Facing complexity means befriending uncertainty and ambiguity
May God us keep from single vision and Newton’s Sleep! — William Blake (1802)
Our dominant way of thinking in dualistic opposites makes us blind to the underlying unity. Nature is hardly ever that black or white; mostly we are dealing with shades of grey. The way we tend to try to establish certainty is by defining a particular way of seeing and limiting the boundaries of the system in question. What results is the illusion of certainty.
This is a useful technique. Newtonian physics has helped to develop all sorts of useful technologies, even if we have long understood that it is a limited representation of the natural world. As Werner Heisenberg has put it: “What we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”.
We would do well to understand that any perspective — no matter what science or philosophy supports it, no matter how transdisciplinary and inclusive it is trying to be, no matter how much research backs it up — any perspective is a limited view of the underlying complexity. In order to befriend uncertainty, we need to let go of our need for prediction and control.
Most causality in nature is not linear in the sense that effect follows cause in a linear way. Due to radical interconnectivity, systemic interactions and feedback loops, causality is more often than not circular rather than linear. Effects become causes and causes are the effects of other systems dynamics.
In 2001, while studying for my MSc in holistic science, I had the privilege of being mentored in my understanding of complexity by Professor Brian Goodwin, a founding member of the Santa Fe Institute for Complexity Studies and an international authority in the field. Brian taught me that any system that is constituted of three or more interacting variables is more appropriately described by non-linear mathematics and should be considered a complex dynamic system.
One of the defining properties of complex dynamic systems is that they are fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable (beyond controlled laboratory conditions). Uncertainty and ambiguity are therefore fundamental characteristics of our lives and the natural world, including human culture, society and our economic systems.
Brian argued that since natural, social or economic systems are best understood as complex dynamic systems, we can finally give up our ill-fated pursuit of ways to predict and control these systems. We are not supposedly ‘objective’ observers outside these systems, trying to manipulate them more effectively; we are always participants. He suggested that the insights of complexity science invite us to shift our attitude and goal to our appropriate participation in these systems, as subjective, co-creative agents.
Our goal should be to better understand the underlying dynamics in order to facilitate the emergence of positive or desirable properties — emerging through the qualities of relationships in the system and the quality of information that flows through the system. We have to befriend uncertainty and ambiguity because they are here to stay.
As the radius of the circle of what is known expands, we become aware of the expanding circumference of our own ignorance. We have to come to grips with the fact that knowledge and information, no matter how detailed, will remain an insufficient and uncertain basis for guiding our path into the future. We will increase our chances of success if we have the wisdom and humility to embrace our own ignorance, celebrate ambiguity and befriend uncertainty.
More often than not, certainty is not an option. We are invited to ‘live the questions more deeply’, to pay attention to the wisdom of many minds and diverse points of view, and to continue the conversation about whether we are still on the appropriate path. We are encouraged into relationship and deeper listening, so that we can stop being at war with ourselves and with the planet.
More than 2,500 years ago, Pericles reminded his fellow Athenians: “We may not be able to predict the future, but we can prepare for it”. In our learning journey of human survival and our quest for a thriving regenerative culture, all answers and solutions will at best be partial and temporary. Yet by asking the appropriate guiding questions repeatedly and entering into conversations about our collective future in all the communities we participate in, we may be able to find a set of patterns and guidelines that will help us to create a culture capable of learning and transformative innovation. Living the questions together is an effective way of preparing for an unpredictable future.
This book is my subjective exploration of questions that might help us to chart our path into a more desirable, inclusive, peaceful and sustainable future. It explores how these questions can catalyse the kind of transformative innovation that might help us create regenerative cultures before unintended side-effects lead to the early demise of our species and much diversity of life along with it. One important question to live into whilst acknowledging the limits of our own knowing and whilst befriending uncertainty and ambiguity is:
Which cultural, social, and technological innovations and transformations will help us bring human activity and the planet’s life support system into a mutually supporting regenerative relationship rather than an erosive and destructive relationship?
My own practice of living the questions has been greatly informed by a wide diversity of thought leaders and practitioners who have mentored and inspired me. Among them are my colleagues at the International Futures Forum (IFF).
In Ten Things to do in a Conceptual Emergency, the IFF’s director Graham Leicester and founding member Maureen O’Hara (2009) suggest pathways to finding a transformative response which urge us to ask:
How do we design for transition to a new world?
What other worldviews might help to inform a wise response?
What can we learn from letting go of the myth of control?
What can we learn from re-perceiving the present?
What can we learn from trusting our subjective experience more deeply?
What can we learn from taking the ‘long view’?
What would insightful action look like?
Which new organizational integrities should we form and support?
How can we practise social acupuncture?
How do we sustain networks of hope?
The idea of ‘organizational integrities’ refers to the challenge that the traditional boundaries around organizations are dissolving as we focus more on collaboration (alliances, networks, partnerships, and outsourcing). We are moving from separate organizations and businesses to interconnected ecologies of collaboration that weave businesses and organizations into mutually beneficial partnerships.
The notion of ‘social acupuncture’ refers to the catalytic transformative effect that well-targeted, small-scale, creatively designed interventions can have, even in large and complex systems. Metaphorically speaking, placing the needle of transformative change in the right place and on the right meridian of cultural meaning-making, can unblock pent-up energy and catalyse transformative social and culture change.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]