1.3 The implications of Systems Design in the governance of a post-crisis world
Today’s COVID-19 biological pandemic offers metonymic insights for the many crises of our age, those that effect our physical planet, our societal structures...
Today’s COVID-19 biological pandemic offers metonymic insights for the many crises of our age, those that effect our physical planet, our societal structures, and our individual relationships. Crises at the scale of pandemics have occurred, are occurring and will continue to occur in the contexts of population and climate, environment and biodiversity, food and water, poverty and healthcare, inequality and racism, disinformation and artificial intelligence.
Each of these individual crises is a form of pandemic — “pan” = “all”, “demos” = “the people” in the sense of a collective defined by the land, and so many of these pandemics are global in scope.
Given the imperatives that derive from an understanding of complex adaptive systems, we must say that these crises are the consequence of interactions in systems that are unpredictable. Individually they are fundamentally unknowable, and they cannot even be addressed separately because they are all inextricably entangled, further compounding the uncountable fearsome dangers they present to our present and to our future. Crises can only be properly understood from a perspective of complexity and by complementing analysis with synthesis.
Cybernetics has been recognised for scores of years as offering valuable tools. It is a given that cybernetics and related fields (systems science, systems dynamics, general systems theory) afford models of governance, feedback, and information, but there are specific aspects of cybernetics that afford particular power in the context of global pandemics and the crises they create.
First, cybernetics does not sit primarily in the desire to acquire knowledge (the goal of science) but rather in the desire for effective action. In the context of the unknowable complexity of pandemics, we cannot wait for knowledge sufficient to give us assurances about our future actions. It is only through action that knowledge needed to act effectively can be obtained. (When closing the loop of goal, action, and feedback — the insight of circular causality that was the birth of cybernetics — there is nothing a priori that requires the loop to be entered at any particular point).
Second, cybernetics as a science of observable systems forces us not only to observe systems "from the outside", but also to place the observer (ourselves, us) inside a more inclusive system that contains both observer and observed — and then to observe “from the inside” as well as vice versa.
Third, cybernetics causes us to observe our own observing, a so-called “second-order” view of observing systems. This specific influence of cybernetics on design methods (through Ulm School of Design and Horst Rittel) means that once we “look at our own looking”, as citizens or as design practitioners, we cannot escape the responsibility that comes from carving distinctions and relations out of our individual and collective experiences. In the language of the system that emerges, we articulate where we wish to act and how those actions move us toward our intentions.
For these reasons, that are in addition to its first-order systems modelling, cybernetics is uniquely suited to be an interstitial glue for the many disciplines required to make any possible progress in the face of today’s many pandemics.
How do we frame our views of a given crisis or set of crises, as starting points for conversation? What are our values?
How do we design a cadence of conversations with a focus on variety? Who will we invite?
Given conversations and variety, how will we seek sufficient agreement to create a plan for response? How will we structure our process?
Given agreement, by what processes might we act in concert toward our agreed but evolving intentions? What will we do?
How do we track (observe — externally and internally) the consequences of our actions, intended and otherwise? How will we compare differently (externally and internally) the observed consequences, including the observations of our observations? How will we monitor (observe) outcomes? How will we determine which outcomes are meaningful?
How do we adjust our actions and our intentions in a continuous flow of interactions in the world and of conversations with all stakeholders — that is, how will we govern?