Thinking Systemically at the Global Level: Different Answers to Zelikow’s Three Strategic Questions

In a piece appearing in The Atlantic on 11 August 2017, Philip Zelikow asks, “Is the World Slouching Toward a Grave Systemic Crisis?” ( He makes several well-stated observations that present a new opportunity for making the case that bringing human, social, and natural capital to life is strategically important to good public policy today.

Early in his essay, without calling it by name, Zelikow picks up on the important social phenomenon of self-organization, referred to by Lenoir (1997, p. 52) as “interactive system effects,” by Hayek (1948, p. 54) in terms of spontaneous economic order, by Magnus (2007) as distributed cognition, and, more popularly, by Surowiecki (2004) as the wisdom of crowds effect. As I’ve said repeatedly in this blog and in many publications (for instance, Fisher, 2007, 2009,2010, 2012a, 2012b; Fisher & Wilson, 2015; Fisher & Cavanagh, 2016), human, social, and natural capital will be brought to life when the tools and concepts we use for measuring and managing them are coordinated and aligned in terms of these kinds of bottom-up, autopoietic processes (Fisher, 2017).

So, in this context, Zelikow points out that

“The so-called ‘world order’ is really the accumulation of such local problem-solving. In this construct, power and persuasion comes mainly by example. Because people see what works—or what fails. Inspired or alarmed, they make their local choices, which accumulate.”

The accumulation that follows from local choices made when people see what works and what doesn’t is not a simple addition of effects. Instead, the social whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The point of the work cited above by Lenoir, Hayek, Magnus, and Surowiecki is that individuals do not design, implement, and impose their own visions so much as “interactive system effects” are projected via dynamics stemming from a capacity to think together in a common language. Shared symbol systems enable the coordination of decisions made by persons unknown to one another, creating an efficient information market.

Furthermore, when there is no clear evidence of what works and what does not, people still make choices that accumulate. The problem here is that what accumulates is indecision, confusion, and conflicting ideas based in local conditions and ideologies.  This, of course, is the state of things in education, health care, human resource management, social services, environmental management, etc., since we lack the information infrastructure we need to be able to coordinate cognitive ecosystems at the social level (Fisher & Stenner, 2017).

The viability, desirability, and feasibility of these kinds of cognitive ecosystems (Fisher, Oon, & Benson, 2017) leads to some specific answers to Zelikow’s concluding “checklist of three strategic questions:”

“1. Set priorities. What battleground issues or states are most likely to influence this generation’s global election about prospects for an open and civilized world?”

From where I sit, the most vitally important battleground issue obstructing our prospects for an open and civilized world concerns the schizophrenic disconnections that exist in our communications systems. Because of these disconnections, we fail to say what we mean and systematically confuse ourselves. Information infrastructures are designed as though language functions in a homogenous way from the highest to the lowest levels. Language does not function this way, and never has. Fortunately, we have the tools and methods we need to design information infrastructures that respect and adapt to the discontinuous shifts in context that currently defeat our best efforts at organizational transformation.

In a remarkably perceptive article, Star and Ruhleder (1996) describe the challenges we face in working through the inherent discontinuities embodied in the way language works. These challenges hinge on finding our way to information systems combining global standards and local customization. In our current world, we either impose irrelevant global standards from above, or allow local circumstances to foster widespread chaos. Similarly, Paul Ricoeur (1974, p. 166), the late French philosopher, observed that the social ethic we need demands resolution of a paradox, the seemingly irreconcilable opposition of human totality and human singularity. The potential for that resolution resides squarely in the accomplishments of research that has been underway throughout the course of the history of science, and that has culminated in recent years in theory, methods, evidence, and tools capable of meeting the need for improved communications.

Zelikow’s second strategic question is:

“2. Think outside-in. Out in those states, out in the world of those issues, are there catalytic possibilities? How do they see their situation? What (and who) are the critical variables in their choices?

Out in the world of those issues, catalytic possibilities for an open and civilized world are nowhere brighter than when approached from the perspective of research results emerging from psychology over the last 90 years, and from the history of science over the last 300 years (Mari & Wilson, 2015; Pendrill, 2014; Wright, 1997). The potential for a broad new consensus on the processes and outcomes of human development (Overton, 2015; Dawson, 2002) represents a possible basis for a shared self-understanding across global humanity that neither denies or homogenizes individual uniqueness, on the one hand, nor elevates the individual over society, on the other. The critical variables are presented in existing information systems that adaptively tailor information for individual relevance without relinquishing coherence with global standards (Barney & Fisher, 2016; Bergstrom, Lunz, & Gershon, 1994; Chien, Linacre, & Wang, 2011; Masters, 1994; Wilson, 2004). These systems provide models to follow across education, health care, government, social services, environmental resource management, etc.

Zelikow’s third question is:

“3. U.S. efficacy. In that context, where or how can the U.S. really make a strategic difference?”

A real strategic difference can be made by focusing the attention of policy makers, researchers, and practitioners in every field on creating coherent communications and information systems. The crux of the strategic issue is how to re-invent our culture, politics, and economics to focus on the creation of authentic wealth. The large number of works produced addressing this topic to date fail, however, to articulate the decisive issue: how to bring today’s lifeless expressions of human, social, and natural capital to life as fungible representations of genuine value in efficient markets (Fisher, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012a).

The top immediate priority for an open and civilized world, then, ought to be establishing the property rights, scientific rationality, capital markets, and communications networks (Bernstein, 2004; Fisher, 2012b) needed to create viable cognitive and social ecosystems reconciling the apparent paradox of global and local in our information infrastructures. These technical demands must be complemented by associated articulations of the ethics, philosophy, and art of relational system effects if we are to realize humanity’s desire for fulfilling lives and communities.


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