Tag Archives: ecovillages

Thinking in Systems by Donnella Meadows

Book Cover of Thinking in SystemsI highly recommend Donnella Meadow‘s little book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green 2008). It’s short, fun, and to the point. No math or physics required. Recommended for everyone, literally.

In clear, humorous, commonplace situations, Meadows explains the use of systems analysis and how it can be applied in both large-scale and individual problem solving. She moves from simple to more complex examples ultimately explaining the complex ways that feedback loops are used to create self-organizing systems in nature and society. She also explains methods for fixing systems that have gone astray.

About Donella “Dana” Meadows

Photo of Donella Meadows
Donnella Meadows

Dana Meadows (1941-2001) was a biophysicist and  environmental scientist who taught at Dartmouth for 26 years following her research fellowship at MIT where she worked with Jay Forrester the creator of the study of system dynamics. She is author of one of the most influential essays on systems dynamics, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” available for PDF download and reprinted in Thinking in Systems, pp. 145-165. She received numerous awards for her work including a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1994. Her work is considered to have a formative influence in many fields and on many scholars. Unfortunately she died of a bacterial infection at the age of 59 and before completing Thinking in Systems. The manuscript had been circulating amongst students and faculty who added comments. The final manuscript was edited by Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute.

In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute or the study of global systems and practical demonstrations of sustainable living, including cohousing and ecovillages. The Institute was founded next to Cobb Hill Cohousing in Hartland, VT and has been renamed the Donella Meadows Institute and moved to Norwich, VT. Her papers were donated by the Institute to the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in 2011.

One of the wrong-headed ideas discussed in Thinking Systems, pushing in the wrong direction on fixing economic growth, the subject of the landmark book, The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, for which she was lead author. Using a computer model, it projects the effects of continued growth. An extensive review appeared in The Nation in 2012: The Limits to Growth: A Book that Launched a Movement by Christian Parenti. Limits was first published in 1972 and updated. The original version sold 12 million copies and was translated into 37 languages. It was 205 pages. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004) is 338 pages.

To purchase at Amazon: Thinking in Systems: A Primer, softcover 2008.

Switching to Sociocracy in Cohousing Communities


Ecovillage of Loudoun County
Ecovillege of Loudoun County in Virginia was one of the first in the to adopt sociocracy when it began in the 1990s.

As is true with all governance changes, it is easier to begin with sociocracy than to switch midstream. Communities tend to stick with “the devil they know” rather than take a chance on a new one, but more and more and more communities are switching full scale or adopting some of the principles and practices.

Except for those who have switched to sociocracy, cohousing communities use full group consensus as their primary method of decision-making. Decisions are typically made in meetings open to the full membership and with the consent of each person present. As cohousing communities have grown larger, from 12 to more than 50 households, and include increasingly more diverse populations, full group consensus has become ineffective for many, if not most. Making decisions with less than 50 people is very different from 100 or more.

In addition, many communities are more complex. They now have programs that do not involve all members—gardens, chickens, home schooling, yoga groups, etc. Consensus requires a shared aim. Delegating decisions to those who share these aims is a reasonable use of everyone’s time and energy.

Switching to Sociocracy

It is a misconception that communities switching to sociocracy cannot have full group decision-making meetings. When delegating decisions to circles, communities can also delegate decisions to “full circle meetings”, meetings of all the circles. Annual budget approval, for example, is required to be made by all owners in condominiums in Washington DC. Since most cohousing communities are condominiums, this is probably true in other states as well. Another decision that might appropriately belong in a full circle meeting is changing the vision, mission, or aim.

Sociocracy allows communities to keep the collaborative and inclusive qualities of full group decision-making while providing a structure for delegating decisions to sub-groups—committees, teams, circles, etc. Policy decisions and a coordinating structure then guide the sub-groups.

Consent vs. Consensus

While I understand the reasons for opposing consensus with consent, I believe that in the end it is self-defeating. It becomes a battle of definitions and adds a new definition unnecessarily. This distracts from the purpose. By adopting sociocracy, a community adopts a decision-making structure in which consensus more effective. Its principles and practices shift the debate from stalemate to action. It helps organize large communities so they function more effectively as excellent places to live.

Sociocracy Strengthens Consensus

The sociocratic definition of consent is “no objections.” An objection means the proposed action cannot be taken until that objection is resolved—just as it is in full group consensus. Sociocracy uses “consent” to emphasize that the decision is being made by an individual based on their own ability to “live with” the decision. It isn’t based on a hypothetical or projected standard of the “good of the community” as full group consensus practices often does. An objection is made in the context of the aim of the decision, how it affects one’s own participation in the community, and its expression of the communities stated aims (if any).

Consent can be given when there are still concerns and unmet needs but sociocracy values action, moving forward, with what appears to be reasonable decision given the circumstances. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Concerns, limitations, fears, assumptions, etc.,  can be used to design measurements for evaluating the effects of the decision. Then it can be improved based on results.

The sociocratic circle-organization method is the only one that supports and invigorates consensus decision-making.

Originally written 6 January 2013
Substantially revised 19 April 2014

Full-Circle Meetings

The term for the highest circle or governing unit of a sociocratic organizations is “top circle.” The top circle has many functions of a board but is not all powerful as many corporate boards are. I have used “board” here because it is more familiar and in this context not likely to be confused with absolute power.

When sociocracy is explained the emphasis is often on its benefits for delegating decisions effectively and efficiently, extending policy decision-making down the organization to the shop floor, and eliminating long meetings and reducing the number of meetings. Decision-making is delegated to a hierarchy of subgroups circles or teams.

While cohousing and other community groups are attracted to the values of sociocracy and its ability to preserve consensus decision-making while also delegating decisions, they come full stop at not having meetings of the full membership. Their purpose for forming is not to run an efficient organization focused on producing a product. It isn’t a job in which efficiency is valued because it reduces the work and increases income. Their purpose is partly a different one and partly  the result of wanting to avoid hierarchies as they have experienced them.

Fear of Autocratic Structures

In many cohousing communities, all members of the organization are on the board. This avoids creating “condo commandos” who autocratically rule condominiums from their position on a self-perpetuating board. In sociocratic communities where people are elected by consensus and power is distributed this is not a worry. Sociocracy doesn’t have a power-over structure. It’s a circular hierarchy like rock-paper-scissors where each element has equal strength in their relationships.

The standard structure in sociocratic organizations consists of a board, a coordinating or general management circle, and department or team circles. The board does not have the power over the organization that boards of corporations normally have. It is a relatively small group that includes outside experts and focuses on long term planning and the “big picture.” How is the community doing and what would it like to do in its financial, legal, and purposeful relationship to the larger world?

In transitioning to sociocratic governance, the fear of an autocratic board could be resolved in time, but there is an even larger concern—the community’s desire to be a community.

The Purpose of Community Meetings

The purpose of a community is the desire and intention to function as one community. Gathering for potlucks or other social gatherings is not the same as working out policy decisions together, wresting with hard financial decisions, or resolving conflicts related to values and beliefs. These are things that communities want to do together and not delegate to someone else, even to a sub-group of their own members.

Typically in cohousing communities, either everyone serves on the board so they are all equal, or there is no board, or the board is very weak and decisions are made in full group meetings, by consensus.

When I began considering how to apply sociocracy to cohousing and other residential communities, the task was convincing communities to try it. Unless an established community is in crisis, it is hard to change their current governance system. Asking them to drop their full group meetings was beyond consideration. Some believed that sociocracy prohibited full group meetings.

I initially proposed a structure in which everyone served on the board. It was an attempt to adapt the current structure and practices to fit a forming sociocratic organization. Once the organization was comfortable with delegated decision-making, a normal board could be formed more naturally. This was never an ideal solution and eventually a better one surfaced. But first let’s examine why this wasn’t a good solution.

The Function of the Board

The major purpose of the board is to connect the community to its environment, the city or village. This done by having external experts serve on the board with full decision-making participation. Such experts might include a lawyer, an accountant, a cohousing expert, someone from the local neighborhood association or government, and someone related to a special interest, like ecology or gardening. Since the primary job of the board is not to deal with internal day-to-day matters, its function could easily be neglected if everyone served on the board. I think this is evident in many communities that do not have boards that serve this function.

A second major function is long term, comprehensive planning. What do each of  the experts see as possibilities or hindrances in the community’s future? How many communities have 5 and 10 year plans or have focused discussions with their expert advisors all in the same room? That’s why they need a board.

Full Circle Meetings

A better alternative to having everyone on the board is to have full-circle meetings in which all the circles or teams meet together to discuss issues and make any decisions delegated to full-circle meetings. Everyone in a community should be attached to at least one circle in order to be contributing to the work  or social activities of the community so such a meeting would include everyone. Condominium laws often require an annual meeting of the owners to approve an annual budget among other things, so this is not unusual even in standard home-owner associations.

A specific domain of decision-making would have to be defined for full circle meetings so they did not overlap with the decisions delegated to one of the circles, and the domain might include decisions on which a circle hasn’t been able to make to reach consensus and that is inappropriate to send to an outside expert.

It is important to have clearly defined domains of decision-making for each circle, and particularly in the case of a full circle meeting. Over-ruling decisions or back-seat driving is not helpful to building strong teams or responsible leadership. The full circle needs to have an aim.

So the preferred method for meeting a community’s desire to meet as one community is to have full circle meetings with a defined domain of decision-making. The meeting would be coordinated and facilitated by elected leaders, perhaps the officers of the board instead of separately elected leaders.