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Geoff Mulgan:
wisdom is a loop

Geoff wonders what makes societies and institutions wise. Everything in our lives, he says, depends on systems beyond us. We depend on them for absolutely everything, our feelings and our thoughts. So what would a political philosophy look like that recognised our dependency on the world around us rather than asserting our sovereignty over it? Having studied as a Buddhist monk, worked in government and led NESTA, Geoff is now a Professor at UCL teaching and writing about the nature of collective intelligence.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend. Additional music played by Geoff Mulgan.


[Music and talking] 

The piece you just heard was from a rather strange event, but perhaps a typical event of these times, a virtual dinner party with about 25 people gathering from maybe 10 countries from Portugal to India, to the USA, to eat together through their screens. There’s something about the fragility of her playing and even of the soundtrack in the background, which I think makes it even more beautiful than perhaps hearing it in full in an opera house. It seems to sort of trigger, to resonate with the fragility of this crisis, which has caused us all to be here. 

So I got interested in wisdom mainly because of the visible absences of it, whether in leadership or the internet and the digital world, all the people working on AI, didn’t seem to have any idea of wisdom. And there is a kind of standard answer, which you get, which is very ancient and in some ways very valid, about detachment, about lack of impulse, about engagement with nature, about taking the long view, but I tried sort of breaking it down then into different elements. I think there is, there is one part of it, which is in some ways, quite a narrow notion of cleverness, how you can actually cope with complex issues and grasp that complexity. There’s an element which is about knowledge, which is actually rather undervalued often in the old wisdom literatures, but it’s pretty important if you’re trying to deal with a pandemic or climate change or these, these involve deep bodies of, uh, of knowledge.  

It is partly as well about, obviously, ethics – and indeed everything we, we value as wise is able to be looked at it in the, through the lens of right and wrong. But also some of us know the limits of, of ethics too. And then I look at some of the, the, the other dimensions of wisdom, such as what I’d call presence, the willingness to be part of a problem, not just standing outside it and looking on it. And that’s very interesting because also non-attachment and detachment is also a part of wisdom. There is of course, a great sort of spiritual tradition of wisdom and, and really sensitivity to the underlying truths of the cosmos. These of course are very hard to talk about or write about. And in some ways can only be grasped, um, through experience and reflection and often from avoidance of the world.  

Anyway, I sort of argue that in most real situations, you have to combine each of these different elements to make sense of a, of a context, a reality, a set of choices and a real place and time. But the key to wisdom and learning wisdom is then applying loops to all of those so that you learn to become more explicit and thinking what you think is going to happen. And then when something different happens, taking stock of what might’ve been right or wrong in your models and correcting them. And I guess my biggest critique of much of what claims to be wisdom out there in the world is it doesn’t appear to have any of those loops of learning. It treats wisdom as an attribute, something which you just have almost as a possession, rather than a process of constant learning and the humility in relation to the world, which uses the fact that we’re all going to be wrong about almost anything in our lives that uses that to, to improve our ways of understanding our ways of acting and linking thought to action, and hence the notion of wisdom as a loop, which can be learned and which has parallels to Bayesian thinking in computing and the notion of sort of Bayesian formulae, which underpin much of our computing is that you try and have a prior, you have a, almost a guess of what’s going to happen.  

Then you look at the data and then you improve your model in the light of it. And although I’m not saying computing is the, the answer to all of our wisdom problems, there is a, a germ of an insight in that, which I think is applicable to almost anything in our lives. So I became, I guess, interested in the world at a slightly, uh, early age, about 11 or 12, I became intensely political. I read Lenin, Marx, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and found myself convinced that there was much wrong in the world. That much of what I was being told in my education or my newspapers or, or my parents was basically wrong and misleading, and unjust and needed to be overthrown. And throughout my teenage years, one way I spent my time was as an activist, organizing marches or pickets or recruiting teenagers into trade unions and helping them to strike against their employers. 

On the one hand, I’ve worked in governments, looking top-down at the world, seeing how you could change things through policy. I was a head of the government strategy unit, head of policy in number 10. And I’ve worked in other countries with prime ministers and presidents and central teams looking down at the world, pulling levers (that really bad metaphor they sometimes use), trying to hopefully solve problems of transport or energy or poverty or education. And then the other side of my life has been very much working from the bottom up from the grassroots as a social entrepreneur, working in charities, working with community projects. And I guess that iterating between the top-down and the bottom-up has influenced how I see the world. I came up with this rather crude metaphor of the bees and the trees that the bees are, the creative, innovative entrepreneurs who have the ideas and the passion, but don’t have the power and the money. And then the trees or the big institutions, the governments, the businesses, the foundations who definitely have the power and the money, but don’t usually have the spark or the drive or the insight to really change things and both need each other. The bees can’t achieve lasting change, usually without some alliance with the trees and the tree stagnate without, uh, alliances. And for me, I guess what’s really exciting is when you can apply quite abstract ideas and theories in the real world, and then through seeing what happens in the real world, refresh, rethink all your grand theories. That’s my hope, at least. 

So much of the writing and talk about wisdom, portrays it as something very individual. It sits in the head or the spirit of the guru sitting on top of a mountain, uh, detached from the world, offering the occasional pearl of wisdom to the world. But in reality, that’s, I think quite a misleading view of how wisdom operates. I think it was any context. It is something collective. It depends on you depend from, with any, anything you do on the people around you to help you. They will have lots of knowledge and experience you don’t have, however brilliant you are. You can tell a lot of the story of progress – to the extent there is progress in the world – in the organisation of wisdom at often ever larger scales through things like the global science system does an extraordinary system of thought or modern democracy or economists.  

And in, in the last few decades, there’s been much more detailed work on what actually are the conditions for collective wisdom at a micro scale. So in a meeting, what kinds of meetings actually tap into the full knowledge experience reflection of the people in them? We’ve learned various combinations of diversity, but also of integration of that diversity and reflective loops can make meetings much more, much smarter than they would be otherwise. And that matters for everything from, you know, Supreme courts, to parliaments, to board decisions in a charity or a big company to learn some of those very specific lessons about the organisation of wisdom. But I think we need to go much further. And I think one of the great issues of the next 10 or 20 years is how can we really reinforce collective wisdom where it’s needed. Now that’s obviously matters in the internet, which we depend on so much of the time and was designed with so little attention to its effects on wisdom, and often has been a wisdom destroying machine more than the opposite. So I’m interested in how do you build in truth and reflection. And again, loops of learning into the actual design of search engines, artificial intelligence and so on. And obviously it matters for global governance where we will need completely transformed systems for making decisions at a global level on biodiversity, carbon emissions, financial flows, you name it. And all of our institutions essentially were designed in the 1940s and have none of the characteristics we would, I hope, look for now. We have to be willing to throw away, almost like a ladder we’ve climbed up, many of the old ideas about, again, wisdom as something, individual, something just as an attribute, something which isn’t context-specific in order to get beyond that to ways of organising thought at very large scale, which can actually help us to survive and thrive.

In my sitting room is the possession which I probably love the most. It’s certainly my most valuable possession and the only thing I’ve ever inherited in my life, which is a grand piano. My daughter has the best room in the house, which is on the top floor, under the roof with a whole series of angular shapes made by the roof and a rocking chair, uh, which you can sit in. And this rather nice thing, which I gave her but I quite like, which was a little board on which you can paint in water. The idea is you paint where the very first thing in the morning, you wake up and you paint a single stroke or line. And then within a few minutes, it dries and disappears, but you have been brought back into, into the world and into your role as shaping that world. And looking out through my windows at the thick wall of greenery, which is my garden, in fact I am completely enclosed in this house by green, at least at this time of year, my garden is full of very large trees. And behind me is an allotment. So it’s green there as well, even though I’m only about 10 minutes walk from the centre of quite a large town.

So one of the things that I’ve been struggling with a lot actually in the last few months is what I’m beginning to call a post-sovereignty view of politics and philosophy. In a way, all of our political theories, whether it’s liberalism or nationalism or socialism, they all essentially are founded in sovereignty. So in the old days, you know, sovereignty was something that the King and the emperor had and they guarded jealously. And then people rightly fought for centuries to take part of that away, to give it to a class in the case of socialism or a nation, or ultimately the individual and our dominant philosophy is now have the individual or humans as the ultimate sovereignty, consumer choice, citizen empowerment, all of our language, uh, or of liberation is essentially about taking sovereignty back into ourselves. But I think increasingly it’s clear that everything in our lives depends on other systems beyond us, the systems of the natural world, the ecosystem, climate, etcetera. And then the other great system is the system of knowledge and culture, which almost everything we know actually comes from others and comes from those. And I wonder what a philosophy or a politics would look like where we actually were humble in relation to that dependence on those systems, saw ourselves much more as part of them, rather than having standing above them and having these sort of sovereign rights. And also recognise our duties to those systems on which we depend for absolutely everything for our life, our thoughts, our feelings. 

And I think when you do that and take that really seriously and push it to its conclusions, actually the inner and the outer become much more in alignment because as it were the sense of a very separate sovereign ego or self is reduced and it’s important, yes, we are individuals. We live within a body which has boundaries, our brain is different from other people’s brains, but I think we’ve completely overshot in terms of our worldview and our exaggeration of the sovereign individual and its rights, its claims, its demands. It’s actually in current politics and social media where individual voice and expression sort of trumps absolutely everything else. We see just how out of control that can become. And my hope is that if we can do that, it’s easier to achieve at least a degree of alignment of the inner and outer. So what I just described in some ways it’s very abstract, but I think it can become quite specific. We’re beginning to see this in relation to ecosystems; a few years ago, New Zealand for the first time gave legal personhood to a river and a piece of land, and recognise its claims almost its sovereignty, relative to the sovereignty of people.  And I think we’re beginning to see at a global level things, even like IPCC and it bears around biodiversity which are creating global entities whose job is as it were the guardianship, the curation of our shared knowledge, our collective intelligence and that in a sense claiming some, some power, some authority relative to the governments or the individuals or the consumers who might’ve been sovereign in the past. So I think there are many, many different ways the ideas I’m talking about can find an expression, but ultimately it has to come from a consciousness of very large numbers of people seeing what I just said as a common sense. And we’re definitely not there now. 

I’m walking over a small river, the wind rush river, not a bad place to think about journeys and routes. This, this little river joins the Thames eventually, goes down through London and into the sea. And it’s a prompt to think about whether there are actually any patterns of what is wisdom. Can you pin it down? Can you cultivate it? Do we have a problem that we maybe have less of it around that we had had in the past? I think let’s start with the sort of paradox of, of age in the past. It was kind of obvious if you were old and experienced, you were wise and you know the community kept the elders who remembered what, what you do when the animals you hunt move on, or the weather changes, or there’s a conflict in the community or you are threatened by a neighboring tribe.  And then in the modern world, that association of age and wisdom has pretty much broken down because the experience of your parents, your grandparents simply may not be remotely relevant to the world that you’re living in, or values change and what they thought were wise values look completely anachronistic and dogmatic, you know, 30, 50, 60 years later. Uh, and indeed it points like in the Chinese cultural revolution or the 60s in America, you know, the old were really mocked rather than revered. And so we have this ambiguous relationship with, with wisdom. Now you don’t quite know what it is or how you would recognize it. And perhaps in response to this, then a lot of money has been researching wisdom, trying to define it, particularly in American psychology literature. And you can read lots and lots of books about that, but, uh, most of them are pretty unsatisfying and you feel don’t quite get to the heart of what we’re talking about, what the thing is.  

And the other angle has been to look at how different civilizations and cultures over the millennia even have thought about wisdom from ancient India and China to the Middle East and Africa. And in that research, there are some quite common patterns. What we think of as wise includes an ability to understand quite complicated things. It does include some knowledge. It certainly includes ethical reasoning, the ability to see what’s right and what’s wrong. It involves a sort of weird mixture of non-attachment and presence. So the non-attachment is the ability to stand back and sort of see a situation for what it is without ego, without, uh, interest. And then the presence is the willingness then to dive back and be part of the problem and part of the solution and commit with all your humanity at all, all your love. There’s this strange loop that you can only really know what is wise in the long run.  

Once you see what actually happens, that’s when you find out whether the wise advice was really foolish or not, you’re dealing with a really difficult, complicated, messy tangled situation. You have to sort of go outwards and try and see it from many different perspectives, uh, many different angles, but then you have to come back because the decision you end up making has to be much simpler than the factors which go into making that decision. And that’s where wisdom and action are kind of looped together as well. To some extent, a lot of it I think is about the experience of thinking about complicated problems – which could be anything from how does a tree grow, how does a civil war end, uh, what’s the dynamics of a family – learning that habit of seeing things in multiple dimensions, but also trying to integrate your judgment. And it’s this integrative judgment, which seems to be key to not just luxuriating in a million different perspectives.  

I think that is something children can learn through being involved in real life complicated projects, and being helped to reflect on what they’ve learned about them. It’s interesting to me that we rely on lots of types of committee to be wise. To the extent we have organizations which are wise, it’s not just because they’ve got smart people in them. There’s this sort of division of labor where they’re made more wise because perhaps there’s a free media outside looking at what they’re doing, criticising them. There may be whistleblowers who keep them honest and make sure that they don’t, uh, go against their deeper ethics, and you can go on, there’s all these different roles, which together add up to a wiser kind of organisation. And I think we can apply the same thing here to whole systems. Now, a transport system, an energy system, a schooling system, what would make it wise, what it’s going to be again, this combination of factors, which reinforced each other.  

And then there’s the last thing I’ll share is for me really interesting and sort of dilemma of wisdom, which is a kind of wisdom, which can be a little bit too elderly, a little bit too flat, a little bit too prudent. And I think wisdom is often in tension with imagination. And I think ever since the romantics, there’s been this idea that to live life to the full is about taking leaps, taking risks, doing things which are perhaps imprudent. There’s a quote from William Blake where he says, you know, if the full pursuit is folly, ultimately it becomes wisdom. And I think we all need in any given organisation, a society, our own lives or willingness sometimes to play the fool, to be deliberately unwise, to take risks and to have those leaps of madness, imagination, beauty, creativity, which also make the world a wonderful place. So paradoxically a wiser world is also wise about the limits of its wisdom, and its need for folly every now and again. 

I’m sitting in a shed at the bottom of my garden. You can hear the wind and the trees outside the whole ground is covered in small blossoms, I’m completely surrounded by the green of the leaves of large trees and the rather wild bottom half of my garden, which is completely, unkempt at this time of year, goes crazy with growth, all kinds. And this is, uh, a place I like to come. It has no phone, no electricity, little bit cocooned. I’ve been pretty lucky in my life and having had many, I think, many moments of joy and bliss and tranquility. I think I’ve been very lucky. At the age of 17. I was very fortunate to get to know a man called <inaudible>, who was a Sri Lankan Buddhist. Well he was originally German, went to Sri Lanka and developed many of the ideas of mindfulness and meditation and took me in and took me to a monastery. And I think the practices there of better awareness as they were called was probably the first time I really experienced a truly profound and a bliss, true escape, perhaps from illusions of self and attachment and all that stuff. And the sense of being part of things so much bigger than us. And I was never a very good monk and I’ve probably always been trying to recapture something if that clarity, that purity, that distancing away.