Theoretical Foundations

🚧 This section is under construction and is considered incomplete. 🚧

Sustainability and social justice are incredibly complex challenges. The Earth's climate, atmosphere, land, ocean, and biosphere, along with human civilization are complex adaptive systems (CAS). A CAS is simply a system in which many independent elements or agents interact, leading to emergent outcomes that are often difficult (or impossible) to predict simply by looking at the individual interactions. A CAS has three defining characteristics.[1]

  1. The system consists of a number of heterogeneous agents, and each of those agents makes decisions about how to behave, with their decisions evolving over time.

  2. The agents in the system interact with one another.

  3. Interactions between agents leads to emergence, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The key issue is that you can’t really understand the whole system by simply looking at its individual parts.

We seek to improve complex adaptive systems, sometimes with disastrous consequences. One choice can lead to a series of cascading events that were completely unanticipated. People have good intentions, but cannot anticipate the ultimate results. Humans are really good at linking cause and effect - sometimes too good. [1]

Challenges to Systemic Interventions

Thousands of years ago, early in human history, cause and effect was pretty straight forward. The human brain evolved in those conditions. That means that when we see something occur in a CAS, our minds create narratives to explain what happened. Our minds will do this even though cause and effect are incomprehensible in highly complex systems. We have a tendency to think that certain causes will lead to particular effects, but really just don’t know. As Tim Sullivan puts it in his article Embracing Complexity, "our uncertainly is our biggest single bias".[1]

Faced with uncertainty, we default to following to authoritative figures, even when it’s been well documented that their predictions are quite poor. But we listen to them because they’re authoritative, even when we know that these people are predicting something that’s functionally impossible to predict. Individuals who come across as more authoritative are for some reason more believable. We are more comfortable deferring to the people who are confident, outspoken, and sound smart, not necessary the people with real answers or insight.[1]

We’re also reluctant to share private information. This causes us to aggregate information poorly. Because we choose to talk primarily about shared information and keep unique information to ourselves, we can end up making bad decisions. This is because withholding information provides decision makers with incomplete information about problems. It may also lead to critical information about the decision makers themselves that may indicate bias or confusion. Most organizations are not optimized to facilitate sharing of this type of "private" information, even in places where the information exists, it isn't being surfaced. [1]

The Importance of Cognitive Diversity

How people think, their training, their experience, their personalities is key to tackling complex problems. Research has shown that diverse groups are better at making predictions and solving problems. Intentionally putting together different points of view that will challenge one another is essential for hiring and for building teams. [1]

Even if you have a diverse team, if you bulldoze your teammates with your point of view, you won't reap the benefits of diversity. We have to step back, let diverse views surface, and create brave spaces that offer psychological safety and foster divergent perspectives. This may not come naturally to outspoken leaders. We try to hire smart people and put smart people on teams. But we don’t think enough about how much diversity can contribute. The key is to find smart people who think differently. [1]

Critical Systems Thinking

Critical Systems Thinking (CST) is an approach to systemic intervention that combines systems thinking and participatory methods to address the challenges of problems characterized by large scale, complexity, uncertainty, impermanence, and imperfection. It was developed to account for nonlinear relationships, feedback loops, hierarchies, and emergent properties. CST has particularly problematized the issue of boundaries and their consequences for inclusion, exclusion and marginalization. As a research perspective CST is said to embrace three fundamental commitments.

  1. Use critical awareness when examining and re-examining taken-for-granted assumptions, along with the conditions which give rise to them.

  2. Focus on emancipation to ensure that "improvement" is defined temporarily and locally, taking issues of power (which may affect the definition) into account.

  3. Apply methodological pluralism, using a variety of research methods in a theoretically coherent manner, becoming aware of their strengths and weaknesses, to address a corresponding variety of issues.

The idea that there are three commitments in CST was introduced into the literature by Flood and Jackson (1991). The three commitments of CST should be considered an over-simplification of the range of issues considered important by critical systems thinkers. However, they are useful for indicating the general interests pursued by proponents of the perspective.

Many different perspectives on CST are offered in the literature. What they all have in common, however, is an interest in questions about, and surrounding, the nature of the above commitments. There is no consensus on their definition. Indeed, different writers have evolved very different understandings, and continue to develop their ideas in communication with others. CST can therefore be seen as an evolving discourse around a set of themes that are considered important by a significant number of systems practitioners. The term 'discourse' is central here as it emphasizes dynamism and continued development rather than the stasis of a final definition.

In consequence of the evolving discourse around CST, SPEC seeks to balance leveraging CST, while gaining new understanding about its strengths and weakness, and finding complementary research methodologies outside of the domain of systems thinking. SPEC's particular conception of CST is heavily influenced by the work of Flood and Jackson. While problems have been identified in Flood and Jackson's approach to CST, they do not invalidate their ideas nor mean they are unsolvable. Drawing upon the work of other critical systems thinkers like Churchman and Ulrich, and seeking inspiration from methodologies outside of systems thinking, show promise in addressing underlying problems with Flood and Jackson's theoretical framework. Ultimately, a different vision of CST will emerge from SPEC's application and adaptation of CST.

The three commitments of CST are derived from the work over Habermas, who claimed that all human beings have three fundamental interests:

  1. a 'technical interest' in predicting and controlling our natural and social environment.

  2. a 'practical interest' in pursuing mutual understanding.

  3. an 'emancipatory interest' in freeing ourselves from constraints imposed by power relations.

Here is Jackson's interpretation of Haberma's theory.

According to Habermas there are two fundamental conditions underpinning the socio-cultural form of life of the human species - 'work' and 'interaction'. 'Work' enables human beings to achieve goals and to bring about material well-being through social labour. The importance of work to the human species leads human beings to have what Habermas calls a 'technical interest' in the prediction and control of natural and social events. The importance of 'interaction' calls forth another 'interest', the 'practical interest'. Its concern is with securing and expanding the possibilities of mutual understanding among all those involved in the reproduction of social life. Disagreement among different groups can be just as much a threat to the reproduction of the socio-cultural form of life as a failure to predict and control natural and social affairs. While work and interaction have for Habermas... pre-eminent anthropological status, the analysis of power and the way it is exercised is equally essential, Habermas argues, for the understanding of all past and present social arrangements. The exercise of power in the social process can prevent the open and free discussion necessary for the success of interaction. Human beings therefore also have an 'emancipatory interest' in freeing themselves from constraints imposed by power relations and in learning, through a process of genuine participatory democracy. involving discursive will-formation. to control their own destiny.

Flood and Jackson argue that Habermas theory can be used as the foundation for being able to a pluralism of complementary methodologies for making systemic change in a theoretical coherent manner. In short Flood and Jackson propose that the three major paradigms of systems thinking fall under "hard", "soft" and critical systems heuristics (CSH), and map to Habermas' areas of interest as describe below.

  • "hard" cybernetic systems approaches support "technical interest"

  • "soft" methodologies support "practical interest"

  • critical systems heuristics support "emancipatory interest"

🚧 To be continued... 🚧


  1. Tim Sullivan, Embracing Complexity, Harvard Business Review (September 2011)

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