The Overview Effect, A Catalyst for Systems Change (Part III)

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By Christine PX Tan
Read Part I Here 
Read Part II Here

The Complexity Gap
One of the phenomena that often arises in a complex world is a complexity gap. This emerges from the mismatch between the complexity of our problems and our ability to manage them effectively. We often see this in how traditional institutions are overwhelmed by 21st-century adversities stemming from an exponential rise in interconnectivity, such as climate change, AI governance, global poverty, social inequalities, and more.12

This discrepancy can be explained by how the default paradigms driving our behavior have not yet caught up with the complexity of our planetary challenges. While our environments are non-linear and emergent, our ways of thinking are often linear and reductive. Our past mental models built for less complex environments no longer manage well in novel settings steeped with new orders of magnitude of interconnection.

The Paradigms of the Overview Perspective

To flourish in a complex world, we need to transform our paradigms and embrace those that can help us more deeply appreciate, understand, and change our systems and the insidious problems within them. We need new ways of thinking that are not piecemeal and which go beyond single outcomes and simple boundaries. At the heart of it, in a world that is interconnected, we need new mental models that allow us to see, manage, and harness the beauty of our interconnectedness. I believe that the Overview Effect can be understood as a tool for deep systems change by gifting us with the paradigms we need, yet often lack, to flourish in a complex interdependent world.

Whole Context and Expanded Boundaries
"Nothing exists, and therefore can be understood, in isolation from its context, for it is context that gives meaning to what we think and do."

- Professor Paul Bate

A core part of understanding systems and their problems begins with seeing the whole context. While we often need to draw up boundaries to more quickly navigate the world, such as dividing our whole Earth into separate countries and cities, deeper complications arise when we remain too static in our views and forget that they are of our own creation. In systems, there are rarely clear borders because everything is connected and not in a clean-cut manner.13An example of how a non-holistic perspective can threaten our vision of a more sustainable world is seen in the misguided belief that environmental harms only affect their local environment. However, the Earth is one interconnected system. Seemingly contained air pollution in one part of the world, such as China, can result in ozone pollution far away in another corner of the planet, such as the west coast of the United States - an example of the many phenomena we wouldn't fully comprehend if we only clung to our national borders.14 When our planetary challenges far extend beyond the isolated boundaries we have drawn up, it becomes fundamental to our thriving that we question and expand these boundaries towards our whole context.


"From space I saw Earth—indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone."

- Syrian Astronaut Muhammad Ahmad Faris15

The Overview Effect offers to replace our myopic views of the world with one that is more expansive and more truthfully reflects one of the larger boundaries that unite us all - our whole Earth. The journey to space awards us with the experience of what Timothy Morton describes as "hyperobjects" - massive systems which are often obscure from human perception but whose contact with us can fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe.16

By perceiving the whole that we are a part of, we are compelled to rethink the arbitrary and oversimplified boundaries that are often the sources of our problems and our inability to overcome them. Importantly, it also places our planet Earth in a larger context that we often forget - the context of the solar system and the cosmos of which we are a part of.17

A Planetary Identity

"There's the individual/universal dyad. On the spectrum of consciousness, points of view can be anywhere along that. Most of us are clustered down toward the individual point of view. The moon experience catapulted us toward the other end.”

- Edgar Mitchell
To navigate a complex world, it is not only necessary to acknowledge the whole context that surrounds us but how we relate to it. The Overview Effect isn't just about experiencing something outside of yourself but rather realizing that you are a part of this whole planetary system you see before you.

This transformation matters greatly because the big planetary-level problems of our time require a planetary-level perspective and identity to manage and resolve. The demanding difficulties we face are not isolated to single individuals, countries, or regions. They require us to unite and coordinate at the same level they present themselves - our entire Earth. As an illustration, the tragedy of the commons characterizes how the emergence of system-level catastrophes can follow from agents acting from an individual viewpoint. While a single person has immediate benefits from using fossil fuels, this can snowball into climate change on a global scale. Above all, changing a system necessitates the participation of the entire whole because no one agent has enough power or resources to enact whole systems change.18

Crucially, the reframing of our identities is bolstered by our common fate - the deep understanding that our futures are bound together because we share our one spaceship. Such a new perspective can help lift zero-sum points of view and restore them to the non-zero-sum paradigms needed for cooperation. Against the backdrop of exponential change, the future of our resilience relies on our ability to adapt as an entire system, which hinges on our readiness and willingness to synchronize and move as one whole. And this is what being multi-planetary will require of us - becoming one people.

"Anyone living in a space settlement... will always have an overview. They will see things that we know, but that we don't experience, which is that the Earth is one system. We're all part of that system, and there is a certain unity and coherence to it all."

- Frank White in Overview by Planetary Collective
The Awareness of Our Interconnectedness

A real system, such as our entire planet, is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate from other human beings or the global ecosystem. Just as your heart cannot succeed if your lungs fail, our global economy cannot succeed if the global environment fails. The Overview Effect reminds us of the interconnectedness we possess but too often overlook and neglect.

The awareness of our true interdependence can act as the source of the expansion of our boundaries of compassion, bringing to life a future where no one agent is left out of our spheres of care. Through this, our care and concern can extend to all who share the entire whole we are a part of, beyond the narrow borders we have initially drawn. These new boundaries broaden our horizons of caring not purely for its sake but because it is the reality of our existence - that our flourishing and wellbeing are tied together. This expansion is a necessary step towards beginning to behave and act from a whole-system perspective of compassion. Until we embrace and behave from this ecosystem-level awareness, we will continue to design systems that disproportionately benefit some but not all.

"I believe the most interesting challenge we face... involves seeing and acting from the whole, and that requires us throughout larger systems to wake up to another level of awareness that we collectively begin to operate from.”

- Otto Scharmer

Combined with questioning and reframing the mental models that hold our existing systems in place, the Overview Effect also aligns us with the paradigms that allow us to more deeply comprehend and appreciate our shared complexity.

These are the paradigms that our cosmos continues to gift us with - the whole context of our reality, a new planetary level identity, a fundamental awareness of our interconnectedness, and more. What could the world look like if we lived and breathed these values? If we all embodied the understanding that we are one Earth, that we are one people, and that all we do within this world is not isolated, what could our world become?

Read Part IV Here

Footnotes
12 OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation. (2017). Working with change - OECD. Retrieved April 28, 2022
13 Meadows, D. H., &; Wright, D. (2015). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.
14 Valentine, K. (2015, August 12). China's air pollution is traveling to the United states. hinkProgress. Retrieved May 1, 2022,
15 Hassard, J., & Weisberg, J. (1999). Environmental science on the net: The global thinking project. Good Year Books.
16 Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.
17 Norris, D & White, F. (2015). Leadership Lessons from Outer Space: Bringing the Overview Effect Down to Earth. Journal of Space Philosophy 4, No. 1.
18 Kania, J. & Kramer, M. (2011) Collective Impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review.
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