Civic practice for the city

Everything a city does – or does not do – is a result of our actions as citizens, community organizations, the business community and our public institutions. How each of us show up in the city affects how the city serves us, individually and collectively. (Remember the difference between the corporate ‘City’ government and the ‘city‘ habitat we build for ourselves.)

Back in September, in village in the city, I connected the work of Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea on the purpose of a village to the purpose of the city. The result was another a twist on what a city does for its citizens (a reminder of city purposes).

To show up well, in any of the roles we play in the city, we need to be conscious of our civic practice. After our basic survival needs are met, we engage in story and this feeds everything in the city, at every scale. Imagine the village again, where we share stories to ensure our collective survival. Our stories are also full of passion and they feed pride and identity. We will even battle and fight when our stories are threatened. In a village, we are called to be clear about our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable to each other, to be fair and just. As a village develops, we are also compelled to take action on what needs to be done, and be creative and entrepreneurial, allowing our drive to thrive to fuel us.  Eventually, we are able to see and learn and benefit from everyone’s contributions and gifts. The village becomes a place where we learn to live with conflicting truths and uncertainties, allowing us to live the ‘village’ everywhere. It is a place where we can integrate feeling and knowing, and simply be in awe of how the world works.

The Spiral reveals that there are layers of civic practice:

  1. Once our survival needs are met, we …
  2. Connect with each other through our stories. We belong to each other.
  3. Allow our stories to fuel our passion, feed our identity and pride as individuals and as a group.
  4. Seek clarity in our agreements with each other, and hold ourselves accountable, to be fair and just.
  5. Take action on what needs action, allowing our drive to be creative to serve us as opportunities arise.
  6. Look after each other, our diverse needs, and chase our diverse desires.
  7. Explore what’s necessary, natural and next, learning anywhere, everywhere with anyone.
  8. Integrate feeling and knowing, with radical optimism.

For the graphically inclined, here’s how they the layers of civic practice show up on the Spiral:

Civic practice spiral


How do you nurture your civic practice? How do you ensure you show up well for your city? 



Village in the city


The purpose of a village is also the purpose of a city. For Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, a village does many things at once: protects and looks after its inhabitants; feeds them and ensures the goods and services needed are on hand; supports the varied work of villagers so they can participate in community commerce; educates and initiates; governs with a social structure of shared mores; builds webs of identity and relationships; and grows the spirit of the place with traditions of meaning.

Baldwin, Linnea, what is a village and what does it do
Source – Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, What is a village and what does it do?

A village is doing many things at once, each of which connects to the story, the heart, of a place. The story is what connects and binds us to each other and is a foundation on which we build our cities.

In any human system, there is a progression of values, and our intelligence, that we experience that form our stories as individuals and any scale of collective (family, organization, village, city). I took at look at how these levels of values show up in the city. We begin with our full attention on our survival, and once that is looked after, our attention expands to focus on: collective survival; economic and military power; authority and moral codes; prosperity and entrepreneurship; diversity of knowledge; then systemic flow and global life force. (For more details on these levels of values, please explore my primer on Spiral Dynamics integral. For their application to the city, start with Is the unplanned city unplanned – part 4.)

As I look at Baldwin and Linnea’s model, I can see several layers of the Spiral. The village looks after the basic survival needs of villagers. It will step in and protect if need be. It has rules and protocols. It recognizes that it is a place where learning takes place. It recognizes that at the heart of the village is story, the glue that binds us. Here’s what happens if I look at the purpose of the city with “villageness” in mind:

What does a city do? 

  1. Meet basic needs of citizens
  2. Nurture shared sense of belonging, for collective survival 
  3. Cultivate pride and identity / protect city from danger
  4. Provide necessary structure to meet citizens’ needs (physical, economic, social)
  5. Create the conditions for property, development and growth
  6. Create the conditions for expanding knowledge, receiving and giving knowledge
  7. Learn to flex and flow with uncertainty and conflicting truths
  8. Serve as Gaia’s reflective organ

A city, just as a village, does many things at once. Not every citizen is doing each of these things all at the same time, but collectively, as our attention shifts to meet the demands of each moment, the city shifts too. The graphic at the top of this post is purposely purple, for the notion of village is firmly rooted in the early stages of human evolution, when we are grappling for collective survival, and where myths, mystery and story were our tools to understand the world.

Cultivating the village in the city is not about going back in time, but rather a way to cultivate a new story to tell ourselves about our cities and our roles in them as citizens. When we do, it will reshape all the layers we have created above the story.



purpose of village-city on spiral



City evolution inside and outside


‘Think about it. We are like water, aren’t we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive too.’ And something else, I think to myself. Like water, we mostly follow the path of least resistance.
Wally Lamb, We Are Water


As humanity evolves, so too do the social structures we create to organize ourselves.  In last week’s post, Do it all, all at once, I revealed a series of social structures that illustrate how humanity has organized itself over time. To fully engage the city system, we need to work in all of these structures.

In Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer notice that we first organized communities around place. From this, they articulate four levels of organizing economic structures that correspond with their four structures from last week:

  1. Organizing around centralized power: the state (one sector; centralized state)
  2. Organizing around competition: state plus market (two sectors; decentralized markets)
  3. Organizing around special interest groups: state plus market plus NGOs (three sectors; conflicting relationships)
  4. Organizing around the commons (three sectors; co-creative relationships)

I added two additional structures to Scharmer and Kaufer’s work, and this is how I describe  their modes of organizing, to tease out our evolutionary thread further:

  1. Organizing for flex and flow: the state, the market, NGOs, the field (co-generative relationships for/with the whole)
  2. Organizing for the field: the planet and the field (cosmic, holonic awareness)


This evolutionary movement can be seen in the history of St. John’s, the most eastern point of land in North America. In what appears to be an unplanned city is the story of a settlement’s life conditions over time (Is an unplanned city unplanned Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). The life conditions dictated the purpose of the settlement, what it was organized for and ultimately its shape. The life conditions dictated how they organized: a calm harbour that didn’t freeze; a geographic location in proximity to Europe; fresh water and materials to build shelter; a strategic economic resource in the cod stocks; a strategic military location along shipping routes; the port authority, court house, government house and custom house added order; the prosperity of today’s entrepreneurship pushes the boundaries of moral codes; and today’s social and technology media are changing what we know and how we know it.

Spiral of purposes - 8.005
Spiral of city purposes – what we organize for

The overriding purpose of a city – wherever it is in its development – is to integrate the needs of its people, with its context, to create a habitat in which people survive and thrive. More specific purposes of a city can be varied and be many things at once. We organize to meet all of those those purposes. That is why when engaging with city systems, we must do it all, all at once.

In the midst of all the purposes, at every scale, there are transitions underway. In individuals, in groups, in organizations, in cities, in nations, in our species, Scharmer and Kaufer offer a window into what happens when the transition from one purpose/mode of organizing to another occurs:

“… whenever an economic paradigm is unable to provide useful answers to a period’s biggest challenges, society will enter a transitional period in which, sooner or later, it replaces the existing logic and operating system with an updated and better one. What, then, is the driving force for moving an economy or a society from one operating system to another? We believe that there are two primary ones: exterior challenges (the push factor) and the development of consciousness (the pull factor).” 

As life conditions change around us, we are compelled to respond. As the world becomes more complex, we are compelled to develop our consciousness to be more complex as well. The pattern in St. John’s is a pattern in us all.


What pulls us along in our evolutionary journey is a dance between the world around us and the world within us.

We are like water.

Perhaps the valley in which we flow is the world around us. At times we flow freely and unhindered, smoothly.  At other times we fall. In some instances we run through narrow passages, carving our own path over time. Other times we hit the rapids with great fanfare, noise and confusion. We are influenced by the wind, the earth, the sun and the moon.

We push and are pushed back.

We are pushed by our cities and we push back.

But how does what we think about our world and our cities change when we realize that we have made them? Our city habitats, and all of the organizing we do within and around them, are made by us. By becoming more conscious of this relationship, we can trigger a new operating system for our cities – and make the move to Scharmer and Kaufer’s fourth structure – where we co-create in the commons.

How does the city make us more conscious of ourselves?

What does the city pull out of us? 

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Some friends and I started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book. This is a post I created while figuring out why this book didn’t go far enough for me.

Here are some earlier posts:

Need to know a bit more about how all this works? Here are 7 principles that frame the emerging spiral, and 6 conditions for evolutionary expansion. And some other stuff:

  1. Beck, Don Edward and Cowan, Christopher C., Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford (2006), particularly pages 52-56.
  2. Hamilton, Marilyn, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, New Society Publishers Inc., Gabriola Island (2008)
  3. Scharmer, Otto and Katrin Kaufer, Leading From the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., San Franciso (2013)
  4. Sanders, Beth, “From the High Water Mark to the Back of the Fish Flakes: The Evolutionary Purpose of Cities,” Vol 51, No. 4, p 26-31, Plan Canada.  Print publication of the Canadian Institute of Planners.


Do it all, all at once


Do it all, all at once, as appropriate.

That is what is necessary to engage a whole system.

Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, in their work Leading from the Emerging Future, describe four levels of social structures that have emerged as humanity grows and develops. The first three are very familiar to us: (1) where power is centralized at the top, (2) where power is decentralized at the top, and (3) where power becomes relational and networked.

Structure 1
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 1.0
Structure 2
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 2.0
Structure 3
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 3.0

(For readers familiar with the Spiral of values I have previously explored (here’s a primer), Scharmer and Kaufer’s first structure is RED/BLUE, the second BLUE/ORANGE, and the third ORANGE. The fourth, below, is GREEN, with a hint of YELLOW.)

According Scharmer and Kaufer, the fourth structure we are growing into locates power in the social field. They see this clearly, and they see how to create habitats that will allow us to access new knowledge and intelligence that is not accessible with the previous structures.

Structure 4
Scharmer and Kaufer’s Structure 4.0


As the structures have evolved, our levels of listening evolve, along with transformations in our levels of awareness and how we coordinate ourselves. It is a journey that is facilitated by infrastructures to help us tap into our creativity, infrastructures to co-initiate, co-sense, co-inspire, to prototype and  co-evolve.

The journey they articulate is one where the locus of leadership shifts from ego (me-in-we) to eco (we-in-me). They name the journey we are making from self to Self, from me to we. The most important thing they name are the characteristics of habitats that support and sustain learning. The places we make and shape to nourish and foster the transformation under way matter.

Scharmer and Kaufer stop short of saying something important: all structures have value. 

And this leads me to a fifth structure of my own that reflects a leap past the first four to a structure that expects and accepts all structures that Scharmer and Kaufer have identified. We have evolved from structure to structure as they have described. They note that each earlier structure exists in the structures that follow, they leave the reader with a sense that as we advance, we leave the earlier structures behind; they are somehow lesser, no longer appropriate. Their work is incomplete.

My fifth structure, drawing on Spiral Dynamics, is a big leap past structures 1 to 4, because 1+2+3+4=10.  It looks like this.

Structure 5 or 10
How I imagine Structure 5.0 (or 10?)

This fifth structure is characterized by a flex and flow of all four of Scharmer and Kaufer’s structures (in Spiral-speak, this is YELLOW). As conditions dictate, all the earlier structures are appropriate. When there is an emergency and fire-fighters are called to action, structure 1 is perfect. When there is no emergency, structure 2 may be appropriate. The fire chief and his personnel retain their hierarchical expectations and organize themselves to make sure the resources are in place for the next emergency; their power is decentralized. Even further behind the scenes, fire department personnel (can) work collaboratively in a network of city builders to make sure that the design of new neighbourhoods meets the needs of citizens and various other needs that need to be met in our city habitats. Their “turf” gets mixed in with that of many other stakeholders in structure 3.

Structure 4 is appropriate when the context allows the players to sit back and contemplate what they are doing and why. It might be a strategic planning session at the fire hall that involves a diverse range of expertise and experience to make wise choices. From structure 5, we see that the time and place varies for each approach, that they all happen, naturally. Where Scharmer and Kaufer characterize structure 4 as eco-in-me, I characterize structure 5 as all-in-me.

Drawing again on Spiral Dynamics, I sense a sixth structure (TURQUOISE), yet again more complex, that encompasses the expanse of systems of systems at work in life. This structure again builds upon the previous structures, taking into account the field in which all systems work, at every scale.

 Structure 5 or 15


There is a pattern at work in these social structures and within us. What has our attention is expanding. How we organize ourselves is transforming. Here is a summary of these structures. The first 4 belong to Scharmer and Kaufer, the remaining two mine, drawing on the lineage of Spiral Dynamics:

  1. State-centric – hierarchy and control – traditional awareness
  2. Free market – markets and competition – ego-system awareness (ego-in-me)
  3. Social market – networks and negotiation – stakeholder awareness (we-in-me)
  4. Co-creative – seeing and acting from the whole  – eco-system awareness (eco-in-me)
  5. Co-generative – embodiment of the whole – flexibility/spontaneity  awareness (all-in-me)
  6. Holonic experience of being –  expansive planetary connections – global cosmic awareness (Gaia-in-me)

To engage the systems in which we live and work, it is not sufficient to engage only the most recent structure. They all need attention because they all need to be healthy and they all have valuable contributions to make to the system as a whole. We must do it all, all at once, as  conditions require. They are all necessary, in the right time and place.

What social structure are you growing into?


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Need to know a bit more about how all this works? Here are 7 principles that frame the emerging spiral, and 6 conditions for evolutionary expansion.

Some friends and I started a book club to explore Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Katrin Kaufer’s new book. This is another piece, on Chapter 8. Here’s what came from my exploration of earlier chapters:

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Be a conscious citizen


A few years ago, a friend told me that the world is run by those who show up. I’ve wondered since, are cities run by those who show up?

Cities are made by citizens, so all of us who live in and interact with cities have already shown up. Each one of us, as we build or buy homes, choose apartments, and  work to make our communities better places, are making our city. We have all shown up and the evidence that we have show up is simple: we have made cities and we are in an ongoing relationship with cities as we remake them.

The city is a dance of voices and values, where we all have a hand in the creation and recreation of our cities. Civic politicians and developers, along with professional engineers and city planners physically make much of our cities. Civil society makes sure we are organizing ourselves well, and to the standards we expect. As citizens, we work to make our places better.

The real question is whether we are making our cities consciously. 

As we unconsciously engage with our city, we make contributions we are not aware of, both negative and positive. By choosing to live in or interact with a city, we have a hand in running it because we are there. We have shown up, but more often than not we participate unconsciously.  We shape cities, unaware of how our choices shape the city. When we feel we don’t have a say in what happens, it is because we don’t choose to be in relationship with the city. Our choice, at every turn, is how to engage and contribute.

There is showing up and then there is showing up.

Cities are consciously run by those who consciously show up. More than just being in the city in body and mind, there are citizens who throw their heart and soul into their city life.

Conscious citizens put their true self out into the world. They choose to pursue their passion in their work, organize for it, invite and receive feedback.  In doing so, they reshape our cities, allowing our cities to serve us better. The risk to do the work they love is worth it, because it serves their – and our – evolutionary purpose.

Just as I can be with people and not really be there, I can be in my city and not really serve it. The choice is mine. The choice is ours.

What kinds of work make you feel like you are really showing up?


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This post is part of Chapter 9 – Be the Best Citizen You Can Be. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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Beware ‘fight drama’


There seems to be a lot of drama in city life. There’s the kind that fills our theatres and tells us wonderful stories about ourselves, helps us see ourselves. This kind of drama spreads insight, reveals our culture, challenges priorities, questions assumptions and can simply entertain.

There’s another kind of drama that shields us from insight and awareness. I call it ‘fight drama’.

There are times, in danger, when we need to put up a fight. When a flood threatens our homes, we fight. When a plant closes and we lose our livelihood, we fight. When the well-being of our loved-ones is at stake, we fight. When something we believe in is threatened, we fight. Often, the fight is needed as we battle for the improvements we need in life. There are other times when we are in fight mode without even knowing why, caught the momentum, the drama.

I have been caught in the drama.

When I returned from travelling at the end of May, I plugged back into my community and a meeting with the City about the physical infrastructure renewal that will be undertaking in our neighbourhood. My neighbours are upset about our choices for new streetlights and I plugged into their fight. I was attracted to the momentum of being a part of something, especially with my neighbours. I was attracted to the energy generated by a fight and I wanted to be included, and contribute.

I realize now that the fight isn’t mine.

The fight, and its energy, means a lot to some of my neighbours. They are stepping up to declare what they want their neighbourhood to look like. They are actively working to shape our part of the city. By doing something about what they care about, they are contributing to the city-making exchange.

I have a choice about where to put my energy.

Fighting for the sake of fighting is fight drama. It shrouds the real issues. It hides what really matters. It helps us pretend that something matters when it doesn’t. It allows us to hide what we really want. The danger in drama is that it is distracts us from what we really want, and it keeps us in a downward spiral away from our fullest potential.

There are things to fight for and we must, at every turn, confirm if we are fighting for what we want, or caught in the momentum of fight drama. As a citizen, I have a responsibility to notice if I am actually in the fight I want to be in, or caught in the drama. I owe it to myself and my city.

I choose to put my energy where it matters. To me.

What matters to you? What are you really fighting for?


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This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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The bear and the boor


At the beginning of May, danger ran away from me. At the end of May, danger stood in my face. The first was a bear, the second was a boor.

May has been wonderful and horrible. I have been exploring new places and people, and as with any new terrain, whether on the outside to be seen, or on the inside of me, unseen even to me, the world can be full of beauty and anxiety.

On May 9, as my brother and I began our final hike to finish Canada’s West Coast Trail, our eyes caught the movement of a black shape scampering up the shore ahead of us, up into the woods and away from us. The bear saw us first and, startled, ran away. We were left on high alert – the bear we (might have) imagined each night on our trek, sniffing around our tent was visible. We had reason to have bear spray and knives on the ready. (The likely truth is, much smaller and more curious creatures were exploring our campsite at night. Not the bear that ran away.)

On May 26, my 12-year-old son was desperate to bear the holiday-weekend queues to ride the London Eye, the large ferris wheel aside the River Thames in London. After 20 minutes of standing in line to buy tickets, on the home stretch, a man cut in line ahead of people who had a 15 minute wait ahead of them. I stepped in to say this was wrong. There was a quick exchange between us, a few people behind me slipped in front of him and he was successful. Everyone behind us was oblivious.

After ticket purchase is the queue for the ride itself. After being in this line for 10 minutes, he cut in again. 10 minutes later, at a switchback in the line, he jumped ahead again. As my knees rattled and my belly turned, I confronted him. His responses: “I was in the wrong line.” “I need to join my family.” His words, “It’s not what it looks like,” gave me an opening to settle myself down.

I offered this: “It doesn’t look good.”

We agreed on that.

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In the heart of the city, in the throngs of people, I felt like a bear on the attack. Not curious about why he needed to jump the queue, but needing to say that everyone is having to wait a long time and it is not OK – or right – to jump ahead of people.

I’m still not sure who the boor is. It is equally me – I took him to task each of the three times I saw him jump the queue. No one else did. No one else seemed to care. Perhaps it is the Canadian rule-follower in me.

Our cities are full of beauty and anxiety. Whether the cut-in-man is the boor, or me, we do represent the challenge of living together in cities. As frustrated he was with me, he looked back at me at one point, across the switchback, and smiled. Could have been a smile to say, “look at me, here I am,” or “suck it up, lady.” Or simply, “hey, this is city life.”

While our values clashed, we remained calm and perhaps we both realized that this is just a ride we are waiting in line for. A reminder that the purpose of cities is to create the conditions for conflict.

Here’s the rub. After all his efforts to jump ahead, and my efforts to get him “in line,” he was only one car ahead of us.

Any value clashes in your city life recently?

Bear tracks on beach

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This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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Instrumental citizens for an intrinsic city


It’s time to boil down the philosophical theory of evolutionary progress and purpose after yesterday’s heavy post on instrumental and intrinsic purpose. What does this ‘big’ thinking mean to how we look our cities and our relationship with them?

Steve McIntosh, on whom I draw heavily for this exploration of purposes at different scales, offers the language of instrumental and intrinsic purposes when looking at evolution at a macro scale. I take some liberties today to think about what this means for our cities. I’m zooming in, perhaps closer than McIntosh would, so the limb I am venturing out on is my own.

Intrinsic and instrumental purposes.003

This diagram is an oversimplification of scales at work in the city, but consider the red circles as citizens and the yellow circle as the city – the habitat we build for ourselves. The yellow circle, the city, is made up of many whole entities, from organizations to families and citizens. An increasing number of cities on Earth now have more than one million whole entities – citizens -in them. (See the post that starts the Nest City book posts: are people growing cities or are cities growing people?)

In our city habitat, the large whole/holon is the city. It is made of millions of smaller wholes/holons that are both wholes and parts at the same time.  If you imagine the red circles as citizens, consider them as whole entities that form part of city. Just as the cells that make up our body are instrumental to our existence, citizens are instrumental to the existence of the city. Without citizens there is no city, and when we change our habits, we change our cities.

Citizens are fundamental to the creation of cities. Cities, in turn, are significant and have an intrinsic, essential value. When we start to notice what the essential value of cities is for us, we start to see a different relationship between us and our city habitat. The essential role of the city is its role in our very evolution; while we create cities they in turn are helping create us. And so on.

Simply by looking at the intrinsic value of cities, our role in them becomes increasingly instrumental. To organize for our own emergence, we need to consciously organize ourselves at the scale of instrumental citizens and an intrinsic city.  Our work at this time is to figure out what it means to consciously play a role in both the well-being of cities and citizens.

If citizens are not well, then our cities can not be well. And if our cities are not well, then we will not be well. It seems easy to recognize this as a vicious circle where we are helpless, but I choose to look at this appreciatively. Our cities emerge from us, we can look at this as a virtuous circle, where we choose to create what we wish to create.

If we are the building blocks for our cities, what kind of building blocks do we choose to be?

What do we choose to build?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.



Instrumental and intrinsic purposes


The evolutionary pattern of wholes, or holons, is helpful to understand purpose at scale. To explore this, I draw on the work Arthur Koestler, Ken Wilber and Steve McIntosh, who articulate the sequence of evolutionary emergence where each evolutionary entity, or level, is a whole and a part. Each whole is also a part of larger wholes. Marilyn Hamilton’s nested holarchy of city systems (Figure A) is an example.

Hamilton's nested holarchy of city systems spiffy

Holons, which are each whole, are nested as parts of other holons/wholes. The smaller wholes are more numerous. Imagine the cells that make up your body; they are far more numerous than the one whole body that is you. Likewise, you are one whole, along with many others, that make up the whole family to which you belong, or the organization where you work, or your neighbourhood or city, nation or species.

In looking at the scale of wholes, that are both parts and wholes themselves, the smaller entities are ‘fundamental’ and ‘instrumental’.  Without these smaller wholes to form part of the larger whole, the larger whole does not exist. The smaller the holon, the more fundamental; the more larger holons emerge, the more fundamental the smaller ones become.

Larger holons emerge as entities that transcend and include the smaller holons in new combinations. The larger holons are  not fundamental, but rather ‘significant’. McIntosh on Wilber:

…as evolution produces larger and larger encompassing holonic levels, each new level contains more and more parts and thus more and more whole entities. And as holons come to embrace more whole/parts within themselves, this increases their intrinsic value, or what he calls their ‘evolutionary significance (McIntosh, p. 124-125).’

From an evolutionary perspective, larger holons are more significant than their smaller counterparts, while the small holons remain, and become, more fundamental.

There are two value pulls here: one toward the smaller, fundamental value of encompassed parts, and a second toward the increasing significant value of emergent wholes. While these ‘pulls’ are in opposite directions, they are complementary; they co-exist in relationship with each other. As wholes become larger and more significant, the component wholes that are part of that whole become more fundamental. For McIntosh, this is the nature of evolutionary progress as described by Wilber.

As for evolutionary purpose, McIntosh sees the same complementary relationship between holons with new language: the encompassed parts are of instrumental value, and the emergent wholes are of increasing intrinsic value. Smaller holons serve instrumental purposes and larger holons serve intrinsic purposes.

From an evolutionary perspective, at a macro scale, what happens to purpose at different scales?

For McIntosh, the intrinsic purpose, or value, of evolution itself is not static: “its value is ‘alive, free, thrilling, and always moving (McIntosh, p.  160).'” Yet is also moving in a direction, toward goodness, beauty and truth. Intrinsic purpose is grand and shifty.

The process of growth, however, also involves parts that are no longer growing or emerging, yet they “nevertheless [contribute] to the growth of the emergent levels which encompass those parts as a foundation for further growth (McIntosh, p. 160).”  The holons that are encompassed as parts of larger wholes are of instrumental value to the more complex system of which it is a part. Small holons are in service to larger, more significant holons. They are of instrumental purpose.

Recognizing that larger holons are more significant than smaller holons does not negate the value of smaller holons, for they are fundamental. McIntosh puts it bluntly: ” instrumental value is the complementary equal of intrinsic value (McIntosh, p. 156).”

This exploration is a reminder that small entities are building blocks, and their health and well-being have instrumental purpose and value to the entities in which they are part. It is a legitimate, and not lesser, role to play in evolutionary progress. For McIntosh, this “two-fold purpose that orients our personal development is grounded in evolution’s essential organizing structure of wholes and parts, wherein every whole is also a part and vice a versa. Every evolutionary entity thus partakes of both kinds of purpose (McIntosh, p. 155).”

Every entity is a whole and a part. Every entity has instrumental and intrinsic purpose.

What is your intrinsic purpose?

In what are you of instrumental value?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

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Further reading…

Koestler, Arthur. A Brief History of Holons, by Mark Edwards

McIntosh, Steve. Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins

Wilber, Ken. Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy



Scales of purposes


The purposes I pursue are informed by what I value. The purposes we pursue are informed by what we value. Purpose and value drives both my decisions and those of the larger wholes of which I am a part.

I am a whole system myself, and I find myself within the larger whole of my family. My family is a system within the larger system of our neighbourhood. My neighbourhood is a system inside the larger system of the city of Edmonton and its region. Edmonton is a system within the larger system of Canada, and Canada a nation of the world. Each system is whole and is also a part of larger wholes. Each system has its respective purpose and set of values, which may be aligned or disparate, but they each are live with purpose.

Figure A: Hamilton’s nested city systems

Each scale will have a purpose that reflects its life conditions. (See Figure B to see the Spiral; here is a primer on Spiral Dynamics.) While I value prosperity and creative entrepreneurship today (with the time I have to write), I recognize that the school and police systems in Edmonton are operating out of authority and moral codes today because of two teens who threatened, online, to hurt many people. Their actions have been taken seriously and they have been charged. Organizations across Edmonton are diving in to make financial contributions to the Edmonton Food Bank to ensure families have enough food this Christmas. They are guided by moral codes to serve folks in survival mode.

And as we gather for upcoming winter festivities, whatever religion, we are engaging in long-held practices that bring communities together to bond for collective survival of culture. Others in my city are working on open data systems that help the city see itself, so we are able to explore more fully the diversity of knowledge at our disposal. Others yet see ways to make all of the above be healthy and vibrant, so we have a city that serves citizens well.

Figure B: Spiral of purposes

A variety of purposes are alive at every scale, from the individual to the city to the planet and the Universe. Each scale of individuals and collectives, are reaching, as interested and able, into expanded purposes.

What purposes are alive in you? In your city?

What purposes are you and your city expanding into?


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This post forms part of Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities. Click here for an overview of Chapters 4-7 (Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence). Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.

The Spiral is based on the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan: Spiral Dynamics.