Life Principles for Systemic Change

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Sandra Waddock of Boston College and Petra Kuenkel of the Collective Leadership Institute. They recently published an article in Organization & Environment entitled “What Gives Life to Large System Change?,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the motivations and innovations of their research:]

As scientists issue ever more frightening reports on the impact of climate change on human civilization, and as the implications of growing inequality become increasingly evident, it has become increasingly clear to us that systemic transformation is needed. Though a great deal has been written about the need for transformational change, we observed that few studies focused on the underlying principles that make systems function effectively—or do what we call ‘giving life’ to the system. Reflecting on the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s ideas about the risks associated with transgressing planetary boundaries, we believe many people and particularly the change agents among us need to take ‘deliberate, integral, and adaptive steps’ to reduce humanity’s impacts on the planet.

In seeking principles for our paper in Organization and the Natural Environment, ‘What Gives Life to Systems Change,’ we drew on a wide range of sources, from architecture, urban planning, biology, enlivenment, appreciative inquiry, systems thinking, resilience theory, complexity theory, physics, and regenerative capitalism, to name a few sources. We were determined to draw out and synthesize the common elements—the core principles—that enhance the flourishing of living and human systems. Ultimately, we concluded that six principles are vital to providing what architect Christopher Alexander in developing pattern language called the ‘quality without a name,’ and we call ‘what gives life.’

One principle is purpose—or what we label intentional generativity, that is. the urge that all living systems have to continue into the future (at the most minimal level, to survive). A second principle is that of connectedness or, more technically, contextual interconnectedness with requisite diversity, which argues from new understandings in ecology, biology, and quantum physics that living systems are integrally interconnected, and also that healthy living systems require diversity so they do not depend on any one species or element for their flourishing.

Another principle—and they are presented in no particular order—is that of boundedness or permeable containment. The idea here is that living systems have some sort of boundary that provides identity, and a form of permeable barrier that allows for new energetic inputs and the removal of waste to keep the system healthy. Emergent novelty is a fourth principle, and is based on the idea that flourishing living systems are constantly changing, that is, becoming new in some way, in creative processes of emergence. Living systems cannot be fragmented or they lose the character of life. Therefore, and must be considered as wholes, so the fifth principle is =mutually enhancing wholeness (or wholeness). The sixth principle, following Maturana and Varela, is that of proprioceptive consciousness (or simply consciousness). Consciousness argues that all living systems have a cognitive aspect and that the property of having life involves a degree of mental or learning activity.

Many details and implications are in the whole article, which we urge both change agents and scholars in management to read. As we think about these principles, we urge scholars, designers, urban and other planners, and change agents to carefully weigh the importance of these principles as they think about designing tomorrow’s societies, organizations, and communities.

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