Systems Intelligence Part 5 : Transcending Reformist and Revolutionary Approaches to systems change

By Andy Thomson, enkel & Holonic

This is part 5 of a seven-part series about ‘systems intelligence’. The case for transcending typical systemic approaches to developing a regenerative economy. The other parts are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7

In this post I look at our collective problems and a case for transcending approaches and paradigms.

Although we see a diversity in initiatives to tackle climate change and transform economies toward low-carbon development, many often work in silos and appear to suffer the same “competitive” ME and MY, US and OUR pitfalls explored in instalment 2, even though some of the thinking and actions have moved up into the worldcentric level.

In short, many are trying to address worldcentric, high VUCA challenges with the same ego-sociocentric perspectives, systems and actions that created them. Therefore, the “systems intelligence” implemented is described to be somewhat 2 or 2.5 dimensional.

In the figure below I show how these major groups of approaches could be considered to work and interact in a period which is essentially a window of opportunity. Here the reformist initiatives (dotted blue lines) look to extend/sustain the present paradigm further into the future, whilst the green arrows show a multitude of revolutionary initiatives, vying for acceptance and recognition in the hope of birthing and growing a new paradigm (green line).

Note how some revolutionary initiatives and innovations showing potential, perhaps due to economic powers or a desire to scale, are transformed into somewhat diluted reformist alternatives. The Sharing Economy is a perfect example.

It is also important to mention that almost all revolutionary initiatives need and are influenced by the dominant paradigm. A new system invariably does not develop in isolation, it evolves from within the old system or can be thought of being birthed from it. This seems obvious but appears to have been somewhat overlooked by many in the revolutionary space in the past.

Although some initiatives have tried to break down silos, in reality, it is perceived to be about sharing or presenting ideas rather than collaborating per se at a worldcentric level. Over time it is considered that naturally these approaches and initiatives will slowly evolve into a hybrid. However, with leading climate scientists warning we only have about a decade left to avoid climate catastrophe, reports suggesting that individually both approaches are inadequate, the interrelated global nature of the challenges, worsening symptoms, and a somewhat confused mainstream — inviting sceptics from traditionalist in the process — begs the question: what can be done?

The case for transcending approaches and paradigms

According to systems scientist Donella Meadows’ theory of 12 leverage points for systems change, the approach which has most potential is her point no. 1 which is to:

“Keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that everyone, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding[…]. It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm […].

I.e. neither the reformist or revolutionary approaches, or any one initiative or individual within them holds all the solution to our challenges, because as biologist Humberto Maturana says;

“we don’t perceive the world we see, we see the world we know how to perceive, our perception is a reflection of our history, that is the characteristic of a living system, […] we bring forth a reality […]. When one human being (or group) tells another human being what is real, what they are doing is making a demand for obedience. They are asserting that they have a privileged view of reality”

This is the ultimate intention of my 3D Systems Intelligence Lens as introduced in part 2;
to help create a way to hold a wide world perception that can help us reflect on our own individual and sociocentric perspectives and understanding of the world, whilst appreciating others as part of a bigger whole.

This would also include for example those who might deny that climate change exists, or argue that our current economic activity and mindset is not extractive.

As such, my own 3D systems intelligence journey has shown me that rather than outline an “emergent” approach that tries to transcend the others, it is more beneficial to pose a series of questions for further debate with a transcendence mindset. These questions are structured around Meadows’ 12 Leverage Points and aim to explore what strategies that transcend paradigms and approaches might look like and what this entails.

Here are some questions for further debate and exploration:

LEVERAGE POINT 1 : The power to transcend paradigms (out of which the approach evolves)

a) Do we even need to transcend approaches, i.e. do you agree with the analysis so far? If not, why not?
b) What would an approach that transcends paradigms look like, and what would happen to the individual approaches?
c) How would it be framed and promoted to develop accord around the characteristics described?
d) How do you help different people and initiatives see where they fit in, so they can act more effectively and efficiently?
e) Do we need new language, symbols, metaphors and models to discuss these concepts? If so, do they already exist? If not, what might they look like?
f) Does the 3D Systems Intelligence Lens help to transcend paradigms? What would be better?

LEVERAGE POINT 2 : The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises

a) Looking at life through the 3D Systems Intelligence Lens, how can we define indisputable real wealth and wellbeing, regardless of the paradigm we aligns with?
b) Based on these what anomalies and failures do we see in our present global unstated assumptions?
c) Who are the “open-minded people in the vast middle ground” that we need to help realise this?
d) Who and what is needed to make this happen and how do you go about it?

LEVERAGE POINT 3 - The goals of the system.

a) What is the present whole system goal of our economies?
b) Based on the answers to the questions in LP 2, what should the indisputable “whole system goal” of our economies be?
c) How would this new “whole system goal” be articulated, championed and promoted to those identified in question LP 2C?

LEVERAGE POINT 4 : The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organise system structure.

a) What can we learn from evolution in nature to help with “self-organisation” within our economies and human life, that influence items further down on this list?
b) How do we design these characteristics into our new innovations from the outset?
c) What areas of focus are worth leveraging first i.e. trust building mechanisms, money, finance, human interaction?
d) What is needed to encourage activity around this LP, i.e. experimental mentalities, praxis spaces, decentralised tools and repositories?

LEVERAGE POINT 5 : The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).

a) Who currently has the power over the rules?
b) Who should have the power to make and change the rules, if anybody?
c) What might indisputable economic rules look like?
d) What types of trends and behaviours do we need to encourage and what rules are needed to do this?
e) Which current rules are worth maintaining and why?
f) Do we need feedback to influence the rules?

LEVERAGE POINT 6: The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).

a) What type of information flows (feedback) are currently missing but desperately needed and why?
b) Who should have access to this information?
c) What type of behaviour is it hoped it will change?
d) What is the most compelling form?
e) Who currently has access and control over this information and why is not being shared? Are there accountability issues?

LEVERAGE POINT 7: The gain around driving reinforcing (positive) feedback loops.

a) What high impact, low resistance strategies can be implemented at scale to reduce the extractive gains (+ lagging degenerative impacts) around a positive feedback loop?
b) Who and what will be impacted and why?
c) Who and what is needed to do this and how will it happen?
d) What repercussions or secondary impacts may this have? How can they be mitigated or amplified? Are ripple effects possible?
e) Can the positive loops be turned to negative loops overtime?

LEVERAGE POINT 8 : The strength of balancing (negative) feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

a) What current forces are distorting or weakening negative feedback loops
b) Why is this happening and what and/or who is responsible?
c) What can be done about this?
d) What high impact and indisputable negative impacts can quickly be scaled?
e) Who and what is needed and how will it be done?

LEVERAGE POINT 9: The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

a) What can be done to reduce the time taken to react to negative consequences at multiple scales (report creation, analysis, policy development and implementation, behavioural change)?
b) Are delays primarily due to the speed of information or response to that information and what can be done to drive timely actions that are neither two slow or fast?

LEVERAGE POINT 10 : The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).

a) What can we understand about limitations and bottlenecks of the structure of material stocks and flows?
b) How do we refrain from fluctuations or expansions that strain capacity?
c) What lessons can be learnt from the present structure and nature to inspire future designs?

LEVERAGE POINT 11: The sizes of buffers and other stabilising stocks, relative to their flows.

a) What buffers are missing in the world today and why?
b) How can they or alternatives be created?
c) What new types of buffers, holding valuable stock, now exist but need to be potentialised?
d) How can this be done?

LEVERAGE POINT 12 : Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)

a) Why according to Meadows is 90–99% attention given to constraints and parameters yet they rarely change behaviours unless they influence the LP’s discussed above?
b) Based on the learnings can they be used more strategically to influence deeper leverage?
c) How can metrics and readings be integrated and consolidated at different levels?
d) Can we use technology to develop “health status” visualisation systems that can help influence behaviours and strategies?

What do you think?

In the next part I will continue to look at the emergent alternative which integrate narratives and approaches.

Collective in Perth, Western Australia with the mission to create a new generation of changemakers.