The Power of Learning Ecosystems for Universal Wellbeing

In educational systems today around the world we so often still in the words of Tom Hierck “have 21st century students, being instructed by 20th century adults, using 19th century pedagogy and tools, on an 18th century school calendar.” These systems, as systems in general, often function to preserve the status quo, largely similar in design and function to our past rather than our future. Whilst many inspiring and influential pedagogists and changemakers across the ages have provided us with guiding lights and insights on how and why we learn, it has largely proven difficult to improve education, despite it being perceived by all stakeholders to require doing so in many domains.

We are also living in a time where the effects of accelerating, complex change are having a profound impact on the world we live in both globally and locally. The pressures created by some of dynamics, such as hyperconnection, developments in automation and industry, high risk/high potential technologies and threats of planetary collapse are massive and need to be addressed urgently. In our increasingly automated and digital society our own unique human skills such as creativity, empathy, and adaptability are becoming increasingly vital for our own personal joy and wellbeing, as well as a necessary and timely shift of what might be required of us in our work. Yet these needs are not reflected in most curriculum and learning design, let alone the ‘measurements’ of success in education which are largely based upon industrial and assembly line learning.

Nonetheless, in the face of entrenched dynamics of many education systems we are seeing a rise in alternative learning approaches dedicated to foresight, exploratory and anticipatory methods. Innovation mapping and spotting has seen developments towards a more holistic approach, considering the whole person, complex challenges, and opportunities for collaborative learning. These desires suggests a potential turning point for education systems to move towards approaches that co-creatively shape our emergent future rather than operating from our past.

This article incorporates findings from a global research project that a shift in education gaining momentum around the world toward learning ecosystems. To understand more about how this is happening around the world, Global Education Futures and SKOLKOVO School of Management engaged myself, Pavel Luksha, and Joshua Cubista in co-authoring the upcoming report « Learning Ecosystems: An Emerging Praxis For The Future of Education ». Through this research project 40 learning and educational leaders were interview from around the world with demonstrated commitment to 1) intentionally integrating learning solutions and/or experiences for positive impact into educational practices and, 2) engaging and organizing in collaborative relationships with a diverse set of stakeholders both within and outside of education. The learning ecosystems explored through this project followed various types of dynamics, such as ecosystems that create conditions for social or cultural innovation and development, increased just and fair opportunities in circumstances of gender, economic, and ethnical inequality and regenerative economies in connection with respective bioregional ecosystems, and also incorporated insights from the Ecosystem Accelerator program in 10 regions across Russia.

What are Learning Ecosystems?

So how do we embrace complexity and make it work for us? System science suggests that ecosystems have a paradoxical ability to maintain both the unity and the variety for an advantageous way of governing. The unity is established by creating shared interaction protocols and orientation of all ecosystem participants towards cooperation, as well as by setting up shared values and long term goals. The variety is established by “evolutionary” protocols in that there is no single plan for the ecosystem, and any participant can engage in experimentation or exploration, and any participant can either achieve “evolutionary success” (begin to develop, grow, spread) or fail and “die out.”

Due to growing complexity, connectivity, and proximity multi-stakeholder interconnections are increasing and out of this trend complex networks of knowledge production are arising but assembly-line learning and industrial inspired education systems are not designed to evolve to meet this kind of increasing complexities facing society today. We therefore need, and are indeed at the beginning of an “ecosystemic transition” through which we will need to embrace the wisdom of regenerative living systems and model our relationships, interactions, and organizing processes after the living complex adaptive systems upon which all life depends. One indicator of this emerging transition is the increasing use of the term “ecosystem” across a great variety of sectors, from transportation and energy to healthcare, city administration, social innovation and the arts.

When asked to define learning ecosystems, our interviews with leaders worldwide developed this emergent definition.

Learning ecosystems are webs of interconnected relationships organising lifelong learning.

They are diverse, dynamic and evolving, connecting learners and community to foster individual and collective capacity.

They have three purposes, dedicated to co-creating thrivable futures for people, places and our planet.

So how does this look different to what we might consider most educational systems to typically demonstrate? The table below outlines some of the key differences our participants are either noticing or co-creating in its emergence.

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Personal, Place-based and Planetary Levels of a Learning Ecosystem

As you can see in the table above learning ecosystems are particularly different to that of the educational system as they arise and are driven at multiple levels by a complex mesh of purposes. Ecosystem Thrivalists (leaders in this space) shared that learning ecosystem seems to provide a multitude of purposes which are applicable at three different levels to incorporate individual and collective needs. The interaction of the personal, place and planetary levels are key to establishing its difference between previous approaches to education. The personal level focuses specifically on improving aspects such as individual growth and self care, whilst the place focuses on the development of local community and the learning opportunities within it, to be defined within their context, and the planetary focuses on our connection to wider global needs of the world.

In terms of practical first steps, we found that Ecosystem Thrivalists typically start at the local or place-based purpose of an ecosystem, primarily driven pragmatically by actual needs, local challenges and opportunities identified and rooted within local or regional context and history. Even though they are not clear on what the result or answer may be they are purposeful and organized with intent to understand together so their impact becomes self-evident through the process for all key stakeholders. Inherent motivations to organize ecosystemically include:

  • Immediate, place-based motivation. That working ecosystemically will serve the immediate local issue, a deep need that is seen by their community, industrial partners, economy, requests of population. This need is infinitely rooted in the context and culture of a specific place.
  • Overarching, planetary motivation. In the interconnection to a wider planetary movement towards universal wellbeing at the global scale ecosystem leaders see themselves as connected to a part of a larger movement.
  • Individual, Personal motivation Their work is also innately connected to them and their development, they want to organize learning and education for themselves so they can live in the world this way. As a result they recognize they need to change and take care of their own wellbeing too, just as ‘part’ of the ecosystem as their project is.

Conditions for Learning Ecosystems

So what enables learning ecosystem? In the table below I’ll share the number of factors we noted that support transition or transformation towards ecosystemic ways of organizing. These have been used to guide an Ecosystem Accelerator program supporting development across multiple regions of Russia in their evolution.

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So if we know how to support them, why aren’t we organizing ecosystemically already? We found there to be notable and specific hindrances that frequently surface for projects ranging from relational to structural. At the relational level particularly it was often shared that due to its emerging value carving out impactful time, space and learning which allows for the necessary skills, values, and mindsets to develop can be hard. Yet, when achieved extremely convincing for participants and funders. A lack of trust was the most commonly identified hindrance to developing ecosystemically. Vishal Talreja, Founder of Indian based, global non profit Dream a Dream highlighted for example that “There is a lack of recognition that we don’t know how to collaborate. We are sitting on an assumption that we know how to do it, we do not invest enough time into the process of trust building”. These sentiments are further supported from the educator perspective, as ex-head teacher, Founder of Learnlife Stephen Harris who believes the two main hindrances to learning ecosystems lie very much within this relational element that “One, teachers have never been taught emotional intelligence. Universities teach people to become control agents within a group of people, to be supervised and checked which is antithetical to a positive relationship. They need to learn how to have positive functional relationships and these need to be in place before you move forward. Secondly, teachers have never been taught to collaborate. They think they can but in fact they cannot, which is not their fault but they have not been trained. Those who teach MBAs do so in collaborative teams but we do the opposite in teaching. How can they become agents of change and collaborate when they can’t do it themselves?

Ecosystem thrivalists spend a lot of time intentionally trying to develop these skills themselves and supporting opportunities for authentic connection and vulnerability to do the same. It seems then that we need to reimagine and recreate support at people’s personal learning ecosystem level for development. It must include educators and educational stakeholders alike so we can support those leading education systems or initiatives to foster change for the benefit of others and the planet. An organisation working at various levels of both building, and nurturing webs of deep and purposeful relationships across the learning ecosystem, is The Weaving Lab. Their work focuses on advancing the practice and profession of weaving learning ecosystems for universal wellbeing. This leadership development focuses on developing a different set of skills and ways of being than many classical leadership styles, and builds upon the idea and importance of liminal leaders in today’s world. It is an approach to leadership that relies less on hierarchical authority and centralised control, and more on curating circles, hosting conversations, and building trusted relationships. It involves taking the lead but, equally, supporting others to step forward and take the lead as we shift moving from ego to eco. The goal of weaving is a complex and nuanced discipline that involves shepherding people from highly diverse institutions, roles, backgrounds and perspectives into meaningful collaborations that have systemic impact.

Ecosystem Thrivalists: Leadership and Learning

It might seem that the difficulty of this kind of organization might be its downfall but the leaders of these projects and education stress that the alternative, to carry on with the status quo, is ultimately not an option. So what kind of roles and leadership are required for the evolution of learning ecosystems? Around the world there is a wide spectrum of emerging approaches to leadership that share common ground as it relates to affecting local and global positive change. The table below highlights some of the core elements of evolving approaches to leadership and some of the key individuals/communities who are shaping this shift. It is the combination of these ways of working in learning ecosystems we coin being an Ecosystem Thrivalist, a position which requires the wearing of many hats!

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We are socialized to see what is wrong, missing, off, to tear down the ideas of others and uplift our own. To a certain degree, our entire future may depend on learning to listen, listen without assumptions or defenses.
Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Many of the contributors to the research in this report also point to the vanguard learning and leadership development approaches of The Presencing Institute as exemplary in the kinds of individual and collective capacity building that is needed to evolve the ways we address the challenges and opportunities we face in the world today. The Presencing Institute has, for example, developed a leadership program which “aims to activate the co-shapers of a new global movement (and action research university) one that integrates science, technology, consciousness, and profound societal change to bridge the major ecological, social, and spiritual divides of our time.” Building upon its core change theory, Theory U the Presencing Institute fosters spaces for learners to “lead from the emerging future” and illuminates alternative pathways that we can take along the journey of evolving how we learn together.

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Credit: Image taken from Theory U course.

Another way to understand the work required to cultivate thriving learning ecosystem is that of ecosystem gardening. Gardening, beyond the metaphor, is a practice of cultivating symbiotic complex living systems, and the work of cultivating learning ecosystems requires working with and learning from nature and its wisdom, evolving our systems and evolving ourselves. In the words of Masanobu Fukuoka “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” In this context, learning ecosystems are the “garden or farm” in which we cultivate healthy conditions for learning to flourish, both for individuals and in communities. This includes seeding opportunities, propagating projects, cultivating thriving ecosystems, and cultivating our capacities as learners and leaders.

Ecosystem Thrivalists garden to create new ways of learning and being in the world, both for themselves and their local and/or global community. This can take many forms such as tools, processes, events, accelerators or art. They also often create technological platforms to connect this work bringing visibility to change in the digital sphere so they can connect with more people, and evidence their impact to the community and funders. We see leaders using this language and talking about their work through the gardening metaphor. Ismael Palacín, Director of Fundació Jaume Bofill, shared for example that “if we create new rules people can garden their ecosystems, for example in my garden I will create a different climate so I can grow different plants.” The role of ecosystem gardeners is particularly noticeable outside the Euro-Atlantic world. In places such as Western Europe or the United States for example, there is a saturation of siloed and disconnected institutions and in this context the main role of an ecosystemic leader is to connect and align, or to weave together, various players. However, in many regions of the world, such as Latin America, Africa, Russia, or the Middle East, there is more impoverished institutional landscape, what some call “institutional voids” and ecosystem leaders have to take a more proactive role in cultivating the landscape before activities such as weaving are a priority. One can think of an analogy with the “rhythms of life », the cycles of change in day and night and the change of our seasons. Evolving projects and initiatives within an ecosystem, e.g. platforms, competitions, rankings, and accelerators, when introduced into a system, start to influence the whole system. Here, an ecosystem gardener works with what is possible, guiding the evolution of an ecosystem towards more desirable outcomes.

Our Emerging Futures

In the words of Buckminster Fuller “Out of my general world-pattern-trend studies, there now comes strong evidence that nothing is going to be quite so surprising or abrupt in the forward history of man as the forward evolution in the educational processes.” Our hope is that the work of those featured in this research illuminates the emerging praxis of learning ecosystems as a radical shift in how we learn and lead together in the 21st century advancing the evolution of education and learning. Each unique wave on the ocean is created by the coming together of the swell, resulting sometimes from storms that happened days before and thousands of miles away. Whilst at times it may seem that embracing ecosystemic learning makes our work more complex and challenging, in fact embracing complexity and embracing future possibilities is a much more aligned way of navigating the complex dynamics before us. Learning ecosystems modelled after organic complex adaptive systems aim to offer learning pathways that are congruent with our 21st century complexifying context. The journey of creating learning ecosystems requires courage and stamina, it asks much from us and our communities, and it invites work that can span generations. The enthusiasm with which research contributors shared their successes and failures in the continued work of co-creating learning ecosystems suggests to us that learning ecosystems may provide pathways of hope and possibility for the future of learning. The emerging future is ours co-create.

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To learn more about learning ecosystems, real-world case studies and how you can work more ecosystemically look for our upcoming report published by Global Education Futures and SKOLKOVO School of Management « Learning Ecosystems: An Emerging Praxis For The Future of Education » by myself, Pavel Luksha, and Joshua Cubista. To find out more about my work on learning transformation and ecosystems check out my site at

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