Evolution, Complexity, and the Third Way of Entrepreneurship

A Series of Conversations


The world is in crisis and nearly everyone – no matter what their political or religious beliefs—understands that the status quo is not working. Entrepreneurship is needed in the broadest sense of working creatively toward positive change. But what kind of entrepreneurship is up to the challenge?

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Until now, the two most influential narratives for positive social change have been laissez faire capitalism and centralized planning. With laissez faire, individuals and corporations pursuing their own self-interest in a free market are led, as if by an invisible hand, to promote the common good. With centralized planning, groups of experts design and implement their grand plans.

Both of these narratives might sound compelling as stories but are abject failures in their pure forms. Laissez-faire fails because it is simply not the case that what sells in a free market robustly benefits the common good. Centralized planning fails because the world is too complex to be comprehended by any group of experts, no matter whether a socialist government or top managers of a corporation.

Is there a “Third Way” of entrepreneurship that can succeed, where laissez-faire and centralized planning have failed? Yes. It is the wise use of variation, selection, and replication processes to achieve systemic goals. In other words, a managed form of cultural evolution.

The use of the term “Third Way” to define a new course of action, often (but not always) a middle course between socialism and capitalism, has a venerable history stretching back at least to Pope Pius XII in the late 19th century. Its use by the Tony Blair administration in the UK and the Bill Clinton administration in the USA during the 1990’s is only the most recent chapter. This series uses the term in the same spirit but draws upon a new source of knowledge for solutions: not political or economic theory, but a combination of evolutionary and complex systems science.

While it is new to describe the Third Way formally in evolutionary and complex systems terms, this series advances a bold thesis: If a managed form of cultural evolution is the only thing that can work, it is the only thing that ever has worked. In other words, wherever we find examples of positive social change in the past or present, we will find variation, selection, and replication processes being managed to achieve systemic goals, no matter how the participants conceptualized what they were doing. Thus, our Third Way is both new (in its formal articulation) and old (in realizations), with many positive examples to learn from.

This bold thesis is explored in a series of print conversations and podcasts with experts on diverse examples of positive social change. The series will:

  • Place political, economic, and business discourse on a new scientific foundation.
  • Reveal common ground between currently disparate disciplines, policy topic areas, and worldviews.
  • Provide a guide for action in real-world settings at multiple scales.

Join the Third Way Discussion Group!

Want to dive deeper? Sign-up for the Third Way Discussion Group where you can join David Sloan Wilson, Third Way contributors, and other TVOL readers for weekly virtual conversations about the latest installment in the series.

Series Episodes

Episode One:

Vision Statement

While the Third Way series is centered on entrepreneurship, it is equally valid for all forms of positive social change. The vision statement is the starting point for all of the conversations listed below.

Episode Two:

Pragmatism and the Third Way

In the late 19th century, a tiny group of intellectuals who called themselves Pragmatists were to have an outsized influence on the nation and the world. They were inspired by Darwin and included well-known figures such as William James and John Dewey. Trygve Throntveit, a distinguished historian of the period, helps me tell the story of how the Pragmatists discovered the Third Way.

Episode Three:

Socialism, Capitalism, and the Third Way of National Governance

Socialism and Capitalism will be among the hot words thrown around during the 2020 US presidential elections. Geoffrey Hodgson, a great scholar of economics and the social sciences, helps me explain how both forms of national governance fail in their pure forms but how they can be—and even have already been– blended together into the Third Way.

Episode Four:

Economics, Public Policy, and the Third Way

The economics profession includes many schools of thought–some that emphasize laissez faire, others that emphasize centralized planning, with many admixtures in between. David Colander, an acute observer of economics who is sometimes described as the profession’s court jester, helps me identify the economic schools of thought that best exemplify the Third Way.

Episode Five:

Libertarianism and the Third Way

The economic and political school of thought known as Libertarianism is most closely associated with laissez faire as a public policy prescription. George Mason University’s Mercatus (which means “market” in Latin) Center might seem like a bastion of Libertarianism, but think again. My conversation with Peter Boettke, who directs the center’s F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, provides a far more nuanced view that is consilient with the Third Way.

Episode Six:

Smart Cities and the Third Way

Urban planning represents one kind of positive change effort that has suffered from excessive reliance on laissez-faire in some instances and centralized planning in other instances. The Smart Cities movement is a new breed of urban planning that makes use of technology. Daniel T. Obrien, who directs the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), helps me explain how the Smart Cities Movement can avoid the mistakes of the past by traveling the Third Way.

Episode Seven:

The Third Way in the Internet Age

Modern life has been transformed by electronic communication, starting with the telegraph and now in full force with the Internet Age. There are many blessings but also many curses associate with the Internet Age. Can the thesis of the Third Way explain both and forge a path to an electronically connected future designed for the common good? Tim O’Reilly, Internet pioneer and founder of O’Reilly Media, is our perfect guide.

Episode Eight:

Development and the Third Way

The word “development” describes another kind of positive change effort that usually includes a strong element of government involvement. Can its successes and failures be explained by the thesis of the Third Way? Our guide to this subject is Scott Peters, Professor of Developmental Sociology at Cornell University.

Episode Nine:

The Third Way since the Dawn of Our Species

Up to now, the scope of the Third Way series might seem panoramic, but my conversation with Peter Turchin expands the view still further to include the genetic evolution of our species and the last 10,000 years of human cultural evolution. Peter is the founder of Cliodynamics, an approach to the study of history that is both quantitative and rooted in evolutionary theory.

Episode Ten:

The Nordic Third Way

Again and again—including some of the previous episodes—the Nordic countries are identified as exemplars of good governance and the Third Way. In this episode, we hear directly about the so-called Nordic model from Nina Witoszek, Senior Researcher at the University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and the Environment, and Atle Midttun, a professor of Norway’s largest Business School, BI. Nina and Atle have become thoroughly familiar with viewing Norway through an evolutionary lens as participants of the Evolution Institute’s Norway Project.

Episode Eleven:

The Third Way of Entrepreneurship

Since the Third Way series is centered on entrepreneurship, even though it also applies to all forms of positive social change, it is only fitting for the capstone episode to be a conversation with Victor Hwang. Victor developed an evolutionary and ecosystem approach to entrepreneurship in his private consulting practice and served as Vice President for Entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation between 2016-2019. Few people have played a larger role or have a more comprehensive knowledge of entrepreneurship in the 21st century and the need for it to follow the Third Way.

Episode Twelve:

The Third Way of Systems Engineering

If you’re an engineer charged with managing complex systems, it goes without saying that the whole system can’t be optimized by separately optimizing the parts (laissez faire) or by creating and implementing a grand plan without extensive experimentation (centralized planning). Yet, most systems engineers don’t explicitly think about their work as a managed process of cultural evolution. Perhaps they should and their methods can provide guidance for others who do not think of their work in engineering terms. I explore this territory with Guru Madhavan, Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and Director of Programs at the National Academy of Engineering.

Nearly anyone with an interest in positive change will benefit from reading and listening to these episodes.

Join the Third Way Discussion Group!

Want to dive deeper? Sign-up for the Third Way Discussion Group where you can join David Sloan Wilson, Third Way contributors, and other TVOL readers for weekly virtual conversations about the latest installment in the series.