Worth clicking through if you’re in the Sydney area for more on the Anthropocene Transitions series.
Mon., 18 February 2019, 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm AEDT
“How we can improve our perception of the complexity we live within, so we may improve our interaction with the world?”
An international lecturer, researcher and writer, Nora wrote, directed and produced the award-winning documentary, An Ecology of Mind, a portrait of her celebrated father — systems theorist, holistic thinker, anthropologist and pioneer of cybernetics, Gregory Bateson. Building on her father’s legacy, Nora brings the fields of biology, cognition, art, anthropology, psychology, and information technology together into a study of the patterns in the ecologies of living systems. She is President of the Swedish-based International Bateson Institute.
Her book Small Arcs of Larger Circles (Triarchy Press, UK, 2016) is a revolutionary personal approach to the study of systems and complexity. Nora is uniquely qualified to facilitate cross disciplinary discussions. As an “interdisciplinary interloper” she travels between conversations in different fields and with different audiences bringing multiple perspectives into view to reveal larger patterns.
In her public lecture on Monday 18th February, Nora will address four themes which will then become the framework for the two-day workshop she will lead on Tuesday 19th and Wednesday 20th February:
- Systems thinking and everyday life
- Identity in complexity
- How systems learn
- Warm Data
Systems Thinking and Everyday Life
Nora’s teaching, and her challenge to us, is about developing our capacity for taking a systemic approach of mutual learning to everyday life, from family, to groups, organisations and society.
‘Symmathesy’* is a new term created by Nora that derives from the Greek prefix sym (together) and mathesi, (to learn). Symmathesy is not about finding five-step solutions, it is about deepening, expanding and exploring the sensitivity with which we interpret and interact with our complex world more creatively and positively, and less destructively. Be sure, this is not a tweaking of thinking and approach, but a profound shift.
Combining theory, art, story-telling, poetry and emerging practice, Nora will guide us to take a different look at how to approach the seemingly intractable problems that we face personally and as a society. She will take us on a journey exploring the art and science of complexity, transcontextuality* and how systems learn. Along the way, we will explore notions of identity, agency, leadership, pain and double binds—and how such notions become paradoxical and ambiguous when seen through a systemic lens. Once we embrace the creative tension in this perspective, we can see new possibilities for altering and easing how we live, individually and collectively.
*(The meaning of anything depends on its context. We live in many contexts, spread over time, space and relationships, that are continually shifting. Identity, for example, is what Nora calls ‘transcontextual’, in that it is shaped and changed not by one context but by many.)
Identity in Complexity
In meeting the needs of a changing world, our two most valuable assets are sensitivity and complexity. As individuals and within larger communities our notions of identity inform us as to who we are in relation to the systems we live within. But this era is a time of upheaval; the ecosystems and social systems around the globe are in rapid transition. While change is a constant in living systems, the rate of change now is unprecedented. Who are we in this changing world? As families, as professionals, as cultures, how is our perception of ourselves changing . . . and what if it doesn’t?
Identity—in fact all meaning—depends on context. We live in many contexts, spread over time, space and relationships, that are continually shifting. If we are open, we continue to
learn from our deceased ancestors and from our children and generations to come. In this sense, identity is what Nora calls ‘transcontextual’, in that it is shaped and changed not by one context but by many. Identity often seems to depend on belonging to a particular gender, nationality, political party, religion etc. with its attendant problems at the edges where one belonging rubs up against another.
Identity is a personal matter, but it also matters in terms of society, ecosystems, and the future. Double binds of identity, and other traps of obsolete fragmentation in our thinking can be seen with greater insight through the lens of complexity and systems.
As our ability to perceive the complexity of our own identity is increased, so is our ability to perceive the complexity of our world. With this perception we have much better information from which to make the important decisions, as well as much more sensitivity. For example, through a lens of complexity, how is the experience of pain expanded? Pain is often reduced to a singular causation and experience, and then numbed away. But right now we need to be able to feel the sadness and anxiety of our world in a larger colour spectrum . . . we cannot afford to anesthetize our interaction with the world around us.
How Systems Learn
There is much focus on complexity these days, but our predominant metaphors are still linear and mechanistic. It is hardwired into us all at a deeply personal level and tends to rule the day. Even when we think we are approaching things systemically we are likely to revert to our habitual linear mode of thinking. If we are genuinely thinking systemically or ecologically, what is the meaning of notions such as ‘agency’ and ‘leadership’, which become paradoxical in a systemic world?
All of biological evolution, and development of culture and society, would seem to be a testament to the characteristics of contextual multilayered shiftings through time. Nothing stays the same, clearly. So could it be that change is a kind of learning? If a living entity transforms, even slightly, the contextual interrelationships it is within change and these changes can cascade through the bigger systems in which it is embedded. The same kind of tree in the same forest does not necessarily grow to be the same shape. Some may have higher winds to contend with, or grow in a thicker density of flora around them. The trees in these contrasting contexts live into their contexts by receiving the many forms of relational information they are within, and responding to them. They grow into
different shapes and metabolize at different levels . . . learning, calibrating, and through stochastic process, responding to their contextual interrelationships. And aren’t we all a little bit like those trees? Becoming who we are in the contexts of our lives . . .
Nora will also speak about ‘warm data,’ which (in contrast to ‘cool’ or hard data) she defines as “transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.”
On December 7, 2018, Nora posted:
“The world is ready for warm data. After years of what has felt like starting fires in the rain, finally there is a recognition that the way problem solving has been considered, has not been adequate to meet the complexity of the issues we face. I am just back from an amazing Warm Data session in Mexico, preparing to bring together public service groups in Puebla and Mexico City in 2019. Next up is a deep dive on Warm Data in London this week. The session is completely full. Meanwhile the United Nations General Assembly has taken an interest in Warm Data as well. Here is a new blog post of the piece going into the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) 2019 Global Assessment Report on Risk.” Warm Data to Better Meet the Complex Risks of This Era
Thinking in complexity requires the ability to perceive across multiple perspectives and contexts. This is not a muscle that has been trained into us in school or in the work world. It is a skill acutely needed in this era to meet our personal, professional and collective need to respond to crisis, and to improve our lives.
Nora has devised a process that she calls a “Warm Data Lab” for use with groups who are interested in strengthening and further practicing their collective ability to perceive, discuss and research complex issues. By shifting perspectives, the Warm Data Lab process increases ability to respond to difficult or “wicked” issues. Because so many of the challenges that we face now are complex, we need approaches to meeting that complexity. Although there is a desire to reframe these complex issues in simple terms that might lend themselves to easy solutions, this usually leads to the dangers of unintended consequences of reductionism . . . and thus further problems. It is a living kaleidoscope of conversation in which information and formulation of cross-contextual knowing is generated. The conversational process is designed to seamlessly engage
multiple theoretical principals in a practical format. The process relies on using two concepts: Transcontextual Interaction and Symmathesy.
Transcontextual Interaction is the recognition that complex systems do not exist in single contexts but rather are formed between multiple contexts that overlap in living communication.
The ways in which systemic interdependency forms is through contextual interaction and mutual learning. Symmathesy is the concept of mutual learning that encourages us to concentrate on how these contextual interactions inform one another and generate learning.