It is the whole system that yields, not just a series of parts

On a Permaculture farm, plants, shrubs, trees, and animals are chosen and organised so that each of them will provide several beneficial inputs to other parts of the overall system (according to the famous permaculture design principle: 1 element = several functions; 1 function = several elements).

For example, in a mixed chicken-house /greenhouse, the hens provide warmth, CO2 and manure to the plants, who in return provide oxygen to the hens (and edible crops to the farmer). Those chickens stretch their legs in a courtyard where trees are planted that yield thousands of little seeds and nuts, meaning that food is grown and delivered on site with zero energy spent by the farmer! In fact, following the design phase, the farmer’s input aims to be more and more reduced…


Trees and plants therefore are chosen for the food, fibre and/or fuel they yield – their beautiful, ornamental qualities coming second. In fact, you could say that beauty comes from experiencing thriving natural fertility – from experiencing plants and whole ecosystems enacting the best of their individual and combined potential.

So the main concern is around: how can we arrange, through design, many beneficial relationships around the principle that one item must yield several outputs that will become inputs for its neighbours (food, shelter and fuel for the farmer, but also seeds for replanting or/and for chickens, compost material, food and shelter for friendly insects, etc.)?


On a pragmatic level, the principle of obtaining a yield underlines the importance of ensuring the system is resilient and productive; that the farmer can eat of his land, not just in a few years time but as soon as possible. All space is used in that effect, including those which may have been disregarded in the past (window boxes, alleyways, roofs, etc.). Plants, shrubs and trees are chosen according to their maturation span, so that there is a diversity of slow, semi fast, and fast maturing in the system, nicely distributing fruit and vegetable yields over time.


Rethinking yields in human systems

From this garden example, we can derive a few useful principles:

  1. a yield is an output of item A which can be an input for item B
  2. for that output from A to be a yield, it must be sought as an input by B because B naturally sees it as ‘appetizing’; in other words, no energy must be spent trying to convince B to take it up
  3. the more different types of yields one same item can produce, the better
  4. ideally, every output must constitute a yield, i.e. it becomes an input for another part of the system. In that respect, waste is abolished in the system
  5. each item’s production ultimately is in the service of the whole system
  6. the more the whole system thrives, the more the parts thrive (on the basis of redistribution whereby more outputs are produced that become more inputs for the parts)
  7. vitality derives from diversity; the system produces plenty of different varieties of yields, rather than producing high quantities of one or two varieties. In that way, vitality goes hand in hand with resilience


Applying “yield-thinking” to different types of human systems

Let’s try to play with these concepts when thinking of a diversity training programme, a health system, and a school.


  • A diversity programme in a private firm

Permaculturists know that diversity is not only useful, it is vital; however, it is not a yield, rather it is a design principle, that has been proved fruitful time and again by experience.


Many companies are now engaging in programmes aimed at promoting gender, cultural and generational diversity, as well as less visible types of diversity. As they do, they are often faced, internally and externally, with questions about the usefulness and the efficacy of their initiatives: are they necessary? Are they making a difference?

The framework in which these programmes are being deployed tend to start with awareness raising, then move on to diversity management training, with sometimes an added input of non-discrimination and diversity promotion measures. Rarely though does it directly test out in what way diversity can boost their business, and what diverse mix will make a difference. It is as though everyone is engaged around the assumption that diversity will be good, and the need therefore to promote it, yet no attention is given to integrating it as a strategic imperative aimed at strengthening capacity and performance.

So awareness-raising and diversity management training produce outputs (better knowledge and skills about the issues involved), but these cannot be truly called yields, because (a lot of) energy still needs to be spent to convince managers of the usefulness of mixing their teams. The day that managers demand more diversity in recruitment and pools for promotions will indicate that it has become a yield…


Why not then turn the approach on its head and start with action-researching how to turn diversity into a competitive advantage – concretely? Starting with a few supporters of the idea, it would be a way of yielding both increased business performance, new models of functioning, concrete examples of success in linking diversity and performance, and also a wealth of data anchored in the organisation’s culture about what helped and what hindered on this journey of change, which can then be used in diversity management programmes later on.


Those programmes will then need to be designed so that each of their components produces more than one yield, and that together they boost diversity in the system through a process of positive feedback loops: mentoring programmes that not only develop capacities in individuals, but build themselves as a supportive network that can produce both encouragement/resilience and data about organisational issues, brought up in the mentoring, that need tackling more broadly; awareness-raising sessions that start from questions participants are asking themselves, then connect them to data and resources for action, and end up with a few volunteers for pioneering new approaches in their service, which are then connected to others and build up a critical mass of confirming data, etc.



  • A public health system

What is the purpose of a public health system, if not to boost the health of the population it is there to serve? How then can we work at reconnecting the people, their vision of what health means, the network of services able to boost health, and the resources to sustain it?

Katrin Kaeufer, Otto Scharmer and Ursula Versteegen did some interesting work in Germany in that spirit.

Perhaps an initial step needs to include rethinking health, not as a yield, as something you produce, but as a process, as an experience that emerges through interacting with your surroundings. It occurs to me that often we narrowly define health as the result of an intervention, the yield of an operation, of a drug treatment, sessions with a therapist. In that way, we fragment the issue into parts, in a rather mechanistic, productivist mental model that then structures our organising of our resources into silos.

But what if we thought of health just as we think of the vitality of our garden? Vitality is not a yield, as such, but a manifestation of the coherence between the different elements in the garden, and their capacity for feeding and emulating one another.

Health therefore is not a carrot bed that you plant and harvest, nor a blackberry hedge that is a recurrent part of our landscape. It has to do with the occupation that you have in society, and the sense of worth and belonging that it yields; with the kind of access to food that you have, the resilience of your support network, the treatment options that you’re entitled to and their responsiveness, and so on.

Are we prepared, though, to follow through the implications of the research that shows that programmes for cardiac health promotion are far more cost effective for society than state of the art heart surgery?

Are we prepared to transform our own paradoxes that have us both support unhealthy living habits marketed to us in order to fuel a consumption-based economy, and at the same time fund treatments for ailments caused by those unhealthy habits?

The issue is too big and too entrenched to tackle it globally. Rather, it would seem more efficient to test out locally new models of approaching public health, and then see what can be replicated. The added benefit here would be to decentralise health systems so as to bring them closer to their end users.


  • A school

The Grubb Institute developed an interesting framework for thinking about schools. With the “Reed Rainbow of Human and Social Development”, they suggest that a school not only serves as a place for intaking information and knowledge (first level of the rainbow), but also a place for initiation and belonging of children (level 2), maturation and empowerment (level 3), and transformation and envisioning (level 4).

In yields terms, this invites us to think about the different inner fields that need cultivating within a child as we, as adults, accompany them along the journey of becoming tomorrow’s citizens.

Can we create team-learning experiences whereby it is the whole team that is evaluated on its learning, not separate individuals? Coupled with support on how to function as a team, this could yield not only knowledge development, but also capacities for working and deciding collectively, equipping the new generations with the skills that we desperately need to tackle global issues.

Could we rethink evaluating and marking altogether, by enabling the kids to test for themselves how much their work is a yield for others in their environment – and adjust accordingly?

Can we, in fact, dare as adults to test how much the things we’re offering these children are picked up as yields by them?

How about re-establishing meaning and purpose at the heart of the education system – but not defined according to what has meaning for us, but rather the emergent meaning and purpose as identified by the kids (i.e. what constitutes yield in their desires to learn) in their interactions with each other and with adults?