Saturday, March 16, 2013

Belated 75th Birthday Reflections - On Systems Thinking and Modeling, Pope Francis and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.

Last year, on my 74th birthday, also celebrated in Singapore, I reflected on the fact 74 years old  was about the same age that Deng Xiaoping consolidated power in China.  Within a few years, his leadership had placed China on a trajectory that would make it one of the world’s two leading economic powers. 
Last Tuesday, on my 75th birthday, it was perhaps appropriate that I would “celebrate” by spending the day writing a concise summary – the most recent of many I have written – setting forth principles for crafting public-policy oriented system dynamics models.  In the evening, following a discussion of mathematical subroutines that play a role in my students’ present modeling projects, I presented the principles I had first begun drafting several days earlier when the need to do so awakened me at 5:30 in the morning.
The exercise was motivated by an exchange with an outstanding former student who called seeking feedback on important public policy modeling project in which she was playing a leading role.  Her questions made it clear that she had forgotten one of the most fundamental principles of system dynamics model building:  one always models a problem; one never models a system
I was reminded of an observation that system dynamics guru Professor Jay W. Forrester has made in writing and in person on many occasions.  By the time students reach graduate school, most have experienced years or creativity-stifling training in linear causal thinking.  They have had little training – mostly none at all – that would prepare them to understand a world beset by problematic behaviors produced by complex systems comprising stocks, flows, and feedback loops.  Both Deng Xiaopeng and Lee Kuan Yew, among their many gifts, possessed this fundamental understanding.  Millions of Singaporeans and many more millions or Chinese have been given opportunities to live better lives because of this.
Here is a listing of the major points, outlining the somewhat passionate appeal I made to my students about the importance of good modeling practice

¨  system dyanmics modeling is, by no means the appropriate method to address every public policy problem.

¨  a system dynamics modeling project often begins with a story, though some do not

¨  What motivates us to undertake a system dynamics modeling project?   We are seeking answers to questions about why some probematic behavior has occurred, is occurring or may occur in the future.

¨  A generic model or generic structures that highlight important dynamics can be important points of departure

¨  In general, the better that a theoretically grounded model, supported by data, reproduces the past the more confident we are about its usefulness in helping us to anticipate and shape the future.  of the two, theoretical grounding must precede reproduction.

¨  The issue of “validity” or “confidence building” cannot be separated from the audience to whom the model is primarily addressed.  “Validity” means different things to different audiences.

¨  However as Donella Meadows emphasized in her writings (cf. the Electronic Oracle) and in her Life, the unquestioned integrity of the model builder should always provide a context within which assertions of validity are grounded.

When I awoke on Wednesday morning, and tuned my iPhone to the BBC, I learned that God had given the Roman Catholic Church a new leader and provided me with a potential new role model.  Cardinal Jorge Mario Bengoglio was 76 years old as he became the spiritual leader of the world’s Roman Catholics.  Apart from his age, I was heartened by fact that Cardinal Bengoglio was a Jesuit, a holy order for which I have great respect.  However he did not chose to name himself Pope Ignatius Loyola (after the founder of the Jesuit order)  but Pope Francis (after St. Francis of Assisi).  I learned that after his election, Pope Francis stopped off at the hotel where he had been staying to personally pay the bill and pick up his baggage.
But was Pope Francis, like Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping an instinctive systems thinker?  The Jesuits are known for independent thinking and intellectual brilliance.  Seeking evidence, I turned to the pages of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (The P.J. Kennedy & Sons. Edition, 1909 – On Line)  I spent more of the evening than I had intended reading (or in some cases skimming) the entire 100 pp. of this remarkable, influential document.  There was much about spirituality and meditative practice, akin to Buddhist texts I have been reading but – candidly – little about systems thinking.  The only passages I found were these.
ELEVENTH RULE (p. 98) To praise positive and scholastic learning. Because, as it is
more proper to the Positive Doctors, as St. Jerome, St. Augustine and St. Gregory,
etc., to move the heart to love and serve God our Lord in everything; so it is more
proper to the Scholastics, as St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and to the Master of the
Sentences, etc., to define or explain for our times the things necessary for eternal
salvation; and to combat and explain better all errors and all fallacies. For the
Scholastic Doctors, as they are more modern, not only help themselves with the true
understanding of the Sacred Scripture and of the Positive and holy Doctors, but
also, they being enlightened and clarified by the Divine virtue, help themselves by
the Councils, Canons and Constitutions of our holy Mother the Church. 
Among those listed, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the two whose works I know best, would certainly qualify as systems thinkers.
In a section entitled contemplation to gain love  (p. 64) I discovered this passage.
FIRST POINT. The First Point is, to bring to memory the benefits received, of
Creation, Redemption and particular gifts, pondering with much feeling how much
God our Lord has done for me, and how much He has given me of what He has, and
then the same Lord desires to give me Himself as much as He can, according to His
Divine ordination.
And with this to reflect on myself, considering with much reason and justice,
what I ought on my side to offer and give to His Divine Majesty, that is to say,
everything that is mine, and myself with it, as one who makes an offering with
much feeling:
SECOND POINT. The second, to look how God dwells in creatures, in the
elements, giving them being, in the plants vegetating, in the animals feeling in
them, in men giving them to understand:21 and so in me, giving me being,
animating me, giving me sensation and making me to understand;  likewise
making a temple of me, being created to the likeness and image of His Divine
Majesty; reflecting as much on myself in the way which is said in the first Point, or
in another which I feel to be better. In the same manner will be done on each Point
which  follows.
THIRD POINT. The third, to consider how God works and labors for me in all
things created on the face of the earth -- that is, behaves like one who labors -- as in
the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, cattle, etc., giving them being, preserving
them, giving them vegetation and sensation, etc.
Then to reflect on myself…

Will Pope Francis prove to be a systems thinker and will be prove to be a role model for systems thinking in matters spiritual and temporal?  Will he transform the Roman Catholic Church spritually as Deng Xiaoping transformed China economically?  Will he serve as a useful role model for me and one that I can share with my students?
And what will it be my karma to contribute, in the years remaining to me, however many those may be?
What an odd 75th birthday reflection this became. 


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Anonymous Tony said...

Hi John, happy belated birthday!

10:36 AM  

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