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In the context of WHOLE systems, the purpose of “What is?” is not to provide a definitive description of the situation but to create a basis to synthesize and interpret the insights to create a better understanding of how to respond and move forward. Brown’s collective learning cycle calls upon those learning to acknowledge the differences and disconnects (even dissonance) between the current situation (What is?) and the desired future (What should be?). Learning about the current situation creates new opportunities to address this, initially by designing "What could be?” This shift also resonates with Rolfe et al.’s (2001) reflective questions of “So What?” and “Now What?” (Table 5.1).

Orienting to “What could be?” in a WHOLE-systems approach can be the most creative phase of the collective learning cycle. Designing for what is possible can fuel potential for transformation and change towards (and even beyond) the desired future and goals you have identified. When working together for WHOLE systems, this creates an expansive opportunity to emphasize processes that focus on regeneration and life, rather than death, disease, and disability (and related degenerative processes).

One way of fostering the transformative potential of "What could be?” from a WHOLE-systems perspective is through a focus on co-benefits: designing solutions that proactively enhance health, equity, and the living systems we depend on. Co-benefits present a simple but transformative idea: focusing on opportunities to prioritize policy, actions, and interventions that achieve multiple benefits (for ecosystems, for equity, for the earth’s diverse inhabitants) and pay attention to the kinds of processes required to do so. In the context of synergies across health, biodiversity, and climate objectives, “co-benefits can only be achieved, however, through joined-up, collaborative, cross-sectoral and transdisciplinary working” (Marselle et al., 2019).

Focusing efforts on attaining co-benefits is also in keeping with the shift from a problem-oriented to a strength-based approach focused on assets. This shift has far-reaching implications in how we think about both the integration challenge of WHOLE-systems approaches and the pathways to change required to get there. Take, for example, a focus on the cumulative environmental, community, and health impacts of climate change, resource development, or other drivers of social and ecological change. Attention to cumulative impacts responds to calls for attention to the “integration imperative” (Gillingham et al., 2016), by addressing combined health, ecosystem, and equity impacts across space, time, and multiple drivers of change. Yet such approaches can be at risk of limiting their emphasis on understanding and analyzing the problem from multiple perspectives, and not focusing sufficiently on actions to response to these issues (Parkes et al., 2019).

A WHOLE-systems perspective encourages a focus on cumulative processes to be reframed with a focus on potential co-benefits. It turns the emphasis towards the possibilities created when responses are designed to achieve multiple converging positive objectives and to meet different co-benefit criteria. Co-benefits (or, cumulative benefits) can, therefore, be seen as a flip side to cumulative impacts, shifting from “disease” and "degenerative” approaches to an emphasis on promoting and protecting health and regenerative approaches to equity and living systems. Arguments for collaborative, multilevel “harm reduction” approaches to animal health that “looks throughout the socio-ecological system at drivers of harm to find strengths, possibilities, and opportunities for solutions in the face of a prevailing challenges and uncertainties” has some similar features (Stephen et al., 2018) (see Chapters 6 and 23 for more on harm reduction).

Examples of "What could be?” in terms of co-benefits include interventions, actions, and programs that are designed to have positive, regenerative impacts across spatial and temporal scales. This requires an ability to see the connections and co-benefits at different levels, spanning macro/global-level processes through to the intermediate mesoscales of landscapes and regions down to microlevel interactions for specific communities or individuals. Co-benefit work has, largely, focused on health and climate goals in urban contexts, targeting built environments, public transportation, housing, and public health (Walpole et al., 2009; Karlsson et al., 2020). However, calls for recognition of the interactions between health and, for example, biodiversity, the natural environment and related Sustainable Development Goals are increasing (Sandifer et al., 2015; Fleming et al., 2018; Nilsson et al., 2018). Viewing co-benefits from a WHOLE-systems perspective can shift attention to interacting health, ecosystems, and equity-related benefits and challenges within mesoscale living systems such as catchments and watersheds (through which we see upstream-downstream dynamics and flows of water, energy, people, animals, etc.,) and also in other mesoscale socio-ecological systems such as bioregions, specific landscapes (forests, deserts), and oceanscapes.

Table 5.3 presents examples of “What Could be?” in terms of co-benefits for WHOLE systems, reflecting interventions and actions that operationalize


"What Could Be?" Examples of Co-Benefit Thinking Using a WHOLE-Systems Perspective


Co-Benefits That Are Good for:

Planetary Health

(e.g, climate for all species)

Living Systems

(e.g. catchments, watersheds)

Intergenerational Equity

(communities across generations)




The health benefits of Indigenous protected areas and stewardship initiatives

Protected areas prevent deforestation, limiting carbon- release and providing carbon offsets

Protection of landscapes and oceanscapes support intact habitat for native forest and endemic biota

Nearby Indigenous and other communities gain multiple benefits from social, ecological and economic resilience, as well as contact with nature

Landscape-level management to address the ecosocial impacts of wildfires on human and animal health

Soil, vegetation, and water management provide options for climate mitigation (carbon sequestering) and adaptation (drought)

Landscape-level soil, vegetation, and water management attuned to climate aims to increase biodiversity and habitat values

Prevention of extreme wildfires prevents morbidity and mortality for affected human communities and animals (wildlife and domestic)

Youth-based initiatives that connect climate, catchments, and community through regenerative land-based practices

Fosters both climate mitigation (habitat restoration as carbon offset) and adaptation (drought, flood, etc.)

Riparian planting and corridors of habitat restoration in waterways and wetlands throughout catchment areas

Youth and “educational” engagement in downstream communities, create well-being benefits, with links to other species

Shifting from extractive to regenerative economies

Reduction of carbon, net-zero orientation, emphasize mitigation but also include adaptation opportunities

Prevent climate impacts in land - water living systems, including drought and flood

Principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power across rural, remote, and urban communities

thinking across diverse literatures that connect benefits across climate, ecosystems, equity, and health (see, for example, Walpole et ah, 2009; Romanelli et ah, 2015, Horwitz and Finlayson, 2011; Horwitz and Kretsch, 2015; Jenkins et ah, 2018; Vandyk et ah, 2018; Marselle et ah, 2019).

The WHOLE-systems co-benefit examples presented in Table 5.3 may also resonate with the long-standing traditions of Indigenous knowledges that have emphasized these interrelationships for millennia and have also fostered ongoing practices that prioritize a more holistic orientation (Panelli and Tipa, 2007; Moewaka Barnes et ah, 2017; Jenkins et ah, 2018; Ratima et ah, 2019; Redvers, 2018). Connecting different ways of knowing and traditions is an integral part of conceiving “What could be?” (see Bartlett et ah, 2015; Henwood et ah, 2016).


The question "What can be?” moves us into the practical, practice-based elements of a WHOLE-systems approach. Working together for WHOLE systems demands collaborative actions, processes, and practices attentive to the question "Who and How are we Open to Listen, and Engage/exchange?”

Moving from “What could be?” to "What can be?” shifts from designing potential options to the practical implications of doing. Given the importance of context, it would be disingenuous to delineate specific practical and operational aspects of “What can be?” for all WHOLE approaches. Even so, some overarching guidance can be offered to those aspiring towards a specialized generalist approach to WHOLE systems (Box 5.2). Getting to and operationalizing "What can be?” will benefit from ongoing attention to the questions and guidance provided in Box 5.2.

Designing for “What could be?” in relation to WHOLE systems is likely to challenge the status quo. This means that practical questions (What needs to be done? Who is going to do what? When and how is it going to happen?) may need to be linked to less familiar change-oriented questions such as "Who needs to do what, differently?” “Who talks to whom?” "Who needs to work with/listen to/learn from whom?” and “Do these right people know how to do this, and would they be valued for doing so?” The related questions “whose day-jobs are going to be different because of this?” “who is benefitting from this” and “whether these changes do or don’t happen?” acknowledges the potentially far- reaching structural, institutional, systemic, or societal implications and power dynamics of moving through associated change processes. Given the boundarycrossing nature of WHOLE approaches, answering these kinds of questions rekindles the need for attention to how to strengthen individual and collective capacity for this kind of work, linking back to calls for cultivating independent thinking (Brown et ah. 2019) and related transformations in education and training as part of wider systems change that aspires towards a healthy, just, and regenerative future (Parkes et ah, 2012; Parkes et ah, 2016; Redvers, 2018; WalpoTe et ah, 2019).


  • How w'e begin matters: The quality of the questions asked when we start influences all subsequent efforts in WHOLE-systems approaches.
  • Working and learning will happen in cycles and be iterative:

Future learning may create opportunities to deepen understanding of matters missed earlier. Celebrating different, connected phases of work recognizes the new insights possible across short, medium-, and long-term practice.

  • Context is essential: Commitment to context is critical to all stages of a WHOLE approach to health. It requires attention to past, present, and future influences on living systems, equity, and their implications for health.
  • Benefit from "approaches”: There will never be only one approach to gaining a contextually informed WHOLE-systems understanding or response to health issues for animals, humans, or other species. Embrace the plurality and opportunities provided by working with many approaches that share common principles and patterns of work.
  • Know when to refer and/or collaborate: Be prepared for teamwork. A “specialized generalist” needs to leverage from their own skills to embrace working with other specialties, disciplines, or partners to complete their work. This requires the “specialized” skills of recognizing, respecting, and learning to work with, and bridge across, other knowledge and approaches.
  • Commit to overcoming false dichotomies: Develop and cultivate a “both/and” orientation that counters the emphasis on either/or - a both/ and approach that is oriented to both living systems and equity; people and nature; urban and rural; crisis and recovery; individual and collective; knowledge and action; health of human and other species.
  • Focus on knowledge and action: Be attentive to the ways that a primary focus on knowledge and understanding can lead to an emphasis on describing and analyzing problems (especially the processes of disintegration and degeneration). New and valuable insights will arise when learning is also focused on how to foster, enhance, and amplify actions and interventions designed to be integrative and regenerative.
  • Continue to ask good questions: The quality and scope of our questions will influence our work and practice towards WHOLE systems more than finding solutions. Ongoing reflection on "Who and How- are we Open to Listen, and Engage/exchange?” will prompt further questions to inform the ongoing practice and cycles of work.
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