Economist and futurist Robert Theobald was recently asked to give the 1996 Massey Lectures, one of the highest honors the Canadians can bestow on a public intellectual. On hearing the news, I decided to reread The Rapids of Change, one the more far-sighted and thought-provoking works to emerge over the last decade. Nine years have passed since it was published, but it remains as timely and compelling as ever.
Theobald believes that the ever-accelerating pace of change in modern society has rendered many of our working assumptions in economics, government, education, and management obsolete. In The Rapids of Change, he offers a framework for understanding and addressing the effects of changes on many fronts: the explosion of new technologies, growing population pressures, increasingly serious environmental problems, advances in biogenetics, the revolution of human rights, continued ethnic conflicts, and, perhaps most importantly, the shift in the way we think and structure knowledge.
Theobald maintains that today's institutions, based as they are on outdated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bureaucratic and hierarchical models, are unable to resolve the fundamental problems of our time. What is needed, he says, are "social entrepreneurs" or "change agents" -- people willing to venture the risk of introducing new ideas and approaches to individuals, groups, and institutions. Building on Schumpeter's definition of entrepreneurs as individuals undaunted by the fact that very few worthwhile initiatives would be taken on a sober calculation of the odds, Theobald stresses that social entrepreneurship is the key to introducing creative new solutions to intractable social and political problems. "We need to break out of our current pattern of finding super-sophisticated answers to super-obsolete questions," he writes. "We need new types of groups which concentrate on defining today's relevant questions."
Discovering the relevant questions depends on a shared commitment to dialogue and "open space," in Theobald's view. Deliberation is a necessary prelude to action and, without it, most activities aimed at fundamental change break down. This happens not only because potential consequences of various courses of action are not properly worked through, but also because those involved have failed to take the time to gain a shared model of reality. "Only a coherent, shared vision can support a group through the inevitable compromises which are required as we move a vision into reality."
From what I understand, activities are planned around this year's Masseys that will allow groups and communities to engage in just this kind of dialogue and deliberation. Setting new directions for the 21st century has never been more urgent, and Theobald shows us how.
Related interview: Scott London talks with Robert Theobald about "Social Entrepreneurship"
Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.