We assume that big problems need big solutions. But we know that in today’s operating environment big actions simply lead to bigger unintended consequences. The ‘Manhattan Project’ approach to large social challenges is not only bound to fail, it also spreads the disheartening message that nothing on a smaller scale will do.
That is not true. You cannot control complex systems, only disturb them. And even a small disturbance, artfully designed, can have large systemic effects. We call this ‘social acupuncture’. Think of Muhammad Yunus walking into a small village in Bangladesh thirty years ago with a few dollars in his pocket. His offer of microloans, against the advice of banks, governments and economists, was a small, disruptive act. It has generated global systemic impact.
We have a far better understanding today of how these effects are obtained if we see society as a complex organism, a living ecology, a social network, or a ‘holarchy’. Each ‘holon’ in a living system is viable in its own right but it also grows in ways consistent with the patterns of coherence of a larger whole. Understanding the world holonically offers a very different approach to planning large scale projects, enabling them to grow more naturally and providing viability at all stages.
For the most part we remain trapped in a world in which top down doesn’t work and bottom up doesn’t add up. In India they talk about the relationship between the buffaloes and the fireflies – the big bureaucracies and corporations and the small scale social entrepreneurs. We know that fireflies swarm and synchronise. But how much more effective and sustainable might that activity be if the heft of the buffaloes could play a collaborative part? A critical task of modern governance is enabling buffaloes and fireflies to learn better together.