How To Make A Paradigm Shift

Last week I was in Amsterdam with the Disruptive Innovators Network (you can read my daily updates, here, here, and here) and it got me thinking about how we make the shift from current behaviours and ways of operating.

Travelling across the city you’d think Amsterdam had been designed in a lab rather than being a place that has evolved over 746 years. It’s great to walk around, there are no traffic jams, and there’s an easy and cheap to use train, metro and tram system. 

And then there’s the bikes. The Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. More than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with less than 2% in the UK – and this rises to over 38% in Amsterdam. 

Amsterdam wasn’t built that way – in fact less than 50 years ago the city was at risk of being overrun by cars.

So how did they change? The Dutch understood design thinking and that just because you build something people don’t automatically follow. It wasn’t enough to just provide cycle lanes, you had to make cyclists feel as safe as if they were in a car. And that meant rebalancing the power of the automobile. This has been done through wider cycle lanes protected from traffic and design principles. Many of the shared spaces – where cars do not rule – adhere to Hans Monderman’s theory that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility, the need for drivers and pedestrians to pay attention to what is happening around them.

The Dutch have successfully taken a problem and innovated around it, completely changing people’s behaviours NOT by penalising them, but through creating a more fulfilling and pleasant way to live.

Moving away from a culture of convenience

As humans we have become more and more impatient, demanding immediacy and instant gratification through increasingly digital and frictionless experiences. Convenience is now the driving factor when making purchases in our digital economy and it comes at a price.

In April 2020 Amsterdam became the first municipality in the world to publish a City Doughnut – a vision to emerge from COVID-19 as a city that ensures a good life for everyone. The vision is to transition Amsterdam into a circular city, adopting a smarter approach to managing scarce raw materials, production and consumption, and creating more jobs for everyone.

Why is it called a doughnut? It’s inspired by a 2012 Oxfam report by Kate Raworth. This was later developed in her book Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.

For example, one of the venues was Circl restuarant which is shaped like a doughnut and is the centre of a movement to spread circular economy principles. Accordingly they start at the end – cooking with what’s leftover. Stale bread, leftover fruit and veg from supermarkets. Chefs adhere to circular principles and fight against food waste every day. They use sustainable cooking techniques such as preserving and fermenting in the kitchen.

The building itself is pretty impressive. Built around circularity principles, it reuses the fabric of company uniforms as heat and sound insulation; and you only get your coffee if you learn sign language to communicate with a deaf Ukrainian refugee. (I learned cappuccino – by far the easiest).

Additionally we heard about demolition crews being reframed as urban miners. Amsterdam (or any other town, city or estate) can be viewed as an urban mine with a wealth of metals such as aluminum, copper, gold and steel contained within its built environment. It is less costly to mine urban buildings and structures such as high-rise buildings for steel, cables for copper, window frames for aluminum and phones for gold. Nothing is ‘waste’.

What’s clear for me is the ambition here goes way beyond the minimum standard/box ticking approach to ‘sustainability’ we have in much of the UK. Paradigm shift is when a big chunk of a community swaps their old conceptions for new ones. That’s what is happening here.

One of the reasons that the wheels are starting to come off the Net Zero wagon is that it has quite a pessimistic message, asking people to give things up rather than live better lives. Now we’re all more literate about climate change we’re also more aware of greenwashing and virtue signalling activism. When tobacco companies outperform Tesla or a social non-profit on their environmental and social goals people stop believing in them.


We form a paradigm through the set of concepts we accept and the actions we take repeatedly. A paradigm shift occurs when the prevailing mental model has so many anomalies that it breaks and a new sense of the world is formed.

Today in the UK marks the 15th anniversary of the introduction of smokefree law, protecting people from secondhand smoke in restaurants, pubs, bars, shops, offices and workplaces. To anyone under 30 reading this it’s probably inconceivable for you to imagine a reality where you could sit smoking a cigarette in the cinema or even on an airplane. That reality existed: I know because I grew up in it.

It’s worth watching Elon Musk’s 2 minute explanation of First Principle thinking which allows you to make change in clear leaps, rather than building small improvements onto something that already exists. Musk gives an example of the first automobile. While everyone else was trying to improve horse-drawn carriages, someone looked at the fundamentals of transportation and the combustion engine in order to create a car.

Reality can shift quickly if enough people break the model of what is possible.

What are the mental models that your organisation holds onto today that could be vanquished tomorrow?

Cover Photo by Daria Nepriakhina 🇺🇦 on Unsplash

Can We Really Trust People To Do The Right Thing?

TLDR: the answer is yes

Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act – it means that we don’t need all those managers and CEOs, kings and generals. That we can trust people to govern themselves and make their own decisions.

Rutger Bregman

It looks like this pandemic is, for the UK at least, coming to end. In terms of a narrative arc the story of Covid-19 started with people stockpiling toilet roll, hand sanitiser and eggs and ended with confirmation of something we had guessed long ago – that those who create the rules for the little folk rarely stick to them.

People really are shit aren’t they? Left to our own devices social order breaks down and we reveal ourselves to be self-centred, selfish and uncaring.

Except there’s little evidence that’s the case.

Whilst the media has delivered us a daily stream of bad behaviour – with even community street parties being weaponised as deadly super spreader events – the real story of the pandemic has been one of mass cooperation.

It’s not just the traditional media who told us how bad we were. Facebook and Twitter were full of pictures of ‘covidiots’ – a term that came to be used by both anti-lockdowners and the proponents of Zero Covid.

How people truly behave is never revealed by looking at the extremes. True – there have been anti-vaxxers intimidating kids outside schools and disrupting test centres. And there have also been mask fetishists who wear face coverings outside when on their own, alone in cars, even in their social media profiles. These people though are outliers, to be used as totems of idiocy by both sides of the argument that Covid isn’t really a big deal/or is a potential destroyer of humanity.

The vast, the overwhelming, majority of people were in neither of these camps. Most of us took it seriously, cooperated and followed the rules as we wanted to look after each other. The jury is out on whether such severe lockdowns were needed as there is evidence that people were modifying their behaviour before many governments introduced restrictions. Sweden, both praised and vilified for its “light touch” stance during the pandemic adopted a mass cooperation rather than mass restriction approach and is , at best, no worse off because of it.

Also the mathematical models that led to the most drastic restrictions have now been revealed to be exclusively bad scenarios based on the worst of us, never assuming that people would self-regulate their behaviour without enforcement.

Many would argue that this approach was necessary in a pandemic, that we couldn’t take the risk – and there is some merit to point of view. However, this is not a sustainable or even ethical way to form future public or social policy.

How Humans Really Behave

According to Rutger Bregman we have a rather pessimistic view – not of ourselves, but of everyone else. Without rules and leadership we are days away from anarchy. It’s been named “veneer theory” – the idea that just below the surface, our bestial nature is waiting to break out.

His research on over 200,000 years of human history counters this and shows that in reality we are hardwired to be kind, cooperative and caring. He has talked about how during the pandemic we have seen an explosion of cooperation and altruism with people organising stuff from the bottom up.

In his book Humankind he recounts numerous examples from history that show disasters don’t cause us to descend a few rungs on the ladder of civilisation, but often bring out the best in us. The media stories of looting, stockpiling are usually true, but selective – highlighting the behaviour of the outliers.

He writes that during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we didn’t see New Orleans descend into complete chaos. In fact in seven hundred field tests following disasters since 1963 it’s never every man for himself. Catastrophe brings out the best in people.

As an explainer he quotes from Rebecca Solnit “elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image” and notes that “dictators and despots all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self interest, just like them”

Exactly that. The people making the rules assumed the worst of us because that’s how they would behave if they were left to their own devices. And behind closed doors left to their own devices that’s precisely what they did.

This isn’t a lesson just for the politicians – it’s relevant to any of us who work with the public. If your job involves you encouraging someone to take a vaccine, to eat more healthily , to exercise more, to look after their home, to pay their rent or mortgage – there are lots of lessons from the past two years.

People can do good things, and more often than not that’s what they do when things are explained to them. The more we impose top-down rules and directives the more we risk paternalism or even authoritarianism.

If all we did was view how people behave slightly less cynically, maybe we’d create a much more relaxed, healthy and happier world.

How Do We Emerge From a State of Fear?

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

That is how the media approached Covid. Be afraid of everything. Be afraid of being tall. Be afraid of being bald. Be afraid of going to the shops and accepting home deliveries.

The fearmongering is relentless. Be afraid of your pets. Be afraid for your pets. Just be afraid.

Laura Dodsworth

In August last year I went back to the office, the first time I’d been to a workplace since March. As I arrived I felt sick, even though I’d felt perfectly healthy just thirty minutes earlier. I recognised it for it was: anxiety, like the feeling of a first day at school. If I’m honest – I briefly considered cancelling. I wasn’t frightened of the virus, I was just frightened of people. I bit the bullet and walked inside..

As we emerge from a pandemic , in the UK at least, it’s necessary to reflect how changed we have become, and whether that change is permanent or temporary.

A study into Covid Anxiety Syndrome, characterised by fear of public places, compulsive hygiene habits, worrying about the virus and frequent symptom checking showed 46% of affected people feared returning to public transport, 44% feared touching things, while 35% were checking their family members and loved ones for signs of Covid on a regular basis.

Polling from Ipsos MORI suggests it may be more than 20% of the general population that’s suffering from a form of Covid Anxiety Syndrome. It shows that 28% of British adults aren’t looking forward to “Greeting people with handshake/hug/kiss”, 27% aren’t looking forward to “going to large public gatherings such as sport of music events” and 24% aren’t looking forward to “Going to parties (such as weddings or birthday parties)”. 1 in 4 fear meeting new people.

I know of a fully vaccinated family friend who wants a hug from her fully vaccinated son more than anything. He won’t give it to her. More than half of Britons say they have not yet hugged a relative or close friend since restrictions on personal contact were eased.

Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive emotion. It involves a biochemical response as well as a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.

Marketeers have understand the unique value of fear for decades – it’s no surprise that the media has used the pandemic to sell copies with scary headlines and filled advert space with health warnings.

However – sex sells and fear compels – and according to the new book by Laura Dodsworth, Covid has seen the Government use fear as a behavioural nudge on a mass scale.

Laura isn’t a Covid denier or even a lockdown sceptic, but has written about how tactics that sometimes wouldn’t pass the ethics board of a social experiment have become normalised.

In Options for Increasing Adherence To Social Distancing, the UK Government were advised on 22nd March 2020 that a substantial number of people “still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened by Covid; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group” and in bold “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging”.

Now, most of us would agree that in an emergency situation some degree of behavioural nudging , a science I’m actually a fan of, is necessary. The question that the book raises is the ethics of how long this should continue, the tactics for ramping up unnecessary fear and the long term effect on society if anyone in authority becomes addicted to fear as a nudge.

Britain has been a world leader in behavioural insights since David Cameron set up the “nudge unit”. But has nudge become a shove? The book argues we went too far and that messaging that was initially designed to help us stay safe by scaring us has been so effective that we quickly became the most frightened nation in Europe, with people significantly over-estimating the spread and fatality rate of the disease. The British public think 6-7% of people have died from coronavirus – around one hundred times the actual death rate based on official figures.

I don’t go as far as Laura in her critique of behavioural insights as paternalistic. I think nudge can have a valid place in health , housing , justice and the social sector in general.

Where I’d agree with her is the ethical question about the overuse of fear as a motivator. It will be at least a couple of years before we can tell whether the cards were overplayed and understand the longer term impact.

Epidemics will come and go – but our basic psychology is here to stay.

I countered my fear by getting back in the office, and by having weekends away when I could. I went back to the gym and back to the pub on the day they reopened.

The best way to emerge from a state of fear is by being social, looking after friends and neighbours and being part of a community. The very things we were told to be afraid of are , ironically, the route out of this particular crisis.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

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