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Need for a Systems Perspective

We are increasingly networked, interlinked and mutually dependent but often unable to find common purpose and act for the common good. - David Orr

The upshot is that systems thinking moves us toward enlightened self-interest by which we understand that our wellbeing and human flourishing is collective, not individual; long-term, not short-term. - David Orr

Given the complexity of all systems and our inescapable ignorance, a systems perspective requires humility and precaution. It means working at a smaller scale, say, the neighbourhood, the farm, the factory, before generalizing to systems at a larger scale. - David Orr

Huge Failure of Modernist, Controlling Approach

the early 1950s, the Dayak people in Borneo suffered from malaria. The World Health Organization had a solution: they sprayed large amounts of DDT to kill the mosquitoes that carried the malaria. The mosquitoes died, the malaria declined; so far, so good. But there were side-effects. Among the first was that the roofs of people’s houses began to fall down on their heads. It seemed that the DDT was killing a parasitic wasp that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. Worse, the DDT- poisoned insects were eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The cats died, the rats flourished, and people were threatened by out-breaks of sylvatic plague and typhus. To cope with these problems, which it had itself created, the World Health Organization was obliged to parachute 14,000 live cats into Borneo.

3 Horizons Framework

Dying System

Supporting this cultural renewal means acting both as hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new - Graham Leicester

While most of our current economic and political systems were designed with a win-lose mindset (zero-sum), we are beginning to understand we will all lose in the mid-to-long-term, if we do not maintain and regenerate the healthy functioning of ecosystems, reduce the stark inequity that exists everywhere, and nurture social cohesion and international solidarity through cultures of collaboration

Innovators & Visionaries

In a rigid mindset even H2+ innovators and H3 visionaries will tend to argue with each other rather than seeing that they are powerful allies. Far too often I have witnessed well-meaning visionary people wasting time over arguments that were trying to critique H2+ innovations as insufficiently transformative

Embracing Cathedral Thinking

cathedral thinking

Just as the builders of medieval cathedrals had a vision of the building they were constructing even if they would never see it finished, we need an inspiring vision of the regenerative culture we would like to co-create even if the journey of cultural transformation might take more than one lifetime or generation.

Interbeing - Self

Mature community membership means a shift towards a form of enlightened self-interest that goes as far as questioning the notion of a separate and isolated self at its very core (What is the Self). In the fundamentally interconnected and interdependent planetary system we participate in, the best way to care for oneself and those closest to oneself is to start caring more for the benefit of the collective (all life)

Corning explains: “one implication of this more complex view of evolution is that both competition and cooperation may coexist at different levels of organization, or in relation to different aspects of the survival enterprise. There may be a delicately balanced interplay between these supposedly polar relationships.”

Evolution at Ecosystem Level

Ecosystems are resilient because they have requisite variety (diversity) and multiple redundancies at different scales. The complex networks of relationships that create healthy ecosystems cannot be explained effectively by focusing only on the success or failure of individuals within them. The interconnections and symbiotic exchanges that create health and resilience as emergent properties of complex dynamic systems support the vitality of all participants and contribute to the survival of the system as a whole

He suggests a shift “from a traditional notion of separate biological organism to the conception of ecological organisms, of which the biological organisms are part”. In this perspective “the organism is interaction with other organisms within the context of a habitat. The single organism (or species) that is supposed to compete with others does not exist [original italics]. It is far more appropriate to view organisms as members of a differentiable whole that has never dissolved into discrete entities”

If we understand life and evolution as a whole system in transformation, we begin to pay attention to relationships and networks of participants in that system, and suddenly we see collaboration, symbiosis and co-evolution as the prevalent patterns maintaining systemic health. Seeing competitive interactions between individual participants of the whole as the main characteristic defining and governing biological and socio-economic processes is a little bit like looking at the waves (competition) on the surface of an ocean but not seeing the immense body of water (cooperation) below. Life thrives through collaboration.

Befriend Uncertainty

One of the defining properties of complex dynamic systems is that they are fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable (beyond controlled laboratory conditions). Uncertainty and ambiguity are therefore fundamental characteristics of our lives and the natural world, including human culture, society and our economic systems.

We have to come to grips with the fact that knowledge and information, no matter how detailed, will remain an insufficient and uncertain basis for guiding our path into the future. We will increase our chances of success if we have the wisdom and humility to embrace our own ignorance, celebrate ambiguity and befriend uncertainty (epistemic humility)

All solutions are temporary - Guiding Questions

In our learning journey of human survival and our quest for a thriving regenerative culture, all answers and solutions will at best be partial and temporary. Yet by asking the appropriate guiding questions repeatedly and entering into conversations about our collective future in all the communities we participate in, we may be able to find a set of patterns and guidelines that will help us to create a culture capable of learning and transformative innovation.

Guiding questions are a more useful way to chart such a continuous transformative path than fixed answers. This does not mean we do not have to propose answers and implement solutions; we simply have to be aware that they will only serve temporarily.

If we accept that questions rather than answers, and continuous experimentation rather than lock-in solutions are safer ways to guide us through these turbulent times and into the unpredictable future, then we also have to accept that there is a limit to the extent to which we can design our future in the face of complexity and uncertainty.

all solutions are at best temporary

Ecology & Spirituality

Ecology and spirituality are two sides of the same coin – understanding and making sense of our own interbeing with the world, and our interdependence. You can enter into an embodied experience of wholeness and meaning through the door of the natural world or through spiritual practice. In fact, the two are ultimately not separate but they are pathways to the same oneness of existence in and through relationships. A oneness we experience most of the time from the limited perspective created by the ‘illusion of separation’. If we want to reconstitute this oneness – the whole whose conscious reflections we are – we need to do so through the way we create meaning together and through the narrative we tell about our interbeing. Making time for solitude in wild nature helps us to have the largest conversation we are capable of having with the world.


Rob Hopkins (2009) identifies three key design principles that resilience at a community scale depends upon:

  1. Increased diversity: a broader base of livelihoods, land use, enterprise and energy systems than at present.
  2. Modularity (scale-linking design): not advocating self-sufficiency, but rather an increased self-reliance; with surge protectors for the local economy such as local food production and decentralized energy.
  3. Tightness of feedback (increased capacity to learn from local successes or failures): bringing the results of our actions closer to home, so that we cannot ignore them.

Decentralization - Resilience

We have come to use the words ‘redundant’ and ‘redundancy’ to mean superfluous or unnecessary, yet in living systems redundancies at and across multiple scales are vital, as they decentralize important functions by distributing them across the system as a whole and thereby make the overall system more resilient. It is much harder to disrupt vital functions if they are distributed and decentralized (performed simultaneously at multiple scales and locations) rather than if these functions are performed at one large-scale, centralized facility (which maximizes economies of scale and efficiency but sacrifices resilience and flexibility)

interdependent self organized wholes

The transition to a sustainable society will require the reconstitution and reinvention of households, villages, neighbourhoods, towns, cities and regions everywhere on the planet as interdependent, nested, self-organized, participatory and diversified wholes. […] The result will be a decentralized and diversified structure of everyday life which is in contrast to the centralized and increasingly homogenized structures that we have become accustomed to


Localism At the local and regional scale, feedback is faster and ecological limits are more immediately identifiable. Furthermore, by focusing on the local and regional scale, we can adapt solutions better to the specific conditions of a particular place. Design that aims to meet basic human needs at the scale of the local community/region also creates systemic redundancies, so that unpredictable changes in one place are less likely to trigger domino effects in other place

Subsidiarity describes the principles that any central (political) authority should have a subsidiary function of coordination, performing only those tasks that cannot be executed at a local level, and that decisions are to be taken as closely as possible to, and with the involvement of, the citizens affected by them.

Fail Fast, Fail Small

Failure ▪ We need to co-create diverse models for systemic solutions at a local and regional scale. Some of them will inform through their successes and others through their failures. Repetitive failure and experimentation at a small scale can help us to learn faster. As Thomas Watson Sr., president of IBM for 42 years, said so aptly: “If you want to succeed, double your rate of failure”

Small Farms as Solutions?

Despite a vast amount of disinformation – in large part based on research funded by chemical agribusiness – the misconception that local organic agriculture cannot feed the world is finally being eradicated (Halweil, 2006; FAO, 2015). From the invention of agriculture until very recently, humanity has fed itself via local, small-scale farms that employ organic techniques to maintain and improve soil health and agricultural yields. Even with the global population in rapid expansion during the last century, the majority of the food that feeds the world still comes from small-scale local farms and is grown by women (FAO, 2011). A 2013 review by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) concluded that the adequate response to climate change and the challenge of feeding a prospective human population of 9 billion includes transformative changes in our agricultural, food and trade systems. We need to increase diversity on farms, reduce the use of fertilizers and other external inputs, and support local farmers to create vibrant and resilient local food systems

Strengthening regional food sovereignty is a powerful win-win-win strategy in the response to the current food, inequity (poverty) and climate crises. Implementing food sovereignty leads to more decentralized and more highly diversified farming systems that are networked into regional food economies. This builds redundancies at different scales, and increases adaptability and resilience.

Shifting to Qualitative Growth

The standard for ecological design is neither efficiency, nor productivity, but health, beginning with that of the soil and extending upward through plants, animals, and people. […] It is impossible to impair health at any level without affecting it at other levels. David W. Orr

The steady-state economy approach is compatible with efforts to shift from quantitative growth (through accumulation and resource depletion) to qualitative growth (through qualitative transformation, regenerative resource use and leveraging the potential of synergies).

Sustainability does not mean zero growth. Rather, a sustainable society would be interested in qualitative development, not physical expansion. It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. […] it would begin to discriminate among kinds of growth and purposes for growth. It would ask what the growth is for, and who would benefit, and what it would cost, and how long it would last, and whether the growth could be accommodated by the sources and sinks of the earth. Donella Meadows

Why Design?

Taking a design-based approach can help us to make our practice more theoretical and our theory more practical. Design is at the nexus of theory and practice. Design is where art and science meet

Questions for Ethical Design

  • Q Do we really need this new design?
  • Q Is it ethical to produce, market and consume the new design in the intended way?
  • Q What impact does the design have on the community that produces or employs it?
  • Q Is it really safe to make and use the proposed design?
  • Q Is it fair? (Does it contribute to greater social, economic and ecological equity without any form of exploitation?)
  • Q Is it designed to be repairable and can it be reused over a long period?
  • Q What is the full cost over its expected lifetime in terms of social, ecological and economic capital?
  • Q Does this new design truly offer a better way to meet certain needs than already existing designs?
  • Q How can we ensure that the proposed design does no harm and actively helps to restore damage already incurred – regenerating our capacity to meet an unpredictable future with community resilience (Great questions for entrepreneurs, designers)


Power & Love

Martin Luther King’s insight that “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic”


Vision without action is useless. But action without vision does not know where to go or why to go there. Vision is absolutely necessary to guide and motivate action. More than that, vision, when widely shared and firmly kept in sight, brings into being new systems. Donella Meadows

Key Areas: biosphere stewardship | Systems Thinking | everything is interconnected -interbeing- | resilience | Design |