What Gives Life to Large System Change


Will Steffen and colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre now argue that human beings now  be stewards of Earth’s systems to avoid catastrophic global climate heating. Deeply transformational change in human beings’ interactions with each other and the planet, the study argues, is imperative to avoid irreversible changes the life, including human life, that Earth supports. These changes could happen relatively quickly, pushing the Earth away from a trajectory of “Stabilized Earth” towards what the researchers call “Hothouse Earth.” (Source of diagram below)

The Stockholm Resilience Centre report says quick actions and major system transformations are needed to achieve a “Stabilized Earth,” that is a planet that continues to support humanity. “Stabilized Earth” demands “that humans take deliberate, integral, and adaptive steps to reduce dangerous [human-generated] impacts on the Earth System.” This fundamental idea of stewardship of the future takes place in a context of large systems change, which means that much that we consider to be normal practice—in business, government, and other social organizations—needs to change.

Our research on what gives life to human (and natural) systems provides guidance for change agents attempting to establish (or retain) flourishing conditions in human and natural systems. Our paper “What Gives Life to Large System Change,” published “online first” by Organization & Environment, argues that living systems have six key characteristics: purpose, containment, novelty, interconnectedness and diversity, wholeness, and reflective consciousness. We call these the principles that ‘give life’ to systems.

To develop these six principles, we drew from a wide range of different sources, including architecture, urban planning, biology, enlivenment, appreciative inquiry, systems thinking, resilience theory, complexity theory, physics, and regenerative capitalism. What is in common across these literatures gave insight into the six interrelated and interconnecting principles that arguably can enhance transformational efforts to better align human activities with planetary constraints and help avoid “Destabilized Earth.” The UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a guiding framework for system change that is helpful in thinking about how the six principles are relevant to human systems.


The idea of purpose—or intentional generativity more technically—means that all living system have an urge to continue into the future, a future orientation. For very simple organisms purpose can simply mean eating and procreating. For humans, as the goals of the SDGs imply, purpose means a deliberate desire to shape a better future, locally, nationally, or globally. Purpose in human systems often starts with an inspirational vision—a new story like the ones provided by the SDGs—that helps orient diverse change agents towards similar goals, as they undertake a range of different change strategies in a context of complex and wicked issues, which is the nature of human and natural systems.


Living systems are entities that have permeable boundaries (permeable containment) that give identity, even when they are nested within or tightly linked to other systems. Boundaries in “alive” systems are necessarily permeable because all living systems need inputs of new energy—think food and for living beings—to survive and thrive. They also need to be able to get rid of wastes and contaminants no longer useful. (Though from a systems perspective, what is waste in one system becomes food in others.) For example, work on one of the SDGs, say clean water, needs bounding because any one SDG is integrally linked to others. To avoid overload, issues need boundaries. At the same time, as things change, old ways of doing thing need to be eliminated or discarded and new ones can be adopted.


Living systems are in a constantly dynamic or changing state, which means that they constantly change or adapt to their current context or situation. Thriving systems have qualities of emergence or coming into being, that is, emergent novelty. This process of emergence means that living systems constantly create innovation, new entities, relationships, and ways of being in the world. The SDGS are focused on truly difficult and sometimes seemingly intractable problems, hence initiatives to deal with them constantly demand new approaches and methods to replace older ones that are no longer working.

Interconnectedness and diversity

Physicists argue that at the quantum level everything is connected. Everything is also connected in human and natural systems. The principle of (contextual) interconnectedness demonstrates that what happens in change efforts has impacts on other, related systems. Further, healthy systems tend towards ever-greater diversity in their interconnectedness, that is, towards abundance and diversity. Such diversity helps create resilience in the system. The problems and issues that the SDGs deal with are inextricably linked with each other. For example, to deal with poverty requires focus on education, gender equity, provision of decent jobs, health and sanitation availability, and food and energy security, among others, which cannot be fully teased apart. Having many diverse elements in a change process, multiple approaches from different perspectives by different people, can provide the necessary diversity to create systemic resilience and, with appropriate guidance from overarching purposes, move the system towards desired ends.


Living systems need to be considered as wholes. To tease them apart or break them into their components is to cause death to the system. Often there are multiple levels of “wholes,” nested within each other (sometimes called “holons”). What this principle means in practice is that when transformation takes place, it is important to consider the whole system, not just its parts—because it is the whole that needs to change. That requires focus on deep causes, not symptoms, and the interrelationships among different parts of the system, not just component parts.

Reflective Consciousness

The last principle is specifically human and relates to the human beings’ ability to think about designing and planning change deliberately. Called reflective or proprioceptive consciousness, this principle argues for awareness of the other principles as we begin to think about how to design better systems that are more aligned with nature and her constraints.

We believe that by taking these six principles into consideration, transformational change agents can help bring forward a future of thriving, “alive” human and natural systems. We need to do so—and soon—to shift the trajectory of the planet towards “Stabilized Earth.” Even more, we need to do so to move human systems towards supporting a “Flourishing Earth” in the long run. Doing so is even more important in light of the United Nations 2019 report that a million animal and plant species are now at risk of extinction—a situation that only makes the need for supporting all life on Earth more urgent—and for which these six principles provide a much-needed foundation for understanding how to achieve that support and stewardship.

Sandra Waddock is Councillor for the Forum’s Metanarrative Working Group, the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate Responsibility, and Professor of Management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management.

Petra Kuenkel is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Collective Leadership Institute in Potsdam, Germany, strategic advisor to international multi-stakeholder initiatives that address complex sustainability issues, and a member of the Club of Rome.

To propose a blog, please contact Steve Waddell: swaddell@transformationsforum.net

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