Prof. Dr. Gerard de Zeeuw
Center for lnnovation
University of Amsterdam
Grote Bickersstraat 7?
1013 KS Amsterdam, Netherlands
From April 12 to April 16, 1993, a meeting was organised by the Systeemgroep Nederland (Dutch Systems Group) and sponsored, among others, by the lnternational Federation for Systems Research. lt was part of a series, organised since 1979, to discuss topics that develop out of efforts to apply ideas from systems thinking or have cropped up in various disciplines. These meetings are designed to deal with questions that do not yet have an established slot at other conferences on systems and systems research (such as the EMCSR).
The topic in 1993 was inspired by a number of general observations. ln many areas of study there is a plethora of theories but they, unfortunately, all fail dismally when used as a basis for controlled change. Data seem collectable only with a specilic purpose in mind, that is, it does not seem possible to construct a ‘detached’ observer. Contexts are clearly of importance but it appears impossible to decide upon one or to represent the relevant ones. Participants presented many instances of such observations, e.g. from management studies, education and therapy.
It has been remarked that such observations point to the same type of difficulty that suggested the idea of systems to Bertalanffy. A ‘wrong approach’ is being used. A separable type of ‘scientific object’ is being employed in situations in which the object of investigation can react to being studied, and, apparenlly, takes the observer to be part of its environment or as something that has to be made supportive of its own existence. ln this case no separable or ‘value-free’ approach is possible. One has to deal with values and with the fact that nothing appears invariant under scientific scrutiny.
The question thus becomes what kind of ‘scientific object’ one has to use in order to obtain results that are somewhat more than ‘opinions’, or just schemes to have predictions either be fulfilled or negated, at the whim of the users. Clearly, its delinition should include some ‘intentionality’, something that was specifically excluded in the scientific revolution of the 16th century. Over a period of time a number of definitions has been put forward, e.g. goal seeking objects, steerable objects, and also ‘holons’ or systems: those objects whose parts are ‘valued’ by their wholes.
Lately a number of other ‘objects’ have come under scrutiny, that is ones that organise,
that sleer, their own existence and activities. Such objects are not goal-seeking. They ‘claim’ their own survival. They can be assumed to react unpredictably. Whatever frame one uses for their study, they may react not only to events within it, but also to the frame itself. Such objects clearly must be assumed to be able to switch between many different types of behavior, at the slightest excuse. ln short, they can often be observed to act chaotically.
The participants’ in the meeting were, of course, well aware of the numerous attempts to understand and resolve the difficulties involved in dealing with ‘reactive’ fields. During the discussions it became clear that studying such fields is not necessarily hampered by the fact that no’adequate’approach is available, but that it is diflicult to remain consistent. Confusion has arisen, for example, in discussions between those that take autopoietic systems to occur nearly everywhere, and those that interpret autopoiesis as defining a ‘scientific object’, allowing for some ‘control by non-prediction’.
Some 30 papers were presented. lt is not possible, of course, to summarise all of them here, but only to highlight some key points. Graham Barnes emphasised the linguistic nature of international objects’, Gerrit Broekstra demonstrated the seltdestructive effects of innovation, James Powell showed how to create new supportive systems when local behavior is not predictable, Jan Kooistra defined various forms of ‘epistemological’ resistance, Henk Koppelaar clarified the role of mathematical functional analysis in constructing self-referential observing-observed systems, etc.
The meeting was deemed very successful by the participants. There was time and there was place to discuss exciting questions whose allure was enhanced by their being shrouded in confusion. As usual, appropriate entertainments were arranged, such as self-organising music, self-steering bars, and so on. The venue also was quite fanciful: the rooms that were used by the University ol Amsterdam when it was founded in 1632. Paintings of Da Vinci, Macchiavelli, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Lorenz, Van ‘t Hoff and other famous personalities looked down on us.
Prof. Dr. Gerard de Zeeuw
is full professor at the University of Amsterdam. He completed studies in mathematics, statistics, econometrics and psychology at the University of Leyden, Rotterdam, and at Standford, and did his Ph.D. at the University of Amsterdam. Twice he was elected Fellow of the Netherlands lnstitute for Advanced Studies. He has published or edited 1 1 books and more than 100 papers. His publications mainly represent contributions to the improvement of individual and collective activities. He is scientific director of the Center for lnnovation and Cooperative Technology. His job description includes “innovations in social science research”, and research on the “design and use of complex social systems”. He is initiator of a series of innovative meetings, entitled “Problems of …”, and is officer in several scientific organizations, among them the International Federation for Systems Research (President), and Editor-in-Chief of the Journals “System Research” and “Systemica”.