Browsing articles tagged with " social diversity"
Feb 22, 2013

Seeding a Viable Economic Alternative. Pt 2: The Principal Themes (Outcomes of a Systems Workshop at Future Connections 2012)

This is the second installment of a 4 part series about a soft systems workshop Arkadian ran with 20 PhD candidates at the Future Connections Conference 2012 in St Andrews, all of whom were conducting PhD Research on the theme of Sustainable Development.

Previously, we outlined the workshop structure, and described the session’s major outcome: an Action Plan for seeding a nationwide Viable Alternative to the current economic system. In the last two installments, Arkadian will be venturing some personal thoughts relating to the session outcomes that emerged during the analysis.

This week, however, we will be exploring four Themes that pervaded the discussion about a Prototype Community that might seed a Viable Alternative. As mentioned previously, some ideas here (and in Part 3 and 4) will be developed beyond the original session content as a result of their transaction (via Arkadian) with an ongoing experiment in developing an socioeconomic alternative (‘Wisdom Economy’) on the Isle of Bute: An Tearman.

1) Stewardship of the Diversity, Integrity and Beauty of the ‘Community-of-Interdependence’ (Nature first). It was generally agreed that, if the Community was to have a single guiding principle it should be the pursuit of a reverent partnership with Mother Nature. This combines active observation and experimentation, to enrich our objective understanding of Her systemic workings, and activities which promote a deeper experiential connection, and appreciation of Her intrinsic value.

Although we place Nature first, as concerns practicing empathy for other and placing systemic needs above our own,  our values are equivalent towards both Her and Our Community. We aim to cultivate individual awareness that the two are not separate but together constitute a single Community-of-Interdependence within which every ‘being’ performs a substantive role.

The fundamental goal of the Viable Alternative is to establish an equilibrium where we receive our material and non-material needs as a byproduct of enlightened care for the Community-of-Interdependence, with Nature taking priority. In pursuit of this, we complement Her strategies of achieving systemic integrity, productivity and beauty through diversity, reciprocity and work excellence in our approaches to the local ecology and our social milieu.

2) Performative Knowledge and Learning (Community-as-Process). How a rag bag of individuals, and hang-ups, might operate together effectively, ethically and enjoyably was probably the main, if subliminal, preoccupation of the session. Ultimately, this led to the group insight that ‘Community’ is a continuous reinforcing process, and not a ‘place’ or ‘entity’ as the concept is more commonly used.

To think and act as a unit (‘togetherness’, ‘belonging’, ‘sharing’), our individual purpose, needs and experiences need to braid and coalesce with each others’. This couldn’t happen without the Structure, Principles and, particularly, the Time that would enable the Community to successfully plan, work, have fun and be together.

Also considered essential to acting as a unit is the ability for all members to have some grasp of the whole ‘blueprint’ of their particular Community project and, thus, an appreciation of the role, value and interdependence of all actors and activities therein. This requirement for inclusive participation in, and understanding of, the whole picture, in turn, implies limitations on the scope, size and organisation of the ‘units’ that comprise the wider Community System.

Moreover, there are no ‘experts’ here. Other, that is, than the Community itself. We consider the only real knowledge and learning is that which arises from, and returns to, our collective performance.

Collective BrainKnow-how, erudition, irreverent cross-disciplinary romps, naive childlike experimentation, error and dispassionate collective assessment are all celebrated contributors to our ultimate purpose: a continuous social learning process that calls forth the unknown and unknowable world of the Viable Alternative. In this milieu, articulated knowledge functions as a part of collective activities rather than as an expertise that structures performance from without.

Below is a diagram of a Viable Systems Model (VSM) representing the Community’s organisational structure, which demonstrates the centrality of Community-as-Process’ to its success. A VSM is a systems thinking tool that applies the metaphor of living organism to an organisation, representing its main purposeful transactions with the environment as ‘organs’.

Ordinarily, a VSM presumes an ‘Executive Subsystem’ that monitors and orchestrates the operations of the whole – the equivalent of, say, the ‘The Board’ or the Prefrontal Cortex. However, in the model of the Viable Alternative Learning System, the wisdom of the ‘Director’ has been displaced by that of the ‘Collective’, in the form of the social processes from which our shared self-organising and self-regulating vision emerges.



3) Respect and Empathy for The Experiences of Other. Key to the healthy functioning of ‘Community-as-Process’ is respect for the predispositions and experiential histories of our fellows, even when they give rise to motivations, perspectives and worldviews very different from our own. Necessarily, this also entails developing our aptitude for dispassionate self-examination, so that we may each reflect critically on the roots of our own models, assumptions and prejudices.

To address these inner challenges, our aim is that everyone become adept in the pragmatic application of ‘tools’ that promote mindfulness of self and other – meditation, yoga, mediation, facilitation, discussion circles, non-violent communication, nature connection and systems methodologies such as Rich-Picturing, SODA and SSM.


The practical objective of all this is, to the extent possible, decouple personal experience from its deep cultural (and possibly, natural) entanglements with status, identity and ego, so that it’s performative potential may blossom. Deconstructing our ivory towers to build bridges of consensus. Transforming Knowledge and Experience as immutable personal possessions, into Knowledge and Experience as a dynamic shared property that informs and feeds back from impersonal activities-in-the-moment.

All very well, I hear you say, but what about me? Where do my individual needs fit in and what happens when they diverge from those of the collective? After all, even big happy families stifle personal growth at times, don’t they?

Making space for purely personal development, unsurprisingly, was another central theme of the discussion. As mentioned in the previous installment, a core design objective of the Prototype is to free a third of each week for each of us to pursue our own ‘becoming’ according to our own inclination. Our only constraint is that in exercising this right, we don’t impact negatively on the diversity, integrity and beauty of the Community-of-Interdependence.

The Community may also allocate some of its own ‘activity and decision-making’ time to develop opportunities and environment in response to individuals’ identified or declared needs. This is deemed valuable work because it promotes diversity and redundancy, the magical underpinnings of productivity and stability for both Nature and Community.

DiversityIn summary, we take the view that a social system where individual variety, creativity and knowledge of the local natural environment flourishes according to its own will, where each node maintains positive interconnections to all others and contains the seed of the self-sufficient whole, and which can decide and mobilise effectively as a single organism, is one of optimal adaptability and resilience, and thus best equipped to face the environmental challenges of the future.

4) The Sanctity of Time for Community and The Individual had, by the end of the session, become a central mantra of the Learning System. Time is not perceived here as an abstraction, or an economic ‘obligation’, but as a resource of inestimable importance: the root source of those experiences most responsible for generating meaning, community and well being.

Thus, the need for the Viable Alternative to produce sufficient Time to satisfy our non-material requirements was a thread that pervaded the discussion. An indicator, possibly, of how overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood its role has become in the current economic system.

And so concludes our look at the principal 4 Themes underpinning the discussion, and of the outline of the session outcomes. We hope you’ll join in a fortnight for Part 3, where Arkadian will be discussing some personal views that emerged during the analysis.

Feb 8, 2013

Seeding a Viable Economic Alternative. Pt 1: The Action Plan (Outcomes of a Systems Workshop at Future Connections 2012)

This article is the first in a 4 part series relating to a soft-systems workshop Arkadian ran at Futures Connections 2012. The first 2 parts deal primarily with the outcomes of the session, whilst in the latter 2, Arkadian will be setting out some personal thoughts resulting from the analysis.

Participants were 20 PhD candidates from universities across Scotland, representing a  broad variety of disciplines. All were conducting Research on the theme of Sustainable Development.

An TearmanSince Futures Connections, the outcomes of this workshop have informed the decision-making of another project in which Arkadian is involved: An Tearman, on the Isle of Bute. An Tearman is an experiment in enacting a new socioeconomic model (‘Wisdom Economy’) involving a broad range of stakeholders. A prototype ‘blueprint’ heavily influenced by Permaculture principles is slowly emerging.

As the ideas generated by the workshop have contributed to the An Tearman project, so too have Arkadian’s learnings fed back into the current analysis, impacting on interpretations, and resulting in some development of the original workshop material, particularly in Parts 2, 3 and 4.

Next episode, we shall be discussing 4 Themes that pervaded the discussion, and in the last two installments, we’ll explore some ideas pertaining to the session outcomes. However, to begin we will outline the aims and structure of the workshop and describe its main outcome: An Action Plan for seeding a Viable Alternative.

The session’s Overarching Aim was:

WHAT?: To seed nationwide sustainable development.

HOW?: By building a self-sufficient and sustainable Community which demonstrates an inspiring, working model of a viable alternative to the current economic system.

WHY?: Because if we desire a tolerable future, there is an urgent necessity to begin our transition to a sustainable economy.

Participants were asked to consider 3 questions:

WHAT Personal Project would you bring to this Community?

HOW would it contribute to the Overarching Aim?

WHY is it important?

Responses were written on Post-Its in private and stuck randomly on a wall in What? / How? / Why? groups. The result fueled the group discussion. A Systems Map representing rough categories for the Post-Its and main topics of conversation appears below.

The main outcome of the session, unexpectedly, was an Action Plan for seeding nationwide sustainable development. This was as follows:

1. Set-up a Prototype Not-for-Profit Learning Community, which incorporated all the essential capacities of a nationwide sustainable Viable Alternative to the current economic system (see Systems Map: Essential ‘Capacities’). In other words, a ‘whole-system’ Prototype in miniature.

The original Community is envisioned as a cross-pollination of practical experiment and virtual network. At the outset the burning objective of the practical experiment is to generate zero impact revenue streams and become profitable (see Systems Map: Income / Profit Generation).

The virtual network is comprised of experts representing a wide variety of disciplines and experiential backgrounds who, whilst unable to commit substantial time to the practical experiment, are willing to contribute to decision-making whenever situation-specific expertise is required.

Community Time is split equally three ways:

(i) Collaborative physical transaction with the natural environment.

(ii) Structured time for community activities and decision-making. While this also includes the management of social groups and events, the major proportion of this time involves mindful and transparent group reflection upon both the practical experiment and social dynamics. Models, measures-of-success and next step actions are then co-calibrated in response to what has been learned.

Overarching decision-making and consensus-building are all highly-structured processes. They are third-party facilitated and knowledge is externalised using visual tools so as to depersonalise and depolarise opinion. All members are always involved, irrespective of subject, age or expertise. Thus, judgments and learning are informed by the broadest diversity of experience, and the emerging blueprint for the Viable Alternative is shared by all.

(iii) Unstructured time for personal development according to individual inclination. Spiritual, knowledge and skill development, leisure and recreational activities, time for special relationships, FUN? This is ‘You’ time, however you wish to spend it.

One of the central aims of the physical experiment is to generate a minimum of 4 free days every week for (ii) and (iii). Whilst profitability is undeniably important, it plays, and will always play, second fiddle to the meeting of the Community’s deeper non-material needs.

Urban2. Setting up Community Urban Outpost Units. Now that our Prototype is stable, we use some of our assets to fund the despatch of ‘advocates’ to cities and large towns. As urban areas are where the current economic system is most resistant to change and its inequities are suffered most acutely, we believe it is here that successful exemplars of a Viable Alternative will achieve the most resonance.

What Next3. Engaging the ‘Disenfranchised’. Our advocates seek out and engage those groups that have a vested interest in a Viable Alternative. Perhaps the most obvious are young and disadvantaged peer groups, who have social capital but a bleak, hopeless future under the current system. We share the Prototype ‘blueprint’ with them, and encourage them to think about how they could positively transform their own environment in order to meet local needs.

4. Bringing groups with an Urban Project Idea (UPI) to the Prototype. Groups with strong ideas, a willingness to learn, and a commitment to implement their UPI, are invited to the Prototype for experiential immersion in Community work, principles, values and decision-making. Stepping ‘outside’ of their everyday lives enables the groups to reflect upon their UPI with greater clarity and objectivity, and plan free of those shadowy constraints – models, relationships, habits, cues etc. – that hamper decision-making within context.

The group’s transition into participating in our emergent ‘blueprint’ is facilitated gently and mindfully. It is important we allow time for them to grasp the Prototype’s holistic model and processes,  for their UPI to gestate, and for two fragile social systems (Prototype and group) to adapt to each other and reach the equilibrium necessary for them to operate effectively together.


5. Activating and sourcing capabilities in response to UPI requirements. When the group ‘feels’ sufficiently clear about their UPI, they are given the opportunity to conduct a Pilot within the Prototype.

The Community participates in related decision-making with openness and humility, seeing each UPI as an opportunity to learn and expand our own capacities. Mindful efforts are made to ensure that development is always under the direction of the group, and that our role remains that of a receptive enabler: sourcing and contributing specialism, materials and encouragement in response to the Pilot’s prevailing needs.

6. Helping realise the UPI through ongoing on-the-ground and virtual support. Upon completion of a successful Pilot, the group returns to their city or town to implement their UPI. By this time, they are equipped with ‘blueprint’ and experiences of a working Viable Alternative, and the skills to bring forth their own unique interpretation by transforming their local urban environment.

Guerilla Gardenin

Throughout the realisation of their UPI, we continue to provide moral, specialist and financial support, and a sanctuary for retreat, review and restoration in the face of setbacks and systemic resistance.

UPIs are never colonies or subsidiaries, but rather lateral extensions of an expanding, highly interdependent Learning System. This emergent ‘Viable Alternative in action’ is held together by mechanisms that reinforce interrelationships: ritual gatherings where intent, principles and values are collectively reviewed, work and insights shared, and fun had. In the interim there are ‘dovetails’ – members whose role it is to  participate in the decision-making processes of two constituent groups, thus facilitating the continuous flow of social learning through the whole system .

Community Network

Although language may have represented this Action Plan as a linear sequence of stages, it was conceived as something more dynamic, reflective and feedback-driven, better captured visually in the Conceptual Model below.

And so ends our look at a possible ecology for a Prototype Viable Alternative, and an Action Plan for how it might seed nationwide transition bottom>up, inside>out and city>rural by way of an emergent Learning System.

To conclude this installment, possibly the most notable characteristic of the Action Plan on face value (particularly, one designed by a group of stakeholders operating at the leading-edge of sustainable development) is its humility. Perhaps when the scale, complexity and uncertainty of the challenge we face is spread across a wall for all to see, the only reasonable response is to design a system that acknowledges its own ignorance, creates the future one step at a time, and builds collective experience, reflection, experimentation and endeavour into its core DNA?

We hope you’ll join in a fortnight for Part 2, when we shall be exploring the four major themes that pervaded and informed the discussion of the Action Plan.


Jan 13, 2012

Why Corporate Regulation is a Socioenvironmental Necessity. Part 2 of 5: Why does (did) Civilisation tend towards Diversity and Stability?

Hello again and thanks for joining us for the second in a five-part Arkadian analysis, where we show how we reached the conclusion of the title series by way of one simple question: –

“What difference between natural / social systems and the current economic system causes the former to tend towards diversity and stability, and the latter, uniformity and instability?”

Last week, we explored why natural systems tend towards diversity and stability. Dynamics were proposed (the ‘diversity engine’) that, through natural selection, weed out species that strive for environmental supremacy and favour those that cooperate, specialise and, by doing so, facilitate opportunities for new evolutionary adaptations.

This week we shall take a brief look at one creature that, at first sight, appears to operate outside these dynamics:  Homo Sapiens.  What is it about the human species that enables it to dominate ecosystems without appearing to suffer the constraining feedback?

MODEL 2 of our analysis below proposes an answer (N.B. If you have trouble reading the text, click on the diagram to open it in a new browser tab and then refer back to the explanation here).


If you joined us last week, you’ll see immediately that MODEL 2 is more-or-less identical to MODEL 1. We propose that civilisation’s social matrix shares the same stabilising dynamics of natural systems and that these confer the ability to adapt more reflectively and effectively to environmental constraints.

Significantly, world population only began to increase appreciably with the order provided by the first civilisations from around 1,000 BC onwards. Many historians argue that the political infrastructure of Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China initially emerged from local organisational efforts to coordinate large scale (particularly, irrigation) ecosystem management, rather than these projects being the initiative of an already-ensconced ruling ‘group’.

It is the Arkadian view that the managerial perspective born from these projects enabled infrastructural and organisational tweaks that, in turn, facilitated a trend towards increasing division of labour and role / skill / knowledge specialisation, and it was this burgeoning socioeconomic diversity and interdependence rather than the direct actions of a ruling group that provided the stability required for civilisation to flourish.

Indeed, as many power / status / wealth hungry ruling groups have since discovered to their own detriment, enduring political success hinges not on their own genius, but on the assiduous maintenance of this diversity engine. As a general rule (and as with the overbearing species we looked at last week), (1 and 2) the greater the impact of  the ‘group’s’ rule and resource dominance on local socioeconomic (and environmental) diversity, (3 and 4) the more unproductive, unstable and weaker their regime tends to become.

A tragic example of this self-defeating governmental dynamic is Cambodia under the communist Khmer Rouge. Seizing power in 1975 in the wake of 4yrs of destabilising bombings by US and Vietnamese forces, they immediately shut down all transport and information links with the outside world, declared private property illegal, and established a ‘Year Zero’ for Cambodian society.

Their ‘Agrarian Revolution’ – an economic model founded on the single pillar of self-sufficient rice production – was to have a cataclysmic impact on all aspects of systemic diversity: social, cultural, economic and environmental.

All those who threatened their ideological dominance were murdered or exiled – ethnic and religious minorities, journalists, doctors, educators, writers, anyone with an education – obliterating vital cultural, intellectual and skill resources.

Urban populations were forced to leave cities, towns and former roles behind to slash-and-burn virgin rain forest, set up collective farms, and take responsibility for rice production, whilst the thousands of male peasant farmers with the requisite know-how were press-ganged into military service.

Naive farming communities went hungry rather than risk retribution for failing to meet the Government’s exorbitant rice targets, which soon resulted in a precipitous deterioration in output. Almost a quarter of the population died of starvation or execution under the regime, a disproportionate number of which were male.

Within three-and-half years, the loss of diversity and productivity had rendered the Khmer Rouge’s power base so weak, they were easily overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion.

30 years later, the Cambodian ‘system’ is still suffering. Political instability has resulted in 4 coups over the interim period. The country still has the highest proportion of women (65%), malnutrition and physical disability in South-East Asia (the latter attributable primarily to the Khmer Rouge’s estimated 4-6m unexploded mines).

The country’s economy remains dependent on tenant farmers involved in backbreaking rice production for minimum profit. Necessarily, many of these are women, creating further societal tensions by violating customary rules and roles of a traditionally patriarchal society. International development experts argue that, despite the potential for a full recovery, without external intervention the Cambodian  socioeconomic system will struggle to escape the impoverished, fragile state in which it was left by the Khmer Rouge.

Conversely, ‘laissez faire’ ruling groups, such as The Ancient Greeks and Romans, that implemented policy and infrastructure which nurtured the (5/6) ‘socioeconomic diversity engine’ tended to produce history’s more enduring and resilient regimes. For example, in the mid c14th a nascent Western European civilisation – arguably, the most pluralistic, productive and market-driven the world had yet seen – successfully weathered a perfect storm of catastrophe that would have devastated a weaker social system, including climactic cold spells, famines, widespread peasant revolts, The Black Death, and an overall loss of quarter of the population.

Nevertheless, (6b) although these ‘laissez faire’ strategies yielded prosperity for ruling groups, they also entailed a diminishing of their control over rules and resources as increasingly pluralistic and influential populations demanded ever greater democratic freedoms, rights and representation.  

As we shall discuss in Week 4, this shift would ultimately give rise to a global economic elite whose power, and impact on diversity and stability, would dwarf that of any political ‘ruling group’.  However, before we do, we thought it worth taking a moment to understand why it is that an ecosystem or  ‘civilisation’ is more stable if it is diverse? Hope you’ll join us next Friday to find out.

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