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Archive for the ‘Closed loops’ Category

Balaton Diary: A Letter to My Children

A week ago today, I attended the  Balaton meeting in Hungary.  For four days, I was immersed in heated discussions with scientists, modelers and researchers from around the world about the current and future state of our planet.   Now back home, I wrestle with other challenges:  how to get one kid to soccer, another to the orthodontist, while sitting still long enough to sew a stuffed bear with the third. 

To weave these two worlds together, and to make sense of the sometimes heady Balaton presentations, I decided to write home to my children about the days’ events.  I share with you here, one of those letters.   It is an honor to attend the Balaton meetings and to share these reflections with you.  Happy Reading.  

Momma’s in Hungary, Again!

Dear Jack, Teddy and Anna,

As I write to you, I’m looking out on the still, blue-grey waters of Lake Balaton.

This is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and it’s stocked with fish — grass carp, silver carp, marble carp, catfish, pike perch, and lots of different whitefishes. Once in a while, you might even see an eel.  So Jack, you need your fishing rod!

A view of Lake Balaton from Hotel Szemes

 I want to tell you about the meetings we’ve had here.  You might wonder:  what could 50 people from 23 countries, ranging in age from 22 to 82, all have in common?  And what could they possibly talk about for five days in a row!?

It’s actually simple.  We all really, really love life, and in particular, life on this planet.

In our own ways, each of the scientists, teachers, consultants, writers, modelers (I’ll explain that later), and students who come to the Balaton meeting, are passionate about helping the world see:

1.  itself as a living, interconnected system.

2. the need to take a long-term view, and

3. the power of focusing on positive change. 

Each morning, three or four Balaton members give presentations to the group. Then in the afternoon, we break out for “free” time, which might mean smaller presentations or meetings with different members, a walk along the lake, or even a volleyball game (these Balatoners are competitive!).

Growth on a Finite Planet? 

Dennis Meadows spoke on the first morning about the environment and the economy.  Funny how you often don’t hear those two words in the same sentence.  (Dennis  founded the Balaton Group with Dana Meadows more than 30 years ago.  If you’re curious, you can learn more about Balaton’s history). Dennis opened with this question: can we satisfy our growing needs – our need for goods and services — on a planet with limited resources?

It’s a good question.  If you look at three of his powerpoint slides (see below), you can see the point Dennis is making:  consumption, population and our ecological footprint (our demands on nature) are all increasing. Yet our planet’s resources, such as oil, are limited.

In his talk, Dennis reminded us that we live on a planet that is controlled by balancing feedback loops. We’ve talked about these loops before. Remember that conversation about predator-and-prey relationships?  Wolves and elk, or hawks and mice?  It’s the relationship that control the size of both animal populations, keeping both in check so one population doesn’t become too small or too large.

These controls (or balancing feedback loops) are everywhere in nature.  If a palm tree grows beyond its normal height, it will simply topple over, ending the growth of the tree. When these controls no longer function in the life of cells, for instance, the result is cancer, an endless multiplying of cells.

If you think about it, where are the balancing feedback loops in your life? You play hard in a soccer game and then you rest and you’re ready for the next game.  That would be a good example.  What if you didn’t rest though?  Eventually, you’d be so low in energy you wouldn’t be able to play.

That’s what Dennis is saying is happening to our planet.  But of course the consequences of the planet not being able to bounce much are much worse.

So, how can we live and grow, within the means of nature, what some scientist have begun to call planetary boundaries?

That’s the BIG question. And we should keep talking about this. They’re starting to round up some Balatoner’s for a volleyball game near the lake so I’d better wrap up for now.  Here’s a quick summary of what makes me hopeful that we’ll be able to find a way to answer Dennis’ opening question:

Modeling:   Bert DeVries and Harald Sverdrup are working to create WORLD models, computer models of the earth as one system.  According to Harald, these models can help us to “recognize that we have limited resources. When we do that, we can then work toward managing our common resources so there will be enough for all.”  The biggest ah-ha for me from these models?  We need to pay attention to phosphorous.  Without it, the whole link of food–> to people –> work –> wealth breaks down.

Get the Whole Community Involved:   Vala Ragnarsdottir is doing some exciting and important work with whole communities to model and better understand their food systems.  And Beth Sawin inspired us all as she shared her experience using a computer simulation (C-Roads) to support country leaders and other decision makers as they make decision related to greenhouse gas emissions.  Beth reminded us two key leverage points in addressing climate change:  population and consumption.

Dare to think change is possible:  I was thrilled to hear Colleen Kohlsaat talk about the ways Levi Strauss is cleaning up production of its t-shirts and jeans using life cycle assessment and other sustainability practices.

Colleen Kohlsaat, Jamila Haider, Momma and Karan Khosla, celebrating Balaton 2012

And then there was Phonchan (Newey) Kraiwatnutsorn, who showed us how Ashoka fuels the flame of passion for  positive transformation among young changemakers.  And so much more!

In many ways, these talks were filled with what Dana Meadows called “unpleasant truths.”  The reality of not living within the means of our planet are quite serious.  Yet, when I think about the three of you, I feel hopeful.

Here is what I wish for you, and for all the young people on this planet:

•   Learn the fact about our finite planet.

•   Get comfortable discussing uncomfortable ideas.

*   Stay curious about this question:  How can we live and grow, within our planetary boundaries?

We can talk about this more over dinner, when I get home.

Love you,


PS:  Did you feed the chickens today?




My thanks to Dennis Meadows who graciously granted me permission to incorporate slides from his 2012 Balaton address — Reflections about Resource-Capital-Finance Interactions  — into this blog post.











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.

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.