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Synergy - a popular term from the 90s, the period in which I learnt the uncertain art of management and did my apprenticeship in the consulting craft. Finally now, nearly a decade later, I fully comprehend its importance – not as a buzzword on my way to winning buzzword bingo, but as an idea.
I owe the insight I’ve gained to Margo Kingston’s Webdiary, or to be more accurate, to the diverse collection of ideas expressed by the many people who participate in the unique community that comes to this wonderful little node in cyberspace to converse in Club Chaos.
Recent conversations about origins has prompted my historical bent and had me thinking much more deeply about origins. In the origins of ideas, I thought, perhaps could be found the start of answers to problems that seem to have stumped me thus far.
The actual origin of the term – synergy - is theological. It was used to describe the cooperation of human effort with divine will. Today most people recognise synergy as the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.
Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller, most famous for his geodesic domes, had much to say about synergy. He described synergy as "the behavior of whole systems not predictable from the behavior of separate parts." It is something I’d like to explore with you fellow Webdiarists, but first a brief word about Bucky.
Bucky Fuller was one of the first to propagate a systemic worldview. He was about my age when in the winter of 1927 - bankrupt, jobless, and living in inferior housing in Chicago - he saw his beloved young daughter Alexandra die of pneumonia. He felt responsible, and this drove him to drink and the verge of suicide. At the last moment it suddenly struck him that his life belonged, not to himself, but to the universe. He decided to embark on "an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity."
Bucky was truly a man ahead of his time. His lifelong goal was the development of what he called “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science” – the attempt to anticipate and solve humanity’s major problems through the highest technology by providing “more and more life support for everybody, with less and less resources.”
He was a practical philosopher. Even Albert Einstein was prompted to say to him, “Young man, you amaze me!”
There is much that could be said about Bucky Fuller, I’ll leave it to be said by others because I want to return to the topic at hand - synergy. For those whose interest is drawn to it, a good description of Fuller’s work comes from Amy Edmondson in her book, A Fuller Explanation. To me the most important thing Edmondson says about Bucky is:
It is the lateral thinking that appeals to me. I hope it appeals to many of you too, because together – as a whole – we are greater than the sum of the individual contributions we can make in solving problems. And we face big problems.
Let’s take one example. The SMH yesterday published locally a piece by Karen Armstrong - author of Islam: a Short History - called Mind your language or risk turning friends into foes in which she stressed the need for precise intelligence. Armstrong reminded us that:
We need to be aware, as Armstrong says, of the dramatically different shades of opinion in the Muslim world. And a good start is to drop the bullshit “Islamofascist” slur, or the misnomer of “Muslim terrorism” and describe it accurately. Armstrong suggests the term "Qutbian terrorism" to indicate its origins in the writings of the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb. After some research I tend to agree with Armstrong.
I have tracked down a copy of Qutb’s manifesto of political Islam called Ma'alim fi-l-Tariq (Milestones) on the web. I dare not open it yet, certainly not until I check that ASIO won’t disappear me in the early morning leaving my two-year-old son and expectant wife wondering for weeks where I am.
And this is where the idea of synergy connects. You see we do not freely examine the texts that Ayman Zawahiri and his student Osama bin Laden would have themselves read closely, because such an exercise is deemed to be dangerous. And in many ways it is very dangerous, especially in the hands of naïve and easily manipulated people. On the other hand, if intelligent people in the community did freely access such material - in the same way as we could freely access the Al Qur'ān Al Karīm, the Biblical Canon or the Hebrew Bible and all the related literature – we might together come to a better understanding of what makes a suicide bomber tick. We might even begin to see what they think they see and “Bingo!” we might find a way to defuse the ideas that form in their minds.
You never know, out of the synergy of wider community knowledge about these things perhaps we could find a creative breakthrough. Perhaps we could find a new and better way to deal with the problems that trace back to the very cell in which Qutb, the most persuasive publicist of the Muslim Brotherhood, was tortured – his mind.