Where to start with systems thinking?

Perfectionism and systems thinking

During the systems thinking 2 course of the Creative Sustainability program in Aalto University, we have encountered various ways of approaching and thinking about systems. Systems thinking as a topic of study is simultaneously both very broad and very deep, and we’ve ended up discussing a wide range of complex issues, including climate change, ecosystem resiliency, and problems in the financial system just to name a few. Having the tools and approaches involved in systems thinking at our disposal has made even the most complex issues at least a bit more tamable.

However, for me, systems thinking has also created an illusion of wholeness in the way people approach complex issues. What I mean is that when we’re talking about complex problems related to human systems by using systems thinking and systems methods, I start to sometimes assume that there must be someone, or some organization that is approaching these issues from a broader perspective. For example, when we were discussing the Viable Systems Model by Stafford Beer in our lecture and applying it to cities, I started to scan in my head for organizations where Viable Systems Model could be applied to cities as a whole. My mind wanted to know the optimal place to be involved in such interventions, as if there was in fact an organization that was trying to solve complex urban problems. Although cities have governments, mayors, and different civic functions, I was searching for an organization that could do a systems design intervention on the whole city scale, including infrastructure, civic services, urban planning etc.

My perfectionist mind wouldn’t therefore be content with approaching cities one aspect at a time, but wanted the perfect approach, and the perfect organization to start with. It would keep asking: how and where could we do an optimal intervention into a complex system or a problem?

Systems thinking ecology

The truth is that there is no one place, time or an organization that would give you a bird’s-eye look at complex situations and allow you to work on the whole system at once. That’s the nature of complex problems: they involve various actors and forces that interact dynamically, meaning that the whole is not controlled by any one organization. That’s why there is no one central location from where to approach complex issues, because if there was, the issues wouldn’t be complex.

Moreover, systems thinkers have developed their ideas in their own unique contexts and backgrounds. The field of systems thinking hasn’t developed from one central place, but is instead a network of loosely coupled scholars and professionals who have built on each other’s work over time. It makes sense then that systems thinking and systems intervention will also have to occur in one context at a time.

So, where to start systems thinking?

Systems thinking needs to begin now, and in the context you’re in. Instead of waiting for the perfect time and place, we must start applying systems thinking whenever and wherever possible. My advice to myself is: don’t try to solve the whole world at once – pick one aspect or a problem situation and start there.

1 reply
  1. David Ing
    David Ing says:

    Trying to intervene is a system in a perfect way only works if the environment is static, and change is not an issue. That doesn’t seem to be the situation with most problematiques (messes) today. The question is whether dysfunction in a system is so small that we can we live with minor defects, or whether the demerits are systemic, and intervention on the whole is worth the effort.

    Russell Ackoff used to talk about the asymmetry between sins of commission and sins of omission. A challenge with interventions that is we most often pursue leaders who committed to action, with an outcome that isn’t as favourable as we would like. We are somehow blinder to leaders who do nothing, and then change doesn’t happen.

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