Knowledge Federation Can Transform the Way Contemporary Issues Are Handled

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Changes made possible

  • From reactive focus on problems [1], to proactive focusing on systemic improvement [2].

As it has always been the case in the past, we will solve our seemingly unsolvable problems by looking at them, and at the world, in a completely new way. In the new set of priorities that results from this new way of looking, knowledge federation — as collective thinking that enables us to see and act — naturally comes first [3]. Indeed, even to see that we must now learn to think in this new way, we need to federate that insight [4]!


  1. Vignette So what, in a nutshell, is a large defect in our informing? might serve as a crisp illustration of what this might mean.
    By 'reactive' approach to issues (for ex. the climate change) I mean viewing them as problems to be understood and solved through conventional control measures and related political action within the system as it is – and failing to recognize in it a symptom of a larger, systemic dysfunction that needs to be baken care of. For instance in Norwegian Aftenposten of November 1, 2007 (following the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and IPCC) we read that Norway allocated large funds to 'climate research.' In the same issue of Aftenposten we also find a hint why this way of handling issues may not work — an article describes how the Norwegian Main Business Organization (NHO) asked the EU to block the climate law as contrary to existing agreements and harmful to business.
  2. Vignette Over the years I developed an uncommon approach to my own health is intended to serve as crisp illustration.
    Analogy with gas dynamics may be helpful: We may look at a gas at the level of molecules and their interaction, or we may look at statistical properties such as pressure, temperature etc. While both are legitimate and each will give us the feeling that we see and understand what goes on, the latter view is the one that helps us deal with daily-life situations (a weather forecast in terms of individual gas molecules would hardly be useful). It will turn out that news reporting is keeping us in a worldview that is closely analogous to the molecular view of gas dynamics. To understand contemporary issues in a way that empowers us to resolve them, an entirely different — systemic — way of looking will be needed.
    Let me illustrate this by an example. At its best, investigative journalists will uncover wrongdoings — conditions in Nike's sweatshops, Xerox falsifying financial results...; conventional political action will follow. Joel Bakan offered another possibility — to look at the very institution of corporation (see the story of creation and download the movie at The Corporation dot com). The film highlights the difference between those two views by talking about 'bad apples.' We can focus on identifying and punishing wrongdoers, but this would mean treating them as 'bad apples' i.e. as anomalies to be taken care of within the constraings of the system. The Corporation offers an alternative — to perceive those 'bad apples' as predictable products of the system dynamics, where 'fitness' implies 'bad apple' behavior. While we view videoshots of a shark, The Corporation tells us how the most powerful institution in the world evolved to be an efficient externalizer — creating profit on one side, and externalizing costs (environmental damage etc.) on the other. Bakan — a law professor — offers also a way of resolving the systemic issue, by questioning the legitimacy, and the sensibility, of having an institution that has the rights of a legal person without in having a body (corpus) that can be held accountable, or the consciousness or the ethics of a person.
    The story behind The Corporation is also relevant for us: Realizing that publishing his insights even in the form of a bestselling book will not be sufficient, Bakan — a university professor — decides to federate his ideas. He teams up with Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott — two documentary film makers — and this mini federation takes seven years to gather the funds and the footage and to produce a film. When several years ago he gave a lecture and organized a dialog about The Corporation at the Norwegian business school in Oslo, Bakan told us that a group was lobbying to show The Corporation to the American Congress (which has formal provisions for this sort of viewings).
    It is safe to conclude that the way we look at things can be either empowering or disempowering, that it can either reveal or hide solutions. Knowledge federation's value proposition is to federate available ways of looking — to collect them, display them, keep them around — while highlighting (through a reliable and transparent social process) the ones that best tell us 'how the weather is changing' and empower us to act.
  3. See the argument outlined in my lecture at Visions of Possible World Conference (Milan, 2003).
  4. In "The World in 2011" special issue of The Economist, Arianna Huffington writes under the title "The year of hope 2.0":
    In America, 2008 was all about "hope": crossing our fingers and electing leaders who we thought would enact the change we desperately needed. Gazing into my crystal ball, I predict 2011 is going to be all about hope 2.0, the realisation that our system is too broken to be fixed by politicians operating from within it.

    When a mainstream journal like The Economist gives voice to an unconventional idea — that our problems will not be solved by action from within the system — then this might be a sign that this idea is about to become mainstream. We might help it become mainstream, by federating already published insights that support it. Here is an ad-hoc compilation to begin with:

    • Already at their first meeting in Rome in 1968, the Club of Rome diagnosed that the conventional focus on individual problems would not be fruitful and decided to focus on 'world problematique' as a whole (i.e. to think and work systemically). In The Club of Rome: The Predicament of Mankind (Quest for Structured Responses to Growing World-wide Complexities and Uncertainties) A Proposal of 1970 we read:
      ...that any desirable, or even acceptable, resolution of the problematique will in all probability entail, at least as outcomes to be seriously considered, fundamental changes in our current social and institutional structures, for the simple reason that these structures were not established to operate in so complex and dynamic a situation as the one in which we find ourselves.

      And also:

      ...we can already make the assumption that our notion of problem is wholly insufficient for us to face whatever it is that our situation proposes both to our intellect and to our conscience. At the same time our notions of solution are equally insufficient to enable us to define those outcomes that could or might result in novel ways of coping with our predicament --namely, of organizing our vision at a higher level where new approaches and attitudes might begin to acquire a degree of immediate relevance.

      See also [Ken Bausch: Problematique and the Club of Rome for an insightful one-page overview of subtler related issues and further developments.

    • Horst Rittel observed that contemporary problems tend to be 'wicked,' i.e. not amenable to clear definition and analysis and control of causes. Rittel and Webber summarize their argument in Rittel and Webber: Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences 4 (1973) as follows:
      The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are "wicked" problems, whereas science has developed to deal with "tame" problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. (...) Even worse, there are no "solutions" in the sense of definitive and objective answers.
    • In Non-Linear Dynamics (Chaos Theory) and its Implications for Policy Planning David Peat explains why trying to control natural and social systems in the conventional way will be counterproductive and concludes:
      Attempting to solve problems in traditional ways often causes new problems to surface in remote locations. The gentle action called for by a non-linear system involves an understanding of its whole context and dynamics and must be applied, not locally where the particular problem appears to originate, but over its whole domain. (...) So attempting to "control" or prevent local deviations from prescribed behaviour may give rise to yet more problems. What would be required would be a very gentle steering of the whole system.
    • In March 28, 2011 issue of SEED, under the title "On Adapting to Sandpiles" we find the following introduction to an interview with Joshua Cooper Ramo:
      Joshua Cooper Ramo, managing director of Kissinger Associates, believes that we live in a “revolutionary age” defined by problems whose complexity, unpredictability, and interconnectedness increasingly defy our efforts at control. Global threats such as terrorism, pandemics, financial meltdown, and climate change, according to Ramo, demand a systems perspective that draws upon chaos science, complexity theory, and the theory of disruptive innovation. In his 2009 book, The Age of the Unthinkable, he calls for nothing less than a “complete reinvention of our ideas of security,” even the reversal of a “couple of millennia of Western intellectual habits.”

See also

  • Large systemic changes in the past were results of new ways of looking at justice and freedom. Can you imagine something similar happening in our time? Don't be misguided by the name I gave it — power structure is not an organized clique or a conspiracy but a spontaneously evolving and subtle tendency. And yet as cancer is a disease characteristic for our time, so is the power structure a characteristic power monger and political enemy. Those two enemies are closely similar — the power structure is a political of enemy that makes seemingly good and useful societal organs and tissues grow out of proportion, while the societal immune system fails to recognize them as dangerous and malignant. A salient characteristic of this new way looking at power and politics is that it changes the name of the game — from 'us against them' to 'all of us against the power structure', our shared enemy. For a brief, intuitive and anecdotal introduction, you may skim through the two vignettes in Ode to Self-Organization - Part Two, the one about Barrack Obama's healthcare reform, and the one about Werner Kollath, the founder of 'political hygiene' And if you have a bit more time (it will be well spent!) still as an introduction, take a look at Joel Bakan's The Corporation] and Paul Grignon's Money as Debt. The power structure model is explained in Chapter 4 of my book manuscript (the password is 'Dubrovnik'). The power structure model was introduced at InfoDesign2000 conference in Coventry, GB, and described in Information for Conscious Choice (Information Design Journal 11/2&3, Spring 2004). My blog post Ode to Self-Organization — Part One is a fictional story illustrating how this sort of insight — if it could be federated — might change the world for the better. My blog post What keeps us from responding points at the most interesting, psychological side of power structure.
  • My San Francisco Bay Area Future Salon lecture Trimtabs for Systemic Change and related comments, available at my blog post blog post Boldly Creating a World that Works for All, illustrates the systemic approach — and answers what we might do that can truly make a difference — by discussing ten real-life examples.

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