School 2 - Systems Thinking

A History of Social Labs: Incorporating Systems Thinking

A school of thought that next-gen Social Labs has drawn heavily from is systems thinking. This field was developed at MIT’s Sloan School.

Taking a systems thinking approach meant trying to take a “whole systems” approach to change. With its origins in the 1930s and 1940s Western thought, particularly engineering, cybernetics and management but also physics and biology, systems thinking is the study of systems as wholes, as opposed to dealing with parts. While the basic ideas of systems thinking have been with us for decades, for a long time, they have “done little more than raise dust,” and “systemic thinking remained pretty much in the outback.”

Then in the 1990s Peter Senge published The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The book took systems thinking, derived from a particular branch known as systems dynamics popular at MIT where Senge was and is based, into a mainstream business context achieving “mega-popularization of systems thinking for its contribution to organizational learning.” (Flood – Action Learning pg.119). The organisation Peter founded, the Society for Organisational Learning (SoL), were early champions of many people that helped developed the approaches behind the Change Lab- an early precursor to Social Labs. 

In Change Labs, Systems thinking was a major component of how we thought about the world and critically, one way of understanding why dominant approaches failed. A key notion from “The Fifth Discipline” that can help us reading current trends comes from the so-called iceberg model and Senge’s understanding of events.

The iceberg is a metaphor that points out we usually only “see” events, that this, whatever is above the waterline. The bulk of the iceberg sits below the waterline. Examples of events include a newspaper headline about a single event, a single incidence of crime for example. A pattern then is the trend, the crime-wave, or the trend of biodiversity loss for example. The iceberg, as commonly interpreted, posits a third “level” which is sometimes labelled “systemic structure” and sometimes “structural dynamics” or even “driving forces.”

These driving forces are often understood to be ways of thinking and acting that give rise to certain patterns and events. So what is traditionally thought of as a infra-structure, for example a physical structure, like a road network, can be thought of as a product of a certain mind-set or paradigm. In other words, “systemic structure” is considered casual and paradigmatic. Therefore if one can address the casual factors, our interventions will, in theory, be more effective.

At something of a distance from the OD orientation of Peter’s approach, a major paradigmatic contribution that came directly from the Sloan School’s work on systems thinking was the ground-breaking 1972 publication of Limits to Growth (LTG). Commissioned by the Club of Rome, Limits to Growth was the result of a two-year study, from 1970-72, of questions such as “Are current policies leading to a sustainable future or collapse? What can be done to create a human economy that provides sufficiently for all?” The two-year research study undertaken by the authors of LTG made use of systems dynamics theory and computer modeling to generate twelve scenarios that “showed possible patterns of world development over two centuries from 1900 to 2100.”

A key headlines from this study was that global ecological constraints would increasingly become a significant factor on global developments in the twenty-first century. LTG therefore “pleaded for profound, proactive, societal innovation through technological, cultural and institutional change in order to avoid an increase in the ecological footprint of humanity beyond the carrying capacity of planet Earth.” The essence of the problem identified by the authors of LTG remains. We are living in a world of what LTG referred to as “overshoot.”

I read with interest in LTG’s 30-Year Update that they considered the .com bubble and subsequent collapse to be “one vivid example of global overshoot and collapse.”  While in 1972, the end of growth, “seemed a very distant prospect,” we are now staring this reality directly in the face.

One way of understanding the systems approach is that it provides us with a language of complex causality, where we can begin to better understand the unintended consequences of certain actions or policy approaches. Turning this screw will result in these consequences across a system. As an approach, however, the systems approach takes a largely descriptive and un-prescriptive approach to systems.

The process-consultation approach coupled with systems thinking resulted in earlier work in this field being characterized with a double whammy of political conservatism that I found difficult to fathom at the time. The abstract notion of a “system” encouraged a highly rational and bloodless approach to contemporary situations that cry out for a more heart and less emotional distance. 

Although dressed in rather cold and abstract terms, in many ways systems thinking was a profoundly humanistic approach. Discovering this, however, required the practitioner to persist in confronting the implications of the approach.

This was recognized the late Donella Meadows, lead author of LTG and a key thinker in the field. She wrote that what was unique about the endeavor of systems thinking was “…the fact that the tool of systems thinking, born out of engineering and mathematics, implemented on computers, drawn from a mechanistic mind-set and a quest for prediction and control, leads its practitioners, inexorably I believe, to confront the most deeply human mysteries.”



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