A 60-year old – “I was around in the 1960’s and President Johnson’s “Great Society” Programs. I thought at that time his ideas would fail, and as it turns out I was right. (If I were an Englishman I would quote Beveridge and The Welfare State)You simply cannot ignore the workings of capitalism and the free market, and the frailty of human nature. I know that if we took everyone’s money and doled it out equally in 15 or 20 years the same people who were rich before would be rich again arid those who were poor would be poor again. It’s genetics, or whatever. Throughout history you have had rich and poor, winners and losers, and that’s just the way life works. At least in America if you work hard you can do all right. I’m proof of that. Nobody ever gave me anything. I worked hard and I always found a way to provide for my own children. Now Fm dose to retirement and I’ve invested well, and I am going to enjoy my retirement. That’s what life has become all about. What comes next I am not sure, but I won’t be around to see it anyway.”

The 17-year old – “But I and my friends will be. We are told that we could expect on average to live until we are 95…If that is really the case we are going to have to totally rethink everything. It is not so much what you can help us to know that matters now, but how we can so know how to learn that we can deal with issues that haven’t ever come up before. We can’t afford to be so cynical and we don’t want to be. We need all our wits about us.”

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves to its children.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Just what are these voices saying?

These voices touch on a score or more of issues – human potential, community, technology, democracy, wealth and poverty, youth and old age, profits, spirituality, ecology and especially learning – and they are all interconnected. For too long we have shunned this connectivity and attempted to manage each problem separately. This approach is increasingly failing us, and as a result we are becoming deeply cynical. It is an inevitable collapse, is the message of the 60-year old.

Vaclav Havel said recently that “…we may know immeasurable more about the Universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems that they knew something more essential about it than we do.'” The Native American Proverb provides a clue: “we have not inherited this world from our parents, we have been loaned it by our children.” Surely we have lost a sense of interconnectivity between and among the generations, as well as the essential balance that has to be maintained between our lifestyles and ecological sustainability? The cult of the individual has wrought havoc upon reality, while the cult of specialization has blurred man’s confidence in seeing issues in their entirety.

Seeking to understand why apparently well-educated Germans connived with the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel recently commented, “their education emphasized theories of values and concepts rather than human beings, abstractions rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.” Wiktor Kulerski, a former leading member of Poland’s Solidarity Movement, lamented at a recent Wingspread Conference that “I don’t understand why people can only think about the near term. They can only see what matters in terms of their own activities and non-activities. They drive forward thinking only about their immediate satisfaction without contemplating the long-term results of their thinking and actions.”

“You will never solve a problem if you use the same thinking that created the problem in the first place,” once remarked Einstein.

Fortunately, there are new ways of thinking about all this that requires us to escape from past myths (hat have subconsdously shaped our assumptions. “People do what they do in society because of how they see the world.” We are starting to see the world differently. It is now possible to understand more about what it means to be human based on a new set of understandings about the human brain and how we learn. It is immensely exciting because, in a way never before possible, we now understand how we, as humans, can release hitherto unrealized potential. With such thinking we can literally shape our own future, as opposed to just reacting to the changes hurtling all around us.

“A society that has yet to discover reasons for its faith in its future is a mean place in which to bring up young people.”

Wingspread, April 1996

Writing in Leadership and the New Science, in 1992, Meg Wheatley wrote “I am not alone in wondering why organizations aren’t working well. Many of us are troubled by questions that haunt our work. Why do so many organizations feel dead? Why do projects take so long, develop ever greater complexity, yet so often fail to achieve any truly significant results? Why does progress, when it appears, so often come from unexpected places, or as a result or surprises or serendipitous events that our planning had not considered? Why does change itself, that event we are all supposed to be ‘managing’ keep drowning us, relentlessly reducing any sense of mastery we might possess? And why have our expectations for success diminished to the point that often the best we hope for is staying power and patience to endure disruptive forces that appear unpredictably in organizations where we work?”

In truth, we have to begin thinking very differently. This means really internalizing that “our mental model of the way the world works must shift from images of a clockwork, machinelike universe that is fixed and determined, to the model of a universe that is open, dynamic, interconnected and full of living qualities.”

The pace and scale of change is simply enormous. Evolution is speeding up. We have to learn to live with this, and in seeing things differently find ways of creating a more sustainable future. As at no time in the past we have consciously to ask “what sort of world, and for what sort of people?” The Initiative is about nothing other than rethinking the most basic of human questions.

1. Crisis of Perception: Systems in Crisis

“Today, it doesn’t take much intelligence to realize that we are in the midst of a global epidemic of institutional failure…This decade and maybe the one after that will be the two or three decades that people will look back over a thousand years and say ‘that was the melting pot'”.

Dee Hock 1996

“The Institutions and instruments that exist are no longer up to the task. Why? Because the nation-state has grown both too big and too small. It is too big to deal with its citizens as individuals; that’s why governments are trying to redefine their role by delegating more and more to local authorities and community organizations. And the nation-state is too small to deal with global trends; even such massive countries as the United States and Japan cannot deal with capital markets that transact trillions of dollars a day.”

Raymond Seitz, one-time American Ambassador to the United Kingdom, observed that “both our countries (the US and UK) today strike me as self- absorbed, distracted and discontented. There is a disconnection between ordinary life and the institutions which govern us. Moreover, the .international economy and the international markets are so vast and so fleet that we are no longer able to predict our economic futures. The sense of structure and purpose of the Cold War have also evaporated. In both our countries, there is a perception that destiny, a long time friend, has played a trick on us.”” The comments resonate in many countries.

Democracy itself, the one thing held most dearly in Western countries, is facing a crisis. Ironically, as the formal structures of democracy spread around the world more and more citizens are opting out of their responsibilities to make democracy work. For an increasing number of citizens, but especially among young people, democracy looks like “a symbolic link with the past rather than a dynamic force in the present. There are many morbid symptoms. In most of the democracies voter turnouts and party membership have gradually fallen; where they remain relatively high, levels of commitment have fallen. Incumbent governments have tended to survive not because of any enthusiasm but more from cynicism about any available alternative. Negative campaigns have proved more effective than positive ones, and negative movements of disaffection have proved more dynamic than affirmative ones.”

During the 1996 American Presidential election “about 49 percent of the nation’s voting-age population went to the polls…the lowest level for a Presidential election since 1924.” The trend of the world’s leading democracyelecting its President with a mere 25 percent of the available voters’ vote raises some troubling questions about the future of a democracy based on the belief of self-government, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “by the people and for the people.”

The accounting firm Arthur Andersen in a recent publication said “today’s extraordinary state of flux in business and every aspect of political and social life is certainly owing to new technologies and increased global economic competition; but on a deeper level, it also heralds humanity’s passage into a new mode of thinking and working that offers a means of coping with ongoing turbulence and change.”

1. Crisis of Perception: Understandings

“There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period…It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.”

Vaclav Havel 1994

In trying to understand this “passage” to some new form of organizing society earlier assumptions too often get in our way. We have a profound “crisis of perception” that prevents us from thinking about new solutions. “It’s not people’s ignorance that you need to fear, it’s what they know that damn well ain’t true anymore that causes all the problems,” commented the American columnist Josh Billings at the end of the 19th century.

Since the Catholic Church called upon Copernicus to rationalize the calendar, man has looked to rational science for explanations and guidance in trying to understand great uncertainties and disequilibriums in social structures, as well as in natural systems. Economic, social and political thinkers have always borrowed from mathematics and the natural sciences for their methodologies, and to receive empirical support for their assumptions. Today, discoveries in mathematics and the natural sciences are providing us with the tools to understand complex social change. And yet our mathematics struggle to fit ideas and needs into outdated, inappropriate and downright dysfunctional frameworks that were designed for a different time, and based on “scientific understandings” from the 18th and 19th centuries. To our detriment we are discovering that no matter how hard we try to “max-out” the existing systems these outdated frameworks are proving incapable of adapting to the problems of a rapidly changing, highly complex post-industrial world. Economic and technological forces are pushing us out of the industrial age and into the knowledge age, but our standard concepts and analytic tools are incapable of dealing with this transition.

In the deepest sense our predicament is about 1) coming to grips with social and economic structures that are based on partial understandings of outmoded science, and 2) the need to construct new frameworks based on an emerging set of concepts and tools from today’s science and mathematics. The approaches developed will not be the final answers to humanity’s changing needs, but rather more effective solutions to the needs of today’s changing societies based on our most recent scientific understandings.

For several hundred years we’ve lived with a view of the universe as a mechanical system composed of stand-alone building blocks. This view involves a whole constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices leading to a particular understanding of reality. This understanding has dominated our culture and has shaped almost all aspects of society. Among its teachings was the faith in the analytical approach which glorified the dividing of things into parts.

The analytical approach provided powerful evidence for the acceptance of body and brain as machine; of society as a competitive struggle for existence at all levels; a belief in unlimited material progress through economic and technological growth, often at the expense of the environment, and of the supremacy of the ruthlessly aggressive over the integrative and collaborative.”

These beliefs and values have shaped most of our social relations and sodal organizations. They have certainly shaped our education systems and fashioned the nature of the curriculum, and the way teaching and learning are organized.

“There is not yet a concept of collective intelligence, collective knowledge, or shared minds. Most social structures and social institutions are putting us into boxes that are antithetical to teh way we naturally learn and grow.”

Wingspread, July 1996