The Social Labs Revolution Global Tour kicked off right here at home, in Oxford, today. I was kindly invited to give a talk by Marc Ventresca and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship about my book.
Here are some of the more interesting questions asked and some slightly more considered responses to them. My aim during the Tour is to capture the most interesting questions and post responses. Of course I’m also curious at what other people think – so please feel free to leave comments.
One of the first questions was about the nature of complexity, which opened up a very interesting discussion way beyond what we had time for…for example, how does the nature of complexity change historically?
Q. Isn’t everything complex?
A. No. Certain types of phenomenon are charactrized by complexity while others are not. Technical problems are not complex as defined by the three characteristics of emergence, adaptation & new information.
With a technical problem, the problem definition is clear, the solution definition is clear and the work can be done by experts. With a complex challenge the problem definition and solution space are contested and the domain of work is diverse stakeholders. (Source: The Art of Adaptive Leadership)
Q. Isn’t your argument about systems collapse Malthusian? It didn’t happen then and it won’t happen now?
A. Yes my argument about systems collapse is Malthusian. Arguing that dangerous climate change is an probable consequence of increasing emissions is a Malthusian argument. The case that the planet has a limit “carrying capacity” is a Malthusian argument at it’s core. That however, doesn’t make them wrong.
We simply have to examine the evidence base of the claim being made and make the best decision we can based on the evidence if we believe what is being forecast.
Finally, the question we have to ask is, who suffers if we’re wrong? Typically, those who are on the receiving end of global catastrophe are those who do not have the resources to be mobile, to simply move somewhere else in the face of crisis (see Bauman’s Liquid Modernity for more on this idea).
Q. Doesn’t South Korea prove that planning works? Does that mean economic development is a non-complex problem?
A. Central planning works. Until it doesn’t.
South Korea took a central planning approach to lift itself out of poverty after the Korean War ended. How has South Koreas economic policy changed since then? Clearly it is today not a dictatorship with a centrally planned economy. Why not? Because a centrally planned economy run by a dictator is not considered an effective policy approach to economic development.
In the Soviet example central planning worked for decades until the country collapsed. In the post-war era countries adopted central planning as a way to build from the ruins of WW2. Many successes came out of this period, for example the welfare state and the rise the the middle class. (See Postwar: A History of Europe from 1945 for one account of post-war planning in Europe)
Most countries that took a strong central planning approach after the post-war era changed over time. Instead, to take one example, of fixed output targets, successful economies created indicative targets. Look closer at how Silicon Valley operates, is it a planned economy? Check out The Rainforest: The Secret To Building The Next Silicon Valley for a detailed analysis.
One intriguing example of a return to a more central planning culture and it’s consequences in our own time comes from Stein Ringhen’s scathing examination of Tony Blair’s government, The Economic Consequences of Mr Brown. Funnily enough, Ringhen also wrote The Korean State and Social Policy: How South Korea Lifted Itself from Poverty and Dictatorship to Affluence and Democracy.
One further thought.
A planning-orientated focus on economic development on the post-war era led to the unintended consequence of giving rise to a much more difficult challenge, that of sustainable development.
So a single minded focus on economic development was hugely successful in lifting many millions out of poverty. But now we have to figure out how to sustain energy-intensive lifestyles without burning fossil fuels.
The social contracts built on the fruits of planning are under huge strain.
My argument is that planning as an approach to complex challenges is ineffective and that more effective approaches exist.
Q. Isn’t the Marshall Plan a great example of a plan that worked?
The Marshall Plan, despite being labelled a plan, was more accurately a process.
See below for more on the difference between a plan and a process.
Q. Doesn’t all action require that we formulate a plan?
No. Take the example of a public election. A number of formal steps or actions are undertaken but the outputs of these steps are unpredictable – we don’t know for a fact who will win.
To take another example, cooking. When we follow a recipe to cook a dish, we do not know exactly how the dish will taste.
The quality of the output is dependent on our skill as a cook, the quality of the ingredients and so on. The more we practice cooking the more likely we are to be able to produce dishes that are of consistent quality.
It’s more accurate to describe both elections and cooking as processes rather than plans.
A plan demands that a set of inputs is specified before execution and a set of outputs are predicted as a result of executing the plan.
A process is different in that the outputs are emergent, and predictable within certain parameters (ie a good cook will make better dishes than someone who has never cooked).
Finally, when I use the word “planning” I mean “strategic planning” and not “action planning.”
I got some interesting and very useful feedback on the talk – which was that people get hung up on refuting planning, which takes up a lot of oxygen, so I ought to leave that till the end.
That’s all for now. My next posts will be reports on the most interesting questions from Babson College and the MIT Media Lab next week.