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Design Guidelines to Address Global Challenges

Posted by Steve Waddell in Net Dev on December 18, 2012

What design principles should guide people who aim to address global challenges like climate change, food security and the global financial crises? I ask in a just-published article.  The article identifies four key “integration” challenges that successful design must address, and proposes five guiding principles.

The article is in the Journal of Organizational Design, a new journal with an editorial board of top scholars.  The article draws from my three decades working on issues of societal learning and change, with a particular emphasis on Global Action Networks (GANs).  The over-arching framework is presented as a social contract challenge, with an overview of that tradition with a social evolutionary perspective.

The four integration challenges are presented as a way to “assess” the design principles – any design principles must support integration of:

  1. Effort and resources across organizational sectors.  Business, government and civil society are organizational sectors that aggregate people with three different ways of “sense-making”/learning:  kinesthetic, emotional and mental.  All three are needed to create a holistic understanding of challenges and opportunities.
  2. Individual to global aggregations.  A large-system learning and change perspective emphasizes the need for learning, action and change with individuals (beliefs, behaviors, attitudes), organizations including government (strategies, structures, processes, products) and in macro economic-social-political systems (markets, public policies, values).  And of course from local to global, too.
  3. Short and long term time horizons.  Business temporal cycles are derived from the most basic of production systems:  food and seasons.  Government is dominated by electoral cycles, civil society focuses on inter-generational cycles.  All these are valid and important.
  4. Issue areas themselves.  Traditional administration, management and science have produced enormous benefit by dividing issues into ever-smaller parts to isolate particular questions in relatively simple bite sizes.  We must do much better at also putting the pieces together to see the hole from a systemic perspective.

I suggest five design principles to realize integration of these four aspects.

  1. Design around experience by taking action on an issue versus importing models and solutions.  This is my perennial call to create an action learning culture.  Yes, we have some ideas about how “things can work”, but lets start by framing our actions as “experiments” to anchor our development in shared experience rather than be dictated by problematic, unrecognized assumptions and dogma.
  2. Integrate complexity and emergence versus linear, simple and defined.  Action must be grounded in a systemic, change perspective that reflects the complexity of our world.  Traditional “evaluation” processes that are good for simple input-output models, should be dominated by over-arching collaborative assessment and learning frameworks that will readily encourage recognition of what we don’t know, cul-de-sacs and outright mistakes.
  3. Create transcendence rather than a community of disparate interests.  Our future and the global challenges facing us cannot be dependent simply on win-lose and negotiation/mediation to cut up the pie differently and make people feel OK.  We need inspirational action towards futures where we see ourselves flourishing – recognizing that may involve dramatic self-reflection and deepening of our concept of “flourishing”.
  4. Develop holistic systems rather than islands of success.  The world is still dominated by huge divides such as “North-South”, “winner-loser”, “poor-rich”…all grounded in the assumption that “there is not enough” and “success” depends on having something another lacks.  Rather than think only in terms of individual, organizational and national success, our challenge is to think/act/organize in terms of success of planetary systems[1] and social-economic-political systems.
  5. Emphasize trust and participation rather than representation and membership.  We tend to operationalize concepts of democracy, respect and equity in a rather limiting number of institutions and processes.   The democratic, multi-party state cherished by the West almost certainly cannot work at the global level…indeed, there is abundant reason to believe we’ve come to the end of the neo-liberal approach even at the national level.  And we also know that the United Nations, grounded in nation states’ interests, is terribly inadequate.  To develop effective spaces that are legitimate and widely recognized as speaking for the “global good” requires new approaches.

Of course these thoughts are presented for further discussion and development, with the hope that they point in a productive direction and raise sights to what we can achieve.  They have fundamental implications for how we define “success” and current assumptions about cherished concepts such as “leadership”, “democracy”, “representation”, “growth”, and “governance”.  This all suggests an action research agenda on a global scale through collaboration, to focus effort and gain the needed scale.  Are we up to this?


[1] Rockstrom, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., et al. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), 472-475.

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