Beyond Sustainable Development to Living Fully Alive

As a radical optimist called to consider the purpose and value of the city, I have usually found the whole approach to sustainable development somewhat limiting (see previous article).

The assumption which most inspires me about the city is one I learned from James Lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis.  Despite all the shortcomings that plague humanity and which  we in turn visit upon our mother planet, Gaia, Lovelock suggests we are evolving as Gaia’s Reflective Organ.

I build upon that thesis and contend that in fact it is our cities that have the potential to become Gaia’s Reflective Organ. As individuals we are the cells of the organ. Our organizations act like organelles in that organ.

As I am currently writing Book 3 in the Integral City series I have been contemplating how GRO is linked to living systems. I always go back to the definition of a living system that Capra (a physicist) offered to provide a foundation for thinking about this. A living systems must demonstrates three basic capacities – to survive, connect with its environment and regenerate.

Evolution biologist, Elisabet Sahtouris has been most helpful in unpacking those three  processes into 15 Principles of Living Systems.

Sahtouris Principles show how our living system is perpetually self-organizing as it cycles through the 3 basic processes. And those Principles practised often enough, in turn become habits. At the scale of the city, those habits become Integral City’s 12 Intelligences (outlined in Book 1). They in turn translate into the succinct Integral City Master Code.

Thus, the opportunity of living to our full potential as humans who can evolve for Gaia not just one but many Reflective Organs, demands that we keep evolving our experience of aliveness in the context of our human hive habitats.

Architect, Christopher Alexander proposed that we are all able to sense when something is more alive in comparison to something else. His deep appreciation of aliveness applied to creating the artefacts (especially architecture in cities) that beautify our lives through embracing the following qualities:


Levels of scale

Strong centers


Alternating repetition

Positive space

Good shape

Local symmetries

Deep interlock and ambiguity





The void

Simplicity and inner calm

(Integral Theory focusing on the Big 3 would further suggest that if our acts of creativity bring aliveness and Beauty into our habitats, then the corollary qualities of Goodness and Truth will emerge as well.)

One of the frames for considering how we emerge aliveness expressed as Beauty, Goodness and Truth, came from Clare Graves and the Beck/Cowan Spiral Dynamics integral model.  SDi shows that the values of aliveness are progressively transcended and included as we mature through levels of complex development. We can see that aliveness embraces the progression of:

  1. Surviving
  2. Belonging
  3. Expressing
  4. Respecting
  5. Generating
  6. Accepting
  7. Flowing
  8. “Planeting”

Through these stages (so far realized in our evolutionary history to some degree) we can see aliveness developing and evolving.

These days we measure the livability, or the quality of life, or the sustainability index of our cities. But perhaps we are setting our measures for vitality too low?

Could it be that the success of the designs of our habitats should be tracked against a measure of how much they enable us to feel FULLY ALIVE? Is that the criteria that will give us the momentum to become Gaia’s Reflective Organs (and Organ system)?

If that were the case then we might adapt Integral City’s 5 maps to track the dynamics of aliveness. A new visit to the 2013 blogs (see links to 5 Maps below) that explored those 5 maps reveals a wealth of indicators (derived from the living systems qualities of Pattern Dynamics) for tracking the evolution of the reflective capacity in Gaia’s Reflective Organs. As such they offer measures of inner depth and verticality that seem to be missing in the SDG’s. And I don’t think we will accomplish the SDG’s without them.

Integral City’s 5 Maps

Map 1: The Four Quadrant Eight Level Map of Realit– this relates to PD Polarity Patterns

Map 2: The Nested Holarchy of City Systems – this relates to PD Creativity Patterns

Map 3: The Scalar Fractal Relationship of Micro-Meso-Macro Human Systems – this relates to PD Exchange Patterns

Map 4: The Complex Adaptive Structures of Change – this relates to PD Structure Patterns

Map 5: Spirituality in the Human Hive – this relates to PD Source Patterns

About the Author:

HI I am the Founder of Integral City Meshworks Inc. and Chief Blogger. Working with cities and eco-regions, I ‘meshwork’ or weave people, purpose, priorities, profits, programs and processes to align contexts, grow capacity and develop strategies for sustainability and resilience in the Integral City. You can read more details about me here http://integralcity.com/about/about-the-founder/


  1. Cherie Beck September 25, 2017 at 8:39 pm - Reply

    I, too, find sustainable development approaches very limited and I am curious about applying the concept of aliveness to the question the Constellation Core Group is asking. We continue to step into the role and response-ability of sourcing integral city consciousness as Gaia Reflective Organ primarily through SCW (systematic constellation work). The session we performed last week with the city of Guadalajara, I think, marked substantial progress in our ability to engage and impact as intended. Meaning, we are getting better and better at them! A subsequent inquiry came forth regarding “sustaining” ourselves financially while we pursue work which up to this point has been fulfilling us in other ways. The monetary aspects of being together has been given attention in the past 5 years, and I wonder if we are ready to make substantial progress on this aspect of working with cities as well.

    This inquiry hits my sweet spot. As a starting position, three points come to mind.

    1. Framing using the concept of value, might help progress down a path of inquiry. What is the value of a constellation as represented by IC Core Group (because I think who is representing makes a difference) when it serves me (as a representative), when it serves other(client), when it serves a place and when it serves the planet? What is the algorithm of value(s) between self, others, place and planet? I notice my own relationship with value often defaults to currency, so I try to think in terms of what is important before I think in terms of currency (which is a way of marking finite exchange of value/what is important).

    2. To realize that we are already operating in a “market” for our services, we have not made that market explicit yet. What do we know about the market conditions we are already in? I notice the market is often expressed in terms of expression and exchange of words–which describe experience, feeling, emotion, thoughts, change, practice, awareness.

    3. My true interest (what is important to me) is in the involution and evolution of our current thinking about economies, and for me, that includes re-engineering city budgets- where the “budget” is an authentic reflection of value of the ‘Integral City’, where Integral City is a living system and the economy is an accounting, exchange and feedback of all the parts of the system as a conception of the whole human hive. I find I am up against the complexity of the “hive” in a big way – and I am up for the challenge. Any help here is appreciated. Taking the time to writing this comment represents progress in my own thinking- and has me asking how would I value the “progress” I describe of this small exchange. It seems to be important (if not overwhelming) to begin to account for these little transactions as a way to reveal the whole value of what we collectively aspire to. I think the overwhelm is why we choose not assign currency to most of the “laboring” the Core Group does. If we can assign value in terms of existing/known systems, it seems less overwhelming–yet I don’t think we will be successful in the long term.

    I notice, from our SCW with Guadalajara, the relationship between the Spirit of Guadalajara and the Spirit of Integral City revealed three words; anxiety, apprehension and aliveness. Breadcrumbs for us to follow?

    • Marilyn Hamilton September 30, 2017 at 12:56 am - Reply

      Just to let you know I am listening to this exchange with great interest. I will take your inquiries with me to the Cities of the Future conference next week. And be curious.

      I do like Cherie’s framing of value and Master Code. fyi I have a chapter in Book 3 where I convert MCode into a set of ratios – that emerges as Aliveness measure. Thinking in terms of the values and needs of a living system I think can be generative. Also transmuting value from gross into subtle/causal realms might also get us out of our “old story” approach to value exchange.
      Probably we are in early stages of a new “intelligence” or habit emerging from a lot of self-organizing transactions … and that might take a while to “cook”.

      Just thinking out loud :-*

  2. Alia Aurami October 14, 2017 at 2:39 am - Reply

    I just want to note that nature does not “transact.” Each living thing (and even non-living such as the sun) simply expresses its nature, sometimes in adaptation to its surroundings, and beneficial or harmful things happen to others around it. This is the ultimate “economy” I aspire to, but I also think it is optimal if humanity would have as many possible choices around how we get our resources for living as possible. In other words, a plethora of systems. “Economics” is defined in terms of transactions and we are so brainwashed into “exchange” mentality it is very hard to think outside of that. VERY hard. That came in with agriculture 10K years ago, apparently. So one might believe it’s in our DNA by now.

    I’m not saying to scrap this inquiry, and I resonate a lot with what Cherie is thinking, and Marilyn is onto something re “Aliveness” but I wanted to share the context of this inquiry, for me.

    For me the “aliveness” breakthrough is that while we might not know the market well, every being PRIORITIZES its existing resources against its existing needs. So even in the absence of a market to establish the general current sum of such priorities by lots of others, I could still decide how much something is “worth” to me, in other words, how much I would be willing to give up of my stash of resources, for something I want or need. E.g. “My kingdom for a horse.” hahahah AND even that, is contextual, because I need to estimate what filling my other needs might cost, before I can decide on THIS instance.

    Hope any of that makes sense and is helpful. Definitely a fruitful inquiry.

  3. Diana Claire Douglas October 14, 2017 at 7:12 pm - Reply

    Thank you Cherie, Marilyn and Alia for most recent responses. I can feel my mind being opened – this is an energy sense not so much in words yet.

    One of the basic principles in SCW is the necessary balance of give and take for life to keep flowing. This balance can happen at the same time and/or over generations. (A grandparent makes a fortune on the backs of slaves – grandchildren or great-grandchildren may lose all their money)

    Alia: How can the sun be a non-living thing when it is the basis of life for us?

    Love Diana


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