Looking to the Future: Introducing the Concept of Cultural Maturity

How do we best understand the future? We can miss the fact that simply attempting to do so is a radical enterprise—something both new and suddenly essential. We’ve all had classes on history, on the past. But very few of us have had classes on the future—in spite of the fact that the future is where we, and certainly our children, must ultimately reside.

And if by chance we’ve had a class on the future, the odds are small that it provided significant insight. Certainly the most commonly encountered thinking about the future doesn’t help us greatly. The evening news rarely takes us beyond the next electoral or business cycle. And the competing advocacies of the political left and the political right most often leave us stuck in all too predictable ideological claims.

The pronouncements of self-proclaimed futurists rarely get us a great deal further. Most futurists focus their attention on technological advancements—on inventions yet to come and how they may change our lives. This is a worthwhile focus, but by itself leaves the most important questions unanswered. Ultimately our future will depend less on specific tools we may invent than on whether we can manifest the ability to use those tools wisely. The most narrowly conceived of invention-focused futures thinking is in the end “techno-utopian.” It makes new technologies the answer, in effect ignoring that the human dimension has any significant role to play.

We also sometimes encounter an almost opposite kind of futures thinking. We can find the future described in terms of transformation, most commonly of a spiritual, New Age sort. While such thinking can be well-intended, in the end it too stops well short. At best it represents naïve wishful thinking, proposes outcomes that are simply not possible. At worst, it describes results that on close examination we realize we would never really want.

Over the last thirty-five years, the Institute for Creative Development, a Seattle-based non-profit think tank and center for advanced leadership training, has worked to refine a further, very different way to think about the tasks ahead. The concept of Cultural Maturity brings a “developmental” perspective to understanding cultural change—and in particular, to making sense of the critical cultural questions now before us. Cultural Maturity is a specific notion within Creative Systems Theory, a comprehensive framework for understanding purpose, change, and interrelationship in human systems originated by psychiatrist and futurist Dr. Charles M. Johnston.

The concept of Cultural Maturity addresses how our times are challenging us to rethink Modern Age institutions and values that we have assumed to be ideals and end points. It describes how the most important issues before us will require new skills and capacities just to effectively understand the questions, let alone formulate useful answers. It argues that our times are demanding—and at once making possible—an essential kind of “growing up” as a species.

Understanding all that is involved in this needed “growing up” takes considerable reflection. Dr Johnston’s latest book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, is 640 pages long. (An introductory companion volume, Hope and the Future, is a more manageable 150 pages.) But while the concept necessarily stretches how we customarily think, in the end what it describes is common sense, simply a maturity of common sense that we have not before been capable of. In fact, most of us get—whether consciously or not—that something like what the concept describes will be necessary.

Certainly, we appreciate that a sane and healthy future will require that we be more intelligent in our choices. We recognize that dealing with nuclear proliferation in an ever more technologically complex and globally interconnected world will be very difficult unless we can bring greater insight to how we humans relate. Similarly, people recognize that addressing the energy crisis, or environmental concerns more generally, will demand a newly sophisticated engagement of hard realities. People’s more immediate frustrations also show a beginning appreciation of the need for greater maturity. With growing frequency, people today respond with disgust—appropriately—at the common childishness of political debate, and at how rarely the media appeal to more than adolescent impulses.

And most of us also recognize something further. We appreciate that it is essential, given the magnitude and the subtlety of the challenges we face and the potential consequences of our decisions, that our choices be not just intelligent, but wise. Cultural Maturity is about realizing the greater nuance and depth of understanding—one could say wisdom—that human concerns of every sort today demand of us.

We get a first glimpse of Cultural Maturity—certainly its necessity—with the recognition that human culture in times past has functioned like a parent in the lives of individuals. Cultural absolutes have provided us with our rules to live by, and, in the process, a sense of identity and connectedness with one another. They have also protected us from life’s very real uncertainties and immense complexities.

But in today’s increasingly multi-faceted world, cultural absolutes less and less often provide reliable guidance. The implications of this loss are Janus-faced. Combined with how our world has become more risk-filled and complicated, this weakening of familiar rules can leave us dangerously overwhelmed and disoriented. And at the same time this weakening of familiar rules reveals possibilities that before could not have been considered.

Importantly, this is not just new possibility in some “anything-goes” sense. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how more than just a loss of guideposts is involved. The “growing up” that generates today’s loss of past absolutes also creates the potential for new, more mature ways of understanding and relating. Cultural Maturity brings specific cognitive changes that offer the possibility of more systemic and complete ways of being in, and making sense of, our worlds.

The concept of Cultural Maturity helps us in three primary ways. First, it provides a new guiding narrative in a time when stories we’ve traditionally relied on—from the American Dream to our various political and religious allegiances—serve us less and less well. Second, it identifies needed new skills and capacities that we can practice. And third, the concept of Cultural Maturity helps us develop new, more sophisticated conceptual tools. (Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes make possible new kinds of conceptual frameworks—Creative Systems Theory being one example.)

In the end, the concept of Cultural Maturity is about leadership, though in a particular sense. Its concern is not just good leadership, but the specific kind of leadership the future will require. It is also about leadership understood most expansively. It is about what the future demands of all of us—personally and in associations small and large. What it entails is pertinent to leading nations or organizations, but just as much it is about making good choices as lovers, friends, or parents. Ultimately, it is about leadership in the choices we make as a species.

You can find culturally mature perspective applied to current critical cultural issues as well as reflections on the continuing evolution of Creative Systems Theory at the Cultural Maturity blog (www.culturalmaturityblog.net).