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Systemic Intelligence in the VUCA World

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
July 24, 2021

The growth of interdependence in the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) world highlights the need to cultivate a systemic intelligence as part of the transversal skills and competencies of public servants. VUCA was first used in 1987 by the United States Army intelligence community to anticipate the emergence of a complex, confusing and diverse global landscape.

Whether or not we agree with the VUCA concept, currently public, private and social organizations around the world must operate and face unprecedented challenges in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous global environment: the COVID-19 pandemic is an irrefutable example of this. Although Michael Skapinker, editor and columnist of The Financial Times, points out in, “The Empty Consolation of ‘VUCA‘ and Other Buzzwords, that the elements represented in VUCA have existed for decades, there is no doubt that these elements today are the main descriptors of our world.

COVID-19 Pandemic: An Advanced Lesson on Systems Thinking and Interdependence

Based on the article, “New Superpower in the Making: Awareness-Based Collective Action by Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), we can say that COVID-19 has become one of the most effective and impactful teachers of our VUCA time. The microscopic pathogen of about 0.000125 millimeters has given us an advanced lesson on systems thinking and interdependence to the more than 7.8 billion people on the planet.

Some of us have already learned this lesson intellectually, but now we are dramatically realizing that we are part of the same global network of social, economic, cultural and environmental connections. Now we know that the distant is not synonymous with alien and that ignoring our fundamental condition of interconnection has led us to design institutions that completely fail at times like this.

In just a few months, COVID-19 went from a low-key outbreak most likely located in a Wuhan market in China’s Hubei province, to a raging global pandemic. The speed and scale of the spread, as well as its social and economic disruptions, have been dramatic, as will its effects in the short and long term. Nothing better to illustrate this situation than the proverb of Chinese origin: “The flapping of the wings of a butterfly can be felt on the other side of the world.”

On the iconic cover of The New Yorker magazine on March 23, 2020, well-known artist Christoph Niemann addresses the spread of the new coronavirus, evoking a world in which the health of an individual and public health are increasingly interdependent. In the image we can see the representation of the sneeze effect on a planet full of dominoes that are falling in an unpredictable sequence.

Interconnection is a critical issue in today’s world. It is clear that the great problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and that they demand a radical change in our thinking, perceptions and values. In his article, “Big Questions Come in Bundles, Hence they Should be Tackled Systemically, the epistemologist, philosopher and physicist Mario Bunge points out that the systemic view does not tell us how to eradicate poverty or crime, but it reminds us that these and all the other social problems come in packages, so they cannot be tackled one by one.

Cross-Cutting Competencies in the VUCA World

At this point, it is convenient to return to the concept of transversal competencies or skills, which are not exclusive to any discipline, but can be applied to a variety of areas, subjects and situations. As part of these, since the 1990s, emotional intelligence has been mentioned as the basis of critical skills such as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and empathy, which allow people to be more innovative and agents of change.

Given the need to adapt people to the demands of an increasingly disruptive world, specialized literature has been giving an account of other types of intelligence. For example, Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, talks to us in his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution of contextual intelligence as the way we understand and apply our knowledge, which allows public servants to develop a multisectoral vision that leads them to be in contact with key actors inside and outside the public administration. Schwab also tells us about inspired intelligence that focuses on fueling the creative impulse and fostering a new collective consciousness much needed for public employees, since it consists of ensuring that innovation is directed to the common good and general interest.

Finally, we will refer to systemic intelligence since the great problems of today require a higher level of awareness at the individual, social and political level. This type of consciousness implies taking into account how we affect and interrelate with the whole. In his article, “The Dawn of System Leadership, Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Academy for Systemic Change, cautions that real change begins by recognizing that we are part of the systems we seek to change. In other words, our actions will not be more effective until we change the nature of the consciousness and the thinking behind the actions.

In the same vein, Otto Scharmer warns in Theory U that, in our disruptive world, it is necessary to change the mindset: switching from seeing the system as something “out there” to seeing the system from a perspective that includes one’s own self. “When you deal with managing change then you know that the bulk of the job is moving people from a ‘silo view’ to a systems view or, in other words, from an ego-system consciousness to an eco-system awareness.”

Systemic Intelligence, a Key Competence for Sustainability

Although systems intelligence is not a recent topic, at no point in history have we needed this type of approach more. In the VUCA environment, the complexity of the great problems that affect well-being and threaten the future of society are expressions of a world characterized by growing interdependence. Ndaruhutse, Jones and Riggall state in their book, Why systems thinking is important for the education sector, that systems thinking is different from linear thinking as it recognizes more complex interdependencies and how multiple components can affect each other in different ways. It also helps to differentiate between the underlying problem and the symptoms of something deeper.

Cross-cutting key competencies identified by UNESCO in its report, Education for Sustainable Development Goals: Learning Objectives, include systems thinking, anticipatory competence, normative competence, collaborative competence, critical thinking competence, self-awareness and integrated problem solving competence. Specifically, systems thinking competence is defined as the ability to recognize and understand relationships; to analyze complex systems; to think of how systems are embedded within different domains and different scales; and to deal with uncertainty.

The development of systemic intelligence as part of the training of 21st century citizens, especially public servants, should be a priority for educational systems, through a curriculum that helps students develop the ability to understand and participate in an increasingly interdependent world. This type of intelligence is a relevant starting point since acting ecologically sustainable means thinking in terms of systems. The systems perspective can lead us to pay attention to our impact on the world and to realize that every day, as citizens and public servants, we can contribute to creating a better future.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico. He co-founder and Vice President since 2014, of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS). He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT. He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb57

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