Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On bullied universities speaking truth to power

Britain’s bullied universities should be speaking truth to power" raises some interesting points about New Zealand’s Education Act   .... "that ..gives universities a statutory duty to be “the critic and conscience of society”"  Whilst he offers support for such an institutional arrangement he has little to say about other forms of institutional innovation that might be applied to UK HE.

Wolff offers a critique of academic practice, implying that more than institutional innovation is needed. Consideration of his own reflexive praxis is, however, missing from the article.  In critiques of this type it would be good to see a shift from the abstract to the embodied and personal.

Systemic perspectives on the Murray-Darling Basin

This part photo-essay prepared by the Guardian Australia  is worth exploring.  The invitation by the authors is to: 

"Follow our 3000km journey along the rivers, travelling from inland Queensland to the Murray mouth, to understand where the plan has failed those who live and work on this land".

Enhancing Systems Thinking in Practice at the Workplace

Findings from research made available.

"The eSTEeM project was an 18-month systemic inquiry beginning January 2014 initiated by a core team of 5 academics associated with the production and presentation of the postgraduate programme in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP). The inquiry comprised a series of online interviews over two phases, and a workshop held in London Regional Office in May 2015.  There were 33 interviews in total, including interviews with 10 postgraduate students undertaking core modules associated with the  STiP programme, 8 STiP alumni, 8 employers of STiP alumni, and 7 Associate Lecturers teaching on the STiP programme.  The one-day workshop involved 41 participants including members of the core eSTEeM team, all interviewees from both initial phases,  along with other special guests invited on the basis of their involvement, support and interest for the STiP programme.

The project aimed to design a learning system for transforming the ‘threats’ of a gap between postgraduate study experiences and post-study work experiences into ‘opportunities’ for radical pedagogic adaptation and (re)design. One such course where the gap is evident is with the postgraduate suite of qualifications in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) launched at the OU in 2010."

Monday, April 09, 2018

Teething problems with apprenticeships?

According to an article today on Wonkhe - marking the first year of apprenticeships - some systemic issues are emerging:

"Appy birthday

Friday was the first birthday of the apprenticeship levy, with a veritable fiesta of events to mark the occasion. However, the government’s target of three million starts by 2020 looks seriously at risk, despite claims that all is going “as planned”.
Challenges include demonstrating the benefits to prospective applicants and their families, meeting employer needs, and delays getting new apprenticeships approved. One major employer, IBM, described the process as “incredibly difficult” with “bizarre decisions” and “not a good experience at all”. That same employer also said they have “shifted away from graduates ... which is possibly an unintended consequence".
There are also issues in demonstrating the returns to firms of taking on apprentices – simulations published by the Education Policy Institute to estimate the costs and benefits suggest that most firms would only break even if apprentice pay is close to minimum wage, and that higher-level apprenticeships taken up at a later age could offer lower returns for both apprentices and their employers.
From a standing start, many universities are starting to offer degree apprenticeships, which Gerry Berragan of the Institute for Apprenticeships said he was supportive of. He also said management degrees are a "perfectly respectable" way to use levy funds and address productivity challenges.
Time will tell if the government, the post-18 review, and OfS can create a coherent, system-wide offer that includes different routes and levels. With unspent levy funds and stubborn skills gaps, it’s likely that more enterprising HEIs will continue to seize this opportunity."

Friday, April 06, 2018

The gathering systemic failure of the nation state

You know something's amiss when authors on both sides of the globe write about the same set of phenomena only days apart.  The first to come to my attention was an article by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton in the Sydney Morning Herald: "The fundamental operating model of Australian politics is breaking down". These authors are heading in the right direction.  Unfortunately they do not go nearly far enough and some of their argument along the way is dubious. I refer especially to their claims that: "The effects of polarisation can be seen in the rising support for increasingly ideological minor parties such as the Greens, One Nation and the Australian Conservatives........As the electorate becomes more ideological, those votes are being cast as firm votes for minor parties, not against the major ones."  This framing seems to me to miss the mark, especially when the authors primary experiences are within one of the main parties. We need an open, societal debate about these issues. But with more nuanced framing than these authors provide.

Then today this article by : "The demise of the nation state", as The Long Read. His analysis is more global and, to me, more convincing.  He echos points that Ed Straw and I are currently writing about in a book due with Routledge in August this year.  Dasgupta argues that:
 
"Since 1945, we have actively reduced our world political system to a dangerous mockery of what was designed by US president Woodrow Wilson and many others after the cataclysm of the first world war, and now we are facing the consequences. But we should not leap too quickly into renovation. This system has done far less to deliver human security and dignity than we imagine – in some ways, it has been a colossal failure – and there are good reasons why it is ageing so much more quickly than the empires it replaced"

and goes on to claim that there is no going back, no way of improving the 'current model':

"After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism............Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans."

We shall have to wait - but wait with active attention and personal action if his claims that:

"The libertarian dream – whereby antique bureaucracies succumb to pristine hi-tech corporate systems, which then take over the management of all life and resources – is a more likely vision for the future than any fantasy of a return to social democracy."

will come to pass.  Resistance, in the Foucauldian sense can be harnessed on the back of the Cambridge Analytics and Facebook revelations together with growing critique of the antisocial power of black-box algorithms and hard AI.  But this will require effort and greater solidarity - the very thing offered to the UK by membership of the EU.

From his convincing analysis comes the conclusion that:

"The three elements of the crisis described ... will only worsen. First, the existential breakdown of rich countries during the assault on national political power by global forces. Second, the volatility of the poorest countries and regions, now that the departure of cold war-era strongmen has revealed their true fragility. And third, the illegitimacy of an “international order” that has never aspired to any kind of “society of nations” governed by the rule of law."

 I could not agree more with his conclusions that action on our part "is not a small endeavour: it will take the better part of this century. We do not know yet where it will lead. All we can lay out now is a set of directions." His suggested actions include:

  • global financial regulation. 
  • global flexible democracy
  • finding new conceptions of citizenship
These are challenging agendas. Do they go far enough? I fear they are necessary but not sufficient.  So what would I add?  Please wait for the book.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The systemic implications of algorithms

Virginia Eubanks, a professor of political science at the University at Albany in upstate New York is the author of several books that seem well worth reading: Automating Inequality:How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the PoorDigital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age; and is co-editor, with Alethia Jones, of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. It was while she was writing her latest book book that the power of algorithms became shockingly evident.  She is interviewed on BBC's 'The Why Factor' in this compelling clip: How do you fight a nameless, faceless algorithm? This clip is in turn part of a larger program on the BBC World Service called: Machines and Morals.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Taking Steven Pinker to task

Good on George Monbiot for deflating the celebrity bubble that has grown around Steven Pinker's work.

'Rather than using primary sources, Pinker draws on anecdote, cherry-picking and discredited talking points developed by anti-environmental thinktanks.Take, for example, Pinker’s claims about the landmark Limits to Growth report, published in 1972. It’s a favourite target of those who seek to dismiss environmental problems. He suggests it projected that aluminium, copper, chromium, gold, nickel, tin, tungsten and zinc would be exhausted by 1992. It is hard to see how anyone who had read the report could form this impression. The figures it uses for illustrative purposes have been transformed by some critics into projections.

Its actual prediction is that “the great majority of the currently important non-renewable resources will be extremely costly 100 years from now”. It would be perfectly reasonable to take issue with this claim. It is not reasonable to recycle, then attack, a widely circulated myth about the report. That’s called the straw man fallacy. It is contrary to the principles of reason that Pinker claims to champion.'

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

More on the systemic failings of universities/H.E.

From a despondent Peter Scott in an article today called:  'Don’t let this university wrecking government masquerade as reformers'

'The fees and funding system in England is certainly bust.'

' English higher education is too expensive. It is the most expensive public system of higher education in the world (including the US).'

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018

New on-line taster course on systems thinking

Colleagues at the Institute for Sustainable Futures (university of Technology, Sydney) have advised:
 
"that the first module of the systems thinking course I mentioned we were developing is now available online at UTS OPEN. It’s  ISF’s first ever online course and is one of the first four UTS courses available to the general public free of charge. We’ve tried not to replicate all the good work that’s already out there including the OU’s course and are hoping to offer some different angles on systems thinking. Let us know what you think if you get a chance to have a look at it. The course is an introduction or taster course' on systems thinking and you can find it here at this link https://open.uts.edu.au/systemsthinking.html .  We will hopefully be developing another 4 modules to complete this course (dependent on further funding).
 
Please feel free to share the link with anyone who might be interested. This is still a ‘soft launch’ phase and we can still make improvements to the course and would really appreciate any honest and constructive feedback on how we can further improve it. As this is only a ‘taster’ module it is meant to get people interested in systems thinking and wanting more. "

Systemic Design

Ben Sweeting gave a plenary presentation at the Relating Systems Thinking and Design conference in Oslo, in October 2017, on Cybernetics, Virtue Ethics and Design. It is available from the proceedings and includes a video recording, which features live sketch notes from playthink.com


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Eulogy: Phil Wallis (5th March 1982 - 2nd February 2018)

My dear friend and colleague Phil Wallis died on the 2nd of February after an 18 month struggle with bowel cancer.  His funeral was held at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery on Thursday 8th February.  This eulogy delivered at Phil's invitation was one of two tributes paid during the service.   The final reading was delivered by Phil's mother - 'A wish for you my child'.
 

Eulogy: Phillip J. Wallis
5th March 1982 – 2nd February 2018

I feel immensely privileged to have been invited by Phil to deliver this eulogy.  Unlike other eulogies I delivered for my parents whom I also loved this is my first experience of having discussed possible content in advance. The conversation with Phil was for me a heart-wrenching experience. But true to form Phil was strong in the circumstances – considerate and concerned for me through my tears.   My aim today is to leave you with a stronger sense of Phil the professional.  Much of the detail of his professional life is in the document available when you entered.  I invite you to read this when you can and as you do to marvel at how much Phil achieved in the 10 years of his post-PhD professional life.  It is indeed impressive and stands as a legacy worthy of celebration.  At the end Phil felt comfortable within himself with what he had achieved, though it would be better to reframe his contributions in terms of what he contributed to us, his colleagues and friends, and society more generally.  
Phil began his academic life at the interface of geography and chemistry.  He graduated with first-class honours and won a prestigious scholarship to continue at Monash for his PhD in the emerging field of green chemistry.  But he had interdisciplinary and then transdisciplinary tendencies.  His interdisciplinary interests began within UNIWATER, a Monash- Melbourne Uni collaboration, and later in the Systemic Governance Research Program at Monash.  It was in these two programs that our collaboration began. 
Phil was open to the complexity and uncertainty of the world around him and felt that research that acted at the interface of the social and natural sciences was important for long term sustainability.  This led him to do pioneering research with people – collaborative research, systemic co-inquiry or co-design. He became known for his expertise in process design in research and stakeholder engagement and for his excellent facilitator skills.  This was a brave turn to make in a world where disciplinary focus is more readily rewarded.  Writing last year Phil justifiably claimed ‘expertise in many facets of sustainability research with a proven track record in communicating results by seminar and publication’. 
Phil’s academic work has been cited by about 400 people, mostly since 2013. In other words his research has had a significant international and national impact which will continue for some time to come.  In one of his most recent papers a self-description is that of ‘an applied, transdisciplinary researcher and natural resource management practitioner’.
When Phil and I talked about this eulogy and our decade-long collaboration two particular experiences came to the fore in our reflections.  For Phil it was a visit we made together to Canberra in November 2014. We first attended a Peter Cullen Trust seminar and dinner. We listened to John Hewson deliver an enlightening after-dinner talk.  John argued that investors were ignoring the growing risk of fossil fuel investments, and [that] portfolios [were] highly skewed towards oil, coal and petrol stocks rather than being balanced with commodities carrying less long-term risk.’ We both admired Hewson for his commitment to the divestment movement. The following day we had meetings at the National Water Commission and the Murray Darling Basin Authority or MDBA as we called it.  At the latter we mounted arguments to allow our earlier research conducted within the MDBA to be published. Despite our arguments they denied permission and continue to do so.  Our research spoke truth to power; if taken on-board the results may well have avoided the current series of systemic failings in governance of the Murray Darling Basin.

Why was this experience significant to Phil? Well he was very proud to have been made a fellow of the Peter Cullen Trust. The regard with which he is held within this network is testimony not only to his quiet leadership skills, his behind the scenes facilitation, but also for his integrity and the understanding he has gained, and helped to develop, of the complex policy and practice issues that confront water, river, climate change, biodiversity, food security and natural resource governance in Australia and beyond.  It was also a visit in which we were in the thick of it doing our best to make research relevant to policy and practice.
For my own part the memory that surfaced was of hiking with Phil and John Colvin in the Turgela Gorge in the beautiful Drakensburgs in Sth Africa. Both Phil and I wrote blog-posts about the experience. Phil wrote:
“Just recently a book chapter project came to fruition……The book had its genesis in the 2012 International Conference on Fresh Water Governance for Sustainable Development, held in Drakensberg, South Africa. This conference was memorable for me as I had the opportunity to collaborate with Derick du Toit, Sharon Pollard, Harry Biggs, John Colvin, and Ray Ison in preparing an interactive special session on systemic governance.  The conference was also a good chance to see the amazing landscapes of the Drakensberg region, including a hike up Tugela Gorge.’ 
What Phil did not write, perhaps in deference to concerns Beth or his mother may have held, was encounteringmassive lightning storms – the night following our walk in the midst of a storm the hotel management would not let us walk the 100 metres or so back from dinner to our bungalow. Why we asked? The answer: because one of their clients had been killed by lightening some months before.
As Phil would have done when charged with undertaking a project – even a eulogy – I have sought to give voice to others, to value multiple partial perspectives as to how Phil was experienced in his professional life.  The Phil that emerges from this albeit limited selection is:
(i)                Phil the mapper out of ideas, the planner, synthesiser, systems diagram user, who could sit quietly in meetings and at a critical stage offer his model, diagram or synthesis that ‘wowed’ those present!Starting out not really knowing where we were going to go, Phil would be there with whiteboard pens in hand, and pretty soon the discussions would take off, ideas would flow and bounce around, the inspiration would come, and the maps would grow and spread out.
(ii)              Phil the calm and unassuming leader - always able to bring people along with him. One example was when he worked with a group of fellow early-career researchers to write a collaborative paper about their experiences. It was Phil's ability to connect with people in both an intellectual and personal way and lead a group that really made it come together. All of his co-authors from this experience have been in touch with me and offered similar reflections.  One said: ‘he had a big effect on my career … because he elevated my confidence and made me feel empowered at a time when I was doubting myself a lot.’
(iii)            Phil the great collaborator: supportive, patient, highly organised technologically adept and generous. No matter what was happening he seemed to be able to take it in his stride.
(iv)            Phil the 'doer' - he put in the effort to turn ideas into reality and he did it through quiet thoughtful leadership and gentle guidance rather than an overbearing personality as is the case with a lot of ambitious people who get things done but fail to pay attention to fostering inclusive relationships. He was organised, meticulous in his research and kind in his dealings with people.
(v)              Phil the fantastic facilitator, inspirational in demonstrating a collaborative way of working together.
(vi)            Phil the unflappable …..in the face of we older CSIRO scientists’ cynicism about social learning through online collaborative platforms he helped lead us to wrest some science out of our apathy.’
(vii)          Phil the humourist.’ It was very subtle but always present. Like how he wrote that book chapter called 'a nexus of nexuses', he was kind of having fun with the whole thing but not making a big deal out of it’.
(viii)        Phil the ever positive - smiling and always looking for better ways of doing things.
(ix)            Phil the initiator and facilitator of good conversations: ‘he rounded up our team and whisked us off in search of some good coffee on campus and there we sat talking all things sometimes political, sometimes about what we were reading for pleasure, the ethics of food, and what our fellow colleagues were up to in the water governance space’ 
(x)              Phil the attentive supervisor, supporter and advisor always happy to discuss; caring, compassionate and consistent;
(xi)            Phil the technology pioneer and enabler: ‘Phil emailed a certain professor that a number of references were available on the cloud. To a distracted busy person who only half read the email, the idea of references on freshwater being in the cloud  made sense in a weird sort of way that did not have much to do with computing. After acknowledging mystification Phil patiently explained but sent all the files on email instead.’ 
(xii)          Phil the exemplar of doing systemic thinking as an everyday practice - as a way of shaping your thoughts as a web of ideas and views, which spurs you on to make further connections that helps you think in a more inclusive way’
(xiii)        Phil the work-life-balance manager – assiduous in his concerns for equity with his partner Beth, for the efficacy of their parenting team and his commitments to Archer and Hugo;
(xiv)        Phil - the loss to us all – ‘so much potential yet unused to make a difference.  And a beautiful spirit and intellect lost when so many that are bad and destructive go on and on.’ 

Phil would not have liked the fuss.  But at this moment all of these facets of Phil, as well as others not yet said, deserve a public saying and acknowledgment.

Let me finish by saying that in my experience Phil Wallis was an easy man to love.  When I say this I do not mean a Hollywood, romantic, version of love but the type of love that arises when we treat others, including nature with legitimacy.  Phil was an easy man to love because he made it so easy to reciprocate the legitimacy, the love, he granted each of us when we worked, collaborated, talked, facilitated, traveled, wrote, speculated and laughed together.  There was no humbug about Phil.  He was the real deal.  In our final conversation he counseled me to go on asking challenging questions.  This is an invitation I extend to you all on Phil’s behalf because we each contribute to the world that Archer, Hugo and others will inherit. Phil did more than his fair share; we owe it to him to continue his legacy.

Ray Ison
8th February 2018

With contributions from:
Lee Godden
Naomi Rubenstein
Irene Kelly
S. Davidson
Nikki Reichelt
Patricia Geraghty
Ian Morgans
Chris Blackmore
Ben Iaquinto
Monika Farnbach
Helen Corney
Kevin Collins
Moragh Mackay
James Patterson
Ross Colliver
Sharon Pollard
Jana Paschen
Brian Coffey
Catherine Allan
Derick du Toit
Katherine Daniell
Laura Mumaw
Harry Biggs
John Colvin
Yongping Wei
Anna Lukasiewicz
Jocelyn Davies
Ashley Sparrow
Jasmyn Lynch
Liz Gachenga
Tony McLeod
Jason Alexandra
Nadine Gaskell
Robyn Holder
Nicky Ison
Cathy Humphreys
 

  With Phil and John Colvin on a walk out from Montusi Mountain Lodge, the Drakensburgs, South Africa in 2012.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

University interdisciplinarity: misplaced idealism...or oldish cynic?

I found myself thinking this enthusiastic article was a repeat of many that have gone before it - without ever fundamentally challenging the University status quo in terms of structures and processes.

But perhaps my cynicism flourishes too much!

'How the Internet controls you'

John Naughton has written an insightful systemic account of the the internet world we inhabit and co-create with the five largest companies on Earth.  Here is a taste from his Prospect article:

"The wags who spoke of early smartphones as “Crack-Berry” (a play on BlackBerry, one early model) were not wrong; they are engines for dopamine release. In January, two major Apple shareholders urged the company to address the potential harms caused by its products. They advised the firm to increase the parental controls on its devices and research the mental health effects of excessive use of smartphones. The shareholders, with a combined holding of $2bn, wrote: “There is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences.” A few days later, Roger McNamee, a large and early investor in Facebook, went public with very similar arguments. Indeed, the whole tendency for smartphones and social media apps is to “privilege our impulses over our intentions,” in the words of Oxford computer scientist James Williams. As a result, in Williams’s view,  social media is a threat to liberal democracy, a system that must always rely on the ordinary citizen’s capacity for deliberation."

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A Learning Health System

Members of our STiP (Systems Thinking in Practice) alumni group are actively involved in a new enterprise called 'a learning health system'.

The claim is made that:

"A Learning Health System (LHS) gets pretty close to that approach (and much more) to health care and health, putting precisely that type of timely and actionable knowledge, based on the real-world experiences of millions of patients, in the hands of clinicians, patients, and all other health care stakeholders.  Harnessing the power of such unprecedented knowledge at our fingertips – when it’s needed and where it’s needed, and in the form most useful to the person using it – we can make better informed decisions that lead to saving lives, improving health, and transforming our health care system into one that rapidly learns and continuously improves."

A new journal has appeared to support this emerging field.

The challenge is to imbue its enactment with systems thinking in practice!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Member of the Scientific Council of the BCSSS

During 2017 I accepted an appointment as a Member of the Scientific Council of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (BCSSS), an Austrian independent research institute, internationally acknowledged as an ambassador for the systems science heritage and present state-of-the-art of applied systems research.