Change and Transformation

Systems Theory makes a distinction between orders of change. If I change the light bulb or if I change my shirt, that is first order change. Things are different but the structure remains the same. Second order change is an actual transformation of the structure. Third order change is a change in the way the structure is created.

If the light bulb burns out and I replace it with one just like it I have changed the light bulb but overall I have simply restored the system to its previous state. This is first order change.

It the light bulb burns out and I decide to use a long-life energy efficient bulb I now have a different way of plugging into the power grid to get light. This is second order change.

But if I decide that I am tired of buying light bulbs when there is a sun which provides plenty of light and I put a hole in the roof and install a solar tube I am now off the grid (at least for this light) and am not buying light bulbs. This provides light but gets it from a different source. This is third order change.

Each of these is a response to a system with a burnt out bulb, and each is a response which creates light in the room, but the kind of change is very different at each order. When things are different within a given order, we call that change. When we move to another order, we call that transformation.

All growth happens through stages. Sometimes the stages are clearly delineated as in the life cycle of an insect. Insects grow from egg to larva to pupa to adult. Butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are so easily differentiated from adults that one must be an expert to know which caterpillars become which butterflies.

Oak trees also grow through stages going from acorn to seedling to sapling to adult. While it is easy to differentiate an acorn from a mature tree, it is a bit harder to say when it transforms from a sapling to an adult tree by becoming sexually mature.

In the case of oak trees, they also undergo changes through the annual cycle of dormancy, new growth, fully leaved seed production, leaf change and return to dormancy. That is, they cycle through winter, spring, summer and fall. But these changes are not transformation except that each year another ring is added to the trunk.

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