I live in England. In an area known as the “Welsh Marches”, on the border of England and Wales. I was born in 1937. Since retiring from having to earn a living I have taken up writing. Mostly for the RADIX think-tank.
I am a member of Deep Adaptation (DA), the international forum of over 3,500 members, set up to “envision the prospect of climate-induced societal collapse”.
Since joining a task group of DA, whose purpose is “ to explore how health and social care might be delivered in a time of collapse” I have become aware of a fundamental problem when imagining the future.
I speak a different language from most of my readers.
For some time I have had a nagging feeling that my pieces, written from my bottom-up mindset, are not understood.
Thinking back over 40 years ago to when I was a local authority officer, I don’t think I could have then understood how I see things now.
So, therein lies the problem.
I was employed in City Engineers’ Departments for twenty years. Where top-down thinking and practice were the only way to work. As it had to be.
After 20 years I was tempted to move into a department of land-use planners. Again top-down practice prevailed.
I was uncomfortable from the outset because, as an engineer, I could not understand the technical language of UK land use planning. As time passed by I began to realise that the town and country folk whose localities we were planning intensely disliked what we were proposing for their localities. We had no interest in their views. Which is legitimate behaviour for town planners.
So I left local authority employment.
The following years, until I retired from gainful employment, were spent in academia and then running a database marketing company with my wife, Jae.
In addition, I took on voluntary work as a member of the Executive Committee of the Town and Country Planning Association. Which enabled me to resume my thinking about how to plan towns and country. I was determined to find an alternative to the centralised ways of the system I had encountered in the 1970s, which still exists today.
At first, I thought that decentralisation should be the way forward. But that is just another kind of bureaucracy, albeit smaller. As demonstrated by local authority neighbourhood planning, which has to be done within policies prescribed from above. A top-down process in which policies are laid down by the Government then passed down to the local authorities for implementation. Which provides the basis for neighbourhood planning, undertaken by Parish Councils, sticking to policies defined above them.
Eventually, my thinking got to where I am now.
In the future of de-growth, which we will experience from now on, seeing things from a bottom-up mindset will gradually take over from current ways.
Top-down thinking will continue to be appropriate for today’s public service planning and management, and other hierarchical organisations. They will gradually become disorganised and less relevant to the emerging changes. In response, bottom-up ways of thinking and doing will emerge and grow, albeit not looking at all like the old ways.
My re-thinking about bottom-up ways, which took over 30 years, has convinced me that it is probably impossible for anyone with a top-down mindset to understand bottom-up thinking.
Top-down and bottom-up are, in effect, different languages.
They are languages that cannot be taught? They have to be lived.
As an example. The language used by bureaucratic services is a give-away. They deliver services. There is no equivalent from the bottom-up. We don’t think like that. We are outside that box.
Dr Temple Grandin, a professor of science at Colorado State University says “I’m good at trawling through the Internet through vast amounts of journal articles and then pick out what are the really important things. I then synthesize all of this resource down into one short paragraph . . . That’s something that I’m good at doing… I’m a bottom-up thinker—I take the details and put them together.”
Top-down thinking about the future relies on the initial assumptions being correct. The more these assumptions turn out not to be true as the thinking progresses, the more the thinking deviates from reality and the harder it is to know what to do. With the result of muddle and equivocation. Which is where we are now
Bottom-up thinking about the future has no goal. The end-state wanted is not known. What will emerge from the thinking is a process. A journey, in which decisions are made from a bottom-up mindset. Learning as you go. Recognising mistakes and successes. An evolving process. Building an understanding of reality.
The worst thing a team of top-down thinkers can do is to invite a bottom-up thinker to join them. This is why I now find it impossible to work on a project with top-down people. Like all innovators, in a group, I can see a way forward, whilst top-down folk are still puzzling out how to do it.
What to do?
I now propose to find people with bottom-up mindsets. I guess some don’t realise it. Together we may begin to think usefully about the future.
I am setting up a place where I hope other bottom-up thinkers will join me.
Anyone can join. Not to argue the merits of town-down and bottom-up. Both ways are valid. In the past top-down prevailed, now being gradually replaced by bottom-up thinking and doings.