The Art and Science of Meshworking

Guest authored by Marilyn Hamilton PhD CGA, founder of

It may be, as philosopher Andy Clark has suggested, that our minds are a kludge (or bricollage) of different kinds of intelligence: some intelligent abilities arise out of decentralized and parallel processes, others from centralized and sequential ones…. (Delanda, 1995)

What is Meshworking?

Meshworking is a term derived from brain science to describe how the brain integrates hierarchies and self-organizing webs of relationships. The brain builds itself by laying down large synaptic highways which become the scaffold of communication corridors from which secondary and tertiary corridors emerge, until a vast “hairnet of axons” covers the brain. Once this hairnet is in place then we have a brain that is able to self-organize an infinite number of connections, thoughts, ideas, innovations and learnings while at the same time behave and direct behaviour in dependable, learned ways.

Meshworking seems to combine both the self-organizing results of complex-adaptive human systems with the replicatable backbone of hierarchical organization, capturing the best of two operating systems. In strict terms, brain scientists use meshworks in relation to self-organizing neural nets, and hierarchies in relation to reinforcing levels of hierarchical operations.

The brain builds itself by laying down large synaptic highways which become the scaffold of communication corridors from which secondary and tertiary corridors emerge, until a vast “hairnet of axons” covers the brain. Once this hairnet is in place then we have a brain that is able to self-organize an infinite number of connections, thoughts, ideas, innovations and learnings while at the same time behave and direct behaviour in dependable, learned ways.

Some researchers even relate key synaptic connections in the brain (modulated by the major neurotransmitters like serontonin, dopamine, choline, noradrenalin etc.) to sets of values that allow for regulated brain/body function.

These values appear themselves to be modifiable, based on life conditions. The appearance of this modern brain science evidence of intelligence-based values, seems to vindicate Clare Graves’ (Graves, 1974) proposition that intelligences are triggered in the brain by dissonance (ie. constraints) in the environment.

It appears that it is the brain’s very capability of re-organizing itself and releasing new potentials that allows for the emergence of new values systems. In other words, if the brain lacked its self-organizing capacity, it would be constrained from emerging new capacities. At the same time if it lacked hierarchical capacity, it would not.

What an amazing combination of qualities our brain demonstrates: an organism capable of forever re-inventing itself by meshing neural nets and an organism that is able to sort and choose amongst options by producing useful hierarchies.

Moreover, it appears that meshworks link heterogeneous capacities or entities and hierarchies link homogenous elements or functions. But as values systems emerge, then a level of complexity emerges where our brains meshwork hierarchies (eg. connect organ systems like heart, lung, liver) and make hierarchies out of meshworks (eg. the circadian sequences of the meridian energy system). It is this two-way combination of enabling hierarchal meshes and meshing hierarchies that lies at the heart of my use of the term “meshworking”.

Beyond the appeal of the meshed neural networks, I recognized that the application of meshworking was not limited to brain function, but that it might offer a powerful explanation of how communities and cities function. Because communities and cities are artifacts of human life, I reasoned that if our brains had the capacity to meshwork hierarchies and to make hierarchies of meshworks, this might be the key to understanding how cities are working and evolving.

Meshworking as an Evolutionary Map

Meshworking seems to entail both an art and a science. Are we limited to seeing the art as relating to self-organizing systems and the science to organizing hierarchies? Or can it work both ways? The practice of meshworking involves both simultaneously. The art and science of meshworking is related to making generative connections. We know the connections are generative when new capacities and/or new values emerge from the meshworking process.

Meshworking is noticeable in my work when I act as an intentional catalyst. Interestingly, in the brain sciences, it is recognized that catalytic function directs a flow of energy-matter through a system so it shifts from one steady state to another.

Much of my work involves using information to re-direct energy-matter; for example, introducing the work of one person to another whom they have never met, so together they can combine resources and produce something that neither would be able to do on their own. Or achieving consciousness development in individuals and groups in training processes designed to discover complex integral paradigms. Or assisting clients to reframe linear processes and analyses into systemic, evolutionary perspectives.

Dialogue Meshes Hierarchies

Another example of meshworking is the research of Dr. Ann Dale (Canada Research Chair on Sustainable Community Development) into sustainable community infrastructure. Ann has networked together a progression of hierarchies.

She has intentionally created a cross-disciplinary research team, where the members come from academic, NFP, private sector and public sector hierarchies. She has designed e-dialogues where participants represent hierarchies within specialized city infrastructures: Energy, Waste Management, Transportation, Land Use Planning and Governance.

Within a structured online dialogue platform, Ann has catalyzed connections within sectors, but across widespread geographies by inviting participants to share their views of leading-edge practices, barriers to progress and solutions to sustainability challenges. She has also made visible observed and potential connections between sectors by archiving the e-dialogues and by documenting over twenty Best Practise Case Studies. (Check out some of Ann’s work at

Why is Meshworking Important?

Humanity finds it much easier to think in terms of articulated homogeneities rather than articulated heterogeneities. But it is the latter, I believe, that hold the secret for a better future. Perhaps we can learn from birds, — and why not even rocks? — the secrets of non-homogenous thinking. (Delanda, 1995)

In a recent Integral City teleconference on Meshworking, participants recognized that the practice of meshworking requires an understanding of boundaries that contain whole systems, along with simultaneous acceptance of the interconnection of all the systems within the larger systems. This is the essence of paradox, like the tension in boundaries that both contain and separate the city and the country.

Teleconference participants related their experiences of creating life conditions and holding space long enough for leaders to let go of old ways of doing things so they could create an entirely new approach.

This process of dismantling the old, so that innovation can emerge may take a long time (years). It literally entails the rearrangement of the brain, body, relationships, expectations and paradigms. The facilitation of this act of re-arranging often requires the use of non-verbal processes (like art, music, dance and other expressive arts) to access collective wisdom and tap into new ways of knowing.

One Meshworker suggested that this feels like a shift from entropy (where the loss of energy from a system causes it to wind down) to syntropy — where the release of energy from the old structure disintegrating, enables the creation of entirely new patterns.

It seems that the both/and approach of meshworking, essentially re-values and re-calibrates hierarchies. (This is a process of evolving complexity, into what some now call panarchy or holarchy.) Instead of denigrating hierarchies as outdated organizational forms, meshworking recognizes that healthy hierarchies under gird all natural systems. In these holarchies the flow of information, energy and matter is enabled for the wellbeing of the whole. At the same time, meshworking makes possible the newness that can be injected into a system through self-organizing processes.

The building of bridges, connections, collaborations and links between hierarchies and across self-organizing systems, means that meshworking is highly relationship based. The world has great need of more meshworks to release and reorganize the intelligences that are currently blocked by silos of “articulated homogeneities”. Has the time come for Meshworkers of the world to unite, to release the secrets of non-homogenous thinking, and meshwork the simplicity on the other side of complexity?

Delanda, M. (1995). Homes: Meshwork or Hierarchy? Special: Home issue. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2004
Graves, C. (1974). “Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap.” The Futurist.

© Copyright 2007, Marilyn Hamilton.
This essay was adapted from Meshworkers of the World Unite. Visit


Marilyn authored Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive in 2008

Cities function unintelligently when their parts are disconnected. The integral city meshes or multiplies city intelligences by integrating capacities, functions and locations into a whole system, like a human hive. Everything counts.

An integral city exists as a whole living system within the context of a specific natural environment, climate and ecology. The city, like a human hive, dances with a complex concentration of energies. As a natural system with intellectual, physical, cultural and social intelligences, it adapts to all the same issues, factors and challenges that affect the evolution of life anywhere: how to integrate information, matter and energy.

Integral City applies an integral paradigm for appreciating the city. Numerous graphs and specific examples describe integral processes and tools for change. This is a global, whole, multi-perspective way of looking at the world. Chapters explore:

  • Four-quadrant map of reality
  • Cities as concentrators of complex wealth
  • Mapping intelligence capacities
  • Mapping infrastructure for resource allocation
  • Designing appropriate governance systems
  • Relating the exterior environment to interior city life
  • “Meshworking”
  • Integral vital signs monitors.

Available at Amazon