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What is a ‘progressive’? Part 3 – Interconnectedness

By DJ Kelly February 26, 2010

This post is part 3 in an ongoing series trying to define “what is a ‘progressive’?” in advance of Reboot Alberta 2. You may view part 1 here and part 2 here.

The three ‘pillars’ of progressivism – interconnectedness, understanding and adaptability – are in that particular order for a very specific reason. Although it was not apparent until the very end of the brainstorming session.

When my group at the first Reboot Alberta sat down to have a lively discussion about “what is ‘progressive’” we very quickly determined the first thing an individual needed to progress wisely is understanding of the issue (more on this in my next post). We also relatively quickly came up with the concept of adaptability – i.e. what you do with your understanding – although we did not call it this at the time (more on adaptability two posts from now).

With these two pillars, we thought we had defined ‘progressive thinking’ very well: gain understanding and then be willing to be adaptable in your implementation. However, as time in the session began to draw to a close, we saw the big error in our thinking.

How does one create understanding in the first place?!

Certainly we all think that we have a good deal of understanding. But when you look at the issues in great detail you begin to realize the complexity of the information involved the decision making process. Multiply that complexity by the hundreds of decisions a politician must make during their turn and you begin to see how difficult it must be to actually have good understanding of each and every one of the issues. So, where does understanding come from? Obviously it’s not just a God given thing – we’re not born with it – otherwise politicians (and people in general) would not do dumb things. We would come out of the womb as baby geniuses if this were true.

This is where our group came up with the concept of ‘interconnectedness’.

It’s a simple concept really, the more interconnected you are, the more likely you are to have better information, which leads to better understanding.

When I speak of interconnectedness, I’m really talking about two different kinds of interconnectedness, both of which are part of the whole leading to developing understanding.

The first is your network. The more people you know, the more groups you are involved with, the more conversations you have with people, the more understanding you’ll gain. It’s basically osmosis. Hang around with smart opinionated people and you’re bound to think more like them. (This is a basic tenement of psychology and the political equivalent of your mom saying “if you keep making that face, it will stick like that”.) We go to school and take courses to learn. Without the interconnection between yourself and the teacher, your understanding can not grow as quickly or robustly.

There is another deeper reason for having a larger, smarter network however: to correct you when you’re wrong. The better (in terms of quantity and quality) the input you receive, the greater the likelihood is you will output something worthwhile. This is why it becomes imperative to familiarize yourself with sources of knowledge that differ from what you have traditionally sought. Cognitive dissonance can be a powerful enemy because we are so loathe to fight it; as winning that battle would mean proving we are wrong. Listening to as many voices as possible can lead to better understanding.

If there is one thing I have learned while trying to do this in my own personal life, it is this: even the most seemingly crazy person, has at the root of their rantings, a decent point. A point which should be considered and explored further. (Seriously. Try it. You may be surprised at what great ideas you’ve been dismissing because of the method they’re being delivered via.)

The second kind of interconnectedness comes from systems knowledge. Having the ability to see how a change in one area can affect change in another area and potentially cause a cascade of fallout (good or bad) is a vital skill to have. Especially when dealing with issues as complex as those the average politician encounters on a regular basis.

Thinking each decision we make operates independently of any other issue is simply not how life works. If you decide to stay at home tomorrow, you will encounter entirely different options that you would have if you walked out that door. The same is true in politics. And it goes beyond the basic: if you lower taxes you have to offer less services (although this is a good example). This form of interconnectedness extends to complex issues such as economy and it’s relationship with the environment. Where is the correct balance? We can’t make decisions regarding one, without considering the ramifications in the other. What tools are in place to allow us to examine this balance – if any? Even within the same sector – the economy for example – interconnectedness allows us to examine assumptions. Is GDP the best measure of our economy? What is it measuring? Is basing our entire financial well being on growth for growths sake wise? Being interconnected means being able to make these judgements without leaving any vital piece of information out of the equation.

This form of interconnectedness also applies to time, not just sectors. It forces us to consider both short term and long term outcomes, before ‘understanding’ attempts to strike the proper balance needed after taking into consideration all the various pieces of data available.

The other main reason my Reboot Alberta group added ‘interconnectedness’ to our list of traits of ‘progressiveness’ is because it helps answer what to do after you’ve gone through ‘understanding’ and ‘adaptability’. We struggled with this single line free flow model. Once a decision has been made is that the end of the process? What does one use to gauge the adaptive course forward?

Interconnectedness also allows for a feedback loop to be created. Without this loop adaptability simply could not exist. Instead the model would be problem > understanding > decision. Which, I think can be argued, is far too similar to what we currently most of the time. The feedback loop created by interconnectedness allows for error detection and course correction (adaptability).

Now, what you do with all that information you’ve gathered through your interconnectedness? That is ‘understanding’; and that is the next post in this series.

PS – Despite my best efforts, it does not look like I will complete the final three posts in this series (understanding, adaptability, openness and transparency) before Reboot Alberta 2 begins tonight. I will write these posts still, of course, but, sadly, it will not be before the beginning of the conference.