Communities as Living Systems (how nature can inspire fresh perspectives on complex problems)

Living systems

The idea of looking to nature to inspire creative solutions to complex problems (biomimicry) is not new. Ever laid in grass and been frustrated to discover the hooks of a hundred small burrs had caught themselves in the loops of thread in your clothing? Well evidently one Swiss inventory found this nuisance quite inspiring and as a result we have Velcro! Richard Harmer of the Holos Group (who’s wisdom you can experience at our January Faith in Action workshop) tells a fantastic story about how living systems also inspired our current system of credit.

But according to Tim Winton (the founder of Pattern Dynamics) the capacity of our natural world to deal with complexity could also hold the key to more than physical inventions. Looking at systems and patterns in nature could “help the way we perceive and solve our problems” he says by helping inspire the creativity we need to look in fresh ways at complex social problems.

Pattern Dynamics would have us see our Churches and communities less like mathematical problems to be solved and more like living and evolving environmental systems. When we treat them as the former we create structures and politics; when we see them as the later we inspire movements and culture. Or as Erwin McManus puts it:

“The church in her essence is a living system. Whenever we see the church through the template of an organisation, we begin creating an institution. When we relate to the church as an organism, we begin to awaken an apostolic ethos, which unleashes the movement of God” – Erwin McManus.

Seeing our Churches and our communities as living systems allows us to appreciate better the combination of chaos and order that rises out of them; as it would from any non-linear, complex or diverse system in nature.

Here are some of the ways a healthy community is like a living system (again courtesy of Richard Harmer):

  • A living system participates in the development of its neighbour; an isolated system is doomed.
  • Living systems experiment-they don’t seek a perfect solution, just a workable solution.
  • Within a living system something is always working.
  • Nature seeks diversity – new connections open up new possibilities for the system’s survival.
  • A living system cannot be steered or controlled – only tease, nudged and titillated.

What difference would looking at your community as a living system (rather than a problem to be solved) make to the way you approach community work?


You can read more about Tim Winton’s thoughts on Pattern Dynamics HERE

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