future change

Trouble in Paradigms

Why Understanding Today’s Paradigm Shifts is the Key to Understanding and Shaping the Future

The brilliant systems thinker, Donella Meadows (1941-2001) wrote that the most powerful way to change a complex system, such as a community, a city or a company, is by influencing the paradigm that gave rise to it in the first place. Meadows defined “paradigms” as: 

The shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions — unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone already knows them — constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works.

Paradigms are the epitome of paradox: the less we see them, the more powerfully they moor the system. For scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), a paradigm shift was so powerful, it was a version of revolution (Kuhn also gave us the phrase ‘paradigm shift.’)

So, if you want to change a system, the most powerful thing you can do is try to get down to the conceptual bedrock, down to the first layer of paradigm (or we could call it ‘grand myth,’ or ‘foundational narrative’) and dig it up. It isn’t easy. You need the conceptual version of an excavator or a backhoe loader–big tools–to unearth the assumptions we hold most dear about the way reality works.

Our paradigms are exploding!

Both Kuhn and Meadows explored paradigms in the context of stable social conditions. In stable conditions, people don’t have much reason to question paradigms because reality seems to be humming along just as we expect it to.

In stable times, as a result, we need revolutionaries and fringe thinkers pushing from the edges to get the rest of us to question our assumptions about reality. They help us ask whether reality must work the way we think it does. People before Copernicus assumed that the earth circles the sun; after his revolutionary provocations, they realized that what they had believed deeply about reality was simply not true.

We don’t live in stable conditions today. We live in transforming conditions.

Our global climate is changing. The oceans are warming. The technological substrate of our economic and social lives is in radical shift. The assumptions that were generated during the industrial age about how economies and social systems work are beginning to rattle. The human body is becoming a cyborg. Scientists say that the taxonomic system that classifies plants and animals is too simple to explain life on earth as it actually is.

Today, changing conditions are pulling people onto the shaky ground of paradigms in mid-shift.  This is disruptive. People enduring their first earthquake have described the experience as hallucinatory, or as if they are in an elevator descending without any controls.  The first thing you want to do when the shaking stills is crawl back to your previous world, those bedrock assumptions that kept all else in place. 

But when external conditions are themselves changing, holding on to old assumptions about the way the world works will eventually lead to system failure. Your assumptions will not hold you in good stead.

We need to understand paradigm-breaking trends

In addition to influencing the paradigm, there is a second, more powerful method of generating leverage in a system, according to Meadows: To transcend paradigms altogether.

Maybe a paradigm is like a pair of conceptual glasses; an object that we can put on or take off, and through which we can choose to see the world. Maybe it would be alright to ‘take off’ our current assumptions and to see these basic categories–war, peace, work, economy, human, machine, even animal and plant–in a different light.

Instead of having our legacy assumptions pulled apart by changing circumstances, we can assert control over how to approach emerging realities. We can build new assumptions. Meadows describes this transcendence as powerful:

It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia. 

This is the level of mastery that people need to begin approaching because today’s rapidly shifting reality threatens our comfortable, established paradigms.

In 2019, this blog space will be dedicated to exploring paradigm-breaking trends. Paradigm-breaking trends are domains in which reality is shaking up our old assumptions faster than we can generate new ones. It includes domains such as: war, peace and security; governance; the human body; the international system; work; and knowledge. I hope you will join me in the exploration. Let me know what you think.

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