How Paris Changes Our Work

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.