Systems Thinking in a Complicated World

By Scott Gast

Most of us — especially in the US — like to think we’re good at solving problems. We’re a nation of self-described fixers: when waterways weren’t cutting it for transportation, the steam engine emerged. When horses clogged the streets of New York City, Henry Ford and his Model-T redefined mobility. And when we needed something to run an enormous string of calculations, somebody showed up with a supercomputer and then a PC and then a laptop and then a smartphone and then…Yes. We’re proud of ourselves.

This culture of problem-solving is usually framed in terms of progress: a linear evolution of solutions that, as the story goes, will boost us higher and faster toward some kind of techno-utopian space age. And it’s hard to knock that story, because it has produced some incredible outcomes related to health, freedom, education, all the things listed above and more. But I think the world in which this mechanistic, linear, “if this, then that” thinking works is quickly coming to a close. Or, at least, that thinking may need to be applied in a different way. Because as human activity more closely influences ecological systems, and as globalization and our wired-ness weaves our fates closer to the people around us (and across oceans), everything gets more complicated. And connected. And systemic.

Band-Aids vs. Solutions

The problem with linear and mechanistic solutions is that when things get complicated — when the world becomes a dense ball of complexity and interconnection — those kinds of solutions often become Band-Aids that treat the symptom, but miss the root cause.

Here’s an example: I notice my daily to-do list getting longer, but I don’t feel like I’ve spent any less time working. My Band-Aid solution: Buy an iPhone, get a bluetooth headset, and become one of those guys who looks like he’s talking to himself in public. According to the linear philosophy, I’ve stepped up my work efficiency with a needed technological advance. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle, because the causes of my slow workflow are complicated and interconnected. A systemic approach might have me improve my focus, weed out distractions and prioritize. If I buy an iPhone and neglect the real time management issues, I’ve mistaken the root of the problem for the symptom — and possibly even introduced new problems that show up later, like the distractions that come with a mobile internet connection.

The same goes for sustainability issues: we hear “fishery collapse” and frequently start thinking GMO’s and fish farms. Or, in the case of climate change, we look to solar panels, carbon capturing and oceanborne cloud-makers to erase our carbon emissions. But I think these fixes, while contributing to a solution, might cloud the real issue. We’re operating our economies and societies at a scale that’s colliding with natural systems in myriad ways. And the tech fix — while possibly very cool — really only puts off the ways we might need to address that scale issue: reverse overblown consumption, untangle confused price signals, and transform a culture that’s increasingly wired but decreasingly connected.

Toward Systems Thinking

This much is obvious: the society-environment relationship is a complex system. It might even be the most complex system, period. When problems within the system come to our attention, they deserve some serious thinking — not just a wave of the hand, followed by “Eh, technology’ll take care of it.”

Here in the US, many folks trying to formalize that serious thinking are part of an academic field called system dynamics. MIT’s System Dynamics Group, who might be the field’s leading light here in the States, have this to say about systems thinking: “What makes using system dynamics different from other approaches to studying complex systems is the use of feedback loops. Stocks and flows help describe how a system is connected by feedback loops which create the nonlinearity found so frequently in modern day problems.” Stocks, flows and feedback loops. They’re the academic’s way of describing the elements of our massively interconnected world.

The system dynamics approach to thinking about sustainability raises questions about the desirability of infinite economic growth — and connects environmental and social issues, like climate change and a fraying sense of community, back to a misguided sense of progress. System dynamics also puts a finger on inappropriate economic indicators and flawed tax/subsidy flows as structural causes of overshoot — rather than simply a lack of innovations in green tech.

A big part of making a move to systems thinking happen, I think, is to overhaul the notion that our societies and economies exist outside of ecological systems, and re-establish ourselves as citizens within those systems. The physicist/writer/systems theorist, Frijtof Capra, calls that shift “ecological literacy.” Here’s a video of a brief lecture by Capra outlining this “systems nested within systems” view:


There’s a lot happening around system dynamics these days. It can get a little dry — so beware — but without getting into the technicalities (and I’ve steered clear, mostly), the biggest lesson I’ve taken away from the system perspective is simply that the world is complicated place. There’s rarely a neat and discrete cause of any of our current problems — causes are usually both many and messy. And when a simple explanation is offered, I usually try to dig deeper.

Ok. On to the resources:

Leverage Points blog

A great, great blog about applying system thinking to everyday problems. Topics explored are many — from obesity to personal motivation to Thomas Friedman. I’d check this one out first.

From Donella Meadows, a darling of environmentalism and one of the bright lights of system dynamics. Gets a little dry at points, but a great primer for understanding the systems perspective.

Modern environmentalism was kicked off, at least in part, by this well-known report from members of the System Dynamics Group. The message within the title hinges on the results of computer models that used information about natural resource stocks, ecological functions, human energy and material use, and population growth to predict a kind of complicated collision between human growth and the natural world — which informs our perspective here at

MIT System Dynamics Group

Web page of the founders of system dynamics; contains current papers, a blog, explanations, a cool climate interactive climate model, and helpful links.

Image credit: Flickr/noahsussman. Creative Commons license.

Originally published in January 2010. Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.

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Post Growth

Guiding the way to a full circle, #postgrowth economy beyond capitalism.