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My trajectory map

For a PhD course during the IFSA conference, participants were asked to hand in an assignment. I like the result, so I wanted to share it here. The title of the PhD course is Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) in PhD Research. Appreciating uncertainties and opportunities and knowing how to act with Farming Systems Research. Systems thinking is a analytical tool that aims at looking at a certain issue holistically. By that one wants to find underlying causes and potentially tackle them, instead of symptoms.

The assignment called participants to reflect on their entrance points to the PhD course and whether systems thinking was used before. A trajectory map needed to be composed that illustrates the path of the student.


So, how did I end up here? A couple of months ago, would I have known that I will happen to be in this PhD course? No, I would not. Life can be attached with many attributes, but for sure not with predictability. Though, after the fact, when we look back and analyze, it is clear that we had to end up where we are. Indeed, when we look back at our life, bewildered by how every piece of the puzzle was put together, almost as if a magic hand would have put them in place, we need to think about metaphysics. Whether we add metaphysics to the list of possible explanatory factors or not is up to us, but I think it would be a lie if one would state to never have thought about things beyond scientific evidence. The staggering path of life is best described by Søren Kierkegaard: We can only understand life backwards, but we have to live it forwards. The fundamental importance of the sentence for the question of the task, is the cause for being placed on this poster below the timeline.

I am not sure why, but the knowing of the connectedness of everything is anchored in my being. It is not a small part of my cognition, but the basis. It is a lens through which I understand the world. One source for this knowing may be found in my religious upbringing. In Catholicism, we are taught that we come from the dust and we return to the dust. Later looking at physics, at thermodynamics, one has to understand that all matter that exists today, existed since the big bang. Thus, all parts that make up my current physical body (and maybe parts that go beyond physical existence) have been in existence since the big bang. As my existence in the current form does not date back to the big bang, I have to understand that every single part of my current physical body has been part of something else. Not only am I matter that before had been part of something else, my matter is also becoming part of something else. It is a continuous cycle that not even death can break, rather death is a necessary part of this infinite mass conversion. Once one had this epiphany, linearity becomes an inadequate and insufficient concept to generate understanding. I do not have the space to outline, what effects on cognition this understanding has. I want to point out one aspect, as it is related to agriculture and thus to the PhD course. The epiphany leads to one no longer only eating food, but realizing, that one becomes the food that you eat. The deep truth of the German proverb you are what you eat, just illustrates that. A logic consequence is the interest in agriculture, food production and consumption. As, I should get aware later a field intrinsically connected to cycles.

Without explaining how I came in the state of world weariness, I place it as next crucial point of my trajectory. I looked at human history and at the present. I realized that human history is repeating itself, which led me to having an existential crisis. I tortured myself with questions like: If humans do not learn to life in peace, why does it matter that I am here? If there is no way to improve the existence of human beings, why putting any effort in this life? Seeing all this pain, hatred and destruction, how can I live a normal life? I was questioning the meaning of my existence and thus the purpose of my life. What should one tell a teenager asking such questions? The truth. My father told me to accept, that I will not be able to change the world, but that I am the ruler over my life, my actions, my thoughts, my attitude. I can treat people around me with respect and by that, make a difference. By making a difference, one may be the incentive for others making a difference too. Once more, the epiphany, that we are all connected made me carry on. In the trajectory I used the term butterfly effect, because I like the idea of one’s actions having unforeseen effects. Indeed, what helped me carrying on was the trust that positivity has the power to create more positivity. Still, I was (and I still am) reflecting on my life purpose. How should I bring this positivity in the world?

The circumstances in which I was born made me realize that I have a responsibility to not waste my life. I do have choices, more choices than others. Wasting my life would be dishonorable to the life I was given and unjust to all others who do not have the options I have. Thus, I had to think thoroughly about what to do with my life. I decided to study[1]. I decided to gain more knowledge about this world and by that hopefully finding out what I could do. This made me study International Development at University of Vienna.

My studies allowed me to take courses according to my interest. For this reason, I took courses at other faculties (anthropology) and Universities (BOKU, Alpe Adria University) as well. Anthropology was interesting to me, because I thought that in order to help one has to understand the local context. Accordingly, I enrolled in the course Inter-and-transdisciplinary approaches to analyzing and intervening into local systems with Professor Simron Singh. This lecture was the first cornerstone for using systems thinking for scientific analysis. Looking back at my first encounter, I think it is the most natural way of analyzing an issue. I loved that course that much, I had to attend another course held by Professor Simron Singh (Engaging Development Research into Action). This course was a sequel of the previous one and I once more loved it. Not surprisingly, I did an internship under the supervision of Professor Simron Singh and he became my master thesis supervisor.

The example with which Professor Simron Singh illustrated systems thinking was related to agricultural production. I believe systems thinking and agriculture are inextricably connected. But, my interest in agriculture did not start with this lecture. I think my interest in agriculture and nature is born in my upbringing. It stems from harvesting vegetables and fruits from the own garden; spending holidays on farms and enjoying working in the stable feeding the cows; and from eating fresh, home-made food. Another aspect was that I early started to being interested in nutrition, which made me for example aware of pesticide residues in food. My love for nature (flora and fauna), soon lead to an aversion of industrial agriculture. Already before I was aware of systems thinking I applied it to food. Not to agriculture, but to the effect of food on humans. Thus, it was more the nutritional aspect, I connected with systems thinking. With increasing knowledge about the principles of organic agriculture, I once more saw reality as a structure of loops.

While having the idea of working in the field of development aid at the beginning of studying International Development, I gave this idea up in the course of my studies. I thought that western nations destroyed so much and I understood that the reason of destruction is greed and the struggle to maintain or obtain power. It was also clear to me that the economic system is the vehicle to power, fueling greed, ignorance, selfishness and the detachment from nature and community. Thus, I understood that solving problems in developing countries we have to first solve problems in developed countries. Hence, by the end of my studies I aspired an employment in Europe, some activity that would allow me to tackle the problem and that is fulfilling my life purpose. In the beginning of my studies I learned about Gramsci and the idea to revolutionize a system inside out. This, idea always stayed in my mind. Thinking about my purpose, I applied this idea, aspiring to get a job that would allow me to change the system from inside out, like a trojan horse. Quickly I realized that with my degree, I would not get the job that I wanted. Consequently, I aimed for a PhD.

It was the baffling path of life that made me find the PhD position at Hasselt University. Delving into the project (SUFISA) I am working for, I had no choice than applying systems thinking from the start. I saw the project and I saw the connections; everywhere. Without expanding on the project as such, my task is performing research on market power and sustainability in the field of agriculture. While working with the topic sustainability was rather easy, I had to become acquainted with market power. Soon, it became clear that market power is neither a clear-cut issue, causing disagreement within economics to whether or not market power might be beneficial. Apparat from the discussion within economics, I had to explore market power from a different level to understand the connection between market power and sustainability. The result is also influenced by systems thinking and will hopefully soon be available to the interested audience. The analysis of market power and sustainability is rather on an abstract level. Nevertheless, it was a needed step as a theoretical foundation to analyze such issues in practice was missing.

SUFISA involves case study research and I applied systems thinking to the analysis of a Belgian case study. Preliminary results of this will be presented at the IFSA conference. I think that the case study analysis exemplifies the usefulness of systems thinking. For the case study analysis, I used system maps and causal loop diagrams. Personally, I am of the opinion, that it would be a fruitful step to employ causal loop diagrams for the analysis of whatever problem at hand. It calls the actors to thinking out of the box, about the boarders of systems, given as well as missing information, taking different aspects into consideration, and acknowledging the limitations of linear thinking while understanding complexity.

It is complexity of life and the limits of human cognition that confine the applicability of causal loop diagrams. As soon as a certain complexity is reached, causal loop diagrams are no longer sufficient to understand the result of interventions within the system. Accordingly, I am aiming to use system dynamics, translating the causal loop diagrams into stock and flow models and animating them with software. To this end I went to the system dynamics summer school in 2017. I started exploring the translation into stock and flow models and the existing software. I have to admit that this step is very challenging to me. The graphic syntax of stock and flow models is counterintuitive to me and regulations regarding the permissibility of connections between stocks, flows and parameters blocks the creativity of my mind. Thus, the creation of stock and flow models suffers from translation difficulties. In analogy to when one wants to translate a term from one langue into another, but no equivalent term exists in the other language and the only way to express the same term is a lengthy description. The same applies to the software. Moreover, without accessible and understandable guidance for the usage of software, it is as if one moves to another country, without speaking the language of the natives. Who experienced this, knows what this means. It can be strenuous (at times very entertaining and stupendous) path. Who experienced living abroad, knows that meeting people with the same cultural background is grounding. Even if one does not agree on every aspect of life, there are certain communalities, that outsiders may not be able to grasp (such as peculiarities of the respective language). Thus, it is a logic step attempting to connect with like-minded people. The IFSA PhD course offers such a possibility to me.

IFSA PhD course participants are asked to indicate what they will do with the insights gathered from the course. I cannot answer this question, as there are too many unknowns. Even if there are many straight arrows in my trajectory map, life is not linear. Nevertheless, from the current state of knowledge, the most likely path is the insights improving my research in some way. Therefore, I hope the insights will support me in fulfilling my current task.

One my wonder, why I did included aspects beyond my scientific formation and occupation. First, it illustrates how deep systems thinking has sunk in my being. I try to include all relevant aspects (that fit on a sheet of paper without creating more confusion), not only the most obvious ones. Second, hermeneutics teaches us that one should be aware of the personal background that inevitably affects one’s cognition. I think, even if truly aspired, genuine objectivity is an impossibility.

[1] Not an obvious decision for someone who originally broke up school one year before graduation, due to the lack of meaning in life.

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