Open Source Thinking: a developing praxis

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Alison Piasecka
Bob MacKenzie

The starting point of our exploration

In a previous edition of this journal (Spring 2013 e-O&P), our concern was to refresh and deepen our understanding of and approach to creativity and sharing for what we might broadly call ‘human development.’  This would encompass learning, development and practice in artistic, personal, professional, management and organisational contexts.  Later, in May 2013, we organised a Gathering in Brighton to explore further where these open source thinking (OST) ideas might take us.

This follow-up edition (Open Source Thinking Part 2) has been three years in gestation, punctuated by a seminal meeting in 2014 of Alison Piasecka (with invaluable support from her husband Andy), Rosemary Cairns and Bob MacKenzie to prepare the groundwork for hosting an experimental, residential  Gathering of some 20 people in Tostat over 8-13 September 2016 in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.  There, we aim to further our understanding of the practice and praxis of OST, and of its implications for people involved in creative and generous human development.   Academic publishing, the performance arts, and the internet (such as the Creative Commons movement) show features of what we have come to understand as open source thinking and practice (see the following panel).  As prelude to our Tostat Gathering, in this edition, we’re seeking to draw out more explicitly how some of those features might apply to our work in human development. 

Open source aspirations of Creative Commons

In the 2013 edition of e-O&P, we noted the importance of a generosity of spirit and a default stance of trust and sharing in a spirit of critical friendship (skilfully constructive challenge and support, MacKenzie 2015) for individual, local and more global projects.  We also recognised the importance of acknowledging wherever possible different people’s contributions to the development of an idea or practice, whilst giving due credit to ’original’ inventions, contributions and authorships.  Equally, we acknowledged the need to address widespread perceptions of risk and fear that such an open approach might generate. 

Framing our open source project

We have no desire to impose too restrictive a definition of what precisely open source thinking (OST) might entail.  This is because – for us – it remains an elusive aspiration, to be glimpsed and reached out for.  However, we’re also keen to ensure that OST does not become yet another ‘vacuous buzzword’, used loosely and unhelpfully by anyone for any purpose (Stallman 2016).  So one creative challenge for us has been how helpfully to frame this continuing exploration of OST in a way that avoids making inappropriate, misleading, unsubstantiated or unhelpful claims about its novelty, relevance and application.  By other names, OST has a long tradition; it’s been around – at least in pockets, in different guises and to varying degrees – for centuries.  We hope that, by explicating its contemporary characteristics and meanings more clearly, its practice will become better understood and more widespread.  This might then enable us to engage in and benefit from more hopeful and creative conversations and actions for a world in crisis.

William Turnbull’s sculpture ‘Gate’ at SNGMA2, Edinburgh. Photo by Alison Piasecka

The image we have chosen for our front cover of this edition seems to us to offer a visual metaphor for our OST project.  Here, we see two obvious frames.  The outer one represents the limit of what the photographer (Alison) noticed and has been able to record through her camera lens.  The inner frame bounds a more central space and perspective, the focus of which is a young, growing tree.  Shadows and shapes lurk dimly in the background, and there are other spaces between and within the outer and inner frames. Yet, despite any conscious selection and editing, the image hints at possibilities for creative ambiguity and interpretation.  Within this ambiguity, as editors of this edition, we can perhaps now approach the concept of OST with a rather more enhanced – if not absolute – clarity than we may have been able to do in 2013.  However, there are still many nuances and issues that we may not have noticed, or that are yet to emerge through paying attention to conversations and experiments about open source thinking, praxis and practice.  If any of these articles stimulates you to suggest what these might be, we hope that you’ll feel moved to try them out and share them in the Discussion Forum that we’ve created. 

Open source thinking as praxis          

How do we do open source thinking?  Our current understanding is that OST involves an embodied way of thinking that is predicated on a philosophy of action or praxis.  How can we deepen our understanding of any OST praxis?

We take praxis to mean ‘the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realised.’  In learning, it has been defined as ‘a recurring passage through a cyclical process of experiential learning through a continuous process of reflection and action.’ (Wikipedia).  One way of representing this concept – whilst acknowledging its critics – is the well-known Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle.   This might also have some resonance with processes within Action Learning Sets as initially developed by Revans (1984; 2011).

Open source thinking within human development

’… while open source and open access are different concepts, they are related in their dedication to  openness, and they sometimes overlap in a single project.’

(Hoffman 2014)

We can discern many features of OST in other contexts and meanings, such as (academic) publishing, technology, social enterprise and artistic performance.  What they all seem to have in common, however, are two related notions – ‘open source’ and ‘open access’ – which are context-dependent and often unhelpfully confused or used interchangeably.  So, in the following section, we’ve tried to make their respective meanings a little clearer.

Open access

With regard to academic theses and dissertations, Jill Cirasella, under one of six Creative Commons licence options, distinguishes between ‘open access’ and ‘public access’ in the following way:  

More broadly, open access can mean relatively unrestricted or unfettered use in relation to land, buildings, finance, publications, internet, courses etc.  This implies the removal or reduction of barriers, although there are often hidden or indirect associated costs and risks – to which we refer later – which need to be identified and addressed. 

The open source spirit

According to the, ‘open source’ means:

… “something that can be modified and shared because its design is publicly accessible.

While it originated in the context of computer software development, today the term “open source”  designates a set of values—what we call the open source way. Open source projects, products, or initiatives are those that embrace and celebrate open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community development.”

It seems to us that many of these principles also apply in human development.  So we’re imagining that it would be possible to conceive of permutations of both open access and open source as a crossover practice.  Such crossovers might encompass, for example, open access to ideas (Creative Commons) and  open business ‘models’ such as crowd-sourced funding, temporary work alliances and marketing (Cox 2011). 

Open Space Technology

We are grateful to Rosemary Cairns for reminding us (personal communication, 16/3/16) of yet another potential source of confusion and crossover – and also of enrichment – in our exploration of the practice of open source thinking.  This is what Harrison Owen has famously developed as Open Space Technology (which is also abbreviated to OST!). Without going into detail here, as a facilitator of group work, Owen has developed four or five principles or laws for ‘opening space’ and ‘holding the space’, in which the facilitator gravitates to that space within a human circle where they feel they are most needed.

Working with crossover ‘openness’

So there could be several strands available to us to weave into a developing praxis of open source thinking.  We are hopeful that there is potential for some degree of crossover between the different ‘movements’ and understandings associated with varying degrees and practices of ‘openness’. 

Another example, from the field of academic librarianship and publishing, might help to illuminate our understanding of how OST might be imagined within the context of human development and creativity.  Hoffman (2014), an academic librarian, has helpfully represented how this crossover can variously occur – in the form of the following Venn diagram. 

Here, the category ‘Fee-based/Not Open Source’ is positioned clearly some way outside of the openness arena. 

Dr Starr Hoffman, Geeky Artist Librarian Blog, Open Source vs. Open Access (vs. Free).  Reproduced with permission., 26/6/14, accessed 5/3/16

Making connections: developing communities of open source practice

As human beings, we need connection. It has always been assumed that this need is derived deep in our genes from our early existence as homo sapiens, when banding together was an essential for survival.  We are now beginning to understand that this need may reach deep into our nervous systems, affecting our very health and well-being. Recently, a fascinating article introduced us to Professor John Cacioppo’s research (2009) which demonstrates that the absence of social connection – i.e. loneliness – increases the odds of an early death by 20%.  As the brain reacts to compensate for the absence of felt connections, sleep deprivation is a consequence, and this affects adversely the functioning of the immune system.

According to Cacioppo, connection is a ‘felt’ state; it is not objectively defined. One in four human beings regularly feels lonely.  Some ‘felt’ loneliness may work like pain, reminding us to get connected.  However, if our loneliness becomes more chronic, then we lose our ability to empathise with others or show compassion, because of a heightened sense of vulnerability.  This leads to a vicious cycle of behavioural ‘battening down of the hatches’.  In view of Cacioppo’s findings, we’ve been wondering how, and in what circumstances, we can foster and support connection between people through practising OST. 

Embodying connection through open source practice

To recap, as editors, we have been asking ourselves over the last three years a fundamental question:  ‘What are the conditions needed for Open Source Thinking (OST), and how can we create them?’  Without the grounding that practice and actions gives, any discussion of OST runs the risk of becoming limited to theoretical constructs and arguments.  Especially when we met in Tostat in 2014 and began to dream of a Gathering to bring people together to work with OST, we were very clear that we wanted to experiment, to generate OST through and towards actions, not just to engage in discussion alone. And this seems to fit neatly with what we are learning in a broader and deeper sense.  We know that walking and meditation allow us to step outside our everyday existence and find freedom to embrace new possibilities.  We know that music can create an altered and focused state in which we can open up.  And surely, there is nothing more akin to ‘flow’, as described by Csikszentmihalyi, than the body and mind working together in dance, with the body leading. 

Open source praxis as embodied thinking

During our 2013 Brighton workshop, our co-host Patrick Finn used the phrase ‘embodied thinking’, and this seems to us to suggest an essential – though not exclusive – quality of open source praxis.  It draws upon a centuries-old tradition which is variously known in philosophy and science as ‘embodied cognition’ or ’the embodied mind thesis’.  In therapeutic and creative circles this has been called ‘embodied imagination’, and in psychosocial actor training it is often known as ‘physical theatre’ (Wikipedia).  What these notions have in common – a crossover strand – is that they challenge the dominance of a Cartesian dualism, which posits a distinct mind-body split.  The challenge of embodied praxis is that – far from being discrete ‘entities’ – ‘mind’ and ‘body’ influence,  interact with, and shape each other holistically (Thagard 2010).   As we understand it, embodied thinking emerges from a co-operation between what are commonly known as mind and body.  This cooperation constitutes an embodied dynamic which – in appropriate circumstances – enriches the quality and energy of thought, action and general creativity.

In this sense, therefore, embodiment can be understood as ‘a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling’ (Oxford  Moreover, open source thinking can thus be understood as a process that incorporates a dynamic of both … and, rather than either … or praxis, within a spirit of generosity, experimentation, improvisation and openness to sharing and constructive feedback.  As Thagard (op cit) argues, embodiment is ‘a useful extension to cognitive theories that explain thinking in terms of mental representations, but not an alternative theory’ (our emphasis).  Another way of putting it is that embodied thinking can be regarded as an aspect of ‘ways to think that value our lived experience.’ (antheosophia)

Overview of the articles

In their different ways, and from their different perspectives, all the authors in this edition have practised the ancient art of storytelling. Rosemary Cairns has chosen to feature the Canadian response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  She reflects on how organising this welcome and response has been so different in Canada, and on what that might be telling us about OST praxis.  Steve Ryman is a world traveller, in 2015 spending three months in Serbia working to support people seeking refuge.  His story is an eyewitness account, reflecting on themes of organisation and chaos, concluding with his own determination to remain open-hearted in disheartening circumstances.  Peter Hughes identifies trust as a core condition of OST, what we understand by trust, and the impact that social media may have on our willingness and ability to trust.  As human beings, he makes a plea for us to consider signing up to a trusting approach as a default position, even if trust is not yet initially established.

Andy Piasecki has undertaken crucial translation work for this edition, collaborating with our two French-speaking contributors (Hyacinthe and Aniela – see below) to present their work in both English and French.  He sees his role as contesting the boundaries of language and culture, inviting us to consider how important it might be for us to hone core skills of translating, interpreting and mediating when engaging in OST, and he draws attention to the presence of the unknown in this process.

Hyacinthe Garcia, one of our French-speaking contributors, introduces us to his own childhood experiences of migration from Spain to France during the Franco era.  His life at the edges of two cultures has brought him to see himself as a child of the world, and we learn how that journey – and the support of two significant critical friends – has shaped his development.  Aniela Piasecka is a Franco-Scottish dance and visual arts creator, now based in Scotland.  Her childhood migration to France led her to a keen interest in bodily expression and communication through dance, which a serious illness threatened to take away.  Her story centres on the mind-body connection, and on how she has incorporated into her work the learning she developed from experiencing illness.  Shona Lowe is a Counselling Therapist and a practising Quaker.  She explores the nature of connection – with both ourselves and with others – and reflects on ways in which we can help ourselves to become better connected.  She offers us an understanding of how her Quaker beliefs and Rogerian practice also underpin her work with groups and individuals.

Shelagh Doonan is a member of the AMED Writers Group, and a passionate, lifelong learner.  Taking the story of her own response to serious illness and the role that writing played in retaining connection with others, she describes the bridges between small actions and the larger consequences which that connection and praxis can create.  Alison Piasecka’s story of a recent 1000k walk through Spain looks at the relationships between effort, landscape, silence and movement in creating the conditions for reflection and learning.  The role of significant others is a central theme, and the connections that are thus created testify to the emotional power of endings and beginnings.  Last – but by no means least – Robert Gibson is an OD specialist and a jazz lover.  His story takes us from his first awakenings to rhythm (he is a drummer), improvisation, and getting it wrong and getting it right.  He connects us into patterns of connection and the ways in which music can foster expansiveness, adventurousness and creativity.

Under what conditions does OST stand a chance? Trusting the OST process

In this miscellany, we have endeavoured to pay attention to the notion of OST as a process – an activity and approach that allows us to bring our best to the world around us.  To act as if we trust, without waiting for trust to grow, allows us to engage better with the world and with others.  Under the right conditions, it fast-tracks us to a place where we can be generous and focus on growth, potential, and hope, rather than on cynicism and despair.  This is not to imply that we are all taking ‘happiness tablets’ and opting out of critical thinking and judgement. Not at all. The act of curating this edition is witness to that.  As editors, we have encouraged our authors and each other to write with truth, passion and clarity. This has required of us – in our capacity as critical friends – to engage with critical thinking, to look at the flow of an argument, and to indicate where we think an argument requires substantiation.  But we do this in a generous compact with authors (and with our readers and other practitioners) that starts out from our commitment to them and to each other.  Our intention is to facilitate the best expression possible of what it is that everyone wants to say. 

Addressing fears and anxieties

Jill Cirasella identifies common worries about such openness which early career academics often experience when considering how best to publish their findings.  In a very helpful slide show, she notes some recurring beliefs and fears, which include plagiarism, idea theft, copyright violation and premature public exposure.  To this list, which could well also apply to us as human developers, we might also add fear of loss of reward and recognition (financial, reputational, career advancement etc).  Hence, the practice of open source is predicated upon the development of trust and mutual regard.  Paradoxically, this is where human developers have a particular contribution to make. 

From her personal contact with Harrison Owen (op cit), Rosemary Cairns (personal communication, 16/3/16) also reminds us that another potential source of fear is the open space itself.  People do not always view a circle or the open as benign space.  Sensing this, as we have said, a facilitator of Open Space Technology will gravitate towards the place (grouping) where they feel most needed.  Open space, circumscribed by an ‘audience’ in a circle, becomes a form of improvised theatre, which enables people – if suitably facilitated – to move from fear and inhibition to ‘collaboration, confidence and creation’ (Applied Improvisation Network).  We recognise that , if OST is to gain wider credence and purchase, more work is required to identify and address such fears and anxieties.

Acting as if…..

The times in which we live may be far from ideal for the expression of OST practice as we understand it.  Countries are in financial turmoil and bankruptcy, borders are being walled up and closed, politicians are expressing views that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago when times were comparatively good.  Fear, desperation and hunger stalk many parts of the world.  Somehow, we need to reach out and make connections, to practise OST to sustain ourselves and to make a difference, however small, so that the world can be regarded as a place of human possibility.  It’s never been more needed than now.  And, even when we don’t know, we need to act wisely and ‘as if’’, in order to nourish ourselves and others.  

OST Workshop at the Brighton Friends’ Meeting House 2013, photo: Bob MacKenzie

Open source thinking – a commitment to principled generosity and action? 

‘Avoiding the bad means missing the good’

(Cirasella, op cit)

In our view, whilst acknowledging and addressing fears and risks, we must develop ways of enhancing open source praxis for the greater good of both the wider society and of ourselves as authors, developers, and readers. Wherever possible, we must engage in hopeful, sharing conversations and actions in individual, local and more global spheres. In his article, Peter Hughes enjoins us to overcome our fear of the other and adopt a default position of trust, acting generously as if this trust will not be abused or misused.   This seems to resonate with what Patrick Finn has called ‘loving communication’, and what we have termed ‘critical friendship.’ 

An invitation to our OST Gathering in Tostat, 9-12 September 2016

Tostat village (photo credit:

If you’re interested in finding out more about OST, or in helping to deepen our praxis, please get in touch, contribute to our Discussion Forum, or join us in Tostat for our Gathering in September 2016.

A question of attribution

As we have suggested, one of the challenges inherent in OST practice is how best to remain aware of and acknowledge the potentially multiple contributions to the development of an idea or practice, whilst giving due credit to their originators.  These contributions can emerge in varying degrees of significance, subtly or indirectly as well as obviously and overtly. We recognise that many people have contributed and are contributing in various ways to our OST project. Inevitably, some contributions will be more visible than others, such as those of the authors of the articles which appear in this edition, as well as those in the references we cite below.  Others are more subtle, invisible, less obvious.  Nevertheless, in their various ways, taken together, they are an essential part of the evolving creative process.  In that vein, we must thank David McAra for his excellent formatting and design work behind the scenes for this publication.  Rosemary Cairns offered very helpful suggestions when we were drafting this editorial, and also put us in touch with several people who eventually contributed an article for this edition.  Linda Williams and Julia Goga-Cooke, who co-edit our post-publication e-O&P Digests, and Ned Seabrook, who subsequently disaggregates individual articles, have also played their largely unseen part.  Patrick Finn stimulated us greatly in our OST Workshop in Brighton in 2013 and in subsequent correspondence, as did all the Brighton participants.  Dr Starr Hoffman generously allowed us to reproduce her Venn diagram that illustrates degrees of ‘openness’.  Others, too numerous to mention here by name, know who they are.  To everyone who has contributed, wittingly or unwittingly to our co-inquiry, we offer up our grateful acknowledgements, and invite your continuing participation.


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About Alison and Bob

Alison Piasecka is a labyrinth facilitator and garden designer, who now supports Tostat, where she lives, as it works to beautify corners of public space in the village. She worked previously in the UK and Europe as a business consultant, specialising, for more than 25 years, in organisational change and learning.  She can be contacted at

Bob MacKenzie is commissioning editor for e-O&P, and convenor of the AMED Writers’ Group.  He is also Professor of Management Learning with the IMCA Business School.  As an independent consultant, facilitator and writer’s friend, Bob has developed an abiding interest in the uses of writing and conversations for facilitating personal, management and organisational learning and development.   He has worked and travelled in Africa, India, Europe and the USA, and wrote his doctorate on ‘A Learning Facilitator’s Uses of Writing’.;

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