“A Future By Design...
wall graphic by Alica Bramlett

...Not Default”
time lags and implementation cycles

Link: part 2 • Link: part 3 • link: part 4 • Link: part 5
This paper has several red threads: the idea of creating a future by design not default; the notion of time lags and two generation cycles of thought to implementation; my commentary on the 2006 WEF Annual Meeting at Davos; and, reflections on this web site, why I started it, and how it is beginning to reach the goal of documenting the factors that govern leading a life dedicated to innovation and social change. There is one additional point of focus and that is the emergence of the first practical expression of a ValueWeb dedicated to the way of working pioneered by MG Taylor 25 years ago.
Thus, in some ways, this paper is a celebration. There are times when things come together and genuine advancements are made. This is one of those moments - a benchmark of sorts - that provides fuel for the far more common periods of start-stop, ambiguity and muddled results. These moments are important because in some fields of endeavor, such as personal and social transformation, it is not easy to measure progress.
There is a serious and universal side to this celebration and that is the question if the experience of one lifetime can be translated into useful general principles related to conducting a self-aware, creative, productive and successful life. How one person - or even one organization - is innovative and makes a significant contribution to the state-of-the-art of humanity is always interesting. How this may be applicable, in a broader sense as a prescription, is a far more important consideration - particularly in times such as these. How useful change takes place in a society is critical knowledge at a time when human induced increases in the rate of change and complexity are producing circumstances that have the ability to overwhelm us all while, at the same time, offering the prospect of accomplishing the accumulated dreams of all Humanity.
Davos WorkSpace
January 28, 2006
With my ReDesigning the Future Course, in 1974-75, I introduced the concepts that while the future cannot be predicted nor controlled it can be anticipated and created; that each human alive today possesses more power than any ruler of old; and, that the amount of global change from 1975 to 2000 would be on the scale of change from the Middle Ages to 1975. I said we should make “a world by design not default.” In late 2005, the WEF decided that the theme of the 2006 Annual Meeting would be THE DESIGN IMPERITIVE and “the future by design not default” was chosen as the slogan for the Davos WorkPlace. What is delightful to me about this is that this decision, on the part of the Forum, came about independently of their interaction with us. It evolved out of careful dialog with experts from all over the world. While we were asked to help with the formation of the WorkPlace for a second year, we were not part of the larger discussion regarding the Annual Meeting’s theme. It would have been one thing if we had induced this discussion and if asked we surely would have. It is a far greater measure of where things are that we did not and that it came from a much more distributed and diverse base representing recognized, global “thought leadership.” Our work from the beginning has been - and still is - based on the assumption that knowledge work, network organizational architectures and design processes form the basis of a viable and sustainable global economy/ecology; that design is the premier value-add; and, that the increase in the rate of change and complexity is overwhelming our current organizational structures and work processes as they are presently designed. Now, 30 some years later these ideas are moving into the main stream. This circumstance marks the completion of the first cycle of innovation. The second cycle is the accomplishment of ubiquity.

When it is time to railroad,
people build railroads

Robert Heinlein

The task of building a true knowledge-based, network structured, free, global economy - that is sustainable socially and ecologically - and is the result of a self-aware, comprehensive and collaborative design process - is still before us. That this is no longer a totally crazy idea to almost everyone is the good news. The critical issue, which we now face, is time. Time in the calendar sense because reasonable projections of massive change are now measured in the few thousand of days. Time in the personal sense as our “modern” would is so full of distractions, busy work and invented demands that few believe they “have” the time to think let along study, design and be part of a positive systemic response to possible future realities. Therefore, this will be a close race and what people choose to do - or not do - in the next few years will be a critical “decision” which will determine the nature of the society which emerges out of our present unstable circumstance. Humans have nearly obtained the power of the gods but retained the partially developed mentality of school children. We must now rebuild our future as the one before us is, by default, the consequence of much carelessness. Traditional organizations will not accomplish this - their output is the direct logic of their structures which are built on old assumptions of opportunity and capacity. It will take ValueWebs® that have been both carefully designed and systematically evolved to bring the appropriate mix of intent and spontaneity to our task of “designing” a future. It will require the transformation of every human system and culture. The very definition of “the human” will be challenged and must be rethought. All life, in all its forms, will have to be “invited” into and fully represented in this process. As we are cleaning up our global nest we will also reach out into space. Many new life forms and civilizations will emerge from this venture. We are entering the creative period in the time of Humanity.
The world we are creating - with its economy/ecology mix - is not even remotely sustainable. The fact that this is still disputed is the consequence of self-induced ignorance and self-serving myopia. Too often, people do not want to face something they believe they do not have an immediate answer to or that appears, on the surface of it, to attack their interests. Rather than embrace reality and seek new design solutions, they deny what is right before them. Rather than respond early, they wait until crises forces often thoughtless and always expensive reactions. When I say that our present situation is not sustainable I am not speaking in generalities nor philosophically. I am pointing to the concrete systemic architecture of our human system which is becoming the dominate structure of the entire planet. You cannot buy me off with the argument that humanity is creative and can find a way out of our situation. I know this. That we can is the basis of my life’s work. I have facilitated hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of people through the creation of solutions for immensely complex problems. There is no doubt we can do it. If we will remains the key question. Civilizations have collapsed before and it is not unreasonable to assume that so have entire planets. Life, I expect, has run many experiments and there is no automatic mandate that we are exempt from the consequences of our own actions nor immune from actions that are at present outside the scope of our attention and understanding. The fact that our economy/ecology is not sustainable does not make us wrong, or bad, or even intrinsically at risk. We are just in a period between eras when the technology mix, the scale of our population and consequenses of our activities do not fit well with each other nor our planetary environment - therefore, we are not sustainable given our present configuration. It is easy to image many alternative patterns and designs where this would not be so and a population much greater than our present one can coexist with each other, a variety of plants and animals, and be in harmony with Gaia herself. This is a design problem not primarily a moral one - or, an issue of population alone. What can be pointed to as a failure of moral courage, and can be identified as the measure of our risk, is our response - or lack of it - to our pending situation. We are simply running away from ourselves. It is in this circumstance that our growing population and economy is becoming ever more destructive.
When I state that our economy/ecology is not sustainable I am not pitting one against the other. With proper design, the economy does not have to be sacrificed for ecology nor visa versa. Our present economy, which can only be described as a run-away positive feedback loop with pretensions of grandeur, would not be sustainable even if it were not eating the Earth’s ecological system - which it is. And, it must be remembered - even though we tend to forget - with our “thinking” which spans only hundreds of years, at best, and quarter-to-quarter in the practical sense - that the natural evolution of the Earth - nor the solar system for that matter - is not “done” [link: doomsday scenarios]. There have been several catastrophic occurrences in pre-historic (as we name it) and in historical times and there are likely to be many more. We are always surprised when even the mildest disturbances occur and we certainly do not build with their expectation in mind [link: katrina - an unnatural disaster]. All of this is done (or, more correctly, not done) in the name of practicality and a notion of economics that is astonishing in its blatant unreality [link: upside down economics - 12 aspects ].
No, we do not see because we do not want to see and we are discounting our future in almost every way it is possible to do so. In terms of the prospects for humanity, we are selling short.
Of course, technology may pull the planetary rabbit out of the hat. The trends in computing power, nanotechnology, robotics and genetics, as Kurzweil [link: kurzweil - ai.net] so ably points out, will open up unprecedented opportunities. Personally, I think his projections will turn out to be accurate - if not, in some cases, conservative. And even if he is “wrong” the number of days to Singularity are likely to be 11,000 not 5,500. And, would it matter all that much if it were 20,000 days? No matter, 10,000 years of “human” history justifies a sense of deep concern. How have the last centuries of technological advancements been applied? Your answer to this question may very well be biased by where you were born, the circumstances into which your were born and your susceptibility to the propaganda of whatever culture you happen to live in. In other words, to put it bluntly, which direction the weapons are pointed. That there have been enormous advancement for millions of people is not to be discounted. That untold millions have been slaughtered is also a fact. In terms of human happiness and real quality of life, the net gains are often over stated. Those seeking elections or wanting to sell you something often tend to slander the past, exaggerate the present and over romanticize the future.
Let me put the numbers 11,000 and 5,500 into perspective. I have been working just short of 50 years. This is a number of days greater than the sum of the two numbers above. Since 1974, I have devoted my entire professional efforts to the education, of as many people as possible, too the subjects covered in this Paper and to the building of tools capable of dealing with the kind of complexity implied by them. I have had modest success in these endeavors. The number of days in 30 years is just short of the larger number cited above. The time from Katrina to the first draft of this paper [as of the end of January, 2006] is 150 days or about three percent of the smaller number. If you think that the situation in the region will be significantly better a year from now [link: outlines emerge for a shaken new orleans] [link: fed up residents give up], then the number of days will be close to 10 percent of the time that scores of serious researchers have named as the likely period to massive changes, of both a “good” and “bad” nature (from the current human perspective), in technology and the global economy-ecology. If I offered you 10 percent off of your next house purchase would you think this was a significant number? If you recall that a 3 percent drop in the U.S. GMP is considered to be a serious recession, then these “small” numbers may have some special meaning when you realize that we are talking about technologies that have the power to change every rule-of-the-game that Humanity has lived with for the entirety of its known history. In other words, we have from one half to one average working lifetime to get it right. Not figure it out - the first innovation cycle. To do it - the second innovation cycle. And this is the good news scenario. The two terms of George Bush as presidency will be 2, 920 days, 53 percent of the smaller number and bit over 26 percent of the greater time window I am talking about. Ask yourself to what extend that this his administration has seriously considered change of this scale and type and shown the ability to respond to small early indicators of it such as 9/11 and Katrina. And please remember that George Bush reflects the majority opinion in these matters. It will not make the world right by merely getting mad at him. He ably represents the dominate system of beliefs prevalent in U.S. society today - the so called most powerful economy and nation on Earth. If you believe that the U.S. has demonstrated its capability for the kind of thinking, preparation, investment, even handedness, objectivity and moral leadership necessary for the survival and prosperity of the human race given the kinds of future that we are likely to face, then sleep well this evening [link: economic impact of personal nao factory].
It has been my position for 30 years that Humanity is choosing its own future without serious thought or an adequate design process. The sum of human efforts is accelerating and producing a great plenitude of choices that have never been ours before - this is not just change, this is a change in kind. The future is rushing at us and it can be a marvelous future - or a disaster. We hide behind a faith in the “hidden hand” - a theory of market mechanisms we never actually bothered to implement. We are facing an avalanche and we are not prepared. We have not, as a society, even embraced the challenge. We do not even recognize we have not. Our Planetary Symbol should be an Ostrich, head in the sand with tail feathers boldly pointed toward the sky.
These considerations bring a whole new meaning and context to the idea of THE DESIGN IMPERITIVE.
the content of this Paper
There are several points that must be established in order to make the case that I have stated above. First, the evidence for large scale systemic and potentially overwhelming change. Second, the evidence why we, as a global society, are paying attention to the wrong things. This has to make the argument that the scores of very good projects in the realms of ecology, economics and global infrastructure will not add up to the results we need. And third, that there is a fundamentally different way to look at the change/complexity equation and the means required to be requisite with it. I will deal with these subjects in parts two and three of this Paper along with creativity, collaboration and what we call GroupGenius.
Part four will address issues such as cycles of change and their duration, examples of alternative approaches and the idea of a valueWeb architecture necessary, I believe, to get the world’s business done right.
I will also comment, in part four, on the progress made at the Forum’s 06 Annual Meeting, put this into the perspective of the 30 plus years that these issues have been my primary concern and suggest how new work processes, combined with ValueWeb architectures, can be applied to the accomplishment of a more focused and bolder global agenda that will begin to anticipate and address the deep systemic problems we surely are going to face.
My concern, in this writing, is not the probable changes themselves nor even the complexity that these changes bring about. Humans have adapted to many such revolutions in the past. however, we have done so over much greater periods of time than we now have to appropriately respond to our present largely self-created situation. New technologies, part of the emerging complexity, will give us the ability to respond faster and better. My concern has been and remains about the rapid increase in the rate of the rate of these changes in relationship to our lack of effective societal governance and response is creating a collision with the future. Our institutions are not as flexible and responsive as we like to believe. And, our attention is elsewhere. We seem fundamentally incapable of believing we can destroy ourselves despite the overwhelming evidence of history. We are no longer scattered tribes that can survive by simple means and rebuild from a disaster. We are a global system with immense systemic vulnerabilities. We are no longer living in a simple state of nature - we are co-evolving with ourselves as the main creator of the evolutionary game. We are doing this without awareness of the possible consequences while still arguing over centuries old ideas, situations and conditions. There is rarely anything new in the NEWS. It is like we have a collective amnesia not about our past - a history that is not well understood - but our future. We have become economic domestic animals apparently intent on consuming as much as we can no matter the consequences. Who or what is doing the domesticating is not yet clear to me.
There is a general myth that it is difficult to accomplish plans. I believe that this is a mistaken perception. Implementation is what, as a society, we do best. People and organizations accomplish their plans with great consistency. It is usually only upon accomplishing them that they discover just what their plan really was. A desire or even a goal is not a plan. And it is with this distinction that the myth becomes clear. So many seem to be surprised by the unfolding future. I am surprised that they are surprised. Given our past actions the results seem fairly logical. No one wanted 9/11 but it is difficult to imagine a society being more effective in bringing it about. No one wants disasters like Katrina yet we build large populations in vulnerable places with inadequate protection and ignore clear warnings for decades in a period of global warming. There were victims there all right but not because of Nature’s actions. We have overbuilt our coastlines all over the world based on a hundred years of weather experience - a period known to be one of the most benign in planetary history. Pictures of houses sliding into the ocean are called “news” and their owners “victims.” Even without global warming - an issue we have ignored for a century - there is no creditable engineering basis for the majority of this construction [link: bad design].
It is one thing not to know something because the circumstances necessary for learning and the capability for learning are not present at any specific time. It is entirely another affair to systematically ignore what is known just because remembering is inconvenient given the desire, or special interest, of the moment. My point here is not if U.S. energy and geopolitical policies should have been different, if we should have been more diligent about the early warning signs of global warming or if our real estate development models are somewhat flawed. I am pointing out that our societal learning curve is already being exceeded by our circumstances. This should give us pause to wonder about our preparation for as much change, in a few decades, as the entire history of humanity. Are we ready for the trip we ourselves have “planned” by our prior actions? Are we even asking this question? Will we recognize the many alternatives that exist and act on them appropriately and in time? Or, will will play the lottery with millions, or likely billions of lives?
There are many who believe me to be too critical of our situation and feel my urgency to be overstated. I have three answers to this position. First, I have been developing this thesis since 1961. This provides a continuity of over 45 years of thought, research and experiments in communication, teaching, facilitation and building tools to support systemic response capabilities. In this time, no part of my thesis has proven flawed and the gap of which I speak - the increase in change and complexity against the relative ability of human organizations to respond - has significantly widened not closed. The trend is in the wrong direction and accelerating.
I became aware of the change - capability issue in 1961. Since 1974, I have been tracking specific drivers of change and their possible impact. MG Taylor was formed in 1980 to build the tools necessary for an appropriate response.
Secondly, it is important to weight the consequences of a debate against the costs associated with the various positions. If I am wrong and Humanities’ present course is somehow evolving toward a benign outcome, the worst consequence of paying attention to my thesis will be a greater dialog, among people, resulting in greater awareness, diligence and design excellence in our pursuit of the human enterprise. This will cost little and perhaps attenuate unnecessary mistakes, save lives and build even more sustainable wealth faster to the benefit of all. If I am right, however, and the present course - which I believe to be careless - is fundamentally in error, the downside consequences can be catastrophic. It is possible to lose a civilization and destroy a planet and I claim we are dangerously on the brink of doing so. This is not a matter of some minor costs and temporary setbacks. And remember, even “minor” losses on the scale of humanity take on a different significance when it is one of your loved ones who walks into a societal accident. GBN has written a scenario for the U.S. security community that while noted as “extreme” is credible. It highlights climate change: “We have created a climate change scenario that although not the most likely, is plausible, and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately." We need more of this kind of thinking. Good engineers pay close attention to worst case scenarios when building complex systems. When they do not, a big failure is the result. Henry Petroski [link: To Engineer Is Human : The Role of Failure in Successful Design] points out this usually happens once a generation because engineers forget, become complacent and start to believe their own numbers too much. Yet, we live in a world where to point to failure [link: ormerod - why most things fail] in the understanding of economics is considered “courageous” - gracious! So, I am merely putting my engineer’s hat on with the writing of this Paper.
The third point gets to the heart of what it means to be human - here the visionary hat must be added to the engineer’s. There is much about our civilization that is worthy of great admiration. It took a long time to get here and millions contributed to the heritage we who are alive today hold in our hands. Yet, there is much we are responsible for that is nearly incomprehensible in its carelessness, brutality, waste and inhumanity. Millions on this planet are functionally economic slaves. We are wiping out plant and animal life by whole genera without barely a thought. Preparing for war is, if you add up the budgets, the greatest priority of our species. We claim that people cannot be fed, housed, educated and offered simple dignity while the gap between the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor widens in the richest (that has been documented) period in human history. We are altering out planets atmosphere and ecology and, now, even ourselves without as much thought, attention and craft we pay to the pursuit of professional sports. It seems that we can afford anything and everything except funding a reasonable, responsible approach to building a healthy, sustainable, beautiful, human future. Our failures in this regard are not just incremental and the result of ignorance, simple error or lack of good will or capability. Our failures are systemic. They are the consequence of how we have chosen to govern our human enterprise. How can we claim to be “the wise” given this record? How do we ignore centuries of moral and ethical precepts? How do we turn our back on each other and all life on this planet in the pursuit of short term “advantage” and satisfaction? How have we given up the notion of life as a creative quest [link: the art of quest]?
I propose an alternative occupation: the Rebuilding of Planet Earth as a Work of Art enjoyed by all life and as the consequence of all individual humans unique participation [link: mg taylor mission]. This is, perhaps the greatest game available to us in this coming generation. Lets devote the energy, genius, and money we now do for killing to living. I think the budget will be large enough and the results spectacular. This is the next step in the Human Enterprise.
In the next part of this Paper, I will present the case for rapid, massive change, how we are ignoring it, why very good efforts will not - in themselves and in todays context - add up to appropriate outcomes, and what it means to be requisite with the variety we ourselves are creating.
Link: part 2 • Link: part 3 • link: part 4 • Link: part 5
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Matt Taylor
January 29, 2006

SolutionBox voice of this document:


posted: January 29, 2006

revised: March 19, 2006
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Copyright© 2006 Matt Taylor

(note: this document is about 90% finished)