What the h*** is Systems Thinking?

Since graduating with my Masters in Design for Sustainability I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends, family and potential employers about my degree and they mostly just want to know what “Design for Sustainability” actually means. Oh, I remember the good old days of telling people I worked in architecture and seeing the bright light of recognition behind their eyes! Truly, I didn’t understand what I had. But when I entered grad school I didn’t totally understand what I was getting myself into either. I did know that I wanted to spend my life in a creative field where I could improve the Earth’s and therefore our ability to maintain a vibrant, healthy environment. When my future professor described the program as being based on systems thinking, my eyes glazed over;  an ironic foreshadowing of future networking conversations. In my job application cover letters, I describe the program as using “human-centered design methodologies, interdisciplinary collaboration, and systems thinking to solve problems impacting societal and environmental resilience.” As you might imagine, this doesn’t go over so well at a dinner party unless I’m actively trying to be disliked. Because, dear readers, we have such limited time together, I’m going to save the “human-centered design” discussion for another day and today focus on “Systems Thinking”. The term just hasn’t made its way into our general lexicon yet. But I’m hoping to change that a bit with this forthcoming series of blog posts.

So what the h*** is systems thinking, already? It’s the practice of seeing the forest for the trees. It’s recognizing that a seemingly isolated event, when viewed from a higher elevation, is actually one contributing to a larger pattern. It’s understanding that relationships between parts of a system are just as important as the parts themselves. Donella Meadows, one of the worlds most respected systems thinkers, described it succinctly in her very readable 2008 book Thinking in Systems,

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.”

So, your body is a system, your household is a system, your neighborhood watch is a system and so is the company you work for, your fantasy football team, the forest at the outskirts of town and the industry responsible for the clothes on your back.

One of the most empowering things I learned about systems is that, within each, there exist leverage points of varying degrees of strength that can be used to influence the system. As you can see in the diagram below, the leverage points further to the right generally have greater power of influence:



Ms. Meadows is the mastermind behind this list, which she describes brilliantly in her article here, but cautioned that it is very easy to push a leverage point in the wrong direction. However, just knowing that leverage points exist goes a long way towards how we view problem solving. During the next few weeks I’ll be addressing each of these leverage points in more detail and, hopefully, further illuminating the practice of systems thinking in the process.



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