Systems Thinking is a way of thinking that connects everything! The air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we walk on, the buildings we live in, and the objects we use are all part of a connected universe. In fact, all of the parts relate and interact with each other. Nature is an ever-evolving series of inter related systems. People, as part of nature, interact with nature’s systems. Exploring nature’s systems interacts with peoples’ environmental, economic, political, and cultural life across regions and the world. With systems thinking, we study a situation, its structure, and look below the surface to understand the causes of the situations. This way of thinking broadens understanding or relationships and effects of our impact on nature and vice versa. We use systems thinking to address climate change, urban landscapes, and even today’s food problems. Systems thinking provides us with new insights and inspires innovative changes!! In a simple way, we rarely learn anything in isolation when we put it to use in working on real world issues.
Think across boundaries!
Activity 1 – things exist in systems
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.“ John Muir, Founder Sierra Club
We understand ‘things’. We grow up learning nouns to name the things we know. We have things. Some things are in us (in our bodies); some things are outside of us (other people, the sun, the moon and the planets); some things we acquire (our stuff); some things exist in history (the Great Wall of China and the pyramids that still exist); some things are a part of nature (forests, rivers, lakes, mountains, and clouds). Everything you know, in yourself, in nature, and in our human constructed world, exists as part of a system.
A system is a set of interrelated parts that make a unified whole. Instead of a linear chain linking one thing to the next, a system is a networked field of things. Starting with yourself, map your network of family, friends, teachers, and other people you know. You can even put question marks for people whom you do not yet know, but may meet in the future. You can design your human network on paper, or use text2mindmap to create your network.
When you have completed your human network, explore “Six Degrees of Separation” and learn how, through your network of friends, family members, and acquaintances, you are connected to everyone - to all people on planet Earth!
Activity 2 – parts to whole
Systems are made up of interconnected parts. For example, our body has systems – nervous, circulatory, skeletal, digestive, respiratory, etc., that all work together to keep us alive. We can study each system individually to understand its parts and how they function; but in fact it is all of the systems working together that keep us alive. When we look at any appliance in our house, we realize it is an object full of separate parts, and when all parts are working properly it functions well. Architects understood this in the design of buildings in the classical language of architecture. A change in one small part of a building or façade would have a domino effect around and through the building. By shifting focus from parts to the whole, we can better see connections between different elements. In this activity, think of your school as a system and list as many of its parts as you can. Consider the human components as well as the objects that make up your school. Would your school system exist or work if one or more parts were removed? Come up with some other questions to ask about your school system. Try this Systems Questionaire or take a look at different kinds of questions. Is something missing that, in your opinion, should be in you school? You can use a cluster web or word webs to show the parts of your school system.
Activity 3 – relationships to other systems
Systems connect to and interrelate with other systems to exist. For example, individual things—like plants, people, cities, cultures and economies—are themselves systems that cannot be understood in separation from the other systems in which they exist. The water system is an excellent example of the interrelatedness of systems. As a system it connects to and is influenced by weather, topography, climate change, and human activities. Your school system is interrelated with many additional systems. For example, it is one system within a larger educational system that includes pre-schools, middle schools, high schools, as well as colleges and universities. Whether students walk, bike, or ride to school, they depend upon a transportation system that connects their homes with the school and the larger community. Take a look at My School as a Subsystem. Use a cluster web to show several systems that interrelate with your school system, or use a Google Scribble Map to show the actual locations of the systems that connect your school with the world. How far afield does your map take you?
Activity 4 – systems as Dynamic Networks
Once you can see connections between systems, you can start looking for patterns of movement or relationships between them. Systems are part of a dynamic network. A systems approach opens and reveals the interconnected complexity of our world. For all systems are in relationship with other systems. For instance, rain is a system that waters our plants and introduces humidity into our air. How and when rain forms depends upon a complex interplay of events, including air movement, temperature, particulate matter in the air, our climate, and day and night changes in the temperature of land, buildings, and bodies of water. Take a look at a Biological Introduction to Systems Thinking. Consider a system that you know. Write it on a piece of paper. Now reflect on the things that interact with your system, influence your system, and can alter your system. Do they all influence your system equally? Probably not. Some influences are stronger than others. Try mapping your system and systems connections using Connection Circles.
Activity 5 – systems connect with change
Living systems develop and evolve. Understanding these systems requires a shift in focus from structure to processes such as evolution, renewal, and change. Shifting focus from the parts to the whole and from things to networks shifts us from analytical thinking to active, contextual thinking. In other words, instead of just knowing that things exist, we begin to comprehend their interactions. This is similar to understanding that design is a thing. But design is also a process and a series of interconnected activities. Consider the context within which a designed object comes to exist and function. Take a picture of one object such as a mug, a chair, a bed, or a car. Print your picture on a piece of paper. Add all of the verbs describing activities that go into the process of conceiving, creating, and using your object. These activities are worthy of your study as they lead to new ways of thinking about and designing things.
Activity 6 – relationships and patterns
A study of relationships within systems reveals that certain relationships repeat, cycle and even deliver feedback. These studies require in-depth observation and data collection to find the ebbs and flows of patterns. An easy way to think about this is the time lapse in traffic in an intersection during a 24-hour period or even a week. The concentration and back up of cars reveals rush hour traffic, and the ebb and flow tells us about vehicular and pedestrian patterns. Nature’s cycles, which also ebb and flow, repeat, and deliver feedback, are crucial to the world we live in. Choose one of nature’s cycles and make a diagram of it. What happens if one of the elements of the cycle didn’t exist? Take out one of the elements and create a new diagram that follows the consequences of the missing element.
Activity 7 – habits of a systems thinker
Systems thinking opens up new ways of considering things, objects, systems and environments. To become a system thinker is to continually exercise thinking about relationships, parts to whole,. Take a look at Habits of Systems Thinkers and make a chart over a week of how many times you think like a systems thinker! List examples. Make systems thinking a daily practice!
- Understanding interactions between systems and their consequences, can create innovative solutions.
- Understanding Nature’s Systems helps us understand Social Systems.
- Systems Thinking does not allow us to solve world’s next generation’s problems.
- Systems Thinking lets us look at subjects through all 9 scales and encourages us to think in terms of relationships, connectedness, and context.
- Systems Thinking is a complex way of learning through memorizing formulas.
- A Little Film about a Big Idea
- CABRERA RESEARCH Cornell
- Change Matters Compare Maps
- Environmental Design Science Primer
- Environments are Living Systems Interactive Map
- EPA Climate Change Impact on Eco Systems
- IDEO Design Thinking
- Intro to Systems Thinking
- Learning From Leonardo, Fritjof Capra
- Leverage Networks Systems Thinking Interactive Site
- Leverage Points in a System
- MacArthur Foundation Changing Living Systems to a Circular Economy
- McDonough: Being Less Bad is Not Good Enough
- Meal Picking (REMS)
- MetaMap Cabrera Research
- Radio Apporee Sound Posts From Around the World
- Scales of the Universe (Takes Time to Load)
- Seven Principles to Guide A Resilient Approach
- Skateboard Assembly & Testing (REMS)
- Sustainability: The Five Core Principles
- Systems KeLE, Systems Learning Community
- Systems Thinking Prezi by Gene Bellinger
- TEDxEast Bjarke Ingels
- Truth & Beauty MACE
- Video Ecological Literacy: Fritjof Capra
- Video How Wolves Change Rivers
- Video Systems&Systems Thinking Engineering
- Video Systems Thinking
- Video The Iceberg Model Video
- Video WI Water Thinkers Systems Thinking
- Waters Foundation: Systems Thinking
- Wiley Library of Systems Research and Behavioral Science
- World Resources Institute Eco System Service