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An interview on “Service Systems, Natural Systems” and the systems sciences

Posted on May 21, 2012 by daviding

An interview by Performance magazine — with an issue focused on systems in architecture and related disciplines — has now been published. Since the content has been translated into German (as well as reduced for length) — the original interview is posted below, in English.


  • David Ing is the president (2011-2012), of the International Society for the Systems Sciences. He welcomes deep thinkers from around the world to join in an interactive learning experience at the annual meeting of the ISSS, scheduled for July 15-20, 2012, in San Jose, California. David Ing responded to this interview from his home in Toronto, Canada.

Performance, 2012, number 2

1. Could you please, in just a few words, explain to us what the systems sciences deal with and what your specialty area is?

The systems sciences — many of us prefer sciences in the plural — study the nature of parts and wholes. People may say that they are systems thinkers: they view the world primarily as relations of part-whole, part-part and whole-whole arrangements in space and time. Systems thinking enables a basic foundation across a wide variety of domains, including (i) natural systems in geographic and biological domains, and (ii) man-made systems in social and informatic domains.

In 2011-2012, I am serving as the president of the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS). Our annual meeting for July 2012 will be at San Jose State University, in California. We expect a broad range of systems researchers and practitioners to come together for interdiscipinary and transciplinary discussions over five days. For 2013, we have plans for the meeting to convene in Hai Phong, Vietnam, led by the next ISSS president, Alexander Laszlo.

My interests are in (i) social systems — particularly in the context of work in business organizations and government — and in (ii) information systems — most recently transformed through the rise of the Internet, globalization, and social computing. Much of my current research is centered on the emerging science of service systems — often called service science — as the world has shifted from industrial age into global service economy.

2. In which areas of research can conclusions and consequences be drawn from the results of systems sciences?

Questions about the systems sciences lead us to think more deeply about the definitions of both science and systems.

Science tends to be organized into disciplines, where bodies of knowledge have gradually been developed over time into “common wisdom”. Thomas Kuhn described the periods of (i) normal science, and (ii) scientific revolution. In normal science, scientists progress within a paradigm to gradually refine details about the understanding of the world. In a scientific revolution — the shift from the physics of Newton to Einstein is commonly cited — the conventional understanding of the world changes so much that textbooks become obsoleted. Those old texts might as well be burned, lest they mislead the next generation of students.

The systems sciences are particularly helpful during periods of scientific revolution. Critics draw attention to “bad science” in the mainstream paradigm, especially when a reductionist perspective dominates. Reductionism focuses on part-part interactions, and tends to overlook emergent phenomena in the part-whole relations. Systems thinkers will point out that no matter how much the reductionist studies hydrogen and oxygen, he or she will never be able to explain the property of wetness in water.

Marshall McLuhan said “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in”. The systems sciences enable deeper thinkers to gain perspectives from outside the discipline in which they primarily focus.

My involvement in the ISSS dates back to 1998, when the annual meeting in Atlanta proved to be the single best education experience of my life. The meeting brought together a wide variety of deep thinkers, with backgrounds across business, biology, ecology, humanism, history, anthropology … and many other fields. The annual ISSS meeting brings all of these perspectives together, and the community is unusually hospitable in its openness for sharing.

In 2012, the systems sciences may be helpful in challenges, as described by Jerome Ravetz, of post-normal science. Mainstream science may not be working under conditions where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent”. The systems sciences can provide some common ground in meetings of minds across issues as large as environmental concerns (e.g. global warming, water crises), sociopolitical economics (e.g. financial collapses, the rise of the Occupy movement) and regional development (e.g. innovation in educational, health and employment systems).

3. Which other scientific disciplines do you work closely together with?

The systems sciences are an ecology of knowledge. Members of the systems sciences community come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Systems thinkers can include systems theorists, systems methodologists, and systems practitioners. Members of the ISSS share the foundational legacy of General Systems Theory, with original contributions by Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

The ISSS has been a longtime member of the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR). Through the IFSR, we share knowledge with systemicists from other traditions. The American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) and Metaphorum Group come from a long legacy of cybernetics. The International Systems Institute (ISI) and Institute for 21st Century Agoras have long histories in participatory social systems design. In regional societies, some of the more active groups are the Australian and New Zealand Systems Group (ANZSYS) down under, and the Asociacion Latinoamericana de Sistemas (ALAS) in Latin America. Some ISSS members are also members of the UK Systems Society (UKSS) and the System Dynamics Society (SDS).

Last year, the ISSS developed a stronger relationship with the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE), centered in a Systems Science Working Group. Systems scientists and systems engineers shared experiences in the mid-20th century, and are looking to renew that collaboration into the 21st century.

The 2012 ISSS annual meeting at San Jose State University has a special focus on bringing together service scientists and resilience scientists. In the 2013 ISSS annual meeting in Hai Phong, Vietnam, will emphasize learning and sustainability, particularly in the context of developing countries.

4. Which approaches do you use to understand systems?

The work in the systems sciences can be categorized along the lines of intellectual virtues, as described by the ancient Greeks: (i) systems theory (as with episteme); (ii) systems methods (as with techne); and (iii) systems practice (as with phronesis).

Systems theory responds to questions of “know why”, in the way the world works (or doesn’t). Bodies of knowledge include (i) Living Systems Theory, as originating from James Grier Miller; (ii) Hierarchy Theory, as explained by Timothy F. H. Allen; (iii) Open Systems Theory, through the work of Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery, and the legacy of the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations; (iv) the Viable Systems Model in management cybernetics, from Stafford Beer; (v) the Design of Inquiring Systems, as described by C. West Churchman and further developed by Ian Mitroff; (vi) Critical Systems Thinking, evolved through Werner Ulrich, Robert Flood and Michael C. Jackson; and (vi) Panarchy and Ecological Resilience, best known from C. S. Holling, and the Resilience Alliance community. Systems theory provides durable knowledge about relations and causality, between parts and wholes in the world.

Systems methods respond to questions of “know how”, particularly when groups of participants are brought together. Bodies of knowledge include (i) System Dynamics, rooted in the tradition of Jay Forrester and continued through a community that includes John Sterman and David C. Lane; (ii) Soft Systems Methodology, with Peter Checkland extending systems engineering techniques; (iii) Interactive Planning, in the redesign of futures in the tradition of Russell Ackoff; (iv) Action Research, with many variants sharing the common ancestry from Kurt Lewin; (v) Structured Dialogic Design, as developed in the community led by Aleco Christakis; (vi) Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing, originating from Richard Mason and Ian Mitroff; (vi) Search Conference, as developed by Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery; and (vii) Deep Dialog, in the work of Howard Perlmutter. Systems methods are chosen and applied according to the contexts in which a (re-)design is desired.

Systems practice responds to questions about “know when”, “know where” and “know whom”, as practical ethics on the scale, scope and speed of changes. Bodies of knowledge include (i) the Language Action Perspective, as originating from Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd; (ii) Appreciative Systems dealing with human values, as outlined by Sir Geoffrey Vickers; (iii) Evolutionary Development, in the tradition of Bela A. Banathy, and further developed by Alexander Laszlo and Kathia Castro Laszlo; and (iv) Systems Intelligence, originating from Raimo Hämäläinen and Esa Saarinen in Finland. Systems practice puts the emphasis on the values considered and/or included in systems changes, including the judgements and experience of those will be impacted or involved about later effects.

A systems approach may emphasize of one or two of the intellectual virtues described above, and will likely sweep in the third. A prescriptive systems approach aims for progress and/or improvement, potentially through a transformative redesign.

5. Where do the systems sciences come to their limits?

Paraphrasing Andras Angyal, when a systems reaches its limits, the parts subsume the whole. The systems sciences are reflected in a systems of ideas, developed by a community of inquiry where high value is placed on open communications and exchanges. At the founding of the Society for General Systems Research — the original label for the ISSS — purposes include an aim (i) “to investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws, and models in various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another”; and an aim (ii) “to eliminate the duplication of theoretical efforts in different fields”.

The absence of a shared appreciation of systems can lead to (i) disciplines (re-)discovering knowledge already well-acknowledged in another discipline, and (ii) building theories in a less general context than is due. A unifying systems science may or may not be essential to advances in science, and/or its application. Interdisciplinary scientists may recognize these disparate threads, and eventually draw them together in an integrated theory, without recognizing that their compatibility with the aims of the systems movement.

The systems sciences fade into the background when a body of knowledge becomes well developed into a discipline. Systems thinking has been compared to mathematics, as a foundation in a well-rounded person, in the style of a liberal arts education. Appreciating the relations between parts and wholes would seem rudimentary, yet there are always different perspectives on how boundaries should be drawn.

6. The Systems sciences are a relatively young field — the International Society for the Systems Sciences (ISSS) was founded in 1954. Which groundbreaking success has been achieved by the systems sciences and where do you see the greatest potential for the future?

Systems thinking dates back to the ancient Greeks, e.g. Aristotle. The modern history of the ISSS began with the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics between 1946 and 1953. The Society for General Systems Research — now known as the ISSS — met in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1954 through the early 1980s. The ISSS adopted its current name in 1988 to reflect its broadening from its roots in General Systems Theory.

In my opinion, the greatest successes of the systems sciences appear in the circumstances where the system of interest includes the natural world, man-made technologies, and human social systems. After WWII, there was a rise in interest in systems thinking as the world adjusted to the industrial age. In the 1960s and 1970s, people were challenged by revolutionary changes, e.g. jet travel, television, nuclear power, the women’s liberation movement. Albert Einstein said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. The accelerated change in our complexified modern societies has always had progressives who value advances, and traditionalists who value the past. Reconciling perspectives in a productive way for all requires building bridges across a variety of social groups. This is where a systems approach excels.

Looking to the future from the 2010s, we’re not through the transformation of society introduced by new technologies and cultural changes that emerged in the 1990s. We’ve seen the rise of the Internet, globalization, and ecological challenges for which some symptoms have been acknowledged, but the transitions are not yet complete. The systems sciences can serve as a platform to cross disciplinary boundaries, and seek ways in which we can move forward together.

7. This year’s conference is themed “Service Systems, Natural Systems” – why? What does this mean?

The annual meeting of the ISSS is designed not as a one-way presentation of information, but a learning opportunity where dialectic can sweep in new perspectives through dialogue. Two primary perspectives for this year are (i) services systems, and (ii) natural systems.

The service systems sciences focus on the value cooperatively created and shared in human activities. Service systems support basic needs such as food and water, develop social potential through education and healthcare, and advance our societies through businesses, governments and social enterprises working in a globalized, networked world.

The natural systems sciences focus on the sustainability and diversity of life on our planet. Social ecological systems balance competing interests of human well-being, social development and economic progress. Maintaining resilience of natural capital and resources across temporal and spatial scales challenges policies, governance and stewardship.

We expect ISSS San Jose 2012 to be an interactive and collegial event involving 100 to 250 thinkers with diverse backgrounds and interests in the arts and sciences of systems.

We have finalized our confirmed list of plenary speakers. We are featuring:

  • Rafael Ramirez, Director, Oxford Scenarios Programme; Fellow in Strategy at the Saïd Business School and Green-Templeton College; James Martin Senior Fellow at the Oxford Martin School;
  • Jim Spohrer, Director of Global University Programs, IBM;
  • Garry Peterson, Professor in Environmental Studies, Stockholm Resilience Centre;
  • Timothy F. H. Allen, Professor Emeritus of Botany and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin Madison;
  • Stuart Umpleby, Director of the Research Program in Social and Organizational Learning, George Washington University;
  • Minna Takala, Researcher and Project Manager, Business Innovation Technology Research Center, Aalto University School of Science;
  • John J. Kineman, Senior Research Scientist, Cooperative Institute for Research into Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado at Boulder;

In parallel with the streams discussing working papers and current research themes, we’ll have a new “Systems Basics” track this year. We’re asking some of the elders in the systems community to review foundational systems knowledge that is no less than five years old, so that students — both young and old — can gain insight into their unknown unknowns, i.e. concepts and perspectives that they didn’t know they didn’t know.

We welcome novices and experts in systems thinking to join us. The ISSS is a friendly and welcoming open community!

8. Which interests, what type of talent must you have to become a systems scientist?

Systems thinkers may be the ultimate T-shaped (or A-shaped) people. They have depth in at least one functional or disciplinary skill — the vertical stem — and the breadth to apply the knowledge across the broader scope of the domain at hand — the crossbar. A T-shaped person has depth in one area; an A-shaped person has depth in two. Systems concepts and language ease transitions from one perspective to another, so that individuals and groups can harmonize the views into an integrated whole, rather than struggling across two or more incommensurate world views.

To become a systems thinker, the generalist should seek to improve his or her depth in some area of expertise where her or she has value as a contributor to the collective. To become a systems thinker, the specialist should seek to broaden his or her knowledge base and communications skills so that an appreciation of the perspective of others in the collective is demonstrated. These skills can be valuable not only in the workplace, but also in everyday life.

Systems thinkers have one foot in the future and one foot in the present. They share a predisposition to not accept the world on face value, and are diligent in following through to a deeper appreciation. They embrace both the arts and sciences of systems understanding, leading to greater insights into situations and circumstances.

9. Do you find it difficult to not think in systems in your private life?

Systems thinking is a part of everyday life, for myself, my family, my colleagues, and fellow citizens. We may each have different perspectives and priorities. An important attitude for a systems approach is a willingness to engage. Each of us has a view of the world based on our personal experiences. Sharing those perspectives presents an opportunity for an appreciation of the systemic whole.

C. West Churchman wrote that “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another”. I believe that every individual is entitled to his or her own perspective. Sometimes that perspective is compatible with a systemic view, and sometimes it is not. People who are open to discussion provide an opportunity for learning, while others who demonstrate a more arrogant attitude may miss the opportunity to broaden their horizons.


In 2010-2011, David Ing was the content lead on two new courses in systems thinking for the Master’s Programme in Creative Sustainability at Aalto University. He blogs at http://coevolving.com.

Learn more about the International Society for the System Sciences at http://isss.org.

Article published in Performance magazine, 2012, number 2 (in German).

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