Counter-intuitive Methods for Social Invention

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Shosahnah Dubiner

The biggest challenges of our time aren’t being met, but could be, especially with the help of counter-intuitive methods.

In terms of challenges, I’m talking about situations as perilous as the mutual threat of nuclear “retaliation” or the growing evidence on climate change. We remain either in denial or in a kind of suspended animation. Humans are not very adept at meeting threats that are nearly invisible (the nuclear system) or that seem distant (climate change); above all, threats that feel overwhelming (both). Better just humbly to throw up our hands and to hope.

However, there is a set of techniques that are counter-intuitive, but might yield more than the sober methods to which we are accustomed. It was Einstein who pointed out that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

As a “book creation coach,” I was having lunch in 1984 with a potential client, a millionaire who wanted to help end the Cold War. Then, nobody thought the Cold War would ever end. I gently suggested that the goal would be, ah, difficult. “I know it’s impossible,” he said, “but it’s necessary.” (At the end of this article, I will give the names of three authors whom I know who have ironically used the word “impossible” in their book titles.)

Some things that seem impossible defeat our best efforts. Others yield, as the Cold War did in 1989. What this group of challenges shares is the limitations of the paradigm that produced them. We have to think in a new way, as Einstein did, for example, in proposing the theory of special relativity in 1905.

Without wrestling with creative genius, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi does in writing about various forms of creativity, I want to suggest a few methods for approaching predicaments that have seemed intractable. One method is an invitation to imagine what would be possible if we succeeded. A second is games that help us understand another point of view. A third is based on the play of children.

Serious situations such as mutual nuclear threats lead naturally to games of strategy, such as war games, asking “how do we defeat the other side?” But useful as they are, war games are limited by the very way of thinking that makes them necessary. In contrast, what if we imagined a system that would eliminate or drastically reduce the possibility of nuclear war by accident, miscalculation, or the inability to get out of a cycle of threats; and what if we then shifted our attention and ingenuity to solving the problems imposed by this new system?

One suggestion is nuclear abolition, proposed, for example by Jonathan Schell in 1982 , and examined pro and con in 2009 in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, edited by George Perkovich and James M. Acton. Of course, any system involves risk. The goal would be to get rid of the ghastly risk and then deal effectively with the smaller risks. One way to proceed is to imagine success and work back.

Second, how to induce the experience of empathy? As long as we are locked into a position, we find it almost impossible to imagine how the world looks on the other side. In fact, we may project on that side the “shadow” parts of our own self, the parts that are unacceptable. Or, even in the absence of this dynamic, the other side may bring out the worst in people.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962, John F. Kennedy gave a commencement address on world peace. In it, he helped his audience to imagine the experience of his Cold War enemy when they were invaded by the Nazis in 1941: “no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation's territory, including nearly two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland--a loss equivalent to the devastation of this country east of Chicago.”

When I visited Moscow as a citizen diplomat in 1986, Soviets were still talking about this passage. It is unusual for any statesman to describe things as seen from the other side.

A third approach is based on the play of children, on what they do while learning the consensus reality that will both serve them and confine them. How can we encourage ideas as fantastic as kids think up? Most of these ideas will be wrong or useless, but one may flower into something we will treasure. If adopted, the idea will come to seem obvious, even though at first it will sound ridiculous.

What quality is shared by these methods? It is overcoming the fear of being thought frivolous, irrelevant, even treasonous. (It may help to allow participants to get out of their ordinary identities.) I have already written about a meeting of Soviet and U.S. citizens who were invited by the chair to imagine what we could do together if the Cold War ever ended. She presented this as a game: of course almost nobody then expected the Cold War ever to end. The situation was seen as counter-factual. The chair made clear that nobody would be held to what they had said once the exercise ended. We were slow to start, but once the ideas began to flow, people didn't want to stop for lunch. The sad fact that these ideas were neglected by post-Cold War leaders does not invalidate the exercise, but rather, shows the need to make such exercises central.

What we need are games not only of strategy, but also of social invention.

As in natural science, guardians of the paradigm have an honorable role, but we also need wild-seeming conjectures. How to deputize people to generate these conjectures, to explore them, to play with what is pivotal?

Now, here are the books that are by friends who use “impossible” in their titles:

Sharon Tennison, The Power of Impossible Ideas: Ordinary Citizens’ Extraordinary Efforts to Avert International Crises (2012) about citizen diplomacy

Paul Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times (2014) about political activism

Dean Walker, The Impossible Conversation: Choosing Reconnection and Resilience at the End of Business as Usual (2017) about responses to climate change

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