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Stories of Change

TABULA RASA: Re-Inventing Mental Models for Sustainability

Last time I penned off with a question: How open is your mental model? To answer this question, you should first be aware of the ‘real’ boundaries of your mental model. Many of us think that we are very open-minded people and who are fully conscious of our flaws and exceptional qualities. But, that might be another illusion of ours created to service our own comfort and interests which hinders the development of our ‘self’. The real question is thus – What is your Mental Model?

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Incipient Mental Models

There are things that come naturally to us – we effortlessly make the link between consumption and material well-being; production and output or importance of water for life. From birth itself we are endowed with a certain mental model that allows us to know what we need in order to survive. A newborn baby is aware that she needs her mother’s milk. That is an in-built mental model, however as we age it becomes our responsibility to develop and allow the model to evolve in such a way that we become conscious of the environment we live in: our household, social community, society and as a citizen of the world. We each have our own mental model of the reality that surrounds us and which defines our perspective of the world. However, many of us choose to let our consciousness be dominated by linear line of thoughts. Without realizing it we have adopted a very unsustainable way of viewing things. We overlook many components in our decision-making process as our boundaries are too narrowly set which allows for more unwanted and unforeseen effects as there is more white noise left unidentified. Some sets of boundaries naturally manifest themselves while some need to be nurtured. But how can we nurture our mental models and become more considerate of the world around if we are not even aware of our existing mental model?

In the video link below, Bijoy Goswami, a leadership philosopher speaks about discovering and considering mental models for those who would like a concise introduction to the concept of constructing our own mental model.

Mental Models for Sustainability: Expanding Boundaries (Sternman & Sterling)

How can education equip us with the means to redesign our mental models? The first way of being able to expand our mental models is by relying on feedback loop mechanisms and dynamics. There are many things that are unknown to us until the experience is lived. The pharmaceutical world could discover a new chemical substance in the Amazon forest tomorrow but it is only after going through a process of trial and error that it would know how that element reacts with other medicinal elements. It is only via unprecedented experimentations that it will be able to draw conclusions and observe the side-effects of using such a substance. It is impossible to always be aware of the consequences of every action and decision of ours; especially when we are not conscious of the deeper interconnectedness of the web of life we are part of.

Often if we have not lived that experience we fail to anticipate the consequences of our actions. But once we learn of those consequences we should then use that experience to expand our mental boundary. We can always observe if our expectations meet reality and that realization of the gap between our perceived reality and actual reality is what helps us redefine our own boundaries. We would now know that A leads to B but also causes unintended C. Thus we need to break away from our conventional linear thinking pattern. We must adopt a new posture that will redefine our behavioural patterns. Through such non-linear feedback loops we go back to reassessing action A in order to mitigate or even eliminate the impact of unintended consequence C.

Air pollution and the degradation of our environment was not anyone’s objective. It was a by-product of our quest to industrialise and achieve economic expansion. We were strictly thinking in a very linear way of input into factories and output as the final product and not the taking into account the externalities that were being produced. These externalities are not variables incorporated into our linear equations. However, they cannot be unconsidered forever. And now we have to deal with a problem that is far more complex than the initial equation. Now that the pollution has been created how do we prevent further pollution and compensate for the damage already caused? We are now compelled to think about something that did not cross the minds of our predecessors a century ago. But what if they had the knowledge that by producing  number of goods in Factory A would cause  units of pollution? What if the industrialists and policy makers a century ago were aware of the interconnectedness and interdependence of our ecosystem and industries’ system? Could the outcome have been different? Perhaps; but that is irrelevant in our present context. We are now aware and conscious of the intertwined systems, so we are in a position to not make the same mistakes as our ancestors. We have the knowledge to prevent the further degradation of our society, environment and quality of life.

Blue Print: Causal Loop Mechanism

Now that we have that information about how pollution is created through our daily activities we are in a position to raise our own awareness. We have to become conscious. However, we have been brought up to think in a manner that hinders our own consciousness of things. We expect the unintended consequences to be dealt with by a third party. As John Sterman, Professor of Management at MIT, would say that is the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ that is almost instinctive to humans. The responsibility and blame is always thrown onto another and hence we preserve our misguided linear thoughts that the consequences are not ours to tackle. We cowardly blame people in the system while making ourselves believe that we are helpless pawns in the bigger scheme of things. This is a low-leverage response which breaks down our dynamic feedback loop mechanism. It prevents us from identifying unintended effects of our decision as our mental model is restricted and closed-off. We fail to realise that we are embedded in a far more complex system than we envisage so we do not even know where we stand in this causal loop. We fail to make the link from C back to A. We hence do not consider all the effects that arise from our initial decision. We only have the goal in mind – if our aim was to reach Point B from Point A, as long as we have reached our goal we ignore how our means of getting to B affected the people and events in our life. These things remain unconsidered.

Once we see the relationship between structure and behavior, we can start to understand how systems work. Systems thinking aid us in understanding the interconnectedness of our world. Our world is growing ever more interdependent while we are becoming less aware of this interdependence. Globalisation has shrunk our world but not its problems. But through globalization now the tremors of an event in one corner of the world can be felt in another corner.  Hence, we cannot keep alienating ourselves from problems or issues that we deem do not fall under the category of things we should be concerned about. Creating linkages between different components make us aware of the real problems we need to be tackling. It is like drawing a mind-map.  The underlying interconnectedness between different componentsare often not seen at once. I believe that’s relatable to many aspects in life – we often spot correlations but defining the causal links or interconnected relationships are far more ambiguous.  In a bid to over-rationalise everything around us, we have become automated to thinking in a strictly linear way while we have built ourselves non-linear complexities.

Sustainable Mental Model

Should we be contented by the catchphrase: “Everything has a cost”, instead of applying ourselves to finding viable virtually-costless alternatives? We need to recreate our mental models and move away from the moulded one that we merely adopted from parents and society. There is always more to learn and more to understand. We all inherit a way of thinking as we are quite impressionable people. We absorb knowledge from our environment but how we process that knowledge is determined by our mental model. Are we conscious enough to make linkages without simply reproducing old perceptions created by others? The idea is that we must seek to expand our boundaries of mental models so that “more of this structure is something that can be systematically thought about to get closer to our system and reality”. And more importantly we must be aware that our mental model is never 100% right as it does not truly represent reality. If we are ill-equipped to sense the elements at play in our environment we fail to create a reliable mental model that is the condition for creating information. For example, we could be in an environment where people hold very xenophobic feelings and that influences our mental model that then processes information in a way to reproduce misguided perceptions and prejudices. Thus one nurtures the negative feelings against immigrants. However, if the same person becomes aware that maybe his mental model is restrained and if he expands his boundary further he might change his perception of reality if he considers that there is a shortage of labour in an industry and those immigrants are actually contributing to the country’s welfare. Simply considering one additional variable within someone’s mental model could radically transform their perception in an effort to bring the latter closer to reality.

Education is the way to ensure that this knowledge is transmitted in order to help us evolve in harmony with our surrounding. Education should enhance our competency to develop our senses, imagination and thought to better plan for the future. Regrettably what our current mainstream education does is the opposite. It hinders our ability to think independently and explore our mental models to continuously expand and redefine our own boundaries. We are taught to overlook the interconnectedness of our world and its complexities and hence remain trapped within a basic and mass produced mental model. The economist will think about the economy and the businessman will think about profits and the scientists will be concerned with understanding climate change – and all of those will then come back to feed us information about what a good economy should be like, how to make profits and all that is wrong in the world. We have become automated computers that are merely subject to a third party inputting data and inculcating strict commands about the way we are expected to behave and react in life. We are not encouraged to seek knowledge for our own sake but instead have adopted a culture of obsessing about finding means to make ends meet. There is a dire need for the rethinking of such an education system that relies on such unsustainable ethics and diverges from humanistic values. Education should be the tool that consistently enables one to rethink their mental model.  The next blog shall demonstrate how an effective education system enables this process.

Discover your limits and seek to expand those boundaries to ‘’be the change, you want to see in the world’’ ~ (Mahatma Gandhi)

To Be Continued…

Written by Kritika Treebhoohun
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