What to measure is not as clear as it seems

Posted on May 25, 2021 in Devon Doughnut, Regenerative design, Systems

By Paul Pivcevic – The vision the doughnut offers us is of a safe and just space for humanity, and a renewed economy that is both redistributive and regenerative. We just need to act, and ‘move the needle’ – and quickly, we chide ourselves. It’s not quite that simple though. 

The Devon Doughnut Collective that I’ve been a part of has been discussing and developing ideas for many months. We know we are all participating in a complex planetary system that none of us can truly comprehend the whole of, with so many interdependencies that we can never clearly see the link between any single act and its impact. Like starlings who weave their vast patterns in the evening sky oblivious to their magic, so are we patterning our lives and our contexts and being patterned by them, individually and collectively in ways we are blind to. 

What follows are some personal insights from working with my dedicated colleagues on the Collective, embellished with insights from my own practice, and recent research into a flood of new thinking around what measures we should pay attention to in order to bring about a revitalised world.

Addressing the vital signs

Looking at the global version of the doughnut, it’s perfectly clear that the vital signs of patient Earth have turned critical. Do we respond by addressing them singly with targeted interventions, like you might use a drug to treat a hospital patient; do we pour all resources into fixing the one symptom likely to provoke the greatest emergency, like climate; do we assume interdependency and scan for linkages and make smart interventions that are likely to tackle more than issue at once; do we seek the rules behind the workings of the system, like those simple instincts that govern the starlings’ murmurations; do we work on ourselves first, to ask what is the change in me that’s needed to serve the world I’d like to see?

Probably all of the above.  

But some handrails to guide the choices may be a good thing to make sure our thinking hangs together.

Seeing the ‘system’ as it is now

At a recent session of the Doughnut Collective we did some playful role-playing. We broke up into randomly assigned pairs each of us carrying into the conversation one of the Devon Doughnut’s thresholds. I had ‘soil health’; my partner had ‘community’. We had a delightful 10 minutes during which I became a speaking worm, and she a local community-run café manager. As we explored our respective realities (decline of high streets, polluted and depleted soils, processed food) we imagined how a wormery for the café steadily fed by coffee grounds and providing vermiculture for the café’s veg garden could be a wonderful way to teach visitors about the importance of local soil health. It was one of those moments when we felt a surge of energy that could easily spur acting on such an idea. Our experience was mirrored by other pairs too, such that people decided that the two best uses of the doughnut were 

1) to share narratives that linked the doughnut domains, and 

2) to ‘light lots of small fires’. 

Complexity theory, drawn from the study of living systems teaches us that connecting up the elements of a system to facilitate interaction and feedback loops is one way to build its capacity to change and evolve. I use this as a guiding principle all the time in my professional work, when supporting leaders leading change in their organisations. The Doughnut’s visual prompt to connect up its domains is one of its true gifts. It allows us to discover the connections that contribute to the overall state of the system, with those ‘aha’ moments when we realise how poor housing contributes to poor educational attainment, exacerbates social disadvantage and also contributes disproportionately to carbon emissions. We can see how committing to this process of making linkages could light the fires, both in communities and among policy makers. We are seeing through these linkages, more of the system as it is, and as it functions today and we are realising that more agency is available to us as a result.

Supporting the ‘patient’ to flourish 

What we also know about any living, and therefore complex system is that it has an identity, and a systemic role. Our heart is an organ that (self)organises its heartbeat to serve the needs of our circulatory system, which in turn answers what the body is needing in that moment to serve a thriving life. Another example: thorny scrubland protects young saplings from deer, provides a home for birds, allows anthills to grow undisturbed by grazing animals, enabling butterflies and lizards to thrive and the trees, as their roots grow remove nutrients harmful to water ecology, and so on.

Isabella Tree in her book ‘Wilding’, an evocative account of a loss-making farm on marginal land coming back to life and profitability, is very clear that focusing on discrete measures would never have resulted in the success they now have. Were they now to be asked by Government to count, and then set a target for say, the number of nightingales our endangered and glorious songbird, this would mean actively managing their habitat and so choke off Nature’s natural dynamism that had brought the nightingales and so much other abundance of wildlife to the land in the first place, in so many unexpected ways.

We need to beware of acting to correct lone indicators. The decline of the nightingale may well be a vital planetary sign which is sadly failing, but treating this symptom in isolation, could cause unintended consequences, and constrain a more general process of restoration. It would almost certainly compromise the opportunities for other species, as well as the environmental, economic and social benefits still to emerge from this dynamic process.

No one could have predicted when she and her husband Charles embarked on this rewilding adventure that in addition to bringing back a profusion of wildlife, they would have created an enormous carbon sink as well as providing a great service to flood management in their local area. Almost identical outcomes albeit at a smaller scale are described in James Reebanks’ an active Lake District farmer in his book ‘English Pastoral’.

How does this help us with the doughnut? What can we learn from the Knepp example about flourishing? 

Clearly, thriving is a natural feature of systems that arises through healthy interdependent relationships – and that includes us. And if we can create these relationships without a prescribed outcome and trust the process, the system will not only thrive, but even put right much of the previous damage. Somehow we need to measure the growing complexity of a system, the degree of interdependence. 

One way could be to visually illustrate the structures (both community and local government) that are put in place that link the different domains. Perhaps this could stimulate even more relationships. But there’s more. 

Going back to identity and role of complex living systems, you do need an aim for a place that carries this identity such as: we want to discover and realise the potential of this area for everyone, and perhaps be inspired by pioneering examples of ‘positive deviance’ (see footnote). The Knepp story was inspired by a ground-breaking project in the Netherlands, a vast area reclaimed from the sea roaming with bison, wild cattle and ponies just 30 minutes from Amsterdam airport. There was a guiding vision for rewilding this land – to let ecological processes run their course. And what seasoned regenerative practitioners will also tell you about how they approach the conundrum of making human development co-evolve with nature, is that when they arrive to work on a project they are looking for ‘processes’. How does the land here move nutrients around, how does it maintain water and air quality, how over time has the place worked in a way that both human and more-than-human can thrive and grow this thriving reciprocally? How does the place relate to its context? And maybe how has it got stuck? 

In sum, I would argue we need to measure the quality of core processes (and even proxies for this like the relative amount of biodiversity) to see if we are on the road to a flourishing system. We already have ‘biodiversity’ (though this would need some sort of comparator) and ‘water quality’ could be recast as a process. Could we do the same for climate change, like ‘carbon-cycling’ or the domain ‘health and wellbeing’ becoming ‘making time to check in with myself and what I need’ as well as ‘planning easy access to quality green space for all’? To be discussed.

The handrails

Our urge to act, to count, to measure progress is a natural human impulse. And to feel that we are making a difference is vital to our sense of hope. The doughnut and its thresholds is a wonderful way to begin to understand the challenge, but it may have much more potential if we dig a little deeper to understand what supports flourishing to unfold for places and people to grow into their ‘wholeness’ as well attending to building the capacity to keep evolving and flourishing. If making linkages across the domains is the start of this process, then imaging together what is the potential of this place based on deeper understanding of the land and its history is the next step. This also makes measurement into a personal development process if we can walk through the questions:

What are the qualities of this place and its community that I treasure; if they could fully unfold what could this place contribute more of to its wider context, the whole town, the wider region; and then what’s my role in helping bring this about?

One final thought. We know it supports complex systems to thrive to operate by simple rules that govern behaviour of constituent elements. The doughnut’s two concentric circles also remind us of another economic shift: towards a circular economy. Enormous effort is now rightly going into reclaiming, remaking, recycling and repurposing. However, critics like Alexandre Lemille point out that much of the focus is on the so-called technosphere, the world we have made as compared to the world on which all this wealth depends, the ‘biosphere’. And it completely misses us, human beings and our own cycles, the ‘humansphere’. 

Here are his radical principles, simple rules if you like that could also be food for thought as measures to add to the doughnut:

1. “Focus on Vital Needs of Beings”, by which we recognize that we live in a world where the needs of all species can be met, including humans;

2. “Design Out All Externalities”, where new types of human organizations should seek to implement discoveries allowing abundance while avoiding scarcities;

3. When given a choice, one must “Choose the Least Intensive Ratio”, because the path towards the least concentration of something (energies, power, choices, beliefs, money, etc.) or of someone should be preferred, as leading to more distributive strategies;

 4. A “Change in Timescale & Space” would help design greed out of our systems thanks to making decisions for the long rather than short term. 

Says Lemille: “Taking this helicopter view of an ecosystem where all living beings interact from a model—resetting our past beliefs in an open-minded way—is our best chance to see our children’s children live a more decent life than our children today will.”

Footnote: Positive deviance (PD) is an approach to behavioral and social change based on the observation that in any community there are people whose uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite facing similar challenges and having no extra resources .

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