A thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos

ThimbleI’m a regular user of a few social media tools (e.g. Facebook and LinkedIn).

As such, I often see the (well-intended) sharing of articles about someone passionately scooping plastic out of our oceans – perhaps with a newly invented contraption – and then lots of people (understandably) pile in with a ‘like’ of what they see. Yep, I often press ‘like’ too.

…yet I get really frustrated with the (seemingly weekly) sharing of such apparent ‘good news stories’ – sure, they appear highly desirable, but I see them as a ‘thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos’.

There’s so much more that we don’t see/ question/ understand/ shout/ do something about. I’d love to see a systemic view – of the problem, and the interventions…and their effects.

What on earth am I talking about? Well, I’m no expert but what follows is my layperson’s (current) thinking. I’d love the real experts to take it on and give us all a regular (i.e. dynamic) and highly visible (i.e. transparent) dose of whole-system reality.

A close-up look:

Here’s a diagram of our oceans – I know it’s not quite accurate…. bear with me…it’s a simplified view! 😊

Plastic picture 1

If you want to get a bit theoretical about it then Professor Jay Forrester, in his early work on System Dynamics, wrote about ‘levels’ and ‘rates’2:

“The level (or state) variables describe the condition of the system at a particular point in time.” i.e. the level (or amount) of plastic in our oceans as of today. I usually visualise a bucket and the current level of its contents.

The value of a level at the start of operation is called the initial condition” which, for the subject of this post, would have been zero plastic in our oceans, because it doesn’t occur naturally.

“The rate (action) variables tell how fast the levels are changing” and “…are defined by ‘rate equations’…that describe action in a system.  In short, we can think of taps into our bucket and scoops (or perhaps drains) out of our bucket. Each of these are rate variables.

“The level variables accumulate the results of actions within the system.” i.e. the current level of plastic in our oceans will (rather obviously) be:

The initial condition (zero in this case);

Plus: the accumulation of all the plastic that we’ve ever put into it;

Minus: the accumulation of any plastic that we’ve taken out.

“A level variable is computed by the change, due to rate variables, that alters the previous value of the level.” i.e. whether our level of plastic in the ocean is going up, staying the same or coming down is determined by ALL the rates into and out of the ocean. So, yes, we might have made a wonderful scoop BUT if we’ve also opened up the tap some more (let alone closed it) then that level will still be going up! And probably rapidly ☹.

To summarise the obvious: There’s a HUGE gushing tap of plastic being dumped into our oceans…and a tiny, irregular scoop of plastic being taken back out. That scoop represents those social media articles we so like.

Why the monumental discrepancy between our tap and our scoop? Well, we’ve got nearly 8 billion (and increasing) people devouring plastic daily, combined with ever-widening uses of plastics3we’ll never have a scoop that can cope with that!

The other bit of interest to me in my simple diagram is what happens after the scoop. Great, we’ve collected tons of plastic…but then what? It’s still plastic and will be for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

And it’s at this point you’d say to me “Don’t be stupid Steve! The collected plastic gets recycled”.

But does it? And even more relevant, does this really assist?

Looking a bit wider:

Here’s my 2nd ‘wider system view’ of plastics diagram:

Plastic picture 2

Now I’ve got four level variables (or, in simple terms, buckets) and four rate variables (the drains from one, and taps into another, bucket)

The raw materials represent the necessary ingredients found on planet earth for the making of plastic (which I understand to be mainly oil). We act in our daily lives (particularly with regards to plastics) as if these raw materials are non-exhaustible…which clearly isn’t the case.

I’ve combined made and in use into one bucket to represent the productive plastic in existence. It’s worth noting that there is an array of different kinds of plastics, and most plastic will go through a journey from its initial conversion into plastic pellets, through its forming into plastic objects, to its assembly as part of a specific product and then to its sale and consumption. This can be a short or long time-cycle (think ‘single use’ plastic vs. plastic used in, say, a car).

I’ve coloured my disposed of bucket brown to represent the fact that such plastic can be found all over the place (not just in our oceans). Most of it is likely piled up on, or buried under, land.

That all looks simple doesn’t it. Surely we just need to collect it (increase rate 3) and then feed it back round (increase rate 4). A lovely closed loop. However…

Adding some of the tricky details

Here’s my 3rd diagram:

plastic picture 3

I’ll take each of the four sub-systems, starting at collected and working my way backwards:

Collected: Much of what we, as consumers of plastic, see (and therefore think about) in terms of recycling is only the front-end collection piece. We can (rightly) feel good about having gathered it all up…but we have very little understanding of what (if anything) happens afterwards. For example, do you know:

  • what % of the plastic that you have lovingly collected is re-useable…and, more importantly, is actually re-used?
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that is ‘rejected’ for re-use?
  • how efficient is the re-cycling process? i.e. what % of your collected plastic makes it to a re-cycled state once the various processes are performed upon it (cleaning, de-stickering, de-capping, separating….)
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that falls out of this processing?
  • what can your re-useable plastic be used for? And what can’t it?

and most significantly:

  • have your efforts prevented ‘virgin plastic’ from entering the system?

Disposed of: My revised diagram is showing that plastic can be responsibly disposed of, or can be discarded (anywhere and everywhere), and can then leak down the chain through the land and rivers to the oceans. There’s masses of it, everywhere!

Made or In use: There’s some really important points of note within this sub-system.

  • Types of plastic: There are thousands of types of plastic, and because of this, it’s not simply a case of plastic collected and put back into the system again. Not all plastics are alike. Yes, there are some common types, but manufacturers are free to develop very specific plastics for their needs…which can then preclude it from being re-cycled (or at least currently).

  • ‘Virgin plastic’: Some plastic applications require 100% brand new plastic. I understand that (much of) the food industry (currently) sits in this category.

  • ‘Down-cycling’: A great deal of what we call the re-cycling of plastic is in fact ‘down-cycling’. i.e. yes, we have got plastic that we can use for something….but in many cases we can’t (or at least don’t) re-use it for its original purpose. Sure, we can make items like hard chunky plastic furniture (a common use) but is this really a good thing? Has it prevented new plastic entering the system? Do we need these down-cycled items?

A common ‘down cycling’ application that is touted as a great thing is the creation of polyester clothing…. which takes us to the thorny issue of micro fibres. Every time we wash ‘plastic fibres’, some bits come off into the water and enter our environment…and our food chain.


  • Re-cycling: Even if we are re-using plastic, many such applications require it mixing with virgin plastic to do so, often in high proportions. Sure, you might be pleased that some of your collected plastic has come back round the loop, but that’s not much good if 9 times as much new plastic is required to do so4.

  • Re-purposing: I often see links to video clips where plastic has been collected and then made into ‘art’. Yes, the result might look very nice (and desirable) but all we’ve done is found a place to sequester the plastic for a few years! Such repurposing has no effect on the gushing tap.

Raw materials: Every time we use raw materials to make plastic (i.e. the red flows on my 3rd diagram) we are adding to the existing problem, no matter how much is collected and returned. Put simply, we are created more plastic that will go somewhere on this earth.

The only sure way to close the loop would be to return the plastic to its original state – the green flow on my final diagram. Can this (truly) be done? That’s where, as a lay person looking at the whole system, I frustratingly admit that I don’t know. I’ve seen videos of people running small scale experiments on this, but I’ve got no idea if this is being (or will be) ‘industrialised’.

There’s probably nothing in the above that you didn’t already know but, because it’s never put to us in one glorious picture…we are good at compartmentalising it all away (hitting ‘like’ on a feel good article) and getting on with our (plastic consuming) lives.

The Whole system

We, the citizens of this world should want to know about the whole system. Sure, that scoop collecting our detritus out of the ocean is (currently) necessary but it’s soooo not sufficient.

Personally, I want my government5 to show us (i.e. everyone) the ‘warts and all’ picture. Transparency of what’s happening (i.e. feedback) is required – without it we aren’t in a position to properly respond.

For your information: Here’s a diagram from a 2017 research study into the amount of plastic ever produced and where it currently resides…

Plastic in the world

Some notes:

  • The figures in the diagram represent millions of metric tons (Mt). i.e. 8,300 Mt is 8,300,000,000 tons.
  • If, like me, you don’t really understand what a ton looks/feels like (I’ve never picked one up) then imagine a 1 kg bag of sugar. 8,300,000,000 tons is 8,300,000,000,000 kg.
  • I’ve not really helped you much there…because that’s unimaginable!!!6
  • This plastic only started to be produced in scale from the 1950s…we’ve achieved this mess in as little as 70 years….and it continues to accelerate.
  • 60% of all plastic ever produced is ‘out there’, discarded
  • Only around 7% has been recycled…but this hasn’t stopped new plastic entering the system.

The simple message within this post is for us to set out, look at, and continue to focus on, the whole.

Addendum

This post was about plastic on our planet but the idea of ‘seeing the system’ rather than ‘focusing on one sub-system within’ is applicable to all complex, dynamic systems.

Turning to models: Forrester defined a model as “…a substitute for an object or system” and went on to write that:

“any set of rules and relationships that describe something is a model of that thing. In this sense, all of our thinking depends on models.”

However, “There are several major defects in mental models of dynamic systems that can be alleviated (not eliminated) by converting from mental models to models represented by explicit statements in the form of flow diagrams.”

Further, “…because we cannot mentally manage all the facets of a complex system at one time, we tend to break the system into pieces and draw conclusions separately from the sub-systems. Such fragmentation fails to show how the sub-systems interact.”

See, and work on, the whole.

Footnotes

1. Health: This post has totally ignored any ill-health effects on humans (and other life forms) from using plastic. That’s a far bigger topic, and one that I don’t know (enough) about to comment on.

2. A Book: I don’t know if it’s currently in reprint but the early work on this is ‘Principles of Systems’. I bought it years ago. It contains Forrester’s original undergraduate course on System Dynamics.

Note: Modern system dynamics seems to talk about stocks and flows in place of levels and rates. Different words, same thing.

3. Plastic use: If you did a ‘plastic usage’ audit for one day of your life…then it’s scary what you’d find, even if you are attempting to be a responsible citizen. When it comes to plastic, we often don’t get a choice!

4. Mixing: here’s a short video clip of the making of plastic bottles. It shows a ratio of 10% recycled plastic to 90% virgin. Not much ‘closed loop’ recycling going on there! I don’t know how current or standard this video is…but you get the point. The narrator explains that “Recycled plastic loses some of its physical properties, so the recycled content can’t exceed 10%”.

5. Government …because I don’t suppose that the plastic producers will do this, at least not objectively.

6. Unimaginable: Some people have tried creating some info-graphics to assist. Here’s one:

what does 8300 Mt of plastic look like

 

Hard, Soft…or Laminated?

Laminated manThis post is about something that I find very interesting – Systems Thinking as applied to organisations, and society – and about whether there are two different ‘factions’….or not.

I’ve had versions of this post in mind for some time, but have finally ‘put it on paper’3.

In the beginning there was…Biology

Well, not the beginning4. I’m referring to the beginning of modern systems thinking.

Back in the 1920s the Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy challenged the ability of 19th Century Physics to explain living things – in particular the dynamics of organisms.

Reductionist Physics back then treated things as ‘closed systems’: reducing them into their parts and, through studying the forces acting on them, establishing principles of their behaviours. Such an approach works well for mechanistic systems.

However, von Bertalanffy’s research showed that:

“A whole organism demonstrably behaves in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. It exhibits synergy. Furthermore, much of an organism’s existence is characterised by increasing, or at least maintaining order.” [Flood5]

Open vs closed systemsHe went on to develop ‘Open Systems theory’, which considers an organism’s co-existence with its environment.

The interesting bit (to me at least) is that, rather than just maintaining a steady state (homeostasis) or, worse, declining into disorder (entropy), an organism can continually improve itself (self-organisation).

Whether it will or not, well there’s the thing!

Von Bertalanffy, wanting to realign the sciences through his new understanding, went on to develop ‘General Systems theory’ (1940s) – the derivation of principles applicable to systems in general.

…and so the modern systems movement was born.

Onwards and upwards (a.k.a ‘Hard’ systems thinking)

hard woodThe study of systems really got moving from the 1940s onwards, with many offshoot disciplines.

Some notable developments include:


  • World War II and Operational Research6 (analytical methods of problem solving and decision making): A team of scientists were brought together to advise the British army. They used mathematical techniques to research strategic and tactical problems associated with military operations. Their work aimed to get the most out of limited resources (the most efficient usage, for greatest effect).

Following the war, much effort was put into translating and developing the OR methods and learnings into (usually large) organisations, and their management.


  • Stafford Beer and Organisational Cybernetics (the scientific study of control and communication within organisations): Beer analysed how the human body is controlled by the brain and nervous system, and then translated this to model how any autonomous system (such as an organisation….or a country) should be organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment (ref. Beer’s ‘Viable System Model’)


  • Tragedy of the commonsJay Forrester7 and System Dynamics (understanding the behaviours of complex systems over time): Forrester and his MIT department set about modelling (using computers) how systems behave over time, employing the science of feedback, and thus seeing (often counter-intuitive) patterns within the complexity. The aim being to discern effective levers for change.

Their work grew from ‘industrial dynamics’ (e.g. the study of an organisation over time), to ‘urban dynamics’ (e.g. a society over time) to ‘world dynamics’.

Donella Meadows (a member of Forrester’s team) took up world dynamics, and research regarding the limits of Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion.

Peter Senge (another MIT team member) wrote the popular management book ‘The Fifth Discipline’, which sets out the disciplines necessary for a ‘learning organisation’8. He identifies systems thinking as the “cornerstone”, though his explanations are heavily based on his System Dynamics heritage.

Those involved with System Dynamics articulated a set of (thought provoking) system archetypes – which are commonly occurring patterns of system behaviour, due to specific combinations of feedback loops (reinforcing and balancing) and delays. For example, you might have heard of ‘The tragedy of the commons’ (see system model diagram above) or ‘Success to the successful’.


Note: (it is my belief) that there are (understandably) huge overlaps between each of the above disciplines.

All of the above is centred around being able to:

  • identify ‘a system’ i.e. the subject of analysis (as if it were a real thing);
  • create a well-defined problem statement;
  • take a scientific approach to problem solving; and thus
  • reach some (presumed) solution to the problem

This has been labelled as the school of hard systems thinking (explained later), where a system is something that, if we studied it together, we would all describe/ articulate in a similar way – as in a ‘thing’ that can be set out and agreed upon….and almost touch!

If we combine that we can define, model and understand ‘it’ then, hey presto, we should be able to solve ‘it’…as if there is a solution. Excellent! Let’s get modelling and improving.

But there’s a lot more to it – ‘Soft’ systems thinking

soft woodSo where did that ‘hard’ term come from and why?

It was coined by Peter Checkland in the 1970’s to label what he thought of the current approaches, and to propose an alternative ‘soft’ view. Here’s his explanation:

“[hard systems thinking believes that] the world contains interacting systems…[that] can be ‘engineered’ to achieve their objectives

…[however] none of these [hard systems thinking] approaches pays attention to the existence of conflicting worldviews, something which characterises all social interactions…

In order to incorporate the concept of worldviews…it [is] necessary to abandon the idea that the world is a set of systems.

In [soft systems thinking] the (social) world is taken to be very complex, problematical, mysterious, characterised by clashes of worldviews. It is continually being created and recreated by people thinking, talking and taking action. However, our coping with it…can itself be organised as a learning system.”

Now, I’m not saying that understanding everything that Checkland writes is easy – it isn’t (at least not for me) – but whatever you think of his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ and the various models within, I believe that the fundamentals are substantial…such as his human-centric thinking on:

  • Problematic situations; and
  • Worldviews

I’ve previously touched on the first point in my post titled “what I think is…”, which perhaps can be lightly summarised as ‘problems are in the eye of the beholder’, so I’ll move on to worldviews, nicely explained by Checkland as follows:

“When we interact with real-world situations we make judgements about them: are they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’, ‘permanent’ or ‘transient’?

Now, to make any judgement we have to appeal to some criteria or standards, these being the characteristics which define ‘good’ or ‘bad’ etc. for us. And where do such criteria come from? They will be formed partially by our genetic inheritance from our parents – the kind of person we are innately – and, most significantly, from our previous experiences of the world.

Over time these criteria and the interpretations they lead to will tend to firm up into a relatively stable outlook through which we then perceive the world. We develop ‘worldviews’, built-in tendencies to see the world in a particular way. It is different worldviews which make one person ‘liberal’, another ‘reactionary’. Such worldviews are relatively stable but can change over time…”

worldviews eyeThis ‘worldview’ concept is easily understood, and yet incredibly powerful. At its most extreme, it deals efficiently with the often-cited phrase that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’.

I think that Checkland’s worldview explanation is profound (and yet, when thought about, bloody obvious). All worldviews (and hence perceived problems within) are personal, and a proper understanding of them (and why they are held) must be central to any meaningful approach of moving a social group (whether a family, an organisation or a society) to a better place.

It is just too simplistic for someone in a position of power9 to say ‘this is the system, this is the current problem, let’s get on and solve it.’

Checkland talks of getting people to think about their own thinking about the world.

Many people do that naturally and many people never ever do that – they simply engage with the world in an unreflective way.

If you are going to [really change the world then] you have to become [conscious about] thinking about your own thinking. You have to be able to stop yourself in a situation and ask yourself ‘how am I thinking about this? How else could I be thinking about this?

This is a meta-level of thinking, which is not obvious in everyday life – we don’t normally do it in day-to-day chat.”

Over in America

Whilst Checkland and his colleagues in the UK were questioning 1960s systems thinking (and deriving his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’9), two of his contemporaries were doing similar over in the US.

C. West Churchman and Russell Ackoff were there at the very start of Operational Research (OR) in 1950s America, but by the 1970s they understood the essential missing piece and felt the need for radical change. Ackoff broke away from his OR faculty and initiated a new program called ‘Social Systems Sciences’, whilst Churchman wrote:

“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” 

A side note: Sadly, I expect that Churchman and Ackoff would be ‘turning in their graves’ if they could be made aware of the lack of thinking, particularly of worldviews, by Donald Trump and his band of (ahem) ‘patriotic’ followers. Patriotic seems to have become proudly re-defined by them as ‘closed minded’.

…but, hey, that’s just my worldview speaking 😊.

Laminating the two together

I’m not a champion of ‘soft’ over ‘hard’ or vice versa. Rather, I find real interest in their combined thinking…as in laminating the two together.

I personally like to think about systems in a hard and soft format.

  • ‘hard’ because a logical model to represent a ‘thing’ (as if I can touch it) is incredibly useful for me; yet
  • ‘soft’ because it requires me:
    • to accept that I merely have a perspective…with a need to surface my beliefs and assumptions, and;
    • to understand the relevant worldviews of those around me….and change myself accordingly.

Similarly, some 30 or so years after first deriving the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ terminology, Peter Checkland ends his last book with the following:

“New approaches (now thought of as ‘soft’), underpinned by a different social theory, have emerged. They do not, however, suggest that the 1960s theory was ‘wrong’ and should be abandoned. Rather the ‘new’ theory sees the ‘old’ one as a special case, perfectly adequate in certain circumstances, but less general than the social theory behind the ‘soft’ outlook.”

Perhaps the modern terminology for Checkland’s ‘Worldviews’ wording is ‘Mental Models’ – our internal pictures of how the world works – and this has become a major area of focus.

The need to surface, test and improve our mental models has, pleasingly, become entwined with systems thinking.

To summarise

Meadows, a giant systems thinker, embraced the need to expose our mental models:

“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible.”

Nice!

…and finally, where to from here?

Checkland’s incredibly important softening of systems thinking (i.e. to include the reality of human beings into the mix) leads on to the question of how meaningful interventions into social systems are to be approached…which (I’m hoping) will be the subject of my next post: on ‘Action Research’.

Footnotes

1. Laminated: “Bonding layers of materials together”.

2. Post Image: I was searching for an image that showed a human made up of two complimentary materials and found this lovely plywood sculpture.

3. Trigger: I partially wrote this post after reading a ThinkPurpose post way back in Nov. ’16. That post was a light-hearted critique of Peter Checkland’s ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM) and, whilst I enjoyed reading it (as ever), I had many thoughts going on…which were far too verbose to put into a comments section.

4. In the beginning: My understanding is that, before Biology, there was Chemistry (necessary for life to start), and before that Physics (back to a big bang and, potentially, the multiverse)…and we (human beings) are ‘still working on’ what (if anything) came before that.

Personally, I’m a fan of the never-ending loop (ref. Louis Armstrong Guinness advert). Every time science finds something bigger (as it regularly seems to do)…there’s always another bigger. Every time science finds something smaller (e.g. at CERN using the Large Hadron collider)…there’s always another smaller – surely it must just all wrap back round 🙂 If there’s a name for this proposition/ delusion, let me know.

5. Book reference:- Flood, Robert Louis (1999): ‘Rethinking the Fifth Disciple – Learning within the unknowable’. The first half of this book sets out the work and thinking of a number of the main 20th century systems thinking giants.

6. The origin of Operational Research is regularly attributed to Charles Babbage’s study of England’s mail system (the costs of transport and sorting), resulting in the Penny Post (1840).

7. Forrester wrote the original System Dynamics text book (‘Principles of Systems’, 1968) setting out definitions and system modelling.

8. Senge’s five disciplines are: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning and….drum roll…Systems Thinking, though obviously you’d need to read the book to understand what is meant by each of these phrases.

Senge’s chapter on ‘Mental Models’ is based primarily on the work of Chris Argyris (whom I wrote about in ‘Double Trouble’).

9. Power: It is highly likely (and unsurprising) that a person’s worldview is heavily influenced by where they ‘sit’ within an organisation’s hierarchy. It’s always informative (and often amusing) to compare and contrast the organisational beliefs of a CEO with, say, a front line worker.

10. Misunderstanding SSM: I should note that, probably rather frustratingly for Checkland, people (including many an academic) seem to misinterpret (and/or perhaps misunderstand) what he was putting forward within SSM. He wrote a whole chapter at the end of his last book titled ‘Misunderstanding SSM’.