Beginning to Learn Systems ThinkingPosted: January 29, 2013
I don’t think I’ve explained that I’m currently doing a masters in design. It is a program called “Strategic Foresight and Innovation” which is a vague and ambitious title that allows me to answer differently every time someone asks what it is. An Austrian friend asked me if we get given crystal balls when we sign up. I’m very disappointed that we didn’t.
This semester one of my classes is titled: “Understanding Systems & Systemic Design”. Anyone reading my bouncing thoughts would clearly recognize this as a topic I really enjoy. The readings are great, ranging from incomprehensibly dense to “forehead-slap” worthy. If you haven’t heard that before, it’s when you realize something that makes you hit your own forehead thinking: “oh yeah, that’s what I’ve been thinking but couldn’t say”. I’ll share some of the content as I make sense of it.
Anyway… being the keener that I am, I recently attended a systems dialogue event co-hosted by my instructor; Peter Jones and systems expert David Ing. David and Peter set up a space at OCAD University where brilliant people came and shared their knowledge and experience with newbies such as myself. There was a paper that a few people debriefed insights to the group and then we broke out and started a discussion around the question:
Is systems thinking a science or a compliment to science?
I really don’t know enough to understand why this is an important question. In the break out group I was in, the question gave us an opportunity to explore some very broad topics. Nothing conclusive emerged, which I’m now learning is a recurring theme of systems thinking. I’ve tried a couple of times to assemble a narrative of the thoughts, but it is too difficult, so I’ll simply give you a point form of the key ideas and I’ll try to expand.
Normal vs. Post-Normal Science
I’ve just been introduced to the idea that a new scientific world view is being discussed that recognizes it is not always possible to know all the factors in play when making a decision. Where Normal science seeks to reduce investigations into verifiable and repeatable experiments that produce quantifiable results, Post-Normal embraces uncertainties and seeks new models for communicating research. It is not a very mainstream idea, but feels quite comfortable for me when I put my “design” hat on.
Hard Systems vs. Soft Systems
Hard systems are predictable models of complicated elements that can be used to test ideas. In a hard system the authors agree that the problem they are investigating can be fully defined and repeatedly tested against to find an optimum solution. In soft systems the authors agree that the problem will always be changing as the context is messy and fluctuating. The purpose of a hard system is to test and predict, the purpose of a soft system is to interact and learn. As more researchers embrace soft systems there becomes an increasing friction with Normal science, as the results are not conclusive in the traditional way. Someone in the group said that: “Systems thinking defines what is unknown”, and that science “defines and categorizes what is known.”
It was suggested that Systems requires “scientific” results to provide meaning and to be able to form a systems model, but needs to be independent of science in order to get valuable results.
Some fun questions that emerged:
- Is systems thinking fluid, while scientific thinking is fixed/solid?
- Are we having a debate between the difference of “good science” and “bad science”? Someone defined bad science as research that does not take into account context and that systems thinking is specifically used to encourage an understanding of context.
- And finally, this discussion appears to be a tension of phenomenology – i.e. what can be observed or experience and labeled. Properties of systems tend to be emergent, abstract and difficult to “observe”.
As you can see, things remain abstract and inconclusive. Over the rest of the semester I am making it my personal mission to gather more tangible case studies and stories which I will bounce around.
Many thanks to David Ing for letting me be the note taker and be patient as I process these thoughts. Thanks to Peter for inviting me along. Huge thanks to Jamie Miller, who is now teaching biomimicry with me at OCAD U and introduced me to Post-Normal science, and of course to Ian Clarke for his never ending mind blowing explanation of biology and ecology that makes it possible for me to play in this space.
And… I’m really hoping Peter Niewiarowski reads this… I’m sure he’s got an opinion about my understandings of science…