Systems Practice

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View on Linz from Sankt Magdalena Raiffeisen Bildungszentrum – photo (c) Olaf Brugman

The IFSR Conversations on Systems Science that took place in April 2018, in the Austrian city of Linz, were the first I participated in. They have proven to be an almost priceless opportunity to converse and work for a week with fellow-systems practitioners and to discuss, define and elaborate solutions for challenges in our societies. We worked on Systems Practice: how can we equip system practitioners with the collective system science skills to observe, understand, and steer complex systems? We focused on social systems: organisations and networks of institutions, organisations and people: how do we define the purposes of such systems, how do we model them, how do we understand them and develop solutions? And more importantly even: how do we promote that we, systems practitioners, learn to further apply our skills, and how do we promote that complex systems have those skills available to their better functioning? In other words, we worked on both the professional and the systems level.

We were object and subject at the same time. We were observers and the observed. We were a dynamic, forming, learning, and intervening system at the same time. We derived our learning from public health, security, problem-solving methods, deep reflection, and also from over 160 years of combined professional experience. And we applied our knowledge back to it.

Of the group of seven fellow system practitioners in our working group, I already knew three and have had the pleasure to work with them before. This helped us as a group to get a head start in our proceedings. However, getting in touch with three new colleagues added new perspectives and options to the group, which I felt was very beneficial to all of us. It was striking how entering into conversations with well-intended colleagues whom I had not had the pleasure to work with before always leads to different understanding of systems, and new views on making them function better. Even more than expected.

The methods at least of the group members were familiar with were management cybernetics in the tradition of Stafford Beer, Fredmund Malik and others. And also with management cybernetics learning and problem-solving methods based on Systems Practice for Everyone (Ockie Bosch, Nam Nguyen, Nguyen Van Thanh). We used these methods and tools such as Vester’s and Malik’s Sensitivity Model tool to formulate our leading questions, to model the complex systems dynamics and to find solutions. What struck me exceptionally was the insight, from five days of conversations, that systems function is an outcome of a whole set of different factors: training and educating professionals, leadership, technology, health etc. And also how connected several aspects of our societies are – economy, environment, social relationships, climate, health, innovation, well-being, public security.

The conversations and group work led to some new and surprising insights. We were able to go beyond the usual training and educational approach visualising how to enable professionals to develop their skills. Our methods led us to see that we can also look at how certain skills and qualities are available in the system, even if they are not present in each and every individual, such as monitoring, capacity increasing systems’ responsiveness, and the interconnecting between economic, environmental and social factors all influence each other, representing both challenges and leverage points for solutions. Also, it became clear how difficult it is to arrive at new knowledge: complex social systems tend to reinforce around their current homeostats: governance structures, power structures, personal roles and individuals all work to maintain the status quo. Leaders and those in power who ‘see’ are not always able to ‘speak’ since the system may relentlessly fall unto them in an attempt to preserve the system.

Interactions with other groups or other we had relatively few, mainly because we as a group had several activities in the evening, and also since I had to take care of ongoing business concerns outside the Conversation hours. Therefore the opportunities for interaction were rather limited, or at least more than I had wanted. That was a missed opportunity, but it also enabled more in-depth learning on our working group’s main theme.

All in all, the systems practice week in Linz, organised by the International Federation for the Systems Sciences (IFSR) was extremely rich and insightful, inspiring, and it deepened experiences that enhanced my skills as a systems practitioner. I am grateful to the event organisers and hosts dr. Gary Metcalf and Prof.Dr. Gerhard Chroust, my working group’s members and coordinators, the IFSR and also the wider group of the IFSR Conversations in Linz.