‘New System’ Priorities: Diversity or Unified Vision?

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?
– 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?
– 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?

Discourse platform

– 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:
‘enforcement’, sanctions?

– 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?


Systems Models and Argumentation in the Planning Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

(IS) –> REL –> (OS)

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

{VIS} –> REL(IS/OS) –> {VOS}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For {OS} –> {CQof OS}:

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

For —> CQ of A:

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

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

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

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

(Outside uncontrolled factors (context)

    /                   /                       |                     |                |           \               \        \

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

\              \                \                      |            |             |            /           /             /

forward and backward loops


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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