It’s good to talk about change.
It’s even better when we actually do it.
by Wolf Lotter
An image of a young female riveter, which was created in 1942 for the Westinghouse corporation in the United States, only achieved fame four decades later – and became a leitmotif not only for the women’s movement. Today we encounter Rosie the Riveter’s resolute gaze on coffee cups, posters, T-shirts and water bottles. The image is an iconic symbol of action. Don’t dither. Get moving.
But is the message still meaningful? Wasn’t that awfully long ago and isn’t the notion of taking action ancient history by now?
Rosie still looks us straight in the eye.
Her image was created after the USA had entered the Second World War. At the time women were routinely replacing men at production lines and work stations. And they weren’t second-rate substitutes. They exceeded all expectations. Never before in human history were so many complex technologies advanced in such a short period of time. A quantum leap was also made in how labour was organised. It is amazing what the combination of systematic research and resolute action is able to achieve. Nothing seemed impossible anymore. That was by no means simply a product of wartime demands and the necessities of defence. Rosie the Riveter and her era also radiate confidence in the future and readiness to take on concrete tasks. Times of great change always bring numerous imponderables and no guarantee of success. But those who tackled the problems quickly realised that the world could be changed for the better. We can do it! The world belongs to the capable and competent.
Rosie reminds us of what we are – agents of change. And above all – doers.
Can we even use that term? It has certainly lost its lustre just about everywhere. It refers not only to those who roll up their sleeves and get going, but also to those who like to talk about challenges – but then prefer to take action for action’s sake as opposed to engaging in productive activity. The producers of many words and few results.
On the one hand, doers can trigger social, economic and moral changes as well as crises. Certainly they always seem to accompany such events and periods. They leave the impression of wanting to solve problems, but without taking action. Their lack of activity cheapens the decisions and the ideas associated with them. The result is a constant stream of talk that leads to little or nothing – the “frenetic stasis” that the philosopher Paul Virilio has called the new normal.
But beware, it pays to look more closely! There are different kinds of doers: the pretenders who present the appearance of wanting to set things in motion, and the contenders – like Rosie the Riveter – who actually tackle the problems. Especially in times of disruption, what is needed is to live and work in a new era. And to develop an eye for real doers, which is not always easy because the pretenders generally attract more attention. They seek the spotlight while others are already coming up with solutions. Without the contenders we wouldn’t move forward. We need them now more than ever.
The 21st century has a long to-do list: grand challenges, mega-problems that affect all of humanity, and open questions for which we need to find concrete answers. Certainly climate change is one of them, as is digitalisation which is fundamentally changing the ways in which we work and live – much like the Industrial Revolution once did.
The question of how to improve mobility is pressing in a world growing both locally and globally. How can we get around without restricting our options to the point of no return?
And the biggest challenge lies in the good news that we are all living longer. Greater prosperity and better healthcare thanks to numerous high-tech advances are helping life expectancies to increase worldwide. But how can we handle the associated changes? Are our social welfare systems able to adapt? Are we prepared to ensure that the process of ageing will no longer be hidden from public view?
Nearly everything involved in solving today’s problems is both complex and systemically interrelated with other fields that have their own problems. Work on one field frequently has a direct effect on other fields. That is also true if we do nothing at all. And something else is common to all of these questions: it’s less a matter of recognising the problems than of putting solutions into practice.
That is a bit odd.
The world is what we make of it. We can also describe this as the normative power of the actual. In both cases we see a constant quality of human nature, namely the fact that we are all doers. Homo sapiens is inevitably Homo faber, a human who creates, who acts deliberately and exerts influence. We are doers, in other words, who are no longer driven solely by destiny and the naked need to survive, but who take the initiative to shape our surroundings and improve our lives. In fact, that is a neat summary of human history. It is our essence. Homo faber is not satisfied with the world as it is. This species knows that it need not leave the world and its things as they are, but that it can change them by careful consideration, comprehension, and implementation of knowledge.
New ground is always being broken, even though there are times in which action and active living fade into the background.
In the Middle Ages people turned to belief and let themselves be driven by destiny. That which we call the modern age is nothing other than reflection on the fact that we need not simply accept everything but are entirely capable of making something out of it. And that is why the launch of this period was also known as the Renaissance, or rebirth. Reflection applies to a number of values from antiquity as well as to what it means to be Homo faber, the humans who do things and create things. Nothing has to remain the way it is. And nothing changes on its own. That approach would lay the foundation for exploration, research and the systematic acquisition of knowledge plus the abilities to put this knowledge into action. The sciences arose and grew, and people were soon distinguishing between theory and practice. But the main feature and major constant of the modern era has remained the propensity to take action, and to take things on. Theory and practice were marked by the principle of learning by doing discovered by Aristotle and rediscovered in the 16th century by the scholar John Comenius. The focus was always on integrating the acquisition of abstract knowledge and the implementation thereof. “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing” was how Aristotle described the principle. It is not a matter of setting as precise a goal as possible and then following a plan as closely as possible, but rather of working up to the goal in the literal sense of the word.
In the process of doing, we learn. All theory is famously grey if it does not allow something to be done with it.
We no longer live in the Middle Ages, of course, but our era has one thing in common with earlier times. Challenges have always appeared too big to be solved. So we may as well not even start. We can make do with the way things are.
That is the second side of our nature that contrasts with our Homo faber capacity. And it has more to do with people in the Middle Ages than we in the 21st century might wish. Let’s wait and let others do something; we’ll see what happens. That attitude applies to both large and small challenges. The idea of procrastinationwas added to the debate a few years ago. It comes from the Latin verb procrastinare, which means something like “postpone”. Appearances deceive. The world doesn’t stand still for those who settle comfortably into their illusions. Whilst some people procrastinate, others take action.
Nothing changes on its own. We just don’t notice it as quickly as we used to. Complex systems tend to mean we aren’t immediately confronted with the consequences of inaction. Society is becoming increasingly segregated into milieus with very specific views of reality. High levels of division of labour amplify this effect.
We are all specialists, which also means that the segments of the world we see may be more detailed than before – but also smaller. Individuals no longer think they are capable of taking action that can launch developments or change their course. Everything outside one’s own milieu appears strange and different. This is another major challenge, and one that is often overlooked. Action precludes the fear of change. It is not a matter of blind fervour, or action simply for the sake thereof. Instead it develops skills for the future. It means the ability to deal with surprises.
That ability will play a key role in a digital knowledge-based society.
Planning was the dominant factor in industrial societies. Mass production and the organisation of masses of people were the basis of the Industrial Revolution for a long period of time. That period brought something most people had not previously known: security, dependability and a plannable life from cradle to grave. True, it all too frequently remained theoretical, but the vision took root and remains an ideal for large parts of society to this day. If you have plans, you can modify their details, monitor and optimise them. That in turn fosters progress – up to the point where you start limiting your own options. Systems are like people once they begin to suffer from diseases of civilisation. But that is generally seen as a disturbance and ignored. The system will right itself again. Let’s wait and see. Developments are repressed until problems get out of hand.
And then we face something that the American economist Clayton Christensen calls disruption, namely an – apparently – sudden break in technologies, organisational forms and systems. The plan implodes. Ambushed by reality.
These are the events that we – in retrospect – should have seen coming, as they say. But that we didn’t see because we were caught in our own web of plans.
The only known antidote to such cases is openness. It consists of replacing narrow plans with more open strategic thought that is worthy of the name. Strategies are open concepts per se, which have much more to do with learning by doing than with plodding step-by-step through a to-do list. They describe a culture of doing. That becomes clear when one recalls the words of the Prussian general and strategic mastermind Helmuth von Moltke. Strategies were a “system of expedients” for him. As a young officer, he had already learned that the more rigid a plan was, the less successful it would be in battle. Every change would inevitably lead to defeat. So von Moltke introduced a foundation on which decisions could be made in flexible ways – depending on the situation. It enabled decisional capacities to be decentralised wherever possible. That in turn creates a need for self-reliance everywhere. And a willingness to keep learning.
What is true of plans also applies to methods. Both are tools that we use when needed, not dogmas on which everything else has to be based. So this also resolves the paradigmatic division between theory and practice that stands in the way of action.
Over 40 years ago the Austrian-American philosopher Paul Feyerabend foresaw precisely that for a knowledge-based society, and described it in his book Against Method. His message consists not only of a call to see the bigger picture – and act in a wider context.
It also lies in the notion of open-minded innovation, whereby monocultures dissolve to form new constellations and perspectives. This introduces more colour into thought. That not only improves results and expands horizons but also has a crucial side effect. New and surprising elements no longer threaten the system and individuals, but rather induce a healthy sense of curiosity.
This makes a crucial difference. Surprise no longer comes as a shock that induces paralysis and stasis, but rather as a challenge that we approach with genuine curiosity.
Curiosity is the engine that drives Homo Faber. It doesn’t appear on command, but at most in response to a friendly invitation. Curiosity cannot be separated from independent thought and action. That is no new insight, but rather one we are well advised to remember these days.
The great successes of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries were not built on a tight corset of planning and methodology, but rather on the realistic interplay of theory and practice. Independent entrepreneurial thought combined research and development with applications.
What was true for machine builders and engineers back then also applied to the pioneering figures in digitalisation. Curiosity with the intent to do something with it drove them into garages and labs. They all wanted to know how things worked and what would result. Perhaps the most fitting designation here is the entrepreneur, namely an individual who does things to see what is possible – or who learns by doing.
Curiosity and strategic thought are essential prerequisites for action. They foster the skills of a doer, namely the capacities to try things out and experiment. Those who focus on risks instead of opportunities may view the notion with mistrust. But the future, innovation and changes for the better will not come without experimentation. An experiment is a clever combination of theory and practice, of reflection and action. It resolves the apparent contradiction between thinking and doing, and brings them together in a natural progression. The future then arises of its own accord.
This is nothing new, but something that is always worth rediscovering. One can find it in the words of the Enlightenment philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: “The only way to recognise the new, is to do it.“
Let’s go for it.
Wolf Lotter is an economic analyst who focuses on transformation, and a founding editor of the brand eins business magazine.
FIELD is a creative studio in London and Berlin, working at the intersection of art, design and technology. In collaboration with progressive brands and agencies, they develop new formats of visual communication across all media – from moving image to immersive experiences.