The MonViso Institute (MVI) is an organisation and a place, a real-world laboratory, to experiment with systemic design solutions to complex sustainability challenges. We base our work on science, inter- and transdisciplinary knowledge on sustainability, resilience, circularity, transitions, design, and related fields. The MVI Systemic Design Principles guide our experimental work on testing and applying "Tools for Change" (towards a more sustainable, just and regenerative society) and developing illustrative "Seeds for Systemic Innovation" in real, that enable and scale social and technical transitions. These Core Concepts guide our research, education and events, with the goals to evaluate, spread and scale their impacts to other systems.
Systemic design is the integration between systems thinking, design theory and practice, and sustainability science. Building upon their very different traditions, this inter- and often transdisciplinary combination enables people to take more effective action toward improving the wicked, complex sustainability challenges our societies are facing. If we want to solve a complex (sustainability) problem, we need to look at a system from an integrative, whole life cycle perspective, at several nested scales. Systemic Design has the capacity to (re)create systems that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of existence, of energy and materials – learning from natural ecosystems to create resilient societies in integrity with nature: designing resilient regenerative systems.
Systemic Design Principles
The following design principles guide the decision making for (re-)creating infrastructure, products, services and projects at MonViso Institute
Everything is connected - think and design systemically to take more effective action in tackling wicked sustainability challenges.
Think big & act direct
Our challenges are globally connected but require direct, local people action, for regional resilience. Walk the talk.
Design across scales
Decisions on one governance or spatial scale should embrace systemic effects on any of the eight scales of spiral emergence in complex systems.
Action is urgently needed - being efficient is good but not enough. Go for what is most effective, having most leverage and impact.
Use low tech & high brain
Use low tech, simplified, passive and mechanic solutions where possible, for less embodied energy and easy maintenance. High tech is the needed extra where it makes sense.
Learn from Nature
Nature offers genius design solutions with billions of years in evolution, functioning in closed systems, with the principle of cooperation, where nothing gets wasted.
Design for adaptive, innovative and transformative capacity. Embrace deliberate transitions throughout the four resilience phase of the adaptive waves.
Respect local knowledge
Often, local people know their terrain and can tell us solutions that work, if we listen carefully. This entails solidarity between locals and visitors.
Re-fuse, Re-use, Re-cycle
Less is more. Let's re-think consumption to become prosumers, and aim towards zero emissions and zero waste.
Design in opportunity and design out waste. Create mutual benefits while closing resource loops.
Design with carbon
Products, services and economies designed to minimize carbon flows over entire life cycles may well be the most effective tools to slow down climate change.
Transfer knowledge and build capacity
Share trusted knowledge and valuable experience to involve, stimulate and engage others to support the sustainability transition.
Facts are facts, there is no alternative truth to the current state of knowledge. Show your data and carefully interpret it.
Have fun do good
Follow your instinct and enjoy contributing to a net-positive impact.
A real-world laboratory (RWL) is a place to experiment with solutions to complex challenges, such as climate change. It is real-world because it is embedded in a living community; it is a lab because it creates space and time for testing and experimentation, such as with renewable building materials and net-positive buildings. In general, we work on understanding, incubating and supporting sustainability transitions of various kind, such as from a linear to a more circular economy. We experiment with solutions to complex and often uncertain challenges, such as future resilient life styles. From this experimental research, we design tools for change, or seeds for systemic innovation – solutions and illustrations that can be experienced in real and scaled up in other places.
MVI functions as an Observatory, an Antenna, for observing, analyzing, monitoring and designing social, ecological, economic and technical change, resilience and systemic innovation in this mountain region. It is part of a growing global network of mountain observatories to provide generalizable knowledge.
is the Global Goal, a local Path, and a Joint Process Finding A Balance. Live Happily. Respect Nature
The concept of sustainability is hugely complex, but let's try to keep it simple: we understand sustainability as living a good life without hurting others; even more so, living a happy life while contributing net positive to society and the environment. We have the responsibility to inform ourselves, to engage, to listen, to cooperate. The UN Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are a universal directive, and we need to break them down to the local, the collective, the personal level. At the MonViso Institute, sustainability is an experience, and adventure, a real-time act of compromises and balancing decision making - under uncertainty. Sustainability is fascinating - living healthy on a low environmental footprint, preserving the beauty and genius of nature, respecting local cultural values as much as oneself, finding design solutions inspired by nature, meeting pals alike, making an income with an honest mind. While we engage in science of and for sustainability, we showcase practical solutions on the MVI campus that everyone can explore, critically question, experience, and share.
Toward a common understanding of sustainability
A science perspective on defining sustainability
Drawn from years of experimentations with different visualizations, the “SustainaBuild” conceptual model is proposed as a means to spur public sustainability discourse. The proposed visual sustainability concept offers an enriched conceptualization while simplifying complexity, focusing on key messages that extend beyond the established triple-bottom-line model.
Specifically, these are: the importance of respecting cultural values, the role of technology, the need for participation, and the systemic relation with the established three pillars, known as society, economy, ecology, or people, planet, and profit.
Ecosystems and the services we receive from them are the foundation of any human activity, but in the long term, human activity must not exceed the carrying capacity of ecosystems.
Social and Economic Wellbeing What social and economic wellbeing mean is subjective and depends on individual perspectives, values, and demand, and the plurality of opinions.
Cultural Values The balancing process between eco- nomic and social wellbeing based on a limited ecological foundation is subjective and dependent on cul- tural values, indicated by the see- saw balancing the economic and social wellbeing pillars.
Technology may enable individual social and economic well-being based on an intact ecological foundation not exceeding its carrying capacity.
Participation The current challenges of our society require the inclusion of numerous different stakeholders and citizens. The participation bubble of the Sustainabuild model places people at the center of sustainability. Participation as a broad term entails different strengths and forms of participation, from information and discourse to personal and political engagement and action.
The resilience term originates from psychology and describes personal resistance to stress and crises, such as coping with mental stress or recovering after a cold. Today broadly used in ecology, resilience describes the capacity of ecosystems to recover from shocks, to bounce back after a disturbance, to re-gain a state of equilibrium. On example is a forested slope that is hit by a snow avalanche which washes away most trees, shrubs and some topsoil. The slope will grow back, following a natural succession of pioneering plants to stabilize and rebuild soil, and keep moisture. Recovering from shocks to regain states of equilibria is what resilience means in ecology; the adaptive cycles concept explains ecological resilience in detail. Resilience contains both adaptive and innovative capacities, translating into the capacities to respond to (adapt) and prepare for (innovate) to gradual and short-term changes. As of human-nature or social-ecological systems (SES), like agriculture, we need to connect the human capacity to learn and anticipate with the ecological understanding of resilience, where innovation is random and evolutionary, by survival of the fittest.
The adaptive waves concept extends the adaptive cycles concept in the way that we as humans (in theory) have the capacity to learn from experience, to anticipate and forecast, and consciously steer deliberate transformation that would increase our desired resilience to undesired changes. A system, like a community, that experiences change (like climate change) while in a stable conservation phase, may be faced with a crisis from such change impact. It comes into a release phase, which then leads into a reorganization phase. Now the system is most open (and pushed) to innovate – and this reorganization phase is when we started MVI in the Po Valley, since the valley and the entire region had faced a serious crisis with much of the mountain territory being abandoned. Once a new system is reorganized, a following growth phase may take it to the next conservation phase.
Figure: The adaptive waves concept of resilience. Adopted from Luthe & Wyss, 2015. How MVI research on evaluating "Tools for Change" is applied to design "Seeds for Systemic Innovation" to scale and create impact, is described in further detail on our "Research" page
From a systems science understanding, designing resilient SES entails to plan for high diversity of ties and nodes – the main system components - and high flexibility. Nodes are the objects, people, materials, places, processes connected by ties, which can be flows of money, CO2eq, resources, electricity, water, cooperation. High diversity relates to preparing for change with a diverse set of elements the system can tap into as resources, and flexibility relates to quickly activating such diverse resources to respond and adapt. As systemic designers, one would thus create systems that are both diverse in their nodes and ties, and flexible to (de-)activate them. However, desired resilience needs to be distinguished from undesired resilience, which would translate to resistance to desired change, like the lack of transforming our agriculture into being fully organic and pesticide-free.
Luthe. T. and R. Wyss. 2015. The Capacity of Social-Ecological Systems for Planning Resilience: Introducing Adaptive Waves. Sustainability Science 10(4):673-685.
Circularity is creation with the intention of building mutual social benefits while closing resource loops.
The concept of Circularity describes “resource flows” which enter and leave generation processes of products, buildings, infrastructures, landscapes, concepts or services (“systems”) with a previous and next connection to another generation process. One system’s output is the other’s resource input – eliminating the concept of waste, plus creating mutual benefits. Circularity has a time component of keeping resources within the generating system to optimize their value and minimize transfer “costs” before entering another system.
Flows can be resources of various kinds - matter (material, energy, liquids, gases), financial, and even of social kinds (friendship, knowledge, or identity). Flows have quantifiable currencies, such as carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, cubic meters of greywater, kg of materials, kWh energy – or qualitative currencies, like knowledge generation or identity building. Flows span across scales, from chemistry to materials, products, buildings, communities, cities, landscapes, regions, to transnational entities.
To account for Circularity, one may start with asking the questions: Are we designing to utilize the full potential of a given resource? Further, being physical, social or financial, do we see and understand the larger systems where the resources are included? And finally, how can our design decisions impact these systems both in the short and long run?
Reference to this text: Luthe. T. et al (working paper). Circularity: Designing Resilient Regenerative Systems.
One example for further reading on circularity: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org
Regenerative Design (RG) (re)creates systems that restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of existence, of energy and materials – learning from natural ecosystems to create resilient societies in integrity with nature. RG is transformative in a way that it describes the active and continuous restoration or revitalization of systems, which goes beyond merely sustaining them by keeping a balance of give and take. RG goes further than design for sustainability; it transforms a system like agriculture to be restorative by design, where cooperation amongst plants, animals, bacteria, fungi and humans creates mutual circularity that does not require pesticides or non-organic nutrients to be added. RG actively restores degraded systems. It creates regenerative cultures, which are rooted in cooperation, not in competition.
Wahl, C. 2016. Designing Regenerative Cultures. Triarchy Press, England. ISBN 978-1-909470-77-4.
Regenerative resilient systems depend on diversities of nodes and ties, and on sufficient restorative and vital space. In order to build a circular economy, that is restorative by design, we need to think in a geographical scale of regions. Communities and cities are too small and limited to share the needed diversity AND the related amount/space to nurture such diversity. We should thus think and design beyond the local to the regional scale, and create bio-regions that are highly diverse, flexible, connected, and circular.
Wahl, C. 2016. Designing Regenerative Cultures. Triarchy Press, England. ISBN 978-1-909470-77-4.
Systemic innovation means planned and controlled renewal on a systems level, comprising change on multiple nested scales, from materials to products, buildings, communities, regions, and transnational scales. It includes technical and social innovation and is generally steered by a clear vision to define the direction of change.