Embracing Complexity: towards fairness, sustainability and happiness – Jean Boulton

Embracing Complexity: towards fairness, sustainability and happiness

Complexity suggests a different approach to engaging with the world – a middle ground between control and laissez-faire.

We’ve chosen the wrong science to understand the social world.

On the one hand, there is an increasing focus for public sector organizations on defining detailed rules, standardizing methods, evidencing and measuring outcomes. The intention is to make the hospital or school work as an efficient, optimized, well-oiled machine. The belief is that if we tell people exactly what to do and check they do it exactly, then standards and efficiency will improve.

On the other hand, when it comes to commerce and the private sector, there is almost the opposite – increasing deregulation and laissez-faire driven by a strong belief in the invisible hand of the market and in the power of competition to lead to optimal outcomes. The economic world is still largely modelled as if it worked predictably and controllably, moving inexorably towards equilibrium.

What is remarkable is that these beliefs seem to harden and become ever-more entrenched despite the repeating crises facing our economies, ecologies, and societies. They persist in spite of the stark and often completely unexpected social eruptions and political crises that dominate the news. They persist even in the light of increasing evidence that policies are failing. For example, the UK – despite continuing focus on ‘machine thinking’ (defining detailed teaching methods and lesson plans, detailed measuring of performance of schools, teachers and pupils) – is near the bottom of 24 countries in relation to literacy and numeracy. And, despite neo-liberal free market policies and the promise of ‘trickle down’, inequality continues to rise; the UK is 28th out of 34 OECD countries in relation to income inequality and bottom of 37 countries in relation to difference in healthy eating between rich and poor children. If ever there was a need for fresh thinking, we are seeing it now. Yet most of the solutions that are attempted consist in propping up the status quo, doing more of the same, rather than thinking afresh and questioning underlying assumptions.

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