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Systems science for a better future

Systems science for a better future


The Pew Research Center surveyed the citizens of many countries in 2023 to gauge how many prefer authoritarian rulers to multi-party democracy. The numbers choosing dictators will dismay democrats. In the Global South: India (85%), Indonesia (77%), South Africa (66%) and Brazil (57%). In the West: the United Kingdom (37%) and the United States (32%), which are significant numbers too. China and Russia were not surveyed.

Citizens of democratic countries have lost trust in their governments’ economic policies. Average incomes may be rising but the very rich are becoming much richer, faster. Large corporations and financial institutions are compelling governments to set the rules of the game in their favour by reducing taxes for them, emasculating labour institutions, and exploiting the natural environment for their profit.

Moreover, the growth of the global economy and human population has brought humanity to the brink. Scientists predict that the overuse of fossil energy for fuelling modern consumptive lifestyles will make life on earth impossible beyond this century. Water, fundamental for life, is also running out. India is among the most water stressed large countries in the world.

India has 17.5% of the world’s population living on only 2.4% of the world’s land. In 2014, India ranked 155 out of 178 countries in the global Environment Performance Index, meanwhile, in 2022, India slipped to the very bottom — 180 out of 180. India, also the world’s most populous country, has an additional problem, viz. to increase the incomes of its citizens faster. While economists chase GDP targets, inequality is increasing and we are spoiling the earth which supports the economy and sustains our lives.

The science of systems

Keeping the forest in sight, do not get lost in the trees, is good advice. Many things must be known, and their interconnections mapped, to understand how the world works. All sciences — social, medical, and natural — are fragmented into narrow silos. Locked within their echo-chambers, scientists in different disciplines do not learn from each other. As the sciences advance, experts know more but about less. No one sees the whole. Politics and economics are integral parts of complex social systems. It is moot whether the weakening of democratic institutions empowers large capitalist institutions or whether capitalist institutions corrode democracy. What has broken down is the comprehension of complex systems with diverse forces, and human egos, within them.

Economics emerged as a distinct science out of philosophy and the humanities in the early 20th century. Modern economists do not understand how societies function. By the century’s end, free market fundamentalism had become an ideology. Leave it to the “invisible hand” of the market because it knows best, these economists say. Behind the invisible hand is the power of capital. The rights of capital, and its freedom to roam the world across national boundaries and make more profits, trump the rights of human beings moving across borders searching for safer lives.

Systems’ knowledge has been devalued by specialisation. Heart specialists can keep the heart alive with amazing technologies. Brain specialists delve deeper into the biology of the brain. They lose sight of the whole human being. Climate scientists research how to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but the effects of their solutions on the livelihoods of citizens are not in their science’s scope. High-tech solutions can improve parts of complex systems while reducing overall health and well-being.

Any intelligence within a system cannot comprehend the system that produced it. Modern science gave human beings hubris that they could conquer “unruly nature” as Francis Bacon declared at the emergence of the European Enlightenment. The arrogant scientific man thought he could change the system that had created him. His scientific fixes of the world, and scientific improvements of his own genes, are threatening humanity’s existence.

In times of uncertainty, people yearn for certainty. They follow godmen, dictators, and wealthy technologists because these people claim to know the truth and have the power to apply it. When economists and scientists with their incomplete understanding of the world become the guides of leaders and steer social and economic policies, the losers are both common people and the natural environment that sustains everyone’s lives. Recalling the idea of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus — “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing” — philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into “foxes’’ and ‘‘hedgehogs”. Great writers, like Leo Tolstoy, who combined many perspectives in their histories were both hedgehogs and foxes, Berlin said. They understood the fundamental nature of existence and the limits of any rational scientific approach to it.

Rather than specialised sciences focused on parts, a higher-level science is required: a science of holistic, self-adaptive systems which include human egos in them. Complex self-adaptive systems have three components: systems being, systems thinking, and systems acting. Systems being requires humility. Systems thinking requires the mind of the “hedgehog-fox” to see patterns among the details.

Enterprises for cooperation

Systems acting to improve the world for everyone must be driven by organisations whose purpose is cooperation, not by organisations driven by competition. The purpose of business corporations and armies is to make more profit and gain more power, whereas the purpose of families is to improve the well-being of their members. Family members have natural differences in sex and generational abilities. Yet, they cooperate with each other for the well-being of all.

Women’s contributions to the well-being of families and societies are under-valued in money terms and not counted in GDP. Economists say that few Indian women are in the labour force, whereas, for centuries, women have been working harder than men, producing social and economic value for their families and communities.

The world needs more caring, less competition. Women are natural family builders and systems facilitators whereas men are brought up to compete. Rather than men teaching women to think like men and compete with them in hierarchies of the formal labour force, men must learn the caring ways of women to make the world better for everyone.

Arun Maira is the author of ‘Shaping the Future: A Guide for Systems Leaders’


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