Making Shifts Visible in Complex Social Systems


applying social presencing theater to research social field shifts

Role: Design Researcher | Project: Research on Social Field Shifts, at the Presencing Institute (MIT)

Team: Arawana Hayashi, Adam Yukelson, Otto Scharmer and Ricardo Dutra

Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, 2016.

Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, 2016.

Leaders and people at all levels in all systems are increasingly presented with disruptive challenges and changes (i.e. political, environmental, educational, etc.). In response to large-scale transformations, our research question is how might we make shifts visible to key stakeholders in a particular system (e.g. schools, companies, etc.) in order to inform their decision-making and action? At the Presencing Institute (MIT), a core research methodology we have been testing and using is called Social Presencing Theater (SPT), which is based on embodied knowing. This means stakeholders of a system engage in a deeper dialogue through embodying certain aspects of the system they operate in. The method draws on the arts and contemplative traditions and is described as an awareness-based action-research approach. This is the first year of the project and we have so far engaged specifically with the education system – using SPT to investigate patterns in the school system (i.e. teacher stress, student behavior, teachers working in silos, etc.). We are currently conducting a series of research prototypes with various schools, government and foundations in Los Angeles, California. 



Our research approach is design-led, that means we introduce non-intrusive tangible artifacts as research probes, supported by protocols of discussion to foster description, reflection, and application of insights that emerge from the group practice of Social Presencing Theater. For instance, some of the research probes currently being prototyped include: a deck of cards to help a group describe the aesthetic qualities of their embodied experience; using tangible materials such as play-doh to sense-make one's embodiment; participants writing postcards out of their embodiment, going through the sense-making process of naming the experience and writing back to oneself about it; etc. 


aesthetic quality cards


pattern-finding with play-doh


sense-making one's embodied experience through journey maps and postcards