Rural communities all over South East Asia are facing major challenges as they try to shape their economic futures in ways that will increase wellbeing for all. This paper argues that researchers who describe and explain rural change play a powerful role in shaping imagined futures and the practices of local development. We foreground the theoretical choices made in representing rural change and call for a rethinking of the dynamics of transformation, one that highlights complexity, uncertainty and possibility. Following Robert Chambers and Jane Jacobs we draw on ecological representations of habitat maintenance, diversity and interdependent development and co-development to help inspire new ways of thinking and performing change. We illustrate theoretical and practical choices that can strengthen resilience in rural communities, using examples from our action research intervention in the Philippines.