We are likely standing on the brink of an era of either dramatic collapse or radical regeneration. From our collective perspective in the thick of change, it’s impossible to tell which path we are on and how we can ensure the right path succeeds.

Andy Thornton
Andy Thornton
2 weeks ago

However, for the esoteric systems thinkers, agents of change and restless digital transformers amongst us, an idea called the Two Loops theory could be a useful model that serves as a timely reminder of some easily overlooked aspects of how change occurs.

The Two Loops model describes the process of change in complex living systems observed in nature. The theory goes that by learning from the cyclical characteristics of the natural world we can more consciously and intelligently manage change of any kind, whether it be individual behaviour change, organisational transformation, or something much bigger.

Given the turbulent times we find ourselves in, perhaps there is no better time to connect with deeper, more universal truths, and find a constructive way to transition away from our current situation and onto greener pastures.

Paradigm shifts

The theory goes that an ecosystem can be thought of as a complex and constantly evolving ‘hyper-organism’ of change. Everything within an ecosystem moves along an irreversible timeline: Each and every part or element of the system begins in a state of ascendancy or growth, before its descent into decay. Decline is inevitable, as predictable as death superceding life, by following the laws of thermodynamics and entropy.

When enough complementary elements of the system grow and coalesce at the same time, a critical mass of change emerges, creating the possibility that one day the system will recognisably transform from its current state to this newer offspring - a ‘paradigm shift’ in the system itself. Although the new paradigm isn’t immediately or universally adopted, it is because of the ongoing process of growth and decay that the system already consciously or even unconsciously reacts and adapts to this next possible incarnation. It’s dominant characteristics continuing to evolve over time despite any collective intent or resistance to such a change.

This difficult to articulate concept is simplified in the model as one loop that ascends and descends like a hill (the ‘incumbent’ state), followed by a second loop which descends and ascends like a valley (the ‘insurgent’ state), hence ‘two loops’. The two loops aren’t directly connected to each other to represent the fact that this transition between states, the paradigm shift, needs to be bridged and nurtured to succeed.

Two Loops theory of change: Migrating from todays status quo to tommorows
Two Loops theory of change: Migrating from todays status quo to tommorows

This innate knowledge of how the natural world works is so intuitive it almost feels foolish to articulate it. We all learn as children that flowers bloom, bees pollinate and nutrients feed the soil to fertilise new life. So obvious. So what?

Well, on reflection, it seems odd we rarely apply the same logic to the systems of organisations we work for, or the civilisations we live in. What is interesting and useful about Two Loops is the conscious recognition of a few key principles:

  1. The ongoing transition between growth and decay of a given system is cyclical, without exception. Enough sensory awareness of an imminent paradigm shift helps forecast the demise of the system’s current state, and acts as a conscious precursor to prepare for the rise of its successor.

  2. Enabling a paradigm shift in a system to be a harmonious transition requires stewardship; both the nurturing of the new, alongside an equally considerate retirement of the old. Change is more naturally inclined to be slow and painful rather than an immediate change from one state to the next, so dealing with the pain is important.

  3. Most astutely is the recognition that Two Loops helps us reflect on our disillusioned state of existence. Fraught with tension due to the ongoing denial of unavoidable truths that come with living in a shared, all-encompassing natural system, pitting unsustainable pollution, consumerism and population growth alongside finite fossil fuels, mineral resources and species diversity in decline.

Growth and Decay

Regarding the first principle, the dominant mode of thinking within society today, especially within the business world, can often be biased towards the mathematical or mechanistic. A reductionist logic encourages us to believe that if parts of a system are broken, we simply fix the broken parts and the system will return to ‘normal’. The same system, but better. Optimised.

If we believe that the ebb and flow of the natural world carries a broader, more universal logic, this fixation on fixing would be a fallacy.

Essentially, every good fix today will inevitably return a bad outcome for some future tomorrow.

In a natural world governed by entropy, nothing is static or can be maintained. ‘Normal’ is at best a temporary state. Two Loops can help better prepare for the ongoing inevitability of a new system paradigm, rather than unduly investing in an ailing status quo.

Nurture and Retire

We are also too often trapped by binary thought when it comes to conceptualising change. Seeing things as existing in a single static state, either new or old, rather than on a transition of ongoing change between the two. We dwell too long or too cautiously in the old when the new is too intimidating or unknowing to easily adopt. Or inversely, we sometimes obsess on the novelty or opportunity of the new because of the boredom or decrepitude of the old.

Nowhere is this binary thinking more the case than in economics and politics. Looking at the last 40 years, Two Loops theory is a helpful lens to interpret how critical moments of change were hijacked to accelerate the demise of “undesirable” paradigms (to those who instigated them), such as Latin American socialism or Chinese or Soviet communism, whilst simultaneously injecting new ones, such as corporate neoliberalism, in the form of aggressive economic reform. The handprints of this proactive substitution of the State for the Market, under various guides, are evident on almost every major global economic shift in the last 40 years. In no case did any of these transitions avoid very real casualties for the sake of an orderly migration from old to new. Needless to say, this is quite a heavy and extensive subject so I recommend a read of The Shock Doctrine if you’re interested in finding out more.

In this regard, Two Loops helps us appreciate the successful transition from old to new is more of a gradual flux than the simple flicking of an on/off switch.

In change management, much as in interaction design, the transitions between each state are equal to, if not more important than, the final states themselves.

The next paradigm

At this point of incredible turbulence in our society, politics and environment, it’s difficult to reject the notion that we’re living at a time of significant change, and we’re almost certainly already at the point of, or imminently approaching, a paradigm shift. As highlighted by Two Loops theory: yesterday’s great solution is today’s problem.

Perhaps then this is why there is nothing ‘usual’ about the current state of ‘business as usual’. In an era of significant change to the norm, this means constantly challenging what is accepted as normal and questioning the prevailing wisdom of normality. The stakes are high given the dominant characteristics of the next paradigm are still up for grabs and could fall so dramatically between utopia and dystopia.

As designers now is the time to be more conscious than ever of our role in helping contribute positively to the problems behind the problems behind the problems we’re solving. Essentially, to direct our energy and momentum towards helping solve problems of ever increasing magnitude. As the systems we contribute to designing become unfathomably complex, Two Loops may help us better reconnect knowingly with hard-earned yet oft-forgotten wisdom. Helping avoid us finding ourselves unwittingly back in an era in which coexistence with the raw reality of nature and the ‘natural world’ is no longer a luxury but an unavoidable necessity.

The ouroboros. “The all is one”. An ancient Egyptian symbol for eternal cyclic renewal
The ouroboros. “The all is one”. An ancient Egyptian symbol for eternal cyclic renewal
It's my belief that history is a wheel. Inconstancy is my very essence, says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like, but don't complain when you are cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it is also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.
Boethius’ Rota Fortunae (524) via Frank Cottrell Boyce (2002)

Author note: These thoughts were originally captured early in the coronavirus pandemic, and preceded the recent Black Lives Matter protests. I’ve revisited them since to question and reflect on what are essentially amorphous and relatively abstract thoughts about consciously coping with change, during what looks now even more like a significant paradigm shift in our times. During a period of huge complexity, optimism and pessimism, fear and anger, and hope and tragedy are never too far apart. I happily welcome a conversation about the specific nuances of the perspectives raised here and how they relate to specific events and individuals, such as those that have happened to George Floyd in Minnesota and the protests around the world since.