I had an interesting exchange with Michael Turner, a free-lance software developer, author, and social entrepreneur living in Tokyo. I mentioned that our current world financial systems are strange beasts, people can go from wealthy and poor, and vice versa, from one moment to the next, even though our resources and skills and dedication haven’t changed one bit. I mused that there’s got to be a better way. His response was the following:
I’m sure there is one. Maybe more than one. It’s the old problem of systemic escape, though. You can see it everywhere. Take Keynes’ ICU (“bancor”) concept. Lots of good features. Nothing obviously wrong with it. But … at the time, it apparently (and perhaps only temporarily) disadvantaged the “last man standing” after WW II: the U.S.
“Systemic escape” is probably the most challenging problem in enabling social change: every system, no matter how destructive, generally accretes vested interests that individually resist change even if it eventually will be better for all of them. It’s not enough to have a better end point, you also have to have a way of transitioning there that everyone can live with, step-by-step (unless change occurs because of crisis, economic breakdown or revolution or war). I have found this to be a discouraging truth, but I have taken heart from a conversation I had several months ago with Lawrence Susskind, an MIT/Harvard professor who specializes in facilitating big high-stakes negotiations like the climate change talks, Arab-Israeli peace talks, and so on. He said that the reason these system change negotiations are so log-jammed is *not* because of inherently opposed nature of the participant’s interests, it’s because of dysfunctions in the negotiation processes they use. We may have more systemic escape opportunities than we realize, if only we could improve the way people negotiate their way through the escape hatches. This insight has provided inspiration and direction for my own work on supporting collaborative decision-making.