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Seeing paradigm change

23 February 2015

Greening household behaviourToday’s post by James Greyson, Head of BlindSpot Think Tank is in response to Naazia Ebrahim’s recent article on greening household behaviour. We asked James to expand on his argument that “System change policy would design waste out of economics”.

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” – Roald Dahl

This line from a story by the imaginative genius Roald Dahl was published after his death in 1990. Today these words still sound like handy advice for those of us watching the world and looking for places where change can shift paradigms. Dahl hints at a key insight for solving intractable global problems, that our way of looking determines whether we find what we’re looking for. Since we’ve collectively not found it, why not look for help in an unlikely place such as a children’s story?

Our world and its problems should have been watched for long enough. Inequality, debt, financial instability, corruption, conflict, ecosystem damage, waste and poverty have been seen through history.  These big problems have been watched by problem-solving professionals since at least the 1972 UN Stockholm Conference. Despite all efforts since then the risks that the conference declaration warned about, such as “massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend”, just grow and grow. After all this time there are still no solutions in place to avoid that unpredictable moment of irreversibility when any global problem overtakes any hope of recovery. Even now, this moment could be avoidable so we should be seeking new possibilities.

Roald Dahl hints at the necessary imaginative leap. If millions of professionals can work for decades on global problems without actually solving them then we might be missing something. Dahl’s advice to look in unusual places can be read as an invitation to not only look where we expect to find solutions. Solutions on the scale and speed that are needed will probably not be found where everyone has been looking already, but within our collective blindspots. Looking for what we’re missing, especially when we’re missing something big, is itself missing from global problem-solving work. Are blindspots too embarrassing for professionals and organisations supposed to have all the answers? Or are we just a bit stuck doing what we’re doing?

The search for solutions in likely places is not just habit, it’s also a complex system behaviour. This is how paradigms self-reinforce, by hiding the possibility of diametrically different paradigms. Anything too radically different gets filtered out. The space for technical and policy solutions is shaped by the current paradigm rather than by the need to replace the current paradigm. For example, the opportunity of economics that prevents waste, rather than causing it, is overlooked within a system that looks at waste management primarily as a question of rubbish disposal. Incineration for example is considered by the OECD as a component of waste minimisation, rather than a way to convert solid waste into atmospheric wastes. This perpetuates the linear waste-making economy.

Roald Dahl offered a pointer on how to search where solutions seem unlikely. Watching the whole world around us might mean looking at whole system behaviour. We can follow the trail from tangible problems, such as climate impacts or designed-to-fail products, to the systemic problems, such as economies set up to keep losing resources as wastes in ecosystems. We can identify new paradigms for the system, such as circular economy, where used resources end up again as new resources. Then we can make policy to quickly switch the paradigm world-wide, for example by insuring the waste-risk of products. Then the new paradigm can self-organise everything else, phasing out waste from products and lifestyles everywhere.

Watching the whole world is the alternative to the default ways of coping with complexity and change – reductionism and denial. Denial gives licence not to see any problems that require change. Reductionism gives licence to consider any selected subsystems of the world and as much change as seems feasible (which is never enough). Watching the whole world gives licence to look across patterns of global complexity and make sure the necessary changes are feasible. Reductionism allows the problems to grow, ironically making more reductionism seem like the only way to make progress. The whole system viewpoint offers the opportunity to discuss, define and implement ‘the greatest secrets’ of policy solutions for system change.

How would system change policy work in practice? We could rely less on change within systems, such as all the initiatives that try to agree and enforce percentage improvements in problem symptoms like emissions or ecosystem loss. We could take more care to define system paradigms: what are the unintended design features that allow the problems to persist? The most common proposal for a system change, to measure progress beyond GDP, may turn out to be a blindspot since prevailing paradigms seek growth in ways that also undermine growth. The OECD have shown for example that inequality hurts growth. New paradigms that phase out society’s dependence on causing global problems would be growth bonanzas. So politicians wedded to growth should be shown system change policies as a way to get growth, rather than be told to give up on it.

Dahl’s advice to watch with glittering eyes reminds us that civilisation need not continue to undermine itself. As professionals we need not continue to struggle with fragments of global problems only to see things worsen overall. The complexity and interconnectedness of the world’s systems can be harnessed to solve problems they’ve previously caused. We can be curious and excited about finding hidden opportunities for systemic change that not only minimise damage but also reverse historical damage. By embracing Roald Dahl’s imaginative legacy we can edit out the big risks to our future and add amazing new chapters to our shared story.

What do you think? How best to organise system change policy to reverse persistent global problems? Add your comments below or let me know via Twitter @blindspotting.

Useful links

TEDxBradford – James Greyson – Let’s unshrink thinking and reverse reverse-progress…

OECD work on consumption, innovation and the environment

OECD Environment Directorate on iSSUU, including Policy Highlights on water, food, transport, waste and energy

22 Responses
  1. February 23, 2015

    Thanks for this James! How do you look at inertia to systems change? Changes within the system always sound more reasonable, more incremental and less risky than systems change. How do you counter the “Doing something is better than doing nothing” argument?
    For me that is an extra important question as I am currently involved with Feasta in setting up a global climate commons trust. The goal is to create a new system to take care of limiting the fossil fuel extraction to safe levels determined by climate science. The project is called CapGlobalCarbon and can be found here: We would be grateful for feedback, especially on how to make this plan more acceptable for the incrementalists/non-radicals.

  2. February 23, 2015

    Thanks for your comment Erik-Jan! I like to see inertia to systems change as a feature of any complex system (rather than just me not making sense to other people!). The system keeps running in the same ways causing the same problems and also people’s responses to system failure runs in the same ways that don’t lead to system change. The best this can hope for is less-bad outcomes – which is of course not good enough.

    Capping or limiting problem variables, such as emissions, is a response to system failures causing climate change. We should consider whether capping defines a new paradigm (the planet/economy/lifestyles based on limits) or whether it’s just a way to manage some excesses of a system that would continue to run in the same ways (losing ecosystems, losing resources, etc). Happy to discuss more @climate_rescue

    One way to make system change plans more acceptable is ironically to go for more radical change. Aim to cut carbon concentrations not just limit emissions from fossil fuels. Make economics design out all waste dumping to ecosystems, not just less carbon to air. See what you think of the ‘governments going circular’ best practice case study mentioned above?

  3. Jane Beasley permalink
    February 25, 2015

    This is a really interesting piece as it sums up a lot of conversations that are happening within the sector I work in (waste management) where there is a constant struggle to picture the reality of a what a different system would look like, having operated the cradle to grave approach for so long (and been easily ratified by down cycling in our quest to ‘be green’). When conversations are had about the CE, often it boils down to recycling….Seeing a way forward, in a more circular system, that ultimately involves managing yourself out of the picture but also allows the current needs to be met can be a real challenge! There is definitely a greater acceptance to take piecemeal steps within a system that attempts to patch up the issues in a fragmented way, without addressing the ‘whole story’ but this consequently still leads to waste/poverty/ecosystem damage (albeit potentially delayed). Its ‘easier’ to do this and kid yourself that alternatives are too hard, too complex, too prone to failure, rather than take a completely different and potentially much more radical view. In my experience even those waste management companies who make a strong case that they have repositioned and reinvented themselves as resource or material managers, scratch beneath the surface and the focus remains on recovery (in whatever form) and recycling and also maintaining that treatment and disposal options must always remain a requirement. Palatability of different policy measures and economic instruments to bring about change also differs so significantly across my sector (which to be fair is so varied); this can be in part as a result of lack of acceptance or lack of understanding of the failures of the system and need for change. Perhaps if we are to look in the less obvious places for answers then the less obvious people should be doing the looking….

  4. February 26, 2015

    I think we need to bring new actors into the equation; can an environmentalist solve our societal challenges around climate change? No, but an anarchist potentially could, because they are looking at defeating the current system. What about psychologists, anthropologists, artists? At what point do models like the circular economy become relevant to an accountant, a hairdresser, a plumber? I would be interested to see a different kind of messaging around systems thinking, a more accessible one that is capable of mainstreaming among the public at large.

    • February 26, 2015

      Thanks Maxine! Bringing in new actors can be a great way to bring in new thinking, especially if the new folk are not just challenging the dominant ideas but also their own. If anarchists for example want to defeat the system, they should be as interested as anyone in defining the new system, especially the self-organisation potential. I know a few of the public 😉 and they don’t care that externalities are better managed preventively rather than by calculating impact costs. They just want those responsible for policy to get on and make it happen, so their hairsprays are non-toxic and their tools are repairable and long-lasting.

  5. Michael Ashcroft permalink
    March 1, 2015

    A very enlightening piece James, thank you.

    Related to Maxine’s about introducing new actors…
    i) The sum total of knowledge (the size of the system) is increasing very rapidly…
    ii) And each individual system participant (you and me) therefore necessarily knows less and less about the whole system…

    How can we ensure we find those hidden secrets, or even know what they are when we see them? How can those of us who navigate these spaces cultivate those glittering eyes, and first of all understand what we are seeing, and then pass it on to the right people?

    Unless we can figure out how to do this, I fear we will continue to see things as we currently do – linearly.

    • March 2, 2015

      Good point Michael! Total system complexity certainly is increasing. Luckily we don’t need to perceive all complexity to try to manage it, since the complexity is not random but structured by patterns that can be seen as a whole. Curiously these patterns are sometimes hidden by being too obvious. Circular economy for example has been recognised as a necessary switch of economic pattern since at least 1966. However the complexity of all the people, problems and resource flows is very alluring and even today the debate loses itself in the complexity with the outcome that the economy remains linear.

      How to navigate? Rather than managing complexity by ignoring it (denial) or by picking out parts (reductionism) we can look for the causal patterns. Eg linear economy is a causal pattern of climate change – but how often do we hear changing this paradigm offered as a way to tackle climate change? OECD and others are looking at carbon pricing – but do they consider pricing waste-risk as a more comprehensive way to tackle carbon fuels together with everything else that gets dumped into the air, land and water?

      Thanks for highlighting the choice between linear thinking and systems thinking. For policy-makers this means that best practice can no longer be found within policy-as-usual; it’s all about policy designed to change paradigms.

  6. Simon O'Rafferty permalink
    March 2, 2015

    Some of the practical issues around the systems debate are governance, power structures and time.

    e.g I noticed during the “systems thinking in waste policy” project in DEFRA number of practical policy dilemmas were surfaced e.g. DEFRA were only a minority of the policy landscape, most opportunity areas were not in their control and the temporality and apparent coincidental nature of previous systems changes conflicted with the instrumental nature of most policy design.

    Also the typical tools of policy experimentation (e.g. RCTs, pilots etc) were insufficient to explore possibilities and the entering the unknown conflicted with the trends towards evidence based policy.

    There has been a huge amount of theoretical and empirical research looking at socio-technical systems of innovation, transition models, social systems (e.g. social practice theory) and there are some practical policy frameworks emerging but few if any have been tested at any reasonable scale.

    • March 3, 2015

      Hi Simon, these practical issues are ideal to distinguish between system governance (such as waste management) and system change (such as circular economics). DEFRA’s project was an example of taking language from system change but only talking about system management (plastic recycling flow models etc). So the outcome was as you describe, needlessly disempowering DEFRA rather than producing usable policy for systemic change.

      I agree there is a habit of seeking future policy among past evidence rather than from the options for system change. The current paradigm, embedded in habits of thought, offers the illusion that pilot or subsystem incremental change is all there is. This contrasts with a system change view that the paradigm is the minimum relevant unit of change. Research, innovations, models etc with this scale of ambition will also be relevant to our shared future.

  7. March 5, 2015

    As relative newbies in the area of “waste reduction” – we do not even really think of it as such – we’re constantly amused and amazed by the power of a couple of large companies in the field. Only one of the major waste management firms in the UK is publicly listed here. One of the only others based here is privately owned, but probably huge pressure from its investor-owners.

    Looking beyond waste management, in thinking about some of the most disruptive companies and “projects” within a profit-making frame, many of them are privately held companies not under the yoke of quarterly earnings reporting.

    We wonder whether shareholder capitalism is one of the impediments to the system change you mention? In theory shareholders could hold companies to account and force them to think into the future. But what we see as a whole is far from this. (And just to say that through private pensions and other investment vehicles, most of us are a part of this system, whether we even know it or not.)

    Thanks for an interesting post. And we’re seconding Maxine’s idea of bringing artists and anthropologists into the conversation, and definitely second Simon’s take on silos and the difficulty of policy-making (after having worked for years in “global development” we’re feeling deja-vu).

  8. March 5, 2015

    Great discussion thanks Janet! Yes ‘waste reduction’ can be like ‘mitigation’, applying plasters to wounds that just bleed more.

    Your question about ownership options for companies is a handy example for system change policy. Are shareholders an unintended design feature that allows the problem of waste to persist? Or is it that shareholders respond in the same way as most other market participants by seeking to cut costs and gain profits? What would happen if we either change company ownership or fix the neglect of externalities? Which would change the system?

    Even if it turns out that we need new market signals to fix the market failure, new ownership options would be interesting as part of system change policy for inequality. Though do you think this change should be away from accumulations of private ownership rather than toward?

  9. March 12, 2015

    Thanks James now I know what I am: a struggling Swan hihi
    How do you think the overpopulation problem fits into your coherent story ?
    And don’t you think everyone has an ecodebt as soon as they’re born and must pay the (real)price , not only the rich as you suggested (I am not)? The fewer people there are in a nation, the lower that debt, on the same lines as there is a smaller eco footprint.
    For instance in the heavily overpopulated Netherlands, everyone lives on six hectares on average, but only has one hectare bio-capacity per capita.
    One hectare costs between 50.000 and 80.000 euro. So 50.000×5 = 250.000 euros short per capita! Or one can say 5 hectare x 17 million (the amount of people living in the Netherlands ) is what we come short as a nation. Overpopulation is thus expressed in land area .
    These two questions may be interconnected because individuals have to pay heavily for being “overdrawing”.
    A household of four has a real debt of one million at least! As it has been running out of control by linear thinking by consecutive governments already, over the past century.
    Greetings from the Netherlands

  10. March 19, 2015

    Thanks Tjerk; yes overpopulation, eco-debt, carbon-debt, rising security tensions etc are all unwelcome outputs of running global systems in their current states. When the financial costs of all these debt stocks are calculated you get big numbers, which can make the problems seem even more daunting – and of course there is no way for the current system to release funds to pay for it all. My suggested approach is to change the system from destructive to restorative so undoing all the debts becomes part of normal life. For example rather than planning to reduce deforestation or soil loss we can make system change policy to expand ecosystems and soil function. A core set of system change policy proposals has been published by NATO (see ) but others are possible for other issues.

    • March 22, 2015

      Thanks James , with ”overdrawing” i meant ”overcomplete” –>false auto correction, sorry 🙂
      To change the system and restore forests and eroded land is vital , but it still has to go hand in hand with reducing our numbers and not only slow down the growth.
      Shrink is ok and the blessing we need.
      The question is what are normal numbers of people on the planet. We know that already ; without fossil fuels we must leave the biocapacity and the regeneration capacity intact . The next question is; how we gonna do it .
      The thing i am most afraid of is that we find an endless source of energy before we learn the lesson of reducing our numbers .
      Already there are 2,1 billion people overweight 🙁

      • March 22, 2015

        You mean the planet is over-full with us humans? Sure looks that way!

        Did it help to see population as a kind of debt, an excess stock that has a positive feedback causing a bigger stock and other problems? I know it’s not very flattering to call ourselves ‘stock’ but this can help to see how the system pattern with population is the same as other issues. Climate change for example is a carbon debt, an excess stock of carbon concentrations in the air and water that has a positive feedback causing more climate change and other problems.

        Solving climate is only partly about getting everyone to pay attention to the climate problem. Solving population is only partly about getting everyone to pay attention to the population problem. We can do climate policy and population policy and policy for everything else. But I’d suggest we also need to do policy for the whole system, to reverse the dynamics that drive climate and population and the rest.

        From a population perspective you could see a system change policy-set as a way to reverse the drivers of population and also to avoid and cope with disasters with population effects. Circular economy for example reshapes fossil fuel and nutrient use in ways that help with both overeating and hunger. Hope that helps?

  11. March 23, 2015

    Dear James i think that overpopulation is the overall problem causing everything even indifference for the environment by most people.
    On twitter i posted a reading that says it all;

    • March 25, 2015

      Our minds work hard to try to make overwhelming complex problems seem smaller and more manageable. Unfortunately people do this by ferociously focussing on a sub-system, such as an issue, a specific change or a link between things. This gives us the likely places in which we all look decade after decade but no actual solutions to any global problem. Rather than telling people ‘please change how your mind works’, you could instead propose a hypothetical. What if population (for example) is seen as the overall problem. Then what do we actually do to reach solutions for population and for ‘everything’ connected to population? This could move the discussion on beyond just continually pointing at the problem, by showing two types of solutions. You have the population sub-system solutions such as birth control and women’s rights. Then you have the system change policy solutions, to create the conditions for gently reducing population.

  12. March 28, 2015

    dear James, we have by far passed the line of gently reducing population as a study has been published that shows that even if we succeed in a worldwide one child policy, population will rise for many generations to come. ! And no big famine or wars mean significant reduction. So now we must use the big numbers to make a difference. Like; all people must have a solar panel or more than one , a sun boiler system , and an good working recycle system (maybe together with others) The right information about the (eco) cost for all products and services and pay the real price for it in relation to the nation where they live in , the biocapacity of that nation and the eco footprint/capita. No nice message to overpopulated nations but its more than necessary to make a change and not on voluntary basis of the very few good willing green people.

    • April 1, 2015

      Hi Tjerk

      I love what you wrote: “So now we must use the big numbers to make a difference.” This is where population numbers becomes a benefit instead of a hindrance. I know this might sound utopian, but imagine for a moment if everyone contributed to sustaining life on this planet – governments, business, communities, individuals. As I wrote recently on the OECD Insights Blog, “we have to sustain life if we are to sustain ourselves”. It is a circular/systems view of life. See Is this possible? Yes! Does it take commitment and action? Yes! So what is stopping us? We did after all invent and perpetuate our present linear economy that in the long run is completely unsustainable. You cannot have an economy that is based on depletion and destruction. It won’t work. So therefore what is needed is a circular economy that is based on restoration, renewal, recycling, refurbishment, remanufacturing, reusing, redesigning etc. It is the only way to have economic growth and development with existing and rising population levels.

  13. March 29, 2015

    I didn’t quite follow the logic; sounds like ‘population will continue to rise even if it gently falls’!
    Sadly the massive accumulation of all kinds of debts means that non-gentle impacts on population are ever more likely. This seems to be persistently overlooked in policy discussions – too grisly?
    Your strategy of the existing population becoming restorative is spot-on. Exactly what’s needed. My blog above offers an effective way to price eco-costs to fund the sort of investments you describe, see

  14. March 31, 2015

    To understand population is no quick fix, study this James; ”Human population reduction is not a quick fix for
    environmental problems”
    Corey J. A. Bradshaw1 and Barry W. Brook
    The Environment Institute and School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia
    Edited by Paul R. Ehrlich, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, and approved September 15, 2014 (received for review June 5, 2014)


    • March 31, 2015

      I agree. Both population and environmental problems are waiting for system change policy that remains hidden in policy debates. I’m grateful for this blog opportunity with OECD and hopeful there will be someone there interested to collaborate further.

Comments are closed.