System Thinking Example

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Introduction to Systems Thinking
Daniel Aronson

Systems thinking has its foundation in the field of system dynamics, founded in 1956 by MIT professor Jay Forrester. Professor Forrester recognized the need for a better way of testing new ideas about social systems, in the same way we can test ideas in engineering. Systems thinking allows people to make their understanding of social systems explicit and improve them in the same way that people can use engineering principles to make explicit and improve their understanding of mechanical systems.

The Systems Thinking Approach

The approach of systems thinking is fundamentally different from that of traditional forms of analysis. Traditional analysis focuses on the separating the individual pieces of what is being studied; in fact, the word "analysis" actually comes from the root meaning "to break into constituent parts." Systems thinking, in contrast, focuses on how the thing being studied interacts with the other constituents of the system—a set of elements that interact to produce behavior—of which it is a part. This means that instead of isolating smaller and smaller parts of the system being studied, systems thinking works by expanding its view to take into account larger and larger numbers of interactions as an issue is being studied. This results in sometimes strikingly different conclusions than those generated by traditional forms of analysis, especially when what is being studied is dynamically complex or has a great deal of feedback from other sources, internal or external.

The character of systems thinking makes it extremely effective on the most difficult types of problems to solve: those involving complex issues, those that depend a great deal dependence on the past or on the actions of others, and those stemming from ineffective coordination among those involved. Examples of areas in which systems thinking has proven its value include:

Complex problems that involve helping many actors see the "big picture" and not just their part of it Recurring problems or those that have been made worse by past attempts to fix them Issues where an action affects (or is affected by) the environment surrounding the issue, either the natural environment or the competitive environment Problems whose solutions are not obvious

Use of Systems Thinking

An example that illustrates the difference between the systems thinking perspective and the perspective taken by traditional forms of analysis is the action taken to reduce crop damage by insects. When an insect is eating a crop, the conventional response is to spray the crop with a pesticide designed to kill that insect. Putting aside the limited effectiveness of some pesticides and the water and soil pollution they can cause, imagine a perfect pesticide that kills all of the insects against which it is used and which has no side effects on air, water, or soil. Is using this pesticide likely to make the farmer or company whose crops are being eaten better off?

If we represent the thinking used by those applying the pesticides, it would look like this:

(Reading the Diagram: The arrow indicates the direction of causation - that is, a change in the amount of pesticide applied causes a change in the numbers of insects damaging crops. The letter indicates how the two variables are related: an "s" means they change in the same direction - if one goes up then the other goes up, and an "o" means they change in the opposite direction - if one goes up then the other goes down (or vice versa). This diagram is read "a change in the amount of pesticide applied causes the number of insects damaging crops to change in the opposite direction." The belief being represented here is that "as the amount of pesticide applied increases, the number of insects damaging crops decreases.")

According to this way of thinking, the more pesticide is applied, the fewer insects there will be damaging crops, and the less...
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