The great achievements of humanity are seldom the result of human beings working alone

What is systems studies, and how is it relevant to our daily life, and to the challenges we face in the future? In this interview we find out more from author Manel Pretel-Wilson, whose new book Utopics: The Unification of Human Science was published this year.

Manel holds two Bachelor Degrees from the University of Girona (Spain), Business Studies and Philosophy, two Masters Degrees, in International Political Economy from the University of Leeds and in Sustainability from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, and a PhD in Systems Science from the University of Hull which he finished in May 2017. From 2007 to 2018, he has been a senior manager in different sectors in Catalonia and, in the last two years, he has started a career as an independent researcher and writer.  

Manel Pretel-Wilson

What attracted you to study systems science at Hull?

Well, I was not drawn to Hull the way in which most postgraduate students are. First choosing what you want to study and then finding the best university that can fulfil your expectations. No, my discovery came from reading Prof. Gerald Midgley’s book on Systemic interventions (2000) at a time when I was looking for expertise that could be useful to the company I was trying to help with my PhD in Spain. This was not an ordinary company but one whose core business was to provide jobs for people with mental disorders and that produces the best yogurt in the world, La Fageda, founded in 1982 by Cristobal Colón (the good one, as he likes to say). After learning more about systems methodologies, I realized that the Centre for Systems Studies was the leading centre of excellence I was searching for and that I wanted to transfer my PhD to the University of Hull. So I contacted Prof. Midgley asking him for help and soon after I was introduced to Angela Espinosa who would also be one of my PhD supervisors. 

Could you tell us what systems science is, and why it is important?

I would say that systems science is not something different from “normal” science in the sense that systems science includes the developments of modern science but goes further in terms of understanding of how the world we live in works. Furthermore, in my opinion, the advancement of science in its different domains depends more and more on embracing this new way of thinking which is going to be fundamental to consolidate new domains of science in the future. We should also bear in mind that systems science or the science of the future is grounded on systems philosophy which again is not different from “normal” philosophy in as much as “world-hypotheses” have shaped our thinking imagination since the Scientific Revolution in the 17th Century. Today, however, the progress of fields such as quantum mechanics and of new domains of science is hampered by the fact that we are lacking a new world-hypothesis which systems thinking can offer.  

What uses of systems theory might we encounter in everyday life?

One thing we are not normally aware of is that the things that we care about have been realized by human beings working together. The great achievements of humanity are seldom the work of human beings working alone but most often the result of the joint effort of human beings sharing space and time, that is, levels of organization. Indeed, when we are working together for something we are sharing the level of organization of an entangled system with other human beings. That entangled system can be a family, a school, a company or a hospital, for instance. In terms of the uses of systems thinking, I would say that systemic interventions can help entangled systems stay in equilibrium with their environment which is a prerequisite for human achievement. In fact, I would say that the uses of systems science will become more apparent once the new domains of science are consolidated.    

Might a better understanding and practice of systems theory help us to tackle the big crises that we face, such as the COVID pandemic and climate change?

Indeed, COVID has shown us how vulnerable entangled systems are and the importance of ad hoc entangled systems to deal with the pressures to our health systems. I guess that the big lesson from this pandemic has been that we cannot go without universal health and the need to coordinate efforts at the national and international levels to fight future pandemics. Likewise, climate change also needs a world-wide systemic solution in which entangled systems restore their lost equilibrium with planet before it is too late. Unlike the damping of pandemics, the solution to climate change does not rest so much in finding ways to work together that do not risk our welfare but in changing our ways of behaving to reduce our pressure on the planet while we ensure universal plenty. In my opinion, we cannot separate the energy from food issues, that is, clean energy from sustainable agriculture, and we have to put an equal focus on consumption and on ensuring the satisfaction of our true human needs. 

Your book, which comes out in October, is called Utopics The Unification of Human Science, can you tell us what your book is about, and who might find it interesting?

The book builds on an aspect that my PhD thesis had assumed, namely, that systems science is grounded on systems philosophy. Of course, at the time I was only interested in providing a new foundation for systems practice. So rather than looking into systems science alone, I delve into the foundation of modern science to show how the development and consolidation of different domains of science has depended on the progress of philosophy in terms of world-hypotheses. Today, the foundational crisis in physics contrasts with the golden age in biology and that difference is explained by the contribution of philosophy since the modern age. Unfortunately, we cannot have a different world-hypothesis for every domain of science, that is, one for physics and another for biology and the new domains of science cannot be reduced to physics or biology. So my solution has been to work out a new world-hypothesis that makes logically possible the further progress of science and that is already suggesting itself in the development in quantum mechanics and in Ashby’s unpublished theory of cybernetic systems.  The latter is a prerequisite to understand how human systems work which constitutes another domain of science and the main focus of the book, the birth of Utopics or the science of utopic systems, defined as entangled systems that look into the future to realize something possible. I guess that the contribution of the book is to demonstrate that the unification of knowledge is logically possible. 

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