Trimtabs for systemic change

The following excerpt from a recent letter to Marianna Grossman pinpoints an approach to contemporary problematique we have been developing in Oslo.  (Trim tabs are small movable surfaces added to the wings of an airplane for the purpose of steering. The term ‘trimtabs’ was introduced and popularized by Buckminster Fuller to name an aproach to design where large effects are induced by doing comparatively little.)

(…) The beginning may have been Doug’s remark at your talk that the trajectory from our present condition to a sustainable one may need to involve certain steps that nobody will be willing to take. Reducing the consumption, for example, would collide with business interests, and then also with economic stability, employment etc.

A slightly more general version of the same remark might be that controlling the unwanted symptoms created by our business and other large systems, against the very nature and power of those systems, however necessary, cannot as a sole approach be relied on in the long run.

A complementary alternative is systemic change. Interesting that you studied under the Meadows’, who already in 1972 wrote that “piecemeal solutions to individual problems will not be successful.” From its beginning in 1968, the Club of Rome insisted that we should not focus on problems but on the “problematique” as a whole.  Peccei later wrote that the solution will need to involve no less than a “great cultural revival.” In spite of that, the attention of the public and the researchers now tends to be focused on specific problems such as the climate change, which, like quicksand, threaten to drown our best efforts in their wicked complexity.

What came up in the mentioned conversations is that creating trimtabs for systemic change might be a good name for a supporting and more holistic strategy. The trim tab metaphor is accurate, because we are talking about doing something comparatively tiny (commensurable with our human power)  that is capable of affecting the trajectory of an incomparably larger and more powerful system. Perhaps our most urgent task is to add a degree of flexibility and governability to our key systems, so that as the external pressures increase and new challenges appear, they can smoothly transform and change course.

With that I introduce to you the work we have been doing in Oslo.

I mention three trimtabs, although those are really just three ways of looking at a single project.

1. We developed a prototype instance of an academic practice suitable for producing systemic trimtabs. (To borrow Doug Engelbart’s term, this may be called a C-level trimtab, because its goal is to modify the course of the academic system, enabling it to produce trimtabs.)

The complex and time-critical work on systemic transformation cannot be only the job of inspired amateurs. We need to engage our best and best qualified minds. But the academia has its own logic and values. From its Hellenic roots, our academic tradition has developed as an effort to produce an accurate reality picture, and now our best minds are working in the fine leaves and branches of an enormously large and ancient academic tree. Fortunately, through the results in physics, cognitive science and philosophy, we have understood that we are not really discovering the reality, but creating a version of it. This puts us into a position to plant a new academic tree, rooted in the notion of design. Applied to logic, design gives us a possibility to design our methods and what we do.  Applied to values, design means fulfilling a purpose, which in practice translates into creating the knowledge and things our society most urgently needs. Naturally, the trimtabs for systemic change range high on the resulting priority list.

2. We developed a portfolio of projects where students, researchers and other stake holders collaborate on creating trimtabs for systemic change in education, business (the corporation model), informing, communication and health-care.

3. We developed a prototype of an informing practice that suits our condition – a trimtab that can directly influence our collective course.

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  1. well, your premise is enticing, find small things to do that could create big changes. but i have two big problems with your next steps.

    1) you fail to point to anything concrete. you mention a portfolio. OK, where is it? why not mention an example trim tab so that we can figure out what you are really saying.

    2) why assume that this approach will lead to something positive? it could just as easily be used for evil.

    one thing about B. Fuller, who you mention frequently. he was succinct. you, on the other hand, are incredibly wordy without (as far as i can tell) actually saying anything. i’d like to be wrong about this. so pls point me to something concrete and pithy in your writing.

    1. 1. These ideas are made more concrete in my Future Salon lecture, see my blog post of June 21, 2010. There I describe nine trimtabs in some detail. My home page is the portfolio.

      2. You may just as well object that trim tabs on an airplane may be used for something evil (just think about 9/11!). Securing that the trimtabs for systemic change are properly used is a separate question. Knowledge federation addresses this question in the domain of knowledge work.

      Regarding your comment in the last paragraph: On a page of text I explained why the conventional way of handling global issues might be insufficient, why developing trimtabs for systemic change might be necessary, and I mentioned that we have developed some of this approach in Oslo. Imagine if the future of our civilization may really depend on us developing trimtabs… So there was a message, wasn’t there?

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