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‘Weaving’ — 21st Century Servant Leadership for Systemic Health

Reflections on the Ashoka ‘Global Change Leaders’ gathering to promote transformative innovation in education (1 of 4)

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall;

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;

All the King’s Horses and all the King’s men,

could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

— English Nursery Rhyme

WE LIVE in a fractured world of growing complexity, facing convergent crises the potential impact of which baffles comprehension. One can’t but recoil from the possible dystopias that now seem so uncomfortably real and within reach. Even the most seasoned futurist working on the future of humanity could be forgiven for shying away from the horror and retreating into denial or self-delusion — as most of our elected leaders seem to have done.

We are in a conceptual emergency! To respond wisely to these extraordinary times and make it through the proverbial eye of the needle requires us to change. We need to change the way we think about who we are, what we are here to do, and where are we going. Science is now revealing from diverse perspectives a structure of reality that is not dissimilar from those described in humanity’s ancient wisdom traditions. We are (re)discovering the fundamentally interconnected nature of life as fluid networks of relationships that form temporarily coherent identities which can interact with each other and are in themselves expressions of life as a planetary and fundamentally interconnected process.

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

— Albert Einstein

The changes we need to make are part of what Albert Einstein called ‘solving problems from within a different way of thinking that created the problems in the first place.’ If we follow the ecological, economic, social crises and the global crises in education upstream, we will come to realize that they stem from a single source: a crisis of perception — a crisis of consciousness.

We are educating from within an outdated worldview, perpetuating a removed observer perspective of reality that no longer adequately reflects the complex participatory and co-creative dynamics by which we have come to understand that “we bring forth a world together.” The complexity of 21st-Century living on an overpopulated planet facing runaway climate change and a profound transformation of human affairs can no longer be faced with business as usual.

For centuries we have cut nature and the richness of the world we experience into separated disciplines, categories, and subjects of inquiry. We reduced the vibrant and unpredictable complexity of the living and transforming whole that we are part of — and participants in — to manageable chunks of reality defined by clear — but nevertheless artificial — boundaries.

The result of favouring reductionist, mechanistic, and analytical thinking over holistic, organismic, integrative thinking has brought us a lot of useful knowledge and technology. Yet it has done so at a price — the profound illusion of separation from each other and from life as a whole.

A persuasive cultural narrative of separation has fractured Life as a 3.8 billion year old planetary process into supposedly competing species and individuals — making us blind to the symbiotic relationships and intricate patterns of interdependencies by which life optimizes the vitality of the whole system for the benefit of all participants.

The same narrative of separation favoured the creation of ever more diverse and narrowly focussed academic disciplines, societal roles, and professions — all with their ever deeper silos of knowledge separated by jargon. Our way of knowing the world around us carries within it a cultural bias that separates self & world, mind & body, nature & culture. Getting skilled in the new way of thinking that will help us chart wiser pathways out of this mess, requires us to put Humpty Dumpty back together again!

Humpty Dumpty and Alice, illustration by John Tenniel from ‘Through the Looking-Glass’

The role of the ‘Weaver’ in enabling systemic health

My own trans-disciplinary apprenticeship of searching for a new way of thinking that could get us out of this mess led me from being a marine zoologist and evolutionary biologist to studying holistic science and complexity theory at Schumacher College, and writing a PhD in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic / Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (2006).

I met Ashoka’s Ross Hall in October 2016. My membership in the International Futures Forum and work as an educator with organizations like Gaia Education, Findhorn College, Schumacher College and the University of the Third Horizon (H3Uni) brought me to his attention. My book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ — along with contributions by over a hundred innovators in education — served Ross as food for thought while he was co-authoring the first draft of the ‘Framework for Change’ that was to serve as a provocation for a global process of transformative innovation in education. After a year of smaller pilot meetings, the ‘Global Change Leaders’ (GCL) gathering in Lyon was the official launch of this process.

The GCL gathering — organized by Ashoka and Global Education Futures in Lyon — was held between January 29th and February 4th, 2018. Over the course of a 5-day meeting 250 people from 41 countries and six continents came together to take a deep dive in to the complexities of transforming education systems around the globe.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills co-authored the ‘Framework for Change’ with Ross Hall from Ashoka, based on the input of more than 100 leading educators from around the world. He addressed the GCL gathering in Lyon via video link.

The guiding vision of the meeting was to take the first steps towards creating

a world of learning ecosystems that empower every young person to live for the greater good”.

The explicit mission of GCL is:

to weave a global community of Change Leaders who are collaborating to create learning ecosystems that empower every young person to live for the greater good.”

— ‘Global Change Leaders’

The two central notions of the ‘framework for change’ are the creation of ‘learning ecosystems’ catalyzed by people who have the ability to weave together the different actors and stakeholders who need to be involved in the creation of such ‘learning ecosystems.’

These people take the role of ‘weavers’ and practice the ‘art of weaving’ multi-stakeholder relationships into a fabric of shared meaning and mutual empathy that can motivate and sustain collective action towards a shared goal — enabling and improving learning throughout life for the benefit of all: people and planet.

A learning ecosystem effectively links all the actors and stakeholders of life-long-learning and education into an interconnected symbiotic community that enables everyone to learn how to live for the greater good. Beyond that the learning ecosystem enrolls and interconnects people— all learners throughout life — to become active participants in a learning community that enables us all to live together in solidarity and wise stewardship. A working definition of what we might mean by greater good could be the following:

“To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

— R. Buckminster Fuller

Regrettably, education, knowledge and society at large have increasingly become fractured into sectors and silos that at best find it hard to talk to each other and at worst do not understand each others ‘languages’ or value each others contributions. Hence the role of the ‘weaver’ is a crucial one.

For health to emerge as a property of the whole systems, we need to reconnect the system to itself building new bridges between previously separate disciplines. Put differently, we need to revitalize the hidden mycelial connections between the tall trees of knowledge into a vibrant forest of wisdom that can talk to each other and care for each other. Weaving is systemic healing.

The complexity of the converging crises we are facing — climate change, growing inequality, biodiversity loss, dysfunctional economic systems, misdirected exponential tech, … — will not go away simply because we are overwhelmed by it.

Just because we would prefer to stick to models of reality that give us the illusion of being able to predict and control our path into the future, does not liberate us from the necessity of accepting the limits of prediction and control and embracing uncertainty and ambiguity. This would lead us to participate more wisely with the necessary humility and precaution.

Learning to thrive from the rest of Nature: We need to face complexity head on and find that there is an underlying simplicity to the way that evolution proceeds by diversification and subsequent integration of that diversity at higher levels of complexity, predominantly through the creation of networks of collaboration and symbiosis. Life’s economy is primarily based on collaborative rather than competitive advantage.

We can learn some basic lessons from how life has survived for nearly 4000 million years. As conscious self-reflective members in the community of life we are capable of following the fundamental lesson of ecoliteracy and biomimicry: “life creates conditions conducive to life”.

We are not masters but mere members in the community of life. If we want to thrive over the long term, our species will have to understand that the narrative of separation has lead us to unravel life’s intricate tapestry. This tapestry of symbiotic connections maintain healthy ecosystems functions — the basis of the planetary life-support system upon which all of us and future generations depend so critically.

As active participants in — and strands of — the web of life we cannot but affect it through our individual and collective actions. We can however become more conscious of our role as a key-stone species with the capacity to increase the systemic health and vitality of the web as a whole.

We are not predestined to continue on our path of exploitation and destruction of nature as some-thing supposedly separate and distinct from culture. The source of all value creation and the abundance upon which thriving children, families, communities, societies and their economies depend is planetary bio-productivity and the health of the ecosystems and the biosphere.

Weaving enables transformative innovation & collective intelligence

Transformative innovation in education, economics, business, social entrepreneurship, and policy making is first and foremost about weaving between the disciplines and bridging between sectors and silos that do not sufficiently collaborate in humanity’s unifying task of weaving ourselves back into the fabric of life in ways that benefit the health of the whole system.

To do so effectively we have undo the illusion of separation and re-integrate seemingly separate fields of knowledge into a new higher-level synthesis that values multiple ways of knowing and diverse perspectives on the complexity in which we participate, in order to help us take wise decisions in the face of uncertainty — transforming converging crises into synergistic opportunities.

We can do better than a simple paradigm shift! Honouring multiple ways of knowing and making sense of the world means moving beyond the pendulum swings of so called “paradigm shifts.” We need to learn how to value the contribution of multiple paradigmatic positions in full awareness that each of them comes with its own blind-spots — bringing some aspects of reality into sharper focus at the expense of ignoring others. Too often throughout the course of human history have we ‘thrown out the baby with the bathwater’ as we replaced one dominant paradigm with another.

The scientific revolution and the enlightenment brought us the emancipation of human reason. Yet rather than enabling humanity to connect deeper to our interdependence with the community of life and our responsibility for it, science and technology served to alienated us from the rest of nature. The new scientific paradigm made us dismiss the perennial wisdom of living in place and caring for life — held by indigenous people around the world — as “primitive” rather than essential for our long-term survival.

Transformative innovation in education and all other fields of human affairs requires a form of servant leadership aimed at systemic healing through unleashing the dormant potential that lies within our collective intelligence. To do that we need to distinguish science from scientism and allow for epistemological diversity. By valuing multiple ways of knowing and aligning them with a shared guiding aim of improving the health and vitality of the whole systems for the benefit of all its participants, we can nurture the kind of collective intelligence the complexity of the 21st century calls for.

Effective change makers on this path take the role of weavers between disciplines, sectors, worldviews, value systems, and stakeholders. As Donella Meadows so insightfully observed ‘the most effective leverage point for systemic change is to move beyond paradigms.’ A truly holistic and integral perspective transcends and includes reductionism and analytical reasoning and values them for their contribution to a more multi-facetted mode of participating in complexity and facing uncertainty.

The role of the weaver is to help facilitate a process by which disparate fields of knowledge, disparate sectors of society, disparate strands of the human endeavour can come together in the co-creation of a higher-level synthesis. Such a synthesis would overcome the story of separation and adequately value all our diversity within the underlying context of a new story: our fundamental interbeing with all life and interdependence with healthy ecosystems and a healthy biosphere.

Weaving is enabling cultural evolution

Biological evolution, as changes in gene-frequency within populations, is too slow to help us respond to the complex and rapid changes we have unleashed after hundreds of years of resource depletion, over-population and the unbridled burning of fossil fuels. We need rapid cultural evolution! Humanity is undergoing a rite of passage. We need to become mature and responsible members of the community of life.

The only way to respond through the converging crises in times is by a shift in consciousness. Only a shift in how we think about life and envision our role within life’s continued evolution will suffice as a strong enough driver to cause a shift in individual behaviour and collective action. While cultural evolution takes its time, it can be much faster than underlying biological (genetic) processes of evolutionary change.

We need a new guiding story, capable of over-coming the idea of our separateness. Our dominant worldview sets the intentionality behind design. Design is the way human beings manifest intentions through interactions and relationships. Education for the 21st Century has to enable people everywhere to co-design diverse regenerative cultures capable of reversing the damage done by social, economic, and ecological degradation.

The ‘learning ecosystems’ we have to co-create will have to enable people in place to take wise decisions in the face of the converging global crises and discover together that by working for collaborative rather than competitive advantage we can turn these crises into a transformative opportunity in which everyone can learn to live for the greater good.

Regionally focussed learning ecosystems have to enable informed and active citizens to create elegant and adaptable solutions that are born out of the biocultural uniqueness of place. In order to match the complexity of local to global interactions and interdependences, bioregional learning ecosystems have to be scale-linked into national and international networks of collaboration, knowledge and technology exchange.

Design as the ‘first signal of human intention’ is how we can draw from multiple ways of knowing and diverse skill sets and combine them into innovative ways to get things done. Design education enables cultural transformation. Paying attention to the scale of regenerative design and how they interact is critical for facilitating the emergence of health as a systemic property across the scales.

This graphic is from Designing Regenerative Cultures, the book I published ten years after my PhD in which I explore the importance of the scales of design and scale-linking design in some detail.

We have to learn to weave symbiotic and synergistic relationships between the different spatial scales of design. So local and bioregional learning ecosystems have to be networked into nested holarchies of national and global learning ecosystems. Since health is a scale-linking emergent property, wise cultures will aim to design for health at and across all scales of life as a planetary process.

We are literally all in this together. It will take all of us to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. We can learn from each other how to weave viruses of infectious health into the very fabric of the diverse regenerative cultures we will co-create around the world.

Personally, I feel that the name ‘Global Change Leaders’ lacks humility. For me, I choose to reframe that role as servant leadership and apprentice of the art of weaving health and wholeness back into a fractured world. I have been on the path of the weaver for a very long time. I am delighted to have found yet another global community of fellow weavers!

The ‘weavers’ after an intense week of weaving connections at the GCL gathering in Lyon.


Daniel Christian Wahl works internationally as a consultant and educator in regenerative whole systems design, and transformative innovation. He holds degrees in biology (Univ. of Edinburgh / Univ. of California) and Holistic Science (Schumacher College) and his 2006 doctoral thesis (Univ. of Dundee) was on Design for Human and Planetary Health. He was director of Findhorn College between 2007 and 2010, and is a member of the International Futures Forum, a fellow of the RSA, a Findhorn Foundation Fellow and on the advisory council of the Ojai Foundation and the Ecosystem Restoration Camps Foundation. Daniel’s clients have included UNITAR (with CIFAL Scotland), UK Foresight (with Decision Integrity Ltd), Ecover (with Forum for the Future), Bioneers (with the Progressio Foundation, and with the Findhorn Foundation), the Dubai Futures Foundation (with Tellart), The Commonwealth Secretariat (with Cloudburst Foundation), Gaia Education, the Global Ecovillage Network, the State of the World Forum, Balears.t, Camper, LUSH and many educational NGOs, universities, and design schools. He is co-founder of Biomimicry Iberia (2012), and has been collaborating with ‘SmartUIB’ at the University of the Balearic Islands since 2014, and works part-time as Gaia Education’s ‘Head of Design & Innovation’ since 2015. His recent book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in the UK in May 2016, has already gained international acclaim, and his blog on Medium has a large international readership.



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