Perseverance’s selfie with Ingenuity, NASA 

Why our social developments are lagging behind

April 20th, 2021

The past decades have been characterized by impressive technological developments. Earlier this year, for example, three different countries have managed to reach Mars, doctors use augmented reality for surgeries and medical treatments, and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) makes it possible to test the most complex physical theories. 

Our technological developments contrast sharply with our social developments. We can communicate and share information with people all around the world with just a few microseconds delay. But have we managed to reduce problems such as racism and inequality in recent decades? Have we managed to reduce violence, crime and terrorism? Or have we managed to reduce industrial pollution and ecological disasters? 

Technological developments are usually driven by private organizations, technological institutes and universities. By organizations and people with the uncontrollable desire and motivation to constantly explore new opportunities and push boundaries. Unlike with our human affairs, the motivation for development isn’t suppressed by the assumption that the existing systems and concepts are good enough and don’t need to be improved. Consider, for example, the scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder Colorado who have worked for years on an atomic clock based on strontium atoms. With this atomic clock, the scientists were able to measure atomic time more than 100 times more accurately than was previously possible with the atomic clocks based on Cesium atoms. To give you an idea, the old cesium atomic clocks deviated a maximum of one second in 30 million years. Even with the new strontium atomic clock, which deviates maximally one second in 15 billion years, researchers are continuing their search for the best way to measure time. As long as the existing atomic clocks aren’t assumed to be good enough, researchers can continue to push the boundaries. How different is this for our human affairs? 

We assume that our social concepts and institutions are needed and function good enough. There may be some problems from time to time, but they can be resolved if and when they arise. And changes and developments are not necessary unless circumstances call for it. If incidents occur that indicate unequal treatment, discrimination or injustice, we simply hope that some policy changes will resolve the issues. We believe that by changing the structure of the organization, we can program the system in such a way that the desired outcomes are guaranteed. 

Changes that are forced by major problems or a crisis are accepted without problems. And surviving a crisis is considered an achievement. For changes that are designed to improve the system, it’s much more difficult and sometimes impossible to get the required support. Therefore, it’s not surprising that social developments take place in a linear evolutionary way. Developments usually only follow in response to external pressures and needs, such as climate change, economic conditions or social protests. 

Our society is a complex system. This means that the properties emerge from the interaction of the elements (like for example our organizations, institutions, concepts, processes, procedures and people) with each other, with the environment and with the system itself. Unfortunately, our evolutionary social development does not keep pace with the rapid progress in technological developments. In fact, even linear evolutionary developments are inhibited. This is possible because, unlike plants and animals, we are not only influenced by our environment but we are able to actively influence our environment. In this way we can prevent our organizations and concepts from having to develop while safeguarding their right to exist (extinction is no danger). 

Our social systems are not so good that they cannot be improved. To bring up the analogy with the atomic clock again, we are far from getting to the point where our systems deviate by maximally 1 second in 30 million years. The glasses through which we perceive our social issues limit our possibilities for linear evolutionary developments. And leaps in developments are completely ruled out. To initiate social developments, organizations and the people who work here must be given the opportunity and must be motivated to explore new possibilities and push boundaries. It’s time to say goodbye to the assumption that our systems and concepts are good enough. 

Linear evolutionary developments in response to problems cannot go wrong and are easy to justify. But in order to develop in leaps and bounds, we must face our fear of making mistakes and open up to positive proactive approaches. So let me ask you this: What do we want to achieve? And as we address this question, let’s take a moment to consider the difference between a system that has been programmed to behave in a desirable way and a system that behaves in such a way that desirable traits ( integrity, tolerance, and innovation) emerge naturally and inevitably.

Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get.

George Bernhard Shaw (1856-1950), Man and Superman, 1903.

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