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.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Back to Systems Practice USA Again

The previous post will be the last one on the SP UK course or OpenUniversity course on Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice for at least a while. There was a gap between the last post and the one previous of about a month. During that time, a second SP USA course was started, which is what I will be calling the Systems Practice: A Practical Approach to Move from Impossible to Impact, and am now finishing up with the fourth week.

While there was an overall philosophical disagreement with the SP UK course, there were a number of valuable insights gleaned from the course. There are also distinct differences in approach between SP UK and SP USA.

The lead instructor for the SP USA course is again Rob Ricigliano, (intro video). This time was not begun with immediately starting with mapping on one’s own as was the case the first time. That over eagerness put me out of sync with the SP USA process and made any post critique problematic. The process, for the most part, worked well. The course was successfully passed, the other team members who saw the process to the end seemed happy with the results though there was also an issue for me of not having pushed far enough with the systems analysis.

The SP USA course, the first time, helped bring everyone to a consensus on a potential approach to addressing homelessness in Portland, Oregon through food trucks to feed homeless living in camps and others unsheltered. An idea first considered in the Modeling the Last Mile to Feed the Homeless series during an Acumen Financial Modeling course.

The process followed by the team was generally in line with that put forward by the SP USA course. The independent but parallel path I took, along with helping with the SP USA processes, however, revealed potential issues further along. Throwing a wrench into the effort at the very end of what was a first time educational experience for everyone else did not seem a positive step. The question that could not be answered at the end was whether the outcome would have been different if I had followed the SP USA path more closely.

This time there will be no jumping the gun, sprinting ahead or going off with completely separate explorations. So far, that intention has been followed, with perhaps some pushing interpretations of other's intentions, pretty closely. Hindsight though tells me the balance remains elusive.

Attempts, begun later than they should have, were made to join about six different groups. This time the objective was to be subordinate instead of taking the lead. Whichever team I could get on would decide the direction of the challenge chosen and I would do my best to support that vision.

MOSS, the last group, accepted making me one of a four member group with two the members being associated with the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University in the Netherlands. Dr. Steve Kennedy, Academic Director - MSc Global Business and Sustainability and Sander Fleuren, a Learning and Development Manager, work closely together.

Dr. Kennedy (Steve, using the egalitarian practice applied in the course) has provided the general direction for the endeavor, addressing plastic pollution in Bangkok Thailand. Also part of the team, Dohn Taylor from Australia, and recent addition, Shawn Ng with connections to Malaysia, East Africa and Rome, Italy. This creates some challenges with communications which are all asynchronous being that we are in GMT+8, 2 in GMT+1 and GMT-8 time zones and that we only communicated through the course.

With introductions made, the next step was letting my fellow teammates know of my previous participation in the course and of the intention to blog about the experience as is being done now.

Despite having some resources in the NCP Wiki, Environment and Sustainability, are not my primary focus and my general knowledge is limited. It is even more limited regards to the current state of Thailand though having lived there, as a member of the United State Air Force, during the time around 1975-76 when the US was turning bases over to the Thai government. Any impressions that were held from that time were quickly proven false during the early stages of the SP USA course. 

This relative lack of knowledge though was helpful in testing my own particular hypothesis explored through the Direct Democracy and Systems Thinking wiki-page. That systems thinking can be used by a group in a civic setting to help develop a better understanding of a complex situation and addressing it. One that is better enough to make the necessary extra effort, and there is extra effort, worth the trouble. The challenge is to create a system practice that is efficient enough that it allows others to concentrate on effectiveness. 

This hypothesis was first developed in the post A Map for Direct Democracy and Systems Thinking and Kumu map Direct Democracy and Systems Thinking.

The first assignment of the SP USA course was to present the system challenge to be addressed through a Complexity Spectrum, consisting of sets of spectrums made up of polar choices, so as to select one or somewhere between them.

  • Level of Understanding: 
    • Well understood vs Not Understood 
  • Engagement: 
    • Consensus vs Diversity of Opinion 
  • Environment: 
    • Stable vs Dynamic 
    • Self-contained vs Interconnected 
  • Goals: 
    • Small Scale vs Broad Change 
    • Short-term vs Sustainable 
While relational Kumu mapping was curtailed at the start, there had been recent experimentation with Plectica which arguably fitted rather well with the first SP USA course assignment, in this instance, proving more helpful than Kumu. The configuration made possible with Plectica allowed me to create a map which reflected the Complexity Spectrum’s hierarchical nature and provided spaces for each of the members of the team to provide their individual input. Plectica has, unless you sign up for it, an interfering banner across the screen. Here are the results of the Complexity Spectrum in a narrative nutshell.

Plastic pollution and its impact on Bangkok

The level of understanding regarding plastic waste pollution was seen as high by team participants, although likely not consciously considered by most people having less of a general public awareness of the consequences of social and ecological functioning and the sources of the pollution. What may be less understood is the interaction of economic inequality and environmental degradation within communities.

The Diversity of Opinion regarding solutions to the issues is seen as high based in part on the diversity of opinion on what parts of the system need to be addressed, individual consumer buying habits, government interventions or the market extracting rents but sourcing cleanup to the local communities, moving to a petroleum-free economy or creating a circular economy which processes at or near 100% efficiency or creating substitutes for the petroleum-based products.

Plastic pollution is seen as a highly connected problem to the local and global consumption and production systems. The root causes may be found outside of the locality - plastic being produced outside of Bangkok and transported into the city in the shape of products and packaging.

The problem is ever-changing, governments seeking a solution often pass the problem to someone else. These types of projects may gain momentum and a life of their own through community involvement, despite the government. When people decide to act government often plays catch-up.

The problem of plastic pollution in terms of quantity of material flows is seen as relatively predictable. However, it was envisioned that the system has a high potential for self-organization and emergence of new dynamics.

The project aims at small-scale operations making a sustained and broad change. The goal(s) of the social entrepreneur would be relatively small scale - considering perhaps impacts on the neighborhood or perhaps stopping pollution events of one particular input. However, if this can be somewhat replicated or incentivized by others to pursue the goal (potentially even the local administration) then a much broader scale change could be achieved.The change being sought in the reduction of plastic pollution seems broadly applicable, particularly if scaled up. Likely a number of steps will need to be taken with intervening objectives. These solutions need to be long-term and sustainable and infer a change to the system purpose.

The Complexity Spectrum map also became the basis for an early systems concept map using first Plectica and later Kumu. As was stated above, some of these ideas would later be further tested or revised later in the process. I, in particular, learned a good deal more about plastic pollution in Asia and especially Thailand. More on those details will be provided in the next post.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Systems Practice - Choosing a Side

In this post, I am again going to stress this has not been meant to be a substitute for the actual OpenLearning, Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice course or what I have been referring to as SP UK. This is important because my own opinions are going to come into play here even more so than previously.

The SP UK course defines systems thinking approaches as being either ‘systematic’ or ‘systemic’. It has also established a dichotomy between ontological systems approaches and epistemological systems approaches. Most recently, the divide has been set between hard systems thinking and soft systems thinking, though how depends on who is doing the dividing.  

All three categorizations are combined by the course with systematic, ontological, hard systems thinking on one side and systemic, epistemological, soft systems thinking on the other. 

The course favors soft systems thinking, along with an epistemological approach and a claimed systemic perspective, not only over but seemingly to the exclusion of the harder side of the systems thinking coin, involving an ontological approach and a restricted imposed systematic perspective.   

The systematic perspective, as defined by the course, sees systems as ontological devices which are oriented towards goal seeking, assuming that the world contains systems that can be engineered and assuming system models to be models of that world (ontologies). As a result, systems of systematic ontologies are said to speak solely in the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’. The advantage is that this allows for the use of powerful techniques. The disadvantage is that it may lose touch with aspects beyond the logic of the problem situation.

The term “goals” is avoided by the SP UK course due to a claimed propensity by systems engineering and Operations Research (OR) during the 50s and 60s  to define objectives too narrowly. This, as they say, is so last century. I don’t believe we need to be as constrained by it today. It certainly doesn't reflect the work of Donella Meadows. I may have been unfair, due to unfamiliarity, with Sir Vickers in this regard as well as he seems to be put in the ontological camp but works with soft system thinking perspectives.

I can though agree with avoiding the setting of objectives or goals that can be achieved or optimized as being the primary purpose of systems thinking. Goal-oriented behavior can be seen as being unhelpful when dealing with messes.  Instead, there should be a move away from goal-oriented thinking towards thinking in terms of learning. 

The Systemic systems tradition, the course asserts, sees systems as epistemological devices which are oriented to learning. This assumes the world is problematical but can be explored by using the proper system models. It also assumes system models to be intellectual constructs (epistemologies). As a result, according to the course, it talks in the language of ‘issues’ and ‘accommodations’. Its advantage is that it is available to all stakeholders including professional practitioners, keeping in touch with the human component of problem situations. The disadvantage is that it does not produce the final answers meaning that it has to accept that inquiry is never-ending. Those involved in such a process should, I'll also agree, continually learn and develop new understandings about a situation upon which decisions as to what new changes should then be made. 

In my exploration and experimentation with systems thinking, I have leaned towards hard (well, at least leaning towards harder) system thinking but have come to see the need for the inclusion of soft system thinking approaches. Still, though, put myself on the hard systems thinking side, so I have a few issues. 

The first issue is that I haven’t used the word systematic in these pages in the same manner as the SP UK course. The essential dichotomy for me isn’t between systematic and systemic but between complicated and complex.  Systematic and systemic seem to be conflated with complicated and complex respectively by the course. The second issue is that I don’t establish as strict of a dichotomy between ontology and epistemology to the exclusion of one over the other as the course seems to do. Third, I am not willing to accept what seems to be an “it’s its all in our heads, we don’t have to worry if there is actually something out there” model. 

In my view, a system has its own "existence" separate not only from the environment but from the individual components of which it is comprised through emergence. It is my view that it would be impossible to transform what I have called entrenched systems without this perspective. None of this means, however, rescinding George Box's adage of all models are wrong, some models are useful.

The choice of approaches set by SP UK is either a system of interest, as in a systemic process of inquiry as part of a means of understanding a situation experienced as complex or conversely is a system seen as operational parts of a taken-for-granted real world. It is the taken-for-granted real world to which I object to seeing a systematic approach,  in my view, as taking only a complicated, and invariably top-down approach. 

I do agree with taking a systemic approach, involving the use of systems thinking to construct epistemological devices as part of an inquiry process through which to generate fresh and insightful explanations which can trigger new ways of taking purposeful action in the world but there is still an actual ontologically related world out there.  In my view, it is not only physically out there, it is systemically related and has a mathematical foundation and can be dealt with in a systematic manner. Systemic and systematic are not mutually exclusive. 

At the core of managing the complexity of an issue or a situation we are experiencing is the taking of purposeful action. The approach we take is our way of going about taking action required for coping with the complexity of ‘real world’ situations.

In my interpretation, there seem to be two different types of purpose, intended and inherent or what the course refers to as purposeful and purposive. Peter Checkland, credited with coining the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ systems to distinguish two traditions, said that purposeful behavior is that which is willed, involving voluntary action particularly applicable to human activity systems. This is what I would label intentional purpose. 

Purposive is addressed by the course through ‘What would I learn from attributing (externally) purpose to this situation?’ An engineered or even a natural system can exhibit behavior to which purpose can be attributed. This is what I am referring to as inherent purpose or what Donella Meadows termed as function.

The "In reflection, what purpose do I attribute to my own actions in this situation?", could be aimed at intentional but might actually reflect inherent despite espoused declarations to the contrary if defined by institutional fiat.

The SP UK  course asserts then that a key feature of a system defined as purposeful is that people can pursue different behaviors or what the course terms “hows” in different environments towards the same purpose or same “what”. 

The course sees Stafford Beer's: ‘the purpose of a system is what it does (POSIWID)’ as being too constraining and running the risk of objectifying ‘the system’ rather than employing a concept of purpose in the sense of a process of inquiry.  

The SP UK course also credits Peter Checkland with having worked to improve prison management, seeing the purpose of the system as ‘rehabilitating criminals’; ‘training criminals’; and ‘protecting society’.  But when the course goes on to ask yet again, ”What might we learn about the situation if we were to think of a prison as if it were a system to train criminals?”, training criminals’ can take on a double meaning. Are we simply training prisoners to become better criminals or are we providing office space to the heads of criminal gangs? 

What, the SP UK course goes on to ask, if there is no agreement on what is presumed to be a  commonly held system of interest or what purpose it is seen to have an undoubtedly common occurrence. 

People have a general propensity to pursue purposive behavior that assumes both the purpose of a system and setting measures performance of the system without first engaging stakeholders in a dialogue to jointly negotiate a common purpose. Any lack of agreement, or even discussion, about what purpose is being served doesn't serve to limit the number of experts, organizations, agencies, governments, etc who will be engaged in the definition and extraction of targets, principles, indicators and standards, and other performance measures which are then evaluated, monitored and audited, and generally assessed against the presupposed system.

Intended improvements require purposeful action that can be judged by not only those who have the power take the action but should also include those impacted but seldom does. Those actions also, however, need to be tested against the real world environment and examined for any inclination towards unintended consequences. 

Past Posts