A tavern discussion looking at the idea of an artificial planning discourse participant from the perspectives of the argumentative model and the systems thinking perspectives, expanding both (or mutually patching up their shortcomings), and inadvertently stumbling upon potential improvements upon the concept of democracy.
Customers and patron of a fogged-in island tavern with nothing better to do,
awaiting news on progress on the development of a better planning discourse
begin an idly speculative exploration of the idea of an artificial planner:
would such a creature be a better planning discourse participant?
– Hey Bog-Hubert: Early up and testing Vodçeks latest incarnation of café cataluñia forte forte? The Fog Island Tavern mental alarm clock for the difficult-to-wakeup?
– Good morning, professor. Well, have you tried it? Or do you want to walk around in a fogged-in-morning daze for just a while longer?
– Whou-ahmm, sorry. Depends.
– Depends? On what?
– Whether this morning needs my full un-dazed attention yet.
– Makes sense. Okay. Let me ask you a question. I hear you’ve been up in town. Did you run into Abbé Boulah, by any chance? He’s been up there for a while, sorely neglecting his Fog Island Tavern duties here, ostensibly to help his buddy at the university with the work on his proposals for a better planning discourse system. Hey, Sophie: care to join us?
– Okay, good morning to you too. What’s this about a planning system?
– I’m not sure if it’s a ‘system’. I was asking the professor if he has heard whether Abbé Boulah and his buddy have made any progress on that. It’s more like a discourse platform than a ‘system’ – if by ‘system’ you mean something like an artificial planning machine – a robot planner.
– Oh, I’m relieved to hear that.
– Why, Sophie?
– Why? Having a machine make our plans for our future? That would be soo out of touch. Really. Just when we are just beginning to understand that WE have to take charge, to redesign the current ‘MeE’ system, from a new Awareness of the Whole, of our common place on the planet, in the universe, our very survival as a species? That WE have to get out from under that authoritarian, ME-centered linear machine systems thinking, to emerge into a sustainable, regenerative NEW SYSTEM?
– Wow. Sounds like we are in more trouble than I thought. So who’s doing that, how will we get to that New System?
– Hold on, my friends. Lets not get into that New System issue again – haven’t we settled that some time ago here – that we simply don’t know yet what it should be like, and should try to learn more about what works and what doesn’t, before starting another ambitious grand experiment with another flawed theory?
– Okay, Vodçek, good point. But coming to think about it – to get there, — I mean to a better system with a better theory — wouldn’t that require some smart planning? You can’t just rely on everybody coming to that great awareness Sophie is taking about, for everything just to fall into place? So wouldn’t it be interesting to just speculate a bit about what your, I mean Abbé Boulah’s buddy’s planning machine, would have to do to make decent plans?
– You mean the machine he doesn’t, or, according to Sophie, emphatically shouldn’t even think about developing?
– That’s the one.
– Glad we have that cleared up… Well, since we haven’t heard anything new about the latest scandals up in town yet, it might be an interesting way to pass the time.
– I hear no real objections, just an indecisive Hmm. And no, I don’t have any news from Abbé Boulah either – didn’t see him. He tends to stay out of public view. So it’s agreed. Where do we start?
– Well: how about at the beginning? What triggers a planning project? How does it start?
Initializing triggers for planning?
– Good idea, Sophie. Somebody having a problem – meaning something in the way things are, that are perceived as unsatisfactory, hurtful, ugly, whatever: not the way they ought to be?
– Or: somebody just has a bright idea for doing something new and interesting?
– Or there’s a routine habit or institutional obligation to make preparations for the future – to lay in provisions for a trip, or heating material for the winter?
– Right: there are many different things that could trigger a call for ‘doing something about it’ – a plan. So what would the machine do about that?
– You are assuming that somebody – a human being – is telling the machine to do something? Or are you saying that it could come up with a planning project on its own?
– It would have to be programmed to recognize a discrepancy between what IS and what OUGHT to be, about a problem or need, wouldn’t it? And some human would have had to tell him that. Because it’s never the machine (or the human planner working on behalf of people) hurting if there’s a problem; its only people who have problems.
– So it’s a Him already?
– Easy, Sophie. Okay: A She? You decide. Give her, him, it a name. So we can get on with it.
– Okay. I’d call it the APT – Abominable Planning Thing. And it’s an IT, a neuter.
– APT it is. Nicely ambiguous… For a moment I thought you meant Argumentative Planning Tool. Or Template.
– Let’s assume, for now, that somebody told it about a problem or a bright idea. So what would that APT do?
Ground rules, Principles?
Due consideration of all available information;
Whole system understanding guiding decisions
towards better (or at least not worse) outcomes
for all affected parties
– Wait: Shouldn’t we first find out some ground rules about how it’s going to work? For example, it wouldn’t do to just come up with some random idea and say ‘this is it’?
– Good point. You have any such ground rules in mind, professor?
– Sure. I think one principle is that it should try to gather and ‘duly consider’ ALL pertinent information that is available about the problem situation. Ideally. Don’t you agree, Sophie? Get the WHOLE picture? Wasn’t that part of the agenda you mentioned?
– Sounds good, professor. But is it enough to just ‘have’ all the information? Didn’t someone give a good description of the difference between ‘data’ (just givens, messages, numbers etc) and ‘information’ – the process of data changing someone’s stat of knowledge, insight, understanding?
– No, you are right. There must be adequate UNDERSTANDING – of what it means and how it all is related.
– I see a hot discussion coming up about what that really means: ‘understanding’… But go on.
– Well, next: wouldn’t we expect that there needs to be a process of developing or drawing a SOLUTION or a proposed PLAN – or several – from that understanding? Not just from the stupid data?
– Det er da svœrt så fordringfull du er idag, Sophie: Now you are getting astoundingly demanding here. Solutions based on understanding?
– Oh, quit your Norwegian bickering. I’ll do even more demanding: Mustn’t there be a way to CONNECT all that understanding, all the concerns, data, facts, arguments, with any proposed DECISION, especially the final one that leads to action, implementation. If we ever get to that?
– Are you considering that all the affected folks will expect that the decision should end up making things BETTER for them? Or at least not WORSE than before? Would that be one of your ground rules?
– Don’t get greedy here, Vodçek. The good old conservative way is to ask some poor slobs to make some heroic Sacrifices for the Common Good. “mourir pour des idées, d’accord, mais de mort lente…” as George Brassens complains. But you are right: ideally, that would be a good way to put the purpose of the effort.
– All right, we have some first principles or expectations. We’ll probably add some more of those along the way, but I’d say it’s enough for a start. So what would our APT gizmo do to get things moving?
– I’d say it would start to inquire and assemble information about the problem’s IS state, first. Where is the problem, who’s hurting and how, etc. What caused it? Are there any ideas for how to fix it? What would be the OUGHT part — of the problem as well as a bright idea as the starting point?
– Sounds good, Bog-Hubert. Get the data. I guess there will be cases where the process actually starts with somebody having a bright idea for a solution. But that’s a piece of data too, put it in the pile. Where would it get all that information?
– Many sources, I guess. First: from whoever is hurting or affected in any way.
– By the problem, Vodçek? Or the solutions?
– Uh, I guess both. But what if there aren’t any solutions proposed yet?
– It means that the APT will have to check and re-check that whenever someone proposes a solution — throughout the whole process, doesn’t it? It’s not enough to run a single first survey of citizen preferences, like they usually do to piously meet the mandate for ‘citizen participation’. Information gathering, research, re-research, analysis will accompany the whole process.
– Okay. It’s a machine, it won’t get tired of repeated tasks.
– Ever heard of devices overheating, eh? But to go on, there will be experts on the particular kind of problem. There’ll be documented research, case studies from similar events, the textbooks, newspapers, letters to the editor, petitions, the internet. The APT would have to go through everything. And I guess there might have to be some actual ‘observation’, data gathering, measurements.
– So now it has a bunch of stuff in its memory. Doesn’t it have to sort it somehow, so it can begin to do some real work on it?
– You don’t think gathering that information is work, Sophie?
– Sure, but just a bunch of megabytes of stuff… what would it do with it? Don’t tell me it can magically pull the solution from that pile of data!
– Right. Some seem to think they can… But you’ll have to admit that having all the information is part of the answer to our first expectation: to consider ALL available information. The WHOLE thing, remember? The venerable Systems Thinking idea?
– Okay. If you say so. So what to you mean by ‘consider’ – or ‘due consideration’? Just staring at the pile of data until understanding blossoms in your minds and the solution jumps out at you like the bikini-clad girl out of the convention cake? Or Aphrodite rising out of the data ocean?
– You are right. You need to make some distinctions, sort out things. What you have now, at best, are a bunch of concepts, vague, undefined ideas. The kind of ‘tags’ you use to google stuff.
– Yeah. Your argumentation buddy would say you’d have to ask for explanations of those tags – making sure it’s clear what they mean, right?
– Yes. Now he’d also make the distinction that some of the data are actual claims about the situation. Of different types: ‘fact’-claims about the current situation; ‘ought’ claims about what people feel the solution should be. Claims of ‘instrumental’ knowledge about what caused things to become what they are, and thus what will happen when we do this or that: connecting some action on a concept x with another concept ‘y’ – an effect. Useful when we are looking for x’s to achieve desired ‘y’s that we want – the ‘ought’ ideas – or avoid the proverbial ‘unexpected / undesirable’ side-and after-effect surprises of our grand plans: ‘How’ to do things.
– You’re getting there. But some of the information will also consist of several claims arranged into arguments. Like: “Yes, we should do ‘x’ (as part of the plan) because it will lead to ‘y’, and ‘y’ ought to be…” And counterarguments: “No, we shouldn’t do ‘x’ because x will cause ‘z’ which ought not to be.”
– Right. You’ve been listening to Abbé Boulah’s buddy’s argumentative stories, I can tell. Or even reading Rittel? Yes, there will be differences of opinion – not only about what ought to be, but about what we should do to get what we want, about what causes what, even about what Is the case. Is there an old sinkhole on the proposed construction site? And if so, where? That kind of issue. And different opinions about those, too. So the data pile will contain a lot of contradictory claims of all kinds. Which means, for one thing, that we, –even Spock’s relative APT — can’t draw any deductively valid conclusions from contradictory items in the data. ‘Ex contradictio sequitur quodlibet’, remember – from a contradiction you can conclude anything whatever. So APT can’t be a reliable ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘expert system’ that gives you answers you can trust to be correct. We discussed that too once, didn’t we – there was an old conference paper from the 1990s about it. Remember?
– But don’t we argue about contradictory opinions all the time – and draw conclusions about them too?
– Sure. Living recklessly, eh? All the time, and especially in planning and policy-making. But it means that we can’t expect to draw ‘valid’ conclusions that are ‘true or false’, from our planning arguments. Just more or less plausible. Or ‘probable’ – for claims that are appropriately labeled that way.
Systems Thinking perspective
Versus Argumentative Model of Planning?
– Wait. What about the ‘Systems Thinking’ perspective — systems modeling and simulation? Isn’t that a better way to meet the expectation of ‘due consideration’ of the ‘whole system’? So should the APT develop a systems model from the information it collected?
– Glad you brought that up, Vodçek. Yes, it’s claimed to be the best available foundation for dealing with our challenges. So what would that mean for our APT? Is it going to have a split robopersonality between Systems and the Argumentative Model?
– Let’s look at both and see? There are several levels we can distinguish there. The main tenets of the systems approach have to do with the relationships between the different parts of a system – a system is a set of parts or entities, components, that are related in different ways – some say that ‘everything is connected / related to everything else’ – but a systems modeler will focus on the most significant relationships, and try to identify the ‘loops’ in that network of relationships. Those are the ones that will cause the system to behave in ways that can’t be predicted from the relationships between any of the individual pairs of entities in the network. Complexity; nonlinearity. Emergence.
– Wow. You’re throwing a lot of fancy words around there!
– Sorry, Renfroe; good morning, I didn’t see you come in. Doing okay?
– Yeah, thanks. Didn’t get hit by a nonlinearity, so far. This a dangerous place now, for that kind of thing?
– Not if you don’t put too much brandy in that café cataluñia Vodçek is brewing here.
– Hey, lets’ get back to your systems model. Can you explain it in less nonlinear terms?
– Sure, Sophie. Basically, you take all the significant concepts you’ve found, put them into a diagram, a map, and draw the relationships between them. For example, cause-effect relationships; meaning increasing ‘x’ will cause an increase in ‘y’. Many people think that fixing a system can best be done by identifying the causes that brought the state of affairs about that we now see as a problem. This will add a number or new variables to the diagram, to the ‘understanding’ of the problem.
– They also look for the presence of ‘loops’ in the diagram, don’t they? – Where cause-effect chains come back to previous variables.
– Right, Vodçek. This is an improvement over a simple listing of all the pro and con arguments, for example – they also talk about relationships x – y, but only one at a time, so you don’t easily see the whole network, and the loops, in the network. So if you are after ‘understanding the system’, seeing the network of relationships will be helpful. To get a sense of its complexity and nonlinearity.
– I think I understand: you understand a system when you recognize that it’s so loopy and complex and nonlinear that its behavior can’t be predicted so it can’t be understood?
– Renfroe… Professor, can you straighten him out?
– Sounds to me like he’s got it right on, Sophie. Going on: Of course, to be really helpful, the systems modeler will tell you that you should find a way to measure each concept, that is, find a variable – a property of the system that can be measures with precise units.
– What’s the purpose of that, other than making it look more scientific?
– Well, Renfroe, remember the starting point, the problem situation. Oh, wait, you weren’t here yet. Okay; say there’s a problem. We described it as a discrepancy between what somebody feels Is the case and what Ought to be. Somebody complains about it being too hot in here. Now just saying: ‘it’s too hot; it ought to be cooler’, is a starting point, but in order to become useful, you need to be able to say just what you mean by ‘cooler’. See, you are stating the Is/Ought problem in terms of the same variable ‘temperature’. So too even see the difference between Is and Ought, you have to point to the levels of each. 85 degrees F? Too hot. Better: cool it to 72. Different degrees or numbers on the temperature scale.
– Get it. So now we have numbers, math in the system. Great. Just what we need. This early in the morning, too.
– I was afraid of that too. It’s bound to get worse…nonlinear. So in the argumentative approach – the arguments don’t show that? Is that good or bad?
– Good question. Of course you can get to that level, if you bug them enough. Just keep asking more specific questions.
– Aren’t there issues where degrees of variables are not important, or where variables have only two values: Present or not present? Remember that the argumentative model came out of architectural and environmental design, where the main concerns were whether or not to provide some feature: ‘should the entrance to the building be from the east, yes or no?’ or ‘Should the building structure be of steel or concrete?’ Those ‘conceptual’ planning decisions could often be handled without getting into degrees of variables. The decision to go with steel could be reached just with the argument that steel would be faster and cheaper than concrete, even before knowing just by how much. The arguments and the decision were then mainly yes or no decisions.
– Good points, Vodçek. Fine-tuning, or what they call ‘parametric’ planning comes later, and could of course cause much bickering, but doesn’t usually change the nature of the main design that much. Just its quality and cost…
Simulation of systems behavior
– Right. And they also didn’t have to worry too much about the development of systems over time. A building, once finished, will usually stay that way for a good while. But for policies that would guide societal developments or economies, the variables people were concerned about will change considerably over time, so more prediction is called for, trying to beat complexity.
– I knew it, I knew it: time’s the culprit, the snake in the woodpile. I never could keep track of time…
– Renfroe… You just forget winding up your old alarm clock. Now, where were we? Okay: In order to use the model to make predictions about what will happen, you have to allocate each relationship step to some small time unit: x to y during the first time unit; y to z in the second, and so on. This will allow you to track the behavior of the variables of the system over time, give some initial setting, and make predictions about the likely effects of your plans. The APT computer can quickly calculate predictions for a variety of planning options.
– I’ve seen some such simulation predictions, yes. Amazing. But I’ve always wondered how they can make such precise forecasts – those fine crisp lines over several decades: how do they do that, when for example our meteorologists can only make forecasts of hurricane tracks of a few days only, tracks that get wider like a fat trumpet in just a few days? Are those guys pulling a fast one?
– Good point. The answer is that each simulation only shows the calculated result of one specific set of initial conditions and settings of relationships equations. If you make many forecasts with different numbers, and put them all on the same graph, you’d get the same kind of trumpet track. Or even a wild spaghetti plate of tracks.
– I am beginning to see why those ‘free market’ economists had such an advantage over people who wanted to gain some control of the economy. They just said: the market is unpredictable. It’s pointless to make big government plans and laws and regulations. Just get rid of all the regulations, let the free market play it out. It will control and adapt and balance itself by supply and demand and competition and creativity.
– Yeah, and if something goes wrong, blame it on the remaining regulations of big bad government. Diabolically smart and devious.
– But they do appreciate government research grants, don’t they? Wait. They get them from the companies that just want to get rid of some more regulations. Or from think tanks financed by those companies.
– Hey, this is irresponsibly interesting but way off our topic, wouldn’t you say?
– Right, Vodçek. Are you worried about some government regulation – say, about the fireworks involved in your café catastrofia? But okay. Back to the issue.
– So, to at least try to be less irresponsible, our APT thing would have systems models and be able to run simulations. A simulation, if I understand what you were saying, would show how the different variables in the system would change over time, for some assumed initial setting of those variables. That initial setting would be different from the ‘current’ situation, though, wouldn’t it? So where does the proposed solution in the systems model come from? Where are the arguments? Does the model diagram show what we want to achieve? Or just the ‘current state’?
Representation of plan proposals
and arguments in the systems model?
– Good questions, all. They touch on some critical problems with the systems perspective. Let’s take one at a time. You are right: the usual systems model does not show a picture of a proposed solution. To do that, I think we’ll have to expand a little upon our description of a plan: Would you agree that a plan involves some actions by some actors, using some resources acting upon specific variables in the system? Usually not just one variable but several. So a plan would be described by those variables, and the additional concepts of actions, actor, resources etc. Besides the usual sources of plans, — somebody’s ‘brilliant idea’, some result of a team brainstorming session, or just an adaptation of a precedent, a ‘tried and true’ known solution with a little new twist, — the systems modeler may have played around with his model and identified some ‘leverage points’ in the system – variables where modest and easy-to-do changes can bring about significant improvement elsewhere in the system: those are suggested starting points for solution ideas.
– So you are saying that the systems tinkerer should get with it and add all the additional solution description to the diagram?
– Yes. And that would raise some new questions. What are those resources needed for the solution? Where would they come from, are they available? What will they cost? And more: wouldn’t just getting all that together cause some new effects, consequences, that weren’t in the original data collection, and that some other people than those who originally voiced their concerns about the problem would now be worried about? So your data collection component will have to go back to do some more collecting. Each new solution idea will need its own new set of information.
– There goes your orderly systematic procedure all right. That may go on for quite some time, eh?
– Right. Back and forth, if you want to be thorough. ‘Parallel processing’. And it will generate more arguments that will have to be considered, with questions about how plausible the relationship links are, how plausible the concerns about the effects – the desirable / undesirable outcomes. More work. So it will often be shouted down with the usual cries of ‘analysis paralysis’.
Intelligent analysis of data:
Generating ‘new’ arguments?
– Coming to think of it: if our APT has stored all the different claims it has found – in the literature, the textbooks, previous cases, and in the ongoing discussions, would it be able to construct ‘new’ arguments from those? Arguments the actual participants haven’t thought about?
– Interesting idea, Bog-Hubert. – It’s not even too difficult. I actually heard our friend Dexter explain that recently. It would take the common argument patterns – like the ones we looked at – and put claim after claim into them, to see how they fit: all the if-then connections to a proposal claim would generate more arguments for and against the proposal. Start looking at an ‘x’ claim of the proposal. Then search for (‘google’) ‘x→ ?’: any ‘y’s in the data that have been cited as ‘caused by x’. If a ‘y’ you found was expressed somewhere else as ‘desirable or undesirable’ – as a deontic claim, — it makes an instant ‘new’ potential argument. Of course, whether it would work as a ‘pro’ or a ‘con’ argument in some participant’s mind would depend on how that participant feels about the various premises.
– What are you saying, professor? This doesn’t make sense. A ‘pro’ argument is a ‘pro’ argument, and ‘con’ argument is a ‘con’ argument. Now you’re saying it depends on the listener?
– Precisely. I know some people don’t like this. But consider an example. People are discussing a plan P; somebody A makes what he thinks is a ‘pro’ argument: “Let’s do P because P will produce Q; and Q is desirable, isn’t it?” Okay, for A it is a pro argument, no question. Positive plausibility, he assumes, for P→Q as well as for Q; so it would get positive plausibility pl for P. Now for curmudgeon B, who would also like to achieve Q but is adamant that P→Q won’t work, (getting a negative pl) that set of premises would produce a negative pl for P, wouldn’t it? Similarly, for his neighbor C, who would hate for Q to become true, but thinks that P→Q will do just that, that same set of premises also is a ‘con’ argument.
– So what you’re saying is that all the programs out there, that show ‘dialogue maps’ identifying all arguments as pro or con, as they were intended by their authors, are patently ignoring the real nature and effects of arguments?
– I know some people have been shocked – shocked — by these heretical opinions – they have been written up. But I haven’t seen any serious rebuttals; those companies, if they have heard of them have chosen to ignore them. Haven’t changed their evil ways though…
– So our devious APT could be programmed to produce new arguments. More arguments. Just what we need. The arguments can be added to the argument list, but I was going to ask you before: how would the deontic claims, the ‘oughts’, be shown in the model?
– You’d have to add another bubble to each variable bubble, right? Now, we have the variable itself, the value of each variable in the current IS condition, the value of the variable if it’s part of a plan intervention, and the desired value – hey: at what time?
– You had to put the finger on the sore spot, Vodçek. Bad boy. Not only does this make the diagram a lot less clean, simple, and legible. Harder to understand. And showing what somebody means by saying what the solution ought to achieve, when all the variables are changing over time, now becomes a real challenge. Can you realistically expect that a desired variable should stay ‘stable’ at one desired value all the time, after the solution is implemented? Or would people settle for something like: remaining within a range of acceptable values? Or, if a disturbance has occurred, return to a desired value after some reasonably short specified time?
– I see the problem here. Couldn’t the diagram at least show the central desired value, and then let people judge whether a given solution comes close enough to be acceptable?
– Remember that we might be talking about a large number of variables that represent measures of how well all the different concerns have been met by a proposed solution. But if you don’t mind complex diagrams, you could add anything to the systems model. Or you can use several diagrams. Understanding can require some work, not just sudden ‘aha!’ enlightenment.
Certainty about arguments and predictions
Truth, probability, plausibility and relative importance of claims
– And we haven’t even talked about the question of how sure we can be that a solution will actually achieve a desired result.
– I remember our argumentative friends at least claimed to have a way to calculate the plausibility of a plan proposal based on the plausibility of each argument and the weight of relative importance of each deontic, each ought concern. Would that help?
– Wait, Bog-hubert: how does that work, again? Can you give us the short explanation? I know you guys talked about that before, but…
– Okay, Sophie: The idea is this: a person would express how plausible she thinks each of the premises of an argument are. On some plausibility scale of, say +1 which means ‘totally plausible’, to -1 which means ‘totally implausible; with a midpoint zero meaning ‘don’t know, can’t tell’. These plausibility values together will then give you an ‘argument plausibility’ – on the same scale, either by multiplying them or taking the lowest score as the overall result. The weakest link in the chain, remember. Then: multiplying that plausibility with the weight of relative importance of the ought- premise in the argument, which is a value between zero and +1 such that all the weights of all the ‘oughts’ in all the arguments about the proposal will add up to +1. That will give you the ‘argument weight’ of each argument; and all the argument weights together will give you the proposal plausibility – again, on the same scale of +1 to -1, so you’d know what the score means. A value higher than zero means it’s somewhat plausible; a value lower than zero and close to -1 means it’ so implausible that it should not be implemented. But we aren’t saying that this plausibility could be used as the final decision measure.
– Yeah, I remember now. So that would have to be added to the systems model as well?
– Yes, of course – but I have never seen one that does that yet.
‘Goodness’ of solutions
not just plausibility?
– But is that all? I mean: ‘plausibility’ is fine. If there are several proposals to compare: is plausibility the appropriate measure? It doesn’t really tell me how good the plan outcome will be? Even comparing a proposed solution to the current situation: wouldn’t the current situation come up with a higher plausibility — simply because it’s already there?
– You’ve got a point there. Hmm. Let me think. You have just pointed out that both these illustrious approaches – the argumentative model, at last as we have discussed it so far, as well as the systems perspective, for all its glory, have both grievously sidestepped the question of what makes a solution, a systems intervention ‘good’ or bad’. The argument assessment work, because it was just focused on the plausibility of arguments; as the first necessary step that had not been looked at yet. And the systems modeling focusing on the intricacies of the model relations and simulation, leaving the decision and its preparatory evaluation, if any, to the ‘client.’ Fair enough; they are both meritorious efforts, but it leaves both approaches rather incomplete. Not really justifying the claims of being THE ultimate tools to crack the wicked problems of the world. It makes you wonder: why didn’t anybody call the various authors on this?
– But haven’t there long been methods, procedures for people to evaluate to the presumed ‘goodness’ of plans? Why wouldn’t they have been added to either approach?
– They have, just as separate, detached and not really integrated extra techniques. Added, cumbersome complications, because they represent additional effort and preparation, even for small groups. And never even envisaged for large public discussions.
– So would you say there are ways to add the ‘goodness’ evaluation into the mix? We’ve already brought systems and arguments closer together? You say there are already tools for doing that?
– Yes, there are. For example, as part of a ‘formal’ evaluation procedure, you can ask people to explain the basis of their ‘goodness’ judgment about a proposed solution by specifying a ‘criterion function’ that shows how that judgment depends on the values of a system variable. The graph of it looks like this: On one axis it would have positive (‘like’, ‘good’, desirable’) judgment values on the positive side, and ‘dislike’, ‘bad’, ‘undesirable ‘ values on the negative one, with a midpoint of ‘neither good nor bad’ or ‘can’t decide’. And the specific system variable on the other axis, for example that temperature scale from our example a while ago. So by drawing a line in the graph that touches the ‘best possible’ judgment score at the person’s most comfortable temperature, and curves down towards ‘so-so, and down to ‘very bad’ and ultimately ‘intolerable’, couldn’t get worse’, a person could ‘explain’ the ‘objective’, measurable basis of her subjective goodness.
– But that’s just one judgment out of many others she’d have to make about all the other system variables that have been declared ‘deontic’ targets? How would you get to an overall judgment about the whole plan proposal?
– There are ways to ‘aggregate’ all those partial judgments into an overall deliberated judgment. All worked out in the old papers describing the procedure. I can show you that if you want. But that’s not the real problem here – you don’t see it?
The problem of ‘aggregation’
of many different personal, subjective judgments
into group or collective decision guides
– Well, tell me this, professor: would our APTamajig have the APTitude to make all those judgments?
– Sorry, Bog-Hubert: No. Those judgments would be judgments of real persons. The APT machine would have to get those judgments from all the people involved.
– That’s just too complicated. Forget it.
– Well, commissioner, — you’ve been too quiet here all this time – remember: the expectation was to make the decision based on ‘due consideration’ of all concerns. Of everybody affected?
– Yes, of course. Everybody has the right to have his or her concerns considered.
– So wouldn’t ‘knowing and understanding the whole system’ include knowing how everybody affected feels about those concerns? Wasn’t that, in a sense, part of your oath of office, to serve all members of the public to the best of your knowledge and abilities? So now we have a way to express that, you don’t want to know about that because it’s ‘too complicated?
– Cut the poor commissioner some slack: the systems displays would get extremely crowded trying to show all that. And adding all that detail will not really convey much insight.
– It would, professor, if the way that it’s being sidestepped wasn’t actually a little more tricky, almost deceptive. Commissioner, you guys have some systems experts on your staff, don’t you? So where do they get those pristine performance track printouts of their simulation models?
– Ah. Huh. Well, that question never came up.
– But you are very concerned about public opinion, aren’t you? The polls, your user preference surveys?
– Oh, yeah: that’s a different department – the PR staff. Yes, they get the Big Data about public opinions. Doing a terrific job at it too, and we do pay close attention to that.
– But – judging just from the few incidents in which I have been contacted by folks with such surveys – those are just asking general questions, like ‘How important is it to attract new businesses to the city?’ Nobody has ever asked me to do anything like those criterion functions the professor was talking about. So if you’re not getting that: what’s the basis for your staff recommendations about which new plan you should vote for?
– Best current practice: we have those general criteria, like growth rate, local or regional product, the usual economic indicators.
– Well, isn’t that the big problem with those systems models? They have to assume some performance measure to make a recommendation. And that is usually one very general aggregate measure – like the quarterly profit for companies. Or your Gross National Product, for countries. The one all the critics now are attacking, for good reasons, I’d say, — but then they just suggest another big aggregate measure that nobody really can be against – like Gross National Happiness or similar well-intentioned measures. Sustainability. Systemicity. Whatever that means.
– Well, what’s wrong with those? Are you fixin’ to join the climate change denier crowd?
– No, Renfroe. The problem with those measures is that they assume that all issues have been settled, all arguments resolved. But the reality is that people still do have differences of opinions, there will still be costs as well as benefits for all plans, and those are all too often not fairly distributed. The big single measure, whatever it is, only hides the disagreements and the concerns of those who have to bear more of the costs. Getting shafted in the name of overall social benefits.
Alternative criteria to guide decisions?
– So what do you think should be done about that? And what about our poor APT? It sounds like most of the really important stuff is about judgments it isn’t allowed or able to make? Would even a professional planner named APT – ‘Jonathan Beaujardin APT, Ph.D M.WQ, IDC’ — with the same smarts as the machine, not be allowed to make such judgments?
– As a person, an affected and concerned citizen, he’d have the same right as everybody else to express his opinions, and bring them into the process. As a planner, no. Not claiming to judge ‘on behalf’ of citizens – unless they have explicitly directed him to do that, and told him how… But now the good Commissioner says he wouldn’t even need to understand his own basis of judgment, much less make it count in the decision?
– Gee. That really explains a lot.
– Putting it differently: Any machine – or any human planner, for that matter, however much they try to be ‘perfect’ – trying to make those judgments ‘on behalf’ of other people, is not only imperfect but wrong, unless it has somehow obtained knowledge about those feelings about good or bad of others, and has found an acceptable way of reconciling the differences into some overall common ‘goodness’ measure. Some people will argue that there isn’t any such thing: judgments about ‘good or ‘bad’ are individual, subjective judgments; they will differ, there’s no method by which those individual judgments can be aggregated into a ‘group’ judgment that wouldn’t end up taking sides, one way or the other.
– You are a miserable spoilsport, Bog-Hubert. Worse than Abbé Boulah! He probably would say that coming to know good and bad, or rather thinking that you can make meaningful judgments about good or bad IS the original SIN.
– I thought he’s been excommunicated, Vodçek? So does he have any business saying anything like that? Don’t put words in his mouth when he’s not here to spit them back at you. Still, even if Bog-Hubert is right: if that APT is a machine that can process all kinds of information faster and more accurate than humans, isn’t there anything it can do to actually help the planning process?
– Yes, Sophie, I can see a number of things that can be done, and might help.
– Let’s hear it.
– Okay. We were assuming that APT is a kind of half-breed argumentative-systems creature, except we have seen that it can’t make up either new claims nor plausibility nor goodness judgments on its own. It must get them from humans; only then can it use them for things like making new arguments. If it does that, — it may take some bribery to get everybody to make and give those judgments, mind you – it can of course store them, analyze them, and come up with all kinds of statistics about them.
One kind of information I’d find useful would be to find out exactly where people disagree, and how much, and for what reasons. I mean, people argue against a policy for different reasons – one because he doesn’t believe that the policy will be effective in achieving the desired goal – the deontic premise that he agrees with – and the other because she disagrees with the goal.
– I see: Some people disagree with the US health plan they call ‘Obamacare’ because they genuinely think it has some flaws that need correcting, and perhaps with good reasons. But others can’t even name any such flaws and just rail against it, calling it a disaster or a trainwreck etc. because, when you strip away all the reasons they can’t substantiate, simply because it’s Obama’s.
– Are you saying Obama should have called it Romneycare, since it was alleged to be very similar to what Romney did in Massachusetts when he was governor there? Might have gotten some GOP support?
– Let’s not get into that quarrgument here, guys. Not healthy. Stay with the topic. So our APT would be able to identify those differences, and other discourse features that might help decide what to do next – get more information, do some more discussion, another analysis, whatever. But so far, its systems alter ego hasn’t been able to show any of that in the systems model diagram, to make that part of holistic information visible to the other participants in the discourse.
– Wouldn’t that require that it become fully conscious of its own calculations, first?
– Interesting question, Sophie. Conscious. Hmm. Yes: my old car wouldn’t show me a lot of things on the dashboard that were potential problems – whether a tire was slowly going flat or the left rear turn indicator was out – so you could say it wasn’t aware enough, — even ‘conscious?’ — of those things to let me know. The Commissioner’s new car does some of that, I think. Of course my old one could be very much aware but just ornery enough to leave me in the dark about them; we’ll never know, eh?
– Who was complaining about running off the topic road here just a while ago?
– You’re right, Vodçek: sorry. The issue is whether and how the system could produce a useful display of those findings. I don’t think it’s a fundamental problem, just work to do. My guess is that all that would need several different maps or diagrams.
Discourse –based criteria guiding collective decisions?
– So let’s assume that not only all those judgments could be gathered, stored, analyzed and the results displayed in a useful manner. All those individual judgments, the many plausibility and judgment scores and the resulting overall plan plausibility and ‘goodness’ judgments. What’s still open is this: how should those determine or at least guide the overall group’s decision? In a way that makes it visible that all aspects, all concerns were ‘duly considered’, and ending up in a result that does not make some participants feel that their concerns were neglected or ignored, and that the result is – if not ‘the very best we could come up with’ then at least somewhat better than the current situation and not worse for anybody?
– Your list of aspects there already throws out a number of familiar decision-making procedures, my friend. Leaving the decision to authority, which is what the systems folks have cowardly done, working for some corporate client, (who also determines the overall ‘common good’ priorities for a project, that will be understood to rank higher than any individual concerns) – that’s out. Not even pretending to be transparent or connected to the concerns expressed in the elaborate process. Even traditional voting, that has been accepted as the most ‘democratic’ method, for all its flaws. Out. And don’t even mention ‘consensus’ or the facile ‘no objection?‘ version. What could our APT possibly produce that can replace those tools? Do we have any candidate tools?
– If you already concede that ‘optimal’ solutions are unrealistic and we have to make do with ‘not worse – would it make sense to examine possible adaptations to one of the familiar techniques?
– It may come to that if we don’t find anything better – but I’d say let’s look at the possibilities for alternatives in the ideas we just discussed, first? I don’t feel like going through the pros and cons about our current tools. It’s been done.
– Okay, professor: Could our APT develop a performance measure made up of the final scores of the measures we have developed? Say, the overall goodness score modified by the overall plausibility score a plan proposal achieved?
– Sounds promising.
– Hold your horses, folks. It sounds good for individual judgment scores – may even tell a person whether she ought to vote yes or no on a plan – but how would you concoct a group measure from all that – especially in the kind of public asynchronous discourse we have in mind? Where we don’t even know what segment of the whole population is represented by the participants in the discourse and its cumbersome exercises, and how they relate to the whole public populations for the issue at hand?
– Hmm. You got some more of that café catawhatnot, Vodçek?
– Sure – question got you flummoxed?
– Well, looks like we’ll have to think for a while. Think it might help?
– What an extraordinary concept!
– Light your Fundador already, Vodçek, and quit being obnoxious!
– Okay, you guys. Lets examine the options. The idea you mentioned, Bog-Hubert, was to combine the goodness score and the plausibility score for a plan. We could do that for any number of competing plan alternatives, too.
– It was actually an idea I got from Abbé Boulah some time ago. At the time I just didn’t get its significance.
– Abbé Boulah? Let’s drink to his health. So we have the individual scores: the problem is to get some kind of group score from them. The mean – the average – of those scores is one; we discussed the problems with the mean many times here, didn’t we? It obscures the way the scores are distributed on the scale: you get the same result from a bunch of scores tightly grouped around that average as you’d get from two groups of extreme scores at opposite ends of the scale. Can’t see the differences of opinion.
– That can be somewhat improved upon if you calculate the variance – it measures the extent of disagreement among the scores. So if you get two alternatives with the same mean, the one with the lower variance will be the less controversial one. The range is a crude version of the same idea – just take the difference between the highest and the lowest score; the better solution is the one with a smaller range.
– What if there’s only one proposal?
– Well, hmm; I guess you’d have to look at the scores and decide if it’s good enough.
– Let’s go back to what we tried to do – the criteria for the whole effort: wasn’t there something about making sure that nobody ends up in worse shape in the end?
– Brilliant, Sophie – I see what you are suggesting. Look at the lowest scores in the result and check whether they are lower or higher than, than …
– Than what, Bog-Hubert?
– Let me think, let me think. If we had a score for the assessment of the initial condition for everybody (or for the outcome that would occur if the problem isn’t taken care of) then an acceptable solution would simply have to show a higher score than that initial assessment, for everybody. Right? The higher the difference, even something like the average, the better.
– Unusual idea. But if we don’t have the initial score?
– I guess we’d have to set some target threshold for any lowest score – no lower than zero (not good, not bad) or at least a + 0.5 on a +2/-2 goodness scale, for the worst-off participant score? That would be one way to take care of the worst-off affected folks. The better-off people couldn’t complain, because they are doing better, according to their own judgment. And we’d have made sure that the worst-off outcomes aren’t all that bad.
– You’re talking as if ‘we’ or that APT thing is already set up and doing all that. The old Norwegian farmer’s rule says: Don’t sell the hide before the bear is shot! It isn’t that easy though, is it? Wouldn’t we need a whole new department, office, or institution to run those processes for all the plans in a society?
– You have a point there, Vodçek. A new branch of government? Well now that you open that Pandora’s box: yes, there’s something missing in the balance.
– What in three twisters name are you talking about, Bog-Hubert?
– Well, Sophie. We’ve been talking about the pros and cons of plans. In government, I mean the legislative branch that makes the laws, that’s what the parties do, right? Now look at the judicial branch. There, too, they are arguing – prosecutor versus defense attorney – like the parties in the House and Senate. But then there’s a judge and the jury: they are looking at the pros and cons of both sides, and they make the decision. Where is that jury or judge ‘institution’ in the legislature? Both ‘chambers’ are made up of parties, who too often look like they are concerned about gaining or keeping their power, their majority, their seats, more than the quality of their laws. Where’s the jury? The judge? And to top that off: even the Executive is decided by the party, in a roundabout process that looks perfectly designed to blow the thinking cap off every citizen. A spectacle! Plenty of circenses but not enough panem. Worse than old Rome…
– Calm down, Bog-Hubert. Aren’t they going to the judiciary to resolve quarrels about their laws, though?
– Yes, good point. But you realize that the courts can only make decisions based on whether a law complies with the Constitution or prior laws – issues of fact, of legality. Not about the quality, the goodness of the law. What’s missing is just what Vodçek said: another entity that looks at the quality and goodness of the proposed plans and policies, and makes the decisions.
– What would the basis of judgment of such an entity be?
– Well, didn’t we just draw up some possibilities? The concerns are those that have been discussed, by all parties. The criteria that are drawn from all the contributions of the discourse. The party ‘in power’ would only use the criteria of its own arguments, wouldn’t it? Just like they do now… Of course the idea will have to be discussed, thought through, refined. But I say that’s the key missing element in the so-called ‘democratic’ system.
– Abbé Boulah would be proud of you, Bog-Hubert. Perhaps a little concerned, too? Though I’m still not sure how it all would work, for example considering that the humans in the entity or ‘goodness panel’ are also citizens, and thus likely ‘party’. But that applies to the judge and jury system in the judicial as well. Work to do.
– And whatever decision they come up with, that worst-off guy could still complain that it isn’t fair, though?
– Better that 49% of the population peeved and feeling taken advantage of? Commissioner: what do you say?
– Hmmm. That one guy might be easier to buy off than the 49%, yes. But I’m not sure I’d get enough financing for my re-election campaign with these ideas. The money doesn’t come from the worst-off folks, you know…
– Houston, we have a problem …
A Fog Island Tavern Discussion
– Hey Bog-Hubert – got over your post-election excitement yet?
– Not exactly, Vodçek.
– Not exactly – what does that mean, exactly? Or, well, approximately, if you don’t do exactly?
– Well, right now I’m just wondering about all the blogs and sites that are oh so urgently proposing this or that ‘new system’ that should be adopted instead…
– Haven’t they been doing that for a while?
– True. Maybe I’m just starting to pay more attention.
– And I’m getting more and more confused and aggravated.
– Why is that? Well, the confusion part I understand: there’s just too much of all that floating around. But what’s aggravating you? Isn’t it encouraging that people are starting to think about these issues some more?
– Sure, if they just were the right issues.
– So you think they aren’t? Hmm. I could use some explanation…
– Okay: I know you’ve been looking at things like that too. Briefly, what are the main groups of controversies you see?
– Main groups? You mean the political parties?
– No, Vodçek. Sorry, my question wasn’t clear. I’m talking about the groups that are basically saying those parties, and the system they’re a part of, need to be replaced with something new.
– Not all of them are suggesting something new; aren’t many of them claiming to be ‘conservative’?
– Right: but they don’t mean conserving things as they are, more like going back to some mythical previous better state of affairs, aren’t they?
– I see what you mean. Even if it’s something traditional, inherited, it wouldn’t be just like that old system, but something new based on old principles? Well, I see many ‘New System’ groups calling for a more or less radical re-thinking of how society should be organized. Ditch the current ones, all parts and subsystems. I don’t see much specific detail in those, of the New Systems, that one could examine and discuss. And then there are all those groups that are doing very specific ‘alternative’ things: the commons projects, alternative currencies, sustainable agriculture or permaculture communities, alternative energy technologies, etc. Many good ideas, but hard to see how they’d fit into an overall picture.
– I agree with your impressions there. Any of those well-intentioned causes you would want to join, become a part of to create the new society, saving the human race?
– Oh man, I have enough trouble keeping my humble tavern going from day to day. But you are right. I can’t say I share the enthusiasm some of those people seem to have.
– And do you think about why that might be? Other than that some of those guys are just trying to make you feel guilty by accusing you of laziness, apathy, stinginess for not giving them money, or worse?
– Well, do you have a good explanation? You aren’t doing much of that enthusiasm-activism yourself, am I right? Other than scribbling in your little notebook there when there’s nobody else here you can shoot the breeze with?
– Touché, my friend. But hey, there are some ideas in this little notebook, some thinking about those issues, that explain why I am not out there ‘doing’ things. Well, as long as there’s nobody else keeping you distracted here, perhaps we can discuss some of it?
– Okay. Starting with why I don’t think the world is ready for THE BIG NEW SYSTEM yet? Apart from the fact that those websites and flyers mostly consist of complaints about how bad things are and how those current ‘isms’ – capitalism, industrialism, neo-liberalism, globalism etc. – need to be ditched. As I said, few convincing specifics about what the new system should look like.
– I agree, we aren’t ready for another big system. Not sure I agree with your ‘yet’ – whether we should go for one big ‘unified’ system again. The record on the few experiments we had with those grand schemes hasn’t been too encouraging, would you agree?
– I really don’t know, Bog-Hubert. Human societies today, — technology, trade, travel, politics, communications — have developed too far to really ignore the calls for some global agreements and order. We can’t really go back to a state where we fumbled around in small isolated tribes, assuming the things we do have no effect across the globe. But I don’t think we really have any good ideas yet about what a better system should be.
– ‘Yet’, yet again – we need to get back to that. For now, I agree: Even among the people who think they have the key to the design of THE NEW system, there is precious little agreement about what it should look like. So I’d say the chances for consensus about that unified vision they all call for are pretty slim. We — if you talk about humanity as a whole – still do not know and can’t agree on what that better new system should be. We don’t really know what provisions in such a system would work and what wouldn’t.
– So we should take a closer look at those alternative initiatives, experiments. Right now, I have come across estimates of such efforts already counting in the millions. No idea if it’s true, or what the bases for those numbers are. Most seem to be small, local, and struggling with limited resources. I think we can say that most of them are working in isolation, many trying to stay under the radar of ‘official’ systems that tend to see tem as subversive or worse. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see that they communicate well either with the outside world or among themselves. If they do, it’s mainly promotion pieces focusing on their ideas and hopes and successes, if any. Not a good basis for accumulating systematic, valid information about what works and what doesn’t.
– Don’t some of them see their main focus as the very key to making the BIG system work, and ask the entire world to awaken and accept it? And give them all more money?
– True. But okay, they are entitled to their faith. What I’m saying is that we need those experiments – many more, and as different and diverse as possible.
– I agree; that’s why I list that as a high priority. There should be a concerted effort to encourage and support those – on the condition that they are voluntary, not forcing people to participate, don’t get in each other’s or the existing systems’ ways in disruptive or aggressive manner, and most importantly that they agree to share their experiences in some coordinated and systematic fashion that allows others, the world, to learn from what they are doing.
– Hmm. Sounds good – but hey, doesn’t that already require some kind of global system?
– You are right. But that is, first off, not a BIG BROTHER governance and decision-making system, only a documentation, evaluation and discussion platform. You could say that the development of such a platform itself is an experiment. Starting small and local, but yes, aiming at involving many or all such initiatives, so global.
– The agreements of that system, or platform, as you call it, will require some decisions though. Beyond local, so: global, after all?
– Right again. But the decisions are not all-embracing whole system design decisions. Not even excluding alternative forms of communication or interaction, or replacing other institutions. So to the extent decisions – yes, ‘global’ decisions – are aimed at, they are sufficiently innocuous to serve as the basis for experiments about how to develop better decision-making modes? Because the current decision-making modes are part of the problem, aren’t they?
– Getting into treacherous territory there, Bog-Hubert.
– Perhaps. But isn’t it getting more obvious every day that Voting – the crucial element and crux of democracy — it’s more of a crutch? Simple and straightforward, sure. But I don’t think you can say it guarantees that the democratic principles of self-determination or that all concerns people may have about common plans will actually be heard nor given ‘due consideration’. Majority voting by definition permits ignoring the concerns of the minority…
– Okay, okay. So what you are saying is that thee will be a need to design such a platform, and that one of its features will have to be better decision-making methods. Well, I agree, that is an agenda that we don’t hear much about in the public media and political platforms: Can you draw a diagram of all that while I get some more coffee going?
– Sure. Got a napkin?
– Ok, looks good. I see you added some issues down there — getting carried away already?
– Well, think about it. So far, we agreed that what’s needed are
• The ‘alternative’ experiments
• A forum and provisions for sharing and evaluating their experiences
• A ‘discourse’ platform for working out the global ‘road rules’ agreements
But since those agreements are not within any governance jurisdiction, wouldn’t there be a need for
• Some provisions for ensuring that those agreements are actually adhered to ?
Because they can’t be ‘enforced’ by any of the usual government policing and jurisdiction systems, they would have to be a different kind of arrangements. So that will need some innovative work. And I think that there will be a need for a better way of
• Selecting and appointing ‘leaders’ – people in positions to make decisions that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy discussions.
And to the extent these people will wield power, won’t we have to rethink the problem of how to prevent that power from becoming addictive, leading to the temptations to abuse their power? I seriously feel that some better
• Tools for controlling power should be on the agenda. We don’t say anything about their order yet.
– Good grief, that is quite a package of work you’ve lined up there. No wonder our fearless leaders and candidates are a bit, shall we say, reluctant to even mention some of those. Hard to make meaningful campaign promises about those, eh?
– Sure. Quite controversial – which is precisely why they should be on the agenda.
– Okay, Bog-Hubert: at least there should be some meaningful discussion about those issues.
– More meaningful than their current treatment in the media, is that what you are saying? Because at least for some of the issues that are being talked about, the flood of opinions and rhetoric is already unmanageable. Almost meaningless for guiding sensible decisions.
– I agree. But…
– But — what’s bothering you?
– Well: those headings in the diagram, they are still so general that they don’t say much more than the usual complaints about problems with this and that. Calls for something to be done, but no specific details yet that one can get behind, don’t you agree? So you’d face the same kind of lack of engagement on the part of the public I think you’d want to enlist for that discussion?
– You are right. In the current form, the diagram doesn’t convey much substance yet. We’ll have to discuss some details: explaining why some new ideas and agreements are needed, sketching out what each of those components would do.
– And indicate why you think they can be made to work. We may need some help from our friends there. Let’s think about it for a while, until some of our usual suspects turn up.
– Hi guys, what’s that napkin doodle you are poring over there?
– Hello Commissioner, welcome to our little team. We are trying to figure out what the agenda really should be that you folks in government ought to be working on. Priorities…
Alternative Initiatives and Experiments
– Hmm. What’s this thing about ‘alternative experiments at the top here? Sounds subversive.
– We should have known that would look odd to you, what with all your calls for unified vision and purpose?
– Well, isn’t that what we need these days, come together to work on the urgent, common project of a more viable system to get us out of the mess we’re in, and the bigger mess we’re going to be in if we keep working at cross-purposes?
– Hear, hear, Commissioner. Yes, we need a unified vision we can all work on. It’s just what I have been saying for a long time, too.
– Hi Sophie, good morning. Amazing: you agree with our politician for a change? Well, can you tell us what that great, unified vision is going to be?
– Wrong question, Bog-Hubert: it will emerge once we get everybody to become aware of the whole system and acquire a consciousness of all of us being part of that whole together with the entire ecosystem. A new ethic…
– Oh yeah, that will take care of the economy, solve unemployment, inequality, and crime, eh?
– Whoa, Commissioner, is that a trace of sarcasm I hear, already? Suggesting a profound disagreement about the kind of unified vision we are supposed to embrace?
– Well, Bog-Hubert, it’s not the same thing. Sorry, Sophie, but that consciousness thing is just wishful thinking. Not a sound practical basis for reorganizing society. It needs negotiated compromise. Don’t hit me…
– Hey people, cool it, okay? Let’s not get into a brawl about specific Unified System Visions here. You are actually making the argument here, about why we need all those alternative experiments.
– How so? You’ll have to explain that, Vodçek.
– Okay, in principle, I’d agree: it would be great if we found that unified vision of the new and better system so many groups out there are talking about. But look at our first attempt to describe what it would be or should be like: big disagreement erupting before we even got started, about what it means and how to get there.. And I don’t’ think it’s just the two of you. Too much disagreement about it out there, all over. Doesn’t that tell us something: we – I mean humanity in general – don’t really know what that system, that vision should look like? Even if somebody really knows, too many others have different ideas about it. Too many to expect a unified consensus about the common effort we should start to get there any time soon. So… I think what Bog-Hubert is trying to say here is…
– Yes. We should just acknowledge that we don’t know. We’ve been through that before you guys came in, but it can’t be said often enough. Especially about the big, global system many think is needed. We have tried a few big systems, and so far none of them have met with universal approval, in spite of the intense propaganda from their promoters that flooded the media. Can’t we admit: we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work for the big challenges we are facing? And spending all our chips on another big system without better evidence looks like an even worse idea than the muddling through we are doing now.
– Hmm. You’ve got a point there – and that’s why you’d let all those alternative crazies work on their separate blueprints to save the world?
– Right. I’d try to avoid the kind of name-calling though; many of those initiatives are run by very intelligent and well-intentioned people. Some of their ideas actually make a lot of sense, and I think we need to learn how they work out. The people doing that are often just working on a volunteer basis, — much cheaper and often more effective than big government contracts to big think tanks. Though to be fair, I’m sure some useful work is done there too. Most of them are small, local projects, and many are unquestionably improving matters – take the sustainability, organic and permaculture food projects – and do no harm, which can’t be said of all the big corporate activities. So they should be encouraged and supported rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucratic obstacles. The more diverse, the better. We need to learn from their experiences. But…
Sharing and evaluating experiences
– I knew it; there’s a but butting in.
– Yes, Sophie. As far as I can see, most of those initiatives and projects don’t really communicate well – not with the society and media in general, not even among themselves. So there’s little valid information available about their real experiences – what works and what does not work. Not much systematic evaluation. Much of the information they put out is just promotion — focused on the promises and whatever success they claim to have. Nothing about their obstacles and problems, other than that they really really need your donation.
– Yeah, and many of them actually are trying to sell the premises of their initiatives as THE basis for the next BIG system, for all to adopt.
– True. They should be given the opportunity to show some actual evidence for their claims, and a forum for fair but critical assessment. So the overall strategy should include encouragement and support. But on condition of sharing their experience in some organized and useful manner.
– ‘Organized’? That sounds like it will require some big system after all, Bog-Hubert? If those numbers you mentioned are real?
– Yes, that’s true. You’ll need some common format not only for compiling and documenting all that information, but also for the criteria and method for assessing the successes and failures. Big task. But there’s a significant difference: this ‘system’ can be designed and developed by those projects and initiatives themselves – not just ‘participation’ but actual decision-making, based on the interests and concerns of all the players involved.
– So there will be a ‘data base’ or documentation system for all the project information, and an ‘evaluation’ component with some common criteria and measures of performance based on what those initiatives are aiming at achieving, and a process for developing and displaying the results?
– Yes. And because that is not an all-powerful Big Brother Government system imposing its will upon all aspects of society, it will be a much less ideological and controversial process, don’t you think?
– Ah: if you are right – which remains to be seen though – it will be a good exercise project in itself – a testing ground for developing a better ‘self-governance’ system with all the aspects further down in your priority list. Sneaky.
– It was Abbé Boulah’s idea, that one, yes. He’s the sneaky one.
– So let’s look at those other parts of your list.
– Okay: which one?
– The process you are talking about – developing the data base and evaluation system – already requires some common forum or platform where development ideas can be brought in, discussed, and decided upon, doesn’t it? Is that what that ‘discourse platform’ is supposed to be?
– Yes, Dexter. Glad you could join us, this gets into IT territory. And it will not just be like some of the social network platforms we know, nor a ‘knowledge base’ compilation of data, a data bank or encyclopedia-like system, but a ‘planning discourse support system’ aimed at developing, proposing and displaying, and discussing designs for the system itself, and then helping participants to make decisions based on the merit of those contributions – ideas, proposals and arguments pro and con. So that discussion must be accessible to all the participant entities.
– I see. It sounds plausible. But apart from the integration of the different programs, — feasible, but will take some work — won’t there be big practical implementation problems to do that? Just think of all the different languages all over the world, in which those contributions will be brought in. You can’t expect people will agree to one global language for that anymore – not in this post-colonial age. So there will have to be a massive translation effort to translate that discourse into all the different participant languages?
– True. And not only that. Much of the needed information will actually be in the form of scientific research, statistics, systems projects from many different disciplines? Each with their own vocabulary — disciplinary jargon, — replete with acronyms and greek letters and math equations. For a viable discussion, the content messages of those contributions must be translated into conversational language that ordinary citizens can understand. So yes, it will be a major project to coordinate that, and not an overnight process.
– And you’ll have to deal with all the problems we already know from the current scene of collaborative projects under various political systems.
– Such as?
– Well you have the ‘voter apathy’ syndrome – even in projects open to and relying on public participation. Many people just don’t participate or vote because they don’t really have the feeling that their input will count in any significant way. Then you have the ‘information overload’ problem – how can anybody digest all the information that’s flooding the media and social networks? You have the ‘trolls’ that just try to derail any meaningful discussion with irrelevant posts; personal attacks and insults and erroneous information – not even to talk about the problem of deliberately ‘false news’ – lies and distortions. And last not least the fact that the decisions — by so-called leaders or by referendum-type voting – can blatantly ignore even the most significant information and concerns of large parts of society.
New decision methods
– Yes, you are getting into the details of what’s needed to make any such planning platform work properly – in the best interest of all affected parties, in a really democratic way. So first, the system should provide some real participation incentives. And it should be organized so as to eliminate or at least reduce repetitious, irrelevant, erroneous and maliciously distractive and misleading content, and give people a good informative overview of the state of the discourse, don’t you think? Those are major design challenges – but we do have some ideas for improving things. Better decision modes for such planning systems remain a major issue.
– Hey, Bog-Hubert: all that doesn’t sound like a small local project anymore. You keep calling it a ‘planning discourse platform’ as if it were only a minor item on the agenda – but it is really a blueprint for the Big Global Discourse System, isn’t it?
– You are right in that any global governance system – as well as any local governance system if it wants to be really ‘democratic’ – will have to deal with the same issues and find acceptable solutions for them. The difference is that this is not a proposal for a ‘revolutionary’ upheaval replacing all the ‘evil’ current systems with another BIG System overnight.
– Or just a ‘get rid of the crooks’ effort that ends up just replacing the old crooks with different ones who will become just as bad and corrupted because the new systems hasn’t solved those problems you are pointing out here.
– So it looks like the ‘new decision models’ item on the priority list is really a high priority one. And that whatever the solution may be will look somewhat different from the ‘voting’ methods that are now considered as the key principle and guarantee of democracy? Can you give us some more details about what might make such methods work?
– Hey, putting a problem on the agenda doesn’t mean that we already have a solution, does it? Just that there is a problem and that we feel it is possible to fix it. But a key aspect, I think, is this: there must be a closer, more visible and recognizable connection between the merit of the information and arguments brought into the discourse, and the decision. That link is currently just a sanctimonious ideal: ‘let’s talk and then decide’.
– Sure, but a vote can, and too often does, ignore all the talk. So there’s work to do on that. But some of your Abbeboulahist ideas also justify hope – for example: if we can get a meaningful measurement tool for the merit of contributions, that measure can become a more decisive factor in the decision. And we have some ideas for that, too.
Few main ‘global’ agreements to facilitate ‘diverse’ aims
– True, Vodçek. So this system will be developed and emerge as a ‘parallel’ structure within the existing system, at first only dealing with the kinds of common agreements needed to draw useful lessons from the experiences of all those ‘local’ efforts. And aiming only at few decisions needed to facilitate the process – decisions like the ‘global, unified’ rules of the road – which side of the road to drive on to let everybody get to their ‘diverse’ destinations; or like the international rules for air or ocean traffic.
– Yeah, with all the translation and communication problems of such a global discourse, there won’t be that many decisions being agreed upon by that process, if you ask me. But I agree that some such common ‘road rule’ agreements will be needed, in this partial system as well as in the overall global system or non-system, if the Big Brother World Government is too scary a prospect.
Provisions for ensuring adherence to agreements:
– Hey, none of that is talking about any kind of World Government, I hope. Is it?
– Well, Sophie, think about it: Any kind of agreement or treaty or law – different names for essentially the same concept – will need some provisions for making sure that the agreement is kept, the rule is followed, and about what to do if it is violated. Deliberately or inadvertently.
– If all such agreements are reached by consensus by all the well-intentioned folks in a well-informed, spiritually conscious and aware community, and with more adequate decision procedures giving each participant’s concerns due considerations, will there still be such violations? Or at least not as many?
– Wouldn’t that be nice, Sophie. Won’t there always be people who feel that they aren’t getting as much of a benefit from a common decision as others, that they even get ‘the short end’ of it even if they couldn’t come up with sufficiently persuasive arguments to persuade the community or to justify a ‘no’ vote preventing the precious consensus decision? Peer pressure to agree resulting in a temptation to just bend the rules a little bit…? And then a little more?…
– I see where you are going here, Bog-Hubert, you cynic. You didn’t even mention all those sheer ornery or even pure evil folks. The problem isn’t just that there will still be such violations, but also that we – society – have not gotten past the traditional ways of dealing with them that we inherited from times when rules and laws were imposed by rulers who didn’t give a hoot about whether people were really adhering voluntarily to the rules because they agreed to them…
– What are you talking about, Vodçek?
– Law enforcement, of course, Sophie. The traditional approach is that laws have to be ‘enforced’ – that violators have to be punished so that they wouldn’t do it again, and to deter everybody else from even trying. And what Bog-Hubert is aiming at, — I have heard him talk about it with Abbé Boulah before – is that enforcement, prevention and application of force – requires that the enforcer must have more force, be more powerful, than any would-be violator. Otherwise, it’s not effective. So he is saying there should be different tools for ensuring that agreements and laws are adhered to – ‘sanctions’ that do not require ‘enforcement’. Am I right, Bog-Hubert?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself, Vodçek. One alternative would be something like sanctions that are triggered ‘automatically’ by the very attempt at violating a rule. Like the car ignition key that can sense if you are drunk and just won’t turn on if you are.
– Like that kind of thing can really fight crime and corruption. But what’s wrong with the ‘enforcement’ approach?
– Two things, Commissioner. One is escalation of enforcement tools. If criminals are getting better weapons than the police, the police must get better weapons, eh? Then the bad guys get even better gins, and so on… Not supportable, in the short or long run.
– Hmm. There oughta be a law…And the other reason?
– Power. You see it already at the local level, but it becomes critical on the level of international relations. It’s the reason people are very uncomfortable with the idea of World Government.
– I don’t get it.
– Well, you’ve heard the quip about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, haven’t you? Now if you have an enforcement agent or agency which does have better weapons, more powerful tools, than any would-be violator, what’s keeping that agent or agency from becoming tempted, ever so slightly, to bend the rules a little for itself? If the theory is true that it would take an enforcer with more power…
– Well, we have the balance of power of the different branches of government, and term limits, and impeachment rules, and so on, to constrain such power abuses, don’t we?
– True, and the claim is that they have been working adequately for quite a while. But many people are saying that those tools are getting to the limits of their effectiveness even al the local, regional and state levels. And seeing how often and how cleverly they have become ineffective, allowing power-holders to become evermore worried about the infringement of their power and their little abuses, and therefore seeking more power, and more clever, even ‘legal’ ways to circumvent their balance-of-power constraints. At the extreme, having to convince themselves that they really have the inviolate power by engaging in reckless activities – the Caligula syndrome.
– But those guys have always been brought down in the end, haven’t they? Well, most of them?
– Have they? At what cost of their own impoverished, murdered and ‘disappeared’ or otherwise oppressed citizens before they are stopped? Or that of other countries’ forces trying to bring them down? But think: if we have a World Government – one whose legitimate role is to ensure that agreements and treaties are adhered to, as we discussed – but whose tools for that are only ‘enforcement’ tools: weapons? And so-called ‘’security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ systems that have to constrain the liberty of all citizens in order to be effective: With the kinds of weaponry we have nowadays, what could keep such a ‘government’ from falling victim to the temptations of power if there’s no more powerful agent to keep it in line?
– Right. So the concerns of people who oppose such governments are, shall we say, not entirely unfounded? And the governments who are supposed to ensure their citizens that they are not, — ‘trust me, trust me’ – in any way tempted to take some additional advantage of their power, are naturally and inevitably hesitant of divulging all the safeguards they have, so they won’t fall into the wrong hands: the secret service must be secret, after all. Mustn’t it?
Control of Power
– Okay. You’ve got us all worried, happy now? So the first conclusion is that we need some sanctions that don’t rely on enforcement, to ensure adherence to agreements. Keep it on the agenda. But what do we do about the issue of control of power itself, apart from the law enforcement aspect? Do we have any new ideas about that, or even grounds for optimism that better solutions can be found? Because I see that just the right of citizens to keep arms is not a solution, given the escalation problem and the other means of exerting power.
– No, Sophie, nobody has a brilliant solution up his or her sleeve yet. Just perhaps some different principles to bring to bear on the problem.
– Such as?
– Well, look at the concept of power itself, for starters. For the poor, the ‘disempowered’, the recurring slogan is always ‘empowerment’ – as if power were a universal human right, which we could argue is a good way of looking at it. Just like life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we always invoke. But we expect people to pursue, to work for, or pay for those things, not just to be ‘given’. At best, what’s ‘given’ or ‘endowed by the creator’ – or what a society agrees to grant all its members — is the right to pursue, not the right to get it without one’s own effort.
– That’s a concept that would need some discussion, my friend.
– Yes, we can discuss that, and what it means in detail. But to explore its implications here: what if we apply it to the power issue – specifically to the power to make decisions and take action on behalf of others, or that affect others in one way or the other. What if, say we’d ask people with such power to ‘pay’ for the decisions they make? Just like we expect the poorest fellows to pay for their loaf of bread they are allowed to buy at Wal-Mart to survive? By ‘paying’ we probably would need a different kind of currency than money.
– We might also look at some older forms of power control – patterns that have come to be despised lately, such as the hierarchical organization of societies.
– How did that control power? Wasn’t that the ultimate form of power abuse?
– Not always, Vodçek. See, in a hierarchy, the person at each level had a certain amount of power – the power to control and direct the activities of the subordinates, within certain limits set by their superiors. The unresolved issue was of course always the lowest and the top positions: the lowest ones had little or no power until they ‘earned it’ by whatever degrading means, and the top position had no one else to answer to – except supernatural ones in the afterlife.
– But there were some useful provisions in the form of controls by parallel boards with members from lower levels of the hierarchy, term limits and the like. They also tended to be older folks who weren’t as much tempted to certain distracting abuse as younger people. But again, the traditional controls seem to break down again and again, so the issue of meaningful and effective control for governance folks on the global level is still up for grabs. So I agree: the issue of control of power should be a high priority item.
Choosing the people for power positions
– All that sounds like you want to do away with all kinds of leadership positions. I’m not sure I can go along with that.
– You are quite right feeling uneasy about that, Sophie. But that’s not the intention at all. We do need people in positions of leadership and power.
– After all you went through show how they will be corrupted by power? I say kick the big shots out!
– Whoa, Renfroe. I understand how you can get impatient with some of their shenanigans. And how you might get the impression that with a better functioning ‘democratic’ decision-making system, we don’t need those bigwigs anymore.
– I’d say!
– But not all decisions need to run through such a process, and some can’t wait, they need a quick decision to deal with new situations. Think of a ship that finds itself suddenly on a course towards an iceberg. There has to be someone – the captain – who will have to make a quick decision: pass it on the port or starboard side? You can’t have a lengthy palaver to reach a decision: it must be done fast. And the problem is to have a process to appoint people to such positions, yes, power positions – whose expertise, skills, experience and judgment you can trust. And what safeguards have to be in place to prevent such people from getting tempted to abuse that power for purposes of his own that are contrary to the well-being of the ship and its crews and passengers.
– Okay, I see what you are saying. So do you have any trick up your sleeve for that problem? It’s what you’d call a dilemma, isn’t it? Giving a guy – or a gal – the power to make big decisions, but keeping them from making the wrong ones when they have all that power, and by definition, as you explained, no greater power to keep them in line?
– Well, can you see how that problem should have some better solutions for people in such positions in ‘global’ institutions, in world governments?
– Okay, it belongs on the list of priorities too, I agree.
– I still would like to know what gives you the idea that there are better solutions in sight for these problems. If a problem doesn’t have any solutions – like a genuine paradox or dilemma, why waste our time, money, and energy trying to find one?
– Good question, Commissioner. But for some of these issues, there actually seem to be some improvements in sight that should at least be explored and discussed.
– Explain that, please. I’m getting curious.
– I’ll leave it to Bog-Hubert – I think the way he drew that diagram shows how some answers to simpler questions in the list can help suggest solutions for others. Bog-Hubert?
– I’ll try to keep it simple. Take the idea we have discussed here before, of awarding contribution rewards to people who contribute ideas and arguments to the planning discourse we sketched out before. Basic credit points that simply will be an incentive for participation and providing information.
– That’s trying to get at the voter apathy issue, right?
– At least part of it. Now, the rule that only the first entry of an information item will get the credit, but not repetitions, will speed up the process. The assume we can put a process of evaluation in place, for the assessment of merit of each such entry – is it plausible, important, is there evidence or adequate support for the claims, do the arguments have weight. Then the original credits can be adjusted, upward for good merit items, downward for erroneous or unsupported, implausible claims and arguments. That will all help making better decisions, as a first effect. But in the process, participants are actually building up a ‘record’ of their contribution merit points.
– Ah, I see: and that record can be made part of the ‘qualification’ criteria for appointing people to positions of power? If they have made consistently meritorious contributions to the policy discourse for important issues, they can be considered better qualified than others whose entries have been shown to be unsupported and implausible?
– Right. Better judgment. But that’s not all. Those merit points can become a kind of alternate ‘currency’ for various purposes. One is the sanctions issue for violating agreements and ‘laws’. The penalties can be in the form of subtracting credit points from their accounts. Especially if some means can be found to identify attempts at violating agreements and laws as the attempt is started or going on, so that penalty points can be applied immediately, without having to involve heavy-duty law enforcement. So the size and extent of enforcement forces could be reduced, as well as the worry about enforcement by force and associated escalation, would you agree?
– I think that would take some fine-tuning, but yes, it’s an idea that should be explored. What about the power issue itself – didn’t you mention something about that as well?
– Yes indeed. The idea is to make people in positions of power ‘accountable’ for the decisions they make by having to ‘pay’ for each decision – again, with their merit credit points. If the decision is a flop, they lose the points – if it’s a good one, they earn them back, and perhaps more. ‘Profit’, eh?
– What about decisions that are so important, and therefore so ‘costly’, that officials can’t afford to make such decisions with their own points?
– Well, if you feel that such a decision should be made, that is, you support the leader who has to make it, how about transferring some of your own credits to his account? In that way, you are also ‘accountable’ for the decision – and perhaps less likely to let a populist loose cannon go around making disastrous decisions? If the decision is a good one, your ‘investment’ can ‘pay off’ in that you get your points back, perhaps with some ‘interest’? And if not, you lost your points just like the leader who made that dumb decision with your support…
– Oh man, you are getting way out there with these wild schemes.
– Well. It’s all up for discussion. Do you have any better ideas to deal with these challenges?
A dirty dozen world-wide wicked problems related to the global sustainability crisis – and some solutions?Posted: May 7, 2012
O V E R V I E W
1 The global sustainability crisis
2 The dreaded big brother top-down imposed solution problem
3 The fox in the henhouse problem
4 The babylonic confusion problem
5 The problem of information overload in the unfinished global forum
6 The perplexing participation paradox
7 The problem of the missing link between discussion and decision
8 The neglected planning argument (‘weighing the pros & cons’) problem
9 The virtues to vices problem (the vicious cycle of virtue to vice)
10 The problem of the control of power
11 The problem of ensuring adherence to agreed-upon solutions: sanctions
12 The problem of nonperforming measures of performance
P R O B L E M D E T A I L S
1 The global sustainability crisis
This is the problem that led UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to issue his call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ at the 2011 Wold Economic Forum in Davos: itself a nest of related problems:
– dwindling resources, food, water, energy
for a growing world population;
– climate change, environmental degradation
– hunger, poverty, inequality; human rights
– corruption, government mismanagement
The following problems are a subset of problem facets related to the global sustainability crisis. The list is not an exhaustive account of all problems that make up the global crisis; they are selected because they are seen as key interconnected factors, and to show how some solution ideas can address this network of problems.
2 The dreaded ‘big brother’ top-down imposed solution problem
The intent or mere perception that such a ‘model for survival’ might be a one-size-fits all overall solution imposed top-down by some global authority, ignoring local, regional, cultural conditions — and therefore causing new problems, conflicts, and resistance. There are both social and logical reasons for the position that global solutions must instead emerge from a global discourse with wide and easily accessible participation. This is also true with respite to the next issue:
3 The ‘fox in the henhouse’ problem
The problem (reinforced by the very nature of the audience to which the Secretary General addressed his call) that the entities called upon and commanding the resources for developing and implementing any global solutions might be the very ones responsible
for generating many of the problems — and therefore being justly or unjustly suspected of pursuing their agenda more than the common good.
4 The babylonic confusion problem
There are already many impressive efforts underway to address these problems — mostly at the small and local level. But coordination and communication between these efforts is severely hampered by the differences not only between natural languages, but also between different cultural mindsets, ‘ways of talking’ about problems, approaches and solutions, between the specialized vocabulary of different disciplines (even between different schools of thought within the same fields) and their arcane acronyms.
5 The problem of information overload in the unfinished global forum
While it might seem that new information technology is in the process of vastly improving global communication, it can be argued that it has led to an almost insurmountable overload of disorganized information. This is making it difficult to keep adequate overview of developments even about very specific issues, establish and maintain a constructive discourse leading to meaningful agreements and decisions: The development of an adequate forum and platform for the global participatory discourse is still a very much unfinished project.
6 The perplexing participation paradox
In the face of the call for more participation in planning, policy-making, and political decisions is the evidence that public participation even in the form of voting in elections, let alone true constructive discourse and dialog, deplored as lacking: ‘voter apathy’. This is true even in societies where technological infrastructure, education and information would seem sufficiently advanced. Already Bertrand Russell (in his 1938 book on Power) observed that participation decreases as the social unit increases in size because in larger units, the impact of individual votes and contributions is perceived as so negligible as to render the individual vote or participation utterly insignificant and not worth the effort: participation is related to perceived possibility of ‘making a difference’.
7 The problem of the missing link between discussion and decision
Part of the participation problem is the fact that the decision-making method even in advanced ‘democratic’ systems, majority voting, has little or no perceptible (‘transparent’) connection between the value and merit of discussion contributions and the decision outcome. Phenomena such as ‘party discipline’ or the fact that filibusters can delay decisions but not influence them (because nobody is listening) are proof of this missing link: votes can entirely disregard or even go against the result of deliberative discourse.
8 The neglected planning argument (‘weighing the pros & cons’) problem
In spite of the tremendous amount of work done in logic and, increasingly, in ‘critical thinking’, the kinds of arguments we use in design, planning, policy-making — the ‘pros and cons’ for or against proposals — have not been given enough attention; coherent approaches for their systematic and transparent evaluation have not been developed.
9 The virtues to vices problem (the vicious cycle of virtue to vice)
Discussions about how to overcome the problems and crises are full of recriminations about human vices that are held to be responsible for the problems: greed, pursuit of power, the ‘win-lose’ attitudes in economic and political matters, the lack of empathy with ‘losing’ groups, the preoccupation with profit and growth. The result is an increasing polarization between groups that have achieved success with such attitudes, and their critics. The latter tend to forget or downplay the fact that these attitudes have often been taught to children as virtues. Now demonizing the people and groups who have learned these lessons well — as compliant learners, following societal concepts of virtue — can hardly be a successful strategy for a more cooperative, win-win- oriented, compassionate form of socio-economic society.
10 The problem of the control of power
Significant efforts have been made to establish reliable arrangements for the control of power in government. It is not clear whether these controls are inherently sufficient, and just have not been applied properly in the many instances in past and recent history where government powers have turned abusive and destructive. But it is evident that similar controls have not been developed and applied in the private sector. As a result, certain forces in the private sector have become so powerful that they have significant — and largely uncontrolled — influence over governments. This problem calls for increased attention, study and creative solutions.
The problem of control of power becomes critical at the level of global relationships: the issue of ‘world government’. The concern of a global, more powerful that any other entity is a serious concern if its power cannot be effectively controlled. This problem is related to the following ‘sanctions’ problem:
11 The problem of ensuring adherence to agreed-upon solutions: sanctions
Even if governance systems could be developed in which societal arrangements, laws, treaties etc. were negotiated and refined until they become acceptable to all affected parties (ideally: by consensus); the question remains of how to ensure adherence to the agreement s and laws: how to deal with instances of noncompliance or violation. Traditionally, compliance has been ‘enforced’ through the threat of imposing sanctions, penalties, by an enforcement agency that necessarily must be stronger, more powerful, than any potential violator. Inevitably, this raises the question of how to control such power: how to prevent that enforcement agency from violating the very laws it is supposed to enforce? The means of enforcement through sanctions of the same kind is logically impossible, if there is no ‘bigger’, more powerful agency. Again, this problem becomes critical at the global level: how can a ‘world enforcement agency’ more powerful than any other entity be effectively kept from abusing its power?
12 The problem of nonperforming measures of performance
Control and effective management of any complex process requires adequate measures of performance. Many social and economic problems are blamed on the use of measures of performance that are counterproductive to sustainability, social equity, fairness, and responsive stewardship of the environment; such as gross domestic product, profit, or growth. While this problem has been widely recognized and has led to calls for alternative measures, no convincing solutions have been proposed that are both widely acceptable and also can be smoothly introduced into economic systems operating on traditional principles: the transition problem to a system operating on different assumptions has not been adequately discussed nor solved.
Wicked problems of the global sustainability crisis
S O M E P R O P O S A L S T O A D D R E S S T H E S E P RO B L E M S
These ideas are selected not because they solve all problem areas of the global sustainability crisis, but to highlight how solutions can aim at several issues.
a. A global framework for coordination of projects, participatory discourse and negotiation, research support, education and information
b. The discourse framework based on the argumentative model of planning
c. Evaluation of planning arguments and discussion contributions
d. Rewards for discourse participation
e. The argumentative planning game
f. ‘Civic credit points’
g. Automatically triggered sanctions
h. Innovation zones in areas damaged by disasters
i. Quality of life measures based on the value of occasions (experiences) and image
a. A global framework for coordination of projects, participatory discourse and negotiation, research support, education and information
A global communication framework is needed for the coordination of many diverse, small local action projects and initiatives that should be encouraged and supported both as innovation laboratories for experiments with new approaches in all areas of societal organization and opportunities for people to pursue their visions, within a global framework of agreements for cooperation and conflict resolution. Its main components, besides the various action projects, are the coordination component, the discourse component, the research support component, and the education / information component.
b. The discourse framework based on the argumentative model of planning
A key innovative feature of the proposal is the structure of the discourse component, which is based on the argumentative model of planning and policy-making (spearheaded by H. Rittel). The elements of the information support system for the discourse are issues (controversial questions) and the answers and argument to those issues.
c. Evaluation of planning arguments and discussion contributions
The argumentative model of the discourse component is enhanced by the provisions for systematic evaluation of the planning arguments (and other discussion contributions). The aim of this feature is to develop a measure of support for plan or policy proposals based on the merit of arguments: a measure of the merit of the discourse. The resulting measures can then provide the missing link between discourse merit and to decisions to be made — a link not adequately ensured by the current majority voting method.
d. Rewards for discourse participation
The measures of merit of discourse contributions can be used to provide meaningful ‘rewards’ for participation, countering the problem of voter apathy even for large projects and constituencies.
e. The argumentative planning game
To familiarize citizens with the tools of the argumentative discourse — faster than would be possible through the current system of public education — it is proposed to develop an ‘argumentative planning game (including the evaluation component discussed in items c and d above). The game aims at promoting (and rewarding) cooperation (rewarding win-win outcomes), critical thinking and evaluation; and should be developed both for ‘live’ applications and for wide participation in large planning discussions via videogame, cellphone and internet technology.
f. ‘Civic credit points’
The measures of discussion contribution merit creates the possibility of establishing ‘civic credit point’ accounts for citizens, which provide legitimation / authorization for public decision-making (i.e. power) positions. Decisions require a ‘performance bond’ or ‘investment’ of credit points, used up with each decision, but with the possibility of earning further credit with successful decisions. This can provide a form of control of power: Power decisions can only be activated with adequate credit.
g. Automatically triggered sanctions
Instead of traditional sanctions to ensure adherence to agreements and laws that have to be enforced by ‘enforcement’ agencies with greater power than any potential violator, forms of sanctions should be developed that are automatically triggered by the attempt at violation. Such provisions — perhaps involving the ‘civic credit points’ idea outlined in item f — would help solve the problem of controlling / constraining the power of global ‘enforcement’ entities.
h. Innovation zones in areas damaged by disasters
Innovation efforts (and funding for these) are often resisted by existing structures that see these as competition and unwarranted ‘unfair’ expenditures. The proposal to encourage the establishment of ‘innovation zones’ for experiments with alternative organization of social and economic practices in areas damaged or destroyed by disasters sidesteps this problem. Emergency aid that will be spent in such areas might be devoted to innovative infrastructure and organization instead of mere re-construction of traditional structures. Successful experiments will encourage adjacent areas to adopt new practices and solutions; less successful efforts will gradually be replaced by improved traditional solutions — but will have produced valuable information about what works and what does not work.
i. Quality of life measures based on value of occasions (human experiences) and image
While governments everywhere are beginning to follow the initiative of the kingdom of Bhutan in introducing quality of life or citizen happiness measures, to complement and perhaps eventually replace traditional economic measures such as growth or Gross Domestic Product, the indices adopted are usually quite general and therefore not very helpful in developing policies for improvement. An approach growing out of work to develop better measures of the value of built environment suggests an alternative set of measures of the quality of human experiences (‘occasions’) and the imagery evoked by the settings for these experiences. The resulting measures would be much more detailed, allow pinpointing the specific features of the environment or life conditions influencing citizens’ value assessments, and would therefore be more helpful in suggesting projects and policies for improvement.
Some solutions for the global sustainability problems
A conversation in the Fog Island Tavern: Abbé Boulah and Bog-Hubert discussing answers to the UN Secretary General’s Call for ‘Revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ at the World Economic Forum 2011.Posted: February 6, 2012
Another evening to forget about in the Fog Island Tavern, eh, Abbé Boulah?
Ah, Bog-Hubert, good to see you — I’ve been waiting for you. An evening to forget about? Well, it depends.
Depends on what?
On whatever we’re going to make of it, of course.
Oh? You’ve got some devious plans?
Devious, as in interesting excitement? No, sorry to disappoint you. But there are always possibilities, don’t you think?
Well, my friend, I did hear your sigh just when I came in. So that was about something other than another wasted evening?
Good grief — you’ve got yourself dragged into another one of those online discussions? You ought to get out some more, meet some people…
To waste entire evenings with useless small talk with?
Like tonight, eh? Alright, so what’s the trouble with your online discussion?
We’ve got some time; I don’t see any better temptations around. Come on, tell me.
Let me get Vodçek to let the air out of this glass — the usual for you as well? Cheers. Okay. Maybe you remember, last January at the World Economic Forum in that mountain resort in Switzerland, the UN Secretary General gave a speech in which he called for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to secure an economic model for survival’. To save the world — not only from natural disasters but also from disasters caused by humanity itself. 
Revolutionary thinking and action? — and that from the UN Secretary General himself? Isn’t that like a captain on the high seas calling for a mutiny?
You could look at it that way, sure. At any rate, it seems to indicate that there are some serious problems ahead, that are recognized even by the UN and that illustrious assembly in Davos.
Are you saying that he — Ban Ki-Moon — thinks that those people in Davos are the ones who will come up with the needed revolutionary ideas — the very ones that caused our economic problems?
I don’t think he said it quite that way. He put it more diplomatically: “We… have been exploiting resources …” and so on. And he probably used the opportunity to get his message out to a larger audience.
Sure, isn’t that what he’s getting paid for? To promote the evolution of the UN to a world government? And isn’t that too one of the problems?
What do you mean?
Well, isn’t the UN itself a strange beast made up of questionable and obsolete entities — nations? Fossils, with their territorial interests, their power structures, their proven record of violent conflict resolution, their crazy decision-making methods, their corruption and their consistent tendencies to exploit not only other peoples but even their own citizens? And, as many people suspect, the UN desire to evolve into a world government of sorts, the ultimate superpower?
Calm down already — I am perfectly aware of the flaws and misdeeds of nations. But isn’t the institution of the UN itself a feeble sign of reason, of some insight that we, humanity as a whole, have to at least talk about the nonviolent resolution of all our differences and problems? Do you see another possibility for that, than a forum like the UN?
Sure. Aren’t there already a number of organizations that carry on discussions and activities across the conventional structure of nations? I agree, some good, some bad ones…
Bad ones too? You mean those damn terrorists?
Those too, but the international finance system, the big corporations as well: aren’t they already operating pretty much outside of the little boxes of national rules and regulations? Not even to speak of international crime, the drug cartels, modern slave trade. Not necessarily very appealing models of future world order, but in themselves successful examples of global organizations not based on nations and their territories.
I see what you mean. But there are some others that look more positive — I’d like to find out more about the World Social Forum, for example, an alternative movement to the World Economic Forum, based mainly in Latin America but spreading to other places, though the major media don’t give it much coverage…
Gee, I wonder why? Its meetings are coinciding with the Davos forum — which soaks up all the flashy media interest.
Right. The media themselves are an example of global organization. Just like religions, which are essentially focused on universal acceptance — in spite of the old compromise with the state, the ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ maxim. There are many other such interest groups with global focus. But most of them obediently arrange themselves within existing national structures, and as a result suffer from the same structural conditions as those structures. Quite a pessimistic analysis, I see you frowning.
Okay, I don’t want to start arguing about it for now. So what conclusions do you draw from it?
Well. Let me think. The first thing would be to examine those structural conditions — that apply to nations as well as large corporations –, to put them on the list of problems or challenges to survival, put them on the agenda for discussion and revolutionary thought.
No revolutionary action yet?
I am all for taking action. But revolutionary action has all too often been associated with a certain lack of thought — just replacing one power group with another, without really changing those conditions.
Remind me: what conditions did you have in mind?
The question of non-territorial social organization, for one. The question of how to control power — again, power in all organizations, governmental and others — especially large corporations and financial service systems. This is closely related to the problem of corruption. The issue of nonviolent conflict resolution — continually invoked as a principle, but in reality ‘violations’ of laws, treaties, agreements are always answered by violence or other forms of coercion by the stronger party — because nobody has seriously thought about other forms of sanctions…
I can’t argue with that; we have talked about those issues before. And the first step would have to be to talk about them. More specifically, talk on a global level, right? But in what kind of forum? On whose agenda should those issues be dealt with? And how do we get them on that agenda, who is listening to us?
Good question. Now, the call by the UN Secretary General was seen by some people not just as a thing for the WEF to do in preparation for the 2012 RIO conference, but as a more general invitation to start working on those issues, that was picked up by other groups. For example by this internet group I’ve been following, a forum on Linked-In called Systems Thinking World, where a discussion was started by a lady named Helene Finidori on ‘how to make this work’. Since February 2011 this discussion has generated more than 4000 posts. 
So you got mixed up in that crowd? System Thinkers? Aren’t those precisely the people who have helped governments and corporations make their dubious machinations more efficient? Sounds like putting the fox in charge of the hen house?
My impression is that there aren’t that many of those people in this particular group. Of course there are such people. But in this group there are many participants who argue forcefully against the use of system models for just profit and market share and dominance purposes — come to think of it, maybe that’s why there aren’t that many ‘real’ systems professionals — I mean people who are working for governments and corporations — among the contributors. The people in the group are discussing the problems from the systems thinking point of view that all components of the system of human society and environment are connected and influencing each other. They therefore see the systems tools such as mathematical models and simulations as tools that can also be used for the common good.
Ah. The common good. How is that defined, by whom?
These people — except some who seem to participate more from a perspective of criticism and suspicion of the entire scientific / systems view and would like to see a moral / ethical re-awakening first — seem to believe that these tools can serve to gain a better understanding of the behavior of systems such as the ecological systems of which society is a part, and then bring this understanding to the attention of a wider public so as to nudge people’s behavior into the direction of sustainability, coexistence with natural environment rather than dominance, nonviolent conflict resolution and cooperation, and so on.
Sounds beautiful. Did something useful come out of all that discussion? Or what was the reason for the pitiful sigh I heard very clearly when I came in to disturb your systems thinking?
What came of it? Well, let’s start with the positive results. The participants in that discussion researched — googled, I guess — an incredible number of ideas, experiments, projects and approaches to new practices and behaviors, that can be seen as small scale answers to the UN Secretary’s challenge. I have always been interested in these issues, have always been distrustful of the growth mania of the economy, of the logical flaws of modern democracies, of the influence of corporations and financial institutions on governments, of the manner in which the so-called blessings of technology, globalization, agribusiness are foisted upon developing countries. I saw myself as reasonably well informed about alternative approaches and ideas,but I confess I was hugely surprised at the number of such ideas and projects that are already out there.
Well, just look at the number of links and references in that thread. Somewhere halfway through the discussion, the moderator Helene Finidori compiled a summary of all these links and ideas — she put that on a different platform  because of the limitations of the Linked-In forum — mainly the allowable length of posts. But the contributions and links kept pouring in. I don’t know whether she is still working on including all those in her summary or has given up, buried under the avalanche of links. It may be more useful to set up a list of topics that were touched upon in the discussion, to identify the main concerns of discussion contributions — as well as the topics that were not so well covered — in that list.
Do you have such a list handy?
Well, there is a list of topics in a kind of working IBIS  that already has about 80 topics.
Where do those come from?
Good question. It’s quite simple: a topic is a general subject any participant brings up in the discussion; as a problem, question, an answer, and argument or argument premise, which gets picked up and debated by others. Of course they are not equally important, and some were raised precisely as reminders to start thinking about issues that had been neglected in the discussion. I can give you a short overview of the most important ones, as judged by my impression of the number of posts contributed to them — but I didn’t even count them so it’s a very unscientific perspective.
A large number of contributions had to do with agriculture and gardening.The basic problem of provision of food and water for survival, that is claimed to be endangered precisely by the big agribusiness corporations. Most contributions urged a move away from the practices of large agribusiness corporations, away from their monocultures, their dependence of chemical fertilizers, their genetically modified crops and their destruction of small family-owned farms. Instead, they argued for more sustainable forms of agriculture: ‘permaculture’, preserving diversity of species, small family or community farms. But also reintroduction of food production in the cities: rooftop gardens, community gardens, and the principle of reducing the distance food products have to be transported from farm to consumer, by adjusting food consumption to available crops grown nearby.
I bet the likes of Monsanto and the fertilizer industry are less than happy about that…
Right; there was a lot of loud and sustained sentiment against those. Talking about sustainability in general, there were of course a lot of posts about other aspects of sustainability, especially regarding energy. Moving away from fossil and nuclear fuels and towards wind, solar, and geothermal, in part again favoring small production plants, even family size, rather than large plants and networks. This especially in rural developing areas. Here too, there was an abundance of innovative experiments, some already in use, others almost ready to go.
Anything from the corporations, government and industry, the main audience in Davos?
Good question. There were reports about efficiency improvement programs in those camps, to reduce their CO2 footprints, to streamline their operation and production toward using less energy, resources and labor — naturally, in order to become more competitive. And this is where the contributions of system technicians and the use of mathematical optimization and simulation models was most noticeable. But many of the systems specialists in the group were suggesting that these tools could be applied to new approaches and ideas as well, for example to identify the ‘leverage points’ in the overall economic and ecological systems: the points where targeted action might most easily be applied to achieve meaningful changes.
Were there some good examples of such models from the corporate or government perspective?
Not really: As I said before, there were few systems guys from corporations and governments in that group. It may have something to do with the purpose of such models for corporations: to make the firm more competitive (among other things) and the corporations therefore are not eager to share them with potential competitors.
Now there were a number of participants who were rather critical about these efforts, mainly from a point of view that these tools were things that had to be applied ‘top-down’ fashion and therefore remaining under the control of the big players and serving primarily their interests. They argued that real change could only be achieved ‘bottom-up’ on the basis of a new awareness and a radical re-awakening and renewal of a moral and ethical conscience of humanity. New values, a new relationship between society and nature. Specifically, as a pre-condition for actual initiatives — it seemed that some of these participants didn’t even want to begin thinking about and discussing actual proposals and actions before such a re-orientation had taken hold. It seemed that this was based on an assumption that real changes of behaviors, real solutions would then ‘emerge’ automatically, as a consequence of individuals’ new attitude and values.
Right, they might argue that even any ‘solutions’ thought up by this group of inspired system thinkers would be seen as not really ‘theirs’, as something again foisted upon them by someone else.
You’ve got a point there. In fact, some people were actually mentioning this ‘NIH’ attitude of resistance against anything ‘Not Invented Here’. But somebody has to start talking about different possibilities as a take-off point for the attitude adjustment, don’t you think? Of course there were some who thought that even with serious efforts to induce new awareness and ethics, what it would really take to get people to change would be a real crisis or disaster. Anyway — there was a systems theory basis for this position: the idea of the ‘tipping point’: the notion that massive societal changes only occur once about ten percent of the people have accepted the respective ideas and attitudes: at that point, the rest of the population will be carried along, drawn into the movement at a rapid rate. Including, I guess, the folks and institutions who have been responsible for bringing about the problems in the first place. Therefore, according to the strategy, it is necessary to first focus on ‘spreading the word’ — about the problems and shortcomings and crimes of the current behaviors and the need for a new moral awareness — until the tipping point is reached.
My, my. Haven’t the philosophers and the religions tried their best to change the moral makeup of humanity for thousands of years already — so how come we are still in this mess?
We have to keep trying, don’t we? Even though already the ancient Greeks had a mythical poster child for such efforts..
You mean ol’ Sisyphus? Ah well. But another question: What if there are several such movements, — perhaps somewhat incompatible — that each reach their tipping point? There could be ten of those ten percent competing tipping points, if my math is still up to coping with these challenges, and then what will happen? But I’m sorry, you weren’t finished with your overview, were you?
Well, those were pretty much the main themes. Of course there were demands for better regulation of the financial systems; to revise the habits of governments in view of their economic policies; to get a handle on corruption, to fight social inequality — which seems to have gotten so much worse in recent times even in the western so-called democracies — to have governments adjust their policies according to the well-being of citizens rather than Gross National Product or economic growth. To start using new measures of citizens’ quality of life. But here, there were few specific proposals and ideas. As far as I could see, — I think I mentioned that already — there were few if any real politicians or economic and financing experts in the group. So many posts about these themes amounted to little more than wishful thinking or the usual grumbling about the government, the problems, and the usual evildoers.
Well, that all sounds like a lot of good intentions, but nothing really new and revolutionary. And you said many of the specific initiatives and ideas are already being implemented in various places? So that giant discussion didn’t really result in any revolutionary thoughts? As is ‘not having been thought of before’ to turn things around?
You are right. That was the reason for my sigh. Of course the discussion, the compilation of all the ideas and initiatives was extremely useful. At least I learned a lot from it. But I was somewhat disappointed, on the one hand, that many of the problem areas were not really covered, hardly even mentioned. That includes many of the key themes in the Secretary General’s call: the reckless use of resources and their predictable shortages, climate change, the world’s rapidly growing population and the challenges of providing food, water, shelter, energy, health care and education for all those people. On the other hand…
Ah, I see: the problems you mentioned earlier, the things to put on the agenda: the questions about the nation-based social order of the global society, whether the forms of governance are up to the challenges we are seeing — or even causing the problems — whether we need alternative forms of governance and what those would look like; the problem of control of power in government and private enterprise, the problem of better sanctions for non-compliance with laws and treaties and agreements, and the need for better decision-making rules for governance entities to replace voting; if I remember correctly: All that was not discussed?
Sorry, only marginally. Though I may not have caught all the material that was linked. There were some suggestions, a few are listed in the IBIS I mentioned. But not much discussion. It seemed as if ideas that didn’t come with an url, a link to a web site or other documentation, that were actually produced by participants in the discussion ‘on the spot’ were so unexpected that they weren’t taken seriously. As if creative ideas sparked by the discussion itself were seen as so undeveloped and unqualified, that they couldn’t even be discussed as ‘revolutionary’ ideas. Ideas which arguably, in my book, means ideas that have n o t already been published and reviewed by the accepted gatekeepers of opinion.
It seems that your systems thinkers, at least those in that discussion, were not a particularly original and creative crowd?
Well, at least they seemed more interested in googling other people’s ideas: yes, that is my impression. And yes, somewhat disappointing. One kind of justification that was hinted at was that we first had to ‘understand the system’ before we should begin to tinker with it and make revolutionary noises. The revolutionary a c t i o n aspect, by the way, was almost unanimously rejected in favor of a more evolutionary approach.
I suspect your disappointment has something to do with the fact that some of those undocumented, un-urled ideas were some of our favorite issues and proposals, eh?
Touché. Yes, there were some of the ideas we have been talking about and put out for discussion.  But then there was the proposal by some participants to pull together some kind of summary report for presenting to the UN or some other entity, from the material assembled in the discussion. That looked like a good opportunity to bring those ideas of ours into a larger concrete perspective. But I guess the notion of pulling all that together into a coherent strategy proposal for organizations like the UN was a bit over-ambitious.
Coherent strategy: sounds ambitious all right. But now you’ve made me curious, spill the beans! What in the world would you — based on all that material — put on the agenda of the UN to deal with the challenges of the Secretary General? Or of any other agency, if the UN isn’t the one to do that?
Wait. Slow down a bit. You are right in that the reservations many people have about the UN or any other global government should be taken seriously. For the UN, it’s not only because it’s seen as such a would-be world government, — (and I suspect that many people in the U.S. are merely worried about the U.S. losing its de facto status as a world superpower), but because it’s composed of nations, and because it has not even begun to sincerely discuss let alone solve the problems of its decision methods (voting) and control of power and corruption. So all of that is up for discussion; but for the time being, it looks as if the UN is just about the only plausible mechanism we have to get the discussion started and organized, for example with the so-called UN Global Compact the Secretary General mentioned in his speech.
A mechanism that is supposed to question its own legitimacy and existence? That would be a hard one to swallow for many people.
Well, it doesn’t have to be on the top of the agenda. But it should be somewhere on there, don’t you think?
I’d have to think about that. Meanwhile: what else do you see on the agenda?
You might get an overview in this diagram — a proposed framework for the overall project, with several major components. It integrates both the ‘top-down’ and the ‘bottom-up’ functions.
I see. Why are the bottom-up functions on the top of the diagram?
To emphasize the importance of the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ in relation to each other. So the many small projects — ‘Action projects’, the mostly local, still small scale initiatives by people trying out something new: those are seen as the most important source of innovation and energy towards the needed transformation. Even if they follow different principles and do not conform to one consistent overall plan. Those initiatives should be encouraged and supported. We need the diversity of these experiments — if for no other reason than to find out what works and what doesn’t work.
I can think of some other reasons — but do go on with your explanation. For example, are you saying that all such projects should be supported, indiscriminately? With whose funds?
I’m not sure you are understanding these projects right. Many if not most of them are run by people who want to realize and demonstrate their independence from traditional structures of power, organization, administration — their own empowerment. So it’s not always about funding, but more about enabling, removing bureaucratic obstacles; about recognition and encouragement; and information-sharing about similar projects. But I do think a shift of ‘top-down’ funding from large projects towards small local initiatives would be useful. If you are asking me about setting priorities among such projects, I’d say we should favor projects that don’t just focus on one single aspect or objective but try to pursue several aims simultaneously.
Well, a rather modest example is the ‘Cart-mart’ idea we have discussed, if I remember correctly. To help revitalize downtown areas that have become monoculture office districts and in the process have driven out both residents and the small scale shops and businesses that supported them — so that these areas are deserted — and dangerous — after business hours. And all the people working there but have moved to the suburbs have to commute there, increasing traffic, but mostly individual automobile traffic since the suburbs are too low-density to support efficient and affordable mass transit; using fossil fuels, creating pollution, noise, traffic jams. So many cities are desperately trying to reverse that process — but having trouble doing so because economics and regulations are making it too difficult for ‘regular’ small shops.
That doesn’t surprise me — they are not attacking the problem where it matters — with the regulations about what uses should be allowed at the sidewalk level, for example.
Right. The Cart-mart idea could help initiate a transition process. Instead of regular shops, assemble a fleet of small carts or vans into a kind of bazaar, say, on an empty lot or on the ground floor of a larger building; provide common support facilities. The carts offer daytime-specific wares, and things that attract a high frequency of visitors — tax them inversely to their visitor-per square-foot-hour — but only for several hours at a time. The same space is used by several carts throughout the day. Opportunities for part-time, independent businesses. Local universities can run experimental businesses, support graduate students with part-time employment in actually running a business. These vans could begin selling locally grown produce; others could be supported by ‘Big Box’ stores outside the inner city. ‘Full time’ vans might travel to the suburbs and set up ‘instant markets for a few hours at a time to serve residents there — people who can’t drive, or who now don’t need to drive to the nearest supermarket for small purchases — which helps traffic and neighborhood cohesion — people having an opportunity to meet and chat. So the scheme serves several purposes at the same time.
I see what you mean.
Another project that came up in the discussion was the ‘OASIS’ project. It’s a proposal to use the fact that the oil tankers transporting oil from arid and desert places to the refineries in industrialized regions need ballast for the return trip. Instead of ocean or river water, the proposal is to use partially treated wastewater — ‘grey water’ — from those areas, and deliver it to desert areas to restore vegetation there: forests, agriculture. This reduces the wastewater problem in the industrialized places — water that is usually quite expensive to treat, and / or damaging to the rivers and waterways where they are often released. It reduces the problem of the release of the ballast water in the oil countries — introducing pollution and foreign species into those water. It helps restoring forests and agriculture in desert areas — not only developing food and forestry good production, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, improving the climate in those areas, increasing rainfall and absorbing CO2. Multiple benefits — get the idea?
Yes. In fact, it reminds me of the proposal somebody made some time ago — weren’t you involved in that one? — to grow crops on all the highway medians and right-of-ways that could be used to make biofuel and also could be irrigated with grey water. Using the highway maintenance equipment that’s already there to grow, cut and dispose of the useless grass they usually grow there. And reduce the pressure to use food crops for biofuel production, which makes food more expensive… Getting several flies with one swatter there too.
Right. Another, somewhat more involved example of such multi-purpose projects is the idea of encouraging the development of the kind of alternative innovation experiment projects we talked about a while ago, in areas that have been destroyed or damaged by natural of man-made disasters.They need — and usually get — considerable funding for reconstruction which is not always done in a very orderly and effective manner, — and if just restoring the previous state of affairs just provides fodder for the next disaster. Instead, the fact that new infrastructure and organization in such areas does not have to compete with existing systems — that perceive and often resist new, alternative approaches as competition — should be seen as opportunities for new ways of organizing and running communities — the kind of experiments we said we need. If successful, these systems could then begin to spur and accelerate the transformation of adjacent, undamaged areas. And if unsuccessful, the current systems could gradually take over those projects again — but we have the information about those experiments.
Well, I get the idea. Plenty of projects to support and to explore. But we got a little caught up in the details here — didn’t you want to explain your overall scheme first?
Thanks for getting me back on track. Well, to make the most of all these initiatives and projects, I’d say we need a global Coordination service or component. To share information and experiences: there is a need for compiling all that information. It involves translation — not only between real languages, but also from discipline jargon to language a wider audience can understand and interact with, discuss. That is not a local task but work for a global organization such as the UN, if we don’t have anything better. Note that ‘coordination’ does not mean top-down management or direction according to some imposed overall scheme into some specific direction — always a danger even for the most well-intentioned initiatives — but simply to keep up with the various initiatives, monitor what’s going on, facilitate the sharing of information.
You mean just documentation, reporting, information-networking?
I get your drift. Of course there will be tasks and problems, even conflicts, which can’t be settled just on the local level but for which global agreements, treaties, contracts will be needed.
Ah: top-down decisions, after all?
You can’t tear yourself away from this kind of thinking, can you? No, these agreements can’t be decisions made by some global authority remote from local concerns of affected people. It looks like many of the problems within the EU and UN are related to the failure of these institutions to provide a workable connection between these concerns and the decision-making level. Or if there is that connection, to make that sufficiently clear to everybody.
I agree, there is a distinct perception of a significant disconnect. Just some formal provision of ‘representation’ of different groups– nations – based on majority-based ‘elections’ organized along party lines doesn’t seem to overcome that perception.
Right. So the problem will be to organize a workable global framework for bringing those concerns to the decision-making level. This means a dialogue, a discourse framework or forum. This might be best understood as a global ‘constitution’ for collective planning and policy-making. This too must be supported by a suitable information system — and in my opinion that systems should be based on the late Professor Rittel’s ideas for ‘issue based information systems’ (IBIS) and ‘argumentative planning information systems’ (APIS) . The argumentative model of planning, understanding it as a process in which opinions about proposed plans — not merely ‘facts’ — are brought in by the concerned parties. The opposing opinions are supported by answers and — essentially — arguments.
Now, how is this different from the venerable parliamentary tradition — the principle of ‘let’s leave our weapons outside and discuss our differences, maybe work out a compromise we can all live with, and then decide’? That has been around for some time — but doesn’t seem to have really solved the problems?
Good question. There was an important link missing: the methods and criteria by which the decisions are reached are not linked effectively to whatever information and insight was achieved in the discussion: the merit of arguments and ideas does not influence the decisions made by majority voting in any transparent and meaningful manner, even in any of the so-called democratic forms of governance of that parliamentary tradition. So the proposed framework tries to provide that missing link by including a systematic and transparent method of argument evaluation [5,9] that can at least guide decisions and point out more clearly where decisions are blatantly ignoring the results of the discussion. Yeah, yeah, I hear your question: how is that different from what all the opinion polls are doing? The polls are — in the overwhelming majority of cases — merely reporting on people’s positions on issues, regardless of whether these are uninformed, offhand opinions and prejudices, or the result of careful discussion and critical analysis of arguments and information. And even then, the votes in decision-making bodies can ignore polling results…
That does begin to sound somewhat revolutionary, though I’m not sure how easy it will be to implement, especially on a global scale.
Yes, that is why the development of some globally organized forum or framework is such an important task. And that would properly be the responsibility of a global institution such as the UN. Let’s not forget another important task of that framework: just like the coordination component, the translation of all discussion contributions into all the other languages will be an absolute necessity to guarantee equal access and participation. And that includes the translation of disciplinary jargon into common language. Even in the discussion on the Systems Thinking forum, which was carried on in English only! — it became apparent that within the field of systems thinking, there are several different schools of thought, each with their own specialized vocabulary and acronyms, that made constructive communication difficult, even within that small group of people one might have assumed to be working from a common basis of understanding.
Yes I can see that. So what kind of issues would these mammoth global discussions be about? What are the topics?
That is an important question, one about which people will have very different attitudes. In principle, all proposals and agreements that cannot be settled on a purely local community level must be brought into a larger discourse forum. The rules for international air and sea traffic are examples of issues that must be settled on a global level. Some such rules might be trivial and the decision arbitrary: look at the rules for driving on public roads. There is no intrinsic reason that says driving on the right side of the road is more ‘correct’ or better than driving on the left. But there has to be an agreement about a common rule: Would you want to negotiate with every oncoming vehicle whether you are going to pass on this or that side, on the noble principle of anti-globalization and limited government? Good luck. Chaos. So such decisions have to be made on a large, even global scale.
Well, I have seen my share of chaos even in strictly regulated right-hand-driving traffic… But how many such global rules do we need?
There is a whole list of urgent problems that belong on such a global agenda. Problems for which we need not only workable agreements but even just better solutions and tools about which to decide. There are issues about the control of power, the development of better decision-making rules and criteria that we mentioned a while ago, the development of better means for ensuring that agreements and treaties and laws are adhered to and not broken — sanctions that don’t have to be ‘enforced’ by some entity (‘enforcement agency’) that is able to coerce people to comply through the application — or threat of application — of greater force than any potential violator.
Why do we need that?
Simple: if adherence to agreements is achieved by the threat of applying greater force, how do you achieve adherence to agreements by that enforcement agency itself, since by definition there is no greater, stronger power? So as long as any powerful agency or individual can be tempted to break the rules, to abuse its power, the establishment of ‘biggest’, strongest enforcement powers is a very dangerous thing. Who will hold the strongest power to the laws? The traditional safeguards — time limits, re-election, balance of powers — are reaching the limit if their effectiveness, and at the level of global governance have not been successfully established yet. So the solution would have to be to develop sanctions that don’t have to be ‘enforced’ but that will be triggered automatically by the very attempt of violation, wouldn’t you say?
I’m not sure that would take care of the entire problem of power, but I agree that it would reduce the excuses and extent of power agencies that can be abused. But I don’t see how it can be done: how would you do that?
The principle is very simple — the model is the old Watts steam engine regulator: as the rotating weights rise with increasing speed, the lever on which they are attached closes the steam valve. Or the idea of the car ignition key that is connected to a breath alcohol sensor and simply won’t start the engine when the driver is inebriated. But I agree, simple as the idea is, the tools for application to the power control issue will require some R&D. The point is that this task must be put on the agenda and given some priority in the research component of this overall framework that you can see in the diagram. There are many such issues that such a research program should investigate to support both the various experimental projects and the discourse, as well as the education component that we still have to talk about.
I can see that this will take some effort of coordination and funding too. Just take the problem of ‘intellectual property’ and patents, given that research isn’t being done just in universities like in the good old days, but increasingly by private companies, industry, the military, agencies like NASA, think tanks, governments, — all with varying motivations and priorities driven by their funding.
Right: the need to coordinate all that so that it can be meaningfully brought into the global discourse runs smack into problems like that of industrial espionage — the desire of industry to keep its most advanced research secret and hidden from potential competitors. Hammering out adequate global adequate agreements for this will be a considerable effort. But it is clear that for precisely those reasons, it can’t just be left to private enterprise, as some people are demanding, people who see government or other public agencies as the problem and not as the solution. Yes, this will not be a small and easy task.
Will the arrangements for the education component in that diagram be any easier? Or are there already grand solutions for that problem?
Sorry, no great ready-made solutions for that one either. But some basic guidelines and principles can be sketched out, at least as they concern the role of education in the overall framework here.
Explain: what principles? I don’t think you can be talking about a grand scheme to revamp all the school systems in all the world’s countries?
No, you are right. Not even considering anything like common standards for all those schools everywhere. Rather, the idea is to graft some tools onto the existing structure for some aspects that were not sufficiently well provided in traditional schooling — such as the whole issue of sustainability, and above all the treatment of ought-issues, planning, in other words. The perennial quarrel about what f a c t s should be offered in the curricula is consistently missing this problem of how humanity can fashion meaningful and mutually acceptable plans for its own future: how we all o u g h t to live. Even the discussion and selection of ‘facts’ of scientific research — that are themselves constantly changing due to new investigations and theories — that is causing so much controversy and discord in education, is pushing this planning and policy-making issue aside, even as the compromises that are painfully negotiated just keep lowering overall quality…
And that gordic knot is supposed to be hacked through within this project? Lots of luck.
Hacked through? No, it’s not that ambitious. The problem is too big to be solved with some quick fixes. The idea is rather to introduce the aspects that have not been offered in the old curricula, step by step, using new media and technology. Take for example the discourse component with its supporting information system and argument evaluation approach: that is not in any syllabus of any traditional school system anywhere. If even logic is part of any general education program anymore, it does not include the study of the kind of arguments we always use in planning and policy-making discussions, — because those are not ‘valid’, from a formal logic point of view, like the good old syllogisms of Socrates and Aristotle — at best ‘inconclusive’, and thus disregarded by logicians. So that is an example of new content, content that is urgently needed, that should be prepared and offered with new tools within this overall framework.
And what are those tools you are talking about?
Internet, cellphones, video-games, for example. Cellphones are spreading fast even into the poorest countries and slums everywhere — and young people are catching on even faster than adults to their new possibilities. So things like the argumentative planning game that we are just trying to develop, could be used to introduce these new ideas and familiarize people with their use — via cellphones and internet.  The key, I think, will be to link the game rewards to cooperative and meaningful contributions to the discussion. Players get basic points for making any contributions, on the one hand — points that can be modified by all participants’ assessment of their merit –importance and plausibility. But on the other hand, part of the reward is based on the overall plausibility and quality of the final plan solution they are working out and negotiating — in a win-win rather than win-lose pattern of most other games. But that is just one example; other possibilities would be to adapt system simulation models (that are developed in the research component), of ecological, social, economic systems, to achieve successful sustainable strategies, to such games and teaching tools.
I understand: you think that if people get sufficiently familiar with the new approaches through games, they might begin to apply these approaches to real problems? And get them into the official planning institutions through the back door, as it were? Sneaky. And almost revolutionary, I agree. Do you think all this has a chance of being realized?
Honestly, I don’t know. Though I see it as more evolutionary than revolutionary. Because, after all, these proposals don’t call for wholesale abolition and revolutionary change of existing structures, but are building on those — or I should say, aim at growing new solutions in the cracks and blind spots of traditional structures. Is that revolutionary? Only if one insists on leaving the current systems entirely untouched to muddle through as before. But even the WEF and UN people have understood that business as usual won’t work anymore. And with these proposals, one can begin to actually do meaningful things on a small scale, as well as grow a global framework to discuss overall agreements and solutions — a framework that does not lead to or require a big brother world government but aims at step-by-step minimal agreements that can open existing structures and transform traditional unsustainable practice to create opportunities for the creative development of many sustainable societal arrangements within an overall framework for peaceful and cooperative coexistence.do meaningful things on a small scale, as well as grow a global framework to discuss overall agreements and solutions — a framework that does not lead to or require a big brother world government but aims at step-by-step minimal agreements that can open existing structures and transform traditional unsustainable practice to create opportunities for the creative development of many sustainable societal arrangements within an overall framework for peaceful and cooperative coexistence.
I agree that it’s a desirable vision, and yes, a necessary one — but a big task. Is humanity ready for such a project yet?
I really don’t know. Some wise guy once said that it looks like humanity keeps coming up with problems that are always just a little beyond its ability to solve. And if they can’t be solved, they are just forgotten and replaced with other, new problems…
Ah — forgotten — like another night at the Fog Island Tavern? Cheers…
 Speech of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at the World Economic Forum 2011 in Davos:
 Discussion “UN call for revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival… How to make this happen?”
Warning for global suicide and time running out, Ban Ki-Moon called last Friday at Davos for revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival. What is needed to take a global interconnected perspective on the issues and threats our planet is facing and start action? How can this gain traction and produce the desired effect?
Moderator: Helene Finidori [Giraud] . http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=41977268&gid=2639211&commentID=51569978&trk=view_disc&ut=3Wjqeb1uY3FQU1
 Summary H. Finidori: UN call for revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival… How to make this happen?
The question below is an on-going discussion that started on the LinkedIn Systems Wiki Group in February 2011. After 1100 posts, we felt the need to start a summary to refine the discussion on particular issue and collaborate on some tools and models to help bring more sustainable practices to life. The various sections of the summary can be accessed through the link below. Do not hesitate to comment. If you wish to comment on the question itself in more general terms and participate in the discussion, please join us on the LinkedIn thread.
 Working IBIS TM: Draft available upon request: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Work on evaluation of planning arguments:
Mann, Thorbjoern: Argument Assessment for Design Decisions, Dissertation, Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley, 1977.
– “Some Limitations of the Argumentative Model of Design” in: Design Methods and Theories, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1980. Also published in Polish in the yearbook of the Department of Praxiology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland 1983.
– “Procedural Building Blocks: The Interface Between Argumentative Discourse and Formal Evaluation Procedures in Design” Proceedings, Eighth European Conference. on Cybernetics and Systems, Vienna, 1986.
– “Linking Argumentative Discourse with Formal Objectification Procedures” Chapter 8 in: Knowledge Based Systems for Multiple Environments, Cohort, Anderson, Bandler, eds. Ashgate, Gower,UK.1992.
– “Application of the Argumentative Model of Design to an Issue of Local Government” Proceedings, Eleventh European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems, Vienna 1994.
– “Expert Systems for Design and Planning: Requirements and Expectations”, (Poster presentation) Proceedings, International Conference on Engineering Design, Prague, 1995.
– “Development and Evolution of the Argumentative Model of Design” Presentation, Gesellschaft für Mathematik und DatenVerarbeitung, Bonn 1999.
– “The Fog Island Argument” XLibris 2007. In German: “Das Planungsargument” (E-book: CIANDO 2008)
– “Das Internet und der politische Diskurs aus der Sicht der Planung: Gedanken und Vorschläge”
(E-book: Nordmarketing) 2008
– “The Fog Island Tavern” — chapter 20: “The Commissioner’s New Expert System” and chapter 21 “Expert System Morphing into Design Participant” Unpubl. manuscript 2009
– “The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments” (Informal Logic Journal) Dec. 2010)
 OASIS: http://operationoasis.com
 Proposal World organization: on the Linked-In discussion: http://lnkd.in/vF_PtP
 Horst Rittel publications on Issue Based Information Systems and related matters:
Kunz, W. und Horst Rittel: “Issues as Elements of Information Systems’ Working paper 131, Institute for Urban and Regional STudies, University of California, Berkeley 1970.
– Rittel, H. and M. Webber (1974): “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” in Policy Sciences 4, 1974.
– Rittel, H. et al. (1972): Intensivere Nutzung der räumlichen Kapazität im Hochschul-bereich, Project for the German Bundesministeriums für Bildung und Wissenschaft, Bonn, Project report. Heidelberg: Studiengruppe für Systemforschung.
– Rittel, H. (1972) “On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and Second Generations’.” BedriftsØkonomen. #8, 1972.
– (1977) “Structure and Usefulness of Planning Information Systems”, Working Paper S-77-8, Institut für Grundlagen der Planung, Universität Stuttgart.
– (1980) “APIS: A Concept for an Argumentative Planning Information System’. Working Paper No. 324. Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.
– (1989) “Issue-Based Information Systems for Design”. Working Paper No. 492. Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.
 Draft paper: The Argument Evaluation Game. (unpubl. 2012) Available upon request: email@example.com.