insight

Joe Ross & Tomas Björkman

Building Bridges Into The Fog

It feels like we're standing at the edge of our civilisation, looking into the void, and all we can see is mist and fog. No wonder the rise of social anxiety is rampant, expressing itself in violence, conflict and oppression. So what do we do?

Society

11.6.2020
“You can’t get there from here and besides there is no there there.”

An enjambment of an old folk saying and a Gertrud Stein quote is a good way to begin talking about the complexity paradox we seem to be stuck in currently.

It has nearly become cliché to say that we are in a transitional period towards a more profound evolutionary state of being and social order, or into existential collapse. It feels like we are standing at the edge of our civilisation looking into the void and all we can see is mist and fog. We hope that somewhere in the fog there is a new way of being and relating, and that somehow we need to build bridges from here to there in order to reach a new, sustainable and regenerative civilisation. As if we in real time need to build bridges into the fog without knowing the terrain of the other side, or indeed, if the other side even exists. Perhaps there is no there there after all.
We are far past the point where any one nation could fully disconnect from the global community and maintain self-sufficiency. 
No wonder the rise of social anxiety is rampant and expresses or masks itself in many forms from violence and conflict, to regression and isolation, to subjugation and oppression. And other less than optimal conditions.

What makes this shift different from other dramatic shifts we have gone through over the last 100 years?

There are at least four main reason for this shift being very difficult to navigate, and we will unpack them one by one. But first here are four framing principles to set the stage. 


This shift is global

For the first time in all human history, from the human social perspective, we live in a fully interconnected and interdependent world. We are far past the point where any one nation could fully disconnect from the global community and maintain self-sufficiency. COVID-19 has made this sometimes invisible mesh clearly visible as we see our interconnections quite clearly. From supply chains, food sources, narratives, economic activity, and multi-countried global citizens; we are one highly interrelated global species woven together both by physical movement of people and goods as well as being in an ephemeral network of complex information and communication technologies. Even if we are not there, we can be and often are, present through technology. 

We are up against the natural limits of our planet

Along with the global nature of our species, and in large part due to it; we are rapidly approaching, and might already have passed, the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth to be our host. Captured in the mapping of the Planetary Boundaries by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009, we can quantifiable see and measure life critical systems as they cross the threshold from life sustaining into life threatening criticality.  Today, we are in the red zone in several boundaries which could cascade into existential multi-system collapse given the current trajectory. 
When our capacity for understanding and relating in deeper ways increase, new - hereto never before seen - patterns of organisation can emerge.
This shift is systemic, emergent and transformative

This phase shift will be systemic. Our sciences have trained us to look for, find, then isolate ‘the problem'.  Once we can see the problem, we can work on finding a solution.  Propose one, test it, quantify the results, see if someone can replicate or come up with a better solution.  Our sciences are premised upon reductionism. Slice off a piece of nature, isolate and study, and create a theory of the whole from the piece! What folly. True, this approach has lead to much advancement but with the cost of placing us squarely in the face of existential collapse. Working piece by piece is not enough when we must change the whole and all at once. The current ‘meta-crises’ requires us to re-orientate all our different behaviours (financial and economic systems, governance, distribution and provisioning of goods and services, et al) due to the systemic nature of the shift.  Even our world-view and our ways of knowing will have to shift. If we will not be able to support such a shift, there is a real possibility for a systems breakdown where a lot of the freedom and possibilities of the modern society will be lost.

This phase shift will be emergent. That means that if we can avoid a system break down and mange to support a positive phase, the new state will have properties that can not be predicted by studying the present system. When our capacity for understanding and relating in deeper ways increase, new - hereto never before seen - patterns of organisation can emerge. 

“Perhaps the most challenging aspects of our current situation is that we find ourselves in perhaps the thickest fog we’ve ever collectively encountered."

This shift will be transformative. Before we can reach a sustainable or regenerative system, we need transformation. We don't want to sustain or regenerate the present system. The present system created the meta-crises, and nothing less than a transformation will take us out of it. The shift, to be a successful transition into a sustainable or regenerative world has to be transformative both on a collective, systemic level and also on an individual level. Our individual ‘selves’ will have to evolve and transform.

The ‘fog’ is thicker than ever before

Perhaps the most challenging aspects of our current situation is that we find ourselves in perhaps the thickest fog we’ve ever collectively encountered. This is largely due to the acceleration of technological development and our increasing inability to individually and collectively make sense of our world. As Daniel Schmachtenberger puts it: “We are running in the forest increasingly fast, increasingly blind.”

The Rate of Change

So, first, the world is moving faster than ever before. The fast technological development we see today makes it impossible for us to have a clear vision of what is possible in ten or twenty years. The technology that will have the largest impact on our societies in twenty years, is not AI or nano-tech; it is going to be a technological field that has most likely not been invented yet. 
The future will not be a state – it will be a process.
The rate of change is now so fast we can no longer envision the future as a desirable state; it will have to be envisioned as a desirable ongoing evolutionary process.

This requires a recalibration of all our thinking and planning reflexes.  Working in a world of continual flux will necessitate a different order of consciousness for us to become into relation with the complexity of continuous system change. Living in this new ecosystem we need to develop strategies of orientation around mutual influence and learning.

The Future Will Have Emergent Properties

Second, as we saw above, systemic shifts have emergent properties. Even if we could predict tech - which we can’t - from systems science we understand that these large systemic shifts have emergent properties that cannot by definition be predicted in advance. While this is perhaps frustrating from an old systems perspective; it is crucial that we become better at perceiving emerging patterns in order to support them towards more desirable outcomes.

“We find ourselves awash in a war of contradicting narratives vying for the support of the masses as justification of their validity."

The Crisis in Belief & Trust

And, third, we see belief and trust, two of the corner stones for healthy functional societies; transform from the command and control leadership style which we’ve had for centuries and morph into something vastly flatter, decentralised/distributed, and perhaps even autonomously self-organising.

Perhaps this is a reason for the ‘Disinformation Age' we find ourselves in. The distribution of information has become democratised in the sense that anyone with internet access can create and upload written, audio, or visual content with a click of a button. The problem though is that not all content is equal. Anyone with a YouTube account and a smart phone can suddenly appear as a subject matter expert on just about any topic in ten minutes or less. We have now entered a time of post-experts and post-trusted informers; we find ourselves awash in a war of contradicting narratives vying for the support of the masses as justification of their validity. And many of the new voices are driven by motives other than sense-making.

We are Blind to Key Systemic Components 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we are blind to the most important parts of the system.

This change is deeper that anything we have seen the last 100 years. It involves the most fundamental aspects of our human society. Deep aspects we are usually not thinking or talking about. Aspects that we do not usually even ‘see’. It involves becoming aware of the ‘water’ we live in, becoming aware of the ‘dark matter’ in our society. The part of society that we are not trained to see it at all. 
We need all to become more familiar with anthropology and sociology and their languages to understand how deep this shift is going to be. 
 We do not even have a good everyday language to describe this ‘dark matter’ and talk about the ‘water’. There is academic language (i.e. anthropological and sociological) that talk about the ‘socially constructed reality’, the ‘social imaginary’ or the ‘collective imaginary’ but this understating has yet to spread out of narrow academic disciplines. A bit like everyone now becoming familiar with epidemiology and its language and models, we need all to become more familiar with anthropology and sociology and their languages to understand how deep this shift is going to be. 

To expand Daniel Schmachtenberger’s metaphor: We are running in the forest increasingly fast, increasingly blind, and we are not even aware of the most important aspects of a forest.
 
We need to jump together into a new, more beneficial and more roomy, Collective Imaginary.

So what do we do?


In order to not get lost, we need to separate what we need to do now in the present system, have some idea of where we what to end up in, say, 20 years, and ask ourselves what temporary bridges we can build to help us get from here to there. 

Now

So here we are today. What do we do? The important thing to remember is to not repeat the mistake after financial crises of 2008 where most help and rescue packages just went into just propping up the old, sick system. Whatever we do short term today has to be done also with a view to the future. We have to facilitate resources and personnel to move from old structures and industries into new ones. Any rescue packages should come with conditions of moving businesses and industries to more sustainable - social and ecological – ways of operating. Some businesses and industries should even be left to die while actively supporting the transition of those employed in these industries and sectors. ‘Stranded assets’ that have been technically dead for years, but on life support, will have to be written off. There will of course be lots of protest and lobbying against this from powerful ‘legacy interests’.

We need to make room if you will, for the new to emerge.  We can employ Schumpeter’s concept of creative destruction and allow some of our old structures to die and make room for new. Propping up institutions and structures which have out-lived there usefulness only serves to prolong the pain and suffering which they themselves may be causing. Not intentionally, but because the conditions under which they were created have changed. 
We must strive towards innovation which will not only keep us within the planetary boundaries but will create a surplus state.
In 20 to 50 years

It is important to have focus on the long term, but we should not get stuck in trying to envision the future in too much detail; that is to say we should not allow the dream of the future to stop acting in the present.

Certainly, there is thick fog and there is the unknown of technological innovation; both physical technologies and also, psycho-technologies that are just coming online. 

We know that this transformation is necessarily emergent, and thus not predictable, but nonetheless, we need some version of a vision or intention, albeit fuzzy. The not fully predictability of the future should not prevent us from establishing some broad bench marking principles which we would like to see emerge in the 10 to 20-year horizon timeline.

We suggest that some of those principles of our new emerging collective vision must include:

“Collective holistic ecosystems which have the ability to continually renew and maintain should constitute a new steady state."

Win-win dynamics; or even better, Omni-Win dynamics

Human interaction will always have an element of zero-sum dynamics, we have to acknowledge this and try to create systems dynamics that counterbalance this fact rather than as today to reinforce these dynamics. Collective holistic ecosystems which have the ability to continually renew and maintain should constitute a new steady state.

Tech, Planetary boundaries AND Abundance

As we stated earlier, emerging technologies are impossible to predict.  However, we must strive towards innovation which will not only keep us within the planetary boundaries but will create a surplus state across all categories necessary to support life.

We at a species level need to come to realise that we have the technological possibility to move into a world of ‘enough for everyone to flourish’. And this is going to be possible within planetary boundaries if we shift our focus from manly materialistic understating of human progress to a focus on inner flourishing.
Any viable hope for creating a more desirable world must begin with the continual individual growth and development.
Focus on transformative capacities for the evolution of societal culture and values

We believe that any viable hope for creating a more desirable world must begin with continual individual growth and development. We have over the last hundred or so years moved away from the importance of individual growth and spiritual development. We must begin to encourage individual practice which in turn will influence the evolution of all society and eventually to up-leveling of cultural values. There is a tendency to conflate the terms evolution and development with ‘progress’ as they are used in older economic conceptions of societal organisation. We are pointing towards something different and more systematically complex composed of the individual plus the society individuals create. It will be absolutely crucial for a positive phase shift that a we all develop inner capacities like openness, perspective taking and larger circles of compassion. It will be capacities like these that will facilitate us relating in deeper ways in expanding circles of compassion that will form the basis for systemic emergence.
The growth that matters in twenty years will be our inner growth.
Focus on ‘Dark Matter' = New constitutive rules = New Collective Imaginary

We need to start to see the world with you eyes. This entails many things, but the most important might be to start to see the water we are swimming in. The new system that need to emerge will be fundamentally different on a deep level and will involve our very world view and other deep aspects of our collective imaginary. We have to become aware of the water! And with that, become aware that we have it within our capabilities to change all aspects of that water should we choose.  We have probably not seen a shift this deep since the enlightenment, and this shift might be even deeper. 

“Do you start to see a fuzzy picture of the world in 20 years?"

Realise the need for individual and collective agency

Yes, the process will be emergent, but we cannot just sit by the side and just observe it evolving. The emergent process needs us all as conscious agents. It is through our actions – both our individual and our collective actions - that the emergence unfolds. Therefore the importance of small locally based actions remain a good starting point with which to engage the larger global connected whole. It is important to remember that many of the most determining aspects of the new system will be found in the constitutive rules of that system. And many of these rules have to be enacted through legislation. Rules like what constitutes property and what can be owned by whom does not just magically ‘emerge'. They are the result of often pain staking political processes that requires both collative sense-making and collective agency. Two capacities very much lacking in our times.

Do you start to see a fuzzy picture of the world in 20 years? What would you add to this vision?

Can we open the conversation that is freed somewhat from the shackles of past narratives? Or, at least enter into a conversation, a way of working, where we begin to see the traps that were invisible before. They are the old water which we must change. 
We should not let idealistic perfection get in the way of making improvements, taking steps now.
Bridges into the fog

With this fuzzy long-term vision in mind we need to start building bridges into the fog. We don’t want to wait for total collapse before we re-build, and we don’t want to be stuck for fear of not fully implementing our fullest idealistic utopia. Yet, we must act. We must begin to build our bridges no matter how thick the fog.

Empowered by new transformative capacities and as we start to become aware of our collective imaginary we can start prototyping and experimenting. And we need thousands of transformative experiments. What we would like to suggest is the utmost vital importance for bridging from here to there: Actions, accidents, attempts, attraction, alterations, iterations, et al. We should not let idealistic perfection get in the way of making improvements, taking steps now.

One example of experimenting and prototyping could be UBI: universal basic income.

“Having their basic financial means met would give individuals the room to work on personal development, and also to have the courage to be open for societal transformation."

We will not go into the details of how best to implement, or whether UBI is just a bridge or part of the new system, but rather wish to point out that having their basic financial means met would give individuals the room to work on personal development, and also to have the courage to be open for societal transformation. 

Another example could be experiments with different forms of crypto currencies. One example of such smart money could be SEEDS, a payment platform and financial ecosystem designed to empower humanity and heal the planet. 

A third example cold be experiments with new organisational forms like ‘TEAL' or self-organising organisations. More and more organisations are finding that the old hierarchical way of organising are just to slow in the fast-moving world of today. Through experiencing with different structures of decentralised decision making, organisations can increase their adaptability and their capacity to transform in rapidly changing markets. 
Our elders, sages, indigenous, shaman, and anyone who has seriously practiced come to see that there is only now.
By these actions we can hope to create and allow to emerge a virtual spiral, a process of cultural evolution in which:

Developing individual transformative capacities through inner growth and societal structures which support and nourish inner exploration.  

 …makes possible…

The adaptation of a more holistic worldview.

 …makes possible…

The collective co-creation of a new collective imaginary capable of solving our meta-crises.

…which in turn supports even deeper development of individual transformative capacities.


The German idealist philosophers had a name for this spiral: Bildung
 
This virtuoso spiral leads to ever increasing abilities to hold more complex, more adapted, world views with fewer blind-spots, and become cocreators of a world more able to realise collective potential and handle our meta-crises. 

Conclusion

Let’s return to the inquiry we opened this article with and consider for a moment if it is the case that either there is no ‘there' there, or that we can’t get ‘there' from here; does it really matter? After all, aren’t both less than useful projections into an imaginary future place which we are not fully capable of seeing from where we stand now. We feel it is far more useful to become aware of our condition and through purposeful actions now, begin to build a more desirable world for tomorrow. 
Now is the time to build bridges with some principled awareness of an emerging vision for a better tomorrow and build them with a new loving care.
Our elders, sages, indigenous, shaman, and anyone who has seriously practiced have come to see that there is only now. So, maybe we should re-orientate around this perspective and live, act, and do in a positive way from here, now, and allow through thoughtful and purposeful experimentation and innovation, the new to emerge through our heart-felt and heart-driven participation.

We sense that there is somewhere we collectively need to get to but are frozen by the daunting challenges of moving from here to there. This is not the time to retrench into less developed past orientations and perspectives, as so many nationalistic authoritarians are proposing.  

Now is the time to build bridges with some principled awareness of an emerging vision for a better tomorrow and build them with a new loving care. A new love, which extends beyond the known and unknown, is from what we are living into, despite everyday challenges. These acts of doing and prototyping are the best possible solution to our current human made meta-crisis.

Whatever we do should point in the direction of what we’d like to see emerge. Towards opening up our perspectives, rather than cementing in that which we need to leave behind.
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Words by Joe Ross & Tomas Björkman
Joe Ross is an author, poet, and social strategy designer. He works in developing new thinking around economic and social issues, often including the Arts as a transformational vehicle to create systemic positive change. He has served as Chief of Policy and Senior Advisor to the City of San Diego, California, PlaNet Finance in Paris, and the Tallberg Foundation in Stockholm. He lives in Paris. Tomas Björkman is a social entrepreneur, philosopher and co-initiator of Emerge. He lives in London and Stockholm.

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