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Episode 4: ON TRANSFORMATION features the voice of Swedish social entrepreneur, Tomas Björkman. Tomas is a former investment banker and progressive thought leader, who is exploring how to create new spaces and places for co-creation, personal and societal transformation, and community development through conscious social development.

Tomas is the co-author of the book The Nordic Secret. He is a founding member of the Swedish youth association Protus for lifelonglearning and philosophical exploration. In 2016, he founded the Research Institute Perspectiva in London together with Jonathan Rowson – to inspire our political, academic and business leaders to examine real world problems with a deeper appreciation of the influence of our inner worlds.

In 2017, in partnership with the Norrsken foundation, Björkman launched the digital platform 29k to help people reconnect with themselves, like-minded people and what they value most in life. He has been a member of the Club of Rome since 2014. He is also a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences Kungliga Ingenjörsvetenskapsakademien or IVA.

Episode 4: Tomas Björkman ON TRANSFORMATION
Recorded Summer 2019

Tanya’s Voice

Welcome to Nordic By Nature, a podcast on ecology today, inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term Deep Ecology.

In this episode, On Transformation, we have one guest, Swedish social entrepreneur, and co-author of the The Nordic Secret, Tomas  Björkman.

After leaving the world of finance, Tomas established a Foundation out on a beautiful island in the Stockholm Archipelago. The Foundation has the sole purpose of facilitating sustainable social transformation, by nurturing the connections between personal and community development.

Tomas is also the co-founder of the London based Research Institute Perspectiva, and he has been a member of the Club of Rome since 2014.

Tomas Björkman

So, I’m Tomas Bjorkman. I used to be a business entrepreneur started many different companies in I.T. property and then in banking.

I was the chairman of this banking group, and I left business more or less completely in 2006, perhaps right in the middle of my life.

And I started to think about what to do with the with the second half of my life.

And I came to the conclusion that I wanted to start a foundation in as in Sweden; a foundation that was built around the island of Ekskäret, which means the Oak Tree Island, because I have always felt that it was in nature where I could come in good connection with the deeper layers within myself. And as I wanted to make the purpose of my foundation the interrelationship between in their personal development and societal change. It was never it was very natural for me to decide to base my foundation out in nature and use nature as a catalyst. So 2008 was mostly when I took the decision, and 2009 or 10 or there about, my foundation was up and running.

After that I’ve also started a small research institute in London called the Perspectiva and a few co-live and co-work initiatives both in Stockholm and also in Berlin.

Tomas at the Emerge conference in Kiev, 2019


I also managed to write three books.

The first one is called the Market Myth which really which really summarizes my inside view of the market; how the market in many ways is a very good and efficient tool that helps create a lot of efficiency and value, but in other instances it’s not at all a good instrument to rely on when it comes to creating a human well-being and societal well-being. So that was The Market Myth.

My second book’s called The World WCreate with an emphasis on ‘we.’ There are many, many more aspects of the world than we usually think about that are actually human-created. I would say that perhaps 90 percent of the world we live in today is a human invention and could be radically different. One example of that is of course the market which we tend to look at as a natural phenomenon, but which is really a human construct, and even the free market if there ever would be such a thing, could essentially be completely different than it is today.

And then my latest book, which is written together with a Danish philosopher and friend Linda Anderson, is called the Nordic Secret and it’s really about how the emphasis on inner personal development played an essential role for the Nordic countries to transition, a hundred years ago, from being the poorest non-democratic agrarian countries in Europe into, just a few generations later, the happiest most wealthy stable, industrial democracies in in the world.


On Human Timelines

So the story I tell in my book The World WCreate is really the story of a humanity from the very, very early stages, when we became humans more or less perhaps a couple of million years ago; the invention of fire, perhaps half a million years ago, to the start of culture perhaps 50,000 years ago, and the ongoing story about technological evolution.

And of course, humanity has taken many big steps and in the technological evolution, say the invention of agriculture, was something that completely changed the way we lived and related and we started to build huge cities and empires on the back of agriculture.

So technological development is nothing new, but today the speed of technological development is at such a rate that we’ve never seen anything like that before. And that creates a lot of problems, a lot of stress, but also of course it’s the technological development that we have to thank for all the for the beautiful lives that we can live today compared to our ancestors.

I sometimes say that even looking at my own grandparents, when they were teenagers, the world that they were living in that back then was such a poor and difficult world than the world that we are living in today. I don’t just mean the few percent of the human population in the rich countries, but really, I would say that perhaps even 90 percent of the world’s population today live in a world that my own grandparents when they were teenagers would just think was a fantastic dream world.

A meta-crisis

I think that the Enlightenment that was really the last time when we had a very substantial transition in both society and in worldview.

We have the Enlightenment and the scientific approach to the world to thank for this development, but also and at the same time I think that the many problems that we see today, many, many of the human made problems that humanity is facing today is actually now caused by exactly that same world view. This rationalistic scientific worldview.

You could you could say that all these different crises that we see today, of course we have the environmental crisis, which might even be the most urgent crisis we have today. But we also seem to be entering into a very severe political crisis. We certainly have health issues on a scale that we haven’t seen before. Not the least. The for example the obesity crisis in many parts of the world not just the rich West.

Now we have the opiate crisis in in the U.S.. We have everywhere in the West the psychological ill health crisis. And we have the inequality crisis that is both an increased inequality within countries but also between countries. And all of these crises, I think, are not different crises, they are actually symptoms on one underlying…which we could call.. a meta-crisis of our time.


Three unprecedented challenges

Humanity has many times before gone through these radical transformations both a world view and of society. But this transformation that we are now going through is different from the previous ones in three major aspects. And the first one is the speed of transformation. The second one is the global impact on the environment. And the third one is the possibility of going from a world of scarcity to a world a world of abundance of well-being not necessarily material abundance but abundance of well-being.

And if I take a minute to unpack each of them so starting with the rate of change. So before say when we went from an agricultural society to an industrial society, we usually had the possibility to make that transition or adapt to these changes between generations. So perhaps my grandfather was a farmer and his father was a farmer. But then when the industrial revolution happened his sons and daughters might have given up farming and moved to the city, whereas my grandfather and grandmother could remain farmers for the rest of their life.

1. Technology

Now as technological technology shifts that fast that we actually in our own lifetime have to reinvent ourselves many times. And if you just think back on your own life even if you are not that old you could think about how many completely different technological worlds have you actually already lived in.

I remember a world before television. Then of course we had the introduction of mobile phones so the world before mobile phones and after mobile phones are completely different worlds and then of the personal computing and then Internet and then the smartphones.

And each of these technological steps have really been that that significant that you have had to both the reinvent your business and business models but also your private life to a large extent.

So, say that we now live in a world where we might have to reinvent our lives and our careers every 10 years. Soon that will be every fifth year and then it might be every second year. And this is not very far away. And of course, that will put a lot of psychological stress on us.

And again, this is the first time in humanity where we are sort of forced to live in this very rapidly changing environment and are our brains are not evolved for this. But then so far in the history of humanity we have had the possibility most of us to live in the world that we were actually born into.

2. Environmental Impact

So that’s the first one. that’s the second important shift is of course that we are moving from a world where we humans did not have a significant impact on the global climate. We might have exploited and overused our local natural resources but then we had the perhaps the possibility to move on and nature could heal. Now the impact there. We as humans have on climate is on a global scale.

And again our brains are not really evolved to see this.

And that is one of the problems that we have today that we do not in an emotional way perceive the way we are destroying nature. because of course during the environment of evolutionary abductees version of our are human systems of of feelings we did not impact nature in that way so that we did not have any reason to to develop these feelings. And now when we when we need them, we are we are lacking them. And that is why for many people this environmental catastrophe that we are entering into does not really move them emotionally.

3. From Scarcity to Abundance

So that’s the second shift and then the third one is that we have like any animals throughout evolution been living in a world of competition and of scarcity. And our minds are really hardwired for scarcity, but also are our economic systems and our society is as wired for scarcity. So, for the market for example to function you need to have a a limited supply that meets the demand.

So also the market needs scarcity, whereas hopefully with the technological development,
if we could just distribute all the wealth that are current economic and technological the system produces, if we distribute that wealth in a just fashion then we already today have enough wealth for all of us to be living very decent lives, and again lives that my grandparents when they were teenagers could only dream of.

Of course we will not all be able to drive cars and consume material goods at the level that we do in the West today but still there is enough for everyone to be able to live a life in an abundance of well-being.

That is of course good news if we are entering into a world where we as humans do not need to work 40 hours a week 40 years of our lives.

That should be essentially be very good news for everyone. But if you look upon this possibility through the lens of the labour market what you then see is the threat of massive unemployment so again we can’t approach a world of potential abundance with a mindset and social systems that are geared and developed around the concept of scarcity so these three major challenges technological shift environmental threat and the possibility to go from a from a world of scarcity to abundance.

That is for me really the challenge and the tipping point and the hurdle that humanity needs to pass through right now. And for that to happen in a good way I think that we need to both change, have a change of mind and a change of heart. And when I speak about a change of mind, I’m thinking about the world view that we have today, the Enlightenment worldview, the reductionist worldview, the scientific worldview.

We shouldn’t give that worldview up completely because it is very helpful especially in some situations, but it definitely needs to be complemented with other ways of looking at ourselves and society and the world.

We also need to have this change of heart which is an which is an inner change, which is the change of opening up to these greater possibilities of us humans. And you could talk about the development of the heart development of compassion the development of consciousness.

You can describe this in many different ways and one way to describe them is really our need to develop what some might call it transformative skills.

And that’s really the skill sets that we need both as individuals to be able to survive and to flourish in this very new world but that also is essential for humanity when it comes to navigating this great societal transition that I think that we are just starting to see and see the beginning of.

On transformative skills

So, if we should look a little bit deeper into these different groups or clusters of transformative skills. And of course, these transformative skills they are they are many different. And it’s a bit arbitrary how you would cluster them and put them under various headlines but one way to do it is to talk about the cluster of openness the cluster of perspectives seeking the cluster of sense making the cluster around our inner world and developing and coming into contact with our inner compass.

And then finally a cluster around compassion that could include things like empathy, compassion, and self-compassion and other forms.

If you study these clusters of skills from a scientific perspective,

the good news is that science has shown quite consistently that all of these skills can be developed. So, for example you are not born with a certain amount of empathy or openness or ability to seek different perspectives.

That’s the good news. They can be developed. The bad news is that they can’t be taught in in in the standard way of sort of school teaching. So, for example if you in your organization, have someone that need to develop more empathy or compassion.

You could not just send him or her on a three-day course in compassion and then they come back with a new amount of compassion developed. No doesn’t work like that.

So these transformative skills really need a form of learning that involves deeper psychological processes.

Many or most of them subconscious processes and some researchers call that form of learning that is necessary transformative learning it is learning that somehow transforms the way you see the world and how you generate emotions.

It’s somehow a transformation of your mind and of your or of your heart.

And again going back to the work of my foundation, we have found and I have personally found that being out in nature and be in close contact with nature actually can function very well as a catalyst for transformative learning.

In this rapidly changing world where we do not know which will be my next step in career how will I have to reinvent my myself, then a safe bet is always that we will be needing more and more of these transformative skills.

So if I would give it an advice to anyone who is right in the middle of their career and worried about the future, and their employability in the future, I would say if you look at developing these sorts of transformative deeper skills they will always be needed.

And the same for your children.

We do not know what the what the labour market will look like in 10 years, or even less in in in in in 20 years.

Here in Sweden the politicians are today talking about that we should all learn programming, but the experts tell me that programming is one of the first tasks that will be automated by our artificial intelligence.

I would say that these transformative skills these deeper skills they will always be in demand. So I so I would put a strong emphasis on them.

And again the last time we have this huge shift in worldview that was when we went from a religious dogmatic way of looking at the world to start to look at the world through a rational scientific worldview. And that was a drastic change in worldview.

And I think we are right now in the need of an equally drastic change. This time I don’t think it’s about giving up. The scientific world view I think it’s about complimenting the scientific worldview and perhaps integrating the insights of both the scientific worldview but also perhaps the religious or spiritual worldview that is putting much, much more emphasis on our inner world and our capacity for meaning making, and complement that also with the latest insights from perhaps the post-modern worldview which contains very important insights about the hidden power structures in society and the way that our human society is socially constructed.

5 Shifts in Worldview

So, I think going forward and the new worldview will contain many lenses through which we need to see the world. To be even more specific, I could talk about five shifts in worldview and I think that we need to consider.

The first one would be to go away from looking at the looking at ourselves as just isolated individuals. These utility maximizing individuals that economic theory will have us believe that we are to start realizing that we are all as humans very. very much more interconnected and interdependent on each other.

And that just maximizing my own happiness or my own utility is really not possible. My happiness is dependent on the happiness of people around myself. And we are all interconnected.

So that could be one shift in worldview, a second one could be to realize that in many, many cases it’s much, much more fruitful to look upon phenomenon in this world not as things, but as ongoing processes and to start to realize that most of the phenomena in our world are actually self-organizing, developing systems, and applying a systems view on the world, an evolutionary systems view on the world, could be very fruitful.

The next shift would be a in in the view of our mind and going away from again the Enlightenment philosophers view of our mind as a rational decision making machine, to start realizing that our mind is actually also one of these constantly developing complex systems, that are under the development throughout our lives and that this development can either be facilitated or hindered by our environment. And then number four would be to go from a view of our society as more or less something given to start realizing that we are actually all co-creators of society and that society is something that is socially constructed by all of us.

And that whether we are aware of it or not we are either replicating or constructing society. And once we become aware of the fact that we are all co-creators of our social reality or our collective imaginary then of course that is very empowering but also giving us a huge responsibility in the ways that we create this social reality.

And then finally the fifth shift in worldview I think we’ll have to be around the view of our lives, and start realizing that ‘more’ is not necessarily better, and move away from a focus on development life and progress in mainly material terms of a material growth and material wealth to start realizing that inner matters like purpose and meaning becomes very, very important.

If you start to see the world from these new perspectives you start seeing a completely different world. And many of the political decisions and the structures and the struggles and the fights that we see today all of a sudden makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The Nordic Secret

So this development of these transformative skills that I was talking about has actually happened before. We have a very interesting historical case in the development of some of the Nordic countries and how we as societies went from being in the middle of the 1800’sthe most poor agrarian, non-democratic societies in in Europe, in Sweden actually 30 percent of the working population emigrated to the U.S. because of the severe conditions in Sweden back then.

And then we developed in just a few generations even before the Second World War. When all the Nordic countries were at the top of the list when it came to their happiest richest most stable industrial democracies.

And the question one could ask is of course what made this possible. And the interesting story that Leon and I tell in the Nordic secret is that we actually back then in the Nordic countries in all of the Nordic countries had very visionary intellectuals and politicians.

And they and they could see that change coming of course because they saw the industrial revolution happening in the UK and on the continent.

And they knew that urbanization and industrialization was coming to the Scandinavian countries. and they knew that in such situations of societal change it’s so easy for us humans to start looking for something to hold on to in the in the external world you want to find something to which you can put your hope.

And that could be a dogmatic religion, or it could be a strong authoritarian leader. It could be an Erdogan or a Trump, but these visionary politicians were firmly committed to building democratic societies.

And they knew that the only way to build strong democracies is to build them bottom up. And in order to do that you need a substantial part of the population to actually be able to hold the complexity of rapid social change without needing an external authority. You needed a large part of the population to be enough grounded in themselves to be in contact with their own in their compass in order to become conscious co-creators of the new world that wanted to be born.

The way they went about to create enabled co-creators, emancipated co-creators, was quite extraordinary. Because what they did was that they created what we could call ‘retreat centres.’

Retreat centres for inner growth, to develop transformative skills and other capacities.

So, at the turn of the last century. The year 1900 about. There were actually 100 of these centres created in Denmark, 75 in Norway, and 150 in Sweden, and in most other cases these centres were located out in nature and we’re using nature as a transformative catalysts in these processes.

Here young adults in their early ‘20s, and back then you had probably been working a few years before you went to one of these retreats sense of all of these retreats. And you could spend up to six months, later on with a full state subsidy, at these retreat centres, with the express aim of finding your inner compass, and of becoming enough grounded in yourself to be able to act as conscious co-creators of modernity.

In addition to developing your own inner compass, you were also given basic tools to create the civil civic society organizations, how to start an NGO, how to write a speech, how to write an article, how to argue for your case, and also you learned the latest technological development in the industry or in craft in order for you to be able to embrace the technological developments and not be afraid of them.

And when this was at its height almost a hundred years ago from now say around the 1920s or something like that then 10 percent of each young generation in Sweden actually had the opportunity to go to one of these half year long retreats.

And this was everywhere in the population. This was very much working class and farming part of the population that took part of some of these retreats. So everywhere in society you had people who had enough inner guidance and stability to be able to act as co-creators of modernity and the democratic society.

And still today in Scandinavia, we see the effects of this massive scale resources devoted to in their personal development. This Nordic secret is actually a secret also to ourselves, because we lost the notion of the importance of the inner world at around the time of the second world war, when we became very positivistic, very scientific, and we are more or less started to look at the inner world our subjectivity more as a problem than as a possibility.

So today even In our history books these centres are not described as centres for consciousness development or development of transformative skills that they are more or less described as adult educational centres and they still exists today and they are called Folk schools and they still receive a massive state funding.

But their activities are more in the realm of updating your or your basic schooling or doing crafts or cultural activities so one could ask oneself so. So, where did this understanding from this these early politicians and intellectuals in Scandinavia come from? 

How did they know the importance of our in their world and also the connection between the inner development and societal development?

And the answer there is that this understanding came from the German idealist philosophers that were writing at the beginning of the 1800’S. Philosophers like Goethe, Schiller, Von Humboldt, Hegel, and all of these philosophers. They were actually writing and reacting against the Enlightenment philosophers view of our mind as a rational decision-making machine.

For example, John Locke or indeed Reneé Descartes. Our mind is actually an organic system that is embodied in the totality of our bodies. So our mind is not just in our brain our mind is embodied in the totality of our bodies and our mind is all so embedded and very dependent on the cultural environment.

And these views of our mind are actually now more and more being confirmed by both contemporary developmental psychology but also contemporary mind research.

Our minds are actually embodied in the totality of our bodies and dependent on and embedded in our culture. They also knew that a very important step in this lifelong development of our mind is the step that we that some of us take as adults, not all of us, in shifting from becoming external directed to becoming inner directed.

On democracy

Most people are still looking for an external authority. So far for democracy to really develop, you need to have a substantial part of the population, not necessarily a majority but a substantial part of the population to be enough grounded in themselves and be in contact with their own in a compass for democracy to work. And that is exactly what the politicians, the early Democratic politicians in Scandinavia and the intellectuals, took note of. And that is why they created these centres, these educational centres for transformative skills, for consciousness development and not the least developing their inner compass.

And it actually worked.

We have forgotten about this history and we are starting to lose this a little bit. Up until today we have forgotten about the importance of our inner world. And we are not any longer talking about consciousness development or lifelong development of our mind. We forgotten about these transformative skills and the importance to actually actively cultivate for example compassion.

But I see now in in Scandinavia a bit of an awakening and a bit of a real realization of this importance of the inner world and that is coming from perhaps an unexpected place; it’s coming from the corporate world actually, because as I speak with many people in the corporate world that are seriously concerned about the abilities of their organizations to keep up with this rapidly changing technological and social environment.

And this puts a lot of strains both on the corporations but also to all those individuals within the corporations, and quite a few H R departments are starting to realize that it is not just necessary to focus on the maturation and in the development of the top management.

But now a realization is starting to grow that in order for organizations to be adaptable enough and agile enough to constantly reinvent themselves in this rapidly changing technological and social environment, these skills are now skills that everyone in the organization needs to develop.

So then if this was so important in an in the corporate world and we started to realize this in the in the corporate world and in corporate literature and management consultant and in executive training why did we not at all talk about this in the same way and in society? Or societal development?

And I hope that these insights will spread rapidly out in society.

I think if not the least the environmental catastrophe that we are facing makes it absolutely necessary to again look at internal development and consciousness development on a societal scale, this becomes a major concern for not just corporations but for society.

And there I think, and there I hope that the Nordic countries again can play a leading role. So if I should say something about the uniqueness of of the Scandinavian model, I would use the analogy with with an organization and these new self-organizing organization. Some people talk about that in the new organization have to be a deliberately developmental organization. A deal where the organization actually supports the development of. All. Individuals within the organization to reach their full. Potential. And I think that the Scandinavian. Model. Originally. A. Hundred years ago the. Vision was. To create a deliberately developmental society. A DDR as. A society. Which. Actively supported. Every individual’s, every citizen’s possibility to reach their full potential.

And I think in the rapidly developing world we need to somehow come back to that it’s not just the the oh the ah tech companies that need to compete on an international market that needs to become Deliberately Developmental organizations. I think all nations now need to become deliberate deliberately developmental societies. And I think that that was really at the core of the Scandinavian model.

We can at least have a vision about what is a good process and how do we create that good process of moving forward.

And I think there is where we need to have the Democratic debate today and there is where we need to have a vision. And again I think part of that vision is already today creating a deliberative developmental society where as many people as possible in society can become and really feel liberated emancipated and empowered to be able to participate in the creation on the future world in the creation of the world that we together create.


Tanya’s voice:

You can find more information about Tomas Björkman and his foundation on his website


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