U.Lab @ IHB – Navigating Collective Intelligence
7 January 2016 - Impact Hub Berlin

Guest blog post by Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis

From 10 September to 10 November 2015, Impact Hub Berlin hosted a weekly hub meetup called U.Lab @ IHB for co-learning and exchange in the framework of MIT and Edx’s MOOC U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self. After having coordinated and co-hosted this effort, Sarina reflects on 2 months of co-sensing, sense-making, and prototyping – and the road leading up to it.

Taking the Plunge

It’s a bright Sunday in June and I’m just relaxing at home when I receive a WhatsApp message from Vishal Jodhani, our Master Community Catalyst at Impact Hub Berlin: “You’ll never guess who I’m with right now.” He is texting me from Impact Hub’s Unlikely Allies Summit 2015 in Cluj-Napoca. “I’m with Otto Scharmer and Adam Yukelson!” I can’t believe what I’m reading: is he kidding me?! I had just completed the first U.Lab MOOC earlier in the year and I had been raving about it to anyone who would listen. Knowing that I am a big fan of their work, Vish had thought of me right away when he joined the master class on Theory U offered at the summit. “Wow! I’m SO jealous right now!” I immediately texted back. But I have to admit: I also did a little happy dance. If this had caught Vishal’s attention, that meant I had an awesome partner in crime at the hub for bringing Theory U to our community. And how right I was! Before I knew it, we were welcoming Adam to our humble monthly U.Lab Meetup in Berlin, and receiving tips from him on how we could apply Theory U principles to a hub event. Moreover, Vishal offered me the chance to host and coordinate the meetup for U.Lab @ IHB. So, off we were!

What is this Theory U you speak of?

This might be a good point to briefly touch on Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, which is actually not just a theory, but also offers a framework and a method for transformation in individuals and collectives. In addition to providing tools and a process for transformation, it rests on a foundation of how it understands the root causes of our current global challenges. Among other things, it identifies 3 disconnects: between Self and Planet (ecological divide), Self and Other (social divide), and Self and Self (spiritual divide). As you might expect, the Theory U process and tools are targeted towards bridging those divides and moving from what it refers to as Ego awareness – acting in the interest of me (little self) – to Eco awareness – acting in the interest of the whole (big Self).

For an introduction to the online course and an impression of the basic starting point for the theory, you can watch Otto’s introductory video on YouTube. The framework’s holistic approach to transformation has proven both overwhelming – due to the sheer number of tools, platforms and practices, not to mention the vastness of its scope – and incredibly powerful, as it brings deep listening and a keen level of awareness into areas where this is usually not emphasized. Theory U taps into our collective intelligence and wisdom, and as such definitely features as a potential game changer in organisations and society at large.


Well, then, what is U.Lab? Basically, this is the Massive Open Online Course that provided a total of over 35,000 people worldwide with access to recorded and live lectures on Theory U, reading materials, tools, meditations, Social Presencing Theatre practices, online discussion and interaction forums, offline coaching circles, and offline hub meetups. U.Lab @ IHB offered 2 kinds of meetups for Berlin participants of the online course:

1) a weekly Tuesday Meetup with members to practice and make sense of the material, and;

2) 4 open streaming sessions of the Live Lectures on fixed dates (the last of which will take place on 17 December).

The latter was open to anyone upon pre-registration. In total we had 75 registrations, 30 of which signed up for the weekly Tuesday Meetups.


Making the What the How

During the preparation phase for U.Lab @ IHB, I was having a chat with Belina Raffy – who, among many other things, teaches stand-up comedy for social entrepreneurs – when she touched on how important it would be to “make the What the How”. This struck me right away, as she had formulated so aptly what I was trying to do. How do you take the content and that which you want to achieve, the What, and apply it to the design and set-up of the organisation, the How?

I thus aimed to take the U process itself as the method for designing and conducting the meetups. Of course, I did not have to tackle this challenge by myself. We had a radiant group of co-facilitators working on this together, namely Benjamin Kafka, Christine Wank, Manuela BoschWiebke Koch and myself. Moreover, we had the committed support from Vishal for all things Impact Hub, Nara Pais for logistics/space set-up (with the support of Matt Beer, Bettina Hartlich and Tom Bley), and Jana Wehling and Ursel Biester for social media. Wiebke also made signs together with Naho Iguchi, which were so very helpful in the weekly meetups. Thus we already had our core tribe for making these sessions happen; all that was left, was to prototype our format.

Co-sensing & Prototyping

The prototyping phase in U.Lab is all about failing early to succeed sooner. So we probably could have anticipated the constructive feedback we stumbled into around week 3. As is usually the case with these kinds of meetups, the gathering had somewhat thinned out and a core group of committed individuals had begun to form. Although the sessions so far were fun and interesting, by week 3 it was becoming clear that there was something missing from the dynamic in the group. It was hard to get a sense of what everyone was working on and a kind of tension was clearly present. However, as a host, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was exactly.

I decided to do 2 things: 1) create a Weekly Newsletter to mirror the group back to itself and recap our collective progress week-by-week, and; 2) do a pulse check during the meetup, by way of I like, I feel, I wish… These turned out to be good calls, as the pulse check surfaced valuable feedback: many questions and things that had been unclear to the group. Our energy as facilitators had mainly been focused on covering the vast amount of new material in the first weeks, while allowing the group to get acquainted with one another, plus with their projects or interests. It was now obvious to all of us: a 2-hour meetup did not give us enough time to do either one of those things properly, let alone to co-create the meetup.

Collective Ownership

The week 3 meetup also sparked a discussion of collective ownership. Although we had already said that the hub was meant to be a collective effort that everyone was invited to co-create, in practice this had not hit home in the group. We were clearly taking on too much of a facilitating role and less of a space holding one, which could have encouraged participants more to take co-ownership and bring in their own ideas. Therefore, we went on to navigate what collective ownership could look like, and how to create space for it.

From this week on, the energy in the group seemed to shift. Everybody had gotten a chance to voice their opinion and understood that there was space to bring in more of themselves. As a host, I also noticed that I relaxed more and let go of my own sense of control. I had to learn to trust the power of the whole for the development of our collective journey. There was now more sharing going on and we made the outlines for the meetups less rigid. More sharing was going on and various prototypes eventually emerged, such as: a co-learning platform, eco-packaging ideas, a juice business, a sustainable fabrics venture, a yoga & awareness course/centre, etc. Check out the archive of U.Lab @ IHB Newsletters to see the reports of the meetups.

Movement Building

For all of the above and so much more, this was a profound learning experience for many of us. Finding new ways to navigate group experiences, to tap into collective intelligence, and to listen and provide feedback to each other and ourselves – it has been a beautiful ride! And now – a few weeks after our final meetup, and roughly one week before the final live session – the group has truly evolved into a self-organising and self-initiating movement. In fact, some of our members have gone out into Berlin and co-evolved the U.lab movement far beyond our meetups. How powerful is that?!

Curious about U.lab in Berlin? Here are some recommended links:

– Archive of the U.Lab @ IHB Newsletters

FB group of the members initiating U.Lab meetup ideas in Berlin, plus their Contact List

– Check out the Presencing Institute for more Theory U-related information and global


3 blog posts I wrote about my personal experience with U.Lab @ IHB

See you for the next round of U.Lab!

Love & Light,