Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Leaning into Complexity: Young Leaders of Systems Change

HI EVERYONE!   

It’s been a while. I hope you’re all staying healthy and finding a new rhythm during these challenging times.  Like many of you, I feel our systems-based work is more urgent than ever.

Young people are watching.  They’re worrying. From climate change to our current pandemic, adults don’t seem to have the answers. Even the very young now know that events in China can close down schools, economies, and be responsible for deaths thousands of miles away. They know in their bones they’re living in a tightly interconnected web (what Martin Luther King called “the interrelated structure of reality”).

Here are the questions I go to bed with and wake up in the morning thinking about: How can we encourage young people to understand and lean into the complexity they’re experiencing and, see that complexity as a feature of their world — a guide –  rather than the enemy? How can we help them to look to the other side of the hardship and disruption they’re experiencing, to feel confident they can solve complex problems and together, innovate their way to healthier futures? Curious how you would answer those questions. For me, whole-systems learningexperiential opportunities to improve our ability to see, understand and work with interdependent systems — is one answer. For an example of “whole-systems learning” in action, partnership, please read on. 

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During a recent climate change rally, on an unusually warm day late last fall, I noticed two young women holding this sign:   

They laughed when I asked them about systems change. They had to admit, systems change sounded like a good idea but they weren’t sure how to actually do systems change. Fair enough. Most adults don’t either.

Last Fall, I started working with teenagers and young adults through a local non-profit called SparkShare (https://www.sparkshare.org/), a non-profit dedicated to supporting young people to solve problems across differences. During a one-day systems change summit, I worked with 100 teen leaders in 13 groups from the Boston area, all of whom are focused on solving complex challenges in their communities — from vaping, substance abuse, racial equity, to youth employment, climate change and safer streets.

Sparkshare Systems Change Summit

During the summit, the youth groups focused on “helping the system to see itself” through systems mapping.  We also built in plenty of opportunities to envision “future states” (Buckminster Fuller’s term), cross-pollinate between and among the groups, make real commitments for action and have fun!  In the month leading up to the summit, I worked with each group virtually to shape a strong systems question, one that incorporated change over time.  I opened the summit by thanking some of my “teachers” including Dana Meadows, Ruth Rominger, John Sterman, Dennis Meadows, and Peter Senge, and introduced the concept of systems, system dynamics and the broader field of systems change. At the close, I let them know they were not alone and encouraged them to connect with the growing number of people around the world who understand and use systems-based approaches in a variety of professions.

Their reaction to the day was electric! You can see a short video below:

Youth Leading Systems Change

Most exciting were the practical actions groups took after the summit. One team used their systems mapping experience to better understand the multiple factors that drive teen vaping, concluding that they had to reach their peers in different ways, reduce access, and engage adults. After the summit, they partnered with a manufacturer of vaping detectors and are now working with school administration to get vaping detectors into bathrooms at their high school.

Together with the team at Sparkshare, we’re working to make systems change a core part of how their youth partners work together to positively impact their communities, and develop the skills to become the future problem solvers our world desperately needs. We’re actively looking for funding to create a scaleable systems change “hub” offering:

  • Virtual, in-person labs for whole-systems learning, rapid prototyping 
  • Collaborative network building
  • Peer and expert coaching
  • Virtual, in-person community
  • Question-led database
  • Protocols that enable partners to test solutions and learn from what works (and what doesn’t).

If you can help us make this systems change “hub” a reality, please do be in touch. I’ll be announcing upcoming “whole-systems learning” opporutnities over the next few months via this blog.

Take good care!

What is Systems Change: Fostering health in systems through coordinated shifts in narratives, relationships, networks and structures.   

Shifting Patterns

Stories.  We love them. They’re our most ancient form of education. And yet there’s often a mismatch between the stories we love to read to children and the way the world actually works.

It comes down to plot lines. Most children’s stories tend to feature some sort of straight line, often starting with a problem, followed by a reaction, and ending with a resolution. It’s one, linear pattern of connection:

A →B →C

A causes B, and B causes C. End of story.

 
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Think about the children’s book I Know an Old Lady (by Rose Bonn and Alan Mill). It’s about an old lady who swallowed a fly:

I know an old lady who swallowed a spider

That wriggled and wriggled and tickled inside her.

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.

But I don’t know why she swallowed the fly!

I guess she’ll die!

The old lady goes on to swallow a mouse, a cat, a dog, a cow, and, finally, a horse — all to catch a pesky little fly. What happens when she swallows the horse? “She dies, of course!”

Ok. So it’s not A →B→C, but A→ B→ C → D→ E→ F → G. End of story.

The story is dark, hilarious and a one-way pattern of connection, that is, a long, straight chain of events. Many things in a child’s life do happen in a straight line of cause-and-effect: turn up the volume on the TV and the sound increases. A causes B. Done.

But cause-and-effect is not always straight. Indeed it can be loopy, web-like, cascading.

(Hang in with me now. We’re going to enter the field of systems thinking. It may sound abstract but it is really practical stuff that is leading the way to solving some of the world’s most pressing problems*).

 

Let’s look at the loopy kind. In If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, a best-selling children’s story by Laura Joffe Numeroff (illustrated by Felicia Bond), the mouse wants a cookie, then a glass of milk and by the end of the story, he wants another cookie. Here’s how my eight-year-old nephew drew the chain of events in Numeroff’s story:

 
Drawing by Bradley Booth

Unlike the Old Lady who swallowed that fly, this closed loop of cause and effect, feedsback on itself to amplify change. Even the youngest readers intuitively know that the story could go on forever and if left unchecked, the mouse is going to want more and more cookies. When we understand how reinforcing feedback loops work, for example, we see how events build on one another — and how a small change can “grow” into larger and larger consequences as the pattern of connections loops and loops around. Children encounter these reinforcing feedback loops everyday. Think of mean words on a playground, rising noise levels on the bus ride home or the spread of a rumor.

Young children can learn to “close the loop” and take advantage of reinforcing feedback. Think about saving money in the bank. It doesn’t take a math whiz to appreciate compound interest, which Albert Einstein once called “the most powerful force in the universe”: An increase in the amount of money in the bank increases interest payments. An increase in the interest payments compounds the initial increase of the amount of a child has in the bank. It’s not a far leap for kids to harness that same time of reinforcing feedback to grow, for instance, kindness in the classroom.

While reinforcing feedback loops act as engines of growth and decline, another closed loop of cause and effect — balancing loops — self-regulate and dampen change. By its very nature, balancing feedback works to brings things to a desired state and keep them there. Sometimes this is good (e.g. helping to keep a system in balance) and sometimes this is why we feel stuck.

Image courtesy of World Watch 2017 State of the World Report

Image courtesy of World Watch 2017 State of the World Report

When we understand balancing feedback, we understand that predator-prey relationships in nature are not one-way (where the predator simply eats the prey), but rather is made up of a closed loop of cause and effect, with births and deaths of one species affects the population of the other.

Closer to home, when we understand balancing feedback, we stop using our thermostat like a gas pedal, increasing or decreasing the temperature to suit our moment-by-moment needs. Rather we let the internal feedback structure do its work, allowing the temperature to self-adjust to a desired temperature. (Indeed we live on a planet controlled by balancing feedback loops but that is another post!)

A child who understand the basic idea of balancing feedback has a better understanding why things get stuck, and what they can they do about it. Let’s use the example of a messy room and a child that is doesn’t want to clean it. Throughout the week, the parent may reminds him: clean up your room! The child on the other hand, is otherwise occupied. By the end of the week, the parent’s frustration is boiling over. Finally, the parent threatens a week of no TV or depending on the age, no cell phone and the child relents. When he shows his clean room, the parent is happy. But the next day, with the pressure off, he slowly reverts to his old habits and the room becomes messy again. Mid-way through the week, the parent’s frustration builds again, this time with more pressure. The room clean up roller coaster continues.

 

(What to do? One way out of this dilemma is for the parent and child to sit down together, and draw simple diagrams showing the situation as one sees it. Then together they can figure out how to change the pattern.)

Growing Little Systems Thinkers

Back to children’s stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love stories with all kinds of plot lines. I’ve written two myself. But a diet of all one-way plots doesn’t prepare our children for the diversity of real world patterns they will encounter.

So what can you do?

Encourage your little readers to be pattern detectives.

Encourage them to draw the patterns they see in stories. Then look beyond books to the cause-and-effect patterns they see on the playground, around the dinner table or on the front page of the newspaper.

By seeing these patterns, they will be more likely to stop jumping to blame a single cause for the challenges they encounter be curious about the multiple, interacting forces driving events and often, unintended impacts. As an added bonus, when children (and adults for that matter) see patterns, they are more likely to be able to understand them and when needed, to change them. (For an example with two siblings, read here).

Ask questions to focus on cause-and-effect:

o What happens next? (Keep asking. Sometimes you’ll find a drives b which drives c which loops back to drive more or less of a).

o How is this similar pattern similar to that? When they get older recognizing these patterns helps build a bridge between different disciplines in school. Bridging science and social studies they might ask: How is the growth of the bacteria we’re looking at through the microscope similar to the population growth in a particular region?

Whether we are 7 or 77, when we are aware of these closed loops of cause and effect, we are less likely to react to behaviors produced by them and more likely to be able to understand them and when needed, to change them.

Good Books for Little Systems Thinkers

For an introduction to systems-based stories for little systems thinkers, see the 2018 version of When a Butterfly Sneezes: A Guide for Helping Kids Explore Interconnections in Our World Through Favorite Children’s Stories (2018, updated and revised with a new introduction by Peter Senge). For more on systems thinking, see: www.lindaboothsweeney.com.

 
More good books for little systems thinkers

Other Useful Links:

Systems Thinking in World folktales: see Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems by L. Booth Sweeney.

Causality in science: see the Causal patterns in science work of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Causality in children’s nonfiction: see author Melissa Stewart’s blog Celebrate Science (look for “cause and effect” books).

Systems stories in the classroom: Waters Foundation and Creative Learning Exchange (search resources for literature)

PBS Learning Media: see the Systems Literacy Collection

THANK YOU to Gale Pryor, Penny Noyce, Emily Rubin, Melissa Tackling , Eugene Pool and Christine Abely for your thoughtful feedback on this article.

 

Building Win-Win Narratives Through Causal Mapping

Last weekend I got up early to head to Bridgewater State.  I had received a call from Ed Brush, a chemistry professor and organizer of the school’s annual Symposium on Sustainability and the Environment.  “We want to introduce a group of 80 students and faculty from colleges in the Northeast to systems thinking.  Help them ‘think outside the box’.  Show them how a systems approach can be used to solve environmental and sustainability challenges.” O.K.  He hit all my keywords:  students, systems thinking, applied, real world.  I had to say yes.

A bit of background.  There were about 80 college students, three high school students and a small group of faculty.  All the students were there present research posters on water, energy, toxicity, bees and more.    These were important projects that could have a real impact on our region.

BridgewaterState2017After a game (of course), I started by asking them to think about their projects.  What did they want to change?

Here is what these students said about the changes they wanted to see:

Less microplastic pollution.

More native bee diversity.

More sustainable agriculture

Less solvent use

Less caffeine exposure in childhood

Do you care about those things?   I do.  If you like clean air, drinkable water, a safe healthy environment, and broccoli, squash, apples and almonds (all pollinated by honey bees) then you care too.

Whether these students know it or not they are Very Important People doing very important work.

As the students described their research projects I found myself remembering why I got up early that morning.  I was honored to be working them.

We then moved on to the nature of complex systems hovering on one key characteristic:  Systems are made up of tightly coupled interconnections. It’s easy to say “everything is connected to everything else” but as they soon discovered, we often forget that simple truth.

Screen Shot 2017-11-29 at 8.42.10 PMWe played another game (thumb wrestling) to get a baseline of their embodied understanding of interconnections.  Most of the students had played the game. There are commonly known rules. I explained the goal carefully:  ‘To get as many points as you can.” It is possible to collaborate, allowing each person to pin the other’s thumb thus winning many points for each partner.  But for the most part, mental models about the the system structure (the game) got in the way of significantly improving performance.  As efforts increased, performance actually went down.  90% of the participants did not take the opportunity to work together or in systems language, to leverage interconnection.

There is no shame in this. Just good information. You have to start somewhere.

Next we looked at the UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs in the context of their research projects.  The SDGs are 17 interrelated global goals outlined by the United Nations.

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We put our heightened awareness of interconnections into practice.

Using wikki sticks and SDG cards, students and faculty looked for possible causal connections among the SDGs.

In what ways could they drive positive change through closed loops of cause and effect (e.g. feedback loops)  Students then set their own research project “maps” within the context of these iIMG_3545nter-related SDG goals.

IMG_4111Groups looking at improving air and water quality for instance explored how their research projects fed (and were fed by)  larger sustainable development goals such as Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being and Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

Mapping student research projects into the larger landscape of the SDGs was a simple idea.  It allowed students to actively build their own win-win narratives by finding the causal connections between their local projects and global sustainable development goals.

While the airwaves are cluttered with stories of conflict and stalemates, these VIPS are working diligently, thoughtfully and rigorously to solve our worlds greatest problems.  May we seek them out and support them. If we do, our future will be in good hands.

 

For more information about Bridgewater States Annual Symposium on Sustainability and Environment, contact Ed Brush at [email protected]