April 21, 2016
Image by Steve Jurvetson
Much of the work we do at IISC includes some element of helping to develop networks for social change. This entails working with diverse groups of individuals and/or organizations to come together and create a common vision and clear pathway to collective action and impact. I’ve been reflecting on how important it can be to not simply focus on creating or developing networks “out there” and across traditional boundaries, but also “in here,” within different recognized borders.
“When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”
– Francisco Varela
The notion that part of the process of healing living systems entails connecting them to more of themselves is derived, in part, from the work of Francisco Varela, the Chilean biologist, philosopher and neuroscientist. As Varela and others have surmised, living systems are networks, including individual people, groups, organizations, and larger social systems. Furthermore, they have noted that when a living system is faltering, the solution will likely be discovered from within it if more and better connections are created. In other words, as Margaret Wheatley puts it,
“A failing system [or network] needs to start talking to itself, especially to those it didn’t know were even part of itself.”
I find it interesting in the context of social change work to consider how the process of re-connecting at and within different systemic levels can be beneficial to those levels and initiatives as wholes.
September 25, 2014
“You have to remember that any boundary is a useful fiction.”
Photo by Fady Habib
As the story is told, a crucial element in the breaking of the genetic code was when physicists moved into the field of biology. These scientists, including Max Delbruck, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, and Erwin Schrodinger, brought with them a new perspective and new methods that changed genetic research. As Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi note in A System View of Life, it was Schrodinger in particular who suggested that “the gene could be viewed as an information carrier whose physical structure corresponds to a succession of elements in a hereditary code script.” This story illustrates how innovation and evolution occur at the meeting of fields. This is the promise of orthogonal thinking.
Orthogonal thinking draws from a variety of, and perhaps seemingly unrelated, perspectives to achieve new insights. It is the even momentary blurring of boundaries to see what might emerge. A while back I provided a portrait of a “facilitative leader,” neurophysiologist Erich Jarvis, who understands the power of thinking and doing orthogonally and has used this to create research breakthroughs around avian vocalizations and human speech. Another relevant story is WaterCredit, a model that has developed to address the needs of the nearly 1 billion people on the planet without access to safe drinking water. Through WaterCredit, micro-finance institutions provide micro-loans to individuals to finance their own water and sanitation solutions. The program resulted from the intentional pulling together of diverse private sector, public sector, and financing institutions.
The benefits of orthogonal thinking speak to the importance of diversity in supporting collective intelligence and resilience. A recent Scientific American article by Kathleen Phillips of Columbia University highlights a number of studies showing how racial diversity creates greater complexity in and broadness of thinking. The same holds true for gender and ideological diversity. As Phillips notes:
Being with similar people makes us think we all hold the same data and perspective, which stops us from processing and fully sharing information.
Bottom line: it may behoove us in our social change work to create spaces in which people and ideas that might not otherwise bump into one another, can interact. Are you getting orthogonal enough?
July 31, 2013
“Thinking in terms of networks can enable us see with new eyes.”
– Harold Jarche
Photo by David Shankbone
The biological sciences have revealed that all living things in an ecosystem are interconnected through networks of relationship; that is, they literally depend upon a web of life to survive and to thrive. On the social science front, we are also beginning to appreciate that groups, organizations, and communities depend upon and function in distributed networks of relationship that go beyond contrived boundaries, formal roles, communications, or decision-making protocols. After all, we are a part of life! Read More
February 13, 2013
|Photo by Dawn Huczek|http://www.flickr.com/photos/31064702@N05/3847338602|
Working with numerous multi-stakeholder collaborative change efforts, we at IISC are often invited to help people co-create the structures and processes that will move their complex work and collective development forward. There is never an easy or readily apparent answer and each case is unique to its particular context and nature. A quote that I’ve found helpful to quell some of the anxiety that comes up around this work, especially among those who want to rush to adopt a structure that others have used and “get on to the work” (more on this false dichotomy here), comes from Fritjof Capra from the Center for Ecoliteracy. Capra writes about the importance of recognizing and working the dynamics of life. Read More
July 27, 2011
|Image by photologic|http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotologic/3107777489|
The physicist Fritjof Capra, founder of the Elmwood Institute, tells the story about a meeting convened years ago by him and his colleagues with a group of Native American elders and thought leaders to explore different perspectives around ecological thinking. From the outset, the gathering was marked by some suspicion towards the Elmwood group, given the historic dynamics of exploitation. The meeting opened with a round of introductions, and an Okanagan woman from British Columbia was first to speak. She began by stating the tribe from which she came and then described the landscape where the tribe lives. She then talked about her father’s and paternal grandparents’ origins, in similar detail, and continued with a description of where her mother and maternal grandparents’ came from. In the end, she linked each family member not just to a named geographic location, but also an illustration of the associated rivers, mountains, plants, and animals. “This is who I am,” she said, wrapping up. “The features of the land determine my conduct, responsibility, and ethics. Now I want to know to whom I am talking, before I say anything else of substance. And I don’t want to hear the books you’ve read, the degrees you’ve obtained, or the organizations you are a part of.” Read More
May 13, 2010
|Photo by Flowery *L*u*z*a*|http://www.flickr.com/photos/luchilu/747345256|
For the past few weeks, in a series of Thursday posts, we’ve addressed what it takes to tap the full potential of collaboration to shift to more environmentally sustainable ways of living and working. We’ve explored the importance of bringing diverse systemic perspectives together and developing shared identities and values as a way of achieving greater ecological intelligence and commitment. And as a friend of mine says, you can bring great groups together with the best of intentions and still end up with nothing or a mess. So what else can we put into place to help ensure we reach the sustainable ends we seek?
August 6, 2009
When we throw it away, it doesn’t go away. This is an important lesson of both systems thinking and ecology. Fritjof Capra, physicist and founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, writes that we need to relearn the fundamental facts of life, including the fact that matter continually cycles through the web of life and that one person’s (or species’) waste is another’s food. If our awareness and actions shifted in accordance with these facts, how would we live and work differently?