Systems Intelligence Part 2 : Using a 3D lens for an Integral Perspective

By Andy Thomson, enkel & Holonic

This is part 2 of a seven-part series about ‘systems intelligence’. The case for transcending typical systemic approaches to developing a regenerative economy. The other parts are here: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Here, a metaphorical “3D systems intelligence lens” (3D SIL), is presented to help make sense of and discuss “systems within systems” — including scales, boundaries, and perspectives — and their relationships across physical and immaterial domains.

Over many years I have noticed that many of the issues that have influenced and continue to perpetuate our challenges still seem to plague the change initiatives that have evolved to address them, even though most publicise how their approach takes a systemic approach. What I found missing, and where I and others appear to struggle due to the complexity involved, was a way to reflect on how to think in “systems within systems” reflexively. This would help me to examine my own perspectives, assumptions, norms, values and behaviours as well as those of others and contributing theorists in the hope of informing future action.

Huai-Chin Nan, the Chinese Zen master, said that “there’s only one issue in the world. It’s the reintegration of mind and matter”.

But there are different levels of mind and matter, “systems within systems”, so how can we do this? My following model/tool, which is an iteration and simplification of parts of American philosopher Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, tries to do just that.

Integral Theory is a cross-cultural meta-theory that attempts to bring together as many — often opposing or disconnected — fields, systems, and models of human knowledge and growth into an integral map or operating system. Allowing people and groups from diverse fields and different beliefs to communicate and see how they fit together, thus, substantially accelerating cross and trans-disciplinary progress.

Wilber’s guiding insight — having struggled with his own prior cognitive dissonance as a widely read philosopher — is that no mind is capable of 100% error, every viewpoint or belief holds some part of the truth, but some more than others.

Integral Theory is described to be a neutral framework rather than a theoretical concept that accounts for facets of our experience, consciousness, and awareness, helping to ensure that we use all our resources for any circumstance. Wilber writes:

“It does not tell you what to think, or force any particular ideologies on you, or coerce your awareness in any fashion. [ . . . ] It can be used to bring more clarity, care, and comprehensiveness to virtually any situation, making success much more likely”.

The complete Integral framework has received mixed reviews, due to its complexity and claims, so my adaption and simplification might offer a distinctive accessible lens and language to make sense of ‘systems within systems’ and an ability to look at the complexity of systems of interest and perspectives in a conceptual and intelligible way.

As shown in figure 1, I have adopted a metaphor of a pair of “3D multifocal glasses”. These include three intertwined scales — that can also be thought of as levels of perspective or stages of human development — of increasing complexity that transcend yet include the previous.

These are indicated across the lenses by three internal (mind) and three external (matter) domains that can also be thought of as boundaries, that every human event or intent on Earth manifests.

Figure 1 The 3D SIL (Source: Ken Wilber)

These three domains are the:

1. EGOCENTRIC

a. ME: individual level of self, consciousness and thought. Primarily concerned with the short-term.
b. MY: physical body, possessions, and actions.

2. SOCIOCENTRIC

a. US: bound collective level of self, consciousness and thought, including cultural values, beliefs and customs. Primarily concerned with the short or medium-term.
b. OUR: bound collective actions, man-made systems existing in local ecosystems (technological, social, and localised adaption/usage of natural systems).

3. WORLDCENTRIC

a. WE: global level of self, consciousness and thought. Including an understanding of all life on Earth as part of an interdependent web, where diversity and emergence are a naturally occurring phenomenon. Concerned with the short, medium and long-term.
b. IT: the biosphere and all the Earth’s matter.

Although depicted as hard delineations across three scales, in reality, these boundaries can cross multiple scales and are somewhat fuzzy due to their interconnectedness. As with sight, both lenses create a three-dimensional sense of reality. However, any important concept, problem, approach, or solution needs to be looked at from the perspective of all six domains. A failure to do so inevitably results in a narrowing, reductionist way of thinking.

Therefore its argued that 3D systems intelligence is the ability to operate from the worldcentric level, which incorporates all six domains, even though all individuals and groups are ultimately “ignorant of the behaviour of the whole system in which they are embedded”, to use the words of philosopher and complex systems researcher Paul Cilliers.

From an economic perspective, building on the ideas of economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, the internal lens relates to the “ethics” or purpose of an economy — including how one should live — that date back to the time of Aristotle. Whilst the external relates to the logistical, physical “engineering” issues of how an economy actually works, which is largely rooted in neoclassical economics.

As an example, let’s take the notion of home.

Home includes the physical spaces where one resides, looking through the external lens. As shown in figure 2, we can see that we live in homes, within homes, within homes across all three levels; your body within your house, and so forth, much like Russian dolls. However, looking through the internal lens, home also includes the sense and quality of being at home and how it is cared for.

Figure 2 External homes within homes.

Figure 3 brings these concepts together in a diagram known as a holarchy, which essentially shows the connections between whole systems nested within larger systems, or what is also referred to as holons. Note that the egocentric and sociocentric levels are made up of multiple holons, each having their own ME, MY, US, and OUR perspectives and differences (one is highlighted); however, the worldcentric is one and includes all those below.

Figure 3 The holarchy of home.

The 3D SIL and these concepts will be used throughout subsequent blog posts in this series to analyse and inform our current systemic challenges and to review alternative approaches to the extractive linear economy.

In the next post I will look at the deeper challenges with our current systems.

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