U.Lab: Seven Principles for Revolutionizing Higher Ed

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

We have 28,000 registered participants from 190 countries. They are linked through 350 self-organizing Hubs across cultures, forming 700-1,000 coaching circles to co-create an inspired web of connections with change makers across society’s sectors and systems. Below is the first account of a bold experiment called MITx U.Lab, designed to transform higher education as we know it.


The current crisis in higher education has three characteristics: it’s overpriced, out of touch (with society’s real needs), and outdated (in its method and purpose). But the solution, a true 21st-century model of higher education, is already emerging: it’s free (or accessible to everyone), it’s empowering (putting the learner into the driver’s seat of profound personal, professional, and societal renewal), and it’s transformational (providing new learning environments that activate the deepest human capacities to create — both individually and collectively).


Today I would like to share some preliminary insights from our ongoing experiment, “U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self” (Watch a 7-minute video about it here), a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) developed with MITx and delivered through edX.org.

A frequent criticism directed at MOOCs is that the learning that happens in them is not as effective as the learning that happens in a classroom. That’s why, in the U.Lab, we didn’t try to replace the classroom. Instead, we decentralized it, then took the learning out of the classroom altogether.

The U.Lab is a hybrid learning platform that offers the best aspects of MOOCs, which are democratizing access to education globally, while also eliminating many of the major criticisms of MOOCs — that they offer mostly superficial learning experiences.

The first U.Lab session was January 14. After only five weeks, we are beginning to recognize some powerful principles and actions that have the potential to revolutionize higher education. Here are seven of them:

(1) Streets: Move learning from the classroom (or computer) to the street. Creativity, entrepreneurship, and transformational leadership cannot be learned while sitting in front of a computer or in an old-fashioned classroom. These deeper capacities can only be built and cultivated by engaging with the real world in profoundly different ways. In the U.Lab, we use the edX infrastructure to teach immersion journeys and action learning — then invite participants to go out into their own communities and try it themselves. One U.Lab participant reported:

I spent a few hours this evening with two older…homeless men who are regulars in my neighborhood. Most days, I walk by these guys thinking that I know what’s what and have it right, discounting what they might have to offer because they are the ones panhandling. I felt humbled and chagrined to realize that this wisdom has always been there for me – but that I have not been open to it because of the packaging… Looking into their eyes tonight, really SEEING them for the first time, seeing in to their souls, it made me want to cry because, GOD, there was such beauty there – as there is in all of us.

(2) Head, Heart & Hand: Link the power of entrepreneurship with passion and compassion. The U.Lab uses the “iceberg model” to explain how today’s environmental, social, and spiritual-cultural challenges cannot be meaningfully addressed by just treating their most visible symptoms. Instead, change makers need to understand and address the deeper root issues, the sources and paradigms of thought that give rise to them. This requires more than entrepreneurship and creative thinking; it also requires tapping into our deeper sources of passion and compassion. As one U.Lab participant put it,

This course is having a profound impact on my day-to-day life. I’m significantly more aware of when my heart is ‘closed’.

(3) Stillness: The new axis of learning & leadership requires us to connect to our sources of self-knowledge. At the source of activating the deepest level of human creativity are two root questions: (1) Who is my Self–What is my highest future possibility? (2) What is my Work–What work, if focused on, activates my deepest capacity to create? In the U.Lab, we create learning environments, tools, and practices that help individuals and groups explore these two root questions (more details below). As one participant reflected:

We are creating this world with every thought, every conversation, and every action. Not wanting to be naïve, but this does create a lot of opportunities for starting with self.


(4) Holding Space: Activate the self-organizing potential of networks to generate transformative “deep learning” experiences. There is an enormous untapped potential in the world: the willingness of people in networks to self-organize and provide safe learning spaces for each other. In the U.Lab, we invite people to form Hubs (any place where course participants meet and learn together) and coaching circles (self-organized groups of five that set their own meeting times and use Google Hangout or Skype to engage in a structured deep listening and dialogue process). These are the real containers for deep learning. As one participant said,

I’ve never spoken to someone I don’t know on video as a first means of contact before, and after I overcame my initial shyness I found the experience empowering… Within an hour and a half our circle reached such a deep level of connectedness and trust, it was as if we knew each other since ages.

More than 350 place-based Hubs around the world are forming and learning from each other in real time. Some of the Hubs where hosted by government (including in China and the US), by companies (including Eileen Fisher, Google, Alibaba and ICBC), or by civil society organizations (such as WWF) or universities. In India, participants reported “never [having] had such an authentic conversation in Mumbai, ever.” Former strangers are connecting across cultures in deep dialogue sessions that many of them have referred to as life-changing experiences. A host in Western Australia expressed amazement at “the depth of insights that are beginning to come up in the group already.” In China, a U.Lab Hubs have formed in at least a dozen cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Nanjing, Hangzhou, and Shenzhen–each of them facilated by volunteer TAs who among themselves have their own learning circle to share experiences in real time.


(5) Tools: Provide methods and tools for co-sensing and co-shaping the emerging future. The backbone of any educational endeavor is its methodological grounding. The U.Lab is grounded in a set of evolutionary frameworks and tools that integrate innovation, leadership, and systems thinking from the viewpoint of an evolving consciousness (Theory U). One example for a tool is the case clinic process that allows the coaching circles to go through a seven step process of deep listening, mirroring, and generative dialogue, within 70 minutes.

The instruction for the coaching circle is really powerful. It facilitates skipping the advice and trying to quick fix. By only sharing the images, feelings and gestures it is feedback as pure as it can be. And from a personal experience I can say: the impact is unbelievable. As I wrote earlier after being the case giver “everything is different”. But also when others shared their case I was touched and transformed myself as well.

(6) Deep Data: Move from big data to “deep data.” All deep system interventions are based on activating what I call “deep data” through a process that makes a system sense and see itself. All true transformative learning environments are built on the same principle: providing mechanisms that help learners see themselves through the eyes of another–both individually and collectively. In the U.Lab we hosted three live-streamed classroom sessions with approximately 10,000-15,000 thousand participants from across the globe. The sessions included mini-lectures, guided meditation, and collective real-time knowledge creation.

A powerful example of this collective awareness creation happened midway through the Lab journey when we asked the participants to assess their ability to listen, converse, organize, and coordinate. We then asked them to consider the challenges that they currently face and how they need to operate in order to appropriately address them. Almost all of them said they needed to operate on a deeper level. Then we asked, What is holding you back? Thousands of participants responded with three words: fear, greed, and ignorance (see wordcloud).

I shared these data with some colleagues from Bhutan, who told me that fear, greed, and ignorance are the three poisons that Buddhism has known for millennia. They constitute the essence of our current global leadership challenge: transforming fear to courage, greed to compassion, and ignorance to inquiry.

(7) Social Fields: Closing the feedback loop between collective awareness and collective action. In spite of significant challenges, including three blizzards that shut down Cambridge and MIT just as we were about to run global live sessions, this experiment is working nevertheless. Why? Because we organized the U.Lab around activating a global social field.

By global social field I mean the sum total of connections that we as human beings enact in any given system. The power of the U.Lab lies in activating the social field as a mirror and teacher. We all engage with this global social field in our everyday interactions. But rarely do we have the opportunity to sense the whole global social field beyond the boundaries of our own habitual perceptions–and to see ourselves through the eye of another. The social field that the U.Lab is organized around functions as a mirror that empowers individuals to see themselves through the eyes of others, and that nudges individuals to open their minds and hearts towards holding the whole social field, and not just small parts of it.

In the Inclusion world this experience is supporting people to transform their roles from beleaguered, tired, invisible, and depressed drudgery, towards enlivened activism fed by underground roots and streams of resourcefulness, renewal, courage and bravery that comes with seeing and feeling self in a bigger context.


Stepping back, what are we learning? We see that the emerging 21st-century model of higher education is an inversion of the 20th-century model in that it places the learner in the driver’s seat of personal, relational, and institutional renewal. The challenge of this approach is to spark inspiration in “the driver” (the learner). That spark is the missing aspect of higher education as it exists today. We can activate it by helping learners to tap into their deeper sources of knowing: Who am I? What am I here for? What future do I want to co-create moving forward?

The U.Lab is a small first step into this new global territory. We don’t yet have any idea how big the opportunity is to reinvent education by engaging the global social field more intentionally as a mirror and a partner for co-sensing and co-creating the emerging future. But it does feel like a significant beginning. Most of the coaching circles, Hubs, and learners are now organizing around countless prototyping initiatives that they will pursue going forward–way beyond the formal end of the class.

As Anant Agarwal, founder of edX, exclaimed when we first described the idea to him a year ago: “You’re not building a course; it sounds like you’re building a movement.”

I want to thank the entire U.Lab team for co-creating U.Lab: my colleague Adam Yukelson for leading the effort and co-designing the architecture, Kelvy Bird for her amazing images that shaped the whole Lab, Ela Ben-Ur for blending Design Thinking with Theory U related tools, Lily Steponaitis for facilitating the practitioner case sessions, Lili Xu Brandt, Julie Arts and Marian Goodman for co-facilitating the hubs across world regions, Chris Boebel for being our filmmaker and creative partner for the course videos, as well as Peter Senge, Ed Schein, Dayna Cunningham, Arthur Zajonc, Isabel Guerrero, Eileen Fisher, Nipun Mehta, Michelle Long, Martin Kalungu-Banda and many others for being such a great co-faculty in this Lab–and most importantly, all the U.Lab participants for co-creating U.Lab as a dynamic blend between education and global movement building!

You Must Change Your Life

Monday, January 12th, 2015 | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

We live on a razor’s edge. From one instant to another, any of us can regress to yesterday’s mindset or connect with an emerging future possibility. In all countries and civilizations around the globe, we face the same challenge: crossing the threshold to this other side, to the field of the future that is waiting to emerge. Rilke referred to crossing this threshold as a shift of perspective and consciousness:

… for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
(“Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rainer Maria Rilke)

This shift might also be referred to as bridging the ecological, social, and spiritual divides that disconnect us — as individuals and societies — from the sources of our wellbeing. Do we see these divides in the same way that Rilke did? It depends. Doing so requires us to see in them the mirror image of our own behavior. What does that image tell us?

Looking into that mirror we see food systems that make us unhealthy, destroy the planet, and leave many farmers hungry. We see educational systems that kill real learning. We see health systems that make too many people sick. We see major governmental agencies turning against their citizens, as has happened one way in Syria and in other ways elsewhere, as the case of Edward Snowden and more recently Eric Garner (“I can’t breathe”) tragically demonstrated.

The mirror tells us that we are collectively creating results that nobody wants. We are deepening the ecological divide (disconnecting self from nature), the social divide (disconnecting self from “the other”), and the spiritual divide (disconnecting self from self). And yet no one gets up in the morning and says, “Today I really want to destroy the planet, harm others, and damage myself.” Still, that’s what we are doing collectively. It’s that gap between our individual consciousness and our collective impact that makes Rilke’s words relevant today: we must change our lives.

Okay, but how? By joining the movement. The movement already exists. We see it in the Millennial generation: teenagers who are finding their political voices in the emerging new civil rights movement in America (since the elevation of racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri). Over the past few weeks, I have seen similar awakenings in other places:
• In Copenhagen, at a forum that brought together hundreds of activists and change makers to share their experiences and innovations that relate to acupuncture points for transforming capitalism.
• In Sao Paulo, where a diverse group forms a platform called Novos Urbanos that focuses on making the food system more inclusive and sustainable (pict below).
• In Indonesia, where over the past seven years I have worked with hundreds of change makers — in business, government, civil society, media, and academia — to create joint platforms with a collective impact on society and the environment.
• In China, where I am seeing (and in part co-enabling) the formation of cross-sector platforms that bring together government, business, and civil society in entirely new ways.

None of these things is in the news. The news is filled with stories about fundamentalists who are trying — using drones and suicide attacks — to bomb us back into a mindset that cuts us off from the deeper levels of our humanity, from who we really are as evolving human beings.

All of these negative things are happening around us, it is true. And the positive changes and efforts I mentioned above are all very small in comparison with the damage that is being created by our collective negative impact. So how do we take the positive changes to a level that is equal to the challenges we see in our collective mirror? Here is one way how:

Over the past months we have seen the awakening of a new awareness across the planet, fueled by the intentional use of new technologies, that, among others, disrupt the old institutions of education as we know them. I believe the time has come to create massive and entirely new platforms for awareness-based collective change. To co-pioneer and advance these changes, over the past nine months a small group of collaborators and I have been working on an inspiring project: the “U.Lab,” a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

We are launching it today, January 7, 2015, through MITx on the edX platform. With 23,000 enrolled participants from 187 countries, the U.Lab uses an awareness-based action methodology that will allow change makers from all sectors and countries to collaborate on their respective change initiatives — and to enhance their collective innovation capacity — at a price point of zero. The U.Lab combines the positive side of online learning — equal access to higher education at no cost to the learner — with features that have been largely missing from online offerings: local hubs, mindfulness practices, and deep-listening-based small-group coaching circles that allow individuals and groups to co-sense and co-create their highest future possibility.

If you want to join as an individual participant: click here. If you also want to form a local hub that allows you to link up with collaborators and friends to co-shape this emerging global platform, click here and make it happen. Hundreds of hubs are already taking shape over the past few hours and days including in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Jakarta, Mumbai, Cape Town, Addis Ababa, Berlin, Brussels, Dublin, Copenhagen, London, Sao Paulo, Rio, Caracas, Bolivia, Mexico City, L.A., New York, and the list goes on, covering cultures and sectors (see pict from today’s U.Lab pre-meeting in Brussels).


The U.Lab prototype will run for the next six weeks. Week 0 (orientation) starts today. The global launch of the Lab will happen in a live session next Wednesday, January 14, at 9 a.m. Boston (EST) time. Each Wednesday we will post new methods and tools.

In the final live session of the Lab we will hear from hubs around the world about the change initiatives and prototypes they have co-created. Join us in this exciting educational experiment, which blends learning and mindfulness with the opportunity to co-create a new image in the mirror: a world that works for everyone… for here there is no place that does not see us. We must change our life.

(originally posted in Huffington Post)

Indonesia: The Power of Inspired Social Fields

Monday, January 12th, 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments

I’ve just returned from a weeklong deep dive into the frontline of societal renewal in Indonesia. In an earlier blog I shared some of my experiences with a group of Indonesian leaders from government, business, and civil society who came for a weeklong module at MIT in September. They were participants in the MIT IDEAS program that I chair, which takes leaders from society’s three sectors (business, government, civil society) on a 12-month journey of personal, professional, and institutional innovation and renewal.

This time we came together again for a weeklong retreat on Wakatobi, a group of remote islands in the Banda Sea, which is in the Coral Triangle region that is part of the earth’s second most important biodiversity region (second only to the Amazon). In 2009 (May 15 2009) six countries (Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands) signed the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) for co-managing and protecting a marine ecosystem that is home to the highest coral diversity in the world with 600 corals or 76% of the world’s known coral species. Today CTI has thousands of stakeholders from across all sectors. Sadly, since the treaty’s signing, little has been done to implement its goals at the ground level, among fishermen and local communities. This is where the story is directly linked to our tri-sector group of IDEAS fellows, which includes several key players in the CTI system.

Here are seven observations from my trip:

1. Coming to Indonesia today, after President Jokowi took office in October 2014, is like inhaling a breath of fresh air. In a world that is ruled by vested interests that prevent substantial commitments to reduce carbon emissions and in which elections are decided by negative advertising campaigns, political outsider Jokowi’s win was an astonishing event. Not only had he operated outside the political establishment, but as the governor of Jakarta (2012-2014) he went on to confront the vested interests in the Jakarta establishment head-on. He succeeded by forming an alliance with the public, with common people, and by putting all of his and his government’s meetings on YouTube. That transparency protected him from the corrupt influences that sidetracked earlier administrations for so many years.

So who was responsible for bringing such a man into power in the third largest democracy on our planet? Artists, cultural creatives, social media activists, and civil society. Last summer, when Jokowi’s campaign was trailing in the polls and his opponent hired well-known artists to help extend his lead, another group of artists and musicians independently formed a cultural music festival initiative to support Jokowi. None of these artists were paid. When the festival went viral, the tide in the presidential race began to turn. Indonesia today feels a bit like the United States did after Obama was inaugurated in 2009. But that is where the parallel ends. In slashing Indonesia’s massive gasoline subsidies a few days after taking office, Jokowi made a courageous, though unpopular, move that did more for the sustainability of the planet than Obama has delivered in almost two terms.

2. A Disconnect between Capital and Community. Upon arriving in Wakatobi, we got a first-hand view of the disconnect between central government and the local communities. The head of local Parliament, Mr. Muhammad Ali, told me: “Fighting with this disconnect everyday frustrates me a lot. Often I am about to give up. Maybe it’s hopeless. Time and again we are confronted with regulation that got created without consulting us and that makes no sense for our communities here.”

For example, on a national level it may seem like a good idea to declare a whole region a protected area (for the sake of biodiversity and sustainability), but it makes no sense when the resulting zoning conflicts with the traditions of local tribes who, traditionally, already use sustainable eco-system practices–just not the same ones that the government in Jakarta imposes them on them.

3. Deep Dive: Discovering Common Ground. We saw the same disconnect, between center and periphery, replicated between the tribes and their locally elected government. In many ways the local political issues mirror the national issues, just on a smaller scale. However, the Bupati (the directly elected local Regent of a Regency) managed to transform this relationship with local tribes to one that now is much more co-creative.

As Bupati Hugua told me: “At the height of the conflict the protesters were about to demolish a government building while at the same time the armed forces had regional orders to shoot against them in such a case. When I saw this potential bloodshed taking shape I went to the tribal leaders and told them I would follow them. I basically joined the conversation with them on their terms. I showed them respect. They instantly called off the violent demonstration that was about to happen on that same day and would have resulted in a terrible bloodshed against villagers.” Ever since, the Bupati has held regular consultative meetings with the tribal leaders. He says: “I no longer create any policies for villages. They do it themselves. Or we do it jointly. The key is to truly listen to them.”

But building this capacity for listening and dialogue in local government isn’t easy. “The problem”, said Bupati Hugua, is that “our current education system provides us with civil servants and teachers who act like robots.” His challenge was to help them to learn to listen and “to act like human beings.” He asked Manan, the President of the Bajau community (a gypsy-like tribe that lives on the water), to attend a training session in listening-based leadership development (based on the U process) and then to apply this method to help his team. Manan brilliantly delivered what he had learned to his entire group of local department heads and deputies by taking them on a deep dive to the sea. Says Manan: “You would think that people living in this spectacular marine area know what the ocean floor looks like. But that’s not the case. So we took them [there].”

The next day the whole group reported being shocked and surprised by the amount of waste they saw, saddened by the dead coral, and delighted by beauty of the underwater world and the living coral. They talked about how their shared perception of the common ground had changed how they thought and how they related to each other, and about how they needed to collaborate across departments to address the deeper root issues.

4. The power of prototyping. The method that Manan and Hugua applied consists of three primary stages: deep immersion (“shared seeing”), deep reflection (“stillness: allow the inner knowing to emerge”), and rapid prototyping (“action learning”). Prototyping means doing something very small very quickly, then listening to the feedback, and then changing what you are doing in response to the feedback (“iterate, iterate, iterate…”). The application of many prototypes has visibly changed how these communities operate.

What struck me when talking with community members and tribal leaders was how much they resonated with this type of process. As one of the tribal leaders put it: “I have observed how this group has been working together. It connects with the spirit of our own tradition.” That statement made me really happy. What higher compliment can you imagine than having your research method recognized by tribal leaders?

So while this approach to relinking center and periphery seems to work on the local level, the big question of course remains how to take this way of operating to the national level… which brings me back to IDEAS.

5. IDEAS JOURNEY: Transformation in Indonesia. During the one-week workshop we first went on an immersion journey to the Bajau community (picture). Then participants created a 4D map of the current transformation in Indonesia. Using Social Presencing Theatre, the participants first mapped the current situation in Indonesia (Sculpture 1), and then how these current stakeholder relationships could be transformed in the emerging future (Sculpture 2). Part of the method entails visualizing one’s relationship to the ecological divide (earth), the social divide (marginalized communities), and the spiritual divide in society (Pancasila , the collective aspiration of the country, see picture).


In Sculpture 1, these three roles (earth, marginalized, Pancasila) were at the periphery (or in the “blind spot”) of the system; in Sculpture 2 they moved into the heart of the emerging eco-system (picture). The transformation from the old to the new required a number of players to actively hold the space so that others could connect with each other. In their transformed state, all of the system’s players could see the whole.

6. Seeding the future. In developing their prototyping ideas the group developed four initiatives that they will explore by doing over the coming months: a Sustainable Fish Supply Chain; Eco-Tourism and Sustainable Development in Wakatobi; Capacity Building for Sustainable and Socially Responsible Banking; Inclusive and Sustainable Development in Bali. The beauty of a tri-sector group like IDEAS is that it starts with a core team that instantly works across sectors. For example, the sustainable fish supply chain initiative includes a key NGO player, a retail chain CEO who is willing to provide access to his supply chain, and two officers of the Indonesian navy and air force who will organize surveillance of illegal fishing activities. All of the teams have such a cross-sector core.

Each team is facing essentially the same challenge: to bridge the divides between Jakarta (as a synonym for national government and megacity) and local communities on the one hand and between business, government, and civil society on the other hand. Their task is the same: to transform reactive and silo-minded interactions into co-creative stakeholder relationships that generate well-being for all stakeholders in the system.

7. Innovation Ecologies. The IDEAS program has been supporting these prototyping initiatives for several years now. Sometimes the results show significant social impact. Sometimes the results are more – shall we say – modest, more a vehicle for lessons learned. We often wonder whether the whole thing will ever produce the enormous changes that are needed locally, nationally, globally.

Last week, for the first time, I saw how this could work. Having conducted this tri-sector IDEAS program in Indonesia for the past five years, we invited its alumni to a meeting in Jakarta. About 40 of them showed up. After welcoming them, we asked them to share, in small and large groups, what had changed in their lives. The results were truly inspiring.

Almost all of them where involved in significant change initiatives and projects in their organizations, networks, systems, and communities. They had made many additional connections through those projects. And many of them had been involved in the movement to elect the new President.

The initiatives were clustered around four themes: national parks, entrepreneurship, reform of the educational system, and sustainability. In each one, what began as a relatively insignificant prototype became something much bigger. New constellations of change makers were affecting systems on the scale of the whole, often by linking innovative prototypes with change makers in the media, ministries, business, and civil society. On that morning I saw how many seemingly disconnected projects and initiatives had begun to link up into a living ecosystem, an innovation ecology. As on a farm, one day you see nothing growing in the fields. The next day you see thousands of sprouts poking up through the soil.

8. The Power of Social Fields. So what is the emerging source code, the method that we see at work throughout these observations and stories?

Here is what the method boils down to: Take a diverse group of young emerging leaders from all sectors of society; help them to explore some of their shared intentions; throw them into places of most potential, where they can see their systems from the edges or entirely from the outside, and give them some good reflection and co-sensing tools; invite them into a space of stillness, where they can access the inner sources of knowing; help them to crystallize their deepest personal and professional life intentions; help them to use rapid cycle prototyping in order to explore the future by doing; and finally, link what is working with the larger context.

What we are learning is that these fields of inspired connections have an enormous and largely untapped transformative power. Usually we activate reactive and technocratic social fields through existing methods of problem solving. The process of activating, or “switching on” inspired social fields works differently. No one has a blueprint for how the eco-system is going to self-organize. You cannot control it. But you can cultivate it — like a farmer cultivates a field.

Society’s institutions are not currently designed for this inner cultivation, however. As Bupati Hugua, also an IDEAS fellow, told us last week about a teacher training session he had run: “At the end of the session several of them were crying. They said why is it that we learn to operate this way only towards the end of our life and career? Why didn’t we learn it in university training when we were at the beginning of our journey?”

One mechanism for bringing ideas to people earlier in their careers is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), which makes educational content available to anyone everywhere, free of charge. The MITx U-Lab MOOC, to be launched in January 2015, will offer a deep listening and learning environment for a global community of 20,000-25,000 participants, helping them to move from individual projects and communities to activating a globally distributed ecology of inspired change.

Thanks to our wonderful partners and co-conveners in Indonesia: UID (United In Diversity), to all IDEAS fellows, and to Frans Sugiarta and Dr. Ben Chan, our colleagues in Jakarta and Singapore, for co-creating this story.

(originally published in Huffington Post)

Five Conditions for Shifting the Social Field

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Last week at MIT we hosted a group of leaders and change makers from Indonesia. With its 17,000 islands and 250 million inhabitants, Indonesia is the third largest democracy and the biggest Muslim country in the world. Several members of the visiting group are key players in CTI, the Coral Triangle Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative focusing on sustainable fisheries and marine stewardship in the world’s second most important biodiversity region (second only to the Amazon region).

The MIT IDEAS program, which they embarked on last week, is a 15-month journey of profound individual and institutional innovation and change. All participants remain in their existing jobs and organizations, but over the next 15 months they will meet regularly in small coaching circles, as well as in five whole-group workshops for 3-5 days each, progressing on a journey from total immersion to e deep reflection and learning by doing.

Last week we took our first total-immersion journey. The participants engaged in intense discussions with key thought leaders in global finance (Simon Johnson), systems thinking (Peter Senge), data-driven societies (Sandy Pentland), urban transformation (Phil Thompson), mindful systems change (Dayna Cunningham), and system dynamics (John Sterman). In addition, we threw them into highly experiential learning environments. On campus they visited the Media Lab, practiced the IDEO method of design thinking, and explored Boston’s hotspots of social innovation through small-group learning journeys.

We also provided them with deep reflection practices to help being receptive not only to the new ideas that emerged from the MIT eco-system but also to the new ideas that are emerging from within: who they are now, and who they want to be going forward. Many found it to be a profound, moving, and in some cases even life-changing experience. As one of them said on the final day: I have been born twice. The first time in Indonesia, the second time here in Boston. He explained that he felt he had come closer to his deepest human capacity to create.

One half-day workshop during the middle of the week offered them a window onto the current conditions and changes that we deal with in just about every larger process of systems change on the planet. Picture this: they entered the workshop room at 8.30 a.m. and saw that the room was set with six tables, one each for the U.S. delegation, the EU, other developed countries, China, India, and other developing countries. They were greeted by the facilitator, a person playing the role of Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General (SG) of the UN.

The SG welcomed the delegates and asked them to take seats at their respective tables (each participant had been assigned to one of the teams and had received a country briefing the night before). Then he provided the delegates with an update on the urgent current situation related to global climate change. He gave each delegation half an hour to develop a proposal for addressing the pressing climate challenges, in order to mitigate and perhaps halt the crisis by the year 2100. Each delegation was asked to present binding commitments its country or region would make on the following variables:

1. in what year it would stop increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
2. in what year it would start reducing GHG emissions
3. the annual rate of emissions reduction it would undertake
4. action on de- or re-forestation
5. its projected financial contributions for all of the above (through payments into a global fund)

The delegates quickly realized that they were not all equal. While the tables of the delegations from the U.S., the EU, and other OECD countries were set with delicious food, China and India had no food on their tables. The delegates from “other developing countries” were even asked to sit on the floor, with their chairs and a table being removed (see team pictures below).

Picture 1: The U.S. delegation’s table, with lots of food.

Picture 2: The least-developed countries’ space: no table, no food.

After heated negotiations, each team presented its proposal. SG Ban Ki-Moon, a.k.a. Prof. John Sterman, input each delegation’s recommendations into a science-based simulation model that he and his MIT team developed and that is being used by various actual delegations to train their negotiators (including the U.S. and the Chinese delegations). He ran the model and presented the results. Although each team had stretched itself to make compromises and painful choices, the results projected for the year 2100 were nothing short of catastrophic: massive climate destabilization, catastrophic sea-level rises, ocean acidification, and temperature changes that would destabilize societies on a scale never before seen.
What really hit home for the delegates was a map that showed how the projected sea-level rise that resulted from their decisions would devastate their home countries and cities (picture 3).

Picture 3: Impact of projected sea-level rise

Then the SG asked the delegates to rework their commitments in a second round of negotiations. But first he gave them a tutorial on visualizing the potential impact for each region in the year 2100.

Having seen the results of their collective decision-making in round 1, in round 2 the delegates developed commitments of a whole different order of magnitude. They were much more courageous, collaborative, and determined. But still, the projected scenario for 2100 was devastating, although no longer as catastrophic as the round 1 scenario. It took a full third round for them to come up with an almost-final set of commitments and decisions, which, according to the model, would result in a scenario that was close to being acceptable.

Picture 4: Climate change briefing by Prof. J. Sterman (graphic created by Kelvy Bird)

Having seen this process a number of times with different groups, I would make a few observations:

1. The behavior we saw in round 1 is exactly the same as what we have seen from our actual delegations in most international negotiations on climate change over the past decade.

2. Note that the delegates in our simulation game were well-informed (for example, they all watched a “disruption video” before beginning their work) and well-intentioned. Yet, as a group, they acted just as dysfunctionally as our politicians do.

3. In rounds 2 and 3, they abandoned their silo perspective (“this is all that we can do–and by the way, the real polluters are sitting at that other table…”) and adopted a perspective of “seeing the whole.” Their mindsets shifted from an ego-system awareness (me-me) to an eco-system awareness (me-we)–that is, an awareness of the whole.

4. The big question on the table in almost every real-world case of large systems change is how to make that shift. What happened in that half-day climate simulation game is often missing on the larger, real-world scene.

5. Five conditions are required to shift the center of gravity in a system from ego to eco:

i. A container: You need to bring all key stakeholders together in a single room, and then create a container–that is, a holding space–in which they can interact and learn with each other.

ii. Science: You need good science in order to let the data talk to you–that is, in order to get beyond everyone’s currently favored opinion.

iii. Dialogue: You need to close the feedback loop between collective action and awareness; you need to make the system see itself (which is the essence of dialogue).

iv. Aesthetics. The origin of the term aesthetics lies in the Greek word aisthesis, which means perception through the senses. In the workshop, it was key to feel the impact of sea-level rise through the map visualization, the oversupply and non-supply of food to the delegate tables, and other inequities.

v. Facilitation: an “SG” to hold the transformative space. When the shift happens between round 1 and rounds 2 and 3, participants let go of their ego-system view (‘look at what they are doing to us!’) and begin to operate from an eco-system view (‘look at what we are doing to ourselves!’).

Picture 5: The Iceberg Model: Turning the Lens Back onto Ourselves, graphic created by Kelvy Bird

The above graphic drawn by my colleague Kelvy Bird depicts this basic point on the upper right: turning the lens back on ourselves and planet earth. It captures the ecological, social, and spiritual divides above the iceberg’s waterline, and all the deeper root issues and sources below the waterline.

What does it take to address the current crises of our time at the level of the source (as opposed to the level of the symptoms)? What it takes, we believe, is a journey–a journey on which the social field shifts from ego-system awareness (silo view) to eco-system awareness (seeing from the whole). That was the shift the Indonesian participants made in the climate change workshop–and in other key experiences during the week. It was that shift that resonated most deeply within their own beings, with who they wanted to be. It’s that shift that they will be able to prototype in the context of their own systems throughout their action learning projects in 2015.

Picture 6: Shifting the Social Field (Theory U). Graphic created by Kelvy Bird

How can we create these five conditions not only in small workshops, but in society as a whole? How can we reframe our public conversation on climate change by putting these conditions in place? Where have you seen similar shifts? And what conditions did you see that enabled such shifts to occur?

Here are a few links to the climate change simulation model that you can use free of charge:
For World Climate  
For World Energy


U-Lab: Prototyping the 21st-Century University

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Higher education has hit a wall — particularly the business school. Four issues are upending higher education as it is constituted today:

It is overpriced: While the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have emerged as a game changer, opening doors to an unparalleled democratization of higher education. The marginal costs of online learning are basically zero. And yes, in spite of huge enrollment numbers (often 50,000-80,000 students per class), MOOCs have not yet been able to fully deliver on their high- flying promises. Critics often point to course completion rates–often as little as 5% of the enrollees complete a course–a sign that MOOCs are still evolving.

It is out of touch with the changing market: The old model of higher education worked for a remarkably long period, although not for everyone. Students invested in the pursuit of a career path that almost guaranteed a good income, which then enabled them to swiftly pay back their college loans. Those years are gone. With many industries having moved from the United States to Asia, and with increasing automation in manufacturing and management, many formerly well-paying middle-class jobs no longer exist; they have been replaced by service sector jobs that do not even pay a living wage.

The curriculum is outdated: The intellectual and methodological foundation of business schools is thoroughly outdated. Lectures as a teaching method have been around for more than 2,000 years, and the Harvard case study method for more than 140 years; and yet, they still account for most of what is going on in B-schools today. But what’s worse is that the core curriculum–based on current mainstream economic and management thought–equips students with a mental framework that amplifies our global ecological and socio-economic crises instead of helping to solve them.

Mainstream economics and management not only failed to predict any of the fundamental social and economic shifts of the past 40 years–from the oil price shocks in the 1970s and the rise of the East Asian economies in the 1980s to the financial crisis in 2008; mainstream economic thought leaders have also failed to offer remedies for the profound ecological, socio-economic, and spiritual crises of our time. What’s at the core of this problem is not a failure of individuals, but the failure of an outdated intellectual framework that is profoundly out of touch with today’s challenges.

Its purpose is outdated: Although there have been many attempts to reform higher education, most have not succeeded. They have been limited to tinkering with structures, curriculum, and systems–ignoring the need to regenerate the university from its roots by reinventing its purpose in this century.

Historically, the classical university was based on the unity of research and teaching and served the purpose of conveying mostly theoretical knowledge. The modern university of the 20th century was based on the unity of research, teaching, and practice, and its emphasis shifted toward providing practical knowledge. What we currently witness can be seen as foreshadowing the next evolutionary stage based on the unity of research, teaching, and societal transformation, with transformation literacy at its core–that is, literacy in the personal, relational, and systemic foundations of leading innovation and change.

Summing up the problem: higher education is overpriced, out of touch, and outdated in both curriculum and purpose. The solution? The solution is beginning to emerge in many places today. One of such examples is the U-Lab at MIT, where I have been spending much of my time this year. Delivered by MITx free of charge through the online platform edX (co-founded by MIT and Harvard in 2012), this MOOC will prototype a new hybrid online/real-world learning environment, with the goal of sparking a global web of interconnected hubs, inspiring initiatives, and grounding learning locally in places where societal challenges are manifest (watch this clip).

The U-Lab offers a new type of learning environment that is personal, practical, relational, mindful, collective, and transformative.

“Personal” means that you are expected to bring your full self to the class, both who you are today (your current self) and who you might be tomorrow (your emerging future self).

“Practical” means that each week you apply a specific tool in the context where you operate.

“Relational” means that each week you will engage in a deep dialogue-based peer coaching session with five fellow Lab participants and take turns sharing a case.

“Mindful” means that each week you will be introduced to a mindfulness practice that strengthens your capacity to pay attention to your attention and helps you to intentionally shift the inner place from which you operate.

“Collective” means that this Lab will take you on a journey with others. Live-streamed sessions connecting Lab participants with inspirational change makers across cultures will facilitate this collective journey.

“Transformative” means that the core curriculum of the U-Lab is grounded in a social leadership technology that enables participants to sense and actualize emerging future possibilities.

Reinventing the 21st-century university requires addressing all four of the key issues mentioned above:

price: make it free (accessible) for all
relevance: focus on profound societal and personal transformation
curriculum: link global action learning with an evolutionary economic frame
purpose: to serve the current transformation of society and self

The future of higher education is already here. It’s being researched and tested through prototypes that are emerging around the world–like the U-Lab. But what will it take to move from developing prototypes to shifting the system as a whole?

What it takes, I believe, is to transform the fundamental thinking that underlies our modern civilization- science, technology and learning. The 1.0 version is a science that is applied to exterior data only (third person view), while the 2.0 version applies the scientific activity also to the more subtle aspects of our experience (third person and first person view). That shift in perspective bends the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self (graphic below).


The capacity to perform this shift is at the heart of the developmental threshold that we are facing in this century as individuals, organizations, systems, and communities. In individuals the capacity is referred to as awareness or mindfulness (paying attention to your attention); in organizational and systems change it is referred to as systems thinking (making the system see itself). In both cases there is a shift from ego-system awareness (thinking in silos) to eco-system awareness (thinking for the benefit of the whole).

Maybe the finest role of universities in this century would be to nurture this capacity not only among individuals, organizations, and systems, but on the level of society–by holding up a mirror, helping individuals and their institutions to see themselves as an evolving whole, creating a genuine space for self-reflection and for dialogue on what may well be the most important conversation of our time: who we are as human beings, who we want to be, and what future society we want to live in.

The U-Lab aspires to be a step into this direction–a prototype. To make it work at the scale necessary today will require many collaborators. If you want to support this effort, please share this link, register for the Lab (which is free; sign up here), or even sign up to co-convene one of its hubs. Let us know what you think. Thank you!

From Big Data to Deep Data

Friday, July 18th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

Over the past ten months I have chaired and co-facilitated MIT’s IDEAS China program–a ten month innovation journey for a group of 30 or so senior Chinese business leaders. This year the IDEAS China program enrolled executives of a major state-owned Chinese bank. One goal of this team was to reinvent the future of their organization in the face of big data and other related disruptive changes, which provided me with a little more exposure to that aspect of the world economy. For example, Jack Ma, the visionary founder of Alibaba, says that “In five years, we anticipate that the human era will move from the information technology era to the data technology era.”

But what does it mean to be in an era of “data technology” and “big data”? Until today, it hast often meant that big companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple–the same companies that we used to love and now increasingly begin to question and fear–take your data without asking and sell it to other companies without your knowledge (until you notice the targeted Web commercials that appear on your screen). I find it interesting that people’s initially very positive view of these American big data empires is shifting first in Europe, but also in other parts of the world, including North America. Edward Snowden made all of us more sensitive to the misuse of big data. But that’s just the surface issue. The real problem is on a deeper level.

The real problem of big data is that we are increasingly outsourcing our capacity to sense and think to algorithms programmed into machines. While this seems very convenient and cool at first and offers access to services that many of us want, it also raises a question about who actually owns big data, about the rights of individuals and citizens to own their personal data and to exercise choices regarding its use.

While big data has certainly opened up a whole new range of possibilities, I would like to suggest a distinction between surface big data and deep data. Surface data is just data about others: what others do and say. That is what almost all current big data is composed of.

Deep data is used to make people and communities see themselves. Deep data functions like a mirror: it makes you see yourself–both as an individual and as a community. Over the past twenty years of my professional life I have been helping teams and organizations go through processes of profound innovation and transformative change across sectors and cultures. The one thing that I have learned from all these projects is that the key to transformative change is to make the system see itself. That’s why deep data matters. It matters to the future of our institutions, our societies, and our planet.

But what happens today with big data often is the opposite: big data is used to manipulate our behavior, to bombard us with commercials that we never asked for. Surface big data is used to outsource human thinking to algorithms, to reduce our level of awareness inside old patterns of habitual thought. Deep data, if developed and cultivated in the right way, could help us to enhance the level of awareness and consciousness and to change the system by shifting the consciousness of stakeholders in that system from ego-system awareness (awareness of my own silo) to eco-system awareness (awareness of the whole).

Let me summarize the distinction between surface big data and deep with two simple drawings:

Big data (science 1.0): data that informs about the world (source: A. Oechsner).

Deep data (science 2.0): data that helps us to see ourselves (source: A. Oechsner).

The journey from science 1.0 to 2.0 is a journey of bending the beam of scientific observation back onto the observing self–both individually and collectively.

At the end of our last meeting, the leaders of the Chinese state-owned bank reflected on their own journey of the past ten months. Every one of them reported a profound shift in how they think and operate. Here are two exemplary statements:

“This journey is not just about tools and knowledge; it shifts your way of thinking and it allows you in the face of challenges to jump out of the box of old thinking. It feels like my self has been shifting. I also felt that shift among my colleagues. We get to consensus more easily. I feel there is a shift of intention among my colleagues. As a result, we are more in touch with our experience and we are able to execute better.”

“To me, the IDEAS journey is a journey of the heart. It opened a new way of thinking, a new way of relating, and a new way of being.”

In essence, what the IDEAS participants described was a transformation of
• thinking: from downloading old patterns to thinking creatively
• conversing: from debate to generative dialogue
• collaborating: from ego-centric/reactive to more eco-centric and co-creative

Over the past months, while staying in their jobs, the participants split into four teams that each tried to prototype some new way of operating in order to explore future opportunities. What struck me was that each team ended up developing a new platform of cross-organizational and cross-institutional collaboration that used data as a tool for transforming the way their stakeholders communicate across boundaries. All of their prototypes are still in an early stage. But one lesson that was mentioned by the teams repeatedly was the importance of shifting their mindset from me to we, from ego to eco.

The question that their efforts have left me with is this: On a societal level, what types of deep data infrastructures might facilitate this bending of the beam of observation back onto the observer on the level of entire eco-systems?

For example, today we use GDP to measure economic progress. GDP is an excellent measure of surface data. But what would the equivalent deep data tool be for measuring real economic progress in a community? I believe that it would include a new indicator system that is grounded in real outcomes (like life expectancy), and in the wellbeing of individuals and their communities (like quality of life). Last year we–the Presencing Institute, with the GIZ Global Leadership Academy (German Ministry for Development Cooperation) and the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan– launched the Global Wellbeing Lab, The lab links leaders from government, business, and civil society around the world who are working to pioneer new indicators and deep data tools that help communities and eco-systems begin to see themselves.

Where are you seeing the seeds of such new indicactor systems or deep data tools today? What can be learned from these first living examples? What would deep data mean for your self? What are the sources of well-being and happiness in your own life and work and what metrics could help you to see yourself in a more meaningful way? How can we co-pioneer the shift from big data to deep data in society today?

Beijing, Brazil, 7-1: Awareness Shift in Soccer, Society

Friday, July 18th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

I happened to be in Beijing earlier this week, and of course everyone was talking about the 7-1 (World Cup semifinal between Brazil and Germany). Since Chancellor Angela Merkel was also visiting Beijing this week, the running joke was that the 7-1 score was Merkel’s birthday present to her hosts, honoring the founding of China’s Communist Party (7/1/1921).

While in my heart I empathized with the feelings of the people from Brazil, a country I love and whose soccer I admire, I also felt joy in seeing the fruits of the Klinsmann/Loew revolution in German soccer. Ten years ago those co-coaches began a transformation of leadership on and off the field, and a transformation of the ugly (results-oriented) style of German soccer to a philosophy inspired by the Dutchtotal football and its more recent incarnation as tiki taka in Spain. Brought to Germany by Klinsmann and Loew, as well as by coaches like Pep Guardiola, who after winning everything with Barcelona now works with two thirds of the German team at Bayern Munich (and who is another major hidden parent of the historic 7-1 win this week).

Back in 2010 the German team tried to copy tiki taka from Spain and Barcelona. They played inspiring soccer, only to lose to Spain in the semi-finals. In 2014 the German team evolves tiki taka by blending it with some of the virtues of earlier German teams, such as mobilizing collective energy and will.

The soccer they play today is a complete departure from the soccer German teams played prior to 2010 or 2006. The team has no real boss, no real superstar; they enjoy a style of distributed and fluid leadership. The team also has no clear starting eleven. They keep changing their lineup and their positions, with two of their best players even missing the entire tournament (Reus and Gundogan).

So what is driving the success of the German team? It’s a philosophy that requires all players to operate from a shared awareness of the evolving whole. Everyone is required to be aware of what’s happening everywhere on the field–the changing positions, the emerging spaces among their own team members and their opponents, to keep the ball moving. It’s that shared awareness of the evolving whole that allows them to pass the ball faster than the opposing team at times can comprehend, or react to. It was the chief reason the Brazil defense collapsed and conceded four goals in six minutes of the semifinal this week.

Responding to that style of soccer cannot be fixed by firing the coach or replacing players. It requires starting at a deeper level: in the quality of our thinking, or our sensing, of our awareness of the whole. Making the transformation–shifting the way we operate from an awareness of the parts to an awareness of the dynamic whole–is the quintessential transformation challenge that we face in all sectors of society today: finance, food, health, education, sustainable business practices, you name it. Over the past several years I have worked in transformation initiatives in all these sectors. And the most important leadership challenge is always the same: the challenge is to change how people think and work together across institutional boundaries from a silo or ego-system awareness to a systemic or eco-system awareness.

The best soccer teams in the world have gone through this transformation over the past decade or so. But for the rest of society, that journey is still ahead of us. Not only in Brazil. Also in China, in the US, in Europe, in Africa.

As for Sunday, may the better team on that day win. Even if the German team should lose, I am still happy about the path Die Mannschaft is on. I only wish we could all help the Brazilian’s team spirit to rise from the ashes and return to the brilliance of its many golden years. The selecao will rise again, no doubt! In the meantime, let’s enjoy the finale.

Eight Accupuncture Points for Transforming Capitalism

Friday, July 18th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

I’m just returning from the annual BALLE conference in Oakland. BALLE (the Business Association for Local Living Economies), is the fastest-growing network of sustainable and value-based enterprises in North America. It was founded some fourteen years ago, but the origins of this networked grassroots movement go back to the 1990s, when Judy Wicks, the founder of the White Dog Café in Philadelphia, decided to source and manage her café 100 percent locally and sustainably, using socially just practices. People loved it and it became a legendary success. But instead of turning her winning formula into a regional or national brand, chain, and eventually an empire, she decided to reinvest her profits in the health and well-being of her local community. She set up a foundation through which she taught everything she had learned to her competitors, using her money to help suppliers upgrade in order to serve all the cafés and restaurants in the region.

That shift from ego to eco, that is, from empire building (which is driving the Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of our age) to generating well-being for all, was the original spark that inspired the local living economy movement in many places across North America.


When you look at the local living economy movement today, it’s remarkable to see how much has been accomplished in just the few years since it began. Making our food cycles more local, sustainable, and inclusive has gone from fringe to almost mainstream in just 15 years. Next up for the localization movement: make investment, manufacturing, and production more local and sustainable (by moving money from Wall Street to bio regions, with 3D printing, etc.). As the Wall Street Journal wrote this week, entrepreneurs are turning to a new source of funding: their neighbors.

What’s next? Fifteen years ago the conversation was about localizing and entrepreneurship. Now these things are going mainstream. So what are the pioneers of the movement talking about now? What is the next frontier? What I picked up this week can be best summarized in two words: broadening and deepening.

Broadening means broadening the scope from buying locally to investing locally, focusing more on policy changes, more on empowering marginalized communities, and more on cross-sector collaboration (linking business, government, and civil society).

Deepening means creating room for the interior dimension of leading profound change: expanding the conversation about transformative leadership, mindfulness, compassion, sources of well-being, creativity, and spirituality. It means asking, Who are we today — and who do we want to be tomorrow?

This interior deepening on both the individual and the collective level is a remarkable development that mirrors a broader shift in society today, where ideas like mindfulness have gone mainstream in health, education, and leadership.

And yet at the same time, we also see the noise cranking up: countries falling apart, fragmentation, violence and civil war on the rise in many places, not only Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine.

The challenge of our time is to stay awake to what is happening around us, while also giving most of our loving attention to the seeds of the future that we want to take root in the world. Speaking of seeds, here are eight systemic areas ripe for reinvention that I heard people talking about at the BALLE conference. In combination, they constitute a set of leverage points for transforming the current system:

1. Place: reinvent how we deal with soil and nature. Instead of treating it as a commodity (that we buy, use, and throw away), treat it as an eco-system that we cultivate.
2. Entrepreneurship: reinvent our concept of labor. Instead of thinking of work as a “job,” think about it as entrepreneurship powered by passion and compassion.
3. Money: reinvent our concept of and how we deal with money and financial capital. Instead of extractive, capital should be intentional, serving rather than harming the real economy.
4. Technology: reinvent how we develop technologies. Empower all people to be makers and creators rather than passive recipients.
5. Leadership: reinvent how we lead. Instead of individual heroes, we need people working together to develop a collective capacity to sense and shape the future.
6. Consumption: reinvent how we consume. Instead of promoting consumerism and using metrics like GDP, move toward conscious collaborative consumption and metrics that focus on well-being like Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI, which is now being developed in about 20 U.S. states).
7. Governance: reinvent how we coordinate. Move away from being limited to the old three mechanisms, hierarchies, markets, and negotiation among organized interest groups, and move toward a fourth mechanism that operates through awareness based collective action (ABC), through seeing and acting from the whole.
8. Ownership: Advance the old forms of state and private ownership by creating a third category of ownership rights: commons-based ownership that better protect the interests of our children and of future generations.

If we focused on and advanced these eight key acupuncture points we could begin to transform the old system of capitalism into an economy that creates well-being for all (for more detail: link, book).

But what is the animating force that could move this ego to eco shift from small seeds to action? What I saw in the BALLE conference, and what I am seeing in various other places across the planet, is that something begins to grow together that belongs together: the power of entrepreneurship — and the power of the awakening intelligence of the heart.

Are We Sinking—Or Are We Beginning to Rise?

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

The other day I sat in a World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C. The purpose of the gathering was to initiate a Collective Action Platform that would help multi-stakeholder groups to collaborate more effectively in addressing the major challenges of our time. Here are a few observations that I found interesting:

The World Bank itself is going through a radical transformation, from operating as a bank (creating change by making loans) to operating as a knowledge-based organization that multiplies its impact by convening platforms of collaborative action that involve crowding-in dozens or hundreds of other players (example: Global Partnership for Oceans).

Leaders at the Bank have begun to realize that the massive challenges we face require new ways of catalyzing collective action on an unprecedented scale—which in turn requires a new collaboration infrastructure such as the Global Partnership for Oceans platform cited above.

One participant in the meeting, the COO of one of the biggest global environmental NGOs, put it like this: “We are just coming from a strategic review process. We assessed everything we have been doing over the past decade or so and realized that, although we are winning some of the battles, we are about to lose the war. All major main indicators of global environmental well-being are moving in the wrong direction, many of them rapidly. Unless we begin to act in radically different ways to catalyze massive institutional change, we will be losing the war.”

A few days later I had another two-day meeting. The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) in Cambridge, MA, convened a group of remarkable leaders working to organize the most marginalized and exploited groups in the U.S. economy: undocumented people; home care and home service workers; and those who are incarcerated in prison. This group of change makers works for the most invisible, marginalized, exploited, and underserved people in our economy and society.

Sad fact: Over the past few years the Obama administration has deported two million undocumented people (a rate of 1,500 each day); and another two million Americans are incarcerated, mainly black and brown men and most for non-violent drug crimes. The United States leads the world in both of these categories. What do these four million people have in common? Most of them are people of color, as are the remarkable leaders who attended the MIT CoLab workshop. They are part of an MIT fellowship program that supports them in their search and journey toward creating an economy that generates wealth and well-being for all. What inspires me about this circle is that all of them work under very high levels of pressure and hardship—and yet they continue to come up with powerful new forms of mobilizing collective action at the grass-roots level in their communities. The life journey of the members in this circle are closely connected to the backstory of the civil rights and anti-racism movements and the election campaigns that put Barack Obama, and more recently New York mayor Bill de Blasio, in office. They are the emerging new America—an America in which people of color are in the majority and forming new alliances with the more progressive-leaning part of the urban white population.

When we come together in this circle we start by asking members to talk about their current situations. Here is a phrase that frequently comes up: “We are under attack.”We are under attack means: members of our community are being deported and incarcerated at a rate without parallel in the world. It means that the Supreme Court keeps rendering decisions as if it is acting on behalf of the 0.1%, not the 99.9% (see McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission and Citizens United, the recent Supreme Court decisions that abolished the limits on campaign contributions by individuals and corporations. It means that in June, in the case of Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court is likely to deliver another blow against the 99%, effectively limiting the right of homecare workers—among the lowest paid and most vulnerable members of the low-wage workforce—to join unions and engage in collective bargaining. We are under attack means more than being a member of the working poor (working for a minimum wage that can’t support a family); it means living in a society that strips away an individual’s dignity as a human being. Similar circumstances prompted the anti-apartheid movement against the oppressive regime in South Africa, the civil rights movements in the U.S. and in Eastern Europe, and the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East. All of them, in spite of many obvious differences, were fighting essentially the same enemy: a system that denies many of its people the most basic human rights and dignity.

My experience of the past couple of weeks can be summed up in these two sentences: Are we are losing the war? We are under attack. Take a moment to let these two sentences sink in. The first refers to the ecological divide, the second to the social-economic divide. Take them as a reality mantra. How does this mantra resonate in your mind and in your heart? The resonance that I feel appears to me in these questions: Is our courage sinking? Are we losing the essence of our humanity? Is our energy for profound renewal slipping away?

Last stop: China. As I write this I am returning from a remarkable gathering in Beijing, the Her Village International Forum. The meeting brought together 300 impressive women entrepreneurs and leaders from all sectors and geographic areas of China. The gathering was hosted by Yang Lan, who has been called China’s Oprah. Her intention was to bring together thought leaders and innovators who are pioneering new ways of blending mindfulness, well-being, health, science, technology, and entrepreneurship, from both East and West. Lan and her network reach 300 million people every week with their programs. Feeling the energy of these inspired change makers made me aware that they are an example of a new global movement that is taking shape in many different places around the globe. It is a movement that integrates mindfulness, science/technology, and profound social change. In most countries, women are at the forefront of this movement.


Her Village International Forum 2014

Her Village International Forum 2014

I personally believe that the future of leadership will be more mindful, more collective, and more feminine. Holding the space for others, cultivating relationships, and giving birth to a future that wants to emerge are all leadership capacities that are arguably different from the masculine ego-leadership culture that is hitting the wall in ever more evident ways (and yet staying strong and almost unchallenged).

So what is the moment we are living in? Are we losing, are we sinking—orare we beginning to rise? Are we losing the deeper levels of our humanity? Or are we rising by becoming aware, by waking up at a more profound level of our own humanity?

Maybe the answer to that question is not out there in the world—it emerges from the inner place that we choose to operate from. When I experience the beginnings of a movement, like the one I witnessed in China, it feels as if a new relational quality of the social field is being activated. It’s a quality that blends the power of entrepreneurship with the awakening intelligence of the heart.

Have you experienced such changing field qualities in your circles? What do you see going on in your community today?



A Global Action Leadership School in the Making…

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 | Uncategorized | No Comments

I had an interesting week. On Monday I attended a book launch event in Denmark. The idea of the organizers was to create a “Nordic Forum” to bring together leaders and change-makers from many systems and sectors who are using awareness-based technologies of change (such as the one described in the Leading from the Emerging Future book that was introduced that day). Six hundred people from all walks of life showed up for this one-day gathering.

Entering the meeting space, I felt a wonderful energy of anticipation, an eagerness to learn about each other and about the connections between personal and societal change. We had set up the room in “neighborhoods” corresponding to the various hotspots (“acupuncture points”) of societal change: reinventing finance, energy, health, education, compassionate business, and politics. The politics group, for example, talked about an initiative to reshape the political field by co-creating a new party that would not position itself as either left or right; instead it would focus on unleashing the power of massive direct participation and compassionate entrepreneurship. I think this more direct democratic initiative is a really interesting example that soon we may also see in other places… Just ask yourself: who is not fed up with the traditional (20th century) political and economic debate between left and right?

After the breakout sessions we reconvened in a plenary session, where participants shared some of their emerging insights. Here are the ideas and topics that attracted most of them: business with purpose and compassion; education; nature; 4. Sector, measuring what matters; strengthening our sources of health; mindfulness.

Then we went through a “presencing practice” (connecting to your deeper source of inspiration in order to sense and shape the future that wants to emerge) and formed coaching circles among change makers in order to help each other across organizations and systems. Over the next nine months, many of these groups will meet regularly and use case clinic tools to bring about profound renewal and change.   Next December, at the second Nordic Forum, the participants will share what they were able to prototype, innovate, and learn.


When I left the meeting I was thinking: boy, this is really interesting, in only a single day you can activate such a powerful field of collective awareness, conversation, and connection;  it’s like switching on an already existing, but dormant social field. What if people could do that in regions and “hubs” around the world, and what if we could connect all these hubs in way that serves a deeper global intention for profound personal and societal renewal and change?

Next stop was China. A few observations. My first workshop was with leaders of a huge state-owned bank. It was the fourth of five workshops we’ve scheduled on a nine-month leadership journey toward profound innovation (formally part of the MIT IDEAS Program). We started with a “check-in circle” where each of the 25 participants shared some of what had happened for them personally over the previous three months. Almost everyone mentioned significant personal and relational changes. Most said that their thinking had changed. Instead of judging the world based on entrenched habits of thought, they were paying attention and listening. As one of them put it: “I try reduce the interference from myself.” Many of them (though not all) also reported that they had changed how they work with their teams. One said: “I used to be the boss who talks, who tells them what is going on, and who tells them what to do. Now I ask them to share.” Another put it: “I used to listen in order to correct them, now I ask questions in order to listen for solutions from them.”

Throughout this check-in the participants also mentioned specific leadership practices that helped them to operate in different ways. Here are the eight practices that they mentioned repeatedly:  (1) deep listening, (2) asking powerful questions, drawing people out, (3) letting go and letting come, (4) holding the space for their teams, (5) focusing on what they could change rather than complaining about what they can’t, (6) connect to their heart, being empathic, and (7) using systems thinking—“thinking from source, attending to the complex connections between the individual and the collective, between the inner and the outer. Looking at my notes, I realized that the group had just described the presencing practice model. (see also below graphic recording from my colleague Jayce Lee)


Later in the week I also met with leaders of a fast-growing Chinese Internet tech company that is continuously reshaping its industry. What struck me is the amazing pace of change it had undergone since I last visited the company only 15 months earlier.  What keeps such an enterprise together? What is the force at the eye of the hurricane? I saw a small core group of young entrepreneurial leaders who are linked by a shared sense of aspiration and commitment. Their aspiration is grounded in a deep-seated humanity (probably deeper than I have seen in most Western companies). As a senior government leader put it to me and my colleague Peter Senge a few days earlier: “We deeply appreciate the work you both are doing here with our leaders. It not only creates practical results and helps them to shift their mindset, it also connects them to the deeper levels of their will. It touches them in their soul.”

As I boarded my return flight from Shanghai I felt physically tired but also energized and renewed. In these and several other inspiring encounters over the past few weeks, something has happened to me. I am changing. I feel a reordering from within. An idea that I have been holding in my mind for the past 20 years suddenly has become more deeply rooted in my will. It’s the idea to create a global action leadership school for profound personal, and institutional renewal (what I have been calling a “u-school”).  Through a web of interconnected hubs, this school would bring together leaders and change-makers from across sectors and cultures to prototype 4.0 platforms of societal innovation.  Suddenly I see how this can work. Two catalysts are the potential partners I have been meeting with in China (and in other places, such as Brazil) and a new MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I’ll be creating at MIT.

This week I got the green light to offer my U-Lab class at MIT as a MOOC through MITx and its online platform edX. This is exciting news for me. For one, I am only the second faculty member at MIT Sloan to be given this opportunity. And two, the goal of this particular MOOC is to innovate and reinvent the existing model of online learning. Currently, many online courses attempt to teach technical knowledge. But the U-Lab MOOC project would try to do something different: make online learning work on a more profound level: to promote leadership, entrepreneurship and systemic changes; and to make the power of compassion-based entrepreneurship and systems change available for free and for everyone.  The course, tentatively called U-LabX, will build on the existing model of online learning but then add the following dimensions:

  • Live Global Forum events at the kick-off, mid-point, and conclusion of each five-week course (like the Nordic Forum described above).
  • Structured Coaching Circles in which peer-coaching groups meet virtually between modules to engage in in-depth case clinic sessions.
  • Practical tools that the participants use to engage differently with their social and institutional stakeholders each week.
  • Virtual sensing journey tools, such as a video gallery of dialogue interviews with leading change-makers around the world.
  • Personal awareness and mindfulness tools that allow the participants to engage differently with one another.
  • Prototyping support for participants who, as individuals and groups, embark on real-world change initiatives during the course.
  • An assessment tool that helps individuals and communities to evaluate the evolution of their deeper leadership capacities.
  • An online community that helps participants find peers with whom they want to stay connected.
  • A network of regional hubs that prototype the future of hybrid online/in-person learning that MIT—and other universities—are seeking to advance in the years ahead.
  • Increasingly advanced U-Lab offerings over the coming years, with the first taking place in October 2014.

In other words, the U-Lab will be a launching pad for the u.school vision that I talked about earlier, a hybrid learning platform that links existing academic and non-academic institutions with inspired change-makers across sectors, cultures, and systems.  This ”reordering” of my thinking makes me feel, simultaneously, both younger and more serious—as if I am finally honing in on my real point of origin or intention. As if the real journey of civilizational renewal in this century is only just now beginning…

Where have you seen stuff like this? Such as gatherings that bring together a microcosm of society, thereby activating a social field (like the Nordic Forum)?

Have you seen MOOCs that move into the deeper territories of transformative change? What ideas do you have that could contribute?

Can you think of ways to radically democratize access to educational environments that blend the power of entrepreneurship with the power of the open heart?