ETHOS Issue 13, May 2014
A Sense of Cultural Unease
A world of boundless complexity, radical interconnectedness and rapid change: it has become commonplace to talk of these as the operating conditions of the early 21st century. They describe an environment — for which the American military has coined the acronym VUCA — characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Less appreciated are the cultural implications of living in such a world. It is the volatility we notice, the day-to-day whirl of superficial change. But, as the environmentalist Stewart Brand reminds us, change is also occurring at a slower pace deeper in our environmental and social systems.1 As Brand says, while “fast grabs all the attention, slow has all the power.”
Brand identifies distinct “pace layers” of change. Fashion and commerce change quickly. They are “always on”, innovating, looking for the next new thing. Infrastructure is under pressure to keep up, with governments criticised for not upgrading fast enough. The culture and values of a society change more slowly. Nature moves slowest of all — but is now starting to get itself noticed with the looming crisis of climate change.
Our systems of governance sit in the tension between these layers: mediating between the fast-moving demands of technology, commerce and the market, and the bedrock culture that lends a society its coherence and sense of identity.
Cultural psychologist Richard Shweder argues that every society needs a set of core storylines to account for what he calls the “existential facts of life”.2 They tell us how the world works, what to expect in life, what success looks like and so on. In stable societies and quieter times, these storylines are transmitted tacitly and deliberately through each and every cultural act. They provide the often taken-for-granted symbols and metaphors, conceptual understandings and cultural habits that allow people to go about their lives with a secure sense of the wider patterns that hold them.
In a VUCA world, those cultural patterns are everywhere in flux. The Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan pointed out back in the early 1990s that the world has become too complex and fast-moving for us to comprehend. All understanding is provisional. The old storylines no longer ring true. We are, Kegan concluded, “in over our heads”.3
The Singapore Context
It should come as no surprise that disturbance at this deeper level of culture is now showing up in the data in Singapore, as it is elsewhere in the world. While a rise in the number of complaints about public services and a fall in “user trust”, for example, might be seen as indicators of a more demanding and discerning citizenry, other signals (such as statistics reflecting growing anti-foreigner sentiment) suggest symptoms of a deeper cultural unease.4
Such unease also shows up in questions raised in the recent “Our Singapore Conversation” process and elsewhere about the continued relevance of Singapore’s founding narrative as well as its core storyline, of “Security, Survival and Success”. The security narrative is tested by the proliferation of global threats in a profoundly interconnected world. Survival seems to have been purchased at a high price in terms of quality of life. The link between success and merit, and even what it really means to live a “successful” life in today’s world, is no longer as clear-cut as it used to be.
The Technical Response
These stirrings have not gone unnoticed in policy circles. The question is how to respond.
The most obvious response is to look for newer and more sophisticated tools of analysis. Singapore’s Centre for Strategic Futures, for example, recently used the Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) foresight method to try to probe these deeper layers of change.5 CLA explicitly investigates four levels of sense-making: litany (“lived experience”), social systems and structures, worldview and myth/metaphor. The exercise provided a space for participants to give expression to the sense of incoherence and unease I have described above.
The process also reinforced the need for diverse voices in the policy process in order for there to be true richness and depth of context that allows our hopes as well as our fears to be explored. The final report6 of the exercise stressed the need to cover all four levels: “the social activist locates her agency at the level of worldview, the poet at the level of myth, the business owner at the level of litany, even as the policymaker defines her power at the level of social causation”.
While for the purposes of analysis or data gathering we can break society into causal layers and any number of different expert domains and categories, our “lived experience” as humans is one of wholeness. We live simultaneously in all of these layers, all of these dimensions, and we would notice that something was wrong if we didn’t.
VUCA is not a threat but a condition of life that is primarily a process of growth, change and uncertainty. The opposite scenario is stasis and predictability, with all change ground to a halt. As the humanist physician and former President of the Royal College of General Practitioners Iona Heath puts it: “Only because we do not understand everything, and because we do not control the future, is it possible to live and be human.”7
These 21st century competencies are rarely rewarded in a 20th century culture.
The Human Response
The good news is that the competencies required to live well and thrive in the VUCA world are innate to us all — they are evoked in response to our environment. The same goes for the capacities needed to devise effective policy responses for a world where the challenges are not just technical but cultural and existential.
First, we must recognise that competence is culturally determined. The range of what we are able or willing to express of our innate competencies is conditioned by the culture of the professional setting we find ourselves in. We carry in our heads and hearts an implicit view of the competent policymaker — for example, someone who makes few mistakes, is seen as a ”safe pair of hands”, does not ruffle too many feathers — which thereby limits the expression of the human capacities we need to respond effectively to the VUCA world.
My experience seeking to develop a ”policymaker of the future” programme with the Scottish Government in 2008/9 provides a useful example. We started with a series of high level workshops with senior officials to discover what the competencies of the policymaker of the future might be.
The competencies identified in this inquiry broadly fell into three categories. There was a range of skills and competencies that did not seem to be about either policymaking or about the future — basic professional attributes like integrity, good project management and so on. Then there was a set of policy-specific skills like political acumen and knowledge of policy instruments. Finally there was a third category which read more like the skills needed for the emerging VUCA world: handling complexity, being comfortable with ambiguity, acknowledging ignorance, orchestrating without power and so on.
The immediate impulse was to take this third list and organise a training module for each, thus “future proofing” the skills of our government officials. I suggested this might be a waste of time, effort and money.
What if these skills and competencies are innate and present already in abundance in our government officials, but go unexpressed? Because in our present culture and our present policy process, demanding as it is of firm leadership, rapid response, authoritative expertise and rigorous and conclusive analytical evidence, these attributes are more likely to be regarded as incompetence. These 21st century competencies are rarely rewarded in a 20th century culture.
Transformative Innovation: 10 Critical Characteristics
These can be taken as both design criteria for interventions and a practical guide for the kind of action needed to develop 21st century competencies.
Transformative innovation is:
- Balanced: paying skilful attention to the twin requirements to be hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new, consciously operating in both worlds at the same time. This is the critical skillset, mastering the skills of tact, timing and titration that allow us to keep the old culture on board even as we introduce radical innovation.
- Inspiring and hopeful for the participants and for others who come to know or hear about it. It has this quality because it effectively acknowledges the broader cultural unease, and is not just another “patch” on the system.
- Informed by a longer term perspective, taking the future into account. We cannot be midwives to better future outcomes without this perspective.
- Pioneering; trying something new and counter-cultural; starting small; rooted in discovery and learning rather than the application of tried and tested procedures. If we are going to shift the culture then we must do something that will be seen as “counter-cultural” in today’s terms. And if so we should start small: anything bigger would be seen as too threatening or resource-intensive and may be suppressed.
- Grounded; facing up to reality; generated from a clear-sighted view of the evidence but not hidebound by it; taking knowledge gained from lived experience as seriously as abstract data. The initiative will be based on a long-term aspiration, but must take its place in the messy reality of the now. We ignore that at our peril.
- Based on personal commitment “beyond reason”, with the individuals involved stepping out of their formal roles and into themselves. Stepping into ourselves gives us access to capacities, resources and stories we usually keep in the background in our professional lives — our own passions and aspirations, for example. We will need all of this to carry out transformative innovation successfully.
- Responsible; honouring the principle of “first do no harm”; sensitive to the pressures involved on people pushing the boundaries and not pushing too far too fast. While this kind of work is invigorating and fulfilling, it will also demand a lot from us. It can start to ask too much. We must look after ourselves and each other. The catalyst has failed if it burns up in the experiment.
- Revealing hidden resources — by freeing up resources locked into the existing system and by configuring new sources of abundance. It is scarcity that is undermining the effectiveness of our present systems. The trajectory needs to be towards sources of support that are abundant and away from reliance on those that are scarce. But this kind of work is attractive — people will want to get involved. Hidden resources will emerge.
- Maintaining integrity, coherence, wholeness at all scales and from all perspectives, with words and deeds, being and doing in alignment. Every action carries an implicit culture with it that can and will be inferred both from what is done and how it is pursued. Authenticity is vital, and attractive. It is not that the means determine the ends. The means are the ends.
- Maintaining a pioneering spirit even in the face of success, preferring to be followed by rather than swallowed by the mainstream system. It can be very difficult to resist siren calls to “mainstream” any innovation that does well. The overwhelming instinct of a system in decline is to search around for innovations that will save it. But propping up the old system will not hasten the arrival of the new — and may make its eventual appearance all the more costly and painful. The ultimate aim here is to transform the culture to free up resources sunk into maintaining today’s system so that they can be rechannelled towards a system fit for tomorrow.
These new competencies cannot be trained in the abstract, but they can be encouraged, supported and nurtured through action. To express them we need to take on challenging policy issues that will require us to express a wider range of competence than is usual at present, probing the edge of our knowledge and capacity. Hence my own organisation in Scotland, International Futures Forum, has established not a training programme but a supported community of practice — and the core practice is transformative innovation.
The term requires some explanation. I have written extensively elsewhere about the concept of “cultural leadership” and the skills and capacities required to engage at the level of a culture in transition to guide it towards something more life affirming and sustainable.8 California Senator John Vasconcellos has expressed this double task strikingly: “we must be hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new”.
That is at the grand scale. At the level of individual initiative, it will be expressed in the practice of innovation that is not simply about fixing or repairing the systems that are failing, but that is deliberately designed to make the space for something very different and more in tune with our long-term aspirations for the future.
Transformative Innovation in Action
In a workshop I ran in Singapore,1 the example was raised of the annual wave of dissatisfaction with the Primary 1 school registration process. Getting into the “right” primary school is seen to be an important step on the path to a successful life, so many schools are oversubscribed and many parents are disappointed. We brainstormed policy ideas that might address the problem, in order to appreciate the distinction between technocratic fixes (change the algorithm, experiment with different admissions criteria, allocate places by lot, etc.) and transformative innovation rooted in culture and values.
In the latter case, we see the problem not as a technical flaw but as an indicator of a culture under strain. We must therefore design innovations that will lead the culture back to health; how, for example, might we move towards a world in which this pressure on registration no longer exists, because Primary 1 placement no longer determines a person’s fate, or because society has come to realise that (as one participant put it) “success has many faces”? And how might we successfully pursue such an innovation as part of a longer-term transition strategy, even as existing systems need to continue delivering goods and services?
Workshop on “Dancing at the Edge: Policymaker of the Future”, June 11, 2013, organised by the Civil Service College Singapore.
Getting Into Practice
How might we put these insights into practice? The trigger is usually an individual who recognises the need to try a new approach and is willing to take that on. The next move would typically be to find a supportive colleague or team: transformative innovation is difficult to pursue alone. Next, it is useful, at the right time, to seek support from those in authority — not for permission, but simply for acknowledgement that what is being undertaken is developmental, with a long term transition in mind. The 10 characteristics listed then provide valuable clues about how to proceed — learning by doing, addressing challenges as they arise.
Extensive experience suggests it is also possible to foresee many of those challenges — particularly the resistance that is likely from the dominant culture — and to prepare people to encounter them and policy to avoid them. We now know enough to introduce and support a dedicated programme of transformative innovation in government, running alongside and complementing other programmes.9
Building on this, International Futures Forum is now establishing a more general platform to support such work and the people pursuing it — a “National Infrastructure for Transformative Innovation” (NIFTI). This brings together tools, processes, artefacts, theory, insight, information, supervision, skilled practitioners, ongoing inquiry, networking events, formal action learning sets, strategic relationships and so on. These provide a dedicated structure of support, online and in person, for those engaged in transformative innovation.
I believe some such system will increasingly come to be seen as an essential component for any government in the 21st century that wishes to take its dual task seriously, acting at a cultural level as both hospice worker and midwife and with the operational competencies required to “redesign the plane whilst flying it”.
- Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
- Richard A. Shweder, Thinking through Cultures: Expeditions in Cultural Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
- Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
- This data is assembled from interviews conducted during my visit and from a number of sources included in briefings provided in advance of my visit.
- Causal Layered Analysis Project: An inter-agency project to explore the socio-economic aspirations of Singaporeans, led by the Centre for Strategic Futures, Public Service Division, July 2013.
- Iona Heath, “Love’s Labours Lost: Why Society is Straitjacketing its Professionals and How We Might Release Them”, The Michael Shea Memorial Lecture, organised by International Futures Forum and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, September 10, 2012, http://www.internationalfuturesforum.com/u/cms/Iona\_Heath\_Lecture2012.pdf
- See for example “Rising to the Occasion: Cultural Leadership in Powerful Times” written for the UK’s Mission Models Money in 2007 and “Real Cultural Leadership: Leading the Culture in a Time of Cultural Crisis” in A Cultural Leadership Reader, eds. Sue Kay and Katie Venner, for the Cultural Leadership Programme, UK. Both available for download from http://www.internationalfuturesforum.com/projects.php?pid=44, accessed December 21, 2013
- My experience helping to establish a programme to support transformative innovation in school education in Scotland has been encouraging. Using a simple set of resources as prompts and challenges, schools are first encouraged to express small-scale innovations that might help shift the system towards their aspirations and then supported to put them into practice. This approach is described in detail in Graham Leicester et al., Transformative Innovation in Education: A Playbook for Pragmatic Visionaries (UK: Triarchy Press, 2013) and at www.iffpraxis.com/transformative-innovation-in-education