**The following is an article posted on the Harvard Business Review, written by Umair Haque. I don’t normally re-post articles from external sites, but this one is a must-read. **
Consider what I’d call the paradox of radicalism. Everywhere, we — especially Americans — are told that we’re the inheritors of the legacies of plucky adventurers, grand risk-takers, resolute pioneers; those with the courage and sheer impertinence to defy a status quo that tried its damnedest to stop them from creating a future that was brighter than the drab present they refused to settle for.
Everywhere, and especially today, we celebrate the spirit and ethos of radicalism; still, we fly flags vibrant with the colors of the radicals of yesteryear.
When it comes down to it, we spend our days sucking out each others souls in bureaucratic organizations in which adding a new word to a slogan for a character that doesn’t really exist whose purpose is selling more pointless junk so people can spend money they don’t really have to live lives they don’t really want for reasons that don’t matter is considered risky.
In other words, we’re incrementalists. We may honor the radical — but we surround ourselves with the banal, trivial, humdrum, and tedious.
When it comes to the expanse of history, compared to the great and grand, the audacious and downright outrageous, our ideas are small and our appetites smaller — hey, did you get that mega-jumbo peanut butter at the new Walmart?; our visions are tiny and our dreams tinier — hey, we’re going to be the greatest luxury hotel in the world!; our senses are stunted and our emotions blunted — hey, let’s hit the mall because what really makes people feel alive, exhilarated is more generic plastic disposable junk.
Consider, as an example, the terms of our national, global debate: both sides are arguing on how to get back to the status quo. One side argues that more spending will fuel a recovery. The other, that less spending will…fuel a recovery. It’s about painfully hobbling back to square one — not taking a quantum leap past the finish line, into a better kind of race entirely.
If this so-called debate often feels a little tedious, trivial, and about as in touch with reality as Kim Kardashian is with Kibare, it’s because it’s a status quo-preserving debate. It’s a debate run by folks who are “conservative” in a thin, narrow, intellectual sense: what they seem to want to conserve isn’t the authentic politically conservative notion of heritage, culture, tradition, or values, but simply “recovering” a system that makes the super-rich super-richer, while blowing up the economy, the middle class, the planet, and your future.
In status-quo preserving debates, both (or all) options are concerned with getting back to square one; how to maintain the status quo ante. Status-quo-disrupting debates are concerned with getting past square one; not merely restoring a system to a previous state, but rebuilding the system for higher peaks of performance — perhaps with the understanding that yesterday’s local optima is what caused the system’s collapse.
Status quo-preserving debates are the realm of the incrementalist. Careful and cautious, the incrementalist’s overriding concern is the past and present — not the future, and certainly not possibility, exploration, or to-hell-with-it levels of Picasso-like reinvention.
If there’s a single idea that made America great, I’d argue it’s the notion that, like every human, every human creation has a cycle of life; and the new must supplant the old for prosperity to come to fruition — and if there’s a single idea that’s making America stagnate, I’d suggest it’s the notion that the best we can do in the future is the best we were able to do in the past.
Call me crazy, go ahead and sic the dream team of Dick Cheney, Ted Nugent, and Oscar the Grouch on me, but I believe that we, each and every one of us, is capable of more than incrementally, cautiously, timidly, option-3-in-slide-14-in-the-powerpoint-deck not so bad. I think we’re capable of radically, explosively, dangerously, laughably, hopelessly, impossibly better.
And I think America is capable of it, too. After all, it’s spent two centuries being the world’s, well, radicals, pioneering what history and aristocracy once scoffed at the impossibility of: Economic ascendance? Check. Highest living standards in history? Check. Moon landing? Check. Middle class? Check. Black president? Check.
But to do it, we can’t merely call for a set of broken institutions to work slightly better, to restore the present to the state of the past. We’ve got to redefine better; to redesign the future.
So given my admittedly ambitious definition, are there any radicals?
Here are just a few beginnings — none perfect, immaculate, nor pure — from heroes of mine, dreamers and doers both, that might begin to meet the definition above. Paul Romer’s idea of charter cities — cities that import institutions from other states — is totally radical. Michael Clemens’ argument that a world without borders would be a radically more prosperous world? Totally radical. So is Denmark’s recent quantum leap to Green GDP. Elon Musk’s dangerous idea that space travel can be pioneered by enterprise. Occupy Wall Street’s idea of radically open, decentralized decision-making. The General Assembly. Yancey and Perry at Kickstarter’s sweet, quiet, lethally powerful idea that people should have the power to fund projects they find meaningful — not just financially beneficial. There are plenty more examples of nascent radicalism in Robert Safian’s excellent essay about “Generation Flux.” All are ideas that don’t merely desperately attempt to preserve a status quo more clapped out than China’s rivers — but aim squarely at toppling it; all take a quantum leap past the boundaries of the possible, into the realm of the delectably impossible.
It’s time for each and every of us to get a tiny bit more radical. Not as in “Man!! This new toothpaste box is totally rad! Quick, call the CMO!!” — but as in: “We need better ways to live, work, and play: institutions and ideas that are radically better than the ones we’ve got now; rules that make human interaction not just lead to minor-league baby steps in efficiency, productivity, and effectiveness — but quantum leaps in real human prosperity.”
So here’s my tiny manifesto for bigger, better, badder ideas.
Seek the roots
If it’s at times of megafailure that human organization needs radical ideas and thinkers, then to become one, seek the deeper roots of crisis. Humdrum collapses and workaday crashes can be solved by pruning the shoots — but historic crises, Great Resets, in Richard Florida’s terms, require paradigm shifts: sets of ideas that challenge yesterday’s cherished assumptions and beliefs. Like, for example, that the apex of human prosperity is churning out more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now.
Reorient the branches
If it’s a new paradigm you want to pioneer, once you’ve drafted a new set of assumptions and beliefs, how will they be brought to life? Radical ideas need equally radical vehicles for real-world acceleration; you probably wouldn’t ask McDonald’s to be the official restaurant of the Olympics — and if you did, let’s be honest: you’d be a bit of a laughingstock. In stark contrast, Clemens’ big idea of a world without borders is a radical reorientation of the way many of us think about prosperity.
What’s the point of your radical new idea — in human terms? How concisely can you express it? The apex of human prosperity isn’t merely more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now — but wiser, fitter, smarter, closer, tougher. Kickstarter reimagined fruition: it’s not just earning a few bucks from a stock, but seeing the projects you find inspirational and meaningful come to life. My favourite example, though, is punk: a musical form that ear-splittingly shattered the leisure-suited conventions of the spread-collared bourgeoisie — that gave voice to the marginalized, powerless, and their dissatisfaction.
Seed the system
For an idea to be radical in human terms, it’s got to seed a system, nurture a thriving jungle of human interaction — not just sell a product or pump up a bottom line, all in the monochrome realm of the incremental. Consider Romer’s idea of charter cities: it makes new systems possible — new sets of interactions between nations, that make entirely new kinds of institutions probable.
Are you a radical? If all you’re concerned with is selling more junk — no matter how much shinier than last quarter’s, no matter how clever your latest turn of phrase, no matter how elegant the drape of your cloak — forget it: you’re about as radical as a mystery meat in a McBurger. If your only goal is that yesterday’s broken institutions work slightly less dysfunctionally, my apologies — but perhaps you’re just another defender of the failed status quo.
Let me speak plainly. I don’t suggest you get radical because a) it’ll help you sell more junk b) it’ll help punkwash your reputation as a zombie overlord c) it’ll instantly elevate you to the pantheon of human accomplishment. In point of slightly painful fact, it’ll probably earn you ire, wrath, puzzlement, disdain, a little bit of fury, and plenty of raised eyebrows. The alternative, of course, is the (perhaps comfortable) life you have, on the (perhaps cosseted) terms you’re living it — and like the good burghers and barons of yore, it might be the case that you’re more than “happy” with it. If, of course, the point of “life” is merely to be something like a finely-tuxedoed spectator in the grand endeavor of human accomplishment, desire, imagination, creation, disappointment, elevation, and fulfillment; if the point of “life” is something like totally and completely missing the point of life.
Here’s the problem with incrementalism in a time of breakdown: it’s a bit like asking a mechanic to tune up your tasseled loafers for your pioneering voyage to the edges of interstellar space. Sure, you can wear your tasseled loafers, incrementalists of the universe. But make no mistake: if it’s the tired realm of the clapped out possible you wish to take a quantum leap beyond, you’re going to need a rocket ship.
Sure, radicalism’s dangerous. But what’s even more is dangerous is not enough radicalism in a time of mega-failure.
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, the great poet of punk, chronicler of a bygone era of desperate decline, of a ferocious disillusionment, a loss of faith in a rotten, decaying, failing system, once said simply: “Don’t accept the old order. Get rid of it.” In case you didn’t notice, he wasn’t wearing baby-soft tasseled loafers. He was trying to build a noisy, messy, belching, thunderous rocket ship — straight into the heart of the impossible future.
It’s your move.