My First Glimmerings of System Understanding
Because the clinic organized its support around childhood and brain development, I gradually came to see systems through those lenses. Both the Brain and Childhood Development were viewed as too complex to understand by the medical community at the time, but there was a cottage industry in models of development in both. Mostly the models were for understanding some part of those parallel processes. Then the model would generalized to be a basis for understanding all of the development.
I grew up in Midland, Michigan, the home of Dow Chemical, and I understood the limitations of general theories based on abstract concepts. But, the concepts in these models were still useful as analogies. I just didn’t sort them into true and not true, but tried to juggle them all without dropping any. My hope was that I would eventually see further into these parallel processes if I chose this tactic.
This led me to try to understand the overall and developmental arcs of both the brain and human development. Neuropsychology became a bridge for me in trying to merge them.
Neuropsychology (the study of brain activity and development through assessment of a battery of standard skill and task performances) had been developing since the early part of the 20th century because of case studies of individuals with specific brain injuries in the 19th century onward. In the west, neuropsychology remained a research tool based in universities and teaching hospitals until fairly recently. But in the Soviet Union, neuropsychology was an active, clinical investigative tool starting in the 1920s. Two early bright lights in this were Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky. Both saw development of brain and cognitive skills as happening through active effort by the person, using the social and practical affordances in the environment. I didn’t see it at the time, but this was a basic way of saying that brain and personal development were a dynamic complex adaptive system, a process of change and adaptation that continued throughout life. Also, though I didn’t realize it then, I would follow a path of understanding complex adaptive systems and disability justice to the present day.
A friend of mine, a student of urban planning, pointed me toward the next rhizome of my search by loaning me a book, Notes on the Synthesis of Form. This was my first real introduction to system thinking, and it led to my exposure to the thought network that was called General Systems Theory. Also, Alexander’s focus on design seemed to mesh well with my growing interest in how development of brain and person could be facilitated through engagement. Finally, the book also primed me for the dead end that was standard systems theory if my focus was real life individual development.
There was a large body of ideas about how systems worked, including Systems Dynamics, a way of modeling complex systems that used a stock (bathtub) and flow (water tap) mathematics to be able to predict changes in a whole system. I thought that such modeling would work well for machine-like systems, but not the complex open system that was human development. But I didn’t have something better to replace this framework, so I began to play with models as a way of seeing more clearly the implications of system interactions. There has been a steady growth of apps that can model these dynamics over the decades and I still play with free ones to get a sense of how a system is put together.
But coming to grips with the realities of complex adaptive systems and their evil twins, wicked problems, has required that I deepen my appreciation of the impact of future uncertainty and scarce resources on the flow of these systems, including The System (my term for the large socio-technical CAS in which we all act), and how this flow affects our change strategies.
Parallel to this process of conceptual deepening, i was also entering a new phase of my career in Disability Justice-a full time job as an advocate at Disability Rights Michigan (at that time, Michigan P&A). My experiences as an advocate (the complexity of individual and small group advocacy and the depth of the learning available from an organization that dealt with every level and every dimension of disability justice support in Michigan) would give me a much deeper understanding of the difference between the system as imagined or designed and the system as I engaged it in my work. The deepening of my engagement was a fairly steady result of my effort to understand my lived experience and that of all the other people with disabilities I got to know over the decades.