A Metaphor to Describe the Global Search for a Paradigmatic Shift to Planetary Balance and Sustainability
Since the industrial revolution, each introduction of a new technology was accompanied by an opening to “the adjacent possible” (TAP) waiting in the wings for the next explosion of emergent human creativity. If we look at the state of the planet, we see clearly that old methods of problem solving have, for the most part, failed to work. The Center for Emergent Diplomacy has begun testing a problem-solving TAP methodology that will allow us to reach beyond the ideas we normally “think” of and enter into a generative dialogue space where the “adjacent possible” solutions can be discovered. We see this as an imaginative space where radical new ideas and outcomes emerge, a space based on the processes of Nature’s living systems and Complexity science. The Center for Emergent Diplomacy uses this new tool based on TAP, the timeless knowledge of indigenous wisdom-keepers, and Complexity science principles, to facilitate diverse groups of people in the discovery of creative solutions to the unprecedented problems we face today.
We begin our new journey by:
welcoming the principle of “generative dialogue”
becoming re-enchanted with nature
thinking like an ecosystem, not a strategic planner
co-creating a diversity of trusted networks of collaboration
replacing authoritarian control with distributed leadership
demonstrating unprecedented courage in the face of injustice
engaging deeply with our hearts as well as our brains
embracing hope at the edge of chaos
Below is a brief look at some of the TAP methodology we have been testing and taking to action. The list provided a starting point for our recent training in Israel for Track Two water negotiations between Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.
Building a Shared Intent. Failure often accompanies an intent or vision that is too small to inspire and energize the group. Peter Senge writes: “One of the deepest desires underlying shared vision is the desire to be connected to a larger purpose and to one another.” We have found that in order to agree and commit to the difficult task of solving a seemingly intractable peacebuilding problem, the circle of dialogue participants must be as inclusive of as many points of view as possible, fulfilling the complex systems principle of “requisite variety” and “swarm intelligence.” We carefully include participants in our dialogues who are not expert in the specific issue under consideration—but have demonstrated creativity that might expand the thinking of invited experts searching for help beyond their narrow silos.
Balancing Power in the Group. This is a very hard facilitation task, but we have to do it. We try to give more “talking time” to those participants who are often under-represented in collaborative meetings, sometimes marginalized by the absence of proficiency in the dominant language, or interrupted by the dominant Western model of debate. When the voices of lived despair are shut down, we miss an opportunity to hear from the heart. The most vulnerable among us participating in dialogue require special regard in order to assure the most sustainable and equitable outcomes. We often begin our dialogues with a period of silence and reflection, asking participants to get in touch with nature looking out a window and taking the opportunity to center themselves.
Letting Go of Goals and Objectives. In their 2015 book, "Why Greatness Cannot be Planned”, complexity scientists Ken Stanley and Joel Lehman write, “Objectives by their nature cause a search process to converge—towards the objective. And convergence means that many potentially interesting directions will not be explored. By foregoing explicit final objectives, we join company with natural evolution and human innovation, and align it with this more exotic and radical form of discovery.” The goals, objectives and agendas become “emergent properties” of the dialogue process.
Facilitating Emergent Creativity. Testing a part of our process we call “Back to the Future” has proven both frustrating and exciting for us. Most of what is significant to human beings is created through sharing stories about our own experiences. We try to focus on helping participants imagine new stories based on their hopes and dreams for the future. When people have suffered personal and collective trauma because of violent conflict, however, they often want to share competing victim stories from the past and present. We find that in those settings, working together on positive future scenarios is generally more rewarding and frequently leads to unpredictable breakthrough. The methodology is simple, imagining a future after peace has finally come to the community and then going back in time to trace the events and strategies that helped the new story unfold. When we seek to choose a positive future instead of predicting a potentially fearful one, that future becomes generative and adjacent to the disruptive past and present.
Searching the Adjacent Possibles. “Serendipity” is a good word to describe spontaneous and unintended discovery of an emergent breakthrough strategy you weren’t looking for to begin with. We can intentionally search for those strategies using the theory of “Adjacent Possibles.” Adjacent possibles inhabit the realm of possibility at any given moment in time after certain potential possibilities have already been realized. For example, beavers are a “keystone species” because they take down trees to create dams that turn rivers into wetlands. The trees rot and provide nesting holes for woodpeckers, and when they leave songbirds move in. The small dams and wetlands and nesting holes are the adjacent possibles waiting to emerge when the beavers felled the trees. In every situation there are adjacent possibles waiting to be discovered. By leveraging this concept in how we pursue problem solving, we can uncover imaginative and innovative solutions to even our most wicked problems.