Viable System Model

I’ve replaced the Stafford Beer quote here previously with a longer quote from Platform for Change, written in 1975. The book has five different kinds of content, distinguished by five colors of paper (as well as the style and approach in what’s written). After a quote from Warren S. McCulloch (“don’t bite my finger — look where it’s pointing”) the book begins


I would like to talk to you

if you have the time

in a new sort of way
about a new sort of world.

That’s because I reckon the world we have
is in very deep trouble :
and I don’t just mean

rumours of ward
exhaustion of natural resources

you can go on with that list :
it is all on the menu
for what’s left of the century

if we get that far

there is something more fundamental
of which the items we were listing
are merely symptoms

treating symptoms
gets you nowhere
if there’s something really wrong.

We are getting nowhere
with the disease itself
not even recognizing it.

You will find out
why my talk takes so long.

       I am sorry about that
and I have found a way
to make it very much shorter
as you will see.

 Stafford Beer’s realms of expertise included cybernetics, systems, operations research, yoga (he taught individual pupils), …

I have close to a dozen books by or about Stafford Beer and his ideas. I’ve read maybe half of them at least once, some of them multiple times.The ones I’ve read in full deal with his Viable System model. One feature of it that I have not found emphasized in any other system model:

It is a model in which systems at one level (self-maintaining within their environment) become, in the aggregate, the first-level components in a larger system, which also self-maintains within its larger environment.

The strength of this model (as I see it) is in the nature of the communication between adjacent system-levels. Each level of “management” serves as a filter for the information coming from larger systems. A healthy system has the “requisite variety” of ways to handle what its environment might send its way. (“Requisite variety” is a concept from cybernetics / H. Ross Ashby – that is important in Stafford Beer’s model.)

To make this concrete, I will discuss it in terms of how Vermont could design a hierarchy of systems to connect its educational institutions.

Local school boards oversee the local schools. It is part of a larger system (in Vermont, a Supervisory Union – what others call a district).  There are over 50 Supervisory Districts (smaller) or Unions (larger). The largest SU’s have over a dozen schools. Some Districts have only one or two schools.

Teachers, schools, districts, even states are given “things to do” from higher level systems. Rules and mandates from above; constructed with little thought toward how they will affect the work of the people who must work within these constraints.

If one were to attempt a re-design starting from a Viable System framework, it might be possible to cut through some of the Gordian knot of managing budgets, schools, teachers, classrooms, etc.

Echoing what I said in other words above, one of the roles of the larger whole (the system-of-systems) is to filter from the component (lower level) systems repercussions from goings-on at higher levels. I see that not happening in the way things work now. And the component systems work most smoothly when given the autonomy to deal with issues best dealt with locally. That’s not always the case in our classrooms nor in the schools of which they’re a part, nor in the larger entities administering the individual schools.