Living Systems


a new story for a regenerative future

Why Collaboration trumps competition

What do regenerative relationships feel like?

Why Living Systems?

The dominant economic logic of the 20th century has been the world, its organisations and its people as a mechanistic machine; constantly striving for every more efficiency and growth, organised through hierarchical management systems and measured by profits and GDP. Whilst some organisations have shifted from this mechanistic model towards a more pluralist model, this has still not helped us fully address the story of separation that has brought about increasing economic and political polarisation.

It has created not only economies, but places like megacities, that, whilst they also create wealth, extract that wealth from around the world often leaving devastation in its wake. It has created tourism strategies where destinations focused only on footfall rather than qualitative experience; housing developments focused on investor profits instead of quality of life and environment, and mega-farms driving productivity with chemical interventions that have destroyed biodiversity and soils.

But there is another way. A ways which has been tried and tested for 3.8 billion years. It is the way of nature. The way of living systems.

What are the main principles of living system design?

Living systems derive their fundamental design principles from the way in which nature has operated and evolved for billions of years. Another way of describing them are complex adaptive systems. They can be seen and experienced in nature, but also in the way in which we have designed constructs in the world around us. Cities are complex adaptive systems. Most national health services are complex adaptive systems.

1) Create The Conditions Conducive to Life

The first and foremost principle is that life creates the conditions conducive to life – which I first heard from Janine Benyus at The Biomimicry Institute. That principle manifests in many different ways. Let’s take a fruit tree. A fruit tree produces an abundance of fruit that is available as food to a wide variety of species. It shares its abundance with anyone from bees who feed on the nectar of the flowers, to other insects who devour the over-ripe and rotting fruit, to birds and small mammals like squirrels, to humankind who make beverages and food from their fruit. Fallen fruit is seen by humans as waste but nature recycles it into nutrients for the soil in which the fruit tree grows which closes a loop on the cycle of life by fertilising the soil. The fruit tree also produces seeds so that new fruit trees may sprout and its existence continue. The golden rule to stay in the game of life is to ensure in your design that you contribute to the conditions for continued life all around you.

2) Interconnected & Nested in Interdependent Systems

When you get used to looking for them, living systems are everywhere you look.

The human body is a complex living system: we have multiple different systems that operate entirely independently with multiple different parts that form those whole systems – our circulatory system includes plasma, blood corpuscles, veins, the heart. But that system is intimately interwoven with our respiratory system which provides oxygen to it and transports carbon dioxide away. If neither are working optimally, very quickly our muscular system will start to suffer from lack of oxygen to build muscle as lactic acid builds up, and if our muscular system doesn’t work well, we may not be able to exercise easily, will put on weight and our heart function will be impaired.

The inter-connected, nested inter-dependence is a primary characteristic of all living systems.

We know from human interventions in bio-systems how easy it is to de-stabilise interdependent ecosystems. When the grey wolf was eradicated from Yellowstone National Park, the rapid increase in the elk population gradually destabilised the grasslands of the park through over grazing but also caused the elk population to face boom and bust periods of starvation – as larger herds were no longer able to weather the changes in droughts that were coming with increasing climate change. Within 20 years of re-introducing the apex predator what we call keystone species into the Park, elk herds are stabilising and the ecosystem is recovering.The wolf and elk are part of the Park ecosystem, and the park ecosystem is part of the wider system of rainfall that enables the bioregion to thrive.


3) Collaborative Partnerships & Mutual Resilience

Here is another key principle of living systems: they participate in collaborate co-evolution, even though inevitably there is death and some species eventually die out. The species that continue are those who have most successfully contributed to the continuance of life and adapted and evolved alongside it.

A coral reef is a complex living system. When healthy it gives a home to millions of different organisms and species, all of whom live in harmony and balance with each other. Take the parrot fish and anemone. Although radically different species, they provide important services to each other that mean the one could not thrive without the other. The anemone provides safe haven for the parrot fish from her predators through the stings on the of her tentacles to which the parrot fish has evolved a resistance and tolerance. Although the sting being triggered uses up a lot of the anemones energy, the parrot fish also provides new energy by waggling through the waters around all parts of the anemone and helping to oxygenate the water. The fish also provides nutrients through its excrement that the anemone can feed from.

Elisabet Sahtouris said it well: “ the best life insurance for any species in an ecosystem is to contribute usefully to sustaining the lives of other species, a lesson we are only beginning to learn as humans.”

1. Life creates the conditions conducive to life

2. Interconnected, Interdependent & Nested

3. Collaborative Partnersips & Mutual Resilience

4. Adapt, Change & Evolve

5. Maintain Diversity To Add Value

4) Adapt, Change, Evolve

The Amazon rainforest is a complex living system. Within any natural system, there is an aliveness that is inherently unpredictable and constantly changing. In biology, life always evolves from the simple to the complex, answering the call of an evolutionary drive that is constantly adapting to emergent circumstances around it. Within a rainforest, plants, animals, microbes continually reproduce, grow and die. Rivers follow the contours of the land in their part of the rainfall system, but also change the land over time, adapting and adjusting to levels of rainfall, carving new shapes and curves in the rock through which it flows. Yet, within all this adaptability and constant change, the rainforest (unless it is subject to humankind’s intervention) remains a rainforest. There is also continuity in constant evolution, a paradox that is hard to comprehend initially.

5) Diversity Adds Value Through Creativity

A plot of ancient woodland or a flower meadow is a complex living system. Underneath the soil lies an intelligent web of life called mycelium which helps to organise a mutually beneficial exchange of resources, energy and material among the trees, grasses and flowers. The diversity of the living entities in the woodland or meadow will have differing needs for water, or flower and bloom at different times of the season. The diversity and mutual reciprocity within that diversity adds value to the whole system.


Why Collaboration Trumps Competition

Competition is one of the bedrocks of our current society. From the school playground, to university, at work, and at home – we are taught to compete to ‘survive’.  But what if that’s just a misinterpretation of what nature really does to thrive?


Regenerative Economies

How do we design regenerative economies? What do they look like? Where do we start? Sometimes we need a new framework or vision to work towards to change our thinking about the future. So I offer some metaphors for action that have popped out at me in my study of place, that I hope may be helpful to you, the place-maker. Whether you are a city-maker, a village-maker, a community-convener, a destination-doula, a regional economist, an estate owner or a fractal-farmer, these ideas are for you.


The Power of Place

Places are living organisms that are all each completely unique. They are unique in biology, ecology, and geology. They are unique in their cultural heritage. In regenerative practice we describe places as having a unique bio-cultural identity and potential. Lisbon is different to London. The Bay of Plenty is different from the Bay of Biscay. Mallorca is not Madeira. Some economies are built on the heritage of the land like Russia and New Zealand, others on pivotal geological and political positions across different cultures and regions – like Istanbul. Each place we live in has a unique potential to grow a flourishing economy based on its particular ecological and cultural heritage.


Regenerative Culture –  Communities

Revitalised and resilient community is at the heart of regenerative culture. Yet this is not easy to achieve in a polarised, divided world. Designing regenerative cultures is as much about learning to live, work, communicate together in harmony as it is about the phsycial design of our places. What new practices do we need?


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