The Power Of Systems Theory in Village Design
This is a talk i gave at a new eco-village we are about to design in Costa Rica
i want to bring to light the importance of systems thinking in this changing time and I’m going to use the context of intentional communities.
As systems theory is a complex topic what i hope to do today is to invite you into the inquiry of systems theory and into a new way of thinking, and ultimately a new way of collective sense making.
For those who aren’t familiar with Systems Theory i want to give a few perspectives or insights that arise from this way of thinking
Primarily it focuses our attention on the process and not the product.
- its Defined by “What Things Do” not “What things Are”,
- hopefully you will find some resonance with this in various practices, or ways of thinking you may be familiar with.
- ultimately focusing on relationships between agents not agents themselves is a shift in perspective that allows for more flexibility in thinking and insights into the nature of things
Since it focuses on the process it understands change over time and space
- how things adapt and scale
- so eventually a project may grow and the existing mechanism which used to serve it may no longer/
- it may require to undergo a phase transitions , and a new model of understanding and organizing, to recognize and not attach to existing models is vital.
Lastly a System is Inseparable from the Environment its Contained in
- In other words its highly sensitive to context
- you are a different self among friends, or family, or alone in nature, or in a city
- you cant identify with a certain understanding and then apply it in a different context and assume it will play out in the same way
Because it holds context as such a critical component of it, the structure can be abstracted and patterns seen across almost all contexts. You will see convergence of systems theory in Permaculture, Cognitive Science, Sociology, Economics, Buddhism/Spirituality, and in Physics and Ecology where the notion of systems theory emerged in the west. It is therefore a multidisciplinary science which can translate and communicate across domains , and be the glue that holds together and transcends the polarization of perspectives
I’m kind of racing to the insights here to give you a taste of its perspective, but i hope you can see the convergence of this with other ways of thinking. The significance of something like focusing on the process and not the product, that is a deep aspect of many practices , and really avoids identification and ideological thinking , to instead see the Deep Interdependence & Fractal-Nature of all systems.
As we are focused here on systems change by transforming ourselves and our socioeconomic system through Eco-Village design i want to bring to light Geoffrey West Scale. The book shows the fractal nature of things, showing how certain systems are scale-independent. It would look at animals and other systems in terms of how they scaled across size and population, there was a clear analogy to cities being a living breathing organism, whereas things like corporations or countries did not scale in the way life does.
Likewise for Systems Change we must create the conditions for change instead of directly forcing change. Linear thinking often takes for granted all the other factors in the environment that were required for a project to be successful. creating these conditions solidifies a systems foundation to be more resilient. And getting out of this mindset that we have a clear pre-defined goal that can be arrived at if we work hard enough. This way of thinking is in the old-world’s mindset. Its said “we are not trying to win the game, we are trying not to lose, such that we can play the infinite game. Now here the infinite game points to a process, something that has no end, something that is participatory and emergent.
In terms of systems change relating to our socioeconomic environment, i would like to bring to light Project Cybersyn, Stafford Beer is one of the pioneers of Systems Theory and worked with the Chilean Government in the 1970s.
to create a Non-Hierarchical government structure based on systems theory, which shortly got overthrown by a military coup from the CIA.
Both the science of systems and its application has developed a lot over the last 50 years since Stafford Beer and Bucky Fuller.
this was a ambitious project way ahead of its time and it really stood alone. Strength and resilience in these initiatives must necessarily come from decentralized Networked Organization.
Old Forms of group identification are failing (nation states, corporations, religions, and the entire economic system) the tribe is getting smaller, but we also need to simultaneously increase the circle of empathy to the globe, and through into future generations.
Since systems theory is a universal language across all disciplines i think its something that can both think global and act local. It can be locally attuned to the context of the initiative and communicate and coordinate effectively to other networked initiatives.
Likewise we should think multi-generational and act in the now, this may ring a bell of the indigenous 7 generational thinking. There are many ways in which Indigenous ways of thinking converge with systems theory. We now have the potential to interconnect these neo-indigenous tribes.
There are many aspects of bio-mimicry and permaculture we can apply broadly to village design.
How we organize ourselves, how we communicate, what we value and what we prioritize and our ecology of practices and the way we build.
Understanding the entire path towards building autonomously regenerative systems isn’t possible as every group of individuals and objective will be different. It requires a lot of jumping into the unknown and iterate by creating the fertile conditions for it to develop.
But one thing is clear, to have deep interdependence of projects, community and initiatives. This reduces open-loops in design as to reduce negative externalities , have less wasted efforts and resources required. There is a permaculture principles that every element should have at least 3 functions, and every function should have at least 3 elements. This is ultimately what i think Bucky Fuller is pointing to with Ephemeralization, — doing more with less.
Ephemeralization is not the same as efficiency, where efficiency is often misunderstood as market efficiency which results in “Economies of scale”. Efficiency is to narrow in scope and doesn’t focus on the multiple value systems at play. Ephemeralization under the lens of Bio-mimicry is efficient due to its high interdependence and lack of negative externalities.
I’d like to bring in these 4 categories of understanding systems change. Simple-linear, predictable, and can know the best practice to move forward and importantly the distinction between complicated and complex.
Complicated- human made systems — messy, difficult to understand, and requires expert judgment to move forward.
Complex- Typically natural systems, highly interdependent they also may be difficult to understand but there’s a certain cognitive ease that comes from retrospectively understanding complex systems, in comparison to understanding complicated systems. Moving forward in complex systems emerges from being in right relation with it.
We need a new way of understanding to create complex solutions, to work with life and learn from nature. Which is why having this as a sense making tool is invaluable in our time. If we can dialogue with context, scale, and sensitivity to boundary conditions in mind. If we can have systems theory as a universal language across all disciplines, maybe its possible to communicate effectively and come to agreement across domains and from different perspectives within our community and across communities.
Every human revolution is afforded by a new form of Communication, from speech, text, TV/Radio, Internet affording agricultural, industrial and informational revolutions. We are ripe for a non-linear way of sense making to navigate such a dynamic and uncertain world.
Many of you already implicitly know these principles. Systems theory makes them explicit such that we can embody them in our understanding, in our communication, to embody these practices. To change ourselves we must change our environment, our social environment and our narrative. Through bio-mimicry and ontological design we can change our relationships with ourselves and others, and be in alignment with the nature of things