CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*

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Notes to video interview with Churchman

In one of my last blog posts I added a link to my transcript of a two-hour video interview with C. West Churchman, a well-known American systems philosopher. I said that the interview could serve as an introduction to Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. Now, perhaps that is a bit too optimistic. So I figure I have to add a few notes to the first 30 minutes to make sure such an introduction works out as more than a passing acquaintance. It is also an opportunity for myself to check if I haven’t overlooked anything in the rich thoughts of a great systems mentor. The notes to the first 30 minutes of the transcribed video interview are available as a PDF from here. It is 5 pages in all and contains 3 rather interesting concept maps, including a novel one, which I baptized “Concept map of Churchman’s categorical scheme for the inquiring system of a dialectical systems approach”. Below concept map is described in considerable detail in the PDF.

Concept map of Churchman's categorical scheme for the inquiring system of a dialectical systems approach

Systems, systems and dialectics       How systemic is it all? Very much, I would say: (1) First of all there is the system itself with all its inter-relationships, which could be just about anything. A few examples were mentioned: postal system, business, government agency, education system, international development system, capitalist system, local food production system, a project, energy system, global climate system. As long as it has humans in them, it’s a system in the Churchmanian sense of the word, a social system, an organization of sorts. We also have messes in the Ackoffian sense, which are systems of systems interacting, e.g. the climate-energy-human reproduction-economic-international politics system. Or – as pointed out by Harold Nelson in The Design Way – simple ones, like the stone-age fire system with all its complexities of collecting wood, keeping the fire going, all sorts of smoking, cooking and heating aspects etc. (2) Then there is the inquiring system, which tries to look at the system as a whole, as described in the concept map; (3) Next there are the modelling systems, used in the designer role, but needed to communicate between the other relevant role players. Some of the modelling systems may well be specific forms of systems thinking as well. Often models are partial models of the system or models of part of the system. I think patterns and structures could be said to fall in this category of systems. The fun thing about patterns and structures is that one set of them for one system can serve as a ‘model’ for another system. This is actually the rationale underpinning systems thinking generally. This idea is put to good use in the systems archetypes of Senge’s Fifth Discipline (see Kim 1992), but examples abound in systems thinking, the simplest being the input-output model; (4) Finally there is the dialectical system to determine the system boundaries (in a broad sense, so also looking at patterns and structure). It makes use of the perspectives of stakeholders, broadly defined as those most concerned by the system in a variety of roles, the main ones being client/beneficiary, decision-maker/manager, designer/planner, systems philosopher/thinker. The dialectical system makes use of the inquiring system and different models, formal or informal. There can be no dialectic without good communication and without looking through each other’s eyes, i.e. placing oneself into a different role. There is no such thing as a perfect dialectical system. Yet, imperfect ones may still yield satisfactory results. It is possible to expand on the subsystems (e.g. we could put the designer in the context of a design system, the decision-maker in the context of decision-making or management system etc.), but the four types just mentioned seem to cover the essence of it quite well, from the dialectical systems approach point of view, that is.

The word ‘system’      …. seems to confuse and put off people. As Churchman explains in the video interview  of 1987, its use for ‘social systems’ such as organizations, projects or nations came naturally in the early 1960s, when people were talking about systems a lot: computer systems, administrative systems etc. Churchman, like everybody else, was just expanding the applicability of the word to, well, systems generally. In addition, the use of the term ‘The System’ for “prevailing social order” is from 1806. Its Greek origin (see here) makes it suitable for most major languages, from Portuguese to German or Russian, with the exceptions perhaps of Chinese and Japanese. Now, what is a system? According to Churchman it is ‘things hanging together’. But he doesn’t mean the solar system, but human or social systems. So, it is actually ‘people and things hanging together’. But that too is incomplete, because systems are designed by people with a purpose. So the full definition of a system in the Churchmanian sense is ‘people and things designed to hang together for a purpose‘. The systems approach was developed (or designed) to improve the system design when it turns out not to function properly. The term ‘approach’ was preferred because of its double meaning of: (1) a particular way of handling a (problematic) situation not necessarily implying a final solution; and (2) approximation, i.c. the approximation of an ideal situation (see concept map). The term ‘systems approach’ is also used in psychotherapy (see e.g. Bauserman and Rule 1995). There are parallels, but it has nothing to do with Churchman, although he had a particular liking for the work of Carl Gustav Jung. There are also interactions and influences as described in Part Thirteen of Bauserman and Rule’s brief history, where they mention Von Bertalanffy, Norbert Wiener, Gregory Bateson and Erickson. If we speak of The systems approach in a Churchmanian context, we mean the dialectical systems approach of above concept map and everything it entails.


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Climate change and the systems approach

Yesterday morning (July 11, 2018) I read an interview (sorry, in Dutch) with René ten Bos in Trouw, a Dutch newspaper, about the Dutch Climate Agreement of July 10, 2018. It contained a couple of references to the private sector and the systems approach, so I got interested. Here is my take of the matter.

René ten Bos      … is ‘National Thinker’, one might perhaps even say Philosopher Laureate of The Netherlands, since April 2017. He is a philosopher, author and organizational theorist who teaches at the University of Nijmegen, where he is Professor of the Philosophy of the Management Sciences. He says his drive comes from outrage (‘onderbuikachtige verontwaardiging’ on his Wikipedia page), which is the word used by West Churchman when he discusses the motivation of the ‘heroic systems philosopher’ in some of his books. The outrage in the article is about the convenience with which the Dutch private sector appropriates the term ‘sustainable growth’ for its meagre efforts to turn the Dutch Climate Agreement of the day before into some kind of a success.

The inconvenient truth      … is that the Dutch Climate Agreement lacks global impact, except – of course – if it can impact global decision-making, either politically or in green business development, which remains to be seen. This morning the Trouw editorial pointed out that Dutch industry wants the Dutch tax payer to foot most of the bill of the industrial energy transition. That hardly seems fair, but then globalizing industry could also pack its bags for higher grounds, lower labour costs, fewer environmental laws. And leave The Netherlands a lot poorer. Perhaps industry and ethics are not each other’s favourite company (unless ethics is paid by industry or industry dresses like ethics).

Business ethics      … is largely limited to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, which by way of the market trickles down its profits more or less socially and – in the very long run – also plays a role in curbing human population growth by raising incomes and bringing health. There is much less concern of business for global environmental and ecological impacts as we can see in the destruction of tropical forests, the extinction of species such as the rhinoceros, and global warming, which threatens global agriculture and coastal populations. It doesn’t seem to matter whether business takes place in the context of a deregulated Anglo-Saxon model or the totalitarian Chinese system. Market forces relentlessly shape the activity of the invisible hand. Are these forces sacrosanct or can we bring them under control? Or is that a contradiction in terms, just like sustainable growth.

Whole-planet ecological consciousness      …, according to Ten Bos, must necessarily be the answer to our climate troubles. The reason is simple. In 1867, now 150 years ago, Marx wrote, not thinking of any climate-induced flooding:  “Après moi, le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.” Somehow, capitalism was able to transform itself into a benign system, although initially that seemed impossible. Wealth was not only generated, but also shared (after a while), leading to the demise of communism (unless the Chinese version could still be called that), demographic transitions (even to the point of declining populations), nature conservation, and democratic citizenship, holidays, education, mass entertainment etc.

Out of synch        The trouble here is that this social transition took place at the level of the nation state, whereas our environmental problems are of a global nature. Another thing is that the social transition only took place in the West, when the West ruled supreme. This ‘West’ shared centuries, if not millennia, of historical, philosophical and religious developments, making it more or less homogeneous and subject to the same contemporaneous social and intellectual forces. So the social transition took place at the level of the nation state in a more or less homogeneous part of the world, known as the West, in a period that the West knew few threats (apart from Comunism, Nazism and the like). The present world as a whole is not homogeneous at all, it is very, very much ‘out of synch’.

The environment game        .. is a book written by Nigel Calder (1931-2014) in 1967, in which he correctly predicted a world population of 9 billion in 2050. I think I bought it second hand in a Dutch translation in the early 1970s. In 1967 the world population was less than half of what is now, yet there were great concerns about agriculture feeding the world. By the time I ‘woke up’, there was the concert for Bangladesh (August 1971) followed by some of the more serious Sahel droughts of 1972-1974. And of course there had been famines in India in 1966-1967 (which led to the Green Revolution) and China in 1959-1961 (36 million died). Calder famously wrote: “If men were intended to work the soil they would have longer arms.” Calder combined trends (pollution, destruction of nature, automation of work, advances in bio-industrial production of food) to solve a combination of predicaments (food, population, nature, work). He didn’t solve the problem of leisure, though. Well, perhaps he did in a little way: I always liked his 1967 book for all its clever utopia-mongering (I borrowed this word from Arthur C. Clarke’s Report on Planet Three), so I reread it several times.

The weather machine   … is a 1974 BBC documentary, which is recalled in a 2007 Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle (you may like to watch from about 35m30s onward) with a special role for Nigel Calder since he was involved in both documentaries. The weather machine makes the point that an ice age is looming and CO2 may help prevent it. The great swindle suggests that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was perhaps not quite founded by Margaret Thatcher, but at least its creation was enormously advanced by her desire to create an energy-independent Britain with nuclear energy and destroy the mining unions. During my studies in the UK in the 1980s, that’s what I watched on television on a day to day basis: Scargill vs. Thatcher. Of course we also watched the Falkland War and Dallas.

Flood risk       One of the aspects of climate change is the threat of rising sea levels and associated flood risks (or perhaps we should already speak of certainty). Clearly the Dutch have reason for concern, living with 17 million people in an enormous delta that drains vast parts of continental North-Western Europe (Rhine, Maas, Schelde, IJssel). So a New Delta Plan has already been put into action to limit the risks until the end of the 21st Century to a minimum. The situation is very different in highly populated places such Bangladesh and most countries in South-East and East Asia, including China. More delta plans will be needed. The question remains to what extent we can or should shape deltas effectively, considering their complex geomorphological dynamics and the huge costs involved in protecting them.

The right non-separability        …. is at the root of all systems solutions. The basic assumption of the Dutch Climate Agreement (and the Paris Agreement to which it claims to contribute) is the close-coupling between climate and energy and the de-coupling of energy from CO2 emission/production. That’s just one kind of non-separability. It doesn’t say much about couplings with the rest of the world, globalized trade, world population growth, economic inequalities and so on. It is my humble view that we haven’t gone very far over the past half century, when the environment and global poverty became an issue. We need to invest in the capacity to address the climate issue. This can only be done by investments in getting the world more in synch without upsetting the golden goose, which is capitalism. This means we need to follow the basic rules of capitalism and combine them with innovative rules for igniting its transformative power.

Tricky truth      To me this boils down to a question of getting the world into synch: historically, philosophically and spiritually (to avoid the word religion, because that’s bound to divide us further). All three are about truth. Since the world is historically, philosophically and spiritually (and perhaps even racially) divided, we need some form of pluralistic truth with sufficient room for the partial truths of different parts of the world and sufficient concordance between these partial truths to create a politically effective pluralistic truth (without it turning into a totalitarian truth). An open-ended model for designing an appropriate response to the ‘human predicament’ has been described by Hasan Özbekhan (a systems thinker in the school of Churchman and Ackoff) in his 1970 proposal to the Club of Rome. When I say “open-ended model” I mean that it doesn’t make any assumptions beforehand about which forms of non-separability should prevail (e.g.  as suggested by me just now) or provide an overall framework. Any such assumptions can only emerge during the, no-doubt lengthy discussions during the design period (which may never end, especially if there is room for redesign and adjustments).

Implementation    … is key to systemic solutions. It is human to think systemically, i.e. to make observations of controversial separability (and become outraged or not). But to think systemically as well as effectively is where the real challenge lies. It means that we somehow have to identify the right non-separability, but also the right way of looking at that non-separability, and developing a way of handling that non-separability in a way that really (i.e. effectively) improves a problematic situation (or problématique), of mankind or at a much smaller scale (say of a nation like the Netherlands). Implementation is a central category in Churchman’s categorical framework for a dialectical systems approach. Read his books or watch his video. See also my transcript of his two-hour interview.

You can support my work (of writing an even more convincing sequel) by buying Wicked Solutions at Amazon.com. You will support me even more if you buy at Lulu’s. There is also a PDF at Gumroad for only $12. Your thinking will never be the same.


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C. West Churchman: a biographical concept map

Churchman during interview by Prof. Kristo Ivanov in April 1987.

Biographical summary      Churchman was born in Philadelphia (1) from Catholic parents in 1913. He was educated at Germantown Friends School in the Quaker tradition (2). As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania he was taught ethics (3) by Thomas Cowan, which kindled his taste for philosophy (4). He went on to obtain a PhD in philosophy (logic) under Edgar A. Singer (5), a notable Pragmatist, who himself had been taught by William James, one of the founders of the American philosophical school of Pragmatism. At one point Churchman learned statistics (6). Exactly why he did so is not entirely clear, but measurement and the proper interpretation of data is part of Pragmatist inquiry. Moreover, under the influence of Taylor’s scientific management, the application of statistics had real practical value, which must have generated an interest in the practically oriented Churchman. Coincidentally, after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Churchman volunteered (7) to work in the war effort at Frankford Arsenal (8), also in Philadelphia, where he used his knowledge of statistics to improve inspection procedures. This type of work was known during the war as military operations research. A lot of research took place during the war, including computer development, the development of linear programming and so on, some of which played an important role in his career. After the war several major companies saw the potential of computer-based operations research for a science of management or management science as it has become to be known since then. As a result of his war experience Churchman, together with Ackoff, became very active in its development (9) and co-authored the first textbook on industrial operations research in 1957. He was also among the first to acknowledge the limitations of this type of operations research, especially in terms of implementation (10). This and Edgar Singer’s inquiring system inspired him (11) to draw on his knowledge of Pragmatism (12) and philosophy in general – possibly also influenced by Dewey – to design his dialectical systems approach (14) for better understanding and fixing problematic situations. By the 1960s he had developed a profound sensibility for problématiques (13) as the combined result of character (conscientious), training (Quaker ethics, Pragmatism), work (operations research, management science) and history (World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, technological, industrial and scientific developments, Cold War, ecological movement). It could be argued that his systems approach was impracticable because it was given the form of a set of principles rather than a methodology (Churchman 1968, 1971, 1979). However, these principles remain valid to this day and have found their way in a great many modern management tools and practices and are likely to continue to guide or influence  management developments in the future.

Biographical core      The core of the concept map is Churchman’s design of the dialectical systems approach. He didn’t do that in one go. It took him three books or what we could call Churchman’s trilogy: The Systems Approach (1968), The Design of Inquiring Systems (1971) and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies (1979). The purpose of the dialectical systems approach is to help understand and thereby possibly fix problematic situations. Churchman had a strongly developed sense of what is problematic in a great deal of situations. Perhaps the systems approach will probably appeal most strongly to those who have also acquired somehow an acute sense of the problematic in situations they have been into during their (working) lives. That’s how it worked for me and that’s how it seems to have worked for Churchman.

Element of the systems approach        Some basic elements of Churchman’s systems approach can already be gleaned from this very short biography. I painted them light orange. I will work from the top downwards, starting with: (a) ethics, meaning here some idea that something has to change from “is” to “ought”, the question being what that “ought” ought to be? (b) Pragmatism, meaning that we can apply the question of “how things work?” or “what they do, really?” to all sorts of activities in business and society, raising the ‘effectiveness’ question; (c) inquiring system, meaning here some way of learning about reality, raising all sorts of questions, from the nature of reality to its meaning and what is the best way to learn about that? (d) problematic situations, which is actually a term coined by Dewey, means situations with ill-defined or ill-structured problems in them. Another way of saying this is that all problems in business and society have context, but before we can get to that we have to know which problems we are talking about. The requires an open-minded type of inquiry; (e) measurement, in the present context, is especially about the question how we can know that something works or doesn’t work, so what should we measure in order to know whether a particular intervention moves us in the direction of a less problematic situation? (f) dialectical value: the measurement question or the measurement results can form the start of a debate about facts or the best approximation of facts. Such a debate is best carried out by the key role players in a problematic situation, each having their own perspective on how their interests may be affected; (g) computers and models: when we try to improve a problematic situation, we use mental models of the way in which things hang together, to know which lever we have to pull. Sometimes these models are best implemented in a computer, because they are too complicated for the human mind. On the other hand, computer models tend to ignore many aspects that human minds are more capable of handling. It is the task of the planner to come up with the best possible model. The role of the planner can be fulfilled by an actual expert of some kind or – at least during part of the dialectics – by anybody involved in the problematic situation; (h) implementation can be quite a problem. Decision-makers may not at all like the wonderful plans designed by the planners. Or, in other terms: the model of the situation used by decision-makers can be quite different from the model of the planner. Note that the remark I just made about the role of the planner also applies to the role of the decision-maker; (i) management to Churchman is a very broad term: we manage our lives, executives manage businesses, professors manage their department, boards manage schools, a government manages a country, international politics manages the world. Management is about decision-making, especially about problematic situations when things go seriously wrong or threaten to do so relatively soon.

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Full transcription of 2-hour video interview with C. West Churchman

Screenshot from the video

Two days ago I posted a partial transcription of a 2-hour video interview with C. West Churchman. Today I completed the full transcription, so here it is, in PDF format (updated July 6, 2018). The interview can serve as an introduction to Churchman the systems philosopher with regard to his early, seminal work on operations research, but also to his later, even more original work on social systems thinking, which he called the dialectical systems approach. The video, which was recorded in April 1987, shows that after his retirement his ideas on some aspects of the dialectical systems approach continued to evolve, especially where the relationship between the planner and the decision-maker (or the researcher and the manager) is concerned. In his categorical framework that falls under the category of ‘implementation’. The interviewer was Professor Ivanov, to whom all West Churchman afficionados owe a deep debt of gratitude for having arranged and produced these videos.

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Transcript of interview with Churchman, part I

I like the interview so much (see previous post with links to the 1987 video) that I decided to produce a transcription and perhaps add a few notes. Here are the first 30 minutes. Over the next days or weeks I will add the remaining 90 minutes in 30 minute installments.

Introductory text

0m0s [on-screen introductory text] Professor C. West Churchman [CWC] of the University of California, Berkeley

Interviewed by professor Kristo Ivanov [KI] on April 30, 1987, at the University of Umea, Sweden – Department of Administrative Data Processing.

This interview was made during a visit of professor Churchman as guest researcher at the University of Umea in April-June 1987, following his being rewarded a honorary doctor’s degree in economic science in the autumn 1985.

A summary of professor Churchman’s life and work is given at the end of the recording. The background song “Der Lindenbaum” – music by Franz Schubert and text by Wilhelm Muller – is sung by professor Churchman himself! [end of on-screen text, start of the interview]

The human condition cause for concern

1m50s KI: Yes, I welcome professor West Churchman from the University of California, Berkeley, who is visiting us in Sweden today. And my first thought on such an occasion is to think about how many people during these years I have met who after reading and studying your work begin to think more and more intensively about the man behind the pages, who is this man and how does his life look like? What does he hope for and how he looks at his work and how he looks at his future work. I think perhaps it is best if I leave the introduction of the person to you yourself.

2m53s CWC: Well, thank you Kristo. I wish I have a ‘good’ introduction to myself, I might sound a bit more appreciative than I am at times. I guess I’ll describe what has bothered me as a philosopher all my life and that is what Hannah Arendt called the human condition. I think what she meant by that was the ways in which people live out their lives and in particular the lives they cannot live, they might have wanted to live because of social and environmental forces. After a bit of thinking about that, which I have to admit began in High School, a number of years ago I don’t want to mention, where I was taught by the Quakers to be concerned about the human condition as far as war is concerned. As you probably know the Quakers were not only anti-war, they were what we call peaceniks. But they also felt that one of the difficulties with the world today is the particular form of nationalism that has grown over the centuries. Each nation feeling that they at least ought to have the power to determine their own destiny and that thought led to their feeling that they ought to have the power to stop other nations from interfering. And if they felt that very strongly then they went to war on the matter if both sides felt that way. I think the Quakers did a reasonably good job of me and that I am agreeing that seems to be serious defect in the world systems. Not so much whether we have nations or not, but the kind of powers they have to decide whether to invade or defend against another nation. I don’t mind that I live in the area that I live in, Berkeley California, because it is beautiful and marvellous. But I don’t think I would go to war with Los Angeles if they decided to invade northern California. That’s not the feeling of nationalism I have. And then those reflections led to other reflections until I finally got to college and in my freshman year I took a course on ethics. That’s what it was called ‘ethics’ and as freshmen we had to figure out what that meant. And I took it from a man who was a highly successful philosophy teacher, Tom Cowan, and he would get us tremendously excited about these problems.

6m46s KI: So your thoughts were already about peace and war by that time?

Egoism versus altruism

6m53 CWC: By that time, yeah. But then, when I took that course on ethics I saw that generalized to a lot of other issues that I also had an ethical overtone to. For example, Tom introduced us to this whole question of altruism versus egoism. Most of us being young men and women of age eighteen had about discovered that there were lot of people who went about saying “number one is all that counts”, I being ‘number one’. But then there seemed to be a lot of people saying “No, that’s not true. One has to worry about the social system that you live in. And that’s probably more important than number one.” And so we had in that course almost violent arguments. We almost got to war on peace within the course, depending on whether we believed in egoism or altruism. And I was a good man, a good boy.

Ethics and systems are about the same thing

8m15s KI: So you also voted for altruism.

8m17s CWC: So I voted for altruism. Huh. And that led me over the years to the question “What is it to be an altruist, what does it [really] mean?” It seems simpler to say what it meant to be an egoist, because living in a country like the United States of America an egoist accumulates wealth, then he can use the wealth in any way he or she wants to. But what is to be an altruist? It is to love thy neighbour as thyself. But that didn’t seem to help me very much in describing the world, in which people had deep concerns about other people. And how was it .. that world constituted? I didn’t know at the time that it was the same question as “what is a system?” I didn’t find that out until much later. That those two questions “what is it to be a true altruist?” and “what is a system, a social system?” were about pretty much the same thing.

9m36s KI: Did you find this word system so to say by yourself during your search or did you already … it somewhere else?

‘System’ a better, more general term

9m45s CWC: Oh, I guess I heard it somewhere else. I read a lot of books. By the time we got down to twenty, twenty-five years ago it was being used for human societies. Of course one of its earlier uses was solar system, as the astronomers got interested in how the planets behaved with respect to the sun and how their moons behaved with respect to them and began writing down the laws of the solar system and then they thought of the word “system”, because it all seemed to hang together in some sensible way. So by the time you get to Kepler and Newton you seem to have a pretty good description of how the solar system works. Then it gradually dawned on people that it would be a better word than nation or organization or whatever, to use the word system for it. So I began thinking like a lot of other people did and ask “what makes a good system?” And that took me back to that word ethics. What does make a good system, anyway? And certainly during my lifetime I had a chance to see a lot of different systems. Nazi Germany was a system and that was run by a bunch of gangsters at the top who pretty much decided what people should be doing and if they were doing totally the wrong thing, like being Jews, then they ought to be eliminated. I didn’t like that definition. I grew up under FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and he was faced with a huge systems problem, when he came into office in 1933, because we just had a depression, the bottom had dropped out of the stock market, people were standing in soup lines [waiting for] food, railroad cars were dumping potatoes along their tracks and people were starving. That didn’t seem to be like a good system.

12m28s KI: Would you also include the word, not only organization, but also administration in this idea of systems understood as a way of improving the human condition?

12m44s CWC: Well, you are an expert on administration so. It’s a funny word. Ad-minister. When you are running a farm, you administer, you administer the cows, right? And traditionally, when you were administering, you were administering the people in the office, the typists, the accountants and so on. What did you do to them, when you administered to them. You made them do work that you that had to be done. That didn’t quite sound right to me, as a good definition. You made them do the work?

13m26s KI: I think that etymologically, if I am not mistaken, the word administer has to do with serving, it has to with minister, but minister in its turn has to do with serving.

13m42s CWC: I see, that’s how you defend your job, then. Make it sound better. You are serving somebody, not being made to do it. So, the boss comes and gives the secretary a letter and – she has to type the letter – but as she is typing it, she thinks: “I am serving .. my master.”

14m08s KI: I have the opportunity to serve.

Parts wor­king togeth­er for a com­­mon pur­pose

14m10s CWC: That’s part of a system all right. It finally began to dawn on me that there was a central question about the system, because all my colleagues were talking about ‘how the parts worked together to serve a common purpose.’ And that’s how systems got defined, after a while in the 1960s. A system is something consisting of a group of parts, including administrators, that serve together a common purpose. What was the common purpose? And naturally a lot of us younger people said that: “is the mafia a system?” They have a common purpose. Accumulation of wealth of some kind. Or General Electric. Or General Motors. And then, God help us, is the government in Washington a system? And I did a lot of thinking about that. I wondered how the parts got put together in Washington? And so I had, I went down to parts. They didn’t seem to work together in the way the carburettor with the gas tank works with other parts in the automobile to make it run. We have a department of the treasury, and that seems to me to be sensible enough. There is somebody worrying about money. And then we have a defence department, that seems all right, you need somebody to worry about our defences. And then we have a department of interior. That doesn’t say what it is. It just says it’s interior. It’s in the country. It’s worried about things inside the country. But it doesn’t say what it does. That’s like something in the automobile, called the ‘interior part’. That doesn’t make any sense.

16m28s KI: You were never tempted by that time to begin to study these things from inside a discipline, for instance political science or statistics, perhaps, in the old sense of the knowledge about the state?

Churchman the discipli­narian

16m44s CWC: Yeah, I did. I started out being the most utter disciplinarian you can imagine and that’s a logician. Boy, do we define that discipline. We said that we are basic, naturally, because if you are not logical then, God help you, you can’t do anything else. And so we had the boundaries laid out, and we had what you could do, and what you couldn’t do. Very specifically laid down. No discipline is nearly as precise as symbolic logic, [which] is what I worked on. And then I came to the conclusion that wasn’t getting anywhere.

17m29s KI: Would you have been a computer scientist, now, if there would have been computers by that time?

17m33s CWC: That might have happened to me, yeah, I might have gotten transformed into a computer scientist. God help me.

17m45s KI: Because people also think that computer science is the materialization of logical mathematics, is the basis of anything else.

Non-imple­men­tation of good ideas is a key  problem

17m51s CWC:  Yeah, so I decided that I had to do something useful. You see, we didn’t have computers in those days. We had hand computers of Marchant and Friden. Buy you didn’t need much logic to find a language to work those two machines. They were all manual. It might have happened to me, Kristo. I might have turned into a computer scientists. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and sweating all over that it might have been my fate to be a computer scientist. What I did decide to do was study mathematical statistics because I thought I could go out and help people in laboratories to handle their data better. And it was at that point that World War II came along and I did join the US Army Ordinance Laboratory and I preached the gospel of mathematical statistics to ignorant chemists and metallurgists and also developed inspection procedures that made ammunition in the field much safer. You get fewer misfires. But then World War II came to an end. And I had a great time in it. I sometimes feel ashamed of myself for enjoying it so much. And then the question was, now what I do in the world with this mathematical statistics, which is very confining too. And I decided that, no, I was going to learn how to plan. To really try to see how, well, let’s say, how a city is a system. How it is and how it should be. So I was back to my ethics. And I got a group together at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and we worked on the slum area of Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, trying to figure out why conditions in that area of the city were not satisfactory, trying to understand that. And I then discovered as I did during the war, that even if you have a good idea, “I know something you don’t know, you Kristo don’t know, and I know what to do to improve your conditions”, it doesn’t do me any good to tell you that, because you go on doing the same dumb thing. I don’t mean you, Kristo, it’s just a generalization. We call that implementation. And we had good ideas for South Philadelphia, but they weren’t implemented, by the mayor or anybody else.

20m53s KI: Is this something that psychoanalysts I suppose have been doing and those who substituted them before they came here.

Authority versus freedom

21m03s CWC: No [well] analysts and doctors in general. If you tell a patient what to do, he is not necessarily going to do it, especially if you tell him to stop taking drugs or alcohol or whatever. So then I realized that I was in the whole business of that what we called operations research, but now we call systems, systems theory, systems approach, whatever the word is. And I tried to figure out what goes into the study of a system, a human system, now. Not an astronomical one, because I had some idea how that worked, but what about a human system, like a traffic system, like a postal system, or in this country [Sweden] you have a fascination with food, you are not the only country that does, but you have a system to handle the handing out of food. It is different from my country. You have to learn, like learning a new language, to go to one of these service stores, find you way around. Why are there different systems for the same thing? And what is the role of authority? You asked about administration. What’s the role of authority in the system? Should there be people you what to do? And you have no choice. If you don’t do what they tell you to do, then you get punished. Is that part of the system? I wonder about that. Is that appropriate? In my country we talk, in the USA, we talk about freedom a lot, but there are an awful lot of things that are not free to do. You are driving an automobile and there is a red light in front of you, you cannot say “Oh God, I am tired of being told what to do. I am just going to go right through it.” Or you can do that, people do that in my country. They go right through the red light. When comes April 15th, we all have to pay income tax or else you get punished for not doing it. So that puzzled me too. When do you have authority and when do you have freedom.

Future gene­rations are part of the equation

And then, Kristo, in my office one day came some young man from NASA, as we call it, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and a friend of mine who was at the faculty of Berkeley and I introduced ourselves and said “what are you here for?” And he said “we have been assigned to a new application for NASA’s work for the satellites.” “Now, what’s that?” And they said “Well, the nuclear plants that we have put up since the late 50s and 60s and so on have a waste and that waste is, no matter what we do with it, using present technology, is dangerous [for] radiation, so we have been assigned the task of thinking what to do with it. Because you could bury it, but then an earthquake might occur and there it would be again, or you could take it to the South Pole and dump it through the ice and snow of the South Pole. But we have been assigned space applications.” And this friend of mine and I said, “Well, how long does this waste [stay] dangerous?” thinking they would say “a few years” that it would be all right again. The answer was “25.000 years” at that time. It has varied since. “25.000 years!!” I said. And then it just hit me, like that [snapping his fingers]. I hadn’t in my thought about systems thought about thousands of years to come. Isn’t this generation obligated to think about a thousand years or ten thousand years? What kind of world would future generations want to have? All because some character told me that this waste would go on for that period of time.

The case of world hunger

And subsequently I got because of my colleagues at Berkeley interested in hunger. And I discovered that something like a billion people are starving in the world today. And naturally by that time I began to ask my questions in a different way. Are they going to continue to starve? Is there going to continue to be not enough food to feed them? Oh no, said my respondent, there is already enough food. That isn’t the problem at all. I said, you mean there is enough food to feed everybody and we are starving a billion people? Yes, he said, that’s right, we are. And as far as the future is concerned we are going to continue to do that for hundreds of years. Now I was learning about systems, at last. It wasn’t a little matter of who administers, who sets the rules, who puts down freedom and so on. But future generations are being given a world, which is so bad, so lousy, as far as being a good system is concerned, it’s incredible. Naturally, I asked how this had happened, that we have enough food in the world to feed everybody and yet a billion people are starving. They are not all starving to death, but they are hungry all the time. And the answer was, the glib answer was ‘distribution’. He didn’t need to tell me that. Obviously, if there was enough food nearby, you ate it. So, how did it happen?

28m13s KI: As you put it, it sounds that it was then a problem of economics, or a problem of reason at least. Isn’t it that it could be understood by many people as a problem of evil, a problem of wisdom. And how does one approach the problem of evil. I am reminded that you are also philosopher from the beginning. You said something about logic, and you said something about statistics. But at the bottom there is the problem of wisdom and philosophy and even the problem of evil and religion, I guess.

28m54s CWC: Well, when I was a kid I used to watch Ronald Reagan, not as president of the United States, but as the town marshall of a Western town. And his task as marshall of the town, according to the movie, was to identify the good people in town and the evil people in town. So his systems problem was fairly easy. He was to figure out how to get rid of the evil people. Either run’em out of town or shoot’em. And then when you got rid of all those evil people you had a good system. Because that’s why, all that was left in town were the good people. That’s how I was educated about systems. Identify the evil people and then get rid of them, then you have a good system.

Problems not easy to identify

19m56s KI: I guess this does not work if you begin to think about the evil in each one of us. The evil inside ourselves.

30m06s CWC: You don’t want to think about that. Yes, not only that. But if you take a typical village in India, I am told, some people have the land, own the land, and some people do not. The people who own the land decide what to grow and who to hire. The people who don’t own the land have to do what the people who own the land say. And for a while the culture said that the land owners should feed the non-land owners, so that nobody starved in the village. It goes back to the principle enunciated in the New Testament and a lot of other sacred books: if one person is all in the community than all are ill. It is most explicitly stated in St. Paul’s Romans as a principle of how to live together and they lost that. And now the land owners ex-(VIDEO 2 0m0s)-port the grain and keep the workers in a semi-starved state. Are they evil? I don’t know. They are misguided, maybe? There’s no way it could be broken. I think the Indian government in New Delhi would like to have broken that and made sure that everyone in the village was adequately fed before you exported anything. But then there’s a caste system in India. Is that evil?

0m42s KI: Is that religion? Is that religion, I wonder? This takes us into the difficult matters of ultimate values. And what would we ourselves do in a similar position.

0m56s CWC: I get the feeling that if you give something a label, you got a solution.

[to be continued]

Notes    (I will follow the subheading in the transcript, which, by the way, are my own): (1) The human condition cause for concern: the starting point of systems thinking is always some deep concern. The most general form of that concern is about the human condition; (2) Egoism versus altruism: the concern about the human condition must be of the detached type; (3) Ethics and systems are about the same thing: the purpose of systems is to increase value; (4) ‘System’ a better, more general term: systems thinking tries to identify and apply general principles to all sorts of systems, be it a transport system, or a postal system, or a nation, or an organization or business; (5) Parts wor­king togeth­er for a com­­mon pur­pose: it is important to recall that systems thinking is about increasing value; (6) Churchman the discipli­narian: Churchman mentions this because he would become a staunch anti-disciplinarian 2 or 3 decades later; (7) Non-imple­men­tation of good ideas is a key  problem: One of the good ideas Churchman had was for improving small-arms ammunition by means of statstoics. It took him about a year to get his new inspection regime, which must have saved many allied lives, implemented; (8) Authority versus freedom: this is about the question who can decide anything and the need for multiple perspectives for the best, i.e. most systemic intervention; (9) Future gene­rations are part of the equation: the increase of value by a system has clients or beneficiaries. It is important not to look at short-term benefits only, but also to look at long-term effectiveness; (10) The case of world hunger: this is always a good example to illustrate what systems thinking is about; (11) Problems not easy to identify: this is important, because if we don’t no what the problem is then we can’t formulate a solution or worse still, we can’t even formulate the purpose of a solution or intervention.

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Interview with C. West Churchman (video)

As far as soft or social systems thinking is concerned, the Big Three are – alphabetically – Ackoff, Checkland and Churchman. Searches for ‘Ackoff’ or ‘Peter Checkland’ in YouTube get you a number of hits with presentations. C. West Churchman (the hero of this CSL4D blog) is more difficult to find. In fact it is only two days ago that I came upon a set of four videos in archive.org in which I could finally see and hear Churchman talk. The interview (about 2 hours) was recorded on April 30, 1987, on occasion of Prof. West Churchman’s sabbatical guest stay at the department of Informatics of Umeå University. The interviewer (left) is Prof. Kristo Ivanov. The screenshot below is of video VTS 01 1 (archive.org) at 28m48s. The videos are perhaps best downloaded from www8.informatik.umu.se/~kivanov. A suitable video player (VLC Media Player) for the .VOB format of the videos can be downloaded from http://videolan.org. The discussions are wide ranging. They really show who Churchman was and how he thinks and why, especially why. Don’t miss it! There is wisdom in the man. He is a hero.

The human condition      To Ivanov’s first question (who he is, what he thinks, and what his plans are?), Churchman answers that his primary concern has always been that of the human condition, which is also the title of Hannah Arendt’s most influential work. Of course, Churchman’s angle on the human condition is one of management in the broadest sense, i.e. with a view to answer the question of how people can live lives they really want, because they generally don’t. It may be a coincidence, but The Human Condition was published in 1958, which is the year after Churchman had published the Introduction to Operations Research (with Ackoff and Arnoff), which already contains a number of systems ideas that would eventually find their way in his 1968 book The Systems Approach. In the same period there was another momentous event: the start of the Space Race with the Russian launch of the Sputnik I in 1957, which led to the creation of ARPA (which much later resulted in ARPAnet, predecessor of the Internet – Ivanov refers to it as telematic networks-, and e-mail) and NASA, which financed the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) at Berkeley. The second administrator of NASA – from 1961 to 1968 – was James E. Webb. From 1963 to 1969, NASA received more than 2% of the federal budget and at its peak, in 1965, it employed more than 400,000 of the best and brightest. The SSL programme was a campus-wide interdisciplinary one, originally limited to the physical, biological, and engineering sciences. In those very early 1960s, Churchman had already moved to California and he managed to squeeze in his social sciences programme into the NASA-financed SSL programme. For one-and-a-half decade it gave him the resources and the freedom to develop his transdisciplinary systems ideas with the help of lots of people, including e.g. Horst Rittel. West’s Seminar in 652 Barrows Hall was a highly popular weekly event, among both students and Nobel Prize winners.

Implementation   One of the things that Churchman emphasizes in this interview is the paramount importance of implementation. Implementation is one of the key categories in Churchman’s inquiring system. In the video he refers in particular to a paper he wrote with A. H. Schainblatt in 1965, The researcher and the manager (i.e. the planner and the decision-maker in Churchman’s categorical scheme), see also here. In it they distinguish four concepts: the separate-function position (operations researcher builds his model and recommends action to manager), the communication position (explain stuff to the manager), the persuasion position (explain stuff to the researcher), and the mutual understanding position (collaborative). The last position is the only one that does not violate the principle of non-separability, which is elementary to Churchman’s systems approach. Werner Ulrich, in his Critical Heuristics (which is based on Churchman’s categorical framework, see my combination of the two), replaces the category of implementation with the category of knowledge. This is an interesting idea (because it simplifies the framework), but it is unlikely that Churchman would approve, even though it could be argued that knowledge may well include knowledge for implementation and Ulrich’s purpose is critical (of planners) not dialectical (between key actors and the roles they play). Churchman also mentions that he would no longer give his last major book (The Systems Approach and Its Enemies) the same title. Managerial ‘politics’ – which is one of the enemies – is simply very hard to grasp by researchers, no matter how smart, good willing and well versed in mathematics they are. The systems approach is very promising and indeed necessary, but its effective adoption and implementation remains a wicked problem.

Future generations         At some point – probably in the mid-1960s – Churchman was asked by somebody from NASA to look into the issue of nuclear waste. The point was that nuclear plants that had been commissioned in the 1950s and 1960s produced a lot of this type of waste and it was quite dangerous. One idea was to put it deep underground, but that seemed dangerous too, with earthquakes and all that. Another idea was to bury it under 2 km of ice on the South Pole, but that too seemed tricky (at the time melting ice caps were not yet an issue, but even then …). Finally Churchman asked for how long nuclear waste would remain dangerous: he was told that it was 25.000 years. At that moment it “hit” him that the systems approach needed to take future generations into account. Two decades later, in the 1980s, Churchman had grown very concerned about the future. He was certain that the way things are managed by the ‘human system’ (hunger, poverty, population growth, militarism, nationalism) will almost inevitably lead to a terrible holocaust in 200 years’ time (so by the end of the 22nd century). In all his years as a consultant he had found only one organization with a concern for future generations: the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s a start, but clearly not enough.

The systems idea      Churchman explains where the idea for systems and systems thinking came from, as far as he was concerned (systems ideas had been around much longer). Churchman had been working in operations research for many years. this had started during the Second World War, just after Pearl Harbour, so December 1941, when he volunteered to work at the Frankford Arsenal, at the time the largest small-arms ammunitions factory in the United States. It went on throughout most of the 1950s at Case Institute of Technology. It was a time when mathematics (algorithms) became commonplace for simulating business operations, computers quickly became more advanced, and the mechanical calculators of Marchant and Friden were discarded. It dissatisfied him, because the modelling went very well, but the recommendations that followed from the modelling were rarely implemented. Models were unable to simulate real decision-making. The systems idea was an attempt to go beyond models and get to grips with ‘systems as a whole’. It was clear early on that the systems idea could be applied to all sorts of systems, be they nations, organizations, businesses, universities, government departments or even humanity as a whole, the human system. About his work at the Frankford Arsenal he mentions fleetingly that he discovered what had to done to improve ammunition production, but that it was very difficult to get the idea accepted by the decision-making brass. If I recall well it took him a year and hard pleading to convince the right guy in Washington.

Knowledge management        Churchman has published hundreds of articles in his life. Churchman was also the founding editor of Management Science in 1953 to step down in 1960. In his mind the usefulness of the journal was hampered by a lack of papers that not only described models, but also their relationship to application or implementation. He concluded that managers have a totally different world view from that of researchers. Managerial concerns are eminently practical, such as meeting next month’s payroll demands. The complexities of decision-making are such that it is virtually impossible to model it properly or describe it in such a way that practical generalizable wisdom can be obtained by the reader. This concurs with my own experience at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam about half a century later, when we attempted to share online successful cases of advisory work by our senior consultants. The cases simply left out most if not all the interesting stuff that explained how implementation was achieved.

Names in the interview       Names of people and organizations that are mentioned in the interview, in order of appearance: Hannah Arendt, Tom Cowan, Kepler, Newton, FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), Marchant and Friden (manufacturers of mechanical calculators), NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), Ronald Reagan, Saint Paul’s Romans, The Club of Rome, Jay Forrester (MIT), Aurelio Peccei, Immanuel Kant, Carl Gustaf Jung, Joseph Campbell, Edgar A. Singer Jr., William James, Joe McClosky, Koopman, Roger Crane, A. Schainblatt, Russell Ackoff. (This list is shown at the end of video 4, as are below biographical notes, presumably composed by Prof. Ivanov).

Biographical notes         The Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Umea, Sweden, decided in 1985 to appoint Professor Emeritus Charles West Churchman at the University of California, Berkeley, honorary doctor of economic science. West Churchman was born in 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. He is today one of the main representatives and critics of systems theory considered as a research method at the interface between natural science, technology and the human sciences, especially ethics.  His PhD was in symbolic logic. He has been professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and Wayne University, and professor of engineering administration at the Case Institute of Technology and then business administration at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1963 he was appointed research philosopher at the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley and he was acting chairman at the Center for Research in Management Science at Berkeley. He was one of the founders of a research institute of city planning and has been director of research and chairman of the board in several organizations. Professor Churchman who is, by the way, already honorary doctor of philosophy at the University of Lund, is a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and of the American Statistical Association, editor-in-chief and former president of the Institute of Management Sciences, as well as a member of the Operations Research Society, the Philosophy of Science Association and the American Philosophical Association. He has authored about ten books, some hundred other publications, and edited many books and articles including Philosophy of Science and Management Science. He is honorary chairman for life of a new department at Berkeley, Peace and Conflict Studies. West Churchman started his academic career in the area of mathematical logic that together with digital electronics and mathematics constitutes the basis for the development of computer software. During the war he was active within the defence effort with statistics and applied mathematics. That awakened his interest for economic science and for questions of social science. From this period originates one of his first and most important books in a time when mathematics were the fashionable sciences: Theory of Experimental Inference (1948). This development resulted in West Churchman’s becoming one of the pioneers who launched operations research and management science. It became a synthesizing concept for the attempts to attack practical problems and support decision making with the help of quantitative and interdisciplinary methods. From this period originates the book that made both operations research and the names of the pioneers known all over the world: Introduction to Operations Research (1957) co-authored together with R.L. Ackoff and E.L Arnoff. The military and technological industrial interests for the ‘harder’ mathematical-logical and quantitative aspects of operations research dominated, however, very soon all other aspects. Within a few years operations research turned into an abstract formal research area isolated from the social sciences reality that stood at the center of the pioneers’ original intentions. Following the themes of his studies in philosophy, churchman continued his interest for economic science and for questions of values in science, often in low-keyed but sharp polemics against those who advocated the possibility and need of strict separation between facts and values, natural science and social science. His methodological development starts from American philosophical pragmatism and especially from one of its branches named empirical idealism. The book that most adequately represents this stage of development, in a time when the world spoke about economic decision theory, information processing, problem analysis, administrative rationalization, etc, is Prediction and Optimal Decision (1961). It represents an attempt to re-vitalize the original idea of operations analysis by means of a criticism of oversimplified economic utilitarian thought. Churchman tried subsequently to develop an applied economic science directed towards global problems such as militarism, poverty and pollution, in a spirit that recalls J. Bentham’s attempt to apply economics to the criminal justice systems. The concept of opportunity cost, that Churchman considers as the most important concept of applied economics, cannot be reduced to simpler concepts but rather takes us into larger contexts – or systems – including political reality. ‘Analysis’ and traditional probability thinking, are consequently not the right way for systems planning and for studies of normative decision-making. Churchman rejects therefore utilitarianism (Hume, Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, etc.) as ethical basis for economic theory and prefers instead to use the concept of justice or equity (Kant). One consequence of all this is that Churchman – who by the way could be considered a statistician as well as a philosopher – questions several of the basic concepts that are often taught and applied in a thoughtless way in these disciplines, e.g. tests of hypotheses, confidence intervals, cost-benefit analysis and logical deduction. In general he finds that it was a serious 19th century strategic mistake to subdivide human knowledge into club-like disciplines with their own rules of admission and membership. These thoughts are to be found in Churchman’s later work and in his development of operations research’s original idea into a systems theory. the systems approach allows one to describe and understand the context and functions of complicated activities through many but reciprocally dependent parts or subsystems. Churchman’s socially oriented systems theory is also an organization theory or theory for administrative development (rationalization). It was first presented in two books that were written in more accessible language, oriented towards educated laymen, business people, and the public in general: The Systems Approach and Challenge to Reason (both published 1968). They were widely read and the constituted the bridge to Churchman’s later deeper information systems oriented work: The Design of Inquiring Systems – Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization (1971). it translates the original ambitions of statistics and operations research into information and computer language in the age of computer revolution systems, databases, computer simulations, administrative systems development, artificial intelligence, expert- and support systems etc. During the latest years Churchman has dedicated a sizable amount of his efforts to studies of conditions for peace and to the possibilities to prevent famine in the developing countries e.g. better food distribution. He has at the same time studied from a philosophical and scientific point of view the criticism and resistance to the systems approach. This was done in a couple of books which also have in part an autobiographical character: The Systems Approach and its Enemies (1979) and Though and Wisdom (1982). Churchman appears now to be working on a manuscript of a book with the preliminary title Counting and Caring that so-to-say closes the circle to his early interest for statistics and economic science considered in a humanistic perspective. West Churchman represents an alternative to Herbert A. Simon’s works, and hence another mainstream of modern thought in economic and social science and in the view of administrative systems development that supports theory-building in administrative data-processing. His life-time work is of extreme importance for all those disciplines and academic initiatives that, like administrative data processing, systems science and computer-economics’ attempt to connect the explosive technological development to social science, behavioural science, and to the humanities. His research has been relevant for such disparate applications as space technology, city planning, health planning and consumer economy, as well as peace and conflict in the world. His disciples and international network of contacts reach to Central Europe and so-called developing countries in the Far East and South America. During almost 30 years he has constituted a point of contact and a source of inspiration for many Swedish researchers in several of the social sciences. (This note is shown at the end of video 4).

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Linear and non-linear causality

Systems thinking and the nature of reality

Complexity Labs         In my last post I made use of a concept map of linear management, which I had made in January 2013. It was fairly neat and simple and all that with a lot of explanatory power. I used it as a contrast to non-linear management, especially of wicked problems. It satisfied me at the time, but it did not answer all questions. Linear management is one thing, but does that mean there are linear and non-linear systems? Or linear and non-linear problems? What about causality and correlation in complex situations? How exactly should we understand them? I finally googled ‘causality’ and ‘correlation’ in Youtube, which brought me to a ComplexityLabs video. I happen to have a fetish for word combinations for 14 letters, so ComplexityLabs (about) was right for me. They have their own video channel, which I highly recommend (here). Why would I do that? Well, I watched two video’s (causality and non-linear causality), got to the bottom of them using concept maps, and was very happy with what I had learned.

Gordian knot        One of the reasons why systems thinking is hard to grasp is because it has so many facets and these facets are intertwined. Systems learning is about problematic situations or wicked problems, but is itself also a wicked problem. It is like cutting the Gordian Knot. Of course most learning is like that, although systems learning may be more so than some other fields of learning. It is often said that the best way of learning is by doing or playing. Which is why Bob Williams and I wrote Wicked Solutions. Once you have some practical insights of the knot’s innards you may attempt to untie it. This still applies, but you can also read on and see what I made of the whole knotty business.

Causality      What follows here is a description of the red-framed top part of my concept map (below) of a ComplexityLabs video (here), which you may like to watch first. It will only take 10 minutes of your time and is quite entertaining. Linear causality is a way of describing how humans experience and create change in its more common, linear form. What we observe is that one or more events are unidirectionally followed by one or more other events. If this happens regularly, we call the first event ‘cause’ and the ensuing event ‘effect’, but philosophers tend to disagree on the reality of the concept of causality. Plato says that without causality there is nothing, whereas Hume says causality is all make-believe. Kant turned it into one of his twelve a priori categories of human understanding. “For many years both scientists and statisticians were reluctant to even say the word ‘causation’.” (Kenny 2004, 3). Judea Pearl, perhaps better known as the father of the beheaded Wall Street Journal bureau chief Daniel Pearl, resolved this by positing three conditions for causality: 1. time precedence; 2. relationship; and 3. non-spuriousness. The first is simple, the second involves statistics and all the associated boundary conditions to make it work, the third (non-spuriousness) is all about the difficulty of avoiding confounding variables, also known as the “third variable problem.” A third, unknown or ignored, factor may be the actual cause of a relationship: so the sales of sunglasses and icecream are correlated, but the cause is nice, sunny weather.

Determinism       A fundamental, paradigmatic problem with linear causality is its necessary tendency to reductionism: “any theory or method that holds that a complex idea, system, etc, can be completely understood in terms of its simpler parts or components” (Collins English Dictionary). This leads rather naturally to (a belief in) determinism: “the philosophical doctrine that all events including human actions and choices are fully determined by preceding events and states of affairs, and so that freedom of choice is illusory.” So, indirectly, the emphasis on linear causality leads to two things: a belief in the undisputable facts of science. This is of little consequence in the physical world, where science and technology have worked great wonders by using a controlled, closed-system approach. It becomes quite controversial in the social world of open systems. Which brings is to the blue-framed, bottom part of the concept map, which deals with non-linear causality. You may prefer to watch the ComplexityLabs video on non-linear causality first (here).

Non-linear causality        …. occurs when event(s) interact bi-directionally with each other. A key characteristic non-linear causality is feedback, which comes in three forms: 1. self-reinforcing loops; 2. micro-macro dynamics; and 3. reverse causation. The first one is the best known. Self-reinforcing (as well as stabilizing) loops occur in causal loop diagrams and system dynamics. They can lead to disproportional outcomes (e.g. the well-known butterfly effect), which in turn leads to indeterminism. Indeterminism is enhanced by the fact that non-linear causality is typical of open systems, which – provided they are sufficiently complex – have an almost infinite number of seemingly insignificant initial situations that may trigger an equally infinite number of self-reinforcing processes.

Inter-relationships, perspectives, boundaries     This is the ‘war cry’ or ‘haka’ of the Wellingtonian Bob Williams, who explored the potential of these three core systems concepts in two books, including Systems concepts in action, and many workshops (see e.g. here, where he explains the origins of the three concepts, and here). The thee concepts can be found in the top-left purple frame within the blue non-linear causality frame. What we see is that open systems (including social systems) lack a definitive boundary. We don’t know what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ (e.g. event D). This can only be settled by an inquiry in which multiple perspectives debate their perception of the open system, which is best understood as a whole of non-linear causal inter-relationships. Since feedback is an essential characteristic of these inter-relationships, debate participants must look into self-reinforcing processes, micro-macro dynamics and instances of reverse causation. These are in turn linked to setting the right goals and other patterns involved in downward causality. Because of the principle of equifinality, pathways to achieve these goals are not fixed. Since debate (or dialectic or critique) is the basic way in which open systems (including wicked problems) are to be managed, then Bob’s ‘haka’ concepts are a good way of circumscribing its operationalization.

On the nature of causality       … is the title of a marvellous presentation (here) by George F.R. Ellis, emeritus distinguished professor of complex systems from Capetown, South Africa, which he delivered during the 16th Kraków Methodological Conference “The Causal Universe” on May 17-18, 2012. In it he distinguishes five types of downward causation: (1) algorithmic top-down causation; (2) top-down causation via non-adaptive information control; (3) top-down causation via adaptive selection (evolution); (4) top-down causation via adaptive information control; and (5) intelligent top-down causation (the human mind). To explain this in simple terms Ellis (and ComplexityLabs, too) uses Russell Ackoff’s aircraft metaphor by asking ‘why does it fly?’ There are four explanations (i) the bottom up view: Bernouilli’s theorem; (ii) the top down view: it was designed that way; (iii) the same level view: the pilot is flying according to a timetable; and (iv) the topmost view: it is profitable (or people want/need to fly etc.). The key point is that simultaneous multiple causality (inter-level, as well as within each level) is always in operation in complex systems.

Alexander the Great       … was taught by Aristotle, so he may have learned some of these ideas about causality. Aristotle distinguished four causes (a) material: that out of which’; (b) formal: ‘the form’, ‘the account of what it-is-to-be’; (c) efficient: ‘the primary source of the change or rest’; and (d) final: ‘the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done.’ Ellis contends that Aristotle’s categorization can be adapted to correspond exactly to the four explanations why the plane flies (material->Bernouilli, formal->design, efficient->timetable, final->profit). If Alexander really cut the Gordian Knot, he was spoiling the clue. But maybe he didn’t: according to some, Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin, exposing the two ends of the cord and allowing him to untie the knot without having to cut through it. We will never know, but I sure hope so. There is much that the world owes to Hellenism and its efforts to disentangle the world’s complexity in a rational way. Where would we be without free trade, great libraries, free speech and free thought? I am pretty sure we wouldn’t have systems thinking as a discipline and as a tool for better understanding the world, politics, business and humankind itself.

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