Beyond Our Nature – Insights from Davos 2015

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The global challenges facing the world – such as rising poverty, youth unemployment and climate change – are not themes that are new to Davos. What is new for Davos 2015, is a growing realisation that to address these challenges we have to go beyond human nature. Let me explain. Underlying all these global challenges are many stakeholders each of whom have their own approach and way of looking at the world. Take youth unemployment as an example. When young people are able to get jobs it is because many stakeholders work together: companies create jobs for youngsters; governments shape fiscal and regulatory environments that encourage job creation; educators focus on skills that are important to the job market and the young people themselves are motivated and able to look for work. When it works it is because within this complex system, multiple stakeholders are able to understand each other, and to act on this understanding.

And here is the rub. As the neuroscientists at Davos reminded us, we humans are evolutionarily exquisite at working with small groups of people who are very similar to us – and particularly so if they are related. In fact, as Dunbar has shown, anything above 150 people and natural groups break up. We are pre-disposed to like people who are like us, we imitate people we admire, and across our networks our behaviours and attitudes are contagious.

So whilst we are exquisitely evolved to work in tribal groups, little in our evolution prepares us for the sorts of challenges we are now facing. Challenges that can only be solved if we are able to work in huge groups, containing many different types of people, negotiating across complex alliances.

Of course technology (which is accelerating some of these global challenges) is also providing an array of solutions. When thousands of people are able to work together in virtual communities and when their insights are augmented by artificial intelligence, then complex problems are more likely to be understood.

But is understanding sufficient to get them solved? One of the sessions I attended at Davos this year looked more deeply at alliances. What became clear was that the alliances that are capable of addressing these global challenges – indeed of addressing the challenges of innovation and resilience – are extraordinarily complex. They require people who are very different from each other to have some empathy for each others’ position; they require a process to build trust when many of the stakeholders are virtual strangers and don’t spend much time with each other; and they require a process of commitment making that is more complex than much we have seen before.

All of this is indeed possible, but it goes beyond our human nature. So the question I think we face is whether we will be constrained forever by our evolutionary behaviours and attitudes, or whether we are able in a sense to leap beyond them. How we do this then remains the key issue. When human nature changes (for example our attitudes to slavery or women’s rights) it is because across society the narrative and stories change, owing to courageous role models. The societal discourse itself then begins to evolve.

Addressing many of the world’s challenges requires us to move beyond our human nature. Now is the time for stories to be told about how it could be, and for role models to courageously act out collaboration and alliance building beyond the tribe.

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