The challenge of living in a non-linear world [2]
January 25th, 2012

This is the second part of a general introduction to the book and project No Straight Lines: making sense of our non-linear world

The opportunity and the design challenge

Which brings me on to the title and the challenge of this project. Be realistic, imagine the impossible is taken from a poster from the 1968 Paris riots. In making sense of its meaning for our time, I would argue that what we face at the tail end of our industrial society is a design problem. The reason is that we are witness to a systemic failure of many of the institutions that have brought us so much prosperity and it is this convergence of failures that requires us to understand the challenge from a whole systems approach.

Many of the institutions, organisations and systems that we still use were designed and built for a less complex world, the increase in the complexity of our world is placing an unsustainable load upon those institutions, organisations and systems. One could argue our industrial world has reached the edge of its adaptive range. Consequently, fault lines are running through our society which present a trilemma based around interlocking social, economic and organisational tensions and questions. The design challenge involved in resolving these questions comes because the non-linearity is causing a comprehensive restructuring of society at large, breaking old models of organisation, and the trilemma heralds the coming of the age of uncertainty. All three tensions are in flux, and cannot be addressed without considering the other two. So each and every part of this story reflects upon and relates to this trilemma: the relationship of the individual to companies and other organisations and forms of power, economically, socially, politically.


Now is the time when we need a way of evaluating of what comes next, when we face a world that has gone in a very short period of time from seemingly linear (simple) to complex and non-linear (chaotic). When we move into a world that is inherently more complex, the result is concussive, its disorientating effects surround us, and our responses either individually or at an organisational level result in reflexes and perspectives that can be dangerously corrosive or inappropriate. And yet, this chaos seems to be, if anything, accelerating. At this very moment, great debates are raging. The spanners are in the works, defined by 9/11 (we now talk about asymmetrical warfare) and the near collapse of the world banking system (and its asymmetrical impact on every single one of us). And, as the global centre of economic gravity moves east, this has set off a series of events that are having significant asymmetric economic effects on societies around the world. These are but three examples of fault lines creating battles, ideological or otherwise, that are exploding and imploding at the same time. They all surfaced in a single decade. Though it is important to add that their gestation period has been much longer and is indeed multidimensional. These challenges are highly interlinked and interdependent, so a one-size-fits-all response just won’t do. There are no longer simple problems; what we face is the trilemma of a complex world. This book does its best to face them, because we are in more than just an economic crisis; it is equally political, educational, spiritual and moral.

nsl-cvr-final_3The cultural challenge

The biggest challenge we face is cultural. How we contextualise (make sense of) the world around us determines how we engage and what action we take. Those actions then determine the outcomes we must live with and this requires a change from our industrial mindset and behaviour to one that is more cognisant of what is now seen as a non-linear world. This is where I want to return to the idea that what we face is a design problem, where answers exist not at an unattainable theoretical level but on the floors of our factories, in the streets of our towns and cities, the classes of our schools, the waiting rooms of our hospitals. These answers will manifest themselves as true acts of creation, originating new ways of getting stuff done, informed by the decisions we collectively take. So in re-designing the world, we need human creativity in the sense of the capacity to ‘make’, we need visionary leadership in the sense of making a difference. And we seek the craftsman’s critical eye, steady hand and creative mind. It is this process of seeing – realising new pathways to success, by bringing two ‘unlikes’ (new information, tools, processes etc.) together in close adjacency – that we create, and make new things. Then we can meaningfully apply that capability.

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