Systems Dialogues with Constança Belchior

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here, Saskia Rysenbry is joined by Constança Belchior, a facilitator and designer of innovation and systemic change.

Getting started

Constança Belchior is a facilitator and designer of innovation and systemic change with a background in natural sciences and sustainable policy making. She is co-founder of Lúcida, a change management organisation guided by a living change perspective.

In this dialogue, we flow between places, pasts and futures: from Constança's home in Lisbon, to her scientific training as a biologist, to how her growing venture might support regenerative practice in Portugal.

Constança Belchior and Saskia Rysenbry

What is a system? What metaphors do you use to help describe systems?


I'd love to hear, from your perspective, what is a system? What are some metaphors that you might regularly refer to in this work?


Sure. So I've had few iterations around what a system is, especially having been a participant at the School. 

I think today I like the description of a system seen as a web of relationships but with a regenerative angle, where you see not just the web, but an embeddedness over different levels. So very much about and within the regenerative practice and worldview. That is mostly where I'm practising now. 

We try to keep three levels at least. So me, us here and the School, or my neighbourhood, my house and the city. So always trying to keep those three levels present and then also the set of relationships that are around them and connecting them and bringing life to them. 

I like to use the human body as a metaphor because that's something everybody has, everybody can understand this whole thing. The parts - the organs would not live on their own. They actually fulfil a purpose that is larger than themselves. You want the body to be as alive as possible. 

Then just nature, ecology, ecosystems. So a lot of mycelia, for example, the mycelial fungal network of exchange within different trees - how the fungi exchange nutrients and information. And it's a really good metaphor for seeing how first everything is connected, and then how the health of the whole really depends on these exchanges and this kind of reciprocal way of working and interacting.


Yeah, I love the web of relationships. I think that's really visual and the human body. The human body is dear to everyone. Everyone has one.

What object or prop would use to help describe a system?


If you were to bring an object or a prop to the conversation to help describe what a system is, what might it be? I mean apart from bringing your own body of course!


That’s the good part of bringing the body, right, you never have to carry it. 

Sometimes I like to bring an acorn because then you can build the story of how an oak can grow from that little single seed, given the right conditions - the temperature, the soil, the exposure, the wind, all of that. So working with the potential that's inherent in that little seed. There's just something unveiling, growing, there's something in not seeing it isolated. 

How do you understand how systems change?


I love the idea that there are so many acorns that also don't turn into oak trees because it's really about having the conditions that allow them to really thrive. I think that that's really important to the regenerative paradigm - creating the conditions.

So how do you understand how systems change? From your paradigm, how do systems change?


That's a good one. Even if I just look back to my life and experience in Lisbon, for example, that's where I am.

So I was born in 1980. Portugal entered the EU in 1986 when I was still a very small kid. There's something about just observing and noticing how things, infrastructure, the kind of cars people had, the shops that opened up, all sorts of stuff that started to come in as I was a small child. And then I went abroad for about 10 years for university. When I came back, I could see that actually in a time span of 10 years, how Lisbon had become a worn-out city with buildings falling apart.

And then it felt like, all of a sudden, there's this boost of tourism. There's a strategic move to portraying Portugal as this really cheap, hot destination, with beaches. Kind of exotic at the tip of Europe. So there's this narrative around Portugal that, with these investments, with digital technology, there was this influx of money, and of people. 

Today, I mean there is the shell of Lisbon, but I hardly recognise it in many places - there's English spoken all over. You go into cafes and you feel like you could be in Denmark or in Paris. The uniqueness is eroding a bit, but it's weird because the shell is there. The buildings are there, they're refurbished and they look shiny and great.

But the relationships, what's really unique and only exists here is a result of history, of the climate, of where Lisbon is located, at the tip of the Tagus estuary, on the Atlantic. So there's all of this influence that has shaped the identity of the city. And now it just feels a bit stripped.

So this very large system has changed. You can see a few interventions that have contributed to putting it on a certain trajectory. And yet it's also an example of a system that has changed with outcomes that are not necessarily the ones that people wanted, that live for those who are not from here, from gentrification and all the issues that are common in other places. 

People might look at metrics to monitor or assess how systems change. They're important. The thing is they usually go and measure things that we already know, that were already in place. So you look at, I don't know, the number of people that are sleeping here, number of hotels, income, jobs. But how does that limit what you're observing? You're seeing only what has changed in the things you already know. But you don't observe other things like qualities that might not necessarily have an indicator: narratives and how people are shifting their patterns of using the city. 

For example, I live in a very residential area with a lot of Portuguese. And so you still see a lot of old cafes and shops. Some of them are totally derelict. I don't even know how they're still open. They're out of date, but they're here. And you can't really measure that feeling of, I don't know, I don't want to call it tradition because that's not the right word, or authenticity, because I also don't like that word. But there are some things you can't really measure. And I think we still need to talk about them. We still need to be able to look at them, to observe them and see if they're going in the way we would like them to go. 

Some qualities of systems change are not easily observed or measured


I think essence is a really great way to describe what’s indescribable about Lisbon. It comes from patterns and relationships that have evolved over time. I've been coming to Lisbon since 2015 and I've lived there. I think it feels like it's changing so quickly now, it’s almost as if good intentions have gotten away from themselves and it's bubbling over. We’re having to scramble back and change policies.

Even I feel, as someone from New Zealand, we have five million citizens and over five million tourists every year. I didn't actually know it was that many, but it's so ingrained in me, ever since I was a young girl, that you don’t go where the tourists go because you’d be bombarded by so many people at once. And when Covid happened, I got to do things that I haven’t done for 35 years in my own country because there were no tourists.

But this is happening in Portugal at such a fast pace and I understand that's difficult to adjust to. It must be really hard to keep up and hold onto the essence.


The other day I saw a Time Out newspaper here, do you know that? They actually created an English Time Out newspaper in Lisbon for foreigners. It was very interesting to get that perspective of how they write for this particular population. In the last 10 years there's been an increase of 37% of foreigners residing here. That’s about 5 or 6% of the total population of Portugal, which is about 10 million and, and most of them are in the Lisbon area. So I think they're like 200,000 or something. If you consider I've grown up knowing a Lisbon that had 500,000 inhabitants. 

So I'm thinking today half of the population of Lisbon is foreign. Which is a lot when you talk about essence, integrating, not integrating, in the sense that - okay, you go to Portuguese classes, you know how to say a few things, you put your kids in Portuguese schools. But really, from a regenerative perspective, how do you not compromise this energy? 

Okay, there's all of this attraction and people are coming here, valuing and pursuing certain things and there's a hosting, but what I feel is there hasn't been really is a process of trying to merge these two forces and see what new thing we can reconcile them into, how we can integrate them in a way. So, to give you an example, what I'm really trying to keep alive in me and in all my interactions is how can I support this reconciliation somehow, in a very kind of humble way?

I'm part of a group of ‘ladies who dine’, we’re a mix of expats and locals. It just kind of formed around a normal group that was like, ah, yay, we love to eat - I'll invite you and I'll invite you. It's grown a little bit and I'm just thinking how this is exactly it. There's new energy here that’s loving, that is loving to go to restaurants that have opened up in the last five years. So there's a certain economic scale for this group and enjoying the company of other women, there's something around just exchanging these things that only we have, I guess. But then it's just thinking, wow, what is this energy then, and how could it be brought in a more conscious way to where we live?

And so really to think of this in a more conscious way - integrating and seeing what potential comes up, what doesn’t yet exist that could?

What is your definition for systems change?


I think that's a really positive and hopeful, but also realistic view. Do you have a definition you use for systems change?


There’s one from the School of System Change that I’ve stayed with for a while. That systems change is both a process and an outcome. I really like that. 

And with this regenerative paradigm, the definition is to build or develop capacities in a system. So that's the definition of change - capacities that support a system to evolve and to become more of itself, to express more of its essence, to open up possibilities, to open up creativity in a way that respects nature, people, place.

What are your lineages into systems change?


When it comes to your lineages into this practice, could you describe how you came to your systemic practice? Do you see different and divergent histories of systems practices?


Yeah, sure. I'm actually a biologist by background, so I come from a kind of natural sciences perspective. And, looking backwards now, it was not a very systemic way of looking at the world. Very siloed, very scientific. But it did inform me about life, networks, impacts, feedback and causal loops.

But then I worked for about 10 years in the policy space, bringing environmental science to inform environmental policies. And I really saw the shift from, okay, let's stop looking at environmental policies in a siloed approach, separate from social development policies and sustainability.

Sustainability became this encompassing world, but it was still very much from a fragmented view. I worked for the European Union on that. For me a big trigger was starting to have a systems view of all of these interrelated matters. One of the entries to regenerative practice was through programmes with the School of System Change and Regenesis.

They really hit home in terms of connecting the inner work that you have to do that shapes how you see reality with the outer work, what you pay attention to when you're trying to do intentional systems change, to help systems become more healthy.

Also, Carol Sanford, coming more from an organisational side, but building on the quantum view of life. Thinking about what's invisible, what's our consciousness and what's building on that. So that was a big part of that. 

Another influence is Ken Wilber and the Integral approach and philosophy. That brings an evolutionary perspective to human development. So for me, actually I found the integral world before the regenerative paradigm and I thought it was just so different to see how humans actually evolve as adults, and how it's really about what are you able to, this flexibility of perspective and your capacity to hold more and more complexity without getting trapped by it. So letting go of ideals, being able to just go above them and sense them and accept them, not becoming subject to them, to be able to become an object, to have them as objects actually that you're observing and sensing. 

So I think those two lineages - with Regenesis regenerative developments, the living systems view of things, plus the integral are really those that have made me go from my scientific rational fragmented view of the world, cause effect, to more of this kind of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, and embracing that.

Our inner work shapes our outer work, and vice versa

What are your best examples of systemic transformation?


So what are your best examples or stories of systemic transformation?


Yeah, I was reflecting on that and actually, for better or worse, I’d like to point to the Covid 19 pandemic as a form of system change. Let’s talk about what happened in such a short period of us all watching numbers, people falling sick, through the news and social media and just seeing the world closing up, the blank faces of politicians, scientists and ourselves and just what the hell is happening. 

And from the point that we were in lockdown, looking at a computer and going, ‘this is not a science fiction movie, the whole world is this right now’, to masks and vaccines and all that. So all these instruments showed up to give us this hybrid life. And that reflection: will we stay like this forever?

It was really interesting to see what kind of values were coming up, how much we missed being with people or how much you wanted others to interfere, and how, if this is the end of the world, what do I want to do with my last moments? What's my role? Is what I’m doing putting other people in danger? 

All of these questions that I think were dampened for such a long time just showed up and people were living them. And then if you looked at nature, the indicators of pollution, it felt like earth was breathing again more easily. Things that we never thought we would see without this scale of change. 

But then things started to creep up again, the vaccines came and then we got back to the old system, the old paradigm was very much still there. Nothing had really profoundly changed. I have two kids and the whole handwashing thing is long forgotten. Now we're back to when we come home, we’re like can you please wash your hands? Can you please wash your hands? How is it possible that you're 9 and 10, you went through a pandemic, the school must have hit you so hard with all of this, but you have forgotten. 

I think we all had that experience of craziness and of change and of human relationships between us socially, but also with the planet responding in a very direct way in terms of natural indicators. I think that's the best example we have to work with.

How are you seeking transformation?


My next question is, how are you creating or seeking transformation now?


I am creating an organisation called Lúcida, which is really about trying to bring regenerative thinking into clear actions. It's trying to see how, through regenerating our own thinking and our ways of being, we can really bring about different outcomes in the world. We're still prototyping a lot. It's me and Nuno, a fellow practitioner from the TRP. We really want to see how we might bring this sort of practice and way of thinking to support the evolution of Portugal.

For example, as I already said, with this foreign energy coming in, with others nested within Europe. How can this practice contribute to transition in Europe? So for that, we're very much connected to networks of practitioners and folks like you guys to see how we can bring more of this capacity and capabilities to the systems that we're part of. 

One in particular, we're still exploring niches, or arenas if you want, to really try to focus our work a bit. And I think what's really showing up is tourism as a sector, because by its nature, the silo approach doesn't make sense. It has to bring all sorts of activities and people and policies, but also the land, the natural elements, cultural elements - they are the bread and butter of the sector.

And although the conversation is very much around sustainability, it is shifting in terms of responsibility, in terms of what it means to host and care for the uniqueness of places. 

So I think there's a very innate understanding of this regenerative aspect and why it’s so potent for tourism. With tourism as such a big force of change in the last 10 years, how can we become more resilient in the face of change so that we're not depending on just an influx of people from outside? So there's a lot of space to explore there. 

And the other priority is around responsible leadership. What it means to lead, if you're responsible for a certain whole, what does it mean to regenerate your paradigm? And so we work a bit with leaders within the BMW foundation. It's around these networks of leaders that are trying to really understand how to shift deep patterns of thinking and exploring ways of doing that.


Cool. Yeah, I'm really excited by regenerative tourism. In New Zealand, for example, it’s really environmentally harmful for a country to rely on agriculture, our other biggest industry. And so I wonder what tourism could be, alongside indigenous Māori, how can tourism really support the self-determination of Māori in New Zealand? How can it help protect culture and build up language? 


Yeah, it's a big exploration. My neighbourhood in Lisbon still feels local and authentic. There are a lot of old shops and old folks. Though rents are going up. I captured this conversation between a lady from a shop that's been there for 50 years or something, which is viable because she sells a lot and has been able to maintain that. But we just had a conversation around at least three old shops closing because the rents are coming up, and the shops replacing them.

Where does that conversation have to happen? What do we want for this place? What is it that actually brought us here and how do we keep it? Because we really feel it's valuable. So how do we keep the nature? Other neighbourhoods can be modern and trendy, they can be the financial centre, whatever. And that space, that conversation isn't happening. 

I think that's part of tourism hospitality. That's part of how caring for the whole, caring for the territory, for the people that are there both passing by, because they influence it, and those that are coming and residing and those that already live there.

We can also start to support and find ways of making all of this commons work viable. Because I think that's the other edge - funding schemes are not really oriented towards this care.

How is your practice systemic?


Cool. I'm going to ask you one last question. How is your practice systemic? 


I think if we have a project, we never see it as a project alone. We always see the nestedness of the project, the context within which it resides and lives and influences. Sometimes that’s a subjective, human way of defining boundaries. But we never just focus on a project in itself. 

Another big shift is with this living systems view, where we are really trying to work with potential rather than the problems with what was there. So it's not about problem solving, it's really trying to bring into existence what could and wants to emerge from that context and from those people who are there in the moment, the initiators, but also those that are drawn into it. So we also take this kind of evolutionary perspective of its unfolding into something larger and larger and hope it continues after we're involved with it.

We talked about essence before as opposed to some sort of ideal view and external goal. We're always trying to really work from the inside out, working in collaboration with those that are there. We're not experts in the sense of coming and saying this is how we're going to do it. 

We try to avoid the consultancy part because it's around building these capabilities for people to think for themselves, helping them with frameworks, with concepts, with questions, with dialogue, with maps, with visits to the territory to see different things, with conversations with different folks to really expand their views for them. So very much working on self-determination as well.

Yeah, so hopefully, and we're always holding that global imperative that we have, which is really trying to respond to what the world needs tonight, this deep transformation of our species in the way we inhabit earth and kind of the role we have. 

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