An inquiry into my systems practice for managing systemic change (Part 6)


An introduction to

Critical Social Learning Systems:

A briefing paper for the Principal Advisor to the Prime Minister, Ambassador Edward Lambert


April 19, 2018



SECTION                                                                                        PAGE

Introduction                                                                                    3

Critical social learning systems                                                 6

Systems thinking and practice                                                   7

Systems practice as juggling                                                        9

Conclusion                                                                                        11

References                                                                                       15




This briefing paper is written for the attention of Ambassador Edward Lambert, who is the senior advisor to the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Dominica, Hon Dr Roosevelt Skerrit (Dominica, G. (2016). Ambassador Lambert is Dominica’s non-resident ambassador to the Holy See (Dominica News Online. 2015). He also sits on the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica’s (CREAD) transitional committee launched on March 12th, 2018 to oversee the reconstruction efforts (Dominica, G. 2018).

My aim in this work, is to introduce the concept of Critical Social Learning Systems to you Ambassador Lambert as a tool the organisation may utilize to assist the country to ‘build back better’ and to share the principles of managing systemic change through action, interaction and systemic inquiry, and how these can improve the capabilities of all concerned. And perhaps more importantly, write these principles into the underlying meta-narrative of the country’s crusade to build back more resiliently.

As you know, Dominica is one of the Caribbean islands that were devastated by Hurricane Irma on September 6, 2017, and Hurricane Maria, September 18, 2017.

In Dominica’s case, the island sustained catastrophic damage to it landscape and infrastructure. The economy has been left with damages and loss estimated to be of 226% of its gross domestic product (GDP) ( 2018). According to a journalist, Luca Renda, writing in a recent article, “Thirty-one people died, thirty-three more remain missing. Roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and over 40 percent of homes were destroyed or severely damaged” ( 2018.) However, emerging from this chaos, the Dominican government has since embarked on a plan to rebuild the island as the world’s first climate resilient country in the world prompting António Guterres, General Secretary of the United Nations following a visit to Dominica weeks after the disaster to say “the UN has an important role in guiding Dominica on its journey to become the world’s first climate-resistant nation, with good analysis on how to achieve and monitor national climate resilience,” (United Nations Sustainable Development 2017)

Hence, references to building Dominica as ‘the world’s first climate resilient country in the world. ‘has become a rallying cry for government officials and humanitarian agency representatives alike in their press briefings and announcements.


Equally, this briefing paper, also forms part of the inquiry into my own systems practice for managing my response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria on Dominica as a non-resident Dominican. I am having been born in the United Kingdom and I am a Dominican by descent. However, I lived in Dominica between 1972 and 2004. In 1979, I experienced Hurricane David, which devastated Dominica. Therefore, the sentimental attachment to this situation of interest is profound. Consequently, I periodically publish my feelings, discoveries and reflections on the module materials in my Open University blog, ( 2018). TU812 studies, therefore, has given me a foundation by which I can continue to refine my practice with the concepts and frameworks taught, and gives me an opportunity to contribute to the island’s recovery and reconstruction.

Aims and objectives

The focus of my briefing paper, therefore, is to provide an overview of the use of Critical Social Learning Systems as a tool for managing ‘messy and wicked’ problems like the aftermath of ‘ hurricane Maria’. I introduce aspects of systemic thinking illustrated with references from TU812 study guide and accompanying texts.

In this briefing paper I discuss a selection of concepts, frameworks and methodologies used in systemic thinking. I discuss how each can be used to manage systemic change such as has been visited on Dominica and other Caribbean islands. No doubt you will agree with me, that the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria on September 18, 2017, has ushered in a new way of governance. We must aspire to respond in different ways to the daily problems of providing the infrastructure, goods and services to the residents and citizens of the Commonwealth of Dominica. I too have caught the compelling vision of Prime Minister Skerrit, that Dominica should emerge from the debris of the hurricane to be reborn as the first climate resilient country in the world.

Consequently, my objectives in this document are:

  • To awaken in my readers a sense of systems practice and the integration of theory with practice in praxis.
  • Evaluate case studies where systems thinking has been used.
  • To initiate a systemic inquiry into establishing a critical social learning system to underpin all processes and methods through which CREAD conducts its day to day affairs of the state.
  • To identify how we learn about learning, and we can use our learning to learn our way through this period of economic and social upheaval created by the onslaught of the hurricane.
  • To highlight possible downsides of systemic thinking.

It is my hope that you will find the explanations, anecdotes and reflections shared below, a useful learning resource to be assimilated among the groups of the transition committee of the CREAD. As well as in future meetings of the executive, and wider discussions and analysis among all stakeholders.


Critical Social Learning Systems (CSLS)


So, what are Critical Social learning systems? According to (Schön, D.A.1973) cited in (Blackmore, C. (ed.) 2010 p6 ), CSLSs are linked to the type of frameworks that a government, for example, might deploy as a manner of public learning in which the government learns on behalf of its citizens and residents, because there is a dire need to ‘learn its way through’ a particularly, complex and messy situation. And to which an inquiry into the cause of the situation, and how to affect a favourable outcome or transformation from a situation (a) to situation (b). It does this by adopting a mind-set of introspection. By determining if traditional mechanisms for old problems are fit for purpose or should new and more innovative solutions be introduced.

Moreover, (Blackmore, C. (ed.) 2010 p35) wrote that CSLSs found their beginnings in the critical thinking tradition produced by the Hawkesbury Agricultural College in the 1970s in a response to drastic measures needed to address such issues in rural Australia as the management of:

  • Water catchment
  • Land degradation.
  • Desertification
  • Natural resources
  • Flooding
  • Drought
  • Bushfires

Another interpretation of the nature of CSLSs is provided by (Woodhill, J. 2010) cited in (Blackmore, C. (ed.) 2010 p62-63). Woodhill says that CSLSs replace the out-dated understanding that all governance should be centrally controlled. Rather, to respond effectively and sustainably to ‘messy issues’ like the likely increase of the impact of human-induced climate change and severe hurricane seasons, dialogue among multi-faceted groups and actors working towards a mutual response to a problematic issue is desirable. (Woodhill J, 2010) defines social learning as the adaptation of traditional institutions to manage modern-day complex situations such as social and climate change with the view of protecting the environment for future generations.


Systems thinking and practice


To understand how CSLSs work in practice, it is important to have a degree of systems literacy, or a working understanding of key terms used in this report, as well as an overview of systemic thinking in general. We also need to see how the systemic thinking individual plays his/her part in the broader collective that is a critical social learning system as I am proposing for the Climate Resilience Execution Agency of Dominica (CREAD).

To do that we will be using a hybrid adaptation of two conceptual models from the TU812 module depicted in figure 1 below. The left half (a) is a representation of what (Ison, R. 2018 pp 59) calls the juggler and the right half, (b) is what he calls a relational dynamic (Ison, R. 2018 pp 50). For the purposes of this briefing, I will replace the ‘juggler’ isophor with that of ‘the multitasker’. Moreover, I will explore systemically, the ‘situation of interest’ (devastation of Dominica) through the lens of Prime Minister Skerrit who in this scenario is the ‘systems thinker.’


Following the passage of the main danger of the hurricane, Prime Minister Skerrit assessed the situation as “mind-boggling”. He said, “I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating…indeed, mind boggling. My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured.” ( 2018). In systems thinking terminology, Prime Minister Skerrit began the process of initiating a ‘systemic inquiry. (The Open University 2018 p15) defines a systemic inquiry as an innovative type of project management practice that is intent on ‘fixing’ a complex and uncertain problem with a solution that can mitigate future systemic failure. We could say that Dominica experienced systemic failure in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria because of the widespread damage to the island in every sector. Systemic inquiry, says (The Open University 2018, p15) that a systemic inquiry also comprises of ‘action and interaction’. What action the system thinker takes, and how he interacts with other stakeholders-cabinet colleagues, first responders, the police, the injured, the media etc.

EMA Diagram 2


Fig 1 A conceptual model showing the relation between a system practitioner and a complex situation (above)

Systems Practice as Juggling


With the boundary of our ‘situation of interest’ determined, and I have briefly discussed what is systemic practice, I now delve deeper into the mind-set of a systems thinker. Recall, we are exploring systemic practice though, as it were, the eyes of Prime Minister Skerrit as the systems thinker. Professor Ray Ison, is the author of the book, Systems Practice: How to Act in Situations of Uncertainty and Complexity in a Climate-Change World. He is also co-author of the Open University’s postgraduate module: TU812-Managing systemic change: inquiry, action and interaction. In his book, (Ison R 2018) explains systems practice as a type of ‘Juggling act’. The aim of a systems practitioner he says, is to have the ability to keep four balls in motion to be an accomplished systems thinker.

In this briefing, as I have mentioned above, I have responded to (Ison R 2018’s) original idea by replacing the ‘Juggler’ isophor or metaphor, with that of ‘The Multitasker’ as depicted in diagram (a) in figure 1 above. According to (Ison R 2018), there are four main tasks, corresponding to the four balls, the systems thinker needs to perform simultaneously. These are:

Being or the B Ball

Returning to our analogy of Prime Minister Skerrit as the Systems thinker, The Juggler or the Multitasker, (Ison R 2018 p 59) says the B Ball represents Being. In other words, the experiences and world-views and skills one brings to the situation. Your own personal journey. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit met hurricane Maria with what Ison calls a rich’ tradition of understanding’. Not only is he serving as Prime Minister of Dominica since 2004, he has chaired both the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in 2016. ( 2018). In 2010, under his watch as Chairman of CARICOM he oversaw the response of that regional organisation to the devastation of Haiti by a ‘7.0 magnitude earthquake’ Dominica News Online. (2010) and again in 2016 following the devastation by Hurricane Matthew ( 2016). Dominica itself suffered catastrophic damage from tropical storm Erika in 2015(the Guardian. 2015), and then Hurricane Maria in 2017(UN News. 2017a). In 2016 he was conferred with the honorary Doctor of Literature by the Lovely Professional University in India, “in recognition of his dynamism, far-sightedness and the innovative leadership” (Service, T. 2016).

Engaging or The E Ball

(Ison R 2018) explains that the choices one makes at the point of intervention could be the difference between success or failure, and in the case of Prime Minister Skerrit: life and death, as hurricane Maria did not spare even the prime minister’s residence from it destructive winds. Three days in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Skerrit was addressing the 72nd General Assembly of the United Nations, warning the world, again of the threat of climate change and small island vulnerabilities. (UN News. 2017b). Over the last 6 months, Prime Minister Skerrit and his government have interacted with many agencies and governments, and the establishment of the CREAD is only one of his interventions.

Contextualizing or the C Ball

Contextualizing is the third task that Ison says a systems thinker or practitioner needs to keep in his awareness. (Ison R 2018) says that the art of contextualizing is the art of utilizing an appropriate systems approach or method in a context with the view of bringing forth an improvement. Roosevelt Skerrit, not only accepted that Dominica had been devastated by Maria, but he placed the entire 2017 hurricane season within the context of global warming and the impact on small island states in his speech to the United Nations (UN News. 2017b).

Managing or the M Ball

The final task or ball to be juggled, according to Ison is the act of Managing– ‘a special form of engagement’ (Ison R. 2018). In figure 1, we see how the systems thinker in diagram (a) while being cognisant of his four responsibilities or tasks, then must engage with the problematic situation. In diagram (b) I have identified a system based on a conceptual model developed by Ison which comprises the use of systems frameworks and methods by which the systems thinker can bring to bear then move forward to an acceptable solution.


It is my hope that the ideas expressed above will be found useful. More information on critical social learning systems can be found at the Open University.

I make no claims that systems thinking will work in every situation. From an ethical perspective, (Bowden, R. 2010 p 89) explains that success of the implementation of a design turn in the thinking of CREAD could be hampered by individual world views, levels of academic achievement and religious and political views by stakeholders of what is required responding to a disaster. Nevertheless, it is in understanding these limitations that would have been considered during designing an inquiry into the implementation of a critical social learning system into the everyday workings of CREAD.

It is also worth mentioning that the response to Hurricane Maria falls within the context of the wider Caribbean affected by Hurricane Irma and the general debate of the effect of the warming on the seas triggering more frequent and powerful tropical cyclones ( 2018). 

To avoid systemic failure in Dominica. It is critical therefore that CREAD regards learning as an essential tool for transformation from a state of chaos to one that is cultural feasible.


The end


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