Thursday, January 17, 2019

Richard Sandbrook's place

My colleague Chris Blackmore sent me news of this website today. We were not aware of its existence but can see it does a good job of honoring the ideals Richard stood for.  Chris and I often reflect on missing him - and of our respect and appreciation for his engagement with us, and the Systems Group at the OU.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Why universities are failing 6. New assessments

Aditya Chakrabortty has produced a compelling article: 'Mis-sold, expensive and overhyped: why our universities are a con'.  He unpacks a number of promises made by governments of both persuasion (in the UK), promises that have not materialised.  The first was 'that degrees mean inevitably bigger salaries.' But as he points out: 'Britain manufactures graduates by the tonne, but it doesn’t produce nearly enough graduate-level jobs. Nearly half of all graduates languish in jobs that don’t require graduate skills, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. In 1979, only 3.5% of new bank and post office clerks had a degree; today it is 35% – to do a job that often pays little more than the minimum wage.'

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Peter Checkland's last keynote address

Peter tells me that his Keynote at the 60th Anniversary Conference of the OR Society (UK) will be his last ever.  At 87 I guess that is fair enough. His final talk 'A Pathian shot (friendly)'

What do our pets contribute to the Anthropocene?

Listen to this discussion and find out some of the systemic implications of keeping pets.  Population control enthusiasts may want to bring pets into their frames of reference?

"Geographer Gregory Okin is an insomniac. But what keeps him awake at night is a little unusual. 

Chooks. Not the noise they make. But what they eat. And that got him thinking about the ecological pawprint of what the world serves up to its pets. 

So instead of counting sheep he found himself counting …well…one cat and dog…two cats and dogs…163 million cats and dogs..."

Monday, August 27, 2018

Myopic understandings of leadership and its functioning are pervasive

Commentaries and reactions to the recent failed internal 'coup' within the ruling coalition government in Australia makes it all too clear that pathological views of leadership are widespread.  The mistaken and pervasive belief that a 'good leader' or a 'wise leader' or more commonly a 'powerful leader' who keeps it simple can fix our broken governance systems is alarming. It was thus refreshing to see Pat Campbell's cartoon on Leadership in The Age this morning.

In the same edition damming critiques of what had been variously described as an 'insurgency', 'a coup' or 'an insurrection' have come from former coalition senator Amanda Vanstone and former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.  Here is a flavour:

"Politics has its share of these types. People who just want it their way all the time. And when that doesn’t happen they eat resentment for breakfast and dine on revenge. They put themselves ahead of the team. Always.

That’s been known about this little band, and it is little, for a long time. But now they’ve shown that this bitter diet has been like a cancer to their competence. They are seen as, among other things, inept and reckless and foolish. Their colleagues see it. The public sees it. It takes a special kind of stupidity to organise a coup that you don’t win, in a sitting week and in a government with a majority of one. If you can’t read the numbers in a small party room how can you read what’s happening out in the real world?"   Amanda Vanstone.

"Abbott has never cared about policy. He has only cared about politics and winning at any cost. I cannot remember a single positive policy initiative that Abbott has championed and then implemented. Not one. As a result, unconstrained by policy, the entire energy of this giant wrecking ball of Australian politics has been focussed on destroying his opponents - within the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. Of all modern politicians, Abbott is sui generis. His singular, destructive impact on national politics cannot be underestimated...........................

Murdoch is also a political bully and a thug who for many years has hired bullies as his editors. The message to Australian politicians is clear: either toe the line on what Murdoch wants or he kills you politically."  Kevin Rudd

Both Vanstone and Rudd begin to approach some of the main reasons why our governance systems are failing, but they do not go nearly far enough in their analysis and identification of options for change.  In all the reportage over the last week the only article I have seen that begins a deeper form of analysis was by Dave Sharma. Sharma has an interesting history - and has just returned from four years as Australia's ambassador to Israel. He has, no less, been touted as a possible candidate for the Liberals in the seat of Wentworth in the forthcoming by-election to replace Malcolm Turnbull.  Given his analysis of the state of our governance systems one would have to question his rationale for joining the highly dysfunctional Liberal party.  Or perhaps he feels he can bring insights from watching, at close quarters, the systemic failings of Israel's espoused democracy?

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Action on air pollution with EU support not fast enough - what will it be like post-Brexit?

A new study shows very strong correlations between changes in the heart structure and air pollution:

"Air pollution is linked to changes in the structure of the heart of the sort seen in early stages of heart failure, say researchers.

The finding could help explain the increased number of deaths seen in areas with high levels of dirty air. For example, a report last year revealed that people in the UK are 64 times more likely to die from the effect of air pollution than people living in Sweden. Such premature deaths can be linked to a number of causes including respiratory problems, stroke and coronary artery disease."

This is a major front upon which our governance systems are failing.  As a backdrop this new paper in PNAS, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, outlines how vulnerable our situation is, yet despite Paris, we collectively 'fiddle'!

"We explore the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate temperature rises and cause continued warming on a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced. Crossing the threshold would lead to a much higher global average temperature than any interglacial in the past 1.2 million years and to sea levels significantly higher than at any time in the Holocene. We examine the evidence that such a threshold might exist and where it might be. If the threshold is crossed, the resulting trajectory would likely cause serious disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies. Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A systemic language/languaging to talk about and respond to climate change

We already do a lot of talking and languaging more generally about climate change.  We will do a lot more. That is why we have to move to a much more sophisticated use of language than happens at the moment.  Our world may disappear for the want of a much deeper understanding of how language uses us - and how primitive we are in the language we deploy.  George Lakoff has good advice on some of the systemic issues that are becoming more apparent each day w.r.t our languaging.

The rise of gluten sensitivity - an emergent, systemic problem

As someone who has gluten sensitivity I experience the phenomenon as real - but it is complex to manage and deal with socially, as this excellent article in the Guardian outlines.

Not just a fad: the surprising, gut-wrenching truth about gluten

It has become emergent, a systemic issue that needs systems thinking in practice skills and attention by researchers, dieticians, sufferers, and the medical profession.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On bullied universities speaking truth to power

Britain’s bullied universities should be speaking truth to power" raises some interesting points about New Zealand’s Education Act   .... "that universities a statutory duty to be “the critic and conscience of society”"  Whilst he offers support for such an institutional arrangement he has little to say about other forms of institutional innovation that might be applied to UK HE.

Wolff offers a critique of academic practice, implying that more than institutional innovation is needed. Consideration of his own reflexive praxis is, however, missing from the article.  In critiques of this type it would be good to see a shift from the abstract to the embodied and personal.

Systemic perspectives on the Murray-Darling Basin

This part photo-essay prepared by the Guardian Australia  is worth exploring.  The invitation by the authors is to: 

"Follow our 3000km journey along the rivers, travelling from inland Queensland to the Murray mouth, to understand where the plan has failed those who live and work on this land".

Enhancing Systems Thinking in Practice at the Workplace

Findings from research made available.

"The eSTEeM project was an 18-month systemic inquiry beginning January 2014 initiated by a core team of 5 academics associated with the production and presentation of the postgraduate programme in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). The inquiry comprised a series of online interviews over two phases, and a workshop held in London Regional Office in May 2015.  There were 33 interviews in total, including interviews with 10 postgraduate students undertaking core modules associated with the  STiP programme, 8 STiP alumni, 8 employers of STiP alumni, and 7 Associate Lecturers teaching on the STiP programme.  The one-day workshop involved 41 participants including members of the core eSTEeM team, all interviewees from both initial phases,  along with other special guests invited on the basis of their involvement, support and interest for the STiP programme.

The project aimed to design a learning system for transforming the ‘threats’ of a gap between postgraduate study experiences and post-study work experiences into ‘opportunities’ for radical pedagogic adaptation and (re)design. One such course where the gap is evident is with the postgraduate suite of qualifications in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) launched at the OU in 2010."

Monday, April 09, 2018

Teething problems with apprenticeships?

According to an article today on Wonkhe - marking the first year of apprenticeships - some systemic issues are emerging:

"Appy birthday

Friday was the first birthday of the apprenticeship levy, with a veritable fiesta of events to mark the occasion. However, the government’s target of three million starts by 2020 looks seriously at risk, despite claims that all is going “as planned”.
Challenges include demonstrating the benefits to prospective applicants and their families, meeting employer needs, and delays getting new apprenticeships approved. One major employer, IBM, described the process as “incredibly difficult” with “bizarre decisions” and “not a good experience at all”. That same employer also said they have “shifted away from graduates ... which is possibly an unintended consequence".
There are also issues in demonstrating the returns to firms of taking on apprentices – simulations published by the Education Policy Institute to estimate the costs and benefits suggest that most firms would only break even if apprentice pay is close to minimum wage, and that higher-level apprenticeships taken up at a later age could offer lower returns for both apprentices and their employers.
From a standing start, many universities are starting to offer degree apprenticeships, which Gerry Berragan of the Institute for Apprenticeships said he was supportive of. He also said management degrees are a "perfectly respectable" way to use levy funds and address productivity challenges.
Time will tell if the government, the post-18 review, and OfS can create a coherent, system-wide offer that includes different routes and levels. With unspent levy funds and stubborn skills gaps, it’s likely that more enterprising HEIs will continue to seize this opportunity."

Friday, April 06, 2018

The gathering systemic failure of the nation state

You know something's amiss when authors on both sides of the globe write about the same set of phenomena only days apart.  The first to come to my attention was an article by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton in the Sydney Morning Herald: "The fundamental operating model of Australian politics is breaking down". These authors are heading in the right direction.  Unfortunately they do not go nearly far enough and some of their argument along the way is dubious. I refer especially to their claims that: "The effects of polarisation can be seen in the rising support for increasingly ideological minor parties such as the Greens, One Nation and the Australian Conservatives........As the electorate becomes more ideological, those votes are being cast as firm votes for minor parties, not against the major ones."  This framing seems to me to miss the mark, especially when the authors primary experiences are within one of the main parties. We need an open, societal debate about these issues. But with more nuanced framing than these authors provide.

Then today this article by : "The demise of the nation state", as The Long Read. His analysis is more global and, to me, more convincing.  He echos points that Ed Straw and I are currently writing about in a book due with Routledge in August this year.  Dasgupta argues that:
"Since 1945, we have actively reduced our world political system to a dangerous mockery of what was designed by US president Woodrow Wilson and many others after the cataclysm of the first world war, and now we are facing the consequences. But we should not leap too quickly into renovation. This system has done far less to deliver human security and dignity than we imagine – in some ways, it has been a colossal failure – and there are good reasons why it is ageing so much more quickly than the empires it replaced"

and goes on to claim that there is no going back, no way of improving the 'current model':

"After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism............Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans."

We shall have to wait - but wait with active attention and personal action if his claims that:

"The libertarian dream – whereby antique bureaucracies succumb to pristine hi-tech corporate systems, which then take over the management of all life and resources – is a more likely vision for the future than any fantasy of a return to social democracy."

will come to pass.  Resistance, in the Foucauldian sense can be harnessed on the back of the Cambridge Analytics and Facebook revelations together with growing critique of the antisocial power of black-box algorithms and hard AI.  But this will require effort and greater solidarity - the very thing offered to the UK by membership of the EU.

From his convincing analysis comes the conclusion that:

"The three elements of the crisis described ... will only worsen. First, the existential breakdown of rich countries during the assault on national political power by global forces. Second, the volatility of the poorest countries and regions, now that the departure of cold war-era strongmen has revealed their true fragility. And third, the illegitimacy of an “international order” that has never aspired to any kind of “society of nations” governed by the rule of law."

 I could not agree more with his conclusions that action on our part "is not a small endeavour: it will take the better part of this century. We do not know yet where it will lead. All we can lay out now is a set of directions." His suggested actions include:

  • global financial regulation. 
  • global flexible democracy
  • finding new conceptions of citizenship
These are challenging agendas. Do they go far enough? I fear they are necessary but not sufficient.  So what would I add?  Please wait for the book.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The systemic implications of algorithms

Virginia Eubanks, a professor of political science at the University at Albany in upstate New York is the author of several books that seem well worth reading: Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the PoorDigital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age; and is co-editor, with Alethia Jones, of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. It was while she was writing her latest book book that the power of algorithms became shockingly evident.  She is interviewed on BBC's 'The Why Factor' in this compelling clip: How do you fight a nameless, faceless algorithm? This clip is in turn part of a larger program on the BBC World Service called: Machines and Morals.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Taking Steven Pinker to task

Good on George Monbiot for deflating the celebrity bubble that has grown around Steven Pinker's work.

'Rather than using primary sources, Pinker draws on anecdote, cherry-picking and discredited talking points developed by anti-environmental thinktanks.Take, for example, Pinker’s claims about the landmark Limits to Growth report, published in 1972. It’s a favourite target of those who seek to dismiss environmental problems. He suggests it projected that aluminium, copper, chromium, gold, nickel, tin, tungsten and zinc would be exhausted by 1992. It is hard to see how anyone who had read the report could form this impression. The figures it uses for illustrative purposes have been transformed by some critics into projections.

Its actual prediction is that “the great majority of the currently important non-renewable resources will be extremely costly 100 years from now”. It would be perfectly reasonable to take issue with this claim. It is not reasonable to recycle, then attack, a widely circulated myth about the report. That’s called the straw man fallacy. It is contrary to the principles of reason that Pinker claims to champion.'

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

More on the systemic failings of universities/H.E.

From a despondent Peter Scott in an article today called:  'Don’t let this university wrecking government masquerade as reformers'

'The fees and funding system in England is certainly bust.'

' English higher education is too expensive. It is the most expensive public system of higher education in the world (including the US).'

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018

New on-line taster course on systems thinking

Colleagues at the Institute for Sustainable Futures (university of Technology, Sydney) have advised:
"that the first module of the systems thinking course I mentioned we were developing is now available online at UTS OPEN. It’s  ISF’s first ever online course and is one of the first four UTS courses available to the general public free of charge. We’ve tried not to replicate all the good work that’s already out there including the OU’s course and are hoping to offer some different angles on systems thinking. Let us know what you think if you get a chance to have a look at it. The course is an introduction or taster course' on systems thinking and you can find it here at this link .  We will hopefully be developing another 4 modules to complete this course (dependent on further funding).
Please feel free to share the link with anyone who might be interested. This is still a ‘soft launch’ phase and we can still make improvements to the course and would really appreciate any honest and constructive feedback on how we can further improve it. As this is only a ‘taster’ module it is meant to get people interested in systems thinking and wanting more. "

Systemic Design

Ben Sweeting gave a plenary presentation at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design conference in Oslo, in October 2017, on Cybernetics, Virtue Ethics and Design. It is available from the proceedings and includes a video recording, which features live sketch notes from