Adah Parris, Futurist, Systems Thinker and Culture Strategist joined us for Transitions, sharing thoughts on the myth of the ego, presenting The Ecological Hierarchy of Needs.

Hello everyone, my name is Adah Parris. It’s a pleasure to be here. Today I’m going to talk to you about the myth of the ego or the ecological hierarchy of needs.

The ecological triptych

So what’s a myth? We hear about it all the time, a traditional story, especially one told through early history or a widely held but falsely held belief or idea.

I’m going to take you back to this picture of The Garden of Earthly Delights that was painted by Hieronymus Bosch around 1490 to 1510. There’s been much thought and controversy and ideas around this image because on the left, he painted the Garden of Eden. On the right is Hell and the middle represents the Garden of Earthly Delights. There’s many art historians who’ve debated whether the middle frame actually represents paradise lost, or acts as a moral warning.

Transitions Adah Parris Earthly Delights

During this lockdown, I decided to really think about what the modern day triptych would look like. What were the patterns that I was seeing, that were happening, that were changing around the world? That actually led me to think about what this triptych would look like.

So, on the left is colonialism, the move away from the Garden of Eden, this idea to divide and conquer and separate and put up borders and walls. On the right is our relationship with climate change, the destruction that’s happening. And in the middle? The moral warning and the moral compass, I believe, is capitalism. And this is what I call the ecological triptych.

As a systems thinker and pattern recogniser, I wanted to try to find where else I see this pattern. Interestingly, I found the pattern occurring in Freud’s work, in the work of the ego. And so mapping that onto this, colonialism is the Id. That primitive, instinctual part of the mind that drives us. Climate change is the superego, the bit that operates the moral conscience, we know that we should be doing better, we see everything that’s happening. And there’s a but. And what’s that but? Which is a bit in the middle? The bit is capitalism. It’s the ego that fluctuates between the two, that actually keeps us in that place.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

If we’re thinking about this, if we focus in on the idea of ego then what we’re aiming for is this idea of self actualisation which is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I believe that there’s another way of looking that brings us into this complete, holistic approach to life. So what’s the other way of doing things? Or how do we begin to transition from one state, from this ego-driven state to another? Well, if we go back to this idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I believe that we flip it, we flip it on its head.

So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some work with indigenous leaders from around the world, the Council of 90, helping them to write their manifesto for change. They believe that the time is now, especially during this pandemic, for all indigenous peoples to come together to write a manifesto for change because of what they see happening in the world. Working with them, they decided that what was needed was a new indigenous hierarchy of needs, which brought me back to Maslow’s work.

Recognising that in 1938, Maslow actually went to the Blackfoot nation. He saw what they had represented, which he believes is a hierarchy of needs, which was actually a teepee that reaches to the sky. Maslow looked at that and then flipped it to put the human at the centre, the human at the top of that self actualisation. So then if we go back to The Garden of Earthly Delights, we see this busy image or images, but it’s filled with people. And we tend to be drawn to look at the people, to interact because that is the centre of the image.

What happens if we remove the people from this? We start addressing the myth of the ego, we start taking out and stop putting humans at the centre of everything that we do. Well, I’m going to be working with the Council of 90 on their indigenous hierarchy of needs. But for a lot of the work I’ve been doing, I’ve created my own and I’m going to go through them with you.

The Ecological Hierarchy of Needs

A conscious culture where planetary environmental impact and sustainability are also a measure of success

If we start at the base level, that base need is a conscious culture where planetary and environmental impact and sustainability are a measure of success. The creation of a culture of conscious impact on our world, the age of conscious humans, whether as an individual and collective consciousness about all our responsibility and the impact to the sustainability of human culture, economics and the environment. That should be at the very base level, the basis of who we are and what we do.

A decentralised culture of trust, transparency and creative problem solving for all

The next one is creating this decentralised culture of trust and transparency and creative problem solving for all, by all. As humans, we’re all problem solvers. And so we have the potential to be innovators if we’re given the opportunity. Removing those hierarchies, those structures enable us to do that. So I’m talking about the creation of a human environmental and economic societal culture that encompasses and represents the perspectives of the organisation’s internal and external ecosystems. One in which the value exchange is autonomous, collaborative, cyclical, decentralised and transparent. Where the impact is about the return on the relationship, and that is greater than the return on investment for the organisation.

A culture of common unity

The next level up is a culture of common unity, the creation of a culture in which its vision, its missions, its statements, values reflect the individual and the collective identities, beliefs, values and ethics of its internal ecosystem. And one in which everybody feels a sense of commitment, enthusiasm, passion, creativity and shared storytelling. But one where they also feel that they can bring their whole selves. And that is about belonging, not just inclusion.

A culture where curiosity, autonomy and collective intelligence lead to systemic innovation

And then a culture where curiosity, autonomy and collective intelligence leads to systemic innovation. The creation of an ecosystem that is proactive, organic and agile. We can look to nature for some of these solutions. Think about biomimicry, this idea that innovation happens everywhere, where individuals and their opinions and their perspectives are heard, but not only heard, that they’re seen and then acted upon. One a cultural way which leads to self awareness of the individual, of their levels of power, of their responsibility, of their autonomy over their personal and professional development. Of their knowledge, of the sharing collective intelligence and the approaches that the organisation and the culture takes to collective problem solving. Innovation isn’t just one person’s role, and it shouldn’t just be left to a department. Everybody can be an innovator.

A culture where human centred KPIs are a measure of individual, strategic and commercial success

Up another level is a culture where human centred KPIs are a measure of individual strategic and commercial success. I’m talking about pushing past our continued professional development. Your measure of success as an organisation is also based on the individual personal development of your people, and that becomes a measure of success. The creation of a culture in which the business and the commercial metrics are replaced with proactive, human and humanity-centred performance indicators. Policies and processes, ones that correspond to every stakeholder touchpoint that consistently work towards enhancing human potential and a sense of autonomy, and an ecosystem that’s in flow, rather than operating in silos.

A human ecology in a perpetual state of growth and transformation

The next level up is one about the Human Ecology in a perpetual state of growth and transformation, that it should not be fixed, it shouldn’t be settled into a fixed state. But actually recognising that cultures and ecosystems are always in a constant state of flow. One where individuals, and I’ve mentioned it before, where individuals can bring their whole selves because cultures is about collective storytelling. And in order to do that, it needs to reflect the stories and the changing stories of those individuals within that culture.

I’m currently the chair of Mental Health First Aid England, and what we talk about is ‘my whole self. How can we create cultures that enable people to bring their whole selves to that place, because what they can then do is bring a strong sense of loyalty and belonging, and they get to unleash their inner activists. And when I say activists, I don’t mean going on protest marches, but I’m talking about people believing in something bigger than themselves. Having an idea of what good and great looks and feels like, finding the others to share that and amplifying those messages, those values, those ethics, those lived experiences to create sustainable change.

Individual and collective responsibility to cultural and economic sustainability

And the final one, this is what should for me, be at the top of this pyramid, at the top of this Teepee, at the top of this hierarchy of needs. It’s individual and collective responsibility to cultural and economic sustainability. What I mean by that is the creation of a culture, an ecosystem of long term thinking. I tend to ask the question, ‘what kind of ancestor do you want to be?’ One where every individual understands their own and the collective responsibility to, and the impact on, the ecosystem, on economic sustainability, on the organisation. A culture in which responsibility and ownership over the health, the safety and wellbeing of all, is systemic across the organisation.

What does this mean? Well, it means that we need to change your mindset to changing perspectives. I used to talk about decolonisation, but after the last couple of weeks working with indigenous peoples, I’ve changed that to indigenisation.

This pandemic has shown us much of what was considered to be normal wasn’t quite what it seems. People kept talking about the new normal, but I think that’s wrong. I feel that we’re being too passive in shaping our futures. We’ve stopped distracting ourselves with plausible excuses, finally, for why we can’t do something. We have an opportunity now, to do something. To fundamentally shift the status quo, to create new rules and guidance, and be more inclusive about the wisdom, the knowledge and the lived experiences of others.

I’m going to close with the words of Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality, to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

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