Philippe Vandenbroeck

May 24, 2021

8 min read

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

A Systems Library, Vol. 20

Photo by NASA on Unsplash
  • 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.
From Ray Ison & Ed Straw, The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking.