In Washington, DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, a man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. Few paid the violinist much attention, either pausing briefly to listen, or tossing money into his hat as they rushed past — he made $32.00 for that hour. When he finished no one applauded, no one noticed. Two days earlier, the violinist, Joshua Bell, a world-class musician, had played to a sold-out audience in Boston, where patrons had paid $100 per seat to listen to him play the same music
This event raises important questions, such as whether we recognise talent in unexpected situations and perhaps more importantly, how do we notice things. What lessons can be drawn from this for Europe?
When we think about the complex challenges we face in our society, what stops us from doing the important, rather than the merely urgent? After all, the Washington commuters felt compelled to respond to the urgency of their travel, and failed in their urgency to notice something different.
Instead of commuters, do we have Euro-crats and functionnaires rushing past the real problems on their way to solving small, but more easily managed problems and challenges? Do we have policies and governments that grasp the urgent and unimportant but miss the urgent and important?
Addressing the complex wickedness of contemporary challenges will never be easy. They are embedded in the very fabric of our world, and indeed, much of what passes for policy frequently exacerbates these problems, by being simple-minded, linear in analytical focus, and failing to grasp interconnectedness.
This is surprising given that the one key cause of the recent (and still rumbling away) financial crisis was the tightly coupled nature of financial institutions, a closeness that meant that it was virtually impossible to insulate one area from contagion from another area. Not noticing this tightly-wound system is bad enough. Failing to ensure that future financial systems are more loosely coupled would be almost criminal. Instead, we are probably seeing even tighter winding of systems.
But the people who failed to notice problems are frequently the people asked to solve them, but they are trapped by their lack of noticing — they would walk past the violinist on the metro on their way to the concert. Of course, they would argue that the chances of another world-class violinist on the metro is close to zero, so they don’t need to be vigilant, but of course the next thing they won’t notice is something … they won’t notice.
And we will pay the penalty for that lack of foresight, thoughtfulness and insight.
We need people who can approach the world with an open and uncluttered perspective. Such people may not behave like the people we are used to as they notice things others don’t, link things others don’t. I’m also suggesting that recruitment practices themselves may be a source of systemic policy error.
The most important job for governments, the Commission, the Parliament, everyone, is to ensure openness (what I call porosity) to the wicked interconnectedness of the world, so they can avoid reducing real-world complexity to a series of simple-minded, linear, and probably in the long term, wrong-headed policy fixes.
And one thing is certain, we need to know if we are walking past something important on our way to somewhere else.