Starting as a health crisis, COVID has cascaded into an economic downturn, compounding with social unrest and regional ecological/climate catastrophes to deepen; meaning crisis and political instability, revealing systemic fragility of interlinked systems and interconnected problems. While this is not the first pandemic to assail the world, one critical difference compared with the past well-known events such as Black Death and Spanish Flu lies in the unique era we are in - increased complexity and connectivity fostered by globalization and the information technology revolution. The uncertain path towards the post-COVID world is paved by collective inquiry on new norms yet to be born but emerging. Courageously walking through the confusion, fear and despair of this unique time, people whose life has been enhanced and forged in the journey of seeking and becoming, can help restore a sense of possibility and allow us to catch a glimpse of potential of humanity.
Perhaps the meaning of the COVID period is that it has created a fresh opportunity and renewed determination to let old problem-perpetuating system to die in dignity and midwife new systems to emerge and heal past wounds transforming the turbulent interlocking challenges of the 21st century. Besides COVID, systemic risks of the era - financial crisis, climate change, terrorist attacks, cyber attacks - travel far and fast affecting people and communities of life beyond borders. Our current, often fragmented, ways of understanding the world, while having the merit of producing quick fixes, often falls short to solve the problem at its root. To honor the lives lost and protect the dignity of life suffering on the margin of society, deployment of a ‘smart’ matching toolset within human the repertoire is necessary to understand complex systems in the current forms, tackle their negative externalities and build system-level resilience. This is naturally accompanied by a new angle, new sensitivity, new perception, new language and new ideas, “new” at least to the dominant culture or habitual ways of doing, being and relating.
Systems thinking, consideration of something in its totality, its interaction with a wide range of factors and environment, is being increasingly recognized as important for sense-making of the world today. Taking one step further, what is emerging at the vanguard of new and ancient knowledge is the embodied awareness that organizations, economics and societies are living complex adaptive systems immersed within the living planet. This may run contrary to the over left-brain hemispheric, reductionist way of knowing the world and the mechanistic view of life that underlie scientific method and scientific management theory. The mechanistic paradigm, where reality is reduced to discrete objects separate from their inter-relational context to be managed, has assisted in the advancement of humanity in many areas and served an evolutionary purpose; the problems arise when such an approach marginalizes all other ways of perceiving, knowing and embodying life. To wholly appreciate a complex system in its inter-relational context, two systems approaches - Integral Approach and Warm Data - are introduced. The multifaceted study and inquiry will enliven organizations, cultures, societies and all human-made systems to brim with life.
The Integral Approach is based on Ken Wilber’s life work to synthesize as many disciplines, worldviews, and methodologies as possible to arrive at a more comprehensive view. The basic framework is consisted of four quadrants – inner/outer, individual/collect, that is psychological, behavioral, cultural, and systemic aspects of the reality. For international development, the Integral Approach should be a natural fit as each development challenge is a multifarious product of a wide range of inter-influencing co-evolving factors from psychology, health, individual behavior, culture and philosophy to organizational dynamics, governance, economics and politics, etc.
The realities represented by the quadrants always arise together. This is simply because the issue or aspect of reality can be viewed from:
1) an inside and an outside perspective and
2) from a singular and plural perspective
in subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective contexts.
More advanced framework contains levels of development which represent depth and complexity within each quadrant. For example, in the development of medium of exchange, levels represent the historical form evolving from barter to commodity exchange, from precious metals to bills, and then to digital assets e.g. Cryptocurrencies and tokens. Attributed to the progression are changing social agreement and governance structure according to the capacity of the time. At a granular level, individual participation has created and strengthened the norm or group psychology, which in return conditioned behaviors of enlarging in-group till the arrival of the next revision of the medium.
Another implication of the Integral Approach illustrates that as many aspects of consciousness (inner-individual) develop, so do aspects of behavior (outer- individual), culture (inner-collective) and systems (outer-collective). The development of values and worldviews in humans, thus, plays an important role in shaping the inner and outer landscapes of the world. Progress in the external social systems such as sustainable development and global treaties mirror the growth in the inner life of individuals and collective. Notably, human rights movements have been expanding to accommodate wider segments of marginalized– gender, age, race, LGBT and other attributes such as nationality, region and socio-economic status – and even encompass the rights of animals and that of nature. Interestingly, economics, as social science, can be understood as the value system that is codified in a value equation that incentivizes behaviors. If trees are perceived as worth more cut down than remaining intact in the Amazon forests or Congo Basin, deforestation will continue and be made worse by “multipolar traps” (i.e. each agent act on near-term self interest which diminishes long-term sustainability of the system) which also lead to other tragedies of commons, climate change and arms race. Therefore, it is important to mainstream the common practice of designing economic system or any other systems and organizations from an elevated level of consciousness, aligning measurement/ value matrices with the ultimate goal to benefit more and all life. Environmental and Social Framework (ESF) of World Bank and Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) integration in investment gaining traction in the financial sector are examples of policy response and corrective innovation that loosen the absolute control of finance curse. The caveat is that the pitfalls to become mere check-box compliance or divert energy to expand the realm of the measurable (datalism, technological determinism) away from chiropractic change necessary to attend to the inner core. While intervening and operating in the objective and exterior quadrants, equal dedication needs to be placed at the large extent ignored interior and cultural quadrants.
This well-intended approach to simplify complex issues to derive viable solutions can lead to risks of unintended consequences of reductionism, which is to decontexualize the focus of inquiry and omit relational interdependence (in other words “the non-modeled”). Compatible with the Integral Approach, the Warm Data approach pioneered and promoted by the International Bateson Institute provides the information about systems’ interrelationships that supports contextual understanding of complex systems. Warm data is the product of a form of study specifically concentrated on trans-contextual understanding of complex systems through inclusive dialogues and participatory embodiment. It utilizes the differences between framings to generate the relational information (aka Warm Data) between them in the changing environment. Contradictions, blinds, and inconsistency will emerge, along with paradoxes and cultural limits. However, trying to solve a problem without recognizing how it is interconnected with all the other problems externalizes harm to something else that matters. This is a classical example of yesterday’s innovation becoming tomorrow’s problem. Warm Data not only enriches research (e.g. minimize research bias and funding-based conflicts, gain insight from relational and contextual information, make meta connections), but also helps perceive the complexity and interdependency in every aspect of our lives and thus has profound implications on inter-personal relationships, sense-making, education and policy-making to reduce negative impact on the world. Warm data can be also used as an effective tool in a group setting or online engagement to crowd-source perspectives and solutions across generations, disciplines, and individual insights which are influenced by three other quadrants unique to that person as well as embedded systemic impact. It represents a hopeful possibility for humanity to respect the offering of each person and create unity in diversity.
Carl Jung identified our four natural ways of knowing as: rational, intuitive, emotional, somatic (body sensations e.g. gut). Today’s intellectual climate that pervades institutions overly priorities rational mind to such an extent that it crowds out other natural ways of knowing. Warm Data lab (meetings) provides a collective practice to nurture complex thinking along with associated qualities such as patience, humility, tolerance and open-mindedness. Both Integral Approach and Warm Data approaches, implemented in an appropriately distributed manner, has potential to source wisdom, compassion and action from interwoven limitless capacities of heart, mind and spirit to solve localized challenges with global impact. Coupled with individual practices such as introspection, nature immersions, meditation, somatic bodywork and voluntary service, they hold rich potential to assist holistic individual development, personal enlightenment that leads to system change.
The global challenge of COVID provides an excellent intermission to rewire and incorporate new approaches for the grand turnaround. Many place their faith in technological solutions and it is true that COVID time has accelerated further development and deployment of the technology in all sectors all regions. While social distancing measures necessitate usage of digital means to mediate every sphere of life, new problems inevitably arise including new inequality (digital divide), digital tribalism that further separates people, deterioration of emotional commons and online information ecology, rise of attention economy. Since the beginning of modern time, more and more attention and importance have been placed in the outer-collective quadrant. Now, nothing is more urgent than seeking balanced development of all quadrants as Integral Approach upholds and making connection of individual actions with systemic health through Warm Data. As above, so below. It is an immense responsibility of each profession, especially development practitioners as well as all individuals, to work on our own self-reflection and expansion of worldviews—to increase agency to act from a worldcentric rather than egocentric/ethnocentric perspective.
Deep inside each of us carries cherished eternal dreams of humanity – a longing future of harmony and cooperation between all peoples, a nostalgic future of living Earth with flourishing flora and fauna, a warm future of genuine happiness and lasting peace, a fair future with universal access to nutritious food, clean water, humanistic education and dignified work; a regenerative future with regenerative economics, eco-friendly living and meaningful human connections; a hopeful future that is built upon beautiful synthesis of the scientific and spiritual worldviews, a flourishing future that believes the gift of all life and commits to healing and wholing of each human being to realize their full potential.
What is the color of your future?
What do you envision for your future and our common future?
In the upcoming Fostering Future essay series, long-lasting development challenges will be re-imagined and re-examined from these new angles to add a new level of vigor and awareness. They range from youth – our future, gender – deeper source of durable human wellbeing, infrastructures – sustainable way to meet our needs, globalization – light, shadow and active hope, agriculture – creating prosperity through permaculture, and urbanization – a thought experiment of future dwelling to power of art to cultivate our souls.