Ben specialises in a holistic, systems-based approach to understanding and building upon the complex human, natural and economic relationships that create and sustain the vitality and viability of a place.
In conversation with Saskia, Ben tells the story of his becoming as a systems practitioner, his understanding of living systems - and all the beauty that can come from letting go of a mechanistic view of the world.
What is a system? What metaphors do you use to help describe systems?
Let's get started. I'd love to hear from your perspective, Ben, what is a system and what are the metaphors you regularly refer to in this work?
So most of my work, most of my thinking about systems, is in the context of living systems. Even if I'm thinking about things that we don't usually think of as being alive, like geological systems in the sense of the universe unfolding and evolving continuously, they are living systems or can be thought about as living systems.
So that's how I usually think about it. I know there are other ways of thinking about systems that have to do with a number of different parts or elements coming together to serve a purpose. So that's one simple way of thinking about what a system is. It's the relationship among elements that have been aggregated to serve a purpose. But the metaphor that I primarily work from is ‘being’.
A living system is a being, meaning that which enables me to experience it as whole, to conceptualise or engage or relate to it as a being. There are a couple of things that are implicit in what I've just said.
Let me start with the complicating factor first. There's a famous anecdote about Buckminster Fuller who's working with a group of students outdoors. One of the students says, "So what is a system?" - which is exactly your question. And Fuller draws a little circle in the dirt and says, "Well, the first thing to know about is a system is that it has a boundary," and everyone shakes their heads and then he erases the circle and he says, "The second thing to know about a system is the boundary is something that we make up. It's an artefact of our own thinking." So all of the language, the images, the metaphors that I use, take into account the fact that I'm the one who's calling it a system. I'm the one who's trying to engage with it and perceive it as a system, whatever the system is.
A system, in and of itself, is invisible. A system is a pattern of relationship. So it takes my peering into it and interpreting it to be able to engage with it or think about it as a system.
So if I come back to my original metaphor, thinking about a living system as a being, then the first thing I have to do is set aside the tendency to want to analyse it and break it apart. That's the problem for me with defining a system as a collection of separate elements, is that the system is not the collection of separate elements. The system is the coherent relationship among them. So if I push myself to think beyond that and say, okay, this is a living being, then the first thing I need to do, the most crucial thing I need to do is remove all of that stuff about parts and pieces from my mind and simply engage with it as a whole.
So that's a very easy thing to say in English. It's a very hard thing to actually understand. Actually, it's easy to do, it's very natural to do, but to describe it is difficult. So the way I describe it to people, as I say, think of someone that you care about. A child is often easy. It's easy to feel affection for a child. The person that you're feeling affection for is not the assemblage of their hair colour and eye colour and height and amount of rambunctiousness and the jokes they like.
You can go on making lists forever, trying to add them up to make this child, which is what we do when we try to describe something. Or I can simply say, I am in the presence of this being, this child. I'm in their presence. They exist. They have a right to exist, and they have a right to be who they are. So I am committing myself or making myself present to them as a whole. One being to another. This is one of the things that characterises and differentiates the regenerative approach to systems.
If you were to say to me, I'm interested in working on Berlin as a system, or I'm interested in working on the catchment basin of such and such a river, or I'm interested in working on this organisation and its development, or this refugee community that's struggling to get established in a new place, or name whatever it is.
The first move is to set aside all of the associations I have with that and set aside the tendency to try and identify all the pieces that I should be paying attention to and the issues I should be paying attention to and just start from, okay, Berlin. Berlin is a being. What does it mean to come into relationship with this great big, massive, busy, noisy, complicated, fascinating thing, this living being? How do I come to understand it, come to learn who it is, come to have appreciation for its unique character as a living whole, not as an endless list of demographic information?
What object or prop would use to help describe a system?
If you were to bring an object or a prop to this conversation, what might that be?
Well, I just did, I brought three or four props. I said Berlin, I said a child, I said a river watershed basin or a community. So those are all examples of living systems, and their differences are what make them revealing or interesting. I think about a child more or less, the same way that I think about a major European city - I bring the same attitude and the same ways of approaching thinking about it.
One of the reasons I always start with a very small personal example when I’m teaching, your relationship to a kid or your partner or your parents or whatever, is because of the living dynamics, not the learned or inappropriate or dysfunctional patterns, but the actual appreciation of the livingness of another being and the ability to see the potential and the aspiration and the self-generating, self-managing capacity that's in that living being. It translates across all scales.
So often I'll be holding more than one metaphor at a time for that reason. It's easier to see in one example or another. But an extremely complex system like a river watershed, a river catchment or a city has the same underlying organising principles as a single human being or something very modest like my garden.
How do you understand how systems change?
How do you understand how systems change?
It's a huge question, but I'll try and start, lay it out with a couple of simple metaphors or images. So one of the ways that I think that change occurs is through the dynamic tension between the nature of something, its essence and the role it could be playing, the contribution it could be making to whatever other systems it's embedded in.
So if we go back to Fuller's erasing the circle, it's because you never have a system existing in isolation from all the other systems that it's embedded in. So where you draw the line just happens to be with what you're interested in thinking about and what you can manage in your thinking.
So especially among living systems, there's always this drive to make a contribution at the next level or next several levels that secure your place in that system. So that's an ecological principle that species occupy certain niches within which they're able to make a contribution to the total ecosystem. And that's how they secure their viability, they secure their place in the system.
It's the same when we're playing a role within a family system, a community or a neighbourhood system, that the extent to which we're bringing something that's of value to that system, and enabling it to play its role in some larger system, allows us to live and potentially thrive and flourish, but only if there's a good match between who we actually are as individuals, what we aspire to become, and how that fits with the larger system.
So we use different language for talking about that. Given who I am as a human being, there are almost infinite possibilities for how I could express who I am into the world. And how I end up expressing who I am depends a lot on the cultural and environmental conditions that I find myself in, what's actually relevant to my environment.
So the point is to help each of us find a way to make that fit, make that match between what we've got to give and what needs to be received without losing either side of the equation. So in a sense, when I take my own nature and my own potential and place it in service of the potential of the community that I'm part of, that creates, especially if I'm thinking of the community that I'm part of, also trying to grow its ability to make a contribution, not remaining in status quo, but trying to evolve and become healthier community, making something of greater value in the world and so on, then that creates a stretch that allows me to manifest more of my potential.
Now, there is something more to learn, something more to become, something more to develop self-mastery with, something to broaden my perspective with, that will allow me to step up to the next level of contribution that's needed.
So that's in a sense the driver of change. Change occurs within that. If you've got that dynamic going on among living systems, then change occurs within that, based on the development of my capabilities. I'm using me as the metaphor now. The development of my capabilities within a context that knows how to receive those and support that in a cultural context, toward some collective vocation or aim in terms of what we're trying to become as a community.
So that's what I think of as the dynamics of evolutionary change or regenerative change. Change is given. You couldn't stop change from happening if you tried. Atoms are smashing around and the house is falling down. It's just change. Change is going to happen. But to what extent that change leads to an upward spiral of expression and order and the ability to integrate and work with complexity depends on being able to engage with it in a conscious and developmental way, so that every member of the system is becoming more able to be part of the change that's occurring.
So it's really understanding how we're nested inside other systems and the dynamic relationship between the wholes and the greater wholes and...
Yeah. Understanding those dynamics and then being able to work with them deliberately. All of the language that I'm using could easily be misunderstood as language of control, but actually if you listen closely, I'm using words that are intended to indicate that it's actually about service and contribution. So it's not about trying to control what's going on in the evolution of a larger system that I'm part of. It's about being able to make a contribution that enables that system to manifest its potential. And if I tried to control it, it would have the opposite effect.
There isn't really much one could do to influence an entire system. It is all about multiple forces contributing. And like you say, systems don't always change for good either. So there's potentially a lot of resisting forces coming and changing the conditions. Yes, big question. I understand. Thanks. That was great.
What are your lineages into systemic practice?
And I'd love to hear a bit about your lineages into your practice, I know that there are many. And then I'd love to pull the conversation into what you see as some of the different histories of systemic practices, and how they might have come together.
Okay. Well, let me take the lineage one first. It's a fun question.
I'm part of a community of practice, this milieu where we're always bumping up against each other and trying things out and learning and bringing new streams of thought in. So some of these lineages are personal to me. They're people who've deeply influenced me or that I studied with, and others are several steps removed, but they've influenced the people who I've been influenced by.
One of the lineages that's been really important for me personally is Socratic. It's partly because I grew up in a small liberal arts college community, called St. John's here in the United States. My dad was a professor there. They practised a Socratic method with real dedication, that education had to do with unleashing the thinking capacity of students, and nothing to do with informing them of the important information they needed to know. It was all about learning how to think for yourself.
I ended up going to undergraduate school there. It's shaped the way I think about everything. I'm more interested in uncertainty and questions than I am in answers. Answers are fun, but they're ephemeral. The answer I would've generated today should be different from the answer I'm going to generate tomorrow. Otherwise, I'm not growing or deepening my understanding of things. So that's a very deep thread that's shared across pretty much all of this community. The idea of being engaged in a dialogic, continually evolving understanding of the universe.
Another lineage is a guy named Charles Kron, who is not well known. He was recognized as being exceptionally brilliant as a child and put into a special school and exposed to all these interesting thinkers. He went on to pioneer a lot of what we think of as organisational development, starting back in the '50s.
Some of the most interesting, pioneering work in organisational development came out of what he was doing at Procter & Gamble. They were one of the early pioneers of this whole idea of growing and evolving the capacity of the people within the company as a driver of innovation and agility as a company and so on.
Kron was influenced by all kinds of wild people. He was interested in Gurdjieff, a Sufi philosopher. One of the principles of Gurdjieff’s philosophy is that human beings need to be developed to become human. They have to make themselves into human beings. That we have to create our own souls, we have to create our own intelligence. It's not a given. It was a very dynamic and evolutionary perspective on what humanity is.
So if you're thinking about taking ordinary factory workers, for example, some of them not even literate and turning them into organisational geniuses. It has to do with recognising, well, it’s normal - all people have the potential to grow and develop and evolve and become wise. Become capable of managing themselves, capable of thinking on their feet and so on. It's innate human potential, but it goes under or undeveloped.
Our education system is about importing information and reifying class distinctions and a whole bunch of other stuff that actually undermines the capacity of what's actually there in human beings. Charlie Kron was influenced by that whole stream of thought. He borrowed from John G. Bennett, who had been a student of Gurdjieff and developed this whole system of geometrical ways of structuring thinking that we call frameworks.
So Regenesis borrows heavily from Bennett's, an original work in framework thinking that then got evolved by Charles Kron into the stuff that you've experienced, where the frameworks, if you can use them appropriately, they give you really powerful instruments for understanding complexity and dynamism in living systems, and being able to order that understanding.
Kron was also influenced by, and I have to some extent been influenced by David Bohm, who was one of the early pioneers in quantum physics. Bohm's thinking has to do with the problem of wholeness that I started with. A lot of his insights were driven by this fundamental insight that the universe is on the one hand whole and on the other hand, unfolding and emergent. He ended up later in life connecting with Krishnamurti, who was coming out of a more Vedic tradition in his thinking and Vedic and theosophist.
So they were looking back to these questions, what is a human being? What is a universe? What is change? All the questions you're asking, are the questions that all of these different traditions are constantly working on and asking. And then the other thing, the significant thing that we did when we created Regenesis, is we brought that whole school of thought together with permaculture.
I came out of a design background, I was trained as an artist, as a painter, and applied my training to designing landscapes. Permaculture was a really natural fit for me. I was really interested in how to design complex, unpredictable, evolving systems in the landscape. But we found that permaculture hit a wall when it came to developing the thinking of the people it was designed for, and even to some extent the people who practise it.
Permaculture does have a cosmology, and it has to some extent a technology, but it's mostly taught and learned as a set of techniques. People end up applying these techniques really inappropriately. They take a technique from one context and transfer it into another context where it really doesn't belong. So there's a deeper process that I was alluding to earlier where if you want to intervene in a system, let's say a landscape system or a community dynamic or an urban system, you need to have deep respect for that system and its own autonomous reality, its own agency, its own intelligence and wisdom, and you have to have those qualities, the underlying processes of the system drive the intervention, not my desire to create a particular outcome.
So I just couldn't get there from within permaculture. That's why we ended up going and doing this 25 year investigation that became regenerative development. We needed to find a way to look way deeper into the systems we were trying to work in and into understanding their nature and their innate potentiality and have our choices being shaped by that, informed by that, let's say.
I've loved listening to that, starting from Socratic. How to think, and then moving on to how to create your own intelligence, and then framework thinking and quantum physics all the way up to permaculture. I can totally see all of those parts in regenerative development. It's really amazing.
Is there anything that you wanted to add when we talk about the different histories of systemic practice?
An awful lot of the work that's been done around systems is cybernetic. It's machine systems or its machine thinking brought to systems. Machine thinking brought to educational systems or work systems. So that's one of the organising metaphors. We don't go out and do a deep critique of cybernetic thinking, although I've had to encounter a fair amount of it over the years.
But when we remind people to not be mechanistic, to actually wake up and be conscious and deliberate and discerning in their thinking and to bring themselves as living beings into the process, all of that's meant to counter the reductionism that's embedded in most machine thinking.
There are certain things you start to tune into when you are faced with this mechanistic paradigm, trying to bridge the gap into a very different way of understanding what systems are. There are certain words that you can immediately recognize. For example, how we ubiquitously use machine metaphors to describe ourselves. ‘Oh, I've been programmed to think that way’. Or ‘my hardware is needing a bit of a tuneup’. We literally describe our own bodies and our own selves and our psyches as computers or machines of one sort or another.
Another one that's always an indicator is scaling. Oh, well that's a really cool idea, but I have no idea how to scale it. Well, what you mean is that this is a very living, dynamic context, and a specific idea that will not lend itself to a machine mode of reproduction and application. Great, that's exactly what I'm looking for, is something that is not scalable in that sense. So the whole obsession with scalability is an indicator of thinking about the world in generic terms.
I wonder what came first, because I feel like scalability is so referenced as the most popular business model of the century that we're living in. Did the mechanistic paradigm exist or does the economic paradigm inform the way that we see the world?
Well, I think it's a seamless fabric. I mean, one of the big inventions of the renaissance was the idea of a clockwork universe. Out of which grew a whole stream of thinking and approach, Cartesian geometry and logic and so on that led to the industrial revolution, which then led to applying the methods of industry to managing people and so on. It's a paradigm. It's a way of experiencing and understanding the world.
So if you're thinking in terms of paradigms at work, you start to tune into certain indicators in the language people are using and you can immediately say, "Okay, this person is seeing this as a clockwork as a machine and trying to figure out how to create the right inputs and manage the outputs and all of that sort of thing." And what would it take for them to profoundly disrupt that frame of reference and be able to see things that you cannot see from within that paradigm, like the self-organising and self-developing capacity of living entities.
I mean a lot of what I was able to gain from programs like the TRP was a new language, it was a different way of speaking about the things that we are connecting on.
Let me push back and get you to say another thing about that. Okay. So it's the language, but what did the language open up in terms of your ability to image and conceptualise?
It just feels much more of a living experience way of looking at the world. It has more of a felt sense, I think, rather than using all these very mechanical words and not really being able to experience them as living. I think that's where it comes from.
And I think I've struggled a lot - “man as machine” has been such an important part of industrialising our worldview, so it's almost breaking free of that I think. But it feels freeing. It feels like stepping towards something that feels much more alive. So I think that language in the way in which we conceptualise things in our minds, I think that that's where it comes from for me.
What are your best examples of systemic transformation?
Now, I know that you have so many amazing examples of systemic transformation. Is there one that you love to tell the story of?
I was trying to think about stuff I'm working on currently, but it might be easier to draw from one of the older stories.
Yeah, I'll talk about a project that we worked on that has had an enduring impact. The irony is that I've never been there.
It's a small retreat resort hotel in Guerrero, Mexico on the coast called Playa Viva. The owner wanted to do a green project that was socially conscious and ecologically appropriate and so on. They had a beautiful piece of land adjoining a small rundown village that was just off the highway.
When the Regenesis team went down, one of the early things that they figured out was that the hill that dominated the site and was going to become the main location for the casitas and hotel infrastructure was actually an Aztec temple. It was an Aztec pyramid that was hidden underneath the forests that had grown up. It’s so typical down there to have these amazing archeological sites that are invisible.
The old timers, especially the people who have strong indigenous connections and roots, they know it's there, but nobody asks them. So anyway, my colleague Tim and Bill Reed orchestrated a meeting with some of the old timers in this town. And through the conversation this owner who I think is a New Yorker, really intelligent and driven and entrepreneurial and so on, comes into the presence of these elders.
And by the time the conversation has ended, he's been enchanted. He's fallen in love with the human soul of this place. It transformed everything for him. He'd come into this thinking he was going to be a benign economic development bringer into this community, and he suddenly he saw, no, I am coming into relationship with this community. It has its own soul, it has its own voice, it has its own worthiness and value that I can appreciate and come to love and respect and become a part of.
So he entered into the system. He was no longer an outsider manipulating it for good. He had now become a member of the circle of that place. Everything began to shift - the basis for design decisions they made and what the project was for evolved steadily over years. And it's continued to evolve in the decade since.
So there are tons of really cool anecdotes, all of them grounded in that first initial breakthrough of coming into a being relationship. One of them is when they realised that they couldn't build on the pyramid, and they couldn’t build on the sandbar because it would have destroyed an estuary system, and any construction done on that site would have been at risk of storms coming in and so on.
So they were really stuck because it's this beautiful, terrestically valuable piece of land, but there was no place to build. But the land had previously been a palm plantation, so they had all of these coconut trees. So they just hung the casitas in the trees. They made tree houses. The whole hotel is built as tree houses. So the water and storm surges could flow underneath and maintain the integrity of the sandbar. It's magical.
Another anecdote: the land is a very important breeding ground for sea turtles, they're a threatened species. And there was a whole group of people living in the area who were turtle poachers. When the turtles would come on the land to spawn, they'd just go and collect them and sell them. So rather than fighting that, they ended up recruiting the turtle poachers as turtle rangers.
They gave them increased status by giving them uniforms. These guys knew more about turtles than most turtle experts. Turtles were their life. So they gave them turtle ranger uniforms and they gave them off-road vehicles to patrol and police and protect the turtles. They made them teachers of turtle husbandry. They created programs where kids in the villages would take the turtles and nurture them until they were ready to be released.
They had a big festival around releasing the turtles back into the ocean, because where you lose a lot of the babies is between when they come out of the nest and run toward the water, that's when all the birds swoop down to catch them. So they now had these little guardian children making sure they made it to the water.
So they created this whole program around the turtles that transformed the status and purpose of the lives of people who have formerly been turtle poachers. And they did this overnight. You can see it in every aspect of what they worked on. They would find ways to tap into and then make an alliance with the genius of that place. The genius of local farmers and what could be created out of that desire to be farmers, but lift it up from production, low value crops to something that was very high value, could support the work they were doing at the resort, could support the sense of dignity of the farmers.
They worked intensively with sea salt producers. Because of the particular mineral qualities of the coastline, the salt is amazingly delicious. They were able to promote the salt to the people who would come visit the hotel, who immediately saw the value of it and started creating little distribution networks up in the states and so on.
So they've helped build the viability of these salt producers who were going out of business, through recognizing that they had an exceptionally pure, high quality product. They began to market it, not just as a commodity, but it's something of extraordinary value. They've become a partner and ally in discovering and expressing the genius of the whole place.
And one of the results is that the village has come back to life. It's no longer a dead end for young people. They're returning from the cities to live in this village because it's become a desirable place to live. There's no way that a philanthropic benefactor throwing money at the village could have created this response. It had to do with actually understanding the village, understanding its aliveness, its potential, its uniqueness, what it wanted to be, what it was willing to put its energies toward, and then creating alliances with that, that created a transformation in that place.
And this has become now a poster child for regenerative tourism in the world. It's a very small project. In some ways, very modest. But it's amazing how many times I encounter this project just in stuff floating around on the internet or emails that come to me. People have no idea that I have any connection to it, and they're sending me emails about this fabulous program they're doing at Playa Viva.
It's tourism that is not destroying that place, but it's actually rebuilding it, regenerating it.
How is your practice systemic?
One more question I'm going to ask you, where and how is your work seeking transformation?
Well, it's transforming itself at the moment. I'm in transition.
But looking backward and thinking about what I'm focusing on right now… we're really interested in sharing and building capability and capacity with the people that we meet through our teaching programs at the institute.
We developed a lot of this stuff intuitively. We just thought about certain contexts and figured out what would help our clients. But we didn't really know how we were doing it. We call it the black box of our intuition. We knew how to do it but we didn't know how to explain it to anyone else. So we unpacked all that and tried to create something that was structured, coherent, systemic, intelligible, which became the TRP program.
There are no recipes in this work. What I really care about is providing the support that allows people to really integrate it, make it make sense, and find a way. I can't tell you how to do it. I can only help you figure out your own way of doing it. So that's completely absorbed me - sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
But I really believe that even a relatively small population of people who know how to do this can have a global impact. If the work has enough intelligence and integrity, it will reach way beyond its immediate sphere of influence. So I'd love to see a few thousand people running around creating that effect in the world. We've been applying the work in lots of contexts. Everything from land development to economic development to organisational development. It translates across all those domains.
I'm reaching a point where I want to transition out of this public work and focus entirely on my life as a painter, as an artist. And the question I'm working on now is what does it mean to be an artist, as a practitioner, as a regenerative practitioner? What is a regenerative artist?
And as usual, with these kinds of questions, the answer isn't obvious and it's not about subject matter. It's not that I'm suddenly going to be painting pictures of regenerative things. It's like in what sense does being an artist regenerate my understanding of a living world? In what sense does the work that I create help other people come into contact with a deeper understanding of a living world? What's required to make that happen, to make it accessible, to make it available?
So this leads me way back to my origins. What kind of education allows us to actually be transformed by the art and culture that surrounds us? How do we need to educate the artist in each of us? So that's my preoccupation going over. I'm withdrawing from this world of important stuff and going off and doing something that's meaningful to me and frivolous in the world's eyes.
No, not frivolous at all. I've learned some of my most important lessons through art. One of my favourite artists is Ai Weiwei. It's just phenomenal to see his dedication to helping people to see a different version of the world from what they were being told. That's what the vehicle of art can be. It can really help people see a different way of what life is, and straight into the feeling sense rather than any intellectual exercise.
Is there anything else that I should have asked or anything else that you want to add?
I’d like to bring in a framework that Carol Sanford created called Seven First Principles of Regeneration, or Seven First Principles of Living Systems. We don't introduce it formally in the TRP but it comes up from time to time.
I was working off of that framework to some extent as I was walking through this conversation with you. So I'll just rattle off what's in it. The issue is that many of these frameworks, it's hard to grasp it as a system or as a systemic framework in the first go. So I spent a few years with it just responding to it as a list. It's like a checklist. And it's only more recently that I've really begun to see the interconnectivity and the dynamics flowing among all of the different forces or terms in the system.
So I'll just give it to you as a list and then you can hang out with it, see if it's meaningful to you. So the list is whole, essence, potential, development, nestedness, nodes and fields.
And most of those terms will be completely familiar to you because they're embedded in the TRP. This in a way defines a living systems worldview.
You have to respond to wholes. You have to respond to them as having their own beingness and essence. You have to see potential and the evolutionary trajectories that they are or could be on. Things are always embedded in nested systems and they're meaningless if you're not understanding them in that exchange. Nodes we talk about obliquely. But nodes are how you figure out where to intervene and how to intervene. What's the right way or nature of intervention?
And generally, theoretically, we come from the place that the way to intervene is to help reflect to people what their essence is, what their genius is, and help to develop that from the inside. So what represents leverage points as we call them in permaculture, which is a mechanistic way of describing a similar idea - you look for a place where a small amount of investment of energy is going to create a ripple effect like safety belts or stopping corporal punishment.
But those are leveraged interventions. They're not necessarily nodal interventions. Nodal interventions have to do with building consciousness. Grown out of the unique essence of the system or the situation. And then fields we worked on a lot in the TRP. How do you create the right quality field for a transformation to occur? So I'll just leave it at that. It's just like a little hint.
Thank you Ben, that was a wonderful conversation, as always. I always learn so much just listening to you. Until next time!