Bjarni S. Jonsson
The Iceland National Assembly Social Experiment
Following the financial crisis, the Icelandic nation was in a state of shock, anger and despair. While it was a difficult period, it proved to be a very fertile ground to organize a dialogue event involving a large number of people to discuss honestly and sincerely the future of the Nation. The event, which was held in November 2009, involved about 1200 individuals chosen randomly from the National Register of Iceland from the age of 18 and up. They were gathered in the same room at the same time. The purpose of the event was to organize a co-creation of national vision by a large group of people which, through the process, would become enthusiastic for carrying the dialogue further and putting the ideas into action. I have previously outlined the organization and outcome of the Iceland National Assembly in Integral Leadership Review January 2010 issue as well as the March 2012 Issue and refer to those articles for further details of the event and the outcome.
A great many things emerged from this extraordinary event both in the form of content and experience which provide important learning for how a democratic process with authentic citizen participation can be developed. Given that the aim is to harness the collective wisdom of a large and diverse group of citizens, it was interesting from a research point of view, what such intelligence could reveal. I discussed this at considerable length in my dissertation paper from 2013 submitted at the Adizes Graduate School, which I called “Public Communicative Engagement and Conscious Evolution of Human Social Systems”. As it turned out, there were different misconceptions and false expectations about what such a large group event could accomplish during one day of dialogue, and some, especially within the academia, were skeptical as to the validity of such exercise and its content.
True enough, by only looking at the data gathered, which was vast, as can be imagined, it became evident, that in many cases individual points did not reveal particularly accurate information on how to solve the problems at hand. Therefore, the results were discarded as a set of “common knowledge” formulated in very generalized terms making it difficult to make sense of what the crowd really wanted and which solutions were generated through this “so-called collective wisdom”. What the discussion revealed was that the critics were looking in the wrong direction. While the emphasis was on whether collective intelligence could give any indication on HOW to solve the issues the true outcome was about something different, which often gets overlooked in discussion on social issues, namely answering the WHAT and WHY questions.
Considering the data from this perspective, some very interesting patterns and themes emerged which by further analysis could be developed into a sort of prescriptive model for social healing. What the social experiment referred to here, i.e. the Iceland National Assembly was really all about, was to create what has been called an Authentic Public Sphere, which is effective when what counts as knowledge is based on practical experience of real people, although assuming there is technical rational knowledge involved as well. Knowledge is grounded in lived experience of situations and relationships that are contested and need to be negotiated through dialogue. The “reality” which was to emerge from the event was to be based on a situation where the voices of all the people could be heard, with a clear demonstration of a genuine willingness to listen and attend to the other.
By studying the themes and patterns which emerged from the dialogue, a holistic social logic started emerging which seemed to cover all the crucial elements and drivers of social evolution. Themes were developed at the Assembly to guide the overall analysis of the data. The themes formed at the assembly were: Economy, Education, Public Administration, Health and Welfare, Equality, Family, Environment, Sustainability and an open category named ”opportunities“. These themes emerged out of the individual categorization done at each table in the data collection process.
What follows is an outline of the findings and how I have gathered the themes in a logical sequence by studying the data behind them. This could both serve as a holistic diagnosis of social dynamics as well as a prescriptive model for social healing, I have chosen an analogy of the earth‘s tectonic plates calling the elements of the model the “Social Tectonic Plates“. This analogy may partly come from the fact that I am born and live in a country which rests on the edges of the European and American tectonic plates which are moving apart. However, the main reason is that I believe that there is similarity between the dynamics of social evolution and geological evolution in that there are plates floating on magma, which are constantly moving and by doing so, often causing severe challenges and disasters, while forming new life conditions which require new coping mechanisms and adaptation.
These factors and their relationships were what emerged when I studied the composition of the points raised at the assembly through an attempt to organise them as a set of causal relationships. Come to think of it, they seem pretty straight forward and make common sense. That is, however, not the point- the point is the systemic nature of the mutual interrelationships and interdependencies revealed by the data, which derived from a large group of people answering ONE single open question: “What is the future we want to deliver to our children and grandchildren? The data gathered through a structured inquiry such as the Iceland National Assembly process can in fact be related to Maalouf‘s concept of “Indigenous Intelligence“.
The Social Tectonic Plates
The elements of large scale social systems or Nation States
Nation building occurs in a sequence of evolving systems, each having an ever greater level of complexity than the one preceding it. Each evolving system is a natural successor to the previous systems (Beck & Cowan, 1996). If one would imagine that the group of 1200 people at the Iceland National Assembly would have gathered to discuss the subject of constructing a new Icelandic society from the ground up, five core areas appeared critical for evaluation:
- Place/Habitat. Everything which has to do with the basic physical environment. Natural habitat, natural resources and ecology.
- Worldview. The bio/psycho/social response systems or priority codes, referred to as Value Systems shaping the social culture. Furthemore, the manifestations of these priority codes in beliefs and behavior. Value systems are shaped by our life conditions, not the least the natural habitat we live in, whereas the beliefs and behavior are a manifestations of the Value Systems and the visible forces driving change and evolution.
- Human Factors. The ingredients necessary for the fulfilment of human needs and to shape the human capacity of a given society. It includes family and upbringing, education and learning, cultural life and art, healthcare and social welfare or safety net.
These three factors are the basic building blocks of the community: Habitat, Culture and Human Factors. As more complex human social systems evolve, the following factors also evolve:
- Governance. A public administration and governance system which governs people‘s shared existence and provides the necessary public services which are provided as decided by each community.
- Business. The source of value creation necessary to keep the society running and provide for the material needs of its members.
In summary: Plates 1 and 2 involve “where we come from“, Plate 3 (in conjunction with 1 and 2) is “what we become“ and plates 3 and 4 constitute “what we create for our living“ based on our Place, Worldview, and Human Factors. Each of these will be explained in more detail below:
The concept of Place emerged from the data to include the Natural Habitat which consists of the capacities of the physical environment and natural resources to sustain human life, and other External Life Conditions, which include the influences of neighboring societies, potential for trade, and other local factors.
Our natural habitat or Place, is the basis for our destiny. It gives and it takes. In regions of the world where the natural forces play a dominant role in people‘s life, people are regularly reminded of the symbiotic nature of the relationship between life and the Natural Habitat, through natural disasters of some sort. We enjoy the benefits of our country, and we can be victims of the severe natural forces which are frequently at play, such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, severe weather conditions and more. This affects the way of thinking peculiar to each Place. The same way cells take to their environment and develop different applications and intelligence systems according to their environment, so do humans who live in different environments, or as Harm de Blij (2009) states: ”All of us are blessed as well as burdened by the baggage of place – our place of birth, our mother tongue, of belief systems and conditions of health, of environmental norms and political circumstances“ (p. 4).
The concept of Worldview is a manifestation of bio/psycho/social response systems and priority codes, or Value Systems (vMEMES) and the visible manifestations of the codes in beliefs and behavior.
The fact that different societies respond differently to similar problems, whether environmental or not (Diamond, 2005, p. 14) is a crucial factor affecting their social development and the way any given community fares. Values systems grow out of deep bio-psycho-social factors which interact with the life conditions to form a unique combination of beliefs and behaviors within each human being. These value systems determine how the human needs are fulfilled at the individual level, and with regard to larger human systems. We all have basic ‘needs’ to survive, grow, love and connect to others, learn and so on, but humans also have ‘desires’ such as power, ambition and recognition which are shaping forces as well.
These basic human needs and desires can be coded in a spiral like fashion, where each evolving phase of the spiral is essential to fulfilling certain needs/desires and to cope with particular life conditions. As these systems emerge and start functioning, they generate a greater level of complexity, which again requires new thinking to fulfill the new needs. Thus the society evolves along the spiral. In addition, each subsequent priority code is in tension with the previous one; a natural tension which can result in conflict situations between different value systems, until evolution reaches a stage where all of the preceding value systems are more or less in balance, when coherence is achieved and all the systems operate in harmony: A human system functioning in a holistic manner thus fulfilling the different human needs as a well functioning ”motherboard“ for the operating system, a platform upon which all the value systems might function.
The diagnostic framework of Spiral Dynamics (Beck & Cowan, 1996) provides a good basis for explaining the difference in response systems and priority codes within a given culture and how the culture evolves as a result of changing life conditions. Changing life conditions require ever increasing levels of complexity to deal with, and so the culture must evolve to fill the gaps left by previous systems.
In the joints or at the edges between these two plates, i.e. the Place and Worldview, there is constant movement and evolution. When these two ‘social tectonic plates‘ drift apart and get misaligned, this can lead to to erosion, which in the end might lead to the environment not being able to provide for the physical needs of the dependents, or if Place and Worldview would move towards greater alignment, it would cause healing, which would improve future living conditions.
The concept of Human Emergence through the human lifecycle resulting in a constant need to develop consciousness and coping capacities to counter ever increasing levels of complexity throughout these lifecycles.
The very concept of Human Factors implies that the basic elements of the system are the human beings; the individuals within the system. The individuals are all different with different background and needs, where their lifes evolve around seeking to fulfill their individual needs. Each individual has unique characteristics, capabilities and gifts which form the basis for their individual capacities as the system evolves over time.
Since humans have the potential to develop through learning and growing throughout their entire lives they have a need for external knowledge and skills required for jobs and different intellectual disciplines, which is provided for by formal education. They also grow in consciousness through cognitive abilities, motivations, ethics, emotional intelligence, capacity for love, meaning, compassion and wisdom (Beck & Mackey, 2009, p. 278). In other words, we develop and emerge as individuals throughout our lives which calls for various forms of support in education, social engagement, culture and art and other factors affecting our maturity and underpinning what each and everyone is to become.
It therefore seems evident, that the emergence of human consciousness to cope with ever increasing level of complexity depends upon our interaction with our environment, culture and other people. This means that we form a particular human system to enjoy a shared existence which is a collaborative product of the environment and the collective thinking systems within that community. This endeavor is a product of our need to connect to other people and to fulfill our esteem needs.
Human factors in the Social Tectonic Plates Model (STP Model) involve many of those needs, i.e. personal needs for wellbeing which emerge throughout the lifespan of each individual. It is therefore assumed that as our consciousness and capacity to deal with increased levels of complexity in life evolves, we learn how to cope with these different needs. It is assumed in this context, that a hierarchy of human needs is not an isolated phenomenon, but closely linked to our natural emergence as we go through different stages of our lifecycle and in the process develop the capacity to cope with ever increasing levels of complexity.
The data from the Iceland National Assembly pointed to five fundamental factors contributing to individual human development through the lifecycle: Upbringing, Education, Culture and Art, Health, and Social Welfare. Thus, it appeared most natural when looking at the data from the National Assembly, that the elements in the Human Factors dimension were about developing the human psyche, mental and physical capacities and social safety net.
In conclusion, it seems logical to define Human Factors as defined above, as the third Tectonic Plate of the STP Model. This is the Plate in which we become what we are to become, within the constraints or influenced by the Place and the Worldview we are born into, i.e. where we come from.
The concept of Governance includes the principles under which the Administration of Public Services is managed, the structure of the governance system (e.g. legislative, executive, judicial), and operations, i.e. how it serves the people and policies to serve the shared interests of the community or society.
Every Nation State would seem to need a shared Governance system and a common framework for the citizens and their endeavors to function coherently. These systems should basically be made by the people for the people. Over time they tend to lead a life of their own and often seem to turn this causality chain upside down, i.e. instead of the original intent ‘the system for the people‘, the situation turns to ‘people for the system‘. Since the governance system is man made, it is bound to bear within itself whatever flaws there might be in the humans which created it and are running it. The Governance system is nothing but the product of the human capacities at hand in every society and functions according to that particular human operating system.
There are multiple examples which can be taken to prove the point that we have to treat the Governance system as a ‘collaborative product‘ of Place, Worldview and Human Factors, with all the strengths and weaknesses built into these Plates. Moreover, as life conditions change, governance systems operating at a level of complexity that was adequate at earlier stages of development, are often unable to implement the necessary processes when a capacity for a higher level of complexity is required.
The construction of shared governance and public administration systems is a fundamental pillar of society. It is only through an effective system that we are able to make sensible use of our opportunities, possibilities and to enjoy the power of Place. Construction of large scale national systems is by no means an easy task, especially when it comes to the capabilities and sustainability of such common systems. Each system has a tendency to lead its own life and develop through its own organizational lifecycle, with the danger of losing touch with the people, which may eventually lead to collapse.
The very concept of Business is about how we organize and use our resources, be they external or internal to humans, to create value to provide the means for people to fulfill their overall needs and to run the required Governance systems to enable society as such to provide for those needs.
Business is the fundament to the economy of a human social system. It is the basis for value creation in society now and for the foreseeable future. Human social systems range from a primitive hunter/gatherer systems to complex corporate states. The Business system is distinguished in the social context from the governance system as it has this distinct role to create the value needed to support a given level of social existence. The degree to which the economy is in the hands of the executive power and how much is in the hands of individuals and their corporate entities is different from one culture to another. It doesn‘t alter the fact that it is the basic provider of goods and services to fulfill the daily needs of society.
The overall mission of Business is to utilize the combined elements of natural resources, thinking systems, people and their capacities to make the most out of limited means. Its mission is to optimize the total resources for the good of the society as a whole and within the framework provided by the shared governance. The success of Business is measured in terms of fulfillment of consumer needs and the sustainable utilization of resources to provide for these needs. Its efficiency in providing these means is measured in profit or profitability, though increasingly, newer business and governance systems are emerging which also take natural, human, social, knowledge and other capitals into account, not simply financial capital. This is called “multi-capitalism‘, in contrast to the older “only money matters system“ that defined western capitalism from the 1980‘s onward, also known as “mono-capitalism.“ The development of the Business sector is therefore a crucial factor in social development and success as the combination of knowledge and culture work towards sustainable prosperity.
The same danger of a failure to adapt to changing life conditions exists with regard to the Business Tectonic Plate as with the Governance Tectonic Plate. Over time, there seems to have been a tendency to separate it from society and define the “playground“ of business without regard to its effect on Place and People, in the quest for profitability under mono-capitalism. This is one of the main contributing factors behind the financial crisis which began in late 2008. It is as if people themselves enter a different world when going to work each day, behaving differently and losing sight of basic principles of life, known as “values schizophrenia”. Owners and managers work according to a clear objective for maximising wealth, as if that was something viable without consideration for the ecological and social elements involved.
The STP Model
Diagnosing the total picture
When studying the large crowd wisdom gathered at the Iceland National Assembly, one could argue that the logic of society was revealed from knowledge based on practical experience of real people when dealing with the question: How will we secure a sustainable good life for ourselves and generations to come?
The following sequence seemed quite logical, as shown in the figure below:
- Place/Habitat is what we base our existence on.
- Our Worldview shapes our daily lives and together with Place forms what ‘we are made of‘.
- Human factors emerge throughout our lives resulting in certain needs that have to be met.
- To fulfill these needs we create a governance system which takes care of the governance of our shared existence (Governance) and provides the material means needed to fulfil those needs (Business).
Figure 1 – Social Tectonic Plates – Diagnostic View
The surface of these Plates then constitutes the manifestations of the joint interaction of these Plates, where the alignment between all of them will make or break our existence in the future.
In a diagnostic sense, the last dimension of the model would show the Manifestations of forces between the Plates causing erosion or misalignment in the total system. The bottom row of boxes in Figure 1 above are an example of forces embedded in beliefs and behavior, which could cause erosion in the boundaries between the plates and cause them to drift apart and disintegrate or rub against each other and build up suppressed energy that could result in social earthquakes. The end column is a hypothetical outcome showing the erosion between different plates which are defined as Environmental, Ethical, Democratic and Economic erosion, respectively. The elements shown might help to detect (when monitoring the system) where there is potential for erosion.
What has been outlined in this article is a descriptive and potentially prescriptive model for more conscious social development, derived from the collective indigenous intelligence of a large, randomly sampled group of citizens. Using collective wisdom derived from an authentic dialogue process as a means to diagnose social dynamics from a holistic perspective offer us an important insight into the situation with respect to what is most important and why. To make sense of such data, a model is required to detect causality and discuss intervention looking at the system as a whole. Such diagnosis, if done through an authentic dialogue where the data is organised in essential societal patterns or templates, provides the essential ingredients for restoration and healing using the principle of Natural Design of Human System as explained by Beck and Cowan (1996, p. 172) and discussed at length by Elza Maalouf, in her book Emerge!
- Beck, D. E., & Cowan, C. (1996). Spiral Dynamics, Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. Blackwell Publishing.
- Beck, D., & Mackey, J. (2009). The Upward Flow of Human Development – Maps of the Terrain. Í M. Strong, Be The Solution; How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems (bls- 277-304). Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons.
- de Blij, H. (2009). The Power of Place, Geography, Destiny and Globalization’s Rough Landscape. Oxford University Press.
- Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse, how societies choose to fail or succeed. New York: Penguin Group.
- Dawlabani, Said. “Memenomics”, Select Books, Inc, 2013, https://amzn.to/2N41tD8
- Maalouf, Elza S. Emerge!, the Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East, Select Books, New York, 2014
- Wood, Dr Robin Lincoln: “A Leader’s Guide to Thriveability”, AuthorHouse Press, 2015. http://amzn.to/2F6Md4w
 Maalouf, Elza S.: Emerge!, the Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East, Select Books, New York, 2014
 In traditional Western democracies, the structure rests on a three tier power system: Legislative, Executive and Judicial Power. However, this structure cannot be regarded as a common structure throughout world nations. Therefore the generic term ‘Structure‘ is used in this context.
 Said Dawlabani- “Memenomics”, Select Books, Inc, 2013, https://amzn.to/2N41tD8
About The Author
Dr. Bjarni Snaebjorn Jonsson is a management consultant and holds a Ph.D. from Adizes Graduate School, in Organizational Transformation. His main research interests lie in large systems development through public participation. He was a founding member of the Anthill in Iceland which organized a cross sectional National Assembly in 2009 involving abt. 1000 randomly sampled citizens which were physically joined for a day to formulate the Icelandic Nation‘s future Superordinate Goals following the Financial Crisis of 2008, which hit Iceland particularly hard.