Thursday, March 08, 2018

Taking Steven Pinker to task

Good on George Monbiot for deflating the celebrity bubble that has grown around Steven Pinker's work.

'Rather than using primary sources, Pinker draws on anecdote, cherry-picking and discredited talking points developed by anti-environmental thinktanks.Take, for example, Pinker’s claims about the landmark Limits to Growth report, published in 1972. It’s a favourite target of those who seek to dismiss environmental problems. He suggests it projected that aluminium, copper, chromium, gold, nickel, tin, tungsten and zinc would be exhausted by 1992. It is hard to see how anyone who had read the report could form this impression. The figures it uses for illustrative purposes have been transformed by some critics into projections.

Its actual prediction is that “the great majority of the currently important non-renewable resources will be extremely costly 100 years from now”. It would be perfectly reasonable to take issue with this claim. It is not reasonable to recycle, then attack, a widely circulated myth about the report. That’s called the straw man fallacy. It is contrary to the principles of reason that Pinker claims to champion.'

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

More on the systemic failings of universities/H.E.

From a despondent Peter Scott in an article today called:  'Don’t let this university wrecking government masquerade as reformers'

'The fees and funding system in England is certainly bust.'

' English higher education is too expensive. It is the most expensive public system of higher education in the world (including the US).'

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018

New on-line taster course on systems thinking

Colleagues at the Institute for Sustainable Futures (university of Technology, Sydney) have advised:
"that the first module of the systems thinking course I mentioned we were developing is now available online at UTS OPEN. It’s  ISF’s first ever online course and is one of the first four UTS courses available to the general public free of charge. We’ve tried not to replicate all the good work that’s already out there including the OU’s course and are hoping to offer some different angles on systems thinking. Let us know what you think if you get a chance to have a look at it. The course is an introduction or taster course' on systems thinking and you can find it here at this link .  We will hopefully be developing another 4 modules to complete this course (dependent on further funding).
Please feel free to share the link with anyone who might be interested. This is still a ‘soft launch’ phase and we can still make improvements to the course and would really appreciate any honest and constructive feedback on how we can further improve it. As this is only a ‘taster’ module it is meant to get people interested in systems thinking and wanting more. "

Systemic Design

Ben Sweeting gave a plenary presentation at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design conference in Oslo, in October 2017, on Cybernetics, Virtue Ethics and Design. It is available from the proceedings and includes a video recording, which features live sketch notes from

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Eulogy: Phil Wallis (5th March 1982 - 2nd February 2018)

My dear friend and colleague Phil Wallis died on the 2nd of February after an 18 month struggle with bowel cancer.  His funeral was held at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery on Thursday 8th February.  This eulogy delivered at Phil's invitation was one of two tributes paid during the service.   The final reading was delivered by Phil's mother - 'A wish for you my child'.

Eulogy: Phillip J. Wallis
5th March 1982 – 2nd February 2018

I feel immensely privileged to have been invited by Phil to deliver this eulogy.  Unlike other eulogies I delivered for my parents whom I also loved this is my first experience of having discussed possible content in advance. The conversation with Phil was for me a heart-wrenching experience. But true to form Phil was strong in the circumstances – considerate and concerned for me through my tears.   My aim today is to leave you with a stronger sense of Phil the professional.  Much of the detail of his professional life is in the document available when you entered.  I invite you to read this when you can and as you do to marvel at how much Phil achieved in the 10 years of his post-PhD professional life.  It is indeed impressive and stands as a legacy worthy of celebration.  At the end Phil felt comfortable within himself with what he had achieved, though it would be better to reframe his contributions in terms of what he contributed to us, his colleagues and friends, and society more generally.  
Phil began his academic life at the interface of geography and chemistry.  He graduated with first-class honours and won a prestigious scholarship to continue at Monash for his PhD in the emerging field of green chemistry.  But he had interdisciplinary and then transdisciplinary tendencies.  His interdisciplinary interests began within UNIWATER, a Monash- Melbourne Uni collaboration, and later in the Systemic Governance Research Program at Monash.  It was in these two programs that our collaboration began. 
Phil was open to the complexity and uncertainty of the world around him and felt that research that acted at the interface of the social and natural sciences was important for long term sustainability.  This led him to do pioneering research with people – collaborative research, systemic co-inquiry or co-design. He became known for his expertise in process design in research and stakeholder engagement and for his excellent facilitator skills.  This was a brave turn to make in a world where disciplinary focus is more readily rewarded.  Writing last year Phil justifiably claimed ‘expertise in many facets of sustainability research with a proven track record in communicating results by seminar and publication’. 
Phil’s academic work has been cited by about 400 people, mostly since 2013. In other words his research has had a significant international and national impact which will continue for some time to come.  In one of his most recent papers a self-description is that of ‘an applied, transdisciplinary researcher and natural resource management practitioner’.
When Phil and I talked about this eulogy and our decade-long collaboration two particular experiences came to the fore in our reflections.  For Phil it was a visit we made together to Canberra in November 2014. We first attended a Peter Cullen Trust seminar and dinner. We listened to John Hewson deliver an enlightening after-dinner talk.  John argued that investors were ignoring the growing risk of fossil fuel investments, and [that] portfolios [were] highly skewed towards oil, coal and petrol stocks rather than being balanced with commodities carrying less long-term risk.’ We both admired Hewson for his commitment to the divestment movement. The following day we had meetings at the National Water Commission and the Murray Darling Basin Authority or MDBA as we called it.  At the latter we mounted arguments to allow our earlier research conducted within the MDBA to be published. Despite our arguments they denied permission and continue to do so.  Our research spoke truth to power; if taken on-board the results may well have avoided the current series of systemic failings in governance of the Murray Darling Basin.

Why was this experience significant to Phil? Well he was very proud to have been made a fellow of the Peter Cullen Trust. The regard with which he is held within this network is testimony not only to his quiet leadership skills, his behind the scenes facilitation, but also for his integrity and the understanding he has gained, and helped to develop, of the complex policy and practice issues that confront water, river, climate change, biodiversity, food security and natural resource governance in Australia and beyond.  It was also a visit in which we were in the thick of it doing our best to make research relevant to policy and practice.
For my own part the memory that surfaced was of hiking with Phil and John Colvin in the Turgela Gorge in the beautiful Drakensburgs in Sth Africa. Both Phil and I wrote blog-posts about the experience. Phil wrote:
“Just recently a book chapter project came to fruition……The book had its genesis in the 2012 International Conference on Fresh Water Governance for Sustainable Development, held in Drakensberg, South Africa. This conference was memorable for me as I had the opportunity to collaborate with Derick du Toit, Sharon Pollard, Harry Biggs, John Colvin, and Ray Ison in preparing an interactive special session on systemic governance.  The conference was also a good chance to see the amazing landscapes of the Drakensberg region, including a hike up Tugela Gorge.’ 
What Phil did not write, perhaps in deference to concerns Beth or his mother may have held, was encounteringmassive lightning storms – the night following our walk in the midst of a storm the hotel management would not let us walk the 100 metres or so back from dinner to our bungalow. Why we asked? The answer: because one of their clients had been killed by lightening some months before.
As Phil would have done when charged with undertaking a project – even a eulogy – I have sought to give voice to others, to value multiple partial perspectives as to how Phil was experienced in his professional life.  The Phil that emerges from this albeit limited selection is:
(i)                Phil the mapper out of ideas, the planner, synthesiser, systems diagram user, who could sit quietly in meetings and at a critical stage offer his model, diagram or synthesis that ‘wowed’ those present!Starting out not really knowing where we were going to go, Phil would be there with whiteboard pens in hand, and pretty soon the discussions would take off, ideas would flow and bounce around, the inspiration would come, and the maps would grow and spread out.
(ii)              Phil the calm and unassuming leader - always able to bring people along with him. One example was when he worked with a group of fellow early-career researchers to write a collaborative paper about their experiences. It was Phil's ability to connect with people in both an intellectual and personal way and lead a group that really made it come together. All of his co-authors from this experience have been in touch with me and offered similar reflections.  One said: ‘he had a big effect on my career … because he elevated my confidence and made me feel empowered at a time when I was doubting myself a lot.’
(iii)            Phil the great collaborator: supportive, patient, highly organised technologically adept and generous. No matter what was happening he seemed to be able to take it in his stride.
(iv)            Phil the 'doer' - he put in the effort to turn ideas into reality and he did it through quiet thoughtful leadership and gentle guidance rather than an overbearing personality as is the case with a lot of ambitious people who get things done but fail to pay attention to fostering inclusive relationships. He was organised, meticulous in his research and kind in his dealings with people.
(v)              Phil the fantastic facilitator, inspirational in demonstrating a collaborative way of working together.
(vi)            Phil the unflappable … the face of we older CSIRO scientists’ cynicism about social learning through online collaborative platforms he helped lead us to wrest some science out of our apathy.’
(vii)          Phil the humourist.’ It was very subtle but always present. Like how he wrote that book chapter called 'a nexus of nexuses', he was kind of having fun with the whole thing but not making a big deal out of it’.
(viii)        Phil the ever positive - smiling and always looking for better ways of doing things.
(ix)            Phil the initiator and facilitator of good conversations: ‘he rounded up our team and whisked us off in search of some good coffee on campus and there we sat talking all things sometimes political, sometimes about what we were reading for pleasure, the ethics of food, and what our fellow colleagues were up to in the water governance space’ 
(x)              Phil the attentive supervisor, supporter and advisor always happy to discuss; caring, compassionate and consistent;
(xi)            Phil the technology pioneer and enabler: ‘Phil emailed a certain professor that a number of references were available on the cloud. To a distracted busy person who only half read the email, the idea of references on freshwater being in the cloud  made sense in a weird sort of way that did not have much to do with computing. After acknowledging mystification Phil patiently explained but sent all the files on email instead.’ 
(xii)          Phil the exemplar of doing systemic thinking as an everyday practice - as a way of shaping your thoughts as a web of ideas and views, which spurs you on to make further connections that helps you think in a more inclusive way’
(xiii)        Phil the work-life-balance manager – assiduous in his concerns for equity with his partner Beth, for the efficacy of their parenting team and his commitments to Archer and Hugo;
(xiv)        Phil - the loss to us all – ‘so much potential yet unused to make a difference.  And a beautiful spirit and intellect lost when so many that are bad and destructive go on and on.’ 

Phil would not have liked the fuss.  But at this moment all of these facets of Phil, as well as others not yet said, deserve a public saying and acknowledgment.

Let me finish by saying that in my experience Phil Wallis was an easy man to love.  When I say this I do not mean a Hollywood, romantic, version of love but the type of love that arises when we treat others, including nature with legitimacy.  Phil was an easy man to love because he made it so easy to reciprocate the legitimacy, the love, he granted each of us when we worked, collaborated, talked, facilitated, traveled, wrote, speculated and laughed together.  There was no humbug about Phil.  He was the real deal.  In our final conversation he counseled me to go on asking challenging questions.  This is an invitation I extend to you all on Phil’s behalf because we each contribute to the world that Archer, Hugo and others will inherit. Phil did more than his fair share; we owe it to him to continue his legacy.

Ray Ison
8th February 2018

With contributions from:
Lee Godden
Naomi Rubenstein
Irene Kelly
S. Davidson
Nikki Reichelt
Patricia Geraghty
Ian Morgans
Chris Blackmore
Ben Iaquinto
Monika Farnbach
Helen Corney
Kevin Collins
Moragh Mackay
James Patterson
Ross Colliver
Sharon Pollard
Jana Paschen
Brian Coffey
Catherine Allan
Derick du Toit
Katherine Daniell
Laura Mumaw
Harry Biggs
John Colvin
Yongping Wei
Anna Lukasiewicz
Jocelyn Davies
Ashley Sparrow
Jasmyn Lynch
Liz Gachenga
Tony McLeod
Jason Alexandra
Nadine Gaskell
Robyn Holder
Nicky Ison
Cathy Humphreys

  With Phil and John Colvin on a walk out from Montusi Mountain Lodge, the Drakensburgs, South Africa in 2012.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

University interdisciplinarity: misplaced idealism...or oldish cynic?

I found myself thinking this enthusiastic article was a repeat of many that have gone before it - without ever fundamentally challenging the University status quo in terms of structures and processes.

But perhaps my cynicism flourishes too much!

'How the Internet controls you'

John Naughton has written an insightful systemic account of the the internet world we inhabit and co-create with the five largest companies on Earth.  Here is a taste from his Prospect article:

"The wags who spoke of early smartphones as “Crack-Berry” (a play on BlackBerry, one early model) were not wrong; they are engines for dopamine release. In January, two major Apple shareholders urged the company to address the potential harms caused by its products. They advised the firm to increase the parental controls on its devices and research the mental health effects of excessive use of smartphones. The shareholders, with a combined holding of $2bn, wrote: “There is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences.” A few days later, Roger McNamee, a large and early investor in Facebook, went public with very similar arguments. Indeed, the whole tendency for smartphones and social media apps is to “privilege our impulses over our intentions,” in the words of Oxford computer scientist James Williams. As a result, in Williams’s view,  social media is a threat to liberal democracy, a system that must always rely on the ordinary citizen’s capacity for deliberation."

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A Learning Health System

Members of our STiP (Systems Thinking in Practice) alumni group are actively involved in a new enterprise called 'a learning health system'.

The claim is made that:

"A Learning Health System (LHS) gets pretty close to that approach (and much more) to health care and health, putting precisely that type of timely and actionable knowledge, based on the real-world experiences of millions of patients, in the hands of clinicians, patients, and all other health care stakeholders.  Harnessing the power of such unprecedented knowledge at our fingertips – when it’s needed and where it’s needed, and in the form most useful to the person using it – we can make better informed decisions that lead to saving lives, improving health, and transforming our health care system into one that rapidly learns and continuously improves."

A new journal has appeared to support this emerging field.

The challenge is to imbue its enactment with systems thinking in practice!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Member of the Scientific Council of the BCSSS

During 2017 I accepted an appointment as a Member of the Scientific Council of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (BCSSS), an Austrian independent research institute, internationally acknowledged as an ambassador for the systems science heritage and present state-of-the-art of applied systems research.

Bitcoins - boundary judgements re the 'system' are critical

John Quiggin argues in this article that 'Bitcoin mining likely uses more energy than it takes to keep New Zealand's lights on'

CGIAR 'systems' book now on Open Access

We are happy to inform you that the publication ‘Sustainable Intensification in Smallholder Agriculture: An integrated Systems Research Approach’  - to which you contributed - is now open access.  Please, spread the link further in your networks.
Thank you and kind regards,
Willemien Brooijmans

Friday, November 10, 2017

Free course: Mastering systems thinking in practice

The Open University through its platform OpenLearn has a series of free courses called BOCs (Badged Open Courses). Obtaining the badge when successfully completed, this short can be put to a range of purposes: gaining prior credit; continuing professional development etc.

My OU colleague Andy Lane has led the development of a new BOC, now available, called Mastering systems thinking in practice.  It is ideally suited to those who think our OU STiP programme (postgraduate awards in Systems Thinking in Practice) may be relevant but wish to have a taster before committing to full-blown OU study/modules.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

PhD thesis of interest - Andrew Mitchell

I have recently become aware of a thesis completed by Andrew Mitchell at De Montfort University called "Second-order learning in developmental evaluation for community-based sustainability" Here is a copy of the abstract:

"It is increasingly common for complex social, economic and environmental policy concerns to be delivered via funded community-based projects. A project’s contribution is typically monitored and evaluated relative to pre-defined outcomes, supported by a set of indicators. Available research suggests that when judged against such criteria, the performance of many funded international developmental and community-based sustainability (CBS) projects are variable, with evidence suggesting that changes elicited are negligible in duration, type, and scale. However, evaluating project performance relative to pre-defined outcomes may overlook the practical learning accumulated by actors in realising key objectives under conditions afforded by the operational context. To address this gap, developmental evaluation (DE) foregrounds and supports project practitioner learning and innovation under dynamic, complex, and uncertain operating conditions. Applying the DE focus on project actor learning and innovation, the present research thematically analyses how practitioners in a funded CBS case study project make sense of their practice. Despite its explicit focus on learning however, DE has not articulated a coherent cognitive paradigm, and a contribution of the present study is to equip DE with a conceptual architecture drawn from the enactive cognitive science paradigm, rooted in an explicit accounting of complexity. 

Using this base, a prototype DE framework was designed and provisionally field-tested in the form of a set of prompts to be used with CBS practitioners to augment traditional monitoring and evaluation activities. This framework is intended to support practitioners in surfacing and capturing second-order learning about their practices and to explore opportunities for innovative responses to dynamic complex operational conditions. 

Recommendations are offered for further research and how these findings might be incorporated into future CBS design and funding considerations."

Paper from Francis Meynell's PhD

I cannot remember if I have put a link here to the work done by Francis Meynell in his PhD supervised by me and Chris Blackmore. If not here is a link to the only paper published thus far from the thesis.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Brexit of an encouraging nature

OECD says reversing Brexit would boost Britain’s economy [New European]
The international economic think tank, the OECD, warned in a report last week that a disorderly Brexit without a trade deal would trigger an adverse reaction of financial markets, driving down the pound. It warned that “business investment would seize up” and higher prices would choke off private consumption. However, the OECD analysis found that if there was a decision to halt Brexit, such as by a second referendum, the “positive impact on growth would be significant”.

The zombie ideas that hold so many Brexiteers in their grip [Financial Times]
A powerful article by Martin Wolf in the FT looks at the "zombie" ideas that have taken over the Brexiteers. One such idea is that the UK is in a stronger position than the EU, because it runs a trade deficit with it. Martin points out that, even without the UK, the EU remains the second-largest economy in the world, with an economy almost six times bigger at market prices in 2016: the UK is negotiating with an economic superpower. Another zombie idea is that those who deny the claims of the Brexiteers are “traitors” or “saboteurs” working against “the will of the people”. Martin comments that this is despotism. In a liberal democracy, we are all entitled to our opinions and to seek to overturn what we consider grossly mistaken decisions. The saboteurs are those whose zombie ideas have brought the UK to a ruinous break with its neighbours and natural partners.

Divorce with the EU isn’t inevitable [Guardian]
Some people argue that, because we have triggered Article 50, we are bound to leave the EU. However, Helen Mountfield QC, who was involved in the Gina Miller case, doesn’t agree. She believes that, if we change our mind before March 2019, we can probably stay in the EU legally, through a unilateral decision, without having to ask the European council or the commission or the EU27 for permission. All we have done by triggering Article 50 is tell the EU that we are unhappy and plan to go, but we have not reached the point of no return. Crucially, Parliament has not yet voted to leave the EU: all that the prime minister has done so far is give notice of the current government’s present intention to leave.

Source: EU Insider Briefing: 16-22 October 2017

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Systems Practice: How to Act ....just published

The second edition of my 2010 book has just been published.  I expect to see my first printed copy tomorrow.   Various features can be seen from the Springer web pages.  The book or individual chapters can be purchased here.

Excellent Guardian editorial today

"It is possible to determine which nations and companies are responsible for damaging the climate. It’s only a matter of time before courts decide they must pay for global warming"

Read on here