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?
- 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.