interconnected crises

  • City States Rising!

    December 29th, 2016 by ewalsh


    Globalism’s associated and accelerating complexity of interconnected crises from migration to terrorism, from pandemics to climate change, define the new context of our 21st-century reality.  Unmanaged technological change and an outdated economic ideology compound the already unfair burden these crises impose on global citizens.  One need only consider the 18 percent approval rating of the United States Congress, the recent U.S. election, the EU/Euro fiasco, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey (and more) to question whether the Nation State, a 400-year-old response to a different challenge in a different context, is up to the task.

    Ideological rather than pragmatic, a political abstraction that has no grounding in the concrete reality of where and how we live and how life-supporting ecosystems function, the Nation State, together with its political party structure, is not well equipped for today’s most important globally interdependent challenges that cannot be solved through inter-State rivalries where self-interest and might rule the day.

    The “City State” predates the Nation State; it endures.  Rome is older than Italy, Alexandria is older than Egypt.  Cities are expanding as we know.  They are already home to more than half the world’s population, and 80% in the developed economies.  They are home to 85% of the global economy (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) and much of the evolution of our culture.  Like it or not, we have become an increasingly urban species.  Visionaries like Jonathan Rose are showing the way to regenerative cities with his timely publication of A Well-Tempered City.  At the same time, rural culture, small towns, and life-sustaining rural landscapes, historically understood as essential extensions of the City State, have never been more vital, as I will discuss below.

    Cities are also where many of the world’s great challenges must be met. The migration crisis and terrorism are urban affairs.  Since most cities are on coastlines or rivers, climate change will increasingly dominate the agenda of cities.  And cities will be the target of a nuclear attack if dangerous men go unrestrained.  Wise and competent city governance is a matter of life and death, not political theater among self-important globalist and nationalist bureaucrats.

    In response to the governance failures of the global system of Nation States, political theorist Benjamin Barber wrote an important book in 2013 called, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.  The Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM), which he inspired, held its inaugural meeting in The Hague, two months before rural America elected Donald Trump against the wishes of a strong democratic majority of citizens living in America’s cities.


    Mayors must be pragmatists first.  Ineptitude, ignorance, and ideology give way to the concreteness of real problems of real people living in real communities. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia once famously said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.”  So too for dealing with rising sea levels or, God forbid, a nuclear attack.

    When our centralized governing bodies fail to uphold their responsibilities, a power vacuum ensues, creating an opening for dangerous “strongman” responses, as we are now witnessing in the U.S and abroad.  Our present moment is particularly dangerous, with the simultaneous failure of other critical and powerful institutions – banking and the media in particular – to uphold their civil responsibilities and serve the health of the whole rather than their narrow self-interests.

    Banking’s consequential leadership failures are now a matter for the history books.  But the media’s complex leadership failures are still unfolding, perhaps best epitomized by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ shamefully cynical comment at a Morgan Stanley analyst conference earlier this year:

    “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the election circus.  “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

    Well, the young crowd at Morgan Stanley chuckled, “Donald kept going,” and we have elected a man to the highest office in the land who numerous respected psychologists believe has a (dangerous to the world) incurable mental illness known as “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”

    Not so funny, is it, Mr. Moonves?  Enjoy your good quarterly profits.  Just as the reckless behavior of Wall Street was not funny, its ongoing consequences leading directly to the rise in authoritarian movements across the globe are not funny.

    A core principle of sustainable systems is that a system must adapt to its changing context or it will collapse. The current context of accelerating, unpredictable (by definition) complexity and too powerful, dysfunctional critical institutions – Nation States, banking and finance, and the media, together providing much of the essential fabric of our modern democratic and free society – creates the pressure for real change and the very real prospect of possible collapse.

    Our response most certainly lies in the concept of subsidiarity, one of four tenets of Catholic social doctrine, balancing power away from the center and closer to where the inclusive and democratic will of the people is still expressed: the modern City State.  Rise up Mayors!  And, rise up regional banks and community newspapers!

    Looked at through a regenerative systems lens, this is a return to the natural “fractal” ordering of things, demanding an emergent network of City States to counterbalance the corrupted power at the center. Indeed, such a response is already underway with the numerous networks of city-based initiatives such as the prescient GMP, the C-40 focused on climate change, UN-Habitatthe Strong Cities Network, and numerous “Smart Cities” initiatives.

    Rural communities, too, have a vital role to play.  In addition to preserving the ageless wisdom embedded in the diversity of rural cultures and communities, they have the critical responsibility to steward our essential landscapes – our forests, our soils, our watersheds, all under threat from our short-sighted, extractive, industrial economy.  Critically, the regenerative management of forestry and agriculture, with the potential to massively increase natural carbon sequestration, now holds perhaps the missing critical dimension of our ability to respond in time to climate change.  Therefore, City States have a self-interest in valuing and supporting the culture of land stewardship, the very foundation of human civilization and still very much alive in rural communities.  No soil, no water, no life.

    We are passing from the 500-year-old Modern Era in which great progress including the Nation State emerged in response to pressures from a different context.  We are entering the “Integral Era,” in response to new pressures and a new context.  Power is shifting from corrupted institutions of an extractive and overly powerful center to a regenerative and more distributed network of interconnected City States.

    Happy New Era!

  • How Paris Changes Our Work

    November 18th, 2015 by ewalsh
    Image Courtesy of

    Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate lit up with the French flag in solidarity (Image courtesy of








    It doesn’t.

    Proximity amplifies the terror. And the fear. I learned that on 9-11.

    I agonize as I mourn those lost in Paris, and mourn for their families, their friends and colleagues. I am saddened to consider the now indelible line between what came before and what comes after that horrific evening of Friday the 13th. A fresh scar seared into our collective psyche. They say one man’s terrorism is another man’s war of independence. I’m not so sure.

    Proximity – and, let’s acknowledge, a shared culture – also amplifies the solidarity. The crowd gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin Saturday evening, with that iconic symbol of freedom aglow in the red white and blue stripes of the French flag, communicated that unique solidarity among the Germans and the French. Berlin felt very close to Paris that night as I walked the streets. And the same colors lit up the French Embassy in Copenhagen on Sunday night, a serene setting filled with candles and flowers I happened across on my way to dinner. Again, very moving. It was a privilege and a comfort merely to be present, notwithstanding the visible Uzis serving as a reminder that barbarism has consequences.

    Paris of course is the location for the upcoming 21st session of the Congress of the Parties to negotiate a comprehensive climate change treaty. Millions if not billions who represent humanity’s best impulses are united and determined to see our leaders find a way to put aside parochial interests and to achieve quantum progress – essential but of course on its own insufficient. The hour is recklessly late.

    While the thousands of us from business and civil society who have planned to participate in the multitude of side meetings await direction from officials in Paris, our work must carry on with heightened urgency, unbowed in the face of terror.

    No single initiative or even comprehensive treaty will win the real struggle addressing root causes: the struggle to transform our economic system to one that is just and operates within planetary boundaries. We are already transforming – albeit far too slowly – in direct response to the literally millions of initiatives all working in harmony toward the “Common Good.”

    Economic transition is underway directly in response to the pressures – social, economic, and ecological. That’s the way all systems evolve. Events in Paris serve to heighten that pressure. We need to arrest the cancer that manifested in Paris last Friday of course. Above my pay grade, but history holds important lessons for our leaders. More importantly, if we keep our heads clear we can also determine its root cause and deal with it wisely and forthrightly.

    This is where the work of systems design comes in. Our work at Capital Institute is part of a larger movement as evidenced by the recently launched Next System Project. In the human body, cancers result from the failure of our immune system to cleanse ever-present toxins. True health means investing in and healing our immune system, even if we need to sever a threatening tumor in the short run.

    To a large degree, the many societal cancers multiplying around us are interconnected, often in ways we fail to understand, and are the result, directly or indirectly, of flawed political economy system design. Severe poverty and hopelessness affecting nearly half the human race in the face of grotesque inequality within the developed world, financial market crashes, and climate change are leading to health and social crises previously unimaginable. In talking about Syria last summer, Thomas Friedman linked climate change to terrorism, and the struggle over limited natural resources.  He wrote:

    Its revolution was preceded by the worst four-year drought in the country’s modern history, driving nearly a million farmers and herders off the land, into the cities where the government of Bashar al-Assad completely failed to help them, fueling the revolution.

    System design work is urgent now because eventually we will lose our ability to cope with the individual cancers as their interconnected causes and impacts overwhelm us. Economics and finance are at the heart of this design work.

    In the context of planning and managing the complexity of war in the face of cascading interconnected crises, the great Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower was once asked, “What do you do when you find a problem you can’t solve?” His answer, “Make the problem bigger.”

    Eisenhower was a holistic thinker. To manage complexity, we must shed our reductionist thinking and learn to connect dots that our specialists are bound to miss. This new science-based thinking is the heart of the complex system design challenge confronting us today. We need to think like Eisenhower, as well as American Philosopher and Systems Theorist Buckminster Fuller, and the great Business Strategist W. Edwards Deming.

    Paris is a horrific tragedy. Beyond the direct impacts on innocent lives, I hate how it affects the lives and outlooks of so many Millennials who intuitively “get” and are manifesting the transition underway – the great promise of evolutionary progress. Our generation’s failures of wise and responsible servant leadership have so unjustly robbed the next generation of the gift of youthful innocence and bliss. Their road will be harder as a result. But this burden will no doubt imbue their purpose with greater meaning and urgency.

    Paris must be used to summon the courage, individually and collectively, to identify and address head-on root causes, systemic causes, no matter how uncomfortable. Even though we do not all agree – this is very hard – we and many others have well developed ideas on this. It’s the system design, stupid!

    Paris means we work harder and smarter. Most importantly, Paris means we must learn how to work more collaboratively, empowering broad participation, united in common cause, to upgrade the operating system of economics and finance to align it with the unprecedented and challenging context of the 21st century.

    Managing this complexity is the GREAT WORK of our age. Nothing can change that, not Paris, not the tough challenges that remain ahead.