Design for Loss of Control is an Evolutionary Question

We just published a few thoughts about the design for loss of control on Design Mind.

We’re joining a conversation JP Rangaswami started on his blog Confused of Calcutta in 2006. Last August, Tim Leberecht broadened the discussion to include the design world, and pointed to a number of early efforts at achieving the design for loss of control.

Maybe you’ve heard of the design for loss of control? It’s a philosophy and an approach that recognizes the impossibility of controlling circumstances in today’s world of near-constant disruption, a world characterized by power laws rather than normal probability distributions, a world in which power is shifting from centralized hierarchies to distributed networks of individuals.

Design for loss of control recognizes the center cannot and does not hold. It seeks the forms, institutions, practices, beliefs, dispositions, and leadership styles that will help humans thrive in the face of species-imperiling crises. Since nobody yet knows what this exact design might look like, the endeavor is both exciting and unsettling. We’re leaping into the unknown.

Some companies and design firms have made early efforts to achieve a design for loss of control. These include open ideation/crowdsourcing (openIDEO); open strategy (NPR and its Think-In on the future of digital media); open branding (Continuum’s Transparent Design Project); and open- (source) social networks (Lockheed Martin’s Eureka Streams). These efforts are directionally promising and possibly successful on their own terms. But a deeper look leaves a dissatisfying taste. Most if not all of them appear to jettison one type of control only to re-impose a subtler, more insidious form in its place, as we describe in our piece on design mind.

That’s similar to the risk today’s street protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are running, albeit with their lives more directly on the line: the risk of overthrowing one kind of tyranny only to fall prey to another.

All of which puts us in mind of Einstein’s famous declaration that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Perhaps we’re all prisoner of a paradigm that’s so controlling we can’t conceive of anything but control—even as we try to face up to circumstances increasingly beyond controlling.

Unfortunately, time is short.  There’s a growing consensus that we need a radical rethink of society, politics, business, and the environment—and of the institutions that dominate those domains. That means evolving beyond where we are today, individually and collectively. When we talk about design for loss of control, that’s what we’re really talking about, isn’t it: taking an evolutionary step forward. But how? Is there a tested and replicable process? How do we create an entirely new field of possibility for ourselves as leaders and designers? As a species?

We propose examining the matter through two lenses: biological and historical.

We know that evolution in human beings and in all animals happens in their  neurophysiology—in the core circuitry of the mind and body. Just as a more robust circuit board and wiring network allows a building or machine to handle greater loads of power, so does a more vigorous, higher-capacity nervous system allow humans to engage and integrate informational complexity at higher levels. As they do, they evolve. And that’s the biological point: evolution requires increasing the capacity of our nervous systems.

Meanwhile, as we look towards the past and examine our shared historical and mythical inheritance, we discover a skillful means that trains us exactly how to up-level the capacity of our nervous system so that we can build more power in the face of complexity, dissonance, and conflict.

This process is called the descent. And that’s the historical point: the heroes and heroines of history and legend descended (Greek: katabasis) to find their way during times of transition, uncertainty, and danger. Although the descent is steeped in mystery there are concrete ways to engage it, including a core discipline drawn from the Chinese fighting arts called zhan zhuang, or standing practice, which (along with related practices and disciplines) both initiates and supports the process of descending. As we descend we come face to face with our interior selves, and build a bridge from the interior world to the exterior. We re-design ourselves for evolutionary process. It’s a journey towards knowledge and understanding that is the sheer opposite of the way most of us were trained to be successful in the world. It’s human design .

During the last two decades of our work and research, we have come to understand the power of the descent to teach and disclose the bedrock tools, skills, and practices fundamental to the process of evolution. Our mission is to retrieve the descent from the edges and margins of human culture in order to irrevocably transform the center. The time is now. And the means are at hand.