Protect the Flame: But Where the Danger Is, the Saving Power Also Grows
Read the article in Italian — Japanese — German — Portuguese — Spanish — Traditional Chinese — Ukrainian
I have just returned from Latin America. I find myself a somewhat different person than the one that left a couple of weeks ago. What changed?
During my visit I went to Colombia, on invitation from the UNDP (United Nation Development Programme) and to Uruguay to launch the first Latin American Ecosystems Leadership Program (ELP) for our u-school for Transformation. The launch of this regional ELP in Latin America opened what to many of us felt like a profound new space of collective possibility. It is intended as a 3-year collective cross-sector and cross-country journey to awaken all of the human intelligences — head, heart, and hand — in the service of regeneration, healing, and systems transformation.
During that trip I experienced several moments that felt like “seeing the future” — or rather seeing a piece of the future, a piece of the path that may lead us forward, out of the current planetary polycrisis. In my view, the number one systems leadership challenge we face is this: how to address the massive knowing-doing gap around the world’s ecological, social, and cultural breakdowns — how to bridge the ecological, social, and spiritual divides of our time. Almost everyone knows that our current systems are broken and need to be transformed. But that awareness is not yet reshaping our collective actions. Instead, we see responses shaped by denialism and/or doomism, both of which tend to feed into the same behavior: paralysis.
Here I share five inspirational micro stories from Colombia and Uruguay that give me hope for our path forward. These stories demonstrate that the large support in G20 countries for transformational systems change can be translated into collective agency (3 out of 4 people in the G20 countries support transformational change of our economic and social systems to better address climate change and inequality). I conclude with some reflections on how our recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and our accelerating systemic breakdowns call for a more radical path toward planetary healing and civilizational regeneration. Enjoy the read!
(1) Colombia: Shifting Conversations from Debate to Dialogue through Deep Listening
Bogota, Colombia. We are on the way to the La Guajira region, the territory of the Wayuu people. The UNDP invited me here to talk to stakeholder groups — the Wayuu people, Colombian government representatives, private sector companies — about how they might co-shape a path forward that benefits everyone.
As we prepare to board the plane to La Guajira, I get myself a coffee and ask my hosts what the more detailed schedule for the next couple of days looks like. I learn that the main event is a 1.5 day workshop called “U-lab” with 60 people (all the stakeholder groups, meeting jointly for the first time), starting on the morning of the next day. “U-lab?” I ask. “Okay. Who facilitates that?” A brief pause. “You do!”
“I do?” I almost dropped my coffee. After 500 years of colonization, I thought, of direct, structural, and cultural violence, followed by industrial extraction through mining that left the land degraded, toxic, and largely destroyed, in a drought-punished landscape (caused by industrial water use) — after all that trauma, of all people a German-American guy comes in, who has no clue about these people’s reality to facilitate a workshop about their future. Seriously?
After some moments of resistance, I realized that everyone was already traveling to the workshop, including the Wayuu people from very remote areas. In short: it was too late to call it off. Time to let go, time to surrender…
The workshop began, with me as facilitator. After some difficult and challenging conversations among the participants, making clear the very different world views, stories, and contexts that the different groups brought into the conversation, the interaction shifted from carving out initial statements and positions to a much more fluid process of understanding and relating to each other’s differences, respecting each other’s intentions. We also started to hear more differentiated and nuanced views from inside each of the stakeholder groups.
After the workshop ended on the morning of the second day, a smaller delegation of the group went to Bogota, the capital, to meet with a high-level cross-ministry group, hosted by the Foreign Ministry. During that meeting, one of the Wayuu woman leaders challenged a senior leader of the Colombian government in a very direct, strong, and yet dialogic way. It was a beautiful intervention that led the government leader to commit to an in-person meeting with her on the territory of the Wayuu people within the following week.
After the meeting, she told me that she could not have succeeded with that type of intervention without the prior process of the dialogue workshop. It strengthened a capacity she already possessed, but that needed some resonance, support, and refinement. At the conclusion of the high-level meeting in Bogota, as we were walking out, I asked the chair of the gathering, “So, what’s your take on all this?” And he said: “So interesting and truly eye opening. I have sat through many such cross-sector meetings. But in my whole life I have never been part of a meeting like this one.” He then concluded, “I can only imagine how your past two days with the 60 participants must have been. It must have been an exceptionally powerful experience.”
So, clearly, the shift in perception and approach that I had noticed were apparent to others as well. What helped that shift to occur? In this case it probably was a blend of several critical components:
- The power of place: conducting the main event on Wayuu territory, not in the capital.
- The power of intention: beginning with a clear articulation of the deeper intentions that each of the three groups (and each individual) brought to the gathering.
- The power of personal storytelling: bringing each participant’s (and my own) deeper story on critical turning points in our own journey, into the conversation.
- Deep listening: generative listening as a gateway for shifting conversations from debate to dialogue.
- System mapping practices: using hands-on “systems mapping” to help everyone talk about their view in a context of being listened to and seeing together.
- Stillness. Allowing the deeper resonances and the inner knowing to emerge.
- Generative dialogue. Evening campfire conversations held or co-held by the ancestral elders shifted the field of conversation to a deeper level.
(2) LatAm Ecosystem Leaders: Shared Seeing as a Gateway for Shifting Social Fields
Nirvana/Colonia, Uruguay. I am sitting in a circle with 180 ecosystem leaders. This amazing group of change makers from 17 countries in Latin America represents all societal sectors. They range from grassroots activists, business innovators, and local government representatives to spiritual elders and indigenous leaders from different corners of Amazonia. Youth leaders from the violent and critical Colombian Pacific are sitting next to the CEO of an impactful business and a foundation head. I feel the presence of the future right here, right now. Of the 500 people that applied to take part in this 3-year journey, 180 were selected with the help of 20 co-sponsoring organizations — foundations, social ventures, and regenerative businesses. The aspiration is not to run a traditional training but to bring change makers of all backgrounds together in a deep space of sense-making about what is happening, sharing what they are learning, and supporting each other to activate profound regeneration and transformative systems change.
Particularly intriguing to me was the regional breadth of the gathering. Some participants from Brazil commented that they felt “truly Latin American” for the first time. Says Mirna, a government-based change maker from Argentina:
“What struck me most is the possibility we had to look at ourselves as Latin America. The feeling of beginning to resonate with the great possibility we have as Latin America but also with this thing that is our sister, that has to do with pain. I felt a space where we can begin to heal ourselves as a continent. We can connect with our resilience, with the future that is emerging among us.
The distinguishing element that I felt was that it’s not a program that I carry around in my head, but the whole process that invites me to carry it in my body. I’m still feeling it, that the challenge is to open the heart to be able to look at each other as equals, to be able to connect from there. That connection is what is going to allow us to open the will to connect and do something different together.”
Dayani, from a Puerto Rican perspective, added:
“There is something to be explored about redefining Latin America as the place from which some specific work is done: what is distinctive about Latin America? For Puerto Ricans, it was particularly moving and reaffirming to be welcomed and acknowledged as part of that space.
Many of us have applied the deeper listening skills in the context of our projects and families right after the workshop. The work is personal and political and cultural — all at the same time.”
Making the System See, Sense, and Invert itself
One turning point during the 3.5 day process had to do with a practice of shared and collective seeing, what we call “co-sensing.” In this case we used a practice called 4D mapping. This mapping technique draws on Social Presencing Theater, a social artform (created by Arawana Hayashi and her colleagues at the Presencing Institute) for making a system see and sense itself — and, while staying in that resonance, move toward transforming itself.
The case we mapped was presented by five young leaders from the Pacific coast of Colombia. The case focused on the situation of poor rural women of color in that area, a group that suffers from most forms of the direct, structural, and cultural violence that exists in our world today. Seeing reality through their lens was heartbreaking. With very few words (the 4D mapping technique integrates social science stakeholder mapping with awareness-based embodied knowing) we all experienced the system from multiple lenses, but in particular the lens of those who are marginalized. Not many eyes were dry by the end of the mapping — certainly not mine. Everyone was touched deeply, both by the experience of the women who were subjected to violence and also by the situation of the whole community, including the role of the perpetrators, the armed forces, and gangs. They too are part of the community. They too are victims. Young people killing young people. It was another moving moment when the person representing the role of the ancestors attended to and connected with the largely isolated person representing the armed groups.
What made my and other participants’ hearts break was the shared seeing that comes with the realization that most of this harm is part of a larger system: “Look what we are doing to ourselves!” It’s the exact opposite of othering: “Look what they are doing to us.” This realization comes from a higher and more whole-system awareness, from a collective open heart.
The 4D mapping experience opened up a deeper place in the whole group. After that, the indigenous elders then offered a healing ceremony and practice that allowed everyone to deepen the process of opening up and healing. Since that event, the Colombian leaders have begun implementing prototypes around non-violent masculinity, a process that is being supported by participants from across the region. The wordroot for “healing” literally means “making whole (again)” — i.e., reconnecting and reintegrating.
The next day, some of the other participants from Colombia said to me, “I can’t believe that I had to travel all the way to Uruguay to learn what is actually happening in my own country.”
Many commented on the felt possibilities for regional collaboration. Says Ana Paula, who works in a social finance institution in Mexico:
“What stands out for me is to feel the possibility that there is collaboration in the region, that we are much more similar than we think we are, that we can have conversations where our individual agendas are put aside to develop that potential.”
What can we learn from those who brought this amazing gathering and collective journey together?
Laura Pastorini leads the u-school and Presencing Institute work in Latin America. She observes,
“What happened in the ELP is that we could create a container and cultivate the soil for each of the participants to open up to their own transformation and to co-create the conditions for societal transformation. We can´t transform anything if we don´t transform ourselves.”
Viviana Galdames, another member of the co-holding team, adds:
“It seems to me that the most powerful thing about this program is the possibility of experiencing from the root of things. In every practice, in every work, it’s not just cognitive. It’s emotional, it’s resonance, it’s transcendence, and it’s co-creation.”
(3) “Uruguay Emerges”: Dialogue & Systems Mapping as a Gateway for Activating Agency
Montevideo, Uruguay. After arriving in the capital, the next morning we launched a 1-day event called Uruguay Emerges, co-sponsored by a dozen organizations and including senators, the head of the Parliamentary Commission for the Future, heads of UN organizations, CEOs, NGO and foundation leaders, grassroots change makers, public sector leaders, and educators. Everyone came for the same reason: a shared concern about the future of the country and the community in a world of increasing polarization and disruption.
When we opened the day’s sessions, I was looking into the faces of these 330 leaders, change makers, and regular citizens. I could sense their concern — but I could also feel the incredible existential awareness and openness that each one brought into the room, into the current moment. In a flash I remembered recent experiences with similar groups in other world regions, and I thought and felt in my whole body: Yes, that is who we are as human beings: Where the danger is, that’s where we come together, and that’s how the saving power is activated and begins to grow…
Without planning to, I started to share some of my own formative experiences: I grew up on a regenerative farm in northern Germany and became activated as a high school student around environmental and social issues in the 1970s and early ’80s. Then, when I first entered a university — Free University of Berlin — I was so very disappointed by the quality of discourse and conversation. But in the midst of that colossal disappointment I found one person, a visiting faculty member, who embodied a different way of performing science. He was Johan Galtung, who is known as the founder of peace research as a science and as the author of the theory of structural violence. His approach to scientific activity was aimed at seeking and breaking invariances (i.e., transforming the “laws” that govern collective behavior). That was exactly what I was looking for.
Meeting and seeing that one person doing something different in a traditional institutional setting, the university, was enough for me to change my life’s trajectory. His approach sparked a flame within me that nothing in the world can ever extinguish. It’s that simple. When I remembered that moment, it came in a flash, and I was emotional as I shared it with the 330 citizens in Montevideo. It came with a very clear message: Each of us has a huge responsibility. Each of us can be that one person for someone else. That’s how we activate the deeper human agency on this planet. That’s how we light the flame.
I don’t remember all of the details of that day. But I do remember connecting to others on that deeper level — the level of the flame. Sharing one’s own story and listening to other people’s stories, in dialogue walks and other ways, causes something to happen in a group. Something that’s already there (but dormant) gets activated. That’s what happened in the first hours of Uruguay Emerges.
After lunch we explored the current challenges facing the Uruguayan ecosystem as its leaders strive to form a common vision of the future. We did that by using a system mapping tool called 3D mapping. The mapping subgroups each focused on different systems, from education and regenerative food to sustainable business, community development, and governance. Each table convened a diverse group of change makers on key issues related to advancing the evolution of their systems.
The meeting concluded with a profound sense of possibility. Participants formed new connections and activated a collective sense of agency. In my view, these shifts, made possible by something as short as a 1-day gathering, are a significant symptomatic data point on the state of the world today.
People are waking up — or are in the process of waking up — in so many places. Almost everyone believes that we are at an existential juncture in our collective journey as a species. This is the moment when we need to come together to make sense together to chart our path forward. It doesn’t have to entail a multi-day or multi-week process. Because people already know that something is broken, something needs our attention now.
But what’s often missing is a minimal enabling infrastructure to activate these types of gatherings in cities, countries, and regions that are in need of a different type of collective action.
(4) Taiwan: Emergence — How to Lead in the Face of Disruption
After returning to Boston, I wondered how these openings and shifts that I experienced in Latin America may relate to other places and regions of the world. Was what I experienced there unique to that space, or does it speak to something more universal that is shared across the planet?
A few days later I had an opportunity to gather some more data around this question. In a virtual session with a few hundred change makers in Taiwan I shared some of what I experienced in Latin America. I asked them whether it resonated with them. Here is their visual response: watch this beautiful short clip to see for yourself…
Clearly, these feelings are shared across the planet. When you are talking to people in East Asia, in Silicon Valley, or elsewhere, AI of course is the topic of the moment. Does the deeper human capacity that I am describing here — the flame of our awakening planetary awareness and humanity — relate to the questions sparked by AI and ChatGPT? Yes, in every way.
AI and related language prediction machines like ChatGPT are brilliant at synthesizing (and mirroring back to us) the knowledge that we have accumulated thus far–in other words, the knowledge of the past. But what is it that these machines can’t do? They can’t do radical deep sensing. They can do sensing. But they can’t let go of predictions based on existing patterns in order to let come what wants to emerge from our deepest Source. In other words: They can’t do deep sensing. They can’t sense from the Source, from the future that wants to emerge. They can’t create from nothing, no thing. That’s the “blind spot” of AI.
And that’s what should be the single most important focus of our educational systems going forward: building the deep capacity to co-sense and co-create the future as it emerges. That’s what in Theory U we call presencing — the capacity to sense and act from the highest future in the now, in the present moment.
(5) u-lab 2x: Activating a Global Ecosystem of Planetary Healing and Regeneration
Yesterday, as I was finishing this blog entry, which seems to have become a mixture of topical investigation and online diary, we held another session of u-lab 2x. u-lab 2x is the u-school’s online team accelerator that helps teams move from prototype idea to ecosystem impact. This year we have 234 teams from 66 countries, working in 22 languages, engaged in highly inspiring prototype initiatives for change across education, business, health, and ecosystem regeneration. It’s a really cool group. To get a feel for the global diversity of this amazing innovation ecosystem (which u-school offers free of charge), check out this clip below. Each team uses the same basic set of methods and tools to help and coach each other on how to best advance their projects.
In one of yesterday’s coaching sessions the entire group split into Zoom breakout teams of 3 people in order for each participant to share ideas and receive feedback from the other 2 team members. The amount of positive energy released was very much akin to what I described earlier in Colombia and Uruguay. In this case, it was grounded in multi-local transformation initiatives across sectors and across regions, embracing the planet.
This is the moment when we need to show up — and to show up for each other. As environmental activist and systems educator Joanna Macy puts it, “the darker the circumstances, the more brilliant the invitation.” When ecosystem activators like these u-lab teams come together, as they did yesterday, you get a real sense of how the seeds of the future are beginning to take root at a planetary scale. Although it’s happening in many different places, they are all connected by the underlying web of connection and by the shared aspiration of moving from extraction and egosystem awareness to regeneration and ecosystem awareness. If you would like to take a deeper look at some of these experiences, click here for another short clip.
Those are my five stories. I could provide many additional examples of inspiring initiatives and people working for a better future. But the point has been made: across projects, events, and initiatives, we at the u-school for Transformation see a new pattern emerging. It is a pattern of activating a deeper level of human awareness: a flame that is operating from the source of our deep creativity and Self. It’s a flame that is both brighter, more accessible, and more present while at the same time more existentially at risk than perhaps ever before.
The three divides that define our current age — the ecological divide (climate, biodiversity), the social-economic divide (inequality, polarization), and the spiritual divide (hopelessness, depression) — are forcing us to look in the mirror and see ‘what we are doing to ourselves.’
This deep awakening is already happening spontaneously in many places. But it’s not supported in any methodical way. It does not have an enabling infrastructure that allows it to manifest organically. The five stories I have shared here talk about how to do that: by providing a minimal enabling infrastructure that allows this awakening to manifest in shared awareness and collective action. Without that enabling infrastructure, none of these stories would exist. None of these connections and actions would have been activated.
Most people understand that our systems are in need of a profound process of transformation. But most people — including leaders of institutions — are unaware that leading a system through a journey of transformation requires a support structure. Such an infrastructure is composed of specialized methods and tools — a set of social (awareness-based) technologies — that enables teams, multi-stakeholder groups, and citizens to listen, converse, and collaborate in ways that are more co-creative, intentional, and aware. I have spent the past 25 years of my life — together with my colleagues at MIT and the Presencing Institute — working to co-create these methods and tools and democratizing access to them through the creative commons.
We, you, and all change makers need these methods and tools. That’s one element of transformation. We also need different kinds of spaces, like the ones described and seen in the stories and images above. But what we need most of all is a different quality of presence and awareness that is grounded in:
- An Open Mind: the capacity to access our not-knowing (deep listening)
- An Open Heart: the capacity to be vulnerable, to be touched (co-sensing),
- An Open Will: the capacity to act from stillness, to create from nothing (presencing).
These are the core elements of Theory U. Ultimately, when you find yourself thrown in these spaces, the most important tool is your own capacity to use your Self as a vehicle to connect to the larger social field that is unfolding between, within, and through you and your relationships. A social field is a social system — experienced not just from outside, but also from within. It’s a “social system with a soul” if you want a shorthand. The way I experience these shifts in social fields can be mapped and traced along the following dimensions:
Horizontal broadening: a collapse of boundaries between people and entities
Vertical deepening: a deepened grounding in place and in highest future intention
Attuning to the heartbeat of the collective: “Look what we are doing to ourselves.”
Time: slowing down, connecting to what the spirit of our current time wants us to do
Emergence: attend to what is seeking to emerge, and ‘bring it to reality as it desires’ (Buber).
Minimal Enabling Infrastructures for Societal Transformation
So what are we learning? We are learning that there is a huge potential for profound transformative change in many places across the world. That potential is not a scarce resource. What’s scarce are the support structures that allow this potential to manifest, to actualize at the scale of the whole. What we started in Uruguay felt to me like the first beat of a collective heart. We need to cultivate the opening of the collective heart. We need to cultivate that capacity in many places, across many regions. The gatherings I described above provided some early experiences around how to build and co-hold these deeper developmental spaces.
That’s my report on the past few weeks. In the next installment of this blog I will link these micro-stories with bigger patterns of systems change that we are seeing in the world. I will also share some fresh experiences from Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, where I have been working with change makers and initiatives for the past 20 years. A number of them will arrive on campus here at MIT later this week.
I want to end this blog with a challenge that I feel deep in my bones. As noted, I returned from my Latin America trip a different person. Looking into the eyes and hearts of all these colleagues and fellow travelers, something touched me deeply. I saw how easily we can create new spaces when we share the right intentions and use the appropriate listening practices and tools. These encounters left me profoundly hopeful.
I also returned with a question for myself: Hey, what are you doing with your life? Why aren’t you going from place to place to hold these spaces wherever they are needed? That’s what’s happening on my end. I hope you’ll respond with questions that challenge your own status quo.
Most of us know that we need to create generative spaces wherever this new planetary awareness and movement is waking up — which is pretty much, well, everywhere. So, the question is, how do we do that? How can we create deep learning and leadership spaces that allow citizens, change makers, and leaders across sectors to light their own flames of inspiration and agency?
That’s the question looking at me. What’s the question looking at you? What have the stories told here evoked from your own experience? What are the next steps you’ll take in the coming weeks? This is the call of our time: Each and every one of us needs to show up. Allow your question to look at you. Let it talk to you.
That’s how real change happens: in many incremental steps taken by individuals and small groups. If taken together from a shared awareness, ideas and actions will coalesce and align with the future that wants to emerge.
Thanks to my colleague Jayce Lee for her stunning generative scribing clip, and to Becky Buell, Eva Pomeroy, Laura Pastorini, Maria Daniel Bras, and Emma Paine for their helpful comments and edits on the draft.
For more resources, check out: u-school for Transformation
Other blogs by Otto: homepage
Read the article in Italian — Japanese —German — Portuguese — Spanish — Traditional Chinese — Ukrainian