Prof Roelien Goede
Reflections from the Past President
My reflection on my term as president started taking shape in my mind before the conference. The systemic planning was implemented by a very systematic process to ensure all the details were taken care of. NWU finances, Cvent finances, ISSS board matters, children’s absence from school examinations, housesitting, conference venue matters, entertainment, conference meals, airport transfers, accommodation requirements, conference bags, gifts, speakers, programme requests, name tags, STiP stationery, game drives, drink vouchers, abstracts, keynote speakers, photographers, room logistics …. The list goes on and on. My husband, Hennie, stepped in to help with all the arrangements. BUT it was all abstract! Sometimes when it felt overwhelming, I would find myself smiling in anticipation of meeting all the people (represented by lines on a giant spreadsheet) in Skukuza. In the days leading up to the conference, I became aware that my own emotions might be too overwhelming for me to enjoy the experience.
And then, on 17th June seeing the Skukuza Airport for the first time, I knew this week would be a unique experience for all involved.
Not lines on a spreadsheet, but real people started to arrive, and our arrangements were all in place. Part of my joy was to meet everyone who arrived at the Skukuza Airport and the Conference Lodge in person. Seeing the joy in the faces made all the hours of preparation worthwhile. Everyone arriving was a celebration of the success of lots of planning and communication. But now it was real! The joy was sincere, and the air filled with anticipation.
And the Park played its part. We had some of our best game sightings on the trips from the airport to the Lodge.
Almost fifty people took part in the STiP workshop facilitated by Prof Ray Ison and Dr Martin Reynolds. After an icebreaker on day one, the Stippers were divided into groups of 6 and Emergence triumphed. Friendships were formed and plans came together.
This video captures the story of the STiP Workshop, including the game drive.
Research project: Immerse yourself in emergence
Guided by Stephany Peterson, conference participants had the opportunity to reflect on the conference and their personal journey.
As my dream of bringing the conference to Africa started to materialise, I set myself the objective to ensure that Africa was celebrated. This objective manifested in bringing fellow South Africans and international visitors in touch with the diversity of thought in Africa. In my welcoming address, I linked the ideas of Ubuntu to the sensemaking questions of Kant (What I can know?, What may I do?, What may I hope?). I found a paper on Ubuntu with the profound title: “The possibility of hope”, which ties into the third question of Kant. Furthermore, I discovered the ontological self-reflective statement of Ubuntu: “I am because I belong.” This possibility of hope that people might find belonging guided my every step during the conference. In my final closure remarks, the audience started my sentence for me with an impromptu speech choir saying: ”I hope…”
The keynote speakers from Africa, all respected academics internationally, focused on the role of African thought in leadership and community work. They gave their perspectives on systems practice guided by storytelling and the principle of Ubuntu. These keynotes broadened my own understanding of my African roots.
Mr Sammy Njenga
Prof Vhonani Netshandama
Prof Rachel Lebese
Keynote address by Sammy Njenga
Keynote address by Prof Vhonani Netshandama
Keynote address by Prof Rachel Lebese
The celebration of Africa was brought to life with the panel discussion of Janet McIntyre and her colleagues from South Africa telling their stories of hope. Again, we had the opportunity to be immersed in Africa through song and dance.
The African experience was carried into social events such as the cocktail party to open the conference and the conference dinner. At these events, a local African choir and Marimba band inspired us to collaborative performance! Nothing like wine and biltong and Shosholoza to kickstart a party!
These videos capture the joy and celebration of these events.
ISSS stalwarts, Ray Ison and Gerald Midgley, delivered keynotes in support of the theme of systems practice while challenging the audience to open their minds to new ways of thinking about our discipline. Rachel Lilley’s exploration of human sensemaking is a key takeaway for me. Gary Smith supported the conference theme in presenting his framework for making sense of the systems discipline, while Suja Joseph-Malherbe connected to the African theme with a talk on leadership. Louis Klein and Karima Kadaoui took us on a journey through the streets of Tangier.
Keynote address by Prof Ray Ison
Keynote address by Dr Rachel Lilley and Prof Gerald Midgley
Keynote address by Suja Joseph
Keynote address by Gary Smith
Various workshops supported the conference theme and provided opportunities for interactive participation. More than 50 papers were presented in parallel SIG sessions, all generating lots of interest and follow-up conversations. I hope that these conversations will lead to some long-lasting relationships and collaborations.
The conference concluded with the incoming president’s address. Michele Friend shared her personal story, background, and vision for her presidency. We look forward to her leadership during the 2023-2024 term.
As a family, we celebrated the Kruger Park with a few days' holiday after the conference. The park’s animals came out to greet us. We also had time to celebrate with Stephany.
I hope you find belonging in the ISSS community. Thank you to everyone who made my dream a reality!
See you next year in Washington, DC.
Dr Olaf Brugman
Message from the VP Conference
Whilst I returned home from the ISSS 2023 conference, I am still bedazzled and grateful for this wonderful and unique experience. First, deep conversations with the many participants I had not met or spoken with before brought a wealth of new knowledge, insights, references to published work, ideas on how to engage with systems in new ways. Second, the substantial participation of African practitioners and academics introduced me to new perspectives on systems knowledge and on social systems change.
But the true value of this conference supersedes any personal appreciation felt by an individual participant, namely the confraternization of systems practitioners from various continents, disciplines and system ’schools’, aggregating a high representation of African and South African participants. I am sure this is social capital created that will last a long time for the systems sciences community.
It was exactly this potential benefit that I felt worthwhile to achieve that made me instantly accept Roelien’s request as ISSS President to be her side-kick in making the conference happen for the first time in South Africa and for the first time in the African continent. It made me remember a sentence ascribed to a famous systems scientist: always act in such a way to have more options and possibilities in the future.
I owe a big word of thanks to all contributions by our participants, and also to Roelien Goede, North-West University and Roelien’s family. Without their full dedication support, this event would not have happened.
Warm regards, Olaf Brugman.
Prof Michèle Friend
Initial impressions of the ISSS Conference 2023 in Kruger National Park
I have taken over the presidency of the ISSS on the occasion of the 2023 ISSS meeting. Here I shall I shall not outline my vision for the next year of ISSS, but rather give my impressions as an observer and participant.
Let me begin by saying that of the 70 or so conferences I have attended (of many academic organisations), the setting was outstanding. What an opportunity it was to go on a drive in the evening in the park to see the noble animals, some carefully kept from extinction through the efforts of such parks. I thank Roelien Goede for thinking of organising the meeting in the park, and the ISSS board for supporting her initiative. It was controversial. We could not make the conference hybrid because of the lack of technical facilities in the park, and many members could not come because of the prohibitive costs. This was weighed against the opportunity to hear the voices of Africans who could afford to come to the park, but might not be able to afford to travel to the USA or Europe. And, of course, the opportunity to see the wildlife. The next conference will be more standard.
In some ways the setting was frustrating. I felt very torn between going to talks and going to visit the park on more than the scheduled outing. In the end, I decided to pay attention to the ISSS talks. Before the conference, there was a workshop/summer school where Ray and Martin presented to us a sample of the course they run with the Open University in the U.K. The activity of the course transcended the conference. Group work initiated before the conference culminated in short video presentations that showed threads that were woven in the conference proper, where there was a mixture of workshops and talks (plenary, keynote and presentations). The group work helped to show the cohesion of the society as a shared community emerging intelligence. My general impression was of high-quality presentations, of committed and successful practitioners, of innovative and thought-provoking ideas. The momentum was forward.
Roelien left her mark on the society. As Robert Johannsen put it to us in a Saturday symposium: Roelien has taught us to listen to each other. That we did at the meeting. The atmosphere was very much of listening with appreciation. There were, of course, some critical voices, and we need these to keep us sharp and advancing. But overall, the impression I had was that we were learning from each other. The talks in the “corridors”, over coffee or dinner were animated and inspiring. We all appreciated seeing old friends in person, and making new friends. The contribution by the local people: explaining how they tackle problems in Sub-Saharan Africa, and how the underlying philosophy guides the modus operandi was one of the highlights for me. It was refreshing because the thinking and actions really come from the heart. It was comforting too. There are solutions, they are guided by systems thinking, they are piece by piece and drop by drop. But as the saying goes: the ocean is made up of drops of water. I hope that we shall not lose those voices in the future. The members who were unable to attend the meeting in Kruger park will benefit from the fresh voices from our new friends.
Reflecting Away the Rückkehrunruhe: How to see the nose on your face
Beneath the crescent moon of Skukuza which shimmers before me on the gently undulating Sabie River, all is momentarily hushed. No murmurs or rustlings from passersby - neither two nor four-legged variety. In the sliver of a moment, the crickets and frogs overtake with what a wise woman deemed their symphony. All teems with life, if we learn how to seek: to ask the right questions, another wisdom shared. Slipping in amidst the quiet - as it has continuously in the days since ISSS 2023 drew to a close - a word comes to me: rückkehrunruhe. A loose composite of German words for ‘disquiet (runruhe)’ and ‘return’ (rückke), coined by John Koenig, who is driven to create “words that we need but do not yet have”.
We each came to this experience from different spaces, places, and perspectives.
We each gave something to be here together; shared something of ourselves with those with whom we learned, contributed, and reflected together.
We each left with at least the same one thing:
Rückkehrunruhe is Koenig’s effort to describe “the feeling of returning home after an immersive trip only to find it fading rapidly from your awareness”. He created this entry for The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, penned as an effort to capture myriad “emotional states without names”. I am perched here in the hush at river’s edge, with all but a few that trekked from six continents now returned home (or to the next adventure beyond). In my own efforts to absorb so as to reach saturation of every moment of awareness that has been this experience, I find some measure of comfort that just as we as systems humans recognize the power of becoming, that not yet everything has a shared language to capture what we need but do not yet have. This is the promise of potential energy, as we enter into a phase of being called to consider our influence and responsibility by our newest society president.
I came to this experience in part as a researcher, asking for your individual consent for our conference as a space of inquiry, to explore with three aspirations as our shared and common purpose: learning, contributing, and reflecting. What transpired itself demonstrates the wonder of this society. Not only did we explore such a notion with rich and thick data emerging, we embodied its intentions by enacting it in practice: deepened into participatory action research, engaging in co-inquiry as a process that persists beyond the boundaries of our days together at Kruger National Park. From that temporary world we created at Skukuza, this is the enduring essence of what such potential energy represents.
In the days since I came to meet each and every single one hundred of you, and rückkehrunruhe has continuously been served up to me by what I dub The Librarian of my mind, I recall back to what I came with: the intention within me. Leading up to our gathering, from my homelands of Canada, first known as Turtle Island, I shared an invitation as a video to all participants.
In that moment, I was appealing to the aspects of that which means we focus attention and intention on ‘coming ready’. I was speaking to a particular audience; yet, largely a conceptual and assumptive one held in my mind’s eye, as I had not yet met a single one of you in person. My intention was and remains as ever for us to ‘see the noses on our faces’, and to consider how the deliberate use of reflection in our professions can be helpful to us not only in that expertise, but as our whole selves. For it is in this way that I feel we are all truly distinctive as ‘systems humans’. It is the more comprehensive whole from emerging from occupation and preoccupation: not merely that for which we earn a living, but it is a part of how we ourselves understand living.
This is the promise of the match you each received and now carry with you.
The story I shared in the plenary of the Makuleke brought us to recall the lands upon which we gathered. Its history, of a displaced peoples stripped of their way of knowing, their way of being in this world, shows and tells the story that the ‘apartness’ of Apartheid’s literal meaning served more than segregation between races, but of a deliberate effort to cleave one from a sense of connection, belonging, and dignity to one’s self through others. From increasing tensions that subsumed their chiefdom, restricted their movements, prevented them from even keeping livestock, every constraint eventually leading to that September day in 1969 when they were surrounded at gunpoint by men also armed by justification via Apartheid laws, and each given a match to burn down their homes.
This powerful story of the Makuleke is not only one of historical and systemic injustice, or only one of inspiring precedent set for land reclamation in South Africa and the world over. What Koenig’s coining of a new word aspired to achieve by pasting together two words to generate new meaning may well bring me comfort - but it alone does not bring about enduring change. And this, my dearest new friends and fellow society members, is where we thrive. To recognize that emergence serves more than pasting things together. We recognize that all is but an approximation, but simply have refused to stop at ‘good enough’ as it pertains to the interconnectivity of it all - of us all.
For, this is a story not about a match at all, but about the spark. The match is a tool of potential energy first known as a friction light when it was discovered quite by accident. That serendipitous moment demonstrates that we are each only able to perceive that which we remain open to, and that the exploration of such remains fundamentally rooted in relationship. As people preoccupied with telling the story of nature through systems, we occupy the spaces, places, and perspectives that can harness the potential energy to turn a moment of friction into an ignition of change. Grace of our time together in these days at Skukuza, we demonstrate the power of belongingness, the spirit of Ubuntu that sees our membership and contributions to this community of ISSS manifest as our shared purpose.
There are several of you to whom I am deeply grateful and now bonded, and I could refer to such of those of you by name; yet, some things are best left to be nurtured without loud proclamation. You know who you are, for we have come to know one another, and are thereby responsible for one another in a sense of belongingness. The Zulu refers to this in greeting, ‘’sawubona’: I see you’.
It would be remiss to not take a moment and laud one particular person, and a whole family unit: Roelien, and the Goede family. Their collective dedication to this conference and this society for this term that culminated in this year’s conference was nothing short of remarkable. Each and every single detail of these days together was thoughtfully and laboriously nurtured by your hands and hearts. On behalf of us all, you truly embody the spirit of what it means set the tone and stoke the fire for a more comprehensive whole, and work doggedly in striving to achieve that which is more than the sum of what can be shared in conference proceedings. Dankie!
As we settle back into our respective worlds and schedules, I hope these words disrupt the ‘disquiet of return’: to inspire reflection so all that emerged from this experience may not slip off you; but become expansive to serve the emerging future. We look forward: to the 70th anniversary of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, and a shift from unity amongst specialists to a unity by, with, and for all those for whom systems can be the friction light.
You are the spark; and in so, we are all the spark, indeed.
For the moment, our work of co-inquiry from this gathering is ever emerging and continues: please keep in touch! For those who were unable to join with us in person, I am likewise interested in coming to know you, so do reach out if what I have said sparks equally curiosity or suspicion (with thanks to another participant with whom I explored this powerful distinction- you know who you are!) firstname.lastname@example.org
Yours in collaboration,
A poem on Ubuntu
by Gianni Di Marco (conference participant 2023)
This is about our story
It’s a story about nothing
I mean, a story about no-things
Of course, at the beginning, they were things
We sat around the campfire with our bloody own selves
And of course, the fire turned into spikes of burning ice
The way became full of hurting things
We saw the pain, we felt the wounds, we were touched by the souls
Conscientiously, we healed the way of things that hurt
Spikes, stones, and wounded selves
The way became our way. A flow of no-things
Our harmonious breath of life lit the fire.
Fire! Magical protector of our bruises and weaknesses
The secret spirit of our interactions
Our story is a story of no-things
It’s a story of no me, no you, no we. It’s the story of the flow that invites all of us to light the fire,
gather, share, care and dance in the night of silence.
A dance in which we see, we feel, we touch… and heal