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Ten commonest mistakes for 2020
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Monday, 11 February 2008
Just when Prime Minster Rudd is announcing his Australia 2020 Conference and the 1000 brightest minds (we hope) are preparing to at last think about our future, Prof. Stuart Hill has sketched out the Ten Commonest Mistakes that we make when creating such initiatives. It's good reading - if controversial:

Ten Common ‘Mistakes’ to Avoid, and ‘Needs’ to Meet, when Seeking to Create a Better World

Hill, a Social Ecologist, begins by pointing out that this is a holistic approach and therefore you can expect that the areas overlap and are highly interactive and interrelated. His 10 points are:

1. Getting the usual ‘experts’ together, to then plan for a better future. This always leads to tinkering with existing (flawed) plans, and excludes those most affected by such plans.

NEED: involve mostly ‘different’ people and start by focusing not on plans, but on values, beliefs, worldviews, paradigms – then feelings and passions – then, emergent from these, hopes, dreams, visions, imaginings, and creative thoughts – only then can ‘design/redesign-based plans’ (that can proactively enable systems [structures and processes] that meet long-term to short-term, and broad to specific, goals, AND that make systems as ‘problem-proof’ as possible) be enabled to emerge; and then critically analyse, integrate, and flesh these out, etc – detailing participatory opportunities, responsibilities, time lines, resource and support needs, means for monitoring outcomes, tracking progress, and for ongoing redesigning and fine tuning.

2. Taking problem-solving (back-end, reactive/responsive, curative) approaches. These tend to focus on symptom management and neglect the need to address the underlying maldesign and mismanagement roots of the problems. They typically over-focus on measuring problems (a prime strategy for postponing action - by those who benefit from the status quo), and on efficiency and substitution strategies (eg, improved application of pesticide and on finding less disruptive [but still purchased] substitutes, such as biological controls and genetically modified organisms – same story in other areas, such as medicine and energy).

NEED: to redesign existing systems (and design new systems) to make them as problem-proof as possible; and to enable effective change from these flawed/defective systems to significantly more improved ones.

3. Getting stuck in activities that are ‘pathologically’ designed to postpone (feared) change. These include particularly measuring problems (‘monitoring our extinction!), endless collection of data (often ‘justified’ by cries of the need for ‘evidence-based approaches’), hearings, committee meetings, report-writing, etc – most of which have NO follow-through, and usually only lead to more of the same.

NEED: postponing pathologies must be recognised, exposed for what they are, addressed and contradicted by taking responsible, timely, appropriate, collaborative action. Certainly access to relevant data are important for making responsible decisions. Often, however, adequate data are already available from other places, in other languages etc. Globally, billions of dollars are wasted annually unnecessarily repeating studies in new locations or with mischievous intentions (often related to perceived threats to existing commercial advantage), when the data for responsible decision-making are already available.

4. Trying to solve problems within the discipline or area responsible for creating them, or with multidisciplinary teams of selected experts/authorities from favoured disciplines, with others excluded.

NEED: genuine transdisciplinary and trans-competency and trans–experience teams, able to access disciplinary and specialised knowledge as appropriate. Competencies relating to holistic approaches to design, sustainability, wellbeing, and effective change processes, in particular, need to be included in the teams.

5. Patriarchal (them doing things to/for us, and us doing things to/for them) and ‘driven’ do-good approaches are rarely exactly what is needed. They are generally not sustained or embraced by those being ‘helped’, and they often have some negative unexpected consequences.

NEED: inclusion of those most affected by the proposed improvements as primary collaborators in the change process, from beginning to end. This enables ownership, relevance, achievability, ongoing improvement and openness to unforseen/surprise benefits.

6. Planning ‘Olympic/mega-scale’, heroic initiatives (from hearings to projects) with no follow-through or provision for ongoing support (more than just funding).

NEED: diverse, mutually supportive, do-able initiatives that have long-term support and consideration of opportunities for ongoing improvement and learning our ways forward collaboratively towards improved futures.

7. Over focus on knowledge and data, and neglect of wisdom and experience (much of which cannot be supported by data, and involves working with the ‘unknown’ – the majority of what is – not just the limited ‘known’); often in ways that rely on intuition and gut feelings etc.

NEED: we need to be much better at recognising, valuing and involving the wisest and most experienced in our society, and not so obsessed with ‘cleverness’. Whereas the former have competencies that enable them to work with both the ‘unknown’ and ‘know’, the latter are largely limited to working with the miniscule ‘known’.

8. Over focus on ‘productivity’, profit and quick dramatic results – this predictably leads to burn-out, only short-term, limited benefits, and often unexpected disbenefits (new problems).

NEED: we need to focus much more on ‘maintenance’, caring for one another (other species and the environment), including prioritising time and resources for this, celebration, venting feelings, and ‘healing’ sessions, etc. These activities need to be ‘equally’ the focus of the initiative. In some senses, the latter may be regarded as emergent from, and a product of, the former.

9. Homogenisation tendencies tend to result in the construction of favoured ‘norms’ (for people, structures, processes, etc), failure to consider diversity, in-groups and out-groups, inclusion and exclusion, and failure to benefit from the creativity that resides at the margins and in the borderlands of society.

NEED: openness to appreciation of the value of hererogeneity and ‘functional’ diversity within all systems, with its opportunities for synergy, mutualism, lateral thinking, extension beyond the usual competencies, relevance to needs and possibilities, a sense of inclusion, ownership, and a sense of place, etc.

10. Neglect, or only token involvement, of the arts, and over focus on the sciences, technologies, business, politics, the professions, the media, and the other major institutions within our society. As a result, the arts are poorly supported, regarded as a luxury or optional extra, an afterthought, or even irrelevant.

NEED: recognition of the arts, in its broadest sense, as being an essential part of both the foundation and means for implementation of all efforts to achieve genuine and sustainable improvement.

Professor Stuart B. Hill, Foundation Chair of Social Ecology , School of Education
University of Western Sydney (Kingswood Campus), NSW AUSTRALIA
Phone: +61 2-4736-0799; email: s.hill@uws.edu.au. Website (www.organic-systems.org/index.html)
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