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A Living Systems Approach to Community Economic Development

February 23, 2010

I was recently asked to write a brief summary on the benefits of the application of living systems theory to Community Economic Development. What I am sharing below gives only a glimpse at the potentials and opportunities in this field; this topic deserves much more in-depth research.  Please forgive me for the rather formal tone of the essay, which was not written for the purpose of a blog.

I appreciate any comments or feedback you may have.




Community Economic Development (CED) approaches that aim at developing sustainable and regenerative communities should be holistic and integrative and must consider the communities’ challenges and strategies from an economic, social, and environmental perspectives, simultaneously.  We believe that CED approaches benefit from the insights of Complexity Science, Systems Thinking, and Living Systems theory.

Communities are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) or Living Systems (LS) whose components (the individuals, organizations, institutions, and all the diverse social-technical-political-ecological systems that are present within the community) continuously interact with one another to exchange information and resources; collaborate; compete; self-organize; and adapt under the influence of diverse economic, social and environmental pressures.

An LS approach to CED embraces the complexity of the community ecosystem. Understanding of the issues faced by a community can be gained by considering the complex interrelationships that exist between the community and its environment.  An ecosystem map is a useful tool to visualize the diverse interactions within the community and between the community and its environment.  This map can also be used to assess the level of diversity within the community—diversity that is critical for the system to thrive—and to determine what entities need to be added to rebalance the system.

LS theory provides insights on how to improve the adaptive capacity of communities by designing communities structures that facilitate the flow of information and the development of communication networks; connect diverse assets and resources to one another; support the development of collaboration; decentralize power and decision-making; and increase resilience in times of economic stress, hardship, or downturn.

A living community is a learning system, continuously searching for creative and innovative solutions to its problems and ways to generate value.  In the process, the community develops and grows.  Innovation is an emergent process that takes place when individuals, organizations and institutions self-organize while engaging in collaborative activities and collective actions.  Consequently, an LS approach to CED focuses on designing structures that facilitate the collective coordination of action and the development of mutually beneficial relationships.

Finally, the design of living communities is an adaptive challenge—a challenge that requires individuals, organizations, and the community as a whole to redefine long-held values, beliefs, and mental models and to embrace a new world view.   The role of the adaptive leader(s) is to mobilize and empower the community to do “adaptive work.”  This means engaging the community members in dialogue that supports the development of shared-understanding of the issues to be addressed; the development of relationship based on trust; and the co-creation of shared meaning and purposes from which a new vision can emerge and new strategies can be designed.

Open dialogue, transparency, accountability, and constant evaluation of the process and its outcome—the qualities of reflective systems—are essential to the development of purposeful and conscious living communities.

Yet, we must remember that living systems cannot be directed but only influenced.  There are no single prescriptions for success.  Strategies must be context-specific and their implementation carefully monitored using feedback loops and other evaluation systems so that to continuously adjust and improve the system.

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