Reflexivity for sustainable futures: AR+ welcomes Cynthia Mitchell, UT Sydney.

I’m speaking with Distinguished Professor of Sustainability and Deputy Director Dr. Cynthia Mitchell of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. Over the past 20 years, Cynthia’s led her group with a focus on stewarding transformations towards regenerative futures.  Cynthia is now leading a new stewarding affiliation with AR+ “for and with undergraduate and postgraduate students, themselves as university staff, and collaborators and clients in community/government/industry.” A central link is this work is our mutual passion for reflexivity, or turning the camera around on ourselves, so that the inner and outer work link up.

I spoke to Cynthia in her “bush block” cottage on the edge of the Blue Mountains World Heritage National Park about an hour by train from Sydney.

Hilary: I got to know you a bit better in our MICA coLAB earlier this year. Thanks for joining in. I realized we share a passion for bringing reflexivity to our work of sustainability. Now I’m delighted that you and your colleagues are stepping more into AR+ so we can accomplish more together. I’d like to start our conversation with your sharing more of why reflexivity is so important. And what does reflexivity mean for you in terms of practice and sustainability?

Cynthia: A couple of years ago, I was honored to be named a Legend of Water by our national water industry association. The celebration of these awards is set up to be lighthearted – there’s an MC who does a Michael Parkinson [famous British Media interviewer] style interview with that year’s awardees. So the Michael-Parkinson-stand-in and I were meeting to go through the questions before the event, and he says to me, ‘So Cynthia, if you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one thing you would change?’ And my answer was emphatically and immediately ‘Our capacity for critical reflection’.

Hilary: A bit like I started. Except I am a not-famous Irish interviewer.

Cynthia: I’m reminded that the concept of reflexivity often struggles to find a landing, perhaps especially so in a room of very practical, ‘hands dirty’, engineers and economists. At the time I came up with a different answer that is about realizing how actually, people and nature are one and the same.

Hilary: That’s a good start for ARTists too. We sense being relational and practical is important, because we are interdependent. Pity our education keeps teaching us to focus on where we are separate. How are you helping your students unlearn the emphasis on fragmentation in scientific education?

Cynthia: I’ve been working in and researching the processes of transdisciplinary (TD) research for nearly two decades, and I’ve had a couple of wonderful students over the last 8 years who’ve been exploring the relationship between worldviews and transformations. I took these two pillars into the work I did in Switzerland last year as a visiting scholar at their Federal Water Research Institute. In that project, our core question was why do we find this transdisciplinary stuff so hard, particularly the leadership of it. And facilitating integration within it.

I’ve had the idea for some time that it’s not just our disciplinary differences – there’s something else at play that makes the communication so hard for some people.  Last year I had time to do some interviews and dig around in various literatures, which brought me to pondering and exploring developmental psychology models, capacity for systems thinking, disciplinary epistemological and ontological differences, and learning.

Hilary: Some light reading in the Swiss Alps! So you’re linking adult developmental frameworks to your perspectives on reflexivity and transdisciplinarity? Around AR+ we sometimes call those frameworks adult vertical development. I emphasize how important this is for working toward mutuality in our participative work.

Cynthia: My synthesis gave me the new insight that cognitive reflexivity, and our capacity for that, is really important. I know how we think about our thinking is key, but that whole idea just hit home in a new way. Roughly speaking, most developmental models can be represented in three tiers –at early stages of thinking or maturity we have dualist either/or thinking, then comes multiple truths, and later at more mature stages, more of a contextual orientation. That last one, which is pretty rare and not well taught or supported, is all about the capacity to admit the value of difference – to notice, be respectful and inquiring of, to hold space for, and be prepared to change one’s own point of view on account of that difference. In other words, the capacity to listen deeply and to hear other perspectives and to be changed by the other perspectives. So far so good, right?

Hilary: Yeah very good. I hear you saying that unless and until we cultivate the capacity to listen deeply and take in other perspectives and allow ourselves to be occasionally changed – then we will keep doing what we have always done which is now pretty unsustainable way of living. And as you saw in MICA we think the creative arts and mindfulness practices helps grow our capacity for working with more parts of ourselves and therefore with other stakeholders.


Cynthia: Right. So with this new insight, I looked back over my time at the Institute – over two decades and literally hundreds of transdisciplinary projects with paying clients from industry and government and this great big light went on. Our mission at ISF is to create change towards sustainable futures. And of course it’s actually our partners – our collaborators – who do that. We just help them. So looking back, there was a pattern. I knew we’d been able to create ‘great’ change when we had a ‘great’ team and ‘great’ partners, but I didn’t have a language for what ‘great’ was. I knew I really enjoyed working with those people, and often formed ongoing friendships, but I couldn’t go further. But when I tried to look at different transdisciplinary experiences with my new lens, it was like someone had given me the lid of the jigsaw box – all of a sudden I could see the landscape in a different way. What became crystal clear was that when a project’s core contacts were operating from that upper level of development, magic happened.

Hilary: For me it was also a lightbulb when I learned of this from Bill Torbert. I have also interviewed Tomas Bjorkman who sees this field of adult development as key to social transformation. I realize that when I started AR+ I would say almost verbatim what you’re saying, that when a group of people who can operate with more maturity, being post-conventional together – magic can happen. But listening to you today I realize that I have been a bit evasive about the developmental work for Action Research Transformation. Similar to you in the room with the economists and engineers. I feel it’s so important but it doesn’t land so well. And I think that’s in part because of the sense that reflexivity, which I’d say is the engine of adult development is misunderstood. And it’s hard not to have it land as hierarchical. Some people can bring reflexivity it and some can’t.

Cynthia: Yeah, it’s the level and stages component of human development. I still haven’t found a comfortable landing on that. Richard Bawden, a dear friend and deep scholar, and I have talked a lot about this. Richard led a mind-boggling agricultural-science-as-if-the-world mattered program at Hawkesbury Agricultural College in the 80’s and 90’s. It was completely pioneering and incredibly bold – a full-on go at a systemic learning approach. Way ahead of its time. Richard remains adamant that it’s not “hierarchical” to compare either/or thinking and later stages.  Certainly not simply better or worse.

Hilary: I wonder how to de-emphasize the growth of cognitive complexity – reflexivity does mean we can engage multiple perspectives but that can be rather dry and wordy. Instead we can celebrate how at later stages other ways of knowing come on line, such as a valuing of aesthetics, a capacity for finding simplicity beyond the complexity?

Cynthia: Absolutely – I think there’s a wonderful freedom that comes with letting go of the need to know/be right, when we move into the contextual realm. And you know, this week, I went to a wonderful lecture from Tyson Yunkaporta on his wonderful new book, Sand Talk. Tyson is an inspiring indigenous scholar and larrikin.

Hilary: I think that’s what we might call a lad.

Cynthia: Yep. And Tyson started by saying ‘This isn’t a lecture, it’s a yarn’. One of many fascinating comments he made was about a central characteristic of indigenous ways of knowing is that, it’s OK to hold contradictory views. And that might be the way round the ‘is it a hierarchy but not a hierarchy’ dilemma. My training back in the day was engineering and science, and my dad was a magistrate, so dualism is deeply embedded in my history.

Hilary: With dualism someone is good and someone is bad, right. And we’re all so steeped now in the Western tradition that cognitive knowing seems automatically better and more important than actually living well, then feeling ourselves alive on a living planet. But if we’re lucky we also have access to spaces where cognitive work in put its right place, maybe alongside yarns and poems and dance. Cognitive knowledge is fabulous right – we’re PhD people, who are we kidding.  But I’m amazed myself in AR+ how far we can get through, say, difficult conversations when we stop and use gestures rather than endlessly complex formulations that describe our positions in an argument. Movement toward collaboration through gesture takes just a moment. Argument takes forever. 

Cynthia: So maybe this idea of holding contradictory views simultaneously is not only possible, in fact, it’s preferable, because the richness of what we know is some kind of aggregate of these contradictory positions. And that’s another piece that I really want to strengthen through our AR+ connection – engaging with and supporting and learning from/with indigenous scholarship and experience. I’ve done some work within and with indigenous communities and scholars and I saw that’s a focus for you and the MICA folk, [Catherine Etmanski brought a practice where we learned about Canadian residential schools for Indigenous children and used artistic methods to process the horror; a participant shared his experience of being an Indigenous person in Europe].

I really want to strengthen that resonance with AR+. And these days, after the shocking bushfires in Australia last year, amongst various other drivers, there’s a much stronger interest in indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing/being.

Hilary: There’s a new openness to it in the Pacific Northwest because of our crisis also with wildfire. We’re finally turning seriously to Indigenous ways of managing the landscape. We’re learning that we don’t have to stay away from forests to give respect for Mother Earth.  We are in relationship after all. But we do have to help out. There is a rich territory between action research and indigenous knowledge. We can look for how your work at UTS can find synergies with other stewards.

Cynthia: Next year I start a whole new phase of life, after twenty years at ISF. Very exciting. The lens I want to bring to this next stage of life is all around how to support and speed up the transformations we need, which for me is summed up in the idea of being a better ancestor.

Hilary: What a lovely formulation. Being a better ancestor. I’d like to practice that too. AR+ helps give us a global reach to do some things we haven’t been able to by finding like-spirited people.

Cynthia: There’s this impressive mob of people from around the world who are on the same wavelength.

Hilary: And meeting on line over timezones is quite the opportunity.  Maybe we can say AR+ can be a kind of a riparian zone for us, in the spaces between our institutional affiliations, a space to cultivate preferred selves.

I feel that we need a cadre of transformational agents to meet up in this riparian zone. So far we find each other through co-labs, conversations, conferences, and it starts with creating relational space together. So much of our stuckness in our Cartesian institutions is that we feel alone and get burnt out with our own loss of humanity, out of touch with our own interiority. I’m delighted that you could feel a bit of this human centeredness already in the Co-Lab.

For example, I’d love to see your PhD students meet with other PhD students from around the world and have them feel that doing transdisciplinary action research transformation is a perfectly sane thing to do. 


Cynthia: A doctorate is a challenging thing to begin with. And then when you shake people’s epistemological foundations in a transdisciplinary PhD, it gets a lot more challenging. I started an annual retreat program in the early 2000s. The idea was that’s a time when the students and the supervisors came together deeply. The way I used to frame it was that it’s where we take a giant leap forward together in our thinking. So those retreats were based on an experience I had at Schumacher College in the UK a long time ago, and they were about building community, and building our scholarship at the same time. So, it was a very engaged sort of process. The students have a very strong role in determining what’s in, what’s out this year and how are we going to do things? And groups of students take responsibility for the different activities that are planned over the time. In the early days, when it was a smaller group, we would go to kind of cute and hokey little places and cook for each other as well. Because, one of the key things about the Schumacher experience was about making evident the maintenance that is required to live the lives that we do. So that we could get to know each other a little bit as people, rather than just as, the student-supervisor, one hour a week or fortnight, kind of relationship.


Hilary: That’s a beautiful idea. It’s like our goal with AR+ Gatherings. We need them to feel like a mix of yoga retreat and collegial conference. We’re collegially sharing our work in world cafe processes but also tending to our own development, our own insights. And we’re literally taking time to move our bodies, to meditate together, to process internally. Last Gathering we met informally over 3 meals a day. Now with Covid we’re obviously not cooking together, but I think with creativity we can have our meeting be worthwhile. By the way, for your calendar, it’s March 5-8, 2021. 

Cynthia: You might be aware of John Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR work. Here in Australia there’s an organization called Open Ground and I did an MBSR course with them, which was just terrific. I’m loving it, really loving it and exploring all sorts of different kinds of guided meditations and timing, playing around with mixes of different body scanning techniques that I’ve picked up from Tara Brach and Timothea Goddard, the woman who brought the program to Australia.

Hilary: Perfect for Covid times. I feel that meditation is a bridge of sorts between different ways of knowing. Or it is for me. So I’m so excited that you’re doing this too. Meditation comes in many guises but whatever the form if we don’t go there, we’re not really a resource to ourselves, much less to others.

Cynthia: Our work at ISF is about creating discernible improvement through contribution to stocks and flows of knowledge which requires mutual and transformational learning.

Hilary: May the force be with us! Thanks for being involved with AR+. Your work uplifts us and connects us to those spaces where we can make a difference. Wow, there is a lot to correct! Let’s all grow at our own developmental edge.

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