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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Definitions of systems and systems thinking

There are no simple definitions of systems and systems thinking (Monat & Gannon 2015) that are sufficiently rich to clarify what they are essentially about. So instead, I will offer a circumscriptive definition in three parts and add a small concept map to go with it. This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners. 

Systems thinking       …. is the selection and application of more or less general systems methods or systemic problem solving tools to examine, debate, model, and modify systems structures, which underlie systems behavior. Systems thinking serves to identify and improve or understand the system behavior of a broad range of open systems.

Open systems      … consist of sets of at least two parts, elements, components or subsystems that are characterized by at least one interrelationship. The distinction between an open system and its environment is conceptualized by the system boundary. Open systems interact with their environment by receiving input and generating output.

Social systems    ….are open systems involving human actors (in roles as client/beneficiary, decision-maker, planner, see my ‘Concept map of Churchman’s categorical scheme for the inquiring system of a dialectical systems approach‘), who often have diverging, partially perceptive perspectives, which – in combination – may help them perceive non-linear systems behavior more fully. All humans are capable of systems thinking to varying degrees. Systems methods can amplify more mundane forms of systems thinking.

Non-linear patterns      … are what need to be changed in the case of (wicked) problems. These patterns are formed by inter-relationships connecting the various parts or subsystems. A well-known set of non-linear patterns is formed by Senge’s (or Kim’s) systems archetypes. In social systems these inter-relationships are intricately linked to the values of the actors involved. Aspects defining the problem situation include processes, world views, purposes, uncertainties, conflicts, and motivations. Some of the aspects are qualitative rather than quantitative.

Key operational concepts     …. are inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. Inter-relationships and perspectives need to be mapped. Different perspectives must be combined to map them properly. Once a sufficiently comprehensive map is available the boundary of the system can be debated to rank inter-relationships and perspectives in terms of relevance with a view to understanding and changing the non-linear patterns. A simple method for learning how to handle inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries can be found in Wicked Solutions.

You can support my work (of writing an even more convincing sequel, of which this post is a part) 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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The capability approach to social system design

This is my third and probably last consecutive blog post on the capability approach in about one-and-a-half week (here are 1 and 2). The capability approach was first articulated by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in the 1980s. He has collaborated closely with philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has provided the most influential version of a capability theory of justice. For more information see Thomas Well’s article on Sen’s Capability Approach. What interests me is the conceptual relationships between individualist foundation of the capability approach, freedom, development and the systems approach, especially C. West Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. I will make use of Nussbaum’s understanding of Aristotle’s ethics.

Social systems        …. can be anything, from a family to an enterprise, a project, a nation, a world region, or even an individual on his own, considering the complexities of the human subconscious. Churchman uses the term social systems a lot, most of the time in the short form ‘systems’ as in ‘the systems approach’ or ‘inquiring systems’. Aristotle was thinking mostly of the Hellenic city-state, the polis, as it had evolved from the 8th century BC onward (pdf with transcript of lecture on Nicomachean ethics here). In most of Sen’s research the social system corresponds to the nation state, especially in Asia and Africa.

Capability deprivation    … is the way in which Sen describes poverty. Nussbaum’s list of 10 central human capabilities is described here. So a landless farmer in India lacks control over his environment, he also suffers of poor health, especially poor reproductive health if most of his children die or suffer of growth retardation. Sen stresses the need to abolish ‘unfreedoms’ such   as   poverty,   famine,   starvation,   undernourishment,   tyranny,   poor   economic opportunities, systematic social deprivation,  neglect  of  public  facilities,  intolerance,  and  over-activity of repressive states. That’s quite something else than just having a low income. In the adjacent concept map I grouped Nussbaum’s list of capabilities in three categories: health (with three capabilities), reason (with two capabilities), and sense-making as in ‘making sense of one’s life or behavior in relation to certain choices’ (five capabilities).

Sensemaking     The five sense-making capabilities in my categorization are imagination/thought, emotions, affiliation, nature/other species, and play. They are social-emotional-creative in nature and seem to be loosely associated with developing an understanding of oneself as a self-actualizing human in relation to the middle layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (the ‘pyramid’). In a previous post I linked the concept “sense of meaning” to 5 of the 10 capabilities. It is clear, though, that it is not self-evident to map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities, let alone to add a term like sensemaking to indicate the subset of capabilities that are not mostly physical (health) or rational (practical reason, management/control) in nature. That’s a lot of caveats, all for the sake of simplification to enable a better understanding.

Teleology      Self-actualization in the Maslowian sense may correspond roughly with a sense of one’s inner telos in the Aristotelian sense, which may guide one to leading a more full and complete life. Aristotle’s ethics are based on a teleological philosophy, which claims that the things around us have natural ends or purposes (sing.: telos), which are expressed or represented by their proper functioning. Health is a precondition for following one’s telos, while reason, especially practical reason, is one’s main tool, mostly by means of deliberation. Churchman argues that generally it is much easier to understand humans in teleological terms than by using mechanical categories (Systems approach and its enemies, p. 39).

Development   … is the core aim of international co-operation. The concept of development is not always well explained or understood. Development is in the first place associated with the creation of social systems (systems with people in them, see above). In the case of an agricultural development system in the South this may include a broad range of subsystems, including a natural ecosystem, an irrigation and drainage system, an agricultural mechanization system, an agricultural research system, a farmer communication system, an agricultural extension system etc. At a higher level there may be a political system, an administrative system, a health system, an education system, an economic system. All of these systems must work together synergistically for the best result. Development is also the managed increase in freedoms and capabilities to allow people to create more development in sense 1. Some freedoms and capabilities are in themselves gratifying and therefore worthy of development. That’s meaning 3.

Deliberation     …. Is a relatively slow process of weighing and examining pros and cons (and systemic inter-relationships using stakeholder perspectives) in decision-making. It assumes that Nussbaum’s 10 capabilities are sufficiently operational, especially when it comes to fathoming the inner telos of the key stakeholders and the rational understanding of the social systems concerned. Fathoming the inner telos is a whole-person issue with many dimensions, including personal and interpersonal ones related to credibility, validity, probability (or uncertainty), realism (idealism/materialism), trust, honesty, faith, expertise, motivation, attitudes, intentions, world views, personal growth and so on.

Design       People design themselves and the systems they live in. They have done so for the past 3 to 5 million years (see here). It is relatively fast non-evolutionary change that takes place on an evolutionary foundation. Design principles must take into account both the biological and psychological (so social) capabilities. The capability approach exhibits some of these principles, but so does the systems approach. The first is more people-oriented, the second more systems oriented. They are both generally applicable to problem situations such as development problems. There seems to be no particular difficulty that might prevent their combined application. In the case of the systems approach one can use the capability approach to look at the position of the beneficiary or client category. In the case of the capability approach one can use the dialectical systems approach to structure the deliberation. Try it, e.g. using a simple version of the dialectical systems approach as explained in Wicked Solutions.

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The capability approach, Aristotle, and the systems approach

Last week I blogged a post on the capability approach. I mentioned the two versions of the capability approach, the original one by Sen and the more Nicomachean version of Nussbaum. The term Nicomachean refers to Aristotle’s ethics, which Nussbaum is an acclaimed expert of and which must have influenced her take on the capability approach. Aristotle’s teleological ethics dominated Western thought for almost 2000 years, so there must be something to it. Strange then that I knew so little about it. In fact, until last week, I was hardly interested. Here follows my understanding of the relationship between Nussbaum’s angle on the capability approach, the Nicomachean ethics of Aristotle, and Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. Churchman hardly mentions Aristotle in his works, but he does consider his systems approach to be teleological in nature.

Nussbaum’s capabilities        Martha Nussbaum has written mostly about feminism and the capability approach (see here). In this post I will focus on what she calls the central capabilities. Her list of 10 central human capabilities is described here. They are: (1) Life; (2) Bodily Health; (3) Bodily Integrity; (4)  Senses, Imagination, and Thought; (5) Emotions; (6) Practical Reason; (7)  Affiliation; (8 ) Other Species; (9) Play; and (10) Control Over One’s Environment. I have played around with them in the blue box of below concept map. I changed the terminology a bit. Number 4 was changed in ‘imaginative expression’, number 5 was changed into emotional growth, and number 10 was changed into co-management. To me management implies control and co-management implies the social aspect of it. The capabilities are in Nussbaum’s view the necessary preconditions for individual freedom and development. This has implications for the way in which we promote societal freedom and development.

Freedom and development     The capabilities are in Nussbaum’s view the necessary preconditions for individual freedom and development. This has implications for the way in which we promote societal freedom and development. In order to be able to shape the political conditions for development basic human rights such as the right of political participation, and the protection of free speech and association must be guaranteed. This includes legal protection. Practical reason entails entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance. The capability of social affiliation provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin. Bodily integrity implies having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction. Education in one form or another is crucial in stimulating imaginative expression and enabling practical reason. Practical reason can design justifiable plans to organize the co-management of environment whilst showing full concern for the other central capabilities. To all this I added systems thinking as one of the approaches to help practical reason to make good plans in a complex world, which seems to be the case even at the individual level.

Nicomachean ethics        … is quite a mouthful, but is not as difficult as it may seem at first. Besides it is about things we all have to deal with and think about, such as character, virtues, good habits and happiness or well-being (‘eudaimonia’). The name may have somehow come from Aristotle’s son, Nicomachus, who was named after Aristotle’s father. The Nicomachean ethics are based on a teleological philosophy, which claims that the things around us have natural ends or purposes (sing.: teleos), which are expressed or represented by their proper functioning. Humans have three categories of functions: vegetative, animal and human ones (see concept map or my post on Schumacher, a Thomist). The main teleos of the human functions is practical reason (or practical wisdom), which uses deliberation to examine and decide on options for human behaviour, ideally to enable living a more full, complete life. The human functions include moral and intellectual values, which are complex skills such as justice, courage, and temperance. Human character is what unifies these virtues in a way to balance the rational, emotional, and social areas of living. We must somehow acquire the necessary inner dispositions (or virtues). That is not always easy or obvious.

Systems approach       Now, 2368 years after it was written, Aristotle’s ethics still makes a lot of sense. And I have just scratched the surface of it (also using a lecture by Arthur Holmes, recorded on video in the 1980s and available here, highly recommended, just 35 minutes of your time!!!!). Richard Kraut, in his article on Aristotle’s ethics, speaks of an innovative “systematic examination of the nature of happiness, virtue, voluntariness, pleasure, or friendship.” I would prefer to call it systemic, because he also points out that “what we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.” Anything that is considered “as a whole” is considered systemically. My conclusion is that if human well-being requires a whole-system appreciation, both personally and socially, then the dialectical systems approach (see e.g. here) may well provide a generally applicable method for starting the necessary deliberation. This seems especially true since both Aristotle’s ethics as well as Nussbaum’s capabilities are highly systemic in nature. Another, more simple way of looking at all this is by taking all this in, both ethics and capabilities, and use them as general insights to be used in one’s application of the systems approach whenever the need arises. You may find both approaches useful. Just try it. With or without the help provided in ‘Wicked Solutions‘.

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The capability approach and the systems approach

In the world of international development Amartya Sen’s capability approach is well known, especially for its adoption by UN policy makers to formulate and justify the Millennium Development Goals and their successor set, the Sustainable Development Goals. The MDGs have been criticized for lacking an economic underpinning of the health, nutrition and education objectives, thus leading to unsustainable development. Having a background in international development myself, be it mostly from an agricultural perspective, I wanted to see if this critique was fundamental to the capability approach itself or whether it was just in its application. I picked up a serious introductory overview paper (Robeyns 2005) and produced a concept map (below), which I will describe. At the end I will add a few comments from the systems approach perspective.

 Amartya Sen       … is an Indian from West Bengal. He was born in 1933 on the campus of a university, where his father was teaching. The university had been founded by Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (acceptance speech), and who gave Sen his first name, Amartya, meaning immortal one or immortal soul. Sen became a Nobel laureate himself in 1998. His Nobel lecture about social choice theory can be found here. The theory of social choice asks whether it is possible to find a rule that aggregates individual preferences, judgments, votes and decisions in a way that satisfies minimal criteria for what should be considered a good rule (i.e. of a ‘good society’). The capability approach provides a theory for seeking an answer to that question.

The capability approach (#A)    …. is perhaps easiest to understand as a critique of welfare economics, which is an optimization theory that uses price-based measures to calculate the so-called social surplus (see middle part of concept map). Social surplus is the amount of welfare (value or utility) that a society has gained from the present consumption of all goods and services produced or bought. For more information watch the MIT OpenCourseware on Welfare Economics. The nice thing about welfare economics is that one can use mathematics for optimization studies. The trouble with it is twofold: 1. it emphasizes material well-being (humans are more than just consumers of stuff); and 2. It aggregates welfare across a large number of individuals (e.g. a society), so there is a risk of inequalities or injustices among them if that would produced the greatest welfare for the aggregated lot. This is the classical problem with utilitarianism in general. There is no reason, however, why utilitarianism or welfare economics could not be made to be more accommodating by incorporating certain weighting principles or by critically examining certain arguments (cf. Jonathan Baron in the final chapters of ‘Thinking and Deciding’)

The capability approach (#B)      … is dealt with in the red box. The basic mechanism is depicted in the top two rows. It all starts with a production apparatus (‘input production’) which supplies a range of goods and services that enable individuals to develop a set of capabilities from which he or she can chose to achieve certain functionings. These functionings are an express of what a person desires and can range from working to being healthy and from being part of a community to being respected within that community or the society at large. A large number of factors affect what capabilities a person is capable  of, including policies, social context and personal characteristics.

Martha Nussbaum        …. has given a twist to Sen’s capability approach by defining ten central capabilities, including life, health, integrity, meaning, emotional expression, practical reason, self-respecting empathy, life & environment, play, and control (for full description, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Sen preferred not to define such a list, leaving the debate about them open for each situation. In the end it is the purpose that determines which capability has value and needs expressing. Nussbaum is a very good talker and organizer. I came across a very good talk (“Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach” in which she also discusses utilitarianism) here and a very good organization (Human Development and Capability Association, HDCA) here. It is interesting to note that the UK-based Open University is one of its institutional members.

Dimensions of advantage     (see green box:) Each person has under certain conditions certain advantages or lack thereof. They can be expressed in terms of basic needs satisfaction, freedoms and capabilities and become apparent as functionings. From an analytical point of view it is important at what level these advantages are evaluated, as consumer freedom, well-being freedom, or agency freedom. From a moral viewpoint agency freedom and agency achievement are the most important, because they allow a person to express his or her commitments to the well-being of others.

Aristotle, Smith & Marx       Sen and Nussbaum were in various ways influenced by Marx, Aristotle and Adam Smith. The latter’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ is foundational to all free market thinking, which requires individual freedom for markets to function properly. This is very much at the basis of Sen’s capability approach. The Marxist and Aristotelian part is where Sen considers agency to be of the utmost importance to the meaning of human life. This goes far beyond the Pareto principle of welfare  economics, even to the extent that agency could be considered of a totally different dimension. The development problem is one of poverty and inequality. In Sen’s words “Development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.” In this sense the capability is about opening opportunities for agency rather than locking them in. The larger framework remains that of the market not government control.

Participation and empowerment      … are two terms that are often used in the modern development narrative. The question is: participation in what, empowerment to do what. Progress in the South is anything but simple if it has to be part of a cumulative process of sustainable development. It is unavoidable that in each situation advances must be made in terms of a mutually reinforcing set of development goals for such an effort to be in some way sustainable. It is the consideration of multiple goals that turns almost any such effort into a systemic one.

The systems approach        What Sen calls ‘reasoned agency’ then becomes the type of reflexive planning that has been described by C. West Churchman as a dialectical systems approach. Empowerment, in this (and my) view, is the application to a fairly specific local development challenge of the dialectical systems approach, which is not purely rational but contains necessarily political, moral, and aesthetic qualities. Participation is the dialectical aspect of it, provided, of course, that the beneficiaries of the development are themselves involved in the dialectics. Not just as beneficiaries, but also as co-planners and co-decision-makers. Perhaps I should add, as co-systems-thinkers. Churchman intended his systems approach to be of a general nature to get as broad an understanding of management as possible. Management is about justifying decision-making in complex situations. As a result of its generality the dialectical systems approach can provide a framework for unfolding the more intricate details of the capability approach or some other comprehensive approach for informing collective decision-making.


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A systems approach to address wicked problems

My last post was about the use of three basic systems concepts (inter-relationships, boundaries, perspectives) in evaluation design. The post before that was about C. West Churchman’s last great book ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ (1979). In this post I will combine the two in ways that are both subtle and broad. What I have been after the last few years is no less than the holy grail of systems thinking. Maybe this is it, but let’s not get our hopes too high. Besides there is always the temptation of a quest without an ending. Which resembles the human quest to improve his condition by ever redesigning his social systems.

The systems approach      … is the title of Churchman’s first book in his ‘systems approach’ trilogy (1968, 1971, 1979). The last book of the trilogy was called The Systems Approach and its Enemies. There was obviously a certain development in the cycle, which suggests that the last book holds the (final) key to the other two. I summarized the last book in the previous post (Churchman wrote one more book, Thought and Wisdom – 1982 – but that’s not part of the trilogy). As usual I made a concept map. I lifted the key part out of that concept map and put it in a red-bordered box.

Wicked solutions      … is the title of a book of which Bob Williams is the main author. Bob Williams has used three basic systems concepts (inter-relationships, boundaries, perspectives) in his published work and workshops in various ways. I put them in the green-bordered ‘wicked solutions’ box to the left. The next step was just a matter of linking the two boxes. The red arrows are about the origin of the wicked problem. I put “wicked” between quote marks, because it is quite normal that problems are not solved if one takes too narrow an approach to them (= environmental fallacy). It also makes a lot of sense to expand the boundaries of the system in which the wicked problem occurs so that one can properly see which inter-relationships (i.e. structures, patterns, processes, and dynamics) can be linked to the occurrence or emergence of the problem. If that is all, the systems approach is not all that interesting.

Dialectical heuristic        What makes the systems approach powerful and worthwhile is a tool in it, which I call the ‘dialectical heuristic’. This heuristic is a set of conceptual relations for the design and operation of all social or human systems, including manufactured items (an example of this can be gleaned from Conklin 2001 although he rather uses wicked problems concepts than dialectical heuristic concepts). Churchman developed this heuristic from his seminal work in operations research in the 1950s and his logico-philosophical studies in the 1930s. The starting point is that all human systems are teleological, ie. they serve the purpose of improving the human condition, which is necessarily all about value and meaning. If it is properly used, the dialectical heuristic applies certain systemic principles that Churchman discovered/developed/designed. Most people apply at least some of these principles quite naturally some of the time, but they do not do so consciously and consistently. The heuristic is used to for a comprehensive systemic inquiry of the problem situation.

Categorical roles     The proper use of the heuristic takes a conscious effort by the main stakeholders or most relevant actors involved. The main roles are those of the client (or beneficiary, but also in a negative sense as victim), the decision-maker, and the planner. Actors can play multiple roles, e.g. if a decision-maker may benefit in some way from the situation (e.g. by getting a good salary) he or she also plays the role of a client. I have explained at least some of this elsewhere, e.g. here or here.

Deception-perception       Of special importance are the principles of deception-perception. The trouble with human perception is that it can never be entirely objective, even if we try very, very hard and open-mindedly. Every way of perceiving obscures necessarily certain aspects of reality. Which is the reason why dialectics are necessary. Only by contrasting different perspectives can we get the fullest possible picture and can we reflect on the system boundaries that brings us closer to a sufficiently satisfactory solution to the wicked problem (this, by the way, is called satisficing, a term of Herbert Simon and not of Churchman, who preferred to talk in terms of approximation, something he had learned from Edgar A. Singer, himself a student of William James).

Enemies       There is one final thing. In 1979 Churchman added 3 more categories to his dialectical heuristic. The key one is: enemies of the systems approach. Later he would say that he regretted having called them enemies, but that’s not very important. The thing is that the first 9 categories in were part of the rational part of the heuristic, the last 3 are the irrational ones, or less rational ones. They include politics, morality, religion, and aesthetics. Politics is easy to understand: politics cannot work if it is purely rational, it also needs majorities or sufficient support in one way or another for implementation (another category in the heuristic) of any plan to be secured. Morality is what Churchman called the humanistic systems approach in his earlier work (e.g. Churchman 1968). Morality, too, does not always easily fit in a teleological framework, something utilitarianists will readily admit.

Sweeping in and unfolding        It is often said that the systems approach is about ‘sweeping in’ and ‘unfolding’. Unfolding is what people do when they apply the dialectical heuristic. Sweeping in, that is including additional inter-relationships that had not been considered earlier, is what happens by expanding the boundaries. The boundaries can be anything, not only physical things, but also mental or psychological aspects, often having to do with the world views of stakeholders.

Well, that’s it. More or less.

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Systems thinking for evaluation design

Video transcript, summary, and concept map

In March, 2015, Bob Williams, the main author of Wicked Solutions and several other books on systems thinking, gave a 2-day workshop “Wicked Solutions: A Systems Approach to Complex Problems” on the use of the systems approach in evaluation design at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) in Kyoto, Japan. RIHN is a development organization that conducts practical transdisciplinary studies of development problems and their solution. Some of the researchers participating in the workshop were involved in peatland management research on Bali and Sulawesi, Indonesia. Peatland is a major part of coastal wetland geomorphology around the world (4 million km2). The catch (22) is that peat grows naturally, but the process is reversed when the land is drained for agriculture. Peat covers half of the Netherlands, where the peatlands – which are often already below sea level – subside to ever lower levels, while sea levels are rising. A small part of the 2-day workshop was taped on video, edited, and posted on Youtube in two 30-minute parts youtu.be/lFcWhGE7moQ and youtu.be/5RRHpXl2hrw. They are not so much about peat but rather about the principles of systemic design. The transcription and slides have been combined in a single pdf. This post contains the concept map and summary. Have fun.

The video’s      … are in two parts: (1) introduction to systems thinking and the concepts; and (2) core concepts & the deep dive (that is, mostly of “Wicked Solutions”). In the concept map these two parts are clearly separated by a dotted line, yet the two parts are closely related. The introductory part provides the background for the second part. And the second part explains in adequate detail what the first part is mostly about.

Introductory part       Systems thinking is an interdisciplinary field of science and practice. As an academic interdiscipline it borrows from and contributes to almost all ‘straight’ disciplines including biology, philosophy, engineering, economics, cognition (i.e. psychology), computing, and management science. Systems thinking is special in that it integrates elements of ontology and epistemology. Sometimes it is more on the ontological side (e.g. systems analysis), sometimes more on the epistemological side (e.g. critical systems), sometimes it’s in the middle (management sciences, information systems). As a result of this enormous variety there is obviously no such thing as THE systems theory, there is just the “systems field” with a lot of ramifications in theory and practice that do not always same to have much in common with each other. There are a number of concepts that pop up quite often, e.g. planning, uncertainty, complexity, learning, (problematic) situations, and change.

The problem       Most people agree that systems thinking is a good antidote to the multitude of more narrow approaches to human reality. The trouble is that the systems field is so wide that hardly anybody knows where to start. Learning how to apply systems thinking in a practical way is itself is complex problem. People who need to learn systems thinking are usually experts in a field of their own (e.g. ecologist, soil scientist, mechanization expert etc.), each dealing with a subsystem of a larger whole. Below is an illustration of how an agricultural system is an integration of a natural ecosystem and a social system with about 20 subsystems (and counting, because I don’t see the peatland system, the irrigation and drainage system, the agricultural research system, the farmer communication system, the agricultural extension system etc.). My educational background is in tropical agriculture (BSc) and irrigation engineering (MSc), so I get really fired up about this. Below picture is from a set of slides from Ray Ison (here).

The solution       The problem of “allowing evaluation to become more systemic without having to adopt, accommodate and learn specific systems methods” was “solved” in 2004 by bringing a group of (about 16?) systems and evaluation experts together in Berkeley to explore “how to promote the use of systems ideas in monitoring and evaluation, not in terms of specific systems methodologies, but based on a set of principles. In other words, allowing evaluators to modify their existing practice rather than learning entirely new practice.” (Williams, 2016) After three days they came out of their room with three basic concepts: inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries.

Publications      From there Bob Williams was involved in a number of publications: (1) Systems Concepts in Evaluation (with Imam, 2007), with a first account of the three concepts (p. 6, only inter-relationships is termed “entangled systems”); (2) Systems Concepts in Action (with Hummelbrunner, 2011), in which 19 systems methods are described in terms of the three basic concepts; (3) Wicked Solutions (with Van ‘t Hof, 2014/2016), which provides a clear-cut and generally applicable methodology for applying the three basic concepts without any previous knowledge of systems thinking whatsoever; and (4) Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation Design (2016), which specifically applies the Wicked Solutions approach to evaluation (also available in Spanish). There is also a recent USAID discussion note on systemic monitoring (2014). The story doesn’t end there. The Systems in Evaluation TIG (Topical Interest Group of the American Evaluation Association) published a final draft of Principles for Effective Use of Systems Thinking in Evaluation in September 2018, which adds “dynamics” as key concept. This may not be necessary if we think of inter-relationships as a spatiotemporal concept, as has always been the case with C. West Churchman (1968, 1971, 1979). In 2014, Bob received the American Evaluation Association (AEA) Lazarsfeld Theory Award for his contribution to systems approaches in evaluation.

Wicked Solutions       … is by far the most practical of all these. In the bottom half of the concept map above its essence is explained. Each of the concepts could be considered a step in the process of designing an intervention, research program, or evaluation. Each step uses a set of tools and ideas to make it work: (1) rich picturing is used to map inter-relationships, which helps identify systemic structures, patterns, processes and dynamics, but also stakeholder values, norms, resources, conflicts, aspirations, goals, and motivations; (2) stakeholder analysis and stake analysis is used to identify possible framings (or “images”) of the problematic situation and possible purposes of the design. Since we are dealing with human, soft or social systems (which includes practically all systems, even the ‘hard’ ones), they can only be properly understood by discussing their purpose and meaning to the people involved; (3) critical heuristics is used to discuss boundaries. It helps us answer questions raised in the previous two steps by “revealing , exploring, and challenging boundary judgments associated with a situation of interest.” (Williams & Imam, 2007).

Participants        During the workshop the RIHN participants apply the Wicked Solutions methodology to their own research design in Indonesia. At the end four of them give comments. What they say is highly relevant. They consider the systems approach particularly useful in multi-stakeholder situations so as to enable them to make a more comprehensive design or project plan. Another issue is that the approach enables better stakeholder communication. The main problem is that it is difficult to use insights from the system approach to redesign an ongoing plan. Let me add a few comments to this: (1) the approach makes it less likely to ignore key stakeholders; (2) it is more likely that all stakeholders are heard and that they hear each other; (3) the key to application of the approach is to use it at as early possible a time. This will work much better if there is time to conduct project pilots or evaluation tests; and finally (4) there will always be learning as the activity unfolds. Learning will be better if the initial plan is more comprehensive, i.e. more systemic.

Final notes      In the workshop Bob uses cases from Latin America, Africa and Asia to illustrate the practical value of Wicked Solutions. They all happen to be in the field of agricultural development: (1) irrigated rice and malaria control in Peru; (2) irrigation development and pump procurement in Mali; and (3) peatland management in Indonesia. The Mali case is the detailed, worked-out case used in Wicked Solutions to ensure that starting systems learners can directly apply the methodology. Sometimes I use the words “solution” and “problem”. These terms must be understood in a systemic way, which means that most of the time there is not one, easily identifiable “problem”, nor is there one identifiable “solution.” For more information about that (i.e. wicked problems and the like), go here. Bob’s website is here.

This post has been reblogged by The Systems Community of Inquiry at https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners (Thanks!).


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The “enemies” of the systems approach

Here is a link to the abstracts of the individual chapters of C. West Churchman’s ‘The systems approach and its enemies’, which was Churchman’s last book of his great trilogy. Churchman’s work is the focal point of CSL4D. I used the abstracts to produce a concept map (see below), which I will describe in this post. I believe it could serve as a useful introduction to Churchman’s work. This post has been reblogged by The Systems Community of Inquiry at https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners (Thanks!).

Systems     Social systems are all systems with humans in them. The human environment is full of systems: organizations, businesses, projects, governments, nations, the world, shopping systems, transport systems, security systems, financial systems etc. All of these systems have been designed. The systems idea implies that systems have components (subsystems) and boundaries. Systems are not closed, they are mostly conceived as semi-open, which implies that their boundaries are subject to debate. In soft systems lingo we speak of the “boundary critique.”

Problems     Many human “systems” function poorly. The question is: what can be done about it? Fixing the most obvious problem in systems often doesn’t work, but even makes the situation worse,  delays a real solution, or simply costs a lot of money and effort to keep it functioning, be it poorly. Systems thinkers believe that such problems – often designated “wicked problems” – are caused by taking too narrow a view of the situation. Such a narrow view is what Churchman calls the ‘environmental fallacy.’ This fallacy is not part of classical logic. In fact, a whole set of new principles had to be developed in order to provide a solid foundation for addressing wicked problems. One of them is the Maximum Loop Principle (see here).

People      Among the principles that Churchman developed are also the four principles of deception-perception. The key idea is that when we perceive a problematic situation in a certain way, this obscures certain key aspects that can only be brought to light by perceiving  it in a totally different way. The essence of the systems approach, “therefore, is confusion [deception] and enlightenment [perception]” (The Systems Approach, p. 231). In Churchman’s words, we must see through the eyes of others to discover the restrictedness of our own perspective (including that of ‘experts’ or ‘managers’). We must also abandon any claims of absoluteness (without falling victim to the idea of relativity, which is replaced by the idea of approximation). Churchman’s great “trick” is to build a categorical framework centered on people. These people play roles in system design as client, decision-maker and/or planner. “And/or” here means that people can play different roles at the same time. It is the key to systemic inquiry as described in “The design of inquiring systems” (Churchman 1971, see also here).

Enemies       The systems approach is a rational system. Humans are not always rational, or our last name would be Spock or something. Rationality is also not easy to achieve. It is not always very convincing. Many a rational systems plan has disappeared in the bottom drawer (as have many other plans). Churchman identified 4 main “enemies”: politics, morality, religion and aesthetics. Politics is the easiest to explain: politics is all about getting enough support to get things done. In other words, politics is necessary for implementation. This usually means that the plan has to be adjusted to suit the wishes of various supporting parties. The plan becomes less rational. It will not serve the intended client (or beneficiary) as well as the planner would like to. That’s when the boundary critique becomes important. Similar things happen with the other enemies.

Heuristics        The categorical framework is a heuristic for operationalizing Churchman’s  systemic principles. The categories unfold by asking the basic ethical question: who is and who should be the client? What is and what should be the purpose? In England Churchman’s framework is used a lot, be it in the form of Ulrich’s “critical heuristics”. Ulrich was a Swiss student of Churchman in the late 1970s. His “critical heuristics” uses an adaptation of Churchman’s categorical framework. The good thing about critical heuristics is that it is easier to learn. It leaves out the entire “enemies” part. It is also part of the methodology described in Wicked Solutions, which has been used repeatedly at universities in Europe, Australia and the United States.

Significance      … is the last category of Churchman 4 x 3 framework. Churchman went flat out to make sure the dialectical systems approach was a significant contribution. Part of his approach was to seek the maximum generality. This allowed him to contrast it to existing philosophical schemas, oppose it to classical logic, and ensure the broadest possible applicability. This doesn’t mean there are no problems with it. In the preface Churchman writes that generality in the context of social systems is a highly debatable concept, because social systems are never wholly rational nor wholly irrational. They are beyond that. This means that in the end the effectiveness of the systems tool is in the eye of the beholder. If it works, it is OK. But that type of argument would apply to many another approach, especially the one associated with politics.

Book abstract       The design of social systems (organizations, businesses, projects, governments, nations, the world) in the most general sense is described and guidelines for system design are provided. It is argued that social system design is beyond dichotomies such as rational-irrational, teleological-ateleological and objective-subjective. Churchman proposes the dialectical systems approach as a rational solution for the so-called “environmental” fallacy, but admits that irrational “enemies” or non-friendly viewpoints are necessary to come to a fuller understanding of the systems approach. The historical roots of the systems approach in Western and Eastern thought traditions are explored, the limitations of classical logic are outlined, and the need for an alternative “whole system” form of logic and objectivity is discussed, in which people are the center of the planning reality. The first nine categories of Churchman’s framework are described, followed by a detailed discussion of the problems of a systems approach defined from within as contrasted with the outside perspectives of the “enemies” such as politics, morality, religion and aesthetics. Suggestions for unfolding the different categories into each other are included.

Well, that’s it. Now you can read the abstracts or the original book. Do not forget to put some of the abstracts, or at least the book abstract, in your university’s catalogue. You may also prefer to make your own abstracts. It’s good exercise. To get a better feel of what it is all about you may also go through a worked out case in Wicked Solutions

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