Dancing with Systems – and Interdependence!

Donella (“Dana”) Meadows has written dozens of remarkable articles about systems thinking. Today I decided to share one of my favorites – in the form of key excerpts, in order to give you a quick taste of her clear, powerful thinking. Then, if you want to delve further, I give you the link to her full article, as well as a set of a dozen links to patterns in my wise democracy pattern language that speak to the same insights that Meadows points to. Finally, since it is Independence Day here in the US, I offer a short Declaration of INTERdependence (from 2003), to keep us all alert to the fact that we’re actually not so separate as we think….

Below are special excerpts from an essay by my favorite systems thinker, the late Dana Meadows. It lies at the intersection of a dozen of my wise democracy patterns:

Systems Thinking
Dancing Among Clarity, Inquiry, Mystery….
Multi-Modal Intelligence
Wise Use of Uncertainty
Caring into Quality
Healthy Polarity Dynamics
Self-Organization Fostered
Deep Time Perspective
Big Empathy
Rich Feedback Dynamics

Check out Dana’s essay. Experience a master scientist articulating profoundly complex ideas in simple, accessible, compelling language.

Then check out any of the dozen commentaries linked above for wise democracy patterns that you find intriguing.


PS: Since I’m posting this on the US Independence Day, it’s a good time to reflect on the almost 80-year-old idea of INTERdependence Days and Declarations. I posted an essay about that back in 2003, including a history of Declarations of Interdependence since 1944. Alas, most of the links on that page have died away in the two decades since.

However, at the bottom of that page, I offered my own Declaration of Interdependence, which I’d like to share with you today. It’s still so needed….

We hold this truth to be self-evident:
We are All.
In This.

Therefore we live this truth
in our lives, communities and societies,
and thrive together into a long future
that we create together.

We are the world
that is awakening
to both the fact and the opportunity
of our interdependence —
fully, finally and beyond a shadow of doubt.

We are the world
who are making
ourselves a good world
that works for all people and all life.
Because we know the Greatest Secret
of All:

“We are All
in this

= = = = = =

And now for my excerpts from Donella Meadows fabulous

Dancing With Systems

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them! ….

I had learned about dancing with great powers from whitewater kayaking, from gardening, from playing music, from skiing. All those endeavors require one to stay wide-awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback. It had never occurred to me that those same requirements might apply to intellectual work, to management, to government, to getting along with people….

Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity – our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality….

Systems thinking has taught me to trust my intuition more and my figuring-out rationality less, to lean on both as much as I can, but still to be prepared for surprises. Working with systems, on the computer, in nature, among people, in organizations, constantly reminds me of how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world is, and how much I don’t know.…

Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.

If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist….

Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole…. Don’t go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all. Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as creativity, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability – whether they are easily measured or not.

As you think about a system, spend part of your time from a vantage point that lets you see the whole system, not just the problem that may have drawn you to focus on the system to begin with….

In the strict systems sense there is no long-term/short-term distinction. Phenomena at different time-scales are nested within each other. Actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come. We experience now the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago.

When you’re walking along a tricky, curving, unknown, surprising, obstacle-strewn path, you’d be a fool to keep your head down and look just at the next step in front of you. You’d be equally a fool just to peer far ahead and never notice what’s immediately under your feet. You need to be watching both the short and the long term – the whole system….

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.

There’s something within the human mind that is attracted to straight lines and not curves, to whole numbers and not fractions, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery. But there is something else within us that has the opposite set of tendencies, since we ourselves evolved out of and are shaped by and structured as complex feedback systems. Only a part of us, a part that has emerged recently, designs buildings as boxes with uncompromising straight lines and flat surfaces. Another part of us recognizes instinctively that nature designs in fractals, with intriguing detail on every scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic. That part of us makes Gothic cathedrals and Persian carpets, symphonies and novels, Mardi Gras costumes and artificial intelligence programs, all with embellishments almost as complex as the ones we find in the world around us…..

There are many ways to learn to dance…. Here, as a start-off dancing lesson, are the practices I see my colleagues adopting, consciously or unconsciously, as they encounter systems….

  1. Get the beat.
  2. Listen to the wisdom of the system.
  3. Expose your mental models to the open air.
  4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.
  5. Honor and protect information.
  6. Locate responsibility in the system.
  7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
  8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
  9. Go for the good of the whole.
  10. Expand time horizons.
  11. Expand thought horizons.
  12. Expand the boundary of caring.
  13. Celebrate complexity.
  14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.
* * * * * * *

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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