New social systems, collective intelligences, and coordination mechanisms are forming to address COVID-19. This essay can be read as a guide to making them even better, or as an evolving index to the best things going on.
The WHO, the CDC, the media, the economy — many traditional institutions are performing poorly. But while these institutions fail, new social systems like endcoronavirus.org are kicking ass. The virus is bringing new social systems to the fore. Innovations are popping up across the entire social stack (see fig 1). Today I’ll explore how to judge these new systems, and where they might be superior to entrenched systems.
But first, a word about our social systems, in general.
In this essay, lots of things will be called social systems. When I use this term, I mean the kind of things in black text in figure 1: systems made of people, who have codified and mutually understood roles and responsibilities. If you mention that you’re part of one, and what your role is, people will understand.
When talking about the pre-crisis social systems we’re all used to, I’ll call them ‘entrenched systems’. Almost all entrenched systems are built on goals: NGOs are built on campaigns and fundraising targets; companies and product teams are built on metrics; individual jobs are all about clear responsibilities, deliverables; etc.
When a new goal arises, such as “getting food to isolated elderly people during corona”, service providers sprout up to serve it. Volunteer corps arise. People transition from other jobs into jobs that serve the new goal. This goal just came into being, but many local groups are organizing around it, and even Jeff Bezos is helping out. Managers are figuring out how to measure progress on the goal.
This handling of goals is a great accomplishment!
But it is only a partial success: in these same systems, values² fall on deaf ears. Imagine being an employee at a large company with a new moral or aesthetic value. How likely is that value to influence your company’s processes? How likely is it to change things out in the market — like a new goal often does?
Because people’s life meaning is more about values than goals, this focus on goals creates a loss of meaning.³ We lose track of why we struggle to meet that business objective; the values that hold communities and democracies together get lost (even amidst a flood of goal-driven activism). We become personally isolated and politically fragmented.
This is why moments of breakdown, like the corona crisis, can be especially meaningful. We forget about our goal-oriented lives, and that makes room for our values.
But we shouldn’t need a crisis to make room for our values.
In this essay, I’ll use ‘viable systems’ for systems that might get us through, not just corona, but many other crises caused by entrenched systems: the climate crisis, the meaning crisis, etc.⁴ Viable systems, when we find them, probably won’t drown out values and meaning the way that entrenched systems do. Because of this, I expect viable systems will likely be more meaningful to participate in and more supportive of individual agency than entrenched systems.
What else can we say about viable systems?