Open Thinkering


Tag: sustainability

TB872: A virtuous circle of inquiry

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.

One of the things I appreciate about this module is the way that it is scaffolded. New ideas and concepts are introduced incrementally, with prior learning referenced and reinforced.

System diagram showing a person (P) in a situated practice with two boxes - S1 (your systems practice) and S2 (managing change in your situation). There is an arrow pointing out of the S1 box to outside the situated practice with the label 'another situation'

The above diagram introduced multiple systemic inquiries, S1 and S2. The former is my study and developing Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP), whereas the latter is a situation of concern that matters to me, and which I will focus on in my End of Module Assessment (EMA).

Simply put:

  1. Understanding my own practice (S1): I start by learning about my own way of thinking and working with systems. In other words, I get to know my own style and approach when handling complex problems.
  2. Applying what I’ve learned (S2): I use what I’ve learned about my style and approach to tackle a problem or situation. This is about putting my skills to work in the real world.
  3. Learn & improve: as I work on real-world problems, I’ll get better at understanding and applying STiP.
  4. Report & reflect: I’ll then write about what I’ve learned and how I’ve applied it. This is where I’ll show what I’ve done (and how I’ve understood what I’ve done).
  5. Keep going: the ‘virtuous cycle’ continues as a way of learning and solving problems (even after I complete TB872).

Initially, I was confused and assumed that S1 and S2 applied to ‘situation 1’ and ‘situation 2’. As they actually refer to ‘systemic inquiry 1’ and ‘systemic inquiry 2’ I guess it might have been clearer to refer to SI1 and SI2.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be defining S2 in more detail. Based on my learning contract, I should imagine it will be the project WAO is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC). There is another project that could be interesting that we’re kicking off in the new year with Badgecraft and partners, but we won’t have held the stakeholder workshop before I’m due to submit my Tutor Marked Assessment 2 (TMA02).

In Ray Ison’s book Systems Practice: How to Act, Reading 5 (p.172-182) explains how he managed to carry out a systemic inquiry which resulted in changing modes of thinking among UK organisations involved with agriculture. As I’ve experienced before, it can be very frustrating working with people who either bring you in to tell you what they already know, to bolster something they’ve already decided they want to do, or to act as a scapegoat should a project fail.

In this situation, Ison was being brought in to advise on a knowledge transfer strategy (KTS) which seemed set up to fail. Not only had previous KTS initiatives failed, but communication was seen as ‘signal transfer’, and the focus was on changing other people’s behaviour. What was interesting to me was the way that Ison flipped the script to “build an invitation upon an invitation”. He conducted short one-to-one interviews in an initial stakeholder meeting, followed by a meeting bringing together all of the interviewees. He then used a spray diagram to show what he’d learned.

Even more interesting was the fact that Ison focused on the metaphors, both implicit and explicit, that interviewees used to describe what was going on:

Metaphors provide both a way to understand our understandings and how language is used. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we think and act, is metaphorical in nature. Paying attention to metaphors-in-use is one means by which we can reflect on our own traditions of understanding. Our models of understanding grow out of traditions, where a tradition is a network of prejudices that provide possible answers and strategies for action. The word prejudices may be literally understood as pre-understanding, so another way of defining tradition could be as a network of pre-understandings. Traditions are not only ways to see and act but a way to conceal (Russell and Ison 2000a).

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. Available at:

By showing that the metaphors that people use are problematic, are based on outdated approaches, or are in conflict with other stakeholders, a space is opened up for discussion. This can be a small ‘chink’ of light in what is otherwise a command-and-controlled, information-as-dissemination environment. From there, Ison managed to separate the ‘what’ needed to be done from the ‘how’ — which, he notes, was “something that I sensed had not occurred to those present”.

Ison suggested that a systemic inquiry, based on some design criteria, would be a good place to start. From this point on, he perceived a shift in the language used to be more participatory. Of course, the claim was that this more participatory approach had already started before Ison became involved but that the language used “had not yet caught up”. People are easily embarrassed, I guess, and try to cover their tracks.

Context is extremely important. It’s the reason that people behave as they do in certain situations and not in others. For example, it’s the reason why you might get told off for swearing in front of kids but not in front of adults. The trouble is that we assume a shared context when people might actually be having very different experiences. For example, you may be forgiven if it transpires that you had just accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer.

The first thing to establish when working with other people is therefore what the shared context might be. If there is a lot of conflict or misunderstanding, it’s likely that there is a lack of shared context, and that people are ‘talking past one another’ as their mental models differ. This can even happen when people are using the same words or terms, as they are dead metaphors.

Take, for example, the word ‘sustainability’ which is used very differently depending on the specific context. From an environmental perspective, sustainability usually refers to ecological balance, so environmentalists might focus on preserving ecosystems, biodiversity, and reducing pollution. In a business context, however, sustainability usually means financial viability and long-term profitability, so business leaders might focus on creating business models that can withstand market fluctuations and economic downturns. And then, from a social point of view, sustainability is often about creating equitable and inclusive communities, so sociologists might focus on social justice, equal access to resources, and supporting marginalised groups.

As you can imagine, bringing environmentalists, business leaders, and sociologists together can mean that they could be using the same word quite differently. This is something for me to bear in mind when thinking about my S2, my real-world systemic inquiry.

Ever since being involved with eye-opening user research as part of a project I led during the pandemic, we’ve included it wherever possible in our work through the co-op. In fact, with the DCC work we kicked off recently, which is ostensibly about documentation, asset creation, and storytelling, we began with a first round of interviews with staff. We’ll be widening this out to a second round of interviews with other stakeholder groups in the new year.

What’s interesting about this is that we’ve already found a slight discrepancy between the implicit theory of change coming from reports that the DCC put out, and that which emerged from user research interviews. This provides the ‘chink’ mentioned above, the space to start thinking about design criteria and think about what we’re doing as “a system to (X)” rather than simply a project.

HOWTO: Create radically smaller images for your minimalist blog

Inspired by Low-tech magazine’s solar powered website, I searched the web to find out how to create a ‘stippled’ effect for images. This reduced the size of an 2.2MB image to a mere 30.6KB, which if I’m not mistaken, is a reduction in filesize of over 95%! Here’s how to do it, using free and open source software.


0. Download and install GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program)

1. Open the image you want to convert in GIMP

2. Resize the image to the maximum width of your blog (~600px in my case) by going to the Image menu and then to ‘Scale Image…’

3. Convert the image to greyscale by going back to the Image menu then Mode and selecting ‘Greyscale’

(optional step: wash out the image by going to the Colours menu then Levels and change the number in the box under ‘Output levels’ to 180)

4. Convert the image to indexed colours by again going to the Image menu then Mode and this time selecting ‘Indexed…’

In the box that appears:

  • Under Colourmap choose ‘Use black and white (1-bit) palette’
  • Ensure box ‘Remove unused and duplicate colours from colourmap’ is checked
  • From the drop-down Colour dithering option choose ‘Floyd-Steinberg (normal)’
  • Press the Convert button

5. Export the image by going to the File menu and selecting ‘Export As…’ In the box that appears, type in a filename that ends in ‘png’ (e.g. image.png)

This post is Day 16 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

Time for a more sustainable blog theme

We Are Open Co-op is currently helping the Greenpeace Planet 4 team work more openly. The way we’re framing open source contribution to the project is as a practical way to address the climate emergency.

Another way of fighting global warming is to use less energy. If you have a website, you can do this by requiring users to download less data.

It was time for me to update my blog theme, so I had a look through the WordPress theme directory (yawn) and then through GitHub. I tried a few for size, and settled on Susty, a theme which is less than 7KB in size. That’s tiny.

The theme’s creator explains that it was inspired by a session he attended at the Mozilla Festival:

As a brief recap, I attended MozFest in London last year. In between sessions I was scanning a noticeboard to see what was coming up, and I spotted a session entitled “Building a Planet-Friendly Web”. I felt a little dumbstruck. What on Earth was this going to be about?

I attended the session, and the scales fell from my eyes. In what now seems obvious but at the time was a revelation, I learnt of the colossal energy demand of the Internet. That this demand makes it the largest coal-fired machine on Earth, meaning that its CO₂ emissions are probably at least equivalent to global air travel. More and more people are coming online, but this coupled with the rise of ever more obese websites means that the Internet’s energy demands are growing exponentially. Every additional byte transferred means more energy, which in most countries means more CO₂.

It’s a small change, and I’ve plenty to do with my other sites (including Thought Shrapnel) but this is the site of mine that gets the most traffic, so I may as well start here!

This post is day eight of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at