R/K Growth – Measuring Quality

Updated: Aug 13

Unless you are an ecologist or a complexity addict you may never have heard of “r/K” but I think this is a really powerful and useful model/heuristic/idea that should be a key part of the systems thinking conceptual toolbox. So what it is r/K growth? On an extremely high level – evolutionary biologists are not going to like this – it describes the difference between a quantitative form of development vs a qualitative form of development within a system. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject “In ecology, r/K selection theory relates to the selection of combinations of traits in an organism that trade-off between quantity and quality of offspring.”

What they mean by this is, as a creature wishing to survive in evolution do you create more offspring, increasing the probability that one will survive but having less time to care for each one, or do you have fewer offspring and invest more time and care in those few. For example, the reproduction of mice follows an r-selection strategy, with many offspring, short gestation, less parental care. In contrast, a Bald eagle takes a K-strategy producing relatively fewer offspring that have longer life expectancies and require extensive care when young.

This is the idea in evolutionary theory however it is also used in ecology to describe the stages in an ecosystem’s development – this is how we define it in our Systems Academy glossary. R/K growth describes two qualitatively different stages of growth within biological organisms and whole ecosystems. Starting with what is called the r stage, which is one of growth where most of the resources are used for development and little for maintenance during a period of high growth rate and positive feedback. Before at some stage reaching a mature state where negative feedback starts to limit the growth as the system enters the K stage of development, investing resources in other activities with negative feedback setting in as the system becomes more mature.

Actually, if you are familiar with the Adaptive Cycle by Buzz Holling then you may recognize these two stages as part of the full adaptive cycle where r = rapid growth and K = the system approaching maturity.


This is what it looks like in an ecosystem: After major ecological disruption r- and K-strategists play distinct roles in the ecological succession that regenerates the ecosystem. Because of their higher reproductive rates and ecological opportunism, primary colonizers typically are r-strategists and they are followed by a succession of increasingly competitive flora and fauna. “The ability of an environment to increase energetic content, through photosynthetic capture of solar energy, increases with the increase in complex biodiversity as r species proliferate to reach a peak possible with K strategies” – Wikipedia. As the ecosystem matures, a new equilibrium is approached, with r-strategists gradually being replaced by K-strategists which are more competitive and better adapted to the context.

What is interesting is that this r/K theory applies to all systems. Think of the development of the human body, while a child and teenager you are increasing in bodily mass – a quantitative increase. However, at some stage, the growth stops and you develop in a more qualitative fashion; education and experience that show no quantitative increase but instead relate to a qualitative increase through the better arrangement of internal connections, e.g. neural networks.

The same goes for an economy. Industrialization can be equated to the r stage, as industrialization is all about mass production; linear quantitative increases in the production and consumption of stuff and the quantitative growth of wealth as measured by GDP. However, economies do not go on like this forever, they eventually become information and service economies, which is all about increasing connections, integration between the parts rather than any increase in quantitative physical throughput.

All well and good, but one thing that struck me today is that if you think about it, all our systems are set up to account for quantity rather than quality. Take for example the difference between someone who just turns up and does their job 9 to 5 without any real connection to it, versus someone who is absolutely passionate about what they do, eats, sleeps, walks and talks it 24-7-365. The second person I would guess would often be an order of magnitude more productive than the first.

The funny thing is though even though that second person may be radically more productive economically we don’t really account for it or even teach for it in our educational systems. I don’t remember ever seeing a curriculum or a teacher really teach for passion and mastery in a subject, indeed the very structure and underlying principle of our educational system run contrary to that. Instead of being built around the student’s interest leading them to develop in the direction they are passionate about, it does the opposite, seeing education as “content” to be consumed so they can get to the next level in a linear quantitative progression.

If you think about it almost all our accounting systems are quantitative, they take little account of quality. On a very generalized level, I think this is one of the major things happening in our world as we transition out of the industrial economy into this new form of information services economy and it is something we are really struggling to make sense of; the rules that govern linear quantitative growth are very different from those that govern nonlinear qualitative growth. The question I will leave you with is this: how do we account for qualitative development? 

Systems Innovation

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