Steven F. Freeman

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Social Systems Sciences

page last modified: 05/31/2018

Social Systems Sciences ( “S-cubed") operated as a department of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania from the early 1970s through the mid 1980s organized around the work and writings of Russell L. Ackoff and Systems Thinking. Ackoff had co-authored the textbook Introduction to Operations Research (1957) and was president of Operations Research Society of America (1956–1957), but he became critical of OR’s reliance on mathematical techniques, and advocated instead a multi-disciplinary, functional approach to problems. At S-cubed, Ackoff worked with his former philosophy professors Tom Cowan and C. West Churchman as well as other broad multi-disciplinary thinkers such as Fred Emery and Eric Trist. As Social Systems Sciences developed, it adopted other principles including synthetic (as opposed to analytical) reasoning, broad stakeholder participation in decision making, and idealized design. The program came to an end as an academic department in the late 1980s after Ackoff left to form a consulting company, Interact.

My experience with S-cubed began as a at Penn completing a BS 1984-85. Although I originally studied electrical engineering and physics, even worked several years designing electrical circuits, I could not bring myself to complete an EE degree, and left school for a time. When I returned, it was to study Philosophy because I wanted to see the bigger picture. That was educationally satisfying, even edifying, but what would I do with a degree in Philosophy? Well, it turned out that there was this strange group of Philsophers! I attended S-cubed classes, including a seminar led by West Churchman, matriculated into a PhD program in the fall of 1985. At the end of my first year in April 1986, S-cubed was left rump when Ackoff, Gharajedaghi and Cowan left to form Interact. Since I had come to learn from them, I went to work there, taking a few remaining courses to obtain an S-cubed M.S.

Interact eventually also blew up. A true thinker, Ackoff was far more inclined to advise organizations than actually run one. I went out on my own, and since have formed several companies and worked in several professional positions (Here is my complete CV.) In 1993, I matriculated in a doctoral program at MIT, where I studied Systems Dynamics and Organization Studies, earning a Ph.D. in 1998.

Many of us have recreated much of the “S-cubed" heritage at the at Thomas Jefferson University also in Philadelphia where many formerly connected with S-cubed are teaching doctoral candidates. the inclusion of several systems thinking classes, and an infusion of  systems thinking throughout the curriculum.

Links

Systems Thinking:Three approaches to Systems Thinking as taught in "A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness & Organizational Resilience"

Systems Thinkers: A global network of systems thinkers (Yahoo Discussion Group)

Question Everything: Blog with systems perspective: Have we the wisdom to find a balance between our own desires and the good for the whole earth?

Related: System Dynamics (ciow workshop: Introduction to System Dynamics - MIT's Systems Approach to Creativity)

Key Concepts from "The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the learning organizations.” (html)

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