Books I’m Going Through

I thought that this post would be a good opportunity to talk about the fields of academic inquiry that I’m covering. Another good reason for this post is that I’ve been spending time away from reading, and I’ll need more time before I get back to the substantive topics at hand.

So, what books am I reading?

By sheer dumb luck, I  chanced upon the field of organizational sociology – the study of human organizations and what happens inside them. As a result of that, I’ve also had the chance to go through the literature on institution theory – the norms and social practices that form and last, of which organizations are a subset of. This is institution theory as its most abstract. For example – marriage, handshake, the limited-liability company, the public service – would all constitute institutions, but some are also organizations. By this definition, all organizations are institutions, and some institutions are also social practises. The intellectual landscape for this has been covered to great detail ever since the end of the WWII. The same authors who describe the phenomenon of organizations also tend to cover what happens inside them. There has been considerable amount of literature on decisions-making, and a strand of this eventually became what we know today as artificial intelligence, in an attempt to model and improve cognition processes, both human and otherwise. Some of the major names in this field include, Chester Barnard, Herbert Simon, Paul DiMaggio, Walter Powell, Lynne Zucker, W. Richard Scott, and others.

The other streams that I’ve been pursuing comes from futures studies. Futures Studies examines the premises and possibilities of alternative futures. As people and organizations, we are constantly looking ahead and making plans to prepare for the future. We develop resources and capabilities to anticipate future demands. The timescale varies largely, obviously, but it’s a large part of what we do everyday, whether we realise it or not. Futures Studies looks also at the assumptions of how we think about the future, and examines critically the way we look at them. Scenario Planning has been one major tool used by practitioners of futures, and there are others. In this series of posts, I think about futures studies and how they are applied to make better decisions within organizations. I might stray off to think about alternative futures for Singapore and the world, but I won’t say much here, because that’s also my day job. There’s Jim Dator at Hawaii University at Manoa, and Sohail Inayatullah who’ve been developing the intellectual foundation for futures. On the practice side of thing of things,  there’s the Shell-GBN group consisting of Pierre Wack, Kees Van Der Heijden, Peter Schwartz, and Adam Kahane who’ve been active in developing and communicating insights from their practises at Shell and outside. Singapore has been a major user of scenario planning for a while and developing as a node for futures in the Asia-Pacific region.

There is one other major field that I’ve been looking at, and has been the one other discipline that I’ve been trying to develop my knowledge of, and that’s the entire field of complexity theory. There are no real definitions for it, but I use it loosely to include studies of classical chaos (small changes in initial conditions have big effects later on), networks and graphs, cellular automata, and system dynamics. The whole field describes interactions – how simple global rules can yield tremendous variation and structure in the final outcomes. The definitive examples for complexity includes the Game of Life, Schelling’s Segregation Models, the artificial societies of Joshua Epstein. And then there’s System Dynamics, a field that was born out of attempts to describe interactions within organizations and project management and which then later gave rise to studies about the global system of the environment and human systems. For the first part of complexity that I’ve describe, Thomas Schelling, and Joshua Epstein were the authors of the models I’ve mentioned. For an introduction to chaos and complexity theory there’s James Gleick’s Chaos, and numerous books on complexity including Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity a Guided Tour. The intellectual foundations were established at Santa Fe Institute by W. Brian Arthur, John Holland and others, and leading thinkers today include Geoffrey West, Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, Luis Bettencourt, Cesar Hidalgo, Ricardo Hausmann. University of Michigan, and Northeastern University are leading centres today, although many graduate programmes also use complexity methods in their analysis.

Systems Dynamics deserves its own portion, and its lack of attention is only because it’s a mainstream topic in engineering. Of the many contributions of Systems Dynamics, the one that’s brought the most attention is arguably the World Model for the Club of Rome, which focused attention on the degradation of the global environment and the possible overshoot and collapse in the global economy and material conditions later on. Donella Meadows was one the most important advocates for systems thinking. Jay Forrester developed the programing environment for Systems Dynamics and the creator for the first models before Donella Meadows and is one of the most important pioneering figures for Systems Dynamics.

This has been a whirlwind tour of the thinkers that I’ve gone through. I’m trying to think through in small steps their relationships to one another. The central thread that runs through all of them is in trying to get a firmer grasp on the difficult terrains that we as individuals and organizations find ourselves in. Organizations, Futures, Complexity and Systems are all pieces in the puzzle, and there are other pieces as well. I haven’t talked about participatory methods, social/power structures, information systems, cognitive biases, and behavioural economics – just to name a few.

I don’t know what the end-result is, and this I guess is an example of generative complexity, where the building blocks can lead up to strong and beautiful structures.

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2 comments

  1. Matthias Honegger

    Man, I admire your breadth!

    Consider an application of a stream of future studies for a specific set of questions:

    Assuming Solar Radiation Management becomes a political issue (i.e. on the negotiation agenda of the UNFCCC) – what will country positions be in such a debate?

    ‘Systems’ studies approach’: How can macro-trends (Climate impacts, economic developments – shaping Parties’ interests) and micro-structures (the countries’ interest structures due to its vulnerability and resources) be used to model prospective negotiation positions?

    ‘Political science approach’: Discourse analysis on past technological discussions somewhat comparable to SRM issues. Semi-quantitative expert interviews.

    What’s your immediate response to such questions / approaches, based on your impressive book-shelve? Do you have some (random) ideas on my question? I’d love to discuss with you!

    • JF

      Hey Matthias,

      I don’t know enough about SRM to comment about it directly or in an informed fashion. Here’s how I would approach the issue:

      I think you first have to identify the context of SRM – does it stand alone? What are the surrounding contexts that will drive discussions on SRM? For this stage, I would suggest a scenarios-based analysis that identifies the driving forces. What are the broader questions that could set the context for SRM negotiations? Who’s interested in SRM? How will developments in SRMt tech shape standards? Which firms can benefit, and how? What are the possible wildcards/surprises that could affect the trajectory and developments?

      Countries that are advanced in SRM would want to set standards, but there’s also a need to identify what levers they have over others – the most advanced countries might let a less-advanced countries gain advantage in SRM negotiations if there are other political issues to settle. This analysis could benefit from a network/graph-based analysis to identify the issues that countries would have with one another that could affect the bargaining stances. I think this addresses the ‘microstructures’ part of your interest.

      On the establishment of international institutions, you might want to look at past treaties – Kyoto, Montreal and other framework conventions that have been established before. Other than ozone and carbon dioxide, I’m not sure of other attempts at the UN level on environmental topics. You might want to cast your net wider to talk about technological controls just to have a sense on how previous norm-settings were done at the UN, EU, and regional levels. Other than the UN, the EU probably has the most sophisticated multilateral structures, so I would look there.

      I hope this has been useful!

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