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Using Visual Thinking to Embrace Complexity

By Maura Dilley

Scaling up Impact with Leadership, Systems Thinking & Design

This weekend is the 23rd annual Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California. Paraphrasing from their program materials, Bioneers are leaders co-creating a way forward for our planet and society “from breakdown to breakthrough.”  A common subject of conversation at Bioneers is interconnectedness; here we have people entering the conversation about sustainability from many disciplines, all seemingly magnetized by the opportunity to synchronize their work and worldviews.

Reporting from Bioneers this weekend, I will be doing some of the same, seeking stories about the interconnectedness of Leadership, Systems Thinking and Design and how these disciplines could be working together to scale-up impact for sustainability.

There’s no better mental model to explain the benefits of systems thinking than the literal planet and its position within that system of all systems, the known universe. To fully experience the shock and awe of our simultaneous significance and insignificance, I laid back on a tarp inside the Whidbey GeoDome to watch Earth Portal – a 30-minute film depicting Earth’s place in the stars. Afterwards, I sat down with Designer David McConville and Project Director Rick Ingrasci to hear about why their work visualizing the interconnected and pattern-seeking nature of systems is a strategic component to scaling-up change.

The film is excellent as it manages to be a human story about an inhuman place, outer space.  We begin with stargazing Greeks who were sure Earth was the center of the universe, and then we are reminded of poor Copernicus who suffered for being right. Just as you think, “I got this,” the film takes off on a jaw-dropping journey out to the edge of the known universe, a place recognizable to humans by its organic shapes - spirals, swirls and hoops. Out there, cosmic masses are orbiting around one epicenter or another, and simultaneously these masses are moving together around a centrifugal force stronger than all the rest. Just as you think, “That’s way out of my range,” you learn you can listen to the universe on your kitchen radio, in between stations.  It’s beautiful.

How do we use visual thinking to help people appreciate complexity?

David McConville, designer of the GeoDome and President of Buckminster Fuller Institute, reminds us that Thomas Kuhn coined the term "paradigm shift" in 1962, in reference to the sociologic impact of Copernicus’ heliocentric discovery.  Seeing the known universe gives us the opportunity to revisit our assumptions about the reality of nature. McConville finds that many people talk about needing a new story as part of our imperative to redesign unsustainable systems, but very few people know why we have the old story in the first place. McConville takes us back to the beginning, explaining that, “Aristotle set us up to think in binaries. We need to transcend this logic because it’s driving us collectively insane. Complex interdependence is the reality, and we need to get better at accepting and working with the paradoxes inherent to this realization."

McConville has developed a framework for transformational learning and sustainability to tackle this problem. It is at once a systems view our mental models, a design directive and a guide for leadership. We can see here that visual thinking makes space for systems thinking which in turn seeks design thinking to self-actualize. Seeing, then understanding a system’s complexity will enable you to find maximum leverage points and design appropriate solutions.

Project Director Rick Ingrasci acknowledges that the Whidbey GeoDome is a "special attractor" drawing people in as a novelty not as a learning portal, but at the same time, he feels that, “A picture is worth 1000 words and a metaphor is worth 1000 pictures.” Future thinkers need an epiphany that can recalibrate their worldview; visual metaphors like Earth Portal help people learn to recognize patterns, scale and proportion in a way that’s helpful to the systemic redesign for sustainability necessary on Earth today.

Finally, Rick Ingrasci says, “We’re part of the pattern of nature, Earth Portal is trying to get people to not only experience that but to realize that the solutions are the ones that most elegantly fit into the prominent cosmic order of all things on this planet and beyond, the spirals, the swirls and the hoops. This is where design and leadership come in, we need people who can recognize these patterns and build physically around that.”

You can check out an immersive GeoDome Experience at Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in Petaluma, California October 22, 2012. Invitation here. Visit the IONS website for information. To register, contact Jan Fischer: jfischer@noetic.org.  Tickets are $20.

3p Contributor

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