Bridging the gap
Golden Gate Bridge, USA
Millau Viaduct France
Mailart's Billwil Bridge, Switzerland
Story Bridge, Brisbane, Autralia
Forth Bridge, Scotland
Otira Viaduct, Arthur's Pass,
South Island, New Zealand
Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol
London Millennium Bridge
Bridge builders have to create people bridges in order to create physical bridges.
But there is a gap - indeed there is a gulf - between our understanding of people and physical things.
This page is about how we can attempt to bridge that gulf using systems thinking.
I will use the word 'hard' to mean something that is definable and measurable.
A 'hard system' is a physical, material set of 'things' - including a physical bridge.
I will use the word 'soft' to define something that is difficult to define, understand and control.
I will call any systems involving people 'soft systems' - including people bridges.
Traditional physical science is the science of hard systems.
It is based on a philosophy of reductionism.
It has worked very well with many great successes.
A hard system has an action that creates a reaction.
In physical bridges we build our engineering science on Newton's Laws.
That understanding is sufficient to create bridges that work - they stand up - though we do have occasional failures.
Soft systems are hard systems which contain multiple layers of human intentionality.
At its simplest, intentionality is having a purpose, aim or goal.
It is this multiple layered interacting intentionality that makes soft systems so complex.
Why does science seem to work sometimes and not others?
One reason is that our understanding is always incomplete.
It is undeniable that reductionism is powerful and important but it is also undeniable that it isn't sufficient for dealing with really complex systems.
The many successes in bridge building are impressive but we actually understand less than we sometimes think we do.
The scientific models are not absolutely true in all contexts rather they are contingently true in specific contexts.
We must not abandon reductionism but rather we must see it and use it within the context of the whole.
Arthur Koestler in his book 'The Ghost in the Machine' suggested the word holon to capture the idea that everything is both a part and a whole.
So for example, any given sentence is a holon.
It is a whole, an entity with a meaning, made of parts - the words.
And yet a sentence is itself a part of a wider entity - a paragraph.
The sentence, when combined with other sentences, contributes to the meaning of the paragraph.
So letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books are all holons.
But we needn't stop there - we could go on since books are part of wider systems and letters are made of shapes.
The 'holarchy' (the hierarchy of holons) can go on forever upwards (to the entire Universe!) and down (to quarks and strings!).
Just as we read words so can we read bridges - there is a holarchy of bridge systems.
Looking outwards and upwards physical bridges are a part of social, financial, aesthetic and cultural systems.
Looking inwards and downwards they are also made of quarks.
Systems thinkers say that we choose a level within the holarchy which is suitable for our purpose.
Nuclear research physicists are interested in the range of levels from molecules, through atoms to quarks.
Bridge builders look at whole bridges through to materials.
Planners may be looking at a particular bridge for the part it plays a part in the infrastructure of an entire region.
No one level is more fundamental or basic than any other.
We choose to look at a system at a level or small range of levels which enable us to achieve a purpose.
In order to achieve a purpose we almost certainly have to solve some problems.
Building bridges is, at its core, about practical problem solving.
By problem solving I don't mean puzzle solving like a cross word or Sudoku but the creative challenge of identifying issues and meeting them to deliver a significant human need.
The really difficult part of solving problems effectively is at the join between the soft and the hard.
I will call this 'joined up' thinking.
Joined-up thinking is difficult and controversial.
Yet the best bridge builders must do it - if they don't then their projects will fail.
Joined-up thinking is about co-operation, co-ordination, communication, integration and synergy.
The flip side of a problem is an opportunity - so bridge building is also about finding and taking opportunities.
When faced with an opportunity or a problem many of us think in straight lines. I have illustrated this in (a) at the top of the diagram to the right - we want a glass of water.
However solving a problem is really a loopy feed back process - you can see this in (c).
The processes are all holons.
Processes are important since they are what we do to change things and they are also how things behave.
In (b) and (d) I have used the present participle, the 'ing' form, to make it as clear as I can that the stages are processes.
In (b) I show how we can capture the idea that "Doing process A" influences "Doing process B". Effectively "Doing procees A" sends a message to "Doing process B". In (d) I have drawn one possible generalised version of the processes we need to go through to solve any particular problem. Each of the processes have to be managed to success if we are to manage the original problem to success.
The processes are: understanding the need, identifying the problem, creating solutions, making the solution and acting on the solution.
As we go around this loop time moves on and the situation changes.
The result is that when we reach the end of the loop we now have a new state of affairs and new problems.
So we have to start going around the loop yet again.
This makes the loop a continuous spiral through time.
As they are all holons each sub-process will have sub-sub-processes - they are all parts and wholes.
So there are process holons at every level of definition all going through spirals.
From the top process holon right down to every detailed process holon there are continuous interdependent problem solving spirals.
The processes in the various levels interact in complex ways.
Those interactions create the emergent characteristics.
So now let's consider the building of a bridge in more detail.
We have three interdependent needs or requirements to satisfy - firm foundations, strong structure and effective working.
Success in all of them together creates a successful bridge.
In other words the three process holons are together necessary and sufficient for the success of the bridge.
But because the three processes are interdependent they need integrating - joining-up.
So our top level need and purpose is to make sure that they are integrated - its a kind of meta- purpose i.e. one which surrounds the more obvious need and purpose of building a bridge to bridge a gap.
One word captures the idea of a good foundation - purpose.
For people bridges a good foundation is a firm foundation for everything else in life.
It holds the rest of our lives in place - it underpins all that we do - it gives us a sense of place and purpose.
From our values spring our attitudes and through them we learn to value others as we grow.
Firm foundations built when we are young help us to cope with all that life throws at us.
Just as river bridge foundations take the loads and disperse them so people bridge foundations help us cope.
They help with life's challenges and enable us to be robust.
With weak foundations we succumb and we lose our way.
In short firming the foundations is about laying down the basis of the way we live with others to provide a quality of life.
This hopefully includes, for most of us, religious and racial tolerance and the many other things that lead, ultimately, to our own self fulfilment and happiness.
The second requirement for a good bridge is a strong structure.
One word captures this idea - process.
In a physical bridge the process is the flow of internal forces through the physical set of interconnected pieces of material which is the structure.
In a people bridge the structure is a set of people and community relationships which serve to communicate messages of information and meaning.
In other words a structure is the form of a process.
Without structure nothing can work - everything must have structure - the only question is whether it is a good structure i.e. fit for purpose.
Bridge building in these situations requires long term 'joined-up' thinking to create links at every level from individuals through groups to governments.
Just as the elements of a physical bridge must relate well to each other so must people and communities.
Tragic human stories, including child murders such as that of Victoria Climbié, often show a remarkable lack of joining-up.
The third requirement is that bridges must work well.
One word captures this idea and that is people.
This loop represents the performance of the physical bridge (which, although it is a physical object, is perceived, understood and responded to by people) and the performance of people and communities through living their daily lives.
Ultimately all bridges are there to work for people.
Builders of physical bridges depend on learning from practical experience - from finding out what works and what doesn't work.
They look for evidence that they can depend on.
They realise that they have a big responsibility for public safety - if a bridge falls then people will probably be killed.
Bridge builders tend to have a well developed ethic that values the honesty forced on them by 'mother nature' because you just cannot fool her.
Gravity will do what it does no matter what spin you put on things.
A very large part of the skill of a bridge builder comes from 'hard fought' experience.
This is how it is in life too.