Note to Reader: This blog builds upon our work previously presented in our Regenerative Design Principles Blog, first published in June 2020. We have chosen not to publish a new version of the original blog, but instead to keep it in its original state and offer this blog that outlines our shifts in order to show the evolutionary nature of our work.
One of the great joys and honors of nRhythm’s work is that we are often in a room with individuals that are asked to deliver key note addresses on Regenerative Economics, Permaculture, Biomimicry, Sustainable Development, Biodiversity Conservation, Holistic Management, Anti-Racist and Anti-White Supremacy organizational design, indigenous knowledge and many other powerful theories, frameworks, and approaches to better our human societies relationship with the living systems we are a part of.
Many of us, nRhythm included, have articulated a set of foundational principles as the ground or center of our frameworks and theories. However, one of the great frustrations of this work is when the potential of these meetings of minds and experience devolves into a discussion that we jokingly refer to “my principles can beat up your principles.” A common sign that the discussion is moving into this realm is when definitions, etymologies, and other semantic arguments arise. While the title of this reflection may seem semantic, we wish to offer the following in contrast to surface level semantics. From the start of nRhythm’s work we have been wrestling with these two words, “principles” and “patterns” and the associated ramifications and applications to our Regenerative Framework and our work.
After six years of work, countless courses, workshops, webinars, and client engagements and presenting our work to thousands of individuals we are choosing to move away from presenting our six Regenerative Design Principles (Holism, Interdependence, Evolutionary, Nodal, Developmental, Uniqueness) to presenting them as six Living Systems Patterns (summarized at the end of this article). This reflection summarizes the reasoning for this change and presents some practical applications of this shift.
Why Shift Principles to Patterns?
Life Just Is
Don't confuse the moon with the fingers pointing at the moon – Traditional Buddhist Teaching
When stuck in a less than useful debate on whose regenerative principles are more valid, or worse, more regenerative than whose we have often shared this traditional Buddhist teaching as a sort of “peace offering”. This has normally been met favorably by all parties involved and leads to a tacit agreement that there is more alignment than not in each other’s principles and that debating the edges of difference is not what we want to focus our time and energy on in any given moment. However, there is an even richer application from this Buddhist teaching that is at the heart of our choice to shift from principles to patterns. What this teaching is pointing to is the relationship between an observer of phenomenon and the phenomenon itself. In the teaching, the moon represents a phenomenon that just is, and any attempt to describe the moon, or methods or practices to experience the moon, should not be confused with the phenomenon itself. It is pointing out that there is no reason to debate the relative validity of the wide diversity of Buddhist methods, philosophies, or frameworks since they are all constructions, ideas, and practices to experience phenomenon (the moon) itself.
At nRhythm, we extend this teaching to our own work and humbly remind ourselves that our methods, philosophies, and tools to design with life in mind that we have painstakingly defined and articulated, are based on latest empirical and scientific theories, informed by indigenous knowledge and multiple spiritual traditions are still just our own observations of living systems—not life itself. No matter how much care we have taken or how much work we have done, we recognize that we cannot create THE defining principles of life. Instead, we accept that we are recognizing patterns we observe in living systems. Life just is.
Physics Envy and Shadows of Reductionism
In the 1990’s, Ecologists often made the joke that we had “physics envy”. There was tendency and focus, at that time, that Ecology should one day—through enough “real science”, complicated statistics and mathematical models—have a set of general laws (like Newton’s Laws) and maybe even a Unifying Theory of Everything that classical physicists were seeking. Although the intention may be different, the attempt to codify foundational principles or tenets of regeneration is also a manifestation of “physics envy”. We contend that we are working in the shadow of reductionist thinking when we start from the philosophical assumption that we must define and agree upon a set of “universal”, “foundational”, or “first” principles to be able to design with living systems as a model. In contrast, when we recognize patterns of living systems, we then have tremendous flexibility on how we align with these patterns and that alignment becomes contextually relevant and uniquely applicable.
Observing a System That We Are also Part of
Additionally, the exercise of defining foundational principles harkens to the reductionist idea of an objective observer, analyzing and codifying principles of a system from outside the system. One of the greatest conundrums of a reductionist approach to understanding living systems is that there is no way to be “outside” the system, we are living after all. However, many indigenous and experiential wisdom traditions as well as the emerging field of poetic ecology (See Andreas Weber https://biologyofwonder.org/) recognize an approach to knowing that fully embraces that we are a full, subjective participant of the living system that we are observing. Our shift from principles to patterns helps us to align with these approaches. We recognize that we are observing patterns of living systems from within the system and that the six Living Systems Patterns we present are recognized with our own cultural, educational, personal, professional, and species bias.
Patterns and Principles in Practice
"If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking." – Buckminster Fuller
While the philosophical and ontological reasoning for the shift from principles to patterns is important, our main motivation to move from principles to patterns is our deep commitment to help organizations, communities, and networks to transform their day-to-day decision making and management to BE a living system. We believe that moving from principles to patterns improves the facilitation of this learning and capacity building.
Primary Colors on a Color Wheel
Previously, when we have presented our six Regenerative Design Principles with an organization or community we often get into a rich discussion about which of the six principles is most applicable to a given situation. Is the situation we are discussing more an example of Holism or Interdependence? Evolutionary or Developmental? While these discussions are educational and interesting this tendency to categorize and divide is also a shadow of reductionist thinking. Shifting to patterns allows us to truly embrace a more systemic perspective. We recognize that patterns are not finite and separate but instead are reference points. We can think of our six Living Systems Patterns like the primary colors on a color wheel. They are combined, weaved, overlapped and mixed together to gain insight into a complex phenomenon. Debating whether Holism or Interdependence is more applicable to a given situation is like debating whether the color purple is more blue or more red. If you were forced to choose, you would in fact lose your perception of purple as a complex phenomenon in its own right.
Layers on a Map
Another way to apply living systems patterns is to think of each pattern like turning on and off layers on Google Maps. Each layer on the map: roads, topographic, and satellite—contains equally valid information about the same place in the world. There is no reason to debate which layer is more “real” or true. They are all abstractions of an actual physical place. However, some layers are more useful than others, but this utility depends on your purpose and context. If we are trying to drive from one place to another, the road layer is likely more useful to us than the satellite image of vegetation cover. Furthermore, we can overlay the different layers on top of one another to get more information. For example, if we are going for a hike, a trail layer is of course important, but a topographic layer showing elevation would add even more relevant information. We encourage the use of our Living Systems Patterns in a similar way. If we are evaluating a situation, we may apply the pattern of Holism and then also apply the pattern of Evolutionary to see what further insights we might gain.
Fundamental Principles vs. Design Principles
The word “principle” is used in a number of ways with slightly different meanings, but very important ramifications. For example, the use of principle as in the First Principle of Thermodynamics “that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only altered in form” is defining a fundamental axiom or law for the entire theory of thermodynamics and a vast set of classical physics theories. If a theory was presented in physics that violated this principle, it would likely be discarded as false, or at least require a completely new set of fundamental principles to be defined. However, the first principle of The University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s Seven Principles for Good Teaching “Encourage contact between students and faculty” is not presented as a fundamental law of teaching. Rather, it serves as a guide and aspiration, to improve teaching and learning at the university. These Seven Principles of Good Teaching are an example of “design principles” or “operational principles.”
Patterns Inform Design Principles
Perhaps, the most meaningful application of this change is that we can use the living systems patterns to inform a set of “regenerative design principles” or “regenerative operational principles” for a particular use, context, or application. These design principles then are not the fundamental principles of living systems but instead are the specific guidelines to design a system to be aligned with the patterns of living systems. This may seem like a semantic distinction, but in practice, this is a powerful reframe. It allows us to forego a debate about whether a particular phenomenon IS a fundamental principle of living systems and help us guide the design of a system to BE more alive or living.
Using the example of the University of Tennessee, it would not be meaningful or within context to debate whether the first Principle of Good Teaching to “Encourage contact between students and faculty” IS a fundamental principle of living systems or not since teaching, students, faculty, and encouragement are all phenomena defined with the context of a university. However, if we were asking how the University of Tennessee could view their teaching and learning within a regenerative context or make the classroom more living, we could ask whether these principles are aligned with the patterns of Holism, Interdependence, Evolutionary, Developmental, Nodal, and Uniqueness or not.
Applications to Equity Frameworks
We hope that this approach will not only reduce the academic syndrome of “my principles can beat up your principles”, but also contribute a meaningful approach to more heated and contentious debates within the regenerative community, such as whether living systems frameworks and anti-racist, anti-white-supremacist, and anti-patriarchal frameworks are aligned. We strongly contend that regeneration and equity frameworks intended to improve our human systems must be aligned, and we hope this presentation of patterns and principles helps to create more alignment between and within these frameworks.
Patterns and Principles for Regenerative Organizations
So, we are not throwing principles away, but instead recognizing that they represent our specific application of living systems patterns to creating a regenerative organization. Here we present six living systems patterns we recognize and an associated set of design principles for regenerative organizations. In this context, we have presented a one-to-one relationship between the patterns and design principles, but this is not necessary. There can easily be many-to-one or one-to-many relationships as well.