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inquiring systems for permaculture designers

Systems Thinking and Other Useful Wild Plants

On Thinking Unsystematically About Systems Thinking.

With so many posts about inquiring systems, I started thinking about systems thinking, one of the foundational subjects in the Management Information Systems curriculum I took. Ironically, these thoughts about systems thinking may be disjointed now, and its theme so much leathery banana peel for the compost pile.

Nevertheless, thoughts about systems thinking come to mind and my theme is that the synergy that arises from the aggregate effect of these "systems thinking" thoughts is aided by plants. That this is important is because it can be contrasted, if you will, with an activity such as keying a plant. Here now are some ideas about systems thinking.

We might as well start with Senge, who wrote about systems thinking in terms in a way that got people excited about systems thinking. Here we take from his ideas and extract a description of the opposite of systems thinking. To understand systems thinking let us start with what systems thinking is not.

Systems thinking is not reductionism. Reason and Bradbury write the views of Senge on reductionism, that "Reductionism, let us be reminded, advocates analysis of phenomena, which means breaking them down into constituent parts and studying these simple elements in terms of cause and effect relationships" (1). The physicists dissect the atomic universe, smashing things, breaking open the universe, examining its parts, or at least examining the photographs of the disintegration. Meanwhile, systems thinking examines the wholes of the universe.

For me, this looking-at-the-whole is odds with much of popular culture. Eacb float at the parade yells colors for attention, and the whole effect of the parade is somehow lost in the shuffle. Even the subject of systems thinking can be approached by listing the parts of the puzzle. I find it takes a pause of mindfulness before attempting systems thinking, the attempt to visualize wholes. Here is an activity which has different methods than the methods suited to reductionism.

The world had appeared so fragmented to me. Yet, I find myself amidst a regeneration of interest in a holistic perspective. All anecdotal evidence this is, yet the message is a theme. Cue the theme music, as our spokespersons appear stage right and with color.

From the perspective of systems thinking, Singer and Churchman do not disappoint. Although I suppose I should use the term systems approach. Setting the nuances of these terms aside for the moment, the essential nature of both systems thinking and the systems approach is a that of a method that explores an entity in the context of its environment. With Singer and Churchman there are many ideas to chose from. What comes to my mind now, having just reflected upon how systems thinking is the antithesis of reductionism, is that the Singerian Inquirer has a method for the occasion.

The Singerian Inquirer may "sweep-in" new ideas. Patch a new theory into the current theory. Look at the situation from the perspective of another person. Recalibrate the bullshit detector. A helpful concept in the face of reductionism gone wild is measurement and a helpful concept in the face of measurement is pragmatism. As Churchman would say, the measurement of the desk is accurate if the desk fits in the nook. What I am saying is that the value of sweeping in new additional measuring stick is a new perspective. The Singerian inquirer is drawing from the environment elements that help to enhance the perception of the system.

The context of the "sweep-in" process is measurement. As Churchman points out, Singer chose Metrology as a starting point. The inquirer is measuring with an instrument. The aim of the "sweep-in" process is to overcome limitation of the reading. The "sweep-in" process consists of bringing concepts and variables into the model. It begs for interdisciplinary research. It calls us to give attention to the design of our instruments.

There are many ideas to bring up and consider, from many more people, for starters: von Bertalanffy. Forrester. Ackoff. Checkland. Gall. Meadows. Mollison. Champions of system dynamics. Heroes of living systems. Influential thinkers of social systems. Leaders describing soft systems. Jesters reminding us of general systemantics. Just look at the stacks of papers. When I find myself analyzing the parts, I find it is a good time to take an afternoon walk to a sit spot of mine.

I have a sit spot where I sometimes go. It is a spot by a creek, secluded. I sit down there and listen to the water and eventually my thoughts turn back to systems thinking, the whole of it, or at least, my mental model of systems thinking concepts. When I hear the water gurgling over the rocks I get the feeling that I have been here before. Why is it that systems thinking is so restorative for me? Is it for you, too?

Another good place for contemplating systems thinking is Bumpkin Island, one of the Boston Harbor Islands. A ferry goes to the island. Campsites are available. The island is small; an hour's walk will take one around the parameter. This is a whole within a whole. The boundary is for swimmers, boaters, and fliers only.

The last time I visited Bumpkin Island I wrote down a list of plants that I spotted on the island.

I observed individual plants. Each plant a living element of the whole. The environment of the island is the Boston Harbor. The inputs are generously provided by the sun and the clouds passing above. The outputs are birdfood, beauty, and organic matter.

Each of these plants are individual plants, and, yet, surely, these useful wild plants are interconnected with all things, even those things in the sky. The moon tugs on Bumpkin Island\'s useful plants and Bumpkin Island\'s useful plants tug on the moon. And at night, camping beneath the stars, the busy-busy brooms come out and sweep away the stardust so that we may "sweep-in" the stars.

1. Reason and Bradbury, The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. 125.