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Steering in a world of uncertainty, complexity and chaos, part 1

By Frank van Empel

Change is a process that goes on and on. It never stops. The drivers for change are countless and so are the people engaged and the interactions among these people. It’s not easy to manage processes like that. The old directive way of control doesn’t work anymore. New, fresh steering philosophies and actions are badly needed for further sustainable growth. In fact they are already there as butterflies-to-be, still in their cocoons. Part 1 of a series.

Profound societal changes that will stimulate new ways of thinking, decision-making and doing are taking place. These will have severe consequences for the solution of complex problems like climate change and to find the answers to questions like: Do we have to hold our horses and kill economic growth, or do we change our behaviour and lean a bit more on God and the engineers to take care of innovation, technological progress and enlightment?

Summing up of a few new insights, c.q. concepts that will change currently predominant ways of thinking, decision-making and actions.

1. Personification

The role an individual plays in society is getting more important every day. People are more conscious about their knowledge and personal capabilities than say twenty years ago and they don’t accept directives from so-called authorities anymore when these are based on mere hierarchy. Hierarchies are loosing ground to individual persons, cities are loosing power to neighbourhoods and regions are giving in to cities. We are talking here about one specific hierarchy, that of environmental planning. It looks like this:

Figure 1: system of nested systems

In this ‘system of nested systems’ the person is the smallest unit.  ‘So long as the smaller systems are enclosed within the larger, and so long as all are connected by complex patterns of interdependence,’ the American writer Wendell Berry writes in Standing by Words, ‘as we know they are, then whatever affects one system will affect the others.

‘It seems that this system of systems is safe so long as each system is controlled by the next larger one. If at any point the hierarchy is reversed, and the smaller begins to control the larger, then the destruction of the entire system of systems begins.’[1] If a system of system collapses the result is chaos. This is exactly what is happening in today’s world.

Uncertainty, complexity and chaos characterize the new age that started with the rise of the social networks: facebook, twitter, MSN, Skype, YouTube, texting… They transfer more power to the individual. One person armed with a laptop and connected with unlimited knowledge and contacts via the Internet can start a revolution. Or as the authors of Small Acts of Resistance conclude: ‘A defiant spirit can make the invincible crack, the unchangeable change’. And Václav Havel (preface, same book): ‘Today, millions around the world live in circumstances where it might seem that nothing will ever change. But they must remember that the rebellions that took place all across eastern Europe in 1989 were the result of a series of individual actions by ordinary people which together made change inevitable.’[2] A same kind of movement took North African dictators by surprise on the edge of 2010/2011. No position is set in stone.

The message is clear: everyone of us has the potential and the power to overthrow governments. We just have to act at the right time and attract the attention of the media, traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers) and social networks (twitter, facebook).

Dominant worldviews are challenged by this shift in power. One of them is the more than two-hundred years old Newtonian linear worldview on the relation between cause and effect. Other ones concern Western concepts about representative democracy and Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. These three worldviews form the roadmaps for politicians, managers, policymakers and other decision-makers to navigate through the minefields of People, Planet and Profit. If the new approach is non-linear and characterized by uncertainty, complexity and chaos, what is left to steer for all those managers and policymakers sitting behind desks in tall skyscrapers from where they think they can oversee and control the world?

The answer is to be found in different ways of steering and governing. Modern thinkers like Peter Senge, Hans Jeekel and Frank Geels wrote down new roadmaps for governance.

2. Letting go, Letting come.

Peter Senge and three other scientists with totally different backgrounds have made a journey from the present to an unknown future. They present a whole new holistic way of thinking, decision-making and doing, which is characterized by Senge c.s. like this: ‘In a sense, there is no decision-making. What to do just becomes obvious. You can’t rush it. Much of it depends on where you’re coming from and who you are as a person. All you can do is position yourself according to your unfolding vision of what is coming. A totally different set of rules applies. You need to “feel out” what to do. You hang back, you observe. You’re more like a surfer or a really good race car driver. You don’t act out of deduction, you act out of an inner feel, making sense as you go. You’re not even thinking. You’re at one with the situation.’[3]

The process entails three major stages:

Sensing à Presencing à Realizing

Sensing = observe, observe, observe – becoming one with the world.

Presencing = Retreat and Reflect – allow inner knowing to emerge.

Realizing = Act swiftly, with a natural flow.[4]

(to be continued)


[1] Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, Counterpoint, Berkeley 1983,  pp 46. Berry actually used the following hierarchy, from the person out: person, family, community, agriculture, nature.

[2] Steve Crawshaw & John Jackson, Small Acts of Resistance, How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World, Union Square Press, 2010.

[3] Peter Senge c.s., Presence, Exploring profound change in people, organizations and society, Nicholas Brealy Publishing, London, 2005, pp. 84/85.

[4] Presence, pp. 88.

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