Reflections, Imbolc 2022
The way things are
Things can’t go on as they are; if we don’t change course, we’re looking at an extremely bleak future. Many of the structures and institutions around us are not designed or equipped to help us make the shifts we need to make. They are incapable of dealing with the compound set of crises we’re confronting: climate change, biodiversity loss, social inequity and division, the long tail of the pandemic, human culture in the face of exponential technology.
The scale of the challenge - of designing new ways in which we can live and work together that generate wellbeing, grow capabilities across communities and embed a reciprocally thriving relationship with nature and other species - means that we have to look beyond tinkering with existing methods and experiment with new ways and means of doing things.
Wherever we look, we see the need for an overhaul. Our markets are designed to create ever-greater profit for shareholders and are as yet unable to ascribe value to things we know are priceless - other species, clean water, deep relationships of trust and understanding, connections across generations and divides. Many companies run against short-term horizons, struggling to break the cycle of feeding needless consumption and contributing to a throw-away culture. Our education system increasingly treats children as uniform widgets on a production line to create future workers for society as it is and not as it could be. High levels of poverty and dysfunctional food systems encourage toxic, mass-produced food and take natural, local produce beyond the reach of most of our fellow citizens. Our care system has industrialised one of the most fundamental acts that makes us human. We are building technology that is cutting us off from the natural world, treating us and our data as a resource to plunder while sucking us into highly addictive patterns of behaviour that encase us in increasingly polarised social bubbles. Our health system is gasping under the weight of our individual and collective illness and an aging population that has nowhere else to go. And our politics seems to have missed several cycles of evolution, stuck in internecine rivalries that make it impossible for those who govern us to do the long-term work that desperately needs to be done.
When you lay it out, it’s gloomy and, on a grey February morning, it feels a bit depressing. But it doesn't need to be. Across every sector, there are thousands of thinkers, makers and doers who see a civilisation that is ill and desperately in need of care and repair but who are also part of a wave of new ideas and new ways of doing things that are already seeding the future we yearn for. We are inspired and excited by the new constellations of hope and possibility that are emerging through the connections between them.
"To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned." - Ursula K Le Guin
A priori plausible
We need to dig deep if we want things to change. Our current institutions and systems are wired to work according to a particular set of values. Margaret Levi, a leading political scientist in the US, shows how historical eras are defined by a particular moral political economy - whether mercantilism or Keynesianism or neo-liberalism. Each one arises from a set of values that stipulates what is important and who the system is meant to serve. Thomas Piketty, in Capital and Ideology, describes the prevailing models as being “a priori plausible” - in other words, it feels like common sense that they are right when in fact they are markers of deeper ideology. Donella Meadows talks about the unstated beliefs that have defined our patterns of living for a couple of generations.
Yancey Stickler has created a compelling visual metaphor that draws on the architecture of tech applications to explain the ‘values stack’ that underpins our economy and culture. He describes three layers: the moral layer, composed of our personal and cultural beliefs of right and wrong; the rules layer, composed of expressions of beliefs through laws, rules and norms; and the incentives layers, which orient collective action around shared values and goals. So it’s no surprise that coding a system to generate material wealth above all else or to advantage the welfare of human beings above all other species will lead to major and unwanted distortions.
These values are brought to life in the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Stories of how to live, how to act, stories of who is successful and what happiness looks like. Carlotta Perez, one of the world experts on technological revolutions, shows that with each new technological revolution comes a new conception of the good life. We are due a new one. The emerging body of work on the power of narratives and the extent to which they influence our choices and behaviour shows that we ignore the power of prevailing narratives at our peril. We need to invest time and energy into the next one that emerges because it will determine far more of our choices and actions than we would like to believe.
The stories we tell ourselves
What are the stories that dominate now? They are stories in which the individual is paramount and material wealth is the pinnacle of success. Or, to borrow a phrase from Yancey: ‘short-term individualistic financial fundamentalism’. Stories in which nature is a dominion distinct from us and under our control. Stories in which collaboration across divides is impossible and in which we resort to survival of the fittest. Stories in which we have no power to change what comes next.
Increasingly, as we bear witness to extreme climatic events, disappearing species, and reports of individual wealth so bafflingly enormous (have fun with these billionaire wealth calculators) we’re being asked to live within structures and pursue ends that no longer make sense. For many of us, we discover that, even if we conform to this story, we are not happy and fulfilled when we acquire ‘success’. We know that, in living and acting in this way, we are doing ourselves, each other, other species, the planet and future generations a great deal of harm.
In the face of economic hardship or constrained opportunities, many people don’t have the choice to do things differently. Those of us who can strain to look elsewhere to find ways of doing things that don’t feel so alienating or harmful to ourselves, to each other and the planet. And even when we do, our efforts can feel minute in comparison to the scale of the problems. So we doubt our power to change the bigger picture. As a result, we can cut ourselves off from what’s really happening around us so that we can get on with our lives. This form of self-delusion, over time, is toxic and corrosive to people’s wellbeing and to their sense of purpose and productivity. This tension can’t and won’t last - and we can see how it is already precipitating a major shift in the mainstream conversation, as indicated by a host of recent books by leaders working within existing systems calling for a shift in values along with new social contracts to enshrine them.
Things are changing and if we zoom out we can see the bigger picture more fully. In historical terms, many of the people we have spoken to contend that we are living through the end of one major political-economic cycle - shareholder capitalism or neo-liberalism - and have not yet experienced the germination of the next. So we are experiencing the discomfort and ambiguity of the inbetween phase, Antonio Gramsci’s famous interregnum.
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” - Antonio Gramsci
Margaret Levi describes the long arc of time in which each moral political economy completes a cycle - it seeds, blossoms and then falls aways.
Some generations get to experience the high point of a particular paradigm; with all of the clarity of intention and purpose that comes with that. Other generations get to experience the emergence into the mainstream of a new paradigm with all of the energy and excitement that brings. We are currently in between the two. So we have the responsibility to hospice the old as well as to gestate, midwife and nurture the new.
Although these thinkers come at this in slightly different ways, they all share an analysis that, as one system wanes and another one grows, it will involve the exchange of one set of values for another and, with that, a new story of the good life will emerge. The crucial thing is that this is not predetermined. We have agency in what comes next. We have made the world what it is and will determine what it becomes. Our actions now determine future possibilities.
“Our current political economic structure is totally fraying. We’re very, very good at analysing the past and explaining how we got to where we are. We’re not so good at visualising the future. And more importantly, visualising alternative futures.” - Margaret Levi
In this interregnum, our work is to go on a quest of exploration and experimentation to find new sets of values that can underpin the next cycle and, from them, new narratives of the good life; that can guide our personal visions of success, our organisational goals and the larger visions that animate our communities and societies.
This process of discovery won’t be a linear sequence of ideas and then action; which is to say, here’s the blueprint for the next one, let’s stop doing this and now do that. It’s a quest. In Geoff Mulgan’s words, it’s a ‘wisdom loop’ of reflection, realisation, ideation and inspiration followed by application and experimentation. Over and over and over again. Across many different sectors and disciplines and requiring cross-pollination between them. The need for a nexus of wise experimentation also requires new spaces and processes to create the conditions for hope and imagination. Something Cassie Robinson has written extensively about in her work on collective imagination.
These loops also have to stretch backwards and forwards across the generations. In designing our work, we have looked at ways to loop backwards into the past to look at what we have lost and forgotten as well as to confront the mistakes we made and the responsibility we bear for them. And we have to loop forwards, into a future that does not yet exist but one that we must conjure up and project ourselves into as if it were as real as it will be to our great-great-grandchildren.
Our encounter with Lonnie Bunch, historian and the first African American Secretary of the Smithsonian, delves deep into the ways in which looking at our history is an essential tool to enable us - and perhaps force us - to grapple with our past. Similarly, the activist Panthea Lee talks about how we can’t move forwards and dream together, with freedom, unless we first come to terms with our past. Anna Murray looks at how we live within and create patterns of life and explains how, unless we become conscious of the patterns of which we are a part, we cannot break harmful cycles and initiate the beginning of new cycles and patterns that can contribute to human and planetary wellbeing.
What comes next will emerge out of what is already all around us. Many of those we spoke to reflected on the danger of rushing to create something new. As Jaron Lanier told us, there is a danger of learning ‘cartoon lessons’ from the past. In nature, we see the cycles of decomposition and recomposition. As one of our early advisors put it: this is like a nurse log - a dead tree trunk that nurses new life as it decomposes, releasing the nutrients that previously sustained it.
Like many of us, I may not see the new cycle come fully into view - my lifetime may be spent in the messy middle. So we have to learn to love uncertainty as our constant companion and, with that, develop a far greater connection with our intuitive senses.
“I want people to be comfortable not building on what they know, being comfortable to reach beyond what they know, to recognise that it’s ok to say ‘I’m not sure how to do this, I’m not sure what the future holds.’ The worst thing in the world is to tread water, is not to move forward because of the unknown. All you’re doing when you tread water is letting the unknown seize you, to let the unknown control what you think. What you want to do is move forward, because in that forwardness, you’re creating a little friction and you're creating a little light.” - Lonnie Bunch
Shapes emerging through the fog
In our work, drawing on the metaphor of a journey out to sea to study the stars, we talk of the moments in which new glimmers emerge through the fog and how you start to make sense of what is appearing.
Carlotta Perez argues that we are moving out of a conception of the good life best defined by American materialism and, hopefully, into a smart, green golden age. Margaret Levi would say the new era will be one defined by the wellbeing of all. Joanna Macy has written extensively on The Great Turning and Hilary Cottam talks of a green, generative future.
“The Anglo-Saxon word wealth meant life. We’re going to live in these systems, which are designed to support us to live rather than designed to grow economic wealth. Of course we need to produce because otherwise we can’t eat and play and love and so on, but we can do that in a way that is generative.” - Hilary Cottam
Many of us share some deep-rooted sense of what this looks like, and this sense comes through again and again in the encounters. These are some of the main patterns that emerged:
The first relates to the idea of humans as social beings, deeply connected to each other. “We are our relationships,” says Charles Foster; “if our relationships vanish, so do we.” Too many of the structures built up around us sever those connections. Suzanne Simard’s work shows us that a newly planted tree is far weaker than one nurtured back to health within an existing network.
“How can we honor the richness and the uniqueness of our individual experiences while forging connections and narratives and futures that celebrate, protect, and uplift our undeniable common dignity?” - Panthea Lee
The second relates to a return to a worldview in which humans see themselves as part of the larger systems of life. Bill Sharpe, who came up with the Three Horizons model that, along with the Burkana Loop model, we now use habitually in our work. He reflects that we are not paying attention to, and nor are we attending to, the bigger patterns and systems of which we are a part. The next cycle will be rooted in the core recognition of the interconnectedness of all living things. We need a deeper relationship with all that is going on, he says. Bill talks of dependence and not determinism - a move away from a view of the world rooted in Newtonian determinism towards one that appreciates and reflects our inherent interdependence. While Geoff Mulgan sees that “we have totally overshot our worldview in the exaggeration of the sovereign individual and its rights and demands”. Instead we need a political philosophy in which we are humble in our relation to our dependence on all natural systems that surround us. Laura Storm and Giles Hutchins’ work on regenerative models shows this is a move away from the extractive towards relationships that are resourcing, regenerative and symbiotic. From the individual to the collective. From short-term expediency to long-term stewardship. If we make this shift, we are expanding what Margaret Levi calls ‘our community of fate’ - the community of people and indeed other species in whose fate you are entwined. In Yo-Yo Ma’s words, “if we live in a world in which when you hurt, I hurt - that’s when we can begin constructing the world we wish to live in.”
The third relates to the necessity of inter-generational thinking. Ella Saltmarshe and The Long Time Academy have brilliant resources on this and Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor is a fantastic framework through which to move from short to long-term thinking. adrienne maree brown recommends the brilliant work of Robin Wall Kimmerer and speaks of indigenous wisdom as a guide back to original relationships - “it is our work to figure out how we preserve them and let them be current … echoing back seven generations and forward seven generations”.
How will this transformation happen?
The first series of audio encounters were recorded in the midst of lockdown and so, naturally, they dwelt on the nature of transformation and what is needed for deep change to happen. Here are some of the themes that emerged about how we can tend to the process of transition and change:
Learning to ride the white water world - how we survive and thrive in a world of radical uncertainty is one of the most pressing inquiries of our times. We have to learn to live with and, in some ways, to trust uncertainty.
Gathering around ‘yes’ visions - adrienne maree brown speaks powerfully about the importance of creating space to imagine and dream so that we can arrive at yes visions that inspire and motivate us to start building the future we long for. They also provide a sense of direction; it is possible to make iterative decisions even if the end destinations are unknown. For example, in the absence of a yes vision, technology is developing according to a logic that ill-serves us whereas, with a clearer picture of the future we wish to build in mind, we can ensure technology becomes the operating system that serves that vision and not the master that determines it. For us to find to share a yes vision, we need new spaces in which we can dream boldly and imagine different possible futures together. Spaces in which our roles and responsibilities in everyday life enrich our perspectives without limiting our sense of what’s possible.
“What is it that we deeply believe in? What is it that we deeply long for and love? And how do we want to organise ourselves to practice that every day right now? So that it becomes the muscle memory, that it becomes what we do under pressure, that it becomes what we do when we’re scared?” - adrienne maree brown
Tending to the depth and quality of our relationships - none of this is possible unless we are able to work as equals within relationships of care and trust. We will only be able to do this if we slow down and come together in spaces in which we can share the wisdom of our head, heart and gut.
Developing conviction narratives - if a yes vision engages our emotions and lifts our sights towards a better and more beautiful future, an action narrative tells the story of how change can happen. This narrative includes the twists and turns of likely obstacles and impediments, and acknowledges the long, hard and often draining work that will be entailed. It includes the ways in which challenges might be overcome and motivation sustained. David Tuckett, one of our partners for the Sheffield journey, and John Hagel have both done leading work on this.
Following wisdom loops and embracing experiments - the future will be built from loop after loop of millions of new ideas and small acts and experiments. Jane Riddiford advises us to focus on ‘what’s strong instead of what’s wrong’ and believes transformation will begin in ‘small pockets of what is possible’. Each one, alone, is insufficient. Yet together, as 10s become 100s and 100s become 1000s of such case studies or examples, new pathways of possibility will become evident. And, over time, a new system will emerge from these. A new constellation of hope and possibility.
Supporting communities to create new models in place - ground-breaking work is happening where residents in particular communities are taking things into their own hands and creating new models. Hazel Sheffield’s Far Nearer is an excellent resource of communities building local economies in the UK. And Hilary Cottam is working with communities to explore models in which we can integrate work and care rather than them playing off against each other as they do now.
“The future is actually already here. It’s kind of under a pebble where you might not see it or lurking in a corner or in a place in our country that perhaps very few people actually go and visit and isn’t presented in the common picture.” - Hilary Cottam
Balancing patience with precociousness - Jane Riddiford shares a beautiful description of the hundreds of years for which seeds can lie dormant before they germinate. Jane and Rod’s work with Global Generation is about preparing the soil and sowing the seeds so that they can germinate whenever the right moment arises. At which point, courage and precociousness is needed to seize the winds of change. Rob Hopkins reflects on how fast change happens when it does. We need to prepare for the worst but we must also get ready for things to shift extremely quickly for the better. Let’s get ready.
“We might need to plan for having our hearts broken open with the surprise that even at the final hour, we might just get it together. That makes me optimistic.” Dr Angel Acosta
Creating space for new methods - as one of our Sheffield crew members said: “we’ve got to stop assuming that if we do things the way they’ve always been done, they will work this time”. Indeed, Einstein’s definition of stupidity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So we need to experiment and many of those we spoke to urged us to embrace a punk-like DIY spirit and just give things a go. After all, it takes millions of seeds to spread for only a few to germinate. One of the strongest patterns emerging through the encounters - particularly in those with Angel Acosta, Audrey Tang, Candy Chang and Yo-Yo Ma - is the idea of a second enlightenment in which we engage our mind and body, our conscious and subconscious, our head, our heart and our gut. In order to do this, Candy Chang describes the new kinds of cultural spaces we will need: “speculative rituals that speak to the pains of our age, the absurdities of life and the dread, the beauty, tragedy, humour and pain and grace of being a person.” We whole-heartedly recommend Casper te Kuile’s Sacred Design Lab on this too.
Creating pro-planet and pro-social technologies - Audrey Tang talks of the importance of creating pro-social technologies that are “transparent like a glass, reflective like a mirror”; platforms that enable different people to come together and find common ground in dealing with the most pressing issues of our times. It is exciting to think of a new generation of tech entrepreneurs guided by these principles.
“Open data turns raw measurements into social objects. People gather around budgets, laws, and regulations. They become topics of discussions, just like today’s weather, and open space blends our individual feelings into shared reflections within a reflective space we gradually become aware of ourselves, forming a crowd - that demos in democracy.” Audrey Tang.
Refinding our conversation with the earth - “We have to refind our conversation with the earth, one that for millenia began and ended every day” says Charles Foster. This will also require new practices and rituals to help us rediscover the ancestral blueprint within us all in which a daily and intimate conversation with the earth becomes second nature once again.
We know that fundamental paradigm shifts tend to be fiercely resisted at the societal level so as much as it is inspiring and exhilarating, this phase of transition will also be fraught and contested. In order to find our way through, we have to get comfortable with living and working in that inbetween place, making friends with uncertainty, embracing ambiguity and learning how to meet and pass through resistance with generosity and grace.
“All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing. Whole societies are another matter — they resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist anything else. So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.” - Donella Meadows, Leverage Points
We hope to work with many active change agents and with many, many different people in that vast middle ground across all sectors and all walks of life. We are using a methodology to take people on a quest or journey of discovery that looks back at the past, comes to terms with the present, helps people let go of old patterns of behaviour, opens up space for bold dreams of our future and looks at what it will take to begin to build a better future in the here and now. We hope this will help people strengthen their own agency by coming together with others to be more seen, heard, courageous and connected because magnificent constellations are created by many much smaller points of light.
Over the course of 2021, we were inspired by a great many people and initiatives who are helping us try to understand the moment that we’re living through and how to conceive of and build a more beautiful future. We see our work as part of a much bigger field, one of many points that are connected and complement one another.
“The future is not out there in front of us, but inside us.”- Joanna Macy
Looking ahead to this year, our next stage of research will explore and map the people and practices that are illuminating the way forwards in specific systems - for example, across new economic and financial models, food and land, care and work and learning and technology among others. This is not party political and nor is it sectorally specific - we see glimmers of possibility across the board. We are looking for people with deeper knowledge of these specific ecosystems with whom we can collaborate to do this research and mapping as we realise there are pockets in which much of this already exists. We plan to write about what we find as well as to share more of our learnings through the next series of audio encounters. As always, we’d love your reflections and ideas - of people we could work with, of things to cover, of incredible and inspiring projects that we don’t yet know about. Please email us or leave us a voice note via our website.