Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)

All Systems Go! Becoming a “Systems-Smart” Generation

Illustration: Guy Billout, Art Direction, Milton Glaser. From "Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems" by L. Booth Sweeney

Illustration by Guy Billout

Try this: Find a young person between the ages of four and twenty-four. Show them a picture of a cow and ask, “If you cut a cow in half, do you get two cows?” Even the four-year-old will shout, “No way!” Children understand that a cow has certain parts—hearts, lungs, legs, brain, and more—that belong together and have to be arranged in a certain way for the cow to live. You cannot have the tail in the front and the nose in the back.

As adults, it is easy to miss this simple truth: a cow is a complex, living system, in the same way that the human body, a family, a classroom, a community, an organization, or an ocean is. A system is composed of parts and processes that interact over time—often in closed-loop patterns of cause and effect—to serve some purpose or function. Living systems, unlike a collection or “heap of stuff ,” share similar characteristics. In systems, it matters how the parts are arranged. at is why a cow cannot have the tail in the front and the nose in the back. And why a stomach does not work on its own, and the body does not work without a stomach. And systems often are connected to or nested within other systems (for instance, a person may be nested within a family, school, ecosystem, community, and nation).

Make the Shift: Systems Are the Context

Sounds simple, right? But here is the challenge: much of today’s education remains focused on discrete disciplines—for example, math, science, and English. Science is taught in one class. The bell rings. The student moves onto math and then, perhaps, to English—and never the twain shall meet. Such a fragmented approach reinforces the notion that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts, leaving students well-trained to cope with obstacle-type or technical-based problems but less prepared to explore and understand complex systems issues. In medicine, for example, obstacle-type problems are those that can be clearly targeted and fixed, such as a broken arm or an acute disease, like appendicitis. A systems approach is more effective for chronic and complex diseases, such as diabetes, where the interaction of factors—lifestyle, family history, environment, etc.—also plays a role.

Issues such as climate change, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are matters not only of science, but also of geography, economics, philosophy, and history. They cut across several disciplines and are best understood when these domains are addressed together. Students and adults must be able to see such important issues as systems— elements interacting and affecting one another. In the case of climate change, a systems view shows the link between politics, policy (for example, legislation related to carbon emissions and deforestation), the natural sciences (particularly forests, which help stabilize the climate by absorbing heat-trap- ping emissions from factories and vehicles), and a person’s own consumption habits. Without a systems view, the complexity can be daunting, and the result is often policy resistance or, worse yet, polarization and political paralysis.

The excerpt above is from an article I recently wrote for World Watch Institute’s 2017 State of the World Report. For the complete article, click here.

Thank you to Draper L. Kauffman Jr., author of Systems I: An Introduction to Systems Thinking, for your inspired cow question, posed now over 30 years ago.

Illustration: Guy Billout, Art Direction, Milton Glaser. From “Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems” by L. Booth Sweeney

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What does it take to change the world—and are you up for it?

Systems change. That’s a phrase I’m hearing more and more. And I wonder, where our next generation of leaders learn to drive this kind of change, the systems kind, where nothing stands alone and actions leave tracks? Where will they learn to connect the dots, discovering as they do force multipliers among seemingly disconnected issues like education reform, climate change, electoral reform, racism, violence both local and global, and inequities of every kind, among other pressing issues of our day?  Web

We know these challenges don’t occur in a vacuum.  Climate change displaces people, which exacerbates poverty and conflicts among classes, races, and religions, which makes it harder to stop or reverse climate change, and so on and so on.

To transform systems, we need to make them visible. We need to see how seemingly unrelated things affect one another. We need narratives and visuals that reflect the complexity of our world; and we need to truly understand what it takes to transform and renew systems.

My hope for any anyone who wants to change the world is this: Understand in your bones what Martin Luther King called the “interrelated structure of reality.”  Many, many others have made the same observation.  Wise author, Joseph Campbell, once said:  “People who don’t have an understanding of the whole can do very unfortunate things.” I want us to flip that: People who understand the whole can do very fortunate things!  

As leaders working to create systems change, we need to know the difference between a system and a heap (image from

As leaders working to create systems change, we need to know the difference between a system and a heap (image from

Here’s the challenge: most of us get that everything is connected to everything else. Yet we often act just the opposite: We act as if we are separate from the natural world in which we live. We inadvertently play whack-a-mole, legislating policies to solve one problem only to cause other problems somewhere else. We design products that serve some practical purpose but simultaneously harm our planet. Just think of the number of road-building programs meant to reduce congestion that have actually ended up increasing traffic, delays and pollution.

In some ways, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Much of our education remains focused on discrete disciplines (e.g., math, science, engineering) that train students to “solve” problems with highly focused technical skills and no understanding of how their technical solutions impact other problems in what are always tightly interconnected systems.

So, where do you start? Understanding context is key. For me, I get to context by gathering up all the pieces I see, connecting them to each other, and reconnecting them to a larger whole. It’s much like putting together the many different pieces of a puzzle in order to discover a larger picture or meaning than any one piece alone could reveal. This usually means you need to reach across boundaries and across sectors and engage as many voices and differing perspectives as you can.

Whether I’m working with a community, an organization, a school, or even my own family, the result is a greater sense of health and vitality. Indeed, the root of the word health comes from the Old English hǣlth, which is related to the word whole. I’ve seen this over and over, which is one of the reasons why I’ve been at this systems thinking idea for so long.

To truly transform systems, we all need to learn how to embrace ambiguity, to make friends with failure, to understand that our inner journey is inextricably linked to our external success, and to no longer blame a single cause for some outcome. We must learn to look deeper, to look for all those hidden causes that are interconnected and together produce and perpetuate those symptoms or outcomes we don’t like.

And, if you can do all of this with a committed, diverse group of people with a common focus on transforming what Russ Ackoff called wicked messes or my friend and colleague Sara Schley calls painful persistent problems? Your experience and your result will be all the better.

I’m working now on a systems “playbook” for young leaders working to make systems-driven change.  If you’re applying (or interested in applying) an an understanding of complex systems into learning, decision making and design, be in touch.  I’m eager to hear from you.

If you haven’t yet, take a look at:

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Isn’t it Time We All Started “Thinking Like a Bathtub”?

Everyone knows how a bathtub works, right?  If water flows into the tub faster than it flows out, what happens to the amount of water in the tub?   If you said the water level rises, you’re right.  And if the water flows out of the tub faster than it flows in, what happens? (Right again. The water level lowers). Now you know how to think like a bathtub.

So let’s see how you would you answer this question (posed by New York Times science writer, Andrew Revkin): “When is the atmosphere like a bathtub?”

If you’re thinking that the atmosphere accumulates carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases the way a bathtub accumulates water, you are right once more. Most climatologists agree that humans are putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at almost twice the rate that natural processes (such as oceans and other carbon sinks) can remove them. MIT Professor John Sterman and I co-wrote an article I call “Thinking like a Bathtub” (real name:  Bathtub Dynamics). National Geographic highlighted the bathtub as a powerful metaphor for thinking about the dynamics climate change in this beautiful infographic: Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 7.04.58 AM

Here’s the rub:  how well do we understand accumulations and flows, also known as stocks and flows? Not well according to some research studies.   This isn’t surprising really.   If you think about it, where did you learn to think about stocks and flows? You may not have learned about stocks and flows in school, but anyone who has taken a bath, has opened a bank account or has clutter in their home, intuitively understands stock-flow structures.  You can imagine your bank account balance as a kind of bathtub—the money in it just keeps getting higher and higher (as long as you don’t make any withdrawals, of course!). So, the balance is something that accumulates. On the other hand, the paying of interest on the account is more like a faucet that flows faster the higher your balance gets.

If at this point, you may be muttering to yourself, SO WHAT?!  Do I really need know about stocks and flows? I have to say to you:  YES!  Stocks and flows create many of the most perplexing dynamics we encounter because stocks tend to accumulate, and we often don’t see that accumulation.  Studies of the pesticide DDT, for example, have shown while DDT evaporates from the surface of plants and buildings over six months, it remains in the tissue of fish for up to 50 years.  The amount of DDT in fish tissue is a stock with very slow outflow. When we understand stocks and flows, we understand that a deficit (the rate at which a country borrows money) is a flow and the national debt is a stock.  We understand, as well, that taking the national deficit down to zero doesn’t mean we get rid of the debt.  We also understand that proposals to “slow the rate of growth of carbon dioxide emissions” will continue to increase the stock of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, if the rate at which carbon dioxide flowing into the atmosphere continues to be greater than the rate at which it is draining out. And a big one for me, we understand that we can address clutter (a stock) by turning down the inflow (the rate at which we buy stuff), or turning up the outflow (the rate at which we recycle, give away/throw away, put stuff on Ebay, etc.)

For a fuller explanation of these bathtub dynamics, see:Revkin’s blog — DotEarth. a second article by John Sterman and I (“Cloudy Skies:  Assessing Public Understanding of Global Warming“), the Waters Foundation’s and Creative Learning Exchange’s Student Lessons involving stock/flow maps and the work of Beth Sawin, Drew Jones and the Climate Interactive team (terrific animation here!).  There’s also a bathtub game in our new Climate Change Playbook that give “players” an opportunity to experience physically the rise and fall of CO2 in the atmosphere (see illustration from that game below):

In my next post, I’ll share a sample game from the Climate Change Playbook.  In the meantime, start looking for bathtubs!

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