Systems Intelligence Part 1 : Are you a Reformist or a Revolutionist?

By Andy Thomson, enkel & Holonic

This is part 1 of a seven-part series about ‘systems intelligence’. The case for transcending typical systemic approaches to developing a regenerative economy. The other parts are here: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This series of blog posts is a sense-making project based on over 10 years’ thinking and action around new economics and systems. It pulls together many personal experiences, credible secondary sources and multiple schools of thought and ideas.

The project is essentially inductive, trying to make sense of a wide range of influences, ideas and behaviours, patterns, perspectives and assumptions over time, both in relation to our current situation and the challenges we face, as well as those of us working in this new economic space to addressing them.

All living systems, such as natural ecosystems or social innovations such as our economies, function and exist at multiple scales (systems within systems) across space and time. Each system move through its own phases of birth → reorganisation → growth/exploitation → maturity/conservation → decline/release, yet is influenced through its omnidirectional interdependence to form part of the interlinked continual adaptive cycles of life on Earth.

In humanities, the acronym VUCA has become fashionable to define our current world, one dominated by unnaturally high and growing levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Where human developments have, on the one hand, built an increasingly complex global web of interdependence between people, infrastructures, and the natural environment but ironically decreased our awareness of interdependence on the other.

Escalating VUCA is argued to be tightly associated with what systems scientist Peter Senge calls “systems ignorance” or lack of “systems intelligence”. Put simply: the inability to think and act wisely across and between systems, leading to consequences that no one intends, pushing us towards what could be classed as a phase of decline across multiple system levels.

Systems ignorance can relate to issues such as climate change, natural resource degradation, species extinction, and rising inequality, which manifest in multiple interconnected forms and threaten the present and future wellbeing of all living species on Earth. But systems ignorance can equally relate to how we work towards addressing these issues.

There is growing consensus amongst thought leaders that central to creating and perpetuating this predicament are our dominant extractive and unsustainable linear global economic systems, mental models, and ontologies that now structure, shape and influence much of our individual and collective human thought, values, beliefs, assumptions and behaviours. Unfortunately, the dominant understanding of what an economy is, its true purpose, or even the fundamental impact it has on our lives and the world around us, is somewhat cumbersome, even obscure, paradoxical topics.

If it is assumed that the purpose of an economy is not to destroy the planet or create the harm discussed above, then it seems plausible to conclude that these coalescing symptoms are due to some underlying, systemic socioeconomic failings. This supports the view that World Economic Forum presented in The Global Risks Report 2017 that although it has been hugely successful, the current global dominant economic model cannot continue on its current trajectory.

Whether or not we agree with the likes of Paul Mason who believes that we need to and are in fact moving beyond capitalism as our prominent economic and political system; John Fullerton who writes that we need to move from the dominant “degenerative” neoliberal form of capitalism to something more “regenerative”; or something different again, having the debate without the benefit of hindsight is speculation at best.

There appears, however, to be a rising global zeitgeist that major parts of our economic action and thought need to drastically change. Testament to this is the Paris climate agreement, the “Occupy Movements” of 2011 to even the realisation and comments of people like self-proclaimed .01%er Nick Hanauer, that;

“if we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality”.

In a continuing search for alternatives, a growing number of “systemic” theoretical models, frameworks, potential solutions, narratives and social movements have emerged in response at various scales and scopes achieving differing degrees of success.

Due to the immense complexities involved, inadvertently those of us who share these concerns find ourselves developing or aligning with one or a few of these models, championing and defending their merits, often partially blinded to their limitations and synergies with others. As such, the “systems intelligence” they embody appears to be of two primary forms, that have their own strengths and inherent weaknesses:

  • The reformist approach works within the present landscape, aims to proactively address the pressing challenges without questioning the more deeply rooted and complex non-linear causal socioeconomic factors through the desire to scale in the short term.
  • The revolutionist approach sees the reformist approach as little more than addressing symptoms of systems based on mental models and framings of the world that need fundamentally changing.

With this we see a lot of diversity but also a lot of redundancy, doubling up of effort, competition for traction and, ultimately, a lack of efficacy associated with these often siloed, opposing and more importantly “incomplete” initiatives. Often what divides appears not to be the overarching goals, but how to get there. Over time these initiatives would no doubt converge into a natural hybrid through an evolutionary process, and to some extent are.

However, in 2018 when leading climate scientists warned us that we had twelve years left to avoid climate catastrophe, detailed studies suggested that reformist approaches are inadequate to address climate change and many revolutionary initiatives struggling to scale, the question of time and the global and collective nature of many challenges arguably renders these silo inducing alternative systemic initiatives and approaches unsatisfactory.

The aim of this series of blog posts, rather than proposing another new or novel economic model, is to make the case and open up discussion, for the need to transcend these systemic approaches and siloed initiatives.

The objectives are therefore to:

  1. Present an intuitive metaphorical “3D systems intelligence lens” (3D SIL), through which to help one make sense of and discuss “systems within systems” — including scales, boundaries, and perspectives — and their relationships, across physical and immaterial domains. Through which to then:
  2. Undertake a typical systems perspective process to interrogate some of the factors within our modern world underpinning our present global challenges using futurist and scholar Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis (CLA).
  3. Use the findings to analyse two new economy approaches (reformist and revolutionary) looking at the strategies they focus upon using systems researcher Donella Meadows seminal text on “leverage points”: places to intervene in a system.
  4. Make the case for transcending approaches and pose a series of questions to open up debate.

I’ll begin by introducing the 3D systems intelligence lens in my next post in this series.

Collective in Perth, Western Australia with the mission to create a new generation of changemakers.