The Future Doesn’t Fall from Heaven

On the elements of an innovation ecosystem that address SEKEM’s strategic development goals

SEKEM Founder Ibrahim Abouleish was a strong visionary leader combining not only occident and orient in his soul but also embodying the qualities of empathic relationship, enlightened inspiration, rational quest for knowledge and enthusiastic pragmatism that created SEKEM, the miracle in the desert.  With the help of his family and many other SEKEM pioneers, he built the SEKEM Initiative in the middle of a hostile, sandy and dry environment. His visionary power, deeply rooted in the ancient Egyptian culture and anchored in the core principles of Islam, was inspired by European philosophy, and aimed towards creating a fourfold commonwealth integrating ecological, economic, cultural and societal life for sustainable development. This is an ongoing, never ending journey and   are still far away from reaching the entire vision. Ibrahim Abouleish said himself that it will take more than 200 years to reach our vision, a community “where every human being can unfold his individual potential; where mankind lives together in social forms reflecting human dignity; and where all economic activity is conducted in accordance with ecological and ethical principles .”

This vision draws a future that presented itself to us and is arriving, not a pending future waiting to be executed. The Basel philosopher Stefan Brotbeck describes in his book “Future” two future qualities and calls them “futurum” and “adventus”. Referring to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, he writes: “In each period, your life is an average of two streams, one going from the future to the present and the other from the present to the future.”

Futurum stands for moving forwards, starting, what I see. Basically it can be understood as an empty space in which we project our plans. As the opposite, adventus is representing a movement of influx, receiving, that is approaching us – an event space that is filled with impulsed and exceeding expectations. Of course, neither one side is enough for healthy development. Ibrahim Abouleish knew how to integrate both qualities by studying  feasibility, setting goals, and deriving actions as well as  realizing what cannot be expected and leaving empty spaces for unknown co-creation. This is the spirit of how SEKEM’s future needs to be created and emerge. Hence, at SEKEM we are trying to always honour both qualities of the future – futurum and adventus.

Establishing Innovation Ecosystems at SEKEM for Achieving the Vision 2057

With this background and a look ahead to the coming 40 years, we created the SEKEM Vision, Mission and Goals for 2057. You might find our vision for Egypt 2057 “crazy” and not logic from today’s perspective. However, we consciously honour in this view the qualities of adventus and deliberately build on our tradition of engaging in missions impossible! Still, we want to appreciate the futurum quality and hence we broke down the 18 goals into a more applied mission for SEKEM and concrete objectives for the next 10 years. But how do we reach this mission?

SEKEM story is about modeling a social innovation that can help to address society’s problems effectively. The products and services that SEKEM offers are not created for maximizing profits but for creating value to fuel the consciousness development of people as a foundation for the renewal of society. As a sustainable community we need to learn more and more how to purposefully engage with the dynamics of a social innovation, a process that was predominantly orchestrated by Ibrahim Abouleish himself. Now, his son, SEKEM’s CEO, Helmy Abouleish, who meanwhile took over this role, expects leadership to be taken on by different community members. Not only one single person, but many of us have to become champions for an innovative ecosystem in order to reach our vision and goals. What do we mean by that?

A graphical summary of the innovation ecosystem that consists of different roles needed for a process of social innovation addressing burning issues as well as achieving SEKEM’s Strategic Goals for 2027. (Adapted from Lessem).

For an innovative ecosystem, different roles are needed that lead the process of social innovation, addressing burning issues as well as achieving SEKEM’s Strategic Goals for 2027. Different people can take different roles, whereas one person can also fill several roles.

Community activation through stewards (Grounding)

First, there is the steward. His functional role is about connecting with the local identity as the external form of an organism may change, but the identity remains. An example for this is a caterpillar transforming to become a butterfly. This transformation involves a very precise rhythm between life and death, creation and destruction.

The form of a social organism is also constantly changing and transforming. Just a decade ago, it was unthinkable that SEKEM would actually run a university. Nevertheless, such a place of education, knowledge generation and research has always been present in SEKEM’s vision. The first emergent state of the university was the Heliopolis Academy, which conducted research about the problems and challenges of SEKEM, especially in agriculture and phyto-pharmaceutical products. Today, Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development has more than 1,700 students in currently five faculties.

Who steered this process of SEKEM’s transformation? Were the events that took place in Egypt and the world, what opened a window of opportunities for the long-lived dream of a university to finally become reality? It was certainly the feeling and creativity of Ibrahim Abouleish who knew at the right moment what to do and was not hampered by any barriers. Such a role can only be perceived by a person who is deeply connected to the impulse and root of the identity that brings forth the living.

The role of the steward for SEKEM as a whole was clearly embodied by Ibrahim Abouleish himself, and increasingly by Helmy Abouleish, who is now taking over the role of the authentic community leader.  The role of the “steward” may change depending on each strategic goal. We need to identify “stewards” who can really see the adventus future arriving for our vision 2057 elements in order to provide the grounding for an impulse from the future. Needless to say that this requires deep knowledge, respect and charisma for being able to give direction to others and to activate community. The steward brings the process of transformation to life and can mobilize the necessary resources, which is why he or she stands at the beginning of a social innovation process.

Awakening integral consciousness through catalysts (Emerging)

Another role is filled by people who enrich this ecosystem with new inspiration and ideas, often coming from outside the direct environment: the catalysts. Sometimes catalysts can be authors of inspiring books, artists or friends of the community. The SEKEM Morning Circle, which takes place on a daily basis, is a very effective way to share new knowledge over time and to awaken the integral consciousness of the community members.

According to Dr. Ronnie Lessem, founder of Trans4m, a resilient ecosystem is bound to its inherent diversity. In the same way, it is important in the social sphere to avoid a “monoculture” of single worldviews and mindsets but to rather celebrate diversity of thoughts and opinions.

Through SEKEM’s strong national and international network  many catalysts found their way to our community in the desert and created an exchange of inspiration and mutual enrichment. The catalysing cooperation with Trans4m should be emphasised. Over the period of a decade, there was a constant exchange in which Ronnie Lessem and Alexander Schieffer mirrored SEKEM in its integral design from the outside. Both were closely associated with the conceptual and visionary project of the University foundation and have repeatedly pointed out the importance of recognizing the process of social innovation in various visits and workshops. At the same time, SEKEM was able to make a contribution through its work in order to express the theories of Lessem and Schieffer in practice.

The challenge of SEKEM is now to continue building a rich network of people from diverse cultural backgrounds and new generations in order to renew its external/global knowledge impulses. With the local and global knowledge emerging out of the exchanges with the catalysts, a foundation for new knowledge creation and innovation is built. This has to be carried further in research activities which adapt that knowledge to the local context and find solutions to our communities’ burning issues.

Innovation driven research (Navigating)

To retain an overview and effectively navigate through the abundant complexity related to our strategic goals the roles of stewards and catalysts are not enough. For Lessem this function in the ecosystem is reserved for the role of the researcher within the innovation ecosystem. At Heliopolis University there are already several natural science researchers in the chemical, water, biology labs that proved their relevance and effectiveness. But, what we need more for the process of social innovation is social science related research relevant for or grounded in our burning issues.

Together with Trans4m, we have co-created a format where SEKEM is hosting students for a period of half a year as so-called “Trans4m Junior Fellows”. They come to write their final theses in combination with a practical internship at SEKEM. One example was Claudius Baumer from Germany, who, in 2015, wrote his thesis with the title “Beyond Sustainable Development Reporting – Integral Sustainability Controlling for the SEKEM Initiative in Egypt.” His contribution was not only to refine our existing indicator set for the sustainability flower of our integral reporting system, but also to set up the technological infrastructure to collect data and produce monthly reports. Another example was Annina Hunziker from Switzerland, who, in 2016, wrote about “Integral Project Management – The integral way to lead projects in a holistic, sustainable way with transformative impact benefiting employees, customers and society”. Also SEKEM’s Sustainability Team under the Heliopolis University has conducted important researches, for instance on the true costs of organic agriculture compared to other, conventional production. Research work is crucial to shape systems and structural solution to the burning issues at hand, which is standing for the futurum quality, but also requires reflection time and contemplative spaces, which invites the adventus quality.

Many other people and institutions have written about SEKEM and researched about us. The question now is how far we will be able to integrate all that knowledge into practice. Without practical facilitation and if we do not enrich research with a local/global consciousness, we will fail in benefiting from this co-creation. A further element is necessary to complete the innovation ecosystem.

Embodying transformation through facilitators (Effecting)

Coming from reasoned navigation with a knowledge of global but adapted and/or newly combined forms, it becomes clear that we can only deal with the complex challenges of our world in the long-run if we implement solutions and deal with the operational systems underlying our organisations. Like I have elaborated in earlier articles, I am referring to the  social subsystem that includes human groups and relationships within an organisation. This network of relationships is central to the identity of organisations because, building on this, we not only influence the organisational culture, but also shape our specific working processes. Hence, there is a facilitation force which is strongly related to the futurum quality of planning out concrete steps towards reaching the envisioned future. What does that imply for our innovation ecosystem and which kind of role is required?

It needs a facilitator, who has to accompany the process, which allows for the dying out of existing patterns and structures and being open for new impulses to emerge. All of our strategic goals are socially transformative, they require for instance new practice and new culture of doing things. Without strong facilitators on the ground that bring that practice to life there are not innovations.

One particularly strong facilitator at SEKEM is Helmy Abouleish, who currently holds all executive power in his hands. He is able to oversee highly complex dynamics and has proven his experience in making the right decisions and accelerating the implementation of numerous projects. Furthermore, all members of the SEKEM Future Council have significant roles as facilitators. They are all strongly connected to the local context and benefit from the local/global catalyzation mentioned before. The challenge lies here in the purposeful connection to the research and the risk lies in bypassing the navigation and creation of new knowledge. Coming from the pioneering phase, most of the SEKEM community members are used to directly going into the effecting or action phase without enough reflection and research. This was very effective in the past but should be replaced by a more purposeful connection to the prior steps of research and knowledge creation. Last but not least, the SEKEM management team in general holds an important facilitation function and needs to be aware of their influence on reaching our strategic goals.

In order to not lose the overview of this innovation ecosystem and to ensure that each step or role is building on another, it is important to orchestrate the roles introduced earlier. And there is a last role that is important for each strategic vision goal.


Bringing social innovation to life through the integrator

This last role is crucial for the whole social innovation process. Of course, Ibrahim Abouleish was filling and energising this role for SEKEM as a whole and with a particular strength in the field of natural science. His achievements with regard to the integration of natural science, especially in the field of pharmacology  and agricultural research, were remarkable and led to many successful product and service innovations. Our task is now to adapt this approach also into the field of social science.

The integrator needs to find and engage other people filling the roles of stewards, catalysts, researchers and facilitators. He pulls the threads of the innovation Ecosystem together, and is needed for every single vision goal.  Now, with the help of Lessem’s conceptualisation of the different roles we can better address SEKEM’s strategic goals. In general, it is important to distinguish between the roles that are responsible for the process and the people filling these roles as mentioned already in previous articles .

In order to align the management of SEKEM companies, NGOs and the Heliopolis University for Sustainable Development, who together represent the institutional SEKEM Initiative, Helmy Abouleish presented the concept of structural innovation ecosystems. As a next steps the different roles will be integrated explicitly into SEKEM’s larger governance structure. The intention is to update the larger SEKEM community on the different individual innovation ecosystems separately once they are established and operationally functioning.

For SEKEM’s future

We believe, that this innovation ecosystem is the force that will enable SEKEM to vitally develop into the future. It represents the force that will keep the four dimensions of sustainable development alive. The different roles strive for a natural equilibrium, in the sense of the ancient Egyptian deity Maat, who strives for this rhythm between local and global identity and the associated intermediate forms and who was so dear to Ibrahim Abouleish’s heart.

Maximilian Abouleish-Boes

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