Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Four system traps, in undesirable regimes

While the adaptive cycle and panarchical connections reflect the possiblity of movement from one stable state to another, it’s possible to get “stuck” in a disfavoured trap.  Social ecological systems involve both natural systems and human systems.

After widespread recognition of the 2002 Panarchy book, reflections in 2010 revealed further development of the theory and practice.

Applying Resilience Theory

[….]  The theory has shifted focus away from managing for particular equilibria to the management of regimes, as described below.

Managing Regimes

Adaptive capacity has been defined in the ecological literature as the ability to manage resilience (Gunderson 2000, Walker et al. 2004). Humans manipulate ecological systems to secure goods and services and in doing so leave the system more vulnerable to change, by eroding ecological resilience (Holling and Meffe 1996). Ecological resilience is difficult to assess and measure a priori and is often known only after the fact — that is, the complexities, nonlinearities, and self-organized processes that generate regime shifts or ecological phase transitions are generally understood only after a shift has occurred, and then only partly. Even so, humans do manage for adaptive capacity. Those management actions can be categorized as those that are aimed at buffering the impact of disturbances (Berkes and Folke 1998, 2002), those that accelerate recovery and renewal, and those that attempt to choose and manage transitions among alternative regimes.

Regime management has two key components that must be actively managed. Quite simply, they revolve around two basic questions: (1) “What kind of system do we want?”

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Types of learning, with panarchical change as (i) incremental, (ii) lurching, and (iii) transformational

In order to appreciate the influence of resilience science and panarchy on ongoing research into systems changes, revisiting foundational works sometimes resurfaces insights.  In the 2002 Panarchy book, Chapter 15 provides a summary of findings.

In the course of the project hat led to this volume, we identified twelve conclusions (Table 15-1) in our search for sustainable futures. Those conclusions are reviewed in this section. [p. 395]

Table 15-1. Summary Findings from the Assessment of Resilience in Ecosystems, Economies, and Institutions [p. 396]
Summary Statement Conclusion
Multistable states are common in many systems. 1. Abrupt shifts among a multiplicity of very different stable domains are plausible in regional ecosystems, some economic systems, and some political systems.
The adaptive cycle is the fundamental unit of dynamic change. 2. An adaptive cycle that aggregates resources and periodically restructures to create opportunities for innovation is a fundamental unit for understanding complex systems from cells to ecosystems to societies to cultures.
Not all adaptive cycles are the same, and some are maladaptive. 3. Variants to the adaptive cycle are present in different systems. These include physical systems with no internal storage, ecosystems strongly influenced by external pulses, and human systems with foresight and adaptive methods to stabilize variability. Some are maladaptive and trigger poverty and rigidity traps.
Sustainability requires both change and persistence. 4. Sustainability is maintained by relationships among a nested set of adaptive cycles arranged as a dynamic hierarchy in space and time-the panarchy.
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Sustainability from ecological anthropology: the second life of trees

What might a non-anthropocentric view of sustainability look like?  This would probably include regeneration of species alongside others in the ecosystem.  With some recent presentations, an idea that resonates with audiences is the “The Second Life of Trees”, credited by Tim Ingold (2002) to John Knight (1998).  Ingold sees continuity of life not only of each species, but in the co-respondences of species alongside each over many lifelines.

As background, Gilberto Gallopin (2003) is helpful in describing what sustainability might NOT be about.  Firstly, an extreme anthropocentric position.

Sustainability of the human system only. This position, if taken to the extreme, could result in the Earth becoming a totally artificialized planet if total substitutability of natural resources and services were possible. The classical economicist view, for instance, regards the economy as the relevant system, and relegates nature to the role of provider of natural resources and services and of a sink for the wastes produced by human activities (Figure 3).

This is consistent with the notion of “very weak sustainability” 10 (Turner 1993). The very weak sustainability approach asserts that natural and manufactured capital can substitute perfectly for one another.

Then, there’s an extreme biocentric position.

Sustainability of the ecological system primarily, even if it means elimination or displacement of the human component (Figure 4).

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Hypotheses Concerning Living Systems | James Grier Miller

Towards a general theory of living systems, we should be looking beyond the singletons of a hierarchical level, i.e. (i) cell, (ii) organ, (iii) organism, (iv) group, (v) organization, (vi) community, (vii) society, and (viii) supranational level.

In a scientific approach, James Grier Miller created a list of hypotheses.  In the 1100+ page book, the hypotheses were not proved or disproved.  However, reviewing some of the hypotheses presents interesting questions as to whether an espoused systems thinker is actually sweeping in knowledge across multiple types of systems, or just reducing scope to a single system or type of system.

In this chapter I focus attention on hypotheses which apply to two or more levels of systems, because of their powerful generality. These are more than propositions of systems theory: they are general systems theoretical hypotheses. Several of the assertions I have made in my fundamental statement of general living systems theory in the preceding two chapters are, of course, cross-level hypotheses or propositions of this sort. Such, for instance, is the assertion that all living systems which survive have all the critical subsystems, or are parasitic upon or symbiotic with systems which do (see page 32).  [….]

Of the hypotheses stated below, some are probably true for all levels, some only for certain levels, some only if modified, and others are probably false. For some the question is: Is it true or false? For others the question is: Does it apply at a given level?

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A General Theory of Living Systems | James Grier Miller

When exploring the meaning of Living Systems, it’s pretty hard to ignore the major works of James Grier Miller (1916–2002) with a book thus titled.  In addition to the 1978 book Living Systems (of 1168 pages!) some additions were published in 1992 in Behavioral Science, the Journal of the Society for General Systems Research.

Miller cites Alfred North Whitehead as a spark for this research.

This book began sometime in its author’s prehistory — whenever an inclusive curiosity and a need to order and integrate arose. Hardly viable at first, the seminal ideas germinated during my college and graduate years, under the influence of one man particularly, my teacher, sponsor, and friend: Alfred North Whitehead. A number of these ideas stem directly from his “philosophy of organism.” Nowadays other terms are popular and, if he were alive today, he might prefer to call his viewpoint a “philosophy of system.” Key concepts later accepted as basic to systems science occur in his writings. Several sentences from his Science and the Modern World show how clearly his thought was a precursor of what today is called systems theory:1

  • 1 Whitehead, A. N. Science and the modern world. New York: Macmillan, 1925, 145, 146, 156.

“Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical, nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.

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When Unfreeze-Move-Refreeze Isn’t Working: Doing, Thinking and Making via Systems Changes Learning | SCiO 2022-07-11

For their community of systems practitioners, Systems and Complexity in Organisation (SCiO) UK invited a presentation at their Virtual Open Meeting in July. Presenting in a 45-minute slot, the slides at were covered in 38 minutes, leaving time for a few questions and comments.

The agenda mainly focused on “Doing”, with “Thinking” and “Making” referring to others presentations now available as recordings online.

A. What if Systems Changes aren’t Unfreeze-Move-Refreeze?
B. Doing: Briefing, then hub + 4 spokes in workshop
C. Thinking: Action learning for facilitators
D. Making: Systematic methods via multiparadigm inquiry
E. Co-learning with the 10-year journey

The “doing” section provides a minimal briefing on (i) rhythmic shifts, (ii) texture, and (iii) propensity. From there, the practices are depicted as a hub with four spokes.

This video available on Youtube has also been archived on the Internet Archive .

Video H.264 MP4
July 11
[20220711_SCiO_Ing DoingThinkingMakingSystemsChanges.m4v]
(HDPlus 1920×900 645kbps 268MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

Audio downloadable onto mobile devices was transcoded from the video into MP3.

July 11
[20220711_SCiO_Ing DoingThinkingMakingSystemsChanges.mp3]

A principal aim for the Systems Changes Learning Circle is provide guidance that is practical in use. While theory and methods have been developed in parallel, this presentation may provide an easier entry into reorienting towards rhythmic shifts as a central focus. Some compatibility of a systems change approach with the rich heritage of systems sciences is retained, and available with a deeper inquiry.… Read more (in a new tab)

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