Saturday, January 30, 2016

Unethical systems practice?

Systems practice in and of itself is neither ethical or unethical as all practice is in the hands of the practitioner in a given context. What is, or is not, ethical is always situated. My musings on this question has been triggered by reading material on 'transformative scenario planning' by Adam Kahane.  Kahane became known based on his leadership of the Mont Fleur Scenario exercise in South Africa in the early 1990s, an exercise that many claim helped in positive ways to transition to a post-apartheid state as well as shaping some of the ANC's early political and economic strategies.

Anyone who has more than a passing aquaintance with systems scholarship knows that scenario planning was mainly developed within the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. It was the adaptive scenario work done by Pierre Wack in the early 1970s, 'envisaging' the 1973 oil crisis, that led to scenario planning being institutionalised in Shell.....and presumedly other companies, including other oil companies.  Wack's work enabled Shell, one of the weakest of the infamous 'seven sister's who dominated the oil industry, to emerge from the 1973 oil shock as one of the strongest.

According to Kahane, scenario planning in Shell developed under the leadership of Ged Davis and Kees van der Heijden. Kahane, who was a Shell employee when he went to South Africa, attributes his own learning of scenario planning to these 'two masters'. Shell was also a pioneer in the use of SSM (soft-systems methodology) and Kees van der Heijden was an important player in this activity - as examples written up in several of Peter Checkland's books testify.  SSM can be used as a form of scenario practice and Kahane's 'transformative scenario' practice seems replete with systemic thinking and practice.

With this as background my musings turn to the question of how scenario planning has been used, particularly in the oil industry, in the 45 or so years since Shell began using it.  For example, was it used in the move by BP into 'beyond petroleum' and then the rather rapid departure from that set of narratives and commitments?  Why did most major oil and energy companies abandon their diversified portfolios, including renewable energy assets, in the early 2000s?  Were these decisions guided by an undisclosed 'Big Tobacco' scenario? Or a 'make hay while we can' scenario? Or an 'exploit our social operating licence to the full - till we are stopped' scenario?  My musings are prompted by news of an inquiry that may be gathering steam in California:

"Activist Tom Steyer’s comments followed reports that California attorney general is looking into what the world’s biggest oil company knew about climate change........into allegations that ExxonMobil spent decades lying to investors and the public about its knowledge of climate change."

It is clear that practices informed by systems thinking and practice can be used to good effect; whether the practice is ethical or not is another question. When framed in terms of Heinz von Forster's ethical imperative:

...."act always so as to increase the number of choices" or "I always act so as to increase the number of choices".......

then the actions of oil companies, should it be shown that they deliberately set out to prolong their business model in the face of overwhelming evidence about climate change, have clearly acted unethically. Collectively they will have acted to limit the choices we humans have as we move into a climate-change world. 

EMCSR avantgarde, Vienna 30 March – 1 April, 2016

Call for Participation: 30 March–1 April, 2016,  Vienna, Austria - the exact location will be chosen in Vienna regarding the topics and number of attendees.

Format: Pop up conference meetings. The European Meetings on Cybernetics and Systems Research (EMCSR) will be held in Vienna from March 30 to April 1, 2016. It will be the first pop up conference meeting in the field of Systems Science, called emcsr avantgarde.

The name reflects the vision and the core of the programme. We are looking forward to setting the stage for the contemporary avantgarde of Systems Science and Practice, connecting the achievements of the past with inspiring potentials for the future. The new emcsr avantgarde will be the “talent” scout event in the field of Systems Science.

An international scientific jury (selection committee) of renowned experts in their respective fields (philosophy, science, engineering, design, and art) will select the competition attendees and their submissions. Every selected researcher is a nominee for “The Ludwig von Bertalanffy Young Scientist Award” donated by the main organizer of the event, the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (BCSSS). The winner will be chosen through real-­time voting by the audience of the emcsr avantgarde meetings.  It is the first prototype for “scientific talent” scouting independent of the age and career status of the candidates. The BCSSS as a role model is also eager to meet further potential candidates, master and PhD students, for their upcoming scholarship programme (starting in 2017) through the event, independent from the playful award contest.

This is a unique opportunity to discover the next generation of systems researchers. We intend to invite universities, foundations, donors, startups and investors as well as human resource managers to meet their future potential talents at the emcsr avantgarde.

The emcsr avantgarde will also offer satellite workshops. These workshops are focused on a Specific topic, organized by an invited group of already established researchers, and offer opportunities to showcase and further elaborate contemporary trends in Cybernetics and Systems Science.

The emcsr avantgarde will be intentionally a smaller exclusive conference meeting. We want to ensure that the selection of submissions reflect quality, thus the referee process will be rigor.  We also want to ensure that we enable vivid interaction at the conference meetings through the number of  attendees.

The emcsr avantgarde is the 23rd European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research in Vienna building on 40 years of tradition. In 1972, the emcsr offered its first forum for discussion of converging ideas and new aspects of different scientific disciplines.  The emcsr was co-founded by the Austrian Society for Cybernetics Studies, chaired by Robert Trappl, which established the Austrian Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Vienna, too.

Since then every two years senior scientists met in Vienna to present in workshops and symposia their latest research results and discuss the rapid developments in our society. From 2016 on the main stage is set for the young researchers, too.

We are very happy that Robert Trappl will be present at the reinvented emcsr avantgarde, when we establish the milestone for the 21st century scientific avantgarde connected to the roots of the provocative avant-garde of the 70s.

Visit online:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Improving people-nature relations.....not 'biodiversity conservation'!

Caption:  The Seaford foreshore - nature in the city.  Over forty-thousand people live within 15 driving or walking minutes of the Seaford foreshore and beach.   City creeks, reserves and landscapes managed by Councils, communities, Melbourne Water and Parks Victoria may not be wilderness with threatened species but 4.5 million Melbournians need natural places like this for physical and mental health and well-being.

The Port Philip and Westernport CMA (PPW Catchment Management Authority) recently made this Facebook posting.  It draws on work in which some of their staff are involved being conducted under the aegis of the Lonsdale Systems Group's designed and facilitated collaborative, systemic, inquiry into NRM governance in Victoria.

Social science and intuition agree - contact with nature is critical to the health and well-being of over 15 million city Australians.  

Melbourne Water’s waterways program, Council environment staff and Parks Victoria conserve nature in our city but against daily competition for space and resources.  Past government strategy has often under-recognised urban conservation. 

A new Victorian Biodiversity Strategy is being made.  A draft will be released soon and it’s an opportunity for change.  The PPWCMA’s Regional Strategy Team and Living Links Coordinator are working with council and community leaders and the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning to help the new Biodiversity Strategy better recognise urban community needs and connections with nature.

The PPWCMA’s Regional Strategy Team is also consulting with its partners on a written response to the Draft Biodiversity Strategy.  The response will focus on the importance  of urban nature conservation and the value of its partners’ work to keep nature alive and well in the city.

Does nature matter to people in urban Melbourne?  Yes!

Systems PhD short-course in conjunction with IFSA 2016

Beginning in Aarhus in 2012 a PhD 'short-course' organised as a 'systemic inquiry' has been offered in conjunction with the biennial conference of the European chapter of the IFSA (International Farming Systems Association). In the past these have attracted ECTS points for participating PhD students who are also required to attend the conference.

The first course was so successful that another was organised in Berlin in 2014 which was also very successful.  Now another PhD course has just been announced in conjunction with this year's IFSA conference to be held at Harper Adams University in England.

I invite all who read this to spread the news about this opportunity.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

What system is it exactly?

This is a great post from Helen Wilding who draws out the traps that arise from the uncritical and everyday use of the term 'system'.

News from Italian Systems Society

Dear Colleagues,

I am pleased to bring to your attention, in case of your interest, the publication of the proceedings of the 2014 conference of the Italian Systems Society:

Minati, G., Abram, M. and Pessa, E., (eds.), (2016), Towards a post-Bertalanffy Systemics. Springer, New York 

A brief profile of the Italian Systems Society and a list of proceedings published previously are available [below].

Best regards,

Prof. Gianfranco Minati

· Polytechnic University of Milan/Department 'Building Environment Sciences and Technology', doctoral lecturer on systems science
· Personal URL

The Italian Systems Society (AIRS)  was founded in the 1996. The AIRS is a network of academicians, scientists, researchers and professionals involved in Systemics. A partial list of disciplines represented is:

 Architecture
 Biology
 Economics
 Education
 Engineering
 Mathematics
 Neurosciences
 Medicine
 Music
 Philosophy
 Psychology
 Physics.

The conferences had as open lecturer professors Arecchi, Haken, Klir, and Kauffman. The proceedings have been published as:

1. Minati, G., Abram, M. and Pessa, E., (eds.), (2015), Towards a post-Bertalanffy Systemics. Springer, New York.

2. Minati, G., Abram, M. and Pessa, E., (eds.), (2012), Methods, Models, simulations and approaches - towards a general theory of change. World Scientific, Singapore

3. Minati, G., Abram, M. and Pessa, E., (eds.), (2009), Processes of emergence of systems and systemic properties. Towards a general theory of emergence. World Scientific, Singapore.

4. Minati, G., Pessa, E., and Abram, M., (eds.), (2006), Systemics of Emergence: Research and Applications. Springer, New York.

5. Minati, G., and Pessa, E., (eds.) (2002), Emergence in Complex Cognitive, Social and Biological Systems. Kluwer, New York.

6. Minati, G., (ed.), (1998), Proceedings of the first Italian Conference on Systemics, Apogeo scientifica, Milan, Italy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Second Order Science

A conversation about second-order science is being fostered within the American Society of Cybernetics (ASC), and elsewhere, including the journal Constructivist Foundations.

Michael Lissack, current President of ASC, delivered this talk at ISSS2015 in Berlin, which was also the first Ranulph Glanville Memorial Lecture, delivered on behalf of ISSS (see this obituary).

This talk 'Dancing with Ambiguity' was also delivered by Pille Bunnel in Berlin as part of the embedded ASC day within ISSS2015. There are three clips in all.

There is more to be written and enacted under the aegis of second-order science. 

Catching up with Maturana

For some time the innovative work of Humberto Maturana has been neglected, or sidelined, within the fields of perception/cognition research as the current mainstream paradigm pursues, to my mind, a barren trajectory. But the situation may be changing - take a look at this Ted Talk which adds empirical evidence to much of what can be found in Maturana's work (which was itself empirically based).

My own 2010 book, Systems Practice: How to act in a climate-change World (Springer/Open University) is shaped by Maturana's biology of cognition.

As may be seen from this site, Beau Lotto, who delivers the Ted Talk has a new model of lab, the Lottolab, under development at UCL in London. It is claimed:

"Lottolab Studio is the world’s first public perception research space. Perception underpins everything that we feel, think and believe. It is the source of all artistic expression and scientific exploration. What we perceive IS who we are." 

Humberto Maturana, in the workshop conversations that I have experienced, always begins by exploring how and why humans in our living can not, in the moment, distinguish between perception and illusion. This is the human condition, as this Ted Talk makes clear.