Dancing with the system

By Maraja Riechers

I am exceptionally bad at navigating. When I come out of a restaurant after dinner I occasionally do not remember where I came from and I even can get lost in my home town (which at one point had more cows than people). What is more, complexity often overwhelms me. Not, that complexity is something negative, and complexity does not need to be complicated. But sometimes it is just a bit, well, a bit too much for me.

Being exposed to all the information, warnings, pitfalls, details, conceptual and theoretical nuances, disciplinary expert knowledge and jargon, I feel immensely incapable of coping with its totality. Rather, I am acutely aware of my own knowledge gaps, shortcomings and limitations. In this chaos I am looking for perspectives that show me patterns, structures, something that helps me acknowledge the messiness, yet giving me tools to handle it (be it just for a while, until the patterns fade and I need to shift to a new perspective).

So, what I am saying is, I would be completely incapable of navigating our metaphorical ship through a sea of complexity. I would not even know where to start. And while navigating complexity was our main topic at the Leverage Conference 2019 today, I felt, that I was not the only one being reluctant.

Petra Kuenkel said that navigating complexity for her is more a collective stewardship that includes a self-organisation of diversity. Collective in a sense that there are shared responsibilities, maybe even shared values or ideas, based on a notion of care, kindness and openness (i.e. a feminist perspective, shout-out to the great talk by Elisa Oteros-Rozas). Enabling self-organisation in the design of a system may give room for diverse voice to be heard, new ideas being brought in, innovation being fostered and new methods co-created. There is power in difference and conflict; contrasting opinions are healthy and valuable, and compassionate critique should be encouraged. I would rather embrace the differences we have, agree to disagree, but also agree to understand and acknowledge and accept.

Donella Meadows spoke about dancing with the systems – we all collectively push and pull the system in our desirable direction, but none of us can see or control where we are actually going. But by fostering diversity, with time, trust and a lot of translation we might be able to avoid false consensus but embrace a fair and mutual dialogue that can guide us into a sustainable future.

When it comes to complexity, it is not about understanding it. I, personally, do not need an ever more complicated model that tries to capture all variables to predict outcomes. Models are useful, but never a depiction of reality. And I, personally, do not need to understand complexity. I will never be able to do that – but the process of trying to understand it, by shifting perspectives to see patterns and structure in the chaos helps me to learn from it. And to overcome my feeling of being overwhelmed so that I regain my ability to act.

For a while now the leverage points perspective gives me lenses to look through, to see and understand patterns. I may focus on deeper, underlying, domains for intervention – those that are often overlooked but somehow drive the chaos in the system. Or I can zoom out a bit and focus on the interactions between shallow, that is material or process based system components and the intention and design of the system. If I need to understand causality, I can use the leverage points perspective to help me acknowledge how we got here (the flows, feedback loops that reinforce our system) – but I can also use it to envision a future in which the intent and design of the system might be based around goals of environmental justice and equity.

In my eyes, transformation and contradiction is at the core of complexity. Let’s navigate the complexity together, self-organised, in a collective stewardship. 1000 eyes and hands and feet all pushing and pulling and dancing with a system. All with a vision of a good life. And while we do not know where we will end up, we value the process along the way.

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The great interconnections wall by our amazing graphic facilitation team!

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Maraja Riechers

Maraja Riechers is a PostDocs in the leverage points project here at the Leuphana University. My research focusses on human-nature connectedness, relational values, human-wildlife conflicts and landscape change – all with a leverage points perspective.

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