Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cycling for prosperity

The concept of iteration/cycles is very important in both educational and environmental senses. The reflection stage in learning and environmental management cycles is particularly important because it can lead to highly beneficial re-exploration and ongoing progress. Cycles are found throughout the natural world of course: the carbon cycle; water cycle; nitrogen cycle; various geological cycles; and indeed life cycles. Cycles are less common in modern, industrialised societies but they are catching on: we recycle; we go through experiential learning cycles; we build iterative, cyclic approaches into laws, regulations and standards (see image of the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle, sometimes called the Deming or the Shewhart cycle).

Good teachers and good managers are sensitive to their experiences and adjust what they do accordingly. We’ll know we have made real progress towards a sustainable society when the idea of a cyclic economy is commonplace (see image below).

Iteration is about repeating stages in a process in a cyclic fashion and is a key concept in systems thinking. It is valued because of the opportunities provided for improvements to be made due to re-exploration, review and reflection…on environmental effects or learning needs and acting on feedback to revise what is proposed and done.

Experience can provoke thinking – and thinking can enable decisions. Taking decisions can lead to actions. Reflecting on feedback from actions generates further experience and so the cycle continues and goes forward with inputs altered (see image of the experiential learning cycle). 

Stages in human decision cycles may include: exploration; formulating problems, opportunities and systems of interest; identifying feasible and desirable changes; and taking action aimed at improving the situation; in addition reflecting, connecting, modelling, and use of a variety of conventional and innovative tools and techniques may occur at any stage.

ISO 14001, which lays out what is needed in an EMS (environmental management system), has iteration as a central feature (see image above): policy leads to planning; plans are put into effect and monitored against a standard, with appropriate corrective action; good management practices are sensitive to the state of play, respond to feedback, review the current system and make appropriate policy changes to spiral the environmental management system around and forwards.

Of course, what we are talking about here is best practice – and that is not always what happens. Best practice EIA (environmental impact assessment) is cyclic/iterative. It is often much more of a straight line process than the ideal portrayed in the image below however and this is part of the reason why the European Commission are making substantial changes to their EIA Directive.

Systems thinking means seeing situations in total ie as a whole, accounting for interactions, interrelationships and interdependencies between parts. Its joined up thinking, recognising and forming networks, loops and cycles. It is the opposite of reductionist thinking, where an explanation or solution is sought by breaking situations down into smaller components. Systems thinking is constructivist or connectivist, attempting to shed light on events that appear to be distinct by mapping linkages. In this way complex events are understood better by seeing the whole, often establishing that a system in total is different from what one would expect by just looking at individual parts or by adding the parts together. It is often the case, as Aristotle said in Metaphysics, that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.

by Glenn Vowles