Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

At U.C. Berkeley in the 1960s, Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel and C. West Churchman could have had lunch together.  While disciplinary thinking might lead novices to focus only on each of pattern language, wicked problems and the systems approach, there are ties (as well as domain-specific distinctions) between the schools.

Circa 1968-1970: Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, West Churchman

Circa 1968-1970: Christopher Alexander, Horst Rittel, West Churchman

West Churchman joined Berkeley in 1957, and initiated master’s and doctoral programs in operations research at the School of Business Administration.   From 1964 to 1970, Churchman was associate director and research philosopher at UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory, directing its social sciences program.  After his retirement in 1981, Churchman taught in the Peace and Conflict Studies program for 13 years.

Horst Rittel came to the Berkeley College of Environmental Design in 1963, the same year that dean William Wurster recruited Christopher Alexander.  In 1973, Rittel split his time between Berkeley and the architecture faculty at the University of Stuttgart, where he founded the Institut für Grundlagen der Planung.

Christopher Alexander became a cofounder of the Center for Environmental Structure at Berkeley in 1967, gradually moving outside of the university by 2000.

The tie between Churchman and Rittel are well-documented, in a 1967 article in Management Science.

Professor Horst Rittel of the University of California Architecture Department has suggested in a recent seminar that the term “wicked problem” refer to that class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing. The adjective “wicked” is supposed the describe the mischievous and even evil quality of these problems, where proposed “solutions” often turn out to be worse than the symptoms. [p. B-141]

This idea of “wicked problems” would eventually be published by Rittel and Webber in 1973.

The ties between Christopher Alexander and West Churchman are more elusive, however.  In 1967, Alexander published “Systems Generating Systems” as part of an exhibit display.  In addition to the original article, Molly Steenson’s 2014 dissertation provided historical context.  In a Facebook discussion thread, Helene Finidori asked about where she might “find a synthetic critical view of Christopher Alexander’s work and it’s evolution, and potentially its contradictions too”.   I responded …

David Ing (April 16, 2017, 6:46pm) If you’re looking for the “synthetic, critical view of Christopher Alexander’s work and its evolution”, you’ve now already read them. Both Steenson and I read the original documents (back to the formation of the Center for Environmental Structure), and have used the content. There may be a few details in my dissertation, but if you really want to get to that level of detail, you’ll have to do the ground work, too. The “critical” part is the challenge, as it requires that the criticism take an opposing position. My position is based on the pursuit of service systems thinking, which may or may not be your position.

On “not so much about patterns themselves ….” Alexander doesn’t describe “pattern” as much as “pattern language”. This goes back to Notes on the Synthesis of Form, and then evolves from there. To catch the nuances, you’ll have to keep in mind that Alexander himself was learning the ideas, and what he wanted to say, so the words and meaning changed over time. Thus “quality without a name” because “unfolding structure” which became “unfolding wholeness”. (This last label comes from reading the later unpublished works at , when Alexander writes about a meeting with David Bohm.

When I was talking with Jim Coplien (AsianPLoP 2015), we discussed systems thinking. He has the right intuitions, but not necessary all of the “correct” language, because he hasn’t done graduate level studies of systems thinking. I would say the same is the case for Alexander, and members of the CES at Berkeley. Some of the graduate students went over to West Churchman’s seminar, but it wasn’t their primary field of study, so they weren’t totally immersed.

I try to be very specific about what I’m doing. I try to not use the word “pattern” by itself, because different people have different understandings of that. Even “pattern language” has risks, because at PLoP, I learned that the Gang of Four “Design Patterns” book actually slightly predates the Hillside Group formation (e.g. Ralph Johnson is sympathetic to Richard Gabriel, but came from different purposes at that time). In particular, “generative pattern language” is something that the Hillside Group purists are pursuing, while the technology-oriented developers are more concerned with abstractions of programming languages.

Helene responded with a question “about the relationship between the pattern and the system”, and Helmut Leitner thought this was “an interesting detail”.  I wrote:

David Ing (April 16, 2017, 7:19pm) Helene, to be clear, my research is on “pattern language”, and not on “pattern”. My work on “the systems sciences” — that’s plural, not singular — and more colloquially on “systems thinking” (largely because Russ Ackoff and contemporaries adopted that term to reflect both art and science) — and not on “systems”.

I’m sympathetic to Helmut seeking clarity in the use of terms. The reason that it took me 3 years (from PLoP 2014 through PUARL 2016, and in my 2017 dissertation) to get to this level of clarity is because I needed to make adjustments at the philosophical level that depart from Christopher Alexander’s concern on built environments. I’m not a building architect, and I work in social systems and information systems. Thus, I’ve shifted to ecological anthropology and the work of Tim Ingold, where the meaning of affordances originated by J.J. Gibson (and mangled by Don Norman, for later self-correction) was made clear. This led to my final act of information-gathering for my dissertation, with a diversion to the IFIP WG8.2 meeting in Dublin in December 2017 to listen and speak directly with Tim Ingold.

The pattern as “solution to a problem in context” doesn’t work for me, because, as Russ Ackoff says, we work in systems of problems (i.e. problematiques, messes), which require systems of solutions. This is somewhat similar to Alexander’s resolution of “forces”, which is mystical to most people. The systems thinking foundations might have been better elicidated if the Alexander camp had gone across campus at Berkeley in the 1970s to discuss with Horst Rittel on wicked problems, and West Churchman on the systems approach. Those graduate students are now in their retirements, so if we want to make those bridges, we’ll have to make haste to draw on their memories, and/or build them ourselves.

In seeking out history, I had previously read the blog of Thorbjoern Mann (and Abbé Boulah).   On Nov. 14, 2014, Thor had written “A personal note on Pattern Language applications in other fields“, on Alexander and Rittel, including:

Both Alexander and Rittel were teaching at Berkeley when I was there as a graduate and then postgraduate student, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Both belonged to the ‘design methods’ movement, a group of people who tried to remedy what was widely seen as a lack of research and adaptation of the new ‘space age’ insights in architecture and urban design and planning. They tried to bring ideas and tools from operations research, the emerging computer applications and systems studies to bear on architecture and planning. However, Alexander dramatically disassociated himself from that group, after a first disappointing attempt at devising a computer program to produce architectural designs. [4] He then focused on his ambitious pattern language project. This was seen as a move philosophically opposing the methods and systems efforts — efforts whose early applications in the sociopolitical arena had seen some spectacular failures.

That specific blog post led to a back-and-forth exchange in the comments section between Thor and myself.

On Sept. 12, 2016, Thor expanded that exchange into a blog post on the three professors at Berkeley, in “Alexander, Churchman, Rittel: A Fog Island Tavern Conversation“, including:

– Yes, I remember: Alexander’s Pattern Language for Environmental Design; Rittel’s Wicked Problems and Argumentative Model of Planning and information systems. They were both teaching at the College of Environmental Design. But Churchman was in the Business School, working on his Systems Approach books and research, wasn’t he? So somebody wants to reconcile those different perspectives? For what purpose? Isn’t that a bit of old history? Haven’t all those disciplines evolved into new conundrums by now?

Thus, to my delight, the Facebook thread led to an additional first-person account from Thor, as a former Teaching Assistant (TA) for Rittel:

Thor Mann (April 17, 2017, 11:19pm) David, just a response to your comment on the relationship between Alexander, Churchman, and Rittel in the ’60s and ’70s (from one of those guys that are now in retirement):

Both Alexander and Rittel were part of what at the time was called the ‘design methods’ movement in architecture, worked and taught in the same building, and did talk and were seen walking off to have lunch together. Churchman was teaching in the Business School a few minutes down on the way to the center of campus.

The problem was (as I perceived it, having come to Berkeley from a ‘systems building’ as well as methods interest, working with Rittel) that a part of that movement was trying to learn from the OR/systems approach that had been working and writing for some time already — Churchman’s and Ackoff’s books were on the design methods reading list. Alexander seemed to veer off his early general systems-based investigations by his fascination with the linguistic ideas of Chomsky, and some early attempts to use the computer to generate architectural designs that did work as well as he expected (at the time, as Rittel’s TA, working in a common space with all the other TA’s, I listened to the frustration of Alexander’s TA’s about that project). So he turned to the Pattern Language project, and in a dramatic statement in the ‘Design Methods Journal’ proclaimed a philosophical break with the design methods and ‘systems’ movement. (This resonated well with many Berkeley students at the time for whom the ‘System’ was THE big bad enemy…)

Rittel was working on different tasks somewhat remote from actual building design: information systems for design and planning. For these, he found it necessary to first work out a clearer understanding of the design process, how designers think, and design and planning problems. His answers were: the ‘argumentative model’ of design and planning, the concept of ‘issue based information systems’ for design, and the concept of ‘wicked problems’ that clarified why the ‘first (OR-based) generation’ of systems approach for design and planning were inadequate to deal with these ‘messes’, as Ackoff had come to call them, and that led Churchman to his version of the systems approach that I think was not widely adopted by the stalwart systems folks elsewhere. (Systems consultants working for corporate clients had to promise more concrete results on time and budget to get contracts, than were warranted e.g. by wicked problem properties… )

There was enough work for everybody to be done on all emerging facets of these ideas — the ‘wicked problems’ insights that provided an important basis for the call for wide participation in design (architectural programming) and planning; the development of programs and applications for the fast-developing computer technology are just examples. Rittel’s argumentative model, focusing on the ‘unprecedented’ (wicked) aspects of design projects, was not widely adopted by architectural practice and teaching — architecture was and is, after all, so constrained by traditional expectations, ‘good design’ canons and building regulations as well as the limitations of available building materials and technology, that any truly unprecedented problems were easily sidestepped by resorting to precedent, client preferences, and great designers’ creativity imperative to produce ‘new’ and ‘different’ solutions to ‘challenge users’ preconceptions’.

Besides my part in developing the argumentative model with my efforts to develop more transparent approaches to evaluate design and planning arguments, and to include these in a better ‘planning discourse support’ platform and process, my questions about the Pattern Language led me to articulate a ‘way of talking about architecture that focused on users and viewers’ ‘occasions’ or experiences in the built environment as the elements of both programming and design work, and on the ‘images’ evoked by built environment in users’ minds. I saw this as contributions to both architectural programming, design, and — by exploring it in combination with the issue of building economics to develop an approach to the question of value of built environment — an effort that comes close to offering insights and measurements into the part of quality of life influenced by the built environment.

These are just personal examples of how the ideas of Alexander, Churchman and Rittel have influenced my further work; I am sure that other people from that time have similar stories to tell. In my opinion, the current efforts devoted to exegesis of what these thinkers and the terms they proposed ‘really’ meant, — and to make that a ‘science’ — should focus more on formulating a clear agenda of the work that still needs to be done, about half a century later. Those are tasks of design, strategy, articulating visions, more than science (this should not be seen as emphasizing design as fundamentally ‘different’ from science; science-based and generated knowledge is one of the essential pillars of design — one of the key premises of deign and planning arguments.)

In my writings, e.g ‘Abbe Boulah’ blog (one post specifically about the relationship between CA, WC and HR) and a number of papers posted on, as well as some threads in the LI and FB systems community, I have made some efforts of sketching out some priority issues for that task. The task deserves a more coherent and sustained framework and process than the format of these platforms currently facilitates. It is also somewhat different from many of the contributions in these networks that focus, quite understandably, on learning more about consulting practices and approaches aim at bringing in consulting contracts.

This first-person account of a former graduate student at Berkeley in the 1970s complements the general history of science that has been written by each of the figures individually.  Practically half a century later, there may be an opportunity not only to deepen our appreciation of each of these researchers as independent thinkers, but benefit through common struggles that they might have shared informally, towards new generative theories.


Churchman, C. West. 1967. “Wicked Problems.” Management Science 14 (4): B-141-B-146. doi:10.1287/mnsc.14.4.B141.

Rittel, Horst WJ, and Melvin M. Webber. 1973. “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” Policy Sciences 4 (2): 155–169. doi:10.1007/BF01405730.

Composite image derived from:

October 14th, 2017

Posted In: pattern language, systems

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  • Doug McDavid says:

    Wow, David. This is a mouthful, albeit parenthetical: “(Systems consultants working for corporate clients had to promise more concrete results on time and budget to get contracts, than were warranted e.g. by wicked problem properties… )” That is a very pertinent indictment of systemic moral hazard intrinsic to the consulting professions.

  • Kevin Dye says:

    This is a very interesting piece which helps us remember the uniqueness of these different approaches. All too often the words associated with these three are jumbled together into one soup by people that have not investigated the historical context of their perspectives or the relationships and incompatibilities of their approaches. Thanks for pulling it together.

  • David, nice to see this broad view of your recent work. In my view Alexander was more intent on discovering universal properties, exploring nature in search of what makes wholes whole, and finding it has something to do with “centers of environmental structure”. His main focus for that was on architecture, of course, and the marvel of well packaged services that are the architectural ideal. Still I see him as more of a natural scientist searching for a new language, in architecture and elsewhere, for understanding patterns (structures) of natural design with emergent life giving properties. One can take various other views too, of course, but that’s the common thread I see in his varied approaches.

  • I don’t have graduate work in systems thinking? My Ph.D work at VUB integrated multiple paradigms and was referred to as an “integrative thesis.” My Doktoral work integrates thinking from design, architecture, biology, and subatomic particle physics.

    Perhaps, David, you should learn how to check your facts. It’s called research. You can’t publicly disparage an individual based on five minutes of discussion. You need to be able to do fact research before getting to systems thinking.

    I am very disappointed in your attitude and your post.

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