Panarchy: a scale-linking perspective of systemic transformation

Since nature is fundamentally scale-linking — connecting the molecular to the planetary and the local to the global — adaptive cycles of any particular system at any particular scale (e.g.: local community, bioregion, nation or planet) are linked to multiple adaptive cycles that are taking place simultaneously for smaller systems contained by that system and for the larger systems within which that particular system is embedded.

This nested hierarchy of systems within systems — or holarchy (Koestler, 1989) of interconnected wholes within wholes — is also referred to as ‘panarchy’ (Gunderson & Holling, 2001). Gunderson and Holling explain that the word ‘panarchy’ describes nature’s (w)holistic hierarchies and the complex dynamics that link different spatial scales and their fast- and slow-moving processes into an interconnected whole.

The framework offers a deeper understanding of transformations in systems of humans and nature more deeply and this in turn might help us to navigate more wisely into an unpredictable future.

The panarchy model — interlinked adaptive cycles occurring at multiple temporal and spatial scales simultaneously — elucidates the interplay between change and persistence in scale-linked socio-ecological systems. The model can help us visualize the scale-linking complexity of natural processes.

Facing this fractal complexity of interacting transformative processes — nested adaptive cycles spanning across temporal and spatial scales — reminds us to stay mindful of the limits of prediction and control that we face as participants in such complexity.

Generally speaking, the larger and longer the adaptive cycles, the less predictable and controllable they are. At a very limited spatial and temporal scale (and if we clearly define the boundaries of the system in question), prediction and control are possible, but since such reductions in complexity (e.g. controlled laboratory conditions) are artificially created by us and don’t take into account the fundamental interconnectedness, interbeing and complexity of the scale-linking processes we participate in, such prediction and control is only of limited use. Figure 9 is a visual representation of panarchy depicted through dynamically interlinking adaptive cycles at different spatial and temporal scales.

Fast-moving cycles at smaller scales are more likely to innovate and test innovations. While slow-moving cycles at larger scales “stabilize and conserve accumulated memory of past successful, surviving experiments. The whole panarchy is both creative and conserving. The interactions between cycles in a panarchy combine learning with continuity” (Resilience Alliance, 2015c).

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Figure 9: Panarchy of Adaptive Cycles, adapted and expanded from Gunderson & Holling (2001)

The larger slow-moving systems can stabilize the systems they contain by replenishing them and maintaining their established diversity and patterns of organization (remembering). The smaller fast-moving systems, in turn, can also affect the larger systems they participate in, either by a chain reaction of collapse — when loss of diversity, resilience, and viability at one scale is severe enough to affect the larger scale(s) — or through transformative (r)evolutionary changes that are innovated at the local scale and then spread to the regional and global scale (revolt). Figure 9 illustrates the interactions between fast- and slow-moving dynamic change processes at different spatial scales.

(R)evolutionary innovations are likely to occur in smaller systems that can respond to opportunity and change, while ecosystems and planetary health provide a stability that makes such innovation (and experimentation) at the smaller scale possible. Panarchy seems to suggest that innovation and the testing of viable alternatives in the transition to a regenerative culture are more likely to occur at the local and regional scale, and if successful, these innovations will spread globally (by adapting to local and regional conditions elsewhere).

In order for innovation to bubble up at a global scale we need to ensure open and transparent information flow, access to ‘liberation technologies’ (see Steele, 2012), and education that enables all of us to collaborate in local and regional adaptation and transformation supported by global collaboration. Transformative resilience has to be built from the bottom up and panarchy makes us understand that this requires both top-down and bottom-up collaboration and mutual support. Luckily this change is already under way.

… [if you disagree with the last sentence, the book is full of examples illustrating this point … this excerpt from the book is among the most heady and somewhat technical sections of the book, so don’t get put off by it. ;-)]

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 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

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Daniel Christian Wahl

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

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Daniel Christian Wahl

Written by

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

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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