The Magic of Systems Thinking

In his era Leonardo da Vinci, traversed the world of arts and sciences to manifest his genius in extraordinary ways. Although da Vinci was an adviser to governments on scientific matters he had simply no interest in social sciences and politics. As a scientist, his thinking was somewhat Aristotelian or simply put, linear.

Science can be mapped into two streams, i.e. reductionist or linear thinking and systems or non-linear thinking. It is the former that has been acclaimed and glorified throughout history. Without a doubt, linear thinking has been responsible for most of mankind’s technical breakthroughs. Whether it was the invention of the light bulb or the discovery of penicillin, reductionist science paved the way for much of humanity’s material progress. Reductionism is termed so because its process is to breakdown a system into smaller and smaller parts.

Systems thinking on the other hand supports the process opposite to reductionism. It’s a branch of science that constructs interrelationships between parts of a system and the whole since parts of a system often behave differently when separated from other parts or from the system’s environment itself. For example, poverty, unemployment, economic growth, climate change and urban decay are interrelated and if seen in isolation provide false leads.

Consider this incident dating back to the Cuban missile crisis. The US and former Soviet Union were a hair length away from nuclear war. On 27 October ’62, a Soviet Foxtrot class nuclear submarine B-59, got surrounded by a group of 11 U.S. destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph. Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky ordered the submarine’s nuclear-tipped missile to attack the US navy. Had this been the case, history would have recorded WW III. However, the story went in a different direction all because Vice Admiral Vasily Arkhipov took a systemic view of the consequences of that action and vetoed the call [the decision required unanimity between the top three officers].

Systems thinking commenced in the 1930s when a group of biologists, psychologists and ecologists crafted an inter-disciplinary approach to viewing the world and since then the term has evolved considerably. When we say systems thinking, it’s crucial we understand what a system is. A system now refers to any organism, thing, phenomenon or idea so long as its distinct parts are interrelated and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. To make this clear, a collection like a box of tools does not constitute a system.

Collectiion vs system

Pic Credit: Introduction to Systems Thinking, Daniel H. Kim

Systems are of different types and can be classified as either simple, complicated, complex or complex adaptive.  In a complex system there are multiple paths to multiple answers but complex adaptive systems (CAS) have a greater order of complexity and are defined by multiple paths to multiple answers which can change depending on the choice exercised. Examples of CAS include racism and climate change.

Why do a flock of birds display a complex set of patterns whilst flying? Understand the simple rules that underlie complex systems: run time 2″ 51′  Courtesy: Cabrera Research Labs

Systems thinking is an approach to solve some of mankind’s most ‘wicked’ problems. Additional examples of these include overpopulation of the planet, the illicit drug trade or managing the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. These problems are termed wicked because there is usually no consensus on what the problem is, nor on the solutions. Systems thinking helps us in understanding the problem and reveals the most appropriate points for intervention depending on whether you are an individual, a social sector or corporate entity or a government or multilateral body.

The crux of this science is its search for identifying leverage points and simple systemic rules which are key to making system shifts.  According to the late Donella Meadows, American environmental scientist “leverage points are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Take for instance the US government’s decision in 1986 requiring every manufacturing plant to report emissions data without imposing penalties. The mere act of sharing information in the public domain led to dramatic reduction in emissions since many corporations found value in not appearing on the Top Ten Polluter List. Here, an information flow turned about to be a great leverage point. Quite similarly, if we look at systemic racism, access to education and the way history is taught in schools can be a powerful leverage point.

Both, leverage points and simple rules are counter-intuitive and often difficult to unearth. This is evident from economic growth statistics that don’t tell us anything about the quality of output or how fairly it is being distributed. Yet, economists and world leaders are obsessively focused on economic growth.

Is systems thinking enough to deal with the world’s wicked problems? According to Dr. Monica Sharma, former head of U.N.’s Leadership Development division, “When we shift systems, structures and cultural norms without sourcing our  inner capacities and universal values, we become dogmatic, considering our own social, political or economic ideology to be the truth and the only way. Consequently, we polarize the situation and miss many opportunities”. Similar sentiments are echoed by Fritjof Capra, eminent systems thinker, “I want to emphasize once more that systems thinking is not enough; we need to add an ethical dimension; we need to put values on the table.”

However, the beauty about systems thinking is that it helps build an individual’s emotional intelligence and can help people overcome their biases which is critical for sustainable problem solving. So, if we are to create a more evolved world we need to bring holistic thinking center stage. The walls between systems thinking and the human ‘self’ are highly porous and are a gateway for personal self-transformation. Only by entering this gateway can we transcend linear or reductionist thinking to make science work for humanity rather than against. Now, wouldn’t that be magical?

Feature image credit: Introduction to Systems Thinking, Will Allen & Margaret Kilvington

Shakti Saran is an Inclusive World Citizen, Writer and Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own


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