2014/10/17 14:00 Hugh Dubberly, “A Systems Literacy Manifesto”, #RSD3

Hugh Dubberly, second day plenary at #RSD3 Relating Systems Thinking and Design 3, at AHO, Oslo, Norway

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, posted by David Ing.

Program is at http://systemic-design.net/rsd3-2014/program/

Presentation posted at http://presentations.dubberly.com//system_literacy.pdf

[Intro by Peter Jones]

Dubberly was editor of ACM Interactions journal, had series on simplifying and systems

  • Collaborated on language action article

[Hugh Dubberly]

Yesterday’s talk by Ranulph Glanville

Second order cybernetics gives an epistemology for design

  • Moved from a detached pose, into the middle of things, where we must be responsible for actions
  • A rigourous way to learn:  framing design as conversation — and learning together
  • Places design in the realm of subjectivity, politics, and ethics

Churchman:  Citizens has begun to suspect that the people who make major deicsions that affect our lives don’t know what they’re doing

  • … no adequate dat

Reagan 1981:  Government is not he solution to our problems, government is the problem

  • Greek:  the root of government and cybernetics is the same, steering
  • Substitute the word “steering”:  Steering is the not the solution to our problems, steering is the problem.
  • Sold the idea that our government is not us, that it’s something bad
  • Something horrible in the U.S., need to look to Europe to help on this

Alan Greenspan 2008:  self-interest of lending institutions to preotect shareholders’ equity .. are in a state of shocked disbelief

  • Admitting he was wrong about entire life’s work
  • Wrong that markets will regulate themselves
  • Reading Maxwell:  markets can’t regulate themselves, will fall over
  • Via Ayn Rand
  • Recently, he’s been backsliding

Marco Rubio 2014:  do not believe that climate … scientists …

Decision-makers … not stupidity

  • It is a literacy

We need systems literacy in decision-makers, and in the general public

  • Body of knowledge exists
  • Schools ignore it
  • It should be taught in design, management, but also in general education

Almost all of the problems involves systems

Systems are

  • complex
  • evolving
  • probablistic

Diffficult, because systems may not appear as wholes

  • Hard to see all at once

Issue:  systems often dispersed in space

  • May only be experienced over time
  • Or we may live in systems, seeing only parts:  hidden, gossamer systems

Natural system, information system, social system, hybrid system

Water cycle

Carbon cycle

How do water cycle and carbon cycle tie together?

Untangling messes (taming wicked problems)

  • They are observed

Humberto Maturana, Theorem #1, 1970:  Anything said is said by an observer

Stafford Beer:  a system is not something given in nature

Heinz von Foerster:  What the observer says is a decription said to another observer in a language they share, creating a connection that forms the basis for a society.

  • A system with two observers.

How should we describe systems that are complex, evolving, hidden and observed?

Churchman outlines four approaches to systems

  • efficeincy expert
  • scientist
  • humanist
  • anti-planner

Consider adding a fifth approach, a designer

Basic systems literacy:

  • vocabulary (content)
  • reading (skills of analysis)
  • writing (skills of synthesis)

Systems literacy is enriched with:

  • literature
  • history
  • connections

A vocabulary of systems (less than 150 terms, on the complexity of baseball)

Reading systems means recognizing common patterns in specific situations

  • e.g. resource flows and cycles, transform functions (processes), feedback loops, …

Consider the toilet and the thermostat, different in form and strucxture

  • They’re the same in function, both are governors

Writing systems means describing the function of systems to others, in text and diagrams

  • Text requires gymnastics
  • Pictures can help


  • Donella Meadows
  • Otto Mayr

In many cases, simple concept maps are all the formalism require

  • Gowan and Novak, Learning How to Learn
  • Helping the education process
  • Evaluating what students knew, ask them to draw a diagram
  • Small formalism:  nodes (nous), links (verbs), then have subject-predicate-object

Netscape search concept map:

  • Netscape circa 1999
  • Were invited to have someone on staff work with a new group of engineers to redesign Netscape’s search service
  • Had best guy Matt, meet with engineers, came back hangdog
  • They almost threw him out, but he thought he could sit in the corner and watch
  • No one else knew anything about search, either
  • Make it a learning process, try out a concept map, interview the engineers
  • Interviewed 25 engineers
  • Sketches
  • Presented to group:  a fight broke out between groups’ engineers on how search worked
  • Matt had moved from being someone who knew nothing to someone that knew everything

As went on in practice, after leaving Netscape and setting up own business, had an engagement with Sun Microsystems to redesign the Java web site

  • Had a passing knowledge of Java
  • 150,000 pages
  • Though should know something about Java
  • Interviewed about 40 people
  • Then Lisa, the people who started the web site, said ready to meet with the distinguished engineers
  • Met with Gosling, showed messy map (same content as shown, but different form)

Heart attack concept map

Weight control concept map (which was hard to do)

Drug delivery device map:  How to create a system to allow product planners to understand the tradeoff in the building of a device that will deliver a drug

  • If the drug is more viscous, the needle needs to be wider … which means the needle needs to be thicker

Email concept map based on Henderson and Johnson

  • What a user needs to know, to use the software

These concepts are rare in the commercial practice of design

Was doing a map for company working in diabetes

  • Might have thought that they had a shared mental model:  not true

Idea isn’t new:  Model from Disney

How to acheive systems literacy?

History: HfG Ulm had courses in operations research and cybernetics in the 1960s

  • Collection of books on systems there is greater than in most design programs today

Believe that all graduate design programs should have courses in systems

Coals to Newcastle, we already do this?

  • We need to be more rigourous about this.
  • One course on systems, while we’re trying to something else, is just a drive-by.
  • Should be at least 3 semesters
  • 1. Introduction to systems including systems dynamics, regulation, requisite variety
  • 2. Second-order cybernetics:  observing systems, autopoesis, learning, ethics
  • 3. Systems for conversation:  coevolution, coordination and collaboration

Where’s the time for this?

  • Hear this from places that that have 4 or 5 courses of typography
  • … and from places that teach Verbeek and Latour

Not enough to read courses

  • Have to discuss
  • In addition, need to appreciate multiple religions

1. Capro, Meados, Ashby

2. Glanville, von Foerster, Maturila and Davila

3. …

Recommend format as seminar + studio

  • Reading and sicussion
  • Review of common patterns

Need fluency with common language

  • Immersion, practice and time
  • Reward, practice becomes habit, habit becomes a way of thinking

Conclusions:  Implications of and for observing systems

Nelson and Stolterman:  Designer need to be able to observe, describe …

Heinz von Voerster 1979:  Pask … distinguishes two orders of analysi

  • System’s purpose
  • Own purpose

Maturana 1997:  emotioning

  • Become respoinsible for what we do
  • We do not have to do all that we can imagine, we can choose

We have a responsibility to make things better

A Systems Literacy Manifesto

Presentation posted at http://presentations.dubberly.com//system_literacy.pdf

#design, #systems-thinking