Archive for April, 2020

The Missing Concern: It’s About Power, Systems Thinkers!

From the Fog Island Tavern

……………………………………………….Discourse Bog-Hubert Thinking (of some kind)

– Say, Vodçek: What is Bog-Hubert doodling over there? So engrossed in his bubbles… Not even noticing his coffee getting cold?

– Yes, Sophie, I’ve been wondering too. He does get intense trying to think sometimes. Must be some bug Abbé Boulah put in his ear: they had a long discussion here about something a while ago. Did you hear what it was about, Dexter? Sitting closer to them, weren’t you?

– Yes, but I didn’t understand what it was about. Sounded like some new economic or governance system they are trying out over on the Rigatopia rig. Made me curious all right, but I wanted to wait to ask them to explain until they’d worked it out. But then Abbé Boulah had to go somewhere, left Bog-Hubert stewing in his bubble network, lost in his system loops. So I guess it’s not fully cooked yet, what he’s stewing over.

………………………………………………………………………….Throwing Out the Old System?

– Systems, huh? About government? It’s about time we got some systems thinking into that.

– Come on, Vodçek: Isn’t the government the very system that’s gotten so rotten it really should be replaced?

– Why Sophie, I am shocked. Have you gotten into the throw-out-the system crowd too?

– I don’t know about that, Vodçek. I just hear so much talk about ‘new system’ this, ‘new system’ that, — if the system is so bad, why do we need more ‘systems thinking’ to fix it?

– So you are into the new ‘awareness’, the holism, Gaia, the WE not ME movements? Don’t they all want to throw out the current ‘system’? Even the folks who are ranting against BIG Government, even as they are running like crazy to get to run it?

– Don’t throw all that into the same trash bin, Vodçek. There are differences: ‘throwing out’ is one thing, but what some of those people are talking about is ‘system transformation’. And I don’t think you’ll deny that there are some things that are very wrong in the current ‘system’ or whatever you want to call it?

– Okay, should we try to sort this out? Maybe professor Balthus — just coming in there — can help? Good morning, professor.

– Good morning. Help out with what? If you can get me some coffee, Vodçek, and explain your conundrum, I’ll try.


– Well, here’s your coffee. Now, I don’t know if it qualifies as conundrum. It is a little strange. We are seeing Bog-Hubert over there, uncharacteristically oblivious to anything else around him, working on some diagram. We suspect it’s about a system of some kind — he’s already used up four of my napkins. And while we were speculating about what it might be, the unsavory issue came up about all those movements that are calling for systems change, new systems, awareness and throwing out the old system etc. Did I state that to your satisfaction, Sophie? Dexter?

– You left out ‘system transformation’, Vodçek.

– Sorry about that. Okay, Transformation, too.

– I see. No, wait: I don’t see. What’s the problem?

…………………………………………………………………………………………Problem Embryonics

– Ahh yes, the problem. There seems to be an embryonic but, I suspect, fundamental disagreement: Calls for more ‘systems thinking’ clashing ominously with calls for throwing out the system, and all the thinking associated with it. Getting close to a quarrgument.

– Oh brother. A systembryonic quarrgument? Calls for more coffee, make sure I’m really awake yet. Well, I agree that ‘the system’ they are complaining about has some, let’s say, inherent problems. But I confess that I have gotten tired, in my old days, of all those calls for throwing out the system, in whatever new ideological or spiritual getup or camouflage?

– Why is that?

……………………………………………….’System Transformation’ — Or ‘Regime Change?

– Oh: Take a look at history. Some older and recent experiences with system overthrow, for example. Revolutions. Some of those were motivated by ‘systems overthrow’ of the ‘new system’ kind. Others were acclaimed, if not secretly or openly supported, by folks who would arguably be considered by the former as representing the ‘old system’ — as just a different system. They tended to call it ‘regime change’ — even if the ‘transformation’ turned out just as revoltingly bloody and disgusting as the revolutions of the first kind. So is it necessary to take sides, to recognize that in too many cases the outcome was strikingly similar?

– What do you mean?

– Well, look at what happened! Yes, they got rid of some nasty people. Tyrants, dictators. Installed ‘democracy’, perhaps, or some regime based on religion. With new leaders, the heroes of the revolution? Or relics from some still earlier old regime two or more revolutions back, bringing back the oh so good old days? Either way: a few years later: they look suspiciously like just another oligarchy or dictatorship. And the calls for throwing out the rascals starts all over. Do we ever learn?

– Huh.

……………………………………………………………………………………..What Are We Missing?

– So what’s the lesson there? What are we missing?

– Good question, Sophie. And I don’t see it being asked — it’s asking what’s missing from both, from all the old and new systems, what’s the common flaw?

– Why is that, professor?

– If I knew the right answer to that, would I be sitting here letting my coffee get cold? Even to that one, there are several hypotheses, theories. You have one, Vodçek? Or you, Commissioner? I see you both twitching.

– Yes. Isn’t it obvious? The people where we tried to help getting democracy, they’re just not ready for it. They need strong leaders, but they don’t know how to elect the right ones.

– Ah, you mean US?

– No domestic politicking here, folks, or I put diuretics in your coffee and send you off into the poison ivy brambles outside to pee.

– Trying for a strongman stature, are you, Vodçek? Getting with those trends?

– Seriously, guys: is this a matter for bad jokes?

– Okay, Sophie: what’s y o u r theory? Spiritual awakening? Prayer back into the schools? Or closing public schools and leave education to the churches, synagogues, mosques? Pagan full moon dances in the steaming jungles of North Florida?

– That’s it, Vodçek: You a r e using the strong man tactic to scare us out of our wits!

– Well, professor: I assume you’re going suggest a stronger role of science in governance, aren’t you?

………………………………………………………………………………..Detour: Science in Charge?

– Wouldn’t hurt, but if you expect me to argue for scientists to trun government, to become the great leaders, no. No philosopher-kings either, much as I hate to get into quarrels with Plato fans.

– Didn’t we discuss this issue some time ago here, about how designers, planners, and I assume government leaders should take a lesson from that science rule about hypothesis-testing?

– You mean Abbé Boulah’s adaptation of Popper’s refutation rule?

– Yeah, that’s the one — let’s ask Bog-Hubert about that, he knows Abbé Boulah better. Bog-Hubert: can you take a break from your doodling?

– Yes, yes, Sophie, I heard that, you guys were starting to raise your voices. What Popper said was something like this:

“We are entitled to tentatively accept a scientific hypothesis

(he means some speculation about how the world works)

to the extent we have done our very best to test it —

which means to find evidence — to show that it is wrong, —

and it has survived all those tests.”

Wasn’t that it, professor?

– As far as I remember, yes.

– So even in science, it’s still tentative, no certainty?

– Right, Sophie. Halfway. Maybe we can be certain that when we observe a black swan, the hypothesis that swans are white is wrong?

– Okay. But why ‘halfway’?

……………………………………………………..Abbé Boulah’s Adaptation of Popper’s Rule

– Look at the mantra: It says “tentatively accept” — and “to the extent” etc. Leaving the warning that we might have done some more rigorous testing, tried out some better hypotheses, to become more confident. But never totally certain. Part of that is getting into details, in science, about how to frame hypotheses and how they fit into more general theories, about probability and so on. But it’s actually clearer when we look at Abbé Boulah’s adaptation of that rule to planning: We don’t have tests on the basis of observation and measurement in planning, because planning is all about the future which isn’t here yet. So it replaces ‘test‘ with ‘argument‘. It goes something like this:

“We can accept a planning proposal as tentatively plausible

(only) to the extent we have done our very best

to expose it to the most critical arguments against it, (the ‘cons’)

and it has survived all those arguments —

meaning that the cons have been shown to either be flawed

or outweighed by the pro arguments in its favor”

– I see, Bog-Hubert. The ‘halfway’ point you mentioned is that just because we have countered all the con argument against a plan, it isn’t a certain proof like the black swan. But there may be better proposals, or it may solve the wrong problem or be the wrong way of talking about it?

– Couldn’t have said it better myself. And don’t forget that different folks doing the ‘weighing’ — to outweigh the cons, as the rule suggests — may come to different results.

………………………………………………………..Back to the Issue: What Are We Missing?

– So getting back to our issue here, professor: Would one of the theories explaining why we keep making the same mistakes with governance systems, be that we don’t know how to argue well enough about plans, — in all governance systems? And about governance systems?

– That’s a good candidate. I’d say it’s part of the problem. But there are others, I’m sure you know: you mentioned ‘systems thinking’, and other approaches, many consultants’ brands of institutional change management. But do we have to go through all of those?

– Well… I guess, when you said you didn’t have the answer to our first question, you also meant that you didn’t have a better idea than all those approaches?

– Well, what I meant was that there isn’t one big flaw, one attitude, or return to some previous article of faith, that can explain everything. About that, your systems folks are right, there are many forces in the system that interact in ways that we can’t say we fully understand, but they are valiantly trying to get that understanding.

……………………………………………………………………………….Understanding the System?But Acknowledging that We Don’t Know What the ‘Next System’ Should Be

– That’s what we have been saying all along — I mean Abbe Boulah and his buddy at the university. And if we acknowledge that: we see all the interesting theories and proposals and initiatives out there that people are putting out and pushing: we have to appreciate all those efforts, even if we suspect that some of them are not going to work out — but the thing is, we don’t know. We don’t know, and we don’t agreeon what the ‘Next System’ should look like. So the interim conclusion is that we should not only let them all pursue those diverse efforts. Even support them — on some conditions, of course.

– What are those conditions — I mean if you were in a position to impose conditions, which I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with?

– The conditions are simple: Don’t try to overthrow the ‘whole’ current system by violent or coercive means; and don’t get in the way of other experiments, even if you disagree with them. This also meas not to hurt or persecute people who don’t agree with you. That will probably require that the experiments will be small, local, tolerant of each other.

– Difficult enough to make that work smoothly…

– I agree. But there are two main arguments for that strategy: First, that there are so many different geographical, climatical, cultural and economic conditions that make it plausible to try out many different experiments according to those conditions. That itself might improve humanity’s resilience to emergencies and crises, some of which we can predict and some we can’t.

– Hmm. Makes some sense, though it’s not exactly a shining, promising vision to get an enthusiastic movement going. But what’s the other reason?

– Yes. The other reason for encouraging many diverse, even contradictory experiments? Again: even if we think there will have to be one global, unified ‘system’ to get us through all those crises, we currently have to admit, again: that we don’t know and are very far from agreeing about what that system should be like.

– I see that, yes: Our previous record with grand systems of global aspirations hasn’t been that encouraging. More importantly: if we try to impose one such system, by coercion. force, revolution, propaganda, and other devious means, it will only lead to resistance and wars — wars being of course not only one of the very problems we have to try to avoid, but increasingly so devastating to both losers and victors, that no grand system will help us to recover from them.

……………………………………………..Sharing Experiences For Discussion, Evaluation

– Yes. So the third condition for supporting ‘alternative’ schemes is that they must share their experiences — both successes and failures and problems they run into — so that we — humanity as a whole — can learn what works and what doesn’t, and can eventually come to agreement about whether we can fashion a global system that everybody can agree with and support.

…………………………………………………..Negotiating Common Road Rule Agreements

– Or, if the outcome is that a global unified system is not the way to go, what fewer global agreements we will have to negotiate to keep a more diverse strategy alive and prospering. The common ‘rules of the road’ we’ve been talking about.

– That does sound more like a vision. Still not exactly one you’ll get people to want to fight for though?

…………………………………………………………………………. A Vision Worth Fighting For?

– You mean the folks that like to fight to beat or kill or humiliate other people, or take their stuff? Yes, that will be a problem: if that’s what it takes to make one group or other ‘great’ and successful. But isn’t that precisely one of the problems we are facing, that we’d like to remedy?

……………………………………………………………………..Needed: The Discourse Platform

– Hey, Bog-Hubert: I’d like to hear more about that Abbeboulistic vision, if that’s what it is. How, well, I don’t know how to put this — how would you make that work?

– Great question, Sophie. Yes, there are some provisions we need to talk about. And some new tools. It eventually gets to the one issue that has been strangely neglected in all the approaches we see. Let’s see. First, I think we can agree that there must a platform, a forum, where all the experiences can be brought in for information, discussion, and working out preliminary agreements. There are some papers that describe what such a platform might be like.

– Who’d organize such a platform? Would it be the UN or something like it?

– That’s a big question. Many people would be against that, because it would be not only organized along the lines of existing systems — nations — that they see as part of the problem, especially as this translates into the decision-making rules it uses. Voting, for example. Small nations, big nations, money, the way nations are increasingly influences by big transnational corporations and other entities. And because it looks suspiciously like the Big Brother World Government many people are afraid of.

– So it would have to be ‘impartial’ with respect to any competing governance systems? Tall order.

– Right, Vodçek. We talked about some of the principles that should govern the ‘Public Planning Discourse’ that this entity would support — like the idea that decisions should be more determined by the merit of contributions, arguments, the pros and cons, to the discourse, than by votes. The papers we talked about have suggestions for that, we think, that should be discussed. It would take some effort to get people to learn and understand how that works. What you said a while ago, Sophie, that we don’t know how to argue planning proposals well and make decisions accordingly. Work to do.

– So was that what you were doodling about over there, Bog-Hubert?

………………………………………………………………The Missing Aspect: Control of Power

– Not really. I think we are ready to bring those ideas into the discussion. No, what I talked about with Abbeboulah was the issue that’s missing in all those approaches and theories — the issue nobody is talking about other than in the traditional terms that are part of the problem…

– Well, what’s that big problem?

– The problem of power, of course. Power. And how to control it.

– Why is that a problem? I mean, yes it’s a fact of life, like hunger and greed and diseases: they happen, it’s a constant battle. But don’t we have adequate provisions in place, I mean in the US and most liberal, democratic modern constitutions, — the separation of powers, elections, term limits and so on? So yes, it’s a problem, but we just have to make sure the rules are followed, don’t we? I’m not making light of it, I just don’t see …

…………………………………………………………………Inadequate Current Power Controls

– I understand, professor. And from what I know about these things, I think that these governance designs are some of humanity’s greatest achievements. But what we are seeing is that they are not enough: they are just provisions for the government segment of societies. And they are being overrun by other forces: technology, the economic power of so-called private business — the trans-national corporations, as well as the national and global finance sector. And who controls the media.

– Huh. Are you talking about election financing? Yeah, I agree that it’s disgusting. But people are beginning to see through that aren’t they? There are some campaigns that are getting huge amounts of money from small individual voter contributions only, and some billionaires who are trying to buy elections with their massive advertising campaigns aren’t doing so well at all?

– It’s much more than that, I’m afraid. Just take the one phenomenon as an example: The lobbyists in the capital, — yeah, they can’t give congressmen and government officials big expensive gifts anymore. But what they are doing is to get close to the representatives and senator’ aides, help them write the proposed bills, where they take advantage of the old ‘turkey’ tradition that allows bill sponsors to add funding for special interest ‘turkey’ projects for their constituents in laws that are mainly, and titled, about something else entirely. So you get trillion-dollar bills about the fight to deal with epidemics that have 500 billions worth of provisions that help big corporations, and billions worth of special help for owners of private business airplanes in them — that even people who are against such practices can’t vote down because that would kill or delay the main bill the people desperately need. And the lobbyists promise those aides lucrative jobs in their companies after their term is over.

– Good grief.

– You can say that again… And the leaders and even representatives of such ‘democracies’ who are ‘helping’ other countries kick out their dictators are selling those countries systems that are even more vulnerable to such power abuses — because they want to make sure their own corporate sponsors will make some nice profits in those places. Of course, those forces find it much easier to deal with the new power holders in those countries than to deal with the unruly, ignorant masses, — and using their economic contributions to help the addictive force of power to turn them into … dictators.

…………………………….What Can Be Done About Power? And What Shouldn’t Be?

– So what do you think ought to be done about that?

– The first thing is to get people to think about the problem — to inform them about all the abuse, which is difficult if the media are controlled by forces behind the shenanigans.

– Well, that’s one thing. And some people are getting all worked up about it — agitating, organizing protest rallies, ‘occupying’ this institution or that, getting themselves arrested — I don’t really see that helping. And if you get a little pandemic running, that lets you order people to stay home and arrest them if they get together in groups of more than ten people — all very conveniently justifiable of course — I wouldn’t begin to argue with that — you’ve got things nicely under control.

– So again: what do you think should be done about it? You got to have some solutions to offer people? Some ideas? First steps?

……………………………………………………………………………………………….Some First Ideas

– Yes. Well, it so happens that in the proposals for the Public Planning Discourse that we talked about, there are some provisions that could be used to begin to diminish the role of money and power in politics and public planning. But it’s just one part of the issue, no general panacea, and certainly not something that can bring overnight change. Part of the purpose of the Planning Discourse is to support the development and discussion of new ideas, new solutions. Ignite the creativity of all segments of society, not just disrupt, destroy, marginalize, suppress. That idea of ‘disruptive creativity’ is a dangerous one, likely to backfire no matter how brilliant.

– That’s certainly different from all the movement campaigns that are flooding my social media platforms: they all are just asking for money to promote their ideas, to dominate the development, not really encourage or contribute new ideas or insights.

– You’re not alone in that perception, Sophie. But let’s hear more of those ideas, Bog-Hubert.

– Okay, Vodçek. First let me remind you of the two general rules Abbé Boulah keeps repeating, that applies to these ideas too:

………….No Sudden Overthrow: ‘Gradual Parallel’ Systems Implementation

The first one is: Any new solutions — even if they are design for ‘global’ unified systems or agreements — should not be introduced ‘overnight’, by force or coercion or surprise, but gradually, on a small scale, ‘parallel’ to the existing systems. The old ‘skunkworks’ idea of R&D companies are a good model for that. Or his ‘innovation zones’ proposal, to introduce new systems first in areas (geographical or other) that have been devastated by natural or man-made disasters — so that they will be perceived as disaster recovery aid rather that as deliberate efforts to displace the old traditions and thereby generating unnecessary opposition from folks depending on the relative stability of conditions for their own means of survival.

– I remember, we did discuss those a while ago here, didn’t we?

……………………………………………..’Collateral’ Aspects Of Discourse Improvements:

…………………………………………………………Merit Points for Discourse Contributions

– Good, so we don’t need to spend much time repeating the details on that: but keep in mind that the proposals should meet that rule as much as possible. The other recommendation is that new system provisions should try to serve many different purposes simultaneously, not just one. And if you remember our discussions about the ‘side-effects’ or ‘collateral benefits’ of the notion of ‘merit points’ for citizen contributions to the planning discourse, you’ll see that they are a good example of that kind of idea, — and they could contribute to new, different power controls.

– Would it be useful if you could give us a brief summary of that, Bog-Hubert?

– I’ll try. It started with the investigation of how pro and con arguments about plan proposals could be evaluated, so that decisions could be more visibly and transparently linked to that merit. So there was the technique of developing a measure of plausibility for such arguments, and for constructing a measure of plausibility support for plan proposals. This seemed necessary to get around the problem that for projects to deal with ‘wicked’ problems affecting people in many different governance entities, decision-making by ‘voting’ is no longer a good tool (if it ever was): How to decide who is entitled to vote, for example? And are voters in different legislative bodies equally seriously affected, even adequately informed about the implications of the plan, etc.?

– Would be nice if that could be made to work, yes. But there’s more, to that collateral fallout, you say?

– Yes, Dexter. To encourage citizens to contribute such arguments — but also other information, ideas, it seemed useful to offer contributors some rewards for doing that: ‘merit points’. But not just for any wild and unsupported claims, and endless repetition of the same stuff: only the ‘first’ entries of the same essential content would ‘count towards points. We think that would encourage people to get their contributions in as fast as possible. And the entries would be evaluated by the discourse community for plausibility and importance, significance: rewarding plausible claims with adequate supporting evidence positively and lies, mere speculation and flawed thinking negatively.

– I see. This would become a kind of ‘valuable player’ account for contributing citizens?

– Right. A ‘reputation’ record of meaningful contributions.

– Interesting. What would that be good for?

– Excellent question, Vodçek. For the kind of ‘currency’ in such an account to become meaningful, it must become ‘fungible’, that is, people must be able to use it. A first use would be, I think you’d agree, that this record might become part of a candidate’s election or appointment to public office. It would be an indication not only of citizen’s interest an willingness to engage in public affairs, but also of their quality of judgment. Reckless, unsupported claims or outright lies would be getting ‘negative’ ratings, so a devious busybody’s account of a lot of nonsense entries wouldn’t be as valuable.

– I see the potential value in that idea, Bog-Hubert. But this part of our discussion started out with your wild claim about power being the big problem, didn’t it? So now you are just saying it helps getting better people into official positions. Those would be positions with power, wouldn’t they? Aren’t the people in such positions just as susceptible to the temptations of power than they are now? So how does this help the power problem?

…………………………………………………………………………………….Merit points and power?

– Ah: now we are getting to the interesting parts. Perhaps we should first see if we can agree on some basics about power. It’s not just a kind of necessary evil, that we can’t do anything about, but a key human desire, perhaps even something like a ‘right’. Part of our basic ‘right’ to the pursuit of happiness? If we acknowledge that people ‘need’ not only basic life necessities like food and shelter, and the relative absence of threats to those, but also the freedom to that pursuit — power, empowerment — to ‘make a difference’ in their lives. We think that’s a fundamental right, don’t we? And that becomes a problem only when it gets in the way of other people’s right to pursue their different forms of life and happiness.

– But don’t we need to have people in some kinds of power positions in any form of organized society?

– Right. commissioner. ‘Power to the people’ also means the people’s power to appoint people to positions where they make decisions on behalf of the rest of us. So we can feel secure in our smaller different pursuits. I guess you are worried about the conflict between the ideas we just mentioned, about how the people’s assessment of the merit of discussions about plans and policies plans that should determine the decisions, and now the sudden admissions that we need people in power to make such decisions for us? As you should be.

– Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

– Okay. Would it help to make some crude distinctions about the kinds of decisions that we need in society? One kind is the orderly ‘running’ of things in society — mostly routine, ‘maintenance’ decisions, carrying out the detailed implementation of policies. And also what to do in case there are unprecedented emergencies, for which there are no policies yet, and no time to wait for the outcome of careful thorough discussions to agree on them. The other kind are the policy issues themselves: for those, we need the discourse and wide popular participation and assessment of the merit of the information people contribute.

– I’m not sure the distinction is always as clear as you make it sound? Somewhat fuzzy?

– I agree, professor. But is it sufficient to see that we need both: the captain of the ship to decide whether to pass the iceberg to starboard or port, the chief engineer make the engine deliver the needed power to safely steer past it and not get driven into the ice below the surface, the helmsman to carry out the captain’s order?

– I see. So the merit point accounts would help us decide whether we can trust the different kinds of chiefs to make their respective decisions expertly and responsibly. And you are saying that current elections aren’t doing that well enough?

– Or that even initially well-intentioned, competent people can be ‘corrupted’ ? Yes — by money, or the promised they had to make to entities financing their election campaigns, or by the addictive power of power.

– So how does that merit point system deal with that problem?

– Well, don’t you see? The merit point accounts now contain a new ‘currency’. And that can be used, just like we use money to pay for life’s necessities, as a matter of course, to ‘pay‘ for the privilege of making important decisions. The more important, the more you’ll have to ‘pay’. And doing that, as a kind of ‘investment’ in your decisions, you’ll end up using up your credits. We must link the use of the power command buttons to the merit point account: no more credits in your account, no power for the button.

– Well. As the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers in Minnesota would say: That’s certainly ‘different‘.

– What do you know about Bachelor Minnesota Farmers, Sophie?

– Just listening to Garrison Keillor in my younger days…But what about necessary decisions that need to be made, even by a captain who’s used up his credit, or who’s called on to make decisions for which his account doesn’t have enough points in it?

………………………………………………………….Does ‘Accountability’ Require Accounts?

– Well, he may have supporters, won’t he? People who have accounts with some credits in them: can’t they transfer some of their credits to their great leader, to ’empower’ him or her to make those big decisions. Which now makes them ‘accountable’ too: the fancy talk about ‘accountability’ is really meaningless without there being an account that can be emptied out if you invest your hard-earned reputation in the wrong leaders or the wrong decisions you’ll empower them to make?

– Sounds better than just money, where we don’t know whether it was stole or ‘hard-earned’. I suppose we should be able to specify what kinds of decisions we are endorsing with our support points?

……………………………………………………….Implementation on a ‘Skunkworks’ Basis?

– Good idea. Well, the adoption of such a system would certainly be a topic for a wider discourse in a larger platform that our little gang of ‘taverniers de la table ronde’ here. But do you see how it could be started out as a ‘parallel’ system — perhaps as something the polling industry could take on as a ‘skunkworks’ project? Small, local, experimental, to see how it works?

– Careful: You’re cruising for a permanent labeling as a ‘merit point skunk’, my friend…

– By people who don’t have anything better to contribute, that would be a danger we’d have to live with. Until their current systems start exuding even stronger odors.

– Aren’t we there yet? So your doodling over there, that was about how to sneak such a system into the larger society, Bog-Hubert?

– Yeah. Well, it needs some more work, doesn’t show all the system parts. Aren’t there any systems thinking folks around that could help with that, Dexter?

– I can’t say I’m aware of any, off the cuff…

– Yes! Awareness! That’s it! That’s what we need! Right, Vodçek?

– Who said that? I’ll have to consider emergency power decisions…


Thorbjørn Mann, April 2020


Concepts and Rationale

      Much of the discussion, and examples in the preceding sections may seem to have taken the assumption of weighting for granted: aspects in formal evaluation procedures, or deontic (ought-) claims in arguments. The entire effort of designing a better platforms and procedures for public planning discourse is focused in part on exploring how the common phrase of “carefully weighing the pros and cons” in making decisions about plans could be supported by specific explanations of what it means and, more importantly, how it would be done in detail. Within the perspectives of formal evaluation or assessment of planning arguments (See previous posts on formal evaluation procedures and evaluation of planning argument), the question of ‘why’ appears not to require much justification: It seems almost self-evident that some of the various pro and con arguments carry more ‘weight’ in influencing the decision than others: Even if there is only one ‘pro’ and one ‘con’, shouldn’t the decision depend on which argument is the more ‘weighty’ one?
      The allegorical figure of Justice carries a balance for weighing the evidence of opposing legal arguments. (Curiously: the blindfolded lady is supposed to make her decision on the heavier weight, not on the social status or power or wealth of the arguing parties, but not even to see the tilt?) Of the many evaluation aspects of formal evaluation procedures, there may be some that really don’t ‘matter’ much to any of the parties affected by the problem or the proposed solution that must be decided upon. Decision-makers making decisions on behalf of others can (should?) be asked asked to explain their basis of judgment. Wouldn’t their answer be considered incomplete without some mention of which aspects carry more weight than others in their decision?
While it does not seem that many such questions are asked (perhaps because the questioners are used to not getting very satisfactory answers?), there is no lack of advice for evaluators about how they might express this weighting process. For example, how to assign a meaningful set of weights to different aspects and sub-aspects in an evaluation aspects ‘tree’. But the process is often considered cumbersome enough to tempt participants to skip this added complication of making such assignments, and and instead raising questions of ‘what difference does it make?’, whether it is really necessary, or how meaningful the different techniques for doing this really are. And there are significant approaches to design and planning that propose to do entirely without recourse to explicit ‘pro and con’ weighting.
       Finally, there are significant approaches to design and planning that propose to do entirely without recourse to explicit ‘pro and con’ weighting. Among these are the familiar traditions of voting, decision rules of ‘taking the sense’ of the discussion by a facilitator in the pursuit of consensus or the appearance of consensus or consent, upon more or less organized and thorough discussion, during which the weight or relevance, significance of the different discussion entries is assumed to have been sufficiently well articulated. Another is the method of sequential elimination of solution alternatives (for example by voting ‘out’, not ‘in’) until there is only one alternative left. A fundamentally different method is that of generating the plan or solution from elements (or according to accepted rules) that have been declared valid by authority, theory, or tradition, which are assumed to ‘guarantee’ that the outcome will also be good, valid, beautiful etc.
       Since the issue of evaluation is somewhat confused by being discussed in various different terms: ‘weights of relative importance’; ‘priorities’, ‘relevance’, ‘principles’, ‘preferences’; ‘significance’, ‘urgency’, and there are yet unresolved questions within each of the major approaches, some exploration of the issue seems in order: to revive what looks at this point as a needed, unfinished discussion.

                  Figure 1 — Weighting in planning evaluation: overview

Different ways of dealing with the ‘weighting’ issue

      A first, simple form of expressing opinions about importance is the use of principles in the considerations about a plan. A principle (understood as not only the ‘first’ and foremost consideration but a kind of ‘sine qua non’ or ‘non-negotiable’ condition) can be used to decide whether or not a proposed plan meets the condition of the principle, and eliminate it from further consideration if it doesn’t. Principles can be lofty philosophical or moral tenets, or simple pragmatic rules such as ‘must meet applicable governmental laws and regulations to get the permit’ — regardless of whether a proposed plan might be further refined or modified to meet those regulations, or an exemption be negotiated based on unusual considerations. If there are several alternative proposals to be evaluated, this usually requires several ’rounds’ of successive elimination identifying ‘admissible’, ‘semi-finalist’, ‘finalist’ contenders up to the determination of the winning entry, by means of one of the ‘decision criteria’ such as simple majority voting — which here would be not ‘voting ‘in’ for adoption or further consideration, but voting ‘out’.

Weight ‘grouping’
       A more refined approach that considers evaluation aspects of different degrees of importance is that of assigning those aspects to a few groups of importance, such as ‘highly important’; ‘important’ and ‘less important’, ‘unimportant’, ‘optional’ and ‘unimportant’, perhaps assigning aspects in these groups ‘weights’ such as ‘4’, ‘3’, ‘2’, ‘1’ and ‘0’, respectively, to be multiplied with a ‘quality’ or ‘degree of performance’ judgment score before being added up. The problem with this approach can be seen by considering the extreme possibility of somebody assigning all aspects the highest category of ‘highly important’; in effect making all aspects ‘equally important’ — for n aspects each one contributing 1/n weight to the overall judgment.

Ranking and preference
      The approach of arranging or ‘ranking’ things in the order of preference (on the ordinal scale) can be applied to the set of alternatives to be evaluated as well as to the aspects to be used in the evaluation. Decision-making by preference ranking — e.g. for the election of candidates for public office — has been studied more extensively, e.g. by Arrow [1], finding unsurmountable problems for decision-making by different parties, due mainly to ‘paradoxical’ transitivity issues. Simple ranking does not recognize measurable performance (measurable on a ratio or difference scale) where this is applicable, making a coherent ‘quality’ evaluation approach based only on preference ranking impossible.
      An interesting variation of this approach is an approach for deciding whether a proposal should be rejected or accepted, attributed to Benjamin Franklin. It consists of listing the pros and con arguments in separate columns on a sheet of paper, then looking for pairs of pros and cons that seem to be equally important, and striking those two arguments out. The process is continued until only one argument, or one pair, is left; if this, or the weightier one of two is a ‘pro’ argument, the decision will be in favor of the proposal, if it is a ‘con’ argument, the decision should be rejection. It is not clear how this process can be applied to group decision-making without recourse to other methods of dealing with different outcomes by different parties,such as voting.
Interestingly, preference or importance comparison is often suggested as a preliminary step towards developing a more thoroughly considered set of weightings in the next level:

Weights of relative importance
       As indicated above, the technique of assigning ‘weights of relative importance’ to the aspects on each ‘branch’ of evaluation aspect trees has been part of formal evaluation techniques such as the Musso-Rittel procedure [2] for buildings (discussed in previous posts) as well as in proposals for systematic evaluation of pro/con arguments [5]. These weights of relative importance — expressed on a scale of zero to 1 (or zero to 100), subject to the condition that all weights on the respective level must add up to 1 (or 100, respectively), indicate the evaluator’s judgment about ‘how much’ (by what percentage or fraction) of the overall judgment each single aspect judgment should determine the overall judgment. In this view, the use of the ‘principle’ approach above can be seen as simply assigning the full weight of 1.0 or 100% to the one of the aspects expressed in the discussion that the evaluator considers a principle — , overriding all other consideration aspects.
      To some, the resulting set of weights may seem somewhat arbitrary. The task of having to adjust the weights to meet the condition of adding up to 1 or 100 can be seen as a nudge to get evaluators to more carefully consider these judgments, not just arbitrarily assign meaningless weights: To make one aspect more important (by assigning it a higher weight), that added weight must be ‘taken away’ from other aspects.
        Arbitrariness can also be reduced by using the Ackoff technique [3] of generating a set of weights that can be seen as ‘approximately’ representing a person’s true valuation. It consists of ranking the aspects and assigning numbers (on no particular scale) and then comparing each pair of aspects, deciding which one is more important than the other, and adjusting the numbers accordingly, until a set of numbers is achieved that ‘approximately’ reflects a evaluator’s ‘true’ valuation. To make this set comparable to other participants’ weighting, (so that the numbers carry the same ‘meaning’ to all participants), it must then be ‘normalized’ by dividing each number by the total, getting the set back to adding up to +1 (or 100). Displaying these results for discussion will further reduce arbitrariness. This can actually induce participants to change their weightings to reflect recognition and (empathy) accommodation for others’ concerns that they had not recognized in their own first assignments. Of course, the discussion requires that the weighting is made explicit.
      Taking the ‘test’ of deliberation seriously — of enabling a person A to make judgments on behalf of another person B — this can now be seen to require that A could show how A can use not only the set of aspects and the criterion functions but also B’s weight assignments for all aspects and sub-aspects etc., and of course the same aggregation function, resulting in the overall judgment that B would have made. It likely would be different from A’s own judgment using her own set of aspects, criteria, criterion functions and weighting. The technique using weights of relative importance thus looks like the most promising one for meeting this test. By extension, to the extent societal or government regulations are claimed to be representative of the community’s values, what would be required to demonstrate even approximate closeness of the underlying valuation?

Approaches avoiding formal evaluation       

The discussion of weighting would be incomplete without mentioning some examples of approaches that entirely sidestep the issue of evaluation of plans of the ‘formal evaluation’ kind and others using weighting. One is the well know Benefit-Cost Analysis, the other relies on the process of generating a plan following a procedure or theory that has been accepted as valid and guaranteeing the validity or quality of the resulting design or plan or policy.

Expressing weights in money: Benefit-Cost Analysis
      The Benefit-Cost Analysis is based on the fact that the implementation of most plans will cost money — cost of course being the main ‘con’ criterion for some decision-making entities. So the entire question of value and value differences is turned into the ‘objective’ currency of money: are the benefits (the ‘pros’) we expect from the project worth the cost (and other ‘cons’)? This common technique is mandatory for many government projects and policies. It has been so well described as well as criticized in the literature, that it does not need a lengthy treatment here; though some critical questions it shares with other approaches will be discussed below.

Generating plans by following a ‘valid’ theory or custom
       Approaches that can be described as ‘generative’ design or planning processes rely on the assumption that following the steps of a valid theory or using rules and elements that constitute the whole ‘solution’, (elements that have been determined as ‘valid’) to construct the plan, will thereby guarantee its overall validity or quality. Thus, there is no need to engage in a complicated evaluation at the end of that process. Christopher Alexander’s ‘Pattern Language’ [4] for architecture and urban design is a main recent example of such approaches — though it can be argued that it is part of a long tradition of similar efforts of rules or pattern books for proper building, going back to antiquity — either as cultural traditions know to the community or as ‘secrets’ of the profession. He claims that following this ‘timeless way’ of building “frees you from all method”.
      However, the argument that the individual patterns and rules for connecting these elements into the overall design somehow ‘guarantee’ the validity and quality of the overall design (if followed properly) merely shifts the issue of evaluation back to the task of identifying valid patterns and relationship rules. This is discussed — if at all — in very different language, and often simply posited by the authority of tradition (‘proven by experience’) or — as in the Pattern Language — of its developer Alexander or followers writing patterns languages for different domains such as computer programming, ‘social transformation’, or composing music. To the best of my knowledge, the evaluation tools used in that process remain to be studied and made explicit. The discussion of this issue is somewhat more difficult than necessary because of Alexander’s claim that the quality of patterns — their beauty, value, ‘aliveness’ — is ‘a matter of objective fact’.

Do Weighing methods make a difference?

      A question that is likely to arise in a project whose participants are confronted with the task of evaluating proposed plans, and therefore having to choose the evaluation method they will use, is whether this choice will make a significant difference in the final judgment. The answer is that it definitely will, but the extent of difference will depend on the context and circumstances of each project — especially if there are significant differences of opinion in the affected community. The trouble is that the extent of such differences can only be seen by actually using some of the more detailed techniques for a given project, and comparing the decision outcomes; an effort unlikely to be taken in a situation where the question of whether one technique is ‘worth the effort’ at all.
      The table below shows a very simple example of such a comparison. For the stated assumptions of a few evaluation aspects and weighting assignments, the different ways of dealing with the weighting issue actually will yield different final plan decisions. This crude example cannot, of course, provide any general guidelines for choosing the tools to use in any specific project. The above list and discussion of policy decision options can at best become part of a ‘toolkit’ from which the participants in each project can choose to construct the approach they consider most suitable for their situation.

       Table 1 Comparison of the effect of different weighting approaches

      The ‘weights of relative importance’ form of dealing with the issue of different degrees of importance in the evaluation considerations is used both in the formal evaluation procedures oft the Musso-Rittel type and, in adaptation, in the argument evaluation approach for planning arguments [5]; It may be considered most useful for approximately representing different bases of judgment. However, even for that purpose, there are some questions — for all these forms — that need more exploration and discussion.

Questions and Issues for further discussion

       Apart from the question whether the apparent conflict between evaluation techniques using weighting approaches, and those avoiding evaluation and thus weighting at all, can be settled, there are some issues about weighting itself that require more discussion. They include contingency questions: about the stability of weight assignments over time and different, changing context conditions, their applicability at different phases of the planning process, and the possibilities (opportunities) for manipulation through bias adjustments between weights of aspects and the steepness (severity) of criterion functions for those aspects.

The relationship between weighting and the steepness of criterion functions
       A perhaps minor detail is the relationship between the weight assignments of evaluation aspects, and the criterion functions for that aspect, in a person’s ‘evaluation model’. A steep criterion function curve can have the same effect as a higher weight for the aspect in question. To some extent, making both the weighting and criterion functions of all participants explicit and visible for discussion in a particular project may help to counteract undue use of this effect, e.g. by asking where the criterion function should cross the ‘zero’ judgment (‘so-so, neither good nor bad but anything above that line still acceptable’) and thus prevent extreme severity of judgments. This would assume considerable sophistication on the part of individuals attempting such distortion and of other participants in the discourse to detect and deal with it. But both in personal assessments and in efforts to define common social evaluations (regulations) expressed in terms of criterion functions such as e.g. implied by the suggestions in [8] there remains a potential for manipulation that at the very least should encourage great caution in accepting evaluation results as direct decision criteria.

Tentative conclusions and outlook

     These issues suggest that it is far from clear whether they can eventually be settled in favor of one or the other view. What does this mean for the the concern triggering this investigation, to explore what provisions should be made for the evaluation task in the design of a public planning platform? Any attempt to pre-empt the decision, by mandating one specific approach or technique should be avoided, to prevent it from itself becoming an added controversy distracting from the task of developing a good plan. So given the current state of the discussion, for the time being, should the platform offer just participants information — a ‘toolkit — about the possible techniques at their disposal? Can ‘manuals’ with guidance for their application, and perhaps suggestions for circumstances in the context or the nature of the problem, offer discourse participants in projects with wide, even global participation adequate guidance for their use? Or will it take more general education to prepare the public for adequately informed and meaningful participation?

     The emerging complexity of the issues discovered about even this minor component of the evaluation question could encourage opponents of these cumbersome procedures. Are calls for stronger leadership (from groups asking for leadership with systems thinking, better ‘awareness’ of ‘holistic’, ecological, social inequality issues, or other moral qualities actually indicators of public unwillingness to engage in thorough evaluation of the public planning decisions we are facing? Or just inability to do so? Inability caused perhaps by inadequate education for such issues, compounded by inadequate information and lack of accessible and workable platforms for carrying out the needed discussions and judgments? Or is there also some power desire at play, for such groups to themselves become those leaders, empowered to make decisions for the ‘common good’?

Notes, References

[1] Kenneth J. Arrow, 1951, 2nd ed., 1963. Social Choice and Individual Values, Yale University Press.
[2] Musso, A. and Horst Rittel: “Über das Messen der Güte von Gebäuden” In “Arbeitsberichte zur Planungsmethodik‘, Krämer, Stuttgart 1971.
[3] Ackoff, Russel: “Scientific Method” , John Wiley & Sons 1962.
[4] Alexander, Christopher: “A Pattern Language“, Oxford University Press, 1977.
[5] Mann, T: ‘The Fog Island Argument’ XLibris, 2009, or “The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments” , INFORMAL LOGIC, Dec. 2010.
[6] Mann, T.: “Programming for Innovation: The Case of the Planning for Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence”. Paper presented at the EDRA (Environmental Design Research Association) Meeting, Black Mountain, 1989. Published in DESIGN METHODS AND THEORIES, Vol 24, No. 3, 1990. Also: Chapter 16 in “Rigatopia — the Tavern Discussions“, Lambert Academic Publication 2015.
[7] Mann, T: “Time Management for Architects and Designers” W. Norton, 2003.
[8] “Die Methodische Bewertung: Ein Instrument des Architekten. Festschrift für Professor Arne Musso zum 65. Geburtstag“, Technische Universität Berlin, 1993; Also: Höfler, Horst: Problem-Darstellung und Problem-Lösung in der Bauplanung. IGMA-Dissertationen 3, Universität Stuttgart 1972.