Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

The Big Rethink Part 10: Spiral Dynamics and Culture

As a key theory underscoring the still unfolding narrative of human evolution, Spiral Dynamics examines the complex interaction of culture and society

The last several decades have seen the emergence, across a number of fields, of modes of developmental thinking whereby species and eco-systems, people and cultures, and even consciousness are seen to evolve through identifiable developmental stages. This evolution through differentiated stages marks developmental thinking as different to modernity’s simpler, more purely linear, notion of progress. It also sorely offends postmodern taboos against rankings and hierarchy, which has probably slowed the spread and impact of developmental models to date, including its influence on architectural and urban thinking. Yet the evidence from empirical research supporting these proliferating developmental schema continues to mount, and for many their adoption is a key characteristic of 21st-century, trans-modern modes of thought, including Integral theory.

More generally, the last half century or so has seen the increasing adoption of − or at least advocacy for, rather than actual application of − ecological modes of analysis, sometimes referred to as joined-up thinking. These seek to understand phenomena in terms of their wider web of relationships, including the many dimensions of their multiple contexts − a contribution of the best of postmodern thinking. More recently, this ecological perspective is being increasingly complemented by an evolutionary one. This extends far beyond its Darwinian origins in biology to include cosmology and geology through to the human realms of history and technology, culture and psychology as well as modes of thought and meaning.1 In crude terms, our use of the quadrants of the AQAL diagram in earlier essays in this series, is a form of joined-up or ecological thinking, while evolutionary thinking introduces us to the levels.

Revisiting the AQAL matrix

Before continuing our discussion, it is as well to recap the bare bones of the AQAL (All Quadrant, All Level) diagram, particularly for new readers who have only recently started to follow these Campaign essays. The AQAL diagram provides a matrix in which all fields of knowledge can be plotted to show clearly the relationship of these fields one to another so that they can be drawn upon not only independently but also usefully integrated. Moreover, any organism, or collective of organisms, and all manmade systems manifest simultaneously in all four quadrants. These are defined by a pair of cross axes: the upper part of the vertical axis marking the realm of the individual, and its lower part that of the collective; left of this vertical axis, the horizontal axis marks the interior or subjective realm, and right of this vertical is the exterior or objective realm.

The four quadrants as applied to humans

The All Quadrant All Level (AQAL) diagram devised by Ken Wilber and central to Integral theory

The Right Hand quadrants, the realm of the sciences and nature, are referred to as monological, because knowable by detached observation alone; the Left Hand quadrants are dialogical, because knowable only by interrogating the experiencing, meaning-making subject/s. The Upper Left (UL) quadrant is thus the subjective realm of the I or self, of personal experience, psychology and intentionality. The Lower Left (LL) quadrant is thus the inter-subjective realm of We or culture, of worldview and meaning. The Upper Right (UR) quadrant is thus that of the objective realm of It, of biology, form and behaviour (action visible to the detached observer) and the Lower Right (LR) is the inter-objective realm of Its, of all systems: ecological and economic, sociological and technological, and so on.

Bisecting each quadrant are diagonals with the levels marked at regular intervals, rising progressively with distance from the crossing of the axes. These levels are organised holarchically, each level a holon that is whole in itself yet part of the holon on the next level up. So in the UR quadrant, an atom is whole that is part of a molecule, that is a whole and part of an organism, and so on. Also crucial is that a level of development in any quadrant is matched by a corresponding level of development in each of the other quadrants. Thus, for instance, increasing neurological complexity (UR quadrant) is matched by increasing psychological sophistication (UL quadrant), cultural development (LL quadrant) and social organisation (LR quadrant).

Using the quadrants as we have done in the earlier essays may have brought more completeness to our deliberations than characterises reductive modern thought. It also serves as a useful easy check to see what areas of knowledge and action have been overlooked during such deliberations, particularly as modern thinking tended to ignore the Left-Hand quadrants, most especially the Lower Left. But to focus merely on the quadrants is to perpetuate modern ‘flatland’ thinking that robs discussion of both the depths and the dynamism, and thus an even greater degree of completeness, that comes from drawing on the notion of levels, to which this essay is a very sketchy introduction. (Besides Quadrants and Levels, the AQAL diagram also charts what are termed Lines; but, important as these are, they will remain outside the scope of these introductory essays.)

It is the levels that chart evolutionary and developmental progression, thus placing phenomena in an expanded context. Ken Wilber’s apposite analogy is that to ascend the levels is like climbing a ladder, each rung up offering a different and broader perspective and greater depth of understanding, which includes all that gained on the lower rungs. More than that, though, the levels place phenomena in a much larger temporal context than do the quadrants because they reveal the evolutionary and historic past from which something has emerged and suggest the future towards which it is likely progressing. Implied here is not only dynamism, but also direction, a controversial notion much resisted by doctrinaire materialist Modernists for whom anything that hints at teleology is taboo. And yet any dispassionate look at evolution does suggest direction − towards higher levels of complexity and order, of consciousness and interconnectedness. Besides, as we shall see, using the levels deepens and broadens our understanding of architecture, not least by providing a yet greater degree of completeness than afforded by using the quadrants alone.

Architecture’s pragmatic and esoteric roots

Contemporary developmental schema particularly relevant to architecture have grown and evolved from several roots. But, before mentioning some of these, it is pertinent to remember that the training of architects (or rather their pre-modern equivalents) in many historic cultures, including Christian Europe through the medieval period and well into the modern era, was concerned not only with mastery of such pragmatic matters as construction; it also had an esoteric or occult component that was developmental in nature. Thus the medieval training of master masons, which inspired what became freemasonry, was concerned with the progressive psycho-spiritual development of the architect-initiate through levels known as degrees. The architect-initiate could then make use of sacred geometry − with its rules of proportion, number and form − and various forms of sacred or occult iconography to not only give depth to his architecture but also help people relate to the buildings at a deeper level, even if only subliminally, and so serve as a spur to their psycho-spiritual development.

Analysis of some aspects of how the plan of Chartres Cathedral is composed in accord with sacred geometryAnalysis of some aspects of how the plan of Chartres Cathedral is composed in accord with sacred geometry

Analysis of some aspects of how the plan of Chartres Cathedral is composed in accord with sacred geometry

Similar notions guided the training of architects in other religious traditions, such as the Sufis.Indeed, as explained in an earlier essay in this series, the very wellsprings of architecture lie as much in the creation of a physical setting that facilitated the development of people as in sheltering them. One such wellspring was in the choreography of ritual, in deploying a set of actions in different spatial locations so as to intensify the experience of them and take people into altered states and/or undeveloped parts of the psyche. Another, very similar source is the segregation of differing activities into separate spaces or rooms − shaped, lit and so on to enhance those activities − not only for functional convenience but so that activities could be experienced more intensely as part of the ongoing elaboration of culture, and of ourselves as complex cultured creatures. So not only styles but also the spatial deployment of activities differ with each cultural epoch charted by the levels in the Lower Left quadrant.

A key assumption behind these Campaign essays is that we are in a period of epochal transition and that the successful negotiation of this transition will entail profound cultural transformation such as constitutes a step-change elevation to the next cultural level. Moreover, to achieve this will require drawing on the various new modes of thought that have emerged in recent decades and that architects have too long ignored. In relation to our discussion here, a key precedent to many contemporary forms of developmental thinking are the writings of philosopher Jean Gebser (1905-73), particularly his book The Ever-Present Origin (published in German in various versions from 1949 to ‘53 and only appearing in English in 1985), which is prominent in the bibliography of books by many of today’s leading-edge thinkers. Gebser charted the development of the sequence of what he termed ‘structures of human consciousness’. These started with the Archaic structure when early humans or proto-humans still experienced themselves as completely part of, and in no way separate from, the world around.

This was followed by the Magic structure and the beginnings of symbolic thinking, although the symbol did not yet represent something but instead was thought to actually be that something. Then came the Mythic structure in which stories and myths gave structure to a consciousness that was progressively separating itself from the world around. This separation became complete with the progressive emergence, from the times of the beginning of civilisation as we know it onwards, of the Mental structure, characterised by its use of logic and the emergence of philosophy.

The Mental structure later entered what Gebser called its deficient form, the Rational structure, with the beginnings of modernity with its reductionist materialism - and the many benefits and downsides charted in earlier essays. He saw us now entering the Integral structure that both transcends the previous structures and, unlike them, adopts several points of view, including those of the previous structures of consciousness. It was Gebser’s use of the term Integral, as well as that of Indian philosopher-sage Sri Aurobindo, that led to its adoption by Ken Wilber for Integral theory.

Another crucial antecedent to Integral theory’s developmental schema, and from where too some of its terminology is taken, are the studies of the cognitive development of children by psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Since then there has been a proliferation of developmental schema, particularly those by psychologists, several of whom have influenced Integral theory or are now associated with it. Among others, these include the theories of Jane Loevinger (1918-2008) on ego development and those of Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-87, a follower of Piaget) on stages of moral development. Contemporary developmental psychologists closely associated with and influencing the continuing development of Integral theory include Robert Kegan and Susanne Cook-Greuter. Ken Wilber has charted all these developmental schema together and shown that − although their terminology differs, as do the number of levels differentiated − they are strongly correlated.

‘Spiral Dynamics charts the development of cultures through a rising, widening spiral of increasing complexity, because each culture envelops those preceding it’

Levels are discussed in relation to architecture in Part Two of the book Integral Sustainable Design2 by Mark DeKay, a very important work with much invaluable content that should already have become one of the key architectural handbooks of our time. But it is not a particularly easy or pleasurable read. And despite its already considerable length (450 pages) some of it is still too sketchily developed with many potentially promising themes listed in tables without adequate further explanation. We must thus look forward to an expanded and more developed edition, which will be bound to be a must-read and must-own volume for all architects and students. Here we touch upon only a few of the ideas in relation to levels, elaborating some of them in rather different ways to the book, which readers are strongly encouraged to consult also.

Characterising cultural epochs DeKay discusses levels in relation to four epochs: Traditional (pre-modern), Modern, Postmodern and Integral. (The first three of these are categories used by some market researchers, although postmodernists are given another name, such as Cultural Creatives.)3 He then gives examples for each quadrant of the shifts in understanding of a particular term in relation to each of these levels. But first he tabulates the changes at each level in what we would currently term the practice of architecture. Thus in the Traditional era, design and building were executed within ‘Guild Traditions’, the Modern era is that of ‘Independent Professionalism’, Postmodernity is characterised by ‘Pluralistic Practices’ and the Integral era will be that of ‘Responsive Networks’.

Although we can guess what is meant by these terms, they are not adequately explained and elaborated upon. Thus Guild Traditions built very much in response to the immediate local conditions of the site using local materials and reworking traditional typologies. This would inevitably result in a sense of embeddedness, harmony and organic unity commensurate with the Great Chain of Being that constituted the Premodern worldview. But in the Modern era architecture became an independent profession, pursuing a rational approach to solve problems de novo without relying on traditional typologies and abandoning as redundant recognisable rhetorical motifs derived from the past, along with all ornament. This, together with the correlated worldview that subscribed to the notion of an objective reality, is what caused the world to fragment into unrelated objects to which we cannot relate either. By applying the conscious mind alone to architecture we lost the once effortlessly unconscious art of making highly satisfying architecture and cities. Pluralistic Practices suggests that the monoculture of simple consensual certainties underscoring the modern professional’s approach to architecture is replaced by the multiple narratives, theories and approaches of postmodernity. Responsive Networks suggests a re-grounding of architecture in the dynamic and living networks that make up our world.

The book then discusses an aspect of each quadrant in relation to each of the four levels. So in the UL quadrant DeKay tabulates the different ways that, as he sees it, the experience of architecture is mediated at each level. Although I have much sympathy for what he has formulated, I do not entirely agree with it and so omit further discussion. For the LL quadrant he discusses the various ways Nature is understood at each cultural level (and so is a cultural artefact, hence the capitalised N). In the Traditional era he describes Nature as ‘managed’, not a particularly satisfactory term, although the point he makes about Nature (or at least the land) as being husbanded as a sacred trust to preserve and enhance its bounty for future generations is an important one.

This is particularly so as it contrasts profoundly with the Modern view of ‘Nature Used’, as a resource to be exploited (and severely damaged through monoculture, chemical fertilisers and so on) with little thought for future generations. The Postmodern era is characterised as ‘Nature Saved’, which expresses the view of Nature as a victim of modernity’s extractive ethos and of the preservation ethic that is emerging as a reaction to this. The Integral attitude is described as ‘Nature United’ and draws attention to what at first seems one of the most mindboggling − and even, to many, such as deep ecologists, offensive − notions in Integral theory: this is that Nature is embedded in culture in a holarchic relationship. Thus for the Traditionalist, culture is embedded in Nature, while for the Modernist, Nature and culture are differentiated. For the Postmodernist, Nature and culture are either dissociated and separate (the radical deconstructivist view) or culture is again embedded in Nature (the web of life systems view). But for the Integralist, Nature is embedded in culture, which, although entirely dependent on Nature, belongs to a higher and more inclusive level. The Noosphere transcends and includes the Biosphere − mindboggling but irrefutable.

For the UR quadrant the different attitudes to technology are discussed in relation to each level, from the ‘Embedded Practices’ of Traditional, through ‘Building Science’ of Modernity and Cyclic Analogues of Postmodernity to ‘Responsive Structures’ of Integral. And in the LR quadrant the systems discussed range from the Tacit Systems of the Traditionalist through Logical and Complex systems of the Modernist and Postmodernist, respectively, to the Living Systems of the Integralist. These discussions are too rich and important to be summarised and like much else in the book take the discussion of sustainable design to an unprecedented level of inclusiveness and rigour. Anybody interested in the subject, and that should be all architects and students, is urged to read the book.

Also powerfully pertinent to architects and urban designers working on large-scale urban projects and housing developments, the subject of the last two essays in this series and towards which this one is a stepping stone, are the insights provided by Spiral Dynamics. This is a theory of cultural development through levels (LL quadrant) with inevitable correlates in the psychological development of individuals (UL quadrant). Among other reasons Spiral Dynamics is so useful is that it recognises that, although the current era falls within the waning tail end of the modern epoch and the transitional one of postmodernity, the population of most modern countries is spread across a considerably wider and richer range of co-existing levels of cultural development. It thus provides, in a way that is invaluable to designers and policy makers, a much deepened understanding of the world views and values of the members of all the subgroups of society, so that these can be recognised and properly catered for, while also facilitating mobility through such cultural levels.

Origins of Spiral Dynamics

Spiral Dynamics grew out of the work of Clare Graves (1914-86), a professor of psychology who proposed a Level Theory of Personality in 1966. This was further developed by his protégé Don Beck, working with Chris Cowan, into what has become known as Spiral Dynamics in the book of that name,4 which again readers are encouraged to study as it is so much richer than the following too-brief synopsis of some themes. As the name implies, Spiral Dynamics − a theory that meshes exactly with Integral theory and the AQAL diagram5 − charts the development of cultures through a rising, widening spiral of increasing complexity, not least because each culture envelops those preceding it as healthy resources to be called upon if situations demand it. The cultural levels − or valueMEMES, now more usually simply called memes − are colour-coded (which takes many some time to get used to, but after a while feels quite natural) and oscillate between those that prioritise the individual and those that emphasise the collective. A key assumption of Spiral Dynamics is that it is not possible for a culture or individual to skip a level of development and that all memes must be passed through, even if only relatively fleetingly. Also, just as in biology ontogeny (the growth of an individual) recapitulates phylogeny (the evolution of its species), so with Spiral Dynamics as the human child grows up and matures into adulthood it recapitulates the development through the memes. Along with the notion of memes, which immeasurably enriches our understanding of cultural dynamics, this recapitulation by each developing individual is hugely useful to inform the design of housing and urban areas, but has so far been little researched and theorised.


The first of the memes is Beige, also referred to as SurvivalSense, and corresponds with Gebser’s Archaic structure, in which there is little sense of self as small bands cooperating to ensure basic survival and action is guided largely by instinct. At times of extreme shortages and threat, humans might still retreat to this level, correlated with that of the helpless new-born infant. Although such bands might seek safety and shelter in caves and under overhangs, this is a pre-architectural level. The next meme is Purple, that of the tribe and KinSpirits, and Gebser’s Magic structure, in which thinking is animistic and magical, attributing powers to sacred and symbolic objects and starting to observe the cycles of seasons, customs and rites of passage.

Purple: KinSpirit meme of magical thinking epitomised by handprints sprayed on a cave wall

Purple: KinSpirit meme of magical thinking epitomised by handprints sprayed on a cave wall

The communitarian, clannish Purple meme is seen by some as living in harmony with nature, while others say the tribe lives in fear of nature whose spirits have to be constantly propitiated. In architectural terms settlements typically show little, if any, differentiation in the size and status of dwellings, which may be communal.With the Egocentric Red meme, that of the PowerGods, and Gebser’s Mythic structure, we return to an emphasis on the individual, on strength and self-expression.

Red: PowerGods meme of might is conveyed by a dominant castle from the feudal Middle AgesRed: PowerGods meme of might is conveyed by a dominant castle from the feudal Middle Ages

Red: PowerGods meme of might is conveyed by a dominant castle from the feudal Middle Ages

Here we move from magic to machismo, to the adulation of heroes and the elevation of war lords, and eventually to the divine rights of kings and feudalism. The architectural manifestation might start with an enlarged or central chief’s hut and eventually lead on to the dominant castle or palace in a walled town or city. In child development, the Red meme is reflected in the spirit of physical adventure, when the child explores his or her own physical capacities and the world around. This is particularly poorly catered for in the modern city, where excessively cautious Health and Safety regulations make it difficult for children to explore and stretch their physical capacities in tree climbing, rough and tumble and so on, and where it is considered unsafe for children to roam and explore the city, let alone just walk to school. The Red meme thus manifests later and pathologically in gang culture.

Blue: TruthForce meme typified by the Sacro Convento monastery and church of St Francis that dominates Assisi, Italy

Blue: TruthForce meme typified by the Sacro Convento monastery and church of St Francis that dominates Assisi, Italy

The next meme to arise is Blue, of TruthForce or the Purposeful way, that values stability and the order arising from strong codes of conduct in which individuality is subsumed to the pursuit of larger causes or truths. In particular, this meme is associated with monotheistic Religions of the Book − Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as Confucianism − with righteous living and sacrifice of the self to the Way and deferred rewards. Architecturally this meme is distinguished by the dominant religious buildings that eclipse, or at least equal, the grandeur of secular buildings such as palaces. Although liberal intellectuals, dogmatic scientists and postmodernists tend to look down upon and disregard the Blue meme, it still has an important socialising role to play for the developing child, and it is little wonder that the route out of Red meme gang culture is so often through evangelical Christianity or other authoritarian Blue meme institutions. Modernity arrives with the Strategic Orange meme of StriveDrive that emphasises self-reliant, success-oriented and competitive individuals, committed to the notion of progress, and to science, technology and rational thinking as means of achieving the good life of material abundance. The increasingly meaningless abstract grid, which underlies all the plans of JNL Durand (1760-1834) and then dominates the gridded plans and facades of corporate Modernism, is the apt architectural manifestation, just as the associated city becomes a mere chess board of economic opportunity. Postmodernity follows with the Relativistic Green meme of the HumanBond that rejects dogma and divisiveness in favour of empathy and sensitivity, and the pursuit of consensus and harmony. This is also the meme of political correctness and the inability to prioritise and act effectively, of impotence in the face of mounting global problems, as well as of endless meetings seeking the opinions and input of all. The pluralism of Postmodern architecture is exactly apt to this meme. The ‘caring and sharing’ psychological character associated with the Green is one that respects everyone’s opinion, and every theory or concept, as equally valuable - until one’s own is questioned and the tendency is to regress to a narcissistic Red: ‘who are you to question me?’

Orange: StriveDrive meme of modern rationality

Orange: StriveDrive meme of modern rationality Orange: StriveDrive meme of modern rationality

‘Subsistence’ versus ‘Being’ memes

These first six memes constitute what is called the First Tier of ‘Subsistence’ memes. Each was a healthy response to the life conditions of the time in which the meme emerged and all of the memes continue to exist today, both in cultures and subcultures, or as a resource in the psyches of individuals. For instance, there are times when it is entirely healthy for someone from a higher meme to regress to Red assertiveness. Although the Red meme is also found there in gang culture and some extremes of nationalism and religious fundamentalism, Blue, Orange and Green remain the dominant memes in North America and Europe, with Blue more pronounced in the United States than in most of Europe, and Green more pronounced in Northern Europe. A major problem today when coordinated action is so urgently needed is that each of these memes only really understands its own worldview, which is considered the only legitimate one. Other memes, even if tolerated, are seen as essentially wrong. Hence Blue meme fundamentalists, very much a minority group within the meme, regress to Red because they are threatened by Orange selfish individualism and appalled at the moral laxity of hyper-relativist Green. Compounding the resultant problems of communication and achieving consensus, each meme is underpinned not just by sometimes contrasting values, but this is reflected in distinctly differing, if sometimes seeming subtly so, use of language. Furthermore, all these First Tier memes are either egocentric or ethnocentric, and not as yet world-centric, so progress towards such things as global peace, equity and stability, as well as sustainability, is extremely difficult while most people are stuck in First Tier memes.

Green: HumanBond meme characterised by Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer

Green: HumanBond meme characterised by Herman Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer


Fortunately a Second Tier of world-centric ‘Being’ memes is emerging, if both dangerously late and under-represented. Although they constitute only a very tiny proportion of the world’s population, the first two have already been identified and tentatively described. Initiating the Second Tier is the Yellow, FlexFlow or Systemic meme that is grounded in understanding and accepting the inevitability of nature’s flows, cycles and regenerative capacities, and which wants to open up to ‘experience the fullness of living on an Earth of such diversity in multiple dimensions’. This is followed by the Turquoise, GlobalView or Holistic meme, where there is not only an understanding of the dynamic, evolutionary unfolding of nature and culture but you become part of this larger, conscious, spiritual whole where everything is interconnected as a single dynamic organism with its own collective mind. With these memes Newton’s clockwork, meaningless and purposeless universe has been replaced by the evolving, living and creative universe that evokes reverence, and the urge to be a responsible participant and agent of its unfolding. Consistent with this view, sustainability is seen not in terms of constraints and sacrifices but as an inspiring vision of a much more purposeful and fulfilling life. Significantly, psychometric testing shows that Second Tier memes are without the persistent anxieties and fears that characterise the First Tier ones. Now there is speculation that the next, Coral meme is beginning to emerge, but it still too soon to say much about it.


Yellow: FlexFlow meme underscores the Eastgate Centre, Harare, Zimbabwe which biomimetically emulates the ventilation ‘strategy’ of a termite’s nest

Yellow: FlexFlow meme underscores the Eastgate Centre, Harare, Zimbabwe which biomimetically emulates the ventilation ‘strategy’ of a termite’s nest

‘The rich insights of Spiral Dynamics help designers understand how to better serve any of the memes, so making for more satisfied and more stable societies’

Further key characteristics of Second Tier memes are not only that they are world-centric, with both the necessary ‘big picture’ overview and temperament to solve urgent global problems such as progressing towards sustainability, but that those at these levels are what are known as SpiralWizards. What is meant by this term is that, in contrast to First Tier memes, such people are not trapped in the worldview of their own meme but, rather, can both appreciate the worldviews of other memes and also communicate in language appropriate to its narrower worldview based on other fundamental values. Thus when communicating with the Red meme, with its preference for instant gratification, ‘what’s in it for you’ will be stressed in strong simple language. But with the Blue meme, and its tendency to delayed gratification, duty and honour would be emphasised along with tradition, propriety and righteousness. With the materialist Orange meme, discussion would be about competitive advantage, better profits and productivity, quoting experts and scientific evidence. And with the Green meme, gentle language would be used with imagery from nature, and belonging, sharing and harmony would be stressed.

These characteristics and communication skills allow the Second Tier memes to deal much more effectively with the complex and urgent problems that overwhelm the intellectual and character resources of First Tier memes. Devising ways to speed the development of people up to the Second Tier memes should obviously be a priority of everyone engaged in creative pursuits, such as creating video games or television series, as well as of personal coaches and therapists. Even more obviously, it should also be a primary priority of education, particularly that of tertiary education, and in particular that of those who are to be environmental designers of various sorts. But the dominance in academe of the Green meme with its postmodern hyper-relativist ethos continues to be a major block to such progress, for reasons discussed in the essay on education (AR October 2012). It could also be, that just as each meme is a healthy response to the life conditions in which it arose (but may become problematic when those life conditions change) as well as a healthy resource to be called up by higher memes, advance to the Second Tier memes will be helped by rebuilding some foundations in the First Tier. Although Integral thinkers are rightly wary of regression to lower levels that are mistaken for higher levels, what they call the ‘Pre-/Trans Fallacy’, Second Tier reverence for an evolving nature will probably be aided by the knowingly cultivated resurrection of a Purple meme (Magical sensibility) and Red meme (Mythic one). In the same way, advancing out of Green meme relativism might be helped by the recovery of a bit of Blue meme discipline.

Thus the power and usefulness of Spiral Dynamics lie in much more than helping progress to higher memes to help achieve sustainability and so on. Its rich insights help designers understand how to better serve any of the memes, so making for more satisfied and more stable societies. I remember once in Africa being shown housing designed by Orange meme technocrats for people who retained strong Purple meme tribal roots. Despite its conveniences and comfort, it did not suit its inhabitants, for whom there were no suitably formed and located outdoor communal living areas, nor places for the ritual slaughter of animals and so on. An argument then polarised over whether the housing should be designed to be ‘aspirational’, encouraging inhabitants to adopt modern urban living patterns, or be closely tailored to tribal ways. The latter, it was argued, would be ‘patronising’ and also inhibit residents from changing their lifestyles in their own time, as well as soon becoming obsolete because unsuited to future generations. But the insight of Spiral Dynamics is that to design for either of these poles exclusively would be unsatisfactory, not least because it is very unlikely the inhabitant will make the leap directly from Purple to Orange meme. Instead the housing should have been designed to suit the Purple and Orange memes, and all those in between, so as to allow the residents to develop as they chose and at their own pace.6 Spiral Dynamics is also proving invaluable in unlocking highly conflicted situations, where perhaps several different memes consider they have the right to use a piece of land, say, but each meme has a very different view of what use it should be put to. In such cases, a skilled SpiralWizard can intervene so that the memes start to understand and respect each other and eventually a solution can be found that works for everybody.

As should be obvious, Spiral Dynamics offers profound insights to guide urban design and large-scale architectural projects in complex, multicultural (multi-meme) societies. Yet the experience of some of those using it is that it has to be used with caution, and can provoke difficult misunderstandings. Asserting that Spiral Dynamics sees all memes as healthy and life sustaining, and apt to the conditions in which they arose and which may still persist, can be to no avail. Once people realise they have been categorised in a system of levels in which they are not at the top, they might feel demeaned, become uncooperative or argue vehemently to prove they are of a higher level meme. There are also contexts in which extremely bizarre conversations can be overheard that make no sense at all, until you realise people are trying to prove they do not belong to a particular meme, usually Green. And there are those who object to their religion being classified as Blue meme, rather than an exalted higher meme, and are particularly threatened by the notion that to move into a new epoch in which achieving sustainability becomes feasible involves redefining for our times, drawing on all the knowledge now available, what it is to be fully human. The answer to this is complex, not least because to be fully human involves including all memes within the psyche, but also because although many of the major religions arose with the Blue meme they all include strains of mystics, thinkers and writers within them at all subsequent, higher memes. A perfect example was the Passionist priest, cultural historian and eco-theologian Thomas Berry (1914-2009), who definitely belonged to a Second Tier meme, most probably Turquoise, as did the Jesuit priest, palaeontologist and philosopher who inspired him, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). And it was Thomas Berry who argued most passionately and cogently that achieving sustainability involves redefining what it is to be fully human.7

The two final essays in this series will give a small insight into some of the implications of this for the design of cities and urban areas.

Click here to read Part 11.


1. Recent publications include Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea by Carter Phipps, Harper Perennial, 2012, and Evolution’s Purpose: an Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of our Origins, by
Steve McIntosh, Select Books, 2012.
2. Integral Sustainable Design: Transformative Perspectives by Mark DeKay, Earthscan, 2011.
3. The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World by Paul H Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, Harmony Books, 2000. Here the population of the USA is classified as Traditionalist or Conservative, Modernist or Progressive, and Cultural Creatives whom the authors say are creating an Integral or Transmodern culture. But as they use the term, it is closer to Postmodernity than what Wilber means by Integral, a term many are now using with slightly different meanings.
4. Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change by Don Edward Beck and Christopher C Cowan, Blackwell, 1996.
5. See A Theory of Everything: an Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality by Ken Wilber, Shambhala, 2000.
6. Somewhat similar thinking informed the advice given by some members of the Spiral Dynamics community to the USA prior to the invasion of Iraq, but it was disastrously ignored. The argument offered was that prior to Saddam Hussein, Iraq had been largely Blue meme with an emerging Orange meme. But under Hussein, although it remained strongly Blue it also regressed to the Red meme of warlords and Purple tribalism. In such circumstances it would be impossible to impose Orange-Green democracy without passing through a healthy Blue, and largely theocratic stage. Instead of alienating the mullahs, the Americans should have worked with them
to keep the country stable and allow a smoother transition towards modernity and democracy.
7. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future by Thomas Berry, Harmony Books, 2000.

Related files

Readers' comments (3)

  • Christopher Cooke

    John, This is a great article. Just to let you know that we are offering Integral Theory and Practise training in the UK based upon the origins of Spiral Dynamics (1996), the Work of Clare W Graves (1978), and later developments in Spiral Dynamics known as Spiral Dynamics Integral (1998). New work is emerging in 2013. Best regards. Christopher Cooke UK 0207 1930051

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Fairly and clearly presented. Nice work John. Two points to add: 1) Objectivity re ones own thoughts and feelings only begins to emerge in Orange, sig more in Green, and at full capacity in Yellow. Explains incapacity to understand/accept other vMeme orientations, esp at Blue and below. 2) Developmental Level theories emerged as the human capacity for Multi-Perspectival Thinking (MPT) emerged. MPT is the capacity that makes it possible to generate a many level, many quadrant, view.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • In order to reach each person on each continent I would advocate a simple use of the hands to illustrate the 10 levels that humanity is settling into.
    Left thumb a person
    Right thumb all people
    The 8 fingers are the stages between
    The left hand must be self determining
    for more info

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.