Thinking in systems -- and taking more leaps

The Skoll Foundation asked a theoretical physicist, publisher, neuroscientist, technologist, social financier and young science prodigy two questions: What will the world be like in 50 years? How will we get there?   

Their thoughts were summarized in the film "Dare to Imagine." All agreed that the old, incremental way of tackling problems won’t work anymore. We need to radically imagine new ways of coming together to deal with the accelerating world of change.

Invoking the need for systems change is deeply resonant these days, perhaps most notably with many of today’s young adults as the millennial generation struggles to create meaningful lives and climb the ladder of financial success. Faced with seemingly fewer attractive employment opportunities, many young people in the U.S. and around the world are constructing new ladders (and in the process, new systems) that intertwine personal passions, social networks and new business configurations, as portrayed in a recent Grist article.

One example is the new company Mosaic, which is crowdfunding the solar revolution. In the process of crafting a new business model to bring new energy sources into being, the company offers a concrete example of co-founder Billy Parrish’s call to action in “Making Good.” Similarly resonating with these efforts is the B Corporation framework that, by design, requires a systems perspective by reflecting an integrated focus on social, economic and environment practices and returns embedded in the core of these registered for-profit enterprises. Change and excitement is in the air.

Yet, then you sit back and consider today’s global economy relative to these and many other such emerging efforts. David and Goliath come to mind. Or even a few ants and Goliath (the less successful prequel, if we were in Hollywood).

These questions are continually with those of us who work on both transforming the large companies of today and supporting the innovations of new sustainability-focused companies. Should we focus on incremental change -- albeit with significant amplification effects, given the size of these business and their supply chains -- or transformative, even disruptive, innovation?

And really, what does this all mean as we face our daily inboxes and task lists, our annual plans and career plans? Increasingly, I think that it is about taking leaps in our thinking and our work.

Ecologists talk about non-synchronous leaps, such as a mature pine forest that gets hit first with a bark beetle infestation followed by a forest fire. If enough trees are killed by the bark beetles, then the fire likely will be even more significant, perhaps leading to bare hills where there used to be forests. Such a transition -- from forest to grasslands -- is a non-synchronous leap. Rapidly moving from coal-fired power plants to low emission renewable energy sources, particularly produced through decentralized grids, would represent another (many would say more positive) non-synchronous leap.

Perhaps it is time we considered more non-synchronous leaps in business by seeking out, testing and embracing new technologies, services, processes and even business models that are completely different from those of today. Perhaps if enough of us engage, a harmony will emerge with many similarly non-synchronous, change-oriented people.

Image by Nemeziya via Shutterstock.