Social Presencing Theater for scaling up collective intelligence

In his new book on Theory U, MIT professor Otto Scharmer describes one of his 7 enabling conditions for inspiring a positive shift on a global scale:
“A new social art form I call Social Presencing Theater that stages media events and productions to connect different communities and their transformational stories by blending action research, theater, contemplative practices, intentional silence, generative dialogue and open space.”
Social Presencing Theater is striking an enthusiastic chord in many people who read or hear about it. When Otto told me about the idea in our first conversation two years ago, my soul caught fire as I imagined what could happen when Social Presencing Theater links up communities across a country or across the globe in co-creative, future-responsive dialogues, fun, and wise action.
In this –longish!– blog entry, I explore the relationship between Social Presencing Theater (SPT) and collective intelligence (CI).

TransPacNet 86
As I’m writing these notes, I remember TransPacNet 86, the first citizen summit that linked up other hundreds of American and Japanese citizens in a 3-week online exchange of personal diaries on life in Silicon Valley and in Tama Valley. We blogged, having neither the term nor today’s Web technologies to support it. TransPacNet 86 was a brainchild of two friends, Izumi Aizu.html and Lisa Kimball . The online journaling of daily life in the two countries concluded with a multimedia event that connected, in real time, participants gathering face-to-face at Stanford University and at the Tokyo Technical University.
My company of those years, MetaTechnologies Associates, was in charge of facilitating the event at Stanford. I fondly remember the excitement, trepidation (“will the slow-scan TV function as we hope?”) and the joy of swapping stories and exploring new frontiers of social, learning, and technology innovations, all in one event that connected us locally and across the Pacific Ocean.
In 1986, making friends online was a very young social practice, and we broke new ground by bringing together the sensory richness and human feel of physical presence and co-creation with distance-swallowing electronic hook-up that expanded the number and diversity of participants.
The three weeks of online learning about each other, our interests, work and daily living in our respective countries, culminated in the hybrid, online and in-person, facilitated group processes. We discovered that social learning goes deeper when multiple modalities are involved.
The technology innovation was not really ours; we were standing on the shoulders of such giants as Douglas Engelbart who was the first to connect live audiences at separate locations via a computer hook up, in 1968. The novelty that we introduced was combining 10 different media/communication modes to support a variety of interactions among the participants, local and non-local.
From Intuition Bridge to Evolutionary Extravaganza
Thanks to my desktop Google, I serendipitously discovered a document buried in layers of folders on my hard disk, which may also be relevant to Social Presencing Theater. As a member of the San Francisco chapter of the International Management Institute Network, I sent a message to its President, Dr. Jagdish Parikh, in August 1988. It was a discussion draft about creating an “Intuition Bridge” event described as follows:

An Intuition Bridge is a multimedia teleconferencing event in which the agility of computer-based multi-sensory communications is used to accrue the intuitive power of geographically dispersed communities. Seen in a broader context, Intuition Bridges are events for linking the hearts, minds, and souls of individuals, groups, and organizations through purposeful action, regardless of distance and time.
A Bridge is also an act of computer theatre, a new genre of multimedia to support new ways to work and learn in global communities.
The Intuition Bridge should demonstrate the practical benefits of integrating advanced, yet affordable electronic technologies with group processes that support the emergence of intuitive insights and new ways of working together in multi-cultural organizations.
Besides raising the awareness of our global connectedness, the event can also give us some glimpses of our collective potential that becomes visible only through accessing deep intuition.

Writing about the event design, I also suggested:

The projects conducted during the Intuition Bridge event should shed light on such issues as the role of intuition in cross-cultural team building, managing diversity, and defining holistic principles for the conscious co-evolution of human and information systems.
Some of the possible projects include:

  • Creating an interactive expertise/interest directory (database) illustrated with the digitized pictures of all participants, shot on-site.
  • Conducting shared exercises in “consensus intuitive knowing,” for example: collaborative scenario drawing and writing about anticipated uses of facilitated multimedia telecommunications in crisis defusing, problem-solving, and cross-cultural team building, in the year 2000.
  • Launching a learning expedition on how to co-evolve and integrate intuitive knowing with computer-based knowledge technologies.

It can be useful to consider some of the design principles of the Intuition Bridge of 1988, as we engage in Social Presencing Theater plays in 2007:

  • Keep the technology in the background; emphasize the power of joining our hearts, minds, intuitions.
  • Maximize audience participation in all locations.
  • Aim to create situations in which participants can experience both their individual intuition and how sharing it locally and across continents can touch their lives.
  • Showcase a good cross-section of local intuitive skills and talents, and help us experience our diversity as the foundation of our richness.
  • Aim at using/focusing the energy of the moment to prepare and feed into longer-term research and other community projects.
  • Make provision for documenting, evaluating, and prototyping what we learn from the experiment.
  • Enhance a sense of community by helping us learn how to discern “the patterns that connect” all of us. Uncover the dynamics through which tele-communion can happen as a “byproduct” of sharing our intuitive practices and insights across distance and time.

Closer to our times, another powerful pre-SPT event was Evolutionary Extravaganza hosted by Peter Merry and Tim Merry, in May 2005, and described as:
Music, movement, conversation, learning, video images, voice, food, spontaneous poetry, a DJ and more – a true multi-media multi-sensory experience! this final celebration of Be The Change 2005 will give us a festive space to leave behind what we think we know and lean into the future to sense what is emerging in the collective field and within ourselves – in an energetic, interactive and fun-filled evening. Come ready to mingle, dance and celebrate our emerging future.
Kosmic grooves
What are the memories of TransPacNet, the concept of the Intuition Bridge and what I learned about Evolutionary Extravaganza trying to tell me? Taken together, they remind me of Ken Wilber’s developmental grooves – that he also calls Kosmic grooves or Kosmic habits. In his conversation with Andrew Cohen, called Following the Grain of the Cosmos , he described them as “patterns that influence the development of physical, biological, and psychological structures. A difficult, novel, creative emergence [has] settled into what I call a ‘Kosmic habit,’ now available for all subsequent development.”
In the “Higher Integration” dialogue he continued: “Most of the early stages of development have been around for thousands of years. And billions of human beings have gone through them so that now they are automatically part of development. They’re as rutted as the Grand Canyon, which may go down a mile. But new stages . . . might be a yard or two deep, that’s all that’s been cut . . . And anybody who’s pushing into those stages is basically going out next to the Grand Canyon, taking a stick, and starting to dig another groove.”
Sticking with the “taking a stick” metaphor doesnt get us very far, because how Grand Canyon-sized social innovation can be reached is not by deepening one groove but starting many in adjacent areas; just like the tributaries of the Colorado River together carved out the Canyon’s majestic landscape.
Similarly, the “river” of Social Presencing Theater will grow, deepen and widen, as the many tributaries of people’s different talents and desire for autonomy and community flow into it.
TransPacNet, Intuition Bridge, and Evolutionary Extravaganza were relatively small scratches that signaled possibilities for deeper and wider digs. In what areas? Theory U talks about Social Presencing Theater as “blending action research, theater, contemplative practices, intentional silence, generative dialogue, and open space.” I am a passionate practitioner of all, except theater. I wonder if that is why I happen to have so many friends who are or who have, at some point in their life, been involved with theater work and its use in group or organizational learning? (My own brief dipping into stage work was in the early 70s when participation in “guerilla theater” and various avant-garde art groups were a form of political opposition to the system of statist oppression in Hungary.)
Digging and amplifying new grooves for Social Presencing Theater
Mark Szpakowski wrote about Scharmer’s “Social Presencing Theater” concept.

The practice of such a collective holding space would be a great direction for the technical/social-technology community to go in, both for conferences and for social collaboration tools. Bar Camps and Unconferences already bring together Open Space Technology and community-building web tools such as Wikis.

What is an unconference? It is “a conference where the content of the sessions is driven and created by the participants, generally day-by-day during the course of the event, rather than by a single organizer, or small group of organizers, in advance. To date, the term is primarily in use in the geek community… Open Space Technology is an energizing and emergent way to organize an agenda for a conference. Those coming to the event can post on a wiki ahead of time topics they want to present about or hope others will present about.” (Wikipedia)
It’s inspiring to see the synergy that has started emerging from the interactions of social and electronic technologies of collective intelligence. Popular participation processes at geek unconferences (aka “BarCamps”) include: Open Space Technology, World Cafe
and Appreciative Inquiry .
Providing participants with a wiki for connecting before and after an unconference has become customary. However, much more is possible and on the way. Here is an example:
The idea of wrapping a conference into a layer of the participants’ collective intelligence came to my mind when Reboot 9 invited me to talk about CI. Instead “talking about,” I teamed up with Martin Ludvigsen and Yann Mauchamp. Before the event, we facilitated an online conversation about our forthcoming presentation at Reboot-9 . Future attendees kept adding interesting perspectives and questions about our topic, which in turn led to versions of what we were going to introduce at the main event, how and why. We actively participated in and learned from that pre-conference exchange up till the last minute. During the conference, we turned the “talk” into an opportunity for a small-scale experience in collaborative meaning making, in which the “audience” became co-creators of it. We didn’t succeed in forming a lasting community, but we learned a lot from the attempt.
I can’t prevent myself from fantasizing, if we had had a few theater practitioners on our team who were also SPT aficionados, could have we have created a play with more extensive and intensive audience involvement, and presenced the future of this 9-yr old series of annual conferences, in need of re-inventing itself?
Can Social Presencing Theater also be a framework for assisting the emergence of a more co-intelligent community from attendees around a conference or shared interest?
At conferences like Reboot and SHIFT or LIFT, the people who meet frequently converge in ad hoc communities of interest and, sometimes, co-creation. Typically, those communities don’t survive beyond the last day of the conference. What is missing is a common narrative, a shared story and the moving experience of human minds, hearts, and hands that are engaged together in creating something precious to all. What could change that is wrapping the conference in a SPT play, so that Act Two is the conference itself, Act One is what happens before, and Act Three is what happens after.
“BarCamp for social innovation” represents another style of popular unconference that can be amplified by scaling up their collective intelligence with Social Presencing Theater that could include pre-show action research on critical issues/opportunities and post-show opportunities for co-creative engagement.
Open Cities: Toronto,” held in June 23 + 24, 2007, was a good example of what I’d call a “BarCamp for social innovation.” Its site says:

Open source. Open space. Open art. Open doors. Open questions. Open City?
Open Cities Toronto 2007 is a weekend-long web of conversation and celebration that asks: how do we collaboratively add more open to the urban landscape we share? What happens when people working on open source, public space, open content, mash-up art and open business work together? How do we make Toronto a magnet for people playing with the open meme?
You are invited to discuss, dance, debate, and download Toronto’s potential to become an epicenter and an example of a community that thrives on openness. We’ve all chosen to live here for a reason “ let’s figure out how we can combine our talents to build a city-wide community of openness.

Again and again, I have to be reminded that initiatives that invent new social practices must learn to walk before they can run, and maybe even crawl before they can walk. This time, that’s because “social innovation” BarCamps are still babies and I already imagine them as teenagers who are in almost continuous communication with their buddies and can chat, mix and mingle with their peers: BarCamps in other cities, regions and countries, which are capable of addressing challenges and opportunities at a bigger scale.
Using Social Presencing Theater for scaling up collective intelligence
Mark Szpakowski wrote in his insightful blog entry on SPT that I quoted earlier: “Theory U and Social Presencing Theater could help give rise to the further necessary quantum moments pregnant with the reflection, dialogue, and self-organization that are being called for.”
It we can judge based on such pre-SPT events as TransPacnet 86 or Evolutionary Extravaganza or Open Cities, Toronto 2007, which were not yet informed by Theory U, Szpakowski’s anticipation seems neither misplaced nor over-optimistic. However, the big, practical questions are: how would SPT scale and how would it help scale up local “reflection, dialogue, and self-organization that are being called for” to address global challenges? Can SPT be used, would it work in the context of large-scale, multi-sectoral transformation? What innovation infrastructures need to be in place to allow that to happen?
These are questions that will no doubt be illuminated by the connected practices of those who engage in Social Presencing Theater as a technology of liberation and a community art form. The stakes of answering them are high. Finding the paths forward to positive solutions in the maze of our interdependent global crises calls for collective intelligence and wisdom on an unprecedented scale. It will also require the growing of large, interconnected, participatory knowledge ecosystems.
There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul, wrote Arnold Bennett (British playwright, 1867-1931). When performed with mastery, SPT will provide a context for both collective cognition and “the experience of the soul.”
Starting points
Where could those of us inspired by the SPT concept start engaging with it more deeply? Here some potential starting points:

  • If you have not yet read Theory U, please do so; it will provide a context for SPT, which is both grounding and uplifting. If you don’t have enough appetite to read the whole book, read at least the sections on Social Presencing Theater.
  • Think of a community and an issue that you deeply care about and envision how they might benefit from SPT. Form a co-initiation team to host that opportunity.
  • Connect with, learn from, and invite progressive theater people in your network, or community facilitators and organizational professionals who use improvisation theater techniques in their work. If you don’t have any, ask people in your network who may.
  • Form a community of SPT practice on Evolutionary Nexus, / where there are already a couple of people interested in that art.
  • Find our about the action research group called ” Social Presencing Theater,” formed by the Presencing Institute.
  • Enjoy life as Social Presencing Theater!
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4 Responses to Social Presencing Theater for scaling up collective intelligence

  1. andrew campbell says:

    Hi George — great work of art! Love,Andrew


  2. George Por says:

    Can you visualize your art in the context of Presencing Theater as community art?
    I am in Boston, will see Otto on Thursday, and this is one of the topics that we’ll explore.


  3. andrew campbell says:

    Yes! George I can — and i will have ample opportunity to share that vision with some people Otto knows well, especially Zaid Hassan and Adam Kahane — the idea of our ‘new’ ad-venture called ‘Reos’ is that we take a curatorial view to presenting presence — to make some of the visions of Beuys come alive — so will you please give my best wishes and love to Otto and Katrin, and their little children – for whom we must persevere and as JB said it, Protect the Flame!


  4. George Por says:

    Andrew, what is the curatorial view of presenting presence? Would you say more about how it may related to Presencing Theater as community art? You made me curious.


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