Last Thursday a small group met for Week 5 of the U.Lab @ Impact Hub Oakland. We began with a listening meditation we have practiced every time since our first meeting. In this practice, instead of trying to ignore distracting sounds, they become the object of your meditation. The instruction is to listen to sounds – in the room and near to you, then outside of the room and far from you – without creating any stories or imagining what is causing the sound. It is a listening for the pure quality of the sound, and it offers a deepening of our capacity to suspend while listening.

A powerful check-in followed the meditation, with people sharing breakthroughs they’d had in coaching circles, and synergistic insights from the U.Lab and Permaculture, which several of us are also studying. Each share inspired the next person to dig deeper in sharing their observations and insights. The field was palpable and deeper than it had ever been since we began meeting.

After the check-in, I took a breath and took my hands off the steering wheel as a facilitator. I confessed that I hadn’t actually prepared an agenda for the rest of our meeting. I usually throw my agenda out midway, mind you, but at least I begin with something in mind! All I had were a few seeds of ideas to drop into the space as provocations. I wrote two words on the whiteboard – ECOLOGY and INTEROPERABILITY.

Provocation #1 – ECOLOGY. I shared an image of the savannah ecology and double-clicked on the ecological function of the dung beetle, as I offered a big question that I’ve been holding for the better part of a year. How can we see ourselves as an ecosystem for change? When I picked up Otto Scharmer’s latest book and saw “Egosystem to Ecosystem” in the title, there was an immediate “Yes!” of recognition. We need to learn how to think and act ecosystemically. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a conversation where someone says “we really need to map that ecosystem” (of organizations working on a particular issue). It takes a lot of work to create these maps, and yet our ways of visualizing these systems feel very unsatisfying.

What I yearn to see is something more like an ecological function diagram for our social change ecosystems. I want to see something that shows the sources of nutrients (funders, educators) that help the organization (startup, non-profit) send deep roots into their communities, to grow and produce fruit (impact) that supports those in need. I want to see the ecological niche that each organization fills, and how together they form an interdependent whole.

Provocation #2 – INTEROPERABILITY. I’d heard this word earlier in the week at a gathering of innovators from around the world whom I consider to be the avant garde in collaboration and the new economy. As we sat in a circle we grappled to find a way to drop in and figure out what we could uniquely do together. Someone said “interoperability” and it triggered an image of a Lego set. My nephew got one for Christmas last year and I helped him open the plastic bags of little pieces, sort the pieces into piles, and then try to re-create the image on the front of the box. At that meeting, my questions finally crystallized. How do our pieces fit together? How can we self-assemble to create the vision of the future that we want to create? In the U.Lab I then shared an image of Lego pieces, and a cool video showing how they fit together to create a Lego city.

The dialogue that emerged next was truly generative, and had us on the edge of our seats and not wanting to leave when our time was up. Sarah Filley shared a video about the Universal Construction Kit – a 3D printable set of hybrid pieces that allows you to connect Legos with Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs and more. Each toy “system” is a fixed set of possibilities or paradigms, but with these hybrid connectors, you can create anything you can imagine using pieces from half a dozen different systems.

We linked this to the theme of the age of disruption where old things are dying and new toy-18things are being born. As changemakers, we play a curious role of hospice for that which needs to let go, and midwife for that which is trying to be born. We need to have compassion for what is dying, because not everything fits in the new model. There is a lot of fear and resistance that gets in the way of change, even when it is a positive transition. The midwifery is about creating safe spaces for participatory and inclusive processes, and helping nutrients and sunlight reach the small shoots that are growing up.

We identified a “hybrid connector catalyst” role that senses and bridges opportunities between systems. With the old paradigms and structures, we only design within a fixed set of possibilities. As hybrid connector catalysts we see what is possible and can create new social ecologies that serve society’s needs better, in a sustainable and socially just way. A question that arose early in the conversation was “where can I serve?” By the end we were closer to an answer.

Lisa Chacón

Co-Founder and Co-Director,
Impact Hub Oakland


U.Lab is an online course available through MIT’s free education platform, with over 45,000 participants worldwide. The U.Lab @ Impact Hub Oakland has been meeting since 9/10/15 with the aim to support those taking the course with weekly meetups and group facilitation. There are 44 Impact Hubs in the global network hosting the U.Lab. The U.Lab is free online, and the weekly U.Lab meetings are free for members.