Our current sustainability challenges, such as climate change, environmental degradation, food insecurity, unsustainable human settlements or destructive consumption and production patterns, are all examples of large-scale complex systems challenges. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been formulated to address these challenges, yet, it is important to remember that for transformations to happen, we need to become more literate in understanding complex systems. We cannot approach the big changes we need with the same technical and mechanistic planning approaches we have been using in the past. Combos systems evolve in unpredictable ways because of non-linear dynamic interactions. Planning and implementing transformative change therefore encompasses more than finding goals and identifying outcomes and indicators. They involve an essential a shift in ways of thinking, acting, as well as becoming aware of power structures and relationships the outdates ways of operating in place.
There is not one overall strategy that can work. In 2016 Frank Feels and his co-authers wrote an article comparing the transition to renewable energy in Germany and the UK. They come to the conclusion that transformations need “co-evolutionary changes“ in many different areas, such as technologies, markets, institutional structures and frameworks, as well as cultural meanings and everyday life practices (Geels et al. (2015: 2). Energy transitions are just a small part of the many transition pathways that are necessary to keep us going as humankind on a final planet. But they are exemplary for what we need to learn: Addressing these challenges requires taking a systemic approach to leading transformative change.
This is why using a pattern approach to designing transformative change becomes a promising pathway. Conceptually, such an approach to sustainability transformations can be built on an emerging – albeit fragmented – knowledge stream, which advances the hypothesis that the nature of reality and evolution consists of interconnected, co-evolutionary, and intentional structures of interaction. We can learn from life: systems, no matter if in natural or social settings thrive when there is a relational interaction taking place that furthers the vitality of the whole and that of the parts at the same time. Life as a whole is organized in patterns, and more so, it thrives and expands, when these patterns further the aliveness of a system. Vitality is contagious and at the same a prerequisite for systems to function well in the sense of an overall health that is build on the health of individual parts. There is not contradiction between the we and the I, but a discovery of understanding the patterns that generate and maintain negotiated patterns of aliveness. Andreas Weber has called this enlivenment and promotes a radically different way of seeing the world that would be better suited to help us deal with the current sustainability challenges. He urges us to see the deeply generative and creative urge of life to become more alive as an underlying current that we tend to deaden in the way we plan, act, and gather knowledge about the world and about what the future needs.
It is important to remember the insight from systems theory that the process of cognition is seen as the constituting process of life by many systems thinkers and that this process inevitably includes the cognition of patterns as one of the core functions not only of the human brain, but many living systems alike. Some of the recent breakthrough developments in artificial intelligence are based on pattern recognition technologies. But rather than leaving our ability to see, discern and act upon patterns only to the algorithms of artificial intelligence, we need to claim our ability to see and act in patterns back. Moreover, we need to learn how to enact patterns that further systems aliveness .
Our ability to recognize and work with patterns can be lifted into at least partial consciousness and this means that a discourse about patterns (link to Cl studies 5) and their influence on the course of life is possible, both individually and collectively. Such a discourse can enhance the understanding about both the patterns that enhance the shared liveable future of humankind, and those which hinder it. For example, there are numerous accounts where the exposure to a different world-view, a new thinking, a new experience or a new insight significantly shifted patterns of collective behaviour (Kelso, 1997; Clark, 2008; McKenzie, Woolf, Van Winkelen & Morgan, 2009) for better or worse. Becoming aware of the patterned occurrence of life in evolutionary processes is a cornerstone for recognizing patterns of behaviour, social interaction, and socio-ecological-economic structures.
Moreover, the recent advancement of multi-stakeholder collaboration as an approach to systems change, particularly emphasized in the goal number 17 on global partnerships, further encourages looking at human interaction systems as a patterned occurrence, dependent on the way cross-institutional interaction is arranged and enacted. More conscious ways to engage with interaction patterns may help understand when and how collaborative processes contribute to the effectiveness and result-orientation of SDG implementation. Developing a shared language around them can enable a collective of actors to actively engage and learn from them, which is of particular importance to implementing the SDG at the scale needed.
Find out more about the pattern approach in the transformation architecture for sustainability .