Post-Renaissance scientists developed and established what we now call Traditional Analysis Thinking, or Reductionism. They reduced problems into ever smaller questions and, by answering them, re-constructed the problem and arrived at solutions. At the time, this was helpful. The problems we were trying to solve were really simple problems with solutions which could be proved over again and again by experiments within the same stable and constant environment. Traditional Analysis did produce a lot of answers we were looking for. But the world has evolved and developed immensely since then. And the problems we now need to solve have become far more complex and holistic, more social and less technical. This is where Traditional Analysis Thinking fails us.
And to add to the demands of the modern world, society is proceeding at such a rapid pace today that it is a challenge just to keep up with that change. Technology has made the spread of change throughout the world immediate and concurrently serves as a catalyst for its further acceleration. We now realize that, over the past several centuries, we have gathered information and knowledge but gained little or no understanding of the systems we examine, so that we are able to re-organize and optimize them. Today’s solutions cannot be tested “in-vitro” or under simple reiterated experiments under “standard conditions for temperature and pressure (STP).” Take, for instance, global warming or the global credit-crunch crisis. We need to understand the system as a whole, not its parts individually, and set up proactive, feed-forward mechanisms to control any fraction of it possible before the eruption of a crisis.
What stops us then? Strangely enough, the modern educational system does. We teach our children to think the way we do and to examine problems using the same mental models of the past. We expect them to know what they want to be, and what they want to study, when they are very young and prepare them for this by enhancing specific disciplines which are “related” or “useful” to their future. This leads by and large to the exclusion of all “unnecessary” knowledge, whether it is other science directions or, usually, activities building social skills, arts, or sports. We then assign students to different buildings, direct them to certain discipline-restricted discussions, and ensure work-groups are water-tight to suck-up any remaining oxygen that might support free-thinking, creativity and life-aspiring wisdom.
The result of all this is not hard to comprehend. Our top minds are mostly secluded and distanced from our society and everyday life. Their conquests are a mystery, not only to us, but to other scientists as well, with whom they often fail to share a common language, as each now examines the tree closer and closer from his or her own perspective and they all begin to forget what the forest looks like.
We are trapped in this vicious circle and we need to break it fast. Systems-thinking is a way of living we should teach our children from day one; pre-nursery school is a good start. It is all about the purpose of knowledge and the value that derives from it, not the knowledge itself. Systems-thinking is about teamwork, trustful relationship-building and cross-discipline collaboration; only these arrangements can produce functional solutions for tomorrow’s society. Our educational system needs to serve as a cross-discipline knowledge platform promoting free-thinking and unconventional wisdom, through the recognition of the today’s holistic and global core of problems.
Article by Alexander Athanassoulas, Business Partners magazine, May 2010