I have been thinking about our ways of thinking. In particular how we think when we use representations to understand complex systems - which influences what we think

This is relevant when we want to change our own and other people's mental models of the complex issues we face in the real world. It influences what we decide to do about the environmental, social, economic, or other great challenges humanity faces.

"It is like..." the analogies we describe from our storytelling brain take us back to familiar childhood myths, the archetypes of history, abstract symbols, or material parallels in the natural world. For instance, Nassim Taleb challenges expectations with the surprise of discovering a Black Swan. Now with transformed thinking we see the possibility of this archetypal bird in almost every complex situation!

Representations like these tend to be useful when we have already come to some level of conclusion in our understanding - serving as heuristics that save the mental effort it takes to think through each deductive step to the other side of complexity. Einstein's e=mc^2 is another symbolic example of a mental shortcut to a complex known that we can intuitively relate to, without having to strain our brains to remember and understand the underlying details. For most of us, this satisfices our needs. It allows us to think fast and to bring complex ideas into our everyday conversations.

But what about complexity that we don't yet have adequate words or representations for? This is particularly the challenge with future think, when we have to make assumptions or decisions without really knowing how the system will behave  (which is almost by definition the case for most complex systems).  

It seems to me that the most interesting (viable) possibilities for our future lie on the boundary of theory and the unknown. Not so unknown that these possibilities can't inspire action, but not enough known that we can confidently predict what the results of our choices will be. Systems at this boundary typically display emergent behaviours that are the high-level effects arising indirectly from low-level interactions. This means that we can do relatively simple things that will ultimately change the system in unpredictably big ways. This is both good and bad - depending on how our actions now will impact on the future (and remember doing nothing is still doing something)!

So in choosing what to do as we navigate the pathway to the future, I believe that we must not get stuck with thinking how to predict or theorise what this will look like from our existing mental models. We should rather access ways of thinking that enable us to tap into our individual intuition and collective wisdom, to develop new representations of the possible future, as a starting point to decide what we can and must do. Thinking in this way can move us forward to make decisions that enable is to explore and discover, then learn and adapt.

I’m writing this having recently returned from the global Presencing Forum at MIT, where we experimented with a range of rapid prototyping tools, including Social Presencing Theatre, to create representations of the current reality and then of possible futures. These physical and symbolic depictions of complex systems become artifacts that represent a shared understanding that can be used to talk about and share ideas about what we practically could do, for instance to transform the economy towards one that creates sustainable well-being.

In my view, rapid prototyping can produce representations of abstract ideas that become powerful aides to how we think, so that we are able to reach more specific  consensus on what we think, which could lead to concrete decisions about what to do. This has definitely changed my thinking and I will be using rapid prototyping a lot more in my innovation design work.

 

 

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