Over the past 50 years, systems thinkers have become increasingly influential in every field of human endeavour – from astronomy to agriculture, from economics to health, from crime prevention to traffic circulation. The practical benefits of systems thinking in these fields have been immense, yet little use has been made of it in tackling the social and political problems that we face.
If systems are separated into their component parts they cannot perform the functions of which they are capable when put together in the right combination: a pile of bicycle parts cannot be ridden until assembled in the correct way; an amputated arm cannot throw a ball. A tree here, some ants over there and a pile of leaves do not provide an environment in which an ecosystem can be sustained. A rideable bike, ecosystems and ball throwing are ‘emergent properties’ of different kinds of systems. This is the single most important concept in systems sciences because it requires us to think in terms of whole systems and their relationships, not just their parts.
Living organisms and ecosystems are ‘self-organizing’. This means that their behaviour is not controlled by some external agency but is established by the system itself. Yet, even without external controls, natural systems exhibit high degrees of order. This is a consequence of the ordered but dynamic relationships between the parts of the system and its environment – between, for example, an ecosystem such as a forest and its inanimate environment.
Like living systems, purposeful human systems are also self-organizing. The more complex these systems become, the more they self-organize and arrive at their own form of order – though the form of order they arrive at may or may not be helpful in achieving the system’s purpose. Think of how any complex organization you have been involved with – a local council, a hospital or a school – seems to defy all attempts to impose tight control upon it.
The ability of living systems and purposeful human systems to self-organize enables them to adapt to changes in their environment without losing their integrity. An ongoing enterprise is still ‘the firm’ after all the original staff have left and it no longer makes what it used to make. If you looked at its parts, they would all be different; but the system as a whole has retained its identity.
All members of the system are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships. They derive their essential properties and, in fact, their very existence from their relationships. The success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the community as a whole.
In contrast, engineered systems have predictable outcomes, because all their components can be precisely designed and controlled. Most of our political, administrative, business and NGO leaders assume that purposeful human systems should be as predictable as engineered systems. But it is only as they become both increasingly complex and increasingly self-organizing that purposeful human systems and their component parts also achieve an ordered state, which arises as an emergent property of the system as a whole. As Margaret Wheatley, the American leadership and systems thinker, says: ‘You can’t look at something like self-organization or complex adaptive systems in science, no matter what unit you’re looking [at] – plants, molecules, chemicals – without realizing that this is a kind of democratic process. Everybody is involved locally and out of that comes a more global system.’
Thus, if we can think of ‘democracy’ as meaning a system through which members of communities organize themselves, rather than a system for controlling them, our democratic systems would be getting closer to being complex, adaptive and self-organizing.
For as societies become ever more complex, their leaders have less and less control over the internal and external complexities they face. There is simply too much information for a small group of decision-makers, with limited skills, knowledge and time, to process in order to make confident decisions – no matter how powerful their computers or how vast their resources. Thus information processing and decision-making power should be devolved as widely as possible. The leaders and the subsystems can then take actions which aid the viability of the system as a whole.
Take a soccer game, for example. Suppose there are 11 equally talented players on each side but the players in one team can only do exactly what the captain tells them to do. Obviously, their opponents would run rings round them because, within certain fairly loose rules and shared understandings, they would play as a ‘complex, adaptive, self-organizing system’. By being ‘self-organizing’, the winning team would be able to generate more variety than the team that could only do what their captain told them.
In her book The Coming Democracy Anne Florini offers a new way of looking at global governance, a model that rejects top-down rule. She suggests that if people are able to harness technology to increase their knowledge and hold institutions accountable – whether by viewing satellite images to form independent opinions about a military threat or using email to organize interest groups – new forms of global democracy are possible.
Others argue that these new forms are already being forged.
Hugely complex, self-organized and interconnected across continents, no single person can see the sum of all the parts of the global justice movement – but the powerful can certainly feel its combined effect. The network model is non-hierarchical, resilient, responsive. If it breaks in one place, it remains intact in others, and can reform. It is hard to destroy completely. It is exponentially fuelled by the growth in communications technology. The movement has co-ordinated mass gatherings, scrutinized arcane trade treaties and shared information once the domain of élites.
US defence think-tank the RAND Institute agrees: ‘The network appears to be the next major form of organization – long after tribes, hierarchies and markets – to come into its own to redefine societies.’ This may well be bad news for autocrats.
As Stephen Jones in his book Emergence writes: ‘Progressive movements for democratic renewal are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are naturally hostile to excessive concentration of power; and both are friendly to change. For any movement that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralized power, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available.’
Could an interconnected network of democracies, from the local to the global, be the political model of the future?
Failure to use systems thinking when developing solutions to the problems caused by, for example, the current model of economic globalization – that is, focusing on the system’s emergent properties rather than its underlying structural causes – can only lead to ineffective, and sometimes gravely damaging, actions.
It is this failure to understand the need for soft-systems approaches to what systems thinkers call ‘wicked’ problems that leads to the incompetence of governments in dealing with almost all of the issues on their agenda.
According to systems thinker Professor Horst Rittel, almost all the major problems that confront our societies can be classified as ‘wicked’: they are problems that arise from non-linear systems’ complexities, as opposed to ‘tame’ problems, which arise from linear system faults. The main features of ‘wicked’ problems are:
- There is no definitive statement of the problem because it is embedded in an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.
- You only begin to understand the problem when you have developed and tested an interim solution.
- There are many people who care about, or have something at stake in, how the problem is resolved. This makes the problem-solving process fundamentally social rather than technical.
- Because there is no objectively ‘right answer’, what is important is that the stakeholders work out and accept whatever solution looks most promising.
- The constraints on the solution, such as limited resources and political ramifications, change over time. The constraints change – ultimately – because we live in a rapidly changing world. Operationally they change because many constraints are generated by the stakeholders, who come and go, change their minds, fail to communicate or otherwise change the rules by which the problem must be solved.
- Since there is no objective version of the problem, there is no definitive solution.
- The problem-solving process ends when you run out of time, money, energy or some other resource – not when some perfect solution emerges.
We live in a world full of ‘wicked’ problems: homelessness, drug dealing, terrorism, racism, overfishing, global warming and so on.
Systems theory treats society as an ecosystem rather than a conspiracy; interconnected but not planned. – Alex Begg
‘Tame’ problems, on the other hand, have definable outcomes and can be objectively solved. Even putting a human being on the moon is a ‘tame’ problem: it is difficult and hugely expensive but if you throw enough time, skills and resources at it you can do it; and you know when you have done it.
‘Tame’ and ‘wicked’ problems call for totally different approaches. With ‘tame’ problems there are recognized techniques and solutions. The standard approach is to divide the problem into manageable sub-problems and deal with them in a logical, linear sequence. Each of these will often call for different kinds of technical expertise. Once all the sub-problems have been solved, the solution to the whole problem is complete. The process is linear. The fatal error is to use linear processes to try to solve ‘wicked’ problems. Because ‘wicked’ problems can never be finally ‘solved’ in the way that ‘tame’ problems can, soft-systems concepts and methodologies are essential if we are to get to grips with them.
The soft-systems approach to ‘wicked’ problems arising in complex human systems requires the people involved in the problem situation to be actively involved in a constant cycle of thinking, acting and learning together. They need to understand each other’s perspectives; to do what they can to make things better and then to evaluate how successful they have been before starting the process all over again. This is a participatory, whole-systems approach to ordering our societies.
The whole business of soft-systems thinking is directed to the question of change within the chosen system. The more we understand about systems, the better we will be at learning how to create the democracies that will enable our societies to become more just and sustainable. Systems thinking has been successfully applied in many fields; it is now high time that this approach was applied to government and politics.
These soft-systems concepts can be used to reconfigure any complex human system from a school or a hospital to a government department, from a neighbourhood to a city to a whole nation. They provide the practical frameworks through which the citizens engaged in participatory change processes keep in close touch with the realities of the system that they are trying to improve. They build the knowledge and skills needed for citizens to work creatively on their ‘wicked’ problems while observing the shared purposes and principles of the system as a whole. And in doing so citizens and their liberating leaders gain in knowledge, competence and mutual trust. Thus equipped, they are able to tackle ever more complex and difficult ‘wicked’ problems in their society.
The idea that government could become a learning experience for all concerned is wholly foreign to command-and-control leaders. But the application of these concepts to the political field could transform the way democracy and government work.
Diversity, flexibility and subsidiarity will be the inevitable result of addressing ‘wicked’ problems with a soft-systems approach. Network government will encourage creativity and freedom in the design of all economic systems, in industry and agriculture as well as finance. What we are predicting here is the gradual emergence of a very different world. But it is not one that can be specified or ‘imagineered’. In systems terms, imagineering is inevitably a linear process and as such cannot take account of the complex adaptive nature of human societies.
Scientific developments in systems theory have given us a vision of how complex, self-organizing, ‘intelligent’ networks work in models as different as ant colonies, bustling cities, flocks of birds and computer software. But what if we applied these discoveries to models of human democracy? Most organizational forms today – from transnational corporations to liberal democracies – are based on top-down command and control systems. But humanity operates far more through self-organization, chaos, interdependence, relationships, complexity and networks. So can systems theory help us to build a democratic view of power from below?
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