The University of Full Catastrophe Learning

University of full catastrophe

As the impact of the Covid-19 crisis spreads from the biological, to the social and the economic, many universities are confronting the realities of living in a world characterized by complexity. What are the implications for universities? How do we need to change our approach to education?

My early academic life was a slow moving train wreck running perfectly on schedule. My school reports all ended up repeating the same three words, “can do better,” while leaving out the words, “but won’t.”

In my freewheeling reading, I ended up travelling wherever my curiosity took me. My train specialised in jumping the tracks at every opportunity, screeching off in a shower of sparks towards the nearest horizon, the adults giving half-hearted chase. The worn tracks I was supposed to be travelling at school held little adventure or romance.

Years later, studying physics at university, the same struggles surfaced. Asking my professors questions led to them telling me in exasperation that, “This isn’t a philosophy of science degree.”

One year, while attempting to take a module on physical chemistry, I was told, “you’re a physics student, not a chemistry student.” Trying to take a module on fluid dynamics, I was told I wasn’t “an engineering student.”

I was, of course, much more than “a physics student.” Those parts of me that didn’t fit into what the curriculum narrowly defined as a “physics student” were unwelcome. (To be fair to my professors, their job was to turn me into a physicist, so they were going about their business as they, in turn, had been trained to.)

These were years where the itinerary was largely written, not by me but by faceless authors. My role was to go where I was told, on a journey where the route was not mine to determine.

The curriculum was officially the world from the age of five till my early twenties. Travelling along its linear tracks was the only option. For most students that’s non-negotiable.

What finally freed me was discovering that the epistemological boundaries my schooling confined me to were, just like a fixed train line, only one way to get from here to there. It dawned on me that there were better routes.

While there may have been historical reasons for laying the tracks where they did, that said nothing about the future, about the new trails we needed to be breaking, about the fact that the very landscape the tracks were built on had changed almost entirely beyond recognition.

I learned that walking my own path was a choice. So I tried.

My work over two decades has focused on building a practice for tackling humanity’s most complex social challenges. Initially I stumbled into this work. It fed two of my needs, first my unrequited desire to travel and second my intellectual curiosity. But then as the years passed, it started dawning on me that something was profoundly wrong. This something was what I started thinking of as a “strategic vacuum.” It seemed to me that wherever I looked, I was confronted with a blaze of action, a riot of self-congratulatory behaviour seemingly devoid of results, sans any real strategy. Those critical of the dominant system and unwilling to play that game, seemed equally devoid of effective strategic responses, often falling back onto heroic, but largely ineffective and cliched action. It took me many, many years to build the confidence to call out what I was seeing.

Over time, I travelled far and wide, both physically and intellectually. My wanderlust (and the many privileges I was blessed with) led me all over the world, working on a vast spectrum of issues. In this time I’ve set up new organizations, written thousands of words trying to make sense of my experiences and most of all, I’ve tried to honour the lessons the world has taught me.

The places I’ve been, from First Nations communities in Canada, through to small villages in India, to skyscrapers in Chicago, from long jolting bus-rides, to cold corporate workshop spaces, the thousands of one-on-one conversations taking place in every conceivable space and situation; all of these spaces were, and continue to be, my many classrooms. The people I worked with, my colleagues, the people I talked to, from CEOs to farmers to young kids, and the many groups we were invited to work with, were all my teachers.

My travels included carrying many books around with me. My reading was informed by keeping an eye on the real world. The tension between the real world and books helped in building my understanding both of the world and also that some academic work was, frankly, useless at understanding the world. On the other hand, I came to deeper appreciations of those academics whose work proved incisive in helping me grasp what I was seeing.

For the first five years I worked in India on child malnutrition, in Canada on teenage suicide in First Nations communities and more peripherally, in South Africa on various issues, including the impact of HIV on communities. In later years the locus of work expanded dramatically. I worked all over the world, on a tremendous range of issues. I worked inside the UN system, I worked on trying to prevent the collapse of Yemen (and failed dramatically), I worked on the finance system, on climate change, on racism and many, many more issues.

I started reading the world differently from what my education had socialised me to see. Just as the label “physics student” was an inadequate category to describe me, I found lots of categories dominating that made the work harder and were unhelpful. “Poor people,” “donors,” “project,” “client,” and “consultant,” were all categories making little sense.

Looking beyond these limited epistemological categories to actual observable phenomena, I didn’t see “poor people.” Instead, I was seeing people struggling with their situations, with structural issues beyond their agency to impact, and with their contexts. I saw not simply “consultants,” but people playing a particular game of knowledge, power, status and money, usually in the name of a higher good. I also saw people quick to label the ‘other’.

What else was I seeing?

I started seeing that we’re living in an age of fracturing institutions.

We are living in an age where the risk of systemic pressures falling on us as individuals is very high. The Covid-19 crisis is one example. Where our institutions fail, individuals, through very little choice of their own, are forced to pick up the work. We are either able to shoulder the burden or we end up cracking in various ways. While governments struggle to provide support, it’s never enough and often fails to reach those people most in need. In the UK, the USA, India and other places, we can see that the impact of Covid-19 is disproportionately higher on disadvantaged communities.

There is something frightening about facing new systemic pressures alone, be that challenges with pandemics, conflict, dislocation, trauma, family, mental health, financial meltdown, work, tragedy or a deeper crisis of meaning. For some of us, the old institutions, the old communities, might be a factor in mitigating systemic pressures of making a life in an increasingly complex world work. But for too many people, they are all too alone in their struggle to survive. In this context, what should a young person do? What is the best strategy for equipping yourself for life on a precarious and complex planet? And how best to contribute?

The first thing worth grasping about complexity is that it’s best made sense of collectively.

Making sense of systems characterised by complexity is incredibly difficult, probably impossible, to do alone. There is too much going on, too quickly, for any one person to grasp. As individuals grasping one limited perspective is probably the best we can do. It’s not as if this perspective isn’t valuable, it’s simply that multiple perspectives are better than one.

We have all had the experience of sitting with a group of friends or family or colleagues, trying to make sense of a situation. That is basically how we really make sense of the world. We talk about it, we argue and chew the fat, we are used to making sense together.

Handling the cognitive load of complexity is best done, therefore, in a community. Ideally this community is diverse, in that it brings many people together who see the world differently. A lack of diversity in groups is a recipe for groupthink and well, groupthink is a recipe for ungrounded, collective stupidity.

This is where the difficulties really start kicking in though. While making sense together is a familiar experience, even to the most introverted of us, taking action together is extremely difficult. Most of us know the experience of trying to make collective decisions in the context of a family or even group of friends going out for dinner. Even in situations where the stakes are relatively low, it’s pretty hard to talk across ideological and identity politics much less make collective decisions.

Cutting through the tangle of collective decision making in professional and institutions contexts was one of the functions of hierarchy and rank. Ultimately someone would say, this is how it’s going to be. Mums and Dads, teachers and professors, bosses and line-managers, all form the cultural apparatus of collective decision-making.

The two places where we are socialised into this culture of collective decision-making is at home and then at school. While our families are accidental repositories of generational culture (and trauma), our schooling is very much a political project, one that literally “schools” us in a particular culture of decision-making.

Our cultures of decision-making, ones that we are intensively schooled in, however, are profoundly and catastrophically unsuited to systems that are complex.

A system is a set of parts (or elements) in relationship with each other. Systems that are “complex” are systems where the behaviour of the parts generates behaviour with three characteristics:

(1) They are unpredictable – this means that we cannot predict the trajectory a system will take.

(2) They generate information – this means that we are constantly having to factor in new information about a system.

(3) They are adaptive – this means that the parts and the system as a whole change their behaviour, often autonomously, in response to internal and external factors. It is fair to say that all natural and human systems are complex and always have been.

The difference between today’s complex systems and complex systems of the past are that they are now tightly coupled. Thomas Homer-Dixon explains, “Tight coupling…means that two events in a given system are separated by a very small physical space or a very short interval of time.” He uses an example of cars driving closely together on a motorway, if one car blows a tire, the closeness of the other cars means there is a pile up.

The Covid-19 crisis shows us how tightly coupled many of our systems are. The policy decision of going into lockdown has had massive impacts on many businesses and on many lives. Being “tightly coupled” means that changes in one part of a system can have significant impacts on other parts of the system in unpredictable ways.

On a planetary scale this means that the behaviour of families in the United States impacts the realities of families in Bangladesh. Historically these systems were either uncoupled or more loosely coupled. In the past, the easiest way to deal with complexity was to ignore it, to treat systems as if they were mechanical and predictable.

This approach can be thought of as “technical.” So, for example, if we need to build a bridge, we simply treat this as a mechanical engineering problem. We ignore all the environmental and social side-effects of building a bridge because ultimately the impacts in systems without tight coupling can be considered minimal.

Today however, human systems have evolved to be global. These global systems, for example commercial supply chains, such as agricultural or technological, connect disparate parts of the world in unexpected and hard to understand ways.

Treating a world that is increasingly complex as simple is the perfect recipe for global catastrophe. It means that we generally don’t see the unintended consequences of our actions and decisions. James C Scott’s book, Seeing Like A State: Why certain large scale schemes to improve the human condition fail, provides us multiple case studies. He coined the term, “thin simplifications,” as one of the problems. This is when instead of seeing things phenomenologically, as they are, we simplify them for our convenience to disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, we continue to be schooled to behave this way.

A human response to this snarl of problems complexity leads us into is to simply retreat. I once spoke to a leader of a foundation in New Zealand who said to me, “Our board thinks that systemic work is too difficult, so we’re focusing on projects and prototypes.” A favourite tactic then is to retreat to local systems and biospheres, to try to influence and change those parts of a system that we feel we can directly interact with, taking, in other words, a tactical as opposed to a strategic approach as the foundation leader and his board were doing.

For some this retreat is into a locus of control, into the things that you can control. Aphorisms like “be the change you want to see in the world” risk becoming a personal license for disengaging from the world into a tiny world where everything is under your own control. What you eat, who you speak to, when you meditate, how much discomfort you experience, the goal becomes maintaining absolute control of your own choices in a world where it feels like we control nothing. This is the world of self-help, of self-everything, erected at the expense of engaging with a difficult and messy world. It naturally leads to a desire for building arks.

Localised strategies are “ark strategies,” in that the factors influencing the “local” are usually non-local. It’s like building an ark for a flood coming from somewhere else, somewhere unknown. Most ark strategies are therefore adaptive strategies, where we are reacting, that is, trying to adapt to changes we deem to be outside of our capacity to influence. A belief that anything outside of what we perceive as our immediate sphere of influence leads to ark strategies. This is unfortunate for two reasons.

One is that many of the forces influencing us personally, our families and our communities, in fact lie outside them. The second is that such a view in fact profoundly misunderstands our own agency and power.

We have tremendous power to influence things well beyond our immediately perceivable sphere of influence. We tend not to believe this because we might not have experienced it or it’s simply easier to say we have no power. I once had a meeting with the Chairman of HSBC during the 2008-2009 financial crisis. He told me he liked our ideas but really had no power to do anything. I didn’t want to give him a lecture about how we all have power and he was being, at best, disingenuous. But it is true. We have tremendous power if we choose to both accept it and wield it. As Nelson Mandela so eloquently put it, “Our deepest fear is not that we are weak. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

What we must learn is what it means to inhabit a world characterized by complexity, because it’s one that we are profoundly able to influence. Unfortunately, investing solely in ark strategies means the prospects for changing or actually mitigating trends impacting us is pretty much zero.

Examining responses to complex social challenges such as Covid-19, we find that mostly what is going on can be thought of as “bad strategy.” This is because as a species we are only now getting to grips with living in a globally complex society. Our responses are necessarily immature because we have barely had any time (a few decades really) to grasp the nature of the world we now live in.

Where then does one go to learn how to tackle complex challenges?

What does it mean though to build our capacities for collective action in a world characterised by a bewildering amount of complexity? What does it mean to be good at tackling complexity?

Imagining a new type of learning community is the challenge. Imagining something new requires letting go of our ontological, epistemological and phenomenological experiences. We have to, in other words, strive to let go of our historical associations and imagine something, something new, something different.

What would a place, a space, focused on tackling complex social challenges look like? What would the characteristics of such a place be? What would be different about it from a traditional university?

Envisioning a “complexity university” is a deliberate and conscious act of the imagination, an act if you like, of collective dreaming. In the spirit of these questions, here are five “deltas” or changes a “complexity university” might require of us.

Delta 1: From an epistemological orientation to a phenomenological orientation.

Schools and universities teach us to operate in “flatland,” a two-dimensional world of Microsoft products – word files, power-point and excel spreadsheets. We are assessed primarily on 2-dimensional outputs, papers and essays. Universities reward citations not action. We can see this data as cold, and to cite a phrase coined by Nora Bateson, we need to learn how to work with “warm data,” which has a different nature to “cold” flatland data.

Three-dimensional (3D) learning focuses on context, on the inter-connections between things as they are in the world and on doing things with our bodies as well as our minds. It is about what we do, not simply what we say we’re going to do in a document. 3D learning is so ubiquitous and ingrained in our world that we often fail to treat it consciously and reflexively. We do it all the time but rarely think about it. We cannot function in the world without 3D learning.

I once taught a class at the New School in New York City where graduate design students wanted to work on creating jobs for disadvantaged African-Americans. The first thing I told them to do was to leave the classroom, leave the familiarity of mid-town and go up-town to Harlem, which is a historic African American community. “What should we do there?” they asked me, “Go talk to people,” I said. This, some of them found to be a terrifying experience.

Similarly I remember teaching a class at the Business School at Oxford University where the MBA students wanted to work on the local economy. “Go outside,” I told them. “And do what”? they asked. “Well, there’s a local economy out there for you to explore.” Bemused and reluctantly, they headed out. A small group of them came back and excitedly reported they had spoken to the owner of a local clothes shop who had witnessed decades of change to the local economy.

The shift to phenomenology means learning how to step outside the clean, bloodless and antiseptic world of two-dimensions to the messy, bleeding, and real world of three-dimensions. The brain, as we know, is a bloodless organ.

This move also requires that we stop seeing the world in simple oppositional binaries, this is not Star Wars, where the villains dress in black monochrome and the rebels in woody, earthy tones. We have to stop seeing ourselves as two-dimensional figures. Instead we need to start seeing ourselves as we are, not simply as cliched heroes sprouting the most predictable of lines, but as three-dimensional beings. For every moment of courage, bravery, and camaraderie, come also moments of doubt, confusion, and loneliness, sometimes we’re right and sometimes we’re wrong, always struggling to remain human.

Delta 2: From Curriculum to Practice

How do we learn? What is a curriculum? Imagine the last curriculum you saw. Imagine for a moment being taught how to cook, not by cooking, but purely by studying recipe books for several years. This approach to learning how to cook is unlikely to work. Learning how to cook requires one to actually practice cooking. While a recipe book has its place in the practice of cooking, it certainly is not central to learning how to cook. We can think of many similar examples of practice-based learning, from sports to learning how to play a musical instrument.

Learning how to be effective in a complex system requires continuous practice.

Our current paradigm for education is as ill-suited for purpose as a cookery school that forced its students to study cookbooks for fifteen years without any attempt at practice. Practicing how to tackle complex challenges requires flipping our orientation. We need to go back into the classroom from time-to-time but largely we need to be spending time out in the world practicing. Our curriculum is the world outside. It means leaving the classroom, getting out from behind the protection of our desks and risking going out into the world.

Practice unfolds in the world. It requires risking anything from a sprained ankle to far worse, because practice is risky. We need to embrace very real risks as the price we pay for being alive. We have to find courage inside ourselves to be out in the world instead of hiding in classrooms.

While there is much talk of innovation these days, much of it is just that, talk. Innovation is risky and difficult work. It requires an inner constitution capable of grappling with the very real experience of being wrong. It requires starting from the premise that your first guesses as to what constitutes a good idea is almost certainly wrong. What is needed is an ability to launch something, fail, redesign, relaunch, fail a little better, redesign and so on in repeated iterations. This sounds easy but the practice is extremely difficult when you’re dealing with real people. We are not talking about technique here, we are talking about something else. Being socialised to come up with the right answer is extremely poor training for a world characterized by complexity. The right question is far more important.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that prioritises technique over practice. It’s easy to confuse the two. Technique requires the precise repetition of the same sequence again and again minimising variation. Practice also requires repetition but practice requires presence and what can be called “feel for the game.”

Technique requires the banishment of presence, the suspension of human faculties to undertake a task in a machine like fashion. There is no inner game with technique, whereas successful practice requires the development of an inner game. Learning, actually learning, requires rejecting what I often call the “original sin” of tackling complex challenges. This is a belief that you can change the world without changing yourself.

Contrast the difference between a meal made with love with something mass produced by technique. They are oceans apart. Cooking can be a practice or it can simply be reduced to technique. When something is cooked with care, presence and “feel for the game,” it is far superior to the product of technique, spat out according to specifications disconnected from any inner game.

Delta 3: From Skin In Someone Else’s Game to Skin-In-The-Game

We are taught objectivity in our strategizing and response to complexity. In practice what this means is that when our strategies and experiments fail, they do not impact us. We are insulated from the consequences of our actions. Those who suffer are people subjected to our objectivity. In other words, we are taught to minimise risk to ourselves and instead have skin-in-someone-else’s-game. It is, comparatively speaking, much easier to give someone else advice, to tell someone else to give up smoking as opposed to giving it up ourselves.

If we genuinely believe in our own ideas, we have to stand by them. Having skin-in-the-game means living in the houses we build; it means being accountable. We are a part of the systems we’re seeking to change. We share in the risk and the rewards of trying to change things. We have to therefore design responses where we’re no longer cowering in the ivory tower, protecting ourselves while those more vulnerable than us bear the brunt of the risks our strategies create.

When we design an intervention, be that a new healthcare service, or a new type of education, how do we involve those who are primarily the users or consumers of our service or product? Conventional approaches teach, at best, a form of consultation, user testing or focus groups or research, to treat people as simple consumers. We are not taught how to work in partnership with people who are very different from us. We are not taught how to listen to and respect the views of those who are not educated the same ways we are.

The mother of a malnourished child is an expert in malnutrition. No, she is unlikely to have a PhD or to know how to use Zoom but she is nonetheless an expert in her own right. The conventional approach to such people is to invite them into a world where we are comfortable and to deal with them largely on our own terms. Various movements in the healthcare space have adopted the slogan, “Nothing about us, without us, is for us,” reflecting the idea that people are experts in their own lives, and must self-determine their own lives and their own futures.

Business-as-usual (BAU) strategies fall into the category of “bad strategy” because all too often they are weighted in favour of what to do over how to do it. When a strategic plan fails, the reasons most frequently given for failure are exogenous. People are blamed for not going it right, for not behaving like the idealised people that planners want them to be. This means that when our interventions fail, all too often, this has no real impact on us. We are insulated, which in contrast, those who are meant to benefit most, suffer. As a result we have a couple of generations of people who are tired of being the experimental subjects in the planner’s fevered dreams.

Trust is a crucial ingredient in good strategy. To assume trust in a situation where experts have nothing to lose whereas the people who are supposed to benefit have everything to lose is disingenuous. Unless we are able to approach complex challenges with some symmetries in risk we will fail to earn the critical ingredient for making strategies work, trust.

Making this shift requires us learning to ask ourselves some very hard questions. It requires a profound and very difficult shift in how we approach risk, in an examination of all the clever devices we use to insulate ourselves from risk. It requires a close examination of all the ways we absolutely refuse to take on risk, instead preferring to operate, secure in our atomised positions of privilege. While it is easy to question other people’s privilege, say the 1%, the rich, the so-called “powerful,” it is so much harder to confront our own privileges, be that male privilege, class privilege or white privilege. This deep confrontation with our own privileges is absolutely necessary if we are to have skin-in-the-game.

Delta 4: From Bi-Polar Power to Multiple Worlds of Power

The study of power has undergone a revolution over the twentieth-century. We no longer see power in crude material terms, the idea that power is a material thing to be possessed or not, has been replaced by the idea that power is a relationship. Ironically the insights from decades of careful study are lost in the “flatland” of academia, confined mostly to dense philosophical textbooks and papers.

All too often we are schooled to see power as something people have, like an object, the bar of gold that can be possessed. Throughout our education we are subjected to a binary experience of power, the teacher or professor “knows” and we, as students, do not know. We are programmed into a binary world of power, those who have it and those who do not. Ironically, it’s probably this behaviour, our need to live in a binary world of power that entrenches power asymmetries.

However, relationships, and hence power, are contextual. Depending on the context we are in, different people have power. I have seen “powerful” executives in a village powerless to feed themselves. Women, seemingly “powerless” in corporate context, are the only people who can help. A profound shift in our relationship to power, from a binary world of power, to many worlds of power, changes how we interact with the world. We have to unlearn our old fashioned, antiquated and ultimately useless notions of power.

Making such a shift, in practical terms requires a shift in how we define our identities. Our addiction to power is in fact an addiction to our own identities. We end up believing that we are our work, our degrees and our job titles.

One way of seeing our various identities is as roles that we choose to step into. So we choose to step into a role of “professor” or “lecturer” or “student.” These are not our identities in any essentialist sense, an actor playing Hamlet is not Hamlet. If we’re able to see our various identities as roles, then we’re more easily able to step out of them, to play other roles. A professor becomes a student for a few hours and a student becomes a professor, where this makes sense. Learning to be more playful and fluid with our identities is what it means to give up an addiction to (and fear of) power, while building our capacities to empathise and engage with people different from us.

What does it mean to engage with people who are different from us? The anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us that what makes a wheel turn is friction, “movement,” she points out, “requires friction.” Yet we design organisations stuffed full  of people who tend to be very similar, at least in terms of how they think. A lack of genuine difference results in frictionless teams. This is a recipe for groupthink, for people working in groups where everyone largely agrees with each other but no new arrangements of power are possible. Everyone is in their comfort zones with few incentives to disturb these arrangements. As homogenous groups hunker down in their respective institutional silos, so too does the depth of polarisation we see in society. We end up seeing others who are different from us at best in bafflement, at worst, as dumb, ignorant and misguided.

Learning new languages enabling us to work with difference requires both courage and humility. It also requires developing a fluency in new languages, as opposed to hiding behind a specialised technocratic language. How many times are we told that we have to learn to speak or write in some arcane bureaucratic speak to access a world? Management consulting? Philanthropy? Government? Academia? The analogy would be only speaking English and expecting non-English speakers to adapt to your lack of fluency in any other language. The work of language acquisition is hard work requiring humility and courage but also offering unparalleled rewards for travelers. Being able to speak in multiple language contexts allows us to engage new worlds with far greater appreciation of the indigenous character of the worlds we’re entering.

This then is one way of interpreting the notion of intersectionality, the ability to see the world from other vantage points than our own.

Universities are an ideology, a set of normative preferences enshrined in bricks, mortar and ossified epistemologies. These shifts I describe should not be read as a set of ideological prescriptions meant simply to replace a previous set of ideological prescriptions. The “deltas” I describe are not normative preferences to be applied blindly. In stark contrast to ideology, to so-called “best practice,” is reflexive practice, which is “ever mindful of context.”

As I write, the Covid-19 pandemic is sweeping the planet. It has dramatically changed our context, illustrating the paucity of ideology. Neoliberals have been forced to embrace Keynesianism. Complexity eats normative preferences for breakfast. A little, invisible and novel virus is travelling down the millions upon millions of connections that bind us all closer together than we could have ever imagined. We are learning just how closely coupled anonymous shop-keepers in a Chinese wet market are to Tom Hanks.

There is a mood of panic in the air. This panic is ephemeral, a little like waking up from a bad dream while not knowing if it is real. The nightmare we’re trying to grasp is that knowledge is no longer power.

The vast superstructures dedicated to delivering flat-packed knowledge are seemingly being challenged by a motley band of conspiracy theorists. We’re straining to discern the reality of the dream because it’s likely that behind those conspiracy theorists, behind the foggy dreamscape, are vast invisible state-run troll farms and their twin, the forces of surveillance capitalism.

Knowledge has been cast down for base political expediency, for short-term tactical gains. Who are traditional universities competing with really? The University of Xi Jinping, the University of Vladimir Putin and the University of Donald Trump – all of which are pumping out “knowledge” at a prodigious pace, peer review be damned.

While PhD students are doggedly going through years of careful work, constructing facts, the modern-day universities of Jinping, Putin and Trump, are tragically outpacing them. Using multiple digital channels, making up things as required in the moment, they are staffed by vast armies of “students,” practicing a very different form of “knowledge” production than those PhD students. This power struggle puts into contestation the entire edifice of flatland knowledge that Western civilisation is based on, the institutional monopoly on manufacturing facts. And if this nightmare is no mere bad dream we’re simply going to wake up from, well then, the game is truly up.

As countries scramble to respond, we are also seeing how supply and demand operate in complex systems. We are suddenly seeing the catastrophic failure means little more than an inability to service rapidly increasing demand, be that for ventilators, ICU beds, food or face masks. This tactical struggle is writ large in energy-intensive societies, as we struggle to meet increasing demand for energy, for water, for rare earth metals, for protein, for all manner of material resources that industrial society teaches us to crave.

When our ability to supply these needs outstrips demand, we start to see catastrophic failure of natural systems. I wonder one day if I will have to explain to my 10 year old son, as he grows up, that the reason there are no more fish in the oceans is simply because people caught them in vast drift nets miles long…and ate them all.

The crisis is also teaching us something about each other. We have had a sudden, visceral and shocking first person experience of complexity. While it may seem new to many of us, it was always there for billions of people. We are learning the truth of the fact that such challenges are best faced together and collectively. We are learning that too many of us have no real practice in organising, in confronting a global complex challenge.

The United Kingdom is the 6th largest economy in the world, home to many “world-class” universities. It is a permanent member of the Security Council and one the historic “world powers” of the 20th century. It is also the country seeing the steepest rises of coronavirus deaths. While it is too early to assess the efficacy of the response, the signs are ominous and bleak. An early assessment of the consequences of the government’s current strategy from Imperial College indicates in excess of 250,000 deaths. Even if this terrible toll does not come to pass it’s clear the governmental response has been badly bungled.

In sharp contrast, countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore seem to have managed the crisis much more effectively. It is telling that China is now shipping aid to countries like Italy, seeing a death toll in the tens of thousands. Why is it that Taiwan is effective and the UK is not?

Learning how to work with and tackle complexity requires the courage to engage in what I’m ironically calling “full catastrophe learning.”

Covid-19 is a classic case of an unforced error. Taiwan learned from SARS. Taiwan’s response to the crisis is a case study that contrasts starkly with the UK and the USA. We could say the Taiwanese engaged in “full catastrophe learning,” that is, they used SARS successfully as a practice ground in preventing a much larger catastrophe. Most disasters involving the State, from the Vietnam War to Chernobyl, involve a failure by the apparatus of government to accept reality.

We don’t, of-course, have to wait for the next catastrophe to strike in order to learn. For better or worse the planet is replete with complex social challenges, ranging from climate change to inequality, they are simply slower moving than a virus. As such they are perhaps even more dangerous because they have a much higher mortality rate in the long run.

This internal orientation to learn and act, to adapt, based on being present to what is happening in the world is what is most needed when tackling complex social challenges. Either way, contrasting respective responses to the Covid crisis are worthy of study.

When I first moved to Oxford I heard a joke, “How many Oxford professors does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer goes, “Change? What’s that?”

The most serious barriers to change we’re facing are deeply personal. We’re facing a challenge of evolutionary fitness. If our institutions and practices are no longer fit for purpose, how do we find the inner fortitude to reject what we have spent generations practicing?

This then is the situation we are facing down as a species. What role do universities play? Are they bastions of the status quo, not simply unable to change but actively resistant? Or are they places demonstrating how to change practice and engaging in collective learning? Places we go to learn how to tackle our most complex challenges as opposed to places we go to shelter from them?

Are we able to change our practices or are we unable to cope with the emotional losses accompanying change? Are we able to be fluid with the roles we play? With our identities? If not, our survival ends up becoming a function of our emotional fragility and of the addictions we continue desperately clutching, too afraid of letting go.

Many people reading this will point out that there are plenty of exemptions to the broad picture I paint here. This, however, misses the larger point. For every alternative college, for every professor who embraces the idea of the world as our classroom, for every brave academic swimming upstream against the tide, for every professor of practice, for every experimental course, there are thousands upon thousands of antithesis, countless instances of the problems I raise here.

Let’s call it. The classroom as the primary space of learning, with flatland as the rule, is symptomatic of the dominant paradigm for universities today. This paradigm is not fit for purpose, it is rapidly dying.

The forces defending this status quo have been hit hard by the Covid crisis. As the old paradigm is shattering around us, pieces of it screaming past us, they are accompanied by a mad scramble in the other direction, for a return to the status quo ante bellum. We are, however, unlikely to see such a return, those pieces cannot be glued back together. The laws of entropy will see to that and our desires are irrelevant. What’s next then? What might emerge?

Perhaps our new universities will flower in the wreckage of the old when we find our inner game, learn new languages, accept more symmetrical power relations, forgo an addiction to technique over practice, and ultimately build a feel for the game of tackling complex challenges.

Perhaps new universities will emerge once we get over the shock of the current crisis, finding the courage to engage in full catastrophe learning. Perhaps once the immediate trauma passes, once the mourning is over, we will find the humility to accept that maybe, we don’t really know how. Perhaps we will find within us an acceptance that we can begin to learn anew.

In the aftermath of another global catastrophe, Arthur Koestler coined the Dinosaur’s Prayer, “Lord, a little more time.” It sums up our current dilemma perfectly.

This essay is dedicated to educators struggling everywhere.

(A big thanks to everyone who commented on this essay, Manish Jain, Kelly Teamey, Sarah Amsler and Marc Eisenstadt.)

Zaid Hassan


Zaid is still exploring who he is. In the past he has played the roles of strategist, facilitator, and writer. He has 20 years of experience tackling complex social challenges. He’s author of “The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach To Solving Our Most Complex Challenges” (Berrett-Koehler, 2014) and co-founder of 10 in 10 ( He lives in Oxford.

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