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Many of the 21st-century transitions are about large-scale systemic change. Yet these enormous systems move slowly and are inherently complex or wicked by nature. A systems mindset is a great starting point to deal with these complex settings such as agile working, digital transition, energy transition, circular economy, and much more.

Systems thinking is a way of making sense of the complexity of the world by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. It is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system's constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems.

The systems mindset helps to find the right level of entry for any given situation. All systems are extremely good to do what they are designed to do. Whether that is a human conscious design or something that evolved over centuries in nature for example. Yet, change one of the design principles and the behavior of the system as a whole will start to shift. The big challenge is to sense the best level of intervention and the right parameter to change. Trying to do so, we use three main approaches:
pattern-recognition, phenomonology and morphology


The Futures Academy is a research collective of unconventional thinkers and practitioners sharing the same passion for empowering people to solve the grand challenges of the 21st century. We love to embrace impossible projects, learn, succeed, share & make an impact, together.

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Many complex or wicked situations are immensely difficult to change. So how do we intervene to improve sustainable development or govern the impact of emerging technologies? A system perspective can help us out.

Systems are good at what they are designed for. We have to distinguish the function of the system as a whole and the design of the system and its parts. each system is a construct, a Gestalt, that has a meaning on its own: the sum of the parts is different.

For example, when you deconstruct a clock you will find bolts, a spring, and a driver but nowhere is the ‘time’ to be found. Time is a construct that is a function of the whole. 



All systems show behavior and a tendency towards a certain state. Many phenomena such as a marketplace, an interaction, the strategy process or a company culture can best be perceived as living systems. The functioning of these systems, all seeking a kind of dynamic equilibrium, might be perceived as random or chaotic. By having an eye for form and dynamics we can try to grasp the underlying design principles that trigger and impact certain behavioral patterns.

Morphology is the study of the size, shape and structure of forms in a certain context. The term morphology is Greek and is derived from morph- meaning 'shape, form'. Morphology is used as an approach in linguistics, biology and by architects. To understand is to perceive the patterns.

For example, the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits make up a flowering plant's morphology. Or in linguistics, the word 'cats' consists of two parts the cat and the s, each playing a role in its function and meaning. In architecture, a morphological analysis seeks to understand the underlying structure of an ancient construct, by examining the patterns of the elements that compose it, as part of the process of their development.


In a similar way we use this perspective of form and meaning to understand the dynamics of a system and its change. Visualisation and metaphors are important instruments in that process.


Everything around us is organized in some way and therefore has a kind of design. You can look at how you buy, ride and use a car or how a soccer-team functions, or even a neighborhood or forest area. In our research, we have an eye for the design principles of situations. And since biology already has 3.8 billion years of trial & error ahead of us, we can learn from everything around us. The world is our classroom, culture is our guide, and nature is a huge source of inspiration.

An example, we have found three different kinds of weeds from a high altitude in the French Alpes. All these plants need to show extreme resilience to survive in cold, rocky, and grainy environments. Each of these plants has an entirely different 'design' to create this kind of resilience. Let's analyze purely look at their design. Just imagine how to use this design in your team?!


  • A Roots create a web to get better grip and prevent the stone to let loose. 

  • B Flower and roots are closely placed together. It breaks easily creating small new units of bóth flower (energy) and root (food)

  • C Many strands are extremely light & cushioned,. It will easily travel along when stones and grain start to shift




All ecosystems consist of different layers. A jungle has extremely old trees that shape the canopy, many plants that cover the ground, and plenty of seasonal flowers, grass, and humus of old leaves. Each layer has a function in the whole ánd a working pace of its own and has interdependencies with the other subsystems. This integral view of the ecosystem as a whole is what we call a panarchy.

Another example is the ‘weather' that has a layer we call climate, a layer that might be referred to as the season and the weather of the day, such as rain for example. Each of these layers has its own dynamics and pace of change. A hot day might trigger an evening thunderstorm, the shift from summer to autumn might trigger a tornado, and an el-Nino triggers jetstreams to alter their direction. Yet, each of these subsystems is interconnected, they have so-called feedback loops. At certain points, the output of one system is crossing a certain boundary and influences other levels creating (unexpected) tipping points. 

This is exactly why there is such urgency with climate change, many of the different levels show a tipping point that will cause cascading effects. The same goes for why new technologies can be so extremely disruptive or social values ‘suddenly’ shift for example with diversity, gender, racism, smoking, etc. And to make it even more complex, all these living systems such as tech, society, and climate are interrelated!


In our sessions, we try to distinguish the systemic layers, the interplay, feedback loops, and boundaries. In addition, we will try to sense with the different layers what trigger points will cause the system to contain energy (remember), break down (revolt), or create new energy (release). These transitions all show a cyclical effect, which makes them a great instrument to forecast and design for change.




For all the future phenomena we research, we try to bring down several key patterns or design principles. The circular economy is indeed circular (or even spiral) and thus about loops about being upstream. A network is more about distribution, a mesh, and triggers granularity while platforms are more base on a stack, containers, microservices, etc.


By collecting all these phenomena and describing them as patterns we are building up a kind of pattern language. This language can babe used as a design system to create new scenarios. Challenge strategies for developing new innovative services. 


This approach stands in a long tradition of experimental thinkers and scientists such as Isiah Berlin, Gregory Bateson, Christopher Alexander Buckminster Fuller, and Genrich Altshuller.


This picture shows a Lévy-flight. This pattern is observed amongst grazing animals, hunting sharks, and traveling nomadic tribes and is now used in search algorithms for example.

Some recent examples from our pattern language. These patterns are turned into a kind of card set we use during intakes and will be available on our site soon as soon as we have succeeded in the playtest.

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