This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Systems of Complexity, Complexity of Systems Part 2

The differences between the various perspectives on systems and complexity considered in the previous post reflect an epistemological approach contrasted with a more ontological one. The SP UK course argues that there are reasons for being cautious in talking about the ontology or the categorization of systems in terms of the language we might use and how that might influence our perceptions. The SP UK course seeks to define and distinguish systems of interest within complex situations as epistemological devices rather than actual ontological things.

There are differences between thinking that systems are ‘out there’, a position reinforced by the naming of ‘recognized’ systems in everyday language; and of seeing those systems as mental constructs useful for helping to explain how complex situations work. These can be configured as explanatory systems, as in ‘it’s the system for making the trains run on time’ with the level of the description being an additional distinction in defining the system.

If, however, as the SP UK course seems to admit, such an explanatory system exists anywhere then, it is in the mind of the individual(s) who conceives of it, being simply a particular way of thinking about selected aspects of the world and how their interrelationships are useful in relation to an individual’s concerns.

This brings to mind Chris Argyris' Ladder of Inference, as well as his theories of action, single and double-loop learning and organizational learning in, "Teaching Smart People How To Learn” considered previously by New Community Paradigms, especially in addressing meta-issues.

Throughout the history of Western thought and practice of science and philosophy, the question whether to focus on parts or the whole has given rise to two different approaches. Emphasizing the parts has been referred to as mechanistic, reductionist or atomistic while emphasizing the whole has been termed holistic, organismic or ecological.

Two distinctive attributes, according to the SP UK course, can be derived from the word system, systemic and systematic. Systemic thinking or thinking in terms of wholes may be contrasted with what the course terms systematic thinking, which is linear, step-by-step thinking. Personally, I would replace systematic with complicated as NCP has used the term systematic in a different manner in the past.

The SP UK course provides a list of some of what it considers some of the characteristics distinguishing systemic thinking with systematic thinking: whole vs parts, abstract (based on perspective of participants) vs concrete, individual perspectives vs non-perspective, greater than sum of parts vs reductionistic, holistic organization vs building blocks, nested systems vs foundation of parts understood, contextual vs analytical, and concern with process vs concerned with entities and properties. One argument by the SP UK course is that systemic thinking is geared towards systems of interest.

As Fritjof Capra (1996) noted: “In twentieth-century science, the holistic perspective has become known as ‘systemic’ and the way of thinking it implies ‘systems thinking’.” Capra also claimed systems thinking as being ‘contextual’ thinking'; as in explaining things in their context which means explaining them in relation to their environment, it is also seen then as being environmental thinking by the SP UK course.

Similarly, it is possible to recognize differences between systemic practice or action and systematic practice or action. With systematic practice the decision-maker claims to be objective and remains ‘outside’ the system, the system is seen as distinct from the environment, perception and action are based on belief in ‘real world’, ethics and values are not addressed as a central theme and traditions of understanding are not questioned although method of analysis may be evaluated.

Whereas with systemic practice the role and the action of the decision-maker is very much part of an interacting ecology of systems, interaction of practitioner and system of interest within a context (environment) is the main focus, perception and action based on experience of the world, especially those that connect entities and meaning generated by viewing events in their contexts, ethics are perceived as being multi-leveled as are the levels of systems themselves and the attempt is made to stand back and explore the traditions of understanding in which the practitioner is immersed.

This leads to important distinctions between the two ways in which the term ‘system’ is used depending on traditions and practices. Some more commonly recognized designations or levels of systems based on Kenneth Boulding’s hierarchy of systems or of complexity, in these instances of more dynamic complexity involving rational-technical levels, including:

  • Mechanistic, from static structural frameworks, such as bridges and crystals to simple self-maintaining open systems that such as living cells to lower organisms such as plants that have separate organs but little control over their own development. 

  • Animals that have a brain to guide behavior and an ability to learn. 
  • A personal level involving humans who exhibit language, self-consciousness, and conscious acquisition of knowledge. 
  • An environmental level involving socio-cultural systems whose members have different tasks but shared values, and which have a lot of internal communication. 
  • As well as a seemingly added level of spirituality involving transcendental systems such as the idea of God or inescapable unknowables. 
This is not the only way of describing hierarchies as it depends on the purpose of the categorization and the purpose we might ascribe to each (sub) system description. Boulding’s descriptions can then be recognized more as real world systems than as explanatory systems.

The Systems Practice UK course goes on to differentiate between simple purposive systems and complex purposeful systems which begin to integrate type 1 complexity with more diverse social, cultural, psychological complexity with the assumed intention of navigating both with systems of interest. This, however, arguably adds another source of complexity to those considerations for those without adequate familiarity with systems thinking necessitating a requirement to demonstrate the value-added benefit of taking additional effort and ostensibly enhancing the involved complexity.

Systems Practice UK then seeks to use the appropriate language or means of communicating data to define and distinguish systems of interest within complex situations as epistemological devices rather than actual ontological things out there. Casti's (1994) classifying characteristics exhibited by simple and complex systems can be seen as actual ontological things but the SP UK course seems to revise this to address situations regarded as simple ‘purposive systems’ and situations regarded as complex ‘purposeful systems’ again reflecting a view of systems as conceptual epistemological devices.

Simple purposive systems, or what I would term complicated systems, exhibit predictable behavior as with a fixed interest bank account. Have few interactions and feedback or feedforward loops as with a simple barter economy of few goods and services. Power is concentrated among a few decision makers through centralized decision-making. It is possible to look at components, which because of weak interactions are decomposable without losing properties of the whole.

Complex purposeful systems can generate counterintuitive, seemingly acausal (non-linear) behavior that is full of surprises such as lowering taxes and interest rates leading to higher unemployment. It can involve a large array of variables with numerous interactions, lags, feedback loops and feed-forward loops, creating the possibility that new, self-organizing behaviors will emerge. The numerous components generate the actual system behavior. They are irreducible, so neglecting any part of the process or severing any of the connections linking its components invariably destroys essential aspects of the system's behavior or structure resulting in dynamic changes in the system and the environment. Decision-making is decentralized as a result, power, therefore, becomes more diffuse.

This view once adopted, however, has implications for systems thinking and systems practice. Exploring these implications will assist in deciding what course of action works best for any particular practitioner.

The instructor’s perspective is that it is usually more appropriate to approach the task systemically when managing or intervening in complex situations. Systemic thinking provides the context for systematic thinking and action. Both systematic thinking and systemic thinking have their place. It is not that systemic is good, systematic is bad. They are not in opposition in the hands of an aware practitioner and can be complementary in dealing with complex situations. An ideal, aware, systems practitioner then is one who is able to distinguish between systemic and systematic thinking and is able to embody these distinctions in practice. This would have implications for the initial starting conditions for any form of purposeful action as to whether to start out systemically or systematically.

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