Creative Systems Theory presents a comprehensive framework for understanding change, purpose, and interrelationship in human systems with special pertinence to making sense of the times in which we live and the challenges before us. It is significant both for the practical usefulness of its ideas and for the fact that it represents the kind of conceptual perspective that will be increasingly essential in times ahead.
We can think of CST’s importance as having three layers. First it represents a practical set of tools for thinking systemically about human process. Its unique perspective helps us answer all kinds of questions difficult to address, or to address with adequate subtlety with more conventional formulations.
The second layer of importance pertains more specifically to the times in which we live. CST provides big-picture perspective for making sense of our time. The concept of Cultural Maturity is a specific notion within Creative Systems Theory. The concept of Culturla Maturity articulates a simple, yet not simplistic “guiding story” for our time, one that helps us get beyond conflicting ideologies. Creative Systems Theory goes on to provide detailed perspective for understanding what today we see around us, for developing good future policy, and for identifying where our formulations may fall short.
The third kind of importance concerns the kind of understanding that CST represents. CST argues that our times defining challenges require not just new ideas, but fundamentally new kinds of ideas. Culturally mature conception.requries a fullness and complexity of thought not before needed—or possible. Such conception is new in that it is more systemic than conventional thought, and thus better able to capture nuance and interrelationship. It is also better able to honor the living dynamism of human experience. CST makes the argument for such new ways of thinking—both why they are needed and what they entail. And it itself succeeds as Culturally Mature conception. Just how it does provides both overarching perspective and the capacity to make detailed culturally mature discernments.
A person need not understand nor agree with all three layers to make great use of CST”s basic concepts. But CST argues that its practical usefulness in the end derives from the conceptual leap its ideas embody. It is this that makes it able to address so many otherwise difficult questions. In particular, it is what makes it powerful for addressing the kinds of questions that more and more define our time.
We usefully think of CST conceptual starting point as the question of what most defines us as human beings. The most succinct answer: The richness of our creative capacities. We are “tool-makers,” and makers not just of things but also of ideas and social structures. And we are makers of meaning.
Alfred North Whitehead spoke of creativity as the “universal of universals.” CST observes something similar, then goes on use this observation to develop a general framework for making sense of how we understand—both understanding’s mechanisms and why we understand in the diverse of often contradictory was that we do. From CST’s vantage, not only are we tool-making creatures infinitely creative, how we think, act, and relate reflects our creative natures. Even the structures we give our worlds (governmental forms, architecture, particular inventions we are capable of and willing to accept) reflect underlying creative organization.
The word creative as applied in CST stretches well beyond our usual use of the term. It concerns art no more than science, nor the language of imagination any more than hard logic. (The more formal term in CST is formative process). But once its meaning is expanded sufficiently, the term captures quite well the new kind of understanding today’s questions more and more require. And it can be readily applied as an organizing concept for more detailed conception.
CST describes how the function of conscious awareness—which at least in its extent makes we humans unique—is ultimately creative. (See Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Reordering.) It also describes how human intelligence, with its different aspects, is structured specifically to support and drive our striking creative capabilities. (See Intelligence and Creative Change.) It goes on to delineate how understanding creative organization provides a powerful patterning language for making sense of how and why we see our personal and collective worlds in the ways that we do, how those ways evolve over time, and why in our time they may be evolving in the ways they seem to be.
Many of the questions where CST offers greatest insight in some ways have to do with change. For example, we can use it to help us understand why at different times in history we have seem our worlds in the ways we have—a topic with increasingly critical application as globalization brings cultures at different points in cultural development into dangerously explosive proximity. In a similar way it helps us appreciate the unique worlds we inhabit at different stages in our personal development. (We can use it, for example, to understand why children believe in Santa Claus while adults don’t, and why adolescents behave in some of the apparently non-sensical and dangerous ways they do.)
Other questions where CST provides particularly useful perspective have to do with here-and-now differences and interrelationships. For example, it provides a unique depth of understanding of personality diversity. The perspective it provides brings a valuable richness to self-understanding, offers important tools for effective communication and collaboration, and helps makes sense of an endless array of otherwise baffling observations. (An example from the quirky extreme: it explains why businessmen shake hands, counter-culture types are more likely to hug, football plays bump chests—and football coaches often pat their players on the but as they go out on the field.)
Many people find particularly intriguing how CST brings fresh perspective to a wide array of eternally perplexing questions. Some where it proves useful: how determinism and free will can be compatible, how scientific and spiritual truth ultimately relate, and how best to think about our place in the larger scheme of things (who we are in relationship to the purely physical and the biological). It also helps make understandable why at different times and places in the human story we have answered such questions in the often remarkably different ways that we have.
Creative Systems Patterning Concepts
In practical application, CST employs three kinds of creatively-framed kinds of “patterning concepts,” what it calls Whole-Systems patterning concepts. Patterning in Time concepts, and Pattering in Space concepts. Whole System patterning concepts make what CST calls culturally mature “crux distinctions. In different ways their interest is a system’s overall vitality and well-being, systemic truth as its most basic. Patterning in Time and Pattering in Space concepts make what CST calls culturally mature “multiplicity” distinctions. They address difference in dynamics systems terms. (See “Crux” and “multiplicity” aspects of culturally mature truth.) Patterning in Time and Patterning in Space concepts share that their concern is parts, distinctions not just between the “how much” of systems, but between the “whats, the whys, and the how manys.” To use a painting analogy, they address the colors available on the palette (or to be more precise, this plus when and where they are most usefully applied). CST also makes use of a handful of additional concepts that help in making sense of current culture changes and with the critical task of separating the conceptual wheat from the chaff as we look to the future.
Whole-System Patterning Concepts address what truth at its most basic becomes when cultural guideposts no longer provide reliable direction. Their interest lies with the “crux” concern of the degree an act or idea is “life-giving”—in the language of formative process, the degree it supports and enhances our creative growth and well-being. They address questions like purpose, morality, capacity, and violence. While less immediately provocative than creative truth’s two more differentiated sorts of concepts, many people find them in the end the most transforming in their implications. This site looks at three types: Integrative referents, Capacitance, and Creative Symptoms.
Patterning in Time is just what it sounds like—though time in this sense refers not just to clock time, but to developmental time. Patterning in Time concepts address change in human systems. They help make sense of underlying processes in human growth (including not just individual growth but also the growth of relationships), predict change dynamics in organizations, and better understand how various realms of human inquiry—science, government, education, religion—have evolved over time. Of particular significance for today, they provide perspective for making sense of the changes that define our time. Patterning in Time concepts describe how what makes a system creatively vital very much has its seasons. Whether our concern is the span of a creative project, the duration of a relationship, a personal lifetime, or the story of culture, different stages not only give voice to very different truths, they reflect very different notions about what makes something true. Patterning in Time concepts describe how various scales of formative process layer one atop the other and together define the context of any creative moment.
Patterning in Space concepts address here-and-now systemic interrelationships. We can use them to make sense of our own internal workings, to better understand relationships of every sort (from intimate bonds to the bonds of communities, institutions and nations), and of particular pertinence for today, to teasing apart the complexly interrelated implications of our present human condition. Patterning in Space discriminations address creative relativity in the here and now, to one’s place in a system’s diversity. They describes how our inner and outer worlds are each profoundly plural.
The Challenge of Culturally Mature Integrative Conception
A quick look at what makes a creative frame unique helps us understand why delving into CST’s patterning concepts is worth the effort. The challenges ahead require change not just in what we think, but how we think. CST addresses this new conceptual landscape.
A simple way to put it that our thinking needs to be more explicitly systemic. We must take much more into account than we are accustomed to doing and hold considerations in more conscious and encompassing ways. In the end, the systemic challenge goes a critical step further. Culturally mature understanding requires a more dynamic and complete kind of systemic perspective than we have been capable of grasping in times past.
We can put this further step in historical perspective. Systems ideas that can help us must take us beyond the mechanistic worldview that has defined out modern age. Thinking in the language of machines (a contribution of Newton and Descartes) was radical in the sense that it liberated us from much of the superstition and dogmatism of medieval belief. (CST describes how, when timely, it could not have been more creative.) But we are not machines. We are living beings. And more than that, we are conscious beings, and thus alive with a uniquely creative audacity. If we are to speak effectively about the things that are ultimately most matter to us, we need ways of thinking that better address our dynamic, living natures. The critical challenges ahead of us are almost all questions of life, and more than this, questions that concern the very particular kind of life we are by virtue of being human.
A creative frame offers an approach that helps us think of living systems in living terms—and more than this, ourselves in terms of the particular kind of life that makes us human. It takes us beyond both the mechanical systems thinking of a good engineer, and equally beyond the naïve holism more spiritual perspectives often confuse with systemic thought. In just how it does, it provides a way to address human systems and have the concepts we use affirm our unique natures as living, conscious beings.
CST’s Basic Approach
Key to appreciating how a creative frame produces this result is the recognition that culturally mature understanding is not just about new ways of thinking, however significant. It is the product of developmentally predicted cognitive changes. This cognitive reordering replaces the from-the-balcony perspective of objective knowing that has defined Modern Age understanding with a more dynamic and complete picture of who we are and how things work. CST calls this result Integrative-Meta-persepctive. (See Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Reordering.)
CST theory represents an approach to understanding made from this new kind of cognitive perspective. A couple results are particularly pertinent to appreciating the power of a creative frame. One is the increasingly recognized observation that intelligence is multiple—that it involves not just logic, but also feelings, images, and bodily experience. (We can cut up the pie of intelligence many different ways).
Creative Systems Theory describes how our various intelligences—or we might better say sensibilities to reflect all they encompass—relate in specifically creative ways. And it goes on to delineate how different ways of knowing, and different relationships between ways of knowing, predominate at specific times in any human change processes. Our various modes of intelligence, juxtaposed like colors on a color wheel, function together as creativity’s mechanism. That wheel, like the wheel of a car or a Ferris wheel,
Intelligence and Formative Process
is continually turning, continually in motion. The way the faces of intelligence juxtapose makes change, and specifically purposeful change, inherent to our natures. (See Intelligence and Creative Process.)
Another result of Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes is how they alter our relationship to polarity and the role polarity has traditionally played in human understanding. Culturally mature perspective makes it possible to think in ways that “bridge” what before have seemed obvious polar distinctions—such as “us and them” on the global stage, masculine and feminine in the world of gender, mind and body in how we understand ourselves. Nothing more characterized the last century’s defining conceptual advances than how they have linked before unquestioned polar truths.
Culturally mature perspective also helps us better appreciate the role of polarity in how we think. CST addresses why we see polarity in the first place and uses an understanding of polarity to develop newly creative approaches to conception. (See Polarity and Creative Process.) CST describes how the fact that, through time, we have thought in the language of polarity is a product of our ultimately creative natures. For anything new to come into being it must appear and distinguish itself from what has existed before—set this as opposed to that. It goes on to describe how we can use this recognition to map how human systems creatively evolve and interrelate.
In the picture that results creation becomes much more than some rabbit-out-of-hat process of innovation. It is highly and specifically patterned. It also becomes about much more than just new insight. Formative process becomes what most essentially we are about. To be alive is to be creative, to be engaged in a constant process of shaping ourselves, our human connections, and the physical worlds around us.
Creative Systems Theory describes how we see a similar kind of formative patterning in developmental processes of all sorts, not just in obvious creative processes, but also in individual human development, in the development of groups and organizations, and even in the historical development of culture. CST uses this broad notion that development in human systems is creatively ordered to map the complexities change. CST goes on to describes how here-and-now relationships in human systems can similarly be thought of as creative. Human systems are creative not just in how they change, but in how their internal parts are structured, how those parts interrelate, and how various systems engage one with another. Whether the whole that concerns us is an individual, a relationship, an organization, or a society, in the end what we engage is a creative whole. Thus in a similar way we can use the idea of creative patterning to map here-and-now complexity in human systems.
CST uses a diagram it calls the Creative Function to tie its various concepts together. The Creative Function is a generic representation of formative process.
The Creative Function depicts formative process has having two halves—a differentiation phase and an integration phase. Formative processes start from nothing (or more accurately a context). With creative differentiation new possibility buds off and takes increasingly manifest forms. With creative integration the newly created form reintegrates with its context, becoming part of an expanded picture of “how things are” (and as experience becomes increasingly “second nature”). CST proposes that Cultural Maturity’s changes reflect the beginning of this second, more integrative aspect of formative process as it manifest in culture as a creative process.
There are ways in which CST is decidedly more complex than usual conceptual approaches. Certainly it pushes into new territories of understanding. And it requires us to take much more into account than is generally our practice. But there are also ways in which it is simpler than approaches we commonly use. Albert Einstein once commented that all his ideas had their origins in a single question from his youth: What would the world look like if seen from atop a beam of light? In a similar sense, Creative Systems Theory organizes around a single question: What does the human experience look like when viewed as a reflection of our creative natures? Every one of CST concepts can be seen to follow directly from this simple question. (Note that this fact, by creating separation between the theory’s ideas and the beliefs of its author, invites others to contribute to the theory’s evolution. Anyone can take that core question and argue for particular implications.)
The fact that all of CST’s distinctions follow from the nature of formative patterning also results in an important practical kind of simplicity. Learning how to make one kind of discernment takes us a long way toward understanding how to make them all. And, if CST is right, that single fundamental patterning dynamic organizes how we think. At some level—though less consciously—we’ve been making these kinds of distinctions since our species’ beginnings.
CST goes on to argue that such patterning is not only familiar, in a sense it is almost inevitable. It follows directly from the fact of conscious awareness (and its purpose, that we might be “tool-makers,” creative at a new depth and constancy). It is not some invention of conscious awareness, a handy choreography designed for that task. Rather it is how creation necessarily works. Any formative process follows a predictable progression. The mechanism doesn’t need design. There really isn’t much other way to go about it. Be tool-makers, and this is pretty much how it has to work
It is important in getting started to recognize what Creative Systems Theory patterning concepts are good for and what they are not. Its contribution lies with questions of underlying pattern. Much in the particulars we observe may have different origins. For example, personality style differences explain only part of why a person may act the way he or she does. As important are personal idiosyncrasies and life events that have nothing to do with temperament—or anything else a creative perspective has much to say about. And while aspects of what we see in a culture’s artistic forms, religious beliefs, and governmental structures reflect cultural stage, as much is a result of essentially arbitrary historical events and, again, numerous effects for which creative mechanisms at any level play little if any significant role.
But, limitations acknowledged, Creative Systems Theory patterning concepts represent a powerfully useful set of tools. The recognition of underlying patterns is often what is most missing in modern thought. When our concern is purpose—as it must more and more be today as traditional guideposts fail us—questions of how experience organizes necessarily move forefront. Recognition of organizing patterning provides the big-picture that allows us to make our choices about particulars in ultimately useful ways.
An appreciation for how CST came into being further helps with understanding. It also addresses a possible objection. There is an important sense in which CST is original in a “whole cloth” sense. It didn’t come out of thin air, but it also the case that its formulations are not the result of building upon past ideas as people tend to expect with conceptual innovation particularly in academic circles (where claims for more original origins can raise immediate suspicion). Most of the observations in this site that compare CST with other approaches came only well after CST basic notions were established.
Creative Systems Theory had its early beginnings in my teenage years. At that time, my primary form of creative expression was sculpting. While I loved working with stone, over time I realized that my greater fascination concerned creative process itself, just how creative process worked. I read what I could, but didn’t find a lot that satisfied.
CST evolved as a series of recognitions. The important first recognition was how creative processes—whether in art of invention—seemed to follow a related kind of progression. Key in this recognition was the observation noted earlier that different stages in formative process give emphasis to predictable aspect of intelligence.
The second important recognition came in my twenties while learning about developmental psychology. I saw that a related kind of formative sequence seemed to underlie stages in individual development. How our multiple intelligences manifest at different stages was key to seeing these parallels. (Put simply but usefully: Very young children live most in bodily intelligence; childhood is about the “make believe and let’s pretend” world of imaginal intelligence; adolescence brings the ardencies of emotional intelligence increasingly to the fore: and with young adulthood rational intelligence comes into play in increasingly dominant ways.) This was an exciting observation.
A third recognition was even more surprising and challenged me to take what I was observing more seriously. I saw that I could understand how culture has evolved over time as a related sequence defined by parallel organizational processes. I was struck with the idea that human experience as a whole is creatively ordered, that it somehow reflects our particularly human, toolmaking natures. (Insights with regard to multiple intelligences were similarly important. Again, put simply but usefully: Tribal societies emphasize bodily sensibilities; myth-oriented cultures like ancient Egypt and Olympian Greece gave primary emphasis to imaginal intelligence; with the Middle Ages, the ardencies of moral intelligence again come to the fore; and modern times gave us the Age of Reason and the new influence of science and technology.)
The next recognition brought in a characteristic unique to CST beyond this detailed application of a creative frame. I began to recognize that not just change, but also relationships between aspects of systems appeared to organize creatively. I began to put together CST Patterning in Space concepts and in particular the observations that became the Creative Systems Personality Typology.
In my late twenties and early thirties I attempt to bring together and write about these early ideas. The result was my first book, The Creative Imperative.
There was one more recognition in those earlier days of CST’s development—noted in The Creative Imperative but not greatly emphasized—that in time would prove particularly defining of how my life would unfold. I saw that while CST’s ideas help us richly make sense of our past—of why our human story has progressed in the ways that it has—as or more important was their significance for today. We tend to assume that our current stage in culture’s evolution—that which gave us our modern concept of the individual, institutional democracy, free market economics, contemporary religion, and the scientific age—represents some ideal and end point. Creative Systems Theory proposes that it can’t be an end point. It describes how further important steps in our cultural evolution, at least as potential, lie ahead. It also describes how we must now take on the tasks of a needed next chapter in culture’s story—what I have spoken of as Cultural Maturity—if our human future is to be at all bright.
I saw that my life’s work needed to focus more specifically on the times in which we live. I proceeded to start a non-profit think tank and center for leadership training—The Institute for Creative Development—to collaboratively explore Cultural Maturity’s changes and what they ask of us. The Institute’s work would not be easy. Given that our interest lay with a new cultural chapter, inherently our efforts required that we engage human abilities that, at best, we were only beginning to understand. But it was obvious that what we endeavored to do together could not be more important. The Institute brought together exceptional people from around the world to confront many of the most important questions of our time. It also trained people in the new, more sophisticated leadership capacities new questions will increasingly require. It was a time of rich inquiry and collaboration.
After I’d lead the Institute for eighteen rewarding years. I saw that my efforts again needed further steps. It would be important to make where our work together had taken us available to a wider audience. And if the ideas we had been drawing on had a significant place in the history and evolution of understanding—as they must have if they effectively articulate this needed new chapter in our human story—they warranted further research to substantiate that significance. I stepped down from my formal leadership role to do additional research and to write.
This site and the related ICD sites are products of this most recent time of writing and reflections. Efforts have also included three new books. The beginning book in the series, Hope and the Future: An Introduction to the Concept of Cultural Maturity is a short work intended for a general audience wanting to better understand the tasks humanity now faces. Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions: Creative Systems Theory Explains What It Is All About (Really) is a more theoretical work intended for people who find particular fascination in overarching inquiry. Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future is the most detailed and leadership-focsued of the three book and most directly applies the ideas of Creative Systems Theory to the tasks ahead.