Charles Darwin drew the picture above to represent the tree of life in his “Origins of Species” published in 1859. In fact it’s the only sketch in the entire book. The dominant paradigm in science and society has been the tree and hierarchical structures ever since. Our social structures have even been built upon this.

But perhaps THE most exciting phenomena in science over the past few years is the shift from the “Tree of Life” to the “Web of Life” . If we look at all natural systems (including social systems) they don’t really look like the hierarchical and linear diagrams many of us learnt at school. They are far more complex and networked.

Fritjof Capra, with whom I am going to have a webinar dialogue on the 9th December (please see events), wrote a book called the Web of Life and more recently the Systems View of Life in which he discusses this new paradigm.  In his “Capra Course” he suggests students to watch the TED talk below by Chilean Designer Manuel Lima in which he touches upon this revolution.

Funnily enough, my ‘discovery’ that we lived in a networked world – or web – came from two very different sources, finance and walks in nature.  My first job was at an investment bank managing information flow. My boss, who was quite senior, was often busy and at times suffering from illness, and I was given an unusual amount of responsibility and scope for a “new grad.”  So from the beginning of my career I saw relationships and information in terms of networks, not hierarchies. A traditional “org chart” might suggest that the CEO is at the top and have neat lines vertically down.  The reality of communication is very very different. He might have off the record chats with middle managers, his PA or even have direct relationships with favoured new employees.

I also saw this in nature. From a young age I loved to be outside and spent many hours walking and running in nature. I have a lot of time for Henry Thoreau who learnt a lot from his walks or ‘saunters’ in nature. When you just observe nature you see that everything is interconnected and quite often symbiotic. Leaves fall from the trees and they decompose to create the nutrients for the next life forms. Bees fly from flower to flower and help with pollination. Animals both feed off plants and feed them when they die. Nature is far too complex for a linear chart.  In nature I observed more circles than I did straight lines.

Modern disciplines of science are all shifting to a more networked world: quantum physics focuses on relationships as does chaos and complexity theory. And if you look at the “Earth Sciences” they have been forced to become more holistic in nature by the advent of holistic thinkers like James Lovelock, who coined “Gaia Theory”, the notion that the Earth is interconnected and networked: “organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”  [Wikipeadia].

Now many fields are embracing the metaphor of the web or network. If you speak with young entrepreneurs, they understand that relationships are based on the social network. If you listen to talks by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, he speaks the language. And even economists are realising that their old models don’t work.

Recently I read a book by the Joshua Cooper Ramo,  CEO of Kissinger Associates one of the world’s top geo-political firms, called “Seventh Sense.” In this book he discusses geo-politics in the “Age of Networks.”

Another field in which I work is organisations. More and more companies are waking up to the power of co-creation and collective intelligence. Once you embrace this, leaders need to nurture webs like gardeners, instead of imposing ideas top down which was the modus operandi of the Industrial Revolution and thereafter.  More companies are opening to self-organising systems.

Whilst we live in incredibly challenging times, I think that we also live in exciting times. At the Emerging Future Institute, we will continue to explore this new way of seeing the world and its ramifications. It underpins everything.





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