Image from the Gumeracha Main Street Project Facebook page.

The pandemic has exposed the gap between how we think the world works – based on the Newtonian paradigm focused on understanding each “part” in isolation – and how it actually works – as a complex, living system. Let’s not repeat past patterns in our post-COVID-19 world.


Coronavirus has shone a spotlight on weaknesses within our society and it has highlighted the interdependencies that exist between the multiple elements of our lives. In the process, it has highlighted the assumptions that we have made about how the world works and therefore how we take action.

If we want a different, better future, we need to identify and challenge those assumptions – we need to review the thinking that underpins our actions.

As the pandemic emerged from China, we noticed how all humans are susceptible. We saw how the prevailing belief that we are best served by the race to the bottom on prices has created supply chains that are unreliable in a crisis.

We noticed that homelessness is not just a problem for the homeless. It’s a public health issue.

As we retreated into our homes, we also noticed that the natural environment rebounded. Scientists are also noticing the links between the pandemic and humanity’s continuing invasion into the last remaining fragments of nature. Climate change is adding to the pressure on those natural environments too.

On a more personal level, social media is also rich with stories that the slowdown has some benefits. Discomfort, anxiety and uncertainty exist too, but there are elements of a simpler life to appreciate. Things like removing the daily commute, more family time, and kinder neighbourhoods.

It took a virus for us to notice the interconnections between social justice, the economy and the environment.

The pandemic has exposed the gap between how we think the world works and how it actually works. A way of understanding that gap is by understanding the difference between scientific thinking and living systems.

How scientific thinking and living systems are different

A characteristic of modern western cultures is a way of thinking about how the world works that can be traced back to The Enlightenment in the 17th century. The Newtonian paradigm, named after Sir Isaac Newton, is characterised by cause and effect, that is directly proportional, predictable and therefore controllable – and an approach to solving problems that reduces them to their smallest possible part.

The Newtonian paradigm is focused on understanding the parts. This science has served us well and many of the associated expectations about how the world works have been included within our cultures in a way that means they are unquestioned and largely unconscious. So much so that the vast majority of organisations today are also founded the assumption that they can be operated like “well-oiled machines”.

An understanding of living systems (or complex adaptive systems) has developed from biology and environmental sciences since the 1950s.

Living systems behave in ways that are almost the opposite of mechanical systems. The science of living systems requires us to perceive the whole system and appreciate the relationships between the parts. It is the relationships that makes the whole, whole. These are the very interdependencies that the pandemic has made clear to us all.

Living systems are called living because they are able to reproduce themselves from their constituent parts. We can consider communities and organisations as living systems too. An organisation, for example, reproduces itself from the vision or purpose, lived values (beliefs) and unconscious assumptions that merge to become the organisational culture.

Recognising the influence of unconscious values and assumptions in any social system is important because unless we intervene at this level, we will not alter the pattern that is being reproduced by and within the system.

Living systems behave in a number of ways that seem counterintuitive to those raised in western cultures where the Newtonian paradigm is still dominant.

In a living system parts respond to changes in other parts – it’s a continually moving feast.  As these parts adapt, the entire system becomes irreducibly unpredictable especially over greater time frames and geographical space.

Additionally, small changes can amplify into really big changes over time – or not, because it’s unpredictable. Coronavirus provides an example of these qualities, and it has also demonstrated to us clearly that although we can’t control a living system, we can influence it.

In answer to the question “how can we create more resilient and adaptable communities and economies using complexity?”, we need a different way of navigating the uncertainty. That’s because we know we can’t predict the answer and create a single goal.

Influencing the system begins with imagining the future we want together. The vision is not in the traditional form of a tangible end point (which is just one possible future), but in the form of a shared story that captures the complexity of how we want to experience the future.

Living systems in action

For example, for the Gumeracha Main Street Project in South Australia, the whole community – including homeowners, business owners, children, local council representatives – have come together to “breathe life and love” into the main street of the northern Adelaide Hills township.

The community has created a story that incorporates a rich pattern of values, such as the Permenangk Culture, Nature, Lingering, Friendly, Abundance and Discovery. Intervening at the level of values means we can influence the pattern of replication within the system.

The vision has been used by the community working party to make decisions about what to do. Ideally, they would design every new initiative to reflect all the values in their vision. This way, their actions are more than a silver bullet – they reflect the complexity of the situation with each step forward. Each initiative can be thought of as another experiment to see what happens when something is changed within the system. Does it help move them closer to their vision? Does their vision need to evolve?

The Gumeracha example also helps us realise that an economy is just one part of a healthy community. Business owners were motivated to be a part of the Main Street project because of their interest in growing their businesses by attracting more passing traffic (hence the Lingering value), but economic growth is tempered by other values that the community holds – it does not dominant them.

Gumeracha may seem too simple an example to some, but the simplicity is also a reflection of the nature of complexity (living systems). Much more could and should be said about living systems to explain this fully, but I hope to have conveyed an understanding of why and how we could employ a way of thinking that is more closely matches the way our world actually works.

Silver bullet solutions aimed at specific parts are just not effective within complex, living systems like our communities and natural environments.

Dr Josie McLean is founder of The Partnership.


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