Discovering early signals of our yet unformed future

Keks Ackerman
Feb 12, 2018 · 17 min read
Human towers in Tarragona, Spain, Joan Capdevila Vallve

Following our analysis of digital potential (Post 2), we see a push towards a world that becomes more decentralised, transformable, fluid, collaborative and global. These are all signs of increased complexity. The more complex the world is, the less we can approach it with static terms. Instead, we need a perspective which focuses on movements, connections and processes.

Our current developments, including the growth pains of disorientation and anxiety that I have described, are embedded in a major evolutionary trajectory. Humans and societies develop and become increasingly complex. Even though this is not a simple linear process, no one will deny that there are vast increases in complexity between the cave dwellers of Lascaux, medieval feudalism and the industrial world of the 20th century. Digitisation is setting the stage for a new operating system, the next act of human development.

To orient ourselves and navigate through this next level of complexity, we need new maps. Only with the right kind of maps will we be able to host and transcend the growing feelings of disorientation and anxiety so prevalent today. Anxiety sets in when our habitual ways of understanding and interpreting the world fail. In a fast changing environment, it can feel like we are losing grip on the outside world, unable to secure our place in it.

I’d like to present such a map here. It’s based on the work of Ken Wilber, a prolific integral philosopher, who himself incorporated the major findings of developmental psychologists and transrational researchers in his model. This model, called AQAL, helps us to gain an understanding of our current place in human development, making it easier to navigate and shape the world around us.

Wilber’s AQAL (which means “All Quadrants, All Levels”) is composed of two overlapping models. I’ll describe one after the other.

1.The first model assumes that every phenomenon has multiple dimensions: inner and outer, individual and collective.

2. The second model presumes that the inner and outer development of humanity is progressing in developmental steps. These reflect each individual’s developmental process and the cultural evolution of coexistence.

The inner and outer dimensions of every phenomenon
When we talk about “digital transformation”, we refer to processes in four different spheres or quadrants. First of all there are external, societal changes; new platforms, products and processes. Google, Twitter, Amazon and Uber, N26 and betterplace are changing the landscape of our economy as well as the way how we as a society conduct our daily lives. We see new organisational and leadership styles, gravitating towards self-organisation and distributed leadership. This movement is accompanied by changes in the externally visible, individual sphere: we change our behaviour and acquire new skills and new knowledge. Thus as I described with regards to the digital potential, we may strengthen our capacity to co-create and collaborate. As employees in companies practicing self-organisation, it’s necessary to take on more responsibilities such as practicing open and transparent feedback.

This change of behaviour requires adjustments in our inner personal attitude and awareness, our individual thinking and feeling. Self-organisation also requires that we develop our individual self-contact (an awareness of what is going on inside cognitively, emotionally and physically), as well as our capacity for self- and meta-reflection. And finally, digitisation also affects us in the non-visible, inwardly collective cultural domain: the way we relate to each other, the values we pursue and how we see the world. Thus digitisation pushes society towards developing a more world-centric view of the world, valuing our capacity to navigate in complexity. All quadrants influence each other; attitude drives behaviour, behaviour drives attitude, culture drives processes and so forth.

This model is important, as in my view, innovations can only be sustained and beneficial if they incorporate and induce change in all quadrants. We will go into this in more detail in the next post.

Here is the four-quadrant model:

Graphic by Keks Ackerman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, based on Ken Wilber’s AQAL

Different events can take place in different spheres or dimensions. On the left side of the model are the inner dimensions, on the right the external (observable) phenomena. Above are the individual aspects, below the collective aspects.

Dimensions of human development
In the AQAL model there are four quadrants and different levels of human development. In recent decades, psychologists (starting with Piaget) have investigated in detail what the human maturation process across the whole life span looks like and which behavioural patterns, world views and forms of organisation are associated with the different levels. Besides Ken Wilber, scientists and authors such as Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, complexity scientist Michael Lamport Commons and Don Beck with his Spiral Dynamics model have developed differentiated layered models of internal and external advancements.

For most of these authors the individual maturation process is mirrored in the collective human development process. Thus early societies are characterised by less complex social and economic structures, picking up momentum as history advances. Thus different historical periods, such as modernity and postmodernity correspond to specific evolutionary societal stages.

For our current era the cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen, Robin van der Akker and Seth Abramson have coined the concept of “metamodernism”, which we have encountered in previous blog posts. On the one hand metamodernism is an aesthetic movement; on the other it describes a specific developmental stage of an individual or a society. In the latter case it refers to a specific center of gravity within a collective as societies and cultures are not monolithic but highly differentiated entities. As a developmental stage, metamodernism refers to a specific stage of cognitive complexity and human depth. The metamodern subject strives to transcend the tensions of the previous developmental stages and hold the space for a greater complexity. We will come back to these concepts at a later stage, but if you are curious, you can check both Hanzi Freinacht, The Listening Society (p. 169ff) for an overview and critique of the different approaches to adult and societal development, as well as this review of The Listening Society for a quick introduction into metamodernism.

Even if the authors mentioned above differ in details, they present a surprisingly similar map of human and societal development as a process of increasing, evolving complexity. Their focus is on specific human needs, which are met in different ways. Each structure in turn develops its own value systems, ways of thinking, forms of behaviour and organisational structures.

One structure builds on the next. As we grow in mental complexity, our ability to disembed our perspective from direct experience increases. With each level we learn something new. Thus, each progressive level is more complex, i.e. it contains more diversity and includes and transcends the contradictions of the previous one. With each step, the radius of our understanding and emotional experience increases.

Thus, each progressive level doesn’t reject or wipe out the qualities of the former, but integrates them. In a healthy maturation process we have access to all levels and can use them appropriately depending on the situation.

In what follows I use the Spiral Dynamics model. Keeping in mind that “all models are wrong, but some are useful” (George Box), the color code it uses for each level, gives us a useful shorthand to talk about the different stages.

The development sequence looks like this:

Survival — beige

Belonging — purple

Dominance — red

Order — blue

Progress — orange

Ecology — green

Systemic — yellow

Here is a short description of the different stages, starting with the least developed and moving on to the most complex.

At the very beginning of human history, the priority was to secure basic existential needs for food, shelter, reproduction and survival. To this day, these are strong human needs and when they are threatened, we feel deeply affected and react accordingly in a reflexive, instinctive way.


Historical Oktoberfest, Flickr

As soon as basic needs are covered, people want to feel part of a group. Hordes, clans and tribes form themselves and try to control their environment with magic and rituals. Even today, social relationships and group affiliations are still the foundation of our lives. Contemporary rituals to cement groups range from Christmas celebrations to crowds doing the wave at football games.


left: School Rugby Match, CC BY-SA 3.0, right: Portrait of Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David

The next level goes hand in hand with a person’s individualisation: an individual steps out of the group, recognises his or her own power and tries to exercise it. Dominant power structures, some of which are based on physical force or violence, emerge. Contemporary manifestations are the mafia, but also exploitative startups with manic founders. In the maturation process of the child, this step or level corresponds to the ability to assert one’s own individuality and will to the parents. In later adult life we still want to use this competence in certain situations, e.g. by setting healthy boundaries with other (trespassing) people or ending situations by making strong decisions.


M. Hulot in front of the office maze, Playtime by Jaques Tati

A pathology of the dominant red structure is arbitrariness and despotism. To limit arbitrariness, the next stage defines clear boundaries by issuing regulations and building institutions that are independent of individuals. The emergence of our modern legal system falls into this area. People learn to follow fixed rules and integrate themselves into hierarchical rule-based systems. These structures still determine large parts of our lives today. We find them in our bureaucracy, church, union or army. At this level, duty and loyalty are outstanding values. This structure is highly rational. Sciences claim to have a comprehensive understanding of the world. In the Enlightenment, humans instead of God move into the centre of creation.


Thom Browne New York, Foto: Laif/landon Nordeman

However, fixed hierarchies and neutral, person-independent hierarchies tend to restrict the individual. And so the next structural level revolts against this conformism in particular. Now everyone who achieves a particular result should be rewarded for it. Personal freedom and excellence come to the fore. People and institutions strive to optimize themselves. Efficiency is gaining enormous significance and individuals and companies are pursuing their individual (economic) success.


left: Hippies at Woodstock Festival 1969, right: Commune Dancing, Peter Simon

While autonomous self-expression and progress are at the centre of the previous orange structure, the next one is about belonging to the community: the relationship with other humans and the environment.

Instead of atomisation and the ever-increasing specialisation and optimisation of individual subsystems,”holism” emerges as an important paradigm. Holism posits that parts cannot exist or be understood without reference to their interconnectedness with a greater whole. Movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Hippie movement, feminists and the Greens ask us to look at society in its wider context and to reveal pathological power relations. We must, for example, acknowledge that the successes of the “first world” have been achieved by externalising our problems to weaker partners; to poorer countries and to the environment.

More and more individuals see the “world” as a relevant category of thinking. The individual grasps itself embedded in larger contexts and topics such as social justice and environmental protection gain in importance. Social inclusion also means that every person and every group has a voice that needs to be heard. For people and institutions, the question arises as to the meaning of their actions beyond shareholder value. “Purpose“ becomes an important USP (unique selling point) for companies.

At this stage the focus of individuals and societies changes from the external to the internal parts of our AQAL model. The emphasis on external systems and structures, as well as observable behaviours shifts to a new appreciation of the inner dimensions of our lives. Questions of meaning and culture, individual and social wellbeing emerge and are deemed to be of utmost importance.

Orange and green
Life today in most industrial nations is dominated by orange and green structures, with a big shot of blue added. Most of us will easily be able to identify our unique personal mix, and see where individual facets of ourselves, our personality, behaviour and values fall on different levels of the spectrum. Our personal mix is itself moving across different structures and quadrants, whether we are at our workplace, visit our families of origin, attend university or conferences, or deal with our local administration. Subjectively we notice these different structures as sensations of boredom, stress or the need to “shrink” our personality. For example, you might experience shrinkage at your workplace, i.e. the feeling that you need to contract and can only show certain carefully selected parts of yourself in meetings with your boss or colleagues. This is a good indicator that the value system, the structures and processes of your workplace are not aligned with the stages you most naturally gravitate to as a human being. Which value system inspires you, the reader, most? And which structures do you rely on when you are in a stressful situation? Can you discern, how under different circumstances, your inner experience expands and shrinks?


Bookcase from Interstellar, Christopher Nolan

What comes next? Our human and social development doesn’t end in the green meme, but continues. The developmental research Wilber bases his model on speaks about a following yellow stage which is characterised by a systems-level approach.

After the focus on relationships, the individual now regains its momentum. A pathology of the green structure is its desire for harmony, equality and consensus, which can stifle and suffocate individuality. Green structures can easily get stuck, as no one wants to be responsible and make decisions. In the next stage, people become interested in self-organisation and flexible, competence-based hierarchies. Our perspective is expanding more and more towards a world-centrism in which the world system emerges as a relevant factor: more people are working on global issues such as poverty, epidemics, injustice, environmental threats or tax justice. They are oriented towards something that goes beyond them and their respective local communities. Some try to build a new relationship with spirituality. Human growth and the development of potential are becoming increasingly important. People feel inspired to work for “a more conscious society”.

Instead of focusing their gaze on what is lacking (what does not exist, what does not work), people reject limits and embrace potentials. They develop win-win scenarios: instead of scarcity they see abundance. Instead of “either/or” they recognize the possibility to integrate opposites: “both/and”. In politics, new movements such as the Danish Alternativa strive to overcome the established thought patterns of “right” and “left”. The aesthetic attitude towards the world is changing. Without negating the insights of postmodernism, such as the deconstruction of many truth claims as political power plays, we embark on a search for existential depth, combining irony with seriousness, pragmatism with idealism.

Each level, from beige to green, is a self-contained paradigm. They don’t understand each other. What is particularly exciting about yellow consciousness is that it is able to see all prior levels for what they are, necessary antecedents, but insufficient for further human development.

One reason why the world often seems so complicated to us is precisely because of this: it is difficult to communicate with each other from one structure to the next. We then tend to judge people in different levels as stupid, narrow, irresponsible or irrational.

The need to almost automatically judge everything that is different changes on the systemic, yellow level. For the first time, people realise that the preceding levels exist; that they have an effect in themselves and in society. They are able to adopt an “integral” point of view recognising the achievements of the respective levels and to understand their present importance. This makes multiperspectivity possible – I can see what the world looks like with another person’s eyes. I can interpret and understand otherness, without – and this is very important – having to agree with their opinions and behaviours.

This also changes people’s image of themselves. The (originally “green”) need and desire of humans to be seen not only in their cognitive and rational dimensions, but also their emotional, physical and spiritual facets is gaining stronger momentum. Self- and meta-reflection become important capacities for living and working.

With developments accelerating and compounding, complexity increases exponentially, this stage requires that humans be willing to step into the unknown. I believe only very few people know what the yellow worldspace looks and feels like. It is the unformed future we can discover and shape together, by relying on all the senses we have developed so far, but with a special emphasis on intuition and sensing, something which Wilber calls “thinking-feeling”.

Here are all the stages with their dominant values:

Graphic by Keks Ackerman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, based on Ken Wilber’s AQAL and Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics

If we superimpose Spiral Dynamics with the 4-quadrant model we get the complete AQAL image, mapping the levels and dimensions of human phenomena.

Graphic by Keks Ackerman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, based on Ken Wilber’s AQAL and and Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics

Digital potentials open up the yellow, systemic stage
Having described Wilber’s model in detail, we can now take another look at the potential and pathologies of digital technologies as explained in the previous post.

In the first graphic we see how digital potentials are enabling “yellow“ characteristics to become more mainstream in society.

Graphic by Keks Ackerman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, based on Ken Wilber’s AQAL and Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics

In the second graphic we map some of the pathologies that accompany digitisation today within the respective quadrants and levels.

Graphic by Keks Ackerman, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, based on Ken Wilber’s AQAL and Don Beck’s Spiral Dynamics

I’ll use the rest of this post to place some of the dominant internet technologies and companies within this map.

Digital technologies also have a footing in the “blue“ stage, as they are based on rule-based systems, code, standards and protocols.

Many successful internet platforms and services like Facebook or Uber follow deeply “orange” business models. The focus is on the success and value of your own company. Software companies such as Microsoft are concerned with efficiency gains and optimisation. There is a “ winner take all” mentality and monopolies are strived for. Purchased companies that pursue higher goals but are not financially lucrative are exploited and optimised for profit.

This is often obscured by claiming that the platform is “green”, i.e. primarily used for human connections. However, the fact that important design decisions focus on keeping users on the platform to increase the companies profits, instead of optimising towards a variety of goals, such as stakeholder well being, belies this. It would, for example, be easy for a company like Uber to disprove the claim that its prime goal is growth and profitability: opening up the wealth of data we could study how Uber affects the wages of drivers and similar disputed questions.

Many other digital companies are gravitating towards the green stage. They strive to create value for a much wider group of stakeholders, also taking the wider societal ripple effects of their innovations into account. I count among them crowdsourcing platforms that enable a new level of diversity and participation, from Kickstarter and betterplace to and Patreon. These platforms encourage crowd participation for creative, social and political goals, leveraging the “cognitive surplus” of the online population (see Clay Shirky 2011).

Etsy, the marketplace for handmade goods, explicitly cares about the benefits for its sellers. Its economic impact report distances itself from the “dominant retail model … delivering goods at the lowest possible price and growth at any cost … Etsy sellers represent a new approach to business, where autonomy and independence matter just as much as, if not more than, the bottom line“ (quoted in O’Reilly, WTF: 293). In a similar vein, Airbnb is increasingly enforcing a “one host, one home” rule, to minimise the conversion of rental housing stock to short-term rentals. (O’Reilly, WTF: 291)

Google is an interesting case, in that it seems to be one of the internet companies with the potential of moving into the yellow stage. As a company it is creating huge societal value, giving us services like search, maps, cloud storage and video hosting. It also generates hundreds of billions of Euros annually for companies who are found through search. Google’s Cultural Institute makes important cultural material available to everyone, whereas donates 1% of the companies profit to social impact initiatives worldwide. These services and projects are all situated in the outer collective quadrant. The company is also famous for its organisational culture. The highly popular Search Inside Yourself program, offers courses in neurosciences, mindfulness and emotional intelligence, thus also addressing the individual inner development of employees. Its Moonshot projects, such as Waymo (self-driving cars), project Loon (providing internet for the everyone) or Malta (storage for renewable energy) open up whole new areas of innovation, many of which could have fundamental benefits for our common future. At the same time, we can observe dysfunctions and pathologies areas in which the company doesn’t lives up to its potential. Thus the famous “20% time” policy, which enabled employees to take a day a week to work on their own projects, was discontinued in 2013. And the company seems to be taking advantage of its monopolist position by, for example, ranking search results in a way which benefits its own interest.

I believe we already see many elements of the next stage of digital companies and services on the horizon. Let’s take one example from crowdfunding. Conventional crowdfunding platforms such as kickstarter offer a huge range of funding opportunities to everybody – they follow the “green” value system. But many project fail and and funders go empty-handed, as they don’t have the skills to evaluate the projects realistically. A more sophisticated “yellow” approach to crowdfunding could be “competency-based crowdfunding”, in which either an intermediary offers curation and evaluation services for projects or the community of potential funders consists of people with the necessary skills to evaluate projects correctly. An early example of the latter are ICOs (initial coin offerings) on the blockchain: here people who understand the technology and can evaluate it are the ones offering money for new promising projects.

Do you believe “hierarchical models are evil”?
It may well be that you feel reluctant to follow me in adopting a hierarchical organizational model. The outlined model assumes that in a healthy human being and in a healthy society, all dimensions and stages of development (that’s why AQAL stands for All Quadrants, All Levels) are respected. At the same time, however, it postulates a hierarchy. There are less and more complex values and goals. There are wider and narrower perspectives. There are deeper and more superficial feelings.

The mistrust of such assessments is an integral part of the green stage and of postmodernism. It is part of the intellectual foundation many of us, myself included, grew up with. This mistrust served an important developmental step by pointing out and rejecting pathological dominance relationships. A characteristic of the next epoch is that it distinguishes between “healthy” hierarchies and “pathological” ones. It dares to call a spade a spade. Healthy hierarchies are achieved when nested systems serve the greater whole of which they are a part. But the crucial point is that all structures are part of life. They are indispensable and only if we have integrated one after the other can we grow and mature in a healthy fashion.

In the next post, let’s see how the map can be a useful navigation tool for entrepreneurs, funders and other actors in our contemporary innovation landscape.

Continue to the fourth post

** *** *** *** ***
As far as necessary, all rights to the images used here have been clarified with the artists or producers. For some images I have paid a small amount of money. For others I made a donation to non-profit projects in agreement with the artists. However, most of the creators agreed that their works are used here free of charge. I’s like to express my gratitude to all of them.

*** *** *** *** ***

A few key references:

Hanzi Freinacht, The Listening Society. A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Part 1, 2017

Otto Scharmer, Katrin Kaufer, Leading from the Emerging Future. From Ego-System to Eco-System Economics, 2013

Don Beck, Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics. Mastering Values, Leadership and Change, 1996

Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution, 1995

Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus.Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, 2011

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics. Seven Ways to Think Like a 21 Century Economist, 2017

Future Sensor

A vision for a systemically healthy future which we as innovators, entrepreneurs and policy makers can turn into reality.

Keks Ackerman

Written by

Keks Ackerman is a metamodern writer, and entrepreneur, building a systemically healthy society and economy.

Future Sensor

A vision for a systemically healthy future which we as innovators, entrepreneurs and policy makers can turn into reality.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade