Jonathan Rowson

Now that you’ve found the others what are you going to do?

Part 1: Introduction and field-creation. Philosophical and strategic reflections on Emerge.



The Emerge project was initiated in 2018 by The Ekskäret Foundation in Stockholm, the Co-Creation Loft in Berlin and Perspectiva in London. We noticed that across Northern Europe many people working in a diverse range of fields – in media, education, enterprise, technology, arts and politics – shared an emerging sensibility that went beyond these particular fields and highlighted connections between them.

The sensibility has historical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, political and spiritual aspects. It’s about sensing, as my colleague Ivo Mensch puts it, that collectively we are living a life that no longer exists. The world of the Bretton Woods settlement, the UN Declaration of Human Rights and our framework of nation states, the rule of law and purportedly reliable market mechanisms appear to be unable to adapt – at a fundamental level of design, values, coordination and mandate – to the new internet-mediated information system it has created, the ecological strain it has generated, and the levels of inequality and concentration of financial power it has permitted.
We are therefore all caught up in a gradual but quickening transition into a different kind of world that is ominous in many ways – ecological collapse and fascism loom large – but it is still fundamentally up for grabs. We should expect the unexpected, and the unrecognisable, and the unfathomable, without assuming it is all bad, and doing what we can to ensure it isn’t. We decided to try to give this kind of sensibility a socio-digital home, and the main point of Emerge since its inception has been to help a nascent field of inquiry and practice to find itself, know itself and fulfil its potential.
Different parts of the network are in different stages of that process. In this new series of short essays, I offer some background reading to help the network know itself better, by sharing my sense of the philosophical basis of the underlying affinities that connect the network’s different elements. The following acronym is a pragmatic memory aide to help people orient themselves to what Emerge is about:
Epoch: Time between worlds.
Method: Third order change.
Ethos: Post-conventional.
Resolve: Getting real.
Goal: Survival of open societies.
Entelechy: The future within us.
None of these six ideas are easy to define quickly, and they will be the subject of  six new essays over the next few weeks. They are all implicit in this first post however, which is about the value of creating a field of inquiry and practice that is known beyond the network that comprises it. Our relatively niche network is currently known mostly to itself, and we face a social and strategic challenge to cooperate in creating the intellectual, imaginative and institutional capacity to become better known and valued by the world we profess to serve. 
Emerge has European origins and you can think of me as its Scottish uncle. I’m a philosopher, chess grandmaster and Director of Perspectiva – an urgent one-hundred-year project designed to understand the relationship between systems, souls and society in theory and practice, and one of Emerge’s founding organisations. While my colleague Tomas Bjorkman is the source energy of Emerge, for the last 900 days I’ve had overall strategic and operational responsibility for the project. I’m an adoptive parent who cares about the baby and I have skin in the game, so I can speak for Emerge. However, the coming essays are best read as my personal view and not as canonical, definitive or restrictive.
Emerge is now a word (image and brand), a website (, a network (by loose affiliations and on Mighty Networks), and a series of gatherings (Berlin in 2018 and 2021, Kyiv in 2019, and several local smaller ones). We also have weekly online sessions with our Ukrainian network, including a fundraiser for Ukraine on June 16th. It is our hope that the word Emerge attracts and invites, that the website informs and inspires, that the network supports and challenges, and that our gatherings lead to discerning action in the world. But what exactly brings us together?
Philosophically, Emerge is inspired by the way the meaning of emergence highlights the possibility of a different intentional stance towards the world; one that is grounded in receptivity, intuition and subtlety rather than ideology, reason and force. We (and yes, it might be an impossible we) are informed by the scale of the meta-crisis and we are not politically naïve. Some call it a spiritual perspective in the sense that it’s less about imposing our wills than listening deeply to what we appear to be called upon to be and do. The challenge for each of us is to accept the reality of our contingency and interdependence, because I am part of all that – while also taking responsibility for our uniqueness and autonomy – because I am part of all that. And that tension between our actions not really mattering, and the fact that all that matters arises in a world awash with greed, hatred and delusion, when it is not even clear if we are on the right side of history. Are we the good guys? It is a different kind of game. All over the world, networks and organisations are rising up to explore unchartered intellectual, spiritual or cultural terrain that invites ways of being, thinking, and doing and building new forms of institutional praxis and political capital around them. Such initiatives are at the heart of our Emerge network.
Emerge is a social response to the ‘the meta-crisis’ but while a high-level intellectual framing is necessary (and I’ll get to it) not everyone feels it is the best place to start. For present purposes Emerge’s animating question – what is emerging? – is a better way to orient our attention and will, because what is emerging is both good and bad, probabilistic, and we are caught up in it and to an extent responsible for it. Desirable forms of collective life might well emerge from the sum of ideas and practices that are already in play, but they may need help to find each other. More to the point, that appreciation and cross-pollination is precisely the kind of vitality that is obscured by a top-down rational diagnosis that re-presents the present as if it was a puzzle to be solved rather than a reality to be lived. We are generally advised to seek the signal in the noise, and that makes us feel clever, but I agree with Bonnitta Roy that the noise matters too, because that is where we can discern the promise of the future.
So here are some feelings I have noticed recently amidst the noise, glimpses of events that my intuition tells me are worth attending to as indicative of what is emerging. I felt moved by the humour of the Ukrainian social media campaign that raised millions to send Putin to planet Jupiter – because it was not just funny but also effective, showed mastery of the social media form, and felt post-tragic and exquisitely human. If humans have a future, we need humour to get us there. I feel reassured by Audrey Tang’s leadership on digital democracy in Taiwan because I know ‘Tech’ does not have to be defined by sociopathic libertarian billionaires, but it’s good to be reminded. I feel admiration for Joe Brewer walking-the-talk of Bioregional community regeneration in Barichara in Columbia where he’s attempting to bring a river back to life, because the body, mind and world look aligned there – something I miss with a relatively bourgeoise life in a big city. I feel curiosity towards the self-organising female leadership and political innovation that is well established in Rojava, Kurdistan, because there’s lots of chatter about why we need ‘the feminine’ and here’s an example that does not collapse in cliché, if only because it’s happening in a militarised zone. I felt surprised that the oil state of Oman, no less, is investing in a massive hydrogen transition because they didn’t have to. I felt inspirationwatching Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, speaking with authority, gravitas and passion at COP26, imploring delegates to “try, try harder” as if she was momentarily leader of the world. For all the clamor around wokeness, this felt like the leadership we need, and not because she is a Black woman from a subaltern country as such, but because mastery of detail combined with perspectival knowing has palpable validity and untapped generativity. And I was intrigued to hear that the Headspace App for mindfulness meditation acquired a Market Valuation of $3 Billion. While I read this primarily as a story about the commodification of individualised stress relief, I wondered if it might also mean a critical mass of people waking up to the value of praxis.
I share these impressions from mainstream news stories because Emerge exists partly to find agile network responses to developments like these. We are – or at least could be – the field that has what it takes to perceive the connections between perspectives that offer hope and renewal; and we could be the field that accelerates how related forms of social, spiritual and political practice can be brought into being. However, those connections need some collective intentionality to tease out, and institutional tenacity to maintain, which is why I think supporting the creation of this field is so important.
Look at what connects and separates people, counsels the I Ching. People in the Emerge network are separated by politics, temperament, philosophy, age, values, priorities, luck, means, profile, and much more, and it is a challenge to articulate what connects us. In Dispatches from a Time between Worlds I suggest we share a perception of context that is broadly metamodern in nature, though that terminology is optional.
From the attentional commons to ayuhasca, from Bildung to bioregionalism, from citizen’s assemblies to cosmo-localism, from dialogos to DAOs, from electrification to emergence (and I could go on) – we are witnesses and participants in putative wellsprings of renewal. Whether you seek to win at GameB, charm the technocrats with your Inner Development Goals, bamboozle robots with neo-romantic longing, charm with your beguiling talk of temporics and imaginal causality, avert existential risk with your non-rivalrous dynamics, redesign the economy with a peer-to-peer commons, schmooze with hyperobjects, be ironically sincere with your serious play, get high on sensemaking, die into a dark renaissance, or tweet from your farm like a doomer optimist – we all share a fundamental sense of the co-arising of endings and beginnings. 
And what we seem to share is many flavours of the same conviction. We know we need to respond to the challenges of our times from a broadly post-conventional perspective, with an appetite for philosophical, social and spiritual innovation that is commensurate with the challenges of our times. But many of us are sensing that it’s long past time to get real in a literal and figurative sense. We live in a world of power, money, politics and violence, and the clock is ticking. The playful allusions above speak to an incipient network that is coming out of its honeymoon period, but has yet to fight the good fight together, yet to know itself well enough to hear its own voice, feel its tempo, establish its own kind of power. Yet what kind of power do we have and what kind should we seek? 
The main power of Emerge as a brand is that it invites benign projection. ‘Emerge’ says something without saying too much. It is tacitly injunctive but gentle. People who seek to do collaborative work outside of life’s mainstream see themselves in Emerge, and that projective identification has generative network effects. However, what I’ve learned through being with the project since its inception is that this open-endedness only gets you so far. 
Asking ‘what is emerging?’ is a good start, but it risks keeping us trapped in the social reverie of projective identification, in which people help each other to feel good about their work, while the outside world remains untouched. The biologist Ilya Priogene indicates that this feeling can arise when there is too much connectivity and not enough discerning separation, which tends to lead to conformity rather than originality in gatherings, but there is also something more like the narcissism of small differences at play when it comes to trying to work together, leading to unproductive rivalries. This is part of the deeper challenge of reckoning with our ‘impossible we’, that Emerge seeks to encourage, and I will revisit as part of this writing process.
The point of Emerge as I see it is that it is a contribution to field creation. Our collective intention should be to create a field worthy of the challenges of our times. One that knows its own character and potential so that it can also become better known to the world beyond it. What is emerging is the need for resolve. 
Mapping this emerging field is already underway through several initiatives, and it has been called the liminal web or the sensemaking community or the metamodern ecosystem but mapping of entities is different from understanding flows of affilitation and energy, and none of these terms appear to captivate broader public attention. There is now a time-sensitive challenge for the latent capacity and insight we have available in our network to become known, sought out, and trusted by the world beyond it, if only so that we can reach within our own field and know who is best placed to respond as situations in the world unfold.
Unlike networks known only to themselves, fields have a more tangible ontology and status by virtue of being socially known and nameable to others outside the field. Fields like ‘tech’, ‘politics’, ‘education’ are too numerous to list; they are fuzzy-edged, entwined and cross-pollinating, but nonetheless they organise the social world in people’s minds and have real world effects.
The perception of fields matters to media old and new because they need to be able to contextualise and organise their stories. Fields also matter to funders big and small, because they help to make sense of impact and make it easier for investors and philanthropists to collaborate through their support for a field (and not just an individual or organisation). There is a growing ‘strong field methodology’ in fundraising highlighted, for instance, by The Bridgespan group. Fields are generally characterised by shared goals, but since goals evolve and are not always straightforward to specify, there are also matters of shared identity, of standards of practice, of a knowledge base, of leadership and grassroots activity, and of support funding and supporting policy.
I view these conceptual parameters as a helpful start, but the field Emerge is part of is different and we’ll need to create our own. We comprise people moving beyond their fields, our sense of being ‘between worlds’ is fundamental, and that means identities might be relatively fluid and plural, that standards of practice might be both conventional and experimental, that our knowledge base might be diffuse and shifting fast, that we have many forms of leadership but perhaps not yet any ‘grassroots’ as such; and it is not clear yet exactly how we connect with funding and policy. We might say that means we are not a field, but I think it means the field needs creating. 
Getting clearer on the anthropological meaning of liminality is helpful here because it can be used to describe the ethnographer separated from their own culture but not fully incorporated into the one they are studying; in a loose sense this describes the lived experience of people and organisations that comprise what Joe Lightfoot has called The liminal Web – we are in-betweeners of various kinds, and we’ll have to create criteria of our own, which is what I am beginning to sketch (and just that) with Epoch, Method, Ethos, Resolve, Goal and Entelechy, but I fully expect it to change.
With this challenge of field-creation, field-coordination and field-coherence in mind, Perspectiva feels it is timely to share its strategic and operational control of Emerge. Plans are still emerging, but we seek partners in Europe and North America and beyond who share our sense of controlled urgency. We want Emerge to evolve out of its source energy and organisational container into an international organism that helps to lead and look after this emerging field. Making that happen will mean establishing a commitment to shared principles to act as our filter, a global advisory board, and a new governance structure, all with the aim of connecting to larger media channels and attracting donations big and small. 
In the following series of six mini-essays, I venture some shared premises for an incipient field. The next essay concerns the premise of our shared epoch: a time between worlds.


Links to all the articles in this series:

Part 1. Introduction: Field-Creation.
Part 2. Epoch: Time between worlds.
Part 3. Method: Third order change.
Part 4. Ethos: Post-conventional.
Part 5. Resolve: Getting real.
Part 6. Goal: Survival of open societies.
Part 7. Entelechy: The future within us.

Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.