Whole Systems Approach to Ecological Design

Whole Systems Approach to Ecological Design

07 Jan 2019

This informal CPD article on Whole Systems approach to Ecological Design was provided by Gaia Education, an international organisation active in 49 countries on six continents, with a 13-year track record in education for sustainable development and with more than 17,000 graduates around the world and 111 partner organisations.

What Whole Systems frameworks for design?

A whole systems framework for design reminds us to link products to buildings, communities, industrial systems, cities, bioregions and into a national and global collaboration. Design for sustainability is about creating synergies between these different scales of design. It aims to optimise the health of the whole system for the long-term benefit of all participants in the systems, rather than maximising a particular aspect of the system to the short-term benefit of only a few. Building a globalised sustainable and regenerative human presence on Earth is about decentralising and localising our intimate relationship with the uniqueness of place and the specific bio-cultural conditions of each bioregion and each ecosystem. This process will require global collaboration and knowledge exchange, or “Cosmopolitan Localism”.

The “World Systems Model” (WSM)

The International Futures Forum has developed a “World Systems Model” (WSM) which looks at the linkages between key aspects of our world, within a whole system. The twelve nodes of the WSM connect twelve critical elements of a viable and thriving human system. The model can be used as a question generator and whole systems thinking framework. It has been designed so to be applied to the scale of communities, cities, bioregions, countries or for the planet as a whole. Healthy, regenerative and mutually supportive relationships between all the elements at any one scale affect the health and sustainability of the system at all other scales.

Imagine you are asked to design a water system using a whole systems approach. You can use the World Systems Model to explore the connections of your task with the other elements of a viable system and thereby find synergies which may also meet needs in other elements of the system. How does your water system affect and interact with the flow patterns of ecosystems and the biosphere? Are you creating a water solution with a positive impact on climate regulation and the health of the biosphere? Will your solution influence the need for imports from afar and could it also be of use elsewhere (trade)? How does it help to increase the resilience and wellbeing of the local community? What are the energy demands of your solution and where does this energy come from? Is there an educational (worldview) component to the solution being more widely adopted or used appropriately? Can the water system be optimised in ways that support food production? How does our system relate to current policies, regulations and guidelines (governance)?

The Art of Ecological Whole Systems Thinking

The conceptual emergency humanity is facing invites all of us to learn the art of whole systems thinking and design. A whole systems approach to ecological design cannot be one singular approach but has to be expressed through a diversity of related and mutually supportive design-based frameworks and practices that function a little bit like a diversely equipped toolbox which offers different approaches or tools for different problems.

We need to see the diversity of permaculture, cradle to cradle, industrial ecology, restorative design, bio-inspired design, transition and regenerative design and other approaches as a strength of the overall impulse to create a systemic response to multiple converging crises and find a path towards a more sustainable and regenerative human presence on Earth.

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