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Future Sensor

Part 4: The Ecology of Innovation

A method to create, scale and evaluate innovations for a systemically healthy future

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

In “Part 1: Sensing the Future”, a new map to guide us into the future was established. In “Part 2: Digital Dynamics”, we used digital dynamics to give us a clue as to what the future might look like. In “Part 3: Where are we coming from. Where are we going?” digital dynamics were integrated into a larger map of human development. In this “Part 4: The Ecology of Innovation” we’ll explore how the map can be put to use.

As far as I can see, the map is unique and useful in at least three ways.

First, it allows us to study movement — all the contemporary, seemingly contradictory developments, but also our own personal dilemmas — much more precisely. In theory, we know that the world is changing and that we as humans also change. Social phenomena, as well as you and I move back and forth on all fields of the map. In good times we expand and grow. We allow our intuition, curiosity and wonder to guide us into the next project, relationship or sphere of interest. Then again, in crises, when we feel overwhelmed by the stretch between our own experience and developments in the world, we regress and withdraw to simplified positions in order to find security and stability (a development we see with the new nationalisms). With the help of this map we can suddenly understand why a person who invests a lot in personal development and self-reflection but who works in a bureaucracy that operates strictly according to formal rules will feel like they have to “shrink” every time they enter the office. When the developmental stages of the four quadrants in a person’s life differ profoundly, we see most of us trying to evade the corresponding tension by either adapting to or rejecting what causes it. In any case — we get caught in a pathology of leaving our own center of gravity and by that we stop unfolding our potential and lose our well-being.

Secondly, the map aims us towards the True North, the next steps on our development journey. A point of orientation is essential for accurate navigation. The characteristics of the “yellow/systems“ stage — among them authenticity, potential development, self-organisation and collaboration — can serve as such a point of orientation.

Thirdly, it is a tool to study and evaluate innovations. This last point will be the focus of this post.

For many years, I have been interested in innovations at the edge of evolution. Innovations which expand the limits of our existing system and consciousness; innovations that are signs of something truly new, and better suited for handling our world’s new complexity. I have co-founded some of those innovations myself, among them the crowdfunding platform betterplace.org, the legal tech company KnowledgeTools, the education innovation network Schule im Aufbruch and the circular economy company Stadtfarm. I have devoted large parts of my research activities on innovations, for example, as part of the activities of betterplace lab, a think tank devoted to the study of digital-social innovations around the world. And for the past three years I have been experimenting with new organisational and leadership models, namely Frederic Laloux’s “teal principles“ outlined in his book Reinventing Organisations.

The Ecology of Innovation

This approach is based on a couple of observations.

  • Very often we see that a transformational idea, pushing the boundaries of our existing system, loses its power when implemented. We observe that most ideas regress during the process of realisation/manifestation.
  • Transformational ideas are often not financially sustainable. New business ideas or social initiatives fail to attract funding, customers or users. In the case of new organisational structures, they may not be accepted by existing staff. We believe that this often happens, because the innovations only address one of the quadrants, mostly the external ones. But in order to be sustainable, innovations need to incorporate and induce change in all quadrants. When development is limited to just one quadrant, pathologies arise.
  • Innovators themselves often seem to be only after disruption for the sake of disruption and profit. Many lack a vision of innovation as being a step that moves us intentionally towards an integrated, healthy future.
  • Researchers, but also funders and jury members (of innovation awards etc.), often lack the clarity needed to evaluate disruptive and positively transformational ideas, which serve our human and planetary prosperity. We are unaware of our own biases when looking and judging innovations. We need to be aware that we ourselves are looking at the world through our own (changing) filters, i.e. that we are “agents in movement” oscillating between the ranges of the “red” to “yellow” developmental stages.
  • Researchers need to adjust their arguments to meet the different perspectives of their audience. (The same applies to innovators who are pitching their innovations to different groups).

In order to address these patterns and dilemmas, I propose a few guiding questions for researchers studying innovations:

  1. Where does the impulse begin? What is it aiming at? Is the idea one which comes from a “yellow” impulse? Does it aim to create new structures, processes, attitudes, behaviours or values which fulfil the latent potential of a progressive future? Is it innovative in the sense that borders are explored and something new is added to life?
  2. Where does it “land” once created? Does the project’s realisation reflect the original impulse or is there a regression?
  3. How integral is the organisation, company or initiative? Does the innovation affect only the external aspects, such as new business models or production techniques, or does it also manifest in the other three quadrants?
  4. From what perspective do I (as a researcher) look at the original impulse and manifestation? Which of the six levels corresponds to me most and influences my perspective?
  5. How can I explain the innovation to others so that they understand it?

A concrete example: betterplace
Let’s make these questions concrete, looking at betterplace, which is currently Germany’s largest crowdfunding platform for social projects.

1. Where does the impulse begin? What is it aiming at?

betterplace.org was an idea in one of its founders head. It manifested itself for the first time on a paper napkin in a café in Calcutta. One year - and many working hours later - it was code, driven by a small social enterprise. When the idea reached NGOs, it changed their communication and fundraising.

I assume that a new idea arises with a certain impulse, a certain intention within a person or a group. In this case the impulse behind the idea was to help as many small grassroots organisations as possible to improve their communities. Via the internet, these changemakers should be able to find donors and supporters much more easily than before.

Inspirations are often airy, fleeting structures. Most of the time they appear suddenly; out of nowhere. For some innovation researchers, it is our brain that wires old, well-known ideas together in a new way and thus generates “aha”-effects. For others, inspirations are like “downloads”: they are the process of continuously updating our world. Inspiration and intuition are the first signs of a future that emerges from the unknown.

New ideas often appear in different places simultaneously. Till Behnke, betterplace co-founder, had a very similar idea for a donation platform and the two teams started working at exactly the same moment (January 2007) before merging their teams six months later.

2. Where does the impulse land on the map once manifested?


3. How integral is the innovation?

Ideas don’t directly translate into manifestations: In the process of reification (almost) all ideas change. The sphere of ideas is flexible, malleable and often transient. The material world is rigid, narrow and sluggish. New ideas are confronted within existing systems. New impulses have to work through matter and transform it. In order for the new to really unfold, the old structure or mindset must develop. It has to take a learning step. No wonder that every startup needs so much longer than most founders imagine.

Ten years later, some of the original impulse of betterplace.org has been preserved, but much has changed. The idea was adapted to the regulations, needs and conventions of NGOs, companies and donors. Then the German federal financial supervisory authority blocked all social initiatives not registered as German charities from the platform, resulting in thousands of grassroot projects from around the world losing access to funders. Amid all of these developments betterplace.org has lost some of its original radical purpose and size. Instead of linking project makers and supporters worldwide to tackle social problems together, betterplace is now used by tens of thousands of German NGOs to better activate their donors via a new online channel.

We can map the process so far — this innovation life-cycle — on the AQAL as follows:

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

But the story doesn’t end here. In a recent move aimed at assessing the impact of the work of the NGOs fundraising on betterplace, the platform is planning to re-introduce a progressive feature, the “web of trust“. The web of trust, which enables crowdsourced testimonials for social projects, was removed in betterplace’s early days as user behaviour didn’t seem ripe for it.

In a similar progressive move, betterplace lab, the affiliated think tank, started to experiment with self-organisation. For the past three years, the team has operated with a flexible, competency-based hierarchy (à la Frederic Laloux). In the first phase the betterplace lab focused on designing new processes and structures. For example, they decided to plan their annual budget communally, as well as to negotiate salaries among themselves. This innovation focused on changes in the outer, collective quadrant. Quickly they noticed that this new way of working had to be accompanied by changes in the other quadrants as well. Thus together with a coach, they worked on capacities such as authenticity, self- and meta-reflection. Yet here again, one can observe a regression to lower levels, as the implementation of New Work principles met team members oscillating between “orange“, “green“ and “yellow“ values. In times of crisis, they also observed how they fell back on “blue“ structures.

These further developments can be illustrated in the AQAL like this:

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

4. From what perspective do I (as a researcher, for example) look at the original impulse and manifestation?

Innovations are not the only elements in motion. As we have described above, observers are also constantly changing. We look through our respective personal perspectives at innovations and contemporary change. We carry different filters that contribute to how many details and perspectives we can capture. Which values have priority for us: efficiency or self-expression, reliability or unfolding of potential? Do we encounter new phenomena with fear, confidence or curiosity? Likewise, our social position in the world and the structures in which we live influence our perspective. As founders and funders, we need to be self-aware that some things are within our scope, while others are outside of our field of vision. Where are our blind spots, and how do we fill them?

With regards to betterplace.org, a number of observers were very caught in their “blue“ perspectives of rules and control. They looked at the open platform, asking questions like: How do you control projects on the platform? How do you assure there is no fraud?

The “yellow“ principles of self-organisation and self-responsibility were alien to these observers. Thus they didn’t trust the wisdom of the crowd to evaluate social projects in an collaborative way, nor did they believe that donors can be trusted to make responsible decisions by themselves using the quality criteria offered on the platform. In order to gain credibility with this audience, the makers of betterplace needed to explain the different trust mechanisms operating in the digital sphere in more detail. Only in this way did they succeed in enlarging their customer base.

5. How can I explain the innovation to others so that they understand it?

Unfortunately, the complexity doesn’t stop here. What we are illustrating here ends up with you, the reader, and you have your own very specific perspective. You have your own view of the world and your own filters through which you look at innovation.

These filters may cause you to dismiss new forms of organization that eliminate many hierarchical structures and rely on self-organisation as unrealistic. Maybe you have experienced that “most people want to be told what they should do”. Or you work in a company where efficiency gains and shareholder value are at the top of the list. If someone now tries to introduce a new strategy, you may resist, as this move competes with your established reporting.

Thus when presenting the case of betterplace to an audience, it makes sense to stress those aspects of the innovation which connect to the values and norms of the listeners. In some “orange“ business settings the researcher might stress the fact that the platform offers a very efficient way to fundraise and explain the business model of the company behind it. In other, more communitarian, “green“ settings, the audience will be much more interested in the fact that grassroots initiatives get the same kind of visibility as large fundraising brands.


Four levels of movement - the innovation, the researcher, the reader, and the listener - demand that we are able to contain a high degree of complexity. But these levels of movement are not an end in themselves; we need to study the ecology of innovation for an adequate understanding of transformation.

How can innovators themselves use the Ecology of Innovation approach?
The method, above outlined for researchers, can also be of interest to other actors in the field of innovation. Knowing that mental impulses in the reification process are often “transformed down”, innovators and founders can design strategies to counteract this regression. Of course, these processes are not fully controllable. All elements develop their own dynamics. First and foremost, users will use your product for their own purposes. But the map and method provides a conceptual tool that allows you to check the coherence between your idea and such crucial decisions such as strategy, team selection or sales approach.

Take digital design decisions. Products and projects can be optimized for very different purposes. Ex-Googler Tristan Harris describes in his TED talk How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day fighting for our most valuable asset: our attention. They appeal to the reptilian brain instead of the reflexive brain in order to keep users on their own platform longer and longer. After watching a video on YouTube, a next video is teasered automatically. Netflix goes one step further and automatically starts the next episode of a series. Facebook automatically runs all videos while scrolling a timeline. These design decisions correspond to the objectives of the orange/profit-oriented level. As a company, I want my users to spend as much time as possible on my platform, as this converts into additional profit through advertising revenue.

As a “yellow” project manager I can optimize my platform for different goals. For example, I could encourage my users to use their time for other, higher purposes. Purposes that correspond more closely to their reflexive brain. These could be established in a dialogue between user and platform operator. Users could be asked, how long they want to spent on a platform or engage with a certain type of topic.

Now, you may think this completely naive. But a number of companies, such as those committed to conscious or contemplative computing or humanetech, are already doing just that. These include online tools to block distraction such as social media sites and email while working on tasks, but also the policy to reject clickbaiting common to most online news media sites.

This behaviour would be similar to that of a company like Patagonia, which is asking its consumers to buy as few new clothes as possible in order to contribute to the greater common goal of sustainability and environmental protection. We believe that the future belongs to the very companies that help us achieve our higher goals. Companies that credibly work on something that goes beyond them and their shareholder value.

As an entrepreneur, I can use the map to more clearly assess my own ideas and suggestions from others. Does this advertising campaign suit us? Do we want to work with that partner? Which of the possible features do we want to try? What do we want to use our data for? Mapping such decisions on the AQAL I can make sure the innovation stays on track and as much as possible aligned with its original intention.

In order for an innovation to be sustainable, I can check whether I have both inner and outer processes on my radar. As a founder or managing director, I may be enthusiastic about new work principles, but my team reacts with fear or resistance. Against the backdrop of the AQAL model and the Ecology of Innovation method, it is understandable that my employees are not stupid and incompetent, but that a certain maturity and a certain mindset is a prerequisite for successful self-organization and new work. Consequently, I realize that I have to invest in new competences and the inner work of employees.

In addition to the five questions listed above, it may be helpful to reflect on these questions:

  • Which strategies keep the implementation at the level of my original impulse?
  • Am I accounting for the attitudes and competencies of my employees and customers?
  • How many of the four quadrants have I included? How does my implementation work in the four quadrants?
  • Is my invention socially inclusive? Am I accounting for the needs, values and attitudes of other population groups? Do I only care about my immediate target group, or also about the effects on other, possibly socially disadvantaged population groups?
  • Am I accounting for collective topics that influence project implementation? For example, traumas of the past that cause resistance to innovation on a collective level?

I believe the maps and tools presented so far offer an adequate approach to the complexity of contemporary existence. Only from a conceptually enlarged and dynamic perspective is it possible to identify innovations which are sustainable and viable stepping stones into a better future.

In the next series of posts, I will apply the approach to a number of concrete innovations, ranging from the realm of circular economy to legal systems. This will help us to fine tune the methodology as well as learn more about which ideas, initiatives and institutions are promising signs of a new operating system. In between the case studies, there will be other more general posts, exploring different facets of the inner and outer changes we are navigating in the early 21. century.

Continue to the fifth post: Case Study #1: CRCLR



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