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If you’ve come in search of an article previously hosted on, I apologize: old posts will be migrated over before the end of November 2022! In the meantime, you can still find the old site at

Thinking with Obsidian, publishing with Quartz + Hugo, and hosting on Linode.

  • △ Create Shortcuts for interacting with markdown tables via spreadsheets

    Last updated Nov 24, 2022 | Originally published Jul 29, 2022

  • Finding Leverage for Systems Change—Toward a modern theory of leverage in systemic design - A talk at ST-ON

    Last updated Nov 14, 2022 | Originally published Nov 2, 2022

    I presented a follow-up to Leverage is Fractal, Relative, and what else? We need a theory of leverage in systemic design at Systems Thinking Ontario in mid-November:

    To design for leverage is to identify the most powerful opportunities for innovation in systems change. In this talk, I presented a brief history on the origins of leverage theory — especially Donella Meadows’s “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” — and covered recent developments in designing for leverage. Then, I outlined some challenges to our current understanding of leverage, calling for a modern theory of leverage in systemic design. I concluded with some ideas on what might be addressed by such a theory.

    Here’s the slides!

    The discussion following the talk was exhiliarating and so productive. You can watch the talk and the discussion on Youtube.

  • Why the grass is greener: Making sure that shiny new alternative tool is actually going to help you

    Last updated Nov 3, 2022 | Originally published Nov 3, 2022

    “The grass is always greener on the other side.” The popular idiom discourages whoever’s listening from seeking out alternatives, suggesting that other options always look better from wherever we’re currently standing. But it has a funny problem: nobody ever explains why the grass is greener on the other side.

    That’s because it isn’t. The truth is that your side is just yellower/trampled on/eaten… and that’s because you’re on it.

    Moving to a different place will be fine at first. Then you’ll use it, too, and eventually it’ll look the same as where you started.

    (In this metaphor, you’re a goat. 🐐)

    In workflow design, in addition to the novelty of “shiny new object,” new and alternative tools are great simply because they don’t have the cruft you’ve built up in the old tool. That cruft might be noisy notes, a lifetime of guilt-inducing task management, or even just bad habits and behaviours. The problem isn’t the tool. It isn’t you, either. It’s you and the tool.

    So, after switching, the problems seem to go away… only to re-emerge (possibly in a new form) later because the issues are generated by your usage, not by the tool.

    The solution is to fall in love with the problem, not the (shiny, potential) solutions.

    1. Determine what your issues actually are, and try to figure out why they’re happening.
    2. Then, abstractly identify how you might be able to mitigate the problems.
      • Don’t say “I’ll use Bunch,” say “If I standardize certain work spaces on my computer, I can develop muscle memory for using those workspaces, reducing distraction and allowing me to spend less cognitive energy on finding everything I need to get engaged.”
    3. Last, identify some tests or success conditions that will tell you whether the solution is actually working. This’ll help minimize irrational perspectives on how well the honeymoon stage is going.

    Only after taking those three steps should you choose a tool. Find something that can implement the abstract principles you’ve articulated, and be sure to follow-through on the tests.

    In doing this, you’re actually creating and implementing a rough design theory. You’re using design science to make your work as easy and engaging as it can be! High-five for that.

  • Automatically download Reminders into your Obsidian notes with Shortcuts

    Published Nov 1, 2022

    Want a quick, hands-free, one-step method to capture reminders and tasks into Obsidian? Take advantage of Reminders, Shortcuts, and Shortcuts’s automations feature.

    This Shortcut will extract all reminders currently incomplete in a given list and append them to your daily note.

    Here’s a screenshot of the full Shortcut

    Download it and set it up (i.e., answer all of the configuration questions). Then, create Shortcuts automations (via the Automations tab in Shortcuts) that run on whatever triggers you want (e.g., “Whenever the Obsidian app is opened” and “9am”). Add a “Run Shortcut” action to that automation, then select the shortcut you’ve just configured.

    🎉! Whenever the shortcut is triggered, the reminders in the designated list will be added to your daily note.

    You can now say e.g., “Hey Siri, add ‘Pick up milk’ to my Obsidian list,” and that item will (eventually) be added to your daily note.

  • A Keyboard Maestro macro for quickly and easily opening published notes in Obsidian

    Published Oct 27, 2022

    Similar to Notes/A Shortcut for quickly and easily opening published notes in Obsidian, this macro makes it easy to jump from viewing a published note on the web to editing it in Obsidian.

    Don’t forget to switch Mainframe to your vault’s name!

    Download the macro here.

    I have it tied to a Stream Deck button, but you can configure it to trigger however you’d like.

    See a screenshot of the macro

  • A Shortcut for quickly and easily opening published notes in Obsidian

    Published Oct 27, 2022

    If you publish your notes to the web in any way and you are on iOS/macOS, here’s a simple shortcut that lets you quickly and easily open a note from your website in Obsidian:

    See the shortcut in action

    A screen recording of the Shortcut.

  • RSDx and RSD11

    Last updated Oct 27, 2022 | Originally published Oct 21, 2022

    # Talks and workshops at RSDx and RSD11

    Recently I helped host a set of workshops and sessions as a part of RSDx, an online series developed as a part of the Systemic Design Association’s conference programming and as an addendum (or perhaps pre-dendum? I don’t understand Latin, I’m afraid) to RSD11 (more on that below).

    I designed one of the sessions, a workshop addressing the question “How should systemic design’s scholarship system work?” The session featured provocations from my friends and colleagues Lewis Muirhead, Stephen Davies, Marie Davidová, and Birger Sevaldson before groups split up to develop some design principles for supporting scholarship in systemic design. It was based on one of the discussion papers I authored for the conference:

    Then, the 11th Relating Systems Thinking and Design Symposium was the following week, held at Brighton University in the UK and everywhere you can connect to the Internet. I had a couple of contributions:

  • ∎ Design Science Dysfunctions - Listening Notes 20220525

    Published Oct 26, 2022

    # Notes from listening to “Design Science Dysfunctions,” an episode of This IS Research

    • Recker, Berente, and Gregor identify three problems with design principles:
      1. Design principles rarely build on existing work (They should be developed over extensive amounts of research (eg review articles), not one-off papers)
      2. Design principles are rarely very surprising or useful (“the UI has to be easy to use”)
      3. They often depend too much on context → indeterminacy
    • Interesting: even though (to her chagrin) she is the “[Design] Theory” person, Gregor doesn’t always include or look for a design theory in design science research. She said “A theory is just a body of work” in defense of why she doesn’t sometimes include a full Design Theory.
  • About

    Last updated Oct 26, 2022 | Originally published Jul 5, 2017

    # Hi.

    A profile photo of Ryan.

    I’m Ryan. I work at the intersection of technology, psychology, design, and the application of those disciplines to the advancement of education. I use design and systems thinking to search for strategic opportunities for change.

    I’m currently pursuing a PhD in Management (Information Systems). I hold a Master of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation from OCAD University and a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Psychology and Computer Science (Software Engineering) from Memorial University.

    My wife works in Geriatric medicine, and our greyhound has switched from a bad career in racing to a comfortable one in treat quality control.

    This site is a place to share my work and to help me connect to people like you.

    # Need Something?

    I’m a professional systemic designer available to support systems change projects, especially through helping develop systems-informed strategy. Reach out!

    # Site info

    This site is built on Quartz via Obsidian.

  • A simple method of appending or prepending to a section in a markdown file

    Published Sep 28, 2022

    This Keyboard Maestro macro demonstrates how to insert text into a specific section in Markdown.

    The core idea is simply to replace a heading with the heading plus the new content and some new lines in between.

    A Keyboard Maestro macro for inserting text into a section of a markdown document.

    Download the macro here.

  • Popclip Extension for highlighting in DEVONthink and PDF Expert

    Last updated Sep 19, 2022 | Originally published Sep 19, 2022

    The Popclip Extension below makes highlighting selected text quick and easy in both PDF Expert and DEVONthink. (If you use something else to review PDFs, it should be trivial to edit the script to use that application and its menu items instead.)

    # PopClip Highlight
    name: Highlight
    required apps: [com.devon-technologies.think3, com.readdle.PDFExpert-Mac]
    icon: symbol:highlighter
    applescript: | # pipe character begins a multi-line string
      tell application "System Events"
        set frontApp to first application process whose frontmost is true
        set frontAppName to name of frontApp as string
        if frontAppName contains "PDF Expert" then
          tell application "System Events"
            tell application process "PDF Expert"
              click menu item "Highlight" of menu of menu bar item "Annotate" of menu bar 1
            end tell
          end tell
        else if frontAppName contains "DEVONthink 3" then
          tell application "System Events"
            tell application process "DEVONthink 3"
              click menu item "Highlight" of menu of menu bar item "Format" of menu bar 1
            end tell
          end tell
        end if
      end tell Popclip Extension for highlighting in DEVONthink and PDF Expert
  • △ Decide on a tech stack for Quartz

    Published Sep 16, 2022

    • Develop a list of needs and options
      • This ended up being quite an involved process. The options are recursive… everything is about $5/month and seems to work basically the same until I actually start using it. Trouble is, using these things without knowing the gaps might mean painful and troublesome switching around later on.
    • Try hosting on Render
      • Didn’t work. Render can’t easily install “apps” like Quartz. Same will go for Netlify/etc — any host that uses GitHub Pages will not be a full server, and so I won’t necessarily have full control over what I can install.
    • Try hosting on Linode
  • △ Knowledge innovation is systemic and fractal and that should be reflected in our models of publishing

    Published Jun 25, 2022

    # Abstract

    The Systemic Design Association’s (SDA) recently adopted the Scholar’s Spiral ( As described in the article, the previous canonical model of scholarly progress in the systemic design community was a “publication ladder.” The ladder provided a simple and useful framework for authors. However, the linear nature of the ladder did not fit with the multiplicity of inputs and outputs of the scholarly process recognized by SDA members. Further, it implied that the highest form of impact was, by default, a scholarly publication in a single preferred destination. A solution to these problems should be celebrated. However, the core problems with the old model persist in the Scholar’s Spiral:

    1. It still shows the scholarly progress of an idea or project as a stepwise function beginning with conference presentations. This suggests conference publications are less important than later publications. It also implies a standard narrative for the evolution of a scholarly idea.
    2. It still specifies an ultimate destination (the Contexts journal). This suggests that an idea should ultimately be presented in Contexts for posterity (if only before it goes on to have further impact).

    Further, despite its centering in systemic design, the model fails to include gigamaps, synthesis maps, and other such non-traditional forms of knowledge [@Jones2017Rendering-Systems-Visible-For-Design; @Sevaldson2018Visualizing-Complex-Design-Evolution-Gigamaps]. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the framing of the spiral introduces a new problem. Scholarship is knowledge innovation — it is fractal and systemic, requiring and spinning off parallel innovations of many forms, scales, and degrees. Based on these critiques, I propose an iteration on the Scholar’s Spiral: Scholars’ Spirals. The Scholars’ Spirals model recognizes that scholarship is itself a system by incorporating five principles: (1) co-creation; (2) multiplication; (3) nonlinearity; (4) transdisciplinarity; and (5) de-centering the scholar and the publication. I propose multiple pathways through the Scholars’ Spirals to provide wayfinding for scholars of different paths.

    The Scholars’ Spirals model inspires some important questions about scholarship in systemic design: How should scholars be incentivized, assessed, and rewarded? What is the role of prestige in this system? And how can we effectively judge scholarly impact while managing fair and equitable competitions for grants and positions? Metrics like citation counts and Journal Impact Factors have become the shorthand standard for gauging merit. We know that “when a measure becomes a goal, it stops becoming a useful measure” — and yet, while “all models are wrong. some models are useful.” The challenge we have to face is to find novel, effective ways to assess the systemic impact of scholarly work in systemic design.

    # Knowledge Innovation Is Systemic and Fractal and That Should Be Reflected in Our Models of Publishing: Proposing a Scholars’ Spirals model of scholarly impact and knowledge innovation pathways

    # Introduction

    The Systemic Design Association’s (SDA) adoption of the Scholar’s Spiral [@2022SDA-Endorses-The-Scholars-Spiral] should be celebrated. As described in the article, the previous canonical model of scholarly progress in the systemic design community was a “publication ladder.” The ladder [@Lockwood2018Ladder-Publication-Scaffolding-For-Emergent] provided a simple framework for authors. It was easy to understand how scholarly effort should be initially published, and how that effort should advance as its products became more potent and refined. The stepwise nature of the ladder made it easier for a scholar to decide what to do with their work based on the work’s stage of advancement. However, the linear nature of the ladder did not fit with the multiplicity of inputs and outputs of the scholarly process recognized by SDA members. Further, it implied that the highest form of impact was, by default, a scholarly publication in a single preferred destination (a journal).

    The new model proposed by the SDA board is a spiral. It [@2022SDA-Endorses-The-Scholars-Spiral] purports to:

    1. Reduce competitive implications of the ladder’s hierarchical structure, which places the achievement of the peer-reviewed article at the top of the ladder;
    2. Encourage the development of new authors in the field by promoting a holistic and high-standard process for authors at different le,vels of quality and readiness to start publishing; and
    3. Adapt our knowledge of systems thinking to the publishing process.

    By presenting the preceding ladder in a ringed shape, the spiral implies that systemic design scholarship is iterative. It shows how knowledge innovation in systemic design advances in a cyclical form, building on previous efforts by circling back on itself in feedback processes. It changes the label of some of the destinations (e.g., including “Other Conferences”) in order to acknowledge variance in the communities a scholar engages with.

    Figure 1. The publication ladder [@Lockwood2018Ladder-Publication-Scaffolding-For-Emergent] and the SDA Scholar’s Spiral [@2022SDA-Endorses-The-Scholars-Spiral].

    # Problems with the Scholar’s Spiral

    However, while the new model should be celebrated as progress, it fails to fully resolve the problems it set out to address. Glibly, the new spiral is merely a linear hierarchy that has been curved. Granted, it looks less hierarchical, and it looks less linear, but it is a mostly a trick of the eye. The core problems with the old model persist in the Scholar’s Spiral:

    1. It still shows the scholarly progress of an idea as a stepwise function beginning with conference presentations. This suggests, for instance, that conference publications are less important than later publications. It also implies a standard narrative for the evolution of an idea.
    2. It still specifies an ultimate destination (the Contexts journal). This suggests that an idea should ultimately be presented in Contexts for posterity (if only before it goes on to have further impact).

    Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the framing of the spiral introduces a new problem. Scholarship is knowledge innovation: a change in knowledge that improves our ability to explain, predict, and create. Ergo, several features of innovation also apply to scholarship. Crucially, innovation is fractal and systemic [@Murphy2016Innovation-Education] [p. 20]:

    The success of one innovation often requires the success of others in parallel. Innovation often results in new knowledge, relationships, and spin-off innovations. Innovations exist in many forms, from product to social movement; at many scales, from new-to-you to new-to-the-world; and in many degrees, from radical to incremental.

    In other words, scholarship requires and precipitates parallel scholarship. Scholarly works build on one another in emergent, nonlinear ways. Scholarly achievements are caused by and cause collaborative inquiry. New ideas form from dialectic relationships between preceding ideas. By calling the model a Scholar’s Spiral — a singular possessive of a singularity — the model implies that an idea is owned and shepherded by a single scholar and evolved on a single path. This neglects the true collaborative and emergent nature of scholarship and knowledge innovation.

    # The Scholars’ Spirals model of research impact and knowledge innovation

    Based on these critiques, I propose an iteration on the Scholar’s Spiral: Scholars’ Spirals. A visualization of the model is depicted in figure 2.

    Figure 2. A visualization of the Scholars’ Spirals model.

    The Scholars’ Spirals model suggests that knowledge innovation is typically elaborated from idea to impact through at least eight types of knowledge innovation and knowledge products: conversations, practice, collaborations, abstracts, conference presentations, conference proceedings, journal articles, and books. However, it does not organize this typology into a hierarchy: no one form of knowledge is necessarily superior to another. Instead, each of these forms of knowledge is the manifestation of ideas. Knowledge is perpetuated and evolved via in cyclical moments of knowledge exchange [@Baskerville2015Genres-Inquiry-In-Design-Science] [p. 552] between these forms and ideas.

    The Scholars’ Spirals model reifies the following principles:

    1. Scholarship may be co-creative — especially in systemic design, where co-creativity is an essential part of systemic design practice. Hence, the use of the plural possessive “Scholars’”.
    2. (Systemic design) scholarship should be multiplicative. One conference presentation may inspire dozens of responses, iterations, and offshoot publications. Systemic design researchers should be encouraged to interact with, build upon, challenge, and inspire other works, and should aspire to have others do the same to them. Hence, the use of the plural “Spirals.”
    3. (Systemic design) scholarship may be nonlinear. An idea may be developed in a series of iterative conference publication. A significant research stream may begin as a gigamap or synthesis map [@Jones2017Rendering-Systems-Visible-For-Design; @Sevaldson2018Visualizing-Complex-Design-Evolution-Gigamaps] that leads to both a book and a conference presentation. Scholars’ Spirals acknowledge these complex pathways.
    4. In transdisciplines such as systemic design [@Jones2017Systemic-Turn-Leverage-For-World], scholarship may be multiand cross-disciplinary. Systemic design research may draw on examples from one field to create a design artifact for another. The Scholars’ Spirals model does not prescribe a disciplinary track for each form of knowledge, encouraging these transdisciplinary inputs and outputs that connect achievements in systemic design scholarship.
    5. Scholarship should strive to de-centre publications and publishing in favour of scholarly impact and knowledge innovation [@DORA2012San-Francisco-Declaration-Research-Assessment]. Contributions themselves are cardinal; the ideas they provoke are secondary; the conversations and practices they inspire are tertiary; and everything else is simply part of the process.

    A few other nuances are worth explaining.1 First, I conceptualized a collaboration as a combination of conversations and practice. Surely, many scholarly works — conference proceedings, journal articles, and the like, are collaborations. I do not argue against that whatsoever. However, the model only attempts to explain and predict how innovative scholarship is evolved into the non-exhaustive list of forms of knowledge it contains. To that end, I am asserting that a collaboration is practice we talk about together. Collaborations generate new ideas — it is those ideas that become the collaborative journal articles we see with multiple listed authors. For a proof-by-example of this, consider the (in)famous article “Combined Measurement of the Higgs Boson Mass in pp Collisions at √s = 7 and 8 TeV with the ATLAS and CMS Experiments” [@ATLAS2015Combined-Measurement-Higgs-Boson-Mass], which lists over 5,000 co-authors. Surely, not every author was added to a collaborative Google Doc and had opinions about the semantics of the title. Yet, every author included contributed in shaping the project that led to the ideas that generated the insights of the paper.

    Second, you may wonder how this model applies to a sole author developing and publishing their ideas independently. How does this path apply to the model’s emphasis of cyclical conversations and exchanges of ideas? It is simple, and it does not require that we talk to ourselves. At least, not out loud. Instead, I argue that writing is a conversation with yourself. When we write, we instantiate our ideas and arguments as unstructured and semistructured data [@Negash2004Business-Intelligence], creating a kind of personal information system [@Murphy2021Your-Notes-Are-An-Information]. So, as we write — and read what we’ve just written — we engage in a kind of conversation with this information system.2

    # Pathways to impact

    Of course, a model that reflects the “true” complexity of an idealized systemic design scholarship system is unlikely to help an individual scholar or team navigate that system, as the possible “next best steps” may be overwhelming. The map should not be the territory [@Korzybski1933Science-Sanity-An-Introduction-To] [p. 58]. To provide guidance, the Scholars’ Spirals model offers a set of pathways to impact for a scholar to adopt and/or adapt.

    However, like the forms of knowledge represented in the model, the paths presented here are not an exhaustive list, nor do they represent the best or most important methods of achieving impact.

    1. Publishing ladder

    Figure 3. Publishing ladder

    This pathway is labelled 0 as it is the default model of scholarly impact, as represented by the publishing ladder [@Lockwood2018Ladder-Publication-Scaffolding-For-Emergent] and the first version of the scholar’s spiral [@2022SDA-Endorses-The-Scholars-Spiral]. It follows the same structure as those scaffolds: a scholar puts their ideas into an abstract, converts the feedback on the abstract into a conference presentation, translates the conference presentation into a proceedings paper, levels that work up to a journal article, and maybe eventually elaborates on the concepts in a book.

    1. Practice to Theory

    Figure 4. Practice to Theory

    The Practice to Theory pathway illustrates how a practitioner might draw from their experience to publish theoretical contributions at a conference like RSD. In this path, practice generates ideas that the author captures in an abstract, which is accepted for a conference publication and then later written up as part of conference proceedings. Note: in this diagram, connections are weighted to indicate a “beginning” (the heaviest strokes) and an “end” (the lightest strokes) of the pathway, by way of demonstrating how the Scholars’ Spirals model may be used to show such progress. However, I want to reiterate the nonlinearity principle of the model: ontologically, there may not be a “beginning” nor an “end” in knowledge innovation.

    1. Theory to Practice

    Figure 5. Theory to Practice

    The Theory to Practice pathway highlights how publication is not necessarily the key outcome of knowledge innovation. Instead, in this model, insights are drawn from scholarship and translated into practice and artifacts.

    1. Conference Conversations

    Figure 6. Conference Conversations

    The Conference Conversations path captures the conference experience hosts endeavour to facilitate. Presentations at the conference generate new ideas for participants, who engage in conversations. Those conversations, in turn, lead to new projects and collaborations.

    1. A concrete example: Design Journeys

    Figure 7. <em>Design Journeys</em>

    This final example pathway infers the path taking by Peter Jones and Kristel van Ael in the publication of the recent book Design Journeys through Complex Systems: Practice Tools for Systemic Design [@Jones2022Design-Journeys-Through-Complex-Systems]. They write…

    Based on years of work in social and health sectors, we developed the Systemic Design Toolkit as a collection of systems power tools that enable service and strategic designers to bridge design research with stakeholders for complex systems. (p. 3)

    … and …

    These values were inspired by or taken from the vital ideas presented at several Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD) Symposia, which, for a decade, have built up a research community and foundation of practices supporting these methods and tools. (p. 18)

    As you can see, ideas and conversations that were developed in practice and inspired through conference participation became the Systemic Design Toolkit [@2021Systemic-Design-Toolkit], which itself was first workshopped at conferences across disciplines in 2015 [@2016Systemic-Design-Workshop-At-Rsd5; @2015Presenting-Systems-Thinking-Tools-At]. Further engagement with conferences, especially RSD, and use of the tools in their own practices eventually led to the publication of the book.

    # Questions and directions

    The Scholars’ Spirals model may inspire some important conversations in systemic design scholarship. Crucially, it suggests we take as fundamental the idea that scholarly achievements and knowledge innovations are the products of a system, and not a scholar. If that is the case, it provokes two questions:

    1. How should scholars be incentivized, rewarded, recognized, and compared, if they are no longer the “heroes” of the story of knowledge?
    2. What is the design of our scholarship system? Is it working as “intended”?

    The model also challenges the conventional notion that the prestige of a publication destination is paramount. If the Scholars’ Spirals model is accepted wholeheartedly, it means that contributions published in classically-less-prestigious destinations (such as conference presentations) and formats (such as gigamaps or tools) should potentially be considered just as important as those published in classically-more-prestigious forms (like journal publications). Yet, one of the functions of prestige is efficiency: when competition for funding or positions is fierce, it is impossible for an adjudication or hiring committee to thoroughly review the scholarly impact of numerous applications with diverse backgrounds. Prestige and other metrics like impact factors and citation counts provide a measure facilitating comparisons of impact. This leads to a classic systemic problem: when a measure becomes a target, it stops being a good measure. Researchers adapt their behaviour to perform better on these measures, possibly at the cost of their potential contributions (e.g., imagine a researcher who abandons a publication with profound implications because it is not accepted in a major journal) or even through fraud and misconduct [@Biagioli2016Watch-Out-For-Cheats-In]. So: what else might we assess or measure in order to judge the systemic impact of a scholar or their contributions? How can we effectively judge the systemic impact of a scholarly contribution while managing fair and equitable competitions for positions, grants, and contracts?

    What other forms of knowledge might be important to include in the model? The Scholars’ Spirals model shows how knowledge innovation may be shared in many formats, but the list visualized by the model is incomplete. What of, for instance, YouTube videos, social media posts, or perhaps policy and law? There may be more useful ways of representing the many forms of knowledge in the model.

    Finally, just as it suggests, the model itself unlocks possible future innovations. For instance, there may be utility in further pioneering and pathfinding. What other common routes to impact might exist? What are some interesting outliers, and why did they succeed? What additional guidance or supports might be useful for scholars pursuing a given pathway? I can imagine, for instance, a compass-style tool in which a scholar chooses a heading — i.e., the kind of progress they want to make in their career — and provides their recent contributions, and the tool helps the scholar decide which contributions to evolve further, and how to do so. Last, while the Scholars’ Spirals model is contribution-centered, it could be used to develop a scholar-centric complementary tool. Perhaps there are multiple kinds of scholars who each pursue similar patterns of contributions over time to different ends.

    # Conclusion

    The SDA’s adoption of the Scholar’s Spiral underscored the importance of reevaluating our mental models of knowledge innovation, scholarly impact, and publishing. The Scholars’ Spirals model I present here furthers the efforts of the Scholar’s Spiral while acknowledging the systemic undercurrents influencing the interaction between scholars, knowledge, and knowledge’s many instantiations. It centers the contribution, not the scholar, emphasizing how knowledge innovation occurs as a result of interactions between scholars and their ideas. Finally, the model provides flexible pathways such that a diversity of scholars can see themselves and their contributions in the model. Still, metrics like citation counts and Journal Impact Factors remain the shorthand standard for gauging merit [@DORA2012San-Francisco-Declaration-Research-Assessment]. The challenge of our modern era of scholarship is to use tools like the Scholars’ Spirals model to find novel, effective ways to accurately assess the systemic impact of scholarship and knowledge innovation.

    # Acknowledgements

    Icons used in the Scholars’ Spirals visualizations are licensed from FlatIcon.

    # References

    1. Albeit hopefully only to add detail to the model, not to evade refutation of the theory of the Scholars’ Spiral [@Healy2017Fuck-Nuance] [p. 121]. ↩︎

    2. This is an information system because it is a way of maintaining, representing, and interacting with your mental models [@Olive2007Conceptual-Modeling-Of-Information-Systems] [p. 3]. ↩︎

  • Design Management for Wicked Problems - talk at ADMC 2020

    Last updated Mar 30, 2022 | Originally published Mar 30, 2022

    # Design management for wicked problems - ADMC 2020

    Our toughest problems resist conventional strategies for change. In this talk from Peter Jones and I, we show how designerly approaches—namely methods from systemic design—can help create and implement systemic theories of change. Those theories may then be used to develop effective strategies for wicked problems.

    We presented this talk at the Academic Design Management Conference in 2020, and it led to a follow-up paper.

  • Intuition is confident abduction

    Last updated Nov 7, 2020 | Originally published Nov 7, 2020

    # Intuition is confident abductive-inferential thinking

    In a recent episode of Hello Monday, Jessi Hempel interviews Dr. Natalie Nixon on creativity and her new book, The Creativity Leap. Natalie’s PhD in Design Management—plus her work in fashion, design, and business—led her to a catchy and compelling description of creative work. We accomplish creative work, she says, “by toggling between wonder and rigour.”

    In the podcast conversation, Jessi and Natalie talk about intuition—and I was struck by something. “We don’t talk about intuition,” Natalie notes at about 6 minutes in. “We don’t talk about intuition in business school, in law school, or in medical school.” And yet, she says, “I observed that really successful leaders—especially really successful startup leaders—in their origin stories, there’s always this moment where ‘Something told me not to do the deal. Something told me to work with her over him.’ […] Every successful leader really reckons with incorporating acting on their intuition to make decisions.” Jessi agrees, noting that intuition comes up often in her interviews with leaders on Hello Monday as leaders cite it as the reason for their success.

    The thing is, just because we don’t name intuition doesn’t mean we aren’t talking about it. That’s because intuition is really just confident, logical thinking.

    Charles Sanders Peirce was a philosopher. He investigated how we inquire into and discover new knowledge.1 Before Peirce, we generally recognized the logical processes of deduction and induction. Deductive thinking helps us identify what must be true about a situation in order to explain it. When we deduce something, we look at the general rules and principles we know of and draw specific conclusions from that evidence. Inductive thinking involves drawing general conclusions from specific, limited evidence.

    Peirce argued that effective reasoning follows a pattern: we determine the specific consequences of an idea (deduction), and then we judge whether the available evidence fits that idea and its consequences (induction). But how do we develop ideas?2

    Abduction is the name of the logical process Peirce described for developing ideas. To think abductively means to generate and choose ideas that fit the situation at hand. A good idea should be verifiable—we should be able to use evidence to judge its fit—and should help us resolve the situation at hand. Peirce also had criteria to help choose the best ideas to test. He suggested that we should strive to conserve resources (e.g., those that most are most efficiently verifiable and usable in the situation), identify the most valuable ideas (specifically the “uberty” of an idea, or how likely it is that a possible idea might bring about an innovation), and the most relevant ideas (e.g., those that may apply beyond our current focus, too).3

    Abduction is clearly an important step in any innovative process—but it is no more important than testing and using the ideas you generate. What, then, if you don’t have enough evidence to truly test and prove your ideas?

    The process Peirce described—abduction, deduction, induction—is the ideal. However, we do not always have time and energy to follow the process diligently. Instead, we quickly make creative judgements based on a few observed qualities. This requires two related processes.4 The first Peirce called “abductory induction,” and it combines the first and last step of the inquiry process. We observe the qualities of the situation, and we generate possible ideas to resolve it based on those observations. The second process is known as “inference to the best explanation” (IBE).5 IBE is exactly what it sounds like. Given a number of possible ways of resolving a problem, choose the best one. (Peirce’s criteria, noted above, apply here.)

    So what does all this have to do with intuition?

    Intuition is the confident application of these shorthand logical approaches to creative problem solving. As Jessi and Natalie noted, we aren’t often explicitly taught about strengthening our intuition. Yet, everything we learn supports its development. The more we have to draw on in order to pull into the processes described above, the better our intuitive decisions will be.

    I say that intuition is the confident application of these processes because they only work when we follow through. In reality, we use abductory induction and IBE all the time. When we engage in creative problem solving, we’re not only using information from the evidence in front of us. We’re drawing on our lived experience and our knowledge base. Even if we don’t directly recall or reference that background information, it is drawn into the creativity of abduction and it defines the general rules and principles we use in deduction. It provides us with the heuristics we use when engaging in IBE. But if we don’t have a bias towards action and instead operate with e.g., perfectionism, we fail to actually execute on these ideas. Thus, we need to have confidence in our abductory induction and IBE processes.

    All this is simply a gentle challenge of the idea that we don’t talk about intuition. I think that all knowledge management practices and forms of education are actually fundamentally about strengthening our intuition.

    That said, Natalie’s work is fascinating. I recommend the episode of Hello Monday and plan on picking up her book!

    1. In this article, my reading of Peirce comes from the writing of William Mcauliffe↩︎

    2. Peirce was actually specifically concerned with science and hypotheses generation, selection, and testing. Here I refer to generating, selecting, testing, and using ideas to apply these concepts to problem-solving more broadly. ↩︎

    3. He also cautioned not to produce ideas that stop the inquiry process—e.g., magical thinking, or by suggesting that whatever happened must be a complete mystery. ↩︎

    4. Actually, the difference between these two processes is the subject of substantive, controversial debate. This is in part because the scholars who study inference to the best explanation have also used Peirce’s term “abduction” to describe it. This understandably caused extensive confusion, but also probably a lot of philosophical debates and scholarship, so maybe it was for the best. ↩︎

    5. Philosopher Gilbert Harman originally described and named this process… and mistakenly suggested it was the same thing as abduction. ↩︎

  • A quick sketch of an interdisciplinary systems model

    Published Apr 24, 2020

    # Why are we exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity?

    This is a quickly-sketched model created from a breakout group conversation during the MUN School of Graduate Studies’ “Earth’s Carrying Capacity” dialogue.

    Download the model

  • Divide and conquer

    Published Mar 29, 2020

    # Divide & conquer

    I have often hesitated to draft up an idea because I’m not sure the folks reading this site want to hear it. I (aim to) publish about a few disparate subjects, really:

    • Systemics, design, and social change
    • Data modelling and data for social change
    • Productivity and personal knowledge management
    • Scripting and (personal) automation
    • Leadership, innovation, and changemaking

    Obviously, this is too many topics for any one blog. If you’re reading this, you probably came here for just one of the topics above, and you might be interested in another one or two. And listen, I like you, and I want any visit of yours to be a valuable one. That’s why I’ve launched a sibling blog.

    I could cluster the topics above a number of ways. Here’s what I think makes the most sense: This blog, Fulcra, will focus on finding leverage for complex change, including:

    • Systemics, design, and social change
    • Data modelling and data for social change
    • Leadership, innovation, and changemaking

    The newest one, Axle, will focus on how we change ourselves, including:

    • Personal development
    • Design and technology for augmented cognition
    • Productivity and personal knowledge management
    • Scripting and (personal) automation

    Moving forward, this site (Fulcra) will be a platform for writing on complex systems change. I aim to study, share, and write about how the world changes—and how we can get better at changing it.

    Axle is a new site I will use to share my thoughts on how we change ourselves. After all, the better we get, the better we better get. The easy thing to write about (and what you’ll probably see the most often there) are the apps and tools I use and the designs I apply in my life and work. I also plan to share functional resources (such as scripts) as well as ask questions and debate about making progress in life and work.

    This was a weird decision. After all, I barely publish here, so running two different sites seems like a terrible idea. I hope, however, that having more focused platforms for these different topics will help me publish more impulsively. Feel free to follow both, or none!

  • As Lambda students speak out the schools debt-swapping partnership disappears from the internet

    Published Feb 19, 2020

    “The ISA is the business model, not education,” says Kim Crayton, a business strategist and founder of CauseAScene , an organization that’s seeking to disrupt the status quo in tech. “You cannot tell me that education is your business model when you have not registered as an institution.” For months, Crayton has been speaking about the problems with coding bootcamps on her podcast, where she’s argued that they target vulnerable communities. “You’re put in these spaces and putting in 110 percent and it’s still not working and you’re told to ‘trust the process,’” she says.

    Great reporting on this at The Verge.

    Kim Crayton makes an excellent point. The promise of many of these neo-credentials is for students to leapfrog the things everyone fears about the conventional education system. No one is more vulnerable to taking on loads of student debt than those who need it most. Those students are also going to suffer the most if their university or college fails to equip them for a career. Lambda solves both of these problems, making it extremely attractive to poor students.

    Sadly, there’s always a catch.

  • Systems Practice, Abridged

    Published Jan 23, 2020

    # Systems Practice, Abridged

    For serious system mapping work, spending [significant] time studying, thinking about, and mapping your system helps ensure you are addressing root causes rather than instituting quick fixes. In the long term, the time and resources you invest in Systems Practice will pay dividends.

    But what if youʼre not quite sold on the Systems Practice methodology yet? What if you havenʼt encountered systems thinking before and just want to dip your toes in? Or what if youʼre an expert or an educator with only a few hours to introduce Systems Practice to a fresh new group of systems thinkers?

    I have been in the latter situation, and it’s a challenge. In my experience, people who are wholly new to systems thinking can take a lot of time to acclimate to the mindset. But! If, as a teacher, you can’t illustrate the benefits quickly, it’s easy to disengage.

    So, I’m glad this exists. This is a wonderful new resource from Kumu’s Alex Vipond that helps walk you through systems and Kumu’s tools at the same time.

  • how to recognize ai snake oil

    Published Jan 23, 2020

    # How to recognize AI snake oil

    The over- and misuse of AI is one of my biggest tech pet peeves. It truly is evil to tack the AI term onto the description of most products. It also damages the long-term potential of AI by corrupting what it means—especially for the everyday people who aren’t involved or invested in building these tools, but who will use them (or be used by them).

    Arvind Narayanan on Twitter:

    Much of what’s being sold as “AI” today is snake oil. It does not and cannot work. In a talk at MIT yesterday, I described why this happening, how we can recognize flawed AI claims, and push back. Here are my annotated slides:

    Key point #1: AI is an umbrella term for a set of loosely related technologies. Some of those technologies have made genuine, remarkable, and widely-publicized progress recently. But companies exploit public confusion by slapping the “AI” label on whatever they’re selling.

    Key point #2: Many dubious applications of AI involve predicting social outcomes: who will succeed at a job, which kids will drop out, etc. We can’t predict the future — that should be common sense. But we seem to have decided to suspend common sense when “AI” is involved.

    Key point #3: transparent, manual scoring rules for risk prediction can be a good thing! Traffic violators get points on their licenses and those who accumulate too many points are deemed too risky to drive. In contrast, using “AI” to suspend people’s licenses would be dystopian. Harms of AI for predicting social outcomes

    Check out the whole thread.

  • Beautiful is good and good is reputable

    Published Jan 23, 2020

    # Beautiful is Good and Good is Reputable: Multiple-Attribute Charity Website Evaluation and Initial Perceptions of Reputation Under the Halo Effect

    The halo effect is essentially how positive—but irrelevant—traits influence our perception of what the thing with the halo actually says or does. These authors explored how charities manifest the halo effect on their websites, and find evidence for four varieties of halo effect.

    this study employs charity websites as a multi-attribute donation channel consisting of three attributes of information content quality (mission information, financial information, and donation information) and four attributes of system quality (navigability, download speed, visual aesthetics, and security). Based on the proposed framework, this study proposes four types of halos that are relevant to charity website evaluation —collective halo (attribute-to-attribute), aesthetics halo (attribute-to- dimension), reciprocal-quality halo (dimension-to-dimension), and quality halo (dimension-to-dimension)

  • Bad RCS implementations are creating big vulnerabilities, security researchers claim

    Published Jan 23, 2020


    One issue identified on an unnamed carrierʼs implementation could allow any app on your phone to download your RCS configuration file, for example, giving the app your username and password and allowing it to access all your voice calls and text messages. In another case, the six-digit code a carrier uses to verify a userʼs identity was vulnerable to being guessed through brute force by a third-party. These problems were found after researchers analyzed a sample of SIM cards from several different carriers.

    RCS is supposed to be a big deal. It’s fascinating how these system-wide policies can be messed up in microsystem implementations.

  • Adam Savage on Lists, More Lists, and the Power of Checkboxes

    Published Jan 23, 2020

    # Adam Savage on Lists, More Lists, and the Power of Checkboxes

    In this Wired article, Adam Savage provides a pragmatic description of how he breaks down complex projects using lists.

    In my mind, a list is how I describe and understand the mass of a project, its overall size and the weight that it displaces in the world, but the checkbox can also describe the project’s momentum. And momentum is key to finishing anything.

    Momentum isn’t just physical, though. It’s mental, and for me it’s also emotional. I gain so much energy from staring at a bunch of colored-in checkboxes on the left side of a list, that I’ve been known to add things I’ve already done to a list, just to have more checkboxes that are dark than are empty. That sense of forward progress keeps me enthusiastically plugging away at rudimentary, monotonous tasks as well as huge projects that seem like they might never end.

    I love the physics metaphor here. There’s lots of other insights to be gained by thinking about how work follows physical principles. For instance, projects also have inertia, friction, and surface area:

    1. Inertia. The longer a project sits waiting for you—weighing on your mind—the harder it is to get it moving.
    2. Friction. Inertia is driven by initial friction. In parallel, of course, kinetic friction can make it hard to stop working on something. This is why multitasking doesn’t make sense with most projects.
    3. Surface area: It can be hard to attack a single, huge project idea, just like how a large ice cube melts slower than many little ones. List making is a key way of breaking up the surface of a project into smaller pieces, making it easier to handle. Increasing surface area also facilitates collaboration: it’s easier to hand off smaller pieces to others, and to put them back together again.

    To return to momentum, though, Adam makes an excellent point: breaking down the work helps keep momentum going even when you put the work down.

    That may be the greatest attribute of checkboxes and list making, in fact, because there are going to be easy projects and hard projects. With every project, there are going to be easy days and hard days. Every day, there are going to be problems that seem to solve themselves and problems that kick your ass down the stairs and take your lunch money. Progressing as a maker means always pushing yourself through those momentum-killers. A well-made list can be the wedge you need to get the ball rolling, and checkboxes are the footholds that give you the traction you need to keep pushing that ball, and to build momentum toward the finish.

    Another point in the article that’s worth emphasizing:

    [I]n a project with any amount of complexity, the early stages won’t look at all like the later stages, and [the manager] wanted to take the pressure off any members of the group who may have thought that quality was the goal in the early stages.

    I’ve heard this discussed in the context of critique, or “10% feedback”. When sharing work with others, it’s important to disclose the stage the work is at. Typos should be caught at a project that’s basically ready to publish. They shouldn’t even be discussed when a work is being conceptualized. The focus on early stages should be the concepts themselves, and how they fit within the broader context.

    Last thing. This is excellent:

    There is a famous Haitian proverb about overcoming obstacles: Beyond mountains, more mountains.


  • a ton of people received text messages overnight that were

    Published Jan 23, 2020

    # A ton of people received text messages overnight that were originally sent on Valentine’s Day

    Something strange is happening with text messages in the US right now. Overnight, a multitude of people received text messages that appear to have originally been sent on or around Valentine’s Day 2019. These people never received the text messages in the first place; the people who sent the messages had no idea that they had never been received, and they did nothing to attempt to resend them overnight.

    It is incredible to think that this could happen on a scale big enough to hit headlines now, but it wasn’t noticeable on Valentine’s Day originally.

    That’s one of the problems with our ever-more-complex technologies. We’re accommodating to the bugs. It gets easier and easier to dismiss weird tech events as glitches and move on without worrying. Unreliability is, itself, unreliable.

    But there can be major consequences to seemingly innocent bugs:

    … one person said they received a message from an ex-boyfriend who had died; another received messages from a best friend who is now dead. “It was a punch in the gut. Honestly I thought I was dreaming and for a second I thought she was still here,” said one person, who goes by KuribHoe on Twitter, who received the message from their best friend who had died. “The last few months haven’t been easy and just when I thought I was getting some type of closure this just ripped open a new hole.”

  • a systemic view of research impact

    Published Jan 23, 2020

    # A Systemic View of Research Impact

    If academia ceases to have an impact it loses its raison d’être. Impact is what differentiates meaningful academic work from mere busywork. It makes the difference between signal and noise.


    Ultimately, the questions that concerns us [are] what role research plays in society and how we can create a research system with impact at its core?

    Indeed. We have to be asking (and answering!) questions that matter.

    I like this project. Benedikt and Sascha say they’re taking a systemic approach to model the full complexity of academic impact:

    academia struggles with creating/measuring/generating impact because it struggles to conceptualise and structurally anticipate it. We are missing a systemic perspective on impact that is grounded in the fact that different forms of meaningful academic work show very different forms of impact.

    The work is supposedly semi-open. The authors ask anyone that reads each chapter, released incrementally on Google Docs, to contribute comments, and then they will work to incorporate these insights back into the final output.

    Here’s a link to the first chapter.

  • 2019 tech trends report

    Published Oct 2, 2019

    # 2019 Tech Trends Report – The Future Today Institute

    This report is intentionally broad and robust. We have included a list of adjacent uncertainties, a detailed analysis of 315 tech trends, a collection of weak signals for 2020, and more than four dozen scenarios describing plausible near futures.

    Impressive work. I particularly like the CIPHER heuristic they use in analysis signals: contradictions, infections, practices, hacks, extremes, rarities.