Extending the legacy of social ecology into an emerging science of service systems – Coevolving Innovations

A blast from the past and a little self-referential, this older blog piece from co-host David Ing is a masterclass in blogging, drawing on his own work and understanding and a book from Rafael Ramirez, who knows a thing or two about the history of systems thinking…


Source: Extending the legacy of social ecology into an emerging science of service systems – Coevolving Innovations


I’ve been approaching the development of an emerging science of service systems from a background of the systems sciences.  Describing and designing service systems — not only in business, but also in the public sector — includes the evolution and development both of human organization and of technology.  A large body of knowledge on social systems science was developed in the post-war industrial age, e.g. research conducted by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (1941-1989).  This work has been categorized in three perspectives:

The socio-ecological perspective emerged while facing cases where “von Bertalanffy’s concept of open systems” was not sufficient to deal with the degree of change in the environment.

We gradually realized that if we were usefully to contribute to the problems that faced the cases mentioned above we had to extend our theoretical framework. In particular, we had to discard the  assumption that systems or individuals could not know their environments and the unipolar focus on the system, or individual as system. In a positive sense we had to theorize about the evolution of the environment  and the consequences of this evolution for the constituent  systems.  (Emery 1997, pp. 38-39)

In 1967, Fred Emery summarized needs that the social sciences should have prepared to meet over the next thirty years.  More than a decade beyond that, we now have the Internet, globalization, and the prospect of an instrumented, interconnected and intelligent “smarter planet”.

The bridge in social ecology from the Tavistock legacy to current times is made in the 2008 volume, Business Planning for Turbulent Times , edited by Rafael RamírezJohn W. Selsky, and Kees van der Heijden.  The collection of papers is a culmination of the Oxford Futures Forum 2005, with a focus on the intersection between social ecology and scenario practice.

… we consider the future through the spectacles of the scenario approach.  While we do that, we reflect on our practice in the light of the perspective offered by a school of thought in the social and organizational sciences call social ecology, in particular its description of the ‘turbulent environment’.  We will show how scenarios and social ecology inform each other ….  [p. 4]

This volume doesn’t directly address service systems.  However, the foundations from social ecology provoke some consideration for service systems.  Reshuffling the sequencing of the chapters, I found myself reflecting on on the following five ideas:

  • A. The problem: an addiction to prediction
  • B. Sustaining organizational systems in turbulent environments
  • C. Techniques for envisioning future systems
  • D. Changing systems
  • E. Shared value and engagement

The book has strong experience reports on scenario practices that may interest other readers.  I’m particularly focused on how advances in the understanding of social ecology can advance an emerging science of service systems.  Let’s expound on the five ideas


Continues in source: Extending the legacy of social ecology into an emerging science of service systems – Coevolving Innovations