Five Large Systems Change Trends

Anyone working on big change issues should have an eye to mega system changes. Five of these are laid out as the basis for optimistic directions – the megatrends to ride and amplify – in Thinking the Twenty-First Century: Ideas for the new political economy. The author, Malcolm McIntosh, is a good colleague and a person who has had an unusual window on the dawning of the 21st century globally through: convening conversations with the UN Global Compact;

the last five years as the Founding Director of the APCSE Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia – he is now back living in the UK; Founding Editor of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship; and previous careers in business and for BBC television. His years in journalism with the BBC are reflected in the easy and personal read of the book. He expected posthumous publication due to medical predictions of death – erroneous, thankfully – which gives the book an intense reflective quality drawing from many great thinkers. The book, Malcolm explains is the product of a former “miserabilist”, now reborn an optimist.

Mega System Change 1: Globality. The earth presented in 1968 images from the moon is both a metaphor and a force for a change to Earth awareness. Out of our fractured identities of ethnicity, religion, race, work, nation, community, is a growing sense of shared interest in the cosmic speck of our planet. In this world, Malcolm claims that “megadata is the new governance”. Information and technology are increasingly the ties that bind on a planetary scale. Malcolm asserts that the systems change megatrend challenge is to speak and act from a whole Earth perspective. This is the heart of the sustainability revolution and a sixth technological revolution of clean tech, biotech, and nanotech. Realizing our highest potential involves answering two questions:

  • What does it mean to be human now, that we know what we know about ourselves?
  • What is our relationship with the planet now that we know about the state of the planet?

Mega System Change 2: Rebalancing science and awe. Science is presented as what we know and what we know we don’t know. Awe is mystery…the unknown unknown. Martin Rees is cited: “What’s important and interesting is the pattern and structure – the emergent complexity…the Grand Design has no relevance to most of the things that humans value…perhaps our brains don’t have enough conceptual grasp.” It is reminiscent of Gregory Bateson’s call for re-enchantment of the world and his ecology of mind; Jung’s collective consciousness; and Capra’s hidden connections. Cold hard facts associated with a narrow definition of science are of course important, but they are not separate from, nor should they be thought to dominate, the magical possibilities that arise from awe. Our civilization (of emerging globality) is not to be simply designed to an end such as GDP, but towards nurturing unknown possibilities that transcend traditional perspectives on “what’s possible”. Charles Darwin is cited: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

Mega System Change 3: Co-existence, peace and feminization: The feminine – as in nurturing, caring, sharing and social cohesion – is growing. Perhaps the best indication is growing awareness of how much more of it is needed. Another indication is that although the first half of the 20th century was among the bloodiest, in the second half the world was a peaceful as it has ever been in terms of deaths from wars. This shift is seen in the growing challenge to growth, having and doing, in favor of balance with being here, now.

Mega System Change 4: Re-organizing and the political economy: The economists, social scientists, social activists and environmentalists are increasingly seeing the importance of talking together, rather than past each other. Pressure is growing on the current model of capitalism for deep change in terms of management and governance to integrate feminisation. This will produce new answers for holding to account, for example, Black Rock investment company and its $14 trillion directly traded assets and $11 trillion traded overseas. The trend is being felt by growing recognition that we are reaching a breaking point in social contracts between markets, enterprise, freedom, accountability, good governance, the rule of law, mutuality and recognition of the intrinsic value of labor and the Earth.

Mega System Change 5: Quiet leadership: evolution, adaptation, learning: There is an emerging soft leadership represented by the explosive growth of multi-stakeholder fora. This responds to the need for “an understanding of complex interactions and connections involving systems, and systems within systems”. The rise of the concept of “sustainability” in its many forms is being accompanied by moving from linear planning models to ones of emergence grounded in evolution, adaptation and learning.

Malcolm presents his trends as the product of a reborn optimist. It is easy to cite evidence contrary to his views – is awe really growing or the demand for paying attention to “cold, hard facts” in very traditional linear terms? Is peace growing when terrorism is growing exponentially?   Is re-organizing happening, or is the financial system simply reasserting its order? Was 1950 to 1980 really a “golden age” for leadership, when you reflect on the status of race, women and gay people? And there is no doubt that there is much sharpening that would be valuable in the presentation of the trends which often veers towards mixing them together.

However, just as with scenario development, articulating the five trends provides guidance for large systems change efforts. Malcolm has specifically written from a system change perspective and is proposing that amplifying these five system changes in large system change work is of great value. Even if today the strength of the five is open for debate, the most valuable debate is about whether these are five key system changes that will take us to the highest aspired futures. In fact, the key uniting trend needed is to move to a systems understanding.

These five trends are wrapped up with a call to revive “political economy” and rebalancing politics and economy – echoing French academic Thomas Picketty who wrote Capital in the Twenty-First Century.   It is a battle over people, profits and planet to cite the WWF, and mechanisms for decision-making for the public good. “The new international political economy must be founded on systems thinking and incorporate the five issues raised in this book.”

Reflection on the blog from Malcolm:


I say in the book that these five systems changes are both nascent and ineluctable. They can be slowed down by the forces of inertia and reaction but not stopped. If they are slowed down too much humanity has no future on planet Earth beyond this century. But I am an optimist and argue that if we are genuinely ‘awe-full’ we can know that we cannot know everything and it is possible to envisage different futures . . .

As for Steve’s argument that the world is not as peaceful as I say, it is true that violence against women and children is increasing as men have fewer outlets for their aggression and learn, very slowly, to pacify and civilize their behavior. We do see more images of violence everyday but violence has not increased in the last half century but it is more readily, instantly and constantly available – or shoved in our faces – by social media and the 24 hour news frenzy. Two decades ago you could not have seen a beheading online, or a plane crash as it happened, or talked to a friend face to face on the other side of the world (as I did with Steve last week). Our ideas are being shaped by technology and our behaviors and institutions have not caught up.

Finally, it’s different where you are now – wherever you are now – because, despite the global hegemony of the news and images industries we do still have localism. Many countries have not had capital punishment for many years; many countries have equal rights for women, and in some countries it is women who are the entrepreneurs and the majority in parliament; most countries have gun control; half the world has clean water. We all speak different languages despite global media, and some people live good lives under totalitarian regimes, while some democracies are despicable when it comes to human rights and social mobility. Diversity reigns, but the drift is slowly, very slowly, I argue in my book in a direction that could, if we let it, save us from ourselves.

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