This is the fourth article in a series examining the potential of resilient design to improve the way the world works. Join designers, brand strategists, architects, futurists, experts and entrepreneurs at Compostmodern13 to delve more deeply into strategies of sustainablity and design.
The Causes of Social Challenges are Invisible
Complex social challenges originate in a society's fundamental truths. What does this mean for social change?
It is really a thought that built this portentous war-establishment, and a thought shall also melt it away. —Emerson, "War," 1909
I'm a partner at Reos Partners, which helps government, business and civil society leaders work on some the planet's toughest social challenges: war and peace, the future of countries, food and energy systems, and other problems. Our work is to help leaders see their challenge as a complex system, then plan and act together to change their system.
At the heart of our approach, we identify root causes of systemic challenges. Interventions are then designed to address those causes. Some of the causes we discern are the things you might guess—laws, policies, rules, bureaucracies, war machines—but others are less obvious, even invisible. They are "the master-idea[s] reigning in the minds of many persons (Emerson)"—the mindsets or paradigms that shape the rules, laws and bureaucracies.
Working on collective prosperity in Colombia, we hit cultural barriers dividing rich from poor. In Vancouver, we saw fear and discomfort shaping the policies that impact people with disabilities and their families. In Oakland, we learned that confederate slavery is still causing violence, 150 years later. In South Africa, we see the echoes of Apartheid in ongoing police brutality and, more intimately, in the faces of our co-workers and friends.
Systems and their challenges arise from paradigms. That's where they originate and that is where their causes live.
In our experience, systemic initiatives can work and have huge impact. But the deeper root causes, the mindsets shared by an entire culture, by thousands or millions (or more), are hard to change. And the sting is: we can be sure that the same mindsets that cause our current social challenges will also breed future challenges.
So what does this mean for today's change agents? What do we need to know; what skills do we need?
Our key task, as I see it, is to learn to perceive and work in the "interior" spaces of human experience—the planes where meaning and understanding are created, where habits of thought and behavior operate, where empathy, imagination, enmity and fear live, breathe and grow. We have to learn how to work with these in the context of our social change projects, in our organizations, in ourselves, and in our culture at large.
To perceive, we also have to reconceive this "inner" dimension. We need to see inner and outer as two sides of the same reality, overcoming at last the dualistic worldview. This is a radical shift in perspective—in fact a new experience of knowing altogether.
To illustrate what I mean, think of an artist painting. Anyone can buy paint, but few can apply them so as to touch and move the viewer's inner world. Or think of your most intimate friend or partner: when you speak with him or her, you don't address the particles that comprise the body—the skin, the cells. You speak with the invisible being, the one you love. The act of creating; the act of loving—there, inner and outer disappear.
William O'Brien said: "The success of the intervention depends upon the interior condition of the intervenor." Yes, that's a dualistic way of saying it, but the point is, the whole person engages, and that drives change.
This is not a call for navel gazing—on the contrary. It's the other's invisible being that matters, and to see that other, you have to look "out," with eyes that can see "within." You have to be able to see the whole person, the whole community, the whole challenge.
Even as we continue to engage today's challenges in all of their visible and tangible manifestations—we also need to grasp and evolve their invisible sources. This is the next essential terrain for us to understand, explore, and productively engage.
About Jeff Barnum
Jeff is an artist, teacher, and social entrepreneur. He is a co-founder of Reos Partners, a global social innovation consultancy that addresses complex, high-stakes challenges around the world. Jeff has helped lead Reos since 2007 and has worked in Colombia on collective prosperity, in Australia on child protection, in the Netherlands on sustainability and climate protection, in the United States on transforming violence, and other projects.
Jeff is also a co-founder of Magenta, a media and training company focused on culture change in the United States. Magenta launched in 2013.
Learn about resilient design at Compostmodern13 in San Francisco
Explore the potential of resilient design to improve the way the world works next month with designers, brand strategists, architects, futurists, experts and entrepreneurs at this sustainability conference, held March 22-23 by AIGA San Francisco. Day 1 provides fast-moving presentations loaded with inspiring insights. Day 2 will be a Future Blitz workshop led by AIGA medalist John Bielenberg that grounds inspiration in action. Reasonably priced, Compostmodern is a can't miss event for anyone interested in the cutting edge of sustainability and design. Take advantage of early-bird rates through February 28th.