Werner Ulrich's Home Page:  Bio












Professional Biography












Werner Ulrich Werner Ulrich is a social scientist and practical philosopher born in 1948 in Bern, Switzerland, with a particular interest in the philosophy and methodology of reflective professional practice and research. He holds doctoral degrees in Economics and Social Sciences from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (Dr.rer.pol., 1975), and in Philosophy of Social Systems Design from the University of California at Berkeley (Ph.D., 1980). He is known as one of the originators of "critical systems thinking" (CST), by which he understands the use of systemic thinking in the service of reflective practice. He was appointed professor at various universities and also has extensive experience as researcher and policy analyst in government.

Mini profile | self-portrait in a drawing and four sentences

Academia.edu | short profile

Systems Thinkers | short profile

Current or recent positions

Ancien professeur titulaire, Faculty of Arts & Humanities, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Honorary Visiting Professor,
Faculty of Technology, The Open University, United Kingdom (2005-10)

Director, Lugano Summer School of Systems Design, University of Italian Switzerland, Lugano (2001-13)

Coeditor and Focus Editor for Research Philosophy, Journal of Research Practice (2005-19)



After studying economics and social sciences at the Universities of Fribourg and Zurich, Ulrich moved to the University of California at Berkeley in order to study and work with C. West Churchman, then Professor of Business Administration in the Graduate School of Business Administration and Director of the Social Sciences Project at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory. Churchman had made himself an international name as a research philosopher and pioneer of Operations Research / Management Science and of the "Systems Approach."



Immanuel Kant


Five fascinating years followed, of learning and struggling to understand the implications of a systems approach for a critically tenable practice of research and professionalism in the applied and design-oriented disciplines, for example, in public-sector and corporate planning and management, policy analysis, and evaluation research. One of the adventures of these years was the opportunity of meeting at UC Berkeley exceptional minds such as Paul Feyerabend, Jurgen Habermas, Erich Jantsch, Reinhard Bendix, Aaron Wildavsky and many others; another adventure was an extensive two-year study of the Critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. The result of this work was Ulrich's habilitation thesis Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy, published in 1983 by Paul Haupt in Bern and republished in 1994 by John Wiley in Chichester and New York (still in print). It presented a new understanding of systems thinking, an approach that is now widely known as critical systems heuristics (CSH). The methodological core principle of CSH is boundary critique, a new approach to reflective professional practice.

The book was to become the seminal work of a development in systems thinking that is now often referred to as critical systems thinking (CST) and which continues today to influence a growing number of applied disciplines, among them the fields of operations research / management science, public policy and planning theory, evaluation research, management philosophy, professional ethics, information systems design, social planning, environmental planning and management, development studies, adult education, and others.




Upon his return to Switzerland, in 1981, Ulrich decided to submit his work on critical systems heuristics to the double test of professional practice and of academic teaching and research. Thus he embarked on a double career as evaluation researcher and policy analyst in government and as an academic teacher of future professionals. He has many years of experience as chief evaluator of public health and social welfare in the Canton of Bern. He built up and directed Switzerland’s first office of evaluation research within a state administration, and also became a pioneer of poverty research in Switzerland.




During the same years, he was a professor of social planning, evaluation research, poverty research, and critical systems thinking at the University of Fribourg, where he was appointed Titular Professor of the Theory and Practice of Social Planning in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Philosophische Fakultät / Faculté des Lettres). In addition he engaged himself in adult education, by teaching, during several years, critical systems thinking in the joint "Continued Education in Ecology" program of the Universities of Bern, Fribourg, and Neuchâtel.


University of Italian Switzerland



More recently, he was appointed Visiting Professor of Critical Systems Thinking at the University of Hull, UK (Centre for Systems Studies, 1995-96); at the University of Lincolnshire & Humberside (now University of Lincoln), Lincoln, UK (Centre for Systems Research of the Lincoln School of Management, 1997-2000); at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand (Erskine Science Fellowship, Department of Management, 1999); and at The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK (Honorary Visiting Professorship, Faculty of Mathematics, Computing and Technology, 2005-2010). In 2001, he initiated the Lugano Summer School of Systems Design at the University of Lugano, which he has since been directing until its recent closure.




Ulrich is now retired Ancien professeur titulaire of the University of Fribourg (Faculty of Arts and Humanities). He has recently also retired as a Coeditor (as well as Focus Editor for Research Philosophy) of the Journal of Research Practice, an open-access journal published by Athabasca University Press (AU Press, since 2005); Athabasca University is Canada's Open University in Edmonton, Canada. He remains on the editorial boards of the journals Systemic Practice and Action Research (Springer, Berlin, since 1988); Journal of Enterprising Culture (World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, since 1993); Systems Research and Behavioral Science (Wiley, New York and Chichester, UK, since 1995); and The International Journal of Systems and Society (Official Journal of the United Kingdom Systems Society, UKSS, published by IGI Global Publishers, Hershey, PA, since 2014).




Ulrich has written some 250 academic and professional publications. Their central concern is in the philosophical and methodological issues of applied science and expertise, with special regard for reflective practice. A specific contribution is his work on "critical systems heuristics" (CSH) and its methodological core principle, "boundary critique," which is increasingly being recognized as basic to professional competence in many fields of applied research.

Ulrich's long-term research program CST for Professionals and Citizens explored the ways in which critical systems thinking, and particularly boundary critique, can contribute not only to competent and responsible professional practice but can also help prepare citizens for their role in a living civil society. With a view to the same end, his more recent research program on Critical Pragmatism aims to help develop a "philosophy for professionals" on the basis of a critically revised pragmatist philosophy, that is, an understanding of pragmatism that would include boundary critique among its central methodological principles.

Ulrich's biography has been listed in Who's Who in the World (Marquis Who's Who, New Providence, NJ); in Leading Educators of the World (International Biographical Centre, Cambridge, UK); and in Systems Thinkers, a biographical history of the field of systems thinking in terms of 30 of its major authors (M. Ramage and K. Shipp, eds., Springer, London, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK).




Selected Recent Publications

Systems thinking as if people mattered: toward a knowledge democracy.
Erkine Prestige Lecture, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, 26 May 1999. Edited version of 1 May 2018 (first published version)
[PDF] https://wulrich.com/downloads/ulrich_1999_2018_erskine_lecture.pdf

An interview with myself. In: The idea of boundary critique. Farewell to Ulrich's Bimonthly. Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-May 2018.
[HTML] https://wulrich.com/bimonthly_march2018.html

Reference systems for boundary critique. A postscript to «Systems thinking as if people mattered». Ulrich's Bimonthly, January-February 2018.
[HTML] https://wulrich.com/bimonthly_january2018.html

Systems thinking as if people mattered. Part 1, A plea for boundary critique (a new civil competence), and Part 2, Practicing boundary critique. Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October  and November-December 2017.
[HTML] https://wulrich.com/bimonthly_september2017.html
[HTML] https://wulrich.com/bimonthly_november2017.html

If systems thinking is the answer, what is the question? Discussions on research competence. Ulrich's Bimonthly, May-June and July-August 2017.
A two-part discussion of the nature of research competence from a critical systems perspective. Revised, expanded and updated version of a working paper of 1998.)

The rational, the moral, and the general: an exploration. A series of essays on the nature and role of general ideas in reflective professional practice. Includes a major excursion into the world of ideas of ancient India, as represented by the Upanishads. Part 1: Introduction; discourse ethics. Part 2: Kant's ideas of reason. Part 3: Approximating ideas – towards critical contextualism. Part 4: Ideas in ancient Indian thought / Introduction. Part 5: Ideas in ancient Indian thought / Analysis. Part 4 (revised): Ideas in ancient Indian thought / Introduction. Part 5 (revised): Ideas in ancient Indian thought / Analysis. Part 6: Ideas in ancient Indian thought / Discussion. Part 7: Critical contextualization. Part 8: The logic of "as if" (Conclusion, in prep.).
(Note: Parts 4 and 5 each come in two versions, the first offering a basic philosophical rather than religious and spiritual reading of the Upanishads and the second, a particularly emphasized "analytical" reading.)
Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2013, January-February 2014, July-August 2014, September-October 2014, November-December 2014, March-April 2015, May-June 2015, September-October 2015, and November-December 2016 (to be continued)

A trilogy of review essays on Kant's practical philosophy, plus a concluding, integrative essay:

Critical systems thinking. In S. Gass and M. Fu (eds.), Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science, 3rd edn., 2 vols. New York: Springer, 2013, Vol. 1, pp. 314-326. An invited encyclopedic article on the nature and aims of critical systems thinking (CST), with a systematic comparative account of the methodological core ideas and principles of the two main strands of CST (30 November 2013).

Operational research and ethics: a literature review (invited review, authors: R. Ormerod and W. Ulrich). European Journal of Operational Research, 228, No. 2 (16 Juli 2013), pp. 291-307. A review of the discussion of ethical questions – questions of values and responsibility – in eight major operational research journals (Management Science; Operations Research; European Journal of Operational Research; Journal of the Operational Research Society; Interfaces; Omega; International Transactions in Operational Research; Journal of Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis).

Research skills for the future: summary and critique of a comparative study in eight countries (authors: W. Ulrich and D.P. Dash). Journal of Research Practice, 9, No. 1, Article V1 (8 July 2013). The institutional and social context of research is changing. Research has become an essential element in business models and national economic planning. Accordingly, the competencies expected from researchers and professionals have to meet new demands. This article reviews the findings and conclusions of an empiricial study undertaken by two major international consultancy firms in eight particularly research-intensive countries, about the emerging new key skills expected from researchers and professionals. With this article, the journal launches its new Viewpoints & Discussion section, inviting comments on a topic that matters to all research practitioners.

Operational research and critical systems thinking – an integrated perspective. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 63, No. 9 (September), 2012; previously published as advance online publication, 14 Dec 2011. An inquiry into the meaning of good practice in the field of operational research (OR), and a consequent proposal for reconsidering OR in terms of applied systems thinking and argumentative practice.

What is good professional practice? A short series of four essays on an essential but neglected issue of our epoch, the philosophical and methodological foundations of the concept of professionalism. A particular focus is on the concepts of rationality and competence, and on the role of the practical-normative dimension of reason in it. Part 1: Introduction. – Part 2: The quest for practical reason. – Part 3: The quest for rational action. (Series to be continued)
Ulrich's Bimonthly,
March-April and May-June, 2011, and May-June, 2012.

Critical systems heuristics (authors: W. Ulrich and M. Reynolds). In M. Reynolds and S. Holwell (eds.), Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A Practical Guide, London: Springer, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, 2010, pp. 243-292. An introduction to the theory and practice of CSH, with two integrated case studies. [ISBN 978-1-84882-808-7, e-ISBN 978-1-84882-809-4]

Reflections on reflective practice. A series of essays on the relevance and limitations of the idea of "reflective practice" as it has developed in the professional education literature, and how we might develop it into an adequate framework for applied science and expertise. Part 1: The mainstream concept of reflective practice and its blind spot. – Part 2: Applied science and expertise, or the art of testing and contesting practical claims. – Part 3: In search of practical reason. – Part 4: Philosophy of practice and Aristotelian virtue ethics. – Part 5: Practical reason and rational ethics: Kant. – Part 6a: Communicative rationality and formal pragmatics: Habermas 1.Part 6b: Argumentation theory and practical discourse: Habermas 2. – Part 6c: Discourse ethics and deliberative democracy, or the difficult path to communicative practice: Habermas 3 (1st half).
Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April, May-June, and September-October 2008; January-February, March-April, September-October, November-December 2009, and May-June 2013. (series to be continued)

Exploring discourse ethics. Two essays written to support the "Reflections on reflective practice" series but which are organized as an independent excursion. Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April and May-June 2010.

The greening of pragmatism. Three reflections on the past, present, and future of critical pragmatism within the series of "Reflections on critical pragmatism" (Parts 4-6). Part (i): The emergence of critical pragmatism. Part (ii): Current issues in developing critical pragmatism – a methodological trilemma. Part (iii): The way ahead. Ulrich's Bimonthly, March-April, May-June, and September-October 2007.

Theory and practice. Two essays on the role of theory within a pragmatist framework, written as Parts 2 and 3 of the "Reflections on critical pragmatism" series. Part I: Beyond theory. Part II: The rise and fall of the "primacy of theory." Ulrich's Bimonthly, November-December 2006 and January-February 2007.

Philosophy for professionals: towards critical pragmatism. Viewpoint, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 58, No. 8 (August), 2007, pp. 1109-1113. [ISSN 0160-5682]

Rethinking critically reflective research practice: beyond Popper's critical rationalism. Journal of Research Practice, 2, No. 2 (October), 2006, article P1. [ISSN 1712-851X].

A plea for critical pragmatism. Ulrich's Bimonthly, September-October 2006. The first of thus far seven Bimonthly reflections on critical pragmatism.

Critical pragmatism: a new approach to professional and business ethics. In L. Zsolnai (ed.), Interdisciplinary Yearbook of Business Ethics, Vol. I, Oxford, UK, and Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang Academic Publishers, 2006, pp. 53-85. [ISSN 1661-5999] [ISBN 3-03910-750-X] [US-ISBN 0-8204-8010-X]

A brief introduction to critical systems heuristics (CSH). ECOSENSUS Publications, Knowledge Media Institute (KMI), The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, 14 October 2005.

Obituary: C. West Churchman, 1913-2004. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 55, No. 11 (Nov.), 2004, pp. 1123-1129. [ISSN 0160-5682]

In memory of C. West Churchman (1913-2004): reminiscences, retrospectives, and reflections. Organisational Transformation and Social Change, 1, No. 2/3, 2004, pp. 199-219. [ISSN 1477-9633]

Sozialplanung [social planning]. In E. Carigiet, U. Mäder, and J.-M. Bonvin (eds), Wörterbuch der Sozialpolitik [Dictionary of Social Policy], Zurich, Switzerland: Rotpunktverlag, 2003, pp. 300-301.[ISBN 3-85869-253-0] On-line version of the Dictionary:

Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 54, No. 4 (April), 2003, pp. 325-342. [ISSN 0160-5682]

Public policy analysis. In H.G. Daellenbach and R.L. Flood (eds), The Informed Student Guide to Management Science, London: Thomson, 2002, pp. 213-215. [ISBN 1-86152-542-7]

Critical systems heuristics. In H.G. Daellenbach and R.L. Flood (eds), The Informed Student Guide to Management Science, London: Thomson, 2002, pp. 72-73. [ISBN 1-86152-542-7]

Boundary critique. In H.G. Daellenbach and R.L. Flood (eds), The Informed Student Guide to Management Science, London: Thomson, 2002, pp. 41-42. [ISBN 1-86152-542-7]

A discursive approach to reflective practice in ISD. Part 1: A philosophical staircase for information systems definition, design, and development. Part 2: Critically systemic discourse. JITTA, Journal of Information Technology Theory and Application, 3, No. 3, 2001 (Special issue: the role of dialogue in information systems development, ed. by M. Metcalfe), pp. 55-84 and pp. 85-106. [ISSN 1532-4516]

The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18, No. 1, 2001, pp. 3-28. [ISSN 1092-7026 print, ISSN 1099-1743 on-line]

Reflective practice in the civil society: the contribution of critically systemic thinking. Reflective Practice, 1, No. 2, 2000, pp. 247-268. [ISSN 1462-3943 print, ISSN 1470-1103 on-line]



For another selection of recent as well as older publications, see my Academia page.







Last updated 29 Aug 2023 (first published 09 Nov 2002)
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