In our post-industrial, software-driven age of dwindling resources, we need to learn lessons and take action faster than ever before, says Tim Brown.

The modern world is full of complexity, but often the simple narratives we hear from politicians, the media and in wider discussion fail to clearly and effectively address the realities and repercussions of how complex global systems interrelate. That’s a problem, because human beings are drawn to simple narratives like moths to a flame — it’s one of our great evolutionary strengths, but also a debilitating weakness.

Early forms of storytelling were necessarily simple to ensure our survival and the cohesion of the bands and tribes in which we used to live. If we journeyed back to a Pleistocene campfire surrounded by early homo sapiens, we’d find that simple human stories were being shared as a means of making sense of our surroundings, navigating social relationships and strengthening human bonds. The next day, those bonds would have been vital to help escape predation, hunt for food and find shelter for the group.

While simple stories may once have been key to our species’ survival, they are now at risk of doing us as much harm as good. As many of the articles and essays in Weapons of Reason will attest, the majority of our societal systems are no longer fit for purpose. Designed to meet the requirements of the “first machine age” they have remained essentially unchanged since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we have yet to find new systems to replace them. But we need new systems and stories now.

The Earth is in crisis. Between climate breakdown, ecosystem collapse and other resource limitations, we’re reaching the bounds of what our planetary systems can support. Humanity is at a crossroads. Naiveté is no longer an option.

Perhaps strangely, I find the arrival of such a portentous moment to be very exciting. These instances of societal transformation have happened numerous times in human history, but they are by no means regular, and they offer enormous potential for creativity. The last one occurred around 150 years ago when the Industrial Revolution took hold and brought scale to everything. New technologies enabled mass manufacture, the industrialisation of energy, and the building of what ultimately became global markets. It was a massive transformation over the course of decades in which almost all our societal systems had to be reconfigured or redesigned to fit with what technology was allowing us to do.

There is much we can learn from the great societal shifts of the Industrial Revolution, not least of which is how to avoid repeating its mistakes. So many of the behaviours and practices it brought about have been damaging to the planet, but it’s hard to think of another time when society was revolutionized at such speed. In our post-industrial, software-driven age of dwindling resources, we need to learn lessons and take action faster than ever before.

Before 2020, the necessary pace of this change might have seemed impossible to all but the most steadfast optimists, but if a positive lesson can be learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s that we’re capable of redesigning enormous facets of our world very quickly in order to adapt. We’ve already had to redesign the way we engage with public spaces, purchase staple goods and services, and enjoy our leisure time. We’re redesigning the way we work, we’re redesigning how we think about travel, and we’re going to have to redesign our public health systems because they’re proving inadequate to deal with moments like this. All of these changes have happened in weeks and months, not years.

“The Earth is in crisis. Humanity is at a crossroads.”

The only difference between a global pandemic and climate breakdown, ecosystem collapse, exploitative capitalism, commercially based globalisation, unchecked technological development and the many other problems we face is how we choose to conceptualise them. We have chosen to think of Covid-19 as a common enemy and deal with it accordingly. Perhaps now is the time to do the same to the rest of the world’s complex problems so that we might build more resilient, lasting systems in their place. To do so will, I think, require the confluence of three different strategies, the first of which Weapons of Reason is already beginning to address.

We need more ways to communicate the complexity, nuance and interconnectedness of complex issues, to bring a greater level of awareness to them that allows everyone to engage with them effectively. Rarely have there been attempts to bring large amounts of insight together in one place in a way that allows equal access to different people with different perspectives on the world. We must continue to develop new modes of communication and storytelling which can express, reveal and interrogate the true nature of complex systems. Without that, we have no hope of responding to them or revolutionising them in the right way.

Weapons of Reason’s eight issues have begun some of the work necessary to articulate the sheer scale of global complexity, but what comes next will need to be further reaching and more collaborative to bring about real change. It will also need to reckon with the highly distracting influence of our communication technologies that seem to have reduced our capacity to hold complex ideas in our heads — why bother when our machines can do it so effectively?

“We need more ways to communicate the complexity, nuance and interconnectedness of complex issues, to bring a greater level of awareness.”

New ways of communicating complexity will, I think, give rise to a greater level of societal engagement from individuals and small organisations. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that most people no longer place their trust in monolithic central governments and therefore new, local structures of governance will have to emerge to deal with this. Top-down strategies of change have been found lacking and this is a moment where we can’t wait for others to make change for us. We all have to come together to contribute ideas with a sense of where we want to go and why. I think this holds more hope.

If we empower enough people to think through the lens of creative problem-solving then the positive results can be enormous. If we wait for policymakers to design every aspect of our existence and send us edicts about how to live our lives, we’ll be miserable.

We must be wary, however. While decentralised grassroots governance offers many positive opportunities, there is a danger that it can be co-opted by populism and motivated by fear. While we localise governance, we must simultaneously foster global networks of collaboration to ensure that research and technology, and best practices around each, are shared widely and without agenda. We’ve seen glimpses of it recently in vaccine research and genome sequencing that has only been possible through seamless cooperation between laboratories around the world.

These networks of like-minded individuals and organisations with a clear sense of societal purpose do exist in pockets, but are too often seen as grit in the system instead of the system itself. That must change.

If all of this seems like an overly elaborate plan, then perhaps we need to ask ourselves why that is? Why should such radical change be beyond us? Why should these new stories and narratives sound so far-fetched? Perhaps it’s because, as you will discover as you dive into this book, we are no longer a society that embraces long-term thinking; we are stuck in short-term cycles that do nothing to advance and improve the state of society or the planet.

We must learn to think long term again. What might be the impact if we can successfully apply our collective effort to the truly wicked problems of the 21st century? How might we design organisations, education, civic engagement, industrial systems, markets, healthcare, transportation, taxation, faith, work, communities both physical and virtual, to be fit for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, our grandchildren’s grandchildren? These, I would argue, are worthy challenges for the whole of society to engage with. These are the challenges we all must face.

This article is the foreword to Weapons of Reason a book that explores the world’s most complex problems. You can pick up a copy on Kickstarter now.

Tim Brown is Chair of IDEO and author of Change By Design.

A publishing project by @HumanAfterAllStudio to understand & articulate the global challenges shaping our world. Find out more