Monday, May 30, 2016

SCiO Open Day in London - 11th July

SCiO is holding an open day event in London in July.  The programme is now available as are details for registration at the event.

"SCiO is a group for systems practitioners and is based in the UK, but has members internationally. It is focused primarily on systems practice and practitioners rather than on pure theory and on systems practice as applied to issues of organisation."

I have been invited to give a talk: 

Session: Ray Ison - Governing in the Anthropocene: towards systemic governance

The talk will reprise themes associated with a number of international addresses given in 2016 that address the question of what does the field of 'cybersystemics' have to offer for governing in the Anthropocene? A response to this question entails examining how the concept 'system' has gone feral and its implications as well as what a field of cybersystemics might look like, and why? Through groundings in his own research Ray will explore what ways governing might be understood and enacted into the future whether globally, nationally, organisationally or at the level of programme or project. Some of the framing considerations for a new book will be explored (Diamonds are not Forever?); this is a collaboration with Ed Straw that emerged from the SCiO meeting in London in 2015.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why universities are failing 5. The Kelsky critique

As recently reported in the Guardian Education, Karen Kelsky is a former acadmic turned job consultant for academics who has a very strong critique of particularly US universities where 75% of academic staff have no job security, health insurance or other work benefits.  She is a critic of privatisation and 'corporatisation' of Higher Education (HE) including "of how higher education has changed, including the financial burden on post-graduates". She goes on to say:

"Every country should adequately fund its institutions of higher education,” Kelsky says. The consequences of this lack of public moral purpose include reduced participation by people from disadvantaged backgrounds. “The most privileged institutions that serve the most privileged classes will survive. They have private endowments and funding models that are actually wealthier now than they were five years ago.”

While the UK may not be as far down the track of privatisation – or as she puts it the “vitriolic anti-intellectualism” – or suffering the outlandish student debt of the US, Kelsky warns that it is “stunningly far down the road” on what she calls “neoliberal productivity rubrics”. She means the REF, or Research Excellence Framework, the system used to assess UK academics’ “output”, which includes targets, for example, on the number of journal articles published.

“You can’t quantify academic productivity the way you can other kinds of productivity. You could point to countless people who probably wrote one book in their entire career but that book changed the way we think.”"

Clearly not all share the Kelsky critique as reponses to her article demonstrate.  This is clearly a systemic issue that warrants careful unpicking and interpretation.  I cannot help but feel that the proponents of HE reform, and thus what universities are becoming, engage in simplistic analysis and inadequate and uncritical boundary judgements re the 'system of interest'.  In part this claim can be gleaned by considering Aditya Chakrabortty's article (What the great degree rip-off means for graduates: low pay and high debt) and a critical response from former Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell.

In the UK the new Higher Education White Paper is out without, it has to be said, many ringing endorsements.  In the Guardian Opinion pages the writer notes:

"There is something hypocritical about this instrumentalist approach where the marketplace is to be the only judge. It may be true that the old idea, often persuasively advanced by the academic Stefan Collini, that the university is “a partly protected space in which the search for deeper and wider understanding takes precedence over all more immediate goals” cannot survive unscathed in a world where there is huge unmet demand for technically literate and numerate graduates to staff the knowledge economy. Yet, by sleight of hand, it seems Mr Johnson is promoting the latter for most students, while for a shrinking elite the old ideal quietly prospers. It is hard to see how the Office for Students, which will absorb the Office for Fair Access and the Higher Education Funding Council, will be able to shape the university landscape so that the small elite improves outreach to less privileged applicants. A new research and innovation body that has overall responsibility for the annual £6bn research budget will not reverse the trend towards its concentration in a shrinking number of universities. In years to come, most students will go to lower-status teaching-only colleges."

It thus needs to be asked what is 'the' university becoming such that it can be claimed to be failing...or not?

Post Card from Tanzania 3. Exotic weeds

The infestation of native vegetation by exotic weeds is a major systemic problem to many.  It is a global phenomenon associated with human-induced spread of species from one country or habitat to another as well as spread via other mechanisms. Some of the perceived problems have been many years in the making.  The Ngorongoro Crater and conservation area is not immune to this issue as the photos below testify.

Visually the main weed species during our visit was yellow flowered (see photos above) with a purpleish-flowered species seemingly problematic in some other areas (see photo with bull elephant). Whilst we were there staff were slashing the yellow weed - as can be seen from the boundary between the slashed and unslashed area in the photo with the lioness. 

Despite time spent searching on the web I have not been able to put a name to these two species. I wonder why? Our guide did not know their names either.  Thus I cannot say anything about their rate of spread, seriousness or whether slashing actually works in the long term. As with all attempts at control of weed species it is likely to be expensive.

 The species in the photos are clearly not the only ones of concern.  In the past Mexican Poppy (Argemone mexicana) has also been a problem as this World Heritage Site Report affirms:

" a prescribed burning programme has been put in place to reduce the spread of invasive weeds, with 400 ha successfully burnt in September 2005. A combination of manual removal, mowing and burning has also been applied to areas infested by the Mexican Poppy which is now reported to be eradicated from the Crater."

There was the odd poppy plant about but it seemed far from a major perhaps a success story?

Australia has its share of exotic weed 'problems' for which traditional approaches to improvement seem inadequate as this recent paper reports in relation to the weed serrated tussock. These researchers highlight:
  • Community-based, polycentric governance of invasive species control has potential to be more effective than traditional government-centred approaches.
  • Research was conducted to explore this potential with respect to the invasive weed Nassella trichotoma in New South Wales, Australia.
  • Lack of effective collective action is a more significant barrier to effective control of this species than lack of information.
  • Landholders are willing to participate in community-based serrated tussock management to improve the collective response to this problem.
  • Such an approach is feasible, and should complement rather than replace existing serrated tussock management approaches.
 Research such as this suggests that co-management models of weed problems in the Ngorongoro Conservation area are likely to be worth pursuing....if they are not already being done.

Postcard from Tanzania 2. The Maasai

What are the boundaries between legitimate inquiry-based tourism and exploitative voyeurism?  To date this has not been an issue I have had to deal with, but a 'scheduled visit' to a Maasai community on our recent trip brought these thoughts to the surface.  Today Maasai live from the outskirts of Arusha, through the agricultural lands approaching Manyara and then Ngorongoro, and especially the Ngorongoro  Conservation Area which extends westward from the crater to the boundary with the Serengeti National Park.

Having made the visit to a Maasai village and seen first hand how and where they live one is struck by the complexity yet sophistication of their culture.  At the same time they conserve some manners of living that are antithetical to emergent values in our own society, such as patriarchy and a high value on animal ownership (i.e., numbers) rather than, say productivity, or concerns for grazing pressure.  I learnt that sheep and goats are more lucrative than cattle, though culturally the latter are most important.  In the village we visited, five out of about 100 spoke English and only a similar number had received more then basic primary school education. On the other hand it is hard to imagine how, having moved from one world to an another, the two cutural trajectories (the Maasai and the 'global west') could be embodied in one individual, yet alone group.

These concerns are the subject of serious scholarship and the Maasai themselves. As noted in Wikipedia the "Maasai are pastoralist and have resisted the urging of the Tanzanian and Kenyan governments to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. They have demanded grazing rights to many of the national parks in both countries."  There is also a good summary of the range of outside influences on Maasai life and culture:

"Maintaining a traditional pastoral lifestyle has become increasingly difficult due to outside influences of the modern world. Garrett Hardin's article, outlining the "tragedy of the commons", as well as Melville Herskovits' "cattle complex" helped to influence ecologists and policy makers about the harm Maasai pastoralists were causing to savannah rangelands. This concept was later proven false by anthropologists but is still deeply ingrained in the minds of ecologists and Tanzanian officials.[40] This influenced British colonial policy makers in 1951 to remove all Maasai from the Serengeti National Park and relegate them to areas in and around the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA). The plan for the NCA was to put Maasai interests above all else, but this promise was never met. Due to an increase in Maasai population, loss of cattle populations to disease, and lack of available rangelands due to new park boundaries, the Maasai were forced to develop new ways of sustaining themselves. Many Maasai began to cultivate maize and other crops to get by, a practice that was culturally viewed negatively.[40] Cultivation was first introduced to the Maasai by displaced WaArusha and WaMeru women who were married to Maasai men; subsequent generations practiced a mixed livelihood. To further complicate their situation, in 1975 the Ngorongoro Conservation Area banned cultivation practices. In order to survive they are forced to participate in Tanzania’s monetary economy. They have to sell their animals and traditional medicines in order to buy food. The ban on cultivation was lifted in 1992 and cultivation has again become an important part of Maasai livelihood. Park boundaries and land privatisation has continued to limit grazing area for the Maasai and have forced them to change considerably".[41]

The situation of the Maasai is usefully understood as a 'wicked problem'; there are clearly no 'right answers but merely responses with fewer unintended systemic consequences.  The book Staying Maasai? Livelihoods, Conservation and Development in East African Rangelands  explores many of the systemic issues: 

"People, livestock and wildlife have lived together on the savannas of East Africa for millennia. Their coexistence has declined as conservation policies increasingly exclude people and livestock from national wildlife parks, and fast-growing human populations and development push wildlife and pastoralists onto ever more marginal lands. The result has been less wildlife, and more pastoral people struggling to diversify their livelihoods as access to pasture and water becomes harder to find. 

This book examines those livelihood and land use strategies in detail. In an integrated research effort that involved researchers, local communities and policy analysts, surveys were carried out across a wide range of Maasai communities providing contrasting land tenure and national policies and varying degrees of intensification of agriculture, tourism and other activities. The aim was to create a better understanding of current livelihood patterns and the decisions facing Maasai at the start of the 21st Century in the context of ongoing environmental, political, and societal change....... 

While livestock remains the critical anchor for most Maasai households, many are obtaining income from a variety of alternative sources. Unfortunately, income from wildlife/tourism, an option seen as most desirable by many because of its potential to provide economically and environmentally ‘win-win’ situations, still benefits relatively few Maasai. Similarly, although governments favor agricultural intensification, significant crop income or enhanced food security from subsistence cropping elude most."

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Pursuing AI for education: so much misplaced thinking and investment!

"As humans our only advantage over these machines is that we do, in fact, possess “strong AI” and yet we have an education system that demands we compete with the “weak AI” of machines. To me, this just doesn’t make sense" says Graham Brown-Martin in this sensible article.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

First past the post: a systemic failing of UK governance

The Price We Pay For First Past The Post

The case against First Past The Post is well-established. It provides the bare minimum of democracy, is unrepresentative for the majority, and distorts the allocation of power. But how many people are aware of its costs in wasted public expenditure and excess taxes, its maintenance of spent ideologies and their progeny of poor policies, its role in the decline in standards of political parties and politicians and thus of governments, and its value to preferential lobbies and their appropriation of wealth? This article seeks to raise this awareness through describing the unseen consequences of FPTP, and requests the Office for National Statistics, Institute For Fiscal Studies, Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountancy and/or Institute of Economic Affairs to estimate these costs. Changing FPTP is an essential first step to changing the system of government. Facing up to its high costs will help build the national will for change. 
FPTP Institutionalises Zigzag Government
With two parties perpetually dominant, operating in a system essentially adversarialist in action, zigzag government is the norm. The canoe of state tacks right only to bump into one bank, and then left till it bumps into the opposite bank.

We experience too much public expenditure followed by too little; salvo welfare followed by its punitive withdrawal; countless adversarial ’solutions’ for secondary schooling whilst countries with moderating parties in government reached consensus long ago and now direct their effort into making their various systems work; proven policies for governmental support for R&D and innovation followed by their termination; one ‘cure’ for the health service, then the opposite – or the rebadged same. The straight waste, reform and set up costs, and the re-reform and closure costs of all of these zigzags are borne by taxation.

The capacity to deal with some ‘wicked’ problems from teenage pregnancies to gangs to perpetual unemployment is built up – usually through the dynamism and innovation of the third sector. Real progress is often made, then the canoe tacks right and all of that knowledge and skill is casually discarded. The price paid rises as withdrawn effective services leave some people in their receipt back where they started, and government to pick up their costs in other ways. 
FPTP Perpetuates The Ideological Hangover
Unchallenged by a more competitive electoral system, the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ parties remain trapped in their histories and beliefs, seeking differentiation through adopting the opposite of the other, and embracing policies based on their various ‘bibles’ rather than on any great insight, analysis, or understanding of their intended targets. So we suffer an ideological hangover in a post-ideological age – ideological welfare, ideological privatization, ideological schooling, ideological terms and conditions – all with the cost of their ideology premium.

In a ‘winner takes all’ two-party system, nominally we experience the construction/ imposition of one ideology for a period, followed by another, quite different ideology. For a while, one ideology is deemed to be correct. Subsequently, for another while another ideology is apparently correct. Both main parties cling to their roots with an extraordinary tenacity, even when confronted with the obvious fact: the conditions in society giving rise to these ideologies have long gone. But FPTP keeps them in business and allows them to continue to indulge their emotion-based policies – again with taxation paying for this indulgence.

In economics Hayek and Keynes are often juxtaposed. Thus right-wingers support Hayek, and left-wingers Keynes. Hayek is the classic theoriser of markets being set free and Keynes of them being regulated. Hayek believed that creative destruction during recessions is essential to move an economy forward, as dead wood is chopped out. Keynes is the counter-cyclical smoother, particularly during a depression when government spending via debt is essential to restart an ailing economy.

In the 1980s, one of the many weaknesses identified in Western management thinking was either/or. In other words, the thinking that companies should either be centralised or decentralised, the front line tightly controlled or autonomous, collaborative with another company or competitive with that same company. Eastern thinking does not recognise false juxtapositions or divisions, and is content with the ambiguity of both positions being right, or possible, or simultaneously applicable. Centralised and decentralised. Controlled and autonomous. Competitive sometimes and collaborative sometimes. Keynes and Hayek.

A first- past-the-post two-party political system is essentially an either/or arrangement. Bipolar politics is designed to promote argument, not thought – and when has any problem really been solved through adversarial argument? The NHS has been under a permanent state of ‘reform’ for 30 years, and yet remains ‘uncured,’ trapped between Labour’s rigid attachment to its surviving major post war achievement and public distrust of the Conservatives’ intentions. The problem is the model, the solution only possible in a multi-party state free of the past and aware of the extensive public engagement necessary to contemplate real reform – as the Canadians did with their health service in the early 2000s.

I have come to recognise the flatulence of the ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ debates – more state or less state, more private sector or less, right wing or left wing, high tax or low tax, generous welfare or tight welfare. Such is the compression of the political playing field, policy cross-dressing has taken off as the parties seek to appeal to the electorate from less prejudiced or ideological positions: the Conservative Party emphasises offender rehabilitation, whilst Labour is stressing prison works; Conservatives for gay marriage, Labour for vetting and kettling; Conservatives for universal personal pensions, Labour laissez-faire; Conservatives reducing police numbers, Labour increasing them; Conservatives for localisation, Labour for centralisation.

Who is left and who is right in all of this? Does anyone care? Or is the point that something actually changes for the better? Surely the objective is the right state, right government, right tax, right welfare, right answers, and right actions. 
Democracy is competition 

Competition and democracy are close relatives. Competition matters as much in politics as it does for supermarkets, probably more. In limiting competition, standards inevitably fall. This market truism applies equally to the market for political parties, policies, politicians and to their experience relative to people’s wants and needs. The past not the future is the way to power here. The Labour/Conservative duopoly operating in a rigged market results inevitably in lower quality government. The two perpetual parties have only to convince enough people – ‘enough’ being a long way from a majority – that they are better than the other lot or the least worst (to quote Russell Brand). The electorate is forced into the dismal choice. Any self-respecting competition authority in the world would rule it illegal. 

One of the further crosses of the two-party state is that when one of the parties is effectively unelectable, a one-party state is all that is left. It led Thatcher to excess and Blair to flogging dead horses – and taxation paid the bill once more.

Orderly competition drives improvement in all things. Multi-party competition that allows new parties to become established and the old to die is essential for successful government. A sound system of proportional voting produces this. 
FPTP Is Best For Preferential Lobbying
Finally, FPTP is the best electoral medium for preferential lobbying. This scourge of democracy is near universal. Its elimination will only be achieved through a complete redesign of systems of government. But, such lobbying is made even easier by FPTP. If, for example, you are a media owner and you want to secure a satellite tv or newspaper monopoly, you will lobby one party to secure this in unwritten return for electoral support of your media. Should this party consider refusal, the simple threat to offer the same deal to the other party should change its mind. Under a multi-party system, the support of the several parties likely to form a coalition will have to be secured. The outcome of the election is less predictable, along with who to lobby. The Westminster system is the best in the world for preferential lobbying.

Does FPTP Mean Strong Government?

Usually at this point, a politician will stress how important is strong and decisive government and thus first past the post (even though a sole party of government can, of course, be elected under PR if the electorate so chooses). We heard this in relation to the Alternative Vote referendum by those opposed to power sharing – ‘we need the strong government that only first past the post can give’ and, by inference, not the namby-pamby government from coalitions and other inadequates. Sounds good, does it not? Flutters the spine? Makes one stand up straight?

From time to time, strong government has been in operation, most potently with Thatcher. She drove some changes through with which most would now agree, like building the M25. She drove some necessary change but punitively and with destructive speed, like the mine closures. She also drove hard some major errors, like the poll tax.

I have never seen the point of strong government of itself, when strong can and does lead to such high costs. I want right government not strong government. Right government may from time to time be bold and courageous, and it may also be considered, cautious, careful, and experimental. Strong is often an excuse for those with high control needs. Its end game is Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Hitler. A Thatcher would never have been necessary to resolve the worst excesses of the UK’s ideological hangover in the factories if we had previously had the plurality of proportional voting. First past the post produced both the problem and the strong and costly solution. It maintains a country in a perpetual state of civilian civil war. No first past the post – no problem – no need for Thatcher. 

Estimating The Costs of FPTP

FPTP has many hidden direct and indirect costs. These are unrecorded, unstated and considerable, in taxes, wasted economic capacity, and wealth appropriation. I am today asking those institutions that specialize in government finances to estimate the hidden costs of FPTP since, say, 1980, compared with proportional voting systems. The purpose of these estimates is to make plain the expense of retaining FPTP, to make its retention politically unsustainable. 
Ending FPTP Is Essential And But A First Step
A caution to end with. FPTP has to go and be replaced with a sound system of PR. But systems of government with PR still suffer from many of the same failures and poor performance as the UK’s. Much more has to change in all of these systems, including the EU. My view as to what else must be done, including further Competitive Democracy and a comprehensive Treaty For Government, is in my book Stand and Deliver: A Design For Successful Government. Ending FPTP is an end in itself and an enabler for these other changes.
Ed Straw
(with permission)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Systems Dynamics Conference 2016

News from the Systems Dynamics Society.

"The International Conference of the System Dynamics Society is your opportunity to explore what is possible with the tools of System Dynamics and to get to know leaders and experts active in the field.
I’m very glad I came to the System Dynamics Society conference because I thoroughly enjoyed it. The conference (and the welcoming community) has really opened me up to the SD field. - Sara Chung, conference participant.
Join us at Delft University of Technology in Delft, Netherlands, July 17-21 for our 34th annual educational and collaborative conference as we share advances and insights in System Dynamics. The conference will provide attendees with opportunities to share research, get feedback, see what others are doing in the field, and meet new collaborators. The conference theme is “Black Swans and Black Lies: System Dynamics in the Context of Randomness and Political Power-play.”

The conference will start with the
PhD Colloquium on Sunday, July 17 and continues through Workshop Day on Thursday, July 21. Visit the conference website to see a preview the Draft Program Overview by Thread.

Boost your modeling skills by attending the 3rd annual
System Dynamics Summer School. Held at the conference venue July 13-15, the Summer School will increase your knowledge and help you integrate the offerings of the conference.

Don’t miss out –
register today! We look forward to seeing you in July!

Best Regards, The Delft Conference Team

Post card from Tanzania 1.

Some of the more formative experiences of my early academic career happened in Tanzania - in late 1980 and early 1981.  My role, whilst still a PhD student at the University of Queensland, involved setting up, and then 'tutoring', in an FAO sponsored training program in tropical forages and rangelands management.  From memory the participants came from Southern Sudan, Somalia as well as the main East African countries as far south as Zambia.  To get to Tanzania from Brisbane in those days involved flying via Athens where SAS flew to Dar via Jeddah. On the second of these visits with some colleagues we managed a short visit to Arusha, Lake Manyara National Park and Ngorongoro Crater.  The vistas from the crater towards the Serengeti were magnificent and significant enough to instil a desire to return and explore more.  Some 35 years later, due to work I was invited to do with WWF, the opportunity to visit the Serengeti and Tarangire Parks for the first time, and revisit Manyara and Ngorongoro arose.

There is much that could be said about this visit within a 'systemic musings'  framing.  In this first postcard I want to comment on my experience of the wildebeest migration which, when experienced at first hand, forces one to understand it as one of the great wonders of the world: it is claimed that "while having the appearance of a frenzy, recent research has shown a herd of wildebeest possesses what is known as a "swarm intelligence", whereby the animals systematically explore and overcome [an] obstacle as one." 

Others have written about this phenomenon in prose more eloquent than mine but perhaps what might be missing from these accounts is the essentially systemic nature of the migration process, a process that involves mainly one species (though zebra are also part of the process) walking/running over large distances in an eternally iterative process....or at least thus far.   Of course walking as a phenomenon arises in the systemic relations between two 'systems' - a living organism (i.e., wildebeest or zebra) and a medium, in this case the vast tracks of savanna grassland that extend from Kenya into northern Tanzania. In other words it is not just the wildebeest, but the land that they must traverse that generates the phenomenon that is so spectacular.  The so-called 'Serengeti ecosystem' spans approximately 30,000 km2.

The continued functioning of the wildebeest migration comes about through early activism that led to the creation of the Serengeti National Park in 1951 and a contiguous set of Conservation Areas.  As I understand it the Maasai who historically lived relatively harmoniously with the native animals (i.e., they are not hunters, but herders) were excluded from traditional lands by the creation of the park, a situation that continues today. Maasai are not, however, excluded from the Conservation Areas, such as The Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  Conflict over rights to land persist (though tensions have eased since the election of a new President beginning in 2016).

Sunday, April 24, 2016

5th Symposium of Relating Systems Thinking and Design

5th Symposium of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Systemic Design for Social Complexity
Ontario College of Art and Design
                                  Ontario Canada
                              October 13-15, 2016

The theme for the 2016 symposium is Systemic Design for Social Complexity, which calls for design methodologies informed by research and real applications to address problems in the unbounded complexity of social systems.  Systemic design addresses social complexity at multiple levels of interaction: Sociotechnical work practices and technology, Complex service design and integration, Organizational design and management, and Social system and policy design.
The 2016 theme calls for "completing" research and fruitful case studies that share results and impacts with the RSD community.  Across all topic areas, we are dealing with design problems for both emergence (uncertain future evolution) where "change unfolds" and governance (design, evaluation and control in complex systems) where change is intentionally designed. Systemic design aims to integrate across methods and theories of change.
We are interested in studies and projects that bridge differing epistemic and methodological commitments (as found in healthcare), rigorously adapting from system theories and design methods (as in system model mapping), and across sociotechnical and ecological approaches to systems.
The RSD5 call for participation requests an extended abstract that expresses your proposal to share original research, case studies, panel sessions/dialogues, posters and workshops. Ten research challenge areas are encouraged within the social complexity theme:
*                     Democracy, Policy Design and Modes of Governance
*                     Public Services Design and Civic Innovation
*                     Sustainability and Socio-ecological Policy
*                     Built Environment and Design of Settlements
*                     Capacity Building and Resilient International Development
*                     Systemic Business and Organizational Design
*                     Social System Design and Transition Design
*                     Service Design, Healthcare System Design                       
*                     Design for Complex Sociotechnical Systems
*                     Theories and Methods of Systemic Design
As proceedings from prior RSD symposia show, not all topics may be represented in the final conference. We will design the final presentation tracks "emergently" based on the papers selected from the review process.
Abstracts should be no more than 1000 words, listing all authors and affiliations, and summarizing the research or a case project proposed for presentation. Inclusion of key images is encouraged. Please provide references for all citations (APA format). 
Reviews are conducted by two independent reviewers experienced in peer review and the RSD symposia, following the criteria of: Fit to themes, Significance, Originality, Balance or depth of design and systemics, and Maturity (readiness for presentation).  Accepted abstracts will be asked to give a 20 minute presentation at the symposium. Papers not accepted for the main paper tracks may be asked to consider a Poster, or if appropriate, a Dialogue session. Please see the RSD5 website for guidelines on the symposium presentations and formats for presentation and discussion.
The schedule for abstracts and reviews is as follows:
April 24                 Abstracts due (submit via EasyChair)              
May 30                 Reviews and responses to authors
June 11                 Posters, Dialogues and Workshops due
June 27                 Final selection responses
All selected papers will be presented at the symposium, where we invite participants to engage with authors with questions and feedback that might contribute to general learning and application. Presenting authors will be asked to provide a public version of their presentation for the RSD5 proceedings immediately following the conference and a proceedings paper (3000-5000 words) by Dec 3, 2016.
As in prior RSD symposia, several key papers will be invited by the program committee to submit a full paper for publication in a special issue in FORMakademisk, the Norwegian design research journal. Other publishing opportunities may be available as well for papers in certain topic areas or significance.
Please contact Peter Jones or another member of the program committee if you have questions.  We hope to see in Toronto this October!
RSD5 Program Committee
Peter Jones - Lead Chair, OCAD University
Silvia Barbero - 2016 Chair, Politecnico di Torino
Alex Ryan - 2015 Chair, Alberta CoLab
Birger Sevaldson - 2012-2014 Chair, Oslo School of Architecture and Design
Jerry Koh,  MaRS Solutions Lab, Toronto
Peter Jones, Ph.D.   |    Design Dialogues    
937.902.5723 cell              937.919.6389               

Remember the call for participation is extended to May 3

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A truly Ackoffian mess - the rhino poaching dilemma

For some time now I have been tracking the rhino and, to a lesser extent, the elephant poaching issue in southern Africa.  My interest arose when I encountered these animals first hand in Kruger National Park and worked with colleagues at SAN Parks over a period of years. There have been several recent books which are insightful - Julian Rademeyer's 'Killing for Profit: Exposing the Illegal Horn Trade' (Cape Town, Zebra Press) and John Hanks' 'Operation Lock and the War on Rhino Poaching' (Penguin, South Africa). With Duan Biggs I have almost finished writing a review essay based on the latter.

For an easier way to begin to appreciate why these issues typify a 'super' Ackoffian mess then listen to 'The Horn of a Dilemma' an excellent (in my view) Discovery program on the BBC World Service.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Anthropocene: towards a systemic sensibility for transformation?

Last year I was involved in organising two events in which the concept of the Anthropocene, and all that it implies, was central.  The first held at Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover, with the support of the Volkswagen Foundation, is reported on a Blog called 'Governing the Anthropocene Systemic Inquiry'. Posted on the Blog is a short report of the outcomes of the event as well as talks, presentations and links to recent material of relevance to an on-going inquiry within the cybernetics and systems communities.  The other was the 2015 ISSS Conference held in Berlin a week later (see presented papers; a special issue of Systems Research & Behavioral Science is in preparation).  Since that time the literature and commentary associated with the Anthropocene framing of our contemporary circumstances has burgeoned.  A particularly insightful recent piece in this genre has been Robert Macfarlane's essay in the review section of The Guardian (2nd April): ‘Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever

Readers of this blog  and those who particiapted in the  two events in Germany last year will appreciate Macfarlane's claims when he says:

'Systemic in its structure, the Anthropocene charges us with systemic change'.

In respect of the revealing and concealing features of a choice to frame our situation as 'the Anthropocene, and thus the implications for governance, or governing, he reprises arguments and persectives present in our 2015 conversations:

"Across these texts and others, three main objections recur: that the idea of the Anthropocene is arrogant, universalist and capitalist-technocratic. Arrogant, because the designation of the Anthropocene – the “New Age of Humans” – is our crowning act of self-mythologisation (we are the super-species, we the Prometheans, we have ended nature), and as such only embeds the narcissist delusions that have produced the current crisis.

Universalist, because the Anthropocene assumes a generalised anthropos, whereby all humans are equally implicated and all equally affected. As Purdy, MiĆ©ville and Moore point out, “we” are not all in the Anthropocene together – the poor and the dispossessed are far more in it than others. “Wealthy countries,” writes Purdy, “create a global landscape of inequality in which the wealthy find their advantages multiplied … In this neoliberal Anthropocene, free contract within a global market launders inequality through voluntariness.”

And capitalist-technocratic, because the dominant narrative of the Anthropocene has technology as its driver: recent Earth history reduced to a succession of inventions (fire, the combustion engine, the synthesis of plastic, nuclear weaponry). The monolithic concept bulk of this scientific Anthropocene can crush the subtleties out of both past and future, disregarding the roles of ideology, empire and political economy. Such a technocratic narrative will also tend to encourage technocratic solutions: geoengineering as a quick-fix for climate change, say, or the Anthropocene imagined as a pragmatic problem to be managed, such that “Anthropocene science” is translated smoothly into “Anthropocene policy” within existing structures of governance. Moore argues that the Anthropocene is not the geology of a species at all, but rather the geology of a system, capitalism – and as such should be rechristened the Capitalocene.

Despite these concerns Macfarlane is clear that:

'..the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through'. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Exciting opportunity for the right person

As some of you may know rhino and elephant poaching are amongst the most complex issues that have to be addressed at this historical moment. Poaching is occurring in contexts of poverty and unsustainable livelihoods for local people and in areas where agricultural and rural development need creative and innovative thinking and practices.  This is clearly an arena where those equipped with systems thinking in practice capabilities are needed.  This new post has just become available:

The  Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science (CBCS), at the University of Queensland in partnership with the Luc Hoffmann Institute are offering an exciting postdoctoral fellowship at the interface of science and policy that aims to foster conservation innovations at the frontier of agricultural development. The successful appointee will engage with stakeholders and policy-makers  to understand how information on the drivers and threats to biodiversity at different scales is perceived and used by decision-makers and practitioners to support innovative conservation solutions.

The position is part of a broader Luc Hoffmann Institute initiative that involves the Stockholm Environment Centre, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and Cambridge Conservation Initiative. 

There will be exciting opportunities to work across the conservation science and policy interface in collaboration with leading conservation scientists and practitioners.

The successful applicant will work closely with myself, Hugh Possingham, James Watson, and Helen Ross at the University of Queensland and Malika Virah-Sawmy - the Sustainable Consumption and Production Research Lead at the Luc Hoffmann Institute. 

For the position description and to apply please go to:

For further information on this position please contact me at or Malika at - Please note that you can only apply via the online application system and not via email.

Your help in distributing this through your networks is much appreciated.  
Duan Biggs, PhD
The Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
Australian Research Council Early Career Fellow (DECRA)
Project Lead: Luc Hoffmann Institute – ConTActED -  Bridging Conservation’s Divide by Connecting Threats, Actors and Extrinsic Drivers

Come work with us as a Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow – Application info here

Member of IUCN World Comission on Protected Areas & Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Groups

Thursday, March 24, 2016

England re-entry

The London Eye from my bedroom first night back.  Spring on the Walton Hall campus of The Open University (UK).

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Why Universities are failing: 4. Epistemological inadequacy

In a most lucid New Yorker article "After the Fact. In the history of truth, a new chapter begins"   without ever referring to Universities, provides further evidence as to why they can be said to be failing. Her article begins within recent experience of the so-called, 'US political debate' in which she notes: 

"The past has not been erased, its erasure has not been forgotten, the lie has not become truth. But the past of proof is strange and, on its uncertain future, much in public life turns. In the end, it comes down to this: the history of truth is cockamamie, and lately it’s been getting cockamamier."

Implicitly, if not explicitly, within this claim sits the question of what the role of the institution we call a university is within an unfolding 'public life'?  Have universities become makers of cockamamie?

If you are reading this post then I invite those of you who are connected with, or concerned about universities and what they are becoming, to reflect on Lepore's examination of the following thought experiment?

"Most of what is written about truth is the work of philosophers, who explain their ideas by telling little stories about experiments they conduct in their heads, like the time Descartes tried to convince himself that he didn’t exist, and found that he couldn’t, thereby proving that he did. Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data,” begins with a thought experiment: “Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person’s brain.” As thought experiments go, this one isn’t much of a stretch. (“Eventually, you’ll have an implant,” Google’s Larry Page has promised, “where if you think about a fact it will just tell you the answer.”) Now imagine that, after living with these implants for generations, people grow to rely on them, to know what they know and forget how people used to learn—by observation, inquiry, and reason. Then picture this: overnight, an environmental disaster destroys so much of the planet’s electronic-communications grid that everyone’s implant crashes. It would be, Lynch says, as if the whole world had suddenly gone blind. There would be no immediate basis on which to establish the truth of a fact. No one would really know anything anymore, because no one would know how to know. I Google, therefore I am not."

As you sit in your next meeting, or look at the pronouncments that come from University senior management, or strategic planners, consider what 'trajectory commitments' their language reveals.  Are they knowingly or not followers of Larry Page, or do they understand what is actually entailed in 'observation, inquiry and reason'? More importantly how is your university, or any university, positioning itself to serve a society that runs the risk of not knowing how to know!

 Some in universities might consider that the historical practices of proof construction still play some role in University and academic life:

"In the West, for centuries, trial by combat and trial by ordeal—trial by fire, say, or trial by water—served both as means of criminal investigation and as forms of judicial proof."

The profound shift from 'proof through ordeal' to 'proof through deliberation' is entertainingly revealed in the novels of Diana Norman (writing as Ariana Franklin). This shift was one of the more significant institutional innovations of the last 1000 years, though one would not always believe so in the combatative arenas of University funding and decision making where there is an increasing propensity for senior managers to believe they can discern winners and losers in a globalised academic battle for hegemony! 

As  Lepore notes:

"Between the thirteenth century and the nineteenth, the fact spread from law outward to science, history, and journalism."

To this we might add the creation of universities as arbiters of religious belief and then fact? After all:

"Empiricists believed they had deduced a method by which they could discover a universe of truth: impartial, verifiable knowledge. But the movement of judgment from God to man wreaked epistemological havoc. It made a lot of people nervous, and it turned out that not everyone thought of it as an improvement."

So to what extent does your university purvey a utilitarian, epistemologically naive, pedagogy, whether by commission, or omission? For example, by priviledging narrowly conceived research at the expense of transformative learning and/or research, because, as Lepore says:

"we no longer take responsibility for our own beliefs, and we lack the capacity to see how bits of facts fit into a larger whole. Essentially, we forfeit our reason and, in a republic, our citizenship."  

Citing Lynch and Jefferson, Lepore offers insight and possibility for reclaiming purpose in the being and doing of a university:

"He [Lynch] thinks the best defense of reason is a common practical and ethical commitment. I believe he means popular sovereignty. That, anyway, is what Alexander Hamilton meant in the Federalist Papers, when he explained that the United States is an act of empirical inquiry: “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” 

I would put it differently: how can we create and re-create the circumstances for the design and enactment of systemic governance so that common practical and ethical commitments (knowing how to know and do) emerge coherant with our circumstances of living in a climate-changing world?  And how might universities embrace this imperative as their reason d' etre?   Unfortunately these concerns appear largely absent from the recent UK Green Paper (Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, November 2015) critically reviewed by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books.

N.B. My thanks to David Waltner-Toews for alerting me to the article by Jill Lepore. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Systemic researching

For part of last week I was with a group of 30 delightful PhD researchers participating in the 10th anniversary version of INRA-SAD's internal PhD program (10th Journees des Doctorants du SAD "Parcours de these") held in St Martin de Londres, north of Montpelier.

It was a rewarding time, as it always is when young researchers are offered a reflexive space to consider what it is they do when they do, or claim they do, research.

Patrick Steyaert and his SAD co-animators have developed an excellent program, worthy of celebration after 10 years. I was also lucky to be able to join in the celebrations held for the retirement of Bernadette Leclerc, a key figure in the program, who I have known since the time she so ably supported the production of our book 'Cow up a Tree',  published by INRA.

LEARN. eds (2000) Cow up a Tree. Knowing and Learning for Change in Agriculture. Case Studies from Industrialised Countries.  INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique) Editions, Paris.