Ecosystemic Actors (New Intelligences, Senses, Roles and Behaviours in the Octopus’s Garden): An Ode to Donna Haraway

Wes Hinckes
18 min readSep 15, 2022

Introducing Donna Haraway

I’m pretty sure Donna Haraway isn’t an octopus.

Donna Haraway isn’t a canine either but she does have some interesting things to say about where the delineations exist (or not) between her and her dog.

Donna has a relationship with her dog. They exchange looks, feelings, smells and touch.

Her dog licks her mouth and part of her and her dog are exchanged. Cells of their bodies interchange and mingle. Viruses and bacteria pass between them.

Science says that her and the dog are separate.

Donna suggests this is not the whole picture.

They are co-existing, co-creating, inter-relating, inter-being and inter-meaning.

Scientists like things in boxes but in reality where are the boxes? Where do you really draw the lines? Because if you look at things from other perspectives and begin to think about things differently and sometimes just a little more deeply, then the boxes that have been drawn can be understood as being just a short cut to creating ‘a single’ shared meaning and understanding.

Meaning, there’s lot’s of meaning we’re excluding from our understanding when we accept these ‘short cuts’ as representing ‘the whole’ of meaning. There’s a lot we’re not exploring, or learning or sensing.

A great many worlds are missing from our world.

Objects (things) and systems can be a bit like this too — in particular ecosystems which can contain both.

An object is easy as it concerns itself generally with appearance. The ‘cat’ sat on the ‘mat’.

But this deceptively simple visual picture invites deeper study that involves; our remaining senses, our emotional capacities, multiple excluded perspectives and knowledges, intellectual depths and diverse cultural understandings.

Objects are like the visible tip of the iceberg where our daily reality becomes fixed and frozen. But beneath that cold existence there is a real depth that expands out/in to infinity.

In my way of looking at things, ecosystems exist partly in this realm. You can take an ecosystem, in this you choose to draw a line around something alive, a forest for example which you can study and explore at almost any level of depth.

Within that ecosystem you can choose to draw a line around a smaller area, a glade perhaps, and this then becomes your ecosystem of study.

The ecosystem contains objects (named things e.g. plants) but these too can be ecosystems. Look inside and you’ll see what I mean.

Ecosystems are co-existing, co-creating, inter-relating, inter-being and inter-meaning.

We should all be more tentacular

Anyway, the reason I mention Donna Haraway is that I was on a webinar last year and an attending artist said that we should all be more ‘TENTACULAR’.

This was a word she’d learnt whilst reading Donna Haraway’s work.

Here’s the word;

tentacular (not comparable)

  • Of, or pertaining to, tentacles.
  • Resembling a tentacle or tentacles.

I’m going to take a different exploration of the term ‘tentacular’ in this post in an attempt to arrange some very early thoughts around ecosystems and what I’m going to refer to as ‘ecosystemic intelligences’.

It’s all going to get a bit tentacular and definitely sensual (touchy feely lol), but perhaps by the time I’m finished maybe I’ll have persuaded you to spend some time in the octopus’s garden with me.

That is of course why I’m doing all of this.

Let’s introduce the alien-like octopus.

Octopuses have the ability to solve puzzles, learn through observation, and even use tools — just like humans. But what makes octopus intelligence so amazing is that it comes from a biological structure completely different from ours.

It has a main brain located centrally. It has a brain at each arm (ganglia) and each arm is able to act independently of either the central brain or the other arms.

It also has neurons forming part of each sucker (numbering approx. 250 per arm) with which it can detect physical sensations as well as sensing chemicals — so it can also smell and taste what it touches as it explores its local environment (or ecosystem).

It is important to grasp something at this point.

An octopus is a highly flexible and adaptive, sense creating/responding ecosystemic actor that utilises central and distributed intelligences for mutual and independent benefit.

This will make much more sense as we progress further.

Octopuses are problem-solvers, mischief-makers and notorious escape artists. They also appear to have a rich inner life — so what is it like to be an octopus?

What is the difference between partnership and collaboration?

For the past couple of years I’ve been attending the ‘A Better Way’ network meetings online.

“We are a network across different sectors committed to changing the way things work for the better.

We know that if we want to improve services, build community, and create a fairer and more inclusive society, some things really need to change.

Alone, it can be hard to make change happen. With others, it becomes easier and so much more is possible. We come together to share our knowledge, learn from each other, and influence others.

We welcome anyone who is attracted by the Better Way thinking and would like to help us develop it further.”

One question which pops up on occasion is ‘what is collaboration?’.

It does seem to be one of those terms which gets thrown about without necessarily enough consideration as to whether collaboration is meant or even actually happening. Not that I’m complaining, I do exactly the same all of the time.

A recent contribution from the network was that ‘Collaboration is a bit like having a street party. Everyone turns up and brings something along with them and it kind of happens.’

I quite like this. It offers a kind of explanation which can be experienced and includes the potential and need for spontaneity.

I think collaboration, like many words, actually means what it means to you and those you’re talking to, even if that isn’t the strict definition of the term. It relates to your experience and understanding and the situation. Pretty much all common usage of language works in this way.

I’m probably not particularly literal or even very accurate in my writing.

I think I may be a little bit Haraway in that I’m not sure that the hard edges actually exist in reality (nature). Maybe we just force them to exist because it makes certain people or practices ‘right’? It could sometimes even be a form of dominance and I feel that Donna Haraway rightly sets out to challenge dominant modes of thinking, acting and behaving (unnatural).

Staying with the trouble as she herself says.

For the purposes of this post I’d like to suggest that perhaps a ‘partnership’ is a bit like a person with a hammer meeting a person with a nail, the combination of both the people and the tools leads to some kind of mutual benefit.

Plus, like two jigsaw pieces fitting together, they also allow a larger section of the picture to be understood (yet this should not be mistaken for being the big picture).

Within partnerships the people (or organisations) retain their separateness and independence. Two minds, two bodies, two systems or more.

Collaboration may be different in that good collaboration could have much more in common with the life and body of the octopus.

Intelligence and decision making is distributed and shared. There remains a level of independence and autonomy (trust). Sense gathering and sense making happens at multiple levels and locations. Multiple senses and intelligences are brought together to form a complete picture.

It is through exploration and engagement of the octopus with its surroundings that the sense gathering, sense making, local decisions, global decisions, responses, reactions and predictions combine to form something that is intelligent, fluid, adaptable and responsive.

Don’t just understand the octopus according to what you see (the object or the thing).

See the octopus as a complex adaptive system operating within and as a part of an ecosystem.

The octopus as ‘ecosystemic actor’ in an octopus’s garden (or ecosystem).

This is why tentacular is such a great word.

Throughout each tentacle, the suckers are all able to sense, respond and feedback. They act intelligently according to local context whilst also contributing to a different type of tentacle (group) intelligence.

Each tentacle can also be self-guiding in a similar way and has the benefit of sense-making at a higher level. It can bring into being coordination, cooperation and responses which each sucker on its own cannot achieve.

The central brain can be seen to repeat this higher order activity.

There’s something nice about tentacular in that it suggests that we too should or could develop our multiple ‘senses’. To become more sensitive and aware in numerous ways. In doing so we gain more from our experiences and contribute more to the greater whole.

I feel it also suggests that our organisational forms could and should open themselves up to more diverse ways of being and understanding.

Collaborations of intelligent and sensual systems operating at every scale.

Organisation as a distributed, active, intelligent, sensual organism.

You see an octopus doesn’t just have one brain which controls everything like we do. Instead, it’s brain (neuronal tissue) is distributed throughout its body.

Dear octopus your distributed, flexible, locally adaptive organisation lends itself to many of the challenges we face in society and the economy.

If we’re going to tackle some of these we may need to get ourselves organised differently…

What is an ecosystem?

The meaning of ‘ecosystem’ is usually understood to be its ecological definition.

a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.

“the marine ecosystem of the northern Gulf had suffered irreparable damage”

Ecosystem can also be use to describe;

a complex network or interconnected system.

“Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem”

My particular interest is actually related this latter definition but what you’ll see happening within this post is a mixing of the two meanings. I feel there’s real and important understandings that can arise from combining aspects of physical/natural/ecological ecosystems together with types of non-natural complex networks, in particular place-based or regional networks of people and organisations.

Place (ecosystem)

I’m reusing some old designs here so it won’t entirely match with what I’m writing but it should help illustrate some points.

A ‘place-based’ ecosystem allows us to develop a sense and understanding for the who, what and how of a localised geographic area.

This particular image is very general and is meant to illustrate how the; actors (people and organisations), networks (local and non-local), and assets, strengths and resources could interrelate regeneratively.

Place (network)

The ecosystem above can also be represented (there will be no shortage of useful representations) as a complex system, network or map.

The network mapping above relates to a ‘social action’ ecosystem.

The mapping above relates to creating possible place-based ‘employment pathways’.

Slightly separately I am going to include here a diagram of ‘entrepreneurial ecosystems’.

It’s probable that ecosystems knowledge, principles, actions and processes which are being gleaned and developed in other areas of society and the economy (artificial ecosystems), as well as understanding coming from observations and interventions in the natural world (natural ecosystems) are all able to be brought together into a broad and mutually beneficial body of knowledge and practice.

Systems thinking around Food Systems courtesy of Christopher Chase

What is systems thinking and why is it so important for critical thinking? With systems thinking we use our imagination to “connect the dots” with our knowledge about the world. That gives us comprehensive “mental models” of complex situations, so that we are better able to “see” the interdependent causal factors (often kept hidden by people with power and wealth) which are generating and sustaining problems (like addiction, poverty, war, ecological destruction, obesity, political polarization, etc)… —

and here is a not totally unrelated System Map.

Source: Into the Heart of Systems Change by Anneloes Smitsman, Ph.D. Systems map indicates the systemic barriers that were identified from collective evaluation processes and questionnaire results. —

My personal interest from Socially Enterprising is that I want to apply such learning and knowledge very obviously to the needs of communities and the local context.

Thus, I want to create easily accessible and visual methods of learning about collaborations, networks and ecosystems.

To take the concepts, learning and understanding of what works and apply visual design principles so that it becomes very easy to grasp and understand for all citizens and participants.

A hopeful co-benefit being that a persons or organisations learning can then act as a new perspective or lens on the world and the systems they’re involved with.

Teach people and organisations about ecosystems in the right way and you may find that they start to see how things can be done differently; in communities, in collaborations, in business networks, in sectors, in personal and social health and wellbeing, and in life and relationships.

A lot of this may look a bit like real-life gardening and ecosystem management.

It’s a good metaphor.

Nature may have all the best lessons after all…

For what purpose are these things?

What I’m attempting to get to is that it is possible for multiple overlapping ‘ecosystemic intelligences’ to operate within and play an important role in developing and maintaining these multiple overlapping ecosystems.

I understand that certain organisations already have roles which may cover specific sectors. For example your local VCSE (Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise) organisation or Chamber of Commerce.

What I’m suggesting is that there are new not yet created organisations which would be highly networked, non-hierarchical, open, distributed, participative and self-guiding. There will probably be a need for; backbone services, convening, facilitation and responsibility.

An ‘ecosystemic actor/intelligence’ would become involved with developing, intervening, maintaining and contributing to their relevant ecosystem.

Multiple octopuses and multiple octopus’s gardens all developing, evolving and producing all at the same time.

These ‘ecosystemic actors/intelligences’ would consist of local networks (organisations, communities, interests), local context and local action. Connected to and supported by non-local organisations and peers.

Co-existing, co-creating, inter-relating, inter-being and inter-meaning.

You could consider ‘ecosystemic intelligences/actors’ from an alternative holistic perspective.

If before, organisations were closed and centralised — separate things or objects in their own right.

In this alternative understanding these ‘new forms of organisation’ contain elements of the individual things/objects (organisations, assets and resources?) but their higher order existence comes into being from the space (and connections) between those things and the ecosystem they are engaging with.

This is the networked element of this alternative form of organisation.

Network allows this space to be bridged and connected in ways that couldn’t previously be imagined. The potential for new forms of organisation emerges from network, platforms and mass-connectivity.

As with all imagined things, their realisation may bring into being entirely new possibilities and realities.

The Common Weal, Ecosystems, Commons and a General Theory

The term Common Weal (commonweal) is according to Wikipedia an obsolete/archaic term for — The common good; public wellbeing or prosperity.

In modern language you may be familiar instead with the term Common Wealth (commonwealth).

I’m sure I read somewhere that the idea and principle within ‘Common Weal’ was that it was a broad common sense and understanding of what the common good was.

In a Scottish brogue…

“If we have seas a plenty. If we have rivers clean and salmon jumping. If we have fields of green and wheat a growing. If we have towns and villages vibrant, prosperous and free. If we have our families safe and the good health of each and every one of us. Then we have it all.”

It was this sense of things and systems connected.

Not by wealth, but by health.

This is what I suggest is the connection of ecosystems to this wider picture.

The modern economic system and concept of wealth as an understanding of if you can produce monetary wealth then you’re all right and you shouldn’t worry about everything else goes against this more ancient and holistic principle.

The healthy picture of a good society doesn’t and cannot work when you break it apart and separate everything away from the rest. It is and was understood as a whole.

The modern economic system tore apart this common understanding of the foundations for a good society, a good economy and a good life.

Everything became reduced to a singular focus on monetary wealth and lost association with all else that truly has value or a common understanding of where value actually arises from (the health, wellbeing and relationships of and between things, systems and ecosystems).

The modern system without any sense of shared connection and responsibility becomes ‘anti-health’ and if you look around at our modern social and economic challenges then the resulting effects are easy to see.

Perhaps the task at hand is to get back to this concept of interconnected and interrelated health and wellbeing.

It’s a nice way of connecting everything together and providing some conceptual foundation.

It presents itself as the garden we have neglected and forgotten and that exists all around us.

Network allows us to bridge and interconnect these ecosystems.

Network allows us to create new organisations that engage and care for the ecosystems.

It’s an alternative form of National Health System.

In this post I have touched upon a number of different ecosystems.

I have mentioned;

  • Place-based Ecosystems
  • Social Action Ecosystems
  • and Entrepreneurial Ecosystems

In previous posts I have touched upon;

There will also be ecosystems which are missing such as;

  • Cultural
  • Industrial Sectors
  • Purpose/Interest (sustainability/circular/wellbeing at work etc)

I would like to suggest that all of these ecosystems (and their constituent parts) can be brought together and interconnected through a platform.

A health based and holistic paradigm may allow us to apply similar thinking and approached across different ecosystems.

To create and maintain a healthy ecosystem you are looking to develop and maintain; connections, relationships, communication, awareness, collaboration, capacity, diversity, innovation, skills and knowledge throughout each local ecosystem as well as the larger regional and national ecosystems.

It is back to the idea of the octopuses and the gardens.

The gardener helps enable a healthy ecosystem to form through structure, arrangement, and the improvement of environmental conditions.

I would call this a developmental role.

I have often described Socially Enterprising the organisation as not being the organisation that does the work (that is the responsibility of people, communities, and organisations who already do the work) but an organisation that enables the work of others to be done so more effectively.

Providing a network architecture which supports the bringing together of ecosystems and networks is obviously a foundational part of this, as is providing the integrated collaborative platform which spans the spaces that are created.

The gardening metaphor, provision of intelligence and creation of easily accessible materials is perhaps part of our developmental role for the entire system.

This is our ecosystem role, this is us behaving and responding as an ecosystemic intelligence.

It is a continuous collaborative learning and development ecosystem connected to ecosystems and networks at every scale.

I’ve described Socially Enterprising elsewhere as a new form of networked NGO (Non-Government Organisation).

There are a number of International NGO’s who concern themselves with International Development and Humanitarian work. There are obviously governments and other organisations who concern themselves with Development.

I feel Socially Enterprising could be something different.

An entirely new form of Networked Developmental NGO which is connected to the health and well-being of networked ecosystems and their development through developmental approaches (learning and development, new ways of working, and new ways of organising) i.e. we don’t do the work we just enable to work of others to be done more effectively with the best use of local and national resources.

As Capra, a living systems practitioner and theorist explains, he dislikes the world hierarchy as it is a human projection of better or more important as ‘in nature there is no above nor below, there are only networks nestling within other networks’ (Capra, 1997:35).

This post from Geoff Mulgan on ‘Designing Future Institutions’ is quite timely. If you read his attached paper on ‘Organisational Architecture’ you’ll understand where Socially Enterprising and my writing above fits in with all this.

I’m going to finish this post off with some links to other posts of mine which help illustrate how these multiple forms of ecosystems can be created, connected and brought into new forms of productive and mutually beneficial relationship.

Notes / Ideas

This ecosystem of connections and relationships can also be understood as a form of mutual commons.

I feel this along with developing a common understanding that value comes from relationships and not from things is important to creating a fairer and more logical society and economy.

Explain different purposes

These orgs may create an opportunity to participate in society in new and beneficial ways.

It can take time and be difficult to open up existing organisations.

Creating new organisations which contain existing organisations and the public offers the possibility of a workaround.

For example it may be difficult to effect change, encourage innovation or make openness and public participation the norm within local heritage organisations individually.

But it may be possible to create and facilitate new types of organisation which invite and involve the organisations and the public creatively and collaboratively.

Learnings and experience can then feedback to possibly result in positive changes and effects.

Destroying the Treasure Map: Steps Beyond an Extractivist Subjectivity

Mental, social, and environmental ecology

In order to overcome this tendency the psychoanalyst, political philosopher, and activist Felix Guattari proposed that we needed to go beyond the idea of a single ecology in order to start thinking in terms of a triple ecological system. He proposed a notion of ecology that comprehends a mental ecology (subjectivity, culture, sensibility, desires, etc.), a social ecology (social relations, forms of inequality, institutions, etc.), and an environmental ecology (water, air, land, non-human beings, etc.).

Guattari considers that these three systems are embedded into each other and shape and co-define each other constantly. They can not be considered as separate entities. The environment shapes social flows and tendencies which define mental or subjective positions. Subjectivities can perpetuate or challenge social constructions which can perpetuate or change ways of living in this world. Structural forms of inequality shape individual human lives which in turn, subjectify and naturalize these behaviors, ultimately perpetuating them. These very behaviors and subjectivities shape environments, generating production modes and material infrastructures that in turn project these ideas into the future. Thus, nature is not outside the modes of production designed to exploit her. These modes of production depend on subjectivities and social desires. These are shaped by material conditions and mental ideals. The three ecologies keep shaping and defining each other.

This below is really an entirely different post which looks at these changes in practice and thinking.

In many other areas of science and knowledge a similar widening of perspective is taking place. Ecology, ecosystem and network are all being applied in understanding things anew.

Mental disorders aren’t diseases, they’re networks of symptoms

A novel perspective on psychopathology promises to help solve the problems vexing the neo-Kraepelinian paradigm. This is the network perspective, pioneered by the Dutch psychometrician Denny Borsboom and his colleagues. Borsboom was inspired by contemporary theorising about intelligence — specifically, how it might emerge from the interactions of multiple cognitive subsystems. According to the network perspective he and others have developed, a psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, is itself an emergent phenomenon. It arises from a network of interactions among its constituent elements (eg, sleep, mood and energy).



Wes Hinckes

Founder of Socially Enterprising / Commoner / Mostly Unemployed.