Browsing articles tagged with " viable alternative"
Feb 22, 2013

Seeding a Viable Economic Alternative. Pt 2: The Principal Themes (Outcomes of a Systems Workshop at Future Connections 2012)

This is the second installment of a 4 part series about a soft systems workshop Arkadian ran with 20 PhD candidates at the Future Connections Conference 2012 in St Andrews, all of whom were conducting PhD Research on the theme of Sustainable Development.

Previously, we outlined the workshop structure, and described the session’s major outcome: an Action Plan for seeding a nationwide Viable Alternative to the current economic system. In the last two installments, Arkadian will be venturing some personal thoughts relating to the session outcomes that emerged during the analysis.

This week, however, we will be exploring four Themes that pervaded the discussion about a Prototype Community that might seed a Viable Alternative. As mentioned previously, some ideas here (and in Part 3 and 4) will be developed beyond the original session content as a result of their transaction (via Arkadian) with an ongoing experiment in developing an socioeconomic alternative (‘Wisdom Economy’) on the Isle of Bute: An Tearman.

1) Stewardship of the Diversity, Integrity and Beauty of the ‘Community-of-Interdependence’ (Nature first). It was generally agreed that, if the Community was to have a single guiding principle it should be the pursuit of a reverent partnership with Mother Nature. This combines active observation and experimentation, to enrich our objective understanding of Her systemic workings, and activities which promote a deeper experiential connection, and appreciation of Her intrinsic value.

Although we place Nature first, as concerns practicing empathy for other and placing systemic needs above our own,  our values are equivalent towards both Her and Our Community. We aim to cultivate individual awareness that the two are not separate but together constitute a single Community-of-Interdependence within which every ‘being’ performs a substantive role.

The fundamental goal of the Viable Alternative is to establish an equilibrium where we receive our material and non-material needs as a byproduct of enlightened care for the Community-of-Interdependence, with Nature taking priority. In pursuit of this, we complement Her strategies of achieving systemic integrity, productivity and beauty through diversity, reciprocity and work excellence in our approaches to the local ecology and our social milieu.

2) Performative Knowledge and Learning (Community-as-Process). How a rag bag of individuals, and hang-ups, might operate together effectively, ethically and enjoyably was probably the main, if subliminal, preoccupation of the session. Ultimately, this led to the group insight that ‘Community’ is a continuous reinforcing process, and not a ‘place’ or ‘entity’ as the concept is more commonly used.

To think and act as a unit (‘togetherness’, ‘belonging’, ‘sharing’), our individual purpose, needs and experiences need to braid and coalesce with each others’. This couldn’t happen without the Structure, Principles and, particularly, the Time that would enable the Community to successfully plan, work, have fun and be together.

Also considered essential to acting as a unit is the ability for all members to have some grasp of the whole ‘blueprint’ of their particular Community project and, thus, an appreciation of the role, value and interdependence of all actors and activities therein. This requirement for inclusive participation in, and understanding of, the whole picture, in turn, implies limitations on the scope, size and organisation of the ‘units’ that comprise the wider Community System.

Moreover, there are no ‘experts’ here. Other, that is, than the Community itself. We consider the only real knowledge and learning is that which arises from, and returns to, our collective performance.

Collective BrainKnow-how, erudition, irreverent cross-disciplinary romps, naive childlike experimentation, error and dispassionate collective assessment are all celebrated contributors to our ultimate purpose: a continuous social learning process that calls forth the unknown and unknowable world of the Viable Alternative. In this milieu, articulated knowledge functions as a part of collective activities rather than as an expertise that structures performance from without.

Below is a diagram of a Viable Systems Model (VSM) representing the Community’s organisational structure, which demonstrates the centrality of Community-as-Process’ to its success. A VSM is a systems thinking tool that applies the metaphor of living organism to an organisation, representing its main purposeful transactions with the environment as ‘organs’.

Ordinarily, a VSM presumes an ‘Executive Subsystem’ that monitors and orchestrates the operations of the whole – the equivalent of, say, the ‘The Board’ or the Prefrontal Cortex. However, in the model of the Viable Alternative Learning System, the wisdom of the ‘Director’ has been displaced by that of the ‘Collective’, in the form of the social processes from which our shared self-organising and self-regulating vision emerges.



3) Respect and Empathy for The Experiences of Other. Key to the healthy functioning of ‘Community-as-Process’ is respect for the predispositions and experiential histories of our fellows, even when they give rise to motivations, perspectives and worldviews very different from our own. Necessarily, this also entails developing our aptitude for dispassionate self-examination, so that we may each reflect critically on the roots of our own models, assumptions and prejudices.

To address these inner challenges, our aim is that everyone become adept in the pragmatic application of ‘tools’ that promote mindfulness of self and other – meditation, yoga, mediation, facilitation, discussion circles, non-violent communication, nature connection and systems methodologies such as Rich-Picturing, SODA and SSM.


The practical objective of all this is, to the extent possible, decouple personal experience from its deep cultural (and possibly, natural) entanglements with status, identity and ego, so that it’s performative potential may blossom. Deconstructing our ivory towers to build bridges of consensus. Transforming Knowledge and Experience as immutable personal possessions, into Knowledge and Experience as a dynamic shared property that informs and feeds back from impersonal activities-in-the-moment.

All very well, I hear you say, but what about me? Where do my individual needs fit in and what happens when they diverge from those of the collective? After all, even big happy families stifle personal growth at times, don’t they?

Making space for purely personal development, unsurprisingly, was another central theme of the discussion. As mentioned in the previous installment, a core design objective of the Prototype is to free a third of each week for each of us to pursue our own ‘becoming’ according to our own inclination. Our only constraint is that in exercising this right, we don’t impact negatively on the diversity, integrity and beauty of the Community-of-Interdependence.

The Community may also allocate some of its own ‘activity and decision-making’ time to develop opportunities and environment in response to individuals’ identified or declared needs. This is deemed valuable work because it promotes diversity and redundancy, the magical underpinnings of productivity and stability for both Nature and Community.

DiversityIn summary, we take the view that a social system where individual variety, creativity and knowledge of the local natural environment flourishes according to its own will, where each node maintains positive interconnections to all others and contains the seed of the self-sufficient whole, and which can decide and mobilise effectively as a single organism, is one of optimal adaptability and resilience, and thus best equipped to face the environmental challenges of the future.

4) The Sanctity of Time for Community and The Individual had, by the end of the session, become a central mantra of the Learning System. Time is not perceived here as an abstraction, or an economic ‘obligation’, but as a resource of inestimable importance: the root source of those experiences most responsible for generating meaning, community and well being.

Thus, the need for the Viable Alternative to produce sufficient Time to satisfy our non-material requirements was a thread that pervaded the discussion. An indicator, possibly, of how overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood its role has become in the current economic system.

And so concludes our look at the principal 4 Themes underpinning the discussion, and of the outline of the session outcomes. We hope you’ll join in a fortnight for Part 3, where Arkadian will be discussing some personal views that emerged during the analysis.

May 6, 2012

What is Occupy? Collective insights from a ‘Whole Systems’ Session with Occupy followers

This article is about a ‘whole systems thinking’ session Arkadian ran with 15 Occupy followers of all ages and backgrounds. All participants were required to answer 3 questions: –

(1) What is Occupy’s purpose; (2) How should this purpose be achieved and; (3) Why was it important?

Personal thoughts were written on post-its, stuck on a wall, and organised by the group according to content similarity and difference. The discussion fueled by these activities gave rise to 6 collective insights (the 7th is an insight Arkadian derived from the others): –

(1) Occupy is a grass-roots, direct-democratic movement
(2) Occupy is ‘about’ co-creating and enacting a Viable Alternative to the current system
(3) The Viable Alternative is a collective vision
(4) Achieving the Viable Alternative requires building critical mass
(5) Building critical mass depends on making the Viable Alternative simple, relevant and clear to the wider population
(6) Aims could be best achieved through grass-roots ‘campaigns’ connecting the Viable Alternative to local community issues
(7) These insights had implications for Occupy’s organisational design

There follows a brief explanation of each: –

 1. Occupy is a grass-roots, direct-democratic movement: All followers saw Occupy as ‘of the people / for the people’, independent of, and transcending all, other organisations. There was genuine concern that ‘partnerships’, or Occupy chapters becoming formal or political entities, would compromise  the essential qualities of this idea. Nevertheless, it was also acknowledged that high profile support could, and had, delivered some powerful PR.

The solution proposed was that ‘partnerships’ should always be one-way and arms-length only, i.e. limited to inviting, or allowing, third parties to sign up to Occupy’s (viz: ‘the people’s’) aims and principles. But what aims and principles?

2. Occupy is ‘about’ co-creating and enacting a Viable Alternative to the current system: The most powerful theme that emerged in the discussion. To get a handle on some of the structural principles of this Viable Alternative, ask yourself the following questions…  

Power: Would the world be better if people had greater involvement in decisions that affect their lives and future? 

Equality: Would the world be better if the gap between rich and poor were reduced? (N.B. Not to a ‘ Communist’ extreme, merely a lessening of the vast multipliers separating high / low incomes and developing / developed nations, and their toxic impact on society and environment). 


Values: Would the world be better if quality of life and well being were valued over material and status-driven self-interest? 

 Are the big social, environmental and economic challenges connected in any way? Might addressing one have beneficial effects on  others?                                     

Thinking: Should the well being of future generations and the long-term viability of life on our planet be important to current decision-making?


If you answered ‘Yes’ to any, or all, of these questions then you’re ‘Occupy’. Below is a rough summary table comparing the principles of the Viable Alternative to those of the current system.

So what actions does all this imply? Firstly, if they are widely shared, then these structural principles could provide the ideal framework for coherent organisation, action and communications, and solidarity, across diverse contexts.

Secondly, the Viable Alternative is a positive idea: it’s about a happier, better future. Whilst its necessary to highlight why change is necessary, negative news and arguments about the nitty-gritty can drive people away. Emphasising these higher-level, common and cheerful principles, on the other hand, could score greater successes with the wider population.

3. The Viable Alternative is a collective vision: The whole group shared a belief in the urgent necessity for the Viable Alternative, which in turn, seemed dependent upon an understanding of the scale and interconnectedness of the issues.

However, each individual held their own beliefs about what the important problems were, how they were connected, and the appropriate remedies and actions: a product of their life experiences, personal interests and, for many, exposure to new information since engaging with the movement.

Nevertheless, the post-its-on-the-wall represented a truly epic mess, one that evidently required highly situation-specific solutions, each of which defied the analytic or predictive capabilities of any ‘expert’. Recognition of this within the group seemed to drive processes where individual experiences were tools for building, negotiating and informing a dynamic picture of NOW, in order to decide the best next step(s) only, not the grand master plan.

Rather than disagreements about which view was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, all views seemed appreciated as valuable and partially right. In a sense, the group behaved like a ‘super-brain’, leveraging many lifetimes’ worth of perspectives, knowledge and experience to reach wise ‘objective’ assessments and decisions about an impossibly complex ‘subjective’ situation.

So what are the implications of all this? Firstly, if collaborative decision-making can be so individually empowering and collectively clever, then all Occupy followers should be furnished with simple group moderation skills and ‘whole systems’ tools. Processes that focus discussions on external representations (pictures / post-its / models etc.) should become a sine qua non of the movement.

Secondly, the movement should stress that, whilst expressing a personal view is the inalienable right of any follower, unless its braided into a collective decision, it ain’t Occupy!

Lastly, if action is motivated by seeing the connections between disparate social, economic and environmental issues, then Occupy should underscore ‘stories’ that highlight the ‘connections’, and fast track new members into contributing to collective decision-making – judging by the discussion, it’s difficult not to ‘join-the-dots’ when exposed to the Occupy ecology.

(4) Achieving the Viable Alternative requires building  critical mass: Reflection upon this fact led rapidly to the recognition that human and financial resources were critical priorities, and that there were probably no shortcuts to them.

(5) Building critical mass depends on making the Viable Alternative simple, relevant and clear to the wider population:  The second dominant theme of the session. To successfully engage the wider population, it was deemed Occupy needed communications that were simple, relevant to the differing needs of specific target audiences, and employed clear popularly-understood terminology pitched at the appropriate level of understanding, e.g. stock phrases like ‘socioeconomic justice’ and ‘ecological limits’ were not understood by many in the group. It was also considered important that these messages were backed-up by incontestable evidence and sources, and communicated solidarity.

Everyone also acknowledged this would entail outwitting the ‘guardians’ of the current system ‘at their own game’, exploring channels that they don’t, or can’t easily, command, and responding quickly and devastatingly to opposition. The discussion highlighted that intelligent, reflective information management – researching, screening, organising, tailoring – was central to Occupy’s role and ultimate success.

So, to recap. Occupy needs to…

(i) Organise without being an organisation.
(ii) Communicate a Viable Alternative when no-one can know what it is, and where it is only made manifest via specific situations and perspectives.
(iii) Create an outward appearance of solidarity when structured disagreement is an essential requirement.
(iv) Use channels not covered by the ubiquitous guardians of the current system, whilst building volunteers, funds and critical mass.

What solution to these challenges did the collective propose?

(6) Grass-roots ‘campaigns’ connecting the Viable Alternative to local community issues: Explore and discuss ‘issues’ door-to-door.  Those that resonate, have local relevance, and are aligned with the Viable Alternative could then become the focus of grass-roots campaigns, building to direct ‘visible’ action, and all informed by Occupy’s structural principles, particularly, inclusive community decision-making. Not talking and blaming, but showing the world how things could be: through small-scale collaborative achievement and learning.

(7) These previous 6 insights had implications for Occupy’s organisational design: The final insight, Arkadian’s own, was that attaining all of the previous objectives implied a radically new organisational design, lest rapid growth give rise to hierarchy – the spoiling of many a revolution and NGO, and, in Occupy’s case: a fundamental hypocrisy.

A model where multiple ‘cross-pollinating’ cells are structured around local campaigns / action and mutually agreed principles of the Viable Alternative, perhaps? For a future session…


So, to conclude,  at Occupy’s heart is a Viable Alternative that really is the current system turned on its head. A total paradigm shift, but a necessary one, if we are to share a remotely tolerable future.

Moreover, maybe change is easier than it seems. After all , the principles of the Viable Alternative are neither unfamiliar nor new, are they? Arguably, they, and not those of the current system, have determined how we cooperate with our nearest and dearest since time immemorial. We just need to realise the whole world could and should work this way.

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