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Otto Scharmer: Egosystem to Ecosystem
The Topic: “From Egosystems to Ecosystems.”
The Speaker: Otto Scharmer, Senior lecturer at MIT, co-founder of The Presencing Institute, and author of “Theory U” and “Presence.”
The Host: Kanchan Gokhale
The Moderator: Somik Raha
Synopsis: After mentioning his parents’ early decision to convert to organic farming from conventional farming as a major influence in his life, Otto Scharmer then outlines his overall agenda, which can be described as facilitating movement from a competitive to a cooperative paradigm, valuing “ecosystems” over “egosystems.” He describes how he has worked on this through his Mind and Life Institute and The Presencing Institute, through workshops around the world, and through a large-scale online course called ULab, which has also represented an attempt to add a deeper, more meaningful dimension to MOOCs. Dr. Scharmer talks about how maintaining an “open mind, open heart, and open will” are keys to transformation, along with mindfulness and “inner contemplative work.” He cites action research and an appearance by the Dalai Lama at MIT as important influences, and names as his “heroes of social change” Mahatma Gandhi and the 20th century German avant-garde sculptor Joseph Beuys.
Somik: You said you grew up on a farm. Looking back, how did that experience impact the values you currently cherish?
Otto: My parents, almost 55 or 60 years ago, switched from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture, a biodynamic form, organic with a spiritual worldview underneath, and that definitely shaped my own thinking in many ways. From that I picked up that, one, everything is connected to everything else. There is a living ecosystem in which all beings, including humans, form a whole. Each farm has its own way of being and its own interiority.
On this farm there were always many young people coming in from a variety of places and countries to learn this way of operating, so we as a family turned the ownership of the farm into a foundation to allow other members to join the farming community. It's now operated as a cooperative, not one family owning everything and everyone else working for them.
Today, organic farms are embedded in the environment. Where it used to be a fairly isolated place when I grew up in terms of direct neighbor relationships, today there is constantly an inflow and outflow from the environment.
What influenced me was the idea that the eco- and the social and the spiritual one way or another are related. I watched my parents following this type of agriculture in an environment that was totally conventional, and all the failure and the negative feedback, essentially being ostracized by the environment --- basically swimming against the stream, as any innovator does. Many years later it started to work on another level. So I had appreciation for swimming against the stream and following your own idea.
Somik: can you share your reflections on the root of this word "eco"?
Otto: Ecology and economy go back to the Greek root "oikos," which is the larger house of being we are living in. In the original meaning, "economy" was geared towards the well-being of the whole house. Later, in economics, it was about creating wealth and narrowing down to the financial aspects. Ecosystem is the enabling environment.
I went to MIT to learn "action research." As a European intellectual I realized that I could talk about everything but that my knowledge was useless for the people in the field trying to make the changes that I was talking about. The quest for how to develop knowledge that is actually helpful for the very people I am interested in brought me to MIT. It brought me into systems thinking and I got more involved in action research.
In most systems today, it is impossible to change them when you only work with one company or one organization or institution. In order to address the real issues we need to bring together all the stakeholders, including business, civil society, and government. Then we need to move them from ego system awareness to something that I started calling ecosystem awareness, an awareness driven not only by my own well-being but by wanting to serve the well-being of all, including the planet.
Somik: Otto's PhD dissertation was "Transforming Capitalism as a Transformation from Within." It's normal to hear people criticize those who come from an ego-centric awareness. It doesn't create action because those who have that awareness close their ears. You connect it back to their aspirations. Can you say more about this?
Otto: In the field of organizational learning, where I have spent the better part of the past 20 years, what I realized was this: When you look into tools, methods and theories of organizational learning, it's learning by reflecting on the experiences of the past.
What I realized working on a grassroots level in business, government, and NGO organizations is that almost always, leaders, leadership teams, and communities face challenges of disruptive change. It's a type of change in which yesterday is not a good predictor of what will happen tomorrow. Some pattern is dying and something else is emerging. This challenge in which reflecting on the past is not good enough is almost a rule now. It's not only us as individuals but also organizational.
The following question crystallized in my mind. Is there a second source of learning, operating not only by reflecting on the past, but one allowing us to sense and merge with emerging future possibilities and then to operate from that connection? This word, "presencing," is a blend of two words, "sensing" and "presence." It means sensing and actualizing emerging future possibilities. The gateway is connecting with your emerging self.
It wasn't just an academic pursuit. I talked with social innovators, people in technology and academia, and artists. You realize that these people operate in a way that's not just reflecting on the past. They access a different source of intelligence. It has to do not just with the mind but with the heart, the capacity to sense certain opportunities. It may have to do with "open will," meaning the capacity to let go and let come. It is the courage to step into the unknown, to pursue something that you can feel but can't have certainty about.
I became interested in that second form of learning. What resulted was a process going through three main movements.
The first is "observe, observe, observe." It means to go to the edges of the system. When we reinvented a health system in Namibia, we understood the system by walking in the shoes of the most remote patients with little access to clinic.
Second is to retreat and reflect and allow the inner knowing to emerge.
The third stage is prototyping. This is linking head, heart, and hand, and moving away from the duality of mindless action and actionless mind, doing something very small very quickly and cultivating the capacity to act and generate from the now and receiving the feedback from others who participate.
As we tried to explore these methods in different systems we learned this process only works if the individuals in that process do some inner cultivation work. That work we summarized in the words "open mind, open heart, open will."
An open mind means seeing with fresh eyes. An open heart means seeing through the eyes of another, of accessing your empathy and compassion. Open will is about the capacity of letting go and letting come.
Theory U is two things. It's a framework and a method.
The framework looks at the development of individuals, teams, organizations, and societies from a consciousness-based point of view. It looks at different stages of that development --- how communication develops and how our capacity of listening is developing according to our level of operating. We move away from egosystem awareness and are able to move to an ecosystem awareness. It's a framework that looks at social systems from the viewpoint of an evolving consciousness.
The method gives a set of tools to move from ego to "eco," to help one's self and others open the mind and heart and operate from this deeper opening process.
Somik: Perhaps the ancient sages were action researchers. We often consider academia removed from practical reality and yet Otto seems to have tapped into something practical.
Otto: I want to add two pieces of reality. I consider myself a sort of "failed academic." As an action researcher I did not go down the conventional path of tenure track faculty which would have required more quantitative and shorter-term activities and which delivers the standard of an old paradigm that I believe should be going out the window.
In the eyes of the old system you're a failure. You’re changing your audience from academics to the change-makers of the world who actually use this stuff. It sounds good but it doesn't always feel good. Sometimes you're alone in that.
About ten years ago it was the first time His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to MIT for a public event. It was a dialogue between mindfulness practitioners on the one hand, and cognition researchers and brain scientists on the other hand. It was conducted by the Mind and Life Institute. It inspired and moved me on a subtle but tangible way. There was a moment of total clarity. I knew exactly what I was meant to do in this lifetime.
The 1 1/2 days were an inquiry between two things --- science and consciousness or science and spirituality. What I felt was missing was the third part of the triangle --- not only science and spirituality but profound social change.
The result was some colleagues and I creating what we called the "S3 Group" for science, spirituality, and social change.
I believe the real contribution needed for the crises in the world and the moment of disruption we are living in has to do with linking the dimension of consciousness and the dimension of science and putting them in the service of helping the collective social systems evolve and to function on a higher level of awareness and consciousness.
Many of the people participating in this conversation are change-makers in communities, organizations, and on a grassroots level. All of us who are involved in this change have a privileged window into how the world is evolving. It has to do with the shift in the social field. People stuck in academia and have all the research tools available are remote from this. This is why they come up with boring things.
We, the practitioners shifting the level of awareness and consciousness in the social field, know there are moments when this happens. We have access to where evolution takes place. I tried to illuminate that invisible dimension of social change. It took me ten years.
We are going to conduct an action-based research conference the last week in August, bringing together researchers and change-makers in social systems that operate from an awareness-based view. The idea is to form teams and launch this research field of how social fields are shifting and what the role of consciousness is in the shifting social fields.
Somik: Who are your heroes of social change?
Otto: I have always been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. He had interesting things to say about the economy that are largely ignored. It's using your inner state of being as a leverage point in positive societal transformation. It is transforming bad structures, but not directed against "bad people." It's trying to address the emerging of the higher self in others around us. It has been a big inspiration to me and is still guiding me.
Another is the 20th century avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys. He had a concept of social sculptures --- the idea that every human being is an artist, a creator, and that the most important art form of our time is the social sculpture, the sum of all social relationships that we, collectively, enact. Thinking about our social systems more from a sculptural or aesthetic view has been a big source of inspiration for me. Theory U describes different layers of the social field. On the one hand is the concept of mind and matter as totally separate. On the other is “presencing,” operating from connecting with the deeper sources of being, of true presence. That greatly shaped my thinking. The notion of the social fields we collectively enact, which are blind spots and yet where the real change is happening, has been very influential.
Somik: You're turning your experience into your MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Your most recent course had 28,000 students online. What were some of the key lessons you learned from doing this?
Otto: MOOCs are a movement to make all educational content accessible for free to everyone who has access to a computer. It's a massive move toward democratizing access to education. It's great and also a huge problem because if education is everyone just sitting in front of their own computer, it's the end of real education, of deep learning. MOOCs are usually just confined to transfer of technical knowledge --- the deeper learning cycles and deeper leadership and transformative learning, let alone sources of spirituality, are not addressed at all.
We tried to link the positive side of massive open online learning with mindfulness practices, local action learning, with life sessions where we bring people together around the world in real time, and with small-group coaching circles where we applied deep listening with mind and heart. We suggested forming local groups and teaming up in small circles. We tried to bring the community dimension into online learning by creating blended or hybrid learning environments which are in part enabled by MIT but mostly self-organized by these communities.
It was inspiring to see the willingness from so many people to self-organize. People organized hubs in 300 places around the world. They followed live sessions and did other activities. There were also coaching circles that formed, perhaps 700 or 1,000, though we don't know for sure. We thought the spiritual dimension was only for a few, but so many people connected with that. It says how huge the hunger is for connecting with one another and one's self at a deeper level.
When we made the exit survey, 50 percent said it was an "eye-opening" experience. Another 37 percent said it was a "life-changing" experience. In an online course that’s amazing. We live in a moment not only marked by crises and disruption and all the negativity we see, but by an amazing opening, where so many people are longing for and moving toward connecting with one another and one's self, and with one's purpose or journey. It allows us to organize around global movements in a new way.
Somik: In your classes, you often introduce Service Space. What about Service Space resonates most deeply with you?
Otto: What I have been doing is showing Nipun's "TED Talk," then other speakers because I think he's embodying, which applies to all of you, the growing together of two significant and powerful forces --- the power of entrepreneurship and the power of compassion, or the awakening intelligence of the heart. You can see how these two things begin to grow together, sometimes fully embodied and in other cases as an aspiration. They are two significant forces. As they move together, it's very important and significant.
In my work at MIT I work with the Chinese government, senior officials, old-style companies, grassroots groups, and NGOs. I'm coming from the Green movement here in Europe, and the peace movement that was instrumental in bringing down the Wall (the Berlin Wall) in 1989. Although many people think the "new" only happens on the grassroots level, with social entrepreneurship and small-scale radical experiments. But many of the younger people in large organizations have the same aspirations. In my class I have mid-career executives on the fast track. When I ask them why they're coming to my class, the response is often this:
"The higher I get in my organization, the less I am inspired and the more I'm asked to do something that is completely disconnected from what I really want to do.”
We not only need to work on the grassroots level but to pay attention to where the cracks of possibility open up in the old system, so we can make connection with these groups. Many people in these systems have similar aspirations.
Tom: This is Tom Malarkey from Oakland, California. In a methodology that is bringing people together in what sounds like many forms of difference, be it sector difference, racial difference, cultural difference, gender, etc., what are you learning about how to work across those differences?
Otto: At the beginning, when you clarify the intention, “In order to change the system, who are all the different players that need each other to change the system?” That's a useful question to ask that allows you to bring together a very diverse group. Once that's convened you go on a journey with them.
As you move towards the later stages of the process there are some people who leave and some who join. The "U-process" is organized around something that is emerging, so by definition you don't know exactly what the result will be. There's always this on-boarding of new partners, new communities that will join in the initiative.
A lot has to do with holding the space for those who come in and for those whose voice isn't usually heard. If you go on a journey together, that’s where many of these boundaries that otherwise keep us separated are breaking down quite naturally.
The question in group composition is "Who are the people you need in order to transform the system? It's not necessarily, “Who are the big guys who are blocking any change right now?” You're not trying to map the existing system. You try to get a feel for what the emerging future could look like. You begin to organize around that.
It's not about the big guys in the big institutions who are so anchored in their institutional ego. You can forget about that. It's going to the edges of the system, to the younger and those more at the periphery, because the future never shows up in the center first. The future shows up at the periphery first. That's why you want to bring in the viewpoints of the periphery, of the younger and more different people. You want to "max-mix" the diversity because that's the only way to come up with something new.
Kozo: This is Kozo from Cupertino, California. I'm wondering if (in ULab) you're including different types of knowledge, types that may not be "first world," that may not be highly educated, that might be disenfranchised, like prisoners, people who have very few skills in academics but have some great wisdom traditions.
Otto: That's an aspiration. How much did we realize that in the first prototype? We had a good spread across college, formal education degrees, and a full spread from the interviewees. We have made some progress, but there's a ways to go. It will take a while.
Kozo: What I'm dreaming of is that homeless people would be included in that ULab classroom, that they would be included in that academic social field.
Otto: That's the goal.
Mish: This is Mish in New York City. Are you familiar with Jacques Fresco's "Venus Project"? It's a theoretical economic system, redesigning cities to meet human needs. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that, and if you think it's feasible?
Otto: A lot of making life and the economy more sustainable has to do with reinventing inner cities. All the big economic problems we have are problems of The Commons. That's where capitalism isn't working. In cities, The Commons are right in your face. You see what the problem is much more easily than when it happens on the other side of the planet. That's where this organizing around ecosystem awareness is so much easier. The leverage point for systemic change is seeing the problem.
Kanchan: Is there something we as the Service Space community can do to support your work?
Otto: We started ULab as an online course, but it has been birthing a global community of change-makers. I think that's where Service Space is an example. Moving forward, as we evolve the curriculum, it could play a much bigger role. We will have an advanced version of the ULab. There are a lot of possibilities, where we can align and link the movements and collaborate in the context of the larger movement that we all belong to.
Somik: I'm going to read a passage from Otto’s book "Theory U."
"Acting the future, sensing the feeling, being drawn to something, moving into that space, acting from the now, crystallizing what emerges from there, prototyping the new, delivering it into reality, can take years. Social innovators and innovators in business claim that it took them up to 5, 6, or 7 years before moving from a felt sense, feeling drawn to doing something, to crossing the threshold and beginning the journey of discovery and creation. But you also have to be prepared to act fast. If it takes longer, the important point is not to harshly judge yourself just because you have been with an idea for many years. Only one thing really matters. What you do in the very next moment. Now. All the other decision points that are already behind us, all the should haves and could haves, no longer matter in any real way."
The Relevant Links:
Mind and Life Institute:
The Presencing Institute:
On the topic of action research:
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