An illustration of an iceberg, most of which is beneath the surface of the sea. Above: Events and behaviour. Below: Systems.

We need new operating systems. Whose job is that?

Why Open Systems Lab exists, and what we’re trying to do.

To live at the beginning of 2021 is to live with a constant feeling of powerlessness in the face of huge challenges and weird contradictions.

So what’s going on?

When we are looking for explanations or solutions to these kinds of complex, systemic crises, our natural human tendency is to focus on the behaviour of particular individuals or groups, or look to our governments and political leaders to act. And, to be sure, activism and politics will always have a crucial role to play, and these challenges will require principled political leadership. But we tend to overlook the extent to which politicians too are players within a complex game: hemmed-in by constraints and incentives of their own. We like the idea that there is someone, somewhere to blame, but no one thinks that they are the bad guy. Everyone looks for an ethic to fit their paycheque.

Common systems

Start with almost any question or problem (one of the questions we started with was, ‘Why do wealthy countries have housing crises?’), and start scratching at it. Clear away the noisy oversimplifications, false-framings and first order solutions that shroud it, and start to drill-down, and you begin to build a clearer picture of the systemic drivers underpinning that problem (this often also results in redefining the original problem).

The same illustration, only this time it is no longer an iceberg , but a man-made platform floating at sea.

Our systems are failing

As soon as we recognise that these common operating systems were designed, it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that many of them were designed decades, or even centuries ago. For example, most of the knowledge systems we still rely on today were designed during the Enlightenment in response to the printing press. The limited liability company was designed in the mid 19th century. Our system of land ownership was designed in the 11th century. You get the idea. The vast majority of our systems were literally designed in and for a world totally different to the one in which we now live, according to very different values than the ones we hold today. As the historian James Burke put it:

Whose job is it to advance open systems?

This inevitably raises the question: who is responsible for imagining and building these common operating systems? We tend to think of the state as being responsible for setting open standards, chartering institutions and creating new public infrastructures. And certainly, the state has been hugely important in providing funding and space for open innovation — sometimes by accident whilst in pursuit of other strategic social goals. But the organs of the state are not really designed to foster left field thinking and experimental R&D into new ways of doing things. So historically, many open system innovations have tended to come from civic entrepreneurs and inventors, and only later been adopted or used by the state, once already proven to work.

Systems designer. Co-founder Open Systems Lab.

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