Complex System Approach in Higher Education of the Commons

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A complex system approach in higher education of The Commons

By Alain Ruche:

The 'enlived' recapitulation of the principles of commons presented at the recent Conference in Berlin (May 2013) on 'Economics and the Commons' implicitly shows the benefits of a complex system approach. So, the question is not why we need such an approach, but how it can be used. This note makes some suggestions in this respect, taking the specific case of higher education (universities and business schools).

While in recent years emphasis has been put on the necessity of adopting a holistic approach in education the reality still shows a picture based on a sectorial and silo approach. We are still very geared by the Cartesian disaggregation of the whole into its parts. The paradigm of the Commons is about people managing shared resources through social or customary traditions, norms and practices. It is a total experience of learning, doing, feeling and being at the same time. Holism is inherently associated with this multifaceted sense of presence. As what is not there matters as much as what is there, our traditional concern for consistency (focus on what is there) appears futile. We should dedicate more importance to intangible assets, which are at the core of the knowledge economy. On the business side, CEOs are not currently worldcentric and holistic leaders. They rather care for their personal and company benefit instead. A holistic approach also implies new metrics, like going beyond GDP. It also implies that the distinction work/life is fading away.

A non linear approach is critical for the policy making of the Commons. The only acceptable sequencing is the necessity of a pre-existent and powerful intention. Only then can we decide where to put our attention. History is at the essence of the Commons but not as a linear succession of events. The present is more a reflection of the kind of future we would like than the product of the past. However our thought is still built on linear thinking. We believe we can organize the present and improve the future through a goal oriented strategy monitored against 'robust' indicators. Non linearity instead makes space for multifaceted and exponential changes which are normally ignored by the traditional approach. Non-linearity associated with sensitivity to the initial conditions and the context, explains how the smallest changes can accelerate, often in an exponential way and lead to disruptive transformational changes.

The openness and interconnectivity of a complex system lie at the heart of the production, governance and property mode of the Commons. The Peer-to-Peer (P2P) collaborative economy, issued from the digital revolution rather than from history like the Commons, is a strategic reference. The individuals are more influenced by their peers than by the media. How to scale up is not anymore a concern: the richness of the Commons will pervasively percolate to a higher level of understanding and action. The society is made of numerous differentiated communities, each with its values, interests and interconnected to its social sense making. Co-creation openly challenges the supply-demand model which has been enclosing the Commons. A whole new semantics has appeared that reflects the growing role of 'customers' in production (see prosumers, timesumers, tasksumers, ownsumers, etc.). This totally overhauls the concept of research and academic teaching. The power of networks should be a key topic in academic teaching. Some say that the network is the knowledge. There is a general shift from places to spaces. Openness means mutual understanding and new insights from the encounter of unlike minds. It includes being open-minded (reflective), open-hearted (empathic and sensitive), and open-willed (action-oriented). It means shifting from competition (a scarcity-based ethos) to collaboration (an abundance-based ethos). Interaction now matters more than entities. Psychology is changing subject: it is no more about what happens in our brain, but rather about what happens between our brain and others' brain. We are the results of our interactions. We are our relations. This is why novelty always emerges in a radically unpredictable way.

Starting from the context at local level is natural practice in the Commons. Acknowledging this at a meta and global level is more challenging though equally necessary. In a complex system also the question of how to scale up becomes a non issue because the phenomenon of emergence. The classical fordist and taylorist paradigms of economy of scale, which has never been empirically evidenced, is substituted with the concept of fluxes: total cost matters more than unit cost. How to learn the context becomes an elemental capability. Starting from the context also means cultivating a deep understanding of it. The questions 'who are you?', where do you come from,' matter more than 'What is it good for me,' or 'what is the next steps,', which are only abstract questions. The sensitivity to initial conditions means that the system only delivers what it is designed to deliver. So, the golden rule is to start with the intention behind. The inspired improvisation linked to a prototype approach is associated with the power of the intention. This general purpose is driven by social innovation rather than just by profit maximisation.

Sense-making must be learnt at individual and also systemic level. It implies trusting in intuition, creativity and - a totally new capability, self-confidence. Science is no more limited to a third person phenomenon, and needs to be complemented with a subjective and first person experiencing. Making sense out of multiple data to see which future emerges from the present becomes a key asset. Information anxiety does not exist if the filter is good. Sense-making implies another kind of knowledge, not anymore based on independent individuals who are taught and then know. If you know and do not do, you do not know. You cannot do alone. Now knowledge is a network communication produced by interdependent people who interact. In business the challenge is to understand what is being discussed: the market is a conversation, and you better focus on the conversation, not on the product.

Pattern recognition becomes a strategic ability as it provides proven solution that can be identified, analyzed and reproduced. Patterns condense experience of many successful co-creations. They allow right decisions in practical situations. Complex patterns are at the same time predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable. The concept of theory independent from a practice is blurring, so does the gap between research and policy making. Studying the historical commoning of patterns in professions, crafts, and disciplines can be most useful for the new forms of work and its incorporation in life as a whole. People should not be bound anymore to specific roles in the division of labor. It is a fact that repeating patterns of our life, not reason, are the roots of how we behave. Managing ourselves is first and foremost about pattern recognition. This has much to do with the Commons. The capacity in pattern recognition is a strategic asset in organisations and communities, thus giving to the Commons a specific added value with their supportive, energizing and enabling patterns of interaction. Patterns of interaction are those that matter, not patterns of information.

Adaptability and resilience, and even anti-fragility as recently proposed, are necessary attributes in an uncertain and unpredictable world. Inspiration from Nature through biomimicry is inherent in an approach of Commons. We need to review our biased view of efficiency prevailing in Nature, and competition being a rough rule for survival. The teaching in higher education, in particular in economics, must say bye, bye to the Homo Economicus -he never existed anyway, and welcome the Homo Empathicus, Homo Contextus, and Homo Participans. Organisations are now viewed as living organisms.

We cannot predict the future, and adopting a non predictive decision making is among the greatest challenges we are facing. A complex system approach invites us to go out of our comfort zone, to take risks, trusting the self organization and also trusting ourselves. The concept of emergence is central in a complex system approach. It is the expression of the vibrancy of the Commons and is linked to the unique capability of human species to recognize patterns. The rules based content of the Commons is a guarantee to avoid falling into the chaos. Patterns are useful for collective action which comes from shared action and common will.

Sense making is the ideal ingredient for a prototype approach rooted in the daily life. The Commons have in this respect a clear added value, opening space to make a step, to learn and to correct, then acting again at the light of what was learnt. When some insight comes up, focus on it and move with it, quickly creating small-scale prototypes to explore this new path, generate feedback and apply what has been learnt. After some initial divergence zone and a sometimes difficult groaning zone, convergence will allow for inspired action. Sense-making is linked to strategic and multifaceted navigation in real time deliberately mixing the past, the present and the possible. There is no room anymore for the classical strategic planning. This does not exclude the identification of some tectonic changes as driving part of the future. However the idolatry of prediction and scenarios simply disappears. A prototype approach implies an inspired improvisation, saying 'yes to the mess'. Ideas, or rather actions inspired with new ideas, matter more than money. The good news is that there are more people with ideas than people with money. There should be no fear for making mistakes. Avoiding risk is not an objective. The speed of change needs immediate action. Life learning substitutes the classical concept of education.

Collective intelligence is narrowly interlinked to the Commons, in both directions. There is a potential for complementarity between the 'how' focus of collective intelligence and the 'what' oriented of the Commons. This dialectical relation must be addressed in higher education. Education must include the awareness of powerful questions leading to new insights, the relation between content and its harvest and the etiquette associated with such an approach.

The concept of leadership undergoes essential transformation in a complex system. The leader is not a charismatic person followed by his employees, nor an humble and determined individual with the main objective of maximizing profit. The leader new leader feels comfortable in a complex world full of uncertainty. He uses a non-predictive decision-making. He can see what future is emerging from the present. He knows that he is not the prime originator of what happens in his firm. He is involved in a social business which makes knowledge a social construct coming from an interpretation of the context. His biggest challenge is to understand the conversation that is taking place in the interaction among the actors. Not only what is being discussed, but also what is not. Not only who takes part to the conversation but also who does not, and why. The leader understands how the common narrative develops, how fast, and where to. A leader is someone who cares and who commits to the story whihc is being told, inspired by a collective meaning and practice. The concern is to avoid repeating the same conversation again and again. The so-called feminine ' values naturally come at the forefront like empathy, intuition, humility, respect, connectivity, resilience, etc.

Through a complex system approach higher education for the commons produces societal value with critical capacities of slowing down, paying attention, listening, reaching out, sensing what wants to happen, authentic presence and connecting to an inner sense of knowing. Higher education must develop new sources and bases for learning, in particular societal challenges, a student-question approach, and new social technologies. The objective is to start generative conversations that crystallize visions and interest. The students must go beyond their comfort zone and feel good out of it. The distinction between reality and virtuality is blurring. Ambiguities, paradoxes, breakdowns and disruptive changes have become the rule.