Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Creating the fitness landscape for Lao-Tzu's City on a Hill

I'm lucky to have some brilliant and visionary friends and colleagues dedicated to creating radical global societal change towards sustainability. This leads to the following, ongoing conversation 'how the heck do I/we do that?'

Take my Synthesis colleague and friend Rhett Gayle. He's doing some cutting edge philosophy: looking at how to weave together complexity sciences and Taoism. He suggests one might view Taoism as part of the family of complexity sciences, which is concerned with discerning order and 'flow' (how change happens) in the natural world and in human systems through observing natural and human phenomenon. Of course, Chinese philosophers were not using computers or higher mathematics. But they paid a lot of attention to things that Western Scientists are not exactly well-known for. Like taking a whole-systems perspective on the human body, and building entire life-patterns around the observation that engaging in bodily practices like Tai Chi and meditation can improve one's capacity for what we might call 'rational' thought. Research shows that Eastern traditions are better at 'circular' thinking - which naturally lends itself to the systems-thinking that some organisations have been trying for years to knock into the thick-skulls of entrenched western institutions. Complexity sciences might help illuminate aspects of Taoism. Studying Taoism might change some of the questions asked by those of us interested in complex systems. And maybe, just maybe, complexity sciences and Taoism are both pointing not to one another, but to some common, higher way of thinking-living-acting in the world, a lexicon that can only be discovered through their interaction.

We're talking about the potential for serious cross-cultural engagement leading to a synthesis that has never been done because we've never been in a space to do it.

All of which I consider pretty-freakin-incrediable.

And Rhett's the guy to be doing it. Not because he's published volumes of philosophy, but because he's got an incredible gift for making the complicated and the complex simple. We've done some values work together - and he's all about constructing a new order through synergy and wisdom. He's fundamentally a teacher. It is that skill, more than the brilliant 'here is how everything is connected' - that is so critically important for these kind of cross-cultural insights that can lead us towards that promised 'city on a hill' that has for so long tugged at Western (esp American) consciousness.

And he's sitting in this really tiny little town in middle-England that has never heard of organic fruits and vegetables where - maybe - 3 other people kinda-sorta understand what he's talking about. I've been there. It's got a nice church. And some beautiful marsh-type places where he walks his sweet jack russell terrior. And a decent choir that Rhett sings in. And his wife. She is also a brilliant philosopher - and the reason he moved from his comfortable teaching position at the University of Colorado in Boulder (where to not eat organic and practice yoga is to be assigned to the Cult of the Very UnCool).

So yesterday we had a conversation that went something like this.
Rhett: So I've done all this reading and some writing and thinking and there are a lot of different places I could take this and a lot of different audiences.
Me: Yup. What do you want?
Rhett: An active team just on this work. Some funds. A publisher - or a few. But I don't know what is the right audience to go for or who are the best people to work with.
Me: Hmmmm. Sounds like you are in the dark.
Rhett: Totally.

So I suggested we use some of the metaphors from complexity sciences and apply it to his situation.

He's on a fitness landscape. There's where he's come from - his past, which is pretty important to where he is right now. Historical context matters in complex systems. But much more important is where he is right now. He kinda-sorta knows where he wants to go: actively creating a new synthesis of planetary civilisation with a cool group of people. That's part of his city on the hill. But right now, he doesn't know how to get there. Even the shape of the city is fuzzy - like the Emerald City when it is just this green hazzy light.

Managers, policy makers and others working in complex systems face these kinds of problems all the time. We want sustainable fisheries, but we're not sure what policies will get us there - and what to do about those darn tourists. We want our business product to succeed, but we don't really know what the market wants, or what exactly who or where our target audience is, or what the optimal price is.

So we need information. Feedback. To make a shape of the chaotic darkness, we've got to send out 'probes' to discover information about our environment. Who's out there? What do they want and need? What can they pay? Social scientists? Scholars? Practitioners (of .... Tai-Chi? Management consultancies with Toyota)? Other attempts to bridge Eastern-Western collaboration?

The strategy found useful in businesses and in natural resource management is an 'adaptive', experimentive one where we are learning about our landscape. Sending out a series of experimentive probes. Make a bunch of calls to some potential funders, send out a few different abstracts, send out a few blogs, and see what happens - and then reassess. What worked, what didn't work? Do we know why? What felt great? Are we closer to the city, or further, or did we just turn a corner?

Rhett digged the idea of probes. And why not - its fun. Which is what this whole life, change-the-world-even-as-we-live-in-it thing is supposed to be, anyways.

And, of course, the thing about the fitness landscape is that it is constantly changing even as we are changing, and that together we are shaping one another.

Later, after our call, I thought about one of the paradoxes of time in the Christian tradition - the notion that the beloved kingdom that we are seeking to create is already here even as it has not yet come.

Complexity pictures of a fitness landscape show an agent in one place going across various dips and valleys and mountains over time, and those mountains change a bit as she goes across them. Such maps show that developmental pathways for countries are different (in case you were stuck in the now-outdated belief that developmental pathways for anything- country or person or tree - could possibly ever look identical).

What if this process of moving across a fitness landscape is really about changing into, and revealing, the pattern and shapes that are already here? They say it's the journey that matters more than the destination. What if that's true because it actually is the journey that creates and shapes the destination - as we go towards that as-yet unrealised intellectual and practical world, we are creating it even as it is creating us - indeed, part of the process is letting ourselves be re-created by it. It's a subtle framing difference - journeying to the future versus creating the future from the present. In the latter, one doesn't 'go' anywhere so much as reveal what is already there and interact with it differently. I'm not sure how much this difference matters - either way, adaptive, iterative learning processes that reveal the shape of the landscape, one's position in it and enable one to change one's position (within certain limits) seem good processes. Both ways, the importance of amplification, which I'll write about in the near future, is clear.

But I like the idea that we are in the process of discovering a world that is already here. We just have to get out of the way.

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