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

unschool systems mapping

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.