Humans shape and construct systems deliberately – but then they shape us. All systems-in-use are designed to deliver what we need. Where the outputs are not what we want (or had intended) then we really only have two options.
- If it is at all feasible we can redesign the system so that it does produce what we want.
- Where that is too difficult, for whatever reasons, we can scrap the current system and start again – reinventing it from first principles in ways that fulfil more relevant design criteria.
For example, we might find the system of democracy as it is currently practised too ideologically narrow, aligned too closely with exclusive institutional interests, biased and open to favours, and consequently unable any longer to adequately represent the will of the people – which was the original impulse. In these circumstances we might agree to reinvent the democratic system according to criteria that ensure future policy outputs are culturally inclusive, ethically responsible, economically and ecologically viable, technically straightforward, and socially compassionate. Different design criteria.
It is worth clarifying what I mean when I use a term like system because it can be interpreted very loosely to mean different things. The world is a highly complex system of interconnected parts comprising ecosystems, landscapes, climate, oceans, living creatures, and a great deal more. Likewise the systems humans have fabricated to grow and distribute food, or produce energy, for example, are also whole systems.
But whereas a natural system may not have any evident goal, human-made systems are functionally designed as coherent entities. Comprising a number of interdependent parts, they are made to satisfy an identified and stated need, and have agreed inputs that are transformed by a collection of processes into desired outputs. In other words they are teleologically conceived to produce something that is desired by the system’s architects. Dynamically complex systems such as these can be scoped and better understood by defining their boundary, structure and behaviours. One can then make simplified representations (or models) of the system in order to anticipate (or impact) its future behaviour.
One of the systems currently failing humanity is that of governance – particularly the ways in which power and praxis are applied in service to society. In truth no political system anywhere in the world is working as intended. Traditional societies in the Middle East are at each other’s throats, encouraging the flare-up of extreme religious fundamentalism. China is struggling to balance its socialist inclinations with market capitalism. Even the most effective democracies and quasi democratic states are failing in their duty to protect, respect, and promote the well-being of all citizens.
Common reactions to the unfolding political circus in the United States, the focus on exceptionalism, ego and celebrity, the farce of the Brexit plebiscite in the UK, the barren flatland arising from political infighting in Australia, the economic instabilities of Europe, and the elevation of South Africa as the most corrupt country on the planet, has left us confused, angry and disengaged. Many people are beginning to wake up to the fact that political systems are so thoroughly rigged they can only produce the outcomes to which we are now witnesses.
We urgently need to change this state of affairs. But how? In view of what I have outlined above the answer has to be by design or reinvention. Unfortunately there is much more to it than that.
In the past public protests, civil disobedience, and bloody revolutions did the job. But our rebellion needs to be more subtle, quiescent, an evolution of social consciousness that engages everyone more effortlessly in the political process. This mindful uprising can only be built on the back of a common understanding and an acceptance that almost all governance systems as currently constructed are not working for the public good.
For example, let us not be tricked into imagining that inequality, poverty, or brutality, are regrettable though necessary consequences of how we choose to organise ourselves in a civilised society. They are design features of the current system – intended outcomes from the tax policies, government budgets around military adventures, border protection and state-sanctioned violence, coupled with huge transfers of wealth from the productive majority to the coffers of a tiny but powerful elite. They do not indicate incompetence or a lack of design skills. On the contrary, they reveal a system performing well in the way it was designed to perform. If we do not like the results then we have no option but to redesign or reinvent the system, particularly in terms of its inputs, processes and intentions.
That means overcoming the illusion that the self-sustaining pattern of social norms, media collusion, and political game-playing upholding the status quo, is capable of providing for the needs of contemporary societies. It is not. We must also face the fact that many of our representatives are so out of touch with reality yet lack the moral compass and toolkit needed to recover even a semblance of adequacy.
Contaminated by a toxic mix of fear and greed, stirred by the ever-growing complexity of the global environment, our political systems are in crisis. They cannot even patch up the present adequately least of all solve the more existential problems of the human condition. We should stop pretending that they can.