Understanding patterns in the dynamics of complex systems may turn out to be a key leverage point for shifting the dysfunctional patterns of interactions, which cause current complex and wicked global challenges. It may help many actors at many levels to shift institutions, economic activities, policies, and technological advancements into more life-enhancing functional patterns of human-to-human and human-to-nature interaction. The core insights from systems and complexity theory can significantly advance a new approach towards leading transformative change for the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Developmental Goals. This also requires conceptualizing leadership as the collaborative capacity of a collective of diverse actors across institutional boundaries in a patterned approach, because transformation encompasses more than change: it involves a shift in ways of thinking, acting, as well as enacting power structures and relationships.
The Global Sustainability Goals speak of values for human beings and all other living – and non-living organisms on earth. Understanding the role of enhancing the degree of life – or aliveness – in people, human communities and ecosystems may turn out to be a key leverage point for shifting dysfunctional patterns of interactions into more life-enhancing functional ones. In other words, the question for change agents and decision-makers in sustainability transformations will in future be:
What kind of patterns of interaction generate more aliveness or less, and for whom? How does a certain plan of interventions contribute to overall systems aliveness and a sense of aliveness of the people involved?
The view on pattern recognition as a process of engaging with the 17 Developmental Goals suggests five implications for integrating a systems view of life into leading the transformative change the goals require.
First: It implies that a better understanding of patterns that enhance the vitality of human-ecological systems is needed in the field of sustainable development. Christopher Alexander (1979) described the ‘quality without a name’, or wholeness in a given space as synonymous with the ‘degree of life’ or aliveness in such a space. While he referred to an architectural space, recent scholars suggest that degrees of aliveness can also be found within a pattern of human interaction, in the relationship between humans and nature, or in a city space, in supply chain management, in an educational system, in an agricultural system, or in a political environment.
Second: Promoting skills to recognize and enact life-enhancing patterns of interaction may therefore create an empowering pathway into a more sustainable future. From a pattern language perspective, the many social, environmental and economic challenges the world faces can be seen as dysfunctional patterns of human interaction in action. These problems may therefore be corrected by applying principles, which give rise to more functional patterns of interaction. To illustrate, those working towards sustainability goals could take self- and collective responsibility by asking themselves: ‘How do we contribute to keeping a dysfunctional pattern in place?’ and equally: ‘How can we contribute to shifting it?’
Third: The key to implementing a patterned approach is to find a way to collaboratively fit the multiple actors, levels, initiatives, and other pieces of the change puzzle together in a desired direction – as a patterned approach – so that they bring vitality and functionality to overall existing systems, rather than dysfunctionality. The Global Sustainability Goals (SDGs) provide an important frame for thinking about patterns in change, because they serve as ‘attractors’ for numerous self-organizing approaches towards systemic change from any number of places and orientations. As attractors, the SDGs provide the basis for strong identification with articulated targets, values, and norms. Although no one really knows how to reach the aspirations represented in the goals, such identifications can foster multiple initiatives, which in turn have a better chance of getting closer to the goal. Furthermore, motivating the actors within these initiatives to see themselves as part of a larger pattern of change and recognize functional as well as dysfunctional patterns will enable them to also understand how they contribute to dysfunctional patterns or how they can shift them.
Fourth: Even if there is an inherent tendency towards aliveness in all of life there are also often trade-offs between different systems, which means that what boosts one system’s aliveness can compromise that of another. Such trade-offs, however, if not seriously attended to, inevitably lead to overall compromised or dysfunctional patterns, which in turn, diminish the aliveness of smaller and larger systems. Water scarcity, environmental degradation or climate change are just a few examples. Individual enhancement of aliveness patterns at the expense of other people or natural systems leads to overall dysfunctional patterns, which then damage or endanger everybody, including future generations.
Fifth: Life has an inherent tendency to create wholeness and to further the degree of life. Living systems theory as much as recent insights into biology suggest that this inherent urge leads to life always re-organizing into creating more life – even after destruction and chaos, disintegration, and damage. For example, over time and left to their own devices without human interference, ecosystems emerge back into the best possible degree of wholeness. Trees and plants in a forest support each other’s aliveness. In the human realm, even in the midst of brutal wars or natural disasters, people help each other enhance and maintain physical and psychological aliveness. Not only humankind is driven by recognizing patterns, creating meaning from them and striving to further their own feeling of aliveness, but the urge to generate and regenerate life – which is more than survival – is one that humankind shares with each other and with the rest of nature. Hence, it is important in the complex adaptive systems change that the Global Sustainability Goals aim to address to search for emergent, co-evolutionary patterns of aliveness. These interaction patterns can be identified and worked with – and possibly further transformed into more life-enhancing patterns. Such patterns arise when actors engage in multiple actions at different levels of the system, from local to municipal to regional to national and international, using approaches that have a degree of similarity, but are not identical to each other.
This post is an adapted excerpt from the book: Stewarding Sustainability Transformations.
Find out more about the pattern approach in the transformation architecture for sustainability.