openDemocracyUK: Opinion

To build a new world, we need less ‘machine mind’ and more ‘garden mind’

To address the complex threats and opportunities of the 21st century needs a change of mindset and daily political practice – away from the mindset of the machine and the engineer and towards the mindset of the garden and the gardener.

Sue Goss
23 July 2020, 10.43am
The urban garden at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales

Walking through my vegetable garden, I notice that my strawberries have vanished! I suspect mice. Still, mice need to eat. In compensation, my new raspberry canes are groaning with fruit. The rocket has flowered, my mistake, but in doing so has attracted ladybirds, so the beans are clear of greenfly. My experimental pak choi withered in the hot sun, but the heat has ripened the tomatoes early. For every problem, there is an opportunity. Nothing goes exactly right, but, in the end, everything goes right enough.

As gardeners we spend a lot of time observing the sun, the seasons, the soil and the cycles that life moves in. We attract wildlife to do the work of maintaining equilibrium. We encourage diversity. We begin by creating a rich soil. We work with the plants, finding them the conditions they need. Life wants to grow, and, through trial and error, it finds many different, quirky ways to do so in whatever conditions it finds.

This is also what it is like when humans get together to create something; a play, a piece of music, an experiment, a vaccine. We don’t start with a business plan and a structure chart. We start with a spark, a clue, and then mess around until something emerges.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries we’ve thought about human society as if it were a huge machine. We plan change using metaphors drawn from engineering ‘build’, ‘construct’, ‘wire’ ‘channel.’ 19th and 20th century capitalism used machines as the models for work; creating factories in which people were simply ‘moving parts’. The drive for efficiency reduced redundancy and variation, centralising decisions. The state borrowed from corporate capitalism to build bureaucratic systems in which staff and service users had little say. A drive for public service ‘efficiency’ used the management consultancy methods of the private sector to replace human interaction with call centres, obsess with hospital ‘throughput’, and minimise ‘contact time’ in social care. How else would an elderly woman in hospital with nowhere to go be described as ‘bed-blocking’?

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Our current government system, as we are learning through the covid-19 epidemic, is not only unkind and uncaring, but unsafe. Resilience comes from diversity and distributed decision-making, and from drawing on the intelligence of the people close enough to the problem to understand what needs to be done.

As we try to Build Back Better, we are developing ideas about a better, more caring, safer society. But we won’t succeed using machine mind.

Modern ecological science is changing the way we think about ourselves and the planet, in ways that connect back to ancient philosophies and peoples. Instead of seeing ourselves as ‘drivers’ and ‘controllers’ of our world, we recognise we are intelligent organisms in a complex eco-system that we shape, but that also shapes us.

If we approach change using ‘garden mind’ instead of ‘machine mind’ we start in a different place. We use our political resources to create the equivalent of a good rich soil: human rights, a basic income, education continuing into adulthood, universal healthcare. We pay attention to those in the most vulnerable circumstances and enable them to live the lives they choose. We encourage creative responses, support innovation, share knowledge and hold the system open to change. This is not necessarily ‘soft.’ Gardeners move firmly to control rapacious weeds and to prevent suffocating monocultures.

Garden mind would mean taking firm regulatory action to stop greed from disrupting the sustaining dynamics. It would mean distributed power, and devolved government. It would mean an economy that serves us, instead of one that simply uses us. In the workplace we would allow staff to find their own solutions to problems, listening, instead of controlling. Employee ownership, social entrepreneurs, co-operatives, alongside public organisations, shorter working hours, more time to think and greater productivity. In social welfare, it would start with listening to people’s needs and contributions, instead of assessing them for pre-determined services. It would put the power and resources of the state behind community and voluntary effort, rather than in competition with it.

Machine mind engineers a solution and expects it to work every time. Garden mind is alert to the need for constant mitigation and maintenance. With garden mind we don’t expect things to work comfortably, we understand the compromises that have been made, and are attentive to the things that go wrong. We will ‘tinker’ a new world into existence, not deliver a blueprint.

The way we get to the future shapes the future. So the practice of ‘garden mind’ would acknowledge the many experiments that are underway and make more, embrace messiness, start with an idea and follow it. It would share each other’s experiments, learn from them and connect the innovators to each other. Create space for self-organising and conditions for it to flourish. Make relationships and then make more, keeping on connecting. Then engage with alternative sources of resource and power, local government, community councils, regional government, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland – parishes and town councils, universities, social enterprises, connecting multiple sources of resource. All the time thinking long and hard about how we create a new, self-balancing, distributive, creative and sustainable way of running our society.

In doing so, we will find ways to resolve the tensions we discover; balancing relationships at a very local level with working at scale; the heartbeat and energy of self-organising with the democratic legitimacy and resource-power of the state. We will have to understand our preoccupations and experiences and how that limits us, to catch our assumptions and examine them, to engage with as many different ways of seeing as we can and welcome criticism for making our thinking more resiliently.

Two ideas from horticulture might help. Firstly, as gardeners, we have free, open and generous advice about how to tackle every gardening problem known to humans; how to deal with weeds, nurture weak plants, tackle dodgy soils, deal with difficult weather; could we do the same for self-organising and democracy? Secondly, in horticulture for each plant species there is a ‘holder of the national collection’: someone who knows more about that plant than anyone else. Could we do something like that for the state, society and politics? A Knowledge Commons so that we know who to turn to when we need help?

Sue Goss is a gardener, a Compass Associate and works in, and writes about, social change. This is an extract from her new Compass publication [link] Garden Mind: an eco-system view of change and a new role for the state.

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