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David Blockley & Patrick Godfrey

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Why politics needs some systems thinking

by David Blockley

I am no politician. I did not foresee the rise of so-called ‘populism’ (by that I mean support for the concerns of ordinary people), calls for independence in all of its forms, major shifts such as Brexit and the all too many public financial and sexual abuse scandals. We are all struggling to deal with the competing trends and demands for localisation, ‘false’ populism and globalisation in the ways that we do things together. The scope, scale and speed of change, especially in science, engineering and technology pose enormous challenges.

The public debates around these topics concern me and have done for some time. I have come to realise that some of my discomfort stems from a lack of recognition of two important ideas underpinning systems thinking.

Politics is about power – collective decision making and action. Power is the capacity to influence each other and to make changes. Technically speaking (what many call ‘hard’ physical systems), power is volts times amps and velocity times force – more generally it is potential times flow (of change). Potential is the capability of becoming. In human (what many call ‘soft’) systems I believe that potential derives from the ‘why’ questions we ask of ourselves and others. ‘Why’ do we think, decide and act in the way we do – it is human purpose. Individual and collective actions are driven by the ‘voltage’ of purpose to achieve change. In this way we can begin to connect people with things.

In brief the two important systems ideas that need to be more widely understood are firstly, the natural life cycle of the evolution of dependence to interdependence and secondly, the intimacy between wholes and parts. After describing these two in a little more detail I will reflect on the very practical consequences of this lack.

The natural life cycle consists of three slowly emerging stages. It begins with total dependence. As babies we depend totally on carers – usually our parents or foster parents. As we grow we begin to develop as individuals and seek to move to our second stage – independence. In this stage we attempt to find out who we are – to ‘find ourselves’ as some express it. Some people seem to get stuck here unhappily as they struggle to exercise their individuality with their need to belong. Maturity emerges as we move to the third stage – interdependence. ‘No man is an island’ is John Donne’s famous truism. In this stage we begin to understand how much we need others. We learn to reconcile our individualism with need for recognition from our peers. In my personal view the key is to realise that our own selfish needs are best served by serving others and treating them as you yourself want to be treated. All religions include some form of the Golden Rule ‘Don’t do to others that you wouldn’t have them do to you’. Understanding our interdependence is a key to civilised life.

The second systems thinking idea is that we can think of everything as both a part and a whole at one and the same time. Arthur Koestler coined the word holon to capture this concept. Of course holism has a long history beginning with Confucius, Buddha and Aristotle. South African Prime Minister, Field Marshall and philosopher Jan Smuts was the first to coin the term in 1926. Holism emphasises thinking about wholes. It is sometimes confused with mysticism and some kind of ‘new age’ thinking and is used sometimes to the detriment of thinking about parts – as though parts don’t matter. By contrast holons focus our thinking on both – on ‘looking outwards’ and ‘looking inwards’ at the same time – they are one. Looking outwards a whole is a contextual part. Looking inwards a whole consists of interdependent parts which themselves are wholes.

How are these ideas relevant to politics? Firstly what is true of an individual life cycle is also true for a group. Here I include organisations whether companies, societies and political parties in governments or opposition and whether regional, national and international (e.g. the EU and multilateral free trade areas with the UN including the whole world). I also include politics with a small or a big P where some people have more power than others. Every group is full of holons. So for example I am and you are a holon. Looking inwards I consist of interdependent holons of structure (muscles and bones), nervous, respiration, digestion, blood circulation etc. that make me the person who I am. Looking outwards I am just as much an individual as a Bristolian, a family man, a west countryman, a professional, an Englishman, a Briton, a European and indeed a member of the entire human race. So I ask myself why would a Barcelonan see himself as a Catalonian but not a Spaniard. Even more puzzling why would a Scot not want to be a Briton but would want to be European. I think that the explanation, in essence, is the perceived need for independence because of some kind of unfairness from the larger organisation – without recognising the importance of interdependence. It is something we need to understand much better.

I suggest that better understanding lies in seeking much more clarity about what should be decided at each level within and without a given group. Some things are fairly obvious – others are not. In my experience lack of clarity about the latter causes endless confusion. For example in the Brexit referendum many people voted on the basis they did not like remote unelected bureaucrats telling us what to do. They wanted national politicians to control immigration. But population growth crucially depends on our relationships with other countries. Should we decide locally in isolation how to dispose of waste when climate change requires international co-operation? We don’t decide at local level which side of the road we should drive on and the conditions for the employment of workers – it would be obviously foolish for each region to make different choices. But is it appropriate for Brussels to make laws about shopping hours? Can we decide on security and defence without recognising our reliance on other counties through NATO for example. Should not there be an international agreement about people using tax havens – surely tax should be paid at the appropriate level where the monies were gained? The EU defined a principle of subsidiarity in 2007 but seems not to have followed it in making decisions. Nevertheless the principle expresses sound systems thinking. It says that models should be created at the lowest practical level consistent with delivering their purpose.

We are living through a time when these things matter. There are major concerns about the governance of all organisations because of corruption, exploitation, abuse and the growing disparity between the highest and lowest income levels. We are conducting major trade negotiations within the context for the need for the whole world to face up to the impact of changes in our climate.

So let’s initiate a public debate on what kinds of things should be decided at each level. Systems thinkers can help but it requires our politicians, political academics, commentators and opinion formers to clarify what constitutes appropriate governance levels. We need to discuss the way in which decisions at each level should relate to each other.

If we succeed then maybe all of us can feel improved control of our own lives whilst at the same time understanding our interdependence with others and the power they have over us. The purpose should be to define what it means to belong to each level. How should I feel about myself as an individual, as a Bristolian, and Englishmen, a Briton, a European and a human being all at the same time?

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What does the Über ban in London tell us about systems?

by Mike Johnson

As Transport for London’s (TfL) ban on Über comes into effect, there appear to be quite polarised views for and against this somewhat disruptive taxi firm. When reading that Über will contest the ban in the courts, I was left pondering what’s actually unique from a systems perspective between Über and those taxi firms permitted to operate by TfL. If there is nothing unique, then of course Über will have a strong case.

Starting from the functional perspective, there are four main functions required to provide for a taxi system:

  • Transport
  • Payment
  • Communications
  • Marketing

Note: Marketing is required in some form, as otherwise the users will never detect the taxi system.

Interestingly, at this point both Über and their competitors look the same. All taxi systems provide these four key functions (note that clearly their physical architectures (i.e. how they actually implement the key functions) vary significantly). Also, it’s worth noting how innovative solutions to an already existing problem can result from simply returning to the functional domain, whereas trying to innovate within an already existing physical architecture is far more restrictive. Über have shown how innovate physical solutions can be generated by re-addressing the original functions that a physical solution is trying to address. Evidently the solution space is far less constrained in the functional domain and one can effectively return to understanding the actual problem that can be solved with numerous unique solutions.

Let’s now consider the external interfaces to the taxi system:

  • User
  • Transport infrastructure
  • Payment infrastructure
  • Communications infrastructure
  • Marketing infrastructure
  • Environment
  • Other transportation users
  • Regulations

Although the Über taxi system has the same external interfaces as other taxi systems, the physical implementation has enabled – in most cases – a lighter coupling to regulations. Regardless of whether one views this as ethical or not, it certainly is novel and ultimately shows how abstracting a system’s functions and interfaces offers many opportunities for innovation.

When observing the physical characteristics of other taxi systems worldwide, one notices that often cities (such as Barcelona, where I was visiting a few weeks ago whilst pondering this topic) have very highly regulated taxi systems. This can be observed from a user perspective by the standardisation of the vehicles, the low cost variance for similar distance journeys, etc. Talking to taxi drivers reveals even more regulations. For example, the local government even restricts drivers on which days they’re allowed to work.

Personally, I’m not a huge supporter of unbridled and unnecessary regulation. Generally speaking, regulations can restrict engineering development activities and work against innovation, which, in turn, may lead to higher prices and less competition in a market.  However, there are many cases where regulations are absolutely necessary and wholly beneficial, such as in the medical device industry, where an absence of regulation led to many unnecessary deaths.  In the taxi industry it appears that regulations also have critical role to play. In the event that, overnight, an additional ca. 100,000 taxis are added to a market – apart from costs coming down, parts of the market can be driven out of business (excuse the pun) from the sudden increase in competition.

Considering the technology used by Über, is it possible that the company as such is nothing more than an emergent property of today’s highly connected world? If so, will banning Über achieve anything?

In conclusion, the innovative Über taxi system is indeed disruptive, but only in the transient sense as presumably the regulations on the already existing taxi systems are necessary. The lack of uniformity of regulatory rules leads to loopholes that can be exploited.  Innovation – which is essentially change – will always find ways of exploiting loopholes, as quite simply, that’s what change does!

This means that, eventually, it can be expected that the locations where Über operates will update their regulations to include Über-esque taxi systems (or simply ban them, as may be the case in London, depending how Über’s appeal goes)). The optimal systematic solution would be for the regulated markets to compromise, by taking in the “best bits” of this quite innovative business model. In addition, innovation needs to be handled sensitively, it can lead to unnecessary and unjustifiable controversy because the existing ways of doing things are being challenged and undermined, yet without it we’d be permanently constrained within the Status-quo.

Then a second topic came to mind, as I was traveling around the Barcelona with their highly standardised taxi systems, it was clear that the then upcoming referendum was going to be somewhat disruptive. Of course this ended up being the case and unfortunately there could still be additional repercussions until a politically stable agreement is made.

When considering the lengths that people went to in order to vote in the referendum, and the extent to which some of the authorities tried to prevent them from doing so, is it not remarkable that in today’s world – where documents are electronically signed, emails are legitimately used for authorising procurements, significant sums of money are transferred via online banking platforms, etc, etc – that actually the whole voting in the referendum could have been enabled by an online platform?!  A level of IT security provisions could no doubt have been put in place, giving at least the same degree of security and legitimacy as the voting in person. This would have most likely have resulted in a significantly higher turn-out. And indeed, one might expect online voting would result in a higher turnout in almost all elections! One could then also go further and consider why the Catalan Parliament doesn’t meet electronically too, as this would avoid having to circumnavigate anyone trying to stand in their way.

Technology can certainly be disruptive at the best of times, often though for a good cause if properly utilised!

Many thanks to my friends who I discussed these topics with over the past few weeks, I hope we’ve successfully brought the discussion into the systems domain!

8th November 2017
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Infrastructure & Systems Thinking


Neil Carhart

The Civil Engineering profession is entering a period of increased focus on complexity, interdependency, the effective delivery of stakeholder outcomes, and for some, the fundamentally broadening of what it means to be a Civil Engineer. Much of this comes from increased urbanisation, demands for sustainability and resilience, digital innovations and a need among western nations to renew their infrastructure.

The current approach to infrastructure planning and delivery within the UK has been criticised for being “fragmented and reactive[1]The Armitt Review [2] of Infrastructure reported that “when long term decisions are made, they can be taken in silos with little acknowledgement of the interdependencies between sectors”.  This is in contradiction to the widely held view of infrastructure as an interdependent network of smaller networks[3]. The Royal Academy of Engineering [4]  submitted to this review that: “A systems approach to infrastructure planning will be essential, noting the interdependencies between infrastructure sectors, and the opportunities for creating dual use infrastructure and co-locating services where possible”.  Past President of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Prof Paul Jowitt [5] also explicitly advocated “a systems view” to strategic infrastructure planning.  He wrote that “the need for systems-level decision-making for large-scale infrastructure proposals has never been greater.  One way or the other, it comes down to our ability to take a systems view and make decisions accordingly”.

In October 2016 the ICE launched its National Needs Assessment vision for UK infrastructure[6]. In launching this David Gauke MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury warned against “ignoring the interdependencies that exist across different sectors”.  Understanding interdependencies, and how desired outcomes emerge from them, is at the heart of Systems Engineering.  The National Needs Assessment itself is wide reaching but includes the following:

Economic infrastructure sectors are typically viewed in isolation. The result has been organisations operating in silos and frequently uncoordinated decision making. This means that the interdependencies between infrastructure sectors have not been properly accounted for […] Analysing the national infrastructure as a system-of-systems allows these important interdependencies to be captured and quantified and measures to maximise efficiency to be identified.

The increased advocacy for the adoption of a systems approach to the challenges of infrastructure also exists internationally. An ICE report on developing and shaping Hong Kong’s infrastructure[7] makes three recommendations.  The second of these is the adoption of Systems Thinking.  It says:

In some ways, systems thinking is common sense. We instinctively know that changes in one area of the city’s transport system will have impacts on the rest of the network.  We understand that transport will influence decisions around where to site housing or commercial development and that this will create demands for energy, water and other services. Turning this common sense insight into a decision making process that delivers high performing infrastructure networks is a challenge facing engineers and decision makers across the globe.

Engineering the built environment presents many ill-defined, messy, interacting challenges that cut across social, economic, environmental, political, legal and technical domains in space and time.  Pre-emptively placing artificial tight boundaries in order to treat these challenges in relative isolation from one another is appealing in the false sense of simplicity and comfort it can create, but it is ultimately short-sighted.

The alternative is to embrace the complexity of the problem and the context within which it sits as fully as possible.  Systems Thinking and Systems Engineering offer methods and tools with the potential to explore and manage these situations, leaving us better prepared to avoid the hazards and exploit the opportunities they present.

[1] HM Treasury & Infrastructure UK, 2011. National Infrastructure Plan 2011

[2] Armitt, J., 2013. The Armitt Review: An Independent Review of Long Term Infrastructure Planning Commissioned for Labour’s Policy Review

[3] Council for Science and Technology, 2009. A National Infrastructure for the 21st Century

[4] The Royal Academy of Engineering, 2013. Independent Armitt Review of Infrastructure – Submitted by the Royal Academy of Engineering to Sir John Armitt,

[5] Jowitt, P., 2015. Why the Adonis Infrastructure Commission needs a systems approach. Infrastructure Intelligence.

[6] Institution of Civil engineers, 2016, National Needs Assessment.

[7] Institution of Civil Engineers, 2015, Infrastructure: Shaping Hong Kong

Blogs by David Blockley

Engineering has an image problem that needs fixing

The ingenious problem-solving of the modern-day engineer

Practical wisdom and why we need to value it

The rigour of engineering

The ubiquity of structure

Bridges, and What They Can Teach Us

When are bridges public art?

Is the George Washington Bridge a work of art?

7 Things I’ve Learned So Far

Is an engineering mind-set linked to violent terrorism?

For list of books and previous blogs from David Blockley go to here

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