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Professor Ray Ison

Profile summary

  • Central Academic Staff
  • Professor in Systems
  • Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  • School of Engineering & Innovation
  • ray.ison

Professional biography

Appointed Professor of Systems at the Open University in 1994, my research and scholarship spans the biophysical and social and is primarily interdisciplinary and collaborative. At the Open University I have had periods as head of the former Systems Department (1995-8; 2005-6; 25 academic staff), Director of the Environmental Decision Making Program, and am now involved in: (i) managing and presenting the post-graduate program in Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) and undertaking associated Systems scholarship; (ii) contributing to the activities of the Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group and (iii) undertaking international research. 

In 2016 I was appointed an Academician of IASCYS (International Academy of Systems and Cybernetic Sciences) in ‘recognition of outstanding contributions to research and practice in systems and cybernetic sciences’. In the same year Wesley College (University of Sydney) awarded me its Foundation Medal for an “extraordinary contribution to Wesley College, to society in general or both”.

In 2014-15 I was President of the ISSS (International Society for the Systems Sciences); in 2016 I was elected as a Vice President of the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR).  I am also a Director of the  World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics (WOSC), and Chair of Trustees of the American Society of Cybernetics as well as a member of the UKSS.  

In 2008 I moved from a full-time to a fractional appointment at the Open University. In the other fraction I was from 2008-15 Professor, Systems for Sustainability at the Monash Sustainability Institute (MSI), Monash University, Melbourne, where I founded and led the Systemic Governance Research Program

In addition to my continuing OU responsibilities I have from 2016 managed an additional portfolio of research, scholarship and consulting activities mainly in Australia, South Africa and China. I also have appointments as an Adjunct Professor, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney; as a Director, Systemic Development Institute (Australia) and as a Fellow, Centre for Policy Development (Australia).

Research interests

My most recent OU research role completed in early 2016 was as Chief Investigator within the international CADWAGO project (Climate change adaptation and water governance - reconciling food security, renewable energy and the provision of multiple ecosystem services).

With my OU colleagues Chris Blackmore, Kevin Collins and Natalie Foster we were responsible  for a work package (WP) on systemic governance and also contributed to a WP on governance learning. This project is funded by the Europe and Global Challenges Program, an initiative of  three Foundations: Compagnia di San Paolo, Turin/Italy, the Riksbanken Jubileumsfond, Stockholm/Sweden and the VolkswagenStiftung, Hannover/Germany. There were 76 proposals from international consortia; 15 were short listed and invited to proceed with main proposal and hearing and four were selected for funding from the 15.  

I have led and/or contributed to a number of major research programs and projects including:  

  • 2000-2004: SLIM (Social Learning for the Integrated Management and sustainable use of water at catchment scale) from 2000-04, a major interdisciplinary 5th Framework program (30 researchers, 6 countries) researching social learning for sustainable river catchment management;
  • 2003-8 Environment Agency (EA) funded research projects to develop and embed social learning approaches within  river basin planning and managing processes as well as the doing of integrated catchment science
  • 2000-2006: an EPSRC funded Systems Practice for Managing Complexity Network (see also SPMC)
  • 2009-10: Strengthening research capacity of China and South Africa in sustainable water resources management with UK and Australian experiences. The Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation program (NERC/ESRC/DfID)

In all I have edited or co-edited nine Special Editions of Journals which have each had significant impact:

Smith, T., Plummer, R., Ison, RL, Powell, N.  eds (2016) Water, Special Issue "Water Governance in Times of Change: Perceptions, Institutions, Praxis and Learning" (see )

Jiggins, J., Blackmore, C.P., Ison, R.L. & Röling, N. (2016) Editorial Outlook on Agriculture

Ison, R.L & Shelley, M. (2016) Editorial. Governing in the Anthropocene: Contributions from Systems Thinking in Practice? ISSS Yearbook Special Issue, Systems Research & Behavioral Science 33 (5) 589-594.

Jiggins, J., Ison, R.L. & Röling, N. (2014) Special issue: System innovation – towards sustainable agriculture. Introduction. Outlook on Agriculture, 43, (3), 145–146.

Godden, L., Ison, R.L., & Wallis, P. (2011) Editorial. Water governance in a climate change world: Appraising systemic and adaptive effectiveness, Water Resources Management (Special Issue) 25 (15) 3971-3976.

Collins, K.B. & Ison, R.L. (2009) Editorial. Living with environmental change: adaptation as social learning. Special Edition, Environmental Policy & Governance 19, 351-357.

Blackmore, C.P., Ison, R.L. & Jiggins, J. (2007) Editorial. Social learning: an alternative policy instrument for managing in the context of Europe's water.  Special Edition, Environmental Science & Policy 10 (6) 493-498.

Ison, R.L. (2005) Editorial. Geoffrey Vickers 2004: Contemporary applications and changing appreciative settings. Special Edition Systems Research & Behavioral Science 22, 1-8.

Ison, R.L. (1999). Editorial: Applying systems thinking to higher education. Special Edition Systems Research & Behavioural Science 16, 107-112.

Teaching interests

I have been involved in undergraduate and postgraduate, including PhD, teaching at three Universities - what is now The University of Western Sydney (Hawkesbury), The University of Sydney and The Open University (UK).

At the OU I have contributed to undergraduate systems courses (e.g. T306 Managing Complexity. A Systems Approach) as well as PG courses (e.g. T860 and T863 Environmental Decision Making. A systems approach; T861 Environmental Ethics). From 2008-10 Chris Blackmore and I developed the module TU812, ‘Managing systemic change: inquiry, action and interaction, a core module in the OU's Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) Program. We continue to support the presentation of this module. 

In 2012 the STIPII (Systems Thinking in Practice Innovation Initiative) was launched by Chris Blackmore, Martin Reynolds and myself as an action-research and scholarship framing for the ongoing presentation and development of the STiP program.  The first funded project, "Building a community of practice  and employer engagement to enhance Systems Thinking in Practice" was supported by the OU's eSTeEM program. 

A number of books were co-published by the OU and Springer to support the STiP program. This includes my book: Ison, R.L. (2010) Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World. Springer, London and The Open University.

Wherever possible I provide support to a very vibrant STiP alumni community on LinkedIn.  

During 2017 I will be one of four STiP Lead Educators on a series of four MOOCs; I will lead on “Systemic governing in the Anthropocene” (4 weeks x 3 hours per week) on the FutureLearn Platform – in support of OU STiP education.

Impact and engagement

With my OU colleague Chris Blackmore and Prof. Sri Sriskandarajah (formerly of the Swedish Agricultural University) I have developed and co-facilitated/delivered a number of international programes for PhD students in Systems Thinking in Practice. All have been organised and run as systemic inquiries, viz:

  • Ison, R.L., Blackmore, C.P. et al (2016) Graduate Course, ENVS 5100 ‘Systemic inquiry co-laboratory – systems thinking and practice in graduate research: realizing sustainable futures in socio-ecological systems’ Summer 2016, 3 graduate credits, 5th July – 5th August 2016 in conjunction with  ISSS Conference, Boulder Colorado.  
  • Blackmore, C.P, Ison, R.L., Sriskandarajah, N. (2016)  Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) in PhD Research: appreciating and effecting transformations with farming systems research (4 ECTS - Subject to Approval), IFSA Harper Adams University, UK (see
  • Ison, R.L., Blackmore, C.P, Sriskandarajah, N. & Aenis, Thomas (2015) Systems Thinking and Practice in PhD Research: Cybersystemic Possibilities for Governing the Anthropocene 30 July – 7 August 2015, (5 ECTS), Humbolt University, Germany and ISSS (28 students).
  • Ison, R.L., Blackmore, C.P, Sriskandarajah, N. & Noe, E. (2014) PhD Course, Systems Thinking and Practice in PhD Research:  Working strategically with Farming Systems Research (4 ECTS),  30 March – 5th April including 4 days of IFSA Symposium, Humbolt University Berlin, Germany (23 Students).
  • Ison, R.L., Blackmore, C.P, Sriskandarajah, N. & Noe, E. (2012) PhD Course, Systems Thinking and Practice in PhD Research: Making connections to Farming Systems Research (3 ECTS),  29 June – 5 July 2012 including 4 days of IFSA Symposium, University of Aarhus, Denmark.

External collaborations

These are extensive; recent examples include:

Since 2012 I have been the International Reference Group member on the US$8 million USAID-funded RESILIM-O Project on Water Governance in South Africa (Building improved transboundary governance and management of the Olifants Catchment of the Limpopo Basin for enhanced resiliency of its people and ecosystems to environmental change through systemic and participatory approaches).

From 2014-19 I will serve as an External Scientific Advisory Committee member, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre (TAPPC), a A$23 million NHMRC-funded Partnership Centre focusing on research on systems perspectives on the prevention of lifestyle-related chronic diseases.

These are extensive as evidenced by invitations to give the following talks and keynotes in 2016-17:

  • Invited Plenary speaker, “Governance IN the Anthropocene: cybersystemic possibilities” WOSC 2017 “Social dynamics and problem solving in the 21st Century from a systemic perspective. Sapienza University, Rome January 2017
  • Invited Panelist, “Relational approaches to policy analysis – towards a second generation of interpretive policy analysis”, ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research), Prague, Friday 9th September 2016.
  • Invited presenter, “Systems thinking and approach – developing river basin science”. Chinese Academy of Science, Workshop, beijing 27th August 2016.
  • Invited paper/speaker (“Modelling praxis,  social learning and systemic governance”), Session K26 “Integrated Modeling of the human-nature system co-evolution and the interactions between different components of the human-nature system”, International Geographical Congress, Beijing, 21-25th August 2016.
  • Invited Speaker, Knowledge management and capacity building: lessons from South-East Asia Panel, SEA Studies Symposium 2016 (Human and Environmental Welfare in Southeast Asia) ‘Fashions, fads and foolishness: learning to sustain research for development’ 15th April, 2016.
  • Invited Speaker at International Symposium: “A dialogue on management challenges for wáter sustainability”, Hatfield College, Durham University, ‘Towards systemic governance: NRM through systemic inquiry in Victoria, Australia’ April 20 2016.

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