During an era ruled by factious kingdoms and empires, the 30 Years War from 1618-1648 killed up to 12 million people across Europe, approximately 20% of the continent’s population at the time. In part to avoid similar carnage in the future, the Peace of Westphalia birthed the modern nation-state, sovereignty, and fixed boundaries for the countries involved in the fighting.
Three hundred years later, in the aftermath of two world wars resulting in over 90 million deaths, there was a need to create new multilateral structures and norms to prevent future catastrophes. Thus began efforts that eventually became the UN, EU, Bretton Woods, and a host of other institutions, resulting in arguably the most peaceful and prosperous time in human history. For example, the percentage of the global population living in absolute poverty ($2 a day or less, inflation adjusted) decreased from nearly 70% in 1945 to under 10% today.
Today we are at another crossroads. Technological innovation has provided the capacity to connect everyone to nearly all the information we possess in the world and, more importantly, to each other. However, we have also learned that it can divide us by enabling misinformation and disincentivizing the important practice of critical thinking. Despite there being more capital in the system than there are places to allocate it, we continue to invest only into the things that legal and financial systems consider de-risked and measurable by the most antiquated of measurement systems. And at a time when political and economic cooperation is receding, transnational threats are rising, from climate change to global health and artificial intelligence. The fundamental question for the next thirty years is: Can we reimagine a new way of cooperating without a massive catastrophe to initiate this?
We are unlikely to rid ourselves of current institutions. Like the previous one, the coming decades will be increasingly multi-polar and diffuse in power, which could make for disjointed and haphazard decision-making processes amidst growing complexity, disruption, and interdependency.
Beyond COVID-19, our next crisis could be significantly more destructive, with no one person or one state to blame. This likely will not be a battle between right and wrong, good and evil. It may simply come down to being the victims of negative externalities in the complex systems we inhabit. What we need is sophisticated approaches that transcend isolationist cultures, systems of governance, and geography. To do this requires three incredibly important and sequenced ingredients.
Systemic Leadership. It is no surprise that leadership is required if we are to successfully address the increasingly complex species-level threats on the horizon, but there is a particular approach that will need to be practiced by many more individuals, organizations, communities, and nations.
Systemic leaders see themselves as a critical part of something bigger than themselves, paying close attention to the relationality between disparate nodes within a system and doing everything necessary to ensure the health of the whole and the people that inhabit it. Not only does this type of leadership embrace failure as a means of learning and growing, it heads fearlessly into the unknown, recognizing that while there are past patterns to observe, there are no reliable precedents. This type of leadership deftly separates risks that require mitigation while encouraging other types of risk that help us learn and innovate, overcoming the default to antiquated, “devil we know” ways of working.
For example, without systemic leaders embedded at all levels within international, national, and local communities, it will be impossible to even begin to tackle global intractable problems such as the climate crisis.
Requisite Variety. The second ingredient is what we refer to as Requisite Variety: the idea that for transformation of complex systems, we need a commiserate diversity of stakeholders—particularly traditionally underrepresented groups—intimately engaged in problem-solving, solution design, decision-making, and cognitive absorption processes.
Traditionally, one of the key strategies of risk mitigation is to make the decision-making circle as small as possible and to move the idea quietly through the maze of friction points that prevail in all institutional settings. Instead, this principle puts emphasis on involving a diversity of perspectives commensurate to the complexity of the challenge at hand. At first, that may appear daunting and inefficient. But evidence suggests the outcome will be more durable and sophisticated; and when (not if!) a new co-created approach falters, stakeholders are prone to sharing the responsibility for making the next iteration stronger. Also, rapid advancements in technology have mitigated traditional constraints of time and resources, allowing this kind of engagement to be delivered with greater efficiency and efficacy.
Trust. Finally, we come to Trust, a widely espoused but often underestimated condition for unlocking change. Trust is easily one of the most difficult terms to tether to a shared understanding. And yet it is the single most important ingredient to any complex, multi-interest shift. Most transformation is required because there is an inability to resolve the cause of a systemic failure. Either the cause is hidden in complexity or our way of thinking simply isn’t geared to absorb what is actually taking place. As we spend more time researching human behavior in the context of radical social, technological, and environmental changes, we are beginning to realize that there are many versions of the truth to any complex problem. And when one version of the truth overpowers others, we struggle to trust other stakeholders and we tend to lose trust in ourselves.
An argument could be made that this is the root cause for our inability to undertake the kind of transformation required in multilateral settings. Our distrust makes the cost of change unattractive and, therefore, unsponsored. What’s also important to note is that it takes more than money to begin building trust. Trust cannot be bought, it can only be earned. It cannot be forced, it can only be given.
Historically, as a species we have only successfully responded at the requisite scale when an immediate and existential crisis motivated our political willpower and altered our perspective. From one point of view, our collective problem isn’t only the issues of climate change, isolationism, or lack of investment into sustainable development. There is also the fact that the institutions which reinforce the behaviors that underpin these conditions are impossible to change with the same thinking that got us into the problem to begin with.
Fundamentally, we can’t afford to fail the way we did in the 17th and 20th centuries. All of us—policymakers, international business leaders, and social impact executives—must work to transform the systems we navigate by embodying systemic leadership, requisite variety, and trust in our decisions and actions.