Being a strange attractor

Have you heard about strange attractors? In this new post, our co-founder Jannik Kaiser explores the world of chaos, dynamical systems and complexity, offering you also the possibility of a non-linear reading, in the form of a dynamical Kumu map.

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Jannik Kaiser is co-founder from Unity Effect & has a background in sociology, systems thinking and impact monitoring.
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Click here to access the map.

The starting point

Life puzzles me. Partly my own. Even more so fundamental questions like how life emerged? Or human sense-making: how on earth is it even possible that we can communicate? I jot down these black & white symbols on a keyboard, they appear on a screen and you can understand what I am trying to say.

Embarking on a journey into strange lands

Due to my fascination for social change, it is not such a surprise that I studied sociology. There, most approaches and (meta) theories are relatively systematic, with the ambition to explain and the tendency to categorise. It is difficult to speak about the diverse field of sociology in general terms. Yet what I often found was theories and methods that made sense of events once they happened. Categorising the past and projecting it into the future. And then making those events fit the theory. It reminded me of the story of the little prince, visiting the king on his planet*:

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Image from: The tread of life seeker.

What’s the weather like over there?

Welcome in the world of complexity! As with most other foreign places, things work a bit differently here. Let’s start with a quick introduction first: As James Gleick in his groundbreaking book “Chaos. Making a new Science” put it:

“the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules”

If you want it or not: as soon as we arrive at the shores, we are not merely passive visitors. We are active agents and influence what is happening here. A complex system, therefore, is dynamic and adaptable. It responds to its environment yet has its own “agenda”. The question, then, is what provides orientation for the behaviour of the system and the actors within it? The answer: Strange attractors!

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Lorenz Attractor: By User: Wikimol, User: Dschwen — Own work based on images. Image: Lorenz system r28 s10 b2–6666.png
CC BY-SA 3.0.

“as antagonistic and fixed states but rather as stages in a process of dynamic and transformational becoming”.

― Elisabeth Garnsey and James McGlade

The same accounts for any dynamical system with more than one equilibrium, more than one attractor state so to speak.

The dance between polarities

Butterflies have two wings. We have winter and summer (or rainy and dry season). There is life and there is death. Following those examples, polarities seem to unite stability and movement. In that sense, opposites are not really opposing each other. They create space for life to happen in between.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

― Alan Watts

We tend to care about what happens around us; and oftentimes have the desire to influence it in a certain way or direction. Joining in the dance does not mean to accept everything that happens. Rather, it means to understand that it is the underlying rhythm that moves us. To change the dance, we have to change the music (or the polarities in our case).

The attractors of our time

“I, a stranger and afraid In a world I never made.”

― A.E. Housman, Last Poems

As we know, attractors stabilise behaviour. The attractors emerging out of this particular worldview are economic growth & meritocracy as well as the attempt to control our environment (which includes both our natural and social environment). It is a paradigm of competition, of “me/us against”. As a consequence, we usually only focus on one side of the polarity; the side that we prefer and desire. And we pathologize the other side. Economic growth is good, de-growth is bad. Being happy is desired, depression is something we have to treat with medication. It’s like wanting to breath in all the time, judging all the outbreaths.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

From opposition to integration

We are still in the land of complexity, remember? We learned that here, attractors of a system are not seen as opposites. On summer follows winter, follows summer, follows winter. The system is healthy when it shifts between both states. This leaves us with the question:

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Image from: The Conversation.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. We need not wait to see what others do.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

Strange attractors of this world, unite!

Are you seeking to create a future for yourself and others that is different from the present? As an activist, social entrepreneur, philanthropist, parent, consumer …? Then I would consider you as a change agent, or strange attractor. Somebody who inspires and motivates themselves and others to act on a worthy ideal. A strange attractor in that sense can be any individual, but also an idea, a startup or a movement we represent.

Further inspiration & links:

Santa Fe Institute of Complexity (online courses): https://www.santafe.edu/engage/learn/courses

  1. TIMN model: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBulH9_04vc
  2. Integral Theory & AQAL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_theory_(Ken_Wilber)
  3. Liberating Structures http://www.liberatingstructures.com/

Unity Effect is a for-purpose organisation. We are passionate about supporting a deeper shift in the ways we collaborate, lead and create meaningful impact.

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