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The eminent ecologist Eugene Odum was among the first to emphasize the self- regulatory, or homeostatic nature of ecosystem dynamics, but he also highlighted the fact that in nature systems are controlled by a diffuse network of interaction and relationships. A good many system theorists have tried in vain to apply mechanistic and engineering based thinking to increase the level of control and prediction in complex living systems like human organizations.

Odum wrote:. Besides energy flows and material cycles, ecosystems are rich in information networks comprising physical and chemical communication flows that connect all parts and steer or regulate the system as a whole. Accordingly, ecosystems can be considered cybernetic in nature, but control functions are internal and diffuse rather than external and specified as in human-engineered cybernetic devices Odum, , p.

The cybernetic way of thinking — that tries to understand complex relationships through representing them in a web of dynamic positive and negative feedback cycles — was developed by engineers thinking about mechanistic human inventions. Its application to biological and ecological systems has proved extremely insightful, but also caused much confusion due to the carrying over of inappropriate mechanistic metaphors. Cybernetics combined with the use of more organismic metaphors in the creation of dynamic representations of complex living system is also called bio-cybernetics.

The bio-cybernetic way of thinking about complex design problems will prove increasingly useful as we shift towards the aim of creating design that participates appropriately in natural process. Bio-cybernetics is an important component of the systems view of life. According to the systems view, the essential properties of organisms, or living systems, are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships between the parts. Thesepropertiesaredestroyedwhenthesystemisdissected,eitherphysicallyortheoretically,into isolated elements.

Although we can discern individual parts in any system, these parts are not isolated, and the nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts Capra, , p. A characteristic emergent property that makes living systems more than the sum of their parts is that they are self-organizing and self-repairing systems.

Manual SELF-ORGANIZING FORMS MOST BEAUTIFUL, The Discovery of a New Formative Force

One of the main shortcomings of understanding living systems through mechanistic metaphors is linked to these properties. As much as it might be helpful to gain a simplified understanding of, for example, the human eye by comparing it to a pin-hole camera, or of the human heart by drawing analogies to a mechanical pump, their self-organizing and self-healing ability distinguishes them critically from machines. Fritjof Capra emphasizes three key aspects of self-organizing systems. These aspects of self- organizing systems could fruitfully inform the creation of more integrated designs that participate appropriately in natural process see chapter 7.

General Systems Theory facilitated the development of a whole host of holistic scientific theories. Applied to living systems it has influenced Earth Systems Science or Gaia Theory, as well as ecology and bio-cybernetics. Combined with insights from non-linear mathematics and chaos theory it provides the basis of the development of the theory of complex dynamic systems.

The systems approach inspired the complex computer modelling that has lead to the simulations discussed by Donella Meadows and her colleagues in Limits to Growth, Beyond the Limits, and Limits to Growth — The 30 Year Update see Meadows et al. These models have both warned of the effects of over-population, over-consumption and resource depletion, and at the same time demonstrated that complex processes cannot be precisely predicted.

Globally interconnected systems are too complex to be controlled or predicted. As a result some of the predictions made in the first edition of Limits to Growth have since been revised. Nevertheless, the overall lessons and warnings behind the predictions of these models should be taken very seriously in all our designs.

Early predictions underestimated the overall resilience of the planetary system and therefore suggested a more rapid collapse of vital planetary life support systems, but that does not mean that rapid resource depletion or exponentially growing rates of consumption or populations can be sustained. Sadly Donella Meadows died on February 20th, of bacterial meningitis at the age of only Her writing has reached millions and she has personally inspired many thousands of people through her scientific work, her academic teaching, public lecturing, and her local activism.

Before falling ill, Donella Meadows had been working on the manuscript for a new book, which was to summarize what she had learned from applying the concepts and tools of systems theory to understanding complex systems. Meadows, In this article Donella Meadows advises in a series of general guidelines,how to facilitate positive change in a system. This list is deeply insightful. In my opinion, it could be regarded as a set of guidelines for appropriate decision-making, participation and design.

The list describes a holistic problem solving approach that should inform design in responding to wicked and complex problems. Every global citizen and every professional designer would do well to contemplate these suggestions. I have summarised them below. Summarized and adapted from Meadows, , pp.

Get the beat. Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. Starting with the behaviour of the system forces you to focusonfactsnottheories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others. But also how did we get here? And where are we going to end up? Listen to the wisdom of the system.

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Aid and encourage the structures that help the system run itself. Expose your mental models to the open air. Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible. Mental flexibility — thewillingnesstoredraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure — is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.

Stay humble. Stay a learner.

Trust your intuition more and your figuring-out rationality less. Lean on both as much as you can, but still be prepared for surprises. In a world of complex systems it is not appropriate to charge forward with rigid, undeviating directives. Honour, facilitate and protect timely and accurate information!


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Locate responsibility in the system. Look for the ways the system creates its own behaviour. Do pay attention to the triggering events, the outside influences that bring forth one kind of behaviour from the system rather than another. Intrinsic responsibility means that the system is designed to send feedback about the consequences of decision-making directly and quickly and compellingly to the decision-makers.

Kant’s Philosophical Development

Make feedback policies for feedback systems. You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by static, unbending policy. Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops — loops that alter, correct, and expand loops.

These are policies that design learning into the management process. Pay attention to what is important, not to what is quantifiable. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.


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  4. If something is ugly, say so. No one can [precisely] define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can [precisely] define or measure any value. Go for the good of the whole. Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as [creativity], stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability — whether they are easily measured or not.

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    As you think about the system, spend part of your time from a vantage point that lets you see the whole system. Especially in the short term, changes for the good of the whole may sometimes seem to be counter to the interests of a part of the syst em. It helps to remember that the parts of a system cannot survive without the whole. Expand time horizons. Phenomena at different timescales are nested within each other. Actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come. We are experiencing now consequences of actions set in motion yesterday, decades, even centuries ago.

    You need to be watching both the short and long terms — the whole system. Expand thought horizons Defy the disciplines. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from — while not being limited by — economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians. You will have to penetrate their jargon, integrate what they tell you, recognize what they can honestly see through their particular lenses, and discard the distortions that come from the narrowness and incompleteness of their lenses. Interdisciplinary communication works only if there is a real problem to be solved, and if the representatives from the various disciplines are more committed to solving the problem than being academically correct.

    Expand the boundary of caring. Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, and systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones. The realsystemisinterconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. As with everything else about systems, most people already know the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn outtobethesame rules.

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    They just have to bring themselves to believe what they know. Celebrate Complexity. It is non-linear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behaviour on its way somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizesandevolves. Itcreatesdiversity, not uniformity.