[#FutureGenerations series] Claude Garcia: embrace complexity and opt for system thinking

— Anh NGUYEN

Future Generations is a series of interviews in which we invite individuals in different fields to talk about their visions of the world we will leave for future generations. We discuss the biggest challenges faced by future generations, their hopes, and, why not, a little piece of advice. 

These individuals are chosen among our network of colleagues and friends, experts and specialists in their field. 

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Claude Garcia is many things at the same time. He is a researcher at ETH Zurich and professor of International Forest Management at the University of Applied Sciences, Berne. He is also the president of the Lobby des Consciences, a French NGO aiming to create “a positive citizen’s movement and supporting all those who wish to put ecology at the heart of their concerns for the construction of a more desirable future”. Last but not least, Claude and his partners created a spinoff from ETH called LEAF Inspiring Change, to help people and business deal with uncertainty, complexity and shifting conditions. A common factor in all these activities is the design and use of strategy games to find better ways to decide collectively and make better-informed decisions. Planet B is one of these games. 

Through one of the plays of Planet B, my team StimShift got to know Claude and his passion for giving the best tools and thinking mechanisms to the public to decide and strategise when facing two of the biggest existential crises of humanity: climate change and biodiversity loss. It is an honour to have him in this interview series of Waste is a Failure of Design, in which he shares with us the importance of games and play, as well as the urgency to think in systems. 

***

Anh (A): For those who don’t know you, can you describe yourself in three words?

Claude (C): Three words? Tough! Give me a minute… Ok, I’d choose: joker, citizen and traveller. 

(A): Joker?

(C): Yes, because the Joker is a bit mad, but it is through madness that he seeks wisdom. A joker is also a card that you play. It is a trump. It can be the best or the worst card. I also like the notion of “play” that comes with this word, the notion of surprise. Life is full of surprises. You’ll never know what will come next, but that’s how you can continue learning. 

(A): And why a citizen and a traveller?

(C): “Citizen” as “part of a community”, as in “sharing and caring for others” so that we can all reach a greater good. And by “others”, I mean all others, even the ones that are different from me, even the ones that are not human. We are all interconnected. 

And “traveller” because that was what I wanted to become since I was 18. I wanted to see the word, a passport full of stamps. Through the years, I have travelled a lot indeed – but somewhere down the path, it became something different: I travel without the aim of reaching a destination, but to discover things, people, places and ideas and acquire new knowledge along the way. 

(A): I’m wondering how these elements of your characteristics manifest in your work…

(C): This is my story. For 20 years, I’ve been doing research on biodiversity and ecology, on rainforests and tropical landscapes, on people and their links to nature – how they live and transform their surroundings and are shaped in return. At the beginning of my research, I measured and counted trees and I could document the loss of biodiversity. I then wanted to understand the decisions of people, their knowledge, their behaviour and their aspirations. What did they want for their forests? For their landscapes? The problem was that people would share with me narratives and stories – about what they knew and wanted – and proceeded to do precisely the opposite – “yes, this tree is wonderful to give shade to my coffee plants” and then they would cut it. This kept happening again and again. And if you think of it, the failure of the international community to stop biodiversity loss is similar. We had a biodiversity target for 2010 and we missed it. We did another one in 2020 and missed it too. Now we have a 2030 target. Do you want to bet? Same story, simply on a global scale. 

This shows the complexity of the problem and the cognitive dissonance between what we think and believe in and what we actually do. That was when I went looking for a different form of interaction – beyond data collection and surveys – to face this complexity of reality. That is when I found games and companion modelling (ComMod). My colleagues in the ComMod network told me about post-modern science system thinking and distributed intelligence. All this was totally new to me.

I dived in. Scientists do models – equations, diagrams and computer simulations. But only games let people become part of the model. By entering the games, people can understand how the world works, from within. They experience how complex our social and industrial models truly are and discover the outcomes of our actions on nature. Then they can make decisions based on this new big picture that was revealed to them. These games are difficult, and people can fail. Well, then, they can try again, try to play better. Try to decide better. That is how they improve.

Sometimes, I plant a “joker” in the game, someone that will play differently from all the others, act a bit crazy and out of the box but within the boundaries of the rules. This forces people to think twice, to question the way they play, the way they manage things. Maybe it is possible to do things differently.

And finally, they can even begin to question the rules, to imagine new ones. The players become the game’s designers as well, they co-construct the outcome as a community, as citizens. We can then transpose these ideas into the real world. This is how they become architects of change.

 (A): This sounds amazing! When these games are played with experts and professionals, do you see any difference in comparison with a group of the general public?

(C): To my surprise, no. Of course, the experts will not need so many explanations – they probably know the system better than us – but if the game is well designed, anybody will catch up quickly. Maybe the most surprising thing is when one of these experts comes to me at the end of a session and says – “Thank you. I have not learned anything new, but now everything has a different meaning. This is something essential – I believe the experience of play and the emotions the game creates transform the way we look at things. We suddenly realize there is more to the system than we think we know.”

This effect works for almost anybody, any participant can become for a couple of hours part of the system. No one remains truly an outsider. 

(A): What are the biggest challenges for all of us, in your opinion?

(C): I’m 49 years. I started teaching 10 years ago and I used to say we were ending deforestation. I was wrong. We are back to how things were in 2008, and we have lost millions of hectares of tropical forest during this time. We now have heatwaves, mega-fires and birds falling from the sky. But society is changing too. We have Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion. Bicycle lanes take over cities. Most of my students are now vegetarians. I have been eating meat twice a day for most of my adult life, and everybody around me was like that. Not anymore. 

That is to say that things are changing and for good reasons. We are crossing beyond planetary boundaries. This means that very dangerous things loom ahead of us.  We are at war with ourselves. Look at the war in Ukraine (this was written in June 2022), and now we have powerful weapons that can lead to total annihilation. We are creating an Earth that is inhabitable for us all. We have entered uncharted waters now. We need all hands on deck navigating the unknown.  

(A): Facing these “uncharted waters”, do you have for us a piece of advice?

(C): I see a lot of anger these days – the young are angry towards the older generations, and vice versa. Fears can turn into anger and hatred, and social media do play a role in dividing opinions and forcing us to pick a side. 

Let us beware of the illusion of understanding. To navigate well, we have to embrace the complexity of the systems we are operating. To give you an example, boycotting palm oil is simple and gives satisfaction – especially when you are angry. But it will actually create more problems than it solves and we will not end the cycle of destruction. We need mutual understanding and collective intelligence to find ways that give space to nature and options to people. Patience, tolerance and creativity.

This is when the role of the traveller – treading and understanding the water, and the citizen – having a constructive mindset and the willingness to co-design – can come into play. 

(A): This reminds me of discussions I had on Mars and the future of Humanity. Some are enthusiastic about becoming interplanetary species, others are angry and would rather fix the problems on Earth and not waste resources on escaping to another planet. For me, it is not about Mars OR the Earth. It is about Mars AND the Earth. It is about a future worth working for. More things to care for, more ways to learn and grow. More complexity in a way. 

To end the interview here, in your opinion, what are the 3 skills that the younger generations should acquire to prepare for the future?

(C): First, it would be the capacity to go beyond what is written. Go out and inform yourself, and seek clues that are not immediate and presented to you. Things tend to be more complicated than they look. 

At the same time, do resist the urge to go as fast as everyone else. Our society is on a collision course, Competition crushes everything, and everyone is scrambling. Slow down. To change things, you will need to stay calm. Resist. Be bold and brave, you can challenge this grinding machine. 

And last but not least, this is not a skill to acquire but a thing to remember: you have more power than you think. You can get in touch and talk to anyone, you can change things, build alliances, and you don’t have to submit to the order of things. Just think strategically, look at the system as a whole, and then press ahead. 

(A): Wonderful. Thank you so much Claude for this interview! 

(C): Anytime, thank you! 

***To connect and discuss with Claude, find him on Twitter @ClaudeAGarcia

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