number concepts
- linguistic concepts (essential & accidental)
- performative concepts
- substances (chemical)
- substances (physics)
- living creatures
- nutritional criteria
- aesthetic criteria
Top Down Governance
A comparison of some current political assumptions and habits in comparison with our thinking.
Further Reading / Sources
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