I take a break from the BIG things and complex systems to talk about the small big thing at the heart of many systems/environments/contexts — YOU! This is meant to be the first of three parts — looking at the individual through futures x systems x design perspectives. This second part is through a systems lens, and in particular, the individual(s) sitting in the various social, technological, economic, political, and ecological systems.
In a previous article, I looked at how the stories we tell ourselves as individuals have to change, and that we also need to change our stories of capitalism. The idea was that if we changed the stories we tell of ourselves, and if we changed the associated behaviours, that might be a critical level with which to change other worldviews and structures.
That is one perspective, and it is necessary but not sufficient. As we change our stories as a group, we also need the various organisations to change in their indicators and behaviours to get to the outcome we want.
As I also outlined earlier, the change in the stories is the same as the changes in the goals in the system. We do want our systems to change from single-mindedly focus from financial/material capitalism, to consider other kinds of capitals for our overall well-being. That means we need other systems to change as well. As suggested earlier, it might mean greater redistribution of financial wealth and higher rates of taxation. That would be a clear societal signal that as a society, we think financial/material wealth is overrated/over-indexed, relative to other forms of capital.
Redistribution and higher and diverse kinds of taxation on financial and material wealth is one approach. The other approach would work from the other hand, that is, to emphasise other forms of capital ahead of financial and material wealth. However, it too, will lead to a similar diversion of capital away from financial and material wealth.
It would require the establishment and strengthening of institutions that are about other forms of capital. If you think about it, we have built an amazing set of practices and organisations just to manage financial and material wealth. Could we also not build practices and organisations to manage other forms of capital? Many of them already exist. Gyms build physical strength and well-being, and some of them are integrated with healthcare systems. We need more mental health organisations that check in on us and our overall well-being. We might need coaches in different areas of our lives — counsellors not just for when people are in crisis but for our lives. Some people have good access to social capital for those, but not everyone has those. We also need organisations to build environmental/ecological capital. Many of them are non-profit organisations or governmental organisations designed to reduce environmental damage but we will now need them to actively rebuild ecosystems. Some of this will be resourced with financial capital, but it will also need people to come together to plant trees, patrol for invasive species, plant surveillance sensors to check on various kinds of environmentally destructive activities. These are shifts we need to entertain in our minds.
Where is the individual in all this big picture? All these might sound like big picture reforms removed from society but if you think about it — it all comes from people starting out something different, and building organisations that do the very things above. You might not see yourself as being a “systems-changer”, but you might very well be involved in these efforts as a fellow volunteer, staff, coordinator, or “doing your part” in all of these activities. Leaders need followers too — and this will be a movement, stretched out over time and space.
At a more intimate level, the various forms of capital provides a framework that you can do too! Rather than just checking your bank account and your financial/material investments, you can also think about”
- material — this might be weird, but this is not just your property and wealth; this is also the things that you have physical access to — the tools that you have and what you need to get through the day…
- social capital — think through the quality of your relationships — beyond family, but also genuine friends. If not consider how the relationships that you have, and perhaps, pick up a hobby or volunteer, and get in touch with people outside of your usual circles…
- spiritual capital — do you have a practice that connects you to something larger than yourself? For some people it could be an organised faith; for others it could be meditation or soemthing else…
- nature capital — do you have access to greenery, and do you think about your carbon footprint? (Yes, aware of how that might be a distraction from structural issues, but you can consider more mindful/intentional consumption in ways that reward genuinely environmentally-conscious companies.) You can also lend your voice to environmental movements…
- intellectual/wisdom capital — how do you grow your knowledge and experiences? It can be books, but it can also be picking up a craft or skill. It can also be about knowing yourself, and choosing not to feel compelled by the surrounding context to participate in the market-driven practices…
- time capital — this one is a bit abstract, but it has to do with how do you use your attention and presence?
(Taken from playmoolah here: https://www.playmoolah.com/blog/the-7-forms-of-wealth. A related source, but based on a community, is here: https://www.wealthworks.org/basics/explore-regional-wealth-building/wealth-eight-capitals)
If you have a practice for all of these, then yes, you have already changed the goals of your personal system. If you haven’t, you can start to think about structures and practices that can help you to have a more holistic sense of wealth. And over time, as we build communities based on these values, we can create organisations (along the lines above) and ultimately, social movements for wider change across more and more of our current organisations.
In other words, you have changed your personal system of what constitutes value in your life. Gradually, you might change your own ecology of the things that matter to you, and that in turn, will change the various other systems you engage with.
As you become more mindful about consuming material things, you are slowly shifting capital from companies with conventional practices towards companies with sustainable/circular practices. As you connect with friends and share with them, your well-being improves. As you turn towards meditative practices, you feel motivated and engaged. As you acquire more wisdom and skills, you can apply them towards the community. As you become more attentive to the people around you, you create a stronger community with others. All of these wears down the influence of the neoliberal capitalism that overemphasises consumption.
All of these might eventually impact the financial system — when it works well, it can be a massive lever to change the rest of our economic-political systems. But there has to be a broad social movement first. The current ESG movement — to consider environmental, social, and corporate governance standards — might be a really awkward first step, but it remains an important step in the appropriate direction. “Stakeholder capitalism” might be another step. What we need is clarity and enforcement on what other non-financial but material things we want to pay attention to. Perhaps future versions of ESG considerations and frameworks will become dominant in our economic life.
Perhaps, as you start on this, you might find other people who might have similar views to you. Building a community for yourself would be the next step; this might be an in-person community as you meet and chat for companionship; it might also involve what you do on social media — the voices that you curate for yourself, and what you to others in your networks.
We often say we want a different world, but to start the series of change, we really have to act like we want a different world. “Systems change” sounds scary, but it really isn’t. It is about choosing and doing a set of practices that you can align with, and growing that practice with others alongside. And gradually — it is not going to be instant — it will change the communities that we are immersed in.
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