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.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Still Learning to Understand Systems

Recently, I finished reading Michael Ben-Eli’s Module 1: ”Understanding Systems”, as the first part of the Sustainability Laboratory online course Systems Thinking and Systems Modeling presented in Kumu. My understanding of systems and what they are has been expanded with the newly discovered insight from Buckminster Fuller who defined a system as, “the first subdivision of universe into a conceivable entity,” as well as other concepts previously known of but now better integrated into my thinking.

This blog has in the past used Donella Meadows’ definition of “A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something…. a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.”  Jay Forrester’s definition of a system, “a grouping of parts that operate together for a common purpose.”  Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows are both proponents of System Dynamics as is Sustainability Laboratory, both are members of my NCP Fantasy Systems Thinking Team and both can be seen as being on the ontological side of Systems Thinking’s internal debates. 

Those debates were addressed in the UK Systems Practice series and have also just finished reading Michael Jackson’s ”Systems Thinking, Creative Holism for Managers” one realizes now a bit better choosing which side to stand with isn't an either/or proposition. So I could also now add in Ross Ashby, British Cyberneticist, taking what I see as a more epistemological perspective who said that “a system is a source of information,” which I can agree with but it is not just that.  

However, most people for whom Systems Thinking is intended to help aren't going to care or be able to afford the time to pick a side which would likely do little to address the situation, mess or challenge, wicked or not, that they are facing. At the same time, it seems difficult to move ahead as an advocate for Systems Thinking, especially when applied to democratic community governance processes without having a firmer foundation.

The ideas expressed here are sourced primarily from the ”Understanding Systems” paper, though are solely my own interpretations based upon my readings. This series of blog posts is going to detour from consideration of more pragmatic applications of Systems Thinking to address some of the concepts raised in the paper.

One such concept is that of ”constraint” as a defining aspect of systems. A particular kind of outcome or behavior exhibited by a system is the result of a given pattern of interactions or reciprocal instances of cause and effect that are limited or constrained to that particular pattern. Since outcomes with systems are continuous we can refer to them as behaviors. Any given pattern of interactions representing a limiting or constraining factor, as an instance or set of circumstance, fact, or influence that produces only a particular kind of behavior and no other. A specific pattern of relations acts then as a constraint. Some specific set of relations defines their interaction in which a specific pattern of relations is being conserved. Similar to cause and effect with interactions, it is a reciprocal relationship.

The Information System Theory Project (ISTP) defines a system as “a set of mutually constrained events.” Events then can be seen as instances of interactions between factors or Meadows’ elements that over time are constrained into patterns. It may seem to become obvious but systems change dynamically over time through weaving patterns of interactions, constrained but not constricted, iterated but not identical, separated by time and space but that is actually hard to grasp conceptually except in a very general and limited sense. 

The existence of patterns in systems has been addressed before through the Systems Thinking Iceberg and the perspective of seeing Causal Loop Diagrams as depicting patterns of persistent causality.  This concept of constraint asserts those patterns are constrained to be what they are and not something else. This sounds very much to my mind like organized complexity which as Jane Jacobs taught us has application in the ”real” world.

Forrester’s definition of a system could then be changed  to ”a grouping of parts constrained to operate for a common purpose,” adding in Fuller, as a conceivable entity in the universe or to put it on an ontological footing, a thing capable of being imagined or mentally grasped as having distinct and independent existence.  

What we can’t know are all the interactions that make up such a pattern. It is impossible then to completely determine precisely how several different variables will act together when exposed at the same time to a number of different influences but we don't need to. The patterns generated by a system can produce a myriad of different behaviors separated over time and space but which can still be discernible as patterns. 

Living systems depend on the integrity of the organism viewed as a whole to reveal essential qualities that add up to more than the sum of their parts. A living system is engaged in a constant metabolic exchange with its world importing substances and releasing by-products of its activity into an environment which is also populated by many other species of equally active self-organizing systems. This synergistic, non-linear effect of self-organization by a system is not confined to biology being also applicable to the physical sciences including those underlying biological processes.

Self-organization, or what is termed spontaneous order in the social sciences (though that spontaneous order would still need the means to continue), is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system according to Wikipedia. The process is spontaneous, not needing control by an external agent or arguably by a central or higher-level component of the system. My concern is that there can be a tendency to conflate self with ego or our own individual identities. Self-organizing is not organization by self (I) but of self  (the thing-in-itself) with no (ego-based) self needed to be involved. Ego-based self then is another emergent level which would have a different impact on the further emergence of social systems.

This means then that a self-organizing system requires that observers, or other fellow self-organizing systems, continuously change their frame of reference and even, as can be necessary, their conclusions.

In biology, the idea of a separate “vital force” used to explain the special qualities of living systems has been replaced with a new principle of an integrated concept of organization. The notion of systemic wholeness and that would include the notion of self-organization of that systemic wholeness leads the ”Understanding Systems” article to assert to the concept of “organization” as a basic unit of study.  

Organization, however, it seems to me, is being used in a particular manner here, as a noun in and of itself rather than as a category of something other things. Businesses, governments, social clubs are examples that fit under the category organization but organization here can be defined as a noun without any reference to a specific example. It is not defining a thing but a state in which a system or complex or complicated entity exists similar to temperature or entropy. 

An organization or state of organization is created from a set of elements which form a specific pattern of relations acting as a constraint, limiting the number of conceivable configurations manifested as distinct when the field of possibilities is reduced to a unique one. 

Groups of elements or factors interact among themselves and across different levels of organization, settling into stable configurations, though strictly only temporarily, as self-preserving forms that are adapted to the constraints of their specific context. Ben-Eli asserts that this is the inevitable consequence of the idea of “interaction” itself and that the significance of this essential dynamism cannot be overemphasized.

An ”organization” becomes a particular structure embodied in sets of relations when some specific relation defines the interaction of the elements or when a specific pattern of relations is being conserved. That is then manifested as a system structure or as a distinct organization as we normally understand the word. 

Organisms, or living system entities, can be viewed as organizations and the invitation can then be made to regard organizations, seemingly referring to human-generated, socially defined examples as organisms. But this, in my view, can only be taken so far because the organizations built by humans are invariably complicated and not complex as arise in nature.

The concept of organization by general system theory was a new abstraction and paradigm shift that stressed the significance of underlying structures to the representation and understanding of a system’s behavior. A self-organizing system then is an “open” system which can continue exhibiting dynamic, self-organizing characteristics by maintaining or increasing what Ben-Eli termed its ”manifestation of organization and order”, which it can do as long as it has a sufficient level of redundancy, and the system’s internal complexity is preserved.  It is internal complexity which allows for the emergence and re-emergence of different configurations in response to changing events. Self-organizing “living,” systems such as we are, including social systems of all types, depending on their internal complexity and inherent redundancy for resilience and long-term viability. More concepts to be examined in the next post.

Past Posts