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Ecological Design, Complexity, and Systemic Health

from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ D.C. Wahl 2006

Daniel Christian Wahl
Oct 19 · 18 min read

Human changes to the environment have altered the continuity of global cycles, and the rate of change is expected to increase. Ozone depletion, global warming, urban pollution, non-degradable industrial waste, fresh water contamination and biodiversity depletion are bringing serious and increasing risks to sustainability of the planet’s life-support systems and so to human health and wellbeing.

—Valerie Brown et al., 2005, p.8

David Waltner-Toews lists six important contributors to the emergence of new diseases (Waltner-Toews, 2004, p.12): 1) human demographics and behaviour; 2) technology and industry; 3) economic development and land use, 4) international travel and commerce, 5) microbial adaptations and change; and 6) breakdown of public health measures. At least five out of these six factors are directly linked to human planning and design, and the point number five is also strongly indirectly linked to bad design practice. The unrestrained use of anti- bacterial chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics is now one of the major drivers of microbial adaptation and change.

Waltner-Toews illustrates the advantages of thinking in a joined-up systemic way by giving a historic example of such a holistic approach to health problems. In1848, the Prussian physician Rudolf Virchow produced the following list of recommendations in his report on possible measures to respond effectively to a typhus epidemic in Upper Silesia: 1) political reform and local self-government; 2) education; 3) economic reform; 4) agricultural reforms, including the development of cooperatives; 5) road building; 6) requirement that professionals such as teachers and physicians speak the language of the local people. Waltner-Toews emphasizes that even today, such holistic thinking is often still absent from the work of health care officials. He argues: “Those who study disease are not necessarily well-equipped to promote health;” and stresses: “New modes of thought which can incorporate multiple perspectives are required” (Waltner-Toews, 2004, p.12).

As mentioned before, the ‘Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion’ clearly acknowledges: “The fundamental conditions and resources for health are peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable ecosystem, sustainable resources, social justice and equity” (in Roseland, 1998, p.153). These are necessities for sustaining human health and well-being in the long term. By aiming to provide and maintain these fundamental human needs, salutogenic — or health-generating — design can act as a transdisciplinary integrator that unites expert knowledge from diverse disciplines into a process of local and global cooperation. The salutogenic and local- global scale-linking approach relies on socially and ecologically literate citizens everywhere to make sustainability a reality.

Healthy natural processes, a healthy biosphere and healthy ecosystems are fundamental prerequisites for, and at the same time dependent on, the health of the organisms and communities they contain. Health at every scale of nature — throughout the dynamic holarchy of fundamentally interconnected processes — is an emergent property which both depends on the relationships and interactions of the participating agents at lower holonic levels, and — at the same time — affects those interactions, while contributing to the emergence of health at the scale of even more encompassing holons (higher up the holarchy).

Widespread appropriate participation in natural and social processes will eventually lead to the improvement of health throughout the holarchy and therefore increase the local and global sustainability of human practices. Such appropriate participation is best understood, as any action that facilitates the emergence of health at and across all systemic scales, to improve health within the holarchy of complex dynamic systems contained by the biosphere.

Human and planetary health is the ultimate goal of all sustainable design and systemic salutogenesis is its underlying intentionality. In chapters four and five I will discuss in greater detail how scale-linking efforts of salutogenic and sustainable design across the holarchy can potentially drive the transformation towards a sustainable civilization based on locally adapted, self-reliant and globally interconnected communities and bioregions. This chapter focuses, more generally, on the concept of salutogenesis and systemic health as well as how to promote them.

By designing with nature and aiming to provide for human needs in a way that integrates into the life and health sustaining processes of the planetary biosphere, designers engage in what I refer to as salutogenic, ecological, or natural design. Over the past four decades the number of people engaged in this kind of approach to design has steadily increased, albeit in a disparate way and under various different names.

The diverse contributories to the swelling stream of salutogenic design include — among various others: Design with Nature (McHarg, 1969), Design for the Real World (Papanek, 1971, 1995), “new alchemy” (Todd, 1976), “an ecological science of design” or “ecological design” (Todd & Jack-Todd, 1980, Jack-Todd & Todd 1984, 1993, Jack-Todd, 2005), Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (Mollison, 1988), Design for Society (Whiteley, 1993), Biologic: Designing with Nature to protect the environment (Wann, 1994), Design und Ökologie (Löback & Fiedler, 1995), Ecological Design (Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996), Deep Design (Wann, 1996), Green Design: Design for the Environment (Makenzie, 1997), Design for Sustainability (Birkeland, 2002), Cradle to Cradle design (McDonough & Braungart, 2002), ecological design (Orr, 2002), and eco-design (Fuad-Luke, 2002).

Not all of these approaches are explicitly stating the improvement of human and planetary health as their central aim, but what unites them is the intention to contribute to the creation of a more sustainable human civilization by creating designs that participate appropriately in social and natural process. I will discuss the emergence of the natural design movement in more detail in chapter three. The purpose and focus of this chapter is to provide a more detailed understanding of the complexity of systemic health within the context of an ecologically literate approach to salutogenesis by design.

The etymology of the word ‘health’ reveals its connection to other words such as healing, wholeness and holy. Ecological design is an art by which we aim to restore and maintain the wholeness of the entire fabric of life increasingly fragmented by specialization, scientific reductionism and bureaucratic division. … In reality it is impossible to disconnect the threads that bind us into larger wholes up to that great community of the ecosphere. The environment outside us is also inside us. We are connected to more things in more ways than we can ever count or comprehend.

— David Orr, 2002, p.29

Just as design can serve as an integrative concept for trans-disciplinary cooperation towards more sustainable solutions, health can provide the integrating concept that unites social, ecological and economic needs across all scales (and cultures!). Such integrative concepts are crucially important in motivating individuals, societies, cultures and humanity collectively to collaborate in the creation of more holistically considered, sustainable solutions.

David Orr proposes: “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.” He emphasizes: “It is impossible to impair health at any level without affecting it at other levels” (Orr, 2002, p.29). This perspective recognizes the complexity of health as a scale-linking emergent property of the complex dynamic system (or process) that unites nature and culture into a continuously co-evolving and transforming whole.

In a recently published book entitled Sustainability and Health, Valerie Brown and her colleagues discuss the important links between public health care and the support of global ecological integrity. Brown and her colleagues write: “Maintaining sustainable ecosystems as essential prerequisites for human health is now beginning to be accepted as part of the responsibility of public health” and that health workers have to “recognize the connection between the health of the ecosystem and the health of the populations” (Brown et al., 2005, pp.5–6).

A report published by the World Health Organization’s ‘European Centre for Environment and Health’ shows that the health of human ni dividuals and their communities depends on the health of the ecosystems in which they participate, as well as on planetary health or “global ecological integrity”(see Soskolne & Bertollini, 1999). Health links the local, to the regional, the national, the international and the global scale, and so does health generating, salutogenic, ecological design.

Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan (1996) describe ecological design as design for health by designing with nature. Ecological design — as described by Ian McHarg (1969), John and Nancy Todd (1980, 1984, 1993), as well as David Orr (2002) — is clearly taking a salutogenic approach. In my opinion, their co-evolutionary approach to design aims for appropriate participation in natural process and contributes greatly to the theoretical foundation of salutogenic, scale-linking, sustainable design, as well as the emergence of the natural design movement (see chapter 3). My own understanding of design has been greatly influenced by their work.

Evolution generates many levels of wholeness simultaneously, from the metabolic dance of a cell to the vast cycles maintaining the biosphere. These nested levels of integrity are sustained by their own characteristic pattern of health. By designing with nature, by working with the pattern of health, we may aspire to designs that are compatible with the living world.

— Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996, p.103

Nature, ecology, health, wholeness, integrity and complexity are fundamentally integrative concepts, upon which a holistic, multi-perspective based design approach to sustainability can be developed. Van der Ryn and Cowan suggest: “Designing with nature is a strategy for successively reducing harmful impacts by attending to the preconditions of health at each level.” Their approach “acknowledges that in the long run, the most ecologically benign solutions make the most active use of life’s own pattern of health.” Van der Ryn and Cowan describe designing with nature as “an ongoing partnership with nature, one that benefits both people and ecosystem” (Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996, p.104). The co-creative, synergistic, and symbiotic relationship between nature and culture finds an appropriate material expression in ecological design.

A holistic perspective that includes insights from various epistemological and ontological positions recognizes that the apparent dichotomy between humanity and nature is only product of a particular way of seeing. Complexity theory provides a holistic and scientific basis for understanding our participatory relationship with natural process (see chapter one). In order to create sustainable design solutions that appropriately participate in natural process across all scales, trans-disciplinary design teams will have to embrace such a holistic approach and understanding.

We are in nature and nature is in us. We face an interesting ambiguity of ‘multiple perspectives, of design as pattern, of ourselves as nature’s designers and nature’s design. … Ecological design is predicated on the coevolution of nature and culture. It is a kind of covenant between human communities and other living communities. Nothing in the design should violate the wider integrities of nature. We are currently breaking the covenant at every level. We are re-engineering the genetic instructions of a single cell, killing of entire species, even disturbing the climate (Van der Ryn & Cowan, 1996, p.105).

Ecological and salutogenic design aims to reverse this process and to positively contribute to individual, social and ecological health. If it does so effectively, such design expresses appropriate participation in natural process and promotes long-term sustainability. Natural Design integrates into nature, learns from nature, and expresses human nature and salutogenic intention from within an ecological and world-centric ethic (see chapter 3).

Design in the 21st Century and beyond will have to act as transdisciplinary integrator of diverse ways of knowing and specialized disciplines. It can do so based on a holistic understanding of health and our participatory involvement in maintaining individual, community, ecosystem and planetary health. Complexity theory and various other holistic sciences like systems theory, biocybernetics, earth systems science and Gaia theory and of course ecology can contribute important insights to designers aiming to improve systemic or holistic health through appropriate participation in natural process (see chapter one).

Complexity theory and our knowledge of living systems is confirming a widely-shared intuition: The healthy, sustainable systems are those which are self-organizing, self-healing, and self-renewing, and that are able to learn in order to maintain and adapt themselves. They exert autonomy, but in relation to and as integrative parts of larger systems. They maintain a dynamic balance between structure and flexibility, between order and chaos. In systems terms, these are known as ‘complex adaptive systems’ and there are no better illustrations than organisms and living systems.

— Stephen Sterling, 2001, p.54

This thesis will outline a strategy for scale-linking, natural and salutogenic design that is based on maintaining health on all scales of the holarchy. In other words, it promotes a synergistic network, between scales of complex adaptive systems within complex adaptive systems: organisms, families, communities, ecosystems, bioregions, and the biosphere.

Health is the pattern that connects all spatial and temporal scales through dynamic relationships in which the health of a part reflects the health of the whole and vice versa. If we are asking for one condition that the word ‘sustain’ in sustain-ability is ultimately aiming at, it better be health at each scale and across all scales or the whole system.

To do so, the underlying intention behind all human planning and design should be appropriate participation in the life- and health-sustaining processes of local ecosystems and the planetary biosphere. First and foremost, humanity has a collective responsibility towards the rest of the community of life on earth not to alter the relative composition of atmospheric gases within the atmosphere to such an extent that the resulting changes in global and local climate patterns endanger the continued existence of higher life forms.

Climate change is a real challenge to human and planetary health. Climate change and its diverse consequences are among the most pressing long-term challenges to human health. Dr. Colin Butler of the ‘National Centre for Epidemiology and Public Health’ of the Australian National University predicts that climate change will have serious impact on human health (see Box 2.5).

Box 2.5: Climate Change and Human Health:

(Reproduced and adapted from Hargroves & Smith, 2005, p.323)

“Climate change, at least in the next generation or two, is likely to adversely effect human health through at least three major pathways:

  1. Increased extreme weather events (including intensified droughts, flooding and moderate sea level rise) that cause, and are predicted to increasingly cause, indirect damage to health and well-being via effects on food and economic security, or more directly via heat stress or (beneficially) less cold stress during warmer winters.
  2. Changes in the distribution and possibly behaviour of disease-transmitting insects.
  3. By interacting with other factors that affect ecosystems, such as invasive species, changed biodiversity, and new patterns of plant and animal disease.”

The bio-chemist, bio-cyberneticist and sustainability consultant, Professor Frederic Vester suggested: “The health and ability to survive of a complex system requires that during its growth phase it should not undergo chaotically networked and primarily quantity focussed growth, but requires the formation of sub-systems within an overall structure” (transl. Vester, 2002, p. 68).

To act salutogenically is to facilitate the emergence of health at each individual scale or holon level of the whole. One way to do so is to maintain the holarchical structure of the dynamic network itself. Another is to strengthen the holons at each scale, by facilitating their self-sufficiency as complex adaptive systems. The nature and pattern of interactions and relationships at each holonic scale and between scales is indicative of the systems resilience and health.

Professor Vester studied this phenomenon on various scales and found that healthy systems depend on a structurally organized form of complex network [a holarchy] and that pathologies are often associated with complex networks without a structure that allows for effective self-organization, self-reliance and self-healing. The Figure below offers a visual representation of the difference between unstructured networks and holarchically structured networks (see Figure 2.3).

Figure 2.3: Holarchically Structured Complex Networks and Unstructured Complex Networks (After Vester, 2002, p.68)

Hand-drawn from my PhD (the graphics were of very poor standard for a design school ,-)

Stephen Sterling believes health and wholeness are at the heart of what Gregory Bateson called ‘the pattern that connects.’ I have previously suggested that the ‘pattern that connects’ refers to cognition and consciousness as engaged in the autopoiesis of life on all scales (see chapter one). Sterling argues: “From a systems point of view, the health of any system — be it a family, a community, a farm, a local economy, a school, or an ecosystem — depends on the health of its subsystems and they on their subsystems and so on.” Based on this holistic or systemic understanding of health, Sterling defines sustainability as “the ability of a system to sustain itself in relation to its environment, given that all systems are made up of subsystems and parts of larger supra-systems. A system that either undermines the health of its own subsystems or of its supra-system is unsustainable.” Sterling concludes: “Sustainability is therefore about encouraging self sustaining abilities and wholeness between systemic levels” (Sterling, 2001, p.54).

Even if we have defined and measured health, we still need to find mechanisms to promote its acceptance as an over-riding goal, this is possible. … some kind of global organizations are needed, and the United Nations is the best we have … [but] … Health can only be achieved from the bottom up, in the complexity of local contexts and diversity; health cannot be given to someone … At all scales, one of the biggest obstacles is the compartmentalization of knowledge (in universities) and of practice (in governments), which result in the kind of destructive feedback loops we talked about earlier. Therefore, we need to work at creating organizational structures that foster adaptive communication across departmental lines (health, agriculture, economics) … This is not some Utopian Dream we are after. Rather, we are using health as a way of thinking and acting that will allow us, in the words of Rene Dubos, to find ‘a modus vivendi enabling imperfect (people) to achieve a rewarding and not too painful existence while they cope with an imperfect world.’”

— David Waltner-Toews, 2004, pp. 104–105

Margaret Wheatley, who as a writer, educator, and organizational consultant has popularized many of the insights from the “new sciences” like living systems theory and complexity theory, suggests that the best way to restore health in a system is to connect it to more of itself. She argues that in order too make “stronger systems we need to create stronger relationships.” Wheatley believes “the solution the system needs is usually already present in it;” and suggests that if a system is in ill health it is either lacking information, or unclear about its identity. According to Wheatley such a system is characterized by “troubled relationships,” which means that the system “might be ignoring those who have valuable insights” (Wheatley, 1999, p.145).

I argue, during the course of this thesis, that humanity is still unclear about its identity as part and expression of the natural world; that single minded focus on a dualist-reductionist- rationalist epistemology causes us to ignore important information; and that by ignoring those that have valuable insights based on more holistic perspectives.

Most attempts to increase sustainability are piece-meal and insufficiently aware of the complexity of underlying patterns and processes. Complexity theory can inform a holistic understanding of the relationship between health and wholeness (see also chapter one). It highlights the participatory nature of our existence and the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence that connects the individual to the collective and human to planetary health.

…if we put the new complex systems management techniques firmly in a context of the complexity of eco- social systems, subject to the over-riding goal of fostering a healthy, flourishing biosphere in which healthy human communities have an essential role — then this is more than just another way to help your business make money. There are things we not only can do, but should be doing. And there are systems that are better of if we judiciously neglect them. — David Waltner-Toews, 2004, p.108).

Appropriate participation in natural process may, more often than not, mean to do less and interfere less. Since we cannot fully predict and control the actual effects of our actions — even if taken with a salutogenic intention — we will always be to some extend facing the challenge to adapt to unexpected changes caused directly or indirectly by past design decisions. This lies simply in the co-creative nature of participation in the complex dynamic process we call the biosphere. The complexity of the challenge of maintaining systemic health unites a wide variety of interrelated issues and scales. Some of which will be described in more detail during the remainder of this thesis.

We cannot sustain health without addressing what is needed throughout the interconnected systems of our lives; our selves as individuals, our physical health, our psychological health, our relationships with our families, our communities and our environment. In regaining the roots of our health, we may learn to be better stewards of the earth as well as of ourselves.

— Fraser & Hill, 2001, p.73

A truly holistic approach to health will take human life-styles, and the design of our communities, cities and industries into account. The roots of health are in our relationships to ourselves, each other and to our environment. Most traditional system of holistic medicine and well-being like Aryurveda, Chinese Medicine or the Yoga sutras fully acknowledge these relationships as important aspects of our health, and adapt intervention and prevention accordingly. Unfortunately, these ancient systems of appropriate participation in natural process cannot be explored sufficiently within the context of this thesis.

Healthcare delivery systems are clearly an important aspect of salutogenic design at a community and societal scale. In one of the briefings published by the Schumacher Society in the U.K., entitled The Roots of Health, Romy Fraser and Sandra Hill (2001) have suggested that complementary and alternative medicine will contribute significantly to the health care systems of the future. The design of more salutogenic health care systems requires us to incorporate the expanded conception of health provided by a holistic perspective into preventing disease and supporting health in human beings and communities.

Just like useful knowledge and skill provided by reductionistic and mechanistic science and technology will have to be balance by insights from the holistic sciences and ecological design, allopathic or conventional medicine — that no doubt has achieved breakthroughs in the treatment of acute diseases — will have to be balanced by the more holistic approach of complementary, alternative or traditional medicine with their preventative and salutogenic approach. Again complexity theory can provide useful insights that are compatible with these approaches of holistic medicine.

Professor Michael Hyland (Health Psychology at The University of Plymouth) … suggests that the body, as a complex system, is self-regulating, and inherent within any self-regulating system is the ability to learn to self-regulate more effectively. Complementary and alternative therapies work with this self-regulating system, enabling the system to re-learn what it has forgotten, and possibly guiding towards more effective self-regulation.

— Fraser & Hill, 2001, pp.36–37

The Quality of Life Counts report states: “Improving people’s health is a key sustainable development objective and [this means] better health for everyone” (DETR, 1999, p.125). In The Ecology of Health, Dr. Robin Stott suggests that in order to create a more efficient health care system and to improve human and planetary health, we have to understand “that good health can only be realized within the context of true peace and security; and these are dependent on social and environmental justice.” He emphasizes: “The antecedents of both health and security are the same” (Stott, 2000, p.6).

Stott argues: “The scale at which decisions are made and implemented is of fundamental importance to this wider view of health” (see Box 2.6); and proposes that “individual and societal health can only be improved if decisions are taken and implemented by people who can: i) relate to each other; ii) understand the relevance of decisions to their lives; iii) determine the size of the constituency which needs to be involved in the decision-making; and therefore iv) practice human scale decision-making” (Stott, 2000, p.7).

Box 2.6: Prerequisites for Good Health and Health Care

(Reproduced and adapted from Stott, 2000, p.7)

  • Recognition of the contributions that all of us make to health.
  • Creation of partnerships based on valuing experience as well as scientific knowledge.
  • Conducting decision-making on an appropriate scale.
  • Allowing local communities to regain political pre -eminence vis-à-vis central and global authorities.
  • Recreating a sense of meaning and purpose in our everyday lives.
  • Acknowledging the importance to our health of the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the changes in our climate and the amount of radiation we are exposed to.
  • Acknowledging the health impact of the alcohol we drink, the cigarettes and chemicals we consume, the types of buildings we live in, the distribution of wealth, the size of our communities, the value systems we espouse, and indeed all aspects of our lives.
  • Acknowledging, above all, that the health of humanity depends on the health of our planet. We need to be more prudent in the way that we conduct our lives to ensure that the fragile balance between humanity and the planet is not disturbed.

Throughout the remainder of this dissertation all these prerequisites of good health are revisited within the wider context of salutogenic and scale-linking design. Effective health care systems promote individual, societal and ecological health. They acknowledge that individual and community health improves people’s ability to responsibly participate in their local communities and contribute to the emergence of health at other scales of the interconnected whole. Conventional health care systems too often focus on treating the symptoms of ill-health rather than promoting positive health through salutogenesis. The most effective way towards improving human and planetary health is to establish a scale-linked concerted effort to promote health simultaneously at all scales. Individual health care, community health, healthy food systems, and efforts to restore ecosystem and planetary health need to be integrated across scales.

We are beginning to understand that human health and environmental health are one. We are part of nature, and the past two hundred years of the domination of science over nature has served to cut us off from the roots of health. The prerequisite for life on earth are pure air, clean water and nutritious food. And lasting change in health will come from three main areas: personal responsibility, collective responsibility, and education.

— Fraser & Hill, 2001, p.59

[This is is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

Daniel Christian Wahl

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Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures

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