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

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.

Announcing The Friedman Project

Thomas Friedman + Suzy Systems = Systems Literacy

It’s bitter cold here in the Northeast.   My kids seem to have the gloves-boots-hat set permanently attached to their bodies.  I haven’t received mail for days:  our mailman just isn’t into climbing the snow mound that blocks our mailbox.   And yet, I can’t seem to quell this rumble of excitement, this surge of anticipation.  Christmas is over. So what is it? 

It’s hope.   I’m feeling hopeful, even with these seemingly endless days of ice and snow.  President Obama gives me hope.  And someone else does too: Thomas Friedman. 

If you don’t know him, Thomas Friedman is the foreign affairs and occasional op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  (If I could, I’d promote him to “Our World Affairs” columnist).

I became a fan of his writing early on when I realized he writes from a systems perspective. What does that mean?  You’ll rarely find Friedman focused on just a part or a fragment.  To Friedman, nothing stands in isolation.  Instead, he writes about systems – interrelated parts and processes that continually affect each other over time.  And he sees systems patterns everywhere — in escalating gas prices, in financial markets, in the dynamics related to female literacy, in wildlife management – and he wants his reader to understand these systems as well. Recently, Friedman has taken it up a notch, and has started to urge us all to take a more “systemic approach.”   (see Hot, Flat & Crowded, p. 199).  To this I say, Hallelujah! 

Like Friedman, I want people to understand these systems, and I want them to see systems too.

Why? Most Americans, including our industry and government leaders, haven’t been taught to see systems.  In school, I was taught that the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it or break it up into parts.  It wasn’t until I took courses as an adult that I really learned to see systems of multiple causes, effects and unintended impacts.

Yet these are the skills we need to navigate interdependent financial systems, complex energy relationships and issues of global impact such as climate change.  Without these skills, we continue to operate from crisis to crisis, stuck on the problem solving treadmill, where our “solutions” often only create more problems or make the original problem worse.  

For years, I’ve been filling up my “Friedman File” with clippings of his articles and my own attempts to create pictures, simple causal maps, of the systems he writes about.   Now my Friedman file is overflowing.  Since my work is about helping people of all ages to use their own natural systems intelligence in everyday decision making (and to develop systems literacy*), I decided to launch the “The Friedman Project.”  

In each “Friedman Project’ entry, I’ll walk you through the system or systems Friedman is discussing, using simple causal maps.  (Click here to see how I’ve done this for educators with children’s books). In this way, we can all build our systems muscles, and more readily recognize systems in different settings. I hope this thread also helps you to make systems — rather than fragments — the context for your own learning, problem solving and design efforts.

I’ll post the first Friedman Project this week. Let me know what you think. 

Suzy Systems (AKA L. Booth Sweeney) 


* To be literate means you have a good understanding of a particular subject, like a foreign language or mathematics. In this case, the subject is (living) systems.