Whole Systems Approach to Ecological Design


Excerpt from the Ecological Design dimension of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability

Before looking at applied and tested solutions in the areas of energy, food, water, and building, it is essential to explore and understand a whole systems framework for design that reminds us to link products, to buildings, to communities, industrial systems, cities, bioregions and into national and global collaboration. Design for sustainability is about creating synergies between these different scales of design. Design for sustainability aims to optimise the health of the whole system for the long-term benefit of all participants in the systems, rather than maximising a particular aspect of the system to the short-term benefit of only a few. Building a globalised sustainable and regenerative human presence on Earth is about decentralising and localising our intimate relationship with the uniqueness of place and the specific bio-cultural conditions of each bioregion and each ecosystem. This process will require global collaboration and knowledge exchange, or “Cosmopolitan Localism”.

Starting from the concept of “Building Cultures of Sustainability” or as Daniel Wahl expresses it “Designing Regenerative Cultures”, this section covers the “big picture”. As opposed to detailed design concepts, we look at some broad philosophies and principles of ecological design. This involves looking at the whole system within which we carry out our lives and affect the world through the specific design decisions we take and implement.

The International Futures Forum has developed a World Systems Model(WSM) in response to our ‘conceptual emergency’, which looks at the linkages between key aspects of our world, within a whole system. The 12 nodes of the WSM connect twelve critical elements of a viable and thriving human system (Hodgson, 2012).

The model can be used as a question generator and whole systems thinking framework. It has been design so to be applied to the scale of communities, cities, bioregions, countries or for the planet as a whole. Healthy, regenerative and mutually supportive relationships between all the elements at any one scale affect the health and sustainability of the system at all other scales.

To give an example of how the model functions as a question generator that invites systemic thinking, imagine you are asked to design a water system using a whole systems approach. You can use the World Systems Model to explore the connections of your task with the other elements of a viable system and thereby find synergies which may also meet needs in other elements of the system. How does you water system affect and interact with the flow patterns of ecosystems and the biosphere? Are you creating a water solution with positive impact on climate regulation and the health of the biosphere? Will your solution influence the need for important from afar and could it also be of use elsewhere (trade)? How does it help to increase the resilience and wellbeing of the local community? What are the energy demands of your solution and where does this energy come from? Is there an educational (worldview) component to the solution being more widely adopted or used appropriately? Can the water system be optimised in ways that support food production? How does our system relate to current policies, regulations and guidelines (governance)?

Applying the WSM as a tool for whole systems design can help us to create integrated regenerative design solutions, which take all elements of a viable human system into account. Each one of the 64 connecting lines invites us to explore the relationship between different elements and all of them together take us closer to making wise decisions as we are faced with complex challenges. The conceptual emergency humanity is facing invites all of us to learn the art of whole systems thinking and design.

WHAT HAS BECOME CLEAR through many years of practice is that a whole systems approach to ecological design cannot be one singular approach, but has to be a expressed through a diversity of related and mutually supportive design-based frameworks and practices that function a little bit like a diversely equipped toolbox which offers different approaches or tools for different problems.

We need to see the diversity of permaculture, cradle to cradle, industrial ecology, restorative design, bio-inspired design, transition and regenerative design and other approaches as a strength of the overall impulse to create a systemic response to multiple converging crises and find a path towards a more sustainable and regenerative human presence on Earth.


Many of us feel that our current consumer lifestyles are no longer sustainable nor desirable, on a personal to global level and that our ecological systems appear to edge closer and closer towards collapse, but we believe that more sustainable or regenerative ways of living our lives are possible, feasible and viable, but what are these alternative ways of living? In trying to Design for Sustainability we seek to consciously reinvent ecological living from the ground up, honing in on aspects such as sustainable production and consumption, regenerative agriculture and food production, appropriate technologies for water and energy systems, green and sustainable building and construction, and weaving all together through whole systems and regenerative design approaches and methods to achieve one planet living design and development outcomes.

NOTE: Gaia Education’s online course in Design for Sustainability offers you an opportunity to learn practical effective ways to create the change we all seek in your community. The Ecological Design dimension of the course starts on 2nd January 2018 and there are a limited amount of places left for this year, so sign up now.

The material for this dimension was originally compiled by Christopher Mare, one of the founding members of the GEESE (Global Ecovillage Educators for a Sustainable Earth). The Ecological Design contents were revised in 2016 by Gaia Education’s head of innovation and design Daniel Wahl. Some of the material was created with contributions from Ezio Gori, who also mentors the Ecological dimension and the Design Studio of the online course.


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