The degree of interconnection and the quality of connections (what kind of relationships are established) do affect the behaviour of complex systems and the emergent properties they exhibit
…]The last three sections on ethics, aesthetics and complexity might seem theoretical, but, as we saw earlier, to break through to a new way of thinking about our problems, we need to ask deeper questions about the theories that currently inform our practice.
Let me make the theory more palpable by relating it to aspects of the long-term project to promote transformative innovation and the transition towards a regenerative culture on the Mediterranean island of Majorca, where I live.
Clearly, even at the relatively small scale and within the defined boundaries of the island, I cannot predict — much less control — all the possible parameters that will affect whether the transition towards increased resilience, sustainability and a regenerative culture will be successful, nor can I force the speed of the transition. Yet I firmly believe that systemic interventions through processes that involve diverse stakeholders will contribute to this deeper culture change.
One useful entry point is the issue of local food production and the link between food and wellbeing, as well as food production and ecosystems health and societal resilience. I can’t control to what extent the transition towards increased local organic food production will result from the systems interventions I engage in. Yet working with unpredictability and emergence rather than against it, I can facilitate the interconnections between certain parts of the system that were previously not talking to each other. The degree of interconnection and the quality of connections (what kind of relationships are established) do affect the behaviour of complex systems and the emergent properties they exhibit.
For example, facilitating meetings between the island’s agricultural cooperatives and a large commercial kitchen that supplies hospitals, schools, business canteens and some hotels helped to initiate a dialogue about how this kitchen could include more local produce in its meal plans. This offered the kitchen and its clients an opportunity to support the local economy and will help to increase sales and eventually even the production of local foods. Since the kitchen has multiple customers, the project initiated a cascade of conversations that in many cases are the first step towards educating the people responsible for procurement about the systemic benefits of choosing regionally produced products.
A relatively small intervention can thereby affect the information flow in the wider system, via the newly facilitated connections and relationships and through the existing networks of the different stakeholders. What kind of information the system relies on crucially affects emergent behaviour. So, to stay with the example, educating farmers, hotel owners, local government, permanent residents and multipliers (like educators, academics, activists and journalists) about the potential impact of rapid increases in transport costs and food price — due to spiking oil proces, climate chaos, terrorist scenarios, food price speculation or economic crisis — will make the system as a whole more aware of its vulnerability to anything that affects cheap imports. Once these possible scenarios are — even only hypothetically — accepted, it will be easier to spread memes like the need for increased local food production and the advantages of an increased level of ‘food sovereignty’ as a risk management strategy.
Different actors in the system might pick this information up in different ways and for different reasons. Some might favour the idea of increased local self-reliance, while others might want to protect the profitability of their local tourism operations from being overly dependent on the availability of cheap imported food. Yet others might become motivated by the overall reduction in environmental impact that comes with increased local production of organic food, including the positive impact with regard to the protection of the beauty of the Majorcan countryside (which tourism also depends on). Local politicians and economists might see the multiple opportunities for generating more jobs through such a shift towards local production.
Entrepreneurial opportunities, protection of cultural heritage, local resilience building, and the link between local organic food, health and education are all additional reasons why the memes ‘let’s decrease dependence on cheap and low quality food imports’ and ‘let’s increase the production of locally generated organic food’ could spread through Majorcan society.
I cannot control exactly how people will respond to my systems interventions — or those of many others like me, but I can aim to work as a ‘bridge builder’ between different factions who previously thought that they had nothing to do and explore with each other. I can illustrate to them the potential for win-win-win solutions and systemic synergy. Once they understand this principle based on the easy ‘entry issue’ of food quality, food security and health, I can expand the learning and this ‘whole-systems thinking approach’ to other aspects of the island system.
For example, this can be done by exploring the benefits of decreased dependence on the importation of fossil and nuclear energy and the shift towards regionally produced, decentralized renewable energy. Apart from keeping the money spent on energy in the local economy and enabling Majorca to become an international example of a renewable energy and transport system, such a shift would help to diversify the local economy away from its almost exclusive dependence on tourism and generate new jobs, while protecting the beauty of the island and the integrity of its ecosystems.
In many ways, the most powerful act of transition design was simply to plant and distribute the seeds of a conversation by asking the following questions: What would a sustainable Majorca look like? How could Majorca become an internationally respected example for regional (island) transition towards a regenerative culture? Why is the current system deeply unsustainable, lacking resilience, and in danger of collapse? How can we co-create a better future for everyone living on Majorca and visiting the island?
By spreading these questions, I begin to work for positive emergence through connecting previously isolated parts of the system and affecting the quality of information in the system. Clearly, I am only one expression of an emerging culture. Some people before and many around me are also spreading their visions of a sustainable Majorca. As these people start to collaborate, we begin to live the questions together.
Education and communication are vital in any attempt to design for positive emergence. Outdated education systems and a media increasingly subservient to corporate interests propagate limited and biased perspectives of the complexity we participate in. The narrative of separation and specialization without integration engender narrow perspectives that can’t do justice to the complexity we are faced with. These valid, yet severely limited, perspectives are influencing the solutions we implement and how our behaviour changes, thereby driving what systemic properties emerge. Regenerative design solutions are informed by a participatory systems view of life that is capable of integrating multiple perspectives. One of the design interventions with the highest leverage potential for the transition towards regenerative cultures is widespread education in eco-social and systems literacy.
Another important influence on the behaviour of complex systems is the way ‘initial conditions’ (like the dominant worldview, value systems or economic system) and ‘iterations’ (the unquestioned repetition of certain systemic patterns of organization and interactions) affect the system. It is important that as ‘transition designers’ or ‘facilitators of positive emergences’ we also take a closer look at the dominant patterns that impede positive systemic change and the emergence of systemic health.
Many of these patterns have to do with established power elites, insufficient education and the dominance of the ‘narrative of separation’. Working with culture change in this way requires patience. One effect of the narrative of separation is to make individuals believe they do not have the power and influence to change the system, but the narrative of interbeing reminds us that every change at the individual level and every conversation does in fact change the system as we are not separate from it.
In my own work on Majorca, I have chosen a place to make a stand and do what I can do to contribute to positive emergence in a well-defined bioregion. Islands everywhere offer special case study opportunities for the regional transition towards a regenerative culture. Many share similar problems, for example their economies tend to be heavily dependent on tourism and their consumption tends to be largely based on imports. While there are limits to the possibilities of localizing production and consumption on an island, these limits can act as enabling constraints that challenge our imagination and drive transformative innovation. They also challenge us to think in a scale-linking, locally adapted and globally collaborative way.
Since local self-sufficiency in an interconnected world is a mirage not worth chasing, these island case studies can serve as experiments that show us how to find a balance between local production for local consumption promoting increased self-reliance and resilience, and local production of goods, services and know-how that forms an economic basis for trade, which in turn allows the import of goods that cannot be produced locally or regionally.
Before moving to the island, I spent four years living at the internationally acclaimed Findhorn Foundation ecovillage in Northern Scotland. I also worked with various transition town initiatives to understand how we can create increased sustainability and resilience as well as a deeper culture change at the community scale. In doing so, I realized that while local communities, whether rural or urban, are the scale at which the change towards a regenerative culture will be implemented most immediately, many of the systemic changes necessary require a larger (regional) scale and regional collaboration between communities.
I moved to Majorca to explore how to facilitate a scale-linked approach to transition design, by linking local communities within a regional context, and by connecting them with the support of an international network of sustainability experts and green entrepreneurs. I firmly believe that islands can serve as excellent case studies for the kind of regional transformation towards circular bio-economies that will be necessary everywhere.
[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
Here is a report of a recent SDG Implementation workshop I organized and co-facilitated on Majorca.
This article reports on the recent conference on circular economy and entrepreneurship I spoke at.