There is much to learn from natural ecosystems for complex and transformative change in multi-stakeholder settings. An important feature of biological (including human) systems is that relationships, and the patterns in which they occur, are ordered in the form of networks with constant internal communication. Although such systems can appear to be organizationally closed (for example, institutions can have visible boundaries such as legal forms), when a closed system is viewed within a larger context, each boundary becomes a threshold to the next level of the larger system in which they are embedded.
We often step out of our stressful work in what we can call ‘institutional eco-systems’ and immerse ourselves in forests, landscapes, lakes – biological eco-systems – in order to regenerate our mind and spirit. We rarely realize the larger connection between these systems. Yet, if we take a moment to expand our awareness, while we are in either of the two systems, we are able to find the places where what is happening in one system impacts the other. For example, when we swim in a river that forms part of a protected natural area, we may experience an uplifting energy, a feeling of aliveness that may have been stifled in the institutional setting we are exposed to. The example of water helps to see the broader connection. The river forms part of a greater system called the Hydrosphere – made up out of all the water systems of the earth and an essential part of the planetary life support system. Individual and collective behaviour, cultural influences and rules an regulations contribute to protecting or polluting Hydrosphere. At the same time, the institutions, which protect, the institutions which pollute and all the individual body systems working in these institutions, need water, supplied by the Hydrosphere, in order to function. Decisions I make when buying products, or taking part in actions, which affect the quality of the Hydrosphere therefore indirectly affect the peace I find when immersing myself in a river which seems far removed from my institutionalized self.
When we start observing this systemic relationships between all the systems we are part of, be they social environmental, cultural or institutional, we realize that, because all systems are part of a greater system, all systems need to constantly balance their autonomy with the rules and relationship patterns of the larger systems in which they belong. Both self-assertion and integration are two vital aspects of such a balance. Self-interest, when balanced with, and modified by, dialogue with other systems allows a system to grow from complexity and diversity rather than becoming stagnant as a result of wanting to rigidly defend its boundaries and inner integrity against other systems. On the other hand, the ability to create healthy boundaries and enhance the autonomy of each system is also necessary for each system to flourish as a unique expression of itself. In biological systems, a key to a negotiated balance and resilient system is diversity, a crucial requirement for the resilience of a system. The greater the internal diversity, the more sustainable a system becomes in the long run. This principle also applies to multi-stakeholder collaboration initiatives. They are built on internal relationship patterns and a shared context of meaning which in turn is sustained by continuous conversations.
Because of their temporary nature and – in comparison with institutions – their loose structure, they turn into catalysts for the change in behavior of the participating institutions and individuals. As examples of ecosystems, they offer us a unique opportunity to more closely observe the way in which internal relationship patterns and a shared context of meaning affects and is affected by the systems they interact with, and is part of. Viewed through the lens of chaos theory they become a fractal of the desired future as well as a model of Ghandi’s famous quote: “We need to be the change we want to see in the world.”