If you’ve been aware of the puzzle this blog has invited you to resolve, you might be glad to hear that in this blog post and the next I will be giving you more than just a clue. Why have I been so absorbed in the development of polyscopy that the concerns that normally orient a man’s life faded into the background? Last week Alma, with whom I was married when my academic adventure began a couple of decades ago, invited me for dinner and she reminded me how dedicated (I think she used the word “obsessed”) I was to this project in those early years. I replied that I am just as dedicated now. “You know me well enough,” I added, “to know that the reason is not excessive ambition. I simply saw a larger-than-life possibility, which required this sort of engagement.”

What did I see?


This Information Design Challenge ideogram depicts the large vision that motivated polyscopy (Design by Fredrik Eive Refsli)

The bus with candle headlights visual metaphor renders the vision that motivated  polyscopy‘s in a nutshell.

Modernity (our society, civilisation or culture) is incongruent and dysfunctional, suggests this image, because we have forgotten to modernise one of its key elements. By doing the obvious, we can now not only turn our risky ride into the future into a safe and sane one, but also make a dramatically better use of all our resources.

The fact that this “modernisation” is of the way in which information and information technology are created and used  might come as a surprise — isn’t that exactly what we have most successfully modernised, in “Information Age” and in “knowledge economy”? But it may also serve to energise the conversation about the larger-than-life opportunity that the polyscopy proposal is intended to begin.

The fact (to which I will return further below) that this “modernisation” is necessary also for fundamental or academic reasons made it obvious to me that I should engage in it as an academic researcher. The awareness that our contemporary condition is an emergency, in which nothing less than a thorough paradigm shift might make a difference, made me not spare my efforts.

Academically speaking, polyscopy is a paradigm prototype and a paradigm proposal. The ideogram explains what this means – no sequence of improvements of a candle can possibly lead to a lightbulb. A re-design is needed, based on entirely different principles and technology.

Polyscopy as a paradigm proposal is offered as an answer to the challenge posited by the ideogram. Its purpose is to explain, plan and initiate the redesign.

(This, by the way, explains why my polyscopy project required an uncommon dedication. Naturally, paradigm proposals require not only a different level, but also a different kind of engagement than the so-called normal science, where we follow established and routinised patterns of thought and work. When we work on uncharted terrain, we must suspend the routine activity and concerns and allow, with patience and focus, the creative intuition to organise a variety of disparate insights and questions into a coherent system of ideas. And when the paradigm proposal is not in an established field but in knowledge creation and use as a whole, then it is only after we have a coherent system of ideas that the most challenging task begins – implementing those ideas in an institutional reality where they don’t yet have a place.)

Not only the theme of my project, but also my manner of working was academically uncommon, so let me explain that with another metaphor.

Imagine that the year was 1848, and that while wandering in the hills of California I happened to see gold on the ground. Naturally one would think of taking ownership of a piece of land and developing a gold mine. But there was incomparably more gold there than I could possibly unearth on my own!

Realising also that this gold would be of highest value to our society in peril, I undertook to begin developing infrastructure – a railroad, a hardware store, a hotel, a school…  –  whatever might be needed to enable large-scale prospecting and mining.

(Technically, and in the language of polyscopy, the over-all result of my work is a high-level design of a paradigm, conceived as a portfolio of strategically placed prototypes. In polyscopy, prototypes are model re-designs. Being models, they are ready to be adapted and applied to other situations as needed. And being prototypes, they are embedded and used in a real-life situation, already changing it. Hence prototypes serve also as experiments, showing what works and what doesn’t. Prototypes are designed to evolve continuously, and reflect the changes in their environment and the state of the art in relevant domains of knowledge.)

I was of course not the only one to see the gold; others saw it too. As we saw each other prospecting, the similarity of our purposes and the complementarity of our skills and approaches became apparent. We began to team up and co-create projects.

We also became aware of historical prospectors, who worked on the same terrain before us, whose contributions we needed to understand and credit, and whose unfinished work we needed to continue and complete. An exemplar I will be focusing on in this text is Douglas Engelbart, the famous technology inventor I have already talked about in a couple of blog posts. For several of us Doug was not only an iconic precursor, but also a revered friend. We feel we owe Doug a breakthrough!

A result of all this was that a new frontier for academic work and real-life action began to take shape.

It is this frontier that I want to show you by talking about polyscopy. 

Allow me one more metaphor.

Facing the core challenge, of placing polyscopy and its prototypes into reality, and in that way ‘making a difference that makes a difference’, I resorted to a strategy similar to positional chess. The point here is that in a complex situations with many unknowns, which keeps changing in unpredictable ways,  a reasonable strategy is to simply aim to improve ‘the position on the board’ – as reflected by the further moves that are possible, and their potential or practical impact.

Now that a portfolio of polyscopy prototypes have been developed and put into practice, including the Knowledge Federation network and prototype institution – what kinds of interesting ‘moves’ might be possible?

My purpose is  not to elaborate but to illustrate the answer, by highlighting some of the ‘moves’ that are presently being made.

What would it take to create a new informing (‘headlights’)?

This brief visit to the frontier will be in four parts, which will, as you will see, roughly correspond to some of the core aspects of what ‘creating lightbulb headlights’ might practically mean. Hence the question I’ve just asked will be answered by showing what is already being done; and by making and being the change!

Before I begin, let me re-emphasise that I will be highlighting only some of the work done, and focusing on the work in the community or communities I’ve been collaborating with. This means that I will not do justice to the excellent work done in other communities on the same frontier – which, I hope, you’ll forgive me if we agree that our purpose is to illustrate rather than survey. Indeed, much of the excellent and highly relevant work that is being done in our own community will also be omitted.

Systemic Innovation

As I am using this term, systemic innovation is the way to manifest the larger-than-life opportunity that the bus ideogram is pointing to – namely to draw dramatically higher benefits from our capability to innovate, by changing the very way we do that.

If we interpret the bus as representing the use of technology and more generally of our creative capacity to change our condition and move more quickly toward a different future, then the benefits and the nature of systemic innovation are suggested by the candle headlights. By recreating those headlights to better suit their role in the hierarchy of larger wholes (instead of reproducing their current implementation in new technology), we can not only draw far larger benefits from the headlights themselves, but also from everything else — the larger system or systems, represented by the bus.

How can we begin systemic innovation? How can we develop it, and put it into general use?  

Before I answer this question by telling you about what’s currently being done (the account give below is already a bit obsolete – at the International Society for the Systems Science’s 60th meeting in Boulder Colorado, which took place after these lines were written, completely new and most promising developments were initiated), let me highlight something I often forget to say, which will, I believe, with time turn out to be most interesting. Why have I been so focused on the collaboration between the Knowledge Federation (and specifically knowledge media / IT researchers and developers)  and the International Society for the Systems Sciences (and specifically the systems scientists), that some of my fellow KF veterans and founding members even got a bit upset?

The point is that systems science or systemic thinking will be a most significant part of the ‘light’ – and hence must also play a significant part in the design of the ‘light bulbs’.

Shall I repeat this?

A useful metaphor (in any case for my scientific readers who might know what these things mean) for the role of systemic thinking in our systemic re-evolution is the Fourier transform. By transforming functions of time into functions of frequency, we can see and understand the contributing factors in a complex phenomenon – as, for example, when finding a composition of a material or a star through spectral analysis of the light it emits. In a closely similar way, systemic understanding of contemporary issues is likely to allow us to ‘tame’ our ‘wicked issues’ and make them amenable to proper understanding and handling – by showing us the contributing systemic processes and structures, and how they might be changed.

A lot has been said in this blog about the potential of information technology to enervate completely new institutional or organisational structures (this is Doug Engelbart’s original vision, as expressed in for ex. his 1995 Byte Interview). At least as much would need to be said about the potential of the systems science to inform and orient institutional redesigns! (On the last day of the recent ISSS conference in Boulder, I was fortunate to have Judith Rosen, Robert Rosen’s daughter, give me a personal two-hour introduction to her father’s work, and a most valuable library of his and her writings. Rosen’s work will surely be recognised as one of the core resources is re-thinking and reconfiguring institutions.)

This combination – of new knowledge media with insights and results in systems research – especially in the light of the growing evidence of the inadequacy of our present “headlights” (combination of public informing and governance, as reflected in for ex. current US elections), is likely to lead to a ‘nuclear-like explosion’ in this most central domain of interest.

But let us now turn to concrete things and events.

The Leadership and Systemic Innovation PhD program we have just launched, last month at the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology (see its description in this collaboration space that David Price initiated for us on Debategraph) gives us an opportunity to both evolve systemic innovation as an academic field, and to already put it into institutional practice: A significant part of the first-generation students are institutional leaders in Argentina.

Alexander Laszlo, this program’s creator and director, asked me to put the ball in play by giving an introductory seminar titled “The Challenge of Systemic Innovation at the Frontier of 21st Century Science”. I chose to begin by talking about Doug Engelbart’s unfinished revolution. The fact that

  • some of the most significant IT inventions, which led to “the revolution in the (Silicon) Valley”, were made for the explicit purpose of enabling systemic innovation (specifically the re-creation of our institutions, to enable them, and us, to become “collectively intelligent” – able to see and resolve challenge, see below)
  • that this opportunity has not been realised in practice, because suitable vision and leadership were lacking

offered a natural way to make the challenges and opportunities of the PhD program we were initiating palpable to students.

This also gave me a way to introduce contemporary developments, leading to the one we were just part of, by talking about another curiosity (from the collection I am developing for my Thrivability Strategy book project, see the Introduction): I described how in 2013 Alexander, acting as the President of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, initiated systemic changes in the systems sciences community along the lines that Doug was advocating – only two weeks after Doug passed away, bearing an unfulfilled desire to see his vision implemented in reality!

For the praxis of systemic innovation to be meaningfully or academically developed, at least two components must be present:

  • the systems science (to which we owe the insights that are necessary for understanding systems, which can enable us to work and think in a systemic way)
  • the technological innovation and design (which provides materials and technical skills, and ways to influence real-life systems)

By inviting me to co-chair with him the Curating Emergence for Thrivability SIG (CET SIG) that he developed within the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Alexander in effect created an academic and institutional space where those two components can meet and collaborate.

As you might be aware, the Knowledge Federation R&D community I have been facilitating, was initiated by an international group of systemically oriented knowledge media (IT) researchers and developers. It has subsequently evolved as a prototype institution suitable for systemic innovation, by developing a transdisciplinary community structure and way working  (see Knowledge Federation – an enabler of systemic innovation).

The blog post A collective mind – Part One, where the Knowledge Federation’s praxis of innovating systemically is carefully illustrated and explained, was created in part to introduce Knowledge Federation as prospective partner to the systems community, prior to the last year’s ISSS59 conference called “Governing the Anthropocene” in Berlin. A result has been the mentioned transformation of the CET SIG into a collaboration and prototyping space.

This month, at the ISSS60 “Realizing Sustainable Futures in Socio-Ecological Systems” conference at the University of Colorado, Boulder, we will be presenting several articles and staging two workshops where this line of work will be further developed (for illustration, see this abstract – invitation to our workshop “Collaboration for Impact – The Education Strategy”). I will say a few more words about this development at the very end.

Collective Intelligence

“Collective intelligence” is a popular nickname for Doug Engelbart’s unfinished revolution; it is also the name of the course Alexander and I taught together last month in Buenos Aires.

Under this title, I want to draw attention to another Doug’s key insight that is not sufficiently understood, and which is sometimes ignored even by the people who have “collective intelligence” on their banner: The digital computer technology, when suitably developed and combined in a network, can enable a completely different and incomparably more effective (i.e. hugely more “collectively intelligent”) institutional or more generally social-systemic re-designs. Doug’s technical keyword for this capability was CoDIAK (acronym for Concurrent Development, Integration and Application of Knowledge). In Knowledge Federation we point to this realm of possibilities by the simpler keyword collective mind.

In the context of the bus metaphor, this insight might correspond to the discovery of the physical principle that can enable the creation of the light bulb.

The challenge that remains is of course to stage the collective mind-style re-evolution in institutional practice.

In Buenos Aires we responded to this challenge at once, by staging a collective mind-style systemic re-organization of the first-year PhD student group. Instrumental in this was online collaboration with our international contributors – Sam Hahn (presently the leader of  The Program for the Future, a Bay Area-based initiative to continue and complete Doug Engelbart’s unfinished revolution), Saša and Siniša Rudan (developers of CollaboFramework,  see Eight Vignettes to Evanglise a Paradigm), David Price (co-founder of Debategraph, globally most impactful and most widely used collective intelligence platform) and Alf Martin Johansen (“interconnecting the global innovation ecosystem”, and spearheading Henry Chesbrough’s open innovation in different parts of the world, through his company Induct and as of last January through Induct Network).

A key issue here is the one of the enabling technology: If you imagine a community of people wanting to self-organize according to collective mind principles – what sort of technology might be needed? Doug’s original insight was that we needed interoperable technological components, which could easily be assembled together like Lego blocks, to enable completely new patterns of work and collaboration – which he developed as Open Hyperdocument System. CollaboFramework is a contemporary re-implementation of this idea, which the Rudan brothers are both developing, and using to stage collective mind systemic re-evolution in various communities and situations around the globe. The result is a distinctly colorful portfolio of prototypes.

A breakthrough on the collective intelligence side of the systemic innovation frontier was the meeting of Global Education Futures Forum last April in Prague. The global education innovators that were present at this meeting decided to self-organize as “Protopia Labs”, embracing the principle of organisation that Alexander has been developing  (building on the work of Banathy, Jantsch and other re-evolutionary systems science thinkers), which he calls Evolutionary Learning Labs. In this principle of organisation, the members of the knowledge media community and the friends of Doug will easily  recognise the “Networked Improvement Community”, another Doug’s key idea.

The issue here is of course even much larger than transforming the conventional education – it is to transform the way the people, communities and institutions evolve, by learning from each other.

The suitable tools and practices will be evolving continuously, while being used by Protopia Labs. They will co-develop this way of working  with other members of our network further, beginning at a special workshop next week at the ISSS60 in Boulder, then continuing a month later at the Futuriser camp on Cyprus, and then a month after that at the Collaborology course and workshop that Knowledge Federation is staging in Dubrovnik.

Changing the Course

This title is borrowed from Aurelio Peccei’s assessment of our global condition,”It is absolutely necessary to find a way to change course”. Under it, I want to report about the Polyscopy platform, which is being developed to showcase polyscopy by applying it to this timely cause.

You will easily understood this cause in the context of the bus metaphor: Can polyscopy (i.e. the approach to knowledge that the present prototype is pointing to) in the role of ‘headlights’ help us find and pursue a new direction of evolution or development?

A stated purpose of the Polyscopy platform is to provide “an evolving view of an impending Enlightenment-like change”. The platform fosters a vision of a comprehensive evolutionary leap, comparable to the change our civilisation has undergone since the Middle Ages. The four aspects in terms of which the details of this view are elaborated are tentatively called

  • Science, where a worldview and epistemology change analogous to the emergence of science is projected
  • Democracy, which talks about the possibility of a quantum leap in our understanding and handling of freedom and justice
  •  Renaissance, where the theme is a Renaissance-like emancipation of human body and spirit through art, culture and lifestyle
  • Industrial Revolution, which discusses the possibility of a large-scale increase in the efficiency and effectiveness of human work, comparable to the one that the Industrial Revolution brought

If this might seem overly ambitious, the word “impending” is there to suggest that this change is both logically and practically called for, because both our situation and the academic and other insights we already own demand it. The key obstacle – and polyscopy’s main reason for existence – is that we still lack a way to put what we know together into a coherent new worldview.

Indeed, when a suitable light is turned on to illuminate our situation, it will become obvious that we have been updating an old reality picture that has been growing beyond measure; and that the insights that challenge this worldview are routinely ignored – even when they come from the authorities we most highly esteem. “Like grains of sand, insights of our best minds fall through our fingers – including those grains of gold with which we could buy our freedom, and forge our future.”

Of course, the Polyscopy platform approaches the challenge of facilitating this sort of worldview change  in polyscopy’s own characteristic way that is already familiar – namely by creating prototypes. Here both the offered worldview, and the manner in which it is collectively and socially updated, are prototypes. Both evolve, to reflect the state of the art in relevant domains.

The information base of the Polyscopy platform is designed to evolve through a media-enabled public dialog. Every view on the current prototype will have a corresponding node on Debategraph, and in that way become a topic of public conversation, where it may be linked with counter-evidence, supporting evidence and other relevant points of reference. I have just completed a series of recorded dialogs with Isis Frisch, a bright and well-informed young lady based in Vienna, where we explored initial design of the platform’s information content.

The Polyscopy Interaction Design is a most interesting part of this project – the meaning of which you’ll easily understand if you acknowledge that the book, the article, the book table of contents and chapters… have all developed based on the old technology, and around the task of fostering a single,  ‘flat’ worldview. All that and more needs to be re-created if we should have a ‘3D’ information space (where we can look at both the big picture and the details, and easily discern what is ‘large’ or important), which  is what polyscopy is about.


The Polyscopic Information ideogram renders the design of ‘the headlights’ in a nutshell. (Design by Fredrik Eive Refsli)

A lot has been said and written about this, and this is no place to repeat it, so let me just  point to the Polyscopic Information ideogram as visual metaphor – representing the core characteristics of the design of ‘the headlights’ (see the explanation at the end of Ideograms).

The Polyscopy platform (more precisely its current prototype) renders a 3D view of world in terms of specific information presentation constructs: vignettes, threads, patterns, aspects and gestalts. Currently Fredrik Refsli (an excellent and accomplished Norwegian designer and design researcher, who has been collaborating  on polyscopy since he was a graduate student, having been recommended by his advisor) is preparing a presentation of this design, which he will share at the  Systemic Design for Social Complexity symposium that Peter Jones is organising at the OCAD University in Toronto. Through correspondence, we are arranging for Fredrik to develop a transdisciplinary  team with Peter and some other knowledgeable colleagues, which will allow us to federate the Polyscopy Interaction Design. And already now we have weekly recorded online dialogs, where polyscopy media design is discussed with Frode Hegland, Sam Hahn, David Price and others knowledge media designers from the Knowledge Federation network. (A reader interested in this theme might find this  recording  of my conversation with Frode Hegland informative, with these slides.)

Last not least, a conversation is germinating with Andrey Komissarov (an extraordinarily creative Russian educational game designer, the CEO of Gamified Education), and Gavin Peacock (a finance expert in our network), about bringing these ideas in practice for the young, by implementing the closely related Game-Changing Game.

Polyscopy Philosophy

As paradigm proposals often do, polyscopy includes also an epistemology (the assumptions underlying the social creation of truth and worldview, see the article Design Epistemology). The central point here is that by abolishing “the reality assumption” as foundation (which has been discredited by the 20th century science and philosophy) we can develop our work with information in the manner of what Herbert Simon called “the sciences of the artificial”, and in that way create a solid academic foundation for the kind of developments I have been talking about here, and also others.

In the context of the bus metaphor, the resulting epistemology change might be understood as the principle that the headlights should be developed in accordance with their purpose (and not with the habitual implementation of this purose).

I am yielding to the temptation to illustrate this epistemological point here by quoting Einstein:

During philosophy’s childhood it was rather generally believed that it is possible to find everything which can be known by means of mere reflection. (…) Someone, indeed, might even raise the question whether, without something of this illusion, anything really great can be achieved in the realm of philosophical thought– but we do not wish to ask this question.

This more aristocratic illusion concerning the unlimited penetrative power of thought has as its counterpart the more plebeian illusion of naïve realism, according to which things “are” as they are perceived by us through our senses. This illusion dominates the daily life of men and animals; it is also the point of departure in all the sciences, especially of the natural sciences.”

Polyscopy answers the above Einstein’s (‘unasked’) question positively, by showing how information creation and sharing, and ‘philosophy’ (if we interpret this word in a systemic way), can be consistently developed on a foundation that does not rely on “illusions” – namely by resorting to what Quine called “truth by convention“.

This is not a place to discuss this large theme (an interested reader may listen to this recording of my 2.5 hrs-long intuitive summary for Isis, while viewing these slides).

Let me here only highlight some of its synergistic connections with the lines of work that were pointed to above:

  • What I am calling design epistemology is closely similar to “being the systems you want to see in the world” that Alexander has been championing in the systems community; and to Doug Engelbart’s core idea of bootstrapping. By turning it into an epistemology, we can both give it an academic foundation, and allow it to develop its manifold consequences in academia; systemic innovation is an example
  • By basing informing or knowledge work on explicitly stated conventions, i.e. on a methodology, it is possible to reproduce in knowledge work the template that the Simula project and Object Orientation created in computer programming – first provide rational guidelines for ‘good design’; then provide conceptual and media tools that enable suitable practice
  • By considering information and informing as ‘a system within a system’ (and not as a true picture of reality) we can liberate ourselves from the dominance of obsolete worldviews on the one hand, and from quarrelling about them on the other, and begin to develop collaborative tools for creating trans-cultural understanding and syntheses (see The Garden of Liberation)

We Are Building a Lighthouse

In the spirit of polyscopy, I want to end by rendering the essence of this blog post, and the spirit of “the frontier” it is pointing to in a nutshell – by talking about a concrete project, which is being developed as we speak.


Pavel Luksha (leader of Global Education Futures Forum, in the background), Alexander Laszlo (former ISSS President who champions systemic innovation in the systems community), Annette Grathoff (evolutionary biologist and systems cientist, holding the light) and this author. This serendipitous photo was taken at the ISSS59 conference in Berlin, where The Lighthouse project was conceived. (Design by Fredrik Eive Refsli)

There is a visible and growing consensus among systems scientists that

  • systemic thinking and acting is an essential element of a sustainable Anthropocene (condition where the humans are capable of affecting the planetary biodynamics)
  • the systems community has not yet been able to communicate this vitally important insight to the general public

We motivated our offer to collaborate, at the Governing the Anthropocene conference in Berlin last year, by a gestalt we named “the Wiener’s paradox”. We submitted that the above problem was due to an incongruence (which, you will notice, is an interesting special case of ‘inheriting the candle headlights’): The systems community has inadvertently inherited its systemic organisation and way of working, by organising themselves as a traditional-academic discipline. By doing that, the community has missed the opportunity to apply systemic thinking, design and innovation to its own system! Our point was that this paradox can be dissolved through Knowledge Federation-style transdisciplinary collaboration, and we offered to instantiate it (see the abstract).

In this year’s contribution, we will be showing a prototype of an entirely different systemic prototype by which the systems community may co-create and communicate high-level transformative insights. And we will invite the systems community to co-evolve it together. Our contribution is titled “The Lighthouse – Innovating the Systems Sciences System” (see the abstract).

By creating The Lighthouse, we are of course also creating a systemic prototype, showing how any community of interest may synthesize its most impactful insights and make them publicly known. And how systems scientists and knowledge media design technologists may collaborate on designing systemic prototypes.

And we are creating a real-life instance of ‘the headlights’!


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