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The Protopia Lab Newsletter December 2020

This is our first official newsletter for the Protopia Lab (from what was formerly the Smart CSOs Lab newsletter). The reason for this transition is that we are now turning all our efforts into making our new project, the Protopia Lab, thrive, and we believe that this requires clear communication. We hope that you will stay with us on this exciting adventure.

This newsletter provides a taste of what we aim to achieve with the Protopia Lab and what type of discussions we aim to have. We also talk about how we’re approaching our first series of (online) workshops that we’ve recently kicked off with.

What is the Protopia Lab?

As with Smart CSOs Lab, our aim continues to create high-quality conversations and bring together the best insights on how to develop more holistic and better strategies for tackling complex problems like climate change.

However, we realised a while ago that increasingly we were having these conversations in our ideologically narrow echo chambers. Our own cognitive biases, most importantly our tendency to search for and favour information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs (confirmation bias), distort our picture of reality. At the same time the public conversation around our most pressing issues has become highly dysfunctional. We are increasingly living in very different realities and ideological bubbles that prevent us from solving problems together.

As a response to this situation we want the Protopia Lab to become an explicitly un-dogmatic space for open dialogue, learning and innovation. We bring together people who hold a diversity of views, and are open to learning and expanding their horizon.

Our aim is not the perfect world, but protopia, which is a vision that takes into account multiple perspectives, acknowledges that there are always many trade-offs to consider and avoids throwing the baby out with the bathwater when making changes to the system.

Nobody has all the answers for how a better system will ultimately work and look like. What we propose here is a process of trial and error, an evolutionary search process towards protopia.

How can we start bursting the bubble and have a better conversation?

Ideological bubbles keep us trapped in certain ways of thinking, and encourage us to reject anything that challenges them. We have to grow beyond these bubbles if we want to meet the considerable challenges we face in our societies. When we question our preconceptions, we tap into new ways of seeing and new insights that can make a significant impact. At the Protopia Lab, we believe the best starting point is to experiment with a new type of conversation – one that helps us to be open, curious, and able to hold many perspectives at the same time.

To do this, we’ve created workshops that put an emphasis on growing our awareness of our own cognitive biases and psychological processes. It is through understanding these that we can step back from our ideological frames and broaden our horizons. In our workshops to date, we have engaged in discussion around difficult topics, explored contradictory viewpoints by embarking on a ‘reverse media diet’, and practiced techniques designed to help us stay present and centred while doing this. This included polyvagal theory, which is the science of how our nervous system is designed for ‘social engagement’ and how we can bring ourselves out of a defensive ‘fight or flight’ mode into curiosity and openness. We also explored shadow work, which helps us identify what ideas or emotions we might be rejecting in ourselves and projecting onto other people – making them an ‘other’ in the process. We will continue experimenting and are excited to see what emerges in the group.

Immigration, climate change and COVID – the same societal division

The issues change, but the dividing lines in our societies are remarkably similar. The bitter division over how to deal with the coronavirus crisis now follows similar patterns to what we’ve seen in recent years with immigration and climate change. It happens that the fiercest defenders of tough lockdown measures belong mostly to the metropolitan progressive class, whose incomes are safe and who have found comfort in their Zoom-based home offices. Those who are more sceptical about shutting down public life at all costs are more likely to belong to a more culturally conservative, more working-class and more rural population, and are more likely to suffer severe income loss from long shutdowns.

This article on UnHerd argues that we may see yet another political rebellion as a consequence of the division caused by the pandemic, a divide that has deeper roots in a diverging moral worldview, best described by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his moral foundations theory. The article states: “You could argue that, as things have evolved, Covid has become chiefly a problem along the moral axis Haidt called care/harm. People who respond most to the care/harm axis, Haidt finds, are almost definitionally those on the Left. These are the people most likely to claim that even one single life lost is a tragedy.” The people who are critical of lockdown measures are often caricaturised as morally evil for not caring about the lives of the vulnerable. However, according to Haidt’s theory, morality is more complex than this and is not one-dimensional. A more holistic moral code could attempt to find a balance between the wellbeing of society as a whole and the avoidance of harm done to individuals.

The importance of understanding cultural evolution

In the Protopia Lab we want to make explicit use of the body of knowledge from evolutionary sciences. We believe that this will help changemakers make more informed choices about which design features and which change strategies towards just and ecologically sustainable cultures are more likely to work and which aren’t, given our biological (genetic and cultural) predispositions.

We want to focus on one core question: How can we become designers of evolutionary processes that can effectively upgrade our civilisation and help prevent its collapse?

To start with, it is fundamental that we learn about the emerging science of cultural evolution. In the words of one of the most fascinating researchers in the field, Joe Henrich: “To move forward in our quest to better understand human life, we need to embrace a new kind of evolutionary science, one that focuses on the rich interaction and coevolution of psychology, culture, biology, history and genes.”

This first in a new series of animated videos on cultural evolution is a great introduction into how throughout human history, culture has shaped our innate psychology as much as the other way around, and how competition and cooperation, rather than being irreconcilable dichotomies, are intertwined parts of our evolutionary heritage.


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