Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Archive for the ‘Systems View of Climate Change’ Category

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.   

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!

Thinking Like a Bathtub + Climate Change

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 today 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. slide1

For a fuller explanation of these bathtub dynamics, see Revkin’s blog, Dot Earth, or the Sterman & Booth Sweeney article,  “Cloudy Skies:  Assessing Public Understanding of Global Warming.  (By the way, if you don’t know the work of MIT professor John Sterman, you should! If you watch the video of Sterman on the Revkin post, go to minute 18 for the best part).

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.  Systems dynamicists would describe your account balance as a stock and your interest payments as a flow. Each of them influences the other.  Essentially, an amount of something—trees, fish, people, goods, clutter—is a stock. The rate at which a stock changes, going up or down, is its flow.

At this point, you may be muttering to yourself, SO WHAT?!  Why do I need to know about stocks and flows?

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.)

If you want to explore these ideas further,  here are a few good places to start:

SEED’s Climate Challenge (includes a terrific simulation, suitable for young people, 10 and up)

 Sterman’s Bathtub Dynamics and Climate Change

Waters Foundation:  Student Lessons involving stock/flow maps

Also, check out Drew Jones, Beth Sawin and the Climate Interactive blog