Case Study #2: Tomas Björkman, Co-Creating a More Conscious Society
A premise of the Future Sensor exploration is that human consciousness — the awareness of ourselves and our natural and social environment — is evolving, historically as well as over an individual’s lifetime. This contradicts conventional wisdom, which assumes that adults are more or less fully developed by the time they reach a certain age, somewhere around the mid twenties, and that all subsequent changes are relatively marginal. In Where do we come from? Where are we going to? we introduced a model based on Spiral Dynamics to capture this development, which consists of a gradual process of becoming more aware of reality.
Over the past years I have been looking out for initiatives which are dedicated to adult psychological development and combining it with innovative approaches to society, politics and ecology. I had a decent list of projects, many of them based in the US, when I stumbled across a whole new evolving ecosystem of people, books and organisations, based in Northern Europe. We all know these moments when we discover a new entrypoint to a topic we are fascinated with, when your own bubble gets pierced and the horizon expands.
This happened to me in spring 2017. I had been invited to spent a week on a small island in the Swedish archipelago. There, a group of social entrepreneurs had come together to explore the importance of inner wellbeing, and no place could have been better suited for this than Ekskäret (eng: Where the oak trees grow). I immediately became intrigued. Who was the owner of this place, with its tree-lined shore, tasteful yet simple architecture and delicious local food? As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait for long. On the first night, my group met the host, Swedish entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Tomas Björkman, in a typical Scandinavian environment: The island’s sauna.
An Ecosystem of Projects
Since then, I have explored a number of initiatives seed-funded by Tomas. Apart from Ekskäret Island, used for both youth camps and courses in personal development, Tomas co-founded Perspectiva, a think tank based in London, focused on inspiring “our leaders to examine real world problems with a deeper appreciation of the influence of our inner works”. Alter Ego, its younger, wilder sister, intends to build a transformative political movement aiming to overcome our polarised culture by “developing beyond our existing beliefs and assume more complex, unifying perspectives” . There is also Tech Farm, a “purpose-driven real estate venture” that launches co-living and co-working properties located in Stockholm and Berlin. Tomas supports the metamodern writings of Hanzi Freinacht, as well as 29k, a non-profit tech startup developing digital tools to make the latest findings in psychology about transformational growth available to as broad an audience as possible. Other initiatives, such as a metamodern monastery in Ukraine, are in the making.
The tagline of all these activities is to ‘facilitate the co-creation of a more conscious society.’ In their different ways, all initiatives aim to research, explore and model new ways of being and doing. In the language of spiral dynamics, I believe, they aim to bring more “yellow” elements into society, including the ability to hold more complexity, transcend conventional binaries, develop an awareness for emergence and cultivate a more authentic, deeper way of being. The spaces created within Tomas ecosystem make space for feelings such as vulnerability and spiritual connections, as important aspects of the human experience.
In Berlin, at the CoCreation Loft, Tomas Björkman and I meet to discuss the strategy behind this portfolio, to which he has dedicated the past decade of his life.
Growing up psychologically
“Tomas”, I ask, “’ What does a ‘more conscious society’ actually mean?”
Tomas has something of a patient, erudite teacher about him. Answering, he begins with the Enlightenment, during which humans acquired a scientific outlook. This was hugely beneficial, and today, says Tomas, “we are in many ways living in the dream of our grandparents”. But with our global and digitized age, the rationalist worldview has come to its end. Worse, its assumption of homo oeconomicus, of humans as unchanging rational actors, is in many ways directly responsible for the big problems we are facing — from environmental destruction to global inequality and poor mental health. Humans are obviously not wholly rational beings, responsibly looking after themselves and their planet.
Instead, current neuroscience, adult developmental psychology and behavioural economics give us a much more complex and fluid image of who we are. Not only is our mind an open system, developing throughout our lifetime, but it is also deeply embodied — we “know” with our gut, our spinal cord, the chemicals in our bloodstream. Additionally, we are embedded within the meaning systems of culture.
This much more complex understanding of human nature and consciousness forms the launching pad for Tomas Björkman’s work. In order to build a more equitable society which will look after our planetary home, we need to enable humans to grow personally, to become more aware of themselves and the complex systems — human and nonhuman — they are embedded in.
“During one of the youth camps on Ekskäret Island, I overheard a conversation between a young girl and a camp leader. The young girl talked about how stressed out she was by all the things she wanted to spend time on — social media, sports, friends etc.. But some probing questions by the youth leader changed her perspective fundamentally. She said: ‘Oh, now I see! I don’t have to do all the things I want to do!’ In this moment, she became more conscious — before, her will ‘had’ her, afterwards she owned her will.”
In this life long process of becoming more aware of — and thus transcending — previously unconscious habits and beliefs, we increase our freedom and become authentic authors of our own life. ‘Becoming more conscious’ thus means, in the language of Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Keegan, moving from a ‘socialized mind’ which ‘behaves” to a ‘self-authoring mind’ which “acts’.
During his career in investment banking, Tomas already saw that “the inner quality” of management, capacities such as self-reflection and multiperspectivity, were key factors for success. Having made a lot of money and realising that we are in the midst of a great societal transition, Tomas turned to philanthropy. For the past decade, he has sought to create spaces in which such personal and cultural development can be discussed and prototyped.
The transition to a more conscious society, which is also a society more capable of holding complexity, is by no means automatic. Tomas interprets the many crises we are witnessing today — ecological, economical, spiritual — as symptoms of a necessary shift. From here we can go in two directions: either we evolve to a higher level of awareness, releasing more energy and creativity, or we decrease in complexity and live in a world of fragmented nation states, likely at war with one another. “As with any complex system in transition”, he says, “we need human agency, the capability to carry this new more aware culture. For that we don’t need everybody, but maybe 5, or 10, or 15% of the population”. His mission is to support individuals and organisations in this development by creating “deliberate development spaces”.
Guided by an Inner Compass and Serendipity
Within this clear vision as a compass, the serial entrepreneur lets himself be guided by serendipity.
“The CoCreation Loft is a good example”, he tells me, pointing to the well-designed rooftop apartmenturned-co-working space. “Two years ago my son and I attended Burning Man. This art festival in the middle of the Nevada desert, co-created by the participants, is amazing. Having lived in this human-made world for a week you can’t look at your own culture as a given. Afterwards, in Esalen (a retreat center on the California coast), I met a young German guy. Steffen Stäuber, who had just left his communication company and was on a world trip, figuring out what to do next. We only met for 15 minutes, but I told him to call me after his return to Berlin and we would do something together.”
A few months later, they founded the CoCreation Loft. It hosts a dozen desks, living areas and a meditation room for a diverse range of systems changers interested in exploring new ways of making society more conscious. Steffen and his crew also invite speakers and facilitators to discuss topics such as entrepreneurship, personal growth, art and death (together with a friend I organised a Death over Dinner there). Another important realm for exploration are the types of leadership we need for the current transformation. Too many CEOs, politicians and civic leaders are stuck in a command and control style, relying on experts for advice. This works well in complicated, but predictable situations. With increasing complexity the situation changes. Systems theory tells us that in fluid, strongly interconnected environments, no one right answer can be found. Instead, leaders need to patiently allow the path forward to reveal itself. In complex systems, with non-linear and exponential dynamics, there are no straightforward solutions, but answers that are emerging.
Supporting parts of the emerging future
Tomas’s approach to change is informed by these principles. In order to support a new, more mature and aware culture and society, he seems to observe new movements which are aligned with his vision. At the same time he knows that these movements are only the most visible parts of a much larger, yet unknown emerging picture. He enters this emerging future with an open trial and error approach, following both his intellect and his instincts to support different people and institutions which have the potential to shift the whole societal system. He then waits for results, expecting some his so-called “experiments” to work and others to fail.
For someone who made his fortune with numbers, Tomas surprises me by saying that he doesn’t use performance indicators for his philanthropic activities. “For KPIs to be effective, you need to be able to measure them. But the things the world most urgently needs today are qualitative and can’t or shouldn’t be measured. Instead, after a few years you just know whether a project has a positive impact on society or not.”
The market is only one tool for change
One question Tomas currently ponders is how progressive initiatives can be funded. Many now point to the market. But this can be a trap: He has seen too many social entrepreneurs burned out and losing focus by trying to squeeze their products into the market. The market is a tool. It is great for trading goods between individuals, but unsuited for collective goals — a more equitable society, a healthy planet — as these are very difficult to package and sell individually. Tomas criticises the many politicians who have bought into the idea of the market as a panacea for all problems. He even wrote his first book about The Market Myth, exposing market solutions as unsuitable for many collective goals. At the same time, our future is too important to be left to philanthropists, to the good will of individual people, who fund an initiative here and there.
Instead we need politics to step in and strategically allocate resources to collective aims. But, of course, democratic politics — in the grip of short term media frenzies — is also in a major crisis and needs to be reshaped in ways which take back collective agency. Thus for Tomas, a strong believer in both the market and democracy, the two core institutions of our world need to be re-fashioned. His spaces and initiatives are part of the much broader global effort to help facilitate this change. (To name just two others: the Transforming Capitalism Lab founded by the Presencing Institute from Otto Scharmer and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics).
Nature as a catalyst
Before parting, I ask Tomas where he gets his impulses from. He pauses, as if checking within himself for an answer. “I grew up on a small family farm in Sweden,” he then says, “and it is in nature that I can connect to deeper layers of myself most easily.” Thus when Tomas started his foundation on Ekskäret island, he consciously used nature as a catalyst for deeper change.
Useful too, he continues, is the ability to switch off. Most of Tomas’s important aha-moments and important business decisions have come to him in the mornings, often under the shower, while being in a state between asleep and awake. Relaxing and unfocusing the mind allows for deeper, unconscious processes to surface, and enables one to see new patterns in the complexity of daily life.
This, I concur, is what’s needed today. As Tomas says in his recent talk at TEDx Berlin:
The success of the industrial revolution was based on an acceptance of our limited knowledge of our outer world. It was that acceptance, and our curiosity about our outer world, that made us discover new continents and made us reach for the moon.
The revolution of our time is also about acceptance. This time acceptance of our limited knowledge of our inner world. This acceptance — and the discoveries that will come from that — will be the big step forward for humanity in our century.
In order to move into the new social order that wants to emerge, we first have to surrender. Surrender to the fact that we are not fully developed. That we are on a constantly developing path, both as individuals and as society. And when we have accepted that, being in touch with ourselves will be an invitation, both to raise our consciousness, to grow and — hopefully — to become more human.
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A shorter version of this article first appeared on TwentyThirty as Leading from the Edge of the Unknown