Milan, late afternoon in any given weekday. The traffic is intense as usual at this hour, to so many people leaving work late, commuting to their homes; we may add those who are going out to have fun somewhere.

At the intersection of two important streets the traffic light is off, probably broken, it doesn’t even blink. The street resembles a little “battle field”. In such an unusual situation where rules are suspended, for some, even if they are normally calm people, there is the feel of need of prevailing over one another. We observe attentively with our keen senses. Some try to understand other people’s behavior in order not cause accidents, but many seem to try to enjoy the suspended authority to impose the law of the strongest or the least respectful. It is as if they are living in an emergency situation, a moment out of rules and out of the ordinary, in which the effect on many of us is that of feeling free for behaving aggressively, even irresponsibly.

Same time and same intersection. Today the traffic light is working and traffic is perfectly according to the rules. The law, or if you may, the accredited authority is watching. We let ourselves be guided by the luminous signs of the traffic light and their meanings as behaviors we have to adopt. The intersection is organized but no one looks at anyone. Senses are disconnected and we do not try to stablish contact with one another. We tenderly follow what was taught to us, letting the rules and the act of following them be the form of not having trouble.  We seem to wake up only when someone misbehaving annoys us, because it infringes rules of the driving code or the correctly way of behaving set by human or beyond human authority, in who we believe. Responsibility for our behavior compared to others’ and the ones around us, seems to be far away. It is not a matter of relationships with others and the environment, but in respecting rules.

Again, same time and same intersection. This time, the traffic light is blinking yellow. We get to the intersection, slow down and looking from one car to the other try to make contact to read their intentions. All our senses are keen in order to understand the others and the situations. Someone even turns the radio down to better perceive the surroundings. The authority is present and signalizes using the blinking yellow light, but it seems like we interpret it not as an imposition but as an advice: slow down! Be aware… of yourself and the others. Unconsciously we notice a situation where there are rules, but we are encouraged to assume a more responsible behavior, not by respecting the rule, but by the ability of establishing relationships.

With all due simplifications, the intersection is a great metaphor to reflect on the society we have built, on our behavior and the relationship between the world and us. What rises from reading society through this metaphor is the complex search for balance between rules and relationships. Between a system which favors relationships, and one which demands respect for rules. Between a centralized order based on regulations, and a diffuse order based on behavior. In case we still want to raise the bar, we can put ourselves on extreme ends, in one end the Rights (rules created by men) and on the other end Biology, behavioral system we have on our social animal DNA.

Leonardo Caffo, young Italian philosopher, in some of his works wonders about these two ends to reflect on the real essence of ethics. Thinking about the difference between ethics and morale, he defines ethics of movement and thinking on what moves people’s behavior regarding what is around them, the concept of human flock:  «there is and there will always be a flock movement, in which each of us follows a companion to steer the individual body we compose towards a larger goal ».  

Such considerations must be read in the light of cultural evolution of society, through the creation of what anthropologists call imagined order. Imagined order is fruit of our imagination and is created for a great number of people to be able to live and cooperate together. Cooperation between people who do not know each other directly, the circle of us and them, sociologists would say, is based on the reciprocal trust given to the values they believe in.

As historian Yuval N. Harary writes: “we believe in a particular imagined order not because it is objectively true, but because by believing in it, we believe we are in an effective cooperative situation and creating a better society”. We must inquire what the imagined order in which we believe today is. In a world in which usually the circle of me corresponds to that of us and with new possibility and risks caused by the exponential technology acceleration.

As we know, the values in which we believe are not limited to our minds and our speeches, but it is a strict relation between the imagined order and how we organize material reality around us. So that the imagined order is really understood, accredited and not question, we must grow up with the representation of values of said order around us. What we are saying is that the system we created and in which we live will not be limited to organize the world, but it will influence and form the way people think and act. This applies either for larger systems, as nations or large corporations, as to smaller systems as small businesses and communities. However, the difference is as people grow and form themselves in the collaborative system thought on a large scale, in the end the effects affect also the small one. The mentality constituted on the system based on a great number of people who do not know each other, in the end, it will affect also the small communities where, on the other hand, it is possible to be in direct contact with everybody.

Thinking about the intersection metaphor we may then conclude that a system centered on the respect for the rules probably will form people who are respectful of the “traffic light”, but who are not attentive to the relationship with people around. On another end, in a system with more space for relationships, the intersection will work chaotically, due to good and bad, more flexible interpretations or the rules, but people will be more used to establish relationships. Certainly, for both, the central point is the individual growth and the education system, understood as school and society.

Although it is too easy when put like that. It would be enough to agree on what we want and which are the values and aims we share, and consequently build what is around us. Unfortunately, reality is very different and reasons are several. There is at least another element to be taken into account. We must be aware that the choices we make to organize the world around us, albeit made with reason and good faith, shall generate, if the people who thought of them were smart, but there will also be effects that are difficult to predict and which we will notice only as time passes. In fact, we are talking about what is set as an Adaptive Complex System. Simplifying, a system of this kind is characterized by non-linear relations, which may generate unpredictable complex behaviors. The more elements are included in this relation the more complex and unpredictable the system will be.

Human history is punctuated by myths, theories and inventions in many areas and subjects, which have generated views, decisions and choices, made to face questions or needs of the time. What we defined or discovered in that moment has, then, influenced on later years and centuries the way of thinking, acting and organizing the world also in an unpredictable manner. Unpredictable implications that were positive or negative. A process of “undercurrent” that normally occurs in a long period, and when we notice the unpredictable effects it is because they have evidently become problems.  This probably depends on some aspects connected to the time factor and to the human factor. First, in this brief period we can concentrate deeply in what we are doing and how we are doing it losing sight of why. The second aspect instead, is regarding the tendency we have to solve problems with solutions we thought in the short term, not considering the complexity in the long term, what today is a solution, tomorrow may become a problem. The third aspect, and maybe that which is the most important, regards the little predictability of human behavior and the assumption on the part of who makes decisions and must evaluate their impact, of a model of an ideal man who acts always in a rational and predictable manner.

The intersection as a metaphor of the world is really interesting because it allows us to compare, ideally and in reality, the model in force based on respecting rules – working traffic light with an authority watching and punishing infractions – to other cooperative models.  We have the possibility to assess and see predicted and unpredicted effects, positive and negative, and we can observe and reflect on how our behaviors, in a precise reference picture, change when a few elements are changed. We may consider it as a social experiment where assessing the possible change in the paradigm of the current system that many, nowadays, consider to be in crisis.

The current system bases collaboration between people not on trust and the search of direct relations to others, but on the respect of rules. This functional and “industrial” way of organizing the world has its implications undoubtedly positive, but also unpredicted and undesired effects, which, today many consider and notice as negative. The physicist Fritjof Capra, author of many books who relate the discoveries of Physics and the way we organize the world, raises this way of thinking about the discoveries and the theories of philosophers and scientists of the XVII and XVIII centuries: “ the crisis we hear we are in is a perception crisis. Such as the crisis Physics in the 1920’s went through, this is a consequence of us trying to apply the concepts of an outdated world view, the view of the world which is mechanical, of the Cartesian and Newtonian science and a reality which can no longer be understood due to such concepts”.  

For us in PACO who deal with social innovation and collaborative projects, the movements of the human flock and being able to think about possibilities and alternatives regarding the Status quo to understand if and how it is to improve, are the source of continuous reflections, questions and attempted answers. Reflections that, on the growing awareness of the complexity and necessity always to better structure the way we approach it, led us to set themes and basis to our approach – Community Centered Design. Themes that play a little with thoughts and words, here I limit myself to sum up and leave this discussion for the next time.

– From small to big. From below and up. From left to right. From rules to relations. Minds and experiments. From saying to doing.  All together now. Function and feeling. Yesterday, today, tomorrow. At our time. From me to us to us with you. Collaborative Thinking. Awareness vs populism.  Between utopia and realism. Ideology. Between serious and witty. Anthropolecentrism. Design “with” all. Wind of views. Sneakers on the ground. Specializations. Laughing we learn. In viso veritas. Esteticna. Capilalism. Social Syncretism. Balance of contradictions…-

Last week, anyways, I almost got in an accident. I was on a road and getting absentmindedly to a badly signed intersection, I did not yield. The person in the other car was a lady who, luckily, was able to stop in time. When I apologized to her through the window, she told me not to worry, it happens and that she is always very attentive when she gets in an intersection, for herself and for the others.  

Then greeting me, she wished me a good evening.

Author: Stefano Anfossi

Translation: Isabela Sierra