by Kian Bakhtiari
The future is unimaginable when trapped inside today's problems. We need a paradigm shift. Physicist and Philosopher Thomas Kuhn defined a paradigm shift as: “when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way”.
Starting a new path is never easy. The journey begins with challenging our mental models. In other words, old maps don’t work in new worlds. Progress demands motion, but friction resists change. More than ever, we need new questions, concepts and possibilities. The status quo is inescapable unless we can imagine an alternative reality.
The much used – and abused – term “paradigm shift” comes from Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It argues that science develops in four stages. Pre-science where no agreement has been reached. Normal Science: when a paradigm is established and taken for granted. Before deviations from the paradigm - anomalies - create a model shift. We then enter the stage of Crisis: when new theories and concepts are developed. There are two ways to solve a crisis. It can either be resolved or result in a scientific revolution. In simple terms, science alternates between normal and revolutionary. Most importantly, choosing a paradigm is largely psychological and sociological. We can’t judge different paradigms using a common standard. They are incommensurable.
Examples of paradigm shifts are plenty throughout history. We believed the Earth was flat until the Middle Ages. Countries accepted slavery as a legitimate economic activity until the 19th century. Darwin’s theory of natural selection was initially rejected. Most women were not allowed to vote until the 20th century. Careers were seen as an obligation until Gen-Z shifted our collective mindset. Normal today can be weird tomorrow. When the current system no longer serves us, we must forge new paths. However, this is only possible once we question the existing paradigm. In the words of the Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri: “Eyes should be washed, to see things in a different way”.
The word profit comes from the Latin "to make progress”. But today, progress has become one-dimensional, measured through GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the total value of products or services produced within the country’s borders. And yet, the most valuable things are almost impossible to measure. How do you measure love, happiness, culture or nature? We are reading the wrong charts. Progress measured through financial data is a relic of the Industrial Revolution. We need a new standard for the Wellbeing Revolution. The new objective: maximise the well-being of people and planet. But to create a better future, we have to stretch beyond increasing production. We need to imagine a new socio-economic system where individuals and organisations are rewarded based on their impact and contributions to overall well-being. If we change what we value, we can change how we behave. In summary, promote well-being and discourage short-termism.
Next, we need to redefine our relationship with nature. Humans are an integral part of nature, not separate. Modern life has become disconnected from the natural world. We have lost touch with the magical world that sustains us. The world’s urban population is expected to increase from 55% in 2018 to 68% by 2050. Meanwhile, the average American child spends 7 minutes playing outside and 7 hours in front of a screen. In our collective imaginations, nature has become a source of extraction.
We need to rethink our education system. The current school system is designed to teach conformity – and develop productive workers ready to increase GDP - further perpetuating a destructive relationship with nature. Education should be a journey of lifelong learning. Childhood should be spent in nature. Youth is about experimenting and finding your purpose. During adulthood, we contribute most to the well-being of the planet and society. In old age, wisdom is passed on to future generations. Crucially, learning is intergenerational, we can learn together and from each other. Nature is at the heart of education. What’s more, local knowledge is valued and amplified globally to build collective intelligence.
Governance will eventually shift from resource management to abundance. Each generation will add to the well-being of previous generations. The reverse image of our current reality. Power will be decentralised. Local communities can make decisions about their future based on an agreed set of universal principles that benefit all world citizens and our shared planet.
Free access to connectivity and open-source data will enable people to make decisions based on (almost) perfect information. Decisions are weighted to include the well-being of future generations. For example, if we wanted to build a new city, we would need to consider the impact on future citizens. Community councils will resolve conflicts, similar to the Botswana Kgotla system, overseen by elders, young people and AI representing future generations. Human and natural rights will be inalienable and local traditions, intangible.
It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the demise of our current system. There’s no doubt that our current paradigm is in crisis. We can create a better future, but only if we can imagine an alternative reality.
This article was inspired by five days of creative brainstorming and workshops with Resilience Frontiers in Gaborone, Botswana.