From systems thinking to systemic knowing

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

A few years ago I opened a virtual Systems Library, as part of the educational offering bundled under our shiftN Academy. The idea was to deepen systems literacy by reflecting on key publications in systems thinking and practice. Because I noticed that people interested in the field rarely got beyond Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems. Valuable as her contribution is, it is only a tip of the systems iceberg. So we read and presented classics from the 1960s and 70s (including work by Herbert Simon, Gregory Bateson, Donald Schon, and others). We drew on ideas and practices developed by women in the fields of education, therapy and action research (Lois Holzman, Judi Marshall, Keller Easterling, amongst them). And systems science naturally bleeds into philosophy. So it’s no surprise that thinkers as diverse as Michel Serres, Andreas Weber, Hanne De Jaegher and Henk Oosterling drifted into focus.

Filling the shelves of the Systems Library has been a wonderful journey and we are very keen to continue the exploration, modulating between core and fringe publications, classics and cutting-edge ideas. I continue to post reviews to my Medium channel. And we’re also extending the thread of the yearly recurring live Library edition as part of the Academy.

This year, in 2022, we’re proposing another take on the Library sessions (starting on 3 May). An experiment in a more ambitious format, if you will.

  • First, we will devote four sessions to a single book.
  • Second, we will have the author participate in all sessions.
  • Third, we will invite participants to actively ‘metabolise’ what this book has to offer, through interweaving experiences from guided expressive arts practices.

The idea is to make the Library a place of genuine collaborative learning. This time we don’t want to merely reiterate an author’s arguments; we want to examine and metabolise the ideas, tease and reshape the logic, and make it our own.

The book chosen is an important one: Immersive Systemic Knowing, by Dr. Raghav Rajagopalan. It is the outcome of Raghav’s PhD research at the Centre of Systems Studies, University of Hull, UK. It enfolds his rich professional experience spanning rural and organisational development work in India. The argument starts from a distilled summary of contemporary applied systems thinking. This is likely to be very helpful for those who are looking for a very synthetic snapshot of where we are today in the systems field. Leaping forth, this intellectual footprint is projected on a wider philosophical canvas to build a bridge from current systems practices into several innovative (but sometimes also very old) ways of knowing, presently outside the scope of systems thinking. This is the realm of “immersive systemic knowing”.

The essence of immersive systemic knowing can be grasped by studying this slide:

Comparing Critical Systems Thinking with Immersive Systemic Knowing (image kindly shared by Raghav Rajagopalan)

It expresses a paradigmatic shift from an analytic conception of systems thinking to a nondual perspective beyond modernism. Systems thinking bootstraps itself out of its core concept of ‘system’, as it were.

I’ve carried the intuition that there is something ‘beyond systems’ with me for a while now. I expressed the desire to go there for the first time in conversation with Alok B. Nandi in 2006. It took a long while before I was able to construct for myself some sort of rough map of this terra incognita. It emerged as a result of a number of interacting strands:

In earlier Medium pieces, I have reflected on this path beyond systems as a developmental trajectory from systems thinking to systems being.

I had the privilege to exchange with Raghav during a first traversal of his book. I wrote to him:

“Your book is an important contribution. It certainly is for me. It crosses my path at a very propitious moment. In one of my Medium pieces I reflected on my development path as a systems practitioner. I described it as a movement from ‘thinking’ to ‘tinkering’ to ‘being’. Not a rigidly staged process, but a progressive enrichment from a skill to a disposition.

In the past days, in the light of my reading of your book, I have been reflecting more on this path of maturation. Your book is going to help me to penetrate much deeper, and with more confidence, into the landscape beyond systems. Before it crossed my path, my ideas about ’systems being’ resembled a nomads’ tent camp, a makeshift, very precarious constellation of dwellings fluttering in the wind. Now there is a full-fledged city, in which I can walk around, enjoying admiringly the spacious piazzas, the broad boulevards with their fascinating vistas on the territory beyond, the distinctive quarters of craftspeople that feel and sound differently as I cross from one neighbourhood into the other. It will take a while until I will know every nook and cranny of this new city. But all in all I feel secure in navigating it. The place makes sense, and it feels very hospitable. Where I will settle down, I don’t know. What I will feel when I look out of the ramparts, I don’t know. But I’m really happy to have discovered this place. Thank you for building it, Raghav.”

I hope to see some of my Medium readers in the 2022 edition of our Systems Library.



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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?