The Societal Shift of Our Changing World

As we head into this fall season, I find myself trying to make sense of our rapidly changing world. Every quarter seems to bring crises that demand our attention. So, the context for my ruminations is: Existential crises abound around us, such as climate change, unraveling of global trade, fragility of the world economic system that rapidly swings between expansion and recession, and social and political strife across the globe.

Challenges of this scope and magnitude need imaginative solutions. Solutions whose implementation critically needs courageous leadership. This, however, is notably absent in politics, society, and business, as we lurch from one public relations disaster to the next.

I’ve often wondered, is there a systemic reason for these problems? Investigation of systemic reasons requires a long and abstract view of the problem. I believe the values embedded in our social systems & cultural norms are antithetical to and disconnected from the nature of our natural/physical, economic, and information systems.

So, what exactly is the essence of this disconnect? Western societies implicitly believe in the primacy of individual entities and reject any attempt to constrain this primacy. We have, as a species, always lived in a highly connected natural/physical system. We have now constructed an economic system and information system that is also hyperconnected. The disconnect between our individualistic social system and its highly connected natural and economic environment is causing grave dislocations across the globe.

Western societies are built on the principles of individual freedom – thought, expression, beliefs etc. Maximizing individual freedom is believed to be the path to happiness and well-being. This also applies to individual nations that exist in a society of nations. A not so obvious consequence of this assumption is that it has spawned the following perspective:

• The individual is viewed as a separate entity from society.
• Societies form when individuals come together to conduct transactions (social,                    personal, economic etc.) as long as they do not violate the laws of that society.
• As a consequence of the above, if one views society as a network of individual nodes           connected via transactions, each node is engaged in maximizing its freedom.
• Implicit in this philosophy is the belief that, this local maximization by individual                  nodes is good for the entire network of society.

We know from our accumulated scientific knowledge of natural and man-made systems, that local maximization is rarely an optimal solution for the maximal benefit of the system as a whole. The paths to global maxima usually involve complex tradeoffs in benefit between individual nodes. In other words, what is best for each individual, is rarely the best solution for the collective society.

In addition to the fundamental discordance described above, since the end of World War II, businesses have successfully co-opted the primal social imperative for individual freedom. Consumption and acquisition of products and services are now readily believed to be a fundamental aspect of individual freedom of expression and lifestyle. Nations, societies, and individuals compete with each other to be conspicuous consumers because it is a fundamental measure of economic health.

In a world with finite resources, when this race to be the top consumer is conducted globally, it is bound to create “winners” and “losers”. As natural resources get scarcer and more expensive, we witness the familiar phenomenon of the “rich getting richer”. The losers not only are disadvantaged economically, but they are also less able to adapt to a degrading natural habitat and a declining quality of life. As these economic inequities magnify, in a hyper-connected information society, these imbalances are communicated instantly across the globe. This, in turn, creates widespread dissatisfaction, and rejection of the prevailing economic and social regime. This unraveling of our established systems is what we are witnessing today.

The jarring discordance between our societal worldview, that elevates individual freedom over societal well-being and narrow national interests, over the health of the planet and societies of the world, cannot be sustained much longer. We need a more balanced attitude toward individual and collective well-being. Because leaders are instrumental in shaping social and cultural perspectives, we need leaders from all walks of our society to begin this dialog – a dialog that promotes more collaboration than competition, inclusion over exclusion, integration over differentiation, and acting locally in the interests of global well-being.

The dearth of leadership we see today is because it takes courage to recognize and admit that our current paradigm is deeply flawed. Leaders who have emerged from a system that is obsolete, cannot be expected to abandon its principles and declare that the “emperor has no clothes!”.

The long-term solution for our leadership crisis begins with the education of our young people. We must start afresh and construct an educational paradigm that is purpose-built to instill in young students, the mindset of being citizens and societal members of the world. A mindset based on the tenet that personal and individual interests must not disproportionately supersede the interests of their society. Most important of all, a deep conviction that we live in an integrated and connected environment – all actions and decisions have consequences far beyond their local neighborhood.




Dr. Ashok Subramanian

Dr. Subramanian is the Dean and Joel R. Stubblefield Endowed Chair of the College of Business at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith. He holds both a Ph.D. in Information Systems and an MBA from the University of Houston as well as a BSc in Chemistry and Physics from the University of Bombay, India. He has extensive experience as a consultant and entrepreneur in the IT sector. Prior to his current position at UAFS, Dr. Subramanian's leadership career includes being Dean of the Harold Walter Siebens School of Business at Buena Vista University, Iowa