Related article at Forbes.
©2012 Andrea Morisette Grazzini
As it turns out, thriving social systems act a lot like healthy trees.
Both “ends” of a tree—like human social systems—serve complementary roles as both “vessels” that contain growth producing materials, and “venues” or places where more growth can emerge from.
Translated into social life, what this means is that both the tips — meaning the visible leaders in business, media, politics and community realms, and the roots — meaning the less visible networks of people whose work or lives aren’t as attention-getting: like employees, teachers, volunteers and home focused family members– contribute to, and indeed are all critical agents of a healthy common system. That is, when and if they are connected together by mutually-supportive systems.
Think of the “architecture” of a tree. Featuring a visible, vertical trunk from which grows large branches that in turn support smaller branches and leaves. All are living or “animate.” And all also interact with inanimate variables such as weather, native habitat and ecological environment. Without all of which, there would be no tree. But we often forget what we don’t see: namely, the tree’s roots. Also without which there would be no tree! The deep, horizontally branched networks of roots keep the tree standing by structurally mirroring below ground what’s above ground.
So, both visible vertical and hidden horizontal systems are interdependent, connected to each other by their shared trunk. And, indirectly to inanimate forces that directly impact the other.
Above ground wind-swept leaves capture and filter sun and rain, eventually floating to the ground, where they undergo entropic processing. As they die they turn into food or fertilizer for the tree that is absorbed back into the ground, and/or with seeds that germinate more trees. Below ground, meanwhile, roots branched through the soil capture moisture and minerals, “recycling” these through the trunk, back into the tree.
From Roots to Tips
So, then, what serves as the metaphorical “trunk” that connects the “tips” and “roots” of human social systems? Institutions, organizations, governments and public spaces that connect and unify the clearly visible leaders to equally as many or more invisible people, without whom leaders couldn’t build and grow social culture. Like a tree without roots, a social system not deeply connected with its roots won’t survive, thrive and nurture ongoing, future growth.
This co-constructed infrastructure, thus, functions effectively only when all ends of the social “tree” dynamically deliver their individually accessed but interdependently enriched and common resources.
When human “tips,” “roots” and the “trunk”-like entities and spaces that can bridge all together understand and enable the capacities of all parts as vital, they’ll grow integrally stronger, and, in time, in natural synch. This model echoes the themes of 2010 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom’s common pool resources.
For more on these themes, take a look at Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization by Adrian Bejan Adrian and J. Peder Zane.
Andrea Morisette Grazzini is a writer, consultant and participatory researcher. Her work has influenced numerous local, national and global conversations on cross-sector collaboration. She co-founded the tech-company Peoplenet Communications Corporation in 1993. And founded the cross-partisan initiative DynamicShift in 2009.