Our story begins in 1968, “the year of a global bifurcation”, when global change seemed immanent.
We follow several systems scientists or groups of systems scientists who, seeing from their own point of view what needed to be done, undertook to influence the flow of events.
Jay Forrester: Talking to the US House of Representatives about the counterintuitive behavior of social systems:
Fundamental reasons cause people to misjudge behavior of social systems. Orderly processes in creating human judgment and intuition lead people to wrong decisions when faced with complex and highly interacting systems. Until we reach a much better public understanding of social systems, attempts to develop corrective programs for social troubles will continue to be disappointing,
Erich Jantsch: 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.” (Jantsch, 1969)
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.
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.
Notably, this was more than three decades after
Norbert Wiener presented a passionate argument, in 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. (...)
Let's now spend a moment looking at this situation together, discovering a paradox and an anomaly—in the social system of science, including the systems sciences: By acting as ‘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) we chose around 1968 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.
The world could have been a different place today!
The experiment in market-driven 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? Can we learn from history?