Conscious Social Systems

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Defined and described by Tom Attlee in an important essay at

What IS a conscious social system?

Tom Attlee:

One way I see for a social system to be conscious is for all of us who are in it to be informed about -- and oriented to -- the social system's life and well-being. Our many individual consciousnesses can then add up to a form of collective consciousness. Sometimes a collective "field of consciousness" permeates the whole system.

Consider a mundane example: Think about what happens when millions of us -- all at the same time -- watch a catastrophe like a tsunami, a disastrous hurricane, or a couple of giant skyscrapers collapsing on television news and the Internet. Together, as we watch and react, we generate a palpable field of awareness and concern that powerfully shapes subsequent events. Similar to the way magnetic and gravitational fields work, in this field of shared awareness every person and institution shifts in relationship to it.

Perhaps the most important shared awareness that we have is our collective indentity -- a shared perception that we ARE our group, community, country, or world. This recognition underlies most other aspects of collective consciousness. The more deeply we sense our common identity and the more care and esteem we have for each other and for the larger life we are part of, the more the human systems we live in emerge as coherent -- and potentially conscious -- entities. In well-developed forms of collective identity, we not only cherish our whole community, bioregion, or world, but see it living in and through us -- cherishing every part of itself, every individual or species, as a source of diverse delight and unique gifts. In this expansive form of identity we can often experience a deep, flowing communion.*

So what is possible when we become a coherent living system together? The more we all know what's going on ... and care about what's happening to our whole community, society, and world ... and are linked to each other in useful ways ... and know what to do to improve our system's well-being ... the more conscious our system, as a whole, will become. As these factors grow, we COLLECTIVELY tend to act more and more like a coherent living organism that appropriately responds to the world around it. More and more, our community, society or world shows up as a living conscious whole." (


Tom Attlee:

So the consciousness of a whole social system naturally includes our individual consciousnesses. But more is involved. How are our individual minds informed, linked, attuned, engaged...? To answer this, we need to explore the structures, processes, and cultures that are as much "the system" as we are.

I see many of the major factors in whole-system consciousness falling into the following four tentative topic areas.

  • Holistic awareness
  • Shared knowledge and care
  • Systemic leadership
  • Evolvability


How do people deeply and consciously connect to the whole systems they are part of?

In a conscious social system, we know, identify with, and care about our community, bioregion, and world -- each system we are part of -- as a whole. We orient our awareness and behavior to the existence and needs of these precious living systems, through culture (especially stories), education, governance, and spiritual and group attunement practices.

We know about the health of our human and natural communities, thanks to engaging media, grassroots sharing of news, statistics, briefings, clear attention to environmental changes and many other common activities and facets of our culture. We know enough about system dynamics to recognize what is happening, what it means, and how we can engage with it.

We are aware of and value each other, and what people different from us are doing. The field of our collective awareness is vitally alive, as evidenced by the frequency with which similar ideas, innovations, and discoveries show up simultaneously in different places, as needed.


How do human knowing and caring flow powerfully through the social system?

In a conscious social system, relevant knowledge or caring of one person, time or place is, to a remarkable degree, available to other people, times and places. We see healthy communication, media, and political systems through which information flows freely, intermingling in many ways and increasing in value as it moves.

Our whole systems have forms of memory which transcend our individual memories and lives. These include powerfully inclusive and accessible information storage, evaluation, distribution, and retrieval systems like libraries, databases, open source intelligence services, and the searchable Internet.

We readily find each other to work together and share what we care about, and systemic structures and processes facilitate this -- from electronic networking tools to self-organizing face-to-face gatherings around advertised interests.


How are the power and guidance systems of society aligned to serve the needs of the whole?

In a conscious social system, certain parts of the system -- leaders and institutions -- are sometimes empowered by the whole to perceive and act on its behalf.

Our social arrangements make it extremely difficult for our leaders and power centers to colonize our systems' resources for their own personal or group benefit. Well-designed feedback mechanisms and future-orientation systems keep them responsive to the needs of our whole community, society, and world.

Our political, governmental, economic, information and education systems are designed for answerability and service to the common good -- while mindfully protecting and nurturing our precious individuality and diversity from which so many social benefits flow.

Our institutions and cultural practices support legitimate leadership arising from the collective intelligence and wisdom of adequately diverse groups of us in high quality conversations, which are watched by our whole community or society and often exercise direct decision-making power."


How does a whole system evolve itself?

In a conscious social system, our system as a whole (sometimes through its leaders or proxies, as above) constantly reflects on its own operation, the results of our collective activity, and our future prospects.

Key parts of our systems are kept as free as possible from bias, fixed ideas, and inflexible attitudes. We honor wholeness in all its forms. Our system continually creatively engages the diversity -- and even conflict -- in and around it to generate inclusive, evolving forms of common sense and shared enterprise. Ways to do this are broadly known.

We have a certain eagerness to welcome, generate and consider novel perspectives and possibilities -- and to test them in useful ways.

We always set up the structures of our systems so they can and do change in a timely manner: They neither resist needed changes and miss promising opportunities nor do they change chaotically in response to every impulse. Overall, we maintain a healthy relationship between centralized and decentralized forms of collective perception, reflection, and action -- out of which the necessary level of appropriate change naturally emerges." (

How to advance its emergence?

By Tom Attlee at


"Here we find efforts to expand people's individual consciousness, thinking, feeling, motivations, and behaviors to knowingly embrace the evolution and well-being of the whole. These efforts include meditation, education, community programs, personal transformation, evolutionary religious forms, action support networks, and ways to inform and engage people in evolution as a meaningful story and enterprise that includes them as active participants. Much of the existing human potential movement works here, and provides resources for further evolution. As an evolutionary movement, we particularly want to help people find their evolutionary calling.


Here we find projects that release, increase, and empower collective consciousness, intelligence, wisdom, and capacity for healthy functioning and action. These projects include ways for whole communities and societies to clearly see what's happening in and around them -- and their past, present, and future roles in those happenings -- and to move forward coherently and sensibly. Keys to this include improved media and other storytelling, effective methods of inclusive collective reflection, holistic political and governance systems, and compelling evolutionary arts. The more these approaches bring forth the whole picture of what's going on and focus on what is really at the heart of the matter, the more collective wisdom and wise action they can catalyze.


Here we find activities that identify where conversation would make a powerful difference in our collective prospects for evolutionary development -- and that then creatively bring together diverse, relevant viewpoints or developmental threads so they can talk and evolve together into more consciously co-creative undertakings. This includes networking individuals and groups, small focused dialogues, and various large-scale gatherings and conferences around topics, issues, possibilities, or open-ended evolutionary inquiries. These can be done regularly or ad hoc to address the transformational inquiries of every sector of society. Well-done conversational interventions are the acupuncture or homeopathy of evolutionary social creativity, creating self-organized healing and transformation with minimal effort.


Here we find laws and culture through which people and organizations experience for themselves the positive and negative impacts they cause on others and on the whole (e.g., the whole community, society, or world). This includes anything that aligns the day-to-day self-interest of individual entities with the real and evolutionary interests of the whole, including economic incentives, regulatory and chartering constraints, and cultural celebrations, narratives, and taboos. Cultural feedback loops that govern human behavior get reworked so they serve humanity's collective survival and healthy evolution without trampling diversity or human individuality.


All of the above evolutionary enterprises could use help:

(a) gathering, orienting and spreading existing know-how, stories, and resources;

(b) developing more powerful understandings and tools than currently exist to support their evolutionary work;

(c) developing means whereby they can observe themselves, learn lessons from their collective experience, and transform themselves; and

(d) creating forums whereby individuals, groups, communities, organizations, etc., can self-organize increasingly effective evolutionary research, development, and support systems of their own." (