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Idealized Design

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Idealized Design

Idealized Design, a segment of Interactive Planning, is an organizational development process developed by Russell L. Ackoff in the 1950's which enables an organization to get beyond the problem solving mode and unleash their innovative potential.


“An idealized design of a system is the design its stakeholders would have right now if they could have any system they wanted. The design is subject to only two constraints: it must be technologically feasible (no science fiction), and it must be operationally viable (capable of surviving in the current environment if it came into existence, with or without modification). The design has one requirement: it must be capable of rapid and effective learning and adaptation, and therefore be able to change. It is called idealized because it is the best ideal-seeking systems its designers could imagine at the time, recognizing that they and others may be able to imagine a better one in the future.” (WHCA, 1996)

Read A Brief Guide to Interactive Planning and Idealized Design, which is the most succinct overview of Interactive Planning and Idealized Design to date.

Last Updated on Friday, 21 October 2011 20:52

How to change the system

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How to change the system

In praise of the ideas of Russ Ackoff

 Russell AckoffIT IS hard to imagine a less enticing title for a book than “Introduction to Operations Research”. Yet Russ Ackoff, one of the authors of this tome of 1959, who died on October 29th aged 90, did not just help to define a nascent branch of industrial engineering. He wrote 30 other books, becoming one of the most influential management gurus of the 20th century in the process. His ideas about systemic thinking are vitally important today if the world is to come out of the current economic crisis in better shape than it went into it.

Today’s crisis is the result of a catastrophic failure, primarily in the financial system but also of our economic and political systems. Mr Ackoff spent most of the past half-century as the premier evangelist of systemic thinking, which he contrasted with the reductionist, atomistic thinking that had long dominated humanity’s approach to problem-solving in his view. Time and again, he would point out, decision-makers faced with crises failed to heed Albert Einstein’s warning that “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Put simply, systems thinking—which Mr Ackoff described in books such as “Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems” (1974)—focuses on the performance of a system as a whole. This is in contrast to an approach that breaks systems into parts and focuses on the performance of the individual parts, on the assumption that if each individual part is improved then the sum of the parts will also be better. This assumption often proves wrong in practice, said Mr Ackoff, who had plenty of practical experience as a consultant to more than 250 corporations and 50 government agencies. The only profession that he believed had truly embraced systems thinking is architecture, where the design process starts by asking what sort of building is desired, and then works backwards to focus on what individual parts are required. An architect never starts by saying, “Here are the parts, what can I build from them?”

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 October 2011 21:31


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What is complexity science?

Complexity science is a broad and multi-disciplinary subject. In a wide range of systems that are the subject of study in biology, in the social sciences and in industrial applications, computational modelling is undertaken to study the behaviour of these sytems; Mathematical developments and modelling approaches from physics can be used to better understand these systems; And expertise in domains from software engineering to systems biology can be used both to inspire new approaches and apply new results.


 The concerns that complexity science addresses has developed from investigations from a varied intellectual ancestry. Some of it has developed from work in cybernetics in the 1940s, to work on general systems theory in the 50s, chaos and catastrophe theory in dynamical systems in the 1960s and 70s, to work on complex systems spearheaded in the 80s by groups like the Santa Fe Institute. Some of this work focussed on abstract mathematical systems and simple physical systems, e.g. sand piles, but more recently, interest has increased in complex adaptive systems, such as social systems, biological systems, and technological systems where the parts actively change the way they interact. The increased use of computer simulation and interest in biological questions created research in artificial life and the simulation of adaptive behaviour in the 1990s.

Last Updated on Friday, 19 August 2011 20:18

Feedback, Adaptation and Stability

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William Ross Ashby

Feedback, Adaptation and Stability

Selected Passages from Design for a Brain
(The origin of adaptive behaviour)



These are selected passages from Ross Ashby classic text Design for a Brain (1960).

They represent a mine of intuitions and data that could be applied to the social environment (e.g. society as a brain in constant search of dynamic balance). This mental exercise would highlight the past and current failings in adapting to the requirements of the environment by any centralised ruler (e.g. the central state, the central bank, the central planner, etc.) intent on ignoring reality and the limits imposed by reality and in pursuit of extravagant power and riches. Being this the actual case, the final result is likely to be a disastrous feedback that amplifies disequilibria and plunges everybody into a protracted depression or even a never ending decadence; unless we understand how the brain-human being works and we are willing to put again nature and human nature as the central focus of our thinking and caring. 



The words 'stability', 'steady state', and 'equilibrium' are used by a variety of authors with a variety of meanings, though there is always the same underlying theme.

The subject may be opened by a presentation of the three standard elementary examples. A cube resting with one face on a horizontal surface typifies 'stable' equilibrium; a sphere resting on a horizontal surface typifies 'neutral' equilibrium; and a balanced cone on its point typifies 'unstable' equilibrium. With neutral and unstable equilibria we shall have little concern but the concept of 'stable equilibrium' will be used repeatedly.

Last Updated on Friday, 12 August 2011 23:43


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What is Panarchy?

PanarchyPanarchy is a conceptual framework to account for the dual, and seemingly contradictory, characteristics of all complex systems – stability and change. It is the study of how economic growth and human development depend on ecosystems and institutions, and how they interact. It is an integrative framework, bringing together ecological, economic and social models of change and stability, to account for the complex interactions among both these different areas, and different scale levels.

Panarchy’s focus is on management of regional ecosystems, defined in terms of catchments, but it deals with the impact of lower, smaller, faster changing scale levels, as well as the larger, slower supra-regional and global levels. Its goal is to develop the simplest conceptual framework necessary to describe the twin dynamics of change and stability across both disciplines and scale levels. 

Last Updated on Thursday, 11 August 2011 22:21
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