Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Concluding 3 intensive weeks of content immersion, eight student groups created infographics of the ideas that resonated with them from the “Systems Thinking 2” class in the Creative Sustainability program at Aalto University.  Each group had been given 3 weeks in advance to prepare content to lead a learning discussion, staking a position on a list of references.  As students participated in the intensive sessions, the broader contexts reshaped those positions into a broader appreciation of the breadth of systems thinking. The initial positions and concluding syntheses were:

  • 1. Appreciative systems, futures → Into the Future with Systems Thinking
  • 2. Boundary, inquiry, perspectives → Systems thinking — synthesis
  • 3. Learning categories, postnormal science, ignorance → Systems Thinking from learning and knowledge making perspective
  • 4. Dialogue, engagement, intervention → Systems thinking from a dialogue perspective
  • 5. Ecosystems, collapse, resilience → What is the purpose of understanding the differentiation between complexity and complicatedness in systems thinking
  • 6. Coevolution, turbulence, anticipatory systems → Anticipatory systems, turbulence and coevolution
  • 7. Living systems, viable systems, metabolism → How to make STEW (Systems Thinking Endless Wisdom)
  • 8. Social-ecological systems, regime shifts → Systems? No problem!

The ending infographics represent a synthesis of the content from the course, each group having traced a different path. To rebalance team sizes, a few individuals migrated to a different group.  Some anchored more on the content they had led, while others chose to strengthen linkages to other ideas.

Into the Future with Systems Thinking

1. Appreciative systems, futures → Into the Future with Systems Thinking

Group 1 read through a cluster of references on appreciative systems and futures and a map of the basic ideas to produce a presentation slide set.

Appreciative systems, futures

The concluding infographic by Fahimeh Foutouhi, Petra Tammisto, Riikka Ikonen, Marta Jaakkola and Anna Muukkonen additionally swept in dialogues, learning, social ecological systems, complex systems and anticipatory systems.

See the Into the Future with Systems Thinking infographic as 900px width or as 600px width.

Systems thinking - synthesis

2. Boundary, inquiry, perspectives → Systems thinking — synthesis

Group 2 worked through a cluster of references on boundary, inquiry and perspectives and a map of the basic ideas to produce a presentation slide set.

Boundary, inquiry, perspectives

The concluding infographic by Miguel Fonseca, Annina Lattu and Jennifer Pitkänen put a higher emphasis on learning (a cluster of references led by Group 3), wrapping in ideas of resilience, turbulence, anticipatory systems on top the content for which they were primarily responsible.

See the Systems thinking — synthesis infographic as 900px width or as 600px width.

Systems Thinking from learning and knowledge making perspective

3. Learning categories, postnormal science, ignorance → Systems Thinking from learning and knowledge making perspective

Group 3 focused on a cluster of references on learning categories, postnormal science and ignorance and a map of the basic ideas to produce a presentation slide set.

Boundary, inquiry and perspectives

The concluding infographic by Emma Berg, Melanie Wolowiec and Lilli Mäkelä added in participation, judgement and anticipation, with larger contexts of cultural systems and biotic systems.  Additionally, they charted a reference timeline of the articles from the course depicting the importance of the content longitudinally.

See the Systems Thinking from learning and knowledge making perspective infographic as 900px width or as 600px width.

March 9th, 2016

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The average Canadian worker has (at least) some college or university education.  This fact is counter to presumptions in a question on the first day at the World Economic Forum by Fareed Zacharia, in an interview with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.  Zacharia asked:

What do you say to the average worker in Canada, who may not have a fancy college degree — and I’m thinking about the average worker in America or in Europe, as well — who looks out at this world and says “I don’t see what globalization is doing for me.  The jobs are going to South Korea and China and Vietnam and India.  Technology is great, but I can’t afford the new iPad Pro, and more importantly, this technology means that it increasinly makes me less valuable.  Why shouldn’t I be angry and involved the politics of progress?”

The response by Trudeau spoke to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of the Davos conference.  He didn’t actually respond to the presumption on education.

In a national picture of educational attainment:

In 2012, about 53.6% of Canadians aged 15 and over had trade certificates, college diplomas and university degrees. This was an increase of 20.9 percentage points since 1990.

Level of education, 15 years of age and over, 1990-2012 (percent)

Learning – Educational Attainment, Employment and Social Development Canada

… says “The Indicators of Well-Being in Canada (2016)“, by Employment and Social Development Canada.

In the Economic Indicators for Canada,

Between 1999 and 2009, the proportion of adults aged 25 to 64 with tertiary education in Canada increased from 39% to 50%. In 2009, Canada had the highest proportion of the adult population with tertiary education among all reporting member countries of the OECD. By comparison, the 2009 OECD average was 30%.

Population aged 24 to 64 with college or university education and their employment rate, Canada, provinces and territories, and selected OECD countries 2009

Population aged 24 to 64 with college or university education and their employment rate, Canada, provinces and territories, and selected OECD countries 2009

… says Statistics Canada in “Educational Attainment and Employment: Canada in an International Context (February 2012)“.

If there’s going to be another industrial revolution, an educated population should be better positioned for it.  What’s the fourth industrial revolution?  The World Economic Forum describes “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond“:

January 20th, 2016

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As part of the Master’s Program in Creative Sustainability at Aalto University, I’ll be in Finland for 3 weeks in February, as an instructor.  I’m doing this as a favour for Katri Pulkkinen, who has been teaching the course since 2010, and felt that she needed some extra time to work on her Ph.D. dissertation.

Systems Thinking 2 follows in a series of compulsory courses, each with specified learning outcomes:

  • Creative Teamwork: “The course focuses on working methods co-operation practices within the studies and the professional field of sustainability”.
  • Creating the Mindset of Sustainable Societies: “To create the common ground of sustainability studies and to learn to deal with different scopes of sustainability concept in complex environments. Understanding mindsets and sustainable societies: what this means in political, governmental, business, organizational, individual and groups/community levels”.
  • Systems Thinking 1: “Learning the basics of the systems thinking approach in the context of sustainability. The students who have participated actively in the intensive course will be able to use the basic vocabulary and concepts of the systems thinking approach. The students also develop their skills in working and presenting ideas in multi-disciplinary teams”.
  • Systems Thinking 2: “Learning how systems thinking can be applied in questions of sustainability in different fields. During this intensive course, the students familiarize themselves with different ways of using the systems approach to tackle problematic situations. The aim is to understand both the versatility of the systems approach and the importance of choosing the right systems tools for each case. The students learn to interpret and present systems thinking ideas and to apply them to their own field”.

The official content of the course is delivered in intensive sessions:

  • During this intensive course, the students study materials from different sources and make presentations to the course, using a peer learning method. The reading materials cover several ideas of systems thinking applications. The intensive course consists of 4-5 days of lectures, team work and presentations, and individual learning diary and a final essay.

On January 12, my colleagues Susu Nousala and Glen Forde launched the course in a 2-hour session with orientation materials.  The course content is available on the open Internet at, and has been evolving over the past week.

Map 00: Course content

The 25 students have been organized into 8 groups.  Each group is preparing to stake a position on a research reference cluster, to lead an hour discussion for the class.  The systems concepts have been specified as:

January 18th, 2016

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Synergy is a term that is sometimes used by laymen that could use some more clarification.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines synergy as:

The interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects: ‘the synergy between artist and record company’

Origin: Mid 19th century: from Greek sunergos ‘working together’, from sun- ‘together’ + ergon ‘work’.

A common understanding is that synergy means that “a whole that is more than the sum of its parts”.  Since I’ve said that “Systems thinking is a perspective on parts, wholes, and their relations”, a richer appreciation may come through working through a selective history on parts and wholes.  Let’s step through:

  • 1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)
  • 2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)
  • 3. Levels as “hierarchization” or “progressive organization (or individualization)” (von Bertalanffy 1932-1949 via Drack 2009)
  • 4. Normative model of work group synergy (Hackman 1987)
  • 5. Logical type in hierarchy theory (Allen 2008)

A challenge in appreciating a whole is: what is meant by more than?  In addition, is there a possibility for a whole to be less than the sum of its parts?  The formalization of systems theory (in the modern sense) didn’t really rise until the 1950s, so rather than going back to ancient Greek philosophers, let’s start in the 20th century.

1. Wholes as composites differentiating from mechanical addition (Smuts 1926)

Holism was coined as a term in the 1920s.  Jan Smuts was an amateur botanist, better known as a statesman, soldier and prime minister (1919-1924, 1939-1948) of South Africa.  The Encyclopedia Britannica writes:

Until he went to school at the age of 12, Smuts lived the life of a South African farm boy, taking his share in the work of the farm, learning from nature, and developing a life-long love of the land. Many years later, when asked by an American botanist why he, a general, should be an authority on grasses, Smuts replied, “But my dear lady, I am only a general in my spare time.”

Smuts’ career in politics and passion for botany shows up in appreciating a whole as more than mechanism.  In the 1926 book Holism and Evolution, he wrote:

The whole is not a mere mechanical system. It consists indeed of parts, but it is more than the sum of its parts, which a purely mechanical system necessarily is. The essence of a mechanical system is the absence of all inwardness, of all inner tendencies and relations and activities of the system or its parts. [….]

A whole, which is more than the sum of its parts, has something internal, some inwardness of structure and function, some specific inner relations, some internality of character or nature, which constitutes that more. And it is for us in this inquiry to try to elucidate what that more is. The point to grasp at this stage is that, while the mechanical theory assumes only external action as alone capable of mathematical treatment, and banishes all inner action, relation or function, the theory of the whole, on the contrary, is based on the assumption that in addition to external action between bodies, there is also an additional interior element or action of bodies which are wholes, and that this element or action is of a specific ascertainable character.  [Smuts 1926, pp. 103-104, editorial paragraphing and emphasis added]

Wholes are therefore composites which have an internal structure, function or character which clearly differentiates them from mere mechanical additions or constructions, such as science assumes on the mechanical hypothesis.  And this internal element which transforms a mere mechanical addition or sum into a whole shows a progressive development in Nature. Wholes are dynamic, organic, evolutionary, creative.  The mere idea of creativeness should be enough to negative the purely mechanical conception of the universe.

It is very important to recognise that the whole is not something additional to the parts: it is the parts in a definite structural arrangement and with mutual activities that constitute the whole. The structure and the activities differ in character according to the stage of development of the whole; but the whole is just this specific structure of parts with their appropriate activities and functions. Thus water as a chemical compound is, as we have seen, a whole in a limited sense, an incipient whole, differing qualitatively from its uncompounded elements Hydrogen and Oxygen in a mere state of mixture; it is a new specific structure with new physical and chemical properties. The whole as a biological organism is an immensely more complex structure with vastly more complex activities and functions than a mere chemical compound. But it must not be conceived as something over and above its parts in their structural synthesis, including the unique activities, and functions which accompany this synthesis. It is the very essence of the concept of the whole that the parts are together in a unique specific combination, in a specific internal relatedness, in a creative synthesis which differentiates it from all other forms of combination or togetherness. The combination of the elements into this structure is in a sense creative, that is to say, creative of new structure and new properties and functions. These properties and functions have themselves a creative or holistic character, as we shall see in the sequel.  At the start the fact of structure is all-important in wholes, but as we ascend the scale of wholes, we see structure becoming secondary to function, we see function becoming the dominant feature of the whole, we see it as a correlation of all the activities of the structure and effecting new syntheses which are more and more of a creative character.  [Smuts 1926, pp 104-105, emphasis added]

Smuts’ larger work on holism brings up ideas of creative activity, progress and development of wholes, so evolution and time are also involved.  Let’s skip forward a decade into another field.

2. Gestalt psychology “different from” and “something else than” (Koffka 1935)

Gestalt, says wiktionary, is a German word that doesn’t have quite the same sense in English.  Gestalt psychology focuses on innate mental laws leading to principles of perception.  A core idea, attributed to Kurt Koffka, was that a whole could be perceived as a shape or form, with parts as secondary.  One of Koffka’s associate, Grace Heider, commented on the much misquoted phrase from her memory at a meeting circa 1932.

I also remember [Kurt Koffa] making a fine distinction when a questioner asked him whether Gestalt psychology wasn’t mostly a matter of saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts:  “No, what we mean is that the whole is different from the sum of its parts.”  [Heider 1977, editorial emphasis added]

January 3rd, 2016

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For a class on Service Science at the U. of Toronto iSchool Master of Information program,  Kelly Lyons granted me the luxury of 2 hours of time.  In a relatively small classroom, she asked me to enable more interaction with the students.  With an orientation more towards theory in service science, I decided to use the slides for “Service Systems Thinking: An Introduction” that I had presented earlier in the month in Finland, but to start in a different place.  Thus, the lecture began in part 6, with three topics:

  • 6.1 Intellectual virtues
  • 6.2 Architectural programming
  • 6.3 Agile delivery, action research

This discussion opened with science as episteme, techne and phronesis.  The context of architectural programming as problem seeking opened up a conversation about what researchers and practitioners are doing with service science.  Towards concreteness in methods, the transition from structured methods to agile development was compared with action research.

Here are audio recordings of the lecture, in two parts.  (Video is so much more work!)

Part 1 Audio [20151026_1830_UToronto_Ing_IntroServiceSystemsThinking_1.MP3]
(67MB, 1h09m57s)
Part 2 Audio [20151026_1950_UToronto_Ing_IntroServiceSystemsThinking_2.MP3]
(43MB, 44m47s)

After the philosophical introduction, circling back to the beginning of the slide deck placed more emphasis on understanding the perspective of bringing systems thinking into service science.  We then rolled through content that has been (or will be covered) in the course, from a different orientation.

In the audio, there’s some banter back and forth with Kelly Lyons, who has been active in service science since its beginning.  While she paces students through content over a semester, I unfortunately only lecture occasionally at universities, so I cover a lot of ground.  Making digital recordings available is a favour for listeners who prefer to use a pause button to think and reflect.

November 9th, 2015

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This morning, I had a low stress commute through rush hour Toronto traffic. I programmed my GPS navigator, and then mostly decided against its recommendations. My commute time yesterday was about 75 minutes, following the GPS recommendations. Today, the drive was about 60 minutes, using the GPS as a lookahead map of unfamiliar streets, including a serendipitous circumnavigation of a park that I hadn’t previously known.

Negotiating order is a way of governing where one or more parties engage with the environment to coordinate action. An alternative way of governing is social contracting towards legal order (or rules-based order), where parties delegate the directions and constraints of social activity to some (higher) authority, and accede to conditions then pre-established.

Self-organizing is another way of describing negotiating order. A contractualist perspective sees parties engaging in mutual benefit schemes, towards achieving some outcomes that they can not achieve on their own.

The congestion of rush hour traffic is a familiar experience for people in cities. Toronto has a record with the highest Commuter Pain Index in the world. How does a GPS (or possibility one of the future autonomous car) impact the decision on routes for a long commute?

Toronto Riverside to Markham

The conventional path from downtown Toronto to Markham is north and then east. An alternative path through arterial city streets is east and then north.

The conventional path is a highway typically clear for the first 10 minutes, placing the driver into a congestion trap. When the driver gets sufficiently frustrated, he or she will attempt a diversion to an alternative road off the limited access highway. Unfortunately, that diversion may also be selected by other drivers, so the pain gets distributed not only to people on the main highway, but also onto all of the nearby arterial roads.

An alternative path, when navigating (mostly) a grid of arterial roads, aims to stay away from the highways, and to route though traffic lights and stop signs. In Toronto, the grid of roads is supplemented by a few diagonal paths, as some roads follow the landscape where Lake Ontario and the rivers were already in place before the roads were paved. Today, upon encountering a construction zone, and then an streetcar breakdown, I had the freedom to move away from the obstacles. The GPS enabled me to see more than a few blocks ahead, so I was able to anticipate and avoid dead ends in unfamiliar territory.

A future in autonomous cars leads to a question as to whether computer programming can (i) only solve a problem in congestion for vehicles with that capability, and/or (ii) dissolve a problem for all drivers, whether they do or not use electronic navigation devices. Russell Ackoff originally published on these distinctions:

November 3rd, 2015

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