Ecological Systems and Human Organizing

Climate change will continue to pose ever-greater challenges to how we live, work, and organize ourselves. A recent conference has helped inspire some ways to think about how we might do this better.

Natural systems are all around us, even if they are hidden. In urban centres, much of what we call ‘nature’ is reduced to a few trees, a park, and maybe a ditch or ravine that we traverse over. But it’s there, and the more we pay attention to these systems, the more we can see that we’re in a world that’s designing itself around us despite us.

The more I learn about natural systems, the more I find parallels between how nature “designs” and human organizations. Designing human organizations more in sync with natural systems tends to create more useful, harmonious, and healthy places to work, live, and create. Recently, I found this theme in a conference hosted by The House of Beautiful Business on The New Climate. The multi-week, multi-event, online conference sought to bring together scholars, advocates, designers, artists, and business leaders to share and think together about the climate.

I took some lessons from this on how to approach organizations and strategic design. By strategic design, I am referring to making intentional choices about structuring our relationships, plans, and resources. It means creating our organizations to be fit-for-purpose by clarifying both our purpose (and roles) and how we are set up to meet them.

Ego vs Eco: Natural Systems

The House of Beautiful Business recently convened The New Climate Conference, a free, open series of events designed to explore design, psychology, and climate change issues. Among the most salient points raised was to go from ego to eco-thinking. Instead of thinking about us, think about the ecosystems we live in. If we did this, we’d be more inclined to find, use, and nurture ways of working that are not disconnected from natural systems. Eco-thinking sees us more as a circular, co-dependent system, while Ego-thinking is about placing humans — and men — at the top. The image below tells that story well.

The term natural systems are one that I’m using in place of nature because, as climate activist Tania Roe remarked at the conference: many cultures in the world don’t use the word. In these cultures, nature isn’t something separate — it’s what we are. Natural systems are myriad connections within and between the living world, manifestations of nature.

At Cense, we use the term living systems mainly because our work focuses on humans with nature. But natural systems is the bigger context where what we call nature is front and centre, even without humans.

In design, we have seen an ego-centric approach take hold — especially over the last 20 years. Just consider the phrase human-centred design. It’s in the name! Recently, Don Norman (who was behind the popularity of this phrase) updated his thinking to include the term Humanity-Centred Design in his recent book. This is primarily a cosmetic upgrade and offers little new value in guiding design to address climate, conservation, and sustainability issues.

Humanity-centred approaches are still ego-driven, not eco-friendly.

Design For Current Ecologies

I chose the image above because it illustrates design’s strange relationship in our organizations. Natural systems evolve outward, filling in space and connecting across a context. To see what I mean, just look at how forests, grasslands, ocean shores or bogs use space. For organizations, we aim for linear, progressive designs. We’re always going toward something. That linearity frames much of the discussion of design in human systems. We look to create a specific thing to take us to a specific place (literally or figuratively) and to lead to specific outcomes.

Yet, we are now in an environment that is characterized by polycrisis, VUCA landscapes (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), and 3-D Change spaces. These spaces are:

Perpetual — occurring all the time in an ongoing way.
Pervasive — unfolding in multiple areas of life at once.
Exponential — accelerating at an increasingly rapid rate.

All of these are ecological in their nature. Ecology refers to:


  1. Ecology is the study of the environment, and helps us understand how organisms live with each other in unique physical environments.
  2. the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment

Note that ecology is not just about natural systems but patterns of relations between organisms and their environment. When we work on matters of strategic design, we are working in ecologies. Thus, we need design approaches that are sensitive to ecologies.

If we look at the situations we find ourselves, it suggests strategic design choices that favour linear, predictable, overly controlled options will fail. Our design choices require more flex.

Flexing Design Options

What approaches to strategic design are best suited to this situation we find ourselves? We have a few to start. Think of these as design skills for the present: a non-exhaustive list.

Systemic Design / System Mapping

Systemic Design is an approach to understanding systems that considers interdependence and how design affects how things relate to one another. At the heart of systemic design is mapping the system using various methods and approaches. Mapping is mainly descriptive; however, it does provide an overview of systems and reveals connections between them. Using various systemic design methods or tools, systems maps can help us identify the scope and scale of factors that influence a system. This is a good starting point. 

Innovation Case Studies

Case studies can help to ascertain local contexts to allow for more intelligent responses to what’s going on. Conducted with Systemic Design approaches, Innovation Case Studies allow for a more clear sense of connections between variables (relationships) to help inform design questions we might have moving forward. Keep in mind that case studies are less useful for extrapolating widely; their value is in helping understand local context. 

Attractor Mapping

If you’re going to map a system and are unclear about where to start or what kind of influence different variables have, try attractor mapping. Unlike other mapping techniques, this approach focuses on where energy — attention, focus, resources – is going or is avoiding. This can help determine where some of the best places are to start. 

Design for Awful

In highly complicated situations, it’s often unclear what the desired outcomes are. If you’re unclear what the preferred outcomes are, try designing for the worst outcomes. What this simple approach — designing for awful — does is create coherence around ideas using a negative case example. It can help to draw out patterns that can help focus design strategy on areas within a system. 

Perspective Taking

Two approaches can help us determine what is needed and useful in a complex situation:  perspective taking circles and the Cynefin Framework . Both of these help draw our perspective in or out to help assess where we are, what is going on, and frame what we might do. 

All of these aim to enlarge our view of the interconnections we are dealing with. How do I make a market choice? What is the likelihood of achieving impact in a neighbourhood? What policy action is likely to cause harm if implemented? These are the kinds of decisions we work with when we design. By asking different questions to see patterns, we are wiser in strategy and design: we also design in ways that better fit natural systems.

This is the first step. The next is understanding the human element in design. That’s what I’ll explore next. Thanks for reading.

Strategic design is about creating practices, procedures, plans, and processes that fit with the way we organize as humans, and the situations we find ourselves. Let’s grab a coffee if you want help doing this with your organization, enterprise or department.

Image Credits: Ivan Bandura on Unsplash and Pat Hayden on Unsplash

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