The prevailing paradigm in the governance of the relationship between humans and the biophysical world is characterised by commitments to scientism and linear, causal and dualistic thinking. Currently governance, if understood as enacting cyber-systemic processes that maintain the quality of relationships between humans and the biosphere, can be seen to be failing on many fronts. The Anthropocene has emerged as a conceptual framing for this issue, but to date little cyber-systemic understanding and praxis (theory informed practical action) has meaningfully informed the unfolding discourse.

Over the last 50 years, for example, the governance of water catchments, or basins, has been guided by commitments to “stationarity” encompassing commitments to linear causality, prediction and extrapolation especially within disciplines such as hydrology and water engineering. Momentum is now growing to address the limitations of this paradigm in the face of a worsening global water crisis that threatens security of supply and food production as well as loss of many vital ecosystems services. Recognition of the significance of this issue is manifest in the funding of the CADWAGO project under the Global Challenges Program, partly funded by the VolkswagenStiftung. But the issues at the heart of the question: How shall we engage in governing the Anthropocene? are larger than the water domain. Importantly, as we are in a period new to human history, there is a need to critically reappraise our ways of thinking, practicing, institutionalising, investing and governing.

This ‘problematique’ raises two significant inquiry themes for future research and institutional innovation:

  1. what contributions might a more institutionally coherent field of cybernetics and systems ((hereafter cybersystemics) scholarship contribute to governing the Anthropocene? A subsidiary question is: can relationships in this field be strengthened between German scholars and the Anglo-Saxon traditions and made relevant to the issue?;
  2. can ‘representatives from the differing cybersystemic lineages and communities in conversation with each other generate fresh insights into the problematique by identifying a research agenda with potential to realise new theoretical methodological, institutional and praxis innovation able to break with dualistic and linear, causal thinking and acting?

These questions frame the proposal for initiating a systemic inquiry into cybersystemically-informed modes of governing more suited to the contemporary circumstances of humans. The inquiry focus is on the relational dynamics between social and bio-physical systems such that new ways of acting in theory-informed ways (i.e., praxis) can be generated that give rise to systemic and adaptive governance at levels ranging from the international to the program or project. Theoretically this proposal seeks to further develop and build upon some of the revealing and concealing features of Maturana’s account of structural coupling and the key idea that an evolutionary trajectory is in essence a co-evolutionary dynamic (in this case between humans and the biosphere, including other species).

The “Inquiry Workshop” Concept

There is growing awareness of the term (metaphor) ‘the Anthropocene’. This awareness creates with it the possibility of building new framings for how we think and act or of reenergising older framings that have remained sublimated – such as the field of cybersystemics. New institutional forms (other than traditional projects) are also needed as collectively we attempt to learn our ways into an uncertain future – we draw on a long history of ‘inquiry-based’ scholarship within the Systems Sciences to do this [1; 2].

Engaging with the concept and consequences of the Anthropocene brings to the forefront the challenge of how we humans govern ourselves i.e., how we respond to and act in relation to the biophysical world, other species and amongst ourselves. Discourses, practices and institutional innovations associated with cybernetic and systems thinking and practice remain sublimated in our governance arrangements (as the Limits to Growth  experience testifies) but an historical moment may be upon us to explore and, where relevant, strengthen the ways of thinking, acting and governing that cybersystemics offers?[2]

There is significant institutional fragmentation within the cybersystemics field and since the very significant Macy Conferences 1941-60 (also partially organised around cybersystemics) few attempts to create new opportunities to revitalise the field. WINS involvement provides an important opportunity to bring into the conversation that branch of economics devoted to institutional analysis and innovation in relation to governing social-ecological systems. This field will be very important if understandings from Limits, the Circular Economy, polycentric governance and other systemic innovations are to contribute to governance reform.

Concurrently with an Anthropocene-framing of our circumstances global conversations conducive to systemic change are emerging on (i) Sustainable Development Goals – to replace the Millennium Development Goals; (ii) Resilience; (iii) Planetary Boundaries and (iv) Future Earth. Importantly these discourses are refuting the classic model of sustainable development, of three integrated pillars — economic, social and environmental — that has served nations and the UN for over a decade. Distressingly understandings of cybersystemics within these initiatives, where they exist, seem weak or inadequate.

The proposed Inquiry aims to foster a resurgence in cybersystemic thought and action in the cause of ‘Governing the Anthropocene’ with the aim to build stakeholding (including political support) within key constituencies and to generate a potentially fundable research agenda relevant to the future of Europe.

Through fostering and building a new discourse and network of relationships from the fragmented global community of cybersystemic scholars in an innovative organisational form – a systemic inquiry – that is designed to gain institutionalisation and investment in cybersystemic thinking and practice in diverse forms and contexts.

The two day event at Herrenhausen Palace will be framed as an invitation to contributors from different cybersystemic organisations and communities to participate in a systemic inquiry into how cybersystemic thinking and practice can contribute to transformations that better enable us to govern the Anthropocene.

The contributors will build ‘evidence’ for investment in, and institutional innovation for, cybersystemic capability building in table-based group inquiries that also include young PhD researchers and policy makers as well as research funding organisations.

The event will deliver material for a publication (book or major report), for setting a research agenda and policy briefings (and possibly a working group on institutional reform within the international cybersystemic community).

[1] The work of Schön, Vickers and that of Churchman feature in the book Systems Thinkers.

[2] See the arguments developed in Ison, RL (2010) Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World, Springer, London.




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