Friday, November 22, 2013

Leading from an Emerging Future

Collectively we consume one and half times what the world can re-generate in any one year (and this is trending relentlessly upwards). To listen to most mainstream commentators, this simple, unarguable fact has no purchase either on their imaginations or their thinking. If we think about it at all, it is to assume that 'something' (anything) will come along to 'fix' this problem and we carry on carrying on.

Jung wrote that what we do not acknowledge tends to come back, through the back door, as diseases, and, so it does. In our case, we might only contemplate the burgeoning incidence of depression as our lives become more disjointed from a sense of agency, one that coheres and directs within supportive communal frames, patterns of shared meaning and a living environment. We might, also, note that our prophets of imagined futures have moved from nineteenth century utopia to twentieth/twenty first century dystopia.

What then might be done? Where do we start to shape and fashion a world whose economy serves the whole rather than the individual winners? How do we carry ourselves forward into a sustainable future, embodying the best of the past yet not captured by it? How do we listen for possible futures?

This is the theme of Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer's 'Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies: Applying Theory U to Transforming Business, Society, and Self' which, though it wins no prize for snappy titles, does take the reader on a fascinating and hopeful journey to the edge of renewing possibilities.

At heart, amidst the tables, charts, and rather breathless accounts of past and potential future models, is a rather simple challenge, whose very simplicity makes it difficult, which is how to listen to ourselves, to ourselves constituted as institutions, to ourselves and our institutions constituted as societies. How to take that deep listening not only into our pasts and presents but also, critically, leaning into the future?

Listening requires us to hear beyond our assumptions, hear into other people's assumptions and communally to go beyond both, together. Theory U both aims to set out the journey from listening into prototyping action and to build around it tools that help people take that journey.

Such listening carries with it a 'faith' that there are abiding wells of creativity and meaning that we can tap into when we do listen - that, as a Jesuit father once told me - Creativity is in the facts and the facts are kind. Actually, he said God rather than creativity, but the implied truth is the same. The Glory of God is the human person most fully alive (to quote St Irenaeus) and the world that is God's good gift wants us into a fullness of life. That life is one that is constructed together and it is the core faith of the book that humanity's task is to evolve to creating ever better, more humane and sustainable futures (rather than being bound by the 'laws' of either market or history).

As usual in these kind of books, it is the 'case studies' of actual change in practice that are both most illuminating and informative. My favourite was of re-designing local democracy in Bojonegoro in East Java, Indonesia where basic principles of access and accountability are slowly transforming the quality of local services and people's participation in local democracy. The first act of the new incumbent was not to sack the existing staff but draw a line under the past and offer them a new way of being and acting and a context in which that would be supported going forward. From being one of the most corrupt/dysfunctional regencies in Indonesia, it has gone to being one of the best, re-winning the incumbent their election on an increased majority (though the test of change will, I expect, be when the incumbent is replaced by another). It reminded me too that to every 'global problem', there are, in principle, only local, contextualised solutions.

The last chapter of the book offers a sketch for a infrastructure for supporting these kind of changes globally - an international network of U innovation and learning hubs that equip people to collaboratively listen for and enact possible futures. You can only hope that it will come to be.

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