Sandra Sieb

Brexit in light of Snowden’s complexity theory and concept of ‘emergence’

In London this week. Being here just a couple of days after Brexit seems unreal. I listen hard to conversations in cafes, on the bus... but nothing unusual to report, it’s like it never even happened! Everything appears to be the same, and yet everything has changed… The feeling of living an historical moment is interesting, and quite unique in itself.

As I glance at the familiar stores we now see throughout the world (Starbucks, H&M, etc), I find myself pondering the two innate needs that we seem to have as human beings. Our need to grow, and our need to feel safe and to ‘know’ the experience we’re going to have in advance (same cafe, same clothing stores etc.). It seems to me that these human drives have played a big role in the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ behind this massive surge of globalisation.

As societies, we equate growth with progress and strive to keep up in the great race towards global expansion. On a more personal level, even amongst the more adventurous of us, there’s a certain satisfaction and reassurance in knowing that we can travel halfway across the globe and still find the same coffee. As human beings, we like predictability, and we don’t like uncertainty.

And yet, we sure have entered into 'unknown territory’ now! What will happen to Europe in the years to come? Nobody really knows.

This whole Brexit situation is leading me to reflect more on the concept of emergenceas defined by David Snowden in his brilliant Cynefin model. We’re in Snowden’s ‘complex territory’,  the realm of 'unknown Unknowns'. A series of events and decisions have resulted in this vote for the UK to leave the EU. A series of new events and decisions will now emerge from this referendum, and will potentially have a massive impact on the UK, the EU and the world. Or maybe there won't be as big an impact as people fear? We don't know. We can't predict for sure, we can only hypothesise. Only in the years to come will we be able to look back and write the (hi)story of what happened after the referendum – just as it’s only now that we’re able to begin to comprehend the series of events that led to the ‘Leave' vote win.

One thing is for sure though. There will be some unintended consequences of this historical decision – there always are when we’re in ‘complex territories’! To some extent, Brexit can be seen as the unintended consequence of globalisation – although of course it’s much more complex than just this.

And on this very complex matter, people were forced to take a simple, binary, very black and white decision: to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain'. As the Tavistock Institute mentioned in their statement this week:

On Referendum Day, in everyone’s mind there would have been at least four positions – the good aspects and the bad aspects of Remain; and the good aspects and the bad aspects of Leave. As we placed our X’s in either the Remain or Leave box, hoping for a good result, ipso facto, we were obliged to deny the possibilities of the other three positions.  We had to believe only in the good aspects of our chosen option. Now, it feels like we are being chased by the uncontrollable spirits of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice of the Denied Three Other Positions – the negative aspects of our chosen option, having to do without the positive aspects of our rejected option, and probably worst of all, being confronted by the negative aspects of our rejected option.’ 

Behind this situation that is far too complex for me to fully understand, all I see is the hurt and fear. All I see is dissent. Dissent within a country; dissent amongst generations (the split between the younger generations who voted to stay and the older ones who voted to leave is fascinating!); dissent throughout a continent; dissent throughout the world, really.  

The hurt is real, there's no doubt. Some communities have been ignored and marginalised by “the rush to ‘bigness’", and for many the benefits of the EU are just a “mirage" (Tavistock Institute).

But I think the fear – rather than the hurt – is what has taken over. Fear of the unknown, fear of a world changing too fast and becoming a place that people can’t understand or relate to. As a cab driver told me, “I voted for the ‘Leave’, we know people outside the UK don’t understand but we really had to. It was about self-preservation. We’re a little country and we’re getting submerged by foreign people. I’m not racist but everything is more difficult. Getting a doctor’s appointment. Finding a house.” That sums it up, really.

When will this stop? When will we stop being so afraid of the Unknown? When will we embrace uncertainty, and see it as an opportunity instead of a risk?

I don't know. Today, I'm feeling sad for this world. Maybe afraid as well. But then, am I not replicating that very same fear of the unknown myself???  I guess it's part of being human! Yet, I want to trust that after Brexit something positive will emerge. Only time will tell…

I'm curious to know where you're own thinking on Brexit has taken you. Please feel free to share and let's start a dialogue!  :-)

Sandra Sieb is a leadership advisor and co-founder of Leadership Partners. More articles on adult development, complexity theory, leadership and system thinking can be found here

Blog edited by my brilliant communication strategist, Talia Gill



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