A hypothetical ‘perfect’ artificial argumentative systems planner — D R A F T

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.

– Hmm.

– 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?

Obtaining information
Sources?

– 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.

Distinctions, meaning
Understanding

– 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…

Time
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?
Leverage points

– 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?

– Huh?

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 …

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‘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?

new-system-priorities-1a

– 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.

Solutions?

– 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?

new-system-priorities-1f


Systems Models and Argumentation in the Planning Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

(IS) –> REL –> (OS)

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

{VIS} –> REL(IS/OS) –> {VOS}

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For {OS} –> {CQof OS}:

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

For —> CQ of A:

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

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

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

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

(Outside uncontrolled factors (context)

    /                   /                       |                     |                |           \               \        \

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

\              \                \                      |            |             |            /           /             /

forward and backward loops

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ST-AM 4

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

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