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

The Little Red Book That Could

I just returned from a two day Systems Thinking-Systems Practice seminar in Seattle.  Fritjof Capra* and I partnered to run the seminar for a remarkable cohort of Organization Systems Renewal (OSR) students at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

OSR cohort, with myself and Fritjof Capra (seated), and with twins, River and Rain

I could dedicate this blog to OSR, a one-of-a-kind, two-year master’s program that takes a deep dive into applied systems thinking and design thinking.

But for now, I just want to crow!
Throughout the two-days we used activities from the Systems Thinking Playbook, a book I first wrote in 1995 and then co-authored second and third volumes with master systems dynamicist Dennis Meadows.

Eighteen years later I am delighted say, this little red book is still chugging.  The exercises remain relevant, flex to different learning objectives and give folks a chance to learn to “think about systems” while having fun.

Throughout the two-day seminar, we wove in five different Playbook exercises.  Each one was designed to help the students explore, experientially a particular perspective or systems principle.

The pictures below show us doing the Avalanche game (see page 215 of the Playbook for the full set of instructions and debrief).  

Who said learning couldn't be fun?

If you haven’t played Avalanche, here’s how it goes:

Imagine that this hula hoop is a problem – it could be low market share, GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, the gap between the rich and the poor.

The goal of this exercise is to reduce the problem (e.g., improve market share, lower concentrations of GHG) by taking the hoop to the ground

 There are two rules:

1) You are touching the hoop with the top of your finger. (The hoop rests lightly on the top of one finger)

2) Never lose contact with the hoop

When I say “Go!”,  the group attempts to lower the hoop to the ground

What happens?  90% of the time the hoop goes up instead of down. (This doesn’t happen if the hoops are too heavy).

From there, you’ve got the group’s attention.  Why did this happen? Where do we see this happen in real life — increases in GHG emissions, environmental damage, widening gaps, lower market share — when we’re looking for the opposite results?

A key insight here is that as long as the rules are in place,  the hoop is going to go up.  The rules produce the behavior.  If you want different behavior, you want different rules.

The Systems Thinking Playbook and DVD is available through Chelsea Green PublishersAmazon, and soon through Leveraged Networks.  (For more information on Leverage Networks, contact Rebecca Niles —, or Kris Wile  The Playbook will be available as an eBook (through VOOK) by December 15.

The Systems Thinking Playbook for Climate Change will be available in early 2014.  This version includes a set of new and adapted Playbook activities that will be useful to those who are trying to communicate with others about the causes and consequences of climate change (Authors: Linda Booth Sweeney, Dennis Meadows and the brilliant Gillian Martin-Mehers).  Stay tuned.

*Fritjof has a new book out on Leonardo Da Vinci as a systems thinker.  I’ll write more about this in my next post.



Food Systems, Climate Systems, Laundry Systems: The time for systems literacy is now!

Tell me, in what subjects are you literate? 

Sounds like a question a college interviewer might ask.  To be literate of course, means you have a good understanding of a particular subject, like a foreign language or mathematics. If you’re reading this, you probably have good English literacy.  For others, science or engineering, or even our woodworking or gardening literacy is particularly strong.

If you listen closely to folks like Thomas Friedman, Michael Pollan, Nicholas Kristof, Wendell Berry and others, you’ll hear them asking for a new kind of literacy, one I call systems literacy

This new literacy calls for us to “connect the dots”,  to look at not just the parts but the interrelationships, patterns, and dynamics as well when faced with complex issues, or what Russ Ackoff use to call “wicked messes.”  When we think in terms of systems, we toggle our focus between parts and wholes, between open loops and closed loops (where waste from one source can be “food” for another), between microcosms to macrocosms. We learn to see recurring patterns that exist among a wide variety of living systems and we use our understanding of those patterns to correct actions, anticipate unintended consequences, and produce learning.*  

Why do we need another literacy?  My favorite agrarian poet Wendell Berry says it so well:

“We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself.  But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to one another only within the pattern of the whole thing to which they belong.” (from The Way of Ignorance, pg. 77)

Most Americans, including our industry and government leaders, were taught that the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it or break it up into parts.   Where were we taught the skills of seeing and understanding systems of complex causes and effect relationships and unintended impacts? 

Yet these are the skills we need to create sustainable communities, and to address pressing issues such as vulnerable food systems, global warming, childhood obesity, unstable energy relationships, environmental degradation and more.

When we are systems literate, we can…

… stop jumping to blame a single cause for the challenges we encounter and instead, look for multiple causes, effects and unintended impacts. 

move beyond laundry lists and bullet pointsto seeing patterns of interaction that more closely match the more interdependent, complex world we live in.

…get off that problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse.  

When we are systems literate, we look at the economy, the climate, education, energy, poverty, waste, disease, sustainable communities as systems issues. We see that nothing stands alone, which means that my climate is your climate, your infectious disease is my infectious disease, your food shortage is my food shortage. 

Where do you start?   Perhaps you pick up a copy of Donella Meadows book “Thinking in Systems” or Peter Senge’s classic The Fifth Discipline, or Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life or the just released systems education book, Tracing Connections. (For other suggestions, look at the systems literacy resources on my site).

Or you simply try adding the word “system” as you talk about everyday issues, big and small, such as laundry (system), family (system), classroom (system), food (system), waste (system), climate (system), and so on.  By adding the word system, we begin to look for interconnections, closing loops of  material and information flows, anticipating time delays and the inertia created by stocks (or accumulations).

When we think of the laundry as a system, we shift our focus from the pile of laundry to the many interrelated factors influencing that pile:  children, dogs, towels that could be used more than once, etc.  

When we think of farms as living systems, we see the parts and processes of a farm include the farmer, animals, crops, insects, soil, weather and natural cycles, such as the water cycle, as connected to and nested in each other. 

We also see  the farm as part of a larger food production system that includes natural and human resources, waste, food processing, distributors and consumers, and we see the farm’s role in influencing other systems such as health care, energy independence and climate. 

Everyday, I see more opportunities for developing systems literacy.   In the last fifteen years, a growing number of schools in the U.S. and around the world have begun in earnest to teach students systems thinking.  Several State Departments of Education are including systems thinking and “Education for Sustainability” (EFS), or learning that promotes understanding of the interconnectedness of the environment, economy, and society, as a requirement for middle school science standards. The MacArthur Foundation just awarded a major grant for a project focused on developing systems thinking in middle school students and developing new curriculum for teachers across disciplines. 

Just as our nation has improved its math literacy and science literacy, the time has come for us all to support efforts to develop systems literacy.

*Scientists and educators in the burgeoning field of systems science describe a living system as patterns of interrelationships among parts that continually affect one another over time. Increasingly, a systems approach is driving the search for solutions for the problems we face in the environment, engineering, and in human societies.  Systems literacy combines conceptual knowledge (knowledge of system properties and behaviors) and reasoning skills (the ability to locate situations in wider contexts, see multiple levels of perspective within a system, trace complex interrelationships, look for endogenous or “within system” influences, be aware of changing behavior over time, and recognize recurring patterns that exist within a wide variety of systems. See here for more on the principles and habits of mind related to systems literacy.