The competencies needed to meet the complex challenges of the 21st century
Readers of this journal need no reminding that we live in powerful times. For many they can feel overwhelming, inexorable, exceeding our capacity for effective action, inviting resignation or even despair. Yet this sense of crisis is also provoking inspiring and powerful action. We saw this in many responses to the pandemic, memorably described by Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy as an opportunity “to rethink the doomsday machine”, opening a “portal” to a better world.
How many of us in the gathering storm of recent years have had the courage to walk through that door, and the stamina and other qualities required to stay there and make a difference? Can we learn from those who have done so about the qualities of being, doing, knowing and living together that we need to cultivate so as to flourish? These pioneers cannot carry the burden of hope alone: we all need to learn to live well in uncertainty and rolling crisis.
We are privileged to work alongside many such visionary actors. They are challenging the dominant narratives of our times, cultivating hopeful imagination, technical expertise and broad life experience to create the new spaces and patterns of life we desperately need for a viable future for humanity and our planet.
Responding to the immediate emergencies around us is vital work, but we also need people working on this deep, long-term, comprehensive and creative transition. Think of initiatives like Civic Square, a ‘neighbourhood economics lab’ in Birmingham that is visioning, building and investing in civic infrastructure for neighbourhoods of the future. Or We Can Make, in Bristol, who have created a localised production system for building community-owned homes. Doughnut Economics Action Lab and Open Systems Lab are both creating some of the civic infrastructure and ‘hidden wiring’ to support this kind of transformational work, and organisations such as Healing Justice London and MAIA are doing the culture-making, growing the capacity for imagining, community repair and healing that make all this work possible.
These groups are not just analysing the changes we need. They are creating and growing real alternatives. They know that others need to see what is possible if they are to believe it. They are designing, experimenting, iterating their way through the complexity in both a strategic and an open way. They are not building ‘organisations’ in the traditional sense, but rolling processes of organising, bringing together the most appropriate assemblage of roles and people for the task at hand. This itself raises tensions in a world set up for more stable institutions and traditional job descriptions.
Support for system transition
These people are facing reality, and so should we. We need to recognise how little support is available for this vital work. Directing more money into this kind of activity would be good. But those doing the work also struggle to find the people, the competencies, the specialist roles, the social infrastructure, the recognition that they need. Such support was always scarce but is now almost completely overlooked by a mainstream system failing under multiple pressures, one that is drawn to short-term fixes, magic bullets and a return to ‘normal’.
These pioneers are not only doing the work. If they are to create anything more than inspiring niche projects, they are also having to redesign the ‘dark matter’ around them: regulation, policy, rules, governance, structures and social, political and professional norms.
The professional services that exist to help support collaborative, innovative work – lawyers, legal specialists, accountants, banks, HR professionals – are inevitably still largely operating within the existing dominant paradigm. Some remain sceptical about radical forms and in any event are under increasing demand from others facing the consequences of the immediate crisis.
Pioneers are also finding it hard to find the people they need to join and progress their missions. People who can operate well in complexity, ‘ambidextrous’ people who can work with the old system while building the new, who are comfortable with emergence and uncertainty, and who are likely to keep their heads (and hearts and feet) while all around are losing theirs.
Our societies have not been investing in these essential capacities for living and working well in today’s world, these ‘21st-century competencies’. Large gaps are therefore becoming apparent between our ambitions for long-term systemic change and the depth and breadth of competencies in people available to do the work.
In a famous essay from 1980, the American psychologist Carl Rogers called such people “persons of tomorrow”. The good news is, as Rogers observed, the competencies they need to demonstrate are innate. But we are unlikely to reveal and develop them if we remain in thrall to the cultural story about competence that dominates today.
That story suggests, among other features, that: competence is a ‘thing’, a quality of the individual; it can be taught or trained to different levels by following an appropriate curriculum; it can be tested, measured and graded in the abstract; and it will ultimately win an economic return for the competent individual, their organisation or nation.
This approach has enabled a mastery of specialist competencies that has been hugely impressive, but it has become all but impossible within this context to recognise or develop the additional 21st-century competencies we now need to thrive in the world we have created.
The 21st-century competencies are innate. They are already part of our rich human repertoire of responses, but undervalued, underestimated and underdeveloped in our late-modern culture.
Persons of tomorrow
For the past decade, the International Futures Forum (IFF) has been investigating how to encourage and support these competencies as part of a transformative growth response to powerful times. The inquiry has been based on sound theory, and on experience and observation of those people who display the capacities and qualities to thrive where others are struggling.
What competencies do they possess that allow them to grow through the turbulence others find so disorienting? How did they come by them? And how and where can those competencies best be developed and refined through practice?
The resulting book, Dancing at the Edge: Competence, Culture and Organisation in the 21st Century, written by Graham with Maureen O’Hara, a colleague of Rogers for three decades, takes a different stand in relation to competence. It follows the definition of competence drawn from an exhaustive Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) inquiry from 2003 as “the ability to meet important challenges in life in a complex world”. The book asserts that competence is not a capacity of the individual but is always demonstrated in a human system, in a culture, in a pattern of relationships; and competencies are qualities of whole persons – they cannot be distinguished one from another, developed in isolation and mastered one stage at a time.
Further, humans come designed for a complex world. The 21st-century competencies are innate. They are already part of our rich human repertoire of responses, but undervalued, underestimated and underdeveloped in our late-modern culture. They require the right setting to show themselves and a supportive environment in which to develop. People and the setting they are in develop in parallel.
We do not need a new curriculum, or another list of skills, but rather a culture, spaces for growth, where people are guided and encouraged to express and develop their innate potential in the company of supportive others.
We know that these competencies exist because we have seen them demonstrated in practice by the persons of tomorrow all around us. When we ask groups to identify these competencies in others that they know and admire, the lists have a simple, human quality, and they look very similar in different cultures and settings. The persons who are thriving and effective agents in today’s complex world are described as calm, humble, tolerant, they have a capacity for fun, are open to not knowing, curious, active (not passive), challenging of the status quo and the comfort zone, paying attention to self-care, encouraging of others, empathic, good listeners and so on.
These are foundational human qualities, aspects of whole persons, available to all of us. So how to develop them in practice?
Competence in complexity
It is now five years since the IFF began experimenting with a range of practical programmes and experiences specifically designed to develop this ‘competence in complexity’. The work has taken place in all sectors – public, social, community, government, philanthropy and corporate – in a variety of geographies and across age groups. For example, a simple set of resources called ‘Kitbag’ is now in use in many schools and other settings around the world. The multinational life science company Bayer is offering a version of the programme to their experienced middle-level leaders to help them become comfortable and effective in a landscape of constant change. In Scotland, there was a special variant created for ‘policymakers of the future’.
In all cases, the IFF has found that the first step is awareness. Noticing, reading and paying attention to the unconscious psychological dimension of the landscape allows us to perceive, recognise, feel and interpret our own and others’ psychological experiences as they occur, moment by moment, and spontaneously adjust our behaviour in response to that perception.
This gives us the option of moving beyond the default defence of denial and withdrawal as protection against anxiety. We can engage with reality rather than deny it, drawing on other psychological resources and invoking a transformative growth response.
We can go further by bringing a conscious awareness to other ways in which we are already ‘reading’ the landscape, making better sense of what previously appeared incoherent and unstable. We can develop cultural literacy – recognising the cultures in play, how we participate in them, how we can change them, the fact that every intervention is a cultural intervention – and knowledge literacy – bringing a conscious awareness to what counts as knowledge in our personal or professional circles, how we know what we know, ‘seeing like a human’ rather than seeing like a state.
This cultivation of awareness and these three literacies – psychological, cultural and knowledge – expand our natural capacity to feel at home in complexity. It is then possible to develop the capacity for intentional agency, effective action in the landscape, realising an aspirational purpose. The Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger describes this kind of effective agency in an otherwise confounding and possibly overwhelming landscape as “turning the tables on our circumstances”. He identifies this experience, of being an agent rather than simply a victim or a bystander, as the source of hope. Agency breeds hope, not the other way around.
What we are seeding in these programmes is not a curriculum but a culture, one that feeds life and allows us to recover what we have lost in the modern world, reconnect with sources of life and vitality, recover our full personhood. This feels like a vital missing element in all the talk of systems change and social innovation.
As Carl Jung said, “we do not solve our problems, we outgrow them.”
Graham Leicester is a co-founder of the International Futures Forum and author of Ten Things to do in a Conceptual Emergency and Dancing at the Edge (both with Maureen O’Hara)
Cassie Robinson holds strategy roles at Partners for a New Economy, Active Philanthropy and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.
Richard Ellis FRSA
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