The downsides of a front–loop focus

The depiction of the adaptive cycle as the lying eight has many compelling arguments in its favour. And still it is far from intuitive. While the pessimists have an inclination to look for the downsides in life, and thus can more easily reconcile their view of the world with the existence of the adaptive cycle with its front– and back–loop, it’s the optimists who tend to struggle a lot more: the back–loop seems to go against their experience so far, to defy their intuition, to challenge their hopes. Without passing judgement, let’s see what they might be missing.

Adaptive Cycles II.002

Optimists will naturaly focus their attention on the front–loop of the adaptive cycle, and for obvious reasons: the front–loop is the portion of the cycle that everybody has made the most experience in; it evolves gradually, slowly, incrementally; it “behaves” predictably; most importantly, this is a period of growth, of productivity. Hence it is not surprising that everybody would like the front–loop with all its positive connotations to continue forever. That selective view of the adaptive cycle is sketched above; it considers only the phase of rapid growth and the beginning of the conservation, when potential is still increasing.

But how should we read this selective view, and what can we learn from it? I’d offer three different approaches: a linear view, hockey sticks, and saturation. Each of them is a fallacy in its own right, hence I’ld briefly discuss them one by one.

Front-loop fallacies.001

The linear view is the simplest approach. In this view, you’d simply take change as a given, and you’d extrapolate your most recent experience into the future. It’s the most short-sighted of the three approaches; living in the here an now, but without reference to the past; and with no idea about future changes other than the straight continuation along the beaten track. In essence, this is a very mechanistic view of the world, and further growth would be guaranteed as long as you just keep course.

Front-loop fallacies.002


The concept of hockey sticks –at least at first glance– seems a bit more realistic. It looks back at the beginning of fast growth, and hopes that the exponential growth of that period continues into the future. And that’s why this is an inconsistent perspective: while there is awareness of the changing growth rates of the past, there is the unfounded expectation that no such change could occur in the future. As the economist Kenneth Boulding famously put it: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in an finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

Front-loop fallacies.003

Finally, saturation assumes change as a transition from one reasonably stable situation (the old plateau) to another, better situation (the new plateau). Change is seen as a fairly steady process that temporarily interrupts the otherwise peaceful stability before and after that transition.

Even though this is probably the most enlightened of the three myopic fallacies, it still doesn’t consider a wider context: there’s neither an explanation for the events that could trigger change, nor for the forces that would bring it to an end.

What all those three different approaches have in common is their selective acceptance of some aspects of change, while they all shy away from asking the critical questions that could lead to a more comprehensive understanding: How is change triggered, how is it fuelled, how is it stalled? And without such a wider perspective, they all fail to see the potential for transformative change, the type of change that redefines the very system you are part of. Hence none of these approaches could actually explain the disruptions brought about by creative destruction.

This shouldn’t come across as just some cheap criticism of the optimists’ view, for this is not a question of optimism versus pessimism. Rather, I’d advocate a balanced view that complements optimistic elements with the pessimists’ reality that things can fail. The future is neither all pink, nor is it all black: the future holds aspects of both. And that is decisive if we want to use innovation to prepare for the future: if we build our plans solely on the optimistic view, we will miss opportunities for innovation as well as needs for innovation. Without an understanding that there are downturns, we cannot anticipate those downturns, we cannot mitigate their effects, we cannot delay their onset, we cannot try to use them to our benefit.

Then, what is missing? The front–loop of the adaptive cycle illustrates growth as the (desired) increase in potential that proceeds almost in lock-step with a difficult-to-grasp increase in connectedness. In this depiction, the price tag for continued growth is not visible, because the undesirable downside of increasing connectedness doesn’t become tangible. In order to make that price for growth accessible, we need to address the third dimension of the adaptive cycle. Time to think about resilience, in the upcoming post …


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