Keystone Synergies

an entry in our glossary of terms

The idea

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'Keystone Synergies' is an incomplete metadesign tool that is based on eco-mimetic principles. It is designed to catalyse, or to orchestrate, a set of beneficial changes within the human habitat and culture. It is part of a quest to shift design thinking from a focus on discrete 'things' or 'events' to the metadesigning and cultivation of multiple abundances (hence our abiding interest in synergies).

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square-50cm-spacer.jpg Bees and elephants are keystone species for different reasons

Inspired by ecosystems

When seeking to re-design design it is useful to look at whole ecosystems, not just individual organisms. Our term 'ecomimetics' is, therefore, different from how many interpret the notion of 'biomimetics' (e.g. Benyus, 1997). In ecological systems, stability is made possible by biological diversification and the natural selection processes that regulate the relative numbers of individual species and organisms that make up the whole. Biodiversity itself is sustained when whole clusters of species can continue to sustain one another, often by making adjustments to complex webs of interdependency. However, some of these appear to be more important (to the whole) than others, often because of their formative role in the habitat shared by many other creatures. These are called keystone species (Paine, 1969). This explains why their demise can precipitate the loss of many other species who depend upon something they contribute to others, or to the whole system. Elephants and sea otters are keystone species because they clear away parts of the ecosystem in ways that are favourable to other species. Similarly, bees are crucially important to our own species because they pollinate the plants upon which we (and many other species) depend. Sometimes the key activities can be found in flat 'hierarchies', where the term 'keystone mutualists' suggests a high level of interdependence within the group.


In the technological domain, technical inventions by individuals, teams, or profession, open up unforeseen opportunities for further innovation. If an original invention opens the field for many successive innovations, and if these are unthinkable without the first one, it could be described as a 'keystone invention'. For example, it is hard to imagine how ultra high-speed computers would have emerged without 'keystone' innovations in semiconductors and electronics, etc. A similar parallel can be drawn with respect to the domain of synergy. The architect/inventor/engineer Buckminster Fuller coined the term synergies-of-synergies when describing the profoundly interdependent nature of the universe. This implies that many (or most?) synergies are (co)dependent with others. It therefore follows that, by artificially introducing appropriate 'key' synergies into the ecosystem, we might expect a multiplicity of other synergies to emerge.


It is relatively easy to think of relatively simple synergies that facilitate other synergies. Some of these (e.g. associated with fossil fuels) are convenient but inefficient and proving extremely harmful to our long-term wellbeing. Without 'cheap' energy, post-carbon lifestyles may need synergies that are much more local, complicated and 'joined-up'. They may be required, for example, to deliver multiple benefits to many stakeholders at the same time. Looking for synergies-of-synergies is a better way to achieve this than focusing on single inventions, products or services. Here is an example:

  • By combining nickel, iron, manganese, we can make stainless steel (which is up to 35% stronger than any of its ingredient materials. This satisfies the classic definition of 'synergy'.
  • When we apply stainless steel in tension (cables) we have another synergy that makes it outcompete itself when in compression mode
  • Using stainless steel bicycle spokes enables us to make bicycle wheels that can carry 700 times their own weight.
  • By combining the above synergies with the low friction of pneumatic tyres on flat cycle paths we can achieve extremely efficient energy:mobility ratios.
  • Additional synergies at the social, cultural, political, education and language levels, can deliver greater levels of health, fitness, economy and conviviality.
  • All of these synergies can be combined in order to bring about a post-automobile paradigm change.

Future work

We have yet to conduct a large-scale practical case study, although we have argued the need for a 'synergy city' (download the article) and outlined some more specific plans for a particular town (c.f. Trimtab for Dover). One of the main difficulties of working with synergies is their ubiquity, rather than their rarity (c.f. Corning, 1983). Many synergies are so entangled in other complex synergies that we prefer to see them as separate entities. We tend to overlook them unless they are presented as simple (e.g. , 'scientific' (e.g. symbiosis), unexpected (e.g. serendipity), or dramatic and surprising (e.g. the fact that common table salt consists of a synergistic combination of 2 highly poisonous elements). Hence, when we seek to make things work together in a profitable (i.e. synergistic) way we may overlook the importance of synergistic relations within the team. We have explored this idea and coined the term sympoiesis, to describe how a team's achieving of purpose may also work in parallel with their achievement in learning how to work together more co-creatively. Arguably, sympoiesis is an example of a 'keystone synergy' because it creates the space for achieving subsequent (even better?) synergies.

Suggested further reading

  • Some of these titles are available as downloads or web-articles - available from our articles page)
  • Benyus, J. (1997), Innovation Inspired by Nature: Biomimicry, William Morrow & Co.: New York.
  • Backwell, J., & Wood, J., (2011), ‘Catalysing Network Consciousness in Leaderless Groups: A Metadesign Tool’, in Consciousness Reframed 12, Art, Identity and the Technology of the Transformation, editors Roy Ascott & Luis Miguel Girão, University of Aveiro, Portugal, pp. 36-41
  • Bateson, G. (1980). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Corning, P., (1983), The Synergism Hypothesis, Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, Palo Alto
  • Diaconis, P. and Mosteller, F., Methods of Studying Coincidences, Journal of American Statistical Association, p. 84, 853-861 (cited in Weisstein, Eric W., Law of Truly Large Numbers From MathWorld – A Wolfram Web Resource (1989)
  • Fairclough, K, (2005), ed. Jones, H. ‘Ecozen’, In Agents of Change: A Decade of MA Design Futures, Goldsmiths College: London, page 42.
  • Fuller, Richard Buckminster, (1969), Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, IL.
  • Havil, J., (2008), Impossible?: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums, Harvard University Press, Princeton, NJ
  • Kauffman, S., (1995), At Home in the Universe, the search for the laws of self-organization, Oxford University Press: New York.
  • Koestler, A., (1967), The Ghost in the Machine, Penguin: London (reprint 1990).
  • Lovelock, J. (1979), Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
  • Magee, E., (2007), Food Synergy; unleash hundreds of powerful healing food combinations to fight disease and live well, Rodale, New York
  • Margulis, L. (1998) Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, Basic Books: New York.
  • Maturana, H., & Varela, F., (1980), ‘Autopoiesis and Cognition; the realisation of the Living’, in Boston Studies in Philosophy of Science, Reidel: Boston.
  • Maturana, H., & Varela, F., (1992), The Tree of Knowledge; biological roots of understanding, Shambhala, Boston
  • Meadows, D., (1999), Leverage Points; places to intervene in a system, The Sustainability Institute, accessed 14 August, 2009.
  • Rayner, A. (2012), NaturesScope, O Books: Winchester, UK.
  • Simon, H., (1969), The Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd Edition, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA
  • Van Nieuwenhuijze, O., & Wood, J., 2006. Synergy and Sympoiesis in the Writing of Joint Papers; anticipation with/in imagination International Journal of Computing Anticipatory Systems, edited by Daniel M. Dubois, published by the Centre for Hyperincursive Anticipation in Ordered Systems, Liège, Belgium, Volume 10, pp. 87-102, August 2006, ISSN 1373-541 (download pdf version)
  • Wood, J. (2009), ‘Auspicious Reasoning; can metadesign become a mode of governance?’ in Journal of Postcolonial Studies, Volume 12, Issue 3 September (2009) pp. 315 – 327
  • Wood, J. (2011). Languaging Change from Within; can we metadesign biodiversity?, Journal of Science and Innovation, ISSN, 2078(5453), 27-32.
  • Wood, J., (2007) Synergy City; Planning for a High Density, Super-Symbiotic Society, Landscape and Urban Planning An International Journal of Landscape Ecology, Planning and Design Editor-in-Chief: J.E. Rodiek ISSN: 0169

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