Remembrance & the new order

sunset-1178773_1280Mr Trump, the Brexiteers and their mainstream opposition have a lot in common with the elite older generation responsible for 18 million deaths in World War I.  All of them are part of an Old Order mired in subsiding ideas.

Back then, the older generation refused to acknowledge how the world had changed since the Crimean and Boer wars of their youth. Generals lied about the nature and the length of the war, politicians lied about its causes, and the press muffled the realities of war, not even publishing a photo of a corpse in France, Germany or Britain.

Never had there been a wider gap between official language and perceived reality. The young knew they’d been lied to, and the crimes of the elders seemed boundless.  I read this last week in a book called ‘The Shock of the New‘ by Robert Hughes, and was forcibly struck by the parallels I see around us today.

With Armistice Day just gone the idea was reinforced, reminding me that HG Wells, writing in the hope that WWI would be ‘a war to exorcise a world madness’ observed:

All the realities of this war are things of the mind. This is a conflict of cultures, and nothing else in the world. All the world-wide pain and weariness, fear and anxieties, the bloodshed and destruction, the innumerable torn bodies of men and horses, the stench of putrefaction, the misery of hundreds of millions of human beings, the waste of mankind, are but the material consequences of a false philosophy and foolish thinking”

The official line today, shored up from all sides by an elite older generation, is that ‘the economy’ is sacrosanct.  Political opposition always talks up other priorities, but never challenges the ‘truth’ of the economic story. Our attention is incessantly tuned to financial markets and the ‘truth’ that we are defined by competitive consumption.  We are entreated, cajoled, bullied and instructed to believe this story, whilst all around us the promised benefits turn to ash.

The problem for those who would be leaders, is that with instant connection and social media exchange at our disposal, the dissonance between the story we are sold and the lives we experience can’t be easily muted.  As inequality soars, conflicts are stoked, mental health declines and industry abuses the environment – people make their displeasure known at the polls and beyond.

It is easy to be cowed by fear in today’s high pressure atmosphere of antagonism, but there are three sound reasons for holding onto hope.

The first is that no matter which side of the polls people sit, they all share a desire for a secure, healthy and happy future.  What currently feels like an unbridgable gap between camps becomes a place where people can safely meet when they focus their minds on that shared ambition, and the shelling stops.

The second cause for hope is the strength of will to collaborate coming to life spontaneously all over the world in response to increasingly dystopian conditions. Since Paul Hawken showed how people were taking matters into their own hands in Blessed Unrest (2007) the challenge to ‘false philosophy and foolish thinking’ has been consistently growing. This is what has been rattling away at the Old Order, chipping away at the certainties of a bygone age.

What has always been missing though, is a coherent thread which would make the story whole.  This brings me to the third and most compelling reason for standing tall.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy voiced the need for a credible alternative to the ‘world madness’ of an economy that ‘measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile‘. In 2007 the European Commission began the Beyond GDP initiative, and today ideas the Old Order would consider ‘dissident’ are being seriously entertained all over the world. New ideas of economy have taken root, and will not be going away.

Happy City typifies the powerful potential of these new ideas with the launch of a wellbeing measurement and policy toolkit designed to break the mould of the old obscure, remote, impersonal and impractical story of economics.   The new tools are interactive, practical and engaging – transforming ‘the economy’ into a personal experience which makes sense to everyone no matter where they sit in society.

Here then is a major advance for those exploring a new economic ‘truth’ – a story we can trace with much better data than we’ve ever had access to before.  It’s unlikely to end our our eternal ‘conflict of cultures’ because life demands both darkness and light, but it does have great potential for reconciliation.

Happy City and many like-minded organisations are attracting legions of support because the story of our wellbeing unites humanity.   It looks to me like there’s an overwhelming majority lying in wait for those who champion this new story of shared commitment to flourishing lives on a flourishing planet.

Cosmic Thinking in Action

Spotlight spectrum smOn July 22nd 2016, I held the UK’s second ‘Art of Cosmic Thinking’ event, building on feedback from the debut up in Manchester back in May.   The word cosmic comes from the word cosmos, meaning ‘the universe as a complex and orderly system’ and the talk explores how to hold the tension between keeping things simple and keeping things real.

In my wisdom, I’ve distilled the sum of the cosmos into three basic principles relating to form, energy and relationships. Being cosmic, they apply everywhere, to everything, all the time, so it’s worth bearing them in mind.  In practical terms, paying attention to these principles should reduce the size and number of gaps that tend to appear so rapidly between the plans we make and what actually happens.

The tension between simple and real is an everyday issue which we normally ‘solve’ by heading for simple. This habit of reducing things down with binary reasoning is very strong and cosmic thinking won’t allow you to do this in quite the same way. Living with cosmic principles requires some minor, but quite profound adjustments to our mindsets, including the need to think in 4 (or more) dimensions. It’s not anything like as hard as it sounds.

I showed how I’d found a way of applying all of this to make a kind of ‘gravity map’ of the different things I do.  The map produced the talk, and a sense of completion to my 30 year quest to work out ‘what does Mike do‘?  My newly found cosmic way of visualising things gave me a 4D snapshot of where I am in my working life, helping me make more sense of intuitive choices I’d already made, and giving me greater clarity about the way I’ll steer my course in the future.

I wrapped it up with ideas about how to be with the cosmic principles in order to take full advantage of them.  The art of cosmic thinking is in the way we choose to steer our course, so my key message at the end was DO adjust your set

I’ll post ‘how to make your own gravity map’ when I get time to write it up – if you simply can’t wait, let me know (see below).

And so to Open Space

Open Space is an utterly cosmic way of bringing people together.  My invitation to this event had promised ‘time for people to explore each others skills, experiences and talents so they can help each other out’.  This is the place my personal cosmic flight deck tells me I need to be and I was interested to see what kind of questions, ideas, issues or problems might come up after an introduction to the art of cosmic thinking.

Artofcosmic Jul16a smI’d created a two hour space, and having filled the first 30 minutes with arrivals and cosmic thinking, I  opened the rest with 15 minutes to create the agenda, two half hour sessions and a 15 minute space for closure.  I gave everyone the freedom NOT to have to report back to the group unless they wanted to.

Proposals for ‘what is inspiration?’, ‘Is space the fundamental factor of creativity?’ and ‘Developing (or constructing) ideas – How do you do it?’ were posted for the first session, and ‘Breaking States (art forms that disrupt normality)’ was posted alongside ‘how do we get the most out of life?’ for the second.    At the last minute, I found myself proposing ‘Ask Mike (anything about anything)’ as an explicit invitation to Butterfly*.

My butterfly spot drew four people, who it turned out were all keen to work out how to make a living whilst following their passion, and three of whom weren’t sure exactly what it was they should be doing.

At the end of the event I used a show of hands to take a rough reading of how successful (or not) the event had been. Everyone felt they’d learned something useful, nearly everyone had got an energy boost, and 4 out of 18 (22%) reckoned they might do something constructive with somebody they’d met at the event.

The upshot for me?  Well I’ve got energy for doing more of this kind of thing. I’ll be looking for partners who can offer the space to explore our stories of making a difference together under the series title ‘Power to Peer’.  I’ll stick with the Open Space format, and will chose whichever themes are most present for the partner who’s providing the space.   I already have requests relating to ‘networks of networks’, ‘using social media’ and ‘collaborative leadership’ – all I need to do is fix the time and the place.    Artofcosmic July16 sm

I’ll certainly offer Art of Cosmic Thinking again – although next time I’ll offer a spot explicitly to invite people to having a go at their own gravity maps.  I’m keen to find out more about cosmic thinking as others make it their own.

If you’d like to go on a list to hear about future ‘Power to Peer’ events, or would like to offer a space with a theme, please write to me:  I’ll publish what I’m up to in the What’s On page of my website, and share nuggets of golden cosmic thinking in future posts here.

Thank you Simone for inviting us all to use the wonderful Redbrick House – your venue got 100% 5* ratings from the participants, and got us all off to a cosmic start!

*Butterflying is a term used in Open Space Technology term for people who aren’t drawn into the posted conversations, but who sit aside somewhere and tend to attract others into an unplanned conversation.

Wanted: New Leadership – apply within

After the fire

When things go wrong and people are angry, the natural tendency is to look for someone or something to blame.  We hold a public inquiry to make sure we know who’s fault it was, why it went wrong, and to make sure it never happens again.

The anger is stoked into a blaze of blame which gets so hot we step back from our own responsibilities.  Instead of looking at ourselves, we glare at the unfortunates tied to the stake while opportunities for useful learning get incinerated.

Right now, there’s a scorched clearing where political leadership used to be. The whole tinderbox set alight when the match of a very poor question was struck.   The flames were fanned to great intensity by people frantically waving their fears, enthusiastically fuelled by the most fearful of all – those who dread the differences in people ‘not like me’.

With political leadership up in smoke, the politicians we’re left with are in a state of shock, running about with frayed nerves and feeling a desperate need to be in control.  They’re still clutching matches, have no idea how to put out the fire and have no maps or survival equipment. It’s a recipe for edgy panic and they’re making us all feel nervous. Realistically, they need to be removed from the scene for treatment.

We’re all desperately keen to see hope rise from the ashes – and for that to happen, we have to see something new. Given all this, it’s hardly surprising that virtually everyone in the nation seems to have launched their own personal public inquiry on social media and in the pub.

Here’s the result of mine, which distills into two questions – who now? and what could be different?

1. Who would I like to see step into the centre of political life?

My experience of politics is that it tends to focus on big P politics at the direct expense of progress in the common ground.  The default position of the political establishment seems based on an underlying assumption that we live in a binary world.  Left or Right, right or wrong, things are two dimensional and political powers must always oppose.  This belief promotes a focus on problems, invites disrespect, and encourages people to posture for the sake of appearing to have the upper hand.

In practice, I know politicians can be very practical and collaborative across parties – but if in public, they only ever describe each other as untrustworthy, misguided or just plain wrong, the public have nothing else to believe.   Undermining each other, they dig the ground from under their own feet.

I’d like to see those who are well equipped to tackle this toxic form of politics step into the space – not career politicians schooled in theory for power, but campaigners, activists and changemakers who’ve learned different skills. These are people who love to ‘make a difference’ in practical ways.  They’re the ones who are good facilitators, can bridge cultural divides, are quick to praise and keen on collaboration.  Knowing things are hardly ever fixed and never simple, they are champions of learning together.

We can’t all step into political roles, but we CAN take personal responsibility for promoting these skills. The more widespread they are, and the better the quality of our political leadership and debate.  We’ll still have fires, but we should be able to control them and get the benefit of the heat.

So the answer to who now? is us – or at least those of us prepared to be creative collaborators.

2.  What could be different? – lessons to be learned from the Brexit fire

Since we’re entirely contained by and made of Nature, it seems to me the best place to look when attempting to make sense of the world.  All this talk of fire got me thinking about the similarities between great forests of the world and human societies. Here’s how it helped me make sense of what’s happened.

i) The fire was inevitable
Forests choked by overcrowding, undergrowth and dead wood are prone to pests and diseases – they need fires (occasionally) to unclog the system, nourish  the forest floor, open space for sunlight and encourage healthy new growth that’s better food for wildlife. As this lovely little fact sheet on the Benefits of Fire from California shows, overall – the habitat for life improves.

Humans use bureaucracy to manage society. No matter how well intentioned, nor how brilliantly and simply crafted the rules of government are in principle – rules tend to build on rules until things become so impossibly complex they’re unworkable.

At the last budget in the UK, the press made a show of the implausibility of Britain’s 17,000 page tax code – a clear example the natural urge of every administration to grow more complex over time. Special advisers make a killing (not just tax, think law, policy-making and finance) because the administrative undergrowth is so dense.  Although specialists complain about the system, they also depend upon our dependency on them – they can’t be relied on to keep cutting and clearing to make things easier.

So both Britain and the EU have become tinderboxes, all set for a firestorm which could just as easily have been set off by something other than Brexit. For all the talk of ‘tackling red tape’, no government in my memory has ever effectively kept the undergrowth in check, making space for the sun to shine on the core principles buried under layer upon layer of complexity.

I’d like to see us all debate and develop our understanding of First Principles. We need to build trust in our own judgement if we want the system to stay lean and workable.

ii) Arsonists need educating
Questions are phenomenally powerful tools – used well, they direct our efforts with intelligence towards good results.  Poorly handled, however, and questions become actively unhelpful or simply incendiary.  This makes anyone with a pocketful of bad questions an unwitting arsonist.

Whether or not society is a forest, that’s not a good thing.  

The British Public were asked to make a ‘simple choice’ – should the UK be In or Out of the European Union?  It was not, as more people now appreciate, a simple thing at all.   Einstein famously said ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes’.

The question itself was a fair one – it was really a question of identity – which could have been posed in a more searching way like ‘Do we belong’? or ‘How are we in relation to people in Europe’? We had an invitation to strip back the undergrowth and remind ourselves what the European Union was for.

And yet none of us (journalists, politicians, the crowd) challenged the purpose of the question.  We knew the referendum was posed from the middle of a brawl in progress and knew too that both sides were deeply entrenched in fiercely fixed opposition.  The European Union was just an excuse to fight.

The country went to the polls pumped with emotion, emphatic in their beliefs, and without any clear understanding of the consequences of their choice. Better questions from those shaping or participating in debate would have explored the value of the EU, making the potential consequences of the vote far clearer and exposing false assumptions along the way.

I’d like to see more emphasis on the power of questions, and in particular, the use of Appreciative Inquiry techniques to promote constructive understanding.

And so my inquest concludes.

The real cause of the battle?  I think it was the age old conflict between individual gain (The Right) and social equity (The Left).   There IS a middle ground – but it’s not fixed – it’s a place of balance.

We can find better balance only when we embrace a New Order of thinking – a paradigm shift which makes the flourishing of people and planet our First Principle.  This shift needs to be facilitated by much better questioning skills and led by people with the grace to appreciate our inter-dependence.

There is an abundance of people with the skill and experience to bring a New Order like this to life, and I believe they’re ready to step into that empty leadership space. We will all recognise them when they come.

Whether or not you count yourself among them, let’s reject the two dimensional future on offer from the establishment and roar our encouragement in deed and word to those who would be the change. We all need to apply within.


Finding our (shared) identity


I’m part of an utterly inspiring community called the E-Campaigning Forum (ECF).  It’s described as ‘a loose vibrant network of practitioners using digital media for campaigning (advocacy)’ and, naturally, there’s been a string of debate about the EU referendum.

What I love about this whole thing is the way it stirs people into conversation – and I’ve now heard several people I hugely respect tend to the ‘leave’ camp on the grounds that the system is so dysfunctional it needs a disruptive crisis in order to change. This challenge to my intuitive and reasoned ‘Remain’ position together with the ECF driven debate made me think again.

I picked out posts by Ed Dowding  of Represent saying the fundamental issue is lack of purpose and sense of autonomy, and Dr Andy Williamson‘s 10 points to consider about Brexit and the EU Referendum which is fascinating.   Andy’s ten points convinced me that to remain is sensible, as to leave is clearly ‘somewhere between bat-shit crazy and economic suicide‘, which I rather liked.  But Ed’s was the point which really got me on my feet shouting ‘YES’!!

After many years of self reflection, I’ve concluded (at least for now!) that the biggest contribution I can personally make, is to facilitate better networking of networks.  I’ve set up several collaborative platforms, all orbiting the critical issue of human purpose, which for me is expressed through Happy City. Our sense of belonging, our need for health and a healthy environment, and our search for meaning and purpose are the universal fundamentals of human existence – so they’re the bits of happiness we can all recognise as our own. Many claim ownership, but none can possess the rights.

So I believe the shift required to alter the patterns of our entire economic system are actually pretty simple (aim for ‘what matters’)- it’s just the changes that result are phenomenal in their breadth, depth and complexity (as you’d expect if you change the fundamental system principle), which makes people doubt it’s possible.  It’s mainly because people aren’t generally familiar with systems and how they work, that they doubt big systems can change. It’s the same reason people tend to see themselves as outside rather than ‘in’ the problem.

I’ve asked the ECF network if they identify with the story of the economic system as we tell it here or not.  I wrote:

If you do identify with it, how do you think we can express it in a way that would help people see themselves as IN the story (something they’re already working with) rather than outsiders offering me/us help because they like it or think we’ve got the rights?  

Personally, I think a system with the primary purpose of promoting human flourishing (rather than money/consumption) would make the In/Out EU referendum kind of debate hard to even conceive.

My hope/expectation of Happy City’s contribution is that it helps people articulate the shared purpose/path/pattern in ways that people can see it. If we use happiness to tell our stories in this way, I think people will begin to recognise the widespread reality of ready-made practical solutions and ways of being as an alternative economic system which functions today.  If they understand this is the case, it will no longer be a terrifying prospect to let go of the economic ideas which currently dominate ‘big system’ thinking. The belief will make it true.

What do YOU think?   Please comment here so your own wisdom is shared….

In or Out – a question of courage

In or out jarThe EU Referendum COULD have been a fascinating, engaging, participative and educational debate about the relationships of people across Europe. So far, the political debate has been a two dimensional, shallow and emotive competition between two different kinds of fear.

Here’s how things stand.

On the Brexit side, the mantra is ‘control’, and the fear of outside forces is visceral. It’s a self-centred way of seeing things, continually causing tantrums of frustration in the refusal to accept we’re tiny and relatively uninfluential in relation to the world.   Take the argument to an extreme, and ultimate safety can only be found in complete mastery – that way lies despotism and tyranny.

On the Remain side, the mantra is ‘single market’, and the fear of diminished trade is visceral.  It’s a self-centred way of seeing things, continually causing cold sweats in its compulsive addiction to consumption for financial gain. Take the argument to an extreme, and ultimate safety can only be found in market domination – that way lies despotism and tyranny.

These battles to regulate the world around us are timeless – just a part of life. The comfort blankets of the Brexit and Remain mobs are an illusion. Brexit’s control blanket is disregarded with each new threat, and Remain’s trade blanket disintegrates with greed. A choice between one fear or another is no real choice – both are on the same side.

So how can we choose?

Many are disgusted, frustrated or despairing of the whole process of the EU Referendum. Typical refrains include the lack of information, the complexity (the EU has 33 Departments), or the extreme hubris of reducing the EU to a decision that it’s either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing. Worst of all, they say, the debate is a smokescreen for the dismantling of welfare state and measures of environmental protection*.

The problem with naming the problems, is they don’t make it easier to choose what to do. When faced with challenges like this, I always look for the balancing force and work out how best to apply it.  This is natures way.

Viewed through this lens, I see two campaigns driven by fear, requiring some balance from courage. Courageous leadership embraces uncertainty, acknowledges dynamism and complexity, and vitally, offers constructive hope.

The courageous choice in the EU Referendum would be to vote to remain, but not for the reasons offered by the official Remain campaign.  A vote to leave is a vote for isolation, ignorance, and mutual distrust. Outsiders can never fully participate in the conversation. It’s a world of guaranteed conflict, short termism and deterioration.

A vote to remain in the EU, for all the potential pitfalls, at least offers the hope that we will be constructive, far-sighted and caring of each others needs. A vote to remain acknowledges Nature’s borders are not political, and that we are born into a world of inter-dependence.  We flourish as a species because we’re so good at working together – we create more than we destroy – it’s just not as ‘newsworthy’.   Finally, it’s worth remembering that human happiness is most deeply rooted in our sense of belonging.

So for me at least, the choice in the EU Referendum is an easy one to make. I’m in.


*A quick comparison of search terms under Google’s ‘News’ tab seems to confirm this last view

‘EU Referendum UK 2016’              – 1.5m results
‘Social Care cuts UK 2016                – 693k results
‘Green policy scrapped UK 2016’  – 195k results
‘Welfare cuts UK 2016’                     – 156k results
‘NHS Cuts UK 2016’                           – 122k results
‘Environmental cuts UK 2016’       – 80.9k results



The Art of Cosmic Thinking

col smoke squish

Inspired by a great TED talk called ‘Inside the mind of a  master procrastinator‘ by Tim Urban, I’ve drafted a TED talk of my own.  With the working title ‘The Art of Cosmic Thinking’, my talk uses sort-of-art to explore super-connective networking and order in chaos.

The first dress rehearsal will be at Revolution in Fallowfield, Manchester on Sunday 15th May.  Please arrive at 5.45pm for a 6pm start.

The democracy we deserve

Elections ought to bring out the best in people. People are passionate about positive change, whether they’re standing for appointment or not.  So why is it politics seems permanently shrouded in a toxic haze of negative aggression?

There are two actors in our democratic process – the would-be leaders and the voters*.  We judge the candidates endlessly, but perhaps it’s time we took ourselves more into account.

There is an expectation that leaders should be ‘strong’ and somehow omniscient. We want them to have all the answers, and be right all the time.  This last, in spite of the certain fact that everybody knows, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Politics, and all of the machinery surrounding it, colludes in this fantasy – each party** saying how well they did, and how hopelessly wrong their opponents have been.  There has never been, nor ever will be, a government that got it all right.

Democracy presents leaders with the great challenge of balancing the apparently conflicting requirements of inclusion and decisiveness.  That’s probably one of the reasons Churchill so famously said ‘democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all the others’.

So is it fair to criticise as sharply as we do, or to protest about things with such vehemence, without taking into account the complexities of life?

We are all very quick to claim our ‘rights’ – the right to protest, the right to freedom of speech, and all of the other freedoms which the ideals of democracy bring.  People know they can fight for their rights – and this familiar territory is the arena in which we choose to hold our democratic debate.

This is where it seems to me our problem with democracy lies. As long as we assume our leaders carry all of the responsibility, and that we are merely spectators, we will continue to get the hefty servings of disappointment and failure that are our just desserts.

So whilst it’s important to point out the problems, and protest about the things which don’t work, it’s equally important we ourselves are not unreasonable in making our points.

Reason is at the heart of the ‘scientific method’ and we constantly turn to science for the comfort of facts which reassure us we’re heading in the right direction. When scientific researchers select only the evidence that conveniently fits their theory, they are quite rightly condemned for bad science.  And yet, this is exactly how most of our political debate is conducted – both by the politicians AND the electorate.

For leadership to function well in a democracy, the first task is to accept that democracy, reflects our experience of life – it’s a continuous process of learning, adaptation and change.  If we want our leaders to succeed, ALL of us need to take responsibility for being constructive in our dealings with differences, and for checking our own assumptions as closely and objectively as we can.

If we’re able to do this – resolutely focused on the development of our collaborative skills – then democracy has the potential to serve a very different dish from the one we currently find so distasteful.   If we build on the best of what works, we can be magnificent.  Or we can fight amongst ourselves around the dustbins of failure.

So draw a breath next time you’re about to weigh in to a political debate. Consider your purpose, the thing you’d most like to achieve. Ask yourself if the question or opinion you’re about to offer will help us move forward together. And be prepared to learn something new.

Challenge by all means, but before you criticise this or that political figure, remember that only the very brave or the foolhardy are prepared to step into the today’s deeply hostile gladiatorial arena.  They are forced by the baying of the crowd (that’s us) to adopt aggressive tactics in a battle for survival in which everybody will get maimed. Think how much you’d like to stand before the crowd before you raise your voice.

We can change the game.

If we claim our share of responsibility for the way our democracy conducts itself, and look to be constructive, we can effectively move the contest to a festival ground.  We can mix without fear of mortal attack, and explore the richness of difference the world has to offer.  In our collaborative mood of acceptance and accommodation of each other, we can reasonably expect to find improvement, and at times delight.

If we escape the the toxic haze of that claustrophobic arena, we’ll make leadership a much more attractive proposition.  A place where inclusion and decisiveness can sit more easily together.

We have to watch ourselves as closely as we watch those who would lead.  Then, and only then, will we truly be ‘all in this together’.

That’s the democracy we deserve.