Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)
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Posts Tagged ‘systems literacy’

Thinking Like Da Vinci in Macae

In his book, How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, author Michael Gelb lists principles for thinking “a la Leonardo”:

Curiosita’ – an insatiable curiosity
Dimostrazione – testing knowledge through experience
Sensazione – continued refinement of the senses
Sfumato – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
Arte/Scienza – developing a balance between art and science
Corporalita’ – cultivating fitness and poise
Connessione – recognizing and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena

I piloted a new “integrated” workshop for SEED along with Tom Lough and Angie MacArthur that would have made Da Vinci proud.  The workshop,  offered in Macae, Brazil to 50 teachers and students, touched on all seven Da Vinci principles, plus one. The author introducing the water cycle from a systems perspective
 Over the course of five days, students and teachers, ranging in age from 10 to 60,  explored the theme of water – its use, management and conservation — through three integrated frameworks:  science/technology, complex problem solving, and Smart Wired, which brings us an eighth principle: know thyself.  Through Smart Wired concepts and tools, students and teachers work together to better understand not how smart they are, but how they are smart.

We “unpacked” a variety of complex systems (connesione, sfumato) from soda production to the water cycle. Participants kept  a journal for notes, observation and reflections (curiosita, sensazione).  Students and teachers tested their knowledge of water-related issues (dimostrazione) through a site visit to a local water treatment plant and they engaged in hands-on activities, using robotics, animation software (e.g., SCRATCH) and a systems thinking playkit and through creative (art/scienza) hands-on projects (see this link for project descriptions*). They even went bowling (corporalita).

SEED students and teachers take a systems view of water conservation

I congratulate SEED for its efforts to to go beyond traditional science and technology education to educate students to deal not just with technical-based problems but to foster “systems citizens” able to manage the complexity of socio-technical issues in their communities, such as those related to water, energy, health, climate and more.

For more on Leonardo Da Vinci as a systems thinker, see Fritjof Capra’s book, The Science of Leonardo and the Global Oneness Project.




*As their final project, one group created a model of a system that was designed to work with the public water supply. In their model, the public water supply is cut off at the house by a special meter and valve subsystem once the monthly water allocation is exceeded. If that happens within a certain month, the house switches over to an internal system that makes use of rainwater stored in a rooftop reservoir. The rainwater is collected through a subsystem of gutters, pipes, and tanks, and is treated through a filtering subsystem before being pumped to the reservoir.

“Limits to Growth” turns 40!

In 1972 a group of MIT scientists wrote The Limits to Growth.  Using sophisticated computer modeling, the authors — Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows and William W. Behrens III — showed the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet.  The book, which became an international best-seller,  shocked the world and generate a mixture of praise, criticism and skepticism.

Today the  Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet in Washington DC are hosting a day-long seminar on its legacy.  You can watch it live on the web from 9.00 am to 6:00 pm Eastern US time (It’s recorded too, if you can’t listen in today).   Here’s the link:

I encourage you to pause for even a few moments today to listen in.  Then sit down at dinner tonight with your friends or family. Ask this question:  how can we prosper on a on a finite planet?  What might that look like?

For good reading on the subject, check out:

Alan AtKisson’s Life Beyond Growth

Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth

Personally, I take my continued inspiration from the last chapter of Limits to Growth.  This chapter focuses on the “unscientific tools”  we can use to transition to sustainability:





… and my favorite,





Loops or Lines: What comes most naturally?

Escola in Macae

Outside Escola Municipal Jose Calil Filho

More than 50 students from the Escola Municipal Jose Calil Filho, an elementary school in Macae (about four hours north of Rio de Janerio) cram two-to-a-seat in a steamy classroom.  It is the day before summer (and Christmas) break in Brazil and the tiny classroom is about to burst with excitement.   These students, ranging in age from 8-11, are here to listen to a lady from the U.S. talk about something called “living systems”.

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

I would have thought so, but I was that lady and I couldn’t have been more impressed by the beautiful minds that greeted me that morning.

With students, teachers and SEED volunteers in Macae

I was there to pilot a workshop for SEED that integrated three “literacies”:  systems, science and self-knowledge.  Despite the steamy conditions, the students were curious, attentive and ready to learn.

Showing a straight line of causality (front row) and closed loops (second row)

Working in groups of three to four, the student-detectives were tasked with figuring out the connections, some obvious and some hidden, in a farm setting (using a systems playkit).  Many students were surprised to discover, for instance, the central role chickens can play in the health of the cows and the pasture.

There’s much to report from that December workshop (you can read more about it here) but for readers of this blog I have to report an observation that continues to fascinate and challenge me:

When asked to show the interconnections on a farm (what influenced what), some students, seemingly regardless of age and gender, laid out a straight line of cause and effect (see picture above), while others (see the second row) created twisty, curvy connections that, occasionally, looped back on themselves (what we would call a feedback loop).  (To learn about feedback loops in farm settings, see the Healthy Chickens, Healthy Pastures Curriculum Guide).

Badgered by Bateson

I remember being a little annoyed by Gregory Bateson’s claim that: “Adults have a chronic inability to understand cyclical, patterned phenomena such as interpersonal relationships and a variety of biological processes.”

“Chronic inability”.  Really?   After investigating children’s and adult’s intuitive understandings of complex systems for the past 15 years,  I’ve concluded that Bateson was on to something.   Deep misconceptions about the dynamics of complex systems — whether the focus is climate, food, energy, obesity, or the environment — do exist, even among highly educated adults (see my research with  John Sterman and colleagues, and Harvard’s Understanding of Consequence Project, for a multitude of examples). In my own research, I found that a significant number of students and adults used “open-loop” or one-way causal thinking when “closed-loop” causality or feedback was present, for instance, in situations involving predator-prey relationships  or savings accounts.

Caution:  Straight Line Thinking Can Be Dangerous

These deep misconceptions can be dangerous. In the natural world, we know that health and renewal occur through closed-loop cycles  — water, oxygen, nitrogen, even solar.  Yet when we disrupt these natural cycles*, we see big consequences — famine, flooding, and more.  And then there is policy resistance, when the solutions to problems often make the problem worse. Think road building programs meant to reduce congestion that end up increasing traffic, delays and pollution.  Or flood control efforts such as levees and dams that prevent the natural dispersion of excess water and so have led to more floods. John Sterman, who gives us these examples, argues that “policy resistance arises because we  do not understand the full range of feedbacks operating in the system.”

The costs of fixing any one these problems is high.  The cost of learning about cycles and feedback is low.

Back to the question of loop and lines.  What led some students to straight lines and others to loops?   I don’t have the answers yet but I’m hoping there are others out there who will think about this question with me.  In the meantime, I’m going back to George Richardson’s Feedback Thought in Social Science and Systems Theory for inspiration.

Please be in touch.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


…vs. lines


NOTES:  *For example, urban sprawl and the paving over of wetlands, grasslands and forests often disrupts nutrient, animal and water cycles.  Ground that is unpaved absorbs water and stores it for use by plants.  With more pavement, less water is absorbed by the ground which means there is less water for plants to absorb.