I underlined these words in Meadows’s Thinking in Systems primer. ‘Thinking about resilience enables us to observe and enhance a system’s restorative powers.’ As with so much in this book it is an efficient sentence that carries so much meaning. This is my thinking-out-loud (not so efficiently written, but I find it helpful).

This quote that I have pulled out is at the end of a section of the book on the characteristics on well functioning systems. The three ingredients are resilience, self-organisation and hierarchy. Natural systems are very good at using these three ingredients to build ever more complex systems that can respond to a range of scenarios in a self-organising way.

When I have conversations with people about conceptual design, it is often about designing objects – elements – in the system. What this book primes us to think about is how to design at the level of the system: relationships, rules, outcomes. The implicit shift is that with the right system structure, the actual design can happen in a more self-organising way.

So instead of thinking about building an output, I could turn my attention to intervening at the level of the system that would enhance the system’s resilience, hierarchy and self-organising abilities to develop its own building. This feels very philosophical, and I am not at this stage imagining that buildings will just appear on their own; I am just trying to think about a different level on which to carrying out our design work.

Building restorative powers

Building a system’s restorative powers, its ability to respond to changing external stimuli is part of what will enable the system to adapt, evolve and flourish in dynamic circumstances. If we can work at the level of the system, then we can create the conditions for systems improvement to emerge from the system itself.

These restorative powers emerge in part from feedback loops. Meadows’s says a system with more feedback loops, operating via different mechanisms, over different time frames, and with redundancy will increase a system’s resilience.

Assuming design to be the process of turning existing situations into improved ones, using this approach, we might think about what feedback loops exist in this system that give it resilience. What other feedback loops could we unblock that may not be operating? What feedback loops could we build in? How can we vary the mechanism and time-step of these feedback loops?

Through this thinking, our aim shifts: rather than designing things, think about what parts of a system’s resilience I can enhance in order to restore its health so that the outcomes I want can emerge from the system itself.

For me this feels like a very different approach to design from the one that I, and I suspect many, are familiar. Rather than designing at the level of elements in a system, we are thinking about how to work with that system to enable it to regenerate itself. For me this feels like a defining feature of ‘regenerative’ design: design that works at a level of interconnections and relationships to enhance a system’s ability to restore itself so that the outcomes we are looking for emerge from the system. A starting point for doing this is building a system’s resilience.

[Notes for next time: how could varying material choices help to build system resilience].