Erich Jantsch
Motivates Hermes from the systems science side

Our story begins in 1968, “the year of a global bifurcation”, when global change seemed immanent. Erich Jantsch appears in the story as “a man who clearly saw what needed to be done”. We see him having “endless conversations” with demonstrating students in Paris; we see him deliver a keynote speech at the opening of The Club of Rome; we watch him organize the Bellagio conference where rational creative action as a general way of responding to ‘the predicament of mankind’ was drafted.

We ponder with him over the key question: “Who (i.e. what institution) might spearhead rational creative action in real-world systemic practice?” We conclude together with him that the university will need to play this key role; and that university will need to change to adapt to this role:

[T]he university should make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing the society’s capacity for continuous self-renewal. It may have to become a political institution, interacting with government and industry in the planning and designing of society’s systems, and controlling the outcomes of the introduction of technology into those systems. This new leadership role of the university should provide an integrated approach to world systems, particularly the ‘joint systems’ of society and technology. 

In 1969 we are with Jantsch for a semester at the MIT, where he is talking to the administration and the faculty at the MIT, where, he believed, the “structural changes” could naturally begin, and where the above excerpt was written as part of his report and proposal. 

Hence we see Jantsch not only advocating bootstrapping social-systemic change to a leading university; we see him engaged in this bootstrapping, to his best ability. 

Jantsch’s initiative did not succeed.

Not only did he not succeed in engaging the MIT administration in a conversation about his ideas; also The Club of Rome took a subtly but significantly different direction from the one he  and his co-authors of The Club of Rome’s statement of purpose (Ozbekhan and Christakis) were proposing—a year later, and at the very department where Jantsch made his proposal for academic re-evolution.

During the 1970s we are with this “man who clearly saw what needed to be done” in Berkeley, having occasional courses but no steady affiliation with the UC Berkeley, living with minimal means and with no steady income. Yet working tirelessly on his agenda. We sit with him in his seminar at UC Berkeley, as he listens for the first time to Ilya Prigogine. We look over his shoulder as he writes “Design for Evolution—Self-Organization and Planning in the Life of Human Systems”, where he illuminates the subtleties of the situation in which Hermes finds its niche. 

(Today, Jantsch's books are out of print; yet you can buy them inexpensively. Jantsch's biographer writes that even when they appeared, his books sold only a handful a year...)

In the 1980 Erich Jantsch organized a conference and published two books, all about the   “evolutionary paradigm”; and passed away, at the age of 51.  Ronald Reagan became the 40th US President. Stating, famously, that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, Reagan championed an entirely different course of systemic evolution than what Erich Jantsch had in mind—namely deregulation! 

Notably, this was more than three decades after Norbert Wiener presented a passionate argument, in his seminal Cybernetics, why reliance on the market as regulatory mechanism cannot work:

There is a belief, current in many countries, which has been elevated to the rank of an official article of faith in the United States, that free competition is itself a homeostatic process: that in a free market, the individual selfishness of the bargainers, each seeking to sell as high and buy as low as possible, will result in the end of a stable dynamics of prices, and with redound to the greatest common good. This is associated with the very comforting view that the individual entrepreneur, in seeking to forward his own interest, is in some manner a public benefactor, and has thus earned the great reward with which society has showered him. Unfortunately, the evidence, such as it is, is against this simple-minded theory. (...)

By limiting the stance of the systems sciences to the conventional-academic ‘objective observers’, we have dramatically limited our impact in the social realities where our presence is urgently needed. Imagine (as an extreme scenario, suitable for a thought experiment) if instead of continuing to research and publish and deepen our understanding of systems (i.e. instead of pursuing conventional academic work) the systems scientists chose around 1970 to team up and self-organize around the task to strategically bring a single key single insight to public awareness—such as the one shared by Wiener, and Jantsch, and so many other systems scientists at that time, that social-systemic evolution must be consciously, and democratically, guided.1 

The world could have been a different place today!

The experiment in social-systemic evolution that began in the 1980 was concluded in 2008. In our story the 2008 emerges as another “year of a global bifurcation”, where the financial crisis revealed the fallacies and the risks related to our society’s current way of evolving. The question remains—Can we do better this time? Are we capable of learning from history?


1. We mention in passing that Jay Forrester made an action of this kind on his own, by bringing the "counter-intuitive behavior of social systems" to the attention of the United States Congress.

Hermes.CoI »Hermes.CoI
Visionaries »Visionaries
Erich Jantsch
+Comments (0)
+Citations (0)