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Reconceptualizing Systemic Change, Using An Ecosystem Approach from Process-function Ecology



We care about systemic change because truly complex socio-ecological systems are often intractable to the imposition of intentional change. This intractability derives in large part from certain intrinsic properties of complex systems, namely their nested and scale hierarchic structure and the fact that they are comprised, essentially, of processes and functions rather than objects and entities (vasishth 2008). As such, they are harder to “move,” given that they are not things to be pulled or pushed,
Ashwani Vasishth is Associate
Professor in Environmental
Studies and Director of the
Master of Arts in Sustain-
ability Studies programme at
Ramapo College of New Jer-
sey. He is currently engaged
with urban ecology projects
from within a social-ecological-
systems perspective, and is involved
with the post-Rio+20 Sustainable Devel-
opment Goals planning process at the United Nations. His peda-
gogy is focused on Education for Sustainability from within an
interdisciplinary framework. Email:
complex socio-ecological systems are often
intractable to the imposition of intention-
al change. is intractability derives in
large part from certain intrinsic proper-
ties of complex systems, namely their nested and
scale hierarchic structure and the fact that they
are comprised, essentially, of processes and func-
tions rather than objects and entities (Vasishth
2008). As such, they are harder to “move,” given
that they are not things to be pulled or pushed,
shoved or even levered into places we think
more appropriate and better suited. Instead, as
processes and functions, they need to be guid-
ed, and channelled, and deflected and cajoled.
Further, complex, organic systems, as opposed
simple, mechanical systems, have certain prop-
erties that demand we think differently about
realities and about our expectations of them.
Rittel &Webber (1973) argue that such com-
plex, open systems are best characterized as
“wicked problems,” and lay out a taxonomy of
properties that indicate we cannot hope to con-
trol or manage them in the ways we might man-
age mechanical systems.
In planning, and conventionally, change processes
are characterized as gradual, directional and pro-
gressive. However, a more savvy understanding of
evolutionary science shows us that change processes
need to be thought of quite differently. e ideas
from Succession eory, Punctuated Equillibria,
Patch Dynamics and Symbiogenesis give us
models of evolutionary change that must be
approached in radically different ways.
ese three memes process-function ecology,
“wicked problems” and ecological evolution
may together give us some interesting ways to
begin to talk about systemic change in ways that
lead to novel insights. When systems are viewed
as nested, scale-hierarchic structures, and when
they are conceived as constituted by processes and
functions, and when we view change processes
themselves as being driven by a sophisticated
understanding of evolutionary dynamics, then we
may come to a place where systemic change can be
viewed as more closely approximating actual, plu-
ralistic reality, rather than as the simplifications of
reality that emerge from the more mechanical
metaphors from classical physics.
We are, at our core, sensory creatures. We tell the
world about us, first and foremost, by our five prima-
ry senses. While it is true that we are as well cognitive,
convention has biased us to trust what can be seen,
heard, touched, smelled and tasted significantly more
than that which is thought. Objectivity is valorised
over subjectivity, and the empirical over the theorized.
So it is not surprising that we take the physical, tangi-
ble world to be real, and the functional, processual
world to be conceptual.
In this sense, and within this frame, people are taken to
be real and relationships are considered constructs;
objects are considered actual and the processes and
functions that undergird them are taken to be conjec-
tural. But, what if this is precisely where we err? What
if it is that relationships, processes and functions are
real, and people and objects and entities are constructs?
Certainly trees are real. e roots, trunks, branches,
twigs and leaves have factual existence. But are these
more real, more actual, more meaning-filled than the
flows of carbon, water, oxygen, the processes of pho-
tosynthesis and microbial interaction without which
no tree could conceivably have meaning?
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ere is a branch of ecology, called scale-hierarchic
process-function ecology, which gives rise to a par-
ticular version of an ecosystem approach that has
proven to be particularly useful in managing socio-
ecological systems. e core conception behind such
an ecosystem approach from process-function ecolo-
gy is that of a scale-hierarchic organization of systems,
sub-systems and supra-systems nested within and
about each other (Vasishth 2008).
Conceptually, any named and purposively defined sys-
tem of concern emerges from the relationships amongst
its constitutive sub-systems, even as it itself relates
responsively with other systems to inform its own,
wider, supra-system.It may be useful to bear in mind
that the degree of complexity for any named system of
concern is known by the numbers and strengths of rela-
tionships it contains, rather than simply, and trivially,
by the merely morphological number or size of its com-
ponents (Allen &Starr 1982:185-186).
In such a scale hierarchic approach from within process-
function ecology, socio-ecological systems exhibit dis-
tinct, functionally nested levels of organization that can
usefully be named, based upon purpose, perspective,
and the criteria used for observation. Functional nest-
ing is not necessarily commensurate with spatial nest-
ing since processes and functions don’t always map
reliably from more tangible structures and patterns
(O’Neill et al. 1986:187-189).
Each level of organization relevant to purpose
needs to be explicitly recognized in description,
and each such level may well need to be described
at more than just one or two functional scales. In
ecology, for instance, some criteria-based levels
of organization that have proven robust over
time are represented by the ideas of gene, organ-
ism, population, community, landscape, ecosys-
tem, biome and biosphere.eir usefulness as a
basis for ordering inquiry is indicated by some
of the sub-disciplines that have emerged within
the science of ecology, such as biological ecolo-
gy, population ecology, community ecology,
landscape ecology, and ecosystem ecology.
ese levels of organization are informed and
constituted by processes and functions, and
each level of organization interacts with its sub-
and supra-systems in very particular, variable,
but non-whimsical, ways. May’s (1973) theoreti-
cal study of the relationships between complexity
and stability, for example, underscores the con-
clusion that ecosystem connections are impor-
tantly non-random (Allen &Starr 1982:188).
Because these interactions are not arbitrary and
because the strengths and frequencies of these
interactions are often strongly differentiated. While
everything may be connectable to everything else,
every thing is not equally connected to every thing
else, and because particular interactions and
exchanges can generally be associated with partic-
ular spatial and temporal scales, there are rules we
can come to know as we attentively follow
processes and functions across named levels of
organization (Vasishth, 2008).
en an ecological phenomenon is one that
requires description at more than one level of
organization, with each level requiring its own
set of particularized tools and scales, and where
observations of occurrence at one level of orga-
nization cannot casually be imputed to other
levels. And an ecological view is one in which
organization and occurrence is known to
appear differently at different levels of organi-
zation and at different scales of description.
What we can see of the world is sometimes dra-
matically contingent on the boundaries chosen
in the first place.
e conceptual and practical issues faced in con-
structing scale hierarchies are fairly well under-
stood, at least in fields other than planning.
(Simon 1962, 1973; Koestler 1967; Allen & Starr
1982; O’Neill, et al 1986) ere is no single way of
constructing hierarchic descriptions of ecological
phenomena, because the criteria by which such hier-
archies might be constructed are quite contingent on
purpose. However, once purpose is made explicit,
there are usually only a few hierarchical constructions
that prove useful.
Ecosystem ecologists have found frequency-based or
rate-derived hierarchies particularly useful in working
with natural phenomena at the ecosystem level of orga-
nization. e structural organization revealed by differ-
ences in process rates has proven a reliable and robust
way of decomposing complex systems into useful levels
of organization, and also into the sub-systems relevant
to any one level. e conceptual core of this theory
that organization results, in effect if not in fact, from
differences in process rates was developed by Simon
(1962, 1969, 1973), and further refined by Allen &Starr
(1982), and O’Neill et al (1986).
en the “natural” boundaries for systems of concern
are known most usefully by changes in frequencies or
rates in relevant processes. One instrumental impli-
cation of this for environmental planning is that
there are no precise and durable boundaries to be
found in nature, only gradients which themselves
flux and shift over time. is should not, however,
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be taken to mean that boundaries cannot reason-
ably be named merely that ecological boundaries
are roomy places rather than hard edges, and as such
can only be named at some hazy, grainy scale of
description. As Corn (1993) points out, the bound-
aries named by most experienced ecosystem ecologists
when looking at the same system of concern with
similar purposes in mind, fall within a fairly narrow
spatial and temporal range. If there is no single bound-
ary at which to point, there is certainly a namable zone
that can reliably be known.
In landscape ecology for instance, such a zone is referred
to as an ecotone – a region of transition from one land-
scape element or patch to another, such as between a
forest and meadow. Ecotones are marked by highly con-
centrated changes in frequency, and thus in ecological
structure, pattern and process. For ecosystem ecologists
working at the landscape level, a boundary isn’t a
boundary but the thing of concern itself. In the man-
agement of social-ecological systems, however, and
especially when no place has been made for ecological
processes and functions, we conceive of a boundary as
marking the limits of our interest, attention, and con-
cern. It is where our concern with the world ends.
A rate-derived hierarchic scheme strongly suggests
that the processes and functions which help us
name systems and sub-systems by changes in fre-
quency and strength, also inform the selection of
levels of organization and scales of observation. In
general, there is a fairly strong correlation between
frequency, level of organization and spatio-tem-
poral extent. Usually, systems at wider levels of
organization have larger spatial extent, exhibit
lower frequencies and change slowly, while
smaller systems show higher frequencies and
change more quickly. is general correlation,
together with the fact that interactions amongst
components of social-ecological systems are
neither random nor undifferentiated but rather
fairly well ordered, is what enables the devel-
opment of ecosystem ecology in the first place.
One of the more useful arguments from this view,
with considerable instrumental value for change
planning, is that many of the apparent controver-
sies which have persisted in ecological science
such as disagreements over the role of competition
in nature, or the relationships between diversity
and stability, or the role of perturbations in ecosys-
tem dynamics – grow out of differences in the scale
or level of organization at which differing observa-
tion sets were collected. And other errors arise when
observations taken at a particular level or scale are
generalized across levels, or read at some different
scale (O’Neill et al 1986:186-212).
e term ecosystem is most usefully treated as a
particular level of integration within a scale hierar-
chy. Ecosystem ecology, or process ecology, then
becomes the study of processes and functions at
an ecosystem level of integration, where these
processes and functions reveal themselves most
usefully in the flows of matter, energy, and infor-
mation (Weiss, 1971; Rowe, 1961; Allen &Hoek-
stra, 1993). en the various approaches to the
study of ecosystem that have emerged over time
can be characterized by the particulars of their
emphasis on material systems, energetic systems,
and information systems, all taken as acting
within a scale hierarchic and nested organization
of sub- and suprasystems, and all exhibiting their
own particular developmental dynamics (evolu-
tionary processes) and levels of integration.
Weiss (1971:31) takes ecosystem to represent one
level of integration along the hierarchic continu-
um, “[…] as a paradigm of the principle of inter-
dependencies, partly prestructured, partly in free
system interaction, which make it possible for
organisms to mesh harmoniously with their envi-
ronment and with one another, both individually
and in groups, so as to exist, persist, and thrive.”
Allen &Hoekstra (1993:90) insist that the definition
of the ecosystem approach “compromises the integri-
ty of organisms” as proper explanatory units of
ecosystem processes.
“e failure of organisms to offer ecosystem explana-
tions and predictions comes from their lack of dis-
creteness in ecosystem function; organisms do not
represent the functional parts (or ecosystems). e
pathways in which organisms are subsumed are the
functional parts.”
Taken in this sense, an ecosystem approach is most con-
cerned with the generation of descriptions descrip-
tions that are grounded in relevant functional processes
and pathways, respect the scales revealed by these path-
ways, and view named systems of concern as part of a
nested hierarchic structure showing relationships both
within and across levels of integration and description.
An ecosystem approach would argue that organisms and
entities which lend themselves most readily to classifica-
tion in planning, whether taken from a typological or a
population view, are themselves mere manifestations of
underlying and more constitutive functional processes
in the ecosphere. ese organisms and entities may
provide us with criteria by which to observe and mea-
sure particular and more readily sensible aspects of
our world, but do not, in themselves, provide an
explanation of how nature occurs.
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It was the early work of Eugene P. Odum, Golley
(1993) suggests, which transformed the idea “into a
concept with vast theoretical and applied signifi-
cance”. is conception of nature as process-function
ecology, with its recognition of flows and of change,
is central to the present recognition of ecosystems as
the “objects of concern” (Odum 1964) rather than the
conventional view, which focuses only on individuals,
communities, populations and landscapes.
Taken differently, the proper distinction to be made
here is between problems that deal with closed systems
and those that reside in open systems. Rittel &Web-
ber’s (1973) discussion of “tame” and “wicked” problems
becomes useful in this. In their characterization, tame
problems – closed systems – are problems that, howev-
er complicated, are amenable to definitive resolution
under expert attention. ese are questions to which
answers can be worked out and to which there is a sin-
gle correct answer for any given starting condition, or
at least a single correct preferential ranking of multi-
ple answers. Wicked problems, on the other hand,
reside in open systems with no logically revealable
starting point and no technically computable end
state, where, in the language of games, the play is
the thing. is is also to speak of nature, where if
there is any directionality it is toward staying in
play, and by implication, where the rewards are in
keeping the game going (Axelrod 1984).
Rittel &Webber (1973) formulate a series of “prop-
erties” for such wicked problems. Abstracting
from these, wicked problems are those that defy
definitive description and can, perhaps must,
always be multiply described. Besides, every for-
mulation of such a problem leads to a different
solution, and thus models or predictions of
future states are highly contingent on what is
taken to be the problem formulation or initial
state. Wicked problems, belonging to open sys-
tems, have no logical stopping point, no inher-
ent end state in which one could claim to have
“solved” the problem. Nor, because of this, do
they show any natural stage at which imple-
mented solutions can definitively be tested for
success or failure.
Further, and perhaps more significantly, “every
wicked problem can be considered a symptom
of another problem.” Taking this to the scale-
hierarchic approach in ecosystem theory where a
phenomenon or circumstance at one level of
integration has functional connectivities with its
supra- and sub-systems, what is taken to be a
problem at one level, may well be beneficial or
even essential at another, and perhaps a whole dif-
ferent sort of problem at still another level. Final-
ly, for purpose of this discussion, every wicked
problem is unique. is, taken along with the
absence of clear starting and end points, means
that the method of trial and error, which rests
most on the building of experiential learning,
becomes less reliable and must at least be relo-
cated within the methodological repertoire for
planning with open systems (Holling, 1986).
ere is an established tradition in planning
thought to incorporate an understanding of evo-
lution into how we might plan (e.g., Park 1936;
McKenzie 1968). is tradition precedes Charles
Darwin’s (1859) work on evolutionary selection,
and is evidenced most recently in the domains of
social science – particularly in sociology, econom-
ics, and futures research (e.g.: McKenzie 1968;
Nelson &Winter 1982; Nozick 1993; Laszlo 1987;
Allen 1990). But evolution and evolutionary con-
ceptions of the world remain largely peripheral to
both substantive and instrumental planning in the
case of social-ecological systems.
Yet the very notion of planning, in any form, must
rest squarely upon some conception of evolution.
e world “moves,” and there are discernible patterns
to this movement, and these patterns give us handles
with which to plan (Krieger 1989). en, how we
understand evolutionary occurrence must influence
how we conceive planning, for any critical claim to
realism and rationality requires an explication of evolu-
tionary occurrence in nature.
But developments in the theory and science of evolution
– in ecology, biology, and paleontology particularly – give
us good reasons to argue that current and conventional
conceptions of evolution are often wrong. is matters
significantly to planning, and more so to environmental
planning, in how we conceive and deal with nature.
Any serious acknowledgment of evolution in planning
must recognize not merely, and trivially, that change is
inevitable and endemic to the world, but more, that the
world as we know it could not happen, and indeed we
would not be where we are, without certain particular
sorts of change. And to recognize that the world hap-
pens evolutionarily, in this sense, requires us also to
acknowledge that there must always be multiple
although never more than a few potential futures
legitimately open to us.
ere have been a number of folk beliefs which
cause evolution to be mistaken, both generally and
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in planning, but I consider three of these to claim
foundational priority. First, a belief that the indi-
viduals and events most accessible to our senses are
discrete and singular natural entities; second, a belief
that nature can, and indeed should, be taken apart
from humans and human agency; and third, a persis-
tent and enduring belief that natural change is grad-
ual, continuous, directional, and progressive.
Any effort to deal with change processes in social-eco-
logical systems that rests on such a view of how nature
happens must be quite different from a process-func-
tion ecosystem view of nested, scaled and purposively
named hierarchies.
Adopting such a view leads us to recognize a quite dif-
ferent set of understandings of what it might mean to
be sustainable in our crafting of deliberated interven-
tions. To illustrate this, I shall touch briefly on a few
ideas from ecology theory and ecosystem thinking.
e first of these derives from the work of Eugene
Odum on ecosystem succession and perturbation the-
ory. e second can be found in the work of Niles
Eldredge and Stephen Gould on punctuated equilib-
ria and episodic speciation. e third emerges from
the work of Pickett &White on patch dynamics.
And the fourth is shown in the work of Lynn Mar-
gulis on symbiogenesis theory.
Essentially, Odum’s work on ecosystem theory
tells us that ecosystems, as named units of
nature, exhibit a tendency to succession – pro-
gressing from young, vigorous producers to sta-
bility-seeking, climax ecosystems.
Young ecosystems seek to capture and accumu-
late biomass, which is the produce of photo-
synthesis, so as to be better able to resist exter-
nal disruptions. Older, climax ecosystems, hav-
ing already accumulated biomass, tend to
expend more of their produce of photosynthe-
sis on maintaining their biomass.
Morphologically taken, this is perhaps similar
to the biotic cycles of birth, life and death.
However, in ecosystem theory this would be an
inaccurate analogy, because pulsing and pertur-
bations are an essential part of how homeostasis,
or self-maintenance, occurs.
Successful ecosystems are those that are subject to
episodic perturbations, which throw them back to
some earlier stage of succession, and which yet have
sufficient resilience and redundancy in their func-
tional relationships to cope with episodic disrup-
tion. en, while there is inevitably a tendency to
decay, it is the pulses and perturbations and dis-
ruptions, in fact, that fend of ultimate entropifica-
tion and assure an ongoing vitality to homeostatic
A second idea from ecology theory I think rele-
vant to understanding what sustainability
might mean to planning is found in Niles
Eldredge and Stephen Gould’s work on punc-
tuated equilibria.
eir argument is about the manner in which
change occurs in nature. e conventional
view of change, described in biology as phyletic
gradualism, is that of a stately, gradual, and
progressive unfolding.
Much of the effort in planning rests on just such a
view of gradual natural change. e central place
that we give to trends and the use that we make of
projections are but one reflection of this view. As
one example, a gradualist view of change would
encourage us to believe that population growth is a
smooth and knowable progression. en, events
such as the ‘baby-boom’ become freak occurrences,
anomalies, blips on the curve taking us by surprise.
e view from punctuated equilibria, however, is
rather one of episodic change – relatively long peri-
ods of dynamic stasis followed by brief periods of
abrupt and sometimes radical change, followed by a
relatively long period of dynamic stasis, punctuated
again by some brief period of concentrated change.
In recognizing such a punctuated, episodic version of
evolution, we come to acknowledge the essentially fits
and starts nature of how change actually happens in an
evolutionary world. Homeostasis, as self-regulating
self-maintenance, requires perturbation – and external
shocks and surprises are in fact the very things that
allow complex systems to go about their business of
enduring through time.
e moment we begin to view sporadic perturbation as
an essential basis for homeostasis, not only then must we
question the place we allow the status quo in our own
deliberations, to question what it is we take to be the
norm, but we must see that the metaphors of human
life – of birth, life and death graduated smoothly upon
a chronologic metric – are wholly inadequate to the life
cycles of complex, homeostatic systems.
e work of Pickett &White (1985), amongst others,
on the ideas of patch dynamics and perturbation
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theory can be useful to us, as we seek to relocate the
place we give to shocks and surprise in planning our
Intertidal ecosystems, for example, are ceaselessly
pulsed by tides, by wave action, and by storms. Here
it is perturbations that displace dominance relation-
ships sufficiently and often enough to allow what
would otherwise be subservient species to play catch
up. en we are able to recognize that while domi-
nance relationships are certainly a fact of life, and may
even have some value in allowing us to make orderly
descriptions, they may, as well, be antithetical to home-
ostasis and to endurance.
Finally, the work of the Russian school of symbiogene-
sis, and that of Lynn Margulis (1991) on the role of
symbiosis in the origination of new life forms, is also
useful to planning in how it takes sustainability. Sym-
biogenesis theory challenges the conventional view of
a competitive struggle for existence, governed by
some measure of comparative fitness, as the essential
mechanism in natural and evolutionary change.
It argues that evolutionary progress is not so much
about finding superior levels of fitness as it is about
moving toward ever more profound and more intri-
cate relationships. A truly new species becomes
nameable when the symbiotic relationships
between two entities become so strong as to make
it difficult, perhaps even meaningless, to tell the
two apart.
en, evolutionary change must be taken to hap-
pen, at least, as much through the formation and
perfection of new symbiotic relationships as it
does through any process of competitive selec-
tion. Put differently, evolutionary processes show
not only a branching out (toward the future),
but also a convergence (from the past).
As soon as we recognize that symbiosis is legiti-
mately a basis for the emergence of new life
forms, and not merely some freak aberration in
an otherwise settle norm in which change
processes are powered by a system of fitness-
based selection and rejection from within a set of
otherwise random mutations – then we are liber-
ated from the notion that change occurs when
copious novel options are presented for a some-
what gladiatorial selection process, one in which
we weed out the bad ideas and triumphantly hold
up the good ones. Instead, change may as well
emerge from the formation of novel symbiotic rela-
tionships, which expand the boundaries of the pos-
sible, rather than shrink them.
Given these three sets of ideas – the meme of an
ecosystem approach based on process-function
ecology, the meme of complex systems as “wicked
problems,” and the meme of a more sophisticated
understanding of evolutionary change processes –
it follows that conventional conceptions of sys-
temic change will not hold. Internalizing these
three memes leads us to a place where we can
think about change as panarchic (Gunderson &
Holling 2002) and coevolutionary.
e commonly held notion that change
processes are either continuous and gradual, or
radical and disruptive but always monotonic
and directional must be challenged. Instead
we must take change processes to be episodic,
multi-directional and opportunistic. e fact of
the matter is, there are many forms of, and facets
to, change. us, change management is a huge
field. However, in the case of systemic change,
and if we are concerned most particularly with
change processes in “wicked problems” sorts of
complex systems, then we come to Gunderson &
Holling’s (2002: 5) idea of Panarchy as the art and
science of governing nested scale-hierarchic systems,
in “the interplay between change and persistence,
between the predictable and unpredictable”, inter-
linked in continual adaptive cycles of growth, accu-
mulation, restructuring, and renewal.
e most germane philosophical roots of this particu-
lar notion of systemic change, as London (1996 [2015])
points out, are found in the ancient Chinese view of
“reality as the dynamic interplay of two opposites – the
yin and the yang. eir keen understanding of change is
reflected in the term they use for “crisis” wei-ji
which is composed of the characters for “danger” and
ere are two critical points embedded here – first, that
reality, in the case of complex systems, is rarely singu-
lar; and second, that systemic change is a dynamic phe-
nomenon, which is directionally variable. en, the
only way to respond to systemic change is by taking an
adaptive management approach.
London (1996 [2015]) concludes that:
“What this literature shows is that there are at bot-
tom two modes of viewing change: the reactive and
the proactive. From one perspective, individuals and
groups are the objects of change. ey are at the
receiving end, in the sense that change happens to
them. From the other perspective, individuals and
groups are the initiators of change and change fol-
lows from human volition.”
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e important point, here, is that it is not a debate
between these two views, nor is it a contest of any
sort. To attempt to choose between them is to com-
mit a Type ree Error – asking the wrong question.
Rather, both, simultaneously and collectively, togeth-
er, play out their conjoined dynamic, much as the yin
and yang metaphor would lead us to see.
One final point that is likely worth making here has to
do with the conceptions of “leadership” that can be
deployed in efforts to “manage” change. Conventional
views have held, rather unquestionably until recently,
that what is needed in the face of flux and change is
“strong leadership,” a “firm hand on the helm,” to nav-
igate the turbulent waters, so to speak.
However the three memes deployed above, and the view
of change that emerges from their deployment, may well
lead us in a different direction that of “distributed
leadership.” Brafman &Beckstrom (2006) have argued
persuasively for decentralized organizational leadership.
As discussed earlier, it is the relationships, the interac-
tions that make it meaningful to name a particular sys-
tem of concern. Objects and entities and organisms,
and their actions, are secondary to the bounding of
systems, sub-systems and supra-systems.
Spillane (2006: 84), points out:
“Interactions are the key to unlocking leadership
practice from a distributed perspective. Leadership
practice takes shape in the interactions of leaders,
followers and their situation…From a distrib-
uted perspective, simply counting up the actions
of leaders will not be sufficient on its own; the
whole is more than the sum of the parts.”
Taken together, these conceptualizations from an
ecosystem approach to systemic change processes
give us a much more humble view of our role in
managing such change. We are not in charge –
the puppeteers. Rather we are tiny infinitesimal
specks in a rather magnificent universe, residing
within the very systems we seek to influence. As
such, the best we can hope to do is to make what
have been called “dinky little pokes,” influencing
and tweaking the realities within which we occur,
adaptively responding to the systemic responses
that the changes we initiate themselves generate.
We may indeed move the world this way and
that, but we should expect that the world will
then itself move otherwise, in response to our
interventions. To be savvy managers of systemic
change, we must not then turn around and express
surprise at this sometimes unpredictable recalci-
trance on the part of the world we seek to influence.
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Hierarchical organization of macrosystems has been observed in many different fields of science. Roughly, one can distinguish the following levels of organization: particles, atoms, molecules, macromolecules, organelles, cells, organs, organisms, populations, ecosystems ...(see Weiss, 1971; Pattee, 1974; Voorhees, 1983; Toulouse and Bok, 1978). Each of these levels of organization is associated with a particular level of description. Indeed, many models have been developed at each level of organization and one can find large classes of models corresponding to the different levels. For instance, in ecology, there are three large classes of models corresponding to three levels of organization: individual, population, ecosystem levels. At the individual level, the models study the behaviour of animals and the distribution of animals in different activities such as resting, hiding, searching for food of different types... These dynamical models are concerned with the time dependence of the numbers of animals in the population occupied in each activity (Mackintosh et al., 1972; Auger, 1984a). At the population level, the models study the distribution of the animals according to age classes. These models are concerned with the time dependence of the age distribution (e.g., the Leslie model, see Leslie, 1945). At the ecosystem level, the models study the interactions between different species. These dynamical models are concerned with the time dependence of the numbers of individuals belonging to different species (e.g., the Lotka-Volterra models, see Volterra, 1931; Lotka, 1939; May, 1976).