In spiral growth towards systems mastery

Systemic Sensibilities, Systems Literacy, Systems Thinking in Practice.

Philippe Vandenbroeck
4 min readFeb 22, 2021
Moving from Systemic Sensibilities to Systems Thinking in Practice? Or from Systems Thinking to Systems Being? (picture: my own: location: Ponte Tibetano, Switzerland)

This is a corollary to an earlier Medium piece of mine. There I retraced my own developmental trajectory as a move across several horizons of systems mastery: from systems thinking to systems tinkering to systems being. With the proviso, of course, that all this talk about mastery has an aspirational character and that this personal journey is far from finished.

The point I wanted to make is that familiarity with systems thinking tools is only a beginning. With an emphasis on the indefinite article. Rather than an end in itself, it is a start of a passage from the cognitive to the embodied, through a practice that embraces the unruliness of wicked problems.

I’d like to reconsider this developmental process through a conceptual lens offered by Ray Ison and Ed Straw. In their 2020 book The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking. Governance in a Climate Emergency the authors reflect on institutional innovations to embed the capacity for systems thinking in the workings of governments. Soon I will review this book in depth as part of my expanding Systems Library. For now I would just like to focus on the distinction proposed by Ison and Straw between:

In brief: a sensibility is a way of being in the world. It is “a quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences.”

A systems literate person relies on a distinctive language — technical, artistic, interpersonal - to articulate systems insights.

Systems (thinking in) practice is a purposeful pattern of behaviour that seeks to impact the world around us in a way that is coherent with this systemic worldview.

The linchpin for Ison and Straw is the capacity to think systemically, in practice. That capacity needs to be scaled up and institutionalised. Sensibilities and literacy function as enablers for this capacity. In other words, embracing our systemic sensibilities is a catalyst to developing systems literacy, which enables the capability for systems thinking in practice.

Contrasting my piece on systems mastery with the line of argument put forward by Ison and Straw, I observe that the idea of a development path features in both their book and my piece. We agree: over time we grow into our systems mastery. This is an instructional journey.

Further, we are in agreement about the characterisation of the key stages in this process. I see the following equivalence:

However, from the table above it transpires that we seem to be in disagreement about the order in which we pass through those stages in growing into systems mastery. Phrased in their vocabulary:

In Ray and Ed’s view we all had systemic sensibilities, once. But most of us lost them as a result of the socialisation in a culture that is dominantly reductionist, i.e. wedded to the ideas of autonomy, mind-body dualism, linearity, and control. These ideas have numbed our systemic sensibilities and discoloured our experience of the world. So we have to re-establish connection again with these sensibilities and re-open ourselves to their influence.

My path reflects the experience of getting access to progressively more nuanced and more resonant sensibilities. They manifest themselves through my ongoing devotion to a systems and artistic practice (as thinker, facilitator, photographer and writer). And these sensibilities are enriched by a progressively widening systems literacy (by reading works from thinkers such as Tim Ingold, Lars Spuybroek, John Durham Peters, François Jullien, and others). I should also mention the exchanges with fellow travelers that are nourishing both sensibilities and literacy.

Of course, the inconsistency between the two perspectives disappears if we simply transform the linear chain into a circular learning process that reinforces these capabilities on an ongoing basis!

The metaphor of a journey that leads from horizon to horizon feels certainly wanting in its inability to capture the spiral movement that leads us consistently back to origins. However, I’m won’t ditch it yet, as there is another dimension to the metaphor that remains precious to me: the idea that Thinking, Tinkering and Being form a nested hierarchy, whereby higher level horizons provide meaning and context to lower level horizons. The Sensibilities then provides a fold for the real-world Systems Thinking in Practice, which imbues the methodologies and tools encompassed by one’s Literacy with meaning.

In a forthcoming piece I will dig a bit deeper into this mysterious notion of systems sensibilities. And then in a third post I will rely on these insights to talk about the thread that connects four recent talks we organised under the label Alive in the Anthropocene.



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?