Introductory, no need to read the books in preparation
English handout
For Whom
Anyone interested in systems ideas and contemporary societal challenges
By Whom
Philippe Vandenbroeck, shiftN

The Systems Library

Learning from past masters

Next edition will start fall 2020

  • Schon: Beyond the Stable State - 15 November 2019, 17:30-20:00
  • Simon: Sciences of the Artificial - 13 December 2019, 17:30-20:00
  • Ahl & Allen: Hierarchy Theory - 17 January 2020, 17:30-20:00
  • Beer: Designing Freedom - 14 February 2020, 17:30-20:00

Systems thinking in some form or other is probably as old as humanity, but systems science came of age only after the Second World War. It has been a fascinating intellectual adventure that resulted in a powerful set of ideas. These ideas are shaping the way we address global challenges today. 

Sadly, much of what the most prominent systems thinkers wrote in the latter half of the twentieth century has found only a very limited audience. Arguably, some of these books put significant demands on readers (and readers’ wallets!) too. 

At shiftN we want to actively explore this intellectual legacy and make it accessible through focused introductions. We promise that anyone interested in systems ideas and contemporary societal challenges will benefit from these short and accessible introductions. 

A typical 2-hour evening session focuses on a single, classic systems book. We discuss key ideas, author’s biography and the book’s position within the broader systems thinking tradition. 

Over the years we hope to build up a rich library of systems literature, spanning the whole journey from early cybernetics to the latest ideas in systems ecology. 

Last year we discussed contributions by Gregory Bateson, Bela Banathy and Luc Hoebeke. 

In 2019-2020 we propose the following four books: 

Donald Schon: Beyond the Stable State (1971)

Donald Schon (or Schön) has made important contributions to the theory of organisational learning. In this farsighted book, he develops a theory about how institutions respond to rapidly accelerating change that cannot be absorbed by ‘the fight to remain the same’.

Stafford Beer: Designing Freedom (1974)

What if we were able to design an organisation as a ‘liberty machine’? In other words, that it would fulfill its purpose under the constraint that it would contribute to individual liberty of the citizens, employees or members who are part of it. It’s a tantalising and utterly contemporary idea that Beer tackled already 50 years ago.

Valerie Ahl and T.F.H. Allen: Hierarchy Theory (1996)

Hierarchy theory is a practical approach to find powerful points of view and frame novel questions about the world around us and how we relate to it. It proposes a systems approach that includes the observer, and human values, in the process of coming to terms with complex problems.

Herbert A. Simon: The Sciences of the Artificial (1996)

“The natural sciences are concerned with how things are. Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artefacts to attain goals.” Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon’s book is a classic at the intersection of systems and design thinking.