My first book dealing with sustainability and flourishing begins with a chapter on systems dynamics and the use of its archetypes as means to diagnose the big problems of our times. Even back then, I wrote and spoke about “unsustainability” as a failure to deal with the systemic nature of the big threats and social failures. Now that I have discovered McGilchrist’s bi-hemispheric brain model, I can put more grounds under what I wrote back then. The connection is the way the two hemispheres attend to the world. The importance of connecting the divided brain and systems dynamics is that the pathologies revealed through systems dynamics analyses are traceable to cognitive processes, which is where remedial efforts should be directed.

The right-hemisphere is the one that connects us to the real world of the present. It gathers up whatever sense of reality we can apprehend, given that some important context or details may be overlooked. The left-brain is disconnected from the world and can only call on information abstracted from the information that the right has passed along in the past. It contains the beliefs and theories about how the world works, but only in generalized, categorial forms. The success of actions depends on how the two sides cooperate.

Three systems dynamics archetypes that are widely used to describe failures in outcomes line up with increasing left-brain dominance. “Fixes-that-fail” is used to describe an instance where the intended solution to a problem failed to produce the expected results and also produces unintended consequences. The cognitive equivalent is the left-brain dominating, producing a solution based essential entirely on previous knowledge, believed to be relevant to the case at hand. Important contextual input from the right-brain, which might lead to a more creative solution fitting the specifics of the situation, is ignored.

This failure to activate the right-brain can be avoided by use of techniques to force it into action, such as the “5 why” routine used in the Toyota Production System. It is simple, but very powerful, asking why successively, forcing the left-brain to dig deeper and deeper. Sooner or later, the left-brain is going to run out of explanations and has to allow the creative powers of the right to come into action. This side will attempt to digest the whole interconnected real situation of the moment and find causes for the observed behaviors. No successful solution is guaranteed, but blind reliance on the left’s decontextualized processes can be overcome.

If nothing is done to activate the right hemisphere, a step that requires an interruption in the flow of action, and the situation arises repeatedly, a more insidious archetype may arise. Shifting-the-burden is the name given to patterns where the left-has become so dominant that the right fades into the background and fails to heed the call for help. Creativity vanishes and any possibility for finding a context-sensitive solution vanishes. The problem is likely to persist and even become accentuated. Addiction is a variant of shifting-the-burden where the continued application of a pseudo-solution to the problem at hand creates a new problem that overwhelms the original issue. Getting high no longer solves anything and the body begins to deteriorate under attack from the drugs

The tragedy-of-the-commons is yet another consequence of the left-brain taking charge. Here, multiple users of some freely available common resources extract more and more of the resource until it collapses from overuse. The left-brain can only apprehend the availability of something it wants and can have at no cost, so the usage continues until the resource disappears. At that point, the right-hemisphere may become active, but it is now too late for any creative solution. Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize for her work on commons governance writes, “When users are genuinely engaged in decisions regarding rules affecting their use, the likelihood of them following the rules and monitoring others is much greater than when an authority simply imposes rules.”

Successful solutions to solve persistent problems that arise or to design and set new systems in motion must always involve the right brain. The only exception is relatively simple, non-complex routines where the left-brain’s resources are sufficiently matched to the real-world situation. In other cases, the left might be lucky and find a generalization that works, but, in the main, it needs the right to add enough context to point to the basic, root-level interactions that must work properly if the desired outcomes are to be realized. Note that when we use the word, realize, we mean that the ideas that ran around our brains produced actions show up the real world as observable outcomes that meet our intentions or dreams.

These ideas are relevant to any setting, and are not limited to complex organizations or interactions between human systems and the environment, like global warming. Any time people are involved, context and the right-brain are important because we cannot see inside of people’s heads to determine what they are thinking. And what that thinking is will determine the outcome. Context helps to narrow the uncertainty and assists the right hemisphere in “reading the mind” of others. The disconnected left-side has no access to such information and can only call on its generalized set of tools and beliefs.

Our cultural predilection when big problems arise is to call on experts, hoping that they have some theory or practical experience that will get things moving again in the right direction. The fact that they are “experts” attests to the power of their left hemispheres crammed full of generalizations. If they do not get their right-brains into the act, they will not be any more successful than all the home-grown staff who have tried and failed. The only difference is that they will have cost a lot more. One of the key factors in the above-mentioned Toyota Production System is that they avoid the use of such outside experts and rely on the right-brains of their personnel.

Image: Shifting-the-burden archetype