The Blackbird and The Space Lift: When the only step forward is a leap into the unknown

Wes Hinckes
10 min readApr 9, 2021

There comes a point, no matter what you do. Where the only way to get any further is to do it differently.

Up to that point minor improvements get you a little bit further each time.

The first bicycles took a lot of effort to get anywhere.

Improvements came through innovations in their design and components and alterations to their materials and construction. It was rapid progress and eventually common designs came into being which offered accepted degrees of comfort, speed and utility for their designated uses.

But no matter the combination of bike, pedal, gearset and quadricep there is a top speed that is set by the physical laws it experiences here on Earth.

There is a terminal velocity that cannot be surpassed.

What took the pedal bike beyond this limit was the addition of a separate invention. This came in the form of the motor engine.

The motor bike became a possibility and then a reality.

This effected so many areas of function, purpose and usage that it set the vehicle out as being an entirely new experience. Hills, distances, weather conditions, rough terrain and physical tiredness could all be overcome with a newfound ease.

I may be wrong to use the term but I believe that the differences between the cycle and the motor bike could be considered qualitatively different.

If you had the right need it was an absolute gamechanger.

Qualitatively Different or Improved

Another way in which these forward jolts occur is when an entirely different method is used. Printing solar panels as an entire roll instead of manufacturing them in layered panes might be a good example.

I would suggest that the concept of ‘qualitative leap’ or shift can be applied at various levels of size and structure.

Motor bikes and solar panels are one thing but society, economy and civilisation operate and exist at a vastly different scale. Giving everyone in a society a motor bike does not lead to a qualitative leap at the societal level. The motor bike is experienced individually and temporarily whereas society is experienced collectively on multiple levels and is enduring.

I believe that it is possible for a society or an economy to be affected in such a way that it is experienced as being qualitatively different or improved by those living, working or operating within it.

But I ask. What would it take?

I personally don’t believe that all of the inventions of the 20th century when added up in total would amount to the experience of a qualitative shift at the societal level.

If H.G. Wells had entered his time machine in 1895 and exited onto the streets of London in 2019 I don’t believe that he would have felt like he had entered some kind of nirvana.

The world would feel novel and unfamiliar. He would experience shock, surprise, delight and a range of positive and negative emotions at the same time.

Much would certainly have been improved for the society as a whole.

Almost everything would have changed in some way.

But I think that what I’m trying to put my finger on here is that the overall experience for H.G. Wells of arriving in the modern society might not be quite the leap I’m trying to describe.

I think that it would feel, after just a short time, a bit too familiar to qualify.

For me, for a qualitative leap at the societal level, society itself would need to be experiencing and understanding itself differently and this is something that runs much deeper than surface details.

It’s not the same as a society that is experiencing incremental innovation and change where bits and pieces are gradually replaced with something new.

A society is much more than just ‘things’.

It is its beliefs and practices and everything else besides.

You need to fit a rocket pack onto the whole ‘frame of experience’, the entire ‘shared reality’ in order to get that level of shift.

A Mechanical Understanding of Society

Society can be understood as consisting of 3 pillars.

Civil Society, The State and Business.

Each of these fulfils distinct roles for the society of which they are a part.

  • Civil Society acts as an independent function operating in the space where The State and Business do not.
  • The State is your democracy, the government and those services and functions which are within their remit or under their control.
  • Business gets on with the job of providing things and making money.

They can be seen as separate but interdependent. In addition to their primary role, they provide a self-regulating function that exists within each pillar (their accepted behaviour and actions) and as an interrelated whole (in that they serve to regulate each other’s behaviours and actions).

For the purposes of illustration, you could imagine them as 3 pistons in a radial engine.

Pick up a newspaper or watch the news and this could be what you are seeing.
  • If Government moves too far in one direction, then there will be push back from one of the other pillars.
  • If Business goes too far then Civil Society can respond, react, lobby, protest and campaign and Government can decide to regulate or legislate.
  • If Civil Society goes too far then I’m not actually sure what would happen. It does seem to be a little underpowered and outmanoeuvred at times. I think something good probably would happen but we may never actually get to find out and the point is to reach a balance.

And this marvel is your modern society.

It works. It functions. It propels us forward socially and economically.

It’s the way we’ve always done it before.

And anyway.

We’ve survived this long…

An Integrated Understanding of Society

The 21st century brings us to a different time indeed.

We are now hyper-connected and technologically advanced yet we are stuck with the same old systems doing the same old things in the same old ways. That we do it faster and more efficiently is no sure sign of improvement, progress or intelligence.

With our new connectivity it is possible to bring Civil Society, The State and Business into a different type of system where they no longer work entirely in opposition to each other *.

*In truth this oppositional understanding may be false and harmful. It is the separation, distance, lack of communication, accumulating effects/externalities and slowness which results in the need for systemic compensation. This can make it ‘feel’ like everything is out of step (pick up a newspaper or watch the news and it is these effects and responses that you are seeing).

Through identifying their unique strengths and particular needs it becomes possible to bring Civil Society, The State and Business into closer relationship with each other.

By doing this they become able to effect change, create opportunity and drive a new economy at the same time. They achieve this by working together and not apart from each other.

This is not a mechanical type of system.

It is an intelligent, responsive and adaptive ecosystem that contains the whole of society and recognises multiple flows and forms of value and exchange within the system and between its members.

It behaves more like a garden than an engine or a transactional economy (which it doesn’t seek to replace — in fact quite the opposite).

Bringing Civil Society, The State and Business into a societal ecosystem and into closer relationship has the effect of changing how they think, behave and collaborate now and in the future.

Let’s use disability as an example.

  • Today governments enact legislation and work with business and civil society to try to improve conditions at work and within society for disabled people.
  • Businesses do make an effort but are hampered by attitudes and stereotypes which are carried by society as a whole and not just within their organisations.
  • Civil Society Organisations campaign and lobby expending millions in trying to change attitudes and behaviours and improve disabled people’s lives.

This is a system constrained by silos and how it thinks.

To create relationships and break through the barriers that exist between them you need to identify the strengths and needs which exist within the pillars.

  • Government has deep resources and the ability to convene and connect but is reliant on Civil Society and Business to act for any effect to be realised. At the same time there is a need to rapidly adapt society and the economy to new needs. These things require mass action and willing participation to succeed.
  • 21st Century businesses requires different abilities and skillsets. To remain current and adaptive means continually investing and developing new capacities. The continual need for development and innovation will be the new normal for business.
  • Civil Society has expertise, knowledge and resources which can be repurposed to transfer knowledge and upskill business and workforces in social/environmental/cultural awareness; new markets, products and services; new ways of doing things and 21st century skills.

Bring all of these together and they can achieve an effect that they can never hope to achieve apart.

Start thinking this way and ‘disability’ isn’t a problem. It’s a reason for the pillars to come together — an opportunity.

The strengths within each pillar can be brought to meet the needs within other pillars BUT ONLY WHEN THEY WORK TOGETHER AS A WHOLE.

This is what an ecosystem enables. It creates the context and possibility for relational working.

This is how a garden works when you understand how it is all connected.

You bring society into an ecosystem and provide the understanding that it can work together, effect social change and succeed at the same time. When you do that, all of the inefficiencies, dysfunctions and opposing forces can begin to resolve themselves.

I’m not going to elaborate here except to say that PLACE is the key to bringing all of this together.

There’s a lot more to be said about the potential of ‘place’.

A Network Society: Systems Gardening as an Engine of Growth

What I have been attempting to describe in this post are the possibility of two different systems which can both coexist as part of networked society and economy.

They contain within them two very different ways of viewing and understanding the world.

When we shift to seeing the world through different paradigms or mental models the effects can be dramatic.

If I can guide you to this informative document, I would hope that you are able to see the connection with what I am saying here and elsewhere in my thoughts and writing.

Both of the systems described in this post contain a type of engine which powers them. An economy sits at the centre of each.

The addition of a new engine to a society can act like the addition of a motor to a cycle. It can dramatically change the capabilities of the society involved.

The addition of a new paradigm and associated system. That might be enough to shift you into a reality where you can really feel the difference.

The Blackbird and The Space Lift

The Blackbird was the nickname for the Lockheed SR-71, a long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft.

The aircraft was developed and became operational in the 1960’s.

As of 2020 the SR-71 continues to hold the world record it set in 1976 for the fastest air-breathing manned aircraft.

I use the Blackbird to illustrate our current thinking, systems and practices.

We have been operating through one set of logics and one system for so long that getting more out of it is becoming problematic and dangerous.

As a civilisation we move along at immense speed and altitude but we have reached a ceiling and a number of hard limits that we’re trying our best to ignore.

It is impossible for us to experience any kind of ‘qualitative shift’ unless we try another way of doing things.

A space lift (or elevator) is a proposed planet-to-space transportation system. It would permit vehicles to travel along a vertical cable from a planetary surface, directly into space or orbit.

The Space Lift represents an entire conceptual or paradigm shift.

It zooms out to a wider, inclusive perspective and moves from fighting endlessly against gravity to using it to your advantage as part of an entirely new solution.

Once you move beyond a certain point into the paradigm. Just as ‘down’ would become ‘up’ along the space lift cable. Then all of the logics change, then all of the strategies, then all of the understandings, then all of the behaviours, then all of the actions, then all of the results.

It is this which allows new possibilities to emerge.

There could be a very different society waiting for us on the other side.

We’ll have to figure it out as we go.

If you watch from 36m to 57m you may see another connection.



Wes Hinckes

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.