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Capacity building

“Innovations start small”

by Otto C. Scharmer, Hinrich Mercker, Christine Wank
Miners in the Ruhr area in the late 19th century: thanks to societal innovation, the challenges of the Industrial Revolution were met

Miners in the Ruhr area in the late 19th century: thanks to societal innovation, the challenges of the Industrial Revolution were met

The international community is facing complex and inter-related problems. Poverty, climate change and fragile statehood are just three of many serious issues. Otto Scharmer of MIT banks on new spaces for thought and action to promote societal innovation. He prepares leaders for their tasks. [ Interview with C. Otto Scharmer ]

What must capacity building be like to enable people to tackle the huge challenges humankind is facing?
It is certainly not enough to impart specialist knowledge to individuals in any specific field. In my experience, if we want organisations to become innovative, to change and to boost their performance, it boils down to four points:
– globalisation,
– personalisation,
– prototyping, and
– networking across sectors.

Please elaborate some more, what do you mean by globalisation?
In this context, I am not referring to the negative aspects of world trade, which certainly exist. I am thinking of the positive, empowering force that stems from bringing together people from different cultural spheres. I experience that positive power of globalisation every time I host the online course “Global Classroom” at the Presencing Institute, with 150 participants from some 30 nations. After each presentation, I let participants discuss in small groups of four. The first participant may relate development experience from South Africa, for instance, and the second speak about Thailand’s health sector, which is actually struggling with the same challenges. The third participant, a business consultant from Denmark, knows how the private sector considers these issues, and participant number four, an environmental activist from California, adds a perspective from a political movement in the USA. Discussing humanity’s problems in small settings like that is very productive. All participants understand that we are all grappling with the same problems and that we can help one another, provided we are networked in a meaningful way.

What is the personal dimension?
By personalisation, I mean the personal journey. It really is about getting in touch with the core of human creativity:
– who am I?
– where do I want to go – and where do I feel a sense of possibility that pulls me towards the future?
– what purpose do I want to serve?
Anyone without a clear understanding of these matters is unlikely to find the source of their creativity and strength. People who are under great pressure and in positions to implement change need inner places of stillness; otherwise they will not stay competitive and resilient. Meditation can help in this regard. But other approaches are useful too, “journaling”, for instance: writing in a reflective mode, guided by crucial questions allows individuals to better understand their personal development.

What about prototyping?
That is basically an emphasis on “learning by doing”. There is not much point in discussing things only in theoretical terms; you have to try them out and gather tangible experience. Otherwise, no lesson will really stick. All major innovations have small beginnings. To get in touch with the decisive innovative ideas of any community or individual, we need not only the intelligence of the mind, but also that of the hands and the heart.

Your fourth point was cross-sector networking.
Yes, and that is probably the most difficult aspect. When it comes to complex systemic challenges, any single organisation is normally too small to have any meaningful impact. Even large corporations today do not simply implement innovations at their production sites. Rather, they involve their entire supply chain; they consider the skills and needs of their suppliers and customers too. The most serious global problems, from hunger to war to protecting biodiversity, will not be solved unless all key stakeholders are involved in meaningful ways; and that includes governments as well as civil society and the private sector. All summed up, we tend to always come up against the same limits. We must involve everyone concerned in creative dialogue, in a process of perceiving, understanding and letting go of old patterns, allowing new relationships and forms of action to emerge. And then we have to test them in small experiments.

That sounds like corporatist committees in which stakeholders negotiate compromise.
No, that’s not at all what I am thinking of. Those kinds of committees do not achieve enough; they mainly serve to defend special interests. Of course, such corporatist bodies have a legitimate historical background. Circles made up of business leaders, trade unions and government officials were – to varying extents – in a position to deal with the challenges that the Industrial Revolution brought about. But we must now realise that this approach has reached its limits. And anyway, it really only functions to some extent in the OECD countries, and has only been doing so for 150 years at most. Another shortcoming is that corporatist compromise does not take any account of some very important interests – such as those of the natural environment or of generations not yet born.

What do you have in mind as an alternative?
What is missing are two things: first, places that convene key frontline leaders across institutions and sectors around specific issue areas; and second, a process that allows such groups to move from normal stakeholder debates to deep dialogue and collective action. In order for that to happen, people who can make a difference in their respective institutions must get in touch with people who operate in other contexts. That is how opportunities for innovation emerge. Together with some colleagues, I created the ELIAS programme at MIT. This programme convenes high-potential young leaders from quite different areas and cultures. The objective is to let go of old patterns of thought and coordination and to dream up and test new forms of interaction in practice. As discussed earlier, modern stakeholder capitalism developed from free-market capitalism in the 19th century by implementing significant innovations in infrastructures. Today, we have to move on. We need another set of innovations in infrastructures – new spaces for collective perception and action – in order to rise to contemporary challenges. We need to shift our collective awareness in a way that facilitates seeing and acting “from the whole”.

The approach sounds fascinating, but I wonder whether it is really practicable?
Well, I certainly see reason for hope. As I said, large corporations are increasingly thinking in societal contexts, because they cannot enforce the changes they require on their own inside their own business. And that is also felt in other areas. Just consider health care, for example. If reform efforts in this sector focus only on hospitals, because that is where the greatest costs arise, they are doomed to fail. Reforms have to go to the structural, social and spiritual root of the problems, the causes of illness and health. It is all about how we live, work, eat, and relate to ourselves and one another. Dealing with these issues is the only sustainable approach to reducing the costs that result from illness. Understanding of such interrelated phenomena is obviously growing.

But it doesn’t look as though reforms have really got under way accordingly. On the contrary, global challenges seem to be growing, overwhelming governments and other relevant actors.
That is how many people felt at the time of the Industrial Revolution too, and then social innovations came about which made the problems manageable in the rich countries. When a social system hits the wall, there are always opportunities and new ideas too. Innovations start small, and they do not usually start at the centre. Those at the top have an especially large number of interests to protect. On the fringes, however, there is more room to experiment – and more contact with the outside, which makes new ideas more likely. I have seen profound changes happen in many places and feel that there is no limit to what people, once we tap into our real purpose, can create and do.

In view of the daunting challenges the human species is facing, isn’t this process far too slow to really make a difference?
If you think like that, you will despair. I prefer to take the stance of Margaret Mead, who said one should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, because that is really the only way in which the world ever was changed.