Systems Science 2 — The 21st Century Version of Liberal Arts
A few years ago, before I began to put the two and two of peak oil and declining EROEI together to realize that contraction was just around the corner I and my colleague Michael Kalton developed a basic curriculum for teaching systems science in higher education. We designed a twin program consisting of a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts for quantitative and qualitative systems science, respectively. The idea behind this is that systems science is so important and so relevant to everyone's thinking that we needed to make a version available to those with minimal mathematical (basically algebra) skills as well as a version that uses more advanced mathematics. The BA is the former and the BS is the latter.
What follows is a series of four op-ed pieces that I put together to alert the college-bound public about this program as it was about to be unfurled. In these pieces I am pushing the notion, which I deeply feel is true, that systems science can provide a basis for a fully developed intellect much as the liberal arts programs were to have done (and still claim to do) in the twentieth century and before. You can weigh in on whether my argument is convincing or not!
Unfortunately, events ironically tied in a non-obvious way have intervened since then. First, the economic crisis has severely diminished the state's higher education budget. New programs cannot be funded now and in the foreseeable future, so our proposal is effectively on hold. Second my understanding of the impact of peak oil and declining EROEI — the diminishment of energy available to do real economic work — has somewhat taken the wind out of my sails. Back when I thought that global warming and peak oil were going to be concerns 'someday' I envisioned degrees like these providing newly graduated citizens with a real ability to apply critical thinking to civil discourse and make them more able to get on with finding solutions. Now I think we've arrived too late to the party to do much good. At this juncture I view the development of this curriculum as part of a salvage operation to rebuild a new economy and new civil society, including new educational institutions, after the crash of this one.
The ironic tie-in? It is the decline in net energy available that led to the economic downturn, as I have claimed before. The bursting of the credit and housing bubbles were just the trigger events that released the building pressure. Those bubbles may have been amplified by greed and avarice, but the real cause of our problems is the unsustainable growth of energy use (and population) from finite banks of fossil fuels. The irony — if my arguments are right, then a nation and world full of systems science trained citizens would have been able to see the connections and found ways to regulate markets. Indeed anyone with sufficient systems knowledge would have known that you can't create wealth out of nothing, as magically happens with fractional reserve banking and speculative markets. But that is just idle speculation on 'what might have been, if only.'
But if I am happily proved wrong, and business as usual recoups and life goes on as it has for a while longer, then maybe this systems science education proposal might yet be useful. So here it is as originally envisioned. I've included all four parts. You'll probably get the idea without having to read the whole thing, but I thought I'd put it out there anyway. In the future posts I will get down to discussions of the content of the curriculum so that you can judge for yourself if systems science would make a descent education.
What are you going to be doing for a living in fifteen years? Here is a good bet: You not only can’t guess what your job will be, you can’t even know what your career will be! You might think, right now, that you can guess. But you would most likely be wrong, no matter how much you believed it.
The reality in today’s world is that people are not just changing jobs every few years; they are finding it necessary to change careers. In the fast-paced, technological innovation-driven, global economy more and more people who graduated with professional degrees are finding that their professions are either changing rapidly or, in the worst cases being shipped overseas. Individuals who are dedicated to one profession are finding themselves in the same predicament as buggy whip artisans did in the late 19th century — lots of skills but no buyers.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries the point of a liberal arts education was to prepare professionally bound individuals to go into a wide variety of careers. Liberal studies focused as much on thinking skills as on specific subject content. More importantly, the breadth of liberal studies was meant to provide an individual with more than facts. It was to provide one with an understanding of the world. It’s one thing to know a lot about a subject area. It is something entirely different to understand that subject, especially in the context of how the rest of the world works.
The sixties, seventies and eighties were a period of rapid specialization and compartmentalization of professions. A business school graduate didn’t need to know much science, other than neoclassical economics; they just needed to know how to read a balance sheet and project sales. It didn’t matter if the social implications of unfettered capitalism made long-term social sense. The sociologists would figure that one out. That was their specialty.
And heaven forbid that a climatologist should understand anything about politics. Their job was to work out what was happening with the climate, especially with this business about anthropogenic CO2 causing a rise in average temperatures worldwide. The politicians would have to sort out the policy issues. That was their specialty.
That last example is a good one for recognizing the flaw in isolation and over-specialization, in which our education system, well, specializes. The gulf in understanding between policy wonks and scientists, as a result, is having a major and negative impact on the world.
On the other hand, looking at the career paths of some of the most successful people in the world you find that they are far from what I call deep specialists. In fact they tend to be more generalists in terms of subject knowledge. Tom Friedman ("The World Is Flat") calls these people ‘versatilists’. That is, they are extremely flexible and adaptable. They bring some generally applicable thinking and communications skills to bear on any number of problems and work effectively to solve them. They have learned how to learn continuously and to learn quickly the knowledge specifics they will need to work on a problem in many domains. These people are able to switch jobs and even professions as the world changes and as our metaphorical buggy whips go out of fashion. They are prepared for the contingent future.
How did they get that way? A first guess might be that they are simply smarter and more generally knowledgeable than the rest of us. They are truly the smartest guys in the room. But that would be a mistake. What they are, more often, are the luckiest, reasonably smart guys in the room. They were lucky in their lives to have been exposed to ideas and patterns of knowledge that enabled them to incorporate new knowledge quickly and efficiently.
What these people gained, partly by chance and partly by intelligence, and whether they realized it or not, is enhanced general systems thinking.
Systems thinking is actually natural to everyone. Human beings automatically categorize things, we see relationships, we note boundaries, and we apply many other built-in cognitive skills to our interactions with the world. These are parts of a general systems thinking ability. Unfortunately most people develop without guidance in how to make this kind of thinking skill work in a consistent way. Most of us go about with what is called a ‘folk’, or intuitive, systems approach. Education is not designed to make systems thinking a rigorous practice.
Rigorous systems thinking — what I like to think of as systematic systems thinking — is fundamentally applicable to all problem domains in the real world. Someone who thinks systemically knows what to look for in a novel problem domain. For example someone who has learned the basics of network theory, how to make maps of what relates to what else in a complex organization, is able to recognize the network relation aspects of any new domain with a little learning of the terminology. They are able to analyze from deep principles, which is always more efficient then analysis with no framework.
Someone who has mastered systems thinking is positioned to learn new domains and hence learn how to perform well in a new career if need be. And in the future, the need will be. But looking at it from the positive side, someone who has mastered systems thinking can change careers whenever they want to.
In the previous article I extolled the virtues of systems thinking as a strategic way to prepare for an uncertain future in the global economy. I mentioned that systems thinking is natural to everyone, but indicated that for most of us, that ability develops only sketchily at best. Most of us are unaware of how we go about thinking systemically and most of us don’t really learn how to take advantage of the capability in order to adapt to new problem domains — as would be the case when you find you need to switch careers.
The problem in not becoming a more reliable systems thinker lies with the way education tends to turn us into specialists and focuses on facts and domain-specific understanding as opposed to broadening our understanding to see how our chosen subject of interest relates to the rest of the world. By the time the average student has finished high school she will have been well exercised in memorizing subject facts to regurgitate on a standardized, supposedly objective, exam and then quickly forget them. She needs to make room for the next subject. Couple this pattern of education with the social mandate that you should major in a subject that will get you a good job and you have a formula for focusing on specifics and never understanding how it all relates to life or society or yourself.
Education does not provide a framework to systematically learn systems thinking. The world is getting more complex and more integrated each year, meaning that we need more rigorous systems thinking ability — our ‘folk’ systems thinking isn’t up to the task. Our education system does purport to teach things like critical thinking, certainly a necessary skill for any endeavor, but it does not teach students how to draw connections between various subjects. And it especially doesn’t teach students much about their own personal relationship with the rest of the world. The combination of specialization, fact-oriented learning, and lack of a systems approach to knowledge has created a set of disconnected disciplinary silos and individuals trapped within, knowing a lot about their jobs and almost nothing about how their profession connects with the world in general.
Systems Science can provide a way to break out of this conundrum. Systems Science is a formal approach to recognizing and using the principles of systemness in order to understand problems in virtually all domains of interest. One can think of systemness as the ultimate form of analogy. Analogies are frequently used to solve difficult problems by comparing the current problem structure to one that is similar and has been solved. Comparisons can be negative (how is a birds wing different from an airplane wing) as well as positive (how is the flow of electrons in a wire like the flow of water in a pipe). Such comparisons are often the basis of critical insights that lead to problem solutions by borrowing from another domain. In fact, analogic thinking is the quasi-disciplined version of systems thinking.
What Systems Science teaches us is a set of concepts and principles that are applicable at a deep level in all domains of knowledge. At the most fundamental level, all ‘things’ in the world, at least in the world of human-level perception, are systems. A system is comprised of components (usually of diverse kinds), the relationships between them (usually dynamic in nature), a boundary structure that keeps the components more or less stably interacting (sometimes crisp and sometimes fuzzy), and the transfer of energy, material and information into and out of the boundary. With just a moment’s reflection on many different things you see or think about, you would be able to recognize these characteristics.
A lot of problem solving is just identifying the systemness of a new phenomenon. It isn’t always clear what the system is or how it works. Systems Science involves using the principles above to identify the nature of a newly encountered object or phenomenon. Then the deeper relationships incorporated in those principles can be brought to bear in describing and understanding the problem. Only when a problem is understood at a deep level can one go about solving it.
As an example of some of the deep principles of Systems Science, consider the nature of the interrelationships of components in a system. Network theory, which I mentioned in the previous article, is actually a set of principles about how components link together and how energy, material and/or information flows from one component to others. These principles apply whether one is studying atoms interacting in a complex molecule, or molecules interacting in complex reactions, or people interacting across the Internet. Indeed, network principles, such as what Web pages link to what other Web pages, are used heavily by Google in analyzing which pages have the highest quality ranking in searches by users. Management theorists use the systems approach to analyze organizations and their dynamics by looking at networks of interacting components, human and machine.
These approaches are based on explicit understanding of systems principles. Even so, not all practitioners of systems analysis are sufficiently aware of other principles from Systems Science that might impact their analysis. For example, early studies of Web page linkages assumed a semi-static structure. What researchers have discovered is that the Web is evolving by principles that appear to be Darwinian-like. How systems evolve over time is another important question in any explicit understanding of a dynamic world. Systems Science involves principles of evolutionary systems, such as novelty through copy error (mutation) followed by environmental selection of structures that prove most fit. Even more cogent is the principle of co-evolution that helps explain how systems interact with other systems to drive change.
People who have been lucky enough to have stumbled on Systems Science (or one of its sub-subjects such as Information Theory or Cybernetics) have found it extraordinarily useful in helping them solve many kinds of problems. And solving problems is what employers hire you to do! In the next article, I will provide some examples from the real world of people using Systems Science to achieve their goals in a variety of professions. In the final article, I will outline the work we are doing in designing a baccalaureate degree in Systems Science to provide the kind of broad understanding of the world that is the liberal studies for the 21st century.
One hears the word ‘system’ a lot today; this-kind-of system, that-kind-of system, etc. There is a danger that the word is overused and misused so that it has less meaning. But the reason it is being used so much in so many different ways is that it is so darned useful as a concept.
In the previous article in this series I described some of the main principles behind systemness — of having the property of being a system. These include the organization of components through interactions, the flow of matter, energy and information through the network of interactions, the boundary conditions that circumscribe the system and the flows into and out of the system. I also pointed out that one of the key aspects of Systems Science is to be able to analyze systems in terms of how they evolve over time. In this article I want to focus on the use of Systems Science as it applies to several real world problem domains.
What makes systems thinking so useful is the way in which it helps us to manage complexity. In every field of endeavor we find an explosion of detail as we learn more about the subject. Every field is suffering from an information overload. The concept of system helps us manage this by helping to organize knowledge into hierarchical structures wherein systems are composed of sub-systems. That is, every system component turns out to be a system in its own right. We can apply the principles mentioned above, and many others, to analyze the components of a system to find out how they work. This is called decomposition and it is the basis of the so-called reductionist approach in the sciences. But the process can go the opposite direction when we ask of any given system: what system is it a component of? In other words we can use the systems approach to increase the scope of our understanding to a larger scale. This is called synthesis.
Having our knowledge and understanding organized in a hierarchical structure based on systems and sub-systems organization helps us enormously to deal with complexity. For example the advent of object-oriented programming (OOP) in computer science allowed us to construct large-scale programs of enormous complexity — such as the graphical user interfaces common in today’s operating systems — by managing the components as objects. OOP is a direct application of the concepts of systems to software development.
In the field of enterprise management we find that organizations are viewed as comprised of sub-systems (what we used to call departments) that have their own special functions but need to operate cooperatively with all other sub-systems in order to produce the company’s product or service, stay financially viable, and compete successfully with other companies as needed. The marketing sub-system has to work with accounting, finance, production, and so on in order to fulfill the overall mission of the company. Systems Science can be used to identify the sub-systems of a sub-system, to analyze their behaviors, and relate these activities to the overall behavior of the organization. The tools of Systems Science might be used to determine the most efficient routing of sales reports to get the biggest informational impact for the least cost.
Social scientists are using Systems Science concepts to analyze groups in society. One of the hottest topics currently is the social networks being formed on the Internet. Understanding the dynamics and evolution of these groups makes things like music and video recommender systems possible. It’s all done with network theory. Other groups that are of interest that can be analyzed via systems concepts include political parties, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and universities!
Indeed, our group, at the University of Washington, Tacoma, is using Systems Science to develop the Systems Science curriculum!
The ability to analyze a ‘situation’ in an organization, the ability to characterize it, and the ability to manage complexity are of paramount importance in solving problems — that is deciding how to change the situation for the better. This is true regardless of what area of life we want to discuss. If you want to understand things and make things better, you need to have a framework for doing so. And Systems Science provides the most general and applicable framework imaginable.
If Systems Science is so good, why isn’t it taught to everybody? That is an excellent question! It’s especially puzzling since most of the basic concepts of systems have been known since before World War II. At least part of the answer comes from something I claimed in the first article — systems thinking is natural for everyone. Because we all think somewhat systemically it seems sometimes obvious that we should understand the whole and not just the parts. And most people strive to do so. But as I also pointed out, we do it without discipline which means that we do it only spottily. The recognition for a need to consolidate our understanding of systems and make it a core part of education has just gained momentum in the last part of the last century. In part this might be due to the explosive growth in complexity afforded by the rapidly increasing capabilities of computers and their use in so many aspects of life. Ironically, a product of systems thinking has generated the need to do more and better systems thinking.
In the final article of this series I will address the need to provide an explicit education in Systems Science. Those of us who have been thinking about this for a while have recognized the need for systems thinking to pervade every field but it won’t happen without a definite curriculum. We are designing two degrees that provide Systems Science to a broad array of students with diverse interests. The Bachelor’s of Art (BA) will provide every student with the qualitative aspects of Systems Science. That is it will convey the meaning of systemness, but will not require more advanced math in order to understand and use the principles. The Bachelor’s of Science (BS) will additionally require math beyond algebra so that these students will be able to enter fields such as the sciences and engineering with a leg up on the traditional disciplinary students; they will have the ultra-big picture in which to understand whatever field they choose to pursue.
In this final article I want to outline the efforts we are taking at the University of Washington, Tacoma to develop a baccalaureate program in Systems Science. As mentioned in the previous article there will be two degrees, a BA for those who want to understand the principles of systems without necessarily going deeply into the mathematics required to use Systems Science tools for analysis and design (as might an engineer for example). The program should be ready to open its doors in the Fall quarter of 2009, just in time for entering students to prepare for the second decade of this new century and millennium.
For the last several years I and some colleagues have been exploring the idea of an education based on Systems Science, the accumulated knowledge of what all systems share in form, behavior, and other attributes. We have begun to recognize that Systems Science is applicable to every other field of knowledge. It is like a meta-field. Or another way to look at it is that it underlies all other fields of knowledge. Systems science is about organization, dynamical behavior, connectivity and most of all, about meaning. Through systems science it is possible to find deep relationships between systems in the world. And everything that you can touch, see, and/or hear is part of a system as well as a system in its own right. Systems Science helps us find meaning in all the interactions of things and people in the world.
We are now at the point of realizing that a college degree in Systems Science would be to the 21st century what a liberal arts education was to the early 20th century. Someone with a strong background in Systems Science is in an ideal position to learn any specialized area they choose. Why? Because the principles of Systems Science are found at work in every area of knowledge. Business schools, especially management courses, teach systems thinking applied to enterprises. The natural sciences teach systems of laws and principles that govern the workings of the natural world. For example network theory, a deep principle in systems science, is found at work in chemistry, physics and biology on multiple levels. It is equally applicable to the social sciences. Even the humanities can be parsed as systems of form and function that have an underlying organization for purposes of affect.
I have talked with a number of people in various professions and in academia who have realized early in their lives that they were using systems thinking in their work. They were the lucky ones that became consciously aware of their ability to manage their learning and problem solving abilities by applying systems principles in a wide variety of endeavors. Universally, they have been able to work successfully in many different disciplines — the true interdisciplinary approach — and apply what they had learned in one discipline to solve problems in others. The whole basis of analogies and analogic thinking is rooted in systems thinking.
Given the power of systems thinking in providing life-long learning ability and adaptability to changes in the world, we have begun designing a curriculum that we feel will offer an optimal preparation for students who are seeking any number of professional education opportunities. For example a BA degree in Systems Science would be useful preparation for an MBA student. Similarly, it would be excellent preparation for medical and law schools. The reason that we feel we can make this claim is that the content of courses in Systems Science comes from the other subject areas. You need to use real life examples from a variety of subjects in order to see the commonality inherent in the systems approach to understanding. Thus students in a bachelor’s program in Systems Science will be exposed to a wide variety of subjects as they examine the systemness of those subjects. They will come away with a broad understanding of how many areas of knowledge relate and how that knowledge relates to what really goes on in the world. Broad knowledge with an ability to drill down into specifics as needed is a hallmark of top managers, scientists and the better politicians.
The program that we are designing will also feature a hands-on capstone project (team based) in which students will have an opportunity to apply systems thinking to a real-world problem of interest to them. As envisioned, graduates from this program will be ready for a wide variety of jobs in the economy. But more importantly, they will be prepared to change jobs and careers as the needs of the economy shift around. They will be life-long learners, empowered to understand quickly new areas of specific knowledge that they might not be familiar with. They will be versatilists in a marketplace that places a premium on versatility. And, just as importantly, they will be better prepared citizens to understand the issues that come up in our system of governance.