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The New Copernican Revolution: Fritjof Capra on the Shift to 'The Systems View of Life'

Image courtesy Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra is one of the world’s leading thinkers in systems theory, and the author of many influential books, such as The Tao of Physics; The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter; The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture; The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living; and Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the Notebooks of a Genius.

Fritjof has described his latest book, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision as “the realisation of a dream” and it has been 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. The result is a book that presents, for the first time, a coherent systemic framework that integrates four dimensions of life — biological, cognitive, social and ecological — and discusses the profound philosophical, social and political implications of this new paradigm.

In addition to the book, Fritjof has also recently launched Capra Course, a new online course based on The Systems View of Life. The course has been designed to give sustainability practitioners the conceptual tools to understand the nature of our systemic problems and to recognize the systemic solutions that are being developed by individuals and organizations around the world.

I have been working with Fritjof on the development, management and evolution of Capra Course. I therefore had the opportunity to discuss with Fritjof the importance to global brands of developing their own systems view of life, and what guidance and inspiration change agents working with brands can learn.

You have described the shift into “the systems view of life” as being “as radical as the Copernican revolution.” Could you describe this shift, and the main theme of your book and course?

Fritjof Capra: At the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life, we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. This change has many facets. 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.

Systems thinking emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, with the 1940s seeing the development of actual systems theories. To what extent do you think that this way of thinking has reached political and business leaders?

FC: As you mentioned, "systems thinking" or "systemic thinking" emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, but the mechanistic view of the world — for example, of the human body in medicine, or of a business organization in management — is still very entrenched. In my experience, systemic thinking today is developed and practiced most frequently in civil society, less so in the business world, and the least, unfortunately, in politics. Interestingly, the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Sì, shows Pope Francis as a truly systemic thinker.

If global brands take the systems view of life as their guiding principle for leadership, what lessons can their managers and leaders learn?

FC: This is a big question, which I discuss in detail in my book and in an entire lecture of Capra Course. One of the key discoveries of the systems view of life is the insight that the network is the basic pattern of organization of all living systems. Therefore, a business organization will be alive — i.e. flexible, resilient, and creative — when it recognizes and empowers the living networks, or “communities of practice,” that exist within it. Leadership, in the systems view, means facilitating the emergence of novelty — in other words, creativity — within these communities of practice. “Emergence” is a key concept of the systems view of life.

In recent years, Change Management has emerged as a central approach to the implementation of transitioning programmes in large organisations, but the actual track record is generally agreed to be poor. How can the systemic understanding of biological and social networks lead to more effective change initiatives?

FC: Systems science teaches us that living systems continually regenerate themselves by transforming or replacing their components. They undergo continual structural changes while preserving their web-like patterns of organization. Understanding life means understanding its inherent change processes. This is an important theme in my textbook and my course. Once we have that understanding, we can begin to design processes of organizational change accordingly and to create human organizations that mirror life's adaptability, diversity and creativity.

Capra Course has been created in order to allow you to reach a global audience of sustainability practitioners, mangers and leaders. Could you tell us a little about Capra Course and its relevance to global brands?

FC: In my online course, I teach the essential concepts of the systems view of life in twelve 40-minute lectures, and I discuss them with the course participants in special online forums. I have developed my synthesis of this new scientific understanding of life over many years and have published it at various stages. Capra Course is my first opportunity to teach the full synthesis to a worldwide audience, which I find tremendously exciting. I specifically emphasize the critical role of systems thinking to solve the major problems of our global crisis, which are systemic problems — all interconnected and interdependent — and require corresponding systemic solutions. As you mentioned in your introduction, Capra Course will give participants the conceptual tools to understand the nature of our systemic problems and to recognize the systemic solutions that are being developed by individuals and organizations around the world.

SR: Sustainable Brands now hosts its annual global summits in a number of cities around the globe, including San Diego, London, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Copenhagen, Sydney, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro and Istanbul. These have proven to be one of the leading platforms for the discussion of systemic solutions and concepts such as the circular economy, cradle-to-cradle, supply chain innovation, and ecosystem and biodiversity protection. Looking ahead to the next five years, what is your main message to the global Sustainable Brands community of business leaders?

In today’s global crisis, we need a very special kind of leaders who are ecologically literate and capable of thinking systemically; leaders, furthermore, who are guided by a “moral compass,” in the memorable words of Václav Havel. If Capra Course can help to foster this new and urgently needed leadership, I shall be richly rewarded.

The first edition of Capra Course will launch in April 2016. For more information please go to www.capracourse.net


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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