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Three Steps to Managing Transformative Sustainability Journeys

March 27, 2012

My article “Three Steps to Managing Transformative Sustainability Journeys” was just published on sustainablebrands.com

I very much look forward to participating to the Sustainable Brands ’12 Conference in San Diego June 4-7.  If you are going, make sure to connect with me.  I would love to discuss with you about what you can do to perceive your business reality with new eyes; reframe your challenges; better navigate your complex and uncertain environments; re-invent yourself; and create your own future.  It’s all about creative thinking toward innovative solutions.

Looking forward…

Beatrice

Clocks and Clouds

January 31, 2012

Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost the shape of a camel?

Polonius. By the mass, and t’is like a camel indeed.

Hamlet. Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius. It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet. Or like a whale?

Polonius. Very like a whale.

~ Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, Page 17

The great science philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) once said that all the problems of our times could be subdivided into two categories: they were either like ‘clocks’ or like ‘clouds.’

What do you think your personal and professional problems look like?
In which category would you put the challenges faced by our society today?

Consider a clock: it is a mechanical system that is relatively static in configuration. If it stops working, you may take it to a clock repair shop where an ‘expert’ will open it, take it apart, analyze the problem and develop a diagnostic of what’s wrong with it. With a system such as a clock, there exist only a finite number of problems that can occur—that is, the problem set is well defined and clearly understood. Often, the problem can even be anticipated.

Now, consider a cloud: in contrast to a clock, a cloud is a dynamic system with no defined boundary. Ask different people to describe the shape of a cloud and they will likely come up with different interpretations: one may see a bear; another a duck; yet another a rabbit. The shape of a cloud is, in fact, the emergent result of the interactions of water droplets and other chemicals suspended in the atmosphere; it is always changing and sensitive to any small changes in its environment. The behavior of a cloud is unpredictable.

Problems of a clock type, even the highly complicated ones, are technical.  The nature of a technical problem is usually well defined: ‘experts’ from multiple disciplines may collaborate with one another to analyze the problem by decomposing it into sub-problems until the issue under consideration is fully understood.  Once the origin of the problem is known experts can find a solution to fix it.  In contrast, issues that resemble clouds are ill-defined or ill-structured.  In a 1973 paper, social policy planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber dubbed problems of a cloud type ‘wicked’ (see: 10 characteristics of wicked problems by Rittel and Melvin).  In the domain of complex social and organizational problems, systems thinker Russell Ackoff used the terms ‘social messes’ and ‘unstructured reality.’  I personally prefer to use the term ‘adaptive challenges’ that was coined by Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz (1994) in his seminal book Leadership Without Easy Answers.

Of course, there might be some overlap: adaptive challenges may require some technical problems to be solved while technical problems may call for adaptive challenges to be addressed.  Yet, the main nature of today’s challenges resembles more clouds than clocks.  Here are some examples of adaptive challenges in our society (I am sure you can add more to this list):

  • Global and local sustainability issues such as climate change and other environmental problems related to energy, water, transportation, and food scarcity;
  • Social predicaments such as hunger, poverty, and violence;
  • National conflicts;
  • Community resilience issues;
  • Challenges with our healthcare system;
  • Challenges in our educational system;
  • Strategic business challenges such as the need for dealing with uncertainties and dynamic business environments; designing and launching new products or services; developing a corporate social responsibility strategy; negotiating with employees and trade unions; identifying the culture and identity (brand) of a firm; etc.

Adaptive challenges arise from the complex interactions between different sets of values, beliefs and assumptions and the divergent understandings of the situation.  Adaptive challenges are symptoms of deeper structural dynamics and root causes that are often hidden from our level of awareness because of their complexity.  Unfortunately, our society has the tendency to attempt to resolve its problems by solely resorting to technical expertise while avoiding the difficult adaptive work required to effectively confront issues that call for a fundamental change in our values and beliefs.  Adaptive challenges call for different approaches than the ones used for solving technical problems.   Adaptive work requires people to undertake a deep transformational journey by which they let go of their traditional values and mental models and embrace a completely new world view—one in which short-term and long-term goals are not in conflict with one another, nor are self-interest and group-interest.  However, most people are neither motivated nor have developed the skills to deal with adaptive challenges.

My work at Soma Integral Consulting is to midwife the process of change while facilitating the resolution of adaptive challenges.  I have developed diverse processes and tools, all grounded in a deep understanding of the adaptive process of complex systems, to facilitate deep learning, creativity and emergence of new possibilities.  My purpose is to guide individuals and groups through the steps of the adaptive process so that they can successfully achieve its requirements:

Embrace the whole complexity of the system

Most of us get overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of our challenges.  The situations we must deal with are politically charged and involve a large number of stakeholders belonging to different organizations and systems; the issues are full of ambiguity; and the path forward is unclear.  Within this context, we are tempted to reduce complexity by fragmenting—leaving some elements out of the process and/or considering them independently of one another.  This, unfortunately, only takes us away from the source of insights and breakthroughs that specifically resides in the understanding of the interactions between the tangible and intangible elements of a system and in an awareness of the patterns that emerge out of these interactions.   Embracing the whole complexity of a system is necessary to uncover the root causes of adaptive challenges.

To embrace complexity in a productive way, a structured process is required that provides a collaborative platform and a safe container for a constructive dialogue to take place.  The process is designed to encourage the sharing of divergent views; make distinctions explicit; create new meaning; play with “what if” scenarios; and facilitate the emergence of insights.  In addition, the process supports the management of unproductive anxiety and has the added value that it fosters the development of empathy and trust among participants over the long-term.

Learn to perceive reality with ‘new eyes’

Faced with an adaptive challenge, we are like blind men trying to describe an elephant: based on our different background and expertise, some of us sees the elephant as a tree while other people identify it as a snake or as a rope.  Who is right?  No one and all of us to some extent!  Our blind spots corner us into supporting positions that are ungrounded.  Left unchallenged, our divergent ways of perceiving reality generate misunderstandings and conflicts.

The good news is that it is possible to learn how to perceive reality with new eyes and it’s urgent we develop this critical skill.   Using diverse approaches that make the best use of both sides of the brain (i.e., analytical thinking as well as pattern recognition/creativity) participants are invited to engage collaboratively and help one another inquire into the nature of the “big elephant”— using generative conversations and dialogues as well as creative techniques and activities that help people move back and forth between sensing (primal knowing) and analytical thinking.  In breaking out the existing pattern of thought we leave the space for “flashes of understanding” to arise, which can then be interpreted and tested to generate new agreed meaning.

Sense the future that wants to emerge

As we let go of the old beliefs and assumptions and open ourselves to learning we create a field for emergent possibilities, within which deep insights arise.  Our inner eyes start to perceive previously hidden patterns, which tell a richer and more accurate story of the nature of reality.  Our understanding of the adaptive challenge shifts, as we now perceive the deeper structural dynamics that have been at the origins of our challenge.  As we uncover the root causes of the issue, what we initially believed was the problem now dissolves: we have outgrown the problem.  From a clear understanding of the dynamics of the system (i.e., what happened in the past), we can better explain the behavior of the system (i.e., the challenge in the present), while simultaneously getting a sense of future emergent possibilities.  This is a very creative phase, when one can engage in designing solutions and strategies that will support our vision and desired outcomes.

Engage mind, body and heart

As we commonly say, “necessity is the mother of invention.”   When dealing with adaptive challenges, necessity might also be the mother of change and transformation.  Yet, we should not believe that reason could be the only driver of change.   Embarking on a transformative journey without engaging the heart will hinder, if not bring to a halt, the process.  Personal and group transformation requires deep listening and empathy toward others and a willingness to open our mind to the messages sent by our deeper selves.

Moreover, as we begin the journey, the unavoidable feelings of fear and anxiety, which are deeply rooted in our bodies, arise.  Left unacknowledged fear and anxiety can lead to paralysis.  In contrast, when we bravely face our fears and explore their origins with curiosity, we are able to overcome what Robert Kegan and Lisa laskow Lahey (2009) calls our “immunity to change,” thereby unlocking our potential for authentic transformation.

A transformative process is not for weak hearted!

Be unreasonable: believe that change is possible

The Irish playwright and socialist George Bernard Shaw said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”   Is it unreasonable to believe that we can change?  I believe it is!  And so, unreasonable we must be.

A successful journey of change always begins with a belief, a determined will, and a choice.  One must BELIEVE that change is possible, which is to say, one must believe we are the source of our challenges and, therefore, the only people capable of addressing them.   One must have the WILL to investigate the challenge and go deeper into its root causes and, thus, accept responsibility for our past actions and/or inactions.  Finally, one must CHOOSE to commit to the process—a process, which is often difficult and emotionally draining but that can also be extremely rewarding.   How could not it be?  Transformation is the process of life!

My overall purpose when facilitating adaptive challenge is to develop the adaptive and creative capacity of the individuals and groups involved to empower them to facilitate new emerging challenges independently in the future.  This is an urgent necessity if one wants to overcome the societal crises we now face.

References:

Heifetz, Ronald, 1994.  Leadership Without Easy Answers.  Harvard College.

Kegan, Robert and Lahey, Laskow Lisa, 2009.  Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.  Harvard Business Press.

Rittel, Horst, and Webber, Melvin, 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam, 1973. [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144.]

Creativity Lesson from Zoé and Salomé

August 18, 2011

Paul Klee wrote: “Man is not finished. One must be ready to develop, open to change and, in one’s life, an exalted child: a child of creation and the creator.”

Last week, my mom exhibited 25+ of her energy-charged and colorful abstract paintings on fabric, including two pieces (on fabric as well) from Andrew James Campbell.  The exhibition was outside, in the garden of our country house in the Lot in Quercy, France.  The paintings were hanging in trees, in bushes and on the façade of our old house.  We also had very large panels on free-standing frames.  The whole things looked quite unique and whimsical, art mixing up with nature in a playful and unpretentious way.

Zoé and Salomé, aged 10 and 4 years old respectively, and their parents were on vacation in the area and seeing out posters came to visit us.  We had advertised ‘creative sessions’ and a free hand-painted tee shirt for participants bold enough to practice painting on my mom’s fabric.  So after looking at the exhibit, Zoé’s and Salomé’s parents asked the girls if they wanted to paint.  Looking at one another with a shy smile, they could not resist such an opportunity.  My mom set each of them up with a small camping table, each with a square fabric cut to the dimension of a cushion, the color was almond green for Zoé and grey pink for Salomé.  She put some paint of different colors in empty chocolate boxes (the perfect palette) and gave them brushes for each color.  And while we stayed around chatting with their parents, the girls went to work.

Watching the Creative Artists

There is much that we have learned from simply watching the creative process of two lovely sisters.  Zoé, the oldest, methodically started painting red and white flowers, carefully laid out in a gorgeous pattern that seemed designed for the next spring fashion collection in Paris.  She was totally focused and full of care, yet one could feel she was still slightly aware of what was going on around her.  Her design or pattern had something of the same quality referred to by Ehrenzweig in his book “The Hidden Order of Art:” a pattern that can be reproduced in such a way that the whole is creative and not only the individual parts.  In Zoé’s painting, it is the whole that is harmonious while irregularities generate ‘liveness’ and vibrations within.

I was standing slightly behind Salomé and watched in amazement the little one’s creative process.  First with an eye toward her sister who had just getting started, Salomé took a brush and seemed to copy her sister’s flowers.  She made a few similar flowers, changing the color for each one.  When, suddenly and to my amazement, she took a new brush and painted a circle, in complete contrast with what she has done before.  With no hesitation, changing brush again, she laid out a square next to the circle and then filled it in with another color.  From that point on, she was in the “zone,” completely in her own bubble.  With no rush, yet in a non-interrupted flow, she went on, adding colors and shapes to create an abstract painting not unsimilar to Paul Klee’s art pieces.  I would have given a lot to find out what was going on in her little mind.  What was it that influenced her choice of colors or shapes?  In fact, she seemed to have no thought; she was all spontaneity.  She simply, intuitively kept on task.  Yet, the result was not purely accidental.  In many ways, she seemed to have entered into a conversation with her artwork: whatever she had already laid out speaking back to her, “telling” her how to proceed next.  Ehrensweig states: “In any kind of creative work a point is reached where our power of free choice comes to an end.  The work assumes a life of its own, which offers its creator only the alternative of accepting or rejecting it.  A mysterious ‘presence’ reveals itself, which gives the work a living personality of its own.”  It seemed that Salomé had given up her free choice to fully accept what desired to emerge.  Even small mistakes, like a few accidental drops of paint, became opportunities for creativity, while not a word was spoken, not a complaint, no self-censuring arose what so ever.  The result was a unique art piece, with no clichés or mannerisms: “a true achievement of craftsmanship.”

Eye-Opening for Zoé and Salomé’s Parents

At first, we could see an ever so slight sign of embarrassment in the girls’ parents.  It is so natural: all parents want to be proud of their children and show them at their best.  Even in our convivial and relaxed atmosphere, it was clear that Zoé and Salomé’s parents were wondering what their girls would be capable of creating.  So, their early reaction was a slight dismissal of the girls’ work in progress—perhaps their way to lower any expectations; they are only children after all.  But over time, while my mom and I started to seriously pay attention to the artwork the girls were making and admiring their focus, as well as their creativity, the parents’ attitude shifted from this dismissal to curiosity.  The girls’ mom even asked something like: “Do you really think it’s any good?” and to me after I mentioned how fascinated I was by Salomé’s creative process: “Why are you so interested?  Do you do this kind of work professionally?”  To which I provided a short overview of the creative retreats Andrew and I co-facilitate and of our interest in the process of creativity in general and the fact that our approach with adults is to help them reconnect in part with the creativity spirit of their childhood.

Toward the end of the process, I called Andrew who had been working, writing in a different room and had not witnessed the whole process.  I wanted him to watch Salomé’s final touches.  When he saw the results he immediately went to get his camera to take pictures.  Again, their mom was surprised and delighted at so much interest.  While congratulating Zoé and Salomé for their beautiful paintings, you could see big smiles of pride on the parents’ faces as well as on the girls.’  But this was not the end…

We suggested them to leave their paintings over night so that they could dry and we could fix the paint on the fabric.  In the evening and throughout the next day, Andrew spent quite a few hours creating three gorgeous documents presenting the girls’ art pieces at their best.  It is he who saw in Zoé’s flowers next spring fashion pattern and created a stylish picture of a young woman wearing a fluid dress.  For Salomé, he deconstructed her work a bit, took snapshots, enhanced the colors and imagined Salomé at her first art exhibit.  Everything looked gorgeous and highly inspiring so it is not surprising the family was in awe the next day when we presented the documents to them and very touched by so much care and considerations.

Andrew writes, “Someone I don’t know the name of once said that the master-pupil relationship should not be trapped inside a curriculum, a program, a teaching, an ideology, a plan, a goal. The master is not trying to transfer certain knowledge or skills to the pupil. She has no educational goals for him or her; she is not interested in transforming him or her into something. She loves him or her. She has a caring love for him or her. No strings attached. She nourishes hopes about her pupil, but she has no expectations.”  We had no fixed expectations for Zoé and Salomé; we did not teach them anything; we did not even think that the experience could be transformational in any way.  And yet, I believe there was much learning that took place for all of us present—adults and children.  We all attended each other with care, attention and love.  We let things emerge and as they did, we responded accordingly.

While leaving our home, Zoé and Salomé’s mom told my mother: “you made me feel better!”  I cannot help to wonder what will Zoé and Salomé remember from this experience.  Will they dream of future careers as artists? Will this experience change their approach to creativity and life in general?  Will they have enough strength and courage to continue on their own path, not letting themselves influenced by conventions and norms?  For me personally, it is Salomé’s spontaneity and her ability to not censure her creative process—censuring being a trap I am so easily falling into in my own work—that I will remember and will practice.  It is also the fact that much learning can take place in a leisurely way, when one does not expect it or don’t work for it but when one is free to receive openly.



All photographs and photo montages by Andrew James Campbell.

Ehrenzweig, Anton (1967). The Hidden Order of Art: A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination. University Of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles

For more of my mom’s paintings and creations on fabric, see Evely B’s website: http://www.evelyb.com

Learning how to Learn

June 22, 2011

Never have learning capabilities been so important considering the complexity of today’s reality and the level of uncertainties one has to deal with on a daily basis. Whether a university student, an entrepreneur or a manager in a corporation—or any other human being, in fact—we all need to develop authentic learning capability in order to cope with the events in our lives and in our work environment and the need for change. As Arie De Geus (1997) long discovered, decision-making is a learning activity but, as he pointed out, conventional learning methods are not effective because they are slow; they close options; they depend on learning by experience (trial and error), instead of by simulation; and they breed fear. While I pretty much agree with these reasons, I believe there is a deeper issue with the conventional process of learning—that is, it doesn’t take full enough account of the creative, transforming, generative power of learning and the idea that much learning consists of ‘primary learning’ and occurs below the level of consciousness.

I must make it clear that the type of learning I am speaking of here has little to do with the memorization of information and accumulation of knowledge. While information and knowledge are important, they are only the means to support the learning process; they are not its outcomes. The outcomes are deep understanding, creativity and transformation. Indeed, learning cannot be passive; it involves active engagement and participation. When it is not rote, learning changes us by re-organizing our mental structures. This requires highly creative skills, which too many people lack. We need a new curriculum on ‘learning how to learn.’

To live is to learn; to learn is to create. (AM de Lange*)

No other living systems’ capacity is more important than the capacity to learn. Life depends on it. Our learning disability causes incoherence in our thought process: we are unable to see clearly, thus even less able to take actions that could improve our conditions. On an individual level, learning disability in people often translates into an inability to live a purposeful and meaningful life, while creating much anxiety, depression and unhappiness. At an organizational level as well, I would argue that the main reason for the failure and collapse of firms and social systems is due to their inability to learn. Too little focus is brought to the development of this deep learning capacity—hence the drama unfolding in front of our eyes that is jeopardizing our own survival and evolution. My intent, here, is to highlight only a few of the multi-faceted characteristics of the process of learning which leaders must embrace in order to navigate the present and co-create a better future.

Beyond analysis, learning is about synthesis and integration

There is nothing wrong with using the prevalent analytical approach to developing knowledge as long as one understands the limits of the reductionist method (analysis paralysis) both in terms of its scope and its applications. Integrative, holistic approaches to learning have the benefit of uncovering patterns in what seems contradictory and divergent. Integral learning takes place in an open system able to continuously and more fully sense the environment in order to capture emergent opportunities. It takes a complementary approach that embraces both/and thinking versus dialectical dualistic either/or thinking. Synthesis is an act of active connective creation, which finds wholeness in what had been previously fragmented.

Learning occurs in a state of “not knowing”

Nothing new enters in a mind full of certainties. New learning occurs in a state of “not-knowing” (Bohm, 1992), i.e., in an open, inquisitive and curious mind. Insights arise when living in the questions becomes more important than the answers provided and the willingness to explore a given topic from many different perspectives is present. The process of inquiry is about “making distinctions,” a concept developed by Fernando Flores; it aims at unconcealing or inventing nuances of interpretation from which breakthrough thinking emerges. Of course, one must impose a certain will and determination on the human mind for it to remain at the uncomfortable place of “not-knowing.” High levels of ambiguity always create anxiety in a mind that loves the reassurance of certainty. The process requires the courage to let go and the belief that our identity, i.e., our Self, will not dissolve in the process; identity is not what we know but who we are, in the never-ending process of “becoming.”

Embodied active learning

Learning takes place in the domain of action (i.e., in the doing) and through the experience the action creates. The act of perceiving is inherent to the learning process. Maturana and Varela (1987) assert, “[T]he phenomenon of knowing cannot be taken as though there were “facts” or objects out there that we grasp and store in our head. The experience of anything out there is validated in a special way by the human structure, which makes possible the “thing” that arises in the description…every act of knowing brings forth a world…All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.” Experiential learning can have a powerful impact on the reflective learner, who is awake and aware of what is happening inside and outside of him/herself, throughout the process of experiencing. As such, learning is active; it requires full participation of the individual in a live conversation (with oneself and with others), i.e., in a dynamic thinking process and set of interactions that are open, spontaneous, respectful, and inclusive of divergent perspectives.

Spontaneous emergent learning

Some learning is liminal or primary: it occurs below the level of consciousness and leaves reason aside, at least for a little while. This type of learning, which is very familiar to artists, taps into an undifferentiated level of order, i.e., a non-fragmented and seemingly chaotic world of Oneness—a world that collapses the boundaries between what is inside and what is outside. In the “Hidden Order of Art,” Anton Ehrenzweig states that “unconscious scanning makes use of undifferentiated modes of vision that to normal awareness would seem chaotic. Hence comes the impression that the primary process merely produces chaotic phantasy material that has to be ordered and shaped by the ego’s secondary process. On the contrary, the primary process is a precision instrument for creative scanning that is far superior to discursive reason and logic.” Ehrenzweig believes that creativity is highly related to the chaos of the primary process and that “[T]he creative thinker is capable of alternating between differentiated and undifferentiated modes of thinking, harnessing them together to give him service for solving definite tasks.” The learning dance and movement between differentiated and undifferentiated modes of thinking creates “flashes of understanding,” which emerge spontaneously. This direct and intuitive learning process requires a high level of awareness and openness (i.e., presence) in order to sense the Whole. It also requires the acceptance of high level of ambiguity. The resulting “primary knowing” is the source of breakthrough thinking and creativity.

Transformative generative learning

The spontaneous emergent learning described above is a ‘deep learning’ process which most often happens at the “edge of chaos,” a transitory phase created by entropy production (i.e., the generation of heat and chaos in a system that pushes the system away from dynamic equilibrium toward a paradoxical phase of simultaneous stability and unstability). As the system settles for a while at the edge of chaos, under specific conditions, the components of the system are able to adapt and self-organize and potentially create new structures and a newly realized and higher level of order—an emergent process. The result of this creative process is evolutionary in nature and increases the wholeness and complexity of the system (evolution, here, is a word to be understood as ‘increasing complexity’). For us, as humans, this process entails the letting go of old mental models and patterns of behavior; the ability to see with new eyes; and the capacity to live for a while in a deeper than normal transformative process, resulting in the development of new beliefs and worldviews. This process is irreversible (i.e., non mechanical), reflecting life itself; it provides a new and firm ground from which to develop new strategies and actions and achieve ever-higher levels of performance.

So what is authentic learning?

Authentic learning is a birthing process—a process of “becoming being.”** As such it often necessitates a midwife to facilitate its emergence. While we are all learners, we can also take the role of the midwife when the situation requires it, assuming we fully understand what it takes to give birth to a new “Self.” Unfortunately, what would seem to be so natural to human development has taken a strange turn throughout our evolution. Somehow, we have lost touch with the most fundamental and basic requirements of the process: openness, authenticity, respect for the diversity of ideas and opinions, trust, letting go, accepting ambiguity and the fact there are no right answers, and so on.

Authentic learning then is an act of deep creativity. Deep creativity is an act of authentic learning. Taken together, both capacities have the potential to elevate us to the next stage of our consciousness and evolution. Whether we are willing to learn to ‘become’ is yet to be seen. Yet, for the sake of all humanity it might be worth a try.



* Adriaan Michiel de Lange (1945-) is a South African chemist physicist and transdisciplinary scientist, who studies how thermodynamics, the base of modern complexity studies, applies to the humanities—more specifically, he suggests that entropy production must apply to the metaphysical world as well as to the process of physically knowing and learning. In the late 1990s, de Lange began sharing his theories at the learning-org.com forum.

** The expression “becoming being” is borrowed from AM de Lange.

Bohm, David (1992, 1994). Thought as a System. Routledge. London and New York.

De Geus, Arie (1997, 2002). The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment. Harvard Business School Press.

Ehrenzweig, Anton (1967). The Hidden Order of Art: A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination. University Of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Maturana H. R. and Varela F. J. (1987).  The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding.  Revised Edition.  Shambhala. Boston and London.

A Living Systems Approach to Urban Planning

January 6, 2011

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to present A Living Systems Approach to the Planning and Design of Sustainable Urban Spaces and Cities to local urban planners; my talk was received with enthusiasm and I am pleased to share it to a broader audience.

This presentation addresses the following questions:

  • What gives an urban space its character, personality, quality, identity, and its sense of coherence and order?
  • What are the characteristics of a sustainable, adaptive, innovative, resilient, and regenerative city?
  • What do living systems teach us about the attributes of a healthy and regenerative city and what are the implications for city planning and design?

Here is a high level overview of the 3 sections of my presentation:

Section 1 –  Paradigm Shift: Shifting our Mental Models

While the reductionist scientific method we inherited from Descartes and Newton has proven to be very effective for the development of technological innovations, this approach is very limited when dealing with the complex adaptive challenges faced by our cities today and even more so, by the cities of tomorrow: population density or lack of; social justice issues; poverty; economic issues; environmental problems such as pollution (water and air), watershed health, greenhouse gases emission, waste management; energy issues; food accessibility; and so on.

Systems thinking teaches us that complex systems have emergent properties that do not reside in any of their parts.  In order to understand the whole, we must embrace complexity and focus on the dynamic interactions between the parts (feedback loops).

Complex systems are dynamic and unpredictable; they cannot be controlled or managed.   Most often, addressing a problem in isolation may cause another problem over time.  Fortunately, the understanding of the systemic structures of our urban environments may allow us to find high leverage points where to intervene to positively influence the future of our cities.   The highest leverage points, however, are to be found in our worldviews and mental models.

Section 2 – The Living Systems Approach

This section considers the key attributes of living systems: openness; purpose; autopoiesis (self-creating); structure-determined behavior; diversity and differentiation; adaptation; self-organization; and emergence, and discusses these attributes within the context of a city.

A city that is ‘open’ facilitates the development of connections, interactions and relationships.  Efficient, interconnected physical infrastructures facilitate exchange of goods and mobility of people internally within the city and externally with its region and beyond.  The presence of open/public spaces as well as the elimination of any “walls,” physical or metaphorical, support interpersonal and intercultural interactions.  Communication network facilitates exchange of knowledge, talent, qualified labor and investments.

From an evolutionary perspective, a city that is ‘open’ continuously and dynamically changes and evolves over time.  It encourages community engagement, stewardship and leadership in envisioning the city’s future (a city developed by the people for the people).

An autopoietic city is a city that uses its network of communication to maintain life and its sense of identity, i.e. the culture of the place.  The physical, social, cultural, political, economic structures of a city reciprocally influence one another in a way that is mutually reinforcing.   A city has the power to choose to redesign its (infra)structures and institutions so that to generate new patterns of behavior, thereby enhancing the quality of life and of the surrounding natural system.

Diversity is necessary for creativity and survival.  A healthy city encourages diversity at all levels: culture and ethnicities; physical and knowledge assets; characters and styles; built and open spaces; public and private spaces; and so on.

A healthy city is one that has developed its adaptive capacity and resilience in order to flexibly learn, self-organize and adapt to contingencies.  The transformation of a city over time should increase its level of coherence and wholeness and strong sense of identity.  A healthy, regenerative city cannot be designed or built.  These qualities are emergent.

Section 3 – Implications for Urban Planning, Design and Community Involvement

From a living systems’ perspective, sustainability is a capacity, not merely a set of goals, metrics or criteria, nor a ‘thing’ that can be built.  A living systems approach to urban planning embraces complexity (as opposed to reducing it by focusing on individual parts independently) and focuses on building the adaptive (learning) capacity of the place: it is about sustaining life — an evolving process of continual renewal.  The understanding of the local context is primary to increase the resilience of a city.

One cannot acquire tacit knowledge of a place solely through analysis.  The emergent qualities of a place can only be understood by experiencing the place.  Consequently, city planning and design should support processes that increase participants’ learning and discovery and help people reconnect to the place where they live.

There are no easy and simple solutions to the design or sustainable and regenerative cities.  Urban planning is an adaptive, transformative process that requires us to challenge our beliefs, values and mental models.  The process must transfer ownership and leadership to the community and leverage the collective intelligence that resides locally so that creative solutions emerge out of the collaboration between stakeholders.

“Life accepts only partners, not bosses.  We cannot stand outside a system as an objective, distant director.  There is no objective ground to stand on anywhere in the entire universe.  Our disconnection — our alleged objectivity — is an illusion; and even if we fail to realize this, the system will notice it immediately…Systems do not accept direction, only provocation.”

~Margaret Wheatley, A Simpler Way

Download presentation.

Insights from Steel and Light

December 9, 2010

At a recent visit to the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, MA, I saw the “Eye Spy, Playing with Perception” exhibit and became captivated by abstract steel sculptures creating surprisingly recognizable shadows on a wall.  Interpreted from the perspective of complexity science, there fascinating sculptures are rich in embedded meaning and insights.

Erect Pose by Artist Gary Gold

Shadow-art is a relatively new sculpture art form that does not rely on mass to create form but, instead, uses a combination of light and entangled mesh of steel rods to create a coherent and identifiable shadow.  Larry Kagan, one of the few shadow-art artists, explains how “object/shadow need both the solid and the shadow in order to exist.  And, by virtue of their natural nature, they exhibit surprising visual behavior that defies our visualization rules for objects…By not having a one-to-one mapping between shadow and object, all kinds of new object/shadow relationships become possible…”[1]  Louis Zona, Director of The Beecher Center at the Butler Institute of American Art points out: “This imagery which exists in shadowed form only appears as alchemy.  How is it that a totally abstract linear physical composition could make possible a recognizable image or perfect clarity?”[1]  It is indeed intriguing that such “delirious steel formation” can generate so much coherence and order.

The process of making an object-shadow sculpture is a one-to-many mapping: instead of drawing a shape with a pencil, the artist draws the shadow of the specific figure he has in mind using the interplay between matter (the steel) and light.  Through this interplay, both the shadow and the steel object emerge, simultaneously.   There is a complete co-dependency between the object, its shadow, and the light beam; the sculpture cannot exist in the absence of any one of them.

Circle by Artist Gary Gold

Taken independently, the abstract steel sculpture might be considered as a chaotic system bearing the potential for order, coherence and increased complexity—that is, increased wholeness.  The light is the active energy required for entropy production and for the transformation to take place under the eyes and hands of the artist.  In the absence of the light beam positioned at a specific distance and angle, the object still exists, but the wholeness of the sculpture is lost.

From a viewer’s perspective, one is invited to bring one’s attention to the shadow—that is, to the ephemeral yet concrete and meaningful form.  Order and coherence reside in the shadow—in the intangible, yet very real.  The shadow only exists as a process of becoming—a process where light, not visible in itself, plays a major role in making objects and color visible and in creating wholeness.

Going even further, the shadow also requires a wall surface in order to exist; similarly, the quality of the ambient air could interfere with the light in a way that changes the shape and color of the shadow.  To make a parallel with what physicist David Bohm calls “thought as a system,” one could say that the object, the light (including its specific position), the shadow, as well as the wall, the ambient air, the mind of the artist, and mind of the viewer constitute a system in which every part interacts dynamically and has a particular role; as a whole, the parts and their interactions are creating one unbroken field of mutually informing meaning.

Indeed, there seems to be an analogy between the object/shadow co-dependency and the way our mind generates thoughts and attaches meaning to reality.  The steel structure is the pre-cognition system.  It represents our often-chaotic mind attempting to make sense out of what we observe and perceive in the absence of the necessary “light.”  The light is the transformative energy and source of creativity that enables unexpected insight and “aha” moments to emerge, and that stimulates our creative responses when faced with a particular situation.  While wholeness and coherence is embedded into our pre-cognitive system, it is mostly hidden to us and one is often unable to bring it to the surface in the absence of a deeper connection to our creative source.

One may also recall Plato’s Parable of the Cave, with the cavemen mistaking the shadows on the walls for reality.  If one assimilates the shadow to our core identity and individual self (keeping in mind how closely attached we are to our own self-image and identity), one may realize that such identity has no “real” existence; it is an illusion, a shadow.   As Bohm suggests, the self is like a rainbow; it arises in a process (a process that involves light!).  And while this process is still very obscure to us, “the attempt to treat the self as an object is just not going to mean anything…[the self] is constantly revealing itself, through each person or through nature or through various other ways.”[2]

As these object/shadow sculptures demonstrate, by refocusing on the creative process of ‘becoming’ we generate more wholeness than by focusing just on the identity aspect of ‘being’.

[1] Larry Kagan’s Object/Shadow catalogue

[2] Bohm, David (1994).  Thought as a System.  Routledge, London. p. 173

In Front of a Bowl of Peaches

November 12, 2010

‘Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible’ ~ Paul Klee

One late summer afternoon I sat in front of a crystal bowl of peaches slighted tilted by a coin.  I had been eager to learn how to paint for a long time and I was both excited and understandably a bit anxious about what was coming.  I knew it would not be a ‘typical’ painting class.  I was fully aware that my teacher had more in mind than teaching me how to paint.  I knew it was about looking, deeply.  I knew it was about seeing.  I knew it was about sensing.  I knew it was about Buber’s I-Thou relationship.  It was definitely not about technique not even skill.

I was given watercolors.  I don’t like watercolors; I find them uncontrollable.  The color diffuses on the paper in a way that is completely unpredictable: I want to put some color here and as the brush touches the paper—oops!—it’s all over.  I don’t know the technique.  I was not taught any techniques.

I was told I should not try to draw the overall still life scene with a pencil, but instead start painting directly (I’m not sure why).  That’s about all I was told.   I was shown a few pictures of Cezanne’s watercolors—his own bowl of fruit.  Of course, I know Cezanne’s work was not about representing reality as it is seen.  Cezanne is the father of cubism.  And modern art goes beyond representing reality; it is about perceiving the essence of reality; it is about the relationship between the artist and the object—an object that is not “it” but “thou.” Modern art is about ‘wholeness’.

I was left alone.

I observed the bowl; I observed the peaches.  I still remember them vividly.  The crystal bowl had oblong carvings and the light was reflecting on each one with multiple hues of grey—from white to dark grey.  Through the bowl I could see blurry shapes—the rounded shapes (although they did not look rounded) of the peaches at the bottom of the bowl.  I loved the colors of the peaches—from deep purple to orange to bright yellow.  I wanted to capture those colors.  I also saw their roundness: how was I going to paint their roundness?

I realized the process was not going to go well at the second I started to add color on the paper.  “Ah!  Watercolors!”  Fairly quickly, I started to feel tension growing in my body.  I felt a ball growing in my throat.  My eyes became watery.  More than anything, I started to feel very angry.  I was in terrible emotional and physical pain.  Why was I left here alone with no instructions on how to work with watercolors?  “Stay calm!  Breathe!  Look!  Try again!  It’s about the process.  You never painted before.  Why would you expect to get any results on the first try?  I hate this!  Boy!  I want to throw all this away!  This is useless—meaningless!”  Negative thoughts were flowing.  I can still feel the emotion in my body by simply recalling the event.

I’m not sure how long I stayed there— 45 minutes to one hour, perhaps.  When my teacher came back I had painted the shape of the bowl and a few peaches that did not look like peaches and were as flat as the paper they were on.  I was told I had forgotten to capture the overall scene and that it would have been helpful to put objects in relationship with one another.  “Darn!  I knew that!”  But, in my eagerness of try to control the watercolors, I exclusively focused on the peaches and the bowl and completely forgot everything else.  My bowl was basically floating up in the air!

I was very angry.  I probably complained again about the watercolors.  I felt terrible.  I hated the whole experience and myself.  Perhaps my teacher was disappointed in me because he did not debrief much.  He simply brought my attention to a small passage in the watercolour and said it was “excellent.”  But I did not hear this and I did not see anything “excellent” in what I had done.  We cleaned up and never talked about it anymore.

What was I supposed to learn from this exercise?  I’m still struggling with the answer.  I was put in a situation of not knowing, of high uncertainties.  There was no expert, only someone eager to learn (or so I thought!).  In fact, the situation I was in is quite similar to the “adaptive challenges” I am eager to facilitate in my professional life.  In this case, however, it was not about ‘midwifing’ a group through the process of change; it was about facilitating my own self through a very experiential learning process.  And I failed miserably!

I could have used the exercise as an opportunity to experiment, problem-solve and learn, in a completely safe environment; instead, I tried to control the medium.  The less it behaved the way I wanted, the harder I tried.  Why I followed the few instructions that were given to me without even questioning them is beyond me today.  The trust I hold for my teacher and the desire to please (there must be a reason for doing it like this: do what you were told!) blinded me.  I had a pencil.  Why didn’t I try to sketch the whole scene to help me start?  There were gouaches on the table.  Why didn’t I try to use them?  And, why didn’t I truly “play” with the process.  Perhaps I could have messed up what I had done (knowing it was worthless) and experiment with the watercolors—go abstract! (Yes, but in my mind, I was there to capture what I was looking at.).

While I was inherently free to do whatever pleased me, I voluntarily constrained myself and restricted the realm of learning possibilities.  I applied a mechanical mind to a creative process, which should have been fully organic.  It was not about techniques and about representation.  But, that’s the box I put myself in.  And, once in the ‘box,’ the challenge was too daunting because there were too many things I had to learn at once (observing, sensing, creating my composition, learning how to use the medium and experimenting with it, etc.), and I had no experience.  I was addressing complexity with a simplistic and reductionist mind: this never works!  As a very powerful teacher once said: “If that student wants to escape the mediocrity of management and its education, the student will have to seek the burning fire of authentic learning.” That day in front of a crystal bowl of peaches I was not an authentic learner!

The fact that I realize this today, weeks after the event, is a ‘creative collapse’ with deep transformative power—one that will help me become who I must become: an authentic, creative, and highly adaptive individual able to navigate, and help other navigate, the complexity of today’s world.

Beatrice

Postscript

From my teacher: “In that hour you will see, one day, is almost everything you can possibly do and know — but it is rightly hidden now, and it is for me to sense that, and to rightly withhold, until that day comes.”

I know there is still much I do not understand from this experience.  But, I’ll let it go until the day comes and I will see.  Meanwhile, I’ll practice humility while remembering that art is about “feeling—not knowing or believing or thinking” and I will keep the advice of the poet e.e. cummings in mind:

“A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

[Snip]

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.”

[Snip]

e.e.cummings, A Poet’s Advice: http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=61872

Cezanne’s Bowl of Fruit, watercolors, from http://www.paul-cezanne.org