Global Systemic Agency

The Mother of All Wicked Snippets

Taking Capra and Luisi’s “The Systems View of Life” (see also video) as a starting point, some thoughts are developed on how to address the world’s interrelated problems. Several pathways are suggested. One of them, perhaps as a complementary measure, is to increase the capacity for global systemic change (or global systemic agency). Such a novel approach of the ‘crisis of perception’, which according to Capra and Luigi is at the root of the enormous challenges of the 21st challenges – and caused by the lack of systems thinking in one way or another – would demand a standard to be designed with regard to transparency, suitability for debate, communication, learning and value- or paradigm-related aspect to facilitate the adoption of a common form systems thinking.

The Systems View of Life        …. is a book by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi that was first published in 2014. Clearly our way (or ways, since Westerners count only for about 15% in number, be it much more in consumption!) of life, our science and technology, the way we organize our economy and businesses are not producing sustainable results. This is further complicated by overpopulation and globalization. The book’s message is simple: the only way to address the current global problems of energy, environment, financial security, food security and climate change is by looking at them ‘as a whole,’ in other words: by taking an integrated view and adopting a unifying vision and by using nature’s ability to sustain and create life as a touchstone. To do this, the authors look at the foundations of systems thinking in biology, cognition, ecology, sociology, religion, philosophy, and politics (see preface).

Could the systems approach help?       This is an obvious question to somebody who has just co-authored a practical book on the systems approach. But if the systems approach is practical, then why doesn’t it solve the world’s problems? That is, presuming it can. Capra and Luisi come up with a truly wide-ranging analysis as well as a large number of ideas to mother of all wicked snippetsmake the world a much more sustainable place. They do manage to integrate the ‘dark blue stuff’ in the ‘mother of all wicked snippets’ above (see also my post on ‘wicked snippets’)  and by showing what environmentally friendly technologies are available to make the West more sustainable. However, availability of better technologies does not mean they are actually put to good use. This requires decision-making at various levels. The arguments put forward by Capra and Luisi are apparently not enough or for some reason not considered, at least until now, less than 2 years after publication of their book.

Perhaps global complexity is overwhelming?       One of the problems no doubt is the amazing complexity of the main global challenges. Lester Brown has worked on these issues for 40 years, showing how they are interconnected and how they could cause civilization to unravel, see figure below. What is obvious from this map is that the linkages potential unraveling of civilizationare many and deep, even though the emphasis is on technology, economics and politics rather than religion, art, science and sociology, which are also highly relevant to the concept of civilization. What it suggests to me is that the global problem situation is so incredibly complex that it is unlikely that people with real power will be able to find a way of coming to terms with each other on pathways to address it. This raises many questions, including about the role of globalization and global competition, both economically and culturally.

Politics and business not systemic?      Global civil society is now a source of power, together with international politics and business. Capra writes that “systemic thinking is practiced today in numerous research institutes and centres of learning established by the global society.” The question remains whether the same applies to a sufficient extent to politics and business. Perhaps the decision-making mechanisms required to come up with truly globally relevant systemic solutions is not yet in place. One of the things that is lacking is adequate knowledge of and faith in systems thinking for it to be able to produce results that are sufficiently convincing to the decision-makers in politics and business. So far we rely mostly on finding better and cheaper technological solutions. One might wonder whether that is enough. Are politics and business capable and willing to apply systems solutions?

How to increase systemic capability?        There is no doubt that it is possible to increase global systemic capacity to address global problems, e.g. by ‘nudging’ global decision-making into ranges where it can become effective again. Or by lifting certain problems out of their wider context as is being done with the issue of climate change. It would seem that Brown is in favour of the last solution, considering that his last book (2015. Hopefully it wasn’t his very last!) was entitled “The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy”, no doubt because if we fail to control climate change, we will fail to control everything else. A third path is by increasing the systemic capability in politics and business: this would require a more widespread application of systems thinking or systems approaches to all sorts of societal problems. One may even consider the possibility of making the application of systems approaches a strict (legal!) requirement before any (other) law can be approved by parliament. Ultimately such a systemic habit could reach global levels.

Global standard for systems thinking?        One problem remains, viz. that of the many forms of systems thinking. Businessmen and politicians cannot be expected to master all of them. Even one would be a challenge. For reasons of effectiveness in debate and communication there should be a global standard. What we need to think about is what requirements such a global standard would have to satisfy. One idea is that it should be transparent and suitable for use in political debate. Another that it encourages the use of man’s innate systemic ability. This makes it all the more likely to have a smooth learning curve so as to be useful in communication, e.g. via mass media. It should also be all-encompassing, so not only looking at the technicalities, but also at value and paradigm-related aspects of systemic design, or else it will not carry enough ‘meaning’. A systems approach seems to fit the bill. The next question is: which system approach? Wicked Solutions?

Note: I admit this post is a bit over the top. What I actually wanted to say is that the systems approach should be in everybody’s intellectual toolbox, especially in that of people who take a keen interest in the future of Earth or may be expected to do so.

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About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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