Gemma, Dartmoor, April 2021
Everything is in flux. We are unsettled and confused, living in an era of huge change and complexity, which asks big questions about what will become of us. We know transformation is needed, but will not be enabled by the existing structures alone, many of which feel dysfunctional and obsolete. The dominant culture is ailing; we need to foster the emergence of a vivid alternative.
How do you decide when something started? The moment you became aware of a thought or intention to do it? The moment you acted on that thought? Or the moment you came together with others to make it happen? They will have had their own thoughts and intentions too. So where is the beginning? Our culture celebrates the public beginnings, the moments of physical launch and unveiling. But most beginnings happen way down deep, percolating away in the subconscious for years before they surface.
If you asked me when New Constellations started for me, I would say 2016. My husband is half American and we had talked about spending a few years in the US to give our two boys an experience of their American roots. I had just left Crisis Action, where I’d worked for a decade building coalitions to protect civilians from conflict. Having spent years studying how power was built and yielded between nation states, I was fascinated by Silicon Valley as a newer centre of power. I’d read all about the Singularity, was nerding up on layman explanations of the ethics of AI and had a natural feminist aversion to The Tech-Bro.
I took a job with Change.org running their teams around the globe. I was persuaded to make the leap by a series of calls with people across the organisation who won me over with their energy and passion. I oversaw teams in every time zone, embarked on a great deal of international travel and juggled Zoom calls early morning and late at night. My boys were tiny.
We had many blissful times living amidst the redwoods that gaze out towards San Francisco from the ridge above Oakland. We lived the Californian cliche: Ben cycling our eldest down the dust tracks of a precipitous ravine, through the warm scent of Monterey pines, to a forest pre-school where the children played in streams and were rounded up with bird noises. But, if I’m honest, I wasn’t really there, I was too strung out, stretched too thin, I’d rush in and out and seldom have time to immerse myself in the lives of my children and the wonders of the natural world all around me.
And then 2016 happened. We had felt mercifully absent from the Brexit build-up. From far, far away it seemed like a peculiar British madness and it was almost impossible to get a feeling for the level of fervour being felt on home soil. I don’t remember much about that period. It has long since become a blur. But I have a freeze frame memory of the moment I saw the news coverage of Jo’s shooting and the call I received from a friend to tell me she had died. Jo Cox was a passionate campaigner, humanitarian and British MP and our friend. She was murdered on her way to her constituency surgery meetings by a far right extremist. Ben took me up to our favourite bench overlooking the mountain range towards the Sierra Nevadas. It felt like the right place to be, given Jo’s love of the mountains. And, over the coming days, we’d return there again and again to come to terms with what had happened.
My colleagues at Change.org were incredible. They told me to go for as long as I needed and so I was able to come back to London and join a group of people who had all taken time away from their day jobs to be part of creating ways to honour Jo. Two weeks later, over 10,000 people came out to pay tribute to Jo in Trafalgar Square, the day before the Brexit referendum. You could feel the country was on a knife edge and yet the emotion of that day, despite the tragedy of her loss and the cascade of grief we all felt, was one of transcendent connection and love. I think people saw in Jo qualities that we have within us all but are too often buried beneath the surface, eroded by the pressures of busy lives. That day in Trafalgar Square, as 10,000 people held hands and pledged to ‘Love Like Jo’, there was an unveiling of the beauty of who we could be if we only could let ourselves. That was one beginning. As was the feeling of tremendous consequence of the vote the following day.
The rest of our time in the US was biding time. The world had turned on its axis. We watched Trump elected to the White House with Jo’s best friend who happened to be passing through.
It was time to go home.
The more I read about Silicon Valley culture, the clearer it became to me that it was not a place but an ideology. I heard of Singularity University through a friend and enrolled on their Executive Leadership programme. I spent a week with business people who were figuring out how to hospice old structures and transform them into something new; one of my favourite people I encountered that week was a bank executive, near retirement, who was figuring out if the bank could become a platform for shared transportation. He told me he thought his profession would be gone within a generation. Other participants were incubating start-up ideas using ‘exponential technologies’ as the lingo put it. The whole of the first day together was spent getting our heads round what exponential growth means and seeing the hockey stick emerge again and again in graphs of Moore’s Law, climate change and rates of solar adoption. Over the course of that day, we came to see and understand that we are living in an exponential world – exponential squared. It was, without question, the single most important thing I learned.
The ideology was rooted in a belief in abundance – that, yes we are facing potentially catastrophic challenges, but technology is the key to unlocking the abundant resources with which all of this can be solved. We heard from entrepreneurs designing ways to harvest resources from asteroids, scientists explaining the use of CRISPR to edit genes, biologists pioneering health interventions based on the biome, AI experts designing intelligent cities, billionaires investing a fortune to figure out how to live forever … There was a shared certainty in a positive forward trajectory. And an unquestioning assertion that technology was the solution to everything. The dark side – the questions of what technology was doing to our society, our brains, our souls, the millions of people who would be left behind – was absent.
One of the best lines I heard during my time on the West Coast was that, at its worst, Silicon Valley and its vast investment infrastructure is for boys setting up companies to do things their mothers don’t do for them anymore. It is also for grown men and women, experiencing dark nights of the soul, thinking through the possibilities that could upend us as a species if we let technology become our master.
Back in Europe, the questions seemed to be about how to hold big technology companies to account, how to preserve our privacy … All good, all vital questions. But I could not shake the deeper feeling that, within our lifetime, we would be forced to ask much bigger questions about what it meant to be human. All of us alive today must face up to the possibility of homo sapiens becoming extinct within several generations – either as a result of climatic change or some kind of singularity – so what would we like those who come after us to know about the essence of the human experience? I felt the clue lay somewhere in that moment in Trafalgar Square.
I kept coming back to the Turing test – in which a human being tries to figure out if they are engaging with a human or a machine. I imagined two beings on a cliff-top, looking out across a cresting sea to a perfect sunset. Imagine it. One is you. One is a highly sophisticated AI in a perfect humanoid envelope, able to mimic the reactions and speech of a human being exactly. Both gaze at the fiery orb surrounded by lightning strikes of pink and orange. What do each of those beings experience? We’ve all seen that sunset and experienced that sense of awe and wonder, that feeling of being touched by the magnificence of the planet on which we live and a tiny glimpse into the vastness of what lies beyond. What does the robot see and feel? How does that differ from human experience? What about the experience of falling in love? Or holding your first-born’s tiny fingers for the first time? Or the hand of a loved-one as their life comes to an end?
I started to wonder what it would look like if we built our systems, societies and technologies from that root experience and realisation.
What would it look like for us to structure things so that we were able to live a more human life in the deepest sense? One that enabled and honoured the quality of connectedness with each other, with the endless beauty of this planet and all life sustained by her?
What type of leadership and organisational forms would be needed to create that?
I returned to the UK and got stuck into another beginning: the set-up of More In Common, one of the organisations that emerged from the tragedy of Jo’s death and one committed to understanding the causes of the social and political polarisation and finding solutions to them. In the face of resurgent nationalism and far-right extremism, More In Common asks how we can find ways to live cohesively together despite our differences, finding possible answers through research that segments populations not by demography (age, race, class etc) but by beliefs.
In this research, I saw in black and white data that I was part of a relatively small group of people who saw the world in a very particular way, one not shared by the majority of the population in the UK. It wasn’t right or effective to just keep asserting our world view. Change would only come if we took the space to step back from our own lives and perspectives and tried to inhabit those of others, something that had become almost impossible amidst the internecine warfare of the Brexit period.
Among many other things, I am grateful to my friends and colleagues at More In Common for time spent with them interrogating another deep set of questions – why is social polarisation happening? What is causing it? Where will it take us? Those questions live on in what I have been exploring since, however different the approach and methodology might be.
Around that time, two conversations occurred that, in retrospect, became the ignition for the physical beginning of New Constellations. I spent a night away with Caroline, a very dear friend who was reviewing a new retreat in Suffolk, part rural hip time-share, part community. I went along as her plus one. We ended up talking all night – something we hadn’t done for a long time together – sharing very similar feelings about our hopes and fears and how we felt constrained in being able to express and explore them. We decided we’d go on a quest together and try and find some answers. We would both do this alongside our jobs but we needed help to make it happen.
The second conversation was with Iris. We had first met on ‘team Jo’, organising the memorial in Trafalgar Square and were reconnected by a mutual friend who said we were asking very similar questions. We found complicity in feeling that the means and methods we had deployed over the course of working lives were not the ones that would be needed to bring about the deeper transformation needed now. Iris spoke passionately about the danger of dystopias, of the negative narratives that bombard us, of the incessant campaigning from fear and not hope. She had spent many years working on climate change – from both political and cultural angles – and I learned a great deal from her environmental insights and experience. We started off with the question ‘What will become of us? Of our species, our planet?’ Quickly, this changed to ‘What can become of us,’ pushing aside a sense of doomed resignation and making way for expansive, hopeful possibility. Over our kitchen table, Iris, Caroline and I spent many hours interrogating what we wanted to find out and how.
We began speaking to people, shyly at first, to see if others shared our urge to dig deeper. We talked to scientists, economists, philosophers, civic leaders, artists, roboticists and fund managers. We were amazed at the degree of commonality in what people were expressing. Many people said that they didn’t know where to find others who felt and thought the same, that they felt alone somehow.
Looking back, these conversations stripped back the masks of titles and LinkedIn profiles and book titles to the human beings who were being forced to define themselves in ways that were too narrow and restricted. Without the masks, the extent to which one person’s story or perspective resonated with another was remarkable.
The idea of a podcast emerged – why not create one to share our journey, in case it would be useful to others too? We spoke to podcast producers but we didn’t have the money to go down a commercial route. Then Cassie, who has been a great source of inspiration and encouragement for the project, introduced us to Jo Barratt. A quick conversation to get some advice became another beginning. Jo helped us see how audio can be used as a technology to make change as well as to tell stories and it has become a core part of what we’re doing. Over a weekend in Dartmoor, where I had recently moved and was experiencing the first stirrings of a love affair with lichen, we all explored the river and the woods and, in an echo chamber of torrential rain, experimented with sound.
We knew that we wanted to have conversations that were personal and honest rather than professionalised and performative. So we decided to ask people to take us to a place that was meaningful to them and we’d spend slow time with them there, recording the conversations that unfurled as a podcast. We’d had a couple of dates in the diary and planned our US trip. And then COVID hit UK shores, holidays were cancelled and our diaries became scroll after scroll of tumbleweed.
For a while, we reeled around like everybody else, sucked into crisis management and those reams of lockdown videos that enabled us to laugh some of the panic and shock out of our systems. As the enormity of it all sunk in, a surge of confidence erupted: this will be the moment it all changes, this is the moment of great reset. It seemed so clear. As the adrenalin subsided, we realised thousands, maybe millions of people were now asking the same questions (in relation to the pandemic at least). But, over the attritional weeks and months that followed, people were losing hope that change could actually happen.
We wondered if there was still a way to go on this journey of discovery to find and illuminate the many reasons we had to be hopeful, even if we couldn’t be with people in person.
How could we find a way of having a deep encounter with someone, with what they were feeling as much as with what they were thinking?
What would it look like to create individual journeys, captured in audio? So we developed a set of prompts, bought a set of recorders and started approaching people who we felt could help us shine light on the moment – the bigger one, not just the pandemic – and what it meant for us and the earth.
We hope you and your family are safe and well in these extraordinary times.
We are mapping and illuminating a constellation of people and ideas whose work and thinking are hastening our progress towards a better world. You have been an inspiration for us.
We would love to record an encounter with you. Even though we are unable to meet in person right now, we have devised a method of remote audio recording that will create a visceral and hopeful experience for those who listen. We hope, too, that you will find it a unique and rewarding opportunity to share your wisdom.
To our surprise, most people said yes. After an introductory call, they were on their own, each morning opening up an envelope, responding to a series of prompts and unraveling their thoughts and feelings into a recorder. Some sent us back hours and hours of material, some people sent us back brief phrases and reflections. Remarkably, all of them had a similar feel and quality.
Each voice, regardless of gender or accent, had a noticeably lower register and slower pace. More sonorous, a quality of feeling and authenticity that we weren’t expecting. No one was ‘on’, people were freed up from performing, from switching on the ‘this is me in professional mode’, ‘this is public me’, ‘me with all my defenses up’. We heard thoughts cascade and memories surface.
We went deep into peoples’ worlds and lives. I saw these encounters like research. We set out on an enquiry and, instead of publishing our findings in an academic journal, we were chronicling and publishing audio testimonies. A constellation instead of a select committee on the state of humanity and our planet.
I didn’t see them at first but, as I listened, I started to discern faint and then obvious patterns: themes that emerged across people and races and geographies and generations. Feelings and ideas that were described in very different words, drawing on completely different models or visual imagery and experiences. But there they were; people were discerning and sensing very similar things about what we are living through and what is needed now. The challenge of how we face the past. The sense that we were experiencing the demise of one political-economy and the first stirrings of the next. The desire for daily experience of being part of the wider cycles of life on this planet.
So I started to pattern. To pick out the themes from each of the recordings, first by person and then across areas of similarity. The ideas that emerged did indeed form a kind of constellation. It was like creating an atlas to the stars, but one in which the reader – or in this case the listener – can find their own patterns and imagine their own lines of connection. We’ll say more about those another time.
“The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.”
One pattern that is clearly seen across most of the encounters is an appeal to return to the fusion of inner and outer knowledge, the conscious and the subconscious, the rational mind and intuition.
Before I started at Change.org, I was lucky enough to spend six months with a wonderful group of change-makers from around the world as part of the Yale World Fellows programme. One of the gifts of this programme is that you are given the keys to Yale, allowed to sit in on any lectures happening across the university. A few of us chose to go to a class enticingly titled ‘Aristotelian Statecraft’. No blockbuster. But it had a certain allure given that it was taught by Charles Hill, famous for his role as Henry Kissinger’s right hand man and an arch Cold War strategist. We turned up to a classroom of 15 or so people. Several of them were young, serving military officers, the pristine white uniform of the US Navy being particularly memorable. Prof. Hill gave us a series of black and white photocopies that I still have on my desk to this day. We read Aristotle on the annual cycles of agriculture, Confucius on fishing, Mallory on mountaineering, Conrad on navigation … Hill said very little. We read the excerpts out loud and contributed what we saw in them.
I have no way of knowing what he intended for us to get out of it. For me, they spoke of a lost art of leadership. A movement towards technocracy and the science of management consultants. Instead, each of these readings spoke to the skills necessary to ride our white-water world: the discernment of fish beneath the water by the tiniest shift in the water pattern. The ability to read a mountain by its surrounding weather patterns and to know when to persist and climb or when to turn back. The depth of intuition as well as scientific accuracy needed to navigate by the stars alone. Whether he intended it or not, I received one of my most memorable lessons on the necessity of fusing inner and outer knowledge, of synchronising our rational intellect with the unplumbed depths of our subconscious. Charlie passed away last month at the age of 84 – he was still teaching into his 80s – and I was moved to read how many others had similar experiences of his teaching.
I think we are living through a moment in which we will come to depend on those intangible skills that have fallen out of favour in our culture. At a very deep level, we know that the old ways and means of doing things are destroying the web of life on this planet. But we do not and cannot yet know what will replace it. Any attempt to reach straight for a new blueprint, a new ‘ism’, will fail. Fail because we have not yet had time and space to learn the right and real lessons from our existing systems and from each other. Fail because if we rush this, we risk ending up making tweaks and improvements that cannot bring about the shifts we need.
“Confusion is the state of promise, the fertile void where surprise is possible again.”
If we give ourselves time to reconnect to ourselves and the systems of life of which we are a part, we see clearly that we are guided by the wrong stars. We can see where we are headed and we realise we must change course. But it is hard to let go of something onto which we have been locked for so long. To look away is to look into the vast, endless expanse, to be at sea without an anchor, to enter into the fertile void. I think we need to embrace this fear and know that part of our work is to find ways of dwelling there. When one is in open water, or reaching a peak, our intelligence – both inner and outer – is a constant state of sensing and discernment. We are in relationship with the context around us. We have to find that focused, deliberate stillness to be open to perspectives and ideas and alternatives that we would not see or comprehend if we remain tethered to old moorings. Only then will we see new shapes start to emerge through the fog. Only then will we find the new stars, the new patterns, the new constellations and the new stories that we can draw on to help each other find the right path forward. Only then will we feel in our bodies the real consequences of what it means for each of us, our families and all of those we love if we choose to change direction.
We can design systems and structures with clear, quantifiable and necessary goals – reducing carbon in our atmosphere, narrowing inequality, equalling opportunity – but unless our politics and our economics are stripped right back to the root of the interconnectedness of all life on this planet and our innate, visceral need to experience that connection as a species, we will continue to see dire warp effects, however ingenious our technological solutions and however efficient the machine that we build. We won’t make that leap through graphs and data alone. We’ll make it if we relearn how to read the water and the weather and the seasons and the stars.
How do we do that? That too is a serious endeavour. I have always considered myself to be pretty sensible and grounded. I’m not very ‘alternative’; the furthest I strayed is cutting my hair extremely short and dying it peroxide white. But the last few years have been an education in ‘woo-woo’. I’m now very familiar with seeing Iris hold space – drawing on a whole range of beautiful embodied practices – but I remember the profound effect that the first few experiences had on me. Iris has spent time training in and practising spiritual activism, and will write more about this herself. Through her, I have come to appreciate the art of creating a space that can transform a group in terms of the level of connection, the depth of trust, the ability to create and imagine and the courage to feel. The Iris Magic, as I call it, has become another indispensable part of what we do. Not as something to make people feel good or to give them a break from the ‘real work’ but as another core technology, backed up by a growing body of scientific literature that is shining light on the relationship between our mind and body, the use of sound to enable people to experience the same physiological states, the impact nature has on levels of cortisol, etc… These are needed and important ingredients in thinking about how we enable people to really listen and see and reconnect to themselves, to nature and to those who are different to them.
We don’t quite know where this voyage will take us, nor do we need to. We do know that we’d love to journey with you. Today is another beginning, a departure from another shore. So we invite you to join us and help create whatever comes next.
One of the prompts we included in the envelopes for the audio encounters was: Who or what have you gathered around you – your own constellation – to help you navigate in uncertain times? Many people have helped this project emerge and continue to shape our thinking. Thank you to all who have done so far, including…
Aaron Dworkin, adrienne maree brown, Alaric Mostyn, Alec Proffitt, Alice Jay, Alvin Carpio, Andrea Barron, Andrew Naylor, Angel Acosta, Anna Murray, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Anthea Lawson, Audrey Tang, Baljeet Sandhu, Becky Burchell, Bel Lyon, Benjamin Davis, Beth Kirkby, Bill Sharpe, Bo Davis, Candy Chang, Caroline McGinn, Casper ter Kuile, Cassie Robinson, Charles Foster, Coleen Waldron, Cosima Barratt, Dean McSkimmings, Emma Sky, Felicitas von Peter, Fiona Napier, Gemma McKell, Geraldine Chin Moody, Geoff Mulgan, Giles Hutchins, Hardin Tibbs, Harry Morgan, Hilary Cottam, Hope Turner, our friends at House of Beautiful Business, Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir, Iona Lawrence, James Mallinson, James Turner, Jane Hera, Jane Riddiford, Jaron Lanier, Jay Zaccarini, Jessie Teggin, Jim Godfrey, Jo Cox, John Murphy, Karen Mahaffy, Kat Segal, Kate Raworth, Laura Storm, Lauren Bryan, Lilian Carpenter, Liz Slade, Lonnie Bunch, Louis Davis, Lucy Powell, Mabel van Oranje, Maddi Nicholson, Margaret Levi, Martin McLeavy, Mathieu Lefevre, Natalie Chapples, Nick Grono, Pat McCabe, Phoebe Greenwood, Polly Mackey, Rob Hopkins, Rod Sugden, Roman Krznaric, Ruth Ibegbuna, Sally Osberg, Sam Plum, Sarah Arun, Sarah Hunter, Sarah Jackson, Sharon Mullen, James Mallinson, Shauneen Lambe, Sophie Howarth, Theodore Zeldin, Tim Dixon, Tom Lowes, Tom Pravda, Tristram Stuart, our friends at UTILE, Yo-Yo Ma.