Category: Wicked Problem Systems

Systemic Barriers to Effective Societal Response to Terrorism

“Organizational learning must concern itself not with static entities called organizations, but with an active process of organizing which is, at root, a cognitive enterprise. Individual members are continually engaged in attempting to know the organization, and to know themselves in the context of the organization. At the same time, their continuing efforts to know and to test their knowledge represent the object of their inquiry. Organizing is reflexive inquiry.” (Argyris & Schön, 1978, 16–17).

Systems Thinkers Toronto turned out a dozen people last week for a demonstration the new SDD dialogue management software and a discussion of dialogic design practice, which can be seen as an embodiment of organizational and social system cognitive organizing.  I teach a basic form of the methodology in my Systemic Design course in OCAD University’s Strategic Foresight and Innovation graduate program. As a core practice of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras these methods have been developed from Christakis and Warfield’s Interactive Management over the last decade. The formal events are recognized and certified as Co-laboratories of Democracy).

The unique contribution of the software is in guiding a group of stakeholders to map out the influence relationships among structured statements in a dialogue. The logosofia system (and the new Cogniscope 3) are slowly replacing the aging CSII software. However, learning the software is not a path to practice, its merely an embodiment of the method which is learned in the course of performance in the Arena (Christakis’ term for convening Co-labs in high-stakes, multi-stakeholder engagements.)  While it usually takes years and mentorship to become a lead facilitator, we are making the engagements themselves more affordable and accessible. Between the Future Worlds Center and the Agoras Institute, we are designing and convening streamlined hybrid sessions that are more accessible to everyday citizens and civic groups. Such a hybrid design-led approach is shown in this opening presentation for an engagement in Berlin.

In our Toronto-based Systems Thinking community of practice we held a walkthrough of the software in a simulation, but holding a real dialogue on the barriers to effective action on global terrorism. Walking through the process of a Dialogic Design Co-laboratory with a dozen participants, we hosted the question of “What barriers do we anticipate that, if addressed in the next 5 years, will most effectively resolve issues of global terrorism?” 

We quickly ran through the following steps in simulation:

  • Triggering question (TQ) formation
  • Nominal group – responses to TQ
  • Entering responses into logosofia
  • Clarifubg statements upon entry
  • Selection of highest priority challenges
  • Structuring – Voting on relative influence
  • Mapping and final dialogue

I wanted to share the kind of deeply-thought responses that emerge when we take a more systemic approach to structured dialogue and attempt to focus attention on sources and motivations rather than manifestations and grievances:

• Attention to terrorist acts is disproportionate to the impact.
• Youth lacking healthy source of epic meaning.
• Psychological force of prior harms unreconciled.
• Inhibition within liberal democratic culture to take necessary steps to effectively eradicate perpetrators.
• Cultural ignorance of the roots of colonialism.
• Disappearing state monopoly over public values & communication.
• (Dictionary of definitions) Lack of agreement of definitions acts of terrorism
• Isolation of moderate groups of same ethnicity or faiths
• Cultural or political compulsions to escalate retribution
• Inequitable access to systems of education (polarization)
• Degrowth process of global economic forces (inequitable dist of wealth)
• Lack of true globalization (arbitrary geographic identities)


As you can see its a shallow map, as we didn’t have the time to include and map out all responses – this was a trial run, and the first round of responses. But the seriousness of the setting and the clarity of process in SDD reinforces a more thoughtful approach that brings forth group attempts to reach source issues that are also personally meaningful to the author proposing the issue.

Finally, the discussion yielded by the dialogic design trial brought serious reflection to the fore.  Here the predominant reasoning was that “terrorist acts” are the means to achieve other strategies. They have little to do with Islamic ideology, but leverage the fear factor associated with the unknown of cultures and “the other,” keeping the press at work reinforcing our notions of the fearsome other. The deepest drivers in the relational network, even in this quick run, show that unreconciled prior harms (blowback) and our own “cultural ignorance of the roots of colonialism” have deep causality with a deeply alienated young demographic in the originating cultures. If such a tool could be used for serious policy design, we might stand a chance of recovering our cosmopolitan values of an evolving human civilization.