Alexander, Churchman, Rittel: A Fog Island Tavern Conversation

– Good morning Bog-Hubert! You look a bit worried today — what’s the trouble? Need some coffee?

– Ah Vodçek, yes, thanks. Trouble? No, but I’m wondering about Abbé Boulah. Haven’t seen him for several days, — have you?

– He was in here briefly yesterday, mumbled something about a letter he’s working on — some question an acquaintance from the old days sent him, that he got all entangled in trying to answer.

– Sounds intriguing. What was the question, did he say?

– As far as I could tell, it was something about the Pattern Language, the Systems Approach, and the Argumentative Model of Planning. Somewhat disparate issues, if you ask me, but I was busy with some weekenders here, didn’t get the whole story. Did you get a better sense of what that was about, Professor Balthus?

– Not sure. I think it was a question about reconciling the work of the three authors of those concepts: Christopher Alexander, West Churchman and Horst Rittel, who were all teaching at Berkeley in the sixties and seventies, and each made some important contributions to their respective disciplines.

– Yes, I remember: Alexander’s Pattern Language for Environmental Design; Rittel’s Wicked Problems and Argumentative Model of Planning and information systems. They were both teaching at the College of Environmental Design. But Churchman was in the Business School, working on his Systems Approach books and research, wasn’t he? So somebody wants to reconcile those different perspectives? For what purpose? Isn’t that a bit of old history? Haven’t all those disciplines evolved into new conundrums by now?

– Abbé Boulah didn’t explain the purpose of that question, Bog Hubert. But it’s interesting to speculate about it — you said it: conundrums. It seems all those disciplines are still facing challenges that suggest they haven’t solved their problems yet. And that the problems are more pervasive and general than we all thought at the time? So they were just looking at different parts of the problems at the time?

– That makes sense: I hear many people who call themselves systems thinkers talk about the need for a more holistic perspective: looking at the ‘whole system’.

– I’ve heard those folks talk too, Vodçek, and admired your patience with all that talk.

– Ah Bog-Hubert, and I have to thank you for not starting a brawl on some occasions — I’ve seen you get quite steamed up about what I guess you consider their still so limited perspective of their whole system? So you think there isn’t much hope for reconciling those perspectives?

– Wait, Vodçek. Before we get into that reconciling issue: what is your beef with the Systems Thinkers perspective, Bog-Hubert?

– Well, I think there are two main concerns I have, maybe there are two different kinds of those SThinkers. Sorry Vodçek, don’t throw that washcloth at me, I know you don’t like frivolous characterizations of your customers. Okay. Systems Thinkers.
One concern is that they still don’t acknowledge different opinions about their assumptions in the systems models; arguments. The models all look like any questions or disagreements about the model assumptions have all been settled, when they only express the model-builder’s view.
The other is the ‘holistic’ claim — the intent I don’t argue with, in principle, mind you. But to me, it seems to often focus exclusively on what they call the ‘common awareness, the unified ethical mindset they are advocating. But I guess that’s something that will come up if you really want to get into that reconciliation issue here…

– Okay, I’ll take your word for that, for now, though I think that’s a special group within the ST community that’s not shared by everybody. You don’t sound very optimistic about the prospect of reconciliation though? If ‘reconciliation’ is the proper word for what the question is after?

– Well, let’s just say I reserve judgment about that. I remember how Alexander pulled that dramatic break with the Design Methods group and I guess the Systems perspective associated with that — in the early 70’s when he first launched his Pattern Language. It seemed pretty irreparable at the time.

– Wasn’t he originally a key member of that design methods movement?

– Yes, Vodçek. But he got so disenchanted with what the various efforts of applying the tools of Operations Research and Systems technology, Building Systems in the Architecture realm — were doing to the built environment that he felt an entirely new direction and perspective was called for. And a lot of people felt the same way. There were aspects of what he called ‘quality’ missing that needed to be articulated and re-introduced into the practice and of architecture and urban design, that the systems view of that time didn’t seem capable of acknowledging. And there’s no question that the Pattern Language added many valuable insights about building.

– Well, didn’t Churchman’s take on the Systems Approach add a lot of similar aspects to the discussion that were not — and I guess are still not really — part of the general systems perspective?

– You are talking about all the components of his systems definition — the purpose, the designer, the decision-maker, the client, the ‘Guarantor Of Decisions’ (GOD?) the measures of performance for each of those parties? Yes, compared to some ‘definitions’ of systems expressed even today — ‘a systems is a set of related components whose relationships exhibit at least two loops’ is one I seem to have read recently somewhere — this view was certainly advancing significantly away from the early functional system concepts. What Rittel called the ‘first generation’ systems approach. It just seems that it was too abstract and general for environmental designers to work into their view of what they were doing. The Pattern Language was much closer to what designers in architecture, say, were already used to.

– I don’t understand. There are many architects who have never heard of the Pattern Language, and don’t seem to even want to get into and use these ideas?

– You are right. But consider: Architecture is a discipline that is already dominated to a large extent by — I hesitate to say, but the closest term I can come up with is ‘rules’. Patterns. The oldest ‘textbook’ on architecture (Vitruvius) talks about ‘orders’ which are rules for the parts and design of buildings. For centuries, there were design guides that were essentially ‘pattern’ catalogs. There are client requirements and expectations, constraints by climate, culture, available building materials, the knowledge and ‘ways we’ve always done it’ of all the trades involved in building construction all the building regulations. All those rules are giving you quite a range of options for how to put buildings together, sure — but they all say simply: Follow the rules, meet the requirements, and you’ll get the client’s go-ahead and the building permit. I’m not saying that is easy, and it definitely takes skill and creativity to come up with new, inspiring, innovative designs juggling all those rules and expectations. But in the end, the act of having followed the rules ‘guarantees’ the result.

– Some guarantees: all the ugly buildings that have gotten permits?

– Yes, Alexander was quite right in pointing out that all those rules did not guarantee quality environments — that in fact the rules, including the systems concerns — which in the building realm manifested themselves in ‘systems building’ or ‘industrialized building’: standardization, dimensional coordination, mass production of parts and mechanized assembly — all tended to produce deadening, uninspiring environments without ‘quality’.
But look at what he added to fix that: the patterns too all look just like rules. Better rules, arguably — but rules all the same: In a given context, there exists a conflict or problem, and tho resolve or avoid it, here’s the general essence of the solution. The patterns are related in certain ways — and all give the designer quite a range of options — Alexander’s claim was essentially that ‘you can do it a thousand different ways and never end up with the same result twice’ — but you have to follow the essential pattern rule. If you don’t, you’re not solving the problem.
And this is what enables him to reject all the measure of performance and evaluation procedures of the design method and systems movement: the result is guaranteed by virtue of having followed the rules: no evaluation needed.

– I see: the design methods efforts, the systems modeling were essentially incompatible with Alexander’s ‘Timeless Way of Building’ and Pattern Language from the outset. That explains your pessimism about reconciliation all right. But did that also ignore the aspects Churchman had added to the systems story?

– I agree there was a disconnect — but as you said, it wasn’t easy for architectural designers to adapt Churchman’s concepts in practice. It does explain why the Pattern Language became such a hit in quite different disciplines — software development, for example. It always surprised me; but now I understand: especially in the computer realm, the machine has to work according to rules, patterns, so software has to consist of valid rules.

– Right. But what about Rittel — he was coming from design, a systems view of design, as well, didn’t he? What made his work incompatible with the Pattern Language view?

– Good question. Though he was teaching design, at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, earlier, architecture and urban and regional development at Berkeley, his background was in mathematics, statistics, systems. And he was involved at that time, through a Systems Research think tank in Heidelberg, with the design of information systems for planning and design, even political decision-making.
He was looking less at the kinds of problems that the systems folks of the ‘first generation’ were adamant about ‘defining’ and stating clearly and succinctly at the outset of a problem-solving process, but at larger problems in society — problems like urban renewal, traffic, housing, education, the environment, — that early grand ‘expert model’-based solutions had not solved but actually made worse.
And his insight was that those problems could not be ‘defined and stated’ clearly — that there were widely different opinions about what causes them, how to describe them, and of course, what would qualify as a solution — in fact, that there were no clear and ‘true’ answers — ‘solutions’ for those problems he called ‘wicked problems’. Essentially, — among other properties of WP’s — he found that each WP is essentially unique, unprecedented in most respects. And that meant: there were no rules, no patterns, for dealing with them that ‘guaranteed’ the solution.

– Bummer. And clearly incompatible with the Pattern Language approach, even I can see that. So what was his answer to that Wicked Problem?

– Put very briefly: the Argumentative Model of Planning. He saw the design and panning activities as a process of raising and answering questions — about the problem, understanding it, the way it affects different people, and about what would qualify as a solution. A discourse. The process, and the information system needed to support it would have to acknowledge the contradictions in the discourse — the proverbial ‘pros and cons’ about proposed solutions.
It would have to accommodate wide participation — the information about how the WP affects people in the population is ‘distributed’, not dealt with either in the expert’s education or in neatly documented traditional information systems — after all, it’s ‘unprecedented’. So he started to develop ‘Issue Based Information systems’ (IBIS) and ‘Argumentative Planning Information Systems’ (APIS) — and — less well documented — the principle of ‘complicity planning’ — where decisions were based on — informed by — the merit of arguments brought forward during the discourse but carried by all participants’ willingness to assume responsibility for the decisions and the risks associated with their eventual consequences.

– Hmm. If I understand this correctly, this was an evolution or change of direction of the systems perspective — and as such conceptually compatible with Churchman’s view of systems. Is that a reasonable way of looking at it? So why wasn’t it adopted by the wider systems thinking community?

– Ah, now we are trying to find an answer to Abbé Boulah’s question, eh?

– Not so fast: I’m not sure we are anywhere close to that, Vodçek.

– Why? What would it take to reconcile these perspectives? I see different kinds of problem situations to which the approaches apply; so each kind of situation needs to be dealt with by the appropriate approach. Isn’t the difficulty just in making those distinctions?

– It isn’t that simple, Vodçek. The situations and approaches aren’t that clearly distinguished so everybody can quickly decide ”Ah, this is a WP, let’s use the Argumentative Model” as opposed to “Here, we have a clear conventional design problem to which all the established rules apply; so let’s study the rules and the patterns and use them to develop a solution.” And “This one is a typical systems modeling challenge — many variables, related by many feedback loops, but we can model it and predict its behavior, to select the intervention with the optimal outcome.” The wicked questions crop up in the middle of the apparently most standard modeling efforts. The implementation of even the boldest innovative plans involve many conventional ‘patterns’ and requirements.
But you could say that the fallacies and flaws of all three perspectives can be traced to a tendency of selective reliance on selected aspects of their respective model.

– Can you explain that, Professor? I’m not sure I understand that one.

– I’ll try, Vodçek. Take the reliance of the systems folks on digitized data bases. Large scale planning depends on data. And the tendency is increasingly on using sophisticated computer programs to actually draw inferences — statistical and logical — from the data. That must rely on the assumption that the data are actually ‘correct’ — ‘true’ and thus reliable. Not only that the measurements are accurate, but also that the variables that are measured are appropriate. And for the logical part: that the data are consistent, not contradictory. If there are contradictions, no reliable conclusions can be drawn. So there is an upfront effort involved in setting up and maintaining the data base to remain contradiction-free. The science basis of the data — observation, measurement, testing, etc. tries to ensure that: understanding a situation as it exists — the aim of systems thinking: to understand the ‘whole system’ — aims at getting the ‘true’ story about the problem.
But now look at the planning discourse. It consists of a lot of ‘pros and cons’ — which are contradictory claims. If a data base aims at properly representing a planning discourse, shouldn’t it accommodate those contradictions?

– Well, you could say that it’s the precisely the purpose of the discourse — with participants presenting evidence to support their claims — to develop what we’d call the ‘true’ picture of the situation, the ‘correct’ problem understanding.

– Yes, Bog-Hubert. But in reality, that isn’t as easy as it’s said. And as long as it’s not settled, if it ever can be, the data base for planning and policy-making contains contradictions, and the expert system that can draw reliable conclusions from it is out. Pipe dream. Even for factual claims and about what works and what doesn’t work to achieve a desired outcome. But there — I said it — it’s the desired outcome that we argue about most intensely — and the labels ‘true’ or ‘false’ don’t apply to those claims. So the data base can’t be consistent by definition. Which means that a lot of the sophisticated tools used in systems modeling simply don’t apply to the planning discourse — even the most trivial ones.

– Hold on, I’ve got to think about that for a moment.

– Okay. Let’s take a break. Perhaps Vodçek can draw a map of our discussion in the mean time?

***
– Ah, I see.

– Well, it’s just the overall topics so far. I thought we’d use the different purposes of the three approaches as the basis for looking for compatible or incompatible features.

– What do you mean?

– Well, look at Churchman’s work. Or the systems perspective in general. Could we say that the purpose of those kinds of studies is mainly to understand the systems we are dealing with, and how they behave? And the understanding would also mean to be able to predict how the system would behave when it is affected by this or that intervention, which is how the systems guys talk about design or planning proposals. So any planners would have to deal with those questions whether dealing with a ‘wicked’ problem or a ‘tame’ one, wouldn’t they? And that is also the basis on which a pattern is developed and adopted — if it wants to have any claim to validity. So there’s a first set of compatible aspects. Couldn’t we find more of those?

– I suspect we can find as many common features as we can find further incompatible characteristics. For example, the fact we mentioned earlier, that systems models seem systematically eliminate any semblance of arguments or difference of opinion about the assumptions in the system — variables, values, relationships — which therefore always turn out to represent the modeler’s understanding of the problem to the exclusion of other views. And that the arguments in the Argumentative model seem to always just describe one variable’s relationship to another — the network of arguments has considerable trouble coming to grips with the many relationships and loops in such a system — are those just temporary incomplete aspects of these approaches or fundamental differences?

– Hmm. What about the movement that claims to be seeking better awareness and understanding of the ‘whole’ system — still claiming to be part of the systems thinking tribe — but what it comes to suggesting what to do about solutions to the big problems and crises, seem to focus on achieving a common, even ‘universal’ kind of ethics and morality, that will determine the decisions?

– Good point — I had forgotten about that aspect of the systems movement. I think that is one of the basic flaws of the way these tools are used.

– Huh? Please explain: basic flaws?

– Let me see. Perhaps I’ll use the structure of the ‘standard planning argument’ to explain that. We talked about the fact that the basic planning argument of a plan proposal A has two or three key premises: To support the proposal:
“A ought to be adopted” the premises used are:
1) If we implement A, result B will happen, — given certain conditions C;
and
2) Result B ought to be pursued (is desirable);
and
3) Conditions C are present.
Of course planning decisions always rest on a number of such arguments, never a single one. But here my point is: Most of the time, people don’t explicitly state all the premises but only one or two, taking the other premises ‘for granted’ — which means that the discussion isn’t likely to focus on those. This allows us to distinguish between some major ‘movements’ or tribes that rely on only one of these key premise types to support their case: Look at what happens when people stress and rely only on the first premise to make their case:
– There are the ‘engineers’ who have found a way of realizing the If A then B relationship or technology: simplified (unfairly of course): “we should do A because we can, to get B”. Technicians, causal analysis types — remove the cause, never mind any consequences of how you do it…
– Or look at resting the argument on the second premise: there is the philosophy of ‘B is the goal’ we should all support, by all means — and the effort of many such groups is aiming for evoking the common awareness and adoption of universal goals (sustainability, global piece, or ‘creativity’ or change, innovation) — at all costs.
– And finally there is the group relying on the third premise, which has to do with data, or increasingly BIG DATA — the conditions of the system overall: “The conditions for implementing plan A are given”. As if the decisions flow logically from those data.
I know I’m drawing caricatures here — but you’re not laughing: it’s true, isn’t it?

– Hmm. Coming to think of it, there are countless management consulting ‘brands’ of ST approaches that fall in one or the other of your three categories. You might want to add the ‘user design’ movement — the people who proclaim that whatever a cooperative bunch of people are ‘co-creating’ will be good: the solution will ’emerge’ and be ‘good’ just because it’s co-created. Of course, they might need a consultant ‘facilitator’ …

– Oh, many people are being more straightforward than that, bluntly calling for the strong leader — sometimes with a sly suggestion that they might just be that leader — well so far, perhaps just ‘thought-leader’ — who will unify the will of the people, precipitating the needed change from which the ‘new system’ will emerge, that just can’t be described yet because it must ’emerge’.

– You are scaring us here, Vodçek. Are you trying to get us to invest in some liquid courage medication?

– Well, relieve our concerns, Bog-Hubert. What would you suggest Abbé Boulah might write in his reply to this wicked question?

– Oh — why me, why should I make a fool of myself? You go first, Professor!

– Chicken. Well, for starters, without trying for a clear answer to the original question itself: can we say that there should be some ‘system’ in place that could be activated as needed — when a problem arises that needs some form of collective action. A system that can alert people when there is such a need — and then is open to all kinds of questions, ideas and answer and argument contributions, by anybody. To start and support a public planning discourse. We discussed before some aspects of what such a planning discourse support system should be like. For example, that it should have a provision for assessing the merit of contributions, the plausibility of arguments — by all participants. And a mechanism for making the connection between that merit and the eventual decision clear and transparent, if not outright determining the decision. So that aspect would clearly be drawing on the argumentative model of design — Rittel.

– I see where you are going here. The system should then also provide or contain access to what we might call the ‘rules’ applicable to the domain of the problem — drawing on past experience, laws and regulations, the scientific-technical knowledge applicable to that domain — as well as ‘patterns. They will become part of the argument set for the detailed description and refinement of the plan.

– Yes — and both the discussion and the ‘documented’ data and reference base will also be the basis for the development of system models of the situation — to support the ‘understanding the situation’ part of the process.

– Good point, Professor. yes. Of course there are some significant pieces of work that need to be taken up before such a system can be put to work.

– What are those, Bog-Hubert?

– They have to do with the issues we mentioned. The relationship between the systems models and argumentation: better integration of model insights and displays into the argumentative process on the one hand, and acknowledgement and accommodation of argumentation — differences of opinion — about assumptions of the systems models.

– I am worried about the final part of that system, — I can see how participants can develop their individual measure of plausibility for or against a plan proposal — we have talked about some work for that aspect. But then: if many participants come up with reasoned plausibility measures that differ significantly from one another — how can that be translated into a collective decision? Just voting it up or down isn’t the answer — it will destroy the link between the merit of the information and the decision, and thus be open to hidden agenda influences and similar problems.

– Yes — violating the principle that the voting minority shouldn’t just be on the losing end of the process. And any calculation of a group plausibility measure from the individual values has problems. The attempt by the unified values people amounts to sidestepping this problem, believing that if science can clarify the facts, the only problem is to make sure we all share the same opinions about what we ought to do and the values we ought to pursue. And while it sounds so well-intentioned and beneficial, that is even more scary than the prospect of having a messy system of haggling our dirty compromises between different parties with different views of what we ought to do…

– And you hope that Abbé Boulah will have a better answer for that than what we have been bouncing around here?

– We might have to help him out with that when he shows up…

– He better show up, soon? Or this might drive a fellow to drink…

– Cheers.

acr-synthesis


On the fascination of geometry in developing problem-solving approaches

I am intrigued by the interesting efforts of some folks to enlist the logic and beauty of geometric structures to the task of designing communication and organizational ‘approaches’ to teamwork, collective planning and problem-solving. It brings to mind memories from my own youth that may have some pertinent lessons for these new endeavours.

Fresh out of architecture school, very soon realizing that we hadn’t been told some essential things we needed, but eager to explore new frontiers, I became involved with a group of ‘mobile architecture’ in Europe (GEAM –‘Groupe d’Étude de Architecture Mobile: Yona Friedman, Schulze-Fielitz and others).

Studying the geometric basis of structural systems that could be mass produced (‘industrialized’) to create ‘space frame’ buildings and urban environments allowing users to easily modify the ‘infill’ of floors and walls to suit changing needs, we were fascinated by the insights of how all the regular 3D geometric forms were inherent in structures starting with simple cubic forms and their plane and space diagonals; endlessly battling the problem of joints and connections for these systems. Of course Wachsmann and especially Buckminster Fuller were our heroes; Bucky’s tensegrity structures embodied the ideals of stability, geometric logic, and lightness — achieving maximum strength with minimal material and resources. With Schulze-Fielitz, I explored ‘diagonal’ urban systems featuring continuous 3D transportation systems (unlike the ‘Manhattan’ skyscrapers with their dead-end elevator systems (that ended up dooming the hapless folks in the 9-11 twin towers disaster) giving apartments at least some minimal outdoor ‘roof garden opportunities while creating covered public spaces, with more efficient densities than conventional developments); we designed schemes for a space frame ‘channel’ bridge, new universities, housing systems, exposition projects. All unpaid, after hours, long ‘all-nighter’ fun. Even a large construction firm started asking us to develop concrete building systems.

We were slow to realize that the fascination with the pristine structural systems was missing several critical points. A critical one was that the real problem was not the optimal design of one of the various subsystems of buildings and urban developments, but the coordination of all of those systems, keeping all of them from getting in each others’ way. Not only transportation — the clumsy way streets, above-ground and underground rail transport and high-rise elevator systems are cobbled together — but the other infrastructure of water supply, sanitation (sewer) systems, power and gas supply, urban steam heating lines, communication systems, fire protection and other safety/security systems. The ubiquitous joke of the city having just repaved the street only to have the sanitation department coming in to tear them up again to repair the sewers was matched by the jungle of systems inside the buildings. The’ flexibility’ chaos of electrical wiring and pipes inside even today’s 21C houses, has to be covered up by sheetrock. The beautiful filigree structural system: no longer visible — Paxton’s Chrystal Palace, Bucky’s Montreal Expo dome, a beautiful little space frame church by Schulze-Fielitiz, all ignoring the need for insulating the steel, all fell victim to fire.

There were some heroic efforts to grapple with the multiple systems coordination issue — examples such as the Robertson Ward / Inland Steel entry to the 1960’s California School Systems development competition, (I worked in Ward’s office trying to design a flexible multiple service system for a College Science building) or Fritz Haller’s computer program for designing coordinated layouts of highly complex service systems for research buildings. They resulted in designs so impressively complex that the intended flexibility was never practically achieved, the manuals unread and soon forgotten. There was the legendary story about a researcher trying to follow up on the use of one of the California School Systems buildings, explaining the concept to a principal who had come to office some years after the initial construction. The principal, excited by the idea of e.g. movable partitions etc. exclaimed how he would love to have such a building — with the researcher replying “But sir, you are sitting in one!”

So the spectacle of efforts to harness the logic and beauty of geometric structures for the task of designing approaches to planning, collaboration, conflict resolution etc. raises some questions that should be examined and answered, explained, before turning those analogies into societal practice and decisions at large scale. What, specifically, is the point of those analogies, the justification for their transfer to these social realms?

– The literal application of analogy features to the other system?
– Ensuring validity of systems designs by testing them against certain features of the stable, beautiful, adaptive geometric systems? (which features?)
– Ensuring validity by drawing design ideas from ‘nature’s systems (in this case, geometry as a natural system)?
– Drawing inspiration and motivation from the geometric systems to pursue corresponding truth, beauty, logic, adaptability and strength in our designs?

Any of these and other possible rationales may have merit, I’m sure. Some may be more questionable than others — e.g. the design recipe I have heard architecture professors convey to students, of starting a project by selecting some ‘concept’ drawn from nature: A leaf, a sea shell, an open hand, an embrace? Then developing the further design of the building based on that concept, which will remain as an invisible ‘secret’ lending some depth or validity to the design…

What I would like to see is some demonstration, elaboration of the rationale for whichever of these ideas is at the base of this strategy. Explanations in the face of skeptical questions such as those I learned to ask about those efforts to make the logic of single systems, e.g. geometry, the basis for the entire enterprise of architectural design. I would like to see examples of features that justify and elucidate the usefulness and validity of the application of the analogy to the respective consulting approach.

Without such explanations — the very appeal and intricacy of the geometric system does not count! — there remain traces of suspicion. Of superstitious fads that replace the hard work of analysis, reasoning, deliberation with shortcut ‘rules of thumb’ (rather than brain…) and incantations of magic. Mystery, yes: design of decision patterns users/viewers can ‘discover’ and make part of their own ‘making’ (appropriation) and acceptance of the design. But ‘magic’ by analogy as a marketing and selling tool? Whiffs of of snake oil. And the sloppy models of crooked pipe cleaners showing tetrahedron structures? The goddess of geometry would be offended.


Skills Matching Pipe Dreams

Renfroe stumbled out onto the deck of the Fog Island Tavern, and almost ran over the old man who was coming up the ramp for his ‘categorical aperitif’.
– Whoa, Renfroe – what’s the matter with you tonight?
– Sorry, didn’t see you coming up. Phew. Well, I just couldn’t stand any more of that fancy talk in there.
– Oh? What are they talking about, then?
– Some crazy scheme off the internet. They are actually yelling at their cellphones and laptops, even though it’s just all emails and messages. Seems there’s this guy on some island who wants to improve the way people get employed — get jobs. He thinks there’ a problem in that people get hired for jobs for which they don’t have the skills, while people who do have the skills don’t get hired. Not sure if he’s talking about himself or all the graduates from the university who can’t get the jobs they think they deserve. So he wants to start some outfit he calls ‘Skills Matcher’, to tackle that problem. And there’s a group of nice guys from a Systems Thinking forum who want to help him, but can”t agree on what to tell him. And of course Bog-Hubert is there in his best curtrarian conmurgeon — I mean contrarian curmudgeon mood, telling them it’s all water turkey dung.
– Sounds interesting, I gotta hear this. Getting bored watching the water turkeys out on the bay, you know.
– Good luck. I’m taking bets you’re going to be out here again afore I get eaten up by the skeeters and come back in…

Shaking his head, the old man went into the tavern and joined the gang at the counter where Vodçek was trying to keep the discussion civilized; of course he had the upper hand in it because he threatened to cut off their drinks if they got too rowdy.
– Good grief — there’s life still in this quiet outpost. What’s the latest on this quarrgument Renfroe told me about just now?
Vodçek filled his glass with ‘the usual’ without even asking, shrugged, and glanced askew over to Bog-Hubert, who was scribbling something on a napkin between mischievous comments to his companions: It’s just the Bogmeister riling up the gang here about this noble scheme one of their internet friends is trying to get off the ground…
– Renfroe told me about that, yes. Sounds like a good idea, well -intentioned?
– That’s what they say, Sophie and Abbe Boulah’s friend there, Harry Von Timagan or something.
– That his name? Sounds like something you should be treating with some of your herbal mountain moonshine.
-You mean Bog-Hubert’s Eau d’ Hole? Well… Anyway, Bog-Hubert says it’s all a pipe dream; all their schemes.
– What are the schemes they are talking about? Eh, Bog-Hubert?
– Oh, hi, oldtimer. The precious ‘solutions’ they are throwing about to cure the ‘skills mismatch’ problem? Well — you tell them: there’s the new agency their friend is proposing, to match job seekers with job offers; there’s the software program idea — the one they all need to do the matching, there’s a job fair proposal, and some other weird ideas floating around.
– Well, it sounds like they are trying to to do something useful — if I understand the problem right. Can you straighten me out on that, Sophie?
– Sure: If an employer hires somebody who doesn’t have the skills for the job, he won’t get good performance from that employee, obviously, and his business might be less profitable as a result. Which lowers the tax revenue the government can get from that business, and thus lowers the amount of money it can deliver citizens in terms of governance, infrastructure etc. Meanwhile, the better skilled applicants don’t get hired, remain unemployed, which costs the government unemployment money, or forces those skilled people to take lower-skill — and lower-paid — jobs where they are dissatisfied because they can’t use the skills they studied for — wasting their education and experience…
– I get it. So it looks like it would be a useful thing if that skills mismatch problem could get fixed, doesn’t it, Bog-Hubert? So why do I hear you are throwing water on the flames of their laudable enthusiasm?
– Is that what I’m doing? Sounds like you’re recommending me for a job with the Fog Island Fire Department. But hey, I’m just trying to keep their feet on the ground of reality. “Skills Matcher” — the name alone tells me they are making promises they can’t possibly deliver on — so it’s a bit of fraud, if you ask me. Well, sorry — it would be a fraud if they knew it was pipe dream, and I’m not accusing them of that. But that’s what I think it is: a pipe dream. A wrong question.
– A pipe dream, huh? Something that can’t be done? Can you enlighten us why you think so? Because it seems to me there are many people in different agencies and institutions who are engaged in the same endeavor: getting people with the right skills into the jobs that require those skills?
– Well, think about it. Sure, there are many people doing that now. So how do we know there is a problem — a skills ‘mismatch’? We know because there are people who have, or think they have the skills for certain jobs, but didn’t get hired.
– That’s a little one-sided, but okay: what about it?
– There are several possible reasons why they didn’t get their dream job. One is of course that there are more applicants for certain kinds of job than there are jobs of that kind. At the top, it’s worst: Only one person gets to be president or prime minister; — and I’m not saying that whoever gets it necessarily has the required skills, given the strange ‘hiring process’ for that job — but all the folks who are applying for it thinks they have them, and so have grounds for complaining that the process resulted in a skills mismatch.
– I’ll say there’s more than anecdotal evidence for this. So yes, if there are more applicants than jobs, the people who don’t get hired will complain. And some of them even with good reason.
– Okay. But don’t you think it’s also possible that some of them simply didn’t manage to present their skills effectively enough to convince the employer or placement agent — which if you ask me, is proof that they aren’t quite as perfectly skilled as they think they are? And therefore didn’t deserve to get hired? But try to get them to admit that. Or that the employer wasn’t smart enough to recognize their superior skills — and if so, why would they want to work for an incompetently hiring employer? This too might put a dent in their skills assessment? So what’s the problem there — does it look like one that a better ‘skills matching’ solution can get at?
– You’ve got a point there. But does that mean that there’s no problem? Are the best skilled people consistently getting hired for the jobs that need their skills?
– No, I’m not saying that; some improvement in the current practice would be good, no doubt. But look at the solutions they talking about — Harry, which one was your favorite?
– Well, at first I thought the proposal for a new agency was a worthwhile one, especially one focusing on developing and using a better set of tools, such as the matching program… but thinking more about it, I’m not so sure.
– Not sure about which part? The new agency or the software tool?
– Both, actually.
– Ah: learning! Good!
– Your cynicism is showing, Hubertissime my friend. Do you have any better ideas?
– Well, I’m not the one wanting to mess with the system here, though there are some things I feel could be done. But let’s get to the reasons why these proposals won’t do the trick first. There’s actually one common factor they don’t seem to recognize.
– What’s that, now?
– Competition. Isn’t it obvious that all the players in this game are in some form of competition with one another — not only with the other types of entities, but among themselves? Look: Employers are competing for the best job applicants. Applicants are competing for the best jobs. Schools are competing for the best students to enter their programs, first, and then for the best job placements for their graduates. Placement agencies are competing for the best companies’ contracts — fees — and the best job seekers to use their services. Government agencies too — in their ways, even though they may just be interested in getting as many people hired, regardless of skill match, to keep them out of unemployment lines?
– So? Isn’t competition good, to keep everybody on their toes?
– It does tend to work out too well for some players getting stepped on by the biggest toes, eh? But consider: to gain their precious competitive advantage, would they really be interested in some common software tool, however efficient? They would either be looking for a better program for their own use, or try to find ways to twist the outcome of such a program to their own better advantage, eh?
– Hmm.
– Yeah: hmm. And even if there were one best program that eventually everybody would use: what would the best way to twist that one to your own advantage?
– You lost me there — what would you do to the program?
– Not the program, Sophie: to the information it needs to produce its results. You heard about the GIGO effect — ‘garbage in, garbage out’, haven’t you? But ‘garbage’ is perhaps not the proper term here: the completeness of information, and its timeliness, are the keys here. For a matching program to find the ‘best’ match, it needs to have all the items on the market available to compare, to ‘match’ — both jobs and job seekers, and their respective skills.
– Stands to reason. So?
– Well, so why are placement agencies trying to get ‘exclusive’ contracts with big companies? Why do schools try to develop special ‘relationships’ with certain employers? Why job seekers try to use the placement service that have access to the best jobs, faster than others — before other applicants know about them? And why employers use separate vetting procedures and interviews after getting the ‘best’ prospects fro the placement services? And applicants use ‘connections’ to get early information about good jobs, and recommendations for those? All means of tilting the information amount, timeliness, and quality in their favor. Most of the key players are not at all interested in sharing information, getting the complete data into the program and making it accessible to all. And of course sometimes the advantages they pursue with that will override best ‘skills match’ considerations. Or look like they do.
– Well, that’s the best reason for trying to find a better way — because skills mismatch will in the end hurt everybody in some way!
– Sure, Harry. But do you see why adding another agency into the game isn’t going to fix the problem — or do you think that agency could be kept out of the competition influence?
– Well, if it could have the setup with the best program and the best, most complete information, would that not be worthwhile?
– Yeah, tell me how you can get that complete information, and convince everybody that you have it…
– I see. It looks like some government interference or regulation would be necessary.
– Maybe — and who gets to lobby and influence the government to do the ‘right thing’? But let’s assume, for the moment and fir argument’s sake, that the information problem could be solved, and that you could get funding to develop a ‘perfect match’ program. What would such a program be like?
– Well, if you look at the skills needed for a job, and the skills of the job seekers, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the best applicant — the one who has all or the most of the needed skills?
– You are assuming that there are adequate rules in place for describing skills — that the terms used actually mean the same thing for all parties. That’s something to look into, I don’t think we can assume that is true everywhere. But aren’t you also assuming a somewhat one-sided understanding of ‘best match’ here?
– What do you mean?
– I see what you are worrying about, Bog-Hubert. Harry’s explanation is looking at it from the employer’s side. What about the job seeker looking for her ‘dream job’: given the skills I have acquired in my long studies — which of the various jobs available is the ‘best match’ for me?
– Great, Sophie. That assumes a slightly different view of what the program might present as the ‘best match’. I know, I know, Harry: you are going to say that the program should be developed to take both those views into account and present them to both sides. Will that get rid of the ‘mismatch’ problem, though? Because I think we must acknowledge the fact that there will be few cases where there is a ‘perfect’ match, from either point of view. More likely, applicants will not have all job skills an employer would like to see; and applicants will have different ‘missing’ skills. So the employer will hire applicant A who is only missing skill i; and reject applicant B who ‘has’ skill i but is missing skill j; obviously, in B’s view there is a ‘mismatch’, as long as B considers skill j more important than skill i for the job — and therefore acquired that skill rather than i. Or a job does not require job k that applicant C is very proud of and would like to put to use, so even though all other requirements match, is it a ‘perfect match’?
– No, but maybe, if it’s the ‘best available’, isn’t that an improvement?
– Perhaps. But for a large number of jobs and applicants, the picture gets murky. Take even a simple example: Employers E1 and E2 are looking at the set of applicants 1, A2, and A3; assuming a simple ‘ranking’ on both sides (regardless of what other criteria the algorithm has used to establish the rankings):
E1 ranking : A1, A2, A3
E2 ranking: A2, A1, A3.
A1 ranking: E2, E1
A2 ranking: E1, E2.
A3 ranking: E1, E2
Which is the ‘best’ matching? It seems clear that A3 is out of luck, (even if she thinks she has the same skills as A1 and A2) but is E1-A1 a ‘better match’ than E1-A2 if A1 really prefers E2 (perhaps because of a better salary, or location closer to home…) and E2-A1 if E2 really wanted A2, and A2 wanted to work for E1? It looks like any matching system will make decisions that will look suboptimal to some participants — will applicants have to take the jobs the system decides is best for employers? or can preferences be adjusted in detailed negotiations to which other applicants, such as A3 who isn’t likely to be invited for a closer interview, will not have access?
– I see; that could be a problem — but if employers invite the applicants for an interview who have been recommended by the program? All or most of those should now have the required skills, or most of them, couldn’t the remaining questions be ironed out in the interview negotiations?
– Right. But before we get into that, let’s just explore the issue of the program a little more. The argument so far has been based on the assumption that jobs require skills, and applicants ‘have’ them or not — yes or no. Is that realistic? I mean, aren’t there degrees of skills, levels, that play an important role in how well an employee can do a job?
– I don’t see that as a big problem; all that’s needed is to agree on some way of distinguishing those levels, and write them into the program. It gets a little more sophisticated and refined, but nothing that a good programmer couldn’t handle. Right, Harry?
– And you don’t think it makes the definition of ‘best match’ somewhat more elusive? In a way that can give rejected job seekers reason to believe there’s mismatch?
– Yeah, I can her their cries now; ‘Skills Match’ — nothing but snake oil!
– Let’s not inflame the rejected multitudes here, Vodçek. I know you’d like to have them come here to drown their sorrows in your Tavern. But that issue isn’t even the most complex situation I can think of, Harry. Skill requirements don’t come in splendid isolation, but in different combinations, and each job may require different skill levels in those combinations. I know you can conjure up programmers who can write the program for that as well — if you are willing to pay them — but getting employers to write their job specs properly to express that, and applicants to write their resumes and applications honestly in the same terms, well, that seems to add quite a bit of doing to the task. Getting the information, again, and then figuring out what the best ‘match’ would be — all tied up in different parties’ different perspectives an motivations, handled equitably by your super program — it sounds like a big sales job, of a big barrel that some suspect is full of snake oil. You agree, Vodçek?
– Yes, but even that isn’t the biggest problem yet. If you know what the decision criteria are, you can write them into the program, and job specifications, and resumes. I’m not sure that list can be made exhaustive, using the same terms everywhere that will be understood the same way by all involved. But you mentioned interviews — that’s where a lot of aspects come into play that aren’t even likely to be in the skills list — in reality, hiring decisions are based on may other factors than just skills.
– And assessments about those are much more subjective, but hard to avoid — is that what you are saying?
– Yes, I think the list of personality features, attitudes, motivations, even appearance and habits, familiarity with the culture or the particular industry etc. can be longer than the list of skills. And even harder to describe in job specs and resumes; some such things are never mentioned because they are ‘taken for granted’, but when they come up, can make or break a hiring decision.
– Right, I remember such a case that became a big problem in a faculty search. There was this architecture program that was looking for an architecture historian, advertised nationwide and even beyond, and had gotten some promising applications. They had not only carefully examined resumes and recommendations, and ended up inviting the most qualified applicant for a visit and interview, during which a side question was made about how the professor might teach the undergraduate architectural history courses, to which he answered that he had not expected to teach undergraduate courses at all. This had never been explicitly discussed but just taken for granted by the committee member handling the vetting — it was after all a mainly undergraduate school without any specialty graduate program in things like architectural history. But the applicant had assumed that he had been considered mainly for his excellent research record…and the fellow left, in mutual disappointment. The costs of the visit for that position having been used up, they could not invite another candidate…
– Good example — even though more specific job descriptions and pre-visit vetting should have brought this out, I assume. But it shows that ‘one size-fits-all’ approaches — of software matching program and follow-up vetting protocols alike — are not likely to handle all kinds of job placement situations.
– So what would you recommend instead of these proposals, Bog-Hubert? Even the proponents of the program are curiously coming around to mumble that personal connections, relationships, and things like job fairs might be essential aspects of good job placement. But clearly not applicable to all kinds of jobs either — do you see your architectural historian walk around in a job fair?
– Right. Well, of course I don’t I have perfect solutions for that problem up my sleeve, hadn’t even thought about it before tonight. But I’d say, for starters, let’s drop labels like ‘Skills Match’ — they promise things you can’t deliver, which will add to the disgruntlements of the systemically rejected. And I think there are valid concerns about the consequences of widespread ‘mismatch’ of skills, jobs that aren’t done right, businesses that become less profitable, skilled people staying unemployed, that deserve to be taken seriously.
– Yeah, we haven’t really looked at those issues much tonight. And others – funding, for example — What do you say, old man? More categorical aperitivo classico antiquo to unleash your categorical judgment?
– Ah Vodçek, have mercy with an old-timer from last millennium — I can’t really comment on these fancy things like your matching programs and technology. And I can’t help wondering about the vulnerability of some of those tech ‘solutions’. What if there’s a big hurricane hit, or an earthquake — depending on where you live — and all your fancy power and communications are out — neither government nor companies can even get online to hire workers to help repair the damage? If you are looking for work, where do you post your resume for that wonderful software program to match it with job requirements? I say, invest in carrier pigeons. There’s a job for you, Harry. But…
– But what?
– Well, I suspect that once such tools are on the market, there’s no getting around putting them to use, and that’s as it should be. I just don’t think they will be anything like silver bullets that solve all the problems and concerns. The innovation-fixation on new tools, new tech, new methods — it may be the wrong question, eh? Looking at the wrong end of the problem?
– So what end would you look at?
– Hmm. Off the cuff, I’d say let’s use those ideas in a different way. What if, for example, there would be just a different set of incentives put in place for the different parties involved in this process, to achieve better results, better matches — and let the different parties come up with their own ideas about how to do that? Sure, that would require some answers to questions we touched upon before — appropriate measures of performance; for what counts as a good match, and ways to determine that. Your programs would come in handy for those tasks. But they’d be different for the different sectors in your system, I suppose.
– Say, what kinds of incentives do you have in mind for this approach?
– Well, that’s a good question. Some people would insist on money, on income, or reduction of expenses, tax credits, that kind of thing. Others might be happier with ‘intangible’ rewards such as PR, reputation, reviews. One thing I’d try to investigate is how to get the different entities to change their focus on longer term outcomes, not just the immediate profit from placement fees. Shifting from immediate returns to a kind of long term ‘return on investment’ perspective? Linking the rewards for placement services to the longer term productivity results from the matches they arrange? Cutting everybody in, visibly, tangibly, on the overall reduction of unemployment (and the costs associated with that), the productivity and prosperity of the overall economy, the quality of life in society?
– You’re talking about a much bigger problem there, aren’t you. Are you just drawing attention away from the concerns of the guy who just needs a job, now?
– Not at all. It’s just that that narrow focus won’t help your fellow if the economy is slumping and there aren’t enough jobs for all the folks who need one. So a wider perspective might be able to look at issues you mentioned — such as putting the skills people have to good use even if that isn’t just done by having a job? Didn’t I hear something about an idea of a ‘dual employment’ scheme that would give everybody opportunities outside of their jobs, working for social problems, public infrastructure and such, on a sliding scale, so that those capabilities will not be wasted but contribute to making things better overall? Rather than standing in unemployment lines, or having to move to other places? Or was I just dreaming?
– Must have been dreaming, my friend.
-Yeah, I know the power was off for a while, the storm knocked down a tree down the road. So I couldn’t get online, wasting my time trying to delete all those popup ads for stuff I don’t need…


New Unified ‘Next System’? Tavern Talk

Morning in the Fog Island Tavern. Tavern keeper Vodçek getting worried about one of his usual customers.

– Hey Bog-Hubert, what’s eating you? All morning you’ve been sitting there shaking your head over your tablet, even letting your coffee get cold? Am I going to have to start a no-internet rule in this lowly bistro? Here’s a warm-up. Care to share your gripes?
– Thanks Vodçek. Yes, it’s frustrating. All this unsocial talk by social networks do-gooders and holistrolls, systems Sthinkers and BigDataMongers, about how to save the world…
– Huh? Holistrolls? Sthinkers?
– Sorry, Renfroe. I’m talking about those fervent advocates of holistic thinking — Holist-rollers — morphing into trolls that obfuscate discussions by calling every idea they don’t like ‘linear’ or ‘reductionist’ …
– Good grief, are you giving us an explanation or an example of that kind of talk?
– Good point, Renfroe. Bog-Hubert, is your creative spirit morphing you into the very kind of name-calling troll we have heard you ranting about before?
– Name-calling, Abbé Boulah? Well, I call it calling a spade a spade. But yes, I guess it’s not any more conducive to constructive dialogue than their rehashing their principles and mantras without really getting off the starting plate.
– Well, what’s the race about, then, perhaps we can get moving?
– Short story, it’s about the strategy for tackling the big crises and challenges we are facing. By ‘we’, they are referring to humanity as a whole. And all those groups calling for a ‘new system’ to replace the old one, to fix things.
– Wait, Bog-Hubert: what ‘system’ are they talking about?
– Oh, it’s just about everything, — the economy, politics and governance, education, justice, religion, morality, production and consumption, information, trade, sustainability, research, climate change…
– Well, don’t they have a point saying that those systems don’t seem to work anymore, if they ever really did, and something needs to be done about that? At least thinking and talking about what a different order of things should be like?
– Sure, Vodçek. Talking, discussing it would be good — if the discussion could be organized in a more constructive fashion. But I am getting tired and suspicious of all those calls for a ‘new system’ to replace the ‘old one’ — calls for adopting this or that mantra wholesale as a guiding principle, but not getting into details about what kind of destruction and upheaval would be needed to ‘replace’ the old system, and how to deal with all the competing ideas out there about what that new system should be like. Let alone how to go about achieving it. Blindly proposing tactics, tools that simply don’t fit the nature of the problems involved.
– If you would explain that so we can understand what you are talking about, I’ll buy you another coffee…
– Okay: Take the lack of distinction between the nature of the problems we are facing. For some people, they — or some of them –are seen as problems we have dealt with before, for which there are precedents, tried-and-true tools, methods and approaches, laws — both natural and man-made, regulations, data about people’s habits, expectations and needs. Experts who know about all that. So the task is — plausibly enough — to bring the relevant knowledge together, perhaps making needed adjustments and refinements to the tools and methods, eliminate errors, mistakes, corruption etc. in the present system. Science and systems thinking, bless heir hearts, working hard to contribute to better understanding of the situations and systems. Then of course, leadership is needed to implement the ‘correct’ solutions generated by all this data.
– Sure, as long as the leaders are advised by the systems consultants, eh? But okay, sounds reasonable enough. So?
– The other view is that these social planning problems are ‘wicked’ problems — as Rittel taught us — unprecedented, understood very differently by different people. The information about how the problems and proposed solutions affect different parties is ‘distributed’, that is, not in the experts’ textbooks. There are no ‘correct or ‘false’ solutions that can be tested — just good or bad, better or worse, perhaps even evil — and people’s judgments are very different about that. It’s worth studying the properties of these problems. And so on. Go back and read the old 1970’s article about the ten or so properties of wicked problems. It would keep those folks who are pushing yet another approach to ‘solve WP’s’ to be more careful with their promises. But even the lists of those properties in many publications have been watered down to sound more benign and manageable. Anybody promising tools to ‘solve’ wicked problems either doesn’t understand their wickedness, or is selling snake oil.
– So what do we need to cope with those nasty problems?
– Would I be sitting here shaking my head and letting my coffee get cold if I knew, Renfroe? There are a few major but different attitudes I see out there. Besides the snake oil promoters, that is. I see one cluster of groups who seem to believe that the main missing remedy is a fundamental change in people’s awareness, attitudes, understanding of the ‘whole system’ — moral principles, empathy, beliefs.
– ‘Unifying’ beliefs — the ones that are supposed to prevent conflicts, wars, corruption, inequality and injustice, once everybody has come to accept those same principles and unified mindset — wouldn’t you add those?
– Ah Vodçek: I think I see what you are worried about — and isn’t that your concern as well, Bog-Hubert? The danger of falling into the trap of generating a mindset approaching totalitarian dominance? Not by brute force but by social, psychological pressure…but equally deadening.
– It’s difficult to argue with all the goodness faith articles of those movements, yes. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the responses to the crises must be somewhat coherent, consistent and, yes, have a common unified basis? Otherwise, there’s a danger that inconsistent, incompatible actions will make things even worse. And it feels unfair to disparage their good intentions as ‘totalitarian’ or ‘fascist’ — which is a different way of saying ‘unified’. But I agree, as far as I can see, they don’t usually provide enough information about how a ‘new system’ would deal with people who are not entirely converted to the faith.
– Yes: or people who even attempt to give meaning to their lives by ‘making a difference’ that includes differences with the prevailing unifying principles?
– We’ll have to discuss that problem in some more detail, I guess: put it on the list. But what was the other attitude you mentioned, Abbé Boulah?
– Ah. Thanks for reminding me, Vodçek. Well, in order to develop and then convince people about plans for collective responses to challenges — crises, or desires for new and better system — that meet the criterion of being sufficiently acceptable to all affected parties —
– Why does it have to be acceptable to all — isn’t the democratic principle that we discuss a plan but then vote on it, letting the majority decide what’s to be done? Not sure ‘decided by majority vote is really equivalent to ‘acceptable by all? Or are you going to toss that principle too in your new plan? Sorry for interrupting…
– You’re forgiven this time, my friend, because the point you are making is an important one. The much touted democratic principle, the core of democracy and freedom: ‘free elections’ but decided on the majority rule — isn’t that just ensuring that the ‘losing’ parties will harbor resentments, arguably insist that the problems the plan was supposed to solve haven’t been solved at all, just shifted around, to be suffered by different folks?
– Why is that?
– Because, Renfroe, the majority rule decision principle may assume that the arguments of the losing minority aren’t plausible or convincing enough to persuade the winning majority — but says nothing about the majority’s arguments having convinced and persuaded the minority. Or about giving ‘due consideration’ to their concerns. The issues may not have been resolved at all, just wiped off the table. The concerns and arguments that the democratic discourse is supposed to bring out for ‘due consideration’, for ‘weighing the pros and cons’, may be totally ignored by that decision rule. Leaving the problems to fester and grow. But isn’t that one of the issues we have to take up later, Bog-Hubert? You think the current forms of discourse wouldn’t be up to the task even if people were willing to do better?
– Yes, I think the first task we have to face is the organization of the discourse. It is supposed to facilitate wide participation, to bring in the arguments. To include the careful evaluation of their merit. Does it do that? And most importantly, to connect the decisions transparently and responsibly to the merit of the arguments and concerns?
– Why discourse? If we recognize dangers, shouldn’t we focus on doing something? Actions?
– You’d be right if we knew and agreed on what the right actions are. But what we see is that we don’t agree, and I think it’s fair to say that ‘we’, the humanity overall, just don’t yet know what we ought to do? So we may need more research, more experiments, and bring the results into a discourse designed for leading to better decisions?
– And you are saying that current forms and formats of discourse don’t do that properly? Are you going to tell people how to discuss and argue their issues?
– Good heavens, Vodçek, no. Sure, given all the recipes of the disciplines that tell us how to think right, the ‘rules of order’, the textbooks about how to persuade people, your suspicion is justified. I’d add to that concern the various efforts to introduce different forms of expressing the concerns — languages, codes — perhaps to make it easier for machines to document and analyze the discourse. As if the discussions weren’t already full of different disciplinary jargons that make the content difficult to understand for lay folks. I don’t think that’s what is needed. Isn’t it more a matter of displaying the essence of the different contributions? For overview, comparison, and evaluation? In common conversational terms?
– All right. So the problem is the design of the discourse platform and its support system. Aren’t there already a lot of programs and systems and social networks on the market that do exactly that? Using the new communication technology devices and the internet, that allow virtually everybody to talk to everybody else? I can’t keep up with them all — aren’t they making progress?
– Yes. They are amazing, interesting, fascinating, some people even say: addictive. But have you tried to find out which one you’d use to actually carry out a real public discourse about an important issue? Tried to follow one of those discussions to help you make up your mind about what side you are going to support, maybe even to contribute your efforts to?
– You mean sending in the donations they are all asking for isn’t enough, Vodçek?
– Phht. Do those groups ask you about your opinion or ideas? I’m not talking about the mere ‘discussion’ networks that make their money by selling ads, where people go for endless exchanges of mostly posts that immediately divert from the questions asked, but where there is never any real effort to reach a conclusion or decision. The groups that are actually trying to do something have pretty much made up their minds, their proposals, and just want your money to help promoting them. Don’t confuse them with any questions or different ideas…
– You’re right, that scene is good evidence that we need a more effective public discourse platform. One where people can bring in their ideas, concerns, their arguments, but don’t need a lot of money for spreading their message, for advertising, and lobbying the folks who really make the decisions. One where people can bring up their different views about those issues, look at others’ ideas, think about them, maybe contribute to modifying plan proposals in response to others’ concerns.
– What about those people who are claiming that instead of throwing their views, their thinking about what we ought to do at each other, everybody should just do the ‘right thing’, not what they think is the right thing? Focus on what actually is the case, not what they think is the case?
– Oh, Sophie, you mean that fellow on the internet you were so annoyed about, what was his name? I know those types. Are they just trying to tell everybody else they are wrong, stupid or tied up and blinded by their ideologies (which are also wrong, of course) — trying to get everybody to accept their version of what is happening and what ought to be done? Or do they actually have a better access to the right thing?
– Hard to tell. I mean, of course we should base our thinking on the actual facts — on reality — and our proposals about what to do on what is the right thing to do. Can’t argue with that; it’s barging in open doors. No, I get confused about that thinking part: Say I have actually found out what is really happening, after having changed my initial flawed assumptions, doing some investigation, which in part consisted of listening to what other folks were thinking (but who were of course wrong because they were just thinking, not knowing, according to that fellow) — am I not still just thinking that I know, and therefore still wrong?
– Could be that they were just hoping you’d accept some story from some authority or holy book — on faith, not thinking, mind you? But then: what if there are several wise guys or holy books around, that tell you different stories…
– Well, Sophie, I’d say forget those disruptions. Ignore them. Look, we are all trying to engage in a discourse where different views about what is the case, and what ought to be done, are put forward for examination — the discourse ought to report and be tied in with actual observation, measurement, experiments. So aren’t we actually already doing that: finding out, to be best of our current information and data — what the real facts are, what is the right thing we ought to do? Or has this guy you mentioned suggested something better?
– Good point, Bog-Hubert. But don’t offend them by too obviously ignoring them; They’ll just go around claiming you refuse to accept reality and the right thing to do.
– ‘The right thing to do’, Vodçek — isn’t that just another way of saying ‘what we ought to do’? Repeating a proposed position — by without giving a reason why something is or isn’t the right thing?
– All right, you are getting to the core of problems here. I’d say we should be more careful and humble with those terms: ‘reality’ and ‘the right thing to do’. Do we really ever know reality? I think Karl Popper’s warning about the ‘symmetry of ignorance’ is a good thing to keep in mind: (I forgot the exact place) — What I know — a — about reality (even about the situation involving a problem we are facing, and all its relations with the rest of the world) and what you know — b — amounts to precious little compared with the infinity of what there is to know: a/∞ = b/∞ = 0. Zero.
– You are not inspiring a particularly optimistic outlook here today, my friend. What are we to make of that, eh? Chastise you for spreading views not conducive to increasing the self-confidence of would-be world saviors? Bad boy. Almost as evil as using the term ‘argument’ in polite discourse?
– So sorry. Yes, your statement ‘to the best of our current information’ is more appropriate to keep us more modest: We find that we have to do something, but we know that our big data information is limited, our knowledge imperfect; we can’t be completely certain about anything.
– So we can’t do anything? Give up?
– No, Renfroe: we have to take a chance, assume the risk of possibly being wrong. And if we can’t assume that responsibility by ourselves — even those of us who are making plans and decisions on behalf of others and the public — we need to find people who are willing to share that responsibility, share the risks.
– That’s what Rittel called the ‘complicity model of planning’, didn’t he?
– Right, Bog-Hubert.
– So now we have to deal with the issue of responsibility and accountability as well. What does that actually mean — other than pompous words by leaders who are always letting others suffer the consequences of their irresponsible actions?
– Put that one on the list too, for now. We haven’t gotten very far with the design of the discourse and its support system yet. Shouldn’t we get some more detail on that first?
– Okay. The insight about the missing reasons why, in those exhortations about doing the right thing, that was the next step there: the arguments, pros and cons about plan proposals.
– Oh, great. Are you going to dump the entire literature on argumentation, from Aristotle on through two thousand years of logic and critical thinking fat books on us here?
– We’d deplete Vodçek’s supplies of coffee and other inspiring lubrications if we tried; no. I don’t think the discourse framework has any business telling people how to think and argue — that’s somebody else’s job description. Education? Regular columns in the newspapers? Fact-and fallacy-checking internet sites? Interesting possibilities there, whole new industries? No: the first task of the discourse platform is simply to alert people about what plans and policies are being proposed, to then encourage and invite comments, arguments, ideas, and to record them for reference.
– I’d say we have achieved that step already. And it isn’t a pretty picture, if you ask me. Or don’t you suffer from that information overload like the rest of us, Abbé Boulah?
– Oh, I do, sure. The avalanche of so-called information, data, opinions, arguments that aren’t really coherent arguments but rants and quarrels replete with repetitions and name-calling — quarrgument would be a better name — that our glorious information technology has let loose upon humanity. It’s like one of the curses of ol’ Pandora’s lacquered box. Enough to make one lose faith in the species. That’s where the next task of the discourse platform is so desperately needed: to extract the essential core of all the discourse contributions, — especially the essential argument core of all those pros and cons — and to display those in a concise, condensed form so people can keep a clear overview of the key subject matter. And also to make it easy for them to form reasonable judgments to support or reject the plan proposals. That’s where a lot of work is needed.
– I thought your buddy up at the university has done some useful work on that part?
– Well, yes, but it’s work in progress, and he’s retired, and doesn’t have the means nor the institutional support to conduct substantial case studies, experiments and tests of his ideas any more. So it’s slow going.
– Why, aren’t there other researchers to take up that work?
– Looks like he’s not doing enough to spread the work, to get others interested and involved, to market his ideas. He seems to think it’s enough to have thought them up and written some books and papers about them.
– Lazy, eh?
– Well, Sophie, he probably wouldn’t argue with that uncharitable assessment. But he does keep working on all this — he’s actually written more since he retired than he ever did while teaching. So is that really a fair assessment? And there’s the problem that those ideas are crossing several academic discipline borders, each of which is saying that the questions are too far out of their domain, or if they aren’t, what does that guy from the other department know about their science? Besides: why does somebody who can think up useful ideas and methods also have to be the slick salesman to sell them to the world? But perhaps we have to be patient, and wait for other people to come up with better ideas… For now, I’d say we do have some basic concepts that could be put to good use for that second step.
– So what more do we need?
– The next task may be even more important. All the contributions to the discourse, even in some cleaned-up, organized and concise display, don’t yet make it clear how they support the decisions we have to make. Especially because — by definition — the ‘pros’ are contradicting the ‘con’s, and not all arguments supporting the same position carry the same weight. That needs to be sorted out and clarified: evaluation.
– What’s the purpose of that? I mean, people are usually voting their preconceived positions anyway. Or the managers, leaders, governors or presidents are making their decisions whether or not they have really ‘carefully weighed the pros and cons’ like they promised in their campaigns…
– Well, isn’t that precisely the problem? Actually, I thought you were going to bring up the argument that if we follow the steps of some approved approach — something like the Pattern Language, the fact of having followed those rules guarantee a good, valid solution: no evaluation needed, case closed. Which of course doesn’t apply to wicked, unprecedented problems for which there aren’t any established rule systems. But you are actually making the case for more careful assessment here, aren’t you?
– Next thing, you’re going to accuse me of speaking prose. But I still don’t see just what the benefit of such evaluation procedures is going to be.
– Actually, there are two different purposes a more systematic evaluation would serve. And I guess I should make it clear that it should be done by all the folks participating in the discourse, not by some separate panel of experts. And it should be detailed enough to address the individual premises or items of information in the discourse contributions, and their supporting evidence, if needed.
– Sounds like a lot of extra trouble. But go on…
– Yeah, You may have to decide in each case whether its’ worth preventing bad decisions. Then the first benefit is that the assessments can help us see where the actual disagreements are, so that the discussion can focus on clarifying the basis of those disagreements — misunderstanding, inadequate factual information, different goals and concerns? And doing so, help modify, improve the proposed plan to make them more acceptable to all parties.
– What do you mean — aren’t the disagreements obvious?
– Not always: You can be against somebody’s argument for a plan A that claims that A will lead to effect B (given conditions C), that B ought to be, and that conditions C are present. You may doubt the first premise that A will cause B. Or you may not agree that we ought to pursue B as a goal. Or you may agree with both of those, but don’t believe all the conditions C are in place to make it work. So just saying that you disagree might induce the proponent to cite all kinds of evidence and big data to support the claim that A will cause B, when it’s actually consequence B you disagree with…
– Okay, get it. And your second aspect?
– Right, getting to that: the benefit a more thorough evaluation could produce is a more specific measure of support of the proposed plans or policies, after all the talk has run its course.
– What good would that do? If people vote their preconceived solutions anyway?
– It could serve to introduce a greater degree of accountability into the decision process, don’t you see? It would make it more difficult for the decision-makers, whoever they are in each situation, to decide to adopt a plan that has achieved a very low or even negative approval rating from the discourse participants. Or conversely, reject a plan that has gotten a high degree of approval from the group.
– Would that be needed if the decision is based directly on that measure of approval, — if you can develop a reasonable measure for that, which remains to be clarified, because I’m not sure I can see it yet.
– Good question, Vodçek. Actually, several questions. Your main one: why not use the support measure as the decision criterion, like the outcome of a yes-or-no vote? It has to do with the question whether we can be sure all the information that should be given ‘due consideration’ is actually brought up and made explicit in the discussion, so that it can be included in the evaluation? Next: even for all the points that have been raised explicitly: how is that measure of support made up of all the judgments about individual answers, arguments and their premises, first for each individual participant? And finally: how would we construct a meaningful ‘group measure’ of support from all the individual judgments?
– A veritable nest of wicked questions in themselves — and you don’t have good, final answers yet?
– Right, sadly. To the best of our current view: we can’t guarantee that the explicit contributions actually represent all pertinent considerations that legitimately should influence decisions. Like some issues that are important but ‘taken for granted’ so nobody bothered to bring them up. Or somebody not disclosing information that could be detrimental to other groups. And for the other questions, there are several plausible answers or approaches to each of them; for example, how to construct group support measures from the individual judgments. And since we don’t have any experience with how they would be used in a real situation yet, none of them is a clear-cut solution for all situations. Those different situations, finally, may involve institutional traditions, constitutional constraints, the different ‘accountability’ status of the people making a recommendation versus those who have been appointed to make decisions and whose jobs depend on how they do that, etc. So in many situations, the actual decision may have to be made by traditional means and rules, and our support measures should be no more than guiding support information.
– I see. But if the consultants get hold of this, they’d mash it into some new ‘brand’ and sell it as the ultimate decision rules anyway…
– Now, now. Don’t throw all the consultants in the bathwater… The managers do need somebody to come in and tell the troops that the boss is right…
– Well who’s the cynic now? But aren’t we getting away from the main issue here, Bog-Hubert?
– Oh yes, I realize that: consulting for a company that is locked in fierce competition with other firms is somewhat different from calling for the grand new system for all mankind, where conflict and competition is supposed to be replaced by universal awareness, goodwill and cooperation. So the consultant’s systems work has to be different from the grand public system discourse, because they still have to accommodate competition as the essential business issue — but the stories for getting the team inside the company to work more productively are using the same kinds of mantras that apply to the grand system. Somebody might want to take a look at that discrepancy. Vodçek, you have some ideas about that?
– Yeah I have often wondered why they all have to come up with their own different ‘brand’ of systems thinking tools until I realized that they can’t really sell the same approach to different, competing companies: if they all used the same approach, they can’t claim that the differences in profitability is due to the approach they were selling…
– Abbé Boulah, getting back to the question about decisions for a minute: I know we left the decision modes up for adaptation to the situation, — so as to not fall into the trap of designing a grand unified system for this discourse project, perhaps? But Isn’t that leaving the door open for another big problem — one of those grand challenges all humanity must come to grips with?
– What challenges are you talking about, again?
– Sorry Renfroe. Bog-Hubert was worrying about all the global crises threatening humanity, for which the do-gooder grand systems folks are trying to develop their ultimate system remedy. You know: Climate change, dwindling resources like food, energy, water to sustain a growing world population, conflicts and wars fought with evermore destructive weapons that threaten the survival even of the winners, the financial system booms and busts, inequality of wealth and income, health care and education.
– Oh okay. So which one of those were you talking about — for which the discourse decision provisions were leaving the door open?
– Sorry, I didn’t list that one in my examples. It’s the question of power, and how to control it. It’s one of those problems for which we need the discourse platform; and of course the way we will deal with it will affect the design of the discourse system itself.
– Yeah, yeah, the old systems rule, everything is related to and affects everything else. So? We can’t design the discourse before we solve the power problem? Sounds like a dinosaur-size chicken-and-egg problem.
– Right, Sophie: it just goes to show how wicked these issues are. But let me explain why the design of the discourse system may have some interesting ‘collateral benefit’ for the power conundrum.
– What’s the problem with power, anyway, specifically? We all want some, the communities at all sizes need power to get things done, it’s like anything, getting too much of a good thing is going to be bad for you… It’s reality, no?
– Well, let me try to explain. Yes, you are right: we all want power. To pursue our happiness — at our lowly common folks’ level we call it ’empowerment’ when we don’t have enough of it. You might consider it a kind of human right. We also need power in society: even in an ideal hypothetical society where all community decisions lead to agreements we all supported in that glorious collective discourse platform we are designing — and all are supposed to adhere to. Even there, some people might want to do things for their own greater benefit, in violation of those agreements. Deliberately or inadvertently. So societies have provisions to try to prevent the potential violators from doing that — and it’s mostly done by pursuing and imposing penalties and sanctions on the bad guys who did it. The predominant tool for that has been the set of institutions we call law enforcement and judicial. In order to do its job effectively, it must have more power that any would-be violator, right?
– Now that you point it out, oh boy; you’re right.
– Yes. It explains the escalation in arsenals and budgets on all sides. Now we know that power itself is, to put it bluntly, addictive. The powerful want more and more of it. Maybe that’s because many forms of power involve getting others to do what the powerful want them to do, but those others don’t, because they don’t get to do what they want to do, and there’s resistance, resentment. Which must be controlled by more power. And there’s a powerful temptation to break the rules, because do you really have power if you have to abide by laws and rules — even if you made those rules yourself? The Caligula syndrome. You’re not really ‘free’ unless you can do things that violate all society’s rules and laws, even laws of logic and reason? Let’s see who has power: I’ll make my horse a consul, so there.
– Okay, but haven’t we — human societies — developed some viable means of controlling power? Time limits for power-wielding office holders, elections, impeachment, balance of legislature, executive, and judicial branches of government, corruption laws…?
– Right. And some have been reasonably effective. But there are worrisome signs that those provisions are reaching the limits of their effectiveness. We can suspect some of the reasons for that — for example, that non-government entities — to which those governmental power constraints do not apply — are using their economic power to control governments.
– You mean: buying governments?
– I don’t want to speculate here — but doesn’t it sometimes look like it’s possible…? Or that it’s actually happening? But that aside: now that we are reaching a global situation where many are talking about some world government — what if that government were to be taken over by non-government entities? Already, huge corporations are operating across national borders almost as if they didn’t exist; international crime syndicates have always done that, as well as religions. It took a long time in the western world to get governments separated from the church. But the real danger is — whoever is holding the global power — that by the logic of having to be more powerful than any would-be violator of its agreements, treaties, laws — there can be no more powerful entity to keep a global government or power from playing a little loosely with this duty of adhering to the laws. Or to any agreement we may have laboriously argued our way to adopt in our global discourse forum. Will the global government be immune to the temptations of power?
– Your contribution to this discourse is getting kind of depressing here, Abbé Boulah. Any ideas what to do about that?
– You mean shut up? Sure, let’s all join the global ostrich community. Or do you actually expect lil’ ol’ me to have the answer to this conundrum that nobody really wants to discuss, as far as I can see?
– Well, I was hoping you’d have some answers…
– Coming to think of it: Haven’t we, with the help of Vodçek’s lubrications in this great Fog Island Tavern, developed some tentative, crazy ideas that may at least trigger some discussion and shake up better solutions? You may have forgotten or lost them out of sight in that fog that gave it its name.
– Come on. Quit beating around the bush and remind us!
– Okay, okay. One concept was the notion of sanctions for agreement violations that don’t require an ‘enforcement’ agency equipped with the ever-growing and ever-escalating force armament, requiring impressive ‘prosecution’ first in catching the perps and then to run them through the judicial system, resulting in high costs and then enforced penalties and punishment. Instead, to develop provisions for ‘sanctions’ that are automatically triggered by the very attempt of violation, and thereby prevent the violation before it begins.
– I remember now. We didn’t get very far with specific implementation ideas though.
– Right: though we have some promising technologies for low-grade violations, it is an idea that needs discussion, research and development. Is anybody doing that in a systematic, sustained way? Put it on the list: it’s one of the topics that should be on the discourse agenda.
– Wasn’t there also something about making power holders pay for decisions? And using some kind of credit points from the discourse and argument evaluation as the currency for that?
– Good point, Vodçek! Are you keeping a record of all the great ideas we are tossing about at your counter?
– No, it might be a good idea. But that one just stuck in my mind because it sounded so crazy.
– What in three twisters name are you guys talking about?
– Ah Sophie, you must have missed some episodes of this embryonic global tavern discourse.
– Come on, lose the fancy obscurantist talk, just explain that crazy idea Vodçek was mentioning.
– Ouch, ‘obscurantist’ — that hurts, I’ll have to treat my wounds with some Zinfandel, if Vodçek has some at hand. Bog-Hubert, do you have a clearer memory about that crazy idea?
– Well, we talked about contributions to the discourse. We wanted to encourage, invite people to contribute their ideas and concerns, on the one hand, but keep that flow of posts from getting overwhelmed by repetition. So what if there was a system giving every contributor some ‘civic credit’ points for every idea, every argument. But only the first one with the substantially same content — even if expressed in different words. That also would have the effect of getting those contributions fast — since only the first one would get the credit.
– Good idea — that would cut down of some of the volume … But what does it have to do with the power problem?
– Hold on a minute, Sophie — there’s an intermediate step we have to fill in first. It’s the argument evaluation. Some of those are very plausible, others turn out to be just blah or mistaken, or even distracting. Since these information bits and arguments are evaluated by the participants in order to develop the decision support ‘plausibility’ measure, we could use those assessments to adjust the basic contribution credit points. Upward for plausible, good and significant items, downward for worthless ones. Those revised credit points could be recorded in a ‘civic credit account’ for each participant. Now that credit can be an added criterion for electing or assigning people to power positions — you know, people who have to make fast decisions for matters that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy and thorough discussions. They will still be needed, right? We didn’t mention those when we were talking about controlling power a while ago.
– Shucks, and here I started dreaming that we could get rid of those in our grand new system, and all go fishing… or celebrating her in the tavern?
– So sorry. But the connection to the power problem was the idea we had here some long November night, that we’d have people pay for each of those power decisions. If power is something like a human need, it’s like food and shelter and movies — we are expected to pay for it — why not for the power to make power decisions? And the credit account would be the currency for doing that. If you’ve used up your credits, guv, and there aren’t any folks willing to transfer some of their hard-earned credits to you for making those decisions on our behalf, the jig is up, back to the discussion earning more credits. Like the automatically triggered sanctions for agreement violations, it’s another partial approach for controlling power. If we are going to have any serious global agreements or ‘system’, — a kind of global government — aren’t these some really urgent issues we need to start talking about? Eh, Bog-hubert?
– Yes, that was why I wasn’t so happy about all those grand new systems proposals — there isn’t much about such issues in those glorious schemes, as far as I can see.
– So have we learned anything from this palaver, are we ready for some conclusions, however preliminary?
– Well there are a few things we could throw out as ‘best of current misconceptions’ Like:
* The ‘grand new unified system’ idea is a rather questionable one;
* Even if we thought it was needed — and arguably, some aspects are; — but we don’t really know enough to do it right yet; and there is not enough agreement about that; so
* We need more research and experiments with different ideas — small local initiatives to gain experience with what works and what doesn’t work; and feed the results into
* A global discourse for which we first need a much improved platform with an integrated support system including extracting the essential core of contributions; better display and mapping, argument evaluation, and a mechanism for linking decisions to the merit of those arguments and contributions. And
* Using some of our collateral discourse ideas for better control of power, especially the control of the power that will have to ensure adherence to global unified decisions and agreements.
* So the first global agreement we need is the design of the global discourse platform in which we can discuss whether a grand new system is needed and what it should be like.

Next system map
– Well — how do we get people to start thinking and talking about those things?
– Put it on the list…
– Hey: what list? Did you forget where you are? And that this entire discussion is as fictional and hypothetical as the entire mythical Fog Island Tavern and its suspicious customers?


On the usefulness of design recommendations (such as ‘patterns’)

Related to the proliferation of ‘pattern language’ adaptations in many domains other than the built environment for which C. Alexander developed the original Pattern Language, a question arose about the usefulness of many pattern descriptions; and a challenge to select one or two pattern specifications that do not appear very useful for more detailed discussion.

I am not familiar enough with the specific intentions and expectations of the developers of other pattern language projects to properly judge the appropriateness or usefulness of such patterns, and I have not arrived at a sufficiently thought-through conclusion about whether I am ready to adopt the pattern concept, to spent time on work on patterns for the kinds of concerns I am interested in and have some qualification to make contributions. So rather than offering critiques of others’ patterns, I suggest to look at some aspects of usefulness for a narrow understanding of pattern intent that I would prefer to call ‘design recommendations’ or ‘rules’, for the time being, on the assumption that they may of partial relevance for actual bona fide pattern work as well.

1 Recommendations as practical guides for action.
The first assumption I am making to narrow the field is that of looking for rules or guidelines for design or planning tasks, that is, activities aiming at the production of a plan, a set of agreements about some intended actions to effect changes in what we perceive as the ‘real world’. In this, I am following the original concept of ‘pattern’ as stated by Alexander, as recommendations for specific arrangements in the built environment that are aiming at remedying certain problems (or arrangements that in themselves are seen as remedies for problems that are perceived to occur in the built environment, given certain specified context conditions.

2 Adequate detail of description
Such a recommendation will be useful to the extent it describes the context conditions, the problem, and the recommended action in sufficient detail for a user to recognize those conditions and problems in the design situation at hand, and to apply the recommended action or arrangement. This means that the recommendation must take the form of one or more coherently expressed sentences connecting the three parts of the recommendation. The mere listing of single concepts, goals, ‘principles’, qualities etc. would not meet this expectation, nor would the statement of only one of the three components, e.g. just a ‘problem’ — no matter how significant the problems and imperative the implied admonition to do something about it.

3 Limitations of applicability
The above first description of design recommendations is useful only within a narrow range of situations, for several reasons.

a) A first limitation is implied in the validity assertion of the original patterns themselves: the fact that the problem is ‘recurring’ under the specified conditions, and that the recommendation or ‘solution’ has proved to be reliably remedying that problem in the past: ‘timeless’. Its usefulness is based on precedent experience. This is unquestionably useful, and there are certainly many such situations. Even in the specific dealings with problem situations for which there are no precedents (and therefore no known, proven remedies) many individual activities will rely on such rules and experiences — but the ‘pattern’ and implied guarantee of the recommendation ‘if context and problem then solution’ obviously cannot be stated. For problems of the ‘wicked’, unprecedented kind, there are no simple, basic recommendations that guarantee success.

b) The first simple understanding of design recommendation assumes that there is sufficient agreement among the parties involved as to the nature and definition of the ‘context’, the ‘problem’, and the adequacy of the proposed ‘solution’. This assumption does not apply to most situations that call for collective design and planning. Most such situations contain conflicts between the parties involved; and even the most cooperative projects will incur the allocation of resources — usually called ‘costs’ in the pursuit of achieving the ‘benefits’ of the remedy-solution — and in all but the rarest cases a distribution of costs and benefits that is perceived as equally fair, equitable, acceptable and satisfactory by all parties affected by the problem and its proposed solutions. The ‘costs’ are ‘benefits’ to some, and the benefits can often be seen as costs to others. The simple statements even of the most intuitively appealing Alexander patterns blatantly ignore this, by postulating some overriding, absolute (even, in Alexander’s view, ‘objective’ and thus indisputable) ‘value’. The claim that the pattern will achieve ‘aliveness’ of the resulting environment — a ‘quality without a name’ — is a similar postulate removing the recommendation from any discussion: it cannot be described, and must be accepted on faith. Any adaptation of this feature in other domains is likely to generate questions and opposition and cause unnecessary conflicts.

c) The relative vagueness of the pattern recommendations — even such rules as ‘light from to sides’ in rooms — that obviously don’t specify any parameters or dimensions of details such as whether the windows should be high up on the walls or reach down to the floor, etc. permit Alexander to claim that the pattern can be used ‘a million times’ without doing it exactly the same way twice and is therefore open to almost unlimited participatory modification by the designers / users — but that this modification must not be allowed to extend to violating the basic pattern itself. This restriction would be unacceptable to many humans who are driven to ‘make a difference’, to do things ‘their own way’ — to break the rule just because it is stated as a rule: a potentially ubiquitous pattern – problem for which the ‘remedy’ is violation of the rule, by definition?

d) The recommendations do not include any consideration of ability, affordability, of the resources needed to apply the prescribed solution, not of the potential consequences of the solutions if, for example, applied at a large scale.

4 Relationship networks
The recommendations (again, following the original pattern descriptions) cannot be applied in isolation, but must form a network of relationships. Like a meaningful (scientific) theory, the statements or individual descriptions must be mutually supporting. The relationships claimed in the original PL are often merely the ‘part-whole’ relations: each pattern is part of a larger pattern and consists in turn of smaller patterns. There are undoubtedly other types of relationships that can or should be considered in constructing a whole plan — the point is that for a plan that will hold together, or a ‘language’ to allow the telling of a coherent story — the relationships must be described, again, in sufficient detail to allow a user to apply them ‘properly’. Should there also be room for the creation and definition of ‘new’ relations that will make a new kind of network and language?

5 ‘Secret’ or user ability to discover, construct / reconstruct meaning?

Getting into a bit of unexplored territory here, the recommendation might have to address the question of how its ‘solution’ interacts with the perception and understanding of the viewer/user. Many recommendations implicitly or explicitly hint at a ‘secret’ behind the recommendation that lends validity to the resulting design — but remains silent about how that promise of validity is perceived by the viewer. We are just expected to intuitively accept it as ‘alive’, ‘timeless’ etc. Is this enough? I have a hunch that beyond the immediate perception of a design / environment as ‘appealing’, ‘alive’, ‘beautiful’, there needs to be the opportunity for a viewer to begin to explore the setup, to unravel the ‘secret’, to discover what makes it work — that is. what makes it work not only on a general level (the ‘absolute truth’ level Alexander is emphasizing) but also for individual viewers and their different backgrounds, preconceptions, concerns, sensibilities; their ability to discover how the design connects with those personal concerns. ‘Constructing’ the personal meaning from what is there, not only ‘reconstructing’ the meaning of the general context-problem-solution structure of the ‘pattern’ the designer put there. I have tried to explore some of those relationships with the concepts of ‘occasions’ (of the life of the individuals using a place) and the ‘image’ connotations evoked by the design about ‘who we are’ in the users/viewers. (This issue of personal reconstruction also applies to the use of scale and proportional arrangements in a formal environmental design; ‘discovering’ the ‘secrets’ of the proportion and composition devices the designer used to make the solution so ‘appealing’ both at first sight and increased familiarity. The ‘new’ exciting forms of much current architecture, for example, that don’t reveal anything more to the curious exploration after the first few encounters will soon become obsolete and annoying.)

6 Recurring versus unprecedented problems.
The process of use of design recommendations or rules should be open to the question of whether it applies to the given situation — whether it can be adequately described as containing a ‘recurring’ problem for which the timeless ‘solution’ has been adequately proven, or whether it is an unprecedented, ‘wicked’ problem, for which a different approach with different tools should be applied. The reminder ‘wrong question?’ — repeated on the bottom of each page (in addition to the Jessie’s good suggestion of ‘what might you add?’ question ) is a first necessary point of clarification to prevent the perhaps ‘efficient’ but possibly ultimately dead-end application of inappropriate remedies. It may be necessary to give potential users additional hints and suggestions to recognize such conditions — for each proposed recommendation. Each collection or rulebook of design prescriptions (pattern languages?) should contain a section of suggestions for useful steps to take in situations where the context contains elements that make the problem ‘unprecedented’ and calls for a different approach.

7 Specialized vocabulary: jargon?
For design and planning projects that call for wide participation of users or citizens in general, the description of recommendations in a special vocabulary or ‘language’ will become a ‘usefulness’ issue. Understanding and mastery of that vocabulary as a prerequisite for meaningful participation in the discourse, will inevitably become a barrier for participation. The flow of essential ‘distributed’ information about context and the way the problem and its proposed solutions affect different parties will be restricted, with potential repercussions for general public acceptance of solutions. So a general ‘meta-rule’ for such projects might be to express design recommendations in as general conversational language as possible.


AGENDA FOR A ‘SCAFFOLD’ OF TRANSFORMATION PROJECTS: A PERSONAL VIEW

The following is an attempt to articulate basic premises and assumptions about various proposed efforts to respond to crises and problems, corresponding proposals, the resulting agenda and the parts I might be able to work on, for discussion.
(Numbered for ease of commenting.)

1 There is widespread concern about serious crises and problems threatening humanity.

2 The existing systems of governance and economic relations do not seem to be able to remedy or prevent these crises effectively; in fact, it seems that some crises are actually caused and exacerbated by those systems.

3 Thus, the calls for ‘change’, ‘transformation’, for a new ‘model for survival’ are both urgent and plausible. However: there is no common agreement about what the remedies, what that new model should be, and how it should be brought about.

4 The models and visions (in many current discussions) appear to mean some overall ‘global’ political-economic governance model to replace existing structures. There are reasons to question whether this search for ‘one model’ is the appropriate approach.

5 The next question ‘how to achieve this?’ would draw on
a) possible precedents, models; and / or
b) plausible information, knowledge, ideas (visions) for new solutions
c) available tools, methods, ‘approaches’ for dealing to the tasks.

6 Both extensive efforts by many people and organizations, (for example, a several year-long discussion on LI by members of a group of people calling itself ‘systems thinkers and subscribing to the claim that ‘systems thinking offers the best foundation for meeting the challenges / solving the problems facing humanity’), did not yield a consensus about even which direction to choose in developing such a model, which of the available tools to use, let alone a convincing model proposal itself.

7 Neither the examination of historical precedents nor the discussion of new methods and techniques support the notion that ‘we’ (humanity, our leaders, systems thinkers or other analysts), currently know enough and have sufficient agreements to confidently develop a global model for survival — one that could replace or override the existing systems without causing violent opposition, wars, upheavals, while guaranteeing a better future. Thus, in my opinion, the discussion should – while not giving up the discussion for such a global model – focus more decisively on a more incremental strategy.

8 We need more information – not just ‘data’ about current conditions, but information about what would work, supported both by methodological research and systematically evaluated experiments with different models: experiments not on a global scale (we can’t afford global failure of another ‘grand scale’ global model) but at small, local scale where ‘failure’ can become important information about what works and what does not, while the effects of failure on the group where it was tried can be remedied by global support and aid. ‘Failures’ should not be despised, shunned and punished, but its information results rewarded just as much as those of ‘successes’.

9 The above-mentioned LI discussion, for example, revealed that there are already many experiments, initiatives for alternative ways of doing things in many areas of life underway in many countries. Most are not supported but struggling to survive opposition by traditional attitudes and structures that might feel threatened by these innovations; and there seems to be little communication and exchange of information between them. Nor is there a coherent system in place for harvesting the insights from these efforts for evaluation of what works and what doesn’t.

10 A few counteracting forces can be seen that must be acknowledged and considered in responding to the issue:
a) The right to plan (in the ‘pursuit of happiness’ in all forms) is acknowledged as a human right. All planning must necessarily rely on the assumption of some ‘context’ conditions remaining sufficiently stable to guarantee the reliability of predictions of plan success — even while pursuing change;
b) The pursuit of change is driven not only by the desire to ‘solve problems’ but by an inherent desire to ‘make a difference’ in life.
(Both these forces are currently active; both must be adequately accommodated in whatever eventual ‘model’ is going to be adopted.)
c) Both pursuits also inherently rely on some set of unchanging, stable conditions – conditions that guarantee the effectiveness of actions to achieve the desired change. They include not only natural laws such as gravity or the properties of materials, but also assumptions about laws, habits, agreements that rule human behavior. (The relentless calls for ‘change’, ‘transformation’, even ‘destructive creativity’ seem to ignore this fact, raising the possibility of resulting in a state of continuous chaotic change.)
d) These counteracting forces tend to generate conflicts even in relationships characterized by genuine desire for cooperation. Resolution of conflicts by force or coercion, historically dominant, is increasingly recognized as ineffective let alone immoral and even intensifying and making conflict a recurring and escalating problem, Thus, the development of better, effective nonviolent means of conflict resolution is becoming more urgent. In general, such means will result in social ‘agreements’ (laws, treaties). Such agreements must cover all ‘local’ domains affected by the potential conflict: they will have connect those domains, becoming nonlocal: ‘global’.

(Example: we drive cars to destinations determined by our individual needs and desires: all different. But in doing so, we rely on a commonly accepted agreement: to drive on the ‘right’ (agreed-upon) side. It is arbitrary which side, as rules in different countries demonstrate; the important thing is that it is agreed upon, and that adequate provisions are in place to ensure that the agreements are adhered to.)

11 The implication of the above assumptions is that we ‘need’ both the right and opportunities to plan our different individual plans, individually or in groups) AND common agreements for behavior when plans might interact in conflicting ways. The acknowledgement of individuals’ and groups’ rights to pursue plans is the first needed global agreement.

12 Both the common need for diverse experiments (to gain information about what works) and the individual need for ‘making a difference’ can be met by a commonly agreed-upon policy to allow and support a variety of experiments and initiatives.

13 This agreement should include a common provision or entity – a forum — for coordinating the diverse initiatives, keeping track of their experiences and performance, and for negotiating necessary ‘global’ (or inter-initiative) agreements and ‘rules’.

14 The provisions for ensuring that agreements (laws) are adhered to have in the past relied on ‘enforcement’ – replying to violations by means of force. To be effective, the entities designated to do this have to be more ‘forceful’ – that is, more powerful – than any would-be violator. This makes the enforcement entities extremely vulnerable to the temptations of power: by definition, there is no ‘more powerful’ entity to prevent the powerful from violating the very rules and agreements they are supposed to enforce. The control of power – important at all levels of society – becomes critical at the level of global governance. Traditional tools for the control of power are arguably losing their effectiveness, the search for better means of power control should be given highest priority.

15 Since new initiatives tend to, or tend to be perceived as threatening or competing with existing institutions, infrastructure and processes and powers, an initial strategy of implementation of such policies should seek out ‘new’ projects aiming at creating new needed entities rather than replacing existing ones, in domains where there are no existing power structures that might feel threatened and therefore obstruct experiments. One good (if not the best) way to do this is to encourage such initiatives and experiments (‘Innovation zones’) in areas (geographical or societal, non-territorial) where existing social, technological and governance infrastructure has been destroyed — e.g. by natural or man–made disasters — or not yet developed in response to innovations in technology, science, or human vision. Initiatives would be run on a volunteer basis, in return for agreement to certain conditions (below).

16 The support of such initiatives in disaster areas would consist mainly of that share of humanitarian aid normally given to disaster relief that would be used to reconstruct (existing/old) infrastructure, in addition to other philanthropic support for the applicable causes. It would instead be devoted to start and support the innovation initiative.

17 Such designated support would be provided on condition of
a) Presentation of a plan outline for the experiment; including some indication of what would be considered a measure or indication of success. These conditions should be carefully kept ‘unbureaucratic’.
b) Agreement to reasonably carefully log, monitor and record the effort and its outcomes, whether success or failure to meet its intended goals. (This could be done by the coordinating entity.) It must be emphasized that even records of what does NOT work are what is needed overall, for the development of larger coherent models and plans.
c) The plan may include transition provisions for either expanding the key features of the experiment into other areas (or neighboring regions) if successful, or reversion to existing or other conditions in the case of failure.

18 The implementation of the proposed strategy would require a ‘platform’, forum or ‘scaffold’ – organization? – with the following aims and components:

A) A data base of
a) currently existing initiatives and experiments;
(including past items to the extent adequate information can be found)
b) the growing list of proposed new experiments;
c) a ‘tool kit’ of techniques, methods, procedures, etc. that are or can be used by the initiatives, and shared with others.
d) a set of ‘innovation experiment templates’ that can serve groups in setting up and quickly apply for support (esp. in case of emergencies); they can be adapted and modified in response to conditions and ideas;
e) a network of governmental and other providers of support for such initiatives;

B) A ‘planning discourse support platform’ for the following tasks:
a) development and discussion of proposed initiative templates;
b) discussion and evaluation of proposed initiatives to be supported;
c) the development and discussion of common, ‘global’ agreements;
d) drawing recommendations from the experiences that might lead to promising ideas for the eventual development of larger ‘global’ models.

19 The design of the platform or ‘scaffold’ may be guided by the models currently seen by its designers as the most promising tools. However, it should be presented and operated in the most generally understood terms, avoiding the ‘jargon’ associated with current approaches as much as possible – as well as avoiding the semblance of requirements to adopt any such ‘paradigm’ as a prerequisite for contributions and participation. The currently most general conceptual framework for all application domains is that of questions and answers, action or plan proposals (‘solutions’) to address perceived problems or aims (goals), and the ‘pro and con’ arguments about the plans, leading to common acceptance of decisions to adopt and implement.

20 My past work and interest would suggest my main contribution as aiming at item 18B as a first step.

21 Some example sketches of initiatives that meet the above criteria of ‘innovation zones’ in domains or areas where the initiatives would not have to ‘fight’ existing infrastructure and power networks (drawn from ideas in response to previous discussions):

a) Areas in which natural or man-made disasters have destroyed roads, buildings and other essential infrastructure as well as businesses. Such areas would be prime candidates for a number of technological, energy-generating, agricultural, housing and community design experiments.

b) The opportunities originally conceived as ‘highway right-of-way biomass projects’: gradually replacing the grass cover of highway median and right-of way areas with plants that would be more effective yielding biomass to produce fuel for the maintenance equipment. Extending these projects to include e.g. flowers and other non-food plants that could evolve into revenue-generating projects that in turn might experiment with different business plans while offering employment opportunities. Adding higher hedges and trees at the edges of these areas could help prevent wind erosion of adjacent agricultural areas and improve the microclimate of the area. These projects could utilize the ‘grey water’ of rest areas and other buildings nearby, reducing the detrimental effect of emptying wastewater into rivers or lakes.

c) Efforts to ‘revitalize’ downtown and other areas in cities where ‘monoculture’ land use has destroyed urban vitality and appeal as well as the diversity of services: Establishing ‘cartmart’ markets on vacant lots where aging, no longer economically viable buildings have been destroyed, and residential structures as well as the small businesses have disappeared that made urban streets appealing as well as providing essential services. Such areas, provided with common civic services (e.g. public bathrooms, bus and taxi stops, information booths) can accommodate kiosks or carts offering ‘daytime-specific’ wares and services for limited periods during the day, making room for other carts at other times. These small businesses could be ideal for part-time owners and employees, but if run out of vehicles (vans) might also form small ‘instant markets’ in suburban areas, reducing the need for residents there to drive to the nearest supermarket for small errands. ‘Big box’ stores might be enticed to support such businesses by supplying them with merchandise at cost (in return for a share of advertising space on the kiosks or vans, and for the permits to locate their big box facilities in areas outside downtown). They would also be the ideal outlets for locally grown or produced wares.
The basic idea offers a variety of different opportunities for business models, as well as information for the review and revision of municipal land use regulations – e.g. regulations requiring businesses at sidewalk level to the smaller scale and minimum average visitor frequency. They can easily be introduced as ‘temporary’ and ‘experimental’ until more information about better ways to revitalize such areas is accumulated.

d) There have been various efforts to introduce alternative currencies, in response to a range of conditions such as inflation of the national currency, or lending restrictions by the larger financial institutions. One different ‘currency’ concept is a ‘by-product’ of planning participation projects that involve rewarding participation with ‘civic credit points’ – (weighted by the assessment of their merit by the entire group) which then can be used to ‘qualify’ people for various positions and decision-making roles in the respective community. (Besides aiming at a better linkage of planning decisions to the concerns and arguments of affected parties, offering such incentives would help improving the much lamented ‘voter apathy’ by citizens urged to participate, at their own expense of time and effort but without assurance that their contributions will ‘count’ in a perceptible way). The idea likewise allows for a great range of variations and arrangements that need to be tested by trying them out in selected small scale experiments.


Systems Models and Argumentation in the Planning Discourse

The following study will try to explore the possibility of combining the contribution of ‘Systems Thinking’ 1 — systems modeling and simulation — with that of the ‘Argumentative Model of Planning’ 2 expanded with the proposals for systematic and transparent evaluation of ‘planning arguments’.
Both approaches have significant shortcomings in accommodating their mutual features and concerns. Briefly: While systems models do not accommodate and show any argumentation (of ‘pros and cons’) involved in planning and appear to assume that any differences of opinion have been ‘settled’, individual arguments used in planning discussions do not adequately convey the complexity of the ‘whole system’ that systems diagrams try to convey. Thus, planning teams relying on only one of these approaches to problem-solving and planning (or any other single approach exhibiting similar deficiencies) risk making significant mistakes and missing important aspects of the situation.
This mutual discrepancy raises the suggestion to resolve it either by developing a different model altogether, or combining the two in some meaningful way. The exercise will try to show how some of the mutual shortcomings could be alleviated — by procedural means of successively feeding information drawn from one approach to the other, and vice versa. It does not attempt to conceive a substantially different approach.

Starting from a very basic situation: Somebody complains about some current ‘Is’-state of the world (IS) he does not like: ‘Somebody do something about IS!’

The call for Action (A plan is desired) raises a first set of questions besides the main one: Should the plan be adopted for implementation: D?:
(Questions / issues will be italicized. The prefixes distinguish different question types: D for ‘deontic or ‘ought-questions; E for Explanatory questions, I for Instrumental of actual-instrumental questions, F for factual questions; the same notation can be applied to individual claims):

E( IS –>OS)?              What kind of action should that be?
which can’t really be answered before other questions are clarified, e.g.:
E(IS)?                Description of the IS-state?
E(OS)?              What is the ‘ought-state (OS) that the person feels ought to be? Description?
(At this point , no concrete proposal has been made — just some action called for.)
D(OS)?              Should OS become the case?
(This question calls for ‘pros and cons’ about the proposed state OS), and
I(IS –> OS)?    How can IS be changed to OS?

Traditional approaches at this stage recommend doing some ‘research’. This might include both the careful gathering of data about the IS situation, as well as searching for tools, ‘precedents’ of the situation, and possible solutions used successfully in the past.

At this point, a ‘Systems Thinking’ (ST) analyst may suggest that, in order to truly understand the situation, it should be looked at as a system, and a ‘model’ representing that system be developed. This would begin by identifying the ‘elements’ or key variables V of the system, and the relationships R between them. Since so far, very little is known about the situation, the diagram of the model would be trivially simple:

(IS) –> REL –> (OS)

or, more specifically, representing the IS and OS states as sets of values of variables:

{VIS} –> REL(IS/OS) –> {VOS}

(The {…} brackets indicate that there may be a set of variables describing the state).

So far, the model simply shows the IS-state and the OS-state, as described by a variable V (or a set of variables), and the values for these variables, and some relationship REL between IS and OS.

Another ST consultant suggests that the situation — the discrepancy between the situation as it IS and as it ought to be (OS), as perceived by a person [P1] may be called a ‘problem’ IS/OS, and to look for a way to resolve it by identifying its ‘root cause’ RC :

E(RC of IS)?       What is the root cause of IS?
and
F(RC of IS)?       Is RC indeed the root cause of IS?

Yet another consultant might point out that any causal chain is really potentially infinitely long (any cause has yet another cause…), and that it may be more useful to look for ‘necessary conditions’ NC for the problem to exist, and perhaps for ‘contributing factors’ CF that aggravate the problem once occurring (but don’t ’cause’ it):

E(NC of IS/OS)?     What are the necessary conditions for the problem to exist?
F(NC of IS/OS)?     Is the suggested condition actually a NC of the problem?
and
E(CF of IS/OS)       What factors contribute to aggravate the problem once it occurs?
F(CF of IS/OS)?

These suggestions are based on the reasoning that if a NC can be identified and successfully removed, the problem ceases to exist, and/or if a CF can be removed, the problem could at least be alleviated.

Either form of analysis is expected to produce ideas for potential means or Actions to form the basis of a plan to resolve the problem and can be put up for debate. As soon as such a specific plan of action is described, it raises the question:

E(PLAN A)?        Description of the plan?
and
D(PLAN A)?        Should the plan be adopted / implemented?

The ST model-builder will have to include these items in the systems diagram, with each factor impacting specific variables or system elements V.

RC       –> REL(RC-IS)      –> {V(IS)}
{NC}   –> REL(NC-IS)      –> { V(IS) }     –> REL    –> {V(OS)}
{CF}    –> RELCF-IS)        –> {V(IS)}

Elements in ‘{…}’ brackets denote sets of items of that type. It is of course possible that one such factor influences several or all system elements at the same time, rather than just one. Of course, Plan A may include aspects of NC, CF, or RC. If these consist of several variables with their own specific relationships, they will have to be shown in the model diagram as such.

An Argumentative Model (AM) consultant will insist that a discussion be arranged, in which questions may be raised about the description of any of these new system elements and whether and how effectively they will actually perform in the proposed relationship.

Having invoked causality, questions will be raised about what further effects, ‘consequences’ CQ the OS-state will have, once achieved; what these will be like, and whether they should be considered desirable, undesirable (the proverbial ‘unexpected consequences’ or side-effects, or merely neutral effects. To be as thorough as the mantra of Systems Thinking demands, to consider ‘the whole system’, that same question should be raised about the initial actions of PLAN A: It may have side-effects not considered in the desired problem-solution OS: should they be included in the examination of the desired ‘Ought-state? So:

For {OS} –> {CQof OS}:

E(CQ ofOS)?        (what is/are the consequences? Description?)
D(CQofOS)?         (is the consequence desirable/ undesirable?)

For —> CQ of A:

E(CQ of A)?
and
D(CQ of A)?

For the case that any of the consequence aspects are considered undesirable, additional measures might be suggested, to avoid or mitigate these effects, which then must be included in the modified PLAN A’, and the entire package be reconsidered / re-examined for consistency and desirability.

The systems diagram would now have to be amended with all these additions. The great advantage of systems modeling is that many constellations of variable values can be considered as potential ‘initial settings’ of a system simulation run, (plan alternatives) and the development of each variable can be tracked (simulated) over time. In any system with even moderate complexity and number of loops — variables in a chain of relationships having causal relationships of other variables ‘earlier’ in the chain — the outcomes will become ‘nonlinear’ and quite difficult and ‘counter-intuitive’ to predict. Both the possibility of inspection of the diagram showing ‘the whole system’ and the exploration of different alternatives contribute immensely to the task of ‘understanding the system’ as a prerequisite to taking action.

While systems diagrams do not usually show either ‘root’ causes, ‘necessary conditions’, or ‘contributing factors’ of each of the elements in the model, these will now have to be included, as well as the actions and needed resources of PLANS setting the initial conditions to simulate outcomes. A simplified diagram of the emerging model, with possible loops, is the following:

(Outside uncontrolled factors (context)

    /                   /                       |                     |                |           \               \        \

PLAN->REL -> (RC, NC, CF) -> REL -> (IS) -> REL -> (OS) -> REL ->(CQ)

\              \                \                      |            |             |            /           /             /

forward and backward loops

 

A critical observer might call attention to a common assumption in simulation models — a remaining ‘linearity’ feature that may not be realistic: In the network of variables and relationships, the impact of a change in one variable V1 on the connected ‘next’ variable V2 is assumed to occur stepwise during one time unit i of the simulation, and the change in the following variable V3 in the following time unit i+1, and so on. Delays in these effect may be accounted for. But what if the information about that change in time unit i is distributed throughout the system much faster — even ‘almost instantaneously’, compared to the actual and possibly delayed substantial effects (e.g. ‘flows’) the diagram shows with its explicit links? Which might have the effect that actors, decision-makers concerned about variables elsewhere in the system for reasons unrelated to the problem at hand, might take ‘preventive’ steps that could change the expected simulated transformation? Of course, such actors and decision-makers are not shown…

Systems diagrams ordinarily do not acknowledge that — to the extent there are several parties involved in the project, and affected in different ways by either the initial problem situation or by proposed solutions and their outcomes — those different parties will have significantly different opinions about the issues arising in connection with all the system components, if the argumentation consultant manages to organize discussion. The system diagram only represents one participant’s view or perspective of the situation. It appears to assume that what ‘counts’ in making any decisions about the problem are only the factual, causal, functional relationships in the system, as determined by one (set of) model-builder. Thus, those responsible for making decisions about implementing the plan must rely on a different set of provisions and perspectives to convert the gained insights and ‘understanding’ of the system and its working into sound decisions.

Several types of theories and corresponding consultants are offering suggestions for how to do this. Given the particular way their expertise is currently brought into planning processes, they usually reflect just the main concerns of the clients they are working for. In business, the decision criterion is, obviously, the company’s competitive advantage resulting in reliable earnings: profit, over time. Thus for each ‘alternative’ plan considered (different initial settings in the system), and the actions and resources needed to achieve the desired OS, the ‘measure of performance’ associated with the resulting OS will be profit — earnings minus costs. For government consultants (striving to ‘run government like a business?’) the profit criterion may have to be labeled somewhat differently — say: ‘benefit’ and ‘cost’ of government projects, and their relationship such as B-C or the more popular B/C, the benefit-cost ratio. For overall government performance, the ‘Gross National Product’ GNP is the equivalent measure. The shortcomings and problems associated with such approaches led to calls for using ‘quality of life‘ or ‘happiness‘ or Human Development Indices instead, and criteria for sustainability and ecological aspects All or most such approaches still suffer from the shortcoming of constructing overall measures of performance: shortcomings because they inevitably represent only o n e view of the problems or projects — differences of opinion or significant conflicts are made invisible.

In the political arena, any business and economic considerations are overlaid if not completely overridden by the political decision criteria — voting percentages. Most clearly expressed in referenda on specific issues, alternatives are spelled out, more or less clearly, so as to require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote, and the decision criterion is the percentage of those votes. Estimates of such percentages are increasingly produced by opinion surveys sampling just a small but ‘representative’ number of the entire population, and these aim to have a similar effect on decision-makers.

Both Systems Thinkers and advocates of the extended Argumentative Model are disheartened about the fact that in these business and governance habits, all the insight produced by their respective analysis efforts seem to have little if no visible connection with the simple ‘yes/no’, opinion poll or referendum votes. Rightfully so, and their concern should properly be with constructing better mechanisms for making that connection. From the Argumentative Model side, such an effort has been made with the proposed evaluation approach for planning arguments, though with clear warnings against using the resulting ‘measures’ of plan plausibility as convenient substitutes for decision criteria. The reasons for this have to do with the systemic incompleteness of the planning discourse: there is no guarantee that all the concerns that influence a person’s decision about a plan that should be given ‘due consideration — and therefore should be included in the evaluation — actually can and will be made explicit in the discussion.

To some extent, this is based on different attitudes discourse participants will bring to the process. The straightforward assumption of mutual trust and cooperativeness aiming at mutually beneficial outcomes — ‘win-win’ solutions — obviously does not apply to all such situations. Though there are many well-intentioned groups and initiatives that try to instill and grow such attitudes, especially when it comes to global decisions about issues affecting all humanity such as climate, pollution, disarmament, global trade and finance. The predominant business assumption is that of competition, seeing all parties as pursuing their own advantages at the expense of others, resulting in zero-sum outcomes: win-lose solutions. There are a number of different situations that can be distinguished as to whether the parties share or have different attitudes in the same discourse with the ‘extreme’ positions being complete sharing the same attitude, having attitudes on the opposite ends of the scale; or something in-between which might be called indifference to the other side’s concerns — as long as they don’t intrude on their own concerns, in which case the attitudes likely shift to the win-lose position at least for that specific aspect.

The effect of these issues can be seen by looking at the way a single argument about some feature of a proposed plan might be evaluated by different participants, and how the resulting assessments would change decisions. Consider, for the sake of simplicity, the argument in favor of a Plan A by participant P1:

D(PLAN A)!         Position (‘Conclusion’) : Plan A ought to be adopted)
because
F((VA –>REL(VA–>VO) –> VO) | VC      Premise 1: Variable V of  plan  A  will result in (e.g. cause) Variable VO , given condition C;
and
D(VO)                   Premise 2: Variable VO ought to be aimed for;
and
F(VC)                     Premise 3: Variable VC is the case.

Participant P1 may be quite confident (but still open to some doubt) about these premises, and of being able to supply adequate evidence and support arguments for them in turn. She might express this by assigning the following plausibility values to them, on the plausibility scale of -1 to + 1, for example:
Premise 1: +0.9
Premise 2: +0.8
Premise 3: +0.9
One simple argument plausibility function (multiplying the plausibility judgments) would result in argument plausibility of   +0.658;     a  not completely ‘certain’ but still comfortable result supporting the plan. Another participant P2 may agree with premises 1 and 2, assigning the same plausibility values to those as P1, but having considerable doubt as to whether the condition VC is indeed present to guarantee the effect of premise 1, expressed by the low plausibility score of +0.1 which would yield an argument plausibility of +0.07; a result that can be described as too close to ‘don’t know if VA is such a good idea’. If somebody else — participant P3 — disagrees with the desirability of VO, and therefore assigns a negative plausibility of, say, -0.5 to premise 2 while agreeing with P1 about the other premises, his result would be – 0.405, using the same crude aggregation formula. (These are of course up for discussion.)  The issue of weight assignment has been left aside here, assuming only the one argument, so there is only one argument being considered and the weight of its deontic premise is 1, for the sake of simplicity. The difference in these assessments raises not only the question of how to obtain a meaningful common plausibility value for the group, as a guide for its decision. It might also cause P1 to worry whether P3 would consider taking ‘corrective’ (in P1’s view ‘subversive’?) actions to mitigate the effect of VA should the plan be adopted e.g. by majority rule, or by following the result of some group plan plausibility function such as taking the average of the individual argument plausibility judgments as a decision criterion. (This is not recommended by the theory). And finally: should these assessments, with their underlying assumptions of cooperative, competitive, or neutral, disinterested attitudes, and the potential actions of individual players in the system to unilaterally manipulate the outcome, be included in the model and its diagram or map?

While a detailed investigation of the role of these attitudes on cooperative planning decision-making seems much needed, this brief overview already makes it clear that there are many situations in which participants have good reasons not to contribute complete and truthful information. In fact, the prevailing assumption is that secrecy, misrepresentation, misleading and deceptive information and corresponding efforts to obtain such information from other participants — spying — are part of the common ‘business as usual’.

So how should systems models and diagrams deal with these aspects? The ‘holistic’ claim of showing all elements so as to offer a complete picture and understanding of a system arguably would require this: ‘as completely as possible’. But how? Admitting that a complete understanding of many situations actually is not possible? What a participant does not contribute to the discourse, the model diagram can’t show. Should it (cynically?) announce that such ‘may’ be the case — and that therefore participants should not base their decisions only on the information it shows? To truly ‘good faith’ cooperative participants, sowing distrust this way may be perceived as somewhat offensive, and itself actually interfere with the process.

The work on systems modeling faces another significant unfinished task here. Perhaps a another look at the way we are making decisions as a result of planning discussions can help somewhat.

The discussion itself assumes that it is possible and useful towards better decisions — presumably, better than decisions made without the information it produces. It does not, inherently, condone the practice of sticking to a preconceived decision no matter what is being brought up (nor the arrogant attitude behind it: ‘my mind is made up, no matter what you say…’) The question has two parts. One is related to the criteria we use to convert the value of information to decisions. The other concerns the process itself: the kinds of steps taken, and their sequence.

It is necessary to quickly go over the criteria issue first — some were already discussed above. The criteria for business decision-makers discussed above, that can be assumed to be used by the single decision-maker at the helm of a business enterprise (which of course is a simplified picture): profit, ROI, and its variants arising from planning horizon, sustainability and PR considerations, are single measures of performance attached to the alternative solutions considered: the rule for this decision ‘under certainty’ is: select the solution having the ‘best’ (highest, maximized) value. (‘Value’ here is understood simply as the number of the criterion.) That picture is complicated for decision situations under risk, where outcomes have different levels of probability, or complete uncertainty, where outcomes are not governed by predictable laws, nor even probability, but by other participants’ possible attempts to anticipate the designer’s plans, and will actively seek to oppose them. This is the domain of decision and game theory, whose analyses may produce guidelines and strategies for decisions — but again, different decisions or strategies for different participants in the planning. The factors determining these strategies are arguably significant parts of the environment or context that designers must take into account — and systems models should represent — to produce a viable understanding of the problem situation. The point to note is that the systems models permit simulation of these criteria — profit,  life cycle economic cost or performance, ecological damage or sustainability — because they are single measures, presumably collectively agreed upon (which is at least debatable). But once the use of plausibility judgments as measures of performance is considered as a possibility, — even as aggregated group measures — the ability of systems models and diagrams to accommodate them becomes very questionable, to say the least. It would require the input of many individual (subjective) judgments, which are generated as the discussion proceeds, and some of which will not be made explicit even if there are methods available for doing this.

This shift of criteria for decision-making raises the concerns about the second question, the process: the kinds of steps taken, by what participants, according to what rules, and their sequence. If this second aspect does not seem to need or require much attention — the standard systems diagrams again do not show it — consider the significance given to it by such elaborate rule systems as parliamentary procedure, ‘rules of order’ volumes, even for entities where the criterion for decisions is the simple voting percentage. Any change of criteria will necessarily have procedural implications.

By now, the systems diagram for even the simple three-variable system we started out with has become so complex that it is difficult to see how it might be represented in a diagram. Adding the challenges of accounting for the additional aspects discussed above — the discourse with controversial issues, the conditions and subsequent causal and other relationships of plan implementation requirements and further side-effects, and the attitudes and judgments of individual parties involved in and affected by the problem and proposed plans, are complicating the modeling and diagram display tasks to an extent where they are likely to lose their ability to support the process of understanding and arriving at responsible decisions; I do not presume to have any convincing solutions for these problems and can only point to them as urgent work to be done.

ST-AM 4

Evolving ‘map’ of  ‘system’ elements and relationships, and related issues

Meanwhile, from a point of view of acknowledging these difficulties but trying, for now, to ‘do the best we can with what we have’, it seems that systems models and diagrams should continue to serve as tools to understand the situation and to predict the performance of proposed plans — if some of the aspects discussed can be incorporated into the models. The construction of the model must draw upon the discourse that elicits the pertinent information (through the ‘pros and cons’ about proposal). The model-building work therefore must accompany the discourse — it cannot precede or follow the discussion as a separate step. Standard ‘expert’ knowledge based analysis — conventional ‘best practice’ and research based regulations, for example, will be as much a part of this as the ‘new’, ‘distributed’ information that is to be expected in any unprecedented ‘wicked’ planning problem, that can only be brought out in the discourse with affected parties.

The evaluation preparing for decision — whether following a customary formal evaluation process or a process of argument evaluation — will have to be a separate phase. Its content will now draw upon and reflect the content of the model. The analysis of its results — identifying the specific areas of disagreement leading to different overall judgments, for example — may lead to returning to previous design and model (re-)construction stages: to modify proposals for more general acceptability, or better overall performance, and then return to the evaluation stage supporting a final decision. Procedures for this process have been sketched in outline but remain to be examined and refined in detail, and described concisely so that they can be agreed upon and adopted by the group of participants in any planning case before starting the work, as they must, so that quarrels about procedure will not disrupt the process later.

Looking at the above map again, another point must be made. It is that once again, the criticism of systems diagrams seems to have been ignored, that the diagram still only expresses one person’s view of the problem. The system elements called ‘variables’, for example, are represented as elements of  ‘reality’, and the issues and questions about those expected to give ‘real’ (that is, real for all participants) answers and arguments. Taking the objection seriously, would we not have to acknowledge that ‘reality’ is known to us only imperfectly, if at all, and that each of us has a different mental ‘map’ of it? Thus, each item in the systems map should perhaps be shown as multiple elements referring to the same thing labeled as something we think we know and agree about: but as one bubble of the item for each participant in the discourse? And these bubbles will possibly, even likely, not being congruent but only overlapping, at best, and at worst covering totally different content meaning — the content that is then expected to be explained and explored in follow-up questions? Systems Thinking has acknowledged this issue in principle — that ‘the map (the systems model and diagram) is NOT the landscape‘ (the reality). But this insight should itself be represented in a more ‘realistic’ diagram — realistic in the sense that it acknowledges that all the detail information contributed to the discourse and the diagram will be assembled in different ways by each individual into different, only partially overlapping ‘maps’. An objection might be that the system model should ‘realistically’ focus on those parts of reality that we can work with (control? or at least predict?) — with some degree of ‘objectivity’ — the overlap we strive for with ‘scientific’ method of replicable experiments, observations, measurements, logic, statistical conformation? And that the concepts different participants carrying around in the minds to make up their different maps are just ‘subjective’ phenomena that should ‘count’ in our discussions about collective plans only to the extent they correspond (‘overlap’) to the objective measurable elements of our observable system?   The answer is that such subjective elements as individual perspectives about the nature of the discourse as cooperative or competitive etc. are phenomena that do affect the reality of our interactions. Mental concepts are ‘real’ forces in the world — so should they not be acknowledged as ‘real’ elements with ‘real’ relationships in the relationship network of the system diagram?

We could perhaps state the purpose of the discourse as that of bringing those mental maps into sufficiently close overlap for a final decision to become sufficiently congruent in meaning and acceptability for all participants: the resulting ‘maps’ along the way having a sufficient degree of overlap. What is ‘sufficient’ for this, though?   And does that apply to all aspects of the system? Are not all our plans in part also meant to help us to pursue our own, that is: our different versions of happiness? We all want to ‘make a difference’ in our lives — some more than others, of course — and each in our own way.  The close, complete overlap of our mental maps is a goal and obsession of societies we call ‘totalitarian’. If that is not what we wish to achieve, should the principle of plan outcomes leaving and offering (more? better?) opportunities for differences in the way we live and work in the ‘ought-state’ of problem solutions,  be an integral element of our system models and diagrams? Which would be represented as a description of the outcome consisting of ‘possibility’ circles that have ‘sufficient’ overlap, sure, but also a sufficient degree of non-overlap ‘difference’ opportunity outside of the overlapping area. Our models and diagrams and system maps don’t even consider that. So is Systems Thinking, proudly claimed as being ‘the best foundation for tackling societal problems’ by the Systems Thinking forum, truly able to carry the edifice of future society yet? For its part, the Argumentative Model claims to accommodate questions of all kinds of perspectives, including questions such as these, — but the mapping and decision-making tools for arriving at meaningful answers and agreements are still very much unanswered questions. The maps, for all their crowded data, have large undiscovered areas.

The emerging picture of what a responsible planning discourse and decision-making process for the social challenges we call ‘wicked problems’, would look like, with currently available tools, is not a simple, reassuring and appealing one. But the questions that have been raised for this important work-in-progress, in my opinion, should not be ignored or dismissed because they are difficult. There are understandable temptations to remain with traditional, familiar habits — the ones that arguably often are responsible for the problems? — or revert to even simpler shortcuts such as placing our trust in the ability and judgments of ‘leaders’ to understand and resolve tasks we cannot even model and diagram properly. For humanity to give in to those temptations (again?) would seem to qualify as a very wicked problem indeed.


Notes:

1 The understanding of ‘systems thinking’ (ST) here is based on the predominant use of the term in the ‘Systems Thinking World’ Network on LinkedIn.

2 The Argumentative Model (AM) of Planning was proposed by H. Rittel, e.g. in the paper ‘APIS: A Concept for an Argumentative Planning Information System’, Working paper 324, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California, 1980. It sees the planning activity as a process in which participants raise issues – questions to which there may be different positions and opinions, and support their positions with evidence, answers and arguments. From the ST point of view, AM might just be considered a small, somewhat heretic sect within ST…