The new cybernetics: systems thinking for the 21st century by Genevieve Bell "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs May 05 2021 True #mtpcon, AsiaPac, Prioritised Members' Content, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 913 Genevieve Bell speaking at mtpcon Product Management 3.652

The new cybernetics: systems thinking for the 21st century by Genevieve Bell


In this #mtpcon Digital APAC keynote, Genevieve Bell, Director of the 3A Institute (3Ai), gives a whirlwind tour through the 75-year-old field of cybernetics, demonstrating how its transdisciplinary approach can be used to inform our product processes and systems.

Watch the talk in full or read on for the overview. Mind the Product members can also watch the recordings of all our #mtpcon Digital APAC talks here.

In the talk, Genevieve covers:

  • A cybernetic approach considers people, technology, and the environment
  • Disrupt your product process by inviting productive discomfort, diverse voices, and allowing for questions to remain unanswered
  • Employ cybernetic foresight and build products that endure

Genevieve begins by contextualising her position in the industry. “For me, whenever I talk about the future and about technical systems, I’m hugely aware that I’m doing that in a place where humans have been making the future and making technology for at least 80,000 years,” she says. In this way, she illustrates a central principle of cybernetics — ‘start with the human at the centre of all of your processes’.

What is cybernetics?

The term “cybernetics” was coined by Norbert Wiener, a mathematician, philosopher and computer scientist, who drew inspiration from the Greek word ‘carbonates’ — a word describing the person who steers a boat. The journey cybernetics was concerned with in 1946 (one pursued by “cyberneticians”) was humanity’s conquest into the digital age, as “governments, and universities, and companies were all competing to take advantage of recent innovations, all over the world.”

In cybernetics, Wiener created a “word that would reflect how humans might be in control of these technical systems as they unfolded”. Genevieve explains that he “believed that as the power of computing expanded, the world would become a whole new kind of feedback loop, not just a mechanical one, but a biomechanical one — one that would evoke computers and humans and the environment.”

Adopting Cybernetics in the 21st century

Genevieve describes how product people in the 21st century have two main roles:

  1. Storytelling
  2. Disrupting what’s come before

While cybernetics was, in many ways, occupied with the former, today’s industry goals have led us away from a cybernetic approach, prioritising ‘marketable gadgets’ instead of a deeper understanding of the world we live in. As a result, there’s a failure to engage in the ecological, cultural, and human landscape while delivering new technical products and services.

Cybernetics “could still provide us with a deep understanding of the world we live in”, Genevieve says. In turn, this will promote longer-lasting and fundamentally better systems.

Learning from the past

Genevieve describes how cybernetics discourse not only had a huge impact on the history of computing, but also computer graphic, gaming, art and design. “It shaped business and organisational development. It created poetry. It created ideas about the ecological, it created a whole series of really different kinds of people and points of view.”

While there is no dogmatic methodology, a cybernetic approach considers three things: people, technology, and the environment. Additionally, product people can adopt the following lessons from cybernetics:

Engaging with multiple voices

The myriad of voices which informed cybernetics study — mathematicians and philosophers and physicists and psychologists and anthropologists and historians and biologists — answered questions in many ways, benefiting from different perspectives. As product people, we should acknowledge there’s no one right answer, and willingly promote interpretation and reinterpretation of ideas.

Facilitating productive discomfort

Unsurprisingly, multiple voices of different experience levels and disciplines may lead to challenges and disagreements, but these conflicts are always of value. “When you organise product building sessions, finding [the disruptors] turns out to be as important as finding the experts.”

Embracing unanswered questions

The conversation around Cybernetics left many unanswered questions, iterations, theories and systems. But, as Genevieve explains, this was often beneficial. “The answer you have in five minutes isn’t always the one you have in an hour or two. The answer we first come to isn’t always the right one — it’s just the most obvious one.”

Accommodating indirection

A cybernetic approach improves perspective; it looks for “other ways, and other vantage points that may let us see the system more clearly than if we were standing in the middle demanding that that system account for itself to us.” What’s important is to look for and invite these views, recognising they may not always unfold in a linear manner.

Looking to the future

Cyberneticians understood that their study was not finite and would inspire future conversation as technology developed, for example, Artificial Intelligence was likely a response to the idea of cybernetics.

When looking at systems, (or specific features within systems), even from their inception, we can similarly consider how our ideas are always going to end up in someone else’s hands. With a cybernetic approach we should strive to create a world that makes this easier rather than harder and prioritise “the idea of humans in the loop and actually thinking about the environment.”

“That feels both really hopeful and really necessary for me,” Genevieve says. “Making room for a new kind of cybernetics, one for the 21st century, one that takes all the lessons from the past but also stops looking to the future […] there is something extraordinary in imagining that if you can find the balance between the human, the ecological and the technical, you can make systems that endure.”

To discover more #mtpcon content, browse our library of #mtpcon keynotes or use our Content A-Z to explore even more product management topics.