The human activity model as an explanatory tool

I am aware that a model is just a map; it therefore shows what is important to the mapmaker and navigator (for now that may be just me). However that does not invalidate the map, nor does it mean that the map cannot cannot capture part of the truth. No model can capture the whole truth.

From the start I conceived the model as that of (the) human activity system. I wanted to strip out as much as possible to get at the essentials. It should be noted that

  • There are many instances of human activity systems within the overall system, political economy is but one of them
  • All instances of specific human activity systems have all the elements of the overall model present within them

For example if we are considering an institution such as the NHS we will get specific instances for all of the individual elements; the artifacts will include all the medical paraphernalia and systems, there will be a set of norms and beliefs (code of ethics, rules for patient confidentiality, in general the way people think about their work), a body of knowledge (both medical and procedural) covering the way individuals and groups act and interact.

I did not, at first represent human behaviour itself as an emergent property of that system but worked within the broad areas. The individual elements of the the Human System, looked at on their own, are an insufficient explanation of the complexity of human behaviour we see all round us. But they do provide a starting point, here are mine:

  • The rationale? of human of classical economic theory does not exist – here I was especially influenced by Daniel Khaneman
  • Behaviour has a chemical (emotional) basis as well as rational self explanatory one – especially influenced by Robert Sapolsky
  • Culture, in particular political economy could be seen as an artifact and that meant we could change it by design to something better – I come to this view from my general reading of history – it shows just how different cultures can be.
  • People embrace change when they are involved, go on the journey and have a stake in the outcome – I learned this during my MBA from training and development and change management literature
  • Small changes can build up over time into something that now looks radically different – derived from change management but also positive feedback in systems

The nudge unit (now privatised, for goodness sake) troubled me because it implies top down manipulation, even though it is also evidence of the realisation that small changes can be effective. Perhaps my reservation was the fear that this was just government becoming as sophisticated at manipulation as big advertising.

It was only when I put the model together and started it use it to explain things that I grasped the full implications. I had to rediscover Thomas Kuhn and also go back to Donella Meadows; the critical enabler of change appears to be paradigm shift (mindset change, change in weltanschauung). Suddenly some intractable political problems could be addressed. For example it is widely known that regulations can be gamed (we might say subverted) by those who oppose them. With a paradigm shift we can squeeze out the behaviour by creating a new norm. The paradigm shift needed is one that moves from competition to one of co-operation.

Epiphany; If there are two truths in dynamic tension (yin-yang, competition vs cooperation), the job of those who support the truth of cooperation is, above all, to stay true to it; something we have lacked in recent times. Left politics failed because it accepted the prevailing paradigm (of competition) and lost faith in the possibility of a cooperative alternative. If that is true it really does need the development of an alternative. That epiphany freed me up from conventional political thinking and enabled the main hypothesis to be developed. I ended in a place I didn't foresee.