Capability building in the age of polycrisis - RSA blog - RSA

Capability building in the age of polycrisis


  • Picture of Andy Thornton
    Andy Thornton
    Head of Regenerative Design
  • Economy
  • Education and learning
  • Environment
  • Work and employment

Our Regenerative capabilities coalition is a key intervention of our Design for Life mission. Joanna Choukeir, the RSA's Director of Design and Innovation, will be speaking at Anthropy 2023 about how we need to invest in capabilities to support in the transition to a regenerative economy. Here, Andy Thornton, our Head of Regenerative Design, previews what Jo will have to say.

Amidst our era of endless disruption, we believe in reestablishing the fundamental value of human stewardship – investing and equipping the next generation of graduates, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs with the necessary capabilities and capacity to transition to an economy that regenerates profit, people and planet in harmony.

Edgar Morin, complexity theorist, philosopher and sociologist, coined a term in his book ‘Homeland Earth’ back in 1999. Succinctly encapsulating his alarm regarding the “complex intersolidarity of problems… and the general crisis of the planet” the phrase he used was the polycrisis. In the polycrisis, seemingly disparate events interact so that the whole becomes even more overwhelming than the sum of its parts. Shocks intertwine and become entangled in complex ways.

Over 20 years later the polycrisis is no longer an abstract, quasi-intellectual idea, but an accurate summary of the bizarre nature of our current reality, embraced by the mainstream lexicon such that its sibling, ‘permacrisis’, was voted word of the year in 2022.

In our increasingly turbulent times, it's easy to become desensitised to the ever-growing list of such events that besiege our economic and social reality. A global pandemic triggers supply chain disruption leading to inflation. A territorial war emerged in Europe exacerbating an energy and cost of living crisis, alongside the deterioration of political stability in the established order of global powers. Rising inequality and slow economic growth are rapidly becoming intergenerationally endemic.

Meanwhile, we've grown accustomed to a relentless stream of environmental disasters and never-ending record-breaking milestones, ranging from endless wildfires and droughts to floods and mega-storms, as well as the decline and loss of sea ice and biodiversity.

A sign of the times?

It would be sensationalist to claim that complex, multifaceted crises are an exclusive phenomenon of contemporary modernity. The domino effect of global issues triggered by a seemingly inconsequential sequence of events is recognisable throughout history. And yet the magnitude of humankind’s anthropomorphic presence on Earth has now reached the inescapable boundaries of planetary limits. This has been felt to such an extent that even those citizens previously sheltered from harm, often masked by neocolonial economic and military projects of domination over others, can no longer escape the consequences.

The argument that dominant nation states and global corporates can continue to conveniently offset or externalise their social or environmental side-effects out of sight, out of mind, while financial growth can continue to be maximised or even decoupled from resource use, leads to inevitable narrative contradictions increasingly impossible to ignore. There is no shortage of data supporting the evidence that a Great Acceleration of population and economic growth since the middle of the last century correlates with an equivalent exponential growth in energy and material consumption, with nihilistic impacts on earth systems and the life they support, including ocean acidification, temperature rise and biodiversity loss.

As the huge population of other nations, including China, India and Brazil, inevitably reach their much overdue opportunity to reap the full rewards of development, disastrous impacts likely await the further overshooting of planetary boundaries without significant course correction. BRICS nations account for over 40% of the world’s population, compared to 16% for high-income countries, which includes the US, UK and Europe. Should they follow the path of ‘progress’ set by the ‘developed’ West, we should be alert and awake to the catastrophic consequences that could follow from equivalent consumption. The per-person material consumption of high-income countries is 10 times that of low-income countries, accounting for 74% of excess resource use worldwide. The wealthiest 10% of the world's population is also responsible for nearly half the world's CO2 emissions. A ‘fair share’ of the remaining scraps of any planetary commons is inevitably a red-hot boiling point of contention and competition.

Cost of living crisis - Regenerating Capabilities - Anthropy 2023 blog

Mutually assured thriving

The typical response to these sorts of complex, macroscopic challenges would be to call in national governments, international institutions like the United Nations, and supranational business leaders – the McKinsey’s and Musk’s of this world – to coordinate an effective response. Such an approach has barely sufficed in relatively stable times. More than ever, given today's turbulent landscape, there remain significant questions about the efficacy of such established governance forums to handle the intricate interplay of factors in our multifaceted contemporary civilisation.

Modernity’s tale of endless progress through improvisation, ingenuity, reform, and crisis management may be symptomatic of a misguided hope. Yes, we've managed to develop vaccines to combat diseases and pandemics, navigated recurring economic depressions, and thus far averted the existential threat of mutually assured destruction by nuclear war. But will similarly reactive innovations enable us to confront and overcome the environmental crisis at the 11th hour? Or is this simply a case that no matter how ingenious our inventiveness is, the polycrisis will remain a permacrisis until underlying forces and the mindsets driving them are addressed?

The vicious cycles being reinforced begin with the increasing proficiency and aptitude of disaster management and our dysfunctional response to crisis. Neither the appetite to suppress disorder nor the eagerness to embrace or even accelerate change, are instinctively oriented to achieve positive outcomes. Expertise in ‘keeping a lid on things’ to maintain the status quo can needlessly delay and avert the necessary release of accumulated tensions and pressures in the system. Yet the higher the pressure, the bigger the release.

Global pandemic - Regenerating Capabilities - Anthropy 2023 blog

Pending polycrisis quakes

When the inevitable seismic eruptions arrive, there is no shortage of bad actors available and adept at applying Churchill’s mantra 'never let a good crisis go to waste' to our extractive 20th-century business models. In too many cases such models are optimised to profit from natural disasters or their indirect consequences (including the Covid-19 pandemic). We should be cautious before continuing to invite the next tragedy to our door. ‘Playing with fire’ has, this summer the world over, demonstrated mother nature’s effortless ability to ignite metaphor into reality.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s 1957 Law of Triviality made somewhat comedic light of the observation that organisations typically give disproportionate focus to unimportant issues over more critical ones. Behavioural research now lends credence to this claim that people spend less time on big decisions than perhaps they should. Aware that the prevalent societies and cultures of today are optimised and incentivised towards the demands of the five-year electoral cycle and the short-term rewards of immediate returns, no wonder our environmental doomsday clock stands on the precipice of midnight. Our 20th century ‘mutually assured distractions’, embedded and evolved so deeply into our inherited modes of thinking and behaving, are no longer fit for purpose.

So instead of reactively leaning into problems as ever-diminishing profit-maximisation opportunities, how do we proactively lean into our predicament as a collaborative path towards more positive, inclusive change? How do we aspire towards a state of what Dark Matter Labs’ Indy Johar describes as “mutually assured thriving” rather than mutually assured destruction?

Climate crisis - Regenerating Capabilities - Anthropy 2023 blog

Learning beyond siloes

In post-industrial societies over the past couple of hundred years, it has been desirable and convenient to approach our understanding of the world by creating ever-deepening fields of expertise. Modern education systems, such as those established in Europe since the late 19th century, have embedded and standardised an approach to knowledge that inevitably isolates one specialism from another, such that this method of understanding became akin to the oxygen we breathe: Essential, unquestionable, invisible.

Yet vital expertise in macroeconomics, finance, politics, social change, health, or the environment can no longer be effectively analysed in isolation, given the world’s complex crises are poly-dimensional and transdisciplinary; as complexity increases, the ability to coherently understand it decreases.

As part of the transformative journey towards a heightened social and environmental consciousness that human civilisation now requires, both formal and informal learning, inside and outside our institutions of education, and throughout the course and context of an individual's life, will play a pivotal role.

But a foundational question must first be answered: what is the role of education in society? Sir Ken Robinson believes “education should expand our consciousness, capabilities, sensitivities, and cultural understanding” as well as enable people to understand both their inner world as well as the world around them; to expand their worldview.

Noam Chomsky reminds us of the role of learning from the Enlightenment; a pursuit of knowledge “geared towards encouraging creative exploration, independence of thought, willingness to cross frontiers, to challenge accepted beliefs” rather than conformity and indoctrination into the established norms of the status quo – serving the means to an end whose destination is economic advantage.

Transformative educator Zachary Stein goes one step further: “Education is the meta-crisis… the root of all more specific crises such as climate change, governance breakdowns, impending war, and social unrest.” In our current “time between worlds” he argues, no less than a radical renewal, rather than a mere rebooting or re-tuning of the fragile systems of today’s world, will suffice. This includes our education systems.

Better human beings

To create Chomsky’s “better human beings” we must confront the pressing need for a profound shift in our collective consciousness in the face of the unprecedented challenges of our time. The prevailing ethos in many societies, particularly those of the so-called ‘developed’ world, has fostered a culture of unchecked consumerism, individualism, and disproportionate corporate political influence, which prioritises economic growth at the expense of all else and perpetuates a vicious cycle of environmental degradation and social inequality. A small elite has amassed immense wealth while many continue to struggle to meet their basic needs. Shifting our paradigm necessitates reclaiming and reestablishing the primacy of public welfare and environmental stewardship, but it will be no small task and not for the faint-hearted.

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

What individual qualities may be asked of us to bring about such a future, given the scale of change that lies ahead? Better human beings will need:

  • Mindsets, values and worldviews - recognising that the goals of humankind and the destiny of the harmony of life on our planet are intimately intertwined. Shifting from egoistic concerns that emphasise the heroic individualism of self-confidence, self-expression or resilience against external forces, and expanding our consciousness toward more holistic characteristics that emphasise reciprocity, adaptability, and self-reflexive sensitivity to bias and the lived experience of others. Such transferrable skills and deeper capabilities will be essential.
  • Care to provide due concern, sympathy, empathy and compassion - to see oneself in others and to hold a deep understanding and acceptance of another's struggle, free of judgement.
  • Composure to develop a sense of personal equilibrium - connecting inner feelings, beliefs and values with integrity. To authentically act in accordance with this inner guidance system, while being transparent and sincere in interactions with others.
  • Courage to control fear and face difficult situations with mental and moral strength and vulnerability - to be determined and dedicated but also selfless in making difficult moral choices, especially when the obvious path is not clear.
  • Engage constructively in the world to support and sustain life - having a sense of not just the agency to participate, or the activism to take ownership of one’s potential, but a deeper stewardship towards the wellbeing of one’s local and global community, both now and in the future.

These attitudes form part of our 10Cs capabilities framework, encompassing the attributes necessary to help shift organisations towards an ethos that places the wellbeing of all at the heart of our decision-making: a key principle behind the regenerative mindset.

Are you attending Anthropy 2023? Be sure to attend our Regenerating capabilities panel discussion between 2:30 and 3:30pm on Wednesday 1 November to learn more about how we are transforming capabilities for a regenrative economy.

You can read more about our work in the regenerative capabilities field by visiting the Regenerative capabilities coalition intervention page.

Capabilities for life

Exploring and cultivating the capabilities required to ensure business aims and practices contribute towards a regenerative economy.

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