Introduction to Systems Thinking Part 1

When I was a kid, I used to dream about being a president.

Not the president, but a president of an irrelevant micronation.

All the way up to my adulthood, I used to imagine a brand-new country with no history and think about how I would run it, who would be there, and what kind of society I wanted to cultivate. 

Then I would apply all the new things I learn about philosophy, politics, education, and policy in the following years, to my little nation. It was my imaginary playground and helped me understand how the world works.

Perhaps a bit crazy for a child.

Nowadays, I stand here, having given up wanting to be a president.

Nowadays, I am more interested in taking matters into my own hands. 

My friends call it: “that social stuff”. 

Are they right? 

Is the “social stuff” a naive way of hoping for some positive change in the world? 

Do systems even change?


How can you think in systems? What does that even mean? 

What is systems thinking?

This is what this article is about.

Let’s talk about it. 

Right off the bat, I have some good news.

Change is one of the few things in the universe that stayed constant since the beginning of time.

Things change every second of every day. 

Another good news. Also, a spoiler alert. 

Systems also change all the time. 

So yes, it is possible. 

So, how do we save the environment? 

Well, that’s a bit more complex. (You will understand that pun later on if you don’t get it now.)

Let’s start.

This article is for all NGOs, public institutions, current or aspiring social innovators, social entrepreneurs, activists, and all people who are passionate about having a positive impact in the world. For the “naive” and courageous ones that dare to think that there is a better way. The article will not go into depth about systems science and practice. It will also not include lots of technical terminologies. It is written for beginners in systems thinking.

What do we mean by “systems”?

Of course. We have to start here. 

Going to keep this one short.

What are systems? 

Are we talking about education systems?

Are we talking about overfishing? 

Are we talking about switching from capitalism to eco-marxism?

Well, let’s start slow.

Here’s a simple definition of what systems are:

A system is ‘a set of things — people, cells, molecules or whatever — interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time’ (Meadows, 2010)

That includes everything, the economic system, the financial system, the ecosystem, the education system, and more. 

In the beginning, it’s important to understand one characteristic of systems. 

Now, I will ask you a very simple question about your body. 

What do you use, to see

Think about it.

Did you say, my eyes? 

What do you use to hold on to something?

Did you say, my hands?

This is the regular way that we are wired. 

Light hits your retina. It sends electrical signals to your optic nerve as well as other parts of your brain. That processes the image and then we see.

That’s the simpler version of what happens anyhow.

In reality, your eyes are not the only thing you need to see. 

So, your eyes don’t see. You do. 

If you think your eyes see, or your hands hold things, Dr. Russell Ackoff suggests that there is a very easy way to find out if you’re right or wrong. 

You can take off your hand and put it on the table, and see if it holds on to anything. 

Ok. Please don’t detach your hand from your body.

You’re going to have to trust me on this one. 

How is this relevant? 

The most important thing you need to know in the beginning is that systems are more than the sum of their parts. 

Systems don’t function in the linear way we think. 

Let me give you an example by quoting Draper Kauffman

“…dividing the cow in half does not give you two smaller cows. You may end up with a lot of hamburger, but the essential nature of “cow” — a living system capable, among other things, of turning grass into milk — then would be lost. This is what we mean when we say a system functions as a “whole”. Its behavior depends on its entire structure and not just on adding up the behavior of its different pieces.” — Kauffman, 1980, p2

You can also think the other way around to see how systems are more than the sum of their parts.

I think we can all agree that 1+1=2.

However, in systems, 1+1 can equal a banana. 

1+1 can equal a banana today, goat tomorrow, and depending on the perspective, it could mean a table.

This is one of many reasons why our linear way of addressing problems in the world does not solve the challenges we are facing in the world. Our approach assumes that if we can manage to successfully put the 1 and 1 together, that we will get a 2.

We rarely do. 

So, where does this leave us?
I will talk about how systems thinking could change the world below.

Before we can move on, we first need to address some common misconceptions and common mistakes about systems practice.

So don’t forget to check your inbox tomorrow!

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