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Social Ecosystem Thinking


This section of the Ken Spours 2024 website on Social Ecosystem Thinking and Social Ecosystem Models comprises the following key concepts, each with their web pages.

Social Ecosystem Thinking outlines the overall ethical and intellectual approach used to conceptualise the dialectical human/nature relationship.  Natural ecosystem characteristics (e.g. interdependence, balance and resilience) - are transferred and adapted to the human and social worlds to help imagine new ways of social organisation beyond the neoliberal market and top-down managerialism.   In turn, these nature-related concepts, increased awareness and collaborative governance can be used to redirect human attention back onto the climate/nature crisis and the mission of transitioning towards Net Zero.


Social Ecosystem Model Version 1 (SEM 1) and a place-based approach to skills - SEM 1 details the dynamic between Working, Living and Learning, has expanded the established 'Skills Ecosystem' approach by focusing on skills development with the additional area of sustainable living, thus linking skills development to a 'sense of place' and beyond the workplace.  

SEM and Cities - here SEM 1 has been applied to a study of urban environments


Social Ecosystem Version 2 (SEM 2) and the Just Transition - SEM 2 has been created to conceptualise the expansion and acceleration of the Just Transition that links a rapid movement to carbon net zero with social and climate justice.  SEM 2 suggests that an effective Just Transitioning process requires the alignment of multiple layers of 45-degree mediation - common ecological and social mission, societal strategies for green economic transitions, key roles of organic intellectuals and mediating institutions, the mobilisation of an alliance of social forces, and assisted by socialised artificial intelligence.  In terms of classical Gramscian theory, this could be seen as the construction of a 'Just Transition Historical Bloc'.

45-degree change model, SET and SEM - the synergist dynamics of Social Ecosystem Thinking (SET) and the Social Ecosystem Models of change (SEM 1 and 2) are analysed within the wider dynamic of the 45-degree social-political-economy-ecology framework.  The relationship between the fundamental dimensions of power - horizontalities, verticalities and 45-degree mediation - extends key components of Gramscian political theory and activity - notably the analysis of historical blocs and the role of organic intellectuals and combinational knowledge production that brings together advanced vertical/specialist and horizontal/general thinking to form what is termed the 'Organic Intellect'. 


Social Ecosystem Thinking - holistic ways of conceptualising learning, governance and transitioning

Social Ecosystem Thinking (SET) conceptualizes nature and human society in an interconnected and holistic way.  SET as a form of 'system thinking' is of growing importance due to the increasing complexities of economies and society, the challenges for governance, understanding changes in state and civil society and, crucially, growing existential threats such as the climate emergency.  In the Age of the Anthropocene, a focus on the interdependence of human behaviours and environmental factors aims to create resilient, adaptive and ultimately, transformed human systems.   

SET also comes with a progressive set of values.  Far from the Darwinian interpretation of natural evolution and the survival of the fittest, SET is associated with concepts of human interdependency, collaboration, organic growth and sustainability.  These values, and the form of connective and holistic thinking being developed to support them, have the potential to create ways of thinking about progressive transitioning.  SET can be thus be seen to give us back the ideal of a sustainable and fair future that humans can shape; an alternative to the pessimism of neoliberalism that promises only the market.  In this sense, SET can also be understood as a green and democratic version of post-capitalist thinking.

Distinction between the terms 'ecology' and 'ecosystem'

The terms ‘ecologies’ and ‘ecosystems’ have traditionally been associated with the natural world to refer to dynamic interactions between plants, micro-organisms, animals and their environment.  Observations of these natural environments have led to the development of a number of abstract concepts to explain how they function.  The concepts of ecologies and ecosystems have been variously described as complex and dynamic systems that work together as a functioning unit, with interdependent relationships and processes of adaption, stasis, balance and development.  In recent decades, and in response to challenges of complexity, ecological and ecosystem thinking has spread from its origins in observations of the dynamics of the natural world and conservation to metaphors used to reflect on the dynamics of human societies (e.g. public life and private enterprise, child development, education and social care, entrepreneurialism, technological and business development and now to the wider world of governance and politics).


At this point, it may be helpful to make a distinction between the terms 'ecologies' and 'ecosystems'.  In earlier work, Prof. Ann Hodgson and I referred to 'ecologies' as representing a set of interdependent relations in any particular setting.  The condition of the ecology could exist in a variety of conditions - healthy/unhealthy, balanced/imbalanced.   Used this way, the term 'ecologies' is descriptive - describing inter-connected relations.  'Ecosystem', on the other hand, is seen as possessing particular qualities that can lead to dynamic human developments.  The term ecosystem is also often preceded by a descriptor (e.g. high skill ecosystems or inclusive social ecosystems).  

Ecosystem thinking - four stages of development

In an earlier Discussion Paper (Hodgson and Spours, 2016) we suggested that ecosystem thinking could be seen to be evolving through four stages of development - see Figure below.

Stage 1. Observation of natural ecosystems

This stage has involved an increased understanding of the dynamics of natural ecologies - spaces and habitats – with a particular interest in the concept of ‘ecological resilience’. This original conceptualisation of the natural world remains the most widely understood use of the concept of ecological/ecosystem in the minds of the public and, for this reason, we do not explore it further here.  But, as explained later, SET does not abandon natural ecosystem thinking.  Rather, it places the natural world within a more holistic and sustainable mode of human thinking.

Stage 2. Ecosystem metaphors for complex human activity


The use of the abstract understandings generated in Stage 1 have been metaphorically applied to an ever-expanding range of human and organisational activity, for example, child development and special needs (e.g. Bronfenbrenner, 1979), communication and information systems (e.g. Nardi and O’Day, 1999), business innovation (e.g. Bollier, 2000), deliberative governance (e.g. Hajer and Wagenaar, 2003), regional skills development (e.g. Finegold, 1999; Buchanan, 2006) and higher education, learning and professionalism (e.g. Barnet, 2010).  

Stage 3. Building  theories of social, economic, skills and technological development

Running in parallel with Stage 2 has been the emergence of more extensive applications of social ecological/ecosystem thinking that arguably take the concept beyond its metaphorical use into a theoretical realm.  Two stand out.  First, was the work of David Finegold (1999) and his identification of four dimensions of techno-economic development that could lever a region or national economy from a ‘low skills equilibrium’ to a ‘High Skills Ecosystem’.  Second, was the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner that viewed child development within a set of nested ecologies across four scalars - micro, meso, exo and macro.  Both of these theoretical developments have been adapted to function within the SEM versions.

Stage 4. Social ecosystems as post-capitalist societal transitioning

Emerging out of Stage 3, social ecosystems can be seen as located within the history of human development and its forms of social and economic organisation (e.g. Laloux, 2014); associated with new democratic forms of governance particularly at the local and regional levels (e.g. Hodgson and Spours, 2012); and as an aspect of new social and networked political organisations (e.g. Adnan, 2016; Spours, 2016) and now the Just Transition (Spours, 2021).  Taken together, these can be viewed as forms of post-capitalist thinking.

The figure above illustrates these stages in a nested relationship insofar as each advancement of the ecosystem concept still retains within it some elements of an earlier phase.  These nested and interdependent relationships between the phases of ecosystem thinking recognise that any advancement of conceptualisation is always hybridised and never entirely loses its original relationship with the natural world. Moreover, within Stages 3 and 4, selective continued use of the metaphorical device may be useful to aid public understanding of complex system issues.  

Moving beyond the metaphor - a social ecosystem theoretical framework (Stage 3)

The use of conceptual metaphors (the Greek root means to transfer or to carry) is widely recognised as an aid to human cognition by using images of concrete things as a bridge to understanding the abstract.  Metaphors also transfer meanings across discourses arising out of an interplay of scientific and popular meanings.  In doing so they can slip between rigorous and speculative meanings.  The ecosystem metaphor can be regarded as a robust ‘correlational metaphor’ in which the complexities of the human version relate to the complex processes of the ecosystem of the natural world.  


At the same time, in the metaphorical transfer from the natural to the human and social world, certain meanings change.  For example, in ecological thinking about the natural world, the emphasis has been on resilience and adaptation, whereas in the social and human world, the emphasis is on growth and development.  There comes a point, therefore, that the gap between the original world and the new one becomes too big for the plausible continuation of transfer.  In this situation, the metaphor moves from being ‘correlational’ to ‘analogous’.   In this weakened condition, the metaphor has to be either developed further or retired.  All social ecosystem developments represent a move from the metaphorical to the theoretical stage (Stage 3). 

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