Dr. Russel Ackoff (affectionately called the "Einstine of Problem Solving") is by far one of the most knowledgeable and engaging speakers on Systems Thinking. Funny, whip-smart, and passionately engaging, his videos filmed mainly in the 1990's are a must watch if you are new or even an advanced systems thinker. You can thank us later!
Systems thinkers can simultaneously see the complex whole and the minute parts that create it, in a dynamic and reflexive way. It is a way of thinking in three dimensions, rather than across one linear plane.
Adopting habits of a systems thinker is a secret weapon in solving complex problems, being a more effective leader, and enhancing creativity.
Check to see if you are a natural systems thinker:
You seek to understand the big picture as well as the intricate parts that make up the whole.
You see the patterns and trends within systems and can extract insights from them.
You see everything as being interconnected.
You identify the cause and effect of relationships.
You don't assign blame; instead, you seek out causality and feedback loops.
You see the whole as being different from the sum of the individual parts.
You appreciate the dynamics and complexity of a problem.
You think through the unintended consequences of your actions and design to reduce them.
You can find leverage points to intervene in and effect positive change within a system.
You are constantly testing, exploring, and experimenting.
THE GREEN ECONOMY
There is no doubt of the need to rapidly address the social and environmental issues facing humanity today. Thankfully, the global creative and business community has started to adapt and take action in moving toward the United Nations (and many others) calls the 'Green Economy'. An economy that is sustainable, regenerative and circular in nature.
This is a global movement away from the ‘business as usual’ approach to the commodification of natural resources and the prioritization of profit over purpose, to circular and regenerative products and systems that provide economic growth and social equity all within the Earth's carrying capacity.
Seeking to incorporate the ‘ability’ to ‘sustain’ life on Earth, the conjoined word ‘sustainability’ has taken on many cultural meanings since it started to become more widely used in the late 1990s. The concept of economic growth in line with biosystem constraints and in respect of social systems makes complete sense when you consider the fundamental principles of life of Earth. We are all sustained by food, air, and water – none of which we can make ourselves without the beautifully complex natural systems that flourish on Earth.
The shift towards a circular, sustainable and regenerative economy is often referred to as being ignited in 1987 when the Our Common Future came out (called the Brundtland Report, crediting the main author). Then, at the Rio Earth Summit, the definition of sustainable development was catapulted into the public arena, setting the global agenda for a future that is sustainable and regenerative.
In 2015, the United Nations launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with 17 global goals to be achieved over a 15-year plan. The Green Economy is critical to achieving these goals, with the Partnership for Action on the Green Economy bringing together nations, states and the private sector to rapidly transition to sustainable systems.
Many organizations and industry leaders who are adapting to the Green Economy need to rapidly upskill in Circular Systems and Sustainable Design in order to build capacity in creating new business models, technologies, and service models that fit within this fundamentally different approach to generating wealth and serving global human needs.
How are you making changes to be apart of the future economy? Circular Systems Design, life cycle, and systems thinking are all credible and powerful tools to enact organizational shifts towards a circular and green economy.
SHIFTING TO CIRCULAR SYSTEMS
It’s exciting when movements catalyze and bring together many great ideas. That is exactly what the Circular Economy Movement is doing. An overarching umbrella concept, it is used to describe the rapid, intentional shift from a linear take-make-waste economy to a circular one that values resources from pre-extraction to post-disposability.
Companies and governments around the world are embracing and integrating the many theories and approaches of the Circular Economy. Reports demonstrate the economic validity of this transition and the opportunities that designing products for circularity offers.
There are several key approaches that make up the Circular Economy, but the most important are:
- Turning products into product service systems (PSS) that maintain value across the entire life of the product
- Taking a scientific life cycle approach to understanding the impact of design and production decisions
- Looking to nature for solutions through Biomimetics and natural principles
- Understanding and working within the two main nutrient cycles: biological (things that degrade and contribute back to nature) and technological (things that go back into a production cycle)
- Using systems thinking to understand feedback loops and dynamics while also avoiding unintended consequences
- Viewing circular systems as regenerative, which means they offer positive elements back to the system rather than detract from it and destroy
- Maximising effectiveness and efficiency of materials and resources through design, known as eco-design strategies or sustainable design principles
The concept of the Circle Economy has been around since the late 1980’s, but right now is blooming into a global economic shift that will significantly change the way we do busines, consume products and design systems. The World Economic Forum and the European Commission have platforms and mandates to advance the Circular Economy.
THINKING IN SYSTEMS
Systems thinking is one of the most powerful tools we have to understand and change the world around us. The original application of systems thinking in organizational management and change started to evolve in the 90’s, with the need to reconfigure efficiency and productivity within organizations.
Today, many industries leverage the power of systems thinking, from healthcare to advanced technological applications. Redesigning how we can sustainably deliver products and services also requires a systems thinking approach.
This ensures that we meet human needs without negatively impacting the natural systems that sustain life on Earth.
Organizations employing a systems approach to sustainability and organizational change gain a more evolved understanding of how things are interconnected.
This helps develop creative, divergent, and effective ways to rapidly build solutions that have positive impacts.
Here are seven exciting outcomes that you gain from applying systems thinking to personal and professional activities:
Optimization: With a deeper understanding of the dynamics within a system, optimization is an emergent outcome of systems thinking. It allows organizations and individuals to take full advantage of any element within their system.
Problem Loving: Rather than avoiding complexity, systems thinking helps individuals discover the exciting opportunities that problems offer for innovation and creative development. Employees become problem lovers, not problem avoiders.
3-Dimensional Perspective: A systems approach looks at the whole organism or ecosystem, not the individual parts. This means moving beyond the siloed ‘departments’ and developing a trans-disciplinary understanding of the macro and micro in an interconnected, dynamic way. The world is not flat – developing a wholistic systems view unlocks the power of creativity.
From Linear to Circular: Human-produced systems are largely linear. We take things from nature, manufacture them into usable goods, and then dispose of them back into holes from where resources were extracted. This approach is reductive and inefficient. A systems approach allows for the circularizing of all products and services so that we design out waste and inefficiencies, plus create more value.
Failure is Fun: Since there is no blame in a system and everything is interconnected, systems thinkers get excited about discovery. This is especially true when it's learned through ‘failure,’ as it helps gain new perspectives that build our creative capacity.
Interconnectivity: Everything in nature is dynamically interconnected and interdependent, just as humans need each other for success. Creativity and productivity depend on interconnectivity, and systems thinking provides the tools to integrate this into everyday practices.
Creativity: The more you develop a dynamic understanding of the world, the more creativity your brain starts to develop. Conformity kills creativity; to overcome this crisis, systems thinking activates new neurological development and enables dynamic, divergent thinking.
One of the obstacles many people experience when starting to embrace a systems worldview is the infinite possibility of everything being interconnected.
This often overwhelms people, limiting their ability to see what is immediately at play in the world around them. So, we have developed a simple identification tool for people who are starting out in systems thinking.
Shifting to this mindset begins with identifying and thinking through the major systems at play: social, industrial, and ecological. This helps people to classify the intangible and structural systems to then be able see how they interact and impact society at large.
Social: these are the human-created systems that are constructed to facilitate and advance human society, such as education, finance, legal frameworks, and government.
Industrial: these are the products, goods, infrastructure, and services created to facilitate the social systems that serve humanity. Their physicality and need for materials to function usually categorize them. These include roads, transport, cars, petrol stations, and the parts needed to make each of them function.
Ecosystems: these are the natural systems that sustain life on Earth, provide the raw materials that facilitate the industrial systems, and literally keep the world spinning. These include the hydrogen cycle, carbon cycle, flora and fauna, minerals, and nutrient cycles. Everything in nature is circular. Humans, however, tend to make our industrial systems linear – which is one of the root causes of unsustainability.
These three system categories form the foundation for an understanding of how the world works. They inform the dynamic relationships between human needs, social order, infrastructure, and ecosystem services.
Of course, you see that they are all interconnected when you begin mapping them.
If your goal is to develop the capacity to intervene and leverage change within a systems framework, then use social, industrial, and ecosystems as the foundational building blocks for this approach.
Each of these three major categories contain many subsystems that allow one to identify and map the landscape within which one is seeking to effect change. For example, the human system is a subset of education, but it needs infrastructure, life, schools, and books to fit within the current model of education.
Without raw materials for buildings and food to sustain the educator – we would not have the ability to deliver the service of education.
When we run workshops at Disrupt, we always start with this map and then move into more detailed and complex explorations through analog systems mapping techniques.
Within a short period of time, people understand it. The world is complex, but it also is completely relatable when you start to explore its dynamic interconnectedness.