Design better social software using Living Systems Theory

With the explosion in social software and the recognition that these types of systems need to reach critical mass to survive and prosper it is amazing that so few people seem to be applying the well-established philosophical principles of living systems (autopoiesis) to design for sustainability.


Autopoiesis is the word!

I have introduced the theory of living systems developed by Maturana and Varela (technically known as autopoiesis) in previous articles.

In essence these two mould-breaking Chilean biologists argued that a living system should not be defined in terms of its attributes (e.g. growth or reproduction) which ran counter to the common practice of the time.

Maturana and Varela wanted to define living systems in a more philosophically independent way by suggesting that a living system is one "whose only products are itself" - which is actually massively profound if you think about it.

They went on to suggest that there are 4 key aspects of such a living system represented graphically in the symbol above:

The 4 components of a "living system"

  1. The Boundary

    Represented by the outer circle.
    The Boundary of a living system is open to energy but closed to foreign materials - i.e. it's a semi-porous boundary rather than a rigid boundary.

  2. The Processes

    Represented by the Arrow on the boundary to indicate that the boundary and the processes are one.
    The boundary is the 'being' and the processes are the 'doing' of a living system.
    Living Systems Theory suggests that a living system must have a complete set of processes within the system boundary to sustain itself - this is a crucial concept of sustainable systems design.

  3. The Nervous System

    Represented by the Inner Circle with the arrow.
    The Nervous system is the connection between external events and the internal processes of the living system.

  4. The Communication Channels

    Represented by the two arrows outside the main circle.
    This represents the 2-way communications between the living system and its external environment.
    Living systems are "plastic" which means that they co-evolve through communications with other living systems and their external environment.
    My favourite example of co-evolution is my feet and my shoes: my feet impact my shoes(wear) and my shoes impact my feet (blisters).

The 3 nested levels of system within a social system

I contend that we can apply living systems design to social systems.

This is still a much-debated topic in the living systems research community but the majority of people would broadly agree with the statement I just made.

Fritjof Capra, in his excellent and wide-ranging book "The Hidden Connections" eloquently argues the case that social systems such as organisations and networks are not just like living systems - they are living systems! For more on this click here

Now when we think of a social system there are really three nested systems:

  1. The Individuals
  2. The Groups the individuals belong to
  3. The System the Groups belong to


We have to apply Living Systems theory to each of these systems to determine if the overall system has the right components for sustainability.

Applying living systems concepts to social systems

For example if we apply the Living System concepts at an individual level within a social system I would interpret the system components as follows:

The Boundary
* Consider how well the individuals Identity and Reputation is defined and maintained?
* Consider how well the individual can manage both their Private space and their different kinds of Open Space (to the rest of the group and beyond)

The Processes
* Identify the processes which are available to each individual within the social system
* Establish if these processes form a complete set which meets the individuals needs (how do you know?)

The Nervous System
* Identify the Events the individual wants to be notified about plus any automated processes this should trigger
* Is there a complete mapping between Events and Processes or are there missing events or processes?

The Communication Channels
* Identify the channels by which the individual can communicate with the other individuals both within and outside their groups
* Are they sufficient and appropriate?

In a similar manner we can also interpret these concepts at the Group Level - in this case the 4 components each have different meanings.

For example: The Boundary is about the Identity of the Group and the rules by which individuals may participate in the group (e.g. categories of membership with their rights and obligations)

When we apply the Processes Component at the Group System Level it raises for me the question of roles in social networks and the interaction between them.

In Tom Quick's (University College London) excellent Introduction to Autopoiesis Tom suggests that:

'in crude terms a system is autopoietic if the bits and pieces of which it is composed interact with each other in such a way as to continually produce and maintain that set of bits and pieces and the relationships between them'.

A personal theory which I am developing, based on this concept (referred to the closure of the nervous system) proposes that:

1) Each role in a social network should be defined not in terms of its outputs or objectives but instead in terms of the transformations (and instantiations) it makes to the other roles in the system.

2) Collectively the role interactions should create a positive feedback loop in the sense that each role is fully defined in terms of its interactions with other roles.

Finally we can go on to interpret these 4 living system principles at the overall System or Ecosystem level....etc

So are your social systems growing or dying?

I suggest that it is essential for social system designers to review their 'systems' at all three levels using the four living system components to establish whether they meet the criteria for "living system" or not : they might be in for some surprises!

About the Author

Ken Thompson is an expert on all forms of collaboration including distributed organizational teams, business networks, social networks and virtual communities. Ken is also co-author with Robin Good of "The Bioteaming Manifesto - A new paradigm for virtual, networked business teams" published on ChangeThis which can be downloaded free from here.

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