Changing the world through Big Collaboration

Richard Hart in collaboration with Julie Berg  

The ESI was founded on a recognition of the urgent imperative for immediate, coordinated responses amongst diverse global players to the 21st century harmscapes and associated security governance issues: The ESI is intended to foster a new level of collaboration amongst leading security professionals and academics in generating new thinking, new knowledge and new responses in relation to the 3 new worlds of climate change, cyberspace and the rise of the techno-human.  

There is nothing particularly new in this call for collaboration in the face of complex polycrises that have come to be known in popular terms as wicked problems. For instance, over the decades we’ve seen discourse emerge in the corporate realm that frames strategy as a wicked problem, in the security realm that frames food security as a wicked problem, and in the broader social context that frames poverty as a wicked problem; those discourses each pay homage not only to the complexity of the relevant problem but also the need for coordinating input and securing buy-in from multiple stakeholders to arrive at an effective solution. Collaborate or Perish!, by former New York police commissioner, William Bratton, and Zachary Tumin comes to mind. 

What is new in the context of the 3 new worlds is the near certainty of short-term, catastrophic outcomes for human survival at a global level if current and emerging polycrises remain unaddressed. What is new is the consensus that an unthinkable number of different nation states, regional alliances, corporations, and populations will together have to develop and execute on immediately transformative solutions – a monumental task that all of human experience to date would indicate will be impossible to achieve. And yet achieve it we must.  

What is new, then, is the urgency of people defining, engaging in and making work new models for collaboration at scales and at a pace hereto unimagined. Members of ESI will recognize holographic manifestations of this challenge in more contained contexts. International, multi-disciplinary research projects modeling the effects of global warming; multi-state initiatives working to contain and address the risk of terrorism that spreads in part via social media and digital communications platforms operated by global corporations; private-public initiatives focused on emerging cyberthreats to national and regional political stability.  

The pushing and pulling that occurs within these different domains serve to surface the multi-dimensional challenges of collaboration. In academic terms, collaboration across institutions has been described as a whole-of-society approach, which is a flexible and dynamic, cooperative relationship amongst a range of entities – both state and non-state – which come together as and when needed to resolve complex issues, with each player bringing their special and unique resources, skills and capabilities to contribute to resolving complex global problems. At the same time, much of the research on collaborative networks or partnerships between institutions highlight problems inherent in co-ordination: reluctance to share information due to privacy and trust issues; power dynamics which undermine meaningful engagement; differing incentives; the lack of flexibility of institutions and collectives in terms of their inability to adapt to new partnerships; lack of accountability within complex systems; inflexible resourcing which stunts innovation – the list goes on. There are also debates about whether whole-of-society systems or collaborative networks should be spontaneous or deliberate, whether they should have a centre (of one primary institution) or be decentred, and how their activities should align to the common good rather than to vested or private interests.   

Each of these challenges with collaboration finds analogies to those faced by corporate security leaders of global companies within their own environments. Those individuals have huge experience in engaging diverse stakeholders across different teams, time zones, languages, and cultures. This is both the opportunity and the challenge that ESI represents: Collaboration across institutions, disciplines, cultures, regions and time zones to contribute in meaningful ways to outcomes we need to achieve as a global community. Together, we need to collaborate effectively in order to generate the new thinking, the new knowledge and the new responses to which ESI aspires. And to do that, we’ll have to take a close look at the process, the activity of collaboration itself; we’ll have to turn the microscope on ourselves to look at, explore and refine how we collaborate.  

It is not such a stretch to imagine, at the end of the day, new understandings and ways of collaborating may be amongst the most important contributions that ESI makes to humanity’s survival in the 3 new worlds.  

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