Consciously updating our social software. Action dialogue with Tomas Bjorkman

Serial entrepreneur Tomas Bjorkman leads the Ekskaret foundation in support of social change that emphasizes conscious personal and community development. I met Tomas through his book with Lene Andersen called the Nordic Secret.What resonated for me as an action researcher was their key idea – that personal (adult) development is the foundation of positive social change.  Moreover they brought it alive with many compelling examples from the Nordic world. We read in Tomas’ work that large scale capacity building results not primarily or solely from top down engineering/technical-rational experts (though these are key), but from persons and communities seeing they can co-create a beautiful world together. We know this is possible because it has already happened. I see the influence of what Tomas describes of this “Nordic Secret” in everyday Swedish micro practices, such as “fika” (coffee & conversation together in community), in which everyone has space to give and take; everyone takes a turn to listen and to speak. We also see how such practices anchor the larger flourishing of Nordic societies who score at the top of international happiness indices. We are deeply curious how the developmental learning behind the “Nordic secret” may be a key ingredient in our Action-oriented Transformative Research (ART) efforts…

TomasBjorkman: Very quickly a little on my background. As a kid, I spent many months each year on my grandparents very small farm in Sweden. And I think that was very formative for me. I studied mathematics and physics. They came very easily to me. I became a serial entrepreneur. I started about 20 companies. I was also the chairman of a major investment bank in Scandinavia. After I sold my business, I spent two years thinking about what to do with my life. I’m was a member of the Club of Rome. Mainly known for its very early report on the environmental problems called The Limits to Growth. I started the Eksklarat [Oak-island] foundation in 2008.

My real curiosity now is trying to understand the relationship between our personal development and societal change. In business I had become more and more aware of the fact that the inner qualities of leaders are so important for the success of a business. If we get the corporate culture right, then good emerges.

Hilary Once you understand the importance of culture, it’s not too hard to think about a larger focus on societal culture.

TomasBjorkman: That’s really the starting point. We are mainly practical in my foundation. Our strength is in trying to develop organizations and projects within the area of personal development and societal change. We are trying to help the co creation of a more conscious society.

Hilary What do we mean by that? What does it look like so far?

TomasBjorkman:  Well, we’re also curious what would such a society look like. We are trying to achieve an integral society. What would that look like in organizational and institutional terms? What would it look like in cultural terms and what would it look like in individual consciousness? And how are these levels related?

Hilary: Your foundation has an island. Could we think of it as a kind of skunk works, an innovation hub, for developing prototypes in personal and even collective ability to respond better to the complexity of the world?

TomasBjorkman Some of the practical projects that we are doing take place out on the island. Every summer we have five, two weeks youth camps on the island. Youth capacity building. And we also arrange now youth camps in other parts of Sweden. We bring a lot of personal development groups and arrange a lot of invitations to conferences on the island.

Hilary Thank you – and to your son – for hosting work on gender and power that I have been involved with.

TomasBjorkman:  That was in the our co-working space in Stockholm. We sometimes call it a conscious co-working space because it really originated as a lot of organizations clustering around our foundation. And sharing our vision and our ideas and then we decided to create a space where we could all gather into what Lahey and Kegan call a deliberately developmental organization, a DDO. It’s a space that is deliberately created to hold organizations and individuals and support them in their development. So that’s a conscious co working space.

And in Stockholm, we also have a conscious co-living space where 55 individuals living together, the age span is between 19 and 55 years old. From about 20 different nations. And the idea there is explicitly the same. It is to create a deliberately developmental space for all the persons living there who are dedicated to working on their inner personal development.

Hilary I’m inspired. you’re facilitating community in which personal leadership will rise, leadership that serves others. I read your efforts as scaffolding people, through normal day to day interaction, into the ability to be co-creators. Lots of us talk about it, few of us want to take it on as a developmental task. It’s wonderful but also difficult work to get along with others, isn’t it. And so few find their developmental tribe. I’m hopeful that the internet can allow allow tribe develop also. Coffee on zoom works pretty well too. Of course co-creativity more than just talking with one another.

TomasBjorkman: We work also in Berlin and in London. We have started a small research institute called Perspectiva. It has attracted a lot of attention and a quite a few good minds. We are still massively underfunded,
Hilary You’re pragmatic and also describing the intellectual foundations of a more conscious society. Somehow it inspires to hear you’re also underfunded! I won’t give up hope. Are you hopeful about electronic communities or must we work nose to nose?

TomasBjorkman: I will say a few words about a project in digital space. Called 29k. That is 29.000, the number of days that we can all hope to have in a fuller life. It’s really an invitation mainly to young adults to start exploring personal development, So far we haven’t got any product out so I’m not talking much about it, but yes we see value in that space.

Hilary Where is your heart/mind attention for your 29,000?

TomasBjorkman:  These projects and my books. I have tried to summarize my insights from being 20 years inside the market as an investment banker. I’m specifically listing a number of misconceptions that we usually hold around the market. These are really misunderstandings about the market. The market is a social construct and not a natural phenomenon. It’s a socially constructed self organizing system and as such it’s under human control. We humans are much more responsible for the creation of our world than we usually take for granted. And that this freedom to create the future is both individually but also even more so a collective act. And we need to develop capacity with this. We are not so good at exercising collective agency.

Hilary And of course the environmental problems that we have is one example of that. Your work with Lene Andersen, The Nordic Secret, speaks to that. Frankly I loved its essential message. I’ll say it in my words “hey people, grow up and develop the social institutions you need. But understand that the “growing up” we need includes turning the camera around to view ourselves. So it’s not only arguing about external realities, but becoming organized in our own persons, and in community, to better serve ourselves and others. We can have a more beautiful world together if we’d just continue cultivating our development into adulthood.”

Tomas Politicians in all the Nordic countries 150 years ago were very well aware of the fact that we needed to concentrate on personal development. Their decisions helped very rapid transition from being the very poor agrarian non-democratic countries to the industrial rich democratic countries today.

Hilary I know Swedes are humble but the transition is inspiring. We the people made it happen. I guess the question is whether it’s possible in the more diverse countries. And I see Sweden is getting more diverse every year. The Right Wing is on the move.

TomasBjorkman: We are hopeful. Optimistic. At the turn of the last century, the state of Denmark created about a hundred state sponsored retreat places for young adults to spend somewhere between four and six months in a retreat with the explicit purpose of finding themselves on developing an inner compass. Then Norway, with 75 state sponsored retreat centers. Then Sweden, with 150 state sponsored retreat centers.

Hilary: And these retreat centers still exist?

TomasBjorkman: In Sweden we have a huge budget for supporting these. It’s still about 400,000,000 Euros. A huge amount of money for a small country like Sweden. But today, almost everyone has forgotten about the reason why these retreat centers were created, that it was all about personal development and creating or enabling a lot of people to be conscious co-creators of democracy. Today, there is focus on hobby activities and just adult education.

Hilary Too much pottery, not enough personal development?

TomasBjorkman: What’s so amazing is that the politicians really devoted such huge amount of money to make sure Nordic countries became strong, stable democracies

Hilary Would you clarify what personal development means and – as a business leader – can you put self development in language that doesn’t scare people.

TomasBjorkman: My activities are mainly practical. I don’t think we need a precise definition about personal development. In theory terms I do like the model of a Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey. which is in ego development terms. I would then equate personal development with ego development and in turn see various lines of development, cognitive, emotional, relational. Ken Wilber explores this. Bill Torbert too. Within my foundation, we are excited and very interested in trying to discuss all the most important developmental dimension and the measurements. Even more interesting is how can we facilitate development within these dimensions? I am a supporter of Hanzi Freinacht’s work on MetaModernism that is also trying to bring a shared vocabulary.

Hilary When I read the mission statement at the start of The Listening Society book on Metamodernism, my heart leapt. I felt this is a banner for so many of us to walk under. I brought it to the board of the journal action research wondering how do we support action research toward a more sustainable world.  Though we need to do more than write articles, right!

TomasBjorkman: The author fasted and contemplated for 15 months and wrote that work in my Swiss Chalet.

Hilary Positively Nietzschean! And coming back to lines of development. The heart of the matter, as I understand it, is that as individuals, we need to become less dependent  on others’ opinions of us, and less drawn to the simplifications of fundamentalism. So it really helps to develop the ability go into our inner world and orient according to our moral compass. We need a mind shift so to speak, if we are, collectively, to develop our world.  We do this bottom up. I saw you have a photo of Rosa Parks on your bookcover. She exemplifies your thesis having developed her inner compass at the Horton school.  By the way, many action researchers see Horton as a great inspiration because of the interdisciplinary studies with participatory action research.

TomasBjorkman: I’m not so much interested in too much theorizing, but there are activities that help – say the link between mindfulness and personal development. Then the extension of empathy. And then the cognitive dimension might be our ability to take multiple perspectives. Another dimension might be self awareness. And are we aware of the fact that a lot of both the social reality we meet, but also are the lens through which we look at the world, is socially constructed. This is development of construct awareness. I find the subject-object theory of Robert Kegan useful here.

Hilary: We can develop capacity for bringing more and more of our patterns of interpreting into awareness. I notice that the path to practice is often overlooked in all this focus on interpreting. This has made me a fan of Bill Torbert’s. He builds on Jane Loevenger’s work with Susanne Cook Greuter, and links complex inquiry to timely action. This is useful especially for the practice of leadership. But later stages of development, beyond childhood, remain a little tricky still to talk about?

TomasBjorkman: I like to present it as an extension of what we all agree with about children. A small child might just be angry and the anger has the child. The child cannot relate to the anger. But when the child becomes a little bit older, you could say that they can then view his or her anger and relate to it and decide what to do with it. When you can see it, you get some power over it. You gain freedom. In the same way for an adult person, it might be, for example, your values. For some persons the values just are the values that have that person. Whereas a more mature person might be able to take these values as an object for reflection and might therefore be more free to reflect on and make active choices around those the values. You can become aware and then your freedom to relate to them increases. So in that respect ego development or personal development is really about increasing your inner freedom and by that your ability to act in the world.

Hilary: I’m really delighted to learn about your work. Tomas, I look forward to having you with us at our AR+ Transformations Gathering at Chalmers. Our emphasis is on gathering those interested in the kind of transformative and transgressive learning that requires personal development and that leads to more sustainable outcomes for all.

TomasBjorkman: Transformative learning is a good concept and practice. I look forward to meeting people, and to meeting in person. And learning more.

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