From education to employment

Review of The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking – Governance in a Climate Emergency

plants in light bulb

Authors Ray Ison and Ed Straw have produced an illustrated 300-page paperback (1) which states their concern for alleviating what they describe as ‘the climate chaos’ embracing planet Earth: pollution, emission of greenhouse gases, resource depletion, floods, and a breakdown of natural cycles. An IPCC report of 2018 apparently predicts just 12 years to catastrophe. They also put forward their case for intervening by means of the relatively young subject systems, and provide us with a nine-page glossary of terms to assist practical analysis of institutional problems via systems thinking.

Most of the book’s chapters provides principles, interesting media extracts, comments for reflection, explanatory diagrams, and notes, suggesting the authors have covered much ground and engaged in many serious discussions. Germany’s approach to climate change adaptation (p35) is shown as two circles – typically rational with its objectives, targets, risks, and so on; yet Ison and Straw are concerned that such cycles will be interpreted as a linear sequence of steps rather than a systemic device to discuss the problem as ‘a whole’, thus missing built-in feedback, learning, and any means to adapt the policy itself. I suppose the German planners might defend their diagram by asking, ‘What about our step 10 Revise and Review – Doesn’t that indicate a willingness to learn and adapt?’.

The authors’ wide range of study also notes the impact of corporations, capitalism, and China, informing readers that the business world’s institutions are pervasive and complex, even some universities have become quasi-corporations assisted by funding from the state. A challenge to institutional design and work done by government systems has arisen: hybrid organisations, as where the media is now quite busily engaged, occasionally part of the state, private sector through ‘global tech titans’, and growing too in the ‘civil society’ of non-governmental institutions, not least the private sector and families from John o’ Groats to Land’s End. Hardly surprising that each chapter in The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking closes with some twenty pointers to further reading and reflection – which may not appeal to readers who endure working days in a capitalist system that so often damages employees’ well-being. Even if the trains are running. The authors principles for systems government appear in Chapter 11, and include the following:

  • 15  Governments shall serve democracy, and be effective, stable, adaptable, accountable, and open.
  • 16  The purpose of government is to produce beneficial change.

China, however, despite much investment in renewables and receiving applause for an earlier green mantra, persists with a programme to build and operate hundreds of coal-fired power stations. Chinese leaders might argue they are serving national needs by expanding a proven industry (the world’s largest producer and user of coal) while simultaneously testing alternative sources which so far have been unable to generate sufficient energy. Climate aficionados state coal-fired plants halted a decade back have been quietly restarted in this huge country that suffers notoriously cold winters. Unsurprisingly, while the UK emits less than 1% of all global CO2 emissions annually (2), China releases 30%.  

Two more hesitations about this scholarly book are related but before these two I must note I haven’t attended lectures that may have allowed my modest background to digest the book’s content. The authors’ glossary of terms (Appendix 2, p286 to 295) seems unduly heavy: fifty terms are listed. Their purpose is to explain ‘concepts that can be put to use’. Good idea, but for the sake of newcomers, can carefully selected subsets of these terms suffice in many situations? If they can – how do I select, and what sort of data should pass between concepts? The glossary’s first three terms are Active Listening, Affordance, and Biosphere; the last three are named Trap (think lobster pot), Wicked Problem (that resist a definition of their nature), and World View (also referred to as meaningful Weltanschauung).

A second hesitation is about the use of case studies. The book holds many references to organisational research in the field (like the OECD’s Office for Public Sector Innovation, p141) but lacks vital pages illuminating OU systems research. Such pages might indicate, say, during the first week with some client’s organisation we did X; in the following fortnight the approach put together and used Y; consequently, there was a need to pursue a fresh strategy sharing model Z to engage in discussion with personnel. Model Z might be one of the diagrams appearing in The Hidden Power (1), or a model drafted on the spot, though for reasons known to Professors Ison and Straw, the term ‘model’ doesn’t appear in their glossary. Are models helpful? Consider a Durham family lost in Norfolk’s narrow lanes while seeking their weekend holiday cottage, would a scribbled pencil-on-paper model of roads, church, and village duck pond en route to the isolated destination help? If so, are coherent and potentially relevant sketches also worth discussing with concerned staff in the complex field of organisational governance?

In summary, I ask only that research-based systems thinking’s principles be made accessible to readers. Yes, there are noteworthy UK studies in this book, in particular the investigations of a health system and flood defence system in Chapter 5; but such work does not appear to have been conducted by teams deploying systems learning as taught by the OU. And I assume the two authors are keen to promote robust ideas which might be classified in the literature as examples of contemporary systems thinking.

By Neil Richardson

  1. The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (Routledge, 2020). Professor Ison is Professor of Systems at the Open University, with responsibility for managing a post-graduate program in Systems Thinking in Practice; his previous posts include presidency of the IFSR (International Federation of Systems Research). Ed Straw – previously government advisor and PwC consultant – is a visiting fellow at the Open University’s ASTiP group.    

  2. Coal Demand,  Daily Telegraph,  7 November 2022

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