Never before have we been able to disrupt the fundamental processes of Earth’s ecology, and never before have we created social, economic and technological systems – from continent-wide industrial agriculture to the international financial system – with today’s enormous complexity, connectedness and speed of operation. Whether the issue is drug resistant diseases or shiploads of migrants dumped on our shores, our problems spill across geographical and intellectual boundaries, their complexity often exceeds our wildest imaginations, and they converge and intertwine in totally unexpected ways. The real danger of the 21st century is ‘synchronous failure.’[1]

Introduction: The Copernican challenge

Nicholas Copernicus at the beginning of the 16th Century announced his theory that the earth was not at the centre of the universe, but actually rotated around the sun. This proposition, though resisted initially by the establishment, ultimately formed an alternative basis of knowledge and understanding about our universe that continues today.

The underlying assumptions upon which knowledge and the search for knowledge are based are generally referred to as paradigms. The search for alternative paradigms is intended to improve both understanding and explanations by challenging the assumptions that underpin present conceptual constructs. It is not about improving understanding and explanation by building upon existing assumptions, but rather by proposing alternative assumptions that might provide different frameworks for ordering evidence that leads to knowledge.[2]