Beware of Knotworks – Networks with Ego

Rabbit Carrot ego ecoI do not know who the artist is who drew this cartoon, so I cannot acknowledge them, but it seems to be quite famous and has been doing the rounds for some time now. I added the ego – eco element myself, and ego is something I would really like to explore as we move from a hierarchical society to a networked, co-creative society.

Credit: Paul Baran 1964

Credit: Paul Baran 1964

You may have seen the image above. It comes from Paul Baran who in 1964 was concerned about the ability of a communications network to survive a nuclear strike. The concept is that in a centralised network, there is a single point of failure which makes it vulnerable to attack. Not so in a distributed network, allowing communication to move freely despite some points failing.

Ego vs EcoYou may also have seen the above image on your social networks or certain presentations. Again, I love the image but I do not know who the original artist was. There is just one thing about this image though, and that is that it is somewhat polar, in that there are two points, one or the other. You are either ego-centric or eco-centric.

As we move into our networked age, we hear a lot about co-creation, the collaborative economy, the networked economy, conscious innovation and conscious capitalism. This is amazing and I know of quite a few people who are dedicating their lives to help us make the transition to this new reality. These people are amazing and I love them.


Yes, there is a BUT.

It’s not that simple.

It’s not a decision you make and then you are there.

Just using words like ‘co-creation’ and ‘network’ and ‘collaborative’ are not enough. The reason is EGO and it is EGO which results in counterfeit KNOTWORKS instead of authentic NETWORKS.

Let me explain.

Credit: Simon Robinson

Credit: Simon Robinson

When we contemplate fractals, we are taken out of the normal Euclidean mechanistic three-dimensional reality, and our consciousness is guided towards a more expansive movement of thinking. Take a look at the fractal above, and see if you can ‘move’ through it. See if you can find journeys within it.

In a previous article I talked about learning journeys and the expansion of consciousness. I attempted to model this journey using the fractal above.

Credit: Simon Robinson

Credit: Simon Robinson

The move from EGO to ECO is not so simple. We have to lose a huge number of preconceptions about reality. We have to lose the thing that is often most precious to us, and this is something many of us are not aware is operating within us. This thing is our EGO.

It is our EGO that sees the world as separate to us. This means that other people are separate from us, and when they are separate, this can often lead to feelings of fear. The fear comes when we are not confident about ourselves, and we fear of others having what we do not have, because they are superior in some way. EGO is fuelled by our insecurities, and when we act from a position of EGO, sometimes all we know how to do is to attack others, bring them down, destroy their reputations and show how we are better.

But this is the rabbit with the big showy green carrot tops but very little the ground.

Why does the image speak of humility? (The quote comes from our book Holonomics). When we are humble, we have an ability to see. Literally, we see more. We see the patterns, the causes, the motivations and ego which drives a person’s behaviour, sometimes patterns which they themselves cannot see, or are not aware of.

When all our actions and desires come from an ecological consciousness, we act from a place which has the desire to benefit the whole. A whole group, a whole team, a whole family, a whole organisation, a whole tribe, a whole society, a whole planet.

Solutions to our complex problems we face today are so wicked, we do need co-creation. We need dialogue, we need networks, we need everyone contributing their very best to the whole. We need to be innovative, but the problems come when all our efforts seem in vain, our ideas are rejected and our grand visions come to nothing. Why? Maybe it because what we thought was a network is in fact a KNOTWORK.

How does this play out? With apologies to Damien Newman who created the squiggle of the design process, instead of design and innovation projects wonderfully and magically happening like this:

Credit: Damien Newman

Credit: Damien Newman

What we end up with is something like this:

The squiggle of Knotworking

The squiggle of Knotworking

Knotworkers are those people who disrupt our disruption. We have to be careful with knotworkers, and ensure that we can detect then and know when their actions are likely to be destructive rather than disruptive.

We have to be care with those Knotworkers who talk the talk but in fact whose actions and motivations come from hierarchical thinking, from hoarding treasure, from a desire to hold on to power, who plagiarise and steal other’s work, never acknowledging their sources, and who are threatened by others. The role of the leader in the new collaborative economy is one of nurturing people on the journey from EGO to ECO. It will not be easy, but this is a journey all leaders will have to embark upon.

It is so fascinating to see Knotworkers who are on the spiritual path, on their journeys, but who have not yet broken out of Ego. These people can be frustrating in the extreme, as they know not what they do, and a great lesson I learned was to value the word DISCERNMENT rather than JUDGEMENT. When we are able to discern, we are able to see the harm that people do to others, and the harm they do to themselves, the missed opportunities they lost due to seeing others as a threat rather than a co-creator, and this is important as those who act from ECO can be vulnerable.

How many of us have believed in other people, shared our knowledge, only to have it stolen from us rather than being offered opportunities to collaborate and co-create? We have to watch out for this, and this is a part of reality, but that’s fine as everyone is on their path, every one of us is on a journey, and who is to say that this person is here and this person is there. Discernment not judgement will see us right.

There is a solution for authentic networkers and that is to do all you can to find people of the same vibration, people without ego, acting from an ecological consciousness who can see who you really are. You are special, you are needed, you are so important at this moment in which we find ourselves. Just watch out for Knotworks. No need to be hassled. It is absolutely unbelievable when we find ourselves with others who are authentic. We can have conversations which are life changing. This is something I feel I will be writing about very soon.

But in the meantime we just need to listen to Yoda. Ultimately, it’s not about other people. It’s about us. We just need to be mindful of our thoughts. That is all.

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On Creativity, Ego and Transformational Leadership

Contemplating Parts and Wholes with a Walk Down São Paulo’s Most Enchanting Street

Maria and I were back at Sustentare Business School this weekend teaching MBA students about chaos, complexity, holonomic thinking and strategy. One toy I have that makes a great visual impression is my Hoberman sphere, which starts as a compacted ball, but which you can extend into a large interconnected sphere.

Hoberman Sphere

Hoberman Spehere Sustentare

It is a fun way to talk about the way in which we perceive parts and wholes in organisations. Many times we are so focused on our teams, our departments, our projects and our products and services, we fail to understand the organisation as a system. We fail to see the interconnections, relationships and processes which impact on both ourselves and the organisation as a whole. This dynamic also extends to seeing our organisations as self-contained spheres and not perceiving the way in which our organisations interconnect organically into the wider ecosystem.

While the Hoberman sphere is brilliant at introducing the theme of the relationship between the whole and the parts, at the end of the day it is still a mechanical device. What we we need when we dive deeply into the systems view of life is a more organic way of comprehending the relationship, and for this we need holonomic thinking. We need to move into a way of seeing which sees the whole as an ‘active absence’ – a stance we take in which we do not step back to see the whole, but plunge into a contemplation of the parts in order to encounter the way in which the whole expresses itself, comes-to-presence in the parts.

Credit: Fernando Peire

Credit: Fernando Peire

One programme we discussed on the course was the Channel 5 series The Restaurant Inspector with Fernando Peire, who each episode visits a failing restaurant to offer his expert advice to the owners on what is wrong and what they should do. In this When talking about the dynamics of seeing, this programme is brilliant for showing the contrasting ways in which Peire perceives the restaurant from the owners.

His approach is entirely from the experience of the clientele, something which the owners often really struggle to understand. More than this, in this quote from Peire, we discover his whole mental model of the restaurant which affects every aspect of his work:

Peire takes an almost paternal, nurturing interest in both the restaurant and the Club. For him, it is always about creating the right atmosphere, the right ambience, so that the particular, Ivy magic can emerge. How does he describe what makes the Ivy special? “It’s the conversation. The Ivy is all about conversation. When you read about the Ivy, people talk about the buzz. I’m very proud of our staff too – they are an integral part of the Ivy. But it’s people talking to each other – even married couples talking to each other…”

Source: London Book Fair

Restaurants are of course incredibly sensory experiences, and recently I discovered an incredibly enchanting street in São Paulo that really epitomised the way in which an owner of a restaurant understands the experience of the clientele. This example really helps me to explain the concept of the dynamic relationship between the whole and parts, and of the active absence of the whole.

Avanhandava Street (Rua Avanhandava) lies in the heart of São Paulo, and the only way to introduce it to you is with this story of the street from Walter Mancini. In 1980 Mancini opened the first Famiglia Mancini restaurant (Mancini Family) but his vision was greater than just one single restaurant. He thus began the first project in São Paulo to renovate an entire street, and in this video he will show what it has now become.

The street is home to five restaurants and two shops, and the experience for visitors begins at the very entrance, which comes into its own at night with the street lights and fountains. In this second video Mancini shows us around probably the most famous restaurant, Famiglia Mancini, which sees queues of people waiting for a table every single day of the week.

The restaurant has been created and developed since 1980 with great love and devotion, as you can see from the great enthusiasm of Mancini. The details are astounding, it is truly an experience of near sensory overload, and both Maria and I will definitely be returning to be able to take in all those aspects which we will have missed on the first visit.

Madreperola is their sea food restaurant, and as the camera pans around, see how much detail you can take in:

As you would of course expect, there is a pizza and pasta restaurant, and in this video look out for the innovation which stops the pizzas from humidifying when taken out of the firewood ovens:

In introducing Il Ristaurante, Mancini focuses on just one aspect, the music:

Mancini clearly has an artistic eye for detail, both a skill and great love which inspired Calligrafia, a name which was inspired by his love of handwritten lettering and calligraphy.

I hope you have enjoyed these short videos. If we go back to the original theme of this article, it was the relationship between the whole and the parts. It allows us to contemplate what Famiglia Mancini is as a whole.

Famiglia Mancini is not simply the totality of the physical parts. There is something more about Famiglia Mancini that we can not write down, we can not touch and feel, but which to us exists and which we encounter through a sensitive contemplation of each and every part. This allows us to experience Rua Avanhandava as an authentic whole, where every part belongs together, creating an unbroken experience we can delight in.

Credit: Famiglia Mancini

Credit: Famiglia Mancini

We can only really grasp the whole in our intuition, and so this is why it is important to contemplate the four different ways of knowing: thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition. In this mode of experience we are discussing, we are moving from the sensory to the intuitive, and in our intuitions we will discover the meaning of Famiglia Mancini.

Credit: Famiglia Mancini

Credit: Famiglia Mancini

It may seem obvious that a restaurant owner understands the experience of the client, but in so many cases this appears not be the case, as it was for Maria and I who went to a restaurant recently where the staff seemed to be happy to play music from a radio, with adverts, and as such we decided to leave. The restaurant we did discover was one where the owner also owned a farm and who used all his own ingredients in the food, which was extremely tasty, and we will certainly be returning very soon.

I will be returning to Rua Avanhandava as it has inspired an idea for a photographic project. It would be amazing to meet Walter Mancini and I will see if it will be possible to speak to him to se can put into words what Famiglia Mancini means to him.

But regardless of how he chooses to express the whole for himself, it is clear that his love for art, food and his continual attention to the experience of his clientele has resulted in the one of the most delightfully curious and enchanting experiences it is possible to have in São Paulo. The Mancini family certainly deserve the highest praise for their restaurants, for creating such a wonderful experience of the parts and the whole for us to explore, contemplate and plunge into.

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Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon

How Holonomics integrates with Santa Fe Institute’s Complexity Explorer Programme

The Complexity Explorer project is being developed by the Santa Fe Institute and provides online courses and other educational materials related to complex systems science. This week Maria and I were honoured to find that our book Holonomics has been accepted into the on-line resource section of Complexity Explorer and so I thought I would take this opportunity to explain a little more about Complexity Explorer, why it is important, and how their on-line courses (MOOCs) can help lead you into a deep dive of complexity science.

Holonomics and Complexity Explorer

The Santa Fe Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center, founded in 1984, dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of the fundamental principles of complex adaptive systems, including physical, computational, biological, and social systems. The project leaders for the Complexity Explorer are Melanie Mitchell and Ginger Richardson.

Figure 1: (a) A hypothetical normal distribution of the probability of financial gain or loss under trading.  (b) A hypothetical long-tailed distribution, showing only the loss side.  The “tail” of the distribution is the far right-hand side.  The long-tailed distribution predicts a considerably higher probability of catastrophic loss than the normal distribution.

Figure 1: (a) A hypothetical normal distribution of the probability of financial gain or loss under trading. (b) A hypothetical long-tailed distribution, showing only the loss side. The “tail” of the distribution is the far right-hand side. The long-tailed distribution predicts a considerably higher probability of catastrophic loss than the normal distribution.

Melanie recently wrote an overview article looking at how complexity science can help evolve our world view and understanding of the concept of non-linearity. One example she gives in the article examines the inability of the majority of economists to predict the recent global economic turmoil:

In 2009, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said, “Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems.  More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy.”  At least part of this “blindness” was due to the reliance on risk models based on so-called normal distributions.

The term normal distribution refers to the familiar bell curve.  Economists and finance professionals often use such distributions to model the probability of gains and risk of losses from investments. Figure 1(a) shows a hypothetical normal distribution of risk.  I’ve marked a hypothetical “catastrophic loss” on the graph.  You can see that, given this distribution of risk, the probability of such a loss would be very near zero.  Less probable, maybe, than a lightning strike right where you’re standing. Something you don’t have to worry about.  Unless the model is wrong.

Source: Melanie Mitchell, How Can the Study of Complexity Transform Our Understanding of the World?

It is very clear that many people in many professions rapidly need to acquire a working knowledge of complexity science. Even if your work does not involve the development of statical and computational models, for example business strategy, product marketing, business operations etc, many of us do rely on the quality and accuracy of economic, financial and many other forms of complex forecasting, and we do need to have confidence in those who profess to be the experts in their field.

In order to facilitate the dissemination of the great body of knowledge that has been developed over the last few decades at the institute, the Complexity Explorer initiative was launched, the foundation being free open and on-line courses on complexity, the first one being An Introduction to Complexity with Melanie Mitchell which launched in April of last year.

Following the success of this course, Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos, run by Dave Feldman launched in January of this year. This September, two advanced courses will run: Nonlinear Dynamics: Mathematical and Computational Approaches and Mathematics for Complex Systems.

I enrolled on both of the first two courses, and in order not to repeat myself in this article, you may wish to read my two articles about them:

A Review of Santa Fe’s Complexity Explorer MOOC and the Future of Education

Thoughts on Santa Fe’s new MOOC – Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos

The great benefit of the courses of Complexity Explorer are exactly that, i.e. in addition to the theory students are given the chance both to build working models using computer simulation tools such as NetLogo, and to explore the (for me) wondrous intricacies of fractal equations interactively. (You will see actual examples of these in my two articles above).

Bifurcation diagram

Our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter is divided into three parts: The Dynamics of Seeing, The Dynamics of Nature and The Dynamics of Business. In Part Two we discuss chaos, the butterfly effect, attractors and strange attractors, entropy, dissipative structures, emergent behaviours, bifurcation, feedback, evolution and Gaia theory. One potential route into learning about complexity and chaos would therefore be to read Holonomics first, and then for a more in-depth study enrolling for one of the introductory courses.

Holonomics and Complexity Books

If this is the route taken, a read of Holonomics could be followed up after the course with Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour and David Feldman’s Chaos and Fractals: An Elementary Introduction, both books being two of the best foundation texts on complexity and chaos.

The second route would of course be to first take one or two of the Complexity Explorer introductory courses, read the books by Mitchell and Feldman first, and then read Holonomics afterwards. In addition to covering the work of Stuart Kauffman who was faculty in residence at Santa Fe from 1986 to 1997, much of Holonomics is inspired by the work of the late Brian Goodwin, a founding member and member of the science board of the institute. Last year the book The Intuitive Way of Knowing was published as a tribute to Brian, and you may wish to read my review to find our more about his life’s work: Book Review: The Intuitive Way of Knowing – A Tribute to Brian Goodwin

As well as being the author of a number of books on complexity such as How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity and Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology, Goodwin had a deep interest in developing a phenomenological and hermeneutical approach to science, a science of qualities as well as quantities, a vision he described in his final book Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture.

Holonomic Thinking

In Holonomics we introduce what we call holonomic thinking, an expanded form of consciousness which integrates insights from complexity science and chaos theory into this phenomenological and hermeneutical conceptualisation of wholeness of both Brian Goodwin and his great friend Henri Bortoft. Maria and I articulate this journey into the comprehension of wholeness as it relates to both economic and ecological systems, building in universal human values of love, peace, truth, right action and non-violence as the foundation. This is the journey we feel people must take in order to comprehend a system whole.

Maria and I have been working with Holonomics in both a business and economic context for some years now, and the feedback that we are receiving is that empowering people with a higher level of consciousness enables them to break out of fixed, hierarchical-based bunker mentalities, and into a new way of seeing which is dynamic, expanded and inclusive. People are no longer seen as resources, limited in their capacity, but as fully human, fully-valued, contributing to the evolution and long-term sustainability of their organisations.

As I have already mentioned, I have taken both of the first two courses, and found them to be wonderfully engaging, broad in their scope and also deep in the level of analysis that they lead students into. As we discuss in Holonomics, computation models of complex systems are extremely important, and in these courses you will be able to explore their at times awe-inspiring dynamics and behaviours in detail.

But a model of a complex system is not the system itself. There are times when we feel a calling to plunge deeper into an exploration of the very meaning of a system, its Being, and for this we need to complement a computational approach with holonomic thinking.

Credit:Adaptive Path

Credit:Adaptive Path

To offer just one example, in order to model the complete customer experience, we do need to understand the complexity of the flow of work throughout an entire organisation. We also need to understand the complexity of multiple data bases as well as the front-end services such as web sites and smart phone applications. All of these needs to be modelled, but this modelling needs to be complemented with a profound understanding of the lived experience of the people who are all a part of this system.

What this means is that we need to master a double-hermeneutic – that is – be able to interpret the way in which stake holders within a system interpret their own experiences. We need to understand systems as phenomena as they dynamically appear to people. If we wish to truly transform our thinking, we have to transform ourselves, and this comes from encountering the authenticity of a system, its wholeness, and our embeddedness within.

About Complexity Explorer

Complexity Explorer is a web-based repository of educational materials related to complex systems science. Currently under development by researchers and educators at the Santa Fe Institute and Portland State University, Complexity Explorer hosts SFI’s online courses, as well as an extensive complex systems glossary and easily searchable databases of syllabi, citations, and other resources related to complex systems topics. Complexity Explorer will also host a “Virtual Laboratory” consisting of open-source simulation programs illustrating complex systems ideas, theories, and tools, accompanied by curricula designed for both teachers and independent learners who want to take advantage of these simulations. All content of the Complexity Explorer website will be open to anyone.

Complexity Explorer:

Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part One – An Exploration of Themes

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi The Systems View of LifeMany of you will have seen from a couple of recent posts of mine that The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi has recently been published (e.g. Guest Article: Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision).

I am sure Fritjof will need no introduction for the vast majority of you, as he is one of the world’s leading thinkers in systems theory, and the author of so many influential books such as The Tao of Physics, The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living and Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius.

Fritjof has described The Systems View of Life as “the realisation of a dream” and it has been written with his friend and long-time collaborator Pier Luigi Luisi who is one of the world’s leading authorities on the origin of life and self-organisation of synthetic and natural systems. The result is a text-book which presents, for the first time, a coherent systemic framework which integrates four dimensions of life – biological, cognitive, social and ecological. It then discusses the profound philosophical, social and political implications of this new paradigm. It is a hugely ambitious work which for me will require a number of articles to fully explore, including an analysis of how it connects with our own recently published book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. (See Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon).

If we begin with some basics, this is first and foremost a textbook written in an academic style with numbered sections for easy cross-referencing, and is therefore targeted at undergraduate and post-graduate university students. It will of course also be of interest to researchers, practitioners and enquiring readers who are interested in discovering more about the profound shift in the scientific conception of living systems, the primary insight of which is the move from the machine metaphor of life to one where life is perceived as a network of inseparable relationships.

This primary insight looks quite innocuous in the written word, and it may be that people, in our highly-networked world, may wonder what the fuss is about. The shift becomes more pronounced when understood in terms of autopoiesis, one of the major foundations of the systems view of life, developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in the 1970s.

In this view, living systems continually recreate themselves by transforming or replacing their components. They go through structural changes while preserving their web-like pattern of organisation. Hence there is both stability and change – a key characteristic of life. Instead of thinking of “mind” we change to a conception of the process of cognition. This has developed into a rich field known as cognitive science which transcends the traditional frameworks of biology, neuroscience, psychology, epistemology etc.

Fritjof Capra

In his recent presentation of The Systems View of Life at Schumacher College last week, Fritjof explained the importance of understanding this new multidisciplinary approach:

The central insight is the identification of cognition (the process of knowing) with the process of life. Cognition is the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living networks. The interactions of a living organisation with their environment are cognitive actions. Cognition is immanent in matter at all levels of life.

The brain is not the only structure through which the process of cognition operates, the entire structure of the organism participates in the process of cognition. The first scientific theory which overcomes the Cartesian split of mind and matter which are now seen as two complementary aspects of life which are inseparably connected.

See: Fritjof Capra discusses the Systems View of Life

Part I of the book examines the mechanistic worldview, not only providing a much-needed historical perspective on science, from antiquity to our modern era. Right from the start, the authors note that:

Physics, together with chemistry, is essential to understand the behaviour of the molecules in living cells, but it is not sufficient to describe their self-organising patterns and processes. At the level of living systems, physics has thus lost its role as the science providing the most fundamental description of reality. This is still not generally recognised today. p15

While this book can be seen as a synthesis of all of Fritjof’s previous works into one unifying framework, perhaps notably The Web of Life, it is also an integration of the last couple of decades’ scientific developments. The contribution of Pier Luigo Luisi cannot be underestimated, and I really enjoyed learning about his work, especially having previously studied the work of Lynn Margulis in this area (see for example his 2006 work The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology).

Part II develops within the reader an appreciation of the systems view at a biological level, which form part of the earlier sections of the book on the origins of life on Earth. The reader is then guided into an intuitive understanding of autopoiesis, which entails the re-conceptualisation of “cognition”. This explanation unfolds across a number of chapters into the cognitive domain, and are both articulate and well-structured.

To read The Systems View of Life is to journey through a study of order and complexity in the living world, understanding the shift from a mechanistic world view where quantification is primary, to understanding the behavioural qualities of complex and chaotic systems, arriving at the understanding the patterns of organisation and processes of living systems. In systems thinking therefore, “organization, structure and process are three different but inseparable perspectives on the phenomenon of life.” The problem though, for many scientists, and also people who are involved in modeling complex systems, is that they do not give these three perspectives equal importance “because of the persistent influence of our Cartesian heritage.”

The Four Perspectives of Life. Credit: Fritjof Capra (2002)

The Four Perspectives of Life. Credit: Fritjof Capra (2002)

There is a fourth perspective which is added to these three domains, and that is the domain of meaning. Social networks are “first and foremost networks of communication involving symbolic language, cultural constraints, relationships of power and so on.” In adding this domain, the systems view of life in extended into an analysis of power, social structures, leadership, communities and the concept of the living organisation.

A whole chapter is dedicated to the inexhaustible topic of the relationship between science, religion and spirituality. While there are frameworks such as the integral theory of Ken Wilber which make claim of being a “theory of everything”, The Systems View of Life takes a measured and contemplative path looking at the areas of agreement, and also disagreement, such as the Buddhist perspective on consciousness whereby consciousness is seen as not emerging from either the brain or matter.

The important insight in this section is the way in which spirituality is defined as something separate from religion, thereby integrating human values into the overall systems approach. This includes the concept of ecoliteracy – “our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology, or principles of sustainability” – not just an intellectual understanding, but the:

…deep ecological awareness of the fundamental interdependence of all phenomena and of the fact that, as individuals and societies, we are embedded in, and dependent upon, the cyclical processes of nature. Since this awareness, ultimately, is grounded in spiritual awareness, it is evident that ecoliteracy has an important spiritual dimension. p291

Part IV of The Systems View of Life examines the ecological dimension, and this includes a look at how sustainability is defined and taught, the manner in which global problems are interconnected, the fallacy of unlimited economic growth, global finance, as well as offering a number of systemic solutions to the problems of energy, climate change, industrial agriculture and biomimicry and ecodesign. As the authors note, many of these solutions are technically and financially viable, the impediments are political will and the lobbying power of the US fossil-fuel industry.

Here in Brazil, where Maria and I live, a country which Fritjof has visited for many years, and where his many books are extremely popular and much-quoted, there are currently a myriad of problems relating to corruption, transport, education, health, income inequality, as well of course as the urgent need to preserve not only the Amazon but also the many other biodiverse regions such as the Pantanal. The unified approach of The Systems of View of Life can contribute greatly to an analysis of the interrelations, especially as it has at a fundamental level both cognition and consciousness, a dimension which is vital in understanding the growing unrest and popular protests which are now emerging across this vast country to give just one example.

One recurrent theme discussed by systems practitioners though is the question of why it is so difficult to help people make the jump from a mechanistic world view to a networked world view. In this new systems view of life, we have to change our understanding of living systems as machines to a view where cognition plays a role in dynamic and autopoietic processes:

Cognition, then, is not a representation of an independent existing world, but rather a continual bringing forth of a world through the process of living. p256

The notion of “bringing forth a world” can be compared with the way in which Maria and I describe what we call holonomic thinking:

Holonomic ThinkingOur construction connects with the model from Fritjof above through the notion of “coming into being”. In our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, we take a phenomenological approach to the understanding of complex systems, and this approach is acknowledged by Fritjof and Pier where they describe not only phenomenology, but also “neurophenomenology” and the attempt by scientists to formulate “a true science of experience”. In a second article I will explore this aspect in more detail, since the importance of the phenomenological approach to the understanding of human experience (in my view) could potentially be missed in an initial reading of The Systems View of Life.


The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision is a book which it is hard to do justice to. For those already acquainted with a systems thinking background, there is much to contemplate, and there is of course plenty of reference material to explore in further detail for future study. For students the book provides an indispensable and I feel unequalled introduction to contemporary systems theory, a university textbook I did not have access to but would have loved to have had in the late 80s and early 90s.

While taking a multidisciplinary approach to complex problems is of course not new, the huge achievement of Fritjof and Pier has been both to construct a unified systemic framework, and to make it comprehensible to scientists, researchers, practitioners and those with a philosophical interest in the origins and workings of living systems. While the authors do of course acknowledge that there is still much work to be done in understanding complex living systems, as they show in their many examples of systemic solutions, with collaboration across governments, businesses and civil society, we can make the transition to a sustainable future, one which embraces “qualitative growth” enriching humanity and the environment with prosperity and a higher level of conscientiousness, one that truly understand the rich web of life.

This article continues in Part Two. Please see Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon

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Guest Article: Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Fritjof Capra discusses the Systems View of Life

Fritjof Capra discusses the Systems View of Life

Fritjof CapraRight now I am about half-way through reading Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi’s new book The Systems View of Life – A Unifying Vision. In the coming weeks I will be writing both a review, and also how it connects, complements and integrates with our own book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter which Fritjof generously wrote a testimony for.

While you are waiting for these, I can do no better than to share this talk Fritjof gave this week at Schumacher College in the UK, where he introduces The Systems View of Life, discussing how the systems view of life integrates the dimensions of biology, cognition, society and ecology.

As I am reading the book I am finding that my own conception of autopoietic cognition is moving from a purely intellectual understanding to a more meaningful intuitive conception, something that has eluded me during the last few readings of Maturana and Varela’s The Tree of Knowledge, perhaps because I myself have a classic training in cognitive psychology. As the authors write, the book is non-linear, and I am really developing some new insights and ideas for future projects. Fritjof discusses this in this talk, which is the best introduction to this important new text book you will hear from one of the world’s most insightful and influential system thinkers.

Related article

Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part One – An Exploration of Themes

Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part Two – Into the Phenomenon

Guest Article: Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Guest Article: Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

I am delighted to share this news from Fritjof about his new book, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, co-authored with Professor Pier Luigo Luisi. I will be writing a full review of the book in a few week’s time, but for now I wanted to let you know that the book is out now, a book which I am sure will soon be one of the key references for all students of systems thinking the world over.

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi

As the twenty-first century unfolds, a new scientific conception of life is emerging.

It is a unified view that integrates, for the first time, life’s biological, cognitive, social and ecological dimensions. At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is not longer seen as a machine  composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system.

The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.


This new science encompasses many concepts and ideas that are being developed by outstanding researchers and their teams around the world. In our multidisciplinary textbook, we integrate these ideas into a single coherent framework. We call it “the systems view of life” because it involves a new kind of thinking — thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. In science, this way of thinking is known as “systems thinking,” or “systemic thinking.” It is inherently multidisciplinary, and thus helps to overcome the fragmentation that is characteristic of our academic disciplines.

In The Systems View of Life we present a broad sweep through the history of ideas and across scientific disciplines. Beginning with the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, our historical account includes the evolution of Cartesian mechanism from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, the rise of systems thinking, the development of complexity theory, recent discoveries at the forefront of biology, the emergence of the systemic conception of life at the turn of this century, and its economic, ecological, political, and spiritual implications.

We believe that it will be critical for present and future generations of young researchers and graduate students to understand the new systemic conception of life and its implications for a broad range of professions — from economics, management, and politics, to medicine, psychology, and law. In addition, the book will be useful for undergraduate students in the life sciences and the humanities.

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi The Systems View of LifeIn the last part of our book, titled “Sustaining the Web of Life,” we identify the major problems of our time — energy, environment, climate change, inequality, etc. — as systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. We highlight the importance of the systemic understanding of life for finding corresponding systemic solutions that will help us meet one of the great challenges of our time: to build and nurture sustainable communities. We then review a wide variety of such systemic solutions that already exist; and we conclude that the systems view of life has given us the knowledge and the technologies to build a sustainable future. This is perhaps the primary reason why we believe that our book is so important for today’s students — the world leaders of tomorrow.

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision is currently now available via Amazon in the UK ( It will lauch in the US on May 31st.

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Book Review: The Systems View of Life: Part One – An Exploration of Themes

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Some notes on Business Design, Customer Experience and Systems Thinking

Sustentare flyerNext month I will be giving an international seminar in Blumenau, in Santa Catarina to business students of Sustentare Business School. I am really looking forward to this two day seminar, as I will be teaching to a mixture of MBA students, design students, innovation students and those who are a part of the leadership academy. This is how fundamental Business design is to an organisation, it is a holistic approach which impacts on each and every aspect of an organisation’s operations, and so I thought I would write a few notes on my thinking in this article.

In the last few weeks I have joined a local gym. I was using the small gym room in our condominium, but although adequate, it is extremely limited hence me joining a fairly new chain of gyms called Mockba. The philosophy of the gym takes its inspiration from physical training techniques developed in Russia, hence the Russian inspired name and branding. In this video, Bruno Tripoli introduces the gym, and how it focuses not just on offering the traditional weight training equipment, but also offers more hardcore training programmes such as throwing around extremely large tractor tyres etc. I am already feeling the benefits after just a few weeks, and it is a very uplifting and motivating place to workout.

Mockba have really thought about the entire customer experience. All the staff both Maria and I have felt with have been welcoming, friendly and attentive. There are always two or three trainers on hand at any time, and they put together programmes and show you the exercises. I know that pretty much all other gyms offer this, but the staff are extremely attentive, and will also keep an eye out for you if they see you doing something slightly wrong, coming up and making the necessary corrections. I know this in theory sounds like the way every gym should operate, but I would say that this level of attention is hard to achieve, and not many companies whatever their product or service manage this level of service.

The gym opened a couple of years ago and continues to grow. Every bit of my experience there has been brilliant, every time, from the arrival to the friendly farewell. If only all businesses and organisations were run this way, but unfortunately they are not, so let’s take a look at why.

In the UK this month saw Labour MP Margaret Hodge, chair of the Commons public accounts committee, commenting that the BBC’s handling of its Digital Media Initiative (DMI) which was abandoned at a cost of £98.4m last year, was “almost beyond parody” and noting that there was a “jungle of bureaucracy” at the corporation (source: The Guardian - BBC ‘half-truths’ over digital debacle condemned as Thompson faces MPs). What a tragic waste of tax payers’ money. If we look back across the past decade, we find many other Government high profile complex IT projects have also failed:

  • Rural payments agency (subsidies to farmers) spent £32 million on a failed system. They then rehired the same IT company to do more work.
  • HMRC (UK tax office) spent £9 billion on an IT led change. 2m pay have paid too little tax, 4m people have paid too much.
  • 160 out of 9,000 health organisations are using a new patient record system costing the NHS £12.7 billion.
  • A project that was meant to save the Department for Transport (DfT) about £57m eventually cost £81m

And also this month the National Audit Office has criticised the Universal Credit project lead by Iain Duncan Smith, declaring that it has suffered from “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance” and that it could now miss its 2017 deadline for implementation (Source: The Telegraph – Iain Duncan Smith denies Universal Credit is an ‘IT disaster’.

If we try and simply the situation to make sense of it, we can see just how many layers of ‘management’ are involved in these huge projects. In a recent article I explored the notion of the management factory (see Complexity, Flow, Mindfulness and Holonomic Thinking) but in Government projects there are many more stakeholders, leading of course to ‘byzantine’ levels of complexity. The situation is of course made worse by the approaches taken by the large IT companies who then sell their solutions through this system

Slide: Simon Robinson

Slide: Simon Robinson

In 2010, David Cameron and Nick Clegg (the deputy Prime Minister) declared that they would transform this mess. They put out a joint statement in which they said that:

What we’re asking departments to do – not to control things from the centre but to put in place structures that will allow people and communities to take power and control for themselves. In place of the old tools of bureaucratic accountability – top-down regulation and targets – are the new tools of democratic, bottom-up accountability – individual choice, competition, direct elections and transparency.

Source: The Telegraph – David Cameron and Nick Clegg : We’ll transform Britain by giving power away

It is interesting to use case studies from the public sector, since there is often far more information available to analyse. Note the ideology in what Cameron and Clegg are saying. They are saying that free market principles are what is needed for public sector services. They are saying that people want to choose their hospitals and schools as opposed to just wanting one hospital or one school which is excellent. They are claiming that they are moving away from older tools but I would humbly suggest that in fact this is far from the case. The ideology is imposed from the top with little freedom to do what needs to be done for the people actually doing the work.

In 2011 one of the UK’s most respected systems thinkers, John Seddon, wrote an open letter to Duncan Smith predicting the failure of the Universal Credit scheme. You can read a copy of his letter here. The letter is an excellent summary of his book Freedom from Command and Control, as is his submission to the Public Administration Select Committee on public service reform from November of last year, in which he wrote that

I warned Duncan Smith he was bound to fail at the project’s inception I also explained that you need people to provide high-variety services and doing so drives costs away, to astonishing levels. I explained how local authority benefits offices provided useful evidence: benefits being processed in days, not weeks or months, and people being treated as people, not mere claimants I offered his DWP project leaders an insurance policy; I would help a local authority benefits office develop a human-interface service to deliver Universal Credit without an IT system. I predicted it would be running in months (not seven years as planned) and would be a far superior service with lower costs.

But these proposals don’t match the government narrative. Duncan Smith has to deliver digital by default, irrespective of the consequences.

Source: Written evidence from John Seddon

When an organisation, or a complex ecosystem of stakeholders manages to achieve a unified vision based on delivering extremely high levels of service, be they clients, customers or members of the public, the results can be remarkable. For example, in 2004 in Scotland, the West Lothian Criminal Justice Project was commissioned by the Lothian and Borders Criminal Justice Board in June 2004 to try to improve the summary justice system through a systems thinking methodology. The full report of how the project team solves these challenges can be read in the report here - West Lothian Criminal Justice Project – Final Report.

Source: West Lothian Criminal Justice Project Final Report

Source: West Lothian Criminal Justice Project Final Report

In taking a systemic approach, the project achieved dramatic results. For example end to end times from caution and charge to disposal reduced from an average of 21 weeks to 8 weeks. The table above shows many other processes which were redesigned, and the processes are all measured in days. As you can see, the impact on the efficiency, costs and use of resources was massive. Not only were the quantitative results remarkable but staff throughout the system were both positive and confident about the changes and did not want to return to the previous arrangements.

If you read the report you will see that there were three key deliverables based around the Vanguard Consulting process of Check – Plan – Do. This is very closely related to what I teach which is the Holonomic Processes of See – Plan – Do. So often we jump into planning without considering the process and the dynamic way of seeing. It is not without reason that one half of our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter is dedicated to the act of seeing. Without mindful awareness of how our seeing is intricately linked to the way in which we conceive the world, we will never break our of the mental straight jackets imposed on our thinking.

The Holonomics Process

The Holonomics Process

It takes time and effort to do so, and this is why companies such as Google are investing in mindfulness training. The business case is compelling. It is not just about financial performance, it is about reducing waste, making organisations more resilient and sustainable and happy and rewarding places to work. So if we come back to where we started, we saw that Mackba has excellent in developing the customer experience around the business of achieving physical excellence. They have a holistic vision, and their focus on the customer experience is something we can learn from in thinking about the entire experience of every point of contact between our customers, clients and stakeholders and our own businesses and organisations.

Credit: Mockba

Credit: Mockba

Business Design really involves a deep dive into every aspect of our business, its products and services, but we have to take heed of Henri Bergson’s observation that the ‘The eye only sees what the mind is willing to comprehend’. If leaders are to truly enact deep and profound transformations, they first need to be mindful of their own thought processes, and only then can they move into a transformation of the external world.

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