Governing in the Future

Photo by Allec Gomes on Unsplash

To paraphrase William Ruckelshaus,

the Agriculture and Industrial Revolution were gradual, spontaneous and largely unconscious, but the Sustainability Revolution will have to be a fully conscious operation guided by the best foresight that science can provide.

Our governing institutions have always been updated and changed according to the requirements or challenges of that tiem and context. As we stand on the brink of a collapse of the natural systems we rely on, the current governing instiutions and design will need a conscious update with the long-term perspective in mind. For society to continue to evolve, it is clear that we need to bring our activities into the boundaries of what the planet can support. At the same time, the continued development of human society and the knowledge produced have given us great innovations that improve human lives. These innovations, whether technical or social, have yet to reach all people on the planet. I believe this ought to be the goal for the next iteration of an institutional upgrade, and the best summary of this is made by Kate Raworth in her Donut Economics framework.

In my reading about the future of goverance, I have stumbled upon several kinds of institutional designs and frameworks to achieve a sustainable and more inclusive society. These framework have similarities and differences, and come at the challenge from different perspectives. If you happen to sit on relevant resource or have interest in this content, don't hesitate to get in touch.


Montesquieu wrote The Spirit of Law, outlining the theory of seperation of powers, in the context of balancing the political power between the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the commons. This framework have supported many nations to transition from monarchies and dictatorships into republics or other form of democracies. Hanzi Freinacht refers to this as an attractor point that was right in its context and time to improve society.

The five technological revolutions was described by Charlota Perez in her work titled "Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital".

However, since the time of Montesquieu, the world has gone through five technological revolutions, which according to some scientists have brought us in to the Anthropocene. The human society are now the main force shaping the geological features of the planet. Although these immensely powerful technological forces have been unleashed with market forces, our institutions have not been redesigned for balancing this power.

Systems Thinking at the Core of Goverance

In their book The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking: Governance in a Climate Emergency, Ray Ison and Ed Straw who are systems thinking educators and practitioners at the Open University, outline a new set of ideas to redraw the boundaries of governance in the Anthropocene. They start out by looking at the current seperation of powers, including the private sector and media.

A generic model of the existing ‘two-dimensional’ governance ‘diamond’, no longer adequate to human circumstances.

This two-dimensional diamond is a visualization to help us consider where the boundaries are drawn and the elements that are included (and missing). They point out that these elements cannot exist in isolation, but rather arise in interaction with each other generating the current checks and balances of society. However, they argue that as with all boundaries drawn, the boundary of the state is also a human invention and deserve to be questioned in the face of the challenges society are facing.

A three-dimensional ‘governance diamond’: a heuristic that situates three new elements into the systemic relations that generate the praxis of governing, viz. the biosphere, the technosphere and institutions that generate social purpose.

The Biosphere

Based on this question, Ison and Straw suggest introducing three missing elements (or institutions) to create a three-dimensional diamond of goverance. First of all, they make it explicit that all other human institutions are interdependent on the biosphere, and hence all other institutions must consider their relationship to the biosphere in all their actions and commitments. They criticize classical economic models where the biosphere have always excluded and referred to as "externalities", or the triple-bottom-line of the social, economic and ecological. However, as such discourses doesn't clearly describe our interdependence with, or simply us being a part of, the biosphere, Ison and Straw suggest to abandon such ideas.

The Technosphere

The second institution introduced is the technosphere, as coined by the scientist Peter Haff:

all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive, in very large numbers now, on the planet: houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports and shipping ports, computer systems, together with its discarded waste.

Most of human activity is empowered by technology. We started with making fires and today we access information through tiny screen devices. This development have of late mainly been driven by market forces, thus lacking a direction. For navigating the Anthropocene, it is clear that we need to make our use of technology a political issue in order to use these powers consciously.

Social Purpose

Last but not least is the institution for social purpose which considers the role and narrative of citizens. In so-called "Blue Zones" with extraordinary life expectancy, studies show that people have a reason for why they wake up in the morning, and that such a purpose can add 7 years to ones life. However, in the current paradigm, we are often put on the "labor market" to match a need with our abilities. Most people go through their career without a strong sense of purpose or sense of citizenship. By including the idea of social purpose, both among individuals, organisation and society at large, we can be better govern the Anthropocene with inclusive decision-making and a sense of citizenship.

In summary, Ison and Straw go on to give detailed examples of how systems thinking can be applied to goverance on different levels within the public administration.

The Nordic Ideology and Six New Forms of Politics

The fate of billions depends on a successful development of politics to match the growing complexity of the world if we are to avoid social disintegration and ecological collapse. Modern politics leaves us severely underequipped at productively addressing these new life conditions that technological progress, global interconnectedness and existential threats to civilization bring about. The arena of national democracy is just too limited in scope, state legislation too feeble a tool, and governmental institutions too ill-prepared and uninformed to prevent run-amok technologies, the unrestrained powers of multinational companies and the continuous destruction of the environment from causing immense suffering and death. Politics needs to evolve.

Modern society is out of its depth; its scope is too limited and its influence too shallow to develop the cultures, psychologies and behaviors needed to keep up with its emergent structural complexity.

Freinacht, Hanzi. Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two (Metamodern Guides 2) (pp. 171-172)

While both Ison and Straw and Hanzi Freinacht expand the boundary for what should be considered in goverance, they come at it from slightly different perspective. In the core of the Three-Dimensional Diamind is a new process based on systems thinking in practice across all levels of government. In contrast, Hanzi Freinacht mainly comes from an developmental stage perspective on both individuals and societies. From my understanding, Hanzi sees the society not on par with the complexity it exist within, hence must quickly develop to the next stage to properly meet these challenges. Despite these different perspectives, the frameworks proposed from both authors have significant similarities.

On top of the current institutions that exist, Hanzi suggest creating six additional institutions that can take society to the next stage, as well as the next attractor point. However, these six new forms of politics are a new set of checks and balances that keep each other in check. For instance, without Empirical Politics, there is a risk that Existential Politics leds to a lot of non-effective mumbo-jumbo.

The six new forms of politics, all part of one emergent, “intra-relational” balance: None of the six forms are fully possible without the others, and the very meaning of each new kind of politics changes depending on how the others develop. - Hanzi

Hanzi define these six new forms of politics as following:

Just as Ison and Straw do not set the biosphere, technosphere or social purpose within the boundary of the state, neither does Hanzi in terms of these six new forms of politics. Rather than policies or interventions, Hanzi emphasize that these must be processes that are developed through self-organization. The state, civil society or media can all bring these aspects into the public arena. Hanzi explains it better than I can as he state:

The manifestation of these six new processes includes several ingredients: they must become seriously considered political issues that are discussed in the public debate, they must have batteries of interventions and experts working with them, and there must be serious efforts to expand this knowledge and understanding through the social and behavioral sciences—i.e. they must become part and parcel of academic life as well. There must be educational and career paths for people who want to work with these issues, and there must be sufficient recognition of this work. That’s how we get the new processes of society’s self-organization going. Why, then, is a process so much more powerful than any specific policy position or any one “concrete action”? It is because a process consists of a multitude of countless concrete actions that build upon and are coordinated with each other in a coherent, larger pattern. And because there is an ongoing flow of new actions taken, the process can begin to flow in new directions. It is flexible, but still has continuity and an overarching theme. If you want to build a skyscraper, it requires many people to understand roughly what a skyscraper is and what it means to build one. The same goes for large, societal processes. You need to name them, define them, discuss them, and keep developing your understanding of them. The second point to note is that we’re not—at this point—taking a hard stance on whether these new forms of politics should rely upon state bureaucracy, market solutions or civil society. The only thing that is certain, I would argue, is that the state cannot be entirely left out. It is going to have to involve political parties and other groups, advancing these issues in a political arena. But the extent to which markets and civil society can and should be relied upon is beyond the current scope of inquiry. No doubt, the answers to this question can and will vary across different countries and historical circumstances: some societies have more robust public institutions to build upon, other livelier civil societies, and yet others more dynamic markets.

What I find empowering with both of these frameworks is that whatever position you hold in society, you can begin to self-organize and include these different areas into your own organization. As a civil society organization, you can include the biosphere into the organizations constitution. As a private company, you can create more democratic principles of taking decisions within the organisation. Government agencies can begin to value the community relationships and fund the most effective civil society groups engaged in such a mission.

WARNING! The following section is still a work-in-progress

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Jonathan Nylander © 2020