PhD course of Systems Thinking

Cybersystemic Possibilities for Governing the Anthropocene within the 59th Meeting of the International Society for System Sciences (ISSS) in Berlin, 2015

Author Luisa Perez-Mujica, ILWS PhD Candidate

Workshop in Hanover at the Herrenhausen Castle

Workshop in Hanover at the Herrenhausen Castle

I was very fortunate to be accepted in the PhD course on Systems Thinking and Practice in PhD Research “Cybersystemic Possibilities for Governing the Anthropocene”. This course was organized within the 59th Meeting of the International Society for System Sciences (ISSS) in Germany for which a series of events have been organized. The ISSS is devoted to interdisciplinary inquiry into the nature of complex systems and this year, during its 59th Meeting the topic of discussion was “Governing the Anthropocene: the greatest challenge of systems thinking in practice?” The overarching idea is to discuss in a transdisciplinary manner the issues, opportunities and approaches to address the influences of humans in the environment as well as other social issues and systems within this new epoch in planetary history, the Anthropocene.

Besides my interest in meeting new people and learning more about systems thinking, I was particularly excited about discussing my own PhD research project given that I am currently finalizing the analysis and writing my dissertation. When my supervisor first told me about the course and conference, I thought it could not have come at a better time. I was finding it difficult to put into academic context important things I found in my own research. This whole experience has given me food for thought, a general frame for my research and, dare I say, my future academic life.

The first two days of my time in Germany, I spent them in Hanover, the capital of the federal state of Lower Saxony, taking part in a Systemic Inquiry with more than 150 invited systemic thinkers from all over the world. It was organized by Humboldt University in Berlin, the Berlin Workshop in Institutional Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems and funded by Volkswagen Stiftung. The goal of the workshop was to identify issues and opportunities for governing the Anthropocece making use of cybersystemic tools. For two days, keynote speakers and panelists discussed different approaches of systemic thinking to address the Anthropocene and among the presentations; seven systemic inquiry sessions were organized in each table. The PhD students were requested to record the discussions at our tables. This was my first participation in a workshop with professionals from different disciplines across the world discussing a common problem from different perspectives and I felt I was thrown into the deep end. Having to deal with a situation where system thinkers from different fields are asked to discuss about governing the Anthropocene gave me a picture of the disagreement and different theories and practices around systems thinking. I have to admit that in the beginning, the level of frustration around the uncertainty of the process almost made me give up. I felt the discussion was going nowhere and that the different positions in my table would never allow communication.

Conversation Map

Conversation Map

We started with a conversation map, a heuristic to follow the discussion around the main topic of governing the Anthropocene. The discussion in our table went from defining each of the concepts to proposing solutions. In our table, we spent a considerable amount of time discussing what systemic thinking meant. For some, systems are entities of the real world, and it is our role to describe reality. For others, systems describe different perspectives of the world. It was very interesting and eye-opening for me how often during discussions, people assume they are talking about the same things, when in fact, concepts mean completely different things. In our table, most of the disagreement derived from the fact that we were discussing different things. However, after the talk of Mary Catherine Bateson on Interdependence and living cyber-systemically during the Anthropocene, it became clear to my table that implementing action for acknowledging interdependence was fundamental in attempting to govern the Anthropocene. It was very impressive for me to witness the effect of Mary Catherine’s talk on all of us. I guess that besides the fact that her words resonated with us, the use of simple and clear language had the effect of putting us on the same wavelength and in a sense allowed us to attempt a discussion in which all the different perspectives and opinions were captured. During the final discussion sessions at the Herrenhausen workshop, we discussed issues and opportunities for governing the Anthropocene. It was clear for our group that efforts of research and implementation of policies need to go towards seeing the world as interdependent elements and that we need to modify institutions in order to teach, design and implement interdependent actions.

After Hanover, the PhD cohort traveled to Berlin for a two-day course at the Humboldt University on theories and methods that could aid in our own PhD research projects. For me, this could not have come at a better time. We started off the course by presenting a trajectory diagram, in which we explained portions of our personal and academic life that took us to the PhD course and what

Beginning of the PhD course at Humboldt University in Berlin

Beginning of the PhD course at Humboldt University in Berlin

we hoped to gain from the course. As I am in the process of making sense of what I have done during my PhD research, I expected the course to be highly beneficial in terms of gaining a better understanding of lineages and theories of systems thinking that would frame the analysis of my own PhD research within the larger systemic theories. By listening to other PhD students from different parts of the world and different academic backgrounds, it became clear to me how isolating a PhD can be, even when having friends going through the same process in my own university. It was also very evident that we all have different approaches to systems thinking and that those are not necessarily opposed to each other but can be in fact used in combination. Another exercise that exemplified the different way to understand systems was a map of our influences through time. We were asked to write on different cards our influences in terms of systems thinking. It was quite humbling to see all the different people, theories, books and methodologies about systems thinking around the room, some of these were shared but others were quite unique.

systems map

Systems map of the rest of my PhD journey

During these two days, besides being introduced to different approaches to systems thinking and learning useful and interesting heuristics for systems thinking, such as rich pictures and systems maps, one of the most memorable moments for me was when we discussed the difference between thinking of systems as representing real world entities and as learning devices to inquire into real world entities. Coming from the ecological science realm (having a bachelor in Biology and Ecology) I have always thought that the models I build for social-ecological systems represented the real world. But this always made me uncomfortable and I did not really know why. Although in the ecological part of the system there are biophysical rules as the hydrological and carbon cycles, there are numerous elements in the ecological and definitely in the social part of the social-ecological system that are so uncertain and ever changing that any depiction of the system is incomplete and possibly wrong. The PhD course allowed me to contextualize my problem within the theories of systems thinking and to see social-ecological systems and my particular approach through different lenses. I can definitely say that this course modified the way I will approach my own research.

The last portion of this experience was the conference and meeting of the ISSS. At this point, we were really tired but still excited about the different talks and keynote speakers participating in the conference. This time I presented a paper derived from my PhD results entitled “Complexity and Environmental Sustainability in Social-Ecological Systems”. The goal of this paper was to analyse the systemic nature of environmental sustainability using the Social-Ecological Systems framework of Ostrom (2007) in the context of complex systems. The general idea of this paper is that even when only dealing with one dimension of sustainability, the environmental one, there are important interactions among the Social-Ecological System that need to be approached. In parallel to attending the conference, the PhD cohort was divided into four systemic inquiries to discuss what was taken from the course but also from the conference. I was part of the inquiry of PhD students that are almost finishing their research. We decided to focus our discussion in things that surprised us (or AHA moments) as well as new directions. During the last session of the conference, the entire PhD group presented their feedback about the conference in the form of a panel to the members of the audience. It was surprising to me when one of the members of the audience was very excited that this year there were over 60 PhD students attending the meeting and conference. She shared with us that when she first attended as a PhD student in 2001, she was the only student there. At the end of the conference, the different systemic inquiries presented their analysis in different ways. Our group decided to do a panel in which we discussed our surprises and new

PhD feedback panel at the 59th Meeting of the ISSS

PhD feedback panel at the 59th Meeting of the ISSS

directions as an individual, the PhD group and the community of system sciences.  My particular reflection was that if I had participated in the conference without being part of the PhD course, my learning experience would have been different. One of the keynote speaker said something that resonated in me and goes along the lines of: when thinking about systems it is quite acceptable, in fact it is preferable to be confused. I can say that if I had attended the conference without the PhD program I would have not been confused, I would feel certain, certain that I knew the “right way” to do systems thinking and that everyone that did not share my tradition of understanding was essentially wrong. I probably would have built a wall of beliefs and academic jargon to justify my points. Thus, the institution and space for the PhD course as part of the conference made it easy for me to be conflicted and confused but also allowed me to be alright with that confusion and in fact, to attempt to build something from the confusion.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to participate in such an important even. I thank Ray Ison, Chris Blackmore and Nadarajah Sriskandarajah for organizing this course. I am even more grateful that the Institute of Land, Water & Society helped me fund my trip. I was fortunate enough to receive funds from the ILWS mentoring budget targeted to help PhD students and early career researchers participate in these kinds of events.





About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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