Ray Ison and Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)

A Systems Library, Vol. 20

Philippe Vandenbroeck
8 min readMay 24, 2021
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

The ‘spaceship Earth’ meme has been circulating for over a century. It’s a half-literal and half-figurative way of speaking. Our planet is of course careening on its fixed orbit around the sun. And considered metaphorically as a vessel, it carries supplies — fuel, food, breathable air — which have to be carefully managed to guarantee the long-term survival of its human complement. The simile also suggests that the ship’s crew is aware of its mission and collectively knows the drill. And we should expect a command room populated with skilled navigators to pilot the whole thing and keep it on course.

Now let’s stretch this thought a little further and imagine that we, as a planetary society, are manoeuvring in some kind of hypothetical space. Let’s call it an ‘opportunity space’ (or O-space for short). Our evolutionary history draws a path through that O-space. As time unfolds the earth system probe traverses zones of varying potential. There are pockets where it’s really good to be as they offer conditions for a thriving humanity in a fertile and benign earthly habitat. And there are areas in O-space where we’d rather stay away from. Because there are no opportunities but rather circumstances that put us under pressure or threaten us with extinction. When a meteor hit the earth so many million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, the ‘reptilian vessel’ metaphorically occupied a fatal patch in its opportunity space. Indeed there are unpredictabilities that may shrink our opportunity space to zero in a flash. But barring these cosmic contingencies it’s first and foremost human ingenuity, or myopia, that determines what corners of O-space we are set to grace with our visit.

The idea that we are virtual navigators of this ‘earth + humans’ system might raise the suggestion that we consider ourselves to be masters of the planet. Indeed, it might, and in doing so it just might lead to a navigational error that sends us into one of O-space’s deadly black holes. Or, to use another simile, holding on to that idea might morph the shape of opportunity space in such a way that it becomes a fatal cul-de-sac.

We just don’t know. There’s an awful lot we don’t know as we humans, inextricably tied to our earthly habitat, grope our way forward into murky O-space. Given this uncertainty, how do orient ourselves? What course do we steer?

These questions have been repeatedly taken up by systems thinkers in the past fifty years. Mind you, these people were clever enough not to suggest a particular course. Rather they reflected on how we might develop a steering mechanism to pilot ourselves to benign pockets in our O-space. For instance, Stafford Beer proffered his ideas for a ‘liberty machine’ (Vol. 2 in our Systems Library), Bela Banathy mused about the essential components of an ‘evolutionary guidance system’ (Vol. 4), and Donald Schon reflected on what it might take to turn governments into learning organisations (Vol. 6). So rather than an ideology they offered a meta-theory about collective learning. Let’s from now onward call that a theory of governance.

In their recently published book Ray Ison and Ed Straw take up a similar challenge. One has to look beyond the rather anodyne title and tune in on the subtitle — ‘Governance in a Climate Emergency’ — to get an inkling of their project.

Ison and Straw start from the observation that our governance systems are not up to the task: outdated, über-complex, ineffective, unresponsive, unreflexive, unaccountable, captive to private interests, and hollowed out by preferential lobbying. These failings have unacceptable consequences, particularly in an age in which climate change risks to push us into ‘hot’ zones of our O-space.

The reasoning then goes as follows:

  • Overhauling our governance praxis requires us to redesign the institutions (‘the rules of the game’) that constrain (or enable) that praxis. The traditional governance model — encompassing the state, the judiciary, civil society, the private sector and the media — needs to be overhauled and expanded with three crucial underrepresented elements: the Biosphere, the Technosphere and Social Purpose.
  • Social Purpose pulls us forward. It represents an active reflection on what we want to achieve as a society, beyond the assumed consensus of continued economic growth. Inclusion of the two other elements reflect our understanding that we are an inextricable part of the biosphere and that everything we do is mediated by technology. Technology should serve social purpose. And anything we do should improve, or be benign, with respect to relations with and within the biosphere.
  • Adding novel institutions is, however, not enough. The redesign of governance hinges on a change in mindset. Indeed, we need to start to approach governance from a ‘systems thinking in practice’ (STiP) mindset.
  • Because STiP is a reflexive praxis. It accounts for (i) the (governance) practitioner with his/her tradition of understanding, (ii) other practitioners hailing from different traditions of understanding, (iii) a situation of concern with which they are collectively engaged through (iii) a framing choice, and (iv) choices about methodology. The practitioner is attuned to the possibility of collaboratively learning about these elements and about the extent to which an effective ‘governance performance’ emerges from the interactions between these elements. STiP is reflective in so far as it constantly shifts to a second-order point of view in reflecting on our reflecting, exploring the question: “what do we do when we do what we do?”
  • Our ability to be mindful about our framings is absolutely crucial in systemic governance. And we need to realise that these framings are collective choices with which we expand or constrain our governance latitude. ”All choices are framings for praxis, not terms to classify phenomena or situations. All choices need to be approached in the spirit of ‘what can be done if we frame this situation as X?’” Also the suggestion to expand our governance systems with Biosphere, Technosphere and Social Purpose is a case of contingent framing. It is reasonable to assume that this heuristic strategy allows us to talk more easily about issues that matter.
  • STiP methods invite us to look for root causes, to map and visualise relational complexity. ‘Wicked’ societal challenges by definition transcend the sense-making power of any given actor. STiP approaches also facilitate collaborative sense-making.
  • The challenge to grow into a STiP mindset should not intimidate us. Systemic sensibilities are vigorously present in all human beings, at least at a very young age. Many of us lost these sensibilities 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.
  • Embracing our systemic sensibilities is a catalyst to developing systems literacy, which enables the capability for systems thinking in practice, which we’re seeking to embody then in new practices and institutions for systemic governance.
  • A governance praxis emerges that relies on the dynamic interplay between two key activities: an institutionalising praxis and a praxis of systemic co-inquiry. The institutions need to spur the social learning, which in turn leads to constant reinvention of our institutions. Trust, engagement and understanding appear as emergent properties from this process.
  • A constitution, as an institution, is a crucial enabler of systemic co-inquiry. All nation state constitutions on this planet are outdated (even the Swiss, which is the most sophisticated). Constitutions need to be made much more malleable. ‘Constituting’ needs to become a verb, a process of constant learning and adaptation.
  • Finally, and quite obviously, this adaptive governance is unable to work without a transparent and trustworthy feedback function. Hence the three traditional powers — legislature, executive and judiciary — have to be complemented with a ‘Resulture’ to bring reality to the work of governments, by providing the institutional means for the independent collection and publication of the results of all that they set out to do.

So, there we have it. This is the operating system that Ison and Straw would plug into the navigational computer of our Earth System probe.

The visual (Figure 8.4 in the book) shows the system’s hypothetical trajectory through O-space — modulating changes in practices, social relations and understanding — as the process of adaptive governance unfolds.

From Ray Ison & Ed Straw, The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking.

Spaceship Earth is not piloted by Artificial Intelligence, but by Human Collaborative Intelligence, supported by an adequately constrained Technosphere at the service of Social Purpose and benign relations with the Biosphere. The whole point is to steer ‘Earth + Humans’ through O-space in such a way that it constantly opens up further choices and possibilities for co-evolutionary adaptation through feedback and, if needed, reframing.

We need to learn to think about governance as jazz band-like improvisation guided by social purpose and adequate feedback.

Ison and Straw’s book presents a valuable set of ideas. They fit in and extend a decades-long lineage of cybernetic, interpretative and critical systems thinking about governance. I don’t think there is anything radically new in the argument. However, it’s good to have these very core ideas presented in the STiP flavour that is distinctive for the UK’s Open University (where Ison has been teaching for more than 25 years).

I am personally very much wedded to these ideas. I hold them to be true and just. There’s a deeper spiritual core that is not so manifest from this book but about which Ison has written elsewhere. Because the ongoing flow of governance is embedded in a nest of relationships constituted by a desire for mutuality in all conversations. Humberto Maturana called the emotion that guides collaborative inquiry ‘love’.

A final remark: as regards tone of voice the book veers between the scholarly and the journalistic. No doubt a reflection of the distinct temperaments of the two authors. It may be Ison and Straw’s way of choreographing their authorial performance. At over 300 pages it does require a certain commitment of the reader. I personally would have preferred a more compact version of the argument.



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?