Tools: The dialectic

  • Time needed: 60-90 minutes, depending on the level of discussion.
  • Participants: 4-8 people per group, depending on the complexity of the topic.

The richest part of an ecosystem is in the edge between one system and another.  It is in this zone where the resilience and survival capacity of most species is tested and where there is also greatest competition.  It is also the edge that is constantly in tension.  In practice, it is common to avoid looking at the edges between one theme and another, problem and another or one world-view and another.

OSMOS edges 1

This metaphor, drawn from Christopher Alexander’s The Pattern Language*, is what is referred to as ‘working on the edges’.  It is through looking at the overlaps, where synergies and contradictions can be found.  The image beside shows how we used a theme to explore three others (from the Crown Barracks project).  

Once we have explored tensions and synergies, we can apply this metaphor in exploring possible truths: thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis.  This means that we accept that through understanding tensions, we can find a position between them.

OSMOS edges 3

In the Crown Barracks project, tensions between objectives and interests were resulting in much of the complexity.  We were able to settle the tensions between ambitions, mediate compromises or simply rule out certain ambitions.


If a project explores a range of specific themes (say 3-6) use a large sheet of paper and draw a polygon with the total number of sides minus one – see photo above.

For example for 4 topics draw a triangle.  In the centre of the triangle, note a specific theme and then note the other three themes against, one per side.  Divide each side into positive and negative.  Finally in a group discuss the tension between one topic and the other three.

OSMOS dialectics