Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Systems Thinking for Community Involvement in Policy Analysis

Academic journal article Emergence: Complexity and Organization

Systems Thinking for Community Involvement in Policy Analysis

Article excerpt

This paper is the text of a presentation to the 1st International Workshop on Complexity and Policy Analysis delivered by Gerald Midgley and transcribed and edited by Kurt Richardson. It charts the development of systems thinking since the 1960s, identifying a number of different systems paradigms. These are then compared with paradigms in complexity research, and significant parallels are identified. It is argued that there are several interacting research communities (including those writing about complexity, systems thinking and cybernetics) that have the potential to learn from one another. A research program on systemic intervention is then presented, focusing on the need to think critically about boundaries and values as a means of dealing with the inevitable lack of comprehensiveness in systemic interventions. A rationale for methodological pluralism is also given. All through the paper, the theoretical and methodological ideas are illustrated with practical examples.


I would like to start by thanking you for inviting me. I feel quite privileged to be invited to a complexity conference, given that I haven't made much of a contribution to complexity thinking at all, being primarily engaged with the systems community. But my hope is that there can be learning across these two communities, and that's one of the things I want to talk about today.

My talk is called "Systems Thinking for Community Involvement in Policy Analysis", and over the years I have talked with numerous audiences, particularly in the areas of management and community development. Some approaches that I've used are adaptable across domains, so I'm hoping that what I say will have some relevance to policy.

I want to start by acknowledging some of the history of policy analysis because, as I understand it, in the 1960s policy analysis and systems analysis were considered virtually synonymous - most policy people were using systems analysis in some way. That approach came into disrepute in the late 60s and early 70s. In this presentation I want to touch on what happened with systems analysis, in case there are people out there who are skeptical about why somebody would even bother to talk about systems thinking again. I also want to give some information about where systems thinking has moved to, because it has entered a space that has a lot of commonalities with complexity thinking. I would also like to talk about the relationship between systems thinking and complexity science before going onto my own work, which is about systemic intervention.

When I talk about 'systemic intervention', I am making an assumption that I think all systems thinking and complexity approaches make: that everything in the universe is directly or indirectly connected with everything else. However, you can't have a God's eye view of thatinterconnectedness, so there are inevitable limits to understanding, and it is those limits that we call boundaries. So, systemic intervention is fundamentally about how to explore those boundaries, and how to take account of the inevitable lack of comprehensiveness and begin to deal with it. This will lead me onto talk about something that I've called boundary critique. And by this I mean being critical of boundaries, rethinking them, considering the different meanings they invoke and the values associated with those meanings.

The discussion of boundary critique will take me onto the need for theoretical and methodological pluralism, drawing upon mixed methods, and evolving methodology on an ongoing basis. Throughout this talk I will give you some practical examples, as I think it is quite important to ground these ideas in practice to give them deeper meaning.

The critique of systems analysis (1960s and 1970s) (slide 1)

Let us start with what happened to system analysis in the early days. People may be aware that there were lots of large scale modelingprojectsinthe 1950s and 1960s. …

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