Tools for Systems Thinkers: The 6 Fundamental Concepts of Systems Thinking
Tools for Systems Thinkers: Designing Circular Systems
Over the last five chapters in this series on tools for systems thinkers, I have looked at fundamental concepts, feedback loops, dominant archetypes and shared systems mapping tools. I have worked on synthesizing the critical tools that assist with the development of a more three-dimensional perspective of how the world works. By no means have I covered it all, but I hope to have helped ignite curiosity around the power of a systems-based perspective and the opportunity that we all have in learning to love complex problems and embrace challenges in more proactive ways.
In the final chapter of this series, I cover some of the ways that thinking in systems can transition us to a circular economy. Specifically, I discuss how we can design circular systems that facilitate sustainable and regenerative outcomes. For a more detailed introduction to these concepts, take a look at the Circular Systems Design Activation Pack we created.
First let me say that while I am a designer and advocate for professionals to make intentional sustainability and systems based contributions through their creative productions, when I say ‘design’ in this piece, I am referring to design as the common practice of producing ‘things’. This can be anything — artifacts, conversations, or policies, all of which have impacts on the world. From supermarket designs, to government regulations, to how we design our own lives, these are all the product of design — the intent to direct or construct the world in a particular way.
Design is a conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order. Design is both the underlying matrix of order and the tool that creates it. — Victor Papanek
I have written and spoken extensively on the role that design plays in scripting out lives, influencing our minds and curating our experience of the world (see here, here, here and here).
In some cases ‘designs’ have massive impacts, and in others, only minor roles. Nonetheless, everyday design is the act of creating something new, so let’s dive into how we can design circular systems that build in intentionally for positive impacts on people and the planet.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller
The Circular Economy
For many people the term ‘circular economy’ is still new, so allow me to briefly explain what this is all about. Our current economy is based on a linear system of production where we take raw materials and natural resources out of nature, process them into usable goods to meet human needs, and then discard them back into giant holes in the ground that, ironically, were often where we took the raw materials from to begin with.
This entire system is in opposition to the natural systems that sustain life on Earth — which are circular and regenerative — and it’s counterintuitive to the way we function as living organisms (for example we all require nutrients to survive, which is part of the beautifully designed system of nutrients cycling through bodies and back into the ground to grow the next generation of food, this nutrient cycle is one of the fundamental ecosystems that sustain life on Earth).
Basically humans designed a broken system that creates waste and constantly loses value through the economy. Our linear economy does not fit in a circular world.
The opposite to a linear system is a circular one. When you use the natural world as a design reference, you quickly see that everything not only plays a role, but also puts back in what it took out.
Most organisms in nature, as well as the principles that nature plays by, are regenerative; humans, however, design systems that are the exception to this rule. Herein lies the problem that the circular economy movement, and many other attempts (cleaner production, eco design, life cycle assessment, industrial ecology etc.), that have come before, have tried to address.
These attempts have all worked hard to solve the complex puzzle of meeting humanity’s growing needs while not screwing up the life support systems that both nourish all living organisms (thank you food, air, and water) but work effortlessly in amazingl complex ways to make life happen on this magical ball of water and soil that we all share.
I could go on and on about this missing link in our current economic and social structures, the design mistakes that perpetuate it, how our education system devalues circularity and prioritizes reductionism… But right now I’m going to invest this time in the more interesting part, where we figure out how to not make a mess of this beautiful planet and instead, start to design out waste and find unique ways of being a productive contributor to the planet (to this end I am working on a project for a post disposable future, check it out here).
Everything is Interconnected
All of this all boils down to the simple reality that we all have an intuitive understanding of — everything is interconnected to everything else in some way. Nothing living is in isolation, and we are require other systems to survive—thus we are all in an interconnected, interdependent relationship with everything else. I say this in a non-hippy way, look at the design of a tree and you will see the same fractile patterns in your lungs, your life is reinforced every few seconds as you breath in oxygen that was produced free of charge by a bunch of trees and phytoplankton.
We live of a closed ecosystem that is perfectly calibrated for success. Our bodies are small versions of this, and we benefit every second of the day from the services that this giant ecosystem provides us.
Many of the human-created systems that we have, such as cities, factories, governments and industrial food production, are failed emulations of the way nature designs things because they have not been designed as a system that nests within other systems. They are isolated and siloed, linear and reductive.
This is where humans have really messed up: we have made things based on our reductive one-dimensional perspective of the world, rather than taken on the more detailed, systemic and creative perspective of what makes everything work on Earth.
So when we are seeking to solve and evolve some of the more complex problems humanity faces, we must start first with a shift in mindset from the one dimension of a linear plane to a three-dimensional perspective of the interconnected and dynamic nature of systems at play in the world around us.
This requires not only developing systems thinking skills, but also understanding sustainability sciences and developing reflexivity, creativity and fostering more divergent neurological practices that enhances creativity. These 3 things form the pillars of a practice in creative systems change and can be applied by anyone who has invested the energy in learning the practice tools.
We are not born ignorant to the systems that sustain us (hang out with a curious 5-year-old to learn all about how nature works), and we know creativity is a learned skill that maximizes the hidden potential of the human brain. We have the building blocks for designing a circular and regenerative future.
Circular Systems Design
Designing for circular systems is about considering the full-picture perspective of how the status quo of the natural, industrial, and social systems play out, and then uncovering ways of shifting these to facilitate circular and regenerative outcomes.
In some cases this is extremely complicated (like how to circularize spent nuclear rods, for example), and in others, it’s a no- brainer (like how to change our collective addiction to disposable items like coffee cups). But all of the systems changes we need to design have the same basic elements: people, products, places, and processes. They can all be redesigned to maximize benefits and minimize negative externalities.
Yes, there is a level of complexity to this approach. But everything worth doing requires work, and purpose-driven creatives in this world are at the forefront of helping to activate this change from linear to circular design. I will work on more content (additional to what I have already produced for this new field) to help fuel this shift in the future, but for now I encourage you to seek out resources that help you start to circularize your thinking and doing in the world, from how you consume products through to the decisions you make in your professional role.
There are many narratives of the future being all f*$cked up, but I personally refuse to believe in a dystopian future as nothing is actually defined about what will happen next. We are all making up the future based on our collective individual actions today.
There is no definite fact that robots will take over our jobs and that presidents will push the big red button, just as there is no reason why we can’t rapidly change the way we get the goods and services we desire and need. I am completely confident in our capacity as a species to figure out how to be a sustainable and regenerative contributor to the magic that is life on Planet Earth.
If this is your thing, check out my 4-week advanced training in circular systems design, an online rapid learning journey and mentorship program for professionals wanting to level up their skills in circular systems design (starting in Jan 4. 2018). I offer one-on-one mentorship and tailored content to help get you to a confident knowledge and leadership position.
If you are not quite ready for advanced training, take my systems thinking class at the UnSchool online.
Beautiful illustrations by the talented Emma Segal
In this series on systems thinking, I share the key insights and tools needed to develop and advance a systems mindset for dealing with complex problem solving and transitioning to the Circular Economy.
I have taught thousands of hours of workshops in systems, sustainability and design, and over the years refined ways of rapidly engaging people with the three dimensional mindset needed to think and work in circular systems. My motivation for writing this online toolkit is to help expand the ability of professionals to rapidly adopt to a systems mindset for positive impact.
Words have power, and in systems thinking, we use some very specific words that intentionally define a different set of actions to mainstream thinking. Words like ‘synthesis,’ ‘emergence,’ ‘interconnectedness,’ and ‘feedback loops’ can be overwhelming for some people. Since they have very specific meanings in relation to systems, allow me to start off with the exploration of six* key themes.
*There are way more than six, but I picked the most important ones that you definitely need to know, and as we progress through this systems thinking toolkit series, I will expand on some of the other key terms that make up a systems mindset.
Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected. We talk about interconnectedness not in a spiritual way, but in a biological sciences way.
Essentially, everything is reliant upon something else for survival. Humans need food, air, and water to sustain our bodies, and trees need carbon dioxide and sunlight to thrive. Everything needs something else, often a complex array of other things, to survive.
Inanimate objects are also reliant on other things: a chair needs a tree to grow to provide its wood, and a cell phone needs electricity distribution to power it. So, when we say ‘everything is interconnected’ from a systems thinking perspective, we are defining a fundamental principle of life. From this, we can shift the way we see the world, from a linear, structured “mechanical worldview’ to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops.
A systems thinker uses this mindset to untangle and work within the complexity of life on Earth.
In general, synthesis refers to the combining of two or more things to create something new. When it comes to systems thinking, the goal is synthesis, as opposed to analysis, which is the dissection of complexity into manageable components. Analysis fits into the mechanical and reductionist worldview, where the world is broken down into parts.
But all systems are dynamic and often complex; thus, we need a more holistic approach to understanding phenomena. Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole.
Essentially, synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness.
From a systems perspective, we know that larger things emerge from smaller parts: emergence is the natural outcome of things coming together. In the most abstract sense, emergence describes the universal concept of how life emerges from individual biological elements in diverse and unique ways.
Emergence is the outcome of the synergies of the parts; it is about non-linearity and self-organization and we often use the term ‘emergence’ to describe the outcome of things interacting together.
A simple example of emergence is a snowflake. It forms out of environmental factors and biological elements. When the temperature is right, freezing water particles form in beautiful fractal patterns around a single molecule of matter, such as a speck of pollution, a spore, or even dead skin cells.
Conceptually, people often find emergence a bit tricky to get their head around, but when you get it, your brain starts to form emergent outcomes from the disparate and often odd things you encounter in the world.
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it will be a butterfly — R. Buckminster Fuller
4. Feedback Loops
Since everything is interconnected, there are constant feedback loops and flows between elements of a system. We can observe, understand, and intervene in feedback loops once we understand their type and dynamics.
The two main types of feedback loops are reinforcing and balancing. What can be confusing is a reinforcing feedback loop is not usually a good thing. This happens when elements in a system reinforce more of the same, such as population growth or algae growing exponentially in a pond. In reinforcing loops, an abundance of one element can continually refine itself, which often leads to it taking over.
A balancing feedback loop, however, is where elements within the system balance things out. Nature basically got this down to a tee with the predator/prey situation — but if you take out too much of one animal from an ecosystem, the next thing you know, you have a population explosion of another, which is the other type of feedback — reinforcing.
Understanding feedback loops is about gaining perspective of causality: how one thing results in another thing in a dynamic and constantly evolving system (all systems are dynamic and constantly changing in some way; that is the essence of life).
Cause and effect are pretty common concepts in many professions and life in general — parents try to teach this type of critical life lesson to their young ones, and I’m sure you can remember a recent time you were at the mercy of an impact from an unintentional action.
Causality as a concept in systems thinking is really about being able to decipher the way things influence each other in a system. Understanding causality leads to a deeper perspective on agency, feedback loops, connections and relationships, which are all fundamental parts of systems mapping.
6. Systems Mapping
Systems mapping is one of the key tools of the systems thinker. There are many ways to map, from analog cluster mapping to complex digital feedback analysis. However, the fundamental principles and practices of systems mapping are universal. Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within a system to understand how they interconnect, relate and act in a complex system, and from here, unique insights and discoveries can be used to develop interventions, shifts, or policy decisions that will dramatically change the system in the most effective way.
This introduction to six key concepts are critical building blocks for developing a detailed perspective of how the world works from a systems perspective and will enhance your ability to think divergently and creatively for a positive impact.
Working and teaching systems thinking for years has led me to develop additional new tools, as well as employ these time-honored concepts from the pioneers.
What stands out to me as critical in order to make a positive impact, is the ability to develop your own individual agency and actions. To do that, you first have to wrap your head around the core concepts. I have an online class where I explain all of this here.
In the next chapter in this series, I will go into more detail on understanding systems dynamics, a core part of the practice. If you want to go even deeper, check out the full suite of programs I have created with my team at Disrupt Design and the UnSchool. We designed them to help individuals and organizations level up their change making abilities for a positive, regenerative, and circular economy.
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All the beautiful illustrations are by Emma Segal and for the inspiration sources that helped develop these please see www.leylaacaroglu.com/credits
- Everything is interconnected: We live on a closed ecosystem called planet Earth where everything is connected to everything else. Otherwise, it ceases to survive and thrive.
- The easy way out often leads back in: If the solution were easy then it should have already been found.
- Today’s problems are yesterday's solutions: We need to make sure we don't accidentally create tomorrow problems through today's solutions.
- There is no blame in complex systems: Everything is interconnected. Thus, it's impossible to ever find one culprit for a problem. Systems have both the issue and the solution embedded within.
- Parts are elements of a complex whole: Everything is part of something else; there are no isolated elements in a complex system.
- There are no simple solutions to complex problems: We need to embrace complexity in order to truly address complex issues. Otherwise, we just deflect the problem to somewhere else in the system.
- Small, well-placed interventions can have big impacts: A well-designed, small intervention can result in significant and enduring systems change if it is in the right place – this is called a leverage point.
- Humans make linear systems – nature makes circular ones: We can learn to create regenerative products and services through understanding nature's design principles.
- Time changes complexity: Over time, things naturally get more complex. Simplicity and efficiency are very different things, yet we always think we can oversimplify complexity or reduce it down to the sum of its parts.
- ‘Failure’ is discovery in disguise: If there is no blame, then there is always an opportunity to discover through failure.
- Cause and effect are not related in time nor space: There is a mismatch and often a delay in the relationship between the cause of a problem in complex systems and the result (or symptom) appearing obvious.
Q Design Pack Systems Thinking | 21st CENTURY EDUCATION . http://educators.brainpop.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/IOP_QDesignPack_SystemsThinking_1.0.pdf