How institutions can change its old habits of doing things in the 'Age of Transformation': The Statesman

The Place de la Republique is covered in hundreds of pairs of shoes on Nov 29, 2015, in downtown Paris.
The Place de la Republique is covered in hundreds of pairs of shoes on Nov 29, 2015, in downtown Paris.PHOTO: AFP

New challenges in the Age of Transformation - such as human migration, climate change, and the growth of the Internet - demand that states, associations, and individuals be more collaborative, more democratic and more open.

The world is at a crossroads, where cultures and nations are increasingly forced into considering new approaches to old ways of doing things.

Societies across the globe are simultaneously reaping benefits from collaborative discoveries in medicine, engineering, and agriculture, while still suffering from the consequences of religious intolerance, economic inequality and territorial incursions.

To locate the ‘Still Centre’ - to quote the title of a poem by Stephen Spender - it is high time that we acknowledge what United States Secretary of State John Kerry recently observed at an international venue on climate change and national security: “The world is so extraordinarily interconnected today -economically, technologically, militarily, in every imaginable way…. Instability can be a threat to stability everywhere.”

We live in the Age of Transformation, in which the home has met the world. How can local institutions change the old habits of doing things? Sociologists have long been investigating ideas and practices that tend to transmute old values and norms.

In the twenty-first century, values will not be commanded by a single unifying grand truth, but by a competing ‘plurality of values’ as the late Sir Isaiah Berlin framed it. Social organisations that practice the spirit of unity, the art of reconciliation, and interpersonal collaboration will fit in today’s marketplace of ideas and truths. Given the global nature of business today, the old-fashioned vertical managerial structure will not be the most practical way to increase productivity and worker morale. Cooperation and collaboration are fast becoming corporate norms.

Similarly, the centuries-old classroom learning style of active teachers instructing passive students is being redesigned because of its inability to prepare students for their global challenges.

Both national stability and household welfare demand that we think critically. During a famous meeting between Tagore and Einstein, the latter was quoted as saying: “We think that we think clearly, but that’s only because we don’t think clearly.” Systematic thinking requires moderation. Aristotle believed that human virtue is the mean between extremes of deficiency and excess. Being virtuous, he taught, is a matter of temperance, moderation, and balance. For Buddha, institutions that filter and scrutinise beliefs and customs are the stepping stones to stability and happiness.

Today’s leaders in command economies ignore that in the twenty-first century nation-building is not about keeping a firm grip on the stale tools of power and finance. Rather, the primary task of leaders at all levels is to disentangle ideological opinions and false claims from truth. In other words, the task of leaders is to germinate and develop institutions that have the potential to promote a culture of understanding. 

Three factors - namely, human migration, climate change, and the Internet -are charting the new course of human history.

Human Migration

The current global mobility of families and individuals across seas and lands is extending ethnic, religious, and cultural boundaries of states, languages, and religions. In 2013, the European Union estimated that there were 1.4 million international migrants. In February 2015, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon urged the member states “to bring together different policy areas related to migration and refugee flows, and discuss enhanced cooperation”. Not surprisingly, the scope and size of the human displacements are challenging both governmental and private agencies concerned with protecting human rights, teaching foreign languages, and implementing job-training programs. On the other hand, for nativists, foreign migrants have become the fodder for radical parties and politicians, who are stoking angry and fearful narcissism to garner votes. The recent non-binding agreement in Paris at the 21st Session of the United Nations’ Climate Conference, attended by 195 nations, has connected the dots between human displacements and global warming. 

For some time, meteorologists have noted that, however indirectly, mass migration and physical damages are associated with climate fluctuations. Physical scientists claim that climate change is one factor that may have contributed to the war in Sudan. Other scholars have found clear evidence to support the premise that much of the Syrian conflict today can be attributed to an extensive drought. Articles 49 and 50 of the Climate Conference text request member states “to establish a task force to develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimise, and address displacement related to adverse impacts of climate change”.

Climate Change

The Climate Conference agreement in Paris reflects a global determination to address the survival of Planet Earth. Scientific evidence is undeniable that the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate. Calendar year 2015 is on track to becoming the hottest year ever recorded in history. The severe consequences of global warming are already occurring in places like China, where one of the world’s largest glaciers, the Mengke Glacier in Gansu Province, is threatening much of Asia’s downstream water supply.

The representatives of the countries assembled in Paris agreed to a common plan of being good stewards of the planet. The eminent social psychologists Muzafer Sherif and his wife, Carolyn W. Sherif, coined the term superordinate goals to designate “efforts toward commonly desired goals which (cannot) be ignored by group members, but whose attainment (is) beyond the resources and efforts of one group alone”.

At the elite level, politicians, business executives, climate scientists, and philanthropists have agreed to curb the greenhouse effect of chlorofluorocarbons and to accelerate clean-energy research and development. Additional recommendations are pending to resettle individuals from lands that are being inundated by rising sea levels, from Bangladesh and Mauritius to the Maldives and the Pacific Islands.

A historic breakthrough was reached when China and the United States recently agreed to slash greenhouse emissions and accelerate clean-energy R&D. Climate reformers are reminding the citizens of the world that the rich and the poor axis can be resolved in a fundamental way whereby globalisation does not produce polarization. The Copenhagen Accord of 2009 obligates wealthy nations to set aside US$100 billion annually to subsidise poor countries, both to “shift to low-carbon energy sources and (to) prepare for the impacts that can no longer be prevented”. On an optimistic note, wealthy developed nations have already provided US$62 billion in climate aid to poor developing nations.

Meanwhile, economic reorientation by moving away from fossil fuels is already under way in many of the developed states. Most notably, the world’s largest sovereign-wealth fund, Norway’s $890 billion Government Pension Fund Global, has divested all of its holdings in coal companies.

The Internet

It may come as a surprise to some readers that the Internet is no more than two decades old. As recently as the end of the 1990s, the Director of the Institute for Tele-Communications at Columbia University, Professor EM Noam, predicted that “when the media history of the 20th century will be written, the Internet will be seen as its major contribution”. The science of the Internet may trace its conceptual origin to physics. However, the political rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States expedited its use by ordinary people. As a response to the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, the US Defense Department funded the ‘hi-tec’ network program, which was kept classified for four decades, until the decision was made to open it to the world as what we now know as the Internet.

Today, the footprints of the Internet have grown exponentially, so that authoritarian governments are having a difficult time controlling the flow of information among their people. Microsoft pioneer Bill Gates has compared the Internet to a “trade route” on which an individual with a global passport can “surf” distant worlds of knowledge and information. The Internet, says Gates, “will allow all the goods in the world (to be) available for you to examine, compare, and often customise”.

To summarise, the Age of Transformation is being hastened by three man-made events: human migration, climate change, and the Internet. To meet these challenges, the new millennium demands that states, associations, and individuals be more collaborative, more plural, more democratic, more open - in a word, more human. A recent survey of the Japanese population concerning the ‘social and cultural factors supporting technological developments’ found that the Japanese favoured an egalitarian community with ‘specialised technology in small and medium-sized companies’. Nonetheless, the respondents wished to continue ‘a tradition of respect for human relations’ by honouring human worth, sustaining the planet’s ecology, and producing efficient technologies.

The writer is an emeritus professor of sociology.