Integrative Process 2: Reciprocity

I was listening to the soundtrack from “Chicago” today, on my way to the NYS Green Building Conference in Syracuse, NY. One of my favorite songs is the Mama Morton intro song, where she talks about the system that works for her…reciprocity. She runs the prison, and provides “services” on the side for inmates if they provide her with significant returns. Cigarettes, conjugal visits, access to reporters, dresses, laundry services, are all available from Mama for a fee. Mama Morton sings that she “deserves a lot of tat, for what I’ve got to give.” She invites inmates to push her up her ladder of success, and then she’ll gladly “push you up…yours.” Though I love this song, and totally appreciate the innuendos and manipulative subtext (what’s a musical without innuendo and subtext?!), I need to disagree with this use of the work “reciprocity”.

Reciprocity is not tit for tat. It’s not bribery. It’s not collusion. It’s not pay for play. It’s not negative…so let me move to the positive. What is reciprocity? It is one of the most important concepts in successful Integrative Design Process.

The FIRST definition in Merriam Webster is the most accurate in this case.

“Reciprocity 1 : the quality or state of being reciprocal : mutual dependence, action, or influence.”

We must embrace this mutual dependence, dare I say interdependence.

Let’s look our nested systems to understand the relationships we hold and why we must recognize interdependence as a foundational principle. We are, each of us, at the core of any relationship, any work we engage in, any challenge we are facing. Naturally, I am at the center of all that I deal with. It is powerful to recognize that and work from it. Then there is my community or project which is the encompassing system layer within which I am nested. I am usually working toward a directed goal in that system layer. And surrounding that system is the mother of all systems, our ecological system(s) that shelter, nurture, and interact with our communities and each of us in turn.

Do you see that turn of phrase at the end, there? The influence is from core out, and from out into the core. Mutually, at the same time, irrevocably.

To understand reciprocity in its true sense and needed application, I think of ripples in a small pond where the ripples move out from a duck splash, and spread, and change, then bounce from the edges back, and move again toward center. These ripples don’t just cause effects on their way out, but affect timing, shape and ensuing ripples as they move in toward the origin. Those ripples on the way back in change the ripples heading out that are changing the ripples on their way in. They change as they move, and each ring of interaction further informs them.

We can ignore the interdependence, but at a serious loss of benefit to every nested system. If we ignore the relationships, we allow damage like erosion at the edges of a pond. If we understand the mutual benefits, and amplify them, we can benefit all with better and more informed, integrative, decision-making.

This has been transformative in my design approach.

  • In my early years as an architect, I worked for less bad and to fix things for the environment we have damaged: energy-efficient, diversion from landfill, fewer change orders, gathering cardboard from the office to recycle in my own town… “How can I do less bad?”
  • I then started to understand and work toward aspirational goals to benefit the environment we have long damaged: energy positive, healthy materials with no toxins and fully reusable/recyclable, connections to better transit options to support community systems… “How can I do this work and do some good?”
  • I now am finally activated in understanding that I do not have to fix the environment as an altruistic approach. In fact, if I do so, I am ignoring the co-benefits that would truly inform the project for greater achievement for all. These are nested systems, and this means that understanding and working for ecologic support and connectivity benefits my project /community and me, which then benefits the project and the encompassing ecological systems. My operating question now is “How can I do the right things?”

Do you see the simplicity in that last question? The openness identifies opportunities for  clarity and focus. This creates a process that does not require band-aid approaches or redoing of uninformed or faulty work. A process that not easy, but is simple, elegant, and informed. Understanding the interdependence of the nested systems is key. Knowing that my investment in understanding what will benefit the larger systems, and how to interact collaboratively with those larger systems, will in turn be directly beneficial to me is transformational to my understanding of purpose. And respect for the interdependence with the complete ecological systems places me in the heart of the opportunities that exist.

…respect for interdependence with the complete ecological systems places me in the heart of the opportunities that exist.

Seek to do the right things…and be greener,


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