by Rick Smyre and Neil Richardson
We are in a transition from an Industrial Society to an Ecological Civilization that will transform the fundamental principles of thinking and organization. Although it took 100 years for the First Enlightenment (1720–1820) to emerge, eventually a phrase appeared amongst the moderate thinkers of the time that personified the epoch. That phrase was “the new light,” and the term Enlightenment became the historical way to capture the spirit of that age. Today’s phrases, equally well known, are the “Space Age” and the “Information Age.”
We live in an age of transformation where the concepts that grew out of the Enlightenment and undergirded the Industrial Age are evolving to a new worldview, complete with new fundamental principles, strategies and methods. No one is presumptuous enough at this stage in the historical transformation from one age to the next to think that all the key ideas and concepts can be identified, much less understood and applied. However, because the pace of change is faster and more complex than two hundred years ago, it is necessary for all citizens to begin to think about the implications of basic changes in our society. The change is occurring so fast that we know we are in some stage of transformation, which is different from what we read about previous changes. The universities and taverns of 18th century Scotland were havens of new thinking. Thinkers in those taverns and university salons felt pride and pleasure generating new ideas. One of our challenges is to create 21st century mechanisms, places, forums that will allow us to take enough time to ponder, talk, and ideate about transformational ideas just as did those participating in the coteries in Edinburgh in the 18th century.
We know many of the old ways of thinking already no longer work. Linear thinking grows more limited in a nonlinear world where the use of the Internet provides a matrix of simultaneous connections and disconnections. The one best answer may still be appropriate for an engineering equation, but not for the needs and capacities of a community in transformation. And, what about the capacity to innovate for increased income opportunities? We need to escape the search for standard solutions in order to innovate by seeing diverse connections among disparate ideas.
We live in a time of such transformation that the basic ideas and principles that were successful in the past are no longer useful.
Change is occurring so fast we cannot predict the future. The best we can do is search for trends, weak signals and dialogue about what impact those trends may have. If you were a local economic developer in 1985, a mimeographed newsletter would still be used without realizing that the Internet had been in existence since 1969, and was getting ready to burst into the public consciousness around 1993 once the graphical interface of the Web was developed that allowed people and organizations in the public domain to communicate with one another in varied ways and in real time.
If we think about this implication for the future of our society, we begin to realize that we need to be able to think differently. We need to find connections where none apparently exist from a traditional perpective. We need to look for potential impacts of weak signals (what we call early signs of change) before they create a crisis. We need to think beyond the norm and realize that our context is constantly changing. How we see the world is different from how others see it. How we see the world in ten years will be different from how we see it today. We are facing a dynamic society of constant change while still trying to use the tools of a bygone age.
What can we do to prepare our communities and society for a different kind of future? We would suggest a counterintuitive idea. Before we “do” anything, we need to think about what we need to do. Think about how identifying emerging trends and weak signals could impact any new plan for the future. We need to build pools of leaders who can think about the future using principles, concepts, methods and techniques appropriate to a society in constant change that is interconnected by technology and that is increasingly complex This pool of leaders will be interconnected by increasingly complex technology. For us to be able to “do” the right thing, we need to think about what the right thing “is” in a changing context. Because so many changes are happening at once, we need to change the very nature of the questions we ask. What are all the things we need to think about and do in parallel to each other to build the capacities for vital and sustainable communities?
by Rick Smyre and Neil Richardson