Generative Disruption

Perhaps it is a perennial illusion, but it seems increasingly apparent that human systems will be facing a series of major internal and external shocks over the coming years.  In the past two years alone we have witnessed the eruption of what the social movement scholar Sidney Tarrow called a ‘wave of collective action’, with mass mobilizations around the world overthrowing governments, threatening multilateral institutions, and challenging commonly held economic and political beliefs.  Financial crises, major shifts in economic activity, geopolitical conflicts, and technological changes have all shaken established institutions.  And there is increasing evidence that we are moving even more rapidly than expected towards major ecological changes that will disrupt the food, air, water, and climate systems upon which humanity depends.

Regardless of whether these shocks represent a distinct macrohistorical transition or simply a continuation of the vicissitudes of human civilization, we would be well-served by learning how to deal with them.  Disruptions can create an opening for human agency.  As the ideas and infrastructure and institutions that have formed the basis of an existing system weaken, there is an opportunity to bend its trajectory towards a future that is more attractive.  And so we are presented with two questions.  First, what future do we want to move towards?  And second, what can make a disruption generative instead of destructive?

The exciting bit is that we can draw upon research and practice in a variety of disciplines to answer this question. Under what conditions…

  • …do species flourish after a shock to a habitat?
  • …does a body become healthier after a physical shock?
  • …does an organization become more successful after a market disruption?
  • …do a country’s institutions become stronger after a revolution or conflict?
  • …does a relationship become stronger after an argument?
  • …does a person become happier or more successful after a traumatic life event?

Insights from ecology, physiology, organizational studies, political science, psychology, sociology, and a variety of other disciplines can help us answer the question of how to make disruption generative.  Naturally, we should exercise caution when analogizing between the human body, for example, and the global economic system.  But by creating a vigorous interdisciplinary conversation I hope we will be able to gain insight into the practices and principles of generative disruption.

I am in the process of writing some longer pieces on this topic (say, a dissertation for example!), so would be interested in hearing your thoughts.  From your experience/perspective/research, what makes disruption generative?