Seeing paradigm change

Greening household behaviourToday’s post by James Greyson, Head of BlindSpot Think Tank is in response to Naazia Ebrahim’s recent article on greening household behaviour. We asked James to expand on his argument that “System change policy would design waste out of economics”.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” – Roald Dahl

This line from a story by the imaginative genius Roald Dahl was published after his death in 1990. Today these words still sound like handy advice for those of us watching the world and looking for places where change can shift paradigms. Dahl hints at a key insight for solving intractable global problems, that our way of looking determines whether we find what we’re looking for. Since we’ve collectively not found it, why not look for help in an unlikely place such as a children’s story?

Our world and its problems should have been watched for long enough. Inequality, debt, financial instability, corruption, conflict, ecosystem damage, waste and poverty have been seen through history.  These big problems have been watched by problem-solving professionals since at least the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference. Despite all efforts since then the risks that the conference declaration warned about, such as “massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend”, just grow and grow. After all this time there are still no solutions in place to avoid that unpredictable moment of irreversibility when any global problem overtakes any hope of recovery. Even now, this moment could be avoidable so we should be seeking new possibilities.

Roald Dahl hints at the necessary imaginative leap. If millions of professionals can work for decades on global problems without actually solving them then we might be missing something. Dahl’s advice to look in unusual places can be read as an invitation to not only look where we expect to find solutions. Solutions on the scale and speed that are needed will probably not be found where everyone has been looking already, but within our collective blindspots. Looking for what we’re missing, especially when we’re missing something big, is itself missing from global problem-solving work. Are blindspots too embarrassing for professionals and organisations supposed to have all the answers? Or are we just a bit stuck doing what we’re doing?

The search for solutions in likely places is not just habit, it’s also a complex system behaviour. This is how paradigms self-reinforce, by hiding the possibility of diametrically different paradigms. Anything too radically different gets filtered out. The space for technical and policy solutions is shaped by the current paradigm rather than by the need to replace the current paradigm. For example, the opportunity of economics that prevents waste, rather than causing it, is overlooked within a system that looks at waste management primarily as a question of rubbish disposal. Incineration for example is considered by the OECD as a component of waste minimisation, rather than a way to convert solid waste into atmospheric wastes. This perpetuates the linear waste-making economy.

Roald Dahl offered a pointer on how to search where solutions seem unlikely. Watching the whole world around us might mean looking at whole system behaviour. We can follow the trail from tangible problems, such as climate impacts or designed-to-fail products, to the systemic problems, such as economies set up to keep losing resources as wastes in ecosystems. We can identify new paradigms for the system, such as circular economy, where used resources end up again as new resources. Then we can make policy to quickly switch the paradigm world-wide, for example by insuring the waste-risk of products. Then the new paradigm can self-organise everything else, phasing out waste from products and lifestyles everywhere.

Watching the whole world is the alternative to the default ways of coping with complexity and change – reductionism and denial. Denial gives licence not to see any problems that require change. Reductionism gives licence to consider any selected subsystems of the world and as much change as seems feasible (which is never enough). Watching the whole world gives licence to look across patterns of global complexity and make sure the necessary changes are feasible. Reductionism allows the problems to grow, ironically making more reductionism seem like the only way to make progress. The whole system viewpoint offers the opportunity to discuss, define and implement ‘the greatest secrets’ of policy solutions for system change.

How would system change policy work in practice? We could rely less on change within systems, such as all the initiatives that try to agree and enforce percentage improvements in problem symptoms like emissions or ecosystem loss. We could take more care to define system paradigms: what are the unintended design features that allow the problems to persist? The most common proposal for a system change, to measure progress beyond GDP, may turn out to be a blindspot since prevailing paradigms seek growth in ways that also undermine growth. The OECD have shown for example that inequality hurts growth. New paradigms that phase out society’s dependence on causing global problems would be growth bonanzas. So politicians wedded to growth should be shown system change policies as a way to get growth, rather than be told to give up on it.

Dahl’s advice to watch with glittering eyes reminds us that civilisation need not continue to undermine itself. As professionals we need not continue to struggle with fragments of global problems only to see things worsen overall. The complexity and interconnectedness of the world’s systems can be harnessed to solve problems they’ve previously caused. We can be curious and excited about finding hidden opportunities for systemic change that not only minimise damage but also reverse historical damage. By embracing Roald Dahl’s imaginative legacy we can edit out the big risks to our future and add amazing new chapters to our shared story.

What do you think? How best to organise system change policy to reverse persistent global problems? Add your comments below or let me know via Twitter @blindspotting.

Useful links

TEDxBradford – James Greyson – Let’s unshrink thinking and reverse reverse-progress…

OECD work on consumption, innovation and the environment

OECD Environment Directorate on iSSUU, including Policy Highlights on water, food, transport, waste and energy

PISA, we have a problem …

Any mystified adult trying to figure out the settings of a mobile phone knows there’s only one thing to do – find someone younger. Roused from their slumbers, even sleepy-eyed teens seem instinctively to know how to set up Wi-Fi, program the dishwasher (not that they ever would) and connect that cable whatsit to the TV’s thingamajig.

But are some teens better at these tasks than others? The most recent round of the OECD’s PISA student assessments set out to investigate how well the world’s 15-year-olds do when it comes to tackling real-life, interactive problems – “creative problem solving” – so demonstrating their capacity to reason outside the classroom. Results from the assessments are released today.

If you followed the first set of results from PISA 2012 late last year, you won’t be surprised to learn that, once again, youngsters in East Asia have done very well. Top of the heap is Singapore, followed by Korea and Japan. Chinese-speaking cities and economies fill out the other top seven places. (But note the usual health warnings with these country rankings. PISA is a survey, so there are margins of error in the results; country rankings may be based on differences that are not statistically significant.)

What sort of problems were the students asked to solve? Some weren’t too dissimilar from the challenges mentioned above. Among the tasks were figuring out the fastest route on a map, operating an air-conditioner and buying subway tickets from a vending machine (click on the links or here to take the tests yourself).

Students took the tests on computers, which meant that the problems could be designed to be interactive. That allowed students to receive feedback on their efforts, which, say the PISA people, meant they had to be “open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty and dare to use intuitions”. Those sorts of attitudes and skills, it’s generally agreed, are increasingly in demand in the workplace. According to the OECD’s adult skills survey, 10% of workers have to deal every day with complex problems that require at least 30 minutes to solve.

There are some interesting contrasts between these latest findings on creative problem-solving and the previous results from PISA released late last year. In general, and not too surprisingly, students who did well in problem solving also did well in mathematics, reading and science. But, in some countries, for example the Unites States, Italy and Australia, students did rather better than might have been expected from the earlier results. This may be evidence that schools are not making the most of students’ potential in core subjects.

Another group also did better than might have been expected: students from disadvantaged families. Although they didn’t match the performance of better-off students in problem solving, they weren’t as far behind as in the traditional PISA subjects. One reason for this may be that – regardless of family background – all young people have opportunities to use and develop practical, problem-solving skills outside the classroom.

As for differences between the sexes, boys generally did better than girls, especially among the top-performing students, where on average there were three boys for every two girls.

Useful links

PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving (Vol. V) (OECD, 2014)

PISA 2012

OECD educationtoday blog

Follow PISA on Twitter