Yoland Wadsworth, Victoria Regional Meeting.

Why can’t we create a world which is much more on the side of routinely ‘giving life’? And much less on the side of diminishing or damaging it?–Whether within us as individuals, or between us within groups, or within and between our Quaker Meetings, or outside them. How can we better ‘inquire our way’ to the Greater Life we seek?

This is an edited extract from the Prologue of Yoland Wadsworth’s book Building in Research and Evaluation: Human Inquiry for Living Systems (Action Research Press Hawthorn, Allen & Unwin Sydney 2010)

What would a more life-giving system look like?

It seems a very good place to start would be by stopping, stepping back and getting a bit of perspective on what kind of ‘system’ might indeed be more life-giving than the one we have. In an uncannily timely manner, a whole new way of thinking about the world and the properties of living systems appears to be emerging or ‘called forth’ from many different directions. Although still dimly perceived by many, some of it, ironically, reflects some very ancient wisdom, now converging with some breath-taking new knowledge from physics, biology, mathematics, engineering, psychology and sociology in a transdisciplinary picture that may promise to give not just hitherto elites but all of us a whole new way of thinking about ‘how we can be with each other’ and our worlds.

A way of being-and-doing that is more perennially alive, lively and life-giving—more full of promise, more reliable and more satisfying than our current ways. Indeed having the characteristics of ‘life’ itself. What a good idea!

And what would a more life-enhancing system of inquiring look like?

By taking a magnifying glass to ‘the system’, we begin to detect a vast web of energised micro-interactions between us (and everything else) including all the daily familiar highly interpersonal and environmental inquiry interactions—what we notice, pick up on, see and hear and say to each other, all our inner and outer conversations to make sense of it all, how we feel, what we conclude from our experiences, what we remember, what we think and don’t think, what we know, believe, value, expect and not expect, what we speak up about, and what we remain silent about, how we draw conclusions and reach new ones, and then calculate, decide, plan and try out the new implications: what we actually do next, and where we go, who with and why.

It is in these busy buzzing micro-inquiry actions that may be seen slowly, over time, to build up to comprise more (or less) viable exchanges and patterns for achieving our various desires or purposes—or not. Indeed ‘the system’ appears to turn out, in important ways, to comprise what seems like the highly ‘individual and personal’ in the here and now—but which gets writ larger and constituted as the patterns of social activities of groups, organisations and ‘the collective’. And these in turn get writ larger still as communities, institutions, societies, international ‘globalities’, epochs, the cosmos and history.Gazing from a distance at the staggering bee-swarms of earthly humanity, we can consider the prospects for us getting enough insight into ourselves and others to ‘build’—within the micro-relations of the human beeswarm—sufficient critical mass for more systemic mutual ‘intelligence’, wisdom and better directions. Or not.

I look at research and evaluation, its methodologies, designs and techniques in this new way, using the metaphor of the house as a way of looking at how they might better be built in to contribute to and reflect a more comprehensive life-giving dynamic emergent system. I note particularly how we all have all the capacities–the ‘gifts differing’–necessary for life-giving taking in of information, processing it and acting mindfully on it. In addition most of us show preferences for some rather than others of these capabilities, particularly where the systemic scale is larger. Overall, the human species seems to have the potential to cover the ‘whole territory’ in order to remain in less turbulent dynamic balance. But why don’t we always practise all capabilities in a more integrated and balanced way, as we could?

See Figure 1 for a diagram of the way that dynamic inquiry for living systems is depicted in the book.

emergent inquiry diagram



What is at the heart of really human services, and really human research and evaluation?

The question now moves from how we inquire to why— and the ‘For who or for what?’ that drives, or is intended to drive, all this inquiry—and why things could ever go wrong. And what a living systems approach might have to say about how research and evaluation can assist these human service purposes, in this instance, of responding or caring. How is a living human system responsive? How does it ‘take care’? And why then would it ever do harm? How do we lose our way? How do we end up displacing our goals from care to not-care? How do we move from responding in order to preserve and nurture life, to damaging and denying life? And how do we reverse or counter this unwanted systemic tendency? How might we more routinely resource the life of each, each other and all?

What do organisations that have ‘built in’ research and evaluation look like?

Finally I describe ten examples of people and organisations who have worked to build in cultures of more or less effective everyday research and evaluation in order that they might become more truly living systems, able to respond with life-enhancing purposes. I draw out from these ten exemplars and more than twenty years of their experience, the conditions that seem to have maintained more ‘hale and hearty’ human individual, group and organisational systems, ones which can recover more quickly from When Things Go Wrong. I end with some concluding words and an Annotated bibliography of concepts and methods related to living systems research and evaluation that might throw further light on the various ideas in this book. (These are available on a website LivingSystemsResearch.com)

Finally, the thinking in this book claims a much wider sphere of relevance than just the world of human services’ research, evaluation and continuous quality improvement. Its concerns and ideas go beyond those of services such as health, housing, education, community, recreation and welfare to how to contribute to a more life-giving world in general. These wider domains include all other service industries and areas of human endeavour—productive and sustainable economies, collective decision-making politics, hospitality, entertainment, the arts, architecture, information technology, engineering, law, business, design, management, government, religion and spirituality, agriculture, developing countries and the natural, grown or built environments. In doing so it also goes beyond the narrow professional areas of research and evaluation and continuous organisational improvement to all effective human inquiry and feedback systems as such.

All these comprise a much wider view of humankind’s ability, potentially, to build in better inquiry and feedback processes throughout its large living human systemicities, with a vision of doing so in aid of more viable ‘being, doing and becoming’, including by all living beings. I think the need is now urgent if we, in sufficient critical mass, are to crack the puzzle of our paradoxical species, and for the contemporary iteration, not take our place as yet another collapsed civilisation, ecosphere or worse.

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