on July 5, 2011
My wish to live in a soft system
If we look at all the possible uses of the word soft than we might get an understanding of what soft systems can be about, or rather what they should be about. To sum up some of its meanings I would say that they are systems that are: not sharply defined, flexible, forever changing, with feeling and great complexity.
The systems we see as soft systems are so overwhelmingly complex with huge amount of unpredictable variables that they seem soft. So what is soft? Soft is everything that we can not measure. Soft is the human nature, our softness, our ability to adapt in our strive for progress. Our inability to fit in rigid systems or to do exactly what is told. We try so hard to be rigid, to be hard, but we fail in this longing for this one thing we are not. For centuries we have been practising, organising ourselves, structuring, and creating models for almost everything. Totalitarian ideas that tell whole societies how to live work and think to keep the ridged structure afloat. The question is, are there any systems that can actually be considered as hard systems? In my idea they don’t exist, it is mainly the way we deal with situations in these systems that make them feel hard.
Explained in a more simple way by the notion of the story, which is a telling about a certain happening. Stories are defined by the first one to tell it. Most amazingly it changes by every mouth is passes through. How the story will change we don’t know we only know that it will. Based on personalities, experiences, intelligence and situations, humans can not just pass on the story: they also bring something of themselves into it before giving it away again.
Maybe the notion of rigid systems bother me because I grew up in the Netherlands. In my opinion The Netherlands is the number one structured, organised and categorised country in the world. With every square centimetre defined, a reasonable standard of living and a lot to loose.
Are current systems not able to deal with the complexity of life as it is today? We have learned so much. Our systems, of money and power, engineered way before the days of the Greeks and romans. Have we perfected the systems, our western way of living, that now defines our time? Perhaps there is more to discover. Perhaps we should look at what we have accomplished up until today as a great step towards a new evolution. What this evolution is we don’t know, the only thing we do know is that changes have to happen, and have to become part of the way we live.
At this point Western Europe has the chance, the opportunity to lead the world to this new era. Because of the reasonable stability of a country like The Netherlands and the good average quality of life this creates an amazing opportunity. We have created a great place to rethink and to experiment, to actively work on finding this new way of living. This country, and actually everyone should have this attitude, can make the difference, by embracing change, by being a laboratory.
A positive attitude towards change is the main ingredient of being a laboratory. Due to our established established prosperity we have become afraid of change. What is there to gain, we already have everything we want? Being secure makes you want to protect prosperity with everything you have. Change forces us to give up some of our luxuries which is a scary thought. Not only do we know what we can lose, but because of the nature of experimentation that what we will gain is uncertain. Instead we complain to governments and companies to create more rules for us, to make our little world more safe, to fix what we have, with an insurance incase we might loose it after all.
This notion of what is going on in countries like The Netherlands makes me want to define what we are doing it for, what do we live for? Its quit a hard question, but essential. What is the aim and our dream, our ideal or so to speak: what is our Utopia?
Progress is about constant change. Change is made by striving, always wanting more to discover more to find the limits. In this striving we generate progress. This comes down to being human, learning, step by step, collecting new knowledge and experiences. In our strive for something different we learn about the present and where our present can lead us.
Being the complex society as it is we share tasks and responsibilities. The individualist lifestyle we have developed is coming to an end. For along time we have lived the illusion of individualism. Believing to be different with personal development as a goal, still fitting in the comforting structure that today’s society offers. More and more the group, the local and origin is becoming important. We are dependent on each other, working together on creating progress in any possible form. Progress is the dream of mankind and it is a great and daring dream, a dream with future and a dream that demands more and more self knowledge and less self glorification.
What if we would combine this view on softness, the connection I have to The Netherlands and the idea of progress? This is where this rambling of before starts to become interesting, to recognise the relations between the seemingly different aspects. . Both combined form, with a touch of human, the future possible new developments that Europe needs to set as a goal. A communal goal without losing our identity, locality nor our individuality. And by looking at the bigger picture, setting various communal goals over a longer period of time.
Soft systems have taught us that to embrace something we are not yet being able to understand, flexibility and fluidness are necessary. But in our current way of living, and our current view on how we are supposed to live these elements are lacking.
My notion of The Netherlands as over cultivated country has thought us that the simplicity of structures we as humans have made up in last centuries is starting to fail. We now demand more complexity than rigidity can offer us as we and our way of living is so imperfect that these systems do not longer help us.
Progress has pointed out that nothing is ever finished, that things should be seen as fluid, every step is a step to something new. That we have to learn to think about what is next, in a big way, what is our ideal that can contain the diversity and complexity of today’s society.
We might think soft systems are a technique to be innovative and to solve today’s complex problems. I believe they are, although they are not new, they have been here long before we invented our own limited structures. The more we know the more problems we see. In my opinion soft systems are the solution for this increasing awareness of the complexity of the systems we live in and with.
But how do we continue, what can be a next step. We have learned a great deal and al the complaints I voiced before are not because I don’t think the developments made are useless, or that we as humans have been doing wrong things. The point is that we have come to the end of rigid systems. As we learn and slowly start to become more aware of the complex situation we are finding ourselves in we need to invent new ways of living and working together. Some of these new ways will demand radical changes in relations between people, businesses and governments.
The next step in evolution
Now we need to start acting, respond to the creeping feeling of systems that devalue being human into close to robot like beings . So when will we realise that our egocentric, selfish and blind way of walking this world will not give us much to look forward to. To look at this world as a machine is the end, its a living organism and we depend on it. Its a soft system, a dynamic power of which we are a small part. Our human build world has been a great exercise in thinking and doing, now it is time to go the next level in evolution. A society that demands softness and flexibility of every thing in it.
This physical and mental transformation of life as we know it will happen, no matter what. But to make this transition smooth we have to work together to start redefining the way we live by experiments that involve everything that is somehow part of our society.
We need to develop new philosophies and ideals. Giving space to the undefined, the supernatural as a part of it all. Religion made space for science. Our scientific way of living is in distress for spirituality, for ideas that unite people by means other than just scientific progress. Apparently there is some use and demand of higher powers within a scientific society to see ourselves, humanity, in perspective.
Perfection in imperfection
Have we forgotten the well-known sayings ‘learning by doing’ and ‘the sooner you fail, the sooner you learn’? Our goal is to design systems that are truly soft, almost untouchable and liquid. Systems that are forever changing and have feelings, that are not systems at all, that can only be defined by a constant change, a constant review of what it means, for who and why.
Can we make a switch and start to really think about how we can organise our society, our businesses, our lives in a soft way, an organic growth. We can, and to start this off on the right foot, let me tell you: there is no goal! The only way is to go, trial and error, to create a society that does not think of itself as above everything but is part of something bigger.
As I am a designer, a communicator of the world that surrounds me, a thinker of systems I would like to suggest we start working on this. Not just telling what is wrong and give a theoretical framework, but to act. Every person in this world has its knowledge, his expertise about something, and first of all is a designer of his / her own life.
Slowly we are going the right way, bit by bit pointing our noses in an other direction. With techniques that are known under the name of ‘design thinking’ we are rethinking the way we interact with each other, with objects and with the systems that around us. One thing I find important is not to radicalise and overthrow these existing systems. I would like to build upon them, learn from them and, in collaboration with all people involved from all levels and rankings, develop new services and reshape the way governments and business act. The building of communities and relations that are able to keep on innovating themselves.
Sometimes rumours pop-up about people organising themselves to overthrow banks and other big corporations. Is this the way of dealing with the complex situation we find ourselves in? Once there was a time where these actions were a strive for ideals, a believe in a better way of living without suppression, nut at this point it would be mere out of fear. The so called creative class that is leading these kind of destructive actions, has to be aware of the world around them. Revolution needs to evolve too, a revolution powered by a minority that thinks of themselves as independent, underestimates how important other people are in their lives. So don’t blame the corporations, in essence they are not worse than the neighbour that fights for his own backyard just to prevent things from changing too.
As mentioned before, I feel we are one big tribe, and real changes can only be made when we work together and help each other to understand and engage with it. As well as on a businesses level as from an individual point of view, we are all stuck in the ridged framework of responsibilities which are based on fear. When can we have the greater good define our actions? We need to see the value of our actions in perspective, compare it with the bigger picture of living together in a world where the differences bring us together, not tear us apart.
These changes can not be implemented by a government nor by the creative class. These changes have to be part of every bit of society right from the start. Working together on investigating new ways for living and working together. Like in many examples, great changes are made by changing our awareness and everyday actions. How we look at and deal with the world and the people around us regarding ourselves, our family, the street and city we live in, the companies we work for and on a national scale, even on a continental – European – level, we must be aware of each other and our own role.
Transparency leads to awareness that enables empowerment; we need to change to become our first nature.
Imagine what will happen if all businesses in the world would take responsibility for their actions. If they would start to support the communities that they already are supposed to be a part of. Imagine businesses to be part of society instead of being an evil alien entity. Corporations these days have great power, how can we use this power, their influences to turn to a collaborative force of innovation. This is where design comes into play. The designer in this case is the director of a process to help all kinds of organisations to embed a fluid attitude into the heart of the organisation. Getting back to softness, in this case, softness holds the key to innovation. A collaboration within organisations as well as between organisations and their clients, consumers, suppliers, ranging from the personnel to as high as the executive staff. The result: an organisation build by society that supports society. Earning money by involvement and collaborative knowledge.
Innovation is a way of working that is about being soft, about working together in complex situations on even more complex problems. Softness as feeling, diversity and constant change based on research and experimentation.
This might all be an illusion but, if businesses and even governments want to be part of the future they eventually have to start looking at the world in a different way. The ridged systems that keep afloat a world that is overdue will change even if it is only the basic instinct of survival that forces change to happen.
What I want to say is: take your chances. Go out and experiment on every aspect of yourself and the way you live. Learn by doing is, what believe, the way forward. A way that can give us back our humanity and place in this world as a complete soft system.
One of my personal soft systems is the brain in my head. Therefore this article is written without regards to the unpredictability and inaccuracy of my human brain. It’s unofficial format and it’s non scientific approach might allow other interpretations, which actually should be valued as a soft system in itself.