In defense of collective creativity

Deadly fires destroying wildlife in Australia – unthinkable numbers of animals and plants killed and no end in sight. Water shortages, flooding, plastic in the oceans, malnutrition and obesity, inequality – it feels like everywhere we turn, we are surrounded by headlines of ever more complex challenges that we are unable to make progress on as a global society. Frustration that ‘people in charge’ are not doing enough to solve the issues our world faces is leading to populist leaders winning elections, threatening the foundations of hard-won democracy. But perhaps we are failing to ask the question of ourselves — what are we each doing to solve the issues we say we care about? As opposed to sitting on the side-lines, reposting #prayfor hashtags and changing nothing in the way we behave that contributes to the state of the world.

At the same time, evidence shows us that the world has never been better – that the amount of people living in poverty or sickness are less than ever before. How do we square these two contradicting pictures? The answer lies, abstractly enough, in understanding the way our universe is evolving. Since the Big Bang, the universe has tended towards the creation of ever more complexity – from atoms, to more complex elements, to life and civilizations. So, the complexification of our world naturally leads to the complexification of the problems we face. We’ve solved the ‘simpler’ issues to address and now need to face into the more challenging ones. And this ‘Big History’ approach tells us that in order to progress successfully through the stages of complexity, equal information distribution and collective learning are crucial, in order to harness our collective problem-solving potential.

Similarly, systems theories, such as Cybernetics, show that in order to solve complex problems, we need to increase the complexity of the tools we use to solve them, too. They also show the folly of ‘me vs. you’ competition within groups or organisations, making a call for cooperation towards shared goals.

And yet, in my experience and observation, the opposite is happening within most institutions in society. Competition for ‘survival’ reigns within and between. Institutions become full-fledged ‘members’ of society that aim to accumulate power to perpetuate their own existence. We start forgetting that institutions are just infrastructure created to serve humanity’s needs. Instead we hold them up as dogma, guarding them against the changing needs of society, dismissing ideas for their improvement or overall disruption as ‘radical’.

This trend applies equally to government, as it does for business and civil society. In government, for example, there’s a growing realisation that political parties (a form of simplified representation) are failing to truly represent the interests of the population and instead serve the ideologies they were founded on. Yet, the idea of abolishing them for more direct representation is unthinkable to many.

Similarly, businesses which are ever more present to the demand by their consumers to be socially conscious and at least solve the problems they create find it difficult to let go of the ‘growth for the sake of growth’ mantra in favour of a more complex dual role of value creator and problem-solver. In essence, they have lost a connection to the true sense of value. Yes, they make some attempts to address social issues when their reputation or future operation is threatened, but more often than not, when the investment they need to make is too steep or addressing an issue would threaten their bottom line, the economic argument prevails. They also often use their substantial power of advocacy to ensure that regulation which affects them reflects their business needs, even when these stand in conflict with the needs of society or the environment. This is, of course, not all businesses but I am still to be convinced that it is not the prevailing trend and, therefore, the definer of the final outcome when it comes to global issues.

In short, we live in an era where we are doggedly holding on to a simplified version of institutional design instead of embracing the technologies and richness of human experience in order to make decision-making more complex and, as evidence shows, more suited to solving complex issues. Take, for example, the experience of developing a new regulation for Uber in Taiwan through the entirely deliberative vTaiwan process which has now been embedded in the institutional design of decision-making by the government. Not only did people engage and stay involved, they interacted with fairly complex information and deliberated potential solution areas, ultimately approving a new regulation accepted by all stakeholders which, as we have seen in many countries where taxi driver interests have blocked the entry of Uber, is not an evident outcome. Or the example in England where thousands of professionals from within its National Health Service along with stakeholders co-created a new strategic framework for Allied Health Professionals, a lot of whom take care of the population’s mental health. The gravity of attention on medics and nurses has shifted and the system is now looking at transformations that can be enabled by other innovative clinicians with new models of care, in partnership with traditional practice.

What would it take to solve the seemingly unsolvable global issues?

What this would entail is a more literal approach to democratic governance in all social institutions – in the way that they define priorities, make decisions and solve issues. In order to solve complex problems which, in the case of climate change or how we care for one another, threaten the very existence of humanity, we need to embrace the complexity of subjecting that problem to a collective, representative, and deliberative approach to finding, testing and refining solutions.

I believe that people can not only grasp and solve complex and challenging issues if they are given decision-making power, but that it is the way to overcome political in-fighting and solve the most controversial and challenging problems we face.

This view is anchored in evidence which shows that when we realise the collective will of the people, it produces more just, empathetic and sustainable outcomes than top-down decision-making. As a global society, we already have the theory, tested practice, and technology needed to engage large numbers of people in constructive deliberation to define solutions which work for the issue at hand and for all involved.

The barrier, as I see it, is the change in mindset that this requires, especially among people who believe they are ‘in power’ when, actually, they have been put in place to represent. It requires us to be brave, self-aware and responsible. 

This means, on the one hand, embracing the discomfort of giving decision-making power to ‘the people’. On the other, it asks of people to step up and take responsibility for the outcomes we produce as a collective society.

But it is ultimately worth it – for the fact that the issues we thought unsolvable would be solved, for the fact that there would be buy-in to implementation of the solution at hand, baked-in by the methods used to create it, and for the fact that the responsibility no longer lies in the hands of one person or small elite but is shared among all.

For this to happen, we must accept that it is possible and imagine the possibilities when we follow through with it. Because we have created the current state of affairs and we can change them just the same. We just have to be brave.