June 2011 Archives

Miscasting the Great Social Drama



I had intended to get back to basics as I come back after lying low for a while, but I have to take one of my periodic moves into the world of politics. A news article in today’s Boston Globe caught my attention and triggered a flood of related thoughts. Here’s the headline and opening paragraph.

Investors may fund social programs State exploring ‘pay for success’; Profits would be tied to cost savings

Massachusetts could be among the first states in the country to raise money for social services by offering investors the chance to earn profits on programs they establish.

After reading further, what I see is another, perhaps more sophisticated, form of privatization. Enough already. This initiative would be another case where social qualities are being reduced to unvarnished monetary measures. The state would contract services to private entities that would be compensated in relation to the savings they produce. One example taken from recent experience in the UK aims at reducing the cost of recidivism among about 3000 inmates at one prison. The driving thrust is to obtain money to initiate and operate the social program with this goal. Here are the main details.

It struck a deal with a nonprofit partnership to create an $8 million program to work with 3,000 inmates over six years at a prison in Peterborough, England, 75 miles north of London. Social Finance Ltd., which helps arrange financing for nonprofits, raised the money from 17 investors, mainly charitable foundations. If the nonprofits succeed in cutting recidivism by 7.5 percent, the investors will get all their money back. If they reduce the rate further, investors could receive up to $12.8 million, a nearly 60 percent profit. If the effort fails to reduce recidivism by at least 7.5 percent, the government won’t owe investors anything.

What a deal! I would take this any day with my eyes closed. Get some friends to read up on recidivism, form a non-profit, lobby for a contract, and go to work. No risk whatsoever. If the results are poor because recidivism is not only a result of the context of prison life, but of the context of the prisoner’s life before and after incarceration, no problem. I just fold my tent and move away. But if I get some positive results, whether due to my efforts or not, I can be handsomely rewarded.

The privatization approach must divide up complex social problems into discrete pieces, each of which is a wicked problem. (I had no idea when I was writing my recent series on wicked problems how broadly applicable the 10 items would be.) how broad that concept can be appied. These are particularly germane.

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
  2. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
  3. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  4. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
  5. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
  6. The planner has no right to be wrong.

As I read the article, the projects are one-off. The “contractor” gets one shot and is compensated accordingly, contravening items 3, 4, 5, and 6. The absence of risk in terms of the effectiveness of the program is particularly troublesome. The formal, bounded nature of the projects ignores the contextual issues raised in items 1 and 5. The moral, or better, immoral frame for these projects absolving the entity for failure to achieve its promises flies in the face of item 6.

There are many moral issues involved in addressing any social program. People, criminals or clergy, always have rights that must be considered in setting up and administering any action program. Governments may not always do a good job recognizing or impacting these rights, but they are the institution that has been given the responsibility for overseeing the moral center of the democratic societies involved here.

Corporate forms in general (and specifically in this case) are limited in the set of moral responsibilities they assume by the set of regulations that assign (always a bounded) set of rules they must follow. The article implies that non-profit entities will administer these programs, inferring that there is some sort of mission-driven character or moral superiority to these organizations that will distinguish them from run-of-the-mill profit making enterprises. There is no guarantee; many non-profits have ripped off the public. The better descriptor for these kinds of enterprises is “not-for-profit,” which allows that the intention implied in the name may sometimes be lost.

The UK program, according the the Globe article, arose out of an inability to initiate and operate needed social program from tradition government tax revenues and long-term bond.

“We can no longer fund everything,’’ said Hugo Biggs, a press officer for the British Ministry of Justice. “So going forward, we are going to pay for what works.’’

That’s the same reason being used in the US to justify turning to the private sector for programs that have been traditionally government responsibilities, based on an understanding (and agreement) that the public and private sectors have distinct moral and functional bases. But stop for a moment and ask why this has become the case. The answer is long and complicated, but here are a few parts. The large deficit we face is being used to argue that we cannot afford to invest any more in our social structure, both institutional and concrete. The drivers of the economy are put in peril as a consequence. The deficit is arguably the unintended result of the high costs of running multiple simultaneous wars, unwarranted tax cuts and Wall Street greed and duplicity, and perhaps a few others.

Tax revenues have fallen in part because the tax structure favors the very wealthy who have gotten more wealthy, increasing inequality. They no longer pay their “fair share.” Inequality breeds the social conditions that put people in prison. The wealthy get richer by being able to invest in these new “social programs,” which carry no financial risk other than the opportunity cost of investing in other schemes. I do not see the appreciation of this mesh of interrelated links expressed in the material I read. Given the superficiality and ideological tone of political talk these days, I would bet it has not. We are on the wrong path here. The right one would be to restore the role and competence of government and its agencies and not allow further erosion all in the name of the improved efficiency (cost-savings) the private sector claims. The private sector, with bounded rules, has always had great difficulty dealing with the properties of wicked problems. And as governments tries to assume the same reductionist, limited frame as the private sector, they risk more and more outcomes that worsen the situation or create new sets of problems.

Roger Cohen, writing in today”s NYTimes, provides a fact that drives home the point even more. Referring to a different arena than curing recidivism, he spoke of two other current critical problem areas:

I was struck by two underlying themes: the need for an energy policy and for an industrial policy. Here’s why: It’s absurd that “climate change” has become an unpronounceable phrase under Obama and that green technology initiatives have been stymied by sterile ideological dispute. Intelligent use of resources makes strategic sense for America whatever your hang-up on global warming. It’s equally absurd that private U.S. corporations, having made $1.68 trillion in profits in the last quarter of 2010 and sitting on piles of cash, are doing fine while job numbers languish and more Americans struggle. . . None of this makes moral or any other sense.

Think of what governments, acting wisely and prudently, could do with those funds.

Excuses, Excuses

sorry-excuses Settling into my summer routine has been more challenging than in most years. Part might be blamed on the fact that summer has hardly arrived given the cold and very wet weather so far. It’s the end of June and it is still almost electric blanket nights. Cool nights are wonderful sleeping conditions, but it has gone beyond that until a few days ago. My intentions are still to blog 2-4 times a week so hang in there. I am on the road until Thursday, but will try to catch a few moments to get back in the rhythm.

Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 10)



This tenth and final property of wicked problems is quite different from the first nine. The first nine are all related to the nature of wicked problems. This one, 10. The planner has no right to be wrong, addresses the role of the planner or, more generally, anyone designated to “solve” the problem. At first, this rule may appear paradoxical. In solving ordinary or “tame” problems, as Rittel and Webber call them, the correctness of the solution is dictated by the accuracy of the analytic laws and the way they are applied. Presuming that the right choice of rules was made and the application was also correct, the resultant solution is the “right one.” If it fails to produce the desired results, the blame must go to the imperfect models that were used.

The blame lies in the nature of the process by which the models were determined. As R & W point out, the scientific method always creates conditional knowledge. The information gained by applying the “scientific method” take the form of hypotheses that appear to be “proven” by observation. When better tools become available or the boundaries are enlarged, the current set of rules are no longer accepted as “true.” That the world was flat was true until new observations found that it was wrong. Anyone using the current hypothesis made a mistake, but would not have committed an ethical breach. If a sailor expecting to fall off the edge of the Earth was surprised to return home after a trip around the world, the mapmaker was not the one to blame.

With wicked problems and complexity in general, the models and rules cannot be blamed for the failure of a solution to work as predicted. As many of the prior nine properties indicate, it is impossible to completely delineate a wicked problem or the models to use in crafting solutions. The solver cannot point to the outmoded character of the rules he or she used as the culprit. R & W state this case as:

We are thus led to conclude that the problems that planners must deal with are wicked and incorrigible ones, for they defy efforts to delineate their boundaries and to identify their causes, and thus to expose their problematic nature. The planner who works with open systems is caught up in the ambiguity of their causal webs. Moreover, his would-be solutions are confounded by a still further set of dilemmas posed by the growing pluralism of the contemporary publics, whose valuations of his proposals are judged against an array of different and contradicting scales.

The number of “publics” (stakeholders) is very large in issues connected to sustainability. One could argue that in the case of global sustainability, everyone on Earth is a stakeholder and will be affected by the decisions of those delegated to counter the present unsustainable trends. In the case of climate change, several distinct problem solvers have emerged. There are the deniers who would do nothing, except perhaps search for more efficiency in the system. Then, there are the technocrats who would seek innovative technical solutions, perhaps through geo-engineering. Those that would seek to change cultural behaviors constitute another class. If we ever make a social choice on the way to proceed to with climate change, the ones responsible for the new policies and activities will be responsible for the outcomes; they cannot blame the results on the models.

In the current scientistic, technological world, we do blame the people involved, but then excuse them if they can show the just were following the rules or should have known what the rules are. No such excuse can be invoked to absolve them when dealing with wicked problem. Our system of public responsible will continue to look for the guilty party and we will continue to exonerate them if the rules turn out to be insufficiently constituted. We are simply wasting our time and money in most cases.

The objective framework of the processes being used is the real culprit. Wicked problems demand a pragmatic framework in which the results are always understood to be conditional. There is no permanent hypothesis to refute, only the ones used in crafting the solution. If we accept the reality of this, we will begin to put skilled pragmatists in change of solving our big problems instead of people with some form of ideological, technocratic answers to every problem. We will advise these leaders, offering them the learnings from observers at different times, places, and scales, and will expect them to listen. We will base our assessments on them according to the fullness of their continuing attention and willingness to adopt changes.

Sustainability, the wickedest problem of all, demands the wisest of leaders and problem-solvers, not the smartest or most ideological. This doesn’t sound at all like our existing political system or the way our institutions work. It is time, long overdue, to consider how to change the frame for solving problems, the institutions, and stop looking only at the solutions, per se.

Being Unreasonable is Critical for Sustainability

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I often note instances of synchronicity when something I have been writing about shows up elsewhere at about the same time. I have, if you have been following this blog, been focusing on complexity and its consequences in practice. The wicked problems series has one more to go. In a closely related topic, the NYTimes carried a very interesting and important story on its online edition.

The headline, "Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth," disguises the richness of the article. The gist is that our reasoning powers, rather than the output of something wired in the brain as an original, basic part of human nature, have developed over time. The Cartesian idea of a mind, capturing the information coming via the senses (mirroring nature) and manipulating the images, has led to a picture of the brain as a sort of computer with a built in logic, just like the PCS most of us use everyday.

Reason was the name given to the processes by which the computer worked to produce a logical truth manifest through the language used to express our thoughts. The article puts it this way.

For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment. For centuries thinkers have assumed that the uniquely human capacity for reasoning has existed to let people reach beyond mere perception and reflex in the search for truth. Rationality allowed a solitary thinker to blaze a path to philosophical, moral and scientific enlightenment.

The authors of the scientific paper on which the article is based have a very different explanation, which may seem a bit shocking at first. Here is part of the abstract from the paper published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, referred to by Patricia Cohen, the Times reporter.

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views.
The paper's authors are focused on explaining a particular type of psychological behavior, but their conclusions have much broader implications. The idea that our rational powers and the reality we create with them are the result of interacting with the world is not new. One of the earliest to make a related claim is Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist who presented this concept in an 1988 paper, entitled, "Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument." Note the similarity to the title of the news item. I have picked out a few key lines from Maturana's paper . The paper is not easy to read as he uses a strange vocabulary to avoid the mental traps that familiar words create.
Or, in other words, due to the nature of rationality in the explanatory path of objectivity-without-parenthesis [his term for ordinary (Cartesian) objective reality], in it the search for reality is the search for the compelling argument.
The same applies to reality: reality is a proposition that arises in a disagreement as an attempt to recover a lost domain of co-ordinations of actions, or to generate a new one." [My interpretation of this is that the powerful win the argument and their claims of truth/reality become the one that becomes embedded as the cultural meme. Sustainability lives in the "lost domain of co-ordinations of actors" and needs a new reality to get us back on track.]

This is the reason that non-modern-paradigmatic thinking (systems thinking) is so important. The reality produced by reason is not the "truth." Much of deconstructionism takes this as the ground, arguing that power creates reality. In this sense, power is used to establish the dominator's reason. Another great quote from the paper is:

Therefore,in this explanatory path [Cartesian, objective reality], explanations entail the claim of a privileged access to an objective reality by the explaining observer, and in it the observers do not take responsibility for the mutual negation in their explanatory disagreements because this is the consequence of arguments whose validity does not depend on them. It is in this explanatory path that a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience (emphasis added).

A critique of the standard notion of reality and rationality, based largely on Maturana's work, is one of the foundations of my book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture, and informs all my teaching. Maturana is a biologist, not a philosopher or psychologist, and bases his findings on fundamental science. Unfortunately, his model of human cognition has not made it to the NyTimes. I believe that is because it is so challenging and threatening to the standard set of beliefs that it is simply written off. Ironically, this is one of the consequences of Mercier and Sperber's argument. People adopt "irrational" and mistaken positions (in terms of objective reality) to win the arguments important to them. Nothing is more important than retaining one's sense of rationality and reality and so rationalists that legitimate objective knowledge, the scientific community, dismiss Maturana's arguments.

Several very important consequences for sustainability follow. "Truths" about the world gleaned from scientific studies are dismissed by those who have taken positions contradictory to these truths. It will not do anything simply to call them irrational and invoke the legitimacy of science to counter them. It is a lost cause. If they are to be brought in line with these "truths, other arguments must be prepared. To make progress toward sustainability in the world, not just on the papers we write, it seems to me that we must accept this claim and change the way those committed to sustainability work.

It is not the content of what we develop by the tools we have become familiar with and use competently that will make a difference; it is how well we can make our case, and, as the third Maturana quote infers, speak our new "truths" to power. It is more about the art of rhetoric and communication that of reason that will count. "Speaking truth to power" is a phrase widely used in the sense of my argument. Erich Fromm appears to be the original source, coming from his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. A great book, by the way.

The notion of complexity also indirectly reflects this finding. Complexity means that there are aspects of the world that we cannot claim to be true in the sense of some objective finding. Maturana and Mercier and Sperber says we create the reality of each case in a situation where we are attempting to find a compelling argument. Sometimes it is an argument in real time with real people, and other times it is an argument with an anonymous audience, for example those reading a technical or position paper we have written.

I belong to a small group of thinkers, mostly in the systems thinking community, that see the poor state of the world has been created by a society that believes it is acting rationally and reasonably. The reality they claim exists outside of our mental functioning. The cultural underpinnings of normal behavior are based on a long evolution of "truths" that are nothing more than arguments won by the most powerful members of the society, those holding the most legitimacy. If we are to be effective in setting the world on a trajectory toward sustainability, we have no choice but to be explicitly unreasonable, and to focus our work on designing ways to compel, in Maturana's sense, others to accept our arguments. It does little for our cause to spend all of our time talking to one another.

Back Monday or Tuesday



Taking a few days away to celebrate my wife's and my combined 155th birthdays with a party for friends and family.

The Earth Is Full

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This is the headline of Tom Friedman's column today. The first few paragraphs carry the same message as my post of yesterday. The only difference is that several orders of magnitude more readers see his stuff than read mine.

You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?

“The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”

Another case of synchronicity. Gilding is a self proclaimed "eco-optimist." Friedman writes,

As the impact of the imminent Great Disruption hits us, he [Gilding] says, “our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”

This response is pretty iffy. Why not start now? Take a lead from the Transition Town movement and begin to make the changes deliberately. The pain, which is inevitable, would be much less.

Facing the Facts

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It is both surprising and welcome to find a story in the New York Times that paints the future in the stark terms it deserves, unless something happens to change course dramatically.

Try to imagine a world with three Americas. Three giant economic powerhouses, with citizens who buy, sell and consume, all in pursuit of their versions of the American Dream. Difficult to envision? But that’s where economists say we’re heading.

The broad consensus is that China will overtake the U.S to become the world’s biggest economy within two decades. And by 2050, India will be as big as well.

No technological optimism can possibly blunt the recognition that a world with 3 or 4 (if you add Europe) economies the size of the United States is impossible. There simply are not enough resources to keep such large economies humming along. No hedging. No denial. No sending the excess population off into space. But it is rare to see statements like this in print in the mainstream media.

With the invention of the footprint analysis and other means to estimate the scale of economic activities relative to the Earth's resources being consumed by keeping these economies going, it is patently clear that we, the population alive today, are pushing the Earth beyond the limits of sustainability. Something will have to give. We are already over the limit by about half an Earth, and the article notes that, when the Asian giants grow to the same size as us (predicted to happen around 2050) we will need at least four Earths. To hold any belief or hope that we can have both a healthy Earth and such a large economy is imprudent (if one is polite) or simply insane (if one calls it as it is).

Whenever we, in the US, see a problem so large that it exceeds our rational abilities to understand its magnitude, causes, and systemic implications, we declare war or simply make war without a declaration: think war on drugs, cancer, poverty, Iraq, Afghanistan. I do not believe that "war" is the correct metaphor or solution to these problems, but if that is what it takes to get the Nation mobilized, it's time for a war on growth and inequality. If there is to be any hope of sustainability in the future, both of these factors must be curbed. Partisan politics, at its best, is inadequate to the job. This is a war that will extend beyond the terms of any politician in office today. Lobbyists have none of the answers, nor do the wisest of economists. The solutions needed are completely outside the range of vision of people operating within present institutions. Russell Ackoff's wonderful aphorism I quoted in a recent post fits again, "It is difficult for those inside a box to think outside of it." But that it exactly what it will take.

Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 9)



Eight down and two to go. Rittel and Webber assert here that it is fruitless to try to resolve differences about how to solve a wicked problem by any sort of scientific or conventional "rational" argument. 9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.

The belief and norm filters kick in at this point in discussing the essence of the problem and the choices available to "solve" it. Schön and Rein, in Frame Reflection, develop a larger theory about this issue in particular. George Lakoff has also written about the importance of framing and the way people "see" problems. In the political context, campaigning and other political rhetoric tends to focus on wicked problems without using this or any similar label. Listeners hear the rhetoric through their filters, not to the 'rationality' built into the arguments of what is needed to address the problems being presented. As a result, modern political rhetoric is often said to be a dialogue of the deaf.

R & W say this about this extremely challenging property:

In dealing with wicked problems, the modes of reasoning used in the argument are much richer than those permissible in the scientific discourse. Because of the essential uniqueness of the problem (see Proposition 7) and lacking opportunity for rigorous experimentation (see Proposition 5), it is not possible to put H to a crucial test. That is to say, the choice of explanation is arbitrary in the logical sense. In actuality, attitudinal criteria guide the choice. People choose those explanations which are most plausible to them. Somewhat but not much exaggerated, you might say that everybody picks that explanation of a discrepancy which fits his intentions best and which conforms to the action-prospects that are available to him. The analyst's "world view" is the strongest determining factor in explaining a discrepancy and, therefore, in resolving a wicked problem.

The problematic of sustainability is the epitome of wicked problems. The context for thinking about sustainability is about as large as is possible with leaving the Earth's for space travel. There are literally thousands or maybe even millions of programs dealing with sustainability underway today. With almost no exception, all of these are run by people who have the "answer" to one part of the problem set or another, but I have yet to see any organized program in either business or government or NGOs that is willing to dive into the unknown core of the system that has begun to malfunction badly. Nor have the universities in spite of their much diminished role in asking questions.

All of these institutions are trapped in the modern paradigm and its insistence on having the right answer to every problem. Another way of interpreting property 9, above, is that, if everyone sees these kinds of problems through their our historical mind set, there are as many possible routes to solution as there are people involved. One route maybe the most effective way to go by the consensus of the group, but it is not the "right" one as being the logical solution to the problem at hand.

Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 8)



The next property of wicked problems is related to the context issue I wrote about in the last post. 8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. Rittel and Webber describe this one:

Problems can be described as discrepancies between the state of affairs as it is and the state as it ought to be. The process of resolving the problem starts with the search for causal explanation of the discrepancy. Removal of that cause poses another problem of which the original problem is a "symptom." In turn, it can be considered the symptom of still another, "higher level" problem. Thus "crime in the streets" can be considered as a symptom of general moral decay, or permissiveness, or deficient opportunity, or wealth, or poverty, or whatever causal explanation you happen to like best. The level at which a problem is settled depends upon the self-confidence of the analyst and cannot be decided on logical grounds. There is nothing like a natural level of a wicked problem. Of course, the higher the level of a problem's formulation, the broader and more general it becomes: and the more difficult it becomes to do something about it. On the other hand, one should not try to cure symptoms: and therefore one should try to settle the problem on as high a level as possible.

One of the books I included in the list from which my students had to pick one to read this trimester was Russell Ackoff’s, Systems Thinking for Curious Managers. His messages are much the same as R & W’s, but are couched in terms more familiar to managers than to planners. Rather than a fairly concise set of 10 properties, Ackoff lists 123 so-called “f-rules.” Each one is a short aphorism or rules that systems thinking managers should follow. Don’t worry, I am not going through the whole list, one at a time. Both come from a deep understanding of complexity and the open nature of all non-trivial problems. Even this kind of problem can turn into a wicked one as the context shifts as it always will at some point. One of the best on the list, IMHO, is this: “It is difficult for those inside a box to think outside of it.”

Many of his bon mots have the notion of context in the shadows. All problems rest inside a contextual world where everything is connected. The problem in front of a group or an individual always becomes a different problem when the boundaries are expanded, as R & W describe. There is no analytic way to determine where to set the bounds; only the wisdom and understanding of the actors can inform the choice. Our current systems for managing the private and public sectors have evolved to a state where these virtues have little chance to surface. Ackoff says (f-rule 13): "The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things."

insoluble At the same time I have been feeding back the wisdom in Rittel and Webber’s thinking, I have continued to read and think about complexity broadly. The more I read, the more I believe that it is critical that we begin to appreciate the omnipresence of complexity and quickly learn how to deal with it. We have relegated the idea and its ramifications to a curio shop, relying only on “the sciences” to provide us with the knowledge needed to run our individual and collective lives. Real systems thinking must incorporate complexity as the basic way of framing every non-trivial problem.

An article entitled, “Restricted Complexity, General Complexity," by the French sociologist Edgar Morin makes a strong argument for putting complexity ahead of the reductionist frame we have come to take for granted as the proper way to get to know the world. Morin argues that every system is complex because it is always a part of other systems. We are blind to this because we only know how to find truths by dissecting systems into their component parts. I would not recommend to paper without qualification. It is written in the most awkward English I have seen in a while, but the central ideas are sound and compelling.

Perhaps it is because I have been saying much the same thing, not so elegantly (even in his stilted English) that I was drawn to the article. Morin eventually argues that our whole system of education must be reformed so a new “fundamental culture” can replace the current set of beliefs and norms. It would stand the central tenets of modernity on their heads. [Positive] knowledge, instead of being the gold standard, would be recognized “as a source of error or illusion.” In a practical sense, the consequences of ignoring this are the creation of unintended consequences which have destroyed or threaten to destroy the societies that counted on their knowledge to lead them to some promised land.

Rationality comes next because, he says, we know that acting rationally can be perverse, but choose to ignore what we see. Science, the source of knowledge, is a flawed program. The fundamental scientific epistemology cannot deal with complexity. The important features of connectedness, holism, emergence cannot be found in its methodologies. In the place of these basic concepts of modernity, Morin adds that we must teach complexity from the start and abandon the hegemony of the disciplines. Disciplines are constituted by the reductionist need to examine smaller and smaller pieces of the world and are incapable of grasping the fundaments of complexity.

Many have already pointed to the inadequacy of the objective lens. Morin refers to the “spirit” as a Kantian-like sense that enables us to know anything at all.

The objective knowledge which is its [science’s] idea, resulted in the need of eliminating subjectivity, i.e. the emotional part inherent to each observer, to each scientist, but it also comprised the elimination of the subject, i.e. the being which conceives and knows. However, any knowledge, including objective, is at the same time a cerebral translation starting from data of the external world and a mental reconstruction, starting from certain organizing potentialities of the spirit. It is certain that the idea of a pure objectivity is utopian. Scientific objectivity is produced by beings who are subjects, within given historical conditions, starting from the rules of the scientific game. The great contribution of Kant was to show that the object of knowledge is co-constructed by our spirit. He indicated us that it is necessary to know knowledge to know its possibilities and limits. The knowledge of knowledge is a requirement of the complex thinking.

Knowledge produced without consideration of the complexity that surrounds every isolated objective system is decontextualized. That is the reason we can generalize, but always lose something in the process.

Take for example the economy, the most advanced social science from a mathematical point of view, but which is isolated from human, social, historic, and sociologic contexts: its prediction power is extremely weak because the economy does not function in isolation: its forecasts need to be unceasingly revised, which indicates us the disability of a science that is very advanced but too closed.
That’s enough to get a flavor of this very intriguing and thoughtful article. His thinking envelops the notion of wicked problems and their properties. R & W use the idea of uniqueness to reflect the decontextualization that inevitably is in the background whenever we apply normal methodologies and call on the knowledge they have generated. The next property of wicked problems is 7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. R & W continue,
Of course, for any two problems at least one distinguishing property can be found (just as any number of properties can be found which they share in common), and each of them is therefore unique in a trivial sense. But by "'essentially unique" we mean that, despite long lists of similarities between a current problem and a previous one, there always might be an additional distinguishing property that is of overriding importance. Part of the art of dealing with wicked problems is the art of not knowing too early which type of solution to apply. . . Despite seeming similarities among wicked problems, one can never be certain that the particulars of a problem do not override its commonalities with other problems already dealt with.

“Essentially unique” is equivalent to Morin’s assertion that all systems are complex. R & W are less assertive than he is by their use of the conditional “might.” The implications are that we cannot generalize among classes of problems that are defined by a closed set of characteristics. Are Keynes’s or Krugman’s or any economist's solutions to our current economic malaise the right way to go? Maybe, but we should not expect the outcome to turn out exactly as they predict, The world of the Great Depression is not the same as today’s. The context is different.

Again, pragmatism enters the scene. We should certainly pay attention to those wise persons who have tempered their knowledge with a sense of history and context, but we should never expect their prognostications and remedies to be certain. Complexity and pragmatism are inextricably interconnected. Complexity is the fundamental state of the world. It follows that pragmatism is the proper frame for governance, certainly of the “big” systems problems we face.

Morin, near the end of his article, warns of dire consequences of ignoring complexity, but adds a positive note based on the creative possibilities of a living (complex) system.

The probabilities of a global future are extremely alarming: our spaceship is pulled by four engines without any control: science, technology, economy, and the search for profit—all this under conditions of chaos since the techno-civilizational unification of the planet, under the Western push, causes singular cultural resistances and cultural and religious re-closings. The planet is in crisis with all the possibilities, ones regressive and destructive, others stimulant and fertile, such as invention, creation, new solutions.

Consumers Drive Change from the Bottom



A few hours after my last post, which ended with a claim that some form of consumer action could achieve changes in the culture that could not be driven from the top, I read a piece that points to a case that supports my point. Umair Haque, in his usual iconoclastic manner, wrote about a recent action that drove the Parliament to rein in the bonuses of bank executives. It certainly was not the US.

Indulge me for a paragraph, if you will. Imagine that there was a country in which bailed-out bankers announced extravagant bonuses. OK, that part's eminently realistic — even mundane. But then imagine that people (not activists, or even dreadlocked sign-waving hippies — just regular folks) began to express their dismay, anger, even outrage, everywhere from Twitter to the local bar, and that served as the spark for a self-organizing movement. And because people had the courage, self-belief and just plain orneriness to self-organize, their parliament was forced to do what just mere months ago might have been unthinkable: to tax those bailed-out bankers' bonuses at 100%. And not just going forward — but retroactively, since the beginning of the crisis. Poof: kiss that fleet of supercars, that fourth vacation home in Bermuda, and that closetful of handmade Swiss watches goodbye.

This is not a bad dream for high-paid executives. It is happening in the Netherlands.

This was no mere "consumer revolt." It was open rebellion by the people formerly known as consumers. Far from "voting with their wallets" or their "feet" — often impossible in an economy chock-a-block full of cushy, cozy oligopolies — people decided to take collective action of a very different kind: as citizens of a vibrant society, not merely as mute, hapless "consumers" of mass-produced junk.

Could this happen here? Why not. The impetus for action in the Netherlands was provided by the same mechanism that has powered the uprisings in the Middle East--the social media. The Guardian carried an earlier story about the origins of the "revolt.

ING customers mobilised on Twitter and other social networks to protest at bonuses paid to bosses at the bank, one of the biggest in the country. The threat of direct action raised the spectre of a partial run on ING, terrifying the Dutch establishment. Fred Polhout, union organiser at the bank, says: "People were outraged. We heard about the bloated sums being paid again in the City and in New York; but suddenly the issue exploded on our own front door."

Power is distributed much more evenly in the Netherlands than the US. The distance from the streets to the centers of corporate and political power is shorter. The media are, on the other hand, stronger shapers of opinion here. The 1976 film, Network, offers an allegorical tale about the dissatisfaction of one man and the capacity of the media to enlist the public in his cause. Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) is a flagging newsman who gets a stay of his firing by making outrageous statements on the air. The climax comes when Beale shouts, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" He cajoles and gets his listeners to open their windows and shout, just as he has done. I would guess what happened in the Netherlands in not quite as dramatic, but the two stories convey the same message. The power of the people is real and is being amplified by the ever-increasing use of social media.

Back to Basics: Wicked Problems (Property 6)



Today’s property from Rittel and Webber follows from the earliest items in the list. 6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

Sophisticated problem-solving algorithms and programs (linear programming, for example) that are used in operations research or decision science will not work. R & W write:

There are no criteria which enable one to prove that all solutions to a wicked problem have been identified and considered. . . Chess has a finite set of rules, accounting for all situations that can occur. In mathematics, the tool chest of operations is also explicit; so, too, although less rigorously, in chemistry. But not so in the world of social policy. Which strategies-or-moves are permissible in dealing with crime in the streets, for example, have been enumerated nowhere.

The number of possible chess moves is extraordinary large, but is, in theory, enumerable. Big Blue, the chess-playing IBM computer incorporates algorithms that can solve the problem of what the next move should be and win even against grandmasters. The developers of Big Blue’s computer program were facing a tame, but very complicated, problem and obviously were able to solve it. Not so with the problems that must be solved before sustainability can emerge form the complex global system. All significant problems connected to the striving for sustainability are social policy problems in the sense of the quote above. Societal behavior must be changed such that patterns of consumption come to stay within the limitations of the Earth’s resources. Remedies for inequality involve fundamental policy issues, and cannot be found merely by tinkering with tax policy.

The implications of this property are stark when viewed in the context of current institutional problem-solving frameworks. Taking the United States as an example, problems are solved by using two distinct frameworks; some form of (systems) analysis subject to a set of boundary and initial conditions and another set of evaluative criteria, or by some form of adversarial process such as our legislative (problem-solving) process has become. The analytic frame produces truth according to the criteria used to bound the problem. The adversarial process produces truth as the outcome of the process, whether it be a vote in Congressional committee or a jury’s verdict. Other than appealing the outcome, the actors walk away from the problem and leave it to others to put the findings into play. Finding the “true” answer by these two or any other methodology is tantamount to a claim that the number of possible solutions is finite, contravening this property of a wicked problem.

This property then can be read as a negation of virtually all policy-making and implementation processes for problem dealing with sustainability, and many other current problems. R & W go on to write:

In such fields of ill-defined problems and hence ill-definable solutions, the set of feasible plans of action relies on realistic judgment, the capability to appraise "exotic" ideas and on the amount of trust and credibility between planner and clientele that will lead to the conclusion, "OK let's try that."

This is a reasonably concise definition of pragmatism, with the added feature that the problem-solvers must be trusted in the context of social policy problems. Pragmatism finds truth by testing solutions to problems against the desired outcome(s). If those outcomes are unsatisfactory, another solution must be constructed and tried. And so on and on. “Realistic judgment” can and should incorporate scientific evidence and the results of complicated analytic exercises and simulations. Putting something into play cannot be delayed indefinitely while awaiting for science to provide the information that would allow the solvers to put some sort of estimate of the probability of it working as planned.

The prognosis for coming to grips with unsustainability is poor, based only on this property of the problems that must be faced. The institutions responsible for solving this set of issues have neither enough trust or are stuck in the wrong methodological frame to be effective. Trust is essential in a pragmatic system so that those working on the problem can legitimately make mistakes, which, after all, are part of the basic pragmatic approach. All the more reason for adopting the subversive bottoms-up approach I have promoted in my book, including small-scale experiments in places that do have proper institutional machinery in place. Trust often diminishes with distance as those who must become trusting have less and less opportunity to assess those they would need to trust. Losers in any adversarial process are not likely to trust the winners to seek truth on their behalf.

It is not only the problem-solvers that must change their spots. Positivism with its practical ability to discover eternal objective truths is not equipped to handle the important problems of today, many of which are the unintended consequences that positivistic solutions have created. (This last point will reappear when we get to property 8.) It’s use is preferable to the dogmatic framing that preceded the Enlightment. It is an essential foundation for the creating and operating the technological, technocratic society we have become. It cannot however, produce a future that exhibits sustainability. The educational system that we count on to produce our leaders is built on a foundation of positivism, but perversely produces exactly the kinds of people who are disinclined to see pragmatism as a credible alternate to conventional policy-making and problem solving. Pragmatic action does and can work on a large scale. Gandhi described himself as a “pragmatic idealist.” Nonviolent protest is a pragmatic action. Consumer who care bout the future of the Planet can act pragmatically through their actions in the market place. If at first, any such action doesn’t success, try another, paraphrasing a common aphorism that reduces the philosophy of pragmatism to a very familiar phrase. Let’s get on with it.

Been Away, But Returning Today

I've been moving up to Maine, doing computer maintenance, and have been unable to attend to the blog, but I am settled and will continue again. If the Apocalypse came, I missed it. If it did, Heaven looks a lot like Earth.