Thinking Systems Redux

By Graham HarrisGraham Harris v3

After an enforced layoff from writing, the Thinking Systems blog series is about to be reborn. What was once an attempt to understand complexity from a rationalist perspective has now become part of a much larger initiative. The previous focus on trying to make complexity “manageable” is understandable; I was a scientist once after all. My enforced layoff has caused me to reflect more deeply and broadly on what makes us human and on just how “unmanageable” many aspects of life really are. Too great a focus on prediction and strategy can leave us unprepared for the unexpected; too great a reliance on reason leaves us emotionally bereft and unwilling to accept change in the face of crisis.
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What is the nature of nature: and why does this matter?

By GrahGraham Harris v3am Harris

My OED defines nature as the “physical power causing the phenomena of the material world, these phenomena as a whole”; and also as a “thing’s essential qualities”. So this blog is about how we go about understanding the essential qualities of the material world. This might seem like a pretty arcane subject for a series of blogs about “thinking systems” but, as it turns out, the question goes to the heart of our relationship with the natural world. If we are getting it wrong, this has fundamental consequences. Of course, I am going to argue that in some important respects we are getting it wrong!

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Of trucks, traffic, trees and fair trade

Graham Harris v3By Graham Harris

This blog is continued from Thinking Systems #11.

I have just spent a month in UK and have had time to reflect on the changes I have observed there since I was a child in Devon. This time our stay in England corresponded with the summer holiday period and, while the weather was awful, the traffic was worse. Continue reading

Dealing with ecosystems IV: Hope in constraints?

Graham Harris v3By Graham Harris

This blog is continued from Thinking Systems #10

In the last three blogs we saw that management and restoration of the entities we call ecosystems is problematic and driven by assumptions, myths and values. This is particularly so at the level of species and populations. Conservation biology and restoration ecology have had their local successes, but overall, the response to major initiatives has been poor. Global biodiversity continues to decline and, while there are strong calls to restore landscapes, going back to a prior state seems very difficult. Continue reading

Dealing with ecosystems III: Causal thickets and changing correlations

Graham Harris v3By Graham Harris

This blog is continued from Thinking Systems #9

This is a good place to stop for a while and read William Wimsatt’s (2007) book Re-engineering philosophy for limited beings: piecewise approximations to reality. Wimsatt’s goal in writing that book was to provide a guide to bounded rationalism and heuristics for a messy world.  The book draws on a wide range of sources including Andreas Wagner and one of my favourite books, Daniel Dennett’s (1995) “Darwin’s dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. Dennett pointed out anyone that takes a consequentialist view whilst living in the middle of a system can only ever have partial knowledge. Continue reading

Dealing with ecosystems II: The field of myths and dreams

Graham Harris v3By Graham Harris

This blog is continued from Thinking Systems #8

At present, working either with a restricted set of values or when we claim to be totally value free (impossible in practice), we plan remediation programmes as “predict-act” schemes and then fail to deliver the goods. It’s very much like the myth of the field of dreams: “build it and they will come…” but often they don’t! [Remember the important roles of chance, necessity and 2nd order interactions.] Continue reading

Dealing with ecosystems I

Graham Harris v3By Graham Harris

This and the next few blogs on the topic of our dealings with ecosystems are longer than usual and are probably only for ecologists and environmental managers. They get complicated in places so to quote my favourite blogger (Roger Cicala) “Warning; these are Geek Level 3 blogs”. To many ecologists these will be controversial.  Continue reading

Robust distributed infrastructure

Graham Harris v3By Graham Harris

I first came across the idea of distributed infrastructure systems when we began planning the CSIRO Australia Energy Flagship in 2001-2. The full flowering of these innovations has taken more than a decade to come to fruition and, even now, for reasons I shall discuss, not all aspects of the concept have been implemented in energy networks around the world. Nevertheless, despite impediments, the basic concept is emerging rapidly. Continue reading