Put on Your Systems Thinking Cap: What is Whole Systems Design?
This article is directed towards folks visiting our website or work that are unfamiliar with the concepts and frameworks that inform what we do and how we think. What is outlined is only a taste of the depth of systems theory and whole systems design, and hopefully inspires further exploration of the concepts outlined below.
We live in a world of systems. Complex systems. Systems nested within systems. You, me, and everything else can be thought of as systems or an element of a greater system. In the midst of such complexity, the interactions of all the elements of our world can become blurred and even invisible from our conscious observations and decision-making. Have you ever heard the saying, “See the forest for the trees”? This is a widely used idiom that discerns between the observations of each element/factor within a system (trees) as opposed to seeing the system (the forest). What are systems? How do they manifest in the real world? In what ways can we benefit from a “systems thinking” mentality? And most importantly, how do we use it in our work of ecological design? Let us explore.
What is a system?
A system is very simply described as an assembly of elements connected to form a greater whole. Below is a diagram that illustrates a very basic system we can all relate to: the human body. If you are reading this, you have a body, making this a choice example of a system to explore for a moment.
From afar, we see skin, hair, eyes, a nose, and so forth. These are complex systems in and of themselves, composed of billions of cells, nerves, and what have you. Beneath our skin live the systems that make up our skeleton, organs, muscles, veins, nerves and experiences of creativity, thoughts, and spirituality. Again, each of these systems are comprised of interconnected systems that can be observed in isolation but can only function properly when connected. We can observe the heart in great detail, but doing so will not reveal the complex mystery of how it controls the flow of blood or exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide through our lungs, nor how our thoughts, breath or muscles function in and of themselves. You may have become very frightened at one time or another. Your thoughts started to race, your breath became shallow, your heart started to beat rapidly, and your muscles tensed up. You may have then started taking in deep breaths, clearing your mind, and relaxing your muscles, after which your heart was able to slow down and regain equilibrium. This experience describes interconnected systems working in concert as a whole system. This is the only way that systems work — as wholes.
From beyond our skin come our necessary inputs and inherent characteristics or outputs. All of us need oxygen from the air, calories and nutrients from our food, clean water, friends, family, and community, and regular movement and exercise to stay fit. We also all expel carbon dioxide with each breath, go to the bathroom, sweat when it’s hot and shiver when it’s cold, and create things in myriads of manifestations. These inputs and outputs all either come from or exit into further systems. Our food generally comes from agriculture; our oxygen from a healthy, unpolluted, biosphere — the respiration of photosynthesizing organisms; water from a functioning hydrological cycle (or pumped and filtered using energy). Our excrement’s generally enter septic tanks, sewer systems, and eventually the greater ecosystem; plants consume carbon dioxide and deposit it in the form of organic matter or it is trapped in the atmosphere; our body heat warms our surroundings fractions of degrees; our creations of art, music, or science all flow into the cultural systems of human civilization.
This roughly describes the basic whole system of the human body. You may see that even a “simple” or “basic” system is very complex, and hopefully the description makes this clear. You are a system, filled with systems, embedded in systems — each affects the other and vice versa.
As a short exercise, map on a piece of paper all the systems you see in your own life. What effects you directly — what do you need and where do those needs come from? Where do your outputs or waste go — what systems are effected, whether beneficially or negatively? I’d like you to visualize your own personal whole system and think about its interconnections.
Seeing Whole Systems and Thinking in Systems
After your short exercise, you will have a rough sketch of the many systems that support you personally and the effects of your personal habits and outputs on further systems. This very act of observation is the basis of what we call ecology. Ecology is the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. By mapping your own system, you have effectively mapped a glimpse, if not the entirety, of your ecology: the relations between you and the rest of the systems you rely on and effect. This simple exercise will hopefully bring greater clarity and comprehension of systems and contextualize them to show the connections between each seemingly isolated element with the rest of its surroundings.
Take the previous exercise further: name and roughly map two whole systems you interact with on a daily basis — think of your transportation system, community system, or school system, for example. What elements are needed for it to work? Where do the inputs for the system come from and where do the outputs go? Go one step further and illustrate how these systems connect to your previously mapped personal ecology.
Ecosystems are the root of whole systems design and systems thinking. If you’ve heeded my advice and done the exercises to the best of your ability, you will have just now mapped parts of your personal ecosystem. An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. When we start to see whole systems, we start thinking in systems — our vision moves beyond a fixation on isolated elements or problems and we experience an ecosystem-centric point of view. Let’s take a short glimpse at a whole system that is often only seen through isolated elements and problems.
Agriculture. I mentioned it earlier when describing the system of the human body, namely how the main source of our calories and nutrients come from this system. We often hear of many isolated elements or problems plaguing agriculture. Yields. Pesticides. Prices. For the most part, each of these elements or problems are viewed and/or addressed in isolation. For example: When yields are poor, farmers are informed that they need to grow a new high-yielding variety or to apply more nitrogen during peak growth periods. If pests decimate a crop, the farmer looks for ways to eliminate the pest — they’ll plant Genetically Engineered (GE) crops that excrete their own pesticide or spray chemicals to harm or kill the pest. If it costs more to produce a crop than it can fetch on the commodities market, the farmer reaches out for government subsidies.
If we view these problems from a whole systems view, and put on our newly acquired systems thinking caps, we can see that these problems are in fact not isolated and that the “solutions”, in the long run, exacerbate problems as opposed to alleviating them.
The farmer with low yields lives in an ecosystem with high rainfall – so high that if she quit farming, her farm would eventually climax as a forest — allowing her to grow mostly anything relatively simply. Let’s say she grows vast monocultures of one or two varieties of corn and soybeans on rotation like many Midwestern farmers. Instead of spraying more nitrogen on her crops, which destroys soil carbon & humus, or switching to the latest, greatest hybrid or GE variety, she decides to diversify her cropping system. Over the next 10 years she transitions her system to include polycultures of both annual and perennial crops — planting 100 species and types of plants and turning a good portion of cropland to rotating pasture. She plants nitrogen-fixing plants and nutrient accumulators, and starts cropping in ways that increase soil fertility over time. She starts to spread yields across so many varieties and types that, even if one yields poorly, the system, as a whole, yields well enough that she doesn’t have to sell any land or get another job. Say it was this same farmer whose crop was decimated. She takes the loss in stride and doesn’t spray any chemicals. Instead, she sprays biologically active compost teas that boost plant immune systems, enhancing their inherent pest fighting abilities. While diversifying her farm, she gets a little crop damage here and there, but it’s no longer from just one pest, and she sees so many other insects, she begins to believe that insect diversity is high enough to largely regulate itself. And because she expanded her cropping system beyond just corn and soybeans, her polycultures yield a net income from more specialized crops that is not only sufficient to cover her production costs, she affords the right to accept less and less subsidy money each year until she receives it no longer.
Had she kept growing vast monocultures of the latest greatest variety, applying more nitrogen fertilizer, reactively spraying pesticides and continued the addictive cycle of subsidy check after subsidy check, this farmer would find her system needing more and more inputs over time, with yields, crop loss, and the need for subsidies likely increasing. In short, this farmer would probably live in a perpetual state of agricultural welfare or go out of business. Such is the story of agriculture over the past 60 years…
Examples of Whole Systems Design
It is possible that without you realizing, I’ve taken you through a very hypothetical and rudimentary process of whole systems design. By looking at our imaginary farmer friend’s situation with the Industrial Agriculture Complex — where instead of viewing agriculture as an ecosystem of highly interconnected elements and organisms in relation to their environment, it is viewed as a machine whose parts simply need constant replacing or upgrading and whose elements are only related so long as they achieve desired outcomes — we’ve dipped our feet into the shallow end of the world of whole systems design. Think of whole systems design as an ecosystem framework for sustainably meeting human needs. Consider the following four examples as relatively distinct “organisms” within the ecology of whole systems design.
This term and practice emerged in the 1970′s at the tail end of the era’s energy crisis. Ecological Design has been defined as “any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes.” Examples of this form of design have existed long before the previous definition. Cultures all across the earth and throughout time have integrated their infrastructure and lifestyles with the environment, mostly for the simple fact that before the advent and dispersion of modern agriculture and fossil energy use, there was no other option. Examples range from the ancient agricultural practices in Asia to the thousand year old rainwater cisterns of the Middle East. The practice of ecological design brings all disciplines together — agriculture, architecture, engineering, and so forth — to design human systems that live and work in harmony with ecological principles. Many thinkers have developed and taught distinct principles, and living examples such as pioneer John Todd’s living machine and The New Alchemy Institute exist across the map. Ecological Design is a broad study and practice and has applications in nearly all aspects of human existence. The key to remember is that all humans are designers by nature and everything we create, whether it be in our mind or with our hands and machines, is designed. Meshing our abilities as designers with the principles evolved by nature herself brings us the realm of Ecological Design.
Permaculture Design developed from the observations and thoughts of philosopher, scientist, teacher, and renegade statesman Bill Mollison. He developed the theory with his student David Holmgren and exposed it to the world with their first publication of Permaculture One in the late 1970′s. The basis of Permaculture Design originated from the idea that human existence cannot become sustainable without an agriculture that mimics ecological patterns — relying largely on the assembly of perennial crops and plants in agroecosystems. From this idea came the further thinking that human settlement and culture in general could not exist sustainably without the “permanent” ability to adapt using resilient systems in economy, building, water management and so on. Some define permaculture as “permanent agriculture” or “permanent culture” — to describe systems that can exist into the indefinite future by mimicking the processes of ecological succession, where communities proceed through various stages of structure and complexity over time.
I see Permaculture as a design system which aims to connect the realms of economy, ecology, agriculture, government and so on, in such a way as to mimic and replicate the resiliency of natural systems and apply the principles observed and found throughout the natural world. Bill and David, and many since them, have developed useful principles and design tools to make these ideas more easily attained realities — to create home, farm, and community ecosystems that have flows and cycles that function very much like those nature has evolved over time. Design approaches central to this focus are relative location of elements (Zone and Sector Analysis & Planning), single elements with multiple functions, the overlapping of yields and functions throughout space and time, and a myriad of other very useful tools and insights for planning in agriculture, homesteading, and beyond.
This design methodology and practice also saw its development and definition stem from the era after America’s first energy crisis of the late 1970′s (please notice that energy consumption is a recurring theme in whole systems design). It has seen widespread exposure in recent history with the book Cradle to Cradle, but is still a relatively unknown and unheard term. In Regenerative Design, the overarching aim is to develop systems that renew, revitalize or restore their own sources of energy and raw materials. This expands on the systems ecology we explored earlier when we first learned about what systems are and how they function. To build on the example of the system of the human body — imagine the inputs or needs being met by a system that upcycles the outputs released from the human system. Plants & trees fertilized with composted human waste that take in co2 released from our lungs and respire oxygen, and produce food, medicine and fire wood to keep our bodies satiated, healthy, and warm. That’s quite simple, and a very old practice. Another example looks again to agriculture. Imagine a system that produces economical yields, raw materials for soil fertility and means of reproduction within the limits of the system: nitrogen-fixing plants, coppiced biomass crops for mulch, salable tree crop yields and the seeds to grow more trees. Take these steps further and grow oil crops next to this system – the byproducts of which could power machinery for harvest, processing or storage. Regenerative Design seeks to re-route the inputs and outputs of any systems — to make the outputs on one end the inputs on another, and so forth.
Holistic Management or Managing Holistically
Alan Savory grew up in the Zimbabwean bush in the years before World War II, where he was enthralled by the wild “bush” on the one hand, and puzzled and challenged by the increasing land degradation he witnessed, on the other hand. He spent most of his adult life addressing this puzzle so that future generations could enjoy the bush as much as he had. This journey took him for a whirl as a farmer, game ranch operator, soldier, and politician. He wanted to know why land degradation occurred, what decisions exacerbated the problem, and in what way the problems could not only be addressed, but proactively reversed. Through this he developed Holistic Management: a decision-making framework centered around a holistic goal to test decisions against and feedback loops which make sure that land use decisions continually improve the state of the land managed and bring the holistic goal into fruition, over time. It’s seen huge success in ranching and farming applications using animal impact and grazing, but also for businesses and individuals of all walks and practices. The simple fact is that humans everywhere affect the health of the land through the decisions they make day-to-day; in life, business, as communities and beyond. Designed into this ecosystem centered framework are monitoring benchmarks to make sure that the use of energy, time, and money proceed in a holistic manner — to improve human quality of life (health and happiness) and reverse the ever-increasing degradation of land under management, and perhaps, across the globe.
Closing the Loop
These four examples are only specifics of ways whole systems design have been communicated and replicated throughout our era. Generations past had different methods. Future generations will likely form their own. Keep in mind that the very basic knowledge of what systems are and how they interact – and the subsequent ability to map and see them visually or mentally – is the key to systems thinking and whole systems design. Just as most of us are able to analyze isolated events, problems, or elements, we are also able to “zoom out” to a systems level to see the connections between events, problems, or elements, and how when these things overlap we get the complex interactions we call systems. When we see this, we can start to design from a system’s perspective and bring whole systems into the working order we envision.
How do we use it in our work of Ecological Design? Roots to Fruits utilizes systems thinking and whole systems design applied to the design of agricultural systems, land planning (of which agriculture could be considered a subset), and the multi-disciplinary approaches of Ecological Design — rainwater harvesting, waste management, bioremediation, and so on. We aim to create regenerative systems in these contexts. We work with the tools developed within Permaculture Design in our work of land planning and the frameworks for decision-making developed under Holistic Management in the behind-the-scenes realm of our business operation & management and in our goal setting and feedback loop checking in project work. Overall, we seek to put on our systems thinking cap to meet the mounting challenges created by the predicaments of peak oil, global weirding, and global financial economic tomfoolery.
There is much more on the topics of systems thinking and whole systems design than can possibly be covered in one article. Please refer to the linked material throughout this article for more information.