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Systems Changes Learning: Recasting and reifying rhythmic shifts for doing, alongside thinking and making | JSCI

A special issue on “Sustainable, Smart and Systemic Design Post-Anthropocene: Through a Transdisciplinary Lens” in the Journal of Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics edited by Marie Davidová, Susu Nousala, and Thomas J. Marlowe has been released. In that issue, the journey of the Systems Changes Learning Circle from 2019 through 2022 is reviewed.

The editorial team, in the introductory article, wrote some descriptions about the contribution.

In the first paper, Ing (2023) presents an overview of the history, background, and philosophy of System Change Learning, integrating classical Chinese thought with Western professional practices to revisit the Aristotelean trilogy of doing (praxis), thinking (theoria) and making (poiesis) to construct a distinctly inter-/trans-disciplinary and collaborative approach that unifies the three.

The first paper invites a change of perspective through thinking based on in-depth exploration and explanation of the background, and philosophical approach of systemic learning, and the relationship to change. The author does this by introducing us to the concept of System Change Learning and unpacking the potential and versatility of this thinking for future applications, in particular, collaborative approaches.

This is the first fully peer-reviewed article about Systems Changes Learning in an academic journal!

Here’s the published abstract.


Entering 2023, the Systems Changes Learning Circle completed in its fourth year of 10-year journey on “Rethinking Systems Thinking”. In a contextural action learning approach, the Circle has elevated rhythmic shifts as the feature that both resonates with practitioners in the field, and fits with a post-colonial philosophy of science bridging classical Chinese thought with Western professional practices.… Read more (in a new tab)

Appreciating Systems Changes via Multiparadigm Inquiry | ISSS 2022 Proceedings

In the ISSS 2022 Plenary talk, the first 25 minutes were a blast through (a) the rising interest in system(s) change(s); (b) appreciative systems (Vickers); (c1) the philosophy of architectural design; (c2) the philosophy of ecological anthropology; (c3) the philosophy of Classical Chinese Medicine; (c4) the philosophy of rhythms; and (d) methods of multiparadigm inquiry, and open theorizing.

The formal publication of the manuscript in the Proceedings of the 66th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences unpacks the content for those with an interest in really understanding the breadth of domains that the Systems Changes Learning Circle has explored, from 2019 through 2022.

This proceedings release is a milestone, as a coherent work that has been lightly reviewed. In a more thorough process of peer review, a publication may be further refined by anonymous comments requesting clarification of some points, or suggestions that some sections could be abbreviated. My style of writing presumes that readers might not know all of the references, so I’m explicit about sources. (This also helps me remember from whom I’m learning!)

Here’s the abstract, as it appears in the proceedings.


In which ways is the subject of systems change(s), as a first-class concept, distinct from a reduction into (i) systems and (ii) changes? For practice, theory, and methods to be authentically rigourous, the philosophy underlying an approach to systems changes can be explicated. Through an appreciative systems framework, presumptions are surfaced as to (i) what are and are not systems changes; (ii) when, where, and for whom, systems changes are prioritized for attention; and (iii) how systems changes should be addressed.… Read more (in a new tab)

Sensemaking and Theory-Building | Gary S. Metcalf | ST-ON 2023-02-13

The theme for the February online meeting of Systems Thinking Ontario was sparked from the discussion from the January session on Root Metaphor and World Hypotheses.  What does it mean to have a theory?  How does sensemaking contribute to this?

Gary Metcalf volunteered to guide a conversation on these topics.  Two prereadings were to serve as an orientation for the diligent:

A smaller group convened for this discussion, enabling full participation by each and every attendee.  After a quick round of introductions , the conversation started around 4m20s in.

This recording of the session is available on Youtube, as well as on the Internet Archive .

Video H.264 MP4
February 13
[20230213_ST-ON_Metcalf SensemakingTheoryBuilding.m4v]
(QHD 2560×1440 265kbps 289MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

A standalone audio was also created during the meeting.

February 13
[20230213_ST-ON_Metcalf SensemakingTheoryBuilding.m4a]

The conversation flowed naturally.  I commented that before Gary was a professor of organizational systems, he had a prior career in family therapy.

Here is the original abstract sent in advance.

Some ideas have become everyday words.… Read more (in a new tab)

World Theories as Analytic-Deductive, Dispersive-Integrative

Philosophy underlies the distinction in the three volumes of the Tavistock Anthology:  founded on the World Hypotheses of Stephen C. Pepper, the Socio-Psychological Systems Perspective and the Socio-Technical Systems Perspectives are based on Organicism, while the Socio-Ecological Systems Perspective is based on Contextualism.

This thread on contextualism can be traced from the association between E.C. Tolman and Pepper in 1934, through the publication by Emery & Trist in 1965.

Fred Emery, in the edited paperback on Systems Thinking: Selected Readings (1969), cites World Hypotheses (1942) as a precedent to systems theory.  Stephen C. Pepper described the four Relatively Adequate World Hypotheses as two treatments with polarities, that can be structured into a 2-by-2 matrix, shown in Table 1.

Table 1:
Four relatively adequate world hypotheses
World Hypothesis Dispersive Integrative
Root metaphor:
Similarity, as a recurrence of recognizable features
Root metaphor:
Machine, where exerting force or energy produces predictable outcomes
Root metaphor:
Situation, as a historic event in its living actuality
Root metaphor:
Constructive development, with orderliness of changes from stage to stage

Pepper named four distinct world hypotheses with unfamiliar names, and coupled them loosely with prior philosophical schools. With each world theory, a root metaphor is induced.

  • Formism is associated with realism, and the idealism of Plato and Aristotle. Its root metaphor is similarity.
  • Mechanism is associated with naturalism or materialism, with philosophers such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume.
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Root Metaphors and World Hypotheses | ST-ON 2023-01-09

Researching the philosophical foundations of systems theory to understand the meanings of “causal texture, contextualism, contextural” from the Tavistock legacy led to philosopher Stephen C. Pepper.

The philosophical lineage and contributions of Pepper were the focus for the January online meeting of Systems Thinking Ontario.  A deep reading of Pepper’s work (over a month!) was digested on a wiki site on the Open Learning Commons at .  That is better as a reference resource than an easy explanation.

The online meeting began with usual self-introductions.  After 15 minutes, a quick overview of the wiki site was reviewed, interjected with clairifying questions by Zaid Khan, and moderation monitoring by Dan Eng.  Participants were engaged in making sense of the World Hypotheses as a precursor to systems thinking, continuing for well over an hour.

This recording of the session is available on Youtube, as well as on the Internet Archive .

Video H.264 MP4
January 9
[20230109_ST-ON RootMetaphorsWorldHypotheses_1920x900.m4v]
(HDPlus 1920×900 952kbps 958MB)

[20230109_ST-ON RootMetaphorsWorldHypotheses_640x300.m4v]
(640×300 162kbps 281MB)

[on the Internet Archive]

A standalone audio was extracted from the video.

January 9
[20230109_ST-ON RootMetaphorsWorldHypotheses.mp3]

Participation in this discussion was intended more to provoke thought and conversation about philosophical framings inherent in the evolution of systems thinking, than to explicate with the intricacies of an American pragmatist taking a position against logical positivism in the 1940s.… Read more (in a new tab)

World Hypotheses, Contextualism, Systems Methods

The first Systems Thinking Ontario session for 2023 is scheduled for January 9, on “Root Metaphors and World Hypotheses”.  This is philosophical content, for which a guided tour and discussion will be better than attempting a solo reading of the World Hypotheses wiki on the Open Learning Commons.  Upon announcing the session on social media, I was honoured to receive a response from Michael C. Jackson, OBE.

Very interesting, David. And great that you are bringing Pepper and Emery/Trist back into centre of debates about systems thinking – where they belong.

Thanks, also, for drawing attention to my 2020 discussion of world hypotheses.

Sociotechnical thinking went through a brief ‘mechanical systems’ phase (Trist and Bamforth) before discovering von Bertalanffy and embracing organicism. It is also true that both Trist and Emery later claimed to have moved beyond organicism and embraced contextualism.

My own view is that they did not succeed and that organicism continued to dominate in the L22 work and even in the later socio-ecological work.

I recently had an exchange with Merrylyn Emery on this who, of course, says I am wrong and that her and Fred’s later work is clearly contextualist.

My argument, which I still adhere to, can be found in the chapter on sociotechnical thinking in my ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity’. It is this chapter Merrylyn objected to. She is still very active in Australia.

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