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Introducing the Systems View of Life Into Organizations

Image credit: Cambridge University Press

I recently took part in a Sustainable Brands webinar with Fritjof Capra, in which we discussed how to introduce systems thinking and the systems view of life into organizations. After interviewing Fritjof in January, I invited him to take part in this webinar to explore the issues in more depth, an opportunity which would also allow participants to ask questions and contribute their thoughts and ideas as well.

Not only is Fritjof a distinguished scientist and systems theorist, he is also an environmental educator and one of the world’s most recognized environmental activists, and so to open our webinar I took the opportunity to ask him how he had seen activism changing over the last few decades:

“The main change has been the emergence of a new global civil society — an international coalition of NGOs with their websites and social media that allow them to share information and mobilize their members with incredible speed,” Fritjof said. “In my view, this global civil society has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s. I am old enough to remember the sixties: we had a dream of an alternative culture: peaceful, spiritual, socially just, sexually liberated, and so on. But we didn’t know how to realize that dream, except for short times in various utopian communities.
“At the end of the 1980s we were at the cusp of what Bernie Sanders now calls a ‘political revolution.’ But then something unexpected happened in the 1990s: the Information Technology Revolution, which brought us not only the freedom of the Internet, but also a new materialism and a new global capitalism - economic globalization - with unprecedented corporate power and disastrous consequences. It took the counterculture a full decade to absorb these developments, and in 1999 this new global civil society emerged in Seattle and declared its opposition to the so-called neoliberal ideology. Well, these are just some highlights of a long story of activism over four decades.”

Fritjof’s latest book, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, was written with his long-time friend and colleague Pier Luigi Luisi, one of the world’s leading authorities on the origin of life and self-organisation of synthetic and natural systems. During the webinar, Fritjof introduced his synthesis:

“The systems view of life is my name for a new conception of life that has emerged in science over the last thirty years. At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is no longer seen as a machine composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships; that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system.

“The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain, but also the immune system, the bodily tissues, and even each cell as a living, cognitive system. Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for existence, but rather as a cooperative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. And with the new emphasis on complexity, networks, and patterns of organization, a new science of qualities is slowly emerging.
“Now, at the very heart of this change of paradigms we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. A network, as you all know, is a pattern of relationships. Therefore, to understand networks, we need to think in terms of relationships and patterns. In science this is known as ‘systems thinking,’ or ‘systemic thinking,’ and this is why I call the new conception of life a systems view.”

One of the first obstacles in introducing systems thinking into organizations is the fact that universities, which are organized around single disciplines, are not currently able to prepare students in this approach, which is inherently multidisciplinary. As Fritjof remarked:

“A professor of biology often does not feel comfortable talking about climate change; or a professor of social studies about mind and consciousness. The systems view of life covers all these areas.

To overcome these challenges Fritjof was inspired to create Capra Course, a new online course based on The Systems View of Life, which consists of twelve pre-recorded lectures, along with a discussion forum in which Fritjof participates throughout the course. As Fritjof explained:

“You see, the systems view of life is critical today for all professions, because the major problems of our time are systemic problems — all interconnected and interdependent — and they need corresponding systemic solutions. The systems view of life provides the conceptual framework for such systemic solutions.”

While we have come a long way in relation to helping major organisations develop a more systemic view of the problems we face, we still have some way to go. During the webinar, I took the opportunity to review the way in which Sustainable Brands as a network and community has also been great a champion of systems thinking, highlighting a number of examples such as Dr. Sirikul Laukaikul’s concept of the sufficiency economy; and the Venerable Phra Anil Sakya, who at SB’16 San Diego in June talked about the need to cultivate a sense of moderation.

Last year, SB founder KoAnn Skrzyniarz opened the San Diego event with the observation that we are becoming better at seeing problem/solution sets differently, and that we are becoming better at looking at whole systems. Indeed, KoAnn invited my wife, Maria, and myself, as co-authors of our book, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, to SB ‘15 London, where we ran our workshop, “Holonomic Thinking: Upgrading Our Leadership Skills and Systems Thinking for the New Economy.” Maria also spoke in London about her work introducing the universal human values of peace, truth, love, right-action and non-violence into major corporations in Brazil, values which provide the foundations for systemic change to be developed within such a business context.

I greatly respect KoAnn not only for the way in which she invites such profound philosophies and ideas to share the stage with the world’s largest brands and companies, but also for her recognition that brands are still not doing enough to implement systemic solutions. For this reason, at the end of our webinar Fritjof and I discussed what more businesses should be doing. Fritjof summarized his points by saying how businesses need to make the shift from being “life-destroying” to “life-enhancing”:

“In my view, the major challenge of our time is to create and nurture sustainable communities - that is, communities in which our ways of life, businesses, economies, technologies, and so on do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.

“So I would say, a company who is serious about taking on this challenge needs to ask itself: Are our products and services life-enhancing or life destroying? This is much more than recycling office paper and plastics. The very core of the business needs to be questioned.”

During the webinar, attendees shared a host of interesting links. These were all collected and are available to see at the bottom of the webinar page. The fact that the webinar was among Sustainable Brands’ most popular shows just how relevant this topic is to those who wish to implement positive and life-enhancing solutions into their businesses and organisations. It was a huge pleasure to take part, and I am sure it will not be long before we continue this important discussion with further conversations.

 


Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education and the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter. He is a member of the Emerging Future Institute, a member of the Strongly Sustainable Business… [Read more about Simon Robinson]


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