Systems Thinking

Week 14: Systems Thinking 101

Systems thinking unschool of disruptive design

By Leyla Acaroglu

At the UnSchool, we have three core pillars that make up the foundation of all that we do: systems, sustainability, and design.  The systems component is the ability to see the world for its dynamic, interconnected, interdependent, and constantly changing set of relationships that make up the complex whole. I recently shared just why systems thinking is such a powerful tool for effecting change, but a concept stuck in theory does little for the greater good. Understanding that everything is interconnected and being able to apply this knowledge as a tool for effecting change are two different things, and what’s most important is the practical experience plus the applied tools to turn theories into action. To move from ideas in the brain to practice in the real world, it helps to be equipped with the distilled and applicable knowledge about which tools can be used and how to apply these in ways that achieve the desired outcome — in our case, this is always positive social and environmental change. We have developed many simple applied systems tools, such as the systems mapping approaches, and to get you started on thinking in systems, let’s dive into the foundations of systems thinking! 


How we See the World 

The status quo of how we are all taught is to think in linear and often reductionist ways. We learn to break the world down into manageable chunks and see issues in isolation of their systemic roots. This dominant way of approaching the world is a product of industrialized educational norms – in one way or another, we have learned, through our 15 to 20+ years of mainstream education, and/or through socialization, that the most effective way to solve a problem is to treat the symptoms, not the causes. 

Yet, when we look at the world through a systems lens, we see that everything is interconnected, and problems are connected to many other elements within dynamic systems. If we just treat one symptom, the flow-on effects lead to burden shifting and often unintended consequences. Not only does systems thinking oppose the mainstream reductionist view, but it also replaces it with expansionism, or the view that everything is part of a larger whole and that the connections between all elements are critical. Being able to identify relationships over obvious parts, seeking to decipher the dynamics of these relationships, and then being able to interpret the underlying models that created the relationships is the foundation of thinking in systems. 

The Iceberg Model

The Iceberg Model

Learning to Name and Define Systems

If you had to, what words would you use to define a system? Funnily enough, many important systems are easily identified by the word ‘system’ after them, such as respiratory, education, legal or mechanical systems. Systems are absolutely everywhere, of all manners, shapes, and sizes; from the intricate workings of your body (nervous, neurological, digestive, cardiovascular etc) to the infinite possibilities of space, our world is made up of interconnected and interdependent systems. We interact with many of these which helps us understand them intuitively, but so often is the case that we are unable to identify a system that is not obvious to us — like many of the indirect natural systems that keep us alive. This can explain a lot about how we have created so many of the environmental issues we face today!

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A simple way to define a system is it will: be dynamic (constantly changing), be evolving (having emergent properties), and have a boundary (a definable limit to its internal components and processes).  Systems are essentially networks made up of nodes or agents that are linked in varied and diverse ways. By using systems thinking, we identify and understand these relationships as part of the exploration of the larger systems at play. Everything is interconnected, every system is made up of many subsystems (of which even smaller systems make these up too), and then these are also all part of much larger systems. Just as we are made up of atoms with molecules and quantum particles, problems are made up of problems within problems! Every system is like a Matryoshka doll, made up of smaller and smaller parts within a larger whole. Seeing things in this way helps to create a more flexible view of the world and the way it works, and it illuminates opportunities for addressing some of its existing and evolving problem arenas. When teaching systems thinking, I like to explain this as the ability to look through a microscope at the tiny world that makes up all matter, as well as being able to shift to the telescope and see the infinite possibilities of space and the universe. In between these two opposite perspectives, you get a more three-dimensional perspective of how the world works. 

Three Key Systems at Play

Although the world is made up of endless large and small interconnected systems, I define three key systems that make up the fundamental relationships between humans, the things we create, and our reliance on nature. These are the social systems, which are the intangible human-created relationships and culturally governing aspects such as education, government, and legal systems;  the industrial systems, which include the physical infrastructure of roads, buildings, manufacturing systems, and products that allow us to function as a society and meet our human needs, and the natural systems that are the ecosystem services which allow for the other two systems to sustain themselves, providing all the resources for humans to survive and all the raw materials for our industrial needs.  These three major systems keep the economy churning along, the world functioning for us humans, and our society operating in order (sort of, anyway!). This is, of course, a very anthropocentric point of view, one I define in order to enable people to see the deep reliance and misalignment we have with the natural systems at play. Whenever I run a workshop and we create a map of these, people often get stuck on naming all the ecosystems, but have no problem identifying social and industrial systems that they interact and rely on. 

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The fascinating thing is that the social systems are the rules and structures that make up our societies — the things that we humans have created to manage ourselves — and thus, can be reconfigured within generations. They are the often unspoken rules that maintain societal norms, rituals, and behaviors, all of which reinforce the unsustainability that we have created for ourselves. The same applies to the industrial systems — they are the outcome of our collective desires for speed, access, convenience, connectivity, success, status, cleanliness, and all manners of human desires and needs. The manufactured world is just that: created, and intentionally designed to facilitate the ever-expanding suite of human needs. However, the biggest and most important system of all, the ecosystem, cannot be redesigned or restricted without it impacting all the rest, yet we treat all natural services as though they are infinite and degradable. But clean air, food, fresh water, minerals, and natural resources need to be respected and shared with all species for the collective success of the planet. 

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6 Key Tools for Systems Thinking

Words have power, and in systems thinking, we use some very specific words that intentionally define a different set of actions to mainstream thinking. Words like ‘synthesis,’ ‘emergence,’ ‘interconnectedness,’ and ‘feedback loops’ can be overwhelming for some people. Since they have very specific meanings in relation to systems, allow me to start off with the exploration of six* key themes.


*There are way more than six, but I picked the most important ones that you definitely need to know. To dive deeper, check out my  'Tools for Systems Thinkers’ series on Medium. 


1. Interconnectedness

Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected. We talk about interconnectedness not in a spiritual way, but in a biological sciences way.

Essentially, everything is reliant upon something else for survival. Humans need food, air, and water to sustain our bodies, and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Everything needs something else, often a complex array of other things, to survive. Inanimate objects are also reliant on other things: a chair needs a tree to grow to provide its wood, and a cell phone needs electricity distribution to power it. So, when we say ‘everything is interconnected’ from a systems thinking perspective, we are defining a fundamental principle of life. From this, we can shift the way we see the world, from a linear, structured “mechanical worldview’ to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops. A systems thinker uses this mindset to untangle and work within the complexity of life on Earth.


2. Synthesis

In general, synthesis refers to the combining of two or more things to create something new. When it comes to systems thinking, the goal is synthesis, as opposed to analysis, which is the dissection of complexity into manageable components. Analysis fits into the mechanical and reductionist worldview, where the world is broken down into parts.

But all systems are dynamic and often complex; thus, we need a more holistic approach to understanding phenomena. Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole.

Essentially, synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness.

3. Emergence

From a systems perspective, we know that larger things emerge from smaller parts: emergence is the natural outcome of things coming together. In the most abstract sense, emergence describes the universal concept of how life emerges from individual biological elements in diverse and unique ways. Emergence is the outcome of the synergies of the parts; it is about non-linearity and self-organization and we often use the term ‘emergence’ to describe the outcome of things interacting together.

A simple example of emergence is a snowflake. It forms out of environmental factors and biological elements. When the temperature is right, freezing water particles form in beautiful fractal patterns around a single molecule of matter, such as a speck of pollution, a spore, or even dead skin cells. Conceptually, people often find emergence a bit tricky to get their head around, but when you get it, your brain starts to form emergent outcomes from the disparate and often odd things you encounter in the world.

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it will be a butterfly — R. Buckminster Fuller


4. Feedback Loops

Since everything is interconnected, there are constant feedback loops and flows between elements of a system. We can observe, understand, and intervene in feedback loops once we understand their type and dynamics.

The two main types of feedback loops are reinforcing and balancing. What can be confusing is a reinforcing feedback loop is not usually a good thing. This happens when elements in a system reinforce more of the same, such as population growth or algae growing exponentially in a pond. In reinforcing loops, an abundance of one element can continually refine itself, which often leads to it taking over.

A balancing feedback loop, however, is where elements within the system balance things out. Nature basically got this down to a tee with the predator/prey situation — but if you take out too much of one animal from an ecosystem, the next thing you know, you have a population explosion of another, which is the other type of feedback — reinforcing.


5. Causality

Understanding feedback loops is about gaining perspective of causality: how one thing results in another thing in a dynamic and constantly evolving system (all systems are dynamic and constantly changing in some way; that is the essence of life). 

Cause and effect are pretty common concepts in many professions and life in general — parents try to teach this type of critical life lesson to their young ones, and I’m sure you can remember a recent time you were at the mercy of an impact from an unintentional action. Causality as a concept in systems thinking is really about being able to decipher the way things influence each other in a system. Understanding causality leads to a deeper perspective on agency, feedback loops, connections, and relationships, which are all fundamental parts of systems mapping.

6. Systems Mapping

Systems mapping is one of the key tools of the systems thinker. There are many ways to map, from analog cluster mapping to complex digital feedback analysis. However, the fundamental principles and practices of systems mapping are universal. Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within a system to understand how they interconnect, relate, and act in a complex system, and from here, unique insights and discoveries can be used to develop interventions, shifts, or policy decisions that will dramatically change the system in the most effective way.

Although this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to systems thinking, the key takeaway is that ultimately, approaching life from a systems perspective is about tackling big, messy, real world problems rather than isolating cause and effect down to a single point. In the latter case, “solutions” are often just band-aids that may cause unintended consequences, as opposed to real and holistic systemic solutions. Looking for the links and relationships within the bigger picture helps identify the systemic causes and lends itself to innovative, more holistic ideas and solutions, for a more sustainable future that works better for us all.

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If you are ready to dive deeper into the world of systems thinking, then you should take our Systems Thinking course online, or if you are a bit more advanced, then continue to leverage that knowledge in learning to design systems interventions in this course.

You can also explore the Circular Classroom, which is a free, multilingual educational resource accessible to anyone but designed specifically for students and teachers alike to integrate circular thinking into high school and upper secondary classrooms, all packaged up in a fun, beautiful format. It offers the opportunity to think differently about how we design products, how the economy works, how we meet our needs as humans, and how to support the development of more creative professional roles that help to design a future that is about social, economic, and environmental benefits — and of course, this all begins with a systems mindset. 

I explain in detail how to do many applied systems thinking practices in my Circular Systems Design handbook, and we run in-person programs at the UnSchool that equip people to become applied systems thinkers for enacting positive change in the world. 

Week 9: Unlocking the Power of Systems Thinking

 
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By Leyla Acaroglu

I have long been a fan of showing how problem solving desperately needs systems thinking. If you are familiar with my work, you may have already seen the series I wrote on Systems Thinking, but let me share the personal experience in how I came to uncover the power of thinking in systems,  the insights that I gleaned from seeing the world through a series of interconnected systems at play, and some reflections on how this has helped me make more positive change through my creative work. 

I first encountered systems thinking as a practice around 8 years ago just as I started my PhD, and it completely blew my mind. I was going a bit mad at the time, as researching a PhD tends to result in some strange deep dives into all sorts of tangential aspects of your professional practice. At that time, I was exploring many of the adjacent fields to my actual area of study — sustainable design. This could otherwise be called procrastination, but I like to call it productive distraction. Days would start with looking into some more sustainable material processes and then I would end up looking into fractals, Newtonian physics, reductionisum, Lakoff’s work on metaphors... and then somehow in one of these Internet binges, I ended up in the world of systems and the fascinating transition from the mechanical worldview (thanks in part to Newton) through to the evolution of biology as a field of science which helped to form the foundations of understanding the interconnected systems that make life possible, which in turn helped to form the field of systems dynamics.

I then realized just how mechanistic my own thinking was, and in turn how this dominate worldview, that the world operates like a well-oiled machine, was supporting many of the reductive and damaging practices that sustainability was trying to resolve. So doing something about that became a new priority, and still is to this day.

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Everything is interconnected

I remember spending one particular weekend locked in my apartment, watching every single documentary I could find about fractals, self-similarity, and the science of interconnectedness and basically nerding out on the relationships between everything. I found this beautiful introduction by Kauffman, and it was like a Disney movie in my mind where all the pieces of a puzzle magically came together in a Gestalt-esque moment of interconnectedness. I had been existentially  grappling with how to rationalize the randomness of so many of the problems/issues that I was wanting to be apart of changing, and then it all just slotted into a place as I started to see that everything as part of interconnected, interdependent systems, and that we are all affected by, and in turn, influencing them. 

To say my brain fell in love is an understatement. 

Hungry for more, I went on a knowledge scavenger hunt finding Russell Ackoff’s videos on YouTube (I consider him the best speaker on systems thinking. Ever.) and reading Peter Senge, Donella Meadows, and anyone else who had written on the topic in the last 25 years (quick side note, biologist von Bertalanffy, is credited as coming up with general systems theory, however did not uncover his work much later on).

All this cemented the realization that everything was interconnected and that in order to leverage creativity while working in sustainability — actually, in order to do just about anything — one needs to know how to see, identify, and think in systems. It also made me acutely aware of the diversity of explanations and approaches to systems thinking. Some are super obtuse and hard to penetrate, leaning more towards the engineering side of things, whereas other theorists are more lenient on their readers, prioritizing clarity rather than complexity (even though complexity is a critical part of systems thinking!). Take Meadows, for example — a fantastic systems thinker, but the entire first chapter of her book focuses on bathtubs as an analogy for systems dynamics. It might just be me, but it really did take some time for my brain to get what she was saying! And now? Well I can’t get in a tub without thinking about stocks and flows!

So started my love affair with this practice and my desire to figure out how to bring it into the design world. I developed a class for the university I was teaching at called ‘Systems Thinking for Designers’, and my students and I looked at how systems thinking could positively impact the design process.

Then, through my PhD, I began exploring nodal transfers as a theory of change and overlaying this new holistic worldview with my training as a sociologist. Years earlier, I had started to work in the extrapolated version of life cycle assessment, life cycle thinking, so adding the systems element to the understanding of how things impact each other in the linear supply chain was really empowering. Suddenly, the everyday impacts of how material flows were intersecting with the cultural layers of social interactions, the power plays, and the systems dynamics all become more accessible as the transition to focusing on relationships and non-obvious elements in a system become more prominent for me. I really could see how the multi-layers of social, industrial, and ecological activities intersect, impact, and, ultimately, change one another.  

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Fast forward a few years, I had finished my PhD (thank gosh) and founded the UnSchool of Disruptive Design in NYC. I now had the big challenge of distilling all these years of research,  into engaging, shareable, and practical tools that would support others in picking up the systems mindset. I started to develop all sorts of systems mapping activities for workshops and refined the ones we now share — cluster mapping and the adapted interconnected circles maps. I advanced my life cycle thinking activities, as well as added X-maps into the mix,  and now we have a suite of tools at UnSchool Online that thousands of people around the world use to help them learn to love a problem, see the relationships before trying to solve said problem, and identify the areas where they can intervene within their agency and resources.

For me though, the most powerful thing is the moment when your brain just starts to see systems rather than the obvious things that we are trained to see. Sounds cheesy but it is really a superpower that anyone can access with a bit of training and overcoming the reductive mindsets that we were all taught in our linear education systems.

In order to overcome the global issues we are challenged with,  we need to change the linear, reductionist, status quo abiding thinking that reinforces breaking the world down into manageable chunks that can be controlled, where issues are attempted to be dealt with in isolation. What we need is to shift from a linear and reductionist dominant mindset to dynamic circular systems thinking

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Why Systems Thinking is So Powerful?

Right now, there is no shortage of big complex messy social, political, and environmental problems that need to be addressed, from climate change to the rise in racism, homelessness, child exploitation, global politics and climate change. Taking a systems approach allows for a dynamic and intimate understanding of the elements and agents at play within the problem arena, enabling anyone to identify opportunities for intervention.

These tools are critical to overcoming the reductive mindset we were all taught in school — a mindset that teaches us to break the world down into individual and manageable parts, rather than see the complex, interconnected whole. But here’s the thing: problems never exist in isolation, they are always surrounded by other problems. The more you can comprehend the granulation and context of a problem, the greater your chances are of finding a truly effective solution that is within your capacity to enact. Problems are just unaddressed opportunities waiting for a creative mind/s to tackle them. 

The good news is that undoing linear and rigid thinking is pretty easy because, thankfully, humans naturally have a curious and intuitive understanding of complex, dynamic, and interconnected systems that make up the world around us. So, it’s really not that hard to rewire the thinking codes from linear to expanded, from 1-dimensional to 3-dimensional thinking. It’s one of the reasons I developed the Disruptive Design Method, which is a three-part approach to learning to love problems and dive under the obvious to explore the dynamics of an issue before attempting to build a solution to address it. 

The three stages of the DDM are Mining, Landscaping and Building

The three stages of the DDM are Mining, Landscaping and Building

Leadership and Systems Thinking 

Without a doubt, the best leaders and problem solvers are systems thinkers, as they are naturally seeking out how parts fit within a complex whole and looking for the interconnectedness of issues and elements within a system. Understanding that the health of a system is defined by its diversity means that we avoid designing homogeneous systems, and instead we see flourishing complex robust systems. Furthermore, leaders who possess a systems mindset are more flexible and divergent in their solutionizing around issues that they face; they embrace curiosity and ask questions before trying to provide answers. As a result, outcomes are less likely to lead to unintended consequences or transference the issue to somewhere else in the system (shifting the burden). When solutions are systemic in nature they address the root cause instead of the obvious symptoms of a problem set. Critically, they know that the smallest part of the system has the power to make the most change, the challenge is finding that sweet intervention spot. 

In short, systems thinking helps unlock creativity and provide a fertile breeding ground for completely flipping your mind upside down and inside out, in the best possible way. Embracing this systems approach will help you evolve problems into effective, sustainable solutions and empower your agency to affect positive change.  

Future Thinking

I truly believe that thinking in systems  is the one core skill needed for being a leader in this next century. There is a strong  relationship between the reductive linear economy that is causing so much of the ecological and social exploitation and the reductive thinking that currently dominate our companies and governments. I see the failures of GDP and the non-inclusion of environmental services in our economic system. I can see how recycling validates waste, and that laying blame outside of our jurisdictions helps us all avoid making change. 

 
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No matter how big the problem, the complex problem-loving mindset that systems thinking has given me is like a secret weapon of hope and possibility against all the negativity and merchants of doom that increasingly dominate the media landscape. When there is no blame, there is so much space for exploration, curiosity, and creativity. Personally, I think one of our biggest challenges of our time is the collective hope deficit, and embracing systems thinking helps to overcome that.  

The tools included in the Disruptive Design Method help me rise above the despair (right after I have had a good cathartic complaint session first), but the possibility for change is just as real as the catastrophic predictions, because everything is interconnected, the future is undefined, and the possibilities for creative change are endless —  if you just know how to see, value, and work within the systems that sustain us all. 

My hope for the future is that we, as societies, start to embrace more complex understanding of the world we have the pleasure of living in, that we see systems instead of silos, and adopt changes to education universally that teach the tools for the future, not the past and that we find ways of being a regenerative force on this beautiful magical planet we all share.

I’ll leave you with 6 insights that I have gleaned from embracing a systems mindset that hopefully will pique your curiosity and help you to fall in love with systems thinking like I did: 

  1. Everything is interconnected. There is no blame because everything is connected to everything else

  2. Today’s problems are often a result of yesterday’s solutions

  3. You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that caused it

  4. Easy solutions can lead to negative impacts elsewhere

  5. The easy way out often leads back in 

  6. Systems are dynamic and constantly changing, and therefore we can all change them too!

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Where to get started? I have written a short 11 Key Principles of Systems Thinking. You can also take our Systems Thinking course online and then continue to leverage that knowledge in learning to design systems interventions in this course.

You can also explore the Circular Classroom, which is a free, multilingual educational resource accessible to anyone but designed specifically for students and teachers alike to integrate circular thinking into high school and upper secondary classrooms, all packaged up in a fun, beautiful format. It offers the opportunity to think differently about how we design products, how the economy works, how we meet our needs as humans, and how to support the development of more creative professional roles that help to design a future that is about social, economic, and environmental benefits — and of course, this all begins with a systems mindset. 

Apply to join our 7-day adventure into systems thinking, sustainability and design as tools for activating positive change with our fellowship program happening this November in Kuching, Malaysia.