The Forces of Change Unscrambling Complexity

Escalating change is in evidence. The shift of the global axis towards the East is one example, changing global terms of trade another and growing global disparities a third. Not to mention climate change, pollution and the growth of fear culture.

With so much happening quickly and simultaneously, the world feels complex and disturbing. The changes feel dramatic, like a paradigm shift unfolding. How do you unscramble the complexity to see clearly and disentangle the different layers and levels of problem? It is more than unpeeling an onion or an orange, because the elements interweave, interlock and reinforce.

If you look at the world within the mindset that created the problems we worry about, you will only replicate those problems: the mind that created the problem is unlikely to be the mind that solves it, to approximate Einstein's words. An underlying theme is that our mental toolkit may not be appropriate for current circumstances. our intellectual architecture was constructed for the age of industrialism and has sedimented itself into our minds like a cityscape of familiar streets and buildings which we simply take for granted. Since such mental architecture gets out of date, it causes a particular set of conundrums and strategic dilemmas when we try to apply it to the emerging world. And we attribute incomprehension to 'complexity' rather than revisiting and questioning the

Source: Richard Brecknock

Anish Kapoor's beautiful and popular sculpture in Chicago's Millennium Park embodies physically the idea of thinking in the round, holistically and from multiple perspectives appropriateness of that mental architecture. Yet each generation says its age is more complex. What we really mean is 'this is a pattern of events that I do not understand'.

The distinction between complicated and complex is useful. Brenda Zimmerman has noted that:

'Complicated' is essentially mechanical. 'Complex' is essentially relational. 'Complicated' is about acting on. 'Complex' is about acting with. 'Complicated' is appropriate in a world of predictable outcomes. 'Complex' must acknowledge and respond to uncertainty. Putting a rocket on the moon is complicated where an enormous number of detailed steps have to be taken into account from engineering to navigation. There's lots of room for error. But we know how to do it if we stick to the plan and execute with diligence. 'Complex' is raising a child. We learn and adapt from day-to-day experience. And we co-evolve in relationship to one another.1

A conceptual framework is proposed through which it may be easier to focus on the significant and strategic, to unravel the trivial from the profound, and to understand timelines and connections. Taking an eagle's eye view of the 20-year horizon requires us to look at existing trends to assess their depth or superficiality, their characteristics, their differential rates, and their impact.

In spite of all the unpredictables, you can interrogate and assess the changing dynamics which shape possibilities and determine the direction of change and its possible routes. Even deep trends can be charted, although not with precision since they evolve gradually. Trends can be linear or cyclical, they can gain or lose momentum, and they can create cleavages and occasionally flip into entirely new trends in a paradigm shift. They can coalesce, so gaining in force, speed and power, or they can operate independently without affecting the broader environment. Thus understanding the difference between a trend and a fad is crucial.

Some deeper trends and drivers are now easy to see because we have lived with them for a while and their impacts are unfolding with increased force. For example, the nexus of emancipation built around individuality, choice and independence spilling out from the Enlightenment has been with us for some 250 years. Some feel this particular driver of change is at the edge of exhaustion: its self-focused energy is causing more negatives than positives. Yet evidently it still has enough energy to shape everything, from how politics appeals to its constituents to how we customize products and services, how we appeal to individual desires, whether housing choice or the types of cheeses on offer. Business creates the increasing wants: Who would have thought ten years ago that we deeply needed iPods?

There is little doubt that a realignment between individual desires and a broader public purpose is in the offing. The environment is just one example. With an incentives framework in place, thousands of products and services wait to be invented at the right cost to wrench our habits and behaviour in a more sustainable direction. We now know that individuals pursuing personal wants do not add up to a harmonious whole.

Another trend is the renewed vigour and degree of globalization enabled by IT, which both makes operating across boundaries easier and helps shift global terms of trade. In the context of cities, it makes operating globally an imperative for success.

Just because we are so acquainted with such deeply embedded trends does not mean they will not have considerable further effects. They will continue to affect urban lifestyles, social and economic structures, policies and choices. The significant issue is where the continuities and, especially, discontinuities are likely to fall, who and what configuration of forces will make that happen, and when it will happen.

Most importantly, it is necessary to go below the surface to discover the undercurrents and tectonic shifts in the socio-political substrata that shape trends and drivers in the first place. By undertaking this exercise we can see they have been underpinned by ideas and motivations about how life should be lived.

An analogy is to think of change like an ocean. Ripples on the surface are less important than waves of increasing significance which are themselves formed by tides, currents, climatic changes and geological events which shape the movement and dynamics of the whole - and which might throw up the occasional tsunami.

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