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How do we understand the world?

I’d like to tell you a story. It is about how we understand the world. It is a history because it tells us about how we have understood the world around us and how we understand it now.

Scientists and social scientists alike are in the business of trying to make sense of the world. And in so doing, both scientists and social scientists make use of conceptual frameworks (slide 1). They are habitual ways of thinking which influence how we try to make sense of what we see and experience. Conceptual frameworks guide the new questions we ask (and don't ask).

For millions of years we have had religious beliefs to help us understand and control the world around us. American Indian religions and Taoism are nature based religions where animals played a large role, and was one explanation of our world. Religions with many gods such as Freda, (slide 2) who is the Nordic goddess of wealth, fertility, warfare, and love. She was a knowledgeable magician, and it was she who taught Odin the shamanistic magical practices known as seidr. The blue-eyed Freda was famed among men, gods and giants for her beauty. Wearing her falcon robe, her feline pets play at her feet.) and (slide 3) Isis, known in ancient Egypt as a protectress and a symbol of immortality. She was the strongest deity in the Egyptian pantheon.) Praying to the correct goddess or god gives believers a chance to control just that part of their life that is troubling them. In short, we looked to the spirit world to explain what we couldn’t. From many gods to one god and written scriptures we now have Judaism, Christianity and Islam in all their many forms. This one deity is described as all knowing, all seeing and all encompassing.

For about 300 years we have understood the world through the models of Newton and Descartes. (slide 4) There’s was an attempt to understand the workings of the world by discovering the laws of nature. The Newtonian system of mechanics indicated that the universe was a machine in which cause and effect were closely linked - as in a mechanical clockwork device (slide 5). “According to this view, will was only an illusion, since men and women, like everything else in the universe, where subject to the cause-and-effect link.”

This was a driving force in the nineteenth century and pervaded even the social sciences. On the macro-scale, according to Newtonian physics one could measure the cause and effect of, for example, the degree of heat and its affect on metal. These were statistical, linear relationships. Another driving force of 18th century mechanistic science was that one could freeze a subject in time and space in order to study it.

Something has been happening to change our assumptions!

Since then we have been moving away from deterministic thinking towards the relativity of Einstein. Quantum physics (slide 6), the study of the smallest particles, has taken the lead as our conceptual framework. Growing out of this micro world view, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle said that the product of statistical uncertainties of complementary variables (he is talking about momentum and position) could never be measured at the same time. So, if we could locate a subject in space, we couldn’t tell when it would be there. If we understood what time it would arrive, because we knew its speed of travel, we didn’t always know where it would arrive. In terms of current events, even though the world was surprised, many people understood that anger was building in fundamentalist parts of the Muslim world and that would result in some kind of eruption. Bin Laden actually wrote about it. Those people understood the movement of feelings (momentum), but not the physical place where they would erupt (position). Einstein, Heisenberg, Lorenz, Bohm and many others changed how we understand the world.

Let’s look at Lorenz contribution. In the 1960´s, Edward Lorenz (MIT), was studying the weather (slide 7). Using linear based mathematical laws; he created a model of the weather on his (by today’s standards) small computer. The simulation always obeyed the rules but the weather never repeated itself. But measurements could never be perfect. Actually, an assumption of Newtonian science was that “given an approximate knowledge of a system’s initial conditions and understanding of natural law, one can calculate the approximate behavior of the system.“ In a re-running of his simulation one day, Lorenz typed in the numbers of the initial conditions, with which he had been working, which ended .506. When he came back to the computer with his coffee, he saw a radically different result from what earlier runs had shown using the exact numbers. In actuality, the computer had stored the last part of the number as .506127 (slide 8). Out of that accident, chaos theory was formed. It is often called the butterfly effect. (slide 9) That is; small actions can have large effects.

What was also learned about complexity was that things went from order to chaos to order again. (slide 10 & slide 11). Just like when a new computer system is installed, there is order, even if the system doesn’t solve all the problems at hand. Then comes a period of chaos when the new system is installed and the bugs are worked out. Finally, when everyone has learned how to use its new capabilities there is order in system again.

How do we experience complexity?

Even while scientists were studying complexity, we were experiencing it, often unconsciously. In order to illustrate this, lets look at how our population has grown since the middle ages. (slide 12, slide 13, slide 14, slide 15, slide 16, slide 17, slide 18, slide 19) The increase in population is just one reason for our feeling pressed. Globalization has opened the door to more new contacts and customers. Bureaucracy and technique has given us countless new things to think about. There is more to learn and there are more people to learn from every day. Our economic system is based on growth, so naturally the number of products grows, client groups diversify, alliances expand and decentralization takes over. All of these things and more increase the complexity of our lives.

How are we handling this complexity?

Another part of this new paradigm is taking over as a way to understand the universe and a way to handle the complexity around us. It is Systems Theory. What is a system? (Food cycle picture.) Systems can be natural or man-made. Other natural systems can be a grove of trees, a colony of bacteria, communities of animals or societies of people. They can interact with their neighbors and adapt to change. They can be a connected, organized set of things or parts, such as in a car. Systems can be bodies moving about one another in space guided by laws, like gravity. They can be a set of organs of parts in an animal body. They can be a religion, a form of government, a philosophical system or a system of theories, a doctrine or beliefs.

Our brains are a system! We have learned a lot about how the brain works, and more is coming every day. For example we can encourage the right and left brain to work together more effectively by doing physical movements which cross over the midline of the body. That activates the left brain lobe to take care of the right side body movements and the right lobe to take care of the left side’s movements.

We know that systems have a series of archetypal behaviors. They have colorful names like “Fixes that Backfire”, “Limits to growth”, “Shifting the Burden”. It takes some detective work and a deal of study to use systems thinking to solve problems in our organizations. That body of knowledge is growing as university courses and consultants refine the knowledge for easier integration. There are computer software programs on the market that can model the systems found in your workplace.

Another way of handling complexity when it comes to making decisions about the future is to use scenarios. These are narratives of possible futures based on current qualitative information, behavior patterns, and actions in the present. Scenarios are able to incorporate a variety of variables in a way that are easily absorbed by the listener. Scenarios come in groups of three to five. That is because there is never any one conceptual framework happening at once, but there are several happening at the same time. Scenario technique captures this actuality. There are still hunters and gatherers on earth at the same time the origins of the universe are being studied by scholars. Those are extremes but most companies have age differences, gender differences and cultural differences not to mention differences between marketing and production, purchasing and personnel. Every company is warehouse of complex number of conceptual frameworks.

Children are learning more about handling complexity in school. They are working more often with a team of teachers, they have theme days where a subject is looked at from many angles, and story telling is being introduced as a “new” technique. They are learning about the Butterfly effect, about Systems Theory and many new scientific theories. This will not be simply academic material for them; it will be a new way of thinking. These children will, in the next 15 to twenty- years will be working for you.

There are several techniques that help us manage complexity and to fight the tendency to oversimplify and lay blame in the wrong place. They can help us from being overwhelmed and burnt out. In summary, we can handle complexity by understanding systems thinking and using scenario techniques. There is a third way, and that is why you are here today. Just like the narratives in scenario thinking, story telling is an easy way to get started in learning how to handle complexity.


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