Monday, December 22, 2008

Open University's RAE performance is worth noting

'The Open University has climbed 23 places to 43rd in the UK’s latest Research Assessment Exercise (RAE 2008), securing a place in the UK’s top 50 higher education institutions.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Brenda Gourley said “I am delighted with this major improvement in our research rankings, the second largest improvement in the UK top 50, which provides further evidence of the quality and stature of the University and allows us to celebrate 40 years as a major UK institution that delivers world-leading excellence in teaching, research and knowledge transfer”.

The results show over 50% of the University’s research is ‘internationally excellent’ (3*) and 14% is ‘world-leading’ (4*), as determined by the 2008 RAE’s expert and peer review process. The quality of our research is matched by its breadth - with units submitted from all seven faculties.

Professor Brigid Heywood, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, commented “The results justify our strategic decisions to nurture key strengths, build a rich and sustainable research environment and develop and grow centres of excellence across a wide discipline range”.

The University’s design group – spanning areas from design thinking, to sustainability and complexity - ranks third in the UK out of a field of 71. The Centre for Research in Computing at the OU has jumped 33 places to joint 19th place, just below York, Bristol and Bath.

The strength and excellence of the research supported by the OU Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research was also acknowledged with over 70% of its multidisciplinary submission deemed internationally excellent and world-leading, achieving 3*/4* rankings.

Another strategic success is the placing of Development Studies at equal 4th with Bath University; the work of this group underpins our programme of activities in Africa.

The improved placing of the OU’s Social Work submission, coupled with our signature successes in both Education and Sociology, exemplify the quality and breadth of the University’s research and reinforce our international reputation for innovative and rigorous research that influences policy and enhances practice.

Overall, the University has seen significant improvements in a number of key discipline areas, with notably strong performances in two new subject units and, in the challenging and competitive environment of the last few years, it has enhanced or maintained its 2001 ranked positions in most disciplines. A 75% growth in competitively awarded research income over the last five years is another robust measure of our increasing research excellence. '

Despite the systemic distortions of exercises such as the RAE all those involved in the OU's submission are to be congratulated. Perhaps one day we will have an institution-based model for research quality that cultivates difference and diversity and allows the fostering of inter and transdisiplinary areas such as Systems!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Acknowledging uncertainty is a moral position

Argues Robert Skidelsky in an excellent article in today's Age. I have been arguing for some time now that the best way to deal with 'wicked problems' such as climate change, river catchment management etc ..... is to abandon certainty or to put it another way to acknowledge uncertainty. Skildesky makes the excellent point that 'the key theoretical point in the transition to a debt-fuelled economy was the redefinition of uncertainty as risk. This was the main achievement of mathematical economics. Whereas guarding against uncertanty has traditionally been a moral issue, hedging against risk became a purely technical question. .... The abolution of uncertainty abolishes the need for moral rules'.

He goes on to observe that the 'monstrous conceit of economics has brought the world to the edge of disaster'.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Travelling in the wake of the great financial crash – vignettes

On the second leg of my flight from Hong Kong to London Heathrow I had three seats to stretch out on. It had been years since this had happened. Was it loss of confidence in Qantas or a direct effect of the ‘financial crash’? Later, in my taxi from Paddington to Whitehall I asked the cabbie what impact the crash was having on him. He asked if I had noticed the long queue of cabs and the short queue of passengers outside Paddington Station. No one was travelling he said. Taxi drivers in Milton Keynes reported the same.

Arriving at Heathrow I found many changes around the terminals and their connections…or lack thereof. It was hard to find Heathrow Express – perhaps me, perhaps the signposting. I was struck by the underground network of tunnels that had to be negotiated – a descent to the underworld.

I walked from Simpson to Old Wolverton, mainly along the Grand Union Canal. It took 2.5 hours but well worth it. It was a great autumn day as these photos show.

Getting to Heathrow from Milton Keynes has to be one of the worst journeys in the world. Without traffic it can be done in under an hour. But these days it is never without traffic- it is so unreliable and, on public transport, arduous. Why ever do they want to expand Heathrow?

My scheduled 12 hour flight from Paris to Mexico City was only two hours old when they called for medical assistance. Shortly thereafter it was announced that we were returning to Paris as there was a seriously ill woman on board. Cancelled flight, queues, confusion, cheap hotel, early rise and departure again on 14hour Air Mexico flight then followed. The Chinese foot and back masseurs in the main terminal at Mexico City offered some respite in my 5 hour wait for the connection to Morelia. The 21 km drive from the airport (near midnight local time) and confusion over my hotel booking in Morelia were almost the last straw! The hospitality in subseqent days more then compensated.

Morelia, or more strictly the old centre, has world heritage listing. Settled by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century it retains a special charm.

It has been fascinating to see how quickly the David Cameron bubble has burst. Not helped by George Osborne’s indiscretions. The PM’s rise in popularity seems to be built on the forceful articulation of strategies that continue in the attempt to do the wrong thing righter! This strategy seems widespread at the moment!!

I am encouraged to learn that the UK Sustainable Development Commission is sponsoring work under the banner 'Prosperity without Growth'. But equally discoureged to have reports that the thinking of many of the senior civil servants who are also economists have not had their thinking (paradigms?) challenged by recent events.

I like Brussels. Mainly it is the memories of the good work we have done there. This time preparing a Framework 7 bid.

Andelst is nestled between the Waal and the Rhine. This visit we had a new walking companion – a recent arrival in the household of my colleagues. A fresh, not unpleasant dynamic.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Seizing opportunity amongst crisis and chaos: can political leaders do what is required?

There is much that can be said about the events of the last few weeks from a systemic perspective. What has happened should make it abundantly clear to everyone that the global financial system is highly interconnected. There have been examples of runaway positive feedback processes, vicious circles, and above all else, massive systemic failure:

"Intensifying solvency concerns about a number of the largest US-based and European financial institutions have pushed the global financial system to the brink of systemic meltdown," IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said."

And we have not seen the end of it yet. So far it has been largely confined to the world of global finance but the effects will begin to appear in all our lives soon enough.

The dynamics of what has happened in the global meltdown are not that different from what has been happening for a long time in our relationship with the environment, but the financial crash has been easier to appreciate because the dynamics have been compressed over a shorter time frame and, for most people, it is easier to perceive. Disconcertingly, most people also probably consider this more important than what has been happening with the environment - something that seems also true of the media.

For this reason this EU-commissioned study deserves to be on all newspaper front pages, displacing stories about the financial crash. The main points in the report are that:

'The global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests than through the current banking crisis, according to an EU-commissioned study.

It puts the annual cost of forest loss at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion.

The figure comes from adding the value of the various services that forests perform, such as providing clean water and absorbing carbon dioxide.

The study, headed by a Deutsche Bank economist, parallels the Stern Review into the economics of climate change. '

Worthy though this study is it could have the effect of continuing a business as usual approach to the way we understand and manage our economic system. It arises from a line of argument that says we should value all of the ecosystems services provided by 'nature' but ultimately this is not possible in a definitive sense because nature is neither static nor ultimately completely knowable.

It would be good to think that amongst the current chaos and uncertainty smart people are acting to seize the opportunity presented by the financial meltdown to refashion capitalism and international governance regimes so that it is fit for our current circumstances i.e. human induced climate change, environmental and biodiversity destruction as well as poverty and loss of human well-being. For a start we could introduce a global carbon tax, dematerialise much more of our economic activity and throw out distorting measures of performance such as GDP. Perhaps at the same time we could begin to reduce the focus of human ingenuity on developing new financial and accounting products and services of the type that have contributed to the crash as well as advertising of the sort that drives consumerism.

Others are also thinking along these lines including Nicholas Stern, some more radically than others!

A report commissioned by the National Trust (UK) outlines the sort of practical measures that will be needed in the 'new economy':

'The UK's current water policy will fail to cope with extreme weather events that are projected to affect the nation in the future, a report has warned.

A study by the National Trust said the prospect of more frequent droughts and floods meant an urgent rethink was needed to update existing measures.

Paying farmers to restore wetlands or using land to store water were among the ideas suggested by the authors.'

These are among the sorts of goods and services we should be paying for in the future.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A view from every track - Lord Howe has much to offer

In a world in meltdown on a range of fronts a week out on Lord Howe Island offers an experience of how it ought to be.

The curb on development and success in eradicating many of the feral animals introduced by early Europeans are particularly heartening.
In search of a cohesive narrative for Australians .....and beyond

The recent switch of leader by the opposition Liberal Party has galvanised dinner party conversations about the future of Kevin Rudd and his government. In many of these conversations people point to the complete absence of any coherent narrative that connects Australians with our changing global circumstances. In today's Age Ross Gittins describes this as the absence of an ideology. In reference to the PM he says:

'It's when you observe the performance of a man who professes not to have any that you realise its value.

Ideology is a word that, in modern times, has taken on almost exclusively negative connotations. We never admit having one of our own, but condemn others for being "ideological". What we usually mean is merely that their ideology does not agree with ours.....

Everyone needs their own ideology because they need a set of values — about the meaning of life, why we are here and how we should treat others — to set a standard for their behaviour.'

Of course this does not only apply to Kevin Rudd. Gordon Brown too has missed an important historical and political opportunity to provide a narrative for UK citizens - but in the end he seems to have had little to say!

Climate change tipping point: graphic animation with systemic perspective

Pille Bunnell has drawn my attention to an excellent animation which brings home in simple and graphic form the situation we appear to face in relation to human-induced climate change. She was prompted to send this in response to my claim that:

"The acceptance that humans are changing the climate of the earth is the most compelling of reasons, amongst a long litany of reasons, as to why collectively we have to change our ways of thinking and acting."

Yet in today's Age the Kew branch of the Liberal party are reported as having a climate skeptic as their only guest speaker in a science focused discussion of climate change! This is a far cry from Australia's leading climate scientists who have just written to the PM calling for quicker action and more stringent cuts to CO2 emissions.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The duality of responsibility and response-ability: lessons from Gerard Fairtlough's last book

We live in a world where leaders and bureaucrats seem increasingly preoccupied with 'behaviour change'. All too often though the discourse is about changing someone else's behaviour without consideration of the ethical dimensions of their actions. Nor do they seem aware of the responsibility/response-ability duality. In a climate-change world this is unfortunate. What is sought is that individual citizens take more responsibility - what is not realised is that the circumstances for response-ability need to be created as part of the same process i.e responsibilty and response-ability together form a whole.

Creating the circumstances for response-ability often involves some form of organisational change (given so much of our life is spent within an organisation or in inter-organisational transactions).
In his book ‘The Three Ways of Getting Things Done’, the late Gerard Fairtlough, based on his extensive experience of organisational life, argued that ‘sustainable organizational change can only take place in a non-hierarchical manner. Imposed change, which ignores the need for learning and overrides personal values, cannot work for long. Worthwhile change only emerges from reflective practice and has to be fully embraced by all concerned. (p. 83, 2007). He proposes that there are ‘three and only three, fundamental ways of getting things done: hierarchy, heterarchy and responsible autonomy’. I outline what he means by these terms below where I also contrast them with John Heron's three types of power in decision making. I find them remarkably compatible.

Hierarchy is captured in a classical organogram – it usually starts with a single supreme ruler, e.g. a CEO who passes authority onto a series of lesser rulers.

Heterarchy means ‘multiple rule’ and is thus concerned with a balance of powers rather than the single rule of hierarchy (e.g. a legal firm partnership).

With responsible autonomy a group decides what to do, but is accountable for the outcome. Accountability is what makes responsible autonomy different from anarchy.

John Heron’s (1989) three forms of power in decision making align with these three forms of getting things done. These are:

Deciding for … a hierarchical form of power

Deciding with ……a heterarchical form of power

Delegating deciding to ….a responsible autonomy form of power.

Although Gerard's terms may be unfamiliar to many his book is easy to read and his ideas are easy to grasp. The reader should expect to grasp the framework of ideas, but not an exhaustive set of 'how to'. The challenge he leaves those who accept his arguments is to invent 'how to' for current circumstances. In a climate-change world we need to understand processes of co-evolution which are best 'managed' through heterarchical and responsible autonomy modes of practice.

He makes a good point which speaks to my own experience when he says the advantages particular to autonomy are the 'removal of delays and distortions that occur when a large organization tries to control everything from the centre. '

Gerard suggests that the time is ripe to abandon hierarchy...'there is a mass of evidence to suggest that, in the twenty-first century, the time is ripe for sustainable change in the methods organizations use to get things done. This will probably result in continuing moves away from hierarchy in organizations.' (p. 82) I hope he is right - it would be a great legacy.

Friday, August 08, 2008

To the back of Bourke: a 'road trip' exploring experiences of 1958

I recently went on what one friend described as a 'road trip' with my brother and nephew. At his invitation I joined them to visit Enngonia, north of Bourke, where he and I had lived in a caravan with our parents for about three months. It was in 1958 when I was six and he was three. This was his first visit to 'Bourke and beyond' since 1958 and the very first for my 13 year old nephew. In contrast I had been back in the early 199os though not to Enngonia.

Nether my brother or I could remember the name of the place where we were camped at Enngonia though I could remember how to get there. I sent an email to the Bourke Shire Council with the following request:

'we are retracing steps that we covered as young boys when our father had road building contracts in the Enngonia and Ford's Bridge areas. For about three months we camped in a caravan with the families of men sub-contracting with trucks to my father, Clive Ison (of Bathurst). This was just outside Enngonia at a shearers quarters/shearing shed complex - one turned right near the hotel and went out just past the race course. We have some photos of that time but very few details or records. '

Within hours the proverbial bush telegraph was functioning. I soon received emails with the following information:

' We think the place you are referring to is called ‘Thurmylae’. It is about 7 miles from the town to the turnoff and you go past the race course to get to it. The road from town to Thurmylae was completed in 1950 and the road extended to Glenalbyn in the later 1950’s. At present it is owned by the Cullen-Ward family. In the 1950’s it was owned by Kate and Richard Egan who would have passed it on to Val and Shirley Egan. Shirley now lives in Dubbo.'

Then from Shirley via her daughter who just happened to work in the Shire office:

'Mum is certain it would have been the Thurmylae huts, a lot of people came and stayed in the 50’s and 60’s. The owner of the property back then was Richard and Kate Egan (mum’s parents), they then handed the property Val and Shirley Egan. The Current owner is Mick Cullenward.'

They were right. It was Thurmylae as can be seen from the then and now photos. It was good to return but of course it seemed much diminished to that experienced through six year old eyes. Where there was once one station the need to remain viable, meant there were now three amalgamated into one. The racecourse still functioned - the annual picnic races were the weekend after our visit. It would on one day transform a sleepy village into a vibrant centre of far west social life least for some of the inhabitants. On the road back into town travellers are greeted with the sign: 'Slow down. Drop your dust before entering the town'!

I am not sure where the name of the property came from. There are records in 1895 for

BYRNE John Joseph of Bourke - Culgoa - Enngonia, Thurmylae for 5204 acres with a rental of £19-10-4.

I used memories of my time in the area in 1958 to open a chapter I wrote for our book 'Agricultural Extension and Rural Development. Breaking out of Knowledge Transfer Traditions'. Our visit brought these back and exposed more - highlighting the importance of context, particularly place, in our ways of knowing. Here is the extract:

West of the Darling where crows fly backwards
'I had not been to the Western Division of New South Wales since I was seven. At that time we were camped near Enngonia, north-west of Bourke where my father was building roads and sinking tanks, large earthen dams, with his dozer and truck and aided by a group of sub-contractors. We were camped in a cluster of caravans around a local shearing shed. I remember stories of mythical shearer's cooks and other characters of the sheds - but no stories of the road builders or tank sinkers. And our pet kangaroo, a baby or joey, the result of an evenings spotlight hunting, an event both enthralling and appalling to a young boy. Also the moving sea of kangaroos that we regularly encountered on the racetrack on our way to town. The only green grass for miles. The Enngonia pub, since burnt down [1959], was the social centre of the district. Its verandah was designed for the dangling legs of a boy, on the edge, ever eager to be part of an adult world. It provided a vantage point for watching every detail over a sarsaparilla and lemonade. Some events moved me from my vantage point - it was around the back for the pig's demise and transformation into ham: the sharp squeal, the blooding, the boiling water, razor sharp knife and scraping. It was a time of good humour; we had a 1927 Overland car, something of an antique even then but at a time when "antique" meant "old". In other words we could afford no better. We suffered the dust and corrugations of the unpaved roads. The car had to be hand cranked. Experiences were always filtered by the context; distance, dust and with rain, the thick mud which clung to boots, made it impossible for small boys to lift their shoes and for vehicles to move. Rain and mud gave yet another meaning to distance. Our research project in the Western Division, and planned visit, drew these memories to the surface and shaped my anticipation. We were concerned with the so called "failure of graziers to adopt technology" which had been developed by research funded partly with their money. This was a major concern of researchers and extension people, particularly in the local NSW Department of Agriculture. This explained the location of our project. As a group of researchers we had been critical of much of what had been done in agricultural R&D because, as with much of science, it was conducted out of context. We felt it necessary therefore to immerse ourselves in the context of the semi-arid rangelands, where our research was to be conducted. This explained my presence on Murtamena station, not far from Wilcannia, early in December 1990. It was over thirty years since I had been west of the Darling or into "the outback".

From: Ison, R.L. (2000) Technology: transforming grazier experience. In Ison, R.L. & Russell, D.B. eds Agricultural Extension and Rural Development: Breaking out of Traditions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. pp. 52-76.

The photos are (i) the entrance to Thurmylae off the Enngonia to Walget Road; (ii) what is left of the old shearing complex; (iii) the Warrego River just outside Enngonia; (iv) sitting on the shearer's hut veranadah; (v) the Darling River at Bourke - water held back by the local weir.
'Blue Covenant': A review of Maud Barlow's book

For those interested to follow-up my earlier posting about this book there is a review, somewhat critical, in the August issue of Australian Literary Review. It was written by John Langford who is an internationally recognised water expert with 35 years of experience in the public sector water industry, including 15 at chief executive level. He is director of Uniwater, an interdisciplinary strategic water research centre attached to Melbourne and Monash universities.
Are there cracks appearing in the neo-classical stranglehold on Australian policy development?

I would like to think the answer is yes but it may be too early to tell. On a recent trip to Canberra I met up with a scholar, recently arrived in Australia, whose work I knew. I had not met him before and naturally enough the conversation turned to how he was faring in Australia. I had genuine concerns, well-founded it seems, that he as an individual and his form of economics might not be receiving a warm welcome! It turns out he was receiving a warm welcome but not in the sense of Australian friendliness and conviviality.

He told me how he, as a heterodox economist, had been subjected to harassing emails, phone calls and letters from a group of young liberals who were systematically attacking academics who taught or embraced alternatives to the neo-classical or rationalist economic position. This I felt was totally unacceptable, but it was only part of what was happening. The following national advertisement to recruit a heterodox economist attracted an attack by a former Treasury Secretary in a letter to the Canberra Times:

We are seeking an enthusiastic researcher with a strong background in heterodox institutional economics to work as a part of an interdisciplinary team on the application of institutional analysis to the understanding of markets, their spread and the articulation of environmental values.

You will apply old institutional approaches to the impacts which market institutions have on environmental and social values. Non-price making markets would be analysed using an anthropological-historical-institutional economic approach. The development of new institutions for articulating environmental values in the policy process would be explored with empirical testing expected as part of team work. History of thought research would also be conducted with respect to ecological economics.

I interpret the action by the former Treasury Secretary as symptomatic of the gate keeping behaviour of many in the economics profession in Australia. It is also a reflection on their ideological commitments to particular orthodoxies.

I was frankly appalled by the story told to me, particularly given how different it is in Europe. I am gratified that this week a few chinks in the armour of the mainstream view are becoming apparent. David Spratt in today's Age explores why we should not be seduced by the modelling outcomes that will be used to inform climate change policy. Modelling, particularly econometric modelling is one of the main tools within the neo-classical paradigm as practised in Australia. He makes the point that:

'The nature of the modelling process means many issues that should be part of rational decision-making will be excluded, because only market events with strictly quantifiable prices will be included.

Garnaut has recognised the "conventional economic effects that are not currently measurable, the possibility of much larger costs from extreme outcomes, and costs that aren't manifested through markets". For example, Garnaut explicitly says the multibillion-dollar impact on the tourism industry in northern Australia from the loss of most of the Barrier Reef (now inevitable) and of Kakadu (through salination) will not be modelled.'

Earlier in the week in The Australian, Luke Slattery in an article entitled 'Abstraction to application' explores the divisions within the economics profession which are strangely similar to that of the Systems field i.e., ' between the soft and the hard; between economics with a social orientation and economics that aspires to the status of value-free science'. He goes on to make the following well-founded observations:

'...the discipline's mainstream appears vulnerable to criticism of a disconnect between its scholarly enthusiasms and real-world economic ills.

Mark Dodgson, director of the University of Queensland's Technology and Innovation Management Centre, argues, along with McKinsey & Co economic adviser Eric Beinhocker, author of The Origins of Wealth, that the intellectual field of economics is on the cusp of a big transformation. "Mainstream economics is increasingly being seen to be detached from reality," Dodgson says. "It's assumptions about equilibrium, rationality in human behaviour and the primacy of market forces that are mysteriously asocial make its predictive power extremely limited.'

"The way many academic economists are concerned primarily with the mathematic purity of their models, rather than their usefulness, and economic policymakers are so tied to an orthodoxy that fails to answer the important problems that confront them, are sure signs of a failing discipline.

"New approaches, such as evolutionary economics and the study of economies as complex, adaptive systems, are much more useful in addressing the big economic challenges of generating growth and productivity through innovation in ways that are sustainable and socially equitable." '

Slattery engages with a set of important issues that are vital to how Garnaut and the government respond to climate change. From my perspective I see little heterodox economic thinking informing either. Given the story at the beginning of my post I cannot share Slattery's conclusion that 'these interdisciplinary disputes suggest that the discipline of economics, despite appearances to the contrary, is enjoying a period of robust good health'. He seems to me to miss the point - it is our health and wellbeing and that of the planet that is at stake - not the future of economics!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

ANZSYS conferences

Roger Attwood who organised the 2006 conference in Katoomba advises that 'ISCE publishing has now produced a very nice hardback version of the Katoomba proceedings, along with alternative electronic versions.'

The 2008 conference will be held in Perth from 1-3 December.
Understanding agriculture's dilemma between food security and conservation – new publication

The emergence of food security as a global issue is refocusing concern on the nature, properties and functioning of agro-ecosystems, a term coined by Gordon Conway in the 1980s. This report by the World Business Council on Sustainability (WBCS) and IUCN draws attention to recent trends and reveals some 'key facts' that need to be appreciated as part of policy development in relation to water, land use, agriculture, biodiversity and urban-rural relations and futures.

Some of the key 'facts' extracted from the report include:
  • Meat consumption in China has more than doubled in the last 20 years and it is projected to double again by 2030.
  • Producing meat, milk, sugar, oils and vegetables typically requires more water than producing cereals.
  • Food production to satisfy a person's daily dietary needs takes about 3,000 liters of water – a little more than one liter per calorie.
  • Agriculture was responsible for 14% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2000.
  • The soils of the world contain more carbon than the combined total amounts occurring in vegetation and the atmosphere.
  • Agriculture uses 70% of total global “blue water” withdrawals (from rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers), most of which is for irrigation.
  • Only 17% of all cropland is irrigated, but this land provides 30-40% of the world's food production.
  • Over 60% of the world's irrigated area is in Asia , most of which is devoted to the production of rice.
  • In the last 40 years, the area of global agricultural land has grown by 10%, but in per capita terms agricultural land area has been in decline. This trend is expected to continue as land is increasingly limited and the population grows

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Conserving systemic failure in the face of climate change

Understanding current governance arrangements as 'structure determined systems' explains why politicians will continue to fail citizens in a climate change world

Yesterday the Australian Government released its much heralded Green Paper on emissions trading. Media reports generally suggest that the government has it right - in political terms! But what of other criteria? Beyond the headlines most commentators would agree that what is proposed does not go far enough quickly enough to address what the science is already telling us. Age journalist Ken Davidson makes the point that:

'There is a complete disjuncture between the green paper and the recent scientific discussion.'

Less commented upon is the moral imperative - what actions should a government be taking in relation to its citizens, to non-human 'nature', and thus future generations? Recognising that in regard to climate change no nation is an island, what can we expect of governments that run on an eighteenth and nineteenth century model of 'government' and, in Australia, a dysfunctional Federation formed over 100 years ago?

At an emotional level this Green Paper is a disappointment. Insightful systemic questions do not seem to be present. As with many I am distressed by the intellectual and political framing of the Green Paper. It is what one might have expected of a Howard Government forced into a corner on climate change - it says more about extant power relations in Australia than it does about anything else. It is about first-order change, or what Russ Ackoff calls 'doing the wrong thing righter rather than doing the right thing, even if not well'. Consequently the Green Paper has many elements designed to create the conditions for ongoing systemic failure - these include sending the wrong price signals to consumers and producers based on their carbon consumption or production and thus deferring the transition of Australia to an innovative, low carbon economy. Distortion in investment and thus market opportunities based on new business will be held back. The total subsidies to the large polluters, especially the coal industry, should be front page news but it is not. These companies, many of them multi-nationals, have known that change would come sooner or later yet they continue to hold Australian's to ransom (it is common knowledge that senior bureaucrats involved in Australia's climate change negotiations in the Howard era have left to join big resources companies on fat salaries).

The Green Paper makes the point that the bulk of Australian emissions come from electricity generation, transport and agriculture. Agriculture is excluded for the time being and in systemic terms there are other missing elements - the CO2 output from Australia's fossil fuel exports, the cost of CO2 in supply and marketing chains that are outside national boundaries and of course air travel.

The Rudd government seems inclined to move in a number of areas to achieve national coordination- something that is much needed, even though the devil will be in the practice that emerges! A test for the government will be whether there are meaningful moves arising from the COAG process for a national energy demand management strategy coupled with energy efficiency technologies and institutional arrangements? In a climate change world, uncertainty and complexity will be the main characteristics. In these circumstances local and adaptive or self-organising arrangements are likely to be more resilient and viable than centralised systems. This understanding creates a policy imperative for decentralised, community based energy systems to begin to replace some of the current centralised systems.

In the face of power dynamics and structure determined systems mounting alternative arguments, regardless of their rationality, makes little progress. So what is a structure determined system? A trite answer is that it is the system that delivers the politics we have. Let me give two analogies. A car has only two ways of moving - forward or reverse - because the design of the gear box structures what is, or is not possible. My other analogy comes from my visit to Dubbo Zoo last Sunday. The meerkats were the most popular exhibit with my nephew - and this was to do with their particular behaviour. For those who do not know, meerkats are social animals living in a large group . They have evolved social behaviours and roles - such as lookouts - to protect the group from predators. Despite the new context (meerkats are from South Africa not Australia) this behaviour was very much in evidence even though it is likely that all the meerkats were born in Australia where the same range of predators are not present (though eagles and foxes might be a possibility). It was thus fascinating to see how the meerkats reacted when a flock of galahs or cockatoos (Australian parrots) flew overhead. Of course the meerkats did what meerkats do - they too can be understood as structure determined systems.

So just like meerkats politicians do what politicians do because they are part of a structure determined system. In this regard three (or four) year terms for governments are just one manifestation of a much more complex situation. Utility companies that deliver social goods - such as water or energy - in which the main measure of performance is profit derived from sales of water or energy also exemplify the limitations of a structure determined system. In today's world the main social benefit from water and energy comes from how little is used and the efficiency of its use.

The end result is that we have the Green Paper we have - it is not fit for circumstances because, in a climate change world, our overall governance systems are incapable of managing the complexity that has to be managed into an uncertain future.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Significant indicators of social and political transformation?

The British Government's £100 billion commitment to 'green innovation' is a welcome development, one that hopefully will be emulated in other countries as quickly as possible. It seems particularly good timing from an Australian perspective. It provides relief and, hopefully, an antidote, to the inane debate recently held in the Australian Federal Parliament - fostered primarily by the Opposition and a media still locked into wedge politics and lack of perspective on what really matters. The Government's Garnaut review will be out soon (a draft was due on 30th June) and it will require political courage unheard of in recent times, for the Labour Party to do what is required. It is important that Gordon Brown has said:

'...a low carbon economy - which met EU reduction targets - "will not emerge from 'business as usual'."

"It will require real leadership from government - being prepared to make hard decisions on planning or on tax for example, rather [than] tacking and changing according to the polls.

"It will involve new forms of economic activity and social organisation."'

On the water front the news continues to be bad in the Mediterranean - and is yet another reflection of how business as usual thinking and practices leads to a mess.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dealing with the global water crisis - leaving it to a market or getting pricing right?

This interview with Maud Barlow based on her new book is worth a listen. Her book, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the coming battle for the right to water is published by Black Inc Books. In this interview she makes the case for getting water pricing right within a framework of water being a universal human right. She is, however, critical of Australia's market-based approach.

Here are some comments on Maud Barlow's book:

'An Inconvenient Truth of water.

“Imagine a world in twenty years, in which no substantive progress has been made to provide basic wastewater service in the Third World, or to force industry and industrial agriculture production to stop polluting water systems, or to curb the mass movement of water by pipeline, tanker and other diversion, which will have created huge new swaths of desert."

“Desalination plants will ring the world’s oceans, many of them run by nuclear power; corporate nanotechnology will clean up sewage water and sell it to private utilities who will sell it back to us at a huge profit; the rich will drink only bottled water found in the few remote parts of the world left or sucked from the clouds by machines, while the poor die in increasing numbers. This is not science fiction. This is where the world is headed unless we change course.”

Saturday, June 07, 2008

'This is a part of reality that economists simply don't see' says Ross Gittins

I am not quite sure what to make of this article by Ross Gittins, one of the main economic writers for the Fairfax media in Australia. On the positive side I concur with the main thrust of the argument - and would welcome much more of this type of analysis here in Australia where neo-classical theory is hegemonic. My concern is that in writing about so called 'economic sociologists' he presents these ideas as if they are something new (it would appear that Neil Fligstein whose work he draws upon has been writing about this subject since at least the early 1990s) . Has Gittins not heard of institutional and new institutional economics ? Perhaps not because there are so few in Australia.

Gittins also appears to fall into the trap, common in Australia, for natural scientists and economists to label all other researchers and scholars concerned with the social dimension as 'sociologists'. In saying this I am not having a go at sociologists but at the lack of awareness amongst natural scientists and mainstream economists of the diversity within the social sciences and the
place of this scholarship for informing policy and practice, including research practice. This is not only true in Australia as the outcomes of a recent review of DEFRA science in the UK reports:

Social researchers being ‘overstretched’ by Defra

The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] is overstretching its social researchers and undervaluing their contribution to policy making, a report has found.

Defra’s Science Advisory Council’s Social Science Sub-Group has criticised the department for defining social research too narrowly as “engagement or consultation”. It also reports that social research “was not always accorded equivalent status to other contributions, such as that from the natural sciences, to the evidence base for the policy cycle and research strategy”.

The social research capacity within the department is described as “not sufficient to meet the needs of existing or future Departmental policy objectives,” causing staff to be overstretched.

The group warns Defra that it must develop a clear strategy for the use of social research, including a dramatic change in culture that “challenges negative attitudes”.

The department should also increase the number of social researchers on its books and develop stronger links with the social science community, the report suggests.

Discount on John Seddon's book for readers of this blog

Following my posting on John Seddon's book I have been contacted by folk at Triarchy Press.

They are offering my ' blog readers a 20% discount on the full price of Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. In order to claim their discount, readers should enter tp20 in the promotional code field at the checkout'.

Friday, June 06, 2008

More sobering analysis .....but what of the action?

In today's paper:

'Water shortages could prove an even bigger threat to mankind this century than soaring food prices and the relentless exhaustion of energy reserves, a panel of global experts has told the Goldman Sachs "Top Five Risks" conference.'

Thursday, June 05, 2008

John Seddon's book should be an early Christmas present for all politicians

Like so many others I rejoiced when New Labour and Tony Blair were first elected. By the time of the next election I could not bring myself to vote for him or New Labour (not that I voted Tory either). By the time of his departure I was so relieved that we threw a party and invited all those friends who felt like us ...and it was a good crowd.

John Seddon in his book 'Systems Thinking in the Public Sector' (Triarchy Press) gives a good account of all the reasons (Iraq aside) why I wanted to celebrate Blair's departure. Unfortunately most of the thinking and the practices his term spawned or perpetuated did not leave office with him. New Labour are in an intellectual mire of their own making. It is hard to imagine that they can break out of these profound conceptual and practical traps before the next election. And there is a great danger the new Australian government led by Kevin Rudd will import the same intellectual deficiencies. For one thing the brand of economic thinking which Seddon quite rightly criticizes is even more entrenched and perverse in Oz.

Here are some tasters from the book:

'[In the UK] 'bureaucracy and red tape' have driven public services in the wrong direction. The cost is not just the cost of the bureaucracy itself; there is an additional cost because the changes being mandated by the bureaucracy are the wrong things to do. The bureaucracy has made services worse, and public sector morale has been sapped'. (p. iv)

'We invest in the wrong things believing them to be the right things. We think inspection drives improvement, we believe in the notion of economies of scale, we think choice and quasi-markets are levers for improvement, we believe people can be motivated with incentives, we think leaders need visions, managers need targets, and information technology is a driver of change. These are all wrong-headed ideas. But they have been the foundation of public sector 'reform'. (p. iv)

The language of his text speaks to the frustration he has experienced and his appreciation of how the principles and practices of systems thinking could make things better. Throughout the text he refers to New Labour as 'the regime' which in the strict sense it is (regime means both the 'diet we are prescribed' and the 'system of government or rule') but I am sure his correct usage of the term will not win him friends in high places!

In his first chapter Seddon explores the ideological ground on which a lot of New Labour policies stand - as I outlined earlier this was a theme developed in Adam Curtis' three-part TV series 'The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom'.

Chapter 2 on 'choices' addresses a particular bete noir of mine and does it well. Take the following example:

'I recall being embarrassed watching a PMDU [Prime Minister's Delivery Unit] representative explaining to a Swedish public sector audience how people should be able to choose their treatment in the NHS [National Health Service]. The Swedes took the view that doctors would know best, and the patient would expect 'advice' not 'choice'. Now in a hole, the official hurried on to the view that 'choice meant choosing another hospital if the local hospital was too busy to treat them. The Swedes politely pointed out this was no choice (Hobson's choice); what mattered to patients was not making choices but getting their problem solved.'

There is also a lovely example of how in an attempt to emulate good practice from the Netherlands they fell into the trap of 'copying without knowledge rather than seeking first to understand the thinking and principles behind the original design'.

I look forward to reading the rest of the book. If you are feeling flush send a copy to your MP as an early Christmas present! If you do ask her or him why there is not more opportunity for learning and practising systems thinking in the UK.
The recursion of real-life and fiction... Barack Obama and the West Wing

I liked Justin Webb's 10 reasons Why Obama won. As a West Wing fan I was particularly struck by his 10th reason. Liberal fantasy or not ...the first phase has come to pass.

'1. He is black. Geraldine Ferraro has a point: Obama's individual story is important and his racial makeup - he is of mixed race - is a part of his appeal. Black people have rallied to him.

2. He is not black. He is also the first black presidential hopeful to run as a post-racial candidate (hence the upset with Ferraro). White people feel unthreatened by him.

3. He was not taken seriously. Oops. If the Clinton people had blown him out in Iowa, at the beginning of the process, he would be toast.

4. He is serious. This appears to be a serious year, in which Americans are deeply worried about the state of the nation, and Obama's slightly professorial demeanour looks a good fit.

5. He offers self-help and self-improvement. She offered a plan to make America better - he offers a plan to make Americans themselves better.

6. He promises change in a year when Americans are ready for change.

7. He is 46 and handsome.

8. He catches the attention of the media but is a hard target to attack - you look uncool to diss him (as Hillary has discovered).

9. Mark Warner - the former governor of Virginia, the other young anti-Hillary man - didn't stand.

10. Axelrod wrote the script. David Axelrod was an adviser to The West Wing and helped mould the character (Matt Santos) who succeeded Jed Bartlett. He based him on Obama and now Obama seems based on Santos. But either way, it was written... And it has come to pass...'

Monday, May 26, 2008

Systemic insights: some gems from recent reading

1. From Bernard Poerkson's 'The certainty of uncertainty' , subtitled 'Dialogues Introducing Constructivism'. I found this an engaging read as it provides insights into the history and nature of those interviewed (Von Foerster, Von Glaserfield, Maturana, Varela, Roth, Schmidt, Stierlin and Watzlawick). Some excerpts that I particularly liked:

(a) Helm Stierlin

'Systemic thinking can only be learned through one's work; it cannot be instilled into others; it needs time to gather, experience and make mistakes' p. 164.

' A system is a totality, which possesses a quality that is more than the sum total of its elements. What observers accept as a system, depends on them and on the answer to the question of where the boundary between system and environment is drawn. Is a bacterium, a rat, a human being, or a family a system? Systems are in my view, more or less meaningful observer constructs. ...' p. 166.

'The more we recognise ourselves as the constructors of our relational realities, the better we comprehend ourselves as responsible for the realities we have constructed' p. 159

'My own responsibility and my autonomy will become clear to me only if I become aware of how dependent I am upon others.' p. 160

(b) Paul Watzlawick

'Different attributions of meaning produce what I call second-order reality. This is the level of sense attribution and variable views of the world, which cannot be described and clearly defined objectively for all time. It cannot be decided who is right or wrong. By contrast, I call the level of actual events and indubitable facts first-order reality'. p. 179.

'There are obviously religious claims to truth that have no terrorist or violent consequences at all. I am, however, referring to those ideologues who claim to have established how humankind must be organised to reach the final state of happiness and to realise eternal truth. The consequences can be dreadful if people of this persuasion manage to occupy positions of power that enable them to impose their truth in an authoritarian way and to bully other people on the grounds of the accusation that they are sabotaging the true view of the world. Early stages of such a way of thinking may be discovered in Plato's Republic, where one may read about the wise ruler's, the philosopher king's alleged ethical right to impose his wisdom on humankind, if necessary by means of force.' pp. 181-2.

'in cybernetics, the complexity reducer is an incursion that does not destroy high complexity but only reduces it to useful and manageable proportions' p. 184

2. From Frank Fisher's book 'Response Ability. Environment, Health and everyday Transcendence'.

'Among environmentally concerned people ecosystem would appear to take precedence over literacy, for without it there is no life and literacy is an outgrowth of that. Look again at the last sentence and it will be obvious that without an understanding of English we would not have been able to read it, much less understand what 'life' in the sentence refers to. So literacy is primary. Indeed the system that is language has given rise to the idea of ecosystem'. p. 14

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Good news 'green' innovations here in Melbourne

Here is a good news story for a change which is basically employing systems thinking.

'Australians use 18 million printer consumables each year with the bulk of these inkjet cartridges and toners ending up as hazardous landfill. But an innovative Melbourne-based organization is turning this waste into viable products, transforming an environmental program into a serious business proposition.

In fact, so serious that the organization is planning to go public and list on the Australian stock exchange.

The Close the Loop (CTL) program which began as an environmental initiative in 1998 recycling toners and cartridges is set to go global with expansion based on an Australian designed and developed Green Machine. '

Monday, May 19, 2008

Molecules of Emotion - my letter to Candace Pert in 2001

I have just come across this letter I started writing to Candace Pert in 2000, just after reading her book. It was finished and sent in 2001. Whilst I never received a reply the issues I raise seem as relevant today.

Dear Dr Pert,

I have just finished reading your book 'Molecules of Emotion'. I felt so engaged by the issues that you raise that I have decided to respond to my own emotional inclinations and write to you. We have not quite met - you sat next to me as we interviewed Stafford Beer at the ISSS Conference in Toronto recently and I was fortunate to be in the audience at your presentation the evening before.

Your book triggered many reflections for me and as I write I am still trying to make sense of some of them.

This was as far as it went at the time. It is now the 12th May 2001 and despite the various demands on my time the desire to pick up where I left off remains. So here goes! I had hoped that we might meet up at the Vancouver Conference of the American Society of Cybernetics (May) but as I write I am not sure if you are still involved. Also, before saying more, perhaps I should say just a little about me - for context.

I did a first degree in Agricultural Science (University of Sydney) then, a little later, a PhD in plant eco-physiology. My research concerns have gradually moved from a focus on physiology, agronomy and ecology to grasslands as human activity systems then to grasslands as socially constructed systems. This transition accounts for why I now hold a Chair in Systems.

One of the main themes I would like to pick up is the way in which you resort to the term 'information' as an explanatory concept. The point I would like to develop is that I think 'information' as an explanatory concept may constrain appreciation of the phenomena you have so elegantly revealed.

For example p.71 you say: 'I prefer a broad term coined originally by the late Francis Schmitt of MIT - informational substances - because it points to their common function, that of messenger molecules distributing information throughout the organism'. Whilst I recognise the seductiveness of the information transfer metaphor (after all it is pervasive in our society, in the University, the classroom and elsewhere) I would argue that it conceals more than it reveals. To appreciate this there is a need to unpack the metaphor and to look at its historical development. Prior to the 1950s almost no-one in physiology, anatomy or neurophysiology would have used 'information' as an explanatory principle. It was only after the communication model of Shannon and Weaver was developed and the term 'information' began to displace 'signal' that the metaphor took hold. (For a further development of these ideas please see attached chapters from a recent book).

So basically information transfer has displaced signal transfer and what is more what was basically a mathematical model of communication has become adopted as an explanatory device for human communication (and we all know that human communication and machine communication are vastly different)! At the core of the contemporary 'information transfer' metaphor is the messenger - receiver dualism which is just like the mind - body dualism you so convincingly destroy. Drawing on the work of Humberto Maturana (who was also at Toronto and will be in Vancouver) we have found it helpful to avoid this dualism. Let me quote from Russell & Ison (2000):

' The nervous system is a closed network of interacting neurons. The physiology of the nervous system, because it is a structure-determined system (systems in which all their changes are determined by their structure and in which all those changes are a result of their own dynamics or triggered by their interactions with their environment) cannot be usefully compared to a computer or 'information transfer' system. Biologically, there are no inputs to, or outputs from, the nervous system, nor does the nervous system 'process information.' There is no encoding or decoding in the nervous system nor does it 'receive' or 'process' messages or 'information' from the environment.

The implication that flows from the nervous system being a closed and structure-determined system is that there can be no instructive interactions between such systems and between any one system and its environment. What another human can do, and all that an other can do, is trigger a response without any control over what that response might be. In no way can such a triggering determine the nature of the response. It is biologically impossible to instruct or determine an outcome with 'information.'

Since it is communication (internal and external) that creates what we call reality, developing a 'shared meaning' (a notion created by the observer) is going to involve the participation in the task of all those who will be affected by any outcome. If we accept that living systems are structure-determined systems then communication is a structural coupling of two (or more) individuals in conversation. So to converse is to dance: to turn together in a way that acknowledges the presence of two parties (one of course could and does converse with oneself) and acknowledges the willingness to act together in some mutually acceptable way. The meaning that we are inferring is similar to that found in the original Latin words: con... meaning 'with', and versare... meaning 'to turn'. The actual dance, the experience of the conversation, is a unique creation and we have no certainty whatsoever as to what the outcome might be. It is neither a transfer or a sharing of information. Useful knowledge, knowledge that will lead to satisfying action, is created by the joint action of both parties and encompasses both scientific and aesthetic judgements.'

From this perspective one might choose (p.130) to talk about networks of relationships (or perhaps conversations) rather than 'far-flung network of information' (also p. 138 - theory of information exchange). [As an aside your resort to Richard Dawkin's work ducks, to my mind, some serious issues - is a duck really a vehicle for the propagation of duck genes' or is it a means to conserve the organisation 'duck' in a changing environment?].

The phenomenon you describe on pp. 142 -143 is similar to the one Humberto uses when describing his work on vision which led him to conclude that in the moment we cannot distinguish between perception and illusion. It is only on reflection that we can become sure (or surer!). From his perspective the nervous system because of its history patterns the world (our world) rather than the reverse. It is the possibility of exploring the historicity of your peptides (history of structural coupling) and their relationship forming and breaking that this explanatory path opens that has excited me. It begins to provide an elegant biological basis for 'embodiment'.

The metaphor of communication as conversation seems to me so much more powerful to explain your claims (p179) that: 'Neuropetides and their receptors thus join the brain, glands and immune system in a network of communication between brain and body, probably representing the biochemical substrate of emotion.'

However (p.184) when you describe the 'network of communication, linked by information carriers known as neuropeptides' I am led to think what might be gained by expressing this in a different way? For example Fritjof Capra (The Web of Life 1996) chooses to describe networks in the following terms: 'As we perceive reality as a network of relationships, our descriptions, too form an interconnected network of concepts and models in which there are no foundations. For most scientists such a view of knowledge as a network with no firm foundations is extremely unsettling..' Thus from my perspective based on my understanding of what you write I might say (p.185): 'So what we have been talking about all along is a network of relationships. All neuropeptides have a history (ontogeny) and at any moment in time they are a product of their history of structural coupling. As they move around the body in response to a complex array of signals they form new relationships, the quality of which is determined by their history but with the capacity to realise new, emergent properties each time they enter into new relationships. One way of describing this is as an on-going network of conversations. What arises in conversation is '

Of course I am not a neuroscientist and this may be way off the mark. And maybe others have raised this with you already. However, I would at least be interested in your reactions should time and enthusiasm allow. My courage to write was prompted by the knowledge that you were interested in exploring new metaphors - e.g. p. 255. Perhaps you have already arrived at the metaphor of conversation as you refer to it on p 256. And I am largely in agreement with the arguments posited on pages 257-8 though I would not choose to describe it as 'information theory'. Nor can I subscribe to the view that information exists independently of the observer - the word information by the way comes from the Latin in formare, or formed within. The example of the cup (p.257) to me negates the idea that all knowing arises in relationship. So knowing the cup arises in my relationship with the cup - if I am apart from the cup all I have access to is my memory of the cup - a product of my history of structural coupling.

Enough of my rambling. My thanks for a thought stimulating read. If there are more recent overviews of your work in print and you have copies available I would appreciate receiving them.

Yours sincerely

Ray Ison

All page numbers refer to The Touchstone Edition (1999).