Whither Systems? | ¿A Dónde Vamos?
Debora Hammond, Ph.D.
Incoming President's Address | ISSS 49th Annual Conference | Cancun, Mexico, July 2005
The question I ask in the title, subtitled in recognition of our Mexican hosts, pertains to both the broadly defined field of systems thinking in general and to the ISSS in particular. Specifically, I will explore what systems thinking might have to contribute to the challenges facing humanity at this juncture in our evolution, as well as the role that ISSS might play in fostering more systemic approaches in education, business, technology, and government. At an even broader level, in order to provide a context for these questions, it is important to consider where the systems that condition our lives are themselves headed. There are many indications that the current state of the world is highly unstable - whether one considers ecological issues, such as the loss of biodiversity and climate change, or sociopolitical issues, such as the increasing disparity in wealth, heightened tensions between nations, or the threat of nuclear proliferation. In what ways might the various traditions that comprise the "systems approach" contribute to resolving the increasing polarization between individuals, belief systems, and living conditions in different parts of the world? Even within the broad umbrella of systems thinking, there seems to be a growing divide between the "two cultures" (i.e. science and the humanities) that C.P. Snow (1959) identified nearly a half century ago. One of the primary goals for which the ISSS was founded was to foster the unity of knowledge, which is perhaps what makes it unique among the many systems-oriented institutions that have emerged in the interim. How might we most effectively pursue this quest and what might it mean in the context of our times?
It is an honor to have been chosen as your president, particularly because, as Jennifer Wilby informed me when she asked if I would accept the nomination for this position, I am only the second woman president in the history of the society, the first being Margaret Mead (1972-73). I believe in the mission of ISSS and will work hard during the coming years to further that mission. Next year's conference will be the 50th annual meeting -- a significant milestone. It is important to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of all of those who have made the society what it is, and at the same time to highlight developments in other branches of systems thinking.1
As part of my preparation for next summer's conference, I spent the month of June 2005 at the Santa Fe Institute's Complex Systems Summer School, learning about the field of complex systems studies. One of my primary goals for next year's meeting is to bring in different perspectives from a variety of systems-related organizations, such as the Santa Fe Institute, the American Society for Cybernetics, and the System Dynamics Group among others. Despite their differences in orientation and approach, these various organizations share a number of goals in common, and I believe it is important to build bridges with different organizations instead of perpetuating the same kind of fragmentation of knowledge that the founders of ISSS were hoping to overcome. The challenges that we face in the world today require collaboration, cooperation, mutual understanding, openness, tolerance, and as Kenneth Boulding would say, "a willingness to see the other fellow's point of view."
Where ARE We Going?
I was in a somewhat whimsical mood when Jennifer asked for title of my talk. I chose "Whither systems?" because it seemed to capture the sense of what I hoped to discuss. Webster gives the following definition for whither: "to what place, result, or condition," which reflects the kind of questions I would like to pose to ISSS and to the systems movement in general. The image I chose to illustrate the title of my talk captured for me a small segment of the Lorenz attractor, showing the trajectory of separate paths converging and diverging. It gave me the sense of skimming along the edge of a chaotic attractor, and that chaotic attractor might be concept of systems. And the Lorenz attractor provides an appropriate visual metaphor, with its two somewhat skewed planes, which might be seen as representing the analytical and hermeneutic dimensions of systems thinking, or alternatively, perhaps, the thermodynamic and linguistic dimensions that Tim Allen so vividly demonstrated in his presentation.
In honor of our Mexican hosts, and representatives from the Latin American Systems Society (ALAS), I chose to subtitle my talk "¿A Dónde Vamos?" -- where are we going? - asking this question on three levels: Where are we going as a society, as a field of systems science, and as a whole planetary ecosystem? I will address these levels in reverse order, because the way we understand what we're facing as a planetary ecosystem should determine the direction of system science in general and ISSS in particular.
Ralph Gerard, who was one of the founders of this society, often referred to scientists as the brain of the social organism, depicting science as a kind of guidance system. Although the organismic analogy may be problematic, science does indeed help us understand the world around us in order to act more effectively in that world. Systems science emerged in part to address the increasing specialization of science and the resulting fragmentation of our collective understanding, offering an approach that integrates knowledge from the physical sciences, life sciences, and social sciences, as well as ethics, aesthetics, and spirituality.
Russell Ackoff identified three main kinds of systems: technological systems, social systems, and biological systems. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, recognized as the founder of General System Theory, said that human beings are biological organisms, but we live in world of symbols, and then suggested that it is the symbolic dimension of our lives that is at the root of most of our problems. He argued that wars are symbolic conflicts, not necessarily biological conflicts. While economics clearly plays an important role in contemporary conflicts, it would be an interesting project to try to tease apart the symbolic and biological dimensions of our economic sphere, particularly as the neo-Darwinian framework is often evoked to justify the increasing disparity in the human condition.
What is Science For?
This question was posed to me by one of the students at the Santa Fe Institute's Summer School, in response to what seemed to her to be a distortion of priorities in much contemporary research and investigation. It has always seemed to me that the primary purpose of science should be to work in service of humanity, to improve the human condition, and to preserve the integrity of the natural world, although the various institutional constraints within which contemporary science functions often serve other, occasionally conflicting aims.
In addressing the question of the purpose of science, it is important to consider the difference in orientation between theoretical and applied sciences. The primary criterion of value in theoretical science is the discovery of truth, and yet even the kinds of truths that are considered important have to be seen in the context of social, economic, and political factors. Even more significant, in relation to my topic, are the ways in which science is being applied; it is important to ask whose interests are being served, particularly in terms of the balance between public and private good.
Where are we Headed as a Planetary Ecosystem?
Beginning, then, with the planetary ecosystem, what are the trends and what are the challenges that we face? How we answer these questions might help to illuminate the directions that systems science and ISSS might want to pursue. In his plenary address, "Service Sciences, Engineering, and Management (SSEM): An Emerging Multidiscipline," Jim Spohrer identified the emerging service economy as an important trend, and spoke of the challenges of adapting to the rapidly changing dynamics in the socio-technical systems that shape our lives. At the same time, it is necessary to place these considerations in the context of what I see as two critical overarching trends: the increasing disparity between rich and poor, and the increasing worldwide acceleration of environmental degradation.
In that context, I believe that the most critical challenge facing humanity is how to create a more sustainable future. Many have commented that sustainability has become a meaningless term, because it is used by so many to mean so many different things. Nevertheless, the generally accepted definition - meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs - provides a starting point for evaluating our choices, which highlights the critical dimensions of social justice and conflict resolution.
Where is the Field of Systems Science Headed?
With that as the context for the planet, where is the field of systems science going? When I first began my research on the history of systems thinking (see Hammond, The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory), I struggled to get a handle on what exactly systems theory was all about and what was the relationship between the many and varied schools of thought in that broadly conceived field. At the time, I created the following framework for thinking about the different strands of systems thinking (see Table 1). Clearly there is a lot of crossover and interrelationship between these various approaches, but this categorization helped me to identify differences in goals and general orientations.
Table 1: Schools of Thought/Practice in the Systems Field
General System(s) Theory
Change in Consciousness
Some of the earliest developments in the field of systems - systems engineering and systems analysis - were focused on basic problem solving in technological and organizational systems. With the evolution of more sophisticated computer technology came the ability to model the dynamics of complex systems in connection with such fields as system dynamics and the more recent fields of chaos and complexity studies. These fields tend to emphasize the mathematical and theoretical dimension of systems thinking.
Building upon the more technical orientation of the first two categories, the fields of cybernetics and general system(s) theory emerged as broader fields concerned with integration and synthesis, bringing together a wide range of disciplinary perspectives in exploring larger questions. And the final category of new paradigm thinking recognizes the significant influence of systems thinking in the emergence of deep ecology and related fields, which draw on system concepts to highlight the importance of relationship and interdependence, and the need for a change in consciousness, particularly in terms of our sense of identity in relation to the larger world of which we are a part, if we're going to move to a more sustainable culture.
Recently I put together a book proposal, with the intention of exploring how has the field of systems science has evolved in the last fifty years and the following list of emerging fields reflects the general directions that I identified:
- Systems Practice
- Participatory Systems Design
- Self-Organizing Systems
- Second Order Cybernetics
- Systems Biology
- Ecology & Sustainability
- Complexity Studies
The first three of these are the ones I see as being most well represented in ISSS. Systems practice is reflected in the work of such influential systems thinkers as Russell Ackoff, C. West Churchman, Peter Checkland, and Mike Jackson, all of whom have worked with organizations to bring about change through more collaborative processes. Closely related is the kind of work that Bela Banathy and many of his students have been doing in participatory systems design. These are the areas that have been most interesting to me throughout my association with ISSS, and they are part of the much larger category of self-organizing systems - exploring the processes of self-organization in a variety of complex systems, but especially complex human socio-technical systems. An important contribution in this endeavor has been the emergence and development of second order cybernetics, which focuses not only on understanding feedback processes in physical systems, but exploring the processes of self-reflective feedback and learning in living systems.
The last three fields are probably least well represented in ISSS, and they represent areas for future outreach. Systems biology is a key area in the systems field that is re-surfacing, as we understand the dynamics of the genome and interactions among the genes. As Len Troncale has often suggested, this is a field that is currently experiencing a renaissance. Ecology and sustainability are inherently systemic fields that could be more fully integrated into the work of the society. And the field of complexity studies, which includes such topics as nonlinear chaotic dynamics, network theory, and agent-based modeling, is furthering an important part of what the ISSS was originally founded to do.
What about ISSS: Where are we Headed as a Society?
What role can we play and what is unique about what we have to offer? Before I answer that question, I wanted to reflect on the kinds of research that is represented in our membership. Drawing from the list of active Special Integration Groups (SIGs) and the general focus of papers that I have experienced in the twelve years that I've been part of the society, these are the areas of research that I identified as being most active in ISSS.
Figure 1: Active Areas of Research
Management is a key area, closely related to informatics and information science. Another cluster involves concerns with organizational change, social system design, and education. Living systems, building on the work of James Grier Miller, has been a significant field within the ISSS community, although it has tended to be somewhat isolated from other developments. Although less represented at this meeting, psychology has been an important area in the past, along with such related fields as cognitive science, consciousness studies, and second order cybernetics. And lastly, probably most closely related to the founding aims of the society, are efforts toward the development of meta-theoretical frameworks and general systems theories. The clusters, as I have drawn them, reflect the fact that work in these areas is not always connected. And I think that's one of the challenges for ISSS - to find ways to integrate the work being done in the various SIGs or the various sub-clusters of general systems thinking. I appreciate the work that the Student SIG has done this year in this regard, documenting the work of the various SIGS and seeking to articulate some of the connections.
Culture Wars and the Unity of Knowledge
One of the initial aims of the society, when it was first organized in 1954, was to foster the unity of science by bringing together scholars from different disciplinary fields, to share their insights and see what they could learn from each other. This orientation toward the unity of knowledge is one of the features that makes ISSS unique among systems-oriented institutions, and it is perhaps the most important contribution that we offer in this field - because we do try to bring different perspectives together. So the question remains whether or not this is a meaningful pursuit in the context of our times, and if so how we might most effectively pursue such a quest. Personally, I see it as an important challenge, not only for ISSS, but for the world as a whole.
In August 2004, the new Provost at Sonoma State University, where I teach, sent out on our campus listserv an article by Vartan Gregorian entitled, "Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge." Gregorian wrote about the fragmentation of knowledge and the problems of increasing specialization, and then suggested that in order to find meaning and to understand their role in society, students need to develop skills in synthesis and systemic thinking. He went on to say that while we have enormous amounts of information and computer systems to help us integrate it, that information alone can't help us come up with a coherent moral framework or tell us what questions are really worth asking.
What intrigued me was the vehemence of the response to this article. There was enormous resistance from several faculty members to this notion of the unity of knowledge. One person wrote about the "facility with which generalization and synthesis lead to fallacy." Another person wrote that, "knowledge is historically contingent, socially constructed, and deeply contested." And another: "At the end of his piece, Gregorian paraphrases T.S. Eliot on Dante's Inferno that 'hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing.' OK, but I would add that hell may also be a standardized world in which everything is unified into conveniently packaged and packageable wholes."
In response, the Provost wrote, "I see in this call for unity a turn back from a post-modernist fragmentation of meaning, a reaffirmation of the possibility of progress in knowledge and, finally, of progress in the human experience." To which, another faculty member responded: "Calls for a unity of knowledge, or 'consilience,' can indeed directly conflict with what is broadly called postmodernism. However, rather than regarding postmodernism primarily as fragmentation, we might also see it more positively as a democratization of discourses and an opening to perspectives heretofore marginalized by monopolistic [and as another writer added, interest dependent] claims to 'the Truth.' I cannot believe that in our globalized multicultural world we can ever go back to any unitary absolutism (unless we surrender to some variety of fundamentalism)."
There is clearly some confusion about what is meant by idea of the unity of knowledge. What ISSS offers is a place where we can bring in multiple perspectives and share our ideas with one another. There is clearly reason for concern about the potential tendency, in pursuit of the "unity of knowledge," toward a kind of disciplinary and/or theoretical imperialism. I heard this at Santa Fe Institute, toward the end of the summer school, from a faculty panel, who said that you can't do complex systems studies unless you know differential equations and linear algebra. Similarly, E.O. Wilson, in his book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, proposed an integration of the natural and social sciences using evolutionary theory as the overarching framework. What ISSS offers, in contrast, is an opportunity for bringing multiple voices together without trying to fit them into one single framework - the kind of democratization of discourses mentioned above. I believe this is a tremendously valuable contribution toward addressing the critical issues of our times, as we will never be able to solve the problems we face, if we are unable to talk to each other across the divides that have traditionally kept us from understanding - and working together with - one another.
Hammond, Debora, 2003. The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory (Boulder: University Press of Colorado)
Snow, C.P., 1959. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press)
Wilson, Edward O., 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.)
1 Note: while the society was conceived in 1954, it was not officially founded until 1956. So, although we celebrated "fifty years of systems science" in 2004, there is also reason to celebrate 2006 as the fiftieth anniversary, without detracting from the significance of the earlier date.