Posts Tagged 'Systems Thinking'

Combining systems modeling maps with argumentative evaluation maps: a general template

Many suggested tools and platforms have been proposed to help humanity overcome the various global problems and crises, each with claims of superior ability or adequacy for addressing the ‘wickedness’ of the problems.

Two of the main perspectives I have studied – the general group of models labeled as ‘systems thinking’, ‘systems modeling and simulation’, and the ‘argumentative model of planning’ proposed by H. Rittel (who incidentally saw his ideas as part of a ‘second generation’ systems approach) have been shown to fall somewhat short of those claims: specifically, they have so far not been able to demonstrate the ability to adequately accommodate each others’ key concerns. The typical systems model seems to assume that all disagreements regarding its model assumptions have been ‘settled’; it shows no room for argument and discussion or disagreement, while the key component of the argumentative model: the typical ‘pro’ or ‘con’ argument of the planning discourse, — the ‘standard planning argument’ does not connect more than two or three of the many elements of a more elaborate systems model of the respective situation, and thus fails to properly accommodate the complexity and multiple loops of such models.

It is of course possible that a different perspective and approach will emerge that can better resolve this discrepancy. However, it will have to acknowledge and then properly address the difficulty we can now only express with the vocabulary of the two perspectives. This essay explores the problem of showing how the elements of the two selected approaches can be related in maps that convey both the respective system’s complexity and the possible disagreements and assessment of the merit of arguments about system assumptions.

A first step is the following simplified diagram template that shows a ‘systems model’ in the center, with arguments both about how the proposal for intervention in the system (consisting of suggested actions upon specific system elements) should be evaluated, and about the degree of certainty – the suggested term is ‘plausibility’ – about assumptions regarding individual elements.

A key aspect of the integration effort is the insight that the ‘system’ will have to include all the features discussed in the discourse under the terms of ‘plan proposal’ with its details of initial conditions, proposed actions (what to do, by whom, using what tools and resources, and the conditions for their availability), the ‘problem’ a solution aims at remedying, which is described (at least) by specifying its current ‘IS’ state, the desired ‘OUGHT’ state or planning outcome, the means by which the transition of is- to ought-state can be achieved; and the potential consequences of implementing the plan, including possible ‘unexpected’ side-and-after-effects. Conversely, the assessment of arguments (the “careful weighing of pros and cons”) will have to explicitly address the system model elements and their interactions – elements that should be (but mostly are not) specified in the argument as ‘conditions under which the plan or one of its features is assumed to effectively achieve the specific outcome or goal referenced by the argument.

For the sake of simplicity, the diagram only shows two arguments or reasons for or against a proposed plan. In reality, there always will be at least two arguments (benefit and cost of a plan), but usually many more, based on assessment of the multiple outcomes of the plan and actions to implement it, as well as of conditions (feasibility, availability, cost and other resources) for its implementation. The desirability assessments of different parties will be different; the argument seen as ‘pro’ by one party can be a ‘con’ argument for another, depending on the assessment of the premises. Therefore, arguments are not shown as pro or con in the diagram.


The diagram uses abbreviated notations for conciseness and convenient overview that are explained in the legend below, that presents some key (but by no means exhaustively comprehensive) concepts of both perspectives.

*  PLAN or P Plan or proposal for a plan or plan aspects

*  R    Argument or ‘reason’. It is used both for an entire ‘pro’ or ‘con’ argument about the plan or an issue, — the entire set of premises supporting the ‘conclusion’ claim (usually the plan proposal) and for the relationship claimed to connect the Plan with an effect, usually a goal, or a negative consequence of plan implementation, in the factual-instrumental premise.
The ‘standard planning argument’ pattern prevailing in planning discourse has the general form:
D(PLAN) Plan P ought to be adopted (deontic ‘conclusion’)
FI (PLAN –>R –>O)|{C} P has relationship R with outcome O given
Conditions {C} (Factual-instrumental premise)
D(O) Outcome O ought to be pursued (Deontic premise)
F{C} Conditions {C} are given (true)

The relationship R is most often a causal connection, but also stands for a wide variety of relationships that constitute the basis for pro or con arguments: part-whole, identity, similarity, association, analogy, catalyst, logical implication, being a necessary or sufficient condition for, etc. In an actual application, these relationships may be distinguished and identified as appropriate.

*    O or G   Outcome or goal to be pursued by the plan, but also used for other effects including negative consequences

*    M —   the relationship of P ‘being a means’ to achieve O

*     C or {C}     The set of a number of
c conditions under which the claimed relationship M between P and    O is assumed to hold

*     pl ‘plausibility’ judgments about the plan, arguments, and argument premises, expressed as values on a scale of +1 (completely plausible) to -1 (completely implausible) with a midpoint ‘zero’ understood as ‘so-so or ‘don’t know, cant decide’) in combination with the abbreviations for those:
*       plPLAN or plP plausibility judgment of the PLAN,
this is some individual’s subjective judgment.
*       plM plausibility of P being effective in achieving O;
*       pO plausibility of an outcome O or Goal;
*       pl{C} plausibility (probability) of conditions {C} being present;
*       plc plausibility of condition c being present;
*       plR plausibility of argument or reason R;
*       pl PLAN GROUP a group judgment of plan plausibility

*       wO weight of relative importance of outcome O ( 0 ≤ w ≤ 1; ∑w = 1)

*       WR Argument weight or weight of reason

Functions F between plausibility values:

*      F1     Group plausibility aggregation function:
pl PLANGROUP = F1 (plPLANq) for all n members q of the group
q=1, 2

*      F2    Plan plausibility function:
Pl(PLAN)q = F2 (WRi) for all m reasons R, by person q
i = 1,2…

*      F3   Argument weight function:

WRi = F3 pl Ri)* wOj

*     F4   Argument plausibility function:

Pl(Ri) = F4: {pl(P –>Mi –>Oi)|{Ci}) , pl(Oi), pl{C}}
The plausibility of argument R is a function of all
Premise plausibility judgments

*     F5     Condition set plausibility function:

Pl{C} = F5 (pl ck) pl of set {C} is a function of the
K = 1,2… plausibility judgmens of all c in the set.
*     F6 Weight of relative importance of outcome Oi: wOi = 1/n ∑ vOi
Subject to conditions 0 ≤ wOi ≤ 1, and ∑wO = 1.

*    System S The system S is the network of all variables describing both the initial  conditions c (the IS-state of the problem the plan is trying to remedy), the  means M involved in implementing the plan, the desired ‘end’ conditions or goals G of the plan, and the relationships and loops between these.

The diagram does not yet show a number of additional variables that will play  a role in the system: the causes of initial conditions (that will also affect the  outcome or goal conditions; the variables describing the availability, effectiveness, costs and acceptability of means M, and potential consequences of both M and O of the proposed plan. Clearly, these conditions and their behavior over time (both the time period needed for implementation, and the assumed planning horizon or life expectancy of the solution) will or should be given due consideration in evaluating the proposed plan.

A topic map for a systems thinking discussion on participatory democracy

The discussion “Participatory democracy through systems thinking’ on the Systems Thinking in Action’ network on LinkedIn raises a number of issues that merit discussion. This applies even to the assumptions (taken for granted?) that Improved participatory democracy is desirable, and that Systems thinking is the best approach for achieving it. These assumptions may not be universally shared and at least some rationale for them might be addressed. The rationale or justification for these assumptions would have to address the expected efficiency or quality with which the tools of systems thinking (that still need to be determined; the discussion did not reach a clear consensus on this, and left the question whether ‘new’ ST tools would have to be developed to achieve the expected effect) would address the task in comparison with other approaches. These issues have to do with the criteria that determine ‘better participatory democracy’, as judged by whom, according to what method. The results of the evaluation would then, presumably, support a process of decisions, actions to be taken, by what agents and what methods.

The discussion arguably did not explore all of these questions yet, nor establish a decisive agenda about how systems thinking people would or should go about the project of improving participatory democracy. (The issues, incidentally, apply both to the process of working towards the stated aim, as well as to the workings of the resulting democratic governance system.) The discussion did focus more on the need for such improvement; some posts even pointed at available systems approaches and tools that have been developed and applied but did not achieve a convincing consensus about their appropriateness.

The issues raised and shown in the map below are not as trivial as they might seem (since they relate to matters describing any governance system). For example, is the assumption that systems thinkers – a species of experts presumably in possession of insights and skills not necessarily present in the average citizen – will be involved in many or most of the issues and decisions, itself somewhat at odds with the ‘democratic’ criterion that citizens rather than experts should have the determining say in those decision?

The map should be seen as a first tentative step towards helping to clarify the agenda for such a process. For each of the ‘end’ nodes of the map, further issues about whether the particular option should be chosen (deontic issues) and if so, how (by what means) the specific choice might be achieved and implemented (instrumental issues). One of the main advantages of systems models, the identification of the various conditions (context variables, parameters) under which interventions would be expected to perform, has not been adequately explored by the discussion this far. Unfortunately, the LinkedIn format does not accommodate visual material such as diagrams of the systems components and relationships; the necessity to divert participants to other sites for such material has been (as usual) a main obstacle to the systemic exploration of the topic.

The map shown below is still mostly a ‘topic’ map; only at the first level are different individual issues (deontic, instrumental, explanatory for the same topic) identified. More detailed ‘issue maps’ will have to be drawn for each of the main topics of this map.

democracy systems thinking3

‘Systems Thinking’: just another jargon ‘brand’ vocabulary?

Comments on a discussion on a LinkedIn “Systems Thinking” Forum

Looking at the impressive effort of a group of ‘Systems Thinkers’ on the Linked-In forum “Systems Thinking World” to respond to the call by the UN Secretary General for ‘revolutionary thinking and action to ensure an economic model for survival’ from one or two steps removed, it is interesting and instructive to note certain underlying assumptions that govern it — and that may have to be re-examined.

The first assumption is that the assessment by the UN Secretary is justified, by the threats and dangers of current developments, to call for ‘revolutionary thinking and action’.

The ‘revolutionary’ statement there is remarkable in itself, and should have caused some critical examination. Does it assume that past and current institutions and approaches have been fundamentally wrong — and that this might include the very institution he is heading? Would it suggest that these structures and approaches should be subject to ‘revolutionary’ reassessment, thinking — and action? What would such action possibly look like?

The admirable decision on the part of the group of (‘self-defined’?) systems thinkers to respond to the call with more than some superficial or standard blog comments must surely be seen as an indication that these thinkers are convinced that they can contribute something of value to the problem. One naive interpretation would be that they feel able to produce revolutionary thinking if not action that would solve the problems.

How would a systems approach (if this slightly outdated term is still acceptable) go about doing this? The textbook answer suggests that the systems analyst would examine the system, meaning: to identify its components, the relationships between the components (some views are speaking of components as ‘stocks’ and the relationships as ‘flows’ between them, and to first describe these entities and relationships: to ‘understand’ the system. The analysis and understanding might mean to develop ‘models’, preferably ‘mathematical models’ of the system structure, and to carry out calculations and simulations of system behavior, testing the models to see if the model behavior matches observed behavior in the real system. The understanding then is supposed to enable the analyst to identify critical system components where appropriate intervention might produce desired results. It is always a little unclear whether the systems analyst /thinker is able and/or entitled to define what system behavior (outcomes) are desirable, or where these determinations would come from. So has the effort of 1150 systems thinkers posts done this? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. There is not only a strange dichotomy of responses: On the one hand a willingness, even eagerness to pronounce basic conditions that must be met, achieved, before meaningful system transformation (which is almost universally seen as desirable, while the nature of the transformation is hotly disputed) can be attempted. Most of those had to do with the thinking, attitudes, beliefs, values and ethics of mankind (not the systems thinkers). On the other hand, one could observe a reluctance to engage in the development, and recommendation of more coherent and detailed system structure designs — with the argument that ‘first, we must understand the system’. Instead of such proper systems approach, there were a host of contributions providing links. Links to writings: reports, books, blogs, talks (videos), studies about the subject, all with their own recommendations, and links to reports of actual initiatives and projects that are already being undertaken, that represent ‘change’ from current normative practices and processes. If the contributor went as far as attaching a recommendation to such links beyond pointing out that it is an ‘interesting’ effort or view, it was inevitably an explicit or implied suggestion that ‘more’ such actions should be encouraged. The basis of such recommendations, interestingly, was rarely a demonstration of resulting superior system performance — according to a valid measure of performance — but the insistence that the effort is guided by valid , desirable principles. (Though the call for examining and clarifying principles was a frequent one as well). So the discussion did not — as might be expected just on the basis of the fact that none of the participants nor the group as a whole was paid and provided the time and resources to actually conduct a proper analysis — produce any recommendations for revolutionary solutions to the concerns of the Secretary General.

A closer, less naively optimistic and more sober assessment of what such a discussion could produce, might focus on the ‘understanding the system’ precondition for action. Again, since no actual collection of system behavior data was carried out (searching the internet for reports and activities by others, however admirable and certainly useful, does not qualify as such) recommendations for system understanding could only be based on the judgment of the participants, participants whose judgment presumably is honed by training and experience with such work. So far, no effort has been made to systematically examine the 1150 posts to arrive at reliable patterns (consensus?) of insight by the participants, much less for looking at how such insights might translate into recommendations for solutions — even for subjecting solution proposals to rigorous systems analysis testing. The current state of the discussion seems focused on developing a system for organizing, classifying the material from all the posts and links, and relating the items to topics such as the UN list of threats to survival. Data mining, data clustering, “synergising of data into “bubbles” of information much like the synergisms than seem to appear at the boundary conditions of chaos” are seriously being proposed as vehicles for culling meaning and sense (solutions?) from the 1150+ posts. The few actually new and creative ideas that have been proposed in the course of the discussion are studiously ignored in the resulting compilation of data — because they haven’t come from links and can’t be referenced…

A skeptical observer may therefore be justified invoicing some doubts about the effectiveness and usefulness of ‘Systems Thinking’. Indeed, one feature observed in the discussion was the preponderance of different vocabularies used not only by the studies and reports in the list of links and references — especially commercial companies offering management or analysis services seem to feel that a separate ‘brand’ terminology is a necessary requirement for competitiveness in the market — but also by participants in the discussion itself. This proliferation of terms and associated acronyms created considerable misunderstanding and confusion, and the conversation is in many places entirely unintelligible to any outsider who might be straying by looking for wisdom in this group. The “Systems Thinking World” is very far from having achieved a common conceptual frame of reference . This was the very central goal of the first systems thinkers in the middle of the last century: to find a common way of talking about the similarities in the structures studied by very different disciplines so that they could be represented in the new analysis tools of the computer. It raises the heretical question: is systems thinking, systems talk itself just a ‘brand’ phenomenon and vocabulary, and as such spawning ever more jargon brands by each new thinker? If so, it is little wonder that the impressive effort of the Systems Thinker discussion has — at least so far — not been able to produce any interesting, convincing results.