Modelling dynamic equilibrium

Stability through change
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Presented at The Developing Group, 1 Jun 2002

First of all, what is dynamic equilibrium?

Second, why make it a topic for a Developing Group day?

Third, how do you make use of the idea of dynamic equilibrium to improve your Symbolic Modelling skills?

A definition

Arthur Reber in the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology (1995) says dynamic equilibrium is:

“The state of a dynamic system in which, although shifting and changing, the overall pattern of forces or energy is in a stable, organised configuration.”

From this definition we want to highlight:

  1. A dynamic system is constantly shifting and changing, at the COMPONENT LEVEL, in order to maintain a stable, organised configuration at a PATTERN LEVEL.

  2. At any moment of time the system may not be at equilibrium because of its dynamic nature, but equilibrium will exist over an EXTENDED PERIOD OF TIME and WITHIN CERTAIN LIMITS, parameters or thresholds.

  3. Equilibrium requires AT LEAST TWO patterns (of forces, intentions, behaviours) to relate in such a way that the net result is balance, stasis, repetition, oscillation.

An example

The classic metaphor for dynamic equilibrium is a tightrope walker – constantly changing (adapting to conditions and adjusting to feedback) to maintain an overall stability that enables movement along the rope.

A more extended example is given by Jane Jacob in The Nature of Economies (2000) p. 93:

“California coastal redwoods require enormous amounts of water, about twice as much, on average, as rainfall delivers to their habitats … A coastal redwood lives to an age of about 2,000 years; quite a demonstration of successful survival.  Here’s how their seemingly inadequate supply situation is overcome.  With their fine and luxuriant needles, the trees intercept fog and strip its moisture; in effect, they take water straight from clouds.

During a dry but foggy night, each tall redwood douses the ground beneath it with as much water as if there had been a drenching rainstorm.  This beneficent process works as a loop.  The growth of the trees in fed in good part from the fog.  Taller growth gives trees access to higher — hence additional  — fog.  Additional fog feeds still higher growth.  And so on.  Because of the height-fog loop, the trees themselves participate in keeping their environment stable.”

Our outcome

OK we’ll come clean in advance. We’re less interested in dynamic equilibrium (the manifestation of the pattern), than the ORGANISATION of the system that creates dynamic equilibrium – or to use David Grove’s metaphor ‘the replicating mechanism’ – but you knew that! So whenever we say modelling ‘dynamic equilibrium’ (or dynamic stability) it is a shorthand for: modelling the “pattern of organisation” (Maturana & Varela) of the system which, when observed over time, displays a pattern of stability even though its components/behaviour change.

Why model it?

Dynamic equilibrium is fundamental to the notion (metaphor) of how self-organising systems BOTH change, and, stay the same.

Focusing on dynamic equilibrium encourages systemic thinking, process identification and pattern recognition. It discourages symptomatic, linear cause-effect, and judgemental thinking.

Modelling dynamic stability requires bottom-up thinking and increases the range of people’s map-of-the-world that you can model.

Dynamic equilibrium is a generic name for many common client problems and therapist diagnostic categories — addictions, bad habits, compulsions, binds, bipolar disorder, maintaining an excessive body weight, stuck states such as depression, etc.  Having a model of the generalised pattern means you will be able to model the individual expressions of the pattern with greater awareness. (This is where top-down meets bottom-up!)

Dynamic equilibrium is also an aspect of many highly valued qualities:

commitment / faith
life purpose / mission / sacred contract
determination / persistence / resilience
tolerance / patience

or any behaviour that a person “cannot not do” (Gordon & Dawes).

Therefore the process of dynamic equilibrium often needs to be modelled when modelling patterns of excellence. (Why didn’t Thomas Edison give up after discovering 999 ways how NOT to invent a light bulb?)

We maintain that ‘identity’ (or pattern of organisation) is the prototypical example of dynamic equilibrium. According to Maturana & Varela, the function of a self-organising system is to maintain its identity, ie., to continually make itself.  They call this ‘autopoiesis’ and suggest it is the defining characteristic of all living systems.

Distinguishing levels

One way to keep a clear head amid the apparent chaos of bottom-up, self-organising dynamic systems is to distinguish between different levels of organisation. This is made doubly difficult because often the same word is used to mean different things. For example, ‘feedback’ can be the information received from the environment or another person (as in “we responded to feedback”) or the whole process of adapting to the results of previous behaviour. In other words, feedback is either a part of a process or the whole circular process itself. It is clear that these definitions relate to two different levels.

We will use the metaphor ‘feedback loop’ when we want to refer to the process level of organisation because it emphasises that feedback is only feedback when it influences the original part of the  system such that its behaviour changes.

As we suggest above, exactly the same is true of ‘dynamic stability’. It can refer to the state of the system or the processes which produce the state.

In “Metaphors in Mind” we attempted to reduce logical level errors (as Bateson called them) by using (Bateson’s metaphor) ‘binds’ to refer to the PRODUCT of unwanted dynamic equilibria, and ‘binding pattern’ to refer to the PROCESS which results in the bind.

The role of feedback

Dynamic equilibrium requires at least two interacting and balancing processes. In its simplest form one will be a circular process that promotes change (a self-amplifying or positive feedback loop) and the other a circular process that promotes stability (a self-perpetuating or negative feedback loop). Gregory Bateson pointed out that if you follow the action around a feedback loop you’ll notice it crosses physical or component level boundaries. Hence the intelligence of the system is not IN any of the components (parts of the system) but is ‘held’ by the PATTERN of relationships BETWEEN components.

When modelling dynamic stability we want (the client) to identify:

The patterns that ‘seek’ change, the patterns that ‘limit’ change


The balancing relationship between the two.

A common example is ‘weight control’. Take James as an example:

Ever since I was 16 I have weighed between 9.5 and 10.5 stones. If I do not do much exercise over a period of many months my weight will drift up. At a certain point I start noticing signals from my body: After eating I feel my stomach is too full; it still feels full when I first get up in the morning; my trousers feel slightly tight around the waist;  I see a slight increase in the rounding of my belly; my face fills out; etc. When I feel this heavy, it feels uncomfortable and doesn’t feel like me. So I weigh myself (which I only usually only do one or twice a year) and I am inevitably approaching 10.5 stones.

Then I set an intention to change what I eat and do more exercise. Over the coming months my weight slowly drifts down to under 10 stones. I have only once (in my early 20’s) ever been up to 11 stones. It so shocked me that I quickly lost half a stone (I stopped drinking beer for a month!) and I resolved to notice the signs earlier.

In crude terms, the state of dynamic stability is a body weight that fluctuates between certain limits. Normally the self-regulating processes work happily by themselves resulting in hardly any change in weight. However, when the self-amplifying feedback loop results in the upper threshold being approached:

eat more -> gain weight -> get used to eating more -> eat more …

a self-perpetuating feedback loop is triggered:

eat better /exercise more -> loose weight -> feel better -> eat better …

and a return to normal occurs.

More on feedback

From Steven Johnson in Emergence (2001)

“All decentralized systems rely extensively on feedback, for both growth and self-regulation.”  p. 133

“Negative feedback, then, is a way of reaching an equilibrium point despite unpredictable — and changing — external conditions.  The ‘negativity’ keeps the system in check, just as ‘positive feedback’ propels [the] system onward. It is a way of indirectly pushing a fluid, changeable system toward a goal. It is, in other words, a way of transforming a complex system into a complex adaptive system.  

Negative feedback comes in many shapes and sizes.  You can build it into ballistic missiles or circuit boards, neurons, or blood vessels.  It is, in today’s terms, ‘platform agnostic’.  At its most schematic, negative feedback entails comparing the current state of a system to the desired state, and pushing the system in a direction that minimises the difference between the two states.  …  [Norbert] Wiener [in Cybernetics] gave the knack for self-regulation a name: homeostasis.” pp. 138-140.

“In a real sense, our personalities are partially the sum of all these invisible feedback mechanisms; but to begin to understand those mechanisms, you need additional levels of feedback.” p. 142.

“When we come across a system that doesn’t work well, there’s no point in denouncing the use of feedback itself.  Better to figure out the specific rules of the system at hand and start thinking of ways to wire it so that the feedback routines promote the values we want promoted.”  p. 162

The nature of change

Robert Fritz, Corporate Tides, 1994:

“The nature of change is the same as the nature of the status quo.  The underlying structure will determine the ultimate behaviour.” p. 149

“We have asked why change within the organization is difficult, and the answer is that structural conflicts lead to oscillating behaviours.  [An example is] an organization trapped in a structural conflict that causes it to first embrace then reject change. …

If we are to understand why structural conflict operates the way it does, let us pose this question: What does the structure want?  In other words, what is the structure’s goal?  … the shift of dominance from one system to the other produces the tendency to oscillation.  The structure cannon resolve both tension-resolution systems simultaneously because of the imbalance that exists between them.  Here is a key factor: imbalance.  The structure wants to reduce imbalance, to create a balance or equilibrium between the two tension-resolution systems.

When I say the structure ‘wants’ balance, I do not mean to imply that structure has a mind, a will of its own, a personality, or a vested interest in the outcome, any more than gravity has.  It is an impersonal fact of nature.  The structure wants equilibrium, but we want something that will produce non-equilibrium.  We want change.  …

Structural conflicts are not problems.  They are simply inadequate structures to accomplish our ends. … Rather than attempting to fix an inadequate structure, establish a more suitable one.” pp. 27-32.

Dynamic equilibrium and evolution

Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots, 1997:

“There is nothing particularly biological about natural selection: it is simply a term used by biologists to describe the way in which one form replaces another as a result of their different dynamic properties.  This is just a way of talking about dynamic stability, a concept used for a long time in physics and chemistry.  We could, if we wished, simply replace the term natural selection by dynamic stabilization, the emergence of the stable states in a dynamic system.”  p. 51.

“The relevant notion for the analysis of evolving systems is that of dynamic stability.  A necessary (though no means sufficient) condition for the survival of a species is that its life cycle be dynamically stable in a particular environment. This stability refers to the dynamics of the whole cycle, involving the whole organism as an integrated system which is itself integrated into a greater system which is its habitat.  Focus on the properties of the ‘parts’ of an organism can be informative about the small-scale or local aspects of organismic plasticity — the extent to which an organism can change its form–a bird’s beak can longer or wider for example …

Of course, Darwin believed that the large-scale properties of evolution were to be explained in terms of the sum of these small-scale changes.  However, as Ernst Mayr, the eminent evolutionary biologist, has stated very clearly, there is no evidence for the gradual emergence of any evolutionary novelty by the accumulation of small changes.” pp. 165-166.

Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, 1996, pp. 220-221.

“The fossil record shows clearly that throughout evolutionary history there have been long periods of stability, or ‘stasis’, without any genetic variation, punctuated by sudden and dramatic transitions. …

This new picture, known as ‘punctuated equilibria’ [coined by Stephen Jay Gould], indicates that the sudden transitions were caused by mechanisms quite different from the random mutations of neo-Darwinist theory.”

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