Beyond The Gentleman’s Agreement

– Getting real in sustainable collaboration
by Dr Claudius van Wyk

The door slides open, and those of us who are scheduled to be present for a meetings turn to find a vivacious middle-aged American woman bounding in. “I can only stay for a short while”, she says, “I’ve got to get into London.” We are there for a Festival of Human Organising being held at The Collective, Old Oak, a newly opened centre for innovative collective living (the largest in the world). – ‘The Old Oak’. Now it becomes clear – this is an arrangement where you vote with your feet. If you are interested, you stay – if not, you leave. Other events are happening in this fascinating building in a London suburb – and people are free to move between them.

Currently there are 200 people living in the building and it is anticipated that it will go beyond 500. It is all about shared facilities. The complex already has a bar and restaurant, and a pizza oven. It is scheduled to get a gym, supermarket and co-working space. It will be the world’s largest co-working space – as they put it in their welcome “… a fantastic opportunity for cross-generation ideation and value mapping.”

And, oh, the lady in question is part of a group of 40 women who are traveling around the world, staying for a month at a time in similar centres and simply exploring life!

But we’re there for the Civil Society Forum and our topic for the morning is “Exploring practices that enable us to work together in more mutually fulfilling ways.” So the Old Oak setting is appropriate. A mini-experiment will be described for creating a mutually supportive cell where, through collaboration and sharing of value, participants can be supported to bring that which inspires them to do into a value circle. Then a structure and process will be explored

The experiment is exploring a way of enabling people to work together and build organisations that focuses on enabling reciprocity that works for all parties more effectively than conventional methods.The theme that resonates for me is that of experimenting with ways of transforming the notion of ‘contract’; the conventional underpinning mechanism that current ways of working are based on. Instead it is based on making what are foremost ‘social’ commitments and looking at how these can be enabled to build trust even where there is uncertainty on how things will play out. In addition though focussed on trust, the approach would still be able to interface with the conventional ‘contract’ and ‘legal’ world and hence be backed up legally.

A catch phrase could be ‘Beyond the Gentleman’s Agreement’. One of those present voices his concern that there’s lots of ‘what’ and ‘how’ about the initiative in the material that has been passed around prior to the meeting, but not enough why.

We agree that conventional approaches to contract are not suited to enabling generative collaboration. The requirement for linear relationships, contractor and contractee, that are legally defined tend to eliminate the more open-ended cooperative agreements necessary for the social and economic innovation that will make economic exchange more equitable. This initiative describes an approach to ethically binding agreement that will achieve creative collaboration whilst at the same time addressing the very real problem of default in agreed delivery. It’s all about enabling reciprocity. A useful definition from the field of evolutionary biology identifies ‘reciprocity’ this way:

“It is an arrangement whereby the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviour might be encouraged and enabled on the premise of the probability of future mutually generative interactions.”

So that’s about faith that something good could come out of an initiative without having to define the profit up front. So today, from a ‘contract’ perspective, this attempt is about exploring a way of structurally organising such initiatives in such a way that any default in agreed delivery, or any potentially disruptive action on the wellbeing of the whole, can be practically addressed and ameliorated. The living cell comes to mind.

In all living organisms the ‘cell’ is identified as the basic building block of the greater body. The cell’s sustainable functioning requires that it is replenished in its relationship with the milieu in which it draws sustenance and in which it serves as vitalising function. So although this experiment is small, it is envisaged that it might show the way to a transformed macro-economic system that might have a better opportunity of succeeding.

We are reminded that a prototype is a test of an hypothesis. The hypothesis is that there must be a more sustainable and meaningful way of creating and sharing value. Livelihoods can be fun and meaningful.

Within the living systems view concepts are bandied about such as participants becoming ‘metabolic detectives’ who engage in ‘bio-hacking’; in other words understanding what makes things work and drawing lessons from mother nature to create organisational systems where all can flourish. In any event the idea is that through the emergence of multiple micro-endeavours, with folks collaborating creatively in their exchange of genuine value, new opportunity might be generated to enable working together in more fulfilling ways. It’s all about the flow of value. And genuine value is interpreted as that which is truly life-enriching and life-enhancing.

Find out more about the experiment and how you can participate at

About Claudius Van Wyk:
Claudius van Wyk moved to the UK from South Africa in the belief that the UK and Europe are probably the most fertile environments to be able to shift to more holistic ways of working and living. These transformed approaches are intended to be more life-enhancing focused on living systems leadership. He works with individuals and organisations as a coach, educator and consultant to apply complexity based insights and applications to hard problems. He currently commutes between the UK and South Africa where he runs educational programmes and retreats for organisational and academic leaders. He is currently running a Leadership Wellness Programme for BMW in South Africa and hopes to do more work like this in the UK . Claudius set up and ran a holistic leadership programme at Schumacher College for transforming organisational practice and lectures on a complexity approach to economics. He is a Coach and Master NLP practitioner and a core member of the Civil Society Forum.
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