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Tools for Culture Design:


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Tools for Culture Design:

  1. 1. Joe Brewer is a complexity researcher and evangelist for the field of culture design. He is culture edi- tor for is view of life magazine, co-founder and editor for Evonomics magazine, and research director for  He lives in Seattle and travels the world helping humanity make the transition to sustainability. ∑ IllIONs Of dOllARs ARE sPENT EAcH YEAR BY cORPORATE marketing departments1 , public relations firms2 , government agencies3 , and nonprofit organizations in attempts to change social behaviour and tackle complex cultural issues. All of these efforts are attempts at “culture design” – applying some kind of design thinking that cul- minates in changes to social norms and cultural practices4 . Yet, these efforts are seldom integrated with the scientific study of cultural evolution, either conceptually or methodologically. ey are rarely approached systematically or with methodological rigor. As humanity confronts a maelstrom of interdependent risks in our rapid- ly changing world, this is not good enough. luckily, as I’ll argue here, we can do much bet- ter with existing tools and knowledge that are ready to be deployed today. We are entering a precarious transition for humanity – for the first time in our history, plan- etary limits have been reached5 and economic growth (as it has been practiced up till now) threatens our very existence if we don’t change our dominant cultural paradigm6 . e great chal- lenge of this epoch is planetary stabilization. New categories of systemic risk accompany globaliza- tion7 , such as ocean acidification, resource deple- tion, rising sea levels, loss of top soils, and build- up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. ese are among the ecological components. Add to them a suite of social and political issues such as extreme wealth inequality, global poverty, systemat- ic violence against women, the debt crisis, militant religious extremism, and structural instabilities in global finance – to get a sense of what we’re up against. Will humanity garner the capacity to design and manage cultural systems to keep our civilization within the planetary boundaries essential to our survival? e key issue is one of intentionality. Right now we lack the ability to take collective actions at the required scale. Even when unity of voice is achieved about a certain direction – say that the mainstream publics of the world want affordable housing, decent wages, and dependable jobs – there is no ability to make it so. is lack of intentionality becomes urgent in the face of imminent ecological collapse. We currently lack the ability to save ourselves even if the majority of us chose to do so. In an article titled “Evolving the future: Toward a science of Intentional change”8 , david sloan Wilson and his co-authors express the problem succinctly: Science should be an important agent of change, and it is; but it is responsible for as many unwanted changes as those we desire. Even the desired changes can be like wishes granted in folk tales, which end up regretted in retrospect. Despite some notable successes […], our ability to change our behavior and cultural practices lags far behind our ability to manipulate the physical environment. No examples of sci- entifically guided social change can compare to putting a man on the moon. Just as we find ourselves in greatest need, a new capacity can be brought into existence that enables us to shape the evolution of cultural systems at the local, regional, and planetary scales. is capacity is nascent across many knowledge domains. It will require a grand synthesis of many different fields that have been siloed in the past. I call this transdisciplinary synthesis “culture design” and will make the case for birthing it in this article. culture design is the integrated practice of (a) treating cultural change as a complex adaptive system; (b) studying the mechanisms and drivers of cultural change, including trend analysis and emergent social behaviours; (c) applying design frameworks based on this approach to identify operating parameters for social systems and (d) guiding the evolutionary process of social change toward safe zones within these operating parameters. J O E B R E W E R TOOLS FOR CULTURE DESIGN:TOWARD A SCIENCE OF SOCIAL CHANGE? B S P A N D A J O U R N A L V I , 1 /2 0 1 5 | S Y S T E M I C C H A N G E | 6 7 S P A N D A J O U R N A L V I , 1 /2 0 1 5 | S Y S T E M I C C H A N G E | FULL VERSION:
  2. 2. e keystone pillars of this field – which comprises hundreds of existing domains of research and prac- tice – are complexity research, cognitive science, and cultural evolution. ~ complexity research looks at the interactions among many parts that give rise to novelty in physi- cal, biological and social systems. It includes topics like the study of tipping points, feedback loops, rules of local interaction, emergence of global behaviours, dynamic attractors, and so forth9 . ~ cognitive science brings together all that is known about human thought and behaviour. It looks at the neural processing of language10 , how emotions shape reasoning11 , why the body and brain interact in pro- found and subtle ways that give rise to the making of meaning12 , and much more. ~ cultural evolution is the application of evolutionary principles to the emergence of fitness criteria for idea propagation13 . It looks at the spread of ideas and emer- gence of new cultural traits in social systems at the interpersonal and institutional scales. Taken together, these knowledge domains enable designers to engage in the many practices of “applied memetics” – uncovering the patterns of social change that arise when ideas and behaviours spread across social systems. e skills of this craft include creation of viral media events14 , shaping of cultural mytholo- gies15 , crafting of social policies16 , diffusing innova- tions of both technical and social nature17 , and a host of social analytics for monitoring and shaping the process throughout. We are now entering a new phase of social research, where the deluge of user data from our smart devices and sensor networks can be mined with unprecedented scope and precision18 . With this flood of data comes a new suite of tools for cultural research. Tracking interactions on social media. Analyzing and visualizing senti- ment and moods on Twitter19 . Observing the evolution of social graphs on sites like linkedIn and facebook20 . monitoring user behaviour on massive interaction platforms through social gaming21 . And so much more. L E T ’ S L O O K A T A N E X A M P L E – S A F E G U A R D I N G T H E H I M A L A Y A N W A T E R S U P P L Y consider one of the most important strategic reserves on Earth – the Himalayan water supply. more than 3 billion people depend on the hydrol- ogy of this region for their survival. e International centre for Earth simulation paints a sobering picture of the complexities inherent to this region22 : “e Himalayas are a young seismically active mountain range arching across the Tropic of cancer in Asia with over 100 peaks exceeding 7000 meters that are still being pushed upwards by the tectonic collision of the northward moving Indo- Australian Plate with the Eurasian Plate. e mountains extend for 2,400 kilometres in length and between 150 kilometres in width at the east- ern end to 400 kilometres width in the west.” High altitudes have induced the formation of over 35,000 glaciers within the Himalayas, form- ing the source of major river systems that flow both north and south into neighbouring coun- tries. e mountains also play a major role in the flow and direction of large-scale monsoon weather systems that regularly impact the region. Geologically, the Himalayas and their imme- diate surroundings are often referred to as a ‘ird Pole’ of Planet Earth. e region suffers frequent large-scale disasters from earthquakes, avalanches, mudslides, rock falls, floods, and extreme weather events. In addition, the glaciers are in serious retreat due to global warming, and there is a shift in much of the biological makeup of the region due to such warming. safeguarding this water supply is a grand challenge for culture design. e populations of fifteen nations directly depend on the Himalayas – a diver- sity of peoples who speak dozens of different lan- guages, practice many different world and indigenous religions, operate under very different systems of gov- ernment, and have a long history of economic interde- pendence juxtaposed with sporadic military conflict. Technical fixes are a necessary, but clearly quite insuffi- cient, component of this challenge. e Himalayas currently lack a commons-based man- agement framework for governance. As the political scientist Elinor Ostrom has shown, there are eight design principles at play in every culture that has suc- cessfully managed common pools of finite resources such as grazing land, forests and irrigation waters, min- ing rights, and hunting territory23 . define clear group boundaries. Ensure the rules for decision-making align with local needs. make sure those effected by the rules have the ability to change them. develop a system for monitoring behaviour for members of the group. use graduated sanctions for rule violators. And so on. Tried-and-true approaches have always had these fea- tures in them. e Himalayan water supply will need them as well. e absence of a commons-based management frame- work is only one component of a culture design strat- egy. It demarcates the presence (or absence) of legiti- mate governance structures that build on the social J O E B R E W E R | T O O L S F O R C U L T U R E D E S I G N | 6 8
  3. 3. dynamics of human group behaviour. is meets one set of criteria for guiding the evolution of culture throughout the region. It too, is necessary but not sufficient. design criteria for decision-support must be used to tell us which cultural traits are helpful in the institutional framework – including the relevant values associated with participation, accountability, and empowerment – that make collective action viable for shared management. still missing are the many dynamic elements showing feedbacks, tipping points, local rules of interaction, and so forth that give rise to emergent behaviours across the region. Also missing is the rich ethnographic knowledge about cultural history, narrative identities, commonplace understandings, belief systems, etc., all of which together reveal how ideas may spread (or gar- ner active resistance) across the landscape of ever- changing social relationships. Yet already we can see how a culture design approach sheds light on these issues. e challenges involve nuanced understandings of the emergent patterns involved. Tools from complexity research are essential here. ey require sophisticated social research into the cultural norms, value systems, and ideologies of the dif- ferent peoples involved. e cognitive and social sci- ences are well suited to do this. And change processes can only be guided if their evolutionary underpin- nings are adequately understood. is is the role for approaches and insights from cultural evolution. charting a course toward preservation and long- range management will be key to success for the Himalayas. It will involve many years of work – likely spanning two to three decades, possibly extending indefinitely as an ongoing policy feed- back process – recruiting urban planners, policy analysts, communication experts, ethnographic researchers, cultural historians, environmental scientists, legislators, and more. Experienced practitioners of organizational and cultural change may ask how all of this gets coor- dinated. Are there checklists or frameworks to follow? What gets prioritized first and how is the effort managed? e process can quickly become mired in conflict as different groups set their own priorities and attempt to own the outcomes. ese too are culture design elements. many tools are commonly used for project manage- ment, strategic planning, collective storytelling, group facilitation, and process improvement. Bringing together the right balance of existing tools – and creating new hybrids when needed – will be the practice of the culture designer. is example shows why a new synthesis is need- ed. many diverse bodies of knowledge and fields of practice remain separated into silos. Each has its own peer-review processes, standard publications, conferences, and professional societies. e result being that no effective process of intentional social change is being guided through the birthing stage. All of the pieces are there but they are not inte- grated As systemic risks for region and planet grow more treacherous with each passing year, the absence of a coherent culture design frame- work is very sobering indeed. S E E I N G T H E P O W E R O F C U L T U R E D E S I G N I N A S U C C E S S F U L S O C I A L M O V E M E N T At this point you might be wondering if it is even possible to tackle grand challenges like the Himalayan water supply. What tools are available to do this ambitious work? How can you trust that they will be effective? e scepti- cal response would be to say that no one has ever attempted, let alone succeeded, at culture design on this scale. ere was a time when I held this view myself – until I learned about the successful social movements of the modern Era. seeing them in action, we can begin to articulate what they did that was so powerful and which tools they used to achieve their goals. let’s start with one of the most successful social movements in history. e rise of corporate capital- ism to world dominance in the last 300 years sup- planted the monarchic and feudal empires that came before. It spread across the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia, while also assimilating hundreds of indige- nous cultures into the domain of modern market economies. e 20th century saw the rise of nation states around the world, accompanied by the establish- ment of global institutions and intergovernmental bodies that promoted a particular vision of “free mar- ket” corporatism through trade agreements, regulatory bodies, economic development frameworks, and numerous financing instruments. What is often overlooked in this epic pattern of cultural change is how it was orchestrated by elite communities throughout key developmental periods. for the sake of brevity, I will focus on one of these periods – the rise to dominance of Neoliberal ideology as guided by the mont Pelerin society (mPs) starting in the 1930’s in the united states24 . e mPs was formed in response to the New deal when a small group of intellectuals and wealthy business tycoons gathered against the spread of mainstream hostility toward their laissez-faire approach to economic policy. eir ideas had become unpopular and were marginalized during a period of ambitious socialism, as observed in the S P A N D A J O U R N A L V I , 1 /2 0 1 5 | S Y S T E M I C C H A N G E | 6 9
  4. 4. explosive rise in union membership, cooperatively owned businesses, public banks, and the creation of a social welfare state (insured banking, minimum wage, public health care, retirement benefits, unem- ployment insurance, and so forth). e power of these socialist ideals was so entrenched that the mPs fought a losing battle for the hearts and minds of the citizenry until the mid-1970’s. As docu- mented in the famous Powell memo25 , a strategy was put forth to build a vast network of think tanks and communication platforms starting with the Heritage foundation and growing to the current level of 300-400 institutions26 in a coast-to-coast meshwork of public relations apparatus funded to the tune of usd1 billion in the 1990’s when revenues were estimated27 . ey have only grown in size and breadth since then. e first major win for the mPs was the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. A parallel process was underway in the united kingdom under the atcher Administration. e mPs movement was global in scope from its inception. I am focusing sole- ly on the us developments here. is was quickly fol- lowed by placement of Neoliberal ideologues in local, state, and federal offices across the united states and also among key academic departments at elite universities. Of particular note were the endowed faculty positions in economics and busi- ness departments. As the Neoliberal movement gained momentum, it was able to enact investor friendly policies across all levels of government – including in the formulation of debt repayment programs at the International monetary fund and World Bank and through trade agreements like the North American free Trade Agreement and the cur- rent developments for the Trans Pacific Part- nership that is its predecessor. e institutional power to quell dissent became so strong that the field of economics is dominated by Neolib- eral ideologues to this day, despite the fact that every theoretical assumption underlying its intellectual foundations (in what is known as neoclassical economics) have been known to be false for decades28 . Even the collapsed global financial system in the Great Recession of 2008 has hardly made a dent in their planetary-wide control of economic development. e sweeping success of this social movement is difficult to overstate! Realizing the extent to which it arose through coordinated efforts may be sobering in its own right, and yet it demonstrates how cultural change can be orchestrated at very large scales that span the entire globe and arise through periods of time longer than an individual lifespan. culture design can be done. e question is whether it will be used in the service of life and humanity – or, as it has so far, to consolidate wealth and power in the hands of a tiny elite. is may well be the defining question for our times. T O O L S A N D O P P O R T U N I T I E S – B I R T H I N G T H E F I E L D O F C U L T U R E D E S I G N I started this article with the observation that billions of dollars are spent each year on crude attempts at social change. is shows both that people already recognize the value of cul- tural evolution (even if they don’t understand it in this way) and that there is room for major advances in the efficacy of these investments to create positive impacts on the world. is is the silver lining of efforts like the NsA practice of illegal wiretapping and misinforma- tion campaigns to confuse the public about the health risks of smoking or the science of global warming. At face value, activities like these are clearly harmful and need to be addressed immedi- ately. Yet, these attempts at social control are crude and largely ineffective in the long run because they contradict the human tendencies to challenge illegiti- mate authority and to respond to perceptible changes in our social environments. We are a social animal that hates to be oppressed. And we are a symbolic creature that builds dream worlds of ideas that we then transform into the structures of our cultural reality. One way to think about the current predicament is that humanity has been gradually cultivating the capacity for culture design for more than a century – through our efforts to craft social policies, use advertis- ing to shape consumer behaviour, deploy military and financial resources to gain power and create market economies, and so on. What we have not done well is apply these skills for the betterment of everyone. is is why our world is now so perilous. Our unsys- temic attempts at culture design of the last century have created all manner of systemic threats. Two examples make this clear – terrorism and the student loan bubble. Terrorism is the indirect consequence of post-colonial activities of wealth extraction, whereby those who con- trol financial capital have created the conditions of widespread desperation (the ideal birthing ground of religious extremism) so that they could hoard unimag- inable amounts of wealth. is may have benefited these elites in the short term. But it threatens every- thing they hold dear in the form of “blowback” out- bursts of violence that were unintended conse- quences of their actions. J O E B R E W E R | T O O L S F O R C U L T U R E D E S I G N | 7 0
  5. 5. similarly, the architects of public education never intended the deflation of credentials that have made college degrees a minimal requirement for most liv- ing wage jobs. And so they didn’t intend to create a situation where people who could not afford the training required to earn a living would find it neces- sary to accumulate massive amounts of personal debt – to the tune of usd 1.2 trillion in the united states alone29 . is has led to a kind of debt serfdom for an entire generation of workers and planted seeds for rev- olution that fuelled recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Brazil, mexico, spain, Greece, and the united states. e field of culture design is stuck in an adolescent mode and we need it to grow up quickly. To do so, we’ll need to take an iterative approach – applying the crude tools we have today to the practices of culture design as a culture design process. is is why I have set out to create a research centre on culture design for planetary thriving. It doesn’t yet exist, but when it comes into being it will include a suite of existing tools that are “shovel ready” right now. for the discussion here I will not attempt to be comprehensive, opting instead to be suggestive with the following categories of tools that can be used for culture design work. S T R A T E G Y D E V E L O P M E N T A N D S C E N A R I O P L A N N I N G Practitioners trained in future studies, project man- agement, brand formulation, and business develop- ment use a variety of tools to achieve their goals. ey create strategy maps and use balanced score cards. conduct visioning exercises and focus group studies. convene diverse constituents to create “power maps” of political influence and community assets. ey do exercises in business model creation and competitive analysis of the sector they operate in. Hundreds of frameworks exist for doing these kinds of strategy develop- ment work. D I S C O U R S E A N A L Y S I S A N D E T H N O G R A P H I C R E S E A R C H ose who work with language and the spread of ideas are well aware that information is structured into discourses that can be analyzed using a vari- ety of different tools. mapping the conceptual metaphors and mental models is essential for making sense of the ways that people perceive and act on the topics around them. Active and passive forms of ethnographic research are commonly used – field surveys, structured and open-ended inter- views, participatory reflections, and descriptive analyses are routinely done by social scientists. Add to these the techniques of media studies – close-text analysis of written materials, elucidation of visual design elements that communicate in certain ways, frame analysis of semantic content to see how thoughts are constructed in active language use, and so on. M A R K E T I N G A N D C O M M U N I C A T I O N S e art of storytelling is now quite advanced. People know how to write press releases, sum- mary reports, and research studies. ese are supplemented and enhanced by visual design of infographics, brand logos, internet memes, posters, web videos, and other kinds of more- than-text media. long-form storytelling is now quite powerful in the extended television series format used by cable and live streaming inter- net companies. flash animation films, docu- mentaries, feature films, music videos. e list goes on and on. G R O U P F A C I L I T A T I O N A N D C O M M U N I T Y O R G A N I Z I N G A growing number of practitioners are skilled at group facilitation and community organizing. ey hold public hearings, hackathons, open space meet- ings, and design processes of many kinds. so many tools exist in this space that it is difficult to know where to begin. e “art of hosting” and “dynamic governance” communities are very sophisticated at this point in time. M O D E L I N G A N D S I M U L A T I O N dealing with real-world complexity means using the best research tools available. With the advent of digi- tal computers came an endless flood of mathematical models for studying complex phenomena. We do numerical weather prediction to create local forecasts, simulate collisions to improve the safety of our auto- mobiles, and observe the molecular interactions of syn- thetic drugs in the body to tackle deadly diseases It is a truism of 20th century science that we don’t know something unless we can model its behaviour. simula- tion-based research includes high performance comput- ing, numerical estimation, scientific visualization, and many other technical areas where the tool kits are diverse and very advanced indeed. Already we can see that there is great promise for the field of culture design. What is needed now is a com- pelling vision for (1) planting the idea that we can and should do this and (2) that it is practical to do so today. my hope in sharing this brief introduction to the “tool space” of culture design is to convey how much is pos- sible to achieve with what we already have at our dis- posal. e next challenge – which I am enthusiasti- S P A N D A J O U R N A L V I , 1 /2 0 1 5 | S Y S T E M I C C H A N G E | 7 1
  6. 6. cally cultivating a community of culture designers to address – is to launch the first institutional research environment for integrating the pieces. Two partnerships I’ve cultivated in the last few years are illustrative of where this is going. I had the great pleasure of helping conceptualize the vision for the International centre for Earth simulation (quoted above), whose mission is to build a high performance computing facility in Geneva, switzerland dedicated to modelling the whole Earth system30 . And now I have taken up residence as an editor for the Evolution Insti- tute31 where we are beginning the work of applying evo- lutionary thinking to all manner of economic, political, and moral issues. is blending of cultural evolution with a complexity approach to planetary change is meant to weave the pil- lars of knowledge from these domains into the field of culture design – a critical early step on a long journey that remains for an entire generation of culture design- ers to build upon in the decades ahead. I N C L O S I N G , T H E E T H I C A L Q U A N D A R Y Having considered the promise of culture design (pre- serve water supply for the Himalayas) and its dark side (how elites can manipulate to gain control over major swaths of the global economy), we are left in an ethical quandary. is nascent field is already taking form. It currently goes by labels ranging from advertising and marketing to policymaking and business strategy. What it lacks is integration across fields and the ever-important conversation about ethics. As humanity gains this ability to intentionally guide social change, how will we ensure it is used for the highest good? And who decides what that highest good is anyway? It should be obvious that I am an advocate for accelerating the development of this field. my reasoning does not absolve the discussion about ethics or resolve its central challenges. Indeed, those challenges have yet to be publically vetted or articulated at this early stage in the process. What my argument attempts is to draw on a sobering observation – the tools of culture design have so far mostly been used in clandestine ways to advance unpopular and destructive social poli- cies. Whether we use them or not, this activity will continue unabated until it is addressed. is is not without a hint of irony, considering that only a culture design process can bring an end to the unethical use of culture design tools. Go back and read that last sentence again. We don’t have a choice about using culture design. What we dO have a choice about, as a global com- munity, is how it gets used. And so I leave you to ponder this. What do you feel is the best way to move forward from here? I for one am going to continue to write about and apply culture design principles in the public light. It is my way of democratizing this powerful body of tools and knowledge. If everyone knows about culture design, then no one can use it against someone else without his or her knowledge. While this principle may be difficult to apply in practice, harder still would be the management of activities that reside beyond the horizon of ignorance. e risks we don’t know about are threats that cannot be managed. Onward, fellow humans. 8 —————— 1 laya 2011, Do You Pay Enough for Advertising? 2 Booz Allen Hamilton 2014, Reaching Forward: Invent- ing the Future. 3 e minerva Initiative 2015, Program History and Overview. 4 Brewer 2015, Taking Control of the Planet. 5 Rockstrom et al. 2009, Planetary Boundaries. 6 klein 2014, is Changes Everything. 7 Goldin & mariathasan 2014, e Butterfly Defect. 8 Wilson et al. 2014, Evolving the Future. 9 Waldrop 1993, Complexity. 10 feldman 2006, From Molecule to Metaphor. 11 damasio 1994, Descartes’ Error. 12 varela et al. 1993, e Embodied Mind. 13 Richerson & christiansen 2013, Cultural Evolution. 14 Nahon & Hemsley 2013, Going Viral. 15 Holt 2004, How Brands Become Icons. 16 Weimer & vining 2005, Policy Analysis. 17 Rogers 2003, Diffusion of Innovations. 18 Rudder 2014, Dataclysm. 19 mislove et al. 2010, Pulse of the Nation. 20 Wick 2014, What Facebook’s Evolving Social Graph Means. 21 Yee 2006, Motivation for Play in Online Games. 22 IcEs foundation 2014, e Himalaya Project. 23 Ostrom 1990, Governing the Commons. 24 Jones 2012, Masters of the Universe. 25 Washington and lee school of law 2015. 26 Thunert 2013, Conservative Think Tanks in the United States and Canada. 27 callahan 1999, $1 Billion Dollars for Conservative Ideas. 28 Beinhocker 2007, e Origin of Wealth. 29 Rayfield 2015, National student loan debt reaches a bonkers $1.2 trillion. 30 IcEs foundation, <> [Retrieved 15 may 2015]. 31 e Evolution Institute, <http://www.evolution-> [Retrieved 15 may 2015]. 8 J O E B R E W E R | T O O L S F O R C U L T U R E D E S I G N | 7 2
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