Economic Renaissance – Learning from Living Systems

It is a truly fascinating time to be alive. Humanity is at a fork in the road and everything depends on the choices we make today. No individual, organisation, or industry is immune to the monumental transformation taking place. The world, as we knew it, is literally and metaphorically dissolving before our eyes. Old paradigms are crumbling faster than we can comprehend and together we stand on the edge of tremendous opportunity as well as heart-shattering loss. In the face of this chaos, it is our organisations that have the power, capacity, and reach to become a regenerative healing force. Your choice point is now.

Will it be easy? Of course not. Transformation is never easy and nothing worthwhile is ever really handed to us. This mission requires boldness, imagination, intention, and the ability to hold space and be the container for this evolution to take place. A paradigm shift is the first requirement, from viewing the organisation through a mechanistic lens to a lens of a complex, living, and adaptive system that — given the right conditions, nurturing, and stewardship — can transform itself and its ecosystem for the highest good of all concerned. We, humanity, must reimagine and reinvent our organisations to become what we collectively envision — places where individuals come together to express and explore their fullest potential and bring their deepest gifts in service to a larger evolutionary purpose.

A new political-economic paradigm is emerging in our world that will signal a major turning point in human history. Similar to the time when humanity awakened to the fact that the world was round, rather than flat, this new paradigm radically challenges our perceptions of reality and the systems we have been using to guide our lives. The impetus for this emerging shift is the increasingly catastrophic failure of humanity’s conventional GDP-focused political-economic system. What started in the industrial age as regional and global competitions for hegemony and resources eventually developed into two world wars, expensive military arms races, ecological overstep, increasing human rights violations, climate change, species extinctions, and a surge of borrowing as those in power sought to solidify their hold on authority. In a little over eighteen months the fragile structure of this debt-driven competition has been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, causing widespread disruption in global markets.

So what is it about the emerging new paradigm that could reverse this self-destructive trend and alter the course of history? The answer is deceptively simple. Instead of perceiving economies as bottom-line, capital-driven devices for growing GDP and profit at all costs, the new paradigm sees economies as they really are: sub-systems of life, whose primary assets are people and Nature and whose goals are to preserve the continuous wellbeing of all life on earth. In this way, we feed into a feedback loop where means and ends serve one another rather than conflict. Simple, logical and remarkably effective.

“Society is collapsing, and people are starting to recognise that the reason they feel like they are mentally ill is that they’re living in a system that’s not designed to suit the human spirit.” 

— Jim Carrey

Economies That Mimic Life

The wonderful thing about this living system approach is how it generates economic success as it reduces humanity’s ecological footprint. In doing so, it overcomes the increasing frictions between means and ends that have plagued the mainstream industrial model and driven it to the edge of ruin. This is not to say that transitioning to the Living Systems model will be easy. However, in the final analysis it comes down to whether the citizens and leaders of a country want to go down with a sinking ship or find a more secure way forward.

Because the two models are so fundamentally opposite (incommensurable), attempts to find a compromise solution will almost certainly fail. That’s because their foundational assumptions conflict as can be seen in the following table. Consequently, the most promising (and profitable) way forward is to abandon the crumbling hierarchical model and adopt the new paradigm of regenerative living systems.

Area of Concern

Economies

Governance

Mission

Values

Vision

Leverage

Mindset

Metrics

Learning

Risk

 

Living Systems Model

Sub-systems of biosphere, Society

Egalitarian, Networked, Decentralised

Maintain healthy living systems

Primacy of living assets (People, Nature)

Optimise living assets (circular economy)     

Living asset stewardship (inspiration)

Holistic, qualitative (non-linear)

Focus on learning, adaptation (means)

Multi-loop (open-ended) 

Generally right (Lack of precision)  

Industrial Model

The dominant system

Hierarchical, centralised

Maintain authority, control

Primacy of non-living capital

Optimise GDP, profit

Financial gearing (debt)

Reductionist, quantitative 

Focus on results (ends)

Single loop (follow the rules)

Being precisely wrong (Climate change)

“The core of the ecological imbalance and global warming is the exploitation mindset. Nature is not for exploitation but exploration for better living, coexistence, co-caring, and co-growing.”
― Amit Ray

Life is Regenerative

The power of the living system paradigm is in seeing the living world as it really is rather than a notional construct for continuous GDP growth and capital accumulation. When we approach economies as sub-systems of life rather than super-systems that transcend life, we attain a dynamic leverage point – where a small change in one thing can produce big changes in everything. Remember – Life is Regenerative.  This is about realigning back into Life, and in the process we become more alive, and our organisations thrive. Transformation unfolds, it is not forced. By creating the conditions conducive for life our people and cultures flourish.

Life is mind-blowing.  Our rational minds might like to define it into neat-and-tidy biologically-based facts and figures, but life defies much of what the mind’s logic can grasp.  For instance, a small leaf quivering the breeze high up in the tree, has more sophisticated innovation packed into it than nano-computing or Big Data. A humble blade of grass trampled underfoot is far more complex than anything we humans have ever designed, and to boot, it’s organic, non-toxic, totally regenerative – beneficial to life. 

Our complex innovations are all too often highly toxic and exploitative of the natural and social systems we inhabit. This is what happens when we forget the underlying Way of Nature – we fall out of harmony with Life.  To fall back in line with Nature does not mean a back-to-nature regression or anti-technology movement, far from it, it is what will propel humanity into a renaissance of innovation and development, a Regenerative Revolution. Technology is a powerful tool that can help humanity evolve, as long as we remember and embody the wisdom of real life. Otherwise, it can be a distraction, obscuring our evolution, perhaps unintentionally catalysing our extinction.

“Look deep, deep, deep into Nature and you will understand everything better.” 

— Albert Einstein

Embracing Change

Change is occurring everywhere. People are seeing through the conditioned illusion that steers them away from greater self-reliance and personal empowerment. The forces that appear to restrict us actually provide a stimulus to motivate us toward greater personal achievement through the development of life-enhancing attitudes and abilities. Recognising poor energy management, in ourselves and in the worlds of business and government, helps focus our attention on what is really important in life.

The corporate model for success is faltering. People are realising that business based solely upon investment returns – where the accumulation of wealth supercedes any and all concerns for the health and well-being of the Earth and her inhabitants – provides no loving care or sustaining life force for anyone involved. Consumerism become a major preoccupation for millions of people. This can only last as long as people accept the hyper-marketing of credit that draws them farther into the wasteland in an endless loop of financial enslavement. A new common sense knows that empowering our lives with a conscious mind makes an immense contribution to the welfare of humanity. Self-responsibility for nurturing an awakened mind is the real investment that will change the world by offering newfound freedoms and creative expressions as the best returns for your focus of energy.

“Yet, at the quantum level, NO part of the body lives apart from the rest. There are no wires holding together the molecules of your arteries, just as there are no visible connections binding together the stars in a galaxy. Yet arteries and galaxies are both securely held together, in a seamless, perfect design. The invisible bonds that you cannot examine under a microscope are quantum in nature; without this “hidden physiology,” your visible physiology could not exist. It would never have been more than a random collection of molecules.”
― Deepak Chopra

Your Body - The Greatest Instrument You Will Ever Own

The speed and complexity of today’s business environment is forcing organisations to take a different approach. Those that wish to thrive must be able to adapt to changing conditions, similar to how living organisms evolve in response to environmental changes. Nature has already solved the problems humanity is facing today. The answers are all around us if we will only pay attention.  As without, so within. By exploring some of the more elegant biological models from your own human body, you can gain insight and generate “new” ideas for managing our businesses.

Neural Networks

Intelligence and learning are closely related to the number and types of interconnections between neurons in the brain. As new learning takes place, connections are modified to incorporate new intelligence. The more a particular learning is reinforced, the greater the strength of the connections between key neurons. In her book Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, Margaret Wheatley observes that, to foster greater health for a living system, we need to find ways to “…connect it to more of itself. The implication for organisations is that collective organisational intelligence, as well as the speed of organisational learning, is directly related to the number of interconnections among the members of the organisation and also with outside entities. As a result, learning in “silos” is less desirable than learning which is shared.

Endocrine Feedback Loops

The endocrine system provides us with a biological example of how feedback loops are successfully used in the human body. The prototype loop that is most frequently referred to involves the relationship between the pituitary gland (located in the brain) and the thyroid gland (located in the neck). The thyroid gland is responsible for the production of active thyroid hormone, which has a number of effects on metabolism. Patients with an excessive production of thyroid hormone experience a hypermetabolic state resulting in heat intolerance, sweating, weight loss, rapid heart rate, and other symptoms. Those who experience an underproduction of thyroid hormone, experience a slowing down of many functions, resulting in cold intolerance, weight gain, slow heart rate, constipation, hoarseness, and other symptoms.

The secretion of thyroid hormone is regulated by another hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), produced by the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland “senses” the amount of circulating thyroid hormone and, if it is low, increases the amount of TSH produced, sending a signal to the thyroid to produce more. Conversely, if excessive thyroid hormone is sensed, then a reduced amount of TSH is produced, sending a signal to the thyroid gland to reduce production. Feedback loops like this are numerous in the body. Blood pressure regulation is another example that relies on a number of interrelated loops.

For organisations, systems thinking tools and approaches are a natural way to adapt these models for practical use. Organisations with a results orientation, and those with a focus on continuous process improvement, are likely already using these tools. Even if an organisation does not have a systems-based approach designed for processes, there are practical opportunities to begin doing so immediately. Ensuring that up-regulation or down-regulation of processes takes place based on results and aligning resource allocation with the up- and down-regulation is an achievable first step for many teams.

Immune System

The immune system has the task of protecting our bodies by attacking external threats (infections), while at the same time, not mistakenly attacking parts of the body or potentially beneficial processes. In order to achieve this, our immune systems develop an acute awareness of what is “self” and what is “non-self,” typically by identifying and recognising the types of proteins and other molecules present on cell surfaces. Similarly, when the immune system encounters new threats, such as a bacterial or viral infection, the system is capable of “learning” by developing the ability to “recognise” the characteristic proteins on the surface of these invaders.

By developing a keen awareness of “self” versus “non-self” through purposefully eliciting shared values, purpose, and meaning, organisations can foster a strong sense of cultural identity. When a company achieves this level of clarity, it establishes high levels of engagement and a strong foundation for shared learning. Along these lines, it improves its ability to identify and recruit new talent with shared purpose and values.

When one part of the body successfully fights off an infection, the knowledge of that particular event does not remain local. Instead, it is shared throughout the immune system. Similarly, organisations would do well to ensure that organisational learning and memory are not kept local. Rather, they must exist in a widely distributed nature, so that the organisation can maintain the ability to rapidly identify and resist similar threats in the future. The body uses multiple messengers to disseminate this knowledge (mediators, antibodies, and other modes of cellular communication), and organisations can do the same.

Cellular Turnover and Regeneration

The human body is in a constant state of renewal. Cells are destroyed and replaced when necessary, as the body is aware of stagnancy. The cells of your body today are not the cells that were there a year ago, which means the physical “you” today is not the same physical “you” from the past. “You” as a whole, retain your identity, sense of self-awareness, purpose, and values in the midst of all this constant reinvention.

For organisations, the lesson here is that constant renewal and “reinvention” is a necessary component for success. At the same time, the organisation must retain ongoing awareness of core purposes, shared values, meaning, and other things that create a sense of organisational identity. Without the ability to continuously renew and reinvent, an organisation loses its ability to adapt to changing conditions. Leaders must be attuned to this important process and be ready to take action.

Cellular Communication

Cells communicate in multiple ways. Mediators, when secreted by cells, serve as signals to other cells and systems throughout the body. Cellular communication travels through multiple pathways and has redundancy built into it. For example, when the body is under stress, it sends messages to multiple systems to react quickly to perceived threats. When prolonged, these same messages can also have unintended consequences on the immune system, digestion, and learning.

Similarly, the messages sent by leaders and throughout organisations must take into consideration both intended and unintended consequences. A sense of urgency, for example, may be important in order to stimulate change, but organisations that find themselves stuck in this frame of reference for too long may find it difficult to foster learning and innovation. Consequently, leaders must develop a heightened degree of social awareness to assess the impact of messages that permeate the ranks.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
― Buckminster Fuller

Reality Unfolding

Let’s pause for a moment to gain perspective of what is unfolding around us in 2021 and beyond. In this supreme moment, it is important we are not frantically shuffling deck-chairs on the Titanic with the music of yesterday still reverberating in our ears. This is not the time to deafen your capacity to hear the chimes of the future. The future is unfolding before us, if we so choose to see it with fresh eyes. It is all around us, and deep within us.

The reality is, the human psyche is involved in a world of tensions. Our developmental learning happens in this dualistic world. Our ego-mind seeks to control these tensions by collapsing them into right/wrong, black/white surety, and certainty, yet this only breeds one-sidedness through projection and polarisation. It creates separation and exclusion – the very logic which created our problems in the first place. If we seek to stretch beyond breakdown into breakthrough, then this struggle for evolution starts right here, right now, in our own hearts and minds by seeking learning within the tensions, rather than collapsing the tensions into one-sided imbalance and disharmony.

Holding the tension open allows evolution to unfold, and something new to emerge out of the tension.  This is the essence of the Logic of Life. Collapsing the tension creates prematurity, half-cut learnings, and an undermining of life’s learning potential. The risk here is, we get stuck in breakdown, unable to reach beyond the tensions of the day, caught up in status quo thinking, not quite crossing the threshold, not quite entering the new dawn of deeper realisation.

“In order to eat, you have to be hungry. In order to learn, you have to be ignorant.

Ignorance is a condition of learning. Pain is a condition of health.

Passion is a condition of thought. Death is a condition of life.”

― Robert Anton Wilson

Alchemising Tensions

Tensions of difference are an inherent part of this duality of experience. Here are some of these tensions we experience day in and day out:

Yang  –

Outer  –

Masculine  –

Me  –

Reductive  –

Doing  –

Responsive  –

Light  –

Summer  –

Action  –

Yin

Inner

Feminine

We

Relational

Being

Receptive

Dark

Winter

Reflection

Neither side of these tensions is more right or more preferable than the other, and each situation invites us to bring in more of one side than the other. We can become conscious of the tensions and notice when we may wish to bring in a bit more of the other side of the tension to ensure harmony, rather than rigidly stick to one-sidedness. It’s an alchemic dance, a communion of opposing tensions. The Dance of Life – where the space between the notes informs the music just as much as the notes themselves do. For example: there is a shift in some circles to talk about moving from Me to We – yet this need not be a swing from one-sidedness (‘me’ – individuality accentuating into individualism) to one-sidedness (‘we’ – collectivity accentuating into collectivism). 

We need a mix of both the social/collective ability to live together in harmony, and the personal and entrepreneurial freedom of expression for our unique individuality to thrive.  It’s the diversity and unity, not one at the expense of the other. When we become too entrenched in one side being right and the other side being wrong, we undermine the richness that the tension affords us. What lies before us now is so much more than old polarities like red team versus blue team. A ‘middle way’ can emerge, where a healthy dose of individuality and collectivity work in tandem. Inevitably, it means a pendulum swinging back and forth at various times – this is the nature of life. No stasis, only the movement of non-equilibrium while striving for balance.

“…in divinity opposites are always reconciled.”
― Walter M. Miller Jr

All Choice is With You

As COVID hysteria erodes the edifices of normality, underlying systemic fragility becomes much easier to see.  It’s not just COVID, the exposure of corrupt government officials, mushrooming global debt, exploding residential property values, monstrous market volatility, rising mental illness, soaring suicide rates, or the immediacy of the climate emergency. It’s all of these combined, and much more. Such levels of stress in all systems create a moment in time where we either adapt and evolve out of this breakdown, or hold on to the crumbling status quo, facing into the inevitable train crash. All choice is with you.

Break-down naturally invokes fear, and an ever tightening-grip of holding-on to the safety of the status quo. At this point, it is way too late to save the status quo – even if we wanted to. Afterall, evolution is all about evolving through these transformative periods  Are you up for evolution? Scientists have long realised that evolution experiences fits and starts – relatively long periods of steady-state incremental change, and then significant shifts of breakdown leading to breakthrough. This is known as ‘punctuated evolution’, and it’s how life on Earth adapts and evolves. Breakthrough involves a shift in thinking – a reaching beyond our current bubble into a deeper and wider worldview. This moment can be a time of immense innovation, not just at the product/service or business model level, or structural ways of working, but in terms of how we perceive ourselves, our sense of place, and purpose in the world. It’s what this supreme moment asks – demands – of us.  Will you rise to the challenge of the day?

“The more you connect with nature, the more creative you will become.”
― Mwanandeke Kindembo

Learning From Living Systems

The world economy is in the midst of a profound change—one that is creating huge shifts in the way companies are organising to provide value for customers, owners, employees, and suppliers. Living models have parallels in organisations, when we consider organisations as living systems. As we face a whole array of wicked systemic challenges, we know we won’t navigate our way out of this mess without changing the logic and worldview by which we operate. 

Today, there are signs of a great awakening; cracks of light emerging that reveal a new way of attending to life beyond separateness and mechanistic thinking.  The Logic of Life – the way nature has been working for billions of years – enables us to draw from a worldview of relationality – inter-being’ – recognising that we are all participating as one human race within the interconnected super-organism of Earth. We are threads within the interwoven tapestry of life, and by becoming conscious of the depth and breadth of this tapestry, we learn to live in right-relation with life and its inevitable tensions. This brings us vibrancy, vitality, growth and meaning – sources of real and lasting happiness. The worldview of participation, and its Logic of Life, can be applied to how we lead and operate in business and beyond. 

“I am one with nature, I am nature, don’t cut me down, don’t burn me, don’t drive me to extinction,

don’t pollute me, don’t limit me, let me be free,

let me live according to my nature in my natural habitat, the universe.”

― Bangambiki Habyarimana

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