• Fyodor Ovchinnikov

Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Dr. Krzysztof Dembek: a Collective Narrative

Updated: May 2

Produced by Fyodor Ovchinnikov

On Wednesday, April 28, 2021 a group of participants from Brazil, Germany, Greece, Kenya, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States gathered for the third virtual peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Dr. Krzysztof Dembek.


Dr. Krzysztof (Chris) Dembek is a world-class scholar of reorganizing business models and patterns that contribute to effective intentional systemic change. Together with his colleagues, Dr. Dembek is applying grounded theory to learn from cases of place-based systems transformation and share this knowledge with others. Dr. Dembek was a judge at the Evolutionary Future Challenge 2018 and he has been collaborating with the Institute for Evolutionary Leadership in a range of contexts.


Dr. Dembek was among 11 guest teachers confirmed based on the preferences and financial contributions of 40 registered participants of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program. Participants had one week to study Dr. Dembek's materials on their own before gathering for a peer learning session. The peer learning session provided an opportunnity to share individual reflections, identify emerging patterns, and craft a collective message to Dr. Dembek to help him prepare for a live session with the group. Here is the recording of the live session based on this narrative:

Participants’ reflections were recorded and used to produce a collective narrative according to the Collective Narrative Methodology. Bill Aal, Christiana Gardikioti, Flora Moon, Frank Noz, Gabrielle Cook Jonker, Joshua Baker, Julius Khamati Kuya, Ken Homer, Kennan Salinero, Klaus Mager, Manuel Manga, Michel Sillion, Rafael Calcada, Tatiana Vekovishcheva, and Zen Benefiel participated in the session and contributed to this narrative.


We had some really stimulating discussions and great conversations that turned out beautifully. A high-level context for our conversations was the relationship between the macro level and the micro level and how exactly it shows up in the communities.

Recognizing Our Current System as Antithetical to Well-Being

We were struck by the idea of well-being as a measurement because it is antithetical to the way our current economic systems work and it is antithetical to capitalism in and of itself. We were curious to explore how this actually manifests.

We talked a lot about how we create systems change with people who have power and money. What does that entail? How does extractive capitalism show up in local communities that are trying to solve their own problems and how can we deal with that? When local communities are trying to implement models that are similar to what Dr. Dembek describes, they are often unprepared or not very well protected from the extractive capitalism systems that come in the area and just extract value.

We discussed trickle-down economics and how it failed so many times that they ought to quit teaching it in school. Some of us mentioned that Dr. Dembek notes in his “Business Unusual” paper that so far, the attempts to use commerce to alleviate poverty at the Base of Pyramid sector have mostly failed. They failed because well-being is really not conducive for an extractive model: the value has to stay within the community in order to create well-being and advance the sector.

Shifting Away from Dependency, Extraction, and Tone-Deafness

We talked about how many attempts to support the Base of Pyramid sector are really perpetuating dependency. One example we discussed is from South Africa where clothing has been made available for free which destroyed the local textile industry. Similarly, food donations going into developing countries basically destroyed the fledgling industry they had on their own. There are famous examples from African nations where chicken import completely undermined the development of their own economies. The whole idea of food banks, the idea that the government can buy food mostly through the corporate sector and hand it out for free to communities in need, is actually preventing the formation of Base of Pyramid economies.

We also discussed how extractive capitalist actors affect our local regenerative systems. Some of us shared stories about people from a neighboring country coming to a community to buy local agricultural supply for a ridiculously low price. Other examples included a country where the twenty wealthiest families own most of the country's fertile land and the rest of the country, including regenerative projects that some of us are involved in, is forced to use what is left. All this adds complexity to our work and we are wondering if Dr. Dembek has any suggestions for working with these dynamics.

We talked about the dichotomy between looking through the lens of family groups, which is intimate, versus institutional or organizational groups, governments, countries. The latter entities often act as controllers of the quality of life on the ground and we wondered why they are tone-deaf to some basic needs? We see one reason that there is no economic incentive to be anything other than tone-deaf. Part of that is the commodification of ecosystem services. We talked about what value things have if we make them a product rather than actually saying that the support of well-being has equal footing by this natural wealth that we have on the planet: the trees, the water, the clean air, etc.

We also spent some time talking about energy because it is pervasive. Energy, on its face, is actually a vehicle for well-being, but the industry is not set up to deliver well-being, they are set up to deliver a product. This tension between product and well-being is prevalent at all levels of the economy. Some of us mentioned that this sort of commodification has even spread to the family structure because in a lot of families, people are no longer thinking about family as the core, the center for well-being, thriving, and nurturing. Instead, people, especially in impoverished situations, are thinking in terms of “What can you do for me?”, “How many hours can you work?”, “What kind of income can you bring in”, and so on. We discussed internalized ancient family structures and how they are interwoven into how communities operate.

Envisioning BoP 4.0

We really enjoyed learning that there is a maturity level, the understanding of how to move from the Bottom of the Pyramid Thinking 1.0 to 3.0, and we are curious about what 4.0 actually looks like: how do we incorporate capitalism or do we get rid of it? We would appreciate it if Dr. Dembek could elaborate on the process of envisioning another way of being. This relates to an invitation to change which we know is problematic. Another concern is how do we continue to hold space for diversity at the table when we are trying to do this?

In that context, we wonder if Dr. Dembek is actually saying that the solution to poverty at the Base of the Pyramid is the sustainable business models that he is talking about. If business is not the solution to poverty, then there has to be some other community goal, so how do we actually articulate what this is? And whatever it is, we think that it is going to be something beyond capitalism as we do not believe that capitalism will solve poverty. We wonder if Dr. Dembek thinks about this. Also, where is the aliveness of the community? Is it implicit in what Dr. Dembek is saying?

Listening to Local Communities

We spend a lot of time discussing the topic of listening. We talked about how we can become better listeners, how we need to really listen well before coming into the communities, how local communities create ideas to solve their own problems and therefore have a sense of ownership and are able to meet their own needs and incorporate those needs into their solutions. We talked about the power of Ontological Design in that context: what we design designs us back and it applies to communities too.

We talked about how sometimes when we listen, we do not actually, hear what we are not prepared to hear, how we hear only what we are used to, or heard before, or feel comfortable with. We need to spend time and make an effort to be able to hear things that we do not like, things that do not help us get funding, or things that do not fit into our model, for example. We talked about how Dr. Dembek’s research teaches people about care, trust, and values that are so pivotal to making a change. Particularly when dealing with Indigenous communities or countries that suffered from colonization, it is very important to build trust and convey intentions that are constructive and trustworthy.

Learning from Indigenous Communities and Dealing with Multigenerational Trauma

How do we listen to the future generations and how do we become good ancestors or better ancestors? How do we think long-term about the impact? We spent some time talking about the difference between the perception of time and value, how differently local communities and westernized, globalized communities perceive time and value, and what kind of lessons we can learn from that, what kind of lessons we can learn from local Indigenous communities and their perception of time and value, and how global communities or impact investors need to take that into consideration and design solutions based on that, as opposed to designing solutions based on very globalized, westernized way of solving problems and seeing time and value.

We also talked about the idea of multigenerational trauma and harm. Particularly in colonized nations, that is inherited and has become almost like a phenotype expression that is very difficult to overcome. In that context, we wonder what is effective in meeting people who may be victims of that trauma and actually helping them realize a worldview that is authentic to them, not us. This conversation for us was about articulating how we should not color our solutions or our thinking about problems with our own personal narratives and that we really have to learn how to be open to the location, the place actually informing how we design and how we help.

Developing Community-Led Need Assessment Process and Using Local Knowledge to Shift the Framework of Business

Some of us wondered how to develop a needs assessment for communities that is done completely from within the community. Such an assessment would be unique to each community but follow a process, a structure that is replicable and scalable. Then at the micro-level, we need to develop support systems that can be available, maybe in a modular form, to these communities for putting in resources into these communities and helping them scale. It needs analysis, starting really with guiding the community through a process of self-discovery to assess what resources they already have available that could be scaled and what things are missing that they know they need to advance their endeavors. When we do not know answers to the problems we are facing, developing collaborative tools could be a way of solving these problems. Does Dr. Dembek feel that his research provides tools for understanding, sensemaking, and action?

We also wondered where we can learn how local knowledge can impact non-local knowledge and wisdom to shift the framework of business. Talking about design, some of us brought up the point that localization is actually being used now to inform balanced scorecards in corporations because they are realizing that if they build a strategy of local success, they can actually realize broader success in business.

Learning Dr. Dembek’s Story and Understanding the Impact of his Research

We wonder how Dr. Dembek’s research used, who is using it, and what its impact on practice is. Besides that, we are curious to know how researchers apply their research at the institutional level. What structures are serving them well? Is the present research structure at universities serving the communities and the researchers well?

Finally, we would like to hear about Dr. Dembek’s personal reasons for entering this field of research. We would like to know his personal story and the personal perspective that he has about dealing with these issues as well as what his assumptions were when he entered the field and how these assumptions have changed since then.

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