Call yourself a gardener?

I’m no Bob Flowerdew, or Beth Chatto, but I can recognise systems thinking and green fingers when I see them.


#systems thinking

#no fertiliser, no weedkiller

#low and decreasing carbon footprint

#increased yield and quality

#now that’s what I call whole systems thinking

And yes, this kind of thinking is domain transferrable*, or rather to use a horticulturally systemic metaphor: the insights can be transplanted


*meaning that the insights to be gained from examining the system and processes in flow in this context, CAN be transferred to thinking in a simar manner in different contexts. There is some contextual systemic isomorphism (CSI)


The real gorilla in the room: RIP Harambe


Since the Cincinnati Zoo made the decision to shoot their silverback gorilla Harambe in order to save a little boy’s life last week, lots of people have been weighing in…

Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the mighty, the scary, the awesome:

Gorilla Of Unintended Consequences.

“She… explains that zoo enclosures have become less safe in an effort to offer unimpeded views to visitors. The fact that this has been an unnoticed problem until now doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a problem all along.” 

In more recent decades, zoos have begun to redesign enclosures, removing all obvious caging and attempting to create a seamless view of the animals for the visitor to enjoy watching animals in a more natural looking habitat. *this is great until little children begin falling into exhibits* which of course can happen to anyone, especially in a crowded zoo-like setting.

O‘Donoughue has watched the tapes too. The soft-hearted amongst us may think Harambe is holding hands with the toddler in the same friendly way a human would, but gorillas are not humans and you can’t read their body language in the same way…

So, IMHO, the real gorilla in the room is the sadly very much alive and kicking  Gorilla Of Unintended Consequences.

One feels moved to ask: what is the purpose of a zoo? They all have different raisins-detray (yes, I know that’s not how you spell it).

Mr. Checkland, of SSM fame would say: POSIWID – The Purpose Of the System Is What It Does. Maybe the purpose of this zoo is to maximise visitor numbers to in turn maximise revenue. Maybe it is ‘to improve animal shootings, year on year.’

Whatever it is, this sad case is a perfect example of the Gorilla Of Unintended Consequences.






The Magic beneath Food Truck Location

ice-cream-van-roma-cafe-mid-40'sBack in 2012, the U.S. food truck industry for the first time blew past the $1 billion revenue mark (it in fact reached $1.5 billion that year), making it one of the fastest-growing sectors of the national food and restaurant market. Still, food trucks are often seen as the enemy of local restaurants. Just as cab drivers have taken to protesting Uber and other ride-hailing services, brick-and-mortar restaurant groups have rallied in cities across the nation to ban or limit food trucks.

But what do food trucks actually mean for urban economies? What impact do they have on local restaurants, food industries, and our choices as consumers?


A recent study from Elliot Anenberg of the Washington, D.C. Federal Reserve System and Edward Kung of UCLA takes a detailed look at the economy and geography of food trucks in our nation’s cities. To get at this, the study uses unique data on food trucks from the U.S. Census Bureau and a dataset of daily Washington, D.C. food truck locations, as well as social media data from Twitter and Google Trends. The study is particularly interested in the connection between food trucks and new digital technologies—especially social media—and how food trucks make use of them. Here are its five big takeaways.

via The Secrets to Food Truck Location – CityLab.


1. Twitter is a big factor in food truck location.

Food-seeking flocking behaviour.

2. The connection between food trucks and digital technology is greater in big, dense cities.

Network effect, more nodes, and more importantly, more connections. Check out Valdis Krebs.

3. When it comes to location, variety matters a lot.

We, birds, humans, weasels, get bored eating the same stuff. And to maintain health we need to eat different stuff. Variety matters. Duh.

4. Food truck location is spiky.

Even normal economics understands this power law effect.

5. Food trucks cause households to spend more money on eating out.

See 3 and 2.


Complexity fans will have spotted the lack of underpinning theory in the otherwise excellent CityLab piece. So I provided it, in bold italics. You’re welcome.



Bullying the nettles: ludogogy of the oppressed.

(A reference to Paolo Freire’s commendable book Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Humberto Maturana has a thistles and child story.

He is walking with his young son through a thistle-infested field. Seeking to heroically clear a pathway for his young son, who he loves with all his heart, he starts to playfully scythe the thistles, swinging his walking stick like it’s a sabre. His son asks him “Daddy, why do you hate the nettles?”

Maturana was much chastened. Children naturally respect the natural.

There is so much in this story and I only have time for one or 2 carats from the gem. So…

We don’t talk enough about oppression. Children are an oppressed group. We knew this in the 70s, the millennials feel it, but don’t fight it. Generational Learned Helplessness.

All oppressed things, like prey animals who quiver and dart and have huge eyes on the sides of their heads to see 360°, constantly observe, scan, watch and listen. Children observe all adults for signs of threat and they conceal their own feelings. To a small creature, everything bigger that moves is a threat, a potential predator. Even your mum. And if it’s Gary’s mum, especially Gary’s mum. You know those smiling natives in gap-year Trustafarian’s humblebrag photos? As the awesome Caitlin Moran pointed out, those smiles are the nervous grimaces of the rabbits as the fox enters the field…

And if you are oppressed, you always wonder if you’ll be next. That’s why, when the brave ‘zero tolerance of bullying moronic hero in their own brain’ leaps in to quash a bit of bullying*, all it does is frighten all the rabbits. There is a special  place in playwork hell for anti-bullying zealots.

Same thing happens when HR don the superhero suit and fight an ism.

*BTW, it’s not bullying unless it is hurt that is sustained, repeated and targeted. Otherwise it’s just mean. You know that word ‘mean”? Kids use it a lot, adults less so. Pay attention, people. And hey…

Let’s be careful out there.

Stop trying to save the world. Can we fix it?

I was approached by an NGO, which used to be called Intermediate Technology in the 1960s, a few years ago to speak at a conference.

One of their major private funders had read my book and was urging them to get me to speak. It became clear that the two organisers I spoke to by email had no idea why they should involve me. I, for my part could divine no coherent approach in their thinking. Practical Action they were called, ironically, and they were about encouraging micro enterprises using the standard capitalist concepts of business development, in Africa.

They were clearly addicted to funding, and expended enormous amounts of energy jumping through the hoops of complex metrics pushed down on them by increasingly dissatisfied funders. I got the impression that USAID, the main government funder was responsible for the complicated metrics; the usual government bureaucracy of accountability due diligence and valueformoney. They wouldn’t say boo to a goose; they just meekly complied.

I kept trying to make sense of what they wanted. I asked to be put in touch directly with the funder who had urged them to book me. They wouldn’t. They kept worretting on about economies being systems. But the people they were supposed to help had a goat and a mud hut. They were so poor they didn’t even have Microsoft Office!

Eventually I told them I didn’t have anything for them. I suppose I could have flown to Washington and taken their money but to be honest I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to go through all the grief of security theatre and visa applications and all that.

In the 60s,  Victor Papanek designed a “remarkable transistor radio, made from ordinary metal food cans and powered by a burning candle, that was designed to actually be produced cheaply in developing countries.” It cost a few pence to produce. It was a fixed tuner, because there was only one radio station, and so on. The Americans through USAID were parachuting crates full of battery operated 2 band radios into rural areas. Each cost ten dollars. They could only receive the one government station despite being 2 band radios capable of tuning across the entire frequency band because their was only one station within range. When the batteries ran out there were no more batteries to be had and no money to buy them if there were. When Papanek’s candles ran out they burnt animal dung.

This would have been the mid 60s. Those that don’t learn from history are condemned to continue to waste tax dollars.

Meanwhile, day of light, someone at the New Republic had been paying attention. Their tale of inventive, innovative, creative, development unfolds like this (spoiler alert: it fails)…

“Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

“PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.

“The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010…”

The sorry story unfolds here:

Yes, it features children playing. Woo. Some say using kids to pump water is exploitative. Matias Cordero will have an interesting take on that (Google him and ‘IPA 2011’).

If you persevere, towards the very end, there is a brief mention of complex adaptive systems. Yay.

Ludic Instrumentalism2: The Revenge…….Through ‘self-initiated cognitive activity’ we become human.

“Such is the context for understanding well-meaning folks (like me) whose lamentations about diminishing opportunities for play tend to include a defensive list of its practical benefits.  Play is “children’s work!”  Play teaches academic skills, advances language development, promotes perspective taking, conflict resolution, the capacity for planning, and so on.  To drive the point home, Deborah Meier wryly suggested that we stop using the word play altogether and declare that children need time for “self-initiated cognitive activity.””

“Kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way.”


“The point of play is that it has no point.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or shudder when I read this sentence in a national magazine:  “Kids need careful adult guidance and instruction before they are able to play in a productive way.”[5]  But I will admit that I, too, sometimes catch myself trying to justify play in terms of its usefulness.”


Through ‘self-initiated cognitive activity’ we become human.