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  • Writer's pictureColleen Dick

Learning from Nature or fighting Her?

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

The Cynefin Model

From: Dave Snowden of the Cynefin Company

Where are you? It seems like a simple enough question. You might show me on a map your current location, but where are you really? A physical locality is only one of many positions that you may assume. You may find yourself on many spectrums: political, ethnic, education, cultural, religious, spiritual, and many others. Today, I would like you to think about where you are in Nature... It isn't a static thing, you may be in a different place today than yesterday and may change from hour to hour. It is a very relational sort of thing. Human beings are in a different relationship to nature than other living things. We have a unique ability to see ourselves as something outside of nature. Sooner or later that construct crumbles, but we are extraordinarily adept at maintaining the illusion. Thanks to Dave Snowden we have a matrix which can serve as a good map for positioning ourselves in our relationship with nature at a given time.

Complex: The upper left quadrant is the domain of all living things. Life is, by its very nature, a complex adaptive system. It is governed by intelligence seeking life, or some other kind of advantage, and defaults to a kind of dynamic balance. The energy inherent in the system is enormous. It operates in cycles, converting the old into the new, and leaving no trash behind. There is much to learn. There is a whole field dedicated to learning how nature accomplishes what it does so that it can be copied or adapted, Biomimicry. We all came from indigenous peoples who occupied the earth in somewhat harmonious relationships with her cycles. These people were observant, and curious. They drew conclusions. They developed languages to talk about what they observed. They kept bodies of knowledge and told stories about them. But, not to over-romanticize the past, we also know that life has always been challenging for beings so lacking in instinct. The young have not always been receptive in learning from those bodies of knowledge. Much trouble can be avoided when we learn from other's mistakes. Appropriate ways of interacting with natural cycles affords us great advantage. In order to work with complex systems, it is important to see them holistically, because everything is connected to everything else, and they are all prime movers. They provide at least half of the energy required to accomplish most work, and can be nudged (Probe) to provide even more, if we are smart (Sense) about it (Respond).

Chaos: The lower left quadrant is the domain of disruption. When the normal cycles are interrupted, we call it chaos. Typically, we find it as a transition from one kind of order to a new kind of order. We can experience chaos physically, mentally and spiritually as we experience disruption in our lives. Our creative impulses are stimulated by such occurrences as we find that what may have worked for us previously, no longer does. We find novel ways of navigating the circumstance. We innovate (Act), we evaluate (Sense), and we adapt (Respond)... and as we do we move into the greater order of a new complex system.

Complicated: The right side of the chart is about human intervention. The upper right is the domain of machines and constructs. Complicated systems may have many man-made parts and may be considered and developed from reductionist mental processes. An automobile is a good example. Each part must be designed and machined and play its part in the machine. It requires a great deal of expertise to do the work of complicated systems. The parts will break down eventually and will need to be repaired or replaced. They have no self-healing properties. There is no inherent energy or intelligence in the pieces and these qualities must be supplied from external extraction. People drive the cars with energy that is extracted from sources deep in the earth, the banked sunlight of eons past. In a world with few human influences, nature's buffering and cycling can manage the load, but today we have surpassed the ability of nature to solve the problems that we create. Even our solution to the one problem that we see, may create a host of other problems. If we continue to Sense, Analyze and Respond in ways that are reductionist in nature, we will continue to create difficulties for ourselves.

Simple: The lower right is the domain of mass marketing and adoption. It is the attempt to make the machines and constructs of complicated systems usable for the masses. Most of us can't design a computer or smart phone but we can make use of them, because they have been simplified and standardized, so that they are reasonably easy to operate. Herein is the cautionary tale... This is the level of greatest dependence, and it is also the least intelligent, because we lose all sense of cause and effect at this level. We don't know that the components of these machines are creating toxic environments in other parts of the world, and we don't know the effects that they will have on the cultures and future values of humankind. That is why, when simple systems collapse, it is like going off of a cliff... These Best Practices are helpful to us if we are smart enough not to be captured by them. To utilize them appropriately, we must Sense their impact, both individually and collectively, then we must place boundaries (Categorize) around them so that we don't lose our humanity and connectivity with nature (Respond). After all, we are living creatures!

What do we learn from this model? We learn that mankind has fallen prey to our own folly. We have created artificial environments full of technological advances, where we no longer recognize the cycles of nature and damage that we do. Technology has been used to fight nature and to break the cycles, all in an attempt to be more in control and secure. But, inadvertently we are causing just the opposite to happen long term. We are headed for the cliff...

But, we can choose a different way. Rainbird Villages are an attempt to do just that! We are committed to learning how to live harmoniously within Complex Adaptive Systems. We study the whole system, and not just the parts. We manage holistically. We close the feedback loops and restore the natural cycles. We emphasize human thriving, instead of human domination, at the expense of the earth and other creatures. Instead, we understand that harmony with nature is more efficient and more effective than complete reliance on complicated systems. It actually costs less. Just imagine the energy that we can save. Does that mean that we don't innovate and evolve? Definitely not. It means that we see the whole picture and our ingenuity considers all of it. Our technology will reflect that understanding. It means that we grow food the way that nature has always provided best. Our food is alive and doesn't do well when treated like a machine. It means that we stop making messes and polluting our environments. It means relocalization of industry and potentiating human creativity. Villages and cooperatives are human-sized and natural. And, it means restoring accountability and trustworthiness to our communities.

For more information and future study:

From Dave Snowden of the Cynefin Company:

Credit: Bill Reed, "Shifting our Mental Model." Integrative Design Collaborative.

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