On Gary Metcalf‘s invitiation, I attended the International Federation for Systems Research biannual event at Fuschl am See, Austria. I’ve written about some of features of isolation at Fuschl, but in terms of content, this meeting was different from the one I attended two years ago. Although some expectation of a different direction had been set by Gary prior to attending the meeting, the specific direction was somewhat ambiguous.
From tradition, the Fuschl conversation has had a vision of following the direction set by Bela H. Banathy. Two years ago in Fuschl, we were asked to prepare some position papers in advance of attendance, and reconfirmed our interests and direction within our groups on the first day onsite. Although the small groups made good progress, there was a bit of frustration in the time management of the large group plenary sessions. These issues became documented in the proceedings from our group, as part of our experience.
In starting the meeting this year, Gary said that “none of us are here by accident”. This year’s included leaders from each of the systems organizations that make up the IFSR. The IFSR doesn’t have individuals as members. It has organizations as members. I chose to be part of a team focused on “systems organizations”. This could be taken in two contexts: one, of systems organizations in general, and secondly, as the IFSR in particular. Others who were interested in this theme included G.A. Swanson and Jennifer Wilby from the ISSS, Allenna Leonard from the ASC, Magdalena Kalaidjieva from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Maria Mercedes Clusellas Cornejo representing GESI from Argentina, Jifa Gu, a former IFSR president representing the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Ken Bausch from the Institute for 21st Century Agoras.
There was some discussion about the function of the IFSR. In the first world, we tend to center on individuals, e.g. the luminaries of the systems movement, and relationships tend to be person-to-person. In the third world, institutions tend to be more important, and legitimacy is gained organization-to-organization.
The systems movement, in its history, has been funded by universities and/or by government agencies. (The founders of the Society for General Systems Research, the forerunner of the ISSS had notable support from military sources). In this new millenium of globalization, however, these traditional sources have provided less and less support for systems research. In particular, the IFSR had previously received support from the Austria government, with an evolution that would suggest that funding might come from the EU. An EU proposal would represent a challenge of starting almost from a standing start, since the number of programs in Europe with post-graduate programs in systems sciences have dwindled practically to non-existence.
G.A. Swanson provided a historical account of the reformation of the ISSS circa 1997. It now runs primarily on the energy of volunteers, which has advantages and limitations. The greatest advantage is one of sustainability, as the organization can scale up when greater resources are available, but also scales down when external funding is tight. One limitation of volunteerism driving the organization is a potential for conflicts or corruption when individuals place claims on any available capital that happens to arise at hand.
One direction that I brought up was an opportunity to shift systems science towards the challenge of education and research in the emerging field of services science, management and engineering, as proposed by IBM. This was a followup from Jim Spohrer‘s talk on “Why the world needs more systems thinkers.focused on service systems” at ISSS 2005 at Cancun. This opportunity was further supported by copies of the just-released Global Innovation Outlook by IBM, suggesting society issues that might be tackled by business. Here’s an opportunity for business to do well by doing good, and the systems community could be a principal contributor towards those ends.
I cited a story that I heard about the NSA, when one of their staff attended a class at the IBM Advanced Business Institute. In times of peace, the NSA seems like a dysfunctional organization, with multiple agendas driving divided priorities, and resources seemingly wasted on trivial or unimportant things. However, in a time of crisis, the NSA proves to be an extremely high-performing organization, as initiatives get aligned in the most productive way. As a case in point, having an analyst on staff fluent in Serbian seemed to be relatively unproductive for 30 years, until all of sudden, he became the key resource in understanding communications in world-changing events in that region. It’s possible that research into systems science works the same way. There hasn’t been a big enough problem that could motivate researchers to bridge over disciplines in a productive way that would service society, since the memory of world wars has faded away. If the shift from an industrial economy to a services economy is considered to be sufficiently disruptive, perhaps the community of systems scientists could again rise to meet the challenge.
In contrast to the rapid rise of wars, however, the evolution of post-industrial society has been gradual. In a breakoff discussion on “infrastructure of the systems movement” primarily centered on information technology, it was interesting to probe the challenges of the digital divide. In the first world, digerati under age 30 assume ubiquity of broadband communications. (The rise of webmail over POP e-mail is an small indicator. A friend has stated, sure, Gmail goes down several times per day, but just wait ten minutes and it will be back. This isn’t the perspective of long-time computer scientists pursuing 6-sigma uptime!) In the third world, there’s still lots of issues with power outages and power surges wreaking havoc on computer resources. None of these issues would have been familiar to systems researchers in the 1970s or even early 1980s, as the Internet didn’t come into prominance until the late 1990s. The world has changed (or the world is flat, as Thomas Friedman would say), and looking backwards at the systems movement may not help much to work on today’s problems.
Flight schedules resulted in a small group of us leaving on the final morning before the presentation of final findings by other groups. Their topics included: the future of (Banathy-style) conversations, unity and diversity, systems education. the Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics Online, and the von Bertalanffy archives. The meeting produces a set of proceedings, so some record of the events remain in archives.
daviding April 26th, 2006
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