Systems Dialogues with Lauren Hermanus

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here, Sean Andrew is joined by Lauren Hermanus, founder and director of How We Adapt.

Getting started

Lauren Hermanus is a sustainable development researcher and practitioner with 12 years of experience spanning the public and private sectors and academia. She is founder and director of How We Adapt. Where she works on issues of just transition, climate resilience, sustainable development, and the adaptive and anticipatory governance that underpins these dynamics.

In this rich conversation, we discuss systems change as a set of interlocking processes and the need to resist a mechanistic way of thinking about systems.

Lauren Hermanus and Sean Andrew

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


All right, so our questions are intended to get a deeper understanding of the perspectives of different folk that are working in the complexity and systems change space: what is a system, what is systems change, what is a worldview?

Let’s start with the first question: what, from your perspective, is a system? And are there any metaphors maybe that you use to help as hangers for that?


So I think in the first instance, I think of a system as a sense-making tool. 

It's a model, a way of thinking about certain kinds of phenomena, where - for example - our ability to break a pot and make sense of those fragments is frustrated by the density and dynamism of that thing that we're trying to encounter. A sense that this thing is changing before our very eyes. And so I think a system is a way of approaching those phenomena in a way that allows sense to emerge, where more linear approaches and more analytical approaches don't necessarily work right away.

Which is not to say that analysis and the employment of our more general sense making tools and categories are not useful within that process of engagement. But I think a system is an overarching framework for encountering those kinds of objects. 

And then I think more simply, well, what is that tool, and how does it work? And there, I would just reflect on Donella Meadows' definition, which is that it's a bunch of stuff that comes together and interacts in such a way that all of that stuff together creates a unique identity, different from the stuff that makes it up.


Cool. And no, I really appreciate that. Sometimes when we think about systems, we think about things that are almost static. ‘I'm going to put a system in place for this operating procedure in my organisation’. But I love what you just mentioned around the sense of dynamism, systems changing in front of our very eyes. 

Is there a metaphor that you use to describe systems? 


Yeah. Okay. So I think in terms of metaphors, perhaps there's the contrast between what you are describing on the one hand, a system of mechanical components that come together where perhaps there is a flow of resources and energy through that system. It does a very specific, narrowly defined set of things, which leads to a function. Often the principles we bring when we think about improving that system are linked to efficiency - how can we make it do more with less, more quickly. 

And then I think to contrast that mechanistic system there’s a system that is... I think there are different words for it, but a vital system, a system that is alive, and that in its aliveness, in its vitality, is not reducible to either its holistic function, its totalizing function, or its composite parts. But that it's really relationally defined. 

An ecosystem would be the obvious contrast to the mechanistic system. But we can also think about, and as I often do, social systems. For me those are systems that involve human beings, but are not only human beings. 

I do a lot of work in energy systems and the transformation, the transition of the energy system. At first glance, and I think quite deliberately, those kinds of systems are also mechanistically framed, as technical systems or techno-economic systems. But as soon as you start to pay attention to the layers of actors and interactions and relationships that really do comprise those systems, they become really much messier and much more like ecological systems.

What I often do when I introduce this framing around systems in sense-making contexts is to use the system of the people in the room, and how we're coming together to facilitate a sense-making process. That often works quite well to get people to think about where they are, how they're part of that system, but also how they bring all the other systems that they're also embedded in into that particular system.

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


What about an object to represent a system or systems? 


I think it's tricky, because the moment you pick up an object and point to it as an example of a system, the fact that you've pointed to it takes it out of its relational context. I mean, I guess you can really pick up anything and talk about the various systems that had to be in play for that thing to be there. It could be a book, it could be me, it could be your phone, it could be anything if you're willing to bring that view to it.


One of the interesting things that we do with the School of System Change, and probably one of our first days of Basecamp is we ask people to draw how the world works, which is a very big question. And some people will bring a pencil, and they'll be like, "This is how the world works." It's clear, it's finite, it's a straight line. Or they'll go like this, it's based on hierarchy and power. There's lots of competition, there's little resources. And then other people will come and they'll bring a ball of yarn or they'll do a messy interpretive dance. I'm kidding in the last one. But yeah, and it's interesting how those different worldviews are so vast. I really like that vital system and that idea of vitality. And the regenerative nature of that, just the becoming nature of that feels really beautiful.


So this idea of a vital system is really something that I've been thinking about more and more. I'm reading and rereading The Nutmeg's Curse, a parable for a planet in crisis. This idea of a vital system is contrasted with many other things, a dead system, a suicidal system, a mute system, an inert system. And very interestingly, the idea of vitality in this book, to my mind or the way that I interpret it, is really put forward as an irreducible and almost quasi-transcendental counterpoint to all our collective efforts to cut the world at its joints. Our extractive, oppressive practices, which have emerged from our collective human history, which is about hierarchy and the painful, pervasive and enduring practices of coloniality and exclusion and suppression and oppression and violence.

And so I'm quite excited to think in my work about what that might mean to have a vitalist approach, an approach that is really concerned with life. I mean, I think at this point in our history, and so far as we inhabit one collective history, which is obviously plural... the idea of being focused on life, I think it's a pretty radical commitment at a time when we are inundated with visions of apocalypse, and almost the inevitability of pain and suffering.

I think we all have to grapple with this planetary crisis of climate change. But in that space there is this sense of inevitability, of failing to arrest disastrous climate change, and the inevitability of various endings and painful wrenchings, and the loss and damage seems now to be a necessary, but essentially really morbid, preoccupation.

And I think the challenge is not to turn away in a delusional way as if you've had a religious epiphany, but to really hold that perhaps sober, morbid view of the reality of where we are, and of perhaps what is already unfolding and is likely to unfold within the context of this crisis. But then also to maintain a commitment to life and what that might mean.

How do you understand how systems change?


My next question: how do you understand how systems change? 


I don't have a really neat definition of systems change. But I will say that I think how systems change is unhelpfully misunderstood as a series of quick, measurable, easily defined results that come from a programmatic sequence of activities that are goal directed, and that we can pursue with no problem. And usually over the short to medium term. 

So we think quite often of systems change as a result, a result that can be determined. Of course we engage with systems with intentions of how we might shape those systems, but I think that the bulk of what we do is the process.

The bulk of systems change is probably several interlocking processes, rather than just one process. Certainly there's an aspect of systems change which is about making sense of what you're doing, often retrospectively, but also on the trot, and looking forward, and trying to create signposts along the way, to orient oneself in relation to a desired set of outcomes. 

But I think that the important thing for me in the work that I do, is to continuously communicate the significance of the process as it is unfolding. To be really present with that process, to keep looking back and looking forward as well. That's a different kind of posture. And then to think about outcomes.

So there's almost these three different postures in systems change, or in the practice of changing systems. The first is really to be immersed in the practice, in the moments embedded in this process of systems change. So that's really about a kind of presence. 

The second posture I would say is about looking back and looking forward, and to understand that all systems are constituted by their history, and everything that has gone before the moment where you are now, and that the history stretches out into and towards the future. And so I think thinking about the history, thinking about the future and what that might mean for the next steps that you are wanting to take in your process, I think is critical. 

And then the last thing I think definitely is to define desired outcomes. To define and redefine. So I don't think that's a process that is static either, but certainly to have goals that serve to orient what you're doing, I think is critical.

And I think that if you are doing what you're doing in good faith, and really trying to grapple with the enormity of, and the responsibility of this thing, systems change, then you have to occupy all three.


I really like that nested-ness of those processes. So this is where we talk about fractals and everything in systems. You've got the process that I'm in as individual, the process that you and I are in and our dynamic, the process that we are in, as in our organisation, and up and up and up. And then just that stance of looking back and looking forward. 

And there's something there that I think is really important just around the contextualising of this work. It's so important. Whether it's who's in the room right now, what are their histories, what's the positionality that we're each bringing in here? And what healing needs to happen in order for us to move forward. Is that even possible? Are these even the right people to be here? 

And then the desired outcomes bit, we're defining them and redefining them. I often feel like learning and adapting is the most simple elegant thing we can do in this work, actually. And your organisation is called How Do We Adapt!



I think one of the biggest issues with a mechanistic view of systems, which is often the way people think about social systems, which are profoundly not mechanistic, is that they're often just ahistorical. Or the history is framed in an incredibly narrow way so as to serve a particular kind of narrative that justifies a set of interventions. 

And so the process of looking back constantly is also a process of retelling that history in a way that I think opens up different possible futures. And so it really matters who comes with part of that story to complexify and add to the history, which then essentially serves as our map to the future.
Systems change as being present, looking back and looking forward

What is your definition for systems change?


I'm going to ask a very quick question here. I think you already said that you don't, but if you were to have a definition for systems change, what would it be? 


Okay, I'm going to try. I think for me, systems change is really about the process of trying to shape a particular system while being embedded in and implicated in that system. It’s about shaping all of its outcomes as well, many of which are probably incredibly problematic, which is why you are there trying to change them. It's of course also guided by a certain set of ambitions and goals that we might have for that system. But I think ultimately really it is about, in the first instance, positioning oneself and taking responsibility for oneself in this process of embeddedness and intervention.


Cool. Yeah, so I guess then that comes to accountability. And if we don't see ourselves as part of the problem, we can't see ourselves as part of the solution and all of that. And we often talk about open systems approach versus closed systems approach. You're in it looking around, you're not outside of it looking in.

What are your lineages into systems change?


Cool. So there's something here around lineage. Systems change is becoming one of these fields where people are just grabbing things from all over the place. And it's like, well what is the history here? Who are our mentors? Who are our teachers? Where did that come from?

So do you want to just share a little bit about what your lineage is into this practice, or lineages plural, and what do you see as divergent in different histories and lineages of systemic practice that you've been coming across as a professional, and as a person working in this field?


Yeah, sure. So I come to systems practise by way of complexity theory and complexity science. And that was really because of a teacher and mentor that I had more than a decade ago, Paul Celiers. 

There's always been a tension for me between the origins of systems and complexity thinking that came out of natural sciences and mathematics, which came with a real desire to more effectively predict and control the world. So on the one hand, it's like the world of systems and complexity opened up new ways for us to think about things and make sense of them in a way they hadn't really before.

So that's the one set, but then tension arises because actually complexity as a phenomenon is an experience of excess, with respect to our sense-making facilities and tools, that has been articulated across so many different disciplines and theories and areas of life. So really to think not just about philosophical traditions, which is what I followed into this space, because that was just my training, but also through cultural systems, and through spiritual practices.

I think that human beings have always been concerned with how do we approach and make sense of that which is excessive and overwhelming, and awe-ful? I think awe is a good emotion to sit with when you're working on systems change because it's almost like a meta emotion. It brings lots of things together - wonder, excitement, anticipation, but also fearfulness and a sense of smallness.

For me, there is inherently a discomfort with the language of complexity and systems as they are brought to social systems, to social phenomena, let's say. And when I say social phenomena, again, I mean people and all the rest of it, right? That impulse to reduce, predict, and control is so alive and well, and embedded in so many of those approaches that I think that we skip past the deep and profound uncertainty, and the awe, in ways that I think undermine our sense of responsibility in the work that we do, in changing these things we call systems.


I love that. The awe, the awe-ful and the nice thing about that, it also touches on both the beauty, the love, and also the loss and the grief with this - that two winged bird. 

What makes your work systemic?


I think what I'm closing with, I'm actually going to take the last two questions and weave them together into one. So the one is around examples, stories of systemic transformation, and the other one’s around where and how you're creating and seeking transformation, and some things about your practice. 


When I think about what makes my work systemic, the first thing to say is that there's a focus in my work of, on the one hand, thinking holistically. So thinking about problems in terms of their embeddedness across distributed networks of people, places, things that come together in such a way as to make that problem possible, likely, in the world. So I think there's an attention to a sort of holism on the one hand, and then on the other hand, to think about the people, places, things, dynamics, relationships that comprise that whole, and to have an awareness and attention to scale. So to jump from whole to parts and parts to whole and various sites of sub-systemic configurations.

There are so many different tools and frameworks that I apply from all over that have a system sensibility. So I've been thinking a lot about the concept of assemblages, so heterogeneous configurations that come together to allow certain identities, and functions to emerge. So yeah, for me, I mean, it's an ambition. That's what I really set out to do. 

A lot of what I'm thinking about at the moment in my work is if we take very seriously the conceptualisation and characterisation of the systems in which we're working as complex systems with distributed centres of agency within them and across them, how do we track the process of systems change, and how do we signpost our pathways through that change?

I don't have any answers around that, but some of the projects that I'm working on at the moment are really about that. I'm trying to configure groups of people to help me think about that now, because a lot that I'm working on at the moment is in energy transition, which is a global transition. And at the same time, it's a transition that scales down to a single household level, or people who are not homed as well, everybody. 

I think the last thing that I will say is that at the moment, one of my deep frustrations around systems practice is also that of course, it is embedded within the historical hierarchies that shape and characterise our whole world.

It’s shaped by all the problems of exclusion and marginalisation, of histories of coloniality and racism and sexism and all the other mechanisms of epistemological and material violence that bring us to where we are. I've been really frustrated lately at a tendency that I see in a lot of people who claim to be working in systems to want to frame just enough of the complexity within their analysis to legitimise how they want to view the systems. 

I work with a lot of people working on social ecological systems, who come from training as ecologists or related fields and want to include concepts around justice and that kind of thing in their work, but they often stop short of the really hard questions that implicate them in the violence that they're pointing to. So that's a deep frustration.

But in terms of a story that is really, really helping me to think through the role of ideas and power, and how they come together within this field that we're embedded in is The Nutmeg's Curse by Amitav Ghosh. He reframes the story, which we're all increasingly familiar with now, which is that capitalism has these kinds of excesses that lead to ecological destruction and undermine the basis for human wellbeing. 

I think a lot of people are increasingly comfortable with that explanation, and he does this beautiful retelling of the origins of our planetary crisis as really being embedded within the acts of imperialism, and a colonial project of political and epistemological expansion and genocide. And for me, it just is so elegantly told and beautifully narrated, but it also articulates a version of history that gave words to the discomfort that I was feeling among other systems practitioners who are really obsessed with this ahistorical view of the system such as it is, and the problems that we face in terms of the relationship between people and the planet. So yeah, I think it's a wonderful book. I think everybody should read it.

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