The need for change: Future of Systems Theory

Our present world-view is the result of a 400-year-old scientific project. We have travelled to the moon, split the atom, succeed in transplantation of hearts and rebuilt genes. But we are not satisfied with the outcome of the project. Today, most people in our modern world have less freedom in their lives to practice their own interests and exploit their personal development than slaves in earlier times. Their existence are occupied by doing things that they would never freely have done. We are not very satisfied with the outcome of the scientific project. Apparently, its methods do not coincide with today’s problems — complexes of interrelated processes on multiple levels — which are characterized by a general air of being insoluble.

Both ordinary people and scientists feel that science — and its offspring technology — no longer enhance the quality of their lives, but are in fact systematically reducing it. Even obstinate economists have begun to realize that national figures of growth only reflect illusory economical progress. Somehow important qualities like judgement, sense for proportion, respect and responsibility are missing. With problems relating to the whole domain of human knowledge, from philosophy to cellular biology, solutions have to be based on something more than the old scientific paradigm.

Positivism, lacking in foresight and comprehensive views, now gives a diminishing return in area after area from social science to quantum physics. Already in 1960, the well-known management scientist Russel Ackoff lamented: ‘We must stop acting as though nature is organized into disciplines in the same way that universities are.’

Modern cross-scientific research, which is growing in popularity, does not change the situation. To place more and more specialized areas side by side under the same thematic roof is inadequate, so long as the involved disciplines depend upon their own methods and language.

After the end of the cold-war era (1945-1990), tendencies towards disintegration have grown strong in many former communist communities as well as in some of the Western capitalist societies. No longer distracted by the cold war, the general impact of overpopulation, energy shortages, environmental pollution, organized crime, deforestation, climatological deterioration, civil wars and global inflation has become visible, giving rise to new pressures on governments and planners.

It is likely that the planet will meet serious instabilities in its natural, social and economic systems over the next fifty years. A collapse seems even probable when the closely interlinked system parameters of time, consumption and population are examined and related to each other (see for example Forrester’s World Dynamics, 1971 and Cation’s Overshoot, 1982).

Accelerated technological innovations are no longer a realistic solution because the cost of developing new control systems to control the adverse impact of old ones rises exponentially. Moreover, systems which have been neglected for a long time have already been irreversibly changed. The traditional Western business-as-usual policies will come to an inevitable halt with deteriorating weather conditions, deforestation, desertification and the extinction of plants, birds, fish and other animals. Contaminated oceans, seas, rivers, soils and pertinent health problems with decreasing life expectations will bring about a very uncertain future.

To these problems must be added the impact of growing global unemployment — a phenomenon originating from the combined effects of overpopulation and automation. This will rapidly increase the breach between both citizens and countries and create hostile reactions, especially against the rich western area. A consequence will be an immigration pressure, already clearly visible in both Europe and United States. Economists have calculated that, to reduce global unemployment, there is the need for one milliard new jobs within a five-year period. This is more than all jobs existing today in the industrial countries taken together and a completely unattainable goal.

In industry, the international competition increases productivity, mainly by the use of automation and computerization. This condition generates growth and profitability but not jobs. People who can keep their jobs are pressed to an ever increasing extent. If jobs are generated in the rich Western world, they are soon transported to third world countries where work is non-unionized and wages much lower. The exploitation of the third world must go on to keep up with a living standard of the West, which is inconceivable for us to abandon.

But unemployment in combination with an ageing population will give the rich world its share of problems too. Fewer people of working age had to produce the money for more and more pensioners who refuse to die early due to their high living standard. This increases the constant pressure on Western social security services and pension funds and can only be handled in two ways. One is to reduce security allowances for the jobless and reduce old age pensions. The other way is a considerable increase of taxes. Both alternatives will produce political protests, alienation and frustration and must be considered a choice between pestilence and cholera by politicians. Evidently, Western leaders had to prepare their citizens for a slow, but inevitable lowering of living standards. It is time to abandon the old thinking that social progress is as inevitable, unstoppable and natural as technological progress.

The relation between mankind and the large-scale technological systems seems to be of a dubious kind, something concluded in the previous section. The common characteristic of the examples given was the unpredictable breakdown of these systems. What is remarkable is that the unpredictability is experienced by those outside the system more than by those inside it. From the outside it seems reasonable to think: why should Chernobyl not break down, with its corrupt management, primitive technical solutions and poorly trained personnel?

Those on the inside ultimately responsible for the disasters are as always technocrats, severely lacking in an imaginative ability to systematize the consequences of malfunctions. New insights into the design of more sophisticated human systems as well as the redesign of earlier manual systems are high on the agenda.

According to Walter Andersson, “The central political problem of our time is not that people in power do the wrong things, or that some people have more power than others, or that there is a lack of clarity and honesty in political dialogue; all of these are real and serious, but they are only dim reflections of a larger problem, which is that we literally do not know what we are doing”. (From To Govern Evolution 1987)

The world to be lived in is also waiting for a better relationship between man and his environment. From the study of pollution, of the destruction of natural resources and of the ecological balance, has evolved an expectation of something new. More and more, the whole earth is being seen as one and, in a sense, as alive. A view is emerging where each individual is regarded only as a part of an organized wholeness greater than himself. Our environment is becoming a sphere no longer separated from human action, ambitions and needs.

Kenneth Boulding says the following with reference to a high-cost prestigious project such as the building of a huge dam (possibly Aswan):

‘There are benefits of course, which may be countable, but

Which have a tendency to fall into the pockets of the rich,

While the costs are apt to fall upon the shoulders of the poor.

So cost-benefit analysis is nearly always sure

To justify the building of a solid concrete fact,

While the écologie truth is left behind in the abstract.’

(from A Ballad of Ecological Awareness 1973)

Systems Thinking was established in the pre World War II optimism, in an era of increasing resources, as an alternative answer to needs which were then considered pressing. Now, fifty years later, both needs and answers are more timely than ever. But with increasing international unemployment and decreasing resources for both researchers and universities,  the  situation  for  a  shift  of  paradigms  has  deteriorated.

Today, global problems are seldom associated with lack of awareness and knowledge — instead they regard questions of will and political and economical power.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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