Through the Indigenous Knowledges Systems Lab, the thinking and historic wisdom of First Nations peoples is being embraced in an effort to seek solutions to the challenges we face today. By Jack Manning Bancroft.

The Indigenous Knowledges Systems Lab

A man with bleach blonde hair and a greying beard.
Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience chief executive Jack Manning Bancroft.
Credit: Benjamin Knight

We move.
We think.
We, now and again, stop.
And listen.

An Uncle – knowledge holder, systems thinker, lore holder, shepherd, custodian, translator – and I were sitting together a few weekends back. We were watching birds. He said, “Tell me, how does that king parrot know how to follow the other one on the same route, even though it’s 30 minutes later and the first king parrot is out of sight?”

Do they smell the pheromones? Is it vibrational? Is it memory? Generational? Patterns? What happens when one parrot changes course? Is it because of the weather, of the context shifting?

We sat and watched, and listened to the birds sing.

After we listen, do we know?

No, that takes maybe forever.

A constant dance, between you and me, between us all. Sense-making.

Today we vote, it could be a fast moment for you, but if you want, it can be a forever knowledge moment.

The ballots close, life doesn’t.

I sat in the Indigenous Knowledges Systems Lab recently with Tyson Yunkaporta, Josh Waters, Jodi Edwards and John Davis. The space looks at the big challenges in our lives today as flaws in the way systems are designed – everything from nature finance to landlessness. We look for solutions through an Indigenous lens – combining the world’s oldest lab with modern consulting strategy. We were looking at misinformation, thinking about lemonade curing headaches, about intentional times when knowledge is held back, about other times when a story is used to see who is for real.

Today when you vote, and then tomorrow when you wake, the question I want to ask is the question the Elders I’ve met smell out when they meet me – what will you do with the knowledge that is shared? Will you use it for your own hero moment? Will you take it into labs and then take it out of context? Will you run away and never come back? Maybe you’ll not use it, but dance with it, like a piece of paper in the wind between your hands, floating, magically holding a plane of wind in a space of time, your hands the energy, the paper the thread of an old tree. Maybe the knowledge will help you know more, help you be more intelligent, and maybe just maybe you and I will realise there is no you, only us. Us all. Eight billion people. Seven million species, 20 billion billion animals.

Maybe when we vote we think, hey, I say “Yes” to knowledge, to the hands of this very very long lab of human history reaching out, in spite of the many many many many many many times that people in this nation have taken that knowledge and used it in the wrong way – that maybe today, maybe today, we open another door, a deeper door, to knowing, to being, in relation.

Maybe that shirt you wear, if it’s a “Yes” shirt, maybe that shirt becomes a symbol that you see the climate challenges and are saying “Yes” to Indigenous systems thinking coming to the front of the design queue, maybe the “Yes” is something you are saying to yourself, “Yes” to me not being the expert who knows everything. Maybe the “Yes” is you saying, hey other humans, hey other animals, I don’t want to be stuck in this transactional loop anymore. I don’t want to be stuck in these network platforms that are advertising funnels that distract and divide, I don’t want to feel so alone when I’m meant to be connected. Maybe the “Yes” is you saying, Indigenous people of Australia, help us find our way to where we are meant to be as a species, back to being custodial in our relations, to being in between all the species, between then and now, between life and death, between today and tomorrow, help us design systems that can unleash the intelligence of everything everywhere all at once. Help us find that joy, help us find that peace, help us know.

Our plan after the vote happens is to launch a new digital country, a relational network called IMAGI-NATION, which has grown out of our work of the past two decades mentoring young adults. It’s a network of networks, shifting humanity from transactions to relations, drawing intelligence from outside the margins. It will be a lab to help repattern ourselves, to shape the systems change projects and tools to solve the challenges of our time in this critical decade. The genius comes in large part from the crew in the Indigenous Knowledges Systems Lab, from the 25,000 Indigenous kids we’ve kicked it with over the past 20 years, as we’ve been sharing knowledge with thinkers and systems leaders around the world. We know this nation, we know its soul, we are gonna be a stronger resource for national productivity if we are brought to the front of the consulting queue. We don’t need these big consulting groups with their big logos and their bigger phallic buildings, hailing from overseas and showing how many cities they’ve conquered.

You and me, we need that Uncle who knows how to speak to the birds, and we needed him more than 200 years ago.

Maybe your “Yes” is, hey Uncle, help us learn through the birds how to live on this earth before we burn ourselves to pieces.

Maybe you just like to be happy, maybe you like joy, maybe you like magic and deep song, maybe you wanna weave and laugh and flow and enjoy life. We got ya, we got that in abundance too.

Maybe this moment allows you to see the grace of these old people, these Uncles and Aunties of this nation, who shepherd Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun, who see us and have been waiting for when we are ready for them to share the knowledge we really need.

Maybe, just maybe, today we are ready.

And you know what, if the vote isn’t a “Yes” today, it is a yes when you say yes, that moment can be forged together, if you are willing to then act, to shift where we place our intelligence, to call on our Indigenous people as designers for all systems, not just as cultural consultants, as translators to all species, not as translators back to ourselves, to trade in our intelligence, not in never-ending, self-fulfilling despair narratives, to move intelligence back to us economically, to value our doctors, our mappers, our lore people and our ability to shepherd custodial economics. Maybe this “Yes” is the yes we need in this desperate decade, maybe just maybe we ain’t broke, we are rich – we just haven’t valued the richest resource this nation has, the oldest continuous surviving design knowledge lab on earth. MIT Media Lab, which is considered one of the most influential thought leadership and design labs on Earth, shaping systems, values and economies by fusing unlikely connections, is, like me, 38 years old. But I’m looking more than 60,000 years back for the design ideas for the next century.

Let’s make our “Yes” an economic yes in our homes, our workplaces, our local, our state, our federal governments. Let’s fuse it into our teams, our departments, our classrooms, our lessons. Let’s look at how we bring Indigenous knowledge to the base of the economic pyramid. That will be the greatest emancipation we can hope for – for every single human being and every single animal on Earth.

That’s the prize.

We move.
We think.
We, now and again, stop.
And listen.
And maybe, we know.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Intelligent design".

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