Living systems perspective 101

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Interest in what design can learn from nature has been growing: biomimicry has inspired innovations from robotics to self-cleaning surfaces. But what happens when you apply the lessons of living systems more widely - beyond product design? What can we learn by taking a living systems pespective? Here's a 101 from Dr Anna Birney, Head of the System Innovation Lab at Forum for the Future, drawing on her PhD research.

First things first: what do you mean by 'perspective'?

A perspective is a worldview, a particular philosophy of life, paradigm, mindset or set of core assumptions about how the world works, how we make meaning of our lives. A perspective informs how we act.

What is a living systems perspective? 

As I wrote in my PhD, 'To take a living systems perspective we need to seek the whole system view that recognises ourselves and our society are nested within our environment; take a relationship-based approach to cultivating change; and learn and innovate.’ (Birney, 2014a:19).

Building on this, a collective living systems perspective is a societal worldview where we see ourselves embedded in the continuum of life.

Why take a living systems perspective?

The prevailing perspective shapes society and our current perspective (modernist western worldview) has helped shaped our unsustainability. Systems and systemic thinking might help us address these challenges. A living system perspective might be an appropriate perspective to take for sustainability as it aligns with how our environment and society works. 

What are the qualities of a living systems perspective?

They include:

  • Dynamic relationships — recognising that we are in constant flow, in dynamic interaction
  • Self-organisation — a spontaneous process that is life’s inherent tendency towards novelty
  • Life as a continuum — acknowledging that changes come together in a complex, continual process of emergence
  • Nested wholes — seeing society as part of nature, not distinct from it - including humans 

What does this mean for how we make changes as a society?

Understanding how living systems evolve can form the basis for how we might create systemic change. For instance:

  • Through constantly learning (and innovating), adapting and developing
  • Through cultivating relationships
  • Through recognising we are embedded in nature, and recognising the different levels of our existence

When we take a living systems perspective, we also recognise our prevailing paradigm or perspective - and can recognise the need to challenge it.
Read our Q&A with Dr Anna Birney on what it means to take a living systems perspective.
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