For twenty years I have been working with thousands of people and organizations to access, unlock and actualize our thrivability potential. What struck me the most is how many people feel trapped in a world that has so little to do with the systems of life that make our human life possible. This dualistic world, which is often called a mechanistic world, did not begin with the industrial age as is often suggested. It began much earlier, when some of us chose a different growth model to expand faster and gain in influence.
It is incredible how our so called modern society is still driven by those earlier growth archetypes, despite us knowing it is not sustainable. These extractive growth archetypes are not just in modern western societies, these same dynamics in different expressions can also be found in the non-western empire models of Russia, China, and Asia. In other words, those growth archetypes can express through many different cultures. What they each have in common is their appetite for expansion, influence and dominion.
Concerned about the systemic thrivability barriers that I encountered, and the lack of awareness about these systemic barriers I decided in 2014 to start a PhD to research those dynamics in depth. This became the journey Into the Heart of Systems Change, which became the title for my PhD dissertation.
Into the Heart of Systems Change is an exploration into the systemic barriers that we have inherited from the growth archetypes that created the mechanistic systems and mechanistic worldviews, with emphasis on how this became expressed through the western developmental models. Through this research, a transition map emerged for the development of a Thrivability Civilisation that goes beyond mere sustainability. The presentation below summarises the PhD dissertation through a Transition Map for a Thrivability Civilisation in 7 Steps.
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António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, mentions in The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2019:
[...] this report identifies many areas that need urgent collective attention. The natural environment is deteriorating at an alarming rate: sea levels are rising; ocean acidification is accelerating; the past four years have been the warmest on record; one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction; and land degradation continues unchecked. We are also moving too slowly in our efforts to end human suffering and create opportunity for all: our goal to end extreme poverty by 2030 is being jeopardized as we struggle to respond to entrenched deprivation, violent conflicts and vulnerabilities to natural disasters. Global hunger is on the rise, and at least half of the world’s population lacks essential health services. More than half of the world’s children do not meet standards in reading and mathematics; only 28 per cent of persons with severe disabilities received cash benefits; and women in all parts of the world continue to face structural disadvantages and discrimination. It is abundantly clear that a much deeper, faster and more ambitious response is needed to unleash the social and economic transformation needed to achieve our 2030 goals. ~ António Guterres, United Nations (2019, p.2)
If the aim is to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and to go even further by creating a world and future where all beings can thrive together, then we need to better understand how to support the transformation of our mainstream conventional systems from the inside-out. Within our global ecological crisis is an invitation to become future creative, innovative, and unconventional. An invitation to explore how together we can co-create a thrivability world from within the world that is dying and collapsing. The metamorphosis story from the caterpillar to the butterfly shows how the imaginal disks of the butterfly are dormant in the skin of the caterpillar until the caterpillar is collapsing from overeating itself to death (Sahtouris, 2000).
We are very much like that caterpillar, and yet our future self is like the butterfly DNA that has been within the caterpillar’s body since its beginning. The DNA of the caterpillar and the butterfly are different, and yet they are one species. When the imaginal disks activate and link-up they form imaginal cells that start building the body of the butterfly (Sahtouris, 2000; Sathouris and Smitsman, 2019). This dissertation is for that kind of transition and especially for the butterfly people who realise that only through collaboration, by linking-up and connecting, can we access our butterfly possibility (Polman and Vasconcellos-Sharpe, 2017).
The research of this dissertation is founded on the hypothesis that mechanistic systems were developed through a growth dynamic of rapid expansion and extractive growth through behavioural dynamics of competition and domination via zero-sum game (win-lose) dynamics (Costanza, 2010; Howes, 2017). The hypothesis is based on the assumption that this incomplete growth model created systems and worldviews that are dualistically polarized, causing fragmentation and divisions in our human development, institutions, and governance systems (Korten, 2015; Wahl, 2016).
The systemic barriers are explored in this research by the presence of specific degenerative behaviours and polarizing organizational dynamics, which reveal mechanistic systemic archetypes based on an extractive expansive growth model that constraints our collective capacity to become future-fit and future creative for a thrivability world. The hypothesis of this dissertation also suggests that we need a new narrative that is not defined by the concept of sustainable development (Dawson, 2015) for transforming the unhealthy unsustainable growth dynamics of our conventional societal systems.
Sustainable development has long sought to be the umbrella for this larger societal change process, however, it feeds into the polarization that our mechanistic systems create (Wahl and Smitsman, 2018) when it becomes part of an anti-growth narrative. When efforts to resolve our sustainability crisis feed into the polarization dynamics that created it, those efforts will not be able to transform the underlying systemic dynamics (Smitsman et al. 2019a; Strasser et al., 2019). In other words, when sustainable development becomes the regulating anti-pole to extractive expansive growth, it is part of a dualistic system and not an evolutionary system that offers a middle pathway as a trinity principle through which dualistic polarities can meet and converge.
The Brundtland Commission in 1987 defined sustainable development as; development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland et al., 1987). Through the years that followed, sustainable development expanded to also include the safeguarding of the Earth’s life-support systems on which the welfare of current and future generations depends (Griggs et al., 2013). This safeguarding focus of sustainable development is important, however, it does not invite people to participate in a transformational change process that invokes their evolutionary growth. The concept that is offered for exploring this transformational change process is called thrivability. Here are two definitions and ways of thinking about thrivability that have inspired the research that forms part of this dissertation. Firstly, from one of the founders of the thrivability movement, Jean Russell:
Thrivability is the ability for you and me to thrive, for what is around us to thrive, and for thriving to be the sum of all we do. Thrivability emerges from each of us holding the persistent intention to be generative: that is to say, to create more value than we consume. When practiced over time, this builds a world of ever-increasing possibilities. The more I have explored, the more I believe we all want that – for ourselves and, more and more, for the world around us. ~ Jean Russell (2013, pp. 127-131)
The second definition of thrivability included here is offered by Alexander Laszlo as part of his work on Evolutionary Learning Ecosystems and the Syntony Quest:
Thrivability is a concept that builds on and furthers that of sustainability by embracing and fostering the human capacity to lead a flourishing, joyful, loving life in co-emergence with one’s living environment. As such, it cultivates a sense of awe, of the sacred, of the celebration of life as integral to all processes of development. Dynamics that promote life affirming, future creating and opportunity increasing pathways of human expression in syntony with Earth and all of life can be said to be thrivable. ~ Alexander Laszlo (2019, p.203)
This dissertation builds on both those understandings of thrivability and expands it by emphasizing the Life-intrinsic evolutionary learning and development process that makes thrivability possible. This developmental process is situated within an ecosystemic context, and not merely a systemic context, to accentuate the complex interrelatedness within the larger ecology of Life (see also Laszlo, 2001). Accordingly, I offer the following definition for thrivability:
Thrivability is the Life-intrinsic developmental potential for our self actualizing evolutionary growth. Thrivability as a developmental potential unfolds through an ecosystemic evolutionary learning process. Through this process we develop the future creative capabilities, awareness, and love to enact and embody the actualization of the thrivability potentials within the worlds and systems of which we form part. Embodied, these potentialities become possibilities for further growth and development in a way that is Life generative and creates conditions for each of us, and Life as a whole, to thrive.
A thrivability civilisation is thus naturally ecologically sustainable, yet goes much further than merely safeguarding the planetary boundaries. Thrivability is also self actualising and emerges from the healthy and connected expression of our innate growth desire. A thrivability narrative by being growth inclusive, can invite the main investors and stakeholders of the mechanistic paradigm to commit to our societal and human transformation through a new thrivability growth model in ways that the sustainability narrative has failed to do. A thrivability growth model is based on the growth patterns and infodynamics of living systems as thrivability systems (Bloom and Smitsman, 2019; Lane et al., 2019).
It is time for the development of a new growth model that is inclusive of Life and includes many of the tools, technologies and capitals that formed part of our mechanistic growth models, in a way that those can be repurposed and guided to serve our collective thrivability and evolutionary development (Laszlo, 2015; Wahl, 2016; Thurm et al, 2018). Knowledge platforms like Reporting 3.0 (R3.0) for collaboratively developing a principles-based approach to reporting for serving a green, inclusive and open economy show that systemic change for thrivability is gaining momentum (Thurm et al, 2018; Reporting 3.0, 2019).
The study of the systemic barriers that were encountered in case-studies that form part of this research, became visible through the organisational culture as dynamics of dualistic polarization, hierarchical organization, distrust between people, rigid learning and action tasks, little inclusion of qualitative indicators for growth, dominance of progress indicators via achievement of preset goals, deliverables, standards, and lack of internal collaboration. These affected the way people approached issues, made decisions, and were able to learn, grow, and develop. There was often a narrative of due to the other or the system to explain the barriers encountered, which was a narrative that further contributed to the dualistic tendencies of those systems, preventing collaborative solutions and development of mutuality and reciprocity (Smitsman, et al., 2019).
The more I started to explore these systemic barriers, the more I realised that these barriers have existed in our societies for hundreds of years, if not longer. As mentioned earlier, the hypothesis is that those dynamics have developed from a growth model that started long before we developed mechanistic systems. Many of the people who formed part of these case-studies noticed those unsustainable growth patterns yet felt trapped by it, unable to find a way out until we developed strategies that did not require a way out, but a way in. Into the Heart of Systems Change, is about that journey inwards, to then emerge outwards and together.
Without an evolutionary change process that engages the development of a future creative thrivability consciousness at the deepest structural level of the person and our societies, behavioural change for stopping global ecosystemic and civilizational collapse requires constant corrective inputs (Russell, 2013).
As expressed through Einstein’s famous quote that, a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels. Fjalar De Haan and Jan Rotmans indicated how, transformative change is the consequence of deliberate, or even strategic actions of specific types of value-driven actors (De Haan and Rotmans, 2017, p.2). The integral framework that forms part of this dissertation provides principles and guidelines for designing such a deliberate and strategic change process, which will be shared in future publications here.
Transformational change is also an alchemical process, and alchemy marries the densest elements through the trinity principle to bring forth the elixir of Life (Bacstrom, 1977; Riedy, 2013; Smitsman et al., 2018). In similar ways, the imaginal cells for the development of the butterfly body activate in the density of a decaying caterpillar body (Polman and Vasconcellos-Sharpe, 2017). In this dissertation, transformational change is also explored as an alchemical process.
The reason for emphasizing the alchemical nature of transformational change, although rarely mentioned in studies that involve transformational change for sustainability, is to avoid a dualistic approach. The way we view a problem also influences the dynamics that become engaged through the transformational change process. Hence, dualistic and polarizing dynamics can also be activated from within systems by the facilitator who is initiating change, when the perceived problem is approached through a dualistic conception of the cause and effects of the events that take place within the system.
As practitioners of transformational change it is essential to realise how we form part of the alchemy of transformational change. Several strategies are offered through this dissertation to avoid duality traps. For example, one of the transformation strategies mentioned includes the design for a middle path through the trinity principle, that enables dualistic polarization to converge and affords new possibilities through the integration and convergence of those former polarities.
This trinity principle is at the heart of alchemy. Furthermore, if the aim is to attract deeper societal engagement for the transformation of our destructive societal systems, it is essential to develop and employ narratives and practices that help us work with our own density and teach our children how to add this density to the magic soup of their growth and development through an evolutionary learning process. Accordingly, evolutionary learning by including the densest elements of our consciousness is also an alchemical change process (see also Smitsman et al., 2018; Smitsman, A. and Smitsman, A.W., 2019).
Tomorrow began about 13.8 billion years ago. Tomorrow is already given to us now, as was yesterday, too. Thrivability emerges from within and our climate crisis cannot be resolved without the wisdom of the heart. There is so much that is happening right now that our minds cannot comprehend yet our hearts can embrace.
It is time to become the future creative human that we can be, each of us is a point of singularity. Together by connecting the dots we bring the pattern of thrivability into being, and this is what attracts a future of a more thrivable version of ourselves into being, here and now - thrivability begins within.
They say the longest journey is the distance between the head and the heart, academia has long increased that distance. It is time we reduce this now. It is my hope and intention that this dissertation beyond all the other reasons for which it was written, also shows that the knowledge of the head and the heart can be integrated as one coherent body of knowledge and wisdom.
This story is about you and me and our children, our world, and their future. We began this story long ago, when one became many. We all desire to grow. Growth is wonderful and intrinsic to Life, yet it is time and necessary that we explore a more complete growth model than the one we have promoted for the growth of our modern societies.
Our indigenous cultures already have the principles and practices for a growth model where Life is and remains at the centre. Perhaps we can listen now and include their knowledge in the knowledge bank and protopias of our modern societies to grow wise together. Thank you for joining me and millions of others from around the world on this Journey Into the Heart of Systems Change for a thrivability world and future.
Source: Smitsman, A. (2019). Into the Heart of Systems Change. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of Maastricht, ICIS, Maastricht. Adapted from chapter 1 and 12.
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