Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Markets should not be left to run themselves

There was an excellent article by Geoff Davies published in The Age today.  Amongst many good points he says:

"Systems scientists can recognise a modern economy, full of such instabilities, as a far-from-equilibrium self-organising system. The tidy neoclassical equilibrium theory does not even begin to be a useful approximation to such an economy.

Such self-organising systems are rather messier, and not everything about them is predictable. Nevertheless they typically have some regularities, and a recognisable character. In this respect they resemble living systems, which is no coincidence, because living systems are the best exemplars of self-organising systems."

Geoff Davies is a scientist, author and commentator. His most recent book is Sack the Economists and Disband Their Departments. Read about the rationale for his book here.

Steve Keen's commentary is also worth a read.

Beyond Big Data

I wish policy makers and funders of research would visit this site which rightly, in my view, attempts to move us collectively beyond the current preoccupation with 'big data'.

Here is the associated press release:

CAMBRIDGE (Dec 17) — One question Big Data can’t answer: how do we know what’s important in a complex world?

Big Data keeps getting bigger, whether in biology, medicine, social sciences or social media. But how do we know which pieces matter in continually larger piles of data? The trick is to recognize patterns in the largest scale of behavior. These patterns, determined by relative handful of information, are not only the key to understanding a system, but they also tell us how we can influence its behavior going forward.

In an article released today, complex systems scientist Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex Systems Institute, explains how his team has been successful using this approach to predict and explain market crashes, food prices, the Arab Spring, ethnic violence, and other complex biological and social systems.

Rather than amass larger and larger data sets, determining which information is pivotal (and ignoring the rest) is the key to solving the world’s increasingly complex challenges.
The article, titled “Beyond big data: Identifying important information for real world challenges” describes a general way to understand complex systems.

“Big data analytics is a buzzword today,” Bar-Yam explains, “but the key to using any data is understanding its significance, and this requires knowing the patterns in the data and how we can affect or change the system’s behavior. This requires key ideas about the way the system functions.”
Complexity first made its mark in physics by demonstrating how traditional approaches of statistics and calculus fail to describe such radical transitions as the moment water boils into vapor. These transitions required a new kind of mathematics. Bar-Yam and his group have been applying generalized versions of the new mathematics to answering real world problems.

“Understanding the problems we face in the world today requires more than just data, it requires insight into radical changes that will take place in the future,” Bar-Yam stated. “We have to understand transitions that might happen in the behavior of systems, not just how they were behaving yesterday.”

I would argue that investing in Systems Thinking in Practice is needed to focus on the end of the graph where what is important needs to be understood and acted upon.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Systems thinking in practice PhD course as part of IFSA 2014 in Berlin

Systems Thinking and Practice in PhD Research: Working strategically with Farming Systems Research(4 ECTS)Date: 30 March – 5 April 2014 including 4 days of IFSA Symposium
Working strategically to negotiate boundaries for research in a meaningful way in the areas of farming, food, rural areas and environment requires particular skills and abilities: It is necessary to be able to make relevant connections and to contextualize research activities without becoming overwhelmed by potential complexity and uncertainty. The context of the increasingly multifaceted complexity of issues of sustainability and climate change in relation to food production and consumption is particularly challenging for PhD research. It is a context that is however a core part of the IFSA community’s experience. The purpose of this course is to help you, the PhD student, develop your skills in contextualizing your research, to make connections among issues using systems thinking and to so improve your ability to work both strategically and purposefully. The course is also designed to help you build on what other researchers have done.
Through joining this course you can expect to:
  • gain an overview of the intellectual traditions of Farming Systems Research,
  • make links to the history of IFSA,
  • strengthen your research through developing understanding of systems theories and methodologies
  • have opportunity to reflect on strengths and weaknesses of different systems approaches and methodologies in relation to your own PhD research
  • get added value from your participation in the Berlin Symposium by also becoming part of a parallel critical learning systems community that has a PhD research focus
  • critically review potential contributions of your research to help meet global challenges
  • develop appreciation of multiple perspectives on contemporary issues
  • work across multiple disciplines
The course will be held in connection to the 11th IFSA Symposium and draw on the gathering of specialists and researchers within this field. Its design draws on tried and tested ways of experiential learning. The course will be grounded in a project of your own choice, preferably based on your PhD work. In your time in Berlin you will participate in an inquiry with three main parts - before, during and after the symposium. It will also involve some preparation and submission of a final reflection. 
  1. Before the course, you will be asked to complete an assignment in which you describe and reflect on either (i) your understanding and use of system theories in your project; or (ii) the rationale you have followed, or would follow, in making a choice to include, or not, systems theories in your PhD research
  1. The pre-symposium part of the course will be offered in a workshop format consisting of a mixture of student presentations, lecture inputs and group work. It will take place over two and half days starting on the morning of Sunday 30th March and finishing at mid-day on Tuesday 1st April.
  1. The part of the course that runs in parallel to the symposium will provide mentorship and help you plan your attendance at the most relevant workshops for you at the IFSA symposium. It will also provide an opportunity for joint reflection and feedback as the symposium progresses.
  1. After the symposium, on Saturday 5th April, you and the other students will gather for half a day to recapitulate and work in groups, and complete the assignment that has been agreed, on possible improvements of your own PhD study design, or future research trajectory, linking it to systems thinking and practice. The course will end at mid-day.
Background and resources
This PhD course will benefit strongly from the fact that many outstanding researchers within farming system approaches will be gathered at the Symposium of the International Farming Systems Association. Contributions specifically to this course will come from experienced researchers who have been a part of the IFSA community for many years. They will include lectures and/or workshops that
  • introduce systems theories;
  • consider different systems approaches and methodologies suitable for researching issues of farming, food, rural areas and environment:
  • bridge the different systems approaches – soft, hard, critical, viable etc.
  • explore how to deal with handling of complexity and the role that modeling can play
  • critically review focuses on action, learning and reflexivity
  • explicate social systems and learning systems approaches
  • explore the relationship between systems approaches and transdisciplinary research

The key literature for the course will be:
Ika Darnhofer, David Gibbon and Benoit Dedieu (2012) The farming systems approach into the 21st century: The new dynamic. Springer, Berlin.
The following references provide additional background
Blackmore, Chris (Ed.) (2010) Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice. Springer: London. (For online extracts see:
Ison, Ray (2010) Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World. Springer: London. (For online extracts see:
Ramage, Manus and Shipp, Karen (2009) Systems Thinkers. Springer: London.
Reynolds, Martin and Holwell, Sue. Systems Approaches to Managing Change. Springer: London. (For online extracts see:
Course Assessment
To obtain the course certificate you will be required to:
  • complete the assignments as outlined above
  • participate in the lectures and group discussion.
  • participate in one of the relevant working groups of the IFSA symposium.
  • after the Symposium, discuss improvements to your own PhD study, or future research trajectory design linking it to systems thinking and practice.
  Registration for the Course
Contact: Dr. Thomas Aenis, Extension and Communication Group
Humboldt-Universit├Ąt zu Berlin, Luisenstr. 53, D-10099 Berlin, Germany
Phone: +49-(0)30-2093-6511
Course Team:
Dr. Thomas Aenis, Humboldt-Universit├Ąt zu Berlin, Germany
Prof. Dr. Nadarajah Sriskandarajah, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden
Prof. Dr. Andrea Knierim, University Hohenheim, Germany
Guest lecturers:
Professor Ray Ison, The Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group, UK and Monash University, Australia
Dr Chris Blackmore, The Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group, UK