Systemic Change

Systemic Change

European School of Governance, position paper #42  by Louis Klein.

Successful change is systemic change. It had always been systemic change, or it was neither change nor successful. Following Albert Einstein, who supposedly said that the thinking that created the problems will not be the thinking that will solve them, we are looking for the kind of thinking that is fit for the 21st century and able to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene.

Off the mainstream thinking of the 20th century, we find system thinking and cybernetics. These theories and practices provide a framework for thinking and leading differently to navigate complexity and are amazingly close to ancient wisdom. These frames provide ideas of how to govern the Anthropocene and contribute concepts of change that are culturally desirable and technically feasible, or shall we say, which are viable, resilient and sustainable.

The fate of humankind is threatened by five, not four, horsemen of the Apocalypse, according to British archaeologist and historian Ian Morris, who connected the collapse of civilizations to climate change, famine, migration, disease, and state failure.

As the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGGs) demonstrate, the challenges of the 21st century and the Anthropocene are not that different at all from what humankind has seen before. Yet, these complex, systemic challenges are amplified in what is debated as the Great Acceleration, as socioeconomic and ecological parameters enter a phase of exponential growth, e.g. population growth, energy capture, emissions, water usage, investments, telecommunications.

The world is not only getting faster and faster, but in its complexity, the world is not as tame, or as under our control, as past eras have wanted us to believe. The world is, and yet, in fact has always been, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, hence the acronym VUCA. The educator Judith Hicks Stiehm developed the VUCA model for the U.S. military revising their approaches. It is quite remarkable but not surprising, that it had been necessary to rewrite the textbooks, and not only those of the U.S. military. The mainstream models of 20th century thinking in governance, business, economics, and education followed the success model of engineering. You measure the world, you come up with a plan and then you implement it. This is one directional, linear reasoning, grounded in the scientific process and the Enlightenment. However, the world is indeed complex and does not obey to the idea of linear thinking.

The next enlightenment will be a systemic one

The challenges of the 21st century demand a new Enlightenment, a shift that thoroughly integrates the knowledge, and the hard lessons, that have moved our understanding of the world, in all its volatile, but also vibrant; uncertain, yet also surprising; terrifying and beautiful complexity – past the naivety of model, command, and control thinking.

This is what the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor W. Adorno called the negative dialectics, the enlightenment of the Enlightenment. It requires a substantial epistemological turn, tapping into system thinking and cybernetics, to understand systemicity, to acknowledge complexity, emergence, and contextuality.

First is to acknowledge the dynamics of complexity.

From a cybernetic perspective, complexity is all about processes and events that feedback on themselves, creating circular dependencies on themselves.  Conventional logic does not like this for it is creating paradoxes. Epimenides’ paradox, “all Cretans are liars,” is an early recognition in ancient Greek philosophy that logically things become difficult if linear logic does not apply. Nevertheless, the ancient Greek philosophers as well as the Cretans managed to get on by calling the paradox the “exemption” of the rule.

In real life, however, linear logic is the exemption. We have forgotten this, since linear logic fuelled the success story of engineering and propelled industrialisation. Hence, linear logic lies at the heart of what we call modern society. In the 21st century, however, we realise that the industrialisation and modern society were not the success stories we thought them to be. All we really won was the capability to destroy life on the planet, starting with nuclear weapons and not ending with climate change. We do not understand what we are doing, if we apply linear logic. In the Anthropocene the complexity of social systems rules.

Second is to acknowledge nature of emergence.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle recognised that the whole is more than, and different from, the sum of its parts. It reads like a commonplace. However, for all we know about cybernetics, this describes the phenomenon of emergence, which implies a so-called phase shift and a change of operating logic. It constitutes the whole as an entity in its own right.

Thought, for example, emerges from the bio-chemical and electro-magnetic activities of the brain, yet thought is an entirely different entity, operating in its own logic. We cannot see thought. We can only observe the brain working. We cannot see social systems. But assuming, with the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, that there is no society, misses the point and fails to understand the forces that shape the world.

Third is to acknowledge contextuality.

Theodor W. Adorno claimed in his Minima Moralia that there was no right life in the wrong life. Adorno wrote this referring to the Nazi regime of the Third Reich, meaning that the political context will always overrule the individual’s intentions. There may be resistant rebels, however, they have to be both resisting and rebellious, and this comes at a high price. The mainstream in society have learnt, as the Swiss psychologist and epistemologist Jean Piaget described it, to assimilate and to accommodate.

If we learn to acknowledge systemicity, we can enlighten the conditio humana, the condition of human life. Structurally coupled, there are three emergent levels that are inevitable contexts for any human being. These are the living body, the conscious mind and society, the whole of social others. The conscious self requires and is embedded in a living body and society requires and emerges from human activities and interaction. Each level is operating in its own logic and is a ruling context for the activities of the level it emerges from. The biopsychosocial model of health describes the same. A sick world does not allow for a healthy mind and a sick mind does not allow for a healthy body, and vice versa. Health is systemic, it is balanced over and depended from all three levels.

Change needs to acknowledge the systemicity of the world, emergence and contextuality.

Changing frames

We cannot change anything successfully within a given frame unless we change the frame accordingly to promote the intended change. The given frames of emergent levels, or referring to the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, autopoietic systems like the body, the psyche or social systems, are robust and conservative. They are because they are autopoietic, that is, self-generating and self-sustaining, able to reproduce themselves in an identical manner. The body, for example, renewals all it cells every seven years without losing its identity. However, as we know from the American mathematician, meteorologist, and pioneer of chaos theory, Eduard Norton Lorenz, there are phenomena we learnt to describe as “butterfly effects.” Tiny changes in processes of emergence can shift global systems. Even mighty systems have sensitive spots that eventually allow for change.

Change based on the linear logic of the 20th century does not work. It lacks systemicity.

However, on top of this – or shall we say due to this – modern Western societies sit in a cultural trap, having exuberantly yet incompletely embraced two important ideas from the Enlightenment: The emancipation of the individual and the notion of self-organisation. First, today’s individual oscillates between hubris and burn-out. The individual as part of society is not as mighty as it believes. The individual aims too high and fails, not only in change. And second, self-organisation described by the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith with the metaphor of the invisible hand is not necessarily good. Systemically, self-organisation is a neutral emergent process which can, under some circumstances, lead to an equilibrium on free markets or to cancer in the body, to give just two opposing examples. We cannot trust the invisible hand; we had better watch it.

“Change is the only constant” is a quote attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus and sounds counterintuitive to all what was said about autopoietic systems thus far. Yet it points to what became known as the Tai Chi of Change. This concept refers to the opposing yet related forces of Yin and Yang, from which we can learn two things about change. First, it is a balance of a transforming and an integrating force, of innovation and continuous improvement. And second, change needs to be sufficient. If a body slows down to replace body cells we call it aging, and when it stops to do so entirely we call it death. Change on the level of the psyche or the level of social systems either brings something new and it is referred to as innovation, or it improves something which already exists. And picking the example of organisational lifecycles, organisations wither if their rate of change, of innovation and continuous improvement, slows down. And over time, those organisations cease to exist.

The call for change in the Anthropocene usually comes as a call for systems change, i.e. changing socio-technical systems, which is very much in tune with what the American management educator Noel M. Tichy brought forward as the TPC model. Tichy argues that there are three dominating perspectives on social systems, a technical perspective, a political and a cultural perspective, hence the acronym TPC. The technical perspective is based on linear logic. The political as well as the cultural perspective refer to what can be called social complexity. Any attempt to change social systems needs to acknowledge the systemicity of politics and culture or it fails. And if we state that projects or change fail on the human side, it indicates right this. Human beings, psyches and social systems are innate complex. So, we either cater for this complexity while attempting change or we fail.

Any idea of governing the Anthropocene needs to be systemic and acknowledge complexity, emergence and contextuality. If social systems rule people, and if the Anthropocene is characterised as the epoch where human activities on the planet determine the destiny of the world, changing social systems should be in the centre of our attention.

We either continuously improve and innovate our social systems or the Five Horsemen of the apocalypse will have their day.

Systemic change in the Anthropocene needs to restore the primacy of politics and take it from there. And while we see two lead discourses in society, namely politics and economy, it is politics which come first. The political order sets the scene for any private activity such as business for example. In politics, in the public realm, rules are set, which channel the emergence of society which serves as the ruling context for any human activity. We tend to overlook this since good politics are silent. If the political order serves thriving of the people and the planet, it remains invisible in the individual actions. Only if we breach the law we learn upon negative sanctions that it actually exists. And while states, as the French sociologist Marcel Mauss pointed out, are institutionalised solidarity, the economy very visibly operates upon performance principles. Economies are institutionalised performance orientation. Who performs well will be rewarded and this is what the most of us aim for. And although we degrade the political order to a constraint of our activity, it provides the ruling context and comes prior to any economic activity.

If we want to change the world in the Anthropocene, pursuing thrivability of the people and the planet, we need to find the sensitive spots that allow to change the political order first to realise desirable ends with desirable means.

In the end, a systemic perspective on change shows that change can be provoked with little effort or not at all.

A systemic Enlightenment will teach us how. Successful change is systemic change.