Coevolving Innovations

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Lifelong education on service systems: a perspective for STEM learners

Posted on January 12, 2010 by daviding

One of the benefits of the IBM’s Smarter Planet vision(s) is its encouragement to think about the 21st century world from a fresh perspective.  The rise of the service economy — which is not the same as the service sector — calls for the nurturing of talents with different emphases.  While curricula typically have a strong grasp of agricultural systems (developed since, say, 1600 A,.D.), and industrial systems (since, say, 1850 A.D.), the science of service systems is still emerging.

A study on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education by a 2007 National Academies committee published recommendations in 2008 for professional science master’s education that is interdisciplinary in character.  Such an investment in curriculum change has been proposed as a good use of stimulus funding in the U.S. In concert, 8 of 10 students expressed a wish for universities to revamp their traditional learning environments in the Smarter Planet University Jam conducted in spring 2009 .

In 2008 and 2009, the focus has shifted to primary and secondary school education, convening another National Academies committee centered on K-12, with a report due in 2010.  Jim Spohrer — formerly the Director of Almaden Services Research, and now the Director of IBM Global University Programs — updated me on his current thinking about a potential design for education on Smarter Planet Service Systems.

Systems that move, store, harvest, process Kindergarten Transportation
1 Water and waste management
2 Food and global supply chain
3 Energy and energy grid
4 Information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure
Systems that enable healthy, wealthy and wise people 5 Building and construction
6 Banking and finance
7 Retail and hospitality
8 Healthcare
9 Education (including universities)
Systems that govern 10 Government (cities)
11 Government (regions / states)
12 Government (nations)
Higher education Specific service systems
Professional life Specific service systems

Jim is following confirmation of the effectiveness of a Challenge-Based Learning approach by the New Media Consortium as “a strategy to engage kids in any class by giving them the opportunity to work on significant problems that have real-world implications”.  I liked his ordering of systems into three levels:

  • systems that move, store, harvest, process;
  • systems that enable healthy, wealthy and wise people; and
  • systems that govern.

These are ordered so that concrete systems would be studied in early grades.  Kindergarten students — leaving the house regularly to experience walking, buses and cars — could appreciate understanding transportation systems.  Grade 1 students growing up with the modern conveniences of running water and municipal sewage, could study water and waste management systems.  Grade 2 students, old enough to help make their own lunches and shop at local markets, could learn about food and global supply chain systems.  Grade 3 students experiencing simple electrical appliances (e.g. toasters, fans) could take a tour of an electrical plant (e.g. hydro-electric facility, or wind turbines) to learn about the energy and electric grid system.  By Grade 4, 21st century students will have already become facile with mobile phones and personal computers on the Internet, so understanding information and communications technologies infrastructure systems should be easier than for their grandparents.

At the next level, learners would become more adept with the basic infrastructure of a modern society.   Grade 5 students could understand how physical environments are built, in building and construction systems.  Grade 6 students could visit to a local bank — and in large cities, the stock market — to appreciate banking and financial systems.  Grade 7 students, developing into teens with interests in fashions and parties, could learn about retail and hospitality systems.  By Grade 8, as an complement to physical education topics on puberty, visits to a hospital could serve as in introduction to healthcare systems.  The beginning of high school at Grade 9 presents an opportunity to discuss education systems, including universities and colleges.

Secondary school positions learners to be active members of society.  Government systems are relatively abstract.  Learning about city government systems in Grade 10, about regional and state government systems in Grade 11, and about national government systems in Grade 12 gradually prepares the young as future citizens who not only draw on public services, but will also vote in elections.

In higher education and professional life — since the major growth in economies has been in the delivered form of services rather than products, and in end products of information rather than materials — knowledge development would largely be self-selected from specific service systems of interest (coinciding with higher paying jobs).

My correspondence with Jim Spohrer (and past interactions with him) confirm that above list is open for discussion.  At a more academic level, the list reminds me of the Skeleton of Science by Kenneth Boulding, and Living Systems by James Grier Miller.

Appendix 1:  General Systems Theory — The Skeleton of Science

Boulding grappled with the issue about “a body of systematic theoretical constructs which will describe the general relationships of the world”.  In this, he described general systems theory as one of two ways:

Two possible approaches to the organization of general systems theory suggest themselves, which are to be thought of as complementary rather than competitive, or at least as two roads each of which is worth exploring.  The first approach is to look over the empirical universe and to pick out certain general phenomena which are found in many different disciplines, and to seek to build up a general theoretical models relevant to these phenomena.  The second approach is to arrange the empirical fields in a hierarchy of complexity of the organization of their basic “individual” or unit of behavior, and to try to develop a level of abstraction appropriate to reach.  [p.5]

The possibility of leading to a “system of systems” led to Boulding choosing the second path, with a hierarchy of complexity (ordered from simplest to most complex).

I suggest below a possible arrangement of “levels” of theoretical discourse.

(i) The first level is that of the static structure. It might be called the level of frameworks. This is the geography and anatomy of the universe. [....]

(ii) The next level of systematic analysis is that of the simple dynamic system with predetermined, necessary motions. This might be called level of clockworks. The solar system itself is of course the great clock of the universe from man’s point of view. [....]

(iii) The next level is that of the control mechanism or cybernetic system, which might be nicknamed the level of the thermostat. This differs from the simple unstable equilibrium system mainly in the fact that the transmission and interpretation of information is an essential part of the system.  [....]

(iv) The fourth level is that of the “open system,” or self-maintaining structure. This is the level at which life begins to differentiate itself from not-life: it might be called the level of the cell. [...  The] property of self-maintenance of the structure in the midst of a throughput of material becomes of dominant importance.  [....]

(v) The fifth level might be called the genetic-societal level; it is typified by the plant, and it dominates the empirical world of the botanist. [....]

(vi) As we move upward from the plant world towards the animal kingdom we gradually pass over into a new level, the “animal” level, characterized by increased mobility, teleological behavior, and self-awareness. [....]

(vii) The next level is the “human” level, that is of the individual human being considered as a system. In addition to all, or nearly all, of the characteristics of animal systems man possesses self consciousness, which is something different from mere awareness. [....]  This property is probably bound up with the phenomenon of language and symbolism. [....]

(viii) Because of the vital importance for the individual man of symbolic images and behavior based on them it is not easy to separate clearly the level of the individual human organism from the next level, that of social organizations. [... It] is convenient for some purposes to distinguish the individual human as a system from the social systems which surround him, and in this sense social organizations may be said to constitute another level of organization.  [....]

(ix) To complete the structure of systems we should add up final turret for transcendental systems, even if we may be accused at this point of having built Babel to the clouds. There are however the ultimates and absolutes and the inescapable unknowables, and they also exhibit systematic structure and relationship. It will be a sad day for man when nobody is allowed to ask questions that do not have any answers.  [editorial bolding added]

Source: Kenneth E. Boulding, “General Systems Theory — The Skeleton of Science”, Management Science, Volume 2, 1956, pp. 197-208, accessible at .

Appendix 2:  Living Systems Theory

Miller defines a living system as “a special subset of all of the set of all possible concrete systems” [p. 18].  They are characterized by 19 critical subsystems of a living system.  The universe of concrete systems is organized into levels.

8. Level

The universe contains a hierarchy of systems, each more advanced or “higher” level made of systems of lower levels. Atoms are composed of particles; molecules, of atoms; crystals and organelles, of molecules. About at the level of crystallizing viruses, like the tobacco mosaic virus, the subset of living systems begins. Viruses are necessarily parasitic on cells, so cells are the lowest level of living systems. Cells are composed of atoms, molecules, and multimolecular organelles; organs are composed of cells aggregated into tissues; organisms, or organs; groups (e.g., herds, flocks, families, teams, tribes), of organisms; organizations, of groups (and sometimes single individual organisms); societies, of organizations, groups, and individuals; and supranational systems, of societies and organizations. Higher levels of systems may be of mixed composition, living and nonliving. They include ecological systems, planets, solar systems, galaxies, and so forth. It is beyond my competence and the scope of this book to deal with the characteristics – whatever they may be – of systems below and above those levels which include the various forms of life, although others have done so. This book, in presenting general systems behavior theory, is limited to the subset of living systems -

  • cells,
  • organs,
  • organisms,
  • groups,
  • organizations,
  • societies, and
  • supranational systems.

[p. 25, editorial paragraphing added]

Levels should be confused with types, which are described in the immediately preceding section.

7. Type

If a number of individual living systems are observed to have similar characteristics, they often are classed together as a type. Types are abstractions.  [p. 24]

Source: James Grier Miller, Living Systems, McGraw-Hill 1978, at Google Books (without preview), excerpt on

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