Why Systems Thinking?

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Why systems thinking? Because it is not about climate change, cybersecurity, inequality, water, migration, as it may appear, it is about complexity, and that is why there are no solutions inside the simplified linear boxes we have created, any form of sustainable solution is on the other side of complexity and getting to the other side of complexity is about systems thinking. I think we are going nowhere without changing the paradigm, changing the fundamental assumptions through which we construct our understanding of the world, and I would say that change in paradigm is all about systems thinking.

Firstly what is system thinking, again many different opinions on that, I would say that it is a way of thinking characterized by a holistic view of the world, which means that we are always looking at things in relation to the whole that they form part of. So if you are looking at a plant you are trying to understand it in the context of the whole ecosystem, if you are looking at a car then you try to see it in the context of the whole transport system. The opposite mode of reasoning is reductionism which breaks things down and looks at the properties of the parts.

The limitations Of Reductionism

Reductionism really dominates our modern view of the world. There are many ways of telling the story of how this kind of analytics, atomistic, materialistic vision of the world has come to dominate since the rise of modern science. But for me – still a bit of a math addict – I think one really good illustration of this is Set Theory. Set Theory is really the foundations of modern mathematics for the past 100 years and it is basically how we formalize virtually everything in science today. Sets are just the perfect expression of a reductionist vision of the world, when you put on your reductionist goggles everything becomes just a set of parts.

I am not going to go into the theory of all of this – because I imagine most people reading this article will already know it – but this reductionist paradigm is really based upon imposing a set of simplifying assumptions onto the world; that we can break everything down into parts, isolate those parts, study their properties and the change in those properties based upon their linear interactions and this will tell us everything we need to know about how the world works. For me, it is incredible how we have built this whole system of the modern world based upon these reductionist assumptions and how it permeates almost all aspects of how we think about, manage and design systems.

This revolutionary new way of looking at the world was born some 500 years ago with the scientific revolution, but it was the industrial revolution that really took those ideas and transforms the world around us. First in Europe then the US, then during the 20th Century we started to export this now standardized model around the planet on the wings of globalization. Now our world has really become saturated with this way of thinking and this way of organizing that we could call the industrial model. After almost 5 hundred years of traveling down this road of applying an analytical reductionist approach to everything, we are really starting to bump up against its limitations. It is ever more apparent that this imbalance in our way of looking at the world is what creates the problems we are facing. The problems we face today are in many ways just symptoms of this imbalance in our reasoning. It is not soil erosion, or a water crisis, or climate change, or migration, or escalating inequality, it is the limitations of the linear solutions that we have created that results in these problems, that is why I say the real issue is complexity, learning to build systems that work with it rather than against it and that requires firstly a very different mode of thinking.

Actually, we started to discover the limitations of reductionist thinking almost a hundred years ago in science; quantum physics was the first real blow to this whole intellectual edifice. There was quantum physics but then came chaos theory and that made it very much apparent that we were really doing science based upon a set of assumptions that only really hold for a certain class of systems, we now call them linear systems. As soon as our scientific framework started to bump up against complexity it started to break down, still today the same goes for our management methods and much of our design engineering approaches.

The Potential Of Complexity

People talk about the 21st century as the century of complexity, and it is really becoming increasingly apparent that new ways of thinking are needed to take us beyond the Machine Age with all of its limitations and constraints. Already we see this change in vocabulary. I think one good example of that is this word ecosystem, it seems to have become the hottest term in the world of business and management. Likewise, the rise of the term sustainability is a reflection of the changes in thinking and vocabulary underway.

If you think about it just twenty-thirty years ago you would’ve been called a hippy and kicked out of the office if you started talking about ecosystems and sustainability. The US spent a lot of the 20th century fighting against the idea of community-ism and now every good capitalist enterprise is talking about building their online community; maybe the hippies have won in the end without even knowing it. This new paradigm and way of thinking hinges around systems and complexity, and I think it has already made huge ground in academia and our collective conscious. I think it is this change in paradigm where the real potential for systems-level change is – things can start to change really fast when we get a fundamental change in how we look at the world, basic assumptions, and societal values.

This obviously creates a lot of instability and confusion but it is really the potential for making deep structural changes that were not there before; go back thirty years and try talking about sustainability, no one really cared, now we have the change in paradigm and there is huge potential there. So these new ideas come in many forms, it is about connectivity, synergies and emergence, self-organization, nonlinearity and feedback, networks, adaptive capacity, and evolutionary dynamics, with these ideas all brought together in a coherent way under the rubric of systems thinking and complexity theory.

New Thinking For A New World

One thing I like about systems thinking is that it includes awareness of how our ways of thinking create the world around us. David Bohm, the famous quantum physicist, puts this well when he says “the reason why we don’t see the source of our problems is that the means by which we try to solve them are the source.” he goes on to say “the way you think determines the way that you are going to do it and then you don’t notice a result comes back… we need some kind of awareness of what thought is doing but which we don’t have generally.”

Personally, I am interested in seeing changes out there in the world and real outcomes or solutions. When you think about the fact that we have not really been able to gain any ground on even one of the real major global issues we face – climate, inequality, cybercrime, financial instability, water crisis, loss of topsoil, all of these are getting worse, not better. That kind of makes me wonder a bit, what are we doing wrong? Millions and billions of people, all these Ph.Ds, all these trillions of dollars and we can not solve any of the really important problems in the world. I would say we don’t really have solutions, it is not like we are on the right path and if we just had a bit more money and just do things a bit faster we would get there.

“That the problem is not just that we don’t have the right policies the problem isn’t just that we don’t have the right institutions the problem is that even theoretically our theory does not match the situation of the reality we are living in… that there is something fundamental about the way we are thinking about these problems… the way we are thinking that is itself the problem.” – Garry Jacobs, CEO, World Academy of the Arts and Science.

In many instances, we are doing the wrong thing too right because we are continuing on with these old ways of thinking. Russell Ackoff talks a lot about this – “So it’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. Almost every major social problem that confronts us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter.”

I think reductionist thinking inherently leads us back to only really seeing just the existing set of constraints and solutions. If you take any area of human activity and ask how can we deliver solutions for a large population – food, energy, finance – we straightaway converge upon a simplified solution, which is a centralized solution, without even questioning that approach – we need larger farms to feed the world, we need more power plants, we couldn’t have financial systems without banks, this is just the limitations of a reductionist way of looking at the world.

I think we really have to kind of experience that and really bump up against that reality, that our ways of thinking lead us to this set of solutions which are inherently limited and thus create negative externalities which over time build up and lead to their downfall, these systemic crises that we face. The more the world becomes interconnected the more apparent that link between micro actions and whole systems functionality is. If you want sustainable results those are solutions that are right in theory and right in practice. Real sustainable solutions come from doing the right things right and that only happens from first doing the theory to create the right context, questioning if the paradigm is appropriate for the situation.

The point of systems thinking is to elevate our thinking to the level of seeing not just parts but whole systems. This means looking at whole systems and networks and asking not how can we produce a faster, better widget but instead primarily focusing on asking the question how is this system organized and how can it be restructured to enable qualitatively and quantitatively better outcomes on the micro and macro level. Optimization of the parts leads to sub-optimization of the whole. Optimization of the whole leads to sub-optimization of parts, sustainable solutions are ones that create synergies between the parts and the whole; the “interesting in-between” that is all about complexity. So why systems thinking? Because it enables us to embrace that complexity and to make the prolonged search for those sustainable solutions that only really lie on the other side of it.

Author: Joss Colchester

Date: 6th May 2019


Systems Innovation

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