Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)

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 EBrush@Bridgew.Edu

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The Most Needed Skills in the 21st Century

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Recently, McKinsey and the World Health Organization both asked the same question: what are the most needed skills in the 21st century?

McKinsey looked at the top 10 job skills for adults.

The World Health Organization looked at 16 life skills for K-12 students.

Both came up with same #1 skill:  complex problem solving.

The key word is complex. It’s a word that’s worth revisiting. A broken arm or a flat tire is a problem, but not a complex problem. Most complex problems like attracting the right talent, reducing a community’s emission levels, improving a company’s safety culture — all involve multiple parts and processes interacting over time. Said simply, they all involve systems. And more specifically, complex systems.

At the mention of complex systems you might be tempted to run for the hills. Stick with me. This will be worth your time. I promise.

Complex doesn’t just mean complicated.

A complex system means:

  • it changes over time,
  • it’s open to influences from outside of itself,
  • it’s capable of being chaotic and
  • it’s non-linear, meaning small inputs have large and difficult to predict results.

If you’re dealing with a complex problem, it may mean refreshing the tools in your tool box. Bullet points, matrices and flow charts can help to organize our thinking.

Yes. But we need other frameworks, habits of mind, tools and even new language (like feedback loops) when we’re dealing with the type of dynamic, interconnected, complex problems Russ Ackoff called “wicked messes.”

So, where do you start?

If you are looking for tools, consider those that are designed to make visible the often hidden connections in complex systems. Tools such as the iceberg, hexagon grouping, causal loop diagrams, stocks and flows, and systems modeling software (like Vensim, Kumu and many others).

What have you found most useful for both understanding and solving complex problems?   Join us on LinkedIn to add your thoughts and questions

(Definition of complex system adapted from Daniel Siegel, author of Mindsight).

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All Systems Go! Becoming a “Systems-Smart” Generation

Illustration: Guy Billout, Art Direction, Milton Glaser. From "Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems" by L. Booth Sweeney

Illustration by Guy Billout

Try this: Find a young person between the ages of four and twenty-four. Show them a picture of a cow and ask, “If you cut a cow in half, do you get two cows?” Even the four-year-old will shout, “No way!” Children understand that a cow has certain parts—hearts, lungs, legs, brain, and more—that belong together and have to be arranged in a certain way for the cow to live. You cannot have the tail in the front and the nose in the back.

As adults, it is easy to miss this simple truth: a cow is a complex, living system, in the same way that the human body, a family, a classroom, a community, an organization, or an ocean is. A system is composed of parts and processes that interact over time—often in closed-loop patterns of cause and effect—to serve some purpose or function. Living systems, unlike a collection or “heap of stuff ,” share similar characteristics. In systems, it matters how the parts are arranged. at is why a cow cannot have the tail in the front and the nose in the back. And why a stomach does not work on its own, and the body does not work without a stomach. And systems often are connected to or nested within other systems (for instance, a person may be nested within a family, school, ecosystem, community, and nation).

Make the Shift: Systems Are the Context

Sounds simple, right? But here is the challenge: much of today’s education remains focused on discrete disciplines—for example, math, science, and English. Science is taught in one class. The bell rings. The student moves onto math and then, perhaps, to English—and never the twain shall meet. Such a fragmented approach reinforces the notion that knowledge is made up of many unrelated parts, leaving students well-trained to cope with obstacle-type or technical-based problems but less prepared to explore and understand complex systems issues. In medicine, for example, obstacle-type problems are those that can be clearly targeted and fixed, such as a broken arm or an acute disease, like appendicitis. A systems approach is more effective for chronic and complex diseases, such as diabetes, where the interaction of factors—lifestyle, family history, environment, etc.—also plays a role.

Issues such as climate change, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are matters not only of science, but also of geography, economics, philosophy, and history. They cut across several disciplines and are best understood when these domains are addressed together. Students and adults must be able to see such important issues as systems— elements interacting and affecting one another. In the case of climate change, a systems view shows the link between politics, policy (for example, legislation related to carbon emissions and deforestation), the natural sciences (particularly forests, which help stabilize the climate by absorbing heat-trap- ping emissions from factories and vehicles), and a person’s own consumption habits. Without a systems view, the complexity can be daunting, and the result is often policy resistance or, worse yet, polarization and political paralysis.

The excerpt above is from an article I recently wrote for World Watch Institute’s 2017 State of the World Report. For the complete article, click here.

Thank you to Draper L. Kauffman Jr., author of Systems I: An Introduction to Systems Thinking, for your inspired cow question, posed now over 30 years ago.

Illustration: Guy Billout, Art Direction, Milton Glaser. From “Connected Wisdom: Living Stories about Living Systems” by L. Booth Sweeney

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