Open Thinkering


Tag: processes

TB871: 5 reasons why the unknown is not just a temporary or local state

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

A photograph of the vast, seemingly endless ocean, and sky.

The module materials (The Open University, 2020) outline five really useful reasons why the world is fundamentally unknowable:

  1. The overwhelming complexity of networks
  2. Processes that control stability and instability
  3. The unpredictability of developing patterns of relationships
  4. Social messes can be wicked
  5. Situations are not situations

Let’s consider at each in turn.

1. The overwhelming complexity of networks

Each person has a great number of different types of connections with humans. This exists within a vast network of close and distant relationships. So even with a relatively small number of people, number and nature of connections becomes highly complex. This increases exponentially when considering national or global populations, where a small number of individual connections contribute to an unfathomably large and intricate network. Counter-intuitively due to their size and complexity, large networks can often be resilient and maintain structural stability due to the sheer number of nodes.

The inherent stability of these networks does not mean that individual outcomes cannot be unpredictable. Emergent outcomes and behaviours can be unknowable and unexpected, for example as we’ve seen with the assault upon online social networks through misinformation, hacking, and more. Rather than anticipating specific outcomes, we live in a world where we need to focus on preparedness and reconsider what ‘stability’ looks like. Historically, ecosystems and cultures have changed rapidly due to ‘tipping points’ that we’ll consider in the next section.

2. Processes that control stability and instability

There are two types of causal loops that are used primarily by systems thinkers: balancing loops and reinforcing loops. While balancing loops help maintain stability, reinforcing loops lead to growth or collapse. The idea of ‘tipping points’ is often used to identify how these loops form, although they can be triggered by tiny changes, which makes them difficult to predict.

Reinforcing loops explain why ‘first impressions’ are often seen as so important. For example, an initial positive or negative interaction can set of an chain reaction and compound and reinforce that first impression. Similarly, ‘trophic cascades’ in ecosystems shows how complex interactions can result due to the presence (or absence) or predators; multiple potential tipping points exist, so a single ‘tipping point event’ can trigger a cascade of others.

3. The unpredictability of developing patterns of relationships

There is something called Conway’s Game of Life which I don’t completely understand, but apparently is a mathematical simulation which uses simple rules to generate complex behaviours. I prefer the example of birds flying in formation, to be honest, but the point is the same: simple, rule-based systems can produce intricate, delicately-balanced outcomes that can be difficult to predict.

This obviously causes significant challenges around strategic planning. If we fit humans into stable patterns, then we can plan base on linear, predictable responses. If behaviours deviate, then planning becomes more complex. This, I suppose, is the difference between Homo economicus which is the rational view of humans presented by economic theory and, well, how humans actually act in the real world. As a result, strategic planning needs to recognise and address blind spots, stay flexible, and be aware how assumptions influence behaviours.

4. Social messes can be wicked

A ‘wicked problem’ is a form of unpredictable social mess that I’ve discussed before as part of this module, as well as in TB872. It’s “a complex, multifaceted problem with no clear solution, often characterized by interdependencies, changing requirements, and multiple stakeholders” to quote the latter post.

As I reflected on separately in a post about the croquet game in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, structured problem-solving is difficult because people don’t always ‘play the game’ or even understand the rules. Real life problems are somewhat unruly. They are often embedded deeply within complex networks of relationships, and can ‘cascade’ much like the trophic cascade within ecosystems mentioned above. There are conflicting perspectives, for example relating to the climate emergency, or rewilding, or almost anything you can think of. The only way to really deal with this complexity is to involve diverse stakeholders and be open to creating entirely new approaches.

5. Situations are not situations

Following on from ‘wicked problems’ the notion that ‘situations are not situations’ is a way of highlighting that our attempts to address or even contemplate a situation alters it in some way. It’s a bit like Schrödinger’s cat in that respect, because we’re never dealing with a fixed target, but rather a construct of language. Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli writes that, “a storm is not a thing, it’s a collection of occurrences” which starts to help us out of our linguistic trap of seeing stability where there is none.

Systems thinking therefore needs to embrace the fact that situations never stop changing. This means that tradition decision-making methods are likely to be ineffective, and even incremental change approaches might be limited in success because they assume static conditions rather than dynamic contexts. We must instead account for a fluid world in which we design or organise against a background of constant transformation.


Image: Dim Hou

Defederation and governance processes

I’ve noticed this week some Mastodon instances ‘defederating’ not only from those that are generally thought of to be toxic, but also of large, general-purpose instances such as This post is about governance processes and trying to steer a way between populism and oligarchy.

The first thing I should say in all of this, is that I’m a middle-aged, straight, white guy playing life on pretty much the easiest difficulty level. So I’m not commenting in this post about any specific situation but rather zooming out to think about this on a wider scale.

What I’ve seen, mainly via screenshots as I rarely visit Twitter now except to keep the @WeAreOpenCoop account up-to-date, is that Elon Musk has run some polls. As others have commented, this is how a Roman Emperor would make decisions: through easy-to-rig polls that suggest that an outcome is “the will of the people”.

Tweet from Elon Musk: "Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?"

Yes 72.4%
No 27.6%

This is obviously an extremely bad, childish, and dangerous way to run a platform that, until recently, was almost seen as infrastructure.

On the other side of the spectrum is the kind of decision making that I’m used to as a member of a co-op that is part of a wider co-operative network. These daily decisions around matters large and small requires not necessarily consensus, but rather processes that allow for alignment around a variety of issues. As I mentioned in my previous post, one good way to do this is through consent-based decision making.

Screenshot of the Loomio for with multiple discussion threads

Using Loomio, the instance that I currently call home on the Fediverse, makes decisions in a way that is open for everyone to view — and also for members of the instance to help decide. It’s not a bad process at all, but a difficult one to scale — especially when rather verbose people with time on their hands decide to have An Opinion. It also happens in a place (Loomio) other than that which the discussion concerns (Mastodon).

So when I had one of my regular discussions with Ivan, one of the Bonfire team, I was keen to bring it up. He, of course, had already been thinking about this and pointed me towards Ukuvota, an approach which uses score voting to help with decision making:

To “keep things the way they are” is always an option, never the default. Framing this option as a default position introduces a significant conservative bias — listing it as an option removes this bias and keeps a collective evolutionary.

To “look for other options” is always an option. If none of the other current options are good enough, people are able to choose to look for better ones — this ensures that there is always an acceptable option for everyone.

Every participant can express how much they support or oppose each option. Limiting people to choose their favorite or list their preference prevents them from fully expressing their opinions — scoring clarifies opinions and makes it much more likely to identify the best decision.

Acceptance (non-opposition) is the main determinant for the best decision. A decision with little opposition reduces the likelihood of conflict, monitoring or sanctioning — it is also important that some people actively support the decision to ensure it actually happens.

The examples given on the website are powerful but quite complicated, which is why I think there’s immense power in the default. To my mind, democratic decision making is the kind of thing that you need to practise, but which shouldn’t become a burden.

I’m hoping that after the v1.0 release of Bonfire, that one of the extensions that can emerge is a powerful way of democratic governance processes being available right there in the social networking tool. If this were the case, I can imagine decisions around instance-blocking to be able to be made in a positive, timely, and democratic manner.

Watch this space! If you’re reading this and are involved in thinking about these kinds of things for projects you’re involved with, I’d love to have a chat.

Education: it’s what you can’t see that counts.

I had a great, wide-ranging discussion last night with Bud Hunt (@budtheteacher), Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) and Steve Hargadon (@stevehargadon) after the second day of the DML Conference 2012. Much of it focused on the role of technology in educational reform with much of it sparked by an excellent keynote panel of which Connie Yowell (MacArthur Foundation) was the star.

To me, the whole problem with educational reform is that what matters can’t be seen or touched. It’s physically intangible.

What do we tend to do? We focus on the things that we can see. As Bud pointed out, teachers in his district will sometimes point to discrepancies in access to technology as being a limiting factor on their performance. Others look at the material conditions of one learning environment and attribute ‘success’ to these easily-observed factors.

We should be used to this by now. Living in a world of networks (and networks of networks) we know that it’s the invisible bonds, the weak ties, that connect us to people and ideas. As Connie Yowell pointed out it’s this kind of innovation that scales. Audrey Watters extended this point when she commented that technology scales vertically, whereas people scale horizontally.

So what can we do about this? The first thing we need to do, I’d suggest, is to surface processes and networks. These both need to be as open and inclusive as possible and we need ways to talk about them to make them more tangible.

Any suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments.