All posts by Zaid Hassan

In the beginning was the plan.

In the beginning was the plan.

And then came the assumptions.

And the assumptions were without form.

And the plan was without substance.

And darkness was upon the face of the workers.

And they spoke among themselves saying,

“It is a crock of shit and it stinketh.”

And the workers went unto their supervisors and said,

“It is a pale of dung and none may abide the odor thereof.”

And the supervisor went unto their managers and said,

“It is a container of excrement and it is very strong, such that none may abide by it.”

And the managers went unto their directors, saying,

“It is a vessel of fertilizer, and none may abide its strength.”

And the directors spoke among themselves, saying to one another,

“It contains that which aids plant growth and it is very strong.”

And the directors went unto the vice presidents, saying unto them,

“It promotes growth and is very powerful.”

And the vice presidents went unto the president, saying unto him,

“The new plan will promote the growth and vigor of the company, with powerful effects.”

And the president looked upon the plan and saw that it was good.

And the plan became policy.

This is how shit happens.

The Global Food System

A Brief Guide To The Conflicting Logics of Food

By Zaid Hassan

Global_Food_System_v2 (2)This is the introduction to “The Global Food System” a new pamphlet, which can be purchased on Amazon Kindle or on Smashwords for other formats.


Causality, according to Wittgenstein, is the ultimate superstition. While he probably wasn’t thinking about the global food system when he said that, he may well have been. The story of the modern global food system is the story of unintended consequences. It’s the story of a causal logic run amok. It’s the familiar story of how we’re all intimately connected without quite grasping just how intimately. It’s the deeply disturbing story of a system characterized by historic injustice that continues to produce injustice today. It’s a story that goes to the throbbing, bleeding heart of sustainability. Finally, it’s the worldchanging story of what we do when faced with the reality of such a narrative. It can, without being hyperbolic, be called the mother of all systemic problems.

I’ve been struggling, as part of my work, to figure out exactly how and why the global food system is unsustainable and to get my head around the logic of the system. This is easier said than done.
Two of my colleagues at the Sustainable Food Lab, Hal Hamilton and Don Seville, have articulated the dilemma as follows, “Nobody intends for their decisions to result in a system that is unsustainable overall. Decisions are made by individuals trying to do the best job possible within their context. Some must please a boss or increase shareholder value. Cost cutting is frequently necessary in order to compete successfully. All of these decisions are usually rational within the context of the decision-maker, but the net result of all these decisions includes problems ranging from soil erosion to low quality nutrition.”

This pamphlet attempts to explain how the global food system works. It does so by outlining what can be thought of as multiple “logics” that operate as part of the food system. These “logics” unfortunately operate somewhat independently from our desires, wants or even beliefs. They constitute, to borrow a phrase from Jacques Ellul, “a completely independent technical morality,” that we have to factor into our strategic responses.

The intended audience for this pamphlet is anyone thinking strategically about food systems. It attempts to paint a crude but whole picture of a system that we rely on for our existence every single day.

Originally consisting of three long-form essays, the intention was to put in writing a primer for starting to grasp how a system as complex as global food works. When I first started working in this space, in 2004, as part of the Sustainable Food Lab, my search for a succinct summary was laughed as by old food hands. So I tried to write one. I have updated the original essays but the conclusions drawn when I penned the originals still stand.


Ten Hacks Towards World Class Evaluation

What is the best way of evaluating interventions aiming for systemic change? How do we evaluate responses to complex social challenges for effectiveness? How do we know when something we have done is working? How do we know when it’s failing?

Evaluation and metrics represent an attempt to bring “hard” numbers and “hard” results into the labs and innovation space. Some of what’s being asked for makes sense. Unfortunately, a lot of what’s written about evaluation is based on misunderstanding of what we are dealing with when we attempt to change systems.

This attempt at “hardness” is touching but mostly it’s just misguided. Part of it is “physics envy” – where a theory has universal, predictive capacity, and part of it is “market envy” – where there is a shared “consensus reality” about how to “rationally” assess value.

The problem is that neither of these makes a lot of sense. We are dealing with complexity and we are dealing with people. Systemic change will never be physics. Then markets function on the myth of rationality, they are not rational. Rather they are ruled by “animal spirits” that we would do well to remember (but more on this later).

Forget physics and market envy. Here are ten “hacks” that will dramatically improve your evaluation. Some of the ideas here are inspired by Edward Tufte’s book “Beautiful Evidence,” in particular a chapter titled “The Fundamentals of Analytical Design.”

1. Establish Confidence.

A lack of confidence in a strategy can manifest in many different ways. One of the ways it can manifest, either inadvertently or by design, is in evaluations.

Lacking confidence in a strategy can give rise to “noise” where those trying to discern the value of an intervention are distracted by unnecessary data, presentations, artifacts and activities.

Having confidence in a strategy manifests through letting the data speak for itself and in general not needing to introduce noise into the system. In general it means that your evaluations will be elegant, simple to grasp and compelling.

One simple way of establishing confidence in whatever you’re doing is to get early feedback from friendly outsiders. Don’t make the mistake of trying to get it right before getting feedback, it will be much harder to undo later. As the adage goes, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

2. Establish an Ex-Ante Baseline.

Before starting anything, establish some sort of baseline, no matter how rough or vague. This will help you demonstrate any changes from the baseline. Having the argument as to why these shifts happens if a different problem from showing that shifts have happened. Not having a baseline makes it many times harder to show that something has shifted or changed.

Don’t be put off by the idea that you need a statistically significant baseline. It is better to have some baseline than none. Think creatively about what you can “snapshot” before you start.

An ex-ante baseline should be coupled with a post-ante evaluation. This allows an assessment as to the impact of whatever you have attempted.

3. Make A Comparative Case.

Evaluating something always means that it is being assessed in comparison to something else, even when it’s not. If someone is investing in your lab or initiative then they are not investing in something else. They are also probably making a comparative case in their heads. So overall, if you can make a comparative case at every step of the way, you’re likely to show what value you’re creating.

Comparisons can be done at multiple levels. So an ex-ante and post-ante evaluation can be done when starting and ending a workshop, a comparison can be made between multiple prototyping teams and a comparative evaluation can be done against a “typical” BAU intervention. There are many, many creative and interesting ways of making a comparative case.

See Tufte’s explanation on a drawing of Napoleon’s March to Moscow for an example.


This is what Tufte calls “the First Principle for the analysis and presentation of data.”

4. Tell A Story About Causality.

One of the most prevailing and counter-productive ideas floating around when it comes to complexity is that it’s impossible to prove causality. That may well be philosophically true (Wittgenstein said “causality is the ultimate superstition”) but what you’ll notice if you look is that everyone does it.

What do I mean by this? What I mean is that it’s probably impossible to definitively prove a causal relationship between cause and effect in a complex system. Complex systems are governed by “complex causality” and not “simple” causality.

But this doesn’t mean that you can’t make a best guess as to the impacts your intervention has had. Everyone who does anything does this. Big government departments spending billions and billions of dollars do this and so do big non-profits that claim to be helping poverty in Africa or whatever. This is where “confidence” comes in.

So tell a story, post-ante, after you have done something. Say what you think the impact of what you have done is. Back this up with numbers if you can.

In Tufte’s Napoleon’s March to Moscow example above, the chart tells the story that “Napoleaon’s army was defeated by the cold,” and that is a story of causality.

Tufte reminds us to “show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure” and this is the “the Second Principle for the analysis and presentation of data.”

5. Track Multiple Variables (But Not Too Many).

I’ve seen evaluations that seem to be trying to track 20-30 different variables and metrics. This doesn’t make sense. Don’t do that. This will generate an insane amount of data that it will be very hard to parse and make sense of.

Instead think about 3-6 variables you can track that are of interest. So for example, a for-profit company tracks revenues and profits. That’s pretty simple. And performance reporting is built around these variables. We are obviously not in such a context when trying to change systems.

See the six-capitals model for a broader take on possible ways to report on what you’re doing. Note that “social capital” or “natural capital” are not simple variables that you can track, they are composite variables. A “simple” variable would be “investment of time” or “investment of money.” And so on.

For a systems change effort you may want to track things like the number of people you reach or engage with, or the amount of time people invest in what you’re doing. Being able to demonstrate shifts in these variables over time forms the basis of an evaluation narrative.

Tufte refers to this as the “Third Principle for the analysis and presentation of data…show multivariate data; that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables.”

6. Focus on Results, Not Just Process.

The field of systemic change is rife with process-junkies. We like process. Process is obviously critical, it is one part of the “how” of things but we frequently assume it as being the only “how.” It is not.

If we go back to an analogy with cooking, then process represents frying or baking but this of course is not the sum of cooking as a practice. While it takes great skill to be good at a process, equally important are things like ingredients and the space one cooks in.

Many evaluations in this space focus on describing process to the exclusion of outlining results or what actually happened. Because the field is so skewed to process, we need to put process back in its box. Mainstream clients don’t case about process as much as they do about results. Describe process, on what has happened, what you have done, but focus on results, on what it is that has resulted from what you have done and why it matters.

7. Integrate Data Into Your Artefacts.

The rise of graphic facilitation has led to an explosion of visuals associated with group work. One description of this approach from Drew Dernvich is, “Graphic recording is the process of translating a group dialogue into images in real time. Along with providing a synthesized recording of ideas, these images engage participants, create a common information set, illuminate patterns and insights, and spark further creative thinking.”

A real challenge arising from the use of graphic facilitation is that its real-time nature tends to generate artefacts that violate most of Tufte’s principles. In deconstructing some examples of graphic facilitation my conclusion is that with a little pre-work and the establishment of the “good practice” guidelines it would be possible to dramatically improve the artefacts coming out of graphic facilitation or graphic recording.

So for example, if a graphic recorder is documenting a group session then labelling the session (date, location, purpose), incorporating simple data such as “who was in the room?” would transform an artefact from being an emotionally pleasing record to being actually useful.

A second step would be potentially incorporating other data sources into the final output, such as actual trend data or statistics from other sources, would immeasurably improve the quality and usefulness of graphic recording outputs. This would require either preparation beforehand or work on the artifact after it has been recorded in real-time.

This is Tufte’s Fourth Principle, “Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.”

8. Eliminate chartjunk.

This is an idea that hit me right between the eyes. It’s pretty simple, “all non-data ink” or “redundant data-ink” is chartjunk and “Like weeds, many varieties of chartjunk flourish.” See Tufte’s two essays, “Chartjunk: Vibrations, Grids and Ducks” and “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint” for a full explanation.

Chartjunk is basically a visual device that upon closer examination reveals itself to not tell us anything at all. It is a form of visual noise and it is a function of a lack of confidence in the data sets and ideas being presented.

Unfortunately it is very common in the social sphere. One particularly egregious example I’ve often seen in graphic facilitation is the use of a wave, implying that some surfing is going on. Waves look visually good but what do they actually mean? Not a whole lot.

It’s worth reminding ourselves what we are doing when we are making a presentation:

“Making a presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity. The use of corrupt manipulation and blatant rhetorical ploys in a report or presentation – outright lying, flagwaving, personal attacks, setting up phony alternatives, misdirection, jargon-mongering, evading key issues, feigning disinterested objectivity, wilful misunderstanding of other points of view – suggests that the presenter lacks both credibility and evidence. To maintain standards of quality, relevance, and integrity for evidence, consumers of presentations should insist that presenters be held intellectually and ethically responsible for what they should and tell. This consuming a presentation is also an intellectual and moral activity.” (Edward Tufte)

9. Communicate Frequently

This one is simple to say and hard to do in practice. Don’t wait 2 years into an intervention to say how it’s going and don’t send a newsletter out every 3 months. Try to figure out a way of communicating and getting your story out on an ongoing basis. Figure out a regime of small nuggets of valuable information, data, assessments and so on.

Full blown evaluations that take years to put together might be what your donors wants but the story around if you are succeeding or failing is a story that will come from the day-to-day. All too often there is a vacuum for months and months where people outside of the team are left guessing as to how things are going. Don’t let people project into a vacuum, tell small stories, put out status updates and put out more substantial evaluations as frequently as possible.

10. Remember The Animal Spirits

The social sector as a whole believes in the notion that we hold results or outcomes valuable. So when social enterprises or non-profits attempt to demonstrate “value” they scramble to show rational value, they struggle to put numbers together than somehow shows they are producing results that are worth the money. These rational cases are, in general, weak.

One reason for this is that social interventions are often under-capitalised, compare for example, the budget of a typical non-profit to that of a government department in an OECD country. They just don’t compare.

The other reason, perhaps more importantly, is that no sector is assessed purely on a rational basis – not the private sector and certainly not the public sector.

We somehow believe that the non-profit sector must demonstrate its value rationally, through hard numbers. This standard of evidence is actually impossible to achieve – and in many ways, it’s a waste of time trying. When you add complexity and the non-technical nature of many interventions, it’s even more impossible to show purely rational results with clear causality.

Yet, too many people in the non-profit sector buy the idea that this is the standard to achieve, as if perfect markets exist, as if people make decisions purely on a rational basis.

According to Akerlof and Shiller in their book “Animal Spirits” the irrationality of markets can be explained through five elements of human psychology:

1. confidence
2. fairness
3. corruption and bad faith
4. money illusion
5. stories

The term “animal spirits” was coined by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote,

“Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits—a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.”

When thinking about the purpose of evaluation, we have to remember that animal spirits guide much economic activity and we have to remember that making purely rational cases, as if this is what creates “confidence” is a fool’s errand.

The evaluations we create have to make both a rational and emotional case. Think as hard about the emotional case as you do about the rational case because there are animal spirits at work.


Is Teal The New Black? Probably Not

A review of Federic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations

The question that this book explores is “What would healthy and soulful organizations look like?” Laloux’s direct answer to the question is “Teal Organizations.” The book articulates what Teal organizations are, their practices and detailed guidance for how to become a Teal Organization. Laloux makes the case for the suitability of Teal Organizations for the times we live in.

The first part (Pgs. 11-43) puts forward the theoretical foundation of the book, a “Historical and developmental perspective.” This presents a 100,000-year “history” of organizational development and the types of consciousness that gave rise to different organizational structures, leading to present times.

The notion of “Teal” is derived from the theoretical model at the core of the book, a model called Spiral Dynamics developed originally by Clare W. Graves, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at Union College in New York (1914 – 1986). Spiral dynamics was then further developed by Don Beck and Chris Cowan, is part of a body of work that has been christened “Integral Theory,” developed primarily by Ken Wilber, assisted by a small group of American academics, consultants and Organizational Development professionals.

(Note that there seems to be some degree of contention in this community [see comments at the end of this link], which includes Laloux, as to who is ripping who off in terms of bastardising ideas.)

Laloux makes the case the human consciousness evolved in stages, which are denominated by colour, each colour representing a stage of development that gave rise to an organizational culture “fit” for the epoch it arose in. Each stage of development or colour, therefore correlates with a particular time in human history and each “stage of development” then represents a certain “cognitive, psychological and moral” orientation.

The main stages the book concerns itself with are those that arose in the last 50,000 years, Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and of-course, Teal. Teal represents nothing less than “the next stage in the evolution of human consciousness.” Each stage is posited to also “transcend and include” the ones that came before, therefore a later stage does not lose the behaviours that come from earlier stages but earlier stages obviously cannot access the insights of later stages.

Laloux points out that these organiszational forms did not die out with the end of each epoch but that they survive today in various organizations that operate from a “paradigm” such as Red (ie. the Mafia) or Amber (ie. Catholic Church).

In his explanation on the stages of development, Laloux explains that we “get into trouble when we believe later stages are “better” than earlier stages; a more helpful interpretation is that they are “more complex” ways of dealing with the world…Another way to avoid attaching judgment to stages is to recognize that each stage is well adapted to certain contexts.”

While Laloux (and many other SD practitioners) are at pains to point out that one stage is not “better” than another, a utilitarian judgment is being applied to each stage. The judgment is loosely based on the notion of being “well adapted” which can also be understood as “evolutionary fitness” or simply “fitness,” a central idea in evolutionary biology.

The argument is that each stage of consciousness can be thought of as one that was “fit” for it’s particular epoch and context. As the context changes, fitness means that “successful” evolution requires a shift from one stage to a different later stage more “fit” for the changed environment.

A shift of consciousness therefore allows for a range of behaviours more suited for the context or epoch we find ourselves in. Some behaviours can be thought of as “unhealthy” and some as “healthy.” Although in the book behaviours are not explicitly labeled as “unhealthy”, rather they are categorized by colour, which becomes a tacit judgment. The punch line of the argument for evolutionary fitness is that organizations embracing the most “evolved” stage of development (Teal) are more successful than ones mired in previous stages of development.

On the face of it, this argument is emotionally hard to refute. After all, who would argue for Red (Mafia, Street Gangs, Tribal Militias) or Amber (Catholic Church, Military, Most Government Agencies, Public School Systems) as a desirable destination for an organization? Try taking that to your board or staff. What is, of course, more likely to happen is that leaders determine the structures, processes and behaviours in an organization without being “aware” of what “stage of development” they are at (Like Pope Francis?).

Cutting through the layers of argument, the core argument in Reinventing Organizations is that Teal Organizations are more “healthy and soulful.” Teal is therefore the destination for any organization wishing to succeed in these complex times. Teal, in other words, is the new black.

The second part of the book (Pgs.53-225) describes the core practices and culture of Teal Organizations through a series of case studies. The twelve cases in the book consist of for-profit and non-profit organizations of various sizes from the United States and Europe (one is listed as also having 3 HQs, one being in South Korea).

The animating idea at the heart of Teal Organizations is that of  “self-organization.” Laloux explains his vision, “Life in all its evolutionary wisdom, manages ecosystems of unfathomable beauty, ever evolving towards wholeness, complexity, and consciousness. Change in nature happens everywhere, all the time, in a self-organizing urge that comes from every cell and every organism, with no need for central command and control to give orders or pull levers.”

In contrast to seeing an organization as a living system would be, for example, seeing the organization as a machine (what Laloux would label as an “Orange” mindset common to many multi-nationals). The shift is therefore a shift from the organization as a machine to the organization as a “living system,” in other words to an ecosystem.

Based on his research, Laloux posits three “breakthroughs” that characterize Teal Organizations, with a chapter dedicated to each. These are (1) self-management “…a system based on peer relationships, without the need for hierarchy or consensus.” (2) wholeness “…a consistent set of practices that invite us to reclaim our inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work” and (3) evolutionary purpose where “…members of the organization are invited to listen in and understand what the organization wants to become, what purpose it wants to serve.” Laloux uses case studies from twelve organizations to explore these three breakthroughs.

At the end of each of these chapters Laloux contrasts and summarises the “self-management” practice of Teal Organizations from Orange. So for example, the organizational structure of an Orange Organization is “hierarchical pyramid” and for Teal it’s “Self-organizing teams” and “When needed, coaches (no P&L responsibility, no management authority) cover several teams.” And so on for staff functions, coordination, (types of projects), job titles and job descriptions, decision-making, crisis management and many more. The lists are prescriptive to the point of specifying what the interior design of Teal firms should be like (“Self-decorated, warm spaces, open to children, animals, nature” with “No status markers”).

In the final chapter of this part of the book, Laloux summarizes what the organizational culture of a Teal Organization looks like,  “With self-managing structures and processes in place, and with practices to pursue wholeness and purpose, culture becomes both less necessary and more impactful. The culture of the organization should be shaped by the context and the purpose of the organization, not by the personal assumptions, norms, and concerns of the founders and leaders.” (italics in original)

Finally, the third part of the book (Pgs. 235-293) extrapolates from the first two sections by laying-out a sort of “how to” guide for organizations that want to be Teal.

Paradoxically, given how the previous chapter ended (“…The culture of the organization should be shaped by the context and the purpose of the organization, not by the personal assumptions, norms, and concerns of the founders and leaders.”) the first condition required to be Teal seems to be not that different from “the personal assumptions, norms and concerns of the founders and leaders.”

The first “necessary condition” for creating a new Teal Organization is “Top Leadership” and the second is “Ownership” where “The founder or top leader (let’s call him the CEO for lack of a better term) must have integrated a worldview and psychological development consistent with the Teal development level.” And so on with owners and board members (let’s hope they’re not all male). In fact Laloux argues that, “these two conditions are the only make-or-break factors. No other parameter is critical to running organizations within the Evolutionary Teal paradigm….”  (italics added).

The role however that “top leadership” plays (even though I thought there was no “top”?) is to “hold the space.” As a facilitator, I know something about what is required to “hold the space.” It requires putting one’s own beliefs about where a group goes almost entirely on the back-burner. This would mean that a “Teal-leader” leading a mostly “non-Teal” group would need to park their “Tealness”, which would mean the group probably operates from a non-Teal place.

Furthermore, Laloux recommends that for anyone wanting to grow a Teal Organization, “If possible they can strive to do without external investors, financing their growth through bank loans and their own cash flow, even if it means slower growth…or they need to carefully select equity investors who have integrated a Teal perspective.”

Social Labs - Amsterdam

So what do I make of all this?

Unfortunately, this is a deeply problematic and flawed book.

The book is littered with instances where it contradicts itself, its contradictory stance on leadership being just one case. Take the metaphors used to describe each “stage of consciousness” – Red, with the example of the Mafia as Red organization, is “the wolf pack” and Green, with the example of Ben & Jerry’s is “the family.” It behooves me to point out that the Mafia is an organizational structure with family at its core, that wolf-packs are examples of a “self-organizing” “living system,” that are valorized in the book and that hierarchies exist in nature (ever heard the phrase “apex predator”?).

While these problems are tedious in the extreme, they are distractions from three more profound problems with the book, these are the problems of science, context and ethnocentricity.

The problem of science

The behaviours of Teal Organizations and “Teal-Evolutionary consciousness” are normalized as being rooted in science – through the presentation of 100,000 years of “organizational” history and the use of an evolutionary framing.

There is unfortunately no scientific basis for the arguments made in this book. No, not even a little.

If we were to turn to a field of study concerned with human evolution and the biological basis of human group behaviour then it would be biology and the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists, notoriously aggressive in asserting the biological basis of social behaviour, would run a mile from the claims made here. This is because at the heart of this book is a vacuum, a cheap and depressing theoretical sleight-of-hand trick.

The entire thesis of the book is reliant on readers accepting what I would call Laloux’s “evolutionary history of organisations” as expressed through the colour schema of Red, Amber, Orange, Green and Teal. The case for this schema relies on a widely accepted belief, that human society has evolved from one state to another.

Let’s contrast Laloux’s scheme to one from evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford’s Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group. Dunbar, like Laloux, argues that during the course of human history we have gone through “five transitions.”

The first transition, according to Dunbar, occurred some 2 million years ago, the Australopithecines, second the rise of early homo 1.8 million years ago, the third around 500,000 years ago saw archaic humans, the fourth around 200,000 years ago saw the rise of modern humans. The fifth transition is the Neolithic Age some 12,000 years ago. At the individual level our biology is unchanged in the last 100,000 years (the time-scale Laloux’s evolutionary history covers) and there is no difference between you or me and one of our ancestors one hundred thousand years down the line.

The basis of Dunbar’s thesis are four biological shifts, and one behavioural change on evolutionary time-scales, that is over millions of years not hundreds of thousands. All of Dunbar’s significant evolutionary shifts occurred before the 50,000-100,000-year timeline of history that the book operates in. Checking a couple of other places reveals a similar timeline to Dunbar is in common use, I couldn’t find Laloux’s 50,000-100,000 timeline in use anywhere other than in Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics.

In sharp contrast to the work of evolutionary psychologists like Dunbar, the scientific basis of Laloux’s 100,000-year history is made on the basis of a single psychological study conducted in New York, in the 1950s with a sample of size around 1000 people (it would probably be a fair assumption that most, if not all, these people were white).

The only actual “evidence” for the “evolutionary history of organisations” is historical behaviour shifts. That is, yes it’s true that we went from hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies, that the industrial revolution happened and so on. But these behaviours are treated as actual evidence of the “evolution of human consciousness” when they are in fact a description that doesn’t explain anything. It falls on Laloux to provide some (any?) evidence for the “evolution of consciousness” that his entire book rests on. This he does not – because no such evidence exists.

What is in fact being proposed here is a new “theory” of consciousness with no scientific basis, or rather one that only a handful of New Age theorists accept. This move has very unfortunate consequences as there are sound reasons why such a theory is not more widely accepted. A quick look at the literature reveals an extremely complex and difficult debate that is far from over. It feels to me that navigating the complexity of this field would require particularly qualified guides.

Laloux unfortunately papers over the deep controversies and lines of enquiry that surround evolutionary psychology in even its more sedate academic forms such as represented by Dunbar. Here’s a taste from anthropologist Susan McKinnon’s book, Neoliberal Genetics,

“This pamphlet shows why, from an anthropological perspective, they [evolutionary psychologists] are wrong about evolution, about psychology, and about culture. I make five basic arguments. I maintain that their theory of mind and culture cannot account for either the evolutionary origins and history or the contemporary variation and diversity of human social organization and behaviour. More specifically, I demonstrate that assumptions about genetics and gender that underlie their theory of universal psychological mechanisms are not supported by empirical evidence from the anthropological record. I contend that not only their premises but also their evidence is so fundamentally flawed that their science is ultimately a complete fiction. I argue that this fiction has been created by the false assumption that their own cultural values are both natural in origin and universal in nature. And finally, I observe that this naturalization of the dominant values of one culture has the effect of marginalizing other cultural values and suppressing a wide range of past, present, and future human potentialities.”

Now here’s the thing, I’m sure a number of evolutionary psychologists and biologists would say that the most complex of human behaviours – including organisations – can be explained in evolutionary terms but how they can be explained is far from obvious. It might require some fancy footwork, perhaps deployment of epigenetic theory or eusocial theory, or some other cutting-edge evolutionary notion, I don’t know. In other words, it is, at least ermm in theory, possible to construct an evolutionary theory of how human organizations develop. In practice it would be very hard, requiring a deep familiarity with the edges of biology and evolutionary psychology. Laloux unfortunately displays no such familiarity.

The problem of context

This raises the fascinating question of Laloux’s own cultural values and how they play out.

As Laloux himself acknowledges (in one of his many contradictory positions), “If we were caught in a civil-war with thugs attacking our house, Impulsive-Red would be the most appropriate paradigm to think and act from in order to defend ourselves.”

The decision to join a tribal militia or Ben & Jerry’s is a decision made on the basis of context and not on biology. Does my “level of consciousness” really make me look at the two choices in front of me (corporate job at Unilever or tribal mafia?) and lead me to pick tribal mafia? Does the fact that I’m allergic to bureaucracy tell you something about what “stage of development” I’m at?

Behaviours are context-dependent, and not necessarily dependent on a state of consciousness rooted in biological realities (even as they may be a function of biological realities – for example unconscious epigenetic reactions).

A constant use of an evolutionary frame also provides the contentious impression that our “organizational” behaviours (how the Catholic Church is organized for example) are somehow linked to our biology. I mean, they might be, but once again the point is to say “how,” rather than simply make the claim as if this were an obvious, uncontested truth.

If the decision for what “paradigm” to operate from is therefore a contextual decision (and not a genetic predisposition), then it makes no sense to normalize Teal as a destination. If, for example, most businesses are operating from an “Orange” mindset, then does that not make the context for business “Orange”? What should one’s operating paradigm be when being “attacked” by the competition? Why should “Teal” behaviours be more “fit” for the context of business? Is the context in China or India the same as in Europe? What behaviours are more appropriate for operating in a Chinese or Indian context? Does it make sense to have a workplace that’s open to animals in the Middle East?

If Laloux is seeing “Teal” as some sort of meta-context for our times, then what can we actually say about it? The only thing we could legitimately say is that our times are getting more complex. Situations of high complexity are situations of great fluidity, the opposite of stable situations. And in situations of high-complexity we cannot cut-and-paste prescriptions across contexts. Laloux’s stance towards context is essentialist, that is, he treats it as a stable and non-complex thing that just is. There is no sense of how context changes or the processes by which different contexts come into being. Prescriptions offered without any contextual guidance is a glaring example of this essentialist stance.

Laloux seems to be saying, “we are all living in a Teal world and so we should aspire to Teal consciousness.” That way, we have the option of “drawing on” Red or Orange but not the other way around, so Teal is better. (I imagine an Incredible Hulk-like transformation taking place – where a Teal person turns Red and goes berserk). This harks back to the idea that each stage of development “transcends and includes” the one before.

The veracity of this claim cannot of course be tested – but it conveniently allows for someone at the “highest” stage of consciousness to “understand” a lower level but not the other way around. (Or far worse, that anyone objecting to the theory is simply told they are operating from a lower level of consciousness, which is why they don’t get it.)

The problem of ethnocentricity

This is where the plasticity of language aids the argument (or rather, betrays the argument). Part of the fuzziness of the argument comes because “consciousness,” “paradigm” and “worldviews” are all conflated with “behaviour.” If each “stage of development” is a “paradigm,” as Laloux indeed sometimes refers to them, then according to philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (who coined the phrase “paradigm shift”) different paradigms are incommensurable ie it is impossible to “be” more than one “stage of development.” This would imply that “transcend and include” doesn’t make much sense when dealing with different paradigms. And if each stage of development is a “behaviour” then the question of what drives or generates that behaviour is far from simple.

In order to normalize the colour scheme, however, the basis for behaviours have to be framed as responses to our temporal milieu – that is, “Red organizations arises from Red behaviour, which reflects Red consciousness only fit for Red times and…we clearly don’t live in Red times.” Of-course, the boundaries between say an Orange and Green “age” is very hard to call especially in times of increasing complexity. This is especially hard to swallow as Laloux explains that there are plenty of examples of organisations out of time. The distinction between the environment versus biology as the driver for our behaviour is a debate as old as the idea of evolution itself – it’s called “nature versus nurture” and it’s not a trivial problem.

So while we may detect the emergence of a “Teal milieu” a genuine question is, “Is Teal as a milieu a desire or a reality?” and “For whom?” If it’s reality (or an emerging reality) then is it even possible for our Paleolithic minds to overcome our genetic hardwiring? Does “no status markers” in terms of interior design of an office overcome millions of years of status markers in the natural world?

Then if the behaviours outlined here are context-dependent, then what exactly is the invisible context that Teal behaviours arise in? The only hint comes towards the end of the book, when he writes that, “Some academics have devised methodologies to measure a person’s stage of development. Their samples indicate that the percentage of people relating to the world from an Evolutionary-Teal perspective is still rather small, at around five percent in Western societies.”

This snippet, coupled with the fact that all of Laloux’s case studies are all Western tell us that the invisible context that Laloux is operating in is Western (and white and male?).  As I read Laloux, I kept thinking about Peggy McIntosh’s classic paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, where she writes, “My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.””

The unconscious, un-remarked and un-noted ethnocentricity of Laloux’s ideas remind me his training is INSEAD and McKinsey & Co. His schooling means that Reinventing Organizations is coloured with (sorry) instances of “neutral, normative, and average and also ideal” injunctions that “will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’.”

Despite all disclaimers, in this framing there are people who “have integrated a Teal perspective” and those who have not. Anyone who wants to lead or own a Teal organization has to meet some sort of “Teal-test” (What this Teal-test is we are not told). While Laloux is careful not to call those who have not “integrated” Teal primitives or savages, clearly your behaviour categorizes what “stage of consciousness” you have reached.

While biologists would agree that all of us have a Paleolithic mind, the argument being made is that some of us (5% in the West to be exact) have somehow, in the last 100,000 years evolved a whole different mind. At one point in the book Laloux describes the Herculean struggle required to shift one’s “consciousness” to a higher level. It sounds like a particularly buggy piece of software painfully upgrading itself. This book would be much more interesting if he took his argument to its logical conclusion and actually documented the stories of the 5% Übermensch who walk amoung us.

Teal is definitely not the new black, it’s the new white – or rather the journey to get the rest of us “colours” to Teal, the new white man’s burden. Imagine just for a moment what would happen if in the colour schema proposed here, Teal was actually called White? Ouch.

The boundaries between what constitutes individual behaviour, individual consciousness, worldviews, organizational culture, and a historical milieu all blend seamlessly into a chain of proximate causes – one directly causes the other. This intellectual sloppiness here is staggering. The linkages and relationships between these very different things represent, in many ways, the holy grail of understanding the human condition. Yet Laloux writes as if these relationships are well understood and uncontested. (Which, of course they are for some New Age philosophers.)

The ideas in this book represent what Laloux believes, they reflect his own cultural values and his own ethnocentric prescriptions for what it means to be a healthy organization. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with presenting the ideas as such, but unfortunately they are presented as a normative and neutral truth, as the rational-scientific product of human evolution aligned with the natural laws of “living systems.” That’s a pretty outrageous thing to do in this day and age. (By the way, there’s a word for normative preferences – it’s “ideology”)

Part of the appeal for this sort of argument is its simplicity. Laloux’s argument suffers from some of the same critiques applied to the wider field of Integral Theory, Argumentum ad Wilberiam, “spurious, or at least largely untested, truth claims” and “excessive overgenerlization.” By skipping the finer details, the book, “solves” some of the most complex questions scientists and philosophers of all stripes are grappling with. Despite the hundreds of pages, and tens of thousands of words, the core argument here is very simple to grasp. There are five stages of “cognitive, psychological and moral” development; Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and of-course, Teal. Each gives rise to a particular type of organization, suitable for its particular time. Teal is the newest and the best, here’s what Teal looks like. Go for it.

I suspect that the clean, uncomplicated notions put forward in the book will be undone by context, the actual details of implementation and to a large extent power-dynamics (for example, autocratic “Teal” leaders making “non-Teal” people do things they don’t want to do). In other words, I’m not sure I actually believe Teal even exists. I’m not sure I believe any of the “stages of development” actually exist.

I believe the colour schema is an instrument, a not very accurate map. And like all instruments it appeals to a certain instrumental logic, one that craves a simpler world  and shies away from complexity. In my opinion, this cognitive style mostly serves to distract from the important questions of who we are and what type of organizations we want to be creating.

While there may or may not be merit in the many prescriptions that Laloux offers, it’s very hard to get to them. The intellectual trick at the heart of this book means the core of Laloux’s practice is buried under many layers of good intentions, New Age beliefs, and polemical spin. It’s all very unfortunate because the question at the heart of Laloux’s book is a timely one. Alas, we will have to look elsewhere for a convincing exploration.

(Thanks Eric Eisenstadt, AJ Pape, Sean Legassick & Mia Eisenstadt for feedback & comments!)

The Ten Most Common Mistakes In Setting Up A Social Lab

1/ Using the word “Lab” as a brand

This is possibly the most common mistake when setting up social labs. In some cases it’s a deliberate mistake, in that the notion of a “lab” is simply appropriated because as a brand it has some kudos or authority. When done deliberately it’s less a mistake and more a “tactical lie,” where a Business-As-Usual programme, a network or a project are simply labeled as a “lab” because people will believe something new and innovative is happening.

While this is problematic, in that it makes it hard to discern just what “lab practice” is (especially for funders or investors) it is also a sure sign that the idea of labs for addressing complex social challenges is going or has gone mainstream.

2/ Treating labs as if they are a technique

The original sin.

The easiest way of explaining this one is to draw the analogy with cooking. Cooking is a practice. Some of the things that comprise that practice are ingredients, tools, techniques, kitchens, sometimes a recipe book, and obviously different types of cuisines. These things, coupled with people who cook and people who are can be thought of as a “practice.”

To treat labs as a technique is akin to reducing the practice of cooking to baking or frying. Obviously these techniques are part of cooking, but the practice of cooking is much more than a technique.

Treating labs as a technique is another tactical error, where something that has strategic value is reduced to a single tactic.

3/ Not knowing what the challenge is that you want to address

This might sound obvious but clearly formulated challenges are rare. An example of a well-formulated challenge is “how can we reduce unemployment by half for 18-21 year olds in the UK within ten years?” The reason this is a well-formulated challenge is that it addresses both strategic and tactical concerns.

The notion of “unemployment” is a complex construct – it no longer simply means getting a job in a corporation, so the choice is deliberately fuzzy. The fuzzier a challenge the wider the demographic interested in addressing it.

On the other hand, the numbers in the challenge, age, time, geographic scope and halving the rate meet tactical as well as strategic requirements. From this statement we can define the tactical parameters of the challenge – for example, how many young people are we talking about? And we can also appeal to the strategic nature of addressing such a critical challenge.

Ultimately, a well-formulated challenge is both strategic and tactical. What this means is that the “tactical” part can change depending on what stakeholders say, but the “strategic part” – for example helping young people aged 18-21, should not change.

All too often, challenges are the heart of labs are so ill formulated that it’s impossible to tell if you’re dealing with a vast, world cup style challenge or a smaller, localized challenge. And without that clarity, the specifics of the Lab itself are going to be subject to endless argument and negotiation that in turn results in what could be thought of as a false start.

4/ Not having the appropriate level of resources for addressing your challenge

This is what I’ve called The World Cup problem. The analogy is that your intention is to win the World Cup and you believe that it’s possible to achieve this by working on your Lab a day a week or with a budget of $10,000. Now here’s the thing. There is nothing wrong with working on a Lab a day a week with a budget for $10,000. It’s just that the challenge you work on must be amenable to being addressed with this level of resources. Too many people think that Labs are only suitable for massive, grand challenges. In fact it’s perfectly feasible and reasonable to set up a Lab in a school to solve challenges at the level of a school. That doesn’t require a World Cup budget.

Also it is entirely possible, at least in theory, to start with very few resources and win the World Cup. It is just likely to be a very long haul. So the issue here is to recognize what you are likely to need, being realistic and then figuring out a strategy for getting it. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with starting small, just live in reality.

5/ Not having a comparative measure for your Lab

One of the most frequent challenges Labs have is getting the right level of resources in place. The most common reason for this is that Labs are often described in process terms (“we will run a workshop for 100 people”) but not in terms of a Return-On-Investment (ROI). So if someone asks, “how much will your Lab cost?” and you say “A million dollars” and the response is “Wow, that’s expensive” then there is clearly a tacit comparison going on. It’s expensive compared to something.

Most Labs do not bother to provide a comparative measure, for example, showing what current BAU efforts are, what they are costing and what results they are producing. So if BAU efforts are costing billions and not delivering results, then a million dollars might well be cheap. The question then becomes not is it cheap or expensive, but what sort of impact you believe you might be able to have on the challenge. The work then becomes establishing the credibility of your claim that for a million dollars you can make a dent in the challenge.

In other words, do a comparative ROI calculation for your Lab – even if it’s rough and back-of-the-envelope.

6/ Failing to meet the criteria of social diversity

One of the key benefits of a social lab is the “social” part of the lab. This requires genuine participation with the diverse stakeholders impacted by the challenge. There are two common responses to the challenge of engaging diverse stakeholders.

The first is for a homogenous team (for example of designers working for a single organization) to run a consultation process. While consultation processes can be very sophisticated, they in no way can substitute for actually having diverse stakeholders as part of the team doing the work.

The second is to try to what could be thought of as “horizontal diversity” – that is, bringing together different “white collar” professionals. For example a team is constituted from different professionals, such as economists, anthropologists and psychologists. This is actually “multi-disciplinarity” and it is not sufficient for addressing complex social challenges.

Instead, what is needed is to constitute a team that is characterized by both horizontal and vertical diversity. Of-course there is no such thing as a perfect team but investing real energy and resources into cracking this most difficult of problems is the key to addressing complex social challenges.

The credibility of this team is what makes Lab as a while credible. What you want is someone to look at your team and go “Wow, that’s an impressive group” – because they represent both horizontal and vertical diversity.

7/ The Lab is “owned” by one organization

All too often Labs are initiated through the leadership of an individual or a single organization. This is normal. The challenge with this however is that if this situation persists then the degrees of freedom to experiment in the Lab become a function of what the individual believes is good or the culture of the organization owning the Lab.

In other words, while having a single “owner” is often the default starting-position of Labs, it is vital that Labs are negotiated spaces. So inviting other individuals and organizations to co-own the Lab as early as possible is vital. This creates the degrees of freedom in terms of the “space” of the Lab for a culture of innovation.

8/ Inadvertently designing a planning process instead of an experimental process

The point of a social lab is that it is a strategy representing an experimental or prototyping response to a complex challenge. We don’t really know what will work in terms of solutions, so we aspire to try out lots of different possible solutions.

In contrast a linear planning process, unfolding over several months or years, tends to privilege single “big bets” or moonshots. Designing moonshots reflects an inherent belief that our experts know how to solve a problem – and we simple need to “Design-Implement-Evaluate” their solutions. When dealing with complex social challenges this approach, DIE, represents a seriously flawed strategy.

Imagine for a moment a cancer research lab implementing a single strategy for finding a cure for cancer that takes five years. At the end of five years they fail, and then decide to try something else out. This is entirely possible but the likelihood is that the lab is testing several promising routes out simultaneously.

The core processes at the heart of social labs have to be iterative and experimental in nature. In other words, the point of a lab, like a lab in the natural sciences, is for a group of people to make a series of “educated” guesses as to possible solutions.

All too often, people fail to let go of their belief in a pet solution, or their own analysis and simply fall back on planning and implementing their pet solution.

This is not what labs do.

9/ Mashing-up multiple processes

In contrast to the single, linear plan presented as an experimental process is the opposite end of the spectrum, the mash-up. The mash-up involves taking every single process, tool or technique you know and trying to do them all at once.

It’s a little bit like going shopping for a dinner party and going mad. Just as a good meal has a theme, balance and the different dishes complement each other, the design of a lab is the same. Just as in cooking, the sign of an amateur is that they try and throw a lot of fancy ingredients into a dish – which ends up not tasting very good. Master chefs on the other hand can spin magic from the most simple ingredients – and yes, they also have the ability to use many, many different ingredients to create very complex dishes. But as anyone learning to cook knows, it’s best to learn how to walk before you sprint.

In general the rule of thumb is “less is more.”

10/ Treating the Lab as a pilot project

One of the central myths of our times is the myth of scaling. Like most myths that are widely accepted in their time, it goes unquestioned, a story to believe in, rather than an idea to be interrogated.

The myth of scaling tells a simple story. It says this. If you want to have real impact, then you must aspire to be big. In order to get big, you must attempt something called “scaling” or “scaling up.” This means starting small and seeking to deliberately get big. That’s the scaling myth.

A belief in this myth leads to a tsunami of pilot projects that never really go anywhere. Instead of piloting, an activity which mostly benefits the people running the pilots, Labs should be designed for the scale specified for the challenge.

So if your concern is a school, then design prototypes (not pilots) that benefit your stakeholders as soon as possible at that scale. If your scale is global then constrain the per-unit costs of your prototypes for a global solution – that is design a prototype that can be rolled out at scale.

It is also worth making a distinction between scaling and growth. If you’re successful then your initiative will probably grow organically. But starting on the basis of believing that first you’re going to solve a problem as a pilot and then scale it up is a fallacy.

Why not check out these reflections from a social lab in Canada which realised they were falling into the ‘program mindset’?

How To Tell Good Stories And Why It Matters

My most profound learning over the last decade and a half is that making the rational case for change is never sufficient. Like many insights, this is one that I came across early on, but it didn’t really sink in until much, much later.

We make decisions for many reasons beyond the rational, because we like something or someone, because we’re afraid of getting left behind, because we want to be a part of something, or because we’re somehow inspired.

In starting to think about the non-rational narratives that cause us to act, I started thinking about the stories we tell about our work. I started by looking at the stories we tell about our work and quickly realized that one of the profound weaknesses of this movement is how bad we are at telling compelling stories.

Below is a list of “good” and “bad” videos. Each aspires to tell a story. Why are the good good and the bad bad?

The good each tell a human story – in some instances it’s the story of an individual. There is voice, agency and power to the stories told. In some ways it’s very simple, we are taken on a journey.

The bad tell no human story, they talk in abstractions, about un-human systems. The voice of the individual is reduced to mouthing platitudes about complexity, collaboration and how important it all is. There is little power to the stories, they come across as disembodied, technical…there is no human vulnerability, there is no journey the viewer is called to join.

Being a part of some of the efforts listed in the “bad” section, I know that the issue isn’t the actual work – which in many cases is extraordinary. The question is how we are talking about extraordinary work…in too many cases, badly.

Social labs, social innovation, the design thinking movement, are all collective responses to collective action problems. The individual is a little lost in the collective. So the challenge is how to tell stories of a collective, of a community, to give viewers some sense of what it means to be part of that community? What is the power of the whole? What does it mean to be part of this community? What is this way of life?

As long as these questions remain unanswered, the stories we tell will not be compelling. That in turn means that this movement will remain a niche movement, interesting and “cute” but not serious.

Fortunately or unfortunately, this is a community with no center, no buildings, no clear artefacts…and so no clear story. If we are telling the story of this community, or of a community of people who are striving to address complex social challenges, then what is the story of this community? This is the story we want to tell…this is the story we want to invite people into.

And if this is a story of revolution – then what is the art of this particular revolution, what is the music of this revolution? We need to give this revolution a voice, a face, a soundtrack and an aesthetic.



Dove Real Beauty

Official Ram Superbowl Ad

GoPro Hero 4

Rapha – Cancer to Corsica

Rapha – Citylines

Rapha – Knock for Knock

Open Your Mind

Barossa. Be Consumed

The Ridge

Space is A Process

Rebel Music

Of-course sports has its own poignancy.

This one is probably best forgotten given what happened but in many ways that makes it even more emotional:

Here’s a great one sent in by Andres Marquez-Lara:

This one from Nike is both genius and perhaps an example of cultural appropriation at its finest:

Not So Bad (but Still Not Great)

Impact Hub Stockholm

Impact Hub Milano


Civil Society 2023 (Reos)

Sustainable Food Lab

The Finance Innovation Lab

The Next Systems Project


Global Wellbeing Lab

You Can’t Love a Whole Planet

Do Big Problems Need Small Solutions?

By Liam Barrington-Bush

Originally published at Contributoria

“I don’t think you can love a whole planet. I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places.”

– Naomi Klein

Barely a month has passed since the 20th Conference of Parties (COP20) UN climate summit in Lima, Peru. Many a stern word was spoken, many a frustrated hand wrung, many a reference to ‘it’s now or never’ made. But in the end, like in each of the earlier iterations, just enough was achieved to avoid the most compliant of pundits from declaring the process DOA.

It’s January as I write this and already plans are afoot amongst NGOs and activists for COP21, with a mere eleven months to go before the armies of suited civil servants, ‘security’ forces and international protesters descend on Paris. The same questions that swirled around with a panicked urgency in previous years are popping up on emails lists I’m on: how can we make sure that *this is the one* where everything changes, and (perhaps more realistically) how can we avoid the possible come-down amongst supporters, *just in case* it isn’t?

As I scan through the posts and do my best to avoid chucking too much jaded cynicism into the email threads, I do a bit of rough maths in my head:

# of people fretting about these meetings

+ # of organisations paying their salaries

+ # of planning meetings held

+ # of months of lead-in time

+ # of voluntary activist hours spent organising

+ # of collective hours spent reading through these email threads

+ # of tickets to Paris booked…

While I know the equation probably isn’t mathematically sound, I quickly realised that there was a lot of time, money and energy being sucked into a place that not only drained the limited resources we have to fight climate change, but probably reduced these resources a bit with each peaking-and-dashing of hope that corresponds with the annual organising cycle. (We can only build ourselves up over a result that doesn’t come so many times, before it starts to feel like a bit of a charade…I’m sure there’s a modern day ‘boy who cried wolf’ story to be told here…)

The truth is, if the last 20 years are anything to go by, there is very little we can hope to achieve inside or outside of these summits, regardless of the theoretical potential their organisational scale offers. Carne Ross, who left his post as the UK’s Iraq expert at the UN Security Council over the Iraq War, had this to say about his time spent in the senior ranks of the Council, and the wider world of international diplomacy: “Between the reality of our problems and these [international] deliberations was a huge and unbridgeable divide… intrinsic to supranational institutions… To name a problem as “international” is to absolve oneself of responsibility and to place the solution in the hands of those proven manifestly incapable. The international is not international anymore; it is simply us.” [The Leaderless Revolution, pg. 149-150]

Beyond the specifics of the various COPout soirees, there is a bigger question that Ross’ experience forces us to look in the eye: what methods are most likely to stop the world from facing the worst impacts of climate change? Or even more broadly: what kinds of action are best suited to addressing global crises?

Big Problems, Big Solutions?

In most discussions, the answers to the questions above follow an understandable logic: if the problems are big, the solutions must be too. The allure of a ‘Big Solution’ is it represents the silver bullet we all so desperately wish we could find; the single answer to countless massive, complex and interrelated problems. It is the desperate hope that climate change can be boiled down to the text of one binding agreement. Progressive NGOs think we can negotiate the deal we need, many activists on the street think we can pressure it into being, but the push for a Big Solution is largely agreed. It’s hard to argue against it when we think about average global temperature increases, sea level rises and greenhouse gasses measured by the tonne!

With awareness of the scale of the problems we face – if we can avoid utter despair – comes a great weight; a sense of responsibility for something we can’t truly comprehend in more than an abstract way.

Many of us who actively try to help have become the loving-but-overstretched adoptive parents of seven billion children. We spread ourselves so thin that each of the children becomes an abstraction. Love becomes care, becomes like, becomes duty. We desperately attempt to find generalised solutions to apply to the infinite smaller problems we see the family struggling with, glossing over the specifics of each to give ourselves the sense that if we just find The Answer, we can make everyone’s lives better in one fell swoop.

Maybe this is what Naomi Klein was getting at when I interviewed her last summer. “I don’t think you can love a whole planet,” she said almost apologetically. It’s a phrase that has been swirling around in my head ever since, and would probably have felt incredibly depressing, had she not followed it up with the counterpoint: “I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places.” This resonated with me in such a deep way, and turned the initial statement from one of despair, into one of possibility.

Trade summits, climate negotiations, the UN, the WTO, the IMF, are all such abstractions in the lives of anyone who doesn’t go to work for them. Even the protests outside the meetings become part of the same abstraction, debating in equally removed terms about which Big Solutions should be pursued and applied across the vastness of the planet. Whether these Big Solutions are broadly more or less progressive is secondary; the processes themselves are out of touch.

The expectation that coordination at scale can or must be organised through a single entity or institution lies at the core of Carne Ross’ criticisms of schizophrenic intergovernmental structures and processes. Even a single national government is constantly working against parts of itself, as different policy priorities perpetually butt up against one another. This ‘left hand working against the right hand’ dilemma grows exponentially when you try to bring multiple governments together under a single banner.

We need everybody

As we focus on these summits and negotiations, we also reinforce an elite understanding of change. It relies exclusively on those who can directly influence policy makers, or can find their ways to protest at the summits where politicians and businesses hammer out the details of these destructive arrangements. Whether via policy or protest, we tell ourselves that if we can influence someone (with our votes or our voices), they (or someone they can influence) will make change happen.

But not us. Never us. Change is too big for us. No matter how many times those we hope will represent us don’t, we still put the vast majority of our eggs in their hand basket, wherever it seems to be taking us. I feel the kinds of changes the world currently needs will involve moving beyond representation towards the politics of action. This is critical for a range of reasons, but none more central than that representative strategies leave most of the world as onlookers, and our problems are too big for the vast majority to be left on the side lines.

As anyone involved in more local organising efforts will tell you, if the people affected aren’t actively invested in the process, any solution is unlikely to be sustainable. Luckily however, most of the world isn’t waiting for those at the summits to save them.

Rebellion starts at home

So instead of trying to make a theory work at the top and passing it down, why not flip the process on its head and start where we are? In my experience, threats to our water, air, homes and communities are realities that people will fight for. If we start there, social change immediately becomes a more democratic process.

As Paula X. Rojas wrote in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, highlighting the organising work of the Zapatistas in Chiapas and a range of more recent Latin American social movements: “…much of the political work happens close to home. It’s not that mass demonstrations are no longer considered useful. But there is a growing understanding that such tactics… are largely, if not entirely alien to the reality of most people’s lives… What if, as a tired overworked, underpaid or unpaid woman I do not have to add going to this march to my list of things to do? What if, instead, I could integrate my political participation into my daily life? What if there were a ‘space’ where I could build and learn politically with others, a space I could go that was part of how I take care of myself and others?”

A powerful development documented by Marina Sitrin and Dario Azzellini in relation to the ‘squares movements’ (social movements that have camped out in public squares around the world, Occupy Wall Street being the most prominent) has been the move to re-localise these protests. Anestis, a movement participant quoted by Sitrin and Azzellini in Athens, describes the move away from Athens’ Syntagma Square into the city’s neighbourhoods as follows: “The neighbourhood assemblies have far more potential than the Syntagma occupation assembly, because they have the direct relationships we lacked in Syntagma.

We can be together everyday in the neighbourhood, we can talk about our common problems everyday – that the prices at the supermarket are very high, that we can’t go to the hospital, etc. – and it’s in our neighbourhood, not somewhere abstract and away from where we live…” [They Can’t Represent Us, pg 99]

In recent months, I’ve been involved in the Focus E15 campaign – a housing campaign in East London fighting the social cleansing of the 2012 host Olympic borough of Newham. Focus is incredibly local in its immediate reach; we resist evictions, go to court with neighbours and occupy relevant buildings in the borough to draw attention to the issues and help get others involved. We also spend a lot of time talking to people on the streets at a weekly campaign stall. However, this is not a tribal localism. Far from it.

Started by a group of young mothers who were facing eviction from a hostel and relocation away from their families and communities outside of London, this campaign has inspired countless others who have seen shades of their own housing struggles reflected in that of the group. Similar groups have emerged in other parts of London, citing both inspiration and direct support from Focus as helping them get active around their own housing issues.

We share what we do, we promote the work of other causes (both housing causes further afield and non-housing causes intertwined with the fight for decent homes), and we learn from what is happening elsewhere (Spanish and American housing justice movements, for example). Fani, another Greek movement participant quoted by Sitrin and Azzellini, describes the trouble of ‘social reproduction’ – or growing the scale – of movements based in a single city square in Thessaloniki, as part of the rationale for more local organising: “The answer lies in smaller-scale initiatives. Neighbourhood assemblies started multiplying exactly because they were trying to cope with the problems of social reproduction. It was difficult for the square movement to get involved with the electricity bills or the electricity cut-offs in different neighbourhoods. It was a more central organizational form. In a neighbourhood assembly– on the other hand, the neighbour can come and say, “My electricity’s been cut off – we have to do something.”

So we act immediately. It was the decentralized organizational project that helped us confront social reproduction issues.” [They Can’t Represent Us, pg. 101]

Similarly, the vast majority of what Focus E15 does is grounded in the neighbourhood, around immediate needs and practical alternatives, but its connections and influence extend well beyond. There is no bigger coordinating body, but coordination is happening, person-to-person and campaign-to-campaign, crossing neighbourhoods and even borders. The same patterns are at play in other parts of the world where neighbourhood assemblies have organised themselves autonomously, but with ongoing contact with and mutual support for one another, from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Madrid, Spain.

I’ve also seen these patterns in anti-mining struggles I’ve taken part in and documented in Canada and Mexico, where primarily Indigenous communities have successfully fought individual mines, while inspiring and sharing tactics with others facing similar fights elsewhere. And luckily for all of us, while the patterns of solidarity and mutual aid appear to be as old as life itself, the interconnectivity enabled by the internet is helping speed up the co-learning processes in ways we never could have imagined.

Local, Communal and Direct

These are stories where action is local (geographically), communal (connecting around shared experiences in participants’ lives), and direct (moving away from the logic of representation described earlier) and they offer us a number of distinct advantages that we seem to have deprioritised in the era of ‘Big Solutions.’ Here are a few I’ve noticed:

• Locality is visceral, not conceptual It is not a question of explaining how shadowy elites back political representatives, who attend global summits and argue against the interests they are meant to represent. It’s the outrage that your home is being sold to property developers or your water is being poisoned by a mine, and you can get in the way of it happening. It’s also the strong bonds that form between people in these moments of shared struggle.

• Locality (usually) trumps ideological differences While you might be a social democrat, and she might be a communist, and he might be a Red Tory, and I might be an anarchist, we all want to stop that private developer or that mine. And remarkably, we’ll probably agree on how to do it when the realities of the situation are upon us!

• Locality does scale via network, rather than via hierarchy By organising effectively where we are, we can go a long way to growing the number of people involved and areas affected, without relying on representatives or larger organisational structures. Small, interconnected local groups don’t have to tell each other what to do, but can still learn from one another’s experiences and adapt them to fit the situation. When a particularly strong way of halting evictions emerges in Barcelona, Londoners can take what’s useful, and throw the rest away, just as tenants in New York and Amsterdam can. The key is to improve communication networks, so good ideas can find their ways to where they are needed and can then be adapted to the particulars of those situations. Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze call this process ‘scaling across.’

• Locality makes change imaginable, and empowers people to do more in the process One of the first problems I noticed when I started organising around global issues was that we almost always lose. Even beyond the political/social/environmental implications, this isn’t sustainable for people doing the work. When we organise close to home, change sometimes happens the way we want it to. And if we can inspire and share learning with others when it does, our impacts become immeasurably greater.

Where do we place our faith?

In the 1960s, ‘think globally, act locally’ became a widespread call-to-arms in the environmental movement. However sound, the allure for many to focus on ‘Big Solutions’ has led us down a series of dead-end roads. Thinking globally became acting globally for many, and even as awareness of Big Problems has grown, this awareness hasn’t translated into Big Solutions. In 2015, with climate change and growing inequality the most pressing Big Problems of our age, it’s difficult to know if anything can still to be done to prevent catastrophes most of us can only begin to imagine. Without the ability to predict the future, we are left with two questions of faith that will shape the actions we choose to take going forward. The first is whether or not we should still try to remedy the destruction our species has inflicted on the planet. If you’re still reading, I imagine you’ve already accepted this as intrinsically worthwhile. The second unknowable question, for which a further leap of faith is required, is this: will I place my belief in institutions that seem to bring out the worst in people? Or will I place it in people themselves, who I have seen and experienced doing amazing things together? I choose the latter.

If we are unable to believe that the species that created the mess we are currently in, is not also capable of creating the kinds of changes we collectively need, what makes us think survival is something worth fighting for? The Earth will go on with or without us; I’d like to think that the coming period of human history might serve as a reminder that we are collectively capable of more than ecocide. If the human experience I’ve seen play out in so many local areas is anything to go by, we might actually have some remarkable gifts to offer one another and the planet we all call home. What do you think?

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator and author of the book Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at and posts stuff on the more like people Facebook page.

The Evidence Trap

Two former officials, in the administrations of Barack Obama (Peter Orszag) and George W. Bush (John Bridgeland), claim that “Based on our rough calculations, less than $1 out of every $100 of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely.” (“Can Government Play Moneyball?”) So on what basis are decisions to spend money being made?

One of the questions I frequently get asked concerns evidence. What is the evidence that the approaches outlined here work and are effective?

All evidence purports to tell a story. The aim of this story is to convince. Here’s an example from The Daily Telegraph, “Coalition misses 70 election pledges.” Clearly the purpose of the headline and associated story is to convince readers that the coalition is failing.

Evidence is almost always contested, or rather it should be.

In more innocent times we relied on experts to contest the details and then to provide us with evidence. The battle raged far above us, as experts and specialists duelled to out-do each other. Times, however, have changed dramatically. (See “Revisiting Post-Normal Science In Post-Normal Times & Identifying Cranks”)

We live in an era where expert evidence can and frequently is challenged by non-experts. This is because we now see more clearly how decisions impact us, as well as being able to do something about it.

Non-experts have a wealth of data at their fingertips, often more time and occasionally more drive to dig through the data. The Guardian runs a “data journalism” website. Challenges to expert positions therefore abound and the battle for evidence is taking place both on the ground and in the air above us.

As complex challenges grow in scope and scale, the stakes get higher. Proposals for action are fraught with consequences. Politicians, the media and the public demand accountability. Choices become divisive. In this instance, evidence increasingly becomes tactical, an instrument in wider strategic battles. Evidence loses, in some sense, its integrity.

In 1974 the Noble Prize winning physicist wrote a short essay disparaging what he called “cargo cult science,” a science of going through the mechanical motions of science. He commented,

“But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.”

This sort of scientific integrity is increasingly difficult to maintain when science and scientists are called upon to shore up political decisions. One example of this is with climate science. Climate scientists have admitted to making arguments simply to prove a political point. (See “The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming”)

One consequence of this loss of integrity is that evidence must almost necessarily be read critically. Those who provide evidence can either help or hinder this task. A lack of transparency hinders the work of critical evaluation. Opening up the sources of an evidence base, providing the raw data and the rationale helps the task of critical evaluation.

We can try to meet a standard for transparency in two ways. Firstly by providing in good faith evidence and links to the evidence base we are drawing from, which ranges from published books and articles, through to the learning histories, proceedings and our own notes from the labs we are running. The second way is through making accessible the underlying logic, the basis and the sources of the ideas presented here. This hopefully allows readers to draw their own conclusions from first principles should they wish to.

In The Social Labs Revolution I make two core claims:

1. Business-As-Usual (BAU) responses to complex social challenges are not simply ineffective strategies but are guaranteed to fail in time.

2. The strategic approach outlined in the book, generalized as a theory of systemic action, is more effective at addressing complex social challenges than BAU responses.

The two core claims prompt two corresponding questions for the reader which need to be considered systemically, first, are BAU responses guaranteed to fail over time? Second, do the approaches outlined here have a greater than zero chance of succeeding?

In evaluating effectiveness a comparison is being made. For example, I often hear the phrase “…well its better than doing nothing.” To which I would point put that in the situations discussed here, “doing nothing” is never really an option on the table. Rather there are always competing courses of action and competing choices. This is what we should be evaluating.

In other words, the case with social labs should not be made without an accompanying critique of what the BAU response to the same challenge would look like, what it would cost and what results is it likely to deliver.

All too often, innovative strategies are asked to meet a standard of evidence that BAU strategies cannot hope to achieve. (The quote from Orszag & Bridgeland is an example). And all too often we fall for this “evidence trap”.

One of the challenges in making the case against BAU responses is the lack of work done in studying the evidence base for dominant approaches. The article by Orszag and Bridgeland quoted at the start of this blog post is a rare case where the evidence base for BAU responses is honestly considered.

To some extent we’re all taught to rely in rationality, to basically construct a rational argument for the course of action we’re advocating for. Unfortunately, the corollary of this training is that we fail to perceive that “evidence” is increasingly used to rationalise decisions that are made by those in power. Bent Flyvbjerg in his study of “democracy in practice” makes the case that “In open confrontation rationality yields to power.” We need to remember that when making the rational case for action and we need to remember then when presented with an argument.

New! The Social Labs Fellows Programme

We’re excited to announce a new opportunity: The Social Labs Fellows Programme

The idea behind the Social Labs Fellowship is to put you into the driving seat of a new social lab.

In 2015 we will be working with Ubele (see below for more) on the challenge of:

How can we work together to create inclusive educational opportunities for black young men?

As a Fellow you are invited to help design and deliver a social lab. Joining the start-up phase of a lab over 12 weeks, you work with the lab staff on design,  delivery and facilitation. Over the course of the Fellowship, you also participate in peer-learning sessions and are provided with one-on-one coaching.

The Fellowship provides an unparalleled opportunity to build an in-depth understanding of systems change and develop an embodied set of skills. It allows Fellows to immerse themselves in the practice of next-generation social labs.

If you’re interested in applying to be a Fellow, please submit a CV/bio, along with a cover letter providing a bit of context about your interest in working on the Lab, as well as a bit more info about your level of experience – these would be followed up with an interview. Please click here to contact us.

Benefits of the Fellows Programme

The Fellowship is designed for individuals who wish to take on leadership positions addressing complex social challenges.

(1) Practical, hands-on experience in designing an innovative strategic response to a complex social challenge

(2) Supports the rapid development of your systems leadership skills

(3) Provides a hands-on immersion in the start-up phase of a social lab

Location: London, UK

Duration: Approx 30 days over 12 weeks, March 16 – May 5, 2015 (TBC) 

Cost: £2,500 inc VAT

The Lab: The Ubele Action Initiative

Ubele (Swahili for ‘The Future’) is a new inter-generational community building initiative focusing on the African Diaspora community in the UK. It aims to increase our community’s capacity to lead, build and create innovative and entrepreneurial social responses to some of our most stuck social issues.

After more than 60 years of significant presence here in the UK, deep social issues continue to affect our community. These range from the needs of our children, young people and families through to the emerging needs of a growing elderly population.

However, as a community we do not appear to have created a coherent strategy for tackling these or other systemic social issues. Ubele believes that there is the need to be more conscious and proactive in designing, creating and putting in place essential building blocks to secure future generations here in the UK.

Given the Government’s seemingly lack of focus on our current and specific needs, coupled with a policy shift towards individual and local community reliance, there appears to be an increasing urgency for the African Diaspora community to collectively engage in dialogue  and to design and implement their own innovative responses.

Ubele consists of an inter-generational group of experienced African heritage change agents (practitioners, managers, activists, academics, freelancers and other business people drawn from a wide range of sectors), who have come together to learn and use a variety of creative collaborative tools and processes to design and prototype new solutions to some of our community’s most stuck or ‘wicked’ social issues.


Towards A Theory Of Systemic Action

This paper outlines 12 Axioms and 3 Requirements for systemic action. Excerpt below.

Click here to access the full essay (PDF, Page 21) 

As our world increases in complexity, more and more resources are being directed at addressing challenges such as climate change, public healthcare, inequality and poverty. The success of these efforts however is a function of how effective our strategies are as opposed to simply how many resources we can throw at a challenge.

Many of these challenges are growing faster than our attempts to address them. Situations such as acidification of our oceans, greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, demographic shifts leading to either an unemployed youth bulge or an ageing population dependent on healthcare systems, are all examples where the directionality of trends is outpacing our efforts to address them. Part of the reason for this is where we choose to intervene. We have a choice of intervening at the level of symptoms or the level of causes.

Systemic responses can be understood as attempting to address the causal drivers of a situations and not simply operating at the level of symptoms.

The scale of these challenges when taken together threatens to reverse much of what has been accomplished in the modern era. In the face of such vast challenges, we have to ask ourselves, what does action that can address these challenges causally look like? What, in other words, does systemic action look like?

Click here to access the full essay (PDF, Page 21)