System World versus Living World?

I hear and read it everywhere: the living world set against the system world. But this cultivated dichotomy undermines a successful approach to complex societal challenges. I prefer to think in 'living systems'.
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Sep 19, 2022

By Petra de Boer

Civil servants are encouraged to step out of their system world to join the daily living environment of citizens, of ‘real’ people. But I don’t like the opposition of system world versus living world at all. In search of the origin of these concepts, I came across the enlightening (Dutch) article Systeem- en leefwereld: hoe de kloof te dichten by Dutch researcher Wouter Mensink (Sociale Vraagstukken, 2015). The classification appears to come from the German philosopher Habermas. As early as the 1980s, he made a distinction between a ‘political-economic system’ on the one hand and a ‘communicative environment’ on the other.

At the beginning of this century, cultural psychologist Jos van der Lans is one of the disseminators of this concept in the Netherlands. He describes it this way: “The system world is everything that people have developed in institutions and structures in areas such as economics, politics, education, science, government, health care, welfare state, etc. etc. An extremely disparate collection of systems and subsystems. The living world is the domain of experience in which people interact with each other inside and outside the systems”.

That’s clear, but so what? I admit, making the dichotomy explicit has made it painfully visible that we have exaggerated in focusing on systems, procedures, and protocols. Due to this, we have lost sight of the day-to-day experiences of ordinary citizens. But now what?

Self-fulfilling prophecy

When you put on your coat after breakfast, cycle to the office and sit behind your desk, have you now moved from the living to the system world? During your working day, are you no longer a person of flesh-and-blood, with experiences, needs and dreams, and with family and friends who live their lives just like you? Do you suddenly become a professional outsider who can only think in structures and systems designed to order and control society?

I don’t think it works that way, or at least it shouldn’t work that way. Like Mensink, I believe that emphasizing the gap between the systems and the living world has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we talk about it, the more we believe in it, the more both imaginary worlds drift apart from each other. And that’s exactly what we don’t want. What to do?

Living systems

When it comes to complex social challenges – think for example of elderly care, the energy transition, poverty alleviation, agricultural reforms – it is much more useful to think in terms of ‘living systems’. A living system as an interplay of actors and factors in relation to the challenge at hand. So not only people, but also organizations, resources, opinions, activities, and relationships that influence each other and are mutually interdependent. Complex adaptive systems that are constantly on the move, in search of a new balance.

By looking at it this way, we are suddenly all in it together. Administrators and policymakers living in the same world as ordinary citizens. Regular people who are not only interested in adequate solutions that meet their needs, but who are also experts by experience. And don’t forget the professionals in the workplace – think of nurses, engineers, aid workers and farmers. With their feet on the ground, they have specific expertise that is indispensable for solutions that do not only appear good on paper, but that can also work in practice.

When we start thinking in terms of living systems, we no longer look at the living world from the system world or vice versa. This way we can also put the us versus them thinking behind us. We can look at the situation together with all stakeholders, each from their own perspective. We may thus recognize divergent interests and distinctive roles within the living system that we form together. We can take advantage of the diversity to understand what is really going on, so that we can take responsibility for the transformations that are needed together.

Because I have experienced in the processes that we have facilitated that a living system with people of flesh and blood can only change itself. To do that, it must first learn to look at itself, as supposed to being fixated on ‘the other’.

Your perspective?

Is the distinction between the living and the system world still valuable for you? Or do you have an issue in mind that would benefit from a systemic approach? I’m curious about your perspective!