Brisbane 2009 Letter from the President

We are all familiar with the names of luminaries in the systems sciences.  We each have our favorites whose achievements express most comfortably our individual perspectives on what is systems thinking and how it applies.  While I stand in deep respect of all of the great names, some of whom I have been lucky enough to know as acquaintances and even some to have as personal friends, if I must choose one it is Robert Rosen.  I hope to do more than translate him for a wider audience in my life, but that in itself would be achievement enough.  Several of us hope the upcoming meeting does some of that.  But for all the towering figures of our discourse, there are remarkably few institutions in systems science that have proven to be stable and robust enough to stand the test of the passing of the individuals who founded them.

Deans step in and dismantle what they do not understand, taking the money for their discipline centered favorites.  Perhaps the University of Florida, Gainesville will have the wisdom to continue the thrust of H. T. Odum, but these are early days after our having lost his personal presence. 

But then to give the lie to all I have said above stands the University of Queensland, Brisbane, the setting of our upcoming meeting.  Is it something in water Northern Australia, or the great demand from busineses and a “dry-continent-society” to help them dealing with the complexities of sustainability and climate change adaptation that a center for systems sciences is there?  Better than that, I do not see any one person as the singular figure head of it all, no Churchman or Odum or Boulding give systems in Queensland its identity.  Rather there is a full set of energetic systems scientists running a broad curriculum of excellence in the field.  There may be some distinctive systems scientists e.g. (Bosch and Maani) who set things going in Brisbane, and perhaps we will learn of a remarkable history when we are there in July.  But even if that proves to be the case what I see now is rather a set of schools and a university at large pressing forward on general systems thinking on a broad front.  Deans and administrative leaders will welcome us and are supporting the effort of our members as they plan a great meeting.

Brisbane systems science is here to stay.  And for me personally I am most excited that it is environmentally centered, all the way from basic environmental science to deeply applied systems thinking with people and values forcing complexity upon us. 

And the theme of our meeting is cutting edge.  It focuses on sustainability and livability, an essential double stage way into the future.  That theme addresses an issue that has been central to my own development as a system scientist: scale.  Scale is the issue at the center of hierarchy theory, my own passion.  We cannot get to a planned rational future without both long and short term perspectives.  In the end it is a grand vision of a happy long term for our planet and ourselves.  But we cannot get there without going through a series of local times with people in them.  The unfolding long plan must always be acceptable, or better still embraced, by the people who must live at that time while planning for their respective futures.  In the realm of livability human values keep changing, but must be continually met, their transience notwithstanding.  The path to sustainability must pass through all of the differently valued livabilities until over the long term sustainability is the outcome.  As the values for what is livable change, sometimes they must include accepting what might have been seen as unacceptable and a failure in the past, but is in the respective present the best realistic outcome.  It took gasoline prices to double in months for livability in the United States to include rejecting SUVs and trucks.  The change in values was reflected in sales of those vehicles as they plummeted.  The price of a second hand Cadillac is so low now that it might make sense to buy one and pay the higher fuel prices.  So the dual issues of sustainability and livability together are very much a complex systems issue that invokes more than one level of analysis.  There is plenty for systems theorists and practitioner to bite on. 

But there is another prong to the trident with which this meeting will probe the future.  While looking at two places separated by centuries, Joseph Tainter discussed the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and Epirus in Greece.  He saw a parallel in stunning detail in the change in both places from self-sufficient subsistent peasantry to unemployment in a tourist economy.  The common cause for the unfortunate twin outcomes was the intrusion of new information from outside.  At the end of his paper, Tainter suggested that all parts of contemporary humanity from the First to the Third World face similar predicaments.  His solution is global systems thinking, which he says can only be achieved by education from a very early age.  Only in that way can humans come to see global systems thinking as unremarkable.  It is Tainter's choice of the word "unremarkable" stimulated me to include it in the theme for the meeting over which I will preside.  Yes livable sustainability is a fine goal for the systems community, but we will not get far until it becomes something unremarkable, something the rank and file take for granted.
It is the old problem of how do we get systems thinking into the mainstream, an issue that has challenged all of us who have been systems thinkers for any length of time.  This, of course, touches on global matters, and in particular on education.  The University of Queensland appears to find systems thinking unremarkable, in that many of its even discipline centered programs teach it and integrate it as a matter of course.  What a unique place Brisbane will be for us all to move forward in a way that really matters.  Please come join us in Brisbane for what promises to be a fully remarkable event. 

Timothy Allen,
President of the ISSS.

Timothy F. H. Allen
Botany Dept, 430 Lincoln Drive
University of Wisconsin
Madison WI 53706-1381
608 262 2692 phone
608 262 7509 fax