A part, or subsystem, or subassembly, of a system. Every system consists of holons.

Other names—orgs, integrons—have been suggested for them; holon is the name coined by Arthur Koestler. It comes from the Greek holos (whole), with the suffix –on (as in neutron), which suggests particle or part.H23

Local communities are holons within the wider system of society, for example, and the modularity which underpins recovery-elastic resilience comprises diverse, independent holons. Holons have the characteristic property of “facing both ways”: they are complete in themselves and have substantial powers to maintain their own health and integrity; at the same time, they are part of a wider system, depending on it and participating in it.

Whole-systems-thinking is an undoubted virtue, but if it does not at the same time recognise the distinctive properties and needs of the parts, then it is as bad as reductionism. Systems-thinking depends, as a first step, on recognising the robust, semi-independent, small-scale competence that is distributed throughout a complex system, and on having a name for it.H24

These subsystems within larger systems build up in complex and untidy hierarchies, from the smallest scale up to the scale of the system as a whole. That system might be a person, household, neighbourhood or community; or the complex panarchy of a woodland ecosystem; or the established skills and practices that were brought together by medieval builders to build a church.

The architect Christopher Alexander, a hero of lean thinking (though he doesn’t call it that), applies this distributed, holonic structure as a fundamental principle of design. He believes that people know more about what they want and need in the place they live in than architects do, and that if they are given the basic principles of good design in the form of what he calls a “pattern language”, then they can use it to design forms which work for them.H25 These principles—or subsystems, or holons—are the words and grammar of the pattern language; as Alexander writes,

We may picture the process of form-making as the action of a series of subsystems, all interlinked, yet sufficiently free of one another to adjust independently.H26

. . . and if after that we still need a concise definition of holon, we have, from Elinor Ostrom,

a nested, whole-part unit of analysis.H27

If the subsystems are well-established and in equilibrium, they can fit together to create designed forms which (as Alexander writes) are “unselfconscious”, in that the designer does not have to invent the details and building blocks; instead, she uses elements that are tried and proven. And yet, conservative though it sounds, holons themselves are a setting for incremental evolution: if one of the holons changes—it might improve significantly or it might be damaged or become unavailable—then there is a process of adjustment whereby the other holons in the system adapt until, by trial and error, they settle down into a new equilibrium. Equally, if the design as a whole advances or changes in some substantial way, it may be necessary only for one of more of the holons to adjust to enable it to happen.H28

This idea of the holons within a wider system changing in order to take the pressure off the system as a whole is intrinsic to resilience and lean thinking. The system is resilient because the holons’ responses to shocks conserve the larger equilibrium; it is lean because there is the possibility of flexible responses and inventiveness deep down in the hierarchy of the system. In the entry on Tradition we see how a culture is sustained by incremental change to small parts of itself, and the adaptive cycle of the Wheel of Life shows how this deep-level flexibility is the enabling condition for the survival of a complex system.

If it is to benefit from such resilience, then, a system has to maintain—or restore—significant freedom for its holons, by whatever means. It is not a case of “power to the people”, because the people may be so uprooted that they lack a holonic structure of their own. Rather it is “power to the nested whole-part structure of household-neighbourhood-community . . .”. As a rallying cry, that might take some time to catch on, but then rebuilding the harmonic order of proven holons in a complex system is always a slow process.


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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