Episode #97 Be What you Love: total systemic change, one fractal conversation at a time: with Dr Anna Birney of Forum for the Future

apple podcasts




you tube

The systems around us have grown up in a world that assumed them impervious to change. But – as Greta has said – change is coming. So how do we navigate it, and shape it to a flourishing future? How can we be part of the bigger change the world needs to see?

Dr Anna Birney is Director of the School for System Change at the Forum for the Future. She is author of Cultivating System Change: A Practitioner’s companion, and she is ‘passionate about designing and facilitating systems change programmes that support people, communities and organisations to transform their practice’.

Anna started facilitating multi-stakeholder processes around the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. At WWF-UK she ran a six-year education programme on system change which included setting up 56 communities of practice to knit together innovative practices. This experience supported her to develop practical system change frameworks for WWF-UK and Forum for the Future as well as organisations including Unilever, Nike, Shell Foundation, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Innovate UK and the NHS, through the System Innovation Lab – experimenting and learning how to develop different practices.

This led onto setting up the School of System Change where as well as overseeing the learning and curriculum, Anna now coaches on a wide number of projects and initiatives including the Marine CoLab, the #Oneless project and Oxfam’s System Innovation in Woman’s Economic Empowerment. She is the author of Cultivating System Change: A practitioner’s companion which is based on her PhD.

“Having cultivated the School since 2016 it gives me great pleasure to continue to engage and learn from participants, contributors and partners to evolve what we offer. I am most excited about how we can grow the number and diversity of facilitators and the diversity of learning, exploring what systems change practice might look like in different contexts and geographies.”

In Conversation

Manda: My guest this week is a systems thinker, embedded in systems thinking. And on this podcast and in Accidental Gods all told, we’ve been talking about systemic thinking right from the start. Dr. Anna Burney is global director of Systems Change Learning in the School for System Change, which is part of Forum for the Future. She says of herself that her dream project is exploring how we can shift our values and perspectives, so that we see ourselves as embedded in the continuum of life. And I can’t think of many better ways of saying we all need to become part of the web of life so that we can ask it what it needs of us. So this is one of those conversations where we were able to go really deep into what systemic change is, and how we might bring it about. So as we head into a world where systems are changing all around us, falling all around us, and we each have the chance to be part of building a new flourishing system for the future; people of the podcast, please welcome Dr. Anna Burney.

Manda: So, Anna Burney, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s a real pleasure to have you on this beautiful, sunny day. How is it down there? I’m guessing you’re south of me wherever you are. Where are you based Anna? 

Anna: I’m based in South London, so yes.

Manda: Yes, pretty much south of anywhere except Devon and Cornwall. How is it down there with you?

 Anna: It’s lovely. It’s a beautiful, beautiful afternoon, nice autumnal day.

 Manda: Thank you. So what we always do at the start of these podcasts is find out a little bit more about Anna and how you became the person who is right there, embedded in the school of system change and really making it happen. So can you tell us a little bit, the key points, of how you came to be here?

 Anna: I start quite young. I start at the age of seven discovering that I was dyslexic. My mum was very positive about helping me understand my own learning style. I think that started my inquisitive mind; the learning how to learn, learning about myself. And through that inquisitive mind, I was just curious about the world and curious about questions of the world, about geography and why we exist, what’s happening to the world, what we’re doing. And so that kind of enquiring self, I think, is at the core of this, actually. The ability to learn and to think about what the questions of the world are about. And so after university, I started working on kind of sustainability issues and thinking about how do we address these massive social environmental issues? Now it’s kind of like, how do we understand the world we’re within? And was working on multi-stakeholder collaborations, really supporting people kind of come together; found the skill of facilitation, which I absolutely loved; suddenly was feeling in my own element. And that’s been the start of the journey, really, of kind of exploring how are we going to change the world? Like, how are we going to create change? Was my question from the beginning. I think

 Manda: Fantastic. I’m so impressed that you got to that straight after university and you went to work for things like the World Wildlife Fund. You were working for big, big companies.

 Anna: I was very fortunate of after that first foray to kind of get into WWF, and I was working on education change. But because the education system is called a system, I was kind of like, How do you change the education system? I wasn’t using systems thinking or systems approaches. I was kind of, but I was looking at from a learning perspective. So I was going, How do we create better learning in schools? How do we change not just an individual school, but the whole system? And that led me into understanding maybe this concept of systems change, maybe about just under 20 years ago, when people thought I was a real geek and they said, “Why? What is this systems change?” And I started to ask that question

 Manda: And I have the advantage of video, which the listeners don’t have. I have to say, if it was 20 years ago, you would have been about 10 from the look of things. So I’m very impressed with your ageing capacity. How did systems thinking become a topic for you as a discrete entity in its own right?

 Anna: At WWF at the time there were some people, Stephen Stirling being a key one, who was actually trying to think about systems thinking in schools and actually saying that children are born with the ability to be systemic thinkers. They are naturally systemic. But one of the problems is our education system is teaching us, or kind of socialising us, if that’s the right word, into non-systemic thinking. It’s sort of saying our current structures of management of education doesn’t operate like that. And so we were trying to say, how do we, if we were learning about the world, about sustainability in schools, how do we bring that natural nature –  doesn’t quite make sense, but the nature of ourselves –  into that critical thinking, enquiring work. So that was at the basis of what we were trying to do, the systemic nature of the work and the systemic need of the humans to bring that out in children, at first.

 Manda: And did you go off and train to be a systems thinker somewhere or have you imbibed it by osmosis?

 Anna: Bit of both. I didn’t go on a one-of training. I think there wasn’t as many trainings back then. But I did take a do a PhD in action enquiry, PhD, which was about me going on a concerted learning journey. And I think at the School of System Change, a lot of our philosophy is like, you do the learning, you do the action. We’ll provide some content, some people, some social learning environment, but you, you have to do the work yourself. And so I was pulling on some reading, some practise; I was one of the first people that looked at the presencing institute’s work with MIT, so I did do some training and facilitation training, but actually the real work was in my own enquiry process and the action enquiry that I was reflecting on and supported in doing that

 Manda: For people who aren’t aware. Can you just unpick a little bit more about what action enquiry is? Because I think it’s a really interesting foundation for what you’re doing later.

 Anna: Yeah, basically, I mean, at very simple level, it’s saying ‘I’m doing this change work. I’m working for an organisation, I’m doing it.’ And how do I reflect on that and improve my action at a very simple level? And so I think we think research is that we have to go out and get into our heads and understand the world through our mind. Whereas actually natural enquiry is saying ‘this is a research methodology that is based in practise’; and how do you get rigorous about that? I think the final thing I’ll say on it, there’s loads more to say, but you can work at multiple levels. It’s about integrating yourself the interpersonal relationships and the dynamics you’re working with, as well as the big change you want to have in the world. So it’s really asking us to be critical about those dynamics as well. It’s innately systemic in the way it operates.

 Manda: Yes, and it’s allowing the subjectivity of research. I grew up as a veterinary surgeon, so I was embedded in kind of left brain reductionist Cartesian thinking, in which the researcher was considered to be a completely neutral feature, and then did things to the the subject of the research. And the failure to acknowledge the framing that everybody brings to their research, struck me even way back then, as a huge gap in what we’re doing. And my understanding of action enquiry and action research is that it brings that subjectivity back again, so that we’re looking at what we bring. What do I bring to this and what is my impact in doing the enquiry? Is that fair?

 Anna: That’s totally fair. And it’s really asked us to say that the assumptions that we bring, the mindsets that we bring, the perspectives we bring and the ones we work with others, in relationship with others as well, really, it is really a relational enquiry, really affects what you do in the change. So this idea that you’re a neutral facilitator or that you as a change maker, you’re not affecting the system by trying to change it. It flips that and actually totally acknowledges it. And then you can actually be more critical and reflective and have more rigour to what you do because  look at that.

 Manda: Anna: brilliantAnd so were you one of the founders of the School for System Change or did you come to it once it had been set up?

 Anna: No, I was definitely the founder of it. I guess we were. We were we were enquiring at Forum for the Future about what our learning office was and we’ve been doing systems. I took systems change to forum and we then been developing the practise there and started a lab there, which was trying to explore it. The organisation itself now does really do systems change work, and I was also overseeing our learning programme, our master’s programme. But we were enquiring into what’s the what’s the learning offer that’s needed in the world today? And about five six years ago, with with a colleague of mine, Sara and some others who were supporting me and the work, we were kind of saying, what does the world need? And out of that, the school of system change was born.

 Manda: Brilliant. So can we take a little bit of a step back then and talk about The Forum for the Future, before we really hone in on the School for System Change? What it is, how it arose and how you came to be a part of it?

 Anna: Yeah. So it’s actually our twenty fifth anniversary this year, and it was founded by three people Jonathan Porritt, Sarah Parkin and John Eakins, who were trying to say, “What do we what do we mean by creating positive change in the world? How do we create and work with partners to create change or sustainability?” So it was really quite revolutionary in the time. And over the years, we’ve worked in partnership with public sector, with business, with education, really trying to understand how we create change. And I was head of leadership and change there some 13 years ago, and joined because I guess when WWF, obviously I was looking for a place that I could take my systems change practise as well. I was saying, Well, who’s interested in the systemic approach? And Forum at that time were talking about individual leadership, organisational leadership, but they were starting to talk about sector leadership and change. And I saw an opening there to say, “Well, actually, I think what’s needed is systems change”. And we started about 10 years ago, we started more explicitly in our strategy to say, “we’re going to take this systems change approach to these big sectoral challenges, that our partners the people were working on couldn’t solve alone”. Big questions in the food system, the energy system and saying, “Well, how do we address some of these big challenges?”

 Manda: So how do we address some of those big challenges?

 Anna: I walked into that one, didn’t I? So I mean, there’s a multitude of things.. I think we have to both start from where we are. So you can’t…going back to our subjectivity piece. It’s not saying that there’s a silver bullet, or we just need to find the answer of how we change systems. It’s really based in who we are. And who we are as individuals, but who we are with the resources, the relationships, the organisations we are part of. And where are we best placed to find the potential and the action needed for change? What can we contribute is a big question. And so a lot of what we do is support people and organisations to find those leverage points, or find their place to intervene or their strategies to affect the maximum change they can have on a system.

 Manda: And this is always with a view to greater regeneration, now, rather than just sustainability? Is it that all these people are coming to you because they want to be more regenerative or more sustainable?

 Anna: Exactly. So originally, the organisation forum was about sustainability, the ability to sustain ourself on this planet, people and planet. But actually, you’re right. Over the last three or four years, we’ve been talking much more about the need for justice, the need that actually we need to acknowledge the inequalities and the injustices that cause these sustainability challenges. And that sustainability itself, now we’re facing the climate emergency, we’re facing biological breakdown. We need to look at the regenerative practises, both social and environmental. So at the heart of this, this isn’t just systems change for whatever outcome we want. This is systems change for a just and regenerative future.

 Manda: Fantastic. How really inspiring. I’m sure you aren’t allowed to list the names, but there’s some quite interesting ones on your website even, of big companies that I would not initially have thought were even remotely interested in this. And are they sending their supervisor of greenwash to you, or are they actually getting people who have the capacity within the system to make the changes that they come up with?

 Anna: Yeah, on our programmes we do have businesses, but we also have foundations, community organisers, individual kind of entrepreneurs. So we purposefully look at a cross sector of the system to come on our courses. And so a big criteria is, ‘are you ready and willing to learn and to change your system’? So we want people to come with a project. They have to come with something they’re trying to effect change on. And it’s not about judging the whole organisation, it’s not about judging the reach that they have. They have to have some form of connexion and reach, but it’s saying, can you come with that project? Can you come with the place you’re standing? And so there are always intrepreneurs, there are always people trying to effect change wherever they are. And so as long as you’re willing to say, ‘I need to do something here’, then that’s what we need to start.

 Manda: Did I just hear you say intrepreneurs?

 Anna: Yes.

 Manda: And that’s a thing. These are people trying to do stuff within a company?

 Anna: Yes, they’re people who are in organisations who are trying to create new practise, new ideas and I’d say not just internally, but for bigger outcomes externally as well.

 Manda: Right, right. A while ago, we spoke to Alex Barker, who’s part of the Be More Pirate movement, so I’m guessing that that’s exactly what that is. It’s gorgeous. So you’ve spoken a few times about the fact that you have courses at the school for system change. That it is a school, that people can come and learn and then take things away. Can you unpick for us a little bit, of what the courses do and how the people have changed going through them?

 Anna: Yeah. So our core programme is called base camp. And the idea being is that if you’re learning how to sort of cultivate your own systems change in the spaces you are, that you need, you know, it’s the beginning of the journey. We don’t prelude to doing the deep dives into some of this work. There are a lot of contributors, actually we bring in to this work who kind of take you on a on a deep dive. What we’re doing is bringing together lots of different contributors, giving you the basic, you know, the base camp analogy: the basic rope skills, the basic fire tending skills, whatever you need to set you on the journey. And so we at the school, our big kind of philosophy is we’re helping you navigate and enter into the field of systems change practise. We’re not teaching one element of it. We actually help you kind of see all the different practises out there, understand them, apply them, most importantly, really apply them to the work that you’re doing. And so when you leave a base camp programme, you’ve just started. I mean, system change –  I’m still learning, I’m still going on courses. So system change is not something you come on a programme with and you finish within the six to nine months, depending on which programme you come on, you’ve done. It’s an initiation. It’s starting you on that. Hence, learning is actually just as important as the systems and practise that we give you as well.

 Manda: I love the idea of it being an initiation. Somebody, reading through your website, somebody said “systems only change when people do”. And watching that glorious little video, it’s only just over three minutes (I will put it in the show notes). The aliveness on people’s faces as they were speaking to camera! And obviously some of them said, this is the most important event (I can’t remember the exact words) that I’ve ever done in my business life. Business development I think it was. And it clearly had been a kind of a rite of passage for the people on it. And they’d also met other people who cared as much as they did about the same kinds of things. So have you got any stories of things that have happened that have come out of these schools?

 Anna: Yeah, I think they’re so varied. I think there’s so many people who come with very different questions, and that’s one of the things we need to manage; so many different projects. And we’re probably not doing a great job of tracking them all. But I think a lot of… I mean, I was just on a course this morning and we haven’t even finished it yet; it’s for health system practitioners. People trying to change and transform the health system. And they were saying, “You know, I’m changing my strategy. I’m going into a strategy meeting and I’ve rethought what my strategy is for my organisation, really know how to engage my stakeholders differently”. Another person who works in the NHS, was saying, “Actually, I’m starting a new job and how do I change the culture of the whole team, changing the nature of this kind of managerial mindset and much more of a collaborative mindset?” So they’re quite varied. You know, they kind of come away with both the the strategic side, but also the cultural side. How do they engage people? Somebody was saying this morning, somebody working in Ghana, how they were going out to their community and really just listening to what their needs were, and sitting with them and understanding and observing what was happening. And that just is a subtle mindset shift; they might not have transformed the system yet, but actually, for me, learning how to do that differently is just so important.

 Manda: Yes, yes. So we need to listen. This is back to systems only change when people change. Ok, I have a number of questions, let me sort them out in my head. I was interested…. Various of the people again on the video, spoke about the tools that they had been offered. So clearly going out and listening is a tool to be offered. Are there any that you can unpick a little bit, that might make sense to people listening who haven’t got a really big business background?

 Anna: Yeah, no sure. I guess we use frameworks as well, so we introduce a number of frameworks. So they.. The world is complex and we find it very difficult to see into that complexity. And so the kind of archetypes of some of these frameworks might be that we’re helping people see things at multiple levels. So we’re trying to say what’s happening at the niche level, the tiny little innovations. How does that interact with the mainstream? How does that be affected by cultural norms and changes? So it’s trying to help them, what often people say in the courses, is help them zoom out and zoom in, zoom in and zoom out. And so the tools and frameworks help you kind of almost structure some of the complexity, but not in a way that’s non-systemic. Or another core archetypal tool is like the iceberg model: the idea that we only see a certain percentage above the water. There’s a lot happening both culturally and in our minds and our structures that we don’t see often, but are causing a lot of the events above the surface. And so we use those kinds of frameworks to work through them, to unpick what is their current situation, but also how might they use those for change.

 Manda: Brilliant. Ok. So people learning how to dive deep into the into the iceberg, you were about to say something, I think and I interrupted..

 Anna: No, it’s fine. There’s also tools and approaches that are much more relational. So those that we have, kind of the frameworks that are sort of structural things that people can diagnose and look at, but then we are bringing in some of the qualities of systemic practise. So how do you work with resistance in the system? How do you work with power dynamics? How do you work for new leadership? What does it mean to lead from your own values in the sense of who you are? How do you have active listening skills? So we’re trying to weave in. I think a lot of people comment on courses for the frameworks and the tools, but actually they walk away with this sense of practising and culture and a new sense of being in the work that they do.

 Manda: Right. And how do they find taking that back into their workplaces? I’m reminded of one of the Transition Town groups that I spoke to, who endeavoured to bring effectively active listening and even just checking in at the start of a meeting, and found extraordinary levels of resistance amongst people for whom that was just too touchy feely. They didn’t want to talk about how they were feeling. They’d come to have a meeting about the stuff on the agenda. I hit something similar when I tried to do it with our local parish council, and I’m guessing that the world is divided into many, many, many things. But we could divide into the people who really get systems change and want to make it happen. And the people are very happy with the system exactly the way it is because it’s gotten to where they are and don’t necessarily have the emotional literacy to engage with relational change. How do real people go into organisations that that might be a little bit stuck in that sense and help their peers to make the changes that are necessary?

 Anna: Yeah, and this is one of the reasons why we started a programme called Spark, which was actually realising that base camp was giving you the skills and the abilities. But for Spark, you need to learn how to facilitate and to engage with others more. And we weren’t doing enough of that on that first programme. No critique of ours, but that was a different kind of skill that people were looking for. So our Spark programme is supporting people facilitate and sparking ignite change with others. And we’re helping them both understand their own perspective and what they bring into the change process, so they can also notice the perspectives and energies of the people they’re working with. And being able to navigate that and be more conscious of it. And so I think it is quite a sophisticated skill actually to be able to both notice your own and to notice others, and to really practise that perspective taking. And I think I use the idea of yoga quite a lot. Which is not saying that you can force anyone to change. A yoga teacher doesn’t force you to move or bend. It just sets the condition for that. And you’re always, when you’re doing a handstand or you’re trying to even start practising it..

 Manda: You do handstands at yoga?

 Anna: But it’s taken me 10 years to do a handstand in yoga. And I thought you could go on yoga course for six weeks and suddenly ‘do yoga’, whereas actually it takes you years. So I think there’s something about this, which is: you have to work with where the group is and you can only take them so far in any one session. And the change doesn’t just happen because you’ve facilitated one workshop.

 Manda: Yes. And I’m thinking of yoga and also my partner… I just started training qigong with someone who really models it beautifully. And there’s the kind of mirroring of ‘I see that body movement and and my mirror neurones presumably fire off’ (if we believe in mirror neurones – rabbit hole we won’t go down at the moment). But I’m also very aware with the qigong, of the energy that this teacher brings to the room. And I’m wondering to what extent within the work that you teach, people become aware of what I would call ‘energy in the room’ and other people might give other words to? Or is it too far out in the flaky end of the spectrum?

 Anna: Well, I think it is a bit flaky, but I think that’s just a mirror of where our current system is, that we were scared of that and we’re not looking at our bodies and our dynamics as a whole holistic level, either. And I’m not one that stays in that end. I’m kind of like all up for the structural and the the hard strategy process. But at the same time, if we’re not paying attention to where my energy levels are or where the energy levels of the room are, and it’s not just levels, it’s also where they’re working psychologically. How they are affected with what’s going on. And that is a critical part of change as well, that you have to be working with the whole human and the whole group in this work.

 Manda: Fantastic. Gosh, this sounds inspiring. So we’ve got the Base Camp and we’ve got Spark. I’d like to have a look at the others, but I just want to take a quick detour. Right at the beginning, you said that within the school system, people were acknowledging that we are born into the world as system thinkers, and that our acculturation, our training, our domestication, if you like, is to make us progressively less systemic. To that we get to the point where we like linearity. Have you worked with younger people who have managed not to have that domestication happen? Because I’m thinking that some of the younger generations that I’m encountering seem… They’re much happier with neurodiversity, for instance, which seems to me a label that we give to people who are less domesticated. And they’re much more free flowing out with the boundaries of what our domestication requires. Does that make sense as a question?

 Anna: It does make sense. And I think that’s why we might be also seeing an uprising of movements at the moment. We’re seeing people with XR or Black Lives Matter, quite rightly saying, “Wait a minute, what is this system about? Why is it here?” And they don’t have an avenue to participate, to engage. And so I think there’s sort of consequences of that, through society, which I’m loving seeing, I totally encourage. Because it’s raising questions, saying, “how do we organise ourselves? How do we look at this?” But the second answer I’ll also give, because I’m also remembering speaking as a white woman in Britain and my experience of the westernised education system. And we’ve got to be really careful that there are indigenous mindsets or Asian mindsets. Or we’re working with a cohort who were talking about Ubuntu mindsets the other day, in Africa. And so it’s not just… I’m talking from my experience of education in this country. And I just want to be really clear that, you know, indigenous…I just read a beautiful book called Braiding Sweetgrass…talking about the weaving of indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge. And actually saying, we’ve lost some of that. So we’ve got to think that this systemic thinking isn’t this tool that the westernised world are giving to everyone. I think it’s giving to a lot of people who have been over professionalised. But we’ve also got to find the innateness in a lot of not just individual children, but also other systems, that have valued and continue to value the systemic nature of the work that they do or the way that they be in the world.

 Manda: Yes, and one of my great ambitions for this podcast is to get big enough that I can invite Robin Wall Kimera, who is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass, onto it. And her publishers will say yes! I absolutely hear you, and I’m just in the middle of reading a book called ‘Tomorrow is Too Late; A Youth Manifesto for Climate Justice’ by an amazing young woman called Grace. I’m going to say her name wrong; Maddrell I think, which is a collection of essays by young people on the climate. And it’s it’s heartbreaking and totally inspiring at the same time. Because, yes, indigenous thinking definitely is much more systemic. Asian thinking is much more circular. I remember reading a long time ago, a conversation between an American and a Chinese individual and the American basically going, You know, “you guys are going to invite us. We need to keep you out” and the China Chinese person going, “you still don’t get it, do you? You guys think in straight lines and we think in circles. And you until you understand that you won’t understand us” and all of my Native American teachers from my shamanic spiritual background, all said, we are the people who live in the round houses and you are the people who live in the houses with straight walls. And we will never think the same. And I think braiding sweetgrass definitely really brings that to the fore. And it is absolutely the case that indigenous thinking is much more systemic, but it is also the case that it is the western educated, industrial rich democracies and their linear thinking that are in the process of driving the planet off the edge of the climate and ecological cliff.

 Manda: So somehow we have to bring change quite fast. I was listening to Christiana Figueres podcast the other day. It’s called ‘Outrage and Optimism’, and she was talking to somebody quite high up in the U.N. whose name sadly I have forgotten, because I listen to too many of these. Who for the first time in open air, from someone who’s involved at governmental levels, said ‘it’s too late for slow incremental change’. What we need now is a revolution. Which made my little revolutionary heart sing loudly. But I’m really interested now, because it has to be a peaceful revolution, and it isn’t the same kind of revolution we’ve had in the past. All of the revolutions in recorded human history, I think, have been changing the franchise of what is essentially still the Roman system. I think we are waking up from the post-trauma nightmare as we speak. But it was the Romans who gave us a value system that commercialised Land labour and capital, and all we’ve done in all our revolutions is divide the spoils up differently. And this one has to not do that. It has to change the entire nature of where we’re going. So from your perspective and from the work that you’re doing and the people you’re working with, can you see a way through to systemic change at a civilizational level? And if so, can you walk us through the path, please?

 Anna:  You’re trying to help me solve the problem we’re all grappling with now?

 Manda: Yeah, yeah, that’d be really nice. Yeah, in the next 20 minutes, ideally,

 Anna: I think I think we’re asking the right question here, and I think you’re right. I think firstly, just to reframe back to you, that we are talking about a revolution here that’s second order. So we’ve talked about these sort of waves of revolution and changes, but they’re still based over the last four or five six hundred years in the same same orientation and mental model. We’re now actually asking for something a bit different that really is taking us to a different level. And I think that is cultural change, and that is severely in how we identify ourselves with the world and how we see ourselves with the world is what needs to change. I think the challenge we’ve got, especially with current IPCC data and what’s coming out, is that I’m not sure that can actually happen in the next five to 10 years. I think it’s I think it’s challenging. I think we can get so far. But can we create a whole school or world view shift? Possibly not. I think we can start to mitigate some of the problems that we’re facing, but I think what we can do is start to see to that worldview that’s needed and start to really work with it where it is. Meg Wheatley talks about islands of sanity in her book’Who do we choose to be?’. I’m not sure about the concept of islands, but I do like the idea of we’ve got to just work with the seeds wherever we can and however we can,now. If we’re ready to do it, we can do it now, and we’ve got to reach as far as we can. But I do think there’s something which you’re alluding to, which is how do we change the narrative? Because I think there’s just something about working at this cultural level that we’re not tapping into enough as change makers. We’re not reframing the narrative that we’re a part of and who we are. And that needs to come. I think that could be an accelerator. I’m not sure it will do it in the time needed, but I think that could be an accelerator of the change that we’re trying to seek.

 Manda: Oh, that makes me so happy. The next phase of Accidental Gods, I’m telling the listeners now I might have mentioned it before, but I don’t think so. Rupert Reid wrote a paper back in 2017 about Through-topia. That we don’t need the dystopias. We really know how bad it could be, and the utopias are pointless because nobody believes in them. We need the ways through. So we’re setting up a throughtopian master class, because I think as a writer, you need two things: you need to know what to write and you need to know how to write it. So we’re going to bring in the people who have the visions of the future to come and talk to us for –  at the moment, the programme is half an hour of them talking half an hour of us asking them questions – all on Zoom. They can go away. We have a break and then we come back and we work together in groups and as a big group, building the stories. And I don’t care if this is people writing letters to their local newspaper or writing Netflix or songs or poetry or novels or television or blogs or Instagram, it doesn’t matter.

 Manda: We just need lots and lots and lots of different narratives, and we’ll run that. And then the next week, two weeks later, we’ll have somebody who understands how to get it out there. I was just talking to a woman who’s an editor at the BBC who’s going to come along and talk to us about the ways that they shape narrative and the different kinds of narratives that the BBC will take and how you might be able to pitch it. And I think by the time we’ve run through that cycle half a dozen times, we will have a body of people who are able to create the narratives that we need. Which so… Listening to you say that makes me extremely happy. And I would like the listeners to know that we did not plan this ahead of time. Absolutely. We didn’t set this up, but are you seeing this happening elsewhere? Am I reinventing wheels already there would be my first question.

 Anna: I think it’s starting to bubble up. So we ran an enquiry called called Boundless Routes, which was looking at what needs to change at a deep level for sustainable lifestyles, but obviously it was related to the system and cultural narratives is one of the key themes or enquiry areas that kind of emerged. And I think there are people starting to work on this. But one of the projects that emerged as an idea in that community was how do we work with cultural leaders? So not just working with the edge storytellers? And I think it’s great what you’re suggesting, but I also am interested in who are the cultural leaders. So we worked for people in the comms lab, Jonathan Wise, who’s worked for the advertising industry. Or how do you work with the news broadcasters or how do you get them to think about the framing that they’re putting on things? I think George Monbiot talking about what language you use about not just climate change, but climate breakdown. All of these things. Of who are the cultural leaders? What does this look like? Even this morning, we were talking to somebody who works in a community in South London here, and he was talking about how he talks to the imam and the pastor and the football coach, and how do they start playing a role in the way they talk about things, what they’re saying to their community. So I think that it’s an emerging area. I think people are starting to talk about it. To what extent it’s a mainstream approach to change? Definitely not. But I think I think it has excitement to it, and I think we need to find ways to really value that kind of approach as well.

 Manda: Yeah, because we’re a storied species. We thrive on the stories that we tell ourselves and we tell each other about ourselves. So how do we reach the cultural leaders? Because my next question, one that I’ve had from right at the beginning. At the time of recording, we’re in the middle of the Tory party conference, which is an interesting experience. And we’ve been talking about system change for a long time. You’ve been working on it for 20 years. I’m watching the people who run our country and who wield extraordinary power, who appear not to even be aware that this language exists. And it feels as if it’s an entirely alien area and not just for them. I think, you know, I wasn’t hearing anyone talking about systems change at the Labour Party conference, either. There were a lot at the world transformed, which was the kind of labour fringe, but they’re the people who’ve been kicked out. So how do we bring the concept of systemic change to the people who, for instance, fund the NHS? It doesn’t matter if we’ve got amazing managers in the NHS who really get the concept of systemic change, if the people at the top are creating regulations that prevent it. Have you? You must have thought about that too.

 Anna: Constantly thinking about that, but I’m not sure I have the perfect answer. I think there’s something about how do we work with those in current power? Where are the openings? Who are they listening to? I think that’s the analysis we need to do is who are they really listening to? The challenge I think we have is that we feel like we’ve gone in a direction towards, I mean, I would say this, you know, the conservative government and what’s happening with Brexit in this country; there’s sort of a pullback, though, like we’re so… But that might be a signal that we’re ready to change and go forward. It might be a signal that the old system is pulling back and saying, we need to hold on to this really firmly. And so there’s a little bit of hope in that in a weird kind of way that things almost will crumble and crash a bit faster because people are holding on so tightly. But, but but we can’t be I can’t be so joyous about that. Chaos isn’t friendly or nice or enjoyable for people. But I think there’s still something about… Change is going to come. I think

 Manda: Like Greta: ‘change is coming’

 Anna: Change is coming and change is coming harder and faster. COVID. And then we’ve now got Brexit and we’ve got climate effects; flooding in London yesterday. And so I think there will be a time when people, I guess I kind of do believe that people are going to have to wake up to that. The effects will be there so much, that holding on is just not going to be a strategy anymore. But I don’t have the perfect way, I guess, I don’t have that perfect way into them. I think if I was doing a map of them, I’d start mapping out who the influencers are there. But I think there’s a lot of slightly narcissistic behaviour where people are bitten off as being people who do not look outward, they look inward and their locus of looking is at themselves. And I think that is happening so much that it’s really hard to influence them because they’re not paying attention to the signals around them.

 Manda: Yes. Yes. So much in that. I remember watching Steve Bannon, because he is one of the influencers that they do listen to. And he describes himself as a Leninist because Lenin apparently was the one who understood that in order to change the system, you basically need to destroy the old system. And so Bannon has his ideas of destroying the system. But what he wants to build on it is not, I would guess, anywhere close to what we would want to build on. And I’m watching Today is the Day where our beloved leader has stated that it’s completely fine that most of the pig farmers in the UK are about to go bankrupt and their stock are about to be burned, because they can’t sell them, because there are no abattoir workers left because we employed eastern Europeans because nobody here actually wants to shoot animals all day every day and cut them into bits, which is quite understandable. But his comment of ‘this is a necessary part of the post-Brexit realignment’ was, I found, really interesting in a number of ways. Because you’re right, there is kind of hope in the crumbling. But when I was at Schumacher and we were working through the MA and regenerative economics, we spent a lot of time trying to work out how could the soft landing happen?

 Anna: Exactly.

 Manda: Because the plummet off the edge of a cliff would would hurt so many people, it would be unacceptable. And what I’m watching, I think, is a hard right government that doesn’t care how much it hurts

 Anna: And what we’re not doing is the way he’s framing it. So I think we do need to question how much meat we have and how many farmers we have and and everything else. But like you say, what’s the transition? And we haven’t been managing that question. We haven’t been managing it in a just way, either. And the economic system is so dominant. So one way you could look at this is kind of give away free meat or kind of find a way to not just waste food, but engage it in different ways or subsidise pig farmers to transition. But we’re not we’re not framing it in that way. This comes back to the cultural narrative. The cultural narrative is like, ‘that’s the change. Deal with it’. Not, ‘actually, we’re all in this together. Actually, this is the transformation we need’. And we’re not even saying that this is a positive transformation. We’re not reframing it as we need to actually transition off the meat industry. But let’s do this consciously together. And that’s the thing. It’s not that this is happening, it’s that we’re not then embracing the change and looking at it and going, ‘OK, what do we now do with this? And how do we make this into the positive future?’ He’s not telling us what the future is we’re working towards. He’s not saying ‘this is a transformation to a different kind of economy or a different type of society’. What he’s doing is ‘deal with the change’. And that’s that’s putting it all back on the individualised person, putting it back on our problems. And that’s not that’s not very systemic.

 Manda: No. I think it arises from an ideology that believes absolutely in the power of markets to fix everything, without understanding that that has never been the case, nor will it ever be the case. Let’s take a slight turn to the more hopeful. If a miracle happened, and the whole of Whitehall woke up tomorrow and said, ‘OK, we’re going to invite in the school for system change because we recognise that system change is useful and necessary’. Have you a sense and I realise you may be flying this one new, and we might need to think through it on the fly, but a sense of how we could structure our economic and political cultural systems in a way that would bring us to a regenerative future. If everything went right.

 Anna: What would that system look like?

 Manda: Yeah, how would we if you and I were building the the new regulations and the new system? How would we go about building it and what would it look like?

 Anna: So I think if we started putting systemic principles at the heart of both our governance system and our economic system, which I think you’re saying and therefore also a society; is the relationship between those three would shift. So they really would be in enablement of society,  rather than at the moment they are almost bigger than society. They are almost more important than. And so that changes not who we vote for. It changes the way we vote and how we vote. So it changes who’s engaged in decision making, how how we are participatory in that, how we look at devolvement of decisions. And we have to invest a lot in the process of decision making. We’re not investing in yeah, we’re not investing in kind of keeping politicians. We’re actually investing in facilitators. So they’re not politicians because they have an ego, they’re politicians because they can facilitate their local community or to actually properly represent them. And then in the economy, well, then talking again about how does exchange happen. How is fair exchange happening between people? And who is really making the money? Nobody should be making money. I mean, we should have money as an exchange and that’s all it ever should have been.

 Anna: Whereas what we’ve got is systems on systems that are continually growing. So there’s something about putting back the relational at those two levels, that really are about paying attention to the systems  thinking and systems being, I guess. Asks us to not pay attention to the nodes in the system (so we think of these networks as nodes). It’s asking us to pay attention to what the exchange is, what’s the relationship? So when we’re talking about relationships and governance, we’re talking about ‘What do we want to agree together? What are we deciding together?’ When we talk about relationships in economy system, it’s like, why are we trading? What do we want to trade? It’s not about the money flow, that is just… Money was always just the ability to be able to trade more effectively. But we’ve made it into this thing in itself. It’s become something in itself. And I think that’s the fundamentals we need to start working out is how do we relate differently,in all these different systems?

 Manda: Brilliant. So I’m hearing you. We get to a societal change such that we can come together collectively and pick from amongst us the facilitators who are the best facilitators in their particular areas and give them the tools and I guess the authority to do the facilitation. Partly because I’m writing a book that’s aiming down this line. And this is really… I’m so I’m doing research on the fly on the podcast, guys, you just bear with me… My big worry about that and I’ve talked to it with a number of guests and haven’t had an answer because it may be unanswerable. We seem at the moment to be in the midst of a meaning crisis. We’ve lost hold of how we assess what we believe to be true. If we’re going to empower everybody within society to come together to pick the best facilitators, we’re going to have to decide what matters, what it is that we want our government to quote ‘take control of’, or to be involved in. And my guess is that at the moment, even framing those questions would bring us clashing with the consensus narrative. But also with those who shape the consensus narrative, which tends to be the people with extraordinary amounts of money who have quite a vested interest in maintaining the divisions between people who might otherwise realise that the people with lots of money were the problem. How do we go about solving the meaning crisis? That’s another enormous question, but I’m guessing you’ve probably thought about that too.

 Anna: Yeah, that was another area in our Boundless Roots enquiry was about meaning making and how do people identify. And I think the first thing you need to think about is that facilitation isn’t just saying, how do we get consensus between people? It’s actually finding the collective potential and wisdom in the group. We have to also believe that the potential wisdom is there, that we actually do want to live in harmony with nature and we do want to work regeneratively. We actually do want justice. And I do think, I believe that we are interested in… Kind of our potential wants us to realise that I think… As human beings, we really do want to realise that. We just don’t know a system or a way to do that. So I think really good facilitation can help us go to that deeper essence of who we are as human beings and find that meaning. So when you facilitate groups, you really can help them reflect on what gives meaning to their lives. And it makes them come alive. You know, what it does, it makes them come alive and be alive. And when you tap into that, you can start making decisions from that place, not from this competition or we’re competing for or. And I think I kind of do believe if you’ve got good facilitation and good process, that is possible. But don’t underestimate how much that is so far away from our current ways of working as well.

 Manda: Sure won’t. What kind of size of group, does this work with? How big a group can we bring together and a facilitator can work with them to make that work? I’m thinking, I’m really thinking on practical logistics. If I were running the revolution and I’ve, let’s say, taken over enough of the local internet of this nation that I can give people options. How big a group can I bring together and get that level of reaching the core of who people are or how small the group?

 Anna: So remembering that if we do the work in one group, we’re doing the work of the whole. So there’s something about the fractal nature of… Systems talks about fractals. So if you as a co facilitator with one other person do some work, you’re also doing the work for a wider system. So that’s one premise. There’s also something about facilitating groups around the mark of 20 to 30 that can create a depth. However, you also look at social groupings and you can work up to about one hundred and fifty people. And that is those are the kind of numbers and you can facilitate. But it’s like, how do you work at these fractals? So you’re not just trying to always facilitate a hundred and fifty or twenty five, you’re trying to keep those fractals working and trying to see how that can still ripple out. So when I worked across the education system, we worked with fifty six community practise. Each community practise had about 10 different people in or schools in, that then work with their own schools. So it’s this kind of rippling of capacity and work that you’re networking and knitting that together. It’s not just saying I just need to find the one group that represents the whole. It’s understanding how those things keep networking out and connecting to each other.

 Manda: Yes. Ok, that makes a lot of sense. Ok, so we’re heading towards the end. So as a short question, we might have one more wrapping up after it. As I’m understanding it, the fractal ripples ripple out. And I’m asking you once again, you’ve been working on this for 20 years. You’ve been doing the individual work with people. You’ve been doing the group work. Are you seeing the larger ripples? Or are we hitting up against something that is rippling back the other way?

 Anna: I think, yes, and. I think we are we are seeing more. I think your point about cultural change at younger people and how that is affecting it, I do believe that probably is because they’ve had great teachers and people who engage with them and parents who are shifting what they’re doing. So I think that is happening. And I do think that the old system or the current dominant system is pushing back. So I think both are happening, but I don’t think there’s any other strategy. I don’t think there is anything else we can do, but keep working with that cultural process of relationships.

 Manda: Brilliant. All right. Final question for people listening, who will be, I am sure, completely inspired. Other than coming to the school for system change and joining one of your courses, is there anything that ordinary people out there who, you know, listen to this as they’re driving. What can they do to be part of the change?

 Anna: I guess I’ll go back to where I started, and there’s something about knowing your question and knowing what you’re interested in and where your part is to play. So reflecting and working on that and working with whatever resource you have, if it’s your street, it’s your community. Never thinking that that’s not enough. So there’s something about just taking a look. What do you love? What would you actually like  to spend your Saturday doing or doing your job on? So that is the first question I’d always ask. People don’t try to find the perfect answer. Do stuff that brings you alive. And if you come alive, then the world starts coming alive. And if you start doing that, then all your relationships will. So I think it sort of is as easy as tapping into who you are and how you want to relate to the world and let things flow and really trust that

 Manda: Brilliant and beautiful and amazing. And we just found the title for the podcast, “What do you love?” Get out there and do it. That’s brilliant. Thank you so much, Anna Burney for a really, really inspiring conversation. And that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Anna for engaging so deeply in the possibilities of how we are going to make the changes happen that we need. We are in a moment of astonishing opportunity and change, and yes, things are crumbling. And yes, we need to start supporting each other more than ever because as things stand at the moment, those in charge are really not that interested in supporting anybody but themselves. But I genuinely still believe that another world is still possible and that together we can make it happen. I wouldn’t be doing these podcasts otherwise. And I think that Anna has opened doors into what’s already happening. The ripples that are out there and the idea of the fractal change conversation by conversation, we make the differences that ripple out into the world. And if we can find what we love and do it wholeheartedly, full heartedly, open heartedly, clear heartedly. The world listens to what we give it, and the changes do move outwards.

 Manda: So, you know, your mission for this week, find out what you love. Get out there and do it. And if you want to join other Accidental Gods people, we have a gathering. The final one of this Celtic calendar year is on the day the year rolls over for us, which is the end of October. ‘Dreaming your death awake’ will be on Sunday, 31st of October. It’s on the events section of the website at

You may also like these recent podcasts

Election Special #4: What is Governance for and how can we shape genuine democracy – with Glen Weyl of the Plurality Institute

Election Special #4: What is Governance for and how can we shape genuine democracy – with Glen Weyl of the Plurality Institute

If the current electoral/governance system is not fit for purpose (and who could possibly imagine it was?) how can we lay the foundations for new ways of organising democracy, new ways of voting, new ideas of what governance is for and how it could work in the twenty-first century. How, in short, do we create space for future generations to be able to decide their own futures in ways that are not constrained by material or political strictures they’ve inherited from us?


For a regular supply of ideas about humanity's next evolutionary step, insights into the thinking behind some of the podcasts,  early updates on the guests we'll be having on the show - AND a free Water visualisation that will guide you through a deep immersion in water connection...sign up here.

(NB: This is a free newsletter - it's not joining up to the Membership!  That's a nice, subtle pink button on the 'Join Us' page...) 

Share This