Meeting my better self

An experiment with an AI-powered digital avatar

Philippe Vandenbroeck
10 min readJun 1, 2023
Midjourney image generated by myself on the theme of ‘meeting my better self’

I love data of all sorts and it is a great source of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure to be able to sense, alone or in collaboration with others, meaningful patterns in them. I guess that is one of the systemic sensibilities that anchors my systems-thinking-in-practice.

My valued team member Santiago Ortiz has always been keen to play along in these games of pattern recognition. Together we developed useful, playful and beautiful data-driven tools to deepen and widen the scope of clients’ strategic conversations. With the arrival of generative AI we feel the design space for these kinds of tools is expanding. Probably they are fundamentally changing in nature too. They are growing into agents that actively participate in the sense-making process.

As one of our first forays in this new territory we set out to create a digital avatar of myself. I delivered a mix of around 50 texts written over the past years for various purposes and Santiago embedded this corpus in the semantic universe of ChatGPT. It is now possible to query a limited version of my ‘exobrain’. In a separate piece Santiago discusses the technical background to this experiment.

Screenshot from the application built by Santiago Ortiz

Here is a set of questions submitted to my digital alter ego and ‘my’ unedited responses. I am adding a short comment after each Q&A. Some questions were submitted twice and the answers differ. In the conversation we move from the more technical to the more personal realm.

How do you define systems thinking?

Systems thinking is not just a set of ideas about how we frame our relationship with the world and conceptualize the intelligence that maintains our structural coupling with that world. It is a way of acting and being in the world, a practice that goes beyond just thinking. Systems practice, or systems-thinking-in-practice, involves acting upon these ideas in the real world and bringing systems science/theory and systems thinking together in an evolving, reflexive practice of learning, and a meta-practice of learning to learn. At its core, systems thinking is about understanding the patterns that connect all living creatures and the mental processes that maintain their viability and integrity in a dynamic environment, which can be described as a process of learning.

Comment: I think this is pretty good as an elevator speech!

What is soft systems thinking? (iteration 1)

Soft systems thinking is a fundamentally different approach to dealing with complexity and confusion than the traditional hard engineering approach. The goal is not to engineer systems, but rather to organize exploration of complex situations as a learning system. Soft systems methodology provides a set of principles for constructing models relevant to problematic situations, but these models are not blueprints or representations of truth. Soft systems thinking is a way of acting and being in the world, and goes beyond thinking to become systems tinkering or systems thinking in practice. It is a practice of learning and a meta-practice of learning to learn, sustained through social and collaborative processes.

Comment: Again an excellent and compact presentation of the core principles underlying SSM. I just wished ‘I’ would have added a sentence on what the role of these models is in an SSM-led inquiry process.

What is soft systems thinking? (Iteration 2)

Soft systems thinking is a way of collectively learning to act and improve complicated situations by organizing exploration of them as a learning system rather than viewing them as systems to engineer. It is a set of principles that provide a powerful playbook to construct models relevant to problematic situations, not of problematic situations. The approach is called “soft” because it contrasts with a “hard” engineering approach and deals with complexity through a “soft | systems approach” that relies on sensibility and a distinctive language to articulate systems insights. In practice, it is a way of acting and being in the world that brings together systems science/theory and systems thinking to create an evolving and reflexive practice of learning.

Comment: Another fine rendering. However, the latter half of the response is perhaps a bit muddled. In a test I would grade this somewhat lower than the result presented in iteration 1.

What steps do I need to follow to build a good systems map?

To build a good systems map, it is crucial to carefully consider its intended purpose and align its requirements accordingly. This involves reflecting on the number and nature of variables and linkages to ensure a clear communication of the causal architecture, while also incorporating real-world evidence and potential simulation models. Additionally, it is important to articulate a guiding question that meaningfully connects future exploration with current strategic challenges. By engaging in a root-cause analysis and focusing on nodal variables and core loops, a systems map can serve as a flexible platform to tackle wicked problems and develop a range of game plans. However, this versatility comes at a price and requires careful thinking and tinkering to achieve a workable approach that enhances the perceived quality of the end product by its users.

Comment: Hmm, not so good. While the para includes lots of sensible elements it remains too generic and does not offer a clear step-by-step guideline to construct a systems map. ‘My’ emphasis on careful scoping of a mapping effort is a very good point, however.

What do you think about artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a complex and multifaceted topic that requires a systems thinking approach. While it offers convenience and efficiency, there are concerns about the impact it may have on society. The tension between expanding discourse on AI and constraining reality must be addressed, as the hard work of capacity building and collective inquiry is necessary to fully understand the potential risks and benefits of this technology. As a cheerful scientist, I am committed to creating spaces for life to unfold in a way that respects all life-forms, and AI must be considered in this context. We must approach AI with imagination and critical perspective, aware of our own biases and limitations, to ensure that it is developed and implemented in a way that benefits humanity and the planet as a whole.

Comment: Intriguing but fitting that ‘I’ am approaching AI here as a life-form amongst others.

Do you have a favorite traveling destination?

As a systems thinker with interests in philosophy, music, economy, and the environment, I find it challenging to choose a single favorite traveling destination. Each destination offers a unique experience and provides an opportunity to explore different cultures and environments. Whether it is the rugged terrain of the Valle Maggia or the spectacular Alpes Maritimes, each place offers a chance to disconnect from the daily grind and rediscover the beauty of the world around us. For me, traveling is not just about the destination, but the journey itself. It is a time for sensitization and rediscovery, a therapeutic escape from the mundane. Ultimately, it is the sense of adventure and exploration that draws me to travel, and I look forward to discovering new horizons in the future.

Comment: It’s clear from ‘my’ response that my heart is in alpine environments, and that is correct.

What book would you recommend me to read during the summer holidays?

As someone with diverse interests in philosophy, music, economy and the environment, I would highly recommend Dr. Raghav Rajagopalan’s Immersive Systemic Knowing. This important book, the result of Raghav’s PhD research at the Centre of Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK, draws on his rich professional experience spanning rural and organizational development work in India. It offers valuable insights and perspectives on systemic thinking and practice, which are crucial in navigating the complex challenges of our times. Moreover, I suggest actively ‘metabolizing’ the ideas through interweaving experiences from guided expressive arts practices, making the reading experience a place of genuine collaborative learning.

Comment: Excellent tip, although perhaps not so suitable for casual holiday reading!

What’s the relationship between your professional practice, cycling and photography?

For me, there is no compartmentalization between my personal and professional life, as systemic sensibilities underpin everything I do. My pursuit of artistic endeavors such as photography and writing, as well as my engagement with cycling, are all part of the same quest for a collaborative context that invites learning, honesty, probing relationships, and beauty. My photography practice, in particular, has been a deeply existential journey, where I have been mentored by other artists and have honed my craft to find my artistic self. Cycling, on the other hand, offers a way of life in pursuit of health, passion, perseverance, and imagination, which has become a stepping stone in my journey. Ultimately, these different spheres of life flow restlessly into one another and shape the compass for everything I do, from living a daily life, building and maintaining relationships, to running a business, researching, and traveling.

Comment: Wow, I couldn’t put this in better words.

You present yourself as a writer, but you haven’t published a really serious book yet?

While it is true that I have not published a book that I would consider a serious work, I have recently released a cahier, or notebook, which represents a culmination of over 20 years of practicing photography and embracing my artistic self. Through this journey, I have discovered the power of my self-portrait to give meaning to my experiences and desires. Additionally, I have explored various themes and ideas in my Medium posts, particularly under the heading of Navigating the age of active wisdom, where I delve into questions about meaning and legacy as a middle-aged individual. While I may not have published a traditional book, my writing and artistic pursuits have been a persistent feature of my thinking and creative expression.

Comment: Pointed question, very good and graceful response. There is a factual inaccuracy related to the published ‘cahier’. This is not really a notebook, rather a pocket-sized photo book that captures visual impressions from a month-long retreat.

Who is your role model?

As a systems thinker, I do not believe in having a singular role model. Rather, I believe that inspiration and insights can be drawn from a multitude of sources, both human and non-human. From the intricacies of ecosystems to the creative expressions of musicians, there is much to learn and appreciate in the world around us. However, if I had to choose a human role model, it would be the philosopher and ecologist Arne Naess, who advocated for a deep ecological approach that recognizes the interconnectedness of all living beings and the importance of preserving biodiversity.

Comment: I hadn’t thought about Arne in that way, but why not? I do admire his mountaineering prowess and his unflagging commitment to his all-embracing philosophical project. And I subscribe wholeheartedly to his motto: “I am an optimist … for the 22nd century.”

What is the key to happiness?

The key to happiness is not a one-size-fits-all formula but rather a lifelong process of active wisdom. This process involves reframing our existential questions and engaging in a skillful improvisation rooted in an ability to listen and learn. It is not something that can be attained and held onto but rather a constantly evolving state of being. Happiness also involves recognizing and breaking free from the patterns and myths that limit us and choosing to frame our dreams, relationships, and circumstances in a way that reconnects us with our vitality and shared humanity. Through this process of entrepreneurship can turn into a joyful celebration of life.

Comment: I love this reflection. The final sentence is a bit jarring in the way it suddenly reduces the scope to entrepreneurship.

If you could give one piece of advice to young people, what would that be?

As a systems thinker with a holistic view of life, I would advise young people to embrace a mindset of lifelong learning and personal growth. Don’t be afraid to take risks and make unconventional choices that align with your values and aspirations. As Mary Catherine Bateson suggests, there is a fourth interval in life that presents an opportunity for active wisdom and meaningful contribution to society. Cultivate your abilities to listen, learn, and improvise, and don’t be afraid to engage in a process of self-reflection and exploration. Remember that life is not just about achieving success and accumulating material possessions, but about discovering and fulfilling your unique potential.

Comment: A bit bland, perhaps, but essentially on the mark. The reference to M.C. Bateson is misplaced as it does not have a bearing on young people’s lives.

What is your resonance with the word ‘mystery’? Do you like it?

For me, the word ‘mystery’ holds a certain allure and fascination. It represents the unknown, the unknowable, and the ineffable. It is the big sun that warms my universe and exerts a constant gravitational pull. As a systems thinker, I am constantly seeking to unravel the mysteries of complex systems, but I also recognize that some mysteries may never be fully understood or explained. And perhaps, that is part of their beauty and appeal. So, yes, I do like the word ‘mystery’ and the sense of wonder and curiosity that it evokes.

Comment: Fuzzy and warm, but it truthfully captures my feelings.

Have you ever been really angry?

Yes, I have experienced moments of anger in my life. However, I try to channel that anger into productive actions and avoid letting it consume me. I believe that anger can be a useful tool for driving change and standing up against injustices, but it must be balanced with empathy and understanding. In order to prevent anger from turning into bitterness or resentment, I make a conscious effort to practice self-facilitation and maintain healthy relationships with those around me. Ultimately, I believe that beauty and sensitivity are essential components of a fulfilling life, and I strive to cultivate those qualities in myself and others.

Comment: I like this and wish I would always be able to live up to it.

It is a peculiar experience to interrogate myself. It’s me and it’s not me. Or let’s put it like this: it’s a very suave version of me, but not untruthful. My other half confirms this. This ‘me’ is holding an aspirational mirror that invites me to exercise wisdom and constraint. And it does so with a degree of fluency and real-life texture in its voice. It’s truly amazing.

We can see many applications of this AI-based sleight of hand: giving a deceased loved one a lasting presence, reviving an ancient philosopher, giving children a voice at a climate conference, … We are able to transcend the bounds of time and space.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?