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Conference Dinner

The conference dinner (optional extra) will be held in The Albert Hall (Bolton Town Hall) on Thursday 1 August. The cost is £35.00 per head including a 3 course meal and half a bottle of wine per person (soft drink option available). Please book and pay for the dinner on the Conference Registration Site, where you can also enter any special needs you may have. (See maps on accommodation page for directions.)

Through the good auspices of Prof Ray Ison, Professor of Systems at the Open University, we are being given the opportunity to host, right after the conference dinner, the John Beishon Memorial Lecture in memory of John Beishon, first professor of systems at the OU. The John Beishon Memorial Lecture is sponsored by the Open University.

The speaker is Prof Noam Cook. Details of his lecture theme and his biography follow below. There is also an appreciation of John Beishon, downloadable as a pdf file.


Distinction Not Separation:
The Need to Make Systems Thinking Even More Influential

Professor Noam Cook
John Beishon Memorial Lecture,

ASC Conference, Bolton, UK
Thursday 1st August 2013


Gregory Bateson once expressed to Sir Geoffrey Vickers a concern that systems thinking might be “counter-intuitive”. Sir Geoffrey shared Bateson’s concern, at least in seeing systems thinking as counter-intuitive to Western technological culture. In the years since, work on systems by a growing range of scholars and practitioners has made systems thinking both more intuitive and more influential. Yet, how we treat nature, deploy technologies, and place demands on our institutions continues to make “the systems” upon which we depend increasingly unstable, and our ways of living unsustainable. This is not a failure of systems thinking (intuitive or otherwise) but a clear indication that more work needs to be done. Part of this work is displacing some still dominant ways of thinking—many with origins in the West, now grown global—with ones that help make systems thinking and practice more intuitive and more publicly influential. I offer a few suggestions in this effort.

First, we would do well to think more in terms of distinction than of separation. Breaking things down into their supposedly separate and fundamental parts is still too often embraced as an obvious virtue. Unlike “separating out”, I believe “making distinctions within” is inherently cybernetic and should more fully inform how we understand and act on the world, our technologies and ourselves. Second, we ought to balance our interest in finding unifying characteristics across all “systems” with drawing distinctions among different kinds of “systems”—in particular: natural, artifactual, and human. Each can be understood to have distinct characteristics that are keyed to its requirements for stability and sustenance and to the increasing interdependence of all three. Lastly, we need to resist thinking that seeing systemic patterns in nature means systems thinking and practice are objective and thus “value-free”. Indeed, we need more broadly to take as intuitively obvious that the stability and sustenance of “the systems” upon which we are now utterly dependent requires that we make moral judgments about our practices with respect to them. I characterize this as learning to make publicly understandable distinctions between responsible and irresponsible ways of acting.

I explore these themes and some of their implications for understanding, learning, and acting systemically through two very different examples: the practices of a small craft workshop that makes one of the world’s finest flutes; and—briefly—the current public environmental, technological and political challenges of a proposed massive water project in California.


Professor SDN Cook

S. D. Noam Cook has been on the philosophy faculty at San Jose State University since 1986. His interests have long centered on the intersection of traditional areas of philosophy with current applied settings. Accordingly, his publications, research and consulting interests have focused on social philosophy (social and technological change, learning in social systems, the interdependence of human, artifactual and natural systems); epistemology (the relationship between knowledge and practice, the nature of know-how, the functions of judgment and expertise); and value theory (business, professional and environmental ethics, leadership ethics, ethics and social policy). Trained in both philosophy and social science, he has pursued these interests though research involving interviewing and consultation, observation, participant-observation, and ethnographic studies. His work has entailed collaboration with practitioners in several academic and professional fields including science, engineering, public policy, creative arts, education, social work, and business. He has given numerous invited presentations on his work to academic, industrial and governmental institutions in the US and abroad. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from San Francisco State University, and a Ph.D. from M.I.T. After receiving his doctorate, he spent two years on the research staff of Harvard Business School engaged in research and curriculum development in the area of Business Ethics. He was for ten years a consulting researcher at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center). Since 1997 he has been a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.