Making Systems Thinking Mainstream

This blog is a synopsis of the webinar interaction that I held with Professors Derek Cabrera and Laura Cabrera, both faculty at Cornell University and Founders of  Cabrera Research Lab on 15th March ’23. The recording of the webinar can be viewed below.

Meet Derek and Laura Cabrera, husband-wife team of systems scientists who met as faculty at Cornell University over 25 years ago and have made it their life’s mission to spread awareness about systems thinking.

As systems thinkers, they have adopted a bold vision of 8 billion Systems Thinkers. It’s not difficult to see why. To deal with the challenges that we face at a planetary level as well as in our careers and daily personal lives, we need our mental models of these challenges to closely match the way nature and real-world systems work. If our mental models are sharpened, less bias will arise, and this will lead to better outcomes and solutions.

There are misconceptions of what systems thinking is. It is not a method nor a framework. Systems thinking is meta cognition or thinking that describes our thinking. Meta cognition consists of four patterns of thought viz., Distinctions, Systems, Relationships, Perspectives (better known as DSRP)  which on entering our awareness reveals the way nature works in reality and gives us the chance to align as much as possible.

Taking stock of Systems Thinking in education Today

The manifold increase in complexity resulting from our interconnected societies is pushing us towards a more systemic view of life. Yet, colleges and universities across the globe have been slow to imbibe systems thinking in their offerings as well as adopting systems approaches in their curricula. This is largely because there are myriad systems theories that have led to tribalism and the fact that these have not been made accessible to ordinary people.

It is true that systems approaches are missing not only in higher education but across the board in elementary education. A glaring anomaly is the overwhelming focus of schoolteachers on content rather than on thinking. In instances where thinking is brought into focus, it manifests as an addendum or a supplement. Instead, what is needed is to embed systems thinking in all courses from pre-KG upwards.

In general, thinking courses such as critical thinking, design thinking, emotional intelligence, are offered in parallel and rarely incorporated in courses or programs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in systems engineering degree (SE) programs where content tyranny rules over curriculum. SE is meant to be derived from a deep understanding of systems thinking and be used to address social-technical engineering problems but the systems thinking skill is a weak component.

Role of systems approaches in disciplines like economics, medicine, and law

To a question on why the disciplines of economics and ecology, despite having a common root (sourced from the Greek word oikos, meaning family, home, as in our planet home) are so divorced at the level of colleges and universities, the Cabreras emphasise that DSRP is the underlying structure of mental models regardless of the disciplines one hails from and DSRP helps unearth the relationships between disciplines. An appreciation of DSRP will lead to greater inter-disciplinarity. For example, an economic problem is also a social and political problem. In reality, problems are not respecting these disciplinary boundaries, and neither should our solutions. But this is not the case with our institutions of higher education and reveals the extent of mismatch of mental models.

Dwelling on the disciplines of law and medicine, Derek Cabrera stated that law is based on bivalent logic or binary logic such as guilty/not guilty while medicine is based on causal relationships such as x causes y. However, nature is multivalent and manifests in different shades of grey, but law schools are not designed to deal with such thinking. In medicine, ill-health is super linear, and it is a web of factors that leads to a diagnosis. Reforming medical curricula requires us to recognise there is never a single causal relationship nor can a diagnosis be attributed to root causes but rather to web of causalities.

The need of our times is for academic institutions to incorporate thinking into curricula that matches the complexity of our current environment. DSRP gives us a language to speak across disciplines, not just academic disciplines but also disciplines of practice. It holds potential of unifying diverse systems thinking methodologies such as systems dynamics and soft systems methods. Mastering the four skills of DSRP can help not only in better understanding a subject but also in far-skills transfer.

System shifts needed to make systems thinking mainstream

People are not born with an awareness of systems thinking but they are born doing DSRP. Systems thinking is a skill that can be acquired as early as pre-kindergarten by making people aware of these metacognitive patterns. According to Laura Cabrera, a small child learns to make distinctions between colours at a very early age and DSRP lends itself to being understood by small children. Our world exists in systems and for systems thinking to be impactful, we need to move in the direction of spreading systems thinking at planetary scale. But to do so means to make systems thinking accessible. The four patterns of thought i.e., DSRP are four simple rules of systems thinking and can be comprehended by kindergarten, PhD students and executives alike. 

A key reason why systems thinking has not captured the imagination of academic institutions is that they have invested heavily in left-brain disciplines and reductionist science rather than a balance between left/right hemispheres and holism and reductionism. The question that arises is if colleges and universities are not founded on systems principles, can they reasonably be expected to imbibe systems thinking? The answer is yes, notwithstanding how academic institutions are founded and that every space has the potential to infuse thinking in systems.

Systems thinking goes beyond formal education and includes informal education as well as self-learning. According to Charles Darwin, education and learning are the key to change. If we start with four-to six-year-olds, results will be the best. Making systems thinking mainstream goes beyond teaching concepts and theory. It is about practice and creating a set of moves in quite the same way one might do at a gym. These moves are grounded in DSRP.


There is not just an overload of information but also plenty of misinformation in our world today. The goal of education needs to be to convert content into meaning. Systems thinking cannot be supplementary but needs to be the DNA of our learning and education. Systems thinking is not about the absence of reductionism. It does not preclude drilling a system down to its parts; it simply means that parts are always to be understood in relation to the whole and never in isolation.

The beauty of systems thinking is its ability to bring together our left and right brain faculties and synthesise Western science and Eastern philosophy. Its uniqueness lies in its ability to create and present a middle path. Lao Tzu founded Taoism 2500 years ago and was a proponent of the middle path. See the similarities with systems thinking.

Can you connect the dots now?

Feature image courtesy: Cabrera Research Labs

Shakti Saran is the Founder of Shaktify, an initiative to power social and environmental change and is a Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global

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