America’s Future

In nature, there are cycles.  In politics, there are cycles.  In economies, there are cycles.  In the evolution of the U.S.A., there are cycles.

As systems evolve through cycles of growth and decline they manifest three interdependent types of challenges:  tensions, disturbances, and scarcities.

In the U.S. internal tensions include: ‘left vs. right’, ‘public sector vs. private sector’, ‘urban vs. rural’, and let’s face it, ‘white vs. all the people whites have exploited.’

Disturbances include national security threats such as: ‘terrorism’, ‘international conflict’, and ‘climate change’.

Inputs and output scarcities:  the greatest scarcities are natural resource and energy scarcity relative to rates of consumption, as well as pollution sinks.

Any system which grows, reaches a steady state, and declines confronts internal tensions, external disturbances, and scarcities.  These three dimensions tend to reflect to each other.

The U.S. will not go down easy.  We’ve fought a civil war, developed done bombing technology to wipe our terrorists and entire communities which host them, and you can bet we will continue to fight for access to cheap energy.

There is a fourth quality of a system which goes through cycles. Identity. Who is the U.S.A. in the world.  What happens now that we are no longer the most free, the most democratic.  What happens now that we are no longer the economic super-power.  What happens when we are no longer the cultural leaders, the envy of the world?  What happens when we no longer want to police the world?  Who is the U.S.A. when the U.S.A. is not young, creative, and powerful.

Today’s world moves rapidly.   We cannot be sure, under which time tables this evolution will occur. As we transition, we will be overleveraged financially and socially.  We will make all of the same mistakes every other country has made. We will overextend ourselves economically and militarily, we will promise more to the people than we can afford, the elite will fight to control their position, we will develop technologies which overleverage our ecosystem. However, the extent of each of these mistakes is unknown.

Meanwhile, we can embrace our place in the world, and delay the inevitable, perhaps for many glorious centuries.  We can move through societal syntheses, among left and right, government and private sectors.  We can focus on providing green technologies, free of charge to developing nations and empower women along the way.  We can decrease our military power and increase our social, economic and ecological interdependence.

We can transition from an economy based on growth, on rampant materialism and consumption, to one based on determining the ideal size of the economy — the size which balances our needs with the extrinsic and intrinsic value of nature.




Design Questions

Who is part of our community?

The first step in our design process is to ground ourselves and our ethical sensibilities; to tune out of our hectic day to day and remember what matters to us.  Through imagery, knowledge uptake and various visualization and dialogue techniques, we expand our consideration and begin to map our new social and ecological environment; it’s structural features, processes and trajectories.

How do we transform the world?

In the next phase of design, we consider a thorough set of operations that are available at any given point.  These operations extend far beyond transformations or our own organizational boundaries.  They extend to the shaping of supply chains, industry, the economy, the government, and particularly culture.  For instance, what image do we model in our advertising?  A consumer who is oriented toward their social and ecological environment?

 How does the environment change?

In the third phase we consider what information is available to us about our social and ecological environment.  What are the channels through which this is communicated?  This starts by mapping ‘changes’ in social and environmental conditions on various time scales, and then by mapping ways in which these changes might seep through the current information boundaries of the organization.

 Mapping organizational processes which lead to action

The fourth phase involves mapping all of the processes which lead to decisions or enactment of the various operations in the company. This is a basic systems modelling exercise with inputs and outputs, nodes, and communication channels.

Where can we inject information about our newly perceived environment?

In this phase we map locations in our organizational map which might take an input from our new environment.  This might be anything from a poster on a wall in a common room to the addition of criteria in particular planning processes. We believe that no injection is too small. Small changes may be the source of important creativity down the road.

How does information travel back out to the environment?

The sixth phase involves mapping all of the ways in which actions and their influence might be mapped back into the environment for partnering with organizations, and people as consumers and citizens and even our non-human friends; because they are listening!

Iterate, Iterate, iterate!

This environment should be taken as an input for the first step and iterated.  These early iterations 2 → represent the low hanging fruit for making social and environmental progress, while the goal is to expand and deepen exchange with this environment.

And of course… Redesign this conversation

Develop criteria for evaluating this process which measures cultural, as well as structural progress; and design the next occasion for this meeting; who should be involved and how it will be facilitated.

Cybernetic Models for Design and Communication

Cybernetics deals with goal oriented systems, and the management of feedback for the attainment of goals.  It is the most precise language which can be applied to this domain. Second-order cybernetics might also be considered ethical cybernetics.  In this evolution, we find the notion of re-entry, in which systems purposefully sensitize themselves to their environment. Communication theory and conversation theory emerge from the discipline of cybernetics, and as such theories of the design process find articulation through cybernetics. The core cybernetics models which we work with in the design process are described below.

1. Second-order Cybernetics and Confronting Paradox

The true beauty of cybernetics cannot be understood without understanding ‘paradox’. Paradox is the path through which an observer ‘externalizes’ stable entities, while ‘internalizing’ disturbances to their world view, recursively.  This can be mapped on any self-organizing dynamics.  For instance, Paul Pangaro’s Designing Conversations, makes sense of this duality, whereby a design process is ‘self-constructing’.

Beyond the reach of mechanics, paradox is embraced with the statements “I am the relation between myself and the world.” And “my world is the relation between myself and myself at another point in time.”  Without understanding this, we see the possibility for contradictions in approaches to governance and structured inquiry, as I discuss in my article: “Exploring Foundations and Value Boundaries in Social-Ecological Systems.” 

2. The Viable System Model

The Viable System model represents one applications of Cybernetics to management.  Developed by Stafford Beer, the Viable System model distinguishes production units, from the coordination of productions, from the system which manages operational control which optimizes and regulates, from the system which looks forward and adapts to an environment to the system which institutes policy.  The Viable System model emphasizes that these operations take place at every level of the organization.

3. Heinz Von Foerster, On Constructing a Reality

Related imageIn this seminal piece Heinz von Foerster, models the sensorimotor system as a donut (torus). We find that ultimately perceptions are meaningful in terms of actions and actions meaningful in terms of perception.

When we consider communicating systems it is important to consider the manner in which a system links signals and activities, and also the manner in which a system changes this structure.  As we extend more broadly into our environment, we collect novel streams of information, but these information streams are only meaningful in terms of their ‘allowances’. Further, our actions become meaningless if we cannot perceive their change;  This is the challenge of complexity; which requires alternative management techniques.

Imagine communicating something ‘REALLY IMPORTANT’ to an audience.  This message gains meaning to the extent that the audience can act on it; participate with it, and is empowered to make change.  If you consider the actions which your audience can take, you invite them to have a conversation; to make meaning.  This action might mean shifting priorities, making a decision about which product to purchase, getting involved with a campaign, or identifying with a particular group, for example.

Imagine providing many opportunities for your audience to take action.  How closely aligned are these actions, with the signals you have embedded?  How can you effectively plant the triggers for action and keep your audience engaged? Eg. make sure you ring the bell at meal time, consistently; to link your signal, your symbol, with their action.

Want to discuss this further?  Shoot me an email!  Skyler8perkins at gmail

The inverse questions can be asked of our own organizations!  What are our information sources, our signals?  Through which channels do they operate?  Are these sources based on our past activities?  Are they in alignment with our present activities? Our future actions?  How directly does a signal target the appropriate actor?  What is the mechanism through which this selection is achieved?  How does regulation of this selection correspond with the speed of change in a particular environment?

3. Autopoiesis: Network of Interactions

Related imageAutopoiesis came to describe the autonomy of living organisms, and in the case of organizations can be considered organizational closure.  In a basic manner we can think of an organization or an organism as a boundary producing entity, which separates themselves from their environment and yet simultaneously produces the possibility of interaction with the environment.  In this, we find a circular feedback which moves through stages of ‘identity’, ‘aims’, ‘networks of interactions’, and ‘operational closure’.  Through each circle, an organization or organism bounds their repertoire of activities according to various ‘homeostats’, and aims; and reproduces these homeostats according to their network of activities.

How does the identity of our audience change when we introduce novel manners for participation?  How do actions change when we offer alternative identities and aims?

4. Heinz von Foerster’s self-organizing systems

Image result for autopoiesisVon Foerster defines a self organizing system as an entity whose total redundancy is increasing over time.  Redundancy is defined in information theory by Shannon as the ratio of the shortest possible description of a system to the longest possible description of a system.

For instance, we might want to describe our company in extreme detail, inch by inch.  Doing so would make maintaining a coherent image difficult.  However, if our description is too short, we miss out on subtle changes we might make.  If our description is too short every change ‘goes to the top’.  Need new staples? Tell the CEO.

There are many mechanisms by which a self-organizing system can maintain diverse and coherent self-images, in order interact ethically, effectively and efficiently to changes in the environment.  Often times we see that it is necessary to evolve ‘language’, with changing operations.  For instance, does the EPA ‘regulate’, or ensure particular standards are met through a variety of means?  As environmental challenges become increasingly complex, the way the EPA describes themselves and their operations should adapt, such that new opportunities become apparent.

Based on Maxwell’s demons (information theory) this definition of a self-organizing systems yields two ‘organizing demons’. One demon works to increase the conditional probabilities of elements within the system, say by increasing knowledge, or tying elements of the system together, and another demon works to increase variety within the system by adding new elements which can be incorporated within the system, only in so far as these new elements are in alignment with the systems aims or homeostasis.

5. Balance, difference and information theory

Communication is an art.  Communication is a dance.  Communication builds on stability, but information disrupts this stability.

We make meaning out of change. We make change out of stability. We make stability out of meaning.

We develop a shared language. We develop a shared understanding. We create shared meaning.  Through this we can change each other, shape each other, generate novelty, be creative.

We develop a pattern of change.  We develop a pattern of transformation.  We develop invariant variation.  We are constantly changing, but we maintain equilibrium.

This is a conversation.

6.  Metaphor theory

In the cybernetic world view, mathematics, logic, science, and language are all built on metaphors. We understand one thing in terms of another.  This is like that.

The sun is warm.  The color is warm.  I am here, and yet ‘here’ is something different than me.

Imagery operates at a subconscious level and has an enormous impact on the way in which we frame conversations and communicate.  For instance, we might find this in interpersonal communication.  One says ‘the way I see it’, and the other says, ‘it feels like’.  These two people are speaking different languages hoping to arrive at different destinations and it will not be surprising if they speak past each other.

Imagine if one person imagines the economy like a biological organism.  Infinite growth would be a very bad, and impossible thing!  If another imagines the economy like ‘the hand of God’ (as it was originally conceived), then infinite growth is highly virtuous!

Strategic communicators place careful attention on the metaphors they use and the imagery it produces.

Is the clean water act a mechanism for regulation or protection?

7. Tension Mapping, Varela’s calculus of indications

“We recognize only one Law, the Law of Harmony, of Perfect Equilibrium.”- (K.H.)

Tension mapping is an exercise which we have created which places trades offs visually on a map.  This allows observers to consider the space which they have created between a variety of trajectories and to explore synergies, and challenge their own conceptions.


8. Design for embodied cognition and Visualization methods

Research in cognition, neuroscience and behavioral science shows that our subconscious is ultimately the ‘creator’, while our conscious mind is largely the transformer or regulator.  We often arrive at decisions long before our conscious mind becomes aware of our decision.

Techniques for accessing the subconscious, has throughout time been an implicit part of designing, planning.

Generating the conditions for inspiration and design is an essential component of the process.

The Journey of an Academic

I recently completed  my master’s degree and worked to climb the highest heights of intellect in the field of Ecological Economics.  We worked through methodology, and epistemology and ontology.  I studied second-order cybernetics, the foundations of mathematics, elementary principles of cognition.

If anyone does not understand the hierarchical principle of science, it stems from a belief that we will achieve ever more subtle degrees of understanding- From the heavy to the light, the crude to the refined- that we cannot know everything, but we will slowly know more and more.

And so I took pride in my elaborate architecture of thought.  The arguments I was making were so subtle- they could barely be perceived.  And for the most part they were not.  They did not make a difference.  They were not understandable.

And on the other hand, the few who perceived them, thought very ‘highly’ of my work. And there is a power in this, for a sophisticated and redundant architecture makes components increasingly ignorable.

As Heinz von Foerster states:

“The more profound the problem that is ignored,
the greater are the chances for fame
and success.”

Of course the hardest lesson to learn as an academic is Rumi’s:

“The way of love is not
a subtle argument.

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.”

And as second-order cybernetics continues to die and recreate itself, on this academic journey, I find it, in it’s current form as the technique of death re-birth. The coalescence of falling and flight, down and up.  Foundations and rules. And what can I say, I find Ecological Economics more beautiful this way- in an oscillation of (non) existence.



Cybernetics, Marketing and Consumer Engagement

In today’s economy, companies don’t just want to communicate to consumers, they want to converse. Interest and trust are two interdependent variables which facilitate this transaction. Being a triple bottom line company paves the way for this.

This post looks at Pangaro’s and Wenzek’s (P&W) CLEAT framework.

P&W start by surveying today’s marketing context: from targeting markets precisely, to mixed channel strategies with decentralized interaction to the expectations of consumers.

P&W expand consumer benefit to include benefits of conversation from changing ideas, and understandings to changes aims, and actions.

Generally, we find that theories of communication and conversation apply more broadly to marketing than they did before, and consumers behave differently through different stages of the conversation.



P&W emphasize who, when, how and what.  Collecting information streams can help us identify a target audience.  For large businesses, big data, histories and broader market information can provide clues.  However, for small business, this may involve some intuition, experimentation and small scale research.


Precise language is efficient.  It allows consumers to jump on board, and travel to the destination.  P&W give some attributes of language such as ‘Level of abstraction’ and ‘Vocabulary’.  Attributes such as this serve many purposes; for example, ‘insider’ language is both inclusive and exclusive.


Exchanges are dynamic and living.  How do they evolve?  Any number of metaphors might serve this analysis.  P&W point out that this exchange is ripe for generating insights about customers.  In fact, used properly it is like free research.


Structure, novelty, value, trust.  P&W emphasize clarity regarding purpose and outcome.  However, I’d point out that this clarity can be ‘soft’.  In other words, purpose is not always about selling, or informing.  A purposeful and collective transcendence of purpose may open the door for greater humanizing and agreement between a company and customer.


P&W point out that a commercial transaction is the final step, but also the beginning of the next iteration.

P&W give a set of important primary, secondary, and supporting metrics at each stage of the CLEAT conversation.

My conclusions

Engaging as a triple bottom line company opens the doors wide open for conversation.  This is because there is broader room for shared vision and trust development between consumers and companies.  Further, incremental investment includes non-commercial transaction, building and leveraging relationships.  In this arena, transactions fall on an expanded spectrum of goals, with greater room for emergence, and decentralized communication.  On the one hand, this increases the demand for data, while on the other, intuition, knowledge, and trust become more important; and we can hope that with this, companies gain popularity for a wider variety of reasons.

Cybernetics and Design, reflecting on a piece by Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro

The Paper, “Cybernetics and Design: Conversations for Action” by Hugh Dubberly and Paul Pangaro starts with four basic tenets.

If Design, then systems.  If systems, then cybernetics.  If cybernetics, then second-order cybernetics. If second-order cybernetics, then conversation.

This paper would not be any fun, if I did not pick an alternative perspective.  By considering an alternative perspective, I create space for a conversation.  However, I have already undermined my argument.  My argument is that, the notion of conversation, might equally be replaced with the notion of ‘tension’.  Where conversation emphasizes 2 becoming 1.  Tension emphasizes 1 becoming 2.

So my final tenet is rather, “If second-order cybernetics, then tension.”

This conversation we are having is about the nature of design; presumably about making design the best it can be and so we are from the outset engaged in the design of design.

This is captured by the sentiment that ‘There is the person who draws and the (other) person who looks.  The difference between these personae– between marking and viewing- is, in and of itself, a major source of novelty, Glanville claims.”

However, I am suggesting that an alternative view point is not that this division be understood as a conversation, but rather as a tension.  The tension we have created here is through marking a distinction between design and designing. By creating this space, we face tension.  That is, that an instance of designing will not fit with ‘design’, or that ‘design’ will not fit with it’s own activity. If this happens, we will become incoherent; and we will be forced to ‘choose’ a trajectory of definition.    As we step, the ground is shaking beneath our feet.

We experience this in our own cognition.  When we take a step, we generate an expectation, and ’embody’ our expectation. Our possibility space stretches, creating tension, and narrows as we move toward embodiment. It narrows until we find a larger thread, which was pulling us to a new place of balance, which may lie 500 steps ahead of us, or back where we started but slightly healthier.

Similarly, our perspective of design, whether it is ‘reducing tension’, or ‘engaging in conversation’, creates a possibility space for ‘designing’.  What evidence might we choose for ‘selecting’ from these alternatives?  Well, we can look to instances of ‘designing’ to substantiate either conversation or tension.

In this case, one could make a case for both.  This might be considered as a conversation, the beginning of an argumentation.  Of course, if this is a conversation, then we have hardly designed anything.  We have not created anything new. We have only ‘selected’ conversation; while the other side of argumentation fades into the ether.  And thus, depicting this as a ‘conversation’ is self-negating.

In other words, if ‘designing’ design is a product of conversation, we are left in an awkward position.  As Dubberly and Pangaro put it, “Engaging multiple perspectives is a necessary condition for conversation…”

On the other hand, this design of design might be considered a tension.  After all, here we are, torn between two possible articulations, two possible actions, which may result in different approaches, incoherent worlds.  Of course, if we select ‘tension’, then our tension is hardly.  We rest, assured, that design is a process of reducing tension, without any tension to speak of in the design of conversation.

But of course, as Dubberly and Pangaro quote Glanville “Design, instead, is “to do something magical” and “to find ‘the new'”.”

Our question is whether the coalescence of waves fragment the sea, or whether the fragmentation of the sea causes the waves.

‘Engaging multiple perspectives (in conversation), is a view from the waves down toward the depths; a suggestion that deeper, coherent patterns emerge from the movement of multiple waves.’  From this perspective, design is oriented toward ‘novelty’.

Paradoxically, in this view, an actor incorporates an element of their environment (or their past), seeing patterns of patterns.

Engaging with tension is a view from the depths; which sees patterns of waves, as the result of deeper potential differentiations. From this perspective, design is oriented toward ‘conservation’ (of potential).

Paradoxically, in this view, design is achieved when an actor lets go of an element of their future (which is no longer necessary).

In this, I am differentiating between an approach based on conversation, and an approach based on tension.

For our design of design, an approach based on conversation would assess these two approaches, and seek to understand a manner in which they might co-operate.  For instance, tension here is a resource for conversation from which new order might emerge. (Order from noise).  Meanwhile, conversation (including articulation) is a means through which we surface tension.

An approach based on tension asks if we need to ‘choose’.  This draws us into ‘experience’, our true source of magic; a magic available before we ‘identify’ with one actuality or another. Here we experience ‘tension’, and ask ‘What is really at stake?’ Another way or saying this is that we become attune with ‘what matters’.  Which relationships are we striving to maintain, and might they take new form?

So, the distinction between conversation, and tension, matters to me, because they surface alternative subconscious associations.  Conversation may facilitate experience.  Tension is directly experienced.

Design, as driven by the modern economy, is heavily oriented toward novelty, production, problem solving, and activity.  Forwardness, creativity, progress, new technologies.  Here we mix elements in novel ways. This is not to say that this is the intention of design as articulated by Dubberly and Pangaro.  In fact, to the contrary, they state that “novelty is not the primary goal of design.”  In fact, they argue, that it is rather an opportunity to ‘discover new goals and opportunities, and to co-construct shared frames’.

In this sense, placing ‘tension’ at the center of design creates a semantic shift. Perhaps, because it is more explicitly directed toward the subconscious impulse; as with the distinction between ‘discover’ and ‘surface’, ‘co-construct’, and ‘co-articulate’.

What is the stability against which Dubberly and Pangaro, differentiate ‘conversation’, while others differentiate ‘tension’.  Surely ‘there’, or ‘here’ is some source of truth; which we aim to distinguish.

As a society, going through large scale transition, toward a less intensive and production oriented manner of living, we ask, ‘how do our choices increase our demand for specialization?’ And ‘are we specializing without creating the capacity for conversation?’ What engines can we turn off, that is driving worlds apart?  What is no longer necessary?

The offering of Dubberly and Pangaro is not missed:  Let all articulations articulate their source.  Here I am suggesting that

If conversations, then perspectives.  If perspectives, then decoherence.  If decoherence, then tensions. If tensions, then potential balance.  If balance, then conversations.

In the cybernetic language.  A distinction is the condition of an eigenform, and an eigenform the condition for distinction.

As we strive to articulate the subject, name the nameless, we remember,

“There is no one self. There are no 10 selves. There is no Self. There are only positions of equilibrium, one among thousands, continually possible, and always ready.” Andre Michaux

“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.” -HVF

In a later post, I will discuss tension mapping as an approach to design and conversation.

Sir Geoffrey Vickers and Appreciative Systems

In 2016, at the International Society for Systems Sciences annual conference, I was awarded the “Sir Geoffrey Vickers Memorial Award” for a paper I wrote titled “Bringing Forth the Ecological Economy”.  A revised section of that paper is now published here titled “Exploring Foundations and Value Boundaries in Social-Ecological Systems”.

The work of Sir Geoffrey Vickers is inspiring to me, now more than previously.  Born in 1894, Vickers served in both World War I and II being awarded for his service as Colonel and Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Economic Warfare in World War II.  I mention this partially because it is an experience which I have no relation with and some times I like to reflect on how soft we have become.  Vickers would go on to accomplish much more as a lawyer, administrator, writer, and pioneer in systems science.

Vickers would develop the notion of ‘Appreciative Systems’.  This lens, this equilibrium, this fixed point, this distinction, can be appreciated in terms of our appreciative setting; that which allows us to create meaning of our environment.

In the understanding of Vickers, a system “codes” its environment according to it’s “Appreciative setting”, so as to maintain particular relationships and buffer against others.

In the words of Peter Checkland, a system’s history prepares it with a ‘readiness to notice particular aspects of [its] situation, to discriminate them in particular ways and to measure them against particular standards of comparison…’  These readinesses are organized into an ‘appreciative system’ which creates for all of us, individually and socially, our appreciated world…”


From: GCB Van Wyk


The word appreciate lends us an ambiguity: on the one hand connoting value and on the other a grasping.

It is this notion of appreciation, with its ambiguity which sits at the core of ethical design, as well as marketing.  To appreciate all that goes into making something which it was not, begets an invitation.  That invitation is to expand our conception of that ‘something it was’, into something far greater, something which has inspired us to modify its form.  Here we find a continuity or a relationship between a beginning and an end, an input and an input, in which we are participating.