I recently met a French astronaut in the lobby of my hotel in Sweden. He was attending the international Space Conference, and the book in my hands, Design for Growth, caught his attention. He stopped, asked to open the book, and queried, “Do you think scientists can be innovative?”
“Why do you ask?” I responded.
He said after a long pause, “Every year we photograph the Earth from space. Every year we are amazed at the destruction. We see the rain forests and the depletion, the undeniable depletion that spreads and extends year after year. And every year we see the destruction grow without any ability to change it. We are captive, stuck in the quagmire and fearful of stopping our own patterns of consumption. I don’t think we can change or innovate when we are attached to the status quo.”
Then he said something to cut all the subtlety.
“It takes a fracture.” He said.
“Yes,” he said, “I believe that change is only possible upon the experience of a fracture. People can only change once there is a break, the realization of personal loss, a forced change that reduces the desirability or availability of the status quo.”
I left with a realization of the stresses around me, the sensations of near fracturing. Can we really feel these fissures and cultivate the awareness and need for change now before we actually break?
Brain research has observed that once we make an error (e.g. while adding up a column of figures), we tend to repeat it again and again. This is known as persistent error. The same habit occurs when we ponder a problem; as our thoughts take a certain course and that path is followed the next time, it becomes firmer with each use until finally the connection is so well established that the chain is very difficult to break.
We see change and doing the hard work to make it happen as risky. Typically, we perceive risk as something to be avoided, rather than what it is: a deviation from the expected—positive or negative. Deviating and standing out from the crowd of complainers, naysayers and friends can foster innovation and potentially avoid a fracture.
Discomfort with the uncertainty risk brings is the inhibitor of change and innovation. However, the consequence of repeating comfortable patterns is ultimately a fracture, which is itself a form of uncertainty. Therefore, uncertainty is always the constant.
To grow as humans, we must migrate from what we knew gave us comfort or even past success. We all started out naked and hungry and ever attentive to what would provide success and survival. At some point we experienced comfort, then protected it, trying to keep it forever. Governments, institutions and companies do the same.
It is here where change from the status quo, hard work and awareness must happen – for the individual and the collective – to innovate and avoid the fracture— to no longer be held captive by inaction and change the yearly pattern of depletion and destruction seen from space.