Not just since the recent US midterm elections or the climate deal in Katowice last week. There’s some real change in the air. In fact, it’s been there for a while. But we might not have noticed it…

…due to that other series of events. Brexit. Trump. Bolsonaro. Orban. Salvini. Erdogan. Duterte. The list goes on. It’s like standing in the boxing ring, encountering punches left and right. We’re still absorbing one blow as the next is already being launched. That’s how the past two-plus years have felt to me — and I assume to many. But now, as 2018 draws to a close, for the first time in a while I feel that we’re getting back on our feet; we’re beginning to shift our mode of operating from reactive to generative.

Figure 1 — Turning the Tide: Living Inside the Axial Shifts — by Kelvy Bird

I certainly sense that shift within myself. But I also feel it, more importantly, in the communities that I have connected with recently. In this column, I share some of their stories and conclude with a view of the bigger-picture societal transformation I see happening: an axial shift in politics, in economics, and in our learning and leadership systems that transcends our current modes of operating.

Indonesia: Revolusi Mental

Like Costa Rica, Indonesia is an inspiring example of positive development at country level that focuses on the well-being of all. It comes at a moment that the United States seems to be at risk of falling apart and much of Europe is consumed by the Brexit saga. Indonesia, the world’s third most populous democracy, as well as the largest Muslim-majority country, has gone through a remarkable period of peaceful development over the past decade plus. When I visited Indonesia for the first time in 2003, shortly after the Bali bombings and the 9–11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the expectation inside the US State Department was that Indonesia might become the next Afghanistan — succumbing to terrorism, violence, and self-destruction. That was then.

In 2018, who is on the brink of falling apart? The West. Not only because of “Individual 1”, who [still] operates from the White House. But also (or mainly) because the West has not (yet) risen to the occasion, and has not yet moved past the special interest groups (from Big Money and Big Oil, to Big Pharma and Big Tech) that keep us trapped in a bubble of the past.

President Jokowi, elected in July 2014 and the first Indonesian president not to come from an elite political or military background, was brought to power by a broad social movement of young people, artists, and cultural creatives. He has inspired the country and the world by moving, at least in part, beyond the grip of those special interest groups. In his first term, he has focused on eradicating corruption and upgrading the outer infrastructure (such as the Mass Rapid Transit system). In his intended second term, he wants to focus on upgrading the inner infrastructure — concentrating on human capital and what he refers to as a revolusi mental (a mindset revolution) — working toward Indonesia 4.0. Even though many profound challenges remain, including the deeply concerning rise of fundamentalist extremism funded and fueled from Saudi Arabia, the overall Indonesian story is a source of hope; particularly as the next chapter now begins to focus on human development as a prerequisite for societal development and for tackling the 2030 SDG agenda (the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals).

Over the past ten years, I have chaired a tri-sector leadership program for sustainable development at MIT called IDEAS. Indonesian leaders from business, government, and civil society spend a week on campus as part of a nine-month transformative leadership journey that helps them reflect on their own behavioral patterns as individuals, as organizations, sectors, and the country as a whole, while learning to use a variety of systems thinking tools. These tools include the C-Roads Climate Change Simulation (developed by MIT’s System Dynamics Group), learning journeys, stakeholder dialogues, deep listening practices, generative dialogue, design thinking, and other practices of awareness-based systems change.

Grounded in MIT’s action learning approach, each leadership journey results in hands-on prototyping initiatives in which cross-sector teams focus on testing and refining practical solutions to pressing societal challenges. The results of these prototyping initiatives, and of the entire nine-month leadership journey, are then presented to the public in a workshop at one of the ministries involved (usually the Ministry of Trade, Finance, Environment, or the Ministry of the Creative Economy).

Since 2008, we have delivered six of these action learning programs in collaboration with our colleagues at UID (United In Diversity) in Indonesia, each with one module at MIT and another four modules in Indonesia. Each program is limited to about 35 participants. Sometimes the prototyping results have had significant impact. Sometimes they have provided more of a learning experience for the people involved instead. But in every instance we witnessed the activation of a profound collective field of co-creative energy that generated new ideas, new projects, and shared initiatives in subsequent years. Since almost all the teaching materials used in this MIT program are openly shared through MITx and, the open learning platform co-founded by MIT and Harvard, they can be used in contexts anywhere (with or without MIT’s supportive involvement). So far, the domestic replications of IDEAS type learning environments have given rise to several new system leadership labs inside various Indonesian NGOs, universities, banks, and companies, as well as the government. In other words, the systems leadership knowledge, which ten years ago was limited to MIT faculty, is now fully localized.

One recent offshoot of the IDEAS program was sponsored by the Ministry of Manpower. When the President asked the minister about the decreased number of incidents regarding labor protests and conflicts, the minister credited, among other things, that action learning program. This led other Indonesian ministries to take up and adapt the system leadership approach in their own organizations. Currently, we are facilitating a program for the top 700 civil servants in the country, including ministers of the Indonesian cabinet (see picture below).

Figure 2 — Workshop with the Indonesian Government

I have just returned from the third session with those 700 government officials, plus leaders from business, media, and the civil society community. Although I believe the group may be large enough as is, our partners in the Indonesian cabinet disagree. It’s too small, they say. Therefore, in the coming years they want to replicate and democratize the whole-system learning environments for many thousands (or even “millions”, as they suggest) more.

UN SDG Leadership Labs

Over the past few months, my colleagues and I at the Presencing Institute have begun collaborating with the United Nations Development Operations Coordinating Office (UN DOCO) to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in several countries. Our first two prototype projects, in Cambodia and Uganda, use the same set of methods and tools for systems leadership as outlined above and are off to a promising start. With these and other collaborative initiatives to be launched on a significantly larger scale next year, we hope to build a collective capacity for change at the level of the whole eco-system. The capacity for activating generative social fields among complex and often conflicting multi-stakeholder groups is at the core of all advanced leadership work today.

Figure 3 — UN SDG Leadership Labs (Cambodia, Uganda)

From u.lab to Societal Transformation Lab

One of the most inspiring projects that I have been engaged with for the past four years is MITx u.lab, which began as an online class via MITx and the edX platform. It has activated a worldwide eco-system of change makers who are using the tools of awareness-based systems change to bring about transformation in their own organizations around the world.

Figure 4 — Awareness-based Systems Change — by Kelvy Bird

Awareness-based systems change can be summarized in three sentences:

1. “You cannot understand a system unless you change it.” (Kurt Lewin)
2. You cannot change a system unless you transform consciousness.
3. You cannot transform consciousness unless you make a system sense and see itself.

The methods and tools of awareness-based systems change help change makers to put these principles into practice. The u.lab is a free, online-to-offline infrastructure that radically democratizes access to these methods and tools. Since its launch in 2015, u.lab’s more than 120,000 registered users have formed hubs and communities in over 1,000 places. More than 30% of those who completed the u.lab journey said in an exit survey that it was a “life-changing” experience. That’s the upside. On the downside, we have always received requests to provide follow-up support as people begin launching their own initiatives, without having been able to provide such a structure. These requests have now led us to take our next step: offering the Societal Transformation Lab (STL).

The Societal Transformation Lab will offer a multi-local innovation journey for teams that want to link up with a global movement of change makers that use the methods of awareness-based systems change. It will focus on societal transformation in specific areas: farm & food, finance, business, learning & leadership, health & well-being, cities, and democracy. The STL is free of charge, but teams must apply and be accepted. We had intended to launch the STL with 100 teams. But based on the 350 applications we have received to date we now anticipate accepting up to 250 teams. Each one is place-based. Many are part of well-established organizations. Others are grassroots groups that will bring their fresh ideas and collective energy to the Lab.

The Social Transformation Lab’s core group of co-convening organizations includes Ashoka, the BMW Foundation, the Dutch Board of Water Management, Impact Hubs, the League of Intrapreneurs, Policy Link, RSF Finance, Shambala, Teach for All, Triodos, several UN organizations, United In Diversity (UID), and WeAll. In February this global network of organizations and change makers will be fully activated in terms of a vibrant web of peer coaching and collaborative cross-team relationships, aiming to prototype new ways of pooling and leveraging shared resources and ways of operating across institutional boundaries. As always, the pathway and goal of this community will be to shift the mindset of people and organizations fromsilo to systems view — that is, from ego-system awareness to an eco-system awareness that is grounded in a shared intention of the future we want to create.


Our Zambian colleague Martin Kalungu-Banda has taken the inspiration of u.lab and applied it to the area of the world that he cares about most: Africa. The vision of Ubuntu.Lab is to revive and regenerate systems in Africa by Africans, for Africans, and through Africans. Ubuntu.Lab is rooted in the methods and tools of awareness-based systems change, with the addition of the Ubuntu spirit and flavor in particular: I am because you are.

Figure 5 — Ubuntu.Lab Scribing 2018 — by Olaf Baldini

The picture above shows the graphic recording from the first cohort of Ubuntu.Lab, launched in the second half of 2018 with 300 participants from 18 countries. The graduates of the first Ubuntu Lab in 2018 are now the core team that prepare the next delivery in 2019.

Berlin Tempelhof Campus: in the making

Perhaps what inspires me most is the prospect of connecting and interweaving all of these stories and networks for profound change. I think of it as a university campus 2.0. This new type of campus would not be closed, but open to the various eco-systems of profound societal renewal. It would breathe together with these networks for change and allow the next generation of change makers to join and apprentice in these various hotspots of profound societal renewal. It would be co-shaped in partnerships between pioneers and co-faculty who reinvent and advance the current forms of education, democracy, finance, government, and business. Last week in Berlin, at the closing event for the u.lab 2018 on the Berlin Tempelhof BUFA Campus, we took a big step in that direction. Soon, the Berlin Tempelhof BUFA Campus will open as a regionally grounded and globally connected hub for societal transformation (we are planning a Global Forum on the Tempelhof Campus for November 14–15, 2019).

Figure 6 — Closing session u.lab 2018 on Berlin Tempelhof Campus (BUFA)

A key feature of that campus will be, i.e., the first global hub for awareness-based systems change. The four core activities of that school focus on:

· building eco-system leadership capacity (like the IDEAS program)
· convening multi-sector innovation labs (like the SDG Labs)
· generating knowledge, methods, and tools (toolkits for systems leadership)
· building communities (activating worldwide eco-systems of inspired change makers)

Figure 7 — for awareness based systems change — image co-created by Olaf Baldini & Kelvy Bird

Living Inside the Axial Shifts

What is needed today? And what are the axial coordinates that we need to shift from their old mode (20th century) to an emerging new one (21st century)? What does it mean to live inside these axial shifts?

As described in an earlier blog article, I see three shifts that reshape and move the societal coordinates of our political, economic, and cultural actions:

1. A shift of political thinking from left-right to open-closed (or from ego to eco);

2. A shift of economic thinking from Keynesianism vs. neoliberal economics to GDP growth vs. well-being for all (post-growth);

3. A shift of educational thinking from focusing on memorizing facts and figures toward whole-person, whole-systems learning (integrating head,heart and hand).

Figure 8: Axial Shift in Politics — Figure 9: Axial Shift in Economics — Figure 10: Axial Shift in Education and Learning — images by Kelvy Bird

The bottom line of these three axial shifts is the same: while the old discourse (left vs. right, government vs. markets, etc.) has been a question of difference in ideology, the new discourse appears to be a question of difference in consciousness; that is, of ego-system awareness on the one hand and eco-system awareness on the other hand. In a practical way, the developmental need in all western and non-western societies that I have been working in over the years (including China) can be summarized as: the need to build collective capacity for vertical development across all relevant societal institutions — i.e. the capacity to move from the lower two to the upper two quadrants in the above depictions of the axial shifts.

We attend [this way], therefore it emerges [that way]

A few weeks ago, I attended a launch event for my recent book The Essentials of Theory U in Amsterdam. In front of 400 people one of the co-hosts reminded me that he had asked me a decade ago to summarize the Theory U in a single sentence. Back then, he continued, I responded with: “I attend [this way], therefore it emerges [that way].” In other words, form follows consciousness. The moment I heard him sharing that memory, I knew what had changed over the past ten years. Today, my summary would be slightly different:

We attend [this way], therefore it emerges [that way].

The shift that has happened concerns the collective, the movement from me to we, from ego to eco. And maybe that’s why, in spite of all the challenges, I feel we are ending the year on a hopeful note. We are not alone. “Where there is danger,” the German poet Hölderlin reminds us, “the saving power also grows.”That power is always available to us. We just need to learn how to access it more consciously, intentionally, and collectively. The Societal Transformation Lab aims to be a global practice field for this.

Figure 11 — We attend [this way], therefore it emerges [that way] — by Kelvy Bird

I want to express my gratitude to Kelvy Bird for her amazing art work (drawings) and to Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis for her edits and Rachel Hentsch for the finishing touches on the draft!