“A Future By Design
Not Default”

wall graphic by Alica Bramlett
Addressing Worthy Problems
It was 32 years ago that I coined the phase “the (a) future by design not default.” The was one of the central themes in my Redesigning the Future Course which I gave in Kansas City 1975 - 1977. Out of this work came the Renascence Project. From what was learned with this experience and Gail’s with the Learning Exchange, MG Taylor was born. The 500 book reading list - periodically updated - is now integral to many of our processes and still central to the course which is now titled Rebuilding the Future in respect to the fact, as far as the central ideas are concerned, we are now in the second generation cycle of these ideas - proof of concept and general acceptance having been accomplished. The task ahead is applying these design ideas and achieving their ubiquity. Worthy Problems - which generate Worthy Projects - are the bridge between conceptualization and the establishment of intellectual acceptance and the implementation of ideas and goals in a functional and useful way. Therefore, Worthy Problems have a distinct mission and a precise definition. It is not my contention that Worthy Problems are the only things we should concern ourselves with nor am I saying that they are even the most important elements of a viable future agenda. I am saying that their solving forms a bridge between the architecture of our present reality and a future social architecture designed to be more inclusive, creative, sustainable and equable. Worthy Problems are tools of Transition Management. They are a way to reduce to practice otherwise abstract ideas and intentions. Worthy Problems are a design strategy for “Leaping the Abyss.” As such they have have to address both sides of the equation. They must be profitable in the immediate term and they must address systemic, long terms issues of a specific kind. It is only by doing this that they bridge two realities. Given that the emerging future is neither predictable nor controllable, Worthy Problems and their solutions are not offered as the solutions to either currant or futures problems. They are offered as being worthy - and being useful. A project has a beginning and an end and measurable results (although all of the results - and often the most important ones - will not be measurable). It has a budget and an expected return. It can be managed to an outcome. As such, projects are useful - they also are dangerous.
Projects can be dangerous because they can seduce us into believing that we are doing the right things and indeed are solving solving our systemic problems [link: good news]. Projects can distract us with busy work - activities that are good enough in themselves yet not sufficient to add up to the change needed. It may well be that the majority of our time may be engaged in such activities for necessity, fun or profit. The question is what do we do with our marginal utility and if we are investing enough in out future. It is a legitimate question to ask if we are really even thinking about Humanities’ future at all or if we are waiting for the “hidden hand” - a concept that Adam Smith did not actually mean as the myth has become [rtfbook: xxx] - to pull our bacon out of the fire.
My case for large scale systemic change and the lack of an requisite social response is made in my paper “A Future by Design Not Default - time lags and implementation cycles.” It ends with the introduction of Worthy Problems and Projects.
If you are not familiar with the “A Future by Design Not Default” thesis - or some major part of it - it will be a good idea to review the above before taking on the Worthy Problems concept. Click in the graphic(s) to go to the desired section(s).
The Transition Manager
The basic assumption of this writing is that our world is going through a global transformation and that we humans are not paying sufficient attention to this occurrence even though it is predominately the sum of our activities which is driving this global change. There are three active [within the context of this model] “roles” - or personal strategies - of value in the playing out of this transition. Each is important and each is distinct. At different times and parts of our life we will each “play” all of them. What is important is that these roles do not get confused and that the role of the Transition Manager is understood for what it is - and is not.
The first role is that of the Maintainer. A person in this role keeps the status quo even as there becomes ever greater pressure upon it. This is the person who works to keep a technology improving even as it is being replaced or an organization intact even as it is becoming a relic of history. The second role is that of the Advocate. The Advocate steps firmly into a future and promotes it. S/he comes from this new paradigm and gives no quarter. The Advocate is willing to break eggs to make a new omelet. The Transition Manager has competency in both the old and the new and acts as a facilitator in helping people over the abyss. It is important to realize that all three are working in a state of fundamental uncertainty. This is not to say that they know nothing. They can know a great deal. It is in terms of the transformation that the outcome cannot be known.
The Maintainer is critical because it is important for new ideas not to sweep away the existing world just because there are issues with what exists or the new is so seductive. The Advocate is critical because if there is not one promoting new ideas they will be eliminated by the old guard before they have a chance. Someone has to get people of of the couch and excited about what “could be.” When a team, group, organization or society is over populated by maintainers it tends to stagnate and ultimately decline. It goes without saying that the majority of human organizations drift toward this end. When a team, group, organization or society is over populated by Advocates - which is rare - it tends to go over a cliff without warning. In a dynamic situation, in a world of only Maintainers and Advocates absent competent Transition Managers, a team, group, organization or society can experience serious gridlock which easily leads to open conflict. Lacking neutrality there is little resolution of conflict. This neutrality has be be composed of ideas, place and method. This does not mean lacking ideas. It means a level playing field and a method capable of bring to emergence the complexity involved whatever the issue. In a time of growing global crises, it is the absence of this neutral space that is the source of the Humanities’s greatest risk. This space is what DesignShops® and navCenters® were designed to create. Providing such a forum has long been the role of the WEF. The WorkSpace - the merging of the two - is the ideal place to bring a balance of Maintainers, Advocates and Transition Managers together and properly support them in their roles. Worthy Problems - which tend to cut across parochial issues but effect them all - is an ideal focus to begin a process of global reconciliation and collaborative work.
more to come
The Strategy of Worthy Problems
Choosing and working Worthy Problems is, therefore, a strategy - a design strategy to be exact. Like all strategies is is based on a model. And, it must be governed by feedback. Just where these feedback loops are placed is a critical piece of the design.
Worthy Problems have to managed on a global scale the way a competent studio would ideally manage a suit of movie properties. Only in this case, the “properties” have to be managed in the interest of the entire Human Race and all other life on Planet earth. The essence of the Worthy Problems we face is not that we are lack money, resources, organizations and people willing and able to solve them. It is that we do not know how to organize to get at them. We are trying to tackle the parts of the problems on their own level. We have to broaden our perspective and manage the condition-problem-opportunity set as a system. From this vantage point the work is much easier. The resources exist, we are letting them lay fallow, underutilized. Properly designed, well articulated Worthy Problems create a context within which many individual initiatives can be successfully undertaken by a distributed network of organizations and people. Large scale global problems do not require large scale global organizations to solve them.
It has been shown that it does not take huge effort to cause a state change in a system. This requires a few percentage points of a successful strategy and suddenly the system leaps to a new order. Every issue confronting us does not have to be taken on. The strategy of Worthy projects is to find the key issues and leverage existing efforts to address them in a comprehensive way.
more to come
“When it is time to railroad...”
One of Robert Heinleins famous sayings was “when it is time to railroad, people build railroads.” His meaning is clear. One of the tests that an ideas time has come is when there are many spontaneous parallel inventions and expressions of it. There is a tendency, often, for the founder’s to see one another as competitors and contest one other. Instead, they should embrace each other even if there are philosophical or strategic differences - even if there are completive products and services. It takes multiple players to create a market no matter if it is a a market of ideas or goods. A market is necessary for adoption and, ultimately, ubiquity. We live in a time of “winner takes all” competition. This is particularly true in the world of ideas and knowledge-based work. This is a poor application of increasing returns and power-law phenomena and totally unacceptable in the case of fiduciary relationships. It is even, in the end, detrimental to competitive markets. We, have as a society, misunderstood over-generalized and misapplied the idea of competition. In a free market, people do not compete. Ideas, goods and services compete for people’s time, attention and tradable assets. Each buyer is unique. Each choice is unique. The best fit between a good offered and good “purchased” is the goal. I do not lose when you accept someone else’s idea, hire them as an architect instead of me or buy their furniture - I cannot lose what I do not have. This assumes only that the “competition” was based on a level playing field and an informed choice. When some “compete” by deception, imposed laws in their favor, by exclusion of other competitors, they may “win” the engagement - and perhaps many - yet they will ultimately destroy the edifice that makes free trade possible and bring the resulting ruins down upon their own head. When citadels are formed in academia, science or commercial markets and succeed in excluding new ideas and competition - when this kind of narrow, false-self interest prevails - the integrity of the system is lost and all that remains is the raw exercise of power be it emotional, financial or the application of physical force. In this situation, the stakes get higher and ever more dangerous, actions become more brutal until a catastrophic collapse resets the game board. This is why, in our times, Intellectual Property should not be pushed too far [link: lessig] and the Internet must be kept neutral and low cost [rbtf book: the wealth of networks - benkler]. In every system, there must be game keepers and game players and they cannot be confused [rbtf book: systems of survival, jacobs] nor compromised. It may seem tempting to cheat and break the rules to get your idea, party, religion, culture or product in the winner-take-all dominate position but what you only achieve is to open to the door to a thug who is able and willing to take the play to where you cannot. The ultimate competitive advantage is to create a new space, share it, build it, grow it, improve it and to recreate it when its time has passed. This is the mentality of a creative agent who is a steward - not an exploiter.
In the near-time ahead, we will not want for ideas, opportunities, challenges nor wealth unless we act in extremely stupid ways. In the competition for attention, which is the critical issue now, we who are knowledge workers - an ever growing group - have a choice. We can battle among ourselves about who has the best idea and can control the greatest intellectual marker share; or, we can seek common ground, support one another - even when we disagree - and create collaboratively to build a better future. The best ideas will be revealed in the doing not in the argument - and, we will all benefit.
more to come
more to come
The Selection of Worthy Problems

The selection of issues to be manufactured into Worthy Problems is part of the Method and not external to it. It cannot be the result of popular vote, politics or loose criteria. The selection is the result of a rigorous criteria and method. Just because someone thinks a problem is “worthy” does not make it match the criteria. It may not fit the criteria of a Worthy Problem, as defined here, yet may be “worthy” to many and something which should be pursued. To be - or not - a Worthy Problem is not a comment on general worthiness. Worthy Problems have exact criteria and it is important that this criteria be carefully and exactly applied, with total integrity, otherwise the useful distinction of the concept is lost.

To match the criteria falls into two sequential sets of screens. The first filters candidates to make sure that they are indeed possible Worthy Problems by definition. The second screening process is to take those who made the first pass and test them for temporal and local fineness. It answerers what can be do here and now at this time. Not every Worthy Problem can be worked everywhere, every time. If something is a Worthy Problem it should be worked - and often until it is resolved. What we can do here now is not a filter for what constitutes a Worthy problem it is a flitter for any specific time and place provided that the entire set of Worthy problems are worked in a reasonable time frame.
It is the prevailing habit of our society and it major organizations to pay attention only to those things which directly effect its known interest, are politically acceptable, and which the organization believes it has the resources to deal with. This can work well enough for day-to-day things which fall into the business-as-usual category. It becomes a disaster when considering (or often, not - by default) large scale, systemic, complex conditions which have a long range window. In today’s interconnected rapidly changing world the assumption that such “out of scope” issues do not matter or will be somehow properly handled by someone else is dreaming. The habit of taking on problems one believes they have the understanding and resources to solve while ignoring major issues that do not believe they can deal with is an insane method. A 50 ton rock does not care if you believe you have the strength to fend it off - it is still falling and will continue to do so.
more to come
The Making of Worthy Projects
Clearly, Worthy Projects come out of Worthy Problems but not necessarily in a one-to-one correspondence. Projects have a beginning and an end. They have resources to command. Accountable people to execute the work. Projects can be managed - “problems” cannot be. Each Worthy Problem will likely always generate many Worthy Projects - the sum of which - is expected to dissolve the problem. Each of these Projects can be taken on by those who have the passion, means and skills to do so. Global Warming cannot be solved. It cannot even be understood. Yet, it is possible to define an integrated network of Worthy Projects which effectively get at the many aspects of the Global Warming Problem. This starts with what we know and can redefine better as we learn about the subject as the consequence of research and doing. Projects are better if kept (relative to the problem) short, small and tied to an explicit benefit. A high frequency low magnitude approach is always a god tactic and even more necessary the larger and more complex the Problem is. Thus, people do not have to totally agree in order to collaborate. They can invest where they see value and adjust as they learn. By working through the Worthy Problem Method - by definition - there is always short term, local payoff as well as long term systemic improvement. The Worthy Problem Method is a way turning unmanageable controversial issues into useful productive work while reducing the risk of unintended consequences and neglect by paralyses.
more to come
The Role of Institutions
more to come
The Role of Individuals and Communities
more to come
Criticism Feedback and Learning
I will define feedback and criticism carefully. In context of this paper they are terms-of-art. This means that 80% of what is done in regards these words are irrelevant to this discussion.
more to come
The Systems Integration Role
more to come
2008 & 2009 at the WEF - the Potential
I think there are two potential design strategies for introducing Worthy Problems at the 08 WEF Annual Meeting. The first, and most preferable in my mind, will be to make Worthy Problems the dominate theme of the WorkSpace with every workshop picking up on and extending work supportive of this theme. In addition, the WorkSpace KnowledgeWorker team would capture “red threads” from these WorkSpace activities, including other events at the Annual Meeting, and synthesize all of this content into one extended WorkSpace final session which will be extensively documented and distributed. This program to be done in such a way so as to launch a multi-year Forum focus employing the Worthy Problem Method. I call this the “Big Bang” strategy and I believe it is appropriate given what is happening in the world today.
The second option is to do one properly positioned and carefully executed exercise of several hours duration. At least 5 hours - I prefer a day. This could be the last day of the AM with people coming by invitation. This can be done in a way to stage for a major exercise in 09. I will forecast that several of the Worthy problem issues I have highlighted will be in high public profile by then. This strategy is a way of coming at the introduction in two steps without compromising it. It also introduces the concept-method, now, rather than waiting and risking getting preempted. I call this the stealth strategy.
more to come
Other Venues for the Introduction of Worthy Problems
Worthy Problems, as a concept and a Method, have incubated for over three decades. Within that time, the basic techniques and capabilities of the the Taylor Method have steadily increased. Although I think that 08 at the Forum is an excellent and timely place and moment for introduction, the idea can wait a bit longer - if necessary. 09 may be the better year for a number of reasons principle among them is that the nature of the future challenge we all face will be much clearer by that time. It cannot wait long, however. “Problems” of this class are now global, occur at high frequency and great magnitude, are increasingly ubiquitous. Existing methods and venues for getting at these kinds of issues are not showing signs of success - just the opposite. Given this, it is critical that the Worthy Problem Method is introduced properly and soon. This is not something to have a weak introduction and its ten minutes in the spotlight to be quickly forgotten in the debris of weak methods and cast-off cliches. The consequences are too serious to allow this to happen. This idea has to be carefully stewarded and introduced properly. The “initial state” established by the introduction is a critical design issue.
There are other venues, such as Eikosphere Project, that can employ Worthy Problems. This can be done in consort with the WEF WorkSpace and MG Taylor Invitational designShops® and RDS deployments. These are but some examples of many physical and virtual spaces that can house Worthy Problems. None of these are intrinsically competitive or incompatible. They are examples of how Worthy Problems can both scale and work on many social levels of recursion. Like any complex 21st Century organization the Worthy Problems enterprise will have to emerge into a sophisticated ValueWeb.
more to come
By any reasonable measure, the world is changing more rapidly than Humanity is adequately responding to these new circumstances. Humanity itself is the major instigator of these changes and the corresponding increase in complexity. The nature of these changes is emergent therefore not predictable nor controllable. Further, no one “owns” any of the divers let alone the results. There is great controversy in regards all of this. The world is divided into opposing camps of more or less equal influence and power. Meanwhile, the “global economy” is in high gear and driving the major factors of this change at an ever increasing rate. This is becoming a run away process. Incremental, local, self-serving actions are destroying the global commons. Most people and societies are rightfully fearful of an imposed top down solution to these “problems” (conditions). There is no neutral place and process capable of facilitating an integrated system-wide response. Economic power, political influence and war are becoming the default means for peoples to try to protect themselves and advance their national interests as they, from a limited perspective, see them. Existing institutions are too confused, political, discredited and moribund to help in a significant way. This is a prescription for global disaster. We need a new method. The Worthy Problem Method is a tested architecture for neutralizing conflict, matching top down and bottom up efforts, promoting local control and autonomy while achieving systemic integration. This proposal stands in a vacuum of an alternative proposal from a credible source. The Worthy Problem Method can be tested on a small scale and then scaled indefinitely. The World Economic Forum and other means to do this work already exists. It is simply a matter of dong it. Not doing it - or employing a credible alternative, or both - is to let the future go flying on the paper wings of chance - the consequence and sum of our worst habits of fear and dogma.
Worthy Problems and Worthy Projects are directly connected to the mission of MG Taylor Corporation. Building the capacity to properly define and solve these systemic problems is the core work of MG Taylor. This does not mean that we can or expect to do this work alone. Far from it. It is not possible for any one organization to do this. By definition, this is the work of the many. This is the work of a ValueWeb and it is the work of decades duration.
Quo Vatus?
Matt Taylor
July 12, 2007

SolutionBox voice of this document:

click on graphic for explanation of SolutionBox

posted: July 12, 2007

revised: October 8, 2007
• 20073311.333333.mt • 20070718.569110.mt •
• 20070916.879100.mt • 20071008.341110.mt •

Copyright© 2007 Matt Taylor

(note: this document is about 65% finished)

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