Thomas Homer-Dixon - Communities, Chaos & Collaboration

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What are the most significant challenges facing society today and why are our typical responses proving ineffective? How can the renewal of our society be fostered? What role can communities play in providing the ingenuity and innovation needed for such a renewal? In this podcast, Mark Cabaj speaks with Thomas Homer-Dixon about the complex economic, ecological and technical challenges we face in the 21st century and how societies can adapt to them.

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Take the Seminar!

Join us as Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down and The Ingenuity Gap, explores challenges facing society today, society renewal, and the role of communities.

Join us as Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down and The Ingenuity Gap, explores challenges facing society today, society renewal, and the role of communities.

 

ChallengesWhat are the most significant challenges facing society today and why are our typical responses proving ineffective? How can the renewal of our society be fostered? What role can communities play in providing the ingenuity and innovation needed for such a renewal? In this session, Mark Cabaj speaks with Thomas Homer-Dixon about the complex economic, ecological and technical challenges we face in the 21st century and how societies can adapt to them.

Learning Objectives:

  • To learn about the some of the most pressing issues facing communities and society in Canada today
  • To explore the mindsets needed to generate innovation in chaotic times
  • To understand more about the role of leadership in responding to the current challenges of our society
  • To investigate the role of “place” in determining how we collaborate to respond to chaotic times

On this page you'll find:

Meet the Thought Leaders

Thomas Homer-Dixon - Thomas Homer-Dixon holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, and is a Professor in the Centre for Environment and Business in the Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo.

Thomas Homer-DixonThomas was born in Victoria, British Columbia and received his B.A. in political science from Carleton University in 1980 and his Ph.D. from MIT in international relations and defence and arms control policy in 1989. He then moved to the University of Toronto to lead several research projects studying the links between environmental stress and violence in developing countries. Recently, his research has focused on threats to global security in the 21st century and on how societies adapt to complex economic, ecological, and technological change.

His books include The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Knopf, Island Press, 2006), which won the 2006 National Business Book Award, The Ingenuity Gap (Knopf, 2000), which won the 2001 Governor General's Non-fiction Award, and Environment, Scarcity, and Violence (Princeton University Press, 1999), which won the Caldwell Prize of the American Political Science Association.

Mark CabajMark Cabaj - Mark Cabaj is a founding Principal of Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement, an organization based in Waterloo, Ontario, focused on assisting people build strong communities through local action.

Mark joined Tamarack in 2002 and is currently the Executive Director of Vibrant Communities - a network of communities and national organizations that use collaborative, comprehensive approaches to substantially reduce poverty within Canada.

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Pressing Issues Facing Canadian Communities

When one hears about crises occurring across the world - whether it’s the economic crisis in Greece or the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - it’s hard to imagine how these dynamics impact Canadians and our communities. For Thomas however, these global situations are manifestations of a complex world that is full of uncertainty. For Canadian communities, the impact of this global uncertainty and complexity is illustrated in ever deepening and widening gulf between who have access to wealth and opportunity and those who do not.

Listen here as Thomas explains the impact of today’s global crises on Canadian communities.

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Living in Chaotic Times: Are We in a New World?

At any one time we hear competing narratives being used to describe our current times. Some argue that what we are seeing in our current global crises is just part of an ongoing cycle which will soon return to stability. Others suggest that the shifts and changes we are witnessing in the world today are examples of chaos which signals that the world as we know it has fundamentally changed.

Thomas believes that the current crises playing out in our world today are symptomatic of a fundamentally new world that has accumulated “debt in many quarters” - economic as well as environmental.

In this clip, Thomas explains why he believes that the “new world” signals a deeper cultural problem that we are being called to address.

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Why Are Our Current Systems Ineffective in Times of Chaos?

Thomas believes that a core challenge facing us is our collective misunderstanding of the nature of the systems that we are living in. Using the example of our current response to the global economic crisis, Thomas illustrates how traditional management approaches assume that our systems can be managed in predictable ways using a mechanistic worldview. This mechanistic worldview, he suggests, is unraveling today. As an alternative, he invites listeners to consider assuming that we are now living within increasingly complex systems with high degrees of uncertainty.

In the clip below, Thomas compares and contrasts the characteristics of mechanistic and complex systems and suggests that complex systems require more “prudence” in our policies and a need to “build for resilience.”

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Innovation and the Prospective Mind

Thomas suggests that adopting a “prospective mind” and embracing innovation are what is required to manage effectively within complex systems filled with uncertainty.  This requires us to let go of our traditional way of doing things in favour of embracing a psychological stance that welcomes change. Three characteristics of this shift include: not being surprised at being surprised; developing enough “slack” within our systems to respond to the unexpected; and, looking for ways to take advantage of opportunities that are created as old systems begin to break down.

Listen here as Thomas explains more about the deep cultural change needed to adopt a “prospective mind.”

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Leadership in Chaotic Times

A reactive response that’s typical in the face of chaos is to demand and expect greater control and more “accountability.” The paradox is that what is actually needed during these times is more creativity. No one person alone can solve the complex problems currently facing us. Instead, we are more apt to find solutions to our current crises by encouraging collaboration, innovation and experimentation. This has implications for the role of leadership as well. Leadership is more likely to resemble being a conductor of a jazz orchestra....nurturing collaboration and creativity across a system.

This clip as Thomas describes the nature of leadership in chaotic times.

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The Importance of “Place” In Responding to Chaotic Times

Thomas believes that one’s “place” - whether a neighbourhood or community - will only become more important in the face of the breakdown of global systems and increasing crises because communities are likely to be where much of the resilience needed to weather the impact of global shocks will be “practically developed and expressed.” He also believes that the diversity of communities, and the range of experiments they are undertaking, is a mirror for the diversity and experimentation so often found in healthy ecological systems.

While his thinking on the role of community continues to evolve, listen here as Thomas explains the important role that communities play in chaotic times.

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Reflection Questions

  1. In what ways are today’s chaotic times impacting you and your community?
  2. What examples of innovation and experimentation are underway in your community illustrate how you are responding to today’s challenges together?
  3. What enables you to lead and supports you in sustaining a psychological stance that welcome’s change and encourages innovation?

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Links & Resources

Thomas Homer-Dixon website - Visit Thomas’ website to learn more about his most recent work, publications and other resources here.

CARBON SHIFT: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change will Define the Future– Thomas Homer-Dixon's latest book Carbon Shift brings together six of Canada’s leading authorities to explore the issue of climate change from the economic, geological, political and scientific perspectives. Order now via Amazon here.

Fear is Good – Thomas’ recent essay, published in the Globe & Mail, explores the value of fear and why Thomas believes its absence contributed to the current economic crisis. Access the essay here.

Thomas' Interview on CBC - CBC's Peter Mansbridge interviews Thomas about his thoughts on our current global political instability and economic uncertainty. Watch the interview here.

2010 Communities Collaborating Institute – Hear and interact with Thomas Homer-Dixon and other renowned thought-leaders first hand at Tamarack’s signature learning event from September 27th to October 1st, 2010 in Kitchener Ontario. Registration now open here.

Catastrophe, Creativity & Renewal: The Upside of Down - In this 2007 online audio seminar, Thomas explores how converging energy, environmental, and political-economic stresses could cause a breakdown of national and global order, and that such a breakdown could open up extraordinary opportunities for creative, bold reform, if we are prepared for them when they arise. Access the seminar here.

Connect with Thomas - Thomas Homer-Dixon can be reached by email here.

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