2017 – Are YOU ready to rise?

You have likely been unable to escape hearing a lot of folks bemoaning what a shyte year 2016 has been, and maybe it has but we are now presented with a choice of how we respond.

Do we  allow ourselves to sink further into the pit of despair, hatred, separation, and fundamentalism – propelled there by fear,  anger blame? Do we continue to disconnect from our environment, from each other and from our selves, do we sleepwalk into a future that most of us don’t want? 

Or, do we rise and be part of creating a different future ?

We are at a threshold, and “our mission Jim, should we choose to accept it” is to see 2016 as a profound wake up call, a call to action, not for more of the same,  because that is surely how we got here, but to more and different action.

“There has never been a generation on this earth whose collective actions—the stuff we choose to do or not do in 2017 and beyond—will have such a profound impact on the future of our children and our planet.

Let’s not sleepwalk into this year, where so much is at stake, as the leaders of Europe did a hundred years ago when they launched into World War I. This is our moment to wake up to our real intention, to be calm, compassionate, and courageous in environments that will be full of dispute, despair, and delusion.’

The root of the word leadership means “to cross a threshold.” That threshold now is right in front of us…”

Are YOU ready to rise?

If you’re not ready to be challenged and are instead happy with things the way they are then, please, don’t bother read further.

If you are curious about what we can learn from 2106 and how we might play our role in co-creating a future that sucks a lot less,  then here’s a few ideas presented in a series of  three articles from Otto Sharmer published through HuffPost.

The articles are represented here in reverse order to that in which they were published …

2017 – Trump – Are We Ready To Rise?

On the Making of Trump: The Blind Spot That Created Him

One Earth, Two Social Fields


2017—Trump—Are We Ready To Rise?


Donald Trump is to democracy what 2008 was to capitalism: a profound wake-up call reminding us that the system is broken and in urgent need of an upgrade” that will bring it up to speed with the challenges of our time.

Has capitalism changed since 2008? Not substantially. We still face the same issues and structural disconnects – but we face them with a different consciousness. Today almost everyone knows that the economic system is rigged and cannot be sustained. In fact, that deeper knowing was part of the wave that swept Donald Trump, among others, into office and that allowed Bernie Sanders to collect more youth votes than Hillary Clinton and Trump combined. Viewed from that angle, we can see 2016 as the year of the third disruption—after 2008 and the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Three Acts

As I see it, the age of disruption has unfolded in three acts.

ACT I: SEPTEMBER 11, 2001— GLOBAL TERRORISM. The On 9/11, the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania constituted a brutal opening act. Then came attacks in Bali, Mumbai, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and many more places around the globe. Since then, groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS have moved from fringe networks to central players dominating international politics and public attention. While terrorism existed long before 9/11, these attacks, characterized by their unique blend of local terror with global online amplification, are designed to spread fear, hate, and prejudice at a massive scale.

Over the years we have learned that the making of this toxic social pattern has a lot to do with our own history in the West. The founding generation of these terrorists were trained and equipped by Western intelligence services (the CIA, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan). Their recruitment has been boosted by the hopelessness that our economic and political systems have delivered for young people, particularly in the Middle East. Their deadly actions have been fueled and animated by a fundamentalist ideology that—courtesy of our Saudi partners—is bankrolled with our own oil money and is being exported to all major cities worldwide in the form of Salafist and Wahhabist teachings. Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters are the logical embodiment of these teachings by putting them to work. From this perspective, we in the west are complicit in the rise of global terrorism. When we look for the root causes of global terrorism, we must also look in the mirror at ourselves. Still, how should we understand the deeper essence of fundamentalist teachings – whether they appear in strands of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or other religions? Fundamentalism is, generally speaking, a mindset that sees reality in terms of:

ONE Truth (one invisible God);

ONE Collective body or sense of Us vs. Them (us vs. infidels), and

ONE Fanatical will (that gives us permission to inflict violence on others).

Fig. 1: The Mindset of Fundamentalism: One Truth, One Us vs. Them, One Fanatical Will

Figure 1 shows these three principles as a closing of the mind, the heart, and the will. It also shows the five behavioral characteristics of a dysfunctional system that arise from these principles: denial (not seeing), de-sensing (not empathizing), absencing (disconnecting from one’s highest self), blaming others (unable to reflect), and destroying (inflicting violence on others and on oneself).

ACT II: 2008—THE ECONOMIC DISRUPTION. In 2008, along came the second disruption—and the second wake-up call—in the form of the global financial crisis. As discussed in the previous column, at the root of the 2008 meltdown and the deepening social-economic divide is an ideology called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, in essence, is an economic fundamentalism that conceives of the economy and society according to the following three axioms:

ONE (invisible) coordination mechanism: the market (“one god”). Everything else (government, civil society) is not only not necessary but leads to a suboptimal allocation of resources (”thou shalt not worship any other god before me”).

ONE language: Money (“one collective body”). All social and economic activities are governed by the language of monetization (creating a huge disconnect between internalities and externalities, that is, the massive problem of social and environmental externalities); and

ONE ego-driven will: i.e., the assumption of given preferences (aka, homo economicus).

Just as the behaviors that arise from cultural-religious fundamentalism tend to be defined by blinding, de-sensing, absencing, blaming, and destroying, we see very similar characteristics when we look at the behavior of a social system that is driven by market fundamentalism aka neoliberalism: it is blind to environmental and social externalities; it is insensitive to the cruel effects on those who are weak and in need of help; it absences or disconnects vast numbers of people from their true sources of creativity; it blames the victims of these structural issues; and it destroys the ecological, social, and cultural commons without which no society or civilization can operate.

ACT III: 2016—THE TECHNO-POLITICAL DISRUPTION. Then comes 2016: Trump, Brexit, and the rise of the far right. In Turkey, Poland, and Hungary, governments are openly undermining core democratic institutions. In Asia, Philippine President Duterte and other governments are gravitating in the same direction. It also seems no accident that the two countries in the West that were spearheading the neoliberal “Reagan-Thatcher Revolution” in the 1980s—the US and the UK—are now the first ones experiencing pushback from their disenfranchised grassroots working classes, thus giving rise to so-called “outsiders” like Donald Trump and the far right.

Yet it would be a mistake to blame this profound shift solely on economics. Look to the Netherlands, which has a perfectly working welfare state and yet a similar rise of the far right led by Geert Wilders. We see similar phenomena in Scandinavia. It’s a reminder to open our eyes to the non-economic roots of the political disruption. What are they? What is this third wake-up call really about?

There have long been problems with governance and democracy. Special interest groups have hijacked the political process in many places, not only in Washington, DC, where vested interests move the Founding Fathers’ vision of one man, one vote toward one dollar, one vote. Europe, as usual, feels somewhat superior to the political paralysis in Washington, without, however, delivering better results. Meanwhile China, whose system is much less democratic according to Western standards, has somehow been slightly more focused on actually addressing some of the big challenges, such as climate change.

That’s the old problem of democracy as we know it. With that problem still unresolved, we now have an additional issue at hand. The rise of Trump in the US and the rise of the far right globally has put on display another key vulnerability of our democracies—namely, that any democratic system is only as good as the political discourse that comes with it. In 2016, the political discourse—the public conversation—took a sharp downward turn, as if in a race to the bottom. The problem is, in two words, social media. Did Mark Zuckerberg enable Donald Trump to succeed? To some degree, yes. It’s true to the degree that we see the rise of a tech fundamentalism that has some astonishing parallels with neoliberalism as it operates on the following axioms and principles:

ONE (invisible) algorithm that gives rise to amplification of fake news and the so-called post-truth politics. For example, the US presidential campaign virtually completely ignored substantive policy issues and was dominated by fake or semi-fake news designed to amplify prejudice, anger, hate, and fear. Towards the end of the election, the facebook engagement of the top 20 fake news sites outperformed the top 20 real news

ONE filter bubble that shields us from disconfirming information and—through the massive use of social “bots”—creates an echo chamber that reinforces our abstract sense of “us. vs. them.” A study at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute found that computer bots are responsible for a fifth of all tweets about the US election.

ONE autocratic (or oligarchic) will that uses media, social media, and public conversation as a tool to build tech empires for global dominance (in the case of tech giants like Facebook or Google) or as a tool to build propaganda machines that effectively manipulate the masses rather than promote dialogue, fact based journalism and public discourse (as in the case of Turkey, Russia, China, and the recent US election, just to name a few).

The crisis of democracy and governance is apparent at all levels of our societies today. Symptomatic behaviors, to use the US as an example, include denial (climate deniers, who will be running the Environmental Protection Agency starting next month); de-sensing (building a wall between “us” and “them,” amplified by our virtual echo chambers); absencing (showing no interest in the catastrophic impact of our collective actions on the whole); blaming others (the accumulated toxic impact of talk radio, fake news based social media platforms, and other mechanisms that operate on propaganda as their main business model); and destroying (eroding the very foundations of what used to keep our communities and societies together).

One Mindset—Three Fundamentalisms

So here is my larger point. Over the past 15 years we have seen three disruptions that gave rise to three problems and three forms of fundamentalisms. All three share the mindset that there is One Truth, One Collective Body, and One Will. They are:

the cultural and religious fundamentalism that is fueling direct violence (terrorism);

the socialeconomic fundamentalism of neoliberalism that is fueling structural violence (unemployment, inequity, poverty);

the techno-political fundamentalism of giant tech companies that shape our lives using invisible algorithms (Facebook feeds, Google searches) and that refuse to accept accountability for denying basic digital rights to citizens and communities worldwide.

What Are We Called to Do Now?

It’s true that we live in a difficult moment. We know that the years ahead will bring chaos, conflict, collapse, and confusion. And the question is this: What are YOU going to do? Are you unintentionally becoming part of the amplifying-chaos-and-confusion machine? Or are you willing to rise, to face reality with curiosity, compassion, and courage whatever it takes—while keeping your eye on the future that you believe wants to emerge?

Fig. 2: Presencing and Absencing—Two Mindsets, Two Social Fields (Source: Theory U)

The gift of Donald Trump in 2016 is to confront us with that very personal question. If you contemplate your answer, you may very well be able to ground yourself more steadfastly in your life’s and work’s deepest intention. Nothing less is required now.

In 2017, Anything is Possible

Experience is not what happens to us—but what we do with what happens to us. It’s that inner doing—that inner choice—where the future of this planet and the future of our evolution is battled out. In 2016, in the wake of Brexit and Trump, I have seen various examples of subtle personal-political awakening and activation of grassroot networks. 2017, I believe, will be a key year—anything is possible, anything can happen, good or bad. If you want to be an active participant in co-shaping where the future takes us, here are five concrete actions to consider:

Adopt a practice of intentional stillness—a moment of 5–15 minutes every day when you tune out everything that isn’t essential and focus on your true intention, on what matters most to you.

At least once a day, listen deeply to someone who is very different from you. The more different, the better.

Create a circle or holding space with a few of your closest friends or fellow travellers in which you support each other in these difficult times. The more disruption we experience, the more we need each other’s support. A small number of people (5–7) meeting in person is best; but in the lab we have also found that meeting virtually (via Skype or Zoom) can also be very effective.

Co-initiate new bottom-up public conversation spaces that bring together a diverse group of citizens who are concerned about the future of their community. Use dialogue and new techniques like social presencing theater to shift the consciousness from a silo view to a systems view—that is, from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness.

Find ways to link your networks with platforms that promote dialogue and function as a network of networks. Doing so will help to align your efforts on a larger scale.

One such large-scale undertaking is the u.lab platform created by MITx, edX, and the Presencing Institute. The u.lab is an online-to-offline platform that is designed to help change-makers by building collective capacity to shift ego-system to eco-system awareness (Figure 2, cycle of presencing). During the first two years of its existence, the u.lab has attracted more than 90,000 users from over 180 countries; they have formed approximately 800 Hubs worldwide. This amazing response has led to the birth of an ongoing multi-local, global community that has convinced us that around the world there probably are countless individuals and communities just waiting to connect to each other around their highest intention of serving the evolution of the whole.

The intention of the u.lab core team is to launch a new 2.0 version of our platform in April 2017 as civic media and global public conversation space that facilitates free monthly global live-streamed sessions. These sessions will link change-makers in business, government, and civil society to their peers both in person and virtually. Each session will put the global spotlight on some of the most inspiring living examples of profound innovation in educational, economic, and political systems. Both the narratives of these cases and their tools will be accessible to all participants. This free innovation infrastructure will also provide manifold spaces for deep dialogue and peer coaching support in ways that facebook and other platforms cannot.

The monthly 90-minute sessions, starting in April (every second Thursday of the month), will focus on upgrading the three types of institutions in crises as discussed above: economic institutions (”economy 4.0”); democratic institutions (”democracy 4.0”); and educational institutions (”education 4.0”). Please join our mailing list if you want an invitation to these conversations.

Sleepwalk or Shared Presence

Whatever your commitment for 2017 may be, keep in mind that experience is not what happens to us—but what we do with what happens to us. We already know what to expect: chaos, confusion, and occasional collapse. Most of these events are already out of our control. So what do we control? We control how we respond. Will we amplify the problem by closing our minds, hearts, and wills? Or will we open up by suspending our habits of judgment, accessing our empathy, and summoning our courage to let go of the old and lean into the new?

There has never been a generation on this earth whose collective actions—the stuff we choose to do or not do in 2017 and beyond—will have such a profound impact on the future of our children and our planet. Let’s not sleepwalk into this year, where so much is at stake, as the leaders of Europe did a hundred years ago when they launched into World War I. This is our moment to wake up to our real intention, to be calm, compassionate, and courageous in environments that will be full of dispute, despair, and delusion.

The root of the word leadership means “to cross a threshold.” That threshold now is right in front of us…

Are we ready to rise?


Thanks to Adam Yukelson for helpful comments and to Kelvy Bird for her amazing drawings!


On the Making of Trump: The Blind Spot That Created Him

We have entered a watershed moment not only here in America, but also globally. It’s a moment that could help us wake up to a deeper level of collective awareness and renewal—or a moment when we could spiral down into chaos, violence, and fascism-like conditions. Whether it’s one or the other depends on our capacity to become aware of our collective blind spot.

Donald Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States has sent shock waves across the planet. In a replay of Brexit, a coalition of white, working- (and middle-) class men (and women) from mostly rural areas swept an anti-establishment candidate into office. But the election of Trump is hardly an outlier: just look at the global rise of strongmen such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, Viktor Orban, and Rodrigo Duterte and the surge of other right-wing populists such as Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders.

Why has the richest and most prosperous country in the world elected a climate denier who used racist, sexist, misogynistic, and xenophobic language throughout his campaign? What makes us put someone like him in the White House? Why did we create a presidential election between two of the most disliked candidates of all time, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton? Why did Trump, who lied and attacked minorities, journalists, women, and the disabled, only become stronger and stronger throughout his campaign? What is the blind spot that has kept us from seeing and shifting the deeper forces at play? Why, again and again, do we collectively create results that most people don’t want?

The Blind Spot

Trump and Clinton, from the viewpoint of the millennial generation, represent everything that’s wrong with America. Trump embodies everything that is wrong with our culture. Clinton embodies everything that’s wrong with our politics. And both of them embody everything that’s wrong with our economy.

Our collective blind spot reflects paradigms of thought that legitimize three major divides that characterize of current age: the economic divide, the political divide, and the cultural-spiritual divide. I’ve talked about these divides before, but now they seem more stark than ever.

The Economic Divide

There is a logical line from the Trump and Brexit votes back to the economic crisis of 2008, and from there to the deregulation of the Clinton and the Reagan years in the 1990s and 1980s. U.S. workers’ share of national income has been shrinking since the late 1990s, with the gains going to the top 1 percent. The average annual income growth in the United States for the bottom 90 percent has been negative for the past two decades.

Millennials have good sensors for this kind of disconnect. In the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders won significantly more votes among those under age 30 than Clinton and Trump combined. In a recent Harvard University survey that polled young adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent of respondents said they do not support capitalism. Just 42 percent said they do support it. Equally interesting is that only 33 percent said they support socialism.

What these responses suggest is that most young people may be looking for a different way to run our economy. They don’t want the failed system of Soviet socialism. Or the failed system of casino capitalism. Many young people wish to refocus the economy on justice, fairness, equality, and the deeper sources of meaning in life – what I call generating well-being for all.

This skepticism of young people towards the current economic system is not that surprising if you consider the bigger economic picture today: The United States is the most unequal of all high-income OECD countries, has the highest poverty rate of any advanced economy (17%), the highest obesity rate (36%), the highest incarceration rate, and student debt of $1.2 trillion.

Social mobility—the capacity to work your way up and realize your dreams—is weaker in America today than it is in Europe. As they say: if you want to realize the American dream, go to Denmark. These structural economic factors and forces of exclusion are the real drivers that elevated Trump to the presidency. Yet, instead of addressing these structural issues, the Clinton campaign chose to focus the conversation almost entirely on Trump’s personal flaws.

Why do so many people take these structural issues for granted? It’s the neoliberal economic ideology that Ronald Reagan and his team brought into the White House, that remained during the Clinton years, that continued to flourish during the Bush years, and that, in spite of 2008, continued to shape White House politics even after Barack Obama took office. The neoliberal economic paradigm continues to shape the Washington economic consensus. Our inability to replace that failed paradigm of “ego-system” economics with a more holistic and inclusive framework of “eco-system” economics has created an intellectual and moral void that allowed Donald Trump to connect with the “forgotten common man.” Which brings us to divide number two.

The Political Divide

The political system is rigged. Donald Trump is also right on this one, but for different reasons than he thinks. Hillary Clinton is the face of the current system. Yes, she has more experience and was better prepared for the job than any other candidate. But as Donald Trump reminded her, she had the “wrong experience” (translation: she embodies the status quo). As many polls over the past year indicated, Bernie Sanders would have probably won against Trump, even though his solutions were a work-in-progress at best. Elizabeth Warren probably would have won by a landslide if the party leadership could have persuaded her to run. But what did the Democratic Party leadership do instead? Manipulate the primary process so that Bernie lost and Hillary won. If the Democratic Party were democratic in its processes, the name of our new president-elect would probably be Bernie Sanders.

Yet the real political divide of our time is not between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the insiders of the Washington system that is driven by lobbying and special interest-driven decision-making on the one hand and the forgotten communities without a voice on the other. Elected officials in Washington, regardless of their party affiliation, spend roughly 50% of their time fundraising and have almost no time left to talk to the less powerful stakeholders that are affected by policymaking. That is the structural problem we face: too many groups are excluded and have no voice in the process of governance and decision-making. So, the second force that put Donald Trump in the White House is the enormous disconnect between voiceless communities and the Washington system of special interest group driven decision-making.

The Spiritual Divide

The biggest divide, however, is neither economic nor political. It’s a cultural-spiritual divide that is ripping our communities, our country, our culture, and our world apart.

The economic and political divides result from massive institutional failures. As the rate of institutional and systemic failure increases, we see citizens and leaders respond in one of the following three ways:

Muddling through: same old, same old.

Moving back: let’s build a wall between us and them.

Moving forward: lean in to what wants to emerge—empathize and build architectures of collaboration rather than architectures of separation.

What was the problem in this election? Hillary was the muddler; Donald was the wall builder. But there was no one in the third category.

It was interesting to watch the entire American media establishment try to take down Donald Trump (after creating him)—only to realize that all their attacks only made him stronger. The only effective voice against him was Michelle Obama’s. She was the one who could take the air out of him. And she did, even to the degree that the Trump camp decided to stop attacking her. What made the First Lady, who has high approval ratings among Democrats as well as Republicans, so much more effective in dealing with the Trump phenomenon?

When you watch her speeches in New Hampshire and Phoenix you see the answer: she responded to him not with hate and fear. Instead, she spoke with empathy, authentic reflection, and compassion. She courageously exposed her own vulnerability showing up as a human being. Michelle Obama also does not primarily focus on the “opponent,” but rather on her own experience, her own opening process, and on the positive future that she feels is wanting to emerge. That’s what it takes to be a warrior of the third category, a warrior of the open heart: as you engage the current moment, your eye is on the future that is seeking to emerge—not on the past that you try to fight against.

Someone who fits that third category would blend the compassion and presence of a Michelle Obama with the systems focus of an Elizabeth Warren. Such a person (or combined 2020 ticket) would need to connect with a powerful global movement of changemakers who collaborate around new forms of economic, political, and cultural renewal.

Systemic disruption

Figure 1 shows how the three responses to systemic disruption give rise to three conflicting cultures:

Downloading: same old, same old.

The cycle of absencing: denying, de-sensing, blaming, and destroying (closing the mind, heart, will).

The cycle of presencing: seeing, sensing, crystallizing, and co-creating (opening the mind, heart, will).

Figure 1: The Social Fields of Presencing and Absencing

So what is it that is ripping our communities apart? It’s that the social field of absencing, that is, the closing of the mind, heart, and will, keeps amplifying prejudice, hate, and fear because it’s supercharged by business (its a billion dollar media industry) and technology (with Facebook and Google keeping us well inside our echo chambers or filter bubbles). Moreover, nearly one-fifth of election-related tweets came from bots, from robots, according to a new study by University of Southern California researchers. Our social media is designed to systemically spread and amplify fake news and negativity, its not designed around an intention to build community and generative cross-boundary dialogue. Mark Zuckerbergs denial of any responsibility in the election of Trump is an interesting example of his own blind spot: not seeing how fakes news and filter bubbles undermine the foundation of our democracy.

What We Are Called to Do Now

Will President Trump act like candidate Trump? Or will he evolve and grow with the demands of the job (like others did before him)? We don’t know. Most likely his biggest contribution will be that he helps us recognize the other (downside) part of our culture that needs loving attention, compassion and transformation. As the German poet Goethe put it so eloquently when making Mephistopheles—representing the role of the “evil”—say: “I am part of that force which always wills evil and always works good.”

What is the “good” that President Trump could work for us? Here is a short list:

Letting go of any illusion that the necessary changes of our time will originate from the White House or any other top-down structure. It will come instead from a new global movement of local and multi-local change makers that apply the mindset of Michelle Obama (open mind, heart, will) onto the transformation of the collective.

As we begin responding to the disruption of this week, we have an opportunity to organize in new ways that go beyond the usual responses to disruption:

Personal rage: taking it out on something outside ourselves,

Personal change: using that energy to transform oneself, or

Movements that react against the symptoms of the social and ecological divides.

Figure 2: Four types of response to disruptive change

What is called for today is a massive response that reaches into the upper right quadrant (figure 2): focusing on evolving and transforming the collective. What’s missing most is an enabling infrastructure that supports initiatives to move into the top right quadrant of co-creating change.

The good news is, that the future is already here – many initiatives already exist in which cross-sector groups work from seeing the whole (eco-system awareness) rather than from a silo-view (ego-system awareness).

Summing up, the blind spot at issue here concerns the dominant paradigms of thought that have legitimized the economic, political, and spiritual divides which—in conjunction with the mindless use of social media and technology—gave rise to the Trump movement and presidency. To overcome or bridge these divides calls for nothing less than regenerating the foundations of our civilization by updating the key operating codes on which our societies operate:

Economy 4.0: evolving our economy from ego-system economics to eco-system economics by refocusing the economic activity (and the use intentional use of money) toward generating well-being for all

Democracy 4.0: evolving our democracies toward engaging people in ways that are more direct, distributed, democratic, and dialogic and that ban the toxic and corrupting influence through (unrestricted) money

Education 4.0: evolving our educational systems toward freely accessible infrastructures that help individuals, communities and multi-stakeholder groups to activate the deep capacity to co-sense, co-shape and co-create the emerging future in their own context any time.

To advance such an agenda of profound societal renewal will require

New collaborative platforms, online-to-offline, that allow pioneering change makers from across sectors to directly engage with each other

A constitution for the global digital space that makes the Facebooks and Googles accountable to citizens, communities and civil rights worldwide.

Massive free capacity building mechanisms that build the deeper innovation capacities at scale (curiosity, compassion, courage)

And new concepts like basic income grants for all that would replace our current system of organized dependency through an ecology of entrepreneurship that is driven by passion and purpose rather than mere profit – in other words, enabling people to activate their greatest gifts, and pursue the work they are truly passionate about.

MITx u.lab is a small prototype and platform that we started last year with the intention to help change makers who want to move their work into the fourth quadrant. What started as a MOOC is now a platform for 75,000 change makers from 180 countries that collaborate across 600 hubs. In 2017 we intend to move this platform to its next stage of catalyzing change at the scale of the whole system.

It’s one of several initiatives that helps us remember what matters most: that as warriors of the third category, we need to fully engage the present moment whilst keeping our eye on the future that is seeking to emerge. Our old civilizational forms are much more fragile than anyone might have thought. But our capacity to regenerate them from the deepest source of our humanity is also more present and available than ever—now.

Thanks to Adam Yukelson for helpful comments and to Kelvy Bird for the figures.

One Earth, Two Social Fields

07/19/2016 05:43 pm ET | Updated Aug 12,

Otto Scharmer Co-founder u.lab, Senior Lecturer, MIT; Thousand Talents Program Professor, Tsinghua University

Dallas, Ferguson, Nice. Turkey, Trump & Brexit. The simultaneous rise of global terrorism, of authoritarian strongmen and the far-right are the twin faces of our current moment. Even though Trump-type politicians and terrorism pretend to fight each other, on a deeper level they feed off each other. The more terrorist attacks occur in the US, Turkey, France, or Germany, the greater the chances that Trump, Le Pen, and their allies will be elected. But what’s more interesting is the intertwined connection on a deeper spiritual level: both movements, to various degrees, thrive on activating a social-emotional field that is characterized by prejudice, anger, and fear.

Social-Emotional Fields

Geopolitics and international relations have long been framed by different levels: political issues arise; they are seen in light of their underlying systemic structures; those, in turn, are shaped by the self-interests of nation-states (levels 1, 2, and 3 in figure 1).

Drawing: Kelvy Bird
Figure 1: Four levels: symptoms, structures, interests, social fields

Even though this model sounds perfectly logical, here is the dirty little secret: it no longer works, it no longer explains what is going on. It no longer fully applies in a world of unparalleled global interdependency in which local attacks by randomly acting “lone wolves” on soft targets, such as those in Nice, Paris, or Dallas, are (and will remain) impossible to defend unless we start to address the deeper root issues that lead people to commit such acts of terror. These social-economic root issues are surprisingly similar to the issues that led, for example, people in Britain to vote for Brexit and in the US to vote for Donald Trump. Let me explain.

The political class was dumbfounded by the Brexit result and continues to be baffled by the rapid rise of the far right. Similarly, the leading economic experts were surprised and clueless when the global financial markets collapsed in 2008. Nothing in the old models of politics and economics prepared the decision-makers to deal with the tsunami that was (and is) coming their way.

Have these outdated paradigms of economic and political thought been updated since?  Of course not. Certainly not in a structural way. Which is why below I would like to propose a fourth, deeper, level to the above framework. Adding the perspective of social fields to the conversation sheds some additional light on what is actually going on. By social field I mean the structure of relationships among individuals, groups, organizations and systems that gives rise to collective behaviors and outcomes.

Issues and events (level 1) arise not only from systemic structures (level 2) and the self-interest of nation-states (level 3), but also from the deep structures of social fields (level 4).

The Social Field of Absencing

There are two fundamentally different states of awareness that social fields can operate from. The first state is the one we see embodied in the aforementioned rise of terrorism, strongmen, and the far right. It’s a social-emotional logic that operates through:

prejudice (closing the mind)

anger, blame (closing the heart) and

fear (closing the will)

This results in a self-reinforcing cycle of polarization and violence that begins with denial (disconnecting from reality outside), deepens via de-sensing and absencing (disconnecting from reality within), and finally results in various patterns of destruction (of things, of others, and of self).

I call the activation of that cycle the social field of absencing because it makes our human essence less present to the world, to each other, and to ourselves. We can recognize its pattern language in how ISIS brainwashes the young people it uses for suicide attacks. It’s a pattern that lurks all around us, including in politics (the rise of polarization and extremism), economics (structural violence of exclusion), and culture (the rise of fundamentalist ideologies). Absencing is enabled by habits and technologies that keep us inside our own filter bubble, and it is super-charged by a global landscape of historical trauma that, once reactivated, amplifies yet another round of violence in all its forms (direct, structural, cultural).

The Social Field of Presencing

Yet the real, and better, story of our present moment is not that. The real story of our moment lies in activating a second state of the social field that is increasingly available to groups and communities across all cultures. I call this the social field of presencing because it makes our human essence more present to the world, to each other, and to ourselves. It’s a generative social field that comes into being whenever groups move outside their habitual filter or bubble and engage in processes by opening the mind (curiosity), the heart (compassion), and the will (courage). What results is a cycle of co-creative action:

seeing with with fresh eyes (open mind)

sensing other perspectives (open heart)

presencing our highest future possibilities (open will)

co-creating those possibilities through learning-by-doing (realizing).

Figure 2 depicts both these social fields. They work as mirror images. Global politics and world economic affairs today emerge from the interplay between them, as it unfolds in systems around us and within us.

Figure 2: One Earth, Two Social Fields
Drawing: Kelvy Bird

What’s apparent is that almost all the media coverage and attention are devoted to the upper half of figure 2: that is, the destructive cycle of absencing. The lower half of figure 2—the generative cycle of presencing—even though it is a profound experience in the life of countless change-makers globally, remains a gaping blind spot in our media, and in public conversation.

Root Issues: Three Challenges

The twin rise of Trump-type politicians on the one hand and the new global terrorism (which is impossible to defend with traditional mechanisms, such as metal detectors) on the other hand, have made one thing crystal clear: you cannot fight these fields of negativity (Trump) or destruction (terrorism) directly by choosing the old weapons. You can only fight them by addressing them at their root. And at the root of both phenomena lie the core issues of an economic, political, and spiritual failure to further evolve the operating logic of today’s societies.

The economic failure: creating well-being for all

The first failure, the lack of an evolving economy, goes back to the Thatcher/Reagan revolution almost 40 years ago. Since then, the world has seen an explosion of economic wealth that has mostly benefited the top 1% while leaving out almost everyone else (in the US, the bottom 90% has endured income stagnation for a third of a century and median income for full-time male workers is actually lower in inflation-adjusted terms than it was 42 years ago).  Those who vote for Brexit and for Donald Trump tend to have a lot in common. They are predominantly white, male, elderly, rural, and less educated—in short, the “losers” of globalization. Voting for Brexit and Trump is a way of expressing their frustrations with a system that has failed them for four decades in a row.

The political failure: creating direct, distributed, dialogic participation for all

The second failure is the lack of an evolving democracy. Around the world the future of democracy and governance is in question. The paralysis of Washington, DC, in national politics over the past decade-plus; the outcome of the Brexit vote, which generated a result that it seems most people didn’t really want; and the toxic impact of special interest groups that highjack the political process in many countries all are symptoms of a system that badly needs an upgrade—an upgrade to a system of governance that is more direct, distributed, and dialogic.

The Brexit referendum does not prove that referenda don’t work. If anything, it proves that we probably need more, rather than fewer, elements of direct democracy—but we also need to pair them with a real dialogue and factual information, as opposed to the bunch of lies and false claims that the pre-vote Brexit debate was based upon.

The very fact that the people affected most by the Brexit vote, youth and people in their 20s in Britain, were the demographic that participated the least in the actual decision-making, offers another lesson for upgrading democracy. We need more direct and distributed (technology-enabled) elements, with more true dialogue calling for new places of deep listening and dialogue across communities. These are the keys to regenerating a culture of civic, and civil, discourse.

The spiritual failure: activating the sources of human creativity

But maybe the biggest failure of elites in Europe and elsewhere concerns the spiritual void. Terrorism is the negative side of expressing human creativity (or the lack thereof). Every act of terrorism is an expression of a creative potential that has gone astray, that was unable to manifest in the context of true creativity that generates positive impact. Where does that problem start? It starts in schools that fail our kids by teaching for testing instead of nurturing their deeper sources of creativity and learning.

We find the same spiritual failure in the Brexit debate. The entire pro-EU argument amounted to a dismal attempt to scare people into believing that leaving the EU would have profound negative economic repercussions. Scaring people as a strategy of persuasion is a losing strategy. Ask the environmental movement how that has worked for them. This inner void was made even more visible by the leaders of the two main camps, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Cameron held the vote purely for personal gain—to secure his own reelection, effectively shifting the risk to the country as a whole. Boris Johnson did the same: positioning himself in a way that helped his future career at the expense of the country. The different priorities—personal ego vs. the well-being of the country—have always been crystal clear. Just look at the Republican Party in the US Congress, which chooses to hurt Obama over helping the country to succeed. Ego-awareness has always won. It’s that spiritual void, the lack of awareness that focuses on the well-being of the whole, that is the real breeding ground for a pre-fascist phenomenon like the Trump candidacy.

The spiritual void cannot be filled with just another ideology or another straitjacket of traditional ethical norms. That would mean moving backward. Moving forward means updating the educational system in a way that allows every human being to genuinely connect to their own sources of humanity and creativity, which happen to be the source for all social renewal.

Updating the Operating Code of Our Societal Systems

Summing up: If we look at the current challenges from a systems view (figure 1), we need to update the operating code in our economic, political, and educational systems. We need to abandon our current mode (ego-system awareness) and embrace another way of operating that works by activating generative social fields (figure 2).

Even though these kinds of positive changes are happening in the blind spot of today’s media reporting, there are countless grassroots activists and communities around the world that are tapping into the power of the generative social field. Over the past weeks and months I have seen and met powerful living examples of it from and in Costa Rica, Bhutan, South Africa, Brazil, China, Europe, and also the United States.

Living in the Plastic Hour of History

Throughout the 20th century we have seen both social fields arise: absencing and presencing. The field of absencing raised its ugly head the first time during World War I, ending a blossoming period of quiet global social movements. Then absencing returned even more viciously with the rise of fascism in the 1930s, embodied particularly by Hitler Germany and leading into World War II.

But then, in the last third of the 20th century, we saw a different logic of social change taking shape that resulted in millions of grassroots NGOs and civil society organizations taking initiative for positive environmental, social, or cultural impact in their communities.

Today it feels as if we—everyone alive right now—are living in a “plastic hour” of history, meaning that small differences today can have major impacts tomorrow. Many people feel that we live in a time of destruction and regression. I don’t quite feel that way. I feel that the sources of destruction and the sources of co-creation―that is, the fields of absencing and presencing—are simultaneously intensifying their global presence now.

History emerges from the interplay between both these fields. It’s a process that plays out in every country, culture, and community. It’s a clash of forces that we see not only on the level of exterior systems, but also on the level of the self. Systems change is personal; it is, as my colleague Peter Senge puts it, an “inside job.”

This is our moment. If you feel moved to make a difference towards helping to shift the global social field from absencing to presencing, here is one way how you can participate. You can join the u.lab—a global online-offline platform for prototyping the ego-to-eco shift in business, government, and education. The u.lab drew 75,000 participants in its first year (2015), which is an inspiring testament to how many people today are just waiting for the opportunity to redirect their attention from reacting against absencing (the cycle of destruction) toward activating the field of presencing (the cycle of co-creation).

An introductory (90-minute, self-paced) course begins on August 15th, 2016, followed by a globally facilitated version that will convene tens of thousands of change makers worldwide that begins September 8th, 2016.

It feels as if we live in a plastic moment. A moment to connect more intentionally with others to co-shape a deeper shift that we begin see happening all around us: the activation of the intelligence of the heart, that is, of the generative social field.

For a more detailed discussion of Social Fields: Theory U, 2nd edition, 2016


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