Futurology and the future of systems analysis

Ida R. Hoos
(with an introduction by Graham Mathieson, Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, ENG)


It is the curse of those who try to create new ideas to be forever stumbling over the same ideas in long forgotten papers. As a defense mechanism we periodically change the language and the boundaries of our disciplines so that we can confidently discount ‘out of date’ ideas as belonging to a previous age. Ida Hoos’s paper was written in the ‘Space Age’ when systems analysis claimed credit for engineering the Moon landings and RAND’s mathematical models of War were still used to shape Strategy. In the ‘Information Age’ we have matured beyond such naivety and might be tempted to ignore this paper as no longer relevant. We would be wrong to do so. Hoos grapples with the problems of prediction and designing a better future for social systems and, in doing so, presages many of the key ideas of complex systems thinking, albeit in ‘Space Age’ terms.

To begin Hoos seeks to debunk some of the “normative, methodological, and unsupported assumptions” of the systems approach to futurology. The idea that adequate formal models can be built and sufficiently complete and future-proof data banks accumulated so as to allow “comprehensive anticipatory design science” is challenged by the assertion that “the design of the future is little more than an image projection, more revealing of the creator’s Weltanshauung than of the form and direction of social changes ahead.” The paper also explores the “basic philosophical conflict between free will and determinism” that lies at the heart of attempts to conceive and operate models of the future as a basis for design and social policy. Social engineering can readily become self-fulfilling prophecy, all the more potent and dangerous for being cast in the mold of ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ management.

Systems analysis, when applied prospectively, depends upon an ability to study the future with tools that the analysts themselves recognize to be “crude” and is sold on the basis that “the future designed through rational procedures will be better than its much maligned, disorderly, democratic alternative, arrived at through the presumed anarchy of social forces without vector.” In this context science supports the egocentric fantasy that Man is capable of faithfully apprehending and understanding the world and (even more fantastical) controlling it. The systems approach, while purporting to be holistic, actually delivers a deeply reductionist result. There are distinct anticipations of the ideas of complexity thinking in Hoos’s suggestion that “experience has shown that the orderly and predictable factors may, in the final analysis, be those of least importance in the dynamics and direction of social change.”

But the paper is much more than a philosophical treatise. It engages a clear sight upon the social and political realities of applying systems thinking to the future. The implications of public policy on research grants and the social kudos given to approaches that are (or appear) systematic and technically sophisticated are called out as having diverted executive attention to the “wrong questions.”

At times Hoos’s writing is florid (e.g., “Deeper probe reveals how thin lies the veneer of glossolalia over fuzzy conceptualization and hyperkinetic data accumulation.”) and in the second half of the paper the style becomes rather too polemical, even vitriolic in tone, with a correlated disappearance of external references, indicating an underlying ‘agenda’ beyond the merely intellectual. There is also much with which to disagreeespecially for one whose career is built on internal consultancy within a government department - but a rich scattering of intellectual gems makes the paper’s sins forgivable and rewards the reader who is seriously seeking insight rather than a shallow confirmation of prior beliefs.

This Space Age paper raises important questions about the role and efficacy of systems thinking as an approach to support executive decision-making and management, concluding that the techniques of systems analysis are not “appropriate to deal with problems which are essentially human and social” and that “the direction in which they are developing promises little improvement.” A generation later, in the Information Age, the questions remain equally valid and represent a real and significant challenge for complex systems thinking to address.

The original article can be downloaded from here


Originally published in Hoos, I. R. (1972). Systems analysis in public policy, Los Angeles, CA: University of California, ISBN 0520021045, Ch. 8, pp. 235-247. Reproduced by kind permission of the University of California.