natural system research & design science


     Reading Nature's Signals

     Research archive

     Publications list

My work has given me an amazing experience, discovering ways in which the natural systems of our environment work very different from how people generally explain them, only to also find people responding as if to say "Why are you talking to me?", as if that couldn't have anything to do with them!  ... oh well, I seem to have stumbled on a larger than usual gap in our perception.

Still, it seems central to why our environmental solutions have been creating even bigger problems for several decades now, and why the world expert community still models the earth has having space for infinite economic growth at the same time as scarcities cause world resource crises of many kinds at once.    So, Why I'm talking to you, is because we need to get it straight.     can help you sort all this out.    Jessie 

scientist Jessie Lydia Henshaw   - [bio] [CV]
John A Blackmore - [bio] [CV] to 2011
One of the core principles for observing how environments work is that every event, large or small, fast or slow, either a blink of an eye or the emergence of a new form of technology, can generally be found to begin with a local explosion of energy use and organizational development.   It's a sort of "law of spontaneity" for ordinary natural events, missing from our familiar explanations.   I discovered it using physics models to closely observe individual events in uncontrolled environments, and found it a big help for discovering the self-managing systems we rely on, that also "make life lively".    Scientists do recognize that universal rules do not help explain much of what nature actually does, but... one can only conclude they remain in great denial about the need to study individual uncontrolled events to understand them...

So...both scientific and popular explanations, like those for economics and sustainable design, tend to treat the information available as determining the events we see.  That overlooks the information unavailable, of course, such as the roles and workings of the self-organizing and self-managing behaviors we also rely on.   The error of having the wrong terms of discussion is far bigger than just the scale of overlooked data, of course, but for measuring energy needs of business, the error is commonly 500%, because nominally 80% of business energy use required by the self-managing services that businesses employ (SEA).      



Consulting on Natural Systems (2008 notes)
Learning Methods for Designers, Scientists, Engineers & Organizations:  Creative observation and thinking about developing complex natural system relationships
; 4Dsustainability method of design;
 Systems Thinking - Sustainable Design    Whole Systems Engineering - Whole system measures
Housekeeping Tips  -  Personal Note

A culture is a natural system that is constantly learning.   You can create "value for free" by working with the cultures of a place, find complementary features and avoid lines of conflict.    It's a matter of supporting the learning process of your problem solvers, discovering the cultures of the place you are working and take part in their learning.   Mental and theoretical models are important for lots of things, like diagramming a place as an overlay of different cultures with an image of what each is learning, to then look back at the real place to discover the next richer image.   Look for trends and where they'll end, as they all do.   Assemble a diversity of measures of the whole effect you intend, maintain adaptability, understand the graceful response to limits. 

The catch for engaging with natural systems,… is you need to see them first. You do it by learning to watch the weaving of their intermittent flows, shared use of paths, their mediums of exchange, and finally to recognize that most natural systems, like cultures, are really organized something like cellular organisms.

Have an important problem or solution, and wondering about its environment?  Environments are both full of surprises tend to respond unexpectedly to interventions, somewhat as if living organisms in their own right.  Most choices are made  based on an assumed environment and an assumed problem, glossing over many of the opportunities and hazards of intervening in a complex world.   My work is about a reliable method for watching developmental change to help understand the nature of the environment one is working with. 

Most 'right answers' come from patiently discovering the right questions so the first step is to look for the right question.  Don't say "I don't understand".  That's not a question.  Say "what's happening" or "what's this about", and poke around the history of local changes to begin spying their connections.   It's a matter of coming to understand what else is using your environment that exposes what can invent with it as well as the hazards and conflicts you need to see coming and to avoid.   You may even find some things worth engaging with as if finding a new dance partner.  

Services:   I offer help for exploring and interacting with the continuities of change in complex natural systems.   What I design are model learning processes and measure systems, both for exploring complex natural systems and creating complex natural systems.   I'm also engaged in a variety of basic research on sustainability science and consult on research methods.   Below is some discussion of the following four areas my methods can help with.     Please inquire.  Eco at / Phil Henshaw 

How to Think  -  4DSustainability Learning & Design  -  Systems Engineering  -  Whole systems measures

Ask for an introductory seminar related to your current questions


02/20/08Creative Systems Thinking - 'How to Think' 501
... notes in process

there's a wonderful New Yorker article on watching the brain develop 'strokes of genius', suggesting strategy of reaching an impasse with the left brain so the right brain has a challenge to search for something to complete... 

a nice quote: Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.    Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.

the most influential discovery of science was observing that energy only adds or subtracts.  The term used is 'conserved'.  Conservation is the physical property that makes arithmetic and the study of flows and change possible.   It's that discovery of how to understand energy mathematically that creates energy as a resource for us.    Most other things in nature that are conserved are conserved only temporarily, previously making them seem uninteresting to science, but when asking the right questions can provide shockingly useful bits of new insight, possibly as a new way of questioning the behavior of our world, as important a discovery as energy.    Fairly simple observation often can tell you when change is being conserved or not, just by noticing if it's accumulative, and whether it's higher degrees of change are changing direction accumulatively.    It's a highly sensitive indicator of the presence of local explosive developmental process in complex systems, the path-making of natural systems of relationships.    They're notable trait is that what is going on in them just 'adds up'.    You can use that to watch where and how.

Creative thinking is not just about pushing your creativity, but also to wonder about the push and how it defines the direction of your experiments.   So often where things lead is how they begin, and revisiting beginnings as you go along may suggest new beginnings that were first ignored.   What you need is a regular practice of exploratory questioning, one that makes a safe way to keep asking what might occasionally seem like unsafe questions.


 4Dsustainability Wiki Workspace  (archive & notes)
02/20/08 I use a comprehensive 'four dimension' (4D) whole systems sustainable design method. You start with small easy steps that build.   It's based on the universal learning process, searching 'outside the box' for what to put 'in the box', including leads for going further, and then adding up the whole effect.  Used for design it's a matter of exploring inside and outside the way you've defined the design problem.  It helps get the problem right as well as the solution.  It helps find creative new kinds of value.   A Connection Wiki  templates and guides for adaptation to any team's level of expertise for  how they envision their collaboration process.  It's  meant as much to prompt discussion of one's collaboration design as to suggest a specific template.   My early one page hand sketch of the central idea might also be suggestive.  My one page project sustainability sheet shows another way to diagram how all the pieces fit together.   Its a flexible method intended to create a wide array of good choices and encourage featured sustainable design experiments, 'bright green spots'.     Because of the DollarShadow principle, that Money = Energy, one of the best parts of real sustainable design, is finding that it creates real value for free.


  1. Solving the defined problem in the box (systems)
         Getting the problem right, efficiency & generosity
    ntegrating controlled and uncontrolled systems
  2. Exploring undefined environments and communities (relations)
    odeling environmental change
    ngaging the natural systems and communities with a stake in the place
  3. Creating 'bright green' features for fun and to express the vision (long reaches)
  4. Designing from the project's total balance of impacts (make it whole)
           Setting Targets & Compensations
           Life cycle impact inventory

Collaborative Organization:

  1. Design team Building Information Model
           Connecting display & analysis platforms
           Quantitative / Qualitative cost model
            Shared with building & Operations team
  2. Stakeholder Team Wiki Discussion Environment


 Engineering Natural Systems   
02/20/08 What's initially most different and difficult about engineering with natural systems, be it large scale planning or self-adapting software and controls, is recognizing the line between opportunities for controlling things, and the parts of independent complex systems that need to remain beyond control.   The latter need to be recognized as independent and treated with respect.   Things beyond control, and living systems of all kinds that are owed our respect inherently, need to be avoided or engaged with.  That's partly because their internal workings can't be explained, and so part of the trick is learning to feel natural responding to them.    It's a small but significant role change to interact with systems that have always had their own independent behaviors,  which we may never have noticed before.    Like a handshake, engaging with the world beyond our control requires taking the role of one of two independent homing devices recognizing each other.   Like a person-to-person handshake, it simply can't go smoothly using a statistical model of where the other party's 'hand' is supposed to be.   It takes active dynamic coordination between independent things, recognizing the emergence on new behavior, and connecting with it.

Our principle handicap, of course, is our inability to recognize how natural systems develop their organization.   The best way to learn is to study their whole life-cycles, and from repeated observation find the patterns of the whole behavior.   Why we find it hard seems mainly that emergent organization is a pattern of changing organization in time.   People prefer to think of organization as fixed in time, like rules.  In nature the 'rules' tend to be fluidly changing.    That's seems why we generally don't see things like continually multiplying the size and complexity of the economies as changing their organization, or their relation to the earth, for example.   It's a tragic oversight as we are just now beginning to see.   A method of raising pointed questions about how organization changes with development provides a way to see reorganization coming.    It exposes the beginning of emergence,  and learning paths for understanding how to respond.    It connects what we can observe of their their developing internal networks with their growth phases.  

Another handicap comes directly from nature.   Natural systems are local network cells of relationships that evolve as individuals, so consequently we begin our observation of them quite 'out-of-the-loop' and unable to see what's hidden or happening inside.  Their organization is a kind of 'dark matter' for observers because it's so internalized.    In a substantive way they do represent independent interior universes of relationships.   It's not a trivial challenge to break in, but having tools that tell you when and were to look helps a lot.    What you need are a combination of scientific observational discipline, free thinking, intimate knowledge of the details, and to be in a frame of mind for seeing through your own assumptions.   A brief but good sketch of the scientific foundations of the model  is on my short research note page for the SASO-07 conference, PICS.htm. and in my research web Physics of Happening.

 Whole System Measures

03/15/09 Central to all work with complex systems that behave as a whole are ways to measure them that don't misrepresent their continuity and complexity.  Complex system measure theory is central to all the above topics and my work in other areas too, and so discussion of its details of the measure theory I've developed is (unfortunately) scattered all over my site. One main focus is on measures that show their learning processes, so you can see when one learning process within a whole system is taking off and another is lagging.  Such measures treat change as a qualitative indicator, like taking someone's temperature.  Such measures themselves don't mean much, but can be highly informative about the experience of the patient as a whole.  One also needs to do the same thing with the environment the system in interacting with, have measures that show when the environment is learning new things and when it's traditional responses are lagging.    

A second main focus in on whole system impact measures, how small changes impact large things, and vis--vis.  The main issue is whether effects of one thing multiply or dissipate when their effects spread, as first one then the other are characteristic of the starting phases of development for all kinds system changes.  First small changes have multiplying effect and then dissipating effect.  For that, say introducing a new efficiency, different people have different questions they are trying to ask, some about profit others about impact, and both need to know which sort of environment the new efficiency will be part of.   That aspect of a business environment is one of the most changeable and least studied.  Many things that are expected to have one effect will have large "rebound effects" of unexpected reverse consequences because of our general misunderstanding of the developmental environmental responses.

A third focus in on whole system impact measures, which begins with drawing the boundary big enough and then strategically estimating the totals by an exhaustive search within that boundary for what to include.   The standard example that shows the importance of that approach is measuring the energy content of ordinary goods and services.   If you search for all the energy consumed in producing, delivering and using them you'll miss entirely all the contributing but unaccountable amounts consumed all over the globe!   To estimate that usual large undercount you need another step.   Exhaustive search from "inside" the information the network needs to be combined with exhaustive search "outside" too.  Here it's quite simple, but often done because it's conceptually confusing.   What you need to do to get the most truthful measure of the scale of energy content of any product is combine the accountable part with it's attributable share of the average global total.  If the direct information you have is 600btu and the attributable global share (indirect information) is 1200btu, how they overlap might imply that the total is most likely 1000btu.   LCA measures notably have this problem.   This  kind of analysis is also needed to determine the true value of resource investments, and the increasing costs of their natural diminishing returns due to depletion, unexpected rebound effects and things. The one difference is the need to reconstruct not only their present but changing responsiveness to exploitation, or ROI and its derivatives over time.  It's less important to have a definitive analysis than to clearly and carefully ask the right whole question.  Asking the whole question right is often the answer.
see also:
DollarShadow effect and Simplified Whole System EROI and Lines of Sustainability


. `.

Housekeeping Tips:


  • keep good dated records and observations, since the subject is  the parallel flows of accumulating events, and the main indicator of what's connected is when it occurred.    Undisturbed piles are good dated records, like all of history...

  • In correspondence, mostly just say things plainly, with simple warmth an color, but don't explain.   I do enjoy worrying out a problem, but there's no way to do that with email, because explanation requires a context or perspectives.   If I don't get it on the first pass I'll  miss things almost entirely.
  • Any systematic mapping of any domain, like 'all the pencils in an office', produces a direct image of the whole system of the domain that can be explored for how it displays patterns of the whole.  To make it valid you just need to make the 'all' part real, because that brings out the process of feeling around all the corners and edges of the feature you're using to help you explore the system.


A personal note.   

For nearly everyone the explosion of mankind, and how we are disrupting the complex systems of the earth, is going to be a real object lesson in humility.  We might as well try to be good to each other, curious about what's happening, and not panic.    In physical process terms, leaving it to nature to control our growth is colliding our systems with nature's with the maximum humanly achievable force, speed and acceleration.   It is causing a very large mutual 'splash' of impacts.   That human minds can make things mean literally whatever we like, sometimes fools us into thinking it changes what they physically do.   It doesn't.  The two 'worlds' are simply not built the same way, almost as if the special thing about being human is living in a dream world .    We will stumble on that over and over.    I'm not immune to all the usual kinds of errors either.   

Still, my way of observing and questioning seems to let me experience the complexly changing natural subjects I study in a different way, allowing me to find rich meaning in what's physically real, connecting my human world with nature's.   It amounts to a way to find better questions, more like being suggestible in a way than doing exceedingly complex analysis.    Learning to observe change emerging in natural systems accelerates their becoming 'second nature' to you.   Nature does not work by explaining things, but by doing them.    It can be a tremendously simplifying step.   You shouldn't take my ideas to imitate though, agreements can be as free as magic, but make your own connection with what's physically happening around us.   The main path is the one you make your own!  7/13/07 1/5/08

. `.

Why  ??
It symbolizes the most primitive practical structure, stuff leaned together.