Professor Simon Bell

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Simon is both a thinker and a practitioner. His professional career has been an oscillation between theory and practice – but his contribution has mainly been in terms of methods. From environmental policy to health sector strategy; from ICT planning to community engagement; from fear assessment to personal development –  to say he loves to innovate methods is to identify what he feels is his primary contribution in over 30 years of professional practice in over 40 countries.

Biography

Methods in my madness

We all make complicated journeys through life. Indeed, life is often quite bewildering and we often find ourselves ‘hanging on’ in the light of change and even worrisome transformations. I speak as someone who is not heroic and who has quite often found life in general and work in particular rather scary and confusing. To deal with this I have had to generate strategies and methods. On reflection, I think I have been doing this all my life but only in my twenties did methods become my vocation. They are my sense-making devices in a confusing world.

I have been and remain worried and fascinated by complexity and change and, in the paragraphs below I set out the main themes of my ‘journey’. From the impacts of disruptive information technologies in the countries of the Global South, to engagement with methods and techniques which help organisations to think. With agile and multiplex assessment of the complex of issues which impact upon people in organisations in the public and private sector and in fear management in communities of all kinds. The journey has been epic for me as it has spanned over 40 years and involved working in over 40 countries. Writing now, in June 2017 it feels like it has been a steep ascent at times but the learning has made the risks worth taking.

Before the dive – mindful breathing in and steadying

Since I was a very little boy with undiagnosed short sight and dyslexia, I have always been a bit of a late developer. I have been slow to learn and slow to understand the confusions of the world and yet keenly aware of how others seem to find easy what I have found so difficult. It still takes me more time to understand complicate things than other people. It takes time for messages and lessons to make their way into my head. I have thought a lot about this over the last 40 years – this account starts in 1977.

In 1977 I was about to begin my journey in Higher Education but I did not know that then. I was in that hedonistic and unguardedly ‘fun’ time, 20 years old and discovering my independence, the marvellous and terrifying bewilderment of the world (via travel) and the importance of relationships. Even then I was acutely aware that happiness did not emerge from ‘good-times’ alone. Indeed, I could not be happy unless my independence (and therefore my autonomy), the values of the world I inhabited (and this changed over time and space) and the relationships I built with others aligned in some way, so that they did not conflict with each other and confuse and cross purposes. When these three conflict then I end up confused and anxious. In short, I started to realise in 1977 that I needed to master my brief as a thinking human being if I was to thrive. Mulling on this, I now see that the themes of autonomy (my own and others), the characteristics of the context I was in (the place and space of action) and shared and diverse values (personal, group and organizational) have been the juggling set of balls I have been working with ever since.

World Development at UEA

In 1978, I began reading International Development at the University of East Anglia. If one thing came clear to me at that time it was that there were no hard lines in the world, lines that segregate or differentiate one bit of the world of from the other bits. The Degree in Development was called multidisciplinary and involved sociology, economics, biology, natural resource management, rural development and various country studies. It was a far-ranging order of study, which would find me on one day discussing the historical materialism of Marx and on the next looking down a microscope trying to count the number of nematodes in a soil sample affected by pesticide. I loved my course of study and for the first time in my life thought I had found my ‘home’. This was to be the first of many homes over the years. What emerged for me at UEA were two related ‘facts’. Firstly, that study could be orientated to action and not just exist in an academic ‘ivory tower’. Our lecturers would regularly appear in our lecture theatre on one day having just returned from Tanzania or Argentina and would disappear a day or so later off to the next challenging context. The second ‘fact’ that occurred to me was that ideas were really, really important to understanding and planning action. These ‘facts’ have also become life-long obsessions.

Information Technology and Development in the 1980s

On graduating from ‘Dev’ at UEA I stayed on. Initially I was employed on a hand-to-mouth basis as a Research Assistant. This involved me in doing dogs body work compiling bibliographies, gathering research materials, drawing cartographic maps on demography and generally doing anything I was told to do by a senior academic. To make up the money I also worked as a self-employed gardener. At the time, it was 50/50 which way I would go. I was a pretty good gardener well, I was pretty good at talking to and sympathising with homeowners who had gardens too big to handle. I was good at the people side. My planting knowledge was not all that good but I could discern a weed from a plant 70% of the time and that got me through without too much upset. Before I could make the leap into horticulture I applied for and was successful in interview for the post of ‘Publications Secretary’ in my old School of Development Studies. Now, several separate but related forces came to bear and these led in time to my first major challenge and related publication.

As Publications Secretary I worked closely with Library services and publishing and in the early 1980s micro computing was taking off in these related sectors in a big way. By chance, I got my hands on an early CPN-based word processor. I took to it like a duck to water. Later on, I got to use an Apple II Europlus and then an Apple Mac. I had also tinkered with the mighty, world dominating IBM PC and the hideous DOS operating system. At this time, Information Technology (IT) was not found throughout universities but here and there people like me began to specialise in using IT and also studying the social use of the technology. I saw this as my golden opportunity so I linked my work with PCs and Macs in publishing to a PhD in Systems Analysis. Because I was working at UEA I decided to undertake my PhD there (in the School of Information Systems). A valuable consequence of this was that my employer, the School of Development Studies, recognising my value in this area and moved my job from publications secretary to IT Consultant for the Overseas Development Group which was the consultancy wing of the School.

Suddenly, or so it felt at the time, I went from someone who publishes discussion papers to an international consultant doing IT work all over the world. It was as crazy and as scary as that. I was terrified a lot of the time and finding myself out of my depth, trying to make sense of complex contexts and values whilst assessing the potential for IT. Work in Ethiopia during the famine, in Nigeria, Nepal and China followed. I survived but only just. My PhD marched alongside my consultancy and I gradually learned how to complete a PhD (a process that I found totally confusing and painful) and eventually translated the PhD into two books.

My work for the British Council, the UK Government and the international research centres of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Nepal (in particular) had involved me in addressing the ways in which IT was being applied as an organising process to the handling of management information. IT was being used as the enabler of human activity. This was a crucial observation for my personal learning journey. I was dealing with Socio-Technical systems and the interfaces between people/ organisation/ technology/ society/ economics/ politics, etc. I had ‘got’ the point. It was clear to me that IT of itself was not the significant issue. It was the interface between technology and everything else that was of main interest to me and of key concern to making technology work. My first book was a book about socio-technical methods and the method called “Multiview” in particular.

My work with Multiview involved the integration of a number of disciplines including Soft Systems Methodology to assess human activity systems, information modelling to manage data integration, a socio-technical systems design stage where people and technology are blended in different combinations related to task, the development of the human/ computer interface/ interaction and the development of the software, hardware, training, monitoring and evaluation package in a final project. Multiview was a prodigious method and I went on to produce the book with my friend, PhD supervisor and colleague Trevor Wood-Harper in 1992 and this was republished as a Chinese version in 1995. A second Edition of the book was published in the UK in 1998. Key outcomes of the Multiview work were:

  • The emergence of an agile means to assess and measure IT use in an organisation
  • A flexible means to design new IT solutions and
  • The means to evaluate the IT plan as an integral part of the analysis and design method
  • The approach was also participatory involving stakeholders from across the organisation.
  • I learned a lot about leading by facilitating others to learn. This was eye-opening for me.

Learning and method

But another book was also in the making. Whilst working on Multiview I also wanted to set out my thoughts on the personal learning involved in socio-technical systems work. I was keenly aware that our lives are our stories and the story is often more interesting than the results of the story (e.g. academic methods). This was to result in the second book, which was published by Routledge in 1996. I realised that what I was about was learning with information systems and this involved the notion of learning cycles. This was a key discovery for me at this point in my life. As I have already said, I have always found learning tricky if not daunting and having the learning cycle as a method both reassured me that I could learn and helped me to learn. The fact that this learning method helped me in the challenging contexts of Nigeria, Ethiopia and Nepal made me even more aware of my reliance on clear method to help me to learn. Method became the key to my study and my working life.

Systems and Sustainability

Around the time of my second book I moved from the University of East Anglia in Norwich to the Open University in Milton Keynes where I took the post of Lecturer in Information Systems. I was deeply attracted by the discipline of systems. Not just information systems but rather, systems in general. My PhD had been about systems analysis; I now wanted to learn more about the application of systems to the wider world.

I pursued a number of projects. In the UK with the Health Service and Local Government (I was seconded to Kent County Council for part of one year in order to undertake systemic assessments of processes of government). I also continued to travel the world and experience new and vibrant contexts and issues (including monitoring and evaluation in Pakistan, rural development in Bangladesh, organisational planning in Cuba and project management in Romania). My focus on socio-technical as a profound mix to understand the world better seemed confirmed.

In the late 1990s I became increasingly concerned by two of the ‘issues of our time’ the growing fascination with ‘big data’ and the problem of sustainable development for a world that wants to survive. Most keenly I was anxious for the impacts each of these forces was having on the lives of ordinary people.

As a way into these areas of study I became keen to explore the limitations of databased and indicator-based assessments of value. I could see how data brought value to assessment but I also noted how people were increasingly having metrics and indicators done to them and not by them, infringing their autonomy.

I began work with Steve Morse of the University of Surrey on a means to ‘measure the immeasurable’, the world of sustainability. Steve and I produced our first book on the subject in 1999, another in 2003 and we have our most recent contribution coming out in 2018 (see references at end of this piece).

In a sense, what I was doing was applying my learning cycle method model to the context of sustainability and measuring sustainability in organisations and communities via metrics. Because I was still interested in how metrics were managed technically as well as socially I also co-authored another book with Trevor Wood-Harper on How to Set Up Information Systems. A ‘How to’ book published in 2003 was interesting to me but my focus was increasingly on sustainability and my area of interest became the Mediterranean. Plan Bleu, a French environmental agency, provided this focus for me.

Imagine a better world

Steve Morse and I were intrigued and maddened by the ways organisations make use of metrics to assess key issues like their own and their community’s sustainability. Plan Bleu were facing a challenge in attempting to engage local populations around the Mediterranean basin in a deeper understanding of their own sustainability. Plan Bleu needed a reflective method which allowed local communities to engage in their own participatory self-assessment and, more importantly, in answers to the questions: ‘What does sustainability mean to us?’ and, ‘Are we sustainable?’. Plan Bleu thought that the method contained in Steve and my 1999 book (originally with the unlovely name: Systemic Sustainability Analysis – SSA, then the even more unlovely name: Systemic and Prospective Sustainability Analysis – SPSA) looked like a good basis for this.

From this contact, Steve and I working with Plan Bleu, went on to evolve the ‘Imagine’ method which was subsequently applied in community contexts in Malta, Lebanon, Algeria, Slovenia, Cyprus and Spain. The method has been published in two books in 2005 and 2008.

Key outcomes from the development of Imagine are:

  • Providing a break-through as it allowed local people to visualise their context and
  • To self-evaluate based upon a rich mixture of quantitative and qualitative information.
  • This information could be captured in an ‘amoeba’ diagram, a diagram form which allows a multitude of comparative information to be presented in one, easy to read diagram.
  • Leadership via facilitation requires the build-up of deep insight. Imagine helps.

If indicators are an important element of the quantitative assessment of sustainable development then visualisation and diagramming are important elements of the qualitative understanding of context. Imagine was a multimethod that encouraged people to share and compare in an atmosphere of consensus and agreement.

Picture this

The main device used to help local people to understand and indeed co-understand context and community is the Rich Picture – an example is set out below. The Rich Picture was one of the tools I made use of in much of my consultancy and research work. Originally set out in Soft Systems Methodology, the RP is a very flexible device for discovery.

A Rich Picture is a free form diagram, which is produced, by an individual or a group in order to capture the main elements of a complex situation. The premise behind the RP is the observation that people will draw things that they will not speak about or write about. I cannot claim to understand why this is the case. The RP is a powerful means to arrive at the underlying ideas of the group. The subject of RP therapy is dealt with at http://www.richpicturetherapy.co.uk and I worked on a book about RPs with Tess Berg and Steve Morse, published in 2016.

I have made use of Rich Pictures in almost every country I have worked in and in the UK in organisations as varied as Capgemini and Capita to Kent County Council and the NHS. No matter where the RP is deployed it is:

  • A fantastic means to draw out the story of the context and
  • To help people to understand both their own views with clarity and
  • To gain a deeper understanding of other people’s views better.
  • The Unconscious needs to be taken into account in working with and attempting to lead diverse groups.

But, in the end it is just another tool. The RP is best used as part of a method and that gets me back to my main text.

Double Task and Triple Task

The Rich Picture is a very important part of the Imagine method. To put it another way, the Imagine method contained the RP tool but, Imagine itself is contained in another method I had a hand in – the Triple Task.

In 2005 I had worked at the Open University for nine years and I thought I needed a break with Academe. I worried that I was growing repetitive and stale and I needed to test my ideas out in a different space. So, in 2006 I began work for the Bayswater Institute for the first time. I took a two-year secondment from the Open University and worked first as a Senior Practitioner and then as Director of the Institute until the end of 2008.

So far in my journey I had moved from someone interested in development to someone interested in how technology could help enable development. I then realised that the technology, while very impressive and exciting, is not really the main issue in any complex situation, the issue is the social and cultural rather than the technical. Imagine was very much a methodological response to this realisation.

But, I was still worried that I was missing the point. But what was the point? The part of the jigsaw that I thought was missing was the deeper study of the person and the group or community of which the individual is part. What are the motives of the person? How does this impact on projects and processes? How does/ do this person/ these people work and understand together? In joining the Bayswater Institute or BI I had come to the right place to address these questions. BI was the spiritual home of the Double Task method designed by Harold Bridger. Bridger had devised a means to help groups to work both at the job in hand (task 1) and with the unconscious elements which lie underneath the primary task (engaging with task 2). I was fascinated by this idea and instantly began attempting to work the method into my own approaches.

My contribution to the Double Task context was Triple Task, which emerged as a means to assess groups. In research funded by the European Union FP7 initiative I was a Primary Investigator in the POINT project http://cordis.europa.eu/result/rcn/143047_en.html. Now I could make progress. BI was a primary agency in the research and, in fieldwork around Europe I worked with Steve Morse (again!) on a large number of group workshops where Triple Task was deployed. Triple Task is a means to:

  • Allow a group to work,
  • To assess this work externally and,
  • To allow the group to self-assess its progress.
  • To allow a group to find its leader and followers.

The three assessments of the three tasks can be subsequently assessed in one overall model and the various group ‘signatures’ compared and contrasted.

In group work contexts the Triple Task allows an analyst to see the group in work, to assess the groups primary output (task 1), to assess how well or how badly the group is engaging in its work and to allow the group to provide a counterbalance assessment. All of this can be charted on a single diagram and the progress of different groups compared and contrasted. Key outcomes from this are:

  • The capacity to understand why some groups fail and some succeed.
  • Discover what enables success and failure.
  • Enable means to improve the chance of success.
  • Enable leadership and followership and to see these as fluid at times.

All of this information would be contained in the unique Triple Task signature of each group. Steve and I wrote up our work in various papers but published a book about means to improve the chance of resilient participation in group endeavours in 2012.

Research into Cultural Value

As the result of a fortuitous encounter, In 2013 I worked with Marie Gillespie of the Open University on an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project involving research work with the BBC and the British Council. In this work I had the chance to explore some of the limits of the Imagine method again, this time in the context of cultural value.

The project stretched my mind and my imagination as we pondered a means to capture value as an experienced fact in terms of a framework of some kind. The amoeba diagrams of Imagine seemed to have value as a basis and, with brilliant leadership, guidance and help from Marie and Colin Wilding we mapped out value in a series of ‘Constellation’ diagrams.

With this work achieved I felt it time to reflect.

It seemed to me I had worked across a series of domains.

My learning cycle inspired approach had produced interesting method responses in the areas of sustainability (particularly with Imagine in the Mediterranean), into groups and individuals (particularly with Triple Task method in the FP7 project) and with cultural value (particularly in the work with the BBC and British Council).
A flowering of a kind had occurred with my core ideas relating to the importance of autonomy, context and value again brought to the fore.

Fear and Decision Making

But what was I learning? It seemed to me, in 2013, that there was a lot of fear about. Groups and communities that I worked with seemed often to be deeply concerned and to be honest, frightened by the situation they found themselves. It did not matter what the group did or where it was. A rural, coastal community in Spain or a Hospital team in the UK. From Transport specialists in Denmark to Organisational Development consultants in London. There was a lot of fear about.

I have already noted that I am a pretty anxious person at times. I often thought that my methods and techniques were more reactions to worrying weaknesses than purposeful and proactive attempts at change. I found very few heroes and warriors in organisations (although I have found a few) but I did find a lot of people harbouring personal and sensitive anxieties. A lot of people worried about being ‘found out’ or ‘beaten down’.

The trouble is the strong tend to write the books. The heroes write history and the powerful tell us what to do. But what about the rest?

Morpheus, Phobetor and Phantasos – Gods of dreams, fears and phantasies

Why the Greek gods continue to inspire is a mystery, perhaps they are timeless and speak to us about our universal experience of human frailties? Whatever the reason for their lasting fascination, we all have fears and we all know what it is to be fearful.

Academics are no exceptions to this harsh rule but in 2013 I had had enough of fear. I wanted to get to know about it and understand it. So, I began to read about the things that frighten us. Although I looked at lots of scary things what I was really looking for was a means to deal with fear. Now, there are lots of books about fear – what it is, how it is experienced in politics, philosophy and art, how to stop being fearful and push back with wellbeing, and lots of examples of fear in historical and cultural contexts. But not what I was looking for. I wanted to understand fear in terms of a process to manage the experience and deal with it. I wanted to understand in methodological terms, in systemic methodological terms. I also wanted to understand fear across boundaries be they medical, psychological, cultural, historical, political, etc. I was concerned to know what is the basis of the fear phenomena and how can we push back?

So reluctantly at first, I decided to undertake research into fear. Yes, people did think me a bit odd. My main area of interest at the time was climate change so I used that as my point of focus but I was quite clear with myself, my research was about fear in general with climate change fear as a lens.

To make my research real and to some extent to force me to treat it as a bit more than a personal thought experiment I approached a publishing house, Cambridge Scholars, hoping that they would support my research by means of a book contract. I hit gold, Cambridge said yes but I now had the added pressure of a book contract and a handover date to make me move my research along.

Between 2014 and 2016 I researched fear, still hoping in a way, to find the book that I was beginning to write so I would not have to. But, despite wide reading of many excellent books (and I am sure that there are many more excellent books I have not read on the subject but the genre is huge) and despite talking to lots of fear experts, I did not find the systems methods account of fear I was looking for so my research progressed and so did my book.

On reflection, I found researching and writing about fear, from the personal to the planetary, exhausting and scary. I had to go into some areas that I found personally worrisome and at times found myself anxious and fearful. Fear was not easy to tie down and studying it meant looking at how it emerged and what it did up close and personal. The book also changed in the writing. What began as an academic account changed to a mixture of academic text and autobiography! But, in March 2017 I had accomplished my task and my book: ‘Formations of Terror’ was published. The book was done but I was not satisfied. An academic book was a good place to set out my journey in detail but this is a very specialised product and I wanted to ‘reach out’ beyond those who might buy an academic text on fear methodology. Let’s face it, there are not many people standing in that queue. It seemed to me that fear was our common, human legacy and that there was a lot of it about in 2015 – 2016 with Brexit and Trump coming into view. So, I approached my University, the Open University, for the funding to approach an artist to make a graphic novel version of the main book. I was successful and, working alongside Charles Cutting, ‘Project Fear’ was produced. But I was still not satisfied. I also wanted to make an animation of fear, outreach from the comic outreach! Charles came to the rescue again with wonderful images and, following the excellent video production of Damn Fine Media the animation on this site emerged. Book, comic and animation. The fear collection. http://www.open.edu/openlearn/project-fear

If you look on the site you will find an animation which sums up the fear story. My hope is that you will find the animation interesting and maybe provocative. This may induce you to take a look at the comic. If you find this interesting then you may feel inclined to read the Formations of Terror and learn more about my learning journey. Of course you may do it the other way around. It’s up to you. At whatever point you decide to begin and end your journey I wish you insights on the way.

The outcomes of my work on fear (so far) have been:

  • The development of fear assessment methods.
  • A means to diagnose when fear in a context is being amplified.
  • Ways to reduce fear once it has been identified.
  • Identify the key importance and qualities of leadership in managing fear.

The ancient Greeks understood that by making up stories – fictions, by the personification of forces, which affect our lives, we have a chance to gain control over these forces. Morpheus, Phobetor and Phantasos are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. They represent forces that are interfering with human lives as never before. I am personally convinced that fear is a weapon that is consciously used on populations in order to achieve very specific ends. The more we understand the fear process, the more we are able to push back against it and those who wield it. For me, my research and learning journey are still in progress. I hope to have more to say in the coming months and years.

One more thing – the Lord of the Rings!

There is another book which I was involved with – I think it makes sense of all the rest.
In 2004, my patience with academic writing finally ran out and I had to engage in something of a thought experiment. I wanted to be free! As a child, my creative and imaginative mind had been liberated and had somehow awoken when I at last found something I enjoyed reading (I was very bad at reading for reasons already described). My unexpected liberator was an extract from the Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. The extract was the segment referring to the foray by the Company of the Ring into the Mines of Moria. I read, at first disinterested but with mounting enthusiasm. For the first time in my life words on the page were gone and I was living a story which conjured images in my mind and took me out of the classroom into the dark, dangerous and limitless caverns of Moria. I fell in love with Middle Earth, Tolkien and the creative imagination.
In 2004 I was labouring at what felt like the phoney and clipped writing which is the lot of the academic. Suddenly I just hated it. I hated the format, the often faux objectivity and unnecessarily ‘serious’ tone. I hated it. I decided to let what was left of my hair down and write the fourth book of the LoR. I had long wanted to know more about what happened to Orcs and Shelob after the final victory of good over evil. And what about the Gondor project for renewal san Elves? And was this the end of magic? Tolkien had created a myth for the English. I wanted to know more. What would happen next? At the time no book slaked my thirst so, I wrote it. As therapy and an act of writing liberation. Never published, it sits on my computer to this day an act of rebellion, creativity and liberation. A love letter to the imagination.

Books

Bell, S. and Wood-Harper, T. (1992) Rapid Information Systems Development: a non-specialists guide to analysis and design in an imperfect world.  First edition. McGraw-Hill, 257 pages, Maidenhead. ISBN 0-07-707579-x and 0-07-709427-1. 1998 Second edition. McGraw-Hill, 257 pages, Maidenhead. ISBN 0-07-707579-x and 0-07-709427-1 (Original edition, 1992. Chinese version – Press of the University of Science and Technology of China, Beijing, 1995).

Learning with Information Systems: learning cycles and information systems development. Routledge, 230 pages, 1996. London. ISBN 0-415-10603-6.

Bell, S. and Morse, S. (1999) Sustainability Indicators: Measuring the Immeasurable. Earthscan, 175 pages, London. ISBN 1-85383-498-x. Revised edition 2000.

Bell, S. and Morse S. (2003) Measuring Sustainability: Learning by Doing. Earthscan, 189 pages, London. ISBN 1-85383-843-8.

Bell, S. and Wood-Harper, T. (2003) How to Set Up Information Systems: a non-specialists guide to the Multiview approach. Earthscan, 213 pages, London. ISBN 1-85383-958-2.

Bell, S. (with Coudert, E.) (2005) A Practitioner’s Guide to “IMAGINE”: The Systemic and Prospective Sustainability Analysis – Guide d’Utilisation pour «IMAGINE»: l’Analyse de Durabilité Systémique et Prospective.
Blue Plan for the Mediterranean, Paper No. 3. Sophia Antipolis, 51 pages. France. ISBN 2-912081-15-7.

Bell, S. and Morse, S. (2008) Sustainability Indicators: Measuring the Immeasurable: Second Edition. Earthscan, 175 pages, London. ISBN 1-85383-498-x. New edition.

Bell, S. and Morse, S. (2012) Resilient Participation: Saving the Human Project? Earthscan, 200 pages, London. ISBN 1-84971-255-7.

Bell, S., Berg, T. and Morse, S. (2016) Rich Pictures: Encouraging resilient communities. Taylor and Francis, London. Publication date April 2016.

Bell, S. (2017) Formations of Terror. Cambridge Scholars. London. ISBN (10) 1-4438-4705-4

Bell, S. and Cutting, C. (2017) Project Fear (A graphic novel). Milton Keynes. Open University: Open Learn Website http://open.edu/openlearn/projectfear. ISBN 978-1-4730-2330-7.

Bell, S. and Morse, S. (2018) Routledge Handbook of Sustainability Indicators and Indices.
Routledge. London. April 2018.