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

Down-to-Earth Introductions to Systems Thinking: A Few Favorites

I’m constantly on the look out for down-to-earth introductions to systems thinking.  Recently, I had a chance to work with David Macaulay (of “How Things Work”) and the Donella Meadows Institute to create a short introduction to systems video for folks we think of as young change-makers — high school and college students and people in their first job —  really anyone who wants to understand and transform systems.Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 1.10.41 PM

If you’re an educator, consultant, manager, organizational leader or someone who uses systems thinking in your work, we invite you to GIVE US FEEDBACK on the video.  Really!  The video is a work-in-progress and is about 1/3 of an online learning initiative we hope to eventually offer these emerging leaders.

In my research for the “In a World of Systems” video, I was happy to discover a host of other  terrific introductions to systems thinking.    Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):

Beth Sawin:  What is a System?  Beth Sawin and Drew Jones are gifted teachers and master practitioners in the field of systems thinking.  Here Beth starts from the beginning with the question: What is a system?  And what is one system’s insight you can use right away.  This is the first of eleven videos with a particular focus on climate change but equally effective with other complex challenges.  To see the other videos, enroll here.

Chris Soderquist: This is a wonderful introduction to applied systems thinking, using a healthcare example. Stock and flows center stage!

Donella Meadows:  The matriarch+ of applied systems thinking and system dynamics. Here is an inspirational piece from her 1994 talk “Down to Earth” about systems and sustainability.

Linda Booth Sweeney:  I had a lot of fun shooting this one  — What are systems? — for a systems literacy collection I developed with PBS Learning Media. Short and sweet!  Scroll through the collection for introductory systems thinking modules for teachers and students (grades 9-12).

Peter Senge (About 2 minutes):   A brief, compelling introduction from Peter, one of the founders of the field.

Russ Ackoff:   Wharton professor, organizational theorist and systems thinker – probably the best, most thoughtful (and funniest) thought leader on the subject of systems thinking.  He passed away before TED talks became popular but if he had lived, these two talks here and here — would have been run-away hits.

BEE environmental communication. A Systems Story: a simple, compelling explanation of a systems approach. Excellent for viewers of all ages.

Ecotipping Points Projects:  This is a real treasure trove of case studies that focus on positive, systemic change, written by talented journalists.  Look at any of the resources but here’s a good place to start:. Watch this video about Apo Island. Then read about the “ingredients” to success here.

Complexity Academy:  a comprehensive, diverse and refreshingly global collection of systems/complexity

Ken Webster (head of innovation, Ellen MacArthur Foundation): Here is a brilliant rationale for systems thinking education to support the growth of circular economies. For more on systems thinking + circular economy, see my recent blog post.

Creative Learning Exchange and The Waters Foundation:  Both organizations offer web-ed tutorials focused on systems thinking for educators.  You can also look here at a collection of the Creative Learning Exchange videos

Finally, it’s hard to keep a lid on my excitement about Nicky Case and his innovative work.  To start, check out his Simulating the World with Emojis. Then keep clicking!

This is just a partial list.  There are of course many more.  If you have your own favorites (especially more from outside the U.S.), I’d love to hear from you.

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Living in a World of Systems

Dana Meadows Down to Earth -- 1994

Dana Meadows Down to Earth — 1994

Student Module - PBS Learning Media

Student Module – PBS Learning Media

Complexity Academy

Complexity Academy

Simulating the World (in Emoji) – Nicky Case

How Do We Raise A Generation of Circular Economy Natives?

A circular economy is “all about closing resource loops,” shifting away from linear “take-make-waste” modes of production and consumption to closed loops that produce no waste and facilitate reuse. circularEconomy-f1It’s also about mimicking natural systems, a shift that makes systems – rather than bullet points –the context for defining and solving complex problems, and for fostering more effective learning and design.

Yet, even though we are immersed in natural systems, most of us weren’t explicitly taught the skills to see and understand them. We weren’t taught to see systems of closed-loop cause and effect relationships, or for that matter, to look to nature as a model for our economy (though nature is indeed the ultimate circular economy).

How do we raise a generation of young people who are circular economy natives, who naturally look to close loops to create positive impacts on health, ecosystems, materials, energy, value, and society?

In this session, we’ll look upstream, to seven emerging trends in education, communication and cognitive science. We’ll “connect the dots” among these trends and examine the valuable contributions each has to make in our efforts to educate for a circular economy.

If you’re interested in these questions, join me on November 21, for a 45-minute discussion, part of this year’s Disruptive Innovation Festival.

NOTE:  The title of this talk was inspired by John Sterman’s ground-breaking paper: “Learning in an about Complex Systems.”

If you missed the session, it will be up on the Disruptive Innovation Festival for 30 days so please do check it out.


Linda BS - social media banners 16.11.002


Why “think about systems”?

Over time, we humans have come up with ways to organize and make sense of phenomena.

We see an object that provides light and warmth, and we give that object a name:  the Sun.  Then we observe that the sun appears over the horizon in one direction at first light and disappears in the opposite direction as it gets dark. We’ve identified a behavior of that object, and we name that behavior, sunrise and sunset or, if you’re Buckminster Fuller, you name that behavior sunsight and sunclipse.

We now recognize a pattern, in this case a cycle that repeats each day, although we see variations in this pattern over the course of the year as day length varies, as does the location of sunrise and sunset.

To understand why these changes occur, we need to shift our perspective, from objects to interrelationships, from parts to patterns.   Eventually, we come to understand that the behavior of the Sun and the behavior of Earth are intertwined, and that these two objects, the Sun and Earth, are part of a system, together with other objects such as the Moon that each have their own behaviors and interactions. These interrelationships cause a lot of the phenomena we experience, including day and night, seasons, tides, eclipses, and in the past century, interference with radio communication!

Here’s the good news:  There is a growing recognition — by planetary scientists, organizational and civic leaders, wildlife biologists, educators and more — that the objects, people, places, events, nature we study, manage, write about or design are parts of complex systems. Studying systems can help us to understand the whole set of interrelationships rather than just the parts, and to analyze how changing one or a set of parts, or changing the pattern of the parts, can have far-reaching and sometimes unexpected consequences in other parts of the system.  Great examples of applied systems thinking here and here.

More good news: Children of all ages can understand systems.  In kindergarten-2 they can identify parts of how they work together, and in grades 3-5, they can understand that the whole can carry out functions that the individual parts cannot and look at the interaction among the parts.  In grades 6-8, students can begin to explore how systems interact with other systems.

To try your hand at “thinking about systems”, take a look at the PBS Learning Media systems literacy site and walk yourself through the Teaching About Systems module or the Understanding Dynamic Systems module, designed for high school students.  You can also check out the Waters Foundation and the Creative Learning Exchange for other great systems learning opportunities.


*Throughout his life, Buckminster Fuller urged people of all ages to pay attention to their language. The use of the words “sunrise” and “sunset” were of particular concern to him:   “The most important thing to teach your children is that the sun does not rise and set. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun. Then teach them the concepts of North, South, East and West, and that they relate to where they happen to be on the planet’s surface at that time. Everything else will follow.” (Critical Path)