State of Sensemaking: Mapping an Emerging Ecosystem (2020)

This page documents the first phase (2019-2020) of Life Itself's ecosystem mapping work, including:

  1. Background to the work
  2. Research questions
  3. Report
  4. Preliminary map


1. Background

We know there are individuals, organisations and initiatives around the world who share the values, principles and vision of Life Itself. We know that many of them are trying to create change, often by attempting to change culture – a form of culture-making.

But that is more or less all we know about this newly emergent space, and, as such, it calls for exploration. What are its defining characteristics? How do organisations differ, and how are they similar? How do people work together? What is this space?


The ecosystem of change-makers which Life Itself is part of has come to life primarily in the last 10-15 years, thanks to three key developments:

1. Recognising the shortcomings of Western societies

Although the last 100 years have seen incredible technological, scientific, social and economic progress, there is a sense that Western societies have failed to generate corresponding advances in human flourishing. Rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are rising; complex collective action problems and global catastrophic risks (such as climate change, nuclear war, the weakening of democratic institutions, global inequality, etc.) appear unlikely to be solved by technological or scientific innovations alone. As a result, more people are recognising the need for better ways of being and acting, individually and collectively. 

2. Popularisation of wisdom traditions, especially Buddhism

The dissemination of Buddhist ideas and practices in the West over the last 60 years has led to a renewed appreciation of wisdom traditions. A growing number of people, including Life Itself, wish for these ideas and practices to be more widely accepted and embodied in our society and culture. As a result, many organisations have been created in the last decade whose aim is to push these ideas into the mainstream, in one form or another. Not everyone focuses on popularising Buddhist ideas, of course, and many appear to be doing completely unrelated things. However, ideas of wisdom and awakening often constitute core philosophical foundations, or at the very least have inspired the activities of actors in this space.

3. Acknowledging the connection between inner and outer transformation

Implicit in the activities of organisations in this space is also a belief in the connection between inner and outer transformation.

At the individual level, this is relatively intuitive – in order to make lasting changes in your life, your mental state must change. External circumstances matter as well, of course, but if your intentions, values, beliefs and mental models are incompatible with your goal, you are much less likely to achieve it. The same holds at the collective level. A whole-systems transformation requires some form of structural change (outer transformation), as well as some form of cultural change (inner transformation).

The key point here is that the former does not guarantee the latter. Changing the external components of a system can indeed affect individual behaviour and is important, but it is much less likely to achieve the desired outcome unless people’s inner lives are appropriately aligned, especially when the system is complex and unintended consequences are difficult to predict. This is why culture is important: it regulates behaviour and makes it more predictable. It may sound obvious, but it is only in recent years that changemakers have started to take seriously the importance of inner transformation. 

2. Research questions

Through our exploration, we are hoping to answer the following questions:

  • Who are the individuals, organisations, communities, etc. that make up this space?
  • How can the space be mapped? What are the key groupings and directions? 
  • What are the major differences and similarities between actors in this space?
  • What, if any, are the areas of overlap and what, if any, are the gaps?

Answers to the questions above will help Life Itself and other similar organisations to better understand:

  • Who they could work and partner with
  • How they complement and differ from other organisations
  • Potential opportunities and future directions
  • Where to share and find ideas
  • Where to find like-minded people

In addition, exploring the space can help to establish credibility for the people and organisations involved. By better understanding it and finding appropriate terminology to describe it, public awareness can grow more easily. 

3. Report

This report is the first output from Life Itself's ongoing efforts to map the ecosystem in which we exist. The ecosystem is still emerging and ill-defined. Reflecting this, there is no clear name for it and we have settled for now on the “State of Sensemaking”.

We emphasise that our research here is clearly highly preliminary and was limited by both resources and our own knowledge. Based on snowball sampling starting from our contacts it necessarily and obviously display clear biases e.g. geographically to Europe and UK versus the rest of the world, thematically in terms of areas chosen etc.

But we have to start somewhere and we wanted to publish our work so far in the hope it will both be of value to others and aid in the ongoing discovery process. There's lots more work to be done, both to uncover more organisations in the ecosystem and understand more clearly how they relate to one another, but for the moment we hope this initial effort can be useful in seeding further work.

Read or download the report below to read: our analysis of high-level commonalities within the ecosystem; information on selected organisations within the ecosystem; and a list of key trends and terms within the ecosystem.

Excerpt from the report

The ecosystem as we have mapped it is quite broad – even disparate. However there are commonalities. Emerging organisations and individuals are opting towards ‘teal’ style collaboration and community building in order to maximise resources as a generalist, lateral way of operating comes into view as a more effective way of tackling systemic problems.

There is a focus on systems, emergence, coherence, sovereignty, sensemaking as buzzwords, along with activism, governance, and regenerative culture. This is characterised by a strong lean towards spirituality (mindfulness) and the relationship between inner and outer life. At a higher level, we have identified three core thematic areas which tie together the varied groups in the space: collectivism, (w)holism, and counterculturalism and culture-making. 

Full report

Please cite this report as:

State of Sensemaking, Life Itself (Theo Cox & Rufus Pollock), 2020

4. Preliminary map

The report contains our overview map, from our preliminary research, of organisations grouped based on the core activities they undertake. To explore the diagram in more detail visit the full version on Coggle.