What are conceptual models? How can conceptual modelling effectively represent complex topics and assist communication among people from different backgrounds and disciplines?
This blog post describes ConML, which stands for “Conceptual Modelling Language”. ConML is a specific modelling language that was designed to allow researchers who are not expert in information technologies to create and develop their own conceptual models. It is useful for the humanities, social sciences and experimental sciences.
What are conceptual models?
A conceptual model is a formal or semi-formal representation of a topic under investigation, using concepts rather than physical parts. Conceptual models are generally visualised in the form of diagrams plus accompanying text, as shown in the figure below.
A modelling language is an artificial language designed to express models. Since models are usually depicted in…
An open meeting where a series of presentations of general interest regarding systems practice will be given – this will include ‘craft’ and active sessions, as well as introductions to theory.
09:30 – an introduction to the viable system model. Main presentations start at 10:00.
Session 1: Productive Organisational Paradoxes – Ivo Velitchkov
It is often said that organisations are full of paradoxes. But this refers to contradictions and tensions. It is understood as something that needs to be taken care of. When organisations are looked at as social systems, however, it becomes clear that they are only possible because of paradoxes, and particularly paradoxes of self-reference. Understanding how these paradoxes create and maintain organisations is an important skill for practitioners trying to make sense of what’s going on and improve it. The basic generative organisational paradox is that of decisions. It brings new light not only on decision patterns and dependencies, but also on understanding the nature of objectives, power, and relations with clients.
Session 2: Measuring Organisational Agility – Patrick Hoverstadt
Organisational agility is now a relatively hot topic, which it wasn’t when I first talked about this subject at SCiO 6 years ago. Since then, we’ve significantly developed and extended the model for measuring agility, so will be talking about the latest developments.
We’ll start with the need for business agility, going beyond the hype to look at the business reality and strategic importance of agility. We’ll then go on to look at the different aspects and elements of organisational agility, an overview of how we measure those and then go on to talk about the need for balance across the different aspects. We’ll then go on to look at different approaches to increasing agility and the use of agility metrics as an organisation design tool.
In the process, we’ll link the work both in terms of theory and practice to VSM and some other systems models and approaches. In particular we’ll look at the working of the 3,4,5 homeostat in VSM and the critical role that plays in organisational agility. We’ll link the modelling and practice of the homeostat through to some new developments in neuroscience and show how these are important both in terms of agility and in reference to Boyd’s OODA loop.
Session 3: Wicked Problems in Design and Ethics – Ben Sweeting
One of the most important intersections between design and systems is their shared concern for ethics. When we think of ethical considerations in either context, we often do so in terms of applied ethics—as the application of ethical insight to guide practice, addressing issues such professional standards of conduct, and our relationships to the environment and to each other.
There are, however, difficulties with thinking of the relationship between ethics and practice in this way. To see ethics in terms of application is to imply that it is external to practice, a view that can lead to us seeing ethical considerations as something to be traded off against other goals. In any case, it is not as if ethics is a settled body of theory that can authoritatively guide our actions. Depending which theories or ideas we refer to we receive different guidance as to what to do.
There are parallels between this situation and the wicked problems that are commonplace in design and systems practice, such that the ways in which we design and organise the world may have as much to contribute to ethical theory as vice versa. Drawing on ideas from design, systems theory and cybernetics, this talk develops an understanding of how ethical questions may be implicitly integrated within how we act in the world, such that they need not be understood in terms of external limitations or competing priorities.
Session 4: Coordination is not the answer to the division of work ! – Stephen Brewis
The Model T wasn’t Fords product, it was River Rouge, anybody could make the Model T but not everybody could make River Rouge. River Rouge was a special type of transactional organisation that gave it competitive advantage. This advantage comprised of Taylorising the activities by separating the Knowledge from the activity, and coordinating these activities by moving the car between stations, there was no communication/learning between stations, but demonstrated the benefits of efficiency through automation , Brains mechanise and automatons Automate. The Brains were in the few and the automatons were in the many, but the knowledge of the car was no longer present in the worker.
In the knowledge economy, where information rules, this is not sufficient, coordination is no longer the answer to the division of work. This talk will focus on knowledge and information using the fundamental principles of cybernetics and information theory to derive a maximally irreducible organisation set, capable of extracting the maximum amount of information from its operation, to maximise its decisioning effectiveness.
The talk will ground these ideas through a detailed case study looking at how by changing BT’s organisational structure the quality of its decisioning can be significantly improved.
Seeing systems whole (and topology in Bataille’s “Eroticism”)
I’ve been giving a few seminars on the work of Stafford Beer recently. I’ve tended to concentrate on the work from Platform for Change, working backwards to the viable system model, and forwards to syntegration. One of the things which has really struck me is the topological coherence of Beer’s thinking. If I can sum it up in a nutshell, it is simply that every whole system has “undecidables” which require a metasystem whose job it is to maintain the whole. This means that we make a mistake if we conceive of any “whole” as simply a boundary around a system (i.e. a circle). The undecidables are the hole within the whole. To put it most simply, “Every whole has a hole” (this is probably another way of expressing the Conant-Ashby theorem)
Another way of thinking about it is to see a whole as a Möbius strip. One side of the strip is the system and the other is the metasystem. The hole is (obviously) in the middle. If you flatten a Möbius strip, you get a trihexaflexagon which is also a trefoil knot. That’s three arms which constrain each other: system, metasystem, environment. But maybe that’s stretching things a bit.
A three-dimensional Möbius strip produces a Möbius snail. What a fascinating thing that is!
There are similar objects like “klein bottles”, but in each case there is a hole in the whole.
I was looking up a book cover for Bataille’s “eroticism” the other day and came across this erotic image which is used as a cover for one of his other books:
There’s a strong similarity in these images, isn’t there? And in fact there are holes in wholes everywhere we look… Here’s one I’ve spent a lot of time looking at over the last year…
Is the optic nerve a hole within the whole? It certainly connects to the metasystem (the brain)…
Returning to Bataille for a second, he says something in the introduction to Eroticism which is very similar to Beer:
By seeking to present a coherent whole, I am working in contradiction to scientific method. Science studies one question by itself. It accumulates the results of specialised research. Eroticism cannot be discussed unless man too is discussed in the process.
With the growing awareness and need to address complex challenges that the world faces we believe we need to rapidly grow the number of people who can think and act systemically, and implement radical change.
To address this challenge we at Forum for the Future want to work with others to help build the field of system change. Our main contribution is the development of an international learning programme that offers access to the best learning experiences, tools and case studies for a community of people building their skills in system change for sustainability.
So what are the skills and capabilities required to change systems?
Through our experience and through working with others who are implementing system change we think there are five core capability areas that will help us develop curriculums, organise learning experiences and curate different tools and approaches.
The five capability areas
Systemic diagnosis — Diagnose complex sustainability challenges using systemic approaches
Sustainability challenges by their very nature are large complex and interconnected. We often approach them through single issue and technical dimensions rather than seeing it as a systemic issue. We need to apply approaches and techniques that helps understand the challenges we are facing to engage people and organisations and find areas for action.
This includes being able to look at these challenges in a holistic way, having a broad understanding of sustainability whilst also using tools such as systems thinking and mapping, futures inquiries and human centre research that help gather and synthesise insights to find opportunities for intervention.
2. Strategy design- Design system change strategies and interventions
A good diagnosis does not always mean a good strategy. We need to use our understanding of the system dynamics to create design principles and models that help us plan and make choices about where and how to intervene.
There are a number of different models we might start from, for example Transitions Theory, social and cultural change, Living systems, that can help lay out ways to think about the process you might use. From these models different theories of change can be created, some bespoke and some processes that have been pulled together for others to use, for example Social Labs and Theory U approaches.
There are a large number of tools and possible interventions that can support system change, we therefore need to find ways to iterate, experiment and evaluate so as to apply the right process to the challenge identified and design interventions that help to create the impact that you are seeking.
3. Innovation for impact — Develop and realise innovative solutions that seek to create scalable and systemic impact
The innovations we need to further the transition to sustainability go beyond technologies, products and services and commercial enterprises to include our mind-sets, values, beliefs, new forms of organisation and collaboration — and in all sorts of combinations that we don’t yet know. We must awaken our imaginations to do the extraordinary and embark on journeys of co-creation and experimentation to figure out answers to the complex challenges we face. By drawing on — and combining — the innovation processes and tools out there, design thinking, design fiction and prototyping, we can make ideas tangible and build the collective agency to bring them to life.
For system change it also requires us to consider how a number of these innovations can combine to forge alternative systems. We need to have the skills to find ways to harness a culture of creativity and combine the direct and indirect impact of our initiatives to leverage change at a scale that is commensurate with the challenge.
4. Collaboration and engagement — seek, initiate, build and facilitate partnerships and coalitions for change
At the heart of systemic change is the assumption that it cannot be achieved alone. A system change agent will be able to facilitate, build partnerships and create coalitions and seek to influence and engagement wider audiences in the change.
This requires skills in empathy, being able to translate across sectors, cultures and perspectives, building relationships and devising and facilitating workshops and events that support the change process. We also need to employ creative communications skills to influence and engage wider audiences in the change. This all needs to be underpinned by strong stakeholder and project management skills. Approaches draw from methods such as communities of practice, deep democracy, collaborative action inquiry and action networks.
5. Leadership and learning — Learn and lead into complex and uncertain future
System change is both complex and uncertain, as we trying to navigate into an unknown future. Underpinning the other capabilities is the need for individual change agents to be able to reflect, learn and continually develop their skills and resolve to implement system change. They need to cultivate personal resilience deal with the demands of the work and be able to act with integrity and purpose. Practitioners also need to be entrepreneurial and be able to work with groups of people in diverse situations, adapting their approach as required.
Effective change agents identify the assumptions and worldviews that are underpinning the choices they are making in the interventions and strategies they choose. This requires them to explore their personal perspective and values and take an open to different ways of seeing and acting in the world.
Clearly these five core capabilities need to be underpinned by core implementation skills like good project management, finance, people management etc. They also need to be deployed in tandem to be effective by individuals or teams.
In the School of System Change, we feel that these five capability areas are distinctly required for system change. But we want to know what you think? If you had these capabilities would you be an invincible change agent? What else might you want or need? Let us know what you think and we will use these to design and curate the best possible learning experiences as part of the School of System Change.
NERCCS 2019: The Second Northeast Regional Conference on Complex Systems will follow the success of the previous inaugural NERCCS to promote the emerging venue of interdisciplinary scholarly exchange for complex systems researchers in the Northeast U.S. region to share their research outcomes through presentations and post-conference online publications, network with their peers in the region, and promote inter-campus collaboration and the growth of the research community.
NERCCS will particularly focus on facilitating the professional growth of early career faculty, postdocs, and students in the region who will likely play a leading role in the field of complex systems science and engineering in the coming years.
The conference will be held in the Innovative Technologies Complex at Binghamton University, which is within driving distance from all major urban areas in the U.S. Northeast region.
The Inherent Instability of Disordered Systems
The Multiscale Law of Requisite Variety is a scientific law relating, at each scale, the variation in an environment to the variation in internal state that is necessary for effective response by a system. While this law has been used to describe the effectiveness of systems in self-regulation, the consequences for failure have not been formalized. Here we use this law to consider the internal dynamics of an unstructured system, and its response to a structured environment. We find that, due to its inability to respond, a completely unstructured system is inherently unstable to the formation of structure. And in general, any system without structure above a certain scale is unable to withstand structure arising above that scale. To describe complicated internal dynamics, we develop a characterization of multiscale changes in a system. This characterization is motivated by Shannon information theoretic ideas of noise, but considers structured information. We then relate our findings to political anarchism showing that society requires some organizing processes, even if there is no traditional government or hierarchies. We also formulate our findings as an inverse second law of thermodynamics; while closed systems collapse into disorder, systems open to a structured environment spontaneously generate order.
Taeer Bar-Yam, Owen Lynch, Yaneer Bar-Yam, The inherent instability of disordered systems, arXiv:1812.00450
The Multiscale Law of Requisite Variety is a scientific law relating, at each scale, the variation in an environment to the variation in internal state that is necessary for effective response by a system. While this law has been used to describe the effectiveness of systems in self-regulation, the consequences for failure have not been formalized. Here we use this law to consider the internal dynamics of an unstructured system, and its response to a structured environment. We find that, due to its inability to respond, a completely unstructured system is inherently unstable to the formation of structure. And in general, any system without structure above a certain scale is unable to withstand structure arising above that scale. To describe complicated internal dynamics, we develop a characterization of multiscale changes in a system. This characterization is motivated by Shannon information theoretic ideas of noise, but considers structured information. We then…
In my last post, I wrote about two critical dimensions of the strategy of systems change: the kernel of causality that breaks down a large change into pivotal events at a human level; and how this ground-level kernel connects to the higher levels of a complex system. In this second post of three, I focus on two other dimensions of systems change work:
The dimension of time, and how to navigate the long journeys that are inevitable with any big goal
Forming a “we” that balances cohesion behind a shared purpose and a shared path, reach, and sustainability
These first two posts focus on the mechanisms by which a system can be changed, the journey to effect this change, and the “we” who undertake this journey. The third and final post will take us closer to the cliff face of driving change, solving the particular “how to” challenges that must be overcome, at any given moment, to move forward – and navigating the inevitable moments in which one gets stuck, stalled in the face of an obstacle one doesn’t know how to overcome.