A system lens on the current social divide

6 minute read
A world map

Infrastructure: from French (1875); infra + structure (n.). The installations and underlying framework that form the basis for any operation or system.

Oxford languages

I first encountered the concept of systems thinking during my postgraduate diploma at the University of Oxford, when I had the privilege to sit in a lecture that was conducted by George Ellis. For those of you who are not familiar with his work, George is a distinguished mathematician, professor of complex systems, and considered one of the world’s leading theorists in cosmology. He co-authored the book The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with physicist Stephen Hawking, published in 1973. 

By definition, a system is a coherently organised set of interconnected parts or elements that form a whole. Once these parts are arranged in a specific order and begin to function as an entirety, we get what is called a process of emergence whereby a new level of organisation is created, and thus a complex system begins to emerge. We can find a number of large-scale, complex adaptive systems in both nature and within our society – food systems, political systems, energy systems, health systems, financial systems and so on.

The issue of inequality and other types of social divide are among the greatest dysfunctions of our modern society, with a level of complexity that cuts deeper than the skin. And I fear that we are not treating the root cause of a systemic failure but rather using a patch to fix the bugs that come to exist in the complex operating system of our society. Donella H. Meadows argued that a failure in the system cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking. We must, therefore, aim for a far more ambitious plan, to strive for a deeper meaning and rebuild a new social infrastructure, to enable transformative change in individuals, in organisations, in communities and their impact on the entire ecosystem – we are in desperate need of a holistic upgrade!

The biological function

The moment you join a group or a community based on a joint idea, beliefs or a cause – centred around race, religion, political beliefs, music taste, profession or simply of patriotic feelings of a nation – you unconsciously merge your individual beliefs to the beliefs of the collective body in that group, making way to a more primitive side of yourself. Thus, a single collective mind is formed, and the group then becomes bigger and more powerful than the individuals in it. Much like how individual cells come together and you emerge, a single organism. Then, you, as a member of the group, function as a cell and join your self-interest with the others of the group, for the greater good of the large-scale organism – the society.

Ergo, an individual mind, i.e. our identity in the world, is modulated by an interconnected system, not understood in isolation. This complexity and function of life of any living organism is bound to a bottom-up (left side of image) and top-down (right side of image) causation.

But, ‘all levels are equally real. Causation takes place at each level, emergence is bottom-up, and realisation is top-down. Multiple lower level realisability is possible for each higher level function’ (George Ellis).

And this is why in organisations, a bottom-up focused approach results in creativity, team-driven thinking and collaboration, whereas a top-down management style typically results in control, imposition and eventually stiffness within an organisation.

If we trace man to its savage roots, we find that he did not have prejudice over other men on physical traits. We will also see that, to those whom nature gave higher stature, a more robust constitution, vigour and strength. Violence was not used to subjugate the fellow men with lower attributes, but rather as a means to survive in the search for food and shelter. It was only once man started living in community and harnessing the earth through the practice of agriculture that the concept of property was installed and thus the principle of ‘with more land and resources one man possessed, the more power to rule over other man was given to him’. The basis of social divides, therefore, must not be encoded in our natural savage ways, but rather engendered by a shared constructivism of a group of those with political and/or economic power in a society. And if so, then there is a way to collectively strive for an innovative solution.

From ego to eco

Innovation is powered by two things – the creation of something new and useful, and its adoption within the changing society, thus introducing a new solution that adds value to the overall context to which it was introduced. This enables us to adapt through time and evolve. When innovation is focused on parts and incremental innovation, it is difficult to find overarching solutions that will enable the adaptation.

This is where corporations and world leaders must step up to the plate, by re-shifting their strategies from a self-interest economic growth perspective to an ecosystem thinking, becoming therefore not just system builders but system changers. And this seems to be a growing trend. According to Morning Star, just this year alone more than 45 billion US dollars have flown into environmental, social and governance (ESG) investments across the globe. 

Doughnut economics, there is a finite amount of resource

We must evolve as a society, not only through technological progress but through social innovation, where political structures and capitalism are not built upon the needs of the very few but through a shared commonality of our most basic and essential human needs for love, shelter, food and freedom – a doughnut society.

System changers won’t necessarily work across all of the areas of the doughnut, and there is no particular order to how these areas work. They will oscillate between them – a somewhat messy doughnut. So ‘managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes…’ (Russell Ackoff, The Future of Operational Research Is Past).

My time at Oxford has shed light on many questions that I had about the world of innovation and my place in that world as a manager and a future leader, but the most important lesson I took, is that, despite great our efforts across times, we are prone to such discourses on inequality, economic instability, environmental degradation and other dysfunctions of human societies. 

If we wish to see real change, we must analyse our current state from a different lens, one where we create a society that nurtures system changers, not just entrepreneurs. And we can achieve this by having a strong sense of human values and associated meaning, fostering long-term resilience through diversity, to have the ability to navigate the unknown.