Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

“The Questions we are not asking and the Risks we are not seeing”

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Last week my colleague Jan Arpe and I had the opportunity to take part in a workshop  organized with support from our side by our partner, the Swedish Tällberg-Foundation. Held in Lausanne, the workshop brought together people from NGOs, research institutes and private enterprise to discuss the intriguing issue of “The Questions we are not asking and the Risks we are not seeing“.

From World 1.0 to the interdependencies of global megatrends

Global inequalities, dwindling natural resources, climate change, the fight for new rules and regulations, social transformation and the role of social media in democracies are the interconnected issues that most move people and decision-makers across the world. Given that global complexity has now reached a level that defies proper representation, we should now concentrate our energies on recognizing and interpreting patterns in the mass of data we now have on such global interdependencies. Yet, more often than not, a kind of professional tunnel vision prevents decision-makers from embracing new perspectives unclouded by specialist bias. The Lausanne debate too was marked by a repeated urge to meet complex challenges with immediate, specific and seemingly simple solutions. Yet the time when solutions for government and enterprise could be developed in a traditional manner is now over.

global challenges

We are facing global challenges (Photo: Ole Wintermann)

Is change at all possible? 

In the light of the complexity of the challenges facing us and what they imply in terms of deep-seated personal changes in the outlook and behavior of decision-makers and citizens alike, the question was raised as to whether such changes in society and its framework of governing regulations were at all realistic and possible. Some attendees saw one possibility of bringing about change in people’s behavior by making them more keenly aware of the problems. For instance, the theme of climate change could be broached by approaching it in terms of the weather, because whilst the term “climate change” is now fraught with a great deal of controversy, people have a much more ready understanding of what is meant by the weather.

Other delegates were skeptical and countered that the point was to change people’s behavior. They held that people’s behavior is based on deep rooted values and outlooks on which semantics can only have a marginal impact, while the fixation of decision-makers on the status quo augurs ill for any change of behavior on their part.  Yet all attendees agreed in pinning their hopes on the major role played by the internet, and gave three reasons why the internet can be a powerful instrument for bringing about change.

The first reason is the availability of a comprehensive amount of information on the net. This can enable people to reflect more incisively on their own outlooks and on decision-making in politics and business, and can also enable them to question traditional or habitual ways of behavior more readily than they have done before as it also opens up new avenues of approach and alternative perspectives.

The second reason is that since the internet has partially demolished the “information = power” equation, even in hierarchical relationships there is now an growing tendency to pay close attention to the other qualifications of actors. And this substantially reduces the scope for the “misuse” of information as an instrument of power.

It´s all about complexity (

It´s all about complexity (Photo: Ole Wintermann)

The third important reason why the internet can cast doubt on traditional processes is the debate on relevance. Relevance today is no longer determined by the aggregate of a person’s own fields of authority and responsibility but by the practical value of the contributions they make. Thus they are rated in terms of their relevance or a value which is determined by what other people, not necessarily experts, think.

It should go without saying that these three reasons left some of those present scratching their heads in justified bewilderment. The ambiguity in the discussion on the motors of change only mirrors the uncertainties in public debate where the jury is still out on the question of whether climate change is better addressed through a global governance mechanism or by “grassroots” changes in the behavior of each individual. In all probability the correct answer here cannot be an either/or because both approaches are needed. Even so, at present neither sociology nor political science as a means of explaining social dynamics is capable of providing answers to such questions as the rapid pace of development in their fields of investigation outstrips their capacity to adapt or formulate appropriate instruments of inquiry.

Leadership 2.0 as the way forward

On the first day of the workshop, Jan and I gave our paper on Leadership 2.0 as one possible solution to the challenges mentioned above. Leadership 1.0 (in politics and commerce) is predicated on the paradigm that decision-makers inevitably make better decisions because they have better access to knowledge. Their privileged position is mirrored by their formal qualifications and responsibilities, and their decisions are mainly made within the bounds of, or with reference to, a single field of expertise. When it comes to important political decisions of national import, the general public and interested citizens are only informed about the process once it had been finalized. Proactive communication in the sense of a two-way information flow simply does not take place. In this system traditional media are allocated the role of broadcasting the decision without, however, looking into or criticizing it too deeply for fear of endangering their exclusive contacts with those who hold the reins of power. In this form of logic, questions of time play no substantial role.

Leadership 2.0 represents a radical break with much of this procedural logic. Its actors must pay explicit attention to the way various areas of interest interact with one another. Policy-making no longer has an explicit national orientation as global developments are simultaneously both the cause and focus of action. Instruments of open governance enable the proactive and timely involvement of interested citizens, which means that communication and participation are decisive parts of the process and not mere window dressing. The continuous exchange between decision-makers and citizens which then takes place is similar to the dialog entertained between companies and consumers. Orientation to the preferences of citizens, consumers, and ultimately to the preferences of workers and employees, is the key principle guiding all action here; in the final analysis, it is institutions that owe their existence to these groups of people, and not the other way round. The decisions thus arrived at are all prototype decisions to be subject to constant modification and adaption as circumstances change. This means that there is no longer any such thing as a single true irrevocable solution valid for all time. The overall process is tailored to promote flexibility, dialog and rapid response.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? (Photo: Ole Wintermann)

We were delighted to see that our paper provoked a lively candid discussion in which a number of important follow-on questions were raised. Is complexity at all governable? (No, it’s not – but this is not the point, which is rather to give the political system enough flexibility to deal with the demands of complexity in the first place. What is crucial here is the ability of the system to adapt). What will happen then to our present legislative structures and processes which are designed for representative democracy? (There is no question of either/or here, only enrichment of legislative instruments with participative elements). How is it possible to achieve Leadership 2.0? (The way this question is posed betrays the old paradigm of leadership. It is not so much a question of which individual achieves leadership but of broad numbers of citizens exercising their right to leadership and constraining a response on the part of the system). In view of the immensity of the tasks facing us, wouldn’t it be better if we had something like an authoritarian form of government? (This last question is also rooted in the old understanding of what leadership means: in all seriousness surely the point can’t be that a “wise dictator” shows us the way out of complexity!).

There was a general consensus that the debate should make a better distinction between two different levels of analysis: the level of content and the level of procedure. Leadership 1.0 tends to be focused on the content level whereby decision-makers are expected to make decisions that are substantively correct. Leadership 2.0, on the other hand, means a new definition of leadership. Leadership here is more about playing a key role in resetting the rules defining the game, and the process. This new definition is much more weighted to mediation and empowerment as it seeks to create an appropriate framework within which engaged people can work effectively and efficiently towards their set goals.

Two further interesting follow-on questions emerged at the end of discussions: the first referred to lack of fully fledged systems of governance in many developing countries and asked whether these countries wouldn’t be better to leapfrog straight to Leadership 2.0 and save themselves the first step of establishing a standardized form of governance. And the second asked whether we shouldn’t consider legislative processes as a kind of continuous prototyping similar to the iterative process of code development. In my view, this analogy with coding is very illuminating and useful.

Can scenarios be a tool for reducing complexity?

The company representatives who presented their scenarios as a methodological approach to the reduction of complexity were not given an easy time. Objections were raised both to their content and their methods. In terms of content, there was particularly vocal criticism of the forecast reliance of the scenarios on fossil fuels for the energy supply of the future. Furthermore, I also found the argument for retaining the energy mix we now have to be lacking in foundation. With their eyes fixed on the economies of scale offered by standardized production, these experts argued that what we need to ensure a sufficient energy supply is an infrastructure that is at once global and centralized – and that such an infrastructure is precisely what we have had for decades now. This seems to me to be a very self-serving argument: the fact that a structure already exists is the main reason why it should continue to exist in the future.

Critically though, it’s the global infrastructure itself and its centralized nature that provide the decisive arguments against the continuation of present energy policies. It should be obvious for all to see that the Energiewende or energy transformation in Germany doesn’t only involve transformation of the energy supply but also brings with it a completely new understanding of the role played by ordinary citizens in shaping the power supply. If more and more citizens come together in cooperatives to generate and sell electricity, this also has strong democratic implications. The counter argument advanced by the experts that Germany is irrelevant for the global power market in my view doesn’t hold water because what is at stake here is not the possible impact of German energy policy-making on the global energy market but rather the export of an idea. And it doesn’t require much effort to export an idea when that idea is about reasserting the authority of consumers against powerful energy corporations.

Another point which emerged in the course of further discussions was the dubious nature of moves to establish centralized structures for the selling and buying of oil and gas in countries whose climates made solar energy a viable option. There was agreement that the reason why the energy transformation idea stood such excellent chances of being successfully exported was because it can bring together widely disparate protagonists – in Germany, for instance, the Green party and the conservative rural demographic who have discovered a business model in energy transformation – in new political coalitions.

Once the content side was dealt with, attention shifted to the methods deployed where obviously familiar criticism of the deterministic approach on which the scenarios are predicated was once again voiced. It was noted that the upshot of such methods is that you only get out what you have put in at the beginning of the process – including in the causal model which in any case is heuristically produced by the actors in the scenario process. Any new gains in knowledge are accordingly slender and their validity must also be questioned in an era of new ways of data collection through social media (even though the different time horizons of these methods must also be considered). The current trend marks a shift from scenarios evolved by small closed circles to open/big data.

In short, many of those taking part in the discussions felt that we need to ask whether these scenarios in their present form really do have any future. And in this respect the experts from Spotitfy gave us quite a useful insight when they assured us of the wide divide that now separates human ways of assessment from scientific data evaluation and interpretation.

Next steps

In June fc_org will be at the  Tällberg-Forum where it will publicize those parts of the debate that deal with these issues and open them up to a much broader audience as it did in the Global Economic Symposium.

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Ole Wintermann Twitter: @olewinOle

Hi all – my name is Ole, and I’m the head of www.futurechallenges.org. In my opinion, the Internet is going to play an essential role in coping with global future challenges. Currently, I see economic globalization and global governance as the two most central issues. These trends, and how they interact with others like demographic change and security, make the lives of people around the world complex and insecure, and make it tougher for political and economic decision-makers to make good long-term decisions. We need new rules and methods for decision-making. Dear politicians: please consider all of us when you make important choices. It’s our world, not yours. Please follow me also on my personal blog www.globaler-wandel.eu