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10 Mistakes to Avoid While Creating a Better World

by Stuart B. Hill on 11th August 2011

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1). Getting the usual ‘experts’ together to plan for a better future. This always leads to tinkering with existing (flawed) plans, and excludes those most affected by such plans.

Need: Involve mostly “different” people and start by focusing not on plans, but on values, beliefs, world views, paradigms—then feelings and passions—then, emergent from these, hopes, dreams, visions, imaginings, and creative thoughts. Only then can ‘design/redesign-based plans’ (that can proactively enable systems, structures, and processes) that meet long-term to short-term, and broad to specific, goals, and that make systems as ‘problem-proof’ as possible) be enabled to emerge; and then critically analyse, integrate, and flesh these out, and so on—detailing participatory opportunities, responsibilities, time lines, resource and support needs, means for monitoring outcomes, tracking progress, and for ongoing redesigning and fine tuning.

2). Taking problem-solving (back-end, reactive/responsive, curative) approaches. These tend to focus on symptom management and neglect the need to address the underlying maldesign and mismanagement roots of the problems. They typically over-focus on measuring problems (a prime strategy for postponing action—by those who benefit from the status quo), and on efficiency and substitution strategies (for example, improved application of pesticide and on finding less disruptive (but still purchased) substitutes, such as biological controls and genetically modified organisms—same story in other areas, such as medicine and energy).

Need: To redesign existing systems (and design new systems) to make them as problem-proof as possible; and to enable effective change from these flawed/defective systems to significantly more improved ones.

3). Getting stuck in activities that are ‘pathologically’ designed to postpone (feared) change. These include particularly measuring problems (‘monitoring our extinction’!), endless collection of data (often ‘justified’ by cries of the need for ‘evidence-based approaches’), hearings, committee meetings, report-writing, and so on – most of which have no follow-through, and usually only lead to more of the same.

Need: Postponing pathologies must be recognised, exposed for what they are, addressed and contradicted by taking responsible, timely, appropriate, collaborative action. Certainly, access to relevant data is important for making responsible decisions. Often, however, adequate data are already available from other places, in other languages, and so on. Globally, billions of dollars are wasted annually, unnecessarily repeating studies in new locations or with mischievous intentions (often related to perceived threats to existing commercial advantage), when the data for responsible decision-making are already available.

4). Trying to solve problems within the discipline or area responsible for creating them—or with multidisciplinary teams of selected experts/authorities from favoured disciplines, with others excluded.

Need: Genuine transdisciplinary and trans-competency and trans–experience teams, able to access disciplinary and specialised knowledge as appropriate. Competencies relating to holistic approaches to design, sustainability, wellbeing, and effective change processes, in particular, need to be included in the teams.

5). Patriarchal (them doing things to/for us, and us doing things to/for them) and ‘driven’ do-good approaches are rarely exactly what is needed. They are generally not sustained or embraced by those being ‘helped’, and they often have some negative unexpected consequences.

Need: Inclusion of those most affected by the proposed improvements as primary collaborators in the change process, from beginning to end. This enables ownership, relevance, achievability, ongoing improvement and openness to unforseen/surprise benefits.

6). Planning ‘Olympic/mega-scale’, heroic initiatives (from hearings to projects) with no follow-through or provision for ongoing support (more than just funding).

Need: Diverse, mutually supportive, do-able initiatives that have long-term support and consideration of opportunities for ongoing improvement and learning our ways forward collaboratively towards improved futures.

7). Over focus on knowledge and data, and neglect of wisdom and experience (much of which cannot be supported by data, and involves working with the ‘unknown’—the majority of what is—not just the limited ‘known’); often in ways that rely on intuition and gut feelings, and so on.

Need: We need to be much better at recognising, valuing and involving the wisest and most experienced in our society, and not so obsessed with ‘cleverness’. Whereas the former have competencies that enable them to work with both the ‘unknown’ and ‘know’, the latter are largely limited to working with the miniscule ‘known’.

8). Over-focus on ‘productivity’, profit and quick dramatic results—this predictably leads to burn-out, only short-term, limited benefits, and often unexpected disbenefits (new problems).

Need: We need to focus much more on ‘maintenance’, caring for one another (other species and the environment), including prioritising time and resources for this, celebration, venting feelings, and ‘healing’ sessions, and so on. These activities need to be ‘equally’ the focus of the initiative. In some senses, the latter may be regarded as emergent from, and a product of, the former.

9). Homogenisation tendencies tend to result in the construction of favoured ‘norms’ (for people, structures, processes, and so on), failure to consider diversity, in-groups and out-groups, inclusion and exclusion, and failure to benefit from the creativity that resides at the margins and in the borderlands of society.

Need: Openness to appreciation of the value of hererogeneity and ‘functional’ diversity within all systems, with its opportunities for synergy, mutualism, lateral thinking, extension beyond the usual competencies, relevance to needs and possibilities, a sense of inclusion, ownership, and a sense of place, and so on.

10). Neglect, or only token involvement, of the arts, and over-focus on the sciences, technologies, business, politics, the professions, the media, and the other major institutions within our society. As a result, the arts are poorly supported, regarded as a luxury or optional extra, an afterthought, or even irrelevant.

Need: Recognition of the arts, in its broadest sense, as being an essential part of both the foundation and means for implementation of all efforts to achieve genuine and sustainable improvement.

Professor Stuart B. Hill is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, in Penrith, Australia. Professor Hill is also co-editor of the Journal of Organic Systems.

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avatar Professor Stuart B. Hill is Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the School of Education (includes previous School of Social Ecology & Lifelong Learning) at the University of Western Sydney (Kingswood Campus), in Penrith, Australia. Professor Hill is also co-editorof the Journal of Organic Systems.

Stuart B. has written 1 posts on Post Growth Institute.

{ 4 comments }

avatar Anonymous August 11, 2011 at 14:52

Here’s one for you: avoid complex, academic language.

The word choice and sentence construction of this entire article makes it difficult to understand, much less take action on. If you want to affect change in the world, you need to communicate clearly. Instead, this article uses made-up words like “trans-competency”, unnecessarily obscure words like “maldesign” and rarely completes a sentence without using parentheses to go off on some tangent.

To change the world, speak to the common man, not other academics.

avatar Mark August 14, 2011 at 20:05

In an attempt to communicate to the “common man” maybe we could hire Tony Abbott to translate all of the above to a series of 3 or 4 word phrases.

avatar Sharon Ede August 16, 2011 at 03:57

As someone from a ‘common’ background and the first one in my family to attend university, I am strong on the need to keep language accessible, I’ve had a go – hope I’ve done it justice and gotten rid of most of the big words:

1. Invite the involvement of the people affected in planning and design – the experts don’t always ‘know’ everything (and there are different forms of ‘knowing’).

2. Rather than knee-jerk responses to symptoms and searching for ‘silver bullet’ solutions, instead be proactive in investigating and addressing underlying causes.

3. Beware becoming stuck in ‘analysis paralysis’ – you can usually move on an issue, even if you haven’t fine-tuned the data to within an inch of its life; stop studying it and do something about it.

4. Appreciate that relying solely on the same kind of thinking or expertise that created the situation is less likely to result in a successful outcome than teams made up of a wider range of disciplines or abilities – usually those typically excluded.

5. Doing things ‘for’ people disempowers those affected and can backfire; include those affected by the proposed initiative in the change process to instill a sense of ownership and change that ‘sticks’.

6. There is little point in pursuing gigantic initiatives without having follow-up or ongoing support. Initiatives should have long-term support and enable people to collaboratively learn and improve.

7. We need to realise we don’t ‘know’ as much as we think we do, and that a lot of knowledge cannot be measured or expressed in terms of data; we should afford greater value to wisdom and experience.

8. Productivity is useful in some situations but not a complete panacea – downsides of over focus on productivity include burn-out, short term results, and often, creation of more unforeseen problems. Productivity is synonymous with ‘getting things done efficiently’ – when we also need doing nothing and time for healing, rest and reflection time.

9. Be mindful of treating all groups as if they are made up of similar people, and how cultural ‘norms’ are created – recognise the diversity of groups, how people are included and excluded, and that there may be creative potential to be tapped at the margins of society.

10. The arts are just as important as science – human beings respond more to stories that resonate than data. Very few people are ‘wired’ to respond to data on its own, and the story has been the common and most enduring means of transmitting culture through the ages. The arts are integral to ‘changing the story’.

avatar Bradley Evans September 3, 2011 at 03:30

I particularly would like to agree with point number 8 – I think society in general focuses solely on getting quick results and expanding profit margins. If we corporations (my own included) were to slow down and really get to know their staff and their clients, it would ensure long term sustainable business practice!
-Brad Evans
http://www.bradleyevans.com.au

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