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Jamming in the Flux: Insights for a Worldchanger's Strategic Agenda

In this essay, I draw attention to a fruitful and rich model for global system change called the Panarchy Cycle, and draw out some high-level implications for a worldchanging strategic agenda.

It's Both/And

Effective worldchanging needs good models and theories of change. Models are important because they help us make sense of things. They focus efforts, generate hypotheses and ideas to be tested and tried. They may even help us tell our story, explain the context, beyond the converted. Despite their power, it's been fashionable of late to reject theory as being too academic and abstract, and thus "not practical" or relevant. Business executives and technologists, especially in the Anglo-American world, over-represent this camp. On the other end of the continuum, we have people, usually social activists and critics, who reject models (sometimes it doesn't matter what it is) on principle because they are too "Western" and may undermine other ways of knowing and experience. Both camps have their points. All models can mislead; they can destroy thinking as much as they create it, an observation that must not be forgotten when using any model or theory.

However, the truth is we can't avoid models and theory; whether we're conscious of it or not, we all carry models in our head of how the world works, and we are constantly integrating both theory and experience as we navigate through life. We need models/theory to push our ideas beyond the limitations of experience, and we need experience to test and ground our ideas. Pitting theory versus action and analysis versus experience is thus a false and unhelpful meme, the residue of much conventional education (See Managers not MBAs by Henry Mintzberg, which is so much more than the title suggests.) The truth is also that thinking abstractly is hard and many of us have been under-educated in how to do this well. But innovation and worldchanging happens at the sweet-spot between these two modes. There's no escaping this. The issue is not whether to use a model or not, but rather the choice between the models we should use. The choice is between finding models that force us to ask better questions and improve the quality of conversation. George Box put it most concisely by saying " all models are wrong, but some are useful."


A Model for Resilient Change

So, what are some useful models for understanding global systemic change? What conceptual tools can we grab to help make a compelling case that the context is shifting in fundamental ways? I'm often surrounded by trained skeptics, powerful incumbents, so this is something I've been looking high and low for. But finding good models is tough. Much is mediocre. Fortunately for us, a remarkable, transdisciplinary group of scholars called the Resilience Alliance have been working hard to fill this conceptual gap.


Called the Panarchy cycle, after the unpredictable Greek god Pan, this group developed an integrative theory (i.e. comprising economic, ecological, and social systems) to better understand the source and role of change in systems both natural and human. In the process, we learn more about the conditions for resilience and adaptiveness in any system. The Panarchy cycle looks like a figure-eight. It consists of two loops, one lurching forward (the growth and building up phase) and the other recoiling backward (the reorganization and renewal phase.)

While pained in two dimensions, it's actually a three-dimensional model, looking rather like the DNA spiral laid on its side.


As their research shows, all adaptive systems have a set of nested cycles like this going on at different scales. This is what makes them resilient and able to absorb shocks and change. I'll let the visuals do the rest of the talking and focus on some high level implications. But for more -- and there is a lot more to this model -- check out their book, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature. Since its publication, the Alliance have been testing their hypotheses in the field in a series of regional studies.)

Opportunities for Change in Times of Flux

A leader of this project was C.S. "Buzz" Hollings, the path-breaking ecologist. In a recent paper, From Complex Regions to Complex Worlds (easier to penetrate than the book so start there) Hollings draws some profound observations: that is, much evidence suggest that we are entering the “creative destruction” phase (? Omega) at a global level, with the following implications:

During such times, uncertainty is high, control is weakened and confused, and unpredictability is great. But space is also created for reorganization and innovation. It is therefore also a time when individual cells, individual organisms or individual people have the greatest chance of influencing events. In societies, there is opportunity for exploratory experiment if the experiments are designed to have low costs of failure. The future can then be mapped by experiments that fail and succeed, rather than by long term plans. It is the time when a Gandhi or a Hitler can use events of the past to transform the future for great good or great ill. (Emphasis added)

This theme also struck me as I read Adam Kahane's new book, Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities (See Jamais' Worldchanging Interviewwith Adam Kahane). For instance, the success of the Mont Fleur process in South Africa, one of the first and most famous applications of scenario planning at a national level, was partially due to the fact that the whole country was in period of profound transition. This work occurred during those neither-neither years (1991-1994) after Mandela's release, when apartheid was clearly over yet the white regime was still nominally running the government but without the legitimacy to do so. As Trevor Manual, as a member of the Mont Fleur team, put it:

There was a high degree of flux at that time. That was a real strength. There was no paradigm, there was no precedent, and there was nothing; we had to carve it, and so we were perhaps more willing to listen.

This unique moment made these people, once bitter enemies across racial and political spectrums, not just open to new ideas “out there” but also new ideas about themselves.

Bad News, Good News

Think of South Africa as a microcosm, an early bounded experiment, for a broader period of transition that our world is going through. (As Kahane argues, we have the "apartheid syndrome" lurking in many places within our society. In our companies, in our governments, in ourselves.) However, this is both bad and good news. The bad news is that, like many revolutions in the past, transitions often get ugly. At the very least, we can expect more turbulence, disorder, disruption and possibly decline as the old structures break down and the new ones emerge. We may not be as lucky as South Africa was in terms of avoiding widespread violence. "Transformation is not easy and gradual. It is tough and abrupt," writes Hollings. So when you throw around the word "revolution" -- which I hear many well-meaning change-makers do-- be careful what you ask for. If history is any guide, it could be a rough ride.

The good new is that it need not be. We can learn our way through this, however belatedly and spasmodically, if continue our worldchanging efforts. The good news is that we have more opportunity than ever before to change the parameters of the system, and do so peacefully and thoughtfully. "Contextual change is the cradle of new institutions" writes Richard Normann, a wonderful business theorist. If the Resilience network’s findings are true, this means that the central challenge of the moment is to trigger a bunch of "mini" panarchy cycles at local and regional levels which may create complimentary pools of social ingenuity and learning to select from as the transition creeps towards a global scale. This may mitigate the severity of the release point and ensure that we are more resilient and adaptive -- that we can manage this transition with the least amount of “destruction” and the best amount of “creation.” We want to avoid situations like the French Revolution or the last mass extinction, events where there was too much change, too fast, making the leap to renewal all the harder to do because so much was destroyed when the systemic dike broke open.

How we do all this is still dimly perceived, but hints are found in this blog, in books like Kahane's, in exceptional research like the Resilience Alliance, and in the myriad of experiments happening around the world, especially in hotbeds of transition like South Africa, India, China and Brazil. Indeed, Hollings argues that "the only way to approach such a period -- where uncertainty is very large and one cannot predict what the future holds - is not to predict, but to act inventively and exuberantly in diverse, adventures in living and experiment." To improve our chances for a positive phase of renewal, he recommends the following strategic agenda:

i.) Encourage innovation: a rich variety of experiments and transformative approaches that probe possible directions. It is important to encourage experiments with a low cost of failure to individuals, to the environment and to careers, as many of these experiments will fail.

ii.) Reduce inhibitions to change, common when systems get so locked up.
Encourage discourse amongst the full range of parties to try to understand where we are going and how to achieve it.

iii.) Encourage new foundations for renewal that build and sustain the capacity of people, economies and nature for dealing with change, and ensure that these new foundations consolidate and expand understanding of change.

iv.) Allow sufficient time. This is a global phenomenon... and it could potentially affect all levels of hierarchy, all the way up the chain, from the individual/family, to national and global systems.

I feel this is a wise description of where the world is at, and a wise proscription of what the world needs right now. It's also encouraging verification since elements of our collective work seem to touch on aspects of Holling's list. This framework puts the work of Worldchanging in perspective and may help us think about our strategic agenda more clearly. What kinds of questions does it suggest to us? Where should we best intervene in the system? Does this model help us tell our story in a more compelling and credible way? I think it does.

A good model can also act as a foil, as a prototype (design term) or transitional object (psychology term), where collaborative sense making can hash itself out, where people can react to something using all of our sense, both analytical and emotional. For instance, Eric Raymond's Cathedral and the Bazaar piece describing the Open Source community proved seminal, not because it accurately described the movement (arguably, the metaphor of a "bazaar" is misleading), but because it put an important stake in the ground for debate and discussion.

This model may be useful beyond just us worldchanging folks. Since this theory tries to transcend human and natural cycles, and its very shape appeals to ancient wisdoms and ways of knowing, this big picture scope might help us engage with other points of view. Clearly, the biggest worldview rift cleaving the world today is a fundamental ideological difference over how change is perceived. To reduce this grossly, we have roughly two groups in collision: conservatives and progressives. For conservatives, change is perceived as a negative thing, an enemy of tradition which should be preserved. For progressives, change is inherently good, a driver of life and renewal, while tradition and the status quo is something to be challenged and overturned. Most people have a combination of both tendencies in themselves; all of us love and hate change. But the Panarchy model showed me that all healthy resilience civilizations have an ideological division of labor between progressives and conservatives: a system of checks and balances where both elements -- continuity and change -- are present, honoured, and allowed to work in ways that benefit the whole. While we don't like talking with people with a different view, especially in polarized America, finding useful transitional objects to dialogue around is essential if real worldchanging is going to happen without force. My hope is that simplified models like the Panarchy cycle, accompanied with real life stories and examples, might be the sturdy planks in the conceptual bridge to the other side, a tool to have a better dialogue for how to build a better world.

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Reading this reminded me that the Pan in Panarchy is the root word for panic. This worries me for the weaker of the society always get killed and screwed in that process, which is too reductionist Darwinian for me, being of that grouping. Anyone who can take us thru this with grace and understanding, including the influences of the weaker is someone I could listen to.

Reading Tom Moore's essay The Post Modern Healer and Hillman/Roscher's Pan and the Nightmare, a classic of archetypal psycology will take us deeper into the mythological grounding so we know the consquences when things get too hot, too fast....

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 2 Oct 04

Interesting, during the creative destruction phase the powerful incumbents are just as vulnerable as the weak. In fact, the "weak" have more opportunity than ever to get their voices heard. In France, it was the fishwives who lead the mob. Also, if you read Darwin, he put just as much emphasis on cooperation as he did competition. The "survival of the fittest" wasn't his phrase, it was Huxley's. Darwin's theory was essentially co-opted to justify the Victorian society. Then again, in nature there is no word for "weak". Everything has a purpose and use, interconnected and complimentary.

If you read the paper, Hollings also spends lots of time worrying about the weak and poor; about how this is very bad thing for everyone:

"The developed world has been in a phase of extraordinary wealth accumulation. The proportion of people in the world labelled as poor has dramatically declined in half between 1980 and 2000. But pockets of poverty deepen and extend in Africa. Parts of South America balance on economic collapse. And in all situations, good and bad, there are implicit assumptions that the critical, hidden ecological processes that sustain economic development persist. Inevitably, it has made society blind to the many signals of vulnerability and resistant to possible solutions. There is growing instability: Inequity between rich and poor and new physical and global impacts stemming from its actions, lead to global vulnerabilities such as global economic instabilities, climate change, biodiversity loss, unexpected diseases and geopolitical instability. These are large in scale and consequence. They are new enough in extent that we lack the institutions to manage the transitions. They suggest a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major pulse of social transformation."

The important thing and hopeful thing is that as we leave the "locked in" phase to a back-loop logic both new and ancient wisdom can emerge if present in the system. "Novel elements can accumulate, largely unexpressed, during the forward loop. Then, in the back loop, they can become the seeds for novel combinations that launch the next cycle." Our job is to make sure these memes and experiments ARE present. That we have real alternatives to play with. My fear is that so much of what's on global policy-makers tables is not really novel or wise, but rather a homogenized set of ideas based on old paradigm thinking.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 3 Oct 04

Really excellent, Nicole.

I love the Buzz Hollings quote. Remind me to dig up and share my comparable Mateo Ricci quote with you.

I do think that we're at a moment globally of deep uncertainty, profound instability and rapid change. I sometimes fear things spiralling totally out of control, but perhaps they'll spiral into renewal, instead.

Lots worth thinking about here. Thank you!

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Oct 04

For those interested in this kind of stuff the Resilience Alliance also publishes a multi/inter/trans-discipinary journal Ecology and Society

It is freely available online and has a fairly open copyright policy.

Also along with Panarchy the RA also has published:

Berkes, F., J. Colding, and C. Folke, Eds. (2003). Navigating social-ecological systems: building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Berkes, F. and C. Folke, Eds. (1998). Linking ecological and social systems. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Gunderson, L., C. Holling, et al., Eds. (1995). Barriers and bridges to the renewal of ecosystems and institutions. New York, Columbia University Press.

There is a fair bit of stuff available on our website as well.

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 4 Oct 04

The above link to Ecology and Society doesn't work. This one does.

Posted by: Garry Peterson on 4 Oct 04



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