Monday, August 18, 2014

Remember the National Programme for IT in the NHS?

Some may remember earlier postings I made about the systemic failings of the NPfIT?  Ross Anderson, one of the group of Systems professors who wrote publically to the government about the inadequacies of NPfIT has recently "taught a systems course to students on the university’s Masters of Public Policy course (this is like an MBA but for civil servants). For their project work, [Ross] divided them into teams of three or four and got them to write a case history of a public-sector IT project that went wrong."

The winners were a team who wrote about NPfIT - the report can be seen here.  Ross concludes that "despite the huge losses the government doesn’t seem to have learned much at all."

UKSS Meeting 2014 - details

Practice of Systems Ideas in a Knowledge Society
This year’s UKSS conference has different format and venue, with the great keynote speakers you expect.
  We are pleased to be hosted by the Centre for Systems Studies, Business School, University of Hull, starting with a conference dinner on Thursday 11 September, followed by a day of interesting activities including keynote speakers, papers and workshops. Then on Saturday our friends at SCiO are holding an open day with eight fantastic speakers.
On Friday the speakers are Keynotes by Professor Simon Bell, Open University, Professor Gerald Midgley, University of Hull and Patrick Hoverstadt, SCiO. There will also be an opportunity to present papers are contributions are encouraged by submitting to by 31 August 2014
The SCiO day features the following speakers and subjects
  • SYSBOK - reviewing the developing SCiO systems body of knowledge, with Tony Korycki and Patrick Hoverstadt
  • Benjamin Taylor - the practice of systems leadership: application of systems concepts to leadership
  • Patrick Hoverstadt - subject to be confirmed
  • Arthur Battram - Navigating Complexity
  • Ivo Velitchkov - Requisite Inefficiency
  • Jane Searles - case study: applying systems thinking with British Waterways
  • Christoph Giagounidis - Beer at work (how work can make us sick, and Beer can make us better)
  • Alfredo del Valle, Ph.D. - Managing high-complexity problems through methodical participation: experiences with the Participatory Innovation Model (speaker to be confirmed)
Full details follow:
Practice of Systems Ideas in a Knowledge Society
11 – 13 September 2014
The Venue: Centre for Systems Studies, Business School, University of Hull,Cottingham Rd, Hull, East Yorkshire HU6 7RX
This year’s conference will be hosted by the Centre for Systems Studies at the Hull University Business School, which is a leading UK business school dedicated to the development of responsible leadership for a complex world.
This is great news at it takes the UKSS back to where the first Conference was held nearly forty years ago, although if you were there you will find things have changed as in 2005, the School moved in to their new home, described by Sir Digby Jones, former Director General of the CBI, as a ‘world class learning and teaching facility'.  Designed by esteemed architects Farrell and Clark, the school is a mix of new build and redevelopment.  Contemporary links connect four Grade II listed buildings to create an inspirational yet practical space, equipped with the latest technology.
            The Programme
Once again we are bringing together thinkers and practitioners in the fields of systems and complexity as it seems to us that there has been a significant international resurgence in these areas in recent years.  Delegates will benefit from cutting edge research and a lively forum for discussion and debate will be provided for a wide range of academics and practitioners in the fields of systems thinking. Our aim is to bring together as many people as possible who are engaging with the Practice of Systems Ideas in a Knowledge Society, with the intention of promoting an intense and lively debate with real world implications.
Thursday 11th September 2014
Conference Dinner.
Friday 12th  September 2014
Keynotes by Professor Simon Bell, Open University,Professor Gerald Midgley, University of Hull and Patrick Hoverstadt, SCiO
Challenges of Knowledge Societies
  • Selected Papers.
  • Practical Workshop Case Study (subject to alteration) using and comparing:
    • Ketso.
    • Soft Systems Methodology (SSM).
    • Viable Systems Model (VSM)
        Saturday 13th September 2014
      Jointly Sponsored with SCiO; a day devoted to practitioner contributions, and workshops.
      What Are Knowledge Societies?
      Knowledge Societies are identified as societies based on the creation, dissemination and utilization of information and knowledge, i.e. societies with an economy in which knowledge is acquired, created, disseminated and applied to enhance economic and social development.
      People living in a knowledge society can expect that their work, leisure, social and political lives will be dominated by creation, acquisition and utilisation of ‘knowledge’.  However, at the heart of this concept is the idea of ‘knowledge’ itself.  Great resources have been expended by businesses wishing to know how to manage their knowledge, since it has been acknowledged that the only sustainable source of competitive advantage that an organisation has is the know-how of the people it employs.  Yet knowledge remains problematic.  It is contained within people and created by them through interactions in groups, using physical and financial resources.  People may or may not know that they have it.  Efforts to make human knowledge explicit, and capture it for the benefit of others may be more or less successful.  It is perhaps more accurate to refer to human knowing, since it is dynamic rather than static.
      Call for Contributions
      We invite contributions from systems thinkers from a wide variety of backgrounds both academics and practitioners engaging in the form of papers, models, reports from practice, posters or workshop proposals that relate to the conference theme in its broadest sense. Your paper(s) can focus on theory, practice or a combination of the two.  This conference will provide a great opportunity to meet others with similar interests and to communicate with a wider audience, so we really want to encourage you to participate.
      Submit papers to    by 31 August 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014

Insightful interviews

Not all TV was bad during my stay in Washington.  In the early part of my stay, suffering from jetlag, I managed to see a few excellent  interviews on PBS TV during my wakeful hours around 2am!  

The station I found most informative was WHUT-TV which  is "a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) member Public television station in the Washington, D.C. area. The station is owned and operated by Howard University, a historically black college. The studios are on the Howard University campus."

Two interviews in particular I found revealing.  The first was an interview by Charlie Rose with Bruce Riedel, whose new book 'What we won. America's secret war in Afghanistan 1979- 1989'  has just been published by the Brookings Insitution Press:

"On sale July 28, Bruce Riedel's new book examines the most successful intelligence operation in US history - the CIA's covert war in Afghanistan."

“We are at the moment of truth in the future of Afghanistan,” said Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, on The Charlie Rose Show. Learn more about his appearance on the show and what he said about the future. See 'The Moment of Truth in the Future of Afghanistan'. 
I recommend viewing the interview to the end where some observations are made that left me very concerned.

The second interview was on 'Democracy Now' with Henry Siegman, Leading Voice of U.S. Jewry, spaeking on Gaza: "A Slaughter of Innocents". In this interview Siegman's description of how he arrived at his current position was particularly powerful, namely he asked the question: 'what would I do if I were in their [the Gaza Palestinians] shoes'?  His conclusion is that he would do what they are doing.  He goes on to reflect how Israelis acted when they were trying to create a homeland, and sees little difference in the nature of the actions.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Washington DC Postcard

I have just returned from two weeks in Washington DC, my first visit since a brief stay in 1990.  Memories of my first visit are almost non-existent - all I remember is the anxiety and the admonitions to not walk alone on the streets. There are vague memories of staying in an elegant B&B in Georgetown and of sampling Ethiopian cuisine for the first time.  My business and conversations remain opaque.

Clearly Washington has changed. It is accessible and a get-out-and-about city;  this article from the BBC outlines the transformation: "Washington DC from murder capital to boomtown".

The occasion of my visit was to attend the ISSS (International Society for Systems Sciences) annual conference where I was installed as President for the coming year.  ISSS was followed by the ASC (American Society of Cybernetics) 50th Anniversary conference.  By design and through cooperation the conferences were organised in consecutive weeks and held at George Washington University in Foggy Bottom, just off Washington Circle.  My hotel was close to the conference and in walking distance of Georgetown and the main Washington monuments. I was told Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF had an apartment across the street - clearly a 'good' neighbourhood!

It was an intense but rewarding two weeks - I delivered three presentations and contributed to another plenary.  In a later post I will say more about the substance of the conferences; here I want to post some vignettes, reflections, in no particular order, triggered by my two week stay.

1. Washingtonians consume a lot of coffee but it is not a cafe society the sense of Melbourne, Rome or, increasingly, London.  I came to this conclusion on a Saturday morning when with a friend we set off prior to breakfast for the Lincoln Memorial and a walk towards the Capitol.  When hunger and need for coffee exerted its pull at about the Smithsonian there was not a coffee shop to be seen - despite lots of little booths...that did not open till 9.30am! We turned towards the city and its cavernous boulevards.  Eventually a Starbucks appeared which we rejected in favour of something more interesting - but in the end all that could be found were other Starbucks!!   Breakfast at Starbucks = not my idea of a cafe society!  Unlike many other cities the sidewalks are underutilised for outdoor coffee and dining.

2. Arrival at Dulles Airport - how to get to Washington?  Gave up the idea of public transport in favour of a shuttle which would deliver me straight to my hotel (a metro card for DC can't be purchased at the airport!). I was the last of nine passengers dropped off.  At least I had begun to get my bearings; the driver, a recent arrival from Ghana, knew little more than me about Washington and would have been lost without his sat nav. But after a flight from Melbourne via LA it was not really what I wanted. The return was much easier, though finding out how to do it required persistence - the hotel staff did not know, and seemed unable to find out, how public transport operated with the newly opened metro line (the silver line).  The combination of metro to Wiehle-Reston East station then Dulles International Silver Line Express bus (for only 7 miles) was efficient and not expensive.

3. Lights and airconditioners left on all day - if I switched them off those who did my room would switch them on again.

4. Breakfast at my hotel was a bizarre ritual - a small space, no flow for the items I needed or wanted to consume. It took days to work out how to sequence the events that were needed to get my breakfast! There were two TVs in the room (one on CNN) blasting out hyped up, pathetic reporting mainly about the Israeli-Gaza conflict and Ebola!

5. A colleague kindly took us to Mt Vernon, the home of George Washington for a day trip.  It is only a few hours drive from Washington in the state of Virginia. It was an informative day out - one I would recommend, though it does have its perversities if one is open to seeing them.  The view from the front verandah of Mt Vernon across the Potomac River is delightful and all the more so as the view is little disturbed from that which Washington and his family, employees and...... slaves would have enjoyed. As the land opposite is in the state of Maryland my thoughts immediately went to governance issues - what happened that the view was conserved given two different states were involved and given that by todays standards it is prime real estate?  The answer is Piscataway Park, run by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior (National Capital Parks-East

"Situated along the Potomac River in Maryland, Piscataway Park was created to preserve the historic views from Mount Vernon, home to President George Washington, to Fort Washington. Piscataway Park is a natural area and is home to bald eagles,beavers, fox, osprey, and many other species." 

But the park is only the outcome - the motivation came from Henry and Alice Ferguson who with friends puchased land, prevented development and eventually donated the land to the Park Service, a process not completed till the 1960s. Similarly the conservation of Mt Vernon was due to the action of private individuals who became the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1853 and who continue to run the 500 acre site that has had over 80 million visitors since 1860.

To an Australian Mt Vernon is familiar - in the sense that it has the features of a colonial homestead that aspired to cater for European sensibilities. But by European standards it is a modest home, though the entire complex is convincingly retained and restored and enables the visitor an informative, interpretative experience...with one notable exception. Upon arrival at Mt Vernon a 25 minute video is shown in the new Ford auditorium - sponsored also by the Ford motor company it is very professional - a sort of biopic around aspects of the life of Washington. The jarring note for me concerned the segment referring to Washington's role fighting with the British as a colonial officer in the French and Indian war of 1754-63.  In what is essentially a 'creation myth' for the USA the role of the indigenous Indians was written out.  Thankfuly this would no longer be possible in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.  Having viewed this video I also wondered how many Americans would make the connection between their struggle for independence and the Palestinian struggle for a land of their own. 

6. The bookshops I found in DC were, by international standards, disappointing. I was sorry to miss the World Bank Bookshop - not open on weekends.

7. Colleagues and I had a great evening at Blues Alley in Georgetown.  Akua Allrich and her three band members presented a delightful set.

8. A highlight for me was a half day spent in the National Museum of the American Indian. For anyone with systemic and cybernetic sensibilities there was much on offer, including an architecture based on a spiraling circularity. It is not often one finds a discussion of the place of duality in a people's life.  The restaurant served indigenous dishes from all the major regions of the Americas - it was a great selection and hard to make a choice because of the diversity.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Systemic governance approaches employed

Australia's first ever Community Energy Congress was held recently in Canberra (16-17th June). As the web site indicates their ambitious, but appropriate aim was to 'to create a new approach to energy in Australia – to decarbonise, decentralise and democratise our energy system!'.   With this in mind they set out to design what I would call a governance experiment that combines systemic practices and institutional innovations: 

"The Coalition for Community Energy (C4CE) is a purpose-built governance system designed to enable collaboration for the purpose of creating a vibrant community energy sector and movement right across Australia.

It is the membership of C4CE ~ community energy projects, groups, support organisations and stakeholders in the wider renewable and mainstream energy system ~ who make this vision possible. C4CE initiatives are created and led by one of more members. The overall coordination of C4CE is led by the Steering Group with the support of a Secretariat.

C4CE believes collaboration creates greater impact than the simple sum of individual member efforts. Together, we can make the difference.

C4CE’s objectives are to:
  • Guide and support development of the community energy sector
  • Create a coordinated voice to better advocate for the needs of the sector
  • Grow the sector’s profile, influence and membership (beyond the ‘usual suspects’)
  • Facilitate the alignment of efforts by Members with support, systems, tools and training which enable collaboration for collective impact
  • Identify and create strategic opportunities and attract investment for the sector
  • Coordinate strategic initiatives which build the knowledge, know-how and capacity of Members and the sector
As an unincorporated governance system, C4CE is legally auspiced by Starfish Initiatives*."

There have been a number of follow up media reports ranging from the community-based to national from what was a sellout event of 350.  Presentations were made from all sides of the political spectrum.

If only systemic sense could prevail

Further to my earlier post, colleagues concerned like me, at the continuing systemic failure of governance and public policy have alerted me to intelligent and insightful arguments that point to other ways of understanding and governing. If  only these understandings and associated practices could prevail!

Continuing with the complex, contested issue of Palestine - Israel, an article in the New Yorker on'Israel’s Other War' by draws attention to the longer term systemic consequences of Israeli policy.   

"It’s an awful thing to make a truly tragic mistake, one that costs many lives.  It’s worse to make that same mistake over and over again. Four operations in Gaza, an immense number of Israeli and Palestinian hearts that have stopped beating, and we keep ending up in the same place. The only thing that actually changes is Israeli society’s tolerance for criticism. It’s become clear during this operation that the right wing has lost its patience in all matters regarding that elusive term, “freedom of speech.” In the past two weeks, we’ve seen right wingers beating left wingers with clubs, Facebook messages promising to send left-wing activists to the gas chambers, and denunciations of anyone whose opinion delays the military on its way to victory. It turns out that this bloody road we walk from operation to operation is not as cyclical as we may have once thought. This road is not a circle, it’s a downward spiral, leading to new lows, which, I’m sad to say, we’ll be unlucky enough to experience."

Writing in the Toronto Star, Gabor Maté (published on Tue Jul 22 2014) captures the disillusionment for many now in their 60s and 70s, like me, who grew up supportive of the ideal of a democratic Israeli state - an ideal that no longer survives in a defensible form.  He writes: 

"As a Jewish youngster growing up in Budapest, an infant survivor of the Nazi genocide, I was for years haunted by a question resounding in my brain with such force that sometimes my head would spin: “How was it possible? How could the world have let such horrors happen?”

It was a naïve question, that of a child. I know better now: such is reality. Whether in Vietnam or Rwanda or Syria, humanity stands by either complicitly or unconsciously or helplessly, as it always does. In Gaza today we find ways of justifying the bombing of hospitals, the annihilation of families at dinner, the killing of pre-adolescents playing soccer on a beach.

In Israel-Palestine the powerful party has succeeded in painting itself as the victim, while the ones being killed and maimed become the perpetrators. “They don’t care about life,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, abetted by the Obamas and Harpers of this world, “we do.” Netanyahu, you who with surgical precision slaughter innocents, the young and the old, you who have cruelly blockaded Gaza for years, starving it of necessities, you who deprive Palestinians of more and more of their land, their water, their crops, their trees — you care about life?"

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of contemporary contexts in which ideologues drive us collectively in the wrong direction. Profound systemic consequences are already evident in Sri Lanka, Canada and Australia as these links testify.

On a rare positive note the British government is to be commended for sticking to its carbon reduction targets, as indicated by this announcement from the Secretary of State, who said:

"Above all, maintaining the Fourth Carbon Budget at its current level demonstrates the UK’s commitment to its climate change target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The UK has the world’s most transparent system of binding emission reduction targets, which are used as a model throughout the world. Today’s decision cements the UK’s place as a global leader in combating climate change, which will allow us to play a central role in delivering a global deal to combat climate change at the end of 2015."    

As I have written elsewhere the UK's 'Committee on Climate Change' is an important institutional innovation - so it is good to see that its role in governance is working.  Importantly this case exemplifies how, when there is political commitment to what is ethically and scientificaly justifiable, it is possible to stand up to Treasury idealogues, as this article by Simon Inglethorpe indicates:

"The decision amounts to a personal victory for [Secretary of State] Davey as it means Treasury calls to weaken the budget – and leave the door open for more gas-fired electricity generation in future – have not prevailed.

“Ed Davey deserves praise for standing up to the Treasury’s wrecking efforts, and the prime minister credit for holding firm on this crucial commitment,” said Greenpeace’s political director, Ruth Davis. “George Osborne has done everything in his power to water down the UK’s keystone climate change policy, putting at risk vital investment in our energy system and our credibility in global climate negotiations.”

I imagine it is too much to hope that a moratorium on all fracking will emerge as a systemically desirable national strategy - in the UK and elsewhere. Technologies which perpetuate 'carbon pollution' and attract investment away from renewables have no place in the world we now have to create.   

Cutting the Gordian Knot of Complex Problems: Cybernetics & Policy

This event will be held in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the American Society of Cybernetics which commences in Washington DC on Monday 4th August.

What can a cybernetic perspective bring to the issues of the day?  With examples from Iraq, HealthCare, Transportation, and Finance.
"Monday August 4, 4-6 pm
George Washington Business School, DUQUES HALL, 2201 G Street NW, Room 258

The decision maker of today is faced with a complex world composed of many open, value-laden, multi-level, multi-component systems, situated in turbulent, unstable, and changing environments. When a plane crash in eastern Ukraine with 298 people aboard will affect the European gas supply, health care for AIDS patients, the decisions of the UN Security Council, and international sanctions -- which will then alter trading on the NYSE, world trading partnerships, British real estate prices and the American economy -- that complexity seems both obvious and paralyzing.

Complexity is the source of very difficult scientific challenges for observing, understanding, reconstructing and predicting the multi-dimensional dynamics of present-day systems. Cybernetics is the science of reflexive constraints in systems consisting of many participants -- all of whom observe, decide, act, observe, etc. It examines the role of context and assumptions which together help shape the understanding of both problems and their potential solutions.

When what is happening in your world doesn't make sense, when it doesn't conform to your beliefs about how things work, it's time to ask hard questions. Cybernetics is the science of developing those questions by examining both the situation and the people and institutions charged with achieving adequate management, regulation or control.

While the hard sciences may suggest that decision makers consider all the information they can about both the current situation and the past, and then with a sense of desired outcomes, lay plans of action to get to those outcomes, cybernetics exposes the “wishful thinking” this entails. Cybernetics questions our ability to rely on "predictive" models by noting the blinders built into the models themselves.

We bring into our decision-making process flaws and errors of our own. All of us show bias when it comes to what information we take in. We typically focus on anything that agrees with our view of the world and the outcome we want. We need to acknowledge our tendency to incorrectly process challenging news and actively push ourselves to hear that which fails to match our prior expectations.

Cybernetics helps you develop the very questions you should ask of both yourself and of the situation you are examining. It highlights the pitfalls when one attempts to understand the whole as a "black box." The view of that crash from Donetsk differs greatly from the view in Iowa City.

Cybernetics highlights the constraints as you map and parameterize inputs and outputs, and as you observe systemic behaviors. Most importantly, it demands reflective questioning when you decompose the system into its constituent subsystems, recursively, until you think you have reached a natural stopping place for decision-making. Such questioning may, for example, help guide British policy toward Russian banking sanctions.

In order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems you face. Cybernetics should be part of your repertoire."

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Avaatz's narrative about the Palestine-Israel situation makes systemic sense

I am posting a recent communication from Avaatz because I could not elucidate the systemic issues any better.

"As a new round of violence kicks off in Israel-Palestine and more children are killed, it's not enough just to call for another ceasefire. It's time to take definitive non-violent action to end this decades long nightmare.

Our governments have failed -- while they have talked peace and passed UN resolutions, they and our companies have continued to aid, trade and invest in the violence. The only way to stop this hellish cycle of Israel confiscating Palestinian lands, daily collective punishment of innocent Palestinian families, Hamas firing rockets, and Israel bombing Gaza is to make the economic cost of this conflict too high to bear.

We know it works -- when EU countries issued guidelines not to fund the illegal Israeli settlements it caused an earthquake in the cabinet, and when citizens successfully persuaded a Dutch pension fund, PGGM, to withdraw, it created a political storm.

This may not feel like a direct way to stop the current killing, but history tells us that raising the financial cost of oppression can pave a path to peace. Click to call on 6 key banks, pension funds and businesses to pull out -- If we all take smart action now and turn up the heat, they could withdraw, the Israeli economy will take a hit, and we can turn the calculation of the extremists politically profiting from this hell upside down:

In the last six weeks three Israeli teenagers were murdered in the West Bank, a Palestinian boy was burnt alive, an American kid was brutally beaten up by Israeli police, and now almost 100 Gazan kids have died in Israeli air strikes. This is not the "Middle East conflict", it's becoming a war on children. And we are becoming numb to this global shame. 

The media makes out like this is an intractable conflict between two equal warring parties, but it is not. Palestinian extremists' attacks on innocent civilians are never justified and Hamas’ anti-semitism is disgusting. But these extremists claim legitimacy by fighting the grotesque, decades-long oppression by the Israeli state. Israel currently occupies, colonises, bombs, raids, and controls the water, trade and the borders of a legally free nation that has been recognised by the United Nations. In Gaza, Israel has created the largest open-air prison in the world, and then blockaded it. Now as bombs fall, the families literally have no way to get out.

These are war crimes and we wouldn't accept that anywhere else: why accept it in Palestine? Half a century ago Israel and its Arab neighbours went to war and Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. Occupying territory after war happens all the time. But no military occupation should turn into a decades-long tyranny which only fuels and benefits extremists who use terror to target the innocent. And who suffers? The majority of loving families on both sides that just want freedom and peace.

To many, particularly in Europe and North America, calling for companies to withdraw investments from financing or taking part in Israel's occupation of Palestine sounds completely biased. But this campaign is not anti-Israel -- this is the most potent non-violent strategy to end the ritual violence, ensure Israelis' security and achieve Palestinian freedom. Although Hamas deserves much pressure too, it is already under crippling sanctions and facing every kind of pressure. Israel's power and wealth dwarfs Palestine, and if it refuses to end its illegal occupation, the world must act to make the cost unbearable.

Dutch pension fund ABP invests in Israeli banks that help fund the colonisation of Palestine. Massive banks like Barclays invest in suppliers of Israeli arms and other occupation businesses. Computer giant Hewlett-Packard supplies sophisticated surveillance to control the movement of Palestinians. And Caterpillar provides bulldozers that are used to demolish Palestinian homes and farms. If we can create the biggest global call ever to get these companies to pull out, we will show clearly that the world will no longer be complicit in this bloodshed. The Palestinian people are calling on the world to support this path and progressive Israelis support it too. Let's join them:

Our community has worked to bring peace, hope, and change to some of the world's toughest conflicts, and often that means taking difficult positions to address the root cause. For years our community has looked for a political solution to this nightmare, but with this new round of horror unfolding in Gaza, the time has come to turn to sanctions and disinvestment to finally help end the horror for Israelis and Palestinians.

With hope and determination,

Alice, Fadi, Ben, Laila, Anna, Ricken, Jo, Nell, Mais and the entire Avaaz team

PS: For further questions check out the Q&A page, and some sources below.


UN independent expert calls for boycott of businesses profiting from Israeli settlements (UN)

12 more EU countries warn against trade with Israeli settlements (Haaretz)

Israelis, Palestinians Pro Peace Process, but Not Hopeful (Gallup)

Under pressure, a strong EU-Israel relationship faces uncertain future (Middle East Monitor)

Israel-Gaza conflict: 80 per cent of Palestinians killed by Israeli strikes are civilians, UN report says (The Independent)

Rule 156. Definition of War Crimes (ICRC)

Palestinians: Most Gaza dead are children, women, elderly (Haaretz)

Caught on Tape: US Teen Allegedly Beaten by Israeli Police (ABC News)

A policy of displacement (Visualizing Palestine)

Exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry

Additional sources for this campaign:  "

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Privatisation - a pathway to systemic failure

When Margaret Thatcher was PM of Britain one of the many acts of privatisation her government enacted was that of the water utilities. All are now in private hands and most owned by non-UK multinationals - although it is often hard to know who owns what.  In an insightful article in the Guardian on Monday Aditya Chakrabortty reveals how privatisation is failing English citizens:

"Few businesses are more basic than the supply of water. But Thames now doesn't look anything like a water company; it more closely resembles a Russian doll. Holding company sits within holding company sits within holding company: in all, there are five intermediate firms between the business that supplies the water and sorts the sewage and the eventual shareholders. That's before you reach the two subsidiary firms that go out to the markets to raise cash, one of which is naturally based in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands.

Who gains from such a corporate Byzantium? Not regulators and politicians, nor journalists and analysts, because such a layout is the opposite of transparent. But the beneficiaries are identified by John Allen and Michael Pryke at the Open University, who pored over Thames's accounts from 2007 (the first full year after the Macquarie consortium took over) up to 2012. In three of those five years, investors took more dividends out of the business than it raised in profits after tax. Bung in interim payments, and there was only one year in which the consortium of shareholders took less out of the company than it had in post-tax profits. What replaced the profits? In a word: debt, which more than doubled to £7.8bn in that period.

The academics conclude: "A mound of leveraged debt appears to have been used to benefit investors at the expense of households and their rising water bills." Not just investors, mind: those at the top of the business have obviously been cashing in. All the middlemen – lawyers, tax consultants and financiers – associated with the intermediary firms would also have been taking a hefty cut. And in last week's report, Thames chief executive Martin Baggs was revealed to be on a pay package of £1.29m. No wonder staff call him "Moneybaggs"."

From an Australian persective what is significant is that Macquarie Bank is the effective owner of Thames Water despite the Russian Doll-like company structure.  Current Australian Ministers such as Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey are former investment bankers so Australians can probably look forward to the same pressures to privatise despite the growing evidence that privatised utilities systemically fail the societies that they were originally formed to assist.  The history of Margaret Thatcher's actions tends to suggest that privatisation serves another purpose - making your mates richer!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi - new Systems book

The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision has recently been published by Cambridge University Press. Amazon has a review by Prof. Warwick Fox which is very glowing. Some reviews are non-commital. Others are comprehensive and show depth of appreciation. The following is from the publishers:

"Over the past thirty years, a new systemic conception of life has emerged at the forefront of science. New emphasis has been given to complexity, networks, and patterns of organisation leading to a novel kind of 'systemic' thinking. This volume integrates the ideas, models, and theories underlying the systems view of life into a single coherent framework. Taking a broad sweep through history and across scientific disciplines, the authors examine the appearance of key concepts such as autopoiesis, dissipative structures, social networks, and a systemic understanding of evolution. The implications of the systems view of life for health care, management, and our global ecological and economic crises are also discussed. Written primarily for undergraduates, it is also essential reading for graduate students and researchers interested in understanding the new systemic conception of life and its implications for a broad range of professions - from economics and politics to medicine, psychology and law."

I look forward to reading this book and to adding it to the resources available to the students of our postgraduate program in STiP - Systems Thinking in Practice.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Postcard Berlin

Berlin must be developer/builder heaven at the moment.  For architects as well.  There is so much activity - a new underground linking the main railway station with Alexanderplatz which for the moment leaves part of Unter den Linden fenced off by builders' barriers.  As the panorama below shows this is by no means all of it.  And Berlin is supposed to be a poor city by German standards!!

I am here in Berlin for three weeks for several reasons. One is as a Visiting Professor in the Umwelt (Environmental) Governance Group at Humbolt University. Last Tuesday I presented the following paper to a small colloquium concerned with institutions and climate change adaptation:

Ison, R.L. (2014) Tales of a normal distribution: designing institutions for adaptation. Proc. IV. Albrecht Daniel Thaer Kolloquium: “Institutional Economics & Climate Adaptation, March 18, 2014, Humboldt Universität  zu Berlin.

The presentation stimulated some good discussion.  Next week I deliver a seminar.  I am also here to co-run a Systems PhD training course in conjunction with the European Farming Systems Conference.  We have 25 students who will begin the program on Sunday 30th March and finish Saturday 5th April.  The students are mainly from Europe but international in their spread.  I am also co-convenor of Theme 1.3 in the conference program - Innovation Platforms as Drivers of Institutional Change. With other colleagues I am also co-convenor of a session organised around the re-emergence of interest in Systems within the CGIAR called: "Global Issues: Rebuilding a Systems capability?"

This is not my first visit to Berlin but will be my longest - I would not say I know the city very well, so getting to know Berlin better is also an ambition of my stay.  Last night I took in a concert at the Berlin Philharmoniker - concert for flute and orchestra by Carl Reinecke and Gustav Mahler's 4th Symphony.  Yannick Nezet-Seguin was the conductor.  It was a great evening.

Unlike London the parks in Berlin are not full of flowers - if you look hard there is the odd daffodil and some tulips may bloom soon.  Dussman's has to be among the great bookshops. The panorama from the balcony near the top of the Französische Friedrichstadtkirche makes the climb worthwhile. The Jewish buildings near where I am staying in TucholskyStr and OranienbergerStr have constant police guards.

On my first morning I had breakfast in the Restaurant Dressler on Unter den Linden.  I was the first customer.  Later the conversation at a nearby table was between two American women (from a major energy company) and two German men.  The conversation was about future directions of energy policy.  I was pleased to hear the Germans debunking the US commitment to the concept of baseload...and arguing that wind and solar were central to any future energy mix.

Last night I had a great meal at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, one of Lonely Planet's better recommendations, and far more convivial - for me - than the modern hype of Potsdammer Platz and the Sony Centre. Over dinner the first night the conversation was about the possibilty of war triggered by events in Ukraine...more-or-less, just down the road!.  Having seen the BBC program '37 Days' about the lead up to the First World War I left dinner hoping that history would not place us in some similar count down!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Systems Dynamics News

Are you a book collector? Back in August, Jay Forrester, Bob Eberlein, and numerous Society officers and members convened to discuss how to keep the important publications previously sold by Pegasus Communications in circulation. We are very excited to announce the new home for these books is at the System Dynamics Society. These are some of the best teaching books in the field. The Society’s goal is to keep these books available – they are now on sale at here:

We see this as a huge benefit to the field. To celebrate the launch of the sale of these books through the Society, we are auctioning off a rare first edition signed copy of your favorite author’s book, World Dynamics. It is a great book, but a signed first edition is even better. Have this unique book on your library shelf and help support the System Dynamics Society!

Please visit the
Books For Sale site to see the list of the eighteen titles and to learn how to participate in the auction.

See also details of the SD conference in Delft, the Netherlands from July 20-24.

Roberta Spencer, Executive Director
System Dynamics Society
300 Milne Hall, 135 Western Avenue
Albany, NY 12222

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Understanding agricultural extension still important - the case of Iran

I have received word of the following conference.  Our work in this field has an Iranian connection. In 1989 we wrote: 

Russell, D.B., Ison, R.L., Gamble, D.R. & Williams, R.K. (1989) A Critical Review of Rural Extension Theory and Practice. Australian Wool Corporation/ University of Western Sydney (Hawkesbury).  67pp.

Soon after this publication was translated into French and then Farsi.
i)                    French Edition: (1991).  Analyse Critique de la Theorie et de la Pratique de Vulgarisation Rurale en Australie.  INRA, France.  79pp.
ii)                  Persian Edition: (1995).  The translation into Persian by Ahmad Khatoonabadi.

The organiser Esmail Karamidehkordi writes:

"It is a pleasure to inform you that the University of Zanjan and the Iranian Agricultural Extension and Education Association (IAEEA) are organizing The First International Conference of the APIRAS & the Fifth Congress of Extension and Education in Agriculture and Natural Resources Management: “Facilitating Information and Innovations for Empowering Family Farmers”in 2-4 September 2014, with the collaboration of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), the Asian and Pacific Islands Rural Advisory Services (APIRAS), World Rural Forum (WRF), the University of Tehran, Iranian Ministry of Jihad-e-Agriculture, Iranian Ministry of Cooperatives, Labour and Social Welfare, and other international and national institutions.

Because family farming is a very important farming system in the world, particularly in developing countries, we preferred to call the main theme of this conference as “Facilitating Information and Innovations for Empowering Family Farmers”. On behalf of the conference scientific committee, I would like to invite you to participate in this conference through your paper submission or supporting it as an institutional partner. The website is accessible through and you can submit your abstract and paper online. I will appreciate your kind support if you add this link to your website and introduce it to your colleagues to participate in. We hope this international conference can provide an opportunity for the participants to share their knowledge and experiences regarding rural development and extension approaches to support family farming. Please let me know should you have any questions regarding the conference and your participation."