Designing better worlds

By Szentkiralyi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

There is a long lineage of systems thinkers, and systems scientists, who have proposed ways to purposefully design the social systems in which we live. Bela H. Banathy, who created the systems program at Saybrook, used an idealized approach to social systems design. John Warfield offered his Interactive Management process. His long-time colleague, Aleco Christakis, expanded that to what is now known as Structured Dialogic Design. Russ Ackoff, like Bela, thought in terms of idealized design, but from a different view and with applications mostly aimed at formal organizations, such as corporations. Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model was applied in a large-scale systems experiment in Chile. The work of Eric Trist and Fred Emery, most frequently connected with Socio-Technical Systems, helped to redesign workplaces. Fred Emery’s work has been continued and extended by his widow, Merrelyn Emery, in Socio-Ecological Systems. 

This is the short list, and many other systems scientists and practitioners have added to, and expanded these approaches over the decades. There are examples of applications all over the world, but they do not tend to be examples that most people would know, if asked about. More familiar changes tend to come in the form of economic and technical systems. If a large corporation builds a new plant near a city, it brings jobs and taxes, which might support school improvements. A new rail system might change options for commuting. Most of our thoughts about design, then, get relegated to architects, urban planners, venture capitalists, systems engineers, and so on. Rarely do we think in terms of designing social systems, per se. 

Nigel Cross, in Design Thinking, his systems-oriented book on design, talks about the need to design from first principles. That’s a concept that tends to be associated with mathematics, philosophy, and physics. It has to do with the most fundamental properties. Applied to human social systems, it really pushes questions to a new level. What are the most fundamental properties of human social systems, on which we would base design? 

I have some thoughts, but at present, there are no clear, agreed answers. One of the reasons for considering the question, though, is the degree to which we have shaped the world for millennia, with no clear concept about the social systems that we have created – at least not at that level. 

Some past efforts have been purposeful in their own ways. The colonial empires of Europe, for instance – in addition to acquiring resources for the homeland – sought to civilize other parts of the world by imposing new religions, customs, and forms of governance on the people in those places. Our more modern versions of colonization tend to be in the form of soft power through media. The number of mobile phones in the world is predicted to exceed the number of people by 2014. Beyond any direct communication with other people, what is consumed in terms of media greatly influences what people see as normal in the world – what we want, what we buy, how we live, and so on. 

The grandest scale of social systems change, though, has probably come about in connection with military conflicts. Following the devastation of World War II, much of Europe was rebuilt in connection with the Marshall Plan and other assistance, in the form of economic and technical aid. The legacy of those efforts is probably the nation-building of today – the aid and assistance given to countries in order to create. It is done with clear political objectives, though, related to concerns about security. 

According to Fukuyama (2004), “The fact is that the chief threats to [the U.S.] and to world order come today from weak, collapsed, or failed states. Weak or absent government institutions in developing countries form the thread linking terrorism, refugees, AIDS, and global poverty” (p. 1.) As he further explains, “What we are really talking about is state-building—that is, creating or strengthening such government institutions as armies, police forces, judiciaries, central banks, tax-collection agencies, health and education systems, and the like” (p. 2). The problem, however, is that “no one has solved the more serious problem of how to implement the second phase of nation-building—the transition to self-sustaining indigenous institutions” (p. 6). 

Historically, this approach to nation-building was been separate from military interventions. Like the Marshall Plan, it came in the form of aid after the military was gone. With the shift in the nature of perceived security threats (e.g. terrorism by non-state actors) and military interventions (targeted, tactical strikes), larger strategies have also changed. The military corollary to nation-building is often counterinsurgency, as described in a Field Manual of the U.S. Marine Corps: 

An insurgency is an organized, protracted politico-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority while increasing insurgent control. Counterinsurgency is military, paramilitary, political, economic, psychological, and civic actions taken by a government to defeat insurgency…Political power is the central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies; each side aims to get the people to accept its governance or authority as legitimate. Insurgents use all available tools—political (including diplomatic), informational (including appeals to religious, ethnic, or ideological beliefs), military, and economic—to overthrow the existing authority… Long-term success in COIN depends on the people taking charge of their own affairs and consenting to the government’s rule (Counterinsurgency, 2006, p. 1)

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised significant questions about the role of U.S. Military intervention and responsibilities beyond simply defeating an enemy. Interestingly, the military has sponsored research aimed directly at a better understanding of human social systems, due to this expanded view. As described in a book from the National Research Council (2008): Today’s military missions have shifted away from force-on-force warfare – fighting nation-states using conventional weapons – toward combatting insurgents and terrorist networks in battlespace in which the attitudes and behaviors of civilian noncombatants may be the primary effects of military actions. These new missions call for agile, indigenously sensitive forces capable of switching quickly and effectively from conventional combat to humanitarian assistance and able to defuse tense situations without, if possible, the use of force. IOS [individual, organizational, and societal] models are greatly needed for planning, supporting, and training for these forces and for evaluating the technology with which they fight. Models of human behavior in social units – teams, organizations, cultural and ethnic groups, and societies – are needed to understand, predict, and influence the behavior of these social units (p. 2). 

The report goes on to explore models ranging from verbal and conceptual to system dynamics, cognitive architectures, decision and game theories, social network models, agent-based models, games, etc. Ironically, even though this research was proceeding at the time that the counterinsurgency manual was produced, there is no indication that it was referenced or incorporated in it. (The fact that this research was supported through that Air Force and that the counterinsurgency manual was published by the Marine Corp may be all the explanation needed.) 

There appears to be a need to bring what we know about social systems to the arenas in which social systems are being most affected; in places where efforts such as nation-building and the aftermath of conflicts are occurring. There is an even greater need to continue the research in clear, rigorous ways, focused on the principles involved. It is not enough to build new houses and shops and schools. Nor is it enough to hope that people can simply “get along” if economic conditions get better for them. We need to consider the world that we, collectively, want to live in, and how we might go about creating that. 

Fukuyama, F. (2004). Nation-building 101, The Atlantic,

National Research Council (2008). Behavioral modeling and simulation: From individuals to societies.  Washington, D.C.: The National Academic Press. 

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