Ellen Macarthur Foundation


When technology is not enough: problems vs predicaments

If only it were just about technology, y’know redesign a telephone for easy disassembly, perhaps shift to bioplastics for some of it, rework the components and choice of materials, develop a different relationship with suppliers and at the end of use; put the materials recovery people in the initial design team. Tough enough given the circumstances, but essentially driven by the shift in prices and availability of some materials and energy resources into the future – the search for resource productivity and eventually ‘closing the loop’.


But its also about thinking and especially learning. The telephone is a complicated problem but is best suited to detailed analysis whereas most of the big picture problems of today are not problems at all they are predicaments: they have a very large number of variables, not all of them known, the relationship between cause and effect indeterminable because of iteration (feedback), and they are also predicaments because there is no way back. Whatever emerges is not the same as the starting point. In short you can’t send a geek to fix it. Equally you can’t cope with an increasingly complex world by developing an army of geeks each of them thinking the problem is just complicated and as a consequence feeling that they don’t need a ‘philosophy’ just a better toolkit. The curse of the utilitarian approach. Which brings us back to schooling and the rest.

We are still training an army of geeks – or rather we are letting India and China produce cohorts of smart engineers and technicians – who maybe still believe the world is machine-like but as Louise Vet said in a recent TEDX (see below), the future is biological and the task is to work creatively with what we have in the understanding that its complex and involves highly evolved, self regulating systems. Just as health is not the mere absence of disease and is connected to the notion of wholeness, completeness and thriving so we need the smartest and the best to have in mind, and have in action, a sense of what basic rules living systems work to and the principles of these non-linear feedback led systems in which Life is embedded and in which we are embedded in our turn.

In schools we probably need to see much less ‘problem solving’, or rather reserve it for areas where there are really problems and establish more opportunities for reflecting on, closely observing, getting a feel for complexity, but knowing it is not a question of abandoning the machine view and replacing it with chaos. For some, if the world is not predictable then surely anything goes, its all pretty ‘random’ or ‘messy’ so lets just swap opinions and sit back and enjoy an inflated view of what having that opinion means. But an opinion is a dead end, once transmitted what’s to discuss- or why? (“Do I look bovvered?”) No, this won’t do either, except for those who make a living from the distracted and superficial lives we have been sold.

The opportunity of a necessary shift at the end of an era of cheap oil and materials is also an opportunity (or is it necessity?) to engage with a more sophisticated and yet more realistic framework for thinking, one which is embedded in the science of today and offers participation rather than alienation, well being rather than just consumption, hope for the future rather than fatalism, it offers possibilities for using our creativity and increasing prosperity and employment while restoring those vital capitals (natural, social and economic) upon which society thrives.

“Beep beeep” – is that my phone? Got to go. Back in 2011

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