Episode #31 What humanity wants: Moral Imagination and new kind of change with Phoebe Tickell
Phoebe Tickell is embedded in, and embodies the new sense-making and change-making of the world. Founder of Moral Imaginations and facilitator of Radical Collaboration, Phoebe works in fields as diverse as philanthropic funding at the National Lottery Community Fund, innovative governance models, holistic science curricula and the convening of courses on deep systems thinking.
Here, she explores the nature of reality, how ‘Warm Data’ and a systems approach can help us to percieve the world as it is, as a necessary prerequisite to embodying the change we need to be. She discusses patterning and the development of flies, language and how to grow it into what we need and the psycho-technologies we need to make the best decisions possible in a world currently in systems melt.
Manda: [00:00:11.78] My guest this week is a systems thinker, a change maker, and one of the most radical of the new Imagineer is that I have encountered to date. I met Phoebe Tickell at Schumacher College when she was helping to design the new Holistic Science course there. And I was really impressed by her energy, her vision and her commitment to a different world. She’s a force of nature with the capacity to create change in a heartfelt way. And when people talk about the younger generation being the core of our world shift, Phoebe is a model of how this can be. In her time, she’s been part of setting up Future Farm labs, Enspiral, Going Horizontal and Moral Imaginations, most of which we will talk about in what is, I hope, the first of several conversations.
So, Phoebe Tickell, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast from your chateau in France, which sounds absolutely glorious, although listeners, we have made Phoebe hide under a duvet for the sound quality so if she starts gasping halfway through, and we have to open up for air holes and the sound quality deteriorates. Life is more important than sound quality. Phoebe, welcome. How are you doing?
Phoebe: [00:02:34.66] Thank you so much. I am really excited for this. And it’s got a kind of childhood feel to it as I’m hiding in this duvet fort.
Manda: [00:02:46.23] We met at Schumacher and I was even then impressed by what I saw you doing. And since then, watching you on social media, watching the breadth and the depth of what you are doing, I am deeply in awe of your energy and your vision. So just as a starting point, can you give us a very brief potted history of how you got to where you are now?
Phoebe: [00:03:14.76] Every time I do a history kind of backtrack, it’s always different. That’s just something to pull out that I’m working a lot with story and narrative at the moment. And you know that saying around a person can never stand in the same river twice because they’re not the same person and the river is not the same river. I feel that way about stories and narratives, too. So, I’m a different person. And the river I’m standing in is different. And the story changes. But I will still talk a bit about my journey of getting here. So I thought I would just mention I’m half Hungarian and half English. And I think that’s contributed to who I am in quite a big way. I’ve got a Hungarian mother and an English father. I actually started life speaking Hungarian and then English at nursery and then I would speak Hungarian to my mother in English to my father, which is an interesting way of learning a language.
Manda: [00:04:32.74] And it’s such a differently constructed language. It must be interesting having the mental flexibility to move between both. So Hungary and then to Cambridge.
Phoebe: [00:04:45.79] That’s a good that’s a good next chapter. So spent a lot of my growing up time bouncing between fine art and natural sciences. I could either be found in the art department or I love to spend time in nature. But really I was completely enthralled by chemistry and biology.And just like these natural sciences, I’m learning about how the world worked and on a on a molecular level to an ecological level. I wouldn’t have put it in this language at the time, but now I would say I was completely obsessed with patterns and systems. And that’s just that’s become more and more clear as I’ve grown up.
That led me to Cambridge, which was a really bizarre environment. I had quite an interesting experience, almost anthropological, because I found it so far out in its environment and style. And I’d had such different expectations of of what Cambridge would be like.
Manda: [00:05:59.61] So just tell me a little bit more about the distinction between what you were expecting and what you found. Because I think that probably led into what you did later.
Phoebe: [00:06:09.69] I was expecting the focus to really be on learning and growing as a human being. Growing and all of these different directions. I was expecting interdisciplinary learning and a big focus on kind of a supportive, caring, learning environment. Lots of opportunities for discussion and debate.
Manda: [00:06:39.27] And instead, you found?
Phoebe: [00:06:40.74] I found a speed of moving through vast volumes of material, which meant it felt impossible to keep up in terms of wanting to discuss and go deeper and truly kind of understand and sit with this really universal knowledge. Within the same day, we were learning about how the patterning of flies in their development as they as they grow from eggs to larvae. And then in the next lecture would be learning about plant hormones and how they were used in different gradients to signal to communicate and signal and be in symbiosis with the insect world. And then because I studied plant science, cell biology and neuroscience I would finish the day learning about kind of pain receptors, the motor cortex, how the brain is structured in a way that reflects the physical environment. And it was fascinating, but it felt like there was no time to fully integrate that knowledge and write about it. And we were expected always to create outputs which were very analytical and rational and dry. And I always imagined, what would it be like to have a science degree where the output was also poetry and dance and discussion and salons and sensemaking and all the stuff that I am so pleased I get to do now.
Manda: [00:08:24.16] Much more Schumacher than Cambridge.
Phoebe: [00:08:26.58] It definitely led me to be fascinated by learning environments and how we can create really rigorous but also thriving environments for learning. That led me to to focus on what people call ‘alternative education’ for the years after Cambridge. And eventually led me to Schumacher, where the two of us met.
And it’s led meto so many other things, because for me, learning is life. Or as my friend Nora Beatson says,mutual learning is life. I think that’s a really core concept that just runs throughout.Whether it’s working with organizations or the food system or education. Creating opportunity to learn.
Manda: [00:09:24.17] You do seem to have moved very broadly because you set up Future Farm Labs. Straight after college. you set up 225 academy, which is, as far as I can tell about, about learning and and learning how to lear. Where did the breadth come from and the drive to make things happen?
Phoebe: [00:09:46.19] I think it’s how I learn. It’s how I create. It reminds me, actually, of my art A-levels and all of the parts of my schooling that was art focused.You had these assignments and these projects which would last three months or six months and you would just completely immerse in a topic or some sort of provocation and I would explore it from every single angle.
So one art assignment, was around the urban environment.And I spent hours just wandering through the streets of London with a sketchbook.I would collect litter. I would take photographs of strange buildings and reflections and be playing with the reflections of the urban environment in the water and the glass and then trying to write poetry, trying to speak to people.
So it was this multimedia exploration of of different topics. And it’s also what leads me to believe that everybody should study art at school. Everybody. It should be completely compulsory: Art School for life. Which actually our mutual friend Amber from Holland. She runs an art school for four adults this year.
Manda: [00:11:16.10] We might talk to her on the podcast at some point. That would be exciting. Because it seems to me that as part of moving towards whatever future we are going to grow, then changing the way that we learn has to be central to what we’re doing. So let’s move forward, because I’m aware that time is moving on. I haven’t given you as much time as I wanted to explore how we got to where we are. But let’s look at where you are in terms of the things that are most alive for you just now. And your vision of transformation and how we might bring it about. So there’s a lot in there. You can pick whichever bit feels most alive to start with.
Phoebe: [00:11:58.85] I was just reflecting before this this conversation began, how when I left Cambridge, I was asking all these very big questions and I went to work at Imperial College London as a researcher in a lab. So still as a scientist and I had this project in education on the side and I was doing youth mentorship. So I was doing a lot. But the thing that was really the thing I was noticing about myself, which both I was really happy about, but then also quite worried was I was constantly asking these big questions and these grand narratives. My blog at the time was called ‘What Humanity Wants’. And it was about it was a play on Kevin Kelly’s book ‘What technology wants’.
I was really interested in this humanity level narrative of what does it mean to be human? What is it about this age that is different? What is it about technology which is different? And what do we want? What does humanity want? Where are we going? And how can we actually become a self-authoring species that takes back that authorship within which we are know this accidental godlike species? It’s an amazing name for a podcast. And what do we want with that? And what is the responsibility and what are the moral responsibilities we take? And that that will lead me to answering your question.
Because I was reflecting how wonderful it feels to be nearing the end of my 20s and living life in a way that means that I am more and more surrounded by people and organizations in a society that wants to ask those big questions. And I don’t know if that’s because I’m more in a filter bubble, which is probably partly true. But I also think that the situation is dire enough and serious enough and send us that these questions are becoming important to everyone instead of just an elite.
Manda: [00:14:10.21] Yeah, it would’ve been quite hard to find a filter bubble ten years ago that was as driven as it is possible to find now. I think filter bubbles exist and there are clearly people in other filter bubbles. But I think there are far more people, much more driven to ask these questions now than has ever been the case.
Phoebe: [00:14:31.44] I feel quite strongly about democratizing the asking of big questions and democratizing imagination and these grand narratives and myths, and I really that was part of the point of 225 Academy which was working with children aged 11 – 18 and giving them the opportunity to write the story of their own life in the context of understanding the world and being aware of the world and also aware of the risks and perils. So it was really a Hero’s Journey as a metaphor for everybody. Everybody should be their own life’s hero in a sense. But I also have a lot of problems with the hero narrative.
Manda: [00:15:24.76] Oh, good. I was about to ask. Even even if we call Hero a gender neutral term, it seems to me that we need a new absolutely way of framing this. Because the Hero’s (or Heroic) Journey has got us to here. And here is an interesting place. But it could run us into a brick wall quite hard. So maybe for people who don’t know, could you describe the hero’s journey and then describe the issues that you find with it? And then if you found an answer, I would be so interested.
Phoebe: [00:15:56.24] Goodness. I mean, I think you’d probably be better at describing the hero’s journey, because I know you are also deeply in the world of myths and storytelling. But I’m in a very, very basic summary. I’d say Joseph Campbell created this tory archetype of the hero’s journey. This common story or myth that seemingly runs throughout many of the stories that people, humans tell.
Especially if you look into the film industry, into Hollywood, there is often a Heroic Journey where a normal person, everyday person suddenly goes through a crisis or a challenge and often almost dies and then comes out the other side. She or he goes through a dark night of the soul initiation experience, comes out the other side realizes some things, whether whether it’s that powerful or love, saves the day. And these kind of large, huge humanity level realizations. And then they come out a different person.
Manda: [00:17:13.31] There’s often a mentor figure. I think I think the key is that kind of invitation to cross the line to another form of reality. I think shaking up the existing stability is key. There tends often to be a resistance to begin with. And then an impulsion that is impossible to ignore. And then exactly as you said, that experience of cycling down into the underworld, the discovery of a gift, something that will be transformative – and bringing that back to the newly changed world, that can never go back to what it was.
These seem to me the core parts of it. And when we teach Changing the Narrative at Schumacher, we always come back to saying ‘Here is the hero’s journey. There are very, very few human narratives that cannot be mapped onto this if you take it down to its bare bones: challenge and the individual -or sometimes the collective – overcoming the challenge by discovering their either inner or sometimes outer gift of some sort. And then bringing that back to the collective.
It’s a wonderful, wonderful story of human development. But I am increasingly thinking that, we need something. More of them this to bring us to whatever it is that we as Accidental Gods can become. I know that you’ve really looked into this and I’m wondering if you’ve either identified where the holes are that we need to plug or found ways of of taking the Heroic Journey through its own hero’s journey and finding something new.
Phoebe: [00:18:58.83] I would answer that probably with multiple parts to how I have thought about this. One part is that a lot of people are waking up to the fact that the narrative of a hero can be toxic. And you’ve seen that in the response to Covid and this story of the NHS workers being heroes, almost sacrificing themselves for the larger population. And you know how unfair this is and how these are not heroes. These are people who may not even feel like they have a choice.
This might be that any source of livelihood and it felt twisted to glorify something that is far more complex and multi faceted as as this very basic Heroic Story. So I think one piece is that it is simplistic and it can be weaponized, in the way that all stories and narratives can be weaponized, so can the story of the hero.
And another piece, though, is before we throw away this really deep, mythic narrative that the call to growth, the call to answering a question, to investigation, to exploration and adventure, to the undertaking of the journey, the underworld, the dark night of the soul, and then the integration, theinitiation and coming out transformed with gifts to take back.
I think there’s still a lot of beauty in that. And I think I think it’s not something to throw away. I think potentially it could be one stage of a far more complex and long term journey. Because obviously, after you go through that initiation, what do you do then? What do you do with that newfound power or responsibility or place in the world?
And I would venture to say most people on the planet haven’t had the opportunity to go through their own Heroic Journey. If you’re someone who has grown up and immediately had to enter the world of work or maybe you managed to get a degree and then enter the work force and it’s just one day after another, and you’re allowed to have, a week or two weeks of holiday. And usually in that time, you’re so exhausted because of the level of work and intensity of the modern age and the fact that you’re always plugged in to some sort of distraction, some sort of limbic hijack.
We could talk so much about the impact of technology on our perception and states of being. I really avoid the word consciousness when I can. I think I said it earlier, but I am really trying to be strict with the word consciousness because I think it means so many different things to different people. And it can feel unrigourous. What are we talking about when we talk about consciousness. So just a little just a little side note.
Manda: [00:22:21.66] Ok. Interesting.We could explore that one another time, I would love to cause it, cause Accidental Gods is driving towards conscious evolution, but then we would have to define what consciousness is. It would be a podcast that might only interest you and me. But anyway, another time. So, yes, impact technology and ways of being, however, is huge. And dopamine pathways versus serotonin pathways are huge.
Phoebe: [00:22:50.97] Exactly. So many things that are dragging us out of presence and a state, as I said,of self-authorship. And I think the hero’s journey speaks to people who may have time to go into their own story of why they’re here, what their purpose is. And it can seem really selfish. It could be really easy to dismiss that as a selfish thing to do. But I also feel that if everybody was truly connecting to why they think they’re here and what it is hat would make a good life for them? What is their definition of a good life? What are they here to do then? I think we’d live in a very different world. So I don’t know if it’s selfish. I think it’s quite earth centric to to really connect to why you’re here.
Manda: [00:23:47.11] I had never considered it as selfish. Have you had it sounds as if you’re responding to conversations where that has been the case.
Phoebe: [00:23:56.31] I’ve heard people speak about the Heroic Journey as being individualistic and self-centered, and selfish. And I think that’s what I’m doing is pushing back against that. But then what I would go on to say is that I believe that there is space for an interdependent version of a hero’s journey. Which would ask, can we all be growing together and actually building relationships? There’s not much focus in the Heroic Journey on relationships and building ecology and the interdependency of life and what we do with that,
Manda: [00:24:41.52] Unless that’s what we find as we go down into the under world, is the necessity for that? You could turn the hero’s journey into a libertarian mythology of individuation and solitude. But I would be quite surprised if we took the greater mass of humanity and actually gave them the space and the time and the connectedness to the More than Human world that is required to really find our place on the planet – and then discover that everybody wanted to head off totally in solitude and do their own thing. So it depends where you’re framing comes from.
Phoebe: [00:25:20.95] I often talk about the dark, dark material that we are swimming in. I really see it in my mind’s eye as this invisible liquid that we swim in that is created by our shared myths, narratives, values, economy, governance…these these intangible architectures. And that’s what I would say my focus is on at the moment. How do we put language onto this invisible matrix that influences our desires, what we grow up thinking of role is on this planet, what we decide would make a good life?
Manda: [00:26:08.09] So this is exactly where I wanted to go is. I would phrase that as ‘Changing the narrative’. The narrative is this matrix that you describe that influences everything to the point where it’s easier to imagine the extinction of pretty much every living species on the planet than it is to imagine changing that matrix. Because we are so embedded in it that we can’t see beyond it. So how can we begin to shift that? That seems to be the focus of what you’re working on with Moral Imaginations and with your Radical Collaboration’s. Can you talk about that then?
Phoebe: [00:26:48.46] I would say that the last five or six years I’ve been working on this. I started with how to create learning environments and now it’s really getting a sense of these different factors. This matrix that creates this patterning field, just like when you have flies, that I remember learning about in my lectures: the the way that flies developed and the way that all embryos and plants develop is through this patterning that is created by different gradients and patterns. And then the actual physical matter of their bodies develops within these fields. And that is what happens to us and to our to our minds. I would say that the ways that I’m working on that now, are around how to shift perception. And I work on this closely with with others who are brilliant and I feel very, very lucky to to work alongside.
Currently my focus is around firstly narratives. So there’s a project that I’ve been running for the last two and a half months, supported by an organization called Unbound Philanthropy, who works on policy making and narrative change for migrants and immigrants and refugees. I’ve been working with them on convening groups of people across civil society, people all the way from strategic communications experts, media experts, funders, storytellers, people who work on narrative from very different parts of society and who bring very different perspectives.
And it’s really interesting because some of those people work in, say, advertising and have very, very good skills of narratives that have been applying them to selling things. And then you’ve got activists or politicians who are using narrative in a very different way. And it’s it’s been fascinating to start teasing out what are the tools of narrative? How do we construct meta narratives that could change this? This kind of matrix or this fluid that we’re swimming in towards a more just healthy, equitable future?
Manda: [00:29:24.74] How can we do this? Because this is exactly what I’m trying to do with the work that I’m doing at the moment.So how can we do this? How can we change the meta-narrative?
Phoebe: [00:29:36.06] Well, from what I see of your work, you’re absolutely doing that. Writing and creating new stories and also organizing kind of experience show narrative shifts for people. We met in Schumacher. The number of people that I see go through Schumacher and completely shift their narrative of how the world works, who they are and what they’re here to do. I really feel that places like Schumacher are so important as kind of melting pots for narrative and narrative change.
Manda: [00:30:10.97] So for people listening, there will be some who don’t even know what Schumacher is. So Schumacher College is in Devon and it functions at its best as an intentional community of learning. It’s based on the style of an Ashram. So we get up in the morning and we meditate and then we have breakfast together and then we have time working together. The head, hands and heart metaphor of life where everything is brought together in service to the community and in service to learning is huge.
And being amongst a community where, however desperate we are, the intention is for the thriving of the community and for the betterment of the community and having the facilitation of people who are skilled in helping us to resolve the knots that arise – because knots inevitably arise – Was for me, a transformative experience. And you’re right. I certainly haven’t seen anybody go through even a relatively short term week-Long Schumacher experience and not come out the other side with a radically different concept of how the world can be. How can we raise that at scale? Because Schumacher has a limited throughput. Have you had ideas of how to create that experience on a wider scale?
Phoebe: [00:31:37.75] I have. I have to be careful, though, with them. The number of things that I, I let myself think about, I do a lot of working out loud and I see people who are on social media I use social media in a very different way, I’ve been told, to the normal way of using. I really use it as an open forum of publishing kind of any thoughts and ideas and getting feedback on it. I’m being very careful with myself about what I focus on, because right now I’m so clear on the parts of this puzzle that I’m here to to work on.
Manda: [00:32:19.19] So let’s talk about the parts that you are clear with.
Phoebe: [00:32:21.67] The parts that I’m working on that I feel really excited about are really around this shifting of perception. So that leads me to talk about this project, Moral Imaginations, which is really something have been working on for the last nine months. But I’d say it’s a combination of something that I’ve been working on for far longer than that.
What it’s about is really developing tools, practices and a community that to strengthen the muscle of Moral Imagination. And I really believe that the Moral Imagination is a muscle and an approach and a world view that basically needs to have a massive resurgence in the next 10 years.
Manda: [00:33:16.72] Can you say it what a Moral Imagination is for you? Give us a definition first.
Phoebe: [00:33:22.13] The Moral Imagination is the combination of moral responsibility and developing a sense of moral responsibility and for life on earth, to stand for life on Earth and to take our place as activists in whatever form that that is. I use the word activist, but I know there’s a lot of baggage around that term. I really believe that all of us, whether we work as permaculture gardeners or bankers or politicians or teachers, can become activist-stewards, active agents and citizens of of life. Life being both nature, but also society and this fabric of life that we’re all part of.
So there’s this moral responsibility part. And I feel really excited about that because I feel as if morals and doing the right thing have become really flat and boring. And sometimes it’s associated with guilt. Like not recycling enough or on the other side, this kind of virtue signalling of being a good person and almost competing to be a better person than everyone else. And I think we need a perception revolution around morals, being moral and doing the right thing.
The imagination part is what I love to combine with that growing muscle and how to be moral in the 21st century in this moment. What is the right thing to do? While at the same time, creatively and unboundedly imagining, a more beautiful world, a world of possibility and innovation and akind of abundant imagination combined with this heartfelt responsibility of standing on behalf of all life. And something about bringing those together just feels really exciting and compelling.
Manda: [00:35:41.05] Brilliant. Because it’s a way of creating the patterning fields that you spoke of earlier that would allow our reality to then build itself upon a different structure.
Phoebe: [00:35:53.60] Exactly. And it’s also about bringing I think, bringing back an element of sincerity that I sometimes I feel has been missing from the progressive left and the other discourse around changing the world and systems change. This almost childlike sincerity and love for the world needs to arise while not making it performative or over the top.
I’m very inspired by one of my teachers, Joanna Macy, who is a really central part to this project. And she’s the one who introduced me to the term Moral Imagination. This is a term that’s been used throughout the ages, actually, since Aristotle. And then there was someone in 1790, an academic who who wrote about very briefly, just like the Moral Imagination. It resurfaces throughout history in different ways.
But the thing that we are doing differently in the Moral Imaginations Project is that we are bringing a practice approach to that. So how can we actually develop practices of Moral Imaginations to do together to bring into decision making, to bring into organizations, to practice amongst community and activists to strengthen that muscle?
Manda: [00:37:24.07] And is that working? Are you finding that you are able to develop tools that are road tested in the outside world?
Phoebe: [00:37:32.16] Yes. When Covid hit, I published a moral imagination story called The Impossible Train Story as an exercise in moral imagination. This was a story about a train and about people who live on a train and they’ve lived on a train since they can remember. They don’t remember a time when they weren’t on this train. And on the train, there are difficult living conditions. There’s inequality there. There’s a ruling class. There are people who sleep in the aisles of the train and don’t have places to sleep.
And suddenly there’s a fire in one of the carriages and the train stops and the brakes that nobody knew existed start to work. And suddenly the train stops and everybody is completely confused and frightened and people start getting off the train and experience the world that is outside the train. And it’s beautiful. And they hear birdsong. And suddenly all of the people on the train who don’t have anywhere to sleep are ordered to be housed and to be given beds.
The end of the story is an invitation to finish the story, because what happens is the people look ahead of the train and they see a cliff edge and they see that actually the train was moving towards a cliff edge all along and that this fire has given them an opportunity to change the direction of the train.
Some people start ripping up the train tracks and others are fighting them because they’ve got investments in the train. And then there’s an invitation to finish that story. And the response to that was so strong. I was really surprised by the strength of the response.And at the end of the story, there was an invitation to join a weekly session for six weeks during the lockdown and practice these Moral Imaginations exercises and keep developing this community.
We had about two hundred and fifty people join those sessions throughout that time. And the feedback was so strong that people just want to be able to imagine together, imagine different outcomes, imagine different ways of living life and different possibilities. And what if things were different? And what if we did rip up the tracks of the train? And what if we planted permaculture gardens and but what if we got back on the train? What would we do? Where would it go? And so it was like this.
This what we called it was serious play. because again in moral imaginations, there’s the seriousness of the moral, because it’s as serious as if the world was coming to an end. But it’s also imagination and play because actually, where else is the new world going to be born from? It’s going to come from that place of imagination and play and possibility. And I think world-building happens at the boundaries between where this world exists and where the imaginary world comes into existence: that place. That boundary place.
Manda: [00:41:04.23] At the edges. And so, broadly in the U.K., we are kind of doddering our way out of lockdown into something less well defined.And it does seem distressingly as if the conventional narrative of the way the world is has reasserted itself in spite of a lot of polls that I’ve seen in which 10 percent of people want world to go back to what it was, which suggests to me that the other 90 percent don’t.
But the 10 percent of the ones who hold the reins of power. Are you seeing with the Moral Imaginations any infiltration into what we might broadly call the ruling class? And we could have an entire podcast discussing that, but let’s not go down that definitional rabbit hole. Are you seeing cracks in the dam at all?
Because my hope is that we end up with something a little bit like the Berlin Wall coming down, in which it looks like it’s going to stay forever. And it looks as if the ruling structure is holding it in place. But actually, under the surface is an extraordinary mycelia network of growth and hope and innovation. And The the tiny crack starts and very soon the whole thing disintegrates. And I would like this to be the case, but I have no evidence that it actually is. And you’re at the cutting edge of this. Are you seeing moves within the ruling structure of people wanting to be different?
Phoebe: [00:42:36.90] I would say we are in a total systems melt and that melt will happen non-linearly, that there will be pockets of breakdown and change and unraveling, Joanna Macy calls to us about the Great Unraveling. And also, power is non-linear. You have the people who run organizations and you could think about this in a really neat kind of hierarchical linear diagram in which we need to target that top ruling class and then everything will change.
But actually, power is so non-linear and complex and often that people ho are running large organizations or funding bodies or research centers are being influenced by all sorts of other people and factors. And it’s a really complex landscape. And I do feel like, especially since Covid, there is a shifting in terms of what is allowed to be talked about.
And Black Lives Matter and the events of the last few weeks or months have directly contributed to that. I don’t ascribe to optimism or pessimism anymore. I find that it is completely unhelpful because time is also fundamentally non-linear, and it feels like the universe is non-linear. So somehow optimism or pessimism or a sense of kind of causality of this will lead to this and then we’ll leave there and then we’ll be here. Doesn’t feel like the right thing to do to think about.
Manda: [00:44:23.73] Yes. And the patterning, the patterning fields impinge on this. I listened to a podcast with Douglas Hoffman with Future Thinkers yesterday who in very precise mathematical terms, described the fact that space time basically doesn’t really exist. That everything is patterned around consciousness and on a spiritual level that’s so obvious. And yet hearing it laid out in terms that meshed with our more materialist narrative kind of exploded things in a way that allowed me to see that the more we can work within the patterning fields, the more that we can create a fluidity and a flexibility of our consciousness beyond where it is at the moment, the more reality is able to orient around it.
So when I was at school, we did experiments quite young where we would put two magnets down and then scatter iron filings. And you could see the lines of force and it felt like a kind of magic. And this is what I’m feeling at this moment: this concept of patterning fields and the real radical felt sense that we live in a world of consciousness and that we we know at an intellectual level – anybody who read the Tao of Physics back in the 80s (before Phoebe was born!) Knows that we create our own reality.
But that is settled in for me in a way that it hadn’t before. And I think because my own muscles of consciousness have been stretched recently in ways that they hadn’t before, that the concept that if we change the nature of the magnets, we change the nature of the fields between them and we change the way that the Aarne filings align across those fields, and then we change the nature of reality. Does that sit with you? Did you do that as a child?
Phoebe: [00:46:26.21] Yes, I remember. It does sit with me and it and I do remember doing that as a child. And this is what this overarching theme of the work I’m talking about of this dark material, this fluid, these fields of Manomaya, which means man made reality, our will and actions and desires and patterning of how we play out our lives and how we build buildings. And all of that happens within these fields. And and I like the metaphor of the magnets and the magnetic and the little iron filings.
And for me, you know, the biological metaphor I use is the one of the the fly and the patterning just because it’s so clearly etched into my memory. And I also did an art project which was around creating an enormous two by two metre biro drawing of a fly and then etching it into Perspex. And so there’s something about flies which seems to be etched into my psyche.
This patterning, you mentioned the Tao of Physics and for Capra and I worked with frit just as his course development manager for his Systems view of Life Course, which I really recommend the CapraCourse to people who are interested in systems thinking. It is online needs, it’s CapraCourse.net.
But I would at this point want to mention the father of much of this work, Gregory Beatson and his work on cybernetics. Gregory wis somebody who I’m learning so much about through his daughter, Nora Bateson. But he feels like a mentor to me beyond the grave. And I’ve had some experiences recently where I’ve really felt his presence and and I heard him speaking. And there are people, shamans of the Western world. .
Manda: [00:48:47.18] A lot of our listeners probably haven’t heard of Gregory Bateson. And so in a few sentences, can you say what it is of his work that inspires you?
Phoebe: [00:48:56.75] Absolutely. So Gregory basically lived in a systems view of life. When we talk about systems thinking and perceiving complexity, Gregory was living in a state of perception, whether that is how he viewed the world, these interdependencies. Clearly I’m learning all of this through his daughter, Nora. I can’t speak about Gregory in the same way, but he started off as an anthropologist and he moved between linguistics and studying dolphins and animal behavior. He was also a psychotherapist. He worked with families and he brought the systems thinking lens, especially to the field of psychology in that, a really good metaphor for understanding what Nora has coined ‘warm data’, which is the matter, the data that comes out of complex systems.
So I’m just going to take a tiny aside and explain explain ‘warm data’. So ‘cold data’ is the data that we extract from the world to analyze and to ration the kind of extracted from its context. It’s when we take animals or living things, we put them into the lab, we keep all the conditions the same, and we extract this cold data, which is usually in numerical form.
Manda: [00:50:20.65] And we think it’s objective and we think it’s standard.
Phoebe: [00:50:23.48] Exactly. And we’re obsessed with trying to take the observer out of the equation, whereas actually science can’t be done without human beings and the subjective experience of being a human being and consciousness. This human awareness is intricate is an integral part of science. But we try and pretend that it’s completely objective.
This is what the holistic science course Schumacher partly focuses on. I was part of the team of the holistic science faculty for about a year. And that’s that’s a whole story that that’s the connection to Schumacher. But Nora has coined this term ‘warm data’, which is the data that you keep, which stays embedded in its different contexts. And that’s quite an abstract thing, but it’s very helpful in terms of describing complex systems and this warm data.
And so when we talk about warmm data, a really good example is family. If you tried to scientifically describe a family, you could try and list the people in the family. You could do a DNA/genotype profile of all the microbiomes of the people in the family. We could write down how tall people are. We could write down how they did at school. Maybe we could do that or draw a graph.
There’s all these cold data ways of trying to understand what a family is. But actually you could do infinite cold data mapping of a family and still not understand the warm data that makes a family a family. What did this person have for breakfast? What’s the power dynamic between this person and that person? What mood is this person in and what is triggered by that memory of that other family member in that conversation and that disappointment and that trust?
There’s so much richness of data in a family. So that just gives a little bit of space to talking about the Batesons who have had a huge influence on me and has a part in my ancestral story as well, and kind of spooky ways.
Manda: [00:52:41.75] What is it other than the concept warm and cold data, specifically with a view to this idea of the the dark matter, whatever it is that we’re calling it, the the field that we’re wanting to influence. How are the batesons influencing your view of that?
Phoebe: [00:52:59.84] Nora and Gregory, gave me more of a language and and a perception of the importance of everything that we cannot put language to, and we cannot see. Because because we grow up in reductionist schooling, we grow up developing these filters onto the world where we see cold data. I’ve kind of gained a language and a framing for understanding better what I was trying to talk about.
I was using my own language of Fields or Dark Matter or Dark Materials. And this is basically perceiving complexity, perceiving the complexity or perceiving life for really what it is. And that is one part, of the great transformation that needs to happen of our society. To move towards a life sustaining society is to develop perception where we actually perceive the world as it is. And from that, develop new economics, develop new value systems.
To give a really tangible example. I put this on Facebook the other day, thinking about it when we try and put value on a tree, previously we would have maybe put the price of the wood that the tree is made out of, the number of books that can be made out of the tree or whatever it is like that is not truly perceiving the value of that tree. The number of organisms that depend on that tree: there is an ecosystem, the oxygen that that tree generates for us to to stay alive like that. That is true perception. And training ourselves to better perceive the world and complexity and nature as it is, will better allow us to live in harmony and work with nature.
And one really fundamental pattern of nature and biology is relationship and is interdependency. And that’s where what I’m calling Radical Collaboration comes into play. I’m currently working at the National Lottery Community Fund. Alarge amount of my time is spent there and I work a lot in this UK civil society sector. And there’s a sense of the need for cross-sector collaboration on a scale that we’ve never seen before. And kind of larger than that, I think anybody who is working on behalf of life and trying to change the system and working for society – we need to be working together in a way that is so radical that looks far more like a forest than it does look like society.
Because in a way, it doesn’t matter if you or me or anyone else kind of wins if the planet dies. That is the shift has to.happen.
Manda: [00:56:13.85] Ans are more people understand this in your radical collaboration? And are we finding ways to facilitate their connections in a warm data way that allows them to find ways to move beyond the win/lose narrative. Because we have lived in a sense of win/lose forever. Schmachtenberger and the others call Plan A the win/lose and that we need to move to Game B, which is the win/win option. Everybody wins, including the planet. Is that becoming a more widespread concept within the civil sector that you inhabit?
Phoebe: [00:56:53.68] I think it’s right at the beginning. I think when I speak about these topics and this point of view, people agree they don’t really get it. When I host spaces of collective sensemaking and truly kind of win/win environments where I or others act as the stewards of that space to create space which is actually safe, so that people are held accountable. If language is used that is kind of combative or if there’s one-upping or win/lose dynamics, that is kind of just facilitated or gently shifted.
There’s a lot of ninja facilitation that is needed because calling it out in a combative ways adds to that whole dynamic. So hen people experience that, even if they don’t necessarily resonate with the language being used or they haven’t kind of got it, what they say is I really like these spaces. I want to come back.
Manda: [00:58:00.79] So we’re changing the dark matter in a way that is an actual shifting of the two magnets. You’re shifting the shape of the magnetic field without necessarily doing it in a head-based way. Shifting heart-minds.
Phoebe: [00:58:17.08] Yes, exactly. And this brings us back to the thing we spoke about briefly before we started, which is about feeling the future, feeling what a new future, a new way of being, a new way of acting together, being together, living could be like I think as humans.
I’m about to say something very obvious, which is that we exist in bodies, which is should be obvious, but actually, this feels quite radical. George Lakoff talks about about embodied cognition. And I think this is important and not integrated enough into how we try and make change and change narratives.
My friend and mentor, Mark Winn, talks a lot about this and really embodies it. He’s based in Guernsey and works with the local government there. And for him, it’s so important that at the beginning of an important meeting, everybody is in what he calls a High State. Which doesn’t mean you go and drink a bunch of beers get really merry, but even so, when you work with organizations, often you realize that most of the decisions happen in the pub because everybody’s in a high state. So it’s really quite logical and rational. But creating these spaces where we can feel and be embodying our better selves and be in a state of ease and enjoyment and kindness… we’re far more likely to be kind when we’re feeling relaxed and safe and seen. So working at that level.
Manda: [01:00:11.98] But for people listening, if they were wanting to begin to facilitate meetings, even local Parish Council level or, you know, our local Marches Grow Local group. If we wanted to enable people to be in the best possible state to begin making decisions, is there some kind of a framework?
Phoebe: [01:00:32.85] This is what the Moral Imaginations Project is about – developing those recipes and practices to do this kind of serious play or to create spaces where complexity is allowed. There are also many other tool kits: Theory U, or Liberating Structures, which I think is a good place to start. Because even just by using different facilitation patterns, even if you don’t do anything else, even if you’re just deadly serious and you don’t embody any kind of shift in feeling, just the act of moving from a whole group into a group of three into a feedback into a fishbowl – and you can look up each of these on the Liberating Sturctures website – I think it ignites a kind of playfulness and flexibility and openness. And it takes us back to our childhood where we used to kind of do this all the time, when we used to play in these different ways.
I think the more that we can also work on embodying the change and the kind of future we want to see an end to embody that playfulness, that kindness, that easefulness, so that other people can also have the permission, permission to do that, that’s also a big part of it.
Manda: [01:02:15.75] Because what I’m hearing from you is that while it matters that we find the language to help ourselves change this field of perception in which we swim. It may be that the embodiment happens first and the language follows rather than us having to be able to find words for something that at the moment we are only fleetingly experiencing. Does that sound like something that fits?
Phoebe: [01:02:45.04] Yes. We’ve tried we’ve tried language a lot. I mean, look at the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN created these 17 or 18 Sustainable Development Goals, saying, for instance, we need to eradicate poverty, we need good food systems – a whole list of language and goals and nothing necessarily changes just because you say you need to do that.
Manda: [01:03:19.52] We are definitely running towards the end of our time. So for people listening, moving towards warm data rather than cold data, moving towards embodying the change that we need to see, which we’ve heard since Gandhi first said it. Is there anything else that you would like to leave people with as something that gives them a sense of agency that they can take out into the world now and begin to work with or places they can find online resources where they can begin to explore more deeply?
Phoebe: [01:03:54.38] I would leave people with the permission to morally imagine different futures and if it’s interesting to them to. visit moralimaginations.com, or get in touch and join our sessions and join this growing community of serious play. In my opinion, Systems Thinking at the core of us returning to perceiving the world as it is. And I hope the future of Cambridge is that it becomes a systems thinking university. And every university and every education program helps children and young people develop an understanding about the world that is based in complexity and systems. And I think on the topic of Radical Collaboration, looking up, Liberating Structures, looking up a body of work called Going Horizontal, which is written by Samantha Slade and is something I use in some of the courses I’ve taught on organizing mycelium.
And these are very practical tools and approaches to learn how to collaborate and how to share power and how to distribute governance. So that can be within an organization or in a family or in a relationship. And so that’s also something to look up. We’ve mentioned so many things, but those are some of the things I’d leave you in the Moral Imagination, Radical Collaboration and embodying the future you want to see.
Manda: [01:05:41.38] Thank you very much indeed. I will put links to all of these in the show notes. So thank you, Phoebe, for taking the time and giving us such a breadth and depth of things to play with.
Phoebe: [01:05:53.45] Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Manda: [01:05:56.51] So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to Phoebe for the range and breadth and depth of her thinking and for being such an inspiring role model.
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