Living Outside of the System: The Rise of System Designers

Ernesto van Peborgh
7 min readFeb 13, 2024
Buckminster Fuller in his design studio

In an era marked by unprecedented global challenges, the traditional system’s limitations have become glaringly apparent, necessitating a radical rethinking of our approach to societal, economic, and environmental issues.

This article delves into the pivotal role of system designers, visionaries who dare to transcend conventional boundaries to forge new paradigms aligned with the principles of living systems. Through their innovative lens, we explore the transformative potential of regenerative design principles in creating sustainable, thriving ecosystems that promise a brighter future for our planet.

In the current transformation unfolding across the globe, characterized by globalization, digital revolutions, and the decentralizing of traditional hierarchies, the concept of “the system” has never been more pervasive or more challenging to navigate.

This system, a complex web of economic, political, and social structures, exerts a gravitational force that shapes our lives, dictating the paths we follow and the roles we play within its bounds. But as we stand on the precipice of unprecedented global challenges — from climate change to the risk of systemic collapse — the question arises: is it enough to operate within this system, or is there a need to step outside of it?

Traditionally, those who sought to make a difference within the system have been hailed as entrepreneurs, activists, social workers, social entrepreneurs, and founders of NGOs. Each plays a crucial role, in shifting for change from within. Entrepreneurs innovate within the market, social workers address immediate needs, and activists campaign for systemic change. Yet, there’s a growing realization that to address the root causes of our most daunting challenges, we might need to look beyond these roles to something more foundational: system design.

In the realm of innovation and progress, entrepreneurs often operate within a framework of creative destruction, a concept popularized by economist Joseph Schumpeter. This approach suggests that for new ideas, products, and technologies to emerge, existing structures and products must be dismantled or rendered obsolete. While this method has propelled much of the modern economic growth and technological advancement, it inherently involves a cycle of destruction and renewal that may not always consider the broader impacts on society and the environment.

In contrast, system designers adopt a regenerative approach, which is deeply rooted in the principles of regenerative design. Unlike the Schumpeterian model, which focuses on innovation through destruction, regenerative design seeks to create systems that are not only self-sustaining but also enhance and restore the health of the environments and communities they touch.

Within the realm of system designers, regenerative designers focus on creating thriving flows aligned with the patterns and principles of living systems, seeking solutions that enhance the vitality of the planet and the well-being of its inhabitants.

This approach represents a paradigm shift from destruction to regeneration, emphasizing the need for systems that are resilient, adaptive, and capable of fostering life-enhancing conditions for all.

In embracing the role of system designers, we acknowledge the limitations of our current paradigms and open ourselves to the possibilities of entirely new ones. It is a daunting task, but in the face of our global challenges, it may well be the most critical work of our time.

Buckminster Fuller, a visionary architect, systems theorist, author, designer, and inventor, is best known for his comprehensive perspective on the world’s problems and his unconventional designs, most famously the geodesic dome.

Fuller held a profound belief in humanity’s ability to find solutions to global challenges through innovative design and technology.

He famously posited that:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

System designers hold the conviction that when the existing system fails, rather than opposing it, our duty lies in devising a new system that makes the old one redundant.

This philosophy underlines Fuller’s approach to problem-solving and innovation, emphasizing the importance of thinking outside traditional paradigms to address systemic issues. By focusing on designing systems that meet human needs while enhancing the environment, Fuller’s work inspires future generations to envision and construct a world that operates on principles of sustainability, efficiency, and comprehensive care for the planet and its inhabitants.

Buckminster Fuller’s vision stands as a testament to the power of systemic thinking and the potential of human ingenuity to forge a better future.

System Designers: Architects of a New Paradigm

System designers are those rare individuals and collectives who dare to step outside the system’s gravitational pull to envision, and more importantly, to construct new paradigms that redefine our social, economic, and political landscapes. Unlike entrepreneurs who operate within the existing system to provide services or products, system designers question the very framework of the system itself.

What distinguishes system designers is their holistic approach. They do not simply seek to solve a single problem within a given set of rules; instead, they ask why the system produces these problems in the first place and whether there are entirely different ways to organize our collective lives. They are, in essence, architects of new realities, drawing up the blueprints for systems that are more sustainable, equitable, and responsive to the needs of the planet and its inhabitants.

The Challenge of System Design

The work of a system designer is inherently challenging. It requires a deep understanding of the current system’s failings, a visionary capacity to imagine alternatives, and the practical skills to implement those visions. This is not entrepreneurship as usual; it is a leap into the unknown, requiring not just innovation but a willingness to confront powerful interests vested in the status quo.

Moreover, system designers must navigate the paradox of working outside the system while engaging with it. They must find ways to prototype and scale their visions in a world still governed by the old paradigms. This requires a blend of pragmatism and idealism, a capacity to create islands of the future in the sea of the present.

Examples and Pathways Forward

We are witnessing the emergence of system designers across various fields, who are at the forefront of pioneering systemic change. In economics, the work of Kate Raworth groundbreaking Doughnut Economics, and John Fullerton transformative Regenerative Economics, alongside initiatives like the circular economy and regenerative agriculture, exemplifies this shift. These models aim to radically transform our patterns of production and consumption, advocating for closed-loop systems that not only minimize waste but actively regenerate natural systems. By incorporating those patterns and principles of living systems that align economic activities with the Earth’s ecological limits and societal well-being, these approaches offer a blueprint for a sustainable and equitable future.

Daniel Christian Wahl is a visionary advocate for designing regenerative cultures, emphasizing holistic approaches that integrate human activities harmoniously with Earth’s ecosystems. His work focuses on transforming societal, economic, and environmental systems to support sustainable and thriving global communities.

Bill Reed and the Regenesis Group have pioneered regenerative development design, notably in projects like Plata Viva and the Brattleboro Food Co-op, creating models that enrich community, ecological, and economic vitality, demonstrating sustainability in action through deeply integrated, living systems.

Carol Sanford’s work revolutionizes how we approach sustainability, emphasizing regenerative practices that unlock the potential of organizations and ecosystems to thrive and evolve.

Nora Bateson’s Warm Data emphasizes the interconnectedness of complex systems, advocating for understanding relationships within contexts to address global challenges, and fostering a deeper, relational approach to systemic change and problem-solving.

Bill Baue is a Systems Transformation Catalyst with initiatives such as ThriveAbility and R3.

In governance, concepts like deliberative democracy and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) reimagine how decisions can be made more participatory and responsive.

The pathway forward for system designers is both exciting and fraught with obstacles. Success requires collaboration across disciplines, cultures, and ideologies. It requires building alliances not just among the like-minded but also with those within the system who are open to transformation.

Critically, it demands a new kind of literacy among the general public — a systems literacy — that enables more people to understand, engage with, and ultimately support the creation of new systems.

Empowering Regeneration: The Seven Principles of System Design

Regenerative System designers, those visionaries charting the course towards a new paradigm aligned with the principles of living systems, wield a toolkit grounded in the profound insights of regenerative design.

Their toolbox is enriched with seven core principles: Wholeness, Developmental, Essence, Potential, Reciprocity, Nestedness, and Nodal.

These principles collectively guide the creation of systems that are not just sustainable but inherently regenerative, fostering environments that thrive in harmony with their natural surroundings.

Wholeness ensures a holistic integration of all system elements, while Developmental focuses on the continuous evolution and growth within these systems. Essence captures the unique identity and intrinsic qualities of each system, and Potential unlocks latent opportunities for innovation. Reciprocity emphasizes mutual benefits and interconnected relationships. Nodal and Nestedness, highlight the importance of strategic engagement at critical interaction points and the interconnected hierarchies within systems, respectively. Together, these principles equip system designers with a holistic approach to crafting solutions that align with the dynamic patterns and principles of living systems, ensuring that every intervention contributes positively to the vitality and resilience of our planet.


As we stand at the crossroads of history, faced with choices that will define the future of our planet and species, the emergence of System Designers heralds a beacon of hope. These pioneers, armed with the principles of regenerative design, are not merely proposing incremental changes but are advocating for a profound transformation in how we interact with our world. Their work transcends traditional boundaries, offering a blueprint for systems that nourish and regenerate rather than deplete and destroy. By embracing this regenerative paradigm, we can collectively forge a path toward a future where human activity contributes to the flourishing of all life. The journey of system designers illuminates the potential for humanity to not only inhabit the Earth but to do so in a way that enhances its beauty, diversity, and resilience. Their vision invites us to reimagine our role in the cosmos — not as conquerors or consumers, but as custodians and co-creators of a world that thrives in harmony with the principles of living systems.

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Ernesto van Peborgh

Entrepreneur, writer, filmmaker, Harvard MBA. Builder of systemic interactive networks for knowledge management.