By Greg Fisher
Recently, Paul Ormerod and I were invited to a round-table at NESTA to discuss systemic innovation. After that meeting, we were invited to write a blog reflecting on this issue. I thought I might be neat to write two articles, one on systems and one on innovation. Here I will tackle systems and, more specifically, I want to draw attention to the differences between static and dynamic systems. This is often under-emphasised when thinking about whole systems.
How we make sense of, or cognitively frame, a problem is fundamental to how we then solve it. Often we don’t realise how we’re framing something because this happens in our subconscious and, understandably, we spend little or no time thinking about how we are thinking about something. And, if our aim is to encourage, facilitate or enable innovation within systems, we first need to understand what we mean by a system.
What do you think when you read or hear the word “system”? I’ll share mine: when I close my eyes and consider what I mean, I have a vague notion – a picture if you like – of an interconnected whole. Call it a network of lots of parts, with a complicated set of inter-connections. The diagram opposite is roughly what I imagine.
The words vague, picture, and interconnected are key here. The vagueness of the term “system” suggests we should expect multiple definitions, or meanings, from different people. “Picture” implies a snapshot – a moment in time being captured. And interconnectivity is central to systems, clearly.
But this is a somewhat static definition of the word “system”. Few of the words used to describe what I imagine imply any sort of dynamism. In fact, the word “picture” leans me much more toward a static interpretation.
Is this a problem? Well, yes and no because it depends on the context and how and why I use the word. If I am concerned with a broadly unchanging system then my personal definition of this word isn’t terrible. But problems arise when we use words or framings that sit awkwardly with the real world we are trying to grapple with e.g. when the system I am considering changes (e.g. the weather) and I frame it as if it were static.
Moreover, I would argue that quite a few people think of systems in a similarly static way. In fact, some of my colleagues in the complex systems arena deliberately avoid using the word system because they interpret it in a narrow, static way, which jars with the inherently dynamic and creative nature of complex systems.
A good example of this is Ralph Stacey, who has written extensively about systems thinking and systems approaches, and who has argued that complex systems are fundamentally different to static systems. The word he uses to characterise complex, dynamic systems is transformative: their fundamental nature is one of continuous, unpredictable change. By contrast, he argues, systems approaches are broadly static, and this approach is highly problematic if we are concerned with social systems, because these are constantly evolving.
Personally I think Stacey goes too far in his criticism of systems thinkers because he seems to impose a narrow and prescriptive definition on what is in fact a heterogeneous collection of people and thoughts. If you look at the work of Prof. Michael Jackson (Hull University) and John Seddon (Vaguard Consulting) for example, their work implies a much greater fluidity in human systems than Stacey seems to think. People like John have sensibly applied systems approaches to real world problems with a good dose of common sense, accounting for the dynamic nature of people on the ground. Of course, this is not to say that systems approaches haven’t been mis-used by others – they have.
When thinking about evolving, interconnected systems I sometimes prefer to use the term dynamic networks. The academic literature tends to use the term complex systems but I mean the same thing. “Networks” imply interconnectivity and they are associated with the now enormous literature of network theory; and the adjective dynamic helps to orientate us away from a static view of systems.
So in thinking about systemic innovation we must not get trapped by a static meaning of the word “system”. NESTA’s CEO, Geoff Mulgan, has catalysed a work theme around systemic innovation in social systems, which means they are dealing with inherently dynamic systems. Geoff wrote a book called Connexity, which in my language was mostly about complex social systems, where he captured this point well. But, nonetheless, it is important that this valuable work theme starts with clarity about static and dynamic systems, leaning toward the latter if it is concerned with social systems.
A useful way of thinking about dynamic networks is to think of them as a mixture of patterns and change. I described this briefly in a blog article “Patterns Amid Complexity”. I wrote this article because the emphasis on dynamics and uncertainty in the complexity sciences can lead to a random view of human systems. This is a mistake. In complex social systems we benefit from structure, or patterns (like language and institutions), which are key parts of these systems. Such systems also change because of creative innovation, which is the subject of the next article.