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My career as an experiment

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to David Price and Fredrik Refsli for reviewing an early draft of this essay and suggesting valuable improvements.

As I recently explained in Polyscopy,  my work during the past two decades has been on an emerging academic and innovation frontier, where structural or ‘paradigmatic’ changes in the way information is created and used are being crafted. We have seen that uncommonly large and urgently needed benefits to our society are anticipated on this frontier – and pursued with diligence and vigour.

“The university should make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing society’s capability for continuous self-renewal,” Erich Jantsch wrote in his 1969 MIT report, which was an appeal to the universities to take leadership in developing the frontier. By sharing some of the idiosyncrasies of my career, I want to repeat and re-energise this call to action.

Early in the polyscopy development I became aware that my career acquired a structure of an unusual academic experiment, without me intending that – suitable for testing the degree in which the university (I am using this word as Jantsch did, to denote the institution and not any particular university) might be capable and willing of making structural changes within itself when this is needed to respond to our society’s urgent needs. I have seen, namely, again and again my frontier colleagues and myself struggle with the academic-institutional ecology (distribution of titles and salaries, habitual ways of working, values…), which should indeed – by the nature of the social function of the university, and by the time-tested values that have been the driver of progress in the academic tradition – be there to support us.

I am writing this essay to offer my experiences to what seems to be the next urgent task on the frontier – changing, i.e. further evolving this ecology. 

Two discrete lines of argumentation is here woven into the story about my career, ending with an appeal. One of them is ethical, the other one is legal. Let me separate them here, so that you may more easily follow them in the text, and see how they support the appeal.

The ethical line begins with reported problems in the very way we academic people go about performing some of our key social roles. I had an idea how those problems might be remedied, worked in a most dedicated way and achieved results. To do that, I had to depart from the conventional ways of doing academic work, and develop new ones – which naturally required much higher risk and level of investment compared to my earlier work.

My ethical appeal (to my superiors who are distributing the public esteem and funds to us researchers)  is to reward me accordingly.

The legal line begins by observing that the legal regulation of retribution at our university is written in non-specific terms:

The salary should […] make visible and reward the performance and initiatives that contribute to the achievement of goals in all areas […].

When this regulation is operationalised in terms of various quantitative parameters (publications, grants, students…), a large and unfair disadvantage is given to researchers who do not do their work by using the routinised disciplinary procedures. (An explanation suggests itself – the routine application of quantitative measures relies on the tacit assumption that the academic research is the conventional disciplinary one, which can be meaningfully evaluated in those terms.)

In the legal profession it is common to change the legal practice that violates ethical, constitutional or other norms by focusing on a single case. My legal appeal to you is to use my case, or ‘my career experiment’, to update the practice by which our salary and title promotions are decided.

Formally, this essay is structured as an application for salary raise, in the context of the regular biennial salary negotiations at my university. Those are mediated by the Researcher Forum, which represents us researchers. This framing is chosen as the natural or perhaps the only way for me to submit this matter to my university administration and my superiors and solicit a response.

The issue I want to raise, however, and contribute to its solution by writing this application-essay, is incomparably larger and more important: It is how the selected, trained and publicly sponsored minds are organised in the production and sharing of knowledge globally  – in a most demanding moment in our history, where inspired creativity and the ability to serve new and old purposes in new ways might make a larger difference than ever before!

It is for this larger purpose that I have found it worthwhile to report here about ‘my career experiment’ in some detail – and why I found it warranted to ask for a corresponding amount of your time and attention.

This blog article has two purposes, and therefore two voices.

One of them is to share my experiences – the results of ‘my career experiment’. This I’ll do by telling my story, in the manner that is usual in this blog – by narrating vignettes (crisp, short and sticky real-life stories with a punchline).

The other purpose – to make a clear and logically coherent case for promotion –  is served by the eight titles of the sections in terms of which those vignettes are organised. As you can see, when those titles are put together, they compose a simple logical argument, ending with an appeal:

1. In California I worked and published with leaders in my field, and began a successful conventional research career.

2. In Oslo, my interest shifted to two long-standing open problems, posed by scientists of highest authority more than a half-century ago. Those problems are so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them. Both problems require an uncommon i.e. transdisciplinary way of working.

3. My work on those two problems was in line with the publicly stated mission of my university. The specific approach I followed was in line with the recommended strategy in my field.

4. And yet I found that my transdisciplinary work during these two decades had been misjudged and discouraged, while being looked at and evaluated by the common “productivity” criteria, which have become common at universities worldwide.

5. A result is that my career and salary advancement came to a standstill – and remained there for two decades. This and the other details of “my career experiment” show that the conventional academic “productivity” measures tend to inhibit the transdisciplinary way of working.

6. The conventional academic “productivity” criteria are incompatible with the codified principles for rewarding researchers. They inhibit the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed. In subtle ways, they violate core academic values.

7. Use my case to change the evaluation practice.

To the above seven-point application I added the eighth point,

8. Concluding remarks

where I make it clear that I have no grievances against my department and university. On the contrary, I give them the due gratitude and credit for making my project possible. Then I offer some thoughts about how our situation at hand, and the global-academic anomalies that my career experiment is pointing to, might be handled.

By writing in those two voices, I am leaving you, the reader, the challenge to see that I am not just telling stories; that my vignettes do indeed carefully support the statements in the above logical argument that organise them into sections. I will try to help you in that by adding brief parenthetical explanations.

1. In California I worked and published with leaders in my field, and began a successful conventional research career

(Here I will allow myself to be a bit more technical and detailed than in the rest of this essay, but please bear with me: It  is an advantage of my ‘career experiment’, however unintended it might have been, that it is resilient to the usual criticism – that transdisciplinary work is a way to evade the rigour and quality standards of the disciplines. As you will see, exactly the opposite was the case! Furthermore I want to build bridges, by allowing you to first meet me on a familiar academic terrain.)


At UCSD I began a successful conventional academic career

At some point during my final year of the Ph.D. study,  János (Komlós, my adviser) showed me a letter he had received from Donald Knuth (one of the founding fathers of our field, and a Stanford University Computer Science Professor) urging him to accept an already offered full professor position in his department, because he, Knuth, so much wanted to work with him. I said “János, now you really have something to show to your grandchildren!”

A reason why Donald Knuth and Stanford University Computer Science Department were so interested in János was that he and his two friends and colleagues,  Endre Szeméredi and Miklós Ajtái, had just solved  one of the key open problems in our field – by creating an optimal sorting network, and thereby showing that parallel sorting (a basic problem in computer science) can be done in optimal, i.e. logarithmic time. In The Handbook of Theoretical Computer Science, Nick Pippenger used a page and a half to introduce this result – by listing other open problems in the field that were solved by this result or the technical idea on which it was based.

But most importantly, Donald Knuth knew that our field had matured to the point where the interesting remaining problems required the knowledge of discrete mathematics, and the creativity and the depth of insight, that János owned.

My dissertation was on parallel sorting. Nothing as earth-shaking as the mentioned result of my mentor. But I did create a sorting algorithm for a less important parallel machine (CRCW PRAM) and I proved its optimality.

I am probably the only algorithm theorist who has co-authored an article on parallel sorting with the famous trio.

In 2012 Endre Szeméredi received the Abel Prize (equivalent to Nobel Prize in mathematics).

At UCSD János was my third PhD advisor.

I decided to leave my first advisor after one year of working together. Having understood that he was about to publish an article about the system we were developing at a very early stage, before we even properly knew what we were doing, I had to admit to myself that “this is not what I came here to learn” and suffer the consequences. (At this point I must make it clear that in the mentioned case, and throughout my career and life itself, I have handled potential conflict by diplomatic withdrawal. Anyone who knows me will confirm that my relationships are strictly non-negative.)

My second advisor demanded that I write long reports for our weekly meetings even when I had nothing new to say. Our difficulties began when I did have an idea – my proposal seemed to lie outside the bounds of the acceptable range of novelty. Can a graduate student model the well-known problem we were working on (mapping parallel algorithms to parallel machines) not only in a new way, but also by a combinatorial optimisation problem that he himself formulated? No, something must surely be wrong with that problem.

It turned out that nothing was wrong. I later published this model as a research article in the Journal of Parallel and Distributed Computing.

It also turned out that the transformation of graphs that this problem was based on, which I called “graph compaction”, was a new concept in graph theory. I later reported it on a graph theory conference in Alaska. It was there that I finally had a chance to meet Paul Erdős, János’ legendary elder colleague and mentor from his former institute in Budapest.

The reason why I got a tenured position at the University of Oslo Computer Science was my third line of work at UCSD, which I did in database theory with my colleague and friend Victor Vianu. Although a year younger than me, Victor was already an assistant professor. It did not take him long to become one of the leaders in his field.

We published several articles together in the field’s highest-rated journals and conferences. Among our results, I will highlight only one,  which was later cited as a curiosity: We formulated a natural and practically relevant optimisation problem (called Parallel Transaction Optimisation) and proved that this problem was not efficiently solvable (i.e. that it was NP-complete), but that it could be approximated efficiently  (in polynomial time) with theoretically smallest error – constant one.  This seems to be the only reported combinatorial optimisation problem with that property.

Each summer Victor and I would rent apartments in Paris, work in INRIA during the day, and spend evenings with culture, restaurants and conversations.

2. In Oslo, my interest shifted to two long-standing open problems, posed by scientists of highest authority more than a half-century ago. Those problems are so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them. Both problems require an uncommon i.e. transdisciplinary way of working.

The first of those open problems is the inadequacy of the present organisation of creation and sharing of scientific results, and the possibility for its radical improvement with the help of new technology. This problem was formulated by Vannevar Bush (MIT Professor and the leader of the  US WW2 scientific effort) in his 1945 article “As We May Think”, where he identified it as a scientific strategic priority, and urged the scientists to focus on it and resolve it.

Since I already talked about this article in A Collective Mind – Part One, I will here only re-quote a few characteristic sentences:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. […] The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

Bush’s point was that new technology can enable a completely different and far more effective patterns of knowledge creation and sharing (as a single mind might think), than the ones that evolved around the printed paper and similar media. He urged the scientists to develop new patterns of knowledge creation and sharing, and the technology that might enable them.

As I pointed out, Bush’s article inspired Doug Engelbart to dedicate his career to the pursuit of this vision – in which he developed significant parts of contemporary information technology, and made invaluable and not yet properly recognised contributions

As a quick illustration that the problem that Bush was urging us scientists to resolve is still with us, let me just mention that two years ago, when the Researcher Forum was representing me in the salary negotiations I will come back to, “Vi druknar i informasjon” (We are drowning in information) stood on the title page of their journal. This message echoed Neil Postman’s well-known counsel to German computer scientists two and a half decades earlier, which he delivered in a keynote with the memorable title Informing Ourselves to Death.

The second open problem is the mechanistic nature and the limitedness of our prevailing worldview, and of the conventional social creation of truth and meaning that underlies it. This problem was pointed to, among others, by Werner Heisenberg (Nobel Laureate, “the creator of quantum mechanics”),  in his 1958 book “Physics and Philosophy”. Heisenberg pointed out that this problem developed as a consequence of a specific paradigm that emerged through science, and became dominant during the 19th century. He then explained how the fundamental flaws in this paradigm were reveal by modern physics.  Since I discussed this book and its implications in this blog earlier (see Book 3 in Science and Religion), let me here only highlight a few characteristic sentences (the boldface emphasis is mine):

…the nineteenth century developed an extremely rigid frame for natural science which formed not only science but also the general outlook of great masses of people…this frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concepts of mind, of the human soul or of life…Coming back now to the contributions of modern physics, one may say that the most important change brought about by its results consists in the dissolution of this rigid frame of concepts of the nineteenth century

I here echo Heisenberg’s point – that the “narrow frame” of the 19th century science was so damaging to culture, that its “dissolution” might have been “the most important change” brought by modern physics – as a call to provide another “frame” that would be broad enough and culturally remedial. As we shall see in a moment, it was this Heisenberg’s call, and an idea how it could be answered by resorting to the paradigm developed in my own field, that made me make a career shift that led to polyscopy.

This page-and-a-half excerpt from Heisenberg’s book will illustrate that the mentioned “rigid frame” and the corresponding cultural biases are still impregnating our culture.

Let us approach my next point, that those two problems are “so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them”, with a moment of reflection.

Try to imagine how an algorithm theorist – who is trained to look at man-made things and see how they could be altered to work better, or even to work at all – might see ‘the largest algorithm on our planet’ – the information creation and sharing as a whole. Notice, to begin with, that this ‘algorithm’

  • determines the social effects of the work of researchers worldwide
  • decides whether the insights of our great ancestors (including Bush and Heisenberg) will be seen and taken into consideration

Imagine now that this algorithm theorist sees how the mentioned two problems point to two fundamental structural flaws in this ‘algorithm’; and that they also point, most importantly, to gigantic ‘orders of magnitude’ possibilities for improvement.

In my role of structuring or streamlining (or “evangelising”, as I like to say half-jokingly) the work on the frontier, I have been collecting vignettes that point to the need and the possibility for dramatic improvements of the mentioned ‘algorithm’.  An outline of several of those vignettes is provided in a recorded presentation shared in Eight Vignettes to Evangelise a Paradigm. If you, however, don’t have a half-hour to listen to this recording, already a quick look at a single vignette – the developments in sociology following the World War Two, as reported in  Knowledge Federation as a Principle of Social Organization of Knowledge Creation and Sharing (our prospectus article for Knowledge Federation in the first Knowledge Federation proceedings) – will be sufficient to get an idea.

The sociology example is further elaborated by explaining why a largest contribution to human knowledge might be possible through systemic innovation (as developed and practiced by Knowledge Federation), in the first ten minutes of my “evangelising” talk What is Knowledge Federation” at the Trinity College Dublin in 2009 (this half-hour video might take a minute to download).

It self-evident that both mentioned problems require an uncommon,  transdisciplinary way of working. What we are talking about is the need to work with the knowledge creation and sharing as a whole, which obviously not only transcends the limits of conventional disciplines,  but also depends on organising the co-creation and sharing across disciplinary and other boundaries.

It would indeed be rather odd to try to remedy the “information overload problem”, or more precisely the open problem Vannevar Bush was urging us to resolve, by only publishing articles about it. But what else can we do?

It is exactly this question that has been answered by developing the polyscopy prototype. 

To simplify our conversation, I will now do something that is common in my earlier field of interest, in algorithm theory: I will reduce the mentioned two problems to a single one. I want to show that if we can resolve that single general problem, we can also resolve those two specific ones most easily.

The general problem I am talking about is to enable our institutions in general, and our university institution in particular, to evolve and change when new demands present themselves in their environment.

The purpose of the Polyscopy blog article has been to showcase our progress in developing and institutionalising  systemic innovation – the goal of which is to give our academic and other institutions this key capability they are lacking, to adapt and evolve.

3. My work on those two problems was in line with the publicly stated mission of my university. The specific approach I followed was in line with the recommended strategy in my field.

(I address “the stated mission of my university” first, then turn to “the recommend strategy in my field.”)

“Vi skal utfordre kunnskapens grenser og gi den enkelte og samfunnet innsikt til å forme sin fremtid” (We shall challenge the limits of knowledge and give the individual and the society insights to create their future) – reads the brief mission statement of my university, on the cover of a small booklet I received in 2002, when this strategy was made public.

But how can we use knowledge to create our future, without an institutionalised process that would allow us to even put together the knowledge that might be relevant to an issue?  (This is what the first of the mentioned open problems is about.)

And isn’t it most natural to  “challenge the limits of knowledge” by alleviating some of the reported limits that are imposed by our very approach to knowledge? (This is the meaning of our second open problem.)

(Coming now to the issue of “the recommended strategy in my field”, I talk about a public recommendation that motivated me to begin polyscopy.)

In 1992, the year when I moved from the USA to Norway, a high-profile scientific committee that had been formed by the US National Science Foundation to create a strategy recommendation for the further development of my field published their report. In this report, titled Computing the Future: A Broader Agenda for Computer Science and Engineering, the committee had this to say in the Executive Summary (the boldface emphasis is mine):

The first and foremost judgment was that CS&E is coming of age. Although as an organized and independent intellectual discipline the field is less than 30 years old, it has established a unique paradigm of scientific inquiry that is applicable to a wide variety of problems. Indeed, the committee believes that this history and resulting strength should enable academic CS&E to recognize that intellectually substantive and challenging CS&E problems can and do arise in the context of problem domains outside CS&E per se. CS&E research can be framed within the discipline’s own intellectual traditions but also in a manner that is directly applicable to other problem domains, as illustrated in Table ES.1. CS&E can thus be an engine of progress and conceptual change in other problem domains, even as these domains contribute to the identification of new areas of inquiry within CS&E.

My point of departure from algorithm theory and the beginning of polyscopy was the recognition that the “unique paradigm of scientific inquiry” that had been developed within my discipline could be applied to information creation and sharing at large.

And that this approach could lead to the resolution of the mentioned two open problems.

How the computer science paradigm can  be extended to help the resolution of the first problem, of information organisation and sharing, can be seen in several ways. I have already sketched one of them, by talking about that whole system as ‘algorithm’. Another way is to see that knowledge creation and sharing is now largely been done with the help of Internet-connected computers, and that we computer scientists are academically in charge of the physical medium that can be used to improve it. Yet another way is to see that what has been learned through the work on managing the complexity of programs and programming could be applied to the creation and sharing of knowledge at large. Here (as I pointed out in Polyscopy) the Simula and object orientation-related developments, which marked and elevated Norwegian computer science internationally, are a most a valuable source of ideas. Indeed, polyscopy might be understood as an application of the core object orientation-related ideas (to formulate a methodology, to combat the overload by structuring information within a hierarchy of views etc.) to knowledge work at large.

But the more fertile idea here is that the CS&E paradigm can be extended also to the fundamental part of our challenge, i.e. to the second of the “two open problems”! This can easily be seen if we take into account that the paradigm of computer science belongs to what Herbert Simon called “the sciences of the artificial”. Computer science is one of the sciences that study man-made things, with the view towards improving them. Fundamental in the polyscopy proposal is a shift of perception – from viewing information as an objective reality picture, and our disciplinary methods as an eternal and objective way to create them, to viewing all this as man-made things that are subject to conscious improvement or design.

Hence also the techniques from my field can be applied to this fundamental challenge in interesting ways. I usually talk about “truth by convention” and give credit to the great 20th century philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. But my colleagues will in the related proceeds of polyscopy easily recognise the usual practice in theoretical computer science and in mathematics to define concepts by convention: “Let x be…” when we prove theorems; and declaring variables at the beginning of a program when we write code.

It is this convention making (especially when developed with the help of suitable technical tools into scope design, which is the essence of polyscopy) that makes it possible to replace “the rigid frame”; and to develop knowledge work as a purpose-oriented and hence evolving activity, in an academically rigorous and consistent way.

4. And yet I found that my transdisciplinary work during these two decades had been misjudged and discouraged, while being looked at and evaluated by the common “productivity” criteria, which have become common at universities worldwide.

Allow me to use the word transdisciplinary here to refer to the kind of transdisciplinary work that the development of polyscopy and the frontier required. Most of what I’m about say will, however, hold for transdisciplinary work at large.

Before I begin, it is necessary to sketch, and I will do that very briefly, the specific nature of the transdisciplinary research those two open problems required, as represented by polyscopy.

The key step, and the first step, was to create a solid foundation for knowledge work that builds on, but is free from, the conventional disciplinary research and the corresponding “frame”. This is done by postulating the design epistemology (i.e. by defining it as a convention).

As I explained there, this very act – of postulating an epistemology – leads to a development that is analogous to a “style” in modern art; the general idea is to allow for more free and creative and purpose-oriented approaches to knowledge – and similar outbursts of creativity in our work with knowledge as the ones that the development of modern art instigated in the arts.

When we no longer perceive ourselves as “objective observers of reality”, but as “a system within a system” – i.e. when we define ourselves as serving certain functions or purposes within our society as a whole – we are then empowered to develop what we do and how in completely new ways. As I explained in Polyscopy, my polyscopy proposal is outlining what this might mean in a specific instant – when the chosen purpose is ‘to show the way’ – by developing a rather complete system of prototypes. As I pointed out with the metaphor of gold prospecting and infrastructure building at the beginning of Polyscopy, the substance of my work has been to develop a high-level representation of a whole paradigm. It’s a bit like crafting a whole light bulb: I was showing that it can be created and how; and also already embedding this creation in real-world action. 

For a few steps, polyscopy followed in the footsteps of the great philosophical systems of the past. But then it took an unexpected turn – and instead of telling how information or knowledge should be created to be real or true, it developed a prototype system for truth and worldview creation, and a social process around it that can evolve it and update it continuously, according to the best available insights in relevant disciplines or domains of interest.

Polyscopy is offered as (a prototype of) an approach to knowledge that can resolve the “two open problems”.

To be concrete, by “the common productivity criteria” for evaluating research contributions  I refer to the criteria that are routinely used in the situation at hand, our salary negotiations. We are asked to submit a list of recent publications, the grants received and the number of PhD students graduated, and then possibly also other indicators that might be useful for evaluating our “productivity” such as committee work etc. Those criteria are, however, common in evaluating researchers worldwide.

I will submit that transdisciplinary  work is “grossly misjudged” when evaluated by such criteria in two points:

  • In transdisciplinary work the publications “that count” and other similar productivity scores are so much more difficult to achieve than in disciplinary work, that applying them there leads to a vast, unjust and unjustifiable bias
  • transdisciplinary work requires that we prioritise other courses of action that are not reflected by conventional “productivity” parameters

(My first point – the difficulty to achieve the results “that count” in transdisciplinary work should be obvious to anyone who is even remotely familiar with the contemporary academic order of things. I am however offering here a concise rendition of my lived experiences, hoping to make this central point palpable and clear.)

In Polyscopy I explained that the nature of my project required a different kind of engagement:

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 working in an 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 a coherent system of ideas is where the the most challenging task only begins – implementing those ideas in an institutional reality where they don’t yet have a place.

Let me now briefly illustrate what this practically meant.

After I published the first two articles sketching the general intention and approach of polyscopy, in the “Worldviews and the Problem of Synthesis” section and later book of the Einstein Meets Magritte transdisciplinary conference in 1995, it took four years of sustained and focused work before I could deliver concrete results in publications.

While working in algorithm theory, I had all I needed available to me – terminology, method, colleagues to work with, publications to share the results… Now I had to find or create all of this from scratch.

All along I was aware that the level of ambition of my work, and its unusualness, required that I deliver results that are close to flawless – or risk seeming pathetic, or even being laughed at. But once the design decisions are made and published, there’s hardly a way to correct them! So I had to make sure that I had a coherent and sufficiently stable system of ideas before I could commit any of them to publication.

I described the experience of this initial period of my polyscopy work as “swimming across the ocean”: I had left the shore (of learned and familiar concepts and ways of working), and there was no going back; but the other shore was nowhere in sight!

Once the results were there, I had to publish the key parts of the polyscopy proposal immediately, to test them for authenticity and to ‘put them on the map’. I was then facing another interesting challenge – of finding suitable publications. I described my publishing strategy as “laying cuckoo’s eggs”: My articles had to sufficiently resemble the research in an existing field to be recognised as contribution and accepted for publication; at the same time, they had to ‘hatch’ specimen of an entirely different academic species (parts of the polyscopy paradigm proposal).

I was fortunate to succeed in having the core elements of the polyscopy proposal published and well received within suitable disciplines.

The main fundamental idea – to define “design” by convention, and then use this convention to create a foundation for knowledge-work praxis, was well received in the academic design community: My lecture with this proposal, at the European Academy of Design’s conference in 2005 in Bremen, led to an invitation to repeat my proposal as an opening keynote to the Danish Designer’s conference on occasion of their 10th anniversary. The Design Epistemology article detailing this proposal and its consequences was later published in a special issue of Information Journal, edited by Robert Logan.

Similarly, the idea to design “information design”, by creating a methodology, and then use it for the purpose of informing lifestyle, political and other basic choices was presented on Infodesign2000 in Coventry, and then invited for publication in Information Design Journal. This resulted in two articles: Designing Information Design and Information for Conscious Choice.

Details of my Polyscopic Modeling methodology and some of its consequences were published piece-meal, in the proceedings of the IEEE’s InfoVision / Information Visualisation conference, and in the proceedings of the International Visual Literacy Association, where I found an academic home for a period of time, and was even elected as board member.

The polyscopy paradigm proposal was presented at the transdisciplinary IPSI conference in Monte Negro in 2003, and explained in an article in the proceedings. This lead to an invitation to give an opening keynote at a subsequent IPSI conference in Stockholm.

An early explanation of the substance of the polyscopy paradigm proposal (without Knowledge Federation and other various prototypes that were developed later) is provided in the Informing Must Be Designed book manuscript, of which the Introduction is available online (designed by Fredrik Eive Refsli).

Let us now supplement the above-described core difficulty – of publishing articles – by outlining briefly that in transdisciplinary work achieving other “productivity” measures is similarly so much more difficult to achieve, that applying them there is meaningless:

  • While disciplinary articles are commonly co-authored, in the ‘academic no-man’s land I had to work and publish alone
  • Had I published a solution to a recognised problem in my original field, in algorithm theory, my result would instantly be quoted by numerous researchers in numerous publications, simply because they are numerous; the same logic applies to reference counts and other similar measures of “impact”
  • If I am developing new ideas in a non-existing field – Why would I involve graduate students as PhD candidates in such a risky project?  Why would I apply for, and would I receive, grants? Why would I be on committees?

(Turning now to my second point, that polyscopy development required other kinds of work, which are not even detected by the conventional “productivity” measures.)

It soon became obvious, however, that while in conventional academic practice publishing an article is an end of a journey, in polyscopy – related work the end was still far from being reached. I recognised, namely, that the academia was lacking a way to re-create its own practices – which would put any proposal that I could advance, or any of the mentioned and other historical proposals,  into effect. Indeed, the academia seemed to be too busy with its disciplinary publishing to even look!

Hence I developed a syndrome which I called “invisibility” – which I’ll be glad to tell you abut over a cup of tea.

And so I could easily recognise the futility of submitting proposals for systemic change in writing – to a system that has no provisions for re-creating itself (we recently proposed to call this interesting phenomenon the Wiener’s paradox).

This realisation led me to focus more and more on achieving systemic impact or transformations by creating prototypes – which are both systemic interventions and academic models and experiments, as I explained in Polyscopy. 

An important point here is that the creation of prototypes is a natural way to practice research under design epistemology, just as writing articles might be a natural way to bring to the world the results of traditional sciences.

The Knowledge Federation prototype emerged as a core institutional prototype, modeling the kind of institution, which we called transdiscipline, that (unlike the traditional disciplines) can enable this line of work (see Knowledge Federation – an Enabler of Systemic Innovation).  

Naturally, the development of real-world prototypes stood in the way of article publishing. Indeed, it was often the case that when my creative engagements were at a peak, my publishing was at a minimum!

Consider, for example, the last year, 2015.

By April we had to design and organise the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 event in Belgrade, where, as I described in A Collective Mind – Part One blog article, we showcased an entire procedure for federating a research result by

  • creating a procedure for turning a research result into a multimedia object, and in that way making its findings widely accessible
  • creating a high-profile media event around the result, thus making it publicly known
  • extracting key ideas from the result, and making them available online by using the Debategraph platform, to be commented on and related with another similar results

It is straight-forward to see that this was a direct response to the challenge that Vannevar Bush and Doug Engelbart left us – as I reported in the mentioned blog article.

It requires however a moment of thought to see that also a way to handle the second, Heisenberg’s open problem is being developed through this prototype. Indeed, Professor Dejan Raković, around whose work this prototype has been developed, is a quantum physicist. The resulting Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 prototype presents a method for ‘social creation of truth and worldview’ by combining quantum physics and suitably designed technology-enabled social processes (this function of our prototype will be explained in Part Two of this blog article, and subsequently developed further at our 2017 event in Belgrade, which is now being planned).  

Once all this work was done, it would of course have been beneficial and academically correct to report it in several research publications. I still intend to do that. The reason why I opted to describe it and explain it in a rather long blog article was a practical need of the moment: In July I was going to attend the International Society for the Systems Sciences conference in Berlin, and propose to this society Knowledge Federation as a research partner. As I explained in Polyscopy, the opportunity there was to  (1) develop systemic innovation under the wing of an academic community and institution where it most naturally belongs, namely the systems sciences; and (2) intervene systemically into the system of the systems community and develop the first prototype of a large and established academic community that is self-organising according to the collective mind paradigm.

This resulted in some key developments on the (systemic innovation) frontier:

  • As I explained at the end of Polyscopy, “we are building a Lighthouse” – the development of the proposed systemic prototype is on the way
  • I became a Co-Chair of a SIG in the systems community, in which we now have the mandate to develop collective mind–style solutions for the systems community and beyond
  • I participate as faculty and as Advisory Board member in the Leadership and Systemic Innovation PhD program – hence I have the opportunity to participate in the creation of academic systemic innovation with a small group of international experts   

Following the ISSS59 event in Berlin I really wanted to complete our in principle already accepted article draft The Wiener’s Paradox – We Can Dissolve it Together (see the abstract), which is a milestone in the process of motivating and explaining The Lighthouse development – and also a rather spectacular illustration of the need for systemic innovation in knowledge work in general. In this article the systems sciences are shown to

  • have had an invaluable message to the mankind from their inception, i.e. from the publication of Wiener’s Cybernetics in 1948
  • not have communicated this message to the larger public, in spite of many decades of disciplinary work and thousands of articles and books published

I however had to postpone completing this article, in order to complete yet another long blog article, The Garden of Liberation.

If you’ve read the article, you will now immediately recognise in it a response to the challenge that Heisenberg was leaving us – namely to bring the revitalising insights of religious and other world traditions into our culture.

This project is also revitalising or ‘re-evolving’ the institution of religion, by applying systemic innovation to it, and developing ways in which spiritual or religious traditions and movements may learn from each other, and all of us from them.

Of course the idea of recreating the institution of religion is a bit unorthodox. Some people will frown. But when the dust settles, it will become obvious that this might be a natural way to bring the positive heritage of the world traditions to bear upon our impending societal and cultural revival. By the way Arne Næss (Norwegian public philosopher, and my respected late friend) pointed out that this might be necessary for handling the ecological crisis already in 1972, when he formulated “deep ecology”.

Re-evolving religion may also be a natural strategy against religion-inspired terrorism.

So I applied myself to The Garden of Liberation project most deligently: I made sure to sum up the key ideas on my blog early enough. Then I sent four copies of the text to the Suan Mokkh monastery to be distributed to key people (monks cannot be expected to read blogs), along with a collaboration proposal neatly formulated on the university letterhead. Then I made another trip to Thailand. Long story short, a result is that I am now now accepted as part of the Suan Mokkh family. The Garden of Liberation prototype is alive and growing. I will report the concrete developments in another blog post this Fall, before returning to Suan Mokkh to continue the hands-on work.   

Those developments, I hope (and I am pursuing this possibility actively, even as I am writing this essay), might open up some interesting and revitalising developments at the University of Oslo. Here at our university, the work on the frontier is already blossoming: Presently both the Knowledge Federation Mediawiki and the CollaboFramework platform are both hosted by the University of Oslo Institute of Informatics.

Furthermore, as I already mentioned, at our department we already have a living tradition and an ‘edge’ in object orientation; as well as in participatory design, design and implementation of information infrastructures, distributed systems etc. – which could naturally synergise with the work on the frontier.

5. A result is that my career and salary advancement came to a standstill – and remained there for two decades. This and the other details of “my career experiment” show that the conventional academic “productivity” measures tend to inhibit the transdisciplinary way of working.

A result of “my career experiment” is that I am not only still the associate professor I was when I arrived to Oslo; I am also the lowest paid associate professor in my department!

(More precisely I was the lowest-paid associate professor two years ago, at the point when my department’s recommendation for my salary raise was rejected at the university level –  according to Narve Trædal, who was then our Head of Administration).

In 2003 (at the point when the foundational work I described above and the corresponding articles were completed) I applied for a full professor position. I presented a bit more systematically the arguments and results I outlined above, and submitted that I had achieved a significant and original progress toward “broadening the field” that was recommended.

The response of the committee was humiliating.

When I showed the committee’s reply to my late father, lamenting that the committee didn’t understand my arguments, he immediately corrected me: “This is not misunderstanding; the committee was ignoring your arguments.” As a good lawyer, my father had a better sense for framing situations than I did. A superficial look at my application and the committee’s reply will suffice to see that he was right.

This illustrates another key point: That arguments based on purpose and non-applicability of the conventional criteria are routinely deemed irrelevant. As it has turned out, the committee had precisely defined quantitative measures (so many research articles, so many graduated PhD students etc.), based on which it was evaluating the professorship applications!

(The reader is at this point encouraged to read Heisenberg’s page-and-a-half excerpt I shared above, and then see this practice as a rather stunning instance and illustration of the kind of cultural biases that Heisenberg was lamenting.)

Two historical examples will illustrate that my experience is not at all unique.

As I mentioned above, already in 1969, in his MIT report about the future of the university, Erich Jantsch – the great systems scientist and systemic innovation pioneer from whom we adopted the term systemic innovation – wrote that “the university should make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing society’s capability for continuous self-renewal”. Ironically, Jantsch himself never enjoyed the benefits of a tenured position, although he

  • published prolifically
  • developed foundational transdisciplinary work
  • spent a whole decade giving occasional seminars as the UC Berkely as adjunct faculty

A closely similar historical anecdote is the one that Doug Engelbart liked to retell: How he decided to leave the UC Berkeley after being told, in response to sharing his visionary idea: “If you don’t stop dreaming, and don’t begin publishing peer-reviewed articles, you will remain an adjunct assistant professor forever!”

(The fact that both anecdotes took place at UC Berkeley is of course accidental; throughout his later career Doug searched for a university that would embrace his ideas.)

As I outlined in Polyscopy, much of our activity in recent years (developing Knowledge Federation, and the CET SIG at the ISSS and the ITBA systemic innovation program and the corresponding research center) had as a goal to provide an institutional home where Erich Jantsch and Doug Engelbart of the future will be able to apply their talents to urgent contemporary causes.

6. The conventional academic “productivity” criteria are incompatible with the codified principles for rewarding researchers. They inhibit the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed. In subtle ways, they violate core academic values.

As in every domain of human activity, the rules that are used in the routine practice for deciding on academic salaries and promotions are derived from more general principles that are stated in legislature.  Let me quote some of those principles for illustration (I am translating the bullet points from a Powerpoint slide titled  “General principles of salary politics”, which was used in a lecture by my university’s expert):

  • The starting point of negotiation is that all the University of Oslo employees will have equal opportunities for professional and salary development
  • Salary policy, the strengthening of the general salary level and the use of salary-related instruments are important for the University of Oslo to strengthen its position as a research university of high international standard
  • The salary should reflect the individual employee’s work tasks, responsibility and competence, and make visible and reward the performance and initiatives that contribute to the achievement of goals in all areas and at all levels within the University of Oslo
  • In local salary negotiations salaries are determined based on evaluation of the individual’s performances and contributions to collective results

According to my Point 4 above, the conventional “productivity” measures violate the first of the above principles – they put us transdisciplinary researchers at a substantial and unjust disadvantage compared to the researchers who pursue the conventional disciplinary career path.

And according to my Point 5, those measures will satisfy the remaining three criteria only if we discount transdisciplinary research as irrelevant to the social and academic goals those criteria refer to.

But as we have seen in Point 2, transdisciplinary research is required for the resolution of “two open problems” that are “so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them”.

This conclusion offers itself: When the “productivity” criteria have been developed as a ‘rule of thumb’ for applying the codified principles for evaluating research, the assumption was made that the research is conducted within the conventional disciplines. They violate those principles when applied to transdisciplinary work.

(Turning now to my second point, that the conventional “productivity” measures tend to inhibit the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed.)

Enough has been said elsewhere about our society’s urgent need for new ideas and new ways of thinking and working.

Let me here only offer an angle of looking by which the central point we are reaching here can be not only summarised but also handled. I will be borrowing from the repertoire of the systems sciences: What characterises a system that is vital and resilient (in the sense of being creative, adaptable to changes in the environment, and capable of evolving) is the so-called “requisite variety” of behaviours. You will easily understand this principle if you recall the well-known fact that breeding within a limited gene pool, such as an island or a family, leads to degeneration.

I offer my Points 4 and 5 above as evidence that the habitual criteria for academic renumeration and promotion support only one mode of academic behaviour – article production within established disciplines.

My third point (that the common “productivity” measures in subtle ways violate core academic values) might seem counterintuitive. So let me explain it by quoting from another classic,  Benjamin Lee Wharf’s “Language, Thought and Reality” (the boldface emphasis is mine):

It needs but half an eye to see in these latter days that science, the Grand Revelator of modern Western culture, has reached, without having intended to, a frontier. Either it must bury its dead, close its ranks, and go forward into a landscape of increasing strangeness, replete with things shocking to a culture-trammeled understanding, or it must become, in Claude Houghton’s expressive phrase, the plagiarist of its own past.

Plagiarism is of course just about the largest violation of etiquette and ethics that is specifically scientific. How could science become “the plagiarist of its own past”?

The answer is that reproducing articles based on a fixed template from the past can be seen as a subtle form of plagiarism. It makes our work seems technically rigorous, proficient, excellent… It makes it seem as the same kind of work as the work of our great predecessors.

In relation to the great scientists from the past, to whom we contemporary scientists, and science itself, owe the high social esteem we now enjoy, we can conduct our research in two distinctly different ways:

  • We can do what they did  – and use the procedures they developed to mass-produce research
  • Or we can do as they did – and take pains to develop fundamental ideas on completely new terrain, wherever and whenever that may be needed.

7. Use my case to change the evaluation practice

It is common in the legal profession to change the legal practice that does not conform with the constitution or with good sense by using a specific legal case to challenge that practice. I am now submitting  “my career experiment” for that purpose.

As I pointed out above, the laws and bylaws that regulate how researchers should be rewarded are written in general terms. They specify that the employees should have “equal opportunities for professional and salary development”, and that “the salary should reflect the individual employee’s work tasks, responsibility and competence, and make visible and reward the performance and initiatives that contribute to the achievement of goals in all areas and at all levels within the university”.

When the quantitative measures such as the ones reflecting publication and citation are applied in routine evaluation, the assumption is made that they correctly approximate those general criteria. As “my career experiment” might show beyond reasonable doubt, they fail to do that when a researcher is not working within an established discipline, but undertakes to begin a new direction in research.

As I hoped to make it clear in this text, throughout the polyscopy development, I have been acting as a theoretical scientist, developing a coherent system of ideas and practices. The design phase of my work has recently been completed, and I am now ready to submit the results publicly as a solution to the above-mentioned two open problems.

But since the polyscopy proposal has not yet been academically scrutinised or publicly accepted, the committee evaluating my work might rightly ask: Is the polyscopy proposal academically sound? Is it practically relevant – in the sense that it will one day be accepted and make a difference? Or is it only an academic ‘wild goose chase’?

While these questions are of course most interesting from the point of view of my polyscopy proposal, they are irrelevant from the point of view of this application and the larger appeal to change the academic ecology I am making. For two reasons.

One reason is that the academic ecology should stimulate and reward not only ‘academic success’ (reflected by the number of ‘safe’  disciplinary publications), but also good, earnest work on an uncharted terrain. To see why, imagine that you are an investor of public funds (of course, the academic promotion committee members and policy makers this essay is addressed to indeed are investors of public funds): What strategy would you use to develop your investment portfolio? Imagine if the US investors invested only in what were then the most solid “fortune five” companies such as the General Motors and the General Electric; and ignored the small ‘garage’ productions such as the Apple, the Microsoft and the Google? And just think about how less meaningful this strategy is when applied in academic ‘investing’, where it is not the money but the creative and interesting ideas that are the intended result!

The second reason is that before the polyscopy proposal can even be looked at, somebody needs to find time and reason to do that. But this seems impossible in the busy academic wold driven by disciplinary career purposes! My point is that the academic ecology needs to change before the polyscopy or any other similar proposal can have a chance to succeed.

Isn’t the seemingly incredible fact that our “two open problems” remained largely ignored at our universities also confirming that?

The general issue here is purpose vs. habit – or we might even call the latter “academic career game playing” (see Return to Reason).

To see how much our university culture is biased toward strictly disciplinary pursuits and away from the free pursuit of no-less-relevant societal and academic goals, just imagine how different my career would have been if I had, for instance, resolved the problem whether P=NP – which is a core technical open problem in my field, but incomparably less relevant in the context of larger societal and academic needs.

 As I am now submitting to you (my promotion committee members and my university superiors) my salary promotion case by providing two blog posts, instead of a short list of publications and other “productivity” parameters that were requested – I am, one might say, engaging in an act of civil disobedience. 

This leaves you two choices

  • to ignore my arguments and reject my application as irregular
  • to judge me based on the arguments presented here

With that, you too have become protagonists in my “my career experiment”.

What will you do?

Submitting now my appeal, let me briefly summarise its main points. A careful reader may have recognised two distinct arguments in this text.

The first is this:

The transdisciplinary work that I’ve been doing for two decades, structured as polyscopy paradigm proposal,  is in line with the social role of the university, with the stated mission of my university, and with the recommended strategy in my field. This work is, however, “grossly misjudged” when evaluated according to the usual “productivity” measures (Point 3). Those “productivity” measures, when applied to transdisciplinary work, are “incompatible with the stated principles for rewarding researchers”. They are “inhibiting the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed”.  “In subtle ways, they violate core academic values” (Point 6).

I therefore appeal to you to judge my work by the underlying principles – both the written ones (highlighted in Point 6), and the ones dictated by your sense of purpose and justice – and not by the “productivity” measures.

The second is this:

I began a promising career in an established field of research, then switched to transdisciplinary work and worked in a most focused and diligent way (see the beginning of Polyscopy) for two decades. The result was that my career never advanced an inch from where it was at the beginning.

I appeal to you to use my case as evidence that the conventional “productivity” measures are grossly biased against transdisciplinary work (Point  5) – and indeed against any work where serving a social purpose makes us depart from disciplinary patterns and interests. Use my case to create a more just and justifiable manner of evaluating and supporting research.

We are living in a time when ‘outside the box’ creativity is urgently needed.

And when urgent societal purposes must be given precedence over routinised responses and career games.

Please consider using my case to give us an institutional ecology that supports us in thinking and working responsibly and freelyand in that way serving our society’s needs, and reinvigorating our intellectual tradition’s evolution.

8. Concluding remarks

I want to make it clear that my appeal is not a complaint against my superiors, or department or university. On the contrary! I like to say, and let me underline that, that I don’t know any other university where the line of work I described could have been better supported.

I remember vividly a situation when our travel budget was empty (following our move to our wonderful new premises), and when Arne (my goup leader) went down to Knut (my department chair), and some money was somehow found for me to travel to a Knowledge Federation workshop I was organising.

(I gratefully take the travel money, and use it with my own savings to sponsor the Knowledge Federation events. The reason is that while almost all Knowledge Federation collaborators have high university degrees, few of them are sponsored. They come to KF events because they believe in our cause – and they use their own money to buy airline tickets! I sometimes joke that Knowledge Federation is sponsored by my retired mother in Croatia – because she sometimes offers me small sums of money, “to buy myself something nice or to have a nice dinner on her account”; and I at times shamelessly took her donation and invested it into a KF event.)

Neither can I complain about the life I’m having in “the best country to live in”!

But even in Norway we have to comply to international standards. Based on them, we have to compete for status and recognition internationally. We have to show our politicians that we are worthy of their support. And we indeed are doing that, successfully!

My point here is that those international standards for measuring academic achievement will need to be challenged and changed. 

And when I say this, I only echo the message that is more and more often heard. In “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050“,  Antony Barnosky, Paul Ehrlich and Elizabeth Hardy write (see also “To build a sustainable world, academics need to tear down the ivory tower“):

[A] huge challenge within academia is working across traditional disciplinary boundaries to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from practitioners spread across many different specialties […]. And, an even bigger challenge is to take the knowledge developed within academia and collaborate closely with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action […].

But isn’t this exactly the line of work that is being developed on our frontier?

Can Norway summon the kind of courage and vision that might be needed to take leadership in this now necessary development?

I truly hope that we can – and here I am only repeating what I wrote about a decade ago, on the occasion of the conference “Science in a New Situation – The Role of Basic Research”, which was organised by the Norwegian Reserch Council, in this open letter to the NRC leaders (which they invited, during our conversation at the conference boat trip). At that point I also shared the same open letter with my university superiors, just as I am about to do now.  

My point now, as it was then, is that by making this step, we can (1) create an approach to science which builds on the intrinsic advantages of Norwegian culture, which – as my “career experiment” might show in some detail – made it possible for me to pursue this work and (2) be leaders in a necessary development globally.

I can easily imagine a day when we will wake up to the realisation that we are transforming our planet’s nonrenewable resources into consumer goods on a far larger scale than we need – and for no better reason than that our competitive economy, where success and sheer survival depend on selling things to people, is forcing us to do that.

Then it might become clear that we too, here at the university, have adopted a similarly dysfunctional growth model – without needing to do that in any real sense whatsoever.

To comply to the salary negotiations procedure, I have submitted “my career experiment” as my case. But I don’t see it in that way at all – and frankly, I would not have bothered to write all this had I seen this case as mine.

I now invite my evaluation committee members, and anyone else who cares about the future of knowledge and about our future: See this as your case! We need to change our career games and battles by infusing a true spirit of collaboration, and sensitivity to larger purposes than our career, if we should have a chance to create a better world (see our Collaborology poster, designed by Fredrik Eive Refsli).

To that end, I believe that what might be urgently needed is a genuine dialogue around these issues – where I am using the word dialogue in the precise sense that David Bohm has attributed to it. The dialogue is a radical alternative to opinion and career battles. We need to sit together, calm down, look at each other’s faces and understand what has happened.

I believe that we can collaborate to create a university culture that is incomparably more just and more creative, and simply more fun (if you’ll allow me to use this non-academic word) – while at the same time being far more responsive to our society’s needs.

I submit the insights resulting from “my career experiment” as an instrument in this re-evolution.


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’!

Eight vignettes to evangelize a paradigm


Imagine people seated around a table, with some Lego blocks-like pieces of technology scattered on its top. (This is of course a metaphor: CollaboFramework – those “pieces of technology” – resides on a server hosted by our institute at the University of Oslo, which those “people around the table” can access through their PCs, while being physically located anywhere on the globe. I prefer to use the Lego blocks metaphor because the purpose of CollaboFramework is to enable the people to feel as if they were seated  together around a table, building together with Lego blocks.) Those people have gathered around the table to co-create an “organisational nervous system” (to use Doug Engelbart’s keyword) or a collective mind  (to use our own), by using themselves as material,  and those “Lego blocks” as tools and connecting tissues. And if CollaboFramework might not have some of the ‘Lego block’ that are needed, the CollaboFramework design team is present at the table, ready to create them.

The scenario I have just outlined is not only a metaphor; it describes also a real event, which took place recently in Oslo.  This event was created for the “Digital Humanities in the North” (DHN) academic community, in occasion of their first meeting, to enable them to initiate a collective mind re-evolution in their community.


Sasha and Sinisa Rudan opening our DHN workshp

Before we gathered in the scenic Old University Library in downtown Oslo, we shared with the DHN community members the links to some documents explaining what Knowledge Federation is and how we work, including  A collective mind – Part One blog post, which was created for a related purpose. So Sasha and Sinisha Rudan, who coordinated our DHN workshop, only needed to  remind the participants of them. And to introduce CollaboFramework.

To put the ball in play (why should we care to engage in a “collective mind re-evolution”?) I gave a concise, 15-minute recapitulation of “Eight vignettes to evangelise a paradigm” (hear this one-hour recording of my presentation to Isis Frisch, while viewing these slides; at the end you will hear also a discussion of a single project, Collaborology, which will illustrate how a collective mind is being developed in education, and discuss the potential benefits thereof).

I am calling this blog post “Eight vignettes” and not “CollaboFramework” to highlight the message of those vignettes – we simply must find a way to begin collective mind – style re-evolution in knowledge work!

The CollaboFramework, and the related technological and social-systemic developments, will then make sense as the steps that are logically needed to enable this sort of re-evolution.


Sasha Rudan instructing the participants in the use of CollaboFramework

Later, the Rudan brothers instructed the participants in the use of CollaboFramework.

As they began to use it, this collective mind was already beginning to evolve.

At the time of this writing, the Rudan brothers are already in the midst of their next adventure – at the Balance – Unbalance 2016  conference in Colombia, which by focusing on a concrete and typical contemporary impasse (discovery of oil reserves in a site that is a nature reserve, and a home to indigenous people) will be creating general new pathways for handling contemporary impasses. The CollaboFramework  is being used there to enable the communication and collaboration across traditional divides: the business and the humanistic or environmentalist viewpoints and interests; scientific data collection and governmental policy;  the scientists’ insights into what must be done, and the artists’ ability to communicate and mobilise the public.

The Garden of Liberation

Monks at Suan Mokkh, Thailand.

Monks in Suan Mokkh forest monastery. (Photo by Ignacio Cuevas Caro)

A few weeks ago, at the Drammen Sacred music festival near Oslo, I gave a talk titled “Buddhadasa’s Buddhism and Nurbakhsh’s Sufism – Different Roads to the Same Destination“. With that talk and this blog post, The Garden of Liberation project or prototype has begun to exist.

Bringing religion or spirituality to bear upon our impending cultural and societal transformation is a theme that some of my friends are passionately interested in. And others are not. Indeed, some of my closest people  are passionate about abolishing religion, considering it an obstacle to progress and an evolutionary step back – into irrational mores and values of the past, based on the belief in the supernatural.

I am passionate about reconciling those differences.

In this essay, which builds on what I told at Drammen Sacred, I will take advantage of some real-life developments in the Suan Mokkh (The Garden of Liberation) forest monastery in Thailand,  to highlight that the essence or meaning of religion is not necessarily what most of us  believe it is; and that an interest in what I’ll end up calling religion may be a natural and timely response to the situation we are in – as humans, and also as scientists and scholars. (A concise and intuitive-artistic big-picture view of the essence of religion is given in Appendix II.)

But this essay, and The Garden of Liberation project that is outlined in it, are not only or even primarily about religion.

I am about to share a crescendo of themes and insights, beginning with the essence of Buddhism and of religion, and continuing with the reasons why this essence gets garbled and transformed into something entirely different or even opposite. We shall then see how by focusing on this single instance of miscommunication, our communication might be reconfigured. And how by working with communication in that way, we may help a variety of transformative memes inform the next phase of our societal and cultural evolution. (I am using the word meme as Richard Dawkins did, namely to denote a basic unit of cultural inheritance, cross-fertilization and evolution, or metaphorically ‘a cultural gene’.)

Not the least, I want to tell you an interesting story, which is what the Suan Mokkh forest monastery invites.

At 9:30 PM on last New Year’s Eve, the kind of time when, I was imagining, my friends in the West would be just beginning to warm up for celebration, I was already in bed. And what a bed it was! If I tell you that the concrete surface was covered by a straw mat, you would get a wrong idea of luxury and comfort, because this mat was less than a millimeter thick – the kind of thing you might put under your cereal plate, only of course larger. The pillow was a matching one – it was carved out of a solid piece of wood! The bell would wake us up next morning at 4:00 am, so that at 4:30 we would begin meditation. The last, vegan meal would be served each day at 12:30.

In front of my kuti with Tamchőe Cabrera, neighbor and companion on the way

In front of ‘my’ kuti with Tamchőe Cabrera, a neighbor and new friend. (Photo by Ignacio Cuevas Caro)

After the 10-day silent retreat at the International Dharma Hermitage of the Suan Mokkh forrest monastery, I would be retreating deeper into the forest, into the international section of the monastery called Sumedhaso Donkiem, where I would be living with the monks the way they do: sleeping in a one-person forest hut called kuti; still waking up at 4:00 am for meditation; following a monk to collect alms in one of the villages in the area; sharing the only meal of the day at 9:00 am; ending the day with another long meditation. Indeed most of the day would be spent in meditation, combined with sweeping fallen leaves along a maze of forest paths.

Upon return to Oslo I would continue in the simple lifestyle I began at Suan Mokkh – waking up early for meditation, eating wholesome food, practicing… well, you’ll see what exactly in a moment.

If you are now thinking that all this must be an exercise in self-induced suffering, as my mother thought when I first told her the story, then you are completely mistaken, because exactly the opposite is the case: It’s the elimination of suffering that Buddhism is all about.

And if you are wondering why someone like myself who is not a believing Buddhist would do this sort of thing, and even write about it in his academic blog, then just read on, because that’s exactly what I’m about to share.

The Buddha’s discovery

During mu stay in The Garden of Liberation, I learned to perceive Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906-1993) – the enlightened monk who initiated it in 1932 – as a man who was endowed with an exceptionally clear, modern, and I could even say scientific mind.

And so in Ajahn Buddhadasa’s writings the Buddha too appears as a man with an exceptionally clear, modern and even scientific mind – who made a discovery,  closely similar to what we call ‘a natural law’,  about the nature and the origins of human  suffering; and how a specific kind or cause of suffering, whose  technical name is Dukkha, could be eradicated.

How relevant is Dukkha?

In the course of this essay we shall reach conclusions which, I anticipate, will surprise you. But for now, suffice it to say that I come from a middle-class family whose members are generally successful, healthy and caring toward each other other. Whatever suffering has remained, and still divides my people’s daily experience from the kind of serenity and togetherness that are in principle possible – it is mostly due to just that, just Dukkha.

I have no difficulty extending this picture up the social ladder – to the so-called 1%, or the 0.01%, and all the way to the very top. I also  have no difficulty extending it down the social ladder, all the way to its very bottom. Although there, of course, the culprit Dukkha might well sometimes be in the people on the other side of the social ladder.

The Buddhist formula pointing to the Dukkha-related suffering is “birth, old age, sickness and death”. Don’t be deceived by its literal meaning – its subtle and central message is that even the kinds of suffering that are so much part of our lives that we normally consider them unavoidable can in fact be reduced and even eliminated, by suitable practice.

But Dukkha is not relevant only to suffering. Dukkha gives its characteristic emotional overtones to practically all sides of our daily life and culture, including what we know as love relationships and marriages, and love songs and poetry.

You will get a more precise idea of the nature of the Buddha’s discovery if you see it in the context of the ‘laboratory’ in which it took place – the forests of ancient India. Here is how Rabindranath Tagore described it:

[I]n India it was in the forests that our civilization had its birth, and it took a distinct character from this origin and environment. It was surrounded by the vast life of nature, was fed and clothed by her, and had the closest and most constant intercourse with her varying aspects. […] Having been in constant contact with the living growth of nature [the man’s] mind was free from the desire to extend his dominion by erecting boundary walls around his acquisition. His aim was not to acquire but to realise, to enlarge his consciousness by growth with and growing into his surroundings. He felt that truth is all-comprehensive, that there is no such thing as absolute isolation in existence, and the only way of attaining truth is through the interpenetration of our being into all objects. To realise this great harmony between man’s spirit and the spirit of the world was the endeavor of the forest-dwelling sages of ancient India.

The Indian tradition recognized the sort of achievements that were accessible to the forest-dwelling sages as the highest ones:

There were the virtuous, the wise, the courageous; there were the statesmen, kings and emperors of India; but whom amongst all these classes did she look up to and choose to be the representative of men? They were the rishis […] who having attained the supreme soul in knowledge were filled with wisdom […]

And so it was not altogether unnatural in this sort of cultural climate that even a young prince, Siddhartha, would withdraw into a forest to pursue this highest goal.

The research that went on in those forest labs was not in its essence different from what goes on in our university labs – people observed, made conjectures, tested them, shared the results, tried again. But what they experimented with was different – those were various forms of meditation, breathing, diet, physical exercise, emotional and ethical attitudes… Their laboratory instruments were their own bodies. The results of their research were their inner states and conditions.

Twenty-five centuries ago from of one of those forest labs came the news:  Venerable Siddhartha found a way to nirvana! And to enlightenment! And in his enlightenment he saw the nature of a major part of human suffering, and how it may be eliminated. People flocked, both kings and commoners, to seek advice, and to drink wisdom from the source.

The community around this enlightened teacher and his teaching grew. Centuries passed. Buddhism became recognized as one of the world’s major religions. So that eventually even I, as a boy growing up in a distant country in Europe, like so many other boys worldwide, naturally knew about it.

The question may, however, be asked – To what degree did my knowledge about Buddhism reflect the Buddha’s original discovery?

Or even – To what degree might the knowledge about Buddhism of a practicing Buddhist still reflect the Buddha’s original discovery?

By looking into those questions we will be focusing on the main theme of this blog, which is the condition of our communication and knowledge work; and how their condition might be improved; and with it also our own condition, and our future.

Ajahn Buddhadasa’s rediscovery

Ven. Ajāhn Buddhadasa at Suan Mokkh.

Ajahn Buddhadasa at Suan Mokkh.

Having as a young monk seen the limitations of the book-and-monastery approach to Buddhism, in 1932, Phra Dharmakosacarya ( who later became Ajahn Buddhadasa, ‘the slave of Buddha’, and an influential reformer of Buddhism) undertook to recreate and repeat the Buddha’s experiment.

He learned Pali, to be able to read the original texts, and carefully reconstructed  and adopted the Buddha’s forest way of living and practice, including his meditation technique called Anapanasati. And he experimented extensively.

In this way Ajahn Buddhadasa found that

  • the Buddha’s experiment was repeatable  – he, and the monks who joined him over the years, were able to reproduce and experience the elimination of Dukkha, and savor Nibbana, a natural consequence
  • ‘the Buddha’s Law’ (if you’ll allow me to apply this contemporary metaphor to the Buddha’s original discovery) was not only different – it was in certain significant ways opposite from the way the Buddha’s teaching was usually interpreted and understood

The essence of Buddhism

You may now imagine me sitting in the Suan Mokkh library, the morning after I arrived, and a week before the International Dharma Hermitage retreat would begin, reading my first Ajahn Buddhadasa text. At that point I knew nothing about this man. And the ideas I had of Buddhism were the common ones – that Buddhism was founded on the belief in reincarnation: If you live virtuously in this life, your next incarnation will be better. And if you persist over many lifetimes, you may eventually reach ‘Nirvana’, a condition where you no longer incarnate but continue to live in bliss as a disembodied spirit, and in that way put an end to earthly suffering.

The book I was reading, whose title was “Heartwood from the Bo Tree”, was about to turn my understanding of  Buddhism upside down.  The Bo tree is the tree under which, according to the tradition, the Buddha reached enlightenment. So the title of this book alluded to the very core, the essence of Buddhism (understood as the Buddha’s original teaching).

The first thing I learned was that Buddhism had nothing to do with beliefs of any kind:

To call something a foundation of the Buddhist Teachings is only correct if […] it has a logic that one can see for oneself without having to believe others.

And in particular, that Buddhism had nothing to do with reincarnation:

The Buddha refused to have any dealing with those things which don’t lead to the extinction of Dukkha. Take the question of whether or not there is rebirth. What is reborn? How is it reborn? What is its kammic inheritance? These question are not aimed at the extinction of Dukkha. That being so, they are not Buddhist teaching and they are not connected with it.

So what then is the essence of Buddhism?

There is a section in the Majjhima Nikaya where someone approached the Buddha and asked him whether he could summarize his teachings in one phrase and, if he could, what it would be. The Buddha replied that he could: “Sabbe Dhamma Nalam Abhinivesaya”. “Sabbe dhamma” means “all things,” “nalam” means “should not be”,  ”abhinivesaya” means “to be clung to”.  Nothing whatsoever should be clung to. Then the Buddha emphasized this point by saying that whoever had heard this core-phrase had heard all of the Teachings, whoever had put it into practice had practiced all the Teachings, and whoever had received the fruits of practising this point had received all of the fruits of the Buddhist Teachings.

The technical name for  ‘the Buddha’s Law’ is Paticcasamuppada (Dependent Origination), which is a step-by-step description of a process by which Dukkha and clinging arise, and how they may be eliminated. This is not a place to discuss Paticcasamuppada’s details, so let me now again only point to what might be its key message. Buddhadasa points to it with a short formula, “I” and “mine”:

We must see that this “I” and “mine” is the root cause of all forms of Dukkha. Whenever there is clinging, then there is the darkness of ignorance. There is no clarity because the mind is not empty; it is shaken up, frothing and foaming with the feeling of “I” and “mine”. In direct contrast, the mind that is free of clinging to “I” and “mine” is serene, filled full of truth-discerning awareness.

So we must firmly grasp the fact that there are two kinds of feeling: that of “I” and “mine”, and that of truth-discerning awareness, and that they are totally antagonistic. If one enters the mind the other springs out. Only one can be present at a time. […] Freedom from “I” and “mine” is truth-discerning awareness. […]

What Ajahn Buddhadasa pointed to as the spell of “I” and “mine” is of course closely related to everyday egoism:

If we are empty of egoism, there is no consciousness of “I” and “mine”. [Then] the disease cannot be born, and the disease that has already arisen will disappear as if picked up and thrown away. At that moment, the mind will be completely filled with Dhamma. This accords with the remark that emptiness is truth-discerning awareness, emptiness is the Dhamma, emptiness is the Buddha, because in that moment of being empty of “I” and “mine” there will be present every desirable virtue in the whole Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures).

We can now grasp the meaning of the title of the book I was reading, The Heartwood of the Bo Tree: The actual physical bo tree has no heartwood – the inside is empty. Hence the metaphor – the essence of Buddhism is the emptiness, the non-attachment or non-perception of anything as being ‘I’ or as belonging to oneself.

Making sense of this essence

How can we understand this? How is “clinging” related to Dukkha, and to everyday suffering?

Polyscopy (the approach to information and knowledge I have been developing over the past two decades, which is the theme of this blog) allows for understanding profound ideas and notions like the ones above with the help of simple metaphorical images. As I was reading the above lines, I already had a suitable image ready: I imagined the “clinging” that the Buddha talked about as an inner, mental and emotional tensing up or cramping. I imagined Dukkha as the suffering that results from a cramped inner condition, where we – incapable of dancing with the natural fluidity of life’s movement – struggle to bend it and subjugate it to our will; and to control and subjugate others.

“Truth-discerning awareness”, or ‘enlightenment’ as it is popularly known, may then be understood simply as a cramp-free inner condition, in which our mindset spontaneously reshapes itself according to the realities that surround us, and reflects them accurately as a surface of a calm lake would.

How is this emptiness or dis-identification related to the cessation of suffering?  A hint is provided by the following metaphor.

Imagine yourself walking down the street, and passing by a couple holding hands, happily in love. Perhaps you didn’t even notice the couple. And if you did, the feeling they gave you would probably be just pleasant.

Imagine now that one of the couple was your man or woman. Imagine your heart pounding, your face turning red…

Let this simple metaphor point to the possibility that our perception of something or someone as ‘mine’ may make this sort of difference – between joyful passing by, and intense suffering.

“But wait a minute”, I imagine you say, “what you’ve just described was not a perception of reality but reality itself – didn’t you ask me to imagine that the person I saw holding hands really was my woman or man?”

I will answer with another hint: It is exactly this change, from perceiving something as the reality, to perceiving it as only a perception – that is likely to be the key step in our impending cultural and societal transformation. I will come back to this hint and explain it in a moment.

‘Orthodoxy’ strayed from the essence

But what about the Buddhist belief system, its metaphysics? What about reincarnation? Ajahn Buddhadasa explained:

The real meaning of the word “birth” as the Buddha meant it is not the birth from a mother’s womb, that’s too physical. The birth that the Buddha was pointing to was spiritual, the birth of the clinging to “I” and “mine”. In one day there can be hundreds of births; the amount depends on a person’s capacity, but in each birth the “I” and “mine” arises, slowly fades, and gradually disappears and dies. Shortly, on contact with a sense-object, another arises. Each birth generates a reaction that carries over to the next.

The reincarnation theory would have us believe that we have a lasting identity, which we cannot be rid of even at the point of dying. But what the Buddha intended was something quite thoroughly different – that the self is indeed an illusion (or as we might prefer to say today, a product of our socialization, see further below):

It is hard to say when this incorrect explanation first arose. But the fact that it is incorrect is easy to show because it is contrary to the original Pali Scriptures. It is contrary to the purpose of Paticcasamuppada, which is to destroy the “I” concept.

Similarly, Nibbana (or Nirvana) is not the end of physical incarnation, Buddhadasa explains. The literal meaning is “coolness”. Nibbana is the kind of word that a child in Prince Siddhartha’s time might have used to say that the soup needed to be cooler. As an inner condition, Nibbana is a state we may be experiencing – and losing – many times each day, losing it every time the “I” perception is reborn, giving rise to Dukkha, and to suffering. The goal of the Buddhist practice is to remain in this state permanently – in which case also certain lasting and more profound psychological and cognitive advantages gradually become accessible.

But how did the reincarnation theory then become part of Buddhism? How did it happen that not only I, as a boy growing up in a distant part of the world, but even so many believing Buddhists – acquired a distorted idea of the Buddha’s message and teaching?

It is not difficult to see what happened: At a certain point, the belief system of the old religion, to which the Buddha as a reformer was indeed opposed, came in through the back door and ousted the host. Buddhism turned into a “universal theory” (see Science and Religion).

Parallels with other religions suggest themselves, and I leave them to you to explore as an easy but important exercise.

The essence of religion

Having in this way rediscovered the essence of Buddhism, Ajahn Buddhadasa undertook an extensive study of the world religions. He concluded that they share the same essence:

Ordinary, ignorant worldly peo0ple are under the impression that there is this religion and that religion, and that these religions are different, so different that they’re opposed to each other. […] Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion will regard all religions as being the same. Although they may say there is buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, or whatever, they will also say that all religions are inwardly the same. However, those who have penetrated to the highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the thing called “religion” doesn’t exist after all. There is no Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they be the same or in conflict when they don’t even exist?

The point here is that the people who have attained this “highest understanding” have clearly seen that the only thing that truly exists, beyond and independent of our linguistic and cultural constructs, is just Dhamma – the nature, and the natural law.

The reason why I had no difficulty believing that there was indeed this subtle natural law, was that I had the unusual fortune to study three other ways to practice and experience its existence and its consequences, under three similarly daring and authentic Oriental masters. In Appendix I, I am sharing a few taste bits of this practice illustrating its nature and goals, to add some real-life texture and flavor to this sweeping conclusion that Ajahn Buddhadasa made.

I should also mention that the significance of this natural law extends well beyond spirituality or religion. Alders Huxley even called it “the basic principle underlying the practice of every art”:

The great truth discovered on the spiritual level by the masters of prayer, that “the more there is of the ‘I,’, the less there is of God,” has been discovered again and again on the physiological level by the masters of the various arts and skills. The  more there is of the “I,” the less there is of Nature – of the right and normal functioning of the organism.

Let us for a moment ignore that we’ve been talking about ‘Buddhism’, and about ‘religion’. Let’s just focus on the factual or phenomenological part of the story: Someone practiced in a certain way, and reached a certain experience; someone else practiced in a similar way, and reached a similar experience. Perhaps then regardless of what you may think about religion and its essence, you will agree with me that there is a subtle natural law that connects unselfishness or selflessness as practice with a certain better condition and functioning of the human organism – simply because a number of different people in different times and traditions experienced and affirmed its existence (see further examples in Appendices I and II).

In what follows I will refer to both this natural law and any specific attempt or way to place it into culture, and have it influence its evolution and thereby also our evolution as humans, as Meme X. By framing it as meme or ‘a cultural gene’, I want to highlight its potential to cross-fertilize with other memes and influence our culture and institutions, and our life itself.

By calling it X, I want to suggest that

  • it hasn’t yet acquired a name and citizenship rights in our culture
  • it has multiple posible concrete names given in different traditions, hence it is right to consider it ‘a variable’ (a generic name that can assume different values)
  • it is not yet sufficiently understood, and it may even still need to be ‘discovered’

Of course, when I say this, I am talking about our own culture. Meme X has been discovered and rediscovered many times in the past. Its  existence might have been the worst kept secret in the history of mankind; but it has somehow remained a secret.

The role of culture

This title may seem strange: Does culture really have a role? And what do I really mean by “the role” anyhow – the role in what?

I speak here about “the role” in two related but distinct contexts:

  • the role in our society
  • the role in our impending transition from an unsustainable way of existing and evolving to something different and better

You have probably noticed that in the traditional or ‘conventional’ scheme of things ‘culture’ is not really tied to any explicit purpose. Culture is simply what it is — institutions, practices and beliefs that we see around us and that we associate with the word ‘culture’. A disadvantage of this approach to defining things is that it reifies the status quo, and thereby inhibits evolution and change. How can we even think of improving an institution or practice or belief, if we don’t tie it to a purpose as a reference point?

Before I propose a solution, which has been developed within polyscopy (I emphasize that this is “a” solution, the multiplicity of views and viewpoints is in polyscopy’s very name), let me illustrate the problem.

Whatever your definition of ‘culture’ might be, you will probably agree with me that part of its social function is to take care of culturally relevant memes.

How is our culture handling Meme X?

The answer is obvious – it just isn’t!

We only need to look around to see that: We are surrounded by advertisings, whose role is to increase our appetite for things, to make us desirous and wanting. Similarly, our entertainment industry and our media informing are competing for our attention, by overstimulating sensory impressions of all kinds.

Our culture (if we can still call it that) is instructing us to pursue happiness in a direction that is opposite from the one that follows from the Buddha’s Law and the  Meme X!

The reason for this is also familiar: We have an economy where the success and even the very existence of a business, and the employment and the livelihood of its people, depend on its ability to sell us stuff. And so we’ve employed our best communication design talents and our powerful media technology in a culture-wide effort to make us want more. To convince us that we need, deserve, desire… more and more.

And so our culture (if it still merits that name) is being recreated by economic interests, to misguide us and mis-evolve us – as suitable to those interests!

This cultural bias acquires a dramatic side when we see it against the background of our global condition.  Here a giant on whose shoulders I like to stand is Aurelio Peccei, who made it clear  (1)  that we must make a turn (a new direction, and motive, for development) and (2) that the ‘steering wheel’ for making this turn has to be found in culture (see Science and Religion):

The downward trend of human fortunes can be countered and reversed only by the advent of a new humanism essentially based on and aiming at man’s cultural development, that is, a substantial improvement in human quality throughout the world.

Peccei also wrote that

The future will either be an inspired product of a great cultural revival, or there will be no future.

By liberating ‘culture’ from its reification as the existing practices and institutions, we can empower ourselves to envision and develop better ones!

If you’ve been reading this blog, then you are aware that polyscopy is conceived as an approach to communication and knowledge that suits our culture in transition. In polyscopy, definitions are conventions. Those conventions are usually made by pointing to a role.  In this way we can assign  roles to institutions, and to other things as well. We can then see how well, or how poorly, our institutions and other things suit those assigned roles; and what we may need to do to improve them. (I emphasise that there’s nothing conclusive about those polyscopy definitions, on the contrary: Many diverse definitions re possible, and indeed desired.  Each of them might point to a specific role, and to specific measures that may need to be taken to improve the performance with respect to that role.)

In polyscopy we defined culture as ‘cultivation of wellbeing‘. The word ‘cultivation’ is explained by analogy with planting and watering a seed (recall that the word ‘culture’ is etymologically related to the cultivation of land).

What is the point of this definition? What practical difference might it make?

The idea here is to point to certain specific and quite wonderful benefits we humans may reap from culture – provided we direct our attention and communicate in certain specific ways.

Meme X is a case in point.

What I’ve nicknamed “The Buddha’s Law” is closely analogous to the natural law that governs the transformation of a seed into a tree, as a result of watering: We don’t see the tree grow as a result of watering. We wouldn’t know about the possibility to plant and water the seed just by looking at the seed; and even dissecting the seed and analysing its anatomy scientifically would not be of much help. We must therefore rely on suitable communication (of repeated human experience, connecting an action with an effect) to make cultivation possible. But once the social mechanisms necessary to support it are in place, planting and watering the seed will make the difference between an apple eaten up and the seed thrown away, and a large tree full of fresh apples in each new season.

Is Meme X pointing to a similar possibility?  And if it is – why hasn’t this possibility been realised in daily practice?

Here is where the communication becomes a most interesting challenge: Those among us who have experienced Nirvana or Nibbana tell us that “Nibbana is the supreme”; but telling it to those among us who have not experienced it is like describing the beauty of the sunrise to a blind! Let’s hear Ajahn Buddhadasa again:

As for saying that Nibbana is the supreme happiness, it is an expression in the language of relative truth, a sort of enticing propaganda in the language of the common man used because in general people are infatuated with happiness, they want nothing else. So it is necessary to tell them that Nibbana is happiness and what’s more it’s the supreme happiness. But truly speaking, Nibbana is greater than happiness, beyond it.

Notice that the kind of possibility that is the theme of Meme X and of this essay is triply subtle or obscure:

  • its effects (very much like the effects of watering a tree) become manifest only in the long run; we cannot perceive how a certain practice (unselfishness or selflessness) produces a certain effect (Nibbana, or wellbeing)
  • its effects are inside of us; when it succeeds, it influences our ability to feel – joy, rupture, love… or literally ‘how we feel’, that is, how we respond emotionally to what happens outside of us; and yet the good feeling will still be experienced as being caused by something that is outside of us, such as a beautiful day, or a beautiful world
  • its effects cannot be understood by our conventional mechanistic-causal thinking (again rather like the effects of planting and watering a seed)

The results of physical watering (such as the apples) everyone can see, and taste. The results of this inner, cultural one are hidden inside. And the very nature of this ‘watering’ is, of course, similarly hidden.

What a wonderful communication challenge!

And that challenge – that is what our project is really all about.

As you’ve surely noticed, we have now a most wonderful assortment of media tools and techniques; yet we don’t quite what to do with them.

Put those things together, and you’ll have no difficulty seeing why I’m so much looking forward to developing this project!

The role of religion

The definition of religion that’s been created and used in polyscopy is rather more interesting and general than what is normally thought of as religion; but this definition requires a bit more space to explain than what we have here. So let’s for the purpose of this conversation define religion as simply the custodianship or curatorship of Meme X. We may then conclude that part of the function of religion is the development of Memeplex X  – which includes all memes and other things such as music, ritual, beliefs, rules and habits of conduct, architecture… that together enable the communication,  internalization and blossoming of Meme X. 

You’ll have no difficulty noticing that the ‘religions’ we’ve inherited from the past are at their very best only rough approximations of the ideal religion (that might be possible if we put our minds and bodies to the task, with contemporary knowledge and technology.) And that at their worst, they are its very opposites.

You’ll also have no difficulty noticing that a culture practicing unselfishness or selflessness, by giving advantage to the interests of others and of the community, by developing a respectful or loving attitude toward all beings, would be far more likely to create a ‘sustainable’ or ‘thriving’ society than the culture we currently have.

But there’s of course a stumbling block – what we perceive as ‘our personal interests’; or the prisoner’s dilemma, if we should be more technical.

It must therefore be reassuring that in an informed society, transcending our naively conceived ‘personal interests’ might well be recognised as our personal interest par excellence – being a way to pursue personal wellbeing beyond, and indeed well beyond, what is reachable by our currently prevailing naive or uninformed or misinformed ‘pursuit of happiness’

To highlight the exact role of Meme X and of religion,  let me now introduce another conceptIn polyscopy we talk about wholeness as an ideal condition of a system where nothing essential is missing (a human body needs both the heart and the liver to function properly), and where all the parts function in synergy and harmony and syntony (to use the favored word of  Erich Jantsch and of my friend Alexander Laszlo, of whom I’ll say more in a moment). We may now be able to perceive Meme X as a missing piece in our societal and cultural wholeness — the piece that we now need to even understand that wholeness is indeed possible, that collective wellbeing  and individual wellbeing can stand in perfect synergy, that one is not reached at the expense or negligence of the other.

The role of religion is, then, simply to help us replace that missing piece, and in that way make our culture, and society and ourselves, more whole. 

In a world where ‘religion’ is so often associated with closed-mindedness and violence, it may be refreshing to see that there’s a possibility to abolish the virtual monopoly that the corresponding institutions now have on Meme X, and on its discoverers and progenitors; to give religion a new life; to enable its institutions to evolve beyond their present form – which is so often just a degenerate variant of a form they acquired many centuries ago.

Religion (etymologically related to ‘ligament’) has always served as ‘connecting tissues’ binding a society together. This renewed religion may naturally also serve as connecting tissues – for an entirely new society.

The role of science

During the Enlightenment, with the retreat of religion and of tradition, science acquired the key social role of founding truth and worldview.

A meme knocking at the door of our culture to be accepted as “an idea worth spreading” – through education, public informing and in other ways – must first pass the check on its guard post: Is this ‘scientifically proven’? Are the language it’s expressed in and the worldview it is founded on compatible with the language and worldview of science?

How does science deal with Meme X?

The answer is of course that it just doesn’t.

(I must say at once that this sort of sweeping generalization may work as a ‘mountain-top view’, where we see the forest but not the trees. But as soon as we go down a bit and inspect the trees, we see that there are instances where science is used to found religion – and indeed, even in our own midst. Professor Dejan Raković has been doing that for many years, as a quantum physicist. The related work we are now doing together will be the theme of “A collective mind – Part Two”; see an early report in the post The Foundations Frontier).

It is not difficult to see why: As Stephen Toulmin observed in Return to Reason (see Return to Reason), science was not created for its role on the guard post, but as a certain way to explain the natural phenomena. Science came into that role more or less by accident – because the worldview science created served for explaining the natural phenomena so much better than the ‘Holy Book’-based worldview did; and because it was generally assumed that worldview creation was just the right way to do the “guard post” function as well.

But then something most interesting happened: As Werner Heisenberg observed in Physics and Philosophy (see Science and Religion), science disproved its earlier worldview; and replaced it with a whole new one!

Let’s revisit this book, which I so often quote, and the situation around it, to carefully see what this means.

Heisenberg was an extraordinary scientist, who got his Nobel Prize when he was barely in his 30s, “for the creation of quantum mechanics”, which he did  in his 20s. It is therefore most significant that in his 50s, summarizing the achievements of modern physics, he concluded that (“one might say that”) “the most important change brought about by its results” might be in the dissolution of a “narrow and rigid” frame of concepts that the 19th century science had created, which  made “those parts of reality that had been the object of the traditional religion [seem] more or less only imaginary”. There can be no doubt that Heisenberg  was warning us that what was happening on “the guard post of our culture” was (1) damaging to culture and (2) no longer legitimate. And that he was pointing to the value of proving it illegitimate – in a way that is legitimate to that same “guard post”.

The logical consequence was that the operation of the “guard post” should be changed.

But there was a paradox: Having evolved as a way to explain certain kinds of phenomena in certain specific ways, science had no way, and naturally also no interest, to change and adapt to its role on “the guard post”. Or to any other role. Science is simply what it is; and so it does what it does.

But what is now to be done about that “guard post” bit?

If you’ve been reading this blog post and this blog sufficiently ‘between the lines’, then you have surely noticed that that’s what I’ve been talking about – and indeed also doing – all along.

Some of the more interesting developments are still waiting to be written up and published as “A collective mind – Part Two”.

The people who have looked under the surface of our large and threatening ‘contemporary issues’, concluded that they are caused by the inability of our basic institutions – the corporation, the monetary system, the governance… to adapt to the changing needs of what they called “the post-industrial society” (see “Toward a scientific understanding and treatment of problems”). As we have just seen, also our institutionalised creation of truth and worldview might suffer from the same difficulty.

We may now once again conclude that our core problem – and hence our key opportunity – is not in any specific institution, but in the way all our institutions have been evolving.

But isn’t it exactly there that Meme X might make a difference? Just imagine a society where giving advantage to others and selfless service to humanity are widely understood as the informed person’s way to ‘pursue happiness’!

Coming back to our new situation, or to”the world problematique” or “the predicament of mankind” as Peccei and The Club of Rome called it, it must now be refreshing to see that the solutionatique may be as straightforward as heeding the admonitions of some well known and well informed people, which were made already a half-century ago. In the Thrivability Strategy manuscript and especially on the PolyScopy portal (which now exists as a rough mockup not yet ready to be publicly shown), I am elaborating the details of this scenario.

The role of liberation

By naming his forest monastery as he did, Ajahn Buddhadasa emphasized the role of liberation. What is this role?

What exactly do we need to liberate ourselves from?

What Ajahn Buddhadasa found was that grasping and clinging or more simply selfishness creates for us and in us a whole variety of prisons, in which we live voluntarily without being aware of their existence:

Although that which imprisons us is only one thing, namely upādāna [attachment, grasping and clinging], this prison takes on many different forms. There are dozens of styles and kinds of prison. If we take the time to study every type of prison, it will help us to understand this phenomenon much better.

I will here focus on only one of those “prisons”, which is not often talked about, although our present condition and our future depend acutely on finding a way out of that specific one.

And I’ll introduce it with the help of  an anecdote.

At the beginning of one of our regular Amigos international meetings on Skype, I proposed, with tongue in cheek, that we focus the day’s conversation on (Luke 12:50-53):

Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against one another, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

It was Sunday,  and so my joke proposal could have fitted the occasion. But the Amigos is not a Bible study group; we meet to work on positive social-systemic change, or technically and more precisely to “bootstrap the theory, practice and ethos of collaborative systemic innovation for the well-being of all”.

So what was the point? How are the above quotation and systemic innovation related?

And how is the above quotation related to our theme?

Christianity (understood as the Christ’s original teaching) is easily  understood as an instance of Meme X –  a way to wear off the grip of “I” and “mine” through a certain specific kind of practice: If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. But then the above quotation doesn’t seem to fit in at all! Will not this charitable attitude that is the essence of Christianity tend to unite us, not divide us?

This apparent paradox is resolved by observing that there’s ‘a bad guy’ in our story.

Logically, there’s got to be one. If Meme X is so good on all sides and so natural, then why aren’t we living by it spontaneously? Why do we even need the practice and the institution of religion?

And when we create institutions to help us learn and cultivate Meme X, why do they tend to fail?

And more generally – Why do so many of our institutions tend to follow a degenerative pattern in their evolution? And why aren’t we aware of that?

We have now reached a theme that I experience as uniquely interesting. This theme has been at the center of my interest for quite a while.

This is also a theme where polyscopy is being put to test: Can it help us illuminate and frame the nature of our situation, and find a way out?

The framing I have been toying with is called homo ludens (man the player as in “game player”). I have just recently talked about it at a convention of German students through Skype, and I proposed it to them as a missing piece of information they might need in order to make sense of the world they are entering, which we have created for them. And as an empowerment they might need to receive from my generation, to be able to do what they need to do.

To understand the meaning of the homo ludens formula, imagine a compulsive gamer sitting in front of a computer. Imagine his mother coming in, urging him to face the reality of his situation, which is rapidly getting out of hand. But our gamer doesn’t want to hear that – the reality he is living in is the ‘reality’ of the game; and there he’s been quite successful! (Indeed as it turns out, his ‘success’ has been based quite a bit on him abandoning this other reality; which has, to use Karl Jung’s keyword, become his shadow.)

Long story short is that when we put together suitable insights, which have been reached in diverse disciplines, we can understand how and why we’ve been evolving in the homo ludens way – ignoring our bio-physical and socio-cultural realities, and living in a ‘reality’ created by our institutions. Here are some highlights (the insights become alive when told through the stories of the people who brought them to life):

  • Antonio Damasio, a leading cognitive neurologist, studies the way our mind works and concludes that we are not conscious decision makers, as Descartes (and our socialised understanding of ourselves) made us believe; that the content of our awareness is controlled by embodied pre-conscious filters; he publishes his findings in a book titled “Descartes’ Error
  • Pierre Bourdieu, a leading sociologist, as a young man and a fresh graduate of the prestigious “École normale supérieure”, observes the fallacy of the ‘official narrative’ in the Algerian war; and the transformation of the Kabyle traditional culture by modernization; notices a subtle mechanism where our socialization or culture and institution formation, and empowerment and disempowerment, are transmitted from body to body without conscious awareness;  describes these insights as “the theory of practice
  • Wilhelm Reich, the youngest of Freud’s famous disciples, observes the rise of Hitler in Berlin, and later in Vienna; realises how submission to authority is embodied through socialisation – and at what cost to our psychological and emotional wellbeing; writes a pair of books with shared subtitle “the emotional plague of mankind
  • Sergei Chakhotin, a friend and younger collaborator of Ivan Pavlov, follows the ascent of Hitler at close range; realises how close (political) propaganda is to the kind of conditioning that Pavlov applied to his dogs; writes “Le viol des foules par la propagande politique” (I don’t quite agree with the way this title has been translated into English)
  • Yuval Noah Harari, a historian writing and currently the best selling author of “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind“,  observes that what enabled our species to conquer the world, and the single advantage we have over other species, is our ability to organise ourselves in effective ways, or more precisely, to evolve certain effective forms of human organisation – by creating myths and turning them into shared beliefs

Harari gives us another important clue, when he reaffirms (based on relevant research) that we have no reason to believe that this sort of societal evolution has made us happier.

To whom or to what did our conquest of the world and our successful evolution then serve, if not our wellbeing, or happiness, or wholeness?

We let the archenemy of religion deliver us this last piece:

  • Richard Dawkins observes the workings of Darwinian “survival of the fittest” evolution, and concludes that its true and only benefactor is the best adapted gene, or meme; writes “The Selfish Gene

You may now imagine various forms of societal organisation emerging, competing with one another, often violently. The more aggressive ones prevailing over those meeker ones, and “inheriting the Earth”.

Harari gives us money as the prime example of a successfully shared myth that shaped our society or socialization. But there’s another, perhaps even more to the point candidate. And interestingly, Harari has it already in the title of his book – without pointing out that it’s a myth! By calling ourselves “sapiens”, we have given our species a distinguished place in the living world – of the beings who truly know, and truly aspire to knowledge. But once the subtle reasons for our present situation are properly understood (and as we’ve just seen, we already own the knowledge that is required for that, we only need to put it together), we will have to acknowledge that a more accurate framing is to consider ourselves as homo ludens.

Evolving to become the homo sapiens will then emerge as the next  phase in our evolution; and as the natural way out of our problems.

To put Meme X and “the essence of Buddhism” into this picture, you may imagine that our metaphorical compulsive gamer has an avatar he’s identified with; and that the objective of the game he’s been socialized to accept as reality is to improve this avatar’s position in the game, even when that’s clearly at the cost of his own real-life condition.

It is clear that the dis-identification from this avatar is the key first step each of us will need to take, if we want to be part of a global solution.

You may have noticed a touch of teasing in the homo ludens formula; which is not inapt, you will also notice, if you consider the serious side of this matter – which I don’t need to remind you of.

Whether he’s a scientist or a priest, a banker of a company employee, the homo ludens ignores the purpose of his work. He simply learns to perform in his profession as one would learn the rules of a game; and he plays in it competitively. Occasionally he changes the rules – but only when that will increase his odds of winning.

What he’s playing for is often but not always position and wealth; sometimes it is just the esteem and the self-esteem belonging to the one who knows – the God’s laws; or the nature’s laws.

With this sort of playing and ‘knowing’, the homo ludens can create a dysfunctional or even dying world without knowing that.

Coming back to our German students, and to our younger generation in general, you might now be guessing why I felt that we, I mean our generation, owe them this message, which I framed by the homo ludens formula.

To see this clearly, imagine one of those students who is about to make an re-evolutionary step and become a homo sapiens. 

What she’s beginning to see is a human world that is, according to our best experts, misconstructed and about to collapse on her shoulders. And yet she sees that the education she’s about to complete prepared her to join that world as its replaceable part – it didn’t empower her to change it. She sees that the the economy she’s expected to join has been conceived as a sort of a non-zero-sum worldwide casino, a way for people with money to extract more – not as a way to enable people like her to earn a living and contribute to common good. She sees that the media news captivate her attention with spectacular events such as wars and suicide bombers – which she finds of no use in her efforts to orient herself in this sort of world, and be part of the solution.

In the homo sapiens scheme of things, all this could only be explained as results of some macabre and self-destructive civilisation-wide conspiracy – the possibility of which of course the rational mind must at once reject.  And so our student would have to admit that she simply doesn’t know, that she simply cannot understand what’s going on. And fall back on role playing.

Don’t we owe her at the very least this message – that we are not the homo sapiens we claimed we were, but the homo ludens?

As any social reformer would, the Christ knew well that before we can follow a new way – before Meme X can unite us, and guide us to evolve in a different way and ultimately “build the kingdom of heaven on earth” – we must liberate ourselves from our existing socialised allegiances, identities and realities. And that’s the essence of (my interpretation of) that passage I’ve quoted.

A consequence of this liberation is what Ajahn Buddhadasa called “the truth-discerning awareness”; and what is usually called  ‘enlightenment’. Perhaps the 21st century Enlightenment might be a suitable name for the global re-evolutionary change we might hopefully now – if all goes well – go through?

We have been using the word ‘enlightenment’ in two distinct meanings:  as liberation of human reason from institutionally-imposed mythological consciousness; and as spiritual enlightenment. Beautiful to see them converge to a single meaning.

The role of information

By now this must be clear: In the homo ludens scheme of things, information serves to ‘gamify’ our worldly existence – by telling us how the world originated, how it functions, and what we must believe in to function in it ourselves.

In the world that’s now becoming real, information must serve for our liberation.

In polyscopy the role o information is expressed succinctly and visually by the bus ideogram you see on top of this blog, where information is represented metaphorically as the light we need to steer our technologically advanced and rapidly moving civilisation. What this ideogram is saying is that we cannot just continue using our inherited way of producing information; that we must design it for the purposes it needs to serve.

In recent decades many insightful authors have pointed to the extraordinary moment in history we now find ourselves in. The systems scientist Bela Banathy for example wrote, in “Guided Evolution of Society” that

We are the first generation of our species that has the privilege, the opportunity, and the burden of responsibility to engage in the process of our own revolution. We are indeed chosen people. We now have the knowledge available to us and we have the power of human and social potential that is required to initiate a new and historical social function: conscious evolution.

And in “Designing Social Systems in a Changing World” Banathy compared the change we are facing to the change that happened when we discovered agriculture, and began to cultivate our biophysical environment. What we must learn now is to harness the power of our own social organization to shape our environment, and our culture, and ourselves.

In this situation it becomes especially important to be able to take care of the kind of memes that can give substance to this next phase of our evolution – as the agriculture meme once did.

I began to develop polyscopy two decades ago when I realised that

  • Meme X was not alone – there were other similarly hidden cultural quantum leap possibilities
  • Purposeful communication – the one that is liberated from our worldviews, and focused simply on communicating culturally relevant experiences – might be exactly what we need to become able to realise them in practice

An example of another transformative meme is the nature of effort and the possibility of effortlessness, which I talked about in  this interview I gave in 2004 to Croatian Vjesnik.  At the Einstein Meets Magritte interdisciplinary conference (envisioned as a place where scientists and artists would meet to co-evolve solutions to contemporary issues), in 1995, in a section called “Worldviews and the Problem of Synthesis” I contributed two articles:

  • prospectus or statement of purpose showing how the conventional scientific approach to information and knowledge may be extended to enable putting together heterogeneous insights such as the ones just mentioned, to create over-arching and direction-changing insights
  • an application of this method to produce an insight into the paradoxical nature of happiness or wellbeing; and guidelines for an informed ‘pursuit of happiness’

Of course, while written communication might be necessary, it is not at all sufficient. Over the years I developed a course called Movement and Qi, where a variety of physical practices were taught. I showed that all of them point to a single essence. I first taught this course in the Norwegian Association for the Blind, and later offered it as a regular course at the University of Oslo Recreation Department. I also traveled and offered it as a weekend course. Fredrik Refsli and I developed an advertising campaign to make  this meme accessible to the contemporary and especially academic people and to raise interest – we placed a couple of these flyers, reflecting entirely different motivating issues and learning outcomes, on various bulletin boards around the campus.

With Norwegian poet Erling Kittelsen (who translated several classical Sufi poets into Norwegian, including Rumi and Hafez) we created the Rumi in Oslo project. Its goal was to “express the eternal message of the classical Persian mystical poet Mevlana Jalaludin Rumi [Meme X] in the language of modern arts”, see this early flyer. This project still lives – recently we (Erling Kittelsen with poetry, Trygve Seim with solo saxophone and I with real-life story telling and dialog) were invited to perform in the KulturLab project – see this announcement.

The Garden of Liberation project

The goal of The Garden of Liberation project, which is initiated by this blog and the corresponding talk at Drammen Sacred, is to (as we might say) federate Ajahn Buddhadasa’s insights and the Meme X by

  • linking these insights with related ones, through a carefully designed and open social process, and thereby giving it a contemporary foundation, by which it may be empowered
  • developing state-of-the-art communiacation, with media etc…
  • strategically placing it into public awareness
  • connecting projects with re-evolutionary potential, and helping them exchange memes among themselves, and with the rest of us

The blog post A collective mind – Part One will suggest what this might practically mean.

Ajahn Buddhadasa clearly saw the need for this type of work – and created “Spiritual Theatre”, where monks and artists were invited to create and exhibit pieces of art that communicate and explain Dhamma. But this was more than a half-century ago, and a lot more can be done through collaborative use of contemporary media, and suitable social organization.

By doing this project, we want to create a template – how to fededrate, and more generally found, communicate, internalize, support, combine, cross-polinate… memes that have transformative potential. Help the transformative memes not remain confined in the communities where they were developed, but reach out and help all of us evolve further.

Our plan is to do this within our World Evolutionary World Tribe (WELTribe) project, and in that way use it as a vehicle to develop this project further as well. WELTribe has been conceived by my Amigo Alexander. As a systems scientist, Alexander has worked closely with some of the leading people in evolutionary systems science, including Russell Ackoff, Bela Banathy and of course his father, Ervin Laszlo. But Alexander has brought this line of work a significant step forward – by envisioning that the systems scientists will not only inform the evolution of the human systems, but also be an active part of it; and by giving (what I called here) the Meme X a prominent part of this evolution. As the  President of the International Society for the Systems Sciences two years ago he initiated systemic self-organization in the systems sciences toward that end – see his incoming presidential address. Alexander is now developing the Leadership for Systemic Innovation Ph.D. program at Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, as this program’s director. He is developing an educational program that will help people raise to the occasion and become leaders in a positive evolution of our institutions and other systems.

The goals of WELTribe will be to

  • locate the international communities or projects where culturally relevant memes are being developed
  • link those communities together, and with our society at large, so that they may in effect serve as ‘evolutionary learning laboratories’ for the rest of the society, learn from each other and allow us to learn from them
  • find ways to extract, express, empower… the resulting transformative memes and to feed them back into our society, thus enhancing its evolution

The Curating Emergence of Thrivability Systemic Integration Group (CET SIG), which Alexander developed within the International Society for the Systems Sciences, will serve as an institutional home for this project, and for others similar projects. In this way, the CET SIG will serve as an institutional home for evolving better ways to evolve.

But all this communication and interconnection work can of course at best only support, but definitely not replace the real thing – The Garden of Liberation, where Meme X can be experienced and internalised; where one can learn the associated practices; and experience first-hand the kind of society and culture that may grow on it as foundation.

Back to The Garden

Ven. Ajāhn Pōh, speaking at International Dharma Hermitage. (Photo by Donald Day)

Ajahn Poh speaking at International Dharma Hermitage. (Photo by Donald Day)

“New Year – time to begin a new life” said Ajahn Poh, an impressive and ageless holy man, who used to be the Suan Mokkh Abbott already in Buddhadasa’s time, who came to greet us foreigners at the beginning of that first evening of my retreat in the Suan Mokkh International Dharma Hermitage. Beginning a new life – that’s what the International Dharma Hermitage was created for.

Having through his experimentation and rediscovery acquired what he called “the truth-discerning awareness”, Ajahn Buddhadasa could easily see the relevance of what he found out to our contemporary society and culture. In 1989 he established the International Dharma Hermitage to

  • help people realise the essence of their own religion
  • create a mutual understanding among all religions
  • free humanity from the constraints of materialism

International Dharma Hermitage first of all offered us the experience of liberation from the clutter of material things, noises, sounds, preoccupations… that contemporary living has surrounded us with. And then most importantly, it offered us all that was needed to reproduce what I called “The Buddha’s experiment”, carefully put together.

As a real garden, the International Dharma Hermitage only offered its fruits, for us to pick up according to appetite or hunger or need. And yet as I looked more carefully, I could see a complete assortment: Listening to recordings of translations of Ajahn Buddhadasa’s speeches to meditate upon; ‘detoxification’ of our preoccupations and senses through simple and serene living; a repertoire of techniques and practices… Even the key original scriptures or suttas were there – available for chanting “only to those who want that”, both in the original Pali and in translation. An example is the Anappanassati Sutta, which describes the original Buddha’s meditation practice, which is taught and practiced in the retreat.

As a work of love, the International Dharma Hermitage offered us an experience of what the world could be like if the Meme X would prevail – by the gentle-loving sound of its morning bell; by its wholesome-tasty means; by the ponds which offered us rich symbolism to reflect on and internalize, as we walked around them; by meditations that lasted throughout the day, but where we never had to sit more than an hour at a time (although we could if we wanted to).

But all this was of course only a taste bit. To truly engage in reproducing ‘The Buddha’s experiment’, the Sumedhaso Donkiem is provided as a place where international aspirants may stay longer and do the necessary inner work, with the help of all the key elements of the Suan Mokkh memeplex.

Ven. Ajāhn Mehdī, the Abbott of International Dharma Hermitage (Sumedhaso Donkiem), in front of a painting representing Paticcasamuppada.

Ajahn Mehdi, the Abbot of Sumedhaso Donkiem, with an image representing Paticcasamuppada.

I’ll add the following highlights to what’s already been said:

  • living and practicing in the Suan Mokkh way
  • the Patticasamuppada lecture by Ajahn Mehdi, which offered a deeper immersion into “the essence”
  • a conversation with an advanced monk that Ajahn Mehdi invited to talk with us
  • visits to the village, and seeing how the village community and the spiritual community exchanged love and food; a poor woman would offer a small fried fish and a bowl of rice; Ajahn Mehdi would offer a prayer, or advice to the children; I remember a man stop his pickup truck and turn off the engine,  and wait in namaste until Ajahn Mehdi walked by (in the village, I walked respectfully a few steps behind him).

After graduating from law school, Ajahn Mehdi practiced in the Thai legal system for a year, and then having experienced the Suan Mokkh monastery life, decided to opt for this latter. Now walking barefoot by my side, on the way back from the village, he would often stop to point to a plant. It appeared to me after awhile that every second plant around us had some healing properties – which a monk living in nature should know about.

Having been back in Oslo for almost a year, I can recognize with gratitude the invaluable help I received in Suan Mokkh along the way to liberation.

This Christmas I’ll be coming back for more.


Master Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh Master Li Jun Feng Grandmaster Sang Kyu Shim

I had the unusual fortune to study and practice in three ways that are closely similar to what Ajahn Buddhadasa considered to be the essence of Buddhism, under three similarly visionary Oriental masters:

  • Li Jun Feng, the Headmaster and Founder of Sheng Zhen Gong
  • Sang Kyu Shim, the martial arts Grandmaster and the president and co-founder of the World Martial Arts Association
  • Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, Master of the Nimatullahi Order of Sufis

To illustrate the similarity with Ajahn Buddhadasa’s teaching, I will now share a few anecdotes focusing on one of the three, Nimatullahi Sufism – and only hint at the other two.

It was about three years after I began my practice of Sufism,  that I understood the meaning of the word nafs. (This word is sometimes translated, roughly and inaccurately, as ‘ego’; but for the purpose of our conversation it is best to think of it, simply, as roughly synonymous to Dukkha.)

I was horrified: How much energy, how many opportunities… I was wasting just by serving this strange inclination of my psyche! I decided to do whatever I could to remedy this problem.

The basic approach was clear – to undernourish the nafs, to have it gradually loosen its grip, atrophy its muscle. A common technique is to serve something other than oneself. (You will easily notice how this sort of service, even at the risk or expense of one’s life, might be a core theme in the martial arts.)

At that time the dervishes were meeting in my house. And so I found it natural to practice by making tea, serving meals, opening the door… to the dervishes who came along. My house had a smaller apartment, and I invited Mr. Kiandad, an older Dervish who had for a number of years lived in the Teheran Khanneqah (Sufi house),  and who was well versed in the Sufi culture, to be in charge.

And so with time, as I felt the grip of my nafs wear off, I was more and more  able to enjoy the simple serenity of the practice of serving.

But then Master Nurbakhsh asked Mr. Kiandad to return to his family; and he put me in charge of the community and its affaires.

I was in trouble! Persian Sufis are traditional people, and there is naturally a place for a patriarch or leader, someone who is respected and looked up to. But every time I would find myself in the leader role, even when I would say my “Ya Haqq” to signal the beginning of a meal, I could feel my nafs flair up!

I don’t need to tell you this – nothing could be more pathetic than an egotistical boss of the dervishes!

And so for a long time I was really quite unable to assume anything close to a leader role. All I was able to do was – to continue making tea,  serving meals, and opening the door.

A central part of the Sufi practice, perhaps the central part, is called ‘adāb’ and translated as ‘behavior’.

When I talk about adāb, I always remember the Sufi festival called Dig Jush, an occasion where perhaps a couple of hundred international dervishes would assemble in Master’s premises in London; and the situation in front of the bathroom. If even one person decided to take a long shower in the morning when everyone was getting up, that would have resulted in a long line, frustration and chaos. Yet this one person was conspicuously missing in the assembly. The long line somehow never occurred.

When Master Nurbakhsh later established his residence on an apple farm in the Oxfordshire County, the adāb was practiced by just working together. There was no other formal practice, not even scheduled meditation. After working with someone for days I would perhaps find out that in the ‘real’ life he was a director of a bank in Jeddah; or a taxi driver in New York.

In a memorable conversation with the ecologist Brian Goodwin, in his office at the Schumacher College where he taught ‘Holistic Science’, he told me, even before I had a chance to tell him about my interest in Sufism: “In the nature we must be like the Sufis: Nonexistent!”

In 1997 I organized a Sufi concert at the Oslo World Music Festival, by inviting two Nimatullahi dervishes who were excellent musicians, Davood Azad from Iran, and Houman Pourmehdi from the USA. Since they’d never met before, they practiced for one month in my house, filling it with heavenly music from noon till midnight.

One day a dervish invited us for dinner to a nearby town. After we ate, he showed us a video recording of a ritual practice that, as I was told, the Qaderi dervishes performed once a year. Having entered a deep trance through a ritual dance with live music, the Qaderi dervishes began piercing their bodies with sabers, swallowing razor blades and doing all manner of incredible things without any signs of injury or bleeding. Several times I looked at my dervish friends to see their reactions, but they were just watching calmly, their faces suggesting that that’s just the sort of things that the Qaderi dervishes do.

When we finished watching, to test my understanding of the dervish culture, and to also see if they considered those things to be real, I asked  whether what we were seeing was what was called karamat (a traditional word used for uncommon abilities of the dervishes)?

“No” Davood answered, “this is nafs (show-off, or ego). For us, karamat is nisti (nonexistence).”

Having participated in a meditation ritual with Shaikh Kabir Helminski and his sangha, in a large eagle nest-like round tent erected on top of a ridge in the hills near Santa Cruz, California, I was sitting on the floor of his living room, and demonstrating a sitting Sheng Zhen Gong form. I was guessing my host’s thoughts: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could skip over all the troubles and hard work of the Path, and reach the same effect through a sequence of meditative body movements?

So I told the Shaikh that, since the Sheng Zhen Gong was a recent development, the community didn’t yet have a chance to develop a tradition of adāb.

Shaikh Helminski smiled: But adāb is everything!



These two lines by Hafez are a concise poetic rendition of Meme X


Tar is a hand-carved Persian classical instrument.

I know this is getting way too long; but that’s exactly the point: If you are familiar with polyscopy, then you’ll recognise that all that’s been said so far was ‘a square’ –  it was verbal, analytical… But polyscopic information must also have ‘a circle’ – that conveys the main point concisely and directly to our intuition and senses, as visual or artistic messages do.

My introduction of The Garden of Liberation at Drammen Sacred indeed did have ‘a circle’. I concluded my twenty-minute talk, and opened up the dialog, by pulling out my tar and improvising a chant of two lines from a poem by Hafez – which concisely and beautifully render Meme X – the theme and the message of The Garden of Liberation project.

I’ll mention that those two lines are from Hafez’s 14th-century Divan; which centuries later inspired Goethe to write his own Divan, and another poetic rendition of Meme X:

Und so lang du das nicht hast,
Dieses: Stirb und Werde!
Bist du nur ein trüber Gast
Auf der dunklen Erde.

(And as long as you don not have it| This: Die and become!| You are only a dismal guest| On the dark earth.)

In this soundtrack you may experience a five-minute rendition of Meme X, where the mentioned two lines by Hafez are first recited in Persian, then in English translation with explanation, and then chanted accompanied by tar. A taste bit of the event at Drammen Sacred.

Already the word ‘dervish’ highlights the parallel between (the essences of) Sufism and Buddhism: The practitioners of Sufism don’t call themselves Sufis – that would be too much of a claim of achievement. The word is, rather, ‘dervish’ which literally means ‘poor’. The ‘poverty’ here is of course of the spiritual kind (not clinging to anything as “I” or “mine”).

Hafez’s paradoxical prayer to God, to make him wealthy with poverty (and contentment),  is a message to us from another era, but eternally repeated – that contentment is not reached by trying to satisfy our every whim (and in that way nourishing miscontentment); but by nourishing contentment – through the practice of generosity or ‘spiritual poverty’.

This picture will illustrate my main and final point:


Let this photo from the first edition of Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan suggest that once we have meaningfully organised ourselves around the timely task of curating it and communicating it, Meme X will unite us in a whole new culture, just as its various historical and contemporary misinterpretations have tended to divide us. It will help us learn from other  cultures and combine what we have learned to evolve further — just as its historical institutionalisations, and denials, have tended to hinder us from learning and evolving. 

A collective mind — Part One

File 03-06-15 16 03 55 1 The collective mind challenge 

An attractive side of our (Knowledge Federation’s) Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 project is that it has allowed us to develop and propose a solution to an intriguing long-standing scientific open problem – whose practical relevance cannot be overstated!

Vannevar Bush called attention to this problem in 1945, in his article “As We May Think”. Having, as the US Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, supervised some 6000 leading scientists in the World War 2 effort to stay ahead of the enemy, Bush wrote this article to alert the scientists that, with war being over, there was still one strategically central open problem that they needed to focus on and tackle:

“Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. […] The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

Bush urged the scientists to develop suitable technology that would enable us to collaboratively interconnect documents and ideas into patterns of meaning – as a single mind would when thinking.  And he pointed to microfilm as a candidate technology.

In 1948, in the last chapter of his seminal “Cybernetics”, Norbert Wiener  pointed to the practical importance of Bush’s call. A cybernetic view of the world might be to look at the whole of our civilization as a system, and ask what should communication or feedback in that system be like to afford us control over this system’s effects on its environment – or for our civilization to be sustainable, as we might say this today. Wiener quoted Bush’s article in an argument that our conventional communication is not fulfilling this role. In this argument, he further showed that our communication tends to leave some of the vitally important insights emanating from the sciences invisible to policy makers and  public. Cybernetics itself was his attempt to provide a reference system in which this large anomaly in our communication could be seen and taken care of.

In 1951 Bush’s article inspired Doug Engelbart to envision a world where digital computers, equipped with interactive video terminals and connected into a global network, enabled us contemporary people to co-create solutions to increasingly complex and urgent problems we would be facing:

“Many years ago, I dreamed that digital technology could greatly augment our collective human capabilities for dealing with complex, urgent problems”, Doug recalled in a 1995 interview. “Computers, high-speed communications, displays, interfaces — it’s as if suddenly, in an evolutionary sense, we’re getting a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms. I dreamed that people were talking seriously about the potential of harnessing that technological and social nervous system to improve the collective IQ of our various organizations. Then I dreamed that we got strategic and began to form cooperative alliances of organizations, employing advanced networked computer tools and methods to develop and apply new collective knowledge.”

To pursue this vision, Engelbart later created a research lab where the technology that ultimately marked the personal computer revolution was  developed  (see the Web documentary Invisible Revolution).

I am using the collective mind metaphor to point to a larger vision that these three thinkers shared. Each of them, namely, saw the production and sharing of knowledge (which I will be calling knowledge work) as a system within a larger system; each of them realised that substantial or more accurately dramatic improvements could be reached by developing knowledge work, and corresponding technology, as they may best suit their various roles within that system — just as a nervous system or more generally a mind would naturally evolve to provide certain specific vital functions in an organism. Each of those three visionary thinkers  focused on a specific role:

  • Bush emphasized the role of organizing information to bring  the momentarily important item to the forefront  (as a well-functioning mind would focus the organism’s awareness on, say, the fact that it is walking toward a wall)
  • Wiener was focusing on the control or guidance function (similar to the mind’s role in controlling the organism’s muscles)
  • Engelbart’s focus was on the higher (“IQ”) functions such as problem solving

(I should note in passing that this collective mind vision was of course shared by other visionary thinkers and doers as well. It inspired, for instance, systems  scientist Stafford Beer to develop a collective mind-like IT-powered system linking the economy and the governance in Allende’s Chile. While the 1973 military coup prevented this valuable socio-technical experiment from revealing its value in long-term use, it did provide a way to demonstrate that the collective mind approach can contribute to a resilient economy, which can function even in times of disruption – a valuable insight, in the context of the kind of challenges we might be facing in the future.  The collective mind was also what Buckminster Fuller had in mind when he created his World Game, and proposed it to the US government (see the beginning of my blog post Holoscope for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge). Fuller claimed that the collective mind evolution was what was needed in order to move from the competitive  international politics and policy to a co-creative one – and in that way make a systemic basis for a global culture of abundance, which had been promised, and, he claimed, was also in principle enabled, by science and technology.)

It is clear that this collective mind-style evolution is not what’s been going on. We have recently seen a prodigious growth in information technology, but this growth has not been matched by corresponding evolution in human knowledge-work systems and institutions.  In the academia, we largely still do our job as we used to – by writing, peer-reviewing and publishing conventional articles. And the media informing professionals still publish the same kind of news as before – by using their conventional workflows and media. While the desktop, filing cabinet, and mailbox are now conveniently re-created in the digital medium of our personal computers, the computing revolution has failed to revolutionize workflows and processes  in the new technology.

We have not yet responded to Bush’s already 70-years old admonition – to complement the conventional publishing of documents with knowledge curation.  A result is that “we are drowning in information”, as Neil Postman famously observed.

Still more important, however, is the way our society and culture have been changing under the influence of new media. Historically, the academia had a central role in our society – the role of custodianship of reliable, well-founded and high-quality knowledge; and beyond that, the custodianship of good art, good culture, good values, good professional know-how… We have, however, not yet found a way to implement this role in the new media, or even seriously tried to do that – lacking the collective mind self-identity, which is the subject of this essay.

A result of this lack of evolutionary guidance in our ‘official’ or sanctioned knowledge work is that the power of the new media technology to shape our ethics, aesthetics and worldview has been co-opted by commercial and trivial interests. And that the new knowledge media may have diminished the cultural role of the experts and the time-tested quality standards,  as Andrew Keen claims.

2 A difference to be made

I said that the practical relevance of this problem cannot be overstated. What does this mean? How can a scientific problem ever be so practically relevant that we cannot emphasise its relevance strongly enough?

We have over the years developed a collection of vignettes (short real-life stories with poignant messages) and arguments to help reveal and communicate this centrally important guiding insight.

One of the approaches we have worked with was to imagine the global knowledge work not as a mind but as a mechanism or algorithm; and to ask the audience to make a thought experiment – to think about the possibility of improving its efficiency and effectiveness by, say 5%; and then to think of that as a contribution to human knowledge. How large would it be? Obviously, this sort of contribution would vastly overshadow anything we could do by simply contributing knowledge – because we would be augmenting the effects of all existing and future contributions to knowledge by 5%! In the first 7 minutes of this recording our 2009 evangelizing talk “What is Knowledge Federation” at Trinity College Dublin, we showed – by taking recourse in a suitable vignette – that the range of possible improvements is much larger than 5%. In the vignette we traced the development of post-war sociology as example, and showed that  Pierre Bourdieu’s key strategic insight – that the largest contribution to knowledge in sociology would not result from adding more knowledge, but from improving the way knowledge work is socially organised – holds even more  strongly when extended to our knowledge work and our society at large.

Another approach was to look at our contemporary condition – that we urgently need reliable information to align our awareness and coordinate our action. And that the way knowledge work or specifically public informing is organised – as broadcasting of contradicting opinions – leaves us disoriented and confused. A visit of two high-profile scientists contradicting one another on the subject of the climate change gave us an opportunity to frame this argument as a vignette – see Knowledge Work Has a Flat Tire vignette. With this vignette we introduced the  Knowledge Federation to the Silicon Valley, at our 2011 workshop at Triple Helix IX conference at Stanford University (see below). We gave our vignette this title to highlight that trying to take care of our problems by producing more knowledge of whatever kind is quite like pressing the gas pedal in a car that has a flat tire; the nature of our situation is such that we must first take care of a structural or systemic defect.

In “Thrivability Strategy”, the book manuscript I am now working on (for which the introduction is brief an already fairly readable), I show that a suitable collective mind is what can now make a difference between our present non-sustainable global trends, and global thriving. At the “Visions of Possible Worlds” conference in Milan in 2003, I offered this very concise explanation why developing suitable communication could be the natural strategy for making a desirable  world also possible.

It is not difficult to see why the collective mind-style re-evolution in knowledge work (where we co-evolve and co-specialize to give our collective organisms the right kind of awareness, control, and other core capabilities) might now yield the kind of improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, in knowledge work and even of our work in general, that is suggested by our metaphor. Why it could give our society similar advantages as a well-developed mind would to an organism, compared to an organism whose neurons are only broadcasting information, and competing for the limited bandwidth of the conscious mind by simply broadcasting more. By working in this new way, we – as the sciences, or as the academia – might now be able to dramatically augment or improve all functions of our ‘collective organism’ – just as a real living organism would benefit from being coordinated by a well-functioning nervous system or mind.

I am not going to do that here, but you might now easily imagine how the issue we are talking about could be dramatised to any desired degree – by talking, for instance, about the possibility to radically improve the impact of our scientific and other sources of knowledge on our collective awareness; or about the future of our civilisation, and how our future prospects might be dramatically improved by dramatically improving communication.

3 An intriguing scientific problem

You might now grant me that the issue I am talking about is relevant. But you might still wonder why I am framing it as  “an intriguing scientific problem”? To begin with, this is obviously not a problem in physics, or biology, or chemistry or any of the conventional sciences. And then it is also not formulated as a problem – i.e. as something to which we might offer a clear-cut solution.

The reasons why I called this “an intriguing scientific problem” are related, so let’s talk about all of them together.

One of the reasons why I feel justified in calling this problem ‘scientific’ is that it’s a problem that the scientists will need to solve. The proverbial ‘hackers in a garage’ may have been able to re-create the way an encyclopedia is written, and even the social life on the planet – but I still find it inconceivable that a disruptively new systemic solution for academic co-creation, organisation and communication of knowledge might be developed and ‘sold’ to the scientists in a similar way. And if we furthermore consider ‘science’ to be not just ‘what the scientists are doing’, but the activity whose goal is to provide a certain kind of knowledge to the society, then organising scientific work to better serve this purpose must also be considered as part of the job.

The issue I am talking about is intriguing because there is no institution, and no procedure or way of working in the existing academic scheme of things, which might be suitable for tackling it.  To see what this means, pick any conventional academic research unit, let’s  say a biology lab to be concrete. Imagine everyone in it being busy with experiments, articles, courses and exams… Try to imagine these people deciding that they would re-organize their work in the collective mind manner —  that they would co-create their knowledge differently, combine it with the knowledge of other research groups and with results in other fields, and communicate it to the world in entirely new ways, by using new technology.  In no time this thought experiment will lead you to the conclusion that a typical academic environment is just as little likely to change the way its corner of the collective mind operates, as a crew of a passenger jet is to restructure their aircraft while it’s still in the air and full of people.

Nobody can have the mandate to re-create the way biology operates, or any other scientific field – the field experts will have to do this themselves. And furthermore, the new way cannot just be created out of the blue, it would have to evolve through use. And finally, consider also that the most interesting and impactful result of this evolution might need to be so radically different from our present status quo, as a light bulb is from a candle.  I challenge you to try to make a successful thought experiment of this kind – to imagine a scenario where the collective mind re-evolution actually does happen.

Our issue is especially intriguing because it is circular: A meaningful solution cannot be reached by doing conventional academic work in a conventional academic way. Nothing that we might figure out and write up and publish as a research article, i.e. no answer to our question, can be a solution – and it might, in the real sense, only add to the problem! Not only do we lack a discipline whose job would be to restructure or re-evolve our academic and other knowledge work;  but indeed any attempt to encapsulate this type of work within a discipline would again only be likely to add one more academic ‘silo’ to the existing manifold – which would  then also need to be woven into the collective mind tissues and connected with the rest!

And so our challenge can now be formulated as a question or a problem – How can we even begin the collective mind-style evolution in knowledge work, in a way that might scale and have a real impact?

4 A collective mind prototype

In what follows I will outline and discuss a solution to our problem that has been developed, and as we shall see also embodied, by our Tesla and the Nature of Creativity project, and by Knowledge Federation. This solution is course not a written idea (which could only add to the problem…)  but a living system or more precisely a prototype of a living system, already functioning in reality. We shall see how this prototype is also acting upon our institutional and social reality, aiming to transform it. And learning and self-organising and adapting to that role.

Within our Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 project, we (Knowledge Federation) created and demonstrated a small functioning prototype of exactly that part of the collective mind that Vannevar Bush was urging us to develop – an instance of collective mind-style scientific communication.

We developed our prototype  around a research article of a Serbian researcher, Professor Dejan Raković. In this article, Raković proposed a model that explains the well-documented phenomenology of Nikola Tesla’s perplexing creative process, by combining insights and results from quantum physics and quantum-informational medicine. I will come back to the meaning of this result in A collective mind – Part Two; but for now, consider it simply as a research result that has a high potential to impact other fields and our society, if it could be communicated and understood.

The solution we demonstrated had three phases.

Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 Multimedia Module

The first was a communication design phase, performed by a multidisciplinary team that included an expert designer and the author. The most vital and impactful ideas from Professor Raković’s article were in effect “lifted up” from the specialised academic language in which the article was written, and rendered in the language of metaphorical images backed by recorded explanatory interviews with the author. In that way, the main ideas from the article were made accessible to non-expert audiences.  In this first phase, Raković’s traditional article was transformed into a multimedia document – whereby we then also pointed to a general way in which new media technology can be applied within a collective mind approach to research and development. You are encouraged to download this multimedia document and experiment with it (the loudspeaker icons, which enable you to hear recorded interview segments with the author, will not work in a browser). Like everything else here, this multimedia document must be understood as a prototype subject to continued improvement through experimenting and change – and we invite you to imagine various other possibilities that can be developed within this approach.

The purpose of the second phase of this project – the physical dialog in Belgrade – was to draw public attention to the results of the first phase,  and to initiate a social process that can lead to the understanding, verification and dissemination of those results. To achieve that, we staged a one-day workshop within a larger international congress, Nikola Tesla – The History of the Future, which was organised in Sava Centre Belgrade.

Media use in the physical dialog in Belgrade. Photo by Zdenko Stromar.

In the physical dialog, a spectrum of media and communication techniques were applied in collective mind-style academic communication, specifically (1) live international video streaming, (2) simultaneous translation, (3) conventional media (TV), (4) Skype (for international panelists) and (5) an adaptation of David Bohm’s dialog among the panelists  and the general audience in the room.


The panelists (detail). Photo by Biljana Rakočević.

A panel of invited experts and community opinion leaders was given the specific role to discuss the dialog themes (this will be elaborated on in Part Two).


The panelists and the audience (detail). Photo by Biljana Rakočević.

The audience too was given an active role in the dialog.


Initial structure of the online part of our collective mind – on DebateGraph

In the third phase, which is on-going, an online collective sensemaking tool called DebateGraph is being used to collaboratively and publicly comment and verify the results of the first and the second phase; to link and inter-relate Professor Raković’s creativity model with related documents and ideas; and to then create still higher-level insights, and make them available to the media professionals, specific communities of interest that might need them and benefit from them, and to general public. In effect, this third phase is where the collective thinking, as enabled by this collective mind prototype, practically happens. This third phase was initiated in an online ‘barn raising event’, where DebateGraph and this way of working was introduced to the participants by David Price, DebateGraph’s co-founder. David used the GoToMeeting online meeting platform, and screen sharing, to put ideas on the map, as we began to discuss them, and to instruct us how to do that.

5 Collective mind in action 

Imagine a collective mind in action: What would it be like? How would it operate? What would it be thinking about? Well, you don’t need to imagine it – a collective mind prototype is now available, and you may visit it and explore it, and even join it, and contribute to its thinking!

DebateGraph Later

Our DebateGraph collective mind after one week of collective thinking (detail)

As I said, we are using DebateGraph as platform or tool kit to enable us to think together online. You may imagine DebateGraph as a result of extending Wikipedia to include not only co-creation of factual knowledge, but also linking and relating documents and ideas with each other, and discussing or debating them. DebateGraph  has a number of collective mind capabilities already built in. In the online ‘barn raising’ meeting to begin the third phase of the TNC 2015 project, we introduced DebateGraph  as follows:

“As I mentioned, we’ll be using DebateGraph, a premier collective sense-making platform, whose user community includes the CNN, the White House, the UK Prime Minister’s Office, The Independent, the Foreign Office, and millions of people worldwide. We are fortunate to have with us Dr. David Price, FRSA, who is one of the two founders of DebateGraph. By sharing his screen with us, David will be showing us how to update DebateGraph, so that we may subsequently continue to think together and co-create on our own.”

As shown in the above image, a week after this third phase was initiated in an online ‘barn raising’ event, it was already possible to see the results of our collective mind in action — as links to relevant resources, ideas, questions… were being added. We encourage you to visit and explore this map, and to observe the evolution and operation of this collective mind through time.

But what is this collective mind thinking about?

In the online ‘barn raising’ event,  the three themes of this dialog were introduced as follows:

The first theme, the nature of creativity, and in particular of Nikola Tesla’s creativity, is already in the title of the event. Is there indeed an entirely different kind of creativity, which we called  “direct creativity”, which is so different that when we try to be creative in the conventional indirect way, we inhibit our direct creativity and vice-versa? Tesla dropped out of university and underwent a deep personal crisis before his capability to be directly creative would open up. Are we inhibiting direct creativity in our schools and universities, and in our academic culture? Could we be producing Tesla-like creatives in far larger numbers than we do? Imagine what difference this would make to our civilization in peril!

And yet – as important as it might be, our interest in direct creativity may be seen as only a tactical element, as a Trojan horse — in a strategy to make progress on the other two themes, which are potentially still much larger. The second theme is the collective mind. As I already said, we are talking about the possibility of enhancing our capability of better understanding not only DR’s creativity-related research, but indeed all research! And to make better use of all other knowledge resources.

But this is not all. Our collective mind has another key property that we must now emphasize: It is capable of self-reflecting; and of self-organizing, improving, evolving… And this is what we’ll be doing here, in this dialog. The purpose of the second theme is to create an online discussion about our collective mind prototype itself, so that people with suitableexpertise, and also all other people, may have a say about how the collective mind is constructed, and how it may be improved.

The third theme is to envision an emerging culture. Can an improved collective mind enable us to think new thoughts, and envision completely new possibilities? Here we’ll be linking the creativity-related insights with analogous or related ones, making generalisations, creating ever more general and more impactful new insights.

Notice that the third theme – co-creation of a larger vision, by linking the specific result (on the nature of direct creativity) with other results, finding generalisations and consequences and making them known to specific communities and the media, is where our collective mind is properly speaking thinking. We shall elaborate on this important function of our prototype in A collective mind – Part Two. The reason is that there is a yet another  long-standing scientific open problem, no less intriguing and practically relevant, that will be discussed there. In Part Two we shall revisit the prototype described here, and show how it provides answers also to this other open problem.

6  Innovating entrepreneurship 


Siniša and Saša Rudan. Photo by Biljana Rakočević.

Fine, I imagine you say – here’s another academic attempt to change the world. But this won’t make a notch in the way how things really happen in reality. Isn’t the core of our problem that – while the academia is watching – the world is really being changed by the entrepreneurs?

The collective mind approach offers a better alternative to this now conventional way of evolving socio-technical systems. This alternative is an implementation of another key Doug Engelbart’s idea, namely that the tool systems and the human systems should co-evolve together, or be co-designed.

This approach enables the best insights owned by academic and other experts  to directly influence social- systemic change – which has obvious advantages to the present practice where the technologists are changing the world, and the humanists are discussing the effects.

In our prototype, this alternative is modeled by Saša and Siniša Rudan,  and by the CollaboScience module they are creating. Saša is a Ph.D. student at the University of Oslo; Siniša is an IT entrepreneur in Belgrade. Privately they are twin brothers, accustomed to working and thinking together.

The CollaboScience module was shown and used during the physical dialog in Belgrade, by mapping the events taking place in the room. CollaboScience is developed through collaboration of Rudan brothers with and within the Knowledge Federation community, which continues to test, use and discuss their design.

You may get an idea of CollaboScience in action by watching this short video, which the brothers created on demand from the Serbian National Television, for a science TV show about our project.

In the video, you can see how the events that are taking place in the room, such as Alexander Laszlo and Ramon Sangüesa, our online speakers, presenting their ideas, are being placed on the map in real time. And how the ideas they introduced are mapped and related to other ideas. While we used DebateGraph (which has been develop for debating issues) for our online federation as more stable and reliable, CollaboScience will, we hope, in the long run provide us with functionality that is tuned to the specific  processes and interaction we’ll choose to implement in federating research.

(The music in the video is a piece called Tesla’s Lightening, by Dragica Kopjar and Ljerka končar, which was performed at the opening of the Tesla 2015 international congress.)

In the above video recording of a TV interview (in Serbian), Mr. Drew Giblin, the Cultural Attache of the US Embassy in Belgrade, began by highlighting the importance of using Tesla’s example to inspire the young people to be daringly or disruptively creative in any field, and the US Embassy’s readiness to support such efforts. The opportunity was then opened up for  Siniša Rudan to talk about collective creativity, CollaboScience, our event in Sava Centre, and Knowledge Federation. “So you may be creating a collective genius!” concluded the interviewer.

The mapping module is intended to be only one of the many components of CollaboScience, which is envisioned as a growing collection of interoperable modules, enabling quick and easy construction of innovative systemic solutions for  any situation or field in knowledge work. The idea is to provide Lego blocks-type objects, which can be assembled and re-assembled through collaboration of field workers and experts with knowledge media experts and other stakeholders, to enable systemic prototypes to emerge and evolve freely and creatively.

One of the conversations that are now active in Knowledge Federation is how to  organise a conference. The physical meeting has (we agreed) a vital purpose also in knowledge work that is augmented by contemporary media; but this purpose may be rather different than it used to be! The various purposes that people historically aimed to achieve by coming together physically  may, however, be served far better by an event that is designed as a three-stage media-enabled set of processes (before, during and after).  We are now discussing what processes might serve best; and what tools might enable them. The idea is to create a flexible and versatile conference co-creation tool kit.

The CollaboScience module in the TNC prototype shows how the ideas that result from systemic innovation research can be federated into entrepreneurial projects.

The added value of the tool system – human system co-evolution strategy to the collective mind approach to IT R&D is that:

  • we may not yet have all the technology that is needed to support the processes we may choose to implement
  • the change of the human system may naturally open up a large market for new technology

To highlight the scale of business and R&D opportunities that may result from the collective mind approach to knowledge work and IT development, while evangelising Knowledge Federation, we sometimes point to Henry Ford’s historical disruptive systemic innovation,  in the transportation system. By making the automobile production cheep and the automobile widely accessible, Ford also made it possible to make a fortune in not only automobile production, but also in oil drilling, gas stations, automobile insurance, road construction… And vice-versa – the disruptive innovation in transportation required a variety of new businesses and technologies.

7 Collective mind prototype as scientific result

A scientific reader might now object that what I’ve just described is not really a scientific result at all; it is merely an event! Even if we admit that we might be talking about a new paradigm, and that in a new paradigm results are allowed to be different than we are accustomed to, there are still two criteria  that any reasonable  notion of ‘scientific result’ will need to satisfy:

  • generality –  a result must be in some sense reproducible, applicable in a variety situations
  • validity – a result must  be in some sense verifiable  or ‘falsifiable’

There is, furthermore, another line of critique, which is specific to collective mind. To see it,  imagine that a completely new information technology has been developed, which makes our prototype for federating a research result obsolete.  How can our prototype federate this result? How can it change its structure? Notice that our conventional knowledge-work and other systems do not have this capability; and that this capability is the key aspect of the challenge we’ve been talking about. (In Knowledge Federation we call the system design that provides the capability to federate knowledge by changing the system’s structure open design.)

The essence of our solution, as implemented in our Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 prototype,  is captured by two keywords: prototype and transdiscipline. You may now imagine that the prototype that’s just been described is enclosed or encapsulated within – and continuously designed by –  a transdiscipline. transdiscipline is typically a small to medium-sized interdisciplinary community, organised to

  • enable the inflow of knowledge from participating disciplines, professions and areas of interest – as represented by its members
  • provide the combination of expertise and skills that are needed to create  a state-of-the-art prototype and to keep it up to date with relevant developments
  • enable the outflow, back into the participating disciplines, of information and insights, and in particular of the disciplinary challenges that have emerged in the work with the prototype

The prototype and the transdiscipline are instruments for federating knowledge into a systemic structure (see the explanation below); for making systemic structures capable of adapting and evolving, or metaphorically – alive. We offer this intuitive notion (of making our society ‘alive’) as a further evolved alternative to ‘sustainability’.

The construction of first phase in the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 federation prototype, the communication design module, demonstrates this principle. This part of our prototype been created by a team that included  a reputed Norwegian academic communication designer, Fredrik Eive Refsli. Fredrik brings us the skills and tools that are now largely used  for another purpose – marketing products, and increasing consumption – and he applies them to the centrally important task of making insights that emanate from research understandable and palpable to a general audience. And so by taking this role in our collective mind prototype, Fredrik is also designing a new role for communication design! And he, quite naturally, passes on this role to his design students. Fredrik’s message to the design community is that ‘sustainable design’ (a keyword that defines the design study program he is developing) has to do with not only the concerns like recycling paper and using energy-saving light bulbs; but also, and indeed primarily, with evolving the systemic role of design in a sustainable economy and society.

You will now easily notice that the second module in the online dialog – the one where we reflect on our collective mind itself – is what provides us, when combined with a suitable transdiscipline, the feedback-control mechanism that can allow us to continue to update the collective mind prototype indefinitely. 
As the above prototype might illustrate, every prototype embodies both a certain abstract principle of operation and idiosyncratic details that make it work (or not work) in a specific time and place. Regarding the former, you will notice that our present construction of the collective mind has three phases that follow logically from the challenge – they enable us to: (1) extract key ideas from the specialized scientific language; represent them in accessible, visual format; make them available within a multimedia object with interviews with the author etc.; (2) make the results publicly known; seed the online communication, by sharing the result, and generating interest, in a physical dialog, and through conventional media; (3) collectively think about the provided material, weave it into collective awareness, assimilate it with existing materials, draw conclusions… through technology-enabled online deliberation.

In the research methodology we are developing, prototypes have a similar role as theories and experiments do in conventional research. A prototype is

  • a model, embodying certain ideas, including a principle of operation
  • embedded in reality
  • acting upon reality, with the intention of transforming it
  • collecting information, including what works and what doesn’t
  • open to continuous and deliberate improvement, as we learn more
  • ready to be adapted and replicated

Coming back to the question of this prototype as solution to our problem – it is clear that this ‘solution’ is still ‘scientific’ or ‘academic’ – in the sense that we are still largely contributing ideas, and not yet physically changing the world (which is a much bigger job, which needs to involve many people and sources of power and action beyond the academia). A difference that makes a difference, however, is that these ideas are rendered as prototypes – which are designed to grow or ‘scale’, and become real systemic solutions in the world. As long as the ideas are held captive in academic articles, they cannot instigate solutions or be solutions.

A complete solution, however, must also include the Knowledge Federation prototype, as ‘the chicken that hatched the egg’  (the prototype institution that created the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 prototype) – as I will discuss next. 

8 Institutionalising systemic innovation

We have now come to an answer to our core, institutional challenge – the sort of organisational structure that might be capable of creating collective mind prototypes, and innovating on the scale of basic socio-technical systems.  And the way in which such an institution might originate.

Knowledge Federation – our prototype answer to this challenge, has been initiated by a small group of knowledge media researchers and developers, who gathered at Knowledge Federation’s first international workshop organised at the Inter University Centre Dubrovnik in 2008. The idea to form a community, however, emerged a year earlier, at the Topic Maps Research and Development conference in Leipzig, Germany where Jack Park – a Silicon Valley researcher, developer and networker, and a prominent member of the Topic Maps community – brought several of us together, who were working not so much on Topic Maps technology, but rather on applications of this and other similar technologies to create socio-technical systems that federate knowledge (this transcript of my five-minute idea presentation in Leipzig, Knowledge = Mountain, is an early rendition of my personal view of this direction).  “Knowledge Federation” emerged as a natural name for our group. While preparing for our first meeting in Dubrovnik, we invited several other colleagues that were not present in Bremen to join us. Googling “knowledge federation” readily led to Professor Yuzuru Tanaka,  a pioneer of knowledge media in Japan, who had used this name already in an Asian conference he’d organised. And so he too joined us in Dubrovnik, and has remained with us ever since. Jack invited Simon Buckingham Shum, who was at the time at Open University, and who earlier that same year co-founded a similar community called Global Sensemaking. The members of Global Sensemaking included some of the leading researchers and developers of collective mind-style technology and processes.

At our workshop in Dubrovnik it became obvious to us that the technology and the corresponding patterns of knowledge organization and co-creation that we and our colleagues were developing could revolutionize knowledge work – provided that we had a way to enable the changes in institutionalised patterns of work and communication, which have evolved through the centuries of use of the old technology, the lecture hall and the printed paper.  But in order to work on that  challenge, we needed to organise ourselves differently, and work in an entirely new way.

Our second biennial workshop in Dubrovnik brought together a larger transdisciplinary group (see this sample). The name we gave to this workshop was “Self-Organizing Collective Mind”. We invited the participants to think of themselves not as pursuing a career in a conventional profession,  but as cells in a collective mind – and to begin to self-organize as it might best serve this new identity. The keynote speakers were chosen to ‘put the ball in play’:

  •  Paddy Coulter  (formerly the Director of Reuters School of Journalism at the Oxford University, and  at the time the Director of Oxford Global Media Institute and Professor or ‘Fellow’ at Oxford Green College)  told us about the crisis in journalism; and about the need, and the opportunity, to re-create it thoroughly
  • John Wilbanks (at the time  the Director of Science Commons, and Deputy Director for Science of Creative Commons) told us about the global efforts to make scientific knowledge available online and free of copyrights – a global scientific knowledge bank, ready to be federated

The self-organization that followed led to the development of the way of working or method I’ve described above – where we organize a transdiscipline around a specific design prototype to create it and to update it continuously. Knowledge Federation developed this way of working by applying it to its own immediate design challenge – of developing Knowledge Federation itself.

This technique – whose technical name is bootstrapping – dissolves the inherent circularity of our design challenge: Knowledge Federation, or more generally the transdiscipline, is both the proverbial chicken and the egg. Bootstrapping resolves the key difficulty that is inherent in socio-technical system design: While a programmer or a team of programmers can easily create, test and develop a computer program, nobody can ‘program’ busy academic people to do their work differently. But we can overcome this difficulty by including the field workers and other experts and stakeholders in the transdiscipline, to both create and also be the prototype! Bootstrapping was developed and used by Doug Engelbart and his media design lab in the 1960s.

Our next workshop – which was organized within the Triple Helix IX Conference at Stanford University in 2011,  gave us a timely opportunity to share the results of our co-creative process, and the challenges on the collective mind frontier, with the Silicon Valley (IT world) on the one side, and the International Triple Helix community (cross-sectoral collaboration) on the other.  We didn’t use the collective mind metaphor then but a technical synonym – systemic innovation in knowledge work, whose meaning I’ll come back to in a moment. At our workshop we were able to announce

  • systemic innovation in knowledge work and beyond as an  emerging creative frontier  for IT R&D
  • (the way of working developed and modelled by) Knowledge Federation as “an enabler of systemic innovation

At Triple Helix  IX, I gave the talk “Knowledge Federation – An Enabler of Systemic Innovation” twice (see the article): Once at our workshop, and once in the Innovation Journalism section of the conference. On this latter occasion I introduced Knowledge Federation by telling this story:

Imagine you were a journalist; and that one day you wake up thinking: “It really makes no sense to be a journalist while the things are as they are. It is not clear that journalism still has a sustainable business model (in a world with abundant free information). And it is not clear that journalism can still fulfill its societal role (inform people in an increasingly complex world).” What would you do?

The problem seems overwhelming. You decide to take a stroll down town. You are looking at a store that makes tailor-made suits and you think: “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a shop where I could have my profession tailor made? To suit not only me, but also the society it needs to serve. “

Only a few months later, we had an opportunity to implement and test these ideas in practice. Knowledge Federation Workshop Barcelona 2011 was a meeting of two communities: Knowledge media / collective intelligence, and journalism. The title of this event was “Co-creating an Innovation Ecosystem for Good Journalism”. Two milestones were reached:

  • we created an ideal prototype for journalism
  • we created a real-life prototype of a transdiscipline innovating journalism

The journalism prototype that resulted (see the description in the its DebateGraph map) had a number of design patterns that distinguished it as ‘public informing for the 21st century’, because it

  • has a transdiscipline associated to it, to re-create it continually
  • gives a direct voice to the public  (this citizenship journalism module, called Wikidiario, had already been developed by some of the participating journalists from Barcelona)
  • has the capability to reveal systemic causes of people’s concerns  – and to identify suitable strategic / systemic remedies
  • gives the journalists the role of  curating news material created by an ecosystem that includes the public,  policy makers, and academic and other experts and stakeholders
  • allows the academic experts and expertise to directly influence both the way public informing operates, and the information that is created

The capability of the public informing prototype developed in our Barcelona 2011 workshop to foster systemic insights – and in that way empower the people to truly understand and handle the issues that threaten or bother them – might be worth highlighting. Will this prove to be ‘democracy for the 21st century’ (see my five-minute videotaped talk Democracy for the 21st Century, recorded for Community Boost_r Camp, Sarajevo 2013, where I introduced systemic innovation or systemic re-evolution as a necessary element of the 21st century democracy; and Knowledge Federation’s work on developing ways to empower the people to “take part directly and authentically in the design of the systems in which they live and work”. ). We also showed in this way how a collective mind-style public informing might empower the larger systemic innovation agenda.

Our Barcelona 2011 workshop gave us an opportunity to work through some of the details of the challenge of re-thinking and re-creating a profession. By inviting Paddy Coulter to be the Chair of the workshop, we gave the control over the co-creative process to the field experts. The co-creation, which followed a period of sharing and brainstorming, was organised by using the World Cafe technique.

The prototype we created in Barcelona, considered as an experiment, revealed to us a difficulty that is inherent in its line of work: After the workshop our journalist colleagues returned to their editorial desks and busy schedules. And it turned out to be impossible to focus sufficient energy, time and attention to actually  implement our  prototype in real life, as we had planned.

This experience, however, subsequently led to the creation of a sequence of prototypes that I will here only mention:

  • The Game-Changing Game, as a general or generic method for systemic innovation was created at our workshop in Palo Alto in 2012, and shown at the Bay Area Future Salon (see the announcement, brief interview and the article The Game-Changing Game – a practical way to craft the future describing this prototype, published in European Academy of Design proceedings); a key idea was that the systemic ‘elders’ (Z-players) ‘play The Game-Changing Game’ (engage in systemic change) by empowering the younger A-players to develop their careers in a ‘game-changing way’ (by re-evolving their professions or ‘systems’ in which they life and work, instead of adapting to them)
  • ZIG project, developed in collaboration with Zagreb Creativity Centre, as an attempt to apply The Game-Changing Game to create a real-life good journalism prototype
  • The Club of Zagreb – a re-design of The Club of Rome, whose mission is to re-direct the efforts to respond to the contemporary problematique more effectively, by focusing on systemic innovation and systemic change, through  The Game-Changing Game

We opened The Club of Zagreb as a prelude to our 2012 biennial workshop in Dubrovnik.  Yuzuru Tanaka flew into Zagreb from Japan, Mei Lin Fung and Jack Park from California, David Price joined us from England, Alf Martin Johansen from Oslo, Siniša and Saša Rudan from Belgrade… Of the local participants I will here mention only Professors Nenad Prelog  of University of Zagreb Journalism, and Mislav Omazić of University of Zagreb Economics (who co-created the Zagreb Creativity Centre, and earlier the eSTUDENT excellence hub) — as key co-players in the ZIG project.

I will interrupt this telling of the Knowledge Federation history, and postpone the two themes that we have been developing subsequently, and which mark our current activities, to be presented later in dedicated blog posts:

  • the development of an internationally federated educational project, whose goal is to (1) consolidate the body of knowledge relevant to our task (2) federate it to international creatives (A-players) and (3) create a state-of-the-art knowledge federation – based transformative systemic prototype in education
  • development of a knowledge federation prototype with and for an academic community – concretely the International Society for the Systems Sciences (which naturally extends and complements the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity prototype for federating a single research result, which has been introduced here) 

9 Can a civilisation change its mind?

A growing number of researchers and thinkers who looked at our contemporary condition concluded that our civilization must change its mind, that it really has no other choice.

And in “A collective mind – Part Two”, we will be able to reach the same conclusion in another way, by looking at the foundations on which our knowledge work has been developed, and the subsequent changes in those foundations (for now, see my blog post Return to Reason).

But is such a change possible?

We learn from history that civilisations  do occasionally change their minds. An example is the Enlightenment, when a sweeping awareness shift happened in our civilisation. Science – as a new approach to social creation of truth and meaning – was brought to prominence by this wave of change.

And so it is of course conceivable that the ’21st Century Enlightenment’ might also call forth a new approach to social creation of truth and meaning. While the nature of this new approach is of course an interesting theme for speculation and research (and the theme of his blog), in “A collective mind – Part Two” I will take advantage of this specific example, the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity dialog,  to illustrate how a new approach might be different.

10 Our vision

In the physical dialog in Belgrade, we asked each of the panelists to present two two-minute commentaries, on selected two themes. In my role as a panelist, I decided to give two versions of the same commentary, a shorter and a longer one. And so I showed the following three slides two times. I will do the same here. What follows is the brief version. In Part Two, where suitable context will be introduced, I will share the longer one.

TNC 215 -

This theme continues to fascinate me: That we have been focused on improving gadgets, and ignored the possibility to improve our institutions and other socio-technical systems, on which the efficiency and efficacy of our daily work depend in a much larger degree – and which have proven so capable of organizing our work and our living in ways that will ultimately harm us!


The above photo was taken as I was pointing to the contrast between the unbelievable dexterity we have manifested when creating small gadgets like the one I was holding in my hand – and our even more unbelievable neglect of those incomparably larger and incomparably more important ‘socio-technical gadgets’.

TNC 215 -

It therefore seems safe to predict that the innovations or inventions that will mark this century’s greatest improvements of the human condition will be on the socio-technical scale – we will ‘discover’ new ways of doing education, public informing, science, finance, governance, religion… Just as during the last century we discovered that we could fly, talk at a distance, automate computation, and have our clothes washed by a machine.

This systemic innovation, as we are calling it, will dramatically augment our capability to create a better future, and our better selves.   In my short speech I made it clear that I expected the benefits, the improvements of our condition, to be at least as large as the ones that have been achieved during the recent phase of our societal evolution –  the Industrial and Scientific revolution. But I believe they will be larger.

TNC 215 -

In this last slide I was referring to a detail that was shared during the first day of the “Nikola Tesla: The History of the Future” conference – namely that in a turn-of-the-millennium poll of experts by an academic engineering journal, “electrification” was identified as “the most influential innovation of the 20th century”, because it enabled so many other discoveries and innovations.  (This was quoted to highlight the importance of Tesla’s contributions to electrification.) By analogy, the systemic innovation in knowledge work may be expected to have a similarly impactful role in this century – by exemplifying, illuminating, explaining, organizing, developing suitable ‘organizational nervous systems’ for, and ultimately enabling the systemic innovation in general.

But the emergence of systemic innovation in knowledge work too will need to be enabled by a suitable way of working and institution. It is to that end that the Knowledge Federation prototype has been developed.

Enabling social-systemic transformations

Can social scientists team up with other scientists and stakeholders, and transform (rather than only observe) the society? A stage for this academic transformation has just been set. Excellently organized by Karen O’Brien and Linda Sygna here at the University of Oslo last week, the Transformation in a Changing Climate conference brought together some 250 engaged participants from around the world.

The Transformations was conceived as an “unconference”. It began with “Extreme Dialog”, where participants from already struggling regions shared their stories; this is not an ‘academic’ problem, this is real. Feel it in your stomach! With this viceral motivation in place the question was asked: What will you do? Also politicians and business leaders were present in the panel. During the three days that followed the focus was on interaction and co-creation.

Two kinds of transformation were subsumed:

  • We need to transform our various societal systems (emergency handling, governance…) to be able to handle local and global crises that may occur as results of accelerating change
  • We need to transform our various societal systems (business, public informing, governance, finance, research, education…) so that the very roots of our various risks, of which the climate change is an example, may be eliminated.

My talk at the Transformation in a Changing Climate conference was titled “Enabling Social-Systemic Transformations.”  “By transforming our key societal systems (public informing, governance, research, education, finance…) we can enable them to solve our problems, and ourselveto begin a Renaissance-like cultural and social transformation,” I wrote in the abstract.

In my talk I outlined the strategy for enabling social-systemic transformations we were developing and applying in Knowledge Federation:

We are here at a university, so we may as well begin the global transformation here, in our own house.

The key to the academic transformation, as I see it, is  the way in which we perceive the meaning and purpose of our work. The technical word is ‘epistemology’, but I am going to introduce this idea here by telling you a parable.

On every university campus there is a Mirror...

On every university campus there is a Mirror…

On every university campus there is a Mirror. Busy with our papers and courses, we tend to walk right by it without noticing it.

When we look at this Mirror, we see the same world that we see around us. But we also see ourselves in the world. We instantly realize that we are not those disembodied spirits looking at the world objectively from above, as we believed we were; we are people living in this world, and responsible for it.

This academic Mirror is not an ordinary one; we can walk right through it. On the other side of the Mirror we find ourselves in another academic reality.

Since 1995 I have been working on the other side of the Mirror in the manner of a prospector: creating projects that illustrate the kind of academic transformations that are possible there, and the social and cultural transformations that may result from those academic ones.

For the past several years I have been doing this work within Knowledge Federation.

SandboxImagine it as a sandbox, where sociologists, ICT researchers and developers,  political scientists,  journalists, and any other experts can encode their ideas not only in printed text, but also in real-life social-systemic prototypes—and strategically bring them into real-world practice.

The sand in this sandbox is new information technology.

The projects we want to develop in this sandbox are systemic trimtabs—they are strategic interventions capable of inducing or facilitating sweeping systemic transformations.

In Knowledge Federation we have been developing not only systemic trimtabs, but also a general method for creating systemic trimtabs, and for enabling social-systemic transformations. Here is an intuitive description of how this method might work.


We begin by developing a clear vision, in the lower left corner of this picture. By taking a bit more careful look at perceived problems, such as the climate change,  we readily recognize that those problems are all related with one another; and that their root causes are systemic. We realize that we cannot really take care of our environment without doing something with our economy; and that we probably cannot change our economy without doing something with our governance and so on.

While the task of solving any of our perceived problems within our systems as they are may seem daunting, what we however can and need to do is learn how to transform our systems—so that those problems don’t even arise!

How can we transform social systems? Necessarily, the transformation must begin in our own midst, and we academic people have good reasons for undertaking such a transformation, as I already said.

Through the mechanism of the transdiscipline, of which the Knowledge Federation is both a prototype and a creator, we enable researchers from various disciplines and other stakeholders to combine their knowledge and skills, and create systemic insights and prototypes.

Our transformation strategy further combines transformed research with transformed entrepreneurship—as the creative power through which our social organism naturally changes and grows. This is really just the way innovation normally tends to happen—adapted and applied to social-systemic innovation.

Through the mechanism of The  Game-Changing Game, we enable the entrepreneurs from diverse branches and businesses to team up with researchers and other stakeholders to strategically induce  changes of practice in a domain—and by doing that to open up completely new niches and markets, just as Henry ford did in transportation a century ago.

In this way we bring the creativity and the knowledge of the academia and the power of business together, to bear upon social-systemic transformation.

My friend David said that this picture reminded him of the Native American Eagle—you see, it has a body and a head, and two wings.

So let’s make it fly!

Toward a scientific understanding and treatment of problems

“Toward a scientific understanding and treatment of problems” is the title of the talk I gave last Wednesday through Skype, to the international workshop  Information Technology and Journalism at IUC Dubrovnik.

By ‘problems’, I said at the start, I mean above all the large characteristic contemporary issues such as the climate change; but also other problems, even personal ones, because all problems I can think of can be understood and treated in the manner I will be pointing at.

Parallel to reading this brief summary, you may want to explore this talk’s Prezi.

The opening view of the lecture Prezi

The opening view of the talk’s Prezi

In the talk I developed a parallel between scientific medicine and understanding and handling of problems in general. “When we see red spots appearing all over our skin”, I said, “we don’t try to get rid of them by rubbing them  off or painting them over; we base our understanding and treatment on the underlying anatomy and physiology.”

The talk explored our social-systemic ‘anatomy and physiology’  by telling vignettes and drawing conclusions, which I will here briefly summarize.

Our societal ‘cardio-vascular system’ (finance and governance) was examined first. Its role is to bring (financial) nutrients to ‘cells and organs’ (people and institutions), and thereby livelihood. A quick look at David McCandless’ Billion Dollar-o-Gram reveals that the amounts wasted by this system through losses within the system (the 2008 financial crisis) and through misinvestment (Iraq and Afganistan wars)  are so large, that the amounts needed for handling other issues, such as lifting one billion people out of extreme poverty or saving the Amazon, are tiny in comparison. The conclusion (voiced already by Bycky Fuller a half-century ago, and by John Stuart Mill a century and a half ago) is clear: We have all the resources we need to solve our problems; our key problem is their distribution.

Is the very principle of operation of our financial system (creating money as debt) a cause of non-sustainability?

A similar inspection of our societal ‘brain, nervous system and sensory organs’ (academic research, media and government), which should initiate a remedial action, reveals that they cannot: The press tends to keep us focused on symptoms and palliative measures; the systemic causes and remedies—when they are known to the researchers—tend to remain within a narrow academic circle.

Is the very structure of our societal nervous system preventing it from fulfilling its role?

The condition of other societal systems is similar and illustrated in some detail in the Prezi. I skimmed over the details;  what has been  shown will suffice to draw conclusions.

The key point or 'gestalt'

The key point or ‘gestalt’

The main conclusion is expressed by another  visual etaphor: We see ourselves as parts in grossly misconstructed societal mechanisms. We give them our daily work and our best intentions; and we trust that they will turn our work into socially useful effects. But even a brief look into their structure allows us to see why  those effects fall dramatically short of reasonable expectation. And sometimes they turn out to be outright harmful!

“It is time for systemic innovation”— it is time to broaden our scope and shift the focus of our attention, from improving its nuts and bolts and our own performance in it, to recreating the machinery itself, and even its principles of operation. Our situation calls for innovating at the level of entire socio-technical systems, by adapting those systems to the functions they need to serve in larger systems.

By innovating on the level of the societal systems and organs, we can not only enable them—and us—to solve our problems; we can also open up vast opportunities for progress, and for thriving on all sides.

I offered three alternative ways to formulate this conclusion:

  • Bela Banathy’s quotation (from Designing Social Systems in a Changing World):

    I have become increasingly convinced that [people] cannot give direction to their lives, they cannot forge their destiny, they cannot take charge of their future—unless they also develop competence to take part directly and authentically in the design of the systems in which they live and work, and reclaim their right to do so. This is what true empowerment is about.

  • Another metaphor—a river flooding our basements with increasing frequency representing a personal problem—can be treated in one of the following two ways: (1) Everyone trying to empty the water from his own basement by carrying buckets, and possibly by purchasing devices such as electrical pumps (conventional innovation); or (2) everyone teaming up and regulating the river flow (systemic innovation).
  • A photo of an exuberant celebration of an electoral victory, expressing my wish or vision: The motto “It’s the systems, stupid!” (a paraphrase or generalization of Bill Clinton’s 1992 winning election slogan) signals that our conventional symbolic approach to politics and issues has been seen through and replaced by the systemic approach; that the focus of our political action has shifted to systems, where ‘a difference that makes a difference’ can be made.

(If you are familiar with polyscopy, you will recognize here the ‘the informaiton i’ ideogram.) Like a powerful lamp or a lighthouse, the gestalt I’ve just sketched for you (represented by the ‘i’) reveals a vast and most fertile creative frontier.

An attractive action space is pointed at by the 'lighthouse'

An attractive action space is pointed at by the ‘lighthouse’

“Think of the ‘i’ in the above picture as a stylized lighthouse, showing a way to a harbor.” I said. “The terrain around it is a most wonderful action and building site.”

On the left, under the title ‘Theory’, I am showing a tiny but telling selection from a vast range of possibilities. A handful of books and authors point out that we have reached the point in our culture’s evolution where we are ready to understand our societal systems and institutions not as our shared doxa or reality,  but as embodying and distributing power, and as a natural and necessary object of focus to our creative abilities, and for new kinds of political action.

On the right the title is ‘praxis’, and under it I am illustrating a spectrum of projects that can be undertaken, by talking about the ones I myself am currently involved in. Knowledge Federation develops an academic practice, and evolves suitable societal ‘organs’ and ‘systems’, whose goal is to enable us to function as a coherently organized, properly interconnected and continuously self-organizing ‘collective mind’. The Game-Changing Game and The Club of Zagreb enable systemic innovation and real-life systemic change.

Two concrete systemic prototypes, chosen to suit the audience, are outlined in this lecture’s Prezi in some detail.

The first is the Barcelona 2011 Good Journalism Prototype (developed at the Knowledge Federation Workshop Barcelona 2011) where:

  • a prototype of a public informing that may suit our contemporary society and its challenges is created—and continuously recreated—by a suitably developed transdiscipline
  • public informing joins everyone (jounalists, public, researchers, politicians…) into a coherently functioning and well-interconnected collective mind
  • public informing illuminates at systemic causes of perceived problems, and points at suitable systemic action

Since I discussed the BCN2011 Good Journalism Prototype at this workshop last year, this time I chose to focus on the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity (TNC) Prototype, where a technical academic article—with high potential general impact—is

  • made accessible in terms of visual metaphors
  • turned into a multimedia document, with explanatory interviews with the autor, and with links between the technical material and corresponding high-level explanatory models
  • turned into a collection of general ideas, made available online, to be linked with other related ideas, and commented on
  • transformed—together with related works and comments—into general, high-level insights or gestalts, which point at suitable action
  • made known (with related gestalts) to communities that may need them
  • made available (with related gestalts and suitable media material) to journalists for publication

The event where I gave this talk—the Information Technology and Journalism Workshop—is relevant: Professor Nenad Prelog, who organizes this workshop series, is the leading creative force in academic journalism in Croatia. A systems thinker, well networked internationally, Nenad has ‘edemocracy’ as his email address, which points at a broader scope of his interests. Professor Prelog is part of the germinating ZIG Project, where the BCN2011 Good Journalism Prototype is being implemented in practice; this year he has joined us at the opening of The Club of Zagreb, and at the Knowledge Federation Workshop “Knowledge Media for a Living Society” in Dubrovnik.

Since the beginning of this year I have been having daily Skype meetings with Sam Hahn (co-founder and leader of Program for the Future) and David Price (co-founder and leader of DebateGraph and of Global Sensemaking). We are developing the Community of Impact. Imagine it as a lighthouse and a construction site around it. We will soon be inviting people and communities to join us.

We are developing a co-creative space where people can express systemic insights, and corresponding ideas for improvement or solution, no longer only in speech and writing, but also by co-evolving or bootstrapping suitable systems, and by implementing them, strategically, in everyday practice.