Friday, July 27, 2012

Systemic governance in action

Californian Governor Jerry Brown and US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar have just announced a major plan to address long-running contested issues of water governance in the estuaries of the rivers entering the San Francisco Bay. The proposal is:

'a $23-billion proposal intended to improve water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California and stop the ecological free fall of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.'

What is to me most impressive is the  understanding that Governor Brown conveys of the needs of governance in our current circumstances.  With this claim in mind spend some time looking at this clip and analyse some of the arguments put forward. As the colleague who posted me the link said: 'it is a joy to watch'.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The ultimate 'seagull' manager

'Seagull managing' is a term whose time has come.  There is far to much of it in the public sector, including Universities.  Here in this article Alex Andreou applies it to David Cameron.  The sense in which the term is used can be gleaned by his opening and concluding lines:
'He flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone from a great height, and then flies out again.....'

'..Flashy but incompetent, clueless but obdurate – Cameron is the ultimate seagull manager. Whether judged on attitude or aptitude, he is truly, hopelessly bad at his job.'

ISSS at San Jose

Clearly a good number of Systems folk knew the way to San Jose.   I only managed the first two and half days of the conference (Service Systems, Natural Systems) before having to return to Melbourne.

At their session on Sunday evening Humberto Maturana and Ximena Davila, with assistance from Sebastian Gaggero addressed four questions; (i) who are we? (ii) where do we come from? (iii) where do we go? and (iv) where do we want to go?

Their responses (or at least my notes) were:
  • (i) we are living in molecular autopoiesis; 
  • (ii) in our living we conserve our molecular autopoiesis (transformation implies something is conserved); Darwin had to propose a mechanism to explain evolution - they choose to explain evolution in terms of drift, as a process of sliding or conserving coherance with our circumstances i.e., while we live we drift.
  • (iii) Birds do not need theories to fly - but we humans invent theories to do what we do even though we do not need theories in our living, yet all theories change our living.  Most theories are linear, rather than systemic.  We can only stop theories through a human choice.  A theory is a system of explanations that one accepts as an explanation. Autopoiesis is an abstraction of the molecular dynamics of our living - laws of nature are abstractions about coherances.
  • (iv) Three conditions are needed for purposeful action - knowing + understanding + a means of action at hand (without the latter depression arises).  There is a need to recover the relationship between the Anthroposphere and the Biosphere - this requires harmony, not equilibrium.  Pollution, poverty etc are all products of linear thinking, but only we can stop this type of thinking and allow wellbeing to arise. 
Rafael Ramirez, a keynote presenter, suggested that the really big contribution Systems could make is to enable people to ask really, really good questions.  I like this framing but would want to add that it only works if we address at the same time the institutional settings which create contexts, or demands for what are acceptable answers.  He also suggested two ways forward (i) extending our rationality framework and (ii) developing a meta-rationality based on plausibility, conversation, multi-framing.

See immediate past president David Ing's blog for more background or try the new Facebook site 'Systems science'.

Passing of Stephen Haines

I was saddened to receive the following this morning. I remember meeting Stephen in 1998; through his business he has been a champion of systems thinking and practice. 
'Remembering Stephen Haines
December 23, 1945 - July 2, 2012

As many of you may already know, Stephen Haines lost his battle with cancer on July 2, 2012. Stephen Haines has inspired and mentored many people in their fields of business. He has helped direct and provide sound strategic management skills by using the Systems Thinking Approach®.
As CEO and founder of the Haines Centre for Strategic Management®, Stephen Haines was one of the world's foremost authorities on the Systems Thinking Approach® to Strategic Management (Planning-People-Leadership-Change) to deliver customer value.

He dedicated his life to understanding how living systems work, which he called the Systems Thinking Approach®, based on 50 years of scientific research on systems thinking and the natural way the world works. He traveled the world, keynoting on strategic management, consulting with CEOs, presenting seminars and writing books and articles.
Stephen Haines leaves behind his devoted wife, Jayne, his loving daughter Monica Romero and his adoring grandson, Sebastian Romero. Additionally, many followers of his work will also miss him dearly.
Stephen Haines is remembered most as a positive and inspirational man with a warm and generous spirit by those that knew him best. He will not be forgotten and his legacy lives on through his educational and resource books, articles, and models.'

Monday, July 23, 2012

INCOSE Insight

Having had an opportunity to glance at the latest edition of the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) publication Insight, I would recommend those who can get hold of a copy, if for no other reason than to catch up on the INCOSE discourse.

Kenneth Boulding's insight

I liked Jim Best's posting from ISSS.

Jim Best 9:28pm Jul 17
There is not much doubt about the demand for general systems theory under one brand name or another. It is a little more embarrassing to inquire into the supply. Does any of it exist, and if so where? What is the chance of getting more of it, and if so, how? The situation might be described as promising and in ferment, though it is not wholly clear what is being promised or brewed.

--- Boulding, 1956 (The Skeleton of Science)


An Ecology of Ideas - Reflections 2

The next ASC conference is planned for 29th July to 4th August 2013 in Suzhou (near Shanghai) in China (hosted by Department of Architecture at Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University).  As with this year the timing and location will be coordinated with the ISSS conference which will be held 10 days earlier at Haiphong in Vietnam. I look forward to resuming the conversation with my ASC colleagues.

One of the highlights of the conference this year was the opportunity to catch up with Humberto Maturana, Ximena Davila and Sebastian Gaggero from the Escuela Matriztica de Santiago. As always, in my listening I found new distinctions that help me to do what I wish to do in my research.  Some of my notes from Humberto's keynote included:
  • nouns obscure the verbs that constitute them (this is clearly the case also with the noun system!)
  • we live in trust that a fundamental inertia operates e.g. that an object placed on a table will remain there
  • recursion can be understood through living every moment which occurs on top of its (living's) previous operation - and something new emerges
  • what we conserve in our living is an organism-niche unity ..which arise mutually. Evolution operates through the conservation of organism-niche unities
  • we are emotional beings ..that use our rationality to validate or to invalidate our emotions
Both Humberto and Ximena stress that in processes of transformation it is not chage that is the central dynamic but what is conserved.  I have now heard Ximena speak twice about her work on 'liberating conversations' as means for the recovery of self love and self respect in the face of cultural pain. Ximena's praxis becomes more compelling with each hearing.

One of the most exciting talks delivered at the conference from my perspective was given by Kathleen Forsythe. The paper was entitled 'Recursion in language and learning: what autism teaches us about praxis.' Whilst impressive in its own right, what I found even more impressive about the work reported was the totally new system of schooling that Kathleen and her colleagues are developing in Canada built largely on understandings from Maturana's work.  This innovation is known as the SelfDesign Learning Community which is a unique online learning environment and Class 1 independent school of over 2000 students, many of whom are autistic or have special needs. The corporate controllers of contemporary universities (and education policy) might well look to this example for the learning pathway(s) that they implicitly or explicitly reject - and which brings into question the social mission of the university.

Rex Wyler and Peter Harries-Jones both delivered keynotes and contributed to the conversation with Governor Brown.  Peter's account of the massive loss of honey bees across North America was a fitting parable for our times. Rex Wyler, a co-founder of Greenpeace, reflected on how minimal the gains were from over 40 years of environmentalism, despite the evidence to support action.  He made the good point that 'debt is pretend energy' and that the G20 has $70 trillion of debt. Later Rex joined a panel with Nora Bateson and Ralph Abraham to discuss some of these pressing issues.  My own reflections triggered by this discussion included:
  • Ralph Abraham's point that the mathematics of complex systems are not predictive means that purposeful action has to be based on a form of not knowing or deliberative judgement
  • Turning to the education system as a potential source of innovation and change as several speakers did is to my mind not likely to succeed.  I would go further and claim that in respect of the relationship between humans and the biophysical world most education systems fail largely because the issues are disembodied and taught outside a framework of praxis - the wrong people with the wrong understandings have their hands on the rudder of education.
  • I wondered what might be gained if members of GetUp, Avaaz or 38Degrees became more aware of cybersystemic understandings and praxes?
I liked Humberto's contribution to the discussion: What if work were to repair not to grow?

Many other presentations were stimulating, triggering new reflections and questions.  Ranulph Glanville's experience showed through in his contribution to the Reflexivity Panel.  Fred Steier and Stuart Umpleby gave well considered contributions as well - the latter on obstacles to reflexivity theory in economics.

Judi Lombardi, a consistent contributor to ASC meetings gave another sterling 'paper' in which, as always, she set out to bring congruence between her espoused theories and theories-in-use.  In addition through her efforts we have records of our doings.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Ecology of Ideas - Reflections 1

The American Society of Cybernetics (ASC) and the Bateson Idea Group (BIG - see this link also) co-hosted a conference from 9-13th July at Asilomar - near Monterey - that well and truly lived up to its name.  Those present, the setting and the emergent conversations certainly created a rich and rewarding ecology of ideas. In coolish but energising temperatures due to the sea fret (fog) the site proved ideal, though a little more sun would have revealed more of the magnificent views (see photo taken from my room).
For me the conference started on a high note when I was invited, as part of a small group with interests in the environment and ecology, to have afternoon tea with Californian Governor Jerry Brown.  It was a wide-ranging and free-flowing conversation with someone who clearly understood systems and cybernetic ideas and thinking.  Later, after the showing of Nora Bateson's film about her father, Gregory Bateson (the reason for Jerry being present), Jerry gave an impromptu public talk in which he articulated a view of governance based on the key cybernetic notion of responding to feedback and articulating a course - a purpose.  It was for me very affirming given what we are trying to do in the Systemic Governance Research Program at Monash and The Open University. I left a copy of  my book 'Systems Practice' with Jerry. Who knows what might emerge from the conversation?  I do know that he asked Nora Bateson to forward to him what she considered the best papers/presentations of the conference.

The conference was organised around three themes: paradigm, recursion and praxis.  This worked well, through there is always room for improvement in aligning espoused theory with what becomes theory-in-use.  Klaus Krippendorff's 80th birthday was celebrated at the conference. He delivered an insightful and stimulating keynote paper - I hope he turns it into a publication.  He made available copies of his chapter 'Pathology, Power and Emancipation' from 'On Communicating Otherness, Meaning and Information', Fernando Bermejo (Ed.) New York: Routledge, 2009.  I commend it to anyone wishing to respond to critiques that suggest systems and cybernetics approaches do not deal adequately with power.

Graham Barnes, a Batesonian family therapist also provided a stimulating keynote in which he started by asking: Is the world loving?  He moved on to suggest this was the wrong question, posing instead the question: Do I love the system that I call I, you, we, it?  Then in a shift towards responsibility he reframed the question as: Is Graham's world loving?  Or, Is the world we are making loving?

I took from Terry Deacon's keynote reminders about the operation of constraints (also addressed by Mauro Ceruti in his book 'Constraints and Possibilities. The Evolution of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Evolution').  Amongst many points Terry said:
  • in the absence of constraints relations break down (the GFC is to me a good case in point)
  • work is need to create constraints and constraints are needed to do work (quoting Stuart Kaufman);
  • he claims that the 'whole is less than the some of the parts' is a better framing than the traditional aphorism
  • he also claims that self-organisation alone is not enough - there is also a need to generate order.
Gregory Bateson wrote that information was the news of the difference that makes a difference. This idea was reprised by many speakers but, in my view, these speakers often created a praxis trap of their own making by doing so. In the main the trap arises when information is discussed, non-reflexively as some thing - a reification that happens when we use nouns.  Following Maturana, who does not use the term information at all, Bateson's key idea could be rephrased as:  Exerience arises as the difference that makes a difference to me.  In this way the concept of 'information' which has a contested semantic history, is not needed.  In the process it returns to the speaker and/or the listener the possibility of hearing and appreciating the systemic, relational dynamics that are at the core of this phenomenon.

Marilyn Wedge, another Batesonian family therapist gave a moving talk about her own praxis in the context of increased medical labeling of children as having particular disorders and the prescribed drug culture that  follows.  Her experience is discussed in her new book: Wedge, M. (2011) Suffer the Children. The case against labeling and medicating and an effective alternative. WW Norton & Co.

My own paper was well received and stimulated several good conversations.  The title and abstract are posted below (as an aside Jerry Brown's first question to me was 'what is stationarity'?  He had read the abstracts of those joining him for tea in advance!)

Paradigm shift towards systemic and adaptive governance: praxis relevant to a structurally-coupled social-biophysical system?
Ray Ison
Communication & Systems Department, The Open University, UK; Systemic Governance Research Program, Monash Sustainability Institute, Monash University, Clayton, Australia

The prevailing paradigm in the governance of the relationship between humans and the biophysical world is characterised by joint commitments to scientism and dualistic thinking. Currently governance, if understood as enacting cybernetic processes that maintain the quality of relationships between humans and the biosphere, can be seen to be failing on many fronts. Over the last 50 years, for example, the governance of water catchments, or basins, has been guided by commitments to “stationarity” encompassing commitments to linear causality, prediction and extrapolation especially within disciplines such as hydrology and water engineering.    Momentum is now growing to address the limitations of this paradigm in the face of a worsening global water crisis that threatens security of supply and food production as well as loss of many vital ecosystems services.  This ‘problematique’ raises two significant questions for praxis: (i) what form of praxis might best contribute to paradigm shift in these circumstances? (a corollary of which is: Is the concept of paradigm relevant to such circumstances?); (ii) what constraints and possibilities does a conception of rivers as the structural coupling of two systems – the human and biophysical – offer to praxis innovations that offer an effective break with dualistic thinking and acting? These questions frame a proposal for a systemic inquiry into forms of governance more suited to the contemporary circumstances of humans, and the growing recognition of the negative impacts of the Anthropocene, which those attending the session will be invited to join. While the focus is on water systems the inquiry purpose is to invent ways of acting in theory-informed ways (i.e., praxis) that gives rise to systemic and adaptive governance at levels ranging from the international to the program or project.  The presentation will develop and build upon some of the revealing and concealing features of Maturana’s account of structural coupling.