Madison, WI Conference
Gary S. Metcalf, Ph.D.
Regardless of how firm the plans, or how clear the initial vision, a conference is an evolving process. This one even began without a location, since I had no physical university campus or facility from which to host it. Thanks to Tim Allen, our incoming president, we were able to secure space in a beautiful venue on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. That was only the beginning of the process, though, because it was through the connection with Tim that I learned much more about his work, and that of his many colleagues and the larger network of researchers focused on the immense complexities of ecological systems and sustainability. Rather than changing the focus of the conference, it only brought more focus and clarity to it.
The theme initially chosen for the conference was Systems That Make a Difference, drawing from Gregory Bateson’s notion of information as “a difference that makes a difference.” The intent, though, was never to make this a conference about Gregory Bateson, or about his work explicitly. It was to borrow from his thoughts as yet another way to challenge our collective work and our direction as a society. In my incoming presidential address, I tried to capture the same intent in terms of the (apparent) dichotomy between rigor and relevance (explained earlier and more eloquently by Edgar Schein.) It is critical that our work be sound, and that we not tolerate groundless fantasies as representing us. If our work results in no direct value to the larger society, though, we can hardly blame the general public for not understanding.
We know the implicit value of our work. For over 50 years we have been led and joined by dedicated, intriguing, and often brilliant thinkers. Sometimes others have understood the importance of systems sciences; often they have not. Many of those who have glimpsed its importance have done so at a distance, and opaquely. Universities rarely knew where to situate programs. Funding agencies typically preferred simpler, narrower approaches that promised unequivocal answers or predictions, regardless of their limitations.
Some have declared the systems sciences to be vestiges of the past; something which had its time, but whose value is gone. On the contrary, it may be another 50 years, or more, before these ideas move into the mainstream.
In the meantime, sustainability (or some related term) has become a catchword in almost every realm. Unfortunately, it is often used with little rigor or clarity, and thus causes as much confusion as understanding. Individuals and organizations around the world are “going green,” stumbling over themselves to be seen as environmentally conscious, limiting waste, reducing their carbon footprints, and working on renewable strategies. Politicians are promising economic growth through “green jobs,” while battling for which energy subsidies are most likely to benefit their constituents, regardless of the true viability of the source. Companies spend time and money (some with legitimate intent, some not) only to be accused of “greenwashing” when their efforts appear misplaced.
On the one hand, many of the decisions that are being made today will make a difference, for good or for ill. On another, environmental issues and sustainability seem to be an accessible entry point for thinking about systems, even for those who have little or no familiarity with formal systems concepts. It seems almost impossible, for instance, to study something as an ecosystem (natural, organizational, political, etc.) without considering the interrelatedness of the systems involved.
Again, the point is not to change the nature or focus of the conference. These are offered only as examples of issues which are in the public consciousness (i.e. have current relevance) and about which systems scientists have done, and are doing, some of the most rigorous work available. Some of our keynote speakers will focus on biological and medical systems. Others come from organizational backgrounds of study. All cross traditional boundaries in terms of their interests and ways of thinking. Our Special Integration Groups (SIGs) offer further diversity of topics and fields of study.
We have, as society, made a difference simply by carrying forward the ideas of our founders. We have much more that we can do.
I welcome each of you to this conference, with all of the ideas and energy that you care to bring to it. I think that you will find room for all that you are willing to share and contribute.