Systemic wisdom for and beyond systems change – A critical systems perspective convening not only indigenous traditions of wisdom

Systemic wisdom for and beyond systems change – A critical systems perspective convening not only indigenous traditions of wisdom

European School of Governance, position paper #108 (29.10.21) by Louis Klein

Embracing indigenous wisdom traditions promises to successfully meet the challenges of the Anthropocene in the 21st century. They seem to bring what is needed to overcome the limits of the project managerial activism associated with systems change. However, wisdom is an embodied understanding of our human potential and our humanity that grows from deeply reflected human experience. We find this in wisdom practices and traditions all over the world, like the in Southern African Ubuntu, the ancient Chinese Tianxia or the contemporary Moroccan Tamkeen. A critical systems perspective allows for exploring the universality of their understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the flow of the world. And it facilitates convening the different wisdom practices and traditions, growing in their in-between a global dialogue trusting our human potential and our humanity realising the existentiality of love. Isn’t this already the systems change we want to see in the world?

Systems Change seems to be the postulate if not the imperative of our times. The challenges of the Anthropocene and the digital transformation in the 21st century, ranging from climate change and the loss of biodiversity, poverty, hunger and conflict to AI ethics and the governance conundrum of big data. The viability of homo sapience as a species and the loss of our humanity are at stake. These are grim outlooks, and there seems to be a growing comprehension that we have to change our way of life and the systems which supported it. The question is how?

Systems thinking came into fashion in its capacity to embrace complexity. It promised based on complexity sciences, systems research, and cybernetics to yield heuristics to meet the VUCA world in its volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. System Thinking comes with a coherent understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the flow of the world in the unity of being. It knows about emergence and dissolvence, operational closure and the power of context, sensitivity to initial conditions and path dependency. It fosters the coherence of thinking, doing, and being.

The prevalent notion of systems change, however, builds on the perspective of homo faber, the perspective of the man using tools to control his world. It is the success story of the project management view of the world. Innovation and disruption, entrepreneurship and impact, to name but a few, are the buzzwords associated with it. They were tokens for the promise that we can get it done, saving the world with superhero powers and smart tools, forged for the war on climate change and all the other threats. We favoured the heroic deed that saves us, now.

Home faber, thus far, did not save the world. It takes more than technology and tools. Systems change based on the notion of homo faber is bound to fail. It even runs the risk of making things worse. Intuitively we know that something is missing. It seems to shine through in so-called indigenous wisdom traditions. Yet, before we explore our intuition further, let us acknowledge that wisdom is an embodied understanding of our human potential and our humanity growing from deeply reflected human experience.

Wisdom comes in different shapes and different languages. It is referred to as philosophy and spirituality, as deep dialogue, and a practice of living. It comes with historicity, anthropology, and cultural specificity. In essence, however, it is universal in addressing the interconnectedness and interdependence of the flow of the world in the unity of being. It is trusting our human potential and our humanity. It is realising the existentiality of love. The Southern African Ubuntu, the Chinese Tianxia, and the Moroccan Tamkeen can be chosen to illustrate how broad the picture and how wide the field is. Being indigenous and global, ancient and contemporary, embedded in different languages, in oral traditions or script, wisdom has many shapes and many forms. A critical systems perspective explores and facilitates their confluence seeking coherence, resonance, and lucidity, clarity and ease, growing from their in-between.

Ubuntu is certainly the most prominent of the three. It became popular through the peaceful transition of South Africa associated with leading figures like President Nelson Mandela or Bishop Desmond Tutu. “I am because we are” is the renowned phrase used to describe the insight of this Nguni Bantu term into the interconnectedness and interdependence that makes our humanity. Ubuntu can be read as a tribal concept with a great sensitivity for the nature of community and little room for individuation. From a critical systems perspective, it is the notion of embeddedness into the broader context of the unity of being. It is the multitude of reciprocal connectedness Ubuntu realises that makes a difference which makes a difference.

Systemically as well as philosophically Ubuntu touches upon the three inevitabilities of human being: the inevitability of the conscious mind, the inevitability of the living world, and the inevitability of the social other. Almost all philosophy and religion address the elementary questions that come with these inevitabilities, practically and morally. What is right thinking? What is right doing? What is the right being in the world? The inevitabilities manifest a relational perspective. How do I relate to myself? How do I relate to my body and the living world? And how do I relate to fellow human beings? This is where the systemic perspective and Ubuntu meet; they grow from a relational and not from a transactional perspective. However, Ubuntu grew from the limits of a tribal experience. Though Ubuntu can be generalised by looking at all of humanity in a generalising philosophical way, it is not yet nurtured by an according body of experience.

Tianxia seems to be the right opposite of Ubuntu. Where the experience of Ubuntu is embedded in locality and community, the Chinese term Tianxia (天下) addresses “all under heaven”. It is an explicitly global perspective. When King Wu in 1046 BCE forged an alliance to overthrow the Shang dynasty, it was a David against Goliath situation. And though he established the reign of the Zhou dynasty prevailing for the next 800 years, the situation remained a delicate balance of powers. Tianxia reads as a political philosophy postulating that all under heaven needs to live in peaceful coexistence to prosper and thrive. Prosperity is not a result of competition but the result of the peaceful coexistence and the reciprocity of all there is. The moment the reign draws borders, it creates conflict and enemies.

Tianxia’s body of experience grew from the rivalry of the various Chines kingdoms and what is called the dynastic cycle of Chinese integration and disintegration throughout the centuries. Whenever China integrated it prospered a lot; whenever it disintegrated it suffered a lot. People suffered, starved, and were butchered in battle by the millions. From a systems perspective, Tianxia is more than a peace postulate. As a political philosophy, it realises what in the West is rather known from James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis or Lynn Margulis’s works on the symbiotic planet. Evolution does not correlate with competition but with symbiosis. Tianxia translates science into the political philosophy that realises the interconnectedness and interdependence, the reciprocity of all there is, not only in the biosphere but also in the socio-sphere.

Ubuntu and Tianxia are traditions of deep wisdom addressing what the Sufi term wahdat al-wujud (وحدة الوجود) refers to as the unity of being. They are immersed in the ecological notion of silent transformation, evolution, and metamorphosis. The so-called great acceleration of the last 70 years has changed our global experience of transformation profoundly. This seems to call for new ways of reflection, sensemaking and meaning-creation. Yet, the wisdom growing from our contemporary experiences remains deeply connected to whatever was called wisdom before. Wisdom is as universal as our human nature and our humanity. Or as the Persian Poet and Sufi mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī said: the lamps are different, but the light is the same.

Tamkeen (تمكين) is an Arabic word illustrating the potential of the seed and the favouring ecological niche convening. Tamkeen is described as an experience-based, relationship-oriented, co-created, co-facilitated, process of inquiry, learning, and understanding, embedded in epistemic humility, trusting our human potential and our humanity, realising the existentiality of love. It is referred to as a process and an approach, a philosophy and a practice.

Tamkeen is a deep reflection of our contemporary experiences in a globalised world of accelerating change. And similar to Ubuntu and Tainxia it is not about knowing truth or enlightenment but about a shared understanding that can grow from the co-reflection of a body of lived experience. It is what is called in Taoist terms a way to the way (道). This is what makes a wisdom tradition. It grows a shared, embodied understanding, not knowledge, of our human potential and our humanity. It is an invitation to deeply reflect, together. It addresses existence in its being and its becoming. It realises the existentiality of love.

Tamkeen’s understanding of change overcomes the auctorial frenzies of homo faber. It realises in contemporary experiences the universality of the ecological notion of a silent transformation where out of metamorphic niches in a process of confluence societal metamorphosis grows. With this notion of emergence comes a sense of dissolvence and the value of metabolic properties in social ecosystems. Every lived experience nurtures the growing embodied understanding of our world. It sustains the essence of realising the existentiality of love. It nurtures an understanding that we get and lose again before we get it again. It is an autotelic process, a path, a way towards wisdom which is wisdom itself.

Tamkeen, however, does not only go to the ontological, relational understanding of our world, it is also immersed in the critical inquiry addressing the understanding of our understanding, its dependency on language and the limits of sensemaking and meaning-creation. Epistemic humility prevails. We can only see what we learnt to see, and we can only think and talk within the limits of our language. Epistemologically, any change results from seeing with different eyes and finding a new language to express it. Yet, we will always be short of words to express the essence.

An initial, and a rather trivial comprehension may suggest that Ubuntu, Tianxia, and Tamkeen are embedded in a larger systemic perspective which attributes locality to Ubuntu, globality to Tianxia, and change to Tamkeen. But this would unnecessarily shorten the perspective. In a deeper systemic comprehension, all three are different perspectives onto the same unity of being, the same interconnectedness and interdependence of all there is, the same emergence and dissolvence, the same being and becoming. All of these wisdom practices and traditions are experience-based and relationship-oriented. They realise the richness of relational reciprocity and are not limited by an overemphasis on linear causality.

Co-creation and co-facilitation acknowledge the need to sustain and grow any understanding as a shared understanding through co-reflection from a body of lived experience. There is no lonely genius providing an opus magnus to enlighten us all. It is not in the head; it is in the entire being. It is in the processes of inquiry, learning and understanding. In this respect, wisdom practices and traditions, like systems research, engage in inquire and learning beyond a contextually limited body of knowledge. Epistemic humility prevails, in wisdom practices and traditions as well as in system thinking. Any expression is limited by its means.

If we would draw a line here, we could identify complexity sciences, systems research, and cybernetics in their capacity of providing a language able to reformulate, translate, and bring into dialogue the various wisdom philosophies and practices. It would allow for exchange and explore the in-between. And in doing so we could arrive at a holistic perspective of the various wisdom practices and traditions that allowed us to grow our understanding of the world even further. We could do this, and it would be enriching.

Trusting our human potential and our humanity, realising the existentiality of love, however, makes all the difference. For it allows us in a process of inquiry, learning and understanding to embrace and include our humanness in all its vulnerabilities and dependencies, in all its creativity and beauty. It translates the cognitive exercises of sensemaking and meaning-creation into processes of growing a shared embodied understanding. It transcends fear and finds the courage to trust love.

Systemic wisdom facilitates the re-entry of trust and love into science. And though this challenges the modern worldviews and the contemporary self-perception of sciences, it allows for translating knowing into understanding and knowledge into wisdom. We may lose the option of heroic systems change, yet we gain the possibility to realise a humanising society embedded in systemic wisdom.

A critical systems perspective enables us to explore the in-between and the interconnectedness of the various forms of wisdom practices and traditions, be they indigenous or global, ancient or contemporary, embedded in different languages, in oral traditions or script, be they religious or philosophical. They all grew in the same systemic way, experience-based and relationship-oriented to start with. And they convey a universal essence in which we recognise ourselves, our human potential and our humanity. They invite us to recognise and realise the existentiality of love.

A critical systems perspective allows us to acknowledge in the sameness of the various wisdom practices and traditions our sameness as human beings, universally. It allows us to overcome the global north versus global south divide and the west versus east distinction. It allows us to venture systemic wisdom in an experience-based, relationship-oriented, co-created, co-facilitated, process of inquiry, learning, and understanding, embedded in epistemic humility, trusting our human potential and our humanity, realising the existentiality of love, together, in a global dialogue. This may inform and form our understanding of systems change. Most likely, however, it is already the systems change we want to see in the world.