Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ecosystem Services: Pricing to Peddle?

This article by Brian Czech raises some timely, systemic issues concerning ecosystems services. I recommend some of the follow-up postings as well e.g. David Bean.

'On November 15, five nations issued a complaint about a UN initiative called the “Global Green New Deal.”  These nations claim that “nature is seen [by the UN] as ‘capital’ for producing tradable environmental goods and services.”  They express their concern about the “privatization and the mercantilization of nature through the development of markets for environmental services.”   They also declare their “condemnation of unsustainable models of economic growth.”

For the purposes of this week’s Daly News, it matters little who these nations are, nor does it matter if their interpretation of the Green New Deal is completely accurate.  What does matter is that their complaint ripens our attention to a widespread and growing controversy about the implications of valuing ecosystem services.

The good news from the Green New Deal is that ecological microeconomics (such as valuing ecosystem services) has risen from the recesses of academia into the realm of international diplomacy.  The bad news is that ecological macroeconomics (such as limits to growth) apparently has not.  Let’s take a look at the implications.

The primary distinction of ecological economics, in contrast with conventional or “neoclassical” economics, is that ecological economists recognize limits to growth and a fundamental trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection.  The economic pie can only get so big even if all its pieces are correctly priced, including ecosystem services.  Because the economic pie can only get so big, society must also pay greater attention to fairly distributing the pieces.  In order to protect the environment, and to help allocate resources in the fairest manner, it helps to recognize the economic value of ecosystem services.  That’s what ecological microeconomics is all about; estimating the value of natural capital and ecosystem services.

In mainstream economic circles, on the other hand, limits to growth are seen as nonexistent or too far off to worry about.  That leads to a nonchalant attitude about fairness; just grow the economy because a “rising tide lifts all boats.”  Traditional economists don’t mind valuing ecosystem services, however.  As long as the prices are right, and markets are established, ecosystem services can be allocated efficiently, just like steel and milk into guns and butter.

The valuation of ecosystem services provides some common ground for neoclassical and ecological economics.  That should be a good thing.  However, common ground can be a minefield, too.  Many a well-meaning bureaucrat and diplomat are stumbling toward the landmines.

Perhaps the two most common concerns about valuing ecosystem services are:  1)  Many ecosystem services are beyond the ability of humans to estimate the value of, much less to “price” for the market.  “Value of the ozone layer?  Priceless.”  2)  The valuing of ecosystem services begs a market, then monetization of the services such that they are viewed as commodities to be traded like hogs or hoola hoops.  For many cultures this offends the senses of dignity and harmony with the natural world.  “Would you take 40,000 hogs for the climate regulation provided by that forest over there?”

But my concern is with another problem; namely, our inattention to where the money comes from to pay for services such as water filtration, carbon sequestration, pollination, etc.  There seems to be an attitude that, if we just throw enough money at a problem, we’ll solve it.  And that is precisely the attitude that creeps in when ecological microeconomics is not complemented with a healthy dose of ecological macroeconomics.  Markets convey the idea that you can have as much as you want as long as you pay the right price; ecological macroeconomics says the total is limited and the right market price should simply ration the limited total. And if the total is not limited then it is hard for the price to be “right”.

We especially need more awareness of the trophic origins of money.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it does come from the ground in a very real sense.  The amount of money available for the purchasing of guns, butter, hogs or carbon sequestration originates from the agricultural and extractive surplus that frees the hands for the division of labor.

In other words, it is not the ozone layer that “generates” money for throwing at its priceless service.  Nor does the North Pole “generate” the money for ecotourists to witness it.  What generates money is activity on the ground – on the farm, in the forest, in the fishery – that gives everyone else their food, as well as the materials for their clothing and shelter.  Everyone else is then free to work in the manufacturing or service sectors.  With plenty of surplus, the economy can even support bankers, actors, and financial engineers who set up markets for trading carbon permits.  That’s the trophic structure of the human economy.

The more our farmers, loggers, and fishermen produce, the more money we’ll all have for the bank, the movies, and trading in biodiversity credits.  But of course the more we ask them to produce, the more environmental impact we’ll have.  If you insist on growing the economy and protecting the environment, eventually the bank and the theatre will be empty; your money’s going straight to the ecosystem services market.  It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Now consider the other side of the coin, so to speak.  We often hear about the investment in the Catskill Mountains watershed that provides clean water to New York City.  I’m all for it!  But it’s no example of reconciling the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection.  What do the growthers think they’re going to do in that watershed:  open hog farms and build high-rises?  No, by “investing” in that natural capital a decision was made to keep the land relatively free from intensive economic activity.  That’s not the kind of investment they like to hear about in New York City, at least not on Wall Street.

So I’ll stop short of saying, “Let’s encourage all the ecological microeconomics we can get.”  Let’s encourage some of it, while realizing that there are only so many ecological economists to go around.  Let’s encourage far more study and practice of ecological macroeconomics.  With microeconomics, let’s help to demonstrate what’s at stake when we mine an aquifer or pull up a fishery.  But more importantly, let’s not peddle those ecosystem services like they’re rubber boots.  Remember where the money comes from to pay for them: the liquidation of natural capital stocks somewhere else.  That’s ecological macroeconomics, and that leads to a steady state economy where some of those precious ecosystem services stay where they belong: out of the market.'

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Snow in Scotland - more systemic effects

Drennan writes:  'By the way, regarding systemic effects of the snow, here are a few more.

1) We all need food supplies etc but of course the big stores are all operating on the "Just  in Time" system - which  means a delay of a day or so means the stores start running out of food.

2) People hear about this difficulty on the news and so they buy twice as much as usual to "stock up" - except for the indigenous rural Scots who stock up at the start of November every year - and the result is the shops empty quicker.

3) This is all made worse by the fact that the TESCOs and ASDAs have outcompeted the small town centre bakeries etc which have often closed.  The TESCOs etc of course buy in bulk from bulk producers and hence the great majority of the bread eaten in Scotland is all made in three huge bakeries near Glasgow.

4) However, once an articulated lorry delivering supplies jack-knifes on a  motorway, huge traffic jams build up behind it and breakdown vehicles or road gritters that would make the road driveable can not get through. A few of these and the whole system jams up! We have of course developed a delivery system largely dependent on just in time deliveries by large lorries, and business based mainly on car commuting workers who get caught in the snarlups.

5) This of course means tankers cannot reach the main oil refinery, which means that petrol stations start running out of fuel for sale, which means even those that can move to deliver may run out of fuel.

6) In the meantime, amid the political blame game that is going on, the first minister for Scotland announces that we will have to get used to more such extreme weather conditions in Scotland - enter Climate Change.

All the best - it is thawing now but forecast to freeze up by Monday'

Thursday, December 09, 2010

News from Scotland

A report from my friend Drennan.   The systemic effects are readily apparent!

'Just to let you see we are buried in it here. We have about one metre with plenty freeze thaw cycles to create icy roads, huge icicles hanging from buildings and traffic chaos. The central belt of Scotland was caught completely off guard and ended up with miles of motorway filled with hundreds of cars filled with people overnighting in them at -17 degrees centigrade. My sister .. ended up marooned at her daughter's house and her daughter marooned at her mother's house after abandoning her car on the motorway and walking miles overland to a functioning railway station to get some transport.

Meanwhile, we have been going down to -20 centigrade at night. A thaw is forecast but I hope to goodness it is a slow one or here come the floods!  This could be a long hard winter here. It is only the start of December,
the volcanic explosion in Iceland has created a dust layer, the Gulf  Stream (North Atlantic Drift) has weakened, and El Nino  is doing things that encourage a cold season also.

The last broadcaster who referred to a Winter Wonderland  has been strangled and another was taken to the edge of the village and snowballed to death.

We stay at home and drive nowhere. We couldn't go many places. All the hill passes seem to be permanently blocked. Nobody has any winter tyres for sale - they all went to Germany. Hope all goes well with all of you.'

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Effective use of Systems in policy review and development

The Munro Review of Child Protection in England by Professor Eileen Munro of  LSE  has released a first report entitled: 'A Systems Analysis'.   It is recommended reading for anyone interested to see how good systems thinking and practice can help to frame and structure an important inquiry such as this one.  It also highlights the role that Systems capability can play in formulating public policy and effecting good governance.  David Lane, Reader in Management Science at LSE is providing expertise in Systems in support of the review.

In introducing this report Prof. Munro describes how it: 

'sets out the systems approach I am taking to understand how reforms interact and the effect these interactions are having on practice. It is at the front line where they come together, at present creating an imbalance and distortion of practice priorities.'

In outlining the report's approach to Systems is argued that:

'A systems approach will help this review to avoid looking at parts of the child protection system in isolation, and to analyse how the system functions as a whole. Social workers and other professionals accept many previous reforms were well intended but their interaction and cumulative effect on frontline practice have had unintended consequences. A systems approach will help to understand how and why previous reforms have had both beneficial and adverse consequences and how the review might improve how the system supports social workers and other professionals to protect children and young people better in the future.

The review will use systems theory in two ways. First, the review will look back at past reforms to explain what has happened, with systems theory providing a strong basis to build the review’s understanding. Second, the intention is to use systems theory analysis to look forward – with systems theory helping the review design an improved approach. The first leads naturally to the second since what is needed is a stronger understanding of the system and analysis of how aspects of the system interact with each other before the review recommends any further changes.'

For more background see this clip or this article

Thursday, November 18, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors

My friend Bruce, in the middle of reading my book, has kindly alerted me to this article by Robert Sapolsky.  Here is a sample:

'This neural confusion about the literal versus the metaphorical gives symbols enormous power, including the power to make peace. The political scientist and game theorist Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan has emphasized this point in thinking about conflict resolution. For example, in a world of sheer rationality where the brain didn’t confuse reality with symbols, bringing peace to Israel and Palestine would revolve around things like water rights, placement of borders, and the extent of militarization allowed to Palestinian police. Instead, argues Axelrod, “mutual symbolic concessions” of no material benefit will ultimately make all the difference.'

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Follow-up from this year's ASC conference

News about this year’s conference.
•    Judy Lombardi made a slide show of the conference;
•    Lev Ledit, with Judy Lombardi, made a 35 minute movie from the video material recorded during the event;
•    You may like to hear Ernst von Glasersfeld’s after dinner speech, which formed a theme in Lev’s movie.

Of course, you are still welcome to explore the whole site. It is very rich, and still being added to!
Meanwhile, we are working on proceedings which will be published next year in a double volume of Kybernetes. There are also reviews of the conference: Claudia Westermann’s will appear in Leonardo—the Arts and Science Journal—on line in November (and may also appear in hard copy); and 2 reviews, one by Stuart Umpleby and the other by Michael Hohl and Stefan Wiltschnig will appear together in issue 1 of Kybernetes in 2011. Finally, ASC President Raulph Glanville has written an assessment that will appear in Cybernetics and Human Knowing, as the ASC column, by the end of the year, together with the text of Ernst’s talk.  urls will be posted on the conference site, when they are available.
Cybernetics of Cybernetics—a competition

Ranulph Glanville, President, of ASC (the American Society for Cybernetics ) and his committee are delighted to announce a competition (open to all, prize fund up to US$ 1500) to propose cybernetic ways in which a Society for cybernetics might be organised and behave. This follows a suggestion from Margaret Mead, the founding mother of cybernetics summarised below. Submissions should be received by noon, GMT, on 31 January 2011. Full details can be found on the ASC website.

The ASC welcomes your interest and your suggestions!

Brief Background Description

In 1967, Margaret Mead, one of the original attendees at the Josiah Macy Jr. conferences and the founding mother of cybernetics, presented a paper (published in 1968) called “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” to the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC). Following on from a suggestion by Gregory Bateson, at the end of her address Mead proposed that the ASC should consider itself as a cybernetic body, and apply cybernetic insights and techniques to its own organisation and operation.

Although Mead proposed a number of specific questions the ASC could ask about how it might be run (see full quote here), her suggestion received little attention. Rather, the title of her paper (given to her by Heinz von Foerster) became used more generally in the application of cybernetics to cybernetics, or second order cybernetics.

The “Cybernetics of Cybernetics” paper thus leaves two legacies. The ASC has come to recognise the need to take up Mead’s original challenge and address the conflict that occurs when a cybernetic society is not run according to cybernetic principles. The ASC can be seen as convention-bound in its operation, which is particularly odd for a cybernetic society.

The ASC (and no doubt other societies) needs ideas and renewal, and we are looking to competition entries for inspiration and direction developed from cybernetic principles. As the established home of second order cybernetics, these cybernetic principles should reflect, preferably, second as well as first order cybernetics.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Passing of Ernst von Glasersfeld

This evening I came home to news about Ernst's death this morning, 12 November 2010, at 7am US east coast time.  Ernst was seen by some as the originator of 'radical constructivism'.  I was fortunate to see him again at the recent ASC Conference in Troy, upstate New York where he gave, as always, an erudite talk as the conference after dinner speaker.  He was clearly pleased to be amongst that community even though his deafness made connection difficult.  Reports of his death at the age of 93 are beginning to appear.

See a synopsis of his work here.
Some current research projects

I have made links under News to some research projects that are currently under way.   One is a collaboration with RMIT and others under the auspices of VCCCAR.   We are responsible for one of the work packages:

Exploring local narratives (12 months)
Adaptation activity is strongly influenced by perceptions of risk either driven by underlying value and belief systems, or recent personal experience of weather-related extreme events, or as built into historical institutional arrangements and practices. How different actors perceive climate risks and differentiate risk from uncertainty (and how they think these will impact their activity) will ultimately be a critical influence on how individuals and organisations respond. This cross cutting theme will look at the narrative settings and the historical institutional basis which major stakeholder groups bring to their engagement with climate change adaptation. It is intended that work in each of the case studies will deliver theoretical and methodological advances as well as changes in understandings and practices amongst key stakeholders. The exact focus of the narratives will be identified according to the interests of local stakeholders.

I am also involved in the Building common understanding of climate adaptation scenario approaches and strategies project.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

New UK White Paper in the pipeline

CIWEM have circulated advice about the Natural Environment White Paper. It seems that this paper is a key one from which several other policy documents and strategies will be developed. The item said:

'Last week Laura Grant from CIWEM attended the Natural Environment White Paper (NEWP) stakeholder meeting.  For anyone unaware the NEWP is the first since 1990 and will be published in April 2011. The NEWP will  set the framework for the Government’s priorities for the natural environment and how these will be delivered.

It will incorporate biodiversity, the marine environment, rivers, air and soils, ecosystem services and will also provide the overarching framework for the Water White Paper.

There are 4 key themes:
  • Natural Value – ecosystem services, interdependencies within the natural environment, making a strong case for its economic value
  • Big Society – communities to have bigger roles in protecting and enhancing the natural environment, a healthy natural environment is key for local jobs, public health etc
  •  The Big Picture – environmental decisions don’t stop at administrative boundaries, landscape scale approaches, looking at multiple benefits to tackle issues such as flooding and climate change
  • Think Global act local – impact on natural environment overseas, getting our own house in order, we rely on healthy natural environment abroad for food, preventing climate change
And three Crosscutting challenges:
  • Climate change – adaptation, mitigation and renewable energy
  • Demographic change – and patterns of consumption
  • Incremental impacts – piecemeal degradation of the environment
There still seems to be significant scope for influencing what is included in the white paper. As such it is important to respond to the consultation ..... The discussion document summary gives a good overview and includes the questions ......There is a survey monkey questionnaire that you can fill in .....'
It could never happen here

A warning against systemic failure received from a colleague:

'we’ve all heard about the red mud disaster in Hungary. But it could never happen here …see the .. image of Gladstone, apparently a much larger basin than the one in Hungary, and much closer to the Great Barrier Reef. '
Great Aussie-style animation about main climate patterns

Only someone with true Aussie sensibilities could have designed this innovative website.  The DPI are to be congratulated on their creativity.

The Management Myth

Thanks to Roy Madron for pointing out this article by Matthew Stewart.  It is well worth a read, making the case that: 'most of management theory is inane, .... If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead'.  Our OU Systems courses cater for a range of needs and interests but they are at the 'applied philosophy' and sometimes 'applied epistemology' end of the spectrum, thus conforming to Stewart's dictum.
An example of Systems Practice

Demos have several recent reports likely to be of interest because of the situations of concern.  Most call out for some type of systems thinking and practice, as exemplified by the report entitled: Proof Positive.  The following account comes from the Demos website:

'We know a fair amount about what works in improving the well-being of children, but we struggle to do this at scale. This is illustrated by the significant socioeconomic inequality between children that exists today in spite of a decade of ambitious public service reform and increased investment.
Proof Positive explores two questions. First, how do we get practices that are proven to improve children's outcomes embedded within services for children, such as children's centres and schools? What kinds of systemic reforms can be successful in spreading evidence-based, effective programmes at the local level? Second, what is the scope of other types of systemic reform in improving children's outcomes?

The pamphlet argues we need a better understanding about how systems can be made more efficient. We need systems that make better and more widespread use of evidence-based practice. But we should not underestimate the impact that changing processes and structures can have on child outcomes – and the evidence base around this needs further development.'

Thursday, October 07, 2010

New film about Gregory Bateson
Phillip Guddemi from the ASC advises that Nora Bateson's film about her father Gregory Bateson's work is now complete, and is being premiered at a number of film festivals. It has just been shown as part of the Vancouver (Canada) film festival, and there will be a premiere in San Francisco on October 10th. And if you happen to be able to make it to Italy there will be three premieres in November.
The evolving organisation

More systemic insights into the functioning...or not ... of organisations from Simon Caulkin.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

New global water map showing regions most at risk

'About 80% of the world's population lives in areas where the fresh water supply is not secure, according to a new global analysis.... Researchers compiled a composite index of "water threats" that includes issues such as scarcity and pollution.  The most severe threat category encompasses 3.4 billion people.'

This is one of the reasons I am involved in developing a systemic and adaptive governance R&D program at Monash. Collectively we have to be in a position to respond systemically.
You are what you eat...or is there more to it than that?

A recent article by Emma John in The Observer, (Sunday 19 September 2010) makes a pretty convincing argument that it is what we eat more than what we do that accounts for our weight. In a list entitled: 'Snack attack: how long it takes to burn off 10 favourite foods' the following examples are given:

  • 'One portion of Tesco lasagne (560 cal): 45 minutes of spinning
  • One slice of Domino's pepperoni pizza (198 cal): 45 minutes of swimming
  • Morrisons' chocolate-chip muffin (476 cal): 58 minutes of climbing
  • Packet of Walkers cheese and onion crisps (184 cal): 35 minutes of frisbee
  • Subway tuna wrap (310 cal): 1 hour and 10 minutes of body pump
  • Bacon sandwich on white bread (430 cal): 58 minutes of football
  • Coffee Republic ham and cheese toastie (436 cal): 1 hour and 30 minutes of netball
  • Granny Smith apple (62 cal): 15 minutes of weightlifting
  • M&S hot cross bun (159 cal): 20 minutes of skipping
  • Mars bar (280 cal): 50 minutes of aqua aerobics'
This is quite a convincing argument and ought to make those with shares in gyms more than a little anxious about their investments.  On the other hand there are some systemic factors not addressed.  Weight loss and body image are, after all, not mere biological issues.  Exercise produces endorphins which in turn can be linked to moods and predispositions to depression.  The manners of living that are conserved in eating, drinking and exercise are also likely to be significant.  I delight in the 'slow eating' in France when staying with friends and the mix of foods - but find it hard to recreate the same features in my own home in another cultural context. The creation of 24 hour cities in the UK and Australia has escalated binge drinking and other unintended consequences.  We also know far too little about how different bodies react to foods in terms of the feelings of satiation and emptiness. Add to this how little we know about the microbial ecologies of our digestive system and how this may interact with different foods! All in all there is much still to be learnt about this topic - some of the wasted resources used on poorly designed gym activities and dieting fads would be better spent in a systemic national well-being strategy!

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    What prospects for meaningful systemic improvement of Australia's governance?

    My spirits were lifted this morning listening, on ABC News Radio, to interviews with the various independents who, following Saturday's Australian election, are likely to hold the balance of power in the next Federal Parliament.  It was not so much that I agreed with all that was said, but that what was being said was, in contrast to the election campaign a breath of fresh air, a different discourse, and one in the main dominated by conviction, concern for citizens and for the country and beyond.  Whilst there are many interesting commentaries on what did or did not happen in the election, and no doubt many more to come, Ross Gitten's analysis stood out for me. 

    However none of the mainstream commentators seem to have taken up the point, made in my CPD essay, that what we are experiencing is the systemic failure of governance.  The Westminster model as now enacted is no longer fit for purpose, whether in the UK or here.  The parallels with the UK result are intriguing and just as there are resonances there are also important differences.  What is worrying of course is that our system of governance, and the historical ways of enacting it by the main stream parties, will militate against innovation and change on the back of the fresh perspectives brought by the independents and Greens who, after July, will contol the numbers in the Senate.  Fortunately GetUp seems to be on the case. They argue today that:

    This moment provides an historic opportunity for GetUp members to push for much needed parliamentary and democratic reform that would never happen under the usual two party dominance of parliament.

    Just a few months ago, the balance of power in the UK's new Parliament created the potential for desperately needed democratic reforms, giving new power to ideas like preferential voting, parliamentary process reform, political transparency and more. But despite early hopes, reform has stalled. In Australia we can't let that happen. It is these moments that our movement is made for.

    This will take more than good intentions - it will require new skills, understandings, generosity but also significant innovation in new forms of horizontal governance as discussed in my CPD essay.

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Obituary and background material for Russ Ackoff

    Russ Ackoff was a significant influence on those responsible for organising Systems teaching at the Open University (UK) in the early 1970s.  'Messes' and 'difficulties' became key concepts in almost every Systems course.  As educators these concepts were very useful pedagogically, but like all neologisms, after time they tend to become reified as 'things' in the world, rather than as useful constructs with which to engage situations.
    Some recent books and reports advocating systemic understandings and practices

    Val Brown and colleagues have put together a very useful book: Tackling Wicked Problems Through the Transdisciplinary Imagination with some challenging conclusions.  It would be good if we could embed more of this thinking and practice in our Universitys and policy circles.

    That said a spate of recent reports recognise the need for policies and practices that are more systemic.  These include:

    The book 'Resilience and Transformation: Preparing Australia for Uncertain Futures'  is now available from CSIRO Publishing. The book 'explores what factors contribute to Australia's resilience, what trends are apparent, and what actions are required to better prepare us for the immediate and longer term future'.   Edited by Steven Cork, with a foreword by Brian Walker, the book contains 21 chapters by authors that include Theresia Citraningtyas,  Richard Eckersley,  Peter Newman and Susan Nicholls.  There's a chapter from Graham Marshall called 'Governance for a surprising world'.
    The UK's National Program for IT in the National Health Service

    Anyone following this Blog will know that I have made several posts about the state of the £12 billion National Program for IT (in England & Wales).  This saga has run and run but perhaps it is to run no more?  A group of 23 accademics back in 2005-6 pointed out its many systemic failings and to a large extent their concerns have been justified as the following article exemplifies:

    'The National Programme for IT in the NHS is set to end in its current guise, with plans tabled for further deep cuts, and the name NHS Connecting for Health to be dropped. E-Health Insider understands that a far-reaching review of the National Programme and Connecting for Health was completed by the coalition government last week, as part of a wider review of all public sector IT major projects. The recommendations of the review was due to be evaluated today by a panel chaired by government chief information officer John Suffolk. Assuming it is approved, a ministerial announcement expected to follow within the next two weeks. 

    Sources indicate that the binding nature of the LSP deals with CSC and BT mean they will not be axed, but instead allowed to run down or expire. In the case of CSC - expected to be pushed hard to deliver further savings - its current contract runs until 2016. Savings beyond the £600m required by the previous government - which included an agreed £100m from the BT London contract, and a yet to be agreed £300m cut from CSCs three LSP deals - are expected to be announced. EHI has been told that further cuts will come from CSC and perhaps London, together with the unspent monies in the south. One source told EHI that the situation was still in flux, with it not being clear where final decisions would be taken. The drive for savings, however, is being led by the Cabinet Office, with the DH said to be playing second fiddle. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude is said to have begun negotiations with CSC by demanding 30% savings from CSC's £3 billion NHS IT contracts, or up to £900m. EHI has been told that CfH will disappear as a brand and the already much reduced agency will be dramatically scaled back. Over the past month an exercise described as "hold and let go" has been going on to identify what core responsibilities the DH Informatics Directorate should retain and relinquish. Far more emphasis will instead be placed on local decision making, interoperability, shared records, clinical portals, and best of breed. "The national programme will become 'a' programme, rather than 'the' national programme," said one source. In effect trusts are being given greater choice, though with little central funding to help them exercise it. 

    An indication of the swinging nature of cuts to come has already been provided in the last month's termination of the Microsoft NHS enterprise licensing deal. One EHI reader described the end of the Microsoft deal as: "Dumping cost out from the centre", pointing out that trusts had already set budgets "and now is certainly not the time to get new local funding".

    Many of the responsibilities of CfH are expected to be taken on the Department of Health Informatics Directorate, particularly its Technology Office. This will focus on standards and interoperability, together with ongoing management of contracts.'
    Systemic failure in action?

    Today Australia goes to the polls.  Will the outcomes of today epitomise all that is failing in our current governance arrangements?  Or will  the result, built on the back of a campaign best described as a theatre of the absurd, mark a critical turning point towards change which is better fit for circumstances? In a CPD essay I outline why we need to reinvent our system of governance.  Six months ago few would have imagined that Tony Abbot had a good chance of becoming Australia's next PM.  Unfortunately the unimaginable has become imaginable.  As the future is essentially unknowable then perhaps the emergence of  something new, a conversation based on an emotion of hope, rather than fear is as likely as a descent into three years of 'treading water' as a nation while all around us events beg for imaginative, responsible systemic leadership.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Invitation to a book launch

    If you happen to be in Melbourne on Friday 3rd September from 4-5pm you are most cordially invited to attend the launch of my new book (see image below) as part of Melbourne Writer's Festival.
    Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World

    It will be possible at the launch to order copies of the book at significant discounts.  This is made possible  by the Festival official sponsor, Readings in conjunction with the publishers, Springer, London.

    The launch details are on the Festival program - the venue for the launch of Systems Practice is Feddish Café/Bar & Restaurant.  

    The book will be introduced by Frank Fisher who is known to many Melbournians.  Frank is Inaugural Australian Environmental Educator of the Year [2007-8], Prof. Faculty of Design & Convenor, Graduate Programs at the National Centre for Sustainability, Swinburne University of Technology .  Frank is also author of Response Ability and a long time advocate for, and educator in, Systems.

    The launch is co-sponsored by Monash Sustainability Institute.

    Saturday, July 31, 2010

    At the American Society for Cybernetics conference in Troy, New York

    The 2010 ASC Conference combines an ASC business and reflection meeting with another three days devoted to 'Cyberetics:Art, Design, Mathematics 2010'.  The event has brought together an ecletic mix including  four of the Society's Trustees (of which I am one).

    The event is hosted by the Architecture group at the impressive Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, established in 1824, in the city of Troy, now part of the Albany conurbation.  Most of the conference is being held in the also impressive Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center -see photo below.

    Troy reminds me of the city of Ballarat - fine, substantial 19th century buildings established on the back of the city's wealth. In Troy's case industrial and manufacturing exploiting its position on the banks of the Hudson River whereas for Ballarat it was gold.  Then urban decline and decay in the 20th century accompanied, so it seems, by disatrous town planning decisions and some terrible architecture.  Clearly attempts are now being made to conserve the architectural heritage but there is a slightly down at heel feel, with many empty shops and a 'post global financial crisis' feel.

    Thursday, July 29, 2010

    A good news story about Governance reform

    Just received from Avaaz. Evidence that people working together through a facilitative platform can change things for the better.

    'A massive online campaign by the Avaaz community in Brazil has just won a stunning victory against corruption.

    The "clean record" law was a bold proposal that banned any politician convicted of crimes like corruption and money laundering from running for office. With nearly 25% of the Congress under investigation for corruption, most said it would never pass. But after Avaaz launched the largest online campaign in Brazilian history, helping to build a petition of over 2 million signatures, 500,000 online actions, and tens of thousands of phone calls, we won!

    Avaaz members fought corrupt congressmen daily as they tried every trick in the book to kill, delay, amend, and weaken the bill, and won the day every time. The bill passed Congress, and already over 330 candidates for office face disqualification!

    One Brazilian member wrote to us when the law was passed, saying:

    I have never been as proud of the Brazilian people as I am today! Congratulations to all that have signed. Today I feel like an actual citizen with political power. -- Silvia

    Our strategy in Brazil was simple: make a solution so popular and visible that it can’t be opposed, and be so vigilant that we can’t be ignored.

    This victory shows what our community can do - at a national level, in developing nations, and on the awful problem of corruption. Anywhere in the world, we can build legislative proposals to clean up corruption in government, back them up with massive citizen support, and fight legislators who try to block them.

    France's Le Monde called our "impressive and unprecedented petition" campaign a "spectacular political and moral victory for civil society." And while this victory may be a first, we can make it the precedent for global citizen action.

    Amazingly, our entire Brazil campaign was made possible by just a couple of Avaaz team members, serving over 600,000 Avaaz members in Brazil. The power of the Avaaz model is that technology can enable a tiny team to help millions of people work together on the most pressing issues. It's one of the most powerful ways a small donation can make a difference in the world.

    We've seen the heart-wrenching movies about street kids and desperate urban poverty in Brazil, and we know that across the world political corruption preys on our communities and saps human potential. In Brazil, our community has helped turn the tide and usher in a new era of transparent, accountable politics. Let's seize the opportunity and begin to fight corruption everywhere it's needed today.

    With hope,

    Ricken, Luis, Graziela, David, Ben, Maria Paz, Benjamin and the entire Avaaz Team


    The Economist, "Cleaning up. A campaign against corruption":

    The Rio Times, "Anti-Corruption Law in Effect This Year":

    The story of Brazil's Clean Record law has yet to be told widely in English language media. Here are a few stories in other languages that capture the campaign:

    Le Monde, "Operation "clean sheet" in Brazil": (French)

    Correio Braziliense, "The arrival of 2.0 activists": (Portuguese)

    Thursday, July 22, 2010

    New Masters Program in "Systems Thinking in Practice" now underway at the OU

    We have just completed the two core courses of our new Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP)
    one of which is already being studied by over 90 students.  This first core module is “ Thinking Strategically: systems tools for managing change” (OU code TU811).

    The second core module, “Managing systemic change: inquiry, action, and interaction” (TU812) will be presented for the first time in November 2010.

    Our STiP Certificate, PG Diploma and MSc are thus ‘launched’ (though an official public launch is likely later this year).

    Underpinning this new program is a set of four books co-published by the Open University with Springer, London (see images above). The books are:

    (i) Blackmore, C. P. (Ed.). (2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. Springer: London.

    (ii) Ison, R.L. (2010) Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World. Springer: London.

    (iii) Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2009) Systems Thinkers. Springer: London.

    (iv) Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S eds (2010) Systems Approaches to Managing Change. A Practical Guide. Springer: London.

    I would also like to draw your attention to some of the opportunities that exist to incorporate OU Systems material into you own programs. Several possibilities exist. These include:

    (i) use of reciprocal credit transfer arrangements

    (ii) licensing or other partnership arrangements

    (iii) bespoke continuing professional development

    Do please feel free to circulate this amongst your networks

    Sunday, June 27, 2010

    The water cycle is so much more apparent in Iceland

    A global water crisis exists largely because of overexploitation of freshwater resources. Humans have all too often intervened in the water cycle in unsustainable ways. This is happening in river catchments and cities as well. With over 50% of the world's population living in cities it is increasingly important that the cyclic, systemic, nature of the water cycle be better appreciated. Current and future interventions need to be assessed in systemic terms.

    As these images from Iceland show the interconnectd nature of the water cycle is apparent in ways that are not so obvious in other countries. And the water is great to drink.

    In Reykjavik yesterday I passed small children playing under the sprinkler hose. It is after all mid-summer even if only 15 degrees! Context is everything.

    Saturday, June 19, 2010

    The ultimate in systemic process?

    This week I have traversed the boundary between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates. My daughter and I have promised ourselves a trip to Iceland for years - I date our joint interest from a project she did at school about 10-12 years ago. She puts our conviction a little later when as a family we were engrossed with The Earth Story - a fantastic TV series.

    Have a look at how these tectonic plates mesh together and see how the mid Atlantic ridge bisects Iceland - a major hotspot on the ridge, and the reason for Iceland's existence. Having seen the TV series it is easy to look at the landscape and imagine the earth's crust as a dynamic flow, moving at about 2cm per annum.

    The development and extent of use of geothermal power is also impressive.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    Wikileaks - a much needed new insitutional form?

    The last edition of The Sunday Age had a good article on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Of course Australians are only too pleased to claim anyone as their own if they have a hint of celebrity and there is no doubting Assange's mystery and latent celebrity potential (as much as he no doubt abhors the idea).

    But what is Wikileaks an example of? Is it a new institutional form that had to emerge as other historical institutional forms, such as universities, now increasingly corporatised, lose their social purpose i.e. as sources of independent, validated knowledge about issues that matter in our world?

    Sunday, May 02, 2010

    General Stanley McChrystal and the 'sprawling spaghetti diagram'

    China, governance and prospects for systemic change

    Copenhagen in some ways could be regarded as China's coming out party. By this I mean that it has become either through choice or inescapable circumstances the key to any global-decision making. According to some reports this has caused tensions - did the Chinese Premier really in Copenhagen miss key meeetings because of the potential loss of face? Or was it a simple misunderstanding about invitations as other sources report?

    Having visited China for the first time last year I am left feeling concerned with this shift in the global realpolitik, unavoidable though it is. China's emergence will present and exacerbate many systemic challenges, not least within China itself. Climate change is inextricably linked to sustainable water supply and river functioning which is in turn related to how those in poverty or ethnic minorities are treated and enabled to create livelihoods for themselves as research in the UK-based Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation Program (ESPA) is demonstrating.

    In many parts of the world and in China in particular, water is in a crisis characterized by scarcity, drought, sanitation problems, occurrence of extreme events and changes in rainfall patterns and run-off. China has only one quarter of the average world water resources per person and, in some strategically important areas, such as the North China plain is exploiting its water at unsustainable rates. These pictures taken in Beijing and in the Lake Baiyangdian Catchment in Hebei Province reflect some of the contrasts that are China.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010

    Claims made for the top 50 sustainability books

    The material that follows is from the publisher. What do you think?

    ‘These are the Top 50 Sustainability Books as voted for by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership's alumni network of over 3,000 senior leaders from around the world. In addition to profiles of all 50 titles, many of the authors share their most recent reflections on the state of the world and the ongoing attempts by business, government and civil society to create a more sustainable future.


    Written by Wayne Visser on behalf of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership

    Published 7 December 2009, 200 pp

    This unique title draws together in one volume some of the best thinking to date on the pressing social and environmental challenges we face as a society. These are the Top 50 Sustainability Books as voted for by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership's alumni network of over 3,000 senior leaders from around the world. In addition to profiles of all 50 titles, many of the authors share their most recent reflections on the state of the world and the ongoing attempts by business, government and civil society to create a more sustainable future.

    Many of these authors have become household names in the environmental, social and economic justice movements - from Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader and E.F. Schumacher to Vandana Shiva, Muhammad Yunus and Al Gore. Others, such as Aldo Leopold, Thomas Berry and Manfred Max-Neef, are relatively undiscovered gems, whose work should be much more widely known.

    The profiled books tackle our most vexing global challenges, including globalisation (Globalization and Its Discontents, No Logo), climate change (Heat, The Economics of Climate Change) and poverty (The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, Development as Freedom). Some of these featured thought-leaders are highly critical of the status quo (e.g. David Korten, Eric Schlosser and Joel Bakan), while others suggest evolutionary ways forward (e.g. Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken and Jonathon Porritt). Some place their faith in technological solutions (e.g. Janine Benyus, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker), while others are upbeat about the potential of business to be a force for good (e.g. John Elkington, Ricardo Semler, William McDonough and Michael Braungart).

    By featuring these and other seminal thinkers, The Top 50 Sustainability Books distils a remarkable collective intelligence - one that provides devastating evidence of the problems we face as a global society, yet also inspiring examples of innovative solutions; it explores our deepest fears and our highest hopes for the future. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to tap into the wisdom of our age.


    1 A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold (1949)

    2 Silent Spring Rachel Carson (1962)

    3 Unsafe At Any Speed Ralph Nader (1965)

    4 The Population Bomb Paul L. Ehrlich (1968)

    5 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth R. Buckminster Fuller (1969)

    6 The Limits to Growth Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III (1972)

    7 Small Is Beautiful E.F. Schumacher (1973)

    8 Gaia James Lovelock (1979)

    9 The Turning Point Fritjof Capra (1982)

    10 Our Common Future ('The Brundtland Report') World Commission on Environment and Development (1987)

    11 The Dream of the Earth Thomas Berry (1988)

    12 A Fate Worse Than Debt Susan George (1988)

    13 Staying Alive Vandana Shiva (1989)

    14 Blueprint for a Green Economy David Pearce, Anil Markandya and Edward B. Barbier (1989)

    15 For the Common Good Herman Daly and John B. Cobb Jr (1989)

    16 Human Scale Development Manfred Max-Neef (1989)

    17 Changing Course Stephan Schmidheiny and Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) (1992)

    18 The Ecology of Commerce Paul Hawken (1993)

    19 Maverick Ricardo Semler (1993)

    20 When Corporations Rule the World David C. Korten (1995)

    21 Biomimicry Janine M. Benyus (1997)

    22 Cannibals with Forks John Elkington (1997)

    23 The Hungry Spirit Charles Handy (1997)

    24 Banker to the Poor Muhammad Yunus (1998)

    25 The Crisis of Global Capitalism George Soros (1998)

    26 Factor Four Ernst von Weizsäcker, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1998)

    27 False Dawn John Gray (1998)

    28 Development as Freedom Amartya Sen (1999)

    29 No Logo Naomi Klein (1999)

    30 Natural Capitalism Paul Hawken, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1999)

    31 Business as Unusual Anita Roddick (2000)

    32 The Mystery of Capital Hernando de Soto (2000)

    33 The Civil Corporation Simon Zadek (2001)

    34 Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser (2001)

    35 The Skeptical Environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg (2001)

    36 Cradle to Cradle William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002)

    37 Globalization and its Discontents Joseph E. Stiglitz (2002)

    38 The Corporation Joel Bakan (2004)

    39 Presence Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers (2004)

    40 The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid C.K. Prahalad (2004)

    41 The River Runs white Elizabeth C. Economy (2004)

    42 Capitalism as if the World Matters Jonathon Porritt (2005)

    43 Capitalism at the Crossroads Stuart L. Hart (2005)

    44 Collapse Jared Diamond (2005)

    45 The End of Poverty Jeffrey D. Sachs (2005)

    46 The Chaos Point Ervin Laszlo (2006)

    47 Heat George Monbiot (2006)

    48 An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore (2006)

    49 When the Rivers Run Dry Fred Pearce (2006)

    50 The Economics of Climate Change Nicholas Stern (2007)


    Mike Peirce, Deputy Director, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership


    The level of change that is going to be forced on our economies, our value chains, our companies and the people who work in business is going to be both profound, and profoundly exciting. There are few times in world history where I would rather have been alive.

    John Elkington

    We're going to solve these problems: extreme poverty will end by the year 2025. That's what I said in the book and I think that's what's going to happen.

    Jeffrey D. Sachs

    The simple truth is that there are no companies that are sustainable in the world today; there are none. What we have are companies that are experimenting with pieces of the puzzle.

    Stuart L. Hart

    Negligence begins tomorrow, because now we know what to do.

    William McDonough

    In America they said I was trying to tear down Wall Street and that would suck the juice out of the American dream.

    Charles Handy

    One tends to forget it's not the oil companies that drive our cars; we drive them and burn the fuel. We don't have to do it, and to entirely blame industry for making a profit from selling us petrol is quite naive. The whole of society is in the game together and to single out industry for attack is quite wrong.

    James Lovelock

    I always remember, on Donella Meadows' office door was a little motto which said 'Even if I knew the world would end tomorrow I'd plant a tree today.'

    Dennis L. Meadows

    Will our grandchildren know what a company is? ... it seems that the real institutional challenge is to create a new type of institution.

    Simon Zadek

    I am very sceptical about a moralistic appeal and I'm extremely sceptical about markets providing sustainable civilisation.

    Ernst von Weizsäcker

    I was just in Borneo watching 19 square kilometres of lush rainforest that had been recreated from scratch in six or seven years. Nobody knew you could do that.

    Amory B. Lovins

    Environmental concern is still very much a First World concern. Most of the world are still pretty worried about the fact that their kids can die from easily curable infectious diseases.

    Bjørn Lomborg

    I think there is unfortunately no level of human suffering that causes policy to change.

    Susan George

    Sustainability is boring. What would you say if I were to ask you about your relationship with your wife? How would you characterise it? As sustainable? If this is the bigger goal - sustainability - then I feel really sorry because it doesn't celebrate human creativity and human nature.

    Michael Braungart

    I think the system as a whole is structurally unsustainable. That means it has to be transformed. It can't be patched up.

    Ervin Laszlo

    Read about When Corporations Rule the World by David C. Korten (1995) for free

    Review copies are available (hard copy and PDF).

    List price: £25.00 / €37.50 / $45.00. Offer price: £22.50 / €33.75 / $40.50.