by Ray Ison
In his notes about this conference Dave Abson writes that “at its core sustainability can be thought of as a systems perspective”. He goes on to argue that “Where, and how, we define our system boundaries; how we describe system elements and the feedbacks between elements; and where we target interventions in complex, multi-dimensional and multi-scalar systems, fundamentally shapes how we conceptualize, and attempt to move towards, sustainability.” It is easy to agree with these claims, but what do they mean in terms of praxis – our own purposeful, theory-informed practical action? What is it that we do when we do what we do, and claim we have used systems thinking in practice (STiP) to meet the challenges of sustainability? This is the question I will pursue in my keynote entitled: ‘Transforming: systems, situations, ourselves?’
I will talk about transformation praxis in terms of a simple rubric developed from our experiences since the early 1970s of educating systems thinkers/practitioners at the UK Open University (OU): viz: systemic sensibility + systems literacy or competence + systems thinking in practice capability. I will explore different lineages of systems scholarship and draw on recent research from two sources to support my account. The first with our OU students, alumni, tutors and employers. The second from co-research with AWARD, South Africa concerned with systemic governance of the Olifants River catchment. Systems praxis occupies a key role in both case studies.
These experiences and my focus on praxis are relevant beyond my own context. For example, when Donella Meadows ‘intervened’ in a meeting and first articulated her ‘places to intervene in a system’ she was engaged in praxis, or theory informed practical action. Her actions combined systemic sensibility, systems literacy and systems thinking in practice capability. There is a danger that subsequent renderings of her ‘places to intervene in a system’ become reduced to a different type of praxis, more akin to systematic (in contrast to systemic) typology building or typology using. This calls for greater critical, including epistemological, awareness in practices that seek to transform for sustainability and in understanding how heuristics mediate practice.
In my keynote I will also make some connections with the topic Karen O’Brien proposes for her talk. To do so I want to reprise Arthur Koestler’s use of the Janus metaphor in his book ‘Janus. A Summing Up’. Janus was the double-headed Roman God of doors, of entrances and exits. What the Romans appreciated was the duality that existed between the inner and the outer view. It is the constant iteration, or two-way traffic, between the inner and the outer that creates transformative moments. Gregory Bateson called this being open to the difference that makes a difference; Koestler talked of consciousness as that ‘special attribute of activity which decreases in direct proportion to habit formation.’ ‘The condensation of learning into habit is accompanied by the dimming of the lights of awareness’ he said.
You can discuss this and more with Ray at the LeveragePoints 2019 conference – register for the conference here. The early bird registration ends October 31st.