Of patterns and dancing: architecting ecosystems and bureaucracies

My personal journey into exploring a thread of thoughts, down that rabbit hole of bringing some very different worlds together

“A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein

Defy the disciplines. In spite of what you majored in, or what the textbooks say, or what you think you’re an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads.” —  Donella H. Meadows

When browsing my books, I came across my copy of “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, as well as a short german summary of Alexander’s complete work on patterns and of his ideas in “The Nature of Order”— and it struck me that there seems to be an obvious connection between Alexanders work and “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows (and the dance with systems that she so beautifully elicits).

And at the same time, it struck me how little I find of either one’s thinking in the two main fields I am usually working in —  innovation ecosystems and bureaucracies.

I have yet to come across literature that either combines Alexander’s work with “Thinking in Systems”, let alone applies both of them to the architecting of (innovation) ecosystems or bureaucracies. And yet I think there’s something about bringing these together. Let me explain why.

“The Nature of Order”: fundamental properties for architecting systems#

While “A Pattern Language” has its focus on over 200 patterns used to architect towns, buildings and to be applied to construction in general, Alexander’s work, especially the four-volume “The Nature of Order”, also goes into great lengths to outline general principles of “architecting systems”. Most prominently, this has been through his recent work on 15 fundamental properties of Wholeness (or good architecture)1 .23

15 fundamental properties (The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander)

Alexander’s approach to “architecting” (as a general discipline) but also the 15 principles can be applied in a much broader sense than just “Towns, Buildings and Construction”, and I am by far not the first one to make this observation.

But what I have not yet seen so far is “A Pattern Language” or the fundamental principles appear in the literature about innovation ecosystems, nor on bureaucracies and their reforms.

“Why are the 15 fundamental properties not applied to the design of innovation ecosystems or reforms of bureaucracies?”

I wonder why: If you look at the 15 fundamental properties in the context of innovation ecosystems or bureaucracies (which in itself are also very fascinating systems), you might instantly see how these properties could be applied to the design of either one and probably with a lot of added value.

So let’s first have a short look at the list of 15 properties:

  1. Levels of scale.
  2. Strong centres.
  3. Boundaries.
  4. Alternating repetition.
  5. Positive space.
  6. Good shape.
  7. Local symmetries.
  8. Deep interlock and ambiguity.
  9. Contrast.
  10. Gradients.
  11. Roughness.
  12. Echoes.
  13. The Void.
  14. Simplicity and Inner Calm.
  15. Not-separateness.

Of course, “wholeness” or “gradients” or “local symmetries” are not the language of bureaucrats, nor do they necessarily “ring a bell” with the language of innovation people who are more likely to talk about business impact, the economy and investments, or technology, impact and strategy.

But yet: there is a quality to the language of these fundamental properties that rings a bell with me. And as I recently summarised: “Language eats strategy, structure, and culture for breakfast”.

Let me illustrate this. On “Gradients”, Salingaros, in his “Unified Architectural Theory”[^4] writes :

Gradients represent controlled transitions. They provide a method of getting away from uniformity, because that is a non-adaptive state.”

Although a spatial principle, it can easily be applied to the design of a programme aimed at transforming an ecosystem, for example by deliberately applying the idea of a “funding gradient” to a programme, or by designing “interaction gradients” into the governance of the various elements of an ecosystem. And by doing so, our system will gain in resilience, will become more adaptive and less uniform.

The same goes for “Levels of scale” or “Echoes.” And we have not even thought about how “Deep interlock and ambiguity” could lead to stronger, more resilient ecosystems if “built-in” from the outset. Again Salingaros:

“Deep interlock and ambiguity are other strong ways of connecting. Forms interpenetrate to link together.[…] Two regions can interpenetrate […] which enables a transition from one region to another.”

Applied to policies governing such an innovation ecosystem, or a bureaucracy, this could mean to deliberately create a certain ambiguity and deep interlocks with goals and objectives, or structures— and thus naturally force the actors of these systems to go beyond their siloes, reach out into the ambiguity and the interlock, creating stronger connections in the process.

“Maybe deep interlock and ambiguity applied to bureaucracies and their was of working could create strong connections between siloes?

One could argue — and maybe even rightly so — that sound design of bureaucracies or innovation ecosystems will also take care of siloes, of uniformity or agility. But is it really possible, and at what price? Resilience can not be prescribed — nor can we impose our will upon a bureaucracy of silos without forcing our will upon the humans inside these siloes. But we can work with, and transform systems in ways that offer more opportunities for resilience building or cross-silo collaboration.

Says Donella H. Meadows:

“We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. […]  We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them”

Dancing in patterns — dancing with systems?#

Photo by Photo by Ahmad Odeh on  Unsplash

Although Christopher Alexander would not necessarily approve of this, I think that the 15 fundamental properties in itself are kind of a high-level pattern language — one that can be applied when we “dance with systems”.

Alexander’s 15 fundamental properties are a high-level pattern language that we can apply when ‘dancing with systems.’

And this is where I think we can bring the three worlds together. In an older article on the entrepreneurial state, Rainer Kattel once wrote:

As weird as it may sound, successful governments — entrepreneurial states — manage precisely that: they are able to create space for agility (taking risks and experimenting, responding to new challenges) and providing stability (minimising long-term risks and uncertainty).


Capacity for innovation in bureaucracy is about having the space — skills, networks, organisations — for both agility and stability.

This is “systems language” in its fullest. Here’s a thought: what happens if we start to apply Alexander’s fundamental properties as patterns when we design and transformation innovation ecosystems or bureaucracies? Could it help us in designing better versions of these systems, versions that are more resilient, systems that have a higher carrying capacity or more diversity?

At least for me, this is a very intriguing thought.


Edited for clarity and augmented with some additional material.

  1. The Fifteen Properties Are the Glue which Binds Wholeness Together, http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/ht-0/fifteen.htm (Accessed 12 July 2020) ↩︎

  2. The 15 Properties of Pattern Language, http://www.inverde.net/patterns.html (Accessed 12 July 2020) ↩︎

  3. ch. 11 (19). Christopher Alexander’s 15 Fundamental Properties.” In Unified Architectural Theory: Form, Language, Complexity — a Companion to Christopher Alexander’s “The Phenomenon of Life: the Nature of Order, Book 1”, 125–130. Portland, Oregon and Kathmandu, Nepal: Sustasis Foundation and Vajra Books, 2013. ↩︎


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