I’ve just read a fascinating book, The Age of the Unthinkable, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Ramo is a managing director at Kissinger Associates, focusing on China. He’s a former foreign editor for Time magazine.
The Age of the Unthinkable talks about how uncertainty and interconnection is increasing in every aspect of our lives and in world politics. From the interplay of energy use and the environment to finance and mortgages, to diseases spread by travelers, to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, the world is becoming unmanageable using old models.
Complex decentralized systems are not unmanageable. Think of the Internet or healthy ecosystems or financial markets (OK, there was mismanagement at some levels. But the system worked, trading can go on even with the overload of a crisis). The thing is, they’re not manageable by straight-line thinking and top-down control.
As you might guess from his background, Ramos talks a lot about international relations. He says the old institutions set up after WWII – from the UN, to the way the State Department is organized, to how foreign aid is distributed – are not only incapable of dealing with today’s uncertainly but are actually counterproductive. One reason is they’re all designed to confront perceived problems head-on, which often has the result of making them worse – think nuclear proliferation, the war on terror, the financial crisis.
To oversimplify, Ramos says we need to do a couple of things.
1. Build resilient systems at every level.
- To deal with bioterrorism or new virus strains, we could try to plan for every eventuality, develop and stockpile vaccines, etc. But a more effective plan would be to build a strong healthcare system, with an efficient and effective public health component, and be ready to react to whatever happens.
- On the financial crisis, he talks about America’s low savings rate as a reason why the meltdown is so hard on individual families. If people had adequate rainy day funds we’d be better able to ride out the inevitable downturns.
2. Design for uncertainly by using the model of our immune system.
- Be ready to react to crisis and opportunity with flexible systems. He talks about involving people at every level of an organization, or of a society, in decision making. Great case studies from Hizb’allah to a company in Brazil’s 1980’s financial meltdown to AIDS care in Africa.
This seems to me to overlap with the transition to a creative economy and Richard’s mantra that every person is creative and we need to make all work creative.
(Interesting David Brooks piece about Iran in today’s NY Times along the same lines.)