Some problems with the systematic assessment of planning arguments.

(Ref. e.g. the article ‘The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments’ (Informal Logic, Dec. 2010, also slightly revised, in

In an effort to explore phenomena, identifying shortcomings and errors, that can be seen as arguments against the too ready acceptance of the argumentative model of planning, I ran into a well-intentioned article full of claims and arguments that did not fit the simple clean basic model of the planning argument, and would cause some problems in their analysis and plausibility assessment. Briefly, there are three aspects of concern.

The first is the liberal use of verbs denoting the relationship between concepts that — in the basic planning argument — would be seen as plan features that cause outcomes or consequences. Reminder: the argumentative view shares the focus on cause-effect relationships with much of the systems modeling perspective: the ‘loops’ of systems networks are generated by changes in components / variables causing positive or negative changes in other variables. So the relationship constituting the ‘factual-instrumental’ premise of planning arguments is mostly seen as a cause-effect relationship.

Now the survey of arguments in the article mentioned above (not identified to protect the author until proven guilty, and because the practice is actually quite common) hardly ever actually uses the terms ’cause’ and ‘effect’ or their equivalent in arguments that clearly advocate certain policies and actions. Instead, one finds terms such as ‘reflects’, ‘advance’ (an adaptive response); ‘reinforce’, ‘seeks to.. ‘, ‘codifies’, ‘is wired to..’. ‘erodes’, ‘come to terms with…’. ‘speaks to…’, ‘retreats into…’,’crystallizes…’, ‘promotes’. ‘cross-fertilizes…, ’embraces’, ‘ ‘cuts across’, ‘rooted in…’, ‘deeply embedded ‘, ‘leverages’,
‘co-create’ and ‘co-design’, ‘highlight ‘, ‘re-ignite’. (Once the extent of such claims was realized in that article that was trying to make a case for ‘disrupting’ the old system and its propaganda, it became clear that the article itself was heavily engaged in the art of propaganda… slightly saddening the reader who was initially tending towards sympathetic endorsement of that case…)

This wealth of relationship descriptions is apt to throw the blind faith promoter of the simple planning argument pattern into serious self-recrimination: What is the point of thorough analysis of these kinds of argument, if they never appear in their pristine form in actual discourse? (The basic ‘standard planning argument’ pattern is the following: “Proposed plan X ought to be adopted because X will produce consequence Y given conditions C), and consequence Y ought to be pursued, (and conditions C are or will be given.)” True, it was always pointed out that there were other kinds of relationships than ‘will produce’; or ’causes’, at work in that basic pattern: ‘part-whole’, for example, or ‘association’, ‘acting as catalyst’, ‘being identical’ or synonymous with’, for example. But those were never seen as serious obstacles to their evaluation by the proposed process of argument assessment, as the above examples appear to be. How can they be evaluated with the same blunt tool as the arguments with plain cause-effect premises?

Secondly, the problems they cause for assessment are exacerbated by the fact that often, these verbs are qualified with expressions like ‘probably’; ‘likely to’, ‘may be seen as’ and other means of retreating from complete certainty regarding the underlying claims. The effect of these qualification moves is that the entire claim ‘probably x’ or ‘x is likely to advance y’ can now be evaluated as a fully plausible claim, and given a pl-value of +1 (‘completely plausible, virtually certain’) by a listener — since the premise obviously, honestly, does not claim complete certainty. This obscures the actual underlying suggestion that ‘x (actually) will advance y’ is far from completely plausible, and thus will lend more plausibility and weight to the argument of which it is a premise.

A third problem is that, upon closer inspection, many of the relationship claims are not just honest, innocent expressions of factual or functional relationships between real entities or forces. They are often themselves ‘laden’ with deontic content — subjective expressions of ‘good’ or ‘bad’: ‘x threatens y’, or ‘relativizes’, or ‘manipulates’ are valuing relationship descriptions: judgments about ‘ought-aspects that the proposed method reserved for the clearly deontic premises of planning arguments: the purported outcomes or consequences of plans.

What are the implications of these considerations for the proposal of systematic argument assessment in the planning discourse? (Other than the necessary acknowledgement that this very comment is itself a piece of propaganda…)

Apart from the option of giving up on the entire enterprise and leaving the subjective judgments by discourse participants unexamined, one response would be to devise ways of ‘separating’ the qualifying terms from the basic claims in the evaluation work sheets given to participants. They would be asked to assess the probability or plausibility of the basic premise claim, perhaps using the qualifying statements as a ‘guide’ to their plausibility judgment (like any other supporting evidence). This seems possible with some additional refinement and simplification of the proposed process.

It is less clear how the value-contamination of relationship descriptors could be dealt with. Changing the representation of arguments to the condensed form of the basic ‘standard planning argument’ pattern is already a controversial suggestion requiring considerable ‘intelligent’ assessment of arguments’ ‘core’ from their ‘verbatim’ version, both to get it ‘right’ and to avoid turning it into a partisan interpretation. The ‘intelligent computation’ needed to add the suggested separation of value from relationship terms to the already severely manipulated argument representation will require some more research — but doing that may be asking too much?

And it is not clear how these considerations can help participants deal with insidious argument patterns such as the recent beauty alleging media coverup of terrorist incidents in Sweden, and then using the objection that there was no evidence of such an incident, as a ‘clinching’ argument for the coverup: ‘see how clever they are covering it up?’


‘New System’ Priorities: Diversity or Unified Vision?

A Fog Island Tavern Discussion

– Hey Bog-Hubert – got over your post-election excitement yet?
– Not exactly, Vodçek.
– Not exactly – what does that mean, exactly? Or, well, approximately, if you don’t do exactly?
– Well, right now I’m just wondering about all the blogs and sites that are oh so urgently proposing this or that ‘new system’ that should be adopted instead…
– Haven’t they been doing that for a while?
– True. Maybe I’m just starting to pay more attention.
– And?
– And I’m getting more and more confused and aggravated.
– Why is that? Well, the confusion part I understand: there’s just too much of all that floating around. But what’s aggravating you? Isn’t it encouraging that people are starting to think about these issues some more?
– Sure, if they just were the right issues.
– So you think they aren’t? Hmm. I could use some explanation…
– Okay: I know you’ve been looking at things like that too. Briefly, what are the main groups of controversies you see?
– Main groups? You mean the political parties?
– No, Vodçek. Sorry, my question wasn’t clear. I’m talking about the groups that are basically saying those parties, and the system they’re a part of, need to be replaced with something new.
– Not all of them are suggesting something new; aren’t many of them claiming to be ‘conservative’?
– Right: but they don’t mean conserving things as they are, more like going back to some mythical previous better state of affairs, aren’t they?
– I see what you mean. Even if it’s something traditional, inherited, it wouldn’t be just like that old system, but something new based on old principles? Well, I see many ‘New System’ groups calling for a more or less radical re-thinking of how society should be organized. Ditch the current ones, all parts and subsystems. I don’t see much specific detail in those, of the New Systems, that one could examine and discuss. And then there are all those groups that are doing very specific ‘alternative’ things: the commons projects, alternative currencies, sustainable agriculture or permaculture communities, alternative energy technologies, etc. Many good ideas, but hard to see how they’d fit into an overall picture.
– I agree with your impressions there. Any of those well-intentioned causes you would want to join, become a part of to create the new society, saving the human race?
– Oh man, I have enough trouble keeping my humble tavern going from day to day. But you are right. I can’t say I share the enthusiasm some of those people seem to have.
– And do you think about why that might be? Other than that some of those guys are just trying to make you feel guilty by accusing you of laziness, apathy, stinginess for not giving them money, or worse?
– Well, do you have a good explanation? You aren’t doing much of that enthusiasm-activism yourself, am I right? Other than scribbling in your little notebook there when there’s nobody else here you can shoot the breeze with?
– Touché, my friend. But hey, there are some ideas in this little notebook, some thinking about those issues, that explain why I am not out there ‘doing’ things. Well, as long as there’s nobody else keeping you distracted here, perhaps we can discuss some of it?
– Okay. Starting with why I don’t think the world is ready for THE BIG NEW SYSTEM yet? Apart from the fact that those websites and flyers mostly consist of complaints about how bad things are and how those current ‘isms’ – capitalism, industrialism, neo-liberalism, globalism etc. – need to be ditched. As I said, few convincing specifics about what the new system should look like.
– I agree, we aren’t ready for another big system. Not sure I agree with your ‘yet’ – whether we should go for one big ‘unified’ system again. The record on the few experiments we had with those grand schemes hasn’t been too encouraging, would you agree?
– I really don’t know, Bog-Hubert. Human societies today, — technology, trade, travel, politics, communications — have developed too far to really ignore the calls for some global agreements and order. We can’t really go back to a state where we fumbled around in small isolated tribes, assuming the things we do have no effect across the globe. But I don’t think we really have any good ideas yet about what a better system should be.
– ‘Yet’, yet again – we need to get back to that. For now, I agree: Even among the people who think they have the key to the design of THE NEW system, there is precious little agreement about what it should look like. So I’d say the chances for consensus about that unified vision they all call for are pretty slim. We — if you talk about humanity as a whole – still do not know and can’t agree on what that better new system should be. We don’t really know what provisions in such a system would work and what wouldn’t.
– So?
– So we should take a closer look at those alternative initiatives, experiments. Right now, I have come across estimates of such efforts already counting in the millions. No idea if it’s true, or what the bases for those numbers are. Most seem to be small, local, and struggling with limited resources. I think we can say that most of them are working in isolation, many trying to stay under the radar of ‘official’ systems that tend to see tem as subversive or worse. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see that they communicate well either with the outside world or among themselves. If they do, it’s mainly promotion pieces focusing on their ideas and hopes and successes, if any. Not a good basis for accumulating systematic, valid information about what works and what doesn’t.
– Don’t some of them see their main focus as the very key to making the BIG system work, and ask the entire world to awaken and accept it? And give them all more money?
– True. But okay, they are entitled to their faith. What I’m saying is that we need those experiments – many more, and as different and diverse as possible.
– I agree; that’s why I list that as a high priority. There should be a concerted effort to encourage and support those – on the condition that they are voluntary, not forcing people to participate, don’t get in each other’s or the existing systems’ ways in disruptive or aggressive manner, and most importantly that they agree to share their experiences in some coordinated and systematic fashion that allows others, the world, to learn from what they are doing.
– Hmm. Sounds good – but hey, doesn’t that already require some kind of global system?
– You are right. But that is, first off, not a BIG BROTHER governance and decision-making system, only a documentation, evaluation and discussion platform. You could say that the development of such a platform itself is an experiment. Starting small and local, but yes, aiming at involving many or all such initiatives, so global.
– The agreements of that system, or platform, as you call it, will require some decisions though. Beyond local, so: global, after all?
– Right again. But the decisions are not all-embracing whole system design decisions. Not even excluding alternative forms of communication or interaction, or replacing other institutions. So to the extent decisions – yes, ‘global’ decisions – are aimed at, they are sufficiently innocuous to serve as the basis for experiments about how to develop better decision-making modes? Because the current decision-making modes are part of the problem, aren’t they?
– Getting into treacherous territory there, Bog-Hubert.
– Perhaps. But isn’t it getting more obvious every day that Voting – the crucial element and crux of democracy — it’s more of a crutch? Simple and straightforward, sure. But I don’t think you can say it guarantees that the democratic principles of self-determination or that all concerns people may have about common plans will actually be heard nor given ‘due consideration’. Majority voting by definition permits ignoring the concerns of the minority…
– Okay, okay. So what you are saying is that thee will be a need to design such a platform, and that one of its features will have to be better decision-making methods. Well, I agree, that is an agenda that we don’t hear much about in the public media and political platforms: Can you draw a diagram of all that while I get some more coffee going?
– Sure. Got a napkin?


– Ok, looks good. I see you added some issues down there — getting carried away already?
– Well, think about it. So far, we agreed that what’s needed are
• The ‘alternative’ experiments
• A forum and provisions for sharing and evaluating their experiences
• A ‘discourse’ platform for working out the global ‘road rules’ agreements
But since those agreements are not within any governance jurisdiction, wouldn’t there be a need for
• Some provisions for ensuring that those agreements are actually adhered to ?
Because they can’t be ‘enforced’ by any of the usual government policing and jurisdiction systems, they would have to be a different kind of arrangements. So that will need some innovative work. And I think that there will be a need for a better way of
• Selecting and appointing ‘leaders’ – people in positions to make decisions that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy discussions.
And to the extent these people will wield power, won’t we have to rethink the problem of how to prevent that power from becoming addictive, leading to the temptations to abuse their power? I seriously feel that some better
• Tools for controlling power should be on the agenda. We don’t say anything about their order yet.
– Good grief, that is quite a package of work you’ve lined up there. No wonder our fearless leaders and candidates are a bit, shall we say, reluctant to even mention some of those. Hard to make meaningful campaign promises about those, eh?
– Sure. Quite controversial – which is precisely why they should be on the agenda.
– Okay, Bog-Hubert: at least there should be some meaningful discussion about those issues.
– More meaningful than their current treatment in the media, is that what you are saying? Because at least for some of the issues that are being talked about, the flood of opinions and rhetoric is already unmanageable. Almost meaningless for guiding sensible decisions.
– I agree. But…
– But — what’s bothering you?
– Well: those headings in the diagram, they are still so general that they don’t say much more than the usual complaints about problems with this and that. Calls for something to be done, but no specific details yet that one can get behind, don’t you agree? So you’d face the same kind of lack of engagement on the part of the public I think you’d want to enlist for that discussion?
– You are right. In the current form, the diagram doesn’t convey much substance yet. We’ll have to discuss some details: explaining why some new ideas and agreements are needed, sketching out what each of those components would do.
– And indicate why you think they can be made to work. We may need some help from our friends there. Let’s think about it for a while, until some of our usual suspects turn up.

– Hi guys, what’s that napkin doodle you are poring over there?
– Hello Commissioner, welcome to our little team. We are trying to figure out what the agenda really should be that you folks in government ought to be working on. Priorities…

Alternative Initiatives and Experiments

– Hmm. What’s this thing about ‘alternative experiments at the top here? Sounds subversive.
– We should have known that would look odd to you, what with all your calls for unified vision and purpose?
– Well, isn’t that what we need these days, come together to work on the urgent, common project of a more viable system to get us out of the mess we’re in, and the bigger mess we’re going to be in if we keep working at cross-purposes?
– Hear, hear, Commissioner. Yes, we need a unified vision we can all work on. It’s just what I have been saying for a long time, too.
– Hi Sophie, good morning. Amazing: you agree with our politician for a change? Well, can you tell us what that great, unified vision is going to be?
– Wrong question, Bog-Hubert: it will emerge once we get everybody to become aware of the whole system and acquire a consciousness of all of us being part of that whole together with the entire ecosystem. A new ethic…
– Oh yeah, that will take care of the economy, solve unemployment, inequality, and crime, eh?
– Whoa, Commissioner, is that a trace of sarcasm I hear, already? Suggesting a profound disagreement about the kind of unified vision we are supposed to embrace?
– Well, Bog-Hubert, it’s not the same thing. Sorry, Sophie, but that consciousness thing is just wishful thinking. Not a sound practical basis for reorganizing society. It needs negotiated compromise. Don’t hit me…
– Hey people, cool it, okay? Let’s not get into a brawl about specific Unified System Visions here. You are actually making the argument here, about why we need all those alternative experiments.
– How so? You’ll have to explain that, Vodçek.
– Okay, in principle, I’d agree: it would be great if we found that unified vision of the new and better system so many groups out there are talking about. But look at our first attempt to describe what it would be or should be like: big disagreement erupting before we even got started, about what it means and how to get there.. And I don’t’ think it’s just the two of you. Too much disagreement about it out there, all over. Doesn’t that tell us something: we – I mean humanity in general – don’t really know what that system, that vision should look like? Even if somebody really knows, too many others have different ideas about it. Too many to expect a unified consensus about the common effort we should start to get there any time soon. So… I think what Bog-Hubert is trying to say here is…
– Yes. We should just acknowledge that we don’t know. We’ve been through that before you guys came in, but it can’t be said often enough. Especially about the big, global system many think is needed. We have tried a few big systems, and so far none of them have met with universal approval, in spite of the intense propaganda from their promoters that flooded the media. Can’t we admit: we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work for the big challenges we are facing? And spending all our chips on another big system without better evidence looks like an even worse idea than the muddling through we are doing now.
– Hmm. You’ve got a point there – and that’s why you’d let all those alternative crazies work on their separate blueprints to save the world?
– Right. I’d try to avoid the kind of name-calling though; many of those initiatives are run by very intelligent and well-intentioned people. Some of their ideas actually make a lot of sense, and I think we need to learn how they work out. The people doing that are often just working on a volunteer basis, — much cheaper and often more effective than big government contracts to big think tanks. Though to be fair, I’m sure some useful work is done there too. Most of them are small, local projects, and many are unquestionably improving matters – take the sustainability, organic and permaculture food projects – and do no harm, which can’t be said of all the big corporate activities. So they should be encouraged and supported rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucratic obstacles. The more diverse, the better. We need to learn from their experiences. But…

Sharing and evaluating experiences

– I knew it; there’s a but butting in.
– Yes, Sophie. As far as I can see, most of those initiatives and projects don’t really communicate well – not with the society and media in general, not even among themselves. So there’s little valid information available about their real experiences – what works and what does not work. Not much systematic evaluation. Much of the information they put out is just promotion — focused on the promises and whatever success they claim to have. Nothing about their obstacles and problems, other than that they really really need your donation.
– Yeah, and many of them actually are trying to sell the premises of their initiatives as THE basis for the next BIG system, for all to adopt.
– True. They should be given the opportunity to show some actual evidence for their claims, and a forum for fair but critical assessment. So the overall strategy should include encouragement and support. But on condition of sharing their experience in some organized and useful manner.
– ‘Organized’? That sounds like it will require some big system after all, Bog-Hubert? If those numbers you mentioned are real?
– Yes, that’s true. You’ll need some common format not only for compiling and documenting all that information, but also for the criteria and method for assessing the successes and failures. Big task. But there’s a significant difference: this ‘system’ can be designed and developed by those projects and initiatives themselves – not just ‘participation’ but actual decision-making, based on the interests and concerns of all the players involved.
– So there will be a ‘data base’ or documentation system for all the project information, and an ‘evaluation’ component with some common criteria and measures of performance based on what those initiatives are aiming at achieving, and a process for developing and displaying the results?
– Yes. And because that is not an all-powerful Big Brother Government system imposing its will upon all aspects of society, it will be a much less ideological and controversial process, don’t you think?
– Ah: if you are right – which remains to be seen though – it will be a good exercise project in itself – a testing ground for developing a better ‘self-governance’ system with all the aspects further down in your priority list. Sneaky.
– It was Abbé Boulah’s idea, that one, yes. He’s the sneaky one.
– So let’s look at those other parts of your list.
– Okay: which one?

Discourse platform

– The process you are talking about – developing the data base and evaluation system – already requires some common forum or platform where development ideas can be brought in, discussed, and decided upon, doesn’t it? Is that what that ‘discourse platform’ is supposed to be?
– Yes, Dexter. Glad you could join us, this gets into IT territory. And it will not just be like some of the social network platforms we know, nor a ‘knowledge base’ compilation of data, a data bank or encyclopedia-like system, but a ‘planning discourse support system’ aimed at developing, proposing and displaying, and discussing designs for the system itself, and then helping participants to make decisions based on the merit of those contributions – ideas, proposals and arguments pro and con. So that discussion must be accessible to all the participant entities.
– I see. It sounds plausible. But apart from the integration of the different programs, — feasible, but will take some work — won’t there be big practical implementation problems to do that? Just think of all the different languages all over the world, in which those contributions will be brought in. You can’t expect people will agree to one global language for that anymore – not in this post-colonial age. So there will have to be a massive translation effort to translate that discourse into all the different participant languages?
– True. And not only that. Much of the needed information will actually be in the form of scientific research, statistics, systems projects from many different disciplines? Each with their own vocabulary — disciplinary jargon, — replete with acronyms and greek letters and math equations. For a viable discussion, the content messages of those contributions must be translated into conversational language that ordinary citizens can understand. So yes, it will be a major project to coordinate that, and not an overnight process.
– And you’ll have to deal with all the problems we already know from the current scene of collaborative projects under various political systems.
– Such as?
– Well you have the ‘voter apathy’ syndrome – even in projects open to and relying on public participation. Many people just don’t participate or vote because they don’t really have the feeling that their input will count in any significant way. Then you have the ‘information overload’ problem – how can anybody digest all the information that’s flooding the media and social networks? You have the ‘trolls’ that just try to derail any meaningful discussion with irrelevant posts; personal attacks and insults and erroneous information – not even to talk about the problem of deliberately ‘false news’ – lies and distortions. And last not least the fact that the decisions — by so-called leaders or by referendum-type voting – can blatantly ignore even the most significant information and concerns of large parts of society.

New decision methods

– Yes, you are getting into the details of what’s needed to make any such planning platform work properly – in the best interest of all affected parties, in a really democratic way. So first, the system should provide some real participation incentives. And it should be organized so as to eliminate or at least reduce repetitious, irrelevant, erroneous and maliciously distractive and misleading content, and give people a good informative overview of the state of the discourse, don’t you think? Those are major design challenges – but we do have some ideas for improving things. Better decision modes for such planning systems remain a major issue.
– Hey, Bog-Hubert: all that doesn’t sound like a small local project anymore. You keep calling it a ‘planning discourse platform’ as if it were only a minor item on the agenda – but it is really a blueprint for the Big Global Discourse System, isn’t it?
– You are right in that any global governance system – as well as any local governance system if it wants to be really ‘democratic’ – will have to deal with the same issues and find acceptable solutions for them. The difference is that this is not a proposal for a ‘revolutionary’ upheaval replacing all the ‘evil’ current systems with another BIG System overnight.
– Or just a ‘get rid of the crooks’ effort that ends up just replacing the old crooks with different ones who will become just as bad and corrupted because the new systems hasn’t solved those problems you are pointing out here.
– So it looks like the ‘new decision models’ item on the priority list is really a high priority one. And that whatever the solution may be will look somewhat different from the ‘voting’ methods that are now considered as the key principle and guarantee of democracy? Can you give us some more details about what might make such methods work?
– Hey, putting a problem on the agenda doesn’t mean that we already have a solution, does it? Just that there is a problem and that we feel it is possible to fix it. But a key aspect, I think, is this: there must be a closer, more visible and recognizable connection between the merit of the information and arguments brought into the discourse, and the decision. That link is currently just a sanctimonious ideal: ‘let’s talk and then decide’.
– Sure, but a vote can, and too often does, ignore all the talk. So there’s work to do on that. But some of your Abbeboulahist ideas also justify hope – for example: if we can get a meaningful measurement tool for the merit of contributions, that measure can become a more decisive factor in the decision. And we have some ideas for that, too.

Few main ‘global’ agreements to facilitate ‘diverse’ aims

– True, Vodçek. So this system will be developed and emerge as a ‘parallel’ structure within the existing system, at first only dealing with the kinds of common agreements needed to draw useful lessons from the experiences of all those ‘local’ efforts. And aiming only at few decisions needed to facilitate the process – decisions like the ‘global, unified’ rules of the road – which side of the road to drive on to let everybody get to their ‘diverse’ destinations; or like the international rules for air or ocean traffic.
– Yeah, with all the translation and communication problems of such a global discourse, there won’t be that many decisions being agreed upon by that process, if you ask me. But I agree that some such common ‘road rule’ agreements will be needed, in this partial system as well as in the overall global system or non-system, if the Big Brother World Government is too scary a prospect.

Provisions for ensuring adherence to agreements:
‘enforcement’, sanctions?

– Hey, none of that is talking about any kind of World Government, I hope. Is it?
– Well, Sophie, think about it: Any kind of agreement or treaty or law – different names for essentially the same concept – will need some provisions for making sure that the agreement is kept, the rule is followed, and about what to do if it is violated. Deliberately or inadvertently.
– If all such agreements are reached by consensus by all the well-intentioned folks in a well-informed, spiritually conscious and aware community, and with more adequate decision procedures giving each participant’s concerns due considerations, will there still be such violations? Or at least not as many?
– Wouldn’t that be nice, Sophie. Won’t there always be people who feel that they aren’t getting as much of a benefit from a common decision as others, that they even get ‘the short end’ of it even if they couldn’t come up with sufficiently persuasive arguments to persuade the community or to justify a ‘no’ vote preventing the precious consensus decision? Peer pressure to agree resulting in a temptation to just bend the rules a little bit…? And then a little more?…
– I see where you are going here, Bog-Hubert, you cynic. You didn’t even mention all those sheer ornery or even pure evil folks. The problem isn’t just that there will still be such violations, but also that we – society – have not gotten past the traditional ways of dealing with them that we inherited from times when rules and laws were imposed by rulers who didn’t give a hoot about whether people were really adhering voluntarily to the rules because they agreed to them…
– What are you talking about, Vodçek?
– Law enforcement, of course, Sophie. The traditional approach is that laws have to be ‘enforced’ – that violators have to be punished so that they wouldn’t do it again, and to deter everybody else from even trying. And what Bog-Hubert is aiming at, — I have heard him talk about it with Abbé Boulah before – is that enforcement, prevention and application of force – requires that the enforcer must have more force, be more powerful, than any would-be violator. Otherwise, it’s not effective. So he is saying there should be different tools for ensuring that agreements and laws are adhered to – ‘sanctions’ that do not require ‘enforcement’. Am I right, Bog-Hubert?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself, Vodçek. One alternative would be something like sanctions that are triggered ‘automatically’ by the very attempt at violating a rule. Like the car ignition key that can sense if you are drunk and just won’t turn on if you are.
– Like that kind of thing can really fight crime and corruption. But what’s wrong with the ‘enforcement’ approach?
– Two things, Commissioner. One is escalation of enforcement tools. If criminals are getting better weapons than the police, the police must get better weapons, eh? Then the bad guys get even better gins, and so on… Not supportable, in the short or long run.
– Hmm. There oughta be a law…And the other reason?
– Power. You see it already at the local level, but it becomes critical on the level of international relations. It’s the reason people are very uncomfortable with the idea of World Government.
– I don’t get it.
– Well, you’ve heard the quip about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, haven’t you? Now if you have an enforcement agent or agency which does have better weapons, more powerful tools, than any would-be violator, what’s keeping that agent or agency from becoming tempted, ever so slightly, to bend the rules a little for itself? If the theory is true that it would take an enforcer with more power…
– Well, we have the balance of power of the different branches of government, and term limits, and impeachment rules, and so on, to constrain such power abuses, don’t we?
– True, and the claim is that they have been working adequately for quite a while. But many people are saying that those tools are getting to the limits of their effectiveness even al the local, regional and state levels. And seeing how often and how cleverly they have become ineffective, allowing power-holders to become evermore worried about the infringement of their power and their little abuses, and therefore seeking more power, and more clever, even ‘legal’ ways to circumvent their balance-of-power constraints. At the extreme, having to convince themselves that they really have the inviolate power by engaging in reckless activities – the Caligula syndrome.
– But those guys have always been brought down in the end, haven’t they? Well, most of them?
– Have they? At what cost of their own impoverished, murdered and ‘disappeared’ or otherwise oppressed citizens before they are stopped? Or that of other countries’ forces trying to bring them down? But think: if we have a World Government – one whose legitimate role is to ensure that agreements and treaties are adhered to, as we discussed – but whose tools for that are only ‘enforcement’ tools: weapons? And so-called ‘’security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ systems that have to constrain the liberty of all citizens in order to be effective: With the kinds of weaponry we have nowadays, what could keep such a ‘government’ from falling victim to the temptations of power if there’s no more powerful agent to keep it in line?
– Right. So the concerns of people who oppose such governments are, shall we say, not entirely unfounded? And the governments who are supposed to ensure their citizens that they are not, — ‘trust me, trust me’ – in any way tempted to take some additional advantage of their power, are naturally and inevitably hesitant of divulging all the safeguards they have, so they won’t fall into the wrong hands: the secret service must be secret, after all. Mustn’t it?

Control of Power

– Okay. You’ve got us all worried, happy now? So the first conclusion is that we need some sanctions that don’t rely on enforcement, to ensure adherence to agreements. Keep it on the agenda. But what do we do about the issue of control of power itself, apart from the law enforcement aspect? Do we have any new ideas about that, or even grounds for optimism that better solutions can be found? Because I see that just the right of citizens to keep arms is not a solution, given the escalation problem and the other means of exerting power.
– No, Sophie, nobody has a brilliant solution up his or her sleeve yet. Just perhaps some different principles to bring to bear on the problem.
– Such as?
– Well, look at the concept of power itself, for starters. For the poor, the ‘disempowered’, the recurring slogan is always ‘empowerment’ – as if power were a universal human right, which we could argue is a good way of looking at it. Just like life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we always invoke. But we expect people to pursue, to work for, or pay for those things, not just to be ‘given’. At best, what’s ‘given’ or ‘endowed by the creator’ – or what a society agrees to grant all its members — is the right to pursue, not the right to get it without one’s own effort.
– That’s a concept that would need some discussion, my friend.
– Yes, we can discuss that, and what it means in detail. But to explore its implications here: what if we apply it to the power issue – specifically to the power to make decisions and take action on behalf of others, or that affect others in one way or the other. What if, say we’d ask people with such power to ‘pay’ for the decisions they make? Just like we expect the poorest fellows to pay for their loaf of bread they are allowed to buy at Wal-Mart to survive? By ‘paying’ we probably would need a different kind of currency than money.
– We might also look at some older forms of power control – patterns that have come to be despised lately, such as the hierarchical organization of societies.
– How did that control power? Wasn’t that the ultimate form of power abuse?
– Not always, Vodçek. See, in a hierarchy, the person at each level had a certain amount of power – the power to control and direct the activities of the subordinates, within certain limits set by their superiors. The unresolved issue was of course always the lowest and the top positions: the lowest ones had little or no power until they ‘earned it’ by whatever degrading means, and the top position had no one else to answer to – except supernatural ones in the afterlife.
– But there were some useful provisions in the form of controls by parallel boards with members from lower levels of the hierarchy, term limits and the like. They also tended to be older folks who weren’t as much tempted to certain distracting abuse as younger people. But again, the traditional controls seem to break down again and again, so the issue of meaningful and effective control for governance folks on the global level is still up for grabs. So I agree: the issue of control of power should be a high priority item.

Choosing the people for power positions

– All that sounds like you want to do away with all kinds of leadership positions. I’m not sure I can go along with that.
– You are quite right feeling uneasy about that, Sophie. But that’s not the intention at all. We do need people in positions of leadership and power.
– After all you went through show how they will be corrupted by power? I say kick the big shots out!
– Whoa, Renfroe. I understand how you can get impatient with some of their shenanigans. And how you might get the impression that with a better functioning ‘democratic’ decision-making system, we don’t need those bigwigs anymore.
– I’d say!
– But not all decisions need to run through such a process, and some can’t wait, they need a quick decision to deal with new situations. Think of a ship that finds itself suddenly on a course towards an iceberg. There has to be someone – the captain – who will have to make a quick decision: pass it on the port or starboard side? You can’t have a lengthy palaver to reach a decision: it must be done fast. And the problem is to have a process to appoint people to such positions, yes, power positions – whose expertise, skills, experience and judgment you can trust. And what safeguards have to be in place to prevent such people from getting tempted to abuse that power for purposes of his own that are contrary to the well-being of the ship and its crews and passengers.
– Okay, I see what you are saying. So do you have any trick up your sleeve for that problem? It’s what you’d call a dilemma, isn’t it? Giving a guy – or a gal – the power to make big decisions, but keeping them from making the wrong ones when they have all that power, and by definition, as you explained, no greater power to keep them in line?
– Well, can you see how that problem should have some better solutions for people in such positions in ‘global’ institutions, in world governments?
– Okay, it belongs on the list of priorities too, I agree.


– I still would like to know what gives you the idea that there are better solutions in sight for these problems. If a problem doesn’t have any solutions – like a genuine paradox or dilemma, why waste our time, money, and energy trying to find one?
– Good question, Commissioner. But for some of these issues, there actually seem to be some improvements in sight that should at least be explored and discussed.
– Explain that, please. I’m getting curious.
– I’ll leave it to Bog-Hubert – I think the way he drew that diagram shows how some answers to simpler questions in the list can help suggest solutions for others. Bog-Hubert?
– I’ll try to keep it simple. Take the idea we have discussed here before, of awarding contribution rewards to people who contribute ideas and arguments to the planning discourse we sketched out before. Basic credit points that simply will be an incentive for participation and providing information.
– That’s trying to get at the voter apathy issue, right?
– At least part of it. Now, the rule that only the first entry of an information item will get the credit, but not repetitions, will speed up the process. The assume we can put a process of evaluation in place, for the assessment of merit of each such entry – is it plausible, important, is there evidence or adequate support for the claims, do the arguments have weight. Then the original credits can be adjusted, upward for good merit items, downward for erroneous or unsupported, implausible claims and arguments. That will all help making better decisions, as a first effect. But in the process, participants are actually building up a ‘record’ of their contribution merit points.
– Ah, I see: and that record can be made part of the ‘qualification’ criteria for appointing people to positions of power? If they have made consistently meritorious contributions to the policy discourse for important issues, they can be considered better qualified than others whose entries have been shown to be unsupported and implausible?
– Right. Better judgment. But that’s not all. Those merit points can become a kind of alternate ‘currency’ for various purposes. One is the sanctions issue for violating agreements and ‘laws’. The penalties can be in the form of subtracting credit points from their accounts. Especially if some means can be found to identify attempts at violating agreements and laws as the attempt is started or going on, so that penalty points can be applied immediately, without having to involve heavy-duty law enforcement. So the size and extent of enforcement forces could be reduced, as well as the worry about enforcement by force and associated escalation, would you agree?
– I think that would take some fine-tuning, but yes, it’s an idea that should be explored. What about the power issue itself – didn’t you mention something about that as well?
– Yes indeed. The idea is to make people in positions of power ‘accountable’ for the decisions they make by having to ‘pay’ for each decision – again, with their merit credit points. If the decision is a flop, they lose the points – if it’s a good one, they earn them back, and perhaps more. ‘Profit’, eh?
– What about decisions that are so important, and therefore so ‘costly’, that officials can’t afford to make such decisions with their own points?
– Well, if you feel that such a decision should be made, that is, you support the leader who has to make it, how about transferring some of your own credits to his account? In that way, you are also ‘accountable’ for the decision – and perhaps less likely to let a populist loose cannon go around making disastrous decisions? If the decision is a good one, your ‘investment’ can ‘pay off’ in that you get your points back, perhaps with some ‘interest’? And if not, you lost your points just like the leader who made that dumb decision with your support…
– Oh man, you are getting way out there with these wild schemes.
– Well. It’s all up for discussion. Do you have any better ideas to deal with these challenges?


Alexander, Churchman, Rittel: A Fog Island Tavern Conversation

– Good morning Bog-Hubert! You look a bit worried today — what’s the trouble? Need some coffee?

– Ah Vodçek, yes, thanks. Trouble? No, but I’m wondering about Abbé Boulah. Haven’t seen him for several days, — have you?

– He was in here briefly yesterday, mumbled something about a letter he’s working on — some question an acquaintance from the old days sent him, that he got all entangled in trying to answer.

– Sounds intriguing. What was the question, did he say?

– As far as I could tell, it was something about the Pattern Language, the Systems Approach, and the Argumentative Model of Planning. Somewhat disparate issues, if you ask me, but I was busy with some weekenders here, didn’t get the whole story. Did you get a better sense of what that was about, Professor Balthus?

– Not sure. I think it was a question about reconciling the work of the three authors of those concepts: Christopher Alexander, West Churchman and Horst Rittel, who were all teaching at Berkeley in the sixties and seventies, and each made some important contributions to their respective disciplines.

– Yes, I remember: Alexander’s Pattern Language for Environmental Design; Rittel’s Wicked Problems and Argumentative Model of Planning and information systems. They were both teaching at the College of Environmental Design. But Churchman was in the Business School, working on his Systems Approach books and research, wasn’t he? So somebody wants to reconcile those different perspectives? For what purpose? Isn’t that a bit of old history? Haven’t all those disciplines evolved into new conundrums by now?

– Abbé Boulah didn’t explain the purpose of that question, Bog Hubert. But it’s interesting to speculate about it — you said it: conundrums. It seems all those disciplines are still facing challenges that suggest they haven’t solved their problems yet. And that the problems are more pervasive and general than we all thought at the time? So they were just looking at different parts of the problems at the time?

– That makes sense: I hear many people who call themselves systems thinkers talk about the need for a more holistic perspective: looking at the ‘whole system’.

– I’ve heard those folks talk too, Vodçek, and admired your patience with all that talk.

– Ah Bog-Hubert, and I have to thank you for not starting a brawl on some occasions — I’ve seen you get quite steamed up about what I guess you consider their still so limited perspective of their whole system? So you think there isn’t much hope for reconciling those perspectives?

– Wait, Vodçek. Before we get into that reconciling issue: what is your beef with the Systems Thinkers perspective, Bog-Hubert?

– Well, I think there are two main concerns I have, maybe there are two different kinds of those SThinkers. Sorry Vodçek, don’t throw that washcloth at me, I know you don’t like frivolous characterizations of your customers. Okay. Systems Thinkers.
One concern is that they still don’t acknowledge different opinions about their assumptions in the systems models; arguments. The models all look like any questions or disagreements about the model assumptions have all been settled, when they only express the model-builder’s view.
The other is the ‘holistic’ claim — the intent I don’t argue with, in principle, mind you. But to me, it seems to often focus exclusively on what they call the ‘common awareness, the unified ethical mindset they are advocating. But I guess that’s something that will come up if you really want to get into that reconciliation issue here…

– Okay, I’ll take your word for that, for now, though I think that’s a special group within the ST community that’s not shared by everybody. You don’t sound very optimistic about the prospect of reconciliation though? If ‘reconciliation’ is the proper word for what the question is after?

– Well, let’s just say I reserve judgment about that. I remember how Alexander pulled that dramatic break with the Design Methods group and I guess the Systems perspective associated with that — in the early 70’s when he first launched his Pattern Language. It seemed pretty irreparable at the time.

– Wasn’t he originally a key member of that design methods movement?

– Yes, Vodçek. But he got so disenchanted with what the various efforts of applying the tools of Operations Research and Systems technology, Building Systems in the Architecture realm — were doing to the built environment that he felt an entirely new direction and perspective was called for. And a lot of people felt the same way. There were aspects of what he called ‘quality’ missing that needed to be articulated and re-introduced into the practice and of architecture and urban design, that the systems view of that time didn’t seem capable of acknowledging. And there’s no question that the Pattern Language added many valuable insights about building.

– Well, didn’t Churchman’s take on the Systems Approach add a lot of similar aspects to the discussion that were not — and I guess are still not really — part of the general systems perspective?

– You are talking about all the components of his systems definition — the purpose, the designer, the decision-maker, the client, the ‘Guarantor Of Decisions’ (GOD?) the measures of performance for each of those parties? Yes, compared to some ‘definitions’ of systems expressed even today — ‘a systems is a set of related components whose relationships exhibit at least two loops’ is one I seem to have read recently somewhere — this view was certainly advancing significantly away from the early functional system concepts. What Rittel called the ‘first generation’ systems approach. It just seems that it was too abstract and general for environmental designers to work into their view of what they were doing. The Pattern Language was much closer to what designers in architecture, say, were already used to.

– I don’t understand. There are many architects who have never heard of the Pattern Language, and don’t seem to even want to get into and use these ideas?

– You are right. But consider: Architecture is a discipline that is already dominated to a large extent by — I hesitate to say, but the closest term I can come up with is ‘rules’. Patterns. The oldest ‘textbook’ on architecture (Vitruvius) talks about ‘orders’ which are rules for the parts and design of buildings. For centuries, there were design guides that were essentially ‘pattern’ catalogs. There are client requirements and expectations, constraints by climate, culture, available building materials, the knowledge and ‘ways we’ve always done it’ of all the trades involved in building construction all the building regulations. All those rules are giving you quite a range of options for how to put buildings together, sure — but they all say simply: Follow the rules, meet the requirements, and you’ll get the client’s go-ahead and the building permit. I’m not saying that is easy, and it definitely takes skill and creativity to come up with new, inspiring, innovative designs juggling all those rules and expectations. But in the end, the act of having followed the rules ‘guarantees’ the result.

– Some guarantees: all the ugly buildings that have gotten permits?

– Yes, Alexander was quite right in pointing out that all those rules did not guarantee quality environments — that in fact the rules, including the systems concerns — which in the building realm manifested themselves in ‘systems building’ or ‘industrialized building’: standardization, dimensional coordination, mass production of parts and mechanized assembly — all tended to produce deadening, uninspiring environments without ‘quality’.
But look at what he added to fix that: the patterns too all look just like rules. Better rules, arguably — but rules all the same: In a given context, there exists a conflict or problem, and tho resolve or avoid it, here’s the general essence of the solution. The patterns are related in certain ways — and all give the designer quite a range of options — Alexander’s claim was essentially that ‘you can do it a thousand different ways and never end up with the same result twice’ — but you have to follow the essential pattern rule. If you don’t, you’re not solving the problem.
And this is what enables him to reject all the measure of performance and evaluation procedures of the design method and systems movement: the result is guaranteed by virtue of having followed the rules: no evaluation needed.

– I see: the design methods efforts, the systems modeling were essentially incompatible with Alexander’s ‘Timeless Way of Building’ and Pattern Language from the outset. That explains your pessimism about reconciliation all right. But did that also ignore the aspects Churchman had added to the systems story?

– I agree there was a disconnect — but as you said, it wasn’t easy for architectural designers to adapt Churchman’s concepts in practice. It does explain why the Pattern Language became such a hit in quite different disciplines — software development, for example. It always surprised me; but now I understand: especially in the computer realm, the machine has to work according to rules, patterns, so software has to consist of valid rules.

– Right. But what about Rittel — he was coming from design, a systems view of design, as well, didn’t he? What made his work incompatible with the Pattern Language view?

– Good question. Though he was teaching design, at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, earlier, architecture and urban and regional development at Berkeley, his background was in mathematics, statistics, systems. And he was involved at that time, through a Systems Research think tank in Heidelberg, with the design of information systems for planning and design, even political decision-making.
He was looking less at the kinds of problems that the systems folks of the ‘first generation’ were adamant about ‘defining’ and stating clearly and succinctly at the outset of a problem-solving process, but at larger problems in society — problems like urban renewal, traffic, housing, education, the environment, — that early grand ‘expert model’-based solutions had not solved but actually made worse.
And his insight was that those problems could not be ‘defined and stated’ clearly — that there were widely different opinions about what causes them, how to describe them, and of course, what would qualify as a solution — in fact, that there were no clear and ‘true’ answers — ‘solutions’ for those problems he called ‘wicked problems’. Essentially, — among other properties of WP’s — he found that each WP is essentially unique, unprecedented in most respects. And that meant: there were no rules, no patterns, for dealing with them that ‘guaranteed’ the solution.

– Bummer. And clearly incompatible with the Pattern Language approach, even I can see that. So what was his answer to that Wicked Problem?

– Put very briefly: the Argumentative Model of Planning. He saw the design and panning activities as a process of raising and answering questions — about the problem, understanding it, the way it affects different people, and about what would qualify as a solution. A discourse. The process, and the information system needed to support it would have to acknowledge the contradictions in the discourse — the proverbial ‘pros and cons’ about proposed solutions.
It would have to accommodate wide participation — the information about how the WP affects people in the population is ‘distributed’, not dealt with either in the expert’s education or in neatly documented traditional information systems — after all, it’s ‘unprecedented’. So he started to develop ‘Issue Based Information systems’ (IBIS) and ‘Argumentative Planning Information Systems’ (APIS) — and — less well documented — the principle of ‘complicity planning’ — where decisions were based on — informed by — the merit of arguments brought forward during the discourse but carried by all participants’ willingness to assume responsibility for the decisions and the risks associated with their eventual consequences.

– Hmm. If I understand this correctly, this was an evolution or change of direction of the systems perspective — and as such conceptually compatible with Churchman’s view of systems. Is that a reasonable way of looking at it? So why wasn’t it adopted by the wider systems thinking community?

– Ah, now we are trying to find an answer to Abbé Boulah’s question, eh?

– Not so fast: I’m not sure we are anywhere close to that, Vodçek.

– Why? What would it take to reconcile these perspectives? I see different kinds of problem situations to which the approaches apply; so each kind of situation needs to be dealt with by the appropriate approach. Isn’t the difficulty just in making those distinctions?

– It isn’t that simple, Vodçek. The situations and approaches aren’t that clearly distinguished so everybody can quickly decide ”Ah, this is a WP, let’s use the Argumentative Model” as opposed to “Here, we have a clear conventional design problem to which all the established rules apply; so let’s study the rules and the patterns and use them to develop a solution.” And “This one is a typical systems modeling challenge — many variables, related by many feedback loops, but we can model it and predict its behavior, to select the intervention with the optimal outcome.” The wicked questions crop up in the middle of the apparently most standard modeling efforts. The implementation of even the boldest innovative plans involve many conventional ‘patterns’ and requirements.
But you could say that the fallacies and flaws of all three perspectives can be traced to a tendency of selective reliance on selected aspects of their respective model.

– Can you explain that, Professor? I’m not sure I understand that one.

– I’ll try, Vodçek. Take the reliance of the systems folks on digitized data bases. Large scale planning depends on data. And the tendency is increasingly on using sophisticated computer programs to actually draw inferences — statistical and logical — from the data. That must rely on the assumption that the data are actually ‘correct’ — ‘true’ and thus reliable. Not only that the measurements are accurate, but also that the variables that are measured are appropriate. And for the logical part: that the data are consistent, not contradictory. If there are contradictions, no reliable conclusions can be drawn. So there is an upfront effort involved in setting up and maintaining the data base to remain contradiction-free. The science basis of the data — observation, measurement, testing, etc. tries to ensure that: understanding a situation as it exists — the aim of systems thinking: to understand the ‘whole system’ — aims at getting the ‘true’ story about the problem.
But now look at the planning discourse. It consists of a lot of ‘pros and cons’ — which are contradictory claims. If a data base aims at properly representing a planning discourse, shouldn’t it accommodate those contradictions?

– Well, you could say that it’s the precisely the purpose of the discourse — with participants presenting evidence to support their claims — to develop what we’d call the ‘true’ picture of the situation, the ‘correct’ problem understanding.

– Yes, Bog-Hubert. But in reality, that isn’t as easy as it’s said. And as long as it’s not settled, if it ever can be, the data base for planning and policy-making contains contradictions, and the expert system that can draw reliable conclusions from it is out. Pipe dream. Even for factual claims and about what works and what doesn’t work to achieve a desired outcome. But there — I said it — it’s the desired outcome that we argue about most intensely — and the labels ‘true’ or ‘false’ don’t apply to those claims. So the data base can’t be consistent by definition. Which means that a lot of the sophisticated tools used in systems modeling simply don’t apply to the planning discourse — even the most trivial ones.

– Hold on, I’ve got to think about that for a moment.

– Okay. Let’s take a break. Perhaps Vodçek can draw a map of our discussion in the mean time?

– Ah, I see.

– Well, it’s just the overall topics so far. I thought we’d use the different purposes of the three approaches as the basis for looking for compatible or incompatible features.

– What do you mean?

– Well, look at Churchman’s work. Or the systems perspective in general. Could we say that the purpose of those kinds of studies is mainly to understand the systems we are dealing with, and how they behave? And the understanding would also mean to be able to predict how the system would behave when it is affected by this or that intervention, which is how the systems guys talk about design or planning proposals. So any planners would have to deal with those questions whether dealing with a ‘wicked’ problem or a ‘tame’ one, wouldn’t they? And that is also the basis on which a pattern is developed and adopted — if it wants to have any claim to validity. So there’s a first set of compatible aspects. Couldn’t we find more of those?

– I suspect we can find as many common features as we can find further incompatible characteristics. For example, the fact we mentioned earlier, that systems models seem systematically eliminate any semblance of arguments or difference of opinion about the assumptions in the system — variables, values, relationships — which therefore always turn out to represent the modeler’s understanding of the problem to the exclusion of other views. And that the arguments in the Argumentative model seem to always just describe one variable’s relationship to another — the network of arguments has considerable trouble coming to grips with the many relationships and loops in such a system — are those just temporary incomplete aspects of these approaches or fundamental differences?

– Hmm. What about the movement that claims to be seeking better awareness and understanding of the ‘whole’ system — still claiming to be part of the systems thinking tribe — but what it comes to suggesting what to do about solutions to the big problems and crises, seem to focus on achieving a common, even ‘universal’ kind of ethics and morality, that will determine the decisions?

– Good point — I had forgotten about that aspect of the systems movement. I think that is one of the basic flaws of the way these tools are used.

– Huh? Please explain: basic flaws?

– Let me see. Perhaps I’ll use the structure of the ‘standard planning argument’ to explain that. We talked about the fact that the basic planning argument of a plan proposal A has two or three key premises: To support the proposal:
“A ought to be adopted” the premises used are:
1) If we implement A, result B will happen, — given certain conditions C;
2) Result B ought to be pursued (is desirable);
3) Conditions C are present.
Of course planning decisions always rest on a number of such arguments, never a single one. But here my point is: Most of the time, people don’t explicitly state all the premises but only one or two, taking the other premises ‘for granted’ — which means that the discussion isn’t likely to focus on those. This allows us to distinguish between some major ‘movements’ or tribes that rely on only one of these key premise types to support their case: Look at what happens when people stress and rely only on the first premise to make their case:
– There are the ‘engineers’ who have found a way of realizing the If A then B relationship or technology: simplified (unfairly of course): “we should do A because we can, to get B”. Technicians, causal analysis types — remove the cause, never mind any consequences of how you do it…
– Or look at resting the argument on the second premise: there is the philosophy of ‘B is the goal’ we should all support, by all means — and the effort of many such groups is aiming for evoking the common awareness and adoption of universal goals (sustainability, global piece, or ‘creativity’ or change, innovation) — at all costs.
– And finally there is the group relying on the third premise, which has to do with data, or increasingly BIG DATA — the conditions of the system overall: “The conditions for implementing plan A are given”. As if the decisions flow logically from those data.
I know I’m drawing caricatures here — but you’re not laughing: it’s true, isn’t it?

– Hmm. Coming to think of it, there are countless management consulting ‘brands’ of ST approaches that fall in one or the other of your three categories. You might want to add the ‘user design’ movement — the people who proclaim that whatever a cooperative bunch of people are ‘co-creating’ will be good: the solution will ’emerge’ and be ‘good’ just because it’s co-created. Of course, they might need a consultant ‘facilitator’ …

– Oh, many people are being more straightforward than that, bluntly calling for the strong leader — sometimes with a sly suggestion that they might just be that leader — well so far, perhaps just ‘thought-leader’ — who will unify the will of the people, precipitating the needed change from which the ‘new system’ will emerge, that just can’t be described yet because it must ’emerge’.

– You are scaring us here, Vodçek. Are you trying to get us to invest in some liquid courage medication?

– Well, relieve our concerns, Bog-Hubert. What would you suggest Abbé Boulah might write in his reply to this wicked question?

– Oh — why me, why should I make a fool of myself? You go first, Professor!

– Chicken. Well, for starters, without trying for a clear answer to the original question itself: can we say that there should be some ‘system’ in place that could be activated as needed — when a problem arises that needs some form of collective action. A system that can alert people when there is such a need — and then is open to all kinds of questions, ideas and answer and argument contributions, by anybody. To start and support a public planning discourse. We discussed before some aspects of what such a planning discourse support system should be like. For example, that it should have a provision for assessing the merit of contributions, the plausibility of arguments — by all participants. And a mechanism for making the connection between that merit and the eventual decision clear and transparent, if not outright determining the decision. So that aspect would clearly be drawing on the argumentative model of design — Rittel.

– I see where you are going here. The system should then also provide or contain access to what we might call the ‘rules’ applicable to the domain of the problem — drawing on past experience, laws and regulations, the scientific-technical knowledge applicable to that domain — as well as ‘patterns. They will become part of the argument set for the detailed description and refinement of the plan.

– Yes — and both the discussion and the ‘documented’ data and reference base will also be the basis for the development of system models of the situation — to support the ‘understanding the situation’ part of the process.

– Good point, Professor. yes. Of course there are some significant pieces of work that need to be taken up before such a system can be put to work.

– What are those, Bog-Hubert?

– They have to do with the issues we mentioned. The relationship between the systems models and argumentation: better integration of model insights and displays into the argumentative process on the one hand, and acknowledgement and accommodation of argumentation — differences of opinion — about assumptions of the systems models.

– I am worried about the final part of that system, — I can see how participants can develop their individual measure of plausibility for or against a plan proposal — we have talked about some work for that aspect. But then: if many participants come up with reasoned plausibility measures that differ significantly from one another — how can that be translated into a collective decision? Just voting it up or down isn’t the answer — it will destroy the link between the merit of the information and the decision, and thus be open to hidden agenda influences and similar problems.

– Yes — violating the principle that the voting minority shouldn’t just be on the losing end of the process. And any calculation of a group plausibility measure from the individual values has problems. The attempt by the unified values people amounts to sidestepping this problem, believing that if science can clarify the facts, the only problem is to make sure we all share the same opinions about what we ought to do and the values we ought to pursue. And while it sounds so well-intentioned and beneficial, that is even more scary than the prospect of having a messy system of haggling our dirty compromises between different parties with different views of what we ought to do…

– And you hope that Abbé Boulah will have a better answer for that than what we have been bouncing around here?

– We might have to help him out with that when he shows up…

– He better show up, soon? Or this might drive a fellow to drink…

– Cheers.


On the fascination of geometry in developing problem-solving approaches

I am intrigued by the interesting efforts of some folks to enlist the logic and beauty of geometric structures to the task of designing communication and organizational ‘approaches’ to teamwork, collective planning and problem-solving. It brings to mind memories from my own youth that may have some pertinent lessons for these new endeavours.

Fresh out of architecture school, very soon realizing that we hadn’t been told some essential things we needed, but eager to explore new frontiers, I became involved with a group of ‘mobile architecture’ in Europe (GEAM –‘Groupe d’Étude de Architecture Mobile: Yona Friedman, Schulze-Fielitz and others).

Studying the geometric basis of structural systems that could be mass produced (‘industrialized’) to create ‘space frame’ buildings and urban environments allowing users to easily modify the ‘infill’ of floors and walls to suit changing needs, we were fascinated by the insights of how all the regular 3D geometric forms were inherent in structures starting with simple cubic forms and their plane and space diagonals; endlessly battling the problem of joints and connections for these systems. Of course Wachsmann and especially Buckminster Fuller were our heroes; Bucky’s tensegrity structures embodied the ideals of stability, geometric logic, and lightness — achieving maximum strength with minimal material and resources. With Schulze-Fielitz, I explored ‘diagonal’ urban systems featuring continuous 3D transportation systems (unlike the ‘Manhattan’ skyscrapers with their dead-end elevator systems (that ended up dooming the hapless folks in the 9-11 twin towers disaster) giving apartments at least some minimal outdoor ‘roof garden opportunities while creating covered public spaces, with more efficient densities than conventional developments); we designed schemes for a space frame ‘channel’ bridge, new universities, housing systems, exposition projects. All unpaid, after hours, long ‘all-nighter’ fun. Even a large construction firm started asking us to develop concrete building systems.

We were slow to realize that the fascination with the pristine structural systems was missing several critical points. A critical one was that the real problem was not the optimal design of one of the various subsystems of buildings and urban developments, but the coordination of all of those systems, keeping all of them from getting in each others’ way. Not only transportation — the clumsy way streets, above-ground and underground rail transport and high-rise elevator systems are cobbled together — but the other infrastructure of water supply, sanitation (sewer) systems, power and gas supply, urban steam heating lines, communication systems, fire protection and other safety/security systems. The ubiquitous joke of the city having just repaved the street only to have the sanitation department coming in to tear them up again to repair the sewers was matched by the jungle of systems inside the buildings. The’ flexibility’ chaos of electrical wiring and pipes inside even today’s 21C houses, has to be covered up by sheetrock. The beautiful filigree structural system: no longer visible — Paxton’s Chrystal Palace, Bucky’s Montreal Expo dome, a beautiful little space frame church by Schulze-Fielitiz, all ignoring the need for insulating the steel, all fell victim to fire.

There were some heroic efforts to grapple with the multiple systems coordination issue — examples such as the Robertson Ward / Inland Steel entry to the 1960’s California School Systems development competition, (I worked in Ward’s office trying to design a flexible multiple service system for a College Science building) or Fritz Haller’s computer program for designing coordinated layouts of highly complex service systems for research buildings. They resulted in designs so impressively complex that the intended flexibility was never practically achieved, the manuals unread and soon forgotten. There was the legendary story about a researcher trying to follow up on the use of one of the California School Systems buildings, explaining the concept to a principal who had come to office some years after the initial construction. The principal, excited by the idea of e.g. movable partitions etc. exclaimed how he would love to have such a building — with the researcher replying “But sir, you are sitting in one!”

So the spectacle of efforts to harness the logic and beauty of geometric structures for the task of designing approaches to planning, collaboration, conflict resolution etc. raises some questions that should be examined and answered, explained, before turning those analogies into societal practice and decisions at large scale. What, specifically, is the point of those analogies, the justification for their transfer to these social realms?

– The literal application of analogy features to the other system?
– Ensuring validity of systems designs by testing them against certain features of the stable, beautiful, adaptive geometric systems? (which features?)
– Ensuring validity by drawing design ideas from ‘nature’s systems (in this case, geometry as a natural system)?
– Drawing inspiration and motivation from the geometric systems to pursue corresponding truth, beauty, logic, adaptability and strength in our designs?

Any of these and other possible rationales may have merit, I’m sure. Some may be more questionable than others — e.g. the design recipe I have heard architecture professors convey to students, of starting a project by selecting some ‘concept’ drawn from nature: A leaf, a sea shell, an open hand, an embrace? Then developing the further design of the building based on that concept, which will remain as an invisible ‘secret’ lending some depth or validity to the design…

What I would like to see is some demonstration, elaboration of the rationale for whichever of these ideas is at the base of this strategy. Explanations in the face of skeptical questions such as those I learned to ask about those efforts to make the logic of single systems, e.g. geometry, the basis for the entire enterprise of architectural design. I would like to see examples of features that justify and elucidate the usefulness and validity of the application of the analogy to the respective consulting approach.

Without such explanations — the very appeal and intricacy of the geometric system does not count! — there remain traces of suspicion. Of superstitious fads that replace the hard work of analysis, reasoning, deliberation with shortcut ‘rules of thumb’ (rather than brain…) and incantations of magic. Mystery, yes: design of decision patterns users/viewers can ‘discover’ and make part of their own ‘making’ (appropriation) and acceptance of the design. But ‘magic’ by analogy as a marketing and selling tool? Whiffs of of snake oil. And the sloppy models of crooked pipe cleaners showing tetrahedron structures? The goddess of geometry would be offended.

Skills Matching Pipe Dreams

Renfroe stumbled out onto the deck of the Fog Island Tavern, and almost ran over the old man who was coming up the ramp for his ‘categorical aperitif’.
– Whoa, Renfroe – what’s the matter with you tonight?
– Sorry, didn’t see you coming up. Phew. Well, I just couldn’t stand any more of that fancy talk in there.
– Oh? What are they talking about, then?
– Some crazy scheme off the internet. They are actually yelling at their cellphones and laptops, even though it’s just all emails and messages. Seems there’s this guy on some island who wants to improve the way people get employed — get jobs. He thinks there’ a problem in that people get hired for jobs for which they don’t have the skills, while people who do have the skills don’t get hired. Not sure if he’s talking about himself or all the graduates from the university who can’t get the jobs they think they deserve. So he wants to start some outfit he calls ‘Skills Matcher’, to tackle that problem. And there’s a group of nice guys from a Systems Thinking forum who want to help him, but can”t agree on what to tell him. And of course Bog-Hubert is there in his best curtrarian conmurgeon — I mean contrarian curmudgeon mood, telling them it’s all water turkey dung.
– Sounds interesting, I gotta hear this. Getting bored watching the water turkeys out on the bay, you know.
– Good luck. I’m taking bets you’re going to be out here again afore I get eaten up by the skeeters and come back in…

Shaking his head, the old man went into the tavern and joined the gang at the counter where Vodçek was trying to keep the discussion civilized; of course he had the upper hand in it because he threatened to cut off their drinks if they got too rowdy.
– Good grief — there’s life still in this quiet outpost. What’s the latest on this quarrgument Renfroe told me about just now?
Vodçek filled his glass with ‘the usual’ without even asking, shrugged, and glanced askew over to Bog-Hubert, who was scribbling something on a napkin between mischievous comments to his companions: It’s just the Bogmeister riling up the gang here about this noble scheme one of their internet friends is trying to get off the ground…
– Renfroe told me about that, yes. Sounds like a good idea, well -intentioned?
– That’s what they say, Sophie and Abbe Boulah’s friend there, Harry Von Timagan or something.
– That his name? Sounds like something you should be treating with some of your herbal mountain moonshine.
-You mean Bog-Hubert’s Eau d’ Hole? Well… Anyway, Bog-Hubert says it’s all a pipe dream; all their schemes.
– What are the schemes they are talking about? Eh, Bog-Hubert?
– Oh, hi, oldtimer. The precious ‘solutions’ they are throwing about to cure the ‘skills mismatch’ problem? Well — you tell them: there’s the new agency their friend is proposing, to match job seekers with job offers; there’s the software program idea — the one they all need to do the matching, there’s a job fair proposal, and some other weird ideas floating around.
– Well, it sounds like they are trying to to do something useful — if I understand the problem right. Can you straighten me out on that, Sophie?
– Sure: If an employer hires somebody who doesn’t have the skills for the job, he won’t get good performance from that employee, obviously, and his business might be less profitable as a result. Which lowers the tax revenue the government can get from that business, and thus lowers the amount of money it can deliver citizens in terms of governance, infrastructure etc. Meanwhile, the better skilled applicants don’t get hired, remain unemployed, which costs the government unemployment money, or forces those skilled people to take lower-skill — and lower-paid — jobs where they are dissatisfied because they can’t use the skills they studied for — wasting their education and experience…
– I get it. So it looks like it would be a useful thing if that skills mismatch problem could get fixed, doesn’t it, Bog-Hubert? So why do I hear you are throwing water on the flames of their laudable enthusiasm?
– Is that what I’m doing? Sounds like you’re recommending me for a job with the Fog Island Fire Department. But hey, I’m just trying to keep their feet on the ground of reality. “Skills Matcher” — the name alone tells me they are making promises they can’t possibly deliver on — so it’s a bit of fraud, if you ask me. Well, sorry — it would be a fraud if they knew it was pipe dream, and I’m not accusing them of that. But that’s what I think it is: a pipe dream. A wrong question.
– A pipe dream, huh? Something that can’t be done? Can you enlighten us why you think so? Because it seems to me there are many people in different agencies and institutions who are engaged in the same endeavor: getting people with the right skills into the jobs that require those skills?
– Well, think about it. Sure, there are many people doing that now. So how do we know there is a problem — a skills ‘mismatch’? We know because there are people who have, or think they have the skills for certain jobs, but didn’t get hired.
– That’s a little one-sided, but okay: what about it?
– There are several possible reasons why they didn’t get their dream job. One is of course that there are more applicants for certain kinds of job than there are jobs of that kind. At the top, it’s worst: Only one person gets to be president or prime minister; — and I’m not saying that whoever gets it necessarily has the required skills, given the strange ‘hiring process’ for that job — but all the folks who are applying for it thinks they have them, and so have grounds for complaining that the process resulted in a skills mismatch.
– I’ll say there’s more than anecdotal evidence for this. So yes, if there are more applicants than jobs, the people who don’t get hired will complain. And some of them even with good reason.
– Okay. But don’t you think it’s also possible that some of them simply didn’t manage to present their skills effectively enough to convince the employer or placement agent — which if you ask me, is proof that they aren’t quite as perfectly skilled as they think they are? And therefore didn’t deserve to get hired? But try to get them to admit that. Or that the employer wasn’t smart enough to recognize their superior skills — and if so, why would they want to work for an incompetently hiring employer? This too might put a dent in their skills assessment? So what’s the problem there — does it look like one that a better ‘skills matching’ solution can get at?
– You’ve got a point there. But does that mean that there’s no problem? Are the best skilled people consistently getting hired for the jobs that need their skills?
– No, I’m not saying that; some improvement in the current practice would be good, no doubt. But look at the solutions they talking about — Harry, which one was your favorite?
– Well, at first I thought the proposal for a new agency was a worthwhile one, especially one focusing on developing and using a better set of tools, such as the matching program… but thinking more about it, I’m not so sure.
– Not sure about which part? The new agency or the software tool?
– Both, actually.
– Ah: learning! Good!
– Your cynicism is showing, Hubertissime my friend. Do you have any better ideas?
– Well, I’m not the one wanting to mess with the system here, though there are some things I feel could be done. But let’s get to the reasons why these proposals won’t do the trick first. There’s actually one common factor they don’t seem to recognize.
– What’s that, now?
– Competition. Isn’t it obvious that all the players in this game are in some form of competition with one another — not only with the other types of entities, but among themselves? Look: Employers are competing for the best job applicants. Applicants are competing for the best jobs. Schools are competing for the best students to enter their programs, first, and then for the best job placements for their graduates. Placement agencies are competing for the best companies’ contracts — fees — and the best job seekers to use their services. Government agencies too — in their ways, even though they may just be interested in getting as many people hired, regardless of skill match, to keep them out of unemployment lines?
– So? Isn’t competition good, to keep everybody on their toes?
– It does tend to work out too well for some players getting stepped on by the biggest toes, eh? But consider: to gain their precious competitive advantage, would they really be interested in some common software tool, however efficient? They would either be looking for a better program for their own use, or try to find ways to twist the outcome of such a program to their own better advantage, eh?
– Hmm.
– Yeah: hmm. And even if there were one best program that eventually everybody would use: what would the best way to twist that one to your own advantage?
– You lost me there — what would you do to the program?
– Not the program, Sophie: to the information it needs to produce its results. You heard about the GIGO effect — ‘garbage in, garbage out’, haven’t you? But ‘garbage’ is perhaps not the proper term here: the completeness of information, and its timeliness, are the keys here. For a matching program to find the ‘best’ match, it needs to have all the items on the market available to compare, to ‘match’ — both jobs and job seekers, and their respective skills.
– Stands to reason. So?
– Well, so why are placement agencies trying to get ‘exclusive’ contracts with big companies? Why do schools try to develop special ‘relationships’ with certain employers? Why job seekers try to use the placement service that have access to the best jobs, faster than others — before other applicants know about them? And why employers use separate vetting procedures and interviews after getting the ‘best’ prospects fro the placement services? And applicants use ‘connections’ to get early information about good jobs, and recommendations for those? All means of tilting the information amount, timeliness, and quality in their favor. Most of the key players are not at all interested in sharing information, getting the complete data into the program and making it accessible to all. And of course sometimes the advantages they pursue with that will override best ‘skills match’ considerations. Or look like they do.
– Well, that’s the best reason for trying to find a better way — because skills mismatch will in the end hurt everybody in some way!
– Sure, Harry. But do you see why adding another agency into the game isn’t going to fix the problem — or do you think that agency could be kept out of the competition influence?
– Well, if it could have the setup with the best program and the best, most complete information, would that not be worthwhile?
– Yeah, tell me how you can get that complete information, and convince everybody that you have it…
– I see. It looks like some government interference or regulation would be necessary.
– Maybe — and who gets to lobby and influence the government to do the ‘right thing’? But let’s assume, for the moment and fir argument’s sake, that the information problem could be solved, and that you could get funding to develop a ‘perfect match’ program. What would such a program be like?
– Well, if you look at the skills needed for a job, and the skills of the job seekers, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find the best applicant — the one who has all or the most of the needed skills?
– You are assuming that there are adequate rules in place for describing skills — that the terms used actually mean the same thing for all parties. That’s something to look into, I don’t think we can assume that is true everywhere. But aren’t you also assuming a somewhat one-sided understanding of ‘best match’ here?
– What do you mean?
– I see what you are worrying about, Bog-Hubert. Harry’s explanation is looking at it from the employer’s side. What about the job seeker looking for her ‘dream job’: given the skills I have acquired in my long studies — which of the various jobs available is the ‘best match’ for me?
– Great, Sophie. That assumes a slightly different view of what the program might present as the ‘best match’. I know, I know, Harry: you are going to say that the program should be developed to take both those views into account and present them to both sides. Will that get rid of the ‘mismatch’ problem, though? Because I think we must acknowledge the fact that there will be few cases where there is a ‘perfect’ match, from either point of view. More likely, applicants will not have all job skills an employer would like to see; and applicants will have different ‘missing’ skills. So the employer will hire applicant A who is only missing skill i; and reject applicant B who ‘has’ skill i but is missing skill j; obviously, in B’s view there is a ‘mismatch’, as long as B considers skill j more important than skill i for the job — and therefore acquired that skill rather than i. Or a job does not require job k that applicant C is very proud of and would like to put to use, so even though all other requirements match, is it a ‘perfect match’?
– No, but maybe, if it’s the ‘best available’, isn’t that an improvement?
– Perhaps. But for a large number of jobs and applicants, the picture gets murky. Take even a simple example: Employers E1 and E2 are looking at the set of applicants 1, A2, and A3; assuming a simple ‘ranking’ on both sides (regardless of what other criteria the algorithm has used to establish the rankings):
E1 ranking : A1, A2, A3
E2 ranking: A2, A1, A3.
A1 ranking: E2, E1
A2 ranking: E1, E2.
A3 ranking: E1, E2
Which is the ‘best’ matching? It seems clear that A3 is out of luck, (even if she thinks she has the same skills as A1 and A2) but is E1-A1 a ‘better match’ than E1-A2 if A1 really prefers E2 (perhaps because of a better salary, or location closer to home…) and E2-A1 if E2 really wanted A2, and A2 wanted to work for E1? It looks like any matching system will make decisions that will look suboptimal to some participants — will applicants have to take the jobs the system decides is best for employers? or can preferences be adjusted in detailed negotiations to which other applicants, such as A3 who isn’t likely to be invited for a closer interview, will not have access?
– I see; that could be a problem — but if employers invite the applicants for an interview who have been recommended by the program? All or most of those should now have the required skills, or most of them, couldn’t the remaining questions be ironed out in the interview negotiations?
– Right. But before we get into that, let’s just explore the issue of the program a little more. The argument so far has been based on the assumption that jobs require skills, and applicants ‘have’ them or not — yes or no. Is that realistic? I mean, aren’t there degrees of skills, levels, that play an important role in how well an employee can do a job?
– I don’t see that as a big problem; all that’s needed is to agree on some way of distinguishing those levels, and write them into the program. It gets a little more sophisticated and refined, but nothing that a good programmer couldn’t handle. Right, Harry?
– And you don’t think it makes the definition of ‘best match’ somewhat more elusive? In a way that can give rejected job seekers reason to believe there’s mismatch?
– Yeah, I can her their cries now; ‘Skills Match’ — nothing but snake oil!
– Let’s not inflame the rejected multitudes here, Vodçek. I know you’d like to have them come here to drown their sorrows in your Tavern. But that issue isn’t even the most complex situation I can think of, Harry. Skill requirements don’t come in splendid isolation, but in different combinations, and each job may require different skill levels in those combinations. I know you can conjure up programmers who can write the program for that as well — if you are willing to pay them — but getting employers to write their job specs properly to express that, and applicants to write their resumes and applications honestly in the same terms, well, that seems to add quite a bit of doing to the task. Getting the information, again, and then figuring out what the best ‘match’ would be — all tied up in different parties’ different perspectives an motivations, handled equitably by your super program — it sounds like a big sales job, of a big barrel that some suspect is full of snake oil. You agree, Vodçek?
– Yes, but even that isn’t the biggest problem yet. If you know what the decision criteria are, you can write them into the program, and job specifications, and resumes. I’m not sure that list can be made exhaustive, using the same terms everywhere that will be understood the same way by all involved. But you mentioned interviews — that’s where a lot of aspects come into play that aren’t even likely to be in the skills list — in reality, hiring decisions are based on may other factors than just skills.
– And assessments about those are much more subjective, but hard to avoid — is that what you are saying?
– Yes, I think the list of personality features, attitudes, motivations, even appearance and habits, familiarity with the culture or the particular industry etc. can be longer than the list of skills. And even harder to describe in job specs and resumes; some such things are never mentioned because they are ‘taken for granted’, but when they come up, can make or break a hiring decision.
– Right, I remember such a case that became a big problem in a faculty search. There was this architecture program that was looking for an architecture historian, advertised nationwide and even beyond, and had gotten some promising applications. They had not only carefully examined resumes and recommendations, and ended up inviting the most qualified applicant for a visit and interview, during which a side question was made about how the professor might teach the undergraduate architectural history courses, to which he answered that he had not expected to teach undergraduate courses at all. This had never been explicitly discussed but just taken for granted by the committee member handling the vetting — it was after all a mainly undergraduate school without any specialty graduate program in things like architectural history. But the applicant had assumed that he had been considered mainly for his excellent research record…and the fellow left, in mutual disappointment. The costs of the visit for that position having been used up, they could not invite another candidate…
– Good example — even though more specific job descriptions and pre-visit vetting should have brought this out, I assume. But it shows that ‘one size-fits-all’ approaches — of software matching program and follow-up vetting protocols alike — are not likely to handle all kinds of job placement situations.
– So what would you recommend instead of these proposals, Bog-Hubert? Even the proponents of the program are curiously coming around to mumble that personal connections, relationships, and things like job fairs might be essential aspects of good job placement. But clearly not applicable to all kinds of jobs either — do you see your architectural historian walk around in a job fair?
– Right. Well, of course I don’t I have perfect solutions for that problem up my sleeve, hadn’t even thought about it before tonight. But I’d say, for starters, let’s drop labels like ‘Skills Match’ — they promise things you can’t deliver, which will add to the disgruntlements of the systemically rejected. And I think there are valid concerns about the consequences of widespread ‘mismatch’ of skills, jobs that aren’t done right, businesses that become less profitable, skilled people staying unemployed, that deserve to be taken seriously.
– Yeah, we haven’t really looked at those issues much tonight. And others – funding, for example — What do you say, old man? More categorical aperitivo classico antiquo to unleash your categorical judgment?
– Ah Vodçek, have mercy with an old-timer from last millennium — I can’t really comment on these fancy things like your matching programs and technology. And I can’t help wondering about the vulnerability of some of those tech ‘solutions’. What if there’s a big hurricane hit, or an earthquake — depending on where you live — and all your fancy power and communications are out — neither government nor companies can even get online to hire workers to help repair the damage? If you are looking for work, where do you post your resume for that wonderful software program to match it with job requirements? I say, invest in carrier pigeons. There’s a job for you, Harry. But…
– But what?
– Well, I suspect that once such tools are on the market, there’s no getting around putting them to use, and that’s as it should be. I just don’t think they will be anything like silver bullets that solve all the problems and concerns. The innovation-fixation on new tools, new tech, new methods — it may be the wrong question, eh? Looking at the wrong end of the problem?
– So what end would you look at?
– Hmm. Off the cuff, I’d say let’s use those ideas in a different way. What if, for example, there would be just a different set of incentives put in place for the different parties involved in this process, to achieve better results, better matches — and let the different parties come up with their own ideas about how to do that? Sure, that would require some answers to questions we touched upon before — appropriate measures of performance; for what counts as a good match, and ways to determine that. Your programs would come in handy for those tasks. But they’d be different for the different sectors in your system, I suppose.
– Say, what kinds of incentives do you have in mind for this approach?
– Well, that’s a good question. Some people would insist on money, on income, or reduction of expenses, tax credits, that kind of thing. Others might be happier with ‘intangible’ rewards such as PR, reputation, reviews. One thing I’d try to investigate is how to get the different entities to change their focus on longer term outcomes, not just the immediate profit from placement fees. Shifting from immediate returns to a kind of long term ‘return on investment’ perspective? Linking the rewards for placement services to the longer term productivity results from the matches they arrange? Cutting everybody in, visibly, tangibly, on the overall reduction of unemployment (and the costs associated with that), the productivity and prosperity of the overall economy, the quality of life in society?
– You’re talking about a much bigger problem there, aren’t you. Are you just drawing attention away from the concerns of the guy who just needs a job, now?
– Not at all. It’s just that that narrow focus won’t help your fellow if the economy is slumping and there aren’t enough jobs for all the folks who need one. So a wider perspective might be able to look at issues you mentioned — such as putting the skills people have to good use even if that isn’t just done by having a job? Didn’t I hear something about an idea of a ‘dual employment’ scheme that would give everybody opportunities outside of their jobs, working for social problems, public infrastructure and such, on a sliding scale, so that those capabilities will not be wasted but contribute to making things better overall? Rather than standing in unemployment lines, or having to move to other places? Or was I just dreaming?
– Must have been dreaming, my friend.
-Yeah, I know the power was off for a while, the storm knocked down a tree down the road. So I couldn’t get online, wasting my time trying to delete all those popup ads for stuff I don’t need…

New Unified ‘Next System’? Tavern Talk

Morning in the Fog Island Tavern. Tavern keeper Vodçek getting worried about one of his usual customers.

– Hey Bog-Hubert, what’s eating you? All morning you’ve been sitting there shaking your head over your tablet, even letting your coffee get cold? Am I going to have to start a no-internet rule in this lowly bistro? Here’s a warm-up. Care to share your gripes?
– Thanks Vodçek. Yes, it’s frustrating. All this unsocial talk by social networks do-gooders and holistrolls, systems Sthinkers and BigDataMongers, about how to save the world…
– Huh? Holistrolls? Sthinkers?
– Sorry, Renfroe. I’m talking about those fervent advocates of holistic thinking — Holist-rollers — morphing into trolls that obfuscate discussions by calling every idea they don’t like ‘linear’ or ‘reductionist’ …
– Good grief, are you giving us an explanation or an example of that kind of talk?
– Good point, Renfroe. Bog-Hubert, is your creative spirit morphing you into the very kind of name-calling troll we have heard you ranting about before?
– Name-calling, Abbé Boulah? Well, I call it calling a spade a spade. But yes, I guess it’s not any more conducive to constructive dialogue than their rehashing their principles and mantras without really getting off the starting plate.
– Well, what’s the race about, then, perhaps we can get moving?
– Short story, it’s about the strategy for tackling the big crises and challenges we are facing. By ‘we’, they are referring to humanity as a whole. And all those groups calling for a ‘new system’ to replace the old one, to fix things.
– Wait, Bog-Hubert: what ‘system’ are they talking about?
– Oh, it’s just about everything, — the economy, politics and governance, education, justice, religion, morality, production and consumption, information, trade, sustainability, research, climate change…
– Well, don’t they have a point saying that those systems don’t seem to work anymore, if they ever really did, and something needs to be done about that? At least thinking and talking about what a different order of things should be like?
– Sure, Vodçek. Talking, discussing it would be good — if the discussion could be organized in a more constructive fashion. But I am getting tired and suspicious of all those calls for a ‘new system’ to replace the ‘old one’ — calls for adopting this or that mantra wholesale as a guiding principle, but not getting into details about what kind of destruction and upheaval would be needed to ‘replace’ the old system, and how to deal with all the competing ideas out there about what that new system should be like. Let alone how to go about achieving it. Blindly proposing tactics, tools that simply don’t fit the nature of the problems involved.
– If you would explain that so we can understand what you are talking about, I’ll buy you another coffee…
– Okay: Take the lack of distinction between the nature of the problems we are facing. For some people, they — or some of them –are seen as problems we have dealt with before, for which there are precedents, tried-and-true tools, methods and approaches, laws — both natural and man-made, regulations, data about people’s habits, expectations and needs. Experts who know about all that. So the task is — plausibly enough — to bring the relevant knowledge together, perhaps making needed adjustments and refinements to the tools and methods, eliminate errors, mistakes, corruption etc. in the present system. Science and systems thinking, bless heir hearts, working hard to contribute to better understanding of the situations and systems. Then of course, leadership is needed to implement the ‘correct’ solutions generated by all this data.
– Sure, as long as the leaders are advised by the systems consultants, eh? But okay, sounds reasonable enough. So?
– The other view is that these social planning problems are ‘wicked’ problems — as Rittel taught us — unprecedented, understood very differently by different people. The information about how the problems and proposed solutions affect different parties is ‘distributed’, that is, not in the experts’ textbooks. There are no ‘correct or ‘false’ solutions that can be tested — just good or bad, better or worse, perhaps even evil — and people’s judgments are very different about that. It’s worth studying the properties of these problems. And so on. Go back and read the old 1970’s article about the ten or so properties of wicked problems. It would keep those folks who are pushing yet another approach to ‘solve WP’s’ to be more careful with their promises. But even the lists of those properties in many publications have been watered down to sound more benign and manageable. Anybody promising tools to ‘solve’ wicked problems either doesn’t understand their wickedness, or is selling snake oil.
– So what do we need to cope with those nasty problems?
– Would I be sitting here shaking my head and letting my coffee get cold if I knew, Renfroe? There are a few major but different attitudes I see out there. Besides the snake oil promoters, that is. I see one cluster of groups who seem to believe that the main missing remedy is a fundamental change in people’s awareness, attitudes, understanding of the ‘whole system’ — moral principles, empathy, beliefs.
– ‘Unifying’ beliefs — the ones that are supposed to prevent conflicts, wars, corruption, inequality and injustice, once everybody has come to accept those same principles and unified mindset — wouldn’t you add those?
– Ah Vodçek: I think I see what you are worried about — and isn’t that your concern as well, Bog-Hubert? The danger of falling into the trap of generating a mindset approaching totalitarian dominance? Not by brute force but by social, psychological pressure…but equally deadening.
– It’s difficult to argue with all the goodness faith articles of those movements, yes. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the responses to the crises must be somewhat coherent, consistent and, yes, have a common unified basis? Otherwise, there’s a danger that inconsistent, incompatible actions will make things even worse. And it feels unfair to disparage their good intentions as ‘totalitarian’ or ‘fascist’ — which is a different way of saying ‘unified’. But I agree, as far as I can see, they don’t usually provide enough information about how a ‘new system’ would deal with people who are not entirely converted to the faith.
– Yes: or people who even attempt to give meaning to their lives by ‘making a difference’ that includes differences with the prevailing unifying principles?
– We’ll have to discuss that problem in some more detail, I guess: put it on the list. But what was the other attitude you mentioned, Abbé Boulah?
– Ah. Thanks for reminding me, Vodçek. Well, in order to develop and then convince people about plans for collective responses to challenges — crises, or desires for new and better system — that meet the criterion of being sufficiently acceptable to all affected parties —
– Why does it have to be acceptable to all — isn’t the democratic principle that we discuss a plan but then vote on it, letting the majority decide what’s to be done? Not sure ‘decided by majority vote is really equivalent to ‘acceptable by all? Or are you going to toss that principle too in your new plan? Sorry for interrupting…
– You’re forgiven this time, my friend, because the point you are making is an important one. The much touted democratic principle, the core of democracy and freedom: ‘free elections’ but decided on the majority rule — isn’t that just ensuring that the ‘losing’ parties will harbor resentments, arguably insist that the problems the plan was supposed to solve haven’t been solved at all, just shifted around, to be suffered by different folks?
– Why is that?
– Because, Renfroe, the majority rule decision principle may assume that the arguments of the losing minority aren’t plausible or convincing enough to persuade the winning majority — but says nothing about the majority’s arguments having convinced and persuaded the minority. Or about giving ‘due consideration’ to their concerns. The issues may not have been resolved at all, just wiped off the table. The concerns and arguments that the democratic discourse is supposed to bring out for ‘due consideration’, for ‘weighing the pros and cons’, may be totally ignored by that decision rule. Leaving the problems to fester and grow. But isn’t that one of the issues we have to take up later, Bog-Hubert? You think the current forms of discourse wouldn’t be up to the task even if people were willing to do better?
– Yes, I think the first task we have to face is the organization of the discourse. It is supposed to facilitate wide participation, to bring in the arguments. To include the careful evaluation of their merit. Does it do that? And most importantly, to connect the decisions transparently and responsibly to the merit of the arguments and concerns?
– Why discourse? If we recognize dangers, shouldn’t we focus on doing something? Actions?
– You’d be right if we knew and agreed on what the right actions are. But what we see is that we don’t agree, and I think it’s fair to say that ‘we’, the humanity overall, just don’t yet know what we ought to do? So we may need more research, more experiments, and bring the results into a discourse designed for leading to better decisions?
– And you are saying that current forms and formats of discourse don’t do that properly? Are you going to tell people how to discuss and argue their issues?
– Good heavens, Vodçek, no. Sure, given all the recipes of the disciplines that tell us how to think right, the ‘rules of order’, the textbooks about how to persuade people, your suspicion is justified. I’d add to that concern the various efforts to introduce different forms of expressing the concerns — languages, codes — perhaps to make it easier for machines to document and analyze the discourse. As if the discussions weren’t already full of different disciplinary jargons that make the content difficult to understand for lay folks. I don’t think that’s what is needed. Isn’t it more a matter of displaying the essence of the different contributions? For overview, comparison, and evaluation? In common conversational terms?
– All right. So the problem is the design of the discourse platform and its support system. Aren’t there already a lot of programs and systems and social networks on the market that do exactly that? Using the new communication technology devices and the internet, that allow virtually everybody to talk to everybody else? I can’t keep up with them all — aren’t they making progress?
– Yes. They are amazing, interesting, fascinating, some people even say: addictive. But have you tried to find out which one you’d use to actually carry out a real public discourse about an important issue? Tried to follow one of those discussions to help you make up your mind about what side you are going to support, maybe even to contribute your efforts to?
– You mean sending in the donations they are all asking for isn’t enough, Vodçek?
– Phht. Do those groups ask you about your opinion or ideas? I’m not talking about the mere ‘discussion’ networks that make their money by selling ads, where people go for endless exchanges of mostly posts that immediately divert from the questions asked, but where there is never any real effort to reach a conclusion or decision. The groups that are actually trying to do something have pretty much made up their minds, their proposals, and just want your money to help promoting them. Don’t confuse them with any questions or different ideas…
– You’re right, that scene is good evidence that we need a more effective public discourse platform. One where people can bring in their ideas, concerns, their arguments, but don’t need a lot of money for spreading their message, for advertising, and lobbying the folks who really make the decisions. One where people can bring up their different views about those issues, look at others’ ideas, think about them, maybe contribute to modifying plan proposals in response to others’ concerns.
– What about those people who are claiming that instead of throwing their views, their thinking about what we ought to do at each other, everybody should just do the ‘right thing’, not what they think is the right thing? Focus on what actually is the case, not what they think is the case?
– Oh, Sophie, you mean that fellow on the internet you were so annoyed about, what was his name? I know those types. Are they just trying to tell everybody else they are wrong, stupid or tied up and blinded by their ideologies (which are also wrong, of course) — trying to get everybody to accept their version of what is happening and what ought to be done? Or do they actually have a better access to the right thing?
– Hard to tell. I mean, of course we should base our thinking on the actual facts — on reality — and our proposals about what to do on what is the right thing to do. Can’t argue with that; it’s barging in open doors. No, I get confused about that thinking part: Say I have actually found out what is really happening, after having changed my initial flawed assumptions, doing some investigation, which in part consisted of listening to what other folks were thinking (but who were of course wrong because they were just thinking, not knowing, according to that fellow) — am I not still just thinking that I know, and therefore still wrong?
– Could be that they were just hoping you’d accept some story from some authority or holy book — on faith, not thinking, mind you? But then: what if there are several wise guys or holy books around, that tell you different stories…
– Well, Sophie, I’d say forget those disruptions. Ignore them. Look, we are all trying to engage in a discourse where different views about what is the case, and what ought to be done, are put forward for examination — the discourse ought to report and be tied in with actual observation, measurement, experiments. So aren’t we actually already doing that: finding out, to be best of our current information and data — what the real facts are, what is the right thing we ought to do? Or has this guy you mentioned suggested something better?
– Good point, Bog-Hubert. But don’t offend them by too obviously ignoring them; They’ll just go around claiming you refuse to accept reality and the right thing to do.
– ‘The right thing to do’, Vodçek — isn’t that just another way of saying ‘what we ought to do’? Repeating a proposed position — by without giving a reason why something is or isn’t the right thing?
– All right, you are getting to the core of problems here. I’d say we should be more careful and humble with those terms: ‘reality’ and ‘the right thing to do’. Do we really ever know reality? I think Karl Popper’s warning about the ‘symmetry of ignorance’ is a good thing to keep in mind: (I forgot the exact place) — What I know — a — about reality (even about the situation involving a problem we are facing, and all its relations with the rest of the world) and what you know — b — amounts to precious little compared with the infinity of what there is to know: a/∞ = b/∞ = 0. Zero.
– You are not inspiring a particularly optimistic outlook here today, my friend. What are we to make of that, eh? Chastise you for spreading views not conducive to increasing the self-confidence of would-be world saviors? Bad boy. Almost as evil as using the term ‘argument’ in polite discourse?
– So sorry. Yes, your statement ‘to the best of our current information’ is more appropriate to keep us more modest: We find that we have to do something, but we know that our big data information is limited, our knowledge imperfect; we can’t be completely certain about anything.
– So we can’t do anything? Give up?
– No, Renfroe: we have to take a chance, assume the risk of possibly being wrong. And if we can’t assume that responsibility by ourselves — even those of us who are making plans and decisions on behalf of others and the public — we need to find people who are willing to share that responsibility, share the risks.
– That’s what Rittel called the ‘complicity model of planning’, didn’t he?
– Right, Bog-Hubert.
– So now we have to deal with the issue of responsibility and accountability as well. What does that actually mean — other than pompous words by leaders who are always letting others suffer the consequences of their irresponsible actions?
– Put that one on the list too, for now. We haven’t gotten very far with the design of the discourse and its support system yet. Shouldn’t we get some more detail on that first?
– Okay. The insight about the missing reasons why, in those exhortations about doing the right thing, that was the next step there: the arguments, pros and cons about plan proposals.
– Oh, great. Are you going to dump the entire literature on argumentation, from Aristotle on through two thousand years of logic and critical thinking fat books on us here?
– We’d deplete Vodçek’s supplies of coffee and other inspiring lubrications if we tried; no. I don’t think the discourse framework has any business telling people how to think and argue — that’s somebody else’s job description. Education? Regular columns in the newspapers? Fact-and fallacy-checking internet sites? Interesting possibilities there, whole new industries? No: the first task of the discourse platform is simply to alert people about what plans and policies are being proposed, to then encourage and invite comments, arguments, ideas, and to record them for reference.
– I’d say we have achieved that step already. And it isn’t a pretty picture, if you ask me. Or don’t you suffer from that information overload like the rest of us, Abbé Boulah?
– Oh, I do, sure. The avalanche of so-called information, data, opinions, arguments that aren’t really coherent arguments but rants and quarrels replete with repetitions and name-calling — quarrgument would be a better name — that our glorious information technology has let loose upon humanity. It’s like one of the curses of ol’ Pandora’s lacquered box. Enough to make one lose faith in the species. That’s where the next task of the discourse platform is so desperately needed: to extract the essential core of all the discourse contributions, — especially the essential argument core of all those pros and cons — and to display those in a concise, condensed form so people can keep a clear overview of the key subject matter. And also to make it easy for them to form reasonable judgments to support or reject the plan proposals. That’s where a lot of work is needed.
– I thought your buddy up at the university has done some useful work on that part?
– Well, yes, but it’s work in progress, and he’s retired, and doesn’t have the means nor the institutional support to conduct substantial case studies, experiments and tests of his ideas any more. So it’s slow going.
– Why, aren’t there other researchers to take up that work?
– Looks like he’s not doing enough to spread the work, to get others interested and involved, to market his ideas. He seems to think it’s enough to have thought them up and written some books and papers about them.
– Lazy, eh?
– Well, Sophie, he probably wouldn’t argue with that uncharitable assessment. But he does keep working on all this — he’s actually written more since he retired than he ever did while teaching. So is that really a fair assessment? And there’s the problem that those ideas are crossing several academic discipline borders, each of which is saying that the questions are too far out of their domain, or if they aren’t, what does that guy from the other department know about their science? Besides: why does somebody who can think up useful ideas and methods also have to be the slick salesman to sell them to the world? But perhaps we have to be patient, and wait for other people to come up with better ideas… For now, I’d say we do have some basic concepts that could be put to good use for that second step.
– So what more do we need?
– The next task may be even more important. All the contributions to the discourse, even in some cleaned-up, organized and concise display, don’t yet make it clear how they support the decisions we have to make. Especially because — by definition — the ‘pros’ are contradicting the ‘con’s, and not all arguments supporting the same position carry the same weight. That needs to be sorted out and clarified: evaluation.
– What’s the purpose of that? I mean, people are usually voting their preconceived positions anyway. Or the managers, leaders, governors or presidents are making their decisions whether or not they have really ‘carefully weighed the pros and cons’ like they promised in their campaigns…
– Well, isn’t that precisely the problem? Actually, I thought you were going to bring up the argument that if we follow the steps of some approved approach — something like the Pattern Language, the fact of having followed those rules guarantee a good, valid solution: no evaluation needed, case closed. Which of course doesn’t apply to wicked, unprecedented problems for which there aren’t any established rule systems. But you are actually making the case for more careful assessment here, aren’t you?
– Next thing, you’re going to accuse me of speaking prose. But I still don’t see just what the benefit of such evaluation procedures is going to be.
– Actually, there are two different purposes a more systematic evaluation would serve. And I guess I should make it clear that it should be done by all the folks participating in the discourse, not by some separate panel of experts. And it should be detailed enough to address the individual premises or items of information in the discourse contributions, and their supporting evidence, if needed.
– Sounds like a lot of extra trouble. But go on…
– Yeah, You may have to decide in each case whether its’ worth preventing bad decisions. Then the first benefit is that the assessments can help us see where the actual disagreements are, so that the discussion can focus on clarifying the basis of those disagreements — misunderstanding, inadequate factual information, different goals and concerns? And doing so, help modify, improve the proposed plan to make them more acceptable to all parties.
– What do you mean — aren’t the disagreements obvious?
– Not always: You can be against somebody’s argument for a plan A that claims that A will lead to effect B (given conditions C), that B ought to be, and that conditions C are present. You may doubt the first premise that A will cause B. Or you may not agree that we ought to pursue B as a goal. Or you may agree with both of those, but don’t believe all the conditions C are in place to make it work. So just saying that you disagree might induce the proponent to cite all kinds of evidence and big data to support the claim that A will cause B, when it’s actually consequence B you disagree with…
– Okay, get it. And your second aspect?
– Right, getting to that: the benefit a more thorough evaluation could produce is a more specific measure of support of the proposed plans or policies, after all the talk has run its course.
– What good would that do? If people vote their preconceived solutions anyway?
– It could serve to introduce a greater degree of accountability into the decision process, don’t you see? It would make it more difficult for the decision-makers, whoever they are in each situation, to decide to adopt a plan that has achieved a very low or even negative approval rating from the discourse participants. Or conversely, reject a plan that has gotten a high degree of approval from the group.
– Would that be needed if the decision is based directly on that measure of approval, — if you can develop a reasonable measure for that, which remains to be clarified, because I’m not sure I can see it yet.
– Good question, Vodçek. Actually, several questions. Your main one: why not use the support measure as the decision criterion, like the outcome of a yes-or-no vote? It has to do with the question whether we can be sure all the information that should be given ‘due consideration’ is actually brought up and made explicit in the discussion, so that it can be included in the evaluation? Next: even for all the points that have been raised explicitly: how is that measure of support made up of all the judgments about individual answers, arguments and their premises, first for each individual participant? And finally: how would we construct a meaningful ‘group measure’ of support from all the individual judgments?
– A veritable nest of wicked questions in themselves — and you don’t have good, final answers yet?
– Right, sadly. To the best of our current view: we can’t guarantee that the explicit contributions actually represent all pertinent considerations that legitimately should influence decisions. Like some issues that are important but ‘taken for granted’ so nobody bothered to bring them up. Or somebody not disclosing information that could be detrimental to other groups. And for the other questions, there are several plausible answers or approaches to each of them; for example, how to construct group support measures from the individual judgments. And since we don’t have any experience with how they would be used in a real situation yet, none of them is a clear-cut solution for all situations. Those different situations, finally, may involve institutional traditions, constitutional constraints, the different ‘accountability’ status of the people making a recommendation versus those who have been appointed to make decisions and whose jobs depend on how they do that, etc. So in many situations, the actual decision may have to be made by traditional means and rules, and our support measures should be no more than guiding support information.
– I see. But if the consultants get hold of this, they’d mash it into some new ‘brand’ and sell it as the ultimate decision rules anyway…
– Now, now. Don’t throw all the consultants in the bathwater… The managers do need somebody to come in and tell the troops that the boss is right…
– Well who’s the cynic now? But aren’t we getting away from the main issue here, Bog-Hubert?
– Oh yes, I realize that: consulting for a company that is locked in fierce competition with other firms is somewhat different from calling for the grand new system for all mankind, where conflict and competition is supposed to be replaced by universal awareness, goodwill and cooperation. So the consultant’s systems work has to be different from the grand public system discourse, because they still have to accommodate competition as the essential business issue — but the stories for getting the team inside the company to work more productively are using the same kinds of mantras that apply to the grand system. Somebody might want to take a look at that discrepancy. Vodçek, you have some ideas about that?
– Yeah I have often wondered why they all have to come up with their own different ‘brand’ of systems thinking tools until I realized that they can’t really sell the same approach to different, competing companies: if they all used the same approach, they can’t claim that the differences in profitability is due to the approach they were selling…
– Abbé Boulah, getting back to the question about decisions for a minute: I know we left the decision modes up for adaptation to the situation, — so as to not fall into the trap of designing a grand unified system for this discourse project, perhaps? But Isn’t that leaving the door open for another big problem — one of those grand challenges all humanity must come to grips with?
– What challenges are you talking about, again?
– Sorry Renfroe. Bog-Hubert was worrying about all the global crises threatening humanity, for which the do-gooder grand systems folks are trying to develop their ultimate system remedy. You know: Climate change, dwindling resources like food, energy, water to sustain a growing world population, conflicts and wars fought with evermore destructive weapons that threaten the survival even of the winners, the financial system booms and busts, inequality of wealth and income, health care and education.
– Oh okay. So which one of those were you talking about — for which the discourse decision provisions were leaving the door open?
– Sorry, I didn’t list that one in my examples. It’s the question of power, and how to control it. It’s one of those problems for which we need the discourse platform; and of course the way we will deal with it will affect the design of the discourse system itself.
– Yeah, yeah, the old systems rule, everything is related to and affects everything else. So? We can’t design the discourse before we solve the power problem? Sounds like a dinosaur-size chicken-and-egg problem.
– Right, Sophie: it just goes to show how wicked these issues are. But let me explain why the design of the discourse system may have some interesting ‘collateral benefit’ for the power conundrum.
– What’s the problem with power, anyway, specifically? We all want some, the communities at all sizes need power to get things done, it’s like anything, getting too much of a good thing is going to be bad for you… It’s reality, no?
– Well, let me try to explain. Yes, you are right: we all want power. To pursue our happiness — at our lowly common folks’ level we call it ’empowerment’ when we don’t have enough of it. You might consider it a kind of human right. We also need power in society: even in an ideal hypothetical society where all community decisions lead to agreements we all supported in that glorious collective discourse platform we are designing — and all are supposed to adhere to. Even there, some people might want to do things for their own greater benefit, in violation of those agreements. Deliberately or inadvertently. So societies have provisions to try to prevent the potential violators from doing that — and it’s mostly done by pursuing and imposing penalties and sanctions on the bad guys who did it. The predominant tool for that has been the set of institutions we call law enforcement and judicial. In order to do its job effectively, it must have more power that any would-be violator, right?
– Now that you point it out, oh boy; you’re right.
– Yes. It explains the escalation in arsenals and budgets on all sides. Now we know that power itself is, to put it bluntly, addictive. The powerful want more and more of it. Maybe that’s because many forms of power involve getting others to do what the powerful want them to do, but those others don’t, because they don’t get to do what they want to do, and there’s resistance, resentment. Which must be controlled by more power. And there’s a powerful temptation to break the rules, because do you really have power if you have to abide by laws and rules — even if you made those rules yourself? The Caligula syndrome. You’re not really ‘free’ unless you can do things that violate all society’s rules and laws, even laws of logic and reason? Let’s see who has power: I’ll make my horse a consul, so there.
– Okay, but haven’t we — human societies — developed some viable means of controlling power? Time limits for power-wielding office holders, elections, impeachment, balance of legislature, executive, and judicial branches of government, corruption laws…?
– Right. And some have been reasonably effective. But there are worrisome signs that those provisions are reaching the limits of their effectiveness. We can suspect some of the reasons for that — for example, that non-government entities — to which those governmental power constraints do not apply — are using their economic power to control governments.
– You mean: buying governments?
– I don’t want to speculate here — but doesn’t it sometimes look like it’s possible…? Or that it’s actually happening? But that aside: now that we are reaching a global situation where many are talking about some world government — what if that government were to be taken over by non-government entities? Already, huge corporations are operating across national borders almost as if they didn’t exist; international crime syndicates have always done that, as well as religions. It took a long time in the western world to get governments separated from the church. But the real danger is — whoever is holding the global power — that by the logic of having to be more powerful than any would-be violator of its agreements, treaties, laws — there can be no more powerful entity to keep a global government or power from playing a little loosely with this duty of adhering to the laws. Or to any agreement we may have laboriously argued our way to adopt in our global discourse forum. Will the global government be immune to the temptations of power?
– Your contribution to this discourse is getting kind of depressing here, Abbé Boulah. Any ideas what to do about that?
– You mean shut up? Sure, let’s all join the global ostrich community. Or do you actually expect lil’ ol’ me to have the answer to this conundrum that nobody really wants to discuss, as far as I can see?
– Well, I was hoping you’d have some answers…
– Coming to think of it: Haven’t we, with the help of Vodçek’s lubrications in this great Fog Island Tavern, developed some tentative, crazy ideas that may at least trigger some discussion and shake up better solutions? You may have forgotten or lost them out of sight in that fog that gave it its name.
– Come on. Quit beating around the bush and remind us!
– Okay, okay. One concept was the notion of sanctions for agreement violations that don’t require an ‘enforcement’ agency equipped with the ever-growing and ever-escalating force armament, requiring impressive ‘prosecution’ first in catching the perps and then to run them through the judicial system, resulting in high costs and then enforced penalties and punishment. Instead, to develop provisions for ‘sanctions’ that are automatically triggered by the very attempt of violation, and thereby prevent the violation before it begins.
– I remember now. We didn’t get very far with specific implementation ideas though.
– Right: though we have some promising technologies for low-grade violations, it is an idea that needs discussion, research and development. Is anybody doing that in a systematic, sustained way? Put it on the list: it’s one of the topics that should be on the discourse agenda.
– Wasn’t there also something about making power holders pay for decisions? And using some kind of credit points from the discourse and argument evaluation as the currency for that?
– Good point, Vodçek! Are you keeping a record of all the great ideas we are tossing about at your counter?
– No, it might be a good idea. But that one just stuck in my mind because it sounded so crazy.
– What in three twisters name are you guys talking about?
– Ah Sophie, you must have missed some episodes of this embryonic global tavern discourse.
– Come on, lose the fancy obscurantist talk, just explain that crazy idea Vodçek was mentioning.
– Ouch, ‘obscurantist’ — that hurts, I’ll have to treat my wounds with some Zinfandel, if Vodçek has some at hand. Bog-Hubert, do you have a clearer memory about that crazy idea?
– Well, we talked about contributions to the discourse. We wanted to encourage, invite people to contribute their ideas and concerns, on the one hand, but keep that flow of posts from getting overwhelmed by repetition. So what if there was a system giving every contributor some ‘civic credit’ points for every idea, every argument. But only the first one with the substantially same content — even if expressed in different words. That also would have the effect of getting those contributions fast — since only the first one would get the credit.
– Good idea — that would cut down of some of the volume … But what does it have to do with the power problem?
– Hold on a minute, Sophie — there’s an intermediate step we have to fill in first. It’s the argument evaluation. Some of those are very plausible, others turn out to be just blah or mistaken, or even distracting. Since these information bits and arguments are evaluated by the participants in order to develop the decision support ‘plausibility’ measure, we could use those assessments to adjust the basic contribution credit points. Upward for plausible, good and significant items, downward for worthless ones. Those revised credit points could be recorded in a ‘civic credit account’ for each participant. Now that credit can be an added criterion for electing or assigning people to power positions — you know, people who have to make fast decisions for matters that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy and thorough discussions. They will still be needed, right? We didn’t mention those when we were talking about controlling power a while ago.
– Shucks, and here I started dreaming that we could get rid of those in our grand new system, and all go fishing… or celebrating her in the tavern?
– So sorry. But the connection to the power problem was the idea we had here some long November night, that we’d have people pay for each of those power decisions. If power is something like a human need, it’s like food and shelter and movies — we are expected to pay for it — why not for the power to make power decisions? And the credit account would be the currency for doing that. If you’ve used up your credits, guv, and there aren’t any folks willing to transfer some of their hard-earned credits to you for making those decisions on our behalf, the jig is up, back to the discussion earning more credits. Like the automatically triggered sanctions for agreement violations, it’s another partial approach for controlling power. If we are going to have any serious global agreements or ‘system’, — a kind of global government — aren’t these some really urgent issues we need to start talking about? Eh, Bog-hubert?
– Yes, that was why I wasn’t so happy about all those grand new systems proposals — there isn’t much about such issues in those glorious schemes, as far as I can see.
– So have we learned anything from this palaver, are we ready for some conclusions, however preliminary?
– Well there are a few things we could throw out as ‘best of current misconceptions’ Like:
* The ‘grand new unified system’ idea is a rather questionable one;
* Even if we thought it was needed — and arguably, some aspects are; — but we don’t really know enough to do it right yet; and there is not enough agreement about that; so
* We need more research and experiments with different ideas — small local initiatives to gain experience with what works and what doesn’t work; and feed the results into
* A global discourse for which we first need a much improved platform with an integrated support system including extracting the essential core of contributions; better display and mapping, argument evaluation, and a mechanism for linking decisions to the merit of those arguments and contributions. And
* Using some of our collateral discourse ideas for better control of power, especially the control of the power that will have to ensure adherence to global unified decisions and agreements.
* So the first global agreement we need is the design of the global discourse platform in which we can discuss whether a grand new system is needed and what it should be like.

Next system map
– Well — how do we get people to start thinking and talking about those things?
– Put it on the list…
– Hey: what list? Did you forget where you are? And that this entire discussion is as fictional and hypothetical as the entire mythical Fog Island Tavern and its suspicious customers?

On the usefulness of design recommendations (such as ‘patterns’)

Related to the proliferation of ‘pattern language’ adaptations in many domains other than the built environment for which C. Alexander developed the original Pattern Language, a question arose about the usefulness of many pattern descriptions; and a challenge to select one or two pattern specifications that do not appear very useful for more detailed discussion.

I am not familiar enough with the specific intentions and expectations of the developers of other pattern language projects to properly judge the appropriateness or usefulness of such patterns, and I have not arrived at a sufficiently thought-through conclusion about whether I am ready to adopt the pattern concept, to spent time on work on patterns for the kinds of concerns I am interested in and have some qualification to make contributions. So rather than offering critiques of others’ patterns, I suggest to look at some aspects of usefulness for a narrow understanding of pattern intent that I would prefer to call ‘design recommendations’ or ‘rules’, for the time being, on the assumption that they may of partial relevance for actual bona fide pattern work as well.

1 Recommendations as practical guides for action.
The first assumption I am making to narrow the field is that of looking for rules or guidelines for design or planning tasks, that is, activities aiming at the production of a plan, a set of agreements about some intended actions to effect changes in what we perceive as the ‘real world’. In this, I am following the original concept of ‘pattern’ as stated by Alexander, as recommendations for specific arrangements in the built environment that are aiming at remedying certain problems (or arrangements that in themselves are seen as remedies for problems that are perceived to occur in the built environment, given certain specified context conditions.

2 Adequate detail of description
Such a recommendation will be useful to the extent it describes the context conditions, the problem, and the recommended action in sufficient detail for a user to recognize those conditions and problems in the design situation at hand, and to apply the recommended action or arrangement. This means that the recommendation must take the form of one or more coherently expressed sentences connecting the three parts of the recommendation. The mere listing of single concepts, goals, ‘principles’, qualities etc. would not meet this expectation, nor would the statement of only one of the three components, e.g. just a ‘problem’ — no matter how significant the problems and imperative the implied admonition to do something about it.

3 Limitations of applicability
The above first description of design recommendations is useful only within a narrow range of situations, for several reasons.

a) A first limitation is implied in the validity assertion of the original patterns themselves: the fact that the problem is ‘recurring’ under the specified conditions, and that the recommendation or ‘solution’ has proved to be reliably remedying that problem in the past: ‘timeless’. Its usefulness is based on precedent experience. This is unquestionably useful, and there are certainly many such situations. Even in the specific dealings with problem situations for which there are no precedents (and therefore no known, proven remedies) many individual activities will rely on such rules and experiences — but the ‘pattern’ and implied guarantee of the recommendation ‘if context and problem then solution’ obviously cannot be stated. For problems of the ‘wicked’, unprecedented kind, there are no simple, basic recommendations that guarantee success.

b) The first simple understanding of design recommendation assumes that there is sufficient agreement among the parties involved as to the nature and definition of the ‘context’, the ‘problem’, and the adequacy of the proposed ‘solution’. This assumption does not apply to most situations that call for collective design and planning. Most such situations contain conflicts between the parties involved; and even the most cooperative projects will incur the allocation of resources — usually called ‘costs’ in the pursuit of achieving the ‘benefits’ of the remedy-solution — and in all but the rarest cases a distribution of costs and benefits that is perceived as equally fair, equitable, acceptable and satisfactory by all parties affected by the problem and its proposed solutions. The ‘costs’ are ‘benefits’ to some, and the benefits can often be seen as costs to others. The simple statements even of the most intuitively appealing Alexander patterns blatantly ignore this, by postulating some overriding, absolute (even, in Alexander’s view, ‘objective’ and thus indisputable) ‘value’. The claim that the pattern will achieve ‘aliveness’ of the resulting environment — a ‘quality without a name’ — is a similar postulate removing the recommendation from any discussion: it cannot be described, and must be accepted on faith. Any adaptation of this feature in other domains is likely to generate questions and opposition and cause unnecessary conflicts.

c) The relative vagueness of the pattern recommendations — even such rules as ‘light from to sides’ in rooms — that obviously don’t specify any parameters or dimensions of details such as whether the windows should be high up on the walls or reach down to the floor, etc. permit Alexander to claim that the pattern can be used ‘a million times’ without doing it exactly the same way twice and is therefore open to almost unlimited participatory modification by the designers / users — but that this modification must not be allowed to extend to violating the basic pattern itself. This restriction would be unacceptable to many humans who are driven to ‘make a difference’, to do things ‘their own way’ — to break the rule just because it is stated as a rule: a potentially ubiquitous pattern – problem for which the ‘remedy’ is violation of the rule, by definition?

d) The recommendations do not include any consideration of ability, affordability, of the resources needed to apply the prescribed solution, not of the potential consequences of the solutions if, for example, applied at a large scale.

4 Relationship networks
The recommendations (again, following the original pattern descriptions) cannot be applied in isolation, but must form a network of relationships. Like a meaningful (scientific) theory, the statements or individual descriptions must be mutually supporting. The relationships claimed in the original PL are often merely the ‘part-whole’ relations: each pattern is part of a larger pattern and consists in turn of smaller patterns. There are undoubtedly other types of relationships that can or should be considered in constructing a whole plan — the point is that for a plan that will hold together, or a ‘language’ to allow the telling of a coherent story — the relationships must be described, again, in sufficient detail to allow a user to apply them ‘properly’. Should there also be room for the creation and definition of ‘new’ relations that will make a new kind of network and language?

5 ‘Secret’ or user ability to discover, construct / reconstruct meaning?

Getting into a bit of unexplored territory here, the recommendation might have to address the question of how its ‘solution’ interacts with the perception and understanding of the viewer/user. Many recommendations implicitly or explicitly hint at a ‘secret’ behind the recommendation that lends validity to the resulting design — but remains silent about how that promise of validity is perceived by the viewer. We are just expected to intuitively accept it as ‘alive’, ‘timeless’ etc. Is this enough? I have a hunch that beyond the immediate perception of a design / environment as ‘appealing’, ‘alive’, ‘beautiful’, there needs to be the opportunity for a viewer to begin to explore the setup, to unravel the ‘secret’, to discover what makes it work — that is. what makes it work not only on a general level (the ‘absolute truth’ level Alexander is emphasizing) but also for individual viewers and their different backgrounds, preconceptions, concerns, sensibilities; their ability to discover how the design connects with those personal concerns. ‘Constructing’ the personal meaning from what is there, not only ‘reconstructing’ the meaning of the general context-problem-solution structure of the ‘pattern’ the designer put there. I have tried to explore some of those relationships with the concepts of ‘occasions’ (of the life of the individuals using a place) and the ‘image’ connotations evoked by the design about ‘who we are’ in the users/viewers. (This issue of personal reconstruction also applies to the use of scale and proportional arrangements in a formal environmental design; ‘discovering’ the ‘secrets’ of the proportion and composition devices the designer used to make the solution so ‘appealing’ both at first sight and increased familiarity. The ‘new’ exciting forms of much current architecture, for example, that don’t reveal anything more to the curious exploration after the first few encounters will soon become obsolete and annoying.)

6 Recurring versus unprecedented problems.
The process of use of design recommendations or rules should be open to the question of whether it applies to the given situation — whether it can be adequately described as containing a ‘recurring’ problem for which the timeless ‘solution’ has been adequately proven, or whether it is an unprecedented, ‘wicked’ problem, for which a different approach with different tools should be applied. The reminder ‘wrong question?’ — repeated on the bottom of each page (in addition to the Jessie’s good suggestion of ‘what might you add?’ question ) is a first necessary point of clarification to prevent the perhaps ‘efficient’ but possibly ultimately dead-end application of inappropriate remedies. It may be necessary to give potential users additional hints and suggestions to recognize such conditions — for each proposed recommendation. Each collection or rulebook of design prescriptions (pattern languages?) should contain a section of suggestions for useful steps to take in situations where the context contains elements that make the problem ‘unprecedented’ and calls for a different approach.

7 Specialized vocabulary: jargon?
For design and planning projects that call for wide participation of users or citizens in general, the description of recommendations in a special vocabulary or ‘language’ will become a ‘usefulness’ issue. Understanding and mastery of that vocabulary as a prerequisite for meaningful participation in the discourse, will inevitably become a barrier for participation. The flow of essential ‘distributed’ information about context and the way the problem and its proposed solutions affect different parties will be restricted, with potential repercussions for general public acceptance of solutions. So a general ‘meta-rule’ for such projects might be to express design recommendations in as general conversational language as possible.