21st Century Enlightenment

Matthew Taylor, 2010, 21st Century Enlightenment, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), UK

While not strictly systems thinking, Matthew Taylor’s work is a compelling call to arms for the type of thinking and behaviour embodied in systems thinking approaches.

His ideas are expressed in an essay, a speech and a short animation. The essay is the most ‘academic’ in tone and the animation the most accessible.

Taylor, from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), has articulated what the RSA calls 21st Century Enlightenment, paying homage to the impact that the original Enlightenment thinking had on Western society in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

He brings together important ideas in political science, philosophy and psychology to explain how mental models around possessive individualism – a rationalist, utility-maximising view of human nature where autonomy means looking after number one, have overtaken more holistic understandings of society.

Just like the original Enlightenment of 300 years ago, we are now facing new knowledge, new technology, and new ways of living. Taylor reminds us that living differently means thinking differently; it involves seeing the world and ourselves from new perspectives – a perspective shared with systems thinking.

Taylor commences with a series of contentious questions, such as:

  • How do we deal with the contrast between the powerful global forces of commerce, conflict and dispossession and the as yet weaker global public sphere of civil society and governance?
  • How do we manage risk and shape progress to human ends when science, technology and commerce are so fast moving?

He points out that much of our thinking has been dominated by three logics:

  1. The logic of science and technology
  2. The logic of markets
  3. The logic of bureaucracy

The first two logics are, he says, ‘indifferent’ to concerns for the general good. So ‘if something can be discovered and developed it should be discovered and developed. If something sells it should be sold’. Rarely did we consider the upstream, unintended effects of developing financial derivatives, or selling collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) or other financial products – until the system traps brought the whole system down, with catastrophic consequences.

In the case of bureaucratic logics, it is the privileging of rules over ends that causes problems – like the rule that ‘whatever it takes’ to compete successfully is ok.

Taylor has argued that it is only through the development and nurturing of what he calls ‘empathic capacity’ will we come close to understanding and tackling the systemic social problems we face. In many ways he is emphasising the ‘system wisdoms’ advocated by Donella Meadows, such as expanding the boundary of caring, maintaining the goal of ‘goodness’ and paying attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Taylor calls for a more self aware, socially embedded model of autonomy; this is the essence of the 21st Century version of the Enlightenment project he promotes.

Taylor’s ideas, and those presented by the RSA more generally, provide excellent food for thought for those of us interested in social improvement, and are a great discussion starter for strategic planning sessions.

Read the essay (35pp)

Watch the video of the speech (1hr)

View the RSA animation (10 mins)

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