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Dear U.N. Secretary-General: We need 'polycentric networks'

A Yale undergraduate student embeds the Sustainable Development Goals within modern academic political theory.

Our SDGs Letter Project is a call to action. A little over a year ago, the U.N. adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which collectively represent millions of dreams and aspirations. GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing 17 letters by Yale University students that highlight the ideas of youth regarding the 2030 developmental agenda. This series seeks to drive forward the collective will to translate the SDGs into reality.

Dear Secretary General,

Scale, interconnectedness and speed are characteristics driving the problems of the 21st century. Problems such as climate change, terrorism and epidemics ask humankind to come together in ways unfamiliar to current society, but we must come together in innovative models of collaboration that can handle the complexity and scale of these problems. The problems we face are new, and therefore the systems we are attempting to create cannot be old. To address complexity, we must create a complex solution.

21st-century problems occur at scales and speeds unmanageable by current organizational structures. The nation-state order arose haphazardly in the 15th century as a product of nationalism, a way of thinking about the world that was useful to aggregate large groups of people. Today, haphazard design of society seems irresponsible when modern, multifaceted knowledge is omnipresent.

To address complexity, we must create a complex solution.

To tackle today’s problems, we cannot depend on old paradigm of organization — the nation-state paradigm, the self-versus-other paradigm, the prisoner’s dilemma paradigm. They fail to fully integrate modern day externalities, both environmental and social. We must start completely anew in conceding an end-structure for societal organization.

Sustainable Development Goal 17 underscores the idea of "partnership" in the future forms of organization.

In many ways, "partnership" asks us to adhere to characteristics of the ideal form of democracy. In fact, democracy is simply a way of organizing a group of autonomous, rational human beings. For Seyla Benhabib, professor of political science at Yale University, "[democracy] is about deliberating and then deciding on how to live together over a period of time." Partnership, I would hope, would include inclusive deliberation and effective decision-making.

In our globalized world, no longer can we allow exclusion. We need the entire whole to address to global problems. We must promote a public sphere, a common civic spirit, that is democratic. This public sphere, said Benhabib, allows "points of reference" to "intersect," allowing "a common world way" to "emerge." There has to be understanding to come to some conclusion about how to live together over periods of time with limited resources.

The democratic process also facilitates legitimacy amongst all actors. When people believe in the process, they can feel that the outcome of the process was legitimate, allowing them to concede and cooperate. If people are not part of the process, they have no reason to feel committed to the plan. Whatever we do moving forward, it is important to reinforce the liberal democratic public sphere that allows democratic decision making for all stakeholders.

Decision-making about shared problems underscores the problem democracy has always had — scale. Democracy in all of its forms has been challenged to respond to scale. This challenge can be called a "paradox of participation," said Benjamin Barber.

The paradox arises out of the fact that while participation is always necessarily local and centrifugal (outward), power is by its nature central and centripetal (inward). The Athenian agora was easy to manage because it was limited in scope. Today, society's naturally expanding scale is forever outdistancing democracy‘s naturally limited compass.

Perhaps a top-down approach of mandates and international agreements cannot subsist as our world grows and becomes more complex.

But there is a special urgency of today’s problems. Climate change is non-linear. Climate tipping points swiftly and unexpectedly will undermine political, economic and social institutions that depend on stability. Globalization allows disease to spread across borders. We must be swift.

So now what? We need partnerships. We need speed. We need some organization that can handle complexity.

The way to address complex problems is to create complex solutions. These solutions will not be one-time, fix-it solutions. They will not be vaccinations for the problem. They will be processes.

The "polycentric networks" is a complex institution that can handle complexity of the world. According to Vincent Ostrom, "'polycentric' connotes many centers of decision making that are formally independent of each other." Actors tend to function as systems. Sometimes polycentric networks are referred to as "super-organisms." Think of ant colonies or ecological systems. Polycentric networks are fundamentally different from pyramidal organizations, where decisions stem from the top of the pyramid.

In the climate change debate, polycentric network thinking would allow national governments, local governments, business, religious leaders and citizens to come together and make collective climate decisions. Barber puts forth a proposal in which global cities and regional associations are the nodes in this global network.

Barber notes that cities are natural economic hubs, trade centers, foci of communication and transportation, areas of culture, places where human needs are met directly. 

Polycentric networks would emphasize not a worldview of nation-states, mes and yous, prisoner dilemmas, but rather one of partnership. In our globalized, interdependent world, the polycentric network is a way to embrace the scale, complexity and speed of today’s problems. We either can embrace complexity or fight it.

If we are to look at climate change, we must bring government to business to science to citizen in effective ecosystems of communication and collaboration.

Globalization and ease of global communication allows a global attention span to form where it was impossible before.

As an international body interested in coordinating world affairs, perhaps a top-down approach of mandates and international agreements cannot subsist as our world grows and becomes more complex. For examples of these ecosystems, take a look at the Science Communication with Impact Network at Yale, led under climate communicator Paul Lussier. He is one of the small cohort of people proposing new paradigms and models of a world that allows humankind to evolve and take ownership of the world, from the biogeochemical to the societal.

These proposals embrace complexity. They fundamentally challenge the paradigms and institutions our world is built on.

Often, I fear that the type of radical change needed is too much. But I remember the growing toolkit we have. Artificial intelligence and collective intelligence are new tools that allow us to coordinate new energy needs, waste management needs and informational needs. Globalization and ease of global communication allows a global attention span to form where it was impossible before. We should look to our toolkit to create innovative forms of collaboration in our modern world.

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