Why I hope we could do better than the Castellani complexity map

In response to this question on twitter (click link to see the full thread)…

…some of my thoughts on the challenges of the (rich in content, developed over the years) complexity map that is very popular. One of a continuing theme of me noodling on points of origin and confluence around #cybernetics, #complexity, and #systemsthinking – in fact, one broad field, I think…

So, first of all, what do I know? I’m not an academic, though I’ve dabbled at playing at it. I’m obsessive/passionate, but I haven’t done all the reading (few have), but anyway… (and I’ve included here learning that I have got from others better qualified than me, but all mistakes are mine, I haven’t named them because it’s a series of ongoing conversations and I don’t think they want to be engaged in pointless controversy).

Also, it’s a harder argument to make because as I’m arguing *congruence and continuity*, rather than difference, and people are used to argument about distinctions. My view is that #systemsthinking, #cybernetics, and #complexity are all part of the same family, with the same roots, the same family resemblances, and wherever you try to make a divide it is going to be proven artificial, because it is going to sweep *in* many things avowedly under a different label, and sweep *out* many things under the same label. More of complexity is realist, more of systems thinking is dispositional, more of cybernetics is dispositional, whatever.

Most people trying to make the distinction simply are sweeping in what they like, paper-tigering the rest, and therefore mischaracterising the ‘out group’ and giving ahistorical and unscientific boundaries. The distinction is often made in ignorance, but sometimes intentionally ‘wrecking synergy to stake out territory’, and either way, it does scholarship in the field a disservice.

Good word on this from Gerald Midgely https://www.facebook.com/groups/774241602654986/permalink/2067256553353478/

This is not to say that there are not tribes, sticking to their narrow ways in happy ignorance or denial of the systems/cybernetics/complexity world outside their window… nor that there aren’t truly intellectually curious and open people who see no boundaries and find value across the whole domain – in fact, most people who don’t already have an intellectual stake in seeing boundaries, and some who do, see the value across the piece also.

But the four quadrants of thinking threats are always there! https://www.dropbox.com/s/1ritpobdoexr5qy/four%20quadrants%20of%20thinking%20threats.pdf?dl=0

On the maps itself, I’d say that ‘systems’ is a common property of all circles in Castellani’s map, even more than complexity.

Then:

  • The claim that complexity theory came up with the ideas of self-organisation, autopoeisis and emergence is simply untrue, it feels like blatant appropriation of existing work – likewise Bak’s ‘self organised criticality’ (he coined the term but not the concept)
  • Strange attractors – there’s something like this too in Ashby’s Design for a brain, and of course Heinz von F’s eigenforms, 1981.
  • Timelines and connections are dubious (but – to be fair – admittedly simplified and ‘one perspective’). And also it gets very mushy in the 21st Century – too soon to attempt anything scholarly here, one might say.
  • Nonlinear in late 70s? Seems ridiculous.
  • Scaling and self-similarity in the 1980s? These are all a lot earlier.
  • Weaver in ‘complex systems theory’ not cybernetics? Yes, he defined ‘complexity’ in 1948 (not the late 60s or early 70s as it seems here), but he was a core cybernetician.
  • Pitts too.
  • And for some reason, Stafford Beer is placed in the 90s and under systems science, not cybernetics?
  • No mention of the modern origins of all of this in the Macy conferences?
  • No mentioned of Santa Fe being predicated on the work of Ashby in the 1940s
  • Prigogine was the president of the international society of systems science…
  • Would be nice to see Professor Derek Pugh who we think first coined ‘systems thinking’ c1970.
  • Can’t see cellular automata in their – von Neumann 1950s, Varela 1988 and Liber Sogya, 16th Century (https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/05/14/tables-of-soyga-the-first-cellular-automaton-anders-sandberg/)

More historic quotes here https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/10/28/some-quotes-on-the-theme-complexitythinking-is-systemsthinking-is-cybernetics/

Our attempt to honestly attempt a mapping of the concepts, with precedents and antecedents, including thinkers, at https://kumu.io/koryckaa/scio-sysbok-v1 – but very incomplete and partial as of present!

Bunch of maps which I tend on first glance and intuitively to think are more rigorous here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/oo9x5tlcdpmb75a/systems%20maps.zip?dl=0

Patrick Hoverstadt and others are shortly coming out with a book on the core systems laws, which could be hugely impactful. Meanwhile, a limited version of these from www.systemspractice.org is more or less in the public domain (https://www.dropbox.com/s/ycmq9udawhydohx/SCiO%20-%20systems%20laws%20v0.2.pdf?dl=0) through workshops and development of the systems thinking practitioner apprenticeship – https://www.instituteforapprenticeships.org/apprenticeship-standards/systems-thinking-practitioner/

Or you could look to Len Troncale’s systems process theories and his set of isomophisms – see https://ingbrief.wordpress.com/2016/08/14/20160728-1110-len-troncale-systems-processes-theory-spt-and-its-prospects-as-a-general-theoretical-core-for-a-science-of-systems-and-sustainability-isss-2016-boulder/ – I’d love to get Len’s full slides from the Bertalanffy lecture at ISSS 2019.

Or go back to Gerald Midgley’s encyclopedia, or the other mega-systems reference guide.

And David Ing gives a masterful meta-perspective overview of the scale of the task in this 2011 presentation https://stream.syscoi.com/2019/04/21/2011-07-22-isss-incoming-presidential-address-coevolving-innovations-david-ing/

My point is that unless something uses some of these principles, it’s either not systems thinking – or it’s something *amazing* and new(ish). If it relies principally on these core ideas, it’s systems thinking(/cybernetics/complexity).

What any serious attempt in this space shows, IMHO, is the unity across and diversity within the field of cybernetics / systems thinking / complexity. i.e. if it works with, builds on, or adds to key systems laws, it’s in the field. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. And the rest is about predispositions, applications, interests, emotional tendencies, and tribalism.