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Sunday, 25 May 2014

On the Saying of Unreasonable Things

In my blog last week I wrote about the possible disintegration of the European Union. Continuing on this theme, I want this week to return to something that I first blogged about in July 2013: The New Narrative for Europe initiative.

In November 2013 I spent a day in the European Parliament in connection with another initiative called ICT-ART CONNECT (about which I will say more in the future), which has a relevance to New Narratives. During the day I met and talked with a number of MEPs. One of them, Morton L√łkkegaard, I subsequently had further correspondence with. What follows is what I wrote to him under the theme of Reflections on New Narratives for Europe


Charles Handy, a leading business thinker from the 1980s and 1990s, wrote in his book Beyond Certainty, that when discontinuities occur as a consequence of structural changes in the business environment, the past becomes no guide to the future. These discontinuities can render assumptions and practices invalid and inappropriate. This then makes extrapolating into the future based on the past, an exercise of little value. When discontinuities are present, the success stories of yesterday can have little relevance to the problems of tomorrow. In fact, according to Handy “these success stories might even be damaging since the world, at every level, has to be reinvented to some extent.”  In another book, The Age of Unreason, Handy strongly argued that in times of structural change one should not be taking note of what is reasonable, but should be listening to those who seem to be saying unreasonable things.

We are living through times of massive structural change – in society, in business, in technology, in peoples’ behaviour – so here are some unreasonable things:

The trouble with Europe is that it is European.

Recall now the story of Prometheus; that figure from Ancient Greek mythology, a Titan, who ended up bound to a rock by unbreakable chains and condemned to have his liver ripped out by an eagle. Only Prometheus was immortal and every night he regenerated in exactly the same form that he was the day before and he then had to endure the whole agonising process again, and so it went on, until one day, Hercules broke those chains, and set Prometheus free.

Imagine that you are living in 1750. The scene is an English country village and two men stand upon the village green engaged in conversation. These are wealthy land owing gentlemen, interested in the national economy. One asks the other, “Tell me Charles, what should the government be doing to grow the economy?” Charles replies, “encourage the growth of agricultural production so that we can sell more in our new colonies. They should also further develop the slave trade.” Neither of them can see the storm that is gathering on the horizon, one that will wipe away their cosy world and render their values and beliefs irrelevant. We now have a name for this storm and we call it the industrial revolution, but these two, and many like them, were not even able to conceptualise such a thing. For these two people, their future was their past – they had become like Prometheus, bound to rock by chains that they were unable to perceive.

Now move forward in time, to the year 2014. The scene is a British engineering institution located in the centre of London and two men stand in a grand Victorian building engaged in conversation. These are industrial era engineers interested in the national economy. One asks the other, “Tell me Charles, what should the government be doing to grow the economy?” Charles replies, “enable the construction of more nuclear power stations, go ahead with fracking, fund the building of a high speed rail network and other capital intensive and resource intensive projects.” Neither of them can see the storm that is gathering on the horizon, one that will wipe away their cosy world and render their values and beliefs irrelevant. We have as yet no name for this revolution, but these two, and many like them, are not even able to conceptualise such a thing. For these two people, their future will be their past – they too have become like Prometheus, being bound to rock by chains that they are unable to perceive.

Europe also has become like Prometheus – its institutions, its businesses, its research and development programmes, its educational programmes … these are all tied to the rock of the past by invisible and seemingly unbreakable chains that result in Europe being as it was yesterday, only with slightly more advanced science and technology.

ICT-ART CONNECT and New Narratives for Europe could become ways of making the chains visible, breaking them, and setting Europe free, or they could just become Europe reinventing itself in exactly the same form as it is now.

What are these invisible chains? The answer is that they are the elements of what is called a paradigm. These are the values, beliefs, taken for granted assumptions, ways of behaving, acting and responding, problem solving approaches, etc. that are shared in common and not seen by those who adhere to the paradigm as being in any way problematic, because most times these elements are not even visible to people and they also work. And it is these invisible things that will lead people to conclude that, what is here written, is nonsense and the work of a crazy guy with a pen. They of course might be right! Or not!

Why is the matter of paradigm so important? The answer is because, in times of great structural changes that are rendering that which exists irrelevant and no longer fit for purpose, people need to realise that, making small adjustments, is not an option. But this is exactly what human minds want to do – to make incremental improvements rather than to reinvent. And when incremental changes do not work, they make up stories to account for failure, and this is what is happening now.

European manufacturing has been in decline for decades, but it is, they believe, not their fault, but that of unfair competitors in places like China, and thus they keep on doing what they have always done, and call it the Factory of the Future, even though it just looks like the Factory of the Past. Europe has a poor track record of bringing its research results to market, so there is talk of Valleys of Death, rather than facing up to the fact that linear sequential thinking (another taken for granted) is often no longer appropriate. And many people in Europe are against Genetically Modified (GM) crops, but scientists do not see this as a signal that what they do and how they do it is no longer acceptable. Instead they have a story that says that, if only people knew how good GM really is, and if only GM had been communicated better, then the public would have embraced GM unreservedly. And the thinking behind new Narratives for Europe could easily become just another story with an explanation to account for people turning away from existing institutions and processes, rather than facing up to the reality that these are not fully fit for purpose and are becoming increasingly meaningless to people.

People will hold on to their values, beliefs and taken for granted assumptions, some times to the point of being prepared to perish amidst the ruins of their dreams, rather than to admit that, what they hold most dear is no longer relevant. Thus it happens, as failure becomes all the more apparent, people will begin to retreat even further into their delusions. And we have a metaphor for this and that metaphor is the tale of the emperors’ new clothes.

So, one key point is this: a paradigm is a double edged sword, because it is both helpful and unhelpful, depending on the circumstances. It is helpful when circumstances correspond to that which has previously been encountered and successfully resolved based on that which people know. It is most unhelpful when circumstances are completely different and past solutions are no longer appropriate. Moreover, the paradigm will prevent people from recognising that this is so. What it then takes is for a little boy to tell the crowd that the emperor is wearing no clothes, and unlike in children’s stories, in the real world, he will not be thanked and he will be ignored and ridiculed, and consequently, few people will be willing to say such things.

The European emperor is increasingly seen wearing no clothes.

And what of the European beliefs that form the invisible chains? They come in many forms: the one truth; only one answer; the optimal solution; technology solves everything; the one best way; you can have either A or B but not A and B …

In a world that is European, where everyone else thinks like this, then these beliefs are at least shared in common on a global scale, but the world is not European and increasingly cultures with opposite thinking are becoming dominant in the world. The hope that Europe will prosper in this non European world, using their traditional European beliefs, is just plain nonsense. And if I were to be asked how India, China, Brazil and others could destroy the economies of Europe, I would advise them to encourage Europe to keep doing things the way that it does them now, based on these outdated and irrelevant European beliefs, and then to do themselves, something completely different and hard for Europeans to copy, and in doing so, render their economies unsuitable to that which Europe produces and has to offer. I have been thinking of writing a book along these very lines.

Now a short lesson from history relating to one particular European belief: the either/or mindset. European manufacturing (and also US manufacturing – in many respects the same as European manufacturing) always thought that it was impossible to have high quality at low cost. They always considered that one could have low quality at low cost, or high quality at high cost. The Japanese found a way of having high quality and low costs. Likewise with what is called product variety and product customisation. Western (European) minds always considered that one could have standard products at low cost (mass production) or variety and customisation at high costs. The Japanese found a way of having high variety and customisation at low costs. The benefits of not being bound by the limitations of European thinking helped Japan to significantly undermine western manufacturing. The process will continue as long as European thinking prevails, only this time it will be the Chinese that will finish what the Japanese started.

In the late 1980s, Stan Davis, in his book Future Perfect, addressed this matter and coined the term mass customisation which is an oxymoron – two words appearing together which have contradictory associations. The west is good at this sort of intellectual analysis and conceptualising, but very poor at developing and implementing such ideas. Interestingly also, mass customisation does not require any technology, for it is something born of the mind, organisation and ways of working. And this touches upon another European belief, that technology is the solution to everything – evidently it is not! But saying this in the presence of Europeans leads them to conclude that one is opposed to technology. Why are such people simultaneously so smart yet so dumb? The answer is because they are Europeans caught up in strange and increasingly irrelevant beliefs that they do not even recognise as such – one is either for technology or against it!

To be noted however, is that many people, at a personal level do not operate on an either/or basis – they are simultaneously an individual and a member of a family group, simultaneously an individual and part of a local community. Yet Europe has done a remarkably good job over the past decades of destroying families and local communities, leaving us with a legacy of individualism and perhaps also an inability to think in an inclusive way, just when we need it most.

For some reason, once beyond the local community level, inclusive thinking begins to breakdown, and one then encounters competing loyalties, and either/or thinking. Perhaps New Narratives for Europe needs to begin asking questions about why this is so, and also to consider whether it is national and European institutions and politicians themselves that are partly responsible for this. We are back to Prometheus once again!

Let me also mention that there are many either/or assumptions to be found in Europe. These are all old narratives: science or religion; Christianity or Islam; capitalism or socialism, the secular or the spiritual; left or right; organic farming or industrialised agriculture; and so forth. Europeans are indeed a strange people to have so many of these conflicts of the mind, for this is what they are. Recall that Ghandi said, “all religions are true”, and he was not just trying to placate a population with diverse religious beliefs, but was acknowledging that this is part of Indian culture to know that there is no one single truth, which is another of those European beliefs, most notably found in Abrahamic religions, but also in European science that seeks a full, objective true account of nature.

Some words now about the matter of people turning away from national and European institutions. Recently I talked with someone from DG Research who is involved with Responsible Research and Innovation. I was told by this official that efforts to involve the Transition Network movement in discussions about Responsible Research and Innovation, had failed. I suggested that this is because this movement is working outside the “system”, because people within the Network know that the system, with its institutions (e.g. the European Commission) has failed, and that now, ordinary people have no option left but to take personal responsibility for their world and rebuild it in a sustainable form, for they know that governments are not going to do this. The official thought this observation to be a valid one.

Look at what the Transition Network says: “the solution needs to match the size of the problem.” Compare that with what the establishment is saying – lots of talk about sustainable development, and renewable energy, etc., but nothing really that is fundamentally different. I believe that people are beginning to understand that we do need to reinvent our economies, our societies, and our life styles, and that what we have now can not be incrementally adjusted to make it sustainable.

There is, in the book that I edited that goes by the title European Visions for the Knowledge Age, a paper called Towards Democracy without Politics? It is very insightful and is available open access for reading on line (without charge) at the following web address: http://www.cheshirehenbury.com/visionbook/readonline.html

So what of New Narratives for Europe? What precedes is presented as scene setting, in case no-one else has yet (dared) to raise such thoughts. One common element in the above, is failure of processes that are no longer fit for purpose, and the need to reinvent these, which people will not do, for they cannot see that they need reinventing, so will at best seek incremental changes. This might be, perhaps, something for people to reflect upon when they sit among the ruins of Europe and hanker after the good old days when Europe was able to make the world conform to European beliefs. Or we could end up in a better place, reflecting on how we reinvented Europe in a new form and reaped the rewards from doing so. It is a tough choice, which leads me to mention what to do to take matters forward.

Understand more about this.

Also understand that there are no answers – Europe is going to have to work these out. But there are places where one can start to look, so to speak, for the elements that will help with the building of a new path.

One of these places is the notion of the network organisation. Young people today understand well the idea of networks. Older people may well use them, but still carry in their minds older models, like hierarchies, and also older narratives, like centralisation vs. decentralisation. The internet is an interesting example: no-one owns it, no-one controls it (although governments and big corporations are trying to) yet it works, because those involved cooperate with each other to ensure interoperability. Open movements are also an interesting place to look: the idea of sharing what you have with others, because in doing so you get something back and can also, sometimes, do a good deed. This approach represents a timeless value that in its essence is an expression of the understanding that we need each other and things are better when we work together. The concept of organisational DNA could also be important: the whole is in the parts and the embedding of the whole in minds, in organisations, in networks, and so forth.

I have no answers, only insights derived from my professional grounding in research, business, science, engineering and technology, and my vocational side, which is based in writing, with all the observational, creative and literary capabilities that go with it. This note, one can consider, is a perspective conceived from the coexistence of two different cultures in one mind, where I identify with both, not just with one or the other, and I can see how both (within me) have become different because of each other. Maybe this is what Europe needs to do; to become different because it is both individual sovereign states and a union of sovereign states at the same time. As far as I know, there is no historical precedent for this, which has perhaps left the implications unaddressed, lying in a limbo, with people feeling that they have to make a choice – choose one or the other, but not both.

I could say more, but five pages is enough for now. And this is what you should be getting when you talk to artists and writers – I hope! Usually though, thoughts about how to progress matters are less evident, which is another European flaw founded in yet another European belief – separation of thinking and doing.


And did New Narrative for Europe deliver a new narrative? This I will explore in my next blog.

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