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Tools for Rebuilding in a Complex World

chrysalis and monarch butterfly - rebuilding in a complex world
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

Our world is complex. Our systems are complex. Now, with a global pandemic on our hands, we’re starting to grasp just how interconnected these systems really are. It’s now very clear that what happens in one part of the world quickly affects people around the globe. We need tools that allow us to “see” these systems and their effects. We need tools for rebuilding in a complex world.

Systems thinking—grappling with complex systems—requires an understanding of the system. But “individuals are notoriously bad at it,” points out Todd Khozein in What Makes Communities Successful.

Imagine looking at a 3D model of a very complex molecule. Now try to count all the atoms by standing in one place. You can’t do it. You can’t even see all the atoms from where you’re standing.

This is why systems thinking is best done by groups of people. If you have six friends standing all around the molecule, you have six more perspectives and you’ll have a more complete picture of the molecule.

This is what consultation can do for us.

Consultation as a tool for rebuilding in a complex world

Consultation is a very effective tool for this work. It allows a group to see a complex system from all sides. Each person fully and completely shares their point of view. Everyone listens to each view, even if it doesn’t match up with what they see.

Going back to the molecule example, you may see a lot of carbon atoms on your side of the molecule. But over on this side, more of the hydrogen atoms are visible. If we both insist our view is right, we’ll get into an argument and we won’t accomplish anything. But if we each offer our view and let go of it, together we can assemble a fairly accurate picture of the molecule.

That’s the object of consultation—to come to a consensus about the truth of an issue. In this case, to accurately understand the complexities of the system. Once we understand what we’re dealing with, then we can decide what to do next.

This sharing of differing views takes trust. Trust that each person is accurately describing what they see and not just promoting a personal agenda. Trust that the group as a whole can integrate all these views into a coherent whole. And trust that, together, we can chart a wise course of action.

Continuous learning is essential for rebuilding

In our molecule example, we found a way to describe the system as it appears in space. But complex systems aren’t static—they change over time. As the realities change, our solutions need to change too. And, as we’ve seen in the case of the pandemic, often things change very quickly.

This is when it becomes critical to develop a continuous cycle of learning:

  1. We consult on the issue and decide on a course of action.

  2. Once we take action, we come back together and reflect on what happened.

  3. Then we consult again to decide on the next step.

With each iteration, we learn more and our decisions become more refined.

Putting these tools to work

We face a daunting task. Soon, we’ll be restarting a global economy. These systems are so complex that no one person can get their hands around them, let alone chart an adequate path to the future. This is going to take all of us. It will take coordination and collaboration and trust between institutions, individuals and communities at all levels.

We have a chance now, while we are paused, to think about what kind of future we want. What do we want these systems to do for us? What kind of global economy do we want to rebuild? Do we dare imagine systems that are just and sustainable?

We have the time, now, to discuss and consult, to learn from each other and learn together. What kind of future can we create together?

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