Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Reifying Systems Thinking towards Changes | ST-ON 2022-10-17

The October online meeting of Systems Thinking Ontario presented an opportunity for an update on progress made by the Systems Changes Learning Circle by 2022.  A slide deck had been prepared an in-person seminar at the Universitat de Barcelona Graduate Programmes in Business, organized by Ryan C. Armstrong, one week earlier.  Our regular monthly meeting, centered in Toronto, allowed a more leisurely pace, and a better affordance for capturing the session for playback.

The agenda provided the background history leading to the Systems Changes Learning Circle, and then focused on the practical approach to “doing” on our pilot engagement.

A. Rethinking Systems Thinking
B. Doing: Hub + 4 spokes
C. Thinking: Action learning for facilitators
D. Making: Systematic methods via multiparadigm inquiry
E. Ongoing learning opportunities

The meeting followed our usual practice of having participants introduce themselves. About 10 minutes in, the presentation on Parts A and B then started.  At 47 minutes, we took a pause for questions and comments.  At 1h14m, the presentation on Parts C, D, and E resumed.  At 1h32m, the presentation was completed, and more questions and comments were taken to the meeting ending at 1h51m.

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

Video H.264 MP4
October 17
(HDPlus 1920×900 643kbps 616MB)
[on the Internet Archive]

A standalone audio was also created during the meeting.… Read more (in a new tab)

Knowing Better via Systems Thinking | U. Barcelona 2022-10-10

Just before starting a trip to Spain, I received an invitation from Ryan C. Armstrong at the Universitat de Barcelona Business School to give some lectures.  The students in the bachelor’s programme in international business had a short mention of systems thinking in the first lecture of the operationa management class.  With that brief entry, this lecture was an opportunity to introduce a broader view of the traditions of systems thinking, in addition to the practices, theories, and methods under development by the Systems Changes Learning Circle in Toronto.

Having studied business myself at undergraduate and graduate levels, I can empathize with this audience.  The essential theme for these students is often:  why should I care about systems thinking?; and what is systems thinking? 

A. Knowing better
B. Systems thinking (one description)
C. Traditions (some favoured)
D. Contemporary approaches (in progress)
E. Ongoing learning opportunities

The presentation took about 40 minutes, followed by 15 minutes for questions and comments.

This audio augmented with slides is available on Youtube , as well as on the Internet Archive .

Video H.264 MP4
October 10
[20221010_UBarcelona_Ing KnowingBetterViaSystemsThinking_HD.m4v]
(HD 1280×720 2460kbps 1020MB)
[on the Internet Archive]
[20221010_UBarcelona_Ing KnowingBetterViaSystemsThinking_QHD.m4v]
(QHD 640×360 682kbps 331MB)

The original audio was processed through a noise gate to remove some echo, followed by an audio compressor.

October 10
[20221010_UBarcelona_Ing KnowingBetterViaSystemsThinking.mp3]

This lecture was at the end of the visit to Barcelona, after the Creative Systemic Research Platform Institute Symposium. … Read more (in a new tab)

Four system traps, in undesirable regimes

While the adaptive cycle and panarchical connections reflect the possiblity of movement from one stable state to another, it’s possible to get “stuck” in a disfavoured trap.  Social ecological systems involve both natural systems and human systems.

After widespread recognition of the 2002 Panarchy book, reflections in 2010 revealed further development of the theory and practice.

Applying Resilience Theory

[….]  The theory has shifted focus away from managing for particular equilibria to the management of regimes, as described below.

Managing Regimes

Adaptive capacity has been defined in the ecological literature as the ability to manage resilience (Gunderson 2000, Walker et al. 2004). Humans manipulate ecological systems to secure goods and services and in doing so leave the system more vulnerable to change, by eroding ecological resilience (Holling and Meffe 1996). Ecological resilience is difficult to assess and measure a priori and is often known only after the fact — that is, the complexities, nonlinearities, and self-organized processes that generate regime shifts or ecological phase transitions are generally understood only after a shift has occurred, and then only partly. Even so, humans do manage for adaptive capacity. Those management actions can be categorized as those that are aimed at buffering the impact of disturbances (Berkes and Folke 1998, 2002), those that accelerate recovery and renewal, and those that attempt to choose and manage transitions among alternative regimes.

Regime management has two key components that must be actively managed. Quite simply, they revolve around two basic questions: (1) “What kind of system do we want?”

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Types of learning, with panarchical change as (i) incremental, (ii) lurching, and (iii) transformational

In order to appreciate the influence of resilience science and panarchy on ongoing research into systems changes, revisiting foundational works sometimes resurfaces insights.  In the 2002 Panarchy book, Chapter 15 provides a summary of findings.

In the course of the project hat led to this volume, we identified twelve conclusions (Table 15-1) in our search for sustainable futures. Those conclusions are reviewed in this section. [p. 395]

Table 15-1. Summary Findings from the Assessment of Resilience in Ecosystems, Economies, and Institutions [p. 396]
Summary Statement Conclusion
Multistable states are common in many systems. 1. Abrupt shifts among a multiplicity of very different stable domains are plausible in regional ecosystems, some economic systems, and some political systems.
The adaptive cycle is the fundamental unit of dynamic change. 2. An adaptive cycle that aggregates resources and periodically restructures to create opportunities for innovation is a fundamental unit for understanding complex systems from cells to ecosystems to societies to cultures.
Not all adaptive cycles are the same, and some are maladaptive. 3. Variants to the adaptive cycle are present in different systems. These include physical systems with no internal storage, ecosystems strongly influenced by external pulses, and human systems with foresight and adaptive methods to stabilize variability. Some are maladaptive and trigger poverty and rigidity traps.
Sustainability requires both change and persistence. 4. Sustainability is maintained by relationships among a nested set of adaptive cycles arranged as a dynamic hierarchy in space and time-the panarchy.
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Sustainability from ecological anthropology: the second life of trees

What might a non-anthropocentric view of sustainability look like?  This would probably include regeneration of species alongside others in the ecosystem.  With some recent presentations, an idea that resonates with audiences is the “The Second Life of Trees”, credited by Tim Ingold (2002) to John Knight (1998).  Ingold sees continuity of life not only of each species, but in the co-respondences of species alongside each over many lifelines.

As background, Gilberto Gallopin (2003) is helpful in describing what sustainability might NOT be about.  Firstly, an extreme anthropocentric position.

Sustainability of the human system only. This position, if taken to the extreme, could result in the Earth becoming a totally artificialized planet if total substitutability of natural resources and services were possible. The classical economicist view, for instance, regards the economy as the relevant system, and relegates nature to the role of provider of natural resources and services and of a sink for the wastes produced by human activities (Figure 3).

This is consistent with the notion of “very weak sustainability” 10 (Turner 1993). The very weak sustainability approach asserts that natural and manufactured capital can substitute perfectly for one another.

Then, there’s an extreme biocentric position.

Sustainability of the ecological system primarily, even if it means elimination or displacement of the human component (Figure 4).

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Hypotheses Concerning Living Systems | James Grier Miller

Towards a general theory of living systems, we should be looking beyond the singletons of a hierarchical level, i.e. (i) cell, (ii) organ, (iii) organism, (iv) group, (v) organization, (vi) community, (vii) society, and (viii) supranational level.

In a scientific approach, James Grier Miller created a list of hypotheses.  In the 1100+ page book, the hypotheses were not proved or disproved.  However, reviewing some of the hypotheses presents interesting questions as to whether an espoused systems thinker is actually sweeping in knowledge across multiple types of systems, or just reducing scope to a single system or type of system.

In this chapter I focus attention on hypotheses which apply to two or more levels of systems, because of their powerful generality. These are more than propositions of systems theory: they are general systems theoretical hypotheses. Several of the assertions I have made in my fundamental statement of general living systems theory in the preceding two chapters are, of course, cross-level hypotheses or propositions of this sort. Such, for instance, is the assertion that all living systems which survive have all the critical subsystems, or are parasitic upon or symbiotic with systems which do (see page 32).  [….]

Of the hypotheses stated below, some are probably true for all levels, some only for certain levels, some only if modified, and others are probably false. For some the question is: Is it true or false? For others the question is: Does it apply at a given level?

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