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Commentary Article November 11th, 2021
Legitimacy • Justice • Innovation • Delivery

In search of collective wisdom

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In his new book 'Let’s be human: In search of collective wisdom', CPI Fellow & Director General of @iborganization @Heino1Olli shares ​​his thinking on how we can make sense of a complicated world

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How can we be happy with the solutions in our own lives so that they are sustainable for other people, future generations and nature? @Heino1Olli calls for a different approach which values collective wisdom

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"We need to do more to ensure that we are making the most of the resources at our disposal, so that all the people of the world and the unborn generations have the opportunity to live a prosperous life." @Heino1Olli

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In his new book, Let’s be human: In search of collective wisdom, CPI Fellow and Director General of the International Baccalaureate, Olli-Pekka Heinonen, shares ​​his thinking on how we can make sense of a complicated world. 

Heinonen previously served as Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) - often described as one of the best in the world - and was one of the leading proponents of the ‘humble government’ approach to governance in Finland. 

Let’s be human (Tammi, 2021) will be published on 9 November. It is currently only available in Finnish. The book addresses the challenges of the modern world and explores how individuals and humankind can make change by creating the conditions for learning, on an individual, national and global level. To coincide with the book’s publication this week, here he reflects on some of the key ideas it explores.

The complex challenges we face require a different approach  

We live in meaningful times. We have solved many of the world’s problems, and the health and wealth of many have increased considerably. It is probably better to be born now than it has been at any time before. However, at the same time, the ways in which we have solved our problems have created new and more complex ones. The risks connected to the new problems are global in nature, fast to expand and difficult to fully comprehend. For that reason, it is probably the most challenging time for us, as a species, to live on earth.

Mankind has created outcomes that nobody would like to see. We, as individuals, lack the capacity to understand our collective power, for good or for evil. 

We are used to thinking that we can rely upon new technologies, innovations and political decision- makers to solve our problems. This continues to be the case, but I don’t think it is enough to tackle the global challenges that we currently face. 

The meta-crisis we are living in is social and adaptable, and therefore connected to the ways we live and behave. The risks of climate change, biodiversity loss, growing inequality, polarised sense-making, etc., arise from a crisis of meaning. One that is connected to the way we see ourselves, others and the world around us. Continuing with the same thinking and expecting different outcomes would be madness. In order to transform, it will be necessary to rise to a new level of thinking and action that responds to complex challenges. Renewal will require the systematic and systemic use of human strengths.

Valuing our collective wisdom 

Transformation requires us to combine all the specialisation and deep knowledge of the many different scientific disciplines we have created, at a new, more complex, level. This is about human consciousness as the connection of the senses, the body, the thoughts, the feelings, the memories and the mind. It is about understanding the development of the mind as embodied, embedded, enacted and extended. It is about valuing our collective wisdom for the benefit of individuals, communities, society and at a planetary level. 

And at the cultural level, it is about strengthening the common language and interaction of science, the arts, religions and beliefs, old and new stories. There is no need to give up the strengths and perspectives provided by specialisation. Instead, strengths and different perspectives need to be brought together to achieve a more holistic and high-quality understanding and collective wisdom.

At the individual, community, societal, and global levels, many basic things work the same way. Individual self-reflection, community dialogue, the renewal of society through portfolio thinking, and planetary ethics are based on the learning loop of inquiry, action and reflection. The different layers support each other and are interdependent.

A connected, global community 

The versatile and connected mind is flexible and able to function in a variety of situations and challenges. A diverse community is adaptive and able to recover from crises and live with change. A multifaceted society is open and functional and does not drift into chaos in the face of crises, or retreat into a rigid black-and-white picture of reality. And the global community, which seeks to strengthen the conditions for life and takes care of its biodiversity, is diversifying risks and improving its conditions for recovery in the face of unexpected disasters.

Citizens need to be involved in public, private and academic partnerships. Pioneering is not created by defeating critics, but by reconciling the threats raised by criticism with opportunities for innovation. Empathy ties the stories of fear and success together.

This is already happening. New kinds of models of community decision-making, mediation, sense-making and dialogue are emerging all around us like mushrooms in a rainy autumn. They resemble small fungi; you can't see them from afar, but when you learn to look, there are hundreds at your feet. The meaning of life can be found in small practical solutions. They rarely reach the spotlight of public debate, unlike hate speech and confrontation.

Being human together 

In the words of John Dewey:

New can only arise from people encountering unknown things and discussing them together.

In the future, many things will be unknown to all of us, so the only option is to deal with them together.

We need tools and an understanding of how to be human together. How can we live, doing good things for ourselves, that are good for others as well? How can we be happy with the solutions in our own lives so that they are sustainable for other people, future generations and nature? How can we help unravel tensions arising from different perspectives and use them as a resource? How do we reconcile different values which draw their strength from opposing each other? How can we grow in harmony together?

Creating a more balanced and sustainable future 

These are hard questions. And an even more difficult question, the challenge of our time before us here and now: what would 8 billion people in the world do to ensure the continuation of life and prosperity for future generations well into the future? If we approached these issues with an ethically sustainable starting point, good intentions and the same level of investment and enthusiasm as we have shaped our world to increase economic wealth, the world would become a better place for everyone, nature and future generations included. It will take time and energy, but less time and energy than repairing the damage of not doing so. It will create some failures, but following this approach, we can move forward.

We have been very effective in turning natural resources into economic resources. Now we need to think about how to turn financial resources into natural resources. We need to grow out of the idea of Mother Earth, where we are the children who use their mother’s resources with abandon. Growing up means moving to a more balanced relationship and co-development, where receiving and giving are reciprocal and allow for conscious ethical and sustainable decisions rather than mere being.

We need to show that we are not a parasite that, when it kills its host, also destroys its habitat. We have the burden of proving that we know how to live in a symbiotic ecosystem. We need to ensure that future generations have the opportunity to experience the miracle of life, make their own choices and live a dignified future.

We have the tools to solve these challenges 

We have better technology and tools than ever before. Instead of using technology to reinforce our weaknesses and distortions, like we are doing via social media now, we should use it to eliminate our weaknesses. We are rich when all the knowledge of the world, crystals of thought and wisdom from mythical stories to the latest insights, discoveries of science and creations of art are within our reach. We have a better chance of generating wellbeing and prosperity than ever before, strengthening human spiritual growth and the wellbeing of humanity in ways never seen before.

We are rich when all the knowledge of the world, crystals of thought and wisdom from mythical stories to the latest insights, discoveries of science and creations of art are within our reach.

We also have significant institutions and systems capable of implementation. Economic, political, nation-state and civil society institutions and communities will be able to bring about the necessary changes if our mind-maps and world views are up to the challenge.

I do believe we have the capabilities to solve the challenges we are faced with. We have everything we need to learn to act in the present moment so that in the future there are more options to choose from. That is real sustainable development. But, we need to do more to ensure that we are making the most of the resources at our disposal, so that all the people of the world and the unborn generations have the opportunity to live a prosperous life.

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Interested in exploring some of these ideas further?

We’ve been exploring how Human Learning Systems can offer a complexity-friendly approach to public service delivery in line with our emerging vision for government. Join our upcoming International Community of Practice launch event, to hear from Olli-Pekka Heinonen and others working in and around government.

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Written by:

Olli-Pekka Heinonen Director General, International Baccalaureate Organization
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