Martin Reynolds (The Open University). Applied Systems Thinking in Practice (ASTiP) Group. School of Engineering and Innovation. The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, United Kingdom +44 (0) 1908 654894 | email@example.com | Profile | Publications
From a systems thinking in practice (STiP) tradition I would first like to change the formulation from ‘complexity and systems science’ to complexity science and systems thinking (cf. Reynolds et al., 2016). The revised formulation is important for two reasons in appreciating respective lineages. First, contemporary ideas on complexity including the ‘butterfly effect’ and ‘complex adaptive systems’ are very much rooted in the scientific tradition dating from Warren Weaver’s 1947 paper ‘science and complexity’. Second, contemporary systems thinking should be regarded as a transdisciplinary endeavour inclusive of systems science and complexity science, but far beyond the confines of a scientific discipline (Reynolds and Howell, 2020). Note that systems science and complexity science have many common lineages, including pioneering work around cybernetics in the 1940s. Appreciating the value of complexity science and systems thinking requires in my view attention to the ontological and epistemological dimensions of appreciating complexity and systems.
Complexity as used in complexity science invokes the scientific ontological (real world) premise that everything connects. Ideas of uncertainty and emergence are tied to appreciating reality as an infinite network of interconnections, the effects of which are impossible to precisely predict. Systems science might be regarded as an endeavor to systematically bound such interconnections, recognized by an impartial observer as relevant to a particular situation of interest. By so doing, the ensuing bounded systems might be subject to scientific analysis. In systems science and complexity science, the key epistemological driver is positivism; there being an assumed direct representation between reality and systems (ontological realism; e.g. ‘the’ health system), subject to inquiry from an impartial ‘objective’ observer (scientist).
In contrast, complexity as used in a STiP tradition is an effect of contrasting human perspectives on the framing of interconnections, rather than an effect of interconnections directly. In the STiP tradition ‘systems’ as ontological representations of reality are legitimate, but the representations are always nominal (named by a human ‘observer’), provisional (with boundaries subject to change from other observers), and secondary. Nominal systems such as (i) natural systems (individual organisms, ecosystems, solar system etc.); or (ii) engineered (purposive) systems (mechanical devices ranging from computers to heating systems), are secondary to a primary understanding and active use of systems as conceptual constructs which may be referred to as (iii) human (purposeful) systems. Purposeful systems (where the bounded purposes are subject to ongoing adaptive change) are a powerful tool of contemporary STiP. As distinct from ‘seeing’ reality only as natural or engineered systems, purposeful systems enable such viewings to be tamed within a primary framing of a learning system (as an epistemological construct). Such primary framings enable organisations, and interventions in education, health, etc. to be not only evaluated but (re)designed. The STiP tradition, founded on epistemological constructivism, recognizes complexity as an effect of contrasting viewpoints on reality. Complexity here is a second-order attribute of interconnections in situations of interest – the indirect human framings of interconnections. Complexity in complexity science is a first-order attribute of the interconnections themselves.
The difference is significant for all practitioners in all professional fields. In a STiP tradition, complexity exists in all situations (since no human situation comprises only one perspective). Each individual or group of individuals frame things differently depending on lifeworld experiences including, amongst other demographics, ethnic backgrounds. STiP flushes out the framings of situations in terms of transparent purposeful systems in order to help improve the situations through more meaningful conversation amongst practitioners. With increasingly uncertain times where racism is being called out internationally through the killing of black American George Floyd, it is perhaps worth recalling the founding principle of STiP which takes its cue from C.West Churchman: “a systems approach begins when you see the world through the eyes of another” (1968 p. 23).