Saturday, October 9, 2021

Is there an epistemology of systems?

@camerontw is critical of a system diagram published (as an illustrative example) by @geoffmulgan in 2013.


To be fair to Sir Geoff, his paper includes this diagram as one example of "looser tools ... without precise modelling of the key relationships", and describes it as a "rough picture". I don't have a problem with using these diagrams as part of an ongoing collective sense-making exercise. Where I agree with Cameron is the danger of presenting such diagrams without proper explanation, as if they were the final output of some clever systems thinking.

To extend Cameron's point, it's not just about which connections are shown between the causal factors in the diagram, but which causal factors are shown in the first place. Elsewhere in the diagram, there is an arrow showing that Low Use of Health Services is influenced by Poor Transport Access or High Cost. Well perhaps it is, but why are other possible influences not also shown?

A more important point is that the purpose and perspective of the diagram is obscure. Although the diagram is labelled Systems Map of Neighbourhood Regeneration, so we may suppose that this is intended to contribute to some regeneration agenda, we are not invited to question whose notion of regeneration is in play here. Or whose notion of neighbourhood.

And many of the labels on the diagram are value-laden. For example, we might suppose that Lack of Youth Activities refers to the kind of activities that a middle-class do-gooder thinks appropriate, such as table tennis, and not to socially undesirable activities like hanging around on street corners in hoodies making older people feel uneasy.

Even if we can agree what regeneration might look like, and who the stakeholders might be, there is still a question of what kind of systemic innovation might be supported by such a diagram. Donella Meadows identified a scale of Places to Intervene in a System, which she called Leverage Points. This framework is cited and discussed by Charlie Leadbeater in his contribution to the same Nesta report. And Mulgan's contribution ends with a list of elements that echoes some of Meadows's thinking.

  • New ideas, concepts, paradigms.
  • New laws and regulations.
  • Coalitions for change.
  • Changed market metrics or measurement tools.
  • Changed power relationships.
  • Diffusion of technology and technology development.
  • New skills and sometimes even new professions.
  • Agencies playing a role in development of the new.

So how exactly does the cause-effect diagram help with any of these?

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (Earthscan, 2008)

Geoff Mulgan and Charlie Leadbeater, Systems Innovation (NESTA Discussion Paper, January 2013). See also Review by David Ing (August 2013)

Wikipedia: Twelve Leverage Points

Related posts: Visualizing Complexity (April 2010), Understanding Complexity (July 2010). There is an extended discussion below the Visualizing Complexity post with several perceptive comments, including one by Roy Grubb about the diagrammers and their agenda.

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. Of course, the problem is that if 'systems work' is capable of real innovation - new thinking, ways of seeing, new power, new paradigms - then it is hard to see how a fixed descriptive language could ever capture that.
    And a huge part of the answer is that just as you say, these systems maps - fetishised, I suspose, because they look cool and deep - should be seen as transitional objects, best thrown away after the workshop (unless, perhaps, they are actually a mechanism to bring people into a particular way of seeing that the group has agreed upon - with all it's insights and omissions)