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Panarchitecture: Architecting a Network of Resilient Renewal

by Nick Gall  |  January 24, 2011  |  5 Comments

Just before the holidays, we published our second major note set on hybrid thinking, which I’ll post about in more detail soon. But what I’m really excited about, and wanted to post about first, was our inaugural note on panarchitecture, a very different kind of architecture.

Panarchitecture is a kind of hybrid thinking that combines insights and practices from architectural thinking with those from ecological thinking—specifically the ecological thinking known as panarchy. C.S. “Buzz” Holling coined panarchy as the name of his framework for understanding the dynamics of ecosystems. The pan- in panarchy is meant to connote the Greek god Pan, who is associated with both nature and disruption.

The fundamental insight of panarchy is that all systems that evolve (and not all do), do so through a alternating cycle of sustained growth and disruptive renewal. Holling calls this the adaptive cycle and it looks like this:


As you can see, the sustained growth phase (which Holling calls the front loop) is the traditional S-curve, which has been at the heart of thinking about innovation for decades. What Holling and others investigate more deeply is what happens between the time one S-curve peaks and flattens and the emergence of a subsequent S-curve. What happens is a phase of disruptive renewal, a sort of on inverse S-curve, which Holling calls the back loop. More importantly, Holling analyzes what triggers the transitions from front loop to back loop and vice versa. The answer? Other adaptive cycles!

In other words, what traditional architectural thinking (and dare I say systems thinking) views as hierarchies of static, containing structures, Holling views as panarchies of networked, dynamic cycles:


While panarchy thinking has begun to spread beyond ecological science, it has done so slowly, and indirectly. For example, it turns out that both Stewart Brand’s concepts of shearing layers and pace layering were influenced by Holling’s work. While Brand visually shows such layers as cycles, his use of the term layer unfortunately undercuts his message that layers are best thought of as dynamic cycles of influence, not static structures of containment.

Accordingly, panarchitecture is a line of research we will be developing at Gartner to help enterprise architects better understand and architect for the dynamic back loops in their systems, their enterprises, their industries. and even their cultures.

For more on panarchy and panarchitecture, see From Hierarchy to Panarchy: Hybrid Thinking’s Resilient Network of Renewal. It is posted on the Gartner Enterprise Architecture “free research” page, so you can read it even if you are not a Gartner client. Please give it a read and let me know what you think!

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Category: hybrid-thinking  panarchitecture  

Nicholas Gall
VP Distinguished Analyst
14 years at Gartner
35 years IT industry

Nick Gall is a vice president in Gartner Research. As a founding member of Gartner’s Enterprise Planning and Architecture Strategies, Mr. Gall advises clients on enterprise strategies for interoperability, innovation and execution. Mr. Gall is a leading authority on middleware… Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Panarchitecture: Architecting a Network of Resilient Renewal

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Keith Ricketts, UK Technology News. UK Technology News said: Panarchitecture: Architecting a Network of Resilient Renewal: Just before the holidays, we published our second … […]

  2. Quora says:

    What is more valuable: success or failure?…

    Success and Failure create one another in an adaptive cycle. At least that’s the theory put forth by C.S. “Buzz” Holling, called panarchy. In a way, it is a more detailed, and more scientific, version of Hegel’s dialectic. For more information on H…

  3. Quora says:

    What are some good examples of applying panarchy beyond ecological science?…

    Panarchy is the theory developed by C.S. “Buzz” Holling to explain the resilience of ecosystems in terms of dynamic cycles of growth, disruption, and renewal. In several books, Holling and others have described how the framework can apply to systems …

  4. Dibyendu De says:

    I have posted my initial response/reply on Quora. If you like we may have a detailed discussion on this.

  5. […] – Gartner’s variant on ‘design-thinking‘. This week he published a summary-pointer to his somewhat earlier article ‘From Hierarchy to Panarchy: Hybrid Thinking’s […]

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