by: Yannick Beaudoin, PhD.

“There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than “politicians” think.” , Michel Foucault.

In February 2016, I had the privilege of spending time co-facilitating a short course entitled “Beyond Development: Living Well on a Diverse and Finite Planet” at Schumacher College in the UK. The premise of the course was to provide participants with a space to explore the concept of ‘development’ from different perspectives and experiences qualified by culture, ideology, geography, ways of knowing, etc. The time spent preparing and delivering for that course, represent a milestone in my own journey to explore and enable new economic thinking – an economics fit for the 21st Century.

Such explorations are a luxury in our high-speed world and through them, groups are able to highlight vital insights necessary to enable change. And yet highlighting such insights is only a first step towards transforming our systems and societies from what is termed “unsustainable” to what is termed “sustainable”. More often than not, the inability to affect a desired change is not primarily related to any lack of knowledge, data, science, or even in a lack of good, viable solutions. Most often it’s related to a rather large elephant-in-the-room that never seems to be talked about, even though its presence cannot be ignored: how power dynamics operate in key parts of the economic and development system.

The dominant global development paradigm is an inheritance from a time when Europeans were sailing the seas, “discovering” new lands and laying colonial claims as part of an expansionary order. This geopolitical situation has been the main catalyst behind global economic and societal thinking and policy from about the 16th century to today. It continues to shape answers to questions like “what is progress?” and “what is development?” and has constrained humanity’s ability to explore the untapped potential of other possible pathways to what different individuals or groups define as ‘development’.

The Brazilian economist Celso Furtado criticized this dominant development paradigm. Furtado says this approach focuses on “abstract objectives such as investment, exports and growth” and ignores how different people and cultures have a broader definition of progress, fulfilment and happiness than these abstract objectives comprise. For example, assuming that wealth can only be defined in material and monetary terms, and that only ‘economic growth’ can move a society from ‘un-developed’ to ‘developed’, perpetuates simplistic thinking. It says that only one form of economic organization can address the challenge of development, at the expense of diversity in cultural, economic and political forms of organization. Geographic colonialism has metamorphosed into ‘development colonialism’ based on a co-dependent relationship between what is defined as the ‘rich’ world and the ‘poor’ world.

I do not pretend that this one opinion piece can do this complex conversation justice. However, it is one example of how, since the latter part of the 20th Century, an incredible innovation in thinking has led to a myriad of viable alternative pathways that would in the least shift away from the current, inadequate and essentially failing paradigm, allowing for new potential to be realized.

The Beyond Development course offered a variety of alternatives through conceptual and real-life examples that have the potential to create and bring profound systemic change to how societies are defining and pursuing ‘development’.

Some examples, like these listed below, and many more could make up an entire volume.

Even in some of the countries that represent the temples of the current paradigms, new thinking and transformative action is visible at the macro scale (e.g. US states implementing Genuine Progress Indicators) and at local scales (UK communities experimenting with alternative currencies and Transition Town movements).

The flows of power in society need to be clearly identified.

There is no doubt that whether one is working to enable change for a better environment, to reduce inequality, support social justice or other important societal change that currently lie at the fringes of the dominant paradigm, the flows of power in society need to be clearly identified. Our societal constructs are not built solely on technical, rational or emotionless building blocks. They come to be because we, as citizens, allow them to be. We imbue them with power.

And as long as we choose to ignore the power dynamics in the systems we wish to transform, our incredible creative potential is rendered impotent.

Our conversations and dialogues therefore need to change.

We need to invite more genuine and frank sharing. We need everyone to be honest and truthful about their perspectives and interests. We need to avoid dogma and hubris in order to be fully inclusive of everyone who has a contribution to make and especially of those who may resist change.

Dr. Yannick Beaudoin is the Director General Ontario and Northern Canada, David Suzuki Foundation; and is a Board Director of RSI.