ELC (Evolutionary Learning Community)

A Special Integration Group (SIG)
Sponsored by ____Syntony Quest____ for the
International Society for the Systems Sciences


The ELC SIG began as an Exploratory Breakout Session at the 43rd ISSS Meeting and was formally accepted as a SIG for the 44th Meeting. This SIG invites the creative exploration of Evolutionary Systems Design (as philosophy, theory, methodology, and practice) by action-oriented systems thinkers of today who wish to engage in the creation of the conditions under which partnership cultures may emerge tomorrow. Through papers and conversation, this objective will be followed down a path of inquiry couched in a normative evolutionary perspective. To this end, the notion of Evolutionary Learning Community (ELC) will serve as the vehicle of choice for action-research, focusing attention on the development of shared evolutionary competence. It is hoped that ELC inquiry will ultimately promote community design that cultivates self-empowerment, integrates learning, work, and the enjoyment of life, and fosters evolutionarily sustainable patterns of existence.


SIG CO-CHAIRS: Alexander Laszlo, Ph.D. and Kathia C. Laszlo, Ph.D.
> Syntony Quest <
1761 Vallejo Street
Suite 302
San Francisco, California 94123-5029
Tel/Fax: ++415/346.1547
eMail: info@syntonyquest.org

Or ISSS President, Harold Nelson — eMail: nelsongroup@worldnet.att.net



Pacific Grove, California (USA), 8-13 July 2001



As part of ISSS praxis, the development of operational models of ELC could help understand the dynamics of sustainable development in complex human/nature systems. Although essentially abductive in methodological style, the two lines of design inquiry to be pursued to facilitate ISSS offerings will be essentially deductive and inductive, respectively: the former will proceed through discussion of theoretical analyses relating to the principles and constructs required for a community to be both evolutionary and learning oriented; and the latter will proceed through presentation of observations of, and interactions with, existing communities that demonstrate evolutionary competence or the potential for it. Since these two approaches are co-dependent and mutually inform issues of systems science and quality of life, they will form the backbone of the ELC SIG sessions. Given the theme of this year’s conference on "Systems Science in Service of Humanity," the leit motif of this SIG will be the challenges and opportunities of the evolutionary corporation.


Draft roster of Abstracts for the 45th Annual Meeting


Evolutionary Design as a Means for Developing the Psychological Capacity for Advanced Systems Thinking

Lynn M. Rasmussen
3191 Baldwin Avenue
Makawao, Hawaii 96768


What systems thinking is, what it means, is determined by one’s world view. Understanding of systems theory deepens with one’s increasing capacity to organize and integrate complexity. Four emerging practices challenge the mechanistic world view and encourage the development of higher orders of thinking: Mindfulness as opposed to intelligence, constructivist education as opposed to traditional instruction, the Eastern development of ethical expertise as opposed to the Western view of ethical reasoning, and the practices of psychology of mind as opposed to the traditional cognitive practices of counselling psychology. A case study of a small nonprofit youth organization demonstrates how evolutionary design is a meta-practice that encompasses the above practices. An evolutionary guidance system is created by the people of the system that consists of ideal images of governance, social action, economics, esthetics, ethics, education, technology, scientific knowledge, and health. These ideals are used as both planning and assessment tools in daily operations of the system. A creative space forms between the ideal image of the system and the perceived reality of the system. In this creative space, mindfulness, constructivist learning, the development of ethical expertise and healthy psychological functioning are integrated into the daily life of the system. Ken Wilber has called for an "integrative transformative practice" that supports people within the stage of development they may be operating and that, at the same time, encourages and supports their development to higher stages. Evolutionary design is an integrative transformative practice that transcends the limitations of management. It is a meta-practice that allows people to consciously and continually redesign their own systems in order to raise their own consciousness, their own levels of adult psychological development.



[title to be announced]

Sherryl R. Stalinski
The Aurora Now Foundation
1981 N. San Joquin Road, Tucson AZ 85743



To propose a systems model, that transcends qualitative and quantitative analysis as a means toward valuing research and methodologies in the human sciences. The criteria ultimately answer the questions: 1. Is it evolutionary? 2. Is it reasonable? 3. Is it useful? and 4. Is it ethical? (These answers can be valuated through a proposed new method of triangulation by determining congruency among empirical, experiential and intuitive knowledge).

It is foundational on my conclusions that neither a positivist or relativist foundation is adequate to guide human choices, which is the inevitable result of human inquiry. A note is made about the special relevance of this foundation for the human sciences, and hopefully will argue for the proposition that ethics and critical thinking-reason and responsibility — are integrally inseparable in any human perspective.

Instead, an evolutionary foundation is proposed, based on recent advances in evolutionary and systems theory. Without discarding either positivism or relativism, it differentiates, integrates then ultimately transcends them both. It proposes that, at least at our current level of evolution as a species, Ultimate Truth is also Ultimately Unknowable. More importantly, it allows that an Ultimate Truth does indeed exist, and it is our human nature to move toward its discovery. My 'conclusions' for this foundational framework is to invite and encourage its further development.



Evolutionary Development:

The evolution of evolutionary theory in service of sustainble societal development

Alexander Laszlo
> Syntony Quest <
1761 Vallejo Street, Suite 302
San Francisco, CA 94123-5029


Science, and with it our understanding of evolutionary processes, is itself undergoing evolution. The evolutionary framework still most frequently used by the general public to describe and guide processes societal development is grounded in Darwinian perspectives or, at the very least, draws its analogies from biological evolution. Our inquiry incorporates fresh insights on the nature of developmental dynamics from the most recent advances in the transdisciplinary realm of the sciences of complexity (e.g., general evolution theory, cybernetics, information and communication theory, chaos theory, dynamical systems theory, and nonequilibrium thermodynamics). The description of the evolutionary trajectory of complex dynamic systems as irreversible, periodically chaotic, and strongly nonlinear agrees with certain features of the historical processes of societal development. But there are additional features of the evolutionary dynamic of natural systems that are seldom portrayed as part of human developmental deportment. These features include elements such as the convergence of existing systems at progressively higher levels of organization, the increasingly efficient utilization of environmental energy, and the complexification of system structures in states that are progressively further removed from chemical and thermodynamic equilibria. The sciences of complexity offer insight onto the laws and dynamics that govern the evolution of complex systems across a variety of disciplinary areas of investigation. Through a study of the isomorphisms across disciplinary constructs in the theoretical analyses of the principles governing the evolution of human societies, it is possible to enrich the account of developmental dynamics at the socio-civilizational level. Such an account would further our understanding of the phenomenon of societal development and provide the means for the purposeful guidance of this phenomenon in accordance with general evolutionary principles. This paper sets forth the type of considerations, and outlines a general research agenda, for inquiry toward an operational model of the evolutionary development of socials systems.


Strategy and the Natural Environment:

Exploring the Mismatch in Complexity Perspective.

Emmanuel Raufflet
Doctoral Program
Faculty of Management
McGill University, Montreal
Consuelo Garcia de la Torre
Faculty EGADE
Instituto Tecnológico Superior de Monterrey


In this paper, we use an epistemological perspective to explore why the natural environment has been represented in an inert and narrow way in strategy. The domination of the nomothetic theoretical discourse has induced specific research methodologies, objects of inquiry, and research questions. This discourse, in turn, has contributed to building a research agenda, which has generally excluded dynamic and complex representations of the natural environment in management.




==================================================Viable Knowledge Management as an Action Research Cycle of Inquiry

Maurice Yolles and Paul Iles
Liverpool John Moores University
Liverpool, L45 9JZ
United Kingdom

The use of action research approaches to finding intervention strategies that can deal with complex or messy situations in organisations is well accepted. However, there are no such approaches that tackle inquiry through knowledge processes and in terms of knowledge management. The intention will be to provide an approach that does both of these things from a Critical Theory perspective


Evolutionary Management:

Learning, Innovation and Sustainability in the Third Millenium

Kathia C. Laszlo
> Syntony Quest <
1761 Vallejo Street, Suite 302
San Francisco, CA 94123-5029


This paper explores new frontiers for management. In a rapidly changing global environment, organizations can become evolutionary change agents for the creation of a sustainable global civilization. New visions of humans in partnership with Earth can become state attractors for the transformation of the dominant organizational paradigm. Management practices, both within for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, can help create the conditions for this transformation.

Evolutionary management is the guidance and administration of organizations based on evolutionary systems principles. These principles are derived from General Evolution Theory as an articulation of the emergent evolutionary paradigm based in the sciences of complexity. Organizations, as purposeful human activity systems, can further socio-cultural evolution through the development and application of evolutionary management. Such management practice calls for ongoing learning and innovation for the creation of value for a sustainable society.


The Universality of the HolyTrinity:

Governs the evolution of strategic processes and design of organizations?

Luis García-Calderón Díaz
Ave. Eugenio Garza Sada 2501 Sur,
C.P. 64920, Monterrey, N.L.
Joel Mendoza
Ave. Eugenio Garza Sada 2501 Sur,
C.P. 64920, Monterrey, N.L.
Fax: +52-8/358.1400 ext. 6090

The triadic conception of the divinity is an archetype found in Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism, and in Kabalistic Judaism. Mythologies and beliefs of the entire world contain references to these three manifestations of God, and they are reflected in every cosmological, natural, and evolutionary phenomenon. The religious Trinity conformed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the west, and of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu in the east, represent a model for the interpretation of religious and natural cycles. The proposal of the following paper is that this same religious and cosmogical model is found in all managerial, strategic, and organizational phenomena, in the light of all the theories that in the last thirty years have arisen in these areas. The research also proposes the triadic conception model as a referential framework of evolutionary and meta-strategic thinking and decision making, that facilitates the identification of the best strategies and organizational designs for the environmental context in which the organizations and firms unfold.





Evolutionary Learning Community Inquiry:

Theoretical background and core definitions

by Kathia C. Laszlo
Syntony Quest
1761 Vallejo, Suite 302
San Francisco, CA 94123-5029


Paper submitted for presentation at the 43rd Meeting of the ISSS

27 June - 2 July 1999, Asilomar (USA)




Evolutionary Learning Community (ELC) inquiry is a field of disciplined, creative and participatory action-research. It seeks to develop the competencies and sensitivities in individuals and groups that empower them to purposefully design experiences of community that are learning oriented, self-empowering, and environmentally sustainable. This paper sketches out the three main components of the theoretical, methodological, and philosophical bases upon which ELC inquiry rests: 1) insights from the sciences of complexity–in particular evolutionary systems theory; 2) perspectives from human science traditions–in particular certain aspects of critical theory, feminism, and the participatory paradigm; and 3) systems thinking–which supports the integrative and transdisciplinary nature of the inquiry. In addition, the key terms that define ELC inquiry are identified and explained. The paradigmatic assumptions underlying this inquiry will be made explicit in order to create a comprehensive foundation for common understanding among those interested in engaging in the design of ELC.

Key words: systems inquiry, human science, sciences of complexity, design, evolution, community, learning, evolutionary learning community (ELC).

Background and Conceptual Roots of the Emergent

Evolutionary Learning Community Inquiry

The Evolutionary Learning Community (ELC) inquiry is a field of disciplined, creative and participatory action-research that seeks to develop the competencies and sensitivities in individuals and groups to purposefully design experiences of community that are evolutionary, learning oriented, self-empowering, and environmentally sustainable. The ELC inquiry is motivated by the global contemporary challenges of human societies and by the formidable tasks that education faces if it aspires to respond appropriately to the crises and opportunities that surround us today. It is also inspired by the unlimited evolutionary possibilities ahead of us. Therefore, the ELC inquiry has an empowering and creative purpose grounded in a transdisciplinary body of knowledge. Systems inquiry provides the foundation and the context for this transdisciplinary exploration.

The idea and ideal of ELC emerged from the work of a research team (Group D) within the International Systems Institute (ISI) in 1993. Since then, there have been seven design conversations (six in California and one in Fuschl, Austria) dedicated to the exploration of ELC as part of the International Conferences on Social Systems Design sponsored by ISI.

In the general context of social systems design, which is the main area of research of ISI, Group D has been exploring since 1989 the idea of a design culture. The focus on design culture lead to an exploration of designing communities, the components for building a design culture (i.e., the design principles, the learning system, and the resources or "tools" of design), and the relational dynamics among these components. The focus shifted to the design of the learning system that can enable a design culture. Eventually, the learning system became the "evolutionary learning community" (ELC). The team has been interested in finding a balance between the theoretical and practical aspects of the inquiry by working on the description of the ideal ELC (i.e., what an ELC "should be") and simultaneously linking this learning to the everyday life and work of those engaged in the inquiry. In short, the main question guiding the collaboration is "how to create the conditions for the design of ELC and the emergence of a design culture?"

The notions of social systems design and design culture are very much the conceptual roots of the construct ELC. In terms of the evolution of this line of inquiry, the change of focus from a direct interest in designing a design culture to designing ELCs indicates a shift in assumption: We cannot design a design culture, but we can design communities that by their ways of being and becoming can create the conditions for the emergence of a new (i.e., design) culture.

Social systems design, as proposed by Banathy (1996), is a form of decision-oriented disciplined inquiry that facilitates the transcendence of the actual situation in a social system into one that is agreed by those engaged in the design to be a better one. In other words, it is a process that helps to identify the needs to change and translate an ideal vision of the future into a feasible reality. Social systems design is a process through which individuals and communities can create the conditions for the development of their individual and collective potential and for the social evolution of humanity. Systems design is concerned with what ought to be.

Banathy (1996) defines design culture as "a learned pattern of behavior.... [that] enables the collective creation of novel phenomenon" (p. 241). This definition indicates the centrality of learning to the process of facilitating transformation toward a more creative and purposeful culture. Design competence is the manifestation of such learned behavior. However, how does large social systems, such as a complex industrial society, learns design competence to embody a design culture? Culture, by definition, is a property of a group or population (Laszlo & Krippner, 1998, p. 67) and learning is a process that can be both individual and collective. If a design culture can be learned, there needs to be a link between the individual and collective learning processes and the emergent design culture of the whole system. Here is where the notion of community, or more specifically, learning community, becomes a central piece in this inquiry as the social unit where the conditions for the synergistic emergence of a design culture can be created.

Design culture is a creative and participatory culture that is able to transform itself. However, creativity and participatory transformation per se do not bring about healthy and sustainable social systems. Therefore, a question that arises is: how can we guide creative and participatory transformation in positive and ethical directions? This is a central concern for systems designers and specially for those involved in ELC inquiry. Social systems design starts by creating an ideal image of the future and works to translate the image into reality. In ELC inquiry, a core aspect of this ideal vision is to articulate specific manifestations of what we are calling sustainable futures. The notion of sustainable futures indicates an open array of environmentally and socially responsible future possibilities that represent the interrelated diversity of the human spirit and life choices which give rise to the collective socio-cultural and historical features of human societies.

Purpose of ELC inquiry

ELC inquiry has a timely–and urgent–agenda. The following articulation of purposes are based on the concepts and principles that show potential contributions for the advancement of this work, as will be argued throughout this paper. However, this is just a proposal that seeks to provide elements for dialogue since ELC inquiry is a collaborative effort which objectives and premises need to be shared and co-created. Some of the proposed purposes indicate that ELC inquiry seeks to:


Key Concepts in ELC Inquiry

The Meaning of Evolution and Learning

Evolution, both as a scientific theory and as a universal myth, is a powerful story for the transformation of consciousness and society (Feinstein and Krippner, 1988, pp. 212-213). Chaisson (1987) believes that "an appreciation and understanding of evolution... can provide a map for the future of humanity" (p. 200), while Csikszentmihalyi (1993) considers that "in order to make choices that will lead to a better future, it helps to be aware of the forces at work in evolution" (p. 4). ELC inquiry makes explicit these intentions and assumptions.

The development of the sciences of complexity have produced "the beginnings of a general theory of evolution that covers everything from molecules to humankind" (Goerner, 1994, p. 20). Bowler (1984, p. xiii) believes that the development of the notion of evolution is "perhaps the most controversial of all scientific theories," and the most recent general evolution theory is not the exception. This theory of evolution is "a general way of conceptualizing the self-organizing selection process of the universe displayed in the increasing complexity which occurs as a result of the dynamic balancing effort of entropy and negentropy through the process of fluctuation, amplification and subsequent bifurcation allowing successful phase transition and emergence" (Reeves in François, 1997, p. 130). In other words, the evolutionary process of systems far from thermodynamic and chemical equilibrium is composed of periods of dynamic stability (homeostasis), and when this stability can no longer be maintained, the system enters a period of turbulence–or bifurcation–when it transcends (self-organizes) to a higher level of organization, structural complexity, dynamism and autonomy. In this way, open systems become more complex and dynamic, more in control of themselves and of their environment, moving further and further from the inert state of equilibrium (E. Laszlo, 1996, p. 12). This conception of evolution describes an order-producing universe and according to Goerner (1994),

This emergent understanding of evolutionary dynamics offers great possibilities for the conscious creation of sustainable futures. E. Laszlo (1991) believes that "having become conscious of evolution, we must now make evolution itself conscious. If we so willed it, the next leap in the development of human society can be intentionally guided.... we have the means, and the opportunity, to design our destiny" (p. 104). However, those conscious of evolution are a few educated and forward looking individuals. The mainstream understanding of evolution remains Darwinian–dominated by conceptions of competition and survival of the fittest–just as the dominant world view is still rooted in a mechanistic and reductionistic way of thinking. It is through learning processes that these conceptions can be updated and transformed and the facilitation of such learning processes is the role of ELCs.

In the last decades, the human species has put into risk not only their future but also the future of life on Earth (E. Laszlo, 1994, p.1). Our contemporary ways of living are unsustainable, our social systems are breaking down, our societies are not in peace. It is the limits of human will and understanding that obstruct the paths toward a better future. Einstein and Russell (1957) considered that "we have to learn to think in a new way" in order to ethically apply our knowledge and to give creative solutions to our problems. To learn to think in a new way may depend on our ability to learn to learn in new ways.

Learning is a transformative process which holds the potential for being "the greatest source of change in social systems" (Banathy, 1996, p. 318). However, "learning" means different things in different contexts. Sometimes learning is confused or taken as a synonym of teaching. Sometimes learning cannot be separated from what happens in a formal educational institution, or is constrain to a process for children and youth. Sometimes learning is limited to cognitive, rational, and verbal processes that can only handle data and knowledge but not understanding and wisdom. But learning can be much more than all these. For instance, Capra (1996) thinks that to learn is to be alive. Learning is a complex activity that involves the whole human being and that implies interactions with other human beings and with the natural and socio-cultural environment. It is a process of change that could have many results, including, for instance, the acquisition and generation of knowledge, the development of skills, and the reformulation of values and perspectives.

Educators, psychologists, organizational consultants, and philosophers, among others, have theorized about different kinds of learning. Two kinds are particularly relevant for the change of mindset called for by Einstein and Russell and for ELC inquiry: transformative learning and evolutionary learning. Transformative learning involves the expansion of consciousness in human systems through the transformation of basic worldviews and the development of capacities of the self (Elias, 1997, p. 14). Evolutionary learning is innovative and enables the learner to cope with uncertainty and change, renew perspectives and creatively design new forms of social systems (Banathy, 1996, pp. 318-319). Both transformative and evolutionary learning are the antithesis of maintenance learning which is adaptive and involves the acquisition of fixed viewpoints, methods, and rules for dealing with known and recurring events that maintain the status quo. Transformative learning and evolutionary learning could be seen as a continuum of enabling processes suitable for the change required in our times. Transformative learning is aimed at inner development, characterized by the expansion of consciousness at the individual and collective levels while evolutionary learning is aimed at outer transformation, through participatory design of sustainable social systems. In this framework, learning is a journey that enables the evolution of consciousness and continues as the transformation of the surrounding reality. The evolution of individual and collective consciousness can prepare and motivate action for conscious evolution (Salk, in Banathy, 1996, p. 317).

Types of Communities

What is a community–that is, an authentic community? How does it relate to an evolutionary learning community? Community can be considered "a group of two or more individuals with a shared identity and a common purpose committed to the joint creation of meaning" (Laszlo & Laszlo, 1997, p. 6). Yet there is more to an ELC than that. One of the core characteristics of an authentic community, as described by Peck (1987), is its synergetic character. He suggests that a community is more of "a way of being together with both individual authenticity and interpersonal harmony so that people become able to function with a collective energy even greater than the sum of their individual energies" (p. 239). Authentic communities are able to enhance their own development while at the same time enhancing that of each individual in the community, thereby promoting both freedom of personal choice and a sense of responsibility for the whole. The operating principle is that of unity in diversity. The common purpose of the community transcends self-interest. This meaning of authentic community accounts for the "C" in ELC.

During the Ninth Fuschl Conversation of ISI the team focused on ELC came up with distinctions between four types of communities: Traditional Community, Surrogate Community, (simple) Learning Community, and Evolutionary Learning Community (McCormick, et. al., 1998). These distinctions were based on a list of terms that defined the dimensions of community types and transformations. These terms were: authentic, community, evolution, learning, sustainability, challenge, syntony, design, culture, identity, consciousness, and purpose. As a result of the week-long conversation, which involved clarifying the meaning and roles of the above terms for each type of community, the group came up with the following definitions:

Traditional communities are natural rather than designed communities. In many cases, change within this type of community is slow and gradual unless it is caused by a violent imposition of values from an external dominant group. Traditional communities have been the social manifestations of human evolution since tribal groups of hunter and gatherers within which humans developed relationships of mutual support in exchange for a sense of belonging, security, and well-being. But this kind of loyalty did not apply to people outside their community. In our current interconnected world, this orientation is limiting. "Our survival has become strongly dependent upon our commonalties as human beings, not on the differences between each other as individuals and as members of narrow reference groups" (Richards, 1993, p. 168). The notion of traditional community still holds precious value to the human experience, but it needs to be reconceptualized to include each community as part of an interconnected global community.

Modern industrial societies have fragmented the traditional experiences of community for which each human being longs. Surrogate communities were identified as designed ways of community to satisfy the need of common identity and belonging of individuals who do not have access to other forms of community. However, surrogate communities are not authentic in the synergetic way described by Peck since individuals, by joining the community, accept the values, beliefs, and rules–defined by others–under which the community operates. There is an organization, for instance, dedicated to encourage community in the US and abroad. To do so, they organize community workshops–two day encounters among individuals interested in having a cathartic experience leading toward feelings of empathy and connection to each other. After the workshop is over, participants will have to continue paying a fee to gather again as a community, or otherwise, the experience of community will be over and life will continue as it used to before the workshop.

In organizational and educational settings the notion of learning community has become a focus of attention in recent years. Corporations and educational institutions are recognizing the importance and value of the experience of authentic community within their operational contexts. Individuals in learning communities have an explicit common purpose: learning together. Nevertheless, this means different things for different people, just as learning per se holds different meanings in different contexts. In some cases there is no difference between a learning community and a group of students with a professor in a classroom setting. In other more dynamic and innovative cases, a learning community is a group of individuals who come together to learn in a flexible and self-directed way. Learning communities can potentially have a very creative and fluid dynamic of collaboration and synergy in order to adapt to their environment–in a reactive mode. Learning communities can be excellent means for doing things right, that is, for increased efficiency and efficacy in a rapidly changing world. But how can learning communities, in addition, help human systems to do the right things? Learning-oriented authentic communities are ideal spaces for exploring new ways of working, learning, and enjoying life in an integrated way. But learning communities do not necessarily imply the ethical and future perspective required for "doing the right things" which is the quest for sustainability and ethical evolutionary possibilities. This is the particular contribution of ELC inquiry. Therefore, learning communities can be stepping stones toward evolutionary learning communities.

Evolutionary learning community (ELC) has been defined as a human activity system that strives toward sustainable pathways for evolutionary development in synergistic interaction with its milieu, through individual and collective processes of empowerment and evolutionary learning (Laszlo & Laszlo, et. al., 1995). "ELCs do not adapt their environment to their needs, nor do they simply adapt to their environment. Rather, they adapt with their environment in a dynamic of mutually sustaining evolutionary co-creation" (Laszlo & Krippner, 1998, p. 65). Just as the concept "system" is more a pattern than a thing, ELC is an ideal image of community that can serve as a beacon for the design of new social systems appropriate for a new evolutionary era. The ELC inquiry seeks to understand and create empowering and ethical opportunities at the community level and to bridge the socio-cultural and ecological aspects of our world in order to create sustainable futures.


Conceptual Base of ELC Inquiry

ELC inquiry is a systemic and humanistic line of research that draws on the knowledge base of different scientific fields and disciplines. Particularly, the insights of the sciences of complexity and some strands of human science inform the process and the content of the inquiry. Systems thinking is the bind that permits meaningful integration for theoretical and practical ends. Systems inquiry, the sciences of complexity, and human science are three fields that have not been combined for action-research before. ELC inquiry attempts to synthesize relevant elements from these areas to create a solid knowledge base to support a transdisciplinary exploration.

ELC inquiry is a recent development within the systems field that combines emancipatory and critical systems thinking as well as evolutionary systems design (Laszlo & Krippner, 1998, p. 58). ELC inquiry synthesizes from the systems tradition:

  1. the participatory action-research orientation, based in dialogue and interested in social transformation, of social systems design;
  2. the commitment to human emancipation and theoretical and methodological complementarism of critical systems thinking; and
  3. the insights of the sciences of complexity as articulated in evolutionary systems theory.

In addition, these three systemic orientations overlap with other lines of inquiry in human science such as critical theory, feminist though, and participatory paradigm. For example, social systems design embraces the premises of the participatory paradigm as well as many of the assumptions of feminist thinking. The new understanding of evolution supports the idea of a participatory and creative universe and the quest for human emancipation so predominant in critical theory is becoming a prominent area of systems inquiry. Figure 1 situate ELC inquiry within these three research traditions.


Figure 1. ELC inquiry in context


Systems Inquiry and Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is "thinking about the world outside [and inside] ourselves... by means of the concept ‘system’" (Checkland, 1993, p. 3); that is, a cognitive process applied to human and natural systems based on systemic characteristics such as wholeness, interconnectedness, emergence, hierarchy, communication, and control (p. 318). Systems thinking is the process of using and applying systems approaches and ideas, both within and without the systems field and beyond scientific inquiry. Systems inquiry is the disciplined use of systems thinking for scientific endeavors.

"Systems inquiry is a system itself. As a conceptual system, it has three interrelated and internally consistent aspects: systems theory, systems philosophy, and systems methodology" (Banathy, 1992, p. 10). Systems theory is a knowledge base that goes beyond disciplinary boundaries; seeks isomorphisms of concepts, principles, laws, and models in various realms of experience; provides a framework for the transfer and integration of insights relevant for particular domains of research; and promotes the unity of science through improving communication among fields. von Bertalanffy’s (1968) General System Theory is "a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general" (p. 32). Systems theory is the theory of "organized complexity" and wholeness that challenges and complements the "theory of unorganized complexity [which] is ultimately rooted in the laws of chance and probability and in the second law of thermodynamics" (p. 34). General systems theorists acknowledge that specialized knowledge is as important as a general and integrative framework (Hammond, 1997, p. 3). "Specific" systems theories have emerged and include cybernetics, autopoietic systems theory, dynamic systems theory, chaos theory, organizational systems theory, and living systems theory, among other. There is a great overlap between these specific systems theories and what has come to be known as the sciences of complexity which are concrete systemic developments in the hard sciences.

Systems methodology implies organized sets of methods 1) for exploring and gaining knowledge about systems; and 2) for intervening in and changing real-world problem situations (Jackson, 1992, p. 3). Banathy (1992, pp. 10-11) regards systems inquiry as including two kinds of disciplined inquiry: those that are conclusion-oriented and those that are decision-oriented. The former produces systems knowledge, the later uses systems knowledge in the solving of real-world situations. Accordingly, systems methodologies can be oriented toward the pursue of systems scholarship and the advancement of the field or can be geared toward the application of systems thinking for the analysis, design, development, and management of complex systems.

Philosophy is a reflective endeavor that has as objects of cognition other items of cognition gathered in different fields of inquiry. Systems philosophy is, therefore, a reflective and synthetic endeavor concerned with systems in general, looking at the world in terms of interacting complex wholes (E. Laszlo, 1972). In systems inquiry, advances in theory and methodology catalyze each other, and philosophy brings them together. Scientific facts function as a foundation for an informed systems philosophy, and systems philosophy creates the conditions for the synthesis of scientific findings with potential practical applications.

This systemic view of inquiry provides the elements for the conceptual base for ELC inquiry as shown in figure 2. In other words, ELC inquiry is informed by:


Figure 2. Conceptual base of ELC inquiry


Jackson and Keys (in Jackson, 1992) have developed a framework for the classification of different types of systems thinking. This "system of systems methodologies," as they call it, is a lens that permits the appreciation of the diversity of systems thinking. Some critics of the systems approach suggests that in systems thinking there is "nothing approaching a coherent body of tested knowledge to attack, rather ‘a mélange of insights, theorems, tautologies and hunches’" (Naughton in Checkland, 1993, p. 93). This reflects that without a theoretical framework such as the system of systems methodologies, the diversity of systems approaches seems to be eclectic and fragmented. However, with the ability to appreciate the assumptions of systems approaches a different picture emerges: a picture of potentially complementary types of systems thinking. Thus, "systems thinking is powerful these days... both because of the strength and diversity of its various strands and because those strands can be seen as complementary and can be brought together in an integrated way in problem resolution" (Jackson, 1992, p. 278).

The system of systems methodologies has two dimensions: 1) the nature of the system(s) in which the problems exist, and 2) the nature of the relationship between participants. The former includes mechanistic (closed and simple systems) and systemic (open and complex systems) contexts. The later includes relationships that can be described as unitary (when there is general and genuine agreement among participants), pluralist (when there are diverse values, beliefs, and perspectives as well as the openness and willingness to find common ground), and coercive (situations where there is disagreement and conflict and agreement can only be reached by oppression from a more powerful group over another). Jackson (1992) identifies five distinct types of systems thinking based on the system of systems methodologies: 1) hard systems thinking (mechanistic-unitary), 2) organizations-as-systems (systemic-unitary), 3) organizational cybernetics (systemic-unitary), 4) soft systems thinking (mechanistic/systemic-pluralist), and 5) emancipatory systems thinking (mechanistic/systemic-coercive). In addition, critical systems thinking goes beyond the system of systems methodologies since it seeks to combine approaches within the system of systems methodologies in order to better deal with unique complex situations.

Critical systems thinking is particularly relevant to ELC inquiry since it is committed to theoretical and methodological complementarism, sociological awareness, and the promotion of human well-being and emancipation (Flood & Jackson, 1991, p. 47). By drawing on this critical orientation, ELC inquiry uses mainly approaches from the soft and emancipatory systems traditions and combines them with other relevant sources beyond the systems field such as the ones explored below.

Insights from the Sciences of Complexity

The sciences of complexity deal with chaos, self-organization, and new understandings of evolution. They were born from mathematics, physics, and chemistry, but differently from these traditional sciences, they are not independent from each other but rather are rapidly evolving in interdependence, informing each other, and creating a transdisciplinary body of knowledge–a hallmark of systemic science. In fact, the sciences of complexity can be considered developments within the systems field as specific systems theories.

"Chaos theory" is a popular name for at least two streams of nonequilibrium theories: one is the mathematical study of complex dynamic systems; the other is a more general area of inquiry exploring non-linear dynamics, bifurcations, and self-organization among other complex phenomena (Loye & Eisler, 1987, p. 54). This later stream is the one that offers relevant insights for the advancement of the ELC inquiry. The understandings derived from the sciences of complexity put an end to the old human quest for absolute predictability and control, yet they offer the possibility for improved anticipation of the consequences of human actions, participatory approaches for problem resolution, clearer sense of purpose, and evolutionary images of the future (Loye & Eisler, 1987, p. 57). These are features that ELC inquiry fully embraces.

The understanding of complexity, emergence, and self-organization can influence the ways of thinking and acting in social systems and can inform the impact of individual and collective participation in design processes. For example, chaotic interdependent systems are extremely sensitive to small changes. Nonlinearity means that small causes may lead to large effects and this is what is known as the butterfly effect. Prigogine and Stengers (in Banathy, 1996) reflect on the social possibilities for new order out of chaotic conditions by noting that:

Gleick (in François, 1997, p. 53) says that "chaos is a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than being.... it makes strong claims about the universal behavior of complexity." This understanding has important implications for ELC inquiry since it promotes life-long learning and design processes in social systems as means for conscious participation in the ongoing becoming that our socio-cultural evolution entails.

The possibilities for self-organization into higher levels of complexity are open to purposeful human actions. ELC inquiry seeks to engage individuals and groups in purposeful design processes that can bring about futures guided by shared values. However, the new levels of organization are emergent and cannot be predicted from the previous state of the system. That is why in ELC inquiry the quest is for creating the conditions for a new system to emerge rather than to try to plan the future. "We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails" is a contemporary Western proverb that captures the intentions of ELC inquiry.

The most recent understanding of the dynamics of evolution, as described above, are grounded in the knowledge of the sciences of complexity. In fact, general evolution theory or evolutionary systems theory integrates the relevant insights from the sciences of complexity and is a very important component of the knowledge base informing ELC inquiry. For instance, while previous notions considered competition and adaptation as the main drivers of evolution, the new notion of evolution recognizes the creative and co-adaptive ability of interrelated systems–"an ongoing dance that proceeds through a subtle interplay of competition and cooperation, creation and mutual adaptation" (Capra, 1998, p. 44), which is a beautiful description of the dynamics of potential ELCs. This emergent understanding of evolution embraces seemingly paradoxical processes that also provides a frame of reference for the use of complementary methods in the process of ELC inquiry.

Human Science Perspectives

"While discussion of human science was once conducted on the grounds of philosophy, professional researchers who must face up to practical problems of social survival are pragmatically moving toward what will work to provide answers where no reliable guides exist" (Salner, 1996, p. 8). ELC inquiry is an emergent area of action-research that faces great challenges in the quest to make practical contributions in the creation of sustainable futures. "How we understand our world, how we learn about it, how we teach the young about their place in it, have consequences for our survival in it" (Salner, 1996, p. 8) and because their relevance for understanding and ameliorating the human condition these critical questions from a human science perspective are part of ELC inquiry.

The human science tradition, like systems thinking, is a reaction against the positivistic and reductionistic approaches of the natural sciences. There are aspects that promise complementarity and synergy for the purposes of ELC inquiry from critical theory, feminism, and the participatory paradigm, all of which are strands within human science still in development. Critical theory can be considered the "umbrella" human science paradigm for ELC inquiry since its axiology is compatible and many authors consider feminist and participatory approaches a part of critical theory. For more clarity, I distinguish between these three human science perspectives, all of which share concerns, assumptions, and approaches with ELC inquiry. There is much to learn from these three strands of human science.

Critical theory seeks to combine philosophy and science, idealism and realism, theory and practice, without assimilating one to the other (Ingram, 1990, p. xxiii). Critical theory has a human empowerment agenda. "Inquiry that aspires to the name critical must be connected to an attempt to confront the injustice of a particular society or sphere within the society" (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994, p. 140). While many traditional researchers usually claim neutrality, critical researchers often make explicit their partisanship in the struggle for a better world. Some of the assumptions of critical theory, many showing its systemic orientation, are

Feminism is the only ideology that directly challenges the systems of oppression or what Eisler (1987, p. 164) calls the Dominator model of human relations. Although historically there have been human civilizations based on ranking and power over others as well as civilizations based on linking and power to create, our most recent history is largely as Dominator societies.

Feminism has as its primary objective the emancipation of women, however, it has implications for humanity as a whole. For example, the First United Nations Decade for Women stated as its goals sexual equality, development, and peace (Eisler, 1987, p. 154). Feminist values, such as non-violence, caring, and inclusion, support a more just, peaceful, and ecologically harmonious social order with equality and freedom for all human beings–what Eisler (1987) calls a Partnership society.

Psychologically, one of the main differences between (Western) men and women is the concern for independence in contrast with an emphasis on interdependence, respectively (Montuori, 1989 p. 206). Female emphasis on peace, caring, and inclusivity expands the boundaries of what traditionally have been considered legitimate ways of knowing. Feminist scholars have criticized modern forms of inquiry because of their emphasis on objective, autonomous, rational models identified as masculine. Moderns forms of inquiry have neglected emotions, embodiment, personal experiences, creativity, and collaboration as part of the inquiring process. Although systems inquiry has been lacking some of these features, ELC inquiry embraces this expanded epistemology.

Heron and Reason (1997) call for a "participatory inquiry paradigm" which philosophy and orientation is congruent with the systemic and ethical commitments of ELC inquiry. The epistemology of the participatory inquiry paradigm is a better articulation of the expanded ways of knowing proposed by feminist scholars. This epistemology includes four interdependent ways of knowing. Experiential knowing involves direct encounter with other being, i.e., participative and empathic resonance with others so one feels both syntonized and distinct from the other. Presentational knowing is the symbolization (in graphic, musical, verbal, or any other form) of the intuitive grasp of the meaning generated through the interaction with the world (i.e., experiential knowing). Propositional knowing is the conceptualization, as theories and statements, derived from the metaphors of the presentational knowing and ultimately grounded in our experiential articulation of the world. Practical knowing is manifested in skills or competencies that generate value through actions that fulfill and apply the other forms of knowing. It is knowing through acting and changing in the world. Participatory inquiry uses all these kinds of knowing: emotions and personal experiences, creativity and aesthetic expression, theoretical apprehension and practical transformation. Critical subjectivity–or the awareness of the interrelations between these different ways of knowing–is complemented with critical intersubjectivity–the validation through "shared experience, dialogue, feedback, and exchange with others" (Heron and Reason, 1997, p. 283).

The ontology of the participatory paradigm is subjective-objective. "It is subjective because it is only known through the form the mind gives it; and it is objective because the mind interpenetrates the given cosmos which it shapes" (Heron in Heron and Reason, 1997, p. 279). Reality is the result of a co-creative dance between mind and the given cosmos. Participatory inquiry is about co-creating meaning and shaping our world.

The methodology of the participatory paradigm is manifest in many forms of collaborative action inquiry where "all involved engage together in democratic dialogue as coresearchers and as cosubjects" (p. 283). "For what purpose do we cocreate reality?" is the question that seeks to explore the values embraced by the participatory paradigm. "To change the world... participation implies engagement which implies responsibility.... Participatory research is thus essentially transformative" (Heron and Reason, 1997, p. 287-288).

The emerging world view that supports the participatory paradigm is essentially systemic, empowering, pluralistic, and egalitarian. It is based on feminist values, liberationist education, spirituality, ecology and supported by systems thinking and the sciences of complexity. "This world view sees human beings as cocreating their reality through participation: through their experience, their imagination and intuition, their thinking and their action" (Reason, 1994, p. 324).

Critical theory, feminist thought, and the participatory paradigm are areas of inquiry with a rich history and a valuable knowledge base that have much to offer to the advancement of ELC inquiry.

Assumptions of ELC Inquiry

The following are assumptions and beliefs that characterize ELC inquiry. They are derived from the knowledge base reviewed above and the implied values. These assumptions and beliefs are made explicit here as guidelines for the development of this line of inquiry.

ELC inquiry:

It is expected that as ELC inquiry evolves, so will these assumptions.



In order for education to catalyze the transformation of our contemporary dysfunctional social systems, the educational system has to be re-created. ELC is a proposal for a different educational system–a distributed learning system embedded in our communities, giving meaning to our daily lives, empowering us to make the choices that shape our social systems and our futures. It is an educational system concerned with the development of the human potential and the support of productive and enjoyable learning processes relevant for the evolution of our societies in harmony with the ecosystems that sustain our life. As E. Laszlo stated: (1991) "what our world needs... is... flexible and functional learning environments where people, young and old, can be exposed to concepts and ideas relevant to their present and to their future" (p. 92). The creation of these learning environments is the quest of ELC inquiry.





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