How might we create a system that can respond more effectively to complex challenges we face now and in the future?
by Josie Warden, Rebecca Ford and Robbie Bates
If you’re anything like us, the past weeks will have been an anxious time. Alongside stabilising imminent threats from the Covid-19 pandemic, both as individuals and communities, we’re facing the twin challenge of deciding how to act in the longer term. Coronavirus has brought into sharp relief the structural weaknesses already present in our society and economy, and added saliency to existing concerns about our future: How can we prevent inequality and ensure that those who are already hit hardest don’t suffer more? How equipped are we to address other severe global, complex risks like global warming? There is hope, however, as emerging from this disruption is a desire among many to set out on a different path, rather than return to a ‘business as usual’ which many believe wasn’t working.
At this moment, it is critical that we reflect not only on what we want to see, but on how we might get there. In the RSA Design and Innovation team we believe that how we act in the coming months (as individuals, as communities, as organisations) matters now more than ever, because the mindsets we use, the voices we listen to, the information we focus on will directly influence what emerges out of this.
We are inspired by the notion of ‘regeneration’; a mindset and collection of practices which bring a different framing to the moment we find ourselves in. Rather than asking how we can bounce back from this crisis, this approach asks how we might adapt and create a system which can evolve, learn and respond more effectively to complex challenges we face now and in the future.
We’d like to share these thoughts in the hope that they might open up and contribute to discussions that can help us move forward together. We’ll begin by explaining why complex challenges require a regenerative approach, how this differs from the current dominant perspectives and how this framing might set us onto a different path, then we’ll lay out in more detail five different principles that embody it, before ending by looking at what this means for leadership.
The challenges that we as a society find ourselves needing to overcome — the climate crisis, widening inequality, declining biodiversity — are intractable. Despite many interventions, they persist. It may be a truism but finding our way through these challenges is not going to be possible using the mindsets which created them. Indeed, it may be these ways of thinking that have given rise to them in the first place. As seminal systems thinker Donella Meadows said, “The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as if it were divisible, separable, simple, and infinite. Our persistent, intractable global problems arise directly from this mismatch.”
This tendency to separate and simplify is evident everywhere we look: We seek GDP growth as our primary marker of success, we pit economic benefit against environmental benefit, and we homogenise our high streets and our fields. At the root of this is a deep and pervasive cultural narrative that humans and nature are divisible. From the allegory of civilised man conquering nature to calls to ‘save the planet’, the idea that we are separate from nature is a story we know so well that most of us rarely acknowledge or question it. Covid-19 has lifted that veil. The impacts that have rippled around the globe demonstrate with acute clarity that we are truly interconnected, both within human society and as part of a wider natural world. Similarly, challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss are not a problem of ‘nature’. We may measure their impacts on temperature or insect populations, but we feel their impacts in the displacement of people or the disruption of supply chains. Our lives are deeply embedded within a wider ecology.
What might it look like, then, to acknowledge this and work with those connections? To seek a path in which human society and the environment co-evolve, where mutuality is sought, not control. A central tenet of such an approach must be to accept and work with the complexity that Meadows speaks of, and to recognise that this is at the heart of all living systems, from our oceans to our social relationships. Working with, and not against, that complexity therefore requires different mindsets and ways of working to the ones that we commonly employ. Here are five principles which we think can help guide us towards such an approach. These are things we have learnt through our own work, but they also draw on the work of many other organisations and individuals. We’ve put together a reading list at the end of this piece to signpost work we have been inspired by.
From planning to experimenting
Where ideas evolve and outcomes are not predetermined
With complex challenges, there is no manual or blueprint to follow. Instead of planning and then acting, we need to experiment our way forward, trying things and adapting as a result of what we learn. Sometimes this might be about generating new ideas and sometimes the most appropriate solutions already exist but need adapting to new contexts. Take the fashion industry, which is at present riddled with problems, creating huge volumes of waste and pollution and driving poor labour conditions for many workers. Some believe that in tackling this, automation could improve conditions. Others argue that higher wages are the way forward, while some think that the solution is to dramatically reduce the amount of clothes we buy. It is of course possible that all these ideas have a role to play; what is certain is that there is no one perfect fashion system out there for us to find. We need to figure out what works by testing and evolving along the way.
One way to do this is to prototype, or practically test ideas, early and often, gathering feedback about what is working and what is not. This learning helps to improve each iteration. For example, recipients of RSA Catalyst funding the Library of Things used this approach to develop their tool and equipment library in south London. They started off aiming to provide a cheaper, less wasteful alternative to families buying DIY tools. The Fellows involved had a hunch that creating a service like this might also boost community relationships. Rather than planning the whole venture from start to finish, they did a series of experiments, starting with trialling the service from a high-street pop-up shop. The feedback they received from people using the service helped them to develop the next phase of the project, which saw it running near to a local waste collection site. They have also been able to test what people want to borrow and to hone down their list of equipment. Today, the Library of Things is a self-service model housed in a public library. The team has continued to learn, share insights in the UK and further afield, and a second site has now opened in East London.
Experimentation can happen at different scales, from start-up social enterprises to larger interventions. Indeed, complex challenges are unlikely to be resolved through a single intervention, so a response to issues of scale is to take a portfolio approach to experimentation, where a handful of interventions are trialled together, each aimed towards a shared goal or outcome. EIT Climate-KIC last year launched their Deep Demonstration initiatives, an ambitious set of initiatives designed to show what is possible when a series of integrated and mission-led interventions work together to affect wider change. Their Healthy, Clean Cities Demonstration, for example, is working with 15 European cities to look at waste, mobility, heat, power, buildings, infrastructure, fuel poverty, skills, jobs, well-being, as a set of interrelated city challenges and not as individual problems. They believe that trialling a range of initiatives together can result in not just more evidence of the impact of individual projects but can also help to spot where changes have a dynamic impact, working well in combination. This approach is akin to the investment world, where a venture capitalist knows that only some of her investments will pay off. The difference here is that the returns sought are insight and impact, so dedication to building in impact measures and learning is critical.
The RSA has experiments running in the fashion system, to better understand how we might move away from its damaging linear ‘take, make, waste model’. In partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we are in the process of developing a programme of support for pioneering creatives and this year’s Student Design Awards programme has encouraged the next generation of designers to apply their skills to the challenge through a Make Fashion Circular design brief. From a contemporary take on a high street laundrette to a service for reusing maternity clothing, the finalists have each approached the challenge from different directions, but they have all prototyped and iterated their ideas in the process.
From problem solving to pattern shifting
Where we look at the deeper causes behind the problems we notice
Humans have an affinity for spotting and solving problems, and this is important. But it is even more valuable to recognise patterns, as they provide information that can help prevent new problems emerging and tackle root causes. Again, the fashion industry provides a useful example. As the problems with the industry have become more evident, people have set out to solve them, and in recent years we have seen a proliferation of brands making tweaks to their collections, from using organic cotton to recycled polyester. These are important responses, but they are insufficient and do little to address the connected issues of waste or labour conditions. We need to shift our focus to also look at the deeper patterns; questioning the function of the industry, addressing consumption patterns and the values that link human worth to what we look like, and tackling the economic structures that incentivise businesses to make more.
For example, in their document Earth Logic: Fashion Action Research Plan, fashion academics Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham encourage us to shift our thinking from what they call ‘growth logic’ — where the focus is on driving economic growth at all costs — to ‘Earth Logic’, where the focus is on planetary and human wellbeing.
Another intervention encouraging this kind of shift in thinking is the Boundless Roots Community, facilitated by RSA Fellow Leila Hoballah. People from organisations such as UNEP and Transition Network are leading action inquiries into sustainable living and exploring the deeper patterns underpinning our lives, such as privilege, power dynamics and collective psychology. This form of collaborative inquiry gives space to ask questions about where there is potential to work together for more ambitious action, without assuming to provide solutions up front.
When spotting patterns, what you choose to notice and what you choose to ignore matters greatly. Assumptions and bias can influence individual and collective thinking, so it’s essential to be alert to gaps and drill into assumptions. As we look to accelerate the circular economy, for example, how can we ensure we focus attention on potential social, as well as environmental impacts? Might more rental of products encourage consolidation of power in the hands of the better off or some businesses, or might we find sharing and rental models which instead build community cohesion? Choosing what information is noticed, and who is involved in spotting and shifting patterns, brings us to the third shift in mindset needed.
From single to multiple perspectives
Where more views build a more useful picture
We often look to a specific kind of expertise to solve problems. This can work well for challenges where deep knowledge of a particular domain is critical. But for complex problems, a diversity of ideas is also needed. Complex problems look different from different perspectives; no one person can see the full picture and by missing certain perspectives we may end up addressing perceived rather than real challenges. This is especially important when those working on the problems are not the people who are experiencing them, as is often the case with work on social and climate justice. To have the best chance of creating a more equitable and sustainable future, it is important to proactively embrace different perspectives, experiences and ways of seeing the world.
Involving diverse perspectives can be achieved in many ways, from the light touch, where communities might take part in exercises to map or capture experiences, through to more structured and formal frameworks and methodologies.
Consider the UK government’s commitment for the country to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. How should we do this? Climate scientists can tell us how global temperatures are changing, engineers can tell us how renewable energy can be created and architects can tell us the energy efficiency of the housing stock. But none of them alone can tell us how we should become net zero. They can only bring their specific expertise to bear. For the commitment to be realised, we need the behaviours of a whole country to change. Individuals, companies, communities, need to see the role they can play and commit to that role. In the UK, it is reassuring then to see six Parliamentary Select Committees addressing these issues, not only asking for evidence and advice from experts, but also commissioning a citizens’ Climate Assembly. Over 100 citizens were selected via sortition and met at the start of this year to hear from a range of speakers, discuss the challenges and reach conclusions. The outputs from these discussions will form the basis of the Select Committees’ future work. Rather than mandating hierarchical change, this form of leadership creates a space for discussion among a group with diverse perspectives.
From place-agnostic to place-based
Where identity and context guide outcomes
Best practice can assume that the conditions everywhere are the same. We know, of course, that this isn’t true. The character and conditions of a place are the result of physical and cultural features weaving together over generations. When thinking of our own neighbourhoods we recognise this readily, yet when it comes to interventions in the built environment, or economy or culture, too often solutions are dropped into a place because they have worked elsewhere. Instead of being agnostic on place, then, how can initiatives grow from and respond to the characteristics of a locality? The Fibershed initiative started by Rebecca Burgess in California, is founded on growing from place. It asks how plants and animals suited to the habitat of a region can be harnessed to create a local textile system which brings benefits to the local society and economy and regenerates the local ecology. Much more akin to traditional textile cultures, this approach is a stark contrast to the globalised and homogenised supply chains of the fashion sector today. In the South West of England the ambitions of the affiliate Fibreshed community are brought to life by the Bristol Cloth Project, which has seen a wool fabric grown, dyed and woven within 15 miles of the city of Bristol. What might a Leeds or an Edinburgh cloth look like?
Another example which is setting out to grow from place is the Civic Square (2020–2030) initiative based in Birmingham. The next generation of work emerging from the Birmingham Impact Hub, this is an ambitious project to create both civic space and buildings, nurture existing and new ventures which enhance neighbourhood life and create a learning lab to capture and share insights into these changes in neighbourhood economics.
From extractive to generative
Where building capacity is a purpose of the process
It’s easy to focus on the outcome of work without seeing the process of doing the work as a key route to impact. When we seek to work regeneratively, building capacity means nurturing the conditions which can help an individual, community or system to continuously adapt and evolve as needed. It challenges us to think carefully about how each stage of the work can enable and not disempower those involved. Governance models and organisational structures contribute to this capacity for change. We may speak of a project as being enabling, but if it has a command and control leadership model, we have a bottleneck in decision-making that quickly disempowers.
Sometimes the intention to build capacity is explicit, through learning experiences or support. The School of System Change, as an example, is generating systems leadership capacity within different sectors, and last year the RSA and ALT/Now ran the Economic Security Impact Accelerator in partnership with Mastercard, which helped build the individual and collective capacity of a cohort of entrepreneurs, all working on ventures to address economic insecurity and together creating a new 21st century safety net.
But the path to capacity building can be more implicit, woven into the approach of projects and organisations. Onion Collective, alumni of the Community Business Leaders Programme, (itself designed to build capacity) are putting this into practice in their latest venture. Working with their community in north Somerset they have partnered with a leading bio-tech company to seed a new mycelium-based packaging industry in the town, as a focal point for sustained local skills building, economic regeneration and environmental improvement. From the reinvestment of profits to the open community meetings and Community Panel, each stage of this project is designed to build long-term local capacity to respond and adapt to new challenges as they emerge.
What this means for leadership
Understanding what kind of leadership can help navigate complex scenarios is critical to managing the tension between getting back to business as usual and stepping into a different future. Where there is the threat of chaos, hierarchical and centralised leadership can — at its best — create stability and enact change at scale. In this time of rapid and wide-scale disruption we need to be able to depend on strong, clear government action informed by scientific expertise — although in reality we have witnessed a range of very different responses from governments around the world.
But government action alone will not steer a course through difficult periods. The challenges posed by Covid-19 have been met by inspirational leadership of all kinds and in all places: fashion designers altering production lines to produce scrubs, manufacturers repurposing their factories to provide vital goods, thousands of communities establishing mutual aid groups, and more. This emergent, responsive and context-based leadership is key.
Across all industries, communities and arenas of life there is a job to do of navigating uncertainty, making sense of what the experience of coronavirus has revealed and figuring out how we want to respond. It’s difficult to track what’s changed through the pandemic, of course, and it’s no small task to reflect on the changing events, behaviours, patterns and values across the different domains of our lives and over time. Our colleague Ian Burbidge has created a framework (see below) to help guide these conversations. Moving through the grid can help us to think about what we want to keep and what we want to let go of. Whilst this is admittedly a relatively simple framing of a complex, dynamic, emergent challenge, there is value in the questions it poses. What’s stopped as a result of Covid-19? What have we done that’s new? Do we want to keep these post-Covid? Ultimately the value is in the conversations that are stimulated when answered through collective endeavour.
And it is those who are able to host open, collaborative conversations — in families, teams, organisations, industries, communities — who are needed now more than ever to model the leadership qualities we’ll need in every aspect of society. We all have our role to play, sharing and learning together about what worked and what didn’t, what to end and what to keep. The task is to find ways to do this collectively, seeking out different perspectives and liberating the energy to adapt and evolve through this period. The alternative, simply bowing to the will of those ‘leaders’ seeking to command-and-control the future, is not one that will enable us to truly begin to address the complex challenges we face.
The opportunity for working with complexity through a regenerative approach, with the principles laid out here: enabling participation, pattern-spotting, working from place in a generative way and through experimentation, are enormous. Leadership is critical for showing — modelling — how this can be done, with humility. Where we find this approach, we should nurture it because it can help us move forward from the most extreme of circumstances and knit together a different future. One in which we can adapt and take on challenges like coronavirus, climate change and beyond.
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This is a (non-exhaustive) list of articles and work that have inspired us recently.
Corrigan, C. (2020). A tour around the latest Cynefin iteration. Chriscorrigan .com. [Blog] 23 March. Available at: www.chriscorrigan.com/parkinglot/a-tour-around-the-latest-cynefin-iteration/ [Accessed 18 May 2020]
Drew, C. (2020). Systemic design: examples of current practice. [Medium] 2 January. Available at: https://medium.com/design-council/systemic-design-examples-of-current-practice-2646bb7f554f [Accessed 18 May 2020]
Haggard, B (et al). 2016. Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability. John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey
International Bateson Institute. [Online]. Available at: https://batesoninstitute.org/ [Accessed 18 May 2020]
Ramalingam, B, Wild, L and Ferrari, M. (2020). Adaptive leadership in the coronavirus response: bridging science, policy and practice in a crisis. thersa.org. [Blog] 31 March. Available at: www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2020/03/adaptive-leadership-cornavirus [Accessed 18 May 2020]
Scharmer, O. (2020). Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action. [Medium] 16 March. Available at: https://medium.com/presencing-institute-blog/eight-emerging-lessons-from-coronavirus-to-climate-action-683c39c10e8b [Accessed 18 May 2020]
Shannon. (2015). What’s the difference between regeneration and restoration? [Online] 25 February. Available at: www.regenesisgroup.com/regeneration-vs-restoration [Accessed 18 May 2020]
Singh, P. (2020). What are the “new normals” that COVID-19 might be pointing to? [Medium] 27 March. Available at: https://firstname.lastname@example.org/what-are-the-new-normals-that-covid-19-might-be-pointing-to-d5abe71fa7b7 [Accessed 18 May 2020]