The year 2017 was strange. Full of surprises. Maybe the most significant and least noticed one came at the very end. Let me explain. On one level, 2017 was a roller coaster that I felt aged me by a decade or so in just under a year, starting with the inauguration speech in Washington, D.C. on January 20th. Ever since, we have been exposed to an onslaught of collective ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) resulting in an ever-accelerating cycle of systemic self-destruction. But at the end of the year something unexpected happened. Instead of feeling finished, fatigued, and worn out, I am feeling a sense of calm, presence, and confidence in our collective capacity.
Yes, the December polls and election results were heartening, but my current sentiments are, on a deeper level, co-shaped by the manifold moments of collective presence that I have felt with grassroots groups and networks around the world, including in our monthly u.lab global live sessions. In short, it feels as if 2017 ends with a nod to the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin:
But where the danger is, the saving power also grows.
Indeed, that saving power seems more present and available now than ever before. And yet often we do not notice it, which makes it what I call “the most significant, least noticed feature of our time.” What deserves our full attention now is the cognitive dissonance between our heart, which connects us with a felt sense of future possibility, and our head, which accurately mirrors the unnerving events of the past. For that divergence holds the seeds of a future that is growing among us.
But before we explore that divergence further, let’s take a moment to contemplate on 2017. What just happened? Here are three observations.
2017 set a tone that mirrored the epochal year of 1917
From a Western perspective at least, 1917 was momentous. As World War I was still raging through Europe, the United States entered the European theater of war from the West, while the October Revolution established what would become the communist Soviet Union in the East. In hindsight, we may say that the cold war—that is, the East-West conflict constellation that shaped the better part of the 20th century—was seeded by those two events.
Fast-forward 70-plus years. The Berlin Wall comes down in 1989, and with it the Eastern European regimes and the cold war system. The winds of change also led to the unwinding and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. While in the West we saw these events as the final nail in the coffin of socialism—an abstract ideology unfit to cope with the complexities of our age—today we realize that there might be yet another shoe to drop: capitalism, at least in its current form, seems almost equally unfit to meet the pressing challenges of our time: how to bridge the widening ecological divide, social divide, and cultural-spiritual divide.
If 1917 set the tone for the 20th century—that is, for the emerging clash between East and West, between the socialist and capitalist economic systems—what then did the year 2017 set the tone for?
Here is one way to lean into that question. While 1917 set up a “horizontal” conflict that eventually staged Eastern socialism vs. Western capitalism, 2017 might have established the climate for a different kind of tension and conflict. Now it’s no longer one ideology vs. another, System A vs. System B. Now the fault line of division goes right through our communities, our families, and ourselves. In other words, the main battleground of the 21st century is no longer one ideology marching against another, or one system competing against another; the new battleground is a lot more personal. It’s where I as an individual—and we as a community—show up and co-shape the fragile nature of our relationship to nature, to others, and to ourselves.
Figure 1 depicts a map of places that we can choose to operate from when engaging with our social and environmental context. Simply put, we can choose to operate from a closed mind, closed heart, and closed will, or we can choose to operate from an open mind, open heart, and open will. Accordingly, our actions give rise to a social field of self-destruction (absencing) or of collective creativity (presencing). In earlier blog entries, I have described at length the various manifestations of these social fields in the context of our global economic and political reality; today allow me to simply sum it up with that image.
To a large degree, the 20th century encompassed conflicting ideologies and societal systems, but the emerging 21st-century situation seems to have added a new dimension to that configuration. It's what we could call a “vertical developmental challenge”: the inner choices we make whenever we engage with another human being, with a system, or with ourselves. Those choices boil down to where you position yourself vertically (in terms of figure 1). That is, to what degree can you access the power of curiosity (open mind), compassion (open heart), and courage (open will) when you are dealing with the forces of disruption, both individually and collectively?
And just as the East-West conflict seeded in 1917 did not fade away in the 20th century, the vertical developmental challenges that we face today also won’t disappear anytime soon.
That’s the new challenge that 2017 has put front and center for all of us: When we face situations of disruption personally, organizationally, and in our larger systems, and when we try to bridge the three divides, i.e., realize the Sustainable Development Goals, in our respective communities, how do we make change happen? What is the inner core process that allows us to respond from the appropriate level of vertical positioning?
Big Tech Has Turned Evil
The second observation concerns the role of Big Tech in our lives. Here in the United States the popular view of technology has traditionally been very, very positive. As a non-American you might say that view has occasionally been “naively optimistic.” As an American, however, you would call it “powerfully optimistic,” because technology, so we believe, ought to be a force for good that makes the world a better place.
Well, that powerful belief just took another hit in 2017. Facebook sold our 2016 election to the Russian government and far-right U.S. billionaires, then went to D.C. and defended its undermining of our democracy with a straight face as “business as usual”; Apple slowed down its older iPhones and has apologized to its users since, but still faces a number of lawsuits for its lack of transparency over the issue; and the list goes on. We as the users of Big Tech certainly have realized this: we are not their customers, we are the product that they sell (without ever giving us any voice in co-shaping that transaction).
Many of us have been annoyed by Big Money, aka the Wall Street Big Six, ever since 2008. But in 2017 the Silicon Valley Big Tech execs managed to put themselves right next to that lineup of embarrassment and shame. As David Brooks pointed out in the NYT, there are three main criticisms of Big Tech. The first is that it ruins youth for the young. Eighth graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy. Teens who spend three or more hours a day on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to be at risk of suicide. Girls have experienced a 50 percent rise in depressive symptoms. The second critique of Big Tech is that it is intentionally causing our addiction to these devices (by designing compulsion loops that generate dopamine surges and hijack users into addiction) to make money. The third critique is that Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are near monopolies that use their power to impose unfair conditions on their users, on content creators, and on smaller competitors (and everyone knows the solution to that one: change voluntarily, or break ’em up).
Does that mean we stop using our devices? Of course not. But it puts their role in a new context, one that is maybe more intentional, more regulated, and more aware. And it raises the question: How can companies innovate in ways that enhance the well-being of users, instead of pushing them into addiction?
Five Forces for Moving into the Void of Global Leadership
Big Tech is one force that, if designed and used without the right awareness and intention, replicates and amplifies the dynamics of absencing. But it is by no means the only one. The surge of fundamentalism, of propaganda machines such as the climate-denial industry, of homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynistic sentiments all are expressions of the same underlying phenomenon: the heightened volume of noise and absencing in societies today.
Yet that’s only part of the picture. The other part, probably much more important, has to do with the seeding of a powerful global movement that is beginning to take shape in many places today. As the U.S. government continues tumbling downward, who is going to pick up the slack? What new forces will move into the void of real global leadership?
So here are five forces, in no particular order, that I have seen over the past few months and that I think may be relevant:
- U.S.: Cities, States, NGOs, Business. In the United States, we see a bottom-up movement around sustainability taking shape. It starts with communities and cities, and it already includes many states and brings together government, business, and civil society-related players while role modeling how development works in the West: from the bottom up.
- Indonesia: Inverting Politics by Civil Society. One of the most inspiring stories of political renewal that I have seen of late comes from Indonesia. As the world’s largest Muslim nation and third largest democracy, Indonesia has seen the rise of political outsiders on the national level (such as President Joko Widodo) and in Jakarta (at the governor level). Inspired by this, Grace Natalie, a young TV journalist, co-founded the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), which is based on millennial engagement, pluralism, solidarity, and transparency. PSI uses technology to invert the old political model by crowdsourcing funds and crowdsourcing candidates, and by making candidate selection transparent, public, and merit based. For more detail watch a short interview with the party founders.
- Chinese Climate Politics. China’s government, although it moved backward domestically, has been a positive force globally in keeping the Paris Climate Agreement alive despite Donald Trump. Go to Beijing, and you meet competent people who are working at the forefront of sustainability-related challenges. Go to D.C., and you find a political discourse that is stuck in denial and won’t even use words like climate change to describe the very problem we face. This century’s response to climate change is unworkable without the Chinese government. That’s one key factor. Another one is business.
- Business as a Force for Good. Tech giants like Alibaba and Ant Financial demonstrate what “tech and biz for good” actually might look like: you create a platform that lifts hundreds of millions of users out of poverty, offer them a mechanism to put themselves on the map, and offer financial services to those who were “unbankable” before. The Ali Pay feature Ant Forrest has involved more than 200 million users in reforestation-related activities in China alone.
- The Future of Cross-Sector Collaboration. This could be a real European moment. As the White House is doing everything to accelerate the decline of the United States, and as autocrats are on the rise around the world, where do we see the impulse for different developmental model that transcends the old-style empire building and that prototypes new approaches to the planet’s challenges? Europe could be a real driving force for more participatory forms of cross-sector innovation, in which the three sectors of society—business, government, and civil society—work in partnership rather than being dominated by just one of them. But Europe is not the only place. The Indonesian example of people using technology to enhance democracy, instead of undermining it, is another great example of citizen-driven development.
Regenerating Our Civilization
At the end of the day what gives me hope is something very simple. Although as a civilization we are still heading in the wrong direction on many counts, many innovative and eco-system-aware people are doing great work in numerous contexts. Seeing that is a huge source of inspiration and hope.
I see all these initiatives as part of an emerging movement that is working to regenerate the foundation of our civilization: how we work and live together. In the context of modern societies, this means rethinking and regenerating
- our economies toward sustainability, inclusion and well-being for all,
- our democracies toward more direct, participatory forms of governance, and
- our educational systems toward activating the deeper sources of learning (head, heart, hand)
My source of confidence is that in all three areas the answers are right in front of us. I have seen them being prototyped in many different contexts. But they are not yet linked together and made visible to everyone. They have not yet transformed the old systems.
Altruism is at the source of business and finance
This bigger journey of transformation starts with how we think about the economy. Lucy Peng, the Executive Chair of Ant Financial, the world’s largest and most valuable fintech, pointed out to me that “altruism is the original intention of how business and finance was created. Altruism and optimism” she says, "are the two main forces that propel our civilization forward.” That idea, that altruism is at the source of all real economic activity, in my view holds the seeds for rethinking economics and regenerating the global economy. How to rethink and reshape our economy is being discussed in many circles right now, including an emerging global alliance of various major new economy initiatives that we will be partnering with starting next year (via our joint u.lab/HuffPost multimedia hub coming in March 2018).
With regard to the second topic, regenerating our democracies, the story of Indonesia’s new PSI Party is a great example of inverting old-style party politics to create a new model that is more direct, distributed, and dialogic. We can use these initiatives in so many places right now.
Concerning the third topic, how to regenerate our systems of learning: If Trump is only the symptom, what is the real problem? The real problem is that we lack an educational or learning system that activates our deeper capacities for vertical development. That new core process of learning, I believe, starts with cultivating the self, with activating our deeper creative capacities.
The only way that I know to build that capacity is by cultivating the deeper levels of self-knowing. “Know thyself” appears in all great wisdom traditions. It was inscribed at the entrance to the ancient Greek temple in Delphi. I remember it from studying the teachings of Gandhi in India. I remember it when Nan Huai-Chin introduced me to Confucius’s essay “The Great Learning,” which says that to become a great leader “you have to first cultivate your own opening process.” And I remember it from my work with many leadership teams in different sectors, systems, and places. Whether you are working with global tech or car companies, with medium-sized sustainable banks, with small mission-driven enterprises, or with teams from local or national government, at the end of the day their challenges all boil down to the same thing. In order to respond to their disruptive situations, they need to learn how to co-sense and co-shape the future as it emerges—and for that you need to increase your vertical literacy that is called for by the challenges and the spirit of our time.
Years ago, I realized that we lacked a word for this deeper capacity of self-knowing, which is why I introduced the blended word presencing. Presencing combines “sensing” (of an emerging future) with “presence” (actualizing that future in the now). The root of the word “presencing” means “to be.” The words essence, presence, and the old Indian sat, which means “truth” and “goodness,” all share the same Indo-European word root. An Old German derivative of the same root, sun, means “those who are surrounding us” or “the beings who surround us.” The deeper developmental capacity at issue here—which you see leadership teams around the globe wrestling with these days—is precisely that: how to connect to the intelligence of those [eco-systems] who surround us? How?
Reshaping the 21st-Century University
Answering that How question will be the focus of my next column (to be posted next week). It will feature the birth of a new university that is intimately linked to the regeneration of our economies, democracies, and educational systems. It’s not a complete plan. More like work in progress and a call to action. But the realization of such an eco-system, one that links science, consciousness, and profound evolutionary social change, has never been so doable and close. As for Hölderlin, he would probably look at us, smile, and return the nod.
Thanks to Martin Kalungu-Banda, Katrin Kaufer, Angela Baldini, and Marian Goodman for their helpful comments; to Kelvy Bird for creating the two figures; and to James Thompson for the video clip with the founders of PSI.
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