IJSS Vol 1 No 2 2014
Editor in Chief
Welcome to the second edition of the IJSS. This edition is the first of the guest editor editions. In addition to the regular edition of the journal, I will invite colleagues from time to time to edit an edition in which they will include papers of particular interest to them and, hopefully, to you the reader. There will also be special editions of the journal that will focus on the application of systems thinking to a particular area of interest such as health or the environment. Systems is a meta-discipline and our intention is to try to encompass a cross-section of views about Systems and show how systems thinking and practice is used across the disciplines. Its ideas are cross-disciplinary arising out of a desire to break down artificial barriers between areas of intellectual study. But in modern times there is a danger that these ideas begin to be claimed by academics as belonging to a particular specialised strand of intellectual thought. It is our hope that by providing a platform for systems thinkers through the IJSS we can engender discussions across disciplines and lessons learnt from the application of these ideas.
In this edition, Christine Welch echoes a similar sentiment pointing out that “…Western scholarship has defined itself in terms of discrete disciplines, and academics have been encouraged to define themselves according to recognized disciplines – ‘I am a physicist’ ‘My subject is economic history’ etc. Now we need to pay greater attention to the ‘in-between’ zone – to interdisciplinary research that focuses on relationships, causes and connections”
In addition to Christine’s selected papers we have, what I hope will become regular features, a book review and “The Last Word”.
I hope that you enjoy this edition
Dr Christine Welch is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Business School at the University of Portsmouth, UK, where she formerly taught Systems-related fields. Her particular area of interest is critically- informed approaches to inquiry and contextual analysis. She has published many articles, book chapters and conference papers in the Systems field and other related areas such as knowledge management and organizational learning, and has supervised a number of doctoral candidates in Systems-related topics. Christine has worked with a number of organizations in relation to Systems and organizational development and participated in delivering workshops on Systems approaches, through the Systems Practice for Managing Complexity network. She is a member of a community of practice of business improvement professionals that meets in Portsmouth Business School to explore and share approaches to process visualization and development. She has also led the Systems & Creativity team in the Centre for Enterprise, Research and Innovation in PBS. Christine is a Director and former President of the UK Systems Society and also a member of the American Society for Cybernetics, the Informing Science Institute and the British Academy of Management.
Living In the 21st century, it is difficult for anyone to be unaware of the interconnectedness of ‘things’. To take just one example widely covered in the Press, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 had far-reaching consequences, causing extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats, to the Gulf’s fishing and tourism industries, and hence to the livelihoods of many people in the USA and Mexico. The subsequent White House commission reported that “The root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur” (The Telegraph, 5 January 2011). This shows that there is a great need for effective systems thinking and that it is vital for industry, government, academics and practitioners to engage with one another. Society, which transcends any national boundaries, requires appropriate tools for systemic inquiry, together with both a spirit of collaboration and the political will for change.
In 2005, Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Martin endowed a new School in Oxford University, dedicated to interdisciplinary studies into global, 21st-century problems (http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/). He identified a number of candidate ‘megaproblems’ in his work ‘The Meaning Of The 21st Century’ (Penguin, 2007). These include global warming, leading to climate change; excessive population growth, leading to over-demand for the Earth’s resources; water shortages, potentially leading to war; deteriorating farm productivity, depletion of life in the oceans and the spread of deserts, all contributing to world famine; and use of extreme weapons by non-state agencies, by terrorist organizations, political or extreme religious groups or individuals. In modern times, academics have become to some extent blinkered in searching for ‘scientific’ answers to questions at the expense of metaphysical considerations, such as reflection upon the relations that ‘things’ in the experienced world bear to one another. We may forget to consider how we understand concepts such as, ‘existence’, ‘causality’, and ‘dependence’, while we are looking for instances and classifying them. Western scholarship has defined itself in terms of discrete disciplines, and academics have been encouraged to define themselves according to recognized disciplines – ‘I am a physicist’ ‘My subject is economic history’ etc. Now we need to pay greater attention to the ‘in-between’ zone – to interdisciplinary research that focuses on relationships, causes and connections.
Interdisciplinary research using Systems tools, techniques and methodologies can only be helpful in addressing real-world problems such as those identified by Martin. However, there can be no progress if such tools are developed as theory within an academic domain, in isolation from the kinds of messy problems experienced by people in their daily lives and by professionals in their practice. There must be the opportunity for feedback from practitioners within communities, businesses and government agencies on their use, usefulness and usability in practical contexts. Only in this way can we hope to create a productive learning spiral in which tools are developed, honed and perfected through reflection upon use. There is a continuing need for Systems research through engaged scholarship (Van de Ven, 2007) to take existing ideas forward and build on them so that they remain relevant to the kinds of problems faced by new generations.
The 2013 International Conference of the UK Systems Society took as its theme ‘Systems & Society: Ideas from Practice’. The papers appearing in this issue are a selection from those presented at the conference, which exemplifies ways in which systems tools can be applied to increase understanding of complex problem situations of the kind described by Martin. Papers by Mackay, et al and by Moore, et al both show how Systems techniques can be used to address complex problems in use of scarce resources – rural land use and water management. Each exemplifies a different approach: one using soft, heuristic approaches to encourage and support collaborative community engagement and the other making use of harder tools from System dynamics to examine stakeholder perspectives and develop a problem-structuring framework. The paper by Pulkkinen and Staffans also looks at sustainability, this time in relation to use of a built environment. The authors consider how an agenda of sustainability can be introduced as an intervention in continuing change within a pre-existing complex adaptive system. This, they pose as an issue of paradigm change that may need to be addressed in the wider theatre of world events. Finally, the paper by Masys deals with another of the mega-problems posited by James: that of extreme ideas leading to terrorist threats. He points out that Systems thinking can be used as a lens through which to see interrelationships and patterns of change over time. He uses Actor Network Theory to open up the ‘blackbox’ of ‘terrorism’ to examine the essence of radicalization processes.
All of these authors have taken up an interdisciplinary agenda in efforts to improve understanding of complex human problems. We hope to take this agenda further at the next UKSS conference (St Anne’s College, Oxford University, 9-11 September 2014), which will take as its theme ‘Systems ideas in a Knowledge Society’. –
Martin, J. (2007). The Meaning of The 21st Century. New York: Penguin
The Telegraph (2011). ‘Obama oil spill commission’s final report blames disaster on cost-cutting by BP and partners,’ Telegraph Finance News, Oil/Gas, 5 January 2011, accessed on-line 4 December 2013
Van de Ven, A.H. (2007). Engaged Scholarship: A Guide for Organizational and Social Research. Oxford University Press
The Otaniemi campus area and ecological sustainability – perceiving the environment of a complex adaptive system
Katri-Liisa Pulkkinen & Aija Staffans
Radicalization and Recruitment: A systems approach to understanding violent extremism
Anthony J Masys CD, PhD
Systems approaches enable improved collaboration in two regional Australian natural resource governance situations
Moragh Mackay1, Catherine Allan1, Ross Colliver2 and Jonathon Howard1
Lead author: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reaching community consensus on reforms for more sustainable urban water management systems: the case of Kāpiti, New Zealand
Robyn M. Moore and Victoria J. Mabin and Victoria University of Wellington, Victoria Business School, Wellington – New Zealand
The Last Word
Neil McBride. Reader in Information Technology Management
The Manager’s Guide to Systems Practice, Wiley, Chichester: Frank Stowell and Christine Welch, 2012