Archive for September, 2022

Is it a system? 

A question posted (on the LI  systems thinking network) asked whether anybody had seen a documented Causal Loop Diagram of ‘virtuous loops’ systems in systems. Did it imply that there arent any? I suggested that the provision of merit point rewards for participation in public planning discourse,and the subsequent use of those points to make public officials ‘pay’ for power decisions that have not been publicly discussed, contained at least one such virtuous loop. Because I hadn’t also provided a CLD in the standard format, this was roundly rejected. It is not clear to me  whether this was because of the lack of a CLD, or whether the entire discourse process envisioned (but not described in complete detail) does not qualify as a system, in the author’s opinion. Other comments seemed to support this interpretation. For me, this raised some questions about the concept of ‘system’, its definition link or restriction to Causal loop phenomena, and their usefulness for the design of such projects as the discourse support platform.

The proposed ‘Public Planning Discourse Support Playtform’  I sometimes called a ‘system’ can be seen and described in several different ways.

To see what physical framework items  for a discourse are involved , it may be useful to first look at a discourse taking place in a real physical space with human participants communicating vocally about a problem or idea calling for a plan to implement it. 

The human participants, assembled in response to a call for discussion of a problem or idea or plan. proposed a plan whose realization wil require approval and resources by the community: This may be spoken or shouted out or displayed as a (deontic) question: 

“Should (‘ought’)  Plan A be adopted for implementation?”  

If the proponent is not an official (leader, designated or usurped ‘dictator’, simply announcing their intent to compel the community to adopt the plan, their aim is to obtain a (set of) acceptance message(s)— a ‘decision’ from the community signaling that “Yes, Plan A ought to be adopted.”  One or more reasons may suggest that this should first be discussed; that ‘pros and cons’ should be considered. The set of activities, and rules guiding their sequence to result in a final decision is a process. According to some understanding of ‘system’ — a set of ‘items’ with relationships between them — is it also a system?  

There are several definitions of ‘system’ in the systems domain, such as the ‘stock and flow’ concept, or the view that a system is a set of (preferably measurable) variables related by cause-effect relationships;  described by ‘causal loop diagrams’ — implying a condition I have read that such a thing must have ‘loops’ in order to quality as a system;  or more elaborate views such as that ‘“system paths are characterized with nodes that represent unique centers of inter unitary relationships conveying enabling communication for both internal systems and the whole system of systems”. 

There are aspects of the platform project that can meet several such definitions, by focuisng on different aspects. For example, the physical ‘containers’ and displays needed to proccess the flow of messages, and their connections, that may be primitive to the point of dismissal in town hall meetings, but becoming a distinct design problem as soon as the process is taken ‘online’. The professionals involved in its construction and operation will call this a ‘system’. 

A different view may focus on the content of the messages exchanged. In addition to the different types of claims about the merit of the proposed plan, the participants will harbor and express judgments about its  desirability or plausibility. The judgments can be expressed as characterizations such as ‘nonsense’ or ‘brilliant’ or ‘gee, I don’t know’, (which are not very helpful in assessing a collective ‘judgment’),  or on a better defined scale. For example, one with the values ‘yes, don’t know, no’, or a more detailed one such as numbers ranging from +1 (meaning definitely yes), totally plausible) via 0 (don’t know, can’t decide) to -1 (definitely not, totally implausible) with degrees of plausibility in-between.  The messages exchanged between participants (pros and cons, for example) serve to decrease or increase the individual overall plan plausibility judgments. The pros and cons can be further ‘explained’  (justified or supported) by further arguments in favor of the premises of the pros and cons, and on their  plausibility. From such individual judgments, some form of  statistical aggregation into a ‘community decision judgment’ on the same scale can be formed to guide the decision. 

This, like the physical components ‘system’,  sounds more like a ‘stock and flow’ kind of process, but I’m not sure whether there are loops in those flows to make it a proper system, and whether this is a key concern to worry about. Possibly if the process provides the option of modifications of the originally proposed plan in response to arguments: Certain changes will result in increase in judgments about some aspects while reducing others. The process will then become more complicated (and may often appear to some as too complex and even chaotic, even returning to ‘physical’ in a different sense). 

Curiously, the scant efforts to improve this phenomenon seems to appear too complex for many who prefer to rely on simple ‘yes/no’ majority voting regardless of the problems and ‘chaotification’ associated with this crude method (voting rights, the various forms of ‘rigging the system’ (if it indeed Is one); the complex process of drawing complex shapes of voting districts known as ‘gerrymandering’, and its blatant disregard for the solemnly invoked principle of ‘due consideration of all pros and cons’ about public plans: the wholesale dismissal of the concerns of the voting minority. 

’Reaching across the aisle’ to the miscreants and sinners?:  Treason. 

Whether this represents just the inevitable minor aberrations of the supreme governance model of ‘democracy’ or forboding its demise may be worth a separate discussion.

The upshot of these musings? The issue of whether or not, or on what conditions, the project can be called a ‘system’ is, in my modified judgment, not very helpful, in spite of the initially inspiring notion of guiding its design by providing it with ‘virtual’ loops towards better planning decisions.  It also seems to indicate that single forms of ‘systems’ models — cause-effect, stock and flows, only apply well to selected aspects of the overall project. Is it then composed of several  such systems, or asre the systems models just inadequate tools for the description of the whole thing? Again: is that issue helpful or a distraction to its design? 

It seems that i must regretfully leave the systems community to ponder its own process of evolving into a collection of systems silos with its arrays of admission criteria, and abstain from using the term ‘system’ altogether. So what should I call it?