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Rethinking Systems Thinking (article)

An article on “Rethinking Systems Thinking”, evolved from the ISSS San Jose 2012 plenary, is nearing publication.  The speech, as presented in fall 2012, covered a lot of content.  In written form, the narrative may be less colourful, but the citations may be easier to follow.

The peer-reviewed published article will be the definite source for scholars to cite.  For casual readers, a more widely accessible preprint version of the article, archived on the Coevolving Commons, may suffice.

An article on “Rethinking Systems Thinking”, evolved from the ISSS San Jose 2012 plenary, is nearing publication.  The speech, as presented in fall 2012, covered a lot of content.  In written form, the narrative may be less colourful, but the citations may be easier to follow.

The peer-reviewed published article will be the definite source for scholars to cite.  For casual readers, a more widely accessible preprint version of the article, archived on the Coevolving Commons, may suffice.

Full version: “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and coevolving with the world”, Aalto University, 2012/11/26

A guest lecture on systems thinking for the Creativity Sustainability program at Aalto University provided an opportunity to stretch out on the plenary presentation that I had given at ISSS 2012.  In San Jose last July, plenary speakers (including myself) were constrained to 45 minute slots preceding dialectic panelists.  In Helsinki in November, the luxury of time allowed me to explain the ideas more fully.  The lecture took 85 minutes, and was then followed by a question and answer session.

Rehinking Systems Thinking

Versions of the web video can be viewed on Youtube, or viewed or downloaded at http://media.isss.org , at 480x272p, 720x400p, and 1280x720p.  The video shoot and post-production editing of the lecture was done by Seungho Lee, on behalf of the Creative Sustainability program.

The presentation on “Rethinking Systems Thinking” is probably the most comprehensive talk that I’ve given (and may ever give).  It is a personal perspective on systems, gained since the attending my first ISSS meeting in 1998 — that’s 14 years with the society.  My focus has recently shifted from the international audience to the local audience around Toronto, with Systems Thinking Ontario.  Systems thinking can be doled out in smaller chunks.  Over the Internet, viewers may choose to use the pause button.

A guest lecture on systems thinking for the Creativity Sustainability program at Aalto University provided an opportunity to stretch out on the plenary presentation that I had given at ISSS 2012.  In San Jose last July, plenary speakers (including myself) were constrained to 45 minute slots preceding dialectic panelists.  In Helsinki in November, the luxury of time allowed me to explain the ideas more fully.  The lecture took 85 minutes, and was then followed by a question and answer session.

Rehinking Systems Thinking

Versions of the web video can be viewed on Youtube, or viewed or downloaded at http://media.isss.org , at 480x272p, 720x400p, and 1280x720p.  The video shoot and post-production editing of the lecture was done by Seungho Lee, on behalf of the Creative Sustainability program.

The presentation on “Rethinking Systems Thinking” is probably the most comprehensive talk that I’ve given (and may ever give).  It is a personal perspective on systems, gained since the attending my first ISSS meeting in 1998 — that’s 14 years with the society.  My focus has recently shifted from the international audience to the local audience around Toronto, with Systems Thinking Ontario.  Systems thinking can be doled out in smaller chunks.  Over the Internet, viewers may choose to use the pause button.

Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and coevolving with the world

In a plenary dialectic session, I gave an address — in a position twinned with Rafael Ramirez — at the 56th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences at San Jose State University.  There’s been ongoing discussion on the Systems Sciences group on Facebook, and on Twitter with the hashtag of #isss2012.

Here’s an abstract of the talk.

Much of systems thinking, as commonly espoused today, was developed by a generation in the context of the 1960s to 1980s. Almost all of the luminaries of that era have passed on. In the 2010s, has system thinking changed with the world in which it is to be applied? Is systems thinking learning and coevolving with the world? Some contemporary systems thinkers continue to push the frontiers of theory, methods and practice. Others situationally increment the traditions of their preferred gurus, where approaches proven successful in prior experiences are replicated for new circumstances. Founded on interactions with a variety of systems communities over the past 15 years, three ways to rethink systems thinking are proposed:

  1. Reorient systems thinking beyond “parts and wholes” towards “learning and coevolving”.
  2. Learn where the service economy and the anthropocene are new, anticipating deutero and trito levels.
  3. Coevolve the episteme, techne and phronesis across systems thinking, for both the living and non-living.

These proposed ways are neither exhaustive nor sufficient. The declaration that systems thinking should be rethought may itself be controversial. If, however, systems thinking is to be authentic, the theory, methods and practices with which we engage a changing world may require attention

The slides are available as a publication on the Coevolving Commons.  There will eventually be a published version of this content — abbreviated for journal length — and web video should be available on the ISSS web site after some light post-production work.  (The latter is a long-term project that was been deferred until I’m complete with the responsibilities of presidency of the society.  The torch passes at the end of this week.

[See the “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and coevolving with the world” at http://coevolving.com/commons/20120716-rethinking-systems-thinking.  The original presentation version is available, as well as a printable version.]

In a plenary dialectic session, I gave an address — in a position twinned with Rafael Ramirez — at the 56th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences at San Jose State University.  There’s been ongoing discussion on the Systems Sciences group on Facebook, and on Twitter with the hashtag of #isss2012.

Here’s an abstract of the talk.

Much of systems thinking, as commonly espoused today, was developed by a generation in the context of the 1960s to 1980s. Almost all of the luminaries of that era have passed on. In the 2010s, has system thinking changed with the world in which it is to be applied? Is systems thinking learning and coevolving with the world? Some contemporary systems thinkers continue to push the frontiers of theory, methods and practice. Others situationally increment the traditions of their preferred gurus, where approaches proven successful in prior experiences are replicated for new circumstances. Founded on interactions with a variety of systems communities over the past 15 years, three ways to rethink systems thinking are proposed:

  1. Reorient systems thinking beyond “parts and wholes” towards “learning and coevolving”.
  2. Learn where the service economy and the anthropocene are new, anticipating deutero and trito levels.
  3. Coevolve the episteme, techne and phronesis across systems thinking, for both the living and non-living.

These proposed ways are neither exhaustive nor sufficient. The declaration that systems thinking should be rethought may itself be controversial. If, however, systems thinking is to be authentic, the theory, methods and practices with which we engage a changing world may require attention

The slides are available as a publication on the Coevolving Commons.  There will eventually be a published version of this content — abbreviated for journal length — and web video should be available on the ISSS web site after some light post-production work.  (The latter is a long-term project that was been deferred until I’m complete with the responsibilities of presidency of the society.  The torch passes at the end of this week.

[See the “Rethinking Systems Thinking: Learning and coevolving with the world” at http://coevolving.com/commons/20120716-rethinking-systems-thinking.  The original presentation version is available, as well as a printable version.]

Systems thinking, systems that learn, and learning in service systems

Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)? How does a service system continue to learn about purposes (and objectives and goals) in its wholes and its parts? When a service system learns that change is called for, can that system consciously act to evolve (or devolve)?

Focusing on definitions of science and of systems thinking can lead to thinking about a static thing, rather than intellectual virtues that changes over time. Applying systems thinking to science, the intellectual virtues of episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know where, know whom) can each or all evolve. Actually, they coevolve, because the why, how, when, where and whom are all changing simultaneously.

Many of today’s services systems are under stress, possibly reaching a point of unsustainability. Does (or would) systems thinking help? To be concise, let’s try some responses to the three questions at the outset of this essay.

  • Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)?
    • A system in which systems thinking has contributed towards its design should have had features or properties included that are appropriate for its environment. If the environment changes, the fitness of the system may or may not degrade. A system intended for volatile environments may be have been designed to respond to change, or to fail — potentially gracefully — with signals that a more appropriate replacement should be put in place. The range of designs from fragile to “over-engineered” reflects different approaches to handling environmental change.
  • How does a service system continue to learn about purposes (and objectives and goals) in its wholes and its parts?
    • A service system — potentially socially constructed, and/or developed from natural resources — can be designed for its whole to serve both a collective (e.g. a community, a nation) and/or an individual. In addition, parts of that system may satisfy goals for others, as a byproduct. The wants and needs of service recipients may evolve, however.
  • When a service system learns that change is called for, can that system consciously act to evolve (or devolve)?
    • As the function provided by a system degrades or fails, the choices are either to (i) decommission the old service and start up a new service, or (ii) change the existing systems as it continues to operate. This latter choice requires a system that not only adapts to its environment, but also learns.

A service designed with systems thinking may have a productive lifespan that is short or long. Designing a service system that remains viable over a brief life cycle can be a challenge. Designing a service system that can learn and appropriately evolve with a highly variable environment is a bigger challenge.

In systems thinking, the idea of learning has been well developed. The remainder of this essay outlines some of the foundational appreciation on learning from systems research, and adds some recent theories coinciding with the practice turn in contemporary theory [Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, von Savigny (2001)].

  • A. A system can maintain its purpose under constant conditions by adapting, and under changing conditions by learning.
  • B. Learning can typed at multiple levels: (1) change within a set of alternatives; (2) change in the set of alternatives; (3) change in the system of sets of alternatives; and (4) change in the development of systems of sets of alternatives.
  • C. Both physical systems and human systems can learn, if sufficient resources are reserved for long term maintenance.
  • D. In human systems, social participation is a process of learning and knowing that includes meaning, practice, community and identity

Systems thinking about systems thinking should include a greater emphais on design for learning. Each of the above assertions is supported in the sections that follow.

Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)? How does a service system continue to learn about purposes (and objectives and goals) in its wholes and its parts? When a service system learns that change is called for, can that system consciously act to evolve (or devolve)?

Focusing on definitions of science and of systems thinking can lead to thinking about a static thing, rather than intellectual virtues that changes over time. Applying systems thinking to science, the intellectual virtues of episteme (know why), techne (know how) and phronesis (know when, know where, know whom) can each or all evolve. Actually, they coevolve, because the why, how, when, where and whom are all changing simultaneously.

Many of today’s services systems are under stress, possibly reaching a point of unsustainability. Does (or would) systems thinking help? To be concise, let’s try some responses to the three questions at the outset of this essay.

  • Does systems thinking lead to systems that can learn as they evolve (or devolve)?
    • A system in which systems thinking has contributed towards its design should have had features or properties included that are appropriate for its environment. If the environment changes, the fitness of the system may or may not degrade. A system intended for volatile environments may be have been designed to respond to change, or to fail — potentially gracefully — with signals that a more appropriate replacement should be put in place. The range of designs from fragile to “over-engineered” reflects different approaches to handling environmental change.
  • How does a service system continue to learn about purposes (and objectives and goals) in its wholes and its parts?
    • A service system — potentially socially constructed, and/or developed from natural resources — can be designed for its whole to serve both a collective (e.g. a community, a nation) and/or an individual. In addition, parts of that system may satisfy goals for others, as a byproduct. The wants and needs of service recipients may evolve, however.
  • When a service system learns that change is called for, can that system consciously act to evolve (or devolve)?
    • As the function provided by a system degrades or fails, the choices are either to (i) decommission the old service and start up a new service, or (ii) change the existing systems as it continues to operate. This latter choice requires a system that not only adapts to its environment, but also learns.

A service designed with systems thinking may have a productive lifespan that is short or long. Designing a service system that remains viable over a brief life cycle can be a challenge. Designing a service system that can learn and appropriately evolve with a highly variable environment is a bigger challenge.

In systems thinking, the idea of learning has been well developed. The remainder of this essay outlines some of the foundational appreciation on learning from systems research, and adds some recent theories coinciding with the practice turn in contemporary theory [Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina, von Savigny (2001)].

  • A. A system can maintain its purpose under constant conditions by adapting, and under changing conditions by learning.
  • B. Learning can typed at multiple levels: (1) change within a set of alternatives; (2) change in the set of alternatives; (3) change in the system of sets of alternatives; and (4) change in the development of systems of sets of alternatives.
  • C. Both physical systems and human systems can learn, if sufficient resources are reserved for long term maintenance.
  • D. In human systems, social participation is a process of learning and knowing that includes meaning, practice, community and identity

Systems thinking about systems thinking should include a greater emphais on design for learning. Each of the above assertions is supported in the sections that follow.

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