Systems Place Wiki?

Where "we contemplate our own navels" to decide how this forum should evolve. What features do we need? Who decides what we need?

Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby jim_lewis1 on Wed Dec 10, 2008 3:10 am

I have had that swing cartoon on the wall at work for some time now.

I'm not sure anyone else in the office really understands why it applies to us, (we're in oilfield services not manufacturing), but we still have clients.

I particularly like the 'how the customer was billed' pane.
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Andrea on Wed Dec 10, 2008 11:50 am

I think this brief conversation sets all of you up very nicely for T306 block 2 where the theme is the development of Information Systems for addressing complex issues. A precise specification for an information system is only appropriate (and will only work) for difficulties rather than messes. The Earth wiki/model is a "mess".

But to be honest, I am quite comfortable with this -- T214's block 2 never actually assessed people on how well they did in contributing to the Earth wiki, rather, it assessed people on how they applied a range of concepts and techniques picked up during the study of the block as a whole to deal with the mess.

On the other hand, this clearly distressed a lot of people (especially those people that demand specifications ;-)), and the TMA 04 submission levels were unacceptably low (although, those people that did submit achieved decent grades). So I absolutely have to address this issue. I agree that it was totally unfair to throw people into the deep end and I need to clarify the purpose of the exercise.

So, at the moment, what I am thinking is to provide some basic instructions on describing "the mess" and how people should engage with it:

1. The earth system is energetically open but materially closed i.e. high-level energy enters the system and through a cascade of processes, leaves as low-level energy. These processes are "hijacked" by living systems in order to create homoeostatic balance far from entropy, without which the Earth would very much resemble the characteristics of Venus and Mars (maximum entropy -- the flat line of death). This balance is dynamic and it involves flows of energy, material and information. We have now entered a new geological era, the Arthropocene, where humanity has subverted so many flows of energy and matter, that the current dynamic balance might be reaching an irreversible tipping point within the next 30 years or so (however, most people are so busy with their day-to-day, disciplinary specialisations, and believe that somebody else will solve this problem, that they are failing to see this "big picture" and even worse, are doing nothing about it);

2. You should now be familiar with the concepts of negative (balancing) feedback and positive (reinforcing) feedback and the instability (oscillations) caused by delays. These mechanisms determine stability and tipping points within the Earth system. You should also be familiar with three distinct ways in which systems can be described (visually, verbally and mathematically) and the cognitive differences/ potential traps that stops people from seeing the " whole truth";

3. Delegating responsibility to "experts" to resolve these problems might not be the best approach -- people rarely do things from the top down nowadays. And anyway, many of these "experts" are compromised in that they are part of the very social system that has put us into this mess in the first place. Therefore, the only solution to the problem might emerge through grassroots action (especially because WE are the problem!). However, this action must be informed and systemic (through for example identifying points of leverage). Just as we now have Wikipedia to describe virtually everything under the sun and beyond, this Web 2.0 era has the potential to create a model of the earth system which we can validate and build through Citizen science.

4. We can use GUMBO as a template and various sets of instructions (e.g. those written by David Bice) to build this model initially. Remember that the key is to map the flows of energy, material and information through the earth system (first "see the forest"). Now choose a state of your choice ("the trees") and describe it/clarify interrelationships using verbal modelling (using a wiki), visual and mathematical modelling (using netlogo) approaches.

5. All we can hope for at the moment is to improve the verbal and visual modelling of the whole, and potentially test the validity of limited segments of the mathematical models.We have quite lousy tools at our disposal at the moment (Moodle-based wiki and netlogo) and there are plenty of universities using much more sophisticated approaches (but hey, beggars can't be choosers). Yet, information and communication technologies are developing so fast (web 3.0) that soon we will be able to have the whole caboodle online happily simulating away by plugging in ecological footprint values for every single person in the world. Please be patient -- we are getting there :-)
esse sequitur operari
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Neill on Wed Dec 10, 2008 4:51 pm

A precise specification for an information system is only appropriate (and will only work) for difficulties rather than messes

Sorry Andrea! I hate to disagree and give the impression I learned nothing in the last year but ...
Precisely when you are dealing with a mess you need to sit down and specify the solution.
It does not matter how big or bad the mess is and whether it is an IT mess, a personal mess or an international financial mess.
Stage 1 is always to know where you want to be.
Diagramming, rich pictures, phDs, all of it. Nothing will help if you do not know where you want to be at the end.
Even if the "end" is just "an end to all this bitching" or a dream like "all own Porsches". You need an aim.

You have told us your aim
to develop a systemic and dynamic model of the earth system through participation so as to generate a shared understanding and commitment for action

Is that really the limit of your specification? That is all you know about the hoped for solution? You have no further ideas? No pictures? No examples? Nothing?
And you need some one to help you realise it!

As an aside
http://www.earthscape.org/t1/bid01/ is not reachable for me.

I would love to help you. I really really would but at the moment you want a building erecting for which I have no location, no function, no materials, nothing. Teiana would say <frustrated face>

Up to now I know:
- open source
- displayed verbally, visually and mathematically
- a "free for all" (which would allow any one to destroy everything at any time)
That is not enough. Sorry!
Neill Hogarth
Life is not a practice [www.hogarth.de]
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Dave H on Wed Dec 10, 2008 7:42 pm

This is a fascinating discussion and I think I am learning a lot from the discussion. Indeed this forum seems to be a continuation of T214

I am in the difficult position of apparently supporting both positions in the debate.
I agree that if software or a model is to be developed then we do need a specification but somehow I consider that developing a specification at this stage might be premature.

I would like the model to be used by a wider section of the population than the T214 cohort so this introduces some factors that need to be taken into account. Currently we have not identified these factors.

The GUMBO model is based on the understanding that A causes B and this relationship can be given a value. I would like something a bit more flexible so that A causes B via action on C or there are two relationships between A and B with different values. I just wonder if something like fuzzy logic might be a means to address this uncertainty though are my concetns real. Indeed have I expressed them clearly.

Also sort of picking up Andrea's point about Web 3.0 I think that the model should we be audio-visual and mathematical rather than text based. This will reflect the changing nature of communications and might also draw in the wider population.

The list could go on of items that we need to consider before developing a detailed specification.

Like Neil the earthscape link does not work for me and apparently a user name and password are required.
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Teiana on Wed Dec 10, 2008 7:50 pm

i don't get why this discussion is necessary: the issue is not being able to share a mental model of what is required when one person is speaking in one language and the other is speaking in another. you just need to find a common way of communicating. You don't have to have a vague description OR a detailed spec. Something in between that you can play around with until the detailed stuff emerges...get andrea to do a spray diagram or something of the really important parts of it..get neill to attach the questions that each branch raises.. you don't need to go near the actual 'build' stage..not til the two sides ( we need a detailed spec vs we haven't got one) are reconciled somewhere in the middle..

the only reason the IT dept won't play ball til they get a full spec is they won't speak any language except their own. You therefore either have to go in with the detailed spec in their language or - teach them a middle language you can both follow. if one side says 'well i can't give you detail' and the other insists 'well we can only handle detail' then an impasse is reached, unless some joined-up-thinking goes on.
H.R.H. 8-)
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Neill on Wed Dec 10, 2008 8:02 pm

developing a specification at this stage might be premature

OK! Two to one.
So no specification.
Good. Glad we settled that.

I found a free (open source) chest of drawers - lots of little drawers that can all be pulled out together or one at a time.
I have put sheets of paper and pencils on top and a ball of string and some scissors.
I suggest standing it outside the OU main entrance (free for all)
The instructions will say
"write down something about something on earth (written model)
put it in a drawer
use pieces of string to connect that drawer to other drawers that have bits of paper in them that you think are related (visual model)
try and express how related by the length of string (mathematical model).
Feel free to remove bits of paper and string any time you want - throw everything away if you feel it is justified (free for all again)."


I guess that would satisfy the non-specification I have at the moment.
And the great thing is that after I am finished you can all tell me that I totally misunderstood and that actually ....

OK! I admit that I am an engineer type person.
I dice reality into little slices and then study them under a microscope
and then change something tiny and put it all back together.
It is the way I am - always have been.

So
If you don't tell me what you want you end up getting something else!
Sorry!
Neill Hogarth
Life is not a practice [www.hogarth.de]
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Teiana on Wed Dec 10, 2008 8:21 pm

but that's perfect. Andrea says one version: you send back description of the chest of drawers. with the string, and the pencils. now andrea has to explain how it works, and then you both keep going til the description makes sense as a model you both share. It makes no odds that it isn't a 'real' chest of drawers.
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby jim_lewis1 on Wed Dec 10, 2008 8:47 pm

is the end result supposed to be able to DO something?

or is it just a description of how the situation is?

Andrea mentioned one aspect as being the recording of everyone's personally calculated Ecological footprint, but that's clearly never going to happen as huge numbers of people are not able to access the internet, and anyway, what faith do we have in the calculations behind such numbers?

Ecological footprint is too vague anyway, it may appear that we are consuming a certain amount, but how much of what we think passes through our 'use', and is no longer available to other uses is actually part of a larger cycle?

Even the stuff going to landfill might be being reprocessed in some way by the local authority without us knowing about it. Or consumed by bacteria which ultimately return the energy/nutrients to the environment?

If we've learnt nothing else we now understand that matter and energy are in flows and that we interact with those flows as necessary to support our lifestyle, but how do we actually measure the depletion of truly finite resources, or more crucially, the depletion of the Earth's capacity to absorb waste, (CO2 etc.)?
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Andrea on Thu Dec 11, 2008 10:41 am

jim_lewis1 wrote:is the end result supposed to be able to DO something?

or is it just a description of how the situation is?


I think we need to first achieve a dynamic description of the situation which can be tested against "reality" so that we can gain some confidence on its validity.

The second stage would then be to use it as a decision support system to inform various components of the learning cycle (plan, act, observe, evaluate) at a range of organisational scales (personal, communities/institutional, national, global).

I agree that the ecological footprint index is an extremely clumsy tool. What does it actually mean when it says that "if everyone had the same ecological footprint as yours, then we would need six planets"? At the moment, global ecological footprint calculations imply that a we are using natural capital faster than it can be replenished. Does that mean that the world is going to end tomorrow? In 10 years time? 100 years? What does "the end" actually imply? Back to the Stone Age? Extinction? Just for some people (in Africa)?

That is why it think we need something "dynamic" rather than the "static" ecological footprint (although I cannot slag it off too much since it's a good start).

Ultimately, it would be nice to carry out accounting exercises just like one would do an economic one within a household/company. For example, these are my (imaginary) plans for next year: install solar panels; buy an electric car; but go and visit my brother in Australia. All of these three actions have dynamic implications -- all will require a massive resource/energy " hit " to start off with -- but the first two will result in environmental gains over time. I am also desperate to see my brother since I haven't seen him for over 10 years. How long will it take for the carbon emissions of my flights to be discounted (absorbed)? Will my electric cars/solar panels "offset" my flight? Or do I need to make other investments?

I think this will result in a revolution with regards to how we engage with environmental dilemmas. Rather than dogmatic "for and against" debates where one side says "never fly ever again" and the other says "climate change is an overblown issue", it will hopefully encourage people to base their decisions on an understanding that has got the overwhelming support of lots of people all over the world -- only because it has been an open process of model building which can be explained every step of the way.

There is actually a parallel project going on:

http://www.uvm.edu/giee/mimes/index.htm

The project also uses GUMBO as the starting point and has a number of universities and other institutions worldwide involved with it. I actually applied for the OU to join the project. On the other hand, the project has several problems:
1. It relies on external funding to run -- I think at the moment they have run out of money and so it has all ground to a halt;
2. It relies on proprietary software (the system dynamics tool which is being used is SIMILE -- an excellent piece of kit, but it costs a couple of hundred quid!!);
3. It has a very obscure and convoluted approach to sharing the models, and is very much fixated on mathematical modelling, which is not the best way to engage a wider group of people :-).

Changing subject slightly, I also have a major concern with the way we teach. Every year, universities engage millions of people worldwide to learn history, yes, history! Stuff that has been done by other people, and which, with the rapidly changing situation we find ourselves in, is often no longer relevant. Wouldn't it be better to engage the tremendous time and energy of these millions of people to contribute directly to the future? Not as something that they do after the course -- but during the course itself!! So that by the end of the course they will not only be able to say "I have learnt something" but also "I have done something useful that will immediately benefit others".

Andrea
Last edited by Andrea on Thu Dec 11, 2008 10:46 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Systems Place Wiki?

Postby Dave H on Thu Dec 11, 2008 10:42 am

I tried to resist the temptation but I feel that I have to comment on Jim Lewis's message.

The model will do something and it is part tool and part process if that is possible. It will be both show the impact of the changes together with raising awareness of these changes and also encourage people to become involved by proposing and running various changes to the model. The model could become a catalyst for collective intelligence on climate change.

I agree that carbon footprint seems a dubious means of going forward.

I like the idea of flows and I think this captures some of my concerns. We do not fully understand these flows so we need a model that is flexible enough to allow changes to the structure of the flows and this is not possible in the GUMBO model. There is also a lot of uncertainities in the process and with the GUMBO model these can only be examined by running the model with different values. I would like a model that indicates the likely results if the selected values were incorrect and make these prediction based on a range of error margins. If possible I would also like the model to show the results for different error margins applied to the subsystems within the model but I am not sure that this is feasible.
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