Special Edition Number 2 - SystemsThinking

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Introduction: The Urgency of This Moment


This Special Edition of the Blue Knight is an outgrowth project of the April 2017 Systems Thinking and Design Symposium, “Breaking Down Silos and Uniting Stakeholders”, held at Royal Military College Saint-Jean and co-hosted with the Center for National Security Studies. In being co-hosted by two Canadian military entities, the subjects were approached from a military perspective, however, effort was made to include international military, Other Government Departments (OGD) and private sector participation, with equal appreciation being devoted to thematic panels. Overall, it attempted to unite members of the Canadian government and partners who share a common appreciation or usage of some aspect of systems thinking and/or design, particularly those who were previously unaware of each other. This Special Edition contains this same objective, as well as to capture learning from the Workshop in a permanent and accessible manner. Inevitably, systems thinking and design are understood and used in different ways by different people with many associative concepts that exist. Thus, in this Special Edition, we are exploring a diversity of insights derived from systems thinking to help understand complex issues more fully as well as military and civilian Design’s potential as a mechanism to effect change in complex spaces. This Special Edition will highlight opinions and experiences of theorists and practitioners from inside the Canadian government and beyond. It includes deliberately short reflections from stakeholders who know their reality intimately, creating concise and poignant answers to the Special Edition theme. Concision is desired to ensure its accessibility and relevance to a wide audience in a time when competition for attention spans is incredibly fierce. This introduction will describe the thematic of ‘urgency’ that has been developed for the Edition, provide some preliminary contextual information about design and systems thinking and locate the contributions of the respective authors. Of course, it is not implied that assertions within this introduction are necessarily shared by contributors to this publication.

Theme of Urgency:

Urgency was selected as a common starting point for the Edition as our current era is a time of great flux, prone to unpredictability and rapid change. A few factors contributing to this is exponential technological growth and its implications across all domains of society. Information management and control is complexifying civilian life as well as warfare. In the global security domain, consistent with new actors inevitably come new methods (Kaldor 2013). Deliberate complexification has also been used as a weapon (Foxley 2016). Global threats beyond single state control, such as climate change, terrorism, illicit trafficking, inequality and debilitating conflict are affecting human security―quality of life and where people can live. Resultantly, the world has experienced massive population movements, generally flowing from areas of the global South to the global North. Stability of political units is also affected; economic and political competition between empires or blocs is dynamic, challenging, for example, long established notions of nation state interaction. The architecture of the previous era is struggling – the UN System offers insufficient or ineffectual global leadership or capacity– victim to political whims of the powerful states. Domestically, Canadian society is also changing as it is increasingly globalized and connected to the rest of the world.

In a fast-paced and unpredictable environment, governments, institutions, firms and individuals weigh competing demands for scarce resources. Urgency is also a call to focus attention on something that might be otherwise missed within the massive quantity of information. Authors were asked to advocate for something that is ‘urgent’ to do at this particular juncture free to choose whatever measure from the micro to the macro, tactical to strategic with the specific question being: “Explore a historical, current or future aspect of Systems Thinking / Design that is urgent to use, consider or reconsider in responding to complex problems”. Deliberately broad, the question provides a wide berth to allow the author to ‘speak from the heart’. However, it does mean that the itself is eclectic and there may be tremendous variation in terms of how the author defines the subject. Forward thinking in the form of selection of something urgent, based upon reflection and experience, is self-referential. For security minded organizations, such as the CAF, RCMP or CSIS, ‘urgency’ may be in the form of a response to a threat, ideational, physical or otherwise, yet precisely what these are remain subjective. A Global Affairs member may see urgency in political, diplomatic, economic or development issues. Urgent need may be found in the necessity of changing processes to be more efficient or capable of fulfilling mandates or adapting to external changes. Therefore, in urgency, there is a normative dimension, we imply a need to act quickly and swiftly out of necessity to change course to ensure survival or to deviate from a negative direction. In choosing a singular focus, the author has inevitably been forced to prioritize an argument with a solitary point of emphasis. Of course, there is an opportunity cost, this singular focus means that other important issues, primary or contributory may not be addressed. However, this does not mean that these proposed ‘urgencies’ are in competition with each other or that they are to be singularly applied over other solutions in a zero-sum situation.

Bringing experiences to light

We also remain conscious that authors have had freedom to tell their own stories, what Schön and Rein (1994) refer to as ‘naming and framing’ describing what they feel is urgent, choosing how they describe and represent the context and what they promote as recommendation. Complicating matters is that we are inevitably conditioned by our experiences. This means the organizational orientations, what Von Fellman calls, “prejudices” that are inevitably developed as individuals are cultured within their respective environments (Von Fellman, 2015, p, 4). Further, this biases our outlook. Scanlon (1975) states: “when there is disagreement on standards within the society we have to make up our own minds who is right; thus we base our appraisal of its institutions on our own conception of relative importance” (Scanlon, 1975, 662). Similarly, Schön and Rein (1994) discuss how stakeholders prioritize their own versions of problem formation:

By focusing our attention on different facts and by interpreting the same facts in different ways, we have a remarkable ability, when we are embroiled in controversy, to dismiss the evidence adduced by our antagonists. We display an astonishing virtuosity in “patching” our arguments so as to assimilate counterevidence and refute countervailing arguments. (Schön and Rein, 1994, p.5)

Given our inclinations to prioritize our “own” understandings, this Special Edition is also a way to break out of this mental trap of only seeing what we have been trained, educated or desire to see. Thus publicization of experience is a step toward breaking down barriers of our ‘siloed’ realities and even to ‘red-team’ our own understandings. Here, the value is in an exercise of group reflection/reflexivity, a deliberate look at the experiences of others within different systems with the realization that our own perceptions of reality are bounded by our own experiences. This collection thus publicizes authors experiences based upon experiential referents and personal inclinations and position as stakeholder. Moreover, beyond simply publicizing awareness of the ‘prejudiced’ experiences of others, it may serve to suggest constructive ideas for future collective action based upon this collection of disparate insights.

It is acknowledged that siloes exist within the vast government system, similar to many large, bureaucratic and hierarchical systems. These exist not only as deliberate divisive wedges constructed for political or private reasons, but also as the inevitable outcome of institutions and the fact that their people can be simply overloaded by information or simply preoccupied with day to day priorities. Thus, barriers may arise as an outgrowth of the fact that organizations and their people may simply lack the time or mental energy to ponder the simultaneous realities of others, or the ‘big picture’.

The value of publicization begins with the realization that there exists much wisdom within the learning experiences of others. What a shame should important lessons from adaptive learning become wasted - should the individual not desire or understand the importance of sharing, or the community not recognize the value of the insight. Here the individual experiences of Canadian Forces members and Global Affairs Canada personnel come to mind as examples of people who have been exposed to diverse cultural learning opportunities while embedded within other cultural systems. Similarly, Other Government Departments (OGD)s personnel have incredible learning insights based upon the evolution of projects or other experiences.

Why Systems Thinking?

In many ways, systems thinking offers a conceptual methodology which is useful to understanding the complexity of multifaceted issues of the type that governments face. Systems thinking formally developed throughout the twentieth century, although foundational concepts can be noticed much earlier; as Von Bertalanffy (1972) notes, it is “a contemporary expression of perennial problems which have been recognized for centuries and discussed in the language of the time” (Von Bertalanffy,1972, p.22). He attributes formalization in the twentieth century due to advances in mathematics (p.26). As a massive scientific movement, it has grown across multiple domains spanning the natural and social sciences (too vast to summarize here should this even be possible). Roughly, systems thinking across several disciplines, challenged dominant paradigm of scientific reasoning based upon Newtonianism and reductionism, recognizing the nature of irreducible ‘wholes’ and their behavior. Thus, commonalities of properties between types of systems, living and non-living have been studied as systems within respective domains, touching all aspects of human experience. However, there is an important distinction between open and closed systems, the latter being much more atenable to the certainties of hard science, technology and engineering, the former being more representative of biological, human and ecological systems. The implication is that despite commonalities of what a system may entail (inter-related component parts into a unified whole, purpose) different types of systems possess different type of behavior - closed systems being more linear and predictable and open systems more prone to interaction with external forces and thus less predictable. Systems principles were imported into the social sciences. For example, systemic organization of structures in sociology and political science, some of which challenged dominant positivist and empiricist social science.

Systems thinking may have remained at the margins in certain fields, or have been dismissed, or overlooked. Here Von Bertalanffy (1972) notes that its slow development is due to the strength of the mainstream being the: “whole force of “classical” science and its success over the centuries militated against any change in the fundamental paradigm of one way causality and resolution into elementary units” (Von Bertalanffy, 1972, pp.25-26). Paparone (2017) describes how certain versions of systems theory were in fact used to try to systematize and objectivize warfare in the attempt to create perfect control over resources and the environment, a form of ‘scientism’ (Paparone 2017). Thus, some aspects of systems theory in fact reinforced a rational world view, something that the current military Design movement is attempting to overcome. Bousquet (2009) notes this in relation to the Cybernetic era and its tools of Operational Research and Systems Analysis which dominated American conceptions of warfare in the post-WW2 period but ultimately proved disastrous in Vietnam. This embodied a belief that warfare could be controlled and predicted through technological/scientific measures (Bousquet 2009).

As an outgrowth, the study of various forms of complexity came with the recognition that certain types of systemic structures behave unpredictably or in ways that we do not fully understand (Meslaw 2015). The turn toward what Bousquet terms “chaoplexity” (chaos and complexity theory) represents a break from previous types of systems thinking, whose insights that are particularly useful for understanding complex phenomena (Bousquet 2009). Here, Holland’s conception of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) (Holland, 1992) can be particularly useful to understanding social issues with which the mililitary is likely to engage with.

Growth in recent popularity of systems and complex systems science can be attributed to a multidisciplinary recognition that a sole reliance or blind faith upon traditional methodologies (linear and reductionist thinking) is insufficient. In the past several decades its popularity has grown across several fields, notably management (Senge, 1990; Gharajedaghi 2011); global politics (Rosenau 1990; Axelrod 1997; Kavalski 2015; Bousquet & Curtis 2011); military affairs (Bar-Yam 2003; Bousquet 2009; Vos Fellman, P, Minai, A, Bar-Yam, Y. (Eds.) 2016 ), to name a few. Thus, continued or renewed utility can be found in systems theory, as governments, and particularly military elements of state power must act within complex and unpredictable spaces. Governments as fundamentally open and human systems can function as Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) which lack predictability given in part to the conscious choice of each human as an actor within the system and propensity to adapt. This human element is what Mesjasz (2015) calls the “complexities of complexities” (Mesjasz, 2015, p.42).

Why Design?

Thus, we know that the social world is constantly evolving, shifting and changing between effects of agent actions, emergent processes and adaptation. Design can be a method or a cultural philosophy focused on how to orient action in order to attempt to positively influence the future and avoid making the situation worse. Erik Stolterman and Harold Nelson (2012) describe how design offers a way to get beyond chance and to make deliberate change within a situation (Stolterman & Nelson, 2012. p.3). It permits the possibility of creating more positive outcomes by understanding that complex situations need to involve buy-in and reflection from multiple stakeholders. Here a distinction between military and civilian design is noted; civilian design permits most if not all stakeholders to be present, whereas, in military design, it is likely that belligerent actors will not be present (Ryan, 2017).

Design thus exists across multiple fields and forms (urban, architecture, art, engineering, etc…) and is an increasingly important process or cultural philosophy within public policy, strategy creation and management of firms, organizations and governments seeking competitive advantage and innovation. Thus, design is playing an important role for governments to deal with complex situations, what Rittel and Webber (1973) called ‘wicked problems’ and Schön and Rein (1994) termed ‘intractable policy controversies.’ In these situations, Ryan (2017) describes how “autonomous units seeking to maximize their individual performance very quickly create frustration and gridlock, where no unit is able to get what they want, and every step forward by one actor creates additional frustration for other units” (Ryan, 2017, p.41). Due to the recognition of these realities and public pressure to produce better outcomes, innovative design hubs are emerging, such as Canadian Digital Service (established 2017) and the Privy Council Office’s Innovation Hub (established 2015) which have focused upon innovation in terms of government’s ability to serve and function in a changing word.

In this issue, Naik elaborates upon her experience as a designer responding to an urgent need in designing a female helmet in India and further, upon her experience designing innovative approaches to an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship project of family reuninification. Naik raises important insights, namely that design needs to be human centered, explaining why (the user, the human, the citizen) needs to be at the center of Design action and how Design can be used effectively to guide government innovation. Implictly, the female helmet reminds of how women’s needs, inputs and participation have long been ignored, a lesson which carries a parallel lesson for military and security minded audiences on the value provided bythe Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Beaudet in this issue similarly reflects upon his vast inter-cultural Design experience, ranging from East and West Africa, to Burma and Ecuador within his role at Global Affairs Canada. His insights speak to effective implementation of design based upon his convictions of how co-design differs from hierarchical approaches which may not recognize the value of knowledge that is local, or that which is devalued by intrinsic biases. His realization of how our own narratives are impactful and call for legitimizing participatory methods provide solid exemples of how design and co-design may be put to contribution to achieve goals and operate changes in complex systems. Ultimately, both Beaudet and Naik pose fundamental questions as to the impostance of putting forward an inclusive approach that enables to identify ‘who, or what, is being left out’ and ‘what this means’ for the process and the eventual product.

Connecting to the Military Realm

Systems Thinking was one of the feeding influences impacting upon Military Design, although not the solitary one, as developed by BGen (Ret’d) Dr. Shimon Naveh for the IDF. It is the most pronounced application of systems theory into the military realm, although systemic principles can be applied elsewhere. At this time, Gracier characterizes Design’s journey as having entered what she terms a Nomadic phase (2013-present) having passed through indigenous (1995-2005) and Imperialistic (2005-2012) phases (Graicer, 2017). In its Imperialistic phase, SOD made its way most notably to the United States (Graicer 2017). American thinkers indeed recognized its utility and iterated their own version becoming most notably Army Design Methodology. It immediately responded to operational needs to develop new thinking about military events in Afghanistan and Iraq. More generally it offered a way to overcome the limitation that the US Army “exclusively relies upon a Clausewitzian war philosophy and linear reductionist logic that approaches most problems with the scientific method” insufficient for complexity of contemporary operating environments (Zweibelson, 2011, p.1). There exists a vast professional literature by military professionals, especially from the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS). In this period of growth there came to be different understandings of Design that occurred in the United States (Martin, 2017 p. 200). Martin is also critical of the bureacrauzation of Design, where certain powers in the US attempted to co-opt Design into existing models and patterns, eventually repeating existing paradoxes and losing the power of design to overcome and break out of ineffectual status quo (Martin, 2017, 203). This is cautioned also by Naveh (2017) in discussing the dangers of doctrinization which becomes a descent into following a template and static repetition, contrary to the essence of Design and the purpose of its existence (Naveh, 2017). Indeed, BGen. Naveh looks upon the American experience of adopting Design into Doctrine as having “slowly but surely stripped Systemic Operational Design (SOD) from its three elements – systems thinking, operational art and design – since they rushed into templating it and degraded it to a tool everyone could master and follow (Graicer and Naveh, 2017, p.34). Indeed Graicer (2017) specifies that there is a time and place to Design, that it is not to be mundane activity of the habitual – “only when doctrine fails at explaining occurrences and acting with them, should design be brought in (Graicer 2017,p.34). Zweibelson echoes this in his criticism of what he terms First Generation Design methodologies which have similarities in process but share a tendency to re-incorporate traditional dominant ways of thinking and their general submission to particular institutional process limitations (Zweibelson, 2017). At this time, Zweibelson has also reflected upon the state of affairs as military Design movements have taken root globally but have certain limitations, looking forward to second generation versions, incorporating new concepts and possibly more liberated processes prioritizing emergence and divergent thinking (Zweibelson, 2017). The original SOD has since evolved in Israel as well as within its multiple global offshoots (Gracier 2017). In the current nomadic phase, SOD focuses upon self-disruption of the individual (Generals) and to focus upon the self-development process in a journey to deconstruct who they are and where they are going (Graicer, 2017). For military Design practitioners and theorists, perhaps there is urgency in particular aspects of the next steps of the Design movement. In this light, it is particularly interesting to read the Bernard/Jackson/Zweibelson contribution in this issue. As an experienced Canadian officer, Bernard introduces an important exchange between Zweibelson (an American) and Jackson (an Australian) as to how to integrate military design thinking into Professional Military Eduction (PME) processes. Zweibelson argues that there is value in design beign taught at junior levels, overcoming criticism of military cultures that reinforce conformity through an essentialist, teacher-centric pedagogy. Jackson on the other hand argues that design is more valuable at mid and high career levels because members have learned about the profession and have a sense of the ‘box’ in which they are located. Their initial arguments and rebuttals prove a timely exchange for the Canadian context to benefit as to whether military design becomes mainistreamed in Canada, to what degree and what form this will take.

Subsequently, as a SAMS graduate, Primeau in this issue explores the implications of thinking patterns upon the creation of visual representation and military map making. He contrasts the implications of Englightenment era thinking as represented by Jomini, which is rigid and limiting from a Clausewitzian perspective which permits greater ability to convey complex meanings and incorporate deeper understanding, such as social constructedness and identity. Emerging from this distinction, Primeau uncovers novel potentialities for the operational artist and for design processes, causing us to rethink our assumptions and ambitions. In the following article, Solomon tackles the urgent issue of recruitment and retention for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) demonstrating how systemic principles and design processes can benefit institutional management issues. He identifies existing challenges resulting from internal systems not being optimally aligned which in turn actually have negative impacts upon the desired end state of recruiting and retaining qualified and motivated Canadians for the CAF. In working through a design process, his systemic analysis suggests several ways forward for the issue and serves to illustrate the value of systemic and design approaches to bring innovation to a tangible contemporary strategic issue.

To conclude this Special Edition, the present author makes a personal argument as to how military design in Canada will not be sufficient as a revolution occurring solely within the CAF community, as a ‘siloed’ system. The argument follows that global complex problems will generally require more than a military solution, and an internal military design movement (valuable in its own right and valuable at the operational level), may ultimately be limited by representing just one aspect of strategic responses which require multidimensional and Whole of Government approaches. Thus, there is promise for design and for an appropriate military role at the grand strategy level.


This issue was meant to tap into the agency of the respective authours as a space to reflect upon their experience and to formulate an organic reaction of what they feel is urgent to do now, in light of their respective experiences (institutional or personal). It is the hope that the edition functions as a whole; a conversation between several siloed perspectives to produce a useful understanding of simultaneous occurrences. The contributions that have emerged are but a small sampling of thought occurring in different parts of the Canadian government and partner nations. The scope of this publication necessarily acknowledges that these arguments are not exhaustive and are perhaps not representative of entire organizations. Despite this, there is tremendous value in listening to these voices.


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