Daniel Christian Wahl


Co-Designing Complex Systems

from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ D.C. Wahl 2006

Come forth into the light of things,
 Let Nature be your teacher.
 — William Wordsworth 1770–1850

Both human societies and the ecosystems they inhabit can be studied as complex dynamic systems in their own right. In doing so we have to be aware that we have introduced a high level of theoretical abstraction into our approach since ultimately culture and nature are fundamentally connected and constantly interacting.

Culture really is a natural epiphenomenon of the underlying natural process. Cultures evolve in co-dependence with their natural environment, no matter whether they regard themselves as separate from or expressions of natural process. The separation of nature and culture is never more than conceptual, but the meta-design of conceptual separation can drastically influence our epistemology, our perception and thus how we experience reality.

In the perspective explored by this thesis, all cultural expressions are understood and re-evaluated within the context of the wider complex dynamic system, which contains them — nature, or natural processes. This perspective acknowledges that humans cannot but change the environment they inhabit, and simultaneously the conditions of the local environment will affect the kind of human cultural expressions that are possible in that particular ecosystem.

While nature contains culture, if I distinguish the two it is done in the understanding that nature and culture co-evolve through the complex dynamics of mutual interdependence. As such, cultural evolution can be regarded as a process in which human populations co-design their complex cultural expressions of and adaptations to natural process based on constant feedback between nature and culture. We are dealing with conscious participation in a complex dynamic system (and process).

[This is an excerpt from my 2006PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’.]

Stone Circle by Martin Hill (Source)

Daniel Chiras makes an interesting distinction between high- and low-synergy societies. He suggests that the Western “frontier” mentality that aims to increase power over nature has led to an increasing loss of synergy between cultural and natural processes. Chiras distinguishes the social and ecological dimension of synergy.

Ecological synergy is best understood as a “measure of co-operation between humanity and nature” (Chiras, 1992, p.24). Social synergy, correspondingly, “is simply a measure of co-operation in a society.” Chiras proposes: “A low- synergy society like ours is characterized by bitter conflict over resources and often by inefficient use of these resources” (Chiras, 1992, p.25). He offers the following examples to describe and distinguish the differences between a high-synergy and a low-synergy society.

A low-synergy society, for example, grows crops at the expense of soil, birds, and beneficial insects. It destroys the habitat of fish and wildlife, endangering our own food supply. It builds homes and offices in floodplains. It replaces diverse ecosystems with monocultures that are often highly vulnerable to infestation and disease.
In contrast, a high synergy society satisfies the needs of people without subtracting from nature’s capital. That is, it grows crops without depleting soils or poisoning wildlife and beneficial insects. It harvests trees while protecting the forest, without clogging nearby streams and lakes with sediment eroded from the land. It designs communities that exist in harmony with nature — not in floodplains.
A high-synergy society does not merely prevent destruction from occurring, it seeks ways to enhance nature. That is, it reaps the benefits of the Earth but also promotes the long-term health and welfare of the ecosystem (Chiras, 1992, p.25).

Chiras points out that the complex food webs and nutrient cycling of mature and relatively undisturbed ecosystems can serve as a natural example of how to design for high synergy. “Billions of years of evolution have created an elegant synergy in nature.” Yet as Chiras emphasises: “In a brief span of time … humans have begun to unravel the fabric of ecological synergy, replacing it with a system that is out of step with nature and torn by vigorous competition for limited resources.” He argues: “Creating sustainability means greatly increasing the levels of social and environmental synergy,” and proposes that this will be possible “only with a new value system that respects limits, offers a more equitable share to other species, recognizes our place in the natural order, and favours cooperation over domination” (Chiras, 1992, p.26).

In the process of co-designing sustainable human societies within the sustainable limits of the ecosystems they inhabit, the focus should be on increasing synergy at and between all the scales of the complex natural process in which we participate.

In their informative book The Age of the Network — Organizing Principles of the 21st Century, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps highlight the importance of being aware that depending on whether we focus our design thinking on structures or processes, we will conceptualise based on hierarchies or based on the dynamic relationships between and within these levels (holoarchies). They write: “Levels and complements: Where there are system structures, there are hierarchies of levels. Where there are systems processes, there are complementary relationships” (Lipnack & Stamps, 1994, p.229). This is an important distinction we should be aware of when we conceptualise and describe the co-design of complex dynamic systems.

Professor Frederic Vester has suggested that natural systems and their economy can best be understood based on a number of bio-cybernetic principles. According to Vester these principles help to explain how nature has managed to remain a self-regulating and self- propagating process over many millions of years. More and more complex life forms and more and more complex systems and subsystems of interaction and relationship have evolved during the course of the evolution of life. Nevertheless, the overall biomass on the planet seems to have been relatively constant over a very long period of time. It is estimated that there are about 2000,000,000 tons of biomass on Earth (Vester, 2004, p.118).

Despite an overall growth in biomass of near zero, nature transforms hundreds of billions of tons of oxygen and carbohydrates, as well as many billions of tons of heavy and light metals like iron, vanadium, cobalt, magnesium, sodium, potassium and calcium. This occurs mainly in an extensive way, but on occasion also intensively, at high density and in a very small space. As a rule, nature’s production systems are decentralized, usually into miniaturized production units that employ the subtlest technologies (Vester, 2004, p.118).

Professor Vester argued that a bio-cybernetic approach to sustainable design will take Nature’s fundamental interconnectedness into account and will recognize that humanity and all the technologies we create are dependent on and part of nature. He saw a need to reconnect our technologies to this ground of their being and bring them in accordance with it. Living nature and not dead mater, which know no technology, brought forth all human artefacts. “Nature and technology are not two separate worlds as many people believe, Nature herself and our own organism employ sophisticated technologies” (transl. Vester, 2004, p.122).

According to Professor Vester humanity has so far relied on — often unconscious — imitation of natural structure and function, and was under the assumption that human technologies will not jeopardize the overall health of the whole system — the biosphere.

While we learned from nature’s function and structure, we omitted to pay enough attention to the dynamic interactions and relationships of nature as a complex dynamic system, which guide the way that nature employs technologies. Vester emphasizes: “to achieve an integration into the biosphere that is sustainable in the long term, we have to learn from nature how to create structure and function, as well as from her bio-cybernetic organizing principles and processes” (transl. Vester, 2004, pp.122–123). Vester writes:

As a scientifically trained systems analyst and after intensive study of the cybernetic structures of the living world and its ingenious bionic organizing principles and processes, I dare to suggest that we are not at the end of an era of technical and economic innovation, but rather at its beginning. There is one condition: we have to learn to let go of the criteria of progress which we have employed as the measure of economic prosperity since the beginning of the industrial age (transl. Vester, 2004, p.123)

Frederick Vester has proposed eight fundamental rules of bio-cybernetic organization. He frequently emphasizes that in dealing with complex systems the most important goal is to maintain the overall life support system that allows the system to continue its own maintenance. Vester was therefore clearly another proponent of a salutogenic design approach (see chapter two). He argues that in order to maintain a system’s ability to survive these eight rules have to be followed. Combined with a joined-up way of thinking, these would help humanity to at least avoid severe mistakes in our planning.

Professor Vester first proposed these bio-cybernetic design rules over 25 years ago, during a research project for the UNESCO. He stressed that they are not invented but that he learned them from Nature, and that they don’t tell you how not to behave, rather they are both guidelines for innovation and a challenge for appropriate system’s design. The box below summarizes these eight rules of bio-cybernetic organization of self-sustaining systems (see Box 3.11).

Vester has argued that we have to make every product, every function and every organization into a contribution to the ability of our species to survive, rather than continue to create things that impoverish us and may contribute to our untimely extinction. We have to design things that are compatible with human biology and with nature, these things have to correspond to the structure of self-sustaining, autopoietic processes or systems.

Vester emphasized that this is an ecological, psychological and economic demand. The adherence to biological designs should never isolate a planning and a realization stage, it should occur in constant feedback with the natural-processes in the local environment (Vester, 2004, p.170).

Co-design of complex systems is not a terminal but a continuous process. As nature — the containing system — is undergoing constant change, the adaptations we are designing in response to natural conditions will also have to be flexible enough that they can accommodate such changes over the short and the long-term.

According to Vester, the eight bio-cybernetic rules are applicable to all living systems, from a minute single cell to a regional ecosystem. The reason for this universal applicability is that all complex systems of nature are entangled parts of the same higher order and therefore share a common pattern, which repeats itself across all scales of magnitude.

Vester pointed out that this insight pre-dates its corroboration through chaos theory. He suggested these bio-cybernetic design rules are generally applicable to the entire ecosphere and therefore they also apply to the technosphere and all the systems created by humans: companies, communities, traffic and energy systems, as well as political and education systems (Vester, 2004, p.172).

Professor Vester believed that “cooperation with nature — rather than working against her — is always the more economically wise strategy, and in the long run it will always incur less financial cost” (trans. Vester, 2004, p.172). In his role as visiting professor of economics at the Hochschule St. Gallen in Switzerland and as an international consultant, Frederic Vester has promoted the use of these eight bio-cybernetic design rules in many companies and institutions. They were included in his report to the Club of Rome of which he has been a member since 1993.

Frederick Vester’s contributions to our understanding of the co-design of complex systems, the modelling soft-ware he developed and many of the practical design projects he was involved in will continue to inform the emerging natural design movement. Like Gregory Bateson and Donella Meadows, Frederick Vester has been a major contributor to raising awareness of our participatory, co-creative involvement in the complex systems dynamics of nature.

The integration of culture into the dynamics of ecosystems requires us to engage in the design of human ecosystems. The landscape architect and ecological design educator, John Tillman Lyle proposed that in the design of human ecosystems we have to be particularly careful to mimic a number of characteristics that support the dynamic stability of the natural ecosystem to which our human designs have to adapt to and which we are, at the same time, adapting for human participation in it.

Lyle pointed out that this dynamic stability, which can also be understood as the health of the ecosystem, has two important elements to it: resistance and resilience. Resistance is about the ecosystems ability to resist damaging influences; and resilience is about the ecosystems ability to recover from a perturbation that did upset the material and energy flow as well as the internal relationship within the system. Lyle’s work is yet another example of the emerging salutogenic approach to design, so common among members of the natural design movement.

In order to design appropriate human ecosystems, we have to maintain the dynamic stability or health of the system. Lyle listed six characteristics of stable ecosystems on the work of the pioneering ecologist Eugene Odum. While they primarily refer to the dynamics of ecological systems, Lyle suggested that they can act as guiding principles for the design of human ecosystems in co-adaptation to natural processes (see Box 3.12).

The task of co-designing our human systems effectively in such a way that they integrate into the complex dynamics of ecosystems will require designers to pay close attention to these characteristic of healthy ecosystems.

The nine precepts of ecological or biological design suggested by John Todd and Nancy Jack-Todd (1993) are another set of valuable guidelines in the creative co-design of culture and nature as an appropriately integrated complex dynamic system. They have since added a tenth precept, which is included in the Table below (see Table 3.2).

This list of design precepts constitutes a manifesto for ecological design and the natural design

movement. During the course of this thesis all the precepts have or will be explored in significant detail. John Todd’s work on the design of ecological mesocosms — living machines or eco-machines — is a practical scaled-down analogy of the process of co-designing with natural complex systems we are engaged in when we try to create appropriate human ecosystems and create appropriate patterns of participation in them.

The difficulty of working with the living world and taking one’s cue from the patterns discernable there is the circuitous and overlapping yet incomplete nature of what one is able to perceive of its being. Processes, structures, and functions are interwoven; everything is recycled to be born again. All is motion. All is flux. Nor is everything entirely predictable (Jack-Todd & Todd, 1993, p.75).

According to John Todd, the inventor of living machines and various other living technologies, the best way to describe the science of ecological design on which these technologies are based, is to explain that all living machines, or eco-machines, use sunlight as their primary power source. They are technologies primarily powered by photosynthesis.

Eco-machines are like miniature, contained ecosystems (mesocosms). Most of their parts are not mechanical cogs and bolts, but many thousands of living organisms. In most eco- machines, these organisms live in a series of connected tanks that create a kind of artificial river. How exactly the biological productivity of these organisms is put to use depends on the design of the particular system and the needs of society. The designers and ecological engineers who connect the various sub-ecosystems and seed them with a diversity of species and minerals can optimise their performance for a particular use, but they do so following nature’s instructions.

A Living Machine is a device made up of living organisms of all types, usually housed within a casing or structure of extremely light weight materials. Like a conventional machine it is comprised of interrelated parts with separate functions and used in the performance of some type of work. Such machines can be designed to produce fuels or food, to treat wastes, to purify air, to regulate climates or even to do all of these simultaneously. They are engineered according to the same principles found in nature to build and regulate the ecology of forests, lakes, prairies, or estuaries. Like the planet they have hydrological and mineral cycles. They are, however, totally new contained environments. John Todd (in Jack-Todd, 2005, p.168).

John’s intention has always been to learn more about the rules and methods of design that he can encounter in nature. Together with his colleagues at the New Alchemy Institute and Ocean Arks International, he has used the instructions and information, which they collected through studying and exploring natural ecosystems, in the design of living technologies — complex dynamic systems. There are a wide variety of uses for eco-machines. Recently their potential for interconnecting various industrial processes into symbiotic networks in the form of eco-industrial parks has been explored (see chapter 4 on industrial ecology).

Eco-machines contain an enormous diversity of living components. This diversity makes these miniature ecosystems very flexible and gives them the capacity to self-design that is inherent in natural ecosystems. Eco-machines are a practical application of many of the scientific insights discussed in chapter one. The ability to self-design, evolve and adapt that is exhibited by eco-machines, can be understood as an emergent property of complex and dynamically interconnected systems.

All the diverse living components of the eco-machine interact, connected by food-webs and nutrient cycles that can be visualized and better understood by applying a systems approach and bio-cybernetic principles involving multiple, non-liner interactions in positive and negative feedback loops.

Changes in sunlight, temperature, form and quality of available nutrients or energy, create cascades of responses throughout the entire system. A purely reductionistic and analytical approach to understanding and working with this complexity of interactions and relationships would fail to provide an understanding of their dynamics. Living technologies embrace the unpredictability and uncontrollability of natural processes and work with nature rather than aiming to tightly control the system.

The capacity of self-design in ecosystems is based to a large extend on the diversity of organisms and their relationships with each other and the particular environmental conditions of that ecosystem. The more diverse and richly interconnected a system, the easier it is for it to respond and adapt to changes. This, in turn, increases the natural resilience of the system and its overall health.

Eco-machines have the capacity to adapt to and evolve with changes in circumstances. This means that they could potentially exist for a long time. It is also possible, with some alteration in the designed set-up, to change the human use of eco-machines during their life- time. It would be relatively easy, for example, to convert an eco-machine used for integrated horticulture and aquaculture into an eco-machine that treats wastewater.

Living technologies harness nature’s own ingenuity. As insights from the science of complexity suggest, any system close to the edge of chaos is potentialy highly creative. In other words, systems that have experienced internal and external change and have lost old structures, processes of interaction and their internal order, are at the same time less restricted and more flexible in adapting to those changes. Often it is precisely in this chaotic phase, that something new and creative emerges as an adaptive response to the overall change.

John Todd explains that throughout all his work with living technologies he has been frequently reminded that the miniature ecosystems he created knew so much more than he ever could. His aim is always to carefully guide the self-design in these systems, not to force or control them. He regards his work as a collaboration and conviviality with nature.

At its best, eco-technology uses the intrinsic intelligence found in nature. If we manage to access nature’s wisdom, we will be able to create designs that are so ecologically fitting to their surroundings that in the end these designs will cease to seem artificial as they integrate perfectly into natural process. Once the awareness that the health of humanity is fundamentally dependent on the health of the ecosystems and biosphere we inhabit spreads through all cultures, we can begin to create truly natural designs.

As participants in the wider processes and cycles of the natural world, and in the continued evolution of life, we are all nature’s designs. Once nature is understood to include and nurture culture, one begins to comprehend how everything is fundamentally natural. The artificial designs we create nevertheless participate and affect natural process. They can do so benignly or beneficially — and therefore appropriately -, or they can harm and disrupt the life- support systems within eco-systems and the biosphere — and therefore participate inappropriately and unsustainably. Living technologies aim for appropriate participation in natural process!

The truth is, that the distinctions we make between the natural and the artificial are profoundly confusing. It would be better to distinguish between things that integrate in a benign or even beneficial way into the co-evolution of life and the environment, and things that through disrupting natural cycles reduce human health, by reducing the health of the natural systems that ultimately nurture us.

The ecological designs created by John Todd would definitely belong to the former category. Based on a deep understanding of ecological processes and interactions, living technologies aim to provide solutions to meet human necessities while integrating in an appropriate way into the natural cycles of their immediate and global environment.

My description of living machines so far has been mainly based on a deeply instructive paper published in the Journal of Ecological Engineering, by John Todd and Beth Josephson. The paper explains the various design principles of eco-machines in detail. They identify twelve important components that should be part of the design of living technologies (Todd & Josephson, 1996). These principles have been recently summarized in a less detailed and technical fashion by Nancy Jack-Todd and are reproduced in the box below (see Box 3.13).

The living technologies developed by John Todd are of extremely high educational value to the natural design movement. As a mesocosm scale analogy, the study of living machines and their design principles can be used to introduce designers to important insights about the dynamics of health and resilience found in large scale ecosystems.

Eco-machines offer opportunities for experiential ecological learning from which all designers could benefit. To engage in their design or maintenance will be rewarded by an ecologically literate understanding which makes natural complexity more intelligible. John Todd explains the insights they mediate and the enormous potential for their widespread application:

[Eco-machines] are fundamentally different from conventional machines or biotechnologies. They represent, in essence, the intelligence of the forest or the lake applied to human ends. Like the forest or lake, their primary source of power is the sun. Like natural ecosystems they have the capability to self- design. They rely on biotic diversity for self-repair and protection, and for overall system efficiency. Their metabolism involves such independent qualities of life forms as replication, feeding, and waste excretion in dynamic balance with interdependent functions like gas, mineral, and nutrient exchanges.
The potential contributions of such ecological engines to the twenty-first century are portentous. They require only one time use of fossil fuels in manufacture. They reintegrate wastes into larger systems and break down toxic materials or, in the case of metals, lock them up in long cycles. They have the potential to help feed people year round, especially in urban areas.
Widespread implementation of these living technologies could release natural systems from bondage. By miniaturizing the footprint of essential human services they would return wild nature to its own devices and allow for the restoration of large tracts of wilderness.
— John Todd (in Jack-Todd, 2005, p.168).

Another important approach to the co-design of complex systems that has been for the most part neglected in academic discourse is the permaculture design approach. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren first developed this design approach in the early 1970s, working on what they called an interdisciplinary earth science. It is often misunderstood as simply an organic approach to agriculture, but permaculture is much more. It is yet another holistically oriented participatory design system that aims to meet human needs while integrating appropriately in natural process. As such, the permaculture movement could be described as yet another manifestation of the emerging natural design movement. Its underlying intention is clearly salutogenic. Its aim is to integrate humanity sustainability into the life-support systems of the biosphere.

While permaculture has up until very recently been entirely ignored by institutions of higher education, the movement itself has established an extremely effective system of courses and sequential training steps, which have enabled it to create a vast international network in the last thirty years.

There are not only permaculture networks in many countries on most continents, but also locally active permaculture groups in many of the planet’s bioregions. As such, the permaculture network is in itself following natural design principles of co-operative, bottom-up,networks within networks. The basic permaculture design curriculum proposed by Bill Mollison was 140 contact hours and covered a wide range of design topics. Mollison explains:

Permaculture … is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture [permaculture] there is no possibility of a stable social order.
Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions (Mollison, 1988, p.ix)

Permaculture is a remarkably detailed design system that has gained enormously from its grass roots and activism based research projects all over the world. Despite its original development for an Australian climate, there are now insightful publications and instructive practical projects in a diverse range of climate zones and ecosystems. Permaculture is founded on the ‘principle of cooperation.’ It assumes: “Cooperation, not competition, is the very basis of existing life systems and of future survival” (Mollison, 1988, p.2).

Mollison believes: “The role of beneficial authority is to return function and responsibility to life and to people; if successful, no further authority is needed. The role of successful design is to create a self-managed system” (Mollison, 1988, p.11). This clearly reflects that permaculture does not aim to predict and control systems but rather hopes to facilitate the emergence of healthy self-management on all scales.

Mollison pointed out: “In chaos lies unparalleled opportunity for imposing creative order” (Mollison, 1988, p.12). Permaculture is a participatory approach of careful and empathic observation and humble participation by trial and error. It works with rather than against uncertainty and unpredictability. It is clearly an appropriate system of co-designing complex systems. Some basic principles of permaculture, as they were proposed by Mollison are summarized in the box below (see Box 3.14).

These permaculture design principles are useful advice in the co-design of complex human ecosystems. Bill Mollision’s classic book Permaculture — A Designers’ Manual remains a very useful and informative text, both as an in-depth introduction to permaculture and as a practical design manual in the creation of integrated human ecosystems or productive permaculture landscapes (see Mollison, 1988).

A wide variety of people have published on permaculture design. I will refrain from an extensive literature review here. There are also a wide range of lists of permaculture design principles, I will mention only a couple of them to corroborate the fact that permaculture is now a healthy and diverse movement that has more than one formulation of its underlying principles and does not slavishly follow the instructions of some founder-guru. Jill Hovey provides an insightful and concise description of the design philosophy that informs permaculture design activists (see Box 3.15).

These design principles again reiterate many of the common themes that run through the different design approaches discussed in this thesis. Despite a high degree of overlap between the various sets of principles offered by the different contributories of the natural design movement, I have chosen to repeat such principles in order to show that a common theme for sustainable design is already emerging.

In the natural sciences, it is considered corroborative evidence in support of a working hypothesis when various groups of independently operating researchers repeat the same experiment and reach similar or the same results. While the complexity of the interrelated subjects areas we are dealing with in natural and sustainable design requires us to go beyond the traditional scientific method, it is nevertheless reassuring that there is a common theme emerging that indicates how to design for appropriate participation in natural process.

Perhaps the greatest single lesson that the study of ecology has had for humankind is that things work in wholes. The characteristics of an ecosystem cannot be predicted from adding up the characteristics of its parts. It’s an integrated system in which all the parts interact to form a complex whole. In fact it has become clear that the Earth herself works in a very similar fashion will all her different components interacting in a way that maintains conditions suitable for life (Whitefield, 2004, p.35)

One of Britain’s most respected and experienced practitioners and teachers of the permaculture design approach, Patrick Whitefield, recently published a thorough and comprehensive handbook for permaculture in temperate climate zones, entitled The Earth Care Manual. The fundamental aim of sustainable design has to be to integrate human activity and the way we meet our needs into the interacting process of that whole, referred to as the biosphere, planet Earth, or Gaia.

Sustainability is about participating in a way that we maintain and support the conditions suitable for life. Whitefield believes: “We have a window of opportunity. We have a chance to change our ways of feeding, clothing and housing ourselves to one which is both high-yielding and sustainable. The future can be permanently abundant” (Whitefield, 2004, p.37).

The global ecovillage movement, which I will describe in more detail in chapter four, has taken up the permaculture design approach most successfully in the design of intentionally sustainable human communities all over the world.

The Swiss engineer, Max Lindegger, has been instrumental in creating ‘The Crystal Waters Permaculture Village’ in Australia, as an effective, living example of how permaculture can be applied successfully on a community scale. His international design consultancy ‘Ecological Solutions’ provides aspiring ecovillage communities all over the world with the necessary skills and community based methodologies to integrate their settlements sustainably into the unique conditions of their local habitat. Lindegger describes the application of permaculture to ecovillage design as follows:

One may call it Holistic design. Each element should have a reason for being included and be well and thoroughly considered. Ultimately, the connections between the elements are what will make or break the design … A well-planned design is fairly certain to avoid bad mistakes but it will be no guarantee for instant happiness, spiritual enlightenment or ongoing wealth. However having taken the first step safely, the next one may be a little bit easier … for wealth, health and happiness (Lindegger, 2002, p.23).

At the beginning of this thesis I defined design broadly as intentionality expressed through interactions and relationships. The sustainable design approach that is common to all members of the emerging natural design movement, is to attempt to become more aware and conscious of all the interacting elements we have to consider in order to created and participate in healthy and sustainable, complex systems. As Lindegger emphasizes, ultimately it is the connection between the elements that will make or break the design. In a fundamentally interconnected world there are many such connections to consider if we hope to engage in salutogenic design.

This is undeniably a complex challenge to human beings as wise co-designers and interpreters of meaning (Homo sapiens designans), but if we consider what is at stake — the future of humanity and the continued evolution of consciousness in the universe — is there a more meaningful and appropriate challenge to devote our lives to?

Yet again I would like to emphasize that the subject of co-designing healthy complex dynamic systems cannot be exhausted in a single chapter, nor a single volume. There will never be an end point to the challenge of creating a healthy and sustainable human civilization on a healthy planet.

Natural systems are in a process of continuous and intermittent change and therefore the process of learning how to integrate humanity sustainably into this process will never stop. This thesis hopes to provide a framework of salutogenic, sustainable design that participates appropriately in natural process. It is a framework for a collective, community- and place-based participatory process of learning, not a list of definite solutions of how to co-design complex systems.

The best nature-compatible new designs — whether products, buildings, technologies, or communities — are sensitive to living systems with which they come into contact, accomplishing their mission without undesirable side effects as pollutions, erosion, congestion, and stress.
These “deep” designs increase options, flexibility, cultural equity, and individual power. … While shallow designs are anonymous and generic, providing nothing but materialistic satisfaction, deep design is informed with craftsmanship and quality for lasting satisfaction. Deep design acknowledges biological and cultural health as well as material wealth (Wann, 1996, pp.xiii-xiv).

In Deep Design — Pathways to a Livable Future, David Wann offers a response to the challenge of co-designing complex systems. “What we do for the earth, we do for ourselves. This is the holistic pragmatism of deep design, the convergence of economics, physics, biology and ethics” (Wann, 1996, p.22). He presages the future development of the natural design movement in suggesting that “as we enter the new millennium, breakthroughs in our understanding of how nature works will enable as revolutionary new aliance among biology, chemistry, and physics, as well as sociology and economics, with design as a key catalyst” (Wann, 1996, p.21). He explains:

Deep design is informed design, but it makes a leap of faith beyond information into imagination and intuition. It might be thought of as a catalyst that converts the visionary into the useful, or gravity that pulls untried concepts down to earth. Deep designs work because they fit, that is, they contribute to the good of society and of the biosphere. An analogy is natural design (Wann, 1996, p.32).

Bringing spirit into form, conscious and responsible participation in the material and immaterial dimensions of natural process, envisioning attainable utopias and turning them into reality, that is the promise of deep design and of the natural design movement. Ultimately, sustainable design is the co-creative agency of humanity expressed in full awareness of our fundamental unity with the world around us — conscious and responsible participation in uni-verse!


While this list of concepts and criteria of deep design (see Box 3.16) is far from complete, it nevertheless serves as an appropriate preview of the kind of specific details of sustainable design that the natural design movement has to direct its attention to in order to create healthy and sustainable human communities and societies. The concepts and criteria of deep design listed by Wann will almost all be re-addressed in the following chapters as we move from the realm of theory and contextualisation into a practice oriented description of the various scales on which sustainable design operates.

Many of the approaches encompassed in the natural design movement have the tendency to focus on a particular scale. One of the great promises of the natural design movement becoming more aware of itself in the formation of national and international natural design competence networks is that we will become more able to create scale -linking synergies that will strengthen the health of the overall system.

Janis Birkeland points out that “ecological design, as an approach to social and environmental problem solving, deals with complex open systems, so it would be inappropriate to specify a fixed set of solutions.” She sees the role of the responsible designer in inventing “new systems which improve the quality of life of human experience, while simultaneously restoring the environment, rebuilding community and creating a sense of place” (Birkeland, 2002, p.2).

Hargrove and Smith recently emphasized: “Design practice reform is about ensuring that ‘thinking green’ is a focus of the entire design process, requiring collaboration and mutual incentives to drive the team to new levels of achievements” (2005, p.364). They summarize Birkeland’s holistic approach to co-designing complex systems in the Box below (see Box 3.17).

The Rocky Mountain Institute, established by Amory and Hunter Lovins in 1982, has been an important midwife for a more sustainable future. Their approach has always been conscious of the fundamental interconnections within the complex system that contains all our designs. Its work on ecological or natural design solutions has affected government policy and industry in various countries.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is “an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient restorative use of resources to create a more secure, prosperous, and life sustaining world” (RMI, 2000). With emphasis on the fact that I consider all the design approaches and individual contributors mentioned in this thesis as belonging to the natural design movement, let me end this chapter with a summary of the Rocky Mountain Institutes core principles (Box 3.18).

Whether the label given to the emerging movement will be natural, holistic, ecological, integral or salutogenic design does not really matter in the end. What does matter is that we begin to recognize the potential benefit of designing and planning from a more holistic perspective and begin to participate appropriately in natural process. To do so we will have to integrate and link design, planning and decision making across temporal and spatial scales.

In the history of the biosphere of planet earth, a millennium is but a moment. In much less than a thousand years humanity has brought the biosphere — the giver of products essential for life, living space, quality-of- life, variety-of-life and national economies — to crisis point. The biosphere is now giving us many signals that it is greatly stressed; that it is struggling to cope with natural resource depletion, ozone depletion, acid rain, ecosystem loss, polluted air, land rivers oceans. Yet our future depends on it.
Much has been written about the traumas facing Earth. There has been loss of biodiversity, not just genes and species, but of ecosystems and functional processes necessary to support healthy living communities including human ones — social systems relying on productive agriculture, goods, services and trade. The large spatial (and temporal), even global, scale of these interrelated and synergistic ailments are also beginning to be understood, or at least recognized (Brunckhorst, 2000, p.vii).

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

More by Daniel Christian Wahl

Topics of interest

More Related Stories