Thinking Systems #1

Graham Harris v3By Graham Harris

Welcome to a new SMART blog topic – all about systems: about what they are, and the ways we think about them, value them, construct them in our minds and in real life, and (try to) manage them.

This topic will cover all kinds of systems – from what might be called “hard” infrastructure systems (energy, water, transportation) to “soft” biological and social systems. Perhaps most importantly I want to think critically about the interactions between these “hard” and “soft” systems in the world: the so-called “system of systems” which we have constructed and in which we all live.

When we look critically at the issues around understanding and trying to manipulate or manage these “systems of systems” we discover that quite often – perhaps most often – we encounter problems. Either we do not get the expected outcome, or (worse perhaps) we get perverse outcomes. In the context of catchment management an executive of the UK Environment Agency once asked me in a meeting in London “why is it, Graham, that when we use the same programs of works and measures in different places, we get different outcomes; and when we use different works and measures in different places we often get the same outcome (or none!)”. In my reply I quoted Star Trek…. “It’s life Jim, but not as you know it”. [Actually that was a misquote: that quote comes from a 1987 song ‘Star Trekkin’, sung by The Firm].

As it turns out this problem of weak predictability and/or perverse outcomes is widespread – but little discussed. We have a problem of what Margaret Heffernan call in her book “willful blindness”. There is an elephant in the room. So this blog is going to drag the elephant out from under the table and have a close look at it. I am going to argue that it’s time to stop “just muddling through” and hoping for the best – which is what we do most of the time. We can, and must, do better.

In doing so we’re going to have to address two main issues. One the one hand we have a knowledge problem: What do we know? And how do we know it? What evidence do we have? We always have imperfect knowledge. There is much uncertainty, particularly when we couple “hard” and “soft” systems together. On the other hand we have a collective action problem: even assuming we had perfect knowledge: How should we act? How do we live? What kind of outcomes do we desire, and what should we expect?

About a decade ago when I began this journey to understand these problems with the management of systems, I thought this was going to be straightforward scientific problem. More focused research, I thought, would give us knowledge we could apply, and that would fix the problem. Ha! How wrong I was! Now I understand that “managing” a System of Systems composed of “hard” and “soft” components – think, for example, of a catchment with everything from land uses and the river, to people, enterprises, infrastructure, urban development – raises all kinds of philosophical, methodological, social, political and ethical issues.

So this blog is going to venture out into all kinds of disciplines to try to reach a new understanding and synthesis of the challenges we face. We’ve known about many of these issues for a very long time; a lot of what I will write about has been in the literature for decades. What I seek here is a new insight and a new basis for more successful interventions.

So this is going to be quite some elephant! And the 13th century parable about the blind Sufi and the elephant was right: blind people holding different pieces of the beast envisage the whole in very different ways. We have many different ways of being willfully blind – and that just makes the story even more interesting!  I hope you will join me as the weeks go by.

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