WHAT should students learn for the 21st Century?

Luminaries answer CCR’s seminal question

Contributors | View All Responses

Thomas Homer-Dixon

Holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs

Systems Thinking

Systems Education
Thomas Homer-Dixon
February 11, 2013

What is systems thinking, can it be learned, and, if so, is systems-thinking education important?

Let’s take the last question first. Systems-thinking education is enormously important, because it can help our students navigate an increasingly complex world that buffets them from every direction. More generally, better systems thinking, if it becomes widespread, could markedly improve humanity’s chances of addressing the astonishing range of global challenges it faces—from climate change and financial instability to widening economic inequality.

Systems thinking involves understanding, in some general sense, what systems are, and this means, in turn, being able to recognize the properties systems tend to share. All systems—whether they’re ecological, biological, technological, economic, political, or social—consist of a definable set of elements or components that interact in a consistent pattern over an extended period of time. Usually, a system exhibits properties not easily explained or understood simply by examining its components alone. The whole system is more than, or at least substantially different from, the sum of its parts. It exhibits, in the language of philosophers, “emergent” properties. One needs to look simultaneously at the system’s entire set of components and their interactions—moving from a micro to a macro perspective—to really understand it.

Most people leave the matter there. When they say “systems thinking,” they mean macro “holistic thinking” in some rough-and- ready sense. But adequate systems thinking requires more than this. Ideally, one should also try to specify precisely the system’s components and the relationships among them. Even if the information available is insufficient for a full specification of these components and their relationships, a systems thinker invariably tries to map the ones that are identifiable. The map often takes the form of a graphical representation—an arrow diagram, flow chart, or network map, for instance.

Specifying a system’s components and relationships is just the first step, though. Next, one should use the map to try to identify the system’s key internal processes, especially those that help maintain the system’s stability or persistence over time in the face of variation in its external environment. These processes involve flows of energy, matter and information in both directions across the boundary between the system and its external environment and also among its internal components.

In highly complex systems, including most social systems, the flows are governed by an internal decision logic. The system uses this logic to guide how it compensates for or counteracts too much or too little of a particular flow, helping to maintain the system’s equilibrium. Often, the system’s stabilizing processes involve what systems engineers call negative feedback—a causal loop in which an event produces a series of other events that ultimately counteracts the original event. A negative feedback is a bit like a thermostat in a house; it helps to maintain a system’s core functions over time and thereby ensure its persistence. (Positive feedbacks, on the other hand, reinforce change and push a system away from stability, so they are less commonly core mechanisms in systems that persist for long periods.)

The decision logic itself is encoded in a schema, which includes rules for how the system should respond to changes in its surrounding environment. In non-human organisms, or in systems made up of organisms, the schema is largely encoded in the organisms’ DNA. In human societies, it is encoded in our DNA, but also in our memories, written materials, institutions, shared culture and the like.

All this seems pretty abstract, but the basic elements of system thinking—perceiving things holistically, recognizing emergent phenomena, mapping system components and connections, and identifying stabilizing processes—are relatively easy to describe, illustrate, practice and learn. Teachers can use as illustrations local systems such as the ecology of a nearby field or forest, the economy of a town, the operation of a hospital, or even the functioning of a municipal water system. Teachers and students can then work together to map components, connections and stabilizing processes.

The world’s critical problems are the products of complex systems and processes. The first step to solving them must be a better and more widespread understanding of how systems work. And this reality means that educating our young people in systems thinking must be a priority.

Copyright – Thomas Homer-Dixon