So the personal is the social: systemic thinking. The personal research of Gianluigi Merlino.

Luca Lisci: If you were to describe yourself, Gianluigi, where would you start? What can you tell me about yourself?

Gianluigi Merlino: To share what I’ve been trying to convey for the past 25 years, I’d start with what drove me, namely the problems I had back then. As a young man, I was problematic, unable to relate to my surroundings or understand them, and very aggressive. You know, when you’re about 24-25 years old, and you look through your planner to see pages and pages empty, you wonder: “..why do I have a planner if I only have two phone numbers of two friends I get along with, and I can’t stand the rest of the world?” When you reach that point, you’re at a crossroads: either you stubbornly believe that the world is entirely wrong, or you convince yourself that maybe you’re doing something wrong.

And that’s where the idea of Neorema came from, meaning the formation of choice, a name I gave to my personal and professional journey. In those years, I dropped out of university and started studying NLP seriously with masters who helped me become a slightly more acceptable person, better at being with others, better at observing, listening in the folds of communication, the relationship between people, to grasp the truths that escaped me. And so I talk among Italians, obviously: Claudio Belotti, Alessio Roberti. Among foreigners, John Lavalle, Richard Bandler, Fitzpatrick, and I’ve been on this journey for many years, a journey that still lasts today because I never stopped. I turned it into a support activity for others, it became a job. What everyone does today, coaching, without even knowing what it is.

But then, as I moved forward, I began to have a question I couldn’t answer, which led me to the other front, namely if it’s true that there are many ways in which people’s growth can be realized, why do some approaches not work? And I realized that people’s lives must be considered as elements of a complexity in which all those larger external forces operate. And where man, as much as he can self-determine, has no way of finding solutions. In short, I stumbled upon systemic thinking, which was for me the other half of the apple of the body of knowledge that helped me make sense of everything.

Luca Lisci: Can you tell us what your approach is and how you act in systemic thinking?

Gianluigi Merlino: There are definitely two worlds: the one with which I conduct my personal life, which is steeped in it, it’s as if I always wear glasses that help me see things in terms of system, complexity, and then the other, which is the one thanks to which I integrated my consulting activity with the discipline of systemic thinking codified at MIT, defined in the System Dynamics Society.

Luca Lisci: It must not be easy at all to interpret and act in systemic thinking when you are so integrally involved.

Gianluigi Merlino: I confirm: the first difficulty is that systems require time. All symptomatic solutions, all the answers that the market commands require, as the first instance of solution, time: how long does it take us to solve this problem? The market wants speed. Thinking in terms of systems means recognizing that complexity is inevitable and cannot be simplified without consequences. A quick and seemingly effective solution to a complex problem can lead to significant risks: it might hide unintended effects or might not be effective at all if we observe its effects on a different scale. There’s no simple solution for complex problems without considering secondary impacts or overall efficacy. Let me put it in different terms: imagine a policymaker. There’s the problem of immigration. The problem of immigration is not something that can be solved with simple rules, constraints, counterconstraints. It doesn’t work that way. But if I present myself to my voters and say that I have an idea that I believe is valid but to implement it requires at least seven years of work, I won’t get elected because those who talk to me, those who rely on me, want solutions immediately. Revisiting a concept by Peter Senge: “human activities are systems, but we focus on snapshots,” small polaroids, little “movements of parts of the system.” So, not only do we have a limited view, but also a static one. “Then we wonder why our deepest problems never get solved.”

And then there’s a second, major difficulty. Systemic thinking is a meta-discipline. Because it tells, against any possible doubt or counterproof, that all complex dynamic systems respond in the same way, and therefore everything is a complex system. Society, biology, the environment, immigration, politics, geopolitics, education, even our body. Everything we consider around us is integral to complex dynamic systems, and therefore, when you deal with it, there’s a risk that in saying this, you appear as a know-it-all, an omnipotent solver.

But I am certainly not omnipotent, nor a know-it-all. The solution lies in my interlocutor: be it the company, the individual, the group, the team I’m working with. The solution is not in me; it’s in the interaction with the other. And here lies the great limit: I am not the one providing the solution; I am the one who has to bring out the solution that is already within the system. And that’s where the real difficulty lies, because we’re not used to thinking in these terms. We’re used to thinking that someone outside, the consultant, the expert, comes and solves the problem for us. But it doesn’t work like that. The solution is within the system, within the interaction between its parts, and my job is to make this interaction emerge, facilitate it, and make it possible.

Luca Lisci: Gianluigi what’s your vision for the future, and what are your plans?

Gianluigi Merlino: My vision for the future is very simple: I hope that systemic thinking will become an integral part of the cultural background of as many people as possible. Not because I believe it’s the ultimate solution to all problems, but because I am convinced it’s the only way we have to start solving complex problems effectively. My plan is to continue doing what I’ve been doing for years: training, consulting, but above all, spreading the culture of systemic thinking as much as possible. Through books, articles, conferences, anything that can help people understand that the complexity of the problems we face cannot be simplified without consequences. That we need to embrace complexity, learn to manage it, and make it an integral part of our way of thinking and acting. That’s the challenge I’ve set for myself, and I hope to be able to contribute, even if only in a small way, to this change in perspective.

Luca Lisci: Tell us about the Beer Game.

Gianluigi Merlino: The Beer Game is a simulation of reality. To put it as John Sterman would, who is the world’s most experienced person in conducting the Beer Game: it’s a flight simulator for reality. He says: would you ever board a plane knowing that the captain has never spent an hour in a flight simulator on the ground? The common answer is: no. Well, imagine that our great decision-makers at the highest levels of politics, geopolitics, administration, and even simply our managers in companies face complexity without having first simulated what it means to confront it.

Well, the Beer Game allows you to understand the role you have in complexity, how you can confront it. It highlights the counterintuitive aspect of systemic thinking, namely: although what emerges from the system appears out of the control of the individual, the individual is not at all absolved of responsibility. Like in the example of the five people in the office I mentioned earlier: each of them seems absolved of responsibility because in fact each of them thinks that if things are going badly in that office it’s because the system of five is made that way. But this is misleading because in a complex system it’s always about dynamic equilibrium, where it’s the action of each component towards its own improvement in the system’s relation that will inevitably improve the condition of the others.

The nature of the system, in practice, is that of seeking equilibrium beyond every obstacle. That’s why the system is indifferent to the suffering or well-being of the individual elements that are part of it, as long as equilibrium is achieved. The system doesn’t care if someone inside suffers. And this is what the Beer Game allows you to experience: the emergence of dynamic phenomena where everything is connected, for better or for worse.

Luca Lisci: I’d like to ask you one last thing, but I don’t want to provoke the answer myself. I’d like you to ask a question. And to reason in terms of complexity and your research. What is the right question to ask about artificial intelligence?

Gianluigi Merlino: The question that comes to my mind now, I haven’t pondered it but it comes out like this. It could be what gap of the human being do you think artificial intelligence can fill? I would ask this question to those who deal with artificial intelligence.

Regarding my opinion on artificial intelligence, I believe that from a linguistic point of view the words in this case represent a deception. At least as it is continuously marketed to us. The very fact that it is called artificial intelligence, but intelligence goes against the very meaning of intelligence. Intelligence is an activity of immersion in the system. Intelligence is an emergence from the system. Simplifying the concept a lot, intelligence is the ability to read the outside world and adapt. See, the brain contains 100 billion neurons, each neuron can handle up to 100,000 different types of impulses and continuously integrates about 10,000, the cortex alone contains a trillion synapses that if you counted one a second you would count for 32 million years; it is irrigated by 16,000 kilometers of blood vessels and is a system whose components taken individually are not intelligent: it’s the famous relationships between them that bring about intelligence. It is by far the most complex dynamic system that man knows, including the universe.

Intelligence is a system emergence and needs, since we are talking about man, for our definition of intelligence and for the use of intelligence, absolutely needs heuristics of choice, that is, the part of choice before the decision. And that’s why we have introduced, after artificial intelligence came out, algorithm ethics, the ethics of artificial systems, which is sad just to hear it. Intelligence is an extremely complex system emergence that needs within it various systems of control or self-control. In human civilization, these are values, morality, ethics, etc.

So, artificial intelligence is not a true emergence because artificial intelligence is based on the past from which it tries to extract predictive moments: but it is only a computing power in action, a series of extremely complex algorithms. But what is intelligent, “creative” about it? Where is creation? And self-awareness? I often say that the recourse to artificial intelligence is inversely proportional to the availability of natural intelligence. I can’t do something, I can’t manage something, but if I have an artificial intelligence that does it for me, I delegate, moreover, the principle of delegation in systemic thinking is another huge chapter, I delegate someone else or something else to do it. It does not seem coincidental to me that artificial intelligence comes out now in a time when simplification of thought, reductionism, relativism, incapacity, functional illiteracy, the inability to create complex thoughts dominate. We are in an era where true innovation is lacking, and by innovation, I mean evolution and not progress. We are extremely advanced but we are devolving as a species.

Luca Lisci: In your opinion, Gianluigi, what could DSA do in this regard?

Gianluigi Merlino: I risk being the hammer facing the nail, in the sense that when you’re a hammer you see everything as a nail and perhaps that’s a limitation! I believe that DSA could become a bearer of activities useful for forming critical thinking. The road is truly a titanic effort because in the era of hyperconnection, breaking news, in an era of overexposure to images, we are putting the capacity for critical thinking of people at risk. DSA should start from the language which is the real structure of individual thought from which collective behaviors emerge.

Luca Lisci: Gianluigi, thank you for sharing your wisdom on systemic thinking. Closing our conversation, I want to emphasize the importance of maintaining a critical and aware attitude in the face of the complexity of the world we live in. It is vital to face challenges with a mindset that evaluates all connections and possible consequences of our actions. This approach allows us not only to better understand the systems we are part of but also to make more informed and responsible decisions within them.